At the BoardSource National Leadership Forum this fall (where I spoke
on using design thinking to enhance your organization’s impact), BoardSource and allied organizations across the nonprofit sector rolled out a new campaign to encourage nonprofit board members to “Stand for Your Mission.”
Public advocacy for the organization is one of board members’ most critical roles. Too often this role is filled haphazardly, if at all. BoardSource and colleagues aim to change that – specifically by encouraging nonprofits to be at the table when public policy decisions are made.
Public policy, from the municipal to the national level, has a huge impact on nonprofit effectiveness. Policy decisions based on ignorance, indifference, or bias can undo years of earnest effort toward the mission and make further progress much more difficult. BoardSource and colleagues argue, “Our missions demand that we have an impact on those decisions before they are made.”
BoardSource recognizes that boards will find themselves all along the continuum of preparedness for advocacy, from being complete novices to having a sophisticated, integrated advocacy agenda. Their five-step Discussion Guide for Boards begins at the beginning:
- Step One is ensuring that the full board is in agreement about the organization’s vision for the future and means of achieving it.
- Step Two is digging deep to thoroughly understand the social and political ecosystem within which your organization functions.
- Step Three requires rigorously reassessing the big-picture opportunities and threats that can strongly affect your effectiveness.
- Step Four means taking a close look at the board’s ability to advocate effectively by examining members’ social networks and expertise, developing a policy strategy that spells out board members’ roles, and recruiting new members with necessary connections and abilities.
- Step Five is integrating advocacy into the board’s culture, so that it’s a regular topic of exploration, discussion, and informed action.
Your board will take up this process where it needs to. What every
board needs is to ensure that they are the organization’s most effective advocates. How does your board rate as advocates? I hope you’ll let me know.
Learn more at http://standforyourmission.org
Do you have someone on your staff or board who has appointed himself (or herself – it’s an equal-opportunity position) the resident “Devil’s Advocate”? He has adopted the role of the skeptic, the tough questioner. Every time someone offers a new idea – an idea that might be fragile and tentative and truly innovative and full of potential – the Devil’s Advocate quickly quashes it with the well-worn phrase, “Let me play Devil’s Advocate.” Meaning, “Let me see how many ways I can shoot this down.”
We have been taught to value the Devil’s Advocate as a brave thinker who says the hard things and saves the rest of us hapless sheep from the dangers of groupthink. But all too often the real impact is to nip in the bud emerging ideas that could, properly nurtured, transform your organization for the better.
How do you keep the Devil’s Advocate from having a destructive impact on your organization’s innovation processes?
Tom Kelley, General Manager of the global design firm IDEO, describes 10 inquiring personas anyone in an organization can adopt to advance the constructive exploration of new, potentially revolutionary ideas. In his priceless book, The Ten Faces of Innovation.
Kelley helpfully sorts the 10 personas into three groups: the Learning Personas, the Organizing Personas, and the Building Personas. In brief, Kelley’s personas are as follow: Learning Personas
As individuals, we need to learn constantly to stay fully alive and vibrant. The same is true for organizations. Three different learning personas can continually refresh your thinkingThe Anthropologist
closely observes human behavior as if she were a Martian, enabling her to see frustrations, needs, and capabilities that are often invisible to others, including those observed.The Experimenter
continually prototypes new ideas, learning from a quick loop of effort, feedback, and revision.The Cross-Pollinator
recognizes that other businesses and cultures, even those that seem far afield, can be a great source of new ideas. She reaps ideas from afar and sows them at home. Organizing Personas
We all know that the best ideas do not automatically float to the top of the organizational “to-do” list. Three personas adept at navigating decision-making processes help advance good ideas.The Hurdler
accepts that legitimate organizational concerns often create roadblocks to innovation, and moves deftly among and over them to advance a great idea.The Collaborator
knows that many different talents are required to produce the most perspicacious result, and creates and shepherds interdisciplinary teams to generate novel solutions.The Director
creates a diverse creative cast and crew and directs them to greatness with her vision. Building Personas
Pulling together and building on the insights and capacity generated by the Learning and Organizing Personas, the Building Personas put their stamp on the organization as a whole. The Experience Architect
transforms humdrum experience into events that change our expectations and lighten our load. Think Southwest Airlines’ hilarity, Coldstone Creamery’s fast-moving paddles, the pager that lets you stroll nearby until your table is available.The Set Designer
knows that the shapes, scents, light, space, equipment, color, and other characteristics of spaces can nurture or hinder emotional well-being and creativity, and makes sure environments are supportive.The Caregiver
anticipates clients’ needs – physical, emotional, psychological – and provides consistent care accordingly.The Storyteller
inspires action and by crafting and delivering compelling true stories that speak to stakeholders’ deepest values.
