About Jerr

Jerr BoscheeJerr Boschee (jerr@orbis.net) has been an advisor to social entrepreneurs in the United States and elsewhere for more than 30 years.  He has delivered keynote speeches or conducted master classes in 43 states and 20 countries, is the author or editor of six books about social enterprise, and is one of the six co-founders of the Social Enterprise Alliance.
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The fog index . . .

Posted on March 17, 2014 in Jerr's Journal

Try reading the following sentence out loud, seven times.  Each time you speak it, emphasize just one of the words, a different one each time:

“I never said she stole my money.”

Seven different meanings, right?

But at least you were able to use vocal inflections to make sure people knew what you meant.

In a written document, it’s not always that easy.  Most writers would solve the problem by italicizing one of the seven words.  But that’s kid stuff.  How do you make sure your writing is easy to understand, on a consistent basis?

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Two men tackled that problem in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  Rudolf Flesch (photo at right) wrote The Art of Readable Writing in 1948 and Robert Gunning (photo at left) wrote The Technique of Clear Writing in 1952.  Flesch concentrated on making sure your writing was easy to read; Gunning wanted to make sure it was easy to understand.

 

One result of their work is “The Fog Index,” which measures whether your readers can clearly understand what you’ve written.  I’ve been teaching it for years and I’m indebted to my friend Tom Callinan for reminding me recently that Flesch and Gunning had different purposes.  (Tom was ranting online about the need to banish jargon and start writing grant proposals in plain English.)

Extensive research over the past six decades has repeatedly demonstrated the practicality of the index.  It’s widely used by newspapers, textbook publishers and others -- but rarely in law, government, medicine . . . or, sadly, in business.

*             *             *             *             *

How easy is it for your stakeholders to understand your business plans, grant proposals, brochures and other documents? 

 

How easy is it for your stakeholders to understand your business plans, grant proposals, brochures and other documents?

You can use The Fox Index to find out.  For example, Time magazine is written at the level of a high school junior, comic books at the level of a sixth grader.

 

Here’s the formula:

  • STEP ONE:  Choose a sample of at least 100 words and then divide the number of words in your sample by the number of sentences (for example, 126 words divided by six sentences equals 20.5)
  • STEP TWO:  Count the number of words in your sample that have three or more syllables . . . but don’t count any words that are capitalized, any combinations of short easy words such as “bookkeeper,” or any verbs made into three syllables by adding “ed” or “es” (such as “expanded” or “expresses”)
  • STEP THREE:  Divide the number of words with three or more syllables by the total number of words in the sample (for example, 11 such words divided by 126 is a percentage of 8.73)
  • STEP FOUR:  Add the results of steps one and three (20.5 + 8.73 = 29.23)
  • STEP FIVE:  Multiply the result of step four by .4 (29.23 x .4 = 11.69)

According to The Fog Index, a score of 11.69 means your writing is not easily understood by anybody whose reading skills are below the level of a high school senior:

Grade Level Score Examples
College graduate 17  
College Senior 16  
College junior 15  
College sophomore 14  
College freshman 13  
High school senior 12  
High school junior 11 The Wall Street Journal, Time
High school sophomore 10 Reader's Digest
High school freshman 9  
Eighth grade 8 Most best-selling books
Seventh grade 7 Most best-selling books, The Bible
Sixth grade 6 The Bible, comic books, Mark Twain

Applying The Fog Index to your written communications could explain why some stakeholders aren’t getting your message.  The ideal score is 7 or 8 (“most best-selling books”) . . . and anything above 12 will probably be misunderstood or ignored.

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The first time I brought the fog index into the classroom for my graduate students, I randomly selected two samples from my own writing and tested them against the formula.

Here’s the first, the opening paragraphs from one of my books:

“Social innovators around the world have begun to reach a disquieting conclusion:  Inspired vision, impassioned leadership, enthusiastic volunteers, government subsidies and a phalanx of donors are not always enough.

