Just in case anyone is wondering…

July 25, 2008 at 11:48 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I haven’t disappeared, but the blig has stalled.  We were away on vacation for 2 weeks and came back to find out our childcare provider had closed up shop.  No child care means no blogging.

I hope to be back up and running soon.  Thanks for your patience.

Top Three Tuesday: Communicating a Nonprofit’s Value

June 24, 2008 at 8:59 am | Posted in The Big Picture | Leave a comment
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An article in the June 23rd edition of Nonprofit Times got me thinking about how nonprofits talk about themselves. I’ve always felt that nonprofits were at a disadvantage when it came to communicating their value. Businesses and corporations have dollars—profits and losses—that tell the world exactly how much they are worth. It’s easy to understand that if Business X is worth $500,000 and its competitor Business Y is worth $100,000, then Business X is worth more. (all things being equal, of course…)

But that’s not so easy with nonprofit organizations because value isn’t measured in dollars. In fact, there isn’t one standard tool that measures value among community benefit organizations. That’s largely due to the diversity of organizations in the sector; one is hard pressed to compare a national public policy think tank with a local food bank. They do much different work and their effectiveness is graded on completely different scales. The very thing that gives us strength is the thing that is our weakness as well. The average person can’t really understand the value and effectiveness of the nonprofit sector because we don’t have a standardized measure.

This makes it all the more imperative that nonprofit organizations communicate their value clearly and persuasively. Here are my top three tips for communicating value:

  1. Use the right word.

    This is kind of a no-brainer, because it applies to any type of communication: personal or professional. Using the right word allows you to be clear and concise and removes the element of interpretation from your communications.

  2. Use words with strong postitive connotations.

    For those of you who don’t remember your grade school English lessons, connotation is the feeling that a word has in addition to its meaning (denotation). Words may have the same meaning, but express different feelings. For example, in the nonprofit world, client base and service population mean the same thing. Yet, the feeling that the phrases conveys is different. As you decide how to communicate your work, use the word or phrase that conveys value.

  3. Use words that create images.

    I think part of the problem is that, although people who work in nonprofit organizations know their work is valuable, they forget that everyone else doesn’t. The rest of the world doesn’t live the reality of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, or lobbying for new legislation. The experience is abstract and therefore the work is devalued. Nonprofits can and should do a better job of communications about their work in ways that recreates the experience for the everyday person. It’s not just about feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, lobbying for legislation. It’s about giving strength, providing shelter and safety, and working for a better world.

 

What ideas or tips do you have for communicating value?

 

How something small can make a big difference

June 19, 2008 at 8:25 am | Posted in Policy | Leave a comment
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Since I graduated from public health school back in 2000, obesity prevention has become the hot issue. Food access and physical activity are the new “it” topics and everyone seems to have an idea about how to prevent obesity in children and adults.

Although I don’t claim to be an expert, I do know that the physical and social environment does heavily affect our food and activity choices. Consider how much more likely you’d be to eat fast food if there is a Wendy’s or Taco Bell near your home or work place. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum and it’s much harder to eat healthy food when it’s hard to get or expensive to buy.

That’s why I am thrilled to see that farmer’s markets in the Central California valley are now accepting food stamps. It’s a small, discrete, and relatively easy change to make in the overall food environment. But it can make such a huge difference when it comes to the way people eat! Low-income families, who are most affected by the price of food and least likely to be able to spend the extra dollar or five on fresh produce will now be able to do so. It’s not a panacea, but it is a step.

Get Rid of Ugly Wordiness, Nonprofit Edition

June 17, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Writing | Leave a comment
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Wordiness is the bane of nonprofit writing. They are driven by a mission, a desire to make the world a better place, and so they endeavor to jam every document with as much information as possible. Unfortunately, this makes for boring and confusing writing. The document—regardless if it’s a brochure, grant proposal, or policy paper—loses its audience and its effectiveness.

Inspired by an article on Poe War, I offer my own tips for getting rid of wordiness in nonprofit publications.

  1. Know your reader.

    Figure out who you want to reach and make sure that the entire document is written to appeal to that reader only. If you are writing a grant proposal, write for the foundation staff person, not for the board member.

  2. Have a definite purpose.

    Publishing something because it’s been written doesn’t make it worth publishing. A document should always be developed and written with a clear purpose in mind. Is the goal to raise money or to educate? Do you want to persuade the reader or inform them? What do you want the reader to do once they have finished the document? All of these questions can help guide the writing.

  3. Be direct.

    Nonprofits tend to pad their writing with a lot of extra information as a way to add context. Context is important, but so is directness and clarity. Statistics, background and stories do add valuable context to nonprofit writing, but this information should be limited to the most relevant information so that the reader doesn’t lose the main point(s).

