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Just One Good Example

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Just One Good Example

Sometimes all you need to communicate your message is one good example.

The foundation and nonprofit world is awash in unclear, jargon-filled terms that most people don’t understand. Look through any nonprofit publication and you will see terms like “systems building,” “capacity building,” and “organizational change.” What do any of those terms really mean?

Most people in the nonprofit world are so accustomed to these terms they don’t stop to think about their meaning. That makes it difficult to explain those concepts to the audiences they want to reach.

The solution is simple. Find one example that brings to life the concept that you want to explain. Examples, or stories, make sense to us. They provide a thread that we follow and understand. Examples also help you, as a nonprofit or foundation staff member, better grasp and explain these amorphous concepts.

The following illustrations are examples of how to do this:

1. Systems building

“Systems building” is a term that more and more foundations are using--and that many have trouble defining. Essentially, systems building is an intentional, organized attempt to create or improve a system and the outcomes it produced.

The Colorado Trust has invested heavily in building early childhood systems. The goal is to make it easier for families to get services that they need. But Trust officials needed to translate this important and abstract topic into something tangible so that their board members and key policy makers could understand how “systems building” makes a difference in the lives of real people.

We teamed up with Julia Coffman, a nationally known evaluator who had created a framework for systems building. Using her framework as the basis for a policy brief, we interviewed young mothers and providers throughout Colorado who described the frustrating barriers they encounter while trying to get even the simplest of services--such as a doctor’s appointment or a referral to a specialist.

We told the story of this complex system through the eyes of one woman who struggled to get care for her young children.

Here is an excerpt from the issue brief: “Anna stared at the letter and shook her head. She’d been rejected – again –for Medicaid coverage. This time it was for her son, Tyler, a six-year-old prone to scrapes and ear infections. Tyler was complaining that his ear hurt again. Anna knew that she and her three children were eligible for Medicaid coverage.

But something seemed to always go wrong with her applications. Once, the state office rejected her application because it said she lived in another part of the state – an address she hadn’t lived at for more than seven years.” To see the full brief, click here. Anna’s story starts on page 5.

2. Capacity building

“Capacity building” is another term that nonprofits often use but never fully explain. In a nutshell, capacity building usually means giving money to organizations to help them better meet their mission by providing their staff and volunteers with new skills, establishing new operating procedures or purchasing new equipment.

A few years ago, the California Endowment wanted to learn more about the outcomes of their capacity building grants to small, often struggling nonprofit organizations around the state. We interviewed more than 15 of these organizations to learn what, exactly, it means to participate in capacity building.

As part of our report, we included examples of how organizations used this funding. Breaking Barriers, a Sacramento-based organization that provides HIV/AIDS support services to low-income people living with AIDS, used its capacity building grant to train peer educators.

Here is an excerpt from the case study:  “When Jocelyn Graves was first diagnosed with AIDS in 1995 she didn’t want anybody to ‘know her business.’ She worried that if anyone learned of her illness, they would try to take her children from her. But through a support group, Graves eventually began talking openly about her disease. She also started volunteering with Breaking Barriers.

Graves, who is African American, helped Breaking Barriers staff expand a small pilot program that reached out to women of color who were HIV-infected or who had AIDS. A California Endowment grant funded the expansion. The organization began training Peer Advocates—women who were HIV positive or had AIDS—to do street outreach to other women of color. The Peer Advocates received a small stipend and went out to some of their old haunts to educate women about HIV/AIDS, encourage them to get tested, and accompany them through the process of treatment if necessary.

Graves remembers one woman she met at the supermarket. At first, the woman said that she didn’t need information about HIV because she was married. Graves gave the woman her phone number anyway. Later the woman called Graves. She had just learned that her husband was HIV positive and wanted to get tested.”

3. Organizational change

“Organizational change” is a murky concept that is hard to grasp. It usually means changing the culture or roles of participants in an organization.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded ten hospitals to change their organization to attract and retain nurses and provide better patient care. We interviewed leaders at the ten hospitals to learn what it meant to undergo organizational change. The leaders told us the steps they took and provided examples of what worked and what didn’t.

One hospital instituted its organizational change through a seemingly simple mandate: employees had to be nice.

Here is an excerpt:  “It used to be at Boone Hospital that nurses could treat patients poorly as long as they were excellent clinicians. That is no longer the case, said Laura Noren, director of patient care support services at Boone Hospital in Columbia, Mo.

‘We're much more ready to choose not to hire people or let them go if there are behavioral problems,’ she said.

As part of its organizational change process, Boone staff members brought in speakers from companies renowned for their customer service, including Nordstrom department stores, Southwest Airlines and the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company.

Potential employees went through a rigorous job interview in which they described to human resources staff how they would deal with difficult situations. Potential employees also "shadowed" a staff person performing the job for which they were applying, so they could learn about the job and their potential peers could evaluate them.

The hospital faced resistance to change.  Noren said hospital leaders told nurses that they understood that these changes were difficult. But they also took a “love it or leave it” attitude. If the nurses did not change, hospital officials said they were free to find other jobs. While a few nurses left, most stayed and adapted to the new mandates.” Click here for the full story.

Examples such as these give flesh and blood to the important but often intangible work that foundations and nonprofits undertake.

The next time you struggle to explain a complex idea, look for one good example.

If you need help finding those examples, please contact us at or (802) 748-3070. We love to help our clients find the best example to communicate their work.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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