February 2009


Recently, our office has been informed that the building that we are residing in, the Regional Enterprise Tower, is making efforts to become more environmentally friendly. The Oxford Development Company is making building improvements on the lighting system, temperature control, restroom facilities and energy conservation.

This project will feature energy conservation in the following ways:

• A complete lighting system retrofit to upgrade all lighting in the building to environmentally-friendly CFL and LED lighting
• Installation of water conserving fixtures that will save millions of gallons of water each year
• Improvements to the building envelope and window seals that will enhance comfort and save electricity
• Upgrading the building automation system to maximize energy conservation and improve heating and cooling system performance
• Installation of the first rooftop solar panels in our downtown in order to generate clean, sustainable power from the sun’s energy for years to come.

As I was reading the notice, I started thinking about other ways that I can contribute to being green. I came across a website for Erzen Green Cleaning located in Pittsburgh. They provide green cleaning solutions to hospitals, schools and office buildings in the Pittsburgh area. I liked their site because it gave you answers to the effects that green cleaners have on the environment. If you are interested in finding out more about green cleaners for the office or home check out their website, http://www.ezgreenclean.com.  (NOTE: The Bayer Center is not endorsing Erzen Green Cleaning as a service. We have not used them and do not know the quality of their work.)

Anyone else have suggestions on other green cleaners to use for everyday clean ups?

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Since the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was elected and the devolutionary efforts to move the care of people off the government’s To Do list and on to those of community nonprofits, the explosion of new nonprofits began. Wise heads have been sure that there are TOO MANY NONPROFITS! And it is true that the number of NPOs has more than tripled in that time…I keep a work journal and have pages of notes from Austin, Texas where in 1986, the primary funders of human services declared the above and tried to force mergers. Most of the energy generated from that activity was put into covert resistance. Mergers aren’t easy…especially not in an industry where passion and identity rule.

This reductive sentiment roils through the sector periodically and we have learned much about what is effective and what is not in merger and consolidation. In Pittsburgh, we have some mergers that have truly worked. They’ve worked for the people served (more and better!). They’ve worked for the staff of the organizations (better benefits, better IT, more career advancement). They’ve worked to better build community. Wesley Spectrum is a role model for productive merging. Here at the Bayer Center, we believe the community benefited from our merger with the Executive Service Corps. ESC volunteers brought expertise and experience that BCNM staff lacked. We can now help with HR, facility, and legal challenges.

If a true fit of mission and culture can be found, many nonprofits would benefit from being a little bigger. But finding the right partner is not an effort of desperation or at least, not solely…

However, in the latest Utne Reader (if you don’t know the Utne, I encourage you to check it out…it’s the Reader Digest for Progressives), I found the hairs on the back of my neck going up when I read Bob Eggers’ casual statement of his belief that over the next year, 25% of NPOs would disappear – and that we would have a “more dynamic and robust” sector if that happened. It is not the first time I have read such statements since the economy tanked.

It must be nice to sit where the gods sit and make such sweeping judgments! Who should go, Bob? I fear some we will really miss. Will it be a more robust, survival of the fittest culture or will the culture be robbed of the very things that are most important for healthy nonprofits? Nonprofits are not meant to be bad businesses, but engines of advocacy for those they serve, think tanks for social solutions and providers of loving, knowledgeable care. Those factors say robust and dynamic to me…and fragile. These qualities are difficult to fund in good times and likely to get lost in the drive for survival. I’d like to hear from you about how we can avert this potential loss of talent, skill and heart.

Some months back, I came across a fascinating NY Times article that discussed how the “kids” at Google found yet another innovative way of taking our “free data” and using it for a good cause. In this case, recent evidence suggest that when Internet users’ search for information on, oh, let’s say “flu-like symptoms” that Google “may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” What a Brave New World (Mr. Huxley)!

What this example succinctly illustrates is what “Researchers have long said–that the material published on the Web amounts to a form of [collective intelligence] that can be used to spot trends and make predictions” (NY Times). Wikipedia, a kind of “collective intelligence,” turned author, is harnessing such wisdom through its Wikinvest Web site; Wikinvest is building and archiving a database of user-generated investment information on popular stocks, for free of course.

Now, where I’m going with this is back in October of 2008, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “How Wise Crowds Can Advance Philanthropy,” by Steven H. Goldberg. Mr. Goldberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit that aims “to provide children-in-need with high quality everyday supplies,” suggests that we in the nonprofit sector should be thinking about how to harness this “collective wisdom.”

Mr. Goldberg writes that most mid-sized nonprofit organizations possess some of the most “innovative solutions” to today’s problems. However, as he notes, there is a dearth of “reliable information about the relative performance of nonprofits,” so as a result “billions of philanthropic dollars annually are distributed haphazardly among more than 1.5 million organizations, some deserving, some less so.”

