How to Keep a University Alive

University bubble chart
University bubble chart

Several years back, we had the opportunity to work with a small, niche university.  The big question that they were trying to answer was about sustainability – what could they do to establish a more sustainable model for themselves? If they didn't resolve this question, they feared they would have to close.

As a part of their beliefs, they highly valued small class sizes, which was integral to the learning experience that they offered.  So, while increasing class size might have been an obvious first lever to pull, such cost efficiency through class size wasn't the answer for them.

To understand their positioning, we conducted some peer research, specifically of colleges and universities that prided themselves on small class sizes.  We looked at ones who were financially sound and sustainable and then looked for markers of their success.  All of the successful, sustainable  peers with small class sizes varied from our client on one (or more) of three key levers:  average tuition, overall student population, or endowment.  Our client didn't have a strong position in any of these levers, and thus was living in a no-man's land (see diagram above). The successful institutions didn't all have the same model, but they were all finding a way to support the costs of maintaining small class sizes by pulling one or more of these key levers.

What did this mean for our client?  It turned out they couldn't easily pull any single one of those levers strongly enough in short order to close their financial gap and stay open.  They valued providing access to college to a larger breadth of household incomes and couldn't jack their realized tuition way up. They couldn't dramatically increase their endowment in the short run given the fundraising challenges, and their overall student population could only grow incrementally over time.  As a result – they needed to pull all three of the levers – in smaller amounts and gradually. And that's what they did. By paying close attention to increasing tuition where they could, growing their endowment through well-planned fundraising, and increasing their student population while maintaining small class sizes, they were able to establish their sustainability. The thus moved from the no-man's land into a zone of success.

To state all of this in simple terms: if your organization is struggling to achieve financial sustainability it can be useful to look at peers (especially those with similar values) to see if you are operating in a “no-man’s land.”  And if you are – what combination of levers can you pull to get yourself out?

Should We Merge?

Merging road sign 2
Merging road sign 2

Recently, mergers and acquisitions have been a hot topic among my clients.  This concept has come up any number of times – almost always suggested by a Board member and motivated by for-profit corporate thinking.  Mergers and acquisitions do serve a purpose, but they are complicated and challenging to execute well in the for-profit sector, and potentially even more so in the non-profit sector.

First – I bristle when the concept comes up as a direct and solitary question, “Should we pursue a merger or acquisition?”  It is my firm belief that this question should only be an execution question to fulfill a strategic direction.  Why do you want to merge?  What goal are you trying to achieve?  Most non-profits run so lean that simply achieving cost savings is not a likely outcome of a merger and, therefore, shouldn't be a primary objective.

Of course, there are many strategic directions where a merger or acquisition could potentially be helpful – if an organization is seeking to build out complementary services, enter a new market, gain access to clients or donors that it can’t reach right now, etc.  And sometimes, foundations or other funders look so favorably on consolidation that they will provide additional support to organizations that are merging.

Having said that – there are a number of challenges relating to mergers that come to mind:

  • Even if two organizations offer similar services to similar clientele, the two organizations may have different models for how to provide their services.
    • Generally organizations have strong beliefs about their models of service, so major differences can be hard to bridge.
    • Fundraising does not often follow a simple 1+1 = 2 equation.  If an individual, foundation, or corporation is giving to both organizations – it is unlikely that they will give the total amount to a combined entity.  (Conversely, mergers and acquisitions can be useful when there is a dominant funder like the government. Working with a larger, combined entity might benefit that funder and the combined entity might be in a better position to capture greater amounts of funding.)
    • Culture fit matters even more in non-profits than in for-profit combinations
      • The Boards need to see eye-to-eye, and feel comfortable and aligned.
      • The staffs must feel that their cultures will mesh.  Oftentimes a non-profit's major assets are its people, and losing those people might greatly reduce the value of the combination.

A straight acquisition might be easier than a merger, as the acquiring organization can define the culture and the service model.  Mergers of two similarly sized organizations can be very challenging and time-consuming to execute. In these cases, true strategic value needs to be clearly identified to make it all worthwhile.

