Out of the Ashes

In my last post I said I wasn’t sure what was next, but I knew I wouldn’t be idle for long. Well, it wasn’t long, and I think I know what’s next. I want to build a website for micro and mini fundraising. I want to empower individual volunteers to support the organizations they love, and on their own terms. I also want to facilitate small grassroots organizations wanting to run their own fundraisers.

This idea has come up independently in two conversations now, and like KivaDonorsChoose and Kickstarter I think it’s going to resonate with people. I want to build a website that will help an individual organize a 1 or 10 or whatever person event for an cause he or she supports. In the same way, I want to help small organisations put on their own charity event. And because the world is social, I want to help people find charity events to participate in. I want to truly empower the power of one. You shouldn’t have to wait for someone else, you should be able to create Race for the Cure or Aids Walk/Run and have it succeed. You should be able to participate in charity events that are 100% free of corporate sponsorship. Your passion belongs to you,  and should not be associated with pink buckets of chicken, soft drink power votes, or branded marketing of any kind unless you want it to.

There’s a lot of stuff I need to do before I start writing website code, of course, so don’t expect to see something immediately. I also have no intention of quitting my day job any time soon, so the going is going to be slow. But I think there is something exciting here, something that no one else is doing. I’m excited by it. If this excites you too, please let me know.

Why I Left Mickaboo

Wow, so much drama over the weekend. Needless drama, too.

For those that missed the mess on Facebook, I have decided to end my involvement with the Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue. I still support their mission, to help birds in need, but I no longer wish to be part of the organization. I do not speak for Raelene, she’s still tentatively a volunteer although I think she’s near her threshold as well.

Marketing Gone Mad

Micakboo incurs thousands of dollars in vet bills every month. It’s a largish organization, but not large enough to catch the attention of the big foundations that could fund their activities. So they do what every non-profit does, they fundraise. Unfortunately, over the past year or so these fundraisers have increasingly targeted their volunteer base. After all, it’s easier to hit your supporters for money than to rally outside the organization.

Recently this has been in the form of “votes” for Mickaboo on a major soft drink’s website. Each person can vote on the website once per day, but you have to create an account (including giving up demographic information) on the soft drink’s website to vote. This is part of a huge summer marketing campaign for the soft drink manufacturer to increase mindshare and sales, and as part of it they’re promising donations to the non-profits who do the best job promoting their products. The whole thing is designed to refocus attention from the non-profits and aim it at the soft drink manufacturer, but Mickaboo decided it was worth it to jump in the deep and become a quasi-viral soft drink marketing engine.

To this end, volunteers have been getting dozens of soft drink marketing messages daily from the folks who run Mickaboo. These are in the form of “reminders to vote”, and while you can only vote up to three different ways once a day, the Mickaboo fundraisers are sending out reminders at a much higher rate. Not only is the amount of marketing Mickaboo is doing for this soft drink manufacturer insane, but as the manufacturer intended it’s detracting from Mickaboo’s overall message.

The Tipping Point

The tipping point came when Raelene vented about the marketing on Facebook, and several other Mickaboo volunteers attacked her for complaining. Their point was they were ignoring the marketing, and that she should either use Facebook and email less or ignore it just like they do. No matter what she did, though, they were not okay with her publicly complaining. These volunteers were fairly aggressive about it, too, and someone from the core Mickaboo leadership jumped in as well. Wow. I got involved in the debate too, and it got a bit ugly with the volunteers.

At the same time, though, I also started getting emails and Facebook messages of support. That’s when I realized just how big of a powder keg the issue was. People hated the marketing, and were getting pissed off at the folks who were doing it. Even those that supported the fundraiser behind the marketing were suggesting that folks ignore those spreading the messages. It’s like being at a family reunion where “Uncle Jim” is drunk and loud and abusive, and half the people there saying just ignore him while the other half are wanting to call him a cab and send him home. Everyone is on edge, no one is having fun, and the only point of agreement is the hope that Uncle Jim passes out soon.

This soft drink marketing onslaught inside a bird rescue is fraying everyone’s nerves. The marketing is affecting people in ways they don’t fully realize, and is causing friends to turn on each other. This is dangerous, and I believe destructive to the organization.

