Self-Publishing: Lessons From the Nimble Nonprofit, Part I

We launched The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit close to two months ago, and I wanted to share a few of our early lessons and observations in this self-publishing experiment:

1) Sales numbers in a given week seem to correlate to the amount of time we spend promoting the book that week. There may be a viral moment out there somewhere where sales numbers start to grow faster, but we haven’t found it. Effort = sales.

2) Guest blog posts have been awesome. Folks like Maddie Grant, Amy Sample Ward, and Katya Andresen published posts on their blog that were either excerpts from the book or just posts related to themes in the book. Hugely helpful.

3) Facebook and LinkedIn have been really helpful but so far limited to where I’ve got pre-existing relationships. So far we haven’t found them to be useful with things like LinkedIn groups.

4) Twitter has been helpful, too, especially tied to the guest blog posts, but it’s not clear how much Twitter is driving sales. The conversations have been fun, though, and I’ve digitally met a bunch of interesting people thinking about nonprofit issues now that I didn’t know before, which has been cool.

5) Great reviews on Amazon (of which we’ve had a ton!) are very helpful but on their own don’t translate to sales. It’s just one piece of a good strategy.

6) The verdict is still open on whether it made sense to make a free .pdf version of the book available. Since one of our goals was distribution, I think it will have made sense, we’ll understand that more I think through the summer.

7) Ditto on the decision to go digital only. Based on our conversations over the past couple of months, I have the sense that there are a lot of people who would have purchased the book had it been available in physical form. That’s another issue we’ll evaluate a few months from now.

8) And it’s been really fun … the blogging, the conversations with other bloggers and nonprofit folks, talking to people about the themes we tackled in the book.

Watching the Game Film (for Nonprofits)

This post was originally published on Amy Sample Ward’s terrific nonprofit technology blog earlier this week.

For professional football players, the six days between games are jammed with practice, gym workouts, and travel. They also include time spent watching the film from the previous game, play by play, evaluating, learning, and preparing for the next game. I don’t know as much about other sports, but I’m guessing that professional basketball, hockey, baseball and other players have similar routines during their seasons.

It’s true that for pro athletes, everything they do during the week amounts to preparation for game day. Game day performance is what matters. It’s also true that many pro athletes are supported by extensive coaching staffs, sophisticated video recordings, and powerful analytic tools to help them understand what they did and how they might improve.

But a lot of what nonprofit folks do is similarly performance-oriented: every time you present on a panel at a conference, every time you pitch a prospective donor or funder, every time you talk to a reporter. You prepare (or not), and then you perform well (or not). And even without the same kind of evaluation and training resources at our disposal, we still have tools and capacity to carefully evaluate our performance and plug it in to fast-cycle feedback loops so we can continuously improve. Nearly every nonprofit has a video camera now, tripods are cheap, and it’s easy to set up to record right before you begin your presentation. When you talk with reporters, it’s easy to evaluate the print story or broadcast (not just reviewing it, which everyone already does, but studying it to figure out what you did well and what your screwed up). You may not have someone with you on every funder pitch, but it’s not hard to arrange at least some of those conversations with a colleague who won’t do too much talking during the meeting, so someone else can pay more attention to how well you do. For much of what you do, you can figure out ways to intentionally review your performance, identify what you did well and what you need to work on, and then craft a strategy for improving.

Incidentally, it’s the coaches who really immerse themselves in the film after every game, studying the game film on the flight home or first thing Monday morning, grading every player on every play, and then reviewing the films with the players. What if the more senior folks in your organization were explicitly responsible for coaching the newer members of the team? And what if their job evaluation was based partly on how effectively they are at coaching the more junior folks?

An organizational culture that emphasizes evaluation, feedback loops, learning, and intention improvement doesn’t happen by accident. For most nonprofit folks, the limitation isn’t about resources but about how serious they are about improving.

(Photo credit: Flickr rburtzel)

The Network for Good Online Giving Report: Growing, Growing, and Growing Some More

Network for Good just released their “Digital Giving Index: Q1 2012” report, and as expected it’s got some juicy tidbits and insights about trends in online donations.

A couple of highlights:

  • Online giving is up across all channels. For instance, online giving overall is up 16%, social giving is up 20%, and giving through branded charity websites is up an impressive 36%.
  • Average gift size grew, including a 90% jump in the average size for social giving. The average is now just under $100.

I think the simple take-away here is that online giving is growing – and will probably continue to grow – in importance relative to conventional charitable giving channels. I wouldn’t dump the direct mail program yet, but I’d guess that having a robust online presence is going to be increasingly important for most nonprofits.

