With a little help from my friends
Nonprofits and political campaigns

I had a call waiting for me on my cell phone a couple nights ago. One of my friends had left me a message noting "I'm coming to town to work on our website, and I know nothing about them. Can you help me get it set up? It's terribly out of date. I'd like to get it updated and have a weblog on it. If you can help me do it, I'll get those ten questions you were asking for done this week." Well, he's got me over a barrel there. One of my long overdue sets of ten questions.

Do I give up seeing that 10q anytime soon, and throw him to the technological wolves, or do I give up watching the re-broadcast of Friday's Battlestar Galactica, or whatever DVD I decide to watch because I'm bored, and help him? My only other entertainent this week was to be reading my daughter's Harry Potter book.

As you can tell, I'm hard up for entertainment. During the week the life of a weekend commuter is seriously pathetic. So, of course I'm going to help him.

This small statewide organization has a local office that's been manned as a one man (or woman) show over the years. The organization is in what I would call a state of flux at the moment with a new person. The governing board wants to improve membership and to promote their initiatives, and they are right on the edge of moving forward.

This seems to be similar to the case of the Sioux Falls based organization that I didn't get the job with other day.

In both cases, the organizations want to move forward, they're hiring staff, and doing things. But they don't necessarily have a plan in place for those "things" they want to do. Luckily, my friend I'm going to help tonight is supremely capable of formulating a plan himself. I don't know if that's true about the org I just got passed over by.

I think the big question those organizations need to ask themselves - If someone is brought in to expand an organization where nothing is yet in place to facilitate that, is the organization putting the cart before the horse? Are they bringing in someone to facilitate a plan that they haven't written yet? In most cases I've seen - That's absolutely the case.

Most non-profit organizations are governed by volunteer boards of directors. And when you are dealing with part-time volunteers, typically, they don't give serious thought to strategic planning. They want things to "run." So they hire a director. And when they hire someone it's based on the immediate needs of the moment. And only then do they consider where they want to go, whether or not it's within the skill set of the person they hire.

There really is not any difference between a political campaign and a non-profit organization. That's why so many of us end up in (and actively seek) those types of jobs. The tasks and the skills are absolutely interchangeable, because they are the same. Raising money for a political candidate is the same as raising it for an organization. Marketing an event is the same as marketing a candidate. I would argue that there is no difference whatsoever. Except one.

The biggest difference? In a campaign, there's a singular goal. A terminal event that marks the end of your efforts. In a campaign you tightly plan everything towards achieving your goal - Winning the election. And then, a little ways down the line, you start over.

With a non-profit, there is no terminal event. I think that's why you don't see a lot of solid planning. You don't always complete a task where everything you do ties into a single thing. You might start a fundraising cycle here, and plan for an annual event there. But after it works for a while, there's no real introspective examination to realign the original goals - organizations keep doing it because "it worked last year." At least in my experiences, I don't know that I've seen anything such as "Our campaign plan" or "our five year plan" with non-profit organizations.

Now, there's always exceptions to the rule. For instance, I think United way fundraising is an exception, because they run it like a political campaign. They kick off the effort and make a big publicity splash. They literally have an army of volunteers that go out and sign people up and make it as easy as possible to donate. They enlist community leaders to push and promote the effort. It's literally a political campaign to donate to causes.

Let's stop right there for an interlude. Don't paint me as a supporter of United Way. But dang, I have to admire the fact that they know how to raise money - which is meeting their goals.

What can some of the non-profits do to become more goal oriented?

Well, first off, take some time planning what you want to accomplish before you hire someone new. Use that time as a kind of "time out" so the governing board can determine what they want to do based on their own criteria - not that of the person hired to execute it - and then seek your person. Don't put the cart before the horse.

Plan annually for short term, mid term and long term goals. Reassess based on your progress towards those goals.

Don't be afraid to try something new. But by the same token, don't discard an old idea because it "didn't work ten years ago".

Are there plenty of other things that should be considered? You bet. But those are just a few of the observations that I've come across in my travels.

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