Monday, November 4, 2013

No, I Probably Won't Watch Your Wonderful Video

I don't deny that video as a means of communication is on the rise. It is easier to create and consume than it has ever been. Our phones and iPads can capture quality video without special lighting or expense and we can post it on YouTube for free. A good nonprofit video can be compelling and beautiful.

But I'm probably not going to watch it.

Clicking on the "Play" button is a commitment I am unwilling to make. When I watch a video, I surrender my time and attention to your pace, your priorities and your taste.  Present me with a solid block of text, and I can skim it and find what I want to focus on. 

I've suffered too much to trust you anymore. I've seen too many "cute" children glance off to stage right for their cues for well rehearsed preciousness. I have rolled my eyes at your well-coiffed founder emoting over your mission statement. I have winced at poorly chosen sappy sound tracks too many times.

Yes, I realize that your video is different. You love your organization, and it swells your heart with pride to see it portrayed in a video form. Perhaps your video really does avoid these nasty flaws and it will provide me a way to quickly connect to your nonprofit. But I don't know that when I see your YouTube link, and I have been burned too often.

I speak only for a narrow, grumpy, middle-aged segment of society. YouTube's explosive success suggests a lot of people are less hesitant than I am to click on that "Play" button. Truth be told, I am starting work on a video project for my own organization that I hope will earn clicks around the world (more on that when it happens). I understand the lure of video.

I suspect, however, that the days of easy clicks are coming to an end. "Watch our video" will not necessarily win a viewer anymore. I'm not going to watch your video just because you tell me to. If I do watch it, I will do so with my critic's hat on, and a poorly done video will inspire sincere annoyance. And please remember that some of us prefer words and statistics that stay still on a page so we can consume them at our own pace.

Obligatory Tangentially Related Joke:  The Executive Director went to the Board to talk about the video project she has been working on for the nonprofit.

"We have Affleck to do the introduction . . .", she begins.

"You have Ben Affleck working on this video?," the Board Chair squeals.

"No, Joe Affleck.  He's the bus driver on the Main Street route, and he said he wanted to help out.  We also have Streep lined up for to explain our mission."

"Really?  Meryl Streep is going to help our organization out?  That's fantastic!"

"No, not Meryl Streep.  Jane Streep is someone I met at church, and she has a sweet voice.  And Pauly Shore is going to do a segment, too."

"THE Pauly Shore?  The guy who was in 'Encino Man' and 'Bio-Dome'?"

"Yes," the Executive Director responds, glumly, "We have Pauly Shore."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

My Favorite Fundraising Productivity Tool - Call Reports Made Easy

I am not writing this blog post. Instead, I am in the midst of my daily commute to work, and speaking into a headset, with my laptop open beside me on the passenger seat. Virtually all of my "writing" these days is accomplished through a dictated first draft followed by revisions at my desk. 

As a fundraiser, I have a love-hate relationship with call reports. I love to read them and I hate to produce them. When preparing to visit a prospect, I appreciate the insights and background of a call report in the file. When I returned from a donor visit, I have more urgent tasks to accomplish than
laboriously recording what I just saw and heard.

Dragon Dictate solves that problem. Now, when I hop in the car after a fundraising visit, I fire up the MacBook, strap on the headset and capture details that would otherwise drift away before I get back to the office. The next time I speak with the prospect, I will have his dog's name at hand, or I will recall the book she was reading. Those are the gifts that a good call report can deliver, but my middle-aged memory cannot deliver that level of detail without help.

Of course, Dragon Dictate is not without flaws. It sometimes mistranslates my spoken words, so proofreading is an absolute must. I once dictated a coworker's job title as "Institutional Advancement Coordinator" and it came out as "Delusional Advancement Coordinator", which we agreed was more accurate.

More alarmingly, it has not yet realized that my expletive-laced advice to other drivers on the road need not be recorded. I fear that some future fundraiser for my employer will be baffled why "use your %$*# blinker" shows up in the middle of a donor's call report.

There may be even better products out there.  I have heard that Siri works well on iPhones and iPads, and I have not explored the universe of other dictation products.  At the time I was in the market, Dragon Dictate had the best reviews, so I bought it.  If you have other suggestions, please share in the comments - I'm not getting paid for this endorsement.  But whatever you use, I highly recommend incorporating dictation into your productivity tool box.

