Curious about Social Movements?

I have recently had a number of clients who have been curious about social movements. The question of how social movements are formed and gain momentum seems elusive, but could be illustrative for clients hoping to see broad-based change on a particular issue over a long time horizon - whether it’s a foundation seeking the biggest impact for their grant dollars or a social justice organization seeking to take their campaigns to the next level by connecting their work across the country. SSIR has a webinar on “Building Better Movements” coming up in January that struck me as something many of our clients, and others seeking social change, may be interested in:

Climate Change and the Nonprofit Sector After COP21

Photograph: COP21

Photograph: COP21

At the Climate Talks in Paris this year, countries agreed to make emissions commitments and meet again in 5 years to measure progress. In addition, some more prosperous countries pledged to help poorer countries with $100 Billion in aid to help them meet these commitments. While there are no sanctions set for countries who fail to set or meet their emissions commitments, the agreement could provide some powerful incentives for change.

While in the US, there is still much political debate about climate change, a recent poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication indicated that 63% people in the US believe global warming is happening. However, in the same poll, only 48% agreed that global warming is caused by human activities. And only 41% of respondents believed that most scientists think global warming is happening (despite the fact that others studies have shown that 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and is likely due to human activities).

In a landscape where nations are agreeing to cut emissions, yet the American population is still split on the role of humans in global warming, what roles can the nonprofit sector play? A recent article from Inside Philanthropy urged that philanthropy could help to build upon the historic agreement and commitment of resources at COP21. While interest in and understanding of the importance of climate change has grown in recent years, funding for environment and animal-related causes went up only 8% since 2007 according to Foundation Center data. Inside Philanthropy cites some potential reasons why philanthropists have not jumped on the issue, including an aversion to risk and tendency to be too rigid about priorities and metrics for success. In addition, many big funders may not believe in climate change. However, several big players in the field, such as the MacArthur Foundation, have called for greater effort -- from across government, the private sector, and philanthropy in order to address climate change through policy, innovation and education, and are putting their funding power behind some of these initiatives.

Through public education and identifying ways to reduce emissions, the nonprofit sector has the potential to both increase public concern for and help address the underlying factors that lead to climate change. While much good work is being done in the sector, including by some of our current and previous clients, there is ample room for more funding, advocacy, action and innovation in the field.

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. 

The Rewards of Consulting Work

As this is the holiday season, giving thanks and counting my blessings is on my mind. In my consulting work at Wellspring, these are the things that I am most thankful for:

  • My colleagues – Consulting can be mentally and physically challenging work, but when you’re in the trenches with great colleagues, it makes all the difference.
  • My clients – With each new project, I delve into a field of work that is entirely new to me, and as each project ends, I am always struck by how invested I am in this new world. It is the passion and dedication of nonprofit leaders that inspire this transformation.
  • My interviewees – It’s amazing to me that people are willing to give up an hour of their time to talk with a stranger in order to support our data gathering process. I have been honored to speak with some who are famous world experts and leaders. I am most appreciative.
  • Excel – Yes, Excel. I don’t get that thrill opening Word or PowerPoint, but Excel… ah.
  • Coffee – Amen. 

Strategy consulting in Wonderland = Asking the right questions


This past year, I worked with a nonprofit organization to develop a strategic plan, and as part of the process, we at Wellspring Consulting facilitated a full-day retreat, bringing together key Board and staff members who were committed to the organization’s future. The President of the organization was a master storyteller. His reputation for exceptional tale-telling and side-splitting punchlines was known by all in his field. During the retreat, the President recounted a story that I had heard many times before, but within this context, I was able to hear it in a new way. Now, his gem of wisdom allows me to explain what outstanding strategy consulting is.

When introducing Wellspring at the Board retreat, the President started with a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. [see here] At this point in the story, Alice has entered the woods and arrives at a fork in the road. She looks around to see if there are any clues as to where the paths might lead and is suddenly startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on the bough of a tree.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the CheshireCat.

"I don’t much care where…" said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

“And this,” declared the President of the organization, “is why we have Wellspring with us.”

As the story unfolds, we see that the Cheshire Cat’s role in guiding Alice on her adventures was to pose the right questions. From the vantage point of his perch up in the tree, the Cat could see the landscape of Wonderland and could watch Alice traverse the terrain. At each vexing crossing, the Cat would pop into the scene to push her thinking again and again. As her guide, he enabled Alice to navigate her way through Wonderland by posing the right questions to elucidate the right insights. Though seemingly disorienting at times, his astute, logical line of questioning brought Alice through a process by probing further and further, allowing her capital-T Truth to rise to the surface, until Wonderland began to make sense to her.

