Author - Allison Fine

Innovation Through Metaphors
Making Donors Matter More
Sweet Briar College #BoardFail
Younger Women and Matterness
Doctors and Inattentive Care
Shutting Off Comments
Readying Your Cause to Matter More to People
The Gift of Making Others Matter

Innovation Through Metaphors

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.58.49 AMThis month’s edition of my, “What’s the Big Idea?” podcast features Keith Holyoak, a cognitive psychology professor at University of California at Los Angeles.

We discussed his research on the use of metaphors and patterns to develop new solutions to problems. Analogical thinking, Holyoak told me, “is one of the hallmarks of human thinking,”  It has led to inventions such as Velcro, which an engineer created after noticing the tiny hooks that enabled burrs attach to fur and clothing.

For organizations trying to break out of set patterns, Dr. Holyoak said it is very important to bring people together who have different ways of looking at the world. We too often think of diversity as a reflection of people’s backgrounds and ethnicity, and don’t think enough about different ways of thinking as a key ingredient for creating teams of innovators.


Making Donors Matter More

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.40.39 AMI was asked after a recent Matterness webinar for Wild Apricot about fun and meaningful ways to thank donors.

Great question!

I wrote a few answers for Wild Apricot, but wanted to expand on the issue of thanking donors here. Organizations spend enormous amounts of time and resources identifying new donors for their efforts. One reason why they have to spend so much energy is because so few people give a second time. According to Penelope Burke’s excellent annual survey of donors, 65% of first-time donors don’t give again to the same cause. That’s a lot of lost people! And given that it is so easy to give once online to a cause that moves someone in an instant and that Millennials are more loyal to causes than institutions, this number is likely to increase not decrease.

Thank yous are a large part of the Churn inside organizations. A task to be kept up with, like opening the mail and answering email, rather than an opportunity to a transaction into a relationship. Thanking people with a form letter meant for the IRS just isn’t going to do it anymore. Or worse, thanking someone with a robotic reply that includes another ask for money ain’t gonna cut it.

Donors need to immediately feel like they sincerely matter to an organization, that they are more than a number on a check, that they  have a name and a face and a story. And organizations have to reciprocate by revealing their own personalities and stories to donors as well.

I want to start a dynamic list of fun and interesting ways to thank people that will make them feel like they matter more (indeed that they actually do matter more!) and that will make them more likely to stick with the company/organization longer.

Here’s a start, please add to it:

  • Handwritten Thank You. Sound old fashioned? Well, it is, but it’s also enormously effective! Of course, many organizational leaders will dismiss this idea as impractical (“Who has the time or manpower?”) And that’s where Matterness come in! By switching to an abundance lens, these leaders will see that there are lots of people who are willing to write notes who aren’t staff. This is a perfect example of a task that can be spread out and make volunteers feel like they matter more  — including board members! Make a Google doc of donors and ask a group of volunteers to sign up to write notes by a certain date to them (and you can give them sample language) The doc will make everyone accountable to each other. I guarantee that the volunteers will enjoy their meaningful job and the donors will feel great about their donation and the organization (real people live inside this cause!)
  • Invite Donors to an Intimate Social Event. This is from a great list of thank you ideas from Kivi Leroux Miller. Move people immediately from online to on land by including an invitation with the thank you to an in person event. It can be as simple as a casual lunch at someone’s office to learn more or a cocktail party at a board member’s house. A causal, social event where the donor can learn more about the cause and get to know other people who are giving to it and working for it.
  • Crowdsource Thanks. Lisa Colton shared this really fun story with me. The Band Death Cab for Cutie had a new album coming out. As a fun gesture for their most loyal fans, they wrote out the lyrics to one song and a big canvas, cut it up and mailed the pieces to fans. They asked the fans to take a photo of their piece and post it on Instagram. When all the pieces were put together, their fans got a sneak preview of the lyrics, plus the “super fans” had their original pieces as keepsakes. This could be such a fun way to thank donors or volunteers. Imagine painting a big thank you note signed by the whole staff, then cutting it into pieces and mailing it to a group of people and asking them to upload the pics.
  • Celebrate Small Donors. We need to even out the over-celebration of the 6 figure gift givers. We have all see the plaques in stores celebrating the Employee of the Month. Why not celebrate small donors of the month? And better, let them tell their own story about why they gave on your blog or Facebook page (or anywhere else!) Donors need to “see” people who look like them and give like them in order to keep giving.
  • YouTube a Thanks. I was in Des Moines, IA a few years ago when the local credit union was opening a new branch. In order to entice people to stop by, they gave gift cards to people around town and posted videos this fun interaction. Organizations could visit a few donors and give them a handwritten thanks, or a small gift, for their donation and post the video. It will be fun and heartfelt – two things that can never be a bad thing!

