Preparing for your next crisis

Can your plan handle the bizarre?

Last winter Dries, the Drupal Association, and the whole Drupal community, stumbled when concerns about a leading contributor’s potentially exploitive relationship got caught up in discussions of Gorean subculture and related sexual behaviors (warning researching this topic will quickly lead you to NSFW information). The intriguing details drew in an ever-expanding audience but were actually irrelevant the main concerns and the secondary ones that followed. The DA lost control of the message and the story and the entire community suffered as a consequence. Last spring and summer I was asked to step in to help them regain control of the message and start to resolve the crisis. It wasn’t the first time I was part of a crisis response with unusual details, and likely won’t be the last.

The first time I saw an organization respond to a threat to their reputation was my senior year at Hamilton College when I was intern in the Communications and Development Department. The morning of February 5th, 2001 the administrative assistant who spent every Monday morning scanning major publications for references to the college and its professors (this is before you could use Google Alerts and other tools for a similar purpose) suddenly jumped up from her desk and ran into her boss’s office. A few moments later they both sprinted down the hall to the Vice President’s office. She had found an article in the New York Times Magazine titled The Cloning Mission; A Desire to Duplicate featuring then-chemistry professor Brigitte Boisselier who – unbeknownst to the college – was moonlighting as the research director for Clonaid trying to develop human cloning technology as part of her leadership of Raëlianism.

Yup, the first time I had a front row seat to a crisis was a college learning from the New York Times that they had a professor doing secret human cloning research for a group that believes aliens created humanity.

Within a hour they had a preliminary message prepared for any alumni who called – and they were calling – and got it to all alumni class presidents to share with any concerned classmates. By noon they had held meetings with all the needed decision makers including the college president, the chemistry department chair, the deans, and the VP of Communications to form a plan of action. By early afternoon that turned into a more formal statement that was recirculated to the class presidents and anyone else expressing concern to the school. Over the course of the semester, and the two years that followed (she continued to make world news after she left the college), they responded to repeated media inquires – I was one of several interns in a mock audience for b-roll footage of a CBC piece on the topic – and even got her to engage in a public debate with an ethicist from the Philosophy department (which went poorly for her). In the end the concerned alumni were pleased with the college’s handling of the matter and the school’s reputation remained intact.

Eventually every organization will face a crisis that requires a public response. Depending on the nature of your organization you may already have a plan that handles the obvious situations: like schools preparing for threats to their students or political campaigns preparing for sexual harassment claims (at least they all should be prepared regardless of what their candidate tells them). But in my experience most of the time the crisis that actually emerges isn’t what you expected and includes strange details that easily distract everyone from the main issue.

Hamilton did not have a plan titled: “What happens if one of our professors is caught leading human cloning research for an alien cult.”  What they had was a general plan for “What happens when it appears someone is going to make us look bad” that was quickly escalated to “what happens when it really is bad.” They knew who they needed to get into a meeting, and that allowed timely decision making. The communications team then had a basis to work quickly so they could get back in control of the story. The plan they had allowed them to brush aside the unimportant details – the involvement of Raëlianism was fun to talk about but didn’t change anything about the response – so they could focus on important details.

Often when faced with these kinds of strange details surrounding a crisis the people who should be leading the response get distracted and start talking about those details. When it gets really weird they really want to say “is this not my fault and not my problem” and ignore it. It doesn’t matter why just that it is your problem. Everyone will want to focus on the salacious details, but you have to focus on the important details and lead your audience to supporting your response.

