Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Road to Nonprofit Hell is Paved with Vague Intent

Road To Hell

Image by (xtyler) via Flickr

When you've watched as much Japanese anime as I have, you notice some words seem to keep popping up. One of those words is "intent," although warriors like Musashi or Sun Tzu probably meant it more like attitude or spirit than a dictionary definition such as purpose.  A combination might work best, as in intent: an attitude that projects purpose. The appropriate communication of intent is said by these ancient warriors to make it possible to win without fighting. For you, appropriately and consistently communicating intent will make it possible for your small nonprofit to brand itself and communicate via social media with more success.

Good Customer Relations Equals Intent

On Altitude Branding, a blog about branding for business through social media, Amber Naslund mentions intent as being nearly everything in creating a good relationship with your customer base. I totally agree that a company can have the best mission statement and policies in the world, but if the intent to serve those statements and policies is not carried out by the employees, customers will believe the company is insincere.

In her reply to my comment about intent needing to be clearly communicated with regular training and review, Amber said she doesn't feel intent can be taught, it must be absorbed or grokked (to understand profoundly through intuition or empathy*).  Particularly with a nonprofit, you might expect the intent of the agency to be halfway grokked even before hiring - not likely you would be with the nonprofit if you didn't grasp the importance of the mission. I also agree that intent can't be truly absorbed through a training session any more than excellent customer service can be derived by following a script over the phone. I didn't exactly mis-speak myself, but I wasn't clear on how I define training and Amber and I probably think of different things when we hear the word. My fail, since I'm usually the one requesting a definition of terms. Still, that doesn't mean training for intent is wrong. It means the training has to mirror the intent.

Training For Intent

To me, training implies communication. You are communicating how you want someone to do something or, in this case, you are communicating the intent - the attitude, the spirit - that should imbue all interactions between your nonprofit and the community. It's important that staff and board internalize this viewpoint, but that can be harder and take longer than it has to if the intent hasn't been clearly communicated.

In their bestselling Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath mention a Midwest newspaper that continues to thrive in these online news days because it clearly understands and internalizes its "core truth" (intent) of "names, names, and more names," where those names belong to local people. This intent is modeled by the publisher on a daily basis. It's clear, it's concise, and - in the case of the staff - it's internalized, providing the unspoken basis for everything that appears in the newspaper. Is there formal training for that? Probably not. Yet, any new hire is going to hear it from his new boss and his coworkers, double when he makes a mistake.

Are Scheduled Reviews Necessary for Intent?

Maybe not. If staff has been around a long time and then aren't any new hires, then maybe review can be skipped, though it might be good to take some of the regular staff meeting time for individuals to relate anecdotes about interactions with the community in which intent was clearly communicated with above average results.

But what about your board? Board members come and go, so a review to communicate intent as well as all the other orientation things needed could result in a Board member who
groks the mission better and faster and is more comfortable communicating it to others, which is part of their brief.

Get Off the Road, But Stay On Track

You don't have to consider yourself a nonprofit ninja to understand that intent - clearly defined and consistently communicated - can bring about victory in the sense that the community will get who you are and what you're about, making it easier for them to support you and your mission. Trust developed through that understanding will help ensure you take a road other than the one that leads to Hell and that the ride is a hell of a lot smoother.

*Definition via Urban Dictionary
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