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How to Generate and Implement Great Ideas in a Busy Nonprofit

The impossible dream isn’t so impossible. It’s just outside the box.

Brigid Schulte has written a book, called Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. I was excited to see it, because nonprofits have a huge problem with ideas—how to get them, how to keep them coming, and how to find time to implement them once they’ve appeared.

Schulte explains her reasons for writing her book:

“I was just feeling so busy and holding on by my fingernails through every day, trying to work crazy hours, not only being good at what I did, but great and amazing at what I did, and then [at home] I was trying to be supermom.”

Some of fixing this problem requires different life choices from people. But Schulte has some suggestions for things workplaces could be doing to help the situation. For example, it turns out people actually work better when they have time to breathe. Leisure equals better results, because people have time to reflect on things and see better ways of doing them.

The challenge for many organizations, especially nonprofit ones, is that there aren’t enough people on staff to have this kind of luxury. Or that’s how it feels. Every day, people go home having failed to do everything they set out to do that day. Projects that would help the organization grow, or get out of a rut, don’t happen because nobody has time to think about them. So how does a busy organization get better results via becoming less busy?

There are good tips in Schulte’s book. Here are three others:

Revisit your hiring practices

David Brooks wrote a great column a few weeks ago in which he pretty much nails everything that’s wrong with modern corporate hiring practices. The values you communicate to potential employees (i.e. what you’re looking for in them) will substantially affect what they build themselves into. So rather than doing stupid things like GPA cutoffs, build hiring practices that encourage well-rounded, straight-talking people with imagination to apply. You’ll be more likely to get good ideas out of those kinds of people.

Another thought: I spoke with a friend the other day who was watching a large nonprofit slowly decay because it had become too corporate. He said any mission-driven organization should be staffed by people who are absolutely passionate about the issue in question. This isn’t a problem in small organizations but can become one once they start to grow. If the organization gets too compartmentalized, you’ll start to care about specialists (IT, HR, etc.) and might not care as much that they don’t care about your mission.

Build an open workplace culture

I mean several things by “open.” For one, I mean open in the sense of open to ideas. If the lady who ladles soup in the workplace cafeteria has a good idea, there should be no trouble getting it implemented (including empowering her to implement it if possible). Nonprofits, in the unenviable tradition of companies like Borders or Best Buy, nearly always stagnate once they’ve built The System, because they’re more worried about breaking it than they are about continuing to improve.

I also mean “open” in the sense of open to the rest of life. I know it’s often tough, but if employees are judged on their efficiency rather than their hours, if involvement is a family thing, if employees are pursuing side projects outside of work that build them into better people, if what happens outside of work is understood to be more important than what happens inside…those good ideas are a lot more likely to pop up. I should note, as does Schulte, that this starts with the CEO—setting an example is crucial.

Empower people outside your walls

Here’s where I get really controversial. What if your organization was constantly informed by what similar organizations are doing? By people in other lines of work who care about your issue? By skilled volunteers who can bring their part-time talents to the organization in sustainable ways?

enlisting-the-amateurs-jpgAll three of these things are crazy talk to most nonprofit leaders. But that’s a tragedy, because all three are related to major things that are holding back the nonprofit sector. Volunteerism, for example, has a major branding problem (to say the least)—it’s often seen as a nice, unskilled, mostly inefficient thing that kindly senior citizens do. And that’s mostly accurate. But I’ve worked with organizations to build skilled volunteer opportunities so that anybody with a skill set can organically plug into the organization. What happens, when it’s done well, is that all of a sudden, those unachievable backburner projects start getting done, new life and ideas flow into the organization, and donations increase because a growing army of ambassadors are plugged into what’s going on. (For more on this and the other two things in my list above, I recommend my white paper on the subject!)

Books could be written on each of these three things, but that’s the point of a blog post—get you thinking. I’m always happy to help new clients push the thinking into the realm of real results!

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Why Would Anyone Want This Job?

Today's lesson in "how not to hire a digital media expert."

Just saw this job listing for a "Digital Marketing Manager." My immediate reaction was: why on earth would ANYONE take this job? Anyone with "at least two years of demonstrated results" will know it's at least five full-time jobs.

Lesson for those of you looking for help with your online marketing: the object is not to keep a lot of balls in the air. The object is to move your organization forward. If you're looking for someone to keep you alive in as many digital spheres as possible, fine, hire like this--you'll waste $40k+ in salary and your new employee will be gone within a year, either due to burnout or "failure."

Structuring a position this way also screams to potential hires that you don't understand how these media work--that you want somebody "managing" a bunch of one-way systems. In reality, many of these platforms require constant, two-way attention as conversations are actively cultivated and continued.

If you can't afford five people to do all this, talk to someone like me about creative ways to outsource certain pieces of it--but don't waste your money, and ruin a year of someone's life, hiring like this. If you're not playing to win, don't play.

Description: (XX) seeks an energetic digital marketing manager to disseminate and promote work of (XX) scholars to online target audiences through a variety of tools, including social media, online campaigns, search engine optimization, adwords, enewsletters and influencer outreach. Primary responsibilities include directing social media marketing campaigns for primary and secondary brands, with particular attention to daily trends as well as medium- and long-term promotional projects, recommending new platforms and content placement in third-party locales, planning and managing Google Hangouts, Spreecasts, grant and adwords campaigns, monitoring and analyzing web and email analytics, creating clear and accessible reports with careful attention to return on investment. This position requires at least two years of demonstrated results with digital marketing.

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