Your leadership elephant

Elephant

Is missing technology leadership in your organization shouting at you? The elephant says it is.

Chances are your organization doesn’t have people in senior leadership roles with experience in digital campaigning, technology development, or online movement building. No high-level ability to analyze and manage the relationship between technology and programmatic outcomes may be one of the greatest obstacles to organizational growth and success today. And too few are talking about it. Get your board and managers together and chances that visionary and capable leaders comfortable with technology are the elephant in the room.

Yesterday, NARAL Pro-Choice America announced that Ilyse Hogue will become its next president. Ms. Hogue brings deep campaigning experience and, notably, a background in meshing online and field systems to build movements, raise money, and change politics. I don’t know exactly why NARAL made this choice but I suspect that online experience played a role.

Technology is Pervasive

If you work with technology at all you likely are (or have been) overwhelmed by the complexity and variety of ways to solve every problem. Web and social media metrics, application development, video production, and even web design are just a few of nonprofit tech subjects that are continually evolving yet increasingly basic to digital advocacy and marketing. [Read more...]

Disrupting the Nonprofit Space

The civic hackathon in Denver this weekend is a great example of platform building: creating a space that enables others to directly tackle a community challenge.

One of the more exciting developments in the nonprofit space is the proliferation of non-nonprofit models for advancing a social sector mission. Some of those models are basically variations on private sector organizational models with a social mission twist. LC3s, or low-profit limited liability corporations, are one example. The B Corporation model, which requires a firm to have an explicit social or environmental mission and to consider broader social values when making decisions, is another. Some of the models dispense with the twist and instead go with a traditional corporate structure (often as an LLC) but explicitly incorporate a social mission

I’m seeing at least two other types of models, both of which are pretty exciting. Distributed network models rely on individuals that can be activated (or can choose to activate themselves) in ad-hoc fashion whenever the issue and circumstances inspire them to do so. I think the “free agent” idea that Beth Kanter and Alison Fine describe in The Networked Nonprofit is another way to describe this idea.

Another model that I find really interesting is more of a platform model; individuals or groups creating platforms that enable others to launch and execute their own projects. The platform models are often guided but with a light hand. My PlaceMatters colleague Jason Lally orchestrated a civic hackathon in Denver this weekend, bringing together software developers, web and mobile designers, and social advocates to build civic apps for the web and for mobile devices in a weekend-long marathon. He and his collaborators set the ground rules, created the space, and brought all the ingredients together, but the participants themselves decided what apps to actually build (the ideas that attracted the most people and the best talent were the ones most likely to be built). The Greenhouse Project, a Denver-based incubator for international development nonprofits, and RallyPad, an incubator for nonprofits and social ventures in San Francisco, are two more examples.

This is a cool model partly because the platform can take so many different forms: a permanent physical space (like an incubator), a relational platform (providing a network of relationships to tap into), and a convening (like a hackathon) among them.

I think the nonprofit world is in a state of disruption, in some ways like the disruption facing the publishing industry. Unlike the publishing industry, though, I don’t think nonprofits (and their advocates, like state nonprofit associations) quite realize just how deeply vulnerable the traditional model actually is. I suspect it’s inevitable that traditional nonprofits will diminish in significance relative to emerging social sector models, and whether the traditional 501c(3) structure remains viable at all will depend on their willingness to adapt. Either way, it’s going to be great fun watching the new models mature and even newer models surface.

Action. Not Membership.

In a recent interview with Wired, author and social analyst Clay Shirky was asked what his big takeaways were from recent events in the social media world. Shirky notes that the idea of membership has gone away but groups have not. He goes on to note that only groups can take coordinated actions in the world and there is opportunity to reinvent group action:

The other one is that the idea of membership has gone away.  Facebook is not very good at dealing with named groups, they’re not very good at saying, “We’ve got this book club and I’m a member and you’re not.” But membership is one of the precursors to a lot of social action. My bet is that the group pattern — the named group that can do things like open a bank account or take some kind of coordinated action in the world — is an overlooked pattern that someone is going to reinvent. 

Shirky says the idea of membership has gone away. Indeed. But if someone is willing to wear your “members only” jacket that is an action worth tracking.

Membership is already being redefined and reinvented as action. You don’t need to be a member (or wear the right jacket) to take action. But organizations need to pay close attention to actions, what makes them happen, where, when and how they impact their goals.

