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A Solopreneur for Good

MN Women's Press LogoYesterday I picked up the July edition of Minnesota Women’s Press, and it was fun to see my mini-essay published in the “Your Thoughts” section.  Here it is:

Choosing the Life of a Solopreneur

When I left my job, I never could have guessed that being a solopreneur was my professional dream.

I had worked in organizations big and small – from a Fortune 100 company to small creative shops – and I thought I needed structure to stay focused and productive.  Plus, running my own business seemed scary.

Oh, how wrong I was.

As a solopreneur I’ve discovered new talents, expanded my skill-set and embraced the ultimate benefit of working on my own:  Choice.

I choose my clients.  They are smart, dedicated nonprofit leaders.  And I share their passion for their missions.

I choose my schedule. I research, plan and write when I am sharpest, whether that’s before sun-up or on Saturday – when others are frantically running errands on their prescribed day off.

I choose my priorities.  Sometimes caregiving for my elderly mother.  Sometimes enjoying a week-day matinee.

Go solo.  You’ll have no regrets.

Thanks to all my nonprofit and foundation clients who make my life interesting and fulfilling.  And thanks to Minnesota Women’s Press (plus all the ethnic media in our region) for sharing new voices and perspectives in this, and every, issue.  Check it out online.

Resolved: Use (and Thank) These Sources of Nonprofit Knowledge

Handwritten message: "Resolved: Give more, Learn more"

Why not support the organizations that make the Minnesota nonprofit sector stronger . . . and smarter.

Whether you’re making your year-end donations or writing your New Year’s resolutions today, here’s a suggestion: Show your gratitude to Minnesota’s nonprofit infrastructure organizations.

Sure, I’m still recommending gifts to direct service groups that provide food, housing, job trainingcrisis services and other basic needs, but today it’s time to take another look at the nonprofits that serve the nonprofits:

  • I just watched the Nonprofits Assistance Fund’s new videos on depreciation, cost allocation, reserves and more.  They make learning finance basics fun!
  • MAP for Nonprofits consultants put nonprofit start-ups on the right track. Plus, their board member placement and training services promote good governance and volunteerism.
  • Admit it.  Don’t you always look for the Charities Review Council accountability seal before making a donation?  (If you don’t, you should!)
  • Looking for facts to build your case for support?  Seeking insights to guide new program development? Where would we be without Minnesota Compass?
  • How could our nonprofits function without volunteers . . . and the organization that recruits and trains them?  Hands on Twin Cities has an opportunity waiting for you.
  • And, of course, there’s the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. This statewide association leads the nation in professional development, public policy and civic engagement, nonprofit research and resources.  MCN has it all.

Click now to give . . . and to learn.  You can wrap up the year by helping organizations that provide vital services to our nonprofit community. Plus, you’ll get a head start on fulfilling your 2016 resolutions.

The “How To” of Writing and Winning Grants

Book cover of Winning Foundation Grants by Martin Teitel

Here’s a quick read that offers some solid tips for writing grants and building program officer relationships.

I’m a sucker for “how to” books. To overcome the monotony of walking the track at the gym, or to mentally escape when trapped in an airplane seat, I always have at hand someone’s advice on writing, organizing, healthful living or whatever.

During a few recent laps at the gym, I scanned “The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants” by Martin Teitel.  This book’s been around for a few years, but the advice is still solid for writers in all types of nonprofits and foundations.

Teitel understands both sides of the funding equation. For more than half of his career he was a grantmaker, but he also led nonprofits and knows first-hand the challenges of grantseekers.

May the Best Writer Win
So, to win the competition for grants, Teitel offers these tips:

  • Have a brilliant opener and summary.  When you’re writing your LOI, he recommends spending a quarter of your time on the two-sentence summary of how you will solve the problem and another quarter on your opening sentence.
  • Use facts and action verbs.  As he says, “Show, don’t tell.”  Be concrete and specific, especially regarding outcomes of your work. (But as you write from your head, show your passion from your heart, too.)
  • Cut the words and cut the jargon.  Ask for funds to build a “park,” not an “outdoor recreation facility.” Buzzwords add fuzziness, not clarity.
  • Be modest and be positive.  Blaming and finger-pointing tears down you, not others. And the program officer is smart enough to recognize overstatements and embellishments.
  • Skip the emotional manipulation. Guilt won’t make the funder open up his or her wallet.