People are not expecting extravagant thanks for their donations and efforts, in fact, many people don’t want them, but they do expect to be genuinely appreciated.

So, what fun ways have you tried, or would you like to try, to show your people that they really do matter to you?



Sweet Briar College #BoardFail

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.47.28 AMSweet Briar College, a 114 year-old women’s college in rural Virginia, announced its closing due to financial difficulties. According to its website, the board voted to close the college on February 28th — and announced it to the world via press release on March 3rd, before telling faculty, students and alumnae.

The Sweet Briar board did everything they thought they were supposed to do. They examined the problem, ran through scenarios like merging with other colleges or becoming co-ed and came to the conclusion that the only pathway for them was to close the college. And that’s the problem. Their idea of what they are supposed to do is outdated and an abuse of Matterness by purposefully disempowering their key constituents as smart, generous, creative people capable of helping to solve problems.

This board, like so many other nonprofit boards, thought their job was to try to solve every problem in secret behind closed doors. They had been wrestling with serious financial difficulties for years without having open and honest conversations with students, faculty, parents and alumnae about the problems and asking for help. I don’t mean asking for money, I mean asking for help a community-wide strategy to either close or remain open. Instead, the board went through a series of options behind closed doors and announced their decision to close. Of course, there has been a huge backlash from people are who passionate supporters of the college and were taken by surprise by the sudden-feeling decision of the board.

One person interviews in the Times article said, “I understand that liberal arts colleges are struggling,” she said. Still, she said, the board “just threw in the towel.” This is the heart of the problem. No one believes that the Sweet Briar took this decision lightly, however, since no one on the outside was privy to the discussions or decision-making process of the board, the board now faces a tidal wave of anger, disbelief and protest. (Here is the inevitable Save Sweet Briar site.)

Why do boards continue to assume that it is their job to work in secret? Their job, they believe, is to review financial statements, make donations and ask others to do the same, and for gosh sakes, keep things quiet! This expectation is reinforced by the clubby feel of boards- friends of friends are invited to be board members and the last thing most people want to do in such a collegial atmosphere is make waves. Because board members come to their jobs believing that it is expecting, and prudent and smart, to work alone behind closed doors. This is a leadership choice not a necessity for boards; and a bad, outdated choice.

Every time a scandal erupts at a nonprofit organization, look at the board and how it operates. It is likely you will find an opaque culture of secretiveness. The scandal at Marlborough High School in Los Angeles, an elite prep school, is in crisis now because the board chair didn’t believe he needed to share an accusation of pedophilia with the larger board. And I won’t even begin to talk about the cheating culture of sports in higher education!

If nonprofit boards cannot bring themselves to open up their procedures and decision-making, then new rules are necessary to help them begin the process. I propose that nonprofit boards be required to post online:

  • Real-time financials online. The same P&L statements and balance sheets shared with the board should also be posted online with the agenda for board meetings.
  • Real-time video streaming of board meetings.
  • Board minutes

This is just a start. All board rooms, but at least and in particular nonprofit board rooms, need to throw their windows and doors open. If they think that transparency will make their life harder, they should consider how much harder their life will be when their secretiveness leads to a crisis down the road.


Younger Women and Matterness

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 1.59.01 PMSomeone recently asked me who I would most like to influence with Matterness. My immediate answer was younger women because they have can craft careers that are better aligned with their values without having to unlearn the lessons from working within fortress that are inherently fear-based and reward ungenerous behavior where the goal is to matter more oneself than to make others matter more.

So, these smart, prepared, professional women are walking into environments that are tilted towards the traditional manly values of competitiveness, always-on and me-firstness that continue to pervade American companies – even if they don’t work, aren’t profitable and make everyone feel terrible. What to do? Take More women than men are graduating with college and advanced degrees; and yet they continue to enter manly cultures where men continue to get paid more and getting ahead faster. And it feels awful. Here is how one friend put it last week:

After our executive presence training yesterday with a client services organization in the financial industry, a half-dozen women came up to us to talk about navigating the strength + warmth balance in a professional context as women facing the double standard of being penalized for showing their strength/competence. All were under 35, and highly educated, polished, and accomplished. …..women told us about the shit they deal with even with younger male colleagues.

