Off the trail, in the network

I came across a Gary Snyder essay called “Work in Place of Place” from a collection titled The Practice of the Wild. It brought to mind a community of practice, Web of Change, with which I’m engaged. More broadly, it speaks to the networked way in which change advocates operate.

Here are the opening and closing paragraphs. They stand on their own in a sense but the whole piece is worth a red.

Place is one kind of place. Another field is the work we do, our calling, our path in life. Membership in a place includes membership in a community. Membership in a work association — whether it’s a guild or a union or a mercantile order — is membership in a network. Networks cut across communities with their own kind of territoriality, analogous to the long migrations of geese and hawks.

Our skills and works are but tiny reflections of the wild world that is innately and loosely orderly. There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed. Not for the sake of newness, but for the sake of coming home to our whole terrain. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. That is also where — paradoxically — we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.

What’s your member mission statement?

Can you say what the purpose of members (or, more simply, people) are in your organization?

Membership doesn't always have privileges.
Membership (or any sort of engagement) should be better than this.

I don’t mean something generic such as “to help us achieve our mission” but more to the point. How do people help meet the mission? What can they do? What is their role? What can a person (or a member, donor, supporter, volunteer) hope to really, tangibly do to be part of your team that is working so hard for change in the community?

The other day I wrote about the role of people in our organizations.  We spoke of people generally but were mostly thinking of staff and other direct team members that are actively part of the day-to-day workings of the organization. How these people fit into and excel in our rapidly evolving organizational systems is critical to the success of nonprofits, social ventures and other organizations. The role and value of people in the organizational context is changing, as Maddie Grant gets at in her Future of Work: A Manifesto.

But staff/team members are only part of the puzzle. In a highly networked and social media driven world, organizations are asking more from supporters and relying on them for their word of mouth, their networks, their time, their likes and retweets, and, of course, their money. All of that (and more) is important to organizations.

What IS the purpose of your people?

But what is the purpose or role of members/supporters in any given organization? What is the mission of the member? WHY do organizations have members (or email list subscribers or social media supporters)?

While at The Wilderness Society I kicked around the idea of a “member mission statement.” The organization has, of course, its own mission statement that you can find if you look for it. But it says nothing about what people (aka members, fans, followers, donors, supporters, and so on) can actually DO with/for/alongside the organization.

A member mission statement would have two audiences. The first (and most important) is the organization and its staff. The days when a “membership department” sent out recruitment and renewal notices while (perhaps) a volunteer organizing unit had people make phone calls or mail literature are gone. Every person in your organization has a public-facing role and is, whether they know it or not (or like it or not), interacting with members. It helps them to understand and appreciate the organization’s plan for people. And, to be clear, by staff we don’t mean just the membership and/or development department. We mean everyone.

A member mission statement is also for the members/supporters. We don’t understand why more organizations don’t clearly spell out what the expectations (or hopes) for a member are at the beginning of the relationship. Talk about the need for people to take action online, give money, tell friends, and meet or get involved with local chapters, for starters. Lay it out there. This isn’t about a newsletter and some emails. This is about you and how you will make a difference. On the flip side, say what you will provide to them.

More than anything, be clear about what the organization needs, wants, hopes for from people. Don’t keep those needs inside. Share them with the members and subscribers themselves. If you can’t or don’t want to be transparent about it then a problem exists. Go for it, instead. Tell everyone what the deal is and get going. There is a lot to do.

Photo via flickr, Tom Simpson.

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:

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

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 –


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

The beauty of what you do

Flower from Louie Schwartzberg video at TEDxSFWe came across this video from TEDxSF the other day. In it, Louie Schwartzberg talks about his work over the years as one of the world’s great time-lapse nature photographers. The video he shows the audience is, indeed, amazing. Yet he goes on to talk about how the beauty of nature fills him with gratitude for the opportunity to live in this world.

It seems that each day, month and year we as individuals and organizations are focused on the crises and problems in front of us. People are hungry. Animals are hurt. Wildlands are logged and mined. We all need help to stop it. And we need that help right now. The pace of change and threats seems only to increase. People need more. Organizations are struggling to stay afloat. We must act. Now.

For nonprofit fundraisers and marketers, the reality is that crisis works. And people only give money when asked. So we create dire threats to our communities (this isn’t too hard to do) and send email after email about those crises.

But we don’t often spend time and energy weaving in real beauty and gratitude. We need to tell stories of hope and success, not just threats. There is magic in beauty and gratitude. Without it, we live in a world that has only crisis. We foster cynicism in our constituents and staff, which leads to ambivalence. Grab the opportunities to show gratitude and bring hope to people. Perhaps this video will help inspire that in you, as it did us.

NTC 2012: Relationships, local leaders and social media, nonprofits meet tech startups, screwing up social media campaigns

The Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) is coming up. Well, it is April 3 – 5, 2012, so you still have time to make your travel arrangements. Agenda planning is in full swing, though.