This is what outstanding strategy consulting is. Excellent strategic planning entails asking the right questions, which in turn requires strong skills in logic, in analytics and in “organizational therapy,” the term I use to describe the process of reflecting on what is seen from an objective outsider’s perspective.

The Cheshire Cat’s extraordinarily talent in bringing Alice through a process by posing the right questions is no surprise given Lewis Carroll’s expertise as a mathematician, logician and teacher. Carroll understood how asking simple, mindless questions lead to simple, mindless answers, whereas asking great questions can invoke great answers and, in turn, lead to great decisions.

Pushing your thinking until the vision for where you want to go becomes clear is the power of outstanding strategic consulting. At its core, strategic consulting is about asking the right questions – ones that are nuanced and thoughtful – in order to make the right decisions. Through this process of questioning, a shared understanding among organizations’ leadership unfolds, and like Alice with her eventual new-found orientation, you can get to where you want to go.

Four Ways to Address a Problem that Won’t Go Away

We are currently working with a client that provides services for victims of crimes, particularly victims of family violence such as domestic violence and child abuse.  Family violence is a persistent issue upon which it seems almost impossible to make a dent. And so, our client wanted to know how they can have greater impact.   To find possible approaches to answer this question, we looked at how other organizations strive to have impact in the face of an enduring, seemingly insurmountable, problem.

Four aces picture

We found four possible approaches employed by other organizations, which we coined, “go upstream,” “a banner to march behind, “expand the picture,” and “strength in numbers.” 

The National Audubon Society typifies what we called “go upstream.”  This organization began with the mission of protecting birds and their habitats.  But soon an important challenge became clear:  all habitats were increasingly impacted by climate change, leading to negative consequences for birds everywhere. The “go upstream” approach posits that one’s mission is served not only through intervention services aimed at solving certain issues, but also by working on the environmental factors which cause the issues to occur in the first place.  So, The National Audubon Society decided to “go upstream” from the bird territory and now has a more general focus on protecting the environment with the downstream goal of saving birds’ habitats.  What could this mean for our client?  Perhaps they address those things that contribute to family violence occurring in the first place, like poverty. Or, they work to prevent the perpetuation of the cycles of violence by helping abused children heal from their trauma, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will grow up to be re-victimized or will abuse others.

“A banner to march behind” is well exemplified by The March of Dimes.  The assumption behind this approach is that to make a greater difference, one must mobilize the public to develop awareness and a sense of outrage about the issue.  For The March of Dimes, the mission of decreasing birth defects and pre-term birth would not be accomplished with medical research alone, and thus The March took to the streets to get the public involved with fighting for this cause.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is also a good example of an organization which used “a banner” to realize impact, namely a significant reduction of alcohol-related traffic accidents.  Our client, therefore, could consider starting a movement to generate awareness and outrage to help combat family violence.

Terracyle is an example of “expand the picture,” which posits that to make more of a difference, one must engage all involved components of the problem to be part of the solution. Terracyle started out working to eliminate food waste by using it to create quality fertilizers.  The fertilizers reduced some waste, but landfills kept filling, and so TerraCycle sought to make a broader impact.  Today, Terracyle focuses on eliminating many kinds of waste by creating new product lines and mobilizing people to recycle.  For our client, expanding the picture could mean not just working with the primarily low-income, female population it currently serves, but adding services for batterers, wealthy victims, or victims who choose to stay in relationship with their abusers.

Finally, “strength in numbers” is typified by East Meets West (EMW).  The premise here is that one organization can’t make a significant difference on large issues by itself; working together with others with similar missions means that the impact is exponentially increased.  East Meets West started out providing grassroots humanitarian aid in Vietnam, but they soon realized the problems were too big for them to significantly affect on their ownEMW transitioned from offering humanitarian services to building a network of similar organizations that share back-office capacity and learn valuable skills from one another.  Our client could realize this approach through creating a network of similar organizations or employing a regional or national expansion strategy to have a greater impact.

The problem of a persistent societal struggle is one that many non-profits face. These four approaches show how some nonprofits have addressed such struggles in ways that can be applied by others.

Let Me Put On My New Hat

Being forced to step outside your comfort zone and take on a new perspective can help you think about something in a new way.  This isn't particularly earth-shattering news, of course, but there is an easy way to foster this kind of thinking and get staff to take a new stance.

Often, it seems like the same people in an organization consistently take on the same role; perhaps the COO’s practicality and financial mindset mean she is always concerned about funding and tends to nix ideas early on, while the Director of Strategy’s optimism translates to seeing a lot of potential in every new program idea. We all fall into patterns like this, where every new idea seems infeasible (or wonderful) and we can’t help but play devil’s advocate (or cheerleader) at every meeting.

