January, 2010

A Planner’s Thoughts about Haiti

Smarter people than me will analyze the catastrophe in Haiti and ensuing relief efforts but from my view as a community planner, here are some lessons we might learn.  First,  when they need to, people will organize themselves to improve their situation.  Examples – families and neighbors tackling terrifying rescues of people buried in piles of teetering concrete and thousands of people organizing interdependent tent cities, patching together sheets and cardboard to create living spaces that give them some semblance of family while connecting to the broader community.  Haitians didn’t just sit and wait for rescue.  I don’t think they’ve gotten enough credit for their grit and resourcefulness. Same with people in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods – do we give the residents the respect they deserve?

Second, whatever collaborative structure the relief organizations thought they had didn’t seem to work so well on the ground.  Silly me – I actually thought the world’s big relief groups would’ve done beaucoups disaster drills, as in “Haiti’s had an earthquake, who’s doing what, where and when?”  So that the minute the last tremor passed, food and medical aid was on the way.  No assessment, no planning, no discussion needed — just hit the road running.  The world community really deserves better collaboration among these big charity power players.  Same here — are we talking collaboration at the same time as we’re stepping over our competitors to get to donors?  Are we able to act quickly and effectively to deal with major problems in our community or are we all still assessing and planning and jockeying for position?

Third, the power of the media to define the issues and to shape public response to the situation was amazing.  So much depended on where CNN and other networks aimed their cameras and deployed their reporters.  What they thought was important became what I thought was important until I started to wonder why they weren’t covering the trickier and considerably drier issues related to coordination issues between countries and major relief groups.  Knowing the right problem to solve is an old community planning mantra.  To what extent does the media make this determination — not just in Haiti but here in Milwaukee.  Something to think about.

There’s still more to learn from this — we’ll make a big mistake if we look away now thinking that relief and rebuilding will take its course.  It’s during the reconstruction of Port au Prince that innovation and empowerment are really possible.  Let’s stay tuned…..and, if you haven’t already, open that wallet and donate!


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — time for speeches.  Reflection.  Words of wisdom.  Don’t have much.  Watching the coverage of the evolving tragedy in Haiti and wondering what the lessons are.

Victory and Defeat: Sometimes You Eat the Bear…Sometimes the Bear Eats You

I was thinking of this piece before Aaron Rodgers kicked his bobbled ball into the hands of the Cardinals linebacker, losing the Packers first playoff game since 2007.  The look on Rodgers’ face said it all — oh, to have gotten this far – within yards of winning – and then lose everything.  The Packers will be fine.  We’re not worried about them.  They’ll watch the film, cash their checks and be comforted by groupies, wives, and sportscasters.  It’ll all be fine.

But what about you?  What happened the last time you lost?  When people in the nonprofit or government world talk about losing, they’re usually referring to not winning an important grant.  People have interesting reactions to not getting a big grant.  In my experience, the most common is that people never discuss the grant again.  It’s almost as if the grant committed suicide and the stigma is so great that no one feels it appropriate to mention its name.  Hardly ever do people sit down and do an honest and thorough debriefing about why they didn’t win.  I’m not criticizing anyone.  I don’t like to do this either.  It’s difficult, tiresome, and depressing – but, alas, necessary if you’re going to win in the future.

If you failed to win a big grant recently, sit down and think about these three possibilities. 

First of all, there is a likelihood that your grant simply was not good enough.  It may have been on the right track, had the right ingredients and partners, but just didn’t score high enough to be funded.  This means that in order to win next time you will have to pick apart the scoring, examing the point allocation and the comments.  You will have to see exactly where you lost points and figure out how to gain them back next time.  If you don’t do this you will absolutely repeat your mistake for this reason: when you wrote the grant the first time, you wrote to your strengths.  Unless you critically dissect the scoring, you will do the same thing again with the same results.

