Only Bad Restaurants Go to Scale

We in nonprofits are good at taking on myths and sacred cows. But perhaps the least examined of these myths is the one about "going to scale." This OpEd takes a closer but brief look at the conventional wisdom in this area:

Myth #1: Nonprofits don't go to scale (get a lot bigger) because they lack the vision or the ambition

The reality here is that the dominant capital markets for nonprofits -- government and foundations -- actively work against nonprofit growth.

Regarding foundations, the common funding policy of "one smallish grant per organization per year" means increased volume doesn't lead to larger foundation grants. In fact, when nonprofits grow, many foundations become less interested in them. A commonly stated reason is "we want to feel where our size grant can really make a difference" . . . which often translates to: "we feel better funding organizations where we are one of their most important funders."

Government -- overall the biggest funder of nonprofits -- is not only the biggest engine for growth but also the biggest barrier to growth. Most community nonprofits . . .

Get A Lot More Out of a Conference . . . editor notes issue #71

Autumn is coming . . . which means we nonprofit folks will be either putting on a conference or going to a conference. Here are some unconventional tips on getting the most out of a conference:

1. Choose the sessions you know the least about. If you're a community organizer, you might feel you ought to go to the breakout sessions that focus on that. Instead, go to one on writing grant proposals. If you work with young people, go to the session on working with seniors. You'll learn something you can apply to your work -- you will. And you won't be bored and/or disgusted with the people speaking.

2. Instead of listening for good ideas (only), listen for things you can quote in your next grant proposal or monthly report. For instance, suppose you hear a speaker say something really stupid. Instead of ignoring it, write it down! In your next grant proposal you can say, "The extent to which this subject is misunderstood was demonstrated by a speaker's recent remark at a national conference . . . " Or somebody might say something obvious, like "it's really important to be flexible when it comes to public policy." Now you can quote: "As nationally recognized expert ___ said at a recent conference, 'It's really important to be . . . '" Get it?

3. Skip at least one session. Go outside. Take a taxi to the River Walk, or go shopping. From the inside of a hotel, you could be in Paris, Kansas City, or Jupiter. Go out and get a croissant or some barbecue. (Works best if you do this by yourself.)

4. Fail-proof way to meet someone: If you're an introvert or just sensitive, you might beat yourself up for not doing enough networking. Instead: get to a session early; other introverts will be sitting there playing solitaire on their cell phones. Sit near one of them, then lean over and say, "Would you mind if I introduced myself? I'm supposed to meet at least five new people at this conference and I haven't met any so far!" The other person will be so grateful that someone has made the first move he or she may even forget to move the six of diamonds up.

5. If you're bored or irritated by a session, walk out.

6. Put up a sign on the bulletin board: "If you want to go out for Thai food and talk about triple diagnosis approaches (or meet other Gen-Xers, or talk about trends in contemporary Native American art, or want to go to the XClub for dancing), meet here at 6:30! Worst case: no one shows up but you. But don't worry . . . no one will know!

And if you're putting on a conference, here's a tip: There's a relaxed camaraderie among staff working together at a conference. Take advantage of this to get to know a co-worker who intrigues you. Talk to the head of a different department, or someone in accounting: "I've always wanted a chance to chat with you . . . isn't it funny it turns out to be at a conference?"

This issue we are publishing a provocative article on Foundation-Nonprofit Partnerships simultaneously with the wonderful National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Also a sample Parental Waiver form when you have kids who volunteer, and Dennis Walsh on getting the most out of your audit. Dennis is the author of Blue Avocado's all-time most popular article: a bookkeeping test to give to prospective employees.

Thanks to so many folks who sent in their executive director evaluation forms. Next issue we'll have an article on the subject. And don't forget that subscribing to Blue Avocado is free . . . so encourage your co-workers to do so! -- Jan Masaoka

I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues . . . editor notes issue #70

Sometimes it seems like the bad news is big (the debt deal, global warming) and the good news is little (one little kid inspired). But our constant focus on the bad news can lead some people to mistake our depression and anger for cynicism. We like to quote the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe: "When I have stopped criticizing Africa, you will know I have given up on Africa."

In a similar way, we in the nonprofit sector demonstrate our hope for the future by criticizing the present, and our idealism about America by our criticisms of America. And here at Blue Avocado we would add: when we have stopped criticizing the nonprofit sector, you will know we have given up on it.