To keep conversations fresh and staff engaged, it can be helpful to take on new roles. In Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, he suggests ways to provide different perspectives on a challenging topic. By assigning each person at a meeting (or each phase of a meeting) a different “hat”, it is possible to ensure deliberate discussion around the challenge – and how people are reacting emotionally, objectively, critically, or in other ways. Each hat has a different set of guiding questions to consider, from what information do we have or need, to how do I feel about this idea, and what could go wrong?

Based on these Six Hats, we recently facilitated a client meeting with our own adapted set of seven hats: the Analyst, Opposer, Advocate, Feeler, Connector, Questioner and Joker. Every attendee was assigned a role – and many were deliberately given roles outside their comfort zone. For example, the CEO, who admits she is often critical of new ideas, assigned herself as Advocate so she would be sure to focus on the positive side of things. We gave each attendee a little sign on a popsicle stick, with their role on one side and the questions for them to consider on the other, to continually prompt them and guide their thinking. Holding a physical sign also served as a safety blanket, allowing people to justify viewpoints that may have been out of character for them.

At the start of the meeting, some comments felt a bit canned as people tried to embody their roles (“This idea feels great”, “We don’t have the money!”), but soon, conversation became richer as attendees became comfortable with their hats. Additionally, while some people might have deferred to more senior staff at a typical meeting, the hats allowed everyone to take on a new voice and personality. There was no need to feel nervous about being critical (in the role of Analyst or Opposer), or to feel judged for supporting something simply because it felt right (as a Feeler). Ultimately, people moved around, in and out of their hats, and there was meaningful conversation with a balance of critical and positive feedback.

If you’re looking to shake up a meeting or make it more fun, try assigning your own hats to help foster interesting and creative conversation. Here are ours:

  • Analyst: Is this feasible? What does our data tell us about this idea? What does logical reasoning tell us?
  • Opposer: Why would this not work? What is wrong with this idea? What have we not considered?
  • Advocate: Why is this a good idea? How could this work?
  • Feeler: How does this idea feel? What is my gut reaction? How would it feel to our staff, Board, funders…?
  • Connector: How might these different ideas connect? Where are the places of consensus in our discussion? Where do we seem to be converging?
  • Questioner: What questions does this raise for me? What should we be asking ourselves?
  • Joker: How can humor be used to illustrate my thoughts? Can humor or sarcasm be useful to help evaluate these ideas?

Morning coffee or afternoon coffee? Which kind of non-profit are you?


Recently, I facilitated a discussion at one of my current clients. It was the first of a series of conversations set up to develop the organization’s theory of change or, as I sometimes call this existential process, the “Why are we here?” project. One of the staff members asked a question that I have heard regularly from many of my clients: “How essential are we to our partners?” When this question is asked, I sometimes think of coffee, and specifically the rationale for drinking coffee in the afternoon. For me, and I imagine for many people, morning coffee has become a must. It’s essential in driving my productivity, especially after the long-hours of consulting, community work and family responsibilities. While I can  choose the type of morning coffee I have, I frequently select the option that is easiest to access. While it still has to be hot and somewhat fresh, my priority is its proximity and convenience.  If your gas tank is empty, you buy at the next gas station, right?

On the other hand, if I am going to have coffee in the afternoon, I’m going to enjoy this one... for me, Starbucks at the minimum; Peet’s if possible. And, yesterday, I came across what may become my new favorite – essentially a rose mochaccino. This afternoon coffee is not essential to me, but it is an indulgence that I sometimes want.

So, as clients grapple with theory of change questions, I sometimes ask: Are you morning coffee or afternoon coffee? If you are a “morning coffee” program – for example, an afterschool program that partners with schools – you likely need to sell yourself to partners on convenience and ease of service. You are already important to them and funding may be less of an issue, but there are probably plenty of options.  This means you need to be the best at seamlessly delivering what the partner needs and making it as headache free as possible. On the other hand, if you are afternoon coffee, you likely have to prove your value, and sell yourself on how you are different, how you are special; how you are the rose-syrup that I can’t get at the coffee shop down the block.

And, as my client considers the question – “How essential are we to our partners?” – I will be sure to ask their partners about how they see my client’s value proposition. If it turns out that my client offers an essential service, then we will work on the service’s convenience, so it can become an easy-to-do-business-with option.  If the partners see them as important and helpful – but not essential – we will work with our clients on being really clear on how they are differentiated, how they should be wanted even if they are not needed.

After all, both morning and afternoon coffee are valued – just for different reasons.