Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

[Podcast] Tapping into your donor’s subconscious with Roger Dooley

Leading scientists who focus on brain activity say 95 percent of all thoughts, emotions and learning happen before we are aware of them. Author Roger Dooley says that unfortunately, most marketing efforts bypass the immense subconscious and instead target the rational conscious mind.

Dooley claims that if you want to promote your cause more effectively, it’s time to stop focusing on just five percent of your donor’s brain. Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing is Roger Dooley’s homage to the value of applying brain and behavior research to better understand the decision patterns of those you seek to influence.

The book contains key strategies—100 to be exact—to target your constituency through face-to-face, online, print and other marketing channels. Dooley answers three of our questions below in a recent podcast.

CausePlanet: Would you please comment on why incorporating “sensory features” into your donor marketing is so important?

Listen to his podcast answer here or read his answer below: Roger Dooley on sensory features

Dooley: Whenever we can engage multiple senses, our marketing is more impactful and memorable. Often, these additional senses offer a direct pathway to the donor’s brain. A scent, for example, can evoke memories or emotions, even without the person consciously processing the scent or even being aware of it. In some media, like print, it’s hard to engage multiple senses. In these cases, sensory words can be used. For example, the word “rough” lights up an area of the brain associated with touching, even when the word is used as a metaphor, as in a “rough day.”

CausePlanet: At what stage do most nonprofit marketers fail when trying to apply neuromarketing strategies?

Listen to his podcast here or read his answer below: Roger Dooley on when marketers fail

Dooley: Marketers tend to focus on facts and figures, features and benefits, and other logical appeals that are intended to persuade the donor or customer to act. Appealing to non-conscious motivators should be part of the process from start to finish. Using brain-oriented strategies is particularly important for nonprofit marketers. Usually, we buy products because we need them. We don’t have tangible benefits when we make a donation or volunteer our time. If product marketing is half psychology, nonprofit marketing is 100 percent psychology. It’s essential to identify and use the right triggers to get donors and volunteers on board.

CausePlanet: What interesting developments have you’ve discovered since Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing was published and that our nonprofit readers might find useful?

Listen to his podcast answer here. Roger Dooley on new developments

Want to learn more about how to apply Roger Dooley’s best practices to your donor communication? Follow him on Facebook, Twitter (@RogerDooley), subscribe to his newsletter, or listen to a podcast. You can also learn more about his latest book, The Persuasion Slide: A New Way to Market to Your Customer’s Conscious Needs and Unconscious Mind.

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Why is failure your ally and how do you get better at it?

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 12.02.02 PMWe recently added Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner to our summary library because it addresses a critical gap in the body of work around failure. According to coauthor, Kara Penn, Fail Better explores HOW failure is a path to success. We asked Penn about how you can make failure your ally, and more importantly, how to get better at it.

Kara Penn: Failure is useful as tool for learning and improvement, if we are open to learning from missteps. But learning from failure is not guaranteed, so we have to work at it.

I imagine most of you can recall a situation in a work or personal environment when failure occurred. We all do it! And it’s memorable. And like touching a hot stove, we tend very much not to ever want it to happen again. But if we can craft and increase control over how we fail and in service of what, we are receptive to a very powerful tool.

The Fail Better Method offers three practical stages to our project work where we can plan for smart mistakes and prepare for greater successes:


Launch: At the outset of a project or initiative, think about setting the groundwork for both project success and learning—combat common failure modes like not having Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 12.00.49 PMthe right resources or skills lined up for the project to succeed, not setting up a strong foundation of communication, or not building enough buy in to your efforts through key partners who can champion your work. In addition, this is a great time to think about how your plans and proposed action for moving forward in launching a program, service or idea tie to the actual outcomes you want to achieve. Logic models or Theories of Change are tools common in the nonprofit sector that can help organizations think through this. These tools allow you to see if you’re building your approach on sound or faulty assumptions and can be used as a diagnostic tool later when needed to see what went right and what was off track.


