Amy Anenberg

New Census Data Shows Declining Poverty

I was heartened to wake up yesterday to a headline proclaiming a noteworthy decline in the US poverty rate last year– the largest annual drop since 1999. According to new census data, the number of people living below the poverty line declined by about 3.5 million.


As the NY Times article states, job growth, low oil prices and increased minimum wage requirements are no doubt important contributors to declining poverty rates. But I also want to take this opportunity to recognize and thank the many individuals and nonprofit organizations that work tirelessly to fight poverty on a daily basis - some of whom I have been lucky enough to work with. You too are making a difference and, while I know we have a long way to go, I think it is important that we all take a moment to celebrate this headline.

Millions in U.S. Climb Out of Poverty, at Long Last/ NYTimes


Being Nice Looks Good On You

Image: Amy Anenberg

Image: Amy Anenberg

Though I love getting a seat on the New York City subway during my commute to work, I am quick to offer my seat to the elderly, disabled or pregnant. When I offered my seat to an older woman on my subway ride this week, a fellow subway rider (and stranger) handed me a pre-printed card that read “being nice looks really good on you.” It made my day and was a great reminder of the power of being nice. I’ve read many articles that talk about the personal and professional benefits of being nice – increased trust, success, and happiness to name a few – and encourage us all to think about how we can spread “nice-ness” in our personal and professional lives.  Here’s a link to an article I read a while back on this topic that has stuck with me:

And for those of you in New York City, you should be aware that I am now on “nice patrol.” The card I received asks me to pay it forward so I am now scouring the streets of New York looking to hand-off the “be nice” card to a fellow do-gooder!

Inspired by Such Willing Participants

I am feeling inspired after coming back from a client’s annual International Convention in Baltimore. Over two thousand Jewish teens from around the world gathered for five days of innovative programming, speakers, Shabbat experiences and elections last week and our consulting team was there to conduct focus groups with some of BBYO’s most important constituents: teens, alumni, volunteers and parents. Though I began each focus group with a twinge of guilt for pulling people away from all of the exciting events (including a performance by the one and only Jason Derulo…!), I was heartened by the overwhelming participation and positive attitude from participants. People were excited to provide their input, even if it meant forgoing a fun dinner with friends. It reminded me how important broad participation is for an organization’s planning process and how willing many are to share their time and insights to make the organizations they care about stronger.

Learn more about the BBYO International Convension

What to Ask When Deciding on Programmatic Priorities

A critical component of strategic planning is developing a set of programmatic priorities. I must say that it can be quite fun and inspiring to brainstorm all of the ways in which an organization could carry out its mission – and when we disregard constraints like money and resources, the list can become pretty long. But at some point we have to rein ourselves in and pick which opportunities to prioritize. When tasked with developing programmatic priorities for a recent client, we found the following criteria to be useful:

  1. Where does the greatest need exist? Prioritize programs that help address the greatest need
  2. How much of our mission could we achieve? Prioritize programs that allow for the most mission-fulfillment
  3. How likely is it that other partners will mobilize their efforts in concert with ours and multiply what we do? Prioritize programs that will lead to a multiplier effect, where others who might not have engaged in this work choose to participate and engage
  4. Would this work get done if we don’t take it on? Prioritize programs that are not likely to be accomplished by others –meaning, if we don’t do it, it won’t get done (I call this the “but for us” test – “But for us, would this work get done?”)
  5. To what extent will this program attract its own funding? Prioritize programs that will attract their own funding sources and/or generate earned revenue to cover costs (that way, you don’t have to use your coveted general operating support)
  6. How much energy do our staff and Board have for carrying this out? Prioritize programs that excite your staff and Board and do not unduly increase the demands placed on them
  7. What effect would this have on our reputation? Prioritize programs that effect your reputation positively (or at least be aware of programs that will impact your reputation negatively)

Clearly no decision is this black or white, but using these criteria as guidelines to prioritize can help guide the conversation and elucidate the best choices for the organization to make. 

Losses Loom Larger...

Do you care more about losing a dollar or gaining a dollar? If you are like most of us, losing that dollar will make you more upset than gaining that dollar will make you happy. So, you probably care more about losing a dollar. This phenomenon is known as loss aversion, or the tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. In fact, research suggests that our emotional reaction to a loss is about twice as intense as our joy at a comparable gain.

I have seen this behavioral economic theory play out in many venues. Most recently, I found myself using it to explain why a nonprofit organization with whom Wellspring was working chose not to pursue what, by all practical measures, seemed to be an attractive merger. In this recent project, our client was looking at options for a merger with a specific partner, a much larger organization in the same field that could offer – amongst other things – financial stability.

We went through the necessary diligence process to test the attractiveness of the merger, and, after a series of meetings, both leadership teams decided that there was strong alignment and identified significant opportunities for programmatic synergies. It just seemed to work.

So why didn’t it?

In the last meeting, there was a clear sense that our client was struggling with a looming sense of loss. Though the leaders saw the benefits that a merger with this partner could bring to the field overall, as well as to this organization’s financial situation, our client could not get over the loss it would feel if its brand, programs, people and/or leadership position in the field were possibly lost, or, more likely, transformed by the merged organization.

So, despite the partner’s best efforts to assure our client that its legacy would continue, the merger did not happen.

Clearly, there were a variety of factors that led to this “no-go” outcome. However, I do believe that our client’s looming sense of loss was a key contributing factor. The potential gains were clear: financial stability and exciting program synergies that would lead to greater impact. However, those were outweighed in our client’s mind by the even more powerful potential losses, especially the brand as standalone.

Ultimately, the decision not to merge may have been the right one for a host of reasons. Having said this, it is not surprising that our client focused more of its attention on the potential losses as opposed to the potential gains. We should recognize that, while we are all subject to these behavioral biases, it may be helpful to work through them by approaching our decisions with analytic rigor and, when appropriate, an outside perspective.