The Nonprofit between Scylla and Charydbis

the Nonprofit between Scylla & Chaydbis

In my Boston University Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership program, we always get up to the edge of talking about the interplay between resource development and need, but then it always seems to drift away. So this is my contribution: if you swing too far towards either (ignoring the other), you’re toast.

And for the record, available resources and community need are external to your organization. Also, my art is lousy. And if you find this interesting, you should read my previous post on Community Engagement.

How to write a cover letter for a job application

Example cover letter with explanation
Download this as a PDF

I have now had a couple friends ask me to help them prepare job applications, so I pulled together some personal advice on what I feel is the most important part of applying for a job: the cover letter.

As someone who has applied for many jobs, and also reviews about 200-300 job applications every year, I believe that crafting a strong and compelling cover letter—having researched positions you have a fair chance (or a strong argument) of filling, of course—gives the best return on investment; more so than agonizing over your resume itself!

Here’s why:

When I review applications, my primary job is to weed applicants out of the process as quickly as possible. I’m quickly scanning. At this level, the resume matters, but that’s only because I’m checking to see if you are severely under (or over, which will draw scrutiny) qualified, have any gaps (no job experience) and if there is any glaring deficiencies like misspelled words (they jump out at you) or just poor aesthetics (this is supposed to be a synthesis of your professional experience boiled down to just 2 pages; it had better be vertically balanced—not as an aesthetic judgement, but as evidence of your attention to detail and level of perfectionism).

This cursory scan is also seeking out things I recognize: names of schools or businesses, places, specific brand names or techniques, turns of phrase. These will raise my interest, but not necessarily make me weight your resume any better. These mostly are due to chance, so unless you know something that wasn’t mentioned in the ad (maybe you know from a friend who is also an employee that the company loves a specific management technique), don’t worry about this.

You should not worry about being weeded out if you’ve done your homework: at this point, I’m not looking for the best applicant, I’m getting rid of the applicants who clearly are not even in the top 50% (or better, depending on what I’m filling). I’m looking for an applicant that “looks” like the best applicant

So now that I’ve judged appearances, I judge personality and character, and that’s where the cover letter comes in.

The cover letter does more than demonstrate you can competently communicate; it shows you know what you are applying for (I don’t want to receive your scattergun blast); that you have critical thinking skills and can synthesize important details from the posted ad and relate them to your own self; and that you are a human being who is confident in their abilities and wants me to benefit from them (I receive a surprising amount of whining).

The cover letter is your chance to make a compelling argument as to why I should hire you (or at least give you an interview). The fact is, you will probably have worked hardest—throughout your entire potential employment—on getting the job in the first place. So if this is your best, it had better be good.

So that’s my spiel on why you should agonize over your cover letter, not your resume. Your cover letter is your thesis, the resume is just the primary source.

Lessons from the 1960s

A few weeks ago, I listened to Bill Ayers interviewed NPR’s Fresh Air. As an interview, it wasn’t very good, but Ayers himself said some really interesting things, which I went through and transcribed:

You cannot live a political life—you can’t live a moral life—if you’re not willing to open your eyes and see the world more clearly; see some of the injustice that is going on. Try to make yourself aware of what’s happening in the world.

And when you are aware, you have a responsibility to act. And when you act, you have a responsibility to doubt. And when you doubt you can’t get paralyzed; you have to use that doubt to act again. And that then becomes the cycle. You open your eyes, you act, you doubt; you act, you doubt.

Without doubt, you become dogmatic and shrill and stupid.

But without action, you become cynical and passive and a victim of history—and that should never happen.

While the question was specifically about whether Ayers had doubts about what he did, I think what he says about doubt and action being symbiotic to be very powerful. And its nice to hear about this as his view from age, preceding that longer statement with “I live with doubt today, everyday, all the time. And it is different than being young and certain and jacking yourself up to do certain things…”.

Ayers also talked about American democracy in a way that resonates very strongly with me—and where I draw my patriotism from:

To me, in a wild and diverse democracy like this, each of us should be trying to talk to lots and lots and lots of people outside of our comfort zone and community. And that injunction goes even further for political leaders. They should talk to everyone. They should listen to everyone. And at the end of the day, they should have a mind of their own.

