Goals Nonprofit Strategy Wednesday Whimsy

Simplifying Success

Less is more often the short stick when it comes to aspiration and activity but the trump card when it comes to impact.   Studies repeatedly show, for example, that people buy more when they have four choices than when they have twenty.   If you are selling something—whether carrots or an idea—that’s important.

I once worked with a Washington State governor proud of his 30-some goals. Looks good, I noted, but do realize that your staff can’t remember to do something this day or week to advance that many items. If they have at most 3-4 goals, you will see far more intentional behavior.

Reducing works not just for goals but for the factors used to express it.    We often add metrics, goals, and choices—to appear comprehensive, not to mention well-quantified.  In my experience, comprehensiveness is a red herring.  We spread ourselves too thinly to make a difference while failing to be clear on what is most important.

I wrote earlier of the brevity reflected in such documents as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Ten Commandments.  One great virtue of concentration rather than dispersal is that it takes far less time to write or say something.   I think that is why I like quotes so much.  We could write essays on the relationship between staying afloat or propelling to a destination, for example.  Or we could read Jessamyn West:  The statement, “I can endure everything,” might be the equivalent to saying, “I will risk nothing.”

Let’s risk it.  Try risking the loss of comprehensiveness!

Strategy Wednesday Whimsy

Ships in the harbor

I asked participants in my current Results Leaders course to read something—a book snipped, an article, or a quote—and tell me what it meant to them.  Jennifer, a supervisor in Manatee County Florida picked a quote by William Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.”  She said it reminded her to venture forth. Like most quotes, I find it useful to dig a bit, and as close to home as possible. 

Part of venturing is physical.  Ships move into open water. Their motion is intentional. Ships have destinations.  How about us when we move?  Do we have intentions to get somewhere—whether on the map or in our own performance?  Not always. Indeed, I find that the most frenetic motion is often without clear discernable purpose.  Humans, like ships, who burn energy without going anywhere are in a bad place. They are literally letting off steam rather than using it.

white and black anchor with chain at daytime

Sometimes, staying in place is assuredly good. Consider the GPS systems that keep a refueling ship at the same spot.  But when it comes to people, we spend the energy not to stay stable but to stay safe. Our ship in harbor is at a pleasurable anchor.  We welcome and are given viewpoints and information, for example, with which we will predictably agree. This is the other side of venturing—motion of the mind.  

Let’s vow to set sail more often.

Fundraising Nonprofit Strategy Wednesday Whimsy

Two Ways to Get Money: The Proposal and the Prospectus

I just read a prospectus seeking financial investment in a company. It prompted me to think about the major differences between the two kinds of documents designed to attract money. One is the fund-raising appeal. Nice graphics, attractive colors, and warm personal stories abound. And the premise if not promise is clear: once we get the money good things are bound to happen. The second is the prospectus used by businesses seeking capital. The text is long and dense, filled with words and numbers in small type. Lofty expectations are absent and no promises are made.

What if anything can philanthropy and the nonprofit world learn from the prospectus as a template? Here is my take on four prospectus elements I believe would greatly enhance annual appeals, capital campaigns, and the like. In all cases, the italics come from the prospectus I just read.

  1. The latest information. “We have not, and the underwriters have
    not, authorized anyone to provide any information or to make any
    representations other than those contained in this prospectus…
    ” In contrast, nonprofits donors are unsure if the latest information is
    on the website, in a brochure, a proposal, or a report, or on a website like Charity Navigator or GuideStar. And a date that says
    “as of” would be very helpful.
  2. Disciplined use of language “Certain Terms Used in this Prospectus.”
    This section of the Prospectus goes well beyond explaining
    acronyms to define operationally key terms and categories. In contrast, the appeal may use such terms as results, outcomes, and
    impacts interchangeably—often on the same page.
  3. Identification of risk. “Our future success depends on our ability to
    successfully adapt our business strategy to changing home buying
    patterns and Trends.
    ” This is an example of a clear caution in the
    prospectus section called Risk Factors. In contrast, fundraising
    appeals rarely suggest any possible factor that could reduce
    achievement when the money is gone. Investors in nonprofits as
    well as for-profits know that a group that does not identify key risks has no easy way of dealing with them if they occur.
  4. Clarity on past results. We increased our revenues from $490.9
    million for the nine months ended September 30, 2019 o $672.7
    million for the nine months ended September 30, 2020.
    When is the last time you read in a fund-raising appeal that the group increased the number of kids now reading on grade level (or adults getting a job) from x to y? Given that past success is often the best predictor of future success, this seems of vital importance to philanthropic investors.

