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You know by now that I am a geek, an English major, a technophile, and an increasingly passionate advocate for nonprofit social networking. I am an independent consultant; I'm also a mom. But what am I really, in the essence of my being? I'm a novelist.flashfiction1.jpg

I've actually written four novels, but the first three I don't choose to recall except perhaps in bad nightmares (no, you can't find them on the Web!). The fourth I'm quite proud of, and am currently pitching for publication. I've started on the sequel, too.

I recently took a class called, "Get Published: From Pen to Paper" that purported to teach me the mysterious ways of the publishing world and hopefully increase my chances of landing the elusive book deal. Part of the class was devoted to writing exercises, which are like other forms of exercise (read, "hard work"), and we avoid them just as much. I thought, "I write all the time, probably 1,000 words a day or more, so why should I need to exercise?"

At the same time, I was working on a project to reinterpret the Governor Jonathan Trumbull War Office in Lebanon, CT. It's a tiny museum with an enormously important story. The client wanted some kind of interpretive panels on the wall (more on that in another post) that provided a baseline story, but did not distract from the recreated interiors and reproduction artifacts (again, more on that later). Our original plan was three 38"x48" panels with 500 words each. By museum standards, that's not a lot of text.

But then I discovered flash fiction, the art and craft of telling a complete story (protagonist, conflict, and resolution) in 6-500 words. In class, we were working on the low end of that scale, 20-150 words. Dang, was that hard. I'm still not good at it - my novel is nearly 160,000 words - but over the course of the class I started to see an effect not just on my fiction but my professional writing as well.

Remember those exhibit panels? I reduced one of them by 90%. It went from three 80-word paragraphs to one paragraph of 60 words. Wow. The others slimmed down, too. I think we probably have a total of 600 words on the wall now, maybe less. With some great pictures, they look fabulous.

Here's the point: writing exhibit labels should be exactly like writing a short story. The emphasis should be on narrative, rather than fact, centered on a key individual or group of real people, with conflict and outcome. Too often we in the museum business try to "educate" or "inform" the visitor. Look, they're at our museums for fun! They want to be entertained and engaged; they want to know the people from the past in the same way they get to know a character in a story. Just like the fiction writer, we need to show, not tell.

Show, not tell.

See? It works. Come to the exhibit opening on June 12, 2010 and you can see for yourself!
So, how are you doing on your resolution to finally keep up with this social media thing?karma_police.jpg

I'm behind, of course, but the spring is always busy. However, I wanted to share a story with you that might convince you of the value of investing time in blogging. 

Let's face it: blogging is the most time-intensive form of Web 2.0/3.0 content generation there is. Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter are pretty quick. (That's part of the reason why I recommend Facebook if you do nothing else.) I've talked to professional P.R. and media consultants, and they all roll their eyes when it comes to finding the time to blog. Why? Despite the huge proliferation of word-based media, writing is still darned hard.

1. It takes uninterrupted time (who has that?)
2. You have to have something to say.
3. You have to make yourself do it, rather than anything else.

Now, I'm an English major, as you know. I've completed a 160,000 word novel, and have started on the second. I frequently write 10-pp grants in one or two days. So if I find blogging challenging, you can be it actually is. So ease up on yourself a bit about that.

Here's why you need to blog: A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague with whom I worked on a project two jobs and seven years ago. I hear from him once or twice a year via LinkedIn, and that's about it. But he needed help with a major client, and came to me, saying, "I read your whole blog, and you're the person we need to talk with." I did, and we had a great conversation, and there may be some future collaborations.

Now, I didn't realize my colleague had been reading my blog, but clearly it was a major factor in why he approached me for the project. Interestingly, it wasn't the specific topical content of each of my entries that convinced him. It was more that he had insight into how I think and work. (Remember that point; we'll be coming back to it.)

So, let's deal with the three reasons we all have difficulty blogging.

1. Uninterrupted time. I get this one - I have small children, remember? Frequently I can't even get in the shower or use the bathroom without a visitor. Fortunately, there are physical solutions. Turn off the phone (OMG! OMG! OMG!). Or at least, put it on silent. That's why you have voicemail, after all. Don't answer your email - for half an hour. Shut the door if you have one.
2. Something to say. Another colleague of mine recently remarked, "Whenever I start a project, I have to remind myself that my first ideas aren't sh---y." I laughed, but I know what he means. It's very easy to think that one is called upon to come up with an idea as revolutionary as string theory or Keynesian economics, and to feel entirely unequal to the task. Truth is, there isn't a lot that's new under the sun anyway. Blogging is about being authentic, rather than authoritative. Remember my story above? I didn't get the call because my blog entries deserve to be recorded as part of the greats of Western literature. I got the call because they were enough to convince my colleague that I was smart and likeable. So take a little idea and run with it. That's enough.
3. Making yourself do it. This is hard if you're an avoidance person. But blogging is actually a lot of fun, when you loosen up and use your authentic (see above), real voice. I tend to blog without editing, other than a quick spell check and read-through to be sure I've caught typos and stupid errors. Schedule in the time if you have to. Just do it.

