Thursday, July 31, 2008


In my role with Catalyst I am responsible for the distribution of a much larger budget than most people or families will give over decades. In my private life the scale is much more modest. In both cases, I want to make the most impact with the resources I have.
For smaller private donors there is often a belief that the only option is to give a tiny drop into a large bucket where you might have an interest, but little meaningful influence and personal connection. That is no longer the case. Givers of all scales can choose to give to causes that are very intimate.
In many cases this may be through giving to local charities in their own community. there are churches, political groups, neighbourhood associations, schools, libraries, advocacy groups, shelters, food banks, seniors supports, and many more possibilities probably within your postal code.
Beyond that, there are ways to give to needs further afield that are just as specific. North American philanthropy guru Fred Smith (he won't appreciate me referring to him that way), pointed me to a fascinating article about one man's efforts to help with easily manageable donations to individuals with key short term needs. You may want to check out Modest Needs.
If your interests tend to something more international you might appreciate the work of Kiva, a lending organization that allows average people to donate to a specific. pre-approved project for someone in the developing world to start on the path to sustainability.
One of the pleasures of these types of donations is how close we can feel to those who are being helped. Charity no longer needs to be corporate and distant. (And as an aside, some traditional charities are going to struggle if they don't learn to engage donors at this level.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Terms and Transitions

When is leadership development not worthwhile?

I spent some time recently with my old friends at Medeba Adventure Learning Centre. I'll confess that I'm biased in their favour. Several years ago I was part of their second class in the leadership internship program they've developed.
It was great to catch up with some old friends and see how things have changed on the site as well as in the lives of people I respect and care about.
One of the things that stood out most to me was how they are now seeing the results of decisions they made nearly 15 years ago to focus their efforts on developing leaders. Seeing the maturity and quality of summer staff they have now compared to the team of relative inexperienced (but committed and sincere) teenagers I worked with in 1996, showed that it has been worthwhile.
The program I participated in is hardly recognizable. It is 2 months shorter, includes more exotic excursions, involves three times the number of participants, and regularly attracts candidates from other parts of the world. It has evolved from being constantly innovative to more grounded and structured.
The same can be said for many other aspects of Medeba.
This development is predictable and crucial to seeing the program mature, but it is costly. Not only have 14 years of effort been invested by dozens of people, but the founding director of the program has found the increased formality difficult and ultimately has determined that his abilities are no longer suited to staying in the role. Next year's class will be the first under new leadership.

Leadership transitions are hard, they often involve deep emotion, and relationships are almost always strained. All of that is multiplied in smaller organizations, especially if the leaders have remained for a significant period of time.

Leadership development is demanding and it takes a serious commitment to do it well. The results may take years to become fully apparent. It is not a quick fix in desperate times, but Medeba can attest to the value for those willing to pay the price.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Telemarketing and Guilt (not what you think)

A telemarketing call made me feel guilty last night.

About 8:20pm yesterday Kristen was finishing up bedtime with my sons and I was tidying up the kitchen when the phone rang. I grabbed it quick (don't disturb bedtime) and was greeted by a friendly voice who identified herself as from the Cerebral Palsy foundation, calling to see if we had anything to donate for their next local pick up sometime next week. Like most of you, I am generally annoyed by telemarketing, but this was different. For one thing there was no pseudo-survey or other strategy to catch me off guard. The request was brief, specific, and right at the start of the call. The caller was bright and spoke clearly, and seemed sincere in asking for our help, but neither rushed or trying to engage me in unnecessary conversation. And I know that we have given to this cause before (which I believe is why we're on their list). It was actually a pleasant experience and I said "yes" happily, confirmed our address, and hung up the phone.

Then the guilt set in. Not because the caller made any effort to make me feel guilty, but because I suddenly remembered that I am a board member for another organization that also gathers clothing donations, and I rarely think to bring a bag of stuff there.

It got me thinking about how our giving, even to causes we genuinely support, often needs a little prompting. I like having the little envelopes from our church in my drawer to remind me to give weekly. Simple nudges that get my attention briefly are quite appreciated; and a lot more effective than a fridge magnet or coaster that quickly blends into the landscape. It doesn't feel intrusive to be encouraged quickly to do something I sincerely want to do; that's why my laptop and iPhone buzz me when I need to prepare for my next meeting.

I'm curious. What kinds of reminders for giving do you appreciate? What seems intrusive or causes the wrong kind of guilt? How do you remember to do the good you've decided to do?

And, does anyone want me to come b.y and get some gently used clothing to take to my next board meeting to help me overcome my guilt?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Starting Young

I'm very proud of my son's friend Mackenzie. See why.

One of the challenges for many philanthropic families is in seeing the values of generosity extended to succeeding generations. It's not easy to do.

We are inviting the children of our principals to explore the things we are doing now at Catalyst, present us with new possibilities, and participate to the extent of their interest. They are much older than Mackenzie; hopefully they will share her heart.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Real Costs

Why can't the organizations I meet with each week tell me the real cost of their programming?