These are my tips for how to plan for a crisis and building a response that allows you to stay focused:

  1. Know when to initiate your response. Develop a list of people and metrics to use to initiate a crisis response. It should include both some clear markers – e.g. a threat of violence against staff or constituents – and some fuzzier signs – e.g. anytime the ED/CEO or board chair says there is a crisis.
  2. Know who needs to be involved and how to find them. Part of what allowed Hamilton to move quickly was they knew exactly who needed to be involved in the process. Likewise you should determine which staff, board members, volunteers, consultants, etc, need to be in the loop and how you reach them quickly. And know who gets cut out when – if your board chair is on a cruise and can’t be reached until next Tuesday who do you call instead? If your director of communications is the problem you’re probably better off not having them planning the response.
  3. Prepare different types of response. You may want to monitor the situation while saying nothing; you may want to target different messages to specific audiences (your board may get a different message than your donors); you may want to try to use press contacts or avoid them. You should think about how and when to use all your communications channels as part of your response.
  4. Have metrics for testing your plan before following it. In a time of stress it can be easy to overlook important details in your response. While planning write up a checklist to run through to make sure you remembered everything that’s important. It should at least include a reminder to think about everyone’s physical safety and your legal risk (in that order). It should also probably include contacts with important constituent groups (like Hamilton’s alumni class presidents) and any internal audiences so staff and volunteers aren’t surprised by public statements.
  5. Be prepared to share aggressively. Often organizations appear to be hiding information when they share it slowly, or when they say “this is all we can release” and then are pressured into releasing more. With any given statement release everything you can – sometimes with supporting materials if you need to – and then stop.
  6. Be prepared to shut up. This correlates with the previous tip. Sometimes part of a good response will be to be quiet. Usually this will be right before and after a major statement. It gives people a chance to process your response and avoids the sense that you are leaking information in dribs and drabs.
  7. Don’t over plan. Your next crisis will not look like what you planned for, so be prepared to change course from your very first move. If you lock in to many details you will likely make your situation worse by sounding tone-def.

When you have created your draft plan you should practice using it. Some of that practice should be very practical: what do you do when a man in leadership is accused of sexual harassment or abuse? Some of it should be like the CDC and FEMA zombie drills; even if you don’t use zombies use a crisis that you think couldn’t possibly happen – if you hear someone in the office say “good thing that can’t happen here” use it as your scenario. The first makes sure you are prepared for the kinds of things that are most likely to actually happen. The second makes sure you are prepared to think outside the box and handle a messy situation to which you thought you were immune. Your organization might not do any medical research at all, but what would happen if you discovered a board member was marrying the next director of Clonaid (including aliens is almost as fun as including zombies)? What would you tell your major donors?

A good crisis response comes from being prepared for the unexpected. If your plan is flexible enough to handle the utterly expected and adapt to a staff member cloning alien zombies, you can probably handle whatever actually comes your way.

Make sure you have the pictures your site requires

One of the challenges that organizations of all shapes and sizes frequently face is getting good pictures to go with their web site design. Good images can draw in your audience but a missing or poorly displayed image risks damaging your credibility.

Frequently organizations fall in love with a site design that includes excellent pictures on every page. Each story in the design has a wonderful supporting image to highlight a person, place, or topic. Landing pages may have main images with carefully placed text and overlays to help draw the eye and keep people’s attention. Those designs and images may be great, but only if you provide new images as fast as you create new pages (often faster).

Much of the time I worked for AFSC we were lucky to have an in-house photographer. Terry Foss traveled around the world to visit, get to know, and photograph AFSC’s programs and he provided us with excellent pictures for nearly every area of our work. But even then we still had challenges getting the exact picture we wanted for the story we needed to tell the moment we wanted to tell it. In addition to his wonderful images we would dig in the archives, beg local program staff to send us more images, and sometimes we end up taking a picture of an intern’s hand or other acts of desperation.

Web designers have to make many assumptions when they design a site and one of the most important practical issues is the quality and quantity of art the client can provide. The more prominent and plentiful the image use, the more specific questions have to get; sometimes down to the level of aspect ratios and staff image editing skill level. Good designers use this information to help make sure the images in their designs are the kinds of images you can routinely provide. You should know what those assumptions are and make sure you can follow through over time.

When you first launch a site this isn’t usually a problem. A lot of time will go into the stories and images that are included during the build and migration so the initially launched site should be at least as wonderful as the designs.

But as time passes the constant need to specific kinds of images may become a burden. You will soon realize there are places that images are required for technical or stylistic reasons. Some images will have text overlays that mean the subject needs to be on the right or the left. Some spaces will be very large or very small, which impacts what subjects work well. Some will be surrounded by a background color or pattern that may clash with an otherwise ideal photograph. The more you understand this while working with your designer the more you’ll love your new site.

