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!

Fundraising Nonprofit Wednesday Whimsy

Alignment, Plans, Priorities are Not Results

After a break for moving from Florida to the Adirondacks for summer and fall, I am back with weekly blogs. My entry this Wednesday muses on how easy it is to ignore results in the language we use to distribute and use charitable giving.

Here is the first item in the Donor Bill of Rights published by AFP-the Association of Fundraising Professionals:

To be informed of the organization’s mission, of the way the organization intends to use donated resources, and of its capacity to use donations effectively for their intended purpose.

Note how far this departs from a right to see that a difference was made.

To be fair, the focus on mission and service delivery almost always speaks to values and activities, not accomplishments. Consider the credit or requirements in these statements:

  • A program is aligned with the organization’s mission.
  • The organization partners with other organizations.
  • The organization has an updated fundraising and strategic plan.
  • Needs addressed are fully understood, including great attention to local communities and residents.
  • Services are delivered to those for which they are intended.
  • Expenditures with a variance of 10% or more from the budget are pre-approved.
  • Interim and final reports are submitted on time.

Here’s the whimsey: these strictures apply equally to high and low-performing organizations and programs! Internal alignment, many
partners, and timely completion of reports are lousy predictors of high achievement. And low performing groups are as likely to have a strategic plan on file (not to mention a Logic Model or Theory of Change if required) as high-performing ones. Here’s another statement I hear frequently: the organization is clear on its goals and its priorities. Having priorities and achieving within them are two different things. At best, one is the floor and the other the ceiling.

See you next week.

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.

Nonprofit Wednesday Whimsy

The program vs. the product

Last week I wrote how nonprofits seeking contributions might learn from the prospectus format used by businesses to attract financial investment.   Here is another comparison that may offer useful pondering.

It’s 2 pm on Saturday and a woman stretched to the limit is washing diapers. The machine breaks down. Thankfully, she finds the call number and gets the instructions she needs to reset the digital controls. What would she have done if it were 2 pm and the content of her last counseling session stopped working for her?  Oops, no weekend number.  

Products come with instructions and a number to call. Social and human services, by and large, do not.   Products (to include services as well as goods) also have a warranty.  If we use the lawnmower, barbeque, or another item in a reasonable way and it fails to perform then we get our money back. What about the job program that says its graduates get jobs with students who do not get one offer? No recourse.

The idea of warranty interests me as at least worth considering by nonprofits.  My daughter ran a program called “School Turnaround,” and it was the only initiative she knew of in education that carried a warranty.  If the school did not see academic achievement rise by an agreed-upon amount, the district could either have their money back or an additional year to get to achievement.

Which would you rather have?  A wonderful set of value and belief statements or a warranty? The first is aspirations. The second is a commitment.  

I have long offered a warranty in my own consulting:   If you are not highly satisfied with the results you achieved with my help, you may dock my pay by any amount you choose.  One huge advantage of my warranty is the entry point it gives me to get the client to be very clear on what constitutes success and how we will verify it.  

Too bad you did not pay to read my blog. You could have asked for your money back.

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.  

Results for Meetings Wednesday Whimsy

Results for Meetings

I am now completing a small book on result-driven meetings. It builds on work my colleague, Robyn Faucy-Washington, and I are doing with Manatee County, Florida, and other clients on driving togetherness by targets rather than agendas.

As part of this work, I am looking at the books and articles, viewing the videos, and listening to the Podcasts reflecting the latest thinking on effective meetings.  Here are four findings I find somewhat gloomy:

  1. The current advice on effective meetings sounds similar to that I have seen for many years.  It starts with the focus on supportive group process. From one  guide: “The work of meetings occurs through conversations and can be thought of as a series of conversations that create meaning and movement to action and results.”  This certainly favors those who like to talk far more than those with an itch to act. 
  2. The focus is on civility and consensus. Make sure everyone is in agreement, no matter how many sharp edges and divergent thoughts are sanded smooth.  There is no support voiced for letting divergent thinkers try anything new—until everyone agrees on it.
  3. Most advice is about structure. I see templates and formats on annotated agendas, meeting roles, content summaries, and the like. The gist: complete these forms and you will have a great meeting.  Among other shortcomings, this lawful approach rules out spontaneity and fireworks that are the heart of many collaborations.  
  4. The point is to decide things, not act on them.   The meeting is judged by what happens during it, not after it. Never mind if there is reduced energy as the meeting ends and no zestful individuals ready to be sparkplugs for implementation.   
black and white dartboard

In Results1st we speak to setting targets and then designing activities to achieve them for all projects and all meetings.  Contrast that with this advice I read: “Once you consider who’s in the room, it’s an opportunity to redesign or tweak the agenda.” In other words, start with the people present and then figure out what they can best do.  Holding the process and the structure constant and letting the results vary is the opposite of. what I see high performing groups achieve–including in their meetings.  

innovation Wednesday Whimsy

“The End of Average”

This is the title of a provocative book by Todd Rose. He makes a compelling case for the variance among members of any category– whether animal, vegetable or mineral. From the introduction:

In this book, you will learn that just as there is no such thing as average body size, there is no such thing as average talent, average intelligence, or average character. Nor are there average students or average employees—or average brains, for that matter.

His logic rests on math, not ideology about uniqueness. Study after study cited shows that when a set of factors is used to derive an average among items that no specimen is average on more than one factor and most are average on none. This led Rose to speak to the “Jaggedness Principle” to define the weak correlation among factors when arrayed on a continuum.

Now to the merger of beliefs and statistics much later in the book:

But now we know there is no such thing as an average person, and we can see the flaw in the equal access approach to opportunity: if there is no such thing as an average person then there can never be equal opportunity on average. Only equal fit creates equal opportunity.

two people sitting near cliff

I think of the old adage “If the shoe fits…” The variation in fit is determined not by the shoe but by where I am going and have opportunity to go.

Community Building Wednesday Whimsy

Trust what I do

I just finished reading Trust by Pete Buttigieg. He is amazingly thoughtful and insightful for a politician. One of his points is that trust is best seen in behavior. A short passage:

If we think of trust as the belief that someone will do what is hoped or promised, the most basic human way to decide whether to trust that person is to notice what they have done before.

Without putting it so eloquently, I followed this maxim with colleagues when we spoke with small-town residents interested in learning about our self-help approach to getting needed water or wastewater improvements. We noted that while we could take five meetings to develop trust that this would mean five more weeks of their carrying or boiling water. Instead, how about we each (residents and my organization) promise the other something and meet again. We will trust each other if we deliver. That worked.

Pete goes on to describe many more philosophical dimensions of trust in the book but none take away anything from the simple truth of trusting what I do more than what I say. As he notes, this is about performance. We speak of our “trusty” knife, friend, or steed because they are predictably there for us.

Many other words can also boil down to behaviors. Holler if you want my take on behavioral definitions of empowerment, self-esteem, collaboration, and other abstract terms. And trust me if I respond!