2016 nonprofit predictions, the Eeyore version

Eeyore's in the Alps, Chamonix, France
Image credit: Sheri

This post was inspired by Joanne Cave’s and Lee Rose/Claude Lauziere’s recent pieces on predictions for the Canadian nonprofit sector in 2016.

Consider mine the Eeyore version. You know, one that’s a little bit of a bummer. 

Here are my predictions/wishes for the Canadian nonprofit and charitable sector in 2016.

1. Death of “social innovation.” Please.

Especially as a catchphrase. Or at least this is my solemn wish.

Social innovation is a new-ish word for a thing that has been happening since the beginning of charity. People and organizations finding different, improved, transformational ways to benefit their communities. Piloting, experimenting, trying new things. This is all good. But it’s not new.

I previously found it hard to articulate one of my discomforts with the focus on social innovation, but I recently identified it while reading a lovely 2013 Salon article on why innovation (currently) has nothing do do with being creative. It’s that in today’s world, in order for something to be considered “innovative,” it has to be acknowledge by the institutionalized “innovation class.” For social innovation in Canada, that would be orgs like SiG or CSI or MaRS or McConnell etc. As Thomas Frank writes:

Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. … What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.

There are so many issues with social innovation as a thing right now.

  1. More and more organizations are feeling forced to label their work “social innovation” to fit funding opportunities. When really funders should be focussed largely on what works, not only what’s new.
  2. Most of the people talking about social innovation are mostly doing that – talking. The ones that are doing social innovation use the word because it’s “in group” language, not because of its inherent value for our communities (admission: I use the word too).
  3. The new and trendy and “innovative” which attracts people, attention, and funding rarely does the deep, sustainable work that our communities and the vulnerable people in them desperately need.

Instead, I dearly hope that organizations will work to improve upon knowing what works well, and trying new ways when things don’t.

2. People and organizations with lots of money will continue talking about the opportunity for social finance to unleash capital for social good. Skeptics will question the ethics of commoditizing disadvantage. Nonprofits will question the relevance of social finance to their work. They will all be correct.

I don’t think social finance is the be-all-end-all to funding interventions, but I do think we need to experiment with new funding models, and this is one set of approaches.

I question whether risk is distributed well (especially in the case of social impact bonds) and whether big business would be better to spend their money ensuring they don’t, um I don’t know, exploit the poor or the environment through unchecked negative externalities.

And most nonprofits are absent from the conversation. As they should be. Because either they don’t measure their impact to the level necessary for social finance, or their work doesn’t fit the social finance model (e.g. social impact bonds currently focus on employment, literacy, recidivism, and other short- to medium-term outcomes).

3. Nonprofit leaders of large nonprofits who suffer from data and tech illiteracy will unwittingly hurt their causes.

Not internalizing the importance of integrated use of data and technology will mean missed opportunities. And because it’s hard to know when something isn’t there (as opposed to spotting obvious issues like funding gaps or broken equipment), it will be easy for organizations to continue to ignore opportunities like shared platforms, data standards, automation, and other uses of tech and data that streamline our work and provide opportunities for collaboration and advocacy. You know, mission-related work.

4. Nonprofit leaders will wax on about the salary inequities within and outside the sector and then continue to pay shitty wages and use contract employment.

To be fair, they often do so because of the uncertainty of their funding environment.

But many pay little because they can get away with it. Not in a mwa-ha-ha evil way, but because it’s been done before, money is tight, and the job market continues to allow it.

5. No (large) nonprofit or charity will recruit unpaid interns for more than 15 hours per week.

Recruiting for unpaid internships over and above about 12 to 15 hours per week mean only the most privileged will benefit from these experiences, as the rest of job seekers are working and/or going to school full time. Public awareness about the exploitative nature of internships has increased over the past year in particular, and I hope that nonprofits (and not just businesses) have heard the message. Just because we are charities, doesn’t mean that full-time volunteer roles are ethical.

6. Increasing voice of Gen X and Y leadership.

Baby boomers continue to hold the traditional “leadership” roles in the sector. However, Gen X and Y will continue to move up in traditional organizations AND lead newer, non-traditional initiatives, and these new initiatives will hold greater space in the traditional national conversations hosted by organizations like Imagine Canada, Volunteer Canada, Community Foundations of Canada, etc.

These new initiaitves are already holding their own conversations, learning from each other, and networking (and not just with other nonprofits). They don’t need traditional organizations to gain leadership legitimacy, but they can and do play nice when the potential power of new forms of structure and strategy are more and more respected, admired, and coveted by the old guard.

