JGL Strategy

Innovative | Inquiry-Driven | Iterative

JGL Strategy is consulting firm based in Cleveland that helps organizations make better decisions for the future.

Creativity: Finding Ideation and Innovation in the Strangest Places

Are you in search of New Ideas, Better Solutions, More Profits, or Greater Impact? Chances are tapping into your organization’s creative potential is key to the goals you seek to achieve.

You are creative

But we work in healthcare [for example]; we are not creative you might be saying to yourself right now. Fortunately, as human beings, we all have creative potential. Modern management systems have obscured this truth by labeling some departments/roles “creative,” thereby implicitly denying the creativity of everyone else. But every single one of us is creative and we can put that creativity to great use at work.

General Approach / a strategy underpinning creativity

One approach to unleashing the creative potential within your organization is to examine a problem or evaluate the status quo from another perspective or point of view.

Brian Eno, one of the greatest living music producers, says “The enemy of creative work is boredom, and the friend is alertness.” Nothing makes you more alert than stepping into a new context and adopting a different point of view. Eno has helped creative artists from David Bowie to Talking Heads produce some of their most iconic musical output through his ‘oblique strategies,’ prompts that encourage the musicians to take a fresh perspective on the work at hand. The musicians were sometimes confounded by Eno’s prompts – such as telling them to switch instruments between them, or cryptically stating a single, random word without directions for interpretation – but ultimately achieved creative results that pleased listeners all over the world.

Sometimes this fresh perspective isn’t prompted by a friendly co-conspirator with a common goal but forced upon you by external forces that don’t care what your goal is. January 22nd 1955 the water levels of the rivers Seine and Marne increased substantially and flooded many areas in and around Paris. Later, the French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in the essay “Paris Not Flooded”

“Any rather ample rupture of the everyday introduces festivity: now the rising waters not only selected and displaced certain objects, they upset the very coenesthesia of the landscape, the ancestral organism of horizons.”

This displacement, Barthes argued, had the unintended but beneficial consequence of forcing a new way to look at the world around you; it invited curiosity and imagination. In other words, the new perspective provided a gateway for creativity.

These are but two examples, from different eras and different contexts, which lend credence to the necessity of breaking away from the mundane in order to stoke the fires of creativity.

How To / tips and sample exercises

Here are a handful of guiding principles and easy exercises I have seen organizations use to successfully break away from the everyday patterns of thought to cultivate creative solutions.

1) Set the stage.

Help your colleagues get into a mindset primed for creativity by i) acknowledging the importance of creativity to your organization’s work, and; ii) reminding people that creativity is an inherently human characteristic—we all are creative. Perhaps prompt them to remember their own creativity by asking “What’s something that you’ve done any time in your life that you consider creative?” Great managers should have work-related examples ready for all their team members.

2) Suspend judgement.

For productive and creative brainstorming sessions it is essential to decouple idea generation from idea evaluation. You want to keep the ideas flowing, and too much analysis or criticism on the spot may make team members fearful to offer other suggestions. Team brainstorming sessions, properly designed and thoughtfully facilitated, are a great real-time example of the link between psychological safety and creativity.

3) Use break time to recharge creative fuel.

If your team is engaged in a brainstorm session long enough to necessitate breaks, be sure to leverage those breaks to maximize creativity. Some examples include:

  • Rotate chairs in a new direction or ask people to switch seats upon returning. Don’t neglect the physical dimensions of perspective.

  • Encourage people to find a random book or magazine, turn to a random page, and read that page to themselves during the break.

  • Move! Physical activity, even gentle stretching or a walk around the block, stimulates your entire body and affects your breathing; oxygen is crucial for brain function, including creativity.

4) Change the frame.

Reframe the brainstorm question by changing/adding one word. This is especially powerful when you add an emotional dimension. For instance, instead of asking “how do we solve Problem X for our customers?” ask “how do we solve Problem X in a way that will delight our customers?”

5) Add a design constraint.

Similar to the adage “necessity is the mother of invention,” adding a constraint to the problem you’re working on can bring about new and different ideas. Why? Because it shifts your perspective on possible solutions. The constraint does not even need to be a realistic one – remove an everyday technology, imagine a vastly different physical environment, even disregard a law of physics – just as long as this constraint spurs new thinking, you may imagine a novel solution you otherwise would not have.