Be Accurate and Neat, Not Flashy
As you can see, Teitel’s advice draws heavily on sound communications practices.  He says outright: Write like a journalist, think like a marketer.

And that brings me to a cardinal rule of journalism: Accuracy. Take time to proof, says Teitel, and while you’re at it, be timely. Last-minute submissions with errors send the wrong message to the grant reviewer — that your proposed project work will also be late and sloppy.

“Winning Foundation Grants”  has many more useful tips for grantseekers, like how to build effective relationships with foundation staff, what are red flags in proposals, and how to follow up and write reports.  Pick up the book yourself, or wait for highlights in a future post — after my next cross-country flight or 30 minutes on the treadmill.

Did You Listen . . . and Understand?

Listening Ear

Effective communication requires active listening — and much more.

Over the past few weeks our family has been struggling with concerns about the treatment someone received at a large medical facility.  Dozens of people beyond the patient have been involved — family members, physician’s assistants, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, patient advocates, physical therapists and others.

Needless to say, the situation has been rife with chances for communications breakdowns — and we’ve had some doozies.

Many of the breakdowns occurred because family members assumed that they had been heard and understood, and therefore medical personnel would act accordingly . . . but that was a wrong assumption.

Are You Listening . . . and Understanding?
No matter your job or industry — health care provider or professional communicator like me — we all face communication challenges every day.  If I’m engaged in conversation and I don’t employ active listening skills, chances are our discussion can quickly go off the rails.

Local human resources and leadership consultant Judy Hartley offers some excellent strategies for creating an open communications environment — particularly when miscommunication or conflict may occur.  To fully attend to what someone is saying to you, she recommends:

  • Hearing them without getting defensive; listening to learn/understand.
  • Verifying that all parties are operating off the same information.
  • Summarizing and paraphrasing back what you have heard.
  • Thanking them for bringing the concerns/issues to your attention.
  • Appropriately responding to those concerns/issues.

Clients Who Specialize in Listening
Right now, I’m lucky to be working with some excellent communications role models.  Several of my current clients are in the business of listening to vulnerable and underrepresented populations:

  • Store To Door drivers deliver groceries to seniors who can’t get out to shop.  As soon as each driver steps in the door, he’s listening and observing closely, watching out for any changes in the senior’s needs and creating a personal connection that contributes to her well-being.
  • The staff members at CornerHouse (which I wrote about in my last post), embrace listening as part of their mission:  To assure that the voices of children and adolescents are heard, in cases of sexual abuse or violence.
  • The Rainbow Research evaluation professionals have highly developed listening skills.  They specialize in participatory methods and have a keen ability to engage with diverse audiences in culturally appropriate ways.

What Are Your Best Listening Strategies?
What lessons on active listening and effective communications are you learning from your clients and colleagues?   Do you have a personal trick to stay present in a conversation or to remember to be quiet and listen (like the old “one mouth, two ears” saying)?

Let me know what works for you.  I’ll be listening to — and really trying to understand — your comments.

Image: CC Ky

Design Thinking While You Work

Charities Review Council design thinking

At the Charities Review Council Annual Forum 2014, participants engaged in design thinking exercises about disruptive philanthropy.

When I ran into a former colleague recently, she asked me what I liked about freelancing.  Without hesitating, I commented on how stimulating it is to work with such a diverse group of nonprofit and foundation clients.

As I explore fields that are new to me, I meet fascinating people, and best of all, I get to apply what I learn in unexpected ways that benefit my clients — and my community.

For instance, before I was introduced to CornerHouse in Minneapolis, I knew little about child and adolescent abuse.  Plus, I was completely unaware that this local agency is known worldwide for training of forensic interviewers, or that it is the only children’s advocacy center in the country that is offering healing home visiting services to children and families dealing with the aftermath of abuse.

Experience the Creative Rush
So in the course of just a day or two, I’ve written about families recovering from trauma, grocery delivery services for seniors, and rural broadband access, among other topics.  Shifting from one subject to the next, I see surprising connections between ideas and audiences, and new communications strategies emerge . . . it’s a sort of creative rush.