The “Hot Seat” (or, “Talk Less, Listen More”)

As I worked my way through the Founder Institute’s startup incubator program last summer, my incubator classmates and I would frequently find ourselves on the “hot seat,” presenting a short pitch to a panel of mentors, after which the mentors would proceed to brutally critique our performance. Among the inviolate rules: even as the panel of mentors would lambaste our pitch, we had to simply stand there and listen. We weren’t allowed to respond, to rebut, or to push back. I’m told this is a conventional practice in architecture programs and art schools, but having attending neither it was new to me.

And it was awesome. We each had to learn, in a humbling and publicly painful way, to shut up and listen. It didn’t matter what my intention was, or how right I was, or what I knew that they didn’t … they were the audience, and if they understood something differently than I had intended, or if they didn’t buy my argument, or if my story wasn’t persuasive, the challenge for me was to listen intently enough to understand what they heard. Only by keeping my mouth shut, and not defending, challenging, or explaining, was I able to really hear them and consequently improve my pitch.

I think the key was grasping that the success of my pitch wasn’t about me, it was about them. It didn’t matter how right I might have been, or how compelling I thought my arguments were. If they weren’t persuaded, then I had failed, and the only way to learn where my powers of persuasion had fallen short was to shut up and listen.

Anyone who has spent time fundraising or campaigning knows this to be true, but even when we know it in the abstract it can be tough to remember in the heat of an actual pitch to an actual prospect, or when a colleague or (gasp!) employee is telling you what they think you did wrong, or when you are trying to sell a story to a reporter or an idea to an elected official.

Talk less, listen more.

Figured Out the Rest of Your 2012 Conference Plan Yet?

Trying to figure out your conference schedule for the rest of the year?

From Allyson Kapin on the Frogloop blog:

From Amy Schmittauer on the Convince and Convert blog:

You can also check out Kivi’s conference recommendations on her Nonprofit Communications Blog and the impressively thorough conference list on SocialBrite.

A Brief History of the Environmental Movement

Mardy and Olaus Murie
Or, Why the Enviros are Losing and What We Can Do About It

The environmental movement in the United States, through the bulk of the 20th Century, was characterized by iconic thought leaders and activists – people like Mardy and Olaus Murie, John Muir, Rachel Carson – who took on critical environmental issues and laid the groundwork for the grassroots movement to come.

The passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964 marked the beginning of a decade-long run, fueled by grassroots politics and a growing popular awareness of environmental concerns, which saw passage of nearly every major environmental law we presently enjoy. The widespread popular support provided political capital that was converted into critical legal and policy victories.

The subsequent three decades were characterized, on the other hand, by a shift away from building and sustaining the public support needed for broad and deep political backing for conservation values.

Increasingly, the movement expended the political capital it had acquired on enforcing this new suite of environmental laws while investing less and less in sustaining that capital.

By the 1990s and 2000s, most of the environmental laws of the 1960s and early 1970s had been steadily weakened, in some cases through outright amendment but also frequently through regulatory and policy change. But the environmental community stayed the course, investing heavy resources in litigation, lobbying, and back channel political strategies while continuing to invest very little in grassroots organizing and coalition building.

Now: Conservation values are widespread but thinly held

Today, conservation values rarely serve as determinants in voting behavior or major legislative activity. There have been some bright spots, including initiatives around renewable energy, land use, and transportation. But the language and implementation of environmental laws continues to erode, grassroots political support is as weak as it’s been in decades, and the environmental movement continues to fight largely rearguard actions.

Even where public opinion lies squarely on the side of strengthening environmental protection and even where the often-fractured environmental community is largely unified – the climate change bill comes to mind – the movement doesn’t have the political muscle to close the deal.

We created and earned a great deal of political capital up to and through the huge successes of 1960s and 1970s, in other words, we spent that capital down in the subsequent decades without replenishing it, and here we sit in 2012 wondering why the political and legal strategies (which fundamentally depend on that capital) just don’t seem to work.

I’m pretty sure that the answer is not to continue focusing on litigation, lobbying, and inside baseball strategies at the expense of the investments that actually build political power around conservation values.

It’s not that we should abandon those critical defensive strategies. We have to continue fighting hard in court and inside the Beltway. But those strategies, by and large, don’t create political power, they expend it. So long as we under-invest in the strategies that create sustained political support, our ability to win the political fights will continue to diminish.