My larger point is that good blogging is basically giving out free advice to your clients and customers. If you come across an interesting article, have a great idea in the shower, or hear something in passing, chances are the people you work with and/or serve would like to know, too. The more you give out, the more likely you are to get back. Quality counts, too, but the first step is simply to do it. It's karma.

So get out there and have fun! Can't wait to hear from you.
OK, see, I get it! It's been a LONG time since my last entry. Why? I got busy, of course.

Let's tally up my excuses:
3 grants due November 15
1 grant due December 1
Totaled my car (oops)
Playing catch up in January
5 grants due in February (four done, one to go)

That's a pretty full list. Any of it sound familiar? We in the small shop have a lot to do, and of course we all still have family obligations as well. And yet, we KNOW perfectly well that we have to find the time to blog, to update our profile on Facebook, launch an email newsletter, and maybe even tweet.

So, now that we're well into the new year, let's make a resolution together: somehow, we are going to find the time to do this new media thing. Here are my thoughts on how those of us who are always trying to do a million things at once can manage. 

1. Set achievable goals. I started out thinking I would be able to blog weekly. You've seen how well that's worked for me! Instead, I am going to set a goal of monthly posts, with more frequent updates on Facebook. Instead of trying to find an hour a week, find ten minutes.

2. Schedule the time for new media, just as you would any other appointment or task. I'm starting to think that this stuff is as important, maybe more so, than some of the tasks that we've always considered essential. Yes, you still need to work on that grant, but maybe you don't need to do something else.

3. Pick what's going to work for you and your audiences. You don't have to do everything. If you're trying to decide where to start, I'd suggest a Facebook page for your nonprofit. It's free, and doesn't take much time to set up. Also, every page looks pretty much the same, so you don't have to worry about competing on design and "flash." Your board will be impressed, and you can decide where to do from there.

4. Do less with less. If you have scarce time and resources, you can't do more. You need to cut back. Sounds obvious, but somehow we've all fallen into this belief that somehow we can achieve more with the same resources. The U.S. government reports huge growth in corporate productivity in December 2009. That means that people in the workforce are being pushed about as hard as they can be. I'm sure you can relate. From the "non-essentials" list that you created from Part 1 of this post, pick one thing to drop. There's your 10 minutes to work on new media.

5. Find some part of new media that you enjoy, and make it a priority. This is one I have to remember myself! Somehow we always manage to find the time to do things that we enjoy, whether it's working with clients, talking with donors, checking our email, or watching TV. If you resent a task, you won't push to get it done.

I have some other thoughts, too, mostly having to do with mobile devices and the role that they will play in our work... but I'm saving that for next month. Really. I promise.
Last night my two daughters, aged 4 and 1-1/2, woke me up no fewer than EIGHT times. On six of those occasions I had to drag myself out of bed and calm down somebody who was screaming, crying, or both. My husband, who had worked on an office homework project until 1 a.m., was no help. It was up to me._DSF1862.jpg

Naturally, when I woke up for the ninth time and had to face a workday I was exhausted. I had two grants due last week, two due the week before that, an all-day planning session over the weekend, four final reports due by June 1, and a whole list of household issues that needed attending. I spent part of yesterday in the hospital with a seriously ill relative. In other words, stick a fork in me; I was DONE.

Now, normally I'm a "press on regardless" type, but today my mind and body went on strike. I simply could not dredge up the mental energy and concentration needed to get started on those reports. In one of those rare moments of perfect clarity, I realized that I had to come up with Another Plan.

So today I gave myself permission to work on the nagging little things that have been piling up. I called a preschool to line up a visit. I registered the girls for summer swim lessons. I entered invoices into Quickbooks. I did laundry. I deadheaded the petunias. I finished my last blog entry (was it really a month ago? oh my). Shortly I will take a nap.

And I feel about 100% better for it. I know that tomorrow I'll be able to tackle those final reports with a new degree of enthusiasm and creativity because I was able to rest, regroup, and accomplish some small but meaningful milestones. The moral here is that more work isn't always the best way to achieve results.