Come on, nonprofits. Let’s see some experiments to bring in these elements that can nudge us from stating our values at rest in a beliefs or mission statement to reflecting values in motion from what we achieve.

leadership Strategy Wednesday Whimsy

Simplicity in words

My last post approached simplicity from a perspective of painting. This week, the Wednesday Whimsey looks at another form of brevity—of word counts. It is prompted by a passage that I recall from a New York Times article:

assorted vegetable lot

The Lord’s Prayer contains 56 words, the 23rd Psalm 118 words, the Gettysburg Address 226 words and the Ten Commandments 297 words, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture directive on pricing cabbage weighs in at 15,629 words.

Few would argue that the last document cited is more elegant than the first four. So, what makes the difference? It is actually not length. It is clarity of thought. The Gettysburg Address, for example, was written to give solace and meaning to deaths on both sides of the Civil War. Would we feel the same empathy for all the fallen soldiers if this were a one-hour eulogy with great detail on the deceased?

Note that these documents are all literal. They use language that lifts our horizons because they speak to what is on the ground just before us. You may well have seen the spoofing done to show what happens when a group wordsmiths that Gettysburg Address. The words become more general, more abstract such that everyone can agree upon them. I see that often. A leadership team meets to improve an organizational strategy by polishing the language in the plan. They can’t agree on just what constitutes excellent action but they all heartily endorse standing for Excellence, whatever it might mean.

As both PowerPoint and wordsmithing move toward higher levels of generalization, they create documents that sound just like others. I have compared presentations on strategy from different organizations in several fields and found them surprisingly interchangeable. They use the same words in the same way. My favorite frequent expression is the hyphenated term ending in “driven”. Organizations are mission-driven, data-driven, result-driven, customer-driven. Sounds great on a slide but what does it mean? Is someone doing the driving? If so, who? And are they on autopilot or following some explicit rules of the road they can share? Or perhaps we are all passengers, voicing our opinion on direction before or even after the car or ship departs.

The short documents the New York Times references are strong because they are literal and intentionally focused. I find that worth pondering. And it is easy for me to do so since I do not particularly like cabbage.

Next week I muse about the differences between a proposal seeking charitable donations and a prospectus seeking investment capital. And how much they can learn from each other.

Strategy Wednesday Whimsy

How to Build Simplicity

I finished participating in a webinar this morning and my head is dizzy with its words. They appeared on the PowerPoint of a presentation brim-full of details. From all those displayed bullets what did I remember? Very little.  

I once took a course in boating safety with my granddaughter in which the instructor started the course by having one student help another put on a life jacket. “Fit snugly enough?”, he asked. “Yes,” was the reply. He then asked the girl with the lifejacket on to lift her hands above her head. He grabbed the top loop of the jacket and pulled it right over her head, adding he had pulled a young girl from the deep waters of an Adirondack Lake whose life jacket had similarly come off.  No preaching or admonishment, facts and figures, or other information.  A demonstration that took under two minutes total compelled Indigo and me to pay close attention to all that followed.  This is one form of simplicity.

A wonderful column by Marty Fugate appearing in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on April 18 gave me a very different way to approach simplicity. It focused on a local exhibit of Saito Kiyoshi, one of Japan’s most significant creative print artists. From the article:

Steady Gaze (Two Cats)

Saito’s style resists imitation—and defies description as well.  It’s easy to say what it’s not.  His art has no waste, no excess, no second-guessing. Each print says what it has to say and shuts up.  Great. So now that we know what his art isn’t—what is it?

Simply put: divine simplicity.

A distillation of image.  In the artistic equivalent of Jenga, Saito removed as much detail as possible from his prints—to the point the image would fall apart if one more element were removed.

photo of red flower on green vase

What a wonderful approach to both defining and achieving simplicity.  We are largely taught to create the main point and then add details to complete the picture.  Divine simplicity sees the essence as the picture. We get there not by adding but by subtracting.  Don’t just condense and compress all content.  Rather, start at the edges and take stuff off.  If the core is untouched, keep going.

Next week a Wednesday Whimsey on how greatness prunes words.