Within hours of our call for advice on content for The Agitators’ upcoming session at the 2012 Bridge Conference we received a generous and thoughtful outpouring of suggestions from readers.  Thank you.

One message in particular–from a clearly bright and equally frustrated fundraiser– got me thinking about why the “Winds of Change”, the theme of this year’s Bridge Conference, are so often little more than a listless weather front of ho-hum doldrums.

She began her message; “I have been in this business for a little over 5 years now…[and] I am already discouraged and frustrated with the lack of innovation in our field.”

She goes on to note, “I am mostly mortified by the lack of diversification in offers. WHEN WILL THE MATCH GO AWAY?!? It makes me cringe every time our agency says, ‘The holidays are coming, we need another match! Or, ‘Donations are dipping in the summer months, we need another match!'”

She then, correctly in my view, takes a swipe at the lack of innovation in products/offers/giving opportunities for donors … the sheep-like movement of the industry to new, new things in online and social … the lack of meaningful metrics … and ends by wondering where all this will end up.

In a nutshell: Where’s the innovation? Where are the winds of change?

Each of this young fundraiser’s points is worthy of at least one detailed post and in some cases an entire whitepaper. For now I want to focus on two of the main barriers to innovation – time and triviality.

Over and over Tom and I receive emails and comments claiming there just isn’t enough time or staff resources required for innovation. Yet, anyone who’s spent time with most nonprofits or their consultants knows that’s simply an excuse without much truth to it.

In a moment I’ll illustrate some all-too-common examples of wasted time and exalted triviality, but first some background concepts that may be helpful.

Parkinson’s Laws. If you’re not familiar with the work of C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1957 Parkinson’s Law you’re in for a real treat. This stylish, witty and sometimes satirical work cuts through all the management theory and nonsense to show how and why bureaucracies waste time.

His famous dictum — “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” — applies to virtually every human enterprise, including our nonprofit world.

Not quite as famous, but hugely important for understanding the barriers posed to innovation is his corollary ‘Law of Triviality’ that states “Organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues”.

Parkinson illustrates his ‘Law of Triviality by chronicling a Finance Committee meeting in which there are three items on the agenda: 1) the signing of a multi-million contract to build an atomic reactor; 2) a proposal to build a $2500 bicycle shed; and, (3) a third proposal to supply refreshments for the Joint Welfare Committee of the organization.

The multi-million $ number is too big and too technical, and it is passed in 2.5 minutes. The bicycle shed is a subject understood by the board and the dollar amount is within their life experience so the debate rages for 45 minutes on whether to use an aluminum or galvanized iron roof. “The board members sit back with a feeling of accomplishment.” The third item – $57 for refreshments – consumes 1.25 hours. While some members of the committee may not know galvanized iron from aluminum, everyone knows about coffee—how it should be made, where it should be bought. After an hour and a quarter the committee votes to ask the Secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.

Sound familiar?

Parkinson’s Laws At Work in Fundraising

Here are some examples of why organizations and their consultants seldom have time for innovation.

  • Audience. Organizations spend far too much time and money on infinite –and beyond a certain point– uselessly complex segmentation. Instead of spending this time to find better and innovative ways to identify and approach an audience, the exaltation of triviality reaches its zenith with cells containing 17 donors upon whom no meaningful action can be taken.

This type of trivialization is expensive. Analysts, consultants and spreadsheet jockeys cost money.  It’s wise to remember that the profit in consulting lies in making things complex. True growth for the organization lies in simplification allowing additional time and resources for innovation.

  • Product/Offer. Nothing wrong with using – over and over – an offer or technique that works as in Matching or Challenge Gift programs. But, once they’re proven to work there should be less and less time and effort devoted to them. Having learned it works, don’t re-invent the wheel. Put the surplus time to work on innovation.
  • Creative/Copy. Because most fundraisers can read they also have an opinion on creative.  As Jeff Brooks over at Future Fundraising Now  continually points out, these opinions are worthless and a big time suck. Avoid the democratization of creative input.

Most of all, stop focusing on the trivial. If I had a nickel for every hour I’ve witnessed trivial debates over orange vs. blue envelopes, or closed-face vs. window envelopes, I could buy Tom a new typewriter.

Failure to innovate in the development of new strategies for message and creative is the direct result of trivializing the creative process by focusing on incremental changes that don’t make a damn bit of difference. And, in fact make most non-profit homogenously alike. See Tom’s post Out-Strategize or Out-Execute?

  • Metrics that Matter.  ‘RFM’, ‘Clicks’, ‘Open Rates’ and all the other hackneyed metrics that have resulted in little more than flat or declining performance and value in our sector continue to get increased and ever more complex attention in the game of Fundraising Trivial Pursuit.

Spend some of that time and those resources identifying metrics that point to and measure real progress. Metrics like lifetime value, share of wallet, donor commitment. Ask your consultant and your staff to outline the five most ‘vital sign’ metrics for your organization. Then ask how they’ve incorporated them into their plans and the execution of those plans.

Innovation and progress come not from working harder, but working smarter and taking an axe to the time wasters and the trivial.

Roger

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