When things suck: How to find the bright spots and get it done

Bang head here

Bang head here

Sometimes working in the nonprofit tech world sucks. I'll be the first to admit it. For all the wonderful feelings you get, for all those days when you feel like you REALLY ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE, there are a myriad of frustrations and committees and things just not getting better, both at the organizational and global levels.

Frustrations are felt more keenly by people in the nonprofit sector, because for us, it isn't just a job: it's about changing the world. And when a bad management decision impedes us from doing what we think will accomplish that, it hits hard. We all have days like that. Days where we feel like there's nothing we can do to change things, days when our dream website, app, social media campaign or fundraising strategy gets shot down, and we have to simply move forward. What can you do to pick up the pieces? How can you hack your brain to take a step back and try to find a new way to overcome the obstacles in your path?

At the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference, all participants were given an amazing gift: A copy of the book "Switch" by Dan and Chip Heath. And even better, we got to see a keynote presented by Chip Heath on the subject matter of the book: how to change things when change is hard.



"Switch" turned out to be one of the most life-changing books I've ever read. One of the ways in which the book shows you can create change is to "find the bright spots." It's a radically different way to approach a problem. Instead of focusing on what ISN'T working and changing that, the book tells us to focus on the things that ARE working, and do those things more.

The example in the book is about Jerry Sternin, who was sent to Vietnam in 1990 to combat childhood malnutrition…and was given six months to make a difference. Malnutrition "was the result of an intertwined set of problems: Sanitation was poor. Poverty was nearly universal. Clean water was not readily available. The rural people tended to be ignorant about nutrition" (p. 27-28). All these things were true. All of them were impossible hurdles to get around. There was no way Jerry could fix them in six months.

So instead of focusing on those problems, he went from village to village, trying to find kids who weren't malnourished, despite having access to the same resources as everyone else. Those kids existed, as it turns out, and he interviewed their mothers to find out what they were doing differently (basically, they were feeding their kids smaller portions, more frequently, and mixing freely-available sweet potato greens and tiny shrimp into their rice). He then had those mothers teach the other mothers how to do the same thing…and in six months, 65 percent of the kids were better nourished than before he arrived, and stayed that way.

That's a pretty miraculous change accomplished by somebody with limited power over the situation and its alleged root causes.

I was reminded of this recently by a blog post on The Bamboo Project, called "Decrease the Suck or Increase the Awesome?" She shares a video (below) by Hank Green of VlogBrothers, where he says:

"There are two ways to make the world a better place. You can decrease the suck, and you can increase the awesome… And I do not want to live in a world where we only focus on suck and never think about awesome."

I don't agree with everything Green says here (though the Webb telescope does sound pretty awesome), but the gist of his idea goes back to "Switch": We need to find the bright spots, and do those things more.

It's a simple formula, really, and one that can be applied to any number of nonprofit tech problems:

  • Need to increase your web traffic? Find out what type of posts on your blog get the most traffic, and do those kinds of posts more. Are most people coming from Twitter? Post your stuff on Twitter more.
  • Need to increase your Twitter followers, because your management insists on using that as a metric of success? Find out what posts get retweeted the most, and post more things like that. Figure out what you did on the days you gained the most new followers, and do things like that more.
  • Need to build enthusiasm for a new idea among your staff or board? Liken the new idea to something else that had broad support within your organization and worked.
  • Need to get more donors? Look at the donors you have and analyze what they have in common: Where did you find them? What are their passions? Where could you find similar people? Then conduct a targeted search.

If you're creative, you can apply this logic to a lot of things. It's not the be-all, end-all solution, but at least it gets your brain thinking about the problem in a different way.

Because no matter how bleak things are looking, something is working. You need to find what that something is, and do it more.

Photo credit: eamoncurry123 on Flickr