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Brian Brown

He's Dead, Jim

He's Dead, Jim

What I discovered when I wore a Star Trek t-shirt around town.

Music to Grow By

Music to Grow By

Hello, son. Let me sing to you of our community, its traditions, and its stories. 

Why pessimists are awesome

Why pessimists are awesome

The most frustrating person on your team might be the difference between success and failure.

Why you have bad neighbors

Why you have bad neighbors

What’s wrong in this equation is that we’ve replaced social structures with social services.

9 ways to slash your email time by 80%


If you've ever thought, "I could get so much done if people would stop emailing me," you're not alone. I work with dozens of development directors, CEOs, and board members and I hear that from most of them.

I feel the same way sometimes, of course--and yet despite working with over 50 clients (i.e. helping carry the fundraising load for 50 different organizations), my email inbox is empty right now as I write this.


There are a number of reasons, and not all of them can just copy and paste into your life. And sometimes (like with keeping track of tasks) different tools work better for different people. But here are some things that have helped me reduce my time spent on email by probably 80%:

Inbox by Gmail

Inbox is Gmail's new web/phone app that incorporates everything Google has learned from running Gmail over the years. It allows you to group emails (automatically) a lot more intelligently and with a lot more room for customization, so the stuff you don't need to open can get swiped away in one touch, the stuff you don't need to read never even clutters your inbox (though you can easily find it if you want it), and things that you just don't need to worry about right now get snoozed for any time you want (and disappear till then). You can pin important emails so they stay at the top of our inbox till you've dealt with them. Responding is also faster and more intuitive. You can even leave yourself reminders that don't appear till you need them. I was pretty organized before I even touched this product, but even then it reduced my time spent on email by probably 20%.

Sometimes you need to manage individual relationships and keep track of when to contact lots of different people (for example, a contact/relationship development flow where you want to email somebody today, then send a follow-up email a week later, then a call in a month, etc.). If these are pretty simple and straightforward and there aren't too many at once, you can use Gmail's reminders and snoozes to keep track (it's pretty smart; like if you say "call John Doe at 9:00am on Thursday," you'll actually be able to click the reminder and go straight into the call). If, however, you've got loads of these--like for an entire set of dozens of donors--you seriously need to consider a good CRM and/or project management software (17hats and various free project management tools can be good for individuals or small groups...I still haven't found an affordable CRM that does everything I think they should).

Also, this doesn't work for Inbox yet, but for regular Gmail, you can install the Boomerang extension so that messages send later. If you don't want to be that jerk filling up your team's inboxes on Sunday night, give that a try. (It also allows you to automatically re-send an email at a designated time if it hasn't been read or responded to.)

Unroll.Me is one of several apps that'll allow you to unsubscribe en masse from any email subscriptions you don't want, and aggregate any remaining ones into a single email. It scans your inbox for what in my case turned out to be literally hundreds of subscriptions I'd picked up over the years. Then it allows me (en masse or one at a time) to roll up all those emails (the ones I still want) into a single email I get at a time of my choosing. They come in a two-column format, a fixed box per email, so I can glance through that JCrew sale, the latest three emails from that listserv, etc. in about 10 seconds. If I can tell from glancing at the subject line and first paragraph or so that I want to read an email, I can just click it--but more often than not, a quick glance is all I spend on it--instead of opening, reading, and archiving 20 different emails throughout the day. (I got into Unroll.Me before Inbox for Gmail launched, so it's hard to say if I would get it again now, since Inbox mirrors some of the functions--but unsubscribing from dozens of things I no longer want would still be awfully helpful.)


I've tried lots of project management tools, but so far Evernote has given me the best combination of the features I use most often. Emails I don't need to read till right before that meeting can get funneled right into a note in that client's notebook and have a time-sensitive reminder attached to them that can buzz my phone if I need it to. And unlike a lot of "to-do list" tools, rather than just have a to-do item, I can have any length of notes, Word documents, PDFs, videos, etc. all tied in directly to what I need to remember. And the nice thing is, Evernote syncs or connects with seemingly everything. Between Evernote and Inbox, I never have to leave an email in my inbox to remind me of something, and instead of six emails representing one massive pile of work I need to get through in order to clear out my inbox, they disappear into tasks and projects that I'll take care of at the appropriate time. (I actually track nearly all my client data in Evernote, and can use its phone widget to quickly glance at what I've got coming up today or this week.) And a quick "forward" click, or copy and paste, or screenshot capture, or in the case of many apps clicking an integrated Evernote button, allows me to archive information where I can find it later rather than poring over it right now.

