Down With Fundraising Nonsense
Conducting an audit like this represents nothing more—or less – than a serious effort to identify those huge, non-productive, expensive time-wasters and complexities that add little value, but serve as enormous barriers to change and forward movement. Everyone is complicit.
From the audience, Kristin McCurry, founder of Mindset Direct applauded the idea and suggested that a checklist for such an audit be made available to everyone. She quickly ducked the task and threw the assignment back to me. I volunteered to follow-up.
So … here’s my first cut at some key items I suggest be included. Tom and I hope you will add to them so we can quickly publish Edition #1 of The Agitator Nonsense Audit. After all ‘nonsense’ is costing you your future.
Why even bother? Because what few agencies and few organizations ever bother to do is pay attention—and calculate—how much time and money is wasted on Nonsense. And therefore how much time and money could instead be spent on constructive change. As we waddle off to lunch we wonder why all this change stuff is even necessary.
Of course, protectors of the status quo will want to deny, quibble or otherwise avoid dealing with the elimination of Nonsense because that’s their bread and butter. So, I’ve already steeled myself to the coming chorus singing “Yes, but….”
First, some rules I’ve set for myself and rules I’d like you to follow when adding items to the checklist.
Rule #1. If you can’t measure it, then by definition it’s Nonsense and you should eliminate it. (But please include it in any suggestions for the checklist, because we need to show folks what activities they should dump.)
Rule #2. Even if you can measure it, if it’s so frighteningly or expensively complex so as to not be easily put into your plans and programs, you should eliminate it. (You should also fire whoever came up with that Nonsense, but that’s up to you. Agencies beware!)
Rule #3. “Time” is king. The only way any labor intensive business like an agency or a nonprofit can truly steer the use of its most valuable resource (labor) is by tracking time spent and knowing how what that time costs and what it produces.
So, here goes. For this post I’m limiting myself to just three major categories where you’ll find a mother lode of Nonsense. Once Tom and I have received your additions and comments we’ll put all this into a nice, tidy matrix and checklist and share it with the world.
NONSENSE CATEGORY: MEETINGS. Let’s start with the biggest Nonsense of all. As George Smith, the late and great British copywriter and curmudgeon noted….
“I always used to say that meetings were what you were doing when you weren’t working. They remain the regular ceremonial of the client/supplier relationship and a terrifying abuse of everyone’s precious time. The average fundraiser now spends most of his/her time in meetings. Everyone knows there are too many meetings, no one does anything about it. This is why commuter trains are now full of people working – they have been in meetings all day.”
As the first step in the Nonsense Audit I recommend giving every person in every meeting a monetary cost. Sum up this cost and announce it at the start of each meeting, as in: “For every 15 minutes we spend in this meeting the cost is $450.” Or whatever the actual cost is in your case.
Example. Let’s assume 2 agency reps, charged out at $120 an hour, are meeting with 2 folks from the organization, each earning $60,000 a year. The cost of that meeting is approximately $300 per hour. Toss in a few more staffers and one or two more folks from the agency and the costs mount. And that doesn’t count the cost of doughnuts, coffee and assorted bottled waters.
Do your own calculations. But more importantly, as part of the Nonsense Audit I’d also suggest that you determine if meetings have: (a) stated agendas, (b) set goals for the meeting’s outcome, with decisions and assignments recorded, (c) defined time-limits, and (d) attendance lists including only those absolutely essential to the meeting’s purpose. Without these essential elements it’s not a meeting, just an expensive bull session.
[Practical Suggestion: John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and the best leader/manager I ever encountered, limited meetings to 20 minutes, held them with everyone standing up and terminated ‘em immediately if folks weren’t fully prepared.]
NONSENSE CATEGORY: COPY/MESSAGE/CREATIVE. If there ever were a ‘Save Us from Ourselves’ mandate in the no-nonsense department this is it. From the wise rants of Jeff Brooks over at Future Fundraising Now and the advice of Tom Ahern to hair raising examples from UK fundraiser Mark Philllips, the proof is so abundant that the creative process, as practiced by most agencies and nonprofits, is not only nonsense, it’s usually financially ruinous.
