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Using the Whole Whale: A Strategy For Nonprofits

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Alaska was a cold, harsh place for the Inuit people 7,000 years ago. When a whale was caught, the Inuit held a huge party to celebrate their hunt and would utilize every part of whale -- to waste anything was a religious taboo. In their resource constrained environment, the Inuit had identified a use for every part: blubber for oil, meat for food, bone for housing or sleds, skin for vitamins or covering -- they used everything. (See a full whale hunt documented by Jonathan Harris)

Fast-forward to the 1930's. The Industrial Revolution drove the need for whale oil -- an effective machine lubricant -- to 50,000 whales per year. And there was no party. For those hunting the whales it was the time of plenty, and whales were a commodity like any other. They had a specific and limited role; after the oil was extracted, carcasses were discarded and the Inuit people's extensive uses ignored and left behind.

The lesson here is that scarcity spurs creativity and efficiency. Scarcity also happens to be something that not-for-profits (NFPs) have in spades.

Using the whole whale is not about adding work to an over-taxed staff. It is about looking at every event, community, system or other existing resource in a different way -- the way Inuit looked at each part of a whale. It is about leveraging existing resources to say "What else can this do for us?" Here are two examples of nonprofits that changed their approach by leveraging existing assets to get more bang (impact) for their buck.

Connecting and Opening Your Data

Case 1: DoSomething.org -- DoSomething.org/Projects

DoSomething.org has over 28,500 creative youth-led projects (dosomething.org/projects) on the site publicly available to any teen at any time. The volume of projects was driven in large part by DoSomething.org grant applicants. DoSomething.org requires that all applicants post a public project as the first step of their application. After receiving a grant, grantees are required to provide a grant update which gets added to the project posting.

This process has helped create the most robust network of youth-led cause projects, which now helps inspire and inform even more projects. Had the grant application followed a traditional system of submitting private applications, DoSomething.org would have thousands of applications sitting on an internal server -- virtually unused. These projects are also now open through a Creative Commons license to the public through a projects API.

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DoSomething.org Projects Graphic Visualization by Sarah Piper-Goldberg - Download file



Case 2: AtonementFriars.org -- Franciscan Friars of the Atonement (FFA) Ave Maria Hour

From 1935 to 1969, the FFA had a very popular religious radio broadcast called the Ave Maria Hour, which consisted of the stories of Friar Paul Wattson at Graymoor. When the radio show ended, due to high cost of broadcasting, the organization stored and saved the recordings.

In 1998, the Whitney Radio invested in reviving this show by digitizing the 2,500 broadcasts of the Ave Maria Hour. These recordings were still being saved in storage, until 2008 when the friars decided to use a free radio blogging tool at BlogTalkRadio.com to rebroadcast their sermons every Sunday. Now, 600 weekly listeners tune in to hear the stories of Friar Paul at Graymoor to enjoy the timeless lessons taught in the sermons (over 32,500 listens to date). Listeners have even been inspired to donate to the FFA who might have otherwise not known about their organization. In fact, in 2010, they had 400 new donors donate close to $10,000 that had never received any direct correspondence.

Whole Whale Strategy

Ironically, it was the needs of technology (machine lubricant) that first fueled the destruction of the whale population. Today, technology provides opportunities for NFPs to create systems that can lead to greater impact (like saving the whales).

There are ways that every NFP can use this strategy. For example, consider the current job application process at your NFP. What if part of the process of applying included friending and following your NFP on Twitter and Facebook? The result would probably be an extra 200+ relevant followers in your network for every job posted. Cost: free.

Over the past 7,000 years, whales didn't change, our approach to using them did. Find the whales at your organization and decide whether you're treating them like an Eskimo or a 1930's whaler. By using technology as a lens, NFPs can change their approach and use the whole whale to maximize their impact.