Big Data and Social Change

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Sky at Sunset With whistleblower or traitor (take your pick) #edwardsnowdon in the news this week, everyone’s talking about our government collecting Big Data.  But guess what? Google, Verizon, Facebook, CVS Pharmacy, Giant, Safeway and all the rest have been doing the same thing all along. The difference is this: these companies are monetizing our habits, but we aren’t.  Hey come on, people, why do you think Facebook and Google and Linked In are free?! At least the local pharmacy and grocery store offer me discounts in exchange for my personal buying habits. Jaron Lanier’s thoughtful and interesting article in the New York Times this week Fixing the Digital Economy got me thinking. He talks about how we could build a new, robust middle class if we stop giving away all our personal data for free, and letting only big players and their investors reap the rewards. (Ironically, Facebook’s investors aren’t rich enough yet.)

But what if Big Data could move the needle even more, and not just benefit the middle class? What if it could change the world for the seemingly permanent underclass?

Nonprofits need to start harnessing Big Data to serve mission-driven outcomes.  Only that can topple this robber-baron economy we have created. In a knowledge-based economy, it’s important to know what people are thinking and doing. And if you’re selling change, that becomes even more critical.   In fact, collecting and understanding data is really just another way of looking at and telling your Mission Story. (Sidebar: fabulous blog post about mapping data and storytelling by @eSpatial–I now reveal my wonkiest side!)

Of course correlation and causation are two different animals–just because most axe-murderers drink milk doesn’t mean milk turns you into an axe-murderer! So you need quantitative data–real people collecting real stories of what is happening in the field–to know the difference. And you don’t just want to collect data on your own programs; you need to know who else has tried certain approaches to the very same issues your nonprofit is working on–whether it’s homelessness or environmental degradation or education for girls in Africa.  Organizations are turning to tools like Flux or Social Solutions or a mapping tool to build their own data–even while they are out in the field changing the world. But collective data-sharing would be even more effective, and less costly wouldn’t it? It’s the direction in which the philanthropic and nonprofit sector is moving and I think really must move to be effective.  Places like Global Impact Investing Network and others are already doing it. More should follow. And every nonprofit umbrella association can be doing the same.

3 Ways Your Board Can Help Your Brand

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Blue Glass c B. DeLouise1.      Build in Time for Your Brand Story

Board members are obviously committed volunteers, but sometimes they are connected to your organization through only one pathway (i.e. a child with a disease that you are trying to cure, a son at your school, they are a member of your association, etc.)   So board members need to be briefed on your big picture “brand promise” to your customers and constituents. They also need to fully understand the experience you promote for your donors, your staff and your other volunteers.  A retreat is a great opportunity to build in time for board members to share their own experience of your brand, and to practice their “elevator pitch” – connecting your key brand talking points to their own personal experience with your organization.   Let them practice presenting, both one-on-one and to the full group.  This way, your board members can be better—and more comfortable—brand cheerleaders.

2.      Teach Board Members how to Share Their Passion Through Social Media

Many board members are not digital natives. They may need some help both understanding social media platforms and learning about the tools that make them effective. A retreat offers a unique time away from the bustle of everyday life to demonstrate how you are using social media to promote your organization, and how board members can help. For example, provide them with the hashtags of your upcoming fundraising events or keywords you want associated with your brand. Show them sample tweets, Facebook posts and Linked In updates. You can even break into smaller groups for working sessions with different social platforms. Finally, offer a link where board members can download approved photos or logos to use for such posts. And encourage them to share their personal stories about your organization. Your board members are ambassadors in the community both in person, and online—use them!

3.      Collect Stories of Your Brand in Action

People give to people, not causes. Connecting at the level of hearts and minds has always been critical to building long-term relationships with donors as well as grassroots supporters. The best way to do that is through storytelling.  Now that YouTube and other Web 3.0 tools are giving so many nonprofits a “channel” for their stories, personal narrative is being rediscovered.  Use your board retreat as an opportunity for sharing personal stories, and collecting those details that you can use in your next e-newsletter, Facebook posting or future web video.

