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Perspectives on 2012: Mission Trumps Tools Every Time

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

From “So, What’s Your Algorithm?” by Dennis K. Berman, the Wall Street Journal, 1/4/2012I’ve started this post several times. The first time, I opened with this: “When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as the year when social media hysteria attacked the nonprofit space.” That opener sounded a bit too snarky, so I scratched it out and started over. My second attempt was this: “When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as the year when big data arrived to the nonprofit space — alas, the discipline to use it well is still a no-show.” Ack. The second attempt is worse than the first!

So here’s a third try: When I look back on 2011, I’ll think of it as year when the discussion about tools risked eclipsing the pursuit of mission. And when I look into 2012, my biggest hope is that it will be the year when our focus returns to substance over form. 

There’s no question that big data and social media were two of the main themes in the nonprofit space in 2011, at least in my part of the world. Much has been written about both trends, and I’ll not seek to retread that ground other than to say that most of the nonprofits I work with, particularly the larger ones, are investing in systems and people to generate and store constituent data. And nearly every organization is investing in systems and people to “do social media.” Depending on the month, at certain times I might have said that the emergence of big data was the dominate theme; other months I would have probably marveled at the fascination with social media. Obviously, the emergence of the two trends is not unrelated, as the same undercurrents are basically powering both:

  • Dramatic, ever-increasing computing power (we all now carry powerful computers disguised as phones);
  • Progressively transparent, networked consumer behavior (we are willing to have our actions tracked at every turn, and often consciously and deliberately track ourselves); and
  • Evolving infrastructure and supporting systems (for example, the widespread acceptance and adoption of that third 2011 buzzword, “the cloud”).

So rather than try to separate the two, I’ve convinced myself that I can and should muse about them jointly.

I worry that over the past couple of weeks I’ve unmasked myself as a Luddite, and I should say I’m definitely not. Actually, I’m a gear fanatic and a tool nut — I love my electronics and my software, and I continually acquire more of both than I have time to master. 

At the same time, one thing I noticed in 2011, more noticeably regarding social media but also underlying the pursuit of large data management systems, was that we tend to run after the next tool that presents itself without thinking. It’s almost as if we’re hoping that this Next New Thing will finally make it easier, less awkward, and more fun to do what most of us have to do, which is ask for money.

“Facebook! You have to be on Facebook! You have to increase your likes on Facebook!” Remember that? And then it was, “Twitter! You have to be on Twitter! Increase your Twitter followership! That’s it!” Oh, and then, “Text to Give! It’s all about Text to Give! Text to Give is huge and is transforming the space!” And someone else says, “What are you thinking?!? CRM! You’ve got to connect it all to CRM!”

And so we all don our sheep suits and follow the flock over to Facebook — and then we follow it back across the field to Twitter — and then we try to follow it over to the Text to Give pen, but by this time we’re all getting a bit tired aren’t we? And then someone shouts “Google+!” But by this time we finally say, “huh?” And we all try not to ask the obvious question, a question that is getting harder to avoid asking in the new year, which is “How do we translate all of these followers and likes and mobile numbers and circles into dollars for mission?” Because of course what has been lost as we chase tools around the pasture is any time to think about what we want to use the tools for. 

Okay — don’t get me wrong. Again, I’m not a Luddite. I think Facebook is a valuable tool; I use both it and Twitter many times a day, for my clients, my company, and myself. I love computers and analytics, and live and breath both most hours of the day. But here’s the thing: Facebook is just a tool. Data is just a tool. Twitter, texting, Google, Excel — all tools. 

No tool in the world will instantly, magically, permanently eliminate the need to passionately, succintly, and repeatedly describe your mission; no tool in the world will eliminate the pressing, continual need for you to vivdly describe the impact you are making and then pointedly ask for support. What I saw in 2011 was a tools arms race, and what concerns me is that I don’t see signs of it slowing down — although there are observers starting to discuss how, as social media and big data and the cloud become integrated into our day-to-day, the novelty about those systems will change back into an imperative to actually say and do something meaningful with them. 

(And following from that, let me add that just because you can now easily send a message to your entire database of 30,000,000 “friends” in one click doesn’t mean you should, or really that you have anything of value to say.) 

