On having brains as well as heart

A few provocative notions from the new book by Cass Wheeler, longtime head of the American Heart Association:

  • “Every organization needs a breakthrough goal.”  Wheeler gives as an example the Millennium Development Goals, which charge UNICEF and its sister UN agencies with reducing by half the proportion of people in the world living on less than a dollar a day, and with doing so by a date certain (2015, if you’re curious, which is sooner than you think).  While having such a goal (referred to in strategic-planning-speak as a BHAG, Big Hairy Audacious Goal) can be daunting, it gives everyone a sense of what’s possible as well as a clear yardstick against which to measure what’s actually accomplished.

The Nonprofiteer is a bit concerned about organizations’ identifying huge goals and then being discouraged by them rather than inspired; but she acknowledges that a bigger problem in the sector is the sense of complete futility that paralyzes social-service workers: “What difference does it make if I help this guy when a million more are waiting right behind him?”  A goal like, “Reduce from a million to half a million the number of unserved guys like this one” would at least reduce the sense of participating in the labors of Sisyphus.

  • Apply the Rule of the Three to every nonprofit project: assume that a third of your volunteers will do what they’re supposed to, another third will come through if you nag them enough, and the remaining third will be a dead loss.  This clarifies the hostility of many nonprofit workers to their volunteer partners–of course the two-thirds who are lots of trouble for not much reward will eclipse the one-third who are pure pleasure!–and also provides a way of planning volunteer activities so that every one of them isn’t doomed to disappointment and a sense of failure: if you get 75% participation (instead of 66%), have a big party!

Wheeler’s book contains much other information, though it’s a bit big-business-oriented for the Nonprofiteer’s taste (the emphasis on advertising seems particularly beside the point for most of her small- and mid-sized nonprofit clients.)  But it’s certainly smart and densely-packed with guidance gleaned from experience.


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One Response to “On having brains as well as heart”

  1. Yana Davis Says:

    Advertising is a luxury, and one that can be lived without, for most small to midsize nonprofits. There are a variety of reasons for this, including efficient use of promotional dollars and the name-recognition factor.

    Unless your nonprofit has name recognition on the order of Red Cross or United Way, advertising does little if anything to acquire new donors or build name recognition – since likely you cannot afford enough advertising to effectively do either.

    Publicity (read: free advertising), direct response and web presence are all more efficient, and effective for smaller and midsize organizations. Direct response can be targeted not only to current and former donors but also individuals more likely to give, in light of the mailing lists they appear on, to organizations like yours.

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