What Else We Could Buy with $3Billion

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$3 Billion. That’s what the Obama and Romney campaigns have spent, combined. What else that money could have bought? Here are five thinImagegs I think have more value than a year’s worth of campaign commercials.

A year’s worth of meals for 5.5 million needy American families.  That’s using the cost-per-meal data for a family of four from the nonprofit Feeding America . According to the USDA, the top states with food insecurity for children—meaning highest percentage of households where kids don’t know where their next meal will come from—are: Mississippi (19.2%), Texas (18.5%), Arkansas (19.2%), Alabama (17.4%), Georgia (17.4%), Florida (16.2%) and North Carolina (17.1%). It’s too bad so many of these states are considered political “battleground” states, but not battlegrounds in the war on hunger.

Eradicate polio worldwide. With some funds left over for ongoing education and vaccinations, $3 billion should cover it. That’s using numbers from the 2011 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation white paper  on  the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is currently underfunded despite their support, largely because of reductions in funding from G8 nations like ours who apparently spend the money on elections instead.

Provide clean drinking water for 150 million people. More than 1 in 8 people in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water, which then contributes to high rates of infant mortality, diseases, and conflicts over resources.  According to the World Health Organization, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation, there is an economic return of between $3 and $34, so the world would get back $55.5 billion from this investment

Repair infrastructure–our inland waterways. We think of ourselves as a nation of roads, but American consumers actually depend on thousands of miles of inland and intra-coastal waterways to move approximately 630 million tons of cargo valued at more than $73 billion annually. (American Society for Civil Engineers, Infrastructure Report Card) . By 2020, 80% of our current locks in this system will be out of date and in need of repair at a cost of $50 million each. So we could get to work on 1/3 of them right now, at a savings of billions in undelivered or delayed cargo.

Toys for the kids. Okay, so you don’t want to invest in food, water or healthcare for the needy, or infrastructure repairs for the country. How about playing Saint Nick and distributing 120 million toys to kids who need them? At under $25 each, you could offer a Lego Ultimate Building Set, Syma Remote Controlled Helicopter, or Tiny Tikes basketball hoop for the little ones. Or Amazon or iTunes gift cards for the older set.

Binders Full of Women

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Mitt Romney’s now infamous comment at last night’s debate  has opened a new line into our nation’s ongoing discussion about affirmative action. When he was Governor of Massachusetts, Romney says he had to reach outside the usual application process to ensure that men weren’t the only ones applying for his cabinet positions. Luckily, he was in a state ranked first among all 50 in higher education attainment, where more than 50% of the population hold at least a 2-year degree (Lumina Foundation, 2010). So with a little outreach, the Governor easily found plenty of qualified female applicants. If he’d been governor of Alabama, though, his task would have been much more difficult, since that state’s percentage of folks with any college is only 31%. And if he’d been leading a state with a large Hispanic population, that number would also be low. According to the 2010 Census, just 19 percent of Latinos between 25 and 64 years old had at least a two-year college degree. For whites, the figure is 43 percent.

One of the keys to our economic success as a nation has been ensuring that All Americans, including newer immigrants and women, get access to higher education. My own all-girls school was founded by a woman, Jesse Moon Holton, who was a leader in educating young women, and  created the best school motto I’ve ever heard “I shall find a way or make one.”  That motto reminds me daily of brave little MalalaYousafzai of Pakistan, who risked her life just to go to school. Thankfully we don’t live in a society where extremists mount school buses to shoot kids trying to get an education.

But we do put far too many obstacles in the way of people who want this path to economic inclusion.  As a society, we should do everything possible—affirmative action in higher education, The Dream Act,  funding early childhood education (and yes, a few bucks to Big Bird)–to ensure that every corporate CEO and government leader who wants to hire talent has available to her binders full of qualified and well-educated African-Americans, Hispanics and women of all ethnicities ready and able to succeed.

