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Happy holidays, gentle readers! I hope you've had a productive 2010, and wish you all the best in the new year.

To start the year off right, run, don't walk, and sign up for a Google account. Sure, you get free email, free chat, and many other things, but if you work for a history organization, the best thing you get is a Library and the Google eBookstore.

As you know I happen to write fiction, and have been following with some interest the turmoils of the publishing industry, which likes to blames its struggles on the emergence of epublishing, ereaders, ebooks, and every combination thereof. To be honest, I think the publishings powers that be simply have a business model that no longer works, regardless of the status of electronic publishing. Ebooks currently represent well less than 10% of the titles being sold, so clearly they aren't to blame for money troubles. And, until last week, I really couldn't see the advantages of ereaders over print. But in about 10 minutes, I changed my thinking, at least in the arena of historical research. How? I discovered the Google eBookstore.

Love it or hate it, Google is a huge market force that you need to be aware of. And Google has announced a really audacious goal of digitizing every book. That's right, every one. I realize that goal is a moving target, and I imagine Google does too, but dang, they have put a lot of power behind it. And with relatively little fanfare, they've rolled out the eBookstore, which I kind of knew about, but never visited until I stumbled there last week.

Here's the scenario: I am currently working on a project to create a series of "character cards," actual printed cards with a biographic profile on one side and an image on the other. I've spent most of a year tracking down portraits and representative images. Last week I went to the Connecticut State Library with my project director, who is an experienced historical researcher (great place, by the way; I highly recommend it). We found one portrait in a book, but I wanted a digital version, so later that day I looked for it online. 

To make a long story short, I wound up at the Google eBookstore. I've known about Google Book editions of historical texts for awhile, but I hadn't realized that Google had gathered them together in the eBookstore. That doesn't sound too amazing, does it? So, why am I trespassing on your valuable time to tell you about it?

Two words: "killer app." For those of you who regularly or occasionally need to search for a historical figure, a name, a family, a place, or pretty much anything, Google has digitized and key worded literally thousands of out-of-copyright historical texts and put them in the eBookstore for free. That's right, $0, zip, nada. And instead of downloading them, you can "purchase" the book and put it in your Library, where you will have access to it from anywhere, forever. That means you can't lose it if your hard drive crashes, or your office burns down, or if you forgot to bring it to a meeting. (This is called "cloud computing," by the way.)

In the course of ten minutes, while I was Google chatting with a friend, I "bought" more than two dozen titles, most of which are quite rare. The Jonathan Trumbull Papers. The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, 1636-1776. The Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, vol. 12, 1898. Family Letters of Samuel Blatchley Webb. Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, vol. 13, 1911. History of Montville, Connecticut, 1896. Letters of Life by Lydia Howard Sigourney, 1866. Even an article in The Auk, the magazine of the American Orinthological Union, written by my great-grandfather in 1887. And the list goes on....

What's even more remarkable is that each of these epubs in keyword-searchable. So, gone are the days of poring through these books looking for names, places, and dates. I can do it all in Adobe Acrobat in a matter of seconds.

The upshot is, I'm completely hooked. The Google eBookstore is like drugs for the history geek - one try, and you're an addict forever. I'm not sure what this means for the future of research libraries. I mean, I'm proud of my new Connecticut State Library research pass, but I'm not sure how often I'll use it, especially as Google marches forward in its goal to own the written word. I'm also not sure what this means for the future of specialized research training. I'm thinking there will always be a need for a few, highly trained experts, but the power has definitely shifted to the people.

Go check it out, and let me know what you think. I'm predicting you'll be like me - an instant addict. Happy new year!
Yes, it's been far too long, gentle reader. I know. It was a good summer, though. And now, despite the continued warm weather, it's definitely fall, and that means it's time to ponder the upcoming grant proposal season.calvin-essay-writing.gif

Most every September since 1991 I have been faced with fall deadlines. This is the last spurt before year-end giving, and also the beginning of the new year's agenda. So, inevitably, there are two or more proposals that have to go in by November 1 or thereabouts. (Really, I have been doing this for almost twenty years. I'm a lot older than I look.) Just last week, I submitted a request, and I've been thinking about how much has changed since I started writing grants. 

