Micheal J Fox, Sharing and Having a common mission

July 13, 2011

Over at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Blog, Phil Buchanan writes about a discussion that occurred at CEP’s annual conference last month. Fox’s foundation focuses exclusively on finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease, which is somewhat unconventional because it does not fund any patient care initiatives (or the vast bulk of the funds go exclusively to research.) They are also unique in that they require each grantee to make an in-person report about their research each year. Despite some initial push back, the result of having to make this kind of presentation has been that more of the researchers in this area are sharing data and collaborating more. The foundation says that it might be one of the most important contributions it makes to the field.

Which got me thinking: why don’t more of the larger, more issue focused foundations put more of these kinds of requirements in place for their grantees? I’m not saying that every foundation should require each grantee to make an in person presentation about their results and progress each year in front of all the other grantees, but why isn’t there more of this kind of thing? I see lots of events and opportunities for organizations to make their pitch about what they want to do, but none focused on what they actually accomplished with given funds or within a giving time period.

The couple of issues I thought of were:

1) Most foundations aren’t as narrowly focused on a single issue as the Fox Foundation is on Parkinson’s research. This is important, because as an organization, I’m more likely to benefit from learning what my peers are doing and how they did it if we’re working in the same field than I am listening to a wide range of dispersed topics that probably don’t advance my cause. It might be interesting, but is it effective? That said, many of the larger regional (and some smaller) foundations do have a few specific focus areas with well defined objectives and a relatively well identified group of service providers. The Meadows Foundation or the King Foundation in Dallas, Houston Endowment or the Rockwell Fund in Houston are examples that come to mind (in Texas) that are focused, large enough to make multiple large grants to a variety of organizations, and have enough clout to require grantees to make presentations to each other.

2) Considering how many different organizations there are out there doing similar but not quite the same thing, it might be difficult (or boring) to have each of them come present. But that in itself would be useful because it would mean that more organizations couldn’t hide from the reality that there is a lot of service duplication, and partnerships might be more achievable than previously thought–especially if they could get a funder behind them to support and nurture the collaboration.

3) Some organizations just don’t have very good presentations but might to an excellent job at what they do. I can buy this, but only to a certain point. In his previous post, Buchanan talked about the need for passion and evaluation to go hand in hand–that nonprofit leaders must be able to separate emotion from results and use emotion to improve our results. That might be, but why would it be a bad thing to make an executive director, board chair or development professional have to prepare a presentation that could easily be adapted for use with donors?

4) Some nonprofits aren’t very good at evaluations. Exactly. I hear a lot of admonitions about how nonprofits need to get better about evaluating their results, etc. etc. But I don’t see much effort to make them do it publicly. There are two reasons I think this is a good idea: a) there is a fairly good reason to believe that organizations just don’t know how to measure their results, or don’t know how to do it effectively; and b) maybe a little social pressure isn’t such a bad thing if it helps organizations to do the hard work of rigorous evaluations. When I was in Boy Scouts, my troop participated in an annual scouting skills competition, where each patrol was required to demonstrate competency in a variety of “scouting skills” and awarded points for their various levels of mastery. Each troop’s patrol scores were added up and the troop with the highest score won the competition. Because my troop routinely won, I learned a couple of things. First, that we had an intense focus on making sure that the activities the troop did at meetings and campouts focused on makingĀ  sure we were building scouting and leadership skills that were required for advancement, and also would help us win the competition each year (there were two goals, and winning was always secondary.) Second, I learned that because we demonstrated a level of excellence, there were many other groups that openly acknowledged that they pushed themselves to emulate and surpass my troop in the competition each year. I saw the same thing at the patrol level in my troop: individual patrols would compete and raise their level of mastery each month to try and best the other patrols. It works. I don’t know if nonprofits need to compete for a “best results” award or presentation, but doing it in front of each other might spur some healthy competition and improvement across the board.

I can’t really speak about how this might work with the largest of the large foundations who are usually hyper focused on an issue (Gates, Broad, Lumina, etc.) who can bring together grantees from around the country to work together on solving a “big issue” like education reform at the national level or hunger relief at a global scale. To me, that’s besides the point. While I don’t resent the focus and money some of the larger national issues receive, I think that there is probably a lot to be said for developing a strong, healthy, well managed regional group of nonprofits and funders who are very good at delivering results for their constituents. Right now, I think that there is a lot to be learned from regions like New York/Boston, and Silicon Valley/LA/San Francisco regions: they consistently produce “leading,” attention-getting, innovative nonprofits that are forced to deliver results because of the strong leadership of already established organizations. One of the objectives, for me, for pushing local foundations to do this sort of thing would be to develop a strong regional presence that can produce the innovative, results driven organizations and programs we might need to keep pace with the problems we face.


