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.