7. Southern Ontario will continue to get most of the attention, support, funding for sector-level work.

I’m always amazed (or…annoyed) that people in Ontario can call their initiatives “national” as long as they invite/email people from outside southern Ontario, but the same initiative out of Halifax or Saskatoon or Vancouver wouldn’t be given the same benefit of the doubt (or benefit of funding/sponsorship). This means many of the important conversations about the future of the nonprofit sector are happening among a narrow set of people, and that’s not OK for our diverse organizations and missions.

8. Rise of the quiet changemaker.

Well, this prediction is just selfish. It’s my own initiative and one that I hope will raise the voices and potential of the more quiet and introverted people making the world a better place. Read more here.

What are your predictions for the nonprofit sector in 2016? Can you out-grump me?

06 Brand communications with David Grad

In this episode I chat with David Grad, Emmy-winning producer and brand consultant, about brand communications, how to break down what exactly “brand” is, and what questions to ask when you’re planning to communicate your brand strategically.

Links for today’s episode:

05 Allison Jones on careers and leadership

In this episode of the Do Good Better Podcast I talk with Allison Jones, formerly of Idealist Careers at the time of the recording, but now with NTEN. We start off our conversation talking about career and labour market trends, but then get into the juicy topics of leadership, management, vulnerability, and learning.

Listen via the website, iTunes, or Stitcher.

Links from today’s episode

Note: I couldn’t find the article Allison mentioned re: 26 ways to be involved in social change without being on the streets, nor the 99U article on from manager to maker.

04 Michael Lenczner on open data strategies in the nonprofit sector

In this episode of the Do Good Better Podcast I talk about my new role in Myanmar (Burma), and share a conversation with Michael Lenczner of PoweredbyData on how nonprofit organizations can be thinking strategically about data at a sector level.

Resources mentioned in today’s episode:

On my way to Myanmar/Burma

Myanmar tickets

I’m heading to Myanmar (Burma) for six months. Literally on my way now (writing this from the Vancouver airport).

Out of the blue you say? Yeah, for me too. There was less than 4 weeks between accepting the offer from Cuso International and leaving the country. In the middle I’ve rented my condo, got vaccinations and the variety of health/police checks, got my foster cat adopted, spent 5 days in training in Ottawa with Cuso, visited family, and wrapped up a few non-travel things. It’s been a whirlwind.

What am I doing in Myanmar?

Doing what I do in Canada, but in a new context. While I don’t know the specifics, my volunteer role title is “Stakeholder Mapping Consultant”. I’ll be working with Local Resource Centre,a central umbrella/capacity building/hub organization to the nonprofit sector—aka civil society in Myanmar—in their new Mawlamyine office.

I’ll be researching what is going on in civil society in Mon state, the “landscape” – who’s doing what, with who, for who, to what ends, with what resources, with what skills, and with what challenges. And going from there. Or so I understand at the moment. It’s possible that my work may change once I’m there, but I’m sure it will stay in the general realm of “nonprofit sector capacity building.”

I’ll blend my skills for listening, asking good questions, facilitating, researching, and strategizing, to learn about civil society in Mon state and give that learning back to the sector.

Want to contribute to Cuso International’s work (and get good vibes and a tax receipt)? I’m trying to raise $500 before my birthday on September 9th. Donate here!

What will I continue while away?

I’ll continue my outreach re: a data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector. It can take time for money and other assets to come together, so I’ll stay in touch with a variety of stakeholders and collaborators.

Quiet changemaker project. This will be my downtime/alone time hobby. Writing. Agent/publisher pitches.

My research agenda aka manifesto—emergent trends that I feel the nonprofit sector needs to act on. I want to increase my focus on these areas in a research and strategy capacity upon my return, so I’ll continue to network with allies and share my thinking as time allows (like I am doing with the data strategy). I’ll share this research agenda in a future post.

Staying connected. Depending on internet access, I’d like to have at least one Skype chat a week with an interesting person in order to stay connected, stay inspired, and stay informed.

What am I putting on hold?

I’m not taking on any new contracts while I’m away, but am happy to have exploratory conversations about future contracts. I’ll be back in Canada for the end of the fiscal year for Canadian government and many other clients, so I’ll be ready to jump into contract work and consulting upon my return.

Do Good Better Podcast. I hope to release the remaining interviews I’ve already conducted, but unless it fits with my work objectives in Myanmar, I won’t be spending time on it while away.

Wish me luck and health! Stay in touch—it’s a connected world, even in Myanmar.

PS. Will you donate to Cuso? It’ll take you about 5 minutes online, and you will get my gratitude and a charitable tax receipt (or my non-Canadian friends, you’ll get just get my gratitude)!

A data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector?

