Monday, December 18, 2006

You better watch out....

Actually, the title is just my attempt at lame seasonal humor.

The reason to watch--not really watch out--- is that there is actually a bit of good media coverage of nonprofits during our season of asking...the holidays.

Newsweek (December 10, 2006) columnist Jane Bryant Quinn has a very solid column on ways for donors to check you out...and why they should. But, unlike so much media, she talks about the shortcomings of the online watchdogs. A good piece.

See it here: "Giving Freely--and Wisely"

And, if you want to feel richer (or more guilty) about your nonprofit salary, go to the Global Rich List. You type in your salary and find out how you stand up against the rest of the world. Ugh.

Reminded me of a factoid I saw three years ago that, at that time 1/2 the population of the world had yet to make its first phone call....There is SUCH a Rich/Poor split on the planet.

So give something somewhere....

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Can your users comment online?

One of the key ways that most people under 30, and more and more people of all ages, get their information online is not from an expert, but from something better: users and peers. I suspect that anyone reading this blog has looked at a review of something: a movie, a camera, a cosmetic, before deciding whether or not to purchase.

In our house,we always go to before making a choice about movies. There we can look at both critics' and users' reviews. We don't always agree with the site's assessments, but usually we get good information. Same with electronics, books, even over the counter medication.

In his book "The Wisdom of Crowds" which is on group decision making, James Surowiecki argues that randomly selected groups of people (who are not under duress) will nearly always make better decisions than a few experts. Great book, by the way.

This, to me is the beauty of reviews, particularly when the reviewing site then averages all of the reviews into a manageable number...a number of stars, a number of smiley faces, etc. And, the net makes it easy, to both post such reviews and to see them.

So, here's my question. Is there anywhere on your site where people can post their experiences with your other words review your nonprofit? Can volunteers discuss their volunteer experience? Can end users talk about how polite and welcoming your staff are? Can donors rave about the giving experience. If not, why not?

More and more people are coming to your website before they come to your door.

And people listen to peers. So let those peers speak.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Such a good reminder

My wife and I went to a Christmas concert at New Salem State Historic Site on Saturday evening. Eight solid voices and a small combo singing a wide variety of Christmas standards, some ballads, with some comedy mixed in. Very enjoyable, but the highlight for me was when a local talent: Ken Bradbury, took the stage. Ken has just retired from 35 years as a high school teacher, has authored a number of books, 100 plays, has great stage presence, is very, very funny and plays a killer piano.

Ken's gig is this: he plays riff or two of piano (in this case Christmas music) and then tells stories while he continues to play background. He had the audience from the get-go, and some people were nearly in tears laughing so hard. Then he put the hammer down:

"I read this morning that the average shopper will spend $450 on presents this year. Then CNN said it's really $950."
"I thought about that, and wondered more about the real Christmas message."
"Since we got up this morning 15,000 children throughout the world have died of hunger."
Long riff
"we could feed every one of them with 1/5 of our cell phone bills."
long riff
"this Christmas, send someone you know a letter telling them how much you love them."
"And don't sign it. "
"Let them think it might be from a LOT of people."
"That's a that person will value long after their Christmas Rolex has rusted."

It's a terrific performer that can have you in tears two different ways inside of 10 minutes.

Thanks, Ken.

For the reminder.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Board bits

I had a question the other day from a gentleman trying unsuccessfully to get off the board of directors he was on. He had sent two letters resigning, had not heard back and then saw his name on a current list of board members. He was concerned that he was still a fiduciary and wondered what legal action he needed to take. I gave him my answer (and have never heard back, interestingly/ironically enough: most people at least acknowledge the response) but then wondered a bit about the organization in question. If the story is true, they are either clueless or totally unorganized. Why would you keep someone on your board who doesn't want to be nor, I assume, ever attends meetings, contributes time, talent, or treasure?

Now, I have known execs who would be happy with as many empty chairs as possible at board meetings and others who, while having bodies in the seats, still have "empty chairs"--and want it that way. Of course, I know nothing about this organization, starting with which time zone its in, but you have to think that things are pretty bad.

Here's what apparently didn't happen after the letter of resignation was sent...(with a noted caution that there are always about 4 sides to any situation)

1. The exec didn't call the board member and ask "why do you want to go off?", or "would you stay?", or "thanks for your resignation and your service".

2. When no response was received to the first (or second) letter, the (former?) board member didn't call the agency staff or board president and ask to be taken off the board list.

Methinks that there are some serious communications issues showing their ugly head here, and probably a lot more just barely out of sight.

Too bad.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Returned to my pile of reading today to see some interesting stuff. To wit:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an excellent story about cities that lose a great deal of property taxes to charities who own their own buildings. Some cities have been charging fees for years, and I don't think that this is a bad thing in some form. After all, the organizations use police, fire, and other services just as much as for-profit or private citizens. The three cities where the issue is most severe are Boston, Baltimore and Seattle, based on the key indicator of "unpaid" nonprofit property taxes as a percentage of the city budget. Boston's is 11.6% (and Boston does charge fees), Baltimore 5%, and Seattle 4.9%. No right answer here.

Another Chronicle story worth reading is about "The Vanishing Donor", donors who aren't giving over and over because the nonprofit they give to is not meeting their needs. Interesting research is cited about how donors feel that nonprofits don't tell them what they do with donations, never contact them without asking for money, waste money on trinkets (90% of which are pitched), and don't say thank you, either enough, or at all.

Sounds pretty straightforward to me. Be transparent, say please and thank you, and worry about customer service in fund raising as much as you do in other charitable services. Sp why don't more organizations do just that?

Business Week this week talked about companies who are banning emails once a week--making people actually talk to each other....another good idea, but sad that it has to be mandated.

Another story was on a cell phone for tech-averse people that is just a...wait...wait...wait...a just makes phone calls. Nothing else. And the phone is incredibly popular.....To me this is a great and long overdue product, but more importantly a warning to all of us that think that the more tech we add in to any recipe of services, the better.