An example: diverse allies

To offer just one example of the problem: environmental funders and groups tend to think of ‘diverse allies” as folks you recruit to be spokespeople for your cause rather than groups with whom you build long-term relationships around shared interests and values.

The standard action item: “We need to find a fill-in-the-blank who we can quote in this press release criticizing fill-in-the-blank.” Environmental groups often find and use those spokespeople, but at best those efforts put a “diverse voices” sheen on our media efforts. They simply sidestep the really difficult work of building a sustained relationship that advances multiple agendas. And funders often scoff at pitches for investing in relationship building … the timeframes were too long (it will take years!), the potential shared interests and political agenda uncertain (the point of building relationships across broad constituencies is that you don’t know ultimately what shared interests you might uncover or develop), and the outcomes too vague.

The role of funders
NCRP Cultivating the Grassroots
Cultivating the Grassroots by Sarah Hansen.

Earlier this year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy published a report exploring one critical dimension – the role of environmental grantmakers – of this challenge. Authored by Sarah Hansen, a veteran of the environmental philanthropy world with an eight-year term as the executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association under her belt, Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders politely but firmly lays much of the blame on the funders themselves.

We are losing, the report argues:

“New environmental initiatives have been stalled and attacked while existing regulations have been rolled back and undermined. At a time when the peril to our planet and the imperative of change should drive unyielding forward momentum, it often seems as if the environmental cause has been pushed back to the starting line.”

And reversing this trend will require fundamentally changing gears by “decreasing reliance on top-down funding strategies and increasing funding for grassroots communities that are directly impacted by environmental harms and have the passion and perseverance to mobilize and demand change.” Her four-part prescription:

  1. Provide at least 20 percent of grant dollars to benefit explicitly communities of the future.
  2. Invest at least 25 percent of grant dollars in grassroots advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement.
  3. Build supportive infrastructure.
  4. Take the long view, prepare for tipping points.

Her analysis fits my own experience and observation (and offered plenty of new insights, as well), and the report is worth a read.

The role of environmental organizations

But I’m also willing to place more of the blame on environmental nonprofits, as well, since we don’t tend to think in these terms, either (yes, of course, some groups do – and hats off to them – but I don’t think that perspective is pervasive among environmental groups).

Moreover, the nonprofits absorbing the lion’s share of grant funding – those with the most ability to push back on funders and best equipped to fund a wider array of strategies independent of grant funding simply because of their size and financial capacity – are by far the most resistant to change. The Wilderness Society’s recent staff purge, becoming even more top-heavy and less capable of supporting on-the-ground grassroots organizing and relationship building, is just one example.

Incidentally, there are some fascinating parallels between the issue Hansen tackles in her report (a focus on top-down policy strategies vs. ground-up grassroots capacity-building) and the challenge to conventional nonprofit models posed by the rise of social networking … organizations that want to remain effective can’t simply layer social networking on top of a deeply hierarchical, tightly controlled organizational culture. As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine argue in The Networked Nonprofit (and as Trey and I argue in the “Social Lipstick on a Networked Pig” chapter of The Nimble Nonprofit), it requires shifting real control and autonomy in a more dispersed, unpredictable way.

Another, parallel read on the history of the environmental movement: isolated visionaries led the way to a powerful grassroots movement which then evolved into a deeply professionalized nonprofit industry.

I don’t think the answer is to abandon the movement’s well-earned professionalization and political maturation. Trying to return to a rosy-hued nostalgic past usually causes more problems than it solves, and the challenges (environmental and political) are too complex and the obstacles too deeply rooted to overcome without sophisticated political strategies and aggressive legal strategies.

Image credit: america.gov/Flickr
The future is coming (we should get ready)

But there isn’t any reason why the movement can’t begin investing substantially in community-based and grassroots organizations, in strategies that emphasize long-term relationship building across sectors, in organizations that emphasize environmental justice and other issues differentially impacting marginalized communities, and in efforts that build sustained political power around environmental values. And unless we do, it’s tough to see how we’ll start winning.

The Counter-Intuitive Secret About Hiring

Most people view the hiring process as the opportunity to screen candidates, learn what you need to know about them, and select one lucky enough to join your team. And yes, of course that’s one goal of a hiring process.

But here’s the part that’s easy to miss: Persuading them that they want to work for you is at least as important as deciding whom you’d like to bring on board. The very best candidates in your pool, even in a buyer’s market, are likely to have other options. Whatever you weave into the hiring process to help you assess skills, experience, and cultural fit, don’t forget that your candidates are also interviewing you.