Iterate: Use implementation to test ideas, and be willing to have those efforts not be successful in service of learning. For example, in a fundraising campaign,Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 12.00.58 PM many of nonprofits use an end of year appeal letter as a way of reaching out to donors. However, this is a perfect place for experimentation using a technique that many software developers use—A & B testing—try out two or three different versions of letters or even methods of engagement, and see which one gets the best results and brings in the most responsiveness and donations. Use this information to build a better approach for next time. It’s relatively low risk and low cost. And gives you a lot of valuable information. Piloting programs instead of launching them outright at full scale is another way of minimizing risk and learning along the way so mistakes or failures are captured early and addressed, while successes can be scaled up. And finally:


Embed: As efforts draw to a close, we often fail to reflect on our work, review the data we’ve collected and share out our Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 12.01.06 PMfindings and insights with larger audiences. This lack of investment in learning at the end is VERY common, in nonprofits but all sectors. We are all busy, rushing into the next thing, but a lot is lost by not doing this and we prep ourselves to lose valuable insights—including pieces that were successful that we want to build on, and things that weren’t that we want to correct or improve for next time. Nonprofits can make time for this by employing a concept used by the U.S. military—an After Action Review—where teams involved in a project huddle up and document what went well, what went wrong, why, and what should be done differently next time. Documenting this information and creating some next steps to share and apply these insights can be a quick way for an organization to learn and improve.

Watch for future Q&A with Kara Penn about Fail Better when we talk about the circumstances when failure is at its best and how to create a culture that’s open to failure.

See more books and summaries related to this title:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Image credit: Harvard Business Press (cover image),

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5 behaviors that help nonprofits build an innovative mindset

It’s hard to believe that standing on a stage with fellow comedians is akin to brainstorming around a table with your colleagues at work but coauthors John Sweeney and Elena Imaretska argue these two scenarios are using the exact same mindset when at their best.

In The Innovative MindsetSweeney and Imaretska utilize what at first glance seems like an unlikely discipline to illustrate how to pursue innovation. It turns out that the skills and techniques practiced by improvisational actors are at the very core of what leaders need to be the most creative.

Sweeney and Imaretska show you how living in the improv actor’s mindset of discovery can lead you to significant productivity. Here are five behaviors to build your innovative mindset according to the authors.

Diem - Innovative Mindset (2)


See nonprofit book summaries related to this post:

The Innovative Mindset: Five Behaviors for Accelerating Breakthroughs

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World

Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner

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Nonprofits can apply improv to be at their creative best

innovativemindset cover“Honing a mindset of discovery and practicing innovation behaviors on a daily basis is the best way we can ensure that future generations will inherit a healthy planet and sustainable society that supports prosperity and happiness for all its members,” assert Innovative Mindset coauthors John Sweeney and Elena Imaretska.

Serious results created by comedic roots

Sweeney and Imaretska firmly believe a mindset of discovery is a key to success in our social sector. What’s more, they utilize what at first glance seems like an unlikely model to pursue innovation. It turns out that the skills and techniques practiced by improvisational actors are at the very core of what leaders need to be at their creative best.

The authors show you how living in the improv actor’s mindset of discovery can lead you to significant productivity. If you can successfully implement what they call the “Big Five” behaviors in your everyday life, you can:

become a better communicator,

be more comfortable with risk,

build your confidence, and

reduce judging others and yourself.

The Innovative Mindset is a practical guide that lets you integrate its lessons into your day-to-day interactions with people. Yet, only through dedication to your “fitness plan” that develops the “Big Five” behaviors. One of the behaviors I wanted to highlight in today’s post is about deferring judgment.

Deferring judgment means pausing and accepting the potential of ideas and opinions.marketingmag-com

This behavior does not mean eliminate or avoid judgment. You need to judge to make good decisions but waiting to judge allows you to explore new possibilities and potential. Deferring judgment allows us to hold off fear of threats, experience empathy and think more complexly.

Assume the new information is neutral. “When we defer judgment, we create the space that’s needed to allow the next part of innovation to happen.” Often, you buy time to find the good in the situation. The authors give the example of waiting to respond to an email. If you wait, it allows you to check your emotional reactions and see the emailer’s point of view.