And I don’t want to get into the ethics or morality of what he (or the collective for which he identified with) did. Stick to the didactic.

Interview Questions

In the news is Obama’s top-level administration application questions, e.g.

Please furnish copies of all resumes and biographical statements issued by you or any other entity at your discretion or with your consent within the past 10 years.

and while some others seemed to have histrionics about it, I happen to agree with the asking of the questions. At least, based on the assumption that the emphasis is on transparency and a complete as possible picture of the applicant, i.e, these are weeding questions to determine an applicant’s veracity and seriousness in applying, not that any particular item would automatically disqualify someone (at least, I assume this based upon my experience as a hirer and constructor of applications)

This led to some discussion with peers, and I was happy to hear that the first question people ask of interviewees is

How did you prepare for this interview?

Strengthening Organizations through Community Engagement

The following is from a handout I created for the CTCnet Conference in which I presented on capacity building models for community engagement. You can download the handout with worksheet (PDF), or read the overview below.

Introduction to Community Engagement

The core competency for any organization—private or nonprofit, funder or grantee—is learning to manage change while maintaining high performance on standard functions and simultaneously building capacity to learn and evolve.

—Evaluations of Capacity Building: Lesson from the Field,Alliance for Nonprofit Management

Communities form the context in which nonprofit organizations operate. Driven by community needs and powered by community resources, successful organizations must continually assess how their organization’s mission and programs fit into the evolving landscape of their communities.

Every organization has the ability to adapt and succeed, but may lack the tools and guiding ideas to make sense of the situations they face. Organizations that are continually expanding their capacity to create their future require the information and tools needed to successfully engage their community.

Building an organization that can adapt and thrive requires two main competencies:

  1. The organization regularly assesses community needs and resources

  2. The organization regularly responds to new/emerging needs and resources

Building these two competencies into an organization with limited abilities and resources requires that the organization seeks innovative methods to create community participation and collaboration.

Community Engagement

“…community engagement is the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people. It is a powerful vehicle for bringing about environmental and behavioral changes that will improve the health of the community and its members. It often involves partnerships and coalitions that help mobilize resources and influence systems, change relationships among partners, and serve as catalysts for changing policies, programs, and practices.”

—Stephen B. Fawcett, Work Group for Community Health and Development

Community engagement supports your organization’s mission, programs and capacity by ensuring they remain relevant to community needs and environmental forces. Developing your organizations Community Engagement competency is Capacity Building. This may include the creation of:

  • Assessment of Community Opportunities and Dangers

  • Interpretation of your mission/programs and create messages for specific audiences

  • Development of programs that meet new/emerging needs

  • Creation of partnerships that generate or share resources and information

  • Mobilization of people and resources (internal, external and potential) to make achievements

  • Processes to invite and accept community feedback

  • Opportunities to invite community members into your organization and leadership

In the context of community engagement, the creation and sharing of resources goes beyond just financial resources. It may include: human resources (staff and volunteer time), physical resources (office space, materials and in-kind donations), and social-resources (word-of-mouth, recognition, legitimacy, “buzz”). Additionally, community engagement strategies may have benefits beyond the scope of their initial purposes.

5 Core Questions of Community Engagement

** - Do we know what the community needs? **

  1. Are we asking the community what it needs?

  2. Does everyone in the community know what it is we do for them?

  3. Are we inviting the community to help us help them?

  4. Are we using our organization to its fullest potential?

Community Engagement as an Ongoing Process

In order to be successful, Community Engagement should be approached as a practical, time- and resource-bound process; the goal is not to produce a complex or exhaustive plan that is impossible to implement. Instead, community engagement should be viewed as a series of ongoing and/or incremental strategies and achievable initiatives that seek to identify and engage specific groups within the communities your organization operates within. This process involves:

  1. Developing Community Engagement Strategies

  2. Determine the Goals of the Plan

  3. Plan Out Who to Engage

  4. Develop Engagement Strategies for Those Individuals You Already Know

  5. Develop Engagement Strategies of Those Individuals You Do NOT Already Know

  6. Prioritize those Activities

  7. Create an Implementation Plan (strategy)

  8. Monitor Your Progress (measurement)

  9. Maintain those Relationships (sustainability)

A Basic Logic Model

Problem Statements and Goals

When seeking to design a Community Engagement initiative, assessing needs and converting them into a Problem Statement and Goals to address it can be difficult. Two questions to ask are:

What are the core-competencies/abilities/resources/skills of our organization that are not being fully-utilized within the community?