Membership is a term of relevance to organizations, not individuals. It’s time to reinvent membership. Maybe call it something else. Maybe not. At it’s core, membership is a relationship. Any relationship is built upon action. In nonprofits, sometimes the organization acts but more often individuals act. Organizations need to pay much better attention to the actions people take, why they take them, and how actions occur.

Action Matters

Email, the web, social networks and more have all changed the nature of communications between organizations and individuals. We don’t rely on newsletters to find out what’s going on. We don’t need to belong to an environmental group to know what’s happening to our favorite forest. We can Google it all in a few seconds, subscribe to any number of email lists, look for it on Facebook. Access to information has changed the need for and purpose of the membership relationship.

A greater change, however, is that one no longer needs to be a member to take action on an issue. This has been the case for years, of course. I get emails from the Sierra Club or a friend shares a link on Facebook. I click. I fill out a form and send a letter. I’m involved without being a member. This has been going on since the dawn of email list building time (olden times…the late-1990s).

In recent years this has evolved further as tools for creating the large-scale collective actions needed to change policy are made available to anyone through commercial endeavors (Care2 and Change.org, for example), open source software, and social networks like Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit and many more.

MoveOn and Upworthy are, to varying degrees, current examples of organizations that blend together third party content with some of their own content, add in some calls to action, and bake in a highly optimized social network oven to maximize sharing and drive more people to take action. MoveOn will ask you for money to support its campaign work but neither worries about membership. Both want you to act and relentlessly track what makes that happen.

Stop counting and start tracking

If action is the heart of a relationship we, as organizations, are fortunate. Nonprofits exist to take action and move people to action. We have the ability to track many, if not every, part of an action as a piece of data. With that data we can better understand what motivated people to action (and what didn’t), who took action (and who didn’t), and correlate messages, issues, people, places and more with the success we need (and learn from the failures that we don’t need…but are at least enlightening).

In other words, stop worrying about the number of people on the list and focus on actions.

To do this, we need clear goals and better attention to data.

There is too much data to make any sense of it all. First, have clear goals. If we want to change policy X then name that goal. Understand exactly who needs to act and where to change it. If we need to help 1,000 homeless people in December then name that goal and pinpoint exactly how many people need to act to make it happen. Only then can you know what data you need to track and how to set up your messaging to make tracking possible.

Second, organizations much invest in their ability to track, interpret and use data. Today, most every way organizations interact with individuals can be tracked in metrics baked into email, web, and social media. There are limits to how far we can track users. There are privacy issues. There are problems with how well CRMs track, report and integrate with other data sets. Yet most obstacles are internal and can be resolved.

Too many organizations look at online communications and behavioral data with the jaded eye of the old-time coaches and managers in Moneyball. Data (proof) on the latest month of social media sharing is discarded with a “well, my issue matters most so let’s just keep talking about it.”

Today, we have powerful data about actions and the strength of relationships between organizations and individuals. We have a long way to go but only by tracking, segmenting, and testing can we improve. Organizations must step up their investment in data, make staff comfortable with it, use it. Strong data insights applied to clear goals will drive action, strengthen relationships and help organizations succeed in a world where membership is less important.

 

Innovation storytime: How a 155 year old magazine is kicking bootie online

Want to stop worrying about SEO, have your content shared widely, and become a key source of information by your most desired audience? Here are a couple ways:

Create great content (be it written, video, audio, photos, cartoons, whatever). In particular, craft wonderful stories about timely events that your readers care deeply about.

Basically, all content is now social. What is shared is what people find worth sharing.

The act of a person sharing builds your network of readers and someone that has found your content worth sharing (and one that has found it through a friend) is likely a more committed reader than one that clicks a search link or ad.

This seems to be a lesson from recent experience at The Atlantic. Since taking down its paywall in early 2008, The Atlantic’s web audience has grown from 500,000 to 13.4 million monthly visitors.

Sector leaders are those taking advantage of intersection of great content and social interaction

The Atlantic’s growth happened in many ways but the growth parallels the rapid rise of social networks, namely Facebook and Twitter. The Atlantic invested heavily in creating high quality online content by having high profile writers create content specifically for it’s main website and also launching new online-only properties.

This investment in online content happened alongside the growing social networks becoming the primary forum for reader sharing and discovery of stories. Timely, well-written content begs to be shared in an environment where readers can and want to tell friends/networks about the stories they are reading and experiencing.

It’s no coincidence that The Atlantic’s growing online presence parallels the growth of social networks. The growth of Huffington Post, Mashable, and many other online content sources has come at the same time and they, too, have placed a premium on sharing (across the board quality is debatable).