  4. Consider how the document will be published.

    Once the document is written, will be published on the Web or will it be a paper publication? Writing for web is different than writing for paper and keeping the ultimate publication format in mind. If you need to repurpose a document for a different medium (web to print or vice versa), give it a thorough edit to make sure the writing fits the publication format.

  5. Edit, proofread, and then edit some more.

    No matter how concise we think the writing is, extra words always manage to sneak in. It’s a good practice to edit multiple times.

What tips do you have for getting the ugly out?

Health and Social Media

June 9, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I’ve seen a few stories recently about social media, medicine, and health. The California HealthCare Foundation recently released a report on the role of social media in healthcare delivery. And just today I found an article posted on InternetNews.com about the relationship between social networking and health care.

Wikipedia defines social networking as a set of activities that integrates technology, social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, audio, and/or video. Wikipedia is itself an example of a social networking site, since users are allowed to contribute and edit content. Popular example of social media include: Facebook, Flicker, Second Life, and Google Groups. Healthcare, on the other hand, seems antithetical to social media. Healthcare is a top-down, expert driven field where doctors, nurses, and pharmacists give and patients receive. How these two come together is naturally of interest.

As in all relationships, the tale of medicine meets media has its joys and sorrows. Here’s the breakdown of the good and the not-so-good.

Good

  • Blogs allow people to share their experiences and information with others in similar situations
  • Online forums create a space for people to share and discuss
  • Podcasts allow people to capture and carry audio files
  • Really Simple Syndication (RSS) allows for the aggregation of multiple sources of information
  • Social networking sites create a sense of community that transcends distance and time

The Not-So-Good

  • It can be hard to find actionable information
  • Misinformation abounds and accuracy of information is critical in healthcare
  • There is an individual component to health care that cannot be captured by groups

None of this is particularly surprising, of course. Many of the same accusations that have been leveled at Web 2.0 technologies apply here. There is an urgent quality to healthcare and medical treatment that—say cooking or electronics—just don’t have. An individual who finds the wrong information or assumes that someone else’s experience is an accurate gauge for his own is certainly annoying and problematic, but it can also have serious health implications. Not so for someone seeking to join a baking community online or share photos of the newest gadget.

If anything, the convergence of social media and healthcare remind all of us that it’s important to find a trusted source for information and to approach everything online with a healthy amount of skepticism. Social media can be extremely valuable in hooking us up with medical information and a community of people with common experiences, but as with all health issues, it’s no substitute for seeing a licensed qualified health professional.

So, How Do You Mobilize Change?

June 3, 2008 at 1:01 pm | Posted in The Big Picture | Leave a comment
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The Aspen Institute released a report of a set of policy proposals that could help strengthen the nonprofit sector and, by extension, US communities.   Out of the 10, here are the three that I like most:

Create a fund to support nonprofit development
I like this idea! Nonprofit are too often hampered by a lack of money and cannot grow when they need to most. They can’t hire staff, they can’t expand programs, and, ironically, they can’t write grants to get more money… so they soldier on trying to do more with what they have, sometimes even less. Creating an investment fund that nonprofits could tap into to help them grow would make a world of difference to the organizations I have worked with before. After all, there aren’t venture capital firms for the nonprofit sector.

Create a “Small Business Administration” to serve nonprofit organizations
I love the energy, commitment, and passion of the people working in start-up or small nonprofit organizations. They are dedicated and driven—and sometimes they even finance their nonprofit’s work out of their own pockets. The problem, however, is that they aren’t organized
or informed about how the nonprofit sector works or they are so overwhelmed with the program activities that their administrative activities are almost neglected. Granted, the Aspen Institute defined small as “less than $5 million in annual budget” and I know plenty of nonprofit organizations that have smaller budgets and still manage to run tight ships. But every single one needed some level of administrative support in order to run the business aspects of their organization better. Management and fiscal challenges seem to go along with the territory. But there is a better way and I think that some sort of national center on nonprofit operations, funded by the Federal Government, would make a big difference in helping nonprofits improve on the administrative front.

Recruiting and training the next generation of nonprofit leaders
By now, it has been well publicized that the nonprofit sector is on the edge of a leadership crisis. As Baby Boomers retire, the sector will need to attract more than twice the number of people than are currently employed. That is certainly daunting. Then, there is the fact that many nonprofit professionals are not ready to take over leadership roles from the Boomers. It’s hard to image being an Executive Director when your management and leadership experience to date has been limited.

