January 11th, 2009


What to say?

This was one of those books which was obtained specifically to give me something to read on the train ride home from work when I managed to (unexpectedly) finish what I had been reading on the way up there in the morning. Fortunately, there is a used bookstore across the street from the Davis stop up in Evanston, and I was able to pop in there at lunch to find something on their "cheap" tables. I'd just finished a book which was a bit Franklin-fixated, and figured that this would be a swell follow-up!

Anyway, that's how I found myself reading The Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, a small, brief (under 100 pages), hardcover collection by Barnes & Noble, which didn't even bother to list who had acted as editor (although there is a 2-page Preface by an S.M. Wu and an illustrator noted).

Now, I'm not much given to reading this sort of thing, as (generally speaking) if I'm reasonably familiar with the subject of the book, I've probably gotten a smattering of its contents already, and this is hardly a selection of Franklin's "best writing". This draws from various sources, including Poor Richard's Almanac, and has many pages where some couplets or adages stand one or two to the page with some illustration ... none of which provide any great revelations, such as "Light Purse, Heavy Heart" or "Death takes no bribes."

I suppose that there are those out there, however, who suffer from a poor education and have no idea who Franklin is, aside from the Dead White Guy on the "benjamins". For these sorts, this might serve as a valuable introduction ... especially as it would likely also be the first exposure to the Enlightenment that they'd have (not that I'd be expecting folks to jump from this to Paine's The Age of Reason). I hate to suggest it as a book for children (as it neither flatters Franklin nor the kids), but it would be a painless read that could amuse and prove a useful basis for future reading.

Not that I'm saying the book is bad, it's just not very deep ... which I suppose a thin "wit and wisdom" collection isn't shooting for, and was, unexpectedly, a bit of a chore to finish (much like having to sit through a movie targeted to 8-year-olds). There was a feeling of encountering a long magazine article and skipping over the actual text and just reading the picture captions and side-bars.

If this does have some appeal to you, you're in luck, as "like new" copies are available for as little as a penny. I paid $2.00 (marked down from the $4.95 cover price), so if one was interested in adding this to one's library, I'd recommend keeping an eye out for it in the used book stores (where you'd be avoiding paying shipping)!

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No, really ...

As I've noted previously, I've not (until very recently) been one who's been drawn to reading "business books", and this one only came into my hands (at a used book sale) due to my previous focus on getting a job in the nonprofit sector.

Frankly, one would expect Larry W. Kennedy's Quality Management in the Nonprofit World: Combining Compassion and Performance to Meet Client Needs and Improve Finances (yes, that is its official title) would be a horrifically boring read, but it is nowhere near as dull as it sounds. Frankly, Kennedy has a reasonably lively style and an attitude which is not deadly serious and is willing, from time to time, to even poke fun at various nonprofit constituencies.

Why, you might ask, would I bother to be reading this at this point? Well, I do spend a good amount of time interfacing with the Non-Profit Commons folks over in Second Life, and I figured that having this under my belt might provide me with some useful info, either in dealing with their concerns or making suggestions for programs and activities that we could jointly produce.

The author seems to have been tied into the late "quality management" guru Philip Crosby (who pointed out that even for-profit organizations typically waste 35% of their resources re-doing stuff that was done wrong initially!) and takes the various elements of that approach and applies them towards the non-profit settings where he had consulted.

What makes the book fascinating is the string of "stories" of how things worked (or didn't) in various organizations. Rather than beat the reader over the head with points that "quality is free", or the "zero defects" concept, he identifies these and then shows how they might be attained using these illustrative scenarios.

Being the cynical person that I am, I was very drawn to his description of some non-profits ...

(The founder) was a very emotion-centered nurturing person, and as I continued to evaluate her small staff and volunteers, I found that they were nearly clones of the founder. Each one was poorly prepared but all were emotionally committed to one another. None of them had sufficient administrative knowledge or experience, and they had little interest in such things. ... I had been asked to tell them how to get organized and secure the necessary funds for expanding their services. What I found was resistance to any real improvement or restructuring. They were not nearly as committed to meeting the requirements of their clients and constituents as they were in fulfilling their own personality needs through social action. Although their statements of purpose and individual testimonies were flowered with declarations of services to their community and the like, it was very clear that what they were gaining in their work together was more important to them personally than what their clients would receive through organizational movement.
Mighty refreshing to find that sort of honest assessment! In a similar tone he discusses the difficulties of getting a realistic and useful "mission statement" set in many of these groups (not "we want to help people" but "we want to provide X, Y, and Z services to Group A in location B"), and how to avoid "pet project" pitfalls with donors and constituents, running "fund raisers" that didn't actually produce any funds (but ego-stroke various audiences), as well as using organizational resolve in dealing with volunteers who are "off mission" and only there for the feel-good emotionalism.

Much of the advice is very "common sense" based:

One moderate approach to achieving quality through goal-setting theory is to establish reasonable increments of improvement. A reachable target is chosen and once the goal is reached, another goal is established and so on, until the ultimate goal is reached.
Although some of it would probably be hard for the "touchy-feely" types to handle:

The only way to improve consistently is for every person at every step in each process to try to prevent every error from reaching the client. Quality improvement will not come over-night. It will come in increments and it will be maintainable as long as you never treat an error rate as acceptable.
Given my surprising enthusiasm for Quality Management in the Nonprofit World, I'm rather disappointed that it appears to be currently out of print. However, "new" copies of this 1991 hardcover are available via the Amazon new/used guys for as little as $2.90 (plus shipping, of course). If you have any interest in "quality management" (or even feel like indulging in a bit of Schadenfreude over "do-gooder" types), this is quite a worthwhile read!

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