My biggest hope of hopes for 2012 is that we all realize that even now, in some garage in India or some college dorm room in New Hampshire or some offshore development platform in the South Pacific, someone is developing yet another tool that will (possibly) help us (potentially) increase awareness and (maybe) raise money. And so rather than worry so much about how to leverage this fan page or that community stream or how to afford the shiny new holographic brain implants soon to be shipping worldwide out of Cupertino, the best thing we can do for our nonprofits in 2012 is:

  • Emotively articulate our vision of a better world;
  • Concisely describe how our organization is uniquely pursuing that vision;
  • Abandon our reluctance to ask for help and boldly put our offer of change to everyone we meet
  • Continually develop our volunteers and staff so that they have the language and confidence to do the same;
  • And more than anything, ensure that the program work we do actually helps bring about social change

Tools are fun and cool and neat and can help a lot. But substance outlasts form every time, and mission trumps tools all day long. 

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?

A Simple Resolution For 2012

Finer husband
Better father
Finer leader
Better friend

More hope
Better health
More spirit
Better self


Simple to write and likely hard to do. But worth giving a shot. 

Happy New Year, everyone.

A problem of the heart

Allison Fine, one of a dozen or so excellent nonprofit experts I follow regularly, posted an article yesterday asking why it is that giving has been essentially flat for 40 years at 2% of GDP. The occasion of her post was the publication by Blackbaud of a whitepaper entitled Growing Philanthropy. It is a meaty report, with 32 recommendations for nonprofits about how to increase overall giving. There is a lot of substance there, and yet I fear its size will inspire more people put it on their “I should read this” pile than actually read it.

It is also rather academic, and as such while I think it adds to the dialogue I’m not sure it describes the whole solution, or even identifies the entire problem. The problem cannot just be solved with best practices and organizational efficiency. We need passionate calls to action to the many who are not yet involved, and passionate encouragement for further engagement to those that already are.

Taking a step back for a moment, the concept that giving is consistent as a percentage of GDP is a Big Idea in capital letters. Once you get your head around it, you realize you have found one of the core dynamics shaping the entire nonprofit system. It is surprising not only for its 40-year consistency, but more notably for the fact that most nonprofit leaders seem to be completely unaware of it. I am constantly struck but how few nonprofit executives, development professionals, and marketers will acknowledge that giving is pegged to GDP. The few who do know seem to think (or hope) that their own organizations exist outside of this reality. 

Giving USA has been tracking this for years and years. About five years ago – prior to banking explosions but well into early signs of recession – I wrote several position papers on this topic for our clients at Event 360. If giving is constant as a percentage of GDP, it stands to reason that dollar giving will go up in times of growth – and unfortunately, will decline in times of recession. That is exactly what happened, of course; but even organizations which saw the recession coming were unprepared for the drop in giving. 

The more pressing question, as Allison points out, is not “does the dynamic exist” but “why does it exist, and how can we change it?” My own experience with very large peer-to-peer programs has probably colored my view – but I will say that we consistently find it is easier to get people who are already giving to give more than it is to get people who haven’t done anything to make the first gift. My sense is that this same truism operates at a system-wide level in the whole nonprofit space. 

More to the point, after twenty years in the space I’m not sure that we’ve gotten any better at getting the large numbers of people who do not donate a thing to get involved. And before I go further: My last sentence references another Big Idea that those of us who live and breathe charity tend to forget. We are surrounded by giving and so we forget that large numbers of people do not give at all. A Harris Interactive poll conducted late last year found that only 12% of people admit to not giving at all. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad! But ominously, the same poll found that only about a quarter of people felt “some responsibility to improve the world they live in.” Wow. (Further, we tend to forget that of individuals who do give, over a third of that giving come from and goes to religious organizations – the only organizations I’ve run across which have integrated a recurring, weekly, in-person, experiential ask into their mission. They ask in the pews, every Sunday.)

In any case, my point is that I think we’ve gotten a lot better at activating those who are charitable, but not any better at inspiring new charitableness. When one-quarter is literally carrying the weight of the world, we’ve got a big challenge on our hands. Improving effectiveness with social media, making better investment decisions, providing better training, and sharing workable solutions are all important. But this is a problem of the heart as much as the head. We need to make giving more accessible and less tedious, and as amazing as it may sound, we need to do more to not only emphasize this cause or that but to convey the obligation, transcendence, and joy of giving itself.

The Business of Multiplication

It is fairly presumptuous of me to assume I have anything to add to the vast number of poignant 9/11 commentaries you’ve probably seen this weekend. But I do think I have something to add about my favorite topic, which is why the the world needs you and the work you do.

