Tune in for mindless affirmation

File this ad for New York TV station WPIX under: I’m not even sure I get what they’re saying.

“If you’re thinking it, they’re saying it” is the slogan.  Huh?  It seems to mean, “We promise everything you see on our station will be an echo chamber that reinforces your existing opinions.  We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

I wasn’t tuning in to local news anyway, so this starts out as a post about a somewhat troubling and pretty weak subway ad.   But it’s a worrisome meme: watch us because you know we agree with you.

We’re getting more information flows are made just for us: we choose who to follow on Twitter and who our Facebook friends are, what blogs to read and what news sites to peruse.  Mass-customization might allow us to hone in on what most interests us, but it might also be code for “We swear we won’t challenge your thinking.”

Worse, there’s a lot more filtering of information than you might think.  Eli Pariser gave a chilling talk at TED 2011 in which he showed how Facebook is filtering his (and your and my) feed, showing a lot more updates from his lefty friends than from his righty friends.  And, one week after the uprising in Tahir Square, Eli showed how two people on two different computers got radically different Google search results for “Egypt”  – one got political news, the other got vacation and travel sites.

This makes it all the more important for us to decide why we read – for pleasure, for edification, to learn something, to challenge ourselves?  When I recommend a book that’s designed to challenge people’s thinking – like all the manifestos by the Domino Project (Poke the Box, Do the Work); or Cognitive Surplus or Drive or Made to Stick or Rework or even my Manifesto for Nonprofit CEOs – I always wonder what people who tell me they didn’t like the books really mean.

Does “I didn’t like it” mean “…because it made me really uncomfortable” or “…because I disagreed” or “…because this is different than the way I do things” or something else?

We have access to more information than ever, and it’s becoming less likely that we stumble across contradictory views.  This can’t be good for civic discourse, for our political process, for our shared values and culture.

Armed with this knowledge, it’s incumbent upon us to seek discomfort in what we read.  It also means, for the writer/blogger, how illusory and deceptive it is to strive for popularity.

Here’s Eli Pariser’s TED Talk


Too much nonprofit marketing?

Zeenat Potia, who now works at and blogs for Oxfam America, started her career in book publishing.  In her first year in the book business, Zeenat would often be asked at parties whether she was an editor, and she’d say no, that she was in marketing.  But:

“I did not like casting myself as a marketer because their inevitable response would be a smug, quasi-judgmental “ah.”

The premise: the editors do the high-status, high-value work (finding manuscripts, editing them, working with the authors); the marketers are just peddlers.  And look where the book business is today.  What’s the right balance between editorial and sales & marketing?  I don’t know, but I’d guess that it’s in the ballpark of 50/50, not the 90/10 or 80/20 that I’d guess it is in the book business (at least from a status perspective, maybe from a time and effort and honing of craft perspective too).  The goal is to find great books and get them into the hands of readers, isn’t it?

Zeenat makes the right analogy to the nonprofit world: just swap out “editors / marketers” with “program staff / development staff” and you get the exact same equation.  “Program” is where the people who do the “real” work go, the ones with the PhDs who really know what’s going on and what works.  The development staff just run off and package the “real work.”  Ancillary and low status.

This is what gives space for Zeenat’s question.  Marketing is “just selling,” right?  So you should do just enough to be able to do the real work.  It’s possible to do too much marketing, right?

Probably, but I bet that there’s not a single iPhone owner (or craver) out of the 22 million owners in the United States who discusses whether Apple is wasting its money on “all that marketing.”   Same goes for Amazon.  And Virgin.  And probably even Wal-Mart. Same even went for GE in the heyday years of Jack Welch (the story was just different).

When done right, marketing helps us discover solutions to our problems, influences how people see the world, and helps them make decisions.  When done wrong, it’s peddling something someone doesn’t quite need and quickly regrets buying.

Let us not, as a sector, fall into the trap of listening to critics who say that we should minimize the dollars, effort, brain power, and ingenuity that goes into everything but the “real” work (programs).  In so doing, we risk forgetting that our role is BOTH to find solutions to the persistent problems of inequality and injustice and malnutrition and infant mortality and safe drinking water and AIDS and malaria…AND to figure out how to explain to the world that these problems matter, that we have the tools to solve them, and that if was have the tools to solve them, then we must all act.

It’s not easy.  But that’s marketing.

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Real giving conversations

I had a fascinating, far-ranging conversation today with a friend about philanthropy, touching on giving, donor accountability, what an individual gift means in the context of larger pools of money, how people really make philanthropic decisions…the works. Out of the blue, he says, “this is highly emotional, this business of giving.”

In another conversation today, another friend told me that his giving is “an expression of who I am in the world.”

Pretty heady stuff.

People can write analytical papers until they are blue in the face about the efficient allocation of philanthropic capital, but unless they spend some time on the front lines, I worry that all the real substance around how and why people give – for expressive, emotional, personal, sometimes selfish, always human reasons – is and will continue to be lost. This is part of the reason I wrote a manifesto a while back, because I think the business of giving – how and why it’s done; but also how important it is to raise money in the right way – is often fundamentally misunderstood.

People bring their whole selves to their giving decisions, and if you are going to engage with them at that level, you have to be prepared to bring your whole self to the conversation. This starts with knowing who you are and knowing why you’re there, talking to someone, and asking her to give.

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A NonProfit CEO Manifesto (blame it on Seth Godin)

Inspired by Seth Godin, and his new book Tribes, I collected my thoughts after nearly two years in my current role at Acumen Fund.

I wrote a manifesto.  You can read it here.

This one isn’t for everyone, but you probably know someone who’d like to read it. Do me (and them) a favor and send it to them.

And tell me what you think.  I think this one is important, and since the economy is blowing up and won’t improve any time soon, now is a good time for nonprofits to rethink how they think about raising money.