Overhauling the Education System – Not an If but a When?

The debate over who is to blame for the state of public education in America (the usual suspects are “unqualified” teachers, “lazy” students, “absentee” or “helicopter” parents or “all-powerful” unionsis hardly new, but it never seems to get old, especially in an election year.  New research from the Brookings Institution highlights the fact that classroom materials may have as much of an impact on student learning as teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, while teacher effectiveness is now legislated and tied to compensation, there is little data on the overall effectiveness of the very instructional materials teachers use due to the logistics and costs associated with such a large-scale study.

Perhaps instead of micromanaging teachers, textbooks and lunches,  the thing that will bring real change is – an actual REAL CHANGE.  A paper from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation argues that secondary education in the United States should be re-conceived and rebuilt to better address variations in learning and the ineffectiveness of institutional, standardized educational opportunities.  The brief, It takes a whole society: opening up the learning landscape in the high school years by Robert Halpern of the Erikson Institute looks at the drawbacks of institutional learning, as well as examples of secondary education in other countries and how such approaches might be (and already are) implemented in American schools.  Methods to increase student engagement and practical problem-based learning while lessening the grip of traditional institutions and models (labor unions, school administration, classroom learning) include,

  • year-round youth apprenticeships,
  • quality Career-Technical Education (CTE), and
  • more and varied off–campus learning opportunities.


Would such a model result in a better educational and vocational foundation for young adults? Would the high school experience described in the paper lessen the pressure to follow it with four or more years  (at a total average cost of  $26,000-$100,000) for a Bachelors degree in order to develop talent, skills and enhance hire-ability?  Does our educational system really require a severe overhaul to better meet the needs of youth academically, socially and developmentally?


What Should NonprofitsThink About in 2012?

Although there are glimmers of hope that things will soon “get back to normal,” my thoughts on what nonprofits should watch for in 2012 are based on the premise that no matter how much we wish it to be so, there isn’t any returning to a pre-recession world. The landscape of the sector is changing – has changed already – due to both crisis and innovation. Unfortunately, the bleak funding outlook has muted any excitement over the adoption of technologies that have resulted in more and better data visualization and engagement across sector boundaries.

These times call for nonprofits to stay true to their mission but to let go of the past, and face 2012 eager, nimble and fearless.


Showcasing Your Data

Look for the once cutting-edge trend of infographics to become even more widespread, if not the unofficial standard, in nonprofit marketing and reporting materials, while large, data-rich organizations make use of web-based interactive viewers to share information with stakeholders.

Annual reports will be stripped down and simplified, (hopefully) resulting in lower costs while allowing for a far more striking presentation of data. That said, simplified doesn’t mean simple, as telling a story via numbers, headings and brightly hued graphics may present more of a challenge than the emotive narratives we are so used to cranking out. Save those stories, including videos, to feature on your webpage and YouTube channel, and as content for e-newsletters.


The Social Media Mini-Backlash

I have heard the murmurs among nonprofit professionals that social media isn’t working as promised, or is (still) too nebulous to play a noticeable role in an organization’s strategy. It is a criticism that is due – it is even happening in the for-profit sector. After a few years of listening to experts extol the benefits of social media for nonprofits, executives want to see impact via the bottom line, not the weekly number of followers, likes or re-tweets. So, cue the new meme: perhaps nonprofits shouldn’t put SO many of their eggs in the social media basket and instead concentrate on tried and true traditional methods of communications and fundraising.

Well, before you cancel your Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Constant Contact accounts and run to the mimeograph machine…

Social media utilization is, no must be, part of the organizational culture, modeled from the top down and integrated across departments/sites/states/etc. Take a pause in early 2012 to revisit your strategy and social media’s place in it. Work in small feedback loops so that you have the ability to experiment with the technology and messaging methods to find what works best for you, but do not, please do not let your accounts go silent.

There is not going to be a hot new trend that people will abandon it for, social media will change and diversify, but it will not go away.  Frankly, it should be utilized more and in tandem with email and other communications, marketing and fundraising tools.


Shifting Structures

Fiscal constraints may have finally done what years of cautionary tales of nonprofits inadvertently drifting into the silo mentality could not: the merging of departments, and likewise, goals, strategies and priorities. Since they were already changing the organizational charts, some also tweaked their traditional hierarchies to those with more horizontal communication.