Pocketand Feedly

I read a lot of articles. I'm friends with a lot of interesting people on Facebook, and I like reading a lot of helpful industry blogs. Those two things are the main places I get interesting stuff that makes it onto my own social media postings (via Buffer) and blogging. That used to devour a ton of my time. Feedly allows me to subscribe to all those blogs and magazines at once, and just check what's new at my convenience. Pocket allows me (from my phone or browser) to save articles for reading later (in a gorgeous, customizable, mobile-friendly format--even if the site they came from wasn't mobile-friendly). Now checking Facebook doesn't have to mean getting sucked in. Usually in the morning, I spend less than three minutes scanning Facebook. An interesting article or two get added to Pocket. Then I end up reading the article on my phone later, when I'm waiting in line for lunch or waiting for the water to boil for dinner.

Saying no

Nobody owns you. Under normal circumstances, nobody has the right to expect a response on a Sunday morning. Many, many emails go through that just don't need your one-sentence response (or your long argumentative one when this argument really doesn't matter, or could be done faster by phone). So don't. I've gotten pretty vicious about that swipe motion on my Inbox for Gmail app that removes an email from my inbox.

Sometimes saying no can be a passive thing--just ignoring some emails, or responding the following week to establish a dynamic. Sometimes I've been surprised to find that somebody I thought was being presumptuous about my time was actually just getting something off his plate, and was actually happy to not have to think about it again until I responded a week later.

But other times saying no requires a tough conversation with somebody--a co-worker, a client, a colleague, a donor, a boss (okay, the last one you might have to live with). Sometimes it requires being the grouch for a day. But I've found that if I establish boundaries and precedents with people (even if that means enforcing them once or twice), they're usually pretty good about respecting them. For example, I had one client who had a habit of emailing me every time she thought of something relevant to me--it might be a project that needed doing, or it might just be a random idea. That was how she worked, and it was partly how she kept her inbox empty. But the net result was 12-16 emails per day. If I had to live with that because she was my boss, she would have been a good candidate for Unroll.Me so I could just check her emails once a day and skim them all at once. But since she wasn't my boss, we ended up having several conversations about how to best adjust each of our habits so that we could work well together. She started adding those random thoughts to an Evernote file, and copying and pasting it into an email a couple times a week (or saving it for our weekly phone call).

Schedule email checks

Checking your email is not quick. I forget the stats, but it's something like triple the time you think it does. Mentally detaching from what you're doing, focusing on your emails, and then getting back into the groove takes a lot of time. So pace yourself. Stop thinking of email as a heartbeat to which you must constantly be connected, and start thinking of it as a project you do each day. Check a few times a day at specific intervals, or when you have some spare time. People will actually survive if they have to wait an extra hour to hear from you.

Be smart about responses

Ask yourself these questions:

(1) Does this absolutely require a response? (If not, lose it.)

(2) If it does, what kind? If it's a quickie, consider doing the quickies in batches a couple times a day (see "schedule email checks" above). You'll take up less time than if you did them individually over the course of the day.

(3) If it requires a longer response, think about when would be good to respond to it. With Inbox for Gmail, you can snooze it till tonight, tomorrow morning, etc. And think about HOW is the best way to respond. If it'll take you more than 10 minutes to type the email, consider a phone call. For those rare emails that require five paragraphs of typed text, get in the habit of doing them in three.

All these things, if you make a habit of them, will train you to be faster and more efficient. Too bad the You of today can't go forward in time to see how fast the You of a month from now will look by comparison.

Save common responses

Are there certain inquiries you get a lot? Consider saving common responses in an Evernote note. When you get that email, copy and paste the response rather than doing it manually each time. (If you use Outlook, it actually has a tool that allows you to do this within the email app; e.g. you click "question 1 about monthly giving" and it pastes it into your email automatically.)

That's it! Hope you find at least a couple things in here that you weren't doing already. The more time you have to focus on your core job, the happier you'll be and the better results you'll get.

Changing people's minds



Most of our attempts to convince people to back a social or political point of view are wasted effort.

I was recently interviewed by a radio station on "Changing People's Minds." The audience was home schooling parents; home schooling is an increasingly mainstream educational option and many homeschoolers are outperforming even their top public and private school peers, but home schooling also carries with it some challenges in terms of ideological insularity. As it happens, home schoolers are less and less unique in that respect.

We had a great chat about how to persuade people of differing viewpoints; I hope I was able to do some good!

Listen here:

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Original audio link

"You need to understand your audience as people and love them as people, not as projects to be fixed or enemies to be vanquished."

Check out some of our services here, or email meto talk through how my team might be able to help. We bring over 50 combined years of communications experience as well as up-to-the-moment knowledge to your situation! __________________________________________


Do you want to talk about something controversial without your listeners tuning you out? Brian Brown is here to help. Listen to his tips on today’s Home School Heartbeat.

Mike Smith: We’re joined today by Brian Brown. He’s the founder and CEO of Narrator, a consulting firm that helps nonprofit organizations with strategy, communications, and fundraising. Brian, welcome to the program!