Adopt and Adapt: Setting up collaborative partnerships

Square peg into a round hole
Square peg into a round hole

There is an old saying that most of us know: “You can’t put a square peg into a round hole.” Well, what if youmake adjustments to the peg and/or to the hole. Eventually, it’s got to fit, right? This is the challenge facing many non-profit organizations that provide a robust service in somebody else’s space. For example, many early stage organizations in the youth development and educational enhancement space see early success working in a particular school or partner setting or two… or three. And, with the success, there is a desire – by staff, by Board members, by funders – to replicate the impact in other settings.  Two of my current clients are in such a situation – one in 5 sites and one in 7 sites. Each has outstanding leadership; each has outstanding staff; each has enthusiastic funders. However, as we peel the onion, it appears that each has had to make necessary choices to “adapt” their model to their partner’s context. Sometimes it is a simple dimension such as size, but other times, it is about providing autonomy and deferring judgment to the school’s principal or the partner non-profit’s executive director. As a staff person at one of my clients said: “We have a plan going in for how our program will work. And then once they ask for a change, we make it – our plans don’t matter as much as their wishes.” The result is that a program of 5 to 7 sites may have up to 7 variations that don’t lend themselves to ready replication. These organizations – like many others – need to come to terms with what they want their partners to “adopt” and where they are willing to “adapt.” If everything about a program is adapted from site to site, then quality and process reliability are hard to realize. Training becomes more expensive, and execution success may be more dependent on the leaders of the partner rather than on the organization success. It may be harder to have success let alone prove it. On the other hand, if an organization says “take it or leave it,” many partners may simply reject the model. The partners themselves have been successful – or are trying to be successful – by their own unique styles and approaches. For my clients and others to simply expect that others will “adopt” the program wholesale may reduce opportunities for partner buy-in and championing, and may limit the potential impact of the program because it doesn’t fit the place. Achieving this takes careful understanding of the “peg” organization to know what is really important and where site-to-site or partner-to-partner variation would, at the minimum, continue to allow for success and, where possible, add to the success. Figuring this out takes time and effort, and a discovery or codification process can help an organization figure out what can work to keep model fidelity while creating space for success. They should be clear on what they want to ask of their partners up-front, so that partners can make adjustments where possible to make the collaboration work. With clarity, they will be able to meet with potential new partners and say: “Here’s what we want you to adopt because of x/y/z, and here’s where adaptation works really well.” Agreeing on this upfront will help drive success later. So, while nonprofits wanting to work in others’ spaces many need to shave some corners off of that square peg, it would be useful if partners make their holes a little bigger. That will bridge the adopt-vs-adapt gap. Photo credit: rosipaw / / CC BY-NC-SA

What “the best nonprofit in the world” sees as key to success


The Global Journalattempts to identify and rank the best nonprofits in the world. This year, they gave top honors to BRAC – a Bangladeshi anti-poverty nonprofit. (Photo courtesy of BRAC, caption below) Over the last few years, BRAC has fundamentally challenged my assumptions about the limits of what is possible from the nonprofit sector.

As they see it, the keys are:

They go big or go home. BRAC is big. It has a $572M budget and has been described as a “minigovernment.” It touches an estimated 135 million people in 11 countries, educates 11% of all Bangladeshi children, and disburses $1B annually in microloans. As founder Fazle Hasan Abed sees it, "If you want to do significant work, you have to be large. Otherwise we'd be tinkering around on the periphery."

They focus on solvable problems. Despite the wide range of activities they undertake, BRAC puts relentless focus on the problems it seeks to address. An example: One of BRAC’s first major undertakings was to train semi-literate women to fan out to villages across the country and teach people how to treat diarrhea, which in 1980 was claiming the lives of roughly 12% of all Bangladeshi children before their fifth birthdays. BRAC’s health workers taught people how to mix a simple solution (a fistful of sugar, a three-finger pinch of salt, and water measured in a local milk container) and based their modest salaries on the number of people who retained the knowledge weeks later. BRAC scaled the program, training thousands of workers who visited 12 million families. By 2005, child deaths from diarrhea had dropped by more than 80% nationwide,and countries around the world were replicating BRAC’s model.

