Monday, December 21, 2009

The Magic of Thirty-Five

Lyle Schaller, church consultant, writes, “You can’t overdo communications. All important messages should be sent out on at least five different channels of communications.” Marketing experts have long suggested that messages, to be heard, need to be repeated at least seven times.

What are your important messages? How are you getting them out to people via five different channels seven times? I’m working on a chart, five across, seven down, for a client to look at how we are helping people to remember his nonprofit in their wills. While we might not reach the magic number 35 this quarter, the tool is helping us to explore different communication methods and frequency. Quick jot down your most important message… what media are you using to share it? How often?

Monday, December 14, 2009

It’s Time to Judge on the Basis of Impact

The end of the year is approaching and people are hastening to make their 2009 gifts. Some generous souls will respond to any organization that makes an ask. For most, however, the process involves either going through the stack of envelopes received from organizations to which they’ve given in the past, merely to decide how much to give this year, or logging on to a charity watchdog site, such as those run by Guidestar and BBB Wise Giving Alliance, to see which organizations serving a personal passion get high marks. But, are any of these means the best way to approach this important task?

A small but increasingly vocal number of people are suggesting we should be looking at impact when we make our giving decisions. Has the organization to which we’ve given loyally over the years really lived up to its promise to the community? I can hear the contingent that turns to watchdog groups saying, “But that’s why I check these groups out!” The problem with the watchdog groups is that the criteria upon which they’ve been rating organizations are criteria that are easy to measure. They are not necessarily criteria that speak to impact.

One of the key factors upon which high ratings have been given in the past is the maintenance of low administrative costs. However, nonprofits have rightly complained for years that it takes people, facilities and equipment to provide services and achieve impact. People, facilities and equipment cost. Other key factors that result in a strong ranking include the number of dollars that are spent to raise money and the period of time the organization could maintain itself without any further fund raising. While clearly related to good business practices, neither of these criteria speak to results. Frankly, even factors such as numbers of programs, numbers served or satisfaction levels speak more to busyness than they do to impact.

Ken Berger, the CEO of Charity Navigator – one of the foremost watchdog groups – bravely came out this month to say that Charity Navigator will be redesigning its rating system to focus on impact. He admits that it won’t be easy, but believes it is necessary and doable.

Until all the watchdog organizations do our work for us, I propose that we put aside emotion and analysis based on easy but less-than-meaningful numbers to do our own assessment of impact. Is, for instance, our favorite homeless shelter merely serving more people or is it putting the people it does serve into their own homes and providing them with the skills to pay the rent and take care of the maintenance?

We can also look at how well the organizations we identify play well with others. Does that homeless shelter insist on hiring its own case managers, building out and staffing its own kitchen, or collecting its own clothing to provide to clients when it could reach out to other organizations in the community who already have case managers, a kitchen capable of feeding those in the shelter or sufficient clothing to share?

Doing this sort of research will take time, but the rewards go beyond knowing that you answered the call to ensure the status quo. It will draw you closer to the organizations you ultimately select. It will intensify the feeling you get inside when you give. It will force organizations to make a difference or leave the marketplace. And, it will allow you to live in a healthier, more robust community.

Quit Your Once Per Year Strategic Planning Retreat

Is one of your year-end tasks to set-up a strategic retreat for your board? If so, take the one-time-per-year get strategic-planning event off the list. Instead, plan a retreat plus eleven months worth of strategic thinking conversations to help your board and organization be more strategic.


-Good and regular strategy thinking eases decision-making. Henry Mintzberg writes that strategic thinking is seeing beyond, it constructs the future itself and it invents a world that would not otherwise be.

-Boards who dig deep into strategy and help you to do deep thinking, spend less time digging into management details. When you serve boards their main course, the strategy, they have less time in feasting on staff responsibilities.

Here is one idea to use in stimulating a strategic conversation:

Hand out a photo of your organization from Google Earth to your board members. Ask them what happens when we look at our work big picture? What relationships of ours do you see differently from this perspective? How might others see us?

My December 15 newsletter (available to newsletter subscribers only; email me at to receive a copy of it, subject line: “strategic.”) shares a month-by-month plan of strategic conversation topics suitable for your board.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Reducing Organization Clutter

Do you have 97 t-shirts from last year’s walk-a-thon in your attic? Or, 223 cookbooks that a past fundraising committee insisted would fly off the shelves, but now gather dust in your office? How about those 2,712 planned giving brochures you bought because of the volume discount?

Does your organization use clutter to avoid reality?

Brooks Palmer new book, Clutter Busting, while aimed at individuals, can help your organization shed items, like these, in the way of making progress toward achieving your mission.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Trouble with Values

My new post at PhilanTopic, the Foundation News Digest blog: The Trouble with Values.

An excerpt:

"Values are utterly subjective and mean different things to different people. Heck, any given value can mean different things to the same person at different times in their lives or within different contexts."