The Disgruntled Donor: A Series

Last week a friend and I were talking about experiences we had as potential donors for a couple of huge nonprofits.  We were unimpressed.

Donate by Mindful One on Flickr
"Donate" by Mindful One on Flickr

I started writing a post about these points, and then I realized it was really several posts.  Thus starts my first official series: The Disgruntled Donor. It will be appearing this week and next on my regular Monday, Wednesday, Friday posting schedule.

The overall theme is that nonprofit development endeavors risk becoming extremely annoying, and therefore self-defeating, when fundraising pushes don’t consider the wants and needs of their potential donors.

I’ll talk about four different questions I wish fundraising campaigns would ask me.  I’ll include nightmare stories that my friend and I discussed, as well as some suggestions for how to get on my good side as a potential landing site for my “extra” money.  Hint: potential donors have different preferences, and we can tell you what they are, and you can choose to not ignore them.

I’m hoping that writing about it might start some useful discussion for nonprofits large and small, and that it might be useful (or at least fun) for the rest of us to share stories of marketing that annoyed us.  Also, frankly, I’m interested in writing about it, and that’s always a consideration.

Here are links to the four questions I wish to be asked:

  1. How do you want to be reached?
  2. How many requests are too many?
  3. How much information do you want?
  4. What do you care about?

NY Times: Volunteering Waning in Recession

Volunteering Waning in Recession, Report Says – NYTimes.com.

This article points out an apparent contradiction:

A.  volunteer coordinators saw an increase in volunteers caused directly by said volunteers losing their jobs

B. a huge percentage of people say that they’re reducing their time spent in civic engagement and volunteering

Interesting.

I also love that it covers “do it yourself volunteering,” people getting involved on a local level without getting involved in organizations.  Even as a volunteer coordinator who needs more volunteers, serving through an organization is certainly not the only way to get involved and make meaningful change.  Check out Peter Norback’s project.

And as a last comment, it talks about nonprofits “using” volunteers.  Surely there’s a better verb out there that reflects the complex give-and-take relationship that organizations form with their volunteers.

The Super-Effective Volunteer

As the coordinator of an all-volunteer teaching staff, a large and fantastic part of my job is volunteer support.   I don’t know how I ended up with such great people, and I hope they stay forever.  I write this in hopes that more volunteers will contribute the way mine do.

I’d like to put it out there for whomever is listening that the most effective volunteers are not the ones who arrive with their own agenda.

Super Boy by Łéł†Āķ Mă3ý on Flickr
Super Boy by Łéł†Āķ Mă3ý on Flickr

Super-effective volunteers have their eyes and ears open to the needs of the organization. When something comes up and they have the ability to help with it, they speak up and dive in.

And you know, any help is help. Coming in and telling me exactly what you’d like to do is something, and I’m as grateful as I should be and I try hard to work with you.

But take a step back and think how amazing it is when a program realizes it needs something, asks for someone to do it… and then someone does it.

And now think about how well a volunteer gets to know the organization by helping where it’s needed.  Think what a great position this puts the volunteer in to make suggestions, push for change, and bring a relevant and mutually beneficial to-do list to the table.

Are you that kind of volunteer?

Outreach and People

Kyllian gaat tekenen by inferis on Flickr
Kyllian gaat tekenen by inferis on Flickr

This evening I set up an information table in the front of the library to advertise my free classes for adults that take place in the back.  My goal was to increase our presence in the library and to see if people who were in the library at around class time wanted to be students or volunteer teachers.

People were milling about near me or walking by.  Nobody came up to talk to me for a while.   Then a boy walked by and looked at the giveaway pencils I had out.  He touched one but started to walk away.  So I asked him if he wanted one.  This led to a simple conversation, after which he walked away with a big smile and a sharp new pencil.  About 15 seconds later, a man who had been sitting nearby pretending to ignore me came up to ask about classes.  And a small line formed while he and I were talking.

