Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

There’s Only One Best Practice

network of dotsSitting in a conference room, answering questions from my client about an impending website redesign, it dawned on me that what they really wanted to understand was best practices. What steps do we need to take to mitigate the risks of initiating this project? What must we do to increase the certainty of a successful outcome?

It’s my job to know these things, to guide them from point A to point B, and help them meet or exceed the project’s objectives. And it’s prudent for the client to adhere to best practices in many facets of the organization’s operations. It assures an acceptable standard of performance, a threshold of competency.

What best practices won’t do – what they often inhibit organizations from doing – is encourage people to set their sites higher. Scaling up the impact of nonprofit organizations requires a mindset that leaves best practices for those who wish to blend in, to be as good as – but not better than – what already exists.

Just do it
Nike’s longtime tagline leaves no wiggle room for the impassioned athlete. There are no excuses. For the vast majority who fall short, there is honor in putting forth one’s best effort in pursuit of the pinnacle.

Back at the office, we’re more often encouraged to hold our passions in check. Curiosity killed the cat. Look before you leap. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no shortage of wisdom devoted to avoiding unnecessary risks.

Imagine what our world would be like if there weren’t dedicated individuals with a passion for helping others? Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector has grown faster than both the business and government sectors, yet problems of poverty, education, the environment, and public health are as vexing as ever. We don’t lack passion. We lack alignment.

If you start with the premise that most everything we know is out of date, then the need to reach beyond conventional approaches – to discard “best practices” – becomes imperative.

Connect the dots
Imagine a symphony orchestra. Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents.

For maximum impact, we need more people, departments, and organizations working better together. We need to be playing the same tune.

The most valuable skill set today is the ability to connect the dots. Collaborators will inherit the earth, or at least improve it. People (and organizations) that can assemble and marshal diverse resources – ideas, agendas, funding – have the best chance of enacting systemic change.

There are no marketing secrets or shortcuts. Creating remarkable products and services is the only best practice worth pursuing. And the best way to do that is through more frequent and effective collaborations.

Related content:
How Do Nonprofits Get Really Big?
Measuring Nothing (with Great Accuracy)

Favorite Links: March 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Write Your Brand’s Obituary
Harvard Business Review

How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity
Brain Pickings

Principles for Making Things for the Web
GitHub

Global Navigation is Less Useful on Large, Complex Websites
Gerry McGovern

Stop Planning

Photo of a businessman staring at a complex mazeA new leader arrives, delivering a jolt of energy and new ideas to the organization. Meetings are held, committees are formed, and consultants are hired. Slowly, over several months, a consensus vision begins to emerge. With much fanfare, a presentation is made and documents are broadly distributed. And then? The strategic plan goes to collect dust on a shelf … right next to the one that preceded it.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. – Woody Allen

The typical strategic planning process is nothing if not an exhaustive review of “the way we’ve always done things.” Heavily reliant on analytical thinking meant to assure reliable outcomes, strategic plans pretty reliably fail to leverage an organization’s initial burst of momentum into lasting systemic change. Why?

Nonlinear truths
The justification for having a strategic plan is valid. One would no sooner go on a long road trip without a GPS than cook an unfamiliar meal without some sort of recipe. Except, things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. Life is not linear.

Strategic plans tend to be rigidly focused on achieving specific, measurable, realistic goals – not on increasing the capacity of the organization to adapt to changing conditions along the way. The risk of inaction grows when control over direction and implementation of a strategic plan is consolidated under a few senior executives.

Without developing creative problem-solving skills throughout the organization, and explicitly encouraging and supporting new ideas (a.k.a., risk), people are less inclined to embrace new initiatives. In this scenario, the best that can be hoped for is a slightly – and temporarily – more polished status quo, an organization that essentially ends up right back where it started.

Hybrid thinking
In order to solve the really tough problems, the ones that increase an organization’s reach and impact, employing only analytical, top-down thinking won’t be enough. Increasingly, the most innovative ideas spring forth where intuition intersects with analysis. We need everyone to start thinking more like designers.