“They serve admirably while innovators transform their dreams into fledgling programs and steer their organizations through early growing pains.  But there comes a time, albeit reluctantly, when most founders and their followers begin to understand that living from year to year does not ensure the future, and that is the moment when they begin migrating from innovation to entrepreneurship.  It is one thing to design, develop and carry out a new program, quite another to sustain it.  So they begin turning toward commercial markets, gradually exploring the possibilities of earned income, many for the first time, and often with reluctance given their uneasiness about the profit motive.”

Turns out I was writing at the level of a college freshman.

Here’s the second, an excerpt from an essay I wrote about returning 25 years later to the village in India where I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the late 1960s:

“The village remains, but its boundaries have exploded.  Dozens of shops bustle down the road toward the school.  A model town grows to the north.  Motorcycles shoulder through the streets, and television antenna leap from every other rooftop.

“But . . .

“In the older part of town, the lanes still wander quietly, then disappear.  Women sit comfortably outdoors on charpois, surrounded by their children.  Solitary pigs snort past them toward unseen destinations.  Cows pick their way across broken cobblestones.  Occasional students race homeward.

“As the day wanes, the sky reaches down, all reds and golds and orange, inches above my head.  Chants from the temple drift across the rooftops, and spices scent the air from hundreds of kitchens.  Families gather . . . and a warm glow slips over my memories.”

This time I was writing for eighth graders.

And, given my intentions and the audiences I hoped to reach, I was in the right neighborhood both times.

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So why not give it a try?

Pick one of your brochures, one of your grant proposals and one of your tech manuals.  Choose a sample from each and run the numbers.

The results might please or disturb you, but, either way, you’ll have a better handle on how well you’re communicating with your key stakeholders.

(FYI:  According to The Fog Index, you need to have 11th-grade reading skills to easily understand the first ten paragraphs of this essay.)

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No small dreams . .

Posted on February 18, 2014 in Jerr's Journal

During the spring of 1965, I became editor of a suburban Minneapolis newspaper and began writing a weekly column.  A few months later I decided to feature my three youngest siblings.  I asked them what they would do if I gave them $100 and told them they had to spend it.

Here’s what they said:

  • Laya, a third grader, decided to “get a color TV (and) a radio…rent a hotel…buy a tiny, tiny house…get to be a fancy lady…buy a shop…get a husband…get a speedboat…get to be a teacher or a nurse…get a trailer house…get a convertible.”
  • Her twin sister Marg displayed a more economical bent with plans to “buy some wood to make a house, buy some land, buy some food, get some clothes,” but she shared Laya’s wish for a color TV and a radio, then admitted she’d also “get a trailer house for me and my dog” and “get a wedding doll.”
  • Bob, a second grader, needed a few suggestions to get him started, but he finally settled on “a trip around the world, a speedboat, a trailer house, a new car, a dog, a bike,” and then finished with, “I’d put it in the bank.” 

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I think about that column every time I talk with somebody planning to launch a social enterprise, and it happened again this morning.  I spent 45 minutes on the phone with a woman who wants to simultaneously start four different social enterprises employing recovering substance abusers:  An incentives business, a coffee shop, a sales rep company, and a sustainability project.

“Don’t do it!” I implored her, at least a dozen times, in a dozen different ways, and I finally asked her:  “What gets you up in the morning?  What excites you?  What do you really want to do?”

Her answer came quickly and her passion for one of the four businesses leaped across the miles.

“Then just do that one,” I begged, “and make it world class!”

Oh . . . she was also working 30 hours a week to support herself while trying to start the four businesses.

Don’t laugh.  I hear the same soaring ambitions from almost everybody who calls me or stops me at a conference for advice . . .

*             *             *             *             *

And I hear them at the beginning of each semester when the graduate students in my incubator course start planning their own social enterprises.  I ask them to send me the answers to three questions before our first class:  “What social need will you be addressing?  What product or service will you provide?  Who will buy your product or service?”

