Monday, April 20, 2009

Reclaiming Pollyanna

I have just finished reading Hildy Gottlieb’s latest book, The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing “Nonprofit Organizations” to Create the Future of Our World,” which came out a few weeks ago. In this seminal work (read about it at, Hildy asserts that community benefit organizations have the power to build a perfect world. In a conversation with me about the book (hear the podcast at she admitted subscribing to the Walt Disney philosophy – if you can dream it you can do it. For those who would call her na├»ve, she proudly claims the title of Pollyanna and asks others to join her and show the world what can be done when people are convinced that anything is possible.

She says that organizations have failed to make the impact they are capable of making because of a “Culture of Can’t” – the belief that it is impossible to move ahead in a manner other than the small, incremental steps that have governed the way they’ve done business since the beginning of time. But, she claims we are no longer in a position to permit this sort of foot dragging. There is too much need out there. Even her decision to refer to “community benefit organizations” speaks to the “Culture of Can” she believes will make a perfect world attainable.

If belief in such a concept makes me a Pollyanna, I am happy to stand beside Hildy and claim the title as well. As long as we think of Pollyanna in pejorative terms we will find the notion of being able to achieve heaven on earth as inconceivable and fail to take the necessary actions to reach such a state. We will continue to play games of “yes, but” and ‘that’s not my job.” We may serve a few more people or make life a little easier to live for our clients, but will we solve the mega problems that must be solved? I don’t think so.

This is not merely a game of semantics. Words count. Yes. But, it is our conviction that something is possible that has us looking at all angles, sitting down with whoever has a piece of the puzzle – even our “competitors.”

I can’t help but remember the Apollo 13 mission. With the utterance of the fateful words, “Houston, we have a problem,” the world learned that the crew might not make it home. Scientists, other astronauts, mechanics, representatives from the vendor companies that helped build Apollo and others were brought into a room with a big table. Boxes of materials – a copy of every piece of wire, every dial and every metal fitting, etc. on the orbiter – were dumped on the table with the admonishment that those assembled must find a solution in very short order. Failure was not an option. Failure is not an option for us, either. We are in this world together. We have an obligation to create and work within a “Culture of Can” to ensure that we, our children and our children’s children all truly benefit from our efforts.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

the problem with weakness

At Friday's Smithsonian Conference on Organizational Storytelling, a brilliant knowledge management specialist shared the following quote: "If you work on weaknesses your whole life, what you end up with are a bunch of strong weaknesses."

This gets to the heart of why SWOT analyses are flawed tools: weaknesses should not be given the same weight as strengths. This also gets to the heart of my approach to communication skills training: focus on expanding and highlighting a person's strengths, and their weaknesses will most likely fade into the background.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tell Me What’s Good About Tough Times: Volunteers!

The Opportunity To Be A Volunteer

A friend, laid off from her current development job, started volunteering as a docent in an organization seeking a development director. Her time investment provides her with an insider’s view of the organization and will help her ascertain if a future position with them is a good fit. Meanwhile, she’s enjoying the opportunity to try a new role and learning, benefits that she will take with her wherever she settles. She shared, “I had a blast leading people around the facility.”

If you are an unemployed nonprofit leader, think about selectively volunteering. You can avoid giving away your expertise (i.e., doing the development job for free) by selecting a new role that will help you to learn a new skill.

The Skills of Volunteers

Likewise, if you work in a nonprofit, this is fabulous time to meet some of your needs with new volunteers. “People are constantly contacting us who have incredible skills, but seek experience with seniors,” noted Susan Wenzel, Director of Volunteers at The Pines, an older adult housing and health care facility. Consider actively seeking members of the skilled, but unemployed, workforce. That is, people looking for meaningful way to invest their time and enhance their skills. To find them, consider new recruitment venues, like job services, Craig's List, outplacement firms or contacting firms laying-off people in areas where you need help.

To take advantage of these volunteers, design specific short-term, flexible experiences like refurbishing the library, designing a volunteer orientation program or helping a child improve their academic level in one subject with twice a week meetings for one month. While many of these volunteers will have a temporary tenure, others, if the experience is positive, will continue their relationship with your nonprofit long-term.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Compelling message nets flood of results

As the rising flood waters pass through Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota towards Winnipeg, Manitoba, I am impressed how communities come together to combat the always challenging Red River. People do extraordinary things for their neighbors and friends in times of crisis. What strikes me the most is how complete strangers pitch in after a public call for volunteers to fill sandbags and build dikes (truly back-breaking work), provide food and any other task they are called upon to do. Hundreds heeded the call for help in our area and thousands more have already contributed time and labor, as well as moral support, throughout the flood zone.

What makes people respond? It's the compelling nature of the call to action. While this is a short-term crisis situation, convincing people to respond to any non-profit or community cause all comes down to the case for support.

A good case generally has these components:
  • Mission (save the communities affected by the flood)
  • History (history of fighting similar flood events over the years)
  • Accomplishments (enhancing flood protection, mobilizing volunteers)
  • Goals and Strategies (breaking up ice jams, reinforcing existing and building new dikes)
  • Need for Support (filling, hauling and heaving sandbags, making and delivering sustenance, directing traffic, providing moral support)
A good case will outline not just needs, but also how engaging in the cause will benefit the donor, volunteer and community. It's evident as I write this how mobilizing the community has benefitted the communities of Fargo and Grand Forks. As Winnipeg and Manitoba citizens hold their collective breath, we feel confident that we will also see how responding to a compelling case will save our homes and neighborhoods.

Laura Mikuska
Laura Mikuska Consulting
(204) 253-2447

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mission, Effectual Resources, Growth

Human survival depends on access to:

Oxygen (minutes until death)

Water (days)

Food (weeks)

Your nonprofit survival depends on:

Mission (a month)

Effectual Resources (a year)

Growth (a decade)

An all-volunteer Meals on Wheels program, serves 50 lunches per day from a donated kitchen. Three board members coordinate 24 drivers and the meal preparation, six days per week. With so few active board members, a borrowed facility, no strategic plan and no staff, they were critically short of effective resources. With any significant setback, they faced the real possibility that they would failed to provide vital food to frail elderly people.

While they had a clear mission (Priority 1,) they desperately needed to shore up their effectual resources to ensure their survival (Priority 2). Instead, a board member called to request help to obtain funding to increase the daily meal service to 100 meals per day (Priority 3.)

Your survival depends on mission, effectual resources and growth, in that order and only in that order. Keeping your priorities straight means you live!