In episode 31 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Sharon Anderson discussed include:
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Sharon. Welcome to the podcast.
Sharon Anderson: Thank you. Pleasure to be.
Carol: So I'd like to start out with a question of what you, what drew you to the work you do, what motivates you and, and what would you describe as your why?
Sharon: Okay, I would actually say the roots of it really go back to my growing up actually, because I saw with my parents, my family a lot of engagement with community service. And that just resonated with me through whatever form of non-governmental organization, the non-profits space, the ways that people found to address needs. And I just grew up with the sense of how important that was. And then. Having some opportunities to serve on some nonprofit boards and to see it in, in that regard. But I think as far as really the motivator around my consulting with nonprofits came from a project that I worked on for capacity building. And this was one of my friends. Projects. When I started as a consultant, I just saw that need and that space of different nonprofits with really good intentions, but needing support, needing the information to help them take it up to the next level. Yeah. And one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with their advocacy and policy development starting with a definition, what, what would you describe? How would you describe advocacy? My conversation opener with advocacy is telling your story. And finding a way to make certain that you are clear about what it is that as an organization, what is the organization about, what do you do? Who are you trying to help? What kinds of things are you doing to make those and make improvements. So That for me is the, the why I, and going back to something I mentioned sort of earlier, just looking at, at nonprofit, I saw some times that there were a lot of nonprofit boards in particular that when you said advocacy to them, it was like, oh my gosh, no, I can't, I can't do that. And so that's what I mean. To address the importance of it not only to their sustainability, but also the fact that, yes, there are rules and you can meet those rules and still do what you need to do in this space of advocacy.
Carol: Let’s start with why it's important. And then I'm curious for you to say a little bit more about why you think it's so scary to folks, and then what the reality is.
Sharon: Okay. The reason that I think it's important is the fact that when you really sort of look at it, And sort of put the nonprofit under the microscope. Almost everything that they do is in that sphere of advocacy, there's raising money. You need to be able to advocate for yourself in order to indicate this is why we are a good investment, because this is what we do. And here are the people that we are right. You are looking at issues around sustainability. You need to be able to advocate for your organization in order to get board members, potential board members in the pipeline to get community supporters in the pipeline. And I think more and more now there's a reality to that in that public policy space. There is a place for nonprofits to be able to come to the table and say, this is an important area. So for instance, as a quick example I worked in a couple of areas with a nonprofit dealing with the foster care system and being able at one point to go before the city council to talk about foster care in the city, what was working, what was needed.
And I think sometimes that gets missed in that legislative space. Which is nonpartisan. What you're addressing are the guts of legislation and why certain legislation is important and what's needed in order for the system to function.
Carol: Yeah. And I think it's important for organizations to remember that in that whole public policy and that policy development process, there's often that, that initial steps where legislators are hearing from a lot of people doing hearings, getting testimony, and they may not have even, I don't I'm, I'm not an expert in this, so correct me if I'm wrong, but they may not have even put a bill forward yet. That may be in the formation phase or maybe they have, and, and it's to inform, what else, what might be missing, what needs to be amended. Correct?
Sharon: Yes. and, and at various stages, yes. In some instances they are looking at legislation sometimes within, especially I would say the local and state government sphere, a lot of times when they are doing budget oversight, because a lot of these profits are working with governmental agencies, the question becomes, how are things working? What's working well with that, and what's not working, in order to make any necessary adjustments or changes to the system. And that's a good space for them to be because of the fact that, government. A lot of times it basically needs those kinds of partnerships with nonprofits to help. When I mentioned the foster care system, for instance working with court appointed special advocates, well, it's a nonprofit that brings in the volunteers and trains them, and then they work. The family court system. And so there is a need to have those conversation lanes open in order to make the necessary improvements in order to share here's, here are the trends so that adjustments can be made or, What, what needs to happen to stop what's going on here? How do we protect the children?
Carol: Yeah. And I think that there are a couple of different things in there, but one thing that comes to mind is with all the growing distrust of the government in our country, one of the things I think people don't realize is how it actually is. Non Profit organizations that are actually getting, being granted money, being contracted with, to deliver a lot of these services. So it's not necessarily the government doing it themselves, but empowering it, giving others the resources to then, fulfill those goals and, and, and provide those services. What, what would you say Are some of the misconceptions, especially among boards that folks have around, what nonprofits are and aren't allowed to do in terms of advocacy.
Sharon: I think a lot of times there's a concern because of the discussion around, especially with a 501C3 designation of not lobbying. And so it's that confusion between what is lobbying and what is advocacy and. And sometimes it's like, I don't, I don't even want to touch it and it is daunting. And, and a lot of times too, especially within the state government, sometimes their additional rules are our requirements, but I think it's been. Clear about what it is that this particular agency needs to do. And I think there are also some very clear points where you can say, okay, first and foremost, you don't endorse. You just have to clearly be key. You don't endorse candidates. That is a definite no-no. So stay out of that realm. However, if as a nonprofit. And maybe in partnership with other nonprofits, you want to put together a candidates forum so that your stakeholders in the community can hear what people feel about income support programs, or about. Foster care. I keep sort of circling back to that one or about these literacy programs. Then basically there's a way to do that. You invite all of the candidates and you make certain that they all come and they all answer the same question. And that's a service. That's a part of advocacy, but it's a service to educate your stakeholders.
Carol: And what is the definition of lobby?
Sharon: Lobbying is basically getting into the partisan space. So it's also, it's about the people running for office and saying we do or don't vote for them, do or don't vote for somebody. So that is some part of it. And then the other part of lobbying can also be around. And it's tricky. Area, and I will, it really depends on local guidance a lot of times, but it's around legislation and the extent to which you try to make certain that people are informed about legislation and where the particular nonprofit stands on it. Without necessarily saying now, go out there and change this legislation or, it's, it is a tricky navigation and a lot of times it does depend on the state too. So I'm thinking, for example being able to say that this as an organization, we support. Back in when the affordable care act was being challenged, to be able to say the affordable care act is important because of these reasons for our, our community.And it's an essence saying, think about this Congressperson, council member versus putting forth that debate without getting deep into the politics of, and if you don't do this, then we're not going to vote for you.
Carol: Yeah, the way I've heard it described as, and it's interesting that you say that there's, there's variation at each state and locality. So putting a caveat on that, folks should really pay attention to what the rules are in their local area. But the way I heard it described was, advocacy education, when you're providing information. Stories about your constituents and the people that you work with. Statistics, trends that you're seeing, that's all in the realm of education. And then lobbying is only really, when you say, our members where we're getting part we're part of a coalition and our members are supporting this particular bill, we urge you to vote for it. And, and yeah, without any . Connection to whether or not. The people that you represent, the people that you work with might or might not vote for a particular candidate that being walled off, but the space that, that is okay within limits for non-profits 502 and 501-C 3 is to engage in is that piece of, we urge you to vote for HR. Number one, whatever it is within limits and their limits. But, since it's a pretty narrow definition, very few nonprofits. You know that very few who do some advocacy and are actually gonna run up against that limit. And I think that's the part that boards don't understand.
Sharon: Yeah. And, and it's, it's interesting one of the parts maybe. Right, right. And, and, and of course to the whole, when you look at the range of 5 0 1. Organizations, we always focus on the 5 0 1 C3 because of the fact that they generally tend to be charitable. And then, realizing that there are other nonprofits. Who are in that space of doing endorsements and the likes. So this is why I think it also gets to be tricky for boards because they need to understand the range of things the different options that are available to a non-profit and then just be sure to stay within their space. But I, I definitely agree and appreciate the, when you mentioned the education piece that educating people and that's your stakeholders. Elected officials about what's going on in this space that this nonprofit serves, then you're definitely in an, in your lane, that's the sweet spot for nonprofits advocacy.
Carol: Yeah. And I think that another point that you make is that, W w we quote the part of the IRS code, the 5 0 1 C3 that, that designates one particular type, which is, a large portion of the, of the nonprofit sector, but there are others C4, C5, C6, all who, all of which have different purposes and, and then different rules. But yeah, what we were just talking about really pertains to the C3 category, which is. Most organizations that are trying to do either serving a field or trying to do some educational, some, charitable service work, making things better for people, animals meant the whole range, all of it, the whole of things that could be within a mission. What would you say helps organizations be successful with their advocacy efforts?
Sharon: I think being really clear about What is their advocacy policy and their plan. I think having some very doing that work and what the standards for excellence, for instance, program there. Resources there as far as being able to talk about here's a draft plan, but you need to be clear. So from an organizational perspective, who speaks for the organization. So making certain that they've clearly delineated that if a question comes in, let's say the media calls and says, where do you stand on this? Well, everybody in the organization needs to know who's equipped. Answer that question because not everybody in the organization can answer that. So, you want to be clear about that and also be clear about what the objectives are. So, let me pick another organization, like the league of women voters, there's the league of us and then the league in various localities. And so in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a member of the league and the district of Columbia. And, there's a strong non-partisan state. But there, but the, the educational pieces about making certain that people know about the candidates and that there's an effort made to get feedback from all of the candidates. So in an election year, the policy is going to be, we're doing everything we can to make certain that people understand what the rules and regulations are for voting in our community. During an off year, it may be some other thing, but that's the policy. And then you just have to be able to have what the plan looks like as to how you go about doing that? How do you accomplish that and how do you, what are the outcomes you're targeting?
Carol: Yeah. When one point that you made around who can, who can talk to the media, having a plan for that pause for a second while the train goes by. One of those enthusiastic conductors who really likes to blow their horn.
Sharon: Maybe it has some spectators on the side of the tracks.
Carol: Maybe they're waving and yeah, a couple of points there with who can talk to the media or who can talk, who can represent and speak on behalf of the organization. And especially if, if a stance is being taken, who could write a letter to the editor, all those things I think are really exciting. For groups to have conversations about and know, make sure that everyone's clear. I think one of the things that on any board decision is important is for ma board members to understand that they can only work on behalf of the organization as a whole. And so if they're the board member who's empowered, they then need to. I mean to talk to everybody else. So they have a sense of, they know what the organization stance is. They themselves may have a different opinion and to be really careful and clear, are you talking as XYZ, individual citizen? Or are you speaking now on behalf of the organization?
Sharon: Right? Right. And depending on the nature of that organization, there, there may be some very specific pieces of. You know what that looks like and how that's interpreted. So, the, the league of women voters, I'll go back to that, with their non-partisan position, if you're serving on the board, there is a nonpartisan statement, which indicates that, you have this hat on representing the organization writ large and in the interest of not muddying the waters. It's encouraged that you stay in that lane and not get involved in campaigns, for instance. Of course, as an individual, that's your right, but because you are with the board and people, if they know, especially that you're a board member, it gets a little dicey. And in order to just make it clear that policy is you wouldn't be campaigning.
Carol: So you could, after you're done with your board service, that might be something you choose to do, but while you're a board member, they've made that policy just so that they have a super bright line. And again, that's an individual organizational policy. Others might have different ones, but having those policies and having had discussions and then documenting it about. Yeah, how do we take a stance as an organization? What are they, what has to happen? what discussions and processes have to happen so that we know that we're in agreement on this, et cetera, I think would be super important. Yes. Yes. And you had mentioned the standards of excellence before. I just want to make sure folks know what that is. It's Program that came out of and is still housed within the Maryland nonprofit association, the Maryland association of nonprofit organizations. And it's a way for nonprofits to be accredited in this set of very high standards. The standards of. In all aspects of their operations. So, advocacy is just one component. And all the other things that you need to think about in terms of how you run your nonprofit are part of that accrediting program.
Sharon: Yes. And one of the things that I truly appreciate about the standards for excellence program is that. There is that accreditation process. If an organization chooses, they are very generous with their information. So I often use in the work that I do when I do workshops on advocacy their policy and plan. I, I provide copies of that to say, here's the sample that you might work from, just because they are open with a lot of their information.
Carol: Yeah. And they have samples for all, all other aspects. So I've, I've built used pieces from, and we're both standards of excellence consultants. So we have access to all of this, but I've used their board assessments as a jumping off point when working with the boards and organizational assessments, right. Pretty much everything. And, and even if our organization doesn't decide to go through the entire process, there are aspects that could be really useful. And a lot of the state level associations also offer it. So you don't necessarily have to be in Maryland. This is nationwide.
Sharon: Yes. It is a nationwide program and they have, what's a code which basically provides, guidelines, high level. And the code is easy. There's an app for that.
Carol: I didn't realize I'm going to have to look it up. All right. Well, at the end of each episode, I'd like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I have one here for you. I'm out of my handy box of icebreaker questions and it is what is the last random thing that made you smile?
Sharon: Lately, given everything that's been going on with health challenges in the country and the world. The last random thing that made me smile was noticing that birds were starting to be attracted to the flowers on my patio. And, and starting to , I've seen them in the general vicinity flying over, but actually coming down and landing all the table versus just sitting on the fence and it just. Actually that just happened to me before this call. In fact, I just was like, oh wow. And I just was so tickled by that. So it gave me joy.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. I'm not much of a birder, but we are big. We have a lot of flowers around in our front and there was a Cardinal that came by and landed in a tree. So that dramatic red was quite, quite lovely. Yeah. Lovely birds. So, what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you do
Sharon: Currently we’re making some pivots as far as being, if you will, in the nonprofit space, but I'm starting to work with the national museum of African-American history and culture. And I've worked with them previously, but I'm now working as far as with visitor services and it's just First and foremost, I am just taken by the museum and all that it's done and, and just the immense scope and importance of it. And to have an opportunity to contribute means a lot to me. So for me right now, personally, that's where I am.
Carol: Yeah, it's an amazing, amazing museum. I am definitely going to go back to it because you can, it's not possible to do, to really take all of it in, in one visit. So I definitely need to go back.
Sharon: And, and I just I, I guess I should tread gently here, but I think it's legitimate as an employee. I could still say but wonderful resources on their website too, because and, and a huge. I am biased in the museum space, but the Smithsonian has been doing a wonderful job with all of its museums and digitizing a lot of their information and definitely during the pandemic, making that those resources available as a way to reach everyone and definitely check them out because they're just amazing museums within the system.
Carol: Yeah, I think we forget living here in Washington, how spoiled we are to have those amazing resources. So-called so close by. Yes. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Sharon: Well, thank you. I greatly appreciate being invited and I've enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.
In episode 30 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Hilary Marsh discussed include:
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Hillary. It's great to have you on Mission: Impact.
Hilary Marsh: Thank you. It's so good to be here.
Carol: So I love to start with just finding out what drew you to the work that you do. What motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Hilary: Well, that's a great question. The story of how I got into content strategy, I will leave for another time. But the thing that led me to work with associations on an ongoing basis is that I had worked for a very large association starting in 2005 and I learned. Really that associations are content machines that really the products, programs, services, everything they do manifests itself in the world as content. And so they're, if content is how they show their value and how they do their work, then the better they can do that. The more successful they will be at their goals of attracting and retaining. So that's I guess, my why?
Carol: So, as you mentioned, you focus on content strategy for associations. Can we, can we start with a definition? What exactly is content strategy?
Hilary: Okay. Gosh the first definition I learned back in the day, which was all the way back in 1999 was the content strategy is the who, what, when, where, why and how of publishing content online. So yeah, that's expanded a little bit to be the act of. Planning creating publishing, maintaining and governing content, and specifically for associations, that is content that comes from every department. And so that it wants to make sure that they're part of that, that it's content that's usable, meaning people can use it, that it's useful, meaning that it's relevant to them. And then it's effective, meaning that it's got a clear, explicit and measurable audience, right.
Carol: And how does this relate to content curation? Are they, is that, are they synonyms of each other?
Hilary: Sorta different? And so curation, is that the idea, the notion that well, there's sort of two aspects to it. The first is the content that an association's audiences are looking for. Might be created by the association, or it might be created by another organization. And regardless of who creates it, it's selecting and surfacing the right content. That's going to help the person reach their goal. So I wrote a white paper last year with Elizabeth Engel, which might be why you're asking about curation and certainly Came up then, and back in the day associations were gatekeepers for information. Well, now Google's a gatekeeper, but not right because Google will surface everything. There is. So no one has time to read everything there is, and everything in there isn't necessarily relevant to the person. But what an association can do is select or curious. The content that is relevant. Oh, the other side of that is that because associations do create so much content it's choosing the right things that the association itself creates. So it's not only external things that might be internally created by the association.
Carol: Not just a long list of things that could possibly be of interest, but also giving some context and connecting it to just, as you said before, making it useful and relevant there might be something from another industry, but then it's relevant and, and connecting it with, with a particular audience of that associates.
Hilary: Yeah. So the idea of curation comes from the world of museums. So a museum has a huge storehouse, typically in the back of 2000 artifacts from China. But if they're creating an exhibition about ancient Chinese art, they're not going to show you 2000 artifacts because that's overwhelming. They're going to pick the 10 or 20 or 50 that will best tell the story. And they're going to create labor. That explained why they chose these things, why these things are important, what you can learn from them. And so Elizabeth and I created a content curation maturity ladder. And the top of that maturity ladder is not only choosing the right things, but telling the person why this is relevant to them and how it's going to help them. And that's the unique piece that the association can, can offer really, but it requires skills. It requires people and time, all.
Carol: And I feel like over the course of probably your and my career, we've, we've seen that shift from what you mentioned before of the association as being the sole source of credible information for the field to be in one of mine. And the way that the internet has just opened everything up and enabled individuals, they might be volunteers with that association. They might be the recognized subject matter experts, but then they may have their own platform as well. And I remember. I haven't had conversations with a boss of mine, you know? And he was still in that mindset of, we are the credible source I'm like, but the internet happened. So you need to adjust
Hilary: Well, yeah, part of the things that I often do as part of an association’s content strategy project is to do a comparative audit. So let's look at that. nature and quality of the content that other associations might be creating that serve your audience or other publications or other for-profit audiences. And what I often find is that the association provides content that's better, could be better written and also unbiased. So a for-profit publication. In specific, it is going to have a bias. They're going to have sponsored content. They're going to have content from, from other industry sources who have a vested interest in putting out a specific point of view. And that might not be what the association's members do. Yeah. So the association has a huge opportunity anyway, but they need to do it, they need to create their content or make their content decisions based at least in part on what else their members are seeing and getting.
Carol: So it's almost a matter of Helping members see the distinction or the differential between all the different sources of information and the information and the content that the association has provided. Why would, why, why would you say the content strategy is particularly important to organizations?
Hilary: Well, I mean I don't tend to work with product organizations. I tend to work with content rich organizations. And so if, if all of an association's advocacy work it's courses, it's conferences, it's publications, any initial research, clinical practice guidelines, industry standards, all of that work that the association does is content. And so. Because associations are so busy and prolific, whether it's the staff creating the content, as you mentioned, or volunteers, because they've got so much of it, they tend to just share everything, but nobody can consume everything. And so and not only that and associations deepest subject matter experts don't necessarily have. Practice or training and how to translate or communicate their really good work to an audience who doesn't have the expertise that they have. And so I'm usually good content strategy requires a partnership between people with expertise in a subject matter and people with expertise in, in Producing and sharing, presenting, and sharing content with an audience. That is the work that the association needs to do. It's already, typically at least in the people I see really good on the smart side of creating good, valuable, deep material. But if they don't present it to the audience in a way that shows its relevance, that shows its benefit, people might pass it by where if they only knew how amazing it was, they would use it. They would see it, they would talk about it and they would really see that additional or the maximum value from their association.