The UVA Battle and the Struggle Between Nonprofit and Corporate Leadership Models

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Concentric circles of leadershipThe Sullivan vs. Dragas battle at UVA is a classic case of nonprofit versus corporate leadership styles. UVA president Teresa Sullivan’s approach–getting to know the university’s key constituencies–is best suited to nonprofits, in which shouting “Follow Me!” rarely gets you more than a sore throat. But Helen Dragas, Chair of UVA’s Board of Visitors, is known for her no-nonsense business style. She expected the newly minted (18 months IS recent in NST–Nonprofit Standard Time) university president  to “stop listening and lead.” (If you haven’t been following, the Chronicle of Higher Ed helpfully summarizes the battle here.) Particularly in a university setting, where you have power centers including tenured faculty who frankly don’t have to follow anyone thank you very much, as well as a constant stream of new students and important donors, Sullivan’s style of taking the time to “listen and learn” before launching major change initiatives will likely win the day.

This battle comes at an interesting time. As nonprofits have been moving steadily to adopt a “more corporate” model of governance, corporations have been embracing social sector models of getting things done. (And hey, after the Wall Street meltdown, my money is on the nonprofit sector so to speak.) In her recent letter to shareholders, Calvert Investments CEO Barbara Krumsiek (disclaimer–Barbara and I know one another through a nonprofit board) noted the increase of sustainability proposals at shareholder meetings, and the implementation by more than 400 business sector CEOs of the United Nation’s Women’s Empowerment Principles, which were adapted from Calvert’s own Women’s Principles in 2010. In their new white paper subtitled “Is Your Board Prepared?”, Ernst & Young point out that social and environmental issues accounted for 40% of shareholder proposals on corporate proxy ballots last year–up one-third from 2010.

That trend away from business models to social sector models is addressed by Jim Collins in his recent monograph “Good to Great in the Social Sectors,” a follow-up to his famed book on high-functioning businesses. In the new book he questions the implementation of business practices in the social sector, saying”we must reject the idea…thgat the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.'”  In fact, the metrics for success in a mission-based operation are very different than those in the for-profit. Delivery on the mission is primary. Lowering cost-per-delivery, while essential to good accounting, is not a measurement of success. Neither is efficiency in certain areas. Sometimes nonprofits need to spend a lot of time listening to their “customers” in order to deliver better services, and this listening is often done by social workers or nurses or pastors–professional listeners, but not folks in a marketing setting. The way they may evolve a solution to a particular customer problem may not be the most cost-efficient delivery of service, but it might create the best outcomes in the community served.

The same can be said of effective nonprofit leadership styles. Someone who understands how to harness the different concentric circles of supporters–from staff to donors to volunteers (and students and faculty, in the case of an educational institution) are going to be more successful in moving a strategic plan forward to get the mission accomplished.

So my bet is on Sullivan. What about yours?

Fighting Founder’s Syndrome

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Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Senior Associate Dean of the Yale School of Management, did a great piece in the Washington Post this weekend on Facebook’s challenges with a Founder/CEO.  He points out that good governance practices often go out the window, and directors kow-tow to the mystical leader, when a founder is at the helm of a company. Public and private companies are not alone in having leadership challenges—or what I call “founder’s syndrome.”

Many nonprofits have also been created by visionary leaders, and have the same challenges Facebook may–like boards of directors who aren’t willing to stand up to the founder, or even at some point look for new leadership.

There are ways to avoid this dynamic.

A Diverse Board.  Facebook’s board is all-male.  Don’t make the same mistake. A diverse board, though, is not just gender or race diverse. It should be age-diverse and made up not only of donors, but of people from the communities the organization serves. It should also include several individuals from related institutions (perhaps in other states), who can lend relevant expertise.

Free-Thinking Leadership. Board leaders are often hand-picked by the Executive, so that they get along well together. This is great. But more important is leaders who can speak their mind to the Executive and be sure all ideas and options are on the table.