We’ve all met that women, the amazing one who has been at the company for 25 years, who shows up more prepared than anyone else every day and knows how to navigate the bureaucracy, hierarchy and sexism of a large company while keeping her humanity intact. She is my hero.  I certainly couldn’t do it and most women can’t and either level off at a middle management spot and stay there, opt out entirely, or opt half way in and get paid a lot less than they’re worth. But we all need to start somewhere, and that somewhere is generally in fortress that treats everyone inside and out as a potential enemy.

Should you adopt the practices of the place and learn to be work in ways that are unnatural, exhausting and feel terrible? Or should you be your best self, be generous and kind, make other people matter more, regardless of the environmental norms?

So, now I’m asked to give advice to 24 year-old Sammy, two years out of Wesleyan, a world history and women’s studies major. Sammy took a year to travel (lucky her!) did some volunteer work and then buckled down to search for her first real job the one that will pay her one-third of the rent for the walk up in Astoria her mother won’t visit. After thirteen interviews she finally lands her first job, the crappy one, with lots of photocopying and note taking at meetings and even coffee runs.

Here is what I have would advise Sammy(s):

1. The first thing to figure out is what’s the culture and what’s the people. Sometimes it’s awfully hard to pull them apart, but more often, especially in a large place, you can distinguish good people from the bad cultures.

2. See if there is something to learn here. Can you figure out why good people who came to do good work, are behaving badly? What is it about the systems and culture, the incentives and rewards that are forcing people to be short-sighted and selfish?

3. Write it all down because it will give your brain something constructive to do and be a reminder later on of the kind of place you never, ever want to work in again.

4. Hold onto your humanity! Even in the worst cultures, there are opportunities to treat other people well. To thank them by email after a meeting. To give credit to other people (and no, learning how to grab and hold onto credit is not a good long-term career strategy.) To ask for advice and actually have the humility to use it.

5.. In the end, it may be that the best choice is to look for another job quickly. But one thing to remember is that wherever you are going for your next job, the first thing to ask about is about the organizational culture. Make sure that Matterness is built into the DNA of the new place.




Doctors and Inattentive Care

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 10.50.00 AMFront page of the New York Times: Doctor’s Strive to Do Less Harm by Inattentive Care. This is as close to a headline in the Onion that the times can get!

Here is the nut sentence in the story, “The effort is driven partly by competition and partly by a realization that suffering, whether from long waits, inadequate explanations or feeling lost in the shuffle, is a real and pressing issue.” Better late than never, I suppose, but it makes one wonder about the amazing amount of Churn and hubris that goes into medical care that just now raises these issues. The doctors and hospitals interested in looking at their systems from the outside in, from the patient’s perspective, seemingly for the first time, are reducing the number of times patients are woken up in the middle of the night for unnecessary checks, giving medication during the day rather than in the middle of the night, and actually starting to use the endless survey data that has heretofore just been stuffing up databases.

Hurrah, but if they fix too much of the Matterlessness that routinely greases the medical wheels, what will we have to make fun of, just airlines?


Shutting Off Comments

One of the fundamental tenets of working with social media is that they are fundamentally conversational vehicles.  Someone says something and anyone out there can answer back. Not always civilly, but generally so. The biggest threat to organizations in a social world is not multiple voices but silence. Silence means irrelevance.

Tablet, an online publication, created a new policy this week. According to Capital New YorkTablet has changed it’s commenting policy because, “the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse)…”

Again, according to Capital New York, Tablet is among a growing list of media companies including Bloomberg and Popular Science that have turned off comments. “Moderating such forums is expensive for companies with limited resources, and a lot of reader conversations have moved to social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.”

But Tablet didn’t turn off comments, they are charging for them! The charge will b $2 a day, $18 a month and $180 a year. And the publisher made it clear that this isn’t a monetary decision, but a way, they believe, to make their comments more civil.

There are two issues here. The first is making it difficult to comment directly on the site. Disempowering readers by not allowing them to engage directly, presumably, with the author and publisher is antisocial in a world now set to social as the default setting. We have come to expect that we will be able to engage with journalists and publications directly.