His solution: use guidance markets to “consolidate information about which nonprofits provide the highest social returns on investment, thus guiding donors to the most attractive opportunities.” He further elaborates on just what this guidance market might look like: “This market could list virtual [stocks] in the form of questions,” and essentially evaluate each nonprofit on whether they accomplish their beginning of year outputs and outcomes.

The idea here is that the collective wisdom of the public “would drive virtual prices up or down depending on whether traders considered the market assessments too low or too high based on dispersed information including strategic hires, grants and sponsorships, regulatory developments, and…performance.” Furthermore, “by revealing the consensus judgment of potentially millions of donors, employees, and volunteers in the nonprofit sector, the market could forecast the relative success of organizations competing for donations.”

Finally, what I like most about this idea is that as Goldberg writes, “If collective intelligence could index nonprofits’ effectiveness, social enterprises would have an incentive to collect and report performance data to improve their [stock].” Think of it: greater sector transparency, a clearer recognition by stakeholders of nonprofit best practices, and more opportunities for smaller nonprofits to compete against larger organizations for funding. Sounds like an idea worth investing in.

Might women be the key to our economic salvation?  Perhaps I am biased, but after reading the New York Times article, Mistresses of the Universe, it’s hard not to agree with this notion.

 

According to the author (and corroborated by countless studies), elevated testosterone levels often lead to greater assumption of risk.  So is it any coincidence that male-dominated Wall Street just placed far too many leveraged bets?  No, we can’t place the country’s peril on the shoulders of men, nor are women the panacea for the nation’s problems, but, it is interesting to think of how more estrogen might have changed the course of the financial market’s future. 

 

After all, women have made quite a few marks in history.  Marie Curie introduced the world to X-ray and radium therapy.  Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean.   Rosa Parks sparked the Civil Rights Movement. With accomplishments like these, it’s no wonder why we encourage diversity in our schools, in our communities, in our organizations. 

 

According to research, women are more risk averse and less susceptible to peer pressure.  Perhaps we need more gender diversity at the top — and not just in the private sector, but in the nonprofit sector, too!  The Bayer Center’s 2008 Wage and Benefit Study found the majority of executive directors are female, but NOT in the largest organizations.  This begs an enduring question, how do we see greater shared power among our leaders?

 

 

Two recent national news stories highlight the desperate situations in which people find themselves in the current recession. In Bay City, MI a 93 year old widower froze to death because his electric utility had capped his usage for nonpayment. In California, a man killed his wife, his five children and himself after he and his wife lost their jobs. The headlines of these stories may engender a certain despair in you as they did in me. As a professional focused on nonprofit management, there was a second wave of grief and anxiety (paradoxically mingled with hope) because nonprofits in both of those regions could have forestalled both tragedies. The hope comes from my belief that nonprofits are preventing similar incidents all the time.

The widower, Marvin Schur, may not have died at home alone if he’d participated in an elder day program (like at Vintage and Lutheran Service Society’s SeniorNet and other organizations). He would have been missed if he did not appear as expected for a day or two. I believe a staffer or one of his peers would have inquired after him before it was too late. The story included the tragic detail that although the man had money in the house, clipped to a stack of bills, his electricity was turned off for nonpayment.   Many programs (including Faith in Action) match people who need everything from companionship to rides to help running errands with volunteers who can help with these daily needs. He surely could have had help writing checks or money orders to pay his bills.

Finally, Mr. Schur may have been suffering from dementia, which could explain his failure to pay bills despite having the money to do so.  The health and mental health providers that make up a large part of our sector could have intervened and ensured that a man with dementia not live alone.  Of course, the current economy can cause us to worry, as UPMC recently laid off 500 employees.  The layoffs were “almost entirely nonclinical, administrative and managerial positions” and occurred throughout the system.  Some of those positions were medical social workers, one of whom  might have encountered Mr. Schur and referred him to services that would have kept him out of isolation in his living room.

The same week that Mr. Schur’s story went national, reports came from California about a father killing his family and himself after falling behind on his mortgage and losing his job.  Losing two incomes (Ervin Lupoe’s wife had been terminated, too) while carrying a large mortgage in a down real estate market amidst constant reports of recession creates stress for a father of five. Initial reports, however, tally $15,000 owed to the IRS plus one $2,500 mortgage payment and a late fee.  Those are significant amounts to have to pay short-term, but they’re not insurmountable.  More insurmountable than these debts was the lack of hope that clearly set in.

Again, throughout the story, I see nonprofit connections.  The Lupoes lost their jobs because they’d understated their household income in an attempt to get lower childcare rates.  The childcare providers in this country – from home-based centers to lofty, accredited centers – are almost all nonprofits. They understand that affordable, safe care is important to all parents.