At the end of July, I convened a group of nonprofit sector leaders and influencers to talk about the potential for a data strategy for BC’s nonprofit sector.

tl;dr version: There was a lot of interest, but consensus that more “meat on the bone” is needed in order for organizations to know where this could go and where they could fit in. A backbone organization and some initial financial investment are needed to take this first (and future) steps. Join the email list to be a part of future developments. 

Why a data strategy?

The nonprofit sector often struggles to gather and analyze the necessary information necessary to make optimal decisions.

Answering important questions like “Who’s working in this area? Who’s serving population X? Who else could we collaborate with? Who else is funding this work? Who has had success solving Y? What is the baseline data on issue Z?” requires a lot of tedious research, knowledge that’s not written down, or access to costly databases AND results in too many Excel spreadsheets that aren’t shared.

There is currently no organization responsible for developing a plan for nonprofit and social impact data in British Columbia, and different pieces of the puzzle (e.g. data re: fundraising, governmental relations, operations, volunteering, policy advocacy, grant-making) are held by a variety of actors.

New open data policies and practices at the municipal, provincial and federal level represent tremendous opportunities, as do new powerful and inexpensive online tools for analysis and collaboration. By creating a collaborative and coordinated data strategy we can help different stakeholders in the nonprofit sector: grassroots organizations, large agencies, volunteers, policy makers, institutional funders and donors.

The meeting

The timing was a perfect storm (a good one). I had met Michael Lenczner from PoweredbyData earlier this year and knew his work with the Ontario Nonprofit Network on this topic in that province. Michael and I chatted about collaborating on similar work in BC. Michael was planning a trip to BC. We were able to confirm a few key individuals to a specific date. And so invites went out. The rest was a question mark.

There are no natural provincial network/umbrella organizations for which a data strategy is a mission fit. We don’t have the equivalent to the Ontario Nonprofit network. I was convening as an independent consultant interested in emerging trends and issues facing the nonprofit sector. I see strategic use of data and technology as a key pillar of a healthy future nonprofit sector. So I, along with Michael, acted as convenor of nonprofit leadership in BC.

We had participation from Vancouver Foundation, United Way Lower Mainland, Vancity, bc211, Vantage Point, SFU, UBC, BoardVoice, Open Data BC, open data and social innovation leaders with the BC government, and more! I was thrilled with the RSVPs considering it was middle summer. This participant list is obviously not exhaustive of nonprofit sector leadership. It was very Vancouver-centric. But it’s a starting point.

You can see the meeting slides here (not much context if you weren’t there, but you can still check it out) and read summaries of the meeting here (my summary, PDF) and here (summary by participant Michael Davis of BoardVoice). The general consensus was one of interest a feeling that more “meat on the bone” is needed in order for organizations to know where this could go and where they could fit in. A backbone organization and some initial financial investment are needed to take this first (and future) steps.

The future

I look forward to seeing where this goes. As I emphasized at the meeting, as an independent actor I don’t have the positional/organizational authority to strategize on behalf of the nonprofit sector. Sector leadership needs to buy in and own in order for this to move forward at all. BUT I would love to play a role in bridging the BC context with strategic data thinking, and to collaborate with the thought leadership that Michael Lenczner and PoweredbyData brings to this topic.

Does data interest you? Join the email list to be a part of future development. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to chat or are interested in investing in this process.

More reading

Don’t get in the way of others who see you as a leader

When others remark positively on your leadership characteristics, how do you respond?

If you’re like me, not well.

A colleague/friend/mentor recently told me that he sees me as someone who has a strong vision for the future for the nonprofit sector, and that I do work with others who also want to get there. I’m out in front. I’m a sector thought leader.

I did not accept the compliments of ‘visionary’ and ‘futurist’ gracefully. He told me that while I might not see myself as a sector leader, I should not get in the way of others who see me in that light. He thought that I picture my circle of influence as much smaller than it is and could be.

Something for me to chew on. I don’t question my ability, but as an independent actor outside of the nonprofit sector institutional framework, I do question my influence at a high level sometimes. It’s not that I’m not interested in influence at a high level, but it’s not the first lens that I see my work through.

I’m a bit of a “keep your head down and work hard in service of clients and educating others” kind of person. Framing my work in a different, more expansive, light, is not something that comes instinctively.  This obviously relates back to my interest in quiet changemakers–those who do great work and have great influence irrespective of the spotlight.

A better, alternative, response my colleague’s comments might have been

Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say that.

Simply. Acknowledge. The gift.

How do you respond to professional compliments?

When others around you speak of your personal or organizational influence, does it match how you see yourself?

What’s the story others tell about you? What’s the story you tell about you? What’s the story you want others to tell about you? And are you reaching high enough?