To compound the problem, Mickaboo has no formal mechanism for complaining about these things. People keep telling me I should have complained earlier, but there’s no way I could have. There is no volunteer advocacy among the administrators or to the board. No one is keeping track of volunteer morale. The lack of ability to voice a concern is what send Raelene to Facebook, where others essentially told her to shut the fuck up. No one at Micakboo is listening, it is broadcast only from the top and volunteers are expected to take it or leave. I hope for their sake they fix that soon.

And that is, in a nutshell, why I left.

Monday Morning Quarterback

It’s easy to say what should have been done after the fact, but I doubt that will be useful.  Instead, here is some general advice to other non-profits to help avoid damaging your organization.

Volunteers are an invaluable resource for any non-profit. They are probably your most valuable resource. Volunteers are sources of labor, donations, new volunteers, etc. Treat them well. Survey them regularly for satisfaction, and keep a close eye on morale. Monitor volunteer donations levels, organization growth and churn, and the ability to get someone to step up and do some volunteer work. If you’re having problems, it’s probably because people are no longer listening to you.

Be careful with general calls to action. It’s fine to continuously ask for specific help, but be deliberate about anything that requires a large percentage of the organization. Your volunteers are just that, volunteers. They have busy lives with lots of distractions. They probably are not as devoted to the cause as you are, nor do they have as much spare time. The fact they want to use their time to help your organization is a gift, use that gift wisely and do not demand more. No action a volunteer takes is trivial or small, it is a gift they are giving you when they could be doing something else.

Give volunteers a way to anonymously give you feedback. You will be surprised at what they tell you. Also, give volunteers the option to identify themselves when they do provide feedback, because many people want to open up a dialog about why they feel this way. Don’t ignore these people. If someone contacts you, no matter what their tone or how vicious the email, it is because they cared enough about your organization to do so. Don’t just broadcast to your volunteers, listen to them as well.

Provide your volunteers with an advocate. Even small companies have HR departments, because employees need someone they can talk to. If you have more than a few dozen volunteers, you need someone whose job it is to listen to their concerns and bring them up with the folks in charge. It’s not enough to assume that anyone with a problem can email someone in charge about it. Not only do you lose the ability to centrally collect and correlate feedback that way, but not everyone is comfortable approaching someone who may or may not care about their issue. Make sure your volunteers know you care, and give that care a face.

Let numbers, not gut feelings and egos, decide your actions. Measure everything, and be willing to look at the results even if it’s hard. You might know in your heart that something is worth it, but if the numbers disagree then you have to change course. Make sure all your volunteers are placing your organizations goals, and not their egos, first.

Lastly, be wary of destructive forces within your organization. From business management 101, if you are an organization of any size you will have individuals with passion and drive who left unchecked will destroy it. They might be great people with the best possible intentions, but if they are destroying the morale of every around, if they are making it easy for your volunteers not to volunteer, they are a liability to your organization. It might be with a little help they can be refocused, but if not you have to ask them to leave. No single volunteer should be allowed to hurt your organization.

What’s Next

To be honest I’m not sure. I still love birds, and I’m sure there are other ways I can help them that don’t involve Mickaboo. Volunteer work can, and should, be very rewarding, so I probably wont stay idle for long.


The Quiet Life

Yikes, I have to stop neglecting this blog! For a while there I sort of forgot it existed. That’s not good.

On the plus side, life has been fairly quiet lately. Corinne is doing well in playschool, learning her letter and numbers and how to play well with others. She’s getting better at falling asleep, staying asleep, and waiting until a quasi-reasonable time to get up. 🙂 We bought her this cool alarm clock with a built in nightlight that turns green when it’s okay to get up. She’s so proud when she manages to stay in her room until the light turns green.

Last weekend we went to a birthday party, which we seem to be doing a lot these days. Something like 60 people showed up, and it was a lot of fun. Luckily they were able to move it into a teen center, because bizarrely enough it rained last weekend. Yes, rain. In June. In the San Francisco bay area. I know that’s normal for other parts of the country, but unheard of here. It looks like we’re going to have another summer like last year, which means keeping the furnaces lit and running. Crazy.