My very first grant, written when I was 22, was to the Institute of Museum Services (now called IMLS), requesting $150,000 for general operating support. Does any of you remember those grants? They were a nightmare. Twenty-five pages, single-spaced, quarter-inch margins, and you had to use a ruler to make sure your text would fit into the spaces provided for each question. I believe there were something like 20 questions, each of which had point rankings. The grants were supposed to be rewards for good performance, meaning strict adherence to "standards" established by AAM's Accreditation Commission, and were given out to the top point winners until the money ran out. Thus pretty much only the top 1% of museums nationwide ever received a GOS grant. We won't debate whether this was fair or appropriate; the grant program no longer exists in this form, and much has changed in the museum field since then. My point is, these grants were monsters.

I also recall a request to NEH's Preservation and Access Division that ended up being something like 30 pp of text plus more than 100 pp of appendices. Can you imagine? And each of those pages had to be consecutively numbered. Because the appendices were mostly photocopies of other documents, we had to number them by hand. (Quick, write "65" in Roman numerals!) We had to submit something like 20 copies. That's 2,600 pages, or over five reams of paper, which presumably perished in a landfill somewhere.

By contrast, last week I submitted a request in which I was asked to explain the nature of the request, the need, the timetable, and the intended outcomes in 2000 characters including spaces and punctuation. (For those keeping track at home, that's about 75-100 words, max.) The funder kept us all honest by using a PDF with a limited field - once you reached 2000 characters, you couldn't type any more. No tricks with margins or font size. Total paper count: 51.

I also submitted a request online, using a fill-in form. Some of these answers were limited to 20 characters or less, and the heart of the request was limited to three short paragraphs (probably 250 words). Total paper count: 12, and that was only because I always print a file copy. More and more, I'm finding these types of grant proposals are the norm, and the multi-page essays are fast disappearing. I've even had one where I had to summarize the request in 20 words or fewer.

What's changed since the last century? Is it that funders are simply busier, and don't have time to read? I suppose, but my secret belief (well, not so secret anymore!) is that they never read those monster grants, not completely. Maybe the staff did, but not the reviewers. In the case of the GOS grants, I'm certain that they skimmed the narrative, looking for key terms and statistics (relative humidity, number of linear feet, percent of collections on exhibit, percent of collections cataloged, etc.), ranked those, and otherwise relied on the reputation of the requesting institution. What else could they do?

Now, there are definitely those that descry the sea change. They struggle to craft a beautiful grant narrative, and feel disheartened when they can't possibly do justice to their request in 2000 characters (that grant was a challenge, believe me). I remember someone wailing to me, not that long ago, about a grant narrative being limited to seven pages: "Seven pages! I haven't even warmed up in seven pages!" (Seven pages single-spaced is roughly 5,000 words, by the way.) Or, they write too much, and try to edit down to fit, and feel unsatisfied with the result.

Remember what I said about flash fiction? It's extremely brief, 50-1000 words, and must contain all the elements of a complete story: a protagonist, a conflict, and a discernible plot that leads to an outcome or resolution. Every word advances the story; there is no need or space for "throwaways." These new grant proposals are essentially "flash exposition": an agency, faced with a need, is trying to benefit a certain audience or clientele in order to achieve some end. I've become a proponent of this approach. If I can't sum up the grant proposal in a single sentence, answering 1) who we are, 2) what we need, 3) for whom, and 4) what we plan to accomplish, I haven't thought through the request enough yet. And I'm incredibly thankful that I took a course at the local community college that covered flash fiction!

Is the novel gone as an art form? No. But I do feel that the 20-page grant proposal is a dinosaur. I'd encourage all the grant writers out there (and that's pretty much everyone these days, isn't it?) to embrace the new paradigm: rather than "start long, cut to short," start short, and stay short. I've gotten as much money from a three-sentence letter as I have from a multi-page proposal, on numerous occasions.

Is it hard? Damn straight. Is it different? Yes, it's exercising a different perspective on writing. Is it worth the effort? Definitely. I'm going to predict that we don't have a lot of choice here. I submit about 2-5 grants per month these days. The new paradigm is here to stay.