Brian Brown: My pleasure! Thanks for including me.

Mike: Brian, it can be hard to discuss controversial social issues—especially when people disagree. Why do we need to really be able to talk winsomely about these issues?

Brian: I think people need to be able to talk winsomely about anything important. One of the big challenges of our current culture is that we’re really segregated by our ideology. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who hold strong liberal views or strong conservative views has doubled in the last two decades—as has the percentage of each of those groups who actually think the other group is actively trying to harm the country.

We spend most of our time, in terms of engaging political issues, reading and watching sources of news and ideas that reinforce that notion that the other guys are the bad guys. And we’re less and less likely to have friends who disagree with us. So this means the minute that you open your mouth about something politically controversial, anybody that you actually need to convince has already figured out that you fit into the “bad guy” box. Their subconscious is getting itself all worked up to fire back at you.

People who can overcome that initial subconscious response, I think are really our only hope for sensible policies and workable compromises, or for that matter even functioning communities.

Mike: Brian, how can we talk about these controversial issues without alienating those who disagree with us?

Brian: I think we need to give people an opportunity to be the good guys. I’ve talked before about the importance of that first minute that people have in conversation while their prejudices are formed. Prejudices aren’t necessarily bad things—our brains assemble our memories of relevant experiences into narratives that tell us not to touch that hot stove, or not to go out on a date with that guy we saw screaming at his mom yesterday. We don’t have to have those experiences over and over in order to learn them because we have prejudices.

So a huge factor in having any kind of productive conversation where prejudice is working against you is being able to instantly appeal to emotions that help people build new narratives, new prejudices, rather than falling into the ones they’ve already got.

One example that comes to mind: People have a lot of political biases surrounding redefining marriage, but not a lot surrounding the needs of children. So there are organizations like the Center for Bioethics and Culture that have made enormous headway building bipartisan coalitions around the notion that children have rights and, for example, deserve to know both of their biological parents. They’re thinking in terms of the children’s perspective rather than the parents’, and they’ve got people on both sides of other arguments coming together on it.

Mike: Brian, how can we talk to someone who has already made up their mind about something? Can we really get them to hear us out?

Brian: Yes, I think so, because the human brain is always learning. But we have to provide frameworks that help other people to understand the world outside of the box that they’re used to using to think about it. When I have experiences or talk to people that give me a little bit of a different perspective on things—not one that necessarily goes against my values, but one that makes me see them slightly differently, maybe by putting two of my values in tension with each other—my perspective gets shifted.

So for example, I live in Colorado Springs, where many people equate taxes with government and government with evil. So taxes hardly ever get raised. Well, one recent exception to this was the tax increase to pay for police-related expenses. Conservatives around here love and appreciate men and women in uniform. So the folks arguing for the tax increase said, “Hey, we don’t like taxes either! But it’s for the people in uniform.” People were forced to decide which mattered more to them: hating taxes, or supporting the troops, so to speak, which forced them to actually think rather than take the knee-jerk reaction. (The initiative passed, for the record.)

A couple of mistakes to avoid on this point. One is appealing to values that people don’t share. And another is treating life like a battlefield, where we’re juiced up to go to a war of words if we ever meet a real live liberal. When a person is the embodiment of evil to you rather than a unique person, he probably doesn’t appreciate being pigeonholed. You’ve really already lost.

Mike: Brian, many conversations today end up happening on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. How do we have a good conversation on the internet?

Brian: You don’t! I would say, never have an important conversation when you can’t see the other person’s face. You miss too many social cues, and you feel too insulated from the potential consequences of your words.

What can happen online, though, is a cumulative shaping of people’s perceptions and values. Because on the internet, people can curate their own environment. They can read sources of information that are customized so that they never have to feel uncomfortable. On Facebook, for example, I can block or remove from my newsfeed anybody who posts things that don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy.

This has a huge impact on my perception of reality. If twenty of my Facebook friends all put up a graphic that says, “John Connor is the best Republican candidate for president,” and I see it again and again from people I know and respect, it makes me think there must be some truth to it.

So there are three things that people can do to be a positive force on social networks. One is to stay friends with people who disagree with you. Another is to keep connecting with those people on levels of shared interests and enthusiasm. And the third is, instead of saying things designed to blast your opinions out into the stratosphere, work in small thoughtful things from time to time that communicate your values but also take into account the values of those diverse friends. Because you’re creating a social environment where people are more likely to recognize good ideas for good ideas, rather than just associating them with loudmouths and weirdos, which is how they’ll otherwise see it.

Mike: Brian, how can homeschooling parents teach their children to talk persuasively about these difficult topics?

Brian: I think homeschoolers have one of the biggest challenges when it comes to that problem of knowing people who aren’t like them. Some of the ones that I’ve known have withdrawn not only from public schools but largely from the community as a whole. On top of that, because homeschooling parents tend to care about their children very deeply, they’re often among the most protective when it comes to movies and TV and literature.

