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Strategy

The dandelion versus the banyan.

The dandelion versus the banyan.

Many seedlings, one trunk.

We all know the dandelion. It starts as a nice yellow flower and, as it matures, sprouts thousands of seeds. It expands by spreading those seeds all across the yard. After the seeds disperse, new dandelions are spread far and wide. The original stalk withers away.

The banyan tree is a different. It starts as one trunk and, as it matures, spreads an incredible, lush canopy. It expands by dropping seedlings from the canopy. As the seedlings take root, the canopy, in turn, continues to grow. New trunks are formed and yet the original trunk continues to expand. Everything is connected to the same canopy.  

Great organizational strategy is like a banyan: Operational initiatives, programs, and tactics come from an overarching set of shared principles.  

Avoid the dandelion approach. When you start spreading things in every direction, you risk losing what made you cohesive in the first place. Ultimately there won't be anything left. 

The Way Out

This article was previously posted on Event 360's blog. Read more here.   

It has been a hectic year at Event 360. We’ve launched three new projects and a new training series – each with its own set of accomplishments and challenges. Further, we have seen this theme of challenge transcend our own company as we’ve partnered with one of our key clients to right-size a major project in response to their changing needs. And most importantly and closest to home, we’ve been tragically reminded of our mission through the loss of one of our team members to cancer.

All in all, it has been one of those quarters that seems to have stretched on for months. Our team is resolute but tired. We’re trying to keep our bearings in a changing landscape.  

Most of us have been through times like these at various points in our lives – times when what we think we know is rapidly replaced by a new order. Some of us are better at recalibrating than others. The ones who can adapt to a new deck of cards are crucial for the team, because they help lead the way for others. At the same time, during periods of intense change it is more important than ever to have people who are still holding onto the old deck; people who remember where we are and how we got there. In times of change we need equal parts respect for the past and willingness to innovate into the future. 

I am a huge fan of quotes and over the years I’ve collected thousands of them. Perhaps it is the poor person’s wisdom; maybe I’m too simple for philosophy and too distracted for genuine literature. Nevertheless, there’s something comforting and inspiring to me about advice that is distilled into a sentence.

One of my favorites is a line from Robert Frost’s A Servant of Servants: “The best way out is always through.” We can worry, and complain, and stress ourselves to pieces. Or we can stick out our chins and keep walking. The way out is just ahead.

It is tempting to think that life is like a video game, or perhaps a television show. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just change the channel? But there isn’t an “off” button for existence. We can all be grateful for that.

We’ve had a hectic quarter, but we’re walking on, and in so doing I’m reminded of why I started walking in the first place.

Over the next few months I look forward to sharing more about what we’ve learned. Some of the themes will be familiar, but I think others will be surprising – and helpful.

Until then, my best to you and yours for a wonderful summer event season.

All the way to zero.

All the way to zero.

It has been a rewarding and busy quarter for me. Already this year I've had quite a number of intense, immersive meetings with our nonprofit clients.

Growth has been the central theme of every meeting. There's optimism in the air again, and groups are looking out of the bunker window-slit to try to decide what to do next.

history-of-zero_1.jpg

Our engagements include a review of current growth forecasts (along with, eventually, a heavy bit of re-engineering of those forecasts). When I pull up an organization's spreadsheet, I almost always see that some number -- 4%, 8%, 12% -- has been added to last year's results as "baseline growth." When I ask where that number came from, I invariably hear that it came from the C-suite. The more frustrated staff will roll their eyes; the ones plucky enough to play along will say, "Our normal expectation is growth." I've had this experience a number of times this year. 

This will sound a bit harsh for a Friday, so bear with me: The normal state of things is not growth. It is decline. My skin will not get better as I age; my 401K will not automatically double every five years; my Betamax video recorder will not be cutting edge technology indefinitely. 

Even worse, it is very possible to take things all the way to zero. It happens quite often, actually. Remember Bear Stearns? Palm? Hostess? Blockbuster? Small errors can create massive problems. Small issues can mushroom into monumental failures. My house could end up being worth less than my mortgage. 

We've all lived through a massive, five-year economic example that demolition is quicker and more definitive than construction. And yet I fear we may have missed the lesson. 

The natural state of your program is decay. This is especially true in fundraising, where  participant and donor retention might be 30% or less. In other words, we need to replenish 70% or more of our constituents just to stay even. Making no changes to your fundraising program -- or worse, pulling funds and staff from it -- will speed the deterioration. 

This is a great time for fundraising because as the economy picks up the results of the entire sector will pick up. But please don't let that convince you that you can put things on autopilot. "Organic growth" is seldom organic and almost never comes from just riding a wave. Growth comes from hustle, ongoing investment, and constant innovation. When I hear nonprofits say they are going to "take a conservative growth strategy" I get a nervous twinge, because it is usually code for "we're going to wait and hope." 

Waiting and hoping is not conservative -- it is incredibly risky, because it will almost certainly accelerate your decline. And it is a patently irresponsible strategy. It's time to get out of the bunker. Investment is your most sensible approach. 

If you're game, I'm going to bravely take on this topic – and a few others – in thirty minutes or less at next week's Run-Walk-Ride Fundraising Conference. I hope to see you there. 

Livestrong shows us how it's done.

Livestrong shows us how it's done.

Everyone knows that Livestrong hasn't had the easiest go of it lately. And so I was interested to see what I'd find at last night's Livestrong Assembly reception and dinner in Chicago. (I was actually quite touched to be invited – we've worked with Livestrong in the past, but it's been a few years.)

They nailed it. Doug Ulman, Livestrong's CEO, was open, honest, realistic about the six months they've had, and optimistic about the future. Everyone I met looked humble and a bit tired, but I didn't sense one bit of defensiveness or defeatism. And the crowd was fired up.

Sadly, we've seen lots of examples of nonprofit brand problems recently. Livestrong's response to theirs is a case study for how to respond gracefully and confidently. Well done.

Being Big.

This probably doesn't need to be said, but here goes: Being big is not the same thing as being great. This applies to most things and all organizations, and certainly applies to all nonprofit organizations. If your primary rationale for support is that you are the largest -- or the oldest -- nonprofit in sector X, then it is time to rethink your value proposition. If your primary goal is to get to Y size, then it is time to find a goal that actually relates to impact rather than appearances. 

Corollary: I have noticed that there is an inverse relationship between organizational size and organizational passion. This is not a universal rule, but it does appear with notable frequency. 

There's nothing wrong with growing, and there's nothing wrong with large organizations. But size is not the purpose of anything we strive to do. Impact is. The challenge is to endeavor to be great and to grow while doing it -- while not breaking the things that make you great in the process.