Below is the specific advice to defer judgment:

Muscles to exercise: “pausing, employing gratitude, embracing ‘what if” versus ‘it’s not going to work because,’ letting go of preconceived notions and biases, and calming your emotions to let the cortical brain do its work.”gettingsmart-com

Tactics to practice: “1. Take a timed pause before responding [you choose your time frame]. 2. Say thank you—and really mean it—before responding. 3. Say ‘yes, and’ as a conjunction. 4. Survey your body and relax it intentionally. Breathe. 5. Put yourself in other people’s shoes to find value in their points of view.”

Possible deferring judgment workouts: Stage family debates where you argue both sides. Take the implicit bias test from Harvard Business School ( and remind yourself with images that address the biases you reveal. Practice meditation and breathing exercises to calm your emotions. Think through a current challenge from the perspective of your friends and colleagues to see how they might solve it.

While the authors acknowledge that deferring judgment is one of the most challenging of the five behaviors to master, the results are worth the effort. Try deferring judgment in your next meeting when creativity is called for and agree upon it with your colleagues before you start.

How did it change the tone of your meeting and the number of ideas that were generated? For more information about the Innovative Mindset, visit the the authors ( or or learn more about our Page to Practice book summary.

See also:

Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner

Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries





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Nonprofit technology doesn’t need to be a burden

There are co-ops for everything from farmers to food merchants, and many have existed for decades or longer.  So why not technology cooperatives for nonprofits ?

The simple response to this question is – there already are technology co-ops.  Sort of.  Large hospitals and universities have been quietly operating technology-oriented co-ops for decades.  Not far from where this is being penned there is a substantial cooperative whose members are nonprofits such as hospitals, universities, colleges, a health insurer and a private high school.  What they have in common is that all or a large percentage of each of their operations are within the area served by the co-operative.  This mutual proximity doubtlessly made it easier to initiate and cheaper to run the co-op, a lesson we should apply to other similar ventures.

The institutions that belong to the co-op are mostly large, highly sophisticated nonprofits.   In effect, they succeeded because they were adequately capitalized and served a ‘closed’ market.  No one needed to carry out an expensive advertising campaign because the members themselves decided to build a shared platform and created the co-operative as a way of accomplishing this.

But what about the vast majority of nonprofits, the ones whose smallest bank accounts don’t have six zeroes behind the first digit?  The story is very different for these groups, which are the majority of nonprofits in the country.   Yet their need for technology is proportionately the same and perhaps even greater.  There are three aspects of this riddle that need to be solved in order to improve technology use and access for nonprofits that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a complete program on their own.

Fixed costs

Fixed costs are one of the quietest of the Budget Devils.  Most costs rise or fall in some kind of coordination with the demand for a nonprofit’s service.  Direct staff, for example, usually increase if the need for the organization’s service grows.  These are called variable costs, because if one were to chart the arc of growth in the need for an entity’s services, the volume of direct staff hired would almost certainly vary according to the arc of the demand.

By contrast, in an ideal world the growth in the need for administrative services should not be comparable to the growth in service demand because administrative costs tend to be a ‘step function’.  This means that growth in administrative resources is likely to come in ‘spurts’ and frequently over time administrative staff can actually lower the overall administrative costs by creating efficiencies greater than the growth in demand.

At its economic simplest, technology is a fixed cost.  That computer server has the same price tag if it is going to be used 24 hours a day or just a portion of each day.  The upgrades to the wiring system to power the thing also had to be incurred even if it was just intended to be a backup system.  That finicky server needs just the right blend of temperature and humidity, which drives up the utility bills.  And the additional Computer Guy’s salary and benefits are inescapable.  Members of co-ops can better manage the costs by collaborating at the infrastructure level (servers, storage, etc.) or at the software level.  Or both.

Fixed costs abound in technology which is one of the reasons it is so hard for most nonprofits to develop a robust technology platform.  Large nonprofits such as universities and hospitals can absorb a substantial amount of these fixed costs before their budgets start to complain, but smaller nonprofits find it difficult if not impossible to take on such fixed costs.


Having the financial resources (or ‘capital’) is a second technology hurdle.  Economists refer to technology as a ‘capital-intensive’ operation, meaning that one has to buy a lot of assets such as computer equipment.  Here, capital means something akin to ‘reserves’, or cash that’s not needed for day to day operations.   The problem for nonprofits is that, unlike for-profit businesses, nonprofits can’t invite outsiders to invest in the operation in return for a share of ownership.  The only way a nonprofit can gain resources for capital acquisitions is through profitability or donations (development specialists: which ask would you rather make – requesting that a potential donor ‘buy a few computer servers’ or ‘invest in kids’?).


