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future of nonprofits

Why Talking About The Future of Museums May Be Holding Museums Back

Marketoonist- Risks

What if we took some of the time that we spend patting ourselves on the back for thinking about “the future” and use it to better adapt to the world we are living in right now?

Before I jump in, I need to come clean and admit that I’m not innocent here. I’ve been (proudly) called a futurist for visitor-serving organizations and I even say that, for a living, I help “future-proof” nonprofit organizations. Some of my favorite resources and those that I believe to be the most thoughtful focus on “the future” (like the Center for The Future of Museum’s blog – which is worth checking out for its valuable thought-fuel). But here’s the thing:

While those ideas shared by our industry’s most engaging thought leaders and go-to resources may be “future-facing” (as in, they are sure to increase in relevance in the future) they are not actually about the future. Yes, it is a matter of language that is confusing things. Using the word “future” when we are talking about the “present” may be harmful to organizations because of what the word “future” means. Many resources focusing on “the future” are actually communicating about emerging trends that are happening right now…and when we call them “the future” we do our organizations a grave disservice.

Here’s why:

1) Things that get characterized as “the future” within the museum industry generally are not about the future at all

Check this out: Embracing millennials, mastering community management on social media, opening authority, heightening engagement with onsite technologies, breaking down ivory towers with shifts from prescription to participation, engaging more diverse audiences, utilizing mobile platforms, understanding the role of “digital,” breaking down organizational silos…These are things that we frequently discuss as if they are part of the future. But they aren’t. In fact, if your organization hasn’t already had deep discussions about these issues and begun evolving and deploying new strategies at this point, then you may arguably be too late in responding to forces challenging our sector today.

 

2) Calling it “the future” excuses putting off issues which are actually immediate needs for organizational survival

What if we called these things “The Right Now?” Would it be easier to get leadership to allocate resources to social media endeavors or deploy creative ways to grow stakeholder affinity by highlighting participation and personalization?  Are we excusing the poor transition from planning to action by deferring most investments to “The Future?”

Basically, we’ve created a beat-around-the-bush way of talking about hard things that separates successful and unsuccessful organizations. For many less successful organizations struggling to find their footing in our rapidly evolving times, their go-to euphemistic solution for “immediate and difficult” seems to be “worth thinking about in the future.” When we call it “the future,” we excuse ourselves from thinking about these issues right now (which is exactly when we should be considering if not fully deploying them).

Contrast this deferment strategy with those of more successful organizations who invariably and reliably “beat the market to the spot.”  It isn’t pure chance and serendipity that underpins successful engagement strategies – these are the product of ample foresight, planning, investment and action…all of it done many yesterdays ago!

 

3) The future implies uncertainty but trend data is not uncertain

Moreover, common wisdom supports that “the future” is uncertain.  “We cannot tell the future.” Admittedly, some sources that aim to talk about the future truly attempt to open folks’ brains to a distant time period. However, much of what is shared by those we call “futurists” is not necessarily uncertain. In fact (and especially when it comes to trends in data), we’re not guessing.  I’ve sat in on a few meetings within organizations in which trends and actual data are taken and then presented as “the future” or within the conversation of “things to discuss in the future.” Wait. What?

Certainly, new opportunities evolve and trends may ebb with shifting market sentiments…but why would an organization choose uncertainty over something that is known right now?

 

4) We may not be paying enough time and attention to right now

I don’t think that referring to “right now trends” as “the future” would be as potentially damaging to organizations if we spent enough time being more strategic and thoughtful about “right now trends” in general.  Many organizations seem to be always playing catch-up with the present.  If organizations are struggling to keep up with the present, how will they ever be adequately prepared for the future?

 

5) Talking about “the future” sometimes provides a false sense of innovation that may simply be vanity

To be certain, we all need “wins” – especially in nonprofit organizations where burnout is frequent and market perceptions are quickly changing. The need for evolution is constant and the want for a moment’s rest may be justified. That said, it seems as though talking about “the future” (which, as we’ve covered, is actually upon us) is often simply providing the opportunity for organizations to pat themselves on the back for “considering” movement instead of actually moving. To have the perceived luxury of being able to think about the future may give some leaders a false sense of security that they aren’t, in fact, constantly trying to keep up with the present.

 

Talking about “the future” seems to mean that you are talking about something that is – yes – perhaps cutting edge, but also uncertain, not urgent, not immediate, and somehow a type of creative brainstorming endeavor. While certainly brainstorming about the actual future may be beneficial (there are some great minds in the museum industry that do this!), it may be wise for organizations to realize that most of what we call “the future” is a too-nice way of reminding organizations that the world is turning as we speak and you may already be a laggard organization.

Think about your favorite museum or nonprofit thinker. My guess is that you consider that person to be a kind of futurist, but really, you may find that they are interesting to you because they are actually a “right-now-ist.” They provide ideas, thoughts, and innovative solutions about challenges that are currently facing your organization.

This is all a long way of saying something incredibly simple, but astoundingly true: The future is now.  Let’s start treating it that way.