I’m not about to pretend there aren’t negative influences out there. But in order to talk persuasively about difficult topics, you need to understand your audience as people and love them as people, not as projects to be fixed or enemies to be vanquished. And real-life interaction and engaging rich stories are the two best ways I know of to develop your ability to do that.

Mike: Do you have any resources that you would recommend for us?

Brian: Yeah! Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler wrote a great book called Connected. It came out a couple years ago. And on the front of building up your imagination—your ability to wrestle with difficult things that maybe don’t rub you the right way.

And  I think for some parents I’ve known, the best exercise I could imagine would be to read Chaucer and try to come to grips with how this thing filled with raunchy humor is considered a masterpiece of Christian literature. That’s an odd thing to say. But thinking about those kinds of questions I think are very, very helpful in terms of coming to grips with people who are not like us.

Mike: Brian, thank you so much for joining us. Your advice will help us be gracious and charitable, even in difficult conversations. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Generational transitions



I’m ceding my space this week to my Narrator colleague Jessica Stollings. Jessica is an expert “generational translator,” who is superb at helping people and organizations work through generational transitions, from workplace dynamic issues to leadership transitions all the way to donor base transitions. It’s awesome to be able to offer our clients Jessica as a resource—through speaking, training, coaching, and all-out consulting.

Sometimes a key part of building for your organization’s future is figuring out how to integrate Millennial staffers in a way that best taps into their strengths—and I know a lot of my clients have an even bigger problem, which is figuring out how to take an aging donor base and build into the rising generations (without alienating their existing givers). Shoot me an email if you want to chat about this stuff!

Midway through the semester, a university professor came to me very upset about her students. She had e-mailed them a homework assignment, and only one of the eight students had completed it. She wasn’t sure what to do.

We looked into the situation and learned that most of the students didn’t know about the assignment. Why? The professor had sent it by e-mail, while the students used Facebook messaging for their classes.

Yes, all of the students had been issued e-mail accounts by the university, but many of them had never logged in. Because they considered e-mail slow and outdated, they had instead opted for newer forms of communication like Facebook and text messaging.

Once the professor learned how her students communicated – and the students learned how their professor sent out her assignments – everyone was able to get on the same page.

After that, the students knew to check their university-issued e-mail accounts for assignments, and the professor learned that creating an account on Facebook would prove useful for collaborative discussions and project management.

The Bottom Line: Different generations often use different communication channels.

The Solution: Find out which communication channels your supporters or employees use for information, and establish clearly which channels they’re expected to monitor. If the people you’re trying to reach use different channels, consider adapting your message to the format they’re used to.

This blog post is excerpted from Jessica’s forthcoming book, “ReGenerations: Why Connecting Generations Matters (And How to Do It).”

What does your mission feel like?



Sometimes it's easy to forget that the vast majority of people--even of those who get your emails--don't see what you see every day. It's difficult to understand why they don't pour all their time and treasure into it they way you do.

Imaginative storytelling is sometimes needed, more than mission statements or even reports. It's not just about facts.

What does your mission feel like?

Case in point: I know Chrysalis Youth Theatre pretty well, having worked on their event marketing since their inception. They are a small operation that stretches a small budget remarkably far, and still manages to do a good job keeping people in the loop. I knew they'd just achieved the near-impossible with a full-scale production of Les Miserables. But it wasn't until they produced the video below that I could feel the significance of what they're doing; feel the energy of their efforts; see the shy young people opening up and spreading their wings. Most of the best stuff they're doing is happening backstage. Check out what I mean:

WHITE PAPER: Finding Tomorrow's Donors

sample-photo - the look i'm going for

sample-photo - the look i'm going for

The biggest challenge we see for our clients is building a larger, more sustainable donor base. Snail mail prospecting is dying (and expensive). Social ad blitzes work about as well, Thus far, new technologies have mainly been used to digitize the impersonality of the appeal letter--rather than to support the scaling of relationships.

We think there's a better way.

Download the PDF

Does Social Media Silence Debate?

Woman thinks to notebook

Woman thinks to notebook

A recent New York Times article explored recent survey data that led researchers to some thought-provoking conclusions about social media’s effect on civic discourse. It’s pretty common knowledge by now that people tend to surround themselves with people who agree with them on things. Conservatives and liberals tend to want to live in different kinds of places (75% of consistent conservatives want to live in suburbs or the country, 77% of consistent liberals the city), and they more consistently say most of their friends share their views. That’s on top, of course, of the childhood instinct to gravitate towards people like me.