An organization steeped in the practices of these personas can counter the negativity of the Devil’s Advocate with more constructive propositions. Before “Let me play Devil’s Advocate for a minute” smothers the next great new idea, a colleague can pipe in with, “Actually, let me
play the Anthropologist for a minute. I’ve been noticing persistent discomfort in our clients around this issue,” or, “Let’s think like an Experimenter for a moment, and try a quick-and-dirty prototype of this idea to get more information.”
Kelley writes, “The Devil’s Advocate may never go away, but on a good day, the ten personas can keep him in his place. Or tell him to go to hell.”
Tom Kelley’s book! Here’s a quick overview
– excerpted by Kelley from his book – of the ten personas. This in itself is enlightening, but his book is a master class. I hope you’ll let me know
what you think and how you use Kelley’s insights.
America’s 2008 financial crash hit nonprofits at least as hard as it hit businesses and homeowners. Vital funds from individuals, corporations, and governments dried up very quickly, and in most cases have not fully recovered.
The venerable Bridgespan Group
used the crisis to help nonprofit leaders contemplate the potential benefits of mergers and acquisitions. In an inaugural article on the subject in 2009, “Nonprofit Mergers & Acquisitions: More than a Tool for Tough Times,”
Bridgespan explored the many obstacles to nonprofit mergers, as well as the types of strategic benefits nonprofits might realize from merging.
In the for-profit sector, experts are routinely on the hunt for merger opportunities that will reward them with cash windfalls. There is strong financial motivation for mergers and acquisitions (M&A), multi-faceted expertise in how to proceed, and a sector culture in which M&A activity is part of the landscape.
None of these factors holds true for the nonprofit sector, where there is little expertise in M&A, uncertain financial benefit, and, most leaders feel, no time to learn.
However, nonprofits can realize several strategic benefits from mergers and acquisitions. Among those considered by Bridgespan:
· Improvements in the quality and/or efficiencies of existing services.
· Ability to offer a wider range of mission-relevant services.
· Expansion of geographic reach.
· Acquisition of new staff capacities.
· Access to new sources of funding.
Bridgespan offers case studies of two successful sets of nonprofit M&A activity – the Arizona Children’s Association, and the Hillside Family of Agencies in New York. Both studies offer valuable early lessons in dealing with the daunting obstacles to M&A in the nonprofit sector.
Additional discussion of the topic, from around the same time, was hosted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy
. This conversation includes Lois Savage, President of the Lodestar Foundation
, which established the Collaboration Prize in 2008 both to encourage collaborations and to gather vital information about how collaborations are being pursued in the nonprofit sector. Learn more here
, and let me know what you think!
Five years after their first exploration
of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the nonprofit sector, the Bridgespan Group
found itself asking, “Why Nonprofit Mergers Continue to Lag.”
Not only has the needle on successful nonprofit mergers barely budged since 2008, the number of U.S. nonprofits has actually grown.