They don’t depend heavily on fundraising. In Bangladesh, you don’t reach this kind of scale on donations. BRAC covers 70-80% of its budget through microlending and social enterprises that link entrepreneurs and create economic opportunity for the poor all the way up the value chain.

They invest in learning. You also don’t reach this kind of scale and impact without an insatiable appetite and capacity for learning. David Korten, author of "When Corporations Rule the World", called BRAC "as near to a pure example of a learning organisation as one is likely to find."

BRAC challenges the nonprofit sector to reimagine what it is capable of by going big, focusing on solvable problems, developing a sustainable funding stream, and investing in learning.

Photo caption: BRAC Dairy collects milk from 40,000 rural farmers in poor regions of Bangladesh, holds the milk in one of 100 chilling stations, and processes 300,000 litres of milk per day in its factory, ensuring the farmers get a good price for a quality product.

How to influence your field? Be shaped like a “T”

The Letter T
The Letter T

If your organization wants to have broad impact on its field, consider this: Success often comes when an organization can use direct program experience to inform its position of thought leadership.

Here’s a case in point. Consider the Brazelton Touchpoints Center that helps improve care for very young children. They had a question: Should they continue to deliver in-person training and consulting to health care workers and parents, or should they focus on disseminating their ideas broadly to influence such people all over the country?

As we worked with the Center, it became clear they needed both. The direct interaction with those engaged with young children provided concrete experiences and a fertile ground for testing new ideas, which in turn informed the organization’s disseminations to the field. Moreover, such experience added credibility to their message.

You can picture this combination of direct service with broad ideas dissemination as the letter “T.”  The stem of the T represents in-depth direct-service work conducted in specific locations, going narrow and deep. Here the organization provides direct service to people, delivers training, conducts programs, or provides coaching and consulting. The organization can use these “laboratories” to develop innovative approaches, and evaluate its results.

We have seen a number of organizations use this T-shaped structure to advantage, including Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, a university think tank bringing innovative approaches to early child care, Garrison Institute, bringing the wisdom of meditation to social change efforts, Glynwood Center, a land-use organization helping to preserve farmland, and the Child Health and Development Institute, an advocate for high-quality children’s health care. In each case, the organization engages in direct-service program work, training health care practitioners, running a grass-fed beef operation, or hosting meditation retreats. These in turn strengthen the organization’s ability to develop and disseminate really useful ideas that others can employ.The cap of the T is the dissemination that brings proven ideas to the field, going broad and wide through publications, social media, or public presentations.

So, if you want to influence your field through well-founded, practical ideas that others will use, one good way is to be shaped like a T.

Musings on measurement

Recently I’ve been thinking about the role of measurement and quantification in the social sector.  Over the past decade or two there has been an increasing push to quantify and measure everything – and those calling for measurement are looking for outcomes, not just inputs.  Overall, I think this makes a lot of sense.  There are billions of dollars pouring into the social sector – it’s a good idea to have a sense that those dollars are spent wisely and, ideally, are creating as much good as possible. At the same time – I think there needs to remain room for the human side.  Yes – I’m a quant girl by background and experience – but I don’t think all things are measureable, or should be quantified.  I believe sometimes you just need to believe that something is a good thing, that it makes a difference, and that the difference is worthy of support.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with a wide variety of non-profit organizations.   One of my recent clients was an organization that brings joy and normalcy to seriously ill children.  Because of this organization, many of these children achieve amazing transformations. These children come to realize that they can fit in, that they can have hope and ambition.  One of the Board members was pushing for a way to measure the cost effectiveness of the organization’s approach – maybe there was a cheaper way to serve these children.  Interestingly, the strong majority of the Board was not energized by this call for measurements.  Rather, they were motivated by the individual stories of triumph and transformation.   And they understood that sometimes you can’t deconstruct magical experiences to their core components so as to replicate them at a lower cost.

Perhaps I sound heretical, and I certainly am not advocating against all measurement of outcomes.  I’m just saying that there still needs to be space for the simply human – for understanding that while providing a meal to a hungry individual might cost $3, and providing a college education to another might cost many thousands of dollars – that happiness, security, hope, ambition are all priceless – and there’s value in that.

