Customer Service Matters

A couple of weeks ago, I moved from an apartment into my first house. It wasn’t a long move – a couple of miles – but it was a big one. And, like all moves, there were things that went very well and things that went very badly.

Something that went very well was the physical move itself. The Two Men and a Truck crew was awesome. They got the move completed in less time than they had estimated and saved us a lot of money. Ten out of ten. Would recommend.

Something that went very badly was moving my internet service. We use CenturyLink. And they screwed up. They screwed up so badly that I didn’t have internet service for seven days. I posted the story of my experience with CenturyLink customer service on Facebook. You should read it.

Here’s the tl;dr: When I scheduled my move with CenturyLink, they should have sent me a new modem that was compatible with my new service; they didn’t. It took me about six hours over two days, talking to eleven people, to get a new modem sent to me. And another half an hour on the third day, talking to two more people, to get a paltry credit on my account.

Thankfully, the problem is resolved now. But it caused me to ask a question: what would good customer service have looked like in this situation? In other words, what can I learn from this?

The problem started with the initial phone call. That person should have sent me a new modem that was compatible with my new internet service. In fact, according to one of the tech support people, my order had a note saying that I needed a new modem. But no modem was sent and the person I ordered the service from told me I didn’t need a new modem. Since I leased my old modem from CenturyLink, this would have been a great opportunity for an automated process. CenturyLink’s system should have compared the modem they knew I had to the service they knew I was getting and flagged the order to make sure that the right equipment got to me.

But mistakes happen and flags are missed. Once the problem was discovered, the next place where it could have been solved was tech support (Person 5; P5 for short). P5 diagnosed the problem correctly: I needed a different modem. But he couldn’t solve the problem by sending a modem to me. The two tasks – diagnosing a technical problem and ordering equipment – were siloed in two different departments. If P5 had been empowered to solve the problem, the process would have ended much earlier and I would have been a disappointed – but not angry – customer.

The third point where customer experience could have been improved was at the end of the process during my conversation with customer service (P13). There are two different perspectives to any customer experience. On the one hand, P13 spoke to me for a few minutes during her normal job. To her, I was missing a few days of service, and it was only right that I not pay for the service that I didn’t have. On the other hand, I had talked to person after person over the course of hours and days. I had spent time, money, and energy on this single problem. To me, it was only right that I not pay for service and that restitution be made for what I had lost. Doing only what was fair from the company’s perspective led them with an angry customer instead of an annoyed one.

These two points come together in one last lesson. Every time I spoke to a new person, I had to explain the problem again. Often, I had to verify my account again, giving some combination of my name, address, last billed amount, last four digits of my social security number, and so on. For each CenturyLink representative, this was a problem that began with me explaining the problem and ended a few minutes later with them transferring me elsewhere. For me, it was a seamless experience of being denied a solution to my problem. It was bad enough that my final tech support representative (P9) wanted to start with the first diagnostic steps. A better experience would have included information being passed from one representative to the next, even through something as simple as notes in my file. It also would have included passing my calls and chats from one person to the next, instead of leaving it to the customer to contact the next representative in line.

One final point: while tech support seemed interested in figuring out the problem, customer service was interested in selling me something new. Every customer service person I spoke to verified my account and then let me know that they’d take a look and try to find anything that would be beneficial to me. Even P13 suggested that I could save money by bundling my internet with television service. Customer service representatives are probably judged by how many new sales they make. But that means they’re not really servicing customers. They’re selling. And when someone is encountering a problem – especially a problem caused by CenturyLink – that’s a huge failing.

Of course, CenturyLink is a telecommunications company. That means I don’t have very many alternatives. If I want to do things like post to this blog, I’m stuck being their customer (or a customer to a company that’s just as bad).

But I work in the nonprofit sector. I work in the church. I’m a fundraiser. And that means that the people I rely on – donors and volunteers – have a lot of choices. They could spent their time, talent, and treasure at any number of other organizations. And that means that it’s important that nonprofit organizations – not just mine, but every nonprofit organization – prioritize customer service.

