Danger For United Way, And Similar Organizations

Twenty-one DC-area nonprofits announced this week that they had suspended their memberships in the United Way and were linking up with a new competitor. The new umbrella organization is called Community1st, and it includes the region’s largest nonprofits. [UPDATE to clarify: Community 1st is the name of the Washington-area campaign. It is overseen by an organization called America’s Charities.]

There were two reasons for this, and each holds a huge lesson for nonprofit leaders:

Ethics. The main reason the organizations cited was the dramatic downturn in fundraising the DC United Way was able to bring. This downturn (from $90 million per year to $35 million per year) is a direct result of the financial scandal that rocked the organization and forced its leadership to resign.

  • Lesson: Ethics at the top is not a luxury — it has a direct bearing on the bottom line and even on the survival of the organization.
By flickr user texas_mustang
By flickr user texas_mustang

New Realities. “I and a lot of others were stuck in the way things have always been, thinking that the United Way was the only way to do things,” according to one Community1st board member. That’s absolutely true. In the workplace-donations space, the field was (and is) ripe for an upstart that is nimble and can promise that a greater share of the collections will actually make it to the charities in question. Community1st [America’s Charities] promises 98% will go to the orgs.

  • Lesson: These are killer times for old organizations and middleman organizations. They both need to watch their backs. If your organization is both — watch out. You suddenly have competition where there was none.

On My Radar 4/30/09: Give Our Money Back, Arlen

* Specter Donors Want Money Back
* Facebook CFO Runs For Office 
* Fresh vs. Lame 100 Day Reporting


Here are the stories that interest me this morning, along with my take on why I think they may be of interest to nonprofit and philanthropy leaders.

  • Arlen Specter fallout continued.
    Arlen Specter from CBS News
    Arlen Specter from CBS News

    Allaying fears (mine included) over “fillibuster proof” majorities, newly-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter voted against the Obama administration’s budget on his first day with his new party. Meanwhile, his erstwhile party continues to hate him. Donors are lining up to demand their money back and Specter is giving it back when asked. (Republicans asking for their money back include colleagues Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, and Bob Corker.)

    • My take: Political fundraising is ‘wayyy different than nonprofit fundraising but the issues of donor intent and givebacks play out in each arena. This is something nonprofits ought to have a policy on, and be upfront about it.
  • The Chief Privacy Officer of Facebook is running for California Attorney General. Chris Kelly launched his campaign yesterday (actually, an “exploratory committee”) with a Facebook page and a standalone site
    • My take: It will be interesting to see how the Kelly campaign values the Facebook page, and how they handle the in-kind donations aspect of it. Will he need to part ways from the company? His Facebook page has a vanity url — do all candidates get that? What is it worth? 
  • Amid the 100 Days Of Obama hoopla, and its tiresome reporting, there were some standouts. The Politico’s Eamon Javers has a good roundup of some of the better insights generated by the ordinarily cliche-filled 100-days meme.
    • My take: It’s hard to be in the journalism business. People expect stories pegged to arbitrary (and sometimes inane) events — then complain when they seem thin. Gotta have a thick skin! 

Thanks for reading,


Explained: Why You Tweet So Much

Someone unfollowed me on Twitter the other day. You don’t get a note or anything when that happens; I just happened to notice.

It doesn’t bother me, but sometimes I like to know why.

My guess is that they were seeing too much volume in my updates, and it was overwhelming their Stream. Fair enough. I don’t plan on reducing my output anytime soon, though.

The episode got me thinking about my output, and why it has grown inexorably over time. I believe I have discovered an Immutable Law Of Status Updates, let’s call it Brad’s Law. (Unless someone else has said this, in which case I get first dibs on the next odd insight.) Here it is:

The More People You Follow, The More You Update

The Number In Your Stream

The reason is this: You see your own status updates in your Stream.

That is, when I look at my Twitter homepage, I see everyone’s various Twitter updates, with mine mixed in among them.

Twitter home page for @bradrourke
Twitter home page for @bradrourke

When people first start out, they only have a few people they are following. If they update a couple of times a day, they see a satisfying concentration of their own items among their friends.

If one person happens to update a lot, then the Stream gets a big block of their updates one after the other. It can look weird. Maybe the new Twitter user will even unfollow that person. (Maybe that’s why they unfollowed me.)

  • Early on, the signals are all set up to tell me to udpate only a bit every day. Otherwise I will look like one of those hyperusers.

But, later, as you add people you are following, updating just once or twice a day won’t cut it. You don’t see your own items mixed in, because they get pushed off the page by all your new friends’ updates.

Of course, you want people to see your stuff — you want to be visible — so you update more frequently. You ratchet up your output until you see a satisfying concentration of your own updates mixed in with your friends. Again — not too much. But since there are more friends, you need to update more.

  • As I gain in experience using Twitter (or Facebook too), and as I gain friends, there is pressure to update more. That way I can feel like I am a part of the conversation.

You might think that I am leading up to a lesson about moderating your status updates. But I’m not, because the reverse holds true, too. The more people I am following, the more I want those people to update frequently. Otherwise people get lost!

