superheroWe talk a lot about storytelling in the nonprofit sector: how stories build through their first, second, and third acts and how all story arcs need beginnings, middles, and ends.

When I do storytelling training, I compare the stories that nonprofits tell to a TV series. You have the short-lived, episodic stories that start and end all in one hour, each week. These are like the stories most nonprofits tell in their newsletters and blogs.

But there are much larger story arcs too, narratives that build over weeks and months. These are the bigger seasonal or serial stories that each episode feeds into.  When I talk about these longer story arcs, I ask nonprofits what they want to be known for, because that’s the heart of the season-long story. It’s how we see character, reputation, and purpose develop over time.

We’ve heard some great episodic stories about what happened last week with Give Local America Day.  In Act I, thousands of nonprofits in more than 40 communities across the US, after months of planning, launched their Giving Days with great excitement and anticipation. In Act II, millions of dollars flowed in, but then the system slowed as Kimbia’s giving platform failed. In Act III, community foundations and/or individual nonprofits rallied with creative Plan Bs that saved the day! (Of course, this isn’t the case everywhere, but it’s certainly the lemons-into-lemonade narrative everyone is focusing on publicly.)

But what I am really interested in is the longer, serial story. It will take months to play out. I’m actively encouraging people to keep this serial story alive by posting their own stories and commentary.

Let’s take a look at some of the likely heroes and villains in the longer story . . .

Likely Heroes: Community Foundations

I’ve loved seeing community foundations step up to lead Giving Days. They’ve shown genuine community leadership, rather than just being philanthropic money managers.  I have been hired by several community foundations in the last few years to provide training to their community nonprofits on what to do before and after a Giving Day to maximize the experience.

But community foundations are in a tenuous position right now.

Will they do a couple of quick post-mortem surveys and debriefs and be done with the whole miserable experience? Will they talk only to themselves and keep the lessons learned within the comfort zone of their “members only” world?

Or will they do the heroic thing, and lead transparent and inclusive conversations about what worked well and what didn’t? Will they shine a light not just on the successes but also on weaknesses in the sector so that collectively we can find solutions?  Peter Panepento shared some ideas for community foundations in an opinion piece today (paid Chronicle subscribers only.)

My bet is on community foundations doing the right thing, and being heroes in this story.

Likely Villain: Kimbia and Other Cavalier Tech Providers

In my previous commentary on this blog and Facebook, I tried to be sympathetic about Kimbia’s tech fail. I work online and am well-aware that much of my business is out of my personal control.

But then yesterday Kimbia “apologized” and offered a “mitigation plan.” Note that this press release does not contain any words like apology, regret, or sorry. 

Some of the mitigations are nothing more than typical marketing strategies. Limited-time free software (that didn’t work)?  Free fundraising training (that people can get lots of other places from people they still trust?).  Can you hear the collective “Uh, gee, thanks, but no thanks!” across America? These are great lead development strategies for nonprofits that have never worked with you before; terrible move with customers you just screwed over.  

Let’s talk about the money. Kimbia will refund about 1/3 of the fees associated with the donations that were processed while the platform was still working. Seriously? The platform was down during primetime. They should refund all of it. It still won’t cover near what the nonprofits spent in staff time dealing with Kimbia’s failures, but it’s the right thing to do.

The CEO will give up three months salary and pay it “to organizations that participated in Give Local America.”  How much does this guy make and which of the 13,000 nonprofits who participated are we talking about exactly? Is everyone getting a Starbucks gift card or what?

My suggestion: The company should be making 5-figure donations to each of the 40+ participating community foundations that they can use to fund whatever makes sense in their own communities to increase the capacity of their local nonprofits to fundraise online. That might actually create some lasting change. Yes, I mean something like $20,000 x 40+ = $800,000+. Do it over three years if you have to. It’s a better way to spend money than offering free webinars and discounted software. Show us you are in it for real.

But more than the money, Kimbia and tech companies like them need to drop the cockiness and condescension. So let us get this straight: You totally screw over thousands of nonprofits with your incompetence, but you think providing free access to your products and training by your experts with a little cash on the side is some kind of make-up gift to the sector? And nonprofits are such sad sacks that they have no choice but to forgive and forget?

How about admitting that you totally screwed up by essentially coercing community foundations into participating in your copyrighted giving day and using your software, completely overpromising and overselling, and then flat-out failing them? Surely at some point, with all of these new communities signing on, someone at Kimbia said, “Whoa! We’re at capacity. We can’t grow this fast. No more partners this year.” Either that person was ignored or the person who should have said it didn’t. Either way, somebody screwed up big time.

If the Kimbias of the world really want to be treated like partners instead of opportunists and to move from the villain to the hero column, they need to help answer the question Beth Kanter posed yesterday: Does our sector really lack the resources to invest in the technology infrastructure to scale generosity?  They need to work together.

I’m not saying all tech companies serving nonprofits are villains. Just the ones that think they have all the answers and are doing the nonprofit world some huge favor by selling software. There are a lot of great tech companies being run by smart people who have some of the answers for the nonprofit sector. I challenge them to speak out and to lead among their peers.

Tech companies, please stop trying to dominate the nonprofit market and start collaborating with each other to be genuinely of service to the sector. 

Too Soon To Tell:  Leaders at Individual Nonprofits

Nonprofit staff and leaders have several different paths through this story.

Will they use the experience to shore up their own tech prowess, so they aren’t entirely dependent on partnerships with community foundations and tech companies? Will contingency planning with workable Plan Bs become the norm?

Or will they use this dismal experience as an excuse to back away from online fundraising and community collaboration?

How Will the Story End?

Will we collectively as members of the nonprofit community keep writing this story together, having the tough conversations and working through creative solutions? Will heroes emerge who help us learn everything we can from this situation and find a better way?

Or will we just let the story happen to us, and let the villains win, because we refused to stick with the story until the end? Will we let our impatience and busyness get in the way of the hard work required for the happy ending?

What will we learn about the character, reputation, and purpose of all of the characters in this story? I’ll let you know what I see as the story unfolds, and I hope you’ll share what you see too.


Published On: May 10, 2016|Categories: Communications Channel Management, Fundraising|