11 Ways to Handle Your Devil’s Advocate Without Getting Burned

I was struck hard by this cartoon honoring superstar children’s author Maurice Sendak, who passed away recently.

Sendak was a fearlessly innovative storyteller, who introduced previously taboo topics and tone into his work beginning with Where the Wild Things Are. It’s no surprise that the childrens’ publishing establishment didn’t welcome his innovations with open arms, but Sendak persisted with game-changing results.

“When it was published in 1963, the book was hated by critics and banned in libraries. Wild ideas always attract naysayers. But wild ideas are the ones that make a dent. Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most awarded and influential children’s books in history. But too often wild ideas are smothered or diluted before they’ve really had a chance,” says Marketoonist Tom Fishburne.

Friend or Foe?

“Design great Tom Kelley once called the devil’s advocate the single greatest threat to innovation,” says Fishburne, “because a devil’s advocate encourages idea wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective. Once those floodgates open, they can drown a new initiative in negativity.”

It’s true. Your devil’s advocate will introduce a bump or two into the smooth path of your fundraising and marketing groupthink.

But I’d argue that those bumps can be hugely important., and I’m in good company here. “Decisions…are made well only if based on conflicting views, the dialogue between different points of view, the choice between different judgments,”  wrote management guru Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive.

You’ll find a striking model in Toyota’s ramp up of a devil’s advocate strategy after recalls across models and production plants deflated its previously golden reputation.

Shift Your Devil’s Advocate from Foe to Friend

You face the occasional devil’s advocate as you move fundraising and marketing agendas forward, just as I do. Here’s the approach that works best when a devil’s advocate surfaces in one of our client organization teams:

1. Open your arms, and your mind: Despite the pain of facing a devil’s advocate, the product of the mash-up is frequently better than the original idea.

Be proactive: Look back on previous sparring for the useful takeaways, and keep that value add in mind, even when you feel like screaming in frustration.

“The devil’s advocate is your the most powerful ally in getting an idea across the line. I include that person early in the idea stage because they help produce a robust result. They also become the greatest sales person for the idea as they see the other sides better than those who are just hesitant, “ says nonprofit consultant Doug Watson.

2. Acknowledge the downside of conformity: You want to move quickly and smoothly to implement your idea or program, just like I do. But you’ve seen that rushing to approval or release ends up a complete disaster or, at the very least, generates diminished results.

The squeaky wheel can be your most valuable advisor. Listen up!

3. Encourage debate: Dissent doesn’t always come when you want it, but your openness to other ideas will shape the environment as one that’s productive, rather than acrimonious.

4. Pick your battles. You’ll lose ugly and often when you go head-to-head on every pushback. Focus on the fights (a.k.a. discussions) that really matter.

5. Depersonalize the difference of opinion, maintaining focus on the project goal. Avoid personal pronouns.

6. Leave your fear at the door, staying calm and confident. Devil’s advocates tend to pounce when they see weakness.

7. The power of three: Ensure that it’s not just you and the devil’s advocate slugging it out. That’s the quickest path to an ugly stand off.

An odd number of discussion participants (three or more) eases decision making. Three (or five or…) is a balanced tripod, rather than a tug of war.

8. Embrace co-creation with a thank you. You have it, whether you want it or not. Thank the devil’s advocate for testing the feasibility of your idea.

9. Have proof points ready—models from competitive and colleague organization, stats, stories from peers in the field. Validation trumps opinion every time.

“A couple of years ago I was invited to be on a panel about social media at a managers’ retreat with our HR and IT folks, both of whom were very wary of this “new” thing.”

The week before I had attended a wonderful workshop with Shel Holtz, focused on why organizations should allow employees access to social media on the job. I came to our retreat armed with objective, specific stats and stories (versus my colleagues’ vague worries) that opened their minds and built their confidence. I blew them out of the water,” says Bobbie Lewis, Director, Communications, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.

10. Redirect: Ask the devil’s advocate for his alternative solution to the problem he voices.

It’s far easier to punch holes in someone else’s idea than to come up with a good one of your own, but he might come up with something great, and you’ve fulfilled your responsibility to listen.