Hand holding a pen
Here’s that image from the Wayback Machine. The image is owned by AFSC and was published under a creative commons license.

We had to photograph an intern’s hand because at the time our home page would break if every story didn’t have an image – it was a design and technical requirement. A few months after we launched we needed to post a statement that required home page placement, but the statement had no image to go with it. I had no budget to buy a stock image and the program had no appropriate picture we could use, so one of our team members grabbed his camera and an intern and quickly shot a few pictures of the young man’s hand holding a pen. We ended up using that hand image for several statements after that as well.

So here are a few quick guidelines for making sure your web site isn’t held back by a need for art you can’t consistently provide:

  1. Make sure you have a plan for getting new pictures. There are many ways to do this so having a plan is more important that its details. It can be a staff photographer, freelance photographers, volunteer photographers, an organization owned camera that staff use, or a budget for stock photographs. The best plans are usually some combination of all these pieces.
  2. Talk with the site designer and make sure they know what you are able to provide before they start the design. Will you be able to ensure pictures for every story, blog post, and event? Do you have editorial standards about the use of images of program participants, volunteers, and staff? Does your stock image budget allow you to fill any gaps, or can you create a picture of an intern writing a statement from thin air? Can you edit those pictures to work in a variety of spaces and sizes, or do you need to assume the pictures get uploaded more or less they way they come off your camera?
  3. When you start to see designs ask your web development partners lots of questions and document their answers. Ask about every image you see in the designs. For every single image you should know what size it needs to be, how it gets loaded and changed, if is required or optional (and how things look if it’s not present), and if it requires some kind of preprocessing for an overlay or other visual effect. Make sure you understand the purpose and details for every image they show you.
  4. Try lots of variations when the site is still under development. Upload great images, terrible images, images that seem too big and too small, a sunset over a field, an ocean scene, a portrait of a baby, a team group shot, fluffy animals, flowers, and anything else you have around your computer. For each spot you can put a picture try each image and see what works and what doesn’t. No design can handle any image of any size and description equally well so make sure you understand, and can live with, the limits imposed by the design of your site.

Finally, make sure you actually follow the plan or fix it. Having a camera is only useful if someone is comfortable using it. Volunteers may not provide what you need in time to be useful or may forget to sign the releases your board requires. Budgets get cut or adjusted over time and may no longer really meet your needs. When the rubber meets the road your plan may not always work, don’t panic, just fix it. The reason you took all those notes about what you need is so that when you adjust your plan you will already know what it needs to provide to make your site successful.

Early Thoughts on Drupal Governance Change

One of the things that the Drupal community has learned in the last few weeks is that our current governance structures aren’t working in several ways. Having spent a lot of time at DrupalCon talking about these issues I figured I share a few initial thoughts for those working on our new processes.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been part of a community that was changing how it organizes itself. In my religious life I am a Quaker, and for a long time I was a member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting which is the regional organizing body for Quakers in the greater Philadelphia area. And I served for a time on several of their leadership committees. I’ve seen that 300+ year old group pass through at least three different governance structures, and while many of the fundamentals are the same, the details that matter to people also change a lot.

My great aunt put it into perspective during one of the long discussions about change. When my wife asked her for her opinion about a then pending proposal she responded that it didn’t matter much to her as long as it worked for those willing to take leadership roles at the moment.

So as the Drupal community grows through a process to change our leadership structure here are the things I think it is important for all of us to remember.

  1. It will not be perfect.  We’re human, we will make mistakes, that’s okay.
  2. It will change again. I don’t know when or why, but whatever we do will serve us for a time, and then we’ll replace it again.
  3. Most of the community won’t care most of the time. Most of the time, most of us don’t notice what Dries, the Drupal Association, Community Working Group, and all the other groups that provide vision and leadership are doing.

I think we can all agree my first point is a given. I mention it mostly because some of us will find fault in anything done going forward. We should remember the people doing this work are doing the best they can and give them support to do it well.