And it feels like that creativity allows me — in my own small way — to participate in the  local “disruptive philanthropy” movement.  The Charities Review Council team members — who championed the movement at their annual forum last fall — defined disruptive philanthropy as:

“a transformative event or moment, an act of giving and relationship building that is a departure from the status quo. It may not be easy, endorsed or comfortable, but it is necessary to inclusively create a shared vision, a new sustainability, innovation, imagination and growth.”

Personal Design Thinking
In another way, my work on behalf of my clients and their beneficiaries feels like a personal design thinking exercise.

During participation in the Giving 2.0 MOOC last fall, I heard David Kelley from IDEO speak about design thinking in philanthropy and use of the Human-Centered Design Toolkit.  Its underlying premise is that problem-solving in philanthropy must be preceded by deep empathy for the people who will benefit and close engagement with them in “need-finding.”

No matter what how you describe it, I feel happy to zig and zag while I work, using my neurons to connect seemingly unrelated dots . . . and making my small contributions to the third sector and our greater community.

I Haven’t Eaten Much Lately

House of Charity logo

Donate before year-end: Just $10 will buy 40 meals thanks to a Mosaic match.

When I helped serve a free meal recently at House of Charity in downtown Minneapolis, a man came back to the serving line and politely asked for seconds.  He quietly added — just to explain, not to complain or solicit pity: “I haven’t eaten much lately.”

Lucky for me, I have never had to utter those words.  And truth be told, during the holiday season I’ve uttered – or muttered – way too often: “I ate too much today.”

How ’bout you?

Countdown for Year-End Gifts
According to Network for Good, 10 percent of annual giving occurs on the last three days of the year.  If you’re now sifting through end-of-year appeals, why not also consider a gift to a local organization fighting hunger or homelessness?  Here are just a few in the Twin Cities:

  • House of Charity:  This is the only downtown Minneapolis organization that serves free, hot meals — no questions asked — 365 days a year.   Your gift right now is eligible for a match by Mosaic, so your contribution of just $10 will buy 40 meals.
  • Simpson Housing Services:  Did you see the recent news coverage about the Homeless Memorial March and Service?  Through this event and other activities, Simpson is an organization at the forefront of solving our local housing crisis.
  • Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless:  If you’d rather have others determine the best use of your donation, this federated charity pools contributions and makes quick-turn-around grants to housing agencies and food shelves all across the state.

Save Money, Then Give More
I’m sure you have your own favorite charities in these final days of the calendar year.  But as you calculate your 2014 tax savings, consider what portion of that amount you could pass along to a worthy organization that meets food or housing needs in our community.

After all, someone who hasn’t eaten much lately might just need our dollars more than we do.

Giving 2.0: The MOOC and Opportunity Costs of Charitable Giving

Do you remember the concept of opportunity cost from your Econ 101 class?

If not, here’s a quick refresher from philanthropy educator Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, during a recent Twitter conversation about wise charitable giving:

So, when resources are limited, how do you choose which nonprofit to fund?  As #Giving Tuesday fast approaches (and Minnesota’s Give to the Max day just concluded), what are the opportunity costs of your giving decisions — when a donation to one organization or cause is a donation denied to another?

Giving 2.0 for Everyone
This is just one lesson I learned this fall while completing Giving 2.0: The MOOC, which sought “to educate givers of all ages, backgrounds, incomes and experiences about effective philanthropy.”

Educational components of the course included short video modules of Arrillaga-Andreessen and guest speakers describing key concepts, brief workbook exercises and talkabouts (Google Hangouts with fellow students from around the world).  Plus, we completed two assignments — an assessment of a nonprofit tackling a social issue that I care about, and my personal IGAP, or Individual Giving Action Plan, to determine the best way to distribute my philanthropic gifts — such as money, volunteer time and skills, and contacts — to maximize social impact.