Obligatory Tangentially Related Joke (long one!): An ambitious yuppie finally decided to take a vacation. He booked himself on a Caribbean cruise and proceeded to have the time of his life.....till the boat sank. The man found himself swept up on the shore of an island with no other people, no supplies, nothing. Only bananas and coconuts.

After about four months he is lying on the beach one day, when the most gorgeous woman he had ever seen rows up to him. In disbelief, he asked her: "Where did you come from? How did you get here?"

"I rowed from the other side of the island," she said, "I landed here when my cruise ship sank." "Amazing," he said, "you were really lucky to have a rowboat wash up with you."

"Oh, this?" replied the woman. "I made the rowboat out of raw material that I found on the island: the oars were whittled from gum tree branches, I wove the bottom from palm branches, and the sides and stern came from a eucalyptus tree."

"But-but, that's impossible," stuttered the man, "you had no tools or hardware, how did you manage?" "Oh, that was no problem," replied the woman, "on the south side of the island there is a very unusual strata of alluvial rock exposed. I found that if I fired it to a certain temperature in my kiln, it melted into forgeable ductile iron. I used that for tools, and used the tools to make the hardware."

The guy was stunned.

"Let's row over to my place" she said. After a few minutes of rowing, she docked the boat at a small wharf. As the man looked onto shore he nearly fell out of the boat. Before him was a stone walk leading to an exquisite bungalow painted in blue and white.

While the woman tied up the rowboat with an expertly woven hemp rope, the man could only stare ahead, dumbstruck. As they walked into the house, she said casually "It's not much, but I call it home. Sit down please; would you like to have a drink?"

"No, no thank you" he said, still dazed, "can't take any more coconut juice."

"It's not coconut juice," the woman replied. "I have a still. How about a pina colada?"

Trying to hide his continued amazement, the man accepted, and they sat down on her couch to talk. After they had exchanged their stories, the woman announced, "I'm going to slip into something more comfortable.  If you would like to take a shower and shave, there is a razor upstairs in the cabinet in the bathroom."

No longer questioning anything, the man went into the bathroom. There in the cabinet was a razor made from a bone handle. Two shells honed to a hollow ground edge were fastened on to its end inside of a swivel mechanism.

"This woman is amazing," he mused, "what next?"

When he returned, she greeted him wearing nothing but vines strategically positioned and smelling faintly of gardenias. She beckoned for him to sit down next to her.

"Tell me," she began, suggestively, slithering closer to him, "we've been out here for a very long time. You've been lonely. There's something I'm sure you really feel like doing right now, something you've been longing for all these months? You know..."

She stared into his eyes. He couldn't believe what he was hearing:

"You mean-- ?", he replied, "- I can check my e-mail from here????"

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Why Am I Writing this Blog? (Hint: I'm not job-hunting or consulting)

A friend and former boss called me last week to say a few nice things about this blog and then he asked if I'd gotten permission from my current boss to launch it. "No," I replied, "should I have?" "Well, he might think you're looking for a job…" 

I hadn't thought of it that way, but I suppose my friend has a point. So, let me put it out there, in case you've been reading my musings on guns and minutes, or falling in love with my amazing jokes, and thought, "wow, that's the guy we need in our office." Well, sorry, I'm currently spoken for.

Sincerely, I am writing this blog because I like to write, and I like to share information and opinions about nonprofits. Writing is a kind of analysis for me. When I start writing about a topic that interests me, it forces me to examine my own thoughts while articulating them.

It's not all high-minded idealism, though. I'll admit that I check my stats and get a slight ego stroke with each visit.

Along the same line, approaching an awkward level of honesty, I want to raise my profile in the nonprofit community. I have a pretty good range of experiences and I am egotistical enough to think my voice deserves to be heard. More selfishly, while I am currently very happily employed, there is no such thing as job security in the fundraising business. Having a larger reputation and network of contacts might come in handy some day if I need to find a new job or develop a consulting business.  

In the meantime, though, my goal with this blog is simple.  Post good stuff regularly, build readership, and have some fun.  