On the plus side, whatever mistakes we make will be temporary because Drupal and its community will outlive whatever we create this time. We’ll outgrow it, get annoyed with the flaws, or just plain decide to change it again. Whatever we build needs to be designed to be changed, improved, and replaced in the future.  Think about it like the clauses in the U.S. constitution designed to allow amends to the constitution itself.

Finally, we should remember that community and project governance is insider baseball. Understanding how and why we have the leadership we do is like watching a pitching duel on a rainy day, most baseball fans don’t enjoy those kinds of games.  Most of our community wants to use Drupal and they don’t want to have to think about how DrupalCon, Drupal.org, and other other spaces and events are managed. That will not prevent them from complaining next time there are problems, but it is a fact of life those who do care should acknowledge.

Our community is stronger than we have been giving it credit for in the last few weeks. We need to be patient and kind with each other, and we’ll get through this and the divisions that will come in the future.

Documenting your work

Programming books
Your documentation does not need to look like this.

Early in my career I spent a lot of time as the only technical person on project, and therefore believed that I didn’t need to document my work carefully since I was the only person who had to understand it later. It turned out that if a project was back burnered for a few months the details were pushed out of my mind by the details of eight other projects.

Any project that takes more than a couple hours to complete involves too many details for most people to remember for more than a few days. We often think about project documentation as something for other people – and it is – but that other person may be you in six months.

I learned to start keeping notes that I could go back to, those notes would turn into documentation that I could share with other people as the need developed. My solutions were typically ad-hoc: freeform word documents or wiki pages. For a while I had a boss who wanted every piece of documentation created by IT to fit a very predictable format and to be in a very specific system. It took two years for him to settle on the system, process, and format to use. By then I had a mountain of information in wiki pages that documented the organization’s online tools in detail, and no one else is IT had anything substantial. It was two more years before the documentation of other team members got to be as good as my ad-hoc wiki.

That’s not to say a rogue solution is best, but the solution that I used was better than his proposed setup for at least three years. That experience got me to think about what makes documentation useful.

Rules of thumb for good project documentation:

  • Write up the notes you’d want from others when coming into a project: think of this as the Golden Rule of documentation. Think about what you’d want to have if you were coming into the project six months from now. You’d want an outline of the purpose of the project and the solution used, and places they deviated from any standards your team normally uses. You’ve probably read documents that are explaining something technical to an expert that are hard for anyone else to understand – if I’m reading the documentation I want to become an expert, but I’m probably not one already.
  • Keep it easy to create and edit while working: if you have to stop what you’re doing and write your notes in a totally different environment that your day-to-day work you will not do it. Wikis, markdown files, and other similar informal solutions are more likely to actually get written and updated than any formal setup that you can’t update while doing your main work.
  • Document as you go: we all plan to go back and write documentation later and almost none of us do. When we do get back to it, we’ve forgotten half the details we need to make the notes useful to others. So admit you’re not going to get back to it and don’t plan to: write as you go and edit as you need.
  • Make sure you can come in in the middle: People skim project documentation, technical specifications, and any other large block of text. Make sure if someone has skipped the previous three sections they can either pick up where they left off, or give them directions to the parts the need to understand before continuing.
  • Track all contributions: Use a system that automatically tracks changes so you you can see contributions from others and fix mistakes. Tools like MediaWiki, WordPress, and Drupal do this internally. Markdown or text files in a code repository also have this trait. Avoid solutions like MS Word’s track changes that are meant for editing a final document not tracking revisions over time.
  • Be boldDon’t fear editing: follow the Wikipedia community’s encouragement to Be Bold. You should not fear making changes to the team’s documentation. You will be wrong in some of what you write, and you should fix any mistake you find – yours or someone else’s. Don’t get mad if someone makes a change that’s not quite right, revert the change or make a new edit and more forward.
  • There is always an audience: even if you are the only person on the project you have an audience of at least your future-self. Even if it feels like a waste in the moment having documentation will help down the road.

