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Interpreting the reaction to Hurricane Sandy.

Yesterday Gina Bellafante of the New York Times ran a piece about the many cause-marketing initiatives being launched in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. I found much of the article to be a re-hash of many previous essays about the pros and cons of cause marketing, so I kind of skimmed down the column until my eyes stopped at this:

According to data from Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, three weeks after the storm, $219 million had been collected. Comparatively, at the same point, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, $1.3 billion had been raised; at the same point after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, $610 million. The figure for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was $752 million.
One explanation for this disparity is that donors presumably have been less moved to help victims who seem largely middle class and white — the residents of Staten Island, Breezy Point in Queens and the Jersey Shore — than they were to assist broader communities of the poor in New Orleans and abroad.

There's something more here to explore, and over the next several days I'd like to come at it from a few angles. Is the country biased against New Yorkers? Is there, as Bellafante seems to intimate, well-meaning but latent racism at play? Is this a massive example of how impact and need both need to be demonstrated in an ask? Have the economic conditions taken another toll at giving? Or has the tragedy in NYC just not gotten the exposure of the other crises?

I'll take a look at a few of these ideas this week.

An interesting trend.

Your next four years.

Whether you're waking up happy or sad, satisfied or dissatisfied, it's a good morning to keep things in perspective. No matter if you supported Obama, Romney, or someone else, I can 100% guarantee you that the person who will have the most influence on your next four years is YOURSELF.

Give yourself a vote of support today by setting aside your usual worries, insecurities, and doubts. Instead, spend a bit of time thinking about what you hope to contribute to the world around you. What's your four-year platform?

Hi, I'd like to have a really boring meeting with you today.

Can you imagine seeing this invitation in your inbox?

Subject: Hi, I’d like to have a really boring meeting with you today.

When: First thing in the morning (before you have a chance to think).

Duration: 10 minutes longer than I say it will last.

Notes: I’d like to get everyone together because I think I should. Or do you think I should? I can’t remember. In any case, we’ll half-heartedly shift through a variety of topics and try to make progress on passing the time, which is the only item we’ll actually be able to measure. Towards the end someone may bring up something vaguely controversial but we’ll all feel awkward and so it won’t get discussed. The great news is that the content will be so boring that even banal humor will sound hilarious, so bring a feeble joke and you’ll feel like you’re moderately interesting. Wish I wouldn’t be meeting you but I’ll see you there regardless.

If you got this invitation it would take you all of two seconds to press DELETE and move on. But the reality is that every day, most of us sit in meetings basically identical to this. And the harsher reality for me is that I actually run some of them! Ack.

I’ve read two things in the last day that have me thinking about my meetings, my work, and how to make both more effective. The first is Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli. In this insightful, concise book, Pittamapalli basically asserts two things: 1) we’re all run by our meeting schedule, and 2) most meetings are shockingly ineffective, so much so that they risk paralyzing our work culture. Check and check.

His advice basically boils down to “Don’t point out a problem without proposing a solution.” He contends that most meetings can be dispensed with. In his model, the central purpose of an effective meeting should not be to “decide something,” which only leads to circular discussion, delay, and lack of accountability. Rather, a meeting should be used to present a decision to a problem in order to solicit criticisms of the proposed solution and input on how to implement it.

Pittampalli acknowledges that this approach requires the willingness to write memos (and the willingness to read them). And he spares “work sessions,” brainstorming discussions, and one-on-one conversations, which are at the center of his approach. But everything else — weekly status meetings, management meetings, team meetings, project meetings — gets the axe.

I like it, and I feel like I’ve read similar advice before. What really caught my eye in Pittampalli’s text was not his critique of meetings per se, but his emphasis on recapturing alone time to increase productivity. That second idea is core to a short article by Susan Cain in Friday’s New York Times passed on to me by my friend and colleague Jono Smith. (As always, you can find the link to Cain’s article — and Pittampalli’s book — in the “References” section at the top of this post.)

Writing of “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Cain contends that the modern push towards collaboration is killing creativity and effectiveness, both of which require solitude to flourish. Unlike Pittampalli, Cain doesn’t spare brainstorming sessions, which she describes as “one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity.”

I absolutely loved Cain’s piece. It completely resonated with me and described something I’ve always had a hard time explaining about myself: Why that, for a moderately social person, I need quite a bit of down time to regenerate. My best work, whether it be strategic positioning, analytics, writing, composition, or anything else, always happens through long periods of solitary time punctuated by interesting conversations with people I trust and admire. And the meetings I do value are more like bull sessions than anything else. (I also share Cain’s disdain for brainstorming meetings. Put me in a room of more than a few people to “talk something through” or “come up with great ideas” and I start nodding off.)

