Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mission and Organization Creep

The technological revolution has fundamentally changed the way business is done. In many ways, web innovations have eased the burden of starting an organization or company of any kind--one can set up a very professional "virtual office" within hours and get right down the business of providing services or making widgets. Many organizations offload their core administrative and technical functions to external providers--think of Google Apps for email and calendaring or contracted payroll and accounting services.
Many of these business-to-business service providers are increasingly (some entirely) web-based. I see useful comparisons between modern web development--especially "software as services" companies--and networked nonprofit organizations. While the services that these companies provide have changed the way nonprofits do business, there may be important lessons to learn from an examination of their business philosophies.
37signals is a Chicago-based web development company that has developed several popular online collaboration products in use by over one million people and businesses. They also publish a widely read blog called "Signal vs. Noise." One recent post caught my eye:
First, never implement more than you need to. That sounds harsh, in a grasshopper-and-the-ant kind of way, except it really isn’t. It isn’t a mandate to slack off, it’s a command to do what you know. Implement the feature you’re working on, not the feature you hope will land someday. Keep it simple, keep it minimal, and keep it real.
What lesson does this hold for nonprofits? Especially networked nonprofits whose strength and influence is, in part, a function of the network ties that bind them to other service providers?
Ultimately, it is a matter of defining the mission of the organization and making a deliberate choice to reject activities that reach beyond the scope of the organization (presuming that resources are currently available for such an expansion). Perhaps easier said than done when an unmet need is slapping us across the face or tugging at our heartstrings.
In an article titled "Strategic Performance Measurement and Management in Nonprofit Organizations" (Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 11(3), Spring 2001), Robert S. Kaplan notes:
Achieving focus and alignment, however, may be particularly difficult for nonprofit organizations. Many people who become employees of these organizations voluntarily accept below-market compensation because they believe in the mission of the agency. Their personal values motivate them to do good and to contribute to society through the agency’s programs. This is wonderful and a great source of strength for the nonprofit sector. But it is also a danger. Such motivated individuals come to the agency already equipped with a clear, albeit personal, idea about how to accomplish the organization’s goals. And they often encounter a nurturing environment in which all opinions are valued and listened to. This is an engine for diffusing organizational energy.
Do you find this "focus creep" prevalent in your organizations? How have you managed to maintain mission focus and sustain organizational energy without tamping out the enthusiasm of motivated employees?
Posted October 28, 2008 3:40 PM 

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Roller Coaster of Racial Issues

I study race, public policy, and the politics of inequality in the United States. People who work in my field have to get used to a certain amount of emotional whiplash. Looking back a handful of decades, we marvel at how the civil rights movement wiped out de jure discrimination and established a more meaningful democracy in America. Our celebration is always tinged with disappointment and frustration, though, because we know where the story goes from there. The books that fill our offices overflow with evidence thatracial segregation and unequal treatment remain basic features of American life. They explain in painful detail how efforts to help the disadvantaged have foundered for decades on a nasty post-civil-rights politics of racial resentment.
One minute, we find ourselves contemplating the stunning achievements of the black middle class. The next, we read that in America today 59 percent of black men without a high school degree will experience incarceration before they reach the age of 35. (The corresponding number for white men without a high school degree is 14 percent.) We watch as a major political party nominates a biracial candidate for President of the United States, and a week later we read that a white member of the U.S. House of Representatives has just described him as "uppity." High and then low, to one side then the other, the rollercoaster of American race relations tosses us around like rag dolls.
Minnesota has its own version of this rollercoaster, and it’s well illustrated by some of the work happening at the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center (PNLC) this month. On September 19th, we’re hosting an event called "The History of Minnesota’s Prosperity" to celebrate the long, effective tradition of antipoverty efforts in our state. It’s a part of our history that should make Minnesotans proud. Now as in the past, Minnesota has one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation. And let’s be clear: our success in fighting poverty hasn’t happened by accident. It reflects our strong commitments to community investment, policy innovation, and collaboration across the public, non-profit, and private sectors. (more...)
As we celebrate Minnesota’s accomplishments – and ask how we can build on them in the coming decade – some may be tempted to sweep the complexities of race under the rug. It would be easy to tell ourselves that fighting poverty is simply the "Minnesotan thing to do." Full stop. But other work being done at the PNLC should remind us of how race complicates the story of poverty (and the politics of poverty) in Minnesota. In a study presented earlier this month, Sarah Bruch and I tried to measure the degree to which blacks are "marginalized" relative to whites in each of the American states. Our measure took into account disparities in the rates at which whites and blacks in each state (a) attained the status of home owner, (b) gained access to full-time employment, and (c) achieved entry to post-secondary education. We also measured (d) black-white disparities in prison admissions and (e) the extent to which blacks and whites were spatially isolated in separate areas of residence. Based on these indicators, we found that Minnesota had the third largest black-white gap of any state in the country. In other words, Minnesota is a national leader in the degree to which blacks remain isolated from whites and excluded from full social and economic incorporation.
So as we pause to reflect on Minnesota’s tradition of prosperity, we should make room for the conflicted emotions – and troubling questions – that are familiar to those of us who study race in America. Minnesota is a national leader in the fight against poverty, and we should be proud of that fact. But Minnesota is also a national leader in racial inequality, and this fact will need to be placed at the center of our public conversation if we hope to devise effective solutions to the poverty that remains in our state. Here’s a sobering comparison. In 2006, the poverty rate for white residents of Alabama was 57 percent higher than the poverty rate for white Minnesotans. In that same year, the poverty rate for black Alabamans was almost exactly the same as – only 2 percent higher than – the poverty rate for black Minnesotans. Why are African Americans in Minnesota just as poor as their counterparts in Alabama, while whites in Minnesota are so much better off? Why are poverty rates for blacks and whites more equal in Alabama than in Minnesota? And most important of all, what can we do now to ensure that Minnesotans in the future will look back on these facts as distant pieces of history and cite them to show how far our state has come?