Experts, step aside

Centering II w text
Centering II w text

In the social services and healthcare fields, two experiments are underway that share a similar (and counter-intuitive) approach: Get the experts out of the way so that people can help each other. An anti-poverty organization called the Family Independence Initiative (FII) forbids its staff from offering help or advice to participating families – even when the families are making costly mistakes. Despite this, the organization's results in Oakland and San Francisco show an increase in earnings and savings of 23% and 240% respectively, with 17% of participating families buying homes and 70% of children improving their grades.

The way the Family Independence Initiative sees it, families will not stay out of poverty if they rely on a program or paid social worker for support. FII works to nurture robust social networks -- neighbors who help each other find jobs, buy homes, or with childcare. FII thinks that social workers, however well-intentioned, often get in the way and absorb resources that could go directly to poor families.

Likewise, the CenteringPregnancy model for prenatal healthcare teaches doctors and midwives to take off their white coats, sit in a circle with a group of their patients, and talk as little as possible. When the experts take a facilitative, rather than didactic approach to delivering healthcare, the women themselves share their own fears and experiences about pregnancy and childbirth with one another. They go from being passive recipients of expert advice to being active, powerful participants in the process.

It turns out, prenatal care delivered in this way simply gets better health outcomes. In a multi-site randomized control trial, CenteringPregnancy was shown to reduce the preterm birth rate among participants by 33%. That means for every two CenteringPregnancy groups, one baby is spared the trauma and risk associated with a preterm birth, and society saves an average of $52,000 in expenses.

For those of us who sometimes wonder whether we have too many experts and not enough community, these are welcome data points.

How to Increase Equity and Excellence in Public Schools

Earlier this year The Equity and Excellence Commission released its final report to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  In order to decrease the achievement gap and increase equity and excellence in America’s Public Schools the Commission recommended the following:

  1. Reform the funding systems that so often mean a child’s access to education is determined by his or her ZIP code.
  2. Elevate and reform the teaching profession
  3. Ensure access to high-quality preschools
  4. Meet the non-school needs of students from high-poverty communities
  5. Shift the system of educational governance to improve equity.

All of this is critical for a nation where the average African-American eight-grader performs at the 19th percentile of white students, and the average Hispanic eighth-grader performs at the 26th percentile. And in comparison with other countries, US students rank 27th for math and just 1 in 4 American students perform on par with the average student in Singapore or Finland. I find the report's recommendations meaningful and worth revisiting. While wholesale achievement of the recommendations is unlikely in the near term, they represent a guidepost for the future.

Good Money or Bad?

I have been thinking about my work helping organizations resolve issues of revenue, funding and sustainability, a perennial issue among nonprofits. To support its mission sustainably, an organization’s impulse is often to “get funding from whoever will give it.” This reminds me of a theory developed by Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School, which asserts that good money comes from funding sources that are impatient for profit, and patient for growth, while bad money comes from sources impatient for growth, yet patient for profit. In business, profit can be an indication that a company provides value and its strategy is on target, suggesting a solid basis for growth. If a business scales before proving that its model will make money, it risks scaling a model that is not viable long-term. When a business accepts bad money, its decisions can be inordinately influenced by the funder, causing the business to scale rapidly before vetting the soundness of its model.

Nonprofits face similar pressures, and in many cases are more vulnerable to accepting funding from any willing provider. Additionally, due to many nonprofits’ shoestring budgets, they may lack the wherewithal to push back on funder influence. To avoid this pitfall, organizations would do well to distinguish between good money and bad before accepting funding. Similar to a business, it is often beneficial for a nonprofit organization to be clear about the value it provides and to whom – proof that its model works – before attempting to scale. Otherwise, the organization may not survive for the long-term.

I recently worked with an organization hoping to scale significantly in coming years.  I was impressed by this organization’s Board members who, when facing a substantial funding opportunity focused on growth, thought hard to determine if they had sufficient proof for the viability of the organization's model to be comfortable with scaling.