Nonprofit mergers fail for several reasons: because they are undertaken as a last resort, when one or both organizations is already in severe trouble; because leaders lack expertise in how to manage mergers; because few funds are available to support the real up-front costs of merging, including due diligence; because few matchmakers exist to help potentially compatible organizations find each other and begin conversations.
The Lodestar Foundation
is one of the increasing number of funders actively supporting nonprofit M&A activity, with its Collaboration Prize and with “mixers” of funded organizations that might find common cause over cocktails.
The Foundation Center
highlights other foundations committed to supporting nonprofit collaborations and mergers, and has created the invaluable Nonprofit Collaboration Database
to inspire, inform, and suggest potential matches for nonprofits looking for the full range of collaborative opportunities, up to and including M&A.
Meantime, the Bridgespan Group continues to support M&A activity with advice on all aspects of the process. Of particular interest is attention to the emotions involved in the prospect of merging.*
Worries about the loss of identity, jobs, autonomy, service quality, funding, and established relationships are legitimate, pervasive, and often acted out as obstruction rather than openly aired and considered as part of the process of due diligence and planning. Any M&A effort will be doomed if senior staff and board members are not actively involved in considering and planning it from the outset.
And, of course, it’s always possible that M&A is a bridge too far. David LaPiana and Associates provide a concise explanation of partnership possibilities short of merging that can have strategic value for the organization and are generally much easier to achieve. You can view LaPiana’s “Partnership Matrix” here.
*The rare organization with an established culture of expressive change, or "inscaping," about which I've written earlier, will find the process much easier.
In a substantial step to close the information gap about successful nonprofit mergers, Minnesota’s MAP for Nonprofits
conducted an in-depth study of 41 nonprofit mergers in that state between 1999 and 2010 and published its findings in “Success Factors in Nonprofit Mergers.”
The researchers defined mergers as successful if the resulting organizations enjoyed the following outcomes:
· Improved image, reputation, or public support.
· Improved, expanded, or preserved services.
· Increased quality of operations.
· Increased efficiency of operations.
· Improved financial stability.
· Development of a positive organizational culture.
Major factors predicting a successful outcome included:
· Positive relationship among the executives of the pre-merger organizations.
· Executive leadership for the merger (95 percent of respondents said the merger would not have happened without the executive’s support; in 80 percent of organizations, the executive director had recently stepped down or was soon to retire).
· Close pre-merger examination of financial and legal records.
· Board support (not always easily achieved).
· Involvement of non-administrative staff in planning.
· Funder support.
· Involvement of consultant(s).
Interestingly, MAP found that when at least one of the partner organizations was in considerable financial distress before the merger, staff members integrated more willingly, and the merged organization was more successful.
MAP and its partners have provided an excellent public service by conducting this study. If you are considering a merger, I hope you’ll learn from Minnesota’s experience, and let me know
what you think.
Three nonprofit CEOs walked into a bar, and only one walked out: the one taking the helm when they finalized the merger of their organizations.
If this sounds like a nightmare to you, I understand. I’ve been a nonprofit CEO, in no great hurry to give up my chair.
Yet CEO leadership is a necessary condition in the vast majority of successful nonprofit mergers. With the looming retirement of hundreds of thousands of baby-boomer CEOs, this might be exactly the right time to get the job done.
But why merge? In the big picture, there are several reasons.
- Fragmentation of the sector. Did you know there are more registered non-profits than lawyers in the U.S.? (~1.45m v. ~1.23m) Most nonprofits have annual expenditures of under $100,000, but all have at least a handful of board members and infrastructure expenses, often including (underpaid) staff.
- Unsustainability. Shrinking funding sources are spread too thin. The U.S. government reports that 38 percent of nonprofits ended 2012 with a deficit. More than half of the nonprofits responding to a 2013 Urban Institute survey had cut or frozen staff salaries in response to funding cuts, and 42 percent covered deficits from reserves. Yet only 11 percent cut any programs.
- Burnout. Younger staff experience the resulting burnout firsthand, witness the toll it takes on leaders, then hesitate to step up to shoulder endemic problems in the sector.