Obligatory Tangentially Related JokeJoe started getting terrible headaches.  They finally got to the point that he went to his doctor, and the doctor examined him, sighed and looked grave.

"Joe, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is I can cure your headaches... The bad news is that it will require castration. You have a very rare condition which causes your testicles to press up against the base of your spine. The pressure creates one hell of a headache. The only way to relieve the pressure is to remove the testicles."

"Doc, I can't live with this pain anymore.  I can't stand it.  Go ahead, let's do the surgery . . ."

A week later, the surgery was finished, and he left the hospital.  He didn't have a headache, but he was obviously kind of depressed.  He figured that he would go ahead and buy himself a new suit, and at least feel good about how he looked.  When he left the hospital, his mind was clear, but he felt like he was missing an important part of himself. 

He walked into a suit shop and told the salesman, "I want a new suit - the best suit in the store!"

The salesman eyed him briefly and said, "Let's see... size 44 long."

Joe laughed, "That's right, how did you know?"

"I'm a professional, and I've been working here for 30 years.  It's my job, and I'm good at it."

Joe tried on the suit. It fit perfectly. As Joe admired himself in the mirror, the salesman asked, "How about a new shirt?"

Joe thought for a moment and then said, "Sure..."

The salesman eyed Joe and said, "Let's see... 34 sleeve and... 16 and a half neck"

Joe was surprised, "That's right, how did you know?"

"I told you, it's my job."

Joe tried on the shirt, and it fit perfectly. As Joe adjusted the collar in the mirror, the salesman asked, "How about new shoes?"

Joe was on a roll and said, "Sure..."

The salesman eyed Joe's feet and said, "Let's see... 9-1/2... E."

Joe was astonished, "That's right, how did you know?"

"I'm good at my work."

Joe tried on the shoes and they fit perfectly. Joe walked comfortably around the shop and the salesman asked, "How about a new hat?"

Without hesitating, Joe said, "Sure..."

The salesman eyed Joe's head and said, "Let's see... 7-5/8."

Joe was incredulous, "That's right, how did you know?"

"30 years of experience."

The hat fit perfectly. Joe was feeling great, when the salesman asked,

"We might as well get you completely outfitted. How about some new underwear?" Joe thought for a second and said, "Sure..."

The salesman stepped back, eyed Joe's waist and said, "Let's see... size 36." Joe laughed, "No, I've worn size 34 since I was 18 years old."

The salesman shook his head, "No, absolutely not. You can't wear a size 34. It would press your testicles up against the base of your spine and give you one hell of a headache."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

No, Why Don't YOU Run Your Business Like a Nonprofit?!

I just read one of those ever-popular articles exhorting nonprofits to operate like businesses. If you Google "nonprofit like a business", you’ll get 78,000 results.  Of course, nonprofits are, in fact, businesses, but that doesn’t seem to slow down the advice from the for-profit sector.  At the risk of offending every pure-hearted but clueless MBA offering this kind of advice, let me turn the question around. Why don't YOU operate your business like a nonprofit?

You would think the MBAs would be a little more humble these days.  Bear Stearns didn’t disappear because of feckless social workers.  Homeless shelters didn’t get bailed out because they were too big to fail.  You didn’t see nonprofit organizations buying and selling bogus mortgage-backed securities.  The Sierra Club didn’t spill oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

But, please, Mr. Businessman, tell us how for-profit businesses are the gold standard we should be striving for. 

Would you like to tell us about how important it is for us to be as efficient as the mighty profit-driven machines? Like much widely accepted "wisdom", the delusion that private industry is somehow more efficient than nonprofits or even governmental agencies wilts under real-world scrutiny. How are those for-profit hospitals comparing to their nonprofit competitors when it comes to efficiency? Studies say there’s no real difference.  Does anybody care to compare the results of for-profit universities to nonprofits or the local state university? It’s not a pretty picture.  The truth is that for-profit superiority in efficiency is often a fallacy.

While we’re talking about running your business like a nonprofit, how about showing me your paycheck? How about the tax return of your business? Of course, I should mind my own business.  Nonprofits, though, publish their highest paid employees and their tax forms are public.  Go poke around Guidestar and snoop to your heart’s content.  It’s transparency, and it’s a way that nonprofits are miles ahead of their for-profit friends.

