Nonprofit Periscope

Keeping an eye on news of the sector

Posts Tagged ‘Alliance

Sexiness is overrated.

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Nonprofit infrastructure isn’t sexy.  When I started working in it, my friends didn’t understand what I was doing.  “What cause are you working for?” they would ask, meaning well and trying to clarify.  And when I’d reply that I was working for the health of the entire nonprofit sector, they would ask, “Isn’t that a little too…meta?  Helping the helpers?”

Meta, navel-gazing…perhaps.  But as unsexy as infrastructure is, it holds the sector together. So when Rosetta described the unexpected and unfortunate struggle of Idealist.org,  I picked up the torch in the comments and am carrying it here as well.  In my comment I mentioned my concern that associations get mired in the demands of their members and become risk-averse.  Idealist isn’t an association and doesn’t pander to the center.  It simply connects people and ideas, people and opportunities, people and people.

And like Rosetta and Kevin and other nonprofit bloggers, I ask just one thing. Whether you got a job or volunteer gig from Idealist (as I did), or just peruse it for opportunities–because it’s full of them–you can help save it.  Donate to Idealist. Blog and tweet about it.  Don’t let one of the beacons of 21st-century infrastructure crumble; our sector will be worse off without it.  And I’m not sure we can handle that right now.

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Written by eclawson

January 31, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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One-off or a way of life?

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Small donors have a lot to feel good about right now.  During the 2008 election cycle, our current president benefited from a reinvigorated wave of small donations.  In the throes of a recession, small donors are hailed as the great untapped potential of American giving.  Donor literature swirls anew with phrases like “every little bit helps!” and “Your dollar makes a difference!”

And in the aftermath of disaster in Haiti, small donors attained new celebrity in the news for collectively contributing millions to relief efforts in $5 and $10 increments via text message.  There has never been a better time to be a small donor.

While this is remarkable, there’s a danger in over-celebrating gifts that are small, one-time, and reactive.  They’re vital but not enough.  People, animals, and the environment suffer even in the absence of earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, and other disasters.

The blogosphere, including the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance, is doing an admirable job of a balancing act: on one hand, recognizing the need for and impact of small donations (and by small, I’m talking $5 and $10 a pop, which may be considered “ultra-small” by many fundraisers); on the other, reiterating the need for long-term assistance and for awareness of underlying aggravators such as racism.  The American Red Cross and other nonprofits are pushing the message as well, at least as far as I’ve seen in their acknowledgment emails for the small gifts I made in the past week.  (Online, not by text, and for general operating funds, since the Red Cross and other agencies do more than just disaster relief.)

As obvious as this message of sustained giving may seem, to stick in the minds of most (actual and would-be) donors, it must overcome a formidable foe: the news cycle.  In a matter of days or weeks, another story will take over the airwaves and column inches, and news consumers will begin to forget about Haiti again.  Many of us do what we can when reminded, but reminders can be scarce, easily ignored, or even unwelcome.  As a result, giving is often ad hoc, not institutionalized.  The holidays show us that much every year.

So on a day reserved for remembering a man who, among many things, said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”, use the momentum of mobilization around Haiti’s earthquake relief as an opportunity to assess and institutionalize your giving.

  • Do you only give after a disaster?
  • Do you only give when asked?
  • How could you set up monthly donations, weekly volunteering, regular clothing or food drives, etc. to help others year-round?

Texting $10 should be the beginning, not the end.

Written by eclawson

January 18, 2010 at 3:28 PM

Personal branding: why I won’t be converted

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I didn’t plan on getting tangled up in a blogosphere debate over personal branding (catch up on the action at Rosetta’s blog and Allison’s and mine), but I’m glad I did.  And I’m glad I’m playing defense in a debate dominated by pro-branders.  Many sing the praises of personal branding, and few ask critical questions about it.

My recent concession on personal branding was too meek.  Here’s what I meant: personal branding is a waste of my time. 

Other Brazen Careerists and bloggers are speaking out against it too.  Carlos Miceli says to hell with personal branding.  Andrew Swenson says we’re not thinking critically about it.   Justin Wise isn’t convinced that marketing a person like a brand is a good idea.  And Boon Chew one-ups us all by not even talking about personal branding, but backing off from cyberspace and living in the real world.

