How is Improv Comedy Like Appreciative Inquiry?

For years, the words Appreciative Inquiry seeped into my consciousness.

It began at a two-day national development seminar, and most recently at a five-day conference for lay leaders, nonprofit professionals and clergy. By this time, it appeared everywhere, either explicitly or implicitly; there seemed to be a whole track of sessions that demonstrated appreciative inquiry in different settings.

On a very simple level, Appreciative Inquiry begins with:

  1. appreciating and valuing what is;
  2. envisioning what might be;
  3. engaging in dialogue about what should be; and
  4. innovating to create what will be.

So what does Improv Comedy have to do with Appreciative Inquiry? Good question. Two main rules of Improv Comedy are “Yes, and…” and “your main focus is on your partner.

First, whatever is thrown at you, you have to accept it and build on it. Man talking into a bananaFor example, if someone picks up a banana and uses it to call you on the phone, you can’t say, “you idiot, that’s a banana!” You have to go with the flow, answer the phone, and say, “Hey! I was just about to call you – your Mom’s here and wants to know what you did with her gold-plated antique chamber pot she inherited from your Dad’s Aunt Phoebe in Alaska!” The point is, you have to accept what has been handed to you, and figure out what to do with it.

Second, with every sentence being a potential surprise, you have to focus closely on your partner, listen to whatever is being said and try to understand where she’s going with it.

In a nonprofit setting, if a board member says, “our students aren’t showing up for tutoring,” the response is “yes, and let’s figure out the ideal situation.” If you can envision an ideal situation, then you can work towards that ideal. If you say, “yes, but they’re dealing with issues at home, the buses aren’t running at the right time, their parents don’t push them….” you’re not adding to the conversation. You’re focusing on problems and seeming defensive, instead of hearing that the board member cares about the situation and inviting him to a shared vision of a better future.

“Yes, and…”

acknowledges that the comment was made,

appreciates that it is a concern,

inquires into what would be better.

And starts a dialogue about creating a better future.

Right Message. Wrong Words.

Did you read the BBB, Guidestar, Charity Navigator letter about The Overhead Myth ? I did. And even as I cheered the message, it felt wrong.  It was written to the wrong audience. The donors who commented were not convinced.

The same day I read Michael Schrage wrote in Harvard Business Review’s Good Leaders Don’t Use Bad Words, and I saw the problem; the authors were being lazy with their words. Instead of speaking to their audience’s needs, they were speaking to their own.

Nonprofits will certainly be better served if donors don’t focus solely on overhead as a measure of competence. But what’s the upside for the donors? Why should they care? That’s where the authors fail.

Donors should be looking for measures that demonstrate value to society. Are people’s lives being changed? How lasting is the change? How is the nonprofit making sure that it’s effective? What does it need in order to stay on track? These are the measures that donors should be looking at.

Instead of telling donors that overhead is the wrong measurement, we need to help them see the benefit of seeking alternatives.

If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway

If it ain’t broke, find a better way.

Usually, I hear if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  At nonprofits, it’s usually used to defend the status quo – we’ve never had term limits, our mission is still as important as ever, the materials in our literacy classes have always worked, we always read our committee reports out loud, Jimmy’s always handled our books, the 5K is our biggest fundraiser!scuplture of man sewing

The problem is, if we only fixed what’s broken, we’d never have the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the iPod, the space shuttle. Heck, if we only fixed what’s broken, we might never have invented the sewing machine! Each of these improvements weren’t fixing something that was broken, they happened because someone said there had to be a better way.

It’s the same thing with delivering our missions. Our programs have been working just fine, thank you very much. Why should we change? The answer isn’t change for the sake of change. The answer is change to do it better. To have a greater impact. To use our resources more wisely.

That’s why strong, effective nonprofits regularly evaluate their programs and measure their effectiveness. It’s not to fulfill funder requirements, although that is a nice benefit. It’s to see if we can learn from them, and find ways of having a greater impact.  Many nonprofits operate in the same mission space, because there is such a great need. It’s not competition if you can learn from each other, and discover the best practices for making a difference.

We evaluate our personnel all the time (or at least we know we should). Shouldn’t we be evaluating our programs?

Instead of saying, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, shouldn’t we be asking, it ain’t broke, but can we do it better?

One of the 55 standards of The Standards for Excellence: A Code of Ethics and Accountability for nonprofits calls for regular evaluation of programs. If you would like more information about the Standards, or ways to evaluate your programs, let me know. Let’s talk.

Are You Collecting Tokens

One of the Standards for Excellence states that

Board membership should reflect the diversity of the communities served by the organization.”

But what does diverse mean?  In the early days of affirmative action, there was a water cooler joke that to get hired you needed to be able to check off certain boxes – black, Hispanic, female, with an Asian surname. The more boxes you could check off, the more likely your resume would be read.coins

Wow, is that dated! Not to mention extremely offensive! That’s not diversity, that’s tokenism.

Instead, look at what a Board Source white paper Does Board Size Really Matter says about diversity versus inclusivity.

Increasing diversity in itself cannot be the ultimate goal. The goal must start by understanding the power of difference — searching for the perfect mixture of attributes, using what individuals have to offer, negotiating for the best solution. Being inclusive of diverse opinions and approaches is the solid foundation when building diversity.

Of course, every organization is different, so mandating a list of skills, attributes and perspectives isn’t possible. Instead, what do you need from your board in the way of passion, viewpoints, talent, skills, and contacts?

Only after you’ve figured this out, should you go out and engage prospective board members of all kinds. Board members who are collectively inclusive of a diverse constituency will be your best defense against stodgy ‘been there, done that’ mentality.

But merely checking off boxes doesn’t do it.

If you’d like more information about Standards for Excellence, let me know. Click here for more info!

Where are you now?

Where are you now?

Before 1973, no one ever asked where are you? when they reached you on the phone. Of course they knew where you were. You were within 3 feet of the telephone they had dialed (now that’s an anachronism!). Thirty years later, times have changed. Today, because of mobile phones, one of the first things we ask when we reach someone is, where are you?retro telephone detwiler mission standards for excellence governance

Where are you? An innocuous casual question that turns quite profound when you ask it of your organization. If, in 30 years, the world has changed so we call individuals instead of a place, has your nonprofit kept pace? Do you still ask your constituents to come to your location, or do your meet them where they are? Have your programs evolved to meet the new mobility of society? Has your mission changed?

Society’s rate of change has accelerated. When was the last time your board of directors evaluated whether your programs are still relevant, much less whether your mission is? Once every 10 years isn’t enough (and maybe it never was). But certainly  never shouldn’t be the answer.

In fact, maybe now is when you should ask, where are you?