Indeed, the University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, noted author of The Design of Business, argues that “design skills and business skills are converging. To be successful in the future, business people will have to become more like designers.”

By this, Martin isn’t suggesting that CEOs should start scribbling designs on napkins, but rather he is suggesting there is a better way to think about solving problems.

Building capacity for change
Herbert Simon, a renowned social scientist who focused on organizational decision making, said anything concerned “not with how things are but with how they might be” is actually design. An organization that adopts a designer’s mindset expands its capacity for generating and implementing new solutions to challenging problems. Methods include:

  • Empathy for the end user   Who are you trying to reach? To understand current behavior, you need to understand your audience, their motivations and experiences, and any barriers they have to changing behavior.

After studying students busing trays in a Northwestern University cafeteria, a cross-disciplinary team’s slight change to a conveyor belt reduced water use by more than 40%.

  • Multiple perspectives  Too often, organizations become insular, looking at problems from a very narrow point of view. Pursuing focused collaborations with smart people and organizations that share your goals, but have different backgrounds and expertise, dramatically expands the probability of unexpected mashups and breakthrough ideas.

Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer and computer programmer, teamed up with Steve Jobs, a marketing whiz and visionary, to build the Macintosh computer and accelerate the personal computer revolution.

  •  Trial and error  We need courage and resilience to try things that might not work. To reduce risk, the goal should be to learn more by testing ideas quickly and cheaply in a perpetual state of discovery and refinement. People need permission to fail, and to learn from their mistakes.

John Bielenberg, a prominent advocate of using design for a better world, has a tendency to do something he calls “thinking wrong,” which means, “Whatever you’re supposed to think, or make, or say – do your best to do the opposite, and see where it takes you.”

Moving forward
Excuses are always in abundant supply. Almost any effort, any organization, would benefit from additional time and money. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, then you might as well quit right now.

To build organizational capacity – to turn those strategic plans into meaningful actions – requires more people thinking and working like designers. When we have embraced design as part of our ongoing working process, we can create new processes, systems, products, and services that improve people’s lives.

Related content:
Business People Need to Become Designers (video)     
Building Strategic Capacity by Design

Favorite Links: January 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Inside the Box: People Don’t Actually Like Creativity
Slate.com

If a Tweet Worked Once, Send It Again
(and other lessons from The New York Times social media desk)

Nieman Journalism Lab

Brené Brown on Vulnerability, Human Connection,
and the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

Brain Pickings

What I’ve Learned from Giving Directly to People in Need
GOOD

Twas the Night Before Deadline

Santa sleigh over blue forest with snow falling at night

 

Twas the night before deadline, when all through the office
Everybody was stirring, so nervous and cautious.
The layouts were hung on display in the hall,
In hopes that the boss would soon make a call.

Designers were huddled around glowing Macs,
Writers were bleary buoyed by coffee and snacks.
To reach their objectives, they toiled and strained,
But uncertainty dogged them and questions remained.
When down by the front desk there arose such a clatter,
They sprang from their cubes to see what was the matter.

Arms full of trinkets brought home for his friends,
Out tumbled coffee mugs, tote bags, and pens;
The boss had returned from an industry conference.
He tossed out new jargon that seemed to be nonsense.

More rapid than FedEx his big ideas came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Curation of content, engagement will spiral,
“Go leverage our channels, make sure it goes viral!
“On Facebook! On Pinterest! On Tumblr and Twitter!
“Optimize! ROI! There’s a lot to consider.”

His minions were puzzled. Was this a direction?
Should they blindly take action or risk insurrection?
Chasing marketing trends, they’d seen this before,
Yet the lack of success was hard to ignore.

And then, in the back, sitting calmly without blinking,
The web guy asked softly what all had been thinking:
“What’s our primary objective? What are we doing?
“What do we know about the audience we’re pursuing?”
We all turned to face him, intrigued by his candor.
Would we find clarity and wisdom, or enrage our commander?

“By the skin of our teeth, by the seat of our pants,
“It’s no way to work. We leave everything to chance.
“Employing random tactics does not count as strategy.
“It’s not ‘integrated.’ It’s a marketing tragedy.”