Carol: And it's interesting what you were saying in terms of subject matter experts and them being able to, they have deep expertise and knowledge and want to share that. And yet depending on what audience they're, they're talking to, whether, someone. Newer to a field, a more of an emerging professional. I know I was working with subject matter experts and we were putting together workshops and training programs and whenever we were working on the beginner one it was. A struggle for the experts to really be able to hone in on what were those basic things that a beginner needed to know. And they were, and I kept coming back to, we got to do the 80% that happens in your cases. You're fascinated by the 20% or even the 5% of the really interesting, complicated exceptions. But what's the 80% of the cases that beginners are going to be dealing with? And the challenge is of course, from someone with expertise is that they've honestly literally forgotten or it's so embedded in all of those preliminary steps that. They don't even think to mention them. So yeah, it takes another person to help them translate. And, and again, depending on the audience, cause it could be that they're, their audiences of is a very experienced and seasoned group that already knows all this stuff. So going over the basics actually wouldn't be helpful. So you really tailor it
Hilary: So there's jargon involved and so jargon is fine when it's expert to act. Every field has jargon, certainly content strategy itself as a field has plenty of jargon. And, yet to do that translation of the jargon for the people who may not know it, because even someone who is experienced in a profession may be coming to a topic that is new to them. So that's a matter of structuring your content too, so that you're creating. It is sort of in layers so that the person who doesn't even know what they don't know or isn't sure whether this topic is actually what they're looking for can just skim the surface. And those who want to dive more deeper can, can do that. I want to come back to something that I glossed over briefly, which is this idea of success. And often associations think, especially subject matter experts. That success means I published it to a task force, a working group, a committee that thinks content success is that I got it out there. And so I try to help my clients shift the conversation to one of like four with the committee or task force or whoever is creating that content. What do you imagine the impact of this content is going to be, or who's the audience and what we're still do you want to happen and then craft the content explicitly with that result in mind and promote it and publish it with that result in mind because otherwise your content, your website is your file cabinet. Otherwise your website contains everything that you've ever published with. No. Way to make a decision about how long should this stay live or, or why should it come down or what should it be grouped with? So their success metrics, there's, taxonomy that needs to glue content together from different departments and the conversations also then have to provide that goal. From one piece of content to the next, because it is all connected, but the people who work tend to lose sight of that because they have the deep expertise and they have their marching orders and they go forward and create that and they forget to bring it back to that bigger content.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's a great question to ask, first who, who you're doing this for. Who's the audience? And then what, what action do you want them to take? What impact, what results do you want to have happen based on this work? Yeah, it's very easy to get into, we've been giving a charge committee and the last thing is publish. And so check we're done. So, yeah, I appreciate that. You mentioned a term, a taxonomy. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how that plays in?
Hilary: Sure. Taxonomy is a very daunting sounding term, but it's actually pretty clear and straightforward. It's basically tagging whether it's tagging content for an audience or tagging content by a topic because Computer systems are not smart. So a computer system can't know that a term that has a slightly different spelling or a slightly different variation is actually the same as another term or another audience grouping. That's sorta different. So you have to make one single list of all the terms for your topics, for your audience groupings, for your locations, anything else that, that somebody might need to group or sort that content by so that they can create they can create related links, they can filter, filter and sort on search all those other kinds of things that will connect the content. If you're interested in this, you might also like that. And so in the, yeah. Awesome.
Carol: So, what would you say gets in the way of an organization having an effective content strategy? Oh
Hilary: gosh. The first thing is that people don't know each other, they don't talk to each other and they don't they don't work in those bigger contexts. So they, they. think beyond the goal of getting something successfully published. They don't, they don't know their audience as well. So they think they know their audiences. And I think associations have a particular challenge in this term of audience because of the committee structure. So when you have a volunteer who has worked really hard, or a group of volunteers, really, who worked really hard to give back to the profession to serve on standing committees for years, often, many years, and work closely with the association staff to determine initiatives, programs, all of that. They forget what it's like to be a regular. What do they call them? Checkbook members who just join, pays peripheral attention to the association and then goes on with their lives. And those people are not your focus group. They're not your typical average member and they can't be your audience anymore. So how do we engage them? Rest of the staff, all the people who create content, the volunteers for that matter too, in remembering who it is we're creating content for. And what is their life like? What is the context that those people live in, that our content fits into where people think that the audience is just sitting around waiting for their content or for their program or for their. Offering and we see it in how it's manifested. Right. We see the email newsletters that say, guess what? We have a new video. Okay. That's nice. How is it going to help me? How's it going to help me make more money? How's it going to help me advance in my profession or do what it is that I need to do? Everyone is self centered and that's not a bad thing. It's just the reality that we work from our own lens and our own perspective.
Carol: Yeah. So even taking the step from here's our new video to just telling people what the topic of the video is, is a step forward, gives them gifts. It gives people a chance to say, am I interested in that or not?
Hilary: Well, and, and, sometimes people go a little far, the more marketing focused people in the world will have the 10 steps to make more money from this video approach. And I don't really recommend that, but, but why did you decide to create this video? Oh, we decided to create this video to retrace our steps. We decided to create this video because somebody has got something to say really? Why does, why would someone care about that thing to say, well, because what they're, what they've gone through, somebody else can learn from, oh, now tell me more, and getting to the root of why that content was created in the first place and that passion for whatever it is, not only the content, but the initiative that it's part of that, really is that passion.
Carol: And you mentioned in, in what you were talking about the sense of people working in isolation, or maybe they're on a small team, a committee, a task force, or a department within an organization, but not, not necessarily being aware of the wider context that all of this information is being offered to, that member that, that may or may not open that, that email newsletter.
Hilary: Right. So that's really sort of an old, older fashioned way of thinking, back before the internet existed, that was all that people could do. Every department, I used to draw the lanes with my hands and every department had its own sense of the audience and created and delivered content to that audience independently. Cause that's all we could really do. And maybe it came together in a print newsletter, but, but maybe it was, they were a collection of separate brochures or a collection of separate things. And when the internet came along, Those differences really became that much more apparent. And not only that with the ongoing digital world that we live in, people expect a seamless transition from your website to the phone, to an email, to video social media. They expect all of that to just mesh and, and in order to deliver that unified omni-channel experience. You have to be unified internally too. And not only that people have to have the skills to, to take their raw subject matter expert and take at least part of the translation to that user benefit forward. So they need time for that and skills. So it's not only that people aren't willing. To communicate, which is certainly part of organizational culture. It's that there, they don't have time and they're not rewarded or motivated for behaving in that way, because of that sort of older fashioned ways that many associations are even structured, they're structured by, by a content type in a way. And then they're budgeted by content type too. So a lot of it is about how people are.
Carol: So a website, a web team, a publishing team, a training team, a conference team. They're all working separately and yeah, I've definitely been in those conversations trying to cut across those, those departmental lines to come up with a comprehensive or a unified just starting with that word. Taxonomy. I, I worked in an organization where I. I don't know how long, maybe two years before with sporadic meetings to try to finally come to an agreement around how we were gonna, what the list of words were and the terms, and, and some have some commonality across how people were using it in, in all of those different varieties of service offerings or products. Products, programs, et cetera.
Hilary: And everyone is doing their best to do an amazing job. And they don't, it's just a new approach. And the organization has to be clear that we want this new approach for the benefit of them.
Carol: And, folks, folks often talk about tearing down silos, but the truth is you're always going to have some sub organization, some ways that you organize staff. If you're beyond five, 10 people And there are lots of different ways to do that. And it could be by, the old, old way would have been, the training department and the conference department and the publishing department and the advocacy department. But even if you were to say organize it by parts of your member audience, you still end up with divisions. And so you just still then have to create some. Cross cutting work groups that actually have the people see value in that can produce something that has some authority to, to, bring that comprehensive and unified thing together.
Hilary: So part of that's a question of tools. I mean, a shared content calendar goes a really long way. But it has to be required. So you have to make sure that people put in the shared calendar, whether it's a spreadsheet, a Google calendar, Trello, I mean, there's an infinite number of tools for that. But that people put their content in there and they then are, would have to look and see, oh, who else is publishing content on my same topic. So it could be a topical work. And so that if you're creating a course about a topic that you make sure to look in the magazine, to see what articles they've done on that topic, or look and see the advocacy on that topic, et cetera, et cetera, because why reinvent the wheel? So it's a matter of efficiency and also member benefit, for sure.
Carol: So what would you say helps an organization be successful in this area?
Hilary: Yeah. Can you ask, like, so content strategy is figuring it out, right? So you're figuring out who are top priority audiences. What do they want from us? What are we delivering? What's missing? And then how do we, how do we address that? It's figuring out the content life cycles or success metrics. It's putting the tools and communication and HR stuff in place so that people who will have these responsibilities that it's explicit. And it's not something that folks are supposed to do in their spare time, because we all know that no one has any spare time to do it in. And it's also that it becomes operational, that it becomes part of the way things work. In the association, the roles and responsibilities for content creation, planning creation, as I said, publishing promotion maintenance, an expiration that all of that is known and that everybody understands their part in that. And it becomes clear and part of how things work, you also need. So this is all called content governance and governance is such a tricky word and association because it has that whole other meaning, but in the bigger world, it's called content governance or digital governance and operations. So operations are, yeah, it actually happened. So not only writing down, like when I left. Content strategy back in the day, I thought you create a document and you're done and magically, it just happens. And the more I do the work, the more I realize that the document or the rules or guidelines and policies and all that are just the beginning of figuring out how to put them in place so that people know what they are. Understand that they have the trust in their colleagues. All of that is operations. So that's what's required to be successful. So I wrote that I did a study a couple of years ago for the ASAE foundation with Dina Lewis and Carrie Hayne about content strategy, adoption and maturity in associations. And we found associations of all sizes and natures, whether it's trade or professional. There's a lot of associations doing various amounts of content strategy work, and we grouped them into a maturity model. So when we learned that there are different levels of work going on, we looked to see whether the associations were doing more. Had things in common than those who were doing a medium amount or, or only a little. And, we did find that there are differences and it gets to culture. It gets closer. It gets to how operational your content is. And it gets to do the collaboration level, right? Because organizations who are at that more advanced level already know, oh, well, this is. All mine to do is figure out what I need to work. And I want to work with those people over there who have the companion expertise to mind. And that's what it's going to take for my program together. The impact and reach that it deserves.
Carol: Yeah. I think that shift that you talked about I thought was just writing down the plan and having the, the, the shared calendar, but really it's about shifting towards a more collaborative work culture which can, can be a big shift in house. How organizations work together. And so being able, and, and then exactly what you talked about that trust that needs to be built so that those staff division barriers will come down and people will share and coordinate and collaborate. It's really important. Well, I like to end each episode where I play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So, which piece are you when you play monopoly? This of course assumes that you play monopoly. Oh my
Hilary: gosh. I haven't played monopoly since I was a kid.
Carol: Well, which one do you remember what you used to pay? I,
Hilary: I'm sorry. I do not.
Carol: I think it's a, the top hat and the dog and the shoe. I think there's an old fashioned car. So, what would you choose today?
Hilary: Let's say, whew. All right, cute. They're cute. And they go, they go neatly from, from square to square.
Carol: So neatly from square to square. I wouldn't say that the monopoly, she was particularly cute, but so what's, what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Hilary: Well, I was thrilled to also do a chapter also with Dina Lewis. Latest edition of professional practices and association management. And that makes me so happy to see you. The prospect of content strategy incorporated and adopted by even more associations. So I was really excited about that in terms of what's next. I'm working with an association now to try it. Really get to the bottom of these very thorny questions about things like what the audience needs is this content filling, which is a very difficult question for them. And a very difficult question for lots of associations. And I'm, I'm always excited to do that work with an association, help them know the answer to that. So that next time when they are creating more content, they already do it with that information in mind. Yeah.
Carol: All right.
Hilary: Well, thank you. And just thanks. No, just joined the summer and hook, getting back maybe to normal.
Carol: Maybe it will say time. We'll see. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on. Thanks a lot.
In the special 1-year anniversary episode of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton discussed the following:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to mission impact the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. This is an exciting episode for me. I've been podcasting now for a year. So this is my one-year pot of nursery, and it's been so much fun doing this podcast. I've had a lot of great guests, wonderful conversations, and have really appreciated everything that I've learned from everybody that I've spoken to. And I launched the podcast back in August of 2020, but actually started doing interviews for it. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, starting in March. And so this has really been a pandemic project, although I will continue. I intend to continue on after that. Hopefully there will be an after at some point But I certainly have learned a lot.
I've learned, heard a lot about how the pandemic has impacted how folks do their work, how they approach their work. And it certainly had a lot of impact on how I approach my work. The default before the pandemic for strategic planning was of course, to have some in-person event where you did the planning of one day retreat, a one and a half day retreat. Where you brought the key stakeholders together, got them all in a room and had a series of conversations that helped them make decisions about the future of the organization. Other parts of the process certainly have been done online though.
Video conference, focus groups, listening sessions, interviews over the phone, et cetera, but that main crux of the process where you bring together the planning group has always by default, been done in person.
And of course we had to shift that overnight to working online. Now I had a head start because I'd been doing online events since the early two thousands, I in fact organized my first virtual conference in 2004 and had been producing a number of different online experiences over the course of those years. And so it was pretty easy for me to switch up how we were going to do strategic planning, but what's been so interesting to me over the course of this period.
As I've done over 10 different processes with 10 different organizations is actually to see the benefit of doing it online, doing it in a, in a remote setting. And most folks think, well, how can you really make good decisions if you're not all in the same room? And the thing that I've really noticed is that when you do that intensive retreat oftentimes right, when you get to the point of making a decision. With the group, they have hit cognitive load. It's three o'clock in the afternoon, four o'clock in the afternoon. They've been thinking hard all day processing lots of different information brainstorming and they are worn out. And that is the point in the agenda often. When you need the group to make some important decisions.
In the virtual environment, there's no need to have that intensive long eight hour experience. You can take that eight hours or 10 hours, whatever amount of time you might've had at that retreat. Pace it over a number of sessions, two hours here, three hours here, and with a contained set of goals that you're trying to accomplish in each one. Then beginning each the next one with, this is what we did last time, and this is where we are in the process.
But what I've seen is that groups really benefit from having a little bit of time to do one piece of the process and then process that integrated, to think more about it. Be able to kind of mull over the conversations that they had to then bring all of those new, all of that thinking into the next session. With a little more pacing over the period of time, I find that groups are able to get further quicker. In some ways it takes a little bit longer because you have a little bit of a gap between those two or three hour sessions, but in the same amount of meeting time, I'm able to get groups further with more clear and more refined goals than I might do if I were working with them in person.
Pacing also allows strategic planning or other leadership groups to do refinement between the large group planning sessions with time, for back and forth. So people really feel like their perspectives have been taken into consideration. And then with the pandemic, of course, everyone has thought it just has brought to the fore how unpredictable our world is. And can you really plan in this VUCA world volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and I can't remember what the, a stands for (ambiguity). And it was always unpredictable. It's just more obvious now.
I always tell folks that a plan is just a plan. It's not set in stone. They aren't tablets from on high. There's something that you created yourself, but the process itself brings clarity and alignment by creating an opportunity to talk together and explore issues together.
Another thing that I'm seeing a lot about recently with people writing about and considering whether they're going back to the office, whether they're going to stay remote, the method they might do, a blended version is talk about that you can't have culture unless you're all together in the same office. And the truth is that any organization always has called.
There's always an organizational culture, whether you've named it, whether you've explored it or not. It really more, a matter of, are you clear about it? Are you explicit about it? Are you, do you have a type of culture that you want to move towards? That that feels healthier, that you're trying to work. And just bringing everyone back into the office is kind of a de default. It's a default that allows that culture to kind of be there by accident. It allows folks to maybe not pay so much attention to it.
I think one of the blessings in disguise is actually working remotely. That we really have to pay more attention to what the expectations are? How are you working together? What are those guide rails in terms of how much flexibility folks have and their schedules and, and how they're doing their work, what are they expected to produce in a particular week, et cetera. And so it's, again, it may be more of. Are the managers in your organization? Do they have the sufficient training and tools for how to, to manage in this remote and. And so in-person can be such a, just a substitute for giving folks the tools and training that they need to really build that intentional culture and manage well within a remote or a blended context.
So this provides you with an opportunity to shift their culture in a positive direction and get everyone in gray involved and envisioning and working towards and creating that new future instead of just favoring the preferences of leadership and defaulting to. Whether you continue remote or go for a blended schedule, all you have to do is decide if you all have to go back to the office together. Think about what you've learned in this past year, past a year and a half. What do you want to keep? What do you want to let go? There's lots of opportunity there for being more intentional, more and more in clear and more explicit about the type of organization and how you want it to feel to work within your organization.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. Again, we're excited to be celebrating our one year anniversary and as with every episode you can find show notes and links and resources at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. And you'll also find transcripts for each episode.
I'd like to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as April coaster of a hundred ninjas for her production support.
Please take a minute to rate and review mission impact on apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. It helps others find the podcast and we appreciate it. Thanks a lot. And until next time.
In episode 28 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Peggy Hoffman discussed include:
Peggy Hoffman is president of Mariner Management, an association management company which is home to two associations and provides an array of support and training to associations and most importantly member volunteers. Peggy has provided training and counsel to dozens of global, national and local membership associations over the past 30 years. She often draws on her own team’s research on volunteerism, member communities and association innovation. Peggy not only enjoys working with association volunteers but is an active volunteer for her professional association – including serving as a chapter past president – so she’ll draw from experience on both levels. Read her full bio at MarinerManagement.com and connect with Peggy on Twitter @peggyhoffman or LinkedIn. And ask her about triathlons, dance or living with three sons.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission: Impact is Peggy Hoffman. Peggy is president of Mariner Management, an association management company which is home to two associations and provides an array of support and training to associations and most importantly member volunteers. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Peggy and I talk about why volunteers and chapters are the heart and soul of associations and yet a somewhat neglected aspect of working in a membership organization, how the role of geographically based chapters is undergoing so much change, and what implications the rise of online professional development has for local chapters.
Welcome Peggy. Welcome to the podcast.
Peggy Hoffman: It's great to be here, so appreciate you inviting
Carol: Yeah. Should be fun. A fun conversation. We've been in the same circles for a long time and it'll, I'm really excited to dig into the work that you do in associates. Space of associations, but I really like to start each podcast with what motivates you to do the work that you do? What's your why? What, how, what drew you to this particular aspect? And we'll get to this in a minute, of the work that you do with organizations.
Peggy: Okay. So I guess. I'm going to start by saying that once I stumbled into associations, one of the things that I gravitated towards was membership and specifically working with chapters. So I landed at a trade association that had these incredible state groups or regional. And I began working with them and realizing that there were just, they have so many challenges in front of them. So when we decided to start our own business, it was as a management company specifically to be a management service for chapters. So we didn't want any national organizations, but we just wanted to work with chapters in our area. And that business, it was amazing. I mean, they don't have big budgets, but they have big hearts. So naturally because of that, I've spent so much time working with volunteers because they were hiring me to be their staff. Right. So the wonderful journey of trying to support these geographic components of larger organizations meant really getting hands-on with how volunteers operate and think. And I don't know if that's just pretty exciting to work with people who are giving time. So I guess my, my, why is if I can support somebody who's giving their time, that's like a bonus.
