From time to time I advocate for carefully evaluating the technology tools ones organization uses rather than jumping on what appears to be the hottest new thing everyone is apparently using. Not every tool is appropriate for every organization.
It was with great interest that I started to read Taproot Foundation president Aaron Hurst’s piece, Five Investments You Can Skip. In it, Hurst follows a similar theme in suggesting that non-profit organizations of a certain size and scope consider giving certain “must haves” a pass. Upon reading them, however, I was a little skeptical about some. The five he suggested were:
1) Volunteers. Recruiting and managing volunteers generally isn’t worthwhile unless you use at least 50 per year, they do at least 50 hours of service each (or fewer volunteers and more hours each), and you invest in volunteer management systems. Short of that, it’s almost certainly a waste of time.
2) Websites. Most nonprofits (the small neighborhood ones) would likely be fine with just a Facebook page. A template site would do the trick for slightly larger group. Only 25 percent of nonprofits need customized web design.
3) Board. There is a tremendously high fixed cost to training your board to facilitate donations (in kind or cash). If your board can’t generate a large part of your budget (say, 20 percent), you are likely to find them getting in the way of fundraising success and eating up senior staff time (and increasing burn out). If that’s the case, your organization would likely see more success with a smaller board focused solely on audits and the legal requirements of governance.
4) Social Media. Does it drive your advocacy, fundraising, or program success? It does for likely less than 2 percent of nonprofits. Everyone else is wasting a ton of time and energy on it. Much like my local car wash that urges me to “like” it on Facebook.
5) Strategic planning. You need a strategic plan, but for most organizations it can be a lot lighter than most MBAs want to admit. It doesn’t need to be perfect and frequently should be more of a living document.
Numbers 3 and 5 I can agree with pretty readily. The suggestion to eschew websites in favor of a Facebook page in number 2 seems to be contradicted by the implication in number 4 that social media, including Facebook may be a waste of time and energy.
I did consider that what he says might be true for non-profits in general. I don’t think it is applicable to arts organizations where providing up to date information about events and activities pretty much necessitate a web presence that is adaptable to your specific needs. I have a difficult time imagining that Facebook is a good option for most non-profits given that they need a site that distinguishes them and their mission from everything else one might come across on the web.
His suggestion that only about 2% of non profits are seeing any benefit from social media made me wonder 1) what he based that on and 2) if true, it may just as likely be due to lack of understanding about how to use social media effectively.
Number 1- Not investing in volunteers, held a number of reversals of opinion for me. At first I assumed he opposed investing in Volunteer management software, then I realized he meant not having volunteers at all. This seemed the most controversial of his points as reflected by the long and impassioned comments that followed. Hurst answered those objections with some research that supported his assertion that volunteer programs weren’t effective below about 50 people.
“When an organization reaches 50 volunteers AND achieves an effective volunteer management model, not only do they lead and manage their organizations better, but they are also significantly more adaptable (i.e., reflect the capacity to be a learning organization), sustainable and better resourced (i.e., have skills, knowledge, experience, tools, and other resources to do their work).”
On the other hand, the way I read it, a small number of volunteers, even poorly managed, help to leverage organizational effectiveness at lower budgets.
“Organizations with 10 to 50 volunteers, regardless of whether they are managed well, are statistically equally as “effective” as their counterparts without volunteers on all measures of organizational effectiveness (capacity), yet their average (median) annual budgets are almost half…This implies that organizations that break the barrier of 10 volunteers, regardless of whether they have figured out all of the best practices necessary to manage those volunteers, are equally as capacitated as their non-volunteer-based organizational peers, at perhaps just shy of half the cost…it is important to challenge the assumption that an organization cannot aspire to a more fully “volunteer-engaged” organizational model. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge the need to conduct further rigorous research to test the cause-and-effect assumption of this important finding.”
The other thing about the study Hurst cites is that it seems to be focused entirely on whether volunteers contribute to organizational effectiveness in executing their programs. It doesn’t seem to examine the role of volunteers in furthering organizational goals in terms of advocacy, awareness building and generally representing the organization to the community. If these factors are measured as part of some criteria, it is not clear.
Despite the doubts that one may harbor about whether all his points are well supported, there is some validity to Hurst’s essential idea that it may be worthwhile to assess whether the implementation of all those best practices everyone knows you need to be employing really provides the best return on investment. It is understandably difficult to be a confident skeptic in the face of widely recognized best practices, but these days it could contribute to long term survival.