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!

Wednesday Whimsy

On Categorizations

Greetings. Before the Wednesday whimsey, I wanted to acknowledge the eventful days in our country. In addition to insurrection at the Capitol we have COVID raging, racial injustice persisting, and an economic situation that is widening the gap between those doing well and those doing poorly. My fervent hope is that the country turns from handwringing over its great divides to a way forward to solve problems that face all of us. At heart, our miseries—and their solutions—are a public good. The Country starts with us. May we begin with civility and a respect for our rule of law. And may we reduce our assertions to each other and increase the questions that are essential to discovery.

Few of us can keep many separate elements in mind unless it be a matter of great passion—such as my diverse collection of comic books in my youth. Instead, we rely on categories—groupings with some logic that let us retrieve information and make sense of patterns and connections. I was reminded of how tricky this is a few days ago when my IT guru sat with me to reorganize the icons on my iPhone. My granddaughter had done this for me years ago and I found her organizing principles enduring and yet unclear. I simply cannot readily find the icons in the categories in which they have rested for years. So on to organization!

Some choices were easy, such as Spectrum, HULU, and “Watch ESPN” in the category of “TV.” Others were more complicated. Here are some examples:

  • YouTube. Does it go in TV, entertainment, or instructions? I decided I used it most frequently for amusement, so put it in entertainment.
  • Strava. Should my bicycle computer app go under health, sports, or GPS? I decided on health because I think that should be the primary value for me.
  • I love to see prices and descriptions of older cars for sale. Should I put in hobbies or transportation? I chose transportation sensing I would remember it better given the natural link to cars.

As I think about it, my decision rules are ad hoc. With YouTube the choice was based on primary purpose. With Strava, I shifted to value and selected aspiration rather than function. And with Cars, I let ease of word association override both purpose and value.

Categories are important in they create what linguists call frames—ways not just of organizing but of thinking. But they also in my case expose different criteria for different choices. I hope you have more clarity than I do on the rules used to put your life in order. It does seem important. Then, I remember the philosopher Emerson writing: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” That seems important, too.

Community Building leadership Wednesday Whimsy

The Result View of Trust

My colleague Robyn Faucy-Washington just emailed me the new Donor Trust Report produced by the Better Business Bureau.  Based on surveys, it looks at changes in trust factors that influence charitable gifts.  The top-line finding: “The importance of financial ratios as a signal of trust has declined steadily, from 35 percent in December 2017 to 18.6 percent in August 2020.  Meanwhile, third party evaluations (36 percent) and name recognition (34 percent) have become relatively more significant than accomplishments shared by the organization (30 percent) or financial ratios (19 percent.)”  The report also noted a finding that younger generations attribute less importance to trust before giving and that overall, the importance placed on trust has dropped from 73 percent to 63.6 percent.

While these findings are interesting in their own right, the article renews my question: Just what is trust? I can for example, trust a group for money, time, or other form of relationship because:

–it spends all its money in legal ways.

–it offers the programs it says it does 

–it is fully compliant with all local, state, and federal requirements

–it is led by people I know and admire

–it has a wonderful mission, vision, and values statement

–the community considers it a valuable resource

–it has won awards from groups in which I have confidence

What’s missing in this list? Accomplishment! In my view, the most important factor is a trust that the group will achieve strong results for those it helps.  That trust is earned by behavior. I either get a report with clear evidence of high accomplishment or I do not.

As with most subjects, establishing trust becomes simpler, faster, and more accurate in a result frame.  An example comes from my work at The Rensselaerville Institute using a self-help approach to community revitalization.   We started with a tool that let the community—and us—assess level of capacity and readiness for the major work involved in this approach. In the Appalachian small village of Stump Creek, Pennsylvania, we met with the residents not long after a national foundation had been in town pitching a leadership development program. In that program, several Saturdays were devoted to “trust building” among residents and between the village and the town and county governments.  The residents declined the program. We arrived and were asked if we had a similar approach. No, I said.  We like to boil this down a simple question: Do we keep our promises to each other?  If each group pledges to do something before we meet again and then does it, we will trust each other. If one of us says, “so sorry we did not get around to doing that” we will not.

These residents were mighty tired of drinking unsafe water from shallow wells and two persons promised they would spark a survey to see how many residents would commit to giving at least 50 hours of time and pay up to $20 per month for good water from a central supply.   We promised we would talk to the Appalachian Regional Commission about possible grant support. We both kept our word. Not only did we have trust, but we also had emerging commitments to make the project happen.  In a results frame, trust is about what you do more than what you think.  

innovation leadership Wednesday Whimsy

The Path of the Calf: Part 2

In my last entry, I shared Samuel Foss’s poem, the Path of the Calf. It is cited by me and others who seek innovation as its opposite: getting in a groove and staying there. This week let’s turn that coin over to look at the limits of more free-form traveling.

First, consider the value of staying on a path long enough to really learn it. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers sums up the remarkably congruent reflection of persons world class in many fields. They tend to agree that about 10,000 hours of practice was needed to make them great. That practice was assuredly repetitious. Whether playing basketball or carving stone or wood a craft is typically built by digging deeper. Comparative advantage is won by increments far more than breakthroughs.

Second, consider that the volition to follow a path does not mean you were compelled by outside forces to do so. We can choose clearly marked crooked paths as well as straight ones for good reasons. The French novelist Marcel Proust wrote that “The voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.” Enrichment and novelty are not equivalent.

OK—I think I have pushed the limits of quirky thoughts. Next week, we shall hit the ground with some practical thoughts on promoting innovation in yourself and your organization.

leadership Wednesday Whimsy

Follow the Cow?

Listen to this excerpt from a wonderful poem called “The Path of the Calf” by Samuel Foss:

One day, through the primeval wood,

   A calf walked home as good calves should.

But made a trail all bent askew,

   A crooked trail as all calves do…

The trail was taken up next day

   By a lone dog that passed that way,

And then a wise bell-wether sheep

   Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,

And drew the flock behind him too

   As good bell-wethers always do.

And from that day, o’re hill and glade

   Through those old woods a path was made.

And thus, before men were aware,

   A city’s crowded thoroughfare.  ..

A thousand men were led

   By a calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way

   And lost one hundred years each day.

For thus such reverence is lent

   To well established precedent.

Foss died in 1911.  Not all insights are new ones.

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