Friday, May 30, 2008

Two new techy toys

I don't think of myself as an early adopter of technology (I still have a cathode ray television), but recently I've been getting to know two software tools that seem to have a lot of productivity advantages:

Zloop is a web-based networking site that i heard about from Fred Smith at The Gathering. It allows remote users to post not only messages, pics, and videos like facebook; but also to form separate "loops" for projects and to post documents that can be downloaded, edited, and re-uploaded in a more current version. It's less fun and visual than facebook, and probably less intuitive; but for professional purposes it is very appealing.

Jott is something I came across through a distant facebook friend. It allows me to send messages by voice on my cell phone that are transcribed into text and sent to any phone number or email address I have set in advance. Best aspect of this for me is the ability to send a message to my email while I am on the go, especially through my headset while driving. the transcription may not always be perfect, but I can spell proper nouns to improve accuracy as I go and I expect to use it mostly only to communicate with myself though it can handle much beyond that.

Anybody out there want to share their own favourites?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

30 Seconds or Less

I like long conversations, but I hate wasting time. One of the great challenges for nonprofit leaders is to communicate the purpose and value of their organization quickly, clearly, and with strong appeal. It's often called "the elevator speech".
I just finished reading a book that has a bunch of simple, practical helps for effective communication that relates not only to the fundraising pitch but to all kinds of regular human interactions.
"How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less" by Milo Frank is the kind of book I would usually pass by because I've been told many times that I'm a good communicator, but this week I've realised that I've missed some opportunities because I wasn't clear and concise enough. I'm probably not alone in that.
It's not a fancy resource and having it on your shelf won't impress anyone; but if you want to get a response from people, professionally or personally, it's worth the hour or so it takes to read.


Among the many areas in which we are trying to learn as much as we can as fast as we can is the nature of the relationship between Catalyst and the various organizations we support. The common term foundations seem to use is "Partner", which we have also adopted. The intent is that we develop an interactive relationship with these organizations and can offer them more than simply financial resources.
I've tried to reflect my developing understanding of this relationship before (here.
Through another very helpful post from Mark Petersen, whose blog has become essential reading for me, I came across an article by Tom David that challenges a lot of what I want to be true about partnerships.
Basically, Tom argues that their is and always will be a power imbalance between funders and NGOs. Our efforts to minimize that gap are only effective in complicating things.
I very much want to disagree with Tom. I believe it can be possible to work productively and closely with our partners, even serving as a board member in some cases, without being manipulative or exploitative. Still, there is a certain wisdom in maintaining an arms length relationship if we want things to remain crisp and clear. I've seen examples of closer involvement being deeply problematic.
I'd love to hear from some readers on both sides of the funder/NGO relationship on this. How close is too close? What are the advantages and disadvantages of more complex relationships?
One final thought: It seems to me that most charities (esp. churches) receive a bulk of their funding from people who are directly involved in what they are doing. So it must work sometimes...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Theology of Goal Setting

Today our mentoring program is really underway. I had initial goal setting sessions with two of our participants.
Goal setting is really the heart of the individual mentoring sessions. It's a pretty simple process, but extremely valuable. The value comes in setting not only annual goals, but monthly targets toward those goals; and meeting monthly to review progress. Lots of people set personal and/or professional goals, but most of us don't track with them deliberately. The result is that the best of intentions show minimal results. As Louis Gerstner (the leader who turned around IBM) writes repeatedly in his excellent 2002 book Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?; people will do what you inspect not what you expect.
After some time spent on the goal setting worksheet we talked about the theology of goal setting that is rarely mentioned.
I believe there is a sincere but inaccurate belief that when followers of God are given dreams they are certain to be realized. It's a slight variation from the health and wealth prosperity gospel. On the surface it seems right to think that God would ensure that these things work out, but ultimately it isn't true, Biblical, or properly helpful. It feeds into some of our desires for self-satisfaction and pulls us away from the kind of faith and relationship with God we're meant to have.
To understand this further it helps to look at a popular chapter in the New Testament, Hebrews 11.
Church people like this passage because it gives quick summaries of the lives of some major Old Testament heroes, and allows us to imagine ourselves demonstrating similar faith and obedience. That is helpful; but it may be misleading.
A more deliberate look at the passage, (particularly verse 13 if you like shortcuts) shows that these heroes didn't get to accomplish the dreams they were given. Looking further down the text, we read of people who's crowning achievement seems to be being sawed in two because of their faith. I've never heard anyone aspire to that kind of spiritual experience.
To wrap this up, it is a good thing for us to set goals and passionately pursue them. What is problematic is when we start to be more committed to the dreams and goals than we are to the one who we believe gives us those dreams.
There is no promise that we will complete the things we aspire to. Often it is when things don't work out that our character, faith, and authentic connection to Jesus become most real.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Measurement: The great dilemma

A recurring theme in the last few months is the challenge and need for nonprofit and ministry organizations to find a decisive way to self-evaluate. By extension, Catalyst and other grantmakers need criteria to evaluate not only applications but also the outcomes of projects after they receive funding.