This shift doesn’t come easy

But The Atlantic remains an anomaly because its roots are as an old guard print magazine founded in 1857…not quite 150 years before some of the leading online only news sources of today. The changes that The Atlantic did not come easy and may have even come through a bit of desperation. In fact, the 2007 “digital first” strategy announced by The Atlantic was explained in part as “…it’s easier to be ‘digital first’ when your legacy business is not strong, when you have nothing to defend…but red ink.

It’s probably fair to say that this was a big change for The Atlantic. For writers and other staff, both new and old, this was likely a seismic shift. Established journalists and columnists becoming bloggers. The injustice of it all.

We bring this up because many (if not most?) nonprofits are adapting and innovating far too slowly, if at all, to the changing world of online communications, conversation and sharing.

Like The Atlantic, nonprofits are publishers

Don’t kid yourself by saying that nonprofits aren’t publishers like magazines. Of course you’re not a magazine (though The Atlantic is no longer just a magazine). Yet one can argue that everyone with a website is a publisher.

Plus, we can think of many groups that for decades invested heavily in print magazines and newsletters (and STILL ARE… really) as a primary channel for communicating with members and the public.

All organizations with content and social want their audience to share, tweet, and generally spread the word. They want likes and comments that are seen by networks of followers. They want to be tagged. They want to be talked about because this spreads word down and through networks.

Not all organizations view it quite this way or use these terms (networks, campaigns, shares, engagement pyramids) but this is what anyone posting content to Facebook is all about: interacting with audience networks to spread the word.

An equation for consideration: Content plus Social equals Engagement

Put it all together and there has never been a better time for compelling writing, video, and images to help advance advocacy, change, and direct action. Our online networks, email, and nonstop mobile information access allow us to reach, talk with, move and engage people at all times and in countless ways.

What is holding organizations back? Great content and a people-driven social perspective. 

The changes needed are not insignificant. When it comes to content, many organizations are still staffed for and creating print-driven pieces: often good stories but rarely online-ready. Online content (blog posts, advocacy pieces, research articles) are tacked onto the responsibilities of policy people or organizers that aren’t storytellers by trade (and, lets face it, often not good writers).

Meanwhile, social media efforts are driven by numbers of likes or fans, bounce from platform to platform (let’s get on Pinterest…how about an Instagram campaign), and often don’t do the little things right (pre-built Twitter share links, anyone?).

We’re anxious to see an organization go “all in” with content and social, maybe even take on a sort of Digital First strategy. Most nonprofits have great potential: they’re not selling things but rather hope, change, and actions that result in happier, safer, and stronger communities — shared values we can all get behind.

* Photo by Erin Kohlenberg

The scarcest resource at nonprofits is bandwidth. Period.

Ever been in or around a nonprofit and heard something like:

Think of what we could do if we raised another $500 (or $50,000 or $5,000,000)!

What would you do?

In our experience, the answer is often something like “we would do this new campaign or program by hiring another person or part-time researcher or a consultant.” Or the need for new money/people is driven by the desire to take on a new project.

Let’s face it, ambition and heart are huge in most organizations. Nonprofits and the people in them want to do good. One more campaign. One more program. We can do it.

Stop. Organizations (even, ahem, cushy ones) are stretched thin. Even if you’re managing time well and not burning out chances are good that you’re tackling too much and maybe turning out some mediocre results (which, by the way, would probably be improved by the extra funding that would pay for more people – right?).

You never ever have enough bandwidth

This piece is inspired by Mark Suster’s recent piece on the scarcity of management bandwidth at startups. Mark points out that as a VC he meets with leaders of new companies all the time and his most common reaction to hearing them describe what they’re doing is basically, “whoa, that’s way too much.”

At a tech startup this is seen most often in new features. Every new feature, project, or marketing idea adds complexity and, most likely, is something that will need to be supported forever regardless of whether or not it works.

Complexity adds to staff time which is a burden on management. A new idea or project (no matter how brilliant) is a shift of focus. Even if you cut previous programs you’re redirecting staff and management time to something new and adding to lead time.

The time and mental energy it takes to get a project rolling is rarely accounted for in nonprofits (or startups, apparently). Shifting gears (or adding gears, as the case may be) means more planning, more meetings, more reporting. Less doing.

Mark Suster focuses on scarce management bandwidth at startups. And for good reason. I think the problem at nonprofits is bandwidth in general. This can inevitably become a debate over scarce resources (if only we had more money, better computers, better facilities, more volunteers) and for some direct service agencies its true that more resources often means more service provided and more people helped.