What strategies or initiatives would significantly impact our ability to effectively offer/expand programs or maintain the capacity of our organization? (size, scope, resources, volunteers, etc.)

These sections should seek to define the Who, What, and Where of your proposal.

Capacity Building Logic Models vs. Program Logic Models

Both Capacity Building Projects and Programs share the same Logic Model structure. The primary difference between the two is that the goals of Programs relate to specific changes that will take place within clients or individuals served by the program. In comparison, Capacity Building projects have goals that alter the programs, structure or systems of the organization itself.

Rationales, Assumptions and External Factors

Rationales are the Why of your proposal. What questions might someone raise as to the efficacy of the endeavor and how would you respond to them? What knowledge or experience do you have that would aid in explaining why such a project would succeed?

Assumptions are existing resources, skills or competencies that are already in place and your project will rely upon (but may not directly affect). Thinking critically about Assumptions will help you interpret your project for people who may not be knowledgeable about your organization or community.

External Factors describe issues or events that are outside the scope of your project but may help or hinder it. These may take place within the organization (e.g. staff or leadership changes) or outside of the organization (e.g. economic or social crises).

Resources and Activities

Below are some activities that could be incorporated into existing programs or communication strategies. It’s important to note which of these are 1-way and which are 2-way, which might be more or less effective in your community (or for certain groups within your community) and how the feedback generated will be incorporated into your organizations services and strategies.

  • Community interviews/Face-to-face meetings

  • Informal meetings

  • Briefings

  • Workshops

  • Public meetings and hearings

  • Panel discussion, brain-storming

  • Shared Initiatives and Partnerships

  • Public notice

  • Fact sheets

  • Telephone contacts

  • Telephone Hotline

  • Door-to-door canvassing

  • Bulletin Boards

  • Posters Facility tours

  • Field Trips

  • Special events

  • Radio

  • Television

  • Films/Screenings

  • Exhibits

  • Internet Sites or Online Communities

  • Newsletter, Newspaper insert

  • News conference

  • Press-kits

  • Advisory Boards

  • Volunteer Development

  • Program Development

Measuring Outputs and Outcomes

Outputs are tangible products that are produced as a part of your project. They may include documentation, lists of contact information, curriculum or communications pieces. Outputs are the easiest to measure (they have been produced or have not) and also may produce the longest-lasting benefits because they will continue to exist beyond the completion of activities and may contribute to or influence further projects or strategies.

Outcomes are the results or impact of the activities your project performs. These outcomes should directly relate to producing the goals you have outlined for the project. Outcomes should be phrased in terms of change and be measureable. Outcomes can be split into short, medium and long-term parts.

  1. Short Term Outcomes are the results you expect see immediately:_ numbers of volunteers, hours of programming, dollars raised, etc. (often numbers of things) _

  2. Intermediate Outcomes are the results you want to see over more time: _increased name-recognition, program satisfaction, communications through a particular medium, etc. (often measured as percentages, e.g. percentage of people strongly satisfied, or percentage of clients referred through a website) _

  3. Long-term Outcomes are the results you hope to see eventually: _greater access to resources, greater stability, feelings of support or recognition, etc. (often general feelings or perceptions one might acquire from personal stories or interviews) _

More Resources

Evaluations of Capacity Building: Lessons from the Field (Book), Alliance for Nonprofit Management

Online Engagement Strategies and Skills, NTEN “We Are Media Project”,

Introduction to Community Engagement, Help 4 Nonprofits,

Seven Areas of Nonprofit Excellence, New York Times Company Nonprofit Excellence Awards,

Measuring Innovation, Skoll Foundation & Foundation Strategy Group,

Spitfire Strategies Communications Tools: Smart Chart, Activation Point

Logic Model Development Guide, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Equally good alternatives to collaboration

Yesterday I posted an article that sought to give a broader frame to the idea of cross-sector nonprofit collaboration: placing collaboration within a process of negotiation to create new value. Today I will break down negotiation a little bit further to show why I think it’s important to take a broader frame of things and maybe even get semantic. Updated to add: :-)

When I’m talking about negotiation, I’m really talking about one particular piece of community engagement. Community engagement is all about self-evaluation (what can we offer the community?), communications/outreach (sending and receiving), and creating opportunities for participation—leadership, governance, programming and volunteerism all included. Negotiation is the piece where you are actively communicating with specific members of the community: individuals, groups, organizations, businesses and government.

