Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Reading :: The Future of Nonprofits

The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age
By David Neff and Randal Moss

Full disclosure: I know David Neff. Actually, I'm pretty sure that at least 60% of Austin knows David Neff, who is one of the most gregarious people I've met. He's constantly on social media, he was named the 2009 AMA/AMAF Social Media Marketer of the Year, and he is famous for his annual Mustache and Bad Sweater Party. He's spoken to my classes once or twice. And he's very passionate about nonprofits.

So I was happy to hear that David had teamed up with Randal Moss, with whom he had worked at the American Cancer Society,  to write a book on the future of nonprofits. The book wasn't quite ready by SXSW, but when David and Randal presented readings from the book, they demonstrated that they were thinking through how the nonprofit sector had to change considerably to address the rapid changes wrought by social media, demographic shifts, and other factors. They demonstrated some quick adaptation themselves: Knowing that the book wouldn't be ready, they managed to supply a leave-behind that would keep us thinking about it.

From Austin snapshots

If you missed SXSW, don't worry, the comic book is also printed in the back of The Future of Nonprofits. I hope you'll get a chance to read it along with the rest of the book, because The Future of Nonprofits is certainly worth it - not just for those in the nonprofit sector, but for anyone who is interested in opening their organization's culture up to innovation. Neff and Moss take a strategic approach, illustrated with cases from their own work and interviews with innovation leaders at nonprofits.

So what does a strategic approach entail? More than simply becoming more agile. From the first chapter, the authors emphasize that innovative organizations have to not just anticipate change, but actively look for it. Their first example: for much of the 20th century, nonprofits in the US relied heavily on direct solicitation; donors, especially housewives, reached through their personal networks to gather donations from their neighborhoods. This arrangement worked so well that nonprofits began to overrely on it - even when social changes in the 1970s (e.g., women entering the workforce en masse, the rise of apartment dwelling) caused neighborhoods to unravel (pp.10-11). "So, slowly and without major fanfare, the definition of community had changed and it changed right under the noses of the nonprofit community" (p.12). The authors argue that such shifts can be detected much earlier - but people in nonprofits are often so focused on working that they don't see these shifts. So the critical change must be to "embrace innovation as a valuable tool," first at the level of leadership, but then (critically) as part of the organization's culture (p.20). 

How do you know when you're being innovative? In Chapter 2, the authors discuss what innovation is and what it isn't. "Really the ultimate goal of innovation is to bring about change to add value to and improve upon a process, product, or experience," they tell us, while "things are not innovative when they do not leverage new ideas, new uses for old ideas and technologies, and/or fail to deliver value to the end user or constituent" (p.22). That is, it's not innovative to simply adopt a new technology or business process. It's not innovative to simply hire someone to tweet for your company, for instance - not unless you have a concrete idea of how doing that will help advance your objectives and those of the people you serve. Without that, the "innovation" might actually be an unnovation "because [it delivers] little if any durable value" (p.23). The authors' many examples are invaluable here, as is one of their lessons: you can measure innovation. It's not just a vague concept, it's something you can examine with metrics. Of those metrics, the most important one for nonprofits is engagement (p.52).

In Chapter 3, the authors differentiate their strategy from "preeminent programs for driving organizational efficiency": Lean Management, Six Sigma Management, and Total Quality Management. All have their strengths, but none are right for nonprofits, particularly since they tend to focus on efficiency over innovation. 

Given the authors' considerable experience in social media, it's not surprising that Chapter 4 focuses on leveraging technology for nonprofits. Here, the case studies become extremely valuable, as the authors discuss some of the traditional frictions between nonprofits and IT staff; interview key figures in nonprofits who have thought about new ways to engage donors with technology; and describe case studies. For instance, the authors discuss how the Brooklyn Museum used Foursquare to crowdsource tips about the museum and its surroundings - and to provide incentives to become the Mayor of the museum (pp.66-67). 

Part II of the book discusses "the three pillars of innovation": awareness (Ch.5), structure (Ch.6), and staffing (Ch.7). Here's where the book really becomes interesting, because the authors begin to deliver on their promise of a culture of innovation. It's not just about external engagement, it's about structurally changing the organization, changing incentives within the organization, developing new job descriptions and responsibilities, and getting the right people on your team. I won't go into all the details here except to say that they cover the bases - defining positions, interviewing, calling references - in ways that emphasize developing an innovative culture. (Appendix 1 includes some sample job descriptions to get you started.) They don't talk about stealing promising employees from other sections - at least, not until Chapter 8.

In Part III, the authors move into the question of implementation. "To get started, take a look at your staff, find the rule breakers, and begin to initiate a Skunkworks effort," they tell us in Ch.8. "Why do organizations do this? Because the typical way of doing things produces typical work and a Skunkworks program is charged with producing atypical work - innovative and leading-edge work that can only be done in an unencumbered working environment" (p.149). They walk through the steps of setting up a Skunkworks, including stealing promising staffers from other sections, and they discuss some rules and processes that will help you get started. 

Chapter 9 is about fundraising: "new money from new donors in new ways" (p.169). This chapter is about the future, so they list five major changes for the next five years:
  • Social gaming with rewards
  • Donating with ease
  • Fun local events/individual fundraisers 
  • The socially conscious partnership
  • The shift in donor attitudes (i.e., donors who "do their research online and make confident choices," p.186)
They discuss each change with plenty of examples. For instance, when they discuss fun local events, they describe David's annual November campaign for men's cancer issues, Movember - when men not only donate but grow mustaches for the month. Movember ends, of course, with the Mustache and Bad Sweater Party. 

Chapter 10 moves on to "the future of communications," and here the authors generate another top five list:
  • Geolocation
  • Monitoring technology (e.g., Twitter hashtags)
  • Data segmentation
  • Advertising beyond "Where's the Beef?"
  • The total loss of privacy
And again, the authors do a great job of discussing how they spotted these trends, what they are, and what they mean to donor engagement.

With lists that predict trends of the next five years, obviously parts of this book will have a short shelf life. That just means you should buy it quickly. The other parts will age more gracefully, I think, and the book as a whole should be useful to nonprofits - but also to other organizations that prize high constituent engagement. In fact, higher education could probably learn a few tricks from it. If you're in the position to hire, innovate, or engage in your organization, consider picking it up.

1 comment:

David J. Neff said...

Thanks so much Clay. This is the most in depth any reviewer has gone so far and one of my favorite reviews yet! Your amazing research skills stand out.