February 16, 2021

What Can Sesame Street Teach Your Board About New Programs?

Imagine yourself as a preschool child having to say good-bye to someone who is nearly your whole world.

Several summers ago, I sat in the outdoor amphitheater at Chautauqua Institute, listening to a lecture by Melvin Ming. Ming is the President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street. In his address, he shared the background of Sesame’s Talk, Listen, Connect series. As I took notes, my Fundable Idea Meter went into overdrive.

What is a Fundable Idea Meter? It’s a meter in your brain that listens to new ideas and picks out ones that your nonprofit can use. It measures if the concept will support your mission, income, and marketing. Your meter chimes when you hear an improved way to do donor follow-up, streamline your operation or learn about a very, very fundable program. You want to help your board to develop this meter, so they make high-quality decisions and so that they bring you fresh, profitable, and practical ideas. The following shares four pieces of a fundable idea to point out to your board to help them help you.

Talk, Listen, Connect is a Sesame Workshop program series designed to help 700,000 young American children who have parents in the military. The inspiration for the effort was a newspaper article about military families losing their homes to foreclosure. Sesame Workshop wanted to reach out and support these families. The resulting initiative was a series of videos and support materials to help children, and their families cope with parent deployment, return, injury, and death. Walmart and several major corporations and associations, like USO, funded it.

The results? Get a tissue and watch. Then, study the initiative for inspiration and wisdom to help your nonprofit thrive. It points to four criteria that your board members can learn and use for decision-making. By teaching them to look for the four elements, you enhance their decision-making and their ability to spot ideas you can use from their daily lives. Yes, it makes sense to teach your board members what you need. You don’t want them to guess.

What are some of the components that make Talk, Listen, Connect so successful?

We start with four components and turn them into questions your board can learn to use in decision-making. They’re useful at the board-room table and in the community as they work.

1. Mission Driven.

The series helps children who have a parent in the military to use the power of media to reach their potential, or in short, achieve Sesame Workshop’s mission.

Board member question: Does the idea support our mission? If it’s wobbly, can we align it more closely?

2. Need-Based.

An article on a military family experiencing foreclosure inspired digging up information and thinking about military families’ needs. Sesame Workshop learned that deployment impacts some 700,000 young children.

Board member question: Is there a need for this activity? Does the data prove that any effort is worthwhile and needed? Sesame’s interest in this area came from a New York Times story about military families experiencing foreclosure. It did not stop there. Instead, the organization studied the issue. It decided to move when it found a substantial need.

3. Built on Your Expertise.

The initiative builds on Sesame Street’s fundamental operating mindsets: be repetitive, be entertaining, be flexible, and be measurable. Sesame Workshop uses its best skills to create the series: creating entertaining video programming using Muppets and people to teach children.

Board member question: Does this activity use either our existing expertise or expertise easily acquired? What are your best skills? How can you incorporate them into your initiative?

4. Numbers.

Media platforms such as Sesame Workshops bring the mission to many, both children and adults. By modeling helpful conversations and using humor, listeners of every age learn useful words and actions to use with children whose families are going through similar transitions. The availability of videos on the Internet and ancillary products increases the number of families served.

Board member question: Does this effort make enough of a difference to move the needle? How might its value be increased? Can you add video or audio recordings? Print materials? How about an interview with an expert to share? Sesame helps children by creating reusable tools. Can you design your work to serve lots of people before, during, or after an offering?

The above four components provide nonprofits mission-driven, need-based, expertise-based, and significant impact activities. All four represent sound criteria to use to evaluate opportunities. Teach them to your board. Ask them to use to evaluate opportunities at your nonprofit.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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