Ask Them and They Will Come

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    This blog was written by guest writer Andy Horsnell.

    While working for a nonprofit capacity building service, I had occasion to put together an “Executive Director Boot Camp” that would help EDs identify and begin addressing issues that were critical for their on-the-job effectiveness. Early in the development of this project, I almost had myself convinced that I knew enough, given my twenty years in capacity building, to just roll it out to the market. Almost. Instead, I invested in interviews and focus groups with about two dozen executive directors to see what I could learn.

    I learned plenty. First, make it exclusively for executive directors; resist the temptation to open it up to other senior staff and board members. “We want to be free talk about our issues, without worrying about what our staff and board members might think.” Then they told me the issues what they wanted the session to address, and gave me specific input on the session format, timing, promotion and pricing. They said, “If you can pull this off as we’ve outlined, we’ll happily pay $400 for a two-day session.” This from a group of people who were known to complain about paying $20 for a lunch presentation by an expert on the latest ‘critical issue’.

    We launched the program with the initial goal of thirty participants. The common wisdom around the office was, “We’ll be lucky to get twenty. I mean, how many EDs are there that will come up with $400?” Sixty-five, to be exact. And we could have taken another twenty, had we had the room to accommodate them.

    In short, the program almost sold itself, because we had the audacity to give our paying customers what they actually wanted, instead of what we felt they needed. It’s a lesson I won’t forget quickly: don’t ever fool yourself into believing that you can think for your customers. It’s so much easier (and effective) to just ask them in the first place and, if you do, they’ll reward you for it.


    Andy Horsnell is an accomplished social entrepreneur with deep roots in nonprofit management, consulting and training. He is the guide to the Social Enterprise section of the Free Management Library.