So, let’s take some time to look at our customer service systems. Let’s think about what happens when we make a mistake. Let’s be better than CenturyLink. No, that bar is too low. Let’s be infinitely better than CenturyLink.

NANOE Advocates for Abolishing Your Board

Somehow, I got on the mailing list of the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives (NANOE). The brainchild of Jimmy LaRose, NANOE is part of the charity skeptics movement that I don’t often talk about. It’s a champion of the idea that the nonprofit sector should be largely replaced by a socially conscious version of the for profit sector.

The latest email I got from NANOE outlined LaRose’s vision for nonprofit board members. According to LaRose, ‘boardsmanship’ is not about governance, visioning, policy making, or volunteerism.1It’s also clearly not about gender-inclusivity. It’s about advice and accountability. Specifically, it’s about doing a weird handful of things:

Complying with IRS regulations. That seems reasonable, but remember that the board shouldn’t be governing or making policy. So, I’m not sure how they should make sure that the organization is complying with IRS regulations.

Supporting a strong CEO by hiring them, evaluating them, supporting their vision, and providing them with expert advice. NANOE believes that actual power should rest with the strong CEO. That is the person who should determine the course of the organization.

Attending three meetings each year, and approving the meeting agendas. And, of course, getting paid for those meetings. NANOE recommends a board of six people, getting paid $300 per hour for teleconference calls and $1,000 per day for in person meetings. Plus expenses. That means a one hour conference call would cost the organization $1,800. And a one day meeting would cost the organization $6,000 plus expenses!

Approving and amending by-laws. But, again, not making policy.

Choosing and reviewing independent financial and program audits. But, again, not making policy. And, since these are independent audits (and I’m an advocate for independent audits), this really means deciding who to pay for them.

And, according to NANOE, this group should include an entrepreneur (as the chair), a program expert (as the secretary), an accountant (as the treasurer), a lawyer, a communications expert, and a nonprofit expert.

Let’s be absolutely clear: this is not a board. This is a group of paid professionals supporting the executive director’s vision and providing advice for realizing that vision. These are consultants.

Now, I have nothing against consultants; I provide consulting services. But this is a recipe for disaster.

First, NANOE is suggesting abolishing any oversight for the executive director. Notice that no one who the nonprofit serves is on this board. No donors or volunteers are on this board. No members of the general public on this board. Only experts are on the board. And they are commissioned to support the executive. Since they are not empowered to set vision or policy, this severely limits their ability to serve as a check on a ‘strong CEO’.

Second, by suggesting that board members be paid, NANOE comes close to advocating for a conflict of interest. Let’s imagine for a moment that the organization’s donors are from a rare breed that won’t revolt at the idea of a conference call costing $1,800. Paying board members – especially at a generous rate like $300 per hour – creates a risk that board members will see service as an opportunity for self-enrichment.

Together, both of these ideas create an environment that will erode trust in the nonprofit sector. Donors, volunteers, and others are not going to accept the idea that an unsupervised CEO is using their donations to pay a crew of consultants. And they shouldn’t. Members of our communities should be able to trust that the organizations they support are using their gifts of time, talent, and treasure for the the greater good; not for personal gain.

There are bigger issues here, of course. NANOE isn’t just advocating for replacing your board with consultants. It’s advocating for remaking the nonprofit sector in the image of the for-profit one. And that’s a huge problem. But it’s a problem that starts here: with the idea that nonprofits should be about money over mission.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Three Thoughts on Technology (Especially in Fundraising)

Technology is a tool.

I have worked for too many places that serve their technology rather than the other way around. Real world practices end up being determined by what their technology – and especially their databases – will allow them do to. And this has meant some bizarre practices. How weird is that? I mean, would anyone accept a hammer that required you to be standing on one leg and facing away from the nail in order to use it? No. And yet we too quickly become willing to allow our technology to determine how we do things… even if that means we do things in ways that make no sense.

Or we end up not doing things at all. Database doesn’t handle moves management? It doesn’t get done. Can handle event management? We end up not tracking expenses… and thinking our events perform far better than they do. Why is that acceptable?

