Thursday, 24 June 2010

Amateurs, bloody amateurs!

Yair Lapid, a journalistic icon in my eyes, described a couple of weeks ago how we seem to be failing to attract the attention of even our own people to a true appreciation of our current paradigm, let alone that of the wider global community. He called us amateurs. The government are amateurs, our PR pros are amateurs, we are all amateurs.

He is right!

Just as much as, if not more than, in any other way, we are amateurs when it comes to the management of our third sector, the social sector, the non-profit sector... You see, we are so amateurish that we cannot even agree how to call ourselves (are we fundraisers or Resource Developers?), and yet we are surprised to find that support, financial and otherwise, does not come pouring in to facilitate any programming whim we happen to have.

We need to grow up. We need to stop doing what we have always done. We need to look around us and see what has changed, is changing, and is about to change.

"The rules of philanthropic engagement for Israeli non-profit organizations have changed drastically in response to 21st Century realities and in reflecting the sensibilities of modern donors." writes Sari Revkin, named one of the 50 most influential women in Israel by Globes Magazine, in an enlightened article she wrote recently. Her 7-pronged strategy provides the necessary basics for the rejuvenation of any NGO or campaign.

I read two great articles today (and retweeted them both). 

In the first, entitled "Standing Again At Sinai, This Time With Facebook", Hillel president, Wayne L Firestone, puts it to us in the simplest of terms that the way we insist on telling our story is not really bad, but rather totally irrelevant. Facts do not a story tell, and the fact that you have put it out there does not in any way translate into it being read, understood or accepted. There are ways to make that happen, and Wayne offers quite a few very simple suggestions as to how to reinvent ourselves to regain our lost relevance.

The second, "Why Your Fundraisers Are Your Biggest Competitors," by Rik Haslam of the Resource Alliance, warns of the inherent overthrow of the fundraising world by the socially networked giver/raiser. Far from being a believer in any doomsday prophecies myself, Rik is only emphasizing in an extreme way the trends that have been creeping up on us since Facebook reached Tipping Point.

So why aren't we listening? Why haven't we changed? What are we waiting for?

The answer, in my opinion, is similar to that given to the hi-tech companies I used to work with/for in the run-up to the bursting of the bubble in 2000. There are many ways to divide up the non profit community of Israel, but I will suggest just one: there are those who have made a change, those who would like to but just don't know how, and then there are those who are quite sure there is no change to be made.

"Change, why change? Ok, there have been a couple of tough seasons, but there was a market crash so what did you expect? We will just keep on doing what we have always done, that is what has worked 'till now!"

If an NGO could for a second be compared to a parrot, that, my friend, is (or will soon be) an ex-parrot!!

You see, there were three types of hi-tech company that sat comfortably in the bubble in 1999. One of them saw no need for examining its organizational growth or fiscal security, two of them went through (sometimes with me) processes of introspection, sometimes with consultancy and sometimes with restructuring. These two generally documented their findings. The owner of one may be able to rummage through the boxes they took from their office as they moved out, and might be able to find a copy of the report they wrote... in pristine condition, as if it had just been printed and bound - the other will pull his dog-eared copy off the shelf of his corporate archive or personal collection and will show it to you, delicately, with the respect afforded an old friend and mentor, so that it doesn't fall apart. Of course I am exaggerating, but fewer than half of the the companies were still around after the whole business went belly-up

The same thing is about to happen to us.

This is not going to happen because of the sub-prime fallout, it is not going to happen because of Madoff (may he get what he deserves), it is not even Obama's fault. It is going to happen because the times they are a'changing. Times are changing, technologies are developing, generations are passing, and societies are maturing - all of this is happening, and all we (some of us) are still doing is sending out mass mailings by email (so we get the younger generation, you know).

I am about to give a rather strange parallel, please bear with me...

The Rambam (Maimonides), in his collection The Mishneh Torah, describes the onset of idol worship. In short, he describes how a people who truly know and celebrate their beliefs becomes, as the generations pass on, a people who nominate a group of "priests" as the educated elite, the descendants of this group allow their knowledge to be replaced by "ceremony", that then gets lost and becomes "secrets" that then lose any meaning, eventually ending up as "the way things have always been done."

Dr Barnardo used to write letters to his donors, personal letters, handwritten letters. His letters contained all of the elements that we use today: a personal story, a specific project, a personal invitation to become a partner in an essential effort to mend the ills of society, etc., etc. - all of the elements of the "secret formula" that we thought we recently created. Dr Barnardo died 105 years ago. How much progress have we made since then? How much more sophisticated have we become? Is the great advancement of a century that we send these letters by email, that the savvy among us use services to ensure that we get through spam filters??!?

I believe that there are three types of NPO in Israel today. There are those who really and truly have already set out upon the path to building their future; there are those who are realizing that their well will soon run dry and are looking to make a change before it is too late; and then there are those who feel that their mission is far too important for their "friends" to ever let them die.

After the cloud settles, less then half of them will survive. Of the 26,000 Israeli NPOs (over 1,400 new ones every year!) registered, only those who are genuinely willing to step outside their comfort zone, who are looking for ways to replace "the way that things have always been done", respectfully, with the way that our future donors and partners will expect to be found, approached, cultivated and/or stewarded in the future, will be able to carry on doing the good work they have done.

Our future, if I may be so bold as to make a forecast, looks quite different from our past. 
  • We need to seriously begin looking closer to home. The Israeli is getting richer (at least some of us are), as the American is struggling to retain their social status.
  • We need to begin to broaden our base of support. Far fewer major funders are looking to invest so much in one place for a long period of time. We need to be spreading our risk and looking for more friends,giving less, with whom we may have to resign ourselves to sharing shorter relationships.
  • We have to meet our prospective donors where they expect to be courted. Our truth, and our genuine belief in the righteousness of our cause must be replaced by an open invitation to facilitate the empowerment of a funding partner to realize their ideology by subcontracting to us activity in the field.
  • We must be present, and regularly communicate, through the media channels, and in the language, that will maximize our impact and broaden our reach. Todays world communicates through social media, open code, free expression, self-explanatory soundbites that are commensurate with on-the-fly information overload and non-stop information communication. (This blog post, for example, would never fly!)
I find myself looking forward to this future. It may not be easy, but it will definitely be (already is!) very exciting.

May the deserving survive, and may Yair Lapid never be able to write such a thing about the 3rd sector.

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