The move toward the non-hierarchical models will continue, particularly in new nonprofits. In preparing this post, I was surprised to find that many service and advocacy organizations highlight their non-traditional organizational structures in copy and hiring pitches. This slow but steady shift is a major managerial trend to watch over the next decade. Will established agencies, leaders and board members accept a team-based linear model featuring open dialogue, collaborative efforts, and transparency?

In 2012 we may also see social media have a larger internal presence in nonprofits (especially large, multi-site organizations) as a way for leadership, staff and volunteers to share information, collaborate on ideas and work as communities or teams connected to the larger hub.  The possibilities of such a concept are laid out by Shawn Graham in his piece Using Social Media To Improve Employee Communication, Collaboration, And Even Compensation (at the Fast Company Blog) about Shopify’s UNICORN, their on-site social network.


Everything Evidence-Based 

Funder demand for anything deemed evidence-based continues to grow, although the misuse of that term and its direct linkage to program funds have caused it to be viewed with suspicion by some in the sector. With nonprofits already cutting budgets, future government funding in jeopardy, and the need for services on the rise, expect accountability to center on realistic expectations of what can and should be collected, analyzed and reported in a timely manner.

Foundations will continue to the lead the way in improving evaluation capacity in nonprofits, encouraging it to become part of the culture rather than handled by one department or only utilized for grant-funded projects. Luckily, this role also provides them with the opportunity to  learn of any misapplication of evidence-based programs – those used in an environment and/or with a target population divergent from that which was intended, or watered down to make service implementation quicker and cheaper. Service agencies and foundations have a responsibility to the community and the  sector to guard against this practice.


Sector Overlap and A(nother?) Leadership Gap

Nonprofits will find increased competition for the next generation of passionate, service-focused  leaders as the popularity of corporate social responsibility programs and non-government organizations (NGOs), and opportunities for social entrepreneurs continue to grow. We have only scratched the surface in exploring potential collaboration and funding patterns, and future downturns or austerity measures will keep this topic at the forefront of planning discussions. While young talent may have gotten their feet wet in the traditional nonprofit sector through volunteering, internships or entry-level positions, the sectors are blending, and it is no longer the only way to work for social change.

The 2011 Daring to Lead study reported that 58 percent of nonprofit executives felt depleted by interactions with government funders. Would it really be a surprise, then, if up-and-coming nonprofit stars choose against the continuous struggle for government funding and opted for a leadership role at privately backed or hybrid programs?

One last note on what to watch in 2012: keep an eye on the Occupy movement. If their applications for nonprofit status are approved, they become part of the sector, a peer, and potential collaborator or competitor for donor attention and other resources

Congratulations, Your Nonprofit has Succeeded. Now What?

What would happen if the very reason for your nonprofit’s existence disappeared tomorrow? Would your office be in celebration or survival mode? Would you be paralyzed with uncertainty or prepared to redefine your organization’s (or your personal) mission statement?

In the post Defining Victory – What If It’s Cured? at the Leadership For Good blog, Mike Cassidy challenges his readers to contemplate the answer to the question “what’s next?” What a straightforward yet mildly portentous question! If you aren’t working to end something (a disease, a condition, a policy, a prejudice) and by doing so greatly increase the quality of life for those you serve and the larger community, then what are you working toward?

So, what would YOU do?

2011 – Leadership, Change-makers, Millenials

What does your nonprofit look like from the perspective of an entry-level young professional?

Allison Jones analyzes the major challenges for nonprofits and young professionals in 2011 in the post 7 leadership challenges facing young people and nonprofits at her blog. Do Millennials work as effectively with other generations? How might nonprofits best engage (and embrace) the change-makers? Is your nonprofit currently practicing inclusive leadership?

If you are looking for an interesting discussion of nonprofits, social media, social justice and Generation Y – bookmark Ms. Jones’ blog.

Not exactly sure what the differences are between Generation X or Y (or not sure if you should care)? The 2004 article Generation X and The Millennials: What You Need to Know About Mentoring the New Generations by Diane Thielfoldt and Devon Scheef (available online at the American Bar Association Website) provides a brief and useful overview, as well as tips on mentoring both.