Time and time again I have conversations in which people who are hoping to receive support from Catalyst explain their desire to offset some of the fees required by their participants, but need to be prompted to explain the difference between those fees and the total cost of providing their services.

This is a problem for several reasons. While it is admirable to minimize the charge for helping people (though discerning the appropriate limits of that will be the subject of several future posts), it is often a path to unnecessary difficulties.

In our contemporary North American culture the value of most things is determined by the amount someone will pay for them. Charging less for a workshop or program than it actually costs to provide practically diminishes the worth. The examples of this are numerous. If we want people to respond to our efforts we are generally better off making them aware of the expense involved in providing them.

Fundraising is one of the most demanding and time consuming aspects of most nonprofits. Time, strategy, and effort invested in this area is exhaustive and frequently exhausting. Failure in this area can spell the untimely end of otherwise outstanding organizations. Dealing in the real costs of our programs is beneficial here.

When approaching possible funders, telling us your program charges (for example) $700/participant gives us that as a benchmark wheen we consider potential grants. If your real cost is $1000/participant you've potentially decreased the scale of your grant by 30%. (Please note: foundations also have operating and administration costs and like you we try to minimize them. We aren't surprised or offended when you acknowledge them as part of your needs).

The more difficult matter when it comes to fundraising is one of scale. Most effective nonprofits are in some way interested in growing. But if we are operating at a deficit for every participant than every bit of expansion creates a larger hole for funding to fill. That may be a legitimate approach, if it is acknowledged properly, but a failure to deal in real costs makes this more challenging.

Determining real costs can be quite simple. Dividing the organization's total operating budget by the total number of participants gives a workable figure.

None of this is to suggest that we must charge participants the full cost of the program. Our suggestion is to openly reference the real cost of providing our services and the amount that is being subsidized (regardless of whether that subsidy is through a direct sponsorship or through the fundraising efforts of the organization). Those who are able to pay the full cost of their program can do so, those requiring assistance can receive it. This is a strategy that may add an additional administrative loop, but may also provide additional funds through increased program funds.

Most importantly, dealing in real costs is simply honest. It allows all the stakeholders (funders, staff, participants, etc.) to know and respond to the full story of our work. There is great value in what we're providing to society, let's not be bashful about it.

Solid Systems

The real measure of an organization's strategy is often not found in the results when they have their best people performing, but when the human resources are below the desired level. Top notch people can overcome the deficiencies of almost any structure. Mediocre people need the advantages of developed approaches to be effective.

You can see this throughout our society. As a former pastor I've seen many churches with below average leaders who are still able to sustain the parishioners; though they ultimately produce little advancement. The same can be true of health care, education, counselling, or many other fields. The most honest professionals in these fields will admit that just following the basic standards and expectations of those served will usually work, even if the practicioner is far from perfect.

Catalyst is passionate about leadership. We are convinced of the importance of having the highest possible performance from those who are most responsible for outcomes. We invest a significant amount of our time and resources in developing leaders towards their potential. We believe that better leaders produce better results.

Our ideal scenario is working with leaders who are involved in organizations that have effective systems that can provide a functional foundation for the work. By investing in the leaders of those organizations we expect to see results that multiply and expand outcomes.

Perils of Collaboration

One of our highest values at Catalyst is synergy. We love to see compatible organizations and people drawn together to multiply their impact.

Our hope is that as we become familiar with various aspects of ministry, relief, and development work we can help to make some of those connections; truly serving as a catalyst to make things happen.

Of course it isn't always that easy. Most organizations have a few stories of failed attempts to work in harmony with others. In many cases best intentions fell apart either because there wasn't enough time taken to carefully define the roles and responsibilities of the partners, or the shared project functionally required one or both groups to move outside of their mandate and strength.

Noticing and suggesting collaborative possibilities is relatively simple. Bringing the parties together is a valuable step. But the real work comes in working to develop synergies that don't diminish the values and purposes of anyone involved. If we can figure out how to do that, we'll really be doing something significant.

Back from the Dominican Republic

Ten days with Medical Ministry International in the Dominican Republic was both enjoyable and informative. Having two days of discussions with Executive Director Willie Hunter and his wife Janice (who is the administrator of their permanent hospital in Santo Domingo) gave me a much stronger understanding of the goals and philosophy that drive the organization. Briefly, I was deeply impressed.

Not only were the Hunter's gracious hosts and generous with their time and home, they were also pleasingly honest and open in our discussions. Willie clearly fits the category of visionary leader. He is thoughtful and articulate, able to share the dream and strategy of MMI in compelling fashion. The Hunter's are largely the ones who have borne responsibility for setting the direction and opening up new ground.

The week we spent with a medical team in the villages around Monte Plata was also valuable. Being able to see the kind of work that provides the core efforts of MMI up close is useful perspective.

I'll be able to share some of my more detailed thoughts with MMI Canada Director, Leanne Graham, in the near future.

A final thought; I am very glad that Catalyst is associated with Medical Ministry International. They are an inspiring organization with a solid model for their work and a dream that is bold and meaningful.