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.)

Solving the Inbox Problem with Gmail Advanced Filtering

Left unmanaged, my email inbox begins to feel like this . . . (photo by flickr user tavarua).

Although at Bright+3 we tend to focus on organizational and campaign issues, we are just as much fans of better time management and workflow strategies as the next folks. My gmail inbox is a constant source of interruption and distraction, yet enough urgent emails land in my inbox that I don’t want to ignore it entirely. By identifying the specific people who might be sending me urgent emails, I am figuring, and filtering out everything else into another inbox, I can keep tabs on those urgent emails while only checking and dealing with the main flow of incoming email a few times a day.

I’ve found Gmail’s “Priority Inbox” to be useful, but it still displays plenty of emails that aren’t urgent. I started with an approach that Lifehacker (“Build advanced Gmail filters and persistent searches“) described, using advanced filtering to weed out any emails that didn’t come from the specified list of email addresses, but because it was based on the “From” field I ended up losing multi-person email threads. A variation that seems to avoid this problem relies instead on the “Doesn’t have” filter function:

-:{ bill@sky.com, sue@blue.com }

If an email or email thread contains any of the specified email addresses (in the From, To, Subject, or anywhere in the content), the filter skips it and it remains in my inbox. My inbox right now has five emails right now, a feat I haven’t accomplished since the last time I created a new email account.

Everything else skips the inbox and ends up with a “The Other Inbox” tag. This “inbox” gets pretty full, but I check that inbox and power through the emails just a few specific times a day, which helps protect me from my distraction-prone self.

One of the really helpful Lifehacker tips, by the way, is to use {} and () instead of “OR” or “AND.” Google applies the boolean operator “OR” to a list of terms within the the curly brackets and it applies “AND” to those within the parentheses. This provides the advantage of simply adding or deleting terms within the list rather than needing to add the boolean operator each time as well. This approach also lets me include other types of phrases in the search line. If there are specific keywords that might indicate urgency, for example, it’s easy to include them in the filter string.

It’s also quite easy in gmail to edit the filter anytime, so I can quickly adjust the list of search terms to reflect an issue that might be urgent on a particular day but not otherwise.

One problem – and I’d welcome suggestions – is that my sent emails end up in this new inbox, so I need to figure out an additional element to the filter that skips those.

It’s not perfect, but so far it’s helping me stay focused and ignore inbound emails except for just a few times a day but to still quickly notice the small number of truly urgent emails requiring more immediate attention.