I have to admit that my personal experience colors my support for this recommendation. As a nonprofit professional for many years, I became frustrated and then disenchanted at my options for upward mobility. I was ready to take on new challenges and flex my decision-making muscle. Yet, I found that positions were just not opening up and I was forced to chose whether I would stay in the same position for another year..or two…or five. Ultimately, I opted to practice executive decision-making by being the executive of my own business, but there are many nonprofit professionals out there who can’t afford to take the risk I did.

You can see the rest of the report here. The Aspen Institute’s report is a good one and I think it is on the right tracks with so many of its ideas. Of course, most, if not all, require government willpower, in the form of money or systems or both. That’s where the report doesn’t connect with reality for me. It just doesn’t seem likely that the Federal government, or heck, even California’s government, would invest that heavily in a sector that is seen as “charitable.”

I wonder what it would take to make those ideas into reality. Ideas?

What’s Left in Your Wallet? Hardship in the Current Economy

May 29, 2008 at 8:22 am | Posted in philanthropy | Leave a comment

Kasier Family Foundation, one of my favorite and most trusted sources of health/health policy-related news, released some figures recently about the effect that the economic “slowdown” is having on families. The increase in prices in fuel, food, and everyday good, coupled with a generally sluggish economy, has meant that paying for things like gas, groceries, and health insurance are getting harder and harder.

 

Almost 50% of those polled said paying for gas was a challenge—not surprising since gas in the SF Bay Area (where I live) is and has been more than $4/gallon for a while. That’s a full dollar higher than it was last year at this time. That means that a person with a 12 gallon gas tank who fills it up once a week pays over $600 more a year just for gas! And that’s being generous, I think. If you have fill up more often for whatever reason (larger car, drive more miles), that’s even more money out the door.

That’s just one clear effect of the increase in prices plus decrease in economic vitality. Then there are the more troubling effects: housing, food, and health insurance. 28% of respondents said they had trouble paying for health insurance, 19% had trouble paying for housing/mortgage, and 18% had trouble paying for food.

Why is this important to nonprofits? Because nonprofits are a lot like Blanche DuBois—they rely on the kindness of strangers. We need their generosity to keep our work going—the programs running, the phone connected, the lights on! But when times are tough, like they are now, however generous people may want to be, their wallets are empty and there’s simply not much left to give. And if it’s true that most donors are already carry some credit card debt (as hypothesized over at Don’t Tell the Donor), I have to wonder if it means that individual giving will take a downturn in the months ahead.

Why I am a Nonprofit Consultant

May 27, 2008 at 8:32 am | Posted in introduction, Philosophy | Leave a comment
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I’ve often considered what it is that led me to dedicate myself to the nonprofit sector rather than the private or business sector. Even as a consultant, technically a business owner, I still don’t really consider myself part of the business community. It’s a strange place to be in—trying to make a living working with agencies that typically don’t have much financial wiggle room.

Still, I feel compelled to stay connected to the nonprofit world. I love the energy, the focus, the idealism, and the commitment that permeates the sector. I love the people care enough to give up the “glamour” —and certainly the financial incentives— that come with a corporate job. And I love that being a nonprofit consultant allows me to serve those serving others.

Reports about the growth of the nonprofit sector indicate that people are joining nonprofit organizations in droves. Joanne Fritz, at About.com, noted that nonprofit employment is up while corporate employment is down. Lots of possible reasons why this could be…. The “half-empty” explanation is that government services are being cut and nonprofits are cropping up to fill the void. I suppose that’s part of the explanation.

Personally, I like to focus on the “half-full” explanation: that people are realizing that working for a cause you really believe it is its own reward. That’s why I’m here. I believe in the nonprofit sector and its ability to make a difference in the lives of real people, everyday.

Giving by Community Foundations is Up

May 22, 2008 at 7:54 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Looks like community foundations are more generous now than in recent years past. The Foundation Center is reporting that giving by community foundation rose 14% in 2007, for a total of $4.1 billion dollars. What’s more, the foundations surveyed said that they expect to give even more in 2008. 

These projectionsare based on responses to the Foundation Center’s 2008 “Foundation Giving Forecast Survey” from 214 of the nation’s largest community foundations, combined with year-end economic indicators. The outlook for 2008 giving is based on the responses of 197 larger community foundations.  If you want the full report, you can check it out on the Foundation Center’s website

That’s good news for nonprofit organizations.  It’s always good news when foundation giving is up.

Welcome to the Nonprofit Booster!

March 3, 2008 at 10:23 pm | Posted in introduction | Leave a comment
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The Nonprofit Booster is a blog that focuses on issues related to the nonprofit world. 

The blog is run by Nonprofit Writing Solutions, a communications consulting agency based in San Francisco, California.  For more information about Nonprofit Writing Solutions, please check out the website at www.NonprofitWritingSolutions.com.

More to be posted soon; please check back regularly!

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