The Future of Nonprofits, post-Rapture

Now that the Rapture has been postponed again for a few more years, I offer a short reflection on my past as a way to introduce comments about a book on the future. 

In 1997, after being a member of the founding management team of a company that was sold the previous year for $350 million, I was offered the job of CEO of the Central Texas chapter of Easter Seals.

What followed was an amazing, life-altering year for me that was richly rewarding, professionally and personally, and that provided me a new, deeper understanding of community, some of which I cover in my own, most recent book.

As I left to return to industry, after a year at the helm, the regional vice president assigned from the national Easter Seals office to our organization called the changes in our chapter the “greatest one-year turnaround” he had ever seen.

I offer this example, because in many respects, the key to our team’s success at Easter Seals – and, trust me, it was a team effort, from bottom to top – was through the core message of the new book The Future of Nonprofits (which you can buy on my Amazon store), written by an Austin colleague, David Neff, and his co-author Randal Moss.  That message? Innovate!

If we had kept going down the same path and resisted innovation at Easter Seals nearly 15 years ago, we would have been bankrupt within 6 months. Likewise, my personal sense of many organizations – frankly, a belief I consider as true for for-profits, as it is for non-profits – is that their lack of commitment to innovation is at the heart of the struggle and decline many face.

Thus, as I scanned The Future of Nonprofits, I was particularly looking for practical guidance on creating and sustaining organizational commitment to innovation. My personal experience is that for innovation to succeed, there are three essential ingredients, above all else

  • Leadership that is equally committed to success and encouraging better ways of doing things
  • A strong, clear understanding of mission and the customers that are served
  • An urgent, constant push to seek collaboration, wherever it strengthens the organization’s mission

With that personal bias in mind, these were a few of the highlight sections for me from the book:

  • Innovation as a strategic business tool, pp. 50-52 – excerpt: “growth comes in a few forms…income, cost, and revenue” – true that!
  • The innovation development process, pp. 113-115 and pp. 153-154 – the steps are essentially duplicated in two different forms, but the bottom-line, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that this is the kernel of any sequel to The Future of Nonprofits
  • The future of communications, Chapter 10 – this is where the authors especially shine…they are pros at explaining technology and providing practical suggestions for implementing it, for large and small non-profits alike
  • Organization innovation quiz, Appendix 2 – there are some great questions in his appendix that, if honestly and objectively applied, provide everyone a good starting (or check) point for being more innovative

My view is that the strongest sections of the book are also the most time-dependent, in that they provide real, current guidance about the tools, measurements, and methods that are available to integrate into a non-profit’s programs,  right now in May 2011.

That’s why I’d encourage anyone interested in the subject to sign up for their newsletter on the book’s website or keep an eye on their Facebook page, so that you’ll get a steady stream of updates from a couple of the bright minds in non-profit innovation.

If Austin were a browser, these would be my Favorites

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my monthly contribution to, in which I referenced work by the IC2 Institute identifying and explaining the model of a vibrant, regional technology ecosystem that the study’s authors called the “Technopolis.”

After a harsh stretch during the post-dot com years, Austin certainly seems to be undergoing a renaissance – an Austin 2.0 phenomenon, in its own way – as one of the great Technopolises in the country. Recent evidence is its designation in the July issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine as the “No. 1 best city for the next decade.” Personally, this feels a little bit like the video game jinx where so many players appearing on the cover of EA Sports’ Madden football have run into career-limiting (or ending) situations shortly thereafter.

But Madden-like falls from greatness notwithstanding, the Austin metro area’s recognition as a great place to work and build companies is largely girded by having such a great quality-of-life to offer.

I know from my own experience that our family considered Austin a quality-of-life move, more than 15 years ago when we came to the city. We were seeking refuge from common big-city problems, like crime, traffic, and pollution. Of course, there were trade-offs, like the higher cost of housing (as compared to elsewhere in the South), the sharper divide in racial boundaries and overall lack of ethnic diversity, and the more unchecked suburban sprawl. But, overall, Austin delivered on the quality-of-life promise for us.