 

A quick aside: Speaking of “the future is now,” I’ll be conducting a free webinar with Blackbaud tomorrow (August 14) at 1pm Eastern entitled “Get Strategic: How to Connect With Members in a Digital Age.” You can sign up here!

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter  

Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Community Engagement, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Change, Social Media, Technology, The Future 5 Comments

A Theory for Breaking Through Nonprofit Sector Constraints

It seems that, without even knowing it, we’re all working together to limit nonprofit innovation.

In the nonprofit sector, risk (an important element in innovation) is stifled due to nonprofits’ need for multiple stakeholder acceptance in order to survive. This makes large-scale change difficult, if not impossible, and the only way that we will solve this is if we put our minds together to think about it.

Let’s take the hot topic of increasing salaries for nonprofit leaders (though we could pick any topic that challenges perceived sector constraints). A nonprofit might seriously consider higher salaries in order to attract high-quality leaders, establish itself professionally, or ensure that competition for the position allows the organization to choose– or continue to motivate– the best candidate for the job.  This could be a great idea. It could work wonders. But questioning sector constraints at all is often much like trying to give a big hug to a hand grenade. Here’s why:

  1. The board and staff will need to approve this risk. In the case of increasing employee salaries, they will consider that every extra dollar given to a staff member is a dollar that could be spent on programming. These immediate stakeholders must believe in the potential of the idea.
  2. Then the nonprofit will have to face the multiple foundations that may no longer award the nonprofit otherwise-much-deserved grants because their administrative costs exceed (or come close to) a percentage set by the foundation in advance.
  3. You have to face the people who don’t understand why you made this change (regardless of its nobility), and the media may tear you apart. Even worse, other nonprofit leaders at The Chronicle of Philanthropy may even give you bad press for trying to take a risk to aid in sector evolution.
  4. Your amount of in-kind donations over the year may suffer because of the bad press– which defeats your whole attempt at innovation because you can no longer afford to pay a higher-than-before salary to your employees… so you are back where you started– but with fewer funds, a lot of bad press, alienated foundation connections, and unhappy employees.

In the private sector, innovation breeds new business practices and monetary success. The system is quite simple: a firm must gather capital to take a risk, take that risk, and if the company makes a profit, they are onto something. Other companies catch onto the company’s new tactic and next thing we know, every company has to be doing that innovative thing in order to continue to stay in the game. The same is true for nonprofit organizations except, in the nonprofit sector, raising capital may mean raising social capital.

 

Please click on the image to enlarge

So what can be done to alter sector constraints in order to allow nonprofit professionals to be innovative in organizational management?

First, double loop learning must take place. Double loop learning occurs when leaders question their own basic assumptions about the world. Single loop learning, by comparison, is the tried-and-tested routine that we fall into when we do everyday things like write grants and conduct meetings– but we also use single loop learning when we devise wages (continuing with the case of nonprofit salaries as our example). We have an idea of what works and we stick to it. Double loop learning, on the other hand, makes us ask ourselves, “Why do we do X? Maybe I should be doing Y.” When we ask this question, possibilities are born.

Second, the nonprofit must be transparent about their new idea and share it among networks. The nonprofit could ask for input via social media networks, get dialogues going with staff members; make everyone (stakeholders especially) aware of the possible benefit of taking this risk. This includes spreading word about the importance of innovation among stakeholders, the public, and other nonprofit groups. Technology is a great mechanism for information-share, and getting brain juices flowing. Who knows? A few other nonprofits may consider the idea and try it out alongside you.

Through this, social capital is created. Spreading the message creates connections. Asking people for their input (even if it’s negative) creates connections. Connections build social capital. Social capital increases overall support of the new practice because friends and community partners can share your idea with their own networks, and become part of idea formation and collaboration.

Then intellectual capital is built as stakeholders become educated on the issue. The more people hear about the issue, the more educated they will become on the need for innovation, or rather, the more accepting they will be when you actually follow through in challenging sector constraints. Lets go back to the example of a nonprofit taking on higher administration costs to motivate employees. If we learn that there’s a nonprofit leadership deficit on the way, then we may be more likely to outwardly encourage and support (or at least understand) nonprofits that are raising employee salaries.

And finally, the innovation is accepted. This does not mean that people will agree with your new (hopefully) innovative practice– but, because of your transparency, they will fully understand why you have challenged sector constraints, and also that you have the best interests of the community you serve at heart. And whether they agree with the idea or not, folks may be more inclined to respect the idea. Foundations may still award grants to the organization, and donors may stick around for at least another year. Who knows? Maybe your active desire to contribute to the sector and your fresh views of management will earn you a few more donors.

This theory is just that: a theory. I do not know how to encourage nonprofits to take responsible risks and challenge constraints that hold them back in serving their mission. I do know that, if the sector means to evolve, nonprofit leaders must begin to think about blazing new trails— and we should think about ways to allow them to do so.

Posted on by colleendilen in Leadership, Management, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, The Future 6 Comments