I write to learn. Extracting an observation out of an experience gives me a way to improve my practice. I strive to “work out loud” and build community and connection around these ideas.
Topics related to learning most often capture my curiosity. Sometimes, however, I have to write about nonprofits because they are so fascinating, confounding, and central to strong communities.
- A frame helps them listen, think, and take action
Imagine you want to spend the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee catching up on your royal reading. You meander over to your bookshelf to find Paul Burrell’s A Royal Duty, and stand there… and stand there… where could it be?
That searching feeling is what a lot of people experience in trainings or meetings when we don’t frame the conversation. They spend a lot of brain power trying to find a hook to grab on to. You’ve heard the saying, “If you tell them everything, they’ll remember nothing.” Its auditory parallel is: “If they are expected to listen to everything equally, they’ll remember nothing,”
When we frame information, we put boundaries around a topic and tell people what to focus on. We do the thinking work so they don’t have to.
Why does this matter? People will use a frame to process information regardless of our actions. If we don’t provide a frame, they will create their own. Their frame may not be the one that we want them to have. (Cue the board member who starts talking about the photocopy budget when you were hoping to have a meaty conversation about a strategic decision.) In a training room, that means that each person is thinking about the topic through their own filter, which makes your job a lot harder and may mean they don’t solve their biggest challenges. I often get asked how to manage many different levels in one workshop or webinar. Framing is one of the tools I have in my toolbox.
Here are two examples from a recent board training.
The number one barrier holding board members back is time, they said. Since I always promise to leave them with practical solutions to their barriers, I spent a lot of time thinking about time. How could I frame “time” to get them unstuck? I landed on a goal of finding three ways to address time—how to be more efficient (save time), effective (deeper use of time), and expansive (expand how many hours we engage in our mission). I shared this framing at the start of session two:
Time is a barrier holding a lot of your boards back. As we go through today’s session, I want you to ask yourself three questions. What can I take from this content to make us (1) more efficient, (2) more effective, or (3) more expansive in how we add hours to our reserve of time? We are looking for solutions that achieve these three goals. I’ll ask you at the end what you come up with.
When we checked in with our framing at the end, they had discovered ways to save time, make better use of time, and engage their larger community to add time. They were on their way to addressing their biggest barrier.
Expert vs. Novice
During day two of the class, we cover what every board member needs to know about finance. This is a high level, basic information that will put to sleep experienced board members or finance experts. Yet new board members tend not know this information, and they need to. Enter framing.
We are going to spend the next 30 minutes talking about nonprofit finance basics. We have a lot of diversity of experience in the room. I know there are veteran nonprofit leaders here—you already know what I’m about to share. And I know we have new board members here too—we are so excited that you are here with us! I want to frame what you should be listening for as we cover this information. If you are new to nonprofit finance, I want you to listen to WHAT you need to know. If you are an experienced finance person, I want you to listen for HOW you can support those who are new. Listen to both the information and how I deliver it because you might play the role of teacher within your board.
Framing prepares our audience to listen. It forces them to think as they answer those framing questions for themselves. If you have taken my Trainer Academy class, you’ve heard me talk about how framing questions at the start of a session helps learners focus their attention, sometimes more effectively than stated learning objectives. (Learn more about that here.) When people have to listen and think, they are more likely to act.
Ah, here’s A Royal Duty. Nicely framed so I can stop looking.
Please check out my new board training, now on-demand! Whole boards are taking the course as whole boards—imagine how powerful that is! It is available in English and Spanish.
- How do you know you made a difference?
Ultimately, we work this hard to make a difference. We are trying to move the needle on what people do. This is true for the trainers reading this who want to know if time in the classroom– or on Zoom– transfers into a change in approach or behavior. It is also true for you nonprofit leaders who run programs towards some outcome: expanded services, a protected environment, communities enriched through the arts, etc.
How do we know if we made a difference? How do we do evaluation simply given all of the demands on our time and the fact that too often, evaluation is not funded.
Fortunately, we have evaluation experts to turn to as we expand how we measure the difference that we are making. Learning expert Will Thalheimer recently released the second edition of his book on learning evaluation, Performance-Focused Learner Surveys. I regularly share his brilliant Learning Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM) model because it succinctly demonstrates how we might move evaluation from perception to actual performance.
Evaluation expert Chari Smith, author of Nonprofit Program Evaluation Made Simple, provides a similar model for nonprofit programs. Her books tagline cuts right to the point of evaluation: Get your data. Show your impact. Improve your programs. Think about that word “show” and what it means. (I’ve been thinking about it as I roll out a new finance training, Show Me The Money, and plan for ways that people will show what they know.) Show means to make visible, no longer hidden or assumed. This model again moves evaluation from perception to actual performance.
Some reflections distilled from the work of these two experts:
- Evaluation as a tool to learn and improve is a culture issue that needs to be integrated into everything we do. It involves strategy, planning, and systems.
- Evaluation starts with the end in mind. What are you trying to change? What should be different because of that class or program? The answer to that will drive the ways that you can measure that change.
- Evaluation invites us to consider what questions we ask and how we ask them. Thalheimer challenges us to write “distinctive questions” (questions with description answers to choose from) over questions with vague Likert scales. I particularly like how he invites us to consider what is acceptable in terms of the responses we see. For example, if a CPA learns a little at a finance training, that is just as acceptable as a novice learning a lot. Our goal is not for everyone to learn the same amount.
- Evaluation is a team effort. Smith tells the all-to-common story of a grantwriter needing the data described in a proposal that the program manager wasn’t collecting. From a training perspective, the trainer can measure learning in the moment but not how it was applied without collaboration with the manager or organization. We have to work together.
- Evaluation can be simple and done well. We have all been in those meetings where colleagues chase every possible “interesting” data point. When we focus on what we need to learn to improve our and their performance, we can pare down that data to just what we need.
How do you know if you make a difference?
Upcoming learning opportunity
If you are looking to hone your evaluation skills, I encourage you to join Smith for Logic Models Made Simple… and Impact Models Too! on May 12. She will share simple steps to tighten up your evaluation practice. You will leave more confident about ways to build your road map to the kind of evaluation that helps you show your impact.
- Experts, beware
The research stuck in my head when listening to a Nonprofit Financial Basics webinar was this: “Experts are not fully aware of about 70% of their own decisions and mental analysis of tasks and so are unable to explain them fully even when they intend to support the design of training… or work.” Read the whole article
When I develop trainings on a topic, I seek out other trainers leading similar sessions to learn content and see how other people present information. One of my areas of focus these days is financial curriculum, so how sweet to get in my inbox the recording of MBA-educated nonprofit CPA (lots of letters) leading a Nonprofit Financial Basics webinar! Basics… what comes to your mind when you think about financial basics?
Out of the gate, the CPA referenced how a nonprofit would manage a cost reimbursement contract with HUD. How many small to medium nonprofits needing a basics class manage HUD contracts? The session stalled when a passing reference to in-kind donations yielded a flurry of questions about how to manage in-kind. The bread-and-butter of small to medium nonprofits are in-kind donations. I moved on with my day at this point, again reminded how tricky it can be for experts to lead learning sessions, particularly a basics class.
This 70% statistic is so interesting because there are two sides to it. Experts gloss over 70% of the information needed by someone less expert. But they aren’t talking less. That means they are including detail unnecessary and perhaps derailing for the person learning.
Not all experts fall into this trap. I work with incredible experts in finance and HR (and other topics too) who are top in their field and good at meeting learners where they are. In my experience, these experts have invested time and effort in honing their teaching skill.
We are all expert in something. I appreciated this reminder to slow down, spend time deeply understanding the needs and knowledge of the person in front of me, and support experts as they share their important knowledge with people who need to know a lot to serve our communities.
The Nonprofit Board Certificate Course is launched on our new Nonprofit Learning Center website. This on-demand course integrates adult learning and board content to leads board member through what they need to know and how to take action.
Nonprofit colleagues: The Central Washington Conference offers amazing learning and is open to anyone. Register by April 1 to be entered into a drawing for a visa gift card.
Association colleagues: We are scheduling fall “Trainer Academy” series now to help experts hone their teaching skill
Consultant colleagues: I recently recorded a “behind the scenes” video for a client to help them prepare for strong online delivery. Enjoy!
- Reflections for Association Learning Leaders
I’ve been working closely with several nonprofit and other associations over the past two years and have been thinking about association challenges and opportunities as we move through 2022. I’m sharing what I have been learning and pondering in case it helps you as you think about your work.
1. A learning strategy is more important than ever.
Associations were at various stages of building out a learning strategy when the pandemic hit. Suddenly the content focus shifted to survival, and it became hard to be intentional about how various modes of learning were deployed to move the needle on what mattered before.
The pandemic forced a deeper appreciation for asynchronous learning, online learning, and tools/jobaids to support learning. It has also reminded us how much we need each other to learn and create social change. 2022 is a great year to integrate approaches into a learning strategy that moves the needle on what matters.
2. Good curriculum is the foundation for all learning programs.
I am regularly asked to zhuzh up PowerPoints to make them more learningful. I start by backing up the truck to create an intentional curriculum that centers what people need to know and practice. I am leading seven curriculum development projects this spring, each effort starting with a review of what already exists. My conclusion: there is a whole lot of information dump out there, and sadly that doesn’t lead to learning.
Good curriculum is the cornerstone of an effective learning program. It contains all of the lessons, activities, tools, and jobaids you need to deploy in every different way across your program. It is the cornerstone of your financial and membership strategy too!
3. Investing in the capacity of trainers in your state or region makes your job – and the job of nonprofits in your state – easier and more impactful.
Good curriculum is design. Let’s talk about delivery. Teaching is a professional skill. It is the specialized application of knowledge, skills and attributes designed to help individuals do things differently.
Fortunately we have many strong trainers and facilitators in our sector. We need more. I spent last year observing too many webinars led by consultants with a false sense of confidence in their training ability. Imagine the power of doubling the number of effective teachers advancing your learning strategy.
4. We talk about the role of data and research in social sector solutions. We also have to stay on top of adult learning research as we offer learning solutions.
Learning styles aren’t a thing. Direct instruction is important in learning. Worked examples help novices gain skills. Experts leave out roughly 70% of needed knowledge. Our brains can only handle two channels of information at a time, a rule violated in many PowerPoint presentations. Equity workshops and webinars have very little impact on equity. Evaluations are best when they avoid Likert scales and create baselines for comparison.
It is hard to keep up with all of the adult learning “research to practice” interpreters out there. I make it my business to try, and I still have a stack of articles and books on my coffee table! Our 2022 reflection on curriculum and strategy invites us to dive deeper into adult learning research to maximize our influence over the busy people who attend our programs.
5. We are most effective when we shift our focus to where the work happens.
Many associations have a strategy based on synchronous learning events: workshops, webinars, and conferences. We exist, however, is to help people in how they do their jobs. I’ve been deepening my study of performance-based instruction over the past year, practicing how to move performance support (of which learning is a part) closer to the work flow. As one expert in the field wrote, “knowledge and skills alone can’t fix a problem.”
The simple question “What do people need to do as a result of this workshop/webinar/whatever?” invites a whole range of new possibilities for our learning programs: performance supports, tools, accountability networks, reflection gatherings, technical assistance, job aids, etc. I have seen two shifts in focus with this approach: work on the front end to create tools/supports means you offer fewer workshops and webinars; and a focus on building capacity within organizations and communities to hold the work.
- The Deconstructed Conference
I have served on the team producing the Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good since its inception in 2014. This conference was held in person in Yakima for six years, giving local nonprofit leaders a place to learn without having to travel over mountains or vast distances. With one month’s notice in March 2020, it was moved online, replacing the conference hall with Zoom and a Facebook group. In 2021, we intentionally designed an online conference using a conference platform and Zoom. For 2022, we held our annual listening sessions that guide the conference design, and we heard from a variety of nonprofit leaders across Central Washington that they were tired of long days online. They wanted three things: relief from a few pain points, inspiration on how to make their organizations more sustainable and equitable, and to be in community together—in person, if possible– in a COVID-safe way. Read a more complete summary here.
Our model for a “deconstructed conference” evolved out of this feedback. It also responds to what we know about adult learning and behavior change. It is harder to explain than the typical “all you can eat” buffet-style conference, so let’s break down what we are doing and why.
First, let’s define a conference. A learning conference typically has:
- A keynote speaker(s) that inspires,
- Workshops that inform,
- Discussion groups or peer conversations that engage people in smaller groups,
- One-on-one meetings in the hallway, and
- Celebration, often delivered through empowering messages, music, and awards.
Ideally, behind these elements is a strategy move the needle on something because of the investment of time and money to get there. In Central Washington, our strategy—recalibrated every year—has centered on leadership, collaboration, and equity.
Our design question going into 2022: how do we deliver inspiration, information, and celebration in a way that honors people’s burnout and the unpredictability of COVID? Framed another way: with everything happening in 2022, how do we most effectively support these nonprofit leaders as they lead through challenging times, collaborate to solve hard problems, and prioritize equity inside and outside their organizations?
Deconstruct: To reduce (something) to its constituent parts in order to reinterpret it.
The answer for us was to reinterpret our conference. A typical in-person conference hosts people who come to one place at one time. An online conference removes shared space, at least in the physical sense. A deconstructed conference goes a step farther and removes the constraint of time. The elements listed above—the keynote, workshops, discussion groups, and celebration—take place in various spaces over the course of time, in our case two and half months (April-June). The parts get pulled apart and then intentionally woven together to create the whole. In doing so, we have reinterpreted the parts and the whole.
Before I explain exactly what this looks like, I want to share how a deconstructed conference puts into practice what we know about adult learning. Consider this interlude a reflection of my excitement about this technical aspect of the conference. For others, it is my attempt at hiding the broccoli under the mash potatoes before dessert. No matter, grounding our learning events in research is vital if we are going to move the needle on the biggest issues of our time.
Consider these three adult learning ideas:
1. Spaced learning—offering multiple presentations of a topic with a time delay between them—helps people remember because of more and deeper processing time. When people remember more and process more and more deeply, they are more likely to take action on something. Deep, rigorous reflection is what leads to change.
2. Content delivery and social interaction can be expanded and deepened when we leverage the benefits of online vs. in-person events. Online delivery, particularly of speakers from outside our area, is an effective and efficient way to deliver new information. It is harder to have casual conversations online. In-person events, particularly smaller events, are effective at fostering deeper peer conversations. When these conversations happen within a community, a common language forms and accountability teams take shape. Learning transfer (so application of learning back at the office) locks in when people share a goal, have opportunities to keep talking about the topic, and can join with colleagues to implement what was taught.
3. Learning is about doing. We might start learning with a formal event—a class or a conference—and then wander down a path of practicing, getting feedback, finding technical assistance, trying again, and then telling the whole story to someone, which is yet another step in learning. Learning has formal, informal, and social elements that a conference spread over time makes time and space for.
How is this all coming together with this conference?
- Keynote speakers will lead 90-minute sessions via Zoom, framing our conversations for the rest of the conference.
- Community conversations will be facilitated using questions derived from the keynote talks. Ultimately the conversation will center on how those ideas could be implemented in their organization and community.
- Workshops address the two biggest issues cited as challenges and opportunities: HR and financial planning.
- Peer conversations will be facilitated by a peer, with a discussion guide related to the keynotes and two workshops provided. In the case of our financial topic, we have identified subject matter experts within our community who can support “how could we do this” conversations.
- “Get ready” and “for further thought” emails will be sent before and after all events to reduce forgetting and increase action.
This conference has evolved each year as its results bear fruit, and we respond to what people need at the time. This year, we are creating a conference that offers spaced learning, pulling apart content and social interaction to make time and space for reflection, accountability, and implementation. Fingers crossed that it all works the way we’ve planned.
If you would like to read more about conference design, download the Conferences That Make a Difference ebook I co-wrote with Mark Nilles.
For more information about the Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good, visit our conference website.
- Small actions
I’ve always liked the quote from Dwight Eisenhower, “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” It invites us to turn technical problems into system change opportunities. So it is shift for me to be thinking a lot about how to make problems smaller.
More specifically, I’ve been looking at the big actions we want people to take and working out ways to reduce those actions into their parts. If you make actions small enough, even the most unmotivated person might move forward.
I think about small actions from two points of view. First, I am a teacher, eager to design and deliver experiences that reflect what we know about adult learning and human behavior. For example, I appreciate how small actions shift how people first engage in a topic. We can “prime” people for learning or a discussion by inviting them to think about a topic in advance. We can frame our content by asking open-ended or recall questions that get people thinking about the content. Short bits of content spread over time contributes to better memory. Practicing an action, even for a short time, builds muscle memory to repeat that action later on.
We can design and deliver learning experiences and gatherings with “small teaching” moments (to use the name of James M. Lang’s book on the topic).
Give it a try: Think ahead to your next workshop, board meeting, staff meeting, or gathering as a whole: How could you use pre-thinking (priming), framing questions, short bits of content spread out over time, or practice?
I also think about small actions from an outcome point of view. (This is what BJ Fogg explores in Tiny Habits.) What small actions do we want people to take as a result of our lessons or meetings? How do we break down our “ask” as small as possible to address barriers holding them back. Barriers such as:
Motivation. Someone highly motivated to do something may be inclined to “go big.” The rest of us may fall in the low the mid-level of motivation on an action. By making the action smaller, we increase their motivation.
Ability. Peoples’ ability to take an action may fall all over the map. By making the action smaller, we increase the likelihood that they are able to take that action.
Environment. People exist within a social structure and culture. By making the action smaller, we decrease potential cultural resistance to the action. We increase the likelihood that the action is sustained.
I made a list of advocacy-related small actions:
- Choose a specific date or time to start a focus on advocacy. That might be the January board meeting or the first staff meeting after summer holidays. Having a ‘fresh start’ helps you to refresh a commitment.
- Make it fun. Watch Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” (available widely on YouTube) together and talk about your experiences with legislation. Discover the policy-making stories of people on your team.
- Spend time imagining the benefits of advocacy for your organization so your team becomes more invested in that picture. If people understand why something is important, they are more likely to be invested in what needs to happen.
- Join one group. Start by joining one group. Become a member of at least one coalition or association to start building connections outside of your organization.
- Name one “value add” that you can contribute to the action of others. You may have one story, one data point, or one solution that would help a coalition’s advocacy effort
I’ve also played around with a small action list for nonprofit boards. It starts with:
- Include one pair-share conversation (people talking in pairs) in your next board meeting.
- Invite someone who is not the ED, board chair, or treasurer to lead the finance conversation.
- Start the meeting inviting people to describe what success looks like for that meeting.
- Pause during a meeting to acknowledge the emotions in the room.
- Go for a walk/have coffee with someone working in/with this nonprofit or a different nonprofit in your community.
- Read one article/book about the cause in which you are working.
- Write one thank you note.
I suppose Eisenhower’s quote is relevant. If we can’t achieve action now, we need to enlarge our commitment to offering smaller options. We work harder on the front end so they can learn more, remember more, feel more connected, and experience greater motivation and ability to move forward. Given that we are talking about nonprofit leaders and volunteers doing our communities’ most important work, the effort is worth it.
YOUR TURN: What “ask” do you have for someone in your life– a colleague, a child, a partner, a client, etc.? How small can you break that “ask” down?
- Nonprofit Radio Show: Sunshine for Small Nonprofits
One of the gifts of a new year is the opportunity to think about what brings us joy. I look forward to most Fridays when Sarah Brooks and I meet over Zoom to record another episode of the Nonprofit Radio Show. Just before the holidays, we shared our thoughts on how to KonMari your nonprofit (tip of the hat to Marie Kondo and her show on Netflix), and we just released Episode 42 entitled “Breaking the Rules.”
Many of you follow me and this blog because you are interested in adult learning. Others know me from my work leading training and discussions on nonprofit topics. The Nonprofit Radio Show combines both these passions to deliver a resource for rural and small nonprofit leaders who can’t easily access existing workshops or networks. We like to talk about sunshine because, well, Sarah experiences it in Eastern Washington, and I search for it through our many shades of Western Washington gray. We hope our conversations, based on decades of experience working within and with small, rural nonprofits, bring sunshine to the principles, strategies, and values that guide our work.
Often when we are talking about a topic, we fall back on asking about strategy. Whatever we do to raise money, engage our board, or plan for the future, it is important to have a simple strategy that aligns people and purpose. Our learning strategy with the Radio Show is this:
Lift up and celebrate the experiences and advantages of small, rural nonprofits. We talk in our sector about scaling up and building efficiencies in our impact. At the same time, small nonprofits have unique assets as communities working to strengthen community. We want to make sure our small nonprofit colleagues know they are special and see ways to lean into their strengths. We hope to illuminate ways that small nonprofits working together can be just as effective as any large nonprofit “gone to scale.”
Leverage the power of low bandwidth, portable learning. So much online learning depends on reliable high-speed internet, which isn’t a given in many rural homes. People living in rural areas often travel long distances as a regular part of their lives, giving them time in the car to learn. In naming the podcast, we imagined the old time radio shows of the past, and how people would gather around to listen and talk about what they heard. The Nonprofit Radio Show provides discussion questions for each episode to support further conversation.