It’s an interesting vicious cycle — or virtuous circle, if you are inclined more positively. I don’t see it as a good or bad thing, really: just as a phenomenon.

Find A Sweet Spot

For me, I have hit at about the right number of people I am following. I can manage to see most things, and I am updating at a rate that is comfortable for me. I know that some new followers, who are perhaps new to Twitter, will quickly unfollow me because there’s more output than they want. That’s OK, maybe they’ll be back later. By the same token, some people who follow me who happen to have lots of friends might not ever notice my updates, because I don’t issue them often enough.

In fact, if there is any advice embedded in this, it is based on that observation:

  • Try (through experimentation) to hit a sweet spot for you where the number of people you follow allows you to update at a pace that is comfortable for you, without your overwhelming or being lost in the Stream.
  • Figure out a reason that you’re on Twitter (or any social network), and be true to that.
  • Don’t watch your number of followers too closely, as it will fluctuate and people may leave for any number of reasons.

On My Radar 4/29/09: Test Scores Up Since NCLB

Dear friend: if you enjoy my work or find it useful, please consider sharing it with others, through Twitter or Facebook or Digg or . . . you get the picture. When people share, it lets me know I should continue. It is the sincerest form of encouragement.

* Test Scores Up Since NCLB
* Colleges Using Social Media
* Consumer Confidence Soars
* Fewer Child Porn Sites


Here are the stories that interest me this morning, along with why I think they may be useful for nonprofit and philanthropy leaders.

  • Math and reading scores rise for 9- and 13-year olds.
    Think, by Flickr user ccarlstead
    Think, by Flickr user ccarlstead

    Since the passage of 2002’s controversial No Child Left Behind law, math and reading scores have risen, according to the definitive national test on the issue. Says WaPo: “Performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which offers a long view of U.S. student achievement, shows several bright spots. Nine-year-olds posted the highest scores ever in reading and math in 2008. Black and Hispanic students of that age also reached record reading scores, though they continued to trail white peers.”

    • My take: I have always felt that opposition to NCLB was in large part about fear of measurement, which is something that nonprofits and philanthropies grapple with all the time. What if you measure my program and find it to be a failure? But, you can flip that: Things that get measured typically get more energy put behind them, and so they improve.
  • Colleges are using social media as a recruitment tool. According to the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, the share of colleges not using social networking as part of its outreach fell from 39% last year to 15% this year. This includes blogs as well as commercial social network sites (primarily Facebook). However, 37% of admissions offices with blogs don’t accept comments on them. And there was an interesting drop: The number of colleges using social networking sites to research potential students dropped to 17%  (from 21% in 2007)
    • My take: It’s all about the execution here, and there are troubling signs that colleges are out of touch. Andrea Jarrell knows a lot more about this than I do, but here are my opinions from a social media perspective. They should be increasing their proactive, researching use of social networks, as this would allow them to better target admissions messages. And, according to the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, “Social media tools, like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, are key to communicating with this generation of students.” This suggests a misunderstanding of “this generation of students,” for whom the key is texting. Sorry, kids don’t Twitter.
  • Consumer Confidence Index soars. In a stark turnaround, the Conference Board announced that April’s closely-watched Consumer Confidence Index rose twelve points to 39.2, the highest level since November and topping analysts’ consensus expectation of 29.5. “The Present Situation [which meausres how shoppers feel now] rose slightly to 23.7 from 21.9 last month. The Expectations Index, which measures how shoppers feel about the economy over the next six months, skyrocketed to 49.5 from 30.2 in March.”
    • My take: Consumers feel OK about how things are now, but have an overall sense that the bottom is near and the next few months will show improvement. I am not a firm believer in the wisdom of crowds, but on this I’ll give it some small credence — if only out of hope. The state of the economy has a huge impact on the nonprofit and philanthropy worlds, as so much is driven by foundations’ budgets, which are fundamentally connected to the stock markets.
  • Watchdog group reports fewer child porn sites.The Internet Watch Foundation said more public and law enforcement attention has made it harder to operate child pornography sites, which “are often removed within hours,” according to the group. However, those that remain online are more likely to use very graphic images (58%, up from 47% two years ago), and 24% of the children used in the photographs and videos appear to be 6 years old or younger.
    • My take: This is one of the remaining evils on the planet. It’s good news that heightened awareness can reduce the apparent activity level, but troubling that what’s left is increasingly hardcore.

Thanks for reading,


What We Can Learn From The White House's Missed Opportunity

By now you’ve heard about the Air Force One flyover in New York City that has turned into a PR train wreck for the White House. Those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropy worlds can learn from it.

What Happened

Someone wanted to get a money shot of the President’s office-in-the-air near the Statue of Liberty, which is a great idea.

Sadly, not many people knew of the effort and when the large airliner started buzzing Manhattan, chased by a military jet, residents became understandably — well, panicked.

The head of the White House Office of Military Affairs, Louis Caldera, has apologized and taken full responsibility.

I know Louis from back when I worked in politics in Los Angeles. He is one honorable, upright person and it hurts me to see him have to step up and take the hit. And I am proud of his response: “Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision,” he said. “While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, its clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.”