Obviously, there’s a relationship between our practices and our tools. Hammers leave callouses. Heavier tools can strain our muscles and shape our backs. So, yeah, to a degree our technology is going to influence our practices – and the shape of our resource development strategies. But rather than blithely accepting this, we should acknowledge and respond to how our technology influences us.

Tools are there to make life easier.

Following on the first point, look at your technology and ask this question: is this making things easier? I’ve seen organizations that have entire staff positions dedicated to being able to do things the way their technology wants it done – because it’s so complicated it takes an entire position to work it and work around it. Why is that okay?

It’s not!

If a tool isn’t making life easier – or, worse, is making life harder – get rid of it.

The single biggest problem I see with organizations and their technology is inertia. We get used to doing things the way our technology demands they be done. We get used to culling through mailing lists by hand because our database can’t handle households. We get used to the shape our offices take as they form, like a pearl, around the grain of sand that is bad technology And eventually… we can’t imagine doing things any other way!

Let your real world practices and strategies determine what your technology needs to do – that is: what it needs to help your with.

If it’s doing those things, good, you’ve made excellent technology choices.

If it isn’t, get rid of it and find another solution.

Some Thoughts on MultiState Nonprofit Registration

If you’re part of a small nonprofit organization that solicits gifts in multiple states, you’re probably a little familiar with multistate nonprofit registration. This is the requirement that nonprofit organizations that are based in one state and ask for gifts in another state have to register with the second state.

So, for example, an organization based in Davenport, Iowa, that sends a direct mail appeal across the Mississippi River to its neighbor, Rock Island, Illinois, must also register as a soliciting organization in Illinois.

Now, just so we have some clarity on this and don’t cause anyone to panic, a few notes. First, churches are often exempt from registration. So a congregation in Davenport that sends a pledge form to a member in Rock Island probably does not need to register. Second, an organization doesn’t need to register in order to receive gifts. If someone from Rock Island sends a gift to the nonprofit in Davenport, that doesn’t mean the organization in Davenport needs to register. The organization only needs to register if it solicits gifts in another state. Third, there’s no firm ruling on how this affects online solicitations like emails, social media, or a nice shiny donate button on a website.

Multistate registration is required by something like 38 states plus the District of Columbia. For organizations that solicit in just a couple of states, that might be no big deal. For organizations that solicit in a lot of states – organizations that have a national donor base – it is a tremendous challenge. Even though there is a movement for a unified registration form, some states haven’t agreed to it, and the states that have agreed to it often require additional forms that are state-specific. In addition to the forms, of course, there are supplemental materials that need to be collected and fees that need to be paid.

For a large organization, this might be feasible (though I won’t claim that it would be easy). A sizable accounting department, with help from the development office, might be able to take care of these registrations in the normal course of business. For small or mid-size organizations, however, this is a serious challenge.

To give an example, I know of an organization with a national donor base that could not handle the work of all of these registrations in house. There simple wasn’t the staff with the necessary expertise (not to mention time). They hired a very reputable company that handles this work for them. The total cost – the service fee to the company, the registration fees to states, and other fees – was about $10,000.

That represents less than one percent of that organization’s budget (it’s about the same amount they actually spend on direct mail appeals each year). It also represents children not fed, families not housed, people not clothed, case management not provided, homes not repaired, and dozens of other tasks not completed. For a smaller organization, with a national donor base, this would be debilitating.

I’m sure that the logic behind multistate registration is to protect unwary residents from being scammed by fake ‘charities’. I’m also suspect that some states see this as an opportunity to bring in a little revenue. But I am also absolutely sure that there is a better way to do this. For example, what if every organization that is registered with the IRS was exempt from these requirements? The IRS could share its list of legitimate organizations with the states. That would protect the unwary and remove a burden on nonprofits that would much rather use those registration fees to help people.

So, perhaps rather than a movement for a unified form that would be used as part of the package sent to some of the states, we need a real push for national — and only national — nonprofit registration.

