Note: Fellow nonprofit consultant Cindy Gibson and I were asked to write an opinion piece for Alliance Magazine this month answering the question, “Should Consultants Be Thought Leaders?” There is no doubt that there is a preponderance of consultants in the social sector, some who help move the sector forward, and some who don’t. Cindy and I offer some thoughts about how to distinguish what has value and what does not. Text from the piece is below, and you can also read the piece in the June issue of Alliance.
From strategic and business planning to marketing and fundraising, there seems to be no shortage of consultants ready to help nonprofits meet all kinds of needs. But should they be thought leaders too? Because they are removed from the day-to-day experience of the average non-proﬁt or foundation and have a breadth of perspective that comes from working with different types of organization, consultants can provide important insights to the larger sector.
But when is that thought leadership adding value to the sector and when is it just a means for hawking a consultant’s wares?
At a recent conference, a consulting ﬁrm president suggested his shop’s model was the only way to achieve social change, which caused some participants to shift in their seats. As one participant put it, ‘It’s because they’re consultants. If there’s only one solution and that’s the one they offer consulting on, that’s the approach they promote.’ There is, after all, a difference between introducing ideas to spark new thinking and marketing particular frameworks to build a consultant’s brand. At the end of the day, it all comes down to value.
Is a consultant adding value by introducing new approaches, raising hard questions, highlighting important trends, or suggesting necessary changes to systems and structure, the hallmarks of thought leadership? Or are they using ideas to package what they’re selling? Here are some key questions that might help us to make that distinction:
- Is what the consultant is presenting really new or just something old with new packaging?
We’ve all fallen victim to shiny object syndrome. The next new thing can seem so appealing that it’s easy to believe the hype, but it isn’t necessarily applicable for many organizations. Before embracing a new approach, it’s important to determine whether it actually applies to the specific situation at hand.
- Has the consultant’s new framework been tested?
If the new idea is really worthy of broad adoption, there should be evidence of its value. Consultants need to be transparent about whether they have this evidence and, if so, how it was collected. Was it a randomly sampled population or a few focus groups of satisﬁed clients? Consultants, like other thought leaders, sometimes ignore the fact that the big ideas they’ve envisioned may not work on the ground.
- Does what the consultant is proposing embrace the complexity of the situation?
Social challenges are inherently difficult to resolve because change takes time and requires grappling with the messiness of ‘wicked problems’, which don’t usually respond to one best practice or even a set of discrete interventions. Wicked problems don’t come from somewhere; they come from somewheres. And so do the solutions. True thought leadership emerges from understanding and integrating a problem’s inherent complexity into a potential resolution.
- Is the consultant willing to engage in thoughtful debate about their ideas with those who may disagree?
Thought leaders who are genuinely interested in moving a ﬁeld invite feedback, including criticism, because they know open and honest discussion can strengthen the original idea. They’re also eager to make their ideas broadly accessible so that they become part of the larger ﬁeld.
- Are influential people hailing the new idea as definitive when there may be little hard evidence to suggest that it is?
While it’s nice to have the endorsement of influential people, this can sometimes be a shield against real critique. It can also suggest an echo chamber at work, where the hype around the idea is bigger than the actual value of the idea itself.
There’s no question that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate good marketing – which every consultant must do to survive financially – from real thought leadership. We think that consultants can and should have opportunities to stand away from their business and share what they’re learning and observing. Like other thought leaders, they can lift us out of our individual circumstances and move us to see a bigger picture.
That isn’t always easy, especially when consultants’ thought leadership is controversial. But good thinking that has the potential to transform minds and entire fields, even when it may be inimical to a brand, can sometimes lead to impact that may not be easily achieved by focusing only on clients’ individual needs. The key is knowing when and where that kind of thought leadership will add value.
Photo Credit: Eugene Atget
Seth Godin has gotten everyone talking (some are even yelling) about his latest post that chastises nonprofits for not embracing change and getting on the social media bandwagon. Godin is irritated at nonprofits for not embracing these new tools to “focus attention and galvanize action” around their cause. And the overwhelming amount of debate about the post (Beth Kanter, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Tom Watson, to name a few) , has focused on whether or not nonprofits have embraced social media, whether they are “deer in the headlights,” whether they are risk averse, whether they “blow people away,” and so on.
This is a good debate, to be sure, but what interests me in all of this is a bigger question about the role of social media in a nonprofit’s overall resource engine. Social media is just marketing, right? Some organizations have figured out how to tap into social media to spread the word, build a following and so on. Some businesses have even seen a spike in sales. That’s great. But marketing through social media, just like any kind of marketing, has to have a bigger goal in mind. You don’t market for marketing sake, and you don’t Tweet just because it’s cool and “everyone” is doing it. Rather, you have to understand how that marketing activity (whether it is “free” or not, it still takes resources) is going to contribute to, or perhaps detract from, your bigger goal, which for nonprofits is to raise resources to execute on their mission. So, in essence, nonprofits should be using social media to build donors, volunteers, advocates, supporters, right? And as such, their use of social media has to be part of a larger resource plan. Social media is another channel for the distribution of your message. You should not just go blindly into the social media world. But don’t sit on your hands either, I get it.
