Monthly Archives: December 2007

Looking In or Looking Out?

I’ve just started Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. It’s a hot book in the field right now.

I’m to early in the book to make a judgment on it, but I am intrigued by the idea that nonprofit “greatness has more to do with how nonprofits work outside the boundaries of their organizations than how they manage their own internal operations.

Of the six practices the authors found, four relate to how the organization works with the outside world: other nonprofits, government, business, and individuals. (It’s interesting to note that the organization’s clients aren’t on this list.)

It’s a basic lesson, but easy to forget. Keep your focus on your mission and recognize that you, cool as you are, can’t achieve your mission on your own.

For another take on the danger of focusing too much on organizational considerations, see “Grassroots Rot.”

What makes a successful information campaign

Osocio points us to an interesting information campaign, “I’m an asshole and I park wherever I please.”

The idea is that members of Streetpanthers would stick these stickers on cars parked illegally so that they block pedestrian access.

I can say from experience that these stickers would be quite satisfying. I can see that dark, vindictive side of me really enjoying putting them on cars that are parked on sidewalks, blocking access for folks in wheelchairs, with strollers, or who just don’t want to walk in the street.

The question is, do they work?

Do they change the behavior of the offending parke

Where successful startups come from (hint: they don’t come out of nowhere)

An article in Fast Company de-bunks the great dot-com myth of two guys starting a business from nothing in their garage and going on to create YouTube, Apple Computer, or Dell.

The myth isn’t that they start in a garage, or that they go on to become successful. The myth is that successful startups start from nothing.

In reality, all of these successes come out of somewhere. These “go-it-alone” entrepreneurs started out in established businesses in the same sectors. Their success comes from the training, background, and connections they built in their jobs with established companies such as Atari, PayPal, or HP.

What does this have to do with organizing?

I’m always meeting freelance activists with a passion for justice who want to stake out their own claim and start a group to advocate for their issue. They are the nonprofit equivalent of a dot-com garage startup.

And they can learn from the successful startups. The successful startups don’t start from nothing and nowhere. They start with skills and connections.

Likewise the activist startups also need to build a basis of skills and connections, and the best way to build those skills and connections is to work with existing organizations.

Just like an aspiring chef begins as an apprentice.

Rather than starting out on your own, you can learn how to lobby, how to work with the media, how to organize events, how to supervise volunteers, how to pull together a coalition, how to go door-to-door by working with existing organizations. And just as important, you’ll start to build your network of potential partners, funders, decision-makers, and volunteers. It’s great preparation before you go out on your own.

And when I say “organizations,” I include businesses in there. Business marketing has a lot to teach nonprofit marketing. Sales has a lot to teach fundraising. Nonprofits can learn a lot from principled business management–and both sectors benefit from this cross-pollinization.

Self-cricism, other-criticism, and building trust

Several disaffected members of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice have been targeting the organization with criticism. I don’t think their arguments stand up, but that’s not the point for today. The point is what can be learned in this encounter.

Every person or organization can grow, and productive critical feedback is part of that process. Yes, there are many ways ICPJ can do better. We can work to increase our religious, racial, and ethnic diversity. We can craft more effective and change-focused strategies. We can improve our member follow-up to better involve our members in our work.

We can do better. And we need to here critical feedback to identify some of those areas where we can do better.

Not all criticism is created equal. Loving criticism is like a scalpel for surgery. Hateful criticism is like a knife for stabbing. Both have sharp edges. Both can be painful. But only one is helpful.

Critical Feedback is most effective when it is given in love from someone who wants the recipient to do better. There’s a big difference between “go home you #[email protected]* drunk,” and “Jim, you’ve had too much to drink. I think it’s time we got you home.” Critical feedback is always hard to hear, but it is more likely to be listened to when the speaker really wants the best for the other person. William Sloane Coffin spoke of having a “lover’s quarrel with America.” That kind of quarrel, that kind of criticism, offered in love with deep concern for the wellbeing of the hearer, is the kind that is most likely to be heard.

Public “other-criticism” weakens trust, especially when it is spiteful, dishonest, or for the sake of wounding. After the public critique of ICPJ, I trust the writers much less. I don’t see that it was an honest attempt to strengthen ICPJ. I think many of the assertions made in there were dishonest. And I don’t think they were trying to strengthen or build up the organization, but rather to wound it.

Honest, public self-criticism builds trust (but it’s a scary thing to do). Okay, this one is more speculative, but I think that if ICPJ had been more public in sharing where it sees room for growth and how it is attempting to address that, I think these criticisms would find less traction. It wouldn’t stop the attacks from people who have an ax to grind. Some folks just can’t be placated. But, it would establish that we are honestly trying to be the best organization we can be.

The need for public self-criticism (confession?) and the dangers of other-criticism are greater in conflict situations. Consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many supporters of Israel engage in internal self-criticism of Israeli policies such as the destruction of Palestinian olive trees, but rarely does that self-criticism go outside of the community. Man supporters of the Palestinian cause engage in self-criticism of tactics by some Palestinian actors such as the Hamas attacks from Gaza, but rarely does that self-criticism go outside of the community.

What does go outside of the community? A long litany of other-criticism. Supporters of Israel will invoke the list wrongs inflicted on Jews in the conflict. Supporters of Palestine will recite the list of wrongs inflicted on Palestinians in the conflict. Both sides only hear criticism. Neither side hears concern for their own wellbeing or survival. Neither side hears the other acknowledge any mistakes or wrongdoing.

Neither side sees any reason to trust the other.

That’s not a recipe for peace between neighbors.

Where we can go from here. I don’t have answers for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but I do have thoughts for how to address this within ICPJ:

  • Share areas where ICPJ can grow.
  • Avoid other-criticism that is aimed to wound.
  • Temper other-criticsm with empathy and compassion. While I consider the criticism that the letter launches against ICPJ to unfair and disingenuous, I do recognize that the letter’s authors have a deep concern for Palestine and are frustrated that ICPJ is not addressing the issue in the way they would like. I can respect their passion, even if I disagree with their methods.