A few course takeaways in addition to the opportunity cost lesson included:

  • Only one-third of us do any research before making a charitable gift, and only 3 percent of us compare nonprofit organizations before making donations.  Emotions drive our decisions.
  • We can shift from being simply charitable to being truly philanthropic by blending short-term and long-term giving: contributing to provide immediate relief of need or suffering, plus funding of systems change to solve root causes of social problems.
  • Creating a personal theory of change — identifying the causal relationships between my resources, my actions and my desired outcomes — will give me the satisfaction of tracking progress while also enabling me to improve my giving strategies.
  • We should remember that nonprofits (and especially their beneficiaries) know best about what they need, so listen, learn and limit restrictions on our giving.  General operating support is golden.
  • Everyone has something to give, be it time, money and other assets, experience, skills, networks or access to others’ resources.
Pause before making your end-of-year donations:  How can your gift make the biggest impact?

Pause before making your end-of-year donations: How can your gifts make the biggest impact?

What’s Your IGAP?
By giving more strategically, we can not only feel good, but we can create more good by supporting initiatives that will deliver maximum measurable impact.

For access to tools that will help you develop your own Individual Giving Action Plan, check out Arrillaga-Andreessen’s website, follow her on Twitter (@LAAF), subscribe to her foundation newsletter, or buy or borrow her Giving 2.0 book.

The value of your time spent learning about strategic personal philanthropy will far exceed the opportunity cost of other uses of your time.  Especially when your year-end charitable donations deliver more social good than ever before.


Behind the Nonprofit Ratings Curtain

The dog pulls back the curtain.

When using resources that rate nonprofits, be sure to look behind the curtain to understand information sources and ranking systems.

Have you ever used GreatNonprofits as a research tool for evaluating which charities should receive your donations?

This website (among others) is a recommended resource in my materials for Giving 2.0: The MOOC.  It’s been around for five or so years and has big-name national endorsements (including a Bill Gates testimonial).

GreatNonprofits describes itself as “a place to find trustworthy nonprofits.”  Its mission is “to inspire and inform donors and volunteers, enable nonprofits to show their impact, and promote greater feedback and transparency.”

Rating a System that Rates Nonprofits
But as with many nonprofit ranking systems, this tool — which uses a Yelp-like platform — has some shortcomings:

  • The geography search function is set up by city, which isn’t particularly helpful for metropolitan areas with multiple municipalities (like the Twin Cities region).  Plus, as with many nonprofit organization databases, the user can’t tell if the location is where the nonprofit is based or where it provides services.
  • There’s no Boolean search ability, so the user can’t narrow the results.  For instance, if I click “children” and “education,” it appears I only get results for “or” and can’t specify “and.”
  • The results are limited.  When I searched on Minneapolis, less than 50 of 7,733 organizations had any reviews.  Of those 50, about half had two or more reviews and the rest had only one.  (And a few with lots of reviews were filled with comments by the nonprofit’s interns, staff and volunteers.)
  • Nonprofits didn’t show up in the appropriate issue lists.  For instance, Washburn Child Guidance Center had a high number of rankings in the overall Minneapolis list, but it didn’t even show up when I searched on “children.”  (The most fun result I received was the “Beer Judge Certification Program” when I searched on “food”!)
  • And most concerning, some rankings appear to be paid listings.  For example, when I explored the site, Second Harvest Heartland was listed as a “top-nonprofit” (via AdChoices), but it had no actual reviews in the system.

So, what’s the take-away?  Caveat emptor.  GreatNonprofits is not alone among ranking systems that have limited or sometimes misleading information.  When you’re evaluating your charitable giving choices, take time to look behind the curtain of rating tools.  Learn about their sources of information and their ranking criteria.

What Are Your Favorite Comparative Tools?
If you’re a donor, what do you think of Yelp-like sites as tools for rating charities?  What are your favorite resources to research and compare nonprofit organizations?

If you’re a nonprofit communicator or fundraiser, how much time do you invest in creating and enhancing your profile on the many ratings sites?  Which ones are the most important to monitor and maintain?

Please share your thoughts so we can all be informed donors!

The Buck Stops with the Volunteer Board

Principles and practices resources from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Volunteer nonprofit board members must do their homework to govern effectively.

Arriving home last week from an overseas vacation, I was startled by more bad press for Minnesota nonprofits.

In the country I just visited, graft and corruption are commonplace.  So a story about nonprofit leaders spending tax dollars on lavish trips and spa treatments would not lead the news — or perhaps be reported at all.

But nonprofit leaders — including volunteer board members — must meet a higher standard in the U.S.  To maintain the public trust, they must act responsibly and ethically, as noted by  Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Executive Director Jon Pratt  in his open letter to members.