Another feature of the for-profit world that doesn't come over to the nonprofit world is nepotism.  Family businesses get handed down, and so do massive corporations, but you don’t see Clara Barton’s granddaughter running the Red Cross, or Juliet Gordon Lowe’s running the Girl Scouts.  Nonprofit CEOs get chosen by merit, not genetics.  And that means that the hard-working, brilliant Executive Director of the local Women’s Shelter builds a business that she just gives away when she leaves instead of handing it off to the next generation. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  For-profit business people offer tremendous wisdom and guidance – along with tremendous donations and volunteer support – when they help nonprofits.  And many have experience that can hugely improve the results of a nonprofit; if any great copywriters or graphics design people want to help me with my year-end mailing, I will jump at the chance to work with them.  Good business skills are good business skills, whether in a for- or non-profit organization, and nonprofit is only a tax status.

I have worked for small businesses, multi-national corporations, and for nonprofits of various sizes.  My personal experience is that nonprofits tend to run more efficiently than the for-profit corporations, but I will happily agree that the multi-national corporation I worked with was not necessarily representative of the best.  But I will point out that the writers of Dilbert and The Office chose to target the for-profit world . . .

Obligatory Tangentially Related Joke: A hot air balloonist realizes that he has gone way off course.  He sees a guy in a field below, and he shouts down,"Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?"
The man below says, "Yes, you're in a hot air balloon, about 30 feet above this field."
"You must be an engineer," says the balloonist.
"Yes, I am. How did you guess?"
"Everything you told me is technically correct, but it's of no use to anyone."
The man below says, "I'm guessing that you're in senior management."
"You're right. But how did you know?"
"You don't know where you are, or where you're going, but you expect me to know everything you ought to know. You're in the same position you were before we met, but now you're criticizing me!"

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Few Moments on Minutes

Minutes are the unsung heroes of board meetings.  Their approval is a ministerial task in the warm-up phase of the board meeting, or they are relegated to the consent agenda. Their creation is a tedious task assigned to the least sought after officer position (well, maybe treasurer is less sought after), or a staff member.

The importance of the minutes is staggering. When duly prepared and approved, they become the historical fact of the organization's history. A controversial motion passes or it doesn't; the relative strength or volume of arguments don't matter.  "Just the facts, Ma'am."

Minutes also provide a pretty handy tool for a deliberative body to test its efficiency. If large amounts of time are being spent on matters that are not the subject of motions, the Board's time is being spent on non-deliberative matters. There is nothing wrong with informational presentations or providing advice and feedback, but the Board should drive drive to spend its time on decision-making and policy setting, and much of the rest can be accomplished outside of a formal board meeting.

What does a good set of minutes look like? While some organizations have a tradition of long, elaborate narrative minutes, the best minutes resemble a box score more than the play-by-play announcer. Motions should be prominently displayed, and action items clearly noted. There's no need to record who said what or why, and if you do, the record should be factual and mockingly terse. That long-winded board member's soliloquy can be recorded as "Mr. Jones spoke in favor of the motion." Wild Apricot has a few good sources of templates here.

The minutes of a board meeting should be prepared and shared within 48 hours of the meeting. Many, perhaps even most, organizations do not distribute the minutes until days before the next board meeting, and include them in the meeting packet. This is a terrible practice, since the board members cannot remember what was said or decided, and any notes they may have had have probably been lost.  In today's era of easy electronic communication, those minutes should be available when memories are fresh and accurate.  No excuses - if you don't require yourself to do them right away, they won't gain urgency until the last possible moment.

The journey's not complete until the last steps are taken.  The minutes MUST be printed out, and signed by the secretary.  Under most states' laws, that provides the presumptive evidence of what action a board has taken.  Save them in a book and keep them out of harm's way, just like that strategic plan you produced and put on a shelf!