Given that a concrete predictor of viability is often hard to come by in the nonprofit sector, it is important that organizations accept major funding from those committed to proving the organization's strategic viability before investing in its growth. This in turn will help organizations avoid a potential boom and bust cycle created by focusing inordinately on growth.

If Kids are to Learn Character, Involve the Whole School


A number of programs offer methods that teachers can use to bring character education (or social and emotional learning) to their classroom. The Character Lab, Open Circle, and Peace Firstall deliver programs with that intent, each in different ways.

In working with these programs and others, and in interviewing teachers they serve, we heard that character education delivered by a teacher in one classroom will dissipate if not reinforced and supported across multiple classrooms, in multiple grades, and even on the playground and in the lunchroom.

This may seem self-evident. But when schools make funding available for individual teachers to learn character-education methods for their classroom, the investment is ineffective. To have a lasting impact on positive character development, programs should be instituted across the whole school.

Leave a comment, we'd love to hear from you. Click on the comment bubble at the top right of the page.

Social Media: More Shallow or More Deep?

There is a book you should read: Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. It turned my thinking around. For me it clarified how social media and web communities are becoming an increasingly important way to build meaningful business relationships.

I have heard critics say that social media is downgrading our interactions into large quantities of relationship snippets. However, I find myself observing that a whole new order of social interaction is emerging, and we all are in the process of learning it.

When Brogan and Smith urge us to be kind, humble, on time, and helpful in our web interactions, it becomes an important admonishment as I rush through my web communications and emails. A little more care in my communications often leads to heartfelt interchange. In fact, I find web technology allows us to connect in genuine and helpful ways with a greater span of interaction than ever before. Used well, we will all be emotionally and spiritually richer for it.

What do you think? Leave us a comment.

Checklist for a Successful Leadership Transition

In our work, we've seen a number of top leaders move on to other jobs. The transition is not always smooth. If the Executive Director or CEO of your organization is planning to leave, use the following checklist to see if your organization is ready:

  • Shared identity. Does the Board and remaining senior staff share a clear and coherent understanding of the organization's identity and purpose?
  • Buy-in. Has the organization been sufficiently prepared for the transition, allowing it to develop buy-in for the leadership transition?
  • Mechanics. Are the mechanics and schedule of the transition well planned, including the timing of announcements to employees, Board, funders, and other stakeholders, and the process of hand-off from one leader to the next?
  • Bench strength. Are the staff just below the leader strong enough to carry the organization during the transition period until a new leader is solidly in place?
  • Institutional memory. Has the organization instituted a method to transfer knowledge and relationships held by the exiting leader to others in the organization?

For many organizations, it will take time to put these elements in place. To the extent possible, plan ahead for a successful leadership transition.

Do you have other points to add to this checklist? Please leave a comment. We'd love to hear your ideas.

Is Growth Always Good?

When I was an MBA student, I absorbed the message that growth is always good. And later at The Boston Consulting Group, working with corporate executives, I shared their assumption that a growing business is a successful business. "If you're not growing, you're dying," was an oft-cited phrase. But for nonprofit organizations it's not so simple. Of course, there are times for growth. Incubators like Blue Ridge Foundation New York, New Profit, and Bikkurim find and support nonprofits with high growth potential. And an organization like City Harvest that feeds the hungry of New York has a mandate for growth given all the unserved hungry people in the city. But an advocacy organization like the D.C. based Afterschool Alliance can fulfill its national role with a staff of around 25. Further growth is not required. And some organizations have found themselves over-sized for the funding available, or ungainly in their operations, and have chosen to downsize.

I have seen business executives on a nonprofit board confused when realizing that growth for the nonprofit will mean increased deficits. In business, growth in products sold or services delivered typically leads to increased profits, which can mean re-investment for more growth. It's a virtuous cycle. But for nonprofits, the equation is different. Given that most nonprofits require donations and grants to subsidize their work, growth in service delivery requires more fundraising to fill deficits.   And if the organization's funding is tapped out, growth may not be advisable even while the need served by the organization goes partly unfilled.