Carol: , the volunteer and the chapter, I feel like there's so much at the heart and soul of so many organizations, and yet I feel like it's really a neglected aspect of association management and it's so critical for member engagement. It's so critical for people to be able to connect with people locally. First maybe, for listeners who are maybe less familiar, can you just describe those two arenas, how you, how you define that.
Peggy: Yes, that's a great question, actually. And what I really love about that question is that we are in this tremendous mode of change. I know we've heard that. But what's really interesting is there's so many structures within associations that are challenged and that challenge is leading to some really cool innovation. And when you talk about the bucket of volunteers and you're talking about the bucket of the bucket, we call chapters or components the same thing. What is a component in the context of what we're talking about? We're talking about the component of geography. Cause really components are a way of members connecting and it's usually around an issue and interest, a discipline or a geography. So we're really. We're focused more on the geography question. And so it's any entity that allows a subsection of members or key stakeholders within a membership-based organization to collect. So that means some of these groups are completely independent, but carry the same or similar mission name. Sometimes it needs an absolute integrated subsection. There's there, there's relationships where there's charters and there's mostly, but there's affiliation or groups. So lots of different ways of doing that legally, but at the core it's meeting the same member who could be met nationally. It could be. Locally. And sometimes the membership has contingent in. Sometimes it's not mean I can be a member of both or neither or a combination. So the chapter is a, is a, is a moniker. If you will. That may, that means that we're collecting a subsection of our members into that geography. The interesting thing is the traditional model, which was born in a time when we didn't have the internet, is the problem right now because we're, we've, with the legacy systems and for many of these organizations, the key work of it is done by the volunteers. Now we know that about associations, but the chapter level I think it was. The recent benchmarking it's you have to assume that less than half of the chapters out there have staff. So it is largely the will of the passion of volunteers and a volunteer is any stakeholder in an organization, membership based organization. That opps to give time freely and I mean also free. Yeah. Yeah. And I think most people think of chapters as those regionally based Entities. And yet, you can also slice and dice memberships often through an interest around a particular topic, whether it's whether the organization calls some special interest groups or communities of practice or cohorts, there are different ways that people describe that. But, and, and, and in each case there, that volunteer component is just so important. Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's really, really interesting because of one of the dynamics that- What's really interesting about the comment that you just made about this idea of the coagulating. Issue interests, discipline or geography is that one of the changes that is slowly happening, it needs to happen with more with more Gusto is this idea of not siloing off the geographic components from the other ones, you'd see pretty much the communities of practice, the SIGs, those things that have been more baked in and the chapters have oftentimes can be an arms length. And what we began to understand is that the models. percolate to the top for many associations, not all are going to be the, the, the less structured geographic components, which means they're going to begin to act even more like the other components.
Carol: And so interesting. I did, of course the pandemic and everything moving online just, just changed everything overnight. And I did an event for a regionally based association. So one that is the Mid-Atlantic of the thing, the Mid-Atlantic facilitators network and they were doing webinars. So of course that has no geography limits to it. And it was just a very pertinent topic, right. At the beginning of the pandemic of how to facilitate effectively online. And they had people from around the world and this was a local association. So in some ways it feels like some of those things, maybe aren't as relevant as they used to be. And of course, People are still gonna want to be able to meet in person and, and, those geography challenges, we're not going to always do everything online.
Peggy: It’s both, but the blurring of the geographic boundaries is huge. It's it's. It's going to be, what's going to be the catalyst to either kill a chapter or have a chapter thrive, but it's also the catalyst for more competition and we know how nonprofits sometimes butt heads. And I think we're, we're, we're in a situation where that can happen. So the savvy association is going to jump out in front of it right away. Right. And say, okay, how do we begin coordinating the services, our programs, or our, our chapters or components are offering in a way that creates congeniality, right? Bridging all of it for everybody versus feeling like you're in a state of competence. Exactly. Exactly. And I think we do know that the Delta variant aside and other elements aside, we do know that people are going to get back together again, which is actually delightful and, and, and, and. Gonna be well received by, by many folks, but we also think, and Carol, this is the interesting thing. We think that it's going to change the nature of getting together for chapters. In other words because I can get online education so much more readily. And in the case of the one you just talked about, I can be in an online thing. That's perfect to many of us, but get the perspective from, from a different, different area. Right. Then maybe the importance of the chapters is less about education and more about the other elements, whether it is how do we grapple with a very local issue or how do we do networking or how do we do career development or career pathway development, or how do we, how do we really reach the students? Right. So it could shift some of the priorities for our geographic components, which I. It's not a bad thing at all, but we have to be aware of it.
Carol: I know for me thinking about going to in-person events the bar is just way higher for what we're actually doing in person is the event actually designed to leverage the fact that we are in the same room together. And if it's not, I'm not going to travel two hours, cause even in a G, even in the DC area, it's going to take me an hour there, be there. And then an hour back it's half my day. so the bar for me is just way higher.
Peggy: And so now think about that because of the implication there, and I don't think you're alone and I'm certainly the same way. So there's at least two of us in this world. Right? So here's the thing: think about how we are currently resourcing and training volunteers. Because it's still largely volunteer. And even if it's not volunteer, if there's a, if there's a skeleton staff for a chapter, it's often an admin person, right. So how are we resourcing and training them for that new reality? We've been talking in some of the trainings I've been doing, because we do a fair amount of the chapter leader, training chapter staff and chapter volunteers. We've been talking well, at least I've been beating the drum for at least two years on. You've got to do something different at your events. You've got to create events that are experienced. You've got, you've got to stop thinking that I can just fill a room and, and in class, in classroom style and have somebody, screaming, scream at you. Lecture, you
Carol: talk nicely to you, but I haven't, so
Peggy: bam, I get now you're absolutely right. It becomes way more. So am I leveraging, I liked the way you put that. Am I leveraging the fact that I'm in person on this event design? Yeah. And I think it's, it's not just a matter of going back to the way it used to be, because, maybe those networking events worked for a few people, but they actually never worked for a lot of people. So how can we think about those things differently? How can we help, help people have conversations? have, give them a little bit of structure. I mean, people had learned how to do this in, in the online space, through zoom, et cetera. Just a little bit, just a prompt question to get people started can really be helpful. Exactly. Exactly. So it's good. It's going to be really interesting. It's going to change. It's going to change how we train, how we resource it's going to also require in some ways, a refresh to the volunteer pool. Right. And that's such a critical thing because I think it's one of the biggest ones. Big challenge.
Carol: I don't know if the biggest challenge you can tell me with any volunteer-led organization or one that depends a lot on volunteers is that oftentimes those refreshing recruitment cultivation of some pathway to leadership they, most groups don't, don't have it, don't know how to do it. And so then they wonder why, the 20% are the, are doing the 80.
Peggy: Exactly. And that is one of the, definitely one of the top. Challenges for these member components is getting the volunteer workforce that has been a problem that's been really growing in the last I'd say five to almost 10 years. And, and the, the, the. Challenge is now is that because we're in this murky area of what really is the value prop at the local level, it's harder to articulate why it would be great for you to volunteer for this organization. So we've just put things on top of each other. Now, all of this makes of course, Carol, this sound like doom and gloom. On the other side of things there is there's real opportunity for local volunteers, local chapters, local members, and the COVID is one of the coming out of COVID. One of the silver linings is we saw some of those in action, right? We saw, for example, I'm in Texas and this is not, this is not an exception by any means at all, but in Texas, one of 'em AGCS, that's the general contractors groups, did this amazing pivot and went from this basically, education. Forced development to a source for PPE and set up and turn their office into a collection zone and, and an incredible member value point. Then you have, you have some folks out in Ohio for the dental hygienist and that group Basically got the most important legislation or regulatory changes around the protection of, or of dental hygienists on the job.
And then another one of their chapters actually was managed on Facebook to get a vibrant post of yours, the temp job that you, that you need filled and post that you're ready. And they did this incredible moment, matchmaking for folks in the area. So what we're, what we're seeing is that being local to it's like it is just like with health care, it's just like with everything being local became the ability to answer the immediate need of a member. So. The real question is do we, is it time to take those checklists of you did this, this, this, and this, and throw it away and begin saying what the member needs at the moment? Because I think honestly, we saw it and I think chapters can step up because they're driven by volunteers. That's the huge thing. That's the passion that allows them to pivot. If they've been given the permission and some resources. Yeah. There's often, I feel like there's often a tension between a regionally based or a locally-based chapter and the national organization. And, maybe some of those checklists are, are part of it. Why would you say you often see that, or at least I've certainly experienced it in the organizations I've worked in that tension between the two. Well, I think it's, it's really interesting. How are we just, so in, in terms of the work that Marriner is doing we are just, we just began this next iteration of the chapter benchmarking study. And we started with two CEO round tables, virtual round tables. Brought CEOs together to have a conversation around what is this thing about chapters? And, and, we basically were asking the question you just asked.
Carol: Now we did start by saying, what are the orthodoxies around chapters that are just so, what would you say some of those are?
Peggy: So that was the, that was the, Chapter four, the third rail chapters are our political minefield. The problem is that you've got these groups and often too way too often. The leaders that you have sitting up here, making decisions come from that group, and while they put the national or the global hat on, they never take off the chapter hat. So. They see that they see through a lens that is a little bit clouded, a little bit myopic to a certain degree. Right. And so if you start to say something needs to change, well, my chakra was barred or I, and, and meanwhile, you're talking, you're having to convince volunteers to vote members to vote on change. And they don't like to do that anyway in too many cases. It's politically fraught. And so it's easier to kick the can down the road than it is to make a substantive change. But the other critical element is these CEOs bless them. Could not with one, maybe two exceptions. Could not articulate the value of chapters because we have no data around what the chapters are bringing that we can put on our balance sheets. We can put in our operations, we have the expense side. Oh yes. Because we have. That's assigned to it. We might have a chapter leader conference. We might have a shared relationship. We might have a revenue sharing relationship around events or activities. but on the income side, we're not doing any good data collection and data analysis that shows us how that contributes to the value proposition? That generates those important dollar driven pieces, membership, acquisition, membership, membership retention fundraising goals, all those things. So, most of the CEOs have this political problem and they have no data. And so what happens is you get this, you get all these people in the room. Chapters are so important. I came up with it. I wouldn't have been a member or all that stuff. And so, that anecdote becomes the data and we all know, and if it is not data. So that was the key. The other orthodoxy which I thought was a sad orthodoxy is, well, chapters are good and they're mostly bad and that's just the way it is. And you'll live. And that to me is sad because that goes back to, I don't know what the ROI is and therefore, and it's politically difficult, so I'm just gonna live with this. And, and, and, and the assumption is it can't get better. So that's the other orthodoxy we have to live with. It's bad. We can't get better. And one, several members of these two CEO round tables said if they had their druthers, they would just ditch them. And so. Would that be an ortho, what that an, of a mindset it's going to be competitive because you're not in the game together you're surviving alongside, and even the most open-minded of the CEOs. And there were many open-minded CEOs in the effort of figuring it out. All of those really good, important answers didn't seem to, it seems so insurmountable. And so I'm just going to wait and hope that because I guess, because I see some good things, like 1 group said, when it comes right down to advocacy the states that have really rolled up, rolled their sleeves up and, and, and talk with us on a regular basis, we're able to make some significant headways.So they, so they do, they do glean onto that. But the competition comes because we don't know, and we're just living, living next to each other. The other thing is, there's nothing worse. Carolyn, absolutely nothing worse than having your leaders who have to make important decisions, be your members because they will whine the entire time. And so the members are notorious, they think they're not getting a good deal and members who are volunteering for chapters have that double, double down on that. And so they create their own negative language that pushes along this competition.
Carol: And yet you gave a couple examples about how that locality of those chapters, they were able to just jump on needs that were immediate, that would have taken a national organization. There's so many layers of decision making and all of that. They were able to just move really quickly, especially because in this case, I think that volunteer. Group. It can either mean that you're moving incredibly slowly or yes, you can also move very quickly.
Peggy: Right. And the other interesting thing is we did a so ma Marriner and bill highway the highway being a software tech company that does have a banking solution in this space, in any case. We've been doing a series of webinars, monthly webinars for chapter organizations. And I bring this up only because one of the things we keep doing is I say, we look for the bright spots. But we're looking for where our system's working. And one of the, and what, one of the pieces we did was the trickle up and what we were talking about was we were going at it and we were finding where there were successful national programs that actually had been born and bred at the local level. So. PMI is an outreach program and is a great example. The education I'm going to call the action. The education theater group developed this. They had when the floods came through in Houston and the schools were decimated, their theater props and programs were decimated by another group, another state nearby did a match list. Do you have something extra? There's a school there. It needs it. That program is now a school to school support program that went national. So, and, and, and you look at what the landscapes or landscapers have done. So in other words not only can they pivot quickly, but they can also be some pretty good R and D. And by the way, you can do a, you can do an ROI on all of those scenarios.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. And you've been doing some research recently on what you call the volunteer learning journey. Why, why would you say this is important for those who work with volunteers or our volunteers and trying to cultivate other volunteers?
Peggy: One of the things that we have done so I'm gonna, I'm going to first point back to a couple of, of. Of good resources. One is the mutually beneficial volunteering study done in 2017 with the ASAE foundation in which we talked about the readiness of volunteers and that impact on associations, then we did. Now to a chapter benchmarking study, I alluded earlier to the fact that we're in the third iteration now, and we did the CEO's and we're going to be going into the actual survey piece just shortly. But yeah. In the two previous ones one of the issues that came up was volunteer readiness, right? And then we've also over the last 10 years I have worked with thousands and thousands of chapters through chapter training programs and constantly come back to volunteer readiness. And so one of the things that, and we did was a series on financial problems for chapters in which we have looked at fraud, security, risks, those kinds of things. And what's the, what's the, what's the bottom line behind that, the preparedness or readiness of volunteers. So you see this theme that, if the volunteer is the key workforce for the chapter programs, and we're not properly preparing them, what's the issue, how do we resolve that?
Carol: How would you, how would you define volunteer readiness?
Peggy: So I would define volunteer readiness. Excuse me. I would define a volunteer readiness based on their ability to successfully complete the job at hand. So I'm going to be treasurer of a chapter organization. Not only can I, do I know, how do I know? Do I know how the organization is financially set up? Can I read a peanut? Can I make good decisions? Can I make good financial decisions based on risk analysis? Right? Because I mean, I can spend this money and I've got these reserves, like it's been over here, there's just, how do I invest these dollars? And, and how do I. For example, let's look at, look at the pandemic. Cause the one group that we manage, I mean, the first thing we did was the treasurer and I sat down and we pulled up and we did what's plan B, how do we, what's our scenario planning for this year because we don't know how it's going to unfold. So scenario planning. So as a treasurer, when I, the first day I'm in that job, Do I have that set of skills and that ability, and if I don't have the exact set of skills, do I at least know? I don't have them and can seek, can ask the questions because you're not going to know everything you need for every particular. That's okay. Right. But do I know, do I know? So, so readiness is about my ability to do that job and not even stellar. I've just, I just call it success. Like if my goal was this and I'm a volunteer, can I get us to this? Would it be great to get here? Fine, but I'm ready as I get to where we have to get? Not where we necessarily want to get. When we started figuring out why are volunteers not ready? Or why do we get volunteers? the whole, the whole thing. And we need a president and nobody's hand raises and someone sneezes. Oh, good. Peggy. You're going to be president now you're president, but you're not ready. Right. But, there's no other choice. Right. So we kept looking, so all of these associations are offering varying levels. But, it's hard to get volunteers to, to really buy into that support. And that's when I saw something that Christine matters with the crystal lake partners. I had done it with, she had talked about learning journeys for getting beyond basically the concept of the journey map, which by the way, you've done some fabulous work on taking that, I think, and applying it to the learner. Is there a learner journey and I'm looking at this going, is there a volunteer learner? So she and I got together, we pulled together a brain trust of folks, looked at how they were doing it, looked at what we understood about volunteer readiness and realized that the missing piece, as we looked at this, is tying that training to the volunteer motivation. And that's of course what learning journeys do, right. They say, what, where is it? You want to go? What's your motivation for getting there? What, what, and so tie it. So that's really where it came out of. It was trying to find how to take these two issues? where's the, where's the puzzle piece that puts them together.
Carol: And one thing that I appreciate, and we'll, we'll link to the resource that you're talking about. Cause it's really a wonderful piece on working with volunteers. And this could, this, there are so many applications to this. You did this within an association context, but I was looking at it and I haven't yet. On the leadership development committee of my congregation. Right. And so we're thinking about volunteer cultivation and how do we give people some baby steps and not say, oh, you're a new member. Let's get you on the board. No, we don't want to be in that position. And how do we help people take those steps? So I really liked how you broke it down with, maybe that first step. And I can't remember exactly what the categories were, but then, then. They need these couple of competencies and, or this interest. And so that's going to match to more of a micro volunteering or an ad hoc role. And, and I think that that is a hard thing. Where folks are. So organizations are so used to these big roles that people have traditionally had. And how do you break it into smaller chunks that are more manageable and in people's lives today? For a million reasons, folks just don't have the bandwidth that they have available. I don't know, 15, 20 years ago when people were able to step into a board role for three and four years and things like.
Peggy: So there was a lot of stability in people's lives. Obviously, in comparison, a lot of stability, you were in jobs and there's a lot of middle management opportunities there until you were in jobs and you're pretty steady. And you didn't, you weren't looking to change jobs unless something really happened. And the employers there, they, they gave you a little bit more leeway on a lot of things. So volunteering and not only that, but there were generational things. So the boss had volunteered and been on the board. So it's natural that you're going to do that. Right. And lava fell, all those things changed, which is why there is the bandwidth issue. But I think the other thing that we completely underestimate is. Everything we know about volunteers, particularly what we do when we start looking at volunteers over the last 10 years. Okay. Everything we know is that there is this critical importance of connecting with what's in it for me. And I don't mean that in a negative way. Gotta go to my motivation and my motivation is going to be tied to something. I can see an outcome. And so much of our volunteering does not have a demonstrative outcome and it does not plug directly with the motivation. So we can't get people to be on the board because what it looks like is sitting in meetings and it's just keeping the organization going well, I don't want to just keep your organization going. I don't want to do anything. All of a sudden if, if, if we can start making, even that board position looks and demonstrates how there is an outcome we're going to get folks to do that? The reality is that busy people always have time but they have time for the things that match their motivation. One of the things I tell real quickly Carol is we were looking for a treasurer at the local level. It's a Maryland based chapter and we were looking for a treasurer and we were having. Difficult time. That's not an easy position to fill because there are, that's one of the board positions that actually has some key competencies, right? So there was an individual who I, who I knew could do this and would do a good job. And Talking with this individual and they didn't want any more board positions and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then he just happened to say to me, “How come we didn't give out a student scholarship this year?” Cause we always gave that student scholarships and I said, I'm going to give it a student scholarship. Because, and I, and I went through the whole thing and I, it was basically a financial decision, right. And I said, we were there and we fell down here and here, and I just said free, frankly, the right treasurer would get this going and we can rebuild that account and we'd have the giving out student scholarships. And so the neck, I think it was the next day, got an email from him and said, okay, so when does a treasurer position begin? Why? Because now he saw a reason he was, and he did, he did. We got the student scholarship program back up and running.