Four substantial articles this issue, including the scoop on Getting a Foundation Job, Advice for Boards with New Executive Directors, and an Ask Rita column on Personnel Files. And Kim Klein contributes a Nonprofit Tax Quiz . . . take it with your friends!

Plus a new batch of Blue Avocado webinars coming up and a 2-Minute Vacation. Quick reminder: if you find Blue Avocado useful or fun, encourage others to subscribe? --Jan Masaoka

P.S. Another favorite quote: "Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed to be undecided about them." (Laurence Peter)

Listen to the Music . . . editor notes issue #69

Several recent articles have clearly struck a nerve -- or pushed buttons -- for readers. The First Person Nonprofit story by a founding executive director whose board fired her incited nearly 100 people to write responses. Last issue's piece on the charitable deduction and John Killacky's "Regrets of a Former Arts Funder" got many people riled up -- either cheering or razzing.

For a moment, let's listen to the music and not the lyrics in these responses. What's surprised us is the harsh tone of so many critics ("put on your big girl panties") and the disagree-ers ("pseudo intellectual liberals know what is best"). Even the agree-ers are full of vinegared self-righteousness.

It's great to see strongly felt, colorfully said comments . . . they fit right in with our goal at Blue Avocado to be less jargonistic, less tiptoe-y, and less full of abstract platitudes like so much of the noise in the nonprofit sector. What strikes us in this instance is that this kind of harshness often comes from people who haven't had many conversations with people who disagree with them.

How many of us have recently had a conversation with someone with a truly different point of view? If we support reproductive rights, have we talked about it with someone who is "pro-life"? Have we discussed our presidential vote with someone who voted the opposite? Have we argued about taxes with someone of a different viewpoint? As for me? Guilty, guilty, guilty.

It's more fun to yell insults, especially anonymously. It's hard for me to sign my name to everything I write in Blue Avocado. But it's a discipline that makes me think harder about convincing someone. (I save my anonymous insult-making diatribes for whoever is playing against the San Francisco 49ers.) -- Jan Masaoka

* This issue: a board member talks about firing a founder, we discuss how to limit staff contact with the board, there's a review of all the "donate buttons" available to nonprofits, and a cooling visit to a hotel in Norway made completely out of ice.

* Query: For an upcoming story on executive director evaluations, we'd like to take a look at the the form or process document your organizations uses for your executive director evaluation. We'd like to collect several dozen as part of our research. To include yours, click here. Please include your contact information so we can properly thank you.

Luminosity . . . editor notes issue #67

Wow! The last special issue of Blue Avocado had more than 1,000 people sign up for free webinars, dozens of folks using the discount on Exceed fundraising software, and many taking advantage of big discounts for IdeaEncore and The Nonprofit Quarterly. Thank you for such a warm response!

Stories: we all know the importance of telling the stories of our clients, constituents, and community leaders. And we hear perhaps a few too many stories about wealthy donors ("Mrs. X donates to us!"-- note to community foundations: no more of these, please) and celebrities who start charities (never any follow-up by the way). But we seldom read the stories about ourselves: people working and volunteering in community nonprofits. (Also see Nonprofits in Popular Culture.)

That's why we like the First Person Nonprofit stories in Blue Avocado so much. This issue we hear from a still-bleeding founding executive director who was fired by her board. Other stories have included Our Executive Director is Embezzling, how a nonprofit pulled through the "shadow of failure," Six of Our Board Members are in Prison, an Air Force captain who changed careers to fundraising, and more. You can read them all by clicking here, and if you have a First Person Nonprofit story to tell, let us know about it by clicking here.

We also welcome a new advertiser: NTEN . . . see their ad across the bottom of this page . . . sign up for their free journal on smart technology use in nonprofits. We especially liked "Five Free Tools for Social Media Listening" in the March issue, and their upcoming free webinar on "Navigating the Nonprofit Cloud."

Finally, "It may be that you are not yourself luminous," said Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes). "But you are a conductor of light." In a similar way, nonprofits are not themselves bodies of light, but they conduct the luminosity of the people who make use of them to change the world. Keep on shining. --Jan Masaoka

Taking On the Big Stuff

A fast look at just four critical areas facing American society today: poverty, race, environment, and democracy:

1. What is the definition of "poor"? In the United States, for the government to consider a family officially poor, a household of four people must have total income of less than $22,050. Repeat for emphasis: a family of four must live on less than $22,050 or they aren't certifiably poor. And even with such a stringent guideline, one of every six children in America lives in poverty.