In Closing

So next time someone at work says something like “What do we know about creativity? We’re just program administrators [for example],” you can respond with “What can an mid-century philosopher and a music producer teach us about cultivating creative problem solving within organizations? Quite a lot actually!” And then get into the work of breaking away from known contexts and default perspectives, using these or other exercises, and start tapping into your team’s creativity. Good luck!

Notes and Resources

·      Tom & David Kelley discuss at length how creativity is a trait we all possess in their 2013 book Creative Confidence. The Kelley brothers are also Partners at the world-renowned design firm IDEO, and IDEO U offers an awesome collection of learning resources about creativity, innovation, and design thinking.

·      The Brian Eno quotation is from an interview author Tim Harford conducted February 24th 2015 with Eno. Stories from this interview, along with other revealing research, are published in Harford’s excellent 2016 book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.

·      Mythologies is a 1957 book of essays by Roland Barthes. The essay “Paris Not Flooded” was not included in the 1957 or 1970 editions of the book but it was included in this more recent edition with a new translation.

What are some of your favorite tips and tricks to stimulate creativity in the workplace? Leave a comment to share!

The Best Books for Leaders, 2018

These are the books published this year that taught me the most about leading: about learning, listening, collaborating, and innovating for maximal impact. My comments for each book are intended to briefly introduce what I perceive to be a main source of value in each book, not to comprehensively summarize or criticize these works.

Amy Edmondson - The Fearless Organization

If you’ve worked with me in the past three or four years, you’ve probably heard me talk about psychological safety at least once. Psychological safety is a group-level dynamic in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves- even when that means sharing concerns, mistakes, or warnings. Psychological safety is key to effective teamwork, innovation, collaboration, and impact; in short, it’s an essential ingredient to leadership in the 21st century. Amy Edmondson is world’s preeminent researcher of psychological safety and The Fearless Organization, rigorously evidence-based yet supremely practical, is thus far the definitive volume on the subject.

Heidi Grant - Reinforcements

Leading isn’t a solo activity. Human beings naturally want to be helpful but many of us - myself included - are not comfortable asking for the appropriate help at the appropriate time. This holds us back. The key to the best requests for help, and therefore to getting people to help you, Grant argues, is making the act of helping mutually beneficial. Usually lessons on this topic are easy to grasp on a cerebral level but difficult to implement in real world situations. This book bridges that gap in a way that I found, in a word, helpful.

Priya Parker - The Art of Gathering

Leaders show up and they invite others to show up as well. How does one make the most of the opportunities when your leadership resonates, when people do show up? How can we maximize for safe spaces for all? From the physical to the psychological to the emotional, Parker shares great advice on how to make your meetings, convening, conferences, networking gatherings, one-on-ones, etc. more effective, meaningful, and fun.

Tom Peters - The Excellence Dividend

The Excellence Dividend reads like the feisty younger sibling of 1982’s In Search of Excellence, co-authored by Peters and Robert Waterman. This book is direct and unrelenting in compiling the core elements of effective leadership that Peters has learned throughout a career spanning five decades. People and passion, not spreadsheets and software, will drive the best businesses of the 21st century. The little things - such as listening, investing in yourself & in your staff, and a genuine desire to helpful to others - done with care and done consistently are what leadership mastery is all about.

Edgar Villanueva - Decolonizing Wealth / Anand Giridharadas - Winners Take All

I’m grouping these two books together because, while hardly identical, I feel they prompt common questions framed with similar rhetoric: What is the measure of a leader? What is the measure of success? How do we think about what counts as “doing good”? How can we do better? Elite institutions and ultra-wealthy philanthropists are not spared by the critical eye of Villanueva or Giridharadas who speak truth to power regarding how dominant economic paradigms, privilege, and systemic inequalities are germs poisoning society, and how no amount of handwashing (or charitable giving) can rid society of those ills while operating within the framework that created those unjustifiable disparities in the first place. These books are food for thought that should oblige all readers and all leaders to consider shifting a few, or many, habituated mindsets about capitalism and philanthropy.

What books did you read in 2018 that made you a better leader, that made you think, or that made you want to give copies away to friends and colleagues? Please share in the comments section below.

Best wishes for 2019!

