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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

When Things Don't Go As Planned

Twenty years ago this week, I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona to start my new job as Director of Development for Lowell Observatory. I was 26 years old, in my first senior management level position, and I had no clue how I was going to accomplish what the institution expected of me.

Nothing has gone as planned since then.

I thought that the job at Lowell would get me enough experience to move back to Wisconsin, so that I could move up the ranks at Wisconsin Public Television. I was supposed to be in Arizona for four years, then move “home.” Instead, I quit my job at Lowell Observatory after four years to have my son, Matthew, reluctantly turned down a job offer at Wisconsin Public Television, and dedicated myself to being a stay at home mom. Which lasted three months.

Since then, my journey has been a series of twists and turns, none of which I was expecting. I founded my consulting firm when Matthew was three months old. I vowed I wouldn't specialize in public media, yet my second client was a public radio station and now the majority of our clients are in public media. I said I wouldn't go back to work full time, yet when Matthew was two, I was working full-time at the local hospital, running the foundation. I thought I'd go back to public media as a staff person for the rest of my career, but I barely made it two years due to conflicts with my boss. I thought I'd have more children, but after a miscarriage or two, that wasn't in the cards.

I didn't think that my consulting practice would amount to much, especially since one of my professors in my MBA program said I didn't have the mindset of an entrepreneur, yet here I am with a modestly successful 15 year old company.

I steadily moved up in volunteer leadership roles with the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International, holding positions in all divisions of service, yet after three failed attempts to serve as chair of the organization, I was making no progress.

I never thought I'd be a cat person. (#random)

At every turn, however, something good has eventually resulted from it. Because of these unplanned turns of events, I have worked with several public media organizations with people who are genuinely passionate about the role noncommercial media plays in lifelong learning and civic dialogue. I've traveled the world presenting at conferences, AFP meetings, and nonprofits who are energized by my workshops and talks. I've met dozens upon dozens of earnest and enthusiastic AFP volunteers who remind me that it's not about what titles we have, but about the volunteer impact.

And today, thanks to Jim Anderson, I was honored as the AFP Northern Arizona Outstanding Fundraising Professional for a surprise third time, with an amazing tribute video that Jim crafted. It featured testimonials from some very special people: Ken Verdoia, my Downton Abbey (among other programs) pledge partner and consummate broadcasting professional; LuAnn Leonard, Executive Director of the Hopi Education Endowment Fund, who has been an inspiration to me and whose organization has been a benchmark for other charities we serve; Scott Fortnum, MA, CFRE, ACFRE, a stalwart AFP colleague and valued peer volunteer; Dave Riek, General Manager at KAWC and a public media colleague since I moved to Flagstaff, who has been with GoalBusters every step of the way; Rick Swanson, another colleague and friend who was instrumental in launching GoalBusters full-time and cooks up a mean lobster feast; Bob Marty, television producer extraordinaire, who raised my profile exponentially in the PBS system with the honor of working on the Downton Abbey pledge events; and my parents, Jim and Annie Lin, who have supported my efforts without exception my entire life. Of course, Jim Anderson's in-person commentary made me cry, saying that I change the lives of everyone I touch, including him, even though, 11 years ago, he declared that he was unchangeable.

And now we face another unexpected turn in the United States. I am devastated by the results of the presidential election. For the first 6 hours after the results became clear, I could not stop crying.

But I have to believe that something good will come of this. I must believe this; it's the only way I will get through the days, weeks, months, and four years coming up. Maybe it will be improved civic engagement. Maybe it will be activation of communities who don't accept a cult of fear. Maybe it will be new collaborations and partnerships that never seemed possible before. I don't know, and it's too early, too raw, to tell.

What I do know is that the nonprofit community will continue to improve people's lives, no matter what. Funding sources may not be the same, and the players come and go, but, as in the hundreds of years before now, the American philanthropic sector will survive the winds of change. Regardless of your political persuasion, we will need time to heal, to forgive, and importantly, to listen, but we must be committed to continuing and expanding our work.

In the days leading up to the election, I posted a quote from Jane Goodall: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

I want to make the world a better place. I don't know how to do that right now, but it will come to light. So how do you want to impact the world?

This blog first appeared on the GoalBusters Blog and reflects the personal opinions, experience, and far too public emotional processing of Alice Ferris.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

For-profit and nonprofit businesses: are we all the same?

Are nonprofit organizations any different from for-profit businesses?

For years, many professionals have encouraged us to think about nonprofit organizations just like you would a "regular" business.

I agree...to a point.

The easiest delineation between the two business types is that for-profit businesses distribute profits to shareholders, while nonprofit businesses reinvest profits in the mission of the organization. Nonprofit organizations definitely need to understand their "product," follow sound financial and operational practices, and all companies, regardless of classification, need to generate a profit to preserve long-term sustainability and the success of its purpose.

But when the bottom falls out, I expect something different from nonprofit organizations.

Recently, a nonprofit organization that I have been deeply involved with as a volunteer for almost 20 years, made business decisions that I have a hard time understanding. Ten people, several of whom I count as friends, who provided exemplary service and supreme dedication, were let go with less than a day's notice. They received calls in the morning and by the end of the day, they were unemployed.

I'm sure there are facts I don't know. And I'm told that this is the way it is done. This is “normal business practice” nowadays.

I've seen this happen at more than one nonprofit organization, and it makes me angry.

The line between nonprofit and for-profit companies is more blurry every day. With companies like TOMS, Warby Parker, and many others, it's becoming harder to tell which is a for-profit and which is a nonprofit. For many consumers, it doesn't really matter. I get that.

For better or worse, the nonprofit sector has traditionally claimed the high ground of being morally superior to our for-profit brethren. Not only does the mission come first, but we also care for our team. We're more humane. We're collaborative. We're “family.”

Business practices that treat employees as disposable leave us with little to differentiate ourselves from the traditional for-profit sector. So we might as well go to “the other side” and make more money. Or better yet, work for a hybrid corporation like TOMS.

I could be making more money. I probably should be making more money. But instead of becoming an accountant, or something else, I chose fundraising. I chose to work with small nonprofits. I chose to pour my heart, soul, time and money into the philanthropic sector. And increasingly, I am disappointed in business practices of organizations that purport to be the leaders in the sector.

Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is often quoted in reference to philanthropy. Tocqueville writes this on associations in the US:

"In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together....From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded."

When we come together, when we have shared values as a group, we have the power to change society. We have the power to treat people with dignity. We serve as an example to others of how to work with respect for one another. Things that the charitable sector has historically had at its core.

In an effort to make the nonprofit sector "more like a business," I hope that we have not forgotten that the word “philanthropy” means “love of your fellow man.”

This blog first appeared on the GoalBusters Blog and reflects the personal opinions of Alice Ferris. But Jim Anderson probably agrees, since we both wrote the GoalBusters manifesto that outlines our values.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Party's Over! - Conducting Special Event Audits

GoalBusters conducted a FREE "Special Events" critical analysis webinar for nearly 700 Bloomerang registrants. Here is our presentation in SlideShare format.

Here is the complete video presentation as delivered by GoalBusters' Alice Ferris, ACFRE and Jim Anderson, CFRE hosted by Bloomerang.

Everyone likes a good party, but what do you do when you know in your heart that a fundraising event has reached the end of its effective life? Rather than let the party go on, conduct an objective event audit and let the facts help you decide what do to next.

In this practical session, we'll discuss the signs of a failing event, the tools to analyze the event's effective return, ways to soften the blow to volunteers of ending a losing program, and strategies to evaluate new events before they even happen.


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