All posts by Alan Cantor

Peak bagging

As someone who likes to be taken seriously, I probably shouldn’t begin this post by publishing such a goofy picture of myself. But here I go, happily sharing this photo, as a way of illustrating a point about goal-setting.

This picture was taken on July 2nd atop Mt. Isolation, an obscure and (true to its name) difficult-to-reach New Hampshire mountain that has an elevation of either 4,002, 4,003, or 4,004 feet, depending on the guidebook. Regardless of its exact altitude, the fact that the summit is 4,000-and-something feet high makes Mt. Isolation one of forty-eight 4,000-foot peaks in the state. And the reason you see me so exultant, relieved, and, well, just a bit inebriated, is that climbing Mt. Isolation meant that I had now climbed all forty-eight mountains, and that moment was the culmination of a personal eight-year quest. I was at long last a member of the 4,000-Footer Club.

Climbing all the 4,000-foot-high mountains in New Hampshire may or may not be a significant accomplishment, but it surely is measurable. I’d been updating my list since 2010, and my progress could be charted in black and white, 1/48 at a time. I’d meet fellow peak-baggers on the trail, and we relied on a familiar shorthand: “How many is that for you?” “What’s left?” “What peak are you saving for last?” I reveled in the camaraderie and the unusual blend of individual challenge and shared mission.

And a clear goal helped to focus the planning process: the strategy and choices could be boiled down to some pretty simple questions. Which trail do we take – the one with the better views or the more gradual climb? Should we try to do two or three peaks in the same day, and, if so, in what order? Should we leave from home in the morning or spend the night before near the trailhead? Should we take on a particularly challenging mountain in June, when the days are longer, or wait until late summer, when the river crossings were likely to be less treacherous? If we encounter snow above tree-line, do we have the right equipment?

In focusing on the list of forty-eight mountains, it was easy to forget the real reasons I undertook this quest. That is, I wanted to get into better shape. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to spend time with friends in the woods and away from technology. And now, eight years and a few hundred miles of trail later, I can say that I’m indeed in better health than when I started (if I don’t think too much about my aching knees), I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment, and I have built up a special closeness with my friend Mark, who was my perpetual companion, and many others who joined me along the way. I can honestly say that I accomplished all my missions, both the one that was easy to measure (bagging all forty-eight peaks) and the ones that really mattered (improving my physical, mental, and social health).

Which brings us to nonprofits and goal-setting. I often facilitate strategic planning processes, and there’s a tendency for organizations to veer toward focusing on easily quantifiable goals. When they do, I think of what sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote in the 1960s: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” In measuring the success and impact of nonprofit organizations – and in setting organizational goals – it’s easy to slip into placing too great an emphasis on what can be easily measured. And if you do that, you may stop paying attention to what really matters.

For example:

  • It’s easy to quantify the number of people served. It’s hard to measure how respectfully and effectively they are treated.
  • It’s easy to measure the size of an organization’s endowment and the investment return. It’s hard to measure how much endowment dollars actually help meet the organizational mission.
  • It’s easy to know if you’ve balanced your budget. It’s hard to measure how much impact you’ve had.

I often hear people say that a nonprofit needs to be evaluated like a business. I disagree. Yes, a nonprofit needs to be businesslike in its processes, and, like a successful for-profit business, it needs to be smart and adaptive and good at marketing, staff development, and customer service. But the ultimate goals of for-profit and nonprofit entities are fundamentally different. For-profit businesses exist, by definition, to make a profit, and those that are large publicly-traded corporations obsess about hitting their quarterly profit goals, maximizing their market share, and increasing stock prices. Nonprofits, by contrast, exist to fulfill their charitable mission. Yes, nonprofits require money to carry out their work, they need to manage those funds well, and, ideally, they have more money in their bank accounts at the end of the year than the beginning. But bringing in money is not an end it itself; it is a means to an end.

So, nonprofits: Work to identify goals that capture your mission, impact, and values. Some may be easily measured. Others may defy simple measurement, but are of immeasurable importance. If you are an agency serving veterans, certainly, you need to record how many people you are serving – an easy measurement. But you also should be sure you’re identifying and articulating the much harder (but vitally important) attributes about how you are serving the veterans. If you are a Boys and Girls Club, certainly you need to track your membership numbers, but you also need to get at the questions of whether you are changing the lives of kids for the better. If you are a museum, you certainly want to track membership and visitor numbers, but you also also should try to assess the level of visitor engagement. It’s often harder to enumerate what really matters most – downright squirrelly, in fact. But it’s important to try – and then, yes, when you reach your goal, to celebrate.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2017. All rights reserved.

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The Phrase “Great Board Meeting” is Not a Contradiction In Terms!

I used to say that a bad nonprofit board meeting was like root canal surgery, but I don’t say that any more. Why? Because last year, for the first time, I underwent a root canal procedure, and it really wasn’t so bad.

The surgeon played great music and told funny jokes, and the anesthesia was, well, kind of pleasant. And it was all over in an hour. In terms of interest, entertainment, and, shall we say, mood enhancers, root canal surgery is actually better than a bad nonprofit board meeting. (At the very least, it’s shorter.)

That said, it really is possible to have great board meetings – and, for organizations to be successful, it’s critical. So how do you make good board meetings happen? Continue reading

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Incomplete Pass

It’s reasonable to think that when you make a donation to a particular charitable organization, the funds will be used in a way that supports that organization’s mission. But as a recent Boston Globe article by Bob Hohler explains, that’s not how it always works, particularly when there are celebrities involved. In this case, the charitable bait-and-switch involved New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady – a stellar athlete, for sure, but a philanthropic klutz. And, sadly, Brady’s approach to charitable giving is typical of the kind of pseudo-philanthropy that infects celebrities from the NFL to the White House. Continue reading

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Strange Math

[A version of this piece appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on July 13, 2017.]

Here’s the world’s simplest math problem.

My wife Pat and I often meet a pair of friends for a movie. If there’s a risk that the show will sell out, I run over to the theater ahead of time and buy all four tickets in advance. When our friends arrive, we hand them their tickets and they pay us back what they owe us.

So the question is this: how many tickets did the movie theater sell?

Four, of course.

But in the parallel universe of donor-advised funds (DAFs), where double-counting comes as naturally as breathing and dissembling, the answer would be six.

Let me try to explain the inexplicable. Continue reading

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