Carol: Well, yeah. And, to help people think through, especially in a professional context, what are some things that they're going to be able to learn through volunteering that they don't have the opportunity to do in their day-to-day jobs? So, thinking again, I mentioned my congregation and when I first joined people asked me to do lots of different things that I didn't want to do. So I was, I felt like I was like, no, no, no, no, no. So I was like, I got to figure out what I'm, what I want to say yes to. And they were doing their first strategic plan and I was like, Ooh, I want to do that. And of course, that's actually what I do now. Right? This was 20 years ago. And so in my day job, I have no opportunity to be involved in the strategy of the organization. But in this volunteer role, I was going to be able to be a leader. And develop, explore that and develop all sorts of skills that I just wouldn't have the opportunity in my day-to-day. So helping people, whether it's skills or Networking is just such a big amorphous concept, but how is this going to help you build and get connected with people who can help you sponsor you, mentor you and help you solve problems. But yeah, to take what these things are. Jobs or even smaller ones and how people think, well, what are the components that, that that I can connect to, that's going to move me forward, from that professional point of view or. I just moved here and I don't have any friends that I want to make some friends with and let me do that, through, through volunteering.
Peggy: You know what, it's just like the fundraising when you first get called to give, let's say to in my case, my NPR station is WAMU. WAMU. And the first gift that you're asked is, is 25 bucks or five bucks or whatever. And then they, they wrap you up. And pretty soon you're an annual giver of a substantive chunk of money. And I keep telling chapters and national organizations that you, you, you, you gotta do the fundraising model and, and microbes. Get you into it. you had mentioned, you had referred to that, the pathway in which we talk about the emerging volunteer, the learning volunteer, and then you get into leadership. And one of the things that we saw in the mutually beneficial volunteering study, which actually reflected the results from the earlier volunteer study way back in 2008 that ASAE did, which is one of the, one of the. Five reasons for not saying yes is not seeing a picture, not seeing the pathway. And so part of that work came out of this idea of let's paint a password for let's paint. Let's paint the picture and demonstrate a pathway. And there's some really exciting things because if you take that pathway you see, for example, wraps, which is the regulatory professionals they've done this and they're not alone. Other groups have done this. I believe PMI is amongst them, but you take that pathway. And then you start doing digital badging based on that. Right. And now you're actually, you're actually connecting people to the, to a recognition that they can carry with them really from a CV perspective. Right. But then you take someone like NAGP, they're building out a as, as part of their learning management system and they're making some changes right now, but they're building it. Levels of training for volunteers at wraps is doing something similar. So you and I talked to one of the magicians who was looking, who just was looking at that model and saying, wow, you mean, we could do like many, many certificates, right? As I get through this level. So all of a sudden you see what that, that pathway does. It professionalizes the volunteering in our associations and nonprofits. And by professionalizing it, that boosts the motivation to get the learning and the education that you need to be successful in the job. So we're all we're, we're, we're coming at this from all these different directions.
Carol: Yeah, for sure. So on each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. And since I think I've known you long enough that I can ask this question. So who are the three people you would want on your team? If there was a zombie apocalypse? Ooh.
Peggy: Mark Shropshire who no one knows, except that he is my personal trainer. And I mean, strong and, and, and not, Sufficiently un-empathetic that he could destroy anything in the way. So that's good. So definitely, definitely that I'm gonna go with maybe a strange strange one. And I, I'm going to actually go with an association professional. I know Lindsay Curry and you might say, well, why, why would you pick her. I have never seen anybody able to get around a topic with such dexterity and in a way to come up with the question and I have seven feelings if they were, it was Zombieland. She has a way to get them to go now. What are you asking us there? And I need a really strong, another strong, no, you know what, you know what I'm going gonna, I'm gonna also go with my husband. And you might say why, and it goes, if something happens, I think I would just assume that it happened to both of us, but I would throw them out there first just to be on, to be doing the real side. But, having somebody close to you that knows you that knows your vulnerabilities and your strengths. And in that moment can say, can call on your strengths so that you can get past your vulnerability. I think that would be priceless.
Carol: That's awesome. That's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you what's what's emerging in your work these days, so, oh
Peggy: My gosh. There is actually a lot of really exciting work. I'm going to mention three very quick things. One is the chapter benchmarking study because we have brought the CEO voices. And so we're going to do the CEO voice. We're going to do the traditional CRP. That's the component relations professional. That's the association staff position. And you can opt in to have us then go to your chapter leaders. So it's a 360, if you will approach a conversation around chapters, chapter values, chapter optimization. So we're very excited about that. We just launched the ASAE foundation Research, which is going with an incredibly robust brain trust of association CEOs. We're going to design the set of models that will work for associations for volunteerism. So in other words, we're asking the question. What is effective and what model brings out effectiveness for what organizations. So there's not going to be one mile. So, those are two kinds of research projects, but, but listen to those, those are like innovation, right? They're changing. The other thing I want to mention. Just getting started with camp to program camp is the California marriage and family therapist. We're doing a chapter coaching pro program, which I think is going to be really cool. I get a chance to work one-on-one one-on-one with chapters. So those were the, those are the three exciting things. But I, I want to, I guess I want to mention that. there's a balance in life. And so the other exciting thing that the other journey I'm on is I started in January learning titles. And when you put yourself in a place to learn something new and you can screw up with that, anybody like, you don't feel bad about it. it's just you during this learning space and it's a really, really wonderful mind, body centering thing, but also all of the elements about this there's There's w one of the elements is constantly keeping your knees bent and being grounded so that, you can move in any direction. Right. And giving in yielding, and yet being a spring strong anyway, enough of that. But that's,
Carol: That'll help you with the zombies too. Yes. I love it. I love it. Well, Peggy, it was great having you on thank you so much. And we will definitely link to those resources that you mentioned. And then let us know when the newest benchmarking study comes out and we can include it for folks. So definitely appreciate all you all you have to offer. Right?
Peggy: Well, thank you for your time today. This was a fun conversation. It's always good catching up with you. And it was fun today, too.
I appreciated the perspective Peggy brought on the volunteer learning journey. Whether your organization has chapters or has volunteers in other programmatic elements of your work, thinking through their learning journey could be really useful. We will link to the resource that Peggy’s group created about this and it provides a really useful framework for thinking about how to cultivate and develop volunteers. And how to have them move from volunteers to leaders within your organization. From a new volunteer that is just getting familiar with your organization and the work you do – what are the skills and competencies they need? How will your orientation and training program help them develop those skills? How might you be able to break down what used to be a large role into smaller more doable parts? Is it clear for someone wanting to get involved what the steps are? Whom they should reach out to? What support can you provide your volunteers as they become more engaged and encourage them to step into new and larger roles within your organization? Have you built a ladder people can climb? Or a pathway for them? The clearer you are able to make the pathway, the more likely people will say yes when you invite them into volunteering.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Peggy as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
In episode 27 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Carlyn Madden discussed include:
Carlyn Madden helps nonprofits find new leaders. She is the CEO of Good Insight, a national executive search firm and governance consultancy that focuses on small nonprofits. Good Insight is committed to becoming an anti-racist search firm and she is a sought-after speaker and adviser on the nonprofit workforce’s generational and demographic shifts. She comes to this work through philanthropy, beginning her career at The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, where she managed a portfolio of grants that spanned education, the arts, human services, and the environment.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Carlyn Madden. She is the CEO of Good Insight, a national executive search firm and governance consultancy that focuses on small nonprofits. Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. Carlyn and I talk about why smaller organizations can benefit from the support of a search firm for their leadership searches. She describes some of the newer good practices to ensure that a search is equitable. We talk about how to avoid being an accidental interim executive director and what aspiring executive directors can do to start now to get ready for a future leadership role
Welcome, Carlyn. And it's great to have you on the podcast.
Carlyn Madden: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Carol: So I love, I like to get started just by asking a question about what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Carlyn: Yeah, great question. So, I started my nonprofit career in philanthropy, which means that I have a bird's eye perspective on what happens in the nonprofit sector, particularly with community-based organizations. And so after being in philanthropy for almost a decade, I started consulting and did a little bit of everything for a while and saw a number of my former grantees and clients go through adverse executive transitions. So some of the organizations, unfortunately had founders pass away, unexpectedly. Others had hired the wrong person and really the organization took a nosedive. And so as I was building my own consulting practice, I kept being a sounding board for the boards of these nonprofits and thought. Gosh, I think I have a different vision for how organizations can tackle this and started designing a executive server executive search services that embedded a more racial equity approach to the work and started rolling that out in 2018 and have been really fully focused on that in the last few years.
Carol: So, Yeah, it seems like there's, there's been a body of work around leadership transitions that probably started, I don't know, maybe 20 years ago. And it's been the standard of how you do things. So I'm really curious to hear more about, what, how, how you were seeing and how you are approaching those transitions differently.
Carlyn: Great question. there was an interesting article a couple years ago, maybe, and Carol, I'll send this to you so you can include it in the notes, from Jeanne Bell who talks about, I think it's called hire by hire and talks about, some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographics have not actually changed. And so what is required is are the conditions of executive search have to change. And so while the model that you're talking about, the last 20 years, it's called executive transition management and they talk about, How does it prepare pivot and thrive or something of that nature, that Don Tevye and Tom Adams and Annie E Casey foundation and Compass Point, all of these organizations came together to design this model, which is an effective model at the base of it. But the conditions around the model have changed. And so things that we do that are a little bit different or, or, a lot of my colleagues are starting to do the same, but we're, we're very firm in this. Salary transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not thinking actually building out networks multi-racial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying who do you know in this space, that would be a good executive director. Because there are so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles, our networks are very homogenous. We know that I'm a white lady, you know where this is it podcast, but I'm a white lady. We're two white ladies talking to each other. but our networks are very diverse.
And so we have an open door policy that anybody that has questions about a search can call us, can talk to one of our associates about their interest in the role so that they can really prepare their materials to be successful in front of that transition committee. We're also coaching transition committees on what are some best practices. So if a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for this. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors. And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Some like even subtle things, right? How are we, how are we gender coding? Job descriptions. We know the studies say not just in the nonprofit sector, but HR writ large say women are less likely to apply to a job that is masculine coded. So if your job description says things like. Aggressive goal achievement. Yeah. women, or, women read that as like, well, can I aggressively achieve goals? So we use words like collaborate, not compete, thinking really about gender coding there. So it's a really cool tool. And again, I'll send this to you. You can include in the notes that will read your job descriptions for gender coding and tell you if it's a feminized or masculinized job description, which is really neat. We also avoid militarized language, like execute. We don't say execute, we say implement. And we don't say targets. We say focus, all of these sorts of things that are really subtle, but affect how people are receiving a job description and think about themselves in that position.
Carol: And it seems like, you, you are, are really focused in, on the search phase of that transition.And what misconceptions do you think, you've seen that people have about working with someone on S H working with an outside party to support that search process?
Carlyn: Gosh, I think they think it's really expensive. Right. Like most of my clients are under 5 million. That was the area that, so while I was at, I was at a regional foundation called the Cambridge foundation. I had a portfolio that covered indications with domestic violence survivors, homelessness, and the environment just like a broad generalist. But the thing that they all had in common is that they were relatively small, right. There are under 3 million and we say our ideal clients are under five. And we say that because they don't have, HR apparatus, right? There's not a strong internal system, multiple people they're really helping develop out job descriptions and search services internally. There's no internal strategy around it. So yeah. Our clients are best served. When they're small, we provide good services to small clients, but small clients also lack fewer resources. There's a reason that they're small. And so boards often think that they can do it themselves. But again, what do we know about boards? Many of them are predominantly white led. So we look again at these imaginative networks. they don't have the time to, to do the search themselves. So they're not communicating back to the candidates. And so people don't know where they stand that affects the organization's reputation, all sorts of things like that. So I think a common misconception is that it's really expensive and it's not worth the cost that they can find the executive director themselves. That might be absolutely true. However, the ability, particularly with long tenured and founder transitions, long-tenured executive and founder transitions, is the ability to have a partner that understands where the organization's capacity is.
Can explain that clearly both to the board and to candidates and finding a candidate that doesn't just check all the boxes, but really can meet the organization in this exact moment in time is really crucial. So one of the things that we also know is implicit bias is a big thing. We all carry implicit bias. And so you'll receive a resume from somebody and they'll be like, well, they worked at all the right organizations to successfully lead this nonprofit. But maybe they didn't hold the right roles in those organizations. If you are preparing to launch a capital campaign and somebody has come from a competitor organization, but only worked on the program side, they're not going to have necessarily the skill sets necessary to. Be able to launch that capital campaign that's not going to be their area of expertise. So what we help our clients do is really hone in on the key skills and hire for skills and capacity for that organization's next chapter and boards just don't, aren't going to necessarily understand where the organization is in its life cycle and what's next. And because we are experts in the nonprofit sector, we have a clear vision for that.
Carol: And you talked about, I think, one of those really hard transitions, from a founder and, and how you witnessed, a number of specific examples where that, where that didn't go well, what, what have you seen a transition from, from the founder? Go better or go more smoothly?
Carlyn: Well once they’ve decided that they're going to transition, they do need to identify what the date is of that transition. So, whether that person is leaving in a year, six months, three months, all sorts of, it doesn't, it doesn't matter. But having a firm date in mind and working backwards from that with some succession planning, Carol, I know succession planning is also an area of topic that you care a lot about too. And then the organization can make a decision. Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys, or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because. This person can help steward and steer the organization's operations and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their positions, they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's this accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there much longer term, maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of, of opportunity. And so you need somebody in there for six months to a year, maybe even 18 months in order to make sure that all the systems are go and the fundraising relationships are strong and, All of the things that, that next executive director would otherwise work on and take up a lot of time, rather than being able to implement a bigger vision for the organization.
Carol: And I could imagine, as, or as organizations are becoming more aware and centering, equity and racial equity that. an unfortunate offshoot of that might be that, they rushed to hire a person of color where they've, where there's been a white founder. And then just because of all the founders and plus many other things, that person becomes that accidental, inner, accidental interim. And I'm, I'm just it. I can imagine that it could have an even greater detrimental effect on that person's career than it might be. For a white accidental interim.
Carlyn: Yeah, it's a good point, Carol. And again, we're dealing with individuals so individual by individual basis. Certainly. but I have seen some very specific scenarios where. That has really torpedoed somebody's career, women of color's career. and then she had a successive accidental interim tenure. And then, as people are reviewing a resume, well, why was so-and-so there for just nine months? Well, so-and-so walked into a really terrible situation, but it's hard to communicate that to, a set of board members that are thinking about, gosh, are we going to take quote unquote, a risk? It's like, you're not taking a risk, but. A resume does not show a holistic vision of who a person is. And that's really unfortunate. So it's a good point. It can be very detrimental, particularly for women of color who are already up against it. A lot of implicit bias that comes up during the hiring process.
Carol: It almost reminds me of that. I don't know. What did they call it? The glass cliff? Not just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, women, women of color, especially being offered the impossible job. Yeah. And then people wondered why they couldn't complete it.
Carlyn: There's a really interesting, I can send this to you so you can share, really interesting podcasts and possibly a company article. And I think it's from Forbes or possibly a fast company that talks about this in the for-profit sector. but this exact same thing where women are called in to clean up a mess and then have an impossible job ahead of them. And then their performance is managed in a way that. Is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, right. Or the challenge ahead. So I think it's a very good thing to be thinking about that glass clip. And what does it mean to take over, particularly from a founder who is doing more than an executive director, would traditionally, do you have to reshape that role?
Carol: Yeah. And I think for any role, an executive director or any role when an organization is looking at a job description, especially if someone's been in the role for a long time. and of course a founder has, has its own particular set of circumstances or, or impact on the organization. But, anytime someone's been in a role for awhile, though, if the organization has done a good job of maximizing that person's strengths, the role starts to morph into what works for that person. And then you have to separate it from that person and think, well, what do we need from an organizational point of view? And what is realistic? What, what can really one person take on, how do you help boards walk through that process? So it isn't, and, and identify what those really key competencies are. It's not necessarily something that most people think about on a day-to-day basis. Yeah.
Carlyn: That's a great question as well. So it goes back to the, again, to the common misconceptions about why use a search firm. Versus being able to self administer a search. One of the things that we do for all of our clients is stakeholder engagement. So on the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents to get a sense of the lay of the land, or what does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, key staff members from membership associations, the actual members of the association, key volunteers. Possibly even program participants, we're talking to funders, we're doing surveys. We're doing one-on-one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It’s just going to depend on what the organization's needs are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what was. What was really stellar about the last person in this position? What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is next? What's on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that needs to, often staff culture is a big piece. I think we're really going through a. Tumultuous time. Rightly so.
In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader and what hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect images, visual organizations. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the, The theses banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon. but enables the search firm to play this intermediary buffer zone and then communicate between the two parties about what are the needs of the organization. What's surfacing? We'll also hear from funders or other key stakeholders. What role does this organization play in the community and what, what gaps exist? So are there things that the organization could be doing that it's not, are there needs of the community that aren't being fulfilled? So it's the chance to do a, I even hate to say it like mini strategic plan, to really understand what are the opportunities ahead, what are the challenges that exist at this organization? And then we can effectively communicate reality to the potential candidates so that the board is choosing a candidate that can deal with the circumstances ahead.
Carol: No. I mean, the way you described it, it really is, essentially a mini strategic plan because all those stakeholder engagement is, is key to, any, any strategic process. And the, the, the timeframe may not be quite as long. To really help the board identify, what is this moment in time? Where are we in our life cycle? and then, what do we need from the person immediately? And then in the, in the short to long-term.
Carlyn: Yeah. And it also has helped them actually in conversation with a client that I've had over the number of years and their founders transitioning. And, we were talking about like, What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible Heights in a very small period of time for a period of time. But there are also things that are pet projects and the board. Recognizes it to some extent, but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay. But what is essential to the mission of the organization and what would be nice to have, but it's not urgent.
Carol: Yeah. I feel like so many of my conversations come down to that. What's truly essential and what's nice to have.
Carlyn: I think the pandemic has helped us get clarity around that. Hopefully as well, maybe not complete clarity, but.
Carol: At least realizing that that would be a good thing. If we can, if we can identify with the essential items, what mistakes do you see organizations making when they, when they're managing these later leadership transitions?
Carlyn: It’s all about timing. It's all about timing. So I'll often talk to people. That'll say. We're looking for the next person to be here by our gala, which is about two and a half months. And, yeah, I'm going to announce them there. Well, that's going to be tough if, if we work together, that's going to be tough. I'm not saying another search firm couldn't do it, but you're not going to have that stakeholder engagement. You're not going to have that reality check. You're not going to have that candidate care that comes through the process so often. Particularly for executive search at executive director or CEO searches boards are unaware of how long the process is actually going to take, which is usually about four to six months and most often six months. and that's from initiation to. Nope start date. So it's not necessarily from like, I, starting the search, the actual recruitment process to the offer, but that's from the stakeholder engagement to the person, actually walking in the front door. When you're dealing with executive directors, they need at least a month to be able to exit their organization and particularly, it's such a. It's going to sound funny to even say this, but it's a really tight job market right now. Like there are people who are very eager to depart their job and there are people that are very eager to hire new people.