Vote for NTC 2012 SessionsThis year, Jacob and I proposed a few sessions that build upon the work we are doing here at Bright+3 and through other networks. We’ve grounded these sessions in key issues nonprofits face today building and strengthening networks, making the most of social media and evolving their structures and funding bases.

Please head over the NTC site and vote for each of them (with a thumbs up but if not we’re still friends, right?). It is super easy: no login needed. We would love and appreciate your feedback here and if you are interested in talking about or participating in any of these sessions please give us a shout.

Here’s a quick list of session names and links to voting. More complete descriptions follow.

Continue reading “NTC 2012: Relationships, local leaders and social media, nonprofits meet tech startups, screwing up social media campaigns”

Wanted: More Amazing Organizations (only the focused and passionate need apply)

We are not really Charity:Water fanboys. It may look that way given that this is the second post in a row highlighting them in some fashion. Perhaps it seems Charity:Water is able to operate on a plane or in a way that provides few transferable lessons for other nonprofits. Or maybe it is because Charity:Water isn’t an advocacy organization like most we work with so their experience doesn’t provide learning opportunities.

But damn. Their new September campaign (don’t go there yet…haven’t linked to it for a reason) and the context in which we came across it today shouts out as a teachable moment about the power of focus, passion and having a simple call to action.

Earlier today for reasons totally unrelated to this post we were looking at the home pages websites run by some of America’s leading conservation organizations. Great organizations doing vast amounts of positive work around the US and internationally. We know leaders and staff of many of them. Some are current or past clients.

We invite you to click the links below. They will open in new tabs or windows. Check out the homepage of some or all and gather a quick impression of what they’re working on, what’s moving them and their members and what their passion is RIGHT NOW. Go on…

Checked them out? Great.

Now, head to Charity:Water. Look at what’s there and perhaps watch a video (yeah…you’ll figure out which one). We’ll wait a minute. When you come back we’ll discuss. Continue reading “Wanted: More Amazing Organizations (only the focused and passionate need apply)”

Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors

I’ve always been struck by the different ways old and new organizations approach online communications, fundraising and organizing. The two groups could learn a lot by studying each other.

Charity:Water poster - 4,5000 children will die today from water-related diseases
Charity:Water poster with a focused and powerful idea.

Newer groups aren’t beholden to a certain way of doing things, entrenched hierarchies and well-established silos. They’re likely led and staffed by bootstrapping generalists that are truly passionate about an idea or mission and not much deterred by failures. Their enthusiasm rubs off on those around them and can stir up a hornet’s nest of much-needed action.

Organizations that have been around a while (and let’s say 15-20 years or more) have staying power. They have figured out how to get things done and sustain the business of running an organization. Relationship-building takes time and they have stuck to it – likely carving out strong relationships with the powerful in communities and government.

Most that work in and around nonprofit organizations these days would probably say that adapting to digital networks and online fundraising has been a challenge for older groups. A well-established way of doing things is challenged by the speed and apparent loss of control over message and action wrought by online networks.

Learning from Younger Groups

There is room in the nonprofit tent for both old and new organizations. But technical change is happening fast and the fabric of communities, environment, institutions is fraying before our eyes. Groups need to be at the top of their game. Continue reading “Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors”

Innovation through Stubborn Commitment

Thinking about innovation lately. Not just what it is and if/how/why it is good but rather the factors that create a culture of innovation.

Innovation defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Innovation defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
A lot has been written about managing to create and foster an innovation-friendly organization (more on that below). Great resources and research out there.

But it seems that sometimes – maybe most of the time – innovation needs a champion that is just really committed. Or stubborn. Someone wants to see a certain result and won’t take “no” for an answer. Often, there is a reason for the “no” and it takes a new way of doing things to get to the goal.

Recently, I wrote about “Innovate and Thrive: The Future of Nonprofits” by Randal Moss and David Neff. Moss and Neff take a hard look at how to design and maintain a culture that focuses on innovation. Of course, innovation for the sake of innovation is not the point. Yet most every organization and business – from coolio tech startup to retail to auto repair shop to restaurant – is constantly competing, coping with change and trying to, well, keep its head above water in its ever-shifting environment.

Moss and Neff do a great job covering some key pieces of innovation culture and ways to design that culture into the organization. Design – of processes, positions and programs – seems intrinsic to an innovation-friendly environment.

Sometimes, though, you just have to be committed enough to an idea to break past the “usual” way of doing things, change your framework and reach your goal in a new way. Continue reading “Innovation through Stubborn Commitment”

Jim Gilliam on Life, the Internet and the Power of People

Jim Gilliam spoke this morning at Personal Democracy Forum and of all the talks here and at other conferences I have been to having anything to do with anything – especially technology – it was one of the most moving and powerful yet. This one hit home for personal reasons as well as professional. If you’ve been around the field for a while you know of Jim’s work but I didn’t know the full story.

Jim understands what real leadership and vision are about…and the incredible results that are possible when people work together.

Be well. Take care of those around you. And add value to the world.