Tech IS terrific, and no one who knows me would ever call me a Luddite, tech works for nonprofits ONLY when it is used to enhance mission capability. But when it just pisses people off....not so much.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Goin' to Kansas City

Headed out today to work with three Goodwill's who are sharing information and best practices. Good people. Should be fun and informative. Free bonus: it's my last trip out of town for the year--according to United, I've been on 94 flights this year.

Short updates:
-My bookclubs are back. My major contractor restarted the clubs in January. We'll be reading books I've already read, but I look forward to the conference calls and conversations, and this will also give me time to read new things on my own.

-It's exam grading time for my Kellogg class. All the final projects are due today and I'll be grading in the hotel room in KC. This is a new exam format for us and I'm eager to see how it works out.

-This month I'm working on two new publications: business development, and life long learning for nonprofits, both of which I hope to post on my downloads area by Christmas.

-I have mixed feelings about the idea of a separate nonprofit agency in the US Department of Commerce. Seems good to focus on our needs but sure to wind up with more regulation. The Brits have their own agency, and ALL government funding goes through it...which presents some problems. On the other hand, if such an agency could come up with uniform reporting requirements for all nonprofits, it would be worth its weight in....paperwork reduction?

-Finally, a fun closing of a circle. Last Tuesday, I visited a friend (Allen Gouse) who runs the Easter Seals of Greater Hartford. He took my to the Easter Seals work center, where people with disabilities do light manufacturing, fulfillment, etc. Turns out its in the same building where my Dad used to work. The building was long abandoned, and renovated into what is essentially a nonprofit center. I remember sitting in the back seat of our car watching people come out of the factory waiting to pick up my dad at that building, and to have the structure used for this purpose is just too cool for words. My parents, who were two of the eight original founding board members of the Hartford Association of Retarded Citizens, would be thrilled. Me too.

Off to KC.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Conflict of Interest

Two days of rain, wind, ice, snow, very cold, all a week after a 70 degree day. Welcome to winter.

More importantly, my December newsletter is available online. This month's topic is "Conflict of Interest."

Interestingly, I had scheduled the topic for the December issue some months ago, and then coincidentally got hit with a number of inquiries at training gigs in the past three weeks, including a board president who told me that he didn't really understand why there was all the fuss about conflict statements, and one ED who said her board was resisting signing the statement she had developed.

Ugh. This is a must-have for all nonprofits in today's environment, and I urge you not only to have a conflict of interest statement for your board and staff, but also to post it right on the front of your website. Be transparent here, too.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thankful and full

Back on the road today (after a terrific Thanksgiving visit with two of my three kids) for my last Kellogg class of the year (sniff!). Talking tonight on performance measurement, sharing the lecture time with Janet Froescher of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, who is doing amazing things and, in my view, re-inventing the UW business/effectiveness model.

Then, I'm off to Connecticut to do three sessions for the annual conference of the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits in Hartford. Some on generation change, some on leadership and decision making.

Over the break, in addition to being thankful, I worked on my full day presentation on my new book (tentatively) titled Generations: The Challenge of A Lifetime for Nonprofits. It's due out in early March. I'll post about the book in more detail as the publication date gets closer.

And, four more pod casts go up online this week. More about that tomorrow or the next day.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Let's go prey on the weak....

The current Business Week has a horrifying story
called "Habitat for Hustlers".
It tells the story of mortgage hustlers who go to Habitat House owners (who usually carry 0% mortgages) and entice them to take equity out of their home and a new variable rate mortgage. Many have been trapped, and may even lose their homes.
Ugh on the lenders.

But....wait...Double ugh on Habitat for selling off its mortgages to a wide variety of lenders with no right of first refusal. To me this again highlights the need for organizations to not just chase the money. I know that selling off mortgages lets HFH build other houses, but they need to think through using a reputable equity firm, or having some long term control over the mortgages to make sure that all the good they do is not erased in a foreclosure three years down the road.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Philanthropy Day #1

This week, I speak at two National Philanthropy Day events. Yesterday I was in Bonita Springs, FL, between Fort Myers and Naples. Tomorrow, I'm in the central Pennsylvania town of Altoona.

I spoke to a very attentive and receptive group yesterday morning, and then went to the Philanthropy Day awards ceremony, where individuals and businesses were lauded for their philanthropic efforts. After the awards, particularly the one for a young man from Haiti, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

Inspiring words from the ceremony:

Regarding one awardee who has given away millions over his lifetime: "He was once asked by a friend "how much we would have been worth if he hadn't given all that money away?" His answer: "I would have been worth nothing"

Quote from another awardee: "I never saw a hearse with a U-Haul behind it."

Great event. I hope it inspires others as much as it did me.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Stupid, stupid, stupid

I was reminded again last night how dumb it is for our sector to have "administrative costs" as its primary metric of goodness.

My class at Kellogg was on Organizational Development, and, of course, part of any good OD program is regular training for staff. But, as one student with experience as a nonprofit staff person said, "That adds to our admin costs...and that's the biggest no-no we have."

Another student chimed in...."You had us read on the need for better health care benefits, and I agree staff want them, but it adds to our admin percentage, and thus it will never pass our management council."

I kind of went off a bit, telling the students that grading a nonprofit based on its admin percentage is like grading a car based on its weight. Interesting, but meaningless.

Of course, the funders disagree with me, since admin is easy, sounds important, and seems to reduce non-mission spending. But there has never been a direct (mission) cost that didn't have an associated indirect (admin) cost associated with it. By hammering on admin, by setting silly percentage targets for the entire sector, we are hurting the sector in very real ways.

Whatever happened to "capacity building"--wasn't that all about building administrative (and mission) capacity?

One exception to this rant-measuring admin year over year at the same agency has some management value. But to say (as I have heard from foundation people) that an admin percentage higher than 12% is unacceptable is....idiotic. For starters, agencies vary widely. Second, I'll guarantee that the foundation's admin % is higher than that, third who picked 12%.? My guess--someone picked it out of the air.

Anybody think FedEx is well run? Nordstrom's? How about the "great"companies in "Good to Great"? I'll bet serious money that their admin percentages are way higher than 12%.....