Here are three of the 15 responses I received at the beginning of the current semester at Pepperdine University:

  • Young people (ages 18-24) transitioning out of the foster care system are struggling with independence.  They are at tremendous risk of becoming homeless.  They lack jobs, skills, career direction, relationships, and a quality support network.  For foster youth, we will provide housing, job training,life skills, mentoring, a referral center, college access, and job placement; for companies in the hospitality and pet care industries, we will provide qualified, trained employees who can be put to work immediately.  The companies hiring our people will pay a rebate based on wages; temporary staffing companies who place our people will pay us a fee; and our people will pay us a portion of their earnings.
  • Lighting the Ethiopian Path (LEP) is a nonprofit that assists Ethiopians living in extreme poverty, especially at-risk women and out-of-school teens, through remedial education leading to college enrollment and/or skills training that fosters enterprise development and sustainable livelihoods.  We are opening community centers in low-income housing neighborhoods of Addis Ababa and we are also creating a subsidiary to help fund the work of the centers:  EduTour includes a bed-and-breakfast and trip coordination service targeting university students, mission groups, adopting families, and other social tourists seeking an educational and cultural immersion that has an impact.
  • My goal is to develop a microbrewery with a triple-bottom line.  The brewery will offer creative, quality beer and become a vehicle encouraging community development.  Using appreciative inquiry and a sustainable community development framework, we hope to help opinion and action leaders make positive changes in their communities.  The brewery will offer community stakeholders cultural, financial, and social capital needed to create effective change.  Our products and services are generally targeted at craft beer drinkers, change-makers, and individuals willing to engage in community action.

No small dreams, eh?

I love the ambition!

Remember what your mom used to say when you took too big a bite?

But author Om Malik reminded us of something important a few years ago during his blog for Inc. about the sad downfall of Joost, a much-ballyhooed online video startup:  “Remember what your mom used to say when you took too big a bite?  If you’re not careful, you’re going to choke.  Startups are just like that.  Unless you focus, you’re going to choke.”

*             *             *             *             *

Each of the three students I’ve quoted had a different type of “focusing” issue.  One was trying to do too much, one was letting the tail wag the dog, and one needed to merge two conflicting forces into a coherent financing strategy.

However, completing feasibility studies during the next few weeks gave them a better grip on what might be possible.  There’s a long way to go before they present their business plans to a group of judges this April, but they’ve already met some difficult challenges:

  • Amy Bawden realized she was trying to start seven different businesses at the same time.  Now she’s narrowed her focus to “job training and placement” for current and former foster children -- and she’s also limited her target market to a single industry.
  • Mindi Aleme, who lives in Addis Ababa, is moving ahead with her subsidiary, but she’s turned its management over to another staff member and is focusing more of her own energies on developing one of LEP’s core programs which has greater revenue potential and addresses a more pressing social need:  Remedial tutoring in English, math and science for sixth- and seventh- grade students (using approaches and technologies already field-tested by others in Kenya and India).
  • Juan Carrillo had a stomach-churning problem deciding how to pitch his business idea to both traditional and social investors.  His ultimate goal is to turn his microbrewery and tasting room into a hub for community development.  But if traditional investors believed his “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) efforts would bleed the bottom line, they’d back away.  And if he emphasized profitability at the expense of community development, he’d lose the social investors.  After finishing his feasibility study, he realized his core business and his CSR ambitions could actually be combined -- and he’s now created a business model in which the brewery’s community development work drops revenue directly to the company’s bottom line, thus satisfying both traditional and social investors.

*             *             *             *             *

I eventually reminded the woman on the phone this morning that building a successful social enterprise is a seven- to ten-year, full-time job, with no guarantee of success, and requires an enormous amount of bootstrapping.  Anything that distracts from doing what the enterprise needs done will slow or kill the process.

But I also told her what I tell my students:  If you stay focused on one business at a time, get a few breaks, pour in a ton of sweat equity -- and if the wood don’t warp and the creek don’t rise -- you just might create something great . . .