Center our conversation in a few guiding principles. The body of knowledge contained within the nonprofit sector is vast. How is a volunteer executive director with a family and job expected to stay on top of trends and “best practices”? Start by letting go of the idea of “best practice” because practice exists within the context of the work. Identify a few core principles that serve as an organization’s and leader’s north star. Know your values and live them. Sarah and I named six principles that guide our conversations. As we all work through times defined by ambiguity and the unknown, what are your guiding principles?
Sarah and I warmly invite you to subscribe however you listen to podcasts. Please share the podcast with anyone you know who might be interested. Invite us to your next conference– we love doing live shows! I’ve listed some of our most popular conversations below to help you take a listen to a topic of interest to you.
Recent episodes Conversations with guests Here we go again: Ideas for dealing with burnout
What and how: The difference matters
All things databases
Useful free or low cost resources for nonprofits
Create a culture that people want to be a part of
Fundraising metrics for every small nonprofit
Advocacy: Your voice a little louder
Centering equity (Qallaq Tara Ramos)
Program evaluation (Chari Smith)
Make the most of social media (Tom Lang)
Your website is your front door (Meps Schulte)
Smart HR in small nonprofits (Skye Mercer)
“I’m sitting here stuffing envelopes for our year-end targeted mailing. Your episode on year-end giving inspired an idea that will work really well for our organization. Your advice is always spot on as it is grounded in years of experience. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, ideas, and warmth with the nonprofit world and for putting some sunshine in my day. I want you to know that I appreciate you all at Nonprofit Radio Show! Shannon Koller, WithinReach
As you move deeper into your 2022, let me quote our closing line on the Nonprofit Radio Show. You got this!
- Hard out it of to is understand order words.
Hard out it of to is understand order words.
Read that sentence again, turn away from your computer, and recite it back. It is nine words. How many of them can you remember in the right order?
It is hard to understand words out of order. That’s the sentence if we rearrange the words. That sentence is a lot easier to remember because it makes sense. We can feel its truth if we have tried hard enough to remember its words as they first appeared.
As we arrange information to move people to action, we have to pay attention to that same rule: does it make sense? Does it connect with a real emotion? Does is provide the path of least resistance to the most behavior change?
Too often, the answers to these questions are no. We put information out expecting the receivers of that information to reorganize it into something that makes sense to them. We trust that people not expert in our topic are able to take information and apply it to their context, to do things differently without the benefit of practice. That is a big jump.
I know it is also a big jump for people who don’t live and breathe adult learning and curriculum design to innovate new solutions to how they deliver information. It means stepping out of information and into what you want to see or hear at the end. It requires reverse-engineering exactly the right information and practice needed to leave people ready to do things differently in their context. That calibration of content and engagement lies at the heart of a well designed set of resources.
Here’s a program to help. Registration is now open for the 2022 cohort of Design for Results: How to create curriculum that leads to change starting on January 27, 2022. Designed for learning leaders, program directors, consultants, and trainers working in the social sector, it leads participants through a well-tested design process that yields a ready-to-use curriculum (or whatever collection of lessons, tools, and experiences you need to achieve your goals). Participation unlocks a peer group, extensive resources, and one-on-one support available to you until you get where you need to go.
I began this email with the mixed up sentence opening after reading one “must read” book on nonprofit boards that meandered around in circles to the point of confusion. I then reviewed a training intended for action but designed for overwhelm. In both cases, I found myself sorting their parts into a more sensical order. That got in the way of me learning. Your work matters—nothing should get in the way of people learning what you need them to know to move forward.
- The Case for Graphics and Design
“It don’t care what it looks like. The content is there.”
“I’m not good at graphics. I use PowerPoint templates to create a slidedeck.”
“I’m a bullet-point junky. I can’t live without them.”
Describe you? Someone you know? I hear versions of these statements regularly in my work with nonprofit consultants and learning leaders. We don’t need good design. We don’t know how to do good design. We don’t have time for good design.
The reality is that everything we produce has a design, whether intentional or not. That design can fall flat and be forgotten as soon as it is seen. Or it can serve as the wind at our backs, or more accurately, the wind at the backs of the people we serve. It can help them to better understand, take action, and learn from our publications and presentations. Graphics and design are a tool in our toolbox that we can choose to use to achieve our goals. Given how short on time and resources our nonprofits are, it seems like leveraging every opportunity we have is a good idea.
“Design is intelligence made visible.”– Alina Wheeler, author of Designing Brand Identity
I’ve been reviewing the research in preparation for our Graphics and Design in Learning workshop on November 9. Here are some highlights:
- Graphics trigger emotions and attention, increasing engagement in learning. (Increased engagement means that people learn more.)
- Graphics, in combination with narration, increases processing because you are using both auditory and visual channels into the brain. That means people learn more when you appropriately use graphics and narration together.
- Graphics deepen the complexity of information that you can share without brain overload. That means that people learn more with a well-designed graphic over the same information delivered in writing.
- Graphics particularly help novices learn more. People new to something need the added boost to make sense of what you are teaching them.
Notice the repetition here…. “people learn more.” That’s what this is all about: learn more, remember more, do more of what you learn.
So what does all of this mean? Since so many people rely on the PowerPoint slidedeck to share their content, it means first that we need to stop producing “slideuments” (a term created by Garr Reynolds), which are documents disguised as PowerPoint presentations. You know what I mean… slides and slides of bullet points that a speaker talks through. Our colleagues who have been participating in our Trainer Academy and fall learning series know the alternatives: workbooks, tools, jobaids, or whatever you need to create to augment or support the presentation.
A second piece of low-hanging advice for the folks who hold onto the “branding on every slide” principle:
“I realize there is a strong belief in making sure that every darn slide in the entire deck has at least one company logo on it…. Is the point to make sure they don’t forget who you are? Hmmm, wouldn’t the audience be more inclined to remember you if (1) your presentation is clear and relevant, and (2) the handouts are terrific and useful and nice-looking so they will be kept and not trashed?”– Robin Williams, The Non-Designer’s Presentation Book
Design ideas to consider:
- Color. Choose a color palette that is crisp, allowing for strong contrast. You can use your brand colors if that works. Remember not to rely on color for all navigation and information because of the 4.5% of the population who are colorblind.
- Text. Use sans serif fonts to ease reading. Avoid center alignment except for titles. Center alignment is the most difficult text to read. Left-aligned (ragged right) is the easiest to read.
- Repetition. On one hand, repetition reduces cognitive overload. For example, you don’t have to process how information is being delivered if every slide looks the same. On the other hand, repetition impacts memory. When multiple similar objects are present, the one that differs from the rest is most likely to be remembered.
- Big picture. Step away from your computer and invest time in instructional design. Think about what story you are trying to tell. What big ideas are important to this story? What information do you need to convey, and how could you do that visually?
- Edit. Remove any superfluous information or purely decorative graphics that don’t support your learning or communication goals.
A key tenet in our nonprofit learning community is that nonprofit people have a lot to do. Every experience in which they gather—whether a training or a board meeting– needs to be excellent and outcome-focused. Good design is an important tool to get us there.
“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.”– Richard Grefé, Executive Director at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA)
- You don’t get compliance by talking about compliance.
We just wrapped up a nine-month project with an organization focused on increasing compliance related to procurement, ethics, and the safeguarding of vulnerable people. The organization has policies, and our goal was to increase the rate by which people followed those policies.
This wasn’t the first compliance-related project we have worked on. There have been the efforts to increase how nonprofits register as charities with the state, file the appropriate state taxes, apply for the right liquor license, and classify employees and contractors, among others. There are a lot of rules to follow. Our job as nonprofit educators is to create tools and experiences that encourage compliance.
Many compliance-focused efforts are built around the belief that people will do something if they know about it. Let me suggest four other ways to increase compliance for the long term.
1. Stand in their shoes.
We have written curriculum related to the work of at least five state agencies. From the point of view of each agency, their rules are important and clear. From the point of view of the small nonprofit executive director, however, state compliance rules are noise emanating from every direction. It is hard to know which agency is responsible for what and how to move forward. When time is short, it is easy to miss a deadline. That is why we start a compliance project standing in the shoes of the person we are trying to influence. The questions you ask and priorities you focus on are different when you take the point of view of the person implementing the rules.
2. Don’t make them think.
Part of standing in their shoes is understanding that they are not thinking about this topic 24/7. The easier we can make the task, the more likely they are to comply. In our recent ethics curriculum, for example, we wanted bosses to include conversations about ethics in their staff meetings. While ethical behavior may seem black and white in the abstract, there is a ton of gray when you talk about real situations. Even our subject matter experts went around and around for a while on one case, which led to a fantastic case study! If conversations start to become hard for bosses to manage, they are going to skip them. They have enough other agenda items to cover in that next staff meeting. We need to make it easy by providing the discussion guide and talking points. In other cases, we need to provide the checklist and phone numbers to call when they get stuck. We need to do the thinking so they don’t have to.
3. Go upstream.
If we are concerned about safeguarding issues—the protection of vulnerable people—we need to go upstream and make sure we are designing programs that prevent problems in the first place. We need to make sure we are hiring well. If we are troubled by how well our staff is adhering to our procurement policies, we need to go upstream and understand how work happens and vendors are sourced. If we are worried that nonprofits aren’t following liquor law, we need to go upstream to the issue—that committees often organize events, not individuals. When we go upstream, we de-silo the issue. We can teach the policy, but ultimate compliance happens in the flow of work.
4. Make it enjoyable.
The easiest trainings to deliver are those related to law, finance, or compliance. Participants have very low expectations. They are expecting to be talked at about numbers or rules. Cue the PowerPoint slides with a ton of bullet points. We can surprise them by talking about people, connection, stories, and practical applications of our content. We can be human in acknowledging that compliance issues can be hard, inconsistent, and sometimes in competition with what we are trying to achieve as an organization. To be clear—when I suggest making it enjoyable, I don’t mean inappropriate joke-making or point-less entertainment. I am not making a game out of embezzlement or human trafficking. I mean that people feel the deeper purpose of spending time on this issue beyond following a compliance rule. They understand their role in making a difference and feel valued.
All of these ideas are more difficult than adding a compliance checkbox to an HR profile. They take leadership and strategy. It’s worth it. The result will be more compliance and stronger organizations.
- Stairs, ramps, and curb-cuts: Designing for everyone
If you were constructing an entrance to a building and were resource-constrained, would you build stairs or a ramp? Stairs make the building accessible to individuals who are able-bodied. The ramp makes the building accessible to everyone. Often we build stairs and then later add on the ramp. What if we were to consider access in the original design?
This is a question that we can ponder as it relates to our own programs. Roughly one quarter of all people have disabilities. Some of these disabilities are visible, and some are not. Some are permanent, and some are temporary or life stage-related, such as the eye glasses we depend on at middle age. As accessibility expert Gwen Navarrete Klapperich reminds us, “Designing with accessibility in mind gives trainers the ability to reach diverse populations without making accommodations in the future.”
Accessibility expert Elizabeth Ralston offers us a different construction reference that expands our thinking beyond accessibility efforts to help the disabled. The Curb-Cut Effect refers to the effect that occurred after disability advocates successfully campaigned for small ramps to be cut into curbs so that wheelchairs could more easily cross streets in Berkeley, California in the 1970s. When curb cuts were implemented, everyone benefited: people in wheelchairs, parents pushing strollers, workers pushing heavy carts, etc. Ralston’s article about her work with arts organizations tells more about what we can learn from the impact of curb cuts and importance of universal design.
Gwen Navarrete Klapperich and Elizabeth Ralston are partnering to lead Designing Accessible Learning on October 7, 2021. This class will provide a framework for thinking about how to help learners with disabilities learn in your online or in-person session. You will learn about Universal Design for Learning principles and how to maximize accessibility in your virtual learning programs. You will leave the session with a short list of steps to make your learning programs more accessible. Join us!
- I see you: how to build trust and connection online
Here we go again. In-person sessions are being moved online. Inevitably the person organizing the conference or workshop breaks the news with a sigh. “It won’t be the same.”
Perhaps it won’t be the same, but we have made a lot of progress over the past year on how to deliver online learning with a strong social presence. When COVID first hit and I was called on to teach people how to teach online, I shared the lessons of “Get Present: Build Community and Connectedness Online,” an article written by North Carolina Virtual Public School teachers who challenged us to look at five elements of engaging learners in their learning. Particularly helpful was the challenge to build community cohesion.
Over the past month, I have expanded my instruction on social presence based on Erica Dhawan’s four laws of digital body language, explained in her 2021 book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection No Matter the Distance. While the book is intended to address digital body language in the workplace, not within learning programs, her four laws invite us to consider how we are deepening our practice to build social presence. (I put “digital” in parentheses because I could argue that these are the four laws of body language offline too.)
Using the slide above, I recently invited participants in my Trainer Academy course to translate these laws into practical guidance for an online trainer. This is what one group came up with:
Perhaps that conference won’t be the same—we can’t replicate the chatter at the coffee bar. But I’m excited for that online conference session anyway. I’m going to bring these four laws of digital body language into our conversation about how to build a powerhouse board or better prepare for a disaster. Their success matters.
WHILE I HAVE YOU:
I released the Nonprofit Learning Playbook last week. Download your free copy here.
The Nonprofit Learning Fall Series starts next week:
- Communication and learning
Regular readers of this blog know that I use this space to think out loud. It is where I take shards of a theme that keep surfacing and see how they fit together into someone whole. Communications is one of those themes. It is a topic that we touch on in a variety of our courses, but not one to which I have devoted a whole class or blog post . Yet how we talk about a learning experience and what communication strategy supports our learning events are at the heart of our effectiveness. The words we use have the power to expand value, deepen engagement, and improve learning.
But first, there’s an abundance of nonprofit classes that exist to market consulting services or make money unrelated to mission. I’m focused on learning programs that center the needs and success of nonprofit people. I care about profit-making only as far as it sustains our work lifting up the work of nonprofit people. I care about training-as-marketing only if the training is good. My goal with communications is to improve how well people learn and transfer that learning back into their job. I know you value that too.
What has more value…
- A webinar or online class?
- A training, workshop, or class?
- A conference, symposium, deep dive, or day of learning and connection?
And while we are at it, who fills the room at these events? Registrants, attendees, participants, or nonprofit leaders?
The words we use to name our events and the people who attend them signal what people can expect. There isn’t a correct answer, but there are better answers based on the marketplace and who we serve. For example, the term “webinar” elicits for me a presentation where the speaker is showing PowerPoint slides with too many bullets. (Is it just me that thinks that?) A board member may not feel compelled to be “trained” and may prefer a “workshop.” Context matters.
2. Your promise
Nonprofit people are busy, so our learning events must be time efficient. Whether explicit or implied, we make a promise to participants that their time will be well spent. We express this promise through objectives. “By the end of this session, you will….” Learning objectives serve the instructor by guiding the content of the session and what will be practiced. Focusing objectives focus the participant on what will be covered and practiced during the time. Both are important.
Too often learning objectives are a sad list of vague ideas or verbs. “Understand” in all its forms is far overused. It is the universal fall back when a conference planner tells us that we need learning objectives. I have no idea what you understand, and I’m not sure what to do with “you will understand the difficult balance between safety, choice, and protection,” to quote an example that came across my desk this week. Towards what end do we want people to understand that? “Awareness” gets the silver medal for most overused. Awareness ≠ action.
My guidance on learning objectives has evolved over the past year. While problematic in several ways, the diversity of verbs available on the Bloom’s Taxonomy push workshop leaders to move beyond “understand” and “awareness.” (Again, only look at Bloom’s for verbs; don’t get caught up in the hierarchy or think that you have to move people from left to right. You don’t.)
Over the summer, I’ve been learning about Brenda Segrue’s work on objectives. Segrue’s model gives us five performance verb types to consider:
Procedure (task verb): can they do the task
Concept (identify or distinguish): do they understand the concept
Fact (recall or recognize): do they remember the facts
Process (troubleshoot, predict, or improve): do they know the steps in doing something
Principle (apply or predict): can they use the principle in a real way
Bottom line, you communicate the specifics of your learning event through your objectives. Communicate boldly and then deliver. (And join us for The Trainer Academy in August or September if you want to here more tips about learning objectives.)
3. Before and after communication
An event begins at the first point of contact. Your participants start their learning experience with that marketing email that captures their imagination to learn more. You set the tone that this event will be interactive and outcome-based, if that is so. Once the event happens, you keep people learning by staying connected to them. Your communication strategy brackets the learning event to extend and deepen learning.
Here’s how this can work:
Before-event communication: Priming is the practice of starting the learning process before a lesson occurs. It can be as simple as a reflection question and invitation to download a workbook (example) or as involved as a video pre-lesson meant to cover material in advance (example).
After-event communication: Boosting is the practice of continuing learning after a learning event. It is human to forget, and the rate at which we forget varies based on how well we design our event around remembering. We can send post-event communication that reminds people about what they learned, rekindles their motivation to keep making progress, provides additional information that comes up in feedback (example), or invites application of key lessons. We’ve made a promise to participants that we will stand by them as they learn and apply our lessons. Post-event communication is how we live up to that promise.
The name of your event, the promise you make through your objectives, and your pre- and post-event communication extends learning and strengthens your brand. Do you have a communications strategy as a part of your learning program? Tell us!
Our fall learning series starts September 23. Join us for Beyond Workshops and Webinars: Tools to move people to action!
- Tools to help people take action
When you buy a piece of IKEA furniture, do you take a class in furniture making to know how to assemble it? What if you mess up and your Havsta cabinet doors won’t close all the way? Do you hire a consultant to convene the team around the shared goal of storage practice?
I bet you grab the assembly guide and follow the instructions. If you mess up, you search YouTube for an installation video, like this one. If you want to avoid the whole thing, you pay IKEA to receive the cabinet assembled. Or you live with the door not closing all the way. Yeah, we have one of those.
Why is it then when people in our nonprofit space don’t do something, we think they need a training? Board members aren’t helping us to raise funds, so let’s send them to a training. Finance staff aren’t following our fraud-deterring policies, so let’s send them to a conference. Policymakers aren’t voting the way we need them to on homelessness funding, so let’s lecture them on the whys, whats, and hows of our mission.
This is an expensive, time-consuming, and ineffective way to approach a performance problem or missed opportunity.
What if we got board members to help us raise funds by giving them a worksheet where they could fill in the blanks with a case for support. What if we got our finance team to be more fraud-minded by giving them a checklist or decision-making tree. What if we gave policymakers a directory of nonprofits working on the issue of homelessness with key data about who they serve. What if we gave our board members a directory of policymaker phone numbers and a script and texted them when to call? No training required.
Great tools help people to do their jobs, whatever that job is. Some tools are designed used on their own, such as checklists, reference guides, templates, or directories. Other tools support learning, helping people to reflect and transfer learning back to the job. These tools work in tandem with a workshop or webinar. I’m thinking about the workbooks that I frequently use to encourage reflection and discussion.
I think of tools as falling into three categories:
- DIY tools that allow people to do the job without help.
- Bridge-to-action tools that support learning transfer, often as a part of a workshop or webinar.
- Social tools that encourage conversation and collective reflection.
Our first class this fall will dig deeper into tools to support action and learning. “Beyond Workshops and Webinars: Tools to Move People to Action” on September 23 kicks off a series shaped around the Trainer Academy and topics that we don’t have time to cover there. It responds to what nonprofit and learning leaders have said they most want to learn about. Registration is now open. Join us!
I’m still think about that Havsta cabinet. Curiously, IKEA doesn’t provide an explainer video. The one I found was privately produced. IKEA relies on one somewhat cryptic document to help people assemble their furniture. I’m probably not alone with cabinet doors that aren’t quite straight. When we expand our use of tools, we give our people more ways to achieve success.
- The Nonprofit Learning Test Kitchen
We have some new projects brewing at the back of our stove. Our test kitchen is humming with activity as learning experts and technologists come together to try and find new ways to help nonprofit people do what they need to do. I thought that I would take a moment to let you know some of what we are working on.
New board resource designed from a workflow point-of-view
So many board workshops cover what board members need to know to do their job. I trained thousands of board members through “Boards in Gear” (a Washington-based board training) from 2015-2021. Most board members step up to serve without any formal understanding of what the job is, so these sessions can be powerful. Once they understand the job, they are more likely to do it.
The question we’ve been mulling, however, is how well a board member who attends a training integrates a lesson into the exact circumstance in which it applies. How do they apply information within their workflow? How well does anyone in our trainings apply what they learn and make it a regular part of their practice? The best way to design for learning transfer is to start from key moments in their workflow and reverse engineer what knowledge is needed, what skills need to be practiced, and what tools would support success.
We are working on a new board resource designed to be used in the workflow. It will draw on what we know about adult learning and behavioral science to nudge board members forward. We are hoping to have it available in the Fall.