But how does social media interact with this situation? Does it make it better? Worse? Here’s what this recent research found:

  • People are less likely to voice opinions when they think their views differ from those of their friends. Since their feeds are dominated by people they like, find interesting, or tend to agree with, social media can intensify this tendency and keep dissenters quiet. In fact, people who use social media regularly are less likely to express differing views in the offline world.
  • No politics at the dinner table? Social media is like the dinner table, only more so. Most people said they would be more willing to discuss something controversial at dinner or at work than on social media.
  • Educated people and thoughtful people are quieting down. People with more education are less likely to weigh in on a Facebook debate, as are people with moderate views. People with less education, and people with more fervent or extreme views, dominate the debate.

So it would seem social media is indeed providing a liturgy for our lives, a set of repetitive habits (shaped by algorithms) that affects how we think and act even offline.

What do we do about this? How can we make sure our online habits are having a positive effect on our social interactions and our political discourse?

I recommend two articles to help you start thinking:

The Real Lesson of Ebola Hysteria



Two writers I like and respect tackled the topic this week. David Brooks wrote his column on that topic, and made some excellent points. Gracy Olmstead took issue with one of them, and also made some excellent points.

The best thing David said, which I don’t think Gracy quite gave enough credit, boils down to this problem, a problem that I think is one of the most fundamental in today’s America—and to which nonprofits, politicians, and other leaders ought to devote a great deal of thought and attention:

We live in a world where we can affect less and less of what we see, and where we can see more and more.

When the stormwater drains overflow, or the traffic is terrible because a road needs another lane, or some political problem keeps getting worse and worse, we can do little if anything about it. As Brooks points out, most of us are cut off from those in authority. Traffic is an excellent example; studies have shown it is one of the few annoyances of life that is actually cumulative—it makes you madder every time you have to deal with it, which is why road rage becomes an issue. I think an obvious reason is because we can do nothing about it. We are powerless.

Meanwhile, we are aware of more and more problems, as Brooks also points out. Rather than only seeing what’s before our eyes, we are slammed with a 24-hour news cycle of tragedy and fear from around the world. We don’t just have to worry about getting the kids to school—we are supposed to worry about a shooting 2,000 miles away. What is right in front of our faces matters least, and the Big and Important things that will never affect us matter most—a civic and economic calculus in which, as Joy Clarkson pointed out this week, the things that make us most human are the things least prioritized.

I wish I could take all the national media players who cultivate fear, all the suburban “developers” who split the soul of a city like a Horcrux into subdivided portions scattered across a megalopolis, all the politicians and administrators who continue to centralize the political ties of our communities until the “communities” are so big as to make our votes worthless and the ties more so, and every piece of the puzzle that conspires to elevate the scale of our existence beyond a level normal people can handle, and shake them and tell them: this is inhumane.

The day before yesterday, I was talking with a friend about voting. He observed that intellectuals seem to be least convinced that voting makes a difference, and your average Joe tends to be most convinced. I think I know why, and it’s not just cynicism. Intellectuals are most likely to have ways to rise above the situation I’ve described.

For example, I just mailed in my ballot for this year’s election. I’m quite plugged into (especially) city politics, and I actually knew some of the people and issues on the ballot. That allowed me to vote more intelligently, but also to know that if a particular issue mattered to me, I had resources beyond the vote—I knew who to call, or what action to take, regardless of who won the election. Most people these days don’t have that resource. Hardly anyone does at the national level. For Average Joe, the vote is almost literally the only tool he has, into which he can channel all his fear, frustration, and aloneness. And yet he still knows he’s a tiny thing in a huge mass of people.

The opportunity before today’s leaders at every level in every sector is this: to find ways to push day-to-day life and its priorities back to a human scale; geographically, politically, and otherwise—to allow people’s minds to open up again to a human-scaled life that’s socially acceptable to structure around the things that make us human. This is one goal that informs my voting, and it’s a goal that drives my daily work to help nonprofits rethink how they engage their supporters. People need it today more than they ever have.

If the Ebola hysteria reveals one thing about our culture, it’s that.

Why Conservatives Should Reform Philanthropy

Human-scale civil society has been abandoned to big foundations and bad ideas.

(This was published in The American Conservative today. It's written for a conservative audience, trying to motivate them to jump back into the sector. But non-conservatives might enjoy it as well. Political liberals and moderates have been shaping civil society for a long time, to their credit--and it's high time conservatives joined the conversation, as they have a unique perspective to offer that could be a helpful addition amid today's challenges.)

On paper, conservatives have always valued civil society. After all, as Yuval Levin put it earlier this summer,

The premise of conservatism has always been that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.

Yet while today’s conservatives agree that the space is important, they are much more interested in the “protecting” part than creating and sustaining. They fiercely man the wall, defending the citadel against all threats, while the city inside decays. They do this because they have a flawed understanding of what civil society is, and what is has to offer the social problems of American society. If they had half an idea, they would be leading the charge to reform “the space between.”

