Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Bright Future

FaceForwardIn 1915, five Minneapolis leaders came together to start one of the nation’s first community foundations. This past Friday, I joined 1,700 others in celebrating The Minneapolis Foundation’s centennial at the Face Forward Futurist Conference.

The day was filled with renowned speakers offering insights into the future of health, education, technology, and civic engagement, among other topics.

Can nonprofits grow the pie?
Dan-PallottaKicking things off, Dan Pallotta, founder of the multi-day AIDS Rides and leader of Advertising for Humanity and the Charity Defense Council, proposed that the way we’ve been taught to think about charity is all wrong.

Pallotta, who spoke on the same subject in one of the 100 most-viewed TED Talks of all time, outlined the numerous disadvantages of the current model of philanthropy:

  • All money must go to the people the organization is dedicated to serving.
  • No money should go to leaders, fundraisers, or marketing people.
  • No money should go to scaling the organization’s impact.
  • Failure is prohibited.

Pallota argues that looking solely at what percentage of a charity’s funds go directly to the cause is too limiting. “Instead of asking if a charity has low overhead, ask if it has big impact.” He believes that the reason more nonprofits don’t achieve remarkable results is because they don’t invest in themselves the same way that for-profit companies do.

Because of the prevailing mindset, the media, and industry watchdog groups, charities are forced to forego what they need to grow:

  • More attractive compensation for effective leaders – to lure and keep the best people.
  • Time and patience for meeting the long-term goal – changing as many lives as possible.
  • A willingness to take risks – to meet the demands of a highly competitive and rapidly changing business environment.

Pallotta believes nonprofit organizations must behave more like entrepreneurial businesses, foregoing immediate results to invest in growth and a more significant impact.

The one major flaw in his argument? There is no direct cause and effect between money (either compensation or investment) and success. But it’s provocative to imagine what might happen if people cared enough to throw the same time, money, and effort at challenging social problems as we do at entertainment or other for-profit business ventures.

The theory of everything
dr-michio-kakuThe next presentation was by Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and host of the nationally syndicated radio program Science Fantastic. Kaku is the latest in a long line of physicists – from Newton to Tesla to Einstein and Hawking – to make science both accessible and revelatory.

Kaku placed today’s technology environment in historical context as a way to predict how our lives may change in the next twenty years.

Today, your cell phone has more computing power than NASA did in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Moore’s Law is the observation that computing power doubles every two years. Actually, it’s now doubling closer to every 18 months. Cheap processing power promises to make a host of innovations commonplace, such as:

  • Augmented reality. Google Glass was the first wave. In the near future, we will be able to access information instantly with contact lenses or implants.
  • Intelligent paper. It’s thin, bendable, and portable, with all the capabilities of a tablet computer. You can hold it in your hand or cover the walls of your home with it.
  • Longer, healthier lives – nanotechnology is expected to revolutionize medicine, eliminating some conditions at the molecular level and alleviating others through extremely targeted treatment.

Education is another area ripe for change. Technology cannot match the human ability to recognize patterns, glean insights, and apply them in innovative ways. In a world where mass customization will replace mass production, an ability to think becomes more important than an ability to make things. As Kaku noted wryly, “The problem with the American educational system is that we produce great people who can live in 1950.”

Toward the end of Dr. Kaku’s talk it dawned on me: With all of the daunting social challenges facing humanity, will technology help us do the right thing?

Secrets to a longer life
Buettner_woman_tp_jpg_610x343_crop_upscale_q85In 2004, Dan Buettner led a National Geographic expedition to find the longest living cultures – places where people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States.

After identifying five of these communities – or Blue Zones – Buettner and a team of scientists visited each location to identify lifestyle characteristics that might explain longevity. They found residents of all Blue Zones shared nine specific characteristics:

  • Family is put ahead of all other concerns
  • Strong social ties (loneliness shaves eight years off life expectancy in the U.S.)
  • Regular, moderate physical activity as a part of daily life (not workout programs)
  • Life purpose (living for something bigger than oneself)
  • Stress reduction
  • Moderate calories intake (no fad diets)
  • Largely plant-based diet
  • Low alcohol intake (usually wine)
  • Engagement in spirituality or religion

One piece of good news from this project: You don’t need to have money to live healthy. Since the initial research was completed, Buettner has successfully shown that we can create Blue Zones in diverse communities across the United States.

  • Residents of Albert Lea, Minnesota, built 46 new community gardens. 44% of adults participated in walking groups, logging over 75 million steps. Schools banned eating in hallways and stopped selling candy for fundraisers. After one year, healthcare claims for city workers dropped 49%, Participating businesses saw a 21% decline in absenteeism. And participants added 2.9 years (projected) to their lifespan.
  • In California, Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beach citizens suffered from high stress and an addiction to automobiles. Today they are happier, healthier and more engaged with their community than ever before. After enacting a series of initiatives to promote healthier living, nearly a third of all kids now walk to school, more than 60 restaurants added healthier options to their menus, smoking rates fell 30%, and obesity rates dropped 14%.

The Blue Zones Project has shown that environment plays a large role in longevity and public health. Personal discipline is like a muscle. In the wrong environment, that muscle gets fatigued and we make less healthy choices.

Asking the right questions
AtulGawande-New_Headshot_ProfilePhotoDr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon, researcher, and author of the book Being Mortal, presented our final keynote address – on how to alleviate suffering at the end of our lives.

Modern medicine has transformed everything from childbirth to injury and disease, making once-frightening medical conditions easily treatable. But when it comes to aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

Gawande suggested that the past 100 years might be considered the century of the molecule, in which we began to understand medicine down to its smallest components. Looking ahead, he argued, medicine must move to a century of the system. One in which we come to better understand how all those pieces fit together.

Today, our medical focus is on survival and safety above all else. In poignant stories of his own patients and family members, Gawande illustrated how modern medicine is like a machine that delivers pills and procedures – often unnecessary and sometimes even harmful.

As we age, a good life might be possible even without good health if doctors focus more on the person than the patient, asking questions such as:

  • What is your understanding of your health now?
  • What are your fears and concerns about the future?
  • What are your priorities and goals for the end of your life?
  • What would you be willing (or unwilling) to sacrifice?

The diagnosis? Conversation and empathy are the best medicine.

Drawing parallels to design
So, what does all this talk of the future have to do with my little corner of the world?

Dan Pallotta took a fresh look at the prevailing mindset that limits how effective nonprofit organizations can be. Michio Kaku pointed out that even with the adoption of astounding technology, the future belongs to those who are intellectually agile. Dan Buettner distilled what he learned from studying one group to propose solutions that work for others. And Atul Gawande advocated for a collaborative approach that starts by asking questions.

I know I’m showing my bias, but those sound a lot like the skill set – and thinking – that designers bring to the table. The future is bright indeed!

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