Further, Cain puts her finger on a seeming contraction I’ve noticed in our firm. At first I thought it was an outgrowth of a distributed work environment, but now I see it as a larger dynamic in the modern workplace: Many of us simultaneously yearn for more collaboration and at the same time loudly complain about being shuffled into too many meetings. The two are obviously not the same, Cain points out — tight schedules are not the same as increased connectedness.

Taken together, I’ve found a powerful 2012 professional charter in the two articles: Reduce meaningless “group time” designed to either hem & haw about this & that or magically inspire camaraderie; and instead create more productive stretches of solitude for my team and myself.

I’m not sure that I can do it, but given that I’m trying to swear off skepticism, it’s worth a shot. Plus, I’m tired of hearing everyone complain about how they “have so many meetings they can’t get anything done.” That’s really one of the most idiotic things any of us could say about our work, and yet almost everyone I know says it all the time.

Enough’s enough! Never mind the boring meeting — it’s cancelled.

Why I'm Optimistic About Blackbaud's Acquisition of Convio

This morning’s announcement that Blackbaud has agreed to acquire Convio has certainly made the day more interesting. A surprise to me and most of my colleagues, clients, and partners, the press release has inspired more Twitter, email, and phone activity than I can remember in quite a while. Nearly everyone has asked the same questions: What will it mean? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing?

Clearly it will take a while to understand the implications of the announcement, and much longer to observe how the acquisition and subsequent integration — strategic, operational, and technological — unfolds. But I’ll risk it and offer two initial thoughts:

  1. The acquisition represents a colossal reshaping of the nonprofit technology landscape.

  2. There are lots of reasons to be extremely optimistic about the result.

Why It’s Big

If you’re reading this article, you probably already know why the move is huge. But allow me to recap for a moment, with apologies to product managers at both companies for vastly oversimplifying the systems involved. Blackbaud is the de facto nonprofit technology standard when it comes to back-end systems. Simply put, it’s a Raiser’s Edge world out there. But their cloud products haven’t gained as much traction, and their offering is a mixture of various home-grown and acquired solutions, from eTapestry to Kintera to NetCommunity to Sphere.

Convio, on the other hand, has become the standard for web-based CRM, particularly in the rapidly growing advocacy and peer-to-peer fundraising spaces. And their move to integrate with SalesForce through Convio Luminate has brought powerful for-profit tools barrelling into the nonprofit space. However, Convio doesn’t have the breadth or depth in back-end databases, nor the long history and massive installed user base that Blackbaud offers.

So the first reason this news is big is that these are the two leading players in nonprofit technology, by a large margin.

The second and more important reason is that because of the different competencies of the two companies, most of our clients use a mix of both systems. It is very common to find a Convio front-end feeding a Blackbaud back-end. It is also very common to find frustrated IT managers and fundraisers in the middle, trying to get the two systems to play well together. This acquisition not only brings with it the promise of more seamless integration, it also could vastly reduce administrative headaches throughout an organization — reducing multiple invoices, sales visits, service calls, and so forth to one point of contact.

Why I’m Optimistic

That same conclusion has already led some observers to worry about the move. I’ve read concerns that this change will reduce the leverage of the nonprofit buyer — leverage which many would say is already at a low point. In only six hours since the announcement I’ve also heard worries that the acquisition will lead to higher prices, lower service, slower technological development, and less choice.

I’ll admit, those are legitimate concerns. But from my vantage point, I don’t think they are realistic. Here’s why.

  • First, many nonprofits already use — or wish they could use — both systems. Change comes slowly in our space, particularly when large systems (with correspondingly large financial outlays) are at play. Consolidating those products, designers, and engineers is only going to benefit end users of the systems. I know of fundraisers at several large nonprofits who have literally agonized over the choice between Convio or Blackbaud. That’s wasted time that can go back to mission.

  • Second, I like the mix of skills and competencies. Event 360’s team works with both systems, so I know people at both companies. There are fantastic, smart people at both organizations. And like all competitors, they spend time worrying about each other. I can’t wait to see what those teams do when they combine their talents. When both groups worry more about delivering social impact than keeping up with each other, we’re all going to benefit.

  • Third, I think this will speed up, not slow down, technological development. This is probably a vast oversimplification, but my perception is that Blackbaud has always had the edge in technological robustness and service, while Convio has had the edge in speed and responsiveness. In November 2010 I got to see a preview of the next generation of Blackbaud’s Friends Asking Friends system. I was completely blown away — blown away by the potential, by the power of the system, and by how much they had listened to Event 360’s own best practices to include them in the system. The only disappointment came when I learned that the system wouldn’t be widely available until 2013! To Blackbaud’s credit, this is how they work — methodically. They want to get it right. But at the same time, the market is changing too quickly; nonprofits need help now. I think the addition of Convio’s talent and products could add afterburners to Blackbaud’s rollouts.