I think I've never seen so many calls that we're getting that are going through executive transitions. I think it's a little bit of the baby boomer retirement. People are excited for new opportunities or maybe executive directors are exiting to take care of elder parents or child care. They scale back. They're so burnt out. And so it's just, there's a lot of things that are going to be floating around the market. So if you're an aspiring ed, this is your time to shine. But, if you're a board member, know that that is going to be very competitive to get the right person. And so you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple of different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in the situation where they're. They're negotiating parallel job offers, and you have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table. All sorts of things. People aren't just thankful for a new job. They are careerists that are really thinking about how this fits into their personal and professional trajectories.
Carol: And what would you say to those aspiring executive directors? What are some things that they might start doing now to prepare themselves and help them be well positioned to apply for a leadership role?
Carlyn: Yeah. As much as somebody can do to shadow. The development function of an organization. So if somebody is looking to ascend into an exhibit creative director role, the board is paying close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing experience? I think, unfortunately, and I say this as an introvert, extroverts are rewarded in a search, right. Somebody that can come in and really wow. Somebody, but research shows that introverts are actually better suited for executive director positions or leadership positions. So don't take that. But even introverted people enjoy connecting with others and, Thinking about the fundraising functions of an organization are going to be really key to aspiring executive directors. So even if you are not a development director, looking to move up, if you're a program person, we'll have you start shadowing, start having conversations with fundraising colleagues so that you understand the soup to nuts fundraising process, join a board so that you get hands-on experience of soliciting donations. Those are going to be key for you to be successful in an executive director interview. I tease, I have a colleague that works in a fundraising space and I was like, whenever you're ready to do something like an Institute for fundraising, like a three-day long weekend seminar to help fundraisers understand fundraising too. Do executive director positions. I was like, I will invest in that idea. So anybody has an idea you can call me. I will invest in that idea because it is so important. And it's, it, it really is lacking, unfortunately, in a lot of, a lot of potential, really awesome executive directors. And it's hard to change the board's mind around that because fundraising is so essential to an executive director position.
Carol: And then, once the search process is over, the person has accepted the role, what are some things to help set them up for success?
Carlyn: Yeah. So one of the things we do, bi-fold our onboarding plan with the transition committee and some staff members, so that there's 90 days worth of activities that are happening for that person. Now we can all remember an occasion where we've walked into an office and so much just like. Glad to have you, you sit here. Well, we don't want that to happen. We want everything to start off on a good foot, particularly for those executive directors. So, what are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first few weeks? How are they? Let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members. That's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I’ll meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to have a happy hour, blah, blah, blah, have all of that. Go ahead and set that up for them. So that it's really clear what they're supposed to be working on. how they're going to communicate what the organization's communication is to the community about the arrival, blah, blah, blah. And then what we also do is 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director and the board chair. And we do that for two reasons. One helps us transfer all of this great knowledge that we've received about the organization, through the stakeholder surveys, through people's individual perceptions of the organization, as we're going through the candidate process, tricky board relationships that you might need to navigate, all the things that we've, we've learned. As well as for the board chair, it helps us understand if there are hiccups along the way with that executive director so that we can bring in resources to course-correct if we need to, or if at the end of 90 days, things look like they're going to go sideways, it allows the, the board chair to understand what their options are. And if we need to replace that person, we can always go back to the candidate pool before starting a search. Good search firms are going to give a guarantee of their work that they'll replace the NEC the executive director within a year. we have not had to do that, but it's inevitable it's going to happen. And so, our guarantee is after a year, if within a year, somebody either resigns or is fired, we would start a search for free and. That 90 days helps us do that on the earlier side than like 360 days into that person's tenure.
Carol: Well, at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask a somewhat random, icebreaker question. And so, if you were right, if you were to write a book, what would it be about,
Carlyn: Oh gosh, I mean work is such a big part of my life. I'd like to think I would write like a non-work book. Right. But so if, if I had to write a work-related book, I think we would really feature some of the great nonprofits that we're, that we're working with and use that as case studies. I think there's so many lessons to learn about. The executive search process, but the process happens in a vacuright? We don't get a lot of information about what's happening behind the scenes. Other than an email to say so-and-so is leaving and look so-and-so has arrived. And so what are some of the dynamics that are happening in nonprofits today and what are the different things that are needed that are different than 20 years ago? So what's the contemporary viewpoint on executive search might be my next book. We'll see if I can find time.
Carol: All right. Well, we'll look for that in bookstores.
Carlyn: Coming to a bookstore near you, coming to a bookstore and meeting you.
Carol: And, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Carlyn: It’s been, it's been a really interesting spring into summer. I mean, we're getting so many requests for searches, which is great. so we're building the team, so we'll have two new hires coming on this summer. and so thinking about how we build a team that represents the type of placements that we want to make. So no differentiating, and the nonprofit will only work in the nonprofit sector, but who are people in housing who are people in community development and all of those sorts of things that we're building those skills into the team are looking at racial diversity of our own team. we're looking at gender diversity, age diversity, all of these different elements for us so that we can serve our clients. Well, And I think we're really in just the beginning of a big way for executive transition. So we're trying to wax a surfboard and swim on out and get ready for the wave.
Carol: Sounds great. Well, thank you so much.
Carlyn: Thanks so much, Carol. I appreciate it.
Carol: I appreciated how our conversation about how too often people of color, especially women get handed a “glass cliff” assignment in leadership. This could be succeeding a founder or being hired to turn around an organization. These glass cliff assignments not only serves to hurt the individual’s career, they really do a to the sector more broadly. As organizations prioritize racial equity in their hiring, they need to do the work that ensures that their focus on equity is beyond just the hiring process. That they are doing the work internally to ensure new leaders of color have the resources they need to succeed in their roles and they are not being expected to do all the work of anti-racism for the organization on their own. Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Carlyn as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
In episode 26 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Sabrina Walker Hernandez discussed include:
- How to get comfortable with fundraising
- The breakdown of the fundraising process
- Why both introverts and extroverts make good fundraisers
Sabrina Walker Hernandez is the President & CEO of Supporting World Hope. She has over 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fundraising, and leadership. One of Sabrina’s greatest successes is that she increased operation revenue from $750,000 to $2.5 million over an 8-year period as well as being responsible for the planning and operations of a $12 million comprehensive capital campaign in the 3rd poorest county in the United States. She has also facilitated numerous workshops with hundreds of nonprofit professionals and is a master trainer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Sabrina is certified in Nonprofit Management by Harvard Business School. She is an active community leader and volunteer in Edinburg, Texas where she is based.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Sabrina Walker Hernandez. Sabrina is the President & CEO of Supporting World Hope. She has over 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fundraising, and leadership. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Sabrina and I talk about some fundraising fundamentals. We talk about what makes fundraising so scary – especially the ask – and why the ask is actually only 5 percent of the process. The first part of the cycle is identifying and qualifying potential donors, and then the most important part is cultivation or building relationships. And then ultimately it comes to the ask. And then thanking the donor – the way they want to be thanked! But a lot of the work is the fun work of getting to know people and getting to know whether they would be excited about your mission. We talk about why both extroverts and introverts can make great fundraisers as well as why it is so important to remember that you are not asking for the money for yourself – it is for the mission you are working towards and the people your organization works with.
Welcome Sabrina. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Sabrina Walker Hernandez: Thank you for having me here. I'm excited about our conversation.
Carol: So to get us started what drew you to the work you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Sabrina: Well, I, as I thought about that question it really amazes me that it goes back to childhood. My mom was a missionary in the church and we grew up really doing service projects in the community through the church. And now, in retrospect, I realized that it really had an impact on my life. When I was drying up, I thought I wanted to be an attorney. And so I went to college, did pre law But then I'm going to intern with a non-profit and I realized that being an attorney did not give me any joy. I did an internship with this nonprofit called advocacy resource center for housing. And I had to mediate between landlords and tenants who were being evicted. And I got to work with a lot of attorneys and the way attorneys work is there is no. Right way or wrong way. There is only the law. And I discovered that in that process, and I realized I didn't want to be an attorney, but really what spoke to my heart? What reminded me of my childhood, what reminded me of what my mom taught me was working on the non-profit side. So since that day I have been hooked on this journey.
Carol: And we're certainly grateful for all the work that lawyers do, especially in policy and helping laws get revised, et cetera. But I love the, your, your point about it. Didn't bring me joy, like, okay. How do you “Marie Kondo” your career and the fact that you did it from the very beginning from your very first. Job and an internship that really was a pivotal moment for you. I'd love that. Yes.
Sabrina: Save me a lot of time and a lot of money. Let me just say right.
Carol: I mean, to have done it before, you're going to law school yeah. Too many people wake up 10 years later and go wait a second. What am I doing?
Sabrina: Exactly. So I'm very, very appreciative of the process.
Carol: Yes. Yes, definitely. So you focus on helping non-profits be more successful in their fundraising efforts and a lot of folks when they're new to the sector, whether they're staff or a staff leader or board member, and probably myself too - I'm not a fundraising person - are afraid of fundraising. They don't want to ask people for money. It feels awkward. What helps make it feel less scary for folks?
Sabrina: Well, I think helping people understand that the fundraising process is more than making the ask. The ask is only about 5% of the fundraising process. And so I tell people don't let that 5%, Deter you from, from the whole thing. So 20% of fundraising is really identifying and qualifying who the donors are, do these donors, does my mission resonate with them? Are they passionate about kids - if I happen to service kids. Are they passionate about animals or the homeless or. Whatever it is your non-profit does. And then saying, okay, if they're passionate about my cause now, do they have the ability to financially support my calls? And then once you identify it, that's like 20% of the fundraising process. So now you have your list of the names of people who, having an affinity to origin of mission and have the ability to give towards your mission the next 60%.
And that's the highest percentage of the pie, 60% is cultivation and cultivation is building relationships. And personally, I like that. People and I like building relationships. So building relationships means taking them out to lunch. It means picking up the phone and checking on them. It means inviting them to an event, and making sure that you connect with them at that event. It's inviting them in to volunteer for a specific program or having them come in on a tour of your nonprofit. That's the part that I really like and stuff. I really appreciate that as 60% of the fundraising process. Because if you are a social butterfly, you really like that part. Even if you're not a social butterfly, my introverts also Excel at that part because they actually listen. They can build those relationships and they remember those details. And then 5% is the ask and that's. Oh, it is. And then most of the time, especially with board members, I always say a lot of board members are not going to feel comfortable with the ask, even that 5%. So I always say board members come along with me on the visit for the ask. But what I want you to do is be there to land credibility, because you are a volunteer and. They know that you are volunteering your time. Whereas I'm a staff person. I get paid to do this job. I get paid to perform this mission. So I will make the ask, even if it still makes me nervous, even if that 5% still makes me nervous and it does 20 something years later I will do that part. And uttering that phrase. Will you consider a gift of $10,000 to our ABC nonprofit? Once you say that. You be silent. Right. And I always say the first person who speaks, loses so just be silent. And then beyond that, 15% is thanking, thanking the donor, making sure they understand the impact that their money provided, making sure they understand how that program affected individuals in your clientele roster? So that's the whole fundraising process and I think people still get a little caught up on that 5%. Like I said, I still get nervous, but one of the mantras that I would tell myself before I went into any fundraising ask, It was always, this is not for me. This is not for Sabrina. This is for the kids that I serve because I worked in a youth serving organization. This is for the kids that I serve. They deserve to have the best. They deserve to have opportunities. They deserve to have hope. And you're going in here on their behalf because they cannot. Speak for themselves. So I remove myself from the conversation because all of that nervousness and fear is really about self and you're not there for yourself. You're there for your client. And for those that, you're the reason why you are in this mission. The reason why, if you're a founder, why you started this. So that's one of the mantras that I tell myself as I go into the room. That's a great reminder. Cause it, all, yeah, all that nervousness and how will, how will it come across and what will they, is all caught up in, what will they think of me? And, and so, yeah. So removing yourself out of the equation, reminding yourself, going back to the original question of why do you do this work? Why, what motivates you? Why did you choose to work in this particular organization? All of those things to reconnect you with the mission.
Carol: That is what the person's contributing to anyway, right? Yeah, they may be handing it to you. It may be in the, in the, in the before times, but they're, they're really about supporting that organization and the work it's doing. So you talked about different percentages and the first one being identifying and qualifying possible donors. For someone who's getting started in this. Maybe they've had some, most organizations will be doing something around fundraising, but maybe they haven't really been strategic about it or been really super intentional. Where would you S what, where would you say you should start in terms of thinking about who might be those folks that ultimately would end up on that list to start being qualified as donors.
Sabrina: So one of the exercises that I like to do is I like to do this thing called a list generator. They have the circle of influence and the circle or the sphere of influence. And the sphere of influence is where you draw a little circle and it's you, and then you put spokes off and you identify like. People that, that one for me, doesn't give me enough details. I happen to serve on a board of directors and it is really funny because of my experience in nonprofit. And that's one of the things that I did was like, okay, so we need to we, we, we have this event coming up and we need to get some sponsors. So can you write down different people? And my mind went totally. Blank. And I thought this is how board members feel. Got it. Got it. So it's always nice to have a tool called a list generator. And this list generator is a tool that I use in his front and his back. And basically it says name two people that you are in a service club with name to people that you attend church with name two people that are in law enforcement. Name two people that are elected officials and the list goes on and on and on. And so about the time you finished with that list, you have about 25 names, right? And so then from that 25 names, you can narrow it down and say, okay, of these people who have an affinity towards this mission, who do I think our mission resonates with. So that's one of the ways that you can do it. And then another way that I like to do it once you have those names, I still read the newspaper and I still look at magazines and things like that. And a lot of times non-profits will do the, thank you, post an event and I still scour those and I still look at them and see, okay, who sponsored this event, who, who who's involved in this, because that also helps me generate names and not only generate names, it helps with the affinity part because now not only do I have their name and it might be a name that's on my list. But I also know that they have the ability to give and they, and they have given in the past. So I use those two methods and I encourage boards to use those methods because even if you only have three board members, if it's three board members and you each walk away with 25 names, that's 75 people that you have to vet and go through. And so that's a good pool of people. And if you're lucky to have a CRM system, then I say, go to your CRM system and see who your last donors were, who were your most loyal donors, who's giving the longest and start from that process.
Carol: CRM being customer relations, management, and database thing. One thing that I loved about how you described that process is how you made it so concrete instead of just a blank sheet of paper, and think of the people you gave us all sorts of different categories. And even if someone didn't have two people to put in one specific category that would probably get them to think. Let's say, I don't know anyone in law enforcement, but I think who else works with law enforcement, but I know, this person who is the head of the hospital or whatever it might be in the community, it really, by being concrete, you help people spark the ideas and, and. shift out of that.
Sabrina: I had a blank piece of paper and what am I supposed to do with it? And then what is funny because this, that was my first thought as a board member, I couldn't believe it. And then you also have those that think, well, I don't, you tell them to give names and you talk about fundraising or sponsorships. And one of the first thoughts is also, well, I don't know anybody that's rich, or I don't know, I don't know anyone or, but when you give them that piece of paper with some ideas on it, it starts to generate another conversation and you start to put people on there that you hadn't even thought of. So it's good to give board members and staff members only about staff members. If you have staff members you can go through that process with them as well.
Carol: And you said the next, the next really, and the biggest chunk of the whole process is the cultivation process. And when people hear relationship building and they hear cultivation, they think, oh, but it's all about fundraising. They may still feel a little anxious about it. Well, is this really just transactional? And am I just trying to get something out of someone? So how do you help people really be authentic and how they're building relationships with folks?
Sabrina: It's funny that you asked that question because I had someone to ask that question as well, and I told them, look, you're a nonprofit. They already know you're coming. Yeah, there is no way around it. Just accept that they know that you're a non-profit and that's not a bad thing. I said people should have one or two reactions when they see you. If you're working with a nonprofit, they should like, oh my God, here, she comes. She's going to ask me for something or, oh my God, here she comes. Let me think about what I can give her. Those are these reactions because they should have. It's not a bad thing again, because you're not asking. Meaning for yourself, they are truly identifying you with the mission of the organization in the night. Oh my God, here she comes. What is she gonna ask me for, for herself? It's like, what is she going to ask me for, for her organization? And so it really is As a nonprofit, they genuinely know that you are in the fundraising business. They know that you are developing a relationship with them in order to not as a genuine relationship, but it's also in order to support the work that you do. And I've had some very great relationships that have developed through that process. In 2018, I got diagnosed with cancer and I had been working with my organization for about 20 years and all of my donors came together. These people that I had built relationships with over time and they all pulled together and they sent me a $20,000 check and I did not ask for that. And that was for Sabrina to help with her medical bills. And that was because of their relationships that I had built with them. But when I go out and I take donors, potential donors out and get to know them, it's not necessarily always talking about the organization. It really is learning about their family, learning what they're passionate about, learning about their career. But not what college date they went to, trying to find some of those common grounds? I just enjoy learning about people. And I think that if you go to the table with that in mind, I want to learn about you as a person, then that will also come across. it's not, I want to learn about you as a person, just so you can support me.
My nonprofit, most of the time, what I do is, and I guess maybe this is some tricks, not tricks, but this is, this is some things that I've done that have helped bridge that. So if I invite you out for lunch, I'm going to pay, I don't care if you're worth millions of dollars. That doesn't matter to me. I am going to pay because I extended the invitation to you. The other one is If I, if I am listening and I realize, oh, this person collects horses or this person collects shoes or whatever it is, if I'm out of town or if I see something that I think you might like, I will buy that for you and I will make sure that you get it right. So it's those little things like that. And also another thing that I do is I always go to the table to see how I can be of service first. That is a G that is a true key to it. How can I be a service to this person first? And lots of times that really smooth the process because when I'm at a mixer or I go to lunch with somebody, I'm, I'm constantly listening to what it is that they're doing and what they're passionate about. And I see how I can be a service to them.
Carol: I love that point about listening and really keying into, what's important to them looking at thinking about it from their point of view, what are, what are other interests that they have that, that you can, and then to remember those right, and, and to take the time, be thoughtful enough to. As you said, if you're, if you see something or send them something related to that, so that they know that you, that you care and you took the time to, to pay attention to them as an, as a unique individual.
Sabrina: Yes. Yes. Even if they don't give, you can spend a lot of time and cultivation and ultimately they might not be in alignment for them. That's okay. You do not sever the relationship. You continue with the relationship because there, your relationship is with that person, not with their ATM card. No, that's very important to remember
Carol: For sure. One thing that's interesting from your background is that I think a lot of people think, well, fundraising is easy in New York or Silicon valley where there's these massive cons for DC, I'm in the DC area. Were these, just these massive concentrations of wealth. But you spearheaded a really large comprehensive capital campaign in one of the poorest counties in the U S so I'm curious how you were able to be successful in that situation.