Hmmm. That's a good task for my Kellogg students.....

Monday, November 13, 2006

Put your money where your mouth is....

I waited a few weeks to post this:, the online microlending site, got hammered, a good hammered, but hammered nonetheless with a huge volume of hits, after they were featured on "Frontline in a great piece. You can see it here.

I think that the Kiva folks are really on to something here. They take the best of p2p, and the best of micro-lending, add in a little social networking, and all of a sudden you have a terrific way to help an individual help themselves.

Check out Kiva...and tell your friends. You can even put together a group and all lend to the same small business person...

Great stuff.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A vote for better donor management

I hope you voted.

On with life: donor management has become a larger issue as more nonprofits seek to keep a wide variety of donor profiles, gifts, preferences all in order. Of course, software has been developed, but which will work best for your nonprofit?

TechSoup to the rescue. Today's issue of "By the Cup" brought this link to an article that reviews and compares eight different software packages for donor management.

Take a look and see if this makes sense for you.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A week to....remember, or forget?

This week: Been in O'Hare 5 times totaling about 9 hours, changed time zones 6 times, gone through security 5 times. All forgettable. Talked to great groups in Tahoe (trends in nonprofit management) and Hilton Head (ethics in nonprofit management); both wonderful groups with terrific questions. Best of all, rendezvoused with my wife at O'Hare (how romantic) and headed for Ann Arbor to see middle son for final parent's weekend--very memorable.

Stayed at a great place in A2 (that's Ann Arbor), for the fourth time. Highly recommend the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast. Terrific people, wonderful location, great food and conversation. Pat and Bob make you feel right at home. And, like any B&B you get into, or overhear, great conversations.

From this morning: Two couples (both about my age) who had just met while eating, were talking about certain relatives. Man1 (from couple one) "My nephew is about 36. Graduated from here (Michigan) with an engineering degree went to work for Qualcomm for 10 years, had a great job, then you know what he did? He quit, and is in the nonprofit management program "(he said this as if it were a disease) "at Notre Dame. Now why would you do that?"

Woman2 (From couple two) "Well, both our kids, one a physician and the other an attorney, have given up their jobs in the past two years to go work overseas for NGO's. Both are about the same age as your nephew."

Man1 "What's an NGO?"

Woman2 "A nongovernmental organization, kind of like a nonprofit here in the US."

Man1 "Why would people do that? I mean throw everything away? I mean....."

Woman2 "All I can tell you is that my children have never been happier."

Man1 as he got up to leave. "Well, I'm glad they're happy, but I don't get it...."

Man2 to his wife (sotto voce) "Obviously."

That conversation recharged my batteries.....

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Leadership and nonprofits

Last night's class at Kellogg was on Leadership in Nonprofits. It's always a lecture I look forward to....seems to hit a response chord with the students. Last night less so, since most of the students were exhausted from their Net Impact conference work.

But the discussion did move well, and I was intrigued that most students felt that the key leadership skills for nonprofit leaders and for-profit leaders are the same. This is a gradual trend over the past 4 years....more and more students see the intersection between the two kinds of organizations and wider and wider, and I think that's the way it should be.

I'm in the air most of the week, Sacramento, Tahoe, Chicago (5 times at O'Hare) Hilton Head, Ann Arbor. First talk is on Trends and Decision-Making in Nonprofits. Second one is on Ethics in Nonprofits. Interesting groups, too. We'll see what kind of push-back I get....

Off we go, into the wild blue yonder....

Monday, October 30, 2006

When Mondays are as good as Fridays

Yesterday, I was at the NetImpact Conference in Evanston. I was moderating a panel on the Tech and Philanthropy. (I mentioned this a few weeks back). The panelists were amazing, as are their organizations.

Linda Erlinger, Executive Director of
Jessica Flannery, co-founder of
Dennis Whittle, founder of

All these organizations are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, taking the p2p model and using it to connect donors and individual needs and recipients. The middle-person is out of the loop--and I think that is a good thing.

What struck me most, though was the passion that all three of these wonderful people bring to their work. They simply LOVE what they do.

I reminded me of a saying my grandfather used to have...he told his grandchildren to find something to do where "Mondays are as good as Fridays"...I've told my kids that, and I wish more people could say TGIM rather than TGIF.....

And nonprofits, with our mission, our passion, our good works offer such places. IF we remind our employees (who are also mostly overworked and underpaid) of the point: the mission, and the results of the mission being done.

Check out the websites---they are fascinating places.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Better website content?

Techsoup has a great set of articles, tools and suggestions on ways to make sure your website content is up to best practices, and meets the wants of your audience. A really good step by step guide.

This is a must for small, emerging organizations, but also a great review for any nonprofit with a website, new or old. Check it out, and while you are on the site, sign up for the free weekly newsletter.

I see such a range of quality in nonprofit websites. Some are great, some look like they were put up five years ago and left alone. I saw one yesterday for a national organization that was....hopeless. Hard to navigate, boring content, didn't answer questions, ugh.

Make sure that your site doesn't face the same fate....

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The IRS is comin'

Excellent article in the October 12 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy on the IRS's increasing efforts to audit and watch nonprofit activity. They are particularly concerned with excessive exec pay and inappropriate loans to ED's and board members. The Director of the tax-exempt office, Lois Lerner has added nearly 12% more staff in the past year, mostly to the audit division. And, it appears that size does not matter: the IRS is going to audit large and small organizations.

The point? Make sure you are clean, clean, clean...and ready to cooperate.

An organization on whose board I served until September got an audit inquiry letter from the IRS last winter. I was audit committee chair at the time, so was closely in the loop. After one conversation, and shipping a few documents, the IRS said no problem, have a nice day. Why? Because we were completely clean, transparent, and totally cooperative. The "anomaly" they saw was easily explained, but at the same time there was nothing else to make them concerned.

Don't think that, because you are a small organization, or because your organization is new, or because you do good works (who doesn't?) that you can ignore the IRS rules and regs. You can't, and you put your mission in peril if you do. Remember, we have a special tax status because we are special organizations. We have to act like it and merit the community's trust in us.