And, if you haven’t kept track of the quality-of-life recognition that the city has received recently, it continues to show well. Just counting the first six months of 2010, here are some quick highlights courtesy of the Greater Austin Chamber:

  • No. 2 most innovative city in the U.S. – Forbes, May
  • No. 3 most dog-friendly city in the U.S. –, May
  • No. 1 place for young adults –, March
  • No. 1 local music scene – Budget Travel, February
  • No. 2 best place to retire and row – Rower’s Almanac, January

At the macro level, scoring at the top of those lists is great for the city, but at the micro level, what are examples of some of the hundreds of enterprises and amenities contribute to securing Austin’s top finishes?

Fortunately, Austinites aren’t a shy bunch and can be quite articulate and passionate in their loyalties and favorites. Besides voting with our dollars every day, Austinites literally vote for their favorites in polls, many prominently featured in the hometown weekly, the Austin Chronicle.

In this spirit of naming names, I offer my own, personal list of favorites – in no particular order of priority – representing the on-the-ground micro-ventures that make Austin my hometown for life:

Ok, ok, ok…basically we think pretty much every Austin 6th Street / Red River venue is killer in its own way and, even though the district seems to be going through frequent bi-polar swings – from bordering on seedier, grittier, darker to hipstery, celebreality, pre- and post-yuppie – there’s still no place like it and I love it. 

The “Live Music Capital of the World” nickname may be getting dissed more frequently these days (including by our current mayor, who admits his tastes favor Salzburg and Vienna), but personally I think the 365-nights-a-year diversity, raw intensity, and volume of options is unbeatable.

Seven amazing business books: Part 1

A little over two years ago, Steve Jobs famously said “the fact is that people don’t read anymore” in remarks he made critiquing what he believed to be the flawed, digital book business model of the Amazon Kindle.

That may be true, but it doesn’t make the power of the ideas that we consume from the content of a “book” (be it a bound set of printed paper, eInk on a Kindle, or an audio recording narrated to you by the author) any less transformative.  So, with that little bit of personal inspiration, I felt the need to write this post.  With a little more room in the header, I would better entitle it “Seven amazing business books you’ve probably never read.”  You will see why in a moment.

I’ve read many, many books over these past 50 years. Over the past 30, since entering the working world, I’ve read, skimmed, or tossed pretty much every one of the major business books du jour, along with hundreds of others, ranging from Soundview book summary to freebie, author-signed copy at conferences.

In recent years, with the Google-ization of all information, plus a really darn fine community library just up the road from my home, I’ve found myself thinning down my personal library of bookcases full of these business books accumulated over time. (Thank you Half Price Books!)

But, in the process, I’ve culled down to a single bookcase what is my essential personal reference library, including what are, in my opinion, some of the truly undiscovered jewels of business writing. Without further adieu, let me share seven of the most amazing books that I’m betting you’ve probably never read, starting with the first two today and going in the order of most recent to oldest.

Persuasive Technology, by BJ Fogg (Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2003) – This modest, unassuming soft cover book, by a Stanford professor, is one of the absolute best references for how human cognition works in relation to (and is influenced by) technology. But, with our increasingly digital society, I would expand the reach of this book to more than technology and say that its relevance is to how one wields persuasion in business, in general.

For example, his section on the attributes making a website more credible or less credible to users is a must read. But, I have found myself going back repeatedly to Professor Fogg’s research and findings on the subjects of credibility, trust, expertise, and different modalities of persuasion, to apply them to other areas of conducting business, beyond technology. I highly recommend it.

The Drucker Self-Assessment Tool: Participant Workbook, by Peter F. Drucker (Jossey-Bass, 1999) – Alfred Sloan may have invented the principles of 20th century management in his work at GM, as we came to learn it, but Peter Drucker literally “wrote the book” on modern management, by codifying those principles.

However, as great a thinker, writer and teacher on business as Drucker was, I have found his Self-Assessment Tool for non-profit organizations (NPO) to be required reading for any NPO manager, board member, or funding providers. In typical Drucker style, it is simple, logical, and unwaveringly precise in its objective, towards making modern NPOs stronger in every way through critical inspection of mission and data-based, public scrutiny of results.

More amazing, never read books to come in the next post.  In the meantime, tell me about your favorites.