*             *             *             *             *

My siblings?  Well, Laya got more than “a tiny, tiny house” -- she has two daughters and a son and is vice president of a real estate development company.  Marg spent 16 years managing medical clinics, then got the “land” she wanted, is a home-based medical transcriptionist, and raised three sons (plus a few chickens on the side).  And Bob, now the father of two sons?  The kid who wanted to put his $100 in the bank?  He grew up to be a financial advisor.

 

 

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You can't control them, but . . .

Posted on January 13, 2014 in Jerr's Journal

We were in our mid-20s, wandering homeward during the summer of 1970 after two years with the Peace Corps in India. We’d already spent two months exploring Israel, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany and France . . . and now we were in London, our last stop before heading back to the U.S. and the rest of our lives.

It was a pleasant early evening. Gerry and I and a woman friend were wandering down Piccadilly when one of the ubiquitous pub signs caught our eye.

“You know,” said Gerry, “I’ve been hearing about Guinness all my life, but I’ve never tasted one.”

 “Me, either!  You wanna try one?”

As I said, we were in our mid-20s.

Gerry grinned enthusiastically and we turned to our woman friend. She was game, so the three of us headed into a tiny pub, swam through layers of smoke, and seated ourselves at a high-top in the middle of the room. Late-afternoon and early-evening drinkers were crowded around the other tables, so it took a few moments until a waiter arrived.

We told him we were Americans and he rolled his eyes. Apparently we were wearing neon signs.

Then I told him we’d been hearing about Guinness all our lives (Gerry’s line, but I stole it) and thought it was about time we tried some.

He agreed far too many years had been wasted and offered to bring us each a foaming mug.

We told him that was a capital idea and while he was gone we beamed at each other and decided we would make this a formal ceremony.

A few moments later, the waiter returned. Had we been less impressed with ourselves, we might have noticed that the noise level in the pub had lessened considerably . . .

Instead, we raised our mugs, tapped them against each other, tipped them to our lips and swallowed . . .

At which point all three of us did spit-takes and the entire room went up for grabs.

Nobody’d ever told us Guinness was a warm beer!

And apparently everybody in the room had been watching the show (tipped off by the waiter, no doubt) because they were all waiting for the spit-takes. 

Some kindly punters came over to our table and apologized. “But we just couldn’t help it!” one of them laughed as he clapped me on the back. “It happens every time a Yank comes in to try Guinness for the first time!”

We recovered our dignity as best we could. I was the first to push my mug to the center of the table, but the other two quickly followed. We stared at them for awhile and then decided to order something more fit for a human.

We had Heinekens. But only after the waiter assured us they kept a few on ice.

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Entrepreneurs are always urged to have a business plan. I’m putting my graduate students at Pepperdine through that torture this winter. But plans are plans. What happens next is usually unexpected.

That’s just part of being an entrepreneur. Me? I’m not an entrepreneur. When my plans go awry I get discouraged. Entrepreneurs never do. They may be disappointed, but that is not the same thing.

Trouble is, entrepreneurs are always trying something new -- but too often they do so in a vacuum . . . and there aren’t any Heinekens in the cooler . . .

One of the concepts I lean on heavily with my students and others starting social enterprises is the importance of constantly doing a 360-degree scan. Yes, you are looking to discover what your competitors are up to in terms of pricing, product development, marketing communications and other tools of the trade. But entrepreneurs also need to be aware of the forces swirling about the entire industry, enveloping both themselves and their competitors.

What I’m talking about are large-scale, fundamental forces that pose threats and shape opportunities. Most of the time, you can’t control them, but you need to identify them, decide whether they’re positive or negative, determine when they’re likely to occur, estimate their impact -- and, most importantly, decide what to do about them.