Ego, Ownership, and Learning

What is the first business of one who practices philosophy? To get rid of self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows. - Epictetus

We all have blind spots. Whether we discover them through introspection or have others enlighten us we need to acknowledge our previous deficiency - to take personal ownership of our gaps in knowledge and understanding - and learn from it. This humility is a prerequisite to personal growth. If we think we have nothing more to learn, then we won’t learn.

For example, last week I had the opportunity to speak with a class of graduate students at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. The topic was organizational culture.

Among the observations on culture I shared with the students was that diversity is key to innovation. Not only is diversity (ethnic diversity, diversity of ideas, diversity of experiences, etc) integral to innovation, it intersects with almost everything we do in our personal and professional lives: who we hang out with; who we hire/promote; who we choose to read or listen to; who we seek counsel from; and so on. If we are not intentionally seeking out different voices and different ideas we are limiting our own learning and the potential for innovation within our organizations. In this day and age you might as well pack up shop if you’re not demonstrably valuing diversity because any competitive advantage your organization may have will quickly stagnate.

A few hours before the class I was struck by a startling realization: all the authors/researchers I cited as topical resources were white. I was embarrassed but glad that I at least had the realization. It would have been far better to have known this earlier - to have been able to diversify my own reading list, which is an essential learning complement to my firsthand experience consulting and advising a variety of organizations - to prevent this uncomfortable experience in the first place. But better before the class than after.


I owned up to this blind spot during the discussion with the class; I admitted the performative contradiction of extolling the importance of diversity within organizations and teams while at the same time citing a slate of excellent yet nonetheless ethnically homogenous authors. The students and the professor were thoughtful interlocutors as I went on this tangent about the need to admit and learn from our own shortcomings. Meaningful dialogue ensued about the implications on an organizational level (particularly with regard to communications and talent management) and I challenged the class to seek out non-white, non-Western authors on organizational culture and to share them with me.

By letting go of my ego and admitting this blind spot I was able to deepen my personal learning journey and leverage this realization as a teachable moment. I urge us all to not fear admitting when we are wrong; when we do not know; when we realize we have been operating under the influence of a blind spot, an unconscious bias, or an echo chamber. To paraphrase some classical but timeless wisdom: if we cannot admit our imperfect knowledge, we cannot learn.

(PS) If there’s are any non-white, non-Western experts on organizational culture or strategy who you think I should look into, please leave those names in the comments section below. Thanks!

Leaders, Leadership Typology, and The Status Quo

This June there has been plenty of dialogue about the leadership in the city where I live: Cleveland, Ohio. This dialogue is necessary and reflection on this dialogue is vital.

A theme in these discussions of city and regional leadership is the old guard versus the new guard. In articles, at public forums, and on social media many seem to be drawing a distinction based on age and years of tenure: that new, younger leaders might advance the regional economy in ways that eluded current, more tenured, older leaders. They may be right. I’m not writing to weigh in on that position.

I’m writing because I think we need to take a deeper, more nuanced look at leadership. Age and years of tenure – whichever way you view them – are a poor proxy for leadership capacity. It is much more important in my opinion to consider how individuals conceive of the role of a leader.

There are many leadership typologies. Two clusters I view as relevant are: 1) those who think the role of a leader is to preserve the status quo, and; 2) those who think the role of the leader is to build a better future for society, and will work toward that end even if it requires a break from tradition, from the status quo. This distinction is particularly important to the current discussions in Cleveland because – as almost everyone has pointed out – the status quo is not working.

Some – perhaps those who think the dilemma is as simple as the old guard and the new guard – may look at these differing views of leadership and claim that many of the established leaders in the Greater Cleveland area fall into the first category. Some may even conclude that in general the younger emerging leaders in the region fall into the second category. Again, those conclusions may be empirically warranted.

However, I urge us all – wherever we are – to continue exploring the nuance of leadership typology; to not just collapse the discussion back to the crude categories of old guard and new guard. Why? Because there is danger in sidestepping the question of what leadership actually means. This danger can have very real consequences. Looking at my own experience with leaders of all ages and persuasions I feel that there are some current, established leaders in Greater Cleveland who understand that leadership should be about building a stronger future for all and who have demonstrated the galvanizing vision for systems change that get us a step closer to that future. These leaders should not be put out to pasture simply because they have a few grey hairs or have been in leadership positions for some time.