Obligatory Tangentially Related Joke: Moses and the Jews are fleeing Egypt, and they get to the Red Sea.  Like any Nonprofit Leader facing stress, he calls a meeting.  He looks to the chair of the Army committee.  "Normally, I'd recommend that we build a pontoon bridge to carry us across," said the Army committee chair, "but there's not enough time - the Egyptians are too close."  He looks to the Navy Committee Chair. "Normally, I'd recommend that we build barges to carry us across," said the Navy Committee Chair, "but time is too short." "Does anyone have a solution?" asks Moses. The PR Chair raises his hand. "You!" said Moses, "You have a solution?" "No," said the PR Chair, "but I can promise you this: If you can find a way out of this one, I can get you two or three full pages in the Bible..."

Monday, September 23, 2013

Guns, Cheerleaders, and 8 Tips for a Successful Auction

Last night, I attended the Chiefs Ambassadors "pairings party", which is a pretty nifty way of extending the fund-raising impact of a golf tournament. Even though I was unable to play in the tournament today, I got to participate in the raffle, and bid up a few silent auction items. I have voiced my dislike of special events, but this one was well conceived. They did a good job of celebrating their successes, explaining who they are, thanking their volunteers, and raising a bit of money.

Most of my background is in the social service and education areas, so it came as a bit of a surprise to see cheerleaders walking around with guns as live auction items. My hat is off to the organizers, however; they knew their audience of jocks and wannabe jocks, and the bidding was enthusiastic. A few thousand dollars will go towards supporting the charities that the Ambassadors support.

How often, though, do you see botched auctions? Personally, I've sat through too many excruciating auctions where amateur auctioneers struggled to get opening bids for items that are either too expensive for the audience, or are otherwise inappropriate.  Here are a few rules of thumb I've come up with during countless charity auctions.

1. Cars are too much for all but the most well-heeled crowds. 
2. Expensive vacations only work if the specifics are well-publicized well before the auction, so that potential bidders can check calendars and recruit traveling companions. 
3. Unless it conflicts with your mission or values, it's helpful to have an open bar prior to the auction. 
4. If possible, recruit a professional auctioneer to handle the bidding; trust me, it's much harder than it looks. 
5. A chocolate lab puppy will often bring in a lot of money, but there are those who say it is unethical
6. No more than a dozen live auction items, please. 
7. Always do a "Fund-A-Need", and line up somebody ahead of time to bid at the highest level. A lot of people at such events are guests of friends, and will repay the invitation by making a donation if given the opportunity.
8. Publish the items with complete descriptions as early as you can, and as often as you can.

Most of all, make it a fun event, so people will come back next year.

Obligatory Tangentially Related Joke: (A different version of this one was told by Mike Bell, a former end for the Chiefs.) Three guys go in for job interviews. The first one goes in and the interviewer says, "What's the first thing you see when you look at me?" The guy says, "That's not too hard, you've got no ears." The interviewer says, "That's it, get out, you'll never be seen around here again." The second man takes his turn and is asked the same question. The applicant replies, "Uh, you've got no ears." The interviewer throws the guy out, cursing and yelling that he'll never get a job with his company. As he is leaving, the second guy warns the third guy, "Listen man, whatever you do, don't point out that he hasn't got any ears. He's so touchy with the ear thing." "Okay," said man #3 on his way into the office. Once inside he is told, "Name the first thing you notice when you look at me." The guy answers, "That's easy, you wear contacts." The interviewer was flabbergasted, "How on earth did you know that, son?" "Easy!  You sure as heck can't wear glasses since you don't have any ears!"

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Spiffing up the Blog

Take a look at the right side of the blog!

I have added a bunch of links, and, I hope even more helpfully, added feeds to those links that have them.  This way, you can come here and see whether any of your favorite Nonprofit blogs have new articles.  If there are any blogs you think I should be adding, please email me or leave a comment.  I don't mind posting links to commercial sites, as long as they include helpful content.

Obligatory Tangentially Related Joke: Jesus and the devil have an argument as to who is better at maintaining his blog. They finally decide to have a contest to settle it - they both have to update their blog templates and make major changes to their layouts.  They get to work, typing furiously for hours.  All of a sudden, though, the power goes out, and their screens go blank.

The devil starts cursing, and says, "Damn it all to home, we both just lost all our work, and we're going to have to start over!"

Jesus calmly smiles and says, "Nope.  I win.  I didn't lose my work.  Haven't you heard, Jesus saves?"