Smiling and having shiny materials did not cause potential students to line up to talk with me.  Seeing me be nice to that boy is what started it.

My conclusion: people want to work with people who treat people like people.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Flexing Learning Styles

Notes and Opinions, Together Again

Renner starts out talking about educational psychologist David Kolb’s theory.  I guess Kolb has to be on my ed psych list now because I can’t really handle his premises, at least in their truncated versions in this book.  I highlighted it on the syllabus for future study.

Goal, by ItsGreg on Flickr
Goal, by It'sGreg on Flickr

I have an issue with the idea that since learning is governed by a person’s needs and goals, educational objectives must exist in order for “the process of learning” to not be “erratic and inefficient.”

  1. A need and a goal are different; this appears to treat them as the same thing.
  2. Learning does not have to be of constant intensity to be effective.  In fact, I’ve experienced the opposite.
  3. There’s nothing wrong with not learning as quickly as humanly possible.
  4. I don’t believe that specifically enumerated objectives and “erratic and inefficient” learning are mutually exclusive, which is what this summary implies.

Renner says that in his Learning Style Inventory (LSI), Kolb groups learning behavior into “four statistically different styles.”  Perhaps I’m showing my ignorance of the field, but this phrase is too vague for me to have any use for it.  I get that the phrase implies that quantitative research has been done, but come on.  Impressing me by saying “look!  research!” isn’t enough.  Anyway, the categories are:

  • Converger – unemotional, likes things, likes to apply ideas practically
  • Diverger – imaginative, likes people, likes multiple points of view
  • Assimilator – logical, likes to make theories
  • Accommodator – intuitive, likes people, likes to test theories against reality

I can’t decide if I’m a Diverger or Accommodator.  Since I can see it either way, I’d probably test as a Diverger.

Renner says that the purpose of having this model is not to typecast people, but to help with “needs analysis” for lesson and course planning.  Later on, almost as an afterthought, Renner mentions that Kolb lists four abilities all students need for effective experiential learning.  These closely parallel the above groupings: have an experience, think about it from many points of view (Diverger), tie experiences to theories (Assimilator), use those theries to solve problems (Accommodator, Converger).  I’m surprised he didn’t more explicitly tie these together.

Even without making this connection, Renner does specifically say that the purpose of these groups isn’t to typecast people, but to help understand students’ needs for course and lesson plans.  It comes across as a fluffy disclaimer, but I still appreciate the point.  It’s about identifying which strategies tend to feel best to a learner, not giving learners an excuse to hide from certain skills.  (One of my pet peeves is when people use their classification-of-the-day as a wall, proclaiming they “can’t” do a certain thing because they’re This Type of learner.  It’s one thing for self-proclaimed “visual learners” to take meeting notes using graphic organizers; it’s another for “visual learners” to refuse to have a conversation about something.)

Overall, it was pretty fluffy.  I have to say, it seems likely that Renner faced the choice of either providing a cursory and inadequate introduction to Kolb’s work or not mentioning it at all.  I think it’s significant that Renner decided to include it.  The more I think about it, the more I think it’s important to take a closer look at Kolb’s LSI.

Lunch at the Volunteer Management Conference

I posted yesterday about the sessions at the Volunteer Management Conference.

Another really great aspect of the conference was lunch.  The organizers picked a wide variety of discussion topics and assigned each a lunch table.  When people signed in in the morning, they picked a lunch table based on what they wanted to chat about.

Lunch by LOC on Flickr
"Lunch" by LOC on Flickr

About a week before the conference, one of the organizers asked me if I would lead the Web 2.0 table.  Naturally, I said “sure!”

The attendees ranged from Gen Y to Baby Boomers.  We had about 8 people at the table.  About three of them were new to web 2.0, and the others have adopted it at least somewhat.  We had a great discussion – I loved that I was not the source of all answers!

It was a really nice setting for people to ask questions they’d been embarassed to ask.