Even more dangerous than disregarding the old guard en masse is wholesale endorsement of any and all younger emerging leaders. As someone who has championed in various forms the voices of younger leaders in Cleveland I don’t say this lightly. The unfortunate fact is there is no shortage of younger emerging leaders chomping at the bit to be the next generation of status quo defenders. Luckily there are just as many young emerging leaders who embrace the view of leadership that seeks to improve the status quo. Cleveland will not be well served by status quo defenders who are young in the same way that Cleveland will not be well served by status quo defenders who are old. How someone views their role as leader is more important than their age or years of tenure.

This tension shines some light on what’s so tricky about the status quo, or any dominant paradigm for that matter: it is very good at resisting change. The status quo has inherent incentives to resist change. Change, even when necessary, is difficult.

I agree we need some fresh leadership.

I agree we absolutely need better leadership.

We need leaders with the awareness and humility to know when the status quo represents a downward trajectory, when mindful change is necessary for the future vitality of the region.

We need leaders with the genuine desire, curiosity, and vision for creating a better future for all.

We need leaders with the collaborative leadership capacity, the risk tolerance, and the ability to challenge institutional assumptions required to execute on that vision.

Those are the leaders we need, regardless of their age and years of tenure.

3 Podcasts That Cultivate Innovative Thinking

We are big fans of lifelong learning here at JGL Strategy. We are fortunate to live in a time when so much quality information is so accessible. Podcasts are a great vehicle for learning. While there are many we recommend today the focus is on three we think do a great job cultivating innovative thinking; podcasts that will make you pause during a stroll and write a note to yourself or your team.

1) Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders

Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders is a speaker series presented by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, the entrepreneurship center at Stanford's School of Engineering, normally hosted by Professor of the Practice Tina Seelig (@tseelig).

This podcast gives you a front row seat as some of the smartest people on the planet share lessons from real-world experiences across entrepreneurial settings. Speakers include entrepreneurs, leaders from global technology companies, venture capitalists, and best-selling authors.

An open mind is required; knowledge of advanced technology is not. Being able to connect theories embedded in nascent technologies or ideas from entrepreneurs in other fields to your own work is one way of bringing fresh, innovative thinking to problems you are trying to solve.

ETL at Stanford's eCorner

Most Recent Episode (Season 12, Episode 24 The Ethics of Innovation)


2) Seeking Wisdom

Seeking Wisdom is the podcast from Drift, a Boston-based company re-inventing marketing. The podcast features Drift CEO David Cancel (@dcancel) and Director of Marketing Dave Gerhardt (@davegerhardt) talking shop on issues ranging from hiring, learning, growing (companies and people), marketing, start ups and everything in between.

The episodes provide conversations that are super accessible. Accessible with regard to both their short length (10-25 minutes, typically) and the common language dialogue between David and Dave. Whether introducing a concept that is new to me or giving their views on subjects I'm more familiar with, I find value in each episode.

Seeking Wisdom's ability to cultivate innovative thinking stems directly from the podcast's tendency to induce a slight shift in your perspective on familiar business topics: organizational design; strategic planning; talent management, etc. It's akin to seeing the same play more than once sitting in a different seat at the theatre each time: you pick up on subtleties you only notice through your new vantage point.

If you have ever listened to an episode of Seeking Wisdom, you know why this podcast is worthy of a six star review on iTunes. These are smart people who are passionate about learning and are having a blast sharing their knowledge with listeners.

Seeking Wisdom home

A Favorite Episode (#41 A Quick One On Gratitude) 


3) Walter Isaacson's Trailblazers

Trailblazers is a new podcast about innovations that have disrupted industries touching many people such as news, entertainment and hospitality. Trailblazers is hosted by Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson), President and CEO of The Aspen Institute and author the definitive biography of Apple co-Founder Steve Jobs.

Trailblazers is about the technical innovations that spur human progress. If all Trailblazers did was to examine a popular digital disruption, it would still deliver education about innovation. However, Trailblazers goes deeper and takes special care to place these digital disruptions in historical context, examining them as part of a continuum of disruptions to a particular industry.

The historical insights not only deepen your understanding of innovation but also highlight the importance of widening your lens as you and your organization explore how to best accelerate social progress. Zoom-out, learn about & from the past, and you can uncover the mindsets or knowledge to better inform your innovative thinking.