Remember even if you are working alone you’re on a team that includes at least yourself today and yourself in the future. That future version of you probably won’t remember everything you know right now, and will get very annoyed at you if you don’t record what they need to know. And if the rest of your team members aren’t just versions of yourself they may expressed their frustration more directly.

Looking at a project from different angles

For our 15th anniversary my wife and went to the south island of New Zealand, with a long layover in Sydney. We only had a few hours in Sydney so we went to see the Opera House and then walk through the botanical gardens next door.

As we walked around the harbor I took pictures of the opera house from several different angles. And that got me thinking about the advice I’ve been given both about photography and about my work: make sure you try things from different angles.

A classic angle of the Sydney opera house from across the harbor.

Too often all kinds of experts get into a rut and lose track of the perspective non-experts, and other experts with whom they disagree. Cable news channels like to package those ruts as two talking heads yelling at each other by calling it “debate”.

It’s an easy trap to fall into even without watching the people paid to yell at each other. Sometimes when we look at a problem twice it looks different because we changed something small, and we think we’ve seen all the valid angles. But we’ve just reinforced our sense of superiority not actually explored anything interesting yet.

When you look right at the sun a small change can have a large impact, but you may still be fundamentally in the same place with a fundamentally flawed perspective.

And sometimes you look from a new angle and something easily recognizable becomes new and different, but that’s not always an improvement. There are reasons for best practices, and sometimes we just reinvent the wheel when we try to break our own path.

You don't see pictures of the opera house from this angle often – which is probably for the best.
You don’t see pictures of the opera house from this angle often – which is probably for the best.
This angle was even worse. It's a good thing I wasn't using film for this exercise.
This angle was even worse. It’s a good thing I wasn’t using film for this exercise.

And sometimes it is important to think about the extra details that you can capture by changing perspectives and taking the time to figure out the best approach.

Opera House with sailboat
I had to wait a few minutes for the sailboat to get into a spot that made it look right.
Sometimes too much context is too distracting.
Sometimes too much context is too distracting and makes it hard to know what you’re supposed to look at.

But when you take the time to look at things from different angles, perspectives, and positions sometimes you get to discover something you didn’t know to ask about.

This little guy and an older buddy spend lots of time in the sun on these steps behind the opera house – I had no idea they were there until we were walking around.
This little guy and an older buddy spend lots of time in the sun on these steps behind the opera house – they are well known locally, but I had no idea they were there until we were walking around.

For me the best moments are those gems you find when you take the time to explore ideas and view points and discover something totally new. Nothing beats travel to help you remember to change your perspective now and again.

Picking tools you’ll love: don’t make yourself hate it on day one.

Every few years organizations replace a major system or two: the web site, CMS, CRM, financial databases, grant software, HR system, etc. And too often organizations try to make the new tool behave just like the old tool, and as a result hate the new tool until they realize that they misconfigured it and then spend 5-10 years dealing with problems that could have been avoided. If you’re going to spend a lot of money overhauling a mission critical tool you should love it from day one.

No one can promise you success, but I promise if you take a brand new tool and try to force it to be just like the tool you are replacing you are going to be disappointed (at best).  Salesforce is not CiviCRM, Drupal is not WordPress, Salsa is not Blackbaud. Remember you are replacing the tool for a reason, if everything about your current tool was perfect you wouldn’t be replacing it in the first place. So here are my steps for improving your chances of success:

