Information Overload: How Case Study Envy Stifles Nonprofit Success

whatever competition does

Between numerous conferences, written reports, podcasts and other resources, nonprofits should have no problem accessing an abundance of industry case studies. And smart organizations actively seek them out in order to appropriately consider precedents. However, too many nonprofits seem to distract themselves from opportunities by making inappropriate comparisons between other organizations and their own. They risk the loss of their own identity when they become too easily seduced by the (alleged) successes of others.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the nonprofit industry – one with an innate value for transparency and a culture that celebrates collaborative knowledge transfer – is so often easily misled by these “success studies.” Arguably, nonprofits are the most communicative of any business sector.  Due to a culture of sharing, organizational risk aversion, and a very mature business model, there isn’t a lot of “secret sauce” in the nonprofit space.

“So how can nonprofits be considered laggards when it comes to building effective ‘business’ strategies?! We’re in constant dialogue. We listen to one another!”

Well, maybe that’s the problem.

Having a lot of information is good. Not taking the time to develop a culture of thinking about it critically is bad. While sharing experiences certainly has undeniable advantages and can positively inform organizational strategies, I’ve noticed a detrimental trend in how nonprofit organizations discuss the operations of perceived industry leaders whom they’d like to emulate. Namely, nonprofits seem increasingly less able to differentiate between models and examples, and this confusion creates unrealistic expectations that may hinder the success of organizations.

When considering case studies and the operations of other nonprofit organizations, it may help to keep in mind the following four items:

1) Many singularly successful organizations are terrible models

IMPACTS collects intelligence concerning 224 visitor-serving organizations in the United States. Data indicate that the US public overwhelmingly considers the Monterey Bay Aquarium to be the “best aquarium in the world.” Increasingly, we hear organizations (and not just aquariums) attempting to emulate the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the hopes of similarly increasing their own reputations, securing their financial futures, maximizing audience engagement, etc.

(I am exploring the category of aquariums (again) because the aquarium industry has a clear, defined market leader. Museums, symphonies and zoos have tighter “line ups” with greater variance in public opinion concerning which is the “best.”)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a wonderful example of a world-class organization achieving enviable business and mission successes…but, as far as being easily replicated, it is a terrible model. Consider: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the dominant – and near exclusive – major attraction in a very popular coastal destination.  It is led by one of the most influential leaders in the global conservation community.  It opened its doors unburdened by debt or other financing obligations. The lists of singular superlatives associated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium could go on…but, I think that you get my point. While it is easy to identify the attributes and practices that make the Monterey Bay Aquarium an acknowledged market leader, it is very difficult to duplicate these conditions.

Do other organizations also have some of these things? You bet. Do they have all of them? No. Similarly, your organization likely has its own, unique conditions. (Monterey is the example I am using here to make a point. It is not the only organization with unique conditions and the promise or potential of a successful enterprise).

(Uh oh! I feel a bad analogy coming on…) Other organizations cannot reasonably expect to copy the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “recipe for success” because they aren’t working with the same ingredients (or, for that matter, the same kitchen and same executive chef). Organizations have their own unique ingredients (and kitchens and chefs), and they have to optimize those to best respond to their own unique opportunities.

 

2) But organizations can provide helpful examples

Continuing with my horrible “recipe for success” analogy, if you spot an admired market leader that shares some of the same ingredients as your organization, noting how they successfully utilize these ingredients may help your organization cook up an equally tasty dish. In fact, if you add on to the case study by contemplating and incorporating your own unique advantages, you may end up with something even better (for you) than your would-be model.

For instance, although Monterey Bay Aquarium is a terrible model (again, in the sense that they – like many other organizations- aren’t replicable), their ability to experiment and take on unique initiatives in creative ways provides several examples that may benefit the balance of the museum and nonprofit industry. Examples may be broad and deal with the evolution of best practices, or serve as case studies for engaging the market.

As an aside: Question case studies. Sharing case studies (especially in conference settings) is frequently a way that organizations pat themselves on their own backs, but just because a case study was shared doesn’t mean that the initiative aided in securing donations, getting people in the door, or increasing brand reputation. There are some gemstones, but there’s also a lot of hot air out there. Be wise enough to tell the difference.  (People regularly ask me what are some of the biggest differences that I observe in my work with both for-profit and nonprofit clients.  Easy!  Whereas the nonprofit case studies presented to industry colleagues are invariably sunshine-filled, self-congratulatory success stories, the vast majority of case studies that I observe being presented in the for-profit world are cautionary tales of woe, struggle, and failure.  I don’t know what to make of this dichotomy, but I think it is interesting).
 

3) If you aspire to replicate a model, you jeopardize your relevance

If a similar organization with the same brand equities that you strive to achieve already exists (i.e. if you have a true model), then your organization is probably less relevant and you may be cannibalizing the market and unnecessarily dividing the resources needed to efficiently tackle the shared social mission.

However, a “conceptual model organization” that exists in another market could be a valuable tool – provided that two conditions are met: 1) You understand how this organization (its positioning, reputation and resources) differs from yours and you create a plan for optimizing these same areas uniquely for your own equities; and 2) You understand that successful organizations evolve to meet market needs and opportunities. What was true and a “best practice” yesterday may not necessarily serve as a suitable precedent for tomorrow. Your model will change its operations over time (especially if it is a good model), and you will likely need to change yours, too. Frequently, the best things that a “conceptual model organization” can be are thought provoking and inspirational – its practices may not be transitively applicable. 
 

4) Making nonprofit best practices the basis of your business strategy is a bad strategy

Another disadvantage of the “sharing” nature of the nonprofit industry is that organizations often become more caught up with what other organizations are doing than paying any attention to their markets – which (decidedly unlike the behaviors of other nonprofits) is directly correlated to their financial and social success. (Read: It doesn’t matter at all how many other nonprofits are utilizing social media. What matters is that the market is utilizing social media as its single most influential, go-to source of information.)

