How to Defeat the Underpants Gnomes

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles, Strategy, Theory, Uncategorized

Before you do anything else, watch the video above.  I’ll wait.


(About 5.5 minutes to read)

Ok thanks, this will be so much easier to explain now that you’ve watched it (P.S. if you’re lying to me, I swear, the thing is 30 seconds long and applies to your life ALL THE TIME).

I’ve seen exactly two episodes of South Park in my life, and I had the wonderful fortune of bumping into the Underpants Gnomes one of those times.  And ever since then, I refer to it all.the.time.  In this episode, one of the characters keeps getting his underwear stolen in the middle of the night.  The characters stay up one night, follow the underwear, and discover that there’s a large group of gnomes who collect underpants, because they think it will turn into Profit.  I call it the Underpants Gnomes Problem.

The Underpants Gnomes Problem afflicts even the most competent of us.  You have a goal in mind, you have the first step toward that goal, but eventually your plan will unfold at some point because there’s no next step to get you to that goal.  You just expect the first step to end in that goal.

I encountered the Underpants Gnomes recently while volunteering with an organization and helping them put together a fundraiser.  This thing was doomed from the beginning.  When I came in, they told me they were having their Annual End-of-the-Year fundraiser, since that’s when people try to unload their money because they want tax credits.  I asked them how long they’ve been doing it, and they said this will be their first time. 

For those of you keeping score at home, here is a pearl of wisdom.  NEVER call something annual until you’re actually doing it for at least the second time.  Otherwise, you’re committing to something that could be a failure (just to name one reason…).  So we were off to a questionable start.

Me: Tell me more about the event.  Who are you hoping will attend?

Them: Oh, we want donors to come, so we can raise money.

Me:  Who are your donors?  Are they grantors?  Members?  Long-time givers?  Organizations?  Corporations?

Them: Whoever gives to us.  And supporters.  And members.  All of them.

Me:  Ok, what have you done so far to plan for this?

Them: Well, we got this great, fancy location for the event.  Everyone will get dressed up, it’ll be catered, the whole shabang.  We already have the deposit down.

Me:  Sounds great!  How much money are you hoping to raise?

Them:  We didn’t set a goal.  We’ll just raise as much as we can.

Me:  Hmm…Ok, well let’s do some math and see what you’ll be spending and where we can make money.  How much are tickets?

Them:  They’re free.  We announced it on the flyer, see?

Me: …How much are you paying for the location and catering?

Them: $6,000…it’s non-refundable, but that should be ok, right?

Me:  So, you have to make at least $6,001 to make it an event that actually raises anything, and no plan of how you’ll get that money?

The conversation continued along like this for far too long. Their plan was to throw an event, and make money.  They felt that they were already late planning it, so they just threw a bunch of commitments onto a flyer (“Free dinner!”, “Live entertainment!”, “No-cost admission!”, “Bring your kids!”) and mailed it out.  Step 3, Profit.

How to defeat the Underpants Gnomes

You need to set a goal and to have a plan of how to reach that goal in order to be successful (the same way you get to a decision).  I used to be terrible at goal setting.  I would tell people “Look, I’m going to work as hard as I can.  My goal is 100% voter turnout.  I will work my ass off to get as close to that number as possible.  Now get off my back and let me do my work so I can actually reach that goal, and stop making me waste my time doing calculations.”  But I’ve since been reformed.  When goals are measurable and achievable, you are able to make a plan that can adjust as needed.  You and others have something to work towards, to cross off as you achieve it- just like how I sometimes write down tasks on a retroactive to-do list just so I can cross them off.  If you don’t set a goal, then you’re just putting something into the universe and hoping it comes back as a unicorn.  And it’s usually not going to be a unicorn.

Once you’ve figured out that your Step 3 needs to be more than just “Profit” (How much will you Profit? By when?  What are small goals to make sure you reach your ultimate Profit?), it’s time to figure out Step 2.  In this case, they already eliminated some ways for us to make Profit early on— free admission, and inviting kids will eat your food but whose allowance money will not secure your victory.  Plus, they committed to money-suckers— dinner instead of light snacks and live entertainment.  We would have to get creative to make these turn into Profit.

I have nothing against free admission to events.  I think if your audience is your membership, then you need to do whatever you have to so that the event is accessible to them.  And again- inviting children is perfectly fine, especially if childcare tends to be an issue with your community.  What I AM concerned about is trying to have it all in one event.  You can have a member event, accessible to everyone, free, feed them, and have them bring the kids, but it will likely not be what funds that staff expansion you were hoping for.  Or you can have a fancier event that will bring in the big bucks.  But trying to do both in the same event will likely end with you and the rest of your staff scrubbing the floors to be able to pay back the venue.  (There are creative solutions to actually, very carefully and thoughtfully, pull off both– but doing that now wouldn’t prove my point.)

We just barely defeated the Underpants Gnomes on this Quest.  We had a silent auction.  We slipped in “light snack” in the verbal invitations.  We had folks bid on the centerpieces (which were donated) and gave them to the highest bidders.  We found local artists who we paid in food and advertisement for entertainment.  We had a program booklet where people bought ad space.  We honored a local leader who had a large social network, who in turn brought in a lot more people to support them.  We invited high end donors and made calls to those who couldn’t attend afterwards, sending them pictures of the event and asking them if they would still support us.  And my personal favorite— I never allow a lot of people to be in one room without making an ask and bragging about the work that’s been done.  We picked one campaign to highlight and had people sign postcards to their electeds about the issue.  And we connected our need for donations directly with the need for change.

There needs to be a full-on attack on the Underpants Gnomes.  Look for them.  They’re small, small enough to sneak into your bedroom and steal your underwear without being detected.  Make sure that your fundraisers, your turnout plan (I made this flyer!  So all these people will come because it’s an important issue and they should care!), your campaign (We will do a sit-in at the Department of Transportation to end the foreclosures in our city!) all lead to your own version of Profit. 

Always set a measurable goal and make sure that everything you do very clearly gets you to that goal. If it does not get you to your goal, question its importance.  Everything your organization does needs to get you to your Step 3.  Otherwise, you’ll wind up missing your favorite underpants and not knowing how or why they disappeared.

Your turn:  Share your story!  Where have you discovered the Underpants Gnomes?

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