Fundraising and the Chart of Accounts

Every fundraiser knows that data is important. Knowing our supporters is vital, and what we need to know more than anything is how to ask them, when to ask them, and how much to ask them for. The best way to do that is by observing their past behavior. People, as a friend of mine likes to say, are reliably themselves; all things being equal, people will tend to do what they’ve always done. And if we know what someone has always done, we can subtly make other things not equal and try to change that behavior.

This is why your database is so important. It’s an ongoing record of what your donors, volunteers, and others do. A clean database is a truly amazing tool.

Of course, databases are rarely clean. I’d even say that they’re often dirty.

There are perfectly normal reasons that databases get dirty. Data entry errors mess up titles and spelling. Normal moves mess up address, phone number, and email accuracy. Deaths mess up… well, everything.

And there a lot of services that will help you clean those things up. But something that’s not often discussed is the chart of accounts. The chart of accounts is a list of all of the accounts in the general ledger of the organization: all of the cash, securities, accounts receivable, liabilities, payable wages, revenue, and so on. It’s usually kept and maintained by the financial people… and what makes sense to them doesn’t always make sense to the development folks.

Let me explain.

In development, we care about few basic things about every gift. On the one hand, we want to know about the gift itself: how much it was, when it came in, and so on. On the other hand, we want to know how the gift is related to three things:

The constituentThis is the person or organization who made the gift.

The appeal. This is what we did to get the gift.

The fund. This is the purpose for which the constituent intended the gift.

Ideally, we want every gift to have these three relationships. And we don’t want these three things to have any overlap. So, for example, if our unrestricted gifts go into the unrestricted fund, we don’t want any events to have a fund. What would we do if an event raised unrestricted money? We want our events to be appeals.

How does this get messed up? One organization I know had more than 150 funds in its development database. Some of them were real funds. A lot of them were appeals or constituents or both. One ‘fund’ was only for unrestricted dollars from one particular funder, another was for one grant from one funder, another was from unrestricted dollars from a single event, and so on. Meanwhile, all restricted gifts from individuals went into a single ‘restricted’ fund (the actual restrictions were put in a note). When the leadership of the organization wanted to know how much was raised for a particular program, it had to know all of the ‘funds’ – which grants, which events, and so on – that were related to that program and search through the notes! When development staff wanted to find donors to particular programs, they had to do through the same process! A lot of time could have been saved – and more accurate analysis provided – by cleaning up the chart of accounts.

The fact is that the finance office had been making all of the decisions about how to enter gift data in the fundraising database. And while I love the finance people I’ve worked with over the years, their skill set and priorities are very different from the skill set and priorities that development people have. The system that had been put it place didn’t work.

And cleaning it up wasn’t easy.

Clean data is important. It’s the only way for a fundraiser to keep track of an organization’s relationships with thousands of donors. And keeping your list of funds clean is critical to understanding donor behavior and interest.

So, since it’s still early in the new year, here’s a resolution. Sit down with your director of development and ask them, “If you could remake the list of funds that you deal with, what would you do?”

It will make a world of difference.

3 Big Reasons to Stop Asking for Salary Histories

Last week, I saw a posting for a high level job that, along with other things, asked applicants to include their salary history. I know that this is a common practice in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, but it’s a bad practice. It’s a bad practice for a lot of reasons, but here are three big ones.

First, It Takes Agency Away from the Applicant

Salary histories are used for many reasons, and one reason is to weed out applicants who might be too expensive. But it’s a weird way to figure out if an applicant actually would be too expensive to hire. After all, an applicant who is thinking about leaving a high paid position might be happy to take a pay cut in a position for a cause she’s more passionate about. Alternatively, she might be willing to take the pay cut in exchange for additional vacation time. By using a history of high salaries to eliminate potential candidates, an organization might be missing an opportunity.

The point is, the decision of whether a candidate can be happy with what an organization is offering should involve the candidate.

Second, It Ensures That Historically Underpaid People Remain Underpaid

It’s no secret that some groups – racial and ethnic minorities, women, etc. – are paid less than their white or male (or white male) counterparts. Basing a new position’s salary on the candidate’s salary history only continues the practice. A woman who is paid 23% less than her male colleagues, for example, will only continue to be paid 23% less as long as each new salary is based on the previous salary.