Financial Compliance. It’s not uncommon for nonprofits still being led by their founders to have some squishy numbers in the books. An Audit Committee—separate from the Finance Committee—should oversee an annual audit process that follows current accounting standards.  Independent Sector offers a checklist for accountability that includes these standards.

Mission-Driven Decisionmaking. At the end of the day, every board and leadership decision should meet this simple litmus test “Does this further our mission?”  It sounds easy, but sometimes Founder-led organizations can get sidetracked with pet projects of the founder, or conversely, projects the founder doesn’t find particularly interesting but need to be done to move the mission forward.

Succession Planning. Every business owner needs to do it. So do nonprofit organization founders. It’s a conversation that needs to be had with the board, with real plans and timelines drawn up on paper so everyone knows what role the founder will play and how the organization will continue to succeed after he or she retires.  Consider planning for an Interim Executive for 18 months after the founder leaves. No one can match the zeal and history of the founder, and a leader who is experienced in helping organizations make transitions can be just the right person to bridge to your next visionary.

 

What I Learned from the Hurricane

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With Hurricane Irene bearing down on us and news stations blaring 24/7 about the states of emergency being declared all around us, my husband and I dutifully prepared. Battery backup for the sump pump-check. Backup pump-check. Sandbags around the pump hole-check. Bottled water-check. Canned food-check. Flashlights-check. Candles-check. Then we headed to the liquor store to stock up for a hurricane dinner party (hey, we live inland, we had to have some fun).

As it turned out, Irene was a flop–at least in our area. But the preparations and evacuations were reminders of the Katrina legacy.  Understandably, no one wanted to repeat those horrific scenes of people who could not be rescued for days. But how would people now respond to what now appeared to be an overblown response?

In some ways, the situation was like a real life drill, so we could see how things worked.  Did our governance structures allow for quick response? Did our communications pathways let us reach affected stakeholders quickly? I was interested to watch each mayor, governor and federal agency leader acting out their own crisis response plan.   Which made me think of the top four things organization can do to be prepared for communicating in a crisis:

1. Build multiple pathways to your customers. Be able to reach them via text, phone, cellphone or email. But boots on the ground may be necessary as well. Newark New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker actually knocked on doors to get people to evacuate. (I noticed he also responded directly to a constituent on Twitter who was worried about his mother’s loss of power and offered to go check on her.) Reinforce the pathways to vital communications by not overwhelming them with junk, or they won’t respond when you need them to. In my area, PEPCO left voicemail for customers warning them about possible power outages. This was useful. But part of the message suggested checking the PEPCO website for updates. Oops.

2. Develop a quick-response team. This may not just be top organizational leadership. It may include others who can connect to different parts of your staff or customer base.  Prepare the team on how to respond to media inquiries.  Ultimately you may bring on a crisis PR group to help, but in the initial hours your own team will need to handle the job.  One person should be the “face” of the organization if you must go on television. This was one of the big missteps during the BP oil spill crisis. For days and days, there were multiple people at the microphone, resulting in coverage that said  “who’s in charge here, anyway?”

3. People come first. Not your company/entity.  That means being as honest as possible in responses, as timely as possible, and as transparent as possible about your process for fixing the problem.  The gold standard of crisis response remains the Tylenol tampering scare of 1982. The fact that they responded quickly, put safety first, and changed their packaging were both smart moves for the brand and for the customers.

4. Maintain post-crisis communications. Tell the story of what happened, what you did about it, what you could have done better, and what worked. Giving your narrative and keeping the communications lines open after a crisis builds trust for future response. This may be some of the hardest work ahead for the folks responding to Irene. Mayor Bloomberg will have a delicate messaging job to do in the coming hours and days to ensure New Yorkers don’t roll their eyes the next time he or a future Mayor orders an evacuation. It may not matter today, but it could save future lives if he does it right.