Trailblazers with Walter Isaacson

First Episode (Lights...Camera...Disruption)


What are you listening to? What helps you cultivate innovative thinking? Share your favorite podcasts, reflections and questions in the comments section below.



©  JGL Strategy, LLC

Looking Back on 2015; Looking Forward to 2016

2015 was a great year for JGL Strategy. It was a year of learning, growth and gratitude.

The learning of 2015 took place primarily through gaining more experience operating the firm and especially through taking on exciting projects that were previously outside of my wheelhouse. Before this year I had mostly operated in the health & human services and education sectors. It was incredible to stretch myself learn about fields such as: community development, through my strategic planning work with the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation; real estate, by working with a developer on a vision for a high impact mixed-use development; and the City of Cleveland’s push to become a more Age Friendly city, which relates to a nascent project.

2015 saw growth both for JGL Strategy and for me as an individual. I grew a lot by broadening my reading list: to keep up with what I’m reading professionally, please be sure to follow @JohnGLynch and @JGLStrategy on Twitter for curated suggestions.

The fact that JGL Strategy reached its first inflection point re: capacity makes me very excited for what the future holds and inspires me to continually search for new efficiencies so I can take on more projects instead of turning very exciting ones away because of limited bandwidth, which happened in the second half of 2015.

What I really want to focus on in this blog is the gratitude I am feeling as we turn the calendar from 2015 to 2016. First, I am very fortunate that business was good enough in 2015 for JGL Strategy to show its gratitude to Cleveland-area organizations doing great work; this came in the form of the company’s first corporate sponsorships ever!

In October JGL Strategy was a sponsor for a Toast to Tech, the annual fundraiser for Her Ideas in Motion. Her Ideas in Motion is a volunteer-led organization that empowers middle school girls through hands-on education in tech, coding, filmmaking, robotics and other STEM fields. The work this organization does is transformative in the lives of the girls who attend the programs and I believe could be transformative for the entire Northeast Ohio region as part of a larger ecosystem focusing on women in tech—just imagine if Cleveland became the city that women in tech moved to because it was the best for their careers.

JGL Strategy's first Corporate Sponsorship! Supporting women in tech with Her Ideas in Motion.

In November JGL Strategy was a table sponsor for the Old Brooklyn Development Corporation’s new signature event, An Old Brooklyn Nite. With a population of 35,000+ and 6.2 square miles of land Old Brooklyn is Cleveland’s largest neighborhood served by a single CDC. OBCDC does incredible work supporting a neighborhood that is young, diverse, multi-generational, safe and family friendly; the organization’s leadership in Executive Director Jeffrey T. Verespej and Board President John Young are unparalleled in their commitment and vision. An Old Brooklyn Nite was held at one of the neighborhood’s anchors, The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo at its new event venue Stillwater Place. It was a fun evening for all and I was glad I could support such a worthwhile cause.

JGL Strategy's first time as a Table Sponsor! At The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo for the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation's "An Old Brooklyn Nite."

I also need to thank all the friends, colleagues, peers, mentors and clients that supported my business in its infancy and provided the real gateway for 2015 to be such a year of learning and growth. To anyone who I met with this year to work with, to brainstorm, to share information or simply to talk about life and work: thank you!

While there are far too many names to list exhaustively I do want to highlight a few mentors, some new and some old, who were tremendous sources of learning and inspiration over the past year: Marty Pollock, Judy Peters, Sharon Sobol Jordan, Chris Thompson, Leah Gary, Victor Ruiz, Bernie Kerrigan, Amy Morgenstern and Chris Ronayne.

Thanks for a great 2015 everyone. Here’s to an even better 2016 for JGL Strategy, for Cleveland and for all of you!

© JGL Strategy, LLC

Three Hidden Challenges of Nonprofit Mergers

Mergers, sometimes referred to as strategic restructurings, can be a very effective inter-organizational tool to leverage limited resources for maximum impact in the nonprofit sector. Mergers are increasingly explored during times of economic scarcity but are also a viable option for capacity building regardless of the economic landscape. 

That being said, there are considerable hurdles that must be overcome for a successful merger between two or more nonprofit organizations. Some of these obstacles might not always be apparent at the start of a merger exploration, especially if you are participating in a merger for the first time. Reflecting on my first merger experience I can recall three challenges that surprised me in their significance to the merger process.