Second,  you may have made a serious strategic error.  This isn’t a problem of not writing a good enough grant proposal.  A mistake of this magnitude means that you went to Brazil when the funder told you to go the France.  Said another way, your lack of regard for the funder’s priorities put you out of the game from the jump.  The irony here is that you could write a suberb grant proposal in this situation and get tossed into the wastebasket at the first review.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with people (after the fact) who’ve made a serious strategic error on a grant proposal that was frighteningly obvious – picture a big scary clown face in the middle of the page – and they make the argument that the funder ‘just doesn’t understand what they are trying to do.’  Biggest reason this happens?  No one wants to take responsibility for the mistake.  Frankly, arrogance keeps some grantwriters from really listening to funders’ priorities and arrogance keeps them from accepting responsibility for the bad results.

Last, you can lose a big grant because of the luck of the draw.  A good friend of mine wrote the #1 scoring grant proposal in the country but it didn’t get funded because of political/geographical/who knows what else concerns that federal department had at the moment.  Granted this is a very rare occurrence but the takeaway is that you can write a really great proposal – maybe even one that is superior to hundreds of others – and still not get funded. Luck of the draw is a factor.  What if the Cardinals had won the coin toss?  (They would have won the game sooner.)

This is my point.  You lose a major grant.  Don’t bury it without a funeral.  Make yourself sit down with your colleagues and talk it through. Don’t let anyone, including yourself, quickly take all the responsibility and the blame.  Review, analyze, and discuss and figure out how to make those final 10 yards to score next time.

Kicking Ass and Taking Names: Boosting Accountability in 2010

I’m a professional evaluator.  What that basically means – once you wipe away all the program reports and statistics – is that I have a super-sensitive BS detector.  I can walk in the door of a program and know it’s either the real deal or fakeroo within about 10 minutes.  Same thing with outcome data — I can take one look at it and know if a program is totally trying to blue smoke me or is actually accomplishing something.

Just some suggestions – but here are 5 ways you can boost your accountability in 2010.  In other words, 5 ways to cut the BS and get serious and totally honest about your outcomes.

#1:  Measure the one or two things that are absolutely the most important to you.  What’s the bottom line for your program: no teen pregnancies, everyone finishing high school, no delinquency recividism?  Figure that out and measure it.

#2: Use numbers that don’t lie.  Either a teen finished high school or he didn’t.  Either a girl committed a 2nd juvenile offense or she didn’t.  These are powerful pieces of information.  Yes, it’s important that someone changed an attitude or learned a skill and yes, that should be measured but it shouldn’t be your only measurement!  Don’t be afraid to go for the true bottom line.

#3: Use decent measurement tools.  If you are measuring changes in knowledge, attitudes, or behavior, you might want to use a participant survey.  If you do, use one that’s been tested on your population, actually measures what you think is important, and can provide data that can be quickly analyzed.  Don’t – repeat DON’T – construct your own instrument unless you do so with the aid of a trained researcher/evaluator.

#4: Dump the “Baffle Them with BS” Strategy.  This little phrase was a basic tenet of my training in the old anti-poverty, community action world and we were really good at it.  Organizations that use the BTBS approach load up their year-end reports with endless lists of meaningless results; their outcome forests make it impossible to ever find a single tree.  And you know they’re hoping that the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ will convince the evaluator or funder that amazing (and well-documented) results are occurring. I see a long list of ‘results’ and I smell obfuscation.  If you’re accomplishing something that really matters – then just say so.  Dump the BTBS.

#5: Run a good program.  Honestly, if programs put half the time into running a good program as they do trying to hose the funding source, we’d all be better off.  Do what you say you’re going to do.  If you are unable to do it right or well, tell the funding source and change your strategy.  Don’t stretch, bend, pretzelize your numbers and results into having the appearance of a decent program — actually have a decent program.  It makes that accountability thing oh so much easier!

Accountability in nonprofit programming has become a very sophisticated game.  It’s easy to get caught up in new ways to prove impact.  My thinking is this:  run a good, solid program and measure its bottom line results and leave the fancy weaving to others.