Are Nonprofits Designed to Fail?

Originally published at The Huffington Post. There’s a story often told in nonprofit circles to inspire hope. It’s the one about the starfish, which in one version goes like this:

A man is walking on a beach and comes across a little girl tossing stranded starfish back into the water. Seeing the multitudes of other starfish, he asks, “Does that really make a difference?”

“It does to this one,” says the little girl, and another starfish sails over the waves.

I hate that story.

Yes, I know that it’s meant to encourage individuals to act, and of course that’s good.

But here’s what gets me: it also masks failure as success.

Too often, the starfish story is told to justify a charitable effort that’s not making real change. When our starfish rescuer shows up for work tomorrow, there’s going to be a whole new batch of starfish. Time spent saving a few is time spent not solving the underlying problem.

There are some who think that describes much of the nonprofit sector.

Peter Buffett, the philanthropist son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed called “The Charitable-Industrial Complex”. In it, he suggests that many nonprofits actually enable the suffering they’re intended to reduce:

Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left…

It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place.

To the Buffett family’s credit, they put their money where their mouths are. In 2006, as Peter Buffett relates, his father “made good on his commitment to give nearly all of his accumulated wealth back to society.”

But as Peter also recognizes, it may end up being futile, unless the donated billions are used to change systems, not symptoms.

The nonprofit sector is growing rapidly — faster by some measures than the business and government sectors, according to the Urban Institute. And yet many of the challenges it addresses remain — poverty, violence, hunger, poor health, and on and on — and often appear to be intractable.

It’s a dilemma that many of the people who work in nonprofits know all too well — and some are working hard to solve it. Nonprofit executives Bill Shore, Darrell Hammond and Amy Celep address it in an article called “When Good Isn’t Good Enough” in the Fall 2013 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Many of the fastest-growing nonprofit organizations begin with well-intentioned interventions and relatively naive ideas about the magnitude and complexity of the problems they aim to solve. Share Our Strength and KaBOOM! are no exception. By some measures our organizations were successful US nonprofits — growing rapidly, engaging numerous partners, and improving the lives of tens of millions of children.

Yet all the while, the problems we were tackling — hunger and the lack of opportunities to play — were getting worse and even accelerating in recent years as the economy took a downturn.

Shore, Hammond and Celep realized that they were in effect saving starfish:

The foundation on which many nonprofits are built is flawed and simplistic, focused on a symptom rather than the underlying set of problems, developed in isolation rather than as part of an integrated system, and organized to administer a narrowly tailored program or benefit rather than generate sustained, significant change for a person or community. As a result, change is incremental, not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact.

What to do?

If you truly believe that starfish shouldn’t die on the beach, you don’t just throw a few of them back.

You mobilize a response powerful enough to save all the starfish. Or, even better, you stop them from being stranded in the first place.

How to do it?

More on that next time.

Posted in Politics & Society | Tagged | Leave a comment

I Want a Desk Like a Super-Villain’s: Will Intelligent Agents Give Me One?

First published at the Huffington Post, 8/29/13. Every super-villain has a lair.

And in every super-villain’s lair, there is a gorgeous companion, a weird sidekick, and… the desk.

The sleek, perfectly uncluttered desk, from which our super-villain will rule the world. On it may be a sleek computer, the desktop of which is itself perfectly uncluttered, aside from the Go button for the orbiting death ray.

I want that desk. (I don’t need the death ray.)

Not just the desk, of course, but the fantasy it represents: power over all the little stuff that wants to clutter up most people’s lives — power enough to banish it.

The trouble is, the power required to banish the little stuff appears to be roughly the power it takes to destroy the world.* I’ve never seen anyone except super-villains with desks like that.

As for the rest of us, our lives are buried in little stuff. And the Internet is growing more of it at a geometrically increasing rate — tweets, posts, pins, podcasts, etc, etc, and etc-squared.

What to do?

Rephrase that. What would a super-villain do, what with the super-clean desk and all?

The answer: minions, of course. “Let my minions deal with it!”

And in fact that’s what we all may be able to do, soon. We’ll delegate our clutter to minions — not human ones, but a software version, also known as intelligent agents.

Intelligent agents are apps that are endowed with not just instructions, but goals, along with some amount of freedom — agency — in pursuing those goals.

To some extent, we have access to them now.

Here are some current examples:

1. Google Now. If information is the cloud, Google Now seeks to make it rain at just the right time and place. It promises to provide help “before you even ask.”

