Tag Archives: nonprofits

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. Continue reading

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Think Before You Endow

I was recently asked at a public forum why I don’t like endowments. I answered: “It’s not so much that I don’t like endowments. It’s that nonprofits and their donors like endowments too much.”

Endowments have become the default destination for major gifts and bequests. If someone dies and leaves an organization a lot of money, the odds are good that the bequest will come with instructions to create an endowment in the name of the deceased. If a nonprofit launches a major campaign, there is inevitably a significant endowment component. As I’ve said before, endowments feel good. Endowments connote a certain sense of immortality. And endowments seem like a prudent investment. But do endowments, paying out 4% or so of their assets a year, have all that much impact? Or are there better ways to direct the donors’ generosity? Continue reading

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Scale, For Better or For Worse

Nonprofit trends – and their associated jargon – seem to come in waves. Given the disparate and atomized nature of the sector, it’s striking that new notions and terms fall into place so rapidly. I think of that viral video of starlings flying in unison. Somehow, magically, we all start moving in the same direction – perhaps because we don’t want to be left behind. Or eaten by hawks.

One of the hottest bits of jargon the last few years is “scaling up,” or “going to scale.” As with a lot of nonprofit speak, the obsession with scale seems to have originated in the foundation world. (This is consistent with the nonprofit sector’s golden rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”) A few years ago, some influential foundation leaders seem to have decided, in whatever way they decide these things, that in order to have their dollars go further, they should focus their grantmaking on programs that can be scaled up. Other funders began to spout the same idea. Continue reading

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Stories, Not Bullet Points

We all tell stories, though not necessarily well.

I like to think I’m better at it than most, but my too-deliberate-and-full-of-detail style doesn’t work with everyone. It particularly bugs my friend Mary. On more than one occasion she’s interrupted my meandering narrative and said, in total deadpan, “OK, Al. Now cut to the chase!

But talented or not, we all persist in telling stories. We describe what happened when the cop pulled us over on our way to work. We talk about how we nearly rode our bike into a moose (seriously — this happened to me over the weekend), or describe how our extended family reacted when a bat flew into the dining room, or recount how we turned on the t.v. just in time to see the game-winning overtime goal in the Stanley Cup. (“I just kinda had a feeling!”) We give the blow-by-blow of an argument at work, and we talk about how we let our boss know that we’d taken another job. (“What a look on his face!”) We tell stories about our kids, and movies, and books, and, well, everything. Continue reading

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