The third need is to run a productive and economically feasible operation.  This is more difficult than one might imagine because staff productivity is not necessarily an automatic must-have unless a nonprofit operates in certain areas of health or human services.  Large for-profit companies, by contrast, often demand a certain number of ‘billable’ hours from each employee whether the company is a law firm, an internet cable company, or a medical laboratory.   No matter what the tax status, low productivity is a Budget Devil itself.

The Co-op Model

The obvious solution to this dilemma for most nonprofits is to buy as little as one can get away with, at as low a price as possible.  But this can lead to disastrous trade-offs in which an organization makes too many compromises.  The formula is to minimize variable costs while managing fixed costs as

tightly as possible, and this is where the co-op model comes in.  In effect, the co-op carries the fixed costs and the burden for falling short of revenue goals (as does any for-profit service provider).  They also assume responsibility for hitting productivity targets.

The co-op model can be viable in this setting because it is not like a drugstore, with items sitting patiently on the shelf, waiting to be scooped into shopping baskets.  Both parties must make a commitment to each other, and it almost certainly will take the form of a written contract.  The composition of their client base gives the co-op not only funds for operations but – if the market co-operates – some level of capital accumulation as well.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are already a number of cooperatives accepted by the IRS, such as co-operatives serving hospitals and educational organizations – and even farmers (who helped originate the model two centuries ago).  This may be good encouragement to begin a technology co-op in your area if there are no comparables in existence.  Perhaps more likely, a nonprofit is free to go out of the sector to find companies that provide these kinds of services.    Whether your information technology supplier is an actual co-op or a for-profit company offering professional services should be largely immaterial: good service is good service.  What is more pressing as a new client is what you will get for your money from FIfth Third card.  Note that if you and your peer organizations decide to form a co-op you should automatically have an advantage in the value-for-payment transaction.

The models we have sketched are most likely to succeed in an urban or suburban setting because it’s easier to achieve the desired productivity levels when your customers are located relatively near each other.  Sixty percent productivity for your field staff should be a good starting point, though it may be possible to push it higher.   More intriguing is that finding the capital may be easier than you think.  After years of promoting collaboration in general, some major foundations are beginning to experiment with funding certain aspects of collaborative processes.  Program Related Investments may be an option from savvy, well-established foundations.  L3C corporations were designed for social enterprise ventures, and they can be an invaluable structure on which to build a robust new service for the nonprofit field.  And the B Corp, or ‘Benefit Corporation’, offers traditional for-profit businesses an opportunity to convert to a different status as long as they can prove that they seek to create a ‘public benefit’ in tandem with private gain.  In fact, we know a for-profit entity that recently completed just such a switch.

With a little imagination, some energy, and some good financial strategic thinking, it should be possible to develop market-serving entities for information technology purposes and/or find existing suppliers that are effectively doing the same thing.  Good IT may be a cost but it doesn’t need to be a burden.

See relevant Page to Practice book summaries:

Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission: A Strategic Guide for Nonprofit Leaders

Zone of Insolvency: How Nonprofits Avoid Hidden Liabilities and Build Financial Strength

Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business

Image credits:,,

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What makes nonprofit failures useful or useless? FailBetter authors answer.

“Not all failures are useful. The key is to enable the productive ones. You’ll need to know what makes some failures worthwhile and others useless.”

Authors Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn have recently published a new book to help you make the most of mistakes. They claim that, “Failure is not necessarily bad. Accepting that it’s inevitable, and maybe even desirable, sets the stage for a more nuanced discussion of learning, failure, and success.”

Today we’re building on our recent introductory post and featuring an excerpt of our interview with the coauthors to give you a better sense of how mistakes can be a path to great efficiencies rather than a source of regret or frustration.