What I Learned from the Earthquake

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My youngest child was extremely bummed out by yesterday’s DC earthquake. He was understandably shaken (OK, bad pun).  But more than that, he was blindsided. That’s because he’d been focused on the spate of massive storms we’d had this summer, with dramatic lightening bolts sweeping the sky.  “I knew I had to worry about big storms, mom,” he announced, “but now I’ve got to worry about earthquakes!”

The scene reminded me of many organizations I work with. Sometimes they are so focused on critical issues like personnel transitions, budget changes, and marketing challenges that they are completely blindsided when a new issue surfaces.  This is why process is so important. Which also takes me back to the earthquake. At the moment it hit, I was sitting in a creative meeting with a client and a group of animators, videographers and editors.  When we finally realized what was happening, we realized none of us knew exactly what to do. Was this the thing where you run to the basement? Stand in a doorway? Get under a desk? Run inland? Not having many earthquakes in DC, we couldn’t quite recall.  After it went on for more than 30 seconds–which is an eternity in screen-time, by the way–we decided to head out of the low office building. I read the next day in the Washington Post that FEMA atually recommends you just stay put in a low building and to get under a table, as you are more likely to be injured by falling debris or things falling off walls.  Everyone was fine, but if we’d had a process in place we might have known just what to do.

Developing process can be challenging when you are moving at a hundred miles an hour. Like changing the tire while driving. But if you can build periodic “process checks” into your organizational system, you may get a better handle on surprises. That could mean a monthly review of how you deal with new clients, what your crisis PR plan looks like, the check-points along the way to producing strong marketing materials, or the way in which your board makes decisions.  it’s a “50,000-foot” conversation that doesn’t always happen in agenda-driven meetings. If you can build just one open-ended, process-driven question into those meetings, you are on your way to better process management.

What processes do you keep tabs on, and what questions do you ask at the management and board level so that you’re not surprised by the next organizational earthquake? I’d love to hear from you!

Better Retreats: 5 Tips to Engage, Entertain, Implement

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It’s August and time to kick-start the work of September. Many companies and boards are launching their summer retreats.  Why not make this one an “advance” on your agenda instead? Having led many such working groups, here are a few tips to making it a better experience for all.

1.      Move Out of Comfort Zones. Remember Family Systems Theory? Just like families, boards of directors and staff function according to rules (spoken and unspoken), patterns, relationships and boundaries. Creating a retreat with more interactive time and fewer presentations, mixing up people who wouldn’t otherwise sit together, and using physical spaces that allow people to connect more personally—i.e. no big long tables—can radically change the outcomes of your time spent together.

2.      Engage an Outside Facilitator. Experienced outsiders can offer a new perspective. But even more importantly, they can cut through some of the habits your group may have formed that can sometimes diminish productivity and creativity by drawing out different voices (see below) and using techniques to guide the conversation towards implementable tasks. Plus, using an outside person adds some entertainment value–it’s not the same boss/board chair/department head they are accustomed to hearing from. So this is not just self-promotional talk. (Though if you’d like to vet a project with me, please do shoot me an email at amy [at] amydelouise [dot] com!)

3.      Encourage New Voices.  Often we lean on leaders to, well, lead. They are the ones everyone looks to at the end of the meeting to say what they think or what should happen next. Not so at a retreat.  In this environment, they should hang back and allow other voices to come forward. They will get more fodder for what they ultimately need to accomplish this way.

4.      Think Out of the Box.  Use exercises that encourage your group to look beyond what they already know.  I like to use case studies from competitors, or even from industry groups or organizations in a completely different business area as a jumping off point.  I’m also a fan of giving teams different problems to solve with only certain tools they are allowed to use to solve them. The goal is creative thinking, not same thinking.

5.      Plan for Implementation. There’s nothing worse than spending the day at a workshop and finding that Absolutely Nothing Happens with all those little sticky pad notes and flip charts you filled up.  Spend a good chunk of time at the end of each day (or end of the retreat) planning how to implement the ideas and suggestions made there. Who is responsible for what? Is there a need for a small sub-group to help organize and re-distribute the information? What happens next?

Retreats are great. Advances are even better. Go for it!

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