  1. List the main functions the tool needs to accomplish: This is the most obvious thing to do, but make sure your list only covers the things you need to do, not the ways you currently do it. Try to keep yourself at a relatively high level to avoid describing what you have now as the required system.
  2. List the pros and cons of what you have: Every tool I’ve ever used had pluses and minuses. And most major internal systems have stakeholders who love and hate it – sometimes that’s the same person – make sure you capture both the good and bad to help you with your selection later.
    Develop a list of tools that are well known in the field: Not just tools you know at the start of the project. Make sure you hunt for a few that are new to you. You might think you’ve heard of them all cause you walked around the vendor hall at NTC last year, but I promise you there are more companies that picked a different conference to push their wares, and there are open source tools you might have missed too.
  3. Make sure every tool has a salesperson: Open Source tools can be overlooked because no one sells them to you, and that may mean you miss the perfect tool for your organization. So for open source even the playing field by having a salesperson, or champion, for the tool. This can be an internal person who likes learning new things, or an outside expert (usually paid but sometimes volunteer).
  4. Let the sales teams sell, but don’t trust them: Let sales people run through their presentations, because you will learn something along the way. But at some point you also need to ask them questions that force them off your script. Force a demo of a non-contrived example, or of a feature they don’t show you the first time. Make them improvise and see what happens.
  5. Talk to other users, and make sure you find one who is not happy: Sure your organization is unique but lots of other organizations have similar needs for the basic tools – unless you have a software-based mission you probably do not want an email system that’s totally different from everyone else’s. A good salesperson will have no trouble giving you a list of references of organizations who love the tool, but if you want the complete picture find someone who hates it. They might hate it for totally unfair reasons, but they will shed light on the rough edges you may encounter. Also make sure you ask the people who love it what problems they run into, remember nothing is perfect so everyone should have a complaint of some kind.
  6. Develop a change strategy: In addition to a data migration plan you need to have a plan that covers introducing the new tool to your colleagues, training the users, communicating to leadership the risks and rewards of the new setup, and setting expectations about any disruptions the change over may cause.  I’ve seen an organization spend nearly a half million dollars on customization of a complex toolset only to have the launch fail because they didn’t make sure the staff understood that the new tool would change their day-to-day tasks.
  7. Develop a migration plan: Plan out the migration of all data, features, and functions as soon as you have your new tool selected. This is not the same thing as your change strategy, this is nuts and bolts of how things will work. Do not attempt to do this without an expert. You made yourself an expert in the field, but not of every in-and-out of the new system: hire someone who is.  That could be a setup team from the company that makes it, a 3rd party consultant, or a new internal staff person who has experience with different instances of the tool.
  8. Get staff trained on using the new tool: don’t scrimp on staff training. Make sure they have a chance to learn how to do the things they will actually be doing on a day-to-day basis.  If you can afford to have customized training arranged I highly recommend it, if you cannot have an outside person do it, consider custom building a training for your low-level internal users yourself.
  9. Develop a plan for ongoing improvement: you will not be 100% happy 100% of the time, and over time those problems will get worse as your needs shift. So make sure you are planning to consistently improve your setup. That can take many forms and what makes the most sense will vary from tool to tool and org to org, but it probably will mean a budget so ask for money from the start and build it into your ongoing budget for the project. Plan for constant improvement or you will find a growing list of pain points that push you to redo all this work sooner than expected.You’ll notice I never actually told you to make your choice. Once you’ve completed steps 1-6 you probably will see an obvious choice, of not: guess. You have a list, you listened to 20 boring sales presentations, you’ve read blogs posts, white papers, and ad materials. You now are an expert on the market and the tools. If you can’t make a good pick for your organization, no one else can either so push aside your imposter syndrome and go with your gut. Sure you could be wrong, but do the best you can and move forward. It’s usually better to make a choice than waffle indefinitely.

Nonprofits Drive Innovation in Online Communications

I spent ten years working at a nonprofit organization wishing I had the kinds of resources that large corporations can put toward their marketing efforts. A nonprofit the organization’s web site and related marketing are usually seen as overhead, and overhead is bad, therefore budgets limited. Nonprofit budgets are tight in general which doesn’t leave a lot of extra room for fancy services, tools, and consultants.

Then I started to work with large corporations. Turns out, all that money doesn’t necessarily bring you people who know how to spend it well.  Yes the margins are bigger, and there is less complaining about the basic costs of doing business, but when it comes right down to it they aren’t any more strategic than a small scrappy team of people in the communications department of any organization large enough to have a communications team.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise.  A great deal has been written about start-up culture and ways to help companies recreate the energy, passion, and creativity of their lean early days.  And there has been a great deal written about impostor syndrome which nonprofit communications staff tend to have in spades.