A multiple-choice question for you to consider:
If all nonprofits by law must have a written plan for something, and if most nonprofits (according to a survey) don’t have that plan, what is the best way to help them get a plan?
A. Run a workshop where they learn about the requirement
B. Record a video about the requirement
C. Send a postcard to all nonprofits telling them about the requirement
D. Provide a draft plan based on information the nonprofit provides
Our team is working on D. Using a few plug-ins and a templated plan, we are piloting a new way to help nonprofits generate a document that they can customize to their situation. Once we deliver this for one client, we can imagine a whole lot of applications for this technology for other situations.
Low-tech on-demand learning
The technology du jour for nonprofit associations (and others) is a Learning Management System (LMS). Available at various price points with varying levels of features, a LMS allows an association to deliver on demand learning with quizzes and data tracking.
We are huge fans of on-demand learning, but technology needs a methodology (to quote learning expert Bob Moser). We are working on good, outcome-based on-demand learning delivered through simple videos and a supporting workbook. With a client on a limited budget, we are putting our efforts into the learning methodology: graphics that reinforce key lessons, demonstrations on how to access resources, and other practical lessons that will help people to use the information we are teaching them.
That’s what’s bubbling along in our test kitchen. What are you working on? How are you experimenting with new solutions? We’d love to know.
- I got your back.
Robbie Kellman Baxter, in her book The Forever Transaction, poses an interesting question to organizations and associations: what is your forever promise? Think about the people you serve, whether they are clients, partners, members, or people in your community who care about your mission. What is your commitment to them? In other words, if they keep doing X, what do you promise to do or keep doing?
I’ve thought about my forever promise in the context of nonprofits and the associations that serve them: if you continue to push hard on your mission, I promise to make sure the nonprofit learning experiences you create or attend are excellent and outcome-focused. It means that I do a significant amount of work for free, but the long-term impact is that the people I work with know that we are in this together. I’ve encouraged participants in our learning strategy course to develop a forever promise as a way to move from the transaction of selling a class to the transformation of being accountable to their people’s success.
Baxter is not alone in building community around building trust for the long-term. Over the past year, I became an empty nest parent while being COVID homebound, a perfect situation to try out “Yoga with Adriene.” What an amazing teacher Adriene is. She models empathy, invites us to make each situation our own, and demonstrates different levels of engagement for people coming to the practice with different abilities. Through it all, she reminds us that she has our back. Whether we can touch our toes or not, we will be okay. Adriene has over 7 million followers. Having people’s back is good for business.
We are in relationship with the people we work with. Relationships take time and authenticity. We need to believe in each other’s success. I appreciate the reminder once again that generosity is not only a good business strategy but a good mission strategy.
- What’s the hard work? Focus on that.
I started work on a new curriculum development project last week. This one is about human trafficking and sexual exploitation—pretty heavy stuff. Our goal is to make sure the staff and partners of this global organization protect vulnerable people. Difficult topic, but at the end of the day, this is a classic outcome-based curriculum. We want people to do things differently with their everyday life.
Trying to get my arms around this topic, I read through powerpoints and white papers from other organizations. Bullet point-filled slides explained the scope of the problem, the UN declarations these issues violate, and the psychological impact of human trafficking on women and children. Okay, I’m convinced—human trafficking is bad and widespread. That’s a training more relevant for university students, however, not international development workers expected to change the situation.
The third bullet point about 37 slides into one presentation caught my eye. “Make sure you train your staff how to spot human trafficking.” Now that is something to focus on. How do you spot human trafficking? The information until now was “why” and “what” information—what the problem is and why it matters. This nugget is a “how,” how someone can stop human trafficking if our prevention techniques fail. The “how” of something is what people really need to know and practice if they are going to do whatever it is we are hoping they will do out of our training.
I’ve talked in the past about the barriers that hold people back from action. We often get this wrong, thinking that people aren’t taking action for one reason when it is really another. We spend time on the context of the problem trying to motivate people, when they may really just need some practical tips.
As I talked with my colleague at the organization, we agreed that this step is where the rubber meets the road, and it is also really hard. Every situation looks a little different. You don’t want to mess up, such as calling in the authorities when you see an old man with a child only to find out he is her grandfather. But we can’t assume that managers know how to train employees to spot trafficking. We’ve identified the hard work. It is now time to dig in and provide some solutions.
“What’s the hard work?” is one of those Swiss utility knife questions—you can flip it open to address many different types of challenges. It is definitely a question for a training situation, but it also works with pretty much anyone you are trying to influence. Here’s some examples from recent projects:
Board members aren’t helping to raise money.
What’s the hard work?
Getting them to understand that fundraising is much bigger than asking for money.
Name and practice other ways that they contribute to fundraising.
Staff members aren’t completing forms correctly.
What’s the hard work?
Remembering what goes in each field.
Create a job aid to remind them… or a template where the fields are already filled out.
Nonprofits aren’t planning for disasters.
What’s the hard work?
Identifying the risk factors most relevant to that organization, then making time to talk with the board about that.
Give nonprofits a framework to think about disaster planning. Make sure it is flexible to be relevant to nonprofits in different places and situations.
What is the hard work holding back the people you are trying to influence? Focus on that.
“What is the hard work?” is one idea that we will be talking about at The Trainer Academy on June 15 and 22. If you want to learn how to design and deliver and effective workshop or webinar, join us!
- One year in: Reflections
I have officially been working as a consultant for one year. It was not my original plan to start a new consulting practice at the start of a global pandemic. Like the strategic plans of most nonprofits I know, my crisply crafted business plan of February 2020 became scrap paper by, well, March 2020. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate to be busy with unanticipated projects, many stirred up by the sudden need to get learning online.
Anniversaries offer opportunities for reflection. Here are three lessons that I have reflected on and that motivate me as I enter another year of service.
1. There is a growing movement to bring adult learning deeper into the nonprofit sector.
The role that research-based adult learning practice plays in the nonprofit sector has not been clear. Corporations spend many millions on learning and development with data to track performance outcomes. The nonprofit sector has been spending a whole lot of money too, but with no data or even overriding commitment to track how things are different because of a sub-industry of workshops, webinars, and conferences.
That is changing. More and more association leaders and consultants are committing to the power of research-based program design and delivery. The concept of a learning strategy is catching on as people grow impatient for progress and see the power in having a plan. An increasing number of associations are designing conferences around that core question: what do we want to move the needle on? Collectively, we are building a movement at the intersection of learning and nonprofit leadership.
2. There is still much to be done to bring a research-based adult learning practice deeper into sector strategy.
With any movement, we can see the need for our work all around us. You probably receive just as many emails as I do inviting you to join webinars structured around monotone bullet-point slides or sessions that talk about engagement without actually engaging anyone at all. Learning myths—like learning styles and goldfish-length attention spans— find their way into nonprofit workshops, proving to be more of a distraction than real learning. (Learning styles have been debunked, and as has the notion that people can’t focus longer than a fish wink. Anyone who has binge-watched a Netflix show knows that.)
All of which makes this work so exciting! Yes, a few people seem willing to go to the mat to defend their identity as being a visual learner. (They are not.) But there is nothing sweeter than watching someone shrug off their bullet-point addiction and explore what a participant-centered learning experience might look and feel like. (Curious? Join us for The Trainer Academy in June.) Two cohorts of association and consultant trainers went through our curriculum development course. Several hundred people joined us for sessions on how to teach online. We are making progress.
3. Nonprofit leaders are amazing, demonstrating a humbling amount of empathy, competency, and resiliency. They are even more amazing together.
We already knew nonprofit people were special before COVID. Who else would step into hard problems, unsolved by the private or public sector, (many as volunteers!) to put their knowledge, resources, and resourcefulness to work on causes that matter? What has struck me as nonprofits have faced unprecedented challenges is how much nonprofits want to collaborate and how many structural barriers get in their way. During our Reemergence learning series in Central Washington, nonprofit leaders told us that they were collaborating on small scales but needed ways to share information across the region towards a more efficient use of resources. In preparing for a conference workshop on collaboration at the end of April, nonprofit leaders celebrated the innovative partnerships they created to address human services related to COVID. But boards serve organizations, not the larger problems being addressed. Funders fund organizations, not systems finding solutions.
This leads me to two thoughts. First, our job as learning leaders is to go beyond teaching people how to operate in the nonprofit sector as it is. We must also create spaces in which nonprofit people can challenge “best practice,” a term that too often reinforces a practice based within a power structure that needs to change. Second, social change happens within communities. A community holds the right to decide what issues they most want to build change around. Our job as learning leaders is to listen… and then design learning programs that make a difference to the people living in the communities we work within. We serve a larger mission—lifting up equity, humanity, and environmental vitality—at the same time that we serve our clients and colleagues.
You don’t start a business without a team, a community, and awesome clients. I am grateful for everyone who has journeyed with me this past year. Here’s to more adventuresome travels in the years to come!
- Tools to plan for that next disaster
In April 2021, my colleague Margaret Meps Schulte and I released a new nonprofit resource: Disaster Planning for Nonprofits. Sponsored in Washington State by the Non Profit Insurance Program (NPIP), Disaster Planning outlines what nonprofit people need to know to get ready for the next wildfire, earthquake, tsunami, or whatever may be coming your way. We know the climate change is impacting our communities in new ways, and we created this resource to help nonprofits get ready.
Disaster Planning is light on information by design. Information is not typically what holds people back from disaster planning. Rather, it is the feeling of overwhelm, the dispersed leadership where no one feels ownership of the challenge, and a lack of tools to use in data gathering and problem solving. You know you need to write everything down, gather key documents, and put all of it in a central place. Getting started is what can be so hard. With Disaster Planning, you have checklists and downloadable, formatted excel worksheets into which to type your various inventories of stuff, people, and partnerships.
Another key element in disaster planning is the Continuity of Operations Plan, sometimes referred to as a COOP. COOP-building is really just running through scenarios and documenting what you will do so everyone knows. This resource provides three ways to approach what might happen. First, we lay out a way to plan for what you will do in the immediate, short-term, and long-term aftermath of a disaster. This is about how you will serve your mission. Second, we share a method to prioritize and manage your key tasks, such as payroll, bill-paying, communications, etc. This is all about the back-end functions of your office. Third, we invite you to consider how you will integrate a regional understanding into your planning. A tsunami at the coast, for example, will impact inland food banks, just as a wildfire or hurricane in a rural area will impact roads and food systems.
We believe effective learning design can help nonprofits thrive. Disaster Planning for Nonprofits is our latest project to combine what we know about behavior change and taking action with relevant nonprofit topics. Let us know what you think!
We will be launching Disaster Planning for Nonprofits at the Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good from April 27-30, 2021. Disaster Planning for Nonprofits is sponsored in Washington State and for its members by NPIP, the Non Profit Insurance Program. If you would like to learn more about how to license Disaster Planning in your state or about the curriculum design process behind it, contact Nancy Bacon.
- Move the needle.
Nonprofits do a lot. They run programs, convene people, and build community around important causes. Nonprofit boards do a lot. They meet, make decisions, and raise money. Nonprofit associations are busy too. They deliver trainings, produce conferences, and advocate for nonprofits. There is no question that the pace of work has increased as nonprofits and everyone associated with them have tried to keep their head above water this past year.
What nonprofit people haven’t had a chance to do lately is ask the one question that could lift our heads up and see a better path forward: What do you want to move the needle on?
The question is bold, inviting vision and courage. It roots in purpose and seeds an emotional connection to the work. It demands conversation to make sure you hear the diverse voices of your community.
It looks something like this:
Nonprofit leaders, how do you want to change the situation in which your nonprofit works? What could you do today to make your organization more financially sustainable a year from now?
Nonprofit board members, what is your larger purpose as an organization? What role do you want to play within the larger cause in which you work?
Nonprofit learning leaders, what do you want to move the needle on in the nonprofit sector? How does that drive your learning strategy? Your conference strategy?
When we think in terms of “moving the needle,” we have to focus our goals and activities. We can better prioritize what to do and what not to do. It also invites us to operate with an “infinite game mindset,” to use the term popularized by Simon Sinek in The Infinite Game. We worry less about competition, positionality, and short-term metrics. We are instead motivated by a vision, inspired by our values, and informed by diverse partnerships that similarly center this kind of transformational change. After a year with our noses to the grindstone, that could be something that refreshes our focus for the work ahead.
What do you want to move the needle on? What difference do you want to see or hear one year from now? What do you need to do today to support that kind of change?
- Behavioral science: Another set of tools to draw on
Kristine Scott runs Seattle Conflict Resolution. She is focused on how to reduce conflict through a proven non-violent response that works with even the most hostile people. Kristine reduces violence through a robust training program, and she wants to make sure her trainings are effective over time.
Recently Kristine shared a challenge with me. After a learning event, some people stall out. They don’t step into the power that they have practiced in her session. What they know doesn’t necessarily transfer back into the actions they take.
Kristine had already immersed herself in adult learning and the design and delivery of excellent learning experiences. Beyond that, what tools can she draw on?
Behavioral economics is the study of psychology as it relates to how people make decisions. As an economics major back in the day when all people were considered rational, I see behavioral economics– and behavioral sciences in general– as a second set of tools for teachers and trainers to draw on. People aren’t rational for really good reasons. We step it up a notch as trainers when we honor their humanity and draw on what we know about why people do what they do.
Here are some behavioral science ideas that I draw on:
- Fast thinking/slow thinking. Let’s start with Daniel Kahneman’s invitation to slow down and bring reflection into our practice. We’ve put so much of our behavior on auto-pilot. By inviting people to walk through a conflict situation, they may notice assumptions, reactions, and habits that happened under the surface before. They can slo-mo walk through scenarios to make sure their actions align with their intention.
- Prime positive identities. We can assume people want to be their best selves. We can invite people to step into an identity that they hold for themselves, such as being courageous, curious, or a peacemaker. When we remind them of this identity and give them opportunities to show their courage, curiosity, or peacemaking, they experience success.
- Frame choices around gains and losses. People feel the pain of losing something more than they experience the benefit of gaining something. We experience more (negative) emotion when we lose the $20 dollars we had than the (happy) emotion we experience when finding $20 on the street. That tells us to emphasize what our participants will lose if they fail to act over potential benefits if they do.
- Use social proof and social influence. We look to others to know how we are supposed to behave. When we share how others are behaving in the face of a decision or challenge, we give people the chance to anchor their behavior to that.
- Use public and private commitments. When we verbalize that we are going to do something, we are more likely to do it. Personal commitment contracts in health programs have shown an increase in completion rates. We can encourage people to state what they are going to do when faced with a particular situation. One step further, encourage them to make that commitment within a team to hold each other accountable.
I shared some of these ideas at a board conference five years ago. Attendees wanted to know how to get board members to do what they needed them to do. One person challenged the use of behavioral science, voicing the concern that we are manipulating people when we draw on psychology and behavioral science, etc. The cardinal rule is always do no harm and always work in the best interest of our mission and the people who serve our missions. But by ignoring the research, we fail our mission and the people we serve by making this work harder on everyone.
- The hard questions a strategy answers
Who has time for a strategy? We are so busy working, pushing out programs, or delivering on our mission. A strategy of any kind is a luxury that we just don’t have energy for now. And what is a strategy anyway? It feels so academic at a time when we are scrambling inside a reality that is hard.
Yes. We are working very hard. Yes. A strategy can be an intellectual exercise that leads you nowhere practical. Now is not the time for those kinds of strategies. I want to focus on the kind of strategy that answers hard questions in one sitting. I want to dwell on the kind of strategy that helps you to prioritize where you and your team should put your effort. I want to elevate the kind of strategy that allows you to work less hard to get more done.
Those of us working to help people do things differently need a strategy that answers hard questions, helps us prioritize, and eases the workload. I’m thinking about consultants, association leaders, advocacy folks, and nonprofit people who support people to change their behavior, either inside or outside their organization. I’m talking about a learning strategy, though to be clear, we use “learning” as shorthand for whatever it takes to move people from where they are now to where they want or need to be. We can move people to action if we slow down in the way that Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) invites us to do, reflecting on our practice to change it.
A learning strategy answers three hard questions:
What are we trying to move the needle on? Particularly in a pandemic, it is easy to fall into a state of trying to help everyone everywhere. This is exhausting, especially for a team. Ultimately, we want to see big things happen. We want nonprofits to advocate, board members to make good decisions, and funders to loosen their grip on how we fund change. We want our people and partnerships to work together, not in conflict. When we focus on a goal, we can align our system behind it.
How do we work less, or at least put less effort into learning? The “fast thinking” response to someone not doing something is to give them a training. The “slow thinking” solution may remove the barriers actually holding them back. We may not need to work as hard if we expand our toolbox.
How do we make money or fund our learning program? The business side of learning often gets short shrift. We bring to market various products with various level of strategy behind the pricing or offering. Or maybe we don’t see the value that we add to a product because we are too close to it. By looking holistically at our body of work, we can build a business model that increases revenue.
A learning strategy is a bridge that reflects your best thinking about both you and the people you serve. How do you get from here to there in the most efficient and effective way?
What hard questions impact how you support people taking action? How could “slow thinking” help answer those questions for once and all so you can move faster during the course of the year?Join us on March 9, 2021 for Building A Learning Strategy to Expand Reach, Revenue and Impact
- Online planning: How to engage your whole board when you have to meet online
Sarah Brooks and I co-host the Nonprofit Radio Show, a podcast centered on the topics that matter most to small, rural nonprofits. In early February 2021, we shared an episode on Purposeful Gatherings, a topic that is particularly relevant to nonprofit leaders as they try to make progress in online meetings. This episode led a listener to write to us for advice. Here’s the question, our answer, and how you can hear more of our conversations.
Side note: These are the kind of questions we’ll be answering at Nonprofit Radio Show Live on Friday, February 19. We have received a lot of fundraising questions… can’t wait to dig in! Now back to the question.
An email from a wonderful nonprofit leader in Eastern Washington:
Nancy and Sarah,
Our organization is looking to finish up the strategic planning we started last year. We are jumping back in to finish where we left off, with new information and strategies we’ve identified during COVID to add to our documentation. Our Education Committee met via Zoom and went through the Education Plan line by line. That was doable but challenging! Now how to relate this to the whole board?! I am looking for advice on how to address strategic planning documents via Zoom, without the big write-erase boards, without the group conversations and breakout sessions, and without the printed materials. I’d love to hear how you have done this.
Great question! I have two online facilitation tricks in my online pocket that may help here:
1. I use the annotations feature in Zoom often and in several ways. Zoom gives you stamping options, which is great for “voting” or opinion expressing. I use the text aspect of annotations to gather word information, or to take notes on the screen. I have used a totally blank white slide in my slide deck purely to be able to write on it like a white board. What works nicely is to do that …. capture information… and then if you need to get feedback about it, have people stamp what they like.
2. I use editable slides as a different kind of white board. This is a little tricky at first– you can only write on it when your presentation is running. Once you get the hang of it, it is really helpful.
So all of these tools depend on what exactly you want to accomplish in your session. The tools here are great for note-taking and feedback. You can toggle between have screenshare on and off so you can have discussion in between.
Just so you have options, we had a sort of mini-strategic planning session with our staff via Zoom and realized that for our very familiar-with-each-other group, using Zoom’ screenshare meant we were looking at mostly writing, which actually made discussion harder. People stopped looking at each other, and it felt like more of a brainstorm dump than a discussion about what we wanted to prioritize. Based on that experience, you might consider this idea:
1. Send out materials ahead of time and provide a written worksheet with the questions you want people to think through and encourage them to write their answers out before the meeting.
2. At the meeting, lead a discussion without sharing your screen — and remind everyone to be in Gallery View so you see everyone (and so no one feels like they can be doing email or texting in the conversation!). Assign one person to be the notetaker and assure everyone that you are capturing all that is said.
3. Then, either at the end of each question or at the end of the discussion, have the notetaker share their notes on the screen. That way, only the last part of the conversation happens when there are words on the screen.
That’s a great idea. And Sarah reminded me that I have seen a regular paper flip chart or white board directly behind the speaker being used with no screen sharing. It can work well if you have a good camera.
What works for you? Let us know! And you would like to hear more conversations about meetings, listen to our October 2020 episode about online meetings. During Nonprofit Radio Show LIVE on February 19, 2021, we’ll be talking with small, rural nonprofit leaders about what is most on their mind. Click here to learn more.
- 3 Ways to Deliver a Learningful Conference
Conference season is about to be upon us again. Associations are busy testing platforms and scheduling speakers. They are devising ways to create connection, whether through an opening day t-shirt contest, care packages of tea and goodies, or that avatar thing where you literally bump into people in a virtual world. People who play video games have an advantage in that last one, in my experience.
While exploring the frontiers of technology, don’t forget these three ways to make sure your conference is learningful. By learningful I mean that the conference leads to new knowledge, skills, and action that makes a difference over time.
