The “Ship It To Everyone We Can Think Of” Strategy

One of the more curious funder-driven outreach strategies we’ve witnessed over the years involves funding someone to write a book, funding the publication of that book, and then funding distribution primarily through a “ship it to everyone we can think of” approach. Back when the approach was more novel (for enviros the “Clearcut” book might be a good example), it might have had some impact, but I’m guessing it was mostly limited to keeping the activists themselves fired up. Many of the photos in that particular book still stand sharp in my mind, and I remember being impressed that I had friends whose photos made the final version. But even then – with a novel strategy and a dramatic vehicle for implementing that strategy – I’m pretty skeptical that the book was very effective at persuading undecideds or converting members of targeted audiences (were there even well defined targeted audiences?). I’m not convinced it had a meaningful impact on my own effectiveness as an advocate, for that matter.

I’m guessing that there have been some exceptions over the years, but in general the strategy seems too unfocused, too dependent on users actually taking the time to engage with the book, then too dependent on that particular book having just the right message for that particular reader, and too expensive to make much sense. And if it didn’t make much sense then, it really doesn’t make sense now.

It was with some surprise, then, that I received yet another unsolicited book in the mail just a couple of weeks ago thanks to a presumably generous foundation grant. I don’t know if they commissioned the book itself or if they simply funded the distribution, but either way I now have a no-doubt well written text, with an inspiring message, that I will never, ever read. At least the coffee table photo books lent themselves to quickly skimming the images, but the likelihood that an unsolicited book written by authors I’ve never heard of will compete favorably with the already-overflowing pile of books that I selected and acquired and placed in that pile, well, the odds are basically nil.

I think about Seth Godin’s admonition that marketing be relevant, anticipated, and personalized; this was none of the above. If an impressive open rate on marketing that is all three of those things is 10% or 25%, and a good conversion rate substantially less than that, what percentage of the recipients are likely to do anything with their fresh copy, not to mention actually change their behavior in some mission-oriented meaningful way?

What’s more is that the book was addressed to me as the executive director of the Nooru Foundation (one of my less demanding roles since our hiatus began in late 2008), so I’m assuming their target was environmental funders. For those few recipients that do actually read the book, and the even fewer that are truly inspired by it, what are the odds that it will actually change behavior in a mission-relevant way? How many will become better funders as a result? How many will have more impact?

I don’t want to be overly harsh about it because the effort was no doubt well intentioned, and perhaps there is a more subtle and effective strategy at work here that I’m just missing. But in every respect it feels like a dated approach that probably wasn’t very effective even when it had everything going for it. And in the year 2011 it really doesn’t feel like a particularly thoughtful strategy or effective way to burn limited resources.

Defending Their Turf: Nonprofits Pushing Back Against Social Entrepreneurship

Photo by flickr user Pete Reed.
You know an organization, or a sector, is starting to have problems confusing the instinct for self-preservation with advancing their mission when you come across stories like this: “Defining Social Good: Nonprofits Worry About Calif. Bill” in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Two bills that would give social entrepreneurs more corporate structure options are apparently gaining steam in the California legislature, and the California Association of Nonprofits is worried that more socially-minded business ventures might harm nonprofits.

Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy made this point really clearly:

“Some nonprofits worry that a California push to recognize for-profit social businesses will undermine the nonprofit sector. That’s the wrong question. The question should be about maximizing social impact, not protecting specific corporate forms.”

While there may be more to the story (there usually is), I think Sean is dead-on, and I think this conflation of self-perpetuation and mission runs deeper than just a nonprofit association’s reactionary response to legislation that might enable other types of social change organizations to do more social change work. In some ways, this is the same “not knowing when to wrap it up” problem that many nonprofits have. Either they lack a clear endpoint, so self-perpetuation actually becomes hard-wired in the DNA, or when they arrive at the clear endpoint they just come up with a new mission. The result, in either scenario, can be organizational behavior more oriented toward organizational preservation and protection at the expense of the mission or the cause itself.

But this also has hints of the dying-industry problem faced by institutions like the publishing, newspaper, and music industries. Their business models are basically dead, and while they can all milk their legacy networks for a while they are on an inevitable downward slide (if not tailspin). The energetic effort to suppress alternative business models (e.g., newspaper paywalls and the absurdity that is the Denver Post and other newspapers suing bloggers who link to them, record labels suing fans for sharing music) might buy them some time but won’t change the outcome. The smart ones – I think of O’Reilly Media, the Huffington Post, and Pandora as examples – are figuring out very different models, and are poised to thrive in so doing.

I don’t think the nonprofit sector is in any danger of dying, but attacking efforts to widen the range of social change organizational structures sure smells like prioritizing self-protection over enabling social impact. State nonprofit associations ought to be leading the charge in this brave new world, helping everyone make sense of the range of organizational structures for changing the world, maybe even helping to do some of the innovating themselves.