Using salary histories only serves to perpetuate injustice and inequality.

Third, You Already Know What You’re Willing to Pay

The fact is, when an organization posts a position, it knows what it’s willing to pay. If a salary history puts a candidate too low, it’s (hopefully) unlikely to lower the salary range to fit. If a salary history puts a candidate too high, it’s (almost certainly) not going to increase the salary range. Instead, the organization will see where in the range each candidate might fit. Since asking for the history doesn’t – or, at least, shouldn’t – change anything on the organization’s end, asking for the history is unnecessary.

This, by the way, also applies to the terrible practice of asking candidates what salary they feel is appropriate without telling them what salary the organization thinks is appropriate. We can be more transparent than that.

Conclusion: Post the Salary Range in the Job Description

So, how can your organization make sure that it’s not making decisions for candidates, that it’s not perpetuating low salaries for historically underpaid groups, and that it’s being honest about what it’s willing to pay? Post the salary range in the job description.

When the salary range is in the job description, the candidate can decide if she’s happy with the range. A candidate who applies for the job is telling the organization that she’s okay with the potential salary.

When the salary range is in the job description, the candidate doesn’t have to worry about being paid less because she’s been paid less throughout her career. She knows that the range has nothing to do with her history.

When the salary range is in the job description, it tells the candidate what the organization thinks the work is worth. And that tells the candidate a lot about the organization.

So don’t ask for salary histories. Just post the salary range in the job description.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek is one of those books that appears again and again on lists of leadership books that everyone should read. And before I get to the review, I want to point out two shortcomings that I often find in books in the leadership genre. First, many leadership books could fit in the space of a few blog posts or newsletter articles. Second, they often reduce complex historical figures and events to bullet point lessons in leadership. They are, in short, often bloated and reductive. And while those criticisms are also true of Start With Why, they aren’t really criticisms of this book. They’re simply statements about the genre that this book participates in.

With that out of the way, I’ll get to what Start With Why is about. Because despite the shortcomings, there’s something important going here. Sinek has a surprisingly simple theory about the difference between leaders and those who lead: leaders start with why. And he also has a simple theory about where things go wrong: we lose sight of the why and focus on the how and the what.

I’ll break this out into a few main points in a moment, but first a note on terminology. One division that Sinek makes is between ‘leaders’ and ‘those who lead’. Unfortunately, because of the way the language works, he uses the word ‘leaders’ in two ways: to indicate those who he classifies as ‘leaders’ and to indicate those who he classifies as ‘those who lead’.

What he actually means is something more like this. On the one hand, there are those who dominate their fields or who are in charge of industries, movements, or companies. On the other hand, there are those who provide true leadership. The latter may or may not dominate or be in charge. So, for example, Apple is not the leading manufacturer of home computers, but the company does provide real leadership in the computer industry (and other industries, as well).

Now, on to the main points.

The Golden Circle

The key to Sinek’s theory is the Golden Circle. Sinek will try to make this circle do a lot of work. He’ll try to connect it to the limbic and neocortical parts of the brain, he’ll turn it into a cone that mirrors organizational structures, he’ll make it a megaphone. All of that seems like a bit much. The really important thing is the circle itself.

The Golden Circle is three concentric circles labelled, from outside to inside: What, How, and Why.

The what is the thing that most of us can articulate: “Everyone is easily able to describe the products or services a company sells or the job function they have within that system. WHATs are easy to identify.” (Sinek, 39)

The how isn’t as obvious as the what. It is one thing that sets the what of an organization apart: the differentiating value proposition, the unique selling proposition, etc.

The why is even less obvious, and few organizations (or people) are able to articulate it: “By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” (Sinek, 39)

Again, the language here can be confusing. The what is usually simple, but the how and the why can be a little confusing. The how, for example, isn’t necessarily a process; it’s simply a difference between the what that we produce and the what that other people or organizations produce. So, for example, two companies might have the same what (computers, for example). One company produces computers that are cheap, utilitarian, and mass marketed (their how). The other produces computers that are expensive, elegant, and boundary pushing (their how). While the processes to produce these two categories are obviously going to be different, those processes aren’t really the how; the how is found in what makes each what distinct.