It can be so easy to get so immersed in conference planning that we don’t spend enough time listening to the people who attend the conference…. or who we want to attend the conference. In any design process, there is a time for divergent thinking where we open ourselves up to any and all information that we can find or hear. There is then time for convergent thinking when we start to cull information to what we can handle. In my experience, conference planners jump too quickly to convergent decision-making and skip the deep listening that informs planning.
Colleagues and I recently held a conference listening session with people who haven’t in the past felt a strong connection to our conference. We convened this group separately because we wanted to create a safe space for honest conversation. We learned what they need to hear in marketing, learn in sessions, experience at the conference, and have reinforced after the conference to be successful. By taking extra time to listen before finalizing the program, we heard what we needed to know to design a conference that is learningful for everyone who attends.
In our book, “Conferences That Make A Difference,” Mark Nilles and I talk about how a conference is one event within a larger constellation of events that any association produces. It is therefore worth asking: what issue is strategic for your organization? How can this conference move the needle on that issue? If your organization is trying to get more nonprofits active in advocacy, how might your conference move that forward? If your organization values equity, how does your conference link knowledge to action?
Like any strategy, a conference strategy is all about alignment… between your organization and event… between your event and your partners… between your programming and the participants.
3. Good workshops
At this point, you have listened deeply to know what people need. You know what you are trying to move the needle on. You line up great workshops, either through a proposal process or by reaching out to people in your community. These people are expert in their field, so job done, right?
Not too fast. Delivering a great workshop involves two sets of skills, one related to content and a second, equally important skill to deliver that content in a learningful way. Expertise in one actually can have an inverse relationship in the other. And even those who have effectively delivered conference sessions many times in the past may not be ready for this audience or this technology.
Here’s a workshop strategy to consider. Offer a master class in session delivery for all of your workshop presenters. Record it for those who can’t attend. Consider it a professional development gift for presenting at your conference. (Here’s a 14-minute version of a “get ready to present” session I delivered last year for associations.) Then schedule a one-on-one with each presenter to talk about the specifics of their presentation. Give meaningful feedback about their design and delivery. Practice any technology skill needed. You may find, as I have, that there is one speaker in your roster who needs a little more attention. Don’t be afraid to provide it.
These three ideas will turn your event into a learningful event. Good luck! And watch out for those avatars.
- Reinvent the wheel
How unfortunate we see the wheel as our symbol of sticking with the status quo. The wheel has been at the center of innovation gobs of times since first appearing as a potter’s tool in 3500 B.C.E. Its purpose, construction, and cultural relevance has evolved in ways that have fundamentally changed the wheel and the people using it.
I began ruminating on the wheel during a recent curriculum design class. The question was raised: why develop a new board curriculum when “that wheel” has been invented? It is true. Just as a wheel is round, turns on an axis, and serves as a tool in some way, there exists board curriculum that is available, covers board practice, and serves as a tool to improve what people know about the job.
All wheels are not the same, however. I would prefer not to drive through Seattle with four round stones tied to my chassis. All nonprofit curriculum is not the same as well. Too much nonprofit learning is focused on information transfer with little stickiness beyond a workshop or webinar. At its best, nonprofit learning takes what we know about adult learning and psychology to center behavior change, habits, and action so people actually do things differently.
Our sector is full of wheels that need reinventing. Let’s reinvent meetings to make better use of our limited time. Let’s reinvent HR practices with an eye to equity. Let’s reinvent fundraising to address the balance of philanthropic power. Let’s reinvent how we collaborate so we get more done in a reasonable schedule. Without a doubt, let’s reinvent that board curriculum so the people who lead our organizations are ready for 2021 challenges. We can learn from the wheel’s story to see how purpose, construction, and relevance can guide new ways of being. Reinventing the wheel might be exactly what we need to evolve to be the kind of organizations our diverse communities need to thrive.
- What? How? Why it matters.
I recently joined a webinar on an important topic and found myself talking out loud to the very able presenter, who couldn’t hear a word I was saying because of the universal mute button. “Stop telling me what to do,” I said. “This is difficult stuff you are leading us through. Tell us how to do it. Tell us how to deal with the board members who don’t want to go there. Tell us about the hard decisions you made and the principles you used to make them. Tell us what could go wrong and how you would help us prepare against that.”
It was an interesting webinar, but I don’t have a next step. There wasn’t enough meat for me to dig my vegetarian teeth into. Which is unfortunate because it was an important topic.
I decided to write about this experience and then paused. I usually find myself guiding nonprofit people to tell me what they do, not how. Ask a nonprofit person to introduce themself, and they could well start listing all of the things their organization does. That’s great that they run those 21 programs, but what ultimately do they do and why?
As I thought about it, nonprofit practitioners tend to skip what and focus on how. Nonprofit trainers tend to dwell on what and leave too little time for how. Fixing this matters.
What frames our conversation. It tells us at a high level the goal and scope of the work. It invites us to decide if we care.
Nonprofit practitioners often need to pause after telling the what to wait for that invitation to dive deeper into how they do what they do. Nonprofit trainers do not. They received that invitation the moment we show up for their class. We attend workshops and webinars to learn how to walk across that bridge from information to how we can efficiently and effectively act on that information so our organizations thrive.
How lays out the principles the trainer uses to do what they are training others to do. It explains key decisions and how choices were vetted. It describes the hard work and how to navigate through it. It offers reflection on where people often fail and steps that someone could take to avoid that result.
Getting clarity on what and how matters. Nonprofit practitioners need to be seen as the movement leaders, knowledge bearers, and community conveners they are. They need learning experiences that they can count on to be excellent and outcome-focused. The rural nonprofits that I spend a lot of time working with need help figuring out how to right-size the advice they are getting.
Here’s an example from a colleague working at a small, rural nonprofit. She attended a international fundraising conference where an expert talked about how they used postcards to build awareness in a fundraising campaign. But postcards don’t really fit our culture, thought my colleague. She now needs to do the thinking on how to transfer that idea into her context. Lesson over? Often. How would that have been different if the expert explained the underlying goal, named the options on the table, and described how they decided on postcards? What if they explained how they arrived at their markers of success and how they deployed their staff or volunteers? Far more helpful.
I would be careless if I stopped at saying what I saw the problem to be without giving you tips on how to fix it. How awkward if you started talking to this blog post when I can’t hear you! The simple answer is to slow down. If you are involved in running or working with a nonprofit, start with your mission and speak to the high level “buckets” of work you do. If you are training others, reflect on how you do what you are teaching them to do. What steps did you take? What decisions did you make (and how did you make them)? What was hard? What are signs of success?
Once you sort out what and how, you’ll know who is on first.
- How to let someone else do the thinking
I was having a drink with a friend outside on the porch the other night. As I sat snug under my lap blanket sipping a guava cider, she said that she was trying to figure out how to take “use it or lose it” vacation days and not end up working on those days anyway. “Be careful about Parkinson’s Law,” I said, sounding particularly erudite. “You’ll use the time you have no matter how you allocate vacation days.”
I had just read about Parkinson’s Law on the Model Thinkers website, a growing collection of mental models that describe how we think and behave. This is the type of website you didn’t know you needed until you find yourself going back to it on a daily basis. Arun Pradhan and Shai Desai have brilliantly taken the “big ideas from the big disciplines” and put them all in one place for us to help us work faster, smarter, and with greater impact.
Their timing is perfect. We’ve been hearing from nonprofit leaders that they are exhausted. They are suffering from many kinds of fatigue (discussed recently on the Nonprofit Radio Show), but mostly from having to think so much. Model Thinkers gives us a “think hack” so we can use other people’s thinking to move ourselves forward.
Here’s an example. It’s no secret that nonprofit people work hard doing hard work. So let’s slow down our thinking to imagine new solutions to complex problems. Let’s engage in double loop reflection that allows us to reframe our challenges. This is particularly important if the challenges are complex or chaotic, without clear answers. Over time we could develop a latticework of new mental models that shifts how we see problems, therefore solutions. We would expand our circle of influence to bring unlikely partners into our work.
If we did all of that, we would be putting to work five research-based models: Fast and slow thinking (Daniel Kahneman), Double loop learning (Chris Argylis), Cynefin framework (David Snowden), Munger’s latticework (Charles Munger), and Circle of concern and influence (Steven Covey).
I particularly appreciate this idea of the latticework. Visualize a wooden lattice made of small pieces of work interlocked together. Vines grow up the lattice until one day a rose blossoms at the top. In our work, intentional ways of thinking support new ideas, practices, or collaborations.
Let’s see how this hack might save time for nonprofit folks:
How do program leaders settle on the best options to deliver the great impact? Try the RICE Score to see how the reach, impact, and confidence balances with effort. Consider Dave Gray’s Impact Effort Matrix as a reminder to stay away from the fillers and focus on the projects that will make a difference. And you don’t need to give people too many choices after all. The Paradox of Choice (Barry Schwartz) reminds us that too much choice leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
How can we increase our policy influence? Beyond Steven Covey’s Circle of Concern and Influence, the ADKAR Model (Jeffrey Hiatt) gets us from Awareness to Reinforcement that the change sticks. (I’ll let you look up the D, K, and A steps in between.) Dunbar’s Number (Robin Dunbar) reminds us that we can only handle a fixed number of close partnerships. The Minto pyramid (Barbara Minto) gives us the outline for communicating with busy people.
Nonprofit people are holding two truths in their hands right now. They know that things need to be fundamentally different in 2021, finding a new normal where everyone thrives. They also know that they are tired and lack the thinking power to imagine what that new normal might look like. Model Thinkers might help.
Check out Model Thinkers. Choose your favorite mental model and share it back with us! If you want bonus content, considering subscribing to support Arun and Shai’s work on this project. There is a 25% discount if you join in 2020.
- 3 Tips to Produce Memorable Nonprofit Learning
On Wednesday, we launched a new “Disaster Planning for Nonprofits” curriculum. An emergency planner in attendance ended our session with an unsolicited endorsement:
“That was a really good class. You got a lot of good information out to these people in a short period of time.”
He then implored people to take action: “Take what she said to heart,” he said.
Without intending to comment on the curriculum development methodology, he highlighted the goal of a nonprofit curriculum: good information, efficient with time, and connects with the heart. My goal is not to flood someone with information but rather to carefully curate what they need to know and present it in a way that helps them to take action. This is as much art as it is science.
How does this happen? Three tips:
1. Dive deep and then snorkel at the top: It is true that I haven’t swum in warm waters in a long time, thanks to COVID. Let’s take a mental vacation for a second to think about this idea. In developing curriculum, start by diving deep. Look at all of the fish darting from reef lobe to open water. Examine the reef itself and all of the forms of life that it supports. In other words, document everything there is to know about your topic, no matter how big or small. I often read many other interpretations of the content to see how other people have sliced and diced it, and I fill a big piece of butcher paper with all of the knowledge, skills, tools, perspectives etc. related to my topic.
Once you dive deep, spend time at the ocean’s surface to see what rises to the top. What is visible when you aren’t distracted by the detail at the bottom? With your butcher paper filled with information in front of you, take a colored marker and circle the highest-level ideas. You should have five or fewer. Everything else gets placed hierarchically under that. Disaster planning, for example, has three main things you need to do: document, gather, and problem solve. Board practice has five main chunks: purpose, roles and responsibilities, recruitment, operations, and fundraising. Whenever I see lists beyond 10 items, I pull out my marker and start bucketing into categories.
2. Stand in the shoes of your audience: What you need to know depends on you. Are you an expert or novice? Are you professional staff who gets paid to attend trainings or a volunteer who nips and tucks time around family and work? Do you have any emotion on this topic going into learning? You would not be alone if you felt fear with finance or overwhelm with board practice. However much I know about this topic… however much literature I can find that provides all sorts of fun facts about this topic… however much I want you to paint the Sistine Chapel with the crayons you have to work with… curriculum design starts with the person you are trying to move to action.
3. Build a toolbox that supports action: This is the difference between planning for a workshop and building out a full curriculum. When I talk about curriculum, I’m talking about anything that bridges someone from where they are now to where we need them to be, and often that means checklists, templates, flowcharts, a directory, or reflection questions to bring back to a board or staff. Don’t stop at teaching information since information alone won’t support a shift in habits, behavior change, and long-term growth.
These are just three tips. I’ll be sharing my full curriculum method in an online curriculum development class starting January 14, 2021. (Doesn’t it feel great to be writing the new year!) “Design for Results” is a cohort program limited to 20 people. Through learning sessions, asynchronous support, peer feedback, and one-on-one guidance, you will be able to produce a draft curriculum in time for spring.
Nonprofit people don’t have time to waste. Let’s work together to make sure you get good information out to people in the short period of time they have to spend.
And if you are interested in knowing more about “Disaster Planning in Nonprofits,” it will be widely available in January 2021. Email Nancy if you would like to schedule a workshop in your community.
- Nonprofits: A Love Story
I was recently asked to give a talk on nonprofit leadership to a group of emerging leaders. I had a good idea of what I wanted to say but not how to start.
I turned to their bios to learn more about who would be gathered for this talk. What would they already know about nonprofits as a starting point? Nonprofit experience, it turned out, was not what they had in common. Their roles spanned from executive leader to casual volunteer; a few had no nonprofit experience at all. What they did have in common, however, was a story of connection to something bigger than themselves. Their bios told stories of childhood trauma, experiences working to improve food systems, commitments to child protection and health, and advocacy for LGBTQ and land rights. What they didn’t share in nonprofit background they made up for in stories of activism, sacrifice, and love.
That activism, sacrifice, and love shapes the start of most nonprofits. Indeed, the story of a nonprofit is a love story. Someone or a group of people decide that they care so much about something that they are willing to spend time, resources, and social connection to move it forward. They love that child lost to a disease so much that they want to make sure no one else experiences their pain. They love their heritage so much that they rally their community to build programs that lift up their language, traditions, and culture. They love their people so much that they are willing to fight for justice and build better systems.
We put a box around that passion to turn their love story into a nonprofit corporation. That heart turns into a mission statement. Those people often turn into the board providing careful governance and support. A whole lot of administration kicks into place as meetings shift from dreamy “what if” conversations to practical “who is going to complete the IRS Form 990?” decisions.
It is easy to get jaded as we talk to emerging leaders eager to start new nonprofits that make a difference in their communities. There are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, all having to maintain boards, raise money, and stay compliant. Isn’t that enough to get the work done? And then you read the bios of emerging leaders from communities on the frontlines of structural racism and realize that the love they exude for their community is exactly what we need.
The National Council of Nonprofits recently wrote about the warning signs of nonprofits in the pandemic era. We have seen these statistics on the evening news: 66 million people filed for unemployment, 54 million people face food insecurity, 40 million people face eviction, and on and on. I think about these numbers through the eyes of nonprofits who serve as our community’s safety net. This season may be all be grateful for what we have and generous to help those with less.
- The shape of a glass can influence how much we drink
It may be too late into this pandemic to share this research. It turns out that the shape of a glass can influence how much we drink. Sloped glasses can cause us to drink more than straight-sided glasses. The vessel we offer a drink within can influence how that beverage is consumed.
How else can we change the circumstances of something to influence someone’s behavior? I began thinking about this a few years ago when a national effort was underway to expose the flaws in board service. Board members were failing at their jobs, we were told, with grades of C-, Ds and Fs to describe their engagement in policy work, equity, and fundraising. The general message seemed to be, “You’re failing, so get your act together.” Somehow the fact that board members are volunteers with jobs, families, and lives failed to make it into the narrative.
Around that time, I heard Influence author Robert Cialdini talk about pre-sausion. He shows how we can influence someone’s behavior before we do or say anything. If French music is playing in a wine shop, you are more likely to buy French wine; German music, German wine. If I ask you on the street for your email address, you are unlikely to give it to me (33%). If I ask you first if you consider yourself an adventurous person, your likelihood of giving me your email address jumps to 77%. I can invite you to take an action that moves you closer to an identity you value.
All of this makes me think about those busy board members. Rather than talking about failure, how about we acknowledge their commitment and courage. I can authentically say, “You have been so courageous to serve your community as a board member. I need you to do one more courageous thing; I need you to call ____ about this policy issue.” In my experience, lifting people up opens up more possibilities then putting them down.
Leaning into identity increases motivation in a positive, affirming way. It also sustains change because people want to live up to what they believe to be true about themselves. James Clear, in Atomic Habits, gives us three levels of habit changing: goals, systems, and identity. Let’s take weight loss as an example. We can change our goal (I will lose 10 pounds), we can change our systems (I will exercise more or eat less), and we can change our sense of identity (I am someone who exercises and eats healthfully). It is the identity level that sustains our motivation. It keeps us returning to our goals and systems.
So after this election, I’m going to rethink the shape of the glass I use to drink my homemade tonic and gin. I’m going to invite the incredible, courageous, community-loving nonprofit people I know to be even more incredible, courageous, and community-loving by trying a few new ways of working. How can you use identity to lift up the people you work with?
- Change is going to take a change
Nonprofits, like society in general, have faced incredible disruption over the past six months. Their day-to-day work has been impacted by a global pandemic, racial protests followed by a national awakening on racism, economic collapse, and a turbulent election. And the year is not over. Nonprofits were walking uphill in 2019, and that hill just became Mount Everest.
How nonprofits work and the context in which they work must change. To get that change, we—those of us who support nonprofits— are going to have to change. Specifically, we are going to have to change how we approach nonprofit learning. You see, I take an activist view on learning. Learning for me is not just the acquisition of knowledge but the creation of conditions that allow for a sustained change in behavior. Learning results in a change in knowledge, skills, beliefs, and ultimately strategies.
If there was ever a time for nonprofits to experience a change in knowledge, skills, beliefs, and strategies, it is now.
What would it take
Let’s reverse engineer what it would take for nonprofits to experience this seismic shift in how they think and do their work.
Nonprofit Executive Directors, staff, board, and volunteers would need to have access to outcome-based learning and peer connection across their community to sustain a change in how they work. Ideally this would be achieved alongside the foundations that support them so the culture shift runs across the sector.
That would require “train the trainer” initiatives so consultants and experts who train nonprofit people know how to teach as well as they know their content. Learning would be supported by local networks to make space for colleagues to share resources, hold each other accountable, and nudge forward shifts in the work culture that has defined us until now.
That would take nonprofit state associations, sector associations, community foundations, and other convenors of nonprofits being strategic in their offerings and professionalizing how they integrate research-based adult learning into the design and delivery of their programs. Nonprofit people—from EDs to policy advocates—would become fluent in the language of influence, behavior change, memory, and action.
That’s a lot, and I see three barriers in the way:
Education in general suffers from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. People outside of education overestimate their expertise in learning, perhaps because we have all been to school or sat in a training. Related, asking people what they want to learn—like asking Executive Directors what they want to learn to improve how they work—assumes a domain knowledge they may not have. They don’t know what they don’t know or need to fundamentally change how they work.
“Upstream” support for excellence in adult learning is not funded by most foundations. Few foundations invest in nonprofit capacity building to start with. When they do, they tend to fund trainings and assume that the trainer will meet some quality standard without support. This is particularly challenging as we work to diversify the pool of trainers. Well-resourced trainers will find the professional development they need to hone their skills; under-resourced trainers may not.
The adult learning field is rich with research-to-practice translators. The nonprofit world needs yet a further step in translation because we work in an open-ended system. While corporate training can build in accountability and oversight, a lot of nonprofit trainings involve learning outside of the institutional setting. Staff or board members attend a workshop offered by a third party—an association, foundation, or United Way—and they go back into their work setting trying to apply new skills without colleagues or mentors to give them feedback or encouragement.
What to do?
Here are my thoughts for nonprofits, their associations, and others working in this space:
- Declare your commitment to excellence in learning as the driver of change.
- Budget for investments in delivering on this commitment. You might build a learning strategy, offer “train the trainer” programs, or create a cohort of learning professionals. Nonprofits: invest in learning as a means to finding betters ways to navigate these challenging times.
- Name the learning champion in your organization. Invest in that person’s professional development. Invite that person to work across programs.
- Be a part of a larger community of people who believe in the power of learning to create change. There are associations who have taken these steps. There is a community of people working at the intersection of nonprofits and learning. We exist and are a pretty fun bunch, if I might say so.
Change is going to take a change. What change are you going to make?
- I see you: Creating online social connection
Going online has been a hard sell for some. “I can’t see what they are thinking,” one person explained. “When I’m in the room, I can read their body language to know if they get what I’m saying. I just can’t do that online.” Board members miss the side chatter. It is hard to get to know someone when they are a small box on a screen rather than a colleague sitting on one side.
I get it. I teach and facilitate meetings guided by how much I see the people in the room lean in or back to an idea, how wide their faces become when I say something radical, like “cash flow statement,” or how much buzz is in the room when I invite a “turn to your neighbor” opportunity. The same can be said about a meeting or conference. It is different being online.
