Doubling Attendance in One Year: A Success Story

Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History attendance numbers.
I’m an unabashed Nina Simon fan, and I love this post on her Museum 2.0 blog about their growth in visitor numbers, how they pulled off the impressive growth she describes, and their plans for next year. This is the type of candid, under the hood, here’s-what-we-did-what-worked-and-what-didn’t writing that I think we need much more of in the nonprofit world.

The “five great ways to do something” lists (guilty), the “a great example of doing it wrong” posts (guilty), the big picture trends stories (guilty) … all of these can be useful, but often I find the posts that lay it all out there – good and bad, lessons learned, what they’re going to try next – to be the most helpful. There isn’t anything else like it: real social sector folks describing concretely and candidly what they actually did and what they learned.

We blogged about another of Nina’s terrific ‘lessons learned’ posts back in May in case you missed it (“Year One as a Museum Director … Survived!”).

We Apologize For Any Inconvenience …

From the “tone-deaf member/customer service” files:

An automated email from United Airlines asking about my flight from Albany to Chicago. Since United repeatedly delayed and then ultimately cancelled my connecting flight out of Chicago, resulting in a 15-hour unplanned layover, and their email to me makes no mention of the cancelled flight, their note just reminds me of how oblivious they seem to the considerable inconvenience I experienced on my way home.

What might they have done instead?

They obviously have my email address and know who I am, they know I was on a flight that they delayed multiple times before canceling, and they surely can figure out that the flight I eventually caught was a long time after my flight was supposed to leave. They could have sent an email offering a small discount on my next United flight. They could have comped me the frequent flier miles even though I ended up on another airline (or just given me some extra miles). Even a simple apology would have been better (“We know what a hassle it is when your travel plans are disrupted, and we apologize for the inconvenience it caused.”). If they really wanted feedback on that first leg, they could have at least bundled the two messages, apologizing and then making the ask.

Your nonprofit is going to do things once in a while that annoy and frustrate your supporters. Owning the error, and going out of your way to making your supporters feel valued even when those inevitable mistakes happen, can go a long way toward sustaining their loyalty.

(Photo by Flickr user #96.)

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.

The State of Social Media and Social Media Marketing


Earlier in the month, Esteban Contreras published a terrific “State of Social Media” report with a particular focus on social media advertising (h/t to SocialFish).

Facebook remains the big giant with 900 million monthly active users. YouTube is in the same class with 800 million, but these two dwarf everyone else (Zynga, which itself has 40% more users than its next closest competitor, only has 232 million MAUs). Facebook, in other words, “has established itself as THE social platform,” and – unexceptional earnings reports notwithstanding – it is likely to hold that turf for some time to come as it improves and expands functionality like scheduling, post-level metrics, mobile-only ads, and the like.

Spending on social network advertising is growing fast (projected at 43% growth in 2012), and even though the rate of growth is expected to decline (dropping to 18% in 2014), that still amounts to massive increases, hitting $5.5 billion in 2014. One implication for nonprofits and everyone else: it’s increasingly difficult to get noticed, especially on Facebook. Spending on local social ads, as a component of overall social ad spending, is also growing quickly. But despite the spending trends, it’s still unclear how effective social network ads are. LinkedIn is a notable exception.

More than half of adult cell phone owners go online using their phones: “Mobile is becoming the first screen.” This is a HUGE ongoing shift that nonprofits ignore at their peril.

Google+ is still pretty far back in the pack in terms of users (only 150 million MAUs), but it hit those numbers in just one year of operation, and it enjoys really high engagement levels: “I still think Google+ is the dark horse here …” This robust engagement includes 50% of Google users signing in at least once a day and spending an average of 60 minutes a day on Google.

Some other noteworthy trends:

  • YouTube is seeing a drop in users but claims it’s making up for it with increasing engagement.
  • YouTube is investing $100 million on its own premium channels.
  • Daily Twitter use continues to grow, especially among 18-24 year olds.
  • Use of location-based services on smartphones continues to grow quickly as well, up 55% from just a year ago. One in five use “geosocial” apps.
  • With Klout at the front of the parade, we’re now seeing a bundle of startups rushing to measure influence among social network users.
  • Trending tactics in social media marketing include: social curation, frictionless sharing, visual experimentation, storytelling, fan-centric content.
  • “Good experiences are key to earned social media advocacy.”