As I’ve listened, watched, and read a variety of 9/11 tributes today, I’ve been struck by how each person’s experience of that day is so similar and yet so particular. We each experienced the grief, and fear, and confusion. But we each experienced it in our own way. The person who sat on the phone trying to reach a loved one. The person who drove crosstown to help. The person who enlisted. The person who watched dusted figures walk by. The person who gave out free food and water. The same streak of light through fifty million prisms.

My memories, like yours, are likely special only to me. My uniqueness involves the impending birth of my son Matthew. He had his dad’s love of drama even then, already ten days overdue. Waiting to make an entrance. That morning found me at home in Los Angeles getting ready to take Jeanie to the hospital. She was to be induced. As we woke to pack the bags for the hospital, we turned on the television and our lives changed in the same way yours did. In the ways everyone’s did.

The morning was a flurry of phone calls. Calls with family, and friends, and of course, the family and friends I worked with — many of whom I still work with ten years later. Did Murph stay overnight or did he go direct? Did anyone know what freaking flight he was on? Was Conigs downtown? Can anyone reach her? Was the team from Canada accounted for?

When Jeanie and I finally made it to the hospital, we looked at our O.B. and said simply, “We are not inducing today. We will not have our son born today.”

And yet, the most troubling and redemptive characteristic of life is its imminence. It won’t wait. Life is always just about to be. And so on the 12th we were back at the hospital, unable to exert any more influence on Matthew’s timing. We sat and watched CNN and wondered, at least a bit, what kind of parents we were to be if we were selfish enough to bring a child into a world like this.

And you know the rest, or at least your part of it. It is not historical self-indulgence to assert that the last ten years have been fundamentally different than those that came before. We have seen, in a real way, a decade of division. Towers split in half. Families torn apart. A world brought briefly together, and then too, a world splintered.

We became used to separating things. Our shoes and belts at the airport. Our loved ones sent to other places. Our inward thoughts from our spoken opinions. It became a decade of divisions in geopolitics, and then domestic politics, and then in business and economics too, as the math we learned years earlier seemed to stop working. The reds and the blues; the right and the left. More disturbingly, the haves and the have-nots. The us and the them.

There are many groups of people, many talented and dedicated groups of people, working to overcome these divisions. And despite my penchant for cynicism, I have immense respect and gratitude for the women and men of the military, the political community, and the government. I think by and large they are doing their best to solve the vast array of problems that a decade of division has laid at the doorstep.

Yet these people can only do so much. There is only so much that can be accomplished when the prime directive is to stop the loss. “Minimize the damage” can only take us so far. At some point, the momentum has to be reversed.

That’s where you come in. You may not recognize it, but you are in the business of multiplication.

In event fundraising, the multiplication works in a mathematical way I can prove: One participant brings 50 or 60 donors. It is in datasets; I can see how it works.

But the multiplication is more powerful than that. I have seen it in the way one walker brings five family members to cheer her on. In the way laughter spreads across a camp. In the way a small email encouragement is passed on to dozens of friends. In the way one shoe raised ripples across a crowd 1,500 times.

Whatever your profession — teacher, attorney, firefighter, bus driver, pilot, consultant — I will bet that when you reflect on the myriad of interactions you have each moment of your day, you will find there is multiplication at the core of what you do. Every single day of every single week.

The most profound reason my last decade has been different than the ten years before it has nothing to do with 9/11 at all — nothing to do with terrorism, or anti-terrorism, or financial collapse, or political discontent. It has to do with a wonderful boy named Matthew. When I look back on how my life has changed, I can say that he changed it more than any of that, in a huge, positive, profound way; that he multiplied my love and care and hope and optimism fifty thousand times more than anything that happened to divide it. Love is the ultimate force multiplier.

We are indeed still at war, and mainly we are at war with ourselves. Are we strong enough to look forward and create a better world? To take the risks and make the commitment to a more powerful future, a future that is the right future to create even though we may not be here to enjoy all of it? To sacrifice ourselves for a cleaner earth, a more tolerant community, a more equitable country, and a more peaceful world?

Answering the questions to create this world will require an abundance of character, and mainly it will take hope, love, and hard work. When I really open my eyes to look at the people around me, I see all three evidenced in dramatic quantities — and it makes me proud of the “what” you do, and excited for the decade of multiplication we together will help to create.

Watching you, I am ready for the next decade. It is onwards and upwards from here.

And finally: Happy birthday to the fourth of my force multipliers, Danny, who turns three this very day.