The opportunity lies in how intentionally we invite social connection in our online events. I’ve written in the past about playing around with time and space to increase engagement—that one Zoom call is not your only opportunity to build your relationship. A 2012 article about a virtual academy in North Carolina introduces five key elements in their “social presence model,” which I curated down to three. Think about how these three ideas might help you create social connection in your next online session:
Feedback through facial expressions and body language
In your next meeting or online workshop, study the body language of the people attending. (You may need to change your view to the “Brady Bunch” boxes.) Look at their faces, examine how their bodies are leaning inward or backward or how their heads are nodding or twisted to one side. (That’s the international sign for “I have no idea what you are talking about.”) You can see a lot more than you might think. When I’m delivering a session, I have the participants right under my camera so I can see people’s faces and bodies as I talk. Not everyone has their camera on, but the people who do provide important feedback. (And you can intentionally invite people to turn on or off their camera as a part of your engagement strategy.) When I see a shrug or a laugh, I call people by name and honor the feedback they just gave me. They are usually surprised that I saw them. Hey, I didn’t turn on their camera– they did– for which I am grateful.
Participants see the group as a community
Lately I’ve been working with groups who join sessions as a community, and this makes community cohesion easier to achieve. You don’t, however, need people to know each other to create a sense of common purpose. You can do so in how you invite them into the space, how you introduce the narrative of your event, and how you construct peer conversations through break-out rooms or other similar tools. Our goal here is to create the space as a learning community so we leverage all of the knowledge brought by diverse participants.
Participants respond to each other
It is one thing to build a connection between you and the group. It is another to foster connection across participants so people draw on each other’s knowledge, perspectives, and resources. I most see this happen in the chat box, in breakout groups, and in collaboration tools used alongside a call (Mural, Padlet, Google docs, etc.) This sense of connection also happens when people know who is with them in the space, achieved through introductions or a list of attendees.
Yes, online is not the same. And there is a whole world of opportunity online when we explore ways to build social connection while reaching more people in new ways. We got this!
We’ll be talking more about how to build social presence online in our October 1 “Online Leading and Learning” session, as well as during the October 7 & 14 Trainer Academy with the Idaho Nonprofit Center. Join us!
GREAT RESOURCE: Download Evidence-Based Ideas for Virtual Classroom Experiences. See pages 24-25 for a rubric for assessing interaction. This would be particularly helpful for cohorts or course leaders.
I have been thinking a lot lately about specific ways that we can integrate an anti-racist lens into a capacity building program. We just launched on Friday a four-part series for capacity builders, and one goal is to learn how to embed an equity approach into every aspect of a learning program. It is not enough to say that you use an “equity lens” to deliver your programs. What does that mean? What exactly are you doing differently because you center equity?
The concept of knowledge is one specific place where we can address equity. A lot about training has to do with giving people the knowledge they need to do something differently. As trainers, we have the knowledge about, say, ways to run a board or how to raise money, and we are trying to share that knowledge with people in the room. That knowledge is important but too one dimensional. The people in the room have a lot of knowledge too, of all different kinds. Building our muscle around kinds of knowledge helps us to achieve our goal of bringing equity in the room.
There is a range of classifications of knowledge, some coming from philosophy. I have been using a trimmed down list of five to expand how we think about our programs:
- Posteriori knowledge: comes from practical experience
- Priori knowledge: comes from reasoning or logical thinking
- Field knowledge: related to information or skill specific to a subject, profession, or activity
- Situated knowledge: reflects a context or point of view
- Explicit knowledge: conveyed through books, documents, manuals, notes, and codes of practice
Most workshops are organized around exploring 3 and 5 from a dominant cultural viewpoint. Less often do they elevate practical, lived experiences of people from non-white cultures and backgrounds. When we have experts leading sessions, they don’t always have an appreciation for contextualized experiences.
I learned this the hard way many years ago when I taught a nonprofit basics class for Afro-Brazilian women from very poor backgrounds who came together to learn how to run their NGOs. We were fully in the swing of learning to how to raise money—from storytelling to grantwriting—when I introduced an activity in which we would practice calling a foundation grant officer to inquire about funding. The exercise stopped immediately when the women admitted that they would never call a grants officer. That person, they told me, would surely be middle to upper class, probably white, and not at all receptive to receiving a call from someone from Brazil’s notorious shantytowns. I knew of the divides having worked with these women for years, but I did not know these divides from a place of lived experience.
A different example involves a Native women conference presenter and the conference host organization wanting to have all of its paperwork completed in proper form. The organization, working off its professional knowledge, sent a speaker agreement to the presenter with hurried instructions to complete it and send it back. The presenter, carrying within her centuries of trauma related to contracts and broken agreements by white-dominant institutions, responded in a way that reflected her contextual knowledge that there were reasons to be concerned about what might be hidden in that printed page.
How do we use an understanding of multiple knowledges in our learning programs?
- Engage diverse people in helping you to think about lessons and how you can make them reflect multiple knowledges. The Racial Equity Checklist provides more specific ideas.
- Review lessons and practices for what kinds of knowledge they emphasize. This is particularly helpful when you have a subject matter expert delivering a session. How can you balance “expert” knowledge and create space for other knowledges?
- Build a culture that appreciates different kinds of knowledge without placing them into a hierarchy. There is a role for every kind of knowledge to build strong programs.
- A new model for schools that centers every child learning
We shortchange the people we serve when we work in silos. Put another way, we have infinite opportunity to solve hard problems when we draw on everything we know across any discipline. Such is the case with public schools, namely how to deliver quality education in a pandemic. We can ensure that every child learns if we think outside of a school’s current structure and draw on new ways to think about leadership, implement new roles for technology, and create new opportunities for community to engage in our shared commitment to making sure all kids learn.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with veteran public school administrator Gerrit Kischner to reimagine public schools as they return to educating children this September. We have integrated what we know about education, online learning, community organizations, network leadership, and equity to create a blueprint for school administrators and instructional leaders trying to wade through the morass of tactical responses and scarcity-informed solutions. We believe that we can use this crisis to reshape schools for the long term. We’ll be leading a working session, Ready for School 2020, on Thursday, July 30 to explore these ideas further. Join us!
Here’s a sneak peak:
- A story makes meaning.
If I had a dime for every time I saw “storytelling” mentioned in a nonprofit context, I would be staycationing this summer with a white wine lawn fountain and drone-delivered truffles, and my favorite nonprofits would be returning their PPP money like Shake Shack. Suffice to say, storytelling is a common (and important) topic when it comes to raising money and building a movement.
Story is also at the core of teaching and learning. A story makes meaning. It helps our minds make sense of the world and information being put in front of us. Our brains are programmed to know what happens in a story—setting, protagonist, struggle, resolution—so we have places to put information as we receive it. Creating this kind of order reduces our cognitive overload and increases memory. Whatever we are working on, there is a story that connects the dots.
I rely on story as a teacher and instructional designer. I’m often new to whatever content I’m working on—from liquor law to children experiencing trauma—and so I’m looking for a pattern to help me make sense of vast information. Sleuthing out the story satisfies my Nancy Drew instincts and leads me to ask better questions of the experts I’m working with.
In reflection, I rely on three story arc/narrative devices to craft my stories. (I have yet to use tragedy. That may be a career-ender.)
Let’s go on a journey and find awesome knowledge and tools along the way. My favorite example of this is the “Tools for Running a Nonprofit” workshop I developed for Washington Nonprofits. It highlights the beautiful drawings of Margaret “Meps” Schulte. We start where we are and envision a destination… and then we ride on various roads to learn about fundraising, people, boards, and program development.
Overcoming the monster
Sometimes our hero needs to look danger in the eye and do what needs to be done to avoid destruction. I recently developed a workshop on preparing for disaster for the nonprofit association in Louisiana. Nonprofits in New Orleans certainly navigate danger—natural and viral—and managing risk is something we can help with. Our story charted a road with two options, providing key tools to make sure nonprofits stay on the path to sustainability.
I used a similar pathway concept in refreshing a finance workshop. I took three slide decks, cut them up into slides, arranged them according to where they fit in the story, and rebuilt the slide deck based on our narrative. The result was a reduction in slides and great material for a workbook!
Sometimes our narrative is a metaphor, which is a essentially a short story that draws on a life of knowledge that people bring to learning. A nonprofit law workshop uses a car as a metaphor for a nonprofit (you register with the state, there are extra rules when driving on federal roads, it needs fuel, and people matter). A “how to teach online” workshop uses dance to convey the performance aspects of teaching. An advocacy curriculum uses the construction of a house.
Are you working on a training or curriculum? That’s fantastic! Here are some questions to think about:
- If you were to convey your content in story form, what would the story be? Imagine a night-time story book: “Once upon a time, there was a _____, and it _____…”
- Who is your hero? In nonprofit work, the hero is the nonprofit, the board, or the staff, not any one individual. (This is a team business!) Make sure people connect at an emotional level with your hero.
- Is there a metaphor or simile to describe your content? “Fundraising is like a sunflower. The core is our organization’s excellent work. The petals are the various ways that we can raise money.” Making that up, but when we connect an abstract concept to a concrete thing that we are very familiar with, it gives us a hook to hang information onto.
Stories help us make meaning of the things we don’t know or understand. And a cool thing about teaching or designing with stories in mind is that you let the people you are teaching or engaging do more of the work, thus immerse themselves more in their journey.
- Better ways to think about “best practice”
A quick Google search of “nonprofit best practice” yields collections of resources from our sector’s leading providers of quality resources. When nonprofit board chair or Executive Director calls or attends a training, they regularly ask what “best practice” is on any given topic: leadership, finance, or fundraising. These are questions worth considering, yet the answers don’t always satisfy because they come up against reality or simplify complicated circumstances. Solutions depend on context. The concept of “best practice” is flawed.
The Cynefin Framework offers us a helpful alternative. Rather than cast all challenges into one bucket where there is a “best” way of solving them, we can hone our practice thinking about the problems themselves. Is the solution obvious, complicated, complex, or yet to be discovered? Is our job one of finding an existing answer or crafting a new solution based on the context in which it lives? How do we make space for sense-making as a core function in solving problems?
The video about the Framework featuring David Snowden is worth the 12 minutes—it is relevant in thinking about nonprofits, learning and the world around us right now. The questions it stirred for me:
- How do we sort problems so we quickly solve the obvious ones and focus on the complicated, complex, or chaotic, all of which need more time, expertise, and connections?
- How do we hone our “sense-making” abilities since this step is key in all four systems of the framework? How do make sure we don’t make sense of a situation based on our preference, history or bias?
- Nonprofits exist within constraints, some from outside organizations and some self-imposed. How can we be nimble in how we think about rules (“governing constraints”) vs. “rules of thumb” (“enabling constraints”)? How do we encourage a culture of adaptation and change?
I’m curious what you think about this model and how you might apply it. Let me know!
- “The future is something we build in the present.”
Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of Hope:
“Through the process of reflection, individuals may become conscious of the realities other than the one into which they were socialized.”
It takes reflection—deep, sustained, rigorous thought– to discover the myths that deceive us and that help maintain the dehumanizing structures that limit too many. We know from research on how people think that fast thinking is instinctive. It relies on mental short cuts programmed for how the world is, not how it should be. Slow thinking invites us to consider ideas in new ways and examine connections that are not immediately apparent.
This week my slow thinking focused on these equity-related ideas:
- Asset-framing. By defining someone by their aspirations, not their challenges, we honor their humanity. I think about how we use story in instructional design and training and how we can ensure our narrative lifts up the voices of the people we teach.
- SMARTIE goals. Many of us use SMART goals to measure our impact. They are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (though there are variations on the acronym). The Management Center adds I and E (Inclusive and Equitable) to add accountability to our equity goals. Here’s a helpful tool to practice.
- Diverse voices and experiences. A favorite podcast, “Instructional Designers in Offices Drinking Coffee” handed over the microphone to three Black women working in learning and program development. The Intersection of Racial Justice and Learning & Development got me thinking about how intentionally we need to welcome and support diverse trainers on topics other than equity.
- Conversations about racism. My fellow Nonprofit Radio Show co-hosts and I, all sitting in different regions of our state, reflected and talked together for hours about racism. We set aside our planned episode and recorded a short message that shares resources to help make space for conversations about racism.
It takes more than reflection to make a difference. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire nudges us to action:
“Reflection and action… if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers.”
Reflection alone gets us nowhere. Action alone is uninformed. It is the oscillation between rigorous thought and movement forward that allows us to make progress.
So I began a Racial Equity in Learning Checklist, inviting feedback from diverse colleagues near and far, as well as crowdsourcing ideas from our “How to teach online” course participants. While there are assessments to measure how an organization is doing towards its equity goals, tools focused on adult learning program design are hard to find. Our collective goal is to help learning people integrate equity into everything they do. This document will keep evolving as people provide feedback.
“The future isn’t something hidden in a corner. The future is something we build in the present.”
We don’t know what the future will bring, but we know what our work is right now. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves with you.
- The Producer Role: Ensuring Online Success
Imagine an in-person workshop. The speaker is setting up materials in the front of the room, organizing her props, and making sure she has her crisp opening ready to draw people into what she is planning to teach them. In the back of the room, a trusted partner is welcoming people, getting them a name tag, troubleshooting technology, and making sure anyone with a special need is attended to.
An online event has the same two roles—presenter and producer. Over the last three years, I have had the good fortune to work with the best producer in the business—Tom Lang. Tom is a rockstar because he demonstrates the three reasons why the producer role is so important: quality control, audience engagement, and speaker support.
We aspire to make the online learning experience seamless. People enter the webinar room easily, their sound works, and they find the “chat” box and resources. In a large event, they are automatically muted. The ideal, however, is often elusive—people call in and you can hear their dog barking, or people log in five times and complain they are hearing an echo. Tom anticipates what will be needed as he responds within nano-seconds with the links or instructions. He teaches us to:
- Know the system and common problems experienced by participants. If you are hearing an echo, it is probably because you are logged in twice. If you call in on a phone, you’ve somehow bypassed the auto-mute function and need to be manually muted. He’ll have you muted before the dog barks twice.
- Anticipate common needs. Tom has the dial-in phone number ready to paste in the chat box at a second’s notice. He has the URL of the mail that went out with resources ready to paste into the chat box.
Now that we’ve moved from simple powerpoint-driven online presentations to polls, break-out rooms, and whiteboard sessions, we need someone who can focus on technology while the presenter is managing the content. Each system is different, and a good producer knows what is possible and how best to support non-technical participants in using these tools. Tom teaches us to:
- Provide an orientation to the icons and tools that we will be using at the start of an event.
- Use the power of the chat box. Tom starts each webinar with an invitation for people to introduce themselves in the chat box. He actively monitors the chat box throughout a presentation to bring questions or reactions into the conversation.
- Use the other tools available to you, from polls to breakout groups. They aren’t as complicated as they may seem.
Over the course of a year, a learning program might work with fifty or more speakers. These experts have a range of comfort with online learning, have used a diversity of systems, and some of them need support to get on the right platform at the right time. And then there are the times when internet fails mid-presentation and someone has to step in. Tom teaches us to:
- Do a dry run prior to a session to make sure the technology works. Provide an orientation that walks through which browser to use, which app to download, or how to share screens.
- Have the powerpoint saved in an easy to retrieve place for when internet fails and someone other than the presenter needs to jump in.
- Capture any resources mentioned during the webinar for follow up communication. He tees up in advance a post-event email to be ready to add any additional resources that were discussed along the way.
It takes a team to deliver a high-quality online learning experience. We are lucky when we find a great producer to support our learning programs. Thanks, Tom!
If you would like more on online learning:
- Virtual Conference Reflection: How did it go?
Colleagues across the country are thinking about converting their in-person conferences into online learning events. I offer these reflections on how we implemented this shift to help you think about how to move your conference into the virtual space.
On March 16, our conference planning committee decided to pivot on how we would implement the Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good. (“Pivot” will certainly be a contestant for one of the most used words during the COVID crisis.) We moved the conference from a day at the Yakima Convention Center on April 7 to a week of online events starting Monday, April 6. It took a village to make it happen, and ultimately, we achieved our goal. Nonprofit people from across eastern Washington learned, connected, and renewed their inspiration during these difficult days.
Here’s what we did, how it worked, and general lessons from the experience.
The Conference in a Snapshot
It was a traditional conference, now in its 7th year, with a morning keynote speaker, 10 breakout sessions, “table talk” crowdsourced discussions, exhibitors, and lots of networking in the hallways. We planned to interpret into Spanish one track of sessions.
It became a system of synchronous and asynchronous learning and connection using BlueJeans cloud-based video conferencing for Live Stream events, Facebook groups (English and Spanish) for conversation, and separate (mostly Zoom) online meetings organized by exhibitors. We delivered an orientation on Monday, April 6 and ended on Friday, April 10 as the final exhibitor information sessions wrapped up. We set Tuesday and Thursday as Live Stream days, giving people a break on Wednesday.
Spanish interpretation: In the new online format, we were able to interpret (and record) the entire Conference since everyone was in one “room.” The Spanish language Facebook group made space for further conversation.
How did it go?
Not having to get up at 5:00am to lay out name badges is just one of the many advantages of an online conference. What were some of the other benefits?
- We expanded participation geographically by removing the need to drive to Yakima.
- We saved money on food and venue and shifted some of the savings into technology costs.
- We expanded access by delivering the entire conference in Spanish through a separate call-in line.
- We introduced people to new ideas in short segments without having to think about moving people into rooms or onto the podium. This helped us to move from ten 75-minute sessions to six longer sessions and two shorter sessions.
- We expanded comfort with technology for some people who experienced online learning for the first time through this conference. We certainly expanded our skill moving people into virtual breakout rooms and leveraging multiple rooms to capture the action in two languages.
- Given the very real distractions that many nonprofit people have right now, people could come and go knowing that they will have access to all recordings and supporting materials for the next month.
I did like not having to choose a break out session because I didn’t have to miss anything. Thank you for recording the conference so we can go back and listen again and allowing us to share within our organizations. Thank you! Thank you!
There were certainly some challenges as well:
- We lost some people. They didn’t register for a virtual conference originally. While we did not see many requests for refunds, we had at most 70% of attendees in the main room at one time. Of course, there are always no shows at in-person conferences. It is a lot easier to know who they are when their name tags are left out on the registration table.
- The Facebook groups never took off. It is hard to get traction in a short period of time. Finding quiet reflection and connection time these days is a challenge for all of us.
- We missed the bustle that comes from a room full of awesome people coming together with anticipation, curiosity, and love. That bustle is important to create inspiration. As our morning keynote speaker Erica Mills Barnhart reminded us, the word “inspire” comes from inspirare, which means to breathe. We come together not just to learn and get tools– we need inspiration to fuel our motivation.
I chose not to participate in the virtual meeting. It would have been my 4th this week.
When you strip a virtual conference down to its core, two general lessons apply:
It is still a conference.
Last year Mark Nilles and I wrote and spoke a lot about how to make a conference learningful. (Download Conferences That Make A Difference here.) We talked about the importance of having a clear strategy. You prepare your speakers in all the same ways as with an in-person conference (and add in some technology training). You get your attendees ready. You stay in touch with your attendees afterwards to make sure they access recordings and otherwise take action. Don’t let the fun whistles and bells of an online conference platform distract you from building a learning event that supports performance back in the office, even if that office is your dining room table right now.
It is an online learning event.
These lessons hold true of any online learning event:
Tell the story. Good learning relies on story telling as much as anything else. We need to bring our attendees into the narrative of the conference so they find their place of connection. This is particularly important in an online conference where they aren’t physically connecting with others. I leaned on our strategy and the stories our planning committee told us around why we chose the sessions we did to craft the tracks and narrative for each day. We emailed every day from the week before through the conference to help people follow along.
Name your hosts. Priya Parker explains in The Art of Gathering the importance of a prepared host. We rely on trusted news anchors to bring a human touch to the evening news. We found it helpful in this virtual conference to have two hosts who together advocated on behalf of attendees and tied the whole program together.
Make it personal. If you were together in a convention center ballroom, you would see each other. You would be reading name tags and referencing names in calling on people. You would reflect on the emotions that people were bringing into the room and honor that. There is a virtual version of these actions:
I was surprised at how engaging an online conference was. The moderators and speakers did a thoughtful, creative job of keeping my attention.
- Cameras on. We saw the people talking.
- High chat box interaction. The moderators regularly used the chat box for feedback and to call out people’s comments by name.
- Intentional focus on emotion. We asked along the way how people were feeling. We acknowledged the overwhelm. We even created a conference music playlist to celebrate how the arts help us to process the overwhelm all around us.
- Reflection time. It was a delight to see people stay for our 15 minutes of reflection time at the end of our Live Stream days, a great chance to share key take-aways.
COVID hit just as many nonprofit associations and organizations were dipping their toe into online learning. Suddenly that change needs to happen at a much faster rate. I am excited for the day when we again can gather together in one room. And I am excited to see the potential in bringing together possible even more people in an online community that is rich in learning and connection.
With gratitude to Celisa Steele and Jeff Cobb of Tagoras for their timely resources on virtual conferences and masterful demonstration on how to deliver an excellent virtual conference. Your work greatly influenced our thinking about this conference, and we are grateful.