Sabrina: Well, I God, That's what I say, but no, it was, it really was having the right people on the, on the bus and having the right team behind you. So, it was really interesting with that $12 million capital campaign. I had a board of about 17. Board members. But my capital campaign was really five people. And four of them were not board members. I had one board member that was on that capital campaign committee. But the other four people were really just the good team identifying those in the community that were already very, very philanthropic. Right. So having those people and cultivating those people. It took about a couple years to cultivate those people and, and make them aware of who we were and make them aware of our services.
And so we started out, inviting them in, on a tour going in and with a board member and, and making introductions and talking to them, joining some of the same social clubs that they joined, a lot of them. Two of them, half of them, were Rotarians. So joining the rotary club and getting really active there so that they could see the work ethics so they can learn who you are as well. So it took about two years to cultivate that team of people that I really wanted to have as the capital campaign committee. And so that, that was really how we, how it was done. It was thinking very strategically. And saying, okay, who do I want? As my capital campaign team, and I had to look and see who, when you think of especially in a small community, when you think of philanthropy in that community, What name keeps rising up over and over and over again. Now having said that, that everybody is after those same people, right? So now how do you set yourself apart from everybody else? And, and that was one of the strategies, cultivate them, invite them in, but also be in the same circle that they're in. Again, if they're heavily involved in rotary, you get involved in rotary. If they're heavily involved in the chamber, you'll get involved in the chamber. It's almost like social stalking. But it is so that they get to know you on a whole nother level.
Carol: Right. Because they're looking for your competence. Do they have confidence in you that you can talk about a wonderful mission and it sounds great, but do they, do they trust that you'll be able to make that vision happen? I do a lot of strategic planning and of course organizations are oftentimes through a process coming up with a big vision that then they're like, oops, how are we going to, how are we going to fund this? So What, what do you say in terms of getting started in terms, just in terms of building a fundraising strategy, you talked about the different phases, but I'm wondering about what some of the first steps for coming up with a good plan are?
Sabrina: So I think one of the first steps of coming up with a good plan is it's always amazing to me. How many nonprofits, especially the newer nonprofits now just winging it as far as the budget is concerned. And so I'm like, look guys, It's a guesstimation, especially in your first year, right? It is how much revenue do you anticipate bringing in and breaking that down as in. Okay, so I'm going to do a peer to peer campaign and it's going to bring in this much, I'm going to do an event and it's going to bring in this much. I'm going to budget this much for grants. Okay. Okay. And then have your expenses. The expenses are generally a little bit more concrete than that than your revenues, right? So what your expenses are, and then you're going to work your butt off to hit those revenues. And if you don't hit those revenues, then you have to adjust your expenses. Something has to go. So having an operating budget in place would be one of the first strategies that I say that you need to have. And then beyond that, I think that Nonprofits need to be innovative in their pursuit of different revenues. And when I say innovative I hate that nonprofits get on that specially vent wheel. I want them to get off that wheel so bad of jumping from one event to the next event. To the next event, because that's really not getting you anywhere, especially about a time you factor in hours, board, our staff hours, all of these things. So I always tell them to have maybe two signature events figure out what your signature events are. And the first year, of course, you're not gonna. Raise a huge amount.
But as you, as you move forward, you will improve the event and you will continue around the innovation specifically, though. I think that people need to look at social enterprise. They need to be looked at, depending on what state you’re in, and of course I'm in the great state of Texas and we're a little bit more loosey goosey down. Yeah. Y'all seen our rules, they got that tight on. So we can do a lot more things than others. look at bingo revenue. Look at, like I said, a social enterprise looking at how you can do some type of business partnership as well. As far as sharing the credit. And that's when businesses can designate a part of their credit card processing fees to a nonprofit. So look and be innovative, explore some of those innovative things that you can do that will help you towards your revenue. So don't get stuck in the traditional and the mundane because that traditional, most of the time, people. We'll go to the special event and Vince can be very straining on time and on budget.
Carol: Yeah. And, and off too often, I think Organizations, if they really factor in all the work that goes into producing that event they may have had a nice number on their gross revenue raised, but the net doesn't look as pretty,
Sabrina: It does not look as pretty, especially by the time you factor in all those hours. Yeah. So yeah. I would do no more than two signature events, if I can get anything out there, no more than two signature events, that's it.
Carol: So in the last year, obviously a lot of fundraisers have really relied on those face to face events. And of course, couldn't, couldn't do those. What kinds of innovations have you seen over the past year as people have had to pivot.
Sabrina: Well, I've seen I attended a lot of virtual events. Of course I attended them just kind of, I guess I'm a stalker. I stopped a lot of virtual events. And I saw people do some really creative things. I think some type of hybrid events are here to stay. I hope they're here to stay because they're less, the cost is less to put on a virtual event and you can still even engage. If a celebrity, if that's who you want to engage, you can engage them. At a much lower cost because it is virtual and there's no flight involved. There's no hotel involved. It might be a discount, a speaking fee because it is virtual. I saw one local nonprofit that raised money for scholarships. They actually bought in a comedian from Saturday night, live home. Yes. And I thought that that was. Great. Cause it's kinda right there, you live where you get to laugh, you get to the end. And not only that, they also partnered with the local restaurant so that everybody received the delivery of some wine and like let's just say wine and a meal. So everybody was enjoying their wine and meal at home while they got to listen to this comedian. And I thought that that was good. I liked the concerts as well. So things like that. I think that hybrid is, like I said, I think that some form of hybrid is here to stay. As long as the donors will support it. I tend to appreciate not having to get up off my couch and go somewhere. That's just me though. So we'll see how it goes. But I will say at the same time, just this past week I went to two different events. Because even though I enjoy the virtual world, there is something about getting out, people are ready to get out. But I think that the pendulum has swung and it will come back to where you can do some hybrid things that people are very used to now.
Carol: Yeah. Even before I'm thinking of this, it wasn't a fundraising event, but it was a conference where I was on staff with the organization and it was a big conference and they had a fair, a good budget for, for really. Premiere speakers and, one year the person that they had lined up something happened either with their travel or something with their family. They weren't able to show up. They got them on the equivalent of zoom at that time. That was several years ago, and had them up on the big screen. And honestly, because it was such a big event for most people, they were looking at the JumboTron, you, even if the person was in the front of the room, if they had been in front of the room.
Sabrina: So, they probably had a better seat.
Carol: They probably had a better view? And it had a different feel. Yeah. It was very interesting to see. So yeah, it gives you, it gives you access. So even if all of your local people, you want to have come and gather and be able to socialize face to face, if you think about that, you can. You could. potentially pull in someone with a little higher profile that you wouldn't be able to afford normally.
Sabrina: Exactly. Yes. And they wouldn't say yes. And then on top of that, you will also put a pool in some additional donors. Like I said, I attended a lot of virtual events and none of them were necessarily in my backyard. They were on the east coast or west coast or somewhere in between. And I would not have had that opportunity to do that, had it not been virtual. So I think it's a good thing. I hope it is here to stay. Like I said, I hope it's here to stay only because of the cost factor for nonprofits and saving on the staff hours and, and all those things that go into those events I think would be a good thing for nonprofits. And I think, I had a donor that used to tell me, don't buy me that plat, that just put the money towards the mission. I hope that at some point we will. donors will say, what, y'all need to hold that in-person event. Let's do this hybrid to save some money for the mission. it might become a standard like that. So we'll just have to wait and see, the world is constantly changing. So we just go with, go with the flow.
Carol: Yeah. And I mean, having produced a lot of virtual events, not necessarily fundraising events, I wouldn't want. Organizations to, to think, I think from an hours point of view, it's pretty equal in terms of the planning and all of that, that has to go into it. But the direct cost is substantially different. Cause you're so right. You may cater from a restaurant, have people deliver some food, but. you're not paying for hotel space in a ballroom and all of that. So yeah.
Sabrina: Yeah, so that directs their direct cost which is a lot less, the centerpiece is the linen, the napkins, the plates,
Carol: You don't have to worry about it.
Sabrina: And then the cleanup afterwards, God forbid, you don't have to deal with any of that.
Carol: At the end of each episode, I play a game where I ask folks one icebreaker question. I've got one for you here. Okay. If you could be famous, what would you want to be famous for?
Sabrina: if I could be famous what would I want to be? If I could be famous, I would want to be famous for curing cancer because I've had that journey. And I know a lot of people who are having that journey and it's not something I wish on my worst enemy. So it would, it just seems like it seems like more and more people are having that experience. And I think that that would really truly impact the world in a positive way.
Carol: It sure would, no doubt. No doubt about it. What are you excited about? What's coming up for you in your work? What's emerging?
Sabrina: What's coming up for me and my work is, I am in October holding a summit and I will be launching that pretty soon, but what I really want people to, to, to leave with people is to join my Facebook group is called nonprofit professionals exchange. And I live there every Thursday. And I do like 30 minutes to an hour coaching, free coaching based on the questions that they post in the group. So again, and I share in that group, I share a lot of free content. And every day at two o'clock in my group, a free tool pops up every day. No doubt about it. There is a free tool out there. I remember being a CEO of an organization and not having time to research because you're wearing so many hats. So that's one of the reasons why I started this group. I'm going to do the research for you. Here you go, come to one central location, find that, that information. So you don't have to go down. I call it the Google rabbit hole. You don't have to go down the Google rabbit hole.
Carol: We'll put a link in the show notes to that group so people can find it. And that's, and as you talked about, I mean, you talked about from the beginning what got you into this work was an ethic of service and approaching fundraising from that point of view, and then sounds like how you're approaching this work as well. So I really appreciate it. Thank you. All right. Well, thanks a lot. It's been great talking to you. Thank you.
I appreciated how Sabrina reflected on her experience as a board member and how that experience made her a better fundraising consultant. When she was asked to ‘think of 20 people’ to reach out to – she went blank. So now instead when she is working with a board, she has very specific prompts that help spark people’s thinking. I also appreciated her point – that when you are with a nonprofit and you are getting in touch with people in the community – they know….they know you have to fundraise and if they are working on connecting with you and building a relationship that part of it will be about how you might be able to support the work of the organization. They know you are coming! So with that in mind, it is easier to put that concern aside.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Sabrina Walker Hernandez as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed the episode, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Until next time!
In episode 25 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Kristin Bradley-Bull discussed include:
Kristin Bradley-Bull’s tagline says it all: “Illuminating your vision. Extending your vast roots and branches to get there.” She runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, NC. At Roots to Canopy, Kristin consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. She does the same in her coaching practice: supporting people to crystalize their vision and orient toward their North Star – as non-profit leaders and as humans. Kristin loves people, justice, organizations and movements, and transformation on all levels. Her background includes co-founding a training and leadership non-profit, being a full-time public health faculty member, and consulting (20 years+) with organizations ranging from multilaterals to grassroots social justice groups.
Important Guest Links: The book mentioned during the show is Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant
Information on the size of the nonprofit sector in the US:
Divorcing White Supremacy Culture website http://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Kristin Bradley Bull. Kristin runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, North Carolina where she works with nonprofits to illuminate your vision, extending your vast roots and branches to get there She consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. Kristin and I talk about how strategic planning processes when done well can actually enliven everyone involved and help reconnect them with their “why” and their purpose in doing the work they do. We explore how the stories organizations tell about themselves are alive and evolving as new people come into the organization. How they can sometimes keep people out – even unintentionally. And how organizations – especially white led organizations – need to really listen deeply to the stories of the people and the communities they work in and focus on relationship building instead of just jumping to the next new initiative.
Welcome Kristin. Welcome to the podcast.
Kristin Bradley-Bull: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here, Carol. Thanks for the invite.
Carol: So just to get us started and, and to give some context for the conversation, what would you say drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Kristin: I would say that my life is really wrapped up in being extremely curious about people and about non-profits and really. Trusting that there is a big why or big purpose for each of them. Right. And, finding that or reframing that is really important and is an ongoing process. So I know for me that my why has changed over time and it's important for those conversations to happen. And so I just love that I get to work as a consultant and a coach at those really juicy places for people and organizations. So yeah, I feel really honored and humbled to be. To be witness to that process and where possible to be a support in those processes.
Carol: For me, one of the favorite things about working with organizations for me is when I get to help people reconnect with the why of why they're in the organization, why they're doing the work. And because so often, the day-to-day the deadlines, the, the grant reports that everything that everyone has to work on, you can lose sight of that and be able to help everyone articulate why they do the work that they do and what connects them, what, what, why are they excited about it? Why are they passionate about it? It's just fun to see people read about the hard work that most organizations are tackling.
Kristin: Totally agree with you. And I know that you and I both do a lot of work in the strategy realm and. I think a lot of organizations go into those processes, really feeling like we have to do this. This is something we do every once in a while. We're going to come out with some big old report or hopefully they're not thinking about the report anymore, but anyway, whatever it is, some deliverable. And like you said, what a good process like that does actually is enliven. Right. Help people open their eyes to what's possible and get, get that zest and commitment back for the work. So, yeah, there's so much, there's so much there to cultivate and bring forward which is mostly done by the organization itself. And at least speaking for myself, I am mostly just a midwife or a doula in that process.
Carol: I like the phrase of a midwife or a doula. I've been thinking of it sometimes as I'm acting as a sheep dog, but that doesn't really put my clients in a good position in terms of being the sheep. So I don't really mean that, but it's more like I'm going to. Nudge over here and nudge over there and we're going to have to go in this direction, but we're all doing it together and we're going to get there and always trusting, like trust. It's okay. We're going to get there. It may feel messy right now, but we're going to get there.
Kristin: We all have to want it wilderness. Right. It's part of the process. And that's also prior to thinking of the storytelling, right. That there's nothing wrong with wandering in the wilderness. It's necessary for us. As people and as organizations to have those periods of time. So that's because they're really fruitful. They lead to huge discoveries.
Carol: Yeah. And, and thinking about that work that you and I both do, helping organizations and groups really surf at their, their visions, their aims, and then, and then come, work towards coming to agreement to a path forward, in a way that they're going to try to get there. One of the things that often happens in that process is sharing and reframing stories. it could be sharing the story of a founding of the organization and then. sharing that with newer participants, but then what meaning are they making of it? It might be, sharing stories of joy, triumph, wandering in the wilderness that you just talked about. It might be sharing stories of misunderstanding and hurt. I mean, lots of stories get told through these processes. And, and how have you seen this process of sharing and reframing show up in your work?
Kristin: That's a great question. I would say that there, first of all, that stories and history are alive, right? So they're constantly changing. And we need to allow them to change and acknowledge when they're changing. Right. And how they're changing, not making that some sort of magic trick and never to be mentioned. But the idea that the history of an organization or history in general is alive, I think is really important.
Because it allows us to evolve, right? And to see the same situation with fresh eyes. And of course that's what some of the newer folks coming into organizations often do. Right. Or, or people on the outside looking in to organizations do that. A new board member can say Okay, well, that's so interesting. Thank you for telling me that story. And it sounds like this is how you interpret that story. I interpret that story from my vantage point. I interpret that story a different way. Right? And someone like a new board member or a new executive director may be taking over for a founder, which of course is as a particularly important and challenging role that the.
There is a, there is the opportunity to really, as you said, reframe at that time and to say, like some of the stories of grand success, viewed from a current lens are not as successful. Right. And some of those pain points are, have actually been absolutely essential for the organization to get to where it is now, or for me to, as a new, a new ed to even get in the door, let's say I'm a person of color and there, and it's an organization serving primarily working primary, not serving on. So, I don't like that word, but working primarily in black and brown communities. That’s what has changed in the story, is partly what has allowed those, those leaps and bounds forward to happen. And so when we talk about. When we talk about stories to me, it's just really important that they be alive and that we constantly be examining, what is this? What's the, what is the, what is the juice in this story now? How does that tell us about our past and how can that inform our future? So I think there's a lot there that can be mined over time and that there are ways that stories invite people in. To the organization. And there are ways that stories keep people out. So for us all, to be really mindful about how that all works and what the opportunities are to extend the circle so that we have more and more perspectives and more and more stories that actually serve, serve us, moving into. Service in the present moment and moving toward the next present moment.
Carol: Back in college, I was a history major. And so one of the things that I really appreciated, maybe beginning at that time which is at this point is pretty much ancient history and, and but, but more and more so in, in the present is people's greater awareness of. I feel like history used to be in this could be, history at the big level, but then history at the organizational level too used to be seen as a fixed thing. And, there was an objective history and the understanding and appreciation now of how. There was someone telling that history and they had a particular point of view and a particular experience of it. And so then what are all the other stories that need to be told as well?
Kristin: Yeah. That whole idea that history is written by the so-called winner. Right? I think that's all wrapped up in what you're talking about. And one certainly of the primary opportunities for so many nonprofits is to, and especially ones that are white led is to really. Start listening a lot more, especially if they're working. Well, and not just white led organizations, but organizations generally also to listen more deeply to stories right. From the communities that they are a part of, or not as much a part of as they wish that they were because that's, that's where so much wisdom. Wisdom rests. And it is in storytelling that many learnings, many examples of resilience and creativity and perseverance live and live actively. And I think one of the things that is. Really important to think about for organizations, their leaders, and me and you, hopefully, all of us is to think about the fact that from, what we know from.
Let's say what, let's just say from science. Well, we know from science that neural pathways are really important and what we focus on grows, right? That's what we're learning about. The brain, what we focus on grows. And so. There's been super interesting science around that, like what fires together, wires together in terms of neurons and all of that thing. And I have no expertise in this arena. So I'm just saying that sort of as a general idea. And so when we hold on to stories that are particularly negative, that are no longer serving us as a learning, as an area of learning. Then those stories actually hold us back. Right. We develop a rut, we go around that same track and we develop a rut. And so it's really important to, for us to think as an organization, as individuals, what are the stories. That is, they can be really tough stories and they're still serving us, right. Because they're helping us, they're helping propel us into perhaps an uncomfortable, but important way forward. So there are those stories, but then there are the stories that have basically outlived their purpose and we really need to be examining how to, and, and practicing how to move away from those stories. So that we don't get stuck, so many organizations are stuck. And so I think there's a lot to think about relative to our own stories. And also, as you said, the stories that we have are absorbed from that, whoever the teller of the story was, and whether that teller is, is still relevant and important for us, our organizations, our communities now is it's an important question.
Carol: And I think people often think about that dynamic at the individual level. Like what do I need to let go of the stories about, that, that, or the maxims that maybe I've learned over time, or think that, I act in a certain way. And so I need to let go of this, that or the other, but I don't feel like Folks, never necessarily think about it. When it's a whole group of people working together towards, towards something. Can you, can you give me an example of what you're talking about?
Kristin: So I think a lot of what organizations, and especially within white supremacy culture think, well, this is how we've always done it. And there are reasons why we've done it. They have a whole narrative around why, right? Why do we do it this way and we don't do it that way? We tried it, it didn't work, all that thing. And especially when new people come in, either on the board or on staff or volunteers or other community members and they have, they have an idea and they're told, We already tried that it didn't work or, whatever, there are those, there are those stories. And so I think the opportunity is really to unpack all of that and say, why, why are, why are we thinking this? Why? Why do we stick to this particular, particular approach? And there are times when they're going to conclude that there are good reasons for that and they can, they should be in genuine conversation, authentic conversation with other folks about that. If they make those choices. But I think the trick is that especially in, white dominant culture kinds of circles, the trick is. That there's just such a big echo chamber. Right. And so it's really hard to get away from those stories. And so I think for organizations to become more violent, all right. Again, as you said, there's, there's a lot of work being done on the individual level, right. To Brene Brown and all of these folks who are, talking about research on vulnerability. And Brene Brown and those folks are also now talking about vulnerability within organizations too.
