Friday, October 28, 2011

What Nonprofits Can Learn from Political Campaigns

By Martin Wera, Program Director, Charities Review Council (@mjwera)

I love fall. I love seeing fields being harvested, the taste of Honeycrisp apples (take that SweeTango!), and the gentle bite of cold in the air. And, I have to admit it; I love the excitement of political campaigns as they hit fever pitch for Election Day. As a self-professed recovering political hack, there’s something indescribable about that final month of a campaign.

I’m also a nonprofit geek. (What can I say, I’m a man of many passions.) And this fall there have been some great conversations happening locally about collective impact sparked in large part to the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s United Front 2011.

We’re all familiar with the calls for nonprofits to learn from the for-profit sector (and vice versa), but it struck me while I was listening to Mark Kramer describe the 5 key qualities needed for collective impact at the United Front 2011 that there are some lessons the nonprofit sector could learn from the political sector too as it relates to collective impact. (Of course, I think there are a lot of things the political sector would do well to learn from nonprofits, but that’s for a later post.)

In the interest of space, I’m going to focus on just 3 of the 5 qualities that I think most directly connect.

1. Common Agenda (aka The Win Number)
To be successful, collective impact initiatives needs to have a laser focus on one shared vision or goal. This concept is at the forefront of every good political campaign as well. It’s called the win number and, simply put, it’s 50% of the vote plus 1. A lot of complex work can go into calculating the win number, but every staffer on a well-run campaign will know this number by heart and every action taken – from how much to spend on media to where to put field organizers – has to help get the campaign to this goal. If it doesn’t, forget it.

When collaborations fall short, it’s often because we didn’t take the time up front to get clear about a shared, specific goal AND use it as the criteria for every decision. It’s not enough to say we want to reduce homelessness among children by 50%, for example. We need to use that goal to drive every decision the group and the individual organizations make in getting there.

2. Shared Measurement Systems (aka The Voter File)
Just saying you need 50% plus 1 of the vote to win isn’t enough, you have to track it. And to do this political campaigns invest heavily in sophisticated data systems to track voters at the individual level – otherwise known as the voter file. Every time to get phone call, every time a campaign volunteer knocks on your door, it gets logged into the voter file. All of this data helps the campaign focus its resources on just those voters it needs to convince or mobilize in order to achieve its win number. (I’ll let you in on a tip. If you don’t want to get any mail, calls or door-knockers from campaigns, just tell them you’re voting for their opponent. They’ll never come back again.)

Buying a data system to track voters is usually the first thing a campaign does because it knows that without it, they’re effectively shooting in the dark. They also make sure that they can track their efforts down to the individual. Nonprofits need to learn to prioritize this too. Unless we can effectively track and share our data – down to the individual level – all the good intentions of the world will not get us to our shared goal.

3. Backbone Support Organizations (aka The Coordinated Campaign)
As political campaigns reach the final month, they begin their Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts, which often means a coordinated campaign effort. In simple terms, political parties (usually) will take charge of collecting all of the voter data collected from all of the different campaigns (another reason it’s important to have a shared measurement system) and take the lead in organizing how resources are going to be used to get their voters get to the polls. This way all of the campaigns know that efforts won’t be duplicated, people won’t be tripping over each other, and (hopefully) on Election Day they get to their win numbers.

The challenge, of course, with a coordinated system like this is that you have to cede a certain amount of control. No longer are the smaller, local campaigns for state representative, for example, calling their own shots. It’s now part of a larger effort. But there’s an understanding that by coordinating, everyone is more likely to win.

Steve Boland wrote a great blog about the need to fund backbone organizations, which I completely agree with, but I also think the sector needs to get more comfortable with giving up some level of organizational control when engaging in collective impact. It’s not enough to have a backbone organization; it needs to have the buy-in from the members to depend on it, which can mean putting the individual organization’s need for control on the back-burner.

Like I said earlier, I think there is a lot that the political world can learn from the nonprofit sector – things like meaningful community engagement techniques, building long-term, trusting relationships in under-represented communities, and effective ways to leverage volunteer skills. But I do believe that the nonprofit sector would do well to look at how political campaigns can leverage money and people in short periods of time to accomplish remarkable things. I think this conversation on collective impact is an exciting one and I’d be curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this too.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What's Really Needed for Innovation?

By Martin Wera, Program Director, Charities Review Council (@mjwera)

Calls for innovation are all around us. Turn on the radio or TV, and you hear politicians calling for policy changes to spur economic growth through innovation. Read blogs or newspapers, and you see demands for schools to innovate in order to address educational disparities. And, of course, the nonprofit sector is also caught up in the wave as many are developing new, innovative programming to address social issues.

I don't have an answer for how to spark innovation in the nonprofit sector, much less anywhere else. But I do think there is an interesting conversation to be had around how to remove barriers to innovation - especially for the nonprofit sector - and allow creativity to flourish that I'd like to get started here.

Innovation and creativity
Innovation comes from the Latin word innovare for "to renew or change." This change, at its core, is a creative process. Something new is being brought into the world by the efforts of one person or (as is more common) countless people working in cooperation. And, of course, creativity is a necessary ingredient to this creative process - you need to be able to think outside the norm in order to find innovative solutions. So, if you accept the logic that you need creativity to innovate, then the question we need to ask is really how do you best spur creativity?