What is civil society?

In recent years I’ve seen two (related) flaws in how conservatives approach civil society.

The first is that, to put it quite bluntly, they don’t seem to understand what civil society is. In most of D.C. think tankery as much as in an after-church conversation in Oklahoma, “civil society” seems to be a euphemism for “religion and family” (example here). There are lots of conversations about those things in conservative circles. There aren’t many about the countless other pieces that make up, or have made up, civil society: philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, social entrepreneurship, fraternal organizations, and the like (a list that is constantly changing with time, contrary to conservative conceptions of civil society as a monolithic thing).

The second is that across this board, caring about civil society usually seems to amount to protecting its existence, rather than shaping how it works. The primary reason for the “space between,” the assumption goes, is to serve as a buffer between the individual and government. Civil society is a naturally occurring collection of “spontaneous orders” (libertarian hero Friedrich Hayek’s words) that need not and should not be shaped or directed intentionally (at least not by the government); as with the free market itself, simply preserving it will allow it to fulfill its purpose. The irony here is that this conception of civil society dates back to Enlightenment liberals—eventually Hegel and Marx would understand civil society as essentially market forces that insulate the individual from the state (and God forbid conservatives should mess with market forces!).

Yet the notion of civil society is much older than Hegel, and much older than the Enlightenment individual-vs.-state conceptual dynamic. It dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Cicero viewed it as one of two ways (along with republican government) in which civilized people worked together to shape their collective existence. In this view, it’s not enough that civil society exists—how it functions, and to what ends, are questions of importance equal to the legislative debates that make national news today. In a healthy view of civil society, arguing that government shouldn’t solve a problem because “civil society can do it” isn’t enough—the conversation must continue into how civil society will solve it, and it must continue in the institutions of civil society itself.

How should civil society solve problems?

The culture war mentality that prevails in much of the conservative mind views “the culture” as a battlefield to be fought over, rather than, as Makoto Fujimura puts it, a resource to be stewarded. Case in point: a few conservatives raised an outcry against the idea of eliminating the charitable tax deduction, but it took that crisis to draw their interest from Important Things. Generally, they seem to think the nonprofit sector will do just fine if left to its own devices—that is, if it continues to be run mainly by liberals.

Meanwhile, self-described liberals generally have an opposite view of civil society from conservatives—much less Hegel and much more Cicero. They don’t use the term “civil society,” but they’re very interested in all the elements of it conservatives ignore (philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, social entrepreneurship, etc.). And they’re less interested in protecting their existence than in figuring out how to make them work better; that is, in using them to better shape our collective existence. On the rare occasion when an argument ends in “civil society can do it,” it’s mostly left-wingers and left-wing foundations and research centers that continue the conversation about how.

Read the prominent blogs and magazines of American philanthropy and NGOs, go to the conferences of the people who are thinking about how to solve social problems through nonprofits, visit academic centers like those at Penn or Stanford, or just hang out with the 20-somethings who say they want to work for a nonprofit—nearly all the prominent voices and new ideas are coming from people who would self-identify as liberal or moderate, or institutions that carry with them a predominantly left-wing philosophy of philanthropy. Having lost the battlefield (in the case of the nonprofit sector, largely unfought), conservatives have, if we accept Cicero’s understanding, withdrawn from civilized society.

This is unhealthy. Conservatives say they want less government, they say they value civil society, but they can’t have less government unless civil society actually does the things it’s supposed to do. The pieces of the puzzle that work together to accomplish those things aren’t the same pieces as a century ago. And while conservatives have been AWOL from the sector as such, it has been shaped by ideas and institutions that are increasingly damaging its ability to function.

While there are many great ideas being experimented with in (and out of) the nonprofit sector these days, the way the sector has been structured (formally and informally) in recent decades has created a growing demand for ideas that don’t come from the technocratic groupthink of yesteryear’s leftism.

Here are three examples of the situation, and what conservatives could offer:

1. The culture of the nonprofit sector has been driven by a dated Progressive mentality that is hurting nonprofits and their efforts to improve society.

Individual donors give 73 percent of the money supporting American nonprofits. Yet the nonprofit sector has been dominated structurally by foundation giving and government grants—potentially big payloads that ask local organizations and even entire cities to rebuild themselves in the image of one program or foundation’s dream. Big Philanthropy, like big government, tends to oversimplify problems in a quest to knock them out in one big blow. It substitutes the theoretical knowledge of “experts” (a very loose term in this sector) for the on-the-ground experience of people who know their communities. And it often makes situations worse rather than better. After years of pressuring nonprofits to do everything their way, technocratic foundations are increasingly admitting their way (most recently, “strategic philanthropy”) has often been ineffective. Yet their solution is to find a new grand silver bullet rather than question their own suffocating influence over civil society (the most recent sexy idea, “effective altruism,” was designed by a man who thinks a cow is more valuable than a human child).