'Nuff said. Good luck, everybody!
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.
Okay, yes, it's been awhile since my last entry. What's my excuse? I've been busy, of course. And in thinking about that, it occurred to me many of you out there are in exactly the same position I am: you know you should be blogging, emailing, tweeting, etc. but you think, "Yeah right. Who's got the time? I'm already trying to do it all. How can I possibly add one more thing to my to-do list?"
Well, you do have a valid point. In my "other" (non-professional) life I'm a mom of two kids aged 4-1/2 and almost-2. Just getting them fed, dressed, and where they need to be everyday is an exercise in minute-by-minute time management. I know I'm not alone; we all have families of one kind or another and multiple demands on our time. Throw in a job and - whoa! It's crazy. 

In the case of many non-profits, there is only one paid staff person, or maybe only one full-time person, and he or she is often only (technically) part-time. What I've found as a consultant is that it's harder to manage part-time work than full-time work. (For those of you full-timers who are currently scoffing, I say: walk a mile in our moccasins sometime.) Look at it this way: we only get paid so much for a certain number of hours, but sometimes things take longer than expected (I call it "project creep"), and often there is no set schedule of when you are "on the clock" and when you aren't. It's hard to say to a board chairperson, "I'm sorry, it's Tuesday so I can't talk to you until tomorrow," or, "I'm sorry that the roof is leaking, but I've already gone through my hours this week," or, "Yes, that's a great funding opportunity but it's too bad the proposal is due on a Friday because I don't work Fridays."

So there you are, lonely non-profit staffer, incredibly well-intentioned but already hopelessly behind, and here I come along saying, "If you haven't jumped into new media to promote your non-profit you'd better do it quick or risk being left behind." And it's not just me: check out this issue of Guidestar's monthly email newsletter (you'll have to create a login but it's free). What do you do? Do you cover your ears and run into a corner (very tempting sometimes, I know)?

I wouldn't advise that option. First, take a deep breath. Ok, now let's talk. We're dealing with two givens here: on the one hand, you already have way too much to do; on the other, I'm telling you you've got to jump into this pool at some point. Impassable dilemma? I hope not.

It's true that you probably cannot add more to your workload. Whenever you're doing one thing you're not doing something else (probably many things, actually). So the answer to how you fit new media into your workload is simple, really: you have to give up doing something else.

"But but but" I can hear you (and your board?) stammer. "Everything we do is important and critical." Is it really? Now is a great time to look hard at what you are spending precious staff hours on, and to sort those things into boxes labeled, "Critical - we would close down without it," "Important to somebody," "We have no choice, we have to spend time on this because...." and "We've been doing this pretty much forever." Notice that I didn't ask you to evaluate the efficacy of the activities. We'll talk about that later.

Now, sort out the same list of activities, only this time label them by audience - who is benefiting? Clients/audience, board, staff (paid and volunteer), and whomever else.

Finally, sort the same list into two categories: those activities that directly support your non-profit's bottom line, and those that don't.

You'll end up with a small handful, maybe two or three things that emerge as absolutely non-negotiable top priorities. Are "communicating with donors, raising funds, and providing direct services to our clients" on that list? Probably. And these are all activities that new media can help you with.

What about the rest? Can you give up doing something, or do it in a simpler way, in order to allow yourself more time on the mission critical stuff?

All right, I feel your pain at this point. You go do what you need to do, and come back soon for Part 2 of this post.
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.

DIY or Not?

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Hello from a long hiatus of entries! My apologies for the gap; we were experiencing technical difficulties all around, meaning I've been sick and various computer-related issues have cropped up. But enough of that. Let's talk about your nonprofit.

A question that nonprofit organizations frequently ask, or ask themselves, is, "Do we really need to hire outside expertise for XYZ project? Can we do it ourselves faster, better, and more cheaply?"

That's a really great question - and the answer is, "It depends." (I wish I had a nickel for every time I've said that!") Basically, opting to DIY or not is matter of making choices. These can be simplified into the following series of questions:

Do you have a lot of time? If so, then you may wish to explore doing it yourself. If you're in a hurry, employing outside expertise may be the best way to maximize efficiency. Be aware, however, that the process of locating the right people to help you also takes time, and if you're right on deadline, doing it yourself may be your only option.