Extraordinary Teams

Inc. published a nice blog post yesterday on the “7 Habits of Extraordinary Teams.” It’s an obvious play on Stephen Covy’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” (both of which are worthwhile reads, by the way).

One thing I like about the post: the predictable but still critically important emphasis on the ways in which strong teams collaborate and support each other. It seems pretty obvious, but in the absence of real trust and effective communication among team members, it’s pretty tough for a group of folks to gel (and consequently kick ass).

I do have some quibbles with his list. For instance, while I agree that clear goals are critical I’m not convinced that those goals must necessarily be quantifiable. Similarly, while clear roles are really important, part of what elevates teams from mediocre or even good up to greatness is an enthusiasm for stepping up wherever the needs might lie. Yes, it’s critical that each individual know her role, but that has to be coupled with an ownership – by every individual – over the entire team effort and a willingness to fill in whatever holes and to grab whatever opportunities present themselves.

Those are just quibbles, in any case. However obvious the list may seem, dysfunctional teams are at least as common as the strong ones, so there’s clearly a lot of work to do (obvious or not).

Photo by Flickr user dearbarbie.

Building an Exceptional Staff: The Research Hospital Model

Although the Mayo Clinic facilities may not serve as a great model for other nonprofits, some of their practices might.
I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend whose dad has been suffering from intense gastrointestinal problems for months. Multiple doctors and tons of tests but nothing to show for it except ‘hang in there, maybe it’ll clear up on its own.’

After being hospitalized during a particularly severe bout, the doctor persuaded him to head to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Four hours after arriving there, with zero new tests, his team of Mayo Clinic GI specialists figured out he was having an extremely rare allergic reaction to his blood pressure medication. They’ve seen only 15 other cases; it’s rare and new enough that there isn’t anything in the medical literature yet. One of the problems confounding the diagnosis: he’d end up in the hospital only when his symptoms were severe. His blood pressure would be unusually low as a result of those symptoms, they’d remove him from the blood pressure medicine, he’d feel better, and then after being discharged he’d start taking the drug again and the symptoms would return.

How was it that the doctors in Minnesota were able to figure this out – a complex and extremely rare condition – in a matter of hours while countless doctors before them failed? A big part of the answer is that through their role at the Mayo Clinic, which is essentially a teaching and research hospital, they collectively see a huge number of patients with an extremely wide array of challenging cases. Their breadth of experience, and especially with difficult diagnoses, meant they’d simply seen a much wider variety of conditions than most and their diagnostic skills were sharper as a result.

How does this relate to nonprofits? Most nonprofits don’t invest much of their intellectual capital or their resources into staff development, growing and stretching people through their tenure at an organization or over their career to help them become exceptional advocates and nonprofit leaders. Some of the best nonprofit folks incidentally end up with exposure to a wide variety of specific challenges and circumstances, and some figure out how to seek that breadth of experience out themselves, but most nonprofits could probably do a better job of deliberately exposing their staff to a wider universe of new challenges and difficult problems.

This doesn’t necessarily mean someone needs to spend time working across different fields, moving through fundraising, program management, administration, organizing, and other departments. The GI specialists at the Mayo Clinic are truly specialists in a very specific field. But it does mean figuring out how to exposure your team to a wide variety of challenges within that field, making sure they are building up loads of real experience problem solving (problem solving skills) and exposure to a wide array of circumstances from which to draw when troubleshooting problems and crafting strategies (“maybe this time we could use that strategy we tried that other time combined with this new idea I’ve been thinking about”).

A lot of nonprofit folks end up with this sort of exposure along the way, but I suspect most nonprofit managers could do a better job of deliberately making sure that their direct reports pick up a wide and challenging array of experiences.

Data Informed, Not Data Driven

This Adam Mosseri talk about how Facebook uses data to make decisions is a little dated but his observations are still extremely useful. His key insight: clear metrics and strong data-driven feedback loops can be powerful, but they have their limits as well. Facebook often uses solid empirical data to make decisions about their website design, their products, and the workflows that users experience on Facebook. They can test two versions of a website design, for example, and if design option A produces higher engagement than design option B it’s an easy choice.