Tablet generally gets a handful of comments on stories. A few get more, like the this article on interfaith marriage mentioned in the Capital New York article that received a lot for the site, 85 comments. My quick scan of the comments revealed absolutely nothing rude or offensive. Instead, there is a thread of agreers and disagreers – exactly what anyone designing a site would hope for.

A lack of civility shouldn’t be seen as a problem but an opportunity to engage the overwhelming majority of readers in an opportunity to help solve the problem. The fact that the perceived lack of civility by Tablet is a conversation stopper rather than a conversation starter tells us more about Tablet than about the web. Basically they view readers as a passive group of eyeballs rather than a community of smart, resourceful people able to help. By engaging the community as problem solvers, it is possible that Tablet may have found a reader or two out there that might have volunteered to help moderate the comments and block trolls.

Moderating comments makes a lot more sense to me than the solution that have unveiled of having commenters pay to comment. Trolls are very determined people, why would Tablet think that paying $2 would keep them away? The people they will lose are the people in the middle, the ones who don’t feel strongly either way and aren’t going to bother to pay to comment. So, really, all Tablet has done is let the extremists, both positive and negative, win.

I hope Tablet will rethink this policy. It’s a terrible idea. Instead, I hope they will come to view their larger readership as potential problem solvers and co-creators largely dedicated to civility.


Readying Your Cause to Matter More to People

Book wheelIn discussing Matterness with people, I use the analogy of viewing the world through a backwards facing telescope. Inside looks huge, overwhelming really, while out there looks very small and irrelevant. By turning the telescope around to the way it is intended to be used, and making people on the outside matter more becomes the primary concern of the organization.

Great Nonprofits asked me to outline first steps for organizations that want to make their people matter more. Here is a link to the post on their site and here are the steps:

  1. Think Abundance. Do you spend more time in meetings discussing what could go wrong or what could go right? Is your organization afraid of what people out there could do to harm your organization, or are you excited about engaging in their natural creativity and enthusiasm? Are critics treated as whackadoodles intending to do harm or as friends who are frustrated and want you to do better?
  2. Start Speaking With Not At Your Constituents. Stop using social media to just broadcast messages at people and start using them to ask real questions the answers to which are important to your efforts.
  3. Work with Your Crowds. Get in conversation with your crowds wherever they are. Ask them to do something creative with you, learn something together, gather information and intelligence, co-create an event together – before your ask them to buy a ticket!
  4. Gather Your People On Land. Gather ten or so donors together in someone’s home and talk about your cause with them. Discuss whether and how you make them feel like they matter. Do your communications feel personal? Does it feel like you only communicate with them to ask for money? Are they learning more about the cause?
  5. Figure Out What Scares You Most About Social Media– And Do It. Find a friend to teach you how to tweet, and spend a half an hour a day on Twitter. Talk to a critic on your blog, directly, like a human being, for the world to see. Encourage your younger staffers to use social media to talk about the organization (with some ground rules and talking points) and let them make mistakes. The sky won’t fall – I promise.

The Gift of Making Others Matter

It is a sad week in our family. My husband’s aunt Beverly passed away from cancer on Sunday, her funeral is this week. It was far too soon for such a vibrant, energetic, life-loving person to go.

Our last visit with her was about two weeks ago. During our time with her she told us a powerful story that perfectly captures why it is so important to make other people matter in your life.

When she was first sick a friend asked her what he could for her. As was her nature and habit, she said she was fine and that there was nothing he could do. Bev expected him to say something like, “OK, well, just let me know if there’s some way I can help.” Instead, he called her selfish. She was shocked. I’m the sick one, she thought, how can I be selfish? He read her mind and said, “You’re selfish because you are not giving me any way to feel better by helping you.”

We matter when we help other people. We can help other people matter more by giving them meaningful things to do. Shutting them out by saying, “I’ve got this,” is basically telling people that they don’t matter, that they have nothing to offer and no gifts to give.

The next time your organization sends out an update on a program or a press release or a request for donations, think about adding specific, meaningful things they can do to matter more. Not window dressing, not a vote that won’t be counted or just saying yes to something you’ve already decided. Give them something important to do to support your efforts – send an email to five friends to raise awareness of our issue, post a review on Yelp, bring toiletries to a shelter, come and answer phones for a night. They’ll feel better and your cause will be better.


Copyright © 2019 Allison Fine