Worth the Risk

The first week of May, down in New Orleans, I crashed the Email Evolution Conference (EEC), a conference typically reserved for our friends in the commercial space. Adobe, Microsoft, IBM, and a heap of smaller firms specializing in email-centric solutions were there, all offering strategies, tactics, and tools that are lightyears ahead of the nonprofit world. I’ll be writing a few pieces on my time spent there, covering everything from emerging trends to great restaurants, so let’s get started!

As I touched down in the Big Easy, I knew something was amiss right off the bat. The humidity was low, the temperature was comfortable, and the vendors were working together: co-hosting parties, sharing their strategies, and most interestingly, not competing against each other. Vendor alley wasn’t a gauntlet to be survived, it was a cornucopia of valuable knowledge and insight. The cooperation went so far that I even saw a vendor introduce a potential client to a different vendor because they were a better fit!

I thought about letting them know that they had it all wrong. They were the cutthroat capitalists, and I was the nonprofit do-gooder. Then it dawned on me, and I understood how far behind we really are. There are no secrets anymore—everything can be reverse engineered and competitive advantage is a thing of the past. Their ecosystem looks like a rainforest where the key to survival is diversification, not direct competition. Niche markets exist for everything from email list hygiene, to real-time a/b content testing tools. There still is some competition, of course, it’s not a utopia. But why do our offerings feel so anemic in comparison?

Risk tolerance.

The commercial marketplace is risk tolerant and commercial clients are willing to pilot new products and platforms.  Nonprofits? Not so much….

So what does it take to be risk tolerant, so we can take advantage of all these new tools and strategies? To be risk tolerant an organization must be two things:

1)      Prepared and Informed. There is a strong misconception that taking a risk means being reckless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Backing every risk a commercial client takes is deep analytics, strong strategic thinking, and an amortization of ROI—and a way to measure it. KPIs are set that indicate if the test is meeting the expected long-term goal and those KPIs are tracked and reported on regularly. The final critical point in being prepared? Leadership recognizes the short-term investment and long-term ROI.

2)      Nimble and Responsive. Organizations that aren’t responsive must be risk averse. Otherwise, any misstep could endanger the entire operation. But being responsive allows an organization to pivot from mistakes, learn from experiments, and create a culture that thrives on testing and abhors the status quo.

Risk tolerant clients. They are the nutrients that power the entire system. Without them an ecosystem is instead monopolized by a few key predators that aren’t incentivized to innovate or evolve.

There was a lot to see and do in New Orleans. It’s a city full of music and history. It’s the birthplace of jazz. But these days those are hard to find in the French Quarter. “NOLA” today is dominated by the lazy clichés of Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. Its visitors don’t demand more, so it doesn’t offer it. Which is a shame, because going to one of America’s most culturally diverse cities and coming back with beads made in China and a hangover made under the glow of neon lights seems like a real disservice. Shouldn’t you demand more from a city that can, and should, offer so much more? Shouldn’t your nonprofit follow suit?

PS New Orleans has glimpsed the future and realized it is not a pretty one. So they’re doing something about it, according to its Mayor. Hopefully we will heed their lesson.