The non-profits and faith-based organizations that I work with often have lofty purposes and are quite confident of their great purpose.  The problem is that all too often they cannot explain it to donors and those they interact with on a daily basis.  Sometimes their own employees are not so clear about it.  Especially if you ask them to leave the lofty language aside and identify clear and easy-to-understand ways in which they impact their world for good.

I realized this in listening to an interview with Roy Spence about his new book - It’s not what you sell it’s what you stand for.  He talked about the clear purposes of Southwest Airlines (Democratizing travel with low prices so everyone has a chance to fly) and Wal-mart (Low prices that help people live better lives).  And I started to ask myself – How many non-profits and faith-based organizations groups can describe themselves so clearly?  Yes, your organization may exist to save the planet or save souls, but what do you DO that clearly makes this happen?  Not an easy question — but one worth exploring.

I am a big fan of Seth Godin’s blog and so I am re-producing this great post.   This is so perfect for many of the organizations that I work with
To read more of Seth, go to his blog here.

A hierarchy of failure worth followingNot all failures are the same. Here are five kinds, from frequency = good all the way to please-don’t!

FAIL OFTEN: Ideas that challenge the status quo. Proposals. Brainstorms. Concepts that open doors.

FAIL FREQUENTLY: Prototypes. Spreadsheets. Sample ads and copy.

FAIL OCCASIONALLY: Working mockups. Playtesting sessions. Board meetings.

FAIL RARELY: Interactions with small groups of actual users and customers.

FAIL NEVER: Keeping promises to your constituents.

The thing is, in their rush to play it safe and then their urgency to salvage everything in the face of an emergency, most organizations do precisely the opposite. They throw their customers or their people under the bus (“we had no choice”) but rarely take the pro-active steps necessary to fail quietly, and often, in private, in advance, when there’s still time to make things better.

Eric Ries gives a short and interesting presentation on start-ups that the non-profit world can learn from. Eric starts by debunking a common idea – that entrepeneurs start with a great insight.  He suggests that the initial idea often has many flaws.  What makes for a successful start-up is the ability to “pivot” and develop the idea over time in way that meets a true need.  And the best way to do this is to make many small experiments.

If there is a word in the non-profit world that people seem to fear it is “experiment.”  I hear “that’s the way we do it here” 10 times for every one time I hear “Lets experiment with that.”  All too often our non-profit cultures are ones that encourage stability, not change.  But the point is not really about stability or change – its about serving needs.  If that is your lens, then you start asking to address unmet needs and how to serve better.  Even if it means you have to experiment.