So if collaboration is just one option within negotiation, what are the others? To that I really like the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Management Model:

Assertiveness (Y-Axis) is the extent to which you attempt to satisfy your own concerns, values, or interests.

Cooperativeness (X-Axis) is the extent to which you attempt to satisfy their conncerns, values or interests.

It’s designed specifically for individual conflict management situations, but I think it really helps to illuminate the different ways you can interact with another party that intentionally produces an outcome.

What I like about the instrument is that it’s non-judgemental; none of the strategies are intrinsically the best; instead the best is the one that is most effective or appropriate in the situation at hand. Not every situation can be collaborative because of limited time, resources, or competing values and interests.

Understanding the different approaches you can take to—as I said yesterday—create value, is important and provides a broader framework with which you can understand your organization’s place in the community, and act to positively and iteratively transform its actions.

How to create cross-sector nonprofit value


I really like this post from Entry Level Living about the need for nonprofits and for-profits to collaborate in these dicy economic times. She lays out some good examples of collaboration and ties it into a compelling sandwich. But it also begins with a an false cliche (nonprofits war with the for-profits) and doesn’t actually get beyond the the assumption that collaboration is an intrinsic good. The interesting and unanswered piece (for anyone who isn’t a millennial, like the Allison of Entry Level Living and I) is: why the hooey should we care about collaboration?

The answer: you shouldn’t. You should care about creating value, collaboration is just a means to getting there (and not the only one, at that). Entry Level Living lays out some fine examples that do create value, but doesn’t provide a strict method for thinking about value-creation.

So let’s talk about value:

Nonprofits tend to talk more about values—our mission, our vision, our culture of caring—than the value (no ‘s’) we create. Most of the value we do talk about is tied up into our values. The value theory of nonprofits mostly has to do with creating moral goods: things someone is morally obligated to strive for (education, self-reliance, non-violence, positive familial and community relations, etc.). In nonprofit parlance that is called Social Value.

We tend not to talk about the Economic Value we have: our brand and name-recognition; our well-developed skills or expertise; and our general social authority and legitimacy (a fancy way of saying people trust us)… to name a few.

While Social Value is good (duh!), it has no meaning in cross-sector collaboration: it’s just not the business of business. Economic Value is meaningful for cross-sector collaboration, and that’s where nonprofits should be spending their time. If you’ve ever heard someone say “ Monetize your Core Competencies”, they’re talking about your Economic Value, not your Social one.

So now that you know about value, how do you create it in cross-sector collaboration? To begin with, we’re going to toss the word collobaration and replace it with a broader and more neutral term: negotiation. While collaboration may be a strategy within negotiation, negotiation encompasses the entire scope of communication that you may be engaged in.

Cross-sector negotiation means thinking of creative ways to combine your nonprofit’s Economic Value with a for-profit’s Economic Value in such a way that you create more value than existed in the first place.. In negotiation theory, this is called “joint value”. In more metaphorical terms, you’ve just enlarged the pie.

For example, if you’ve ever had a corporate volunteer day, you’ve done exactly this: you combined your social authority and legitimacy as do gooders with a for-profit’s staff-as-volunteers. The for-profit received CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) PR and personal development (the warm fuzzies) for staff; you received cheap labor; and both of you did it for less than the cost of an alternative plan (advertising campaign and professional staff development for them; part-time paid labor for you).

Nonprofits and for-profits aren’t at war; they are just similar looking games with somewhat different rules. The secret to winning is to look for cross-over skills, strategies and players. Evaluating the economic value of your nonprofit is a good place to start.