The boss smiled wanly, his confidence waning,
He wasn’t used to his colleagues complaining.
Then he straightened his tie and tapped on his phone,
“He’s tweeting!” an intern exclaimed with a groan.
Next seen by his followers, the privileged few?
“We can’t all be leaders #sotrue”

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon filled us with that familiar dread.
The launch date was nigh; it was business as usual:
Adrift, yet hopeful, almost inexcusable.

We sprung back to work, just like Santa’s elves.
We laughed at our fate in spite of ourselves.
This lack of a plan would be quite ironic,
If industry-wide it wasn’t so chronic.

Then we heard in the distance, could it be so?
The sound of sleigh bells o’er the fresh-fallen snow.
Would our wishes be granted? We were good girls and boys.
A research-based plan would be better than toys.
Santa laughed as he rode through the cold winter night:
May your customers be merry and your strategy bright!

by Dan Woychick

Light a Candle

photo of golden candles and twinkling lightsThere’s not a single designer I know who, upon receiving a freshly printed copy of a new publication or clicking on a just-launched website that they designed, doesn’t immediately spot something that they wish could be fixed or improved. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, this tendency to fixate on details. But in an effort to hew to the adage “it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of the things that make working in nonprofit design and marketing worthy of thanks.

Passion
More than in the private sector, where passions tend to favor profits over people, most people who work for nonprofit organizations do so because they care – about the mission, about doing good, about helping others, about making the world a better place. Life is too short – and we spend too much of it at work – to spend it on things we don’t care about. I’m thankful for people who follow their heart.

Change
We live in a time of nearly unprecedented disruption and upheaval. Changes to the way we communicate, raise funds, learn, travel, and consume everything from movies to medications can cause uncertainty and anxiety, but these changes also represent tremendous opportunities. I’m thankful for living in a time when the status quo is being questioned relentlessly, and conditions are ripe for change.

Technology
The phone that I have in my pocket is more powerful than the computer that was on my desktop twenty years ago. From file sharing to Facebook to Photoshop, from gigabytes to Google, our remarkable advances in technology are a great equalizer. Tools and software that were once non-existent or cost-prohibitive to nonprofit organizations are now essential and readily available. I’m thankful that technology makes it ever easier to do previously unimaginable things.

Patience
Nonprofit organizations tend to take the long view. When you’re tackling some of humanity’s most challenging problems – poverty, education, abuse, hunger – it’s probably wise not to rely on quarterly reports to boost your self-esteem. Persistence in the face of long odds and slow progress is a requirement both to one’s sanity and developing innovative solutions. I’m thankful for both the patience required to dream big, and the impatience necessary to avoid settling.

Humor
In addition to the reasons above, I like working with people who work in the nonprofit sector because they tend to be bright, collegial, and generally good humored. It’s not like it’s a laugh-a-minute trying to advance the human condition, but in my experience tough problems often call for a lighter touch. I’m thankful for people who don’t check their humanity at the office door.

Generosity
Americans are remarkably generous. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I think that deep down we maintain an unwavering belief in our responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. As one of my clients once said, “People don’t give you money because you need it. They give you money because they feel they can make a difference.” I’m thankful for all the people who donate time and money to make our world better, and our nonprofit organizations possible.

Often, it’s the little things that make working in the nonprofit world a gratifying experience. I’m thankful for wonderful collaborators, audacious dreamers, and enough candles to light the way.

What are you thankful for?

Favorite Links: November 2013

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Why Tablet Magazines Are a Failure
gigaom.com

Hey, Designers: Stop Trying to Be So Damned Clever
Fast Company Design

Welcome to Dinovember
Thoughts on creativity – from medium.com

Why I’m Filming a Documentary About Social Impact Design
Design on GOOD

Too Much vs. Too Little

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one at right, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.

In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?

Favorite Links: September 2013

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Cut to the Chase: How Stories Engage
Stanford Social Innovation Review

Stop Raising Awareness
Minnesota Do-Gooders Club

Let’s Get Curious!
Mule Design

Re3 Story Hack
A hackathon for storytellers with a conscience