I think our Nonsense Audit should first measure the number of folks who must see, sign-off or otherwise be involved in the creation and approval process of appeals and other donor communications. Add in the amount of time and personnel involved in shepherding this mostly moronic process of democracy-based, ‘everyone’s-entitled-to-an-opinion’ copy review fest into your audit also.
If it’s more than one or two folks in addition to the agency rep and one nonprofit staffer, then the yellow or red flags should go up. I’ve never seen a situation where a committee’s opinion did anything but harm. But tell me what your threshold for this idiocy is. Maybe it’s 4 or 10 or even 20 folks with an opinion. (If you’re tolerating this, you’ll soon need a new job so write me for suggestions at email@example.com.)
If you trust that your agency and the copywriter know what they’re doing (I sure assume you do or you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place), then make it your goal to get to the ultimate position of trust and efficiency: “I’ll sign off on it, but I won’t read it.” Over the years this has been the attitude and practice of those organizations who did best with my copy.
For agencies doing your own Nonsense Audit checklist the same factors apply. Make sure your account reps are used mostly for checking spelling or the billing, if anything. Preferably, just to go to the client and read the copy out loud! Equally, make sure you do everything you can to discourage the client from making endless changes, the first sign of organizational dementia. To avoid bankruptcy and insanity, impose the old rule that the client is entitled to one round of changes—everything in addition is charged for.
Please share your thoughts on items that should be added to this part of the checklist. Together we can eliminate one of the great contributors to waste and maintenance of the status quo.
Nonsense Category: Analysis and Spreadsheets. Agencies and the spreadsheet jockeys they employ are among the biggest contributors to pure waste and nonsense. Yet somehow they manage to convince most clients that this is great stuff. As if showing the technical ability to change an oil filter qualifies you to be a Formula One driver. Pure nonsense.
Measurement is essential and analysis helpful, but too much complexity simply serves to run up costs and occlude the obvious.
Sadly, too many analysts and their agencies think there’s something ‘important’, ‘insightful’, ‘cutting edge’ – but mostly billable— in the ability to spread out an endless array of digital tea leaves on spreadsheets, revealing cell after cell of highly refined segments that are too small to be actionable. But “Wow look at what we did for our fee.” Shame on them.
Your Nonsense Audit in this section should focus on, among other things: how much non-actionable, but elegantly complex, analysis costs (both agencies and organizations need to do this; you’re gonna find out this is a monumental waste, but please prove it on your own) … whether you’re getting the same analysis month after month but being charged as though each month is a ‘eureka moment’ … and whether all these spreadsheets that glow in the dark are summarized with specific findings and recommendations on what to specifically expect by way of results if the plan they reveal is followed.
In my case I’m haunted by an interview I did with a small nonprofit a few months ago after they switched from using live analysts to a scoring model that revealed to whom they should and should not mail. “I used to spend four hours a week and spend $900. Now I spend $40 a week and it all takes less than 10 minutes.” Enough said.
ASK THE ONLY QUESTIONS THAT MATTER
Organizations should ask themselves: What value do we really derive from these activities? Have we really undertaken them to do things differently and for a better result? How much they cost? What did they produce?
Agencies should ask themselves: how much of this can be automated? If the analysts, copywriters and account reps could spend their time focusing on innovation and new approaches — rather than jockeying Excel, battling copy changes and spending endless hours in meetings — would that help us serve our clients better?
OK, that’s a start on Edition #1 of The Agitator Nonsense Audit. I realize that many of these checklist inquiries may seem threatening to those who think they must be complex or obtuse. However, the reality is that by calling out the Nonsense all of us are freed.
Your thoughts, insights, additions, please.
Roger & Tom
P.S. You can post your thoughts via ‘Comments” below. Or if you want to share something in more depth you can send that to Roger@theagitator.net. I’ll treat those thoughts anonymously and include them in the ‘Checklist’ or ‘Best Practices’ part of our final No Nonsense report.
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