 What I’m talking about are large-scale, fundamental forces that pose threats and shape opportunities

There are at least five types of external forces that have an effect on businesses:

DEMOGRAPHIC 

Numbers, categories and labels are always changing: 

  • The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion rose from 7% in 1972 to 18% in 2010 (University of Chicago) and by 2012 represented nearly one-fifth of the population, including one-third of adults under 30 (Pew Foundation)
  • Alzheimer’s programs began appearing in the 1970s.  By the time I consulted with one of Arizona’s leading providers 30 years later, the demographics had changed and it was working exclusively with “early onset” Alzheimer patients
  • Many children once viewed as developmentally disabled were eventually re-labeled as “autistic” -- and then, beginning in the early 1980s, were sub-categorized into smaller groups when Asperger’s syndrome became standardized as a diagnosis

So, just who are the people in your target market(s), today? How old are they? Male? Female? Other? Who will they be tomorrow?

What are their income levels? Their religious affiliations? Their education levels?

And what are the trends in each area? Is the gender balance shifting? Is the age range changing? Are the people you serve better educated? Is their income level rising or sinking? Are they decamping or flooding into your geographic area?

ECONOMIC

In 1977, Independent Sector conducted a study revealing that the average nonprofit in the United States had three months of operating capital in reserve. Not great, but not a disaster.

Twelve years later, Independent Sector repeated the study. This time, the average nonprofit had less than four days in reserve -- not even enough to pay next week’s expenses.

How many nonprofits saw that happening?

And how many saw the recession coming? It’s had a devastating impact on nonprofits, social enterprises and other businesses during the past five years.

And now:  Will inflation begin stifling the purchasing power of the people you serve? Will interest rates soar? Will wage levels climb -- or descend? Will the unemployment rate continue to creep downward or suddenly switch directions? Just a few of the economic forces that will soon have an impact. Are you paying sufficient attention?

TECHNOLOGICAL

People used to be astonished when I mentioned that my Psych 101 course at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1962 took place in Northrop Auditorium rather than a classroom -- nearly 2,500 students came to lectures three mornings each week. But three years ago, 160,000 people attended a free, online course about artificial intelligence delivered by a professor at Stanford. Online schools and degrees are proliferating, and the educational landscape has been transformed.

During the past half-decade, the impact of rapid technological change on social enterprises has been second only to economic earthquakes. We are perched on an inflexion point unseen since the Industrial Revolution. Technology will alter the way you package, price, deliver and promote your products and services -- and might completely erase the need for them.

SOCIOLOGICAL

How well do you understand the people you are serving?

What do they hold as core values? How do they feel about the most divisive issues of our time (“freedom of choice” vs. “right to life”)? Are their lifestyles and expectations morphing into something that would have been unrecognizable even a decade ago (the attitudes of Americans toward gay marriage)? What traditions do they honor (the right to bear arms)? What customs do they practice (end-of-life care in the home or in a hospital?)?

Do they hold any collective power? Is it increasing or decreasing? What does that mean?

And what do they expect from a company like yours? Is that changing?

POLITICAL AND REGULATORY

Three words:  “Affordable Care Act.” The ripple effect will cause unimagined changes in the way health care is viewed, priced and delivered. What will be the implications for your social enterprise (even if you’re not working in the healthcare arena)?

Federal legislation always has a massive impact, often with unexpected side effects. The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 ushered in an era of homelessness that is still a plague, especially in our urban centers. But state legislation and local regulations can be equally challenging. Is there new or pending federal or state legislation that could affect your business (e.g., would stricter licensing of the care-givers in your field be a positive or a negative?). Are the people you serve gaining political clout -- and is that a good or bad thing for your company? Are activists promoting damaging or helpful legislation? 

*             *             *             *             *

It’s not easy. You need to simultaneously keep your eyes on the landscape beneath you and the world around you. And, at the very least, you need to have best and worst case scenarios in mind.  What will change? How great a change will it be? When will it happen? How will you react?

Many external forces will have no impact on your future. But there will always be a few that could make all the difference if you don’t understand and prepare for them, whether they be happy surprises or seismic shocks to the system.

It’s all about reactions: This gigantic alien is landing in your living room. What do you do next?

Well, if you’re less impressed with yourselves than Gerry and I were in that pub, you might have seen them coming . . .

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