I recently listened to an exec rant about how the IRS should spend its time on auditing big business, not charities, and how she was going to "stick it to them" if they darkened her door. She talked about calling her Congresswoman, and writing letters to the editor. I suggested that she might just put all that energy into making sure her audit committee had its records in order.
She bristled, and I told her she sounded like the driver on the highway who, when pulled over by the trooper for speeding, didn't argue that they were going too fast, but that others were going even faster. The law is the law, and the IRS's job is to enforce it.

And our job is to meet both the letter and the intent of the law. If we start feeling our good works give us a hall pass...let me change my metaphor....a get out of jail free card, we're both wrong and wrong-headed.

The charitable sector, and every one of us in it, needs to be above reproach, not looking for an angle. And if we screw up and the IRS notices, it's our fault, not theirs.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fundraising, Firefox and other tech thoughts

There's a great Fundraising Toolkit available on Techsoup....these people are very good at what they do. This is a deep and wide set of resources for getting started, networking, going after grants and individual donations. Definitely take a look.

For newbies, Techsoup is an amazing resource for all things tech--as well as lower cost software---as well as pretty good soup recipes. Seriously. Check them out.

In other news, Firefox 2.0 is out, (and available in about 3 days) and I'm looking forward to taking it for a spin. I've used Firefox for 3 years now. No crashes, no bugs, no viruses. And a much, much better product that IE. In fact, the new IE-7 has tabbed browsing, something that has been in firefox for three years. In general, I love open source software. I use Firefox, Nvu (HTML editor), Thunderbird (email) and have just started running Open Office, which is really impressive. My experience with open source is that it has been cleaner, faster, safer and more innovative,'s free.

I really believe that nonprofits can benefit from using open source. Philosophically it's right up our alley, the cost is right and the quality is high. I urge all my clients to try one app, then another. I understand the IT people's concern, but I can tell you I've never had a client complain.

A great repository of open source apps (some VERY technical, others for regular users) is available on SourceForge. Take a stroll through it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Cleaning out....and remembering

This week is a long time coming...I'm cleaning out my office in early prep for moving to Virginia. I'm going through client records, financial reports, old software, and many, many books and journals.

Because I had so much storage space, I tended to keep rather than pitch, resulting in a journey down memory lane when I looked at client organization lists from 1985, booted up disks (with some difficulty) from 1990 with strategic planning reports, and leafed through journals that hyped the new and unknown entity called the "Internet".

Fun to remember all the great people and great organizations I've been privileged to work with. Great to see how far the sector has come. A bit depressing to know that my time on the field of play is limited--and that some of the changes I hoped to be part of will probably not come in my lifetime.

But overall--a good feeling. Cleaning out takes longer than it should; so many ways to get distracted. But it really is beneficial to pause and reflect now and then.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Backup your backup

My last post was on a fateful day. About two hours after I posted, my hard drive on my laptop failed. Ugh.

But not as bad as it could be, since I had backed up the previous Monday. I had to leave town for Seattle and Idaho almost immediately, but had a hard drive on order. I thought through which (few) files I had worked on between the backup and the crash, and figured it would be no big deal. I knew that reformatting the hard drive and installing all the software would be a pain, but that's tech.

Being on the road for 6 days with no laptop felt like walking through the airport in only my boxers, but I was grateful for friend's laptops, and my thumb drive (which had all my training presentations on it.

Got home on the 12th, worked on the reinstall for a bit and then dropped it again to go to Boston
. Got home monday and spent some time before heading to Kellogg for a great class. Tuesday I really hit it, and then the realization smacked me in the face:

I had only backed up SOME things, not EVERYTHING. My email was gone, my newsletter mailing list (some 1400 people) was two months out of date, my podcast recordings had vanished, etc.

My fault. I was in a hurry, and didn't double check what I had backed up.

Double ugh.

So, now, two weeks later, I'm back up with some digital wounds to heal. Regular readers know I rant about backing up and disaster plans.

From now on, I'll rant about having a backup (person) check your backup.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Finding Community in the Sixth Circle of Hell

I'm heading home from New Paltz NY....beautiful area...and, it's fall, so the colors are amazing.

Yesterday though, was a different story. O'Hare went down early in the day, and was backed up all day long. Hundreds of flights were cancelled, most delayed. My commuter flight from Springfield to Chicago was cancelled, as were the next two, so I drove the 200 miles, and then dropped myself into the inferno. Lines were 15 minutes for the bathroom, an hour for customer get the idea.

I was standby for a flight at 4:00 that actually left at 6:30. After two gate changes, the plane actually arrived, off loaded the passengers and loaded the lucky ones with boarding passes. When all of them were on board, there were about 40 of us waiting for an unknown, but small, number of seats. Since we had trekked together from gate to gate, and had depended on each other for information, we had developed a loose bond.

The gate agent explained that he had 6 seats.

He started calling names.

The first person stood up-----and the group broke out in spontaneous, sustained applause. Good for you...a pat on the back, a high five. Smiles all around. The other 5 people got the same reaction as they were called to board. The 34 of us who were left didn't quite want to leave, to spoil the sure turned a long day into a memorable one for me.

What power community has.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mission mania

Last night my Kellogg class were told to find really bad missions online to bring to class and discuss. I had them critique them before class, and then we talked about them after I gave my spiel on what I think needs to be in a good mission statement.

Sadly, the students had NO trouble finding awful mission statements. Some were hundreds of words long. Some were nearly unintelligible, the grammar was so bad. Some talked about the founders but not what the organization's mission is. Ugh.

If you haven't checked your mission for a while, take a look. It may be a candidate for improvement.

Off tomorrow on the start of what is essentially a two week speaking and kid visit tour. Tomorrow I head to New Paltz, NY for a meeting of nonprofit financial managers. Friday to Quincy University in Quincy Illinois to talk about management. Should be fun.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The next generation....

Sorry, not Star Trek, but I will use the term "engage", although it doesn't sound as good as when Patrick Stewart says it....