When "good" is better than "best"

I ran across this interesting quote from Bruce Schneier on a competition for choosing a new general secure hash function:

NIST has stated that the goal of this process is not to choose the best standard but to choose a good standard. I think that’s smart of them; in this process, “best” is the enemy of “good.” My advice is this: immediately sort them based on performance and features. Ask the cryptographic community to focus its attention on the top dozen, rather than spread its attention across all 80 – although I also expect that most of the amateur submissions will be rejected by NIST for not being “complete and proper.” Otherwise, people will break the easy ones and the better ones will go unanalyzed.

I think it’s such an interesting statement because it so succinctly encapsulates the intrinsic dearth of time and resources that would be required to actually determine which is best.

With some lazy googling, I also came across this article about purchasing wine:

…consumers irrationally (at least from a wine lover’s perspective) chase after bottles that critics have awarded 90 points or more, but shun those in the 85 to 89 range, even though the lower-rated wines may be cheaper, more flexible with food and readier to drink.

Vintage ratings, like wine ratings in general, have a powerful psychological effect on consumers. The higher the number, the greater the desirability of the wine, which feeds into the myriad reasons people make their buying decisions. It should be no surprise that, as with cars, clothes, handbags and other consumer goods, status seeking, showing off and fear of embarrassment all play important roles.

Being Wrong is Right, but not in the education system

I listened to the TED talk of Sir Ken Robinson on education from the tweet of Chris Brogan.

The short quote:

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

But there is a lot more there about how the education system is built to get people into college as an end in and of itself.

Sir Robinson also mentioned Picasso’s quote:

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

Birthday Wishlist

My birthday is coming up on the 24th of November. Twenty-six. In the tradition of my friend Rebecca, below is a list of things I would like.

Intangibles can be emailed to me at [email protected]

Tangibles can be mailed to me at the address below (email me if you need postage/shipping subsidy):

Ben Sheldon

12 Germania St. #2

Jamaica Plain, MA02130

GEO: 42.315195, -71.102057

Consumables (singular)

Please leave your name in the comments if you plan on getting me one of these, so I can take it off the list and not get a bajillion of them.

  1. Sack of beans for pie crust pre-baking (ie, I want the SACK, not necessarily the beans)
  2. Colorful ~4 cup teapot (not kettle) with tea strainer
  3. Banana Fruit Case (a lightweight case for carrying bananas unscathed)
  4. Silicon Baking Mat (for cookies, etc.)
  5. Ceramic loaf pan

Consumables (multiple)

  1. Small ~1” buttons— fun, emblamatic or colorful… but not ironic
  2. 1.5-2” ribbon (~2 feet worth) for brim of hat
  3. Multicolored v5 pens (red, yellow, green, etc.)
  4. Loose mint, kukicha, jasmine tea
  5. Smartwool socks (medium and heavy weight) for normal size foot (US 10½)
  6. Small wind-up toys

Mixed Media

  1. The name of a book (or a physical copy if you’re feeling generous) you like that is about (or contributes to a better understanding of) design, color theory, visual literacy or with magical realist (basically any spectacle that gives you giddy chills) themes
  2. A drawing of a bicycle (or other bio-motivated vehicle) you love or would love to have
  3. A sticker, postcard or primary scrap that represents or espouses an idea or ethos you both believe in and would defend to your grandma (or equivalent old-timey values stereotype… and no irony: it’s too complicated and she wouldn’t find it funny anyways—she’d tell you to say what you mean)
  4. A picture of an animal (or animals) that you regularly see

Geo-Contextual Bonus

Find a public spot in your neighborhood or regular route. Compose a short (~300+ word) real or imagined anonymous first-person narrative that begins “On this spot, …” (update: I removed the requirement to write the statement in the first-person.) Write the narrative such that it gives a potential reader the same sense of hope, wonder, and authentic symbolism that you would have should you, on that very spot, look down to find a fresh copper penny heads-up and, picking it from the pavement, find a perfectly minted heart upon the other side… and then putting it back on the ground, heads-up, for someone else to discover (i.e. write a story whose reading equates to that experience, not a story retelling of such an experience). Securely post with tape or staples your story to that spot in an easily viewable place. Send me the location (street address or cross-streets), a photograph of the posted story, and a copy of the story.)