To answer this, we need to take a short (but interesting) detour. So, please stay with me.

Motivation and Creativity
In his book, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," Daniel Pink posits that humans have built an economic system that works on an "if-then" equation. If you do something good, then you get rewarded (e.g. you meet your annual performance goals at work, you get a bonus). If you do something poorly, then you get punished. What research has started to show is that while this system can work well in certain situations to motivate people, it can also actually work against high performance in other situations.

For tasks that are routine, motivating people with "if-then" rewards results in higher productivity, which makes sense. If someone is paid for each widget they make, and there's just one way to make a widget, then they probably will be motivated to make more of them. However, for tasks that require basic cognitive thinking and creativity, research shows that people actually perform worse when their pay is directly tied to an "if-then" situation. In other words, if solving a problem requires thinking of an out-of-the-box solution, then motivating people with a carrot or a stick actually makes the situation worse. (Here's a short video explaining this phenomenon.)

So what does this have to do with innovation in the nonprofit sector?
A huge portion of nonprofit funding is an "if-then" scenario. Government contracts are largely designed to reimburse the nonprofit when a service is completed. Pay-for-performance grants, which are now gaining some attention, also work on a similar model. Individual donors increasingly want to fund only proven programs and none of the overhead costs to administer these programs.

At the same time, the issues nonprofits are tackling are becoming more complex and demand new, innovative solutions. But if the above research is right, then most of the funding sources available to nonprofits are actually hampering the ability of the sector to tap into the creativity it needs.

Daniel Pink outlines three concepts that the research shows are important to people not only being satisfied in their work, but also high performing. If people have autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work, they can better tap into the creativity needed to be successful. I think that there is a similar thing to be said for nonprofit organizations (after all organizations are comprised of people). Here is my take on how these three concepts would relate to the nonprofit sector.

  • Autonomy - Allow people to be self-directed and they outperform others that are micro-managed. In terms of funding for nonprofits, general operating funds are the resources that allow for the greatest autonomy. I know it's very easy to say foundations, government and donors should give more general operating grants, but it's time go back to basics and allow nonprofits the freedom to best identify how to use funding. (Related to this, there's a lot to be said about engaging community about what they want the nonprofit to be doing as is articulated in this really interesting blog out of Australia.)

  • Mastery - We all want to feel like we are getting better at what we do. On the flip side, we can all conjure up a time we felt like we were set-up to fail and not given the support to succeed. In translating this to the nonprofit sector, helping organizations approach mastery is capacity building. Unlike the disappearing gen-op grant, more grant makers have started funding capacity building for its grantees. However, this is still a small number and there is a much greater need. If the philanthropic sector wants success, we need to commit more resources to improving the nonprofit sector as a whole.

  • Purpose - This one may seem like a given in relation to the nonprofit sector (after all, many people working in the nonprofit sector started out doing so because of a sense of purpose), but I think there is something more here. The past few years have pulled the curtain back on a number of nonprofits that were just fundraising to stay afloat rather than to address a community need. When this happens the social purpose of the organization is compromised. As a result, many of these organizations have decided to close down, merge or form strategic alliances, which helps gets the focus back on the mission - the social purpose - and away from just raising money to keep the doors open. Some funders have started to dedicate resources to helping nonprofits explore and carry-out mergers. This trend needs to continue.

I believe that the nonprofit sector's potential for innovation is greater than any one of us can imagine, but the way organizations are currently funded is counter-productive to fostering the creativity needed to break through to new solutions.

I know this is only a start, but even the biggest ideas start out small.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tips for Smart Giving During Give to the Max Day 2011

Individuals and nonprofits from all over Minnesota are gearing up for this year’s much anticipated Give to the Max Day (GTMD) on November 16th, but how can you make the most of your donations on this special day?

With the smashing success of the past two Give to the Max Days, this year there is much to look forward to—and hopefully new records to break. To freshen your memory, in 2009 more than $14 million was raised for Minnesota charities in 24-hours – and more than 3,400 Minnesota nonprofits benefited from contributions made by more than 38,000 donors (making it the most successful place-based online fundraising drive in history—anywhere). Last year, the bar was raised with more than 42,000 individual donors participating and more than $10 million was raised for Minnesota charities.

To help break these past records, here are three tips for being smart with your Give to the Max Day donations:

1. Keep an eye out for Minnesota’s Most Trustworthy Nonprofits by looking for the Meets Standards Seal on a nonprofit’s GiveMN page:

2. During GTMD, donate to your favorite organization during “off hours” (e.g. 2am!) to help your chance at winning a “golden ticket (throughout the 24-hour Give to the Max Day, one donor will be randomly chosen every hour to have $1,000 added to their donation).

3. Rally your friends, family, and co-workers together to join you in your efforts of supporting your favorite organization. The more donations your favorite organization gets, the better chance it has at winning a $15,000, $10,000 or $5,000 prize grant (which will be going to nonprofits that receive the most dollars during GTMD—for more details read here).

With records to break, causes to support, and money to raise, how will YOU make a difference during this year’s Give to the Max Day?

Pam Anderson of Helping Paws talks about why they use GiveMN: