Balancing paper and prospects

This rant on paper waste is a part of
Blog Action Day 2009 | Climate Change

Image Credit: striatic

Many people that I work with know me to be obsessive about using less paper. First I reduce, then I reuse, then, at last, I recycle.

This carries over beyond my work life and into my personal life. I’m one of those people that calls my service providers to be removed from solicitation lists (did you know you can even get the paper inserts taken out of your credit card statements, even if you can’t get bills online?). I’d love to get zero mail (confession: birthday cards are still OK;).

This carries over beyond my work life and into my philanthropic life. I donate online.

I’ve worked in fund development before. I know that it’s important to meet donor preferences.

But this rule seems to breakdown when it comes to reducing paper.

Exhibit A

  • I donated to at least 5 different organizations last year. All of them I donated online with.
  • Of those five, four of them followed up with print material – direct mail, invitations, newsletters, etc.
  • Of those four, I emailed each of them asking them to remove me from their (paper) mail lists, though I added that I was happy to receive any information by email.
  • Of those four, NONE have sent me any email. I actually had to email two of them after getting paper mail an additional time. I have received no further solicitations from any of them otherwise.
  • Of those original five, only one continues to connect with me via email. Very intermittently – nothing to be considered spam. I also have found out about their campaigns via Twitter and Facebook. I have followed their campaigns’ success online.  And surprise, they’re the one I donate the most to and have begun to donate most regularly to.

It (figuratively) breaks my heart to see nonprofits not getting it. Traditional ways of communicating with donors (ie mail) are still important for connecting with traditional donors. But “new” ways of communicating with donors (though “new” is debatable – the web has been used commonly for over a decade) are important to connect with and retain new donors AND cut down on paper.

Reduce and prosper?

Nonprofits should play their part in reducing waste (in both paper and the cost for stamps) by – at the very least – respecting the methods donors have gone out of their way to request to be solicited.

Read on:

Social movements, institutions and the Millennial generation: synthesis or breakdown?

In my afternoon MBA Leadership class today (prof: Anthony Yue), we watched a 2005 TED talk video featuring Clay Shirky about institutions vs. collaboration. This is really a mindblowing talk, considering social media was in its infancy and collaborative technologies such as Facebook and Twitter were just barely (or not at all) in the public conscious. (Note: Ideas from this post are drawn from classroom discussion).

The main messages of the talk focus on the shift from institutions to collaborative, unmanaged networks. The question is no longer “Is (s)he a good employee” but rather, “Do I want this idea/image/contribution?” Institutions don’t allow us to fully benefit from the valuable contributions of those that would contribute ONE idea. However, collaborative networks such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in general allow all contributions to have a chance to be valued.

Collaboration and Social Movements

So let’s say that you, as an individual, want to address an injustice. You want to alleviate poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you want to protect fragile and rare habitats for species of the Haida Gwaii, you want to draw attention to wage disparity along gender and ethnic lines in the nonprofit sector.

You want to be a part of a social movement. You don’t have any money to build an institution, but you know you could contribute at least ONE idea, and there must be others out there like you.

This is the power of collaboration over the internet. Very little money (or none at all) is required. No institutions are required (save some sort of virtual space to collaborate). Some people may contribute the majority of the ideas, energy and talent, but the contributions from those that just have ONE can still add value.

Recent online activity re: #iranelection or #pman (Moldova) demonstrate the potential upswell of energy that can come from an unmanaged, online network. Granted, the actual impact of these loose networks can be and have been argued, but they still allow for potential valuation of ONE contribution.

Institutions vs. Collaboration and New Infrastructure Synthesis

Our society has recent, but strong history building institutions with hierarchies. Want to organize people? Group people according to task area/project/interest, throw in a manager, and voila – you’ve got yourself organized. Even community organizing can lead to creation of these hierarchies, thus mirroring the same institutions the group is likely organizing against. (Note: Even the phrase ‘community organizing‘ is shout out to institutional responses!)

Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED
Credit: Adaptation from Clay Shirky/TED

Since we have grown up with hierarchical institutions as models for organizational structure, it’s hard to visualize another model. But this is where social media has come in. The development of technological features such as #hashtags has allowed people with like interests to find each other and organize around ideas outside a traditional institutional model.

Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis of Infrastructure

Credit: Tony Yue
Synthesis of new ways. Credit: Tony Yue

So we have an old way of viewing the organization of people (thesis: hierarchical institutions). Now there’s a new way of looking at things (antithesis: unmanaged cooperative collaboration). We (as a society) are still trying to figure out how to navigate this (synthesis) to produce results. Ivan Boothe’s (@rootwork) recent guest post on Beth Kanter’s blog about how social movements require more than social media provides great insight into the difficulty we find ourselves in.

Millennials and Structure

Now here’s the problem (maybe). The Millennial generation, generally, likes structure. They value authority. They grew up with uber-scheduled lives, their parents have been hyper-involved in their lives. So where do they fit in to this new, collaborative, unmanaged, loosely (if at all) structured infrastructure? One benefit of this new model for Millennials is the collaborative nature. Millennials went through the school system working in teams. But the lack of structure may be a barrier.

I suspect that Millennials will create their own ‘formal’ institutions as a solution. They may use informal, collaborative networks to find their peers, but then shift towards having more structure. Though current institutions may already exist, they don’t offer opportunities that they find meaningful and relevant. Again, Millennials will create their own institutions.