In the end, Mr. Lupoe snapped.  Was he unaware of his options when he started to think of the unthinkable?  Would the story have ended differently if he’d had a service like the warmlines run by Peer Support and Advocacy Network in Allegheny County and Grapevine Center in Butler County?  My knowledge of the commitment of nonprofits is that the story surely could have ended differently.

My hope is borne out by local news reports of the tragedy.  NBC Los Angeles ended their breaking news coverage with a section directing readers to places they can go if they need the kind of help the Lupoes needed.  In addition to local government employment and mental health resources, the article points to a nonprofit suicide hotline and two nonprofit housing groups.

The nonprofit sector does things no other sector does, in good times and bad.  It’s especially important in these hard economic times that we get our messages out to those who need them and make it easy for people to take advantage of the services we exist to provide.

“All of life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Martin Luther King (Ohio, June 1965)Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 I distinctly remember a conversation that I had with a few nonprofit leaders a few years ago, when the last turn in the economy hit.  We were looking at decreased foundation grants and dips in individual giving.  I was curious about how nonprofits might band together to weather out the storm.

 

One leader said, “In these times, I’ve got to work more closely with other nonprofits to get our mission done.  I don’t have the funds to accomplish it myself.“ She said that she had met with two other executive directors in her field to see how they could get more done with less resources.

 

In the same evening, I met another executive who said, “I don’t have the time or resources to collaborate right now.  I’ve got to hunker down and cut costs wherever I can.  If I share with other nonprofits, we won’t have enough to do our work.”

 

Two separate and very different responses to the same crisis.   They are both partly right.  Most people assume that if you are collaborative by nature, your organization would not be competitive.  I think you need to collaborate in order to be competitive—not with every partner, and not on every issue, but lone rangers don’t make it too well in this environment. 

 

Partnerships should be entered carefully, because if it doesn’t add more value than it costs in time and energy, it should be abandoned.  It must be in the self-interest of your organization’s mission.  (to add to the discussion on self-interest…)  For some, the goal also means preserving the organization or preserving staff positions, which also has some merit.  However, we need to be careful to steward the mission first, which might live on with or without the organization.  That’s a tough pill, but one that has to be considered.  Asking yourself, “What would happen to the community if my organization didn’t exist?” is a helpful question to clarify the key asset you bring to it, and how to safeguard that addition.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  We all need to be extra creative–perhaps create a new partnership–to achieve the results we need this year.

 

I recently came across the following quote from management consultant and author, Robert Lilienfeld, and archaeologist and author, William Rathje: “Myth: we have to save the earth. Frankly, the earth doesn’t need to be saved…. The planet has survived cataclysmic and catastrophic changes for millions upon millions of years…. Saving the environment is really about saving our environment – making it safe for ourselves, our children, and the world as we know it. If more people saw the issue as one of saving themselves, we would probably see increased motivation and commitment to actually do so.” [emphasis added]

This got me thinking about self-interest. It’s a contrarian thing to say in these times of obscene bonuses for immoral behavior and a financial system on the ropes as a result of unbridled greed, but self-interest isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty darn necessary and a lot of good can come from it.

I know, I know, I felt the collective shudder that just went out when that statement was published on this blog. After all, you work for a nonprofit. Let someone accuse you of failing to fulfill your mission, and you’ll accept that as a challenge to dedicate yourself with even more fervor. Let someone accuse you of lack of financial expertise, and you’ll nod knowingly, probably even take some secret pride in the affirmation of your focus on higher matters. But just let someone – anyone – so much as hint that you do anything out of self-interest and, well, brother, them’s fightin’ words if ever I heard ‘em!

I say, it’s time to get over it. First of all, no one does anything over which they have any control that is not out of self-interest. Yup, even Mother Teresa, the universal symbol for selflessness, acted out of self-interest. She chose to sacrifice her own comforts for the children she saved because she preferred that to not doing it. This makes her no less admirable or praise-worthy.

So, to get back to the quote, let’s think about what this means for our organizations. Will some people be motivated by the abstract goodness of our causes? Of course. Like Mother Teresa, they will choose to support what is right because they prefer that to not supporting it. But, as the above authors point out, won’t we be more successful in obtaining donors, supporters, volunteers, what have you, if we can find a hook through which what is right also serves what is in their personal interest on a more fundamental level?

Getting people off the streets is noble; bringing crime in my neighborhood down as a result makes me feel safer. Feeding the hungry is noble; keeping the cost of healthcare down because more people are better nourished helps my pocketbook. And so on. You get the idea.

So, think about what stakeholder self-interest means to your nonprofit and how you can leverage it. Self-interest pursued at the expense of others is immoral. But self-interest pursued for the benefit of others is simply common sense.

And, by the way, since you work for a nonprofit, you undoubtedly deserve to be paid more. There’s nothing wrong with that self-interest, either.

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