The why of these two companies is also different. The first company might make its cheap, utilitarian computers because it firmly believes that having a computer levels the playing field between the small entrepreneur and the giant corporation. It makes the computers it makes so that everyone has access. The second company makes more expensive, innovative computers because it believes in pushing the boundaries of the technology. It makes the computers it makes so that the technology improves (and, eventually, those innovations become so widespread that the first company is using them, too).

This is the Golden Circle: here’s what we do, here’s how it is different from similar whats, and here’s the animating force behind this whole project.

Leading and Communicating from Why

Sinek’s big idea is that true leadership and effective communication start from the why (and fall apart when they start from somewhere else). There is a reason that Apple (Sinek uses Apple as an example a lot) commands a loyal following and can move seamlessly from computers to mp3 players to phones to tablets in a way that its competitors can’t: purchasers aren’t just buying Apple’s products, they’re buying into Apple’s vision.

Leaders lead from why. The how and the what follow from and serve the why. So, for example. Southwest Airlines has a why that’s something like ‘serving common people’: in an era when very few people travelled by air, they wanted to provide air travel to people who thought it was outside of their price range. They weren’t competing with the big airlines, but with the car and bus and train. (Sinek, 70). What they did was provide air travel. How they did it was by adopting best practices while keeping travel cheap, fun, and simple. Everything fed the vision of providing air travel to common people.

And people loved it. Southwest fliers are so fiercely loyal that after September 11, 2001, when airlines were having huge financial trouble, they sent money to the company so that it could keep going.

Beyond that, when other companies tried to imitate Southwest, they failed. United and Delta could do the same things in the same way, but their customers hadn’t bought into the same vision. People who flew Southwest weren’t going to defect to Delta. And people who were loyal to Delta were loyal to what Delta already did, not to a new, cheap, simple subsidiary. What people follow isn’t the what or the how. It’s the why.

When I talk to people about fundraising, I sometimes say something like this: we often say that we want to sit down with people face-to-face, but what we really want to do is stand with people shoulder-to-shoulder. We want to to be looking at the same vision with our donors, staff, clients, etc., so that we can see the same goal and help each other get there.

When It Falls Apart

As Sinek points out, plenty of leaders and organizations begin with clear whys, but as time goes by things fall apart. He goes into detail on two ways that this happens, and I want to add a third.

The first is that they step outside of their why. Sinek’s example is Volkswagen. Volkswagen had built their why around the idea of providing well-engineered cars to common people. So, of course, in 2004 they introduced a $70,000 luxury car. According to Sinek, it didn’t work (though it was produced through March of this year and a second generation model is on the slate) because it didn’t fit with Volkswagen’s why. Despite being an excellent car and being manufactured by Volkswagen, it wasn’t… well, a Volkswagen.

The second is that they become obsessed with the what (and maybe the how) and start ignoring the why. Sinek’s example here is Walmart. In Sinek’s version of the Walmart story, Sam Walton founded the company with a vision of service to his community: it helped people by providing jobs and offering low priced products. After Walton passed and the company moved on, it became obsessed with simply making lots of money by keeping prices low. And they did this even if it meant hurting employees and customers. Walmart became obsessed with the what (and a little bit with the how) at the expense of its why.

The third – that I’m adding and that’s more about people than organizations – returns to a point I made earlier: they confuse leading with being in charge. The problem here isn’t necessarily about knowledge. The person who is in charge might really know and understand the what and the how and the why. The problem here is about helping other people see the vision. The person who is in charge can tell others what to do and how to do them so that they’re distinct from similar whats; but they don’t articulate the why and they don’t get others to buy into the vision.

All three of these drift away from a clear, lived understanding of the why and make the message (and product) less compelling. Volkswagen customers aren’t primed to buy a luxury vehicle. Walmart has become synonymous with greed and corruption. People in charge end up wondering how they can be leaders when they have no followers. When the why gets lost in the shuffle, the organization stumbles.