I would argue that social media must be one component of a larger overall resource plan for a nonprofit, that brings dollars, volunteers, advocates, etc. in the door. But first we need to take a step back to understand that resource plan. Which brings me to a misunderstanding of fundraising in the nonprofit world and to my usual hero Dan Pallotta. Pallotta’s blog posts are wonderful, and usually I read them while silent “Right Ons” and “Amens” stream through my head. But his recent post on fundraising left me frustrated that Pallotta wasn’t stepping far enough out on the limb that he usually does.
Pallotta argues that fundraising is a dirty word in the nonprofit sector and organizations work as hard as possible to spend as little as possible on it:
Fundraising is the black sheep of the nonprofit sector. Charities spend as little as they possibly can on it. They talk as much as they possibly can about how little they spend on it. The watchdogs, the IRS, and donors deduct goody-two-shoes points from nonprofits in direct correlation to every dollar they spend on it. Institutional funders penalize charities for spending on it… By extension, fundraisers are the black sheep of the sector’s workforce; second-class citizens to the program staff who are in the trenches every day doing the real work of social change.
He laments this reality and suggests that we better integrate fundraising into the costs of the programs that nonprofits operate:
This is ass-backwards. Without fundraising there are no programs. The less we spend on it the less money there is for programs…We should make fundraising a program domain in and of itself — every bit as important as the medical research, social services, advocacy, and everything else it makes possible. We should consider all spending on it to be a critical “program” expense. Instead of disdaining it, we should invest in understanding and developing it, because unless we do, we’ll never have anywhere near the money we need to address the massive social problems we confront.
These are all valid points, but then I lose him at the end when he claims:
Institutional funders should take the lead…Fundraising should be every bit as prevalent on the lists of their program interests as health, human rights, and global poverty. And when they are, they won’t need to be giving program grants to health, human rights, or global poverty anymore, because the fundraising arms of the organizations they support will be able to fund them on their own.
Huh? I agree with Pallotta that there needs to be more risk and experimentation with fundraising. But I would take this much further. Fundraising isn’t just a “necessary expense,” rather a nonprofit’s resource engine must be fully integrated with and equal to its programs and operations. We have to move away from the term “fundraising,” which has come to mean galas, direct mail campaigns (which Godin abhors), and foundation grants that are conducted in a vaccuum completely separate from and organization’s programs and operations. Fundraising has become akin to a gerbil on a treadmill where nonprofits go from grant to grant, direct mail response to direct mail response, email campaign to email campaign, working their fundraisers to the bone trying to make the dollars coming in the door equal the dollars going out the door to run their programs.
That is “ass-backwards.” The only effective way for a nonprofit to achieve its mission, and ultimately social impact, is to fully integrate their programs (the social impact they are trying to achieve) with their core competencies (what they do better than anyone else) and their overall resource engine. This overall resource engine must be a diverse combination of activities that generate support for and work with, not detract from, the mission of the organization and the organization’s core competencies, like this:
I’ve written about this critical alignment before, and it seems to me that this integration of the three core activities of a nonprofit are rarely integrated effectively, or even recognized by those commenting on the sector, like Pallotta and Godin. Any marketing or revenue-generating activities that a nonprofit embarks on must be chosen and invested in–with resources like money, staff, board and volunteer time–in accordance with the organization’s mission and core competencies. And the marketing and revenue-generating activities from which a nonprofit can choose include things such as: individual donor cultivation, solicitation and stewardship; direct mail acquisition; online fundraising; foundation grants; earned income businesses; and yes, even social media. Just as nonprofits should not shy away from social media because they are afraid of risk and change, they also shouldn’t run towards it if it doesn’t make sense in the overall picture of how they can effectively integrate their mission and core competencies to create a sustainable resource engine.
Nonprofits shouldn’t fear social media, nor any other technological, social, or financial shift in our world. Nonprofits, just like any other entity, need to be aware of their environment and adapt their business to survive and thrive in that changing environment. But it all has to be based on an integrated strategy. Yes, be open to new things like social media and experiment to see how this new development might enhance or contribute to your mission, and your resource engine, while working with your core competencies. But don’t blindly go there without understanding how it fits.
The bottomline is that the pace of change is speeding up for all of us. Nonprofits have to be more open to change, yes, but any change still has to be digested and made part of an overall strategy that integrates mission, competency and resources. I think Godin would be the first to agree that we are nothing without an integrated strategy. So don’t jump on that bandwagon without one, just because Godin tells you that you are “paralyzed in fear.”