No mistakes. No regrets. (2)

Mistakes of technique

… are to be expected and – to a degree – accepted. You’ll drop catches, make miss-hits, typos, errors of arithmetic. These things happen.

Yes, we can improve our technique, and we can improve the system where these mistakes occur. But we should accept that mistakes likes these are part of what it means to be playing the game – and especially to be playing towards the edge of our comfort zone.

These are mistakes where we know what the mistake is going to be, can predict roughly when and how it will happen, and do our best to avoid it.

Mistakes of tactics and strategy

… are more often mistakes where we don’t know the right answer – because we’re doing something new, or something new to us and our organisation. We can read a lot and do our best to learn from others, get advice… and then do our best and see what happens.

We might fail because we don’t know what the right approach is, or because we can’t execute our plans, in which case we’re back to mistakes of technique or inadequacies in our systems.

Mistakes of character

… are my least favourite, and the ones that haunt me the most. I’m most troubled when I feel I’ve come across as self-interested or superficial, and I find it really hard to let these mistakes go and move on.

I find it an interesting quirk that it’s the same self-interest and superficiality that I fear revealing that causes me to agonise over my slip ups long after everyone else has forgotten them, if they even noticed at all in the first place.

Which brings us back to where we started yesterday: what kind of godlike, super-mega-ultra-lightning babe do you think you are, that you wouldn’t make mistakes of character?

Of course you will make mistakes. Be honest about them, and keep going, keep building a body of work and those long-term relationships of trust with people who know that you are not your slip ups, and who will give you the benefit of the doubt.

And while you’re at it… show up to the next meeting you attend, article you read, family gathering with a generous load of benefit-of-the-doubt for others.

Show me the money

Love it or loathe it, you’ve got to know where the money’s going to come from, and where it all goes.

Get it right from the start – it’s essential to the health and credibility of your project or organisation.

It also works like an extra sense, helping you spot trends, opportunities and issues earlier than you might have otherwise.

Financial Intelligence, Revised Edition: A Manager’s Guide to Knowing What the Numbers Really Mean by Karen Berman and Joe Knight is a really great place to start.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 9

This is the ninth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 9: Become ever more professional

Professionals do it right, they make it work, and they don’t take it personally.

Seth Godin

Of course your non-profit organisation should be professional.

You need to: 

  • Show up – be there for the people you seek to serve
  • Show up – it takes time to get good at what you do
  • Show up – you need to go deep in the context that you’re serving, know your clients and their context really, really well. Few people do this
  • Show up – for your clients and your team, especially when you don’t feel like it today
  • Keep your promises
  • Do good work that no-one else can do (if only because no-one else will)
  • Make it work – which might mean going beyond your technical contribution and paying attention to the necessary ‘wrapper
  • Understand the full stack of skills that make your organisation’s work possible, and get a working knowledge of as many of them as you can
  • Specialise
  • Find partners, colleagues, friends who complement your skills and personality
  • Learn to get help, delegate
  • Do you work in the right way – find lasting solutions that don’t sacrifice things that are important to you on the way
  • Stay client-focused – there might be a ‘show’, and you might even have a big role, but it isn’t about you
  • Stay honest – the professional pushes back against donors with ideas that won’t work, or won’t help even if they do work, or that aren’t really about the clients (see Rule 1)
  • Stay honest – be clear about what you do and don’t, explain what’s not working, own your mistakes
  • Find the right price for your work – a price that enables you to do it sustainably and with space for human connection, ensuring of course that your work is worth more than people pay for it
  • Create more value than you capture
  • Communicate clearly – you have to take responsibility for knowing your audience, for being clear and convincing, for stopping from time to time to make sure you’re being understood
  • Build assets – deliberately do things that will make it easier tomorrow
  • Be there early
  • Start on time
  • Stop on time
  • Stopping on time means, with enough time to talk to people afterwards
  • Create boundaries that allow you to do good work, and to be generous
  • Be committed – overcome The Resistance (ala Pressfield)
  • Read and learn – all the time
  • Read within your field
  • Read outside your field
  • Read fiction, poetry – they’ll enrich what you do
  • Apply what you learn – try new things
  • Understand how new technologies have and are changing your work
  • Try to see the future
  • Think about what you do
  • Write about what you do
  • Connect with others that do what you do, or things like it
  • Be generous – share what you know

I’m stopping writing now, so that I can go and show up for some people by making pancakes.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 8 (part 1)

This is the eighth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 8: Create Boundaries for Yourself

Create boundaries for yourself.

What do you do?

What don’t you do?

This is a variation on “It’s not for you.”

Any work we do is in tension with boundaries.

There are boundaries we don’t want. Limits to:

  • The number of clients we an reach and serve
  • The number of clients who want to engage deeply with us
  • Funding
  • The number of people we can manage well
  • The number of the right sort of people to manage
  • Our time, and the time of our team
  • How hard we can work
  • Our skills
  • The speed at which we can learn
  • Our ability to spot problems
  • Our ability to fix the problems we do spot
  • How much other people care
  • How much we care
  • Attention
  • What we can get permission to do
  • Add another ten of your own

And then there are boundaries that we choose for ourselves:

  • Given that we can serve a limited number of people, who will we try to serve first?
  • That is to say, who will we serve now, and who won’t we serve now?
  • Given that there aren’t enough of the right people, will we hire any people? Who won’t we hire?
  • How hard won’t we work ourselves and our team?
  • What values won’t we compromise (integrity, quality of product, quality of relationship, health of our team, the environment)?
  • The same logic applies to all of the above

It all comes down to decisions – I like the understanding of ‘decision’ as a ‘cutting off’ of possibilities. We need to acknowledge what we can’t do and identify what we won’t do so that we can focus on what we can do and will do – and do those things.