But Mosseri also explains how an excessive fidelity to data-driven decisions can privilege incremental and uninspired changes at the expense of innovation and ambitious thinking. Facebook sometimes is aiming not only for high levels of engagement but for more fundamental changes in the way people interact with it and with each other. Facebook’s Timeline, for instance, inspired anger and fierce resistance among many Facebook users and sharp derision from the press, and the use of a conventional data-driven decision process would have killed it before it got very far, but Timeline is now a central and deeply-valued part of the Facebook experience.

Most nonprofits don’t seem to rely much on data for their decision-making about their websites, email newsletters, programs, and fundraising efforts, and when they do those efforts aren’t often carefully crafted and executed (some do, of course, but for every one that does there are many, many more that don’t). The remedy isn’t to swap all the intuitive and qualitative decision-making for analytic feedback loops, but to find a good balance. “Data informed, not data driven,” as Mosseri says.

Feeling the Love

I’ve been subscriber to a local cultural organization for twenty years now, and for the first time since I first joined I didn’t renew my subscription.

From the “Missed Opportunities” folder: in all those years, nearly every time the organization has ever reached out to me has been a solicitation … contribute to the organization, buy tickets for a special event, donations to special funds. No notes just thanking me for being a supporter. No acknowledgment of my long tenure as a subscriber. No invitation to offer my thoughts for the next year’s performance schedule or ideas for other events and programs. No phone calls from board members asking what I think of the organization or if I enjoyed the performance last week. No gestures of appreciation at all.

What’s so striking is how little it takes to make supporters feel appreciated. It doesn’t require fancy parties, expensive gifts, or elaborate theatrics.

For their five-year anniversary, the local cafe in a town I used to call home gave coffee mugs to all of their customers. A decade later that mug is still a cherished part of my morning coffee routine, and I eat there every time I pass thru town. Every now and again, I’ll get a call from a nonprofit staff member or board member just to thank me for supporting the organization. I’ve enjoyed the occasional “member appreciation event” over the years. After getting stuck in the dreaded “purple line” at President Obama’s inauguration and missing the event, my Congressional Representative sent me a photo of the swearing-in. It didn’t make up for missing the event, but it was a very cool gesture and required very little effort or expense.

Even more disappointing: if they couldn’t figure out how to reach out to me in some non-solicitous fashion during the many years of my support, at the very least this local cultural organization might have done so when I didn’t re-subscribe by the deadline, since retaining me as a subscriber has to be much less expensive than re-acquiring me later. Doing so would have offered them an opportunity to learn why I didn’t renew (too expensive this year), earn my gratitude if it had been because I forgot and missed the deadline, perhaps offer me a special deal because of my tenure, or suggest an alternative (“did you consider renewing with tickets in a less expensive section?”).

I’m a huge fan of this organization, but I’m not feeling the love coming back my way, which can’t help but weaken my enthusiasm for them. Even for those organizations that are the most resource constrained, you can find ways to make sure your supporters know how much you appreciate them, and that, in turn, can’t help but deepen their relationship with you.

(Photo by Flickr user candiceecidnac).

Director of Meetings

The easiest job I’ve never had: Director of Meetings.

I’d ban them.

Cultivating Conflict

I think we often do internal organizational conflict wrong. Plenty of nonprofit folks and organizations actively avoid conflict. Nonprofits collaborate, we don’t fight. It just feels wrong, so we do what we can to avoid it.

Or we fight in the wrong ways about the wrong things.

What we often don’t do is deliberately cultivate and encourage conflict, yet conflict is actually healthy and important, I think. That’s where teams really push each other, challenging each other’s assumptions, pushing back against each other’s ideas, probing for the flaws and the opportunities. Conflict, when done right, creates a “productive range of distress,” to use Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s term from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. The challenge isn’t to sterilize or repress conflict out of our office environments but to make sure we contain it and shape it so that it really does serve those sorts of productive purposes.

I don’t claim any expertise here, but I have noticed a few things that seem to help contain and shape it in useful ways:

  • The discussion is respectful even if heated … personal critiques and attacks usually aren’t helpful.
  • Establishing some ground rules about decorum. I don’t know that it matters much what those ground rules are, so long as the group feels some ownership over them and so long as they are consistently enforced.
  • Someone playing the role of facilitator, which might be the ED, or it might rotate, or with some other arrangement, but someone who’s job it is to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute, to pull back the tension if it climbs too high or push the conversation forward if it starts to stall.

How does your organization manage conflict? Does it ever cultivate conflict, and if so, how? How well does it work?

(Photo by Flickr user iansand).