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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: Putting Facebook In Its Place

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

It’s a snowy, cold first Monday of January here in Indiana — and I’m sure I’m the better for it. After twelve days of holiday break, hours of wrapping and unwrapping, countless toy-assembly sessions, a few toy-repair sessions, and lots and lots of play time with the kids, I badly need a day off before the official start of the work year. I need to get myself squared away. From big picture thinking like setting my 2012 goals to fundamental necessities like clearing off my desk (I swear, the wood surface is here somewhere), I need a few hours to decide what is going to be important in the new year. And, what isn’t.

This second subject was the topic of a brief story by Zak Stone in yesterday’s Good (see the bottom of this post for the reference links). Stone relates an effort by web designer Ivan Cash to encourage us to take a bit of time off from the ubiquitous social networking site. It’s a good idea, at least for me, and particularly at this time of the year. It is so easy to get caught up in posting what I’m doing that I don’t actually focus on doing it. And it is equally easy to aimlessly scroll through my news feed, absentmindedly reading about what people are doing — without really connecting to anyone at all.

So, I’ve decided to take the challenge and take a week off from Facebook. The simple absurdity of writing that previous sentence as if it were a momentous decision illustrates why it is worth taking a FB sabbatical!

I’ll admit that the first few minutes were odd — I went to Cash’s link, posted the status update on my profile, and within a couple of seconds a few friends had liked my update. I unconsciously reached for the mouse to see who had commented, and then remembered that I was taking a week off. It is exactly this kind of impulse response that runs counter to accomplishing bigger picture goals, and is at the crux of what Cash and Stone are encouraging us to do.

In organizations and in our personal lives we put a lot of emphasis on setting goals, creating vision, painting a picture, and so forth. But we put far less time to deciding what we won’t do. Focus is a key component of good strategy, whether the strategy involves building a billion-dollar charity or losing that last stubborn ten pounds. And focus means making choices. You can’t be great at everything. 

Don’t get me wrong — I love Facebook, and I think it can be a great conduit for personal connections and for organizational growth. But for most of us, Facebook is just a tool towards a larger end. There’s only one organization which has a goal for you to spend more time on Facebook — and that is Facebook itself. For the rest of us, the goal isn’t to spend more time on the site, but to develop deeper connections. I’m interested to see if staying away helps me do that.

I’ve rambled through a few different topics in only five or six paragraphs, and perhaps that is fitting for a snowy, sleepy start of the new year. I look forward to expanding on these and other ideas throughout the next few months, and as always I appreciate your visit. I wish you the best as you start to outline your priorities for the year ahead. 

Can You Hear Me Now?!?

This morning a Facebook friend of mine share a link to an article by Daniel Gulati in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Facebook Is Making Us Miserable.” Delighted with the obvious irony of learning about the article through the tool it critiques, I gave it a quick read. I would recommend it to you as well.

I found the article interesting and the implications more so. Clearly Facebook can broaden our connections with others, as evidenced by the fact that a friend from Israel shared the article with this Indiana boy and inspired comments from locations far and wide. And I will say I try to avoid the trap of thinking that anyone or anything can “make” us miserable — we do that all by ourselves!

Those two things aside, the article resonated with me. While Facebook has broadened our connections, has it deepened them? I’m not sure. 

More than Facebook specifically, it strikes me that the author is really commenting on the slow blending of our personal and professional lives — inexorably we’re moving to a place where our separate circles are not separate, where there is no distinction between different spheres, and, perhaps most sadly, where we feel compelled to share in order to stay connected.

Perhaps technology is not the culprit and these are human dynamics in any day and age — if you want social connections you have to be social, and the more you are the latter, the more you have of the former. It could be that we simply need to get over ourselves.

At the same time, something tells me that the game is changing. Not only are the rules different, but we’re on an entirely different field — one on which we’re all kind of muddling around looking for friendship and intimacy by broadcasting our lives, nonstop, over our own heads. Only no one can hear us, because we’ve each drowned out the rest of the players with our own megaphone. The louder we yell for connection, the harder it is to hear everyone else yelling too…

Falling for Instagram

I spent the better part of two hours last night playing around with Instagram, the photo sharing app for iPhone. I’m well past late to this party — the app is only a year old but there are already over 10 million users (and counting fast). Still, there have to be others like me who have become more and more overwhelmed with social networking and so haven’t had time to discover this wonderful little program.

Facebook is now a way of life; it is quickly becoming a work tool as well as a personal communication standard. Sadly, I’m guessing I’m not alone when I say that I Facebook (verb) with people I talk to everyday!

Twitter is also pretty much obligatory. I’ve found Twitter more and more useful for sharing articles, deciding what to read, and keeping in touch at conferences and meetings.

Add in Yahoo Messenger and Yammer at work, and Ping at home, as well as Google Reader and Google+ (still trying to figure that one out) and — oh yeah! — email, and I have so much social networking that I don’t have time to be social. What do I need Instagram for?

I’m not sure what exactly moved me to download it today, but as soon as I did, I was hooked. I was hooked on the filters — it will make even an all-thumbs photographer like me seem half-decent. But I was more hooked on the feed. Instagram allows you to share pictures with friends and subscribe to their pictures in return. What you get is an ongoing narrative like Facebook or Twitter, but aside from a few captions it is entirely visual. And the fact that Instagram only runs on an iPhone adds a nice creative constraint. You don’t spend a lot of time fretting and editing — you just shoot something and share it.

There’s a huge emotional element that only this kind of image-based dialogue can convey. Why not use it to showcase the people who work to create a better world at your organization (with their permission, of course)? You could create a year-long exhibit of your World-Changers. Or better yet, share pictures and stories of the people you serve. Or, you could share a series of pictures about what the world will look like when you achieve your mission. Or showcase what it would look like without you here to provide your services.

In a time when we have an abundance of tools at our disposal, Instagram captured my imagination more than most. Worth putting to good use for your good cause.