Right? So that's not it, it's not just on an individual level, but there are so many chances for us to think and open up to other possibilities and to be humble about what we don't know. Right. And what other. Other individuals, other communities, other organizations can potentially help us learn. Right. And so I think I have the chance to be in authentic dialogue with people with no particular. Prescribed outcome, right? That relationship building and the sharing of stories within an organization or within a community. But those kinds of things really open up a lot of possibilities for us that we were just not aware of. Most organizations really benefit from that porousness just like individuals do. Right. I might say all organizations do, but I'll say at least most. And we can, we can go far with, with those possibilities and we have to recognize that all of this takes time. Right? So part of this is just oftentimes slowing it down. We're not, we're not hearing one another stories with the intention that we are immediately going to shift that into our newest project that our organization is going to launch. We're actually developing relationships. So, and hearing stories and hearing old stories, freshly I'm hearing new stories so that we can begin to think about where we can Best show up as an organization which may be where we've shown up before, but it could also be other places and spaces. And so to really give time and space for that. And of course, one of the paradoxes of our time is that there's great urgency for change. We are in the midst of a huge era of change on multiple levels, I think. And there is the temptation of rushing and rushing tends to bypass. As we hear from many people of color, rushing tends to bypass a lot of what's really foundational to true change. And so if an organization really wants to invest in being part of, Broader change work then often slowing things down is an important and important way to be, as it is an important stance. In other words, an important posture, but it's, it's, it's, it's both and right there is urgency and there is the need for stillness and openness and listening and being very attentive to who we're listening to.
Carol: Yeah, there were a lot, a lot, a lot of things in that that I want to follow up on. Yeah, I think that, that temptation and I would say even it's, it's more than a temptation, it's like a cultural imperative in our society to always be running faster than you can possibly run. And the, and the scarcity that, that, that Has baked into the, the nonprofit sector.
It seems challenging even to slow down enough to do a pretty traditional strategic planning process or other planning process. And then to, and I think people get anxious and nervous if it's wow, you want me to talk to all these different people? And we're going to have all these voices. It's just going to be this cacophony of opinions. How on earth are we going to synthesize it and come to some agreement? And, and yet as you've said, I think, and you've talked about that, those ruts that, that organizations get in, and I can even think about that like we got to hurry up and do it yesterday. A sense of urgency. That we also are in this rut of, putting a bandaid on things versus really looking to how can we imagine a really different whatever it might be for whatever, whatever Mission the organization is focused on and then there's their mission within a broader system usually to even take the time, to think about, what could be different from what is right now, it's easy to not always easy. It's often that way, but it's easier. I think, to identify the challenges, the problems, all the ways in which the system is broken. But I think it's really challenging for folks to even imagine what might, what could be the more positive possibility.
Kristin: Okay. Yeah. I completely agree with you and yeah, and again, just like you said, what I said, I, there are many ways to many different threads there to pick up on. So I think the piece around urgency culture is essential to the conversation, right? So I have this, I have this piece of paper that I have written on geologic. It says geologic time, right? So what it says is the universe is 13.8 billion years old, Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and humans have been here for about 10,000 years. That's the equivalent of 12 seconds.
[Kristin clarified that the 10,000 years mention refers to the period of time during which humans began to produce food, form large communities, and make significant change to the planet itself.]
Kristin: The reason why I think this is helpful is one, we're just a very young species, right. And we are. We're children, as a species, it's still children. And so we have a huge amount of responsibility and we can see that obviously, and sort of what our environmental situation is. We can see that in many different arenas. So there is urgency. And we don't have all the tools in the sense of everything already having been created. We're in a, we're in a period of great reckoning and, and great possibility. And there's precariousness in that, right? Because we aren't over the, at all. We are not at all over the crest of the hill to mix a metaphor. And so. We, I think the idea of. Especially for service oriented organizations that they've, that's where they've, that's where they've always put their emphasis. We know that there is a need on those levels. But the idea that there are many ways that we're not working ourselves at all out of the, out of the need for a service. A nonprofit service oriented sector, because we are not, as you said, addressing the systems level issues and how can one of those organizations slow down enough to have an opportunity to even, think beyond the fact that we, we have people, we have people sleeping on the doorstep, waiting for, waiting for shelter, food, et cetera.
And of course, all of these things, to me, bring us to bigger questions around how late stage capitalism and the patriarchy and white supremacy culture, or, sort of collude to keep things exactly like this, that serve a very small percentage of humanity. And I would say ultimately they don't serve any of humanity because there's so much. There's so much loss for everyone and separation for everyone. And perhaps it's mentioned here, there’s a new website called divorcing white supremacy culture that looks a lot at white supremacy, what white supremacy has done to white people, as well as to people of color, you know? So there are there's loss, there's so much loss, being so separate. And so I think that whole question around how to create space away from, how to shift from. Urgency enough to have space for being creative and thinking about the possibilities is essential, or we're just going to be on the same hamster wheel forever. Right. And I think that some of the movement building that's been happening for black lives matter, et cetera, where there's much more of a focus on sustainability. Like how does this work sustainable? How do we take care of ourselves? And one another on multiple levels gives, those kinds of, and there are many nonprofits that are shifting more and more in those ways. And I think there are black and brown nonprofits that have been like that forever. And some, some white nonprofits, white led nonprofits to black and brown lib nonprofits, maybe I think being in the lead, but where there is the sense that yes we are, we are. Handing out bags of groceries, et cetera. And we have to be thinking about what else is possible here.
We want to think in terms internally for our organization, we want to live in our organization in a way that we're what we're trying to manifest externally beyond the walls of our organization. We need to manifest internally because if we're whole, then that supports the wholeness of the broader community. Right. And so. I think even things, very basic things that seem impossible were made possible or suddenly possible during COVID. Right. So we have to take all those learnings forward with us and those stories of how we did things that we thought our organization could never do. And I don't mean the heroic things. I mean, the internal thing I had her OIC is also not a thing, but I mean, the internal things like.
We realized that our staff was totally burned out and we found ways to give people way more time off or to change our policies on how people work. people working from home, which works for some people doesn't work for other people. Right. like all of these kinds of things, like a lot is possible. And if we tell the stories of what we do in times of hardship, those are the stories of what is possible and what creativity and courage lent us to create new things. Then again, the end of COVID does not mean the end of those things. It just means, oh, we figured out that we're even stronger and there are more possibilities than we thought, and let's continue, continue to work in that direction. So as we think about not getting back on the hamster wheel, are we going to devote a certain percentage of our time to. Systems work, even if we are in a service arena, are we, if we're not going to do that, how can we at least support those efforts of our colleague activists and other organizations and how they're pursuing those things? How do we, how do we message around those systems questions with our funders, with our other stakeholders, so that. So that everyone is more engaged in the bigger picture because we have to build the, we have to build the demand, the demand for systems change, and that has to be ongoing. Right. And so the way that we tell those stories, the way that we innovate, the way we take care of one another. Are all parts of that system change process to me among others, right? Those are some of them.
Carol: A couple of different things come to mind. One, I hope it's late stage capitalism. I feel like some people are banking on that and we'll see. But it would be good. It'd be good. Well, we assume it would be good for whatever would come on the other side. But, you talked about what showed up in this last year, how organizations just shifted on a dime in a lot of different ways in ways that they never thought were possible or never had, never had thought about. So they demonstrated it to themselves, their capacity for very fast change. And I've lost my train of thought. There was something else you were talking about. And what were you or were you just saying at the end, but before that?
Kristin: I think we were talking about just this idea that what was possible in COVID is ongoingly possible, right? That people are creative. People are courageous. They're doing, they can, they can, we can take care of one another what we're trying to.
Carol: I feel like in the past there's been this very much an either or either you do systems work or you do direct service. And I even remember there was a book that came out. And I'll have to look it up. It's probably 10 or 15 years ago. That was a study of, what are the most effective non-profits and, and even then their findings were that the organizations that do both that do service that informs their advocacy are really super effective. And then of course, you go to the next level of those, the movement level, where people are approaching that very differently now in terms of it being a network and not so, caught up in individual organizations and being more fluid in how they organize that. And also yeah, just an appreciation for I don't know which generation, the next generation of activists who are really putting care for each other care for themselves care for each other front and center, to be able to to be able to be in it for the long haul.
Because I think part of what I'm thinking about is late stage capitalism, I think. Well, actually in the United States where we have the most extreme version of capitalism and we have the biggest nonprofit sector, I think, we have to check that. But to me, it's that sector was, it's just like a giant band-aid to the wound that capitalism is inflicted on us. So, and I'll stay in it because it's the best bandaid I can find for now.
Kristin: Yeah, it's a big, big, big thing. And you and I could have a whole separate conversation and you could have this conversation with someone way more intelligent and on it than I am, but those questions about the degree to which the nonprofit sector is serving as a band-aid. Right. And. It's the same questions that are really interesting questions in the mutual aid movement, right? So there's as much as possible in mutual aid, right. Sort of grassroots support and person to person, neighbor to neighbor, kinds of support, which really grew a lot during COVID in the United States and, and beyond, and there's a big debate in that community, as I understand it about is this really our job? shouldn't, shouldn't the government be taking care of this. So, and then other people who are this is, this is part of community sovereignty, right? Like community self-help, et cetera. So there are lots of questions around all of that. And certainly in the nonprofit sector, how are we, how are we supporting How are we supporting a system that how are we supporting the larger system that isn't serving a lot of our community members? So I think there are lots and lots of questions and all of that. And some of what I take hope from is that piece around, we have activists and movements who are pushing, right? And so when the more. Traditionally, shall I say, the nonprofit sector is in good dialogue with movement folks. There's lots of zest there, right? There are lots of, there are lots of aha moments.
And so I think we just have to continue again. It's that porousness, it's that sharing of stories that. That helps. And just, as you said earlier, when organizations are doing some, sort of some work in advocacy, they have one foot in the advocacy world and one foot in the direct service world than lots of things are possible because they have they have a more nuanced appreciation of, of of it all and they can make, they can make key choices around how they're using their resources and.
They can tell a lot of stories from multiple perspectives and hopefully as much as possible people speaking for themselves. Right. Rather than others speaking for them. But yeah, there's a lot, there's a lot we could talk about there.
Carol: Yeah. And, and I just want to well, since we're talking about reframing, I just want to put a caveat on my description of the whole sector as a bandaid. To me, that's more a reflection on our economic and other systems, just not working for folks. And so people have tried to step into that void. And, but, but it does come to the question of whose, whose job is it and, and what needs to shift to have less need for all, So that, so that organizations that are trying to end hunger and homelessness and all those things can actually get to those things. Yeah, so, so not denigrating anyone's work cause I'm really glad that there are folks doing it. And that's why I love to work with organizations and help them. Get clear about how they want to move forward. And stepping back, I'm appreciating the questions that the younger generations are asking about the role of the different sectors of our, if you only want to think about it as the economy, but our culture, our economy.
Kristin: absolutely. And we could throw in there, sort of. The power that billionaires have in this country, right. For setting an agenda. So, again, we could have a whole separate conversation about, about all of that, because there are, there are all those questions whose job is this? Do we actually want, who do we want to have this job? Even if it is technically their job, you know? So there are lots of things there, right?
Carol: So as we're starting to see the possible close of this chapter with the pandemic what are you hoping organizations will keep with them from this time as we move forward? And, what have you witnessed people learning? We talked a little bit about that before, but I'm curious about some other examples.
Kristin: The primary piece is that I'm hoping that people keep open to possibilities that they somehow managed to tap into during COVID, so the crisis provides opportunity. I don't say that lightly, because the suffering has been immense and disproportionate. So all of that being said there. That there was so much nimbleness. There was a lot of new collaboration. There was a lot of new thinking, a lot of busting through barriers. Right. And so all of those things I think are really important to keep momentum around and not go back to sleep. Right. be easy just to just let out a big sigh of relief and be okay, wow. Now we can get back to where we were. And, as many people are saying. That is not a, is not possible. And B is not advisable, right. Because what we actually want to do is keep catalyzing. Right. And keep an eye on the big picture. Why are we here? Like we were talking about earlier, why are we here? How, what is our unique, unique role at this time? And how can we make sure that we are. Part of the larger momentum for deeper, deeper solutions, greater sustainability, et cetera.
And so one thing that I think will be important too. And sure what happens in, and this is very specific is that there are a lot more there's a lot more recognition of, of the great possibility as and gift of black and brown executive directors and others and leadership positions. And I think as more of those positions transition out of white leadership, it's really, really important that those leaders get our support, our support, whether we're board members, whether we're other staff members. Whether we are donors, because we know that funding often decreases when black and brown people become executive directors. So anyways, there's lots of specifics like that.
Let us make sure that we give as much trust. And support and even more support because they're working in a racist system to these new, these new, but new, but not new, right? These folks who've been waiting in the wings forever who have been overlooked and bypassed a million times for these positions. So I think that's an example of something that's happening, but we need to, we need to usher it in, in a way that. Support success, like would be done with, with weight leaders and has always been done invisibly with Wade leaders. So I'd say that's an example. I think the work we've been talking about is about where there's more conversation between activists and sort of more. And others in the nonprofits sphere or grassroots activists and people who are nonprofit in the formal nonprofit sphere, as well as grassroots groups that are not 501C3.
There's a lot of, there's a lot of possibility and bringing all those folks into, into conversation, storytelling deep deep consideration of common. Common interests, which is not necessarily the first thing that people recognize, but we have common interests in what I would call, collective liberation. And so, and that looks different in different ways, people might not use that term, but I think that's where w. Where I hope we are heading. And so how can we have those conversations? So being bold, right? Like there are certain, many studies have shown, like even not, not like COVID related, but when, in times where there were political situations did not support did not support a lot of creativity and possibility for nonprofits, the nonprofits that still. Went for it. We're much more successful in getting done what they wanted to do. Then those who like who stepped back and just said, we're going to just, we're going to just shelter in place until the storm has passed. So let's do this thing, right?
Like this is, this is the time we are, we are in a period of momentum and let's just. Let's keep it going. And at the same time, take care of like you and I were talking about taking care of our people, our people being broadly defined, right? Like take care of all the people that are part of this and see this as a long-term this is the long game, right? So we need to do this in sustainable ways.
Carol: What do you feel like you've learned personally through this last year, year and a half?
Kristin: I've learned that I need more time in nature. I've learned that sometimes I need to really step back and make a lot more space for other people. And as a facilitator, that's great, there's a great dance in that, right? What is my role in this very moment? What's not my role? And can I just trust in that more? So I feel like there's been a lot for me this year or 15 months. That's about trusting, trusting in the group. I am. I've had a lot less time alone then I have in the past and because I'm in a pod. And so I have, I have loved that and I also.
I've recognized. I really need more alone time. Like that's really important for my well being. And so the way that I've been able to craft that in the past is it has not been so conscious for me and now I need to, I need it to be much more conscious so that I can make it happen. And It's renewed. My faith in possibility, I, at this time has removed, renewed my faith in possibility, which is very different from what some people would say. But, as we've been talking about, there have been so many things that have had light shined on them, which is absolutely essential for change. There have been amazing steps forward and I am eager to see that continue. And in my little way, be part of that.
Carol: So one of the things that I do at the end of each interview is pull out one of my icebreaker card questions. Since we've been talking about the long-term and the long game and movements and systems. The question I have for you is what are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
Kristin: Oh, my gracious. What a great question. I am most looking forward to - and this is really aspirational - I am most looking forward to greater and greater recognition among people and communities among and across people and communities and really the planet. Of deep interconnection and that the wellness of, of one, it relates to the wellness of all and the Wallace fall relates to the wellness of one. And so I feel like if we can continue to deepen our commitment to that, that unbelievable things are possible.
Carol: And then maybe more, a little bit more in the short term. What, what are you excited about? What's emerging in your work that 's coming up for you?
Kristin: Yeah. I'm really excited to be in conversation with a funder around ways that they can help that they can bring about greater equity in the ways that they operate. Those are the ways that they operate internally and the ways that they operate externally, the way that they relate to their funding partners, what their expectations are of their funding partners, what their expectations are of themselves, and what and how they relate to their community and communities and the ways that they will continue to try to influence the funder world. So that there are more possibilities because of course, this is another. Huge arena that you and I really didn't talk about today, but where funders are within the nonprofit world, funders are a really essential piece of the puzzle and, and they're part of systems change, right? So I love the possibilities and this particular funder is very. Very committed to the work. So I'm super excited about that. And I also really love the opportunity that I have right now to be doing some coaching with some executive directors and some other folks in these kinds of spaces and topics, but also really As we were talking about at the beginning, really diving into what, what is, what is my, why? Meaning there is not mine, but what is, what is my why for now? Like what, what is that? Where's the spark and what is my place in co-creating the world? And so I just always. Gained so much from my clients, both, both the individuals and the organizations and in those realms.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much for bringing your spark to this podcast. It's been great to talk to you. I've really enjoyed the conversation.
Kristin: Thank you so much, Carol. It's been a real pleasure and I really enjoyed listening to your podcasts and look forward to more of your conversations ahead.
Carol: All right. Thank you.
The past year and a half of the pandemic has brought so many reckonings. And I appreciate how it has brought working towards equity front and center in the sector – and how so often the sector has fallen short. It makes me think about the evolution of the sector over the course of my career. When I started working in nonprofit organizations in the 90s after the Reagan Revolution the whole country had shifted to the right and embraced a business mindset. Nonprofits were told to act more like businesses – embrace marketing and branding. There was a push to professionalize so many areas. Masters degrees in nonprofit management were designed and launched. The push to demonstrate impact, measuring success and proving it to funders. For associations it was all about diversification of revenue sources. And now a generation later the conversation has shifted to examining the nonprofit industrial complex and its implications.
So many things assumed to be ‘just how things are’ and part of the water we swim in are being questioned. I welcome this deep examination of the role of the sector in our economy. And I appreciate all the people who have stepped into the void and multiple wounds that our version of capitalism here in the US creates to try and make things better –at the immediate and direct service – helping people in need today as well as those working to imagine how to repair and move systems through policy change and movements. Thanks to everyone and your contributions.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Kristin as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
In episode 24 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Bobbi Russell discussed include:
- Transitioning back to in person
- How nonprofits can make accommodations while working from home
- How investing in systems and organization can help in the long term
Bobbi is an operations executive with 20+ years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for 10+ years. While similar systems and processes can work for many organizations, she sees success when organizations apply solutions that are customized to their culture. She’s really good at understanding the human aspect of how any new system, tool, or process will integrate with an organization’s culture. Earlier in her career, she worked in marketing, membership, strategic communications, and journalism. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Clarion University of PA and an MBA from George Washington University. Her non-work passions include her dog, craft beer, and writing parody songs to entertain friends and family.
