My Message to Naysayers in the Nonprofit World My Message to Naysayers in the Nonprofit World

My Message to Naysayers in the Nonprofit World

by Debra Sterling

February 3, 2013

In 2009, I had a “quarter life crisis.” I left a fun and exciting (yet soulless) job at a design
agency to try and do something meaningful with my life. A month later, I moved to rural
India to volunteer at a grassroots nonprofit.
While I was living there, I came across a village that had been literally transformed by a
goat-gifting program. The best part? The goats only cost $20. I decided on the spot that
when I returned home, I’d convince all my friends to donate $20 so we could start our
own goat program and help transform a village.
Since I was living in rural India and life was pretty simple (no bars, no gyms,
no toilet paper) I had a lot of extra time on my hands. So I decided to spice up my
fundraising idea. I would videotape tribal villagers dancing and repeating the line, “I
want a goat” to create a rap music video. I would build a fundraising website where
users could donate goats for $20 and for extra cash, they could “pimp” their goats with
accessories like Ugg boots and mohawks.
The campaign was a huge success. The video received over a quarter million views on
YouTube and the website raised over $30,000. That’s a lot of goats.
Most people were incredibly supportive, complimentary and offered to help. But there
were naysayers. People who would post comments or send me emails with paragraphs
and paragraphs of skepticism, yet no suggestions or ideas of what to do instead.
A woman who had replaced my volunteer position at the nonprofit refused to help
manage the program. Turns out, all she could offer was negativity. Complaints about
how the goat program needed a “monitoring and evaluation system,” for example, but no
suggestions or offers to help develop one.
I can’t tell you how many people I came across in the nonprofit world who were so
ready to tear my little project to shreds and analyze its faults. The thing is, these people are so obsessed with critiquing things that they become paralyzed. Rather than do
something that isn’t “perfect,” they do nothing at all…(except complain, of course).
I think the best we can do is put ourselves out there and give something a try. It will not
be perfect, not even close. But it will certainly be a start. The real exciting part is when
you give something your best try, see what happens, and then make it better the next
time. After all, there is no such thing as failing when you think about everything as a
learning process toward a greater goal.
As Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn) puts it: "If you're not embarrassed by the first
version of your product, you’ve launched too late."
This is a lesson I’ve carried with me long after my days in India and something I’m
trying to pass on. At my company, GoldieBlox, which creates engineering books and toys
for girls, I’m trying to expose little girls to engineering principles and teaching them that
it is ok to fail. The important thing is to just tinker, try stuff out, and if it doesn’t work,
then try something else! I’ll do the same with the product itself, continually improving it
as more and more girls play with the toy and tell me what they think. Eventually, I hope
to get to the point where it makes a real impact on girls’ lives.
When I first started out, the task was daunting. How simple should I make the toy? I
didn’t want it to be so hard that girls would give up too quickly. Then again, I wanted
them to be challenged.
And then there was the book. I wasn’t sure how to balance the fun and romance of a great
story versus the simplicity and cleanliness of an instruction manual.
My mind raced. Everything from choosing the right target age range, to color palette, to
illustration style, to a physical game versus a digital experience…I didn’t know what the
perfect solution would be.
So I just took a stab at it. I made a rough prototype using pieces I could find around
the house. I wrote and illustrated a rough draft of a story. I showed it to folks in the toy
industry to get their opinion, and got hit by a flurry of naysayers. They told me it was too
“niche.” That construction toys for girls don’t sell.
I wasn’t going to let the naysayers stop me!
So, I showed it to little girls. Over a hundred of them. Now, of course, it needed a lot
of improvement. But every time I watched a little girl play with my rough, imperfect
prototype, I learned so many obvious ways to make it better in the next round.
For example, in one of my early prototypes, I had a pegboard and girls were supposed to
stick axles into it in the shape of a star. The pegboard had parallel holes, however, and
didn’t allow for the star to be symmetrical. This had disastrous results. I learned that most
girls like things to be orderly and have everything in its perfect place. Rather than build
an asymmetrical star, they’d throw the axles onto the ground and storm out of the room.
So, in the next iteration of the pegboard, I modified it to allow for symmetry. It was such
an easy fix, and got me one step closer to a really great product.
We can’t be perfect. Not even close. So let’s give good a try.
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My Message to Naysayers in the Nonprofit World