- Why have a learning strategy
Change will come when we enlist our research-based, strategically-aligned learning resources in support of the goals we have for our organization and sector.
Nonprofits are important. Their success matters to whole communities, states and even countries, yet they struggle to adapt to new needs and conditions. Something has to change. Change, namely cognitive and behavior change, is the domain of people working in learning and development. They know how to close gaps between where people are now and where they want and need to be to fully thrive. When an association or nonprofit support organization implements a learning strategy, it leverages its collection of learning programs and tools to better achieve its organization and sector goals.
Nonprofits are important yet face challenges
Our communities rely on nonprofits to provide key services, enrich our lives through the arts, and protect our rights and those of the most vulnerable. The 1.3 million charitable nonprofits in the U.S. create community to serve community, a vital part of our democracy. Nonprofits shape spaces in which all belong, leading efforts to expand equity and inclusion. For the health and vitality of our communities, it matters that nonprofits in all communities across the country are strong and ready to serve.
Yet nonprofits face what seem to be insurmountable challenges. We want to imagine a day when nonprofits are ready and able to transform how they serve their communities, yet around 50% have less than one month of operating reserve. We yearn for a time when nonprofits are leaders in decision-making because they know so much about people they serve, yet less than 3% engage in lobbying, an important tool in how public policy gets shaped. We know solutions are more effective when we solve hard problems through broad collaborations, yet the way funding happens makes partnerships hard to sustain. We know what success looks like and can see it around the bend, yet we never quite make the turn. Something needs to change in order for a new paradigm to take hold.
A learning strategy creates alignment for greater impact
Change is what learning is all about. When it comes to the workplace, learning is shorthand for whatever it takes to transform an individual from where they are now to where they want and need to be to succeed. An effective learning program goes beyond knowledge and skills. It solves problems, removes barriers to action, and improves performance. It does this through a collection of programs and tools, including:
- Workshops and webinars
- Local learning networks
- Train the trainer programs
- Online learning videos and tools
- Online libraries of templates and sample documents
- Coaching and mentoring
- Pre-/post-learning communication strategies
A learning strategy is a road map that aligns learning knowledge, programs, and tools across an organization to make it more effective in achieving its goals. A learning strategy supports the cognitive and behavioral change aspects of an organization’s larger strategy. A learning strategy helps people to do things differently over time.
Research helps us prioritize activities in our learning strategy
So often people involved in adult learning are “accidental teachers.” They find themselves running a training department or writing curriculum without formal education on how adults learn. They are susceptible to falling for what we now know to be learning myths: learning styles, 70-20-10 model, and anything based on people having the attention span of a goldfish. (No, it is not true that people learn according to their preferred learning style. We can focus longer than a fish on something worth our time.) There is a world of research that we can integrate into our learning strategies to make them even more effective. For example:
- Forgetting and remembering curves: We can design programs to help people remember.
- Cognitive overload: We can manage information in a way that keeps people from being overwhelmed.
- Influence and “presausion” techniques: We can get people ready to learn and take action.
- Evaluation: We can evaluate to understand how people transferred their learning back into their work.
Imagine how powerful if would be if we designed learning strategies based on what we know moves people to learn, remember, and take action. Imagine how effective our organizations would be in building legislative support, raising more money, and changing how they collaborative with others if they mastered memory, influence, and change. The process for building a comprehensive learning strategy for an organization creates space for cross-program collaboration and learning.
We want change for our nonprofit organizations. That change will come when we enlist our research-based, strategically-aligned learning resources in support of the goals we have for our organization and sector.
With gratitude to the National Council of Nonprofits’ “Nonprofit Impact Matters” report for data about the importance and challenges of nonprofits.
More on learning strategy
- What is instructional design?
Margaret Schulte and I explain instructional design in our new e-book “How to Design for Action.” We define the term in the introduction, which I share here. Since publishing the book, I turned those dress shirts into an awesome tote bag. Maybe time to re-sort the bins!
My university-age daughter needed bins to transport her stuff back to college. We discovered four such bins under my sewing counter and emptied them onto the floor. The result was a pile of textiles ranging from fleece to cottons and silks to white sequin left over from a sweet mermaid costume. There was some fake fur, faux alligator, and a hot pink flamingo costume. And let’s not forget the men’s dress shirts with ink-stained pockets, great for oven mitts!
What a mess. As soon as I got my bins back, I organized the fabrics by type: plain cottons, patterned fabric, fleece, and old dress shirts. I knew what I intended to sew in the next year, and I made sure these bins gave me easy access to what I would need. What about the flamingo, sequins, and alligator? Those were put away in a drawer for now.
You have a lot of material too, or at least the experts you work with do. You can do the equivalent of dumping it all onto the floor in front of your people and see if they can make sense of it. You can make them find the useful nuggets among cool but impractical material. Or you can carefully chunk knowledge and skills into useful categories and give your people the tools they’ll need to turn it into something relevant to them. You can do the work, so they don’t have to.
Instructional design is the process of creating experiences and tools that allow people to learn the knowledge and skills they need to do something differently.
There are many models for instructional design. We don’t pretend to be an authority on them. What we are sharing is our action-focused model for instructional design. It is based on careers teaching and delivering learning programs, designing information, and the creation of a whole range of nonprofit learning tools and experiences over the past seven years (see www.wanonprofitinstitute.org for examples).
It works for us. We hope it will work for you too.
Nancy Bacon and Margaret Schulte work together to information into learning experiences that lead people to take action. To learn more about the Aim for Action model, visit aim4action.com. Ask us how we can help you with your next project.
- New Year… New Focus
This post appeared appeared on my former blog, Chunk Flip Guide Laugh, to announce my transition to a new format and focus.
Five years ago, I was asked to speak about instructional design. It was the end of the training year, and I didn’t have time to prepare. I sat on the airplane to the conference and sketched the four ideas I thought people should know:
Chunk: Break ideas down into 3-5 parts
Flip: Create ways for people to learn alone, in peer groups, and in classrooms
Guide: Give people what they need to take action
Laugh: Honor and harness the emotions they bring to the topic
I’ve heard from diverse people—from keynote speakers to church ministers—that the framework has helped to hone a message into something memorable and actionable. I’ve created a workbook to keep these ideas alive as I transition to something new.
After seven years leading Washington Nonprofits’ learning program and five years expanding my ideas on leading and learning in the nonprofit sector, I am shifting my focus. I will be stepping away from Washington Nonprofits (though I plan to keep all of my commitments through the spring.) I will be focusing on leading and learning in the nonprofit sector generally, expanding my consulting work on all things nonprofits, learning, and leadership. (Read why it matters here.) This work includes learning strategy, program development, conference design, instructional design, and more projects I’ve been keeping on the back burner.
One of those projects is Aim For Action. I am very excited to lean into instructional design with my long-time friend and colleague in this work, Margaret “Meps” Schulte. You may have appreciated the graphics behind “Starting a Nonprofit,” or maybe the video editing behind “Liquor and Your Fundraising Event.” That’s Meps’ magic. We created the Aim4Action.com website to showcase our work and plans for the future. If you have something that you want people to learn or know, let’s talk about how we can help.
It is again an honor to be speaking on conference design with Mark Nilles during the Learning Technology Design conference on February 27. If you have an interest in adult learning and program design, this is a great conference to attend, and it is all available from your desktop! (Use discount codes org100nb for $100 off organizational registration or ind50nb for $50 off individual registration.)
I hope that you will continue to be interested in learning and leadership in the nonprofit sector. I plan to keep writing on all things nonprofits and leadership, shared through a monthly email. Meps and I have a new ebook on instructional design coming out in February 2020— I look forward to sharing it with you! If you don’t want to receive emails from me, please let me know (or unsubscribe when you receive the next email).
I am excited for 2020, and I begin it with tremendous gratitude for you. When you start a blog, you open yourself up to see who might be interested in your ideas. I jumped in with the hopes of making space for a community of people who value excellence in learning in the sector that makes our communities great places to live, work, and play. Thank you for being a part of this journey!
Warmest wishes for a wonderful New Year!
- 12 Days of a Learning Christmas
I work with a learning team that inspires me everyday. I dedicate this to them.
On the first day of Christmas, our learning team did see, one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the second day of Christmas, our learning team did see, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the third day of Christmas, our learning team did see, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the fourth day of Christmas, our learning team did see, four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the fifth day of Christmas, our learning team did see, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the sixth day of Christmas, our learning team did see, six people needing help registering, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the seventh day of Christmas, our learning team did see, seven contracts to manage at one time, six people needing help registering, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the eighth day of Christmas, our learning team did see, eight lovely nonprofit people calling for post-workshop support, seven contracts to manage at one time, six people needing help registering, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the ninth day of Christmas, our learning team did see, nine 90-minute webinars in a week, eight lovely nonprofit people calling for post-workshop support, seven contracts to manage at one time, six people needing help registering, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the tenth day of Christmas, our learning team did see, ten heavy fold out tables needing to be set up, nine 90-minute webinars in a week, eight lovely nonprofit people calling for post-workshop support, seven contracts to manage at one time, six people needing help registering, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the eleventh day of Christmas, our learning team did see, eleven people registered for member orientation (two showed up), ten heavy fold out tables needing to be set up, nine 90-minute webinars in a week, eight lovely nonprofit people calling for post-workshop support, seven contracts to manage at one time, six people needing help registering, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, our learning team did see, twelve (hundred) bounce backs, eleven people registered for member orientation (two showed up), ten heavy fold out tables needing to be set up, nine 90-minute webinars in a week, eight lovely nonprofit people calling for post-workshop support, seven contracts to manage at one time, six people needing help registering, five discount codes. Four booster emails, three partners asking for special registration services, two workshops on two topics over the course of two days, and one carful of carts and charts in which to dart around the state.
Best wishes for a wonderful holiday!
- Push less dirt, Lift more rocks
Two years ago, my family bought land north of the city. Laboring with hand tools quickly proved futile, so we acquired a tractor. The tractor’s job is to push dirt around to flatten the land for a future orchard. The challenge is that the dirt is filled with large rocks, glacial erratic boulders to be precise, so it is hard to push that dirt around. You come at a mound from the side, and it takes repeated back and forth shoving and dragging to make any headway.
It would be a lot easier if we could grab the boulders from above and pull them up and out of the dirt.
The image of putting the throttle to “rabbit mode” and ramming at mother earth with an iron claw came to mind as I was explaining instructional design. Rather than pushing through information from start to finish, it would be a lot more effective to come down from above and lift the meaningful parts up and into daylight. Give people the chance to see the whole picture from the start. That way they know what they might find as they dig deeper into what you have to offer.
What does this look like?
- When starting to plan a presentation or instructional design project, use a large scroll of paper to avoid the arbitrary hierarchy that can develop when writing a list on regular paper. Use the full lateral space to keep track of ideas and categorize them into buckets only after you have completed your research. See an example below.
- When presenting, consider language that explains the buckets up front. Here is an example of what I mean.
- Create graphics that show the buckets very clearly. See examples below.
Pushing dirt is really hard work. Covering vast information is taxing to the presenter and the person trying to make sense of it all. Here’s to working less and being more fruitful in the process.
- Five Years Later: Lessons from FUN
Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits (FUN) launched five years ago this week at the Washington State Nonprofit Conference. We shared the five buckets of basic nonprofit knowledge every board members should know: how to read a Balance sheet and Income statement, the IRS Form 990, Giving, and Oversight. The buckets spell BINGO, and yes—we played.
FUN was the first toolkit created in what became a series: Boards in Gear, Let’s Go Legal, Strategic Planning in Nonprofits, etc. (They are all here.) It set the structure that we continue to follow. The architecture of FUN proved to be successful. In short, we put the content expert onto a short video that can be used in the three places people learn, alone, in peer groups, and in classrooms. We supplemented with downloadable resources. FUN became the curriculum used in a state contract all over Washington.
FUN has become one of my favorite traveling companions as I deliver the training in communities large and small. What have I learned from my loyal friend, FUN?
“Going to scale” forces new solutions. We based FUN on an in-person training delivered in Seattle several times a year. At the time, a leader in our community implored me to address financial concerns plaguing nonprofits: many were losing their IRS status for failing to file, and fraud was nipping away the resources our nonprofits needed to thrive. “Run a training,” I was told. There are more than 50,000 nonprofits in Washington, thus roughly 500,000 board members who need to be trained. Where should I put that training? How will training the 50 or so people who come have any impact? The result was a blended learning solution that puts the CPA on video, thus not necessarily in every training room or living room where someone is learning from FUN.
Play in the sandbox of emotion in design and delivery. At the time we created FUN, another organization offered a finance workshop with marketing language that referenced dental surgery, something like: “Do you think finance is as fun as getting a root canal? Its painful but important.” I was the only person to sign up. We took the predominant emotion many people feel with finance— fear— and both honored it and flipped it into comfort and joy. An improv actor joined the CPA on film, introducing both laughter and simplified explanations into the story. The BINGO introduced a framework everyone knows. Since storytelling is inate to us humans, we practice income statement reading with my favorite activity ever, a “Once upon a time” storytelling exercise.
Communications is a key part of curriculum design. Early on in the development of FUN, our communications partner drew a clothesline with rectangles hanging off of it. Our job was to take all of the content we generated and sort it into boxes that would hang from a central thread, essentially our thesis. This approach moved us from pushing throughcontent to observing it from above. That bird’s eye view led us to five buckets. It was so successful that “chunking” became a standard part of our instructional design process.
We created FUN to train board members across Washington about finance. Along the way, we learned ourselves what works when teaching courageous volunteers with little free time who want to do right by their organizations. Happy birthday, FUN!
If you want to know more about the instructional design behind FUN, visit my website here: https://chunkflipguidelaugh.com.
- Design a Learning-full Conference
A few years ago I attended a three-day conference in a city on the other side of the country. I took a lot of notes. I remember the speakers being interesting. I know that I left with a few ideas to dig into. Yet on the flight home, I misplaced my notebook. I tried to re-create my to-do list, but I drew a complete blank on the specifics of conference. I couldn’t remember what I heard or decided to do. I moved on.
The conference cost at least $1,000 to attend once I accounted for the flight, conference fee, and the pizza dinner I bought to thank my local host. A hotel would have rounded the cost up another $500.
The conference cost the organizer a lot too! At least one staff member worked on the conference for six months, with the entire staff joining for the full three days. Money was spent on the venue, keynote speakers, and program. I’m sure sponsorships helped to offset some of these costs. The opportunity cost of doing a conference, however, includes all of the projects you would do if you had that time back.
A lot is on the table when it comes to conferences, so let’s talk about how to design a learning-full conference. That’s a conference where people get the support they need before, during, and after the conference to reflect and act (even if they lose their notebook!). It is a conference that has adult learning principles baked into its design, helping people to process information, remember it, and connect it with action steps. It is a conference that stays with the attendee past the last session, placing the conference into a larger constellation of learning experiences. These are the kind of conferences that are worthy of the time and financial investments we make to move our people forward.
This winter, Mark Nilles and I launched our new e-book on conference design, “Conferences That Make a Difference.” While there are several excellent resources for conference participants on how to make the most of attending a conference, this e-book looks at the other side of the equation: designing and delivering a conference. It gives ideas across four chapters:
- Strategy and overall approach to conference design
- Get Ready: Pre-Conference Activities
- The Big Day: Deliver a Day that Makes a Difference
- Make It Stick: Post-Conference Activities
We give you samples and tools to be able to implement what we are talking about right away.
If you design conferences, we hope this e-book gives you ideas. If you attend conferences, please feel free to send this to conference organizers. We might create a movement for better conferences everywhere!
- Love in Learning
I drove home from an intense learning event emotionally exhausted. It had been an exhilarating day of deep thought and connection. A few groups had made significant breakthroughs on important issues. When nonprofits make breakthroughs, lives change.
It was a long day, and when signing off from a debrief with my colleague, the words rolled off our tongues: I love you. I love you, too.
Love is a radical word that is both weak and bold, vague and crisp, all at the same time. It’s a word I lean on when no other seems to fit. What is the right word to describe the feeling in a room when people become so motivated by something they just heard or learned that they form connections that transcend that time and space? The word, I believe, is love.
I was first struck by the word “love” used in a non-typical way when reading Steve Patty’s book on evaluation, Getting to What Matters. Evaluation is hardly the bastion of romance and roses, yet his Heart Triangle describes the transformation I see in the classroom. He starts with the three human capacities– know, feel, and do– and shows how they can deepen into three defining characteristics– what we believe, love, and become.
Knowledge becomes action becomes a transformed person. Feeling something shifts the tectonic plates that make us who we are and brings to our surface a commitment to being different. That is powerful learning.
Perhaps due to the Brené Brown effect, love in leading and living is becoming part of the vernacular. “Love of learning” has long been used to describe the delight a parent has when a child reads late into the night. I’m excited to take delight in the “love in learning” that brings magic to a classroom, a conference, a community.
The 2019 “Train the Trainer Series” runs on February 26 and March 26. Join us!
- Lessons from Mary Poppins
We walked out of Mary Poppins Returns singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Five minutes after hearing “Nowhere to go but up,” the flying-through-the-sky song from Mary Poppins Returns, we were remembering the elevation song from this movie’s precursor, the original Mary Poppins from 1964.
Why is that? How is it possible that we couldn’t remember a single song from Mary Poppins Returns, even five minutes after the credits rolled?
With this research question in front of us, my daughter and I set about listening to Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns songs back-to-back. As the younger of us pointed out, the music in Returns mirrors the original. There is a song for when the kids don’t want to do something, one that involves people floating to the top of a room, and of course the requisite computer-animated scene of children dropping into an inanimate object.
Our conclusion: Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins is as much a teacher as she is a nanny. She invites us and the children into the sung lesson. Here’s an example:
Spoonful of sugar (1964)
Sung by Julie Andrews
Can you imagine that (2018)
Sung by Emily Blunt
Mary speaks the words. ·
She explains why a spoonful of
With the children watching, she
demonstrates the magic that cleans
Jane tries and succeeds.
Michael tries and struggles. She lets him struggle and figure it out until he succeeds.
Mary starts singing. Her first words questions John’s intellect and
ability to “give in to imagination.”
It would be a discussion for another day to examine who is to blame: the writer, performer, director, or anyone else. However this came to be, the difference between these movies gives us lessons in learning:
Mary, in “Spoonful of Sugar” reminds us to:
- Tell people what you are going to share in clear, spoken language. Bonus points if you sound as smooth as Julie Andrews.
- Explain why it matters. We are asking adults to do things that may seem as fun as taking medicine. It has to be worth it!
- Demonstrate what you want them to do. Whether it is a click of the fingers or something much more complex, show them what good looks like.
- Let them do it, even if they don’t succeed at first. Stand to the side, and step in only if things get out of control. Like a toy cabinet that won’t stop opening and shutting.
Of course a lot of credit goes to the songwriters. The Sherman Brothers wrote lyrics that masterfully fit into our contextual experience. I can understand “let’s go fly a kite” and “love to laugh” without trying hard. “Turning turtle?” Not so much. Effective teaching is a magical combination of content and delivery. And that’s no tommy rot.
- Grains of Learning in a Mayo Jar of TimeIt would be hard to imagine a more ridiculous purchase. Straight out of a trainer tools magazine, a $39.95 mayonnaise jar complete with golf balls, pebbles and sand. The prop was designed to demonstrate time management. I couldn’t toss the catalog into the recycle bin fast enough. And yet a mere two hours later, our learning team gathered to talk about our new micro-learning strategy, and there I was talking about the mayo jar. Luckily I didn’t have to spend $39.95 to evoke the image of the mayo jar and the philosophical question of when it is actually full. You see, if you imagine our learning program to be a mayo jar, it is full of golf balls: webinars or workshops that require registration and a commitment of time. We run 150+ of these a year (with an amazing staff of 3). We even have the super bouncy balls of our trade: conferences. As much as they flex and squish into different shapes and sizes, they take up even more room than the golf balls. The jar seems full. But there is still space for the kidney beans. Those are the many five-to-ten minute videos that we produce on key elements of content. We have the five “chunks” of board success, and the five buckets of finance knowledge. We’ve got resources on strategic planning and nonprofit law. These take up less room than the golf balls, yet you can still see small pockets of space. That’s where the grains of rice come in. These are the short 1-2 minute lessons on one idea that fill the gaps left by everything else we offer. Captured on short videos, they include the ideas that people hear in workshops yet need to hear again to be able to apply them. They are the tips that we wish we had time to share in webinars. They are our content innovations too late to get into the professionally produced, longer videos. They are what folks have asked us to explain, as well as the “why this matters” intro videos that we upload to social media. Over the next two weeks, we will be installing “WN Studios” in an unrented space near our office. We will start by filming video clips to be used in our newest initiative, Next Level Nonprofits. We’ll be tracking data to see if people actually watch the videos, and ultimately if they report back that they made a difference. By this time next year, our mayo jar will indeed be completely full. I would bet $39.95 on it, but we already spent that on the tripod.