More about the book’s premise

But first, let’s review a little bit more about the book’s premise. Sastry and Penn explain that “smart leaders, entrepreneurs and change agents design their innovation projects with a key idea in mind: ensure that every failure is maximally useful.” In Fail Better, the authors show you how to create the conditions, culture and habits to determine what the most effective solutions are by:

1) launching every project with the necessary groundwork,

2) building and refining ideas, products and services through iterative action, and

3) identifying the learning moments and embedding the knowledge.

Launch, iterate, embed

In other words, the book discusses how to address failures and make them beneficial before (launch), during (iteration) and after (embedding) the project’s work. You will learn an invaluable skill you may never have developed before: how to distinguish “preventable, wasteful and uninstructive failures” from helpful ones you can incorporate into your process.

Interview with the authors

CausePlanet: Where do most people “get it wrong” when they’ve failed? Which part of your model tackles it?

Penn and Sastry: There are so many areas to choose from! Fail Better addresses common failure modes at each step—whether at the outset of a project when the seeds of a failure may be sown in failing to identify faulty assumptions that underpin the rest of the project’s actions or a needed skill set or resource is never secured (the Launch Phase of Fail Better aims at addressing this), or at the end of a project when many a manager and team member rushes into the next project without extracting, sharing and translating into changed behavior the lessons learned (the Embed Phase tackles how to do this).

People often “get it wrong” when they miss opportunities to prevent more costly failures in exchange for smaller, more informative, more affordable mistakes. And they get it wrong when they march to the end of a project on the back of a single monolithic approach, without testing and experimenting along the way. Not much can be done to improve an outcome at the end of a project, so if a faulty path is pursued with determination, larger, more public and more costly failures are bound to be the result. Fail Better’s Iterate Phase intervenes here.

On a more individual level, once failure has occurred, two critical pitfalls often await:

First, failure makes each one of us feel so uncomfortable, that often examining the causes of that failure are avoided and written off to circumstantial issues. This is a coping mechanism, but it’s the exact sort of thing that contributes to repeating similar mistakes. Fail Better works hard to help implementers avoid this outcome by creating the space and structure for reflection and behavior change in a safe way.

Second, there is a temptation as a manager to hide failure stories instead of owning them and crafting a narrative that shows why a course of action was selected, what was learned and what will be done differently going forward. A smart failure that drives learning and positive change and a response that demonstrates resilience and action is highly valued. And it is much better to craft our own failure stories than to have others, who may not know the nuances or intentions, do it for us by default.

CausePlanet: What makes a failure useless? What makes it useful?

Penn and Sastry: Our starting point is the idea that the right kind of failure—small-scale, reversible, informative, linked to broader goals, and designed to illuminate key issues—paves the way to success. Such failures are in service of a larger vision or goal, are stepping stones to refined and improved ideas, and create a platform of understanding and learning. In short, a better failure moves you forward. The wrong kind of failure entails waste, leads to discouragement, reflects rigid thinking, “bets the farm,” and contributes to reputational damage.

See also:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

Image credits:,,


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Fail Better: Learn how to make nonprofit failures maximally useful

Let’s face it: Failure is universal. It is universally associated with avoidance, denial, frustration and shame. Yet smart individuals, teams, and even some organizations have discovered failure, if anticipated, evaluated, and corrected, can be the answer to succeeding sooner.

Fail Better authors Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn personally have experienced and observed these interactions with failing better and have assembled a systematic approach for improving how you fail. If we know failure is inevitable, why not get better at it?

Our latest recommended book is about just that—how to fail better. Sastry and Penn have designed a purposeful way to experiment and innovate that will transform your failures into opportunities to learn, modify and improve.

If you’ve ever asked any of the following questions, then Fail Better is for you:

“How do I deliver on my work—get my ‘real job’ done—and at the same time innovate and improve?”

“How do I improve my own personal practices and habits to enable even better impact?”

“How can I learn from previous experience, within our organization or more broadly?”

Sastry and Penn explain that “smart leaders, entrepreneurs and change agents design their innovation projects with a key idea in mind: ensure that every failure is maximally useful.” In Fail Better, the authors show you how to create the conditions, culture and habits to determine what the most
effective solutions are by:

1) launching every project with the necessary groundwork,

2) building and refining ideas, products and services through iterative action, and

3) identifying the learning moments and embedding the knowledge.