There are a few particular difficulties in this:
-Reluctance: Nonprofit leaders are largely involved in matters and issues that are driven by compassion rather than efficiency. Many times they are resistant to the "corporate" emphasis on numerical evaluation. In my years at camps I saw the anger that was prompted when someone from the board asked how many campers had made faith commitments during a particular program. Staff found that offensive and felt it diminished the nature of relationships to something merely transactional and manipulative.
-Ambiguity: Social services and spiritual projects are notoriously difficult to quantify. How do you measure the benefits of a relationship? Rarely is there a single point of emphasis and the people involved may all have different value and priority for the varied outcomes.
-Tools: Cultural change doesn't lend itself to a simple bar graph. There is a shortage of recognizable methods for identifying and communicating the kinds of outputs and outcomes we're interested in supporting.
-Objectivity: Nonprofit workers are almost always passionate about their work. (We wouldn't partner with any that aren't). Their clientele are understandably grateful for the most part for what is being accomplished. It is a lot to ask of either of those groups to provide a relatively unbiased perspective.
-Hope: As may be the case in other fields (but I suspect is exaggerated in these ones), nonprofit and ministry people are optimists. They look for the signs of life in even the most desperate situations. It's a necessary prerequisite of much off what they do, but when applied to evaluation is clearly distorted.
-Narrative: When numbers are hard to generate or interpret we rely on stories. Funding for charities has always been based more on tugging the heart strings than swaying the intellect. The traditional pitch of "a sob story and a slideshow" is deeply entrenched and typically effective. Anyone can come up with at least one compelling account of someone who's life is being bettered from their efforts.

Despite all of these impediments there are efforts being made widely to develop useful and relevant ways of measuring the results of nonprofits. As I wrote about previously, Jim Collins has produced a monograph of Good to Great aimed specifically at the social sector where he argues for the necessity of determining standards of evaluation that are measurable. It is a very live discussion among the professionals I met at the recent PIGS conference as well.

Prior to the start of Catalyst I was involved in starting a new church in our community. We were under the authority and support of the church where I had been staff for several years; and I reported to the leadership there. When after more than a year our new congregation wasn't significantly growing the leadership began to question the wisdom in continuing. Of course I resisted. I could see the sparks of potential and the impact we were having on the few people who were involved. Ultimately the decision was made to close the new church. It was difficult for all involved (new congregation, myself, and the leaders of the larger church), and was made all the more difficult because there was no standard of measure by which to evaluate what was happening.

I admit that I find the process of determining objective measurement criteria for matters of spirituality and social justice to be both daunting and dangerous. Obviously we don't want to reduce the efforts of our partners to spreadsheet entries. At the same time, I have become increasingly aware that with those criteria established and agreed upon there is a freedom to pursue a vision with greater confidence that you have defined your purpose and won't be dissuaded by the inevitable swings of energy and enthusiasm.

I am eager to work with our partners to figure out how to farily and helpfully evaluate their honourable efforts.


I just finished reading Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started. It was written by three young recent university grads who weren't exactly sure what to do with their lives. They decided to contact dozens of prominent Canadians in a wide variety of fields and ask them how they reached their status of significance. It's a very worthwhile, quick, and rich read. T|hey also have a companion website you might want to check out.
Interesting reflections from the book:
-Diversity: The figures in Kickstart don't only represent fields as varied as politics, business, athletics, academia, and the arts; they also have taken widely different paths to their achievements. There is no one way to success.
-Mentors: Almost all of the profiles included recognition of someone (often generally anonymous) who was admired by the subject and who at a key point offered them the encouragement and/or challenge that inspired them.
-Childhood: Almost without exception the people profiled in Kickstart are able to link their ultimate prominence to interests, experiences, and patterns from their childhood years. We are wise to refer to that in our own lives when seeking direction.
-Boldness: Not only are the subjects people of nerve; but the authors took the risk of essentially cold-calling these influential figures and asking for interviews. To their surprise, most of the people they called were please to do so and some went far beyond that in response.

It has been my experience that even prominent people will often make time for someone who approaches them for interaction if the approach is clear, well prepared, and specific in nature.