Based on our experience, it is an open question if a nonprofit should grow. An organization can be long-lasting and sustainable by finding the right business model, right-sizing operations to fit revenue potential, and delivering services with excellence. Growth is not always good.

What do you think? I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.

Did Your Strategic Plan Get Dirty, or Dusty?

Recently, I was in a meeting with a strategic planning team at the Village for Families and Children in Hartford, Connecticut. Gallo Rodriguez, the President of the Organization, said "Our strategic plan should get dirty, not dusty." He was calling upon the group to work towards a strategic plan that would lead to action, and change the way the organization works. We often hear people say, "We don't want our plan to just sit on a shelf and gather dust." Rather, they want the plan to guide their work and be actively used - in other words, to "get dirty." How can you assure that your strategic plan guides your work and "gets dirty?" We've found five elements that help this come true:

  1. Articulate your most important strategic questions, and focus your strategic planning process on providing answers to these questions.
  2. Collect the facts. Analyze them to generate insights about your environment, your competitors and collaborators, your revenue opportunities, and use these insights to arrive at well-founded decisions about the future.
  3. Assemble a planning team of your organization's key decision-makers and influencers. Engage this team to discuss fact-based insights and reach decisions about the organization's future. See that team members act as representatives of the various constituents of your organization -- staff departments, Board groups, external stakeholders -- and work towards a consensus that considers all views.
  4. Listen for what will work. Gather advice. Involve people. The naysayer, the visionary, and the pragmatist all have important contributions. Great outcomes emerge through careful listening and creative development of solutions that address what has been heard. And when people feel heard they are more likely to support the plan.
  5. Establish an unambiguous plan of action and use it to guide who does what, by when. Clearly describe each action step so anyone can tell when it has been accomplished, has one person ultimately responsible (not a group), and has a due date on the calendar.

By using these five elements, you will greatly increase the chances that your strategic plan will guide the work of your organization. You will have a plan that gets dirty, not dusty.

Eight Models for National Expansion

If you are looking to grow your organization on a national scale, make sure to choose the approach that best suits your needs for quality control, brand recognition, and growth. In a recent study by Bikkurim and Wellspring Consulting of organizations who have achieved national expansion, we identified the following eight models. Branch. In the branch model, an organization operates in different locations (or branches) under a single legal organizational entity that is overseen by a central headquarters. While national brand recognition can be strong, with consistent control of quality across all locations, this model requires comparatively high costs and staff time at the central office. The organization's growth rate may be limited by a need to raise money for funding and management capacity at the central headquarters.

Franchise. A franchise model is similar to a branch model except that operations in different locations are separately incorporated entities. Each entity has the same name and brand, and franchisees are legally bound to use the brand and deliver programming consistently, leading to higher quality control.  In the nonprofit setting, franchisees may be organized groups of volunteers who must abide by the organization’s protocol and are often called “chapters." Growth comes from adding new franchises and depends on the appetite of the originating organization and the availability of talent to lead franchises.

Affiliate. In the affiliate model, organizations with similar missions affiliate with a central originating organization. Affiliates may have different, but related, names and brands from the originating organization and other affiliates. The originating organization supports affiliates with a proven program approach. Quality may not be as consistent across affiliates because each affiliate is its own entity. Growth occurs through enrolling new affiliates and depends on the funding and management capacity of the originating organization.

Program Codification. In the program codification model, growth occurs when an originating organization codifies a program approach and provides this codification to other organizations. Such codification ensures that a program is delivered in a way that is faithful to the originating organization’s proven approach. This may include pre-packaged program materials, directions for instructors, videos, evaluation forms, etc. These materials may be accompanied by consulting. Since organizations using a codified approach may not publicize their ties to the originating organization, program codification is unlikely to support national brand recognition. At the same time, this approach offers a relatively low-cost way to grow the use programmatic content.

Dissemination. In the dissemination model, an organization shares ideas or new methods that it has developed with others, though the ideas have yet to be codified. If an idea or method is widely adopted by others, the potential growth rate is high despite the low-cost nature of this approach. However, the user is unlikely to publicly credit the originating organization, so for the originating organization national brand recognition and the ability to control program quality are both low.

