Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Exposing the Elephants by Pamela Wilcox

This review was originally published at another site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly.

Running a nonprofit organization in the first decade of the twenty-first century can be a challenge for even the most experienced leader. Technology and the needs of society seem to be changing at an accelerating rate, and most organizations — even those with abundant resources — are finding it harder and harder to adapt.

But the biggest problem, says Pamela J. Wilcox, is that various "elephants in the room" make it almost impossible for nonprofits to question organizational norms and performance, which in turn makes it difficult for them to remain average, much less achieve greatness. In Exposing the Elephants: Creating Exceptional Nonprofits, Wilcox addresses some of those taboos and, in the process, explores a variety of ways nonprofits can strengthen their leadership and improve their performance.

To that end, she focuses on five specific "elephants": volunteers becoming mission; board and constituent realities in conflict; small clatter drowning out critical sound; congeniality trumping performance; and rhetoric replacing results. Each elephant, she notes, comes with its own "herd." Right behind rhetoric one often runs into hubris. Who decides, for example, that a new symphony hall is "world class"? "That's the motto of the Read My Lips elephant," she adds. "Say something loud enough and often enough and people will believe it is true."

Moreover, while many nonprofits enjoy a favorable public image, Wilcox argues that that view often rests on a series of misperceptions. A closer examination of how Americans actually view nonprofit organizations — they don't make a profit, they don't worry about competition, they don't use concrete benchmarks to quantify performance — reveals the shaky ground on which the reputations of many nonprofits exist.

By her own admission, Wilcox hopes to spark a revolution — a revolution, as she describes it, that's sorely needed. But, as she's well aware, it's not as if her elephants have gone unnoticed. "Insiders are always discussing issues like the loss of mission focus, mismatch of board/CEO organization mindset, confusion of governance and management roles, absence of volunteer/staff teamwork, and lack of lasting results," she writes. Unfortunately, volunteer and staff leadership rarely engage in meaningful dialogue about the root causes of their problems, and as a result change, when it does occur, is incremental and fleeting.

While Wilcox encourages her readers to find solutions to their problems by reexamining resources already at their disposal, she doesn't expect every answer to be found there. "The solutions to improved performance, sustained mission, and innovative new services and programs may lie inside," she says, "but it requires real nonprofit leadership to tap into this rich wealth of knowledge and challenge people for answers."

Fortunately, Wilcox offers a number of examples of the kinds of conflict that prevent nonprofits from realizing their full potential and suggests ways for executives to deal with them. What's more, her straightforward writing style and the book's layout make it easy for readers to peruse the chapters to find specific advice that applies to their particular situation.

In the final analysis, Wilcox understands that organizational culture problems are not easily resolved, and that the mere fact of addressing them can create additional problems — not least because most people are more comfortable dealing with the devil they know. That needn't paralyze your organization, she writes. Just remember the old joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. While Wilcox's answers may not always be appetizing, her non-nonsense advice is likely to sustain readers who are ready to embrace change.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

I picked up a book recently that looks like it'll be a big help to me and other aspiring writers. It's called The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, who is a literary agent. (Full disclosure: I don't get a damn thing from that plug.)Though I found it on the discount rack at Barnes & Noble, it's more than a discount item, it's a bargain. I've read several books filled with tips on how to hone your prose and sell it to the right people to move you on the career path to poverty (we write because we love it!), but this book is different. His tips are more practical and matter-of-fact. For example, look at every place you use more than one adjective or (God forbid) adverb; decide which is the most pertinent and cut the other one. Sure, you'll lose a little description from time to time, but most likely you were writing with too much anyway, so let it go. And the exercises are helpful too. From the chapter on adjectives and adverbs, use the first page of your manuscript and identify every adjective and adverb on the page. Now read the page without them. Clearer? Are some of them necessary? Now read the words you removed. Are they commonplace and cliche? Improve or remove. I'm concising his already tight description, but the point is clear.This book may well leap to the top of my list of most helpful books for writers working on their manuscript, and I'll pass it along to my friends who write. Anyone with other suggestions -- and why you suggest it -- feel free to comment!