Buzz words, key words, plans and stuff

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 8th, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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The challenge in taking two weeks off from posting is that I now have so much about which to write.  My solution:  snippets.   This is not a “trends to watch in 2016;” it is simply, “here’s a whole bunch of stuff about which to think.”

Effective altruists. While this is, indeed, a trend to know about in order to determine how you want/do want to play into their world, it is something absolutely deserved of everyone’s attention.  This includes nonprofit executive directors, development staff, philanthropists, current or wanna-be board member, or just regular folk.

While not limited to the younger generations, effective altruism—“compassion guided by data and reason” —is widely and, to a certain extent wildly, embraced by Millennials and Gen Xers.  These philanthropists buy the credo of The Effective Altruism Handbook, published last year by the British Centre for Effective Altruism.  According to the Effective Altruism website , this movement has three values:  open-mindedness, critical thinking and global empathy.  It also has three guidelines in assessing causes in which to invest:

  • scale: is there the possibility of “drastically” improving “a large number of lives?”
  • tractability: does the cause produce measureable differences?
  • neglectedness: “how much has the cause been overlooked or undervalued?

It is these last three items—the EA’s guidelines—that each and every nonprofit should ponder as it works on its future and thinks about its own sustainability.

While many nonprofits might claim “drastic improvement,” most cannot claim that improvement happens for “a large number of lives”—at least not per year.  And yet, though it doesn’t appear in the values or guidelines, it does appear in much of what I’ve read and heard:  EAs want results now. 

Each of us should have, from the beginning, been defining the intended, measurable outcomes of each program—and then been regularly gathering the data that allows us to determine whether or not we’ve achieved our goals.

If you haven’t been doing this, you are well behind the times and had best move quickly to get on board.  The reality is that the majority of nonprofits do not work in overlooked or undervalued causes.  Those that have survived are valued by at least enough people to sustain them at some level of operation.  Based on these three guidelines, I’m thinking many nonprofits have a lot of work to do if they want to attract any effective altruists.

Periscope and Meerkat. No, not the observation tool on submarines nor the lion king character.  These are mobile apps.  Periscope and Meerkat’s livestreaming allows you to keep your messages active and entertaining for your audience, as opposed to the staid written word that requires real involvement of the audience’s brains (did I really say that?).

I have been arguing for a while that the growing complexity of fundraising necessitates at least one dedicated development staff person in any organization that wishes to survive.  (And, just so I am abundantly clear, that does not mean that everyone else, from staff to board, does not have to help with fundraising; of course they must continue to do so.)

But the time has come, where the same can be said of marketing:  if you want your organization to be sustainable—which means clients, donors, potential staff, board members and other volunteers have to a) know of you and b) want to be involved with you—you need to have a consistent and in-your-face marketing presence.  Something that, once again, can only happen with at least one, dedicated, skilled marketing/communications staff member.

That doesn’t mean one position that is both development and marketing.  While the two areas are interrelated, they are two different bodies of knowledge, skills and experience, and you need one person dedicated to each, working together, but not in one body.  One person doing both has never allowed an organization to reach both sets of goals.  While you might think it saves you money, in the long run, it does not, as you aren’t hitting both on full cylinders all of the time.

Airport movie theatre.   One of the more creative ideas I have heard in a long time comes from the Portland (Oregon) International Airport and the Hollywood Theatre, a nonprofit historic movie theatre in Portland.  Coming this spring, in space donated by the Airport, Hollywood Theatre is opening a free 18 seat theatre (standing room for 10-20 more) in a secure part of the airport that will screen films by Portland area filmmakers.

One of my “surrogate” sons, a huge movie buff, would have loved this in the Detroit airport this past holiday as he was stranded overnight for 10 hours while an ice storm passed and the airport got up and ready again.  Imagine, killing time being entertained (and maybe even educated) by engaging art that you couldn’t view anywhere else?   Unlike other airports with movie theatres—Miami International has a cinema that shows silent films, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport has a multipurpose area that shows some films by local filmmakers, tourist and travel videos and art exhibits—this is all emerging film art all of the time.

Sustainability.  Sustainability, a current buzz word,  is far more than that.  It is an exceedingly important state of being that each and every nonprofit must define for itself and then work towards.  Just what does sustainability look like for your organization?

First, let’s be clear:  sustainability is not self-sufficiency, as the latter implies making it all on your own, without, in our case the benefit of donors or other outside means of aid.  Self-sufficiency would mean being an established for-profit instead of an established non-profit.  So, what does sustainability mean?

It means having lots of plans:  a diversified development strategy that relies on multiple streams (government, foundations, corporations, individuals, earned) to fund every program, as well as the organization as a whole, that is reviewed and updated annually

  • a strategic plan done every three years that truly keeps an eye on the environment in which you operate, the mission area in which you live, the trends that are brewing and those that are being woven into fabric of our reality, and that sets stretch yet realistic goals for the organization
  • a succession plan, both for the planned transition of the executive leadership (and board) and the unplanned exodus, that is reviewed annually (if not every six months)
  • a financial sustainability plan that projects out three to five years the cost of sustaining the organization as it is and as it wants to evolve according to the identified strategic priorities.

There may be other plans needed, depending upon your organization, what it does and how it operates, such as an organization that owns property needing a capital improvements plan.  These plans, once developed, all must work together, meaning the strategic plan drives the development, financial and succession plans, while the succession plan will have an impact on the financial plan, and so forth.

And these plans absolutely must be followed.  Plans once developed are not meant to be ignored, to sit in computers, on shelves, etc.; they are meant to be the drivers of the organization, stopping only to be updated.  Sustainability is threatened every time an organization veers from its plans (without at least careful consideration and juxtaposing to those plans) to react to an opportunity—amazing or otherwise.

(As an aside, snippets are also a term in computer coding, designed to enable you to resuse code so as to not waste valuable time writing the same code repeatedly.  I hope this blog fits that definition as well.)





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