What Gets Measured, Gets Done

There’s one final thing to note. This is based on a common business principle (and Sinek says it outright): what gets measured, gets done. To lead from why, we need the ways that measure results to also be based in why. Sinek’s example looks at two debt collection agencies. One measures its success based on how much money each collector brought in. This turned those collectors – normally nice people – into terrible, threatening people. The other measures its success based on how many thank you notes the collectors wrote. This reinforced the culture that its owner wanted to build, meant that the collectors could remain gracious people, and resulted in more collections!

We often measure results based on our what (and maybe our how). In business, this means measuring success by how much money earned or how many units moved. In fundraising, this means measuring success by how much money raised. But when we measure on those bases, we lose sight of the why and become less effective. We need to ask how we can measure and encourage our why as well as our what and our how.


There’s a lot that I’ve left out here. As I wrote earlier, Sinek tries to make the Golden Circle do a lot of work: connecting it to the brain (the why and how to the limbic system, for example) and making it a cone and a megaphone. But those aren’t the important parts of Start With Why. In many ways, what Sinek is doing is expanding on the idea of the Hedgehog Concept defined by Jim Collins in Good to Great: n disciplined focus on doing one thing. For Sinek, that thing is the why.

There are moments in Start With Why when I wonder if Sinek got a bit too focused on the what (writing a book) and the how (about the power of why) and lost some sight of the why (to help people create long-lasting success). The organization of the book leaves something to be desired, and the huge number of examples leaves each of them a bit shallow. But the key point remains compelling: success – and leadership – starts with why.


One of my pet peeves is the marketing tactic I call ‘free-not-free.’

For example, a nonprofit consulting firm or software company might offer a ‘free’ white paper with research and advice on fundraising, social media, web design, or a dozen other subjects. All you have to do is enter your contact information in the little form.

What you expect is cutting edge research and professional advice on a real problem. And maybe a welcome email and the occasional update from that company. At most, a weekly newsletter.

What you actually get is a nice infographic or booklet of information you could have found on Google. And a sales call from that company. And daily emails advertising products and workshops and webinars and conferences.

That’s free-not-free. You’re not paying money. You’re paying time and annoyance.

And look, I get why companies do it: it’s an easy way to build a customer list. The company puts some light research out there; 10,000 people download the paper and put their info in the form; and if just 1% of them become customers, that’s 100 new customers at $10 a month. Over a year, that’s $12,000 in new revenue over the course of a year. And that’s if the company only does it once.

But it’s also a lousy thing to do. So, if you’re tempted to do something that’s free-not-free, step away from that ledge. Instead of saying that the white paper or infographic or booklet is free, tell us that we’re going to get a sales call and how often we can expect emails.

After all, isn’t that the kind of treatment you would like to receive?

Four Steps to Choosing Your Next Donor Database

Every day, some huge number of nonprofit organizations is looking for a new donor database solution. I know this because they come to forums I frequent and ask, “What donor management system should my organization buy?”

It’s an impossible question to answer. Every organization is different and has different needs. And there are a lot of donor management systems out there. Playing matchmaker – without knowing a lot of organizational details – isn’t an option (and wouldn’t be ethical).

But there are steps that every organization can take to separate the wheat from the chaff and make the right decision for themselves. I’ve been through a donor database change at every organization I’ve worked for, so let me show you my four steps to choosing a donor database.

Make Your List

Yes, there are some things that every database is going to do, and there are some things that every organization needs. But once you’re past the basics, what does your organization need? Do you need to track pledges? Manage events? Compose and send mass emails? Generate segmented mailing lists? Track online peer-to-peer fundraisers?

Every organization has different needs, and you need to know yours.

The first step in choosing a new donor database is making a list of the features you want and need, as well as features you have no use for. I recommend ranking those features as well. A simple four point scale works well:

  • Features that we need
  • Features that are important but not necessary
  • Features that are desired but not important
  • Features that you don’t have any use for

The point, of course, is to know what you’re looking for before you start looking at flashy demos and listening to salespeople. You don’t want to discover that you’re missing a vital feature – or that you’re paying for features you’re not going to use – after you’ve signed a contract.

