Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
innovation leadership

Strategy & Tactics

I was sipping coffee with my friend Bruce late last week. When he works with groups, he has one key question:  What problem are you trying to solve?  On the one hand, I love any focus that brings concentration and intentional thinking to an organization, and problem solving does that.    On the other, I see all the literature on being driven by assets rather than barriers.  

I asked Bruce if he thought problems and opportunities belonged at opposite ends of the same continuum.  He said he did not think so and that problem-solving was strategic while opportunity response was tactical.  That really prompted me to think deeper.

I get his logic.  Problems are long term and durable. We need strategies to solve them.  Opportunities are often fragile and short lived. You must take the tide before it has gone out and see where it takes you. This, for me, elevates the term “tactics.” It also frees me from the bromide observation that “every problem is just an opportunity in disguise”.  This is such a limiting proposition as it suggests beginning with problems.  To find and harness opportunity, I do not need to start with a problem or a strategy. Something looks like it could add value and I jump to try it.   This is innovation, which is a superb method of planned change.   

pexels-photo.jpg

As I think about it most methods are tactical.  When I hear organizations proclaim that their strategy is innovation, I typically find little experimentation. They have located trying new things at too high a level. Drop down to the level of what is spontaneous and generate both heat and light.  Who has an idea for a new approach that will outperform a present practice? Good tactics may sometimes precede rather than follow good strategy!

Categories
innovation leadership

A Good Question

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard


My colleague Les Loomis had a comment that I found so useful I post it here as a blog entry. Following a highly successful career as teacher, principal and superintendent, Les has helped over 60 New York State school districts to significantly increase student achievement. Thanks, Les for making a big difference for thousands of students. And for writing this blog response which you call A Good Question.


In Hal’s blog post, “Listen Twice as Much as You Speak”, he tells a story of tallying the responses in senior leadership team meetings. “I found …a ratio of about 100 statements — participants asserting things to others — for every question asked.”

Don’t you find that to be true? People are happy with their own words and comfortable in their old habits. Well, do it the same old way — get the same old results. Through my work in guiding students and schools toward greater achievement, I discovered the power of questions. Asking the right question outshone all my best tips.

In leading seminars for middle school students a single question could drive a 90 minute discussion toward lasting learning. Like this question on Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail: What justifies direct action in the face of an unjust law? The nature of the question caused the kids to take it to heart and get excited about finding their own answers.

Working with teachers, I asked them to design their own prototype project as an early model for far greater student gains. Their own ambitious goal and this question caused them to uncover new solutions that led to some amazing results: What can I do differently to lift my students’ learning?

I brought Hal’s results approach to teams of superintendents, principals, and teachers in high poverty school districts in a year-long process to reach aim high student achievement targets. The focus on a handful of simple questions generated the most significant progress. What are the results thus far? What’s working? What isn’t? Why? What few next actions will yield immediate results?

So what’s going on here? Good questions lead to Insight. Questions caused students and educators to pause, to listen, and to look. To see into the situation and to see a solution.

What’s your good question? In your work? In your life?

Categories
Wednesday Whimsy

Listen Twice as Much as You Speak

Are you listening? Or waiting to speak?

Focus on listening over speaking is another adage with as much power as the last Whimsy, Hustle While You Wait that was posted last week.

I was asked by a major bank CEO to help them win the coveted Baldridge Quality Award. My assignment was to document how they were a great learning organization. I decided to sit in on a wide variety of meetings, many with the senior leadership team. I defined two columns with tally marks for the number of statements made and questions asked at each meeting.

I then reported to the CEO that I was not successful.

What I had found was a ratio of about 100 statements—participants asserting things to others—for every question asked. My reflection was that learning is not separable from curiosity and inquisitiveness. Both come from questions.

A longer blog post will soon look more deeply at the power of questions to guide thinking by others in ways that statements cannot do. Meanwhile, ask someone to use a tablet to keep the same tally I did for some meetings in your organization.