  • what is web 2.0?
  • is it a separate web from the first one?  Did they build another internet?
  • blog and wiki what now?
  • how do people have time to do this stuff?

I found that giving concrete examples of web 2.0 technology in action was effective for showing people what it could do and for illustrating that the idea was to do things differently, not in addition. This is what worked for our conversation:

Example 1: My Family’s Christmas Wiki

I’m in MN, my sister’s away at college, and my parents are in New York.  We all come home for Christmas.  But a lot of planning has to happen before then: food, who’s traveling where when, cards, wish lists, decorating, and dividing tasks.

Instead of having 10 separate 2-person phonecalls about these things, or a huge confusing email thread, my family made a wiki.  It’s private – only our family can see it.  We have a separate page for each of the categories I mentioned, and any of us can update it at any time.  You can have the wiki email you after every update or just once a day with a summary.

One of the ladies in particular really liked the idea and is thinking that she wants a year-round family wiki so that her large, spread-out family can stay caught up on whatever’s happening.

This example led people to ask how to start a wiki, and I recommended http://pbwiki.com.  This way I wasn’t just dumping information on them.  I told a story and they asked how they could get involved.  Good stuff.

Example 2: The Curriculum Team and Google Docs

We have seven different learning center staff spread across five learning centers working on curriculum for our centers.  In the past, we’d have to email documents back and forth and the versions got confused.

This time, we’re trying out Google Docs.  They live online (in “the cloud”).  This means that there are no versions – we can all access the one document right where it lives instead of having it live in seven different places.  Google Docs tells you who is updating the document in real-time, and also tracks all the changes ever made.

That seemed like enough information for them on that – they didn’t ask more questions about it.  But now they have that story, and if they’re finding themselves in a similar or parallel situation, I hope they’ll think of Google Docs as a potential solution.

 

It was so valuable to have a casual forum for people to ask their questions!  I had a great time talking with the ladies at my table, and I think we all walked away with some new ideas.

Volunteer Management Conference

I attended the MLC’s Volunteer Management Conference on Friday, 11/21.

Can I just say that as someone who doesn’t get home from work till at least 9:15 PM, it’s excruciating to be at a conference across town at 8:00 AM.

Luckily, it was worth it.  It wasn’t one of those overwhelming conferences with so many people that you don’t get a chance to meet anyone.  I made some great connections with community partners and potential volunteers.  I also enjoyed the concurrent sessions immensely.

The first session I attended was Preparing and Supporting Volunteers Who Work with Victims of Torture. The presenter, Jane, a volunteer with CVT, was fantastic.  Key takeaway:

  • it’s best for teachers and volunteers to not ask about it; students will talk about it when/if they want to.
  • remember that Teacher is a powerful position – students may feel obligated to answer the Teacher even if it’s not something they want to talk about.
  • if it comes up in class, it’s ok to say something like “I’m so sorry to hear that.  It must have been very difficult,” pause, and then gently move the class back to topic.
  • it can be powerful for the students just to have someone believe them when they say that terrible things that happened to them.  They don’t necessarily need or want follow-up questions.
  • need-to-know: if volunteers ask what happened to so-and-so, you can give them general, pertinent information focused on the student’s abilities without going into details.  They don’t need to know what guerrilla army used what implements to beat the student for how long.  They need to know that the student has an old head injury from the war that makes his hands shake, so he needs someone to write for him.
  • volunteers can do great presentations for your organization

The second session was Cross-Cultural Training Activities for Volunteers. The presenter, Claudia, was knowledgable and funny.  I didn’t get as much take-away from this session as I’d hoped.  It was more of an overview than a bunch of concrete activities as I’d hoped, but it was still valuable.

  • what kind of cultural awareness training do you provide your volunteers?  Is nothing enough?
  • the DIE model: basically description, then subjective inference, and then judgment.  Especially when there’s conflict, anger, frustration, etc., try to take it back to the “description” stage of what actually happened. It helps diffuse and untangle.

