“AARRR!” PREVENTING THE PIRACY OF PHILANTHROPY

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Source: OINOS Educational Consulting

By Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., F.C.E.P.

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
July 29, 2021, marked 71 years since Walt Disney released Treasure Island, his first live-action film, loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel of the same name.  Treasure Island made its debut in 1950. Filmed in England, it was the first screen version of the adventure story made in color.
 
Apart from then cutting-edge cinematography, the standout performance in the film was the introduction of the pirate Long John Silver, played by Robert Newton, who portrayed the swashbuckler with a sparkle of gin in his eye. What made Newton’s characterization so memorable was the use of the now-iconic word, “Aarrr” which has continued as the inspiration for pirate movie roles since that time.

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 Since 2002, many Americans have in fact participated in “National Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Each year on September 19th, individuals are encouraged to dress like a swashbuckler and add that pirate flavor to everything they do. According to the official “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” website, one should endeavor to include words like “Ahoy,” “Avast,” “Aye,” and “Aarrr” into their regular conversations. Unsurprisingly, the English actor Robert Newton is the organization’s patron saint.
 
Our society is infatuated with pirates. Pirates and Buccaneers are the branding mascots for at least two professional sports teams. The Minnesota Vikings should also be added to the list as, historically, Vikings were Scandinavian pirates. And how can we forget the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, that introduced audiences to Captain Jack Sparrow?
 
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl premiered on July 9, 2003.  Curiously enough, the movie was released one year after the inauguration of “National Talk Like a Pirate Day.” The film was based on the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney Theme Parks during which participants are treated to the word “Aarrr” at several points during the ride. While the movie script also includes the now popular expression, the story pivots on an eccentric Pirate, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), and blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), as they respectively try to rescue the kidnapped Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) from the cursed crew of a mysterious ship called the Black Pearl.
 
While tremendously successful, the sequel surpassed the original movie’s revenues by becoming the highest opening day moneymaker of all time. For purposes of this edition of Frankly Speaking, I want to draw attention to the major affliction of Captain Jack Sparrow. Do you remember what it was? Though he had in his possession a precious gift, a magic compass that could take the owner to whatever or whomever they desired, Captain Jack was unable to find his direction, because he could not make up his mind as to what he truly treasured.
 
During an insightful exchange in the sequel with a mysterious Caribbean soothsayer called Tia Dalma, the Captain’s dilemma is revealed. “The compass you bartered from me.” she asks, “it cannot lead you to this?” “Maybe,” answers Jack, “Why do you ask?” . . .  “Ah,” responds Dalma, “it seems Jack Sparrow does not know what he wants!”
 
Mission matters! Unlike Captain Jack Sparrow, nonprofit leaders must clearly know what is indispensable, what they treasure, and where their organization’s mission must lead them. Otherwise, no compass, however precise, can ever guide them there!

According to The Stanford Social Innovation Review, a magazine and website that covers cross-section solutions to global problems, nonprofits are, by definition, mission-driven.  To thrive, therefore. a nonprofit organization must develop and adhere to a clear statement of its core purpose. On the other hand, leaders of a for-profit corporation can assert with ease that its purpose is “to maximize shareholder value.” From such a specific core intention, any for-profit stakeholder can infer how their organization’s performance will be measured and how its leaders will make strategic trade-offs.
 
Alternatively, nonprofit organizations inherently lack the financial clarity of such purpose. In addition, they often have multiple patrons and stakeholders with various and conflicting expectations. A mission statement is, therefore, invaluable. A clear and well-focused mission statement should, consequently, serve to guide all major decisions, especially when they pertain to new programs and projects leaders might: (1) consider undertaking, (2) which to avoid, and (3) which to exit. Tragically, however, the “mission compass” frequently goes unused.
 
Unfortunately, many nonprofits today have mission statements that are simply too broad. As a result, what is commonly referred to as “mission creep,” or what I would recast as “philanthropic piracy,” often begins to stretch an organization so thin and far that it oftentimes can no longer effectively pursue its primary goals. For example, in the private sector, it would seem preposterous for a coffee-roasting company to start manufacturing disposable Covid-19 safety gloves. Yet, nonprofits routinely extend their operations in equivalent ways expanding their programs far beyond their organizational scope and far beyond their core competencies.
 