Launch, iterate, embed

In other words, the book discusses how to address failures and make them beneficial before (launch), during (iteration) and after (embedding) the project’s work. You will learn an invaluable skill you may never have developed before: how to distinguish “preventable, wasteful and uninstructive failures” from helpful ones you can incorporate into your process.

Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights and failing better

The Civil Rights Movement is an example of iterating and embedding your learning. Initially, when the movement did not accomplish enough change working through the legal system, it began to look at lessons from India’s independence and worked with the NAACP to share assets and capabilities. The leaders had to consider the time horizon by acknowledging that their movements in the short run could possibly only pay off in the long run.

They practiced civil disobedience in many settings and shared their field-tested advice with other groups. They were constantly telling their stories through speeches. They continuously embedded their learning when they met to discuss and debate perspectives and tactics. The ultimate embedding occurred with the civil rights legislation. They, especially Martin Luther King, Jr., documented (embedded) their thoughts as well.

If nonprofits are willing to accept that failure is inevitable and part of progress, then they can enjoy the benefits turning mistakes into productive experiences. Both large and small organizations can implement the launch-iterate-embed practices Sastry and Penn recommend in the book. Watch for future installments about the Fail Better method and how you can embrace failure for what it can teach you.

See also:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

Image credits: rrfit-com,,,

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Bolster traditional planning with small bets

So you’ve done your strategic plan and everyone’s on the same page. What about the unanticipated opportunities or challenges that always arise?

You need a more nimble means for responding to and acting on the changing environment around you, according to Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. Sims endorses an approach that requires making good use of small experiments by repeating, refining and perfecting for large wins.

Look at experimental innovation as helpful in building up a solution rather than starting with what you suspect is the answer and planning around it. Sims reminds us that creative teams that use the little bets approach aren’t trying a lot of ideas to see what sticks; rather, they are rigorous, analytical, strategic and pragmatic about their innovation. The principles Sims introduces in Little Bets are not meant to facilitate a step-by-step process. Instead, they are meant to guide productive creativity.

The Little Bets approach has some fundamentals. Sims says we should:

Experiment: Learn by doing. Fail quickly and learn fast. Develop experiments and prototypes to gather insights, identify problems and build up to creative ideas.
Play: A playful, improvisational and humorous atmosphere quiets our inhibitions when ideas are incubating or newly hatched and prevents creative ideas from being snuffed out or prematurely judged.
Immerse: Take time to get out into the world and gather fresh ideas and insights in order to understand deeper human motivations and desires. Absorb how things work from the ground up.
Define: Use insights gathered throughout the process to define specific problems and needs before solving them.
Reorient: Be flexible in pursuit of larger goals and aspirations, making good use of small wins to make necessary pivots and chart the course to completion.
Iterate: Repeat, refine and test frequently, armed with the better insights, information and assumptions as time goes on.

For most of us, adopting this experimental approach requires a significant change in mindset. Many factors throughout our lives have accumulated to form tendencies away from little bets or entrepreneurial experimentation. For example, our education system is centered on teaching us facts and rewarding us for memorization. There is much less emphasis on teaching us to creatively think and discover for ourselves.

Those of us who are willing to embrace uncertainty and failure will reap remarkable results. Little Bets’ case study heroes rejoice in errors and surprises. The mere fact that Sims’ book is based on the notion of small discoveries leading to breakthrough ideas feels as if it was written for the nonprofit organization. Nonprofits, in truth, are built for small bets and big victories. Our budgets demand it. So if you can stomach the experimental failures and keep the board at bay while you do so, get ready for breakthrough ideas.

For more information about Peter Sims’ book, visit or Or you can learn more by dowloading the Little Bets Page to Practice feature at CausePlanet.

See also:

Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner

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Martial arts lessons for nonprofit managers

In 2012, nonprofits face another year of budget battles and political skirmishes, and the fight continues to intensify with the coming national election. Make no mistake. Nonprofits are in a full-fledged combat situation. Social, political, and economic forces have created a hostile terrain for nonprofits, described by David La Piana as “The New Abnormal:”

“Nonprofits are caught in this downward spiral of ideological extremism and cynical self-interest. The people they serve need more help than ever, but society provides less and less support to meet those needs. For every nonprofit cutting its services, there are a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand people who are at risk.”