Can you take a "day off" from the major worries that are plaguing your nonprofit, and maybe give some attention to the details that have been nagging and tormenting you? Success is one of life's most restorative experiences, even if it's in the little things. In fact those little things can be diverting you from focusing on some larger question. Get them done, or at least dealt with, and you might just restore your equilibrium in time for a brilliant insight into the big issues.

Please tell me about your experiences playing "hookey." I'd love to hear from you.
I recently read a very good entry on the Museums 2.0 blog in phoenix.gifwhich the author discusses the pitfalls of achieving sustainability. Now, every nonprofit I that I'm working with has included sustainability in their list of goals to achieve. I'm sure yours probably has, too.

Why is this? Well, sustainability sounds virtuous in its own right. If we're "sustainable," the implication is that we don't have to cater to the whims of scrutinizing donors, or fall prey to the periodic undulations of the stock market index, or worry about fewer people buying our product. Sustainability hearkens a bit to the old Gilded Age mentality of "pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps," or in slightly more contemporary parlance, "making it on our own." Doesn't that just sound All-American, complete with flag and apple pie?

In the blog post I mentioned, the author says that museums too often mistake sustainability for success. It's somehow enough to limp along on an endless journey, rather than sprinting to a finish line. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, but it can also make us tired, bored, bitter, cranky, and resentful.

You see, I have this idea that perhaps we as nonprofit leaders are deep down slightly embarrassed or ashamed that our business models are fundamentally built on welfare. The handout. The free ride. Perhaps the constantly pleading for funds that every nonprofit is required to make is somehow, somewhere inwardly humiliating. After all, the (occasionally demonized) for-profit world is required to sell or die. Quite simple, really, and there's no pang of guilt when a better product comes along.

So we (the nonprofits) try to salve our own wounded pride by making sustainability a goal. After all, we like our jobs. We want them to last. We have families with expenses just like everyone else. And again, we really, really like our jobs. Of course, we want to be there for our communities too, doing important, needed things for the greater good. If we can just achieve the elusive "sustainability" benchmark, people will admire and respect us, and maybe  those pesky, inquisitive donors won't ask us so many questions about our programs.

But, is sustainability the same thing as success? I don't think it is. Success is achieving your mission in the best way possible. For many museums as well as many nonprofits, true "sustainability" is an unachievable goal, because it's a rare program offering that truly pays for itself. Most programs require periodic infusions of cash in the form of gifts and grants.

And that's ok. I'm here to say that donors, both organizational and individual, really want to help and feel that they're making a difference in the world. We as nonprofits exist as much to enable their philanthropy as to serve our customers. More effective than pursuing "sustainability," I think, is for museums and nonprofits to instead pursue entrepreneurism. In other words, seek the funding where you can get and for what you can get it, without qualms. Ask for the amount you need, and be prepared to explain what the outcomes and impact will be. Don't hesitate to shut down programs that are no longer performing up to expectations, even if they are long established or popular with certain constituencies - if they don't advance your vision for the organization, they're dragging you down rather than helping. And finally, be prepared to accept that your organization may have a life cycle that's drawing to a close. It can be hard to let go, but it's much better for something new and exciting to be born from the ashes than to hang onto something old and tired.

Thoughts, anyone? Let me know.
A colleague and friend of mine is currently nursing a parent through what is canning.jpgprobably the final illness. As often happens in these situations, my friend has spent a lot of time talking with her parent about the past, about shared experiences, and what life was like for earlier generations of Americans. I was struck by the fact that my friend's parent liked to reminisce about life during the Great Depression - not to recount tales of horror and deprivation, but in a positive way. "People were just decent to each other then," this older person remembers.

Now, I don't believe that anyone longs to be hungry, impoverished, or anxious, but I can definitely see what my friend's parent means about decency. The past six months have seen the media shrilly panicked about The Global Financial Crisis, and I know many individuals and nonprofit organizations are really hurting. I myself am a statistic of the New Economy. However, I've gone from being panicked to realistic: we will all be making do with less. And I've also seen heartwarming instances of people helping each other out. Families are being brought closer; the stigma of joblessness is gone, and nonprofits are not somehow miraculous expected to buck all the major economic trends to turn in stellar financial performance under any circumstance. 

We're also rediscovering "lost" skills. Apparently there is great new interest in things like canning, knitting, and do-it-yourself repairs. I've even taken up sewing, and if you know me you'll know that that's a major accomplishment. It's a very old adage that necessity is the mother of invention, but I'm seeing organizations thinking more creatively about sustainability and yes, survival than they have in years.

What is your nonprofit doing these days? How are you reacting to the New Economy? Are you feeling positive or discouraged? I'd love to hear from you.








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