Among many other possibilities, that can include:

  • An alert that it’s time to leave for your restaurant reservation, after Google Now notices it on your calendar and calculates travel time from where you are now, allowing for traffic
  • A notification when a movie you’re anticipating hits local theaters, an opportunity to buy electronic tickets, and the display of those tickets as you and your date enter the theater.
  • Conversational interactions: Google Now will respond to natural language questions like “How’s the weather?” and commands like “Show me a picture of Bermuda.”

2. Apple’s SIRI and related services. Like Google, Apple is connecting your space and time information with personal preferences and more, and giving it all a natural language interface.

3. The Personal Shopping Assistant prototype by IBM Research. This app uses data, machine learning and augmented reality to speed and simplify a shopping trip. From an IBM blog post:

Have you ever found yourself in the supermarket staring at a shelf full of different cereal boxes, wishing someone could just point out the one with the best price, lowest sugar content, and the best reviews?…

When shoppers use their smart phone or tablet video camera to pan over products on the shelf, the application will instantly display recommendations and offers based on their specific preferences.

4. The Nuance persona. Nuance started out in speech recognition technology and now defines itself as a builder of intelligent systems (I was once the consulting creative director for speech tech firm BeVocal, which was acquired by Nuance in 2007). As Mark Hachman points out at PCWorld (“How Nuance is building a digital persona that loves you“), Nuance is focusing not just on data but on relationships:

While Apple and Google are attempting to create intelligent agents, Nuance is aiming to build an intelligent persona. Its emphasis is on “person,” and the technology is powered by the speech-recognition and natural-language tools that Nuance has bought or developed over the years.

“For me to be in the car, listening to the 49ers game, it’s halftime, I arrive home, I tell my TV to ‘put on the game’–that shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” says Gary Clayton, the chief creative officer at speech pioneer TellMe Networks, who holds the same position at Nuance. “This notion [of] where the intelligence comes from: It’s a system we can interact with in a conversational way. Because once you start interacting with the system in a conversational way, there’s almost an understanding that there’s a sentient being on the other end of the conversation. And the closer you can get to that point, the deeper the faith, and the stronger the relationship.”

As I’ve written earlier, I think intelligent agents are part of a coming form of marketing that I’m calling no-content marketing. They’ll spare us from much of the content we currently have to deal with in our lives, and in some cases will even conduct transactions on our behalf.

As they evolve, they promise to give even us non-super-villains our lives back.

As long as they don’t take over, of course.

*Maybe the two are related? Note to film students looking for thesis topics: “The Super-Villain as Extreme Neat Freak.”</code>

Posted in Digital Media, Technology | Leave a comment

Why Meaning is the Future of Marketing — and How These 3 Companies Are Pointing the Way

Also published at the Huffington Post. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what comes after the current rage for content marketing. As I argue here and here, I think that over the long term, the over-abundance of content will lead to “no-content marketing.”

But even now, we’re seeing the next step along the way: what we can call “meaning marketing.”

Meaning is what people really seek in most of the content they consume. (The writer in me hates the idea of “consuming” content, but I guess we’re stuck with that term.)

Meaning marketing aims to give them more of it. Here are three examples of companies that practice meaning marketing. Continue reading

Posted in Communications, Digital Media, Social Media, The Web | Leave a comment

What No-content Marketing Will Look Like

Also published at the Huffington Post. Last time, I argued that while content marketing is still on the rise (e.g. see this Content Marketing Institute report), it will eventually become the victim of its own success.

In a nutshell, I said that:

  • An advantage isn’t an advantage when it’s available to everyone. This is one version of the fallacy of composition.
  • As the supply of something increases, demand falls. Eventually, people will pay not to get it, as in avoiding advertising by buying premium TV, or taking an off-the-grid holiday

So I suggest that when there’s finally been too much content marketing, it will be followed by marketing that reduces or eliminates content: “no-content marketing.” What will that look like? In fact, we’re beginning to see now. Here are 10 early signs and predictions. Continue reading

Posted in Communications, Digital Media, Social Media, The Web | 1 Comment

What’s Next for Content Marketing: No Content

Also published at the Huffington Post. Content marketing is all the rage right now, and for good reason. In a digital world, people’s attention is divided among a nearly infinite range of media choices. That means it’s harder and harder to push a message at them, the way you used to with traditional advertising and PR.

So instead, you pull, by creating compelling content that attracts customers to you — content marketing.