We talk often about competitive threats, but why not turn “competitive threat” into “collaborative opportunity” – or even merger potential?
Outstanding resources are emerging to help nonprofit leaders assess the viability of mergers, and tackle the complex operational and emotional terrain involved. I have recently written about a few of these resources. I hope you will take a look at my blog posts on why to merge
, pitfalls to avoid
, and characteristics of successful mergers
, and let me know what you think.
Until next time, all good wishes,
My series on failure continues with a recent article by James Surowiecki in the May 19 issue of The New Yorker, "Epic Failures of the Start-Up World."
Surowiecki's brief piece -- in which he references research showing that failure doesn't predict future success, it predicts future failure -- was picked up by Inc.
magazine's Ilan Mochari. In "Are You Celebrating Failure a Little Too Much?"
Mochari points out that the research Surowiecki cites is based on VC-funded start-ups, which account for only 0.0005% (300 of 600,000) of new businesses. Other researchers argue that the experience gained by failure among the 99.95 percent of business start-ups that aren't venture-funded can indeed be invaluable going forward. What do you think? Drop me a line.
“The Courage to be Second”
– a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative
event at Arizona State University in March 2014 – is about “failure” if you believe – as so many aspiring social entrepreneurs do – that success requires developing a new
methodology to attack your chosen social problem. But why start a new initiative or organization when proven solutions to many of the world’s most seemingly intractable problems already exist? Coming in second – adapting for your context what is known to work elsewhere – isn’t as sexy as the prospect of fame and glory for developing a hot new methodology, but it’s often smarter and more effective.
This panel, moderated by Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, with Bill Drayton, Founder and CEO of Ashoka
; Katie Smith Milway, Head of Knowledge for the Bridgespan Group
Deogratias Niyizonkiza, Founder and CEO of Village Health Works
; and Rosario Pérez, President and CEO of Pro Mujer
, explores how social innovators can better recognize opportunities to join forces with established organizations, and examines the challenges, costs, and benefits of scaling up successful solutions. They also consider whether recognition for doing an extremely good job coming in second can ever match the social rewards of being first.
Former President Bill Clinton summed up this topic for the assembled university students this way: “All of you young people, you have to decide whether the only way you can win is for someone else to lose. That’s the core of this question.”
What do you think? I hope you’ll let me know.
The InnoCentive paper by Stefan Lindegaard I wrote about earlier, “Embrace Failure to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture,”
is excellent. Another useful discussion of failure occurred at the Clinton Global Initiative’s
2012 university gathering (CGI-U), held at George Washington University. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
, moderated a panel entitled, “The Wisdom of Failure: Building a Culture of Creative Problem-Solving.”
Panelists were Robin Chase, Founder & CEO of Buzzcar
; Cheryl Dorsey, PhD, President of the venture-capital firm, Echoing Green
; Biz Stone, founder of Twitter; and Ashifi Gogo, PhD, CEO of Sproxil
and holder of the first PhD in Innovation from Dartmouth University.
This group of experts in failure and
success offered three major lessons, all of which resonate with Lindegaard’s paper.
First, all agreed with Buzzcar founder Robin Chase that you need to face mistakes fast, and move on. It might be (will
be) embarrassing, but, as Chase drily observed, “It’s not the worst thing that ever happened in humanity.” Getting stuck in the hole is far worse than making a mistake in the first place.
Biz Stone railed against the cultural attitude that admitting mistakes is a show of weakness, even professional suicide. Stone maintains that, in fact, failure look great on a resume: if you can show a high level of learning from a smart effort that didn't work out, you're showing brains, courage, and resilience, all attractive qualities to worthy employers. “To succeed spectacularly you have to be willing to fail spectacularly,” he argued. Cheryl Dorsey, the President of Echoing Green, agreed. The surest route to permanent failure, she noted, is being afraid to start. Success in innovation requires a high level of comfort with uncertainty, complexity, and screwing up. However --
and this is lesson #2 -- all also agreed that mistakes are often costly, and all mistakes are not equal. Some mistakes are inevitable when you’re trying something truly new, but stupid mistakes are not
inevitable. The panelists’ strong advice: learn as much as you can from others, do not replicate their mistakes, and never make the same mistake twice.
