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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 State of Event Fundraising

Thanks to David Hessekiel and the wonderful folks at the Run Walk Ride Fundraising Council, I had a chance yesterday to riff for an hour on "The State of Event Fundraising." An overblown title, to be sure, but when David approached me several months ago about speaking I told him I wanted to steer away from my usual mix of strategy and analytics. Instead, I wanted to speak at a broader level about what I'm observing and thinking about.

In a nutshell, I think the dynamics in the nonprofit space are changing, and I'm not sure that we're reacting fast enough. I don't have many of the answers, and I haven't even articulated all of the right questions. But I know enough to know that I should starting talking it through with other thought leaders in the industry.

My fears of appearing overblown turned to performance anxiety when I learned that over 500 people had registered for the presentation -- a new record for Run Walk Ride. As it turned out, over half of those actually showed up and stayed to listen to my ramblings, which can be found on Slideshare here or at the bottom of this post. The entire hour-long presentation, with audio, can be found at Cause Marketing Forum.

I'm not sure what to take from all of that -- y'all don't have enough to do on Thursday afternoons, apparently . But I think what it means is that many others share my anxiety that the dynamics are changing, and many others share my hope that we can benefit from those changes. 

I look forward to sharing some of the observations, thoughts, cautions, and ideas over the coming weeks. 

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. 

The Importance of Focus

This past week I had the opportunity to lead a webinar for the Run-Walk-Ride Fundraising Council, an organization designed to support fundraising professionals who focus on athletic fundraising.

The title of the presentation was “Doing More With Less” — and not surprisingly, given the difficult economic climate, a number of nonprofit professionals came on the call hoping to find ways to stretch, pull, and tweeze their dollars.

I opened the presentation by sharing the brutal fact that if we define “doing more with less” as literally increasing activity with fewer resources, we’re in for disappointment. It can’t be done; the immutable laws of physics will get in the way. Unfortunately, we cannot create something out of nothing.

However, if we define “doing more with less” as creating better results with fewer resources, then at least have a fighting chance of accomplishing something. More than a fighting chance, actually, because in my experience a great deal of fundraising activity does little more than occupy our time, while the true results come from a few key areas — specific groups of people, specific messages, specific appeals, and so forth.

The real key to thriving in times like these is not to put on another pot of coffee and double the number of hours you and your team are logging. The key is focus. Focusing on the donors, participants, tools, and areas that bring in the results requires an ability to identify those key areas, a willingness to redirect efforts to them, and a discipline to let other activities go. 

Focus is the watchword for fundraising in a difficult climate, and the organizations that understand that are not only coping well with the recession, they are well preparing themselves for the good times ahead. 

For more information and to listen to the entire webinar, click here. (For access to the slides referenced in the presentation, click here.)