Here’s an example of the distress:

But the incident could have been such a huge win for the Administration, if only they had listened to their own rhetoric a bit more. They only thought to notify the “authorities.”

Why didn’t they notify everyone else?

This flyover could have been a great 100-days-in win for President Obama. Imagine if the White House had simply let it be known through a press release and getting it out to social networks (like this Twitter account) and then built just a bit of buzz:

  • Have a “caption the photo” contest;
  • Set up viewing areas;
  • Have people use Google Maps to pinpoint where they will watch the flyover from;
  • Have a video contest, use a YouTube tag to collect them all;
  • Encourage people to Qik it.

My point is, this would have taken a little more energy — but only a small amount. And the payoff could have been high. It would have fed into Obama’s “technology” and “transparency” brand attributes.

From Neutrality To Delight

The prior notification of authorities was designed to ensure no one was too upset by the flyover.

Image taken with a cell phone by Jason McLane (via Associated Press)
Image taken with a cell phone by Jason McLane (via Associated Press)

But a different strategy would have made it so people were delighted by it. There’s a big difference.

When planning major moves, how often do you think, “How can I use this to delight people?” It’s worth keeping in mind.

In the nonprofit and philanthropy worlds, we spend a fair amount of time notifying our boards of decisions, or hoping that constituents and clients aren’t upset by a new policy change. Chances are that at least some of these could be turned around with the proper groundwork.

Today’s social networking tools are custom made to back this up. Used well, they make people feel a part of decisions and can even give people a role. It doesn’t have to be a big, or substantive role, either.

Next time you sit down to write heads-up memo, think about whether you can instead turn the moment into one of delightful anticipation.

Even if it works once or twice, you’re ahead of the game.

On My Radar 4/28/09: News Circulation Steep Drop

* Newspaper Circs Drop
* Music Bigs Settle With Family For $7K
* Big Corps Need Cash
* Verizon Doing Well


Here are the stories that interest me this morning, along with why I think they may be interesting or useful to nonprofit, philanthropy, or community-based organization leaders:

  • Newspaper circulation continues its slide. Among the top 25 daily newspapers, all showed drops for the October-March period, and most significant. The only bright spot was the Wall Street Journal, which had a .61% uptick. The full list of circulation numbers is here. No, NYT is not tops — my fave, USA Today is.
    • My take: I am as tired of the “newspapers are dying” story as the next person, but this cannot be denied. The money has all shifted online. Blame Craigslist’s free classifieds. Time to retool, people.
  • Music industry lawyers settled with one of their lawsuit targets for $7K.
    Patti Santangelo holds court papers. Photo by Kathy McLaughlin, AP
    Patti Santangelo holds court papers. Photo by Kathy McLaughlin, AP
    Patricia Santangelo was targeted in the series of file-sharing lawsuits the Recording Industry Association of America brought some time ago. She fought back, which came as a surprise to the plaintiffs. Her defense: she had no clue how to download music. At one point, a federal judge described her as an “Internet-illiterate parent, who does not know Kazaa from kazoo.” Turns out her sons had been downloading. The settlement for $7,000 will be paid out over months in installments of $583.33.
    • My take: Illegal downloading is wrong. Not because it rips the artists off so much (record companies do that just fine) — but just because it’s wrong. That’s not enough, though. For people in the intellectual property business, we need a new model of what constitutes “ownership.”
  • Big corporations need more cash. General Motors offered to sell more than half of itself to the government and auto unions for $11.6 billion more in loans. (Current shareholders would own just 1% after the deal). Citibank and Bank of America, meanwhile, after the White House stress tests, are likely to need large infusions of capital too, according to the government.
    • My take: The continued announcements of needed huge bailouts makes one wonder what’s worth saving anymore.
  • Verizon announced good quarterly results yesterday. They earned 63 cents per share, beating analysts’ predictions of 59 cents. It ended the quarter with 86.6 million wireless subscribers. But the big news? In answer to a question about rumors of a Verizon iPhone, Verizon COO Denny Strigl gave no comment and followed up with: “Historically we haven’t been dependent on any one device. We’ve been well-positioned with high-value customers.”
    • My take: iPhone is the must-have among my peers and I am holding out because AT&T’s network is inferior to Big Red. I may have to wait longer! Verizon smartly bides its time and only adds products when ready, regardless of complaints from the Zeitgeist.

How To Dice An Onion

I know normally this space is devoted to discussions about issues that affect nonprofits, philanthropy, and community-based organizations.

But I like to change things up once and a while so I made this video that shows my favorite, sure-fire, simple way to dice an onion. Watch:

Before I learned this, I always was unsure just how I should really go about dicing an onion — I could do onion-ring slices, but the dice never was even. It caused me great anxiety.

This method works like a charm.

(Like that cool knife I am using? It’s a Santoku knife by Pampered Chef. My friend Monique turned me onto it.)

A friend asked me if I was going to demonstrate Julia Child’s method. I don’t know if this is hers or not, maybe someone can let me know?