I have no beef with the personal brands of my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or fellow bloggers.  You are rad.  You wow me every day, as you did even before you had brands.  (Because there was such a time.  This is not an organic concept.  Someone made it up and then it caught fire.)

My problem, however, is that personal branding is like religious evangelism: if you don’t buy into it, you’re going to hell.  Or so the evangelists say.  I can write all day about how personal branding is made up, a waste of time, pure jargon, neo-narcissism, etc.  But if I do, pro-branders will reply: You have a brand whether you like it or not.  All you can do is control it. 

Which leads me to wonder: if I don’t want to have a brand, why do others want me to?  Why, in other words, is it so extremely important to pro-branders that everyone acknowledge personal branding as real?  Why not let bygones be byones—or just atheists?

My hunch is that, like religious evangelists who believe nonbelievers are going to hell,  pro-branders believe the unbranded will suffer professional decay, and wish to save them from that fate by preaching the gospel of personal branding.  The intention is admirable.  But just as I don’t believe in hell, I don’t believe that a torturous ruin awaits me if I neglect my online persona.  Real life is not about cyberspace.  Yes, what I do online often touches my job, at least on the fringes.  But what I do offline is more important.

I admit: if I have a personal brand, it’s my own fault.  It means I’ve spent too much time thinking about how others see me.  I don’t want to be that self-conscious.  I don’t want to limit myself to how I want to be seen.  I don’t want to live or die by whether I’ve impressed or disappointed someone.  If I can create an entire persona around how much I worry what other people think of me, I’m wasting my time.

Note that I didn’t say “you,” or even the vague third-person “one.”  If you want a personal brand, that’s your business.  Just don’t insist I have one.  Let me be a nonbeliever.  I’ll be okay.

Call me cynical, but I suspect personal branding is a fad.

Written by eclawson

December 31, 2009 at 4:21 PM

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What is social impact?

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When the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance chose our next blogging topic, “What is social impact and how can we measure it?” I felt a little sheepish. I had no idea what the prompt even meant. It sounded like such an activist question, and I’m no activist–or at least I don’t feel like one. I warned the group that my answer might be a little skewed. “But that’s the point,” a fellow Nonprofit Millennial Blogger said. “Our answers should be different.”

And I felt like saying, “No really, I don’t get it.”

Luckily, my communications brain kicked into gear and revealed “social impact” for what it is: jargon. And I know where I stand on jargon. I loathe it. Every grant application I peppered with “collaboration” and “optimized results” made me feel like a drone. Those words mean nothing. They’re polite currency of the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds that we use to mask an inability to describe our value…or sometimes an absence of value.

Google “social impact.” You’ll get 77,000 wildly different results. Yet we throw it around as if it means the same thing to all of us.

So, with apologies to my fellow Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers who actually have definitions for the phrase as is, allow me to present my non-activist, communications-wonk analysis of “social impact.”

“Social impact” is so overused that it means nothing. There must be a more precise term for what it should mean.

From its uses within the nonprofit sector, I gather it’s meant to mean something along these lines: improvement in the lives of people, both as individuals and groups, particularly the underserved. We can rule out environmental causes and animal welfare, since “social” suggests a focus on the common lives of human beings. Yes, animals are “social,” but my best guess is that “social impact” means “societal impact,” ruling out animals that do not share the society of our species. (Animal activists, spare me; I’m an animal welfare advocate myself and I’m just trying to be precise, not speciesist.)

So what improves the lives of people in society? Here are some examples:

  • Physical security
  • Housing security
  • Food security
  • Civil rights
  • Freedom of religion
  • Artistic expression

Not coincidentally, these are all needs nonprofits function to meet.

And we’re not talking about feeding one person or encouraging the expression of one artist. Butterfly effect aside, that’s not social impact; that’s personal impact. So in order to reach a group of people, “social impact” must be elevated from a one-off, case-by-case  approach: it must be systematic. That way it can be applied efficiently and effectively to many people. Certainly the results are personal, as testimonials from clients often show. But they are also social; that is, system-wide.

So what we have is the overused jargon “social impact” that really means three things: systematic social improvement.