Hence the explosion of publishing activity by businesses, non-profits and other organizations, through email, social media, blogs, image sharing, games and more.

According to a recent report by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs:

“On average, B2B [business to business] marketers are spending 33 percent of their marketing budgets on content marketing, which is up from 26 percent last year. 54 percent plan on increasing content marketing spending next year…

This year, B2B marketers are most challenged with producing enough content, which is different from years past, when the top challenge was producing engaging content.”

There’s just one problem: it isn’t going to work much longer. Although it’s still on the rise, content marketing is already showing signs of becoming the victim of its own success. Continue reading

Posted in Communications, Social Media, The Web | Leave a comment

5 Seconds to Better Looking Documents: Get Un-centered

Also published at the Huffington Post: In five seconds, you will be creating better-looking documents: Five, four, three, two —

Stop centering your text!

— One. There, now your documents look better.

Centered text looks OK for some special uses, such as page titles or formal invitations, but not much else. Here’s why:

Centering creates jagged line edges,
which can make a layout look messy, and
it makes the copy hard to read,
because the eye has to jump around so much
from line to line.

You see it all the time, but that doesn’t make it right.

Centering text comes under the heading of “Just because you can do it, it doesn’t mean you should.”

Posted in Communications | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Paul Ryan is Romney’s Sarah Palin

Cross-posted at Huffington Post. Of all the obvious blunders Republican leaders didn’t want Mitt Romney to make, it was choosing a Sarah Palin as his candidate for vice president. The possibility scared even Dick Cheney.

But that’s exactly what Romney has done.

What, you say? Paul Ryan, like him or not, is a person of substance, and Sarah Palin is, well, Sarah Palin. But if you look at why Romney chose Ryan, and why John McCain chose Palin, it becomes clear.

McCain was seen by the conservative base as far too impure ideologically, palling around with liberals on bellwether issues like immigration, global warming and campaign finance reform. He was also proving to be a disappointing campaigner: lacking a coherent message, committing gaffes and never really firing up any part of the electorate.

Sound familiar?

McCain chose Palin in a desperate attempt to buy credibility with the base of his own party. Same with Romney and Ryan. Romney, a man who apparently has no core, has attempted to hire one.

But what about Ryan’s intellectual gravitas, as compared with Palin’s anti-gravitas? Ryan’s famous plan, the Roadmap for America’s Future, may be radical and heartless, but as the GOP mantra goes, at least he has a plan.

Gravitas? People, Paul Ryan is a big fan of Ayn Rand. This counts as gravitas?

Only in Washington, as they say, though we shouldn’t overlook Star Trek conventions.

As any psychologist could tell you, if you’re obsessed with escaping someone, you are not free of that someone. In fleeing Sarah Palin, anxiously looking over his shoulder, Mitt Romney has run around in a circle, smack into Paul Ryan.

Posted in Politics & Society | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The World’s Shortest How-To List for Leaders

If you do a search for advice on leadership, you’ll find a lot of lists:

  • “Top 10 Things All Leaders Must Know”
  • “Leadership Advice from 5 Top Executives”
  • “The 7 Deadly Sins of Leadership,” etc, etc.

I almost always find these lists worth reading. But at the same time, I find that in one sense, they all completely miss the point.

That’s because by the very act of making a list about leading, you are making sure that whoever reads that list will not be thinking like a leader. A list is a formula, an algorithm. And the urge to follow a formula is the very opposite of what makes a leader. Continue reading

Posted in Leadership & Management | Leave a comment

The power of content, by the author of Content Rules

In this short interview, CC CHapman gives a really good, clear and concise explanation of the importance of content and how it works on social networks. He emphasizes the power of storytelling, and notes the surprising (to some) hipness on this score of the US Army:

sme_cc_chapman_v1 from Michael A. Stelzner on Vimeo.

Posted in Digital Media, Social Media, The Web | Leave a comment

Let’s watch Erato’s “Call Your Girlfriend” go viral, in real time

On Facebook today I came across a video shared by a friend whose musical taste I respect, so I gave it a click, and had that wonderful experience of discovering something great and unexpected. It’s three members of a female Swedish choral group named Erato singing – beautifully – a cover of “Call Your Girlfriend”, by Robyn. The young women are sitting in underlit gloom around a kitchen table, accompanying themselves by using cottage cheese tubs as percussion instruments, with amazing, deadpan skill.

Continue reading

Posted in Music, The Web | Leave a comment