Finally, they agreed that another hallmark of a successful innovative culture is iterative speed. Robin Chase stressed that perfectionism is the deadly enemy of forward progress. The successful innovative culture not only tolerates but anticipates failure: it gets out good drafts quickly, and revises in response to community feedback. Iterative, speedy releases of “minimal viable products” shorten the product development cycle by eliciting critical information, which is used to improve the final product.
These lessons are as valuable for the non-profit in the process of developing new programs as they are for businesses developing new products. Precisely because our work is intended to significantly improve human life, mistakes in judgment and design can be costly indeed, especially if they are not quickly acknowledged and addressed. Using design thinking principles
– beginning in empathy to thoroughly understand clients’ experience, and proceeding with rapid iteration and learning – can help the non-profit create a culture that tolerates the “honorable failures” that, well-used, result in greater effectiveness.
My brief summary of this CGI-U panel captures some of the major points but little of the flavor of this lively exchange. I hope you’ll take a listen yourself and let me know
what you take away from it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “failure” lately –
· about how powerhouse innovators valorize “failure” as necessary learning (“fail faster,” “fail forward”);
· about how curious it is that the English language offers no adequate word that encapsulates this positive view of failure (the multitude of alternatives for “failure” include blunder, fizzle, flop, flounder, catastrophe, bomb, fiasco, be ruined, and hit the skids); and
· about how failure in some contexts is, in fact, disastrous.
This is a topic widely discussed these days in both for-profit and non-profit businesses. My next few posts examine three interesting discussions of failure. “Smartfailing” – essential learning from a smart try InnoCentive
is the global leader in crowdsourcing innovative solutions to important business, social, policy, scientific, and technical challenges by inviting tens of thousands of people to compete to provide ideas. The organization’s recent white paper, “Embrace Failure to Build a Stronger Innovation Culture,”
authored by Stefan Lindegaard, is smart, efficient, and thought-provoking.
Lindegaard argues that one of the biggest failures a business can make is failing to learn from “failures.” He cites author Paul Sloane’s distinction between “honorable failure” – in which something new has been tried unsuccessfully – and “incompetent failure” – which results from lack of effort or competence in standard procedures. Lindegaard offers the term “smartfailing” to capture both honorable failure and an organization’s success in learning from it.
Lindegaard builds on entrepreneur Steve Blank’s observation that successful innovators go through six stages when faced with failure. Blank’s first five stages mirror Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages ofgrief in response to death: 1 – shock and surprise; 2 – denial; 3 – anger and blame; 4 – depression; and 5 – acceptance. Blank adds a 6th stage – insight and change – to capture the potential creative outcome of failure. Unsuccessful innovators – and most businesses Lindegaard has surveyed – never get past stage 4: depression. And, he found, way too much time is wasted in the anger and blame of stage 3. In fact, failing to get past stage 4 is a determinant of real failure, as opposed to “smartfailure.”
Lindegaard’s prescription for successfully getting past stage 4 and into stages 5 and 6 requires serious emotional and intellectual discipline on the part of innovators and organization leaders. Lindegaard’s Rx includes --
. taking responsibility;
. understanding what went wrong;
. being transparent and communicating better;
. rewarding behaviors, not just outcomes;and
. educating up and down.
I don’t think any organization can succeed in such rigorous practice without having undertaken – consciously or in a very rare natural developmental course – an experience something like the expressive change (or “inscaping”)
process described by Tana Paddock and Warren Nilsson.
I hope you’ll read Lindegaard’s paper and let me know
what you think.