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!