The third session was Positioning Your Volunteer Program for Success. Heather is one of those extremely motivated, high-energy, “I can do anything and have probably done it already” people who also somehow manages to make it seem possible for you to do anything also.  I highly recommend going to any presentation she gives.  Ever.  On anything.

  • give presentations about your program’s stories to stakeholders in and out of the organization any time you can.  Even just a 10-minute presentation can be really powerful.
  • don’t forget about the board.  Do they know you?
  • give more information than was asked for, creatively.  For example, she submitted pictures along with her end of year stats, and they loved it!
  • she had fantastic, thorough presentation materials that will probably take me another hour or two to go through.  They’re conversation starters, self-audits, top ten tips, further training resources, etc.  She handed me the tools to make my program better over time.  Fantastic.

Bridesmaids and Best Practices

I’ve been extremely distracted with personal things for the past week plus, and one of those distractions was being a bridesmaid in a good friend’s wedding.

The Story

Several of us visited the site of the wedding a few weeks ago.  It’s a gorgeous outdoor site about 45 minutes from the Twin Cities.  We talked about the general plan for the audience and the general direction of the procession.  We talked about meeting in a different place and processing from an unexpected direction.  We had the rehearsal in the Twin Cities the day before the wedding.  We weren’t at the actual site because of the commute.  We talked about spacing and order and meeting times all of those good rehearsal things.

Bridesmaids, 1949 by JIGGS on Flickr
Bridesmaids, 1949 by JIGGS IMAGES on Flickr

The day of the wedding, we were dealing with unexpected and unexperienced things.  We were putting up a few decorations, enlisting the help of friends who had arrived early, and navigating effective communication with important people we didn’t really know, such as the parents of the bride and groom. There were nerves and deadlines and uncomfortable shoes – it was just totally different to be there than it was to plan it.

While in the thick of this reality, I completely lost any sense of those plans we had made weeks ago and even the day before.  I remembered most of them, but they somehow didn’t seem relevant anymore.  Everything around me was totally different than it was when we had made those plans, so my instinct was to improvise.

Looking back on that instinct is frustrating.  I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, but I felt compelled to go against it and start from scratch .  It’s kind of ridiculous.

The Point

The point of this is that I see parallels in nonprofits.  Most of us have a great idea of what the best practices are, from communication to filing to education.  We have a plan.  But then we come to deadlines or audits or budget cuts and there is a definite instinct to toss the plans out and start from scratch.

How can we not only share best practices, but do so in a way that acknowledges that they’ll feel way different in the midst of actual reality?

Has anyone else noticed this instinct?

Thinking Small and the Role of Nonprofits

Thanks to Michele at the Bamboo Project for a great post that got me thinking more and more about thinking small.

I’ve just been having some thoughts about organization growth.  If a nonprofit is not growing, it is considered to be stagnant.  If it’s shrinking, it’s failing.  A growing organization can serve a growing number of people.  Moreover, the bigger the organization is, the more funding it has coming in, making it more stable.  Bigger is therefore always better.  So I’m led to believe.

Tanker and Tug, photo by ccgd on Flickr
Tanker and Tug, photo by ccgd on Flickr

It’s just that with any big operation, be it a government’s military, a University, or an organization, it turns into a complex machine.  The inputs get farther and farther separated from the outputs as workers specialize; the grants and funding aspect in particular takes on a life of its own, and it builds up some serious momentum and stability to keep on going.

To my eye, there are a few major weaknesses in this plan.  The first is that a large operation is much more difficult to change quickly.  The second is that the specialized workers easily lose sight of the big picture.  The third is that more funders have more influence over what the organization does and how.

Maybe I’m a control freak.  Maybe I’m young and foolishly impatient.  Maybe I’m using a poor metaphor when I state that I would rather captain a skiff than a tanker.  I know a tanker holds more people, but that’s another thing, and maybe the crux of it for me when I think about it: you notice if someone falls out of the skiff.