Yet in most cases this is an issue of not focusing, unclear goals, weak management, being pushed by leaders (inside CEOs and outside funders, for example) to do more. Resulting work can often be of the mile wide and inch deep variety – broad but shallow.

Many startups will flounder and go out of business at this point as revenue/capital/enthusiasm dry up. Nonprofits, however, can plod along with diminished resources. This may create a culture of diminished expectations, where doing okay is worth a pat on the back, a raise or, heck, a step up into directing programs.

Bandwidth is precious. You get used to stretching it, doing too much, accomplishing less than you should.

Protecting and creating bandwidth

What’s to be done? Here are a few ideas.

  • Say no. That is hardly as easy as it sounds. We know that all too well.  But pushing back on ideas (however great) and requests is the best way to stay focused and not get spread thin. This means saying no or some version of it to staff, board, donors, community leaders and more. If you have clear, program-driven explanations people will understand and probably even appreciate your focus and honesty.
  • Realize that “nonprofit management” is an oxymoron. Nobody gets into nonprofit work because they love management. Few people with nonprofit management responsibilities receive training or support. Most just end up responsible for a team and would rather be doing direct work themselves. This means that as a leader/manager you need to be willing to seek out and accept help in becoming a better manager. And trust your team to do more of the direct work.
  • Make timesheets matter. This isn’t the same as “make sure everyone fills out a timesheet.” No no no. If staff can’t stand timesheets its probably because they don’t seem to matter. It is an HR or grant reporting thing. As a manager, sit down with staff and figure out how to connect time to goals and outcomes. What is the work that actually goes into getting a job done? Be creative with tracking time and continually reflect back with the team on how time connects to outcomes.
  • Kill regularly scheduled meetings and conference calls. Or at least shed some of them. Ever notice that a new project often means a new weekly conference call (and dozens of emails ahead of time to figure out when to have that call/meeting)? Is work getting done in those regular meetings? Or are they “check-ins?” Think carefully about who is there, why, and if you need to meet at all.
  • Reflect. Reassess. Repeat. Get into the habit of checking on progress towards goals, what’s getting your team there and what’s getting in the way. Do more of the former that’s getting you there and less of the latter. Genius. Not really. But we’re surprised by how often it’s simply assumed that work and being busy equals progress. Further, try not to set up weekly check-in meetings to assess progress. See above. Have more conversations. Ask pointed questions. Listen more and listen well.
Good luck and back to work.

Photo: Drowning under a mountain of paper by net_efekt, Flickr.

Our First Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit Hits the Streets (and Barnes & Noble)

The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble ($4.99)!

Yesterday Trey and I launched our first book, The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, with a ton of help from our Bright+3 colleague Ted Fickes.

We’re only a day into it, but it’s been great fun so far: a ton of awesome reviews on Amazon, a bunch of great Twitter traffic, and even an unsolicited and really favorable full-on book review (thanks Bonnie Cranmer!).

In addition, I now have a “Jacob Smith” author page on Amazon. I wasn’t expecting much when I logged in to set it up, but I must not have paid author pages much attention previously because it turns out they’re actually set up pretty well. In addition to what you’d expect (profile, photo, etc.), they also allow you to bring in a Twitter feed and an RSS feed, which is a nice touch.

And great news if you are a Nook fan: The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble!

The book is in review at Apple, and as soon as it launches there we’ll announce it.

We’re thrilled to sent our little book out into the world, and we welcome your comments, critiques, and thoughts … send them our way:

  • email: authors@nimblenonprofit.com
  • Twitter: #nimblenpo
  • web: http://brightplus3.com/

The First Bright+3 Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit

I am thrilled to announce the launch of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit.

The nonprofit world truly is in a state of flux. Much of what used to work doesn’t anymore. The need to invest in growing ass-kicking staff and to develop sustained organizational capacity has never been greater, yet the difficulties of doing so are growing as quickly as the need. In The Nimble Nonprofit we cover a wide range of what we believe are critical challenges facing the nonprofit sector:

  • cultivating a high-impact innovative organizational culture;
  • building and sustaining a great team;
  • staying focused and productive;
  • optimizing your board of directors;
  • creating lasting relationships with foundations, donors, and members;
  • remaining agile and open; and
  • growing and sustaining a nimble, impactful organization.