Your job, in other words, is as much or more to persuade them that your organization is truly amazing and worthy of their talents as it is about you figuring out who you want to hire. Your hiring process amounts to a marketing campaign (in the best sense of the term), and the most successful efforts not only result in a great hire but also leave all of your other candidates – including all of the folks who didn’t get the job – talking about how awesome it would be to work for your organization.

Innovation v. Effectiveness

Innovation is just a whole lot sexier than do-more-of-what-we're-already-doing.
One of the peculiarities of the philanthropic foundation world is its energetic enthusiasm for supporting innovation among the organizations they support. Everyone loves innovation, for one thing, and we know that many of the challenges we face probably aren’t solvable with traditional approaches. And funders are as susceptible to the temptations of organizational ego as everyone else … what funder wouldn’t want to get credit for breakthrough innovations in providing key community services, securing a durable change in political values, dramatic improvements in nonprofit organizational structure, or solving an important social problem?

But sometimes the right answer isn’t to create something new but to scale up something you are already doing, or to copy an approach someone else already nailed. The problem: the idea of innovation can be so sexy that it comes at the expense of effectiveness. If a funder conveys through their grant application or awards process that being innovative trumps being effective, it’s not hard to see how the nonprofits themselves might slide in the same direction. If you’re trying to solve a social change, advocacy, and community challenge, sometimes imitation actually is the best solution.

(Photo by Flickr user Jules Antonio).

The Pitfalls of A/B Testing and Benchmarking

Improvement begins with measurement, but the ruler can also limit your audacity to try wildly new approaches (photo by Flicker user Thomas Favre-Bulle).
Google is famous for, among other things, crafting a deep, rich culture of A/B testing, the process of comparing the performance of two versions of a web site (or some other output) that differ in a single respect.

The benefit: changes to a web site or some other user interface are governed by real-world user behavior. If you can determine that your email newsletter signup button performs better with the label “Don’t Miss Out” instead of “Subscribe,” well, that’s an easy design change to make.

The practice of benchmarking – using industry standards or averages as a point of comparison for your own performance – has some strong similarities to A/B testing. It’s an analytic tool that helps frame and drive performance-based testing and iteration. The comparison of your organization’s performance to industry benchmarks (e.g., email open rates, average donation value on a fundraising drive) provides the basis for a feedback loop.

The two practices – A/B testing and benchmarking – share a hazard, however. Because a culture of A/B testing is driven by real-time empirical results, and because it generally depends on comparisons between two options that are identical in every respect but one (the discrete element that you are testing), it privileges modest, incremental changes at the expense of audacious leaps.

To use a now-classic business comparison: while Google lives and breathes A/B testing, and constantly refines its way to small performance improvements, the Steve Jobs-era Apple eschewed consumer testing, assuming (with considerable success) that the consumer doesn’t know what it wants and actually requires an audacious company like Apple to redefine product categories altogether.

Similarly, if your point of reference is a collection of industry standards, you are more likely to aim for and be satisfied with performance that meets those standards. The industry benchmarks, like the incremental change model that undergirds A/B testing, may actually constrain your creativity and ambitiousness, impeding your ability to think audaciously about accomplishing something fundamentally different than the other players in your ecosystem, or accomplishing your goals in a profoundly different way.

The implication isn’t that you should steer clear of A/B testing or benchmarking. Both are powerful tools that can help nonprofits focus, refine, and learn more quickly. But you should be aware of the hazards, and make sure even as you improve your iterative cycles you are also protecting your ability to think big and think different about the work your organization does.

And if you want to dive in, there are a ton of great resources on the web, including a series of posts on A/B testing by the 37Signals guys (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), the “Ultimate Guide to A/B Testing” on SmashingMagazine, an A/B testing primer on A List Apart, Beth Kanter’s explanation of benchmarking, and the 2012 Nonprofit Social Network Report.

The Digital Nonprofit Toolkit

For most nonprofits, a suite of digital tools can be a critical asset for enabling your team to do amazing work (not to mention simply enabling yourself to kick ass). As consultants to nonprofits that have hands in some start-ups, we don’t have the same needs and use cases as many nonprofits. But we’ve spent years working in nonprofits and are collaborating with many on a daily basis.

Here’s what we are using these days:

File sharing: We use Dropbox a lot, although Google Docs can be a good alternative if you’ve got a shared account (and we suspect that the new Google Drive is going to give Dropbox a serious run).