1) Mission-focused Motivations 

The need to understand why you are pursuing a merger should be obvious. The most effective nonprofit mergers are ones that remain primarily mission-focused in their motivations. You want to pursue a merger not just to get bigger, not just to create efficiencies through streamlining, synergy and scale, but because it is necessary for your mission—this merger is imperative because the problem of Xdesperately needs a better solution.

Mergers require a large investment of money. Yes there is a financial incentive behind mergers but realize that it could take years after the restructuring process before you see the cost savings. Therefore, if your desire to pursue a merger with another organization is primarily rooted in financial considerations, you are likely to find yourself frustrated in this process. If you pursue a merger exploration with a mutual focus on mission benefit, however, your chances of success are greater as that motivation will buoy you through the hard work ahead.

Finally, be aware that mergers are merely one option for nonprofit collaboration along a continuum of possibilities that may be more appropriate for your organization at the time; indeed mergers are the most complicated, time-consuming and investment-heavy of all these options. Other options for nonprofit collaboration include sharing best practices with your peer organizations, programmatic partnerships, creating a consolidated list and schedule of complementary services available in your community, or group purchasing and back office consolidation. Each of these options can increase organizational efficiency and sustainability while maintaining focus on your mission. Perhaps look to dip your toes into the waters of formal organizational affiliations through one or more of those options before jumping into the deep-end with a merger proposition. 

2) Data Alignment 

If the two organizations do not track the same data, even if they provide identical services, you have a major uphill battle with any potential merger. For the purposes of grant proposals, measuring outcomes consistently, and having a shared understanding of the impact the two organizations have, maintaining the same data and utilizing the same metrics of evaluation is very important.

One common vetting criterion for merger partners is the strength of the organization you are considering merging with. Even when the organization in question has a stellar reputation for delivering great mission outcomes if that organization measures its successes using different data than your organization uses, then you cannot make a true apples-to-apples comparison.

The need of standardizing data collection and data analysis where there is no pre-existing alignment adds yet another layer of work to be completed in what already is a complex, lengthy and costly endeavor. This is true whether aligning previously unaligned data occurs during pre-merger due diligence or post-merger integration. Finally, data alignment is essential to determining accurate benchmarks for sustained delivery of quality services after the merger—outcome measurements you will need because your funders will require it. 

3) Leadership Transition 

When two organizations merge the question of leadership transition goes far deeper than which of the two current CEOs becomes the CEO of the merged organization. Of course this question needs to be addressed – there aren’t many Co-CEO roles out there! – but don’t take this transition lightly in either the due diligence or implementation stage. 

Once a new leader for the combined organization has been selected, you must carefully plan out this transition. Normally this involves some variation on giving the CEO who will not be continuing in the Chief Executive role post-merger the proverbial “China assignment”: keeping him or her mostly out of sight and out of mind in an attempt to prevent confusion in staff ranks about the combined organization’s leadership.

How do you select a CEO between the two current CEOs? Well in certain cases it may be clear cut: say one organization is significantly larger than its merger partner, or perhaps one of the CEOs has been underperforming and the Board has been looking for an excuse for a change in leadership. Of course, circumstances are rarely so fortuitous. The strategy, reduced to its simplest form, is to assess what will be required of the CEO of the combined organization and then determine who best fits the role, assuming both CEOs are interested in the position. 


Nonprofit mergers are complex endeavors and should not be pursued haphazardly or with a limited field of vision. Mergers are important tools for a stronger nonprofit landscape whether pursued in a time of economic downturn or not.

I had the amazing experience to play an integral role in a major human services merger while working at The Centers for Families and Children. The challenges and deliverables specific to my charge in that process – merging the governance protocols and operations of two Associate Boards – will be covered in a future column. While I was initially surprised by the aforementioned challenges to the merger process at the organizational level, further experience and research in the area of nonprofit collaboration has helped me better understand what a nonprofit merger can entail.

Have you experienced at nonprofit merger as an organizational leader, employee, Board member, funder or consultant? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

© John G. Lynch

The Value of Civic Pitch Competitions

So you have an idea to change the world. Or maybe just to change your city.

How do you turn your civic vision into an emerging initiative? 