We need to engage our young people in charity, on all levels. While schools encourage/require high schoolers to volunteer, and college campuses overflow with opportunities to help, each family should look at ways to help their children fall into the good habit of charity.

Carol Weisman has the prescription and the how to in her terrific book:

Raising Charitable Children

This is a really good resource for your community, your workplace, your book club, your civic group, your united way or your family.

Check it out!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Keep those airlines in the black

I'm sitting here on a beautiful Saturday fall afternoon, organizing the details of my ridiculous travel schedule for the next eight weeks. I'm looking forward to every gig, but I counted right at 40 flights between now and the end of November, and in there I'll also be driving up and back to Kellogg (a 440 mile RT) 5 times.

I have a pile of books to read, and a lot of writing to do, but I've found with my last two books that I don't write as well or as long on planes or in hotel rooms as I used to. Could it be I'm actually getting old?

Oh, new book due out March 1. I think I'm more excited about this book than any prior one. More in future posts.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reading Suggestions

Been reading a lot this summer. With my book clubs on hold, I've had time to read other stuff I had piled up.

Three Recommendations for the curious nonprofit mind:

First, The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Really interesting in general, this has great application to organizations. I've been telling people for years to involve their entire staff more in discussion, debate and decision. I feel so validated! My better self-image aside, this is a good read.

Second, The Tipping Point, by Malcom Gladwell. The author also wrote "Blink" and I like his writing style. This book will make you think more about small improvements and asking people what they could make all the difference.

Third, The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson. Brand new, this book made my head spin with its implications for the world around us. For most of us, the nonprofit business applications are minimal, but the concepts presented me with a new way of thinking about the economy and the society our nonprofits work in. The author is the editor at Wired, my favorite magazine, and he had an ariticle in the mag a couple of years ago. My son Ben (the Microsoft guy) and I read it on vacation in New Hampshire, and stayed up til 3 one night talking about the implications.

Enjoy your reading, and if you have a book that you like and would recommend, post a comment....

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Checking back in

Time flies. Since I last posted...

Been on vacation with the fam, visiting kids around the country, finishing up my new book (due out March 1..more on that later...developing a new set of publications and podcasts...also more later... taking two kids to college in the same week (3200 miles total), written a play, and started this fall's class at Kellogg.

And tomorrow, I tackle a new computer (first one in 8 years) in the house.

So I haven't written for a bit, and I appreciate those of you who wrote and said you missed my musings. I did too, and I hopefully am back much, much more regularly.

In terms of things that you, the reader, might actually care about---nonprofit stuff--- I continue to be amazed at the resourcefulness of many of the organizations I work with. Too little money, too much work, not enough time. And yet people stick to it.

Coolest thing that's coming up (other than the weekly gig at Kellogg) is that I get to moderate a panel at the NetImpact Conference in Chicago next month. The panel is on "Internet Philantrhopy: A New Model for Donor Engagement" which is great, but the panelists? Wow. Check it out:

The Chair and CEO of
The Chicago director of
The Founder of

If you haven't been to these sites, check them out. I am absolutely sure they will change the way people give money, and in the process threaten the heck out of United Way, Foundations, and traditional fundraisers. I am so pumped to meet and hear these people.

The panel is the end of October. I'll post about it, for sure.

But I'll be back tomorrow as well.....

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Lessons from Boston

My absence has been a combination of being really sick for the past week (I haven't had even a cold for two years) and going to my daughter's college orientation at Boston University. Wow.

This is my wife's and my third kid, third college, third orientation. I always remember my orientation to Penn. My Dad drove me up, we unloaded some boxes, shook hands, and he drove off. I had four days until class, (it was Labor Day weekend) didn't know a soul, and had no idea what do or where to go.

Now, not only do the kids get a summer orientation, but when they arrive on campus (also on Labor Day), their "welcome" schedule looks exhausting.

Good. That's the way it should be.

Two lessons from BU for other nonprofits:

First, why shouldn't we make the effort to welcome, I mean really welcome the people we serve? How many of our constiuents feel more like me in the fall of 1970 being dropped off alone than they do like Caitlin this fall? Think about it: how many of your staff other than the nominal greeter really welcome a new client/student/patient/ etc? How many really make sure that they know where they are going, have their questions answered?

Second lesson was a marketing one: The woman in charge of food service was talking to the parents about food choices, healthy eating, variety, etc. My ears perked up when she said this "We never, ever change a food offering without first talking to a group of students. We value their input, since the food is going in their mouths!"

I LOVED that, as well as the other administrators who obviously spend time, have weekly coffees, get out of their offices and mix with the people who are the most important on campus, the students and faculty.

Good lessons from a great university

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Hanging with the Brits

Two days, two great classes with nonprofit staff and trustees from the U.K. Great people, great issues, great missions, great passion, great questions.

All the same. Here, there, everywhere. That may sound trite unfair, but really the key issues are the same here as in the US.

For readers in the US, here's one of the first questions of today.

"I'm sure that in the US this doesn't happen much, but here I have a problem with my board not knowing where the line is between policy and management."

Sound familiar? I can hear you nodding.

Good people, well intentioned, doing things that need doing that no one else will. That's our sector.

Wherever your plane lands.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Heading East

I leave a bit later today for London, to do two days of lectures and play a couple of days with my wife and daughter.

The UK nonprofit sector mirrors the US in many ways, and have special issues as well. The Brits are smart enough to have their own ministry just for charities (there are many days I think that would be a good idea here). They have problems with funding, with retaining staff, with getting good board members totally engaged: sound familiar?

But the biggest difference is the level of optimism in every conference, at every lecture. DESPITE the things that plague them, the Brits are pretty much always "stiff upper lip", they make a joke, give you a big smile, and laugh at their problems before buckling down to fix them.

A lot lower whining factor than I see here in the states. I wish I could bring that back across the pond.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

On strike

No, not me, but I did love the op-ed piece by Robert Eggar about this very subject in the current issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Eggar (and his organization, DC Kitchen) has acted on what I’ve been saying for years and years and years. We in the nonprofit sector enable our own under-funding by saying "yes".