11. Turn devil’s advocacy on its head—Assign someone to ask the tough questions in all major decision making.

Dissenters are frequently hated, squashed or ignored. So share the wealth.

Rotate the role of taking an opposing point of view to a different team member each time you face a significant decision. But skip those individuals who aren’t likely to push back on groupthink.

Have fun with this—to depersonalize and add a laugh—by having the devil of the day wear a wacky hat.

Follow this 11-step path to turn your devil’s advocate into a productive partner. Let me know how it goes!
What about you? How do you handle your devil’s advocates? What are your techniques for shifting them from foes to friends? Please share your stories here.

Six Steps to Finding the Right Web Site Development Firm for Your Nonprofit

Choosing the right Web site development firm can be a difficult decision – especially in today’s changing world, where there are many firms promising to meet or exceed your nonprofit’s goals through Web site design and programming.

Take these six steps to identify the firm that will be the right long-term partner for your organization:

Develop a Site Development RFP That’s as Comprehensive as Possible

The more detail you provide up front on scope (content, functionality, look and feel), the more accurate the site development proposals will be. And you need a sense of these specs to begin your search for the right developer.

Establish These Baseline Criteria for Firm Selection.

Firms you consider should:

  • Develop in open source environment – open source offers more flexibility at a lower cost (the software is free but needs to be customized) than propriety platforms
  • Have three or more years in business as a firm, or working together (for partner organization teams) on Web site development
  • Use a Content Management System (templates that you plug content into) to build its sites, rather than flat files
  • Listen well so they “get it,” before investing resources down the wrong path
  • Be client-centric
  • Be value priced (e.g. provide significant value for their fees)
  • Not serve clients whose mission or work conflicts with that of your organization.

Understand Your Choices – Web Development Firms Fall into One of Five Categories

  1. Web developers (technologists), with a strong understanding of strategic communications
  2. Web developers with a technology slant, little understanding of communications context in which sites will be used; implementers not strategists NOTE: There are sub-sets of categories 1 & 2, e.g. firms that are open source leaders.
  3. Full-service strategic communications firms that offer Web site development as one of many services (always more expensive and frequently less skilled tech wise)
  4. Graphic design firms that also develop Web sites (or do so with a partner technology firm)
  5. Technology firms that plan and implement organizational IT strategies, including Web sites

In most cases, unless a client organization is already working with a full-service communications agency, I recommend developer type #1. These firms are focused on developing public sites, extranets and intranets, and understand the communications context in which the site will live.

As a result, they offer the greatest depth and range of experience in the field and are up-to-date on the latest innovations in terms of programming, software, user interface design and functionality.

Research Your Options – Work Hard to Get Good Recommendations

Don’t just go with the firm that “everyone is using.” Those may indeed be the folks you end up working with, but don’t forget due diligence. Remember that you want your organization’s relationship with its Web development firm to be a long-term one; the medium requires successive iterations and it’s easiest and most cost-efficient to continue working with the firms that builds the next iteration of your site, if at all possible.

So ask around for recommended firms that fit the criteria above, are Web developers with a good understanding of strategic communications, and develop sites comparable to yours in scope and budget.

Contact colleagues within your organization and communications colleagues at peer organizations. Contact the site editors at nonprofit sites you have identified as strong models for your organization’s next site. I’ve found that nonprofits are eager to share contacts of firms who have provided good service and a stellar product. They’re paying it forward.

Once you have your list of the top five or ten, take a look at these firms’ Web sites. A strong caveat though – I find many firms don’t update their sites with best recent work on a timely basis. It’s a classic story of the shoemaker’s children. So don’t cross a firm off your list until you take the next step.

Interview Your Top Picks to Get Your Shortlist

A two-part interview – first email followed by a phone call to firms that seem to be a good fit – is the quickest way to narrow down your list.

Here’s what you want to ask in your initial email:

  • We’re looking for a site development firm that meets these criteria (see above).
  • If there’s a strong match, we’ll want to talk more.