So how will this all play out? What will the new infrastructure facilitating social movements look like? I don’t think we know yet, but Clay Shirky predicts 50 years of chaos before it’s sorted out. If Millennials focus on creating institutions to facilitate social movements that come out of online collaboration – great. However, if these new Millennial institutions draw away from human and financial resources of the current nonprofit and social change sector, the current way of doing things is going to evolve (for a time) into chaos–struggles for sustainability and sector fragmentation will result.

Perhaps the calm out of chaos will come not from organizing people, but organizing institutions. Hierarchical institutions and collaborative, cooperative networks finding each other and working together towards common goals.

I really don’t know. Do you?

<end of murky personal academic musings>

Never underestimate the power of a Word document

There are few tedious things in life that I could do for hours on end in a complete state of joy. Algebra problems are one (really, who doesn’t love algebra?). Caulking bathtubs is another. But making Word documents look good, well, almost makes me shed happy tears.

I find nonprofit people often fall into one of three Word categories:

  1. The Designer: These individuals use InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, or other fancy, somewhat expensive software programs that take a bit of learning. They are smart people, and are good at making things look pretty. These people sometimes resist Word because they see limitations in what the finished product can look like. They are surprised when I can make text boxes and make images line up all the way to the edge of the page.
  2. The Try Hard: These individuals use Word or maybe Publisher to get their message across in brochures, posters, notices, and resources, but don’t consider how the medium is impacting how that message gets across. They uses Times New Roman and Arial font and are a fan of centering their paragraphs. They emphasize text by CAPITALIZING, italicizing, bolding and underlining, ALL AT ONE TIME.  They try really hard to make things look pretty, but don’t always succeed.
  3. The Cause: These individuals focus their time on important work like serving clients, moving the cause forward, raising money. The know it would be nice if their documents all looked consistent and were easy to use, but really don’t have the time to make work like this a priority. They don’t try hard to make things pretty, they are just relying on the words to get their message across.

But here are the problems. Relying on The Designer means having to rely on someone else to do something for you, however small, that you wish you could do yourself. This is fine when you are a large organization with graphic designers in house, but this isn’t the case for most small and medium nonprofits. Being The Try Hard means the message you are trying to get across can get lost in the medium you are using. Being The Cause means that this sort of stuff gets pushed aside.

What Word can do for you.

It is possible to make a pretty damn good design in Word that gives your organization’s documents a consistent look. Doing it in Word means that if you need it updated in the future, almost anyone can open a document and do it. Plus, you can easily convert the document into a PDF and look super professional when sending documents.

In my current job at SFU we create a lot of Word documents for external use – resources for students, community organizations, etc. What has been incredibly wonderful has been to have a template with which to create all future documents. The title font, the section headers, the text, the text boxes, the bullets are all predetermined. It makes creating new document designs incredibly easy, as the design work is already done for you. Your organization’s logo is in the header or footer – always in the same place. It means that documents are branded, are recognizable, easy to work with and easy to create. From there it’s easy to create PDF that looks professional, can be sent nicely over email, and can be printed easily. Note that if you are doing huge print jobs and are using a professional printer (ie beyond Staples), you’re going to need The Designer after all.

Who can get this done?

There are really two parts to getting things done: 1) creating the original template, and 2) implementing the template across all existing documents. The design can be done by a design savvy person at your organization, by a professional paid designer, or by a skilled volunteer. Implementing the template could be done by the same person, or by any staff or volunteer at your organization familiar with Word. Kitsilano Neighbourhood House recently posted a skilled volunteer opportunity like this on through Volunteer Vancouver looking for almost exactly these two tasks. I’m thinking about applying for it. Like I said at the beginning – happy tears.

Shock Doctrine: Changing tech practices after an emergency

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine discusses the idea of disaster capitalism – how “big business” takes advantage of disasters and emergencies such as hurricanes and wars to introduce broad policy changes while “the people” are too shocked to notice. Now my emergencies take place on a much smaller scale, and I’m no transnational corporation, but…well, I guess the analogy is weak, but it’s a catchy title.

Here’s the context. I like information. Love it. I enjoy learning new things, reading about ideas, storing resources for future use. I read Tom Rath’s Strengthsfinder 2.0 and did the test — two of my strengths are Learning and Input. I joke about having read results from the first time I completed the MBTI and not agreeing with what my profile said about liking to gather lots of information before reaching a decision. So what did I do? I read all other 15 MBTI profiles, circling and crossing off characteristics, before I reached a decision about my profile.

So needless to say, when it comes to storing information available electronically, I’m a saver. I download files in a variety of hierarchical folders, and save bookmarks of interesting websites similarly.

And then my harddrive crashed. Kaput.

All the files and journal articles I had downloaded for a literature review of promoting volunteerism to the Millennial generation – poof. All the bookmarks I had saved on websites relating to a project on social marketing of engaged citizenship – gone. My favourite guitar tabs – not in my head, that’s for sure.

Why did I not embrace Delicious earlier? Delicious, “the world’s leading social bookmarking service.” I would consider myself a fairly early adopter, but I guess I didn’t really understand Delicious’ value – I thought it was about promoting and sharing good websites (which it is, I list my recently tagged websites on this blog). More importantly, Delicious means when your hard drive crashes, your bookmarks still exist. All you need to do is log in. If you don’t currently use Delicious or a similar web-based bookmarking tool, get on board. If you’re a small nonprofit without a server, do it now. Embrace the change before the disaster.

Have you had a tech emergency that caused you to change practices? Share!