Kudos to Alexander, Paul, and Andrew for this book and the ancillary projects and events that are springing from it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fail First

Randy Cain is the President and CEO of Pinty's Delicious Foods, a prominent Canadian poultry company. Over lunch yesterday (yes it was chicken) we talked about his understanding of leadership as someone who has been involved in turnarounds in the corporate sector fro several years.
One of the intriguing things he said was that when selecting leaders one of the criteria he considers crucial is a history of failure. Only those who have faced some significant setback (professional or personal) have the kind of humility required to lead effectively at Pinty's.
Interesting to hear that from a successful CEO in a competitive market where the bottom line is the bottom line. We talked about the importance of character and how many of the most effective corporate leaders are never recognized because they model humility and compassion rather than self-promotion. They don't write books, but they are core to the success of their organizations.
In Christian circles a lot of lipservice is paid to servant leadership and to humility as a key to character; but I'm not convinced that there is any correlation between church context and a greater development of these things. I agree with Randy, failure is fundamental. Or perhaps more accurately, responding to failure is crucial both to develop and to reveal the kind of character that allows a leader to submit to themself to the vision at hand and to honour those with and for whom they work.
Not what I was expecting from a hard nosed business guy.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Context as Culture

Lunch today with Darrell Winger, Community Development Pastor at The Meeting House; one of the fastest growing and most intriguing churches in Canada. I blogged about a previous with their Teaching Pastor recently. I wanted to understand more about the uncommon leadership culture they have developed.
Darrell (whose role makes him essentially the bishop of the multi-site church) affirmed that there really is no predominant leader in their inner circle. They truly do function as a mutually submissive team, respecting one another's strengths and roles.
A lot of our conversation was about how they bring in new leaders who have established themselves in a more common hierarchical leadership system. Essentially, it is a matter of introducing them to a new culture, not unlike what happens when we travel internationally. Newcomers have to become familiar with both the formal published systems of The Meeting House, but also the subtle nuances of tone, jargon, and relationship that make up the heart of the way things are around here.
Some newcomers are able to embrace that change, others can't. The challenge is to discern which is which before giving someone a leadership role.
In Catalyst's approach to leadership we talk about these as aspects of Context. Someone may be remarkably skilled (Competence) and have high integrity (Character), but be fundamentally unsuited for a role because they don't, can't, or won't adapt to the particulars of the culture.
Our hope, through our mentoring and high school leadership programs, is that we can help promising leaders sort through where they can fit in most effectively. It is more an art than a science, and as people progress in life their fit may change. It takes insight and sensitivity to help someone with matters of context.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Over my head

I used to be a lifeguard.
Last night I stood with my toes in the ocean after a long day of amazing learning. I've lost track of the number of conversations I've been a part of in the last 40 hours about the world of philanthropy I've just come into. The sheer immensity and variety of the need in the world is so far beyond my comprehension it leaves me staggered. Added to that are the discussions about projects and strategies for trying to address some of those needs at individual, local, regional, national, continental, and even global levels.
Standing on the shoreline I reflected that my lifeguarding experience might make me an above average swimmer, but that ability is pretty much irrelevant compared to the size of the ocean. On my own I'd be lost in minutes.
Among the many things I'm noticing about other participants in this PIGS conference is how many of them came to their philanthropic roles in unusual ways and are now finding that God had uniquely prepared them for the work they are doing now. Several of the disparate tracks and themes in their lives have come together in fascinating ways to enable them to bring about good now.
I can only hope and trust that I will be the same.
It reveals another aspect of the shoreline experience. I am continually realizing that the God I love and try to serve is far beyond what I've understood so far. More than anything else, I desperately want to deeply know God. I'm going to take the risk of stepping into the waves.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Finding Our Heart

I recently told someone that if they want to understand the mind of Catalyst they should read our website; but if they want to understand our heart they should read this blog. This is where the less fully considered and critiqued ideas are expressed. It gives insight that the more refined text of the website might miss.
I am spending the start of this week at a conference in Ft. Lauderdale with Professionals In Granting Society (PIGS), a gathering of representatives from several foundations. It is an inspiring group in many ways. I'm going to have a lot to think about from this event.
One of the most significant thoughts of the day today is the way that other foundations have identified what they are most passionate about and endeavoured to make that the focus of all their efforts. They are connecting their hearts and mind.
This is accomplished in various ways. Some have defined several separate categories of funding within their portfolio to reflect a diverse interest and strategy; others have become very narrowly focused and demonstrate great depth of wisdom and advocacy regarding the fields with which they are concerned.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that this year at Catalyst is primarily about defining our interests. If we are able to effectively discern these things during our first year we will be able to bring about much greater influence in the years to come.
There is a spirituality to this. Not in any way to suggest that we should only support explicitly Christian projects, but that as we seek to express our sense of purpose we will be praying that God shows us how we can participate in those things that are part of his great story for all the world.