And that may well be a more meaningful way to say what we’re trying to say.

That said, if we work in reverse, how can we tell if “social impact”–that is, systematic social improvement–has been achieved?

One takeaway from my graduate degree in conflict resolution is that conflict, like so many other aspects of human life, is never actually about the visible or superficial. In the same way a biologist is trained to focus a microscope on a cell or a physicist is trained to magnify a particle, I was trained to dig below the surface of a conflict and dissect its roots and inner layers. Many of these layers are insecurities, both physical and emotional. So my perspective on measuring systematic social improvement is heavily influenced by this fixation with underlying problems.

For example, can a food bank perform systematic social improvement? No. Food banks  provide food to hungry people, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, and in doing so they reduce or eliminate the physical hunger of their clients. But physical hunger is not the underlying problem. It’s merely a symptom of that problem, which is food insecurity. Yet most food banks exist not to eliminate food insecurity. That’s not a jab at them; it just points to differences in mission.

For strong examples of systematic social improvement, look no further than FareStart and DC Central Kitchen. Both nonprofits share the mission not just of feeding people, but of training them for employment in culinary arts. It’s systematic: both organizations use a consistent approach to training and services. It’s social: it serves a group of people, usually low- or no-income individuals suffering from food insecurity, housing insecurity, and other underlying problems. And it’s improvement: graduates of the training curricula go on to support themselves with culinary employment.

Nonprofits working in public policy are another example: they go to the root of the problem instead of treating symptoms.

Does this establish a hierarchy of nonprofits, with systematic social improvement organizations above all others? Again, no. If, say, food banks didn’t exist, there would be no lifeline to keep hungry people alive while they seek services that will address their food insecurity. If systematic social improvement is like a hospital, then immediate-needs-fulfilling organizations are like ambulances. They reinforce each other. Without systematic social improvement, there would be an endless string of crises–fires to be doused without removing the flammable material. And without stopgap services, many people would not be sustained long enough to find systematic social improvement centers, which are still relatively rare.

So if I actually use the phrase “social impact” (which, granted, does roll off the tongue more easily) this is what I mean: the pursuit or achievement of consistent improvements in the lives of groups of people.

How do you use “social impact?” Can you suggest a better turn of phrase to phase out this jargon?

Written by eclawson

November 16, 2009 at 10:08 PM

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Introducing the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance

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For much of my nonprofit career, I’ve been following some of the sector’s rising stars–the young nonprofit professionals who not only bring their best to their work, but also blog about it so others can learn and converse along the way. Now this cohort has formalized and today is inaugurated as the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance, the brainchild of Allison Jones.

Here’s the Alliance roster so far:

I’m tickled to be part of this alliance, because we millennial nonprofit bloggers (it’s a niche, you know) look out for each other anyway, and it’s about time we made it official. Kind of like a polygamous engagement party for the blogosphere. But less scandalous.

My hope is that this alliance will become a conduit for meaty discussion on the nonprofit sector, drawing from each of our areas of expertise and sharing flavors across them. For example, I’ve already contributed two guest posts to the Nonprofit Career Month blog, but I’m sure my own topic–the intersection of nonprofits and news media–has a lot to learn from Allison’s blog on nonprofit careers. If other young nonprofit professionals are inspired to add their own blogging voices to the conversation, it’ll only get richer from there.

So to tackle one of Allison’s prompts for my inaugural post: why am in the sector? I’m a nonprofit sector devotee because it’s a unique and irreplaceable safety net. I’ve worked for public policy shops, refugee services, a think tank, a dispute resolution center, and a canvassing group–all nonprofits, all vital. Nonprofits take on challenges and responsibilities that no one else will. For this kind of work–the hungry-feeding, back-clothing, soul-ministering, scientific researching, arts-fostering,  cause-advocating kind–the public sector is too snarled in red tape and the private sector is too entranced by  profit. Nonprofits have the government’s sense of responsibility and business’ innovation, and it’s a perfect pairing. We do thankless work, and more with less, and have been for hundreds of years before “nonprofit sector” was even a name. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this?

And the best part yet? We get to write about it.

Written by eclawson

October 12, 2009 at 11:16 PM

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