NEWSMark Nilles (Humentum) and I have been working on an ebook on conferences. Read the first Chapter now and look for the full ebook in January. Sign up to make sure you receive it when it comes out! The 2nd annual “Train the Trainer Series“ starts February 26. Based in Seattle, this popular two-part series features Guila Muir and Tracy Flynn teaching participants from across Washington how to deliver an awesome workshop every time. Just in time for conference season!
- Courage. Coragem.Two weeks ago, nonprofit and community leaders gathered together in Yakima, Washington, to work in teams on hard issues. In several different conversations, people used the word “courage.” They described some people as having it, others as needing it, and a general hope that the community could muster the courage needed to do things differently. I couldn’t help but think back to a time when a different community of leaders used the word “courage” to describe what they needed to have. I wrote about that experience in 2012, and the lessons from then seem as relevant now. As we go into the Thanksgiving holidays, I am tremendously grateful for the women I got to know in Salvador, Brazil– and the nonprofit leaders and partners across Washington I work with today.
CoragemOriginally posted in February 2012 I was in Salvador, Brazil, last month teaching a class on NGO capacity building and grant writing, sharing everything I know about building community and structure around a mission that makes the world a better place. On Friday, as all of the tools and tricks it takes to run an effective organization settled into the minds of class participants, one leaned forward and said, “Temos que ter coragem.” We have to have courage. Courage that allows them to pioneer new ways of doing things, knowing that they will make mistakes in front of each other along the way. Indeed, courage was on the minds of these women that day. A discussion about program evaluation shifted from graduation rates to measuring any gain in self esteem that might come through education and social support. They described trying to get young women to even consider taking a university entrance exam within a culture of presumed failure. Each of the women in the room had taken the Vestibular at least twice—several three and four times— before passing, and the young women they work with know that it is uphill battle to learn enough to pass this rigorous exam. Their dreams of achieving a university education required courage to march through the pain of endless study with no guarantee of success, foregone wages, and, for some, social stigma for even trying. As it turns out, the inner demons that haunt young African-Brazilian women were in good company. The night before, a police strike began, resulting in violence and looting in the neighborhoods to which these women were returning to that night. By the time this conversation was happening, over eighty people had been killed, and randomness of crime had uprooted any sense of public security for the poor residents of the city. The fear of what might happen was written on their faces. They left early to journey home on public buses, some traveling alone as far as the airport. Courage was on their minds, and now it is on mine. These women are working in a space in which they have to muster together personal, professional, and social courage, battling internal and external demons around every turn. They have to lift the spirits of others—giving others hope for a better tomorrow—when the same demons haunt them. The success they achieve in these circumstances is heroic and humbling. There I sat, listening to their discussion, aware of the space between their experiences and my reality. What was my role in this partnership? Encourage? Encourage has someone else as its object. It is passive, distant, and possibly condescending. I was on a flight out the next morning. Who was I to tell them to keep up the great work? What struck me about my week in Salvador was how open these women were to learn and to teach, how they had made a commitment to social change and were in this work for the long term, and how they intuitively understood that their big societal issues were made up of many small problems, all of which could be tackled with the right resources. They weren’t afraid to have the hard conversations. Our alternative to encouraging them is to have courage with them. We can be partners in hard conversations that cross cultural and power boundaries, giving each other the benefit of the doubt along the way. We can challenge our own limits, professionally and personally, in solidarity with them. And we can build a long-term community in which to learn, celebrate, and labor together through whatever demons come our way. To make a difference in this world, they reminded me, temos que ter coragem.
- Webinar emails: trying something newThis fall, the Washington Nonprofits learning team changed up the emails we send related to webinars. Here’s an infographic explaining what we did and why. What you do think? What are you doing to boost engagement with your webinars?
- So Who’s In the Room? Moving On.The presenter steps up to the podium, welcomes everyone to what will certainly be an awesome conference session. She segues into a typical warm-up exercise: let’s find out who is in the room. How many of you are chickens? Great, we appreciate the eggs. How many are cows? Wonderful, thank you for your service—without you there would be no cheese or chocolate. Do we have any alpaca in the room? There you are. Few in number but mighty in spirit. Please don’t spit. The exercise can happen in different ways, but the goal is the same: to build rapport and gather information about who is in the room so that you can better speak to them. Or not. At a recent conference session, some version of the above unfolded. The room was mostly filled with chickens—hard working creatures toiling hard to produce a golden egg. The presenter determined that right from the start. And then she spent the rest of the presentation speaking eloquently to an imagined audience of horses, delivering ideas and tools useful to running fast over hill and dale. Not so useful to chickens. I sat in the audience trying to telepathically communicate with the chickens. I hoped that they were picking up nuggets of relevance between the lines. The session ended after its requisite 75 minutes. Before it did, I made some notes on how we could do this better:
- Know who is likely to be in the room before the session even begins. The attendee profile of most conferences isn’t a state secret, particularly for presenters who attend these conferences year after year. If you don’t know, ask the organizers. Optimize for the people most likely to be in the room.
- Influence who is in the room. At most conferences, anyone can attend any session, so how do you make sure your desired audience shows up? Invite them. When you write your conference description, include a clear description of who this workshop is designed for.
- Use your power as the holder of the microphone to connect people. Maybe you ask people new to the work to stand up so others can meet them later. Maybe you ask people to line up by years of experience and then “fold the line” to make pairs to answer a question related to what you are presenting. (I learned this from the awesome Tracy Flynn). There are many ways to connect people, and doing so strengthens your presentation.
- Customize in real time once you know who is in the room. By the time the presentation starts, your powerpoint and handouts are done. What isn’t done is how you deliver it. You have the power to shift your speed and focus through content depending on who is listening. You have the knowledge to stop and ask thought-provoking questions to get real-time engagement and feedback. You have the audience’s permission to adjust so that they get more out of their time with you.
- Stop talking. Let them play with your ideas. We hear all of the time about the importance of reflection. People need time to take what is going on in their heads and connect it to whatever you just said. They need to build a bridge between your idea and their lived experience. Presenters, therefore, need to build in time for people in the session to practice what they are hearing, share what they think about it, or otherwise exercise their brain. I know letting attendees talk introduces a certain level of chaos. Comfort with ambiguity is as great a skill in teaching as it is in life.
Want more on learning strategy?I will be teaching a workshop on curriculum design this fall. More information here
- Let’s Play Learning Strategy Mix-and-Match!The waning days of summer are upon us. The clouds have rolled in, and the smoke has cleared. For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, there’s comfort in donning fleece and staying inside while the rains freshen the air. One of the highlights of my summer was working with two groups developing a learning strategy. They wanted to take the pieces that they had—curriculum, partnerships, experts, and ideas—and turn them into a coherent program of activities that made a bigger and more lasting difference for more people. What a great opportunity to play Learning Strategy Mix-and-Match! (I first introduced this idea here.) Mix-and-Match takes the key elements of a learning program and invites us to combine them in ways that expand the times and spaces in which we can engage people. It forces us to think outside of the usual workshop model. It also forces us to consider practice more than we otherwise do. You have to do something with all of those orange parallelograms! These three key elements are: 1. WHAT is being delivered:
- PRACTICE actions related to the content
- STUDENT, the person learning
- TEACHER, the person delivering the content
- CLASSROOM of people together
- a GROUP of peers learning together
- An INDIVIDUAL learning alone
Download Learning Strategy Mix-and-Match shapes here.
How does this work?Most learning programs do okay with synchronous learning, meaning learning where the teacher and student are participating at the same time. Take a typical workshop or webinar. It may look something like this: A good workshop has practice built in. (For more on how to do this, buy Guila Muir’s book.) How about webinars? What do we do about practice? We can’t just forget about it– that orange parallelogram needs to go somewhere! Here’s some ideas… Include practice in the webinar, even if you are giving assignments for people to do later on. Provide boosting activities after the webinar so that they remember to exercise what they learned.
Let’s make this a bit harder.Workshops and webinars are pretty straight forward. Let’s push on how we can better reach the people we just can’t get to a scheduled event. Let’s explore asynchronous options, those where the teacher and student are not participating at the same time. On-demand learning happens when you post a video or some other learning content on a website: Where are folks going to be able to practice? How are we going to deploy the orange parallelogram? Here are some ideas: Office hours: There are many forms of this (from phone calls to Facebook groups), but at its core it means that the teacher participates in applying the content separate from the presentation of content. (A master at this is Maryn Boess of GrantsMagic.) Peer or networks: Schedule–or otherwise support– practice in board or staff meetings, service club meetings, or any other time when people already gather. (At Washington Nonprofits, we do this through Nonprofit Conversations.) Tool or micro-learning: Give the people learning something (worksheet, checklist, case study, scenarios) that challenges them to apply learning to their situation. Give them a short video that describes how they can practice. Set up the activity for them to try. These are just a few ideas. Imagine if we really let lose imagining how Mix-and-Match might be used to design conferences, publications, and so much more.
Your turn.Download your own set of shapes. Cut out the shapes. Lay them out on a table and see how many different learning events you can create using these building blocks. Some ideas:
- Take a strategic topic that you want people to learn about and figure out five different ways that you can deliver it.
- Explore time: scheduled learning vs. unscheduled learning. How can you expand opportunities to learn outside of scheduled events?
- Explore practice. Where does it show up in the programs you offer or partner with? Where else could it show up? This is often the most overlooked element within learning programs.
- Invite others to play with you! Your webmaster may have ideas on how to expand on-demand learning. Your membership person may have ideas on how to use affinity groups within the membership program. Your policy person may have real activities that need practicing, around which you can build a program.
Want more on learning strategy?I will be teaching a workshop on curriculum design this fall. More information here
- Project Runway: A Lesson in Adult LearningBinge watching reality television provides a lot of time between the drama to think about learning. Such was the case when my daughter and I watched a season of Project Runway over the course of two weeks. It was my first deep dive into the world of high fashion design and catty criticisms about whether one contestant can stitch straight or not. The design side was amazing to see. I’ve sewed since in high school, though seldom anything I would wear. By the second show, I had pulled out fabric and a pattern and sewed a jacket. By the end, I had my computer propped on a box to be able to watch while sewing, and I was pulling shirts out of my closet and sketching patterns to try and replicate them. One is already in the scrap pile. The other is a viable shirt, albeit one my daughter declared “something an old lady would wear.” I ignored the old lady part and went with the “would wear” possibility. All of this to say that watching experts do something over and over again demystifies the process. It quickly became clear that sewing is really just geometry, carving shapes out of fabric in a way that allows seams to fall flat. Sleeves all need a certain give to allow movement; zippers add a rigidity that needs accommodation; the characteristics of the fabric make or break any design. What does all of this have to do with adult learning? First, what we know going into an experience determines what we get out of it. I watch Project Runway and am inspired to sew. My daughter watches Project Runway and decides sewing is too hard. The difference? I knew enough to see possibility. Prior knowledge serves two functions: it provides a foundation for new knowledge and shapes our confidence and curiosity. It can’t be said enough that teaching and learning begins with them, not us. How can we better draw on the prior knowledge of the people we teach? How can we strengthen prior knowledge going before a training? Second, watching a show like Project Runway demonstrates that every fancy final product is constructed through a series of discrete steps, often the same steps repeated garment after garment. A complicated whole is achieved through simpler parts. When you watch dress after dress being sewn, you see the design decisions that lead to a standard set of outcomes. Nothing is sacred; an evening gown can become a cocktail dress with the cut of a hem. While watching a video alone does not mean you will be able to do it too, it gives you a boost when combined with practice. Imagine if we created more opportunities to see experts at work. What if we could capture their decision-making in real time and give people time themselves to practice similar decision-making in real settings? And when it comes to content, imagine how powerful it would be if we cut away everything extra to be left with something simple and classy. Lastly, watching Tim Gunn as a mentor is delightful. He anchors his critiques in a clear sense of the goal, often bringing designers back on track after they meander off course. His comments are crisp and honest, delivered with a sweet sense of love and protection. What any of us could achieve with a Tim Gunn by our side. The nonprofit sector would be vastly more effective if we invested in coaches to support the one-and-done learning that we too often provide. I hear a new season of Bachelorette is starting up. I have a shirt she can borrow.
- Thinking Out Loud: How to Make Conferences into Learning Experiences that Lead to ActionWe put a lot into conferences. We spend months lining up speakers with ideas intended to shift our thinking. We curate workshops and plan networking time; we publish conference programs and name tags enough to fill a table. And we aren’t the only one with a lot on the line: participants commit registration fees, travel costs, and time out of the office. How we can make conferences worth all of this time and effort? How can we place the conference in a larger constellation of learning that starts before the big day and runs well after the conference concludes? These are the questions that led me to try some new ideas at our most recent conference in Yakima. In the spirit of “thinking out loud,” I share them here to expand the conversation.
- CONFERENCE PLANNER
- KEYNOTE PLACEMAT
- KEYNOTE FOLLOW-ON DISCUSSIONS
- Wonder Woman needs her shield.It is kind of like Wonder Woman leaving her lasso of truth around a rock on Themyscira. It’s as if she forgot her vibranium shield in that tower before setting off for London. And her bracelets of submission? Back in the Paradise Island bathing grotto. Diana still has her cunning curiosity and empathetic outlook. But her tools of the trade aren’t there to help her take action on saving humanity. She can stand nobly in that foxhole telling Steve Trevor everything she knows about rescuing women and children under siege over yonder. But knowing isn’t doing. The only way this woman can cross “No Man’s Land” is with the full package of knowledge, skills, tools, courage…. and a shield. This is what comes to mind when I see leaders talk about the big changes they want to see in the world and then organize the same activities done for years. They call together the same people who have been called together before. They lean on experts of the topic of concern to share what they know. Here’s the thing. We know so much about adult learning, psychology, behavioral economics, and human development. We know about strategy and outcome-based planning. We have at our fingertips really talented people who know the process to get results that reflect the interests of others. Our system respects the knowledge of experts and not the experts of knowledge. Paradoxically it relies on content experts and not experts in transferring that content to others. Too often our lassos and bracelets are left in the closet. Its time to take them out.
- Walk This WayI spent the last five weeks immersed in two experiences. First, my family hosted a 19 year old foster-care “graduate” needing a short term place to stay. “Cam” had been in 32 different placements, was in school, had a 30 hour a week job, and could recite pretty much any detail from Black Panther or High School Musical. He knew a lot about rap artists of his generation. He fell short on knowing much about Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC. Forgivable. Second, I was creating a daylong workshop for all volunteer nonprofit leaders in rural areas. Designed to cover the major topics of running a small organization, the workshop needed to review key content, invite curiosity, inspire but not overwhelm, and connect people to each other. I delivered the inaugural workshop in Long Beach, Washington on March 10. Cam and the folks I spent Saturday with have something in common. They both know a lot about some things and nearly nothing about others. What they know, they have learned from experience—hands on, need to know, full body living it. Cam knew exactly how to receive a check, cash it at Safeway (for a fee), and move money onto a pre-paid debit card, or juggle money across several pre-paids since the one-time load limit was $500. He knew nothing about having a bank account, including why you would want one. The nonprofit volunteers from the poverty action group knew exactly where economically-disadvantaged people were living and how they juggled finding food, clothes, housing vouchers, etc. The “Stop ICE” volunteers recited names, stories, and statistics gathered from resistance activities. Yet most people in the room knew little about the bread and butter topics of nonprofit operations: board recruitment, internal controls, or fundraising beyond the spaghetti dinner. I heard at least three times, “I never thought of that before.” We live in a world that values mainstream, professionalized knowledge. Adults should have a bank account. Nonprofit leaders should know how to have a strong board, stay compliant, and raise money. At the same time, we should know how to recognize sources of deep knowledge when we see them. Too often we miss solutions because their knowledge doesn’t look like ours. A teacher once said that a good curriculum is like a strong fence. It goes deep enough to hold the fence firm and runs long enough to cover wide landscapes. The metaphor works for communities as much as curriculum. A healthy community values the deep knowledge of people living within the circumstances society’s solutions set out to solve. Our operational tips and tools allow them to cover a lot of ground faster than they would on their own. We need each other. I’m grateful to have been reminded that.
One thing I know is that life is short So listen up homeboy, give this a thought The next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught? It’s like that (what?) and that’s the way it is
– “It’s Like That” by Run DMC
- Upcoming Train the Trainer SeriesAt Washington Nonprofits, we are really excited to announce our Spring 2018 “Train the Trainer Series,” which starts April 4, 2018. Sessions will be lead by the amazing Guila Muir and Tracy Flynn…. and me, Nancy Bacon. More information is below. Please pass this along to anyone you think would be interested. Nancy
Washington Nonprofits Train the Trainer Series Spring 2018Train the Trainer is designed for consultants and learning staff in the nonprofit and public sector who want to strengthen their training practice. Over the course of three sessions led by adult learning experts, we will cover how to train, tips and tools for increased engagement, and how to know if you made a difference. Since learning happens best when you can reflect on your practice with others, we are offering an option for individualized observation and coaching. Sign up for individual sessions or the series. (When you take the series, you will get a Washington Nonprofits Train the Trainer Series Certificate at the last class.) By the end, you will have greater knowledge and skill, feel more confident, and be a part of a supportive cohort of people committed to the practice of teaching and learning. 3-PART SERIES “Never Fail” Course Design with Guila Muir April 4, 9:00-12:00pm Build Your Trainer Toolkit with Tracy Flynn May 2, 9:00-12:00pm Train to Make a Difference with Tracy Flynn & Nancy Bacon May 30, 9:00-12:00pm Location Pike/Pine Room 12th Avenue Arts / Capitol Hill Housing 1620 12th Avenue, Suite 206, Seattle WA 98122 Cost $95/ workshop $280/ series WASHINGTON NONPROFITS MEMBERS $116/ workshop $349/ series NON-MEMBERS Joining is easy! Register here
April 4, 2018 “NEVER FAIL” COURSE DESIGN Do you feel overwhelmed while developing a new class or webinar? Does all the content threaten to cover YOU up? Do you simply not know where to begin? Welcome to Guila Muir’s “Never Fail” Course Design Template. A product of twenty-five years of experimentation and evolution, this template enables you to design active, effective courses that transfer skills into the “real world”. Who knew course design could be so easy? By the end of this three-hour workshop, you will be able to:
- Describe the nine elements of outcome-focused, activity-driven lesson plan.
- Create the Purpose and Learning Outcomes of a training session that you will present in the near future.
- Explain how you will enable participants to transfer new skills into the “real world”.
- a topic for a training session, workshop, or webinar that you will give soon, or that you have given recently and would like to improve.
- a typical audience you’d present this to.
- the probable length of your training session, workshop, or webinar (PLEASE think of a session that would be at least 45 minutes long).
May 2, 2018 BUILD YOUR TRAINER TOOLKIT Strategies to increase meaningful participation, engagement and skill-building with any audience Are you wondering how to step into a classroom and create a learning community? Do want to add more tools to your toolbox when it comes to increasing participation? Through the course of this session, you will learn the connection between motivation, participation, and a deeper engagement in what you are teaching. You will leave with a lot of ideas for activities you can use in training. By the end of the workshop, you will be able to:
- Name two ways that you can create a strong learning community.
- Demonstrate at least one new engagement strategy
- Describe how to assess and capitalize on the learner’s own motivation
May 30, 2018 TRAIN TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE How to use feedback and evaluation to know if your training had an impact You taught, but did they learn? Are they doing anything differently because of your training? Their success depends on “learning transfer” and whether your lessons transfer into real results. In this session, we will dig deep into the building blocks of “learning transfer” and how to use feedback and evaluation to know what’s different. By the end of the session, you will be able to:
- Name the elements of learning transfer
- Demonstrate one way to use feedback to see if you are meeting your goals
- Describe how you could use evaluation to keep learning going past the training (and decrease forgetting!) and strengthen how you teach.
- Manipulation or Influence?At a recent conference, I introduced the work of Robert Cialdini, author of Influence and Presuasion. We were talking about how to motivate nonprofit board members, and I shared two possible approaches to moving a board member to raise money:
Option 1: You are on this board because you care about this mission. We really need to raise $10,000 at this event. Every board member should do their part inviting friends and giving funds.
Option 2: You have already shown great courage and commitment by stepping forward into the board member role. Your leadership makes an important difference in our ability to achieve our mission. I am going to ask that you do one more courageous thing and reach out to your friends and invite them to join us in our work.As participants got involved in an activity, a man pulled me aside to tell me that he was bothered by Option 2. It was manipulative, and he didn’t think that we should be manipulating board members into doing things. It seemed like a very nonprofit response. A huge body of evidence shows that people are motivated by their emotions. Companies use this research to get consumers to buy their products. (Cialdini gives some interesting examples here.) Wouldn’t it be powerful if nonprofits took what we know about influence and used it for good? As Jeff Brooks writes on his blog, we don’t avoid emotions in Option 1 since everything we say or do signals some emotion, possibly not the ones we intend. As Allen Gannett writes in Fast Company, the difference between manipulation and persuasion comes down to one question: is what you are asking in the person’s best interest? As influence expert Alex Swallow says on a recent podcast, effective influence creates a win-win outcome that lasts. Boards members by definition should care deeply about the mission of the organization on whose board they serve. It is in their best interest that they are motivated to do anything they can to support the cause they love. I truly believe that board members are the superheroes of our communities, taking on the most important social issues of our time as volunteers. Beyond nonprofit boards, we hold the power to make lasting change when we move from information sharing to imagination capturing, habit shifting, and action inspiring. It will take courage to step into this new space. But you have already shown great courage and commitment. Why not do one more courageous thing and give (intentional) influence a try.