Of course I’m speaking here in sweeping generalities about two massive groups, but here is what I’ve seen working with both nonprofits and for-profits:

  1. As a group nonprofit staff are there because they care about the cause(s) of the organization, and they are driven to help the organization succeed despite their lack of resources.
  2. The lack of resources — both in terms of time and money — forces NPOs to find creative solutions to their problems. They moved aggressively into social media because it was a free way to spread their message: companies then used the lessons learned by nonprofits to craft their early engagements with social media.
  3. Due to corporate donations, nonprofits actually have access to the best software tools money can buy. Salesforce, NetSuite, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, and others give nonprofits amazing discounts that allow them access to tools companies twice their size can barely afford. I used to (legally) get $20,000 server packages from Microsoft of $200. Google gives $10,000/month ad-word grants. SalesForce and NetSuite provide amazing tools at amazing prices.
  4. Nonprofits are right to believe if they had access to better tools and more money they could do even better. Tools written for nonprofits tend to be second rate (look at the vast majority of fundraising toolkits), and they are held back in the places where they need specialized software. I have friends that write this stuff, they work hard, but with literally billions less in resources they have a big hill to climb.
  5. Organizations like N-TEN have been helping nonprofits learn from each other and from the best of the for-profit world for nearly 15 years.  That community has benefited thought leaders like Beth Kanter, John Kenyon, Ryan Ozimek, and others who help NPOs focus on their goals instead of their tools.
  6. For-profit marketing staff do not believe they have anything to learn from nonprofits, and are often making mistakes that the subject of basic talks at conferences like NTC 5 years ago.

Nonprofits often struggle to figure out the right way to leverage new tools because they try to leverage them first. When traditional companies start trying to market in new spaces they sometimes make it look easy because they have a path to follow.  A path broken by nonprofits.

Always Make New Mistakes

The first major online application I wrote was a petition for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in an attempt to build support against the war in Iraq. The Iraq Peace Pledge succeed in that it gave people a place to voice their frustration and helped encourage the anti-war movement. It failed in the sense that the guy writing the software (me) had no idea what he was doing, MoveOn completely stole our thunder (gathering 100 times more names than we did), and it didn’t exactly prevent the war in Iraq.

What it did do was teach a small group of us that the online work was important, harder than we thought, and required skills we didn’t yet have.  I could list dozens of mistakes that we made in the course of the project, most of which were totally avoidable if any one of us had known then what we know now, but it was those mistakes that caused me to learn to constantly push to became better at what I do.

The biggest mistake we made was that we allowed ourselves to repeat mistakes. We were sloppy, and allowed the same errors to get posted over and over. My colleague and friend Mark looked at me at one point and said: “Let’s always make new mistakes from here on.”  And we pretty much did — for the next 10 years (although he still makes fun of me for misspelling “signatures” over and over on the peace pledge site).

“Always make new mistakes” became mantra for us and the AFSC’s Web Team. We knew that we didn’t have the resources to bring in someone else teach us everything we needed to know, we were leading projects in a medium very few people had mastered, and we were human. So it was going to be impossible to avoid mistakes, but we could make sure that we learned from our mistakes, find ways to avoid making them again, and then push into fresh territory filled with new mistakes we didn’t know existed.

I still use the slogan for my own work, and encourage it with teams I work on. People laugh the first time they hear it. But they discover I’m very serious when they see me adjust my work process and products to deal with mistakes I failed to avoid during the previous project. And I invite them to set the same standards for themselves.

We all need to work hard to identify our mistakes and come up with ways to avoid them.  Some mistakes are easy to see and fix: if you have poor spelling, make sure you have someone double checking your writing.  Some mistakes are harder to see: if you use the wrong metrics you may appear to be succeeding while actually failing. And some mistakes are hard to admit: creating a web applications with very little experience meant I made just about every security blunder possible, and since I knew more about web development than anyone else around me, I resisted attempts by others to point out places the tools were at risk.

Think hard about your work, look for mistakes, own them as scars you earned doing something new, and figure out how to make sure you make a different mistake next time. You will be a better person and professional and better prepared to change the world.