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I just attended the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), where I was speaking about how to engage stakeholders with a new approach to presenting an organization’s financials.  Again and again, I learned in other sessions about innovative models for education—both models to sustain institutions and also to engage young minds for 21st century challenges.

It got me thinking about my own business model and that of my clients. How innovative is our model? Is change built into our decision-making mechanisms, or is it hard to achieve?  Why?

All NAIS attendees received Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Switch” (they are the best-selling authors of “Made to Stick”), which discusses how to make lasting changes in our companies, our communities and our lives.  One of the core messages of the book is that change is hard not because people are lazy or uncreative, but because the self-supervision required for repeated behavior change is exhausting.  It’s like driving on a new route to work.  On the old route, you can be on “automatic” and not even remember certain miles of your trip. On a new route, you will need to constantly check road signs and cues to be sure you are going the right way.  That’s really tiring.  The Heaths discuss how “scripting” the critical moves for the people within an organization (not all the moves, just the key ones) can reduce this exhaustion and has helped many companies  successfully implement lasting change.

To create a reliable path for change, “Switch” looks at how to adjust the environment in which change needs to happen and build habits that lead to change, all through what they call “the humble checklist.” Atul Gawande has made waves—even on  The Daily Show—with his simple safe surgery checklist that has radically changed patient outcomes in hospitals around the world.  Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto shows how something as simple as a checklist empowers us—if we can overcome our belief that we already know the right way to do something–to put our knowledge to use more effectively, communicate with our team at the most critical points in a process, and get things done…right.

Another book that looks at innovation from the standpoint of a national case study is Dan Senor’s “Startup Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.” Senor looks at why Israel, a nation of 7 million people the size of New Jersey, has more startups than any other country outside the US, and more companies on the NASDAQ than India or China.  He looks at factors such as a history of overcoming obstacles, a culture of questioning group-think, a government policy of rapid integration of immigrants into society and education, and a willingness to integrate employees with military service (which virtually everyone in Israel has)  into the private sector.

Ultimately it is the willingness to dare, to take risks and try something new, which helps organizations—and students, and nations—succeed at change.  How can you create a culture that values risk-taking, and provides a path for success for the innovators in your organization?

Nonprofits often resist marketing. Marketing and sales smack of for-profit activities. In the best of cases, marketing dollars are viewed as an expenditure that reduces money for core mission projects. Worst case, branding, marketing and brand management are considered downright inappropriate.

But whether you know it or not, you are already selling your mission. The question is to whom, how, and how effectively?

In today’s highly competitive marketplace of ideas, your non-profit organization has very little emotional space in which to differentiate itself from the pack. When a nonprofit calls or sends us mail, or when a friend discusses volunteering, we look at this request not just against a backdrop of all our nonprofit investments but also against the other competing interests in our lives—our son’s Little League team, our work picnic, the birthday party we are hosting next weekend.

Here’s where a strong brand comes into play.

When a household already contributes to a church and a Little League Team and a PTA, they may feel that their nonprofit “basket” is full. To make an impression on this family, a nonprofit has to make a bold and memorable case for support. Having a strong brand already in place can help open the door or close the sale. For example, when my local volunteer fire department comes knocking at the door for their annual donation drive, I already understand their brand. They volunteer at our schools to explain fire safety to the children. The firehouse hosts kids’ parties and we’ve all taken the tour and tried to lift the 100-plus pounds of gear each firefighter wears in a fire. And a few years ago, they put out a fire on my street. They have a strong brand and they don’t need to tell me what they do. So the conversation is focused on what level of donation I am able and willing to give for the cause.

Not everyone can have as compelling and easy a case to understand as the local volunteer fire department. But if they don’t, they need to work hard to make it easy for people both inside and outside the organization to “get” what change they make in the world. Then, the trick is that once you’ve invested time and dollars making your brand known, you need to manage your brand so that there’s no slippage. Your “brand promise” has to be delivered as expected every time your organization or its name/logo is used. And that means Every Time, or you may have done lasting damage to your mission by reducing your ability to raise funds and attract talented staff and volunteers. (More on how good governance connects to your brand promise in a future posting).

Do you have a brand success story or brand crisis? Please share (names can be changed to protect organizational anonymity)!