Email: I mostly use MailChimp…it’s inexpensive, reasonably easy to use and integrates with a wide array of third-party apps. Creating and changing templates can be annoying at times but, hey, nobody said HTML email was as easy as making toast. Documentation is solid, the Chimp folks blog frequently and seem genuinely interested in nonprofit implementations.

I am increasingly a fan of SendGrid, as well. They’ve got awesome customer service, it’s much easier for a non-techie like me to design and modify the email templates, and they are slowly rolling out free and low-volume pricing options. If you do high volume email, especially if you want to build your own internal UI, then SendGrid seems like the obvious choice.

We realize that most mid-size to ginormous nonprofits (and many small groups) are going to be using tools from Blackbaud, Convio, Salsa or other companies that mush together email, advocacy and fundraising. If you’ve got the budget and you’d prefer the combined multi-function product instead of stand-alone elements, they can make a lot of sense.

Emailing large files: YouSendIt and Dropsend are both solid. They can be pretty useful when the other party isn’t using DropBox.

Document collaboration: For all its quirks, we haven’t found anything that beats Google Docs (which is now being folded into Google Drive).

Bookmarking, Notetaking, Writing: Ted has become a consistent and almost fanatical user of Evernote (and if Instagram can be worth a billion dollars then why not Evernote?). It covers the bases, it’s easy to use, and it’s very accessible on multiple devices. Our main complaint is that its formatted content doesn’t paste well into other tools.

Cloud storage: For simple storage, I’m a fan of Rackspace, and I especially love their “fanatical” customer support. We know others who like Amazon Cloud, as well.

Backups: I use a pair of external hard drives and Time Machine, but I might end up exploring something cloud-based (maybe as a supplement to my hard drive-swapping approach). Anyone out there really in love with a particular cloud backup solution?

Social media dashboards: Hootsuite has been the hands-down winner for me, although it’s really just a Twitter dashboard. I like the UI, it’s easy to use, and it does what I want. You can include other accounts, like Facebook, but it doesn’t work as well for those (which I think is generally true of dashboards like this). Ted is happy with Hootsuite as well but is less enthusiastic about it … he finds the interface to be clunky, and there are some annoying issues when trying to manage/admin client Twitter accounts (e.g., if the client is already using Hootsuite free version to manage their Twitter account you can’t get access to it via your own Hootsuite, which is just silly).

Time tracking/Invoicing: When you’re an independent consultant or small shop tracking your time is both a pain in the arse and one of the most critical parts of surviving. We’ve been very pleased with Harvest. Heck, most nonprofit enterprise time tracking systems could learn a lot from Harvest and similar systems.

Project management: Basecamp and Wrike are my two favorite project management tools. They take different approaches, the former built more on a “Getting Things Done” type of structure while Wrike is a little more traditional, but they both have good UIs and solid features. I’m just starting a project using Smartsheet (because it integrates with a very cool public input tool we are using called Crowdbrite), which I’ve not used before … I can report on it in a few months.

Blogging/web platform: WordPress, especially when it’s used with the Genesis framework. It has its quirks, and it can be tough for non-techies to build out a site with any real customization (although I can recommend great web designers if you need anyone), but every blog I use now is built on WordPress. It’s robust, the UI is solid once the site is built, and it looks really good. We’ve seen (and built) some great sites that are much more than blogs using WordPress. It can be done. But think hard about Drupal, especially if you’re building a broad content and/or community-rich site.

Music: Because who doesn’t need music sometimes while they work … I’m a fan of Spotify and Pandora, although our local classical station (KVOD) and the terrific Santa Monica indy station KCRW get a lot of my streaming as well. Ted is a big Rdio fan, which I haven’t tried yet (but should because it’s far better than Spotify, Ted claims). He also threw in a vote for KCRW and for Denver’s KUVO. We are both fans of Seattle’s KEXP for edgy alt-rock.

Link shortening: I mostly use Bitly. It’s simple, free, and has decent analytics. Hootsuite integrates ow.ly, though, which also works fine.

Password management: It took me a while to warm up to it, and because I have multiple Dropbox accounts the Dropbox-based syncing didn’t work (they have other sync options), but I’m now a solid fan of 1Password. I keep track of one master password and it keeps track of everything else. Very handy once you get over the hump of actually using it.

Online stores and e-commerce: The combo of Shopify and Stripe seems to work well for managing online stores and the related e-commerce transactions.

What did we miss? Other great options we should cover?

Photo courtesy actna.net (which has a pretty good article on digital tools that should be in a journalist’s toolbox).