Posted September 15, 2008

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Politics & Nonprofits

The political season is heating up. Television and radio waves have been filled with party conventions, candidate commercials, and pundit commentary. Dialogue and debate are running rampant in our conversations with friends, family and colleagues.
These conversations typically revolve around how politics and election results affect you as an individual, but what about how it will affect you at an organizational level? As an organization, how do you engage in the political process, and how do you do that while balancing your tax-exempt status?
There are clear rules and regulations for non-profits around the type and amount of political activities in which they can be involved. For technical details, the IRS’s website is a good resource. For more on standards, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits publishes the Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence with a section on civic engagement and public policy.
For some organizations, political activity is part of the everyday routine, but for many others, this activity follows the ebb and flow of the political process. How do you integrate political activity in your organization? Does this happen seamlessly or is it a struggle to find a balance?
Posted September 11, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Leading or Punning

Just back from Academy of Management annual conference where I attended many sessions on "leadership” topics, Ive concluded that leadership scholars (and many others) are engaged in a massive punning game. That is, the words leader and leadership are uttered ubiquitously and have multiple meanings, often ironic, yet very few people take time to consider the implications of the punning.
Most speakers at conference sessions did not directly divulge their own definitions of leader and leadership. Instead, those being punned at, had to sort out meanings for themselves.
Not surprisingly at a conference dominated by participants from business schools around the world, the most common meaning of leader was CEO, or possibly member of a firm’s senior management team. Some scholars extend this view to include the nonprofit and political realm – that is, leaders are not just CEOs but also executive directors and Presidents, or other people with visible and powerful positions.
These scholars – from what might be called the "top dog school tend to define leadership in one of two ways. It may be the sum of the people in top positions in a firm, nonprofit, or government agency – as in, "The leadership has issued a policy about employee benefits”. Alternatively, leadership may be more process or action-oriented – that is, leadership is about what these top people do. They set direction, make strategies, promulgate visions, drive change, and the like.
Another group of organizational scholars has a somewhat more expansive view: middle managers are also considered leaders of their units or divisions. In behavioral terms, they do some of the same things the top dogs do, but they answer to their "bosses,” while leading "subordinates.
Another group of scholars, onetime renegades at an event like this conference, say, wait a minute, what if we consider the possibility that everyone in an organization may be the instigator of change? What if we see relationship building and teamwork as key aspects of leadership? Wouldn’t people who do this anywhere in the organization be exercising leadership, and if so, might we call them leaders?
What if we see organizations as systems and recognize that system dynamics may have more impact on outcomes of a top team’s new policy than anything the team actually does? Wouldn’t anyone in the organization have a chance to influence those dynamics in ways that prompted needed change? Everyone has heard the story of the low-level employee who came up with an idea that saved the organization millions or led the way to a valuable new product or service. Was this employee a leader?
Maybe the organization or the system itself functions as a leader…
So what does this mean for evaluating leaders, for helping people become leaders? All meanings are flying around and have force, but the first two are incredibly limiting and disempowering – spend too much time trying to identify the essence of what successful CEOs and bosses do, heap praise on those who turn their companies or their countries around, and how with outrage when they disappoint us and start talking about the "leader with irony. Prep for leading where you are. But recognizing that positions in organizations and networks often add formal authority and power over resources that people outside those positions dont have. Agree with argument that we need more rather than fewer leaders these days.
Maybe a helpful way of thinking is big l versus little l leadership. Helping people to lead within their sphere of influence, but also recognize that they will often be followers. Ability to move in and out of follower roles, but see themselves as always active in the leadership work.
Maybe we’d be less prone then to utter the word leader with ironic quote marks. 
Posted September 10, 2008Se