We mean for The Nimble Nonprofit to be a guide – an unconventional irreverent, and pragmatic guide – to succeeding in a nonprofit leadership role, and to tackling this incredibly challenging nonprofit environment. We aimed for a conversational, practical, candid, and quick read instead of a deep dive. If you want to immerse yourself in building a great membership program, or recruiting board members, or writing by-laws, there are plenty of books that cover the terrain (and some of them are quite good).

But if you want the no-nonsense, convention-challenging, clutter-cutting guide to the info you really, really need to know about sustaining and growing a nonprofit, well, we hope you’ll check out The Nimble Nonprofit.

This is our first book, and the publishing industry is a state of disarray, so – following the spirit in which we wrote the book – we are taking an unconventional path. We decided to publish strictly as an e-book, and we decided to self-published (with a bunch of help from Ted here at Bright+3). We are offering the book through the big three e-bookstores (Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, and we might add a few more to the mix), and we’ve priced the book at $4.99, which is much less expensive than the vast array of other nonprofit books.

As of right now, the book is available on Amazon (and it’ll hit the other two stores shortly). If you’d like to score a copy of The Nimble Nonprofit and enjoy reading it on your Kindle, iPad, or another tablet, jump on Amazon and grab it (did I mention it’s only $4.99?).

And, because our main goal is contributing to the conversations around these critical questions, we are also making a .pdf version of the book available for free.

We suspect that most readers will agree with some of what we argue and disagree with other parts, and because we challenge much of the conventional wisdom about building strong nonprofits, we’re pretty sure that some folks will disagree with a lot of what we write. And we look forward to the conversations. Please send us your thoughts, critiques, comments, and ideas

  • email: authors@nimblenonprofit.com
  • Twitter: #nimblenpo
  • web: http://brightplus3.com/

Tell us where you think we’re wrong and where we’ve hit the nail on the head, and please share with us other examples of nonprofits doing a great job of tackling these challenges and where they are just getting it wrong.

Happy reading -

Jacob

(P.S. The Nimble Nonprofit is available right now on Amazon.)

Rethinking Responsibility and Authority in the Online Organization

Seth Godin recently wrote about authority and responsibility in organizations. Achievers in traditional organizations, Godin says, lobby for more authority in order to get things done. In the top-down organization, one needs authority to act, build, implement. This structure doesn’t necessarily work in rapidly evolving and growing organizations, including nonprofits and others working to adjust to the impact of online networks. As Godin put it:

“Management by authority is top-down, risk-averse, measurable and perfect for the org chart. It’s essential in organizations that are stable, asset-based and adverse to risk.”

Those that demand responsibility should be granted authority, Godin concludes.

Having spent most of my career in and around nonprofit organizations that are “stable [more or less], asset-based [sorta] and adverse to risk [highly]” this got me thinking about the different natures of authority and responsibility in organizations, particularly those struggling to adapt to, integrate and manage digital programs and teams.

Perhaps the key word here is adapt. Online communications is a young and rapidly changing field. Few organizations had websites or email lists just 12 or 15 years ago. Those groups that created a website ten years ago have probably rebuilt it three or four times since (and are likely about the redo it again soon). Facebook, Twitter and much of what we call social media didn’t exist five years ago.

Today, more first gifts are coming in online than off. Organizations have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube pages and more. Time and money are going into growing these networks, text messaging/SMS, iPhone apps and more. Meanwhile, it’s unclear who is doing what, how much it is worth, how to budget and staff for it all and whether this is a communications, development or policy department role.

In other words, rapid change is afoot and is pressuring organizations, boards, staff, budgets and plans. It is changing the expectations of members, activists and donors. People are scrambling to respond but evolving slowly, if at all.

Responding means adaptation, testing, rapid learning and, increasingly, the ability to empower staff (and even outsiders) to speak for the organization on social networks and online media.

Authority-driven hierarchies don’t work well when a premium is placed on rapid learning and adaptation. They assume that the people at the top (organizational leaders and middle managers that might run departments or teams) have complete understanding of the problem at hand, the tools needed to tackle it and what staff need to do.

Does the rapidly changing nature of online run afoul of most organizational structures? Quite possibly. Online teams and structures vary but are generally placed somewhere in an IT or communications department and responsible to the authority of someone with minimal experience in online networks. Online teams may be given responsibility (to put together emails, run Facebook pages, create web content) without clear authority over resources or strategy.