A strong mission statement that reflects an organization’s authentic aspiration is the first and best tool for ensuring that its mission will not be pirated. In their article “Curbing Mission Creep,” The Stanford Social Innovation Review outlines seven characteristics of a well-honed statement of mission: It is focused. It solves unmet public needs. It leverages unique skills. It guides trade-offs. It inspires and is inspired by, key stakeholders. It anticipates change. And sticks in the public’s memory. In my view, the vast majority of nonprofit mission statements violate one or more of these guidelines.
 
What can nonprofit leaders do to avoid the serious consequences of philanthropic piracy? What may not be readily known is that the pirate expression “Aarrr” has been employed as an acronym for a valuable organizational tool, a mission compass of sorts, called Pirate Metrics, that may effectively safeguard their endeavors.
 
Developed by the Silicon Valley investor, Dave McClure in 2007, Pirate Metrics (AARRR), is intended to help companies avoid being distracted by superficial performance measures such as “likes” on Social Media. Alternatively, Pirate Metrics has a twofold focus. First, to show companies how to narrow their intentions to only those metrics that can directly affect the health of their enterprise. Second, to help these companies use the right data to gauge the success of their product or service, management, and marketing efforts.
 
The acronym AARRR of Pirate Metrics stands for Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referral, and Revenue. While initially developed for revenue-driven organizations, I would suggest that the metrics can also be understood as points of a compass that nonprofits can utilize to effectively maintain a healthy mission-driven direction. Pirate Metrics is based on the following five types of measurements:
 
Acquisition refers to all of the channels that a nonprofit organization uses to introduce people to its services. This could include Search Engine Optimization (SEO), social media, marketing and advertisement, and apps and widgets.
 
Activation indicates the number of people who take desired actions or next steps, after encountering a nonprofit organization’s website, message, and/or advocate. Do website visitors pass to additional pages? How much time is spent on a page or app?  Do visitors sign-up for newsletters or complimentary offers? Do they request more information or ask to volunteer?
 
Retention is all about keeping people around after encountering a nonprofit organization’s website, message, and/or advocate. It is a well-known fact that it is 5 to 25 times more expensive to acquire a new customer, client, or donor than it is to retain an existing one. That is, it is easier and less expensive only if authentic trust has been previously established. Great care should therefore be taken to ensure that acquisition and activation strategies lead to retention.
 
Referral is one of the most important and yet often underrated metrics. The absolute best way to drive growth is through referrals generated by a nonprofit organization’s existing volunteers, donors, supporters, and board members.
 
Revenue is finally the phase that starts when an individual finally makes the decision to volunteer, donate, and/or advocate to help a nonprofit provide its services.
 
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), the author of the book Treasure Island (1882), from which the phrase “Aarrr” originated, spent his childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland. Apparently, one evening, when he was a young child, as dusk was turning to darkness, Robert had his face pinned to the window at the front of his house fascinated by the lamplighter coming down the street, with his ladder and burning wick, lighting the old-fashioned gas street lamps and setting them ablaze for the night. Seeing their son glued to the window, his parents asked him, ‘Robert, what in the world are you looking at out there?’ With great excitement, he exclaimed, ‘Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!’
 
As a result of this childhood experience, in 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson authored the following poem entitled, “The Lamplighter.”
 
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
 
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
Oh Leerie, I’ll go round at night, and light the lamps with you!
 
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!
 
Stevenson’s poem perfectly captures what nonprofits and faith-based organizations are to do! Their mission must be intensely focused on punching holes in the darkness of society by providing philanthropic services and messages of hope to the less fortunate. This is what it must have seemed like to an impressionable young child watching the descending darkness of self-interest being driven away, bit by bit, by the Lamplighter.
 
Punching holes in the darkness! It is vital that all nonprofits, particularly local philanthropic and faith-based organizations, grasp the importance of this principle and, thereby, guard against the piracy of philanthropy.
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