Identifying boundaries and limits is a really helpful flipside in the process of thinking through your what’s important to you (values), the change you wish to see in the world (vision), and what’s possible now.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 5: Own your Assets

This is the fifth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Build and own an asset that’s difficult for other people to reproduce

.

This is an interesting one in the non-profit world, because an attitude of generosity – of wanting to see problems solved more than we want to build empires – suggests that we should welcome others working in our ‘market’ as allies rather than competitors.

But there’s an important point about attitude here – we should always be building assets, and the most valuable ones we can build will always be those that are difficult for others to reproduce.

These assets might be products – in our case, curriculum and reading books. They might be services – delivering teacher training.
They might be processes – the ways that the pieces of what you do fit together to create value.
They might be things like reputation, trust, and relationships.

Investing in building any of these assets – from building a physical product to making a spec or howto for a process, to training your team – is always worth the time – a gift to your future self.

Here’s a thought experiment that links back to this post from a few weeks ago. Imagine that each central piece of your (charitable) business model was widely available at low cost (what if you open sourced it?). In the absence of each piece, what about your organisation means that people would still want to work with you? How would your clients answer this? How about your donors?

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 3 of 4)

This is the third-and-two-thirds post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 3)

In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.

Eager to pay, donors, and two-sided markets

It’s often the case for non-profits that the people who pay for what you do aren’t the people who benefit directly from it. The client always pays, of course (see part 1), but someone else is also providing some of the cash you need to operate.

There are two risks here – the first is that you make an excellent product that your donors love, but that your clients aren’t willing to ‘buy’. This happens when you allow yourself to become accountable to donors wishes (and possibly whims) first, rather than being faithful to your clients’ needs, and what works for them. It’s easy to slip into this when you’re short of cash and start serving donors who are not-quite-eager to pay for what you do, but happy enough to pay for something different but similar – so you drift, and compromise, and end up being pulled in all directions, wasting time and money and pleasing no-one.  See also Rule 1: Real Work for Clients First.

The second risk is when donors are eager to pay for part of what you do – usually the last-mile, bit that happens on the ground part – the impact – but refuse to pay for overheads or administration – the delivery.

Yes, you are ‘selling’ your impact, and you want to be efficient – but you must sell your real work as it is, which probably involves an office. Educate potential donors about what it takes to do your work well, and to work for the long term towards significant and lasting change. Explain to donors who want cool-sounding statements about their impact (‘100% of my donation went towards food that appeared magically and for free in front of hungry children’) that of course you have administrative costs – including your crappy office – and that without them, there would be no program.

Be as clear and as real as you can about everything you do, and why, and find those donors who like you, and like your work, and trust you, and are eager to pay to be a part of it.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 1: Real Work for Clients First

This is the first in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 1: Ship Real Work

“Planning and coordination are fine, but not if they don’t lead to real work. Don’t spend time trying to please [middleman-funder-etc] – the real work is figuring out how to engage with and serve your customer.

In the non-profit world:

The real work

Vision and mission statements, organisational structure, a shiny website, gala dinners are fine – but they are not your purpose, and they are not your real work.

The real work is getting in front of the people you are aiming to serve – first your clients (or ‘beneficiaries’) and secondarily potential donors. If you’re not getting to know and making a difference for your clients, you’re wasting your time. Your project is almost certainly a waste of money, and quite possibly the worst kind of vanity exercise.

In my experience this kind of work is often messy and quite often slightly unsatisfactory – because you’re working with real people, who quite often have those traits…

Two types of customer

In a non-profit, it’s quite possible that your services are paid for people people other than your clients – most charities are working in two-sided markets – donor pays, client receives benefit (incidentally, most news and magazine companies, and Google and Facebook, among others, operate this model).

The question is… what are your ‘donors’ buying? It might be:

  • The knowledge that they’ve done some good in the world
  • The ability to show off to their friends that they’ve done something good in the world
  • A fulfilled CSR requirement, and a pleased boss
  • The confidence that their money has been used responsibly and effectively

It’s really easy to exaggerate the work that you do. It’s easy to make grand claims, tell only the best stories, and play to every donor’s particular foibles, telling them what they want to hear so that they’ll give you money, and keep on giving you money.

Don’t.

At the end of the day, the product that your donors and supporters are buying (or should be buying) is the work that you do for your clients. Everything else is (relatively speaking), fluff.

And at all costs resist the temptation to let the ‘needs’ of your donors shape what you do for your clients. Don’t lose sight of the reason you’re doing this in the first place. Listen to your supporters, but always be clear that you seek to serve your clients first, to focus on their needs and make a real difference to them in a way that they value.

Be accountable to your clients and their needs first of all, and everything else will be (relatively) easy.

Rule 1 of bootstrapping the non-profit

Ship real work for your clients [beneficiaries] first. Be real with your supporters.

* More on being real with your supporters in Rule 3