What I mean by this is that by agreeing to continue to do mission when we are more and more grievously under-funded, over regulated and generally dumped on, we act like any other enabler: we feed the beast. Eggar had had enough and went on strike.

My son Adam recently bought his first (used) car. He researched, shopped and focused on a 3-year-old sedan offered for sale at a used car lot. Adam negotiated hard, and got the price down. But does anyone believe that the car dealer sold Adam the car for less than they paid for it? Of course not. That would be suicidal for the business.

Soooo, what about us? Why do we so happily (or at least willingly) hop on the slippery slope of saying “yes” year in and year out to government, foundation, or corporate funders no matter what the reimbursement level is? Is it because we ourselves sacrifice time, talent and treasure to work or volunteer in a nonprofit, so that if the organization has to sacrifice as well it’s OK? Or is it that we believe so strongly in what our mission does that we think the world will end right here, right now if we cease a particular service?

I am well aware that there are other customers for a used car, and often only one customer (read: funder) for a particular service. But one of the reasons we can be pushed around by that one funder is that we never, ever, seriously push back. We whine, we moan, but only among ourselves. We form state associations to lobby for more government funds, but when did you ever hear an official of those associations preach actual peaceful resistance? Where are all the boomers who resisted and protested everything?

Why am I so passionate about this? Because the steady decline in level of funding in relation to actual costs, the assumption that nonprofits can and should be perpetually poor (unless they are universities or large medical facilities) is insulting and demeaning to the people and the causes we serve.

So, go read the Eggar piece, and think about saying no more often. There's a lot of power in that word.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A busy season, and miscellany

Since my last post, my daughter graduated from high school, her oldest brother was in town for 32 hours from Seattle, her other brother left for his summer internship in Huntsville AL, we had a graduation party at our house and went to 5 others.

Whew. Feels like board meeting, annual meeting and audit time all rolled into one, but with a lot more love and emotion. And better food, too.

So, after 19 calendar years, and 39 kid years, our three are done with a pretty good public school system. No more parent-teacher meetings, PTO events, Fund raisers on Saturday morning. Weird.

I'm on the road to San Francisco today to do some nonprofit business development training tomorrow and Thursday. Then Saturday, I head for London for my annual lectures to UK nonprofits. Always fascinating to see the similarities and differences. We come home in time to turn around and go to Boston the following week for Caitlin's orientation at BU. This will be good month for United Airlines.

Interesting article on nonprofit mergers in the Christian Science Monitor. There was a frenzy of this in the early-mid 1990's and the tactic seems to be re-gaining popularity.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Excellent tech help.

The latest edition of By The Cup from Techsoup arrived yesterday. I spent some time looking through the articles and think these two are of importance.

First, a great, in depth discussion of an important issue: Removing Spyware, Viruses, and Other forms of Malware. A must read, very in depth with good resources.

Second, if you've been thinking about adding podcasts to your site, or for your various audiences, here's how to do it, step by step.
I've been recording podcasts to add to my site for a week or so, and this article is excellent.

Good to read or to archive for future use.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day thoughts-nonprofits filling the gap.

Happy Memorial Day.

I know that relatively few of us go to national cemeteries on this day of remembrance, but please take a moment and have a good, long, look at one of the flags that adorn our towns and cities today, and remember those good people, current and past, who have protected our liberties.

Which brings up another mixed news thought: the number of new nonprofits who have sprung up to fill the gaps in services for our current and former military. Now, the government SHOULD be doing these things, but they don't so who fills the gap? Nonprofits.

Take, for example, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund

Formed initially to make unrestricted grants to families of service personnel lost in Afghanistan and Iraq (since the death benefit was so low), the Fund changed direction when Congress responded by raising the benefit. It has begun construction on a world-class rehab center to work with those military personnel.

"who have been catastrophically disabled in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The center will also serve military personnel and veterans severely injured in other operations and in the normal performance of their duties, combat and non-combat related."

How much did this cost? Over $35 million, all in private donations. Should the federal government be doing this? Of course it should. But they aren't and these people can't wait for Congress and the Pentagon to dither, so a nonprofit was formed and is responding.

Sounds a bit like Katrina without the wind and rain: A crisis, government unresponsive, nonprofits jump into the fray and deal with the issue. Good for the Fund, and for the other nonprofits who are helping our service men and women.

Finally, no matter what you may think about the war, don't take it out on the troops. Support the troops, and if you oppose the war, let your elected officials know.

But support the troops. Even if our own government sometimes short-changes them.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Transparency in Action

This I like---a lot.
is a story from today's New York Times (if you are not registered, you'll have to in order to read the story but its free)
The story talks about the annual "Shareholders" meeting at Direct Relief International, based in Santa Barbara. It allows donors and others to see the inside of the organization, hear about finances, personnel, etc.
GREAT idea.

So, I went to their website.
More transparency, right on the front page. Updates on their efforts surrounding Katrina, Rita, the Tsunami, and the Pakistan earthquake, as well a their 2005 Annual Report, and 2006 Shareholder's Report.

Very good stuff, and something every nonprofit should imitate.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Nonprofit Blog Carnival

Kivi Leroux Miller has started a Nonprofit Blog Carnival for the next few weeks, one that I'll be participating in. The idea is to collect the best advice from the nonprofit blogs on the web. Great idea and it should be fun, and beneficial to the sector.

Go to to check out the carnival, and how to get an RSS feed from the carnival so that you and your organization can benefit.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Training games

We all know that online education is an increasingly viable option, particularly for nonprofits with staff who want to expand their knowledge at the same time that the budget does not support travel expenses. And, as our workers skew younger and younger, more of them will be comfortable getting their primary sources of information off a computer screen.

Here's another coming thing: iPod training. Again, I suspect that most readers know that information on podcasts can be useful. Listening to an mp3 file either through a player or your car radio is increasingly common, and a good use of time and tech. And, video on the net is also increasingly available as more and more individuals and organizations have access to broadband connections.