Civic pitch competitions – where organizations or individuals pitch an idea for a new program, project or initiative that innovatively addresses a social or civic problem in front of an audience of their peers and/or a panel of experts – are a valuable tool to move an initiative from idea to action and to gauge the feasibility of such advancement. This model has long been used by business accelerators to vet startups; more recently we have seen this model applied to pitches for civic initiatives and social enterprises. 

Maybe you have a plan to more effectively connect talent, skills-training and workforce needs; perhaps you want to reduce food waste by instituting a city-wide composting program; or possibly you developed a technology that will disrupt the status quo of donating money. These are all ideas that gained momentum through civic pitch competitions.

Civic pitch competitions provide great value. To realize your civic vision you will need appropriate talent, funding and community support at the very least. Civic pitch competitions provide this and so much more. 


Civic pitch competitions are a source of seed funding for emerging initiatives. That is the purpose of the competitions: to give dedicated individuals or teams the opportunity to pitch their ideas to potential funders or investors.

While the pitches are each vying for the prize money at a particular competition, the financial benefits of participating are not limited only to the winning pitch(es). Actually, all ideas pitched at such a competition have access to funding through audience members; there are likely to be numerous funders in the audience in addition to the ones judging the pitch competition. 

You are not just pitching to one potential funder but a roomful of potential funders; what attracts Funder A to your project might not be what attracts Funder B—with this model, you increase fundraising efficiency by pitching to both simultaneously. 

Connection to Talent

Civic pitch competitions are valuable because they facilitate a connection to top talent that can help advance your civic vision. You will need mentors, champions, and partners to succeed. Some civic pitch competitions have a strategic, intentional follow up process whereby they formally convene teams with the requisite expertise and desire to steer the winning pitches from idea to implementation. This was the case with Accelerate, a civic pitch competition I attended in February at the Global Center for Health Innovation. [For the purposes of transparency: this competition was coordinated by an organization I support through volunteer endeavors].

Even if the pitch competition does not have this follow up process officially built in, you will still connect with talent. One aim of making a civic pitch in this forum is for the presenting organizations or social entrepreneurs to start a discussion within the community of those who care about such causes. The competition – and the subsequent discussion – connects your ideas to immediate quality feedback. Your audience includes top experts in your field; if your idea can gain traction with that crowd, you know you are onto something. This feedback might be embedded in the competition’s format, such as the post-pitch Question-and-Answer period featured at Accelerate, or may occur at the conclusion of the formal event, as happened at SEAChange just days ago. At both pitch competitions the rooms were electrified after the pitches—there was no shortage of people willing to lend their expertise, network, and resources to see your civic vision succeed.

Starting Small, Working to Scale

An objection to civic pitch competitions is that the prize money alone is insufficient to yield positive outcomes. That is true but it is certainly not a knock on the competitions. Yes, all these proposals need more than seed money to fully realize their impact. But before emerging initiatives, especially ones coming from community members’ ideas and not an existent organization, are ready to accept major funding, they need to start small with pilot programs. They need to do this to: 1) learn from initial implementation of the idea; 2) observe and measure success of the program; 3) build community support and awareness for how the program is actually working. This intentional growth model is much more likely to see sustainable success than giving a multi-million dollar grant to a brand new initiative and expecting it to simultaneously navigate the early stages of the program and the magnitude of such a budget.

Just as later-stage investing exists in the startup world it similarly exists in the philanthropic world. In fact, there are some foundations that will not fund organizations in their first few years of existence—they want to see initial success and community backing before investing. Nonprofits and social enterprises need funders that fall into all these categories: funders who will invest seed money to get an emerging initiative off the ground; funders who will invest to support the sustained impact of a successful model; and eventually funders who will help them scale up the operation. The fact that civic pitch competitions systematically oblige promising initiatives to smart small before scaling illustrates yet another positive attribute of the model. 


Pitch competitions are relatively new to the nonprofit and philanthropic communities. While a reasonable amount of skepticism can be expected this model has proven successful when thoughtfully applied. Not only are civic pitch competitions exhilarating, dignified and inspirational affairs they also break from the status quo of nonprofit fundraising in a way that signifies progress: they provide a valuable comprehensive platform to pitch emerging initiatives and they spur innovation. Our world needs innovative approaches to complex social problems. Civic pitch competitions are an essential tool to nurture the best new ideas to scale and sustainability. 

Do you have an idea that you would like to present at a pitch competition but you do not know where to start? Feel free to ask in the comments section below or contact me and I can connect you with some resources. Have you attended or presented at a civic pitch competition? Share your experiences with the community below.