  • Fourth, there’s enough market pressure to control prices. I think the concerns about “monopoly pricing” are vastly over-exaggerated, for several reasons. One, if the new Blackbaud prices too high, they are going to encourage many nonprofits to look to low cost and open source alternatives. The strategists at Blackbaud are too smart for that. (And as a side note, to my friends at smaller technology companies — this acquisition is great news for you, too. One of you is going to become the new best alternative.) Two, my sense is that Blackbaud is more concerned about the SalesForces, Oracles, and Microsofts of the world than the CiviCRMs. The market will shift, new alternatives will emerge, new standards will be created — but I don’t think every NPO CFO needs to reach for the wallet.

What’s To Be Determined

As I said at the beginning, there’s still a lot to be ironed out.

  • How long will systems integration take? Months or years?

  • What will the product and service offering be? How will existing customers be treated with regard to potential new, integrated services?

  • Will the acquisition (and subsequent integration timeline) actually slow down NPO buying decisions? This would be understandable, although a shame in my book — there is simply too much need to delay our pursuit of mission.

  • How will the two company cultures mix together? From my experience, they aren’t the same.

  • Closer to my world, how will the New Blackbaud work with partners? Both companies have had evolving partner strategies — how will they work with companies like mine?

  • Which companies and technologies will emerge as the clear second alternative?

We’ll probably all have a lot to debate and wonder about in the next few weeks. Still, when it all comes down to it, I think this is a great move for the space. We’re all trying to change the world — and the work is so, so difficult. To quote Jane Fonda, “Instead of safety nets we need trampolines and ladders.” Anything that can help us jump forward more quickly towards a better world is welcome in my book. I think this acquisition can do that — and so to my friends in Charleston and Austin, I say: We’re counting on you. Let us know how we can help.

Perspectives on 2012: Health Problems Will Increasingly Become Operational Ones

This article is the second in a short series of musings about 2012, its opportunities and challenges, and how to best meet them.

Healthcare has been one of the most widely debated topics of the last several years. What I find interesting is that most of the debate has centered around — and I think been largely driven by — healthcare legislation rather than health. Google Trends (a good research tool and also a fantastically potent time sink) shows that interest in “healthcare” peaked in March 2010, coinciding with the passage of the healthcare reform bill. Interest has tapered off a bit since then, but I’m sure healthcare will return to the national stage as the presidential race picks up speed. 

But what about our focus on health? Ironically, the more important question of “how to help people live healthier lives” has been largely obscured by debate on “what to do about healthcare.” I’m not sure whether this says more about our tendency to get sucked into political theater or our reluctance to focus on root causes. Or perhaps it just speaks to the difficulty in tackling what seem to be insurmountable problems. 

What I am sure is that this is a shame, because the imperative to help each other (and ourselves) live healthier has never been more pressing. While the last twenty years have brought progress on many fronts, from reductions in smoking to premature death to infant mortality, during the same time frame there has been a 137% increase in what is now one of our country’s top health problems: obesity. (See the bottom of this article for full references, including a link to the enlightening and sobering America’s Health Rankings site from the United Health Foundation.) 

This is notable for two reasons. The first, of course, is that obesity and its resultant health complications, such as diabetes and heart disease, are hugely urgent health issues. One in three American adults is considered obese, and according to a study published last year in the American Journal of Preventable Medicine, the overall health burden of obesity now outweighs the health burden of smoking. 

The second reason is only starting to become apparent. Obesity is beginning to impact operational decisions throughout our landscape, sometimes literally. Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about the Coast Guard’s decision to change regulations regarding average weight. In short, in response to the rising prevalence of obesity the USCG has raised its Assumed Average Weight Per Person from 160 pounds to 185 pounds. This means, among other things, that ferries, cruise ships, and even recreational boaters will face new restrictions on the number of passengers they can carry.

“Who cares?” you say. “I don’t own a boat.” Well, neither do I. But this is one example of how our country’s deteriorating health — and its increasing waistline — are going to become issues of not only health but of operations, marketing, finance, legality, and customer service. Are our organizations prepared for that? Is our infrastructure ready? How about our attitudes?

The worst part is that obesity, like smoking, is preventable. That’s not to say “easily preventable” — far from it. Anyone who has ever tried to lose five pounds can hopefully only empathize with someone trying to lose 20, let alone 50 or 100. Losing weight takes incredible determination and support, which means that over the coming year we’ve got to make progress towards extending and democratizing the tools to fight obesity. It is a problem that literally remakes people; in 2012 it will increasingly become a dynamic that remakes our country.

Add to this the growing problems of stress, mental illness, depression, and sleep deprivation, and you have quite a handful of work for us to tackle. 

For a start, we’ll need as much discussion about “health” as we’ve had about “healthcare.” What can each of us do today to improve the health of all of our stakeholders?