A conservative perspective, one that builds strategies around the 73 percent and its far fatter wallet, and respects and develops the actual relationships and practical knowledge inherent in healthy civil society, would be both effective and welcome. Civil society is about effectively structuring and empowering human relationships, not replacing them. But with a few quiet exceptions, conservatives working in the nonprofit sector have mostly gone along with whatever the Big Philanthropy trend happens to be. The only pushback, from some admittedly excellent organizations, has been a feeble argument for “respecting donor intent,” which we could translate as “let the market work; preserve the space between.”

2. The mentality of the nonprofit sector doesn’t mesh with human nature, and as a result is contributing to the fragmentation of society.

If you’ve ever ignored a beggar and told yourself that your donation to the United Way or your church exempted you from the awkwardness of that situation, you know that the way American charity is currently structured has something terribly wrong with it. There’s a bizarre moral dualism in play when the wannabe Good Samaritan is supposed to ignore his actual neighbor, and give to support The Poor in the abstract. You, like the beggar, are just a piece in the system—you’re supposed to focus on making money so you can donate, and leave things like helping the poor and building community to the professionals.

Yet there’s been a lot of work in recent years on the psychology involved in things like giving, civic involvement, and community. And it has supported a lot of old ideas which today would be considered conservative—like the idea that there’s an inherent value to participation in human-scaled institutions, the idea that things like love and compassion are incarnational (you have to give them to real people, not just the idea of people), and the idea that visible habits and social norms—far from being inherently restrictive and therefore bad—can actually get more people to do the right thing and thereby improve results.

In other words, the professionalization of American civil society (whatever its short-term value), by denying these scientific facts, has contributed to cutting people off from each other, heightening the modern sense of isolation, and actually increasing the problems civil society is supposed to fix. (That’s a big claim—more on that here).

Nonprofits could run very differently. A few are restructuring to reflect these truths about how human nature works. It’s likely (see below) that nonprofits that try will see a dramatic increase in both their effectiveness and their budget size. But there hasn’t been an audible conservative voice making this case.

3. The donors who support the nonprofit sector are becoming more conservative in their giving styles, desires, and expectations—with little to no market for what they want to invest in.

Partly because of the fragmentation of contemporary society, and partly because of the ways the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial generations were raised, the American donor is changing. He’s less and less comfortable with the dynamic described above, where he’s supposed to give his money to the professionals and then get out of the way and mind his own business. He tends to want to see the real, human results of the good deeds he does; and he tends to want to have a hand in those good deeds himself if he possibly can, rather than pay somebody else to do them. He’s more likely to give to organizations with which he has a personal or relational connection, and to keep giving when it’s something he sees his friends doing too. He sees the problems in the world around him every day, and he wants to feel he has some ability to affect that environment. He loves words like “community,” even if he’s never actually seen a good one in real life. In other words, he yearns for civil society.

What if American civil society rose up to meet the challenge this donor offers? What if its communications and fundraising strategies were designed to make involvement a worthwhile experience? What if it were generating new and creative ways for supporters to play a firsthand role in taking ownership of their own neighborhoods and communal problems? What if it were a catalyst for the slow eradication of fragmentation and social isolation, as “places where people sleep in buildings near each other” became real communities? What if it rejected the inhumane bigness, compartmentalization, and professionalization of the contemporary “space between” and rededicated itself to being civil society; the nongovernmental means by which civilized people shape their collective existence?

There is a very real chance such a civil society would accomplish things unheard of in today’s existing charitable arenas. I’ve spoken with people who think the $300 billion Americans give to charity every year could double, if American nonprofits did this. But unless conservatives take ownership of civil society, we may never know.

How to Get Your Donors to Give Monthly



The average retention rate of a nonprofit donor is 27%. And it’s increasingly expensive to find and convert a new donor. That means a ridiculous amount of nonprofit execs’ and fundraisers time is actually just spent replacing donors who ditched them—often, as the stat indicates, replacing 3/4 of the donor base every year! Yikes.

By contrast, the retention rates in well-operated monthly giving programs are often around 90%. And the amount a monthly donor gives is usually much higher (it’s easier to get most people to give $25 at a time than $100, but $25 x 12 months = $300!).

Well operated, though, is the key. Asking people to agree to write a monthly check isn’t enough. Monthly giving requires some extra effort to set up and run properly—but it’s well worth the effort.

A monthly donor program should:

(1) Be branded.

Give your program a name, an identity. You’re not just asking people to give you money once a month. You’re attracting them with a brand-within-a-brand. You want something that people are regularly reminded of in their daily life (because its name or feel is linked to common memory triggers), something with emotional resonance, something with a clear story of which people can be a part. There are different schools of thought on this and it depends on what your organization does, but often, connecting the brand to a specific need is helpful.