This goes far beyond the accustomed reality of nonprofits, which have long been challenged to do more with less. It is in fact “an all-out assault on the social contract.”

So what are already war weary nonprofits to do? Is it time for new battle strategies? Special training?

Well, before we go reaching for our flak jackets, let’s turn for a moment to the wisdom born of a couple thousand years of experience with conflict: the Chinese martial arts.

Since being introduced to kung fu some ten years ago, I’ve seen time and again how its lessons could be applied within the organizations with which I have worked in the philanthropic sector. Here are just a few examples of concepts and skills that I think nonprofit leaders could use to continue to fight the good fight – and prevail.

Assume a posture of relaxed readiness

We’ve all heard how important it is for organizations in the 21st Century to be more nimble – and it’s true, but we’re not just talking about a dance here, people. Nonprofit-unfriendly policy, practices, and pundits are ready to hit us where we live, and we need to not only be ready to defend ourselves, but to shut down those attacks before they become a problem. This requires that we resist the reactive urge to “tense up” or withdraw, but instead find a position of relaxed readiness in which we stay keenly alert to potential threats but remain calm and flexible enough to creatively and proactively deal with them.

As organizations, we can achieve this state of heightened awareness and self-possession by:

Assessing and owning up to our strengths and weaknesses

Knowing the full array of resources within reach (not only financial resources, but the vast store of skills and talents our staffs, board members, and allies bring to the table)

Scanning the environment for short- and long-term developments that may negatively impact or open up new opportunities for our work

Mobilizing a mix of resources quickly and effectively to achieve our mission objectives

Do what you need to do

Wu wei is one of many Taoist concepts that is wonderfully difficult to define, but was once described by my own Sifu (teacher) as “no inappropriate action” – the point being that you do what is necessary to accomplish your purpose without excessive effort, force, or power-over. Martial arts icon Bruce Lee put it this way: “Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick.” This no-nonsense approach means wielding the power of discretion and having the courage to pare away the non-essential.

Think about where your organization is expending the most effort. Where do you feel like you are often running up against the proverbial wall? Have you been spending a disproportionate amount of time and energy trying to resuscitate a flagging program, connecting with a nonresponsive donor base, or simply taking on too much? Why? How much more effective could you be if you spent more time looking for open doors and less time pounding on the ones whose hinges may never yield?

We are defined in relationship with others

Martial artists train under the obvious premise that there is an “opponent,” but the fortunate reality is that we aren’t all running around fighting one another, and instead do much of our work with sparring “partners.” Although a student may spend hours on conditioning exercises or practicing forms or katas by herself, it is not until she is squared off with an opponent/partner that her techniques are tested, brought to life, and made complete. Nonprofits, too, are most vital and alive in relation to a broad range of other players, but do not always tap the power of these potential partnerships – or recognize the potential dangers of going it alone.

With the sector under fire, the time is ripe for nonprofits to rally against common threats and draw upon the skills they have developed over years of competing with one another to work better together. Although collaborative capacity is increasingly regarded as an element of organizational effectiveness, many nonprofits still struggle to form meaningful partnerships. If there is one positive outcome of “The New Abnormal,” it could just be a more cohesive, politically savvy nonprofit sector that advocates for itself and the public good that it has committed to serve.

To change with change is the changeless state

Again I’m borrowing a Bruce Lee quote with the above line, not because I believe him to be the paragon of Chinese martial arts, but because the guy could sure turn a phrase! The point is: innovation is nothing new. Despite the cult of innovation that has recently taken the philanthropic sector by storm, it is not only a tenet in Eastern beliefs, but recognized by everyone from Heraclitus to Isaac Asimov that change is, in fact, a constant.

All beings must adapt to their environment, to the situations they find themselves in, to the barriers they encounter, and to the new paths that open up. This is the task of the martial artist. It does not mean being reactive or passive. You must always know your purpose, your mission. But changing and responding flexibly to how you achieve it is the “art” at work.