Think it’s great that your nonprofit is almost at the industry average for email open rates? Congratulations on being almost mediocre. (Tough love? Maybe. But think about it: You won’t catch successful for-profit companies celebrating benchmark victories…so why do we allow ourselves to frame averageness as “achievement?”) We can do better than simply keeping up with the Vastly-Underperforming-And-Almost-Broke Joneses. It’s important to be marketing your nonprofit and creating programs for the folks that actually matter – not to keep company with peer organizations (a large portion of which may be flailing).

My advice to nonprofits with one eye on their neighbors: Take what you can from case studies as applicable, but don’t get caught up in becoming another organization.  Gosh darnit:

Be yourself oscar wilde

(Full disclosure: As the Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS, I work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium…and, for that matter, with a number of other aquariums, museums, performing arts organizations, zoos and similar visitor-serving enterprise. The reason that I reference the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a specific example is two-fold: (1) Data compellingly indicate its public perception as “best in class,” and thus a natural topic for case study; and (2) It is a frequently cited aspirational “model” suggested to me by other aquariums – as well as several other types of visitor-serving organizations – when they reference a third-party entity.)

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 6 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

6 Responses to Information Overload: How Case Study Envy Stifles Nonprofit Success

  1. Marc Koenig

    “Whereas the nonprofit case studies presented to industry colleagues are invariably sunshine-filled, self-congratulatory success stories, the vast majority of case studies that I observe being presented in the for-profit world are cautionary tales of woe, struggle and failure. I don’t know what to make of this dichotomy, but I think it is interesting”

    That IS very interesting. I wonder if this could be a side effect of businesses possessing a greater willingness to fail at new, interesting efforts, whereas nonprofit endeavors need more reassurance that new strategies are tested and will work (so presenting a nuanced view of the upsides and downsides both doesn’t get you heard). It’s also possible that nonprofits fear being abandoned by flighty donors and grant-awarders by displaying failures openly.

    Thanks for this post.

     
    • colleendilen

      I think you may be right, Marc. Nonprofits may have too many stakeholders to be able to share their shortcomings – even for the betterment of the sector. It’s generally considered an honor to be a speaker at a national conference or meeting (or be the subject/author of a notable case study), but – as you mention – stakeholders (like board members or donors) may not want to be associated with “failures.” It’s an interesting difference and I wonder how much the sector might gain from some true “transparency” when it comes to sharing best practices.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

       
  2. Don Duggan-Haas

    That line caught my attention as well. It doesn’t especially surprise me as I’ve heard repeatedly from program officers at the National Science Foundation that they’d like to see more reports of failure in their education grants. Everyone seemingly has wonderful outcomes, and yet the K-12 system of education hasn’t substantially improved by many, many measures.

    I think Marc’s probably right — funders don’t want to fund losers, and, as for-profits get their funding in different ways, they feel they can be more honest about things that didn’t work and actually learn from mistakes.

     
    • colleendilen

      “Everyone seemingly has wonderful outcomes, and yet the K-12 system of education hasn’t substantially improved by many, many measures.”

      Yes! And from a business practice standpoint, we often don’t see a bump in revenue that may be causally attributed to many of the initiatives that organizations share. (Granted, it is hard to attribute causation and the project may contribute to a more latent indicator such as reputation that may (or may not) aid in attendance or even additional educational opportunities down the road). Nonetheless the question seems to become, “So what exactly ARE these initiatives achieving and are they really moving the needle?” I wonder if enough nonprofits are questioning this when they hear about other organizations and their “successful” initiatives…

      I also suspect that you and Marc may be onto something regarding the fact that “funders don’t want losers.” By the same token, I wonder if funders also don’t want organizations that learn from their mistakes. It’s an interesting dilemma!

       
  3. Suse Cairns

    Colleen, this is an excellent post. One other thing regarding case studies that I think is worth mentioning is that some organisations are really good at *presenting* their work well; at pitching it to the sector regularly and in the ‘right’ settings, with the right language etc. Which isn’t to undercut the good work that they are doing, but more to propose that there is lots of good work being done across the sector that we don’t necessarily hear about because the institution doesn’t have a big enough travel budget to get staff to all the conferences, or because members of the team don’t feel confident about presenting on their work in particular fora.

    A small cultural institution doing really innovative work on a small scale might not get the same kind of visibility as someone doing similar work at a larger institution or one with a higher public profile, but their innovation might actually be far more applicable for another institution to look to as a model/example, because there might be more similarities in organisations.

    Perceived industry leaders might get that way as much because they’re very good at telling their own story, and the stories of their innovations, as for the innovations themselves.

     
  4. Carlyn Buckler

    Just after the AAM conference, this is very timely – Thank You! Conferences and case studies are fantastic, particularly for getting the next generation engaged and passionate about the industry, but also to hear what has worked for other institutions, and success stories that can give us all motivation and hope (in a world where examples of such can seem few and far between).

    There is sometimes the temptation, hearing about some exciting project or case study that has worked for another institution, to say, “Wow! We’d like to address that demographic/issue/topic, too!” Which, under the right circumstances, be great new-blood for a floundering institution. But these are hard times, and it can be tempting in the face of dwindling funds and visitors/customers, to lose site of the inherent strengths of the group to focus on projects without due consideration of whether it is truly in line with the expertise and mission statement of the organization. It is important to stop before we consider that Next New Thing, or the Department Makeover and Refocus, and think about, “What are we really good at? What are our best resources? Does this new tact or project really speak to our strengths? “

    Before you can successfully Be Yourself, one must Know Thyself.

    And again, thank you so much – I think you really hit the nail on the head with some very timely information!

     

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