When I was thinking about some of our nonprofit clients recently, it led me to muse yet again about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle225px-Bundesarchiv_Bild183-R57262,_Werner_HeisenbergI mean, doesn’t everyone ponder subatomic particles when they think about nonprofits?  Or is it just me?

Anyway, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is one of the core tenets of quantum physics.  Most simply, what it tells us is that you can’t know both the precise location and the precise velocity of a particle at the same time.  You can know one; you can know the other.  But you can’t know both.  So I ask you, are you letting the principles of quantum physics get in the way of your organization?

Do you know your precise location and your precise velocity?  Too many nonprofits subscribe to the uncertainty principle and just know one or the other – they know where they are, but they’re not sure where they’re going, or else, they have a definite destination in mind, but they don’t really know where they’re starting from.

In the first case, they might monitor their activities in great detail day to day.  They may thoroughly understand who they serve, how they serve them, and what it costs them to do that.  But if they haven’t taken the time to look externally and really figure out how the world is changing and where they need/want to be in three years, they’re merely adrift on the wings of uncertainty.  They know where they are, but not where they’re going.

On the other hand, some organizations have a strong vision in mind.  Their goal is clear, they know what they want to accomplish, and they think they see a path to getting there.  But they haven’t bothered to look at where they are right now.  What is each program costing?  How does the Board assess its own performance?  Why is turnover 150%?  They’re hurtling into the future on a spaceship whose engine is fueled by uncertainty.

The good newsparticles is that quantum physics only applies (so far as we know) to the microscopic world of muons, leptons, and tauon neutrinos.  So, since you’re a bit bigger than they are, you actually can know where you are and where you’re going.  And if you want to be a strategic nonprofit, you must. Knowing both your location and velocity (i.e., assessment and vision) is the key to making sure that your nonprofit survives and thrives to fulfill its mission.

Now, as for the famous quantum physics puzzle of Schrodinger’s Cat cat2and the notion that it’s both alive and dead until you look at it, I haven’t figured out yet how to relate that paradox to nonprofits….

Maybe next week.

Last week’s announcement of the Presto Fund demands one key question of regional nonprofits: Can we truly transform ourselves?

The Presto Fund, in case you’ve been lost on some desert island, is the new fund created by CMU alumnus Dominic Presto “to free nonprofits from the grinding pressure of daily fundraising and enable them to focus on innovative, system-changing service delivery models.” With initial assets of around $1 billion, and expected to grow significantly from there, the Fund is a major new philanthropic force in Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania.steel

According to its website, the Presto Fund will:

“.. provide a minimum of $50 million annually in multi-year, unrestricted grants of at least $100,000 for overhead, management, administration, and research and development. The Fund will not offer program-related funding, nor will it limit the number of consecutive years of support it may grant. The Fund seeks to free its recipient agencies from the cycle of fundraising and enable them to focus on figuring out how to do what they do best even better.”

To really understand the philosophy that drives the Presto Fund, it’s important to know a little about Mr. Presto.

Dominic Presto is from a small, southwestern Pennsylvania town. His father was one of the last deep-mine coal miners in the region and was tragically killed in a mining accident when Dominic was just 8 years old. The mining company went bankrupt as a result of the accident, and what little settlement the family got was lost after the mine owners talked Dominic’s mother into investing in a new mine that turned out to be a scam.  For the rest of his childhood and most of his teen years, Dominic (an only child) and his mother lived on friends’ couches on the good days and in the street or shelters the rest of the time.

Given his success later in life, it’s not surprising that Dominic was an extremely bright child. He has often said that very early on as he bounced from shelter to shelter, he was perplexed by seeing the same faces over and over again. Why, he wondered, couldn’t these agencies change the system?

Dominic earned a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) and became an engineer. He spent the next 20 years in research departments where, in his words, he was “the driving force behind more hare-brained failures than Homer Simpson!” Eventually, he came up with a concept for using rice syrup as an annealing agent in the fabrication of steel that was so far-out his usually tolerant bosses refused to let him work on it. So he left, formed his own company… and today he’s giving billions of dollars to philanthropy.

The Presto Fund appears to be a dream come true. A simple application process, openness to all types of regionally-located nonprofits, and unrestricted, multi-year funding of at least $100,000. So, the question is, are we ready for it? Are we ready to become risk-takers? Are we willing to fail? Do we have the discipline to stay rigorous when the worry over funding is removed?

Mr. Presto did not get where he did by continuing to do things the same old way. And he won’t fund us if we do.

Finally, as you consider transforming your agency through the generosity of this major new funder, keep in mind one last requirement from the Presto Fund’s website:

“The Presto Fund will not support nonprofits that are taken in by blog entries posted on April 1st.”