All nonprofit leaders already practice kung fu, whether they know it or not. Though most commonly understood as a name for Chinese martial arts, kung fu is more accurately (and broadly) defined as “skill achieved through hard work” – a fitting description of nonprofit leadership, right? So why not put some of that martial philosophy to work as we face these challenges ahead?

See also:

The Nonprofit Business Plan

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge…

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Successful nonprofit leadership: The starts, the risks and the failures

This article is the first in a series that looks at practices of seasoned nonprofit leaders. The series aims at offering some lessons and wisdom to the next generation of leaders.

The walls at Seniors’ Resource Center (SRC) are lined with beautiful photographs of people they have helped, which can be shared with generations of family members. These pictures tell of lives filled with joy, struggle and stories. Telling the story of these seniors is what the CEO for almost 30 years, John Zabawa, believes is the most important aspect of his job. In 2010, 19,467 individuals across 10 Denver metro counties were directly served by the Seniors’ Resource Center. Since 1982, when SRC was incorporated, this organization has stayed close to its mission: a community partner providing person-focused, coordinated services to enhance independence, dignity and quality of life.

The organization’s growth (it is one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Jefferson County, Colorado) parallels John’s growth as a respected and well-known nonprofit leader. Two accomplishments that highlight John’s career include the development of a business model called “coordinated care” and the completion of a successful capital campaign. The new building, financed by the capital campaign, opened last fall and doubled the space and capacity of the organization to offer adult day and respite services to the elderly. This building allows caretakers to provide a safe place for their family members. The building is on the cutting edge of senior care in the future. The building is the physical representation of the mission, as it is a place where seniors can come to get services that are needed and return to their homes at the end of the day. This allows clients to stay in their homes and remain independent. This facility is also the core of the coordinated care model. Seniors and disabled clients receive auxiliary support such as transportation, in-home care, care management and mental health support that treat the client’s complete needs.

Over coffee, I asked John to reflect on how he and the organization grew as well as what he would want younger leaders to know. John believes the “story” is a series of activities that include the very formation of the organization. In the late 1970s, the organization was housed and funded by county government. Central to the mission is the desire for seniors to live independent lives. John knew the organization needed to be independent as well. When the organization became its own nonprofit, the organization could form and move toward an integrated model. What integration meant to the community and clients was discerned by listening to those served. Over the years, SRC has asked for feedback from the community. The format included frequent customer satisfaction surveys as well as listening tours with all stakeholders. Caregivers, staff, board members, volunteers, funders, lawmakers and clients themselves were asked to describe what is needed by an organization such as SRC.

This type of assessment and analysis was part of an entire organizational analysis conducted in 2004. From that assessment, the coordinated care model was solidified. Beginning with a vision activity
that imagined the needs of clients in 2020, staff, especially the senior members, implemented a process where SRC would be the focal point for delivering or partnering with organizations to help attend to any client need. Recently, a storefront in a local mall was opened to welcome current and potential clients to find resources to make their lives more livable.

John believes that long-term success is in the starts, the risk and even the failures. In an attempt to support the “whole senior,” the organization has sometimes moved ahead of itself. In the early 1990s, SRC correctly identified that the sandwich generation of U.S. workers would increasingly struggle. This generation involves those who are trying to take care of the needs of their children and their aging parents while holding full-time jobs. The demographic was accurate but the response of a workplace program was a little too early for employers to embrace. In 1985, John asked the board to take a big risk with him. He persuaded the board to approve buying a property in Evergreen, Colorado. The “Yellow House” is now the pride of that mountain community, and directions are given by saying, “It is right down the street from the Yellow House.” However, in the mid-80s such a large investment in real estate made board members nervous about the financial stability of the organization. Twenty-five years later, that investment proved to be exactly the right addition for SRC.

Finally, just as John knows that listening to feedback helps improve the organization, he knows that hearing that feedback keeps him humble. Humility is the lesson for all leaders, particularly younger ones. John Zabawa’s lifelong lessons that led to his success– take the time to forge relationships, respect differing opinions and be empathetic—are qualities that appear in the faces in the pictures that decorate the halls of SRC.

Special thanks to John Zabawa for his time and insight on this story.

See also:

The Leadership Challenge

Working Across Generations

The One-Hour Activist

Image credit: The Denver Post,

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