But last week, I saw a very innovative use of this technology: food preparation training via video iPod. Think: "How do I put together the XYZ specialty salad?" if you are a worker at a local bistro. No problem. Pop in your earbuds and boot up the iPod and there is the demo. Right there, right now. No need for a computer in the kitchen.

Very cool stuff. One that works with younger workers, prevents mistakes, and reinforces person-to-person training. I can see this being used in hospitals, for workers filling out complex forms, for volunteers who help intermittently in many nonprofit environments.

A great example of using tech well, not extravagantly.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Blue Oceans and Better Managers

My book club groups just finished reading two good books, Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, and Manager of Choice, by Nancy Alrichs. Good books with significantly different intended audiences.

If you want to get hands on about being a better people manager (emphasis on people relationships) then the Alrichs book is your choice. Chock full of good advice, lots of checklists and to-do ideas, this book is very nonprofit oriented in its outlook that people come first. Good stuff.

On the other hand, if you are a big sky type thinker, then Blue Oceans may be your natural biome. This book talks about creating new space, where there is little or no competition. While certainly intended primarily for for-profits, I could not help but think of nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, who changed the face of low income housing, and others that have followed (or should I say led) these ideas. Another good read if you want to be forced to stop and go "huh!" a few dozen time.

Oh, very apropos of the Alrichs book which talks a lot about online training; this week, TechSoup has an article featured about setting up and running online training programs. Good stuff as well.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Relative ethics...

So I wake up to this headline in our local paper (The State-Journal Register)

"Audit Slams Conservation Foundation." Nice way to start your day.

Turns out that the Illinois Conservation Foundation had been audited and found having made 13 accounting mistakes, some as large as $450,000 and also operating without a budget in FY 2005.

For background the Foundation is the grantmaking arm of the Illinois department of Natural Resources and is a 501(c)(3).

Some purchases that the (now former) ED had made included cigars, hunting clothing, golf fees, and membership in a hunting organization...none of which followed the foundation's own purchasing policy. When questioned, the former ED said,

"There's noting in the audit that bothered me. The main crux of the audit was that we weren't acting like a state agency, when we are a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization."

Soooooo, while government can't be corrupt (hahaha), nonprofits can?

At least the board fired this guy.

Then I had more fun. I went to the Foundation's website, looking for its budget, or even the audit, figuring that the real story might be different than that reported in the paper. Ah! A link to "audit"! Click. "404 Error, file removed, or no longer available".

Cool. And our Governor is all about transparency, apparently only when the news is good.

So, I took the longer route, going to the Auditor General's site and found the audit easily, and read it. Ugh.

Here it is if you are interested in seeing what an organization out of control looks like.

Wonder if the board will suffer any repercussions?

Monday, May 15, 2006

More good press...

Interesting op-ed piece today in the Harvard Crimson. While not exactly in-depth journalism, the author's point is valid. Hope it will help with the next generation of volunteers, nonprofit staff, and donors.

Take a look...

Saturday, May 13, 2006


The past two days, I have been on a baseball trip. Regular readers may remember that my son Adam (who is now 20) and I have been working through a pact we made 8 years ago to see his favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, play in all the National League Stadiums. We fit them in with my work, his work and school, and family events. sometimes, though, like this week, we just go off and go to a game.

We went to Miami Thursday to see the Braves Marlins play at Dolphin Stadium. It was a beautiful South Florida evening, not a particularly large crowd, but a very fun and friendly one, even given the fact that probably 40% of the attendees were Braves fans. People from all walks of life enjoying a sporting event together. Great stuff.

The next morning, we hit the airport way early; Adam headed to D.C. to see family, me headed home. How early? By the time the planes left, USA Today had not made it into the airport yet! The early morning crowd was groggy, but also friendly and chatty as we waited for the plane. Many people seemed to know each other, and I learned that about half the plane's passengers had spent the night unexpectedly in Miami after their flight had been cancelled. Bad weather at O'Hare.

So, I get to Chicago, and my commuter to Springfield is cancelled. No problem, just rent a car and drive the 3-4 hours, since the next flight was not for 4 hours and I only could get standby tickets. Ooops. No rental cars at any agency: the prior evening's cancellations had wiped out their inventory.

Plan C: Cab downtown to Union station to take Amtrak. Now, those of you who fly regularly AND take Amtrak (particularly if its not on the East Coast) understand what I'm about to say.

I made a lot of new friends.

The train crowd is hugely different than the plane crowd, but on the whole, a lot more fun. Chatty, friendly, odd, wonderful, and intensly interesting is how I would describe my 3 hours in the waiting area. Then the four hour train trip was a combination of sleep, a bit of work and listening to the conversations between passengers about Harley's, Medicare, Amtrak, family troubles, being on parole, serving in Vietnam, and on and on.

My point? Three places: Dolphin Stadium, Miami International, and Union Station. People brought together making community where they were, helping each other, enjoying each other, seemingly (or at least temporarily) ignorant of race, class, income level.

It gave me hope.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The May 4 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy brings a disturbing report of increasing distrust of nonprofits. Harris Poll Interactive's most recent DonorPulse survey (done quarterly) found, among other things that:

27% of Americans do not believe that charities were "honest and ethical in their use of donated funds"

32% feel that the nonprofit world has "Pretty seriously gotten off in the wrond direction."


9 in 10 of those surveyed had made a charitable donation in the past year, up from 8 in 10 in the prior quarter.

In looking at this survey, I see a reflection of our disdain for Congress. Seriously. When you look at polls of voter satisfaction with congress, they rate just above slugs. But 90% of congress (when they run for re-election) is re-elected every term. Why? Because while we may dis the institution, we want our elected representatives back in, because they bring home the pork, and we know that the longer they are in congress the more pork we get.

Same thing here: Americans are concerned with nonprofits in GENERAL, but will continue to give to THEIR nonprofit (their church, their arts organization, their school).

