Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Scary Nonprofit Halloween Story

Once upon a time, a local government agency wanted to give grants in a particular issue area, so they put out an RFP and called all the area nonprofits to a special meeting.

The nonprofits came to the mandatory 3-1/2 hour meeting and received over 60 pages of instructions on how to complete the seven page proposal package (two pages of actual writing plus lots of forms). When they tried to ask questions, they were told to that they couldn't ask questions at the meeting, but that they should write them down on index cards and wait for the answers to magically appear on the government agency's web site - hopefully before the proposal due date.

So, did you recognize that story? How many times have you lived this nightmare? I experienced it again just yesterday morning. Now, nothing in this post should be taken to be a personal attack on the agency or people involved in issuing this RFP. The humans were all great, and made the 3-1/2 hours as painless as they could. My problem is with bureaucracy in general.

I just can't help but think that there is a more efficient way to achieve the same results - or better - without wasting so much time and resources on insignificant minutia.

When I talk to people about my career, and my progression from working for county government, to nonprofit agencies, to being an independent consultant, I often describe it as a natural reaction to being allergic to bureaucracy.

There isn't likely to be a cure for this overnight, but the situation isn't entirely hopeless either. Locally, the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits has been working with the city and county on streamlining some processes, and getting individual programs and agencies within the city and county to use the same forms for contracts, proposals, and reporting.

Not everybody is on board yet, but slowly, one agency, and one program, at a time, we eliminate a bit of the paperwork that has nothing to do with our mission. And, some day, maybe that little story I started with really will just be Halloween fiction.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Mission Paradox

I am a member of the Nonprofit Blog Exchange - a group of nonprofit bloggers who try to promote each other's work as resources for the nonprofit community online. As part of that exchange, we occasionally post reviews of each other's web sites.

Today I'd like to introduce you to the Mission Paradox Blog of Adam Thurman. Mr. Thurman is a consultant, writer, speaker, professor, and a self-described nonprofit "provocateur" so you know you will always find something interesting and different on his blog.

The particular post I'd like to direct you to is one that all too many of us need a refresher on from time to time: Talking About Your Mission. His first hint is to "Translate your mission into a language everyone can understand." I fully agree. Whenever I work with a group on a mission statement I fight hard to keep them from filling it with jargon and technical terms that only other nonprofits get. Are people confused by your mission? Maybe that's part of your problem. As Thurman writes, "Confused people don't give."

To find out Mr. Thurman's other tips on talking about your mission, visit this posting at his blog, and don't forget to check for new posts as well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What are the critical characteristics a board of directors needs to succeed?

For a nonprofit board of directors to succeed, the number one key ingredient is: Involvement. Boards fail (and, in turn, organizations fail) when board members become disengaged from either the mission of the organization or their role in the governance of the organization.

An engaged board does more than simply show up for scheduled meetings and vote to approve minutes and budgets. Engaged boards partake in vigorous discussions that help shape the vision and future direction of their organization. Engaged boards ask questions of staff and read journals to become educated on the issues their organization is involved in. Engaged boards read and understand monthly financial statements and accept their responsibility for fundraising activities that will ensure the organization's short-term stability and long-term sustainability.

Meetings of involved boards are not boring. They do not consist of only one or two people reading reports. Reports are sent out ahead of time, and members have read them before the meeting. Meetings are reserved for discussion of the reports, and decision making by the entire team. The Chair of an involved board does not dictate what the decisions will be, but rather facilitates the discussion and makes certain that all viewpoints are heard before a vote is taken.

All of this requires that many viewpoints, and many areas of expertise, are represented on the board. Do not recruit all of your board members from the same source, or you're likely to build a chorus of "yes-men" and stagnate under a lack of creativity. Be certain to have board members skilled in finance, marketing, law, and fundraising. Don't be afraid of adding people who will disagree with some of your ideas.

An active and involved board requires a leader who is strong enough to keep discussions on topic and within set time limits, but is also willing and able to put their own ego aside to hear opposing views and new ideas. An active and involved board builds the leadership skills of all its members through assignments on committees and special projects.

The involved board is a successful board. Involved boards never have to cancel meetings because they don't have a quorum. Involved boards lead successful nonprofit organizations.

This question came from, where I have just signed up as a writer. You can find this article on the Helium site at:

Monday, October 22, 2007

Share Best Practices - Win an iPod

George Williams at Planned Legacy has asked me to spread the word about a little contest going on at their web site.

They're looking for the best Donor Recognition Ideas, and are asking what has worked well for your organizations in the areas of:
  • Donor Recognition & Donor Relations
  • Stewardship
  • Capital Campaign Promotion
  • The Art of Saying Thank You
  • Donor Wall Planning & Special Events
The contest closing date is December 10, 2007, and the drawing for the iPod will be on December 12, 2007.

If you're interested, get the full details and enter the contest at

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Assymetry versus Strategic Funding

My friend, Tom, over at the True Talk Blog, has an interesting post called "Asymmetry is the New Black." The concept of asymmetry explains how small, start-up companies or organizations can effectively compete and steal marketshare from larger, established ones. Tom sees asymmetry in action in everything from YouTube to the blogging movement to the Iraqi insurgency.

Tom explains it like this:
Asymmetrical competitors use size (small), speed (fast), and thinking (innovative) to more than compensate for their relative lack of resources. This brand of competition is enabled by today's technology, which dramatically reduces the barriers to entry.
As I wrote in my comment on Tom's blog, I love the concept that being small and agile is a competitive advantage in the corporate world. It's a very exciting and inspiring idea.

Unfortunately, in the nonprofit world, we tend to be behind the curve in these types of trends. Right now it's seems that we're all witnessing contraction and mergers.

This is at least partly the result of funders getting more "strategic" with their dollars (ie: fewer, larger grants to established organizations, rather than many smaller grants to a variety of organizations).

While nonprofits look to joining forces with each other to achieve some sort of efficiency, what are we losing? Does our growth destroy the competitive edge we had in achieving our missions? I'm afraid that may well be the case in some of this.

So, how do we communicate this to funders? We've got to let them know that small is beautiful!

Tom says that, "The only option for established market leaders? Get small, get fast, get smart. Now." Isn't it an irony that as the corporate world adopts this ideology, we're being told to do the opposite?