© John G. Lynch


Relationship Building: Networking for Mutual Benefit

One of the most influential accounts I follow on Twitter belongs to Adam Grant, professor at the Wharton School of Business. A few weeks ago he shared an article about the three biggest networking mistakes one can make.[1]

The advice in the article is generally sound. However, one statement early on in the piece gave me pause: “I would not gain anything professionally from helping a person I don’t know find a job.”

The mindset embedded in that statement is not conducive to effective networking, authentic relationship building, and maximizing the mutual benefit of connections you make. You can reap numerous benefits by helping someone you don’t know find a job. In fact, the practice of building and cultivating relationships – including putting forth effort with someone you may not know – is based on reciprocity and mutual benefit. Below are six benefits to relationship building.


Effective networking entails meeting with professionals from a diverse array of fields, with different backgrounds and different perspectives. You don’t know this person—okay, that is no reason to think there cannot be anything gained in meeting with her and learning from her experiences. Maybe there’s a shared passion for a particular cause, maybe she can introduce you to concepts that you have no experience with that you can uniquely apply to your work. Perhaps you might even – gasp – like this person and develop a friendship or a peer mentor relationship with her. People have developed mutually beneficially mentor-mentee relationships in much more unlikely settings.

2.    ACCESS:

Building relationships outside of your network, thereby expanding your network and perhaps even extending it into a realm you previously had no access to, is intrinsically valuable. If you know how to make your network work for you, growing your network is never a bad thing.

For example, if you run an arts and culture nonprofit and this person is your only contact in the med-tech field, she becomes a potential gateway for you to access others in that field. You might not learn much from talking to the person unknown to you, you might not even be able to help her land a job, but if you are professional, thoughtful, and genuine in your interaction with even minimal follow-up and relationship maintenance you have probably earned yourself someone who will always be wiling to at least answer a question or make an introduction for you. This gives you access to a new field.


Whether you work in business development and are hoping to secure a new client, are a fundraiser for a nonprofit looking for new donors, or a public official looking to better serve your constituents, meeting with others – even those you do not know – lays the groundwork for the main objective of your job. While some may look at meeting with an unknown individual pessimistically, you are probably better served by optimism: you do not know this person, therefore it is possible she could be just the connection you have been searching for.


It is broadly beneficial for the economic ecosystem in your community or region for the right talent to be matched with the right job. You may agree with this argument but still think, “Sure, but won’t my connecting one person to the right job be just a drop in the bucket?” But it’s not just you connecting one person to one job. Imagine if everyone who was presented with the opportunity of helping someone they do not know find a job; maybe only 5% of the time people are able to help in a way that matches talent with a job; the benefits of this practice in the aggregate are enormous. No matter your business interests they are certainly better served by an efficient economy where other businesses are maximizing talent to perform at high levels.


It is no secret that social capital greases the wheels of business and civic transactions. More often than not, knowing the right person or being able to leverage your network can play a major role in whether you get a foot in the door or are left on the outside looking in. Reciprocity provides the engine of social capital’s functions in the practice of relationship building.


Even if you do not see any direct benefit from networking with an individual you do not know, it is intrinsically rewarding to help others. Ann Landers put it best: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” 

While the previous points are based on the argument that meeting with an unknown individual can provide a benefit to you, even if you assume there is nothing to be gained from this person, it is nevertheless courteous, conscientious, and considerate to listen fully to the person and assist her if you can and the request is within reason.


You still have to evaluate the expected return on investment on a case-by-case basis. Maybe sometimes it doesn’t make sense—for instance, you could be facing an imminent deadline and the opportunity cost for taking a coffee meeting or a phone call might seem too high right now. But saying that you have nothing to gain professionally in helping someone you do not know is a bad assumption to make. Moreover, it is a claim that will be proven false by experience more often than not. I encourage everyone to try it sometime.

Have you ever helped someone you didn’t know find a job? Have you yourself accessed an opportunity through networking with someone you did not know? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Finally, if you don’t want to miss out on future thought provoking exchanges using 140 characters or fewer, follow me (@JohnGLynch) and Dr. Grant (AdamMGrant) on Twitter.

© John G. Lynch

[1] https://twitter.com/adammgrant/status/568046537848139776




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