The networked nature of social media can add to the complexity for these organizations. Most everyone – not just online or communications staff – is present on social networks and talking about the issues that concern them, including those of the organization. Activists and donors are on the networks. All of them are tied to the organization and can be speaking on its behalf but how does an organization manage them? It’s hard enough (or impossible) to “manage” staff in other departments. Managing those outside the organization won’t happen. Many organizations fall back to not engaging those outside in a meaningful way. It limits potential but avoids messiness and time-consuming interaction.

Does this mean organizations should dissolve hierarchy, eliminate management/directors/supervisors and watch themselves slip into chaos? Probably not.

But isolating online in a single authority-based team limits the ability of the organization to adapt, grow and share responsibility across (and beyond) the organization. Indeed, responsibility for much of what we think of as “online” rests in many places. Most staff are potential online organizers, communicators and fundraisers. Encourage their responsibility to act appropriately and independently without relying on authority to act.

And online teams themselves are (or should be) stocked with people that are highly engaged online and understand trends. Encourage them to take responsibility for adaptation, innovation and success by granting authority to make decisions and lead. If this threatens authority placed in traditional management positions then deal with that. Online moves fast and the adaptive teams and organizations will come out ahead.

Innovate and Thrive: A look at “The Future of Nonprofits”

The Future of Nonprofits

The Future of Nonprofits - a deep but very readable dive into organizational innovation

Innovation. Innovation. Innovation. Change. Move forward. Adapt. These are big themes in nonprofits – all organizations – these days. Especially innovation (hence stating it three times). The product, services and constituent landscape is changing very quickly.

How do organizations keep up? How, really, do they stay at all relevant in the eyes of their community, members, donors and clients?

Innovation is a key piece to be sure. And innovation – what it is, how to support it and how to make it work for organizations today – is the core of The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age by David Neff and Randal Moss.

This is a book well worth getting into the hands of your executive director, board chair, other leaders and, well, give it a read yourself while you’re at it (assuming you’re not one of those head honcho types). Fact of the matter is that innovation can and should be pushed from all corners of organizations – every staff person, volunteer, board member and constituent. But, as Neff and Moss point out, “real” innovation must have leadership buy-in and ongoing support. [Read more...]

Mergers and Acquisitions in the Nonprofit World

I don’t know if the pace of nonprofit mergers and acquisitions across the sector is increasing, but I’ve been personally involved in more over the past few years (two) than in the previous fifteen (none). Mergers and acquisitions are still pretty uncommon, I think, and I’m not clear what relationship those trends have to comparable trends in the private sector. The market pressures of the nonprofit sector are notoriously bizarre, and traditional market dynamics like economies of scale and market share just don’t apply in any particularly rational way. For example, because income for many nonprofit comes from philanthropic foundations and from individual donors, revenue often has a tenuous-at-best relationship to the market value of their offering. The value proposition for funders is often divorced from the quality of the service the organization provides, or the efficiency of its work, or the success of its advocacy efforts (although not necessarily divorced from the funders’ perception of those things).

As a result, the market pressures that often lead to mergers and acquisitions in the private sector don’t necessarily play out very consistently in the nonprofit world. But given how hard foundations have been hit by the recession, and given the continuing growth in just sheer numbers of nonprofits (the number of U.S. nonprofit organizations increased by 60% in the decade between 2000 and 2009), we suspect we’ll see more M&A in the coming years.

The first merger I was involved in (as a board member of the nonprofit I ran until 2007) was a solid success. It was really more of an acquisition: we absorbed the strongest programs and the associated program staff but not the other organization’s name or the pieces that didn’t fit well. I think the alignment in mission and organizational culture, as well as the ways in which the programs were complementary, made a big difference. Everyone – the boards and staff – took their time, and everyone on both sides worked pretty hard at building a new sense of camaraderie and shared organizational identity, which also made a big difference.

The second (between Center for Native Ecosystems and Colorado Wild) – a more conventional merger, with a new name and a combined board – is a work-in-progress, but so far everything looks really good. I’m much more of an observer than participant on this one, but they are following a similar playbook: measured and thoughtful, a lot of effort on making the programs and all the systems fit, and a lot of attention on creating a supportive sense of shared organizational culture. It’ll be a while before we get a real verdict, but the indicators are good so far.

But this is anecdotal, and while there is some discussion and a modicum of research (for example, Chronicle of Philanthropy maintains a blog on layoffs and mergers), I think the social sector would do well to invest some energy in learning from our own M&A activities . . . when does it seem to work well, when does it not, what lessons can we draw, and the like. I suspect, as well, that the nonprofit sector could learn a lot from the private sector about thinking strategically about mergers & acquisitions, how to avoid common pitfalls, and about how to make them work.