Do you have the needed skill set on staff (including your volunteer pool)? Here I mean the people who really know what they're doing, who have the necessary training and temperament for the job. If not, how difficult is it to bring the people you do have at your disposal up to speed? If you need technical or legal expertise that isn't on staff, stop here and go hire someone. The same is true with trade skills such as plumbing and electrical work. It doesn't pay to mess around with legal liability, health and safety issues, or other critical areas (such as technology) if you aren't really sure of what you're doing.

Do you have or can you find the financial resources needed to hire outside professionals? You may be surprised to find that this isn't the first question to ask. The reason is that your top goal should be getting the job done, rather than saving money. I'm assuming that this project, whatever it is, is strategic and important. If it's not, forget about it for now. Your resources of time, energy, and funding are too stretched already to be thinking of "wouldn't it be nice" projects. If you don't have the money on hand to hire someone, finding it may be easier than you think. Most funders understand the need bring in expertise, and you may have the makings of a great grant request here.

Are you willing to compromise on quality, redirect resources from other projects, buy needed tools, and/or put in extra effort to make the project happen in-house? The graphic above effectively illustrates the kinds of choices that you may have to make in order to be successful doing something yourself. If you need satisfactory but not outstanding results, by all means consider doing it yourself. Do you have staff that are underutilized? They may be very happy to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities. Do you simply need to buy some special software or other equipment that you will use regularly? These may be good investments in the long run. On the other hand, it's not smart to buy expensive tools that you're only going to use once.

Finally, could your project benefit from a second opinion? There's a reason why doctors aren't supposed to treat themselves or their family members. Being too close to something can limit your perspective and impair your judgement. Sometimes what your project really needs to be successful is an outside viewpoint, even more than a specialized skill set. It's near impossible, for example, for an executive director to successfully lead an organizational assessment. He or she is simply too wrapped up in daily concerns, occasional disagreements with the staff or board, and a personal agenda to be able to truly step back.

Now, I now what you're thinking - I'm the consultant, of course I'm going to say hire someone from the outside! In many cases, such as those I've outlined about, doing that is the best option. In others, DIY is the way to go and I will tell you so. My goal is to help you make the smartest decision given your individual circumstances. There is no "one" right choice,

Have you had experience with DIY consulting? I'd love to hear about it, and your fellow readers would too. Please share your story with us, and thanks!

Does size matter?

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bigorsmall.jpegOften, when I am pitching a new program idea or a fundraising approach to a client, I hear someone say, "But we're a small organization. We can't do anything big." So this led me to today's Muse View question: does size matter?

And now I turn to you, dear reader - what do you think?

I'll start the conversation by relaying that I have seen small organizations (and when I say small, I mean ones with 2 paid staff or fewer) think and act big, and large organizations with multiple departments think and act small. So you can probably guess that I don't feel that size necessarily equates to capacity.

However, I DO believe that size matters when it comes to impact on your intended audience. I once said that those nonprofits with all the support and money get all the support and money. Conundrums aside, it does seem to be true that a few high-performing organizations seem to attract the most volunteers, the most visitation, the most grants and income. Why is that? I suspect it's because that regardless of their staff or budget size, these organizations tend to think big, but in a believable, viable way. They have managed to have the biggest impact on their target audience, and that goes a long way toward convincing others to support them.

So, as you start out the new year, I encourage you to think big. Yes, I know, the economy is uncertain; everyone is feeling nervous and gloomy. The temptation is to retrench and think small. While I certainly agree with the need to focus on your organization's core assets and values, I think this is the perfect climate in which to ask where you are making the biggest impact on your target audience(s), and how you could shift allocations of time and money in order to maximize that impact. In other words, think big in terms of the stuff you do really well, and don't - to paraphrase a popular expression - sweat the small stuff. And certainly don't use "We're too small" as an excuse. Once you've convinced yourself that you're small, other people will start believing it too.

Right now I am working with an all-volunteer-led organization on a project that, if successful, has potential to be nationally significant. With trepidation we approached some of the top people in the field to participate, because we were convinced of the impact of the idea. Surprise - they all agreed, and the momentum continued to build. Some advisors had encouraged us to "start small," but I'm pretty sure that if we had followed their advice we would spend just as much effort and not advance the organization's mission in any significant way. 

Sometimes small is the right approach, and sometime it's not. Tell me how your organization views the issue of size. I'd love to hear how you respond. Happy new year, and I look forward to Musing with you in 2009.








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