Here’s what you want to discuss in your follow-up call:

  • Very briefly outline your site’s development timeframe, scope and budget
  • Ask about:
    • Average budget range of site development projects (You’re seeking a firm that works in the same budget range – if it’s higher, they may not give your organization enough attention; if it’s lower, they may not bring the desired experience to your project)
    • Expertise in integrating other online tools (social media, email, databases)
    • Client mix – you want the development firm to show some interest and experience in working with nonprofit organizations or foundations
    • Related sites (in scope or topic) developed in the last couple of years (You’ll want to review these sites to assess if the firm has dealt with similar challenges to those faced by your organization)
    • What differentiates the firm from the many others out there
    • Do they have a defined process that will ensure that your project will be completed on time and on budget
    • Services offered.

Distribute Your Site RFP to No More than Three Firms, and Analyze Responses Thoroughly – When You Do, You’ll Be Able to Select the Right Long-Term Partner for Web Site Development

Once you have these answers listed above, and review the sites mentioned by each firm, you’ll have a good sense of the firms you’ll want to bid on your RFP.

Send it out to no more than three firms (writing these proposals is a huge endeavor; analyzing them is too). You’ve already done the front work to ensure that the proposals submitted will be serious contenders. If you must, send it out to four firms.

While the firms are crafting their proposal, recruit a proposal review team (if you don’t have a site advisory committee in place). Firm selection is a major decision; and you want respected colleagues to weigh in.

When you receive the proposals, make sure you ask about any content you don’t understand. Remember though, you want your site development firm to be able to communicate in plain English. Too much “tech-ese” may indicate that it’ll be difficult for you and your non-techy colleagues to communicate effectively with the Web development folks.

Begin by evaluating each proposal individually. Evaluate not just what’s included in each proposal, but the proposal tone and comprehensiveness. Weigh in on each firm’s potential as a long-term partner.

Once that’s complete, compare the proposals. How do they fare in terms of presentation? How do their processes appear in terms of project management? Do they present scalability and/or upgrade paths for your project, that go beyond the needs of the goals outlined for the next site?

Before you make a decision, arrange an in-person meeting (if possible) with the finalist firm. Personal connection is a pre-requisite for a healthy working relationship.

If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, schedule a conference call (with your Web advisory team), ideally with Web cams in place on both sides.

Once you finalize your decision, contact the firms that you won’t be working with, thanking each for its proposal and sharing the reasons (in general terms) why your organization has selected the winning firm. Lastly, contact the Web development firm you’ll be hiring, and let them know the good news.

Six simple steps taken; hundreds of calamities avoided. You’re off and running towards a powerful new Web site.


Transform Staff Bios from Mundane to Magical in 6 Easy Steps

When it comes to building relationships and trust with prospective donors and volunteers, service users or program participants and other vital audiences, the smallest details can make a huge impact, especially when they’re about your organization’s people.

Relationships are built person-to-person, not person-to-organization. So put your people forward! Pithy, punchy staff bios–with photos–can work to introduce prospects to your organization at a personal, emotional level, motivating them to dig more deeply into the details of what your nonprofit has to offer or how they can get involved.

Here are some well-tested guidelines for crafting bios that will help audiences connect with your organization, illustrated by models from the field:

1. Start with these bio basics

Staff bios are simply a story-based version of the information you’d usually include in a resume. This format is less formal, and gives you an opportunity to highlight some interesting facts about each team member while injecting a touch of personality. The main goals of these bios are to give the reader an accurate sense of whom your team members are and what they do, to establish expertise and credibility, and to qualify their experiences and background. These elements combine to nurture trust in your team and your organizational brand.

Even organizations that do so much right, like the Appalachian Mountain Club, can misstep here. The AMC’s laundry list of leadership names gives me no sense of the organization’s culture or a face or personal detail to hold on to! I like seeing photos of some of the animals saved by the Espanola Valley Humane Society, but wish I could learn more about some of the team so dedicated to this important work. It’s tough to take the next step in getting involved when you can’t get a sense of whom you’ll be working with (as a donor, volunteer, activist).