Compassion has done this for a long time with their Sponsor a Child program. Everybody knows what it is, it’s connected to a specific child, and it’s easy to buy into and tell people about.

(2) Be exclusive

What are you really asking people to join? People are tribal by nature; the us-vs.-them mentality is strong in the human psyche. There’s a reason people spend obscene amounts of money on football games, and get irrationally worked up when confronted with the latest outrage perpetrated by a member of the opposing political party. So a monthly donor program that makes people feel like part of the elite club provides a strong draw, and a strong sense of loyalty once inside (which in turn increases retention rates still further). Part of this is accomplished in the branding process. But you also have to think about perks (see below), how to tap into the emotions that made the member donate in the first place, and ways to make membership a membership, not just a bill.

ISI makes getting a foot in the door really easy—it’s free!—but you immediately see the benefits of ramping up to paid levels of membership. Most exclusive of all, though, is their actual ISI Honors Fellow program for college students—loads of perks, application only, and long-term value.

(3) Be public

Social currency is a big deal. If your club is worth joining, it’s worth other people knowing somebody has joined. If you find ways to publicize membership, you increase the club’s visibility and the outside sense that, golly, all the cool people are doing this. You can do this by featuring members on your website and social, by having members-only events that are publicized on social media (so non-members can see their friends are going), or even with old-fashioned stuff like free t-shirts. But there’s another aspect to making it public, and that’s empowering your members to publicize it themselves; making membership and its benefits worth sharing, and making them social.

My local symphony has done such a good job building its season subscription program that probably 70-80% of the people in the seats for a concert appear to be season ticketholders (I know, because once in a while they make it public and ask all the season ticketholders to stand up). I personally have recruited half a dozen people to join me next season, and I routinely emote on Facebook about how good last night’s concert was.

(4) Have perks

Being a member has to have practical value. You’re not just asking people to give you something (their money); you also need to give them something. What members-only events are you planning (they’d better be really cool)? One-time access to exciting people (like a celebrity) can not only make members feel valued and part of the club; it can also be a great foundation for a campaign to drive new memberships. Happy hours and other social events can be good ways to connect members with each other (increasing the public/social value). Sending occasional gifts and handwritten notes makes people feel valued (even if the gift is just a token). Members-only content is a must; you can’t just send them the regular ol’ newsletter; remember, they have to feel like they’ve got the inside scoop. More personal, more intimate, more detailed content goes a long way. It’s also very helpful to have a members-only section of your site, so that when a member visits your site (say, to read your latest blog post), he gets personalized, exclusive content access, in addition to the ability to manage his membership (this also allows you to put in cool stuff on his account page, like a progress bar that nudges him to up his monthly donation, or a “latest news” link that encourages him to tweet it for you on the spot.

Another thing to think about: one of the perks might be ways to get more involved in your organization. Volunteer opportunities, chances to introduce a friend to the organization, etc. If you’re doing this wrong, it’ll feel like you’re bothering them and asking for more stuff. If you’re doing it right, the opportunity to take ownership of something feels almost like being offered a job at your dream organization.

I’m currently helping one of my clients (a national organization) build a monthly giving program, and it’s going to be linked to a lot of location-specific perks, most of which benefit both the donor and the organization. They’re creating hub communities in major cities, so that when you get involved financially with the organization, it translates to real improvements in your lifestyle.

(5) Be personal

If somebody is going to bother being part of the “in” club, they’d better know that gives them a personal, relational “in” with the organization. You can provide great events, content, etc. but if they’re still on the outside of the inner circle, if they still feel they can’t affect the organization, there will still be points when they feel like outsiders—and that’s not how you want a member of your exclusive club to feel! This means exclusive communications for your members should be personalized (coming from a specific email address, not your organization’s info@ address), and your members should at the very least have a personal contact with a lower-ranking staff member who has the title of the director of the club (even if that’s not the staff member’s main responsibility). Who that person is should remain consistent for each member; you can divvy up the workload if you want to but I should know Joey is always there on the other end, and if Joey gets a new job, a personal introduction to his replacement is in order. Listening is also a part of this—every member should get a regular (even if it’s only twice a year) call from his contact to talk about the member’s life, how things are going, what the member thinks about the organization, giving the member the inside scoop, etc. (this is another good opportunity to introduce members to each other; “Hey, that reminds me, do you know so-and-so? He’s interested in this too!”).

(6) Be automatic

Membership should not be work for the member. And you absolutely don’t want the member to have to manually make that payment every month—he might forget! An automated system connected to your CRM is a must; members should be able to set up an automatic credit card payment or EFT (electronic funds transfer from a bank account), and the process of nudging them to update an expired credit card should be automatic as well. It’s worth the investment.

To talk to me about building a monthly giving program for your organization, contact me!