Friday, August 26, 2005

Headin' for a weddin'

I have been on the road a bunch. Last weekend, college visits and time with family. Also got to see our house in Virginia (2 years and counting) and meet some of our neighbors. Then, this week was spent writing articles, getting ready for interviews about my work in progress book, and finishing up a bunch of smaller projects. Thus no posting for a bit.

Now, I'm in Chicago on the way to the first wedding of my eldest son's group of "Four Amigos"; best friends starting in middle school, all through high school and college. I'll get to see all four guys, all of whom I think of as sons, and all five of the Brinckerhoffs will be together as well, which is always a treat. Next week, I take middle son back to Ann Arbor. Public school starts for my wife and daughter on Monday. Summer is done and done.

But, of course, on the road I was thinking....for the 30,000th time, why do we need a garage sale/golf tournament/house tour, or fund raiser of any kind, to support a free medical clinic, or a homeless shelter, or a soup kitchen in the richest country in the history of the world? For that matter--why do ANY children in the US go to bed hungry every night? What are we thinking? Or are we just looking away, going on with our lives?

What started all of this brain depression was one of three essays my youngest child Caitlin wrote this week in preparation for Senior AP English. The essay assignment was to pick an important event from the summer (personal, local, state, national, or international) and describe how it affected the student emotionally and intellectually. Caitlin chose a bad car accident that injured 4 of her friends about a month ago. In that accident (which was the fault of a truck driver who slammed into a van, which hit Caitlin's friends' cars), a family of five was killed. Caitlin's friends were all injured to some degree, one was hospitalized and unconscious for 3 days. In recounting her horror and concern, Caitlin noted that accidents happen (and are reported) all the time, but she never pays attention, and wondered why? In admitting to not caring about some bad things as much as she should, Caitlin wrote that she felt most people acted the same way, and then asked "What is wrong with us? Why are we so selfish?"

I read the essay, and thought--well kiddo, sorry to tell you that it doesn't get better when you grow up. We still turn away, cluck a bit, and go on with our lives.

And that's why kids go to sleep hungry in a country with surplus food and supersized meals.


Friday, August 19, 2005

And the winner is......

So I lied. I didn't post last night--we got in too late to Charlottesville.

Well, there are winners and there are winners in the customer service derby between William & Mary and UVA, but they really don't matter, since Caitlin really liked UVA and like W&M as much. And, I've made it clear that she's worked hard enough (as her brothers did) to get the right to choose the school she goes to...and thus my grading of a school on a customer service basis from one to seven really makes no difference.

But the little things....oooh. At UVA, we were told to go to a building and a room. When you came into the building there was no sign as to where the room was, no one to greet you, no info to page through (as there always have been at other schools--NOTE: I counted. These were my 12th and 13th college visits, so I have some perspective, although 10 of my other 11 were three or six years ago). So the lack of a greeter bugged me--would Caitlin be totally on her own the first few days. We didn't see an actual student room at either school, something that had never happened to me before. Were the rooms that awful?

And its the little things that people remember, and that they blog about. In truth, for Caitlin none of these things matter as much as her "vibe" about the place. Both are great universities with lots to offer and tons of talented students and faculty.

Something else to think about--what "vibe" do people get when they come to your organization?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Anticipating Customer Service Heaven

One thing I've learned with two kids in college is that things are JUST a bit different from when I was in school--when it was "Come in, sit down, shut up, pay your tuition, get an education and leave quietly."

Customer service, amazing customer service has been my experience at every school we've toured and at both of the schools my sons chose, WashU in St. Louis and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I hear the same refrain from parents of other students, and it is something that other nonprofits could work on.

Today, I'm in VA, heading to William and Mary and then tomorrow to Charlottesville to visit the University of Virginia with my daughter, Caitlin. But as we head out this morning, my anticipation of superb customer service is indicative of a big change. While the first few schools I looked at with Ben 6 years ago blew me away, now my expectation is that these places will be amazing. If they aren't, well, heck, what's wrong with them?

Customer's wants and expectations change. We need to pay attention.

And, I'll post after each visit. We'll see if they live up to my (probably unrealistically) high expectations.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Close the digital divide

Seniors (a title that my kids remind me I am fast approaching) get dissed for being the low-tech part of the population bell curve. I would say that the jury is out. While my Dad never even used an ATM, my mother really wanted to tech up, even early in the tech landslide. I see this with my older friends and relatives. Many, really most want to use their tech better, some are really proficient, a few would prefer to never again be in the same time zone with a cell phone or a computer.

That aside, there's a great site for seniors looking to improve their tech skills, or to set up classes for others. I would urge you to look at it if you have older staff, board members, volunteers, or service recipients who need to brush up on some part of their tech use.

And I love their motto: "Bringing Wisdom to the Information Age"

Check it out.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Two new books worth your time

Just finished looking through A Funder's Guide to Evaluation, by Peter York. Good tool for funders, but also for nonprofit managers, as it looks like a pretty reasonable set of expectations. Perhaps even something to GIVE to your funders!