Network. The network model is similar to the dissemination model in that ideas or methods are shared without codification, but it places more emphasis on webs of relationships and an open flow of information. The network model relies on leveraging connections between users who may or may not be connected to the originating organization. Some in the chain of transmission may use the idea or program being shared while others may simply pass it along. The idea or program may also be changed by users who communicate their changes through the network. As in the dissemination model, the cost to the originating organization is low, as are brand recognition and quality control, but the growth rate is potentially high.

Merger. Mergers can achieve growth by combining organizations with similar missions. A single-city organization with a highly effective program may decide to merge with a national organization seeking to deliver that program in new places. Mergers are effective when each organization adds something from which the other organization can benefit, and when the organizations have similar missions and compatible cultures. While a merger can lead to rapid programmatic growth, programs may need to be re-branded and may lose autonomy.

Partnership. Growth via partnership occurs when two organizations see an opportunity to increase their impact by working together. Partnerships can allow the participating non-profits to gain efficiency while maintaining independent authority over their programs. The two groups may work together informally or form a legal relationship, and the partnership may be temporary or long-term. As with a merger, a partnership is most effective when each organization brings something that the other organization can benefit from, and when missions and cultures align. Since each partner maintains its own brand and quality, partnerships can be a low risk way to expand, however successful upkeep of the relationships requires time and effort.

Advocacy: To Win, Play Offense as well as Defense

I was meeting recently with people at the The Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice. We were discussing the merits of advocacy oriented towards rapid response vs. proactively taking the offensive. In a world of limited resources, an advocacy organization must decide where it places its attention. If the majority of the organization's focus is on responding to issues and opportunities as they arise -- such as new bills introduced or emerging legal tussles -- it may not have the wherewithal to maintain focus where it can have the greatest wins.

Back in the 1980’s Ronald Reagan's former Attorney General Edwin Meese worked with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and advocacy organization, to create a vision for how to systematically move the legal climate in America further to the right. He drafted a document – now known as the “Meese Memo” – that outlined what it would take to fulfill that vision: appoint conservative judges, win key litigation and develop conservative constitutional scholarship among other ideas. The Meese Memo galvanized the conservative legal community and now, over 30 years later, much of the Meese Memo has come to pass.

Over the long haul, an advocacy organization will lose out if it biases too strongly towards fast response, playing the defensive role. The urgent will crowd out the important. For battles that can only be won through preparation and planning, the victor will be the one with a long-term vision and the discipline to achieve it.

The Brennan Center under its current leader Michael Waldman has shifted towards the offensive, and has set its sights on achieving a select few goals with the potential to create long-term, widespread impact. With this disciplined approach they have what it takes to win.

For Whom Do You Really Work?

I came to my work in the social sector with a desire for selfless service. Perhaps you did too. I hope to make the world a better place, to leave everyone I meet a little better off. But these aspirations can get eclipsed by my self-oriented desires. Of course, there is benefit in working for self-fulfillment. But if my dominant urge is to build my own stature, my ability to further the common good is attenuated. My choices become subtly directed towards enhancing myself and I become less creative and vital in furthering others.

Facilitating a Board retreat at Garrison Institute, I am reminded of my commitment to selfless service. The wisdom of contemplative practice, as furthered by that institution, increases my awareness that my success is interlinked with your success. It is through benefiting others that my greatest rewards will come.

All the spiritual traditions teach that deep happiness comes from serving others. This, ultimately, is what I seek.


Yes, And...

There is great power in taking what someone offers, and expanding on it. Improvisational theater only works because of this approach. Whatever one person starts is continued by the next person. When children play together, they also do this. One says, “I’ll be a fireman.” The other adds, “I’ll drive the fire truck, and we’re going to a fire.”

When working with colleagues, I have found the usefulness of saying, “yes, and.” By affirming truth in what a person is saying, and finding ways to build on that truth, achievements flow. Contrast that with the times when argument arises. The path to the best, jointly held solution is often much longer.

For efficiency, creative spark, and successful forward motion, try practicing “Yes, And…”