2. Introduce the folks who make your organization work on a daily basis, not just top leadership.

Provide bios for your leadership (including board members), but go beyond that to incorporate bios of program, communications, fundraising and other key staff at the director or manager level if possible.

If your organization is huge, and it’s not feasible to feature all directors and managers, cycle their bios on your site. If your organization is very small, include bios for all staff members, since they are all so hands on.

Here’s why:

  • When I’m probing an org I’m thinking of giving to the first time, one where I may volunteer, or a prospective client, I want to know who’s on the ground, not just who’s running the show.
  • These are the folks that the media will want to source as experts in the field.
    • Remember to link to bios via your Newsroom and Experts listings, as well as in your About Us/Leadership content.
  • Plus, the perspectives and expertise of your organizations directors and managers add up to a strong take on your organization’s culture, values and long-term planning.
    • Sometimes showing it is just (or more) important than saying it.
  • Remember, different audiences will want to make connections at different levels. A prospective board member may limit his digging into senior management; but a prospective new organizational partner or hire is going to want to learn more about his possible colleagues-to-be.


3. Make Bios Clear, Friendly and Brief

Consider team bios the written equivalent of a conversation opener at a professional gathering, so make it brief and compelling. Otherwise, you’ll lose your reader in a flash:

  • Make it real by asking team members to draft their own bios to guidelines you provide.
  • Advise them to write in third person (as if someone else is writing it for them)—this enhances the professionalism and makes readers more willing to trust what’s being said.
  • Use a conversational tone.
  • Split bios into short paragraphs to make them easier to digest and for online versions, include supporting information as links whenever possible.
  • Skip non-essential details such as hometown and all degrees.
  • Add a personal end note as a finale. This is the kind of info that readers can relate to quickly on an emotional level.

These Clean Water Action team bios are clear, friendly, brief and highly effective in establishing comfort and a sense of the organization. I was particularly engaged by the personal end notes. Here’s one that helps me get a real sense of Michael Kelly, Communications Director: You can usually find Michael wandering through any of the Smithsonian Institutions (Free! Museums!) or searching for a decent record store in DC during his free time. If he’s not there, look in the nosebleed section of RFK Stadium or Nationals Park.

4. Incorporate these elements in each bio (share this list with your colleagues as they draft their bios)

  • Introduce yourself as if you’re meeting a stranger. Lead in with your name. People need to know who you are before they hear what you’re all about.
  • Talk in the third person.
  • Immediately state what you do. If you are “Communications Associate,” don’t wait until the last moment to say it. This establishes your role or niche right away. Your most important details should go in the first sentence.
  • Touch on your most important accomplishments, rather than listing them all. A bio is not a resume.
  • Include items of professional interest. Do make note of your most important or relevant professional designations, associations and awards. These show you have deep connections in the field.
  • Make sure you mention speaking engagements and/or published articles or books. Such credibility boosters are a subtle third-party endorsement.

5. The photo makes the initial connection — make sure it’s a good one

  • Keep the photo style (formal or casual, inside or out) in keeping with your organization’s style.
  • Use a color headshot. Some prospects will just look at your photo and draw a conclusion; the picture needs to be so good it can stand alone.
  • Make eye contact, and dress neatly and professionally (a suit is definitely not a must, and sometimes professional means jeans). But as my mom always told me, “appearances matter.”
  • These photos of Hudson Clearwater staff members (scroll down, they’re there) are incredibly warm and welcoming. They visually convey the spirit of the organization—vibrant and outdoorsy!

6. Keep it fresh

Once you have team bios you’re comfortable with, remember that they’re not set in stone. You’ll want to update and modify them periodically to reflect changes. Ask your colleagues to keep their bios in mind, and to share updates with you as they evolve.

What are your strategies for crafting team bios that engage your audiences at a personal level, and for keeping them fresh? Please share your techniques here.

P.S. Profiles of donors, program participants and others served and volunteers can be extremely powerful too. More on that in a follow up article.