That aside, these kinds of results do mean that the public a: will support legislation that "cracks down" on nonprofits, and b: that donations from individuals to NEW nonprofits may be much more difficult to achieve.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Donors Choose Challenge

I've always loved Donors Choose, since it is quintessential net: take the middle man (er..person) out of fundraising.

Today I got a note from Michael Stein, a nonprofit tech consultant who is committed to raising funds for San Francisco schools. Good for him. Here's his challenge page. You can see what kind of things Michael's challenge will go to. I urge you to check it out, and if you have an affinity with kids, with San Francisco, or with public education, think about a donation.

As the father of three kids who attended underfunded public schools, and the husband of a 35 year public school special ed teacher, I can go on for about 20,000 pages about how much more we need to focus on focused public education funding. Just throwing money at schools isn't the answer, even though they are seriously underfunded on the public priority scale. Focus is the key and Donors Choose is a great way to get at that issue.

One of my favorite all time bumper stickers is this:
"It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they need and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale to buy an aircraft carrier."

But since policy makers in government don't truly get this, it's up to us as individuals to try to help where we can.....

Hmm. Sounds like a lot of the nonprofit sector.

You go, Michael.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Times they are (Not) changing

Saturday night was my youngest child's senior prom. Caitlin's headed to Boston in the fall to attend BU. Change, change, change. Sunday, I spent some time working in my garden...a flawless day here in Central Illinois.

The prom got me thinking yet again about how fast time passes. Caitlin was putting on plays in pre-school about 48 hours ago. And yet time returns, in an annual rhythm. The garden had me thinking about that.

We've made so much progress in the nonprofit sector in Caitlin's lifetime. Better run organizations, more academic centers, more transparency, outcome measures, MSO's. But at the same time, we're just going round and round in so many ways, fiscal year after fiscal year. Poverty and homelessness are still there, and growing, even here in the richest country in history. Funders are even more suspicious than they were 10 years ago, and the press is mixed at best.

Over all, are we better at what we do? In terms of real outcomes?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Addicted to Admin Costs

Over the past few years, I've watched more and more funders, regulators, media and online watchdogs become more and more addicted to admin costs and admin percentages as the preferred (and sometimes only) measure of nonprofit excellence, competence, or even morality.

I've seen senators ask nonprofit execs about their admin costs. I've talked with reporters who focus on that number. I've read funding requirements that push the allowed admin costs down, down, down.

Now we have accounting firms who are helping nonprofits adjust and move costs around to make their admin costs come within the "preferred" range.


OK, let me be clear:

Using admin costs as a metric is dumb. It doesn't tell you anything of value, unless you look at the number over time for the same agency. Comparing your agency to mine on the basis of admin percentage is meaningless.

Using admin costs as your only metric is really dumb. As I said to an audience recently, it is about as good as deciding whether to buy this car or that one based on the weight of the vehicles. What do you learn? What do you ignore?

Pushing down admin costs with no idea what a good number is, is ignorant. I have yet to have anyone tell me what a "good" admin % really is, have anyone define how to calculate the % consistently, have anyone be able to defend their choice of a good admin % at say 18% or 25%. What's FedX's admin cost? Or Southwest Airlines? They're unarguably well run organizations. What are their admin percentages? Take a look -- they're more than 18%....

My observation is that most nonprofits are under-administered, not over administered. The relentless push to lower admin costs is resulting in less and less management hiring, overworking senior managers who are leaving the sector....and this is a good thing? How? I hear from execs constantly that they would love to do x or y, but can't since it will raise their admin costs above the allowed percentage....

This is weakening the sector. It is not making better, more effective organizations.

The reason people focus on admin costs is that it is quick, easy, simple, does not require a lot of differentiation and thought. But its worthless as a measurement of goodness, of efficiency, of good stewardship. Even in franchise nonprofits like the YMCA's or Easter Seals, one organization is different from another. Moreover, there is no really accepted way of measuring these costs. So apples to apples? Ha.

Enough on this for today. It makes my head hurt.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Gorging on my mind

While I've been away, there have been a spate of articles on high-flying nonprofit CEO's whose salaries are seriously out of control. Obviously, this is bad for the sector in a bunch of ways. It makes the public, donors, regulators, the press, and elected officials buy into the perception that nonprofits are trying to scam everyone.

While I certainly do NOT subscribe to the current mania about low admin costs (I'll post on that tomorrow), and while I also understand the the vast majority of nonprofit execs are vastly underpaid, I really hate to see examples like those that have run recently: A $4M agency with an exec benefiting (from low salary, but huge corporate co-mingling) to the tune of $900k per year; an exec of a $5M agency getting salary, benefits and bonus of over $500,000 (talk about getting your admin costs up!).

This, of course, is nothing new, and has zip to do with Enron, etc. In any group of people there are a small number of scoundrels, and most laws and regulations punish the 97% of us who are honest for the 3% of us who aren't.

But, it does make me very, very sad, and often really angry. I hope you feel the same way.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Back for real

OK, so the book took longer than I thought, planned, or wanted. But I think it's pretty good and I am excited to see how it turns out after some good editing.

Anyway, thanks to all of you for your notes and comments. And your patience. But I'm back at it and will post regularly from now on.

First thing to bring to your attention is the terrific new Communique #5 from ListeningPost on the difficulty that nonprofits have accessing capital. A must read for funders, board treasurers and CEO's. It's in .pdf form at

Also, my May newsletter is out--this month on Boards who Cross the Policy vs. Management Line.

If you missed a few while I was gone, here are links to the last three issues --and the subjects of the issues.

April-Staff Satisfaction
March-Ethics and Management

See you more regularly!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Writing lots-just not here

I want to apologize to regular readers, many of whom have emailed me asking such questions as "Where are you?" or
"Are you OK?"

Yes, I am fine, I'm just taking a bit of a blog vacation while I finish up a book I'm working on, and that I'm very, very late on. First time I've ever been late on a book deadline and I feel terrible about it for my wonderful publisher.

So, regular readers, I'll be back. Can't tell you exactly when, but get the RSS feed from this blog, and you'll know.

In the interim, read my monthly newsletter

See you soon.