Important Guest Links: Contact Us:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Bobbi Russel. Bobbi is an operations executive who works with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own consulting practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for more than 10 years. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Bobbi and I talk about how investing in operations boosts morale and saves your organization time in the long run. What helps staff thrive in a remote work environment, what organizations need to think about as they are thinking about whether they will be heading back into the office and how your organization’s insurance and benefits providers can be partners in supporting your organization’s HR function especially if you are a small organization without a dedicated HR person.
Welcome Bobbi. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Bobbi Russell: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm glad to be here today.
Carol: So I like to start with the question about your motivation for the work that you do. So, what drew you to your work? What motivates you? What would you describe as your, why?
Bobbi: I've worked in the nonprofit community for more than 20 years. And for a large chunk of that was running an organization. And about four years ago, I had the chance to do some consulting. And my, when I think about the why for that, it's a mix of collaboration and independent work. That's a great fit for me. That's on the very tactical level. But also, I get to be a part of many different teams in working with different clients. And it's such a learning exchange of getting to experience different cultures, different ways of operating the different kinds of work. And so in addition to the work that I do, the fulfillment I get from coaching and collaborating with somebody doing direct HR support or helping with operations, I get that fulfillment from other interactions and learning about different cultures and styles.
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that idea of a learning exchange. Cause I, I definitely feel like that when I'm working with clients that it's a partnership and I may be walking them through a similar process that I've walked another group through, but their issues, their team, the personalities, the issue that they're working on, what's going on inside the organization, all of that is new. So I'm always learning and, and I just appreciate that. It just keeps everything really interesting. It does. So, as you mentioned, a lot of your work with organizations revolves around operations, which isn't always the most sexy or exciting thing, or the thing that people actually associate with nonprofit work, but it really is so critical for organizations. In order to achieve their mission. What would you say are some of the benefits of actually investing some time on your, on the organization's operations?
Bobbi: I think one of the biggest benefits is running your nonprofit. Like a business and nonprofits are unique. We have we're mission focused and, and are working for the greater good and investing in that infrastructure. Always save time. We'll save time later. So I like to share with clients, they don't like to have too much process, too much structure. Have a little bit it's, it's good for employee morale because people like to be able to refer to things, to have a good sense of how things are done. It doesn't have to be a 95 page handbook, but some guidelines for how things work. So there's that investment for the organization and saving time and the investment in your team for retention purposes of giving them some structure. So they know what to expect and what they can look for in the future. For me, that's one of the biggest ones, the financial and.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting that you mentioned employee morale because I was working with an organization recently on strategic planning and, and it was an organization that had started with one person and the founder. Who's just very visionary and doesn't need a lot of structure or she has all the processes cause she built them all. And as she's built her team, there was this need to actually get clear about what each person was doing. Get clear about, what is the step-by-step for this process or that process. And, and I think because it wasn't a need for her. She didn't necessarily see it. But once folks said, this is what we need, they were able to identify who in the team is actually good at this stuff and can get us where we need to go in terms of building those structures so that people know where their lane is and how they can contribute.
Bobbi: Even for those folks who liked them who liked the freer form structure, you can have that in other ways in your work, but don't when it comes to how you structure positions and responsibilities and how people are responsible and accountable for their time, all of these different aspects, it, it gives people a sense of, of some structure and it, it is really helpful for morale.
Carol: And a lot of your work really involves how organizations work with, as you're with teams, with your people, recruiting, managing their HR processes, and certainly with the pandemic. And we're recording this right in May of 2021, so things are starting to shift perhaps, or people are starting to think about a shift away from remote work, but a lot of organizations had to make that shift really quickly. They may not have had practices or policies around telecommuting or remote work. What would you say has where, where have you seen organizations do a good job of, of that and helped their team really thrive in that remote work environment?
Bobbi: There were a couple of things. One of the biggest ones was understanding that each person was having. A different experience in this pandemic from an emote, a personal, emotional perspective, and then their own home family situation, whatever that might be. And you started to see folks who were in a shared apartment and there was only one room with good internet and they were taking turns using that room to be on meetings. And, and then also of course, families with kids and balancing all of that. So really understanding what people's limitations were, and how can the organization still get done? What they needed to get done while supporting whatever those limitations were. And then similar to what we were talking about with operational processes is coming up with some level of guidelines for staff, because it didn't work from what I saw, when organizations said do the best that you can. People were looking for a little bit more than that. So it was even if it was around. Hours or how they communicated about their schedule, but providing some guidelines of what the organization is expecting during this time, what flexibility there is when people should plan on using pay time off versus this is flexible and you can just balance out your schedule. So really providing those kinds of guidelines and then. A third thing is keeping up with the personal aspects that you don't get when you're over video or over phone and being intentional about making human connections and with the pandemic. We also had a lot of unrest happening in the country, along with that. And that also was impacting people. So making space to talk about those things or not talk about them if people didn't want to, but at least acknowledging it was happening and people could be having experiences around those things and wanting to create open lines of communication.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's, I mean, all those differences always have been there in terms of how different people were experiencing the workplace and their work and the team. But certainly, this past year has just amplified that in the same way that it's amplified so many other things as you're talking about. And Yeah, I think, I've heard a lot of people talk about while you, it's so hard to have the human connection or those, those accidental, you bump into someone things that happened naturally in offices when you're all there together. And it's, and that's certainly true. And at the same time, I think there's something. That this experience of having to work remotely gives a gift to organizations when they can start to think about how to build that in more intentionally and for everyone, because I feel like maybe it happened for some people accidentally just serendipitously, but it may not have, it may not have actually been the experience for everybody in the office, but people assumed that it was because everybody was together.
Bobbi: That's a great point. Yes. And even just thinking about how some people really love face to face interaction and like being on zoom or some other type of video chat where other folks need a break from that. And seeing organizations give people the space for that. If you're not required to be on video, let people know I'm going to take a break. I've had back to back video calls all day and just giving people space to do. The advocate for what worked for them, so they can be bringing their best. And that works for the individuals and for the organization.
Carol: And as organizations think about shifting back Or shifting towards some new, new version of working whether it's a hundred percent remote or everybody back in the office or somewhere in between, what are you, how are you seeing organizations start to think about that transition?
Bobbi: People are starting to talk about it. Now there's a lot of information gathering and I'm hearing a lot of eyeing. September is the return to physical offices. If they exist, even if it's in some sort of hybrid way, but gathering information from staff, what is your life going to look like? What is your comfort level? Without disclosing specifics. Do you have health concerns about potentially returning to the office, all of these different factors of gathering the information and then coming up with really clear guidelines. This is what we're expecting. This is when we'll be phasing things in when we might resume travel, and just giving staff really clear guidelines about what could be coming and making sure there's good communication. There's also an aspect of. Not just to be preparing physically to come back to the office, but mental preparation from all of this time that we've been at home and in a different space where some people have been sick and lost family members and friends and people have been through all types of experiences during this time and thinking of ways to make space. Or coming back together, coming up with maybe some mental health support system within the organization, making sure people are aware of what their benefits are related to that through insurance and other services. A lot of times insurance packages like life insurance and short-term disability have those employee assistance programs as well. And making sure employees know what's available to them, how they can get help, who they can talk to and making it a safe place. If people are having a challenge coming back and really struggling.
Carol: And, and I mean, most nonprofits are relatively small and oftentimes don't necessarily have a dedicated HR person. How can, how can those small organizations work towards building some of those systems?
Bobbi: I say, just relying on insurance providers and brokers, depending on how their policies are set up. Those individuals very often have all the information about what those programs are. Probably have flyers template, emails, things like that that can easily be sent out. That wouldn't create a lot of labor burden on the smaller organizations. There is also a significant amount of information and data out there and blogs and websites. Providing samples of how template, emails, or examples of how people can create programs for coming back online and providing information for staff. So there's some light touch options that can really be helpful for small teams.
Carol: Yeah, and I, I really appreciate your point about prepping, not just the logistics of, where are we going to put desks and what's the cleaning procedure going to be, and, all of those kinds of things, but also that mental preparation or. Even just starting to, maybe it's not even preparation. Maybe it's just acknowledging that it's going to be weird and awkward for a little while. People aren't used to being together and, are you going to, is it okay to, are you, how are you going to greet? Are you going to shake someone's hand? Are you going to bump their elbow? Are you gonna, how do we do these meetings? Are we all gonna sit in the conference room? Like we used to, or be a part and then to try to think about how to manage a hybrid situation, I think is just much more challenging. I mean, I managed that before the pandemic. I worked in an organization where I had remote staff, but it was so out of the ordinary that it was very hard to get folks who are. At the central location to remember that, a remote staff person was involved in the meeting. So when I, when I could have influence on the meeting set up, I would make sure that we use the video and had them up on screen so that people actually remembered they were there. Instead of just being on a conference call, they might, they might as well not have been at the meeting.
Bobbi: Right. Yes. And there's also that technology aspect. Can you bring that up when going back into the office? There's still going to be a distributed team structure and thinking through how systems will continue to support the work and the humans doing the work.
Carol: So many organizations, some hiring or onboarding on pause thinking, well, well, let's just wait this out. And, but, as it's gone on longer, organizations have had to bring people on while they're working remotely. What have you seen work well in terms of hiring folks during this period, and then, then that onboarding process.
Bobbi: Interesting because the way that I approach hiring hasn't changed significantly from before, except that certain phases of interview processes are over video right now, rather than in person. I think the best thing any organization can do is really think through clearly, what are the competencies that we're looking for in somebody, those skills and, and that level of experience, what are the things we must have? What are the things that are nice to have and coming up with a clear, readable, digestible job description. That's fair. And, and isn't a wishlist, but it's more the actual job. And I really like a process that supports each candidate who is invited for various stages of interviews to get to know the culture of the organization and, and investing time upfront. I like to do phone interviews as a first round, not over video, but just over the phone, have a conversation without worrying about cameras and invest about an hour in those, and really get to know candidates’ resumes. You understand that they've got the qualifications that we're looking for based on work experience, but let's get to know them as individuals and understand the stories that have helped them get to where they are. So I like that upfront investment. I think it always returns better. Pool of candidates and then investing in an equitable process where you have the same hiring panel. If there's a panel style interview and the second phase of interview and making it really clear to candidates, what they can expect and what the timeline is. So the biggest challenge of. Hiring right now is if you can not meet somebody in person, a lot of people rely on that to make a final decision about a candidate. Are they going to work with our culture? They've got the right skill set, and we think they're going to succeed in this role, but will they fit in with our team? And so I'm seeing some meet and greet style interviews getting added in. Maybe it's a handful of staff members they're not interviewing, but it's, let's get together and get to know each other, almost like a virtual coffee as a way of getting to know candidates and have a more that more social feel. So that's one thing that I'm seeing that's different. Otherwise I'm just not seeing, I haven't seen a new trend to something that's brand new and hiring that really wasn't there before.
Carol: Well, that's, I really appreciate that. You say that actually it hasn't changed a huge amount and what's important. Hasn't necessarily changed. going to what you've said at the very beginning, just taking the time to identify what the competencies are. In the role what's actually needed. What's a must have, and what's nice to have right. Cause I've certainly seen so many job descriptions where there's such a wishlist that I'm like, even the superheroes and the Avengers couldn't do this job and we, what are they thinking? So what are some of the steps that organizations can take and teams can take to, to really identify what those competencies are.
Bobbi: A lot of conversation and there are two, I guess there are two paths. If it's an existing role and someone is moving on and they're replacing a team member taking a good look at the original job description, did that work well? Was it realistic? Does it really cover what this person did and how can we adjust it to fit what we're really needing thinking through what are the outcomes? What does success look like in three months, six months, a year into that position. And I think that's what can really help identify those competencies. And I also think keeping that to six to eight competencies is. Efficient. If you try to go above and beyond that, we get back more to that Avengers style person who maybe doesn't exist, of having everything on that list. So keeping it realistic and coming up with definitions for those competencies, there are existing. Definitions out there, but coming up with ones that are meaningful to the organization, what does being a clear communicator look like to us at this particular organization? What does being a superior relationship builder look like to us? And being able to convey that into questions that you ask the candidates is an important part too.
Carol: Can you say more about how you link up those two things?
Bobbi: Let's say that relationship building is one of the competencies and you define what that means coming up with some questions that 's an X asking for a specific story about how somebody built a relationship, maybe with someone that the organization was struggling with, maybe it's a funder. Maybe it's a relationship that needs to change because the person who was managing that relationship before was struggling with it, or wasn't being very successful. So asking for examples of that and the outcomes, and, and also trying to understand what somebody might do differently in a situation. So I like scenario based questions for understanding, really trying to get at. Where are they within this, within that competency in terms of their expertise
Carol: And how have you seen organizations be able to convey what their, what their culture is because, too often, I've, I've. Ask that question when I've been in the interview process and people are like, well, you'll know it. When you see it, I'm like, well, that's not helpful. Can you say a little bit more?
Bobbi: Yes. If the organization doesn't have an existing statement about their culture, that might be in the handbook. I like to start with talking about them. What's your compensation philosophy, because I think a lot of things trickle out from that. What's important to you as an organization. How do you define salaries? How do you determine what additional benefits you'll add into the package and what amount are you contributing to that? I think that can set a tone also talking through what our expectations are around let's say things like dress code. If those things still exist, some organizations still do have them or still have expectations for external facing events. Making that super clear that really can help you understand how as well, my disorganization B or how maybe stiff might this organization be and where might a person fit in along there? I think asking when, when I want to understand the culture, what type of social events do you have? How do you get to know your new staff members? When they come on board, do you have celebrations for birthdays or work anniversaries? So trying to understand how they invest also in staff, after they've come on board, do they do 90 day? Check-ins: what are their performance evaluations? Like? All of that feeds into what the culture is. So I ask a ton of questions.
Carol: That's great and about really specific things. Right. So it's not just generally describing your culture to me, but describing this piece and this piece of this piece and from all of it, I can really get a picture of what that adds up to. So, yeah. What would you recommend to clients in terms of successfully onboarding, onboarding new hires, especially now, again, with us being in this remote work environment,
Bobbi: Depending on the size of the organization, figuring out what's the checklist: who will do what, what do we want our first interaction with our newest team member to look like after they've accepted the offer. And I would say communicating more than you might, if the person we're going to be showing up in in-person and making sure they understand this is what your orientation looks like. By the end of week two, we expect you'll have. Had exposure to all of our systems. You may not know them exactly in and out yet, but you'll have gone through this checklist of learning, to use these tools and making it super clear how, what systems they need to have set up at home, how equipment will get to them.
If they have any home office expenses, which I'm seeing, many organizations get an extra reimbursement for that for internet and home costs. And having a plan, making sure that person's supervisor, if that's, if that's relevant is having personal check-ins with them. And that there's a process for that person getting to know the organization and their job, and what's expected of them and really trying to incorporate them as much as possible. So it could be different depending on each organization. What, how many systems and tools they have or how many staff they have on board. And it's a really important thing I think, to have. Touch points with each staff member as well for any new person, not just to a staff meeting, but maybe just 15 minute quick coffees with people or a quick slack video to say hi so that people get connected personally to the rest of the team.
Carol: And I could imagine going through a process of trying to figure out what all those things are and creating that checklist could actually be useful for people who've been on staff for a while. Like what are all the systems that we're using and how do they interact with each other? How does each person see their role and how it connects? I could see that being a really fruitful conversation, regardless of an onboarding process
Bobbi: That’s a great point. And a lot of times organizations will have resources that they launch. And maybe because there isn't a point person reminding staff that they have access to it, it's really when new staff come on board, that they're reminded, oh yes, we have this great shared Kindle library with 50 books in it that would help anybody who's interested in learning about various professional skills development. And I do think that's a great idea. If the organizations for arts, a great benefit, rather than staff existing staff, to see those resources if the organization is big enough, there might be an opportunity for individual staff members to be the champion of certain pieces. There's a, maybe a tools person and maybe this is how we do our staff meetings. Let me introduce you to that. And, having people be the. The go-to person and having that list be shared with the original, with a staff member, excuse me, joining the team. Here's who to go to for what? And To get a really good orientation to the organization.
Carol: Well, the idea of splitting it up and having it not be just a siloed experience, so that only, not, not only distributes the, the, the process of either putting that together or implementing it, but it also, with each person that's that champion, the new person gets, starts to build a relationship with them as well.
Bobbi: Yes. I think for individual staff members throughout the opportunity to take the lead on things like that, too, it's an investment opportunity for them as well. They get to show off their knowledge of the organization and take the lead on something. So it's a great, I think retention opportunity as well.
Carol: So on each episode, I like to play a game by asking one random icebreaker question. And since we mentioned the Avengers if you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why
Bobbi: I think I would choose the power of invisibility. I really liked to observe, and I liked the idea of being able to observe without being noticed and being able to use that for good, maybe. Interject if I need to, or take information back to somebody else reported. I don't know, but I like that idea. And also being able to disappear quickly if needed
Carol: I love it. I love it. Yeah. I've often thought, well, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall and that means they didn't see what really happened versus the report out afterwards. So that's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Bobbi: Got a couple of really fun projects coming up.
One is. It's fun because it's collaborating with a friend who, with her firm I'm going to support a project on hiring a new team member for one of their non-profit clients. And so just getting to know their process and bringing, merging our processes and plus getting together. I'm excited about that for one of my longer term clients we're working on job trajectories. They've been growing as an organization and. Haven't had an exact map. How do you grow at this organization? What does it take to get a promotion? What does that look like? So we're working on those trajectories and salary bands and making that all transparent within the organization, a growth path. And then the other is expanding voluntary benefits for one of my clients. And thinking about what are the host of things that staff might like to have access to. It's not something the organization’s necessarily paying for, but they'll pay for the administration of those benefits. And we often have. Life insurance that you can add onto accidents, things related to health. They're also financial planning, types of services, health, and wellness, and even things like pet insurance to make available with your people. If you're maybe getting a better deal because you're working with one provider. So I'm excited about expanding those offerings.
Carol: That's awesome. I love the idea of the growth trajectory, because I think so often in the sector, certainly if I look back at my career, most of the ways in which I grew, I ended up always having to hop to a new organization. And, there wasn't a clear path. Within the organization to, to, build on what I already had, had done and, and build on the work. So that's, that's really cool to start being a little more intentional about that.
Bobbi: I think so too. And not everybody wants to move up and be a supervisor for other people. They maybe are expanding their skills and can take on. More advanced work as they grow, but maybe that's not for them. And if it's possible to create those types of positions, make that clear, this can exist. And that's what it looks like. And that might impact pay scale, I'm not sure, but it could, but just making that super clear to staff, I think a lot of times people might not ask those questions. Do I have to be promoted and become a supervisor? And these organizations end up losing great folks because they haven't had that conversation.
Carol: Right. I mean, some people that they don't necessarily want to move up in, in that moving to a supervisory role, they really just want to go deeper and deeper into what they're, what they're doing as an individual contributor. So that's a great point. Well, thank you so much. It's been great having this conversation.
Bobbi: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you inviting me. It's been fun.
Carol: All right.
I appreciated how Bobbi described her process for hiring and how in many ways it has not changed a lot even in the past year beyond final interviews being via video instead of in person. Her process starts with defining the competencies needed for the