New Direction

May 24, 2011

Changing some of the directions for this site. I’ve been interested in the development of Social Impact Bonds in the US for a couple of months. The SIB is being primarily driven by the Nonprofit Finance Fund and a group of other foundations. The company I work for is very likely a good candidate for this kind of funding because we have easily measured impacts that also have a defined monetary value. Therefore, on top of continuing a discussion about developing experiences, I’m also going to focus fairly heavily on the development of the SIBs but also on how small to medium size nonprofit organizations and social enterprises scale. Some of this is probably old hat, or crowded with professionals, but it’s interesting to me and will likely be helpful with my professional career so it’s worth doing.

Experience of Phyical Space–as viewed from Space

April 29, 2011

I just ran across this post at boston.com’s “Big Picture” blog (via Andrew Sullivan). Aside from beautiful photographs, it got me to thinking about how we experience space.


April 29, 2011

A crisis, to me, means that something is existentially threatened–it might cease to exist. Not just change, even dramatically. There are better, more specific, precise, words to describe change. Likewise, the simple fact of uncertainty is not necessarily a defining element of a crisis alone. There has to be uncertainty, certainly, but uncertainty by itself does not equal crisis.

Title from article Jason Miller posted on Buzz: Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty.

First post

October 4, 2010

Hard days are the worst. You bust your butt, and then at the end it just doesn’t seem like enough. No one seems happy with the work and in some cases, people are actually mad. Not mad because you didn’t do the work well, but mad because you didn’t do the work the way they wanted it done.

That’s an important thing to consider. It’s not the experience–not how well you craft the experience–if the customer, if the person consuming it isn’t happy with it. I’ve been having some hard days lately. One of my intermediary consumers–my chain of experience is fairly long–hasn’t been happy with the experience of working with me lately. It’s not been that I haven’t given him exactly what he wanted–we worked very closely together to get him exactly what he asked for–it’s that I gave him too much, too quickly of what he wanted. I overwhelmed him and did a poor job of gauging his ability to consume what I was giving him. He wanted a slower, continuous flow of inputs and I gave him a glut. He wanted me to work on a process, I worked from a deadline.

The ensuing friction between us–I’m drained and strained and ready to move to something else; he’s overwhelmed and frustrated and wishes I would have done it differently–hasn’t been pleasant. In the end, it might not even matter since we’re not the final consumers of the experience we are working to create for others–so our styles to get the work done are different but the result is likely to be the same. Part of the problem is that we are both fairly successful in what we do and have definite ways of approaching projects. Usually, we have a great deal of admiration and respect for each others work and work ethic and this is the first real time in six months of working together that we’ve really disagreed with each other. Importantly, this isn’t a relationship breaker, but it is an important learning experience–at least for me.

Because I’ve titled this blog “Involved Experience” I think that experience is an ongoing, never finished, not perfect process. There is bound to be stress involved because we are creating for others and with others–it’s important to acknowledge both since sometimes you really are creating for someone to consume and sometimes you are creating with others for consumption. One is obviously more involved. More involvement, more opportunity for stress. In this case, because there is a strong bond (or many strong reasons for us to be bonded with each other) between us, we can have a higher level of stress in our experience with each other–creating experiences with each other for others. It’s sort of like the bank–you might not always like each other (me when the bank’s website goes down, or when they randomly send me new debit cards, shut off the old ones, and then shut off the new ones before a long holiday weekend; or for me when I don’t buy any of their products–no overdrafts, no CD’s, no credit cards–so they make nothing from me) but you usually enjoy the benefits of working with each other.

I’m writing this blog because when I read really great blogs in the nonprofit space about Social Innovation or Leadership or fund raising, I don’t usually have anything to add to the conversation. When I do have something to add, it usually falls into one of two categories: 1) my experience with experience; or 2) my experience of being involved in something. Going back to my days in college, I can see now that I spent a lot of time observing, thinking, writing and participating in the creation of experiences.

Increasingly, the world we live in is mediated–this is not a new phenomenon–by technology. I think that trend will continue, but we’re still humans. The energy that has been released by the technology that some worry has made us lazy, weak and personally isolated is the energy that is being used to create new experiences that used to take a lot more work to pull off. I have a broad definition of experience–it’s all experience really. But my main focus is around the creation of value especially in the nonprofit and social sector-how we excel, fail and where we can innovate and improve. I work for a great nonprofit that creates extremely interesting experiences for a broad range of stakeholders. We create multiple levels of value for people all the time, but we can do better. I’m a fund raiser, but that’s really just a fancy way of saying that we create a good experience so that people give us money and resources. While we value that, tremendously, what we really value is the involvement, the experiences that others help us to create and that we get to give to others to share. If I could do this for free, I would. But, because that is a resource constraint–and that is extremely critical to my perspective–for me personally, and us organizationally, we have to be innovative, creative and quick. To the point–I would do this for free, but I don’t know if we could do it if it were free.