Upcoming event: I’m speaking on February 1 as a part of the Learning Technology Design conference. In Chunk Flip Guide Laugh: Creating Learning Tools That Lead to Action, we will walk through Discover, Design, and Delivery, and I’ll share some stories behind Washington Nonprofits’ popular toolkits.
- Habits and House of Cards: How to bring thinking about habits into a New YearHouse of Cards left a legacy in our house, #metoo movement aside. A few episodes into the series, my beloved watched Frank Underwood rowing in the basement of his DC townhouse and said, “I want one of those.” (He wasn’t alone.) The object of his desire was a wooden water rower made in Rhode Island. Out with the treadmill, in with the WaterRower. The training videos are enticing. I quickly decided that I would faux-row-on-the-Charles a daily 40 minutes. Right. My first row lasted 8 painful minutes. I missed my treadmill. A few months later, I tried this again, this time committing to 12 minutes at 7:15am, five days in a row. I lined up podcasts to distract me from the slowest clock ever. I snuck in a few discrete stretch breaks, but I got through five days. And then another five days. I’m now a few months into a morning row routine. My “coach” holds me accountable: I tell my teen what I rowed while she stares into a bowl of Cheerios, to which she irreverently responds, “Nice job, Nancy.” Strangely that part has become motivating.
I think a lot about habits because ultimately that is what matters in adult learning. It isn’t just about knowing something. It isn’t about doing something once. It is about doing it routinely over time. What habits do we want people to have? How do we nudge people to form them?Four thoughts on habits:
1. Start smallCharles Duhigg shared a simple graphic for understanding habits in his book, The Power of Habit. Nonprofit boards understand this already: they get to the finance part of the agenda (cue), the room goes silent while the treasurer and executive director talk (routine), and if everyone stays quiet, the finance part of the agenda ends quickly (reward). How do we break that cycle? In “Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits,” board members get a “Pulse” chart with simple questions to ask at each board meeting. The more familiar the routine gets, the more voices are heard.
2. Do something 5 timesWhy five? There is absolutely no research that I know of behind five, but the goal is to do something more than a couple of times. It has to become part of an unconscious routine. Now when 7:13am comes along, I feel the need to move towards rowing. For those nonprofit boards using the “Balance Sheet Pulse,” I hope at the fifth meeting they feel the need to talk about their assets and liabilities because it is what they know to do.
3. Create accountabilitySo many boards have to unlearn bad habits that are getting in the way. Wouldn’t it be better if a new board could start in mission-strengthening routines? We are working on a new toolkit on how to start a nonprofit. I’ve made a list of habits would be helpful for board members to start with to avoid unlearning later on. Things like:
- Start every meeting with a prompt that helps people to get to know each other.
- Build 10 minutes of learning into every board meeting.
- Give any volunteer a job description. No matter how simple it is, write down what you think their job is.
- Express gratitude before starting new business.
4. Reflect on rewardsThe “reward differential” is the difference between what the old routine yielded vs. what is possible because of the new routine.
- What do you now see or hear that is different?
- How does that make you feel?
- What might happen if you continued this new habit?
- What would be helpful to expand the habit, if you want to?
- How are you celebrating the change?
As we start a New Year, what habits do you want to change?
- What small, achievable actions can you commit to?
- What five times will you take that action?
- When will you reflect on what difference it makes?
- Learning • Technology • Design Conference Session – February 1, 2018
I’m absolutely thrilled to be presenting a session in the Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) virtual conference from February 1-23, 2018. The Washington Nonprofits learning team took away some great ideas last year from this conference. I hope you’ll consider joining it this year.Here’s information about my session:
CHUNK FLIP GUIDE LAUGH: CREATING LEARNING TOOLS THAT LEAD TO ACTION February 1, 2018 – 10:30-12:00pm PSTThose of us who teach adults face a daunting task. We often must cover large amounts of content with people who have limited time and lots of distractions. The learners we serve bring different sets of experiences and emotions to the topic at hand, and we must do our best to meet them where they are. At the same time, a lot is riding on our success—how well workers work, volunteers serve, and leaders lead. Chunk Flip Guide Laugh is a design process that challenges us to rethink the learning tools we create to move people to action. It puts the learner at the center and breaks down effective learning into four “pathways”—chunk, flip, guide, and laugh—which, through examples and case studies, you’ll learn to apply to your own work. As a working example, we’ll look at how a nonprofit state association created a set of action-focused learning tools aimed at busy volunteers. You’ll hear the story behind how that association turned “as fun as a root canal” nonprofit finance into Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits (FUN) starring an improv actor. You’ll also see how they used a similar discovery method to develop a board toolkit that is finding its way into board meetings across the state of Washington. While we’ll use the specific examples to show how the process works, the overall approach applies to nearly any learning experience you need to create. As an active participant, you’ll leave this session with a model for content creation and examples to guide you in development of your own action-inducing learning tools. This workshop will be led by Nancy Bacon, who developed Chunk Flip Guide Laugh and has been using the process in her role as director of learning and engagement at Washington Nonprofits. Read Nancy’s full bio. REGISTRATION INFORMATION
- Learning ≠ DoingIf you want people to be more financially literate, you invest in financial literacy education, right? So think governments, businesses, and nonprofits worldwide. They spend billions of dollars on financial literacy to improve budgeting, reduce credit card debt, and increase retirement savings. Financial literacy is now a required part of Washington State curriculum. The result of all of this investment? A 0.1% variance in financial behaviors. That’s it. All this education yields very little change in behavior. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely referred to this research while in town talking about his book Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter. His book is not about financial literacy, he said, but the systems that cause us to behave as we do. Rather than understand how a $4 coffee fits into our budget, he encourages us to think about our habits. Does that $4 coffee make us happy? Does the second one make us as happy as the first? If so, it is worth it. If not, don’t buy it. As the financial literacy research says, if we are aiming to change behavior, we should teach soft skills, like confidence to act, willingness to take risks, and propensity to plan. As someone who creates learning experiences on finance, I found this a breath of fresh air. Learning doesn’t (necessarily) lead to doing. Teaching someone something doesn’t mean that they bring that idea into their life. We don’t have to dwell on the movement of content from my brain to yours. We have license to bring into our teaching all of the inner and outer body experiences that lead people to do what they do. We can focus on habits, confidence, systems, and culture. We can give out templates and share links to “just in time” videos. In fact, we aren’t teaching lessons but facilitating action. Talking about facilitating action…. I was thrilled to receive in the mail this week my copy of Map It: The Hands-On Guide to Strategic Training Design by Cathy Moore. (Three cheers for her tagline: Let’s save the world from boring training!) Cathy tackles this issue of learning ≠ doing head on. Her Action Mapping has us defining a measurable goal and actions we can see in support of that goal. She invites us to develop a range of interventions—including but not limited to training. We think about the barriers holding folks back. We build in a lot of time to practice in authentic ways. Cathy’s approach has deeply influenced me in my work leading the teams that created Finance Unlocked, Boards in Gear, and other nonprofit toolkits. I appreciate her thought leadership guiding us in how best to facilitate action. I love the Ninjas. https://speakerdeck.com/cathymoore/design-lively-elearning-with-action-mapping?slide=9
- Ask Nancy: Audience EngagementI got an email this week that asked for my thoughts on audience engagement. I’m sharing a version of the exchange with you because engaged people are important when it comes to successful learning events. It’s no fun teaching unengaged participants. It’s no fun being an unengaged participant. Let’s see if we can turn this around. Dear Nancy, One of our speakers asked for help with audience engagement. She gives people opportunities to talk to each other and then report back to the group. They seem to want more than that. Any suggestions? Julie Dear Julie: This is a great question. There is both art and science to engagement. Some quick thoughts: The opening really matters. The first few minutes of the session sets the tone. I always start with some social interaction getting people to meet someone new. It warms up the room. I then make sure that people talk with someone on a topic related to the training within the first 15 minutes of the workshop. I tend to make it emotional and relevant to why they are there to get them emotionally invested in what’s coming next. The sooner you get them actively engaged in the conversation, the more likely they will stay engaged. What they are talking about matters. There is a thing in adult learning about doing the hard work when you are together. That means that a presenter thinks about what the hard work is prior to the session and builds in time for that hard work to happen during the workshop. In a fundraising workshop, for example, it is one thing to say that they need to reach out to 10 people they know who can give to their cause. It is another to give them time to make that list and share it with colleagues at their table. Not only will they leave with some of the work done, they will get feedback from their neighbors. (“I didn’t think about inviting my book club— great idea.”) And it may mean that you leave some of the content out to have time to do this. It can be hard to sacrifice content, but there is nothing less engaging than a monologue of information that goes on a little too long. Mixing up engagement matters. It is fine to have people talk with their neighbor some of the time. But it can get repetitive. What if their neighbor is someone not very helpful? What if their neighbor is a fellow staff or board member unable to offer a fresh perspective? I usually make them get up and talk with someone they don’t know at least once. I have them talk at their tables at least once. I even have them play a game if it seems appropriate. It depends on the length and topic of the workshop, but my goal is to mix it up so that they are talking with different people in different ways. The amount of reflection time matters. I make sure to give folks time throughout the presentation to connect what we are talking about with their own organization. Our board training, for example, has 5 chapters. After each chapter, I give them 2 minutes to think quietly about what we just talked about and write down one thing that connects with their work. I find that people appreciate the chance to think without having to talk with anyone. Usually I float around the tables to make myself available for the sideline questions that occur to people as they ponder what we covered. So often we are giving them lots of content to think about. They need time to absorb and connect. Thanks for asking such an important question. Let me know how it goes! Nancy
- Our Learning Pledge“What’s the ‘big idea’ for our conference?” Jim asked. “That kids need to be more engaged… actively involved in learning activities.” “And how are we starting?” “With your 90 minute keynote speech…”
-Opening page of 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong by John Antonetti and James GarverLast year, I attended a webinar on micro-learning… that was delivered over the course of an hour without break. Last week, I attended a workshop on strategies for a highly engaged nonprofit board. The speaker took his first break for audience engagement after 60 minutes. I do wonder if these presenters have any inkling that their dramatically ironic delivery drives people to their devices in ways that directly defeats their message. So it may be time to reaffirm our solemn pledge as people offering learning experiences to busy people. I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
- I will respect the hard-won scientific research of people who study learning, behavior, and psychology in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
- I will apply, for the benefit of anyone listening to me, all measures [that] are required, avoid those twin traps of talking too much and sharing too little reflection time.
- I will remember that there is art to learning as well as science, and that an emotional connection outweighs excessive outlay of content.
- I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the teaching skills of another are needed for someone to learn.
- I will prevent inaction whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to having to call a consultant in later.
- If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the job of teaching those who seek my wisdom.
- Emotions in Learning: Ok, but how do I do that?A few months ago, I presented to nonprofit colleagues about learning and the power of emotions. One said, “Okay, I get it. Emotions are important in learning. But how do we do that? It seems weird to overly emote in the middle of a training?” True. Don’t start howling in the middle of a training. Let’s think of it in a larger frame: How do we engage emotions in moving people to action? What role do emotions play as they form habits, change behavior, and bring learning into the life of their organizations? Here’s how, I say. We consider what we teach and how we teach. (Teacher folks call this curriculum and instruction; workshop presenters think in terms of content and presentation style. What and how.) WHAT WE TEACH Delivering an effective workshop starts with an understanding of the audience: who is sitting in those seats, what is their reality, and how do they feel about what you are trying to teach them. Adults come to learning with a lot more emotion than children do. They have developed a fear of math, a sense of overwhelm when it comes to sorting out complex human challenges (like nonprofit boards), or a feeling of powerlessness when talking about the law and compliance issues. They have a long memory about someone who did something, or of something they tried to no avail. Nonprofit folks also have deeply rooted commitment to fixing problems based on life experiences, whether positive or negative. They exude a passion for their mission, a heartfelt love of the work that sustains them through the work of raising money or volunteering long hours. Emotions both drive and discourage people from taking action. Emotions are really important to honor and harness in adult learning. That is why the design teams I led working on nonprofit board, finance, and law toolkits began with an understanding of the emotions that people bring to these topics. Here are some examples of how emotion was incorporated into these kits:
People tend to feel… fear overwhelm powerlessness When talking about . finance (yikes, money!) boards law and compliance To honor this feeling, I… Make them laugh; Use familiar language (i.e. family budgets) Use language that simplifies; Avoid the word should Use language of empowerment People tend to feel… When talking about . I can honor this feeling by
- We draw out their why. Simon Sinek explains the power of starting with why on his viral TED talk. Why grabs people by the heart, and it is the heart that motivates us to action.
- We demonstrate that we know where they are coming from. We show that we have been “in the trenches” ourselves, we do advance research, lead “right-off-the-bat” conversations that get them talking, and name and discuss the emotion that they are bringing to the topic today. We become an ally.
- We give hope. Often in the form of case studies or stories, we create the space where participants feel hope that they will do better because they came today. They see that others have done it, and they can do it too. They build confidence by seeing concrete, doable steps forward.
- We honor and celebrate diversity. There is a full range of diversity factors in any workshop, from demographic diversity to professional experience to the life cycle of the organizations represented in the room. It is impossible to present one workshop that satisfies the needs of all. One way to come closer to satisfying them, however, is to acknowledge the diversity and give permission for people to start from where they are. We invite connections between people that create space for mentoring or coaching.
- How to move people to actionA well designed conference is awesome, in the original sense of the word. It inspires Aim for Action to provide a structure for people to turn their ideas and into action. It calls us to understand and plan for our environment, identify four kinds of barriers, build a team, and integrate reflection into our lives. The stories of the conference participants put these elements into a rich context and gave perspective in ways that I deeply appreciate. I continue to think about environment, team, and reflection in particular.Awesome can also be overwhelming. Through the morning, participants peppered speakers and each other about action. How do you take action on these huge ideas? What’s our first step towards action? Action became an echo because of an overriding impatience with talking towards no result. I shared
- The environment related to poverty, race, and charity is one of the hardest in which to make progress. Some participants raised the issue, for example, of Walmart’s low wages driving workers to government assistance (SNAP, etc.) while being the leading receiver of SNAP dollars spent in stores, and also being a leading contributor to Feeding America, a hunger relief organization that in turn supplies food banks (reportedly used by Walmart workers). Deconstructing the vast and complicated food system requires a constellation of courageous individuals taking focused actions coordinated towards a larger goal. That goal isn’t just to understand and plan for the environment but to fundamentally change it.
- Keynote speaker Malik Yakini invited us to create study groups to unpack racism. Indeed, a team holds us accountable and gives support. The team he is calling us to create is one of racially diverse voices able to provide perspective beyond accountability and support. It is a team in which we are held accountable to the goal and the means by which we get there.
- Reflection is vital for groups like those gathered at this conference. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of Hope: “Through the process of reflection, individuals may become conscious of the realities other than the one into which they were socialized.” He taught us that we need time to discover the stories that deceive us. These include stories where more is better, even though we celebrate success when fewer people need the services of a food bank and fewer pounds of prepared foods are delivered distant miles. These include stories in which all gifts are appreciated, even though charity often undermines local solutions.
- Strategic Learning: Don’t leave action to chanceWe offer learning events to provide opportunities for people to get what they need to be more effective. Sometimes this goal is achieved, but often the transfer of learning into action is left to chance. A learning strategy connects the change that we are trying to make in the world — our larger organizational strategy — with activities most appropriate for the people we are focused on. It challenges us to think before and after about what will be different because of our learning activities. It creates a system that sustains action over time. In many ways that system is like a constellation. It connects the bright shiny objects we see — workshops, conferences, and webinars — to each other and to us. It also draws attention to the dark space around the luminous stars, quiet times in which we reflect and connect with peers. (The Incas saw life within these “dark constellations.”) It takes this full system of light and dark to create the shapes that generations recognize in the night sky. Likewise, it takes learning events and an intentional structure of support and reflection to move big ideas into action. This graphic is designed for associations and others thinking about how to create a learning strategy. It can also be downloaded as a pdf here.
- Reflections on a GraduationMy daughter graduates from high school this week. Nearly 18 years anticipating what she will become, and now she is. It seems like just yesterday that we sat at the dining room table, me sewing on my machine surrounded by shapes of fabric, she leaning over her textbook swearing that geometry had no practical use in real life. Much of a child’s education is focused on amassing knowledge for a future that is impractically elusive. In many ways it is like the other class about which we argued its practicality, physics. Our kids gather potential energy to one day to shift into the kinetic energy of doing something bold and important. That day always seemed far in the distance. Being a parent during a child’s graduation year is like observing the water’s edge as the tide recedes. First one spit of water, then a second, a hermit crab pokes out of a hole, and then the whole beach quivers with movement. Within a year, our transition started with a college application, then drivers ed, soon moving out, voting, and getting a first job. A new anticipation sets in as we see our child’s learning turn into practiced, practical action.
- 3 Ways to Break the Nonprofit Scarcity Trap (Part 2)It is not hard to slip into a scarcity mindset this time of year. The world can seem flat when we get tired. (Luckily Memorial Day Weekend is right around the corner!) Which brings us to Part 2 of our conversation about the scarcity trap. I wrote last week about the research on how poor people make decisions. I imagined how this research could inform how we work with small, underfunded nonprofits. Specifically, what if we could take what we know about tunneling, slack, and bandwidth in poor people and use it to set small nonprofits up for success.
- AUTOMATE GOOD DECISIONS
- SAVE TIME
- REDUCE BANDWIDTH
- Scarcity and What We Can Do About It (Part 1)We talk a lot about the scarcity mindset in nonprofits. It is that belief that nonprofits let limitations define them. They don’t have money, time, energy, knowledge, you name it. It is a wonder that they get anything done. We try to administer the antidote to the scarcity mindset: a mindset centered on abundance and gratitude. We offer webinars, workshops, keynote speeches, and blog posts on ways to defeat the scarcity scourge. But we don’t systematically bring research about scarcity into our work making nonprofits strong. We don’t draw on behavioral economics and psychology in constructing programs designed to change the ecosystem in which they work. We celebrate nonprofits for their vital role in community and society, but we leave the science of scarcity to global NGOs and domestic poverty fighters. We don’t connect what we know about poor individuals and their behavior to poor organizations and the decisions they make. Imagine if we did. What if we took what the best minds teach us about human behavior and applied it to the people doing really important work. What if we took the practices that nonprofits are using with the poor and used them on the nonprofits themselves. From Scarcity Mindset to Scarcity Trap As much as people talk about nonprofits having a scarcity mindset, in reality most of them exist within a scarcity trap. A scarcity mindset is a way of thinking. But when thoughts lead to actions repeated over and over—and many minds repeat similar actions across a community—a scarcity trap takes shape. A self-defeating behavior increasingly narrows options to break free. The word “trap” conjures up the image of a mechanism that snaps shut and holds its victim fest. Sure—you can change your way of thinking and break free. But it is hard when outside forces keep you in place.
When you’re really desperate for something, you can focus on it so obsessively there’s no room for anything else. The time-starved spend much of their mental energy juggling time. People with little money worry constantly about making ends meet.
Scarcity takes a huge toll. It robs people of insight. And it helps to explain why, when we’re in a hole, we sometimes dig ourselves even deeper.
Hidden Brain’s Shankar Vendantam introducing The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck In A Hole by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar ShafirThe scarcity being discussed here involves poor people. But they might as well be describing the people I work with—the leaders and volunteers of small nonprofits, desperate for funding, starved of time, and worried about making ends meet. Their success is limited—or at least they perceive it to be limited—by the resources they have around them. 3 Characteristics of Scarcity Traps Mullainathan and Shafir describe three characteristics of scarcity traps:
- Tunneling: Individuals have limited focus on the current challenge or problem. They show an inability to see broadly and into the distance. They see what is right in front of them.
- Slack: Individuals have little to no margin for change or recovery. They lack time to accommodate shifts in schedules or new opportunities.
- Bandwidth: Individuals can only handle so much brain effort. They experience a reduced ability to process information.
- What about the situation in which they work contributes to their underperformance?
- How will we change our behavior to reduce their perception of scarcity?
- How can we design programs that respond to tunneling, that put information right in front of them when they need it?
- How can we design programs that recognize the real limits on their time?
- How can we reduce the bandwidth taken up by tasks outside of their core interest?