Schedule a Live Demo

Almost nothing beats a live demo when it comes to understanding a database. When I say ‘live demo’, I don’t just mean a demo where you’re seeing someone show you the software. I mean one where you can have a conversation about the software; one where you can ask questions and get answers.

This is where your list really comes to life. If you have a feature you need (or even want), ask to see that feature demonstrated. If you need to track grants for your organization, ask the demonstrator to input and report on a grant. If you need an event registration form on your website, ask the demonstrator to show you how the software will handle that.

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, the same basic rule applies: show, don’t tell.

Also be sure to ask about pricing, support, training, conversion costs, and the roadmap for the future of the software. More companies are moving to a software as a service model, and you’re signing up for a relationship, not just a product.

Play in the Sandbox

The only thing that beats a live demo is the chance to use the software. A sandbox is a live version of the database with actual data – usually dummy data – already in it. Ask if there’s a sandbox that you can access and, if there is, play in it!

This is your chance to try to do all of those things you need to do. Be sure to try everything. If you’re going to have to enter a hundred new constituents from your annual event, make sure that you can do that. If there’s a report you have to generate – even if it’s just once a year – try to create it. If you need to send an email based on whether the constituent has opened a previous email or made a gift in the last three month, make sure that’s possible.

And if you’re not the only person who will be using the database, share it! The people who will be entering information or generating reports need to be comfortable with the system, and may have insight that you lack.

Talk to Other Users

The greatest advocate – and the greatest critic – is the end user. Every company should be willing to give you a list of organizations that use their software (and maybe even some who recently left). Talk to people on that list!

Ask people who actually use the software on a day-to-day basis about their experience. What’s been the best thing? What’s been the worst? What workarounds have they needed? What hasn’t worked as expected? How’s the support? Listen to their answers and try to get a variety of perspectives.


There’s no such thing as the perfect database that will do everything you want exactly the way you want it. But there are, more than likely, a handful that will be close. These steps won’t guarantee that you’ll know exactly which product to buy. But they will help you narrow it down to the best.

And isn’t the best what your organization deserves?

Minute Wise, Month Foolish

It’s an easy trap to fall into. One day, a crisis pops up and you need to solve it now. In fact, you need to solve it yesterday. So you get to work. While you’re working on that crisis, another crisis arises. There’s no time now to address the second problem, so it gets put on the back burner. But now there’s added pressure. As soon as you finish dealing with the first problem, you have to move onto the second. But by that time, problems three through seven have come on the scene.

Now you’re in a bad pattern, hopping from one crisis to the next and always with another one on the horizon.

After a while, a new culture sets in: the culture of now.

In the face of scarcity – including scarcity of time – we all tend to tunnel. Scarcity focuses our attention on the immediate at the cost of the distant. When we’re busy, that means we focus on now almost obsessively. And that focus on now comes at the expense of the future.

And that makes our organizations weaker.

But there’s an alternative.

I think about processes by nature. I’m will work furiously to solve an immediate problem, but then I have an irresistible need to sit down and figure out how to never have that problem again. That may take more time right now, but it saves time, reduces stress, and increases efficiency in the long run. Just like the person who spends a little more money now on a product that won’t need to be replaced as soon as its cheaper counterpart, a person who spends a little more time now finds that she can spend less time later.

Now, I realize that I’m in a position of privilege. I don’t work in an office where people can poke their heads in and hand me time-consuming projects. I have a fair amount of control over my schedule. There are busy seasons and quiet seasons. So it’s often the case that I can take on projects that would otherwise be neglected. That’s a gift.

But I think many more of us can set aside time to think strategically about how we can improve processes at our organizations. From time to time, we can pick a crisis that we faced and ask what would need to change so that we never had that crisis again. We can set a time for that kind of thinking, just as we would set time for a meeting: we’re going to take an hour, or a morning, or a day each week or month or quarter to change how we operate.

And, eventually, we’ll be able to leave the scarcity mindset behind. At least, we’ll be able to leave that mindset behind when it comes to scarcity of time. We’ll be able to stop being minute wise, but month foolish.

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