Second book I haven't seen but have heard about, Forming Alliances, Working Together to Achieve Mutual Goals, by Emil Angelica and Linda Hoskins. I've heard both the authors and their prior works, particularly Emil's Coping with Cutbacks, are really good.

Check them out.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Good question....long term solution

Spent the last two days with some great groups in Houston. One pair, both social service providers is wrestling with what is, to my reading, an unsustainable situation in how they price and charge for counseling services.

We looked at their costs, their charges, their volume, their capacity. In both agency's case, their average charge is lower than their average cost, and that cost is already heavily subsidized by a small number of large grants and donations that are tenuous at best. This is, after all the town where Enron, with all of its largesse, vanished in a heartbeat.

Which brings up the issue of sustainable business models. Look at your largest area of work. Is the model sustainable if certain key funders cut or eliminate their funding to you? What can you do now to develop more sustainable models.

One good resource that I've noted before: the Center for Civic Partnerships has a workbook on just this issue. Go to

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Ethical dilemma

I've posted a bunch recently on ethics and on my hope that the current surge in requests for talks on ethical issues and ethics policies is not just a passing fad.

But this last week, I had a chance to delve deeper into an ethical issue that all nonprofits face: what to offer in benefits for paid employees. It's the topic of my newsletter this month, and a concern for any thoughtful exec or board member.

Here is the dilemma:

Benefits are expensive and getting moreso every year. By spending more on benefits, we have less for salaries, and less for other mission activities. But with pay so low in general, benefits become even more important for some families, while others would simply like the cash to pay rent, utilities and buy food for the family.

Then there is the entire associated issue of living wages, which really gets to the heart of the matter: what we're doing (in minimum wages, in shared benefit costs, in huge deductibles) simply is not enough, not right, not ethical for many of our employees.

I wish I had an answer. I know that not-for-profit managers worry about this alot-they tell me. And, if we don't treat our employees right, how will they treat the people we are in the business to serve?

I've long said that nonprofit employees aren't in it for the money, but money IS important, and stuff does happen. Regular readers know about my January fall when I broke my ankle. Not bungee jumping, just walking the dog--current "cost"? Over $18,000 in bills from doctors, hospitals, radiology, etc. That's what someone who was uninsured would have to pay.

Let's see: If I make, say $7 an hour, and work 40 hours a GROSS salary for the next 64 weeks is taken up paying that bill. That's gross, not net after taxes and, of course, during that time I don't get to spend anything on anything else....this is why health insurance is so important, for full and part time staff.

Now I'm depressed. Anyway, check out the resources that I came up with in the newsletter. Perhaps you can rethink your own benefit array at your organization.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

What would you take?

Had an interesting question the other day, "What should a departing board member take with him/her when they leave a nonprofit?"

Hadn't really thought about it, but it's a great question. A departing board member certainly wants a record of what he/she has done with the organization. Even though no longer with the organization, there may be instances where legal action is brought against the organization for decisions made during the former board member's tenure.

My answer was to take at least:

---A copy of the audited statements and management letter from each year served. (which also gives you the auditor's name and contact information)

---A list of all board members (with contact information) from the time served.

---A copy of the Directors and Officers Insurance Policy.

---A copy of the bylaws.

---Minutes from any board (or committee) meeting where key and/or controversial decisions were reached.

Now, the odds are that none of this stuff would ever be needed. But they sure would be nice to have if things turned sour.

What would you add to this list?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Keep up to speed

The Nonprofit Sector Research Research Fund is a place you need to bookmark and visit periodically. The fund posts the results of some great research into the sector.

The current projects page lists research on nonprofit entrepreneurism, the motivations of volunteers, a case study on NGO-for profit alliances, and other interesting projects.

There is also a publications list, and an application form if you are a researcher.

Check it out.

Keep up to speed

The Nonprofit Sector Research Research Fund is a place you need to bookmark and visit periodically. The fund posts the results of some great research into the sector.

The current projects page lists research on nonprofit entrepreneurism, the motivations of volunteers, a case study on NGO-for profit alliances, and other interesting projects.

There is also a publications list, and an application form if you are a researcher.

Check it out.

Monday, August 01, 2005

A different sort of trip

I'm in Ohio, doing a speech to the Ohio Association of Cemetery Officials, a nonprofit comprised of nonprofit cemeteries...should be interesting--according to their president, they have too little funding, too little board participation, too little community understanding and too much regulation---sound familiar?

After that, my daughter and I head up the road to our first college visit at Miami of Ohio. Can't believe my little girl is a year from college. Gads.

I worked on my August newsletter this weekend, and it's going to be available as soon as I get out from under this FTP firewall at the Marriott. It's about ethical employee benefits, a really interesting issue that was suggested by a reader.

I'll post again once it's up.