The Board is Ultimately Responsible
In the current Community Action of Minneapolis case, the state audit language is damning:

Our review found several deficiencies in the internal control environment, ranging from
inadequate board oversight of operations to inadequate allocation of costs and unacceptable
levels of documented outcomes.

The report’s findings emphasized especially the failure of the board members to “provide independent and objective oversight of senior management or program operations.”

Of course, insufficient board oversight makes headlines in the for-profit sector, too.  But our expectations for individuals who are dedicated to alleviating poverty are understandably high.

Don’t Be Fooled by the “Volunteer” Label
In my years working and volunteering in nonprofits, I’ve seen many bright, hard-working board members who bring their whole selves to their volunteer posts — carefully preparing for board meetings, asking insightful questions about programs and financials, and offering professional guidance that ensures good governance.

But I’ve also come across a few board members who don’t take their oversight duties seriously or who are ill-equipped to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities.  I understand (but cannot accept) how this happens.  The volunteer board member, who can dedicate only a few hours a week or month to her nonprofit work, may defer to the full-time executive director who is an expert in the field.  Or the volunteer board member has little experience reading financials or interpreting program outcomes.

But at the end of the day, the law is the law and the board members — volunteer or not — are ultimately responsible for the organization’s operations.

Easy Access to Resources
If you currently serve on (or plan to join) a nonprofit board and have any doubts about your responsibilities or skills, check out some of the many excellent local educational resources, such as:

Or, take a look at materials offered by BoardSource, the  national go-to organization for information on nonprofit governance.

You Can’t Pass the Buck
Finger pointing and political haymaking are already going full tilt in the Community Action of Minneapolis situation.

But if you’re a volunteer board member, don’t think you can pass the buck.  And anyway, why would you want to shirk your responsibilities?  By being a well-informed, active board director, you can build a stronger, more effective organization.  And that can create positive headlines for you, your cause and the public.

Sharing Our Harvest with Others

Charitable gifts to those in need

Sharing our harvest with the squirrels: Sometimes we can contribute more than we think we can.

In my first post in May, I reported on planting seeds  in my garden despite a forecast of chilly, rainy weather.

As the summer progressed, my early spring optimism paid off — mostly.  The salad greens, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes are abundant.  But the radishes were all tops and no roots, and the basil succumbed to a vicious fungus.

And then there’s the squash.

Sharing As a State of Mind
I’m trying to be zen about the squash . . . and the rabbits and squirrels.  Admittedly, part of me is just plain irritated that the rabbits ate off dozens of blossoms before they could set fruits, and that the squirrels have gnawed into nearly every butternut squash that did manage to grow.

But maybe those rabbits and squirrels need those squash more than I do.  And maybe there’s a larger lesson here about need, abundance, choices and charitable giving.

How and how much we choose to give can be life-changing — for the giver and receiver.  Twin Cities-based Nathan Dungan advises families to connect their values with their financial choices.  His Share Save Spend® model puts giving at the top of the list.  Yes, that’s right, he promotes sharing firstsaving second. and spending less (on things we probably don’t need anyway).

Giving More Doesn’t Hurt; It Helps
A similar philosophy is promoted by Anne and Christopher Ellinger, founders of New York-based Bolder Giving.  This organization challenges individuals to make “quantum leaps” in their giving levels and to be fully engaged in their personal philanthropy.  They also encourage individuals to tell their personal giving stories as inspiration for others.

On an even larger scale, the Giving While Living  movement of The Atlantic Philanthropies advocates distributing our wealth during our lifetimes —  instead of establishing foundations in perpetuity.  Billionaire founder Chuck Feeney and like-minded philanthropists believe in addressing urgent needs and creating sustainable solutions to today’s problems right now.   They are confident that future generations will create their own wealth that can be used to solve tomorrow’s problems.

An Optimistic Outlook
I think these charitable advisors and philanthropists  — and gardeners, too — are eternal optimists at heart.  They believe in abundance and that their efforts large and small will yield positive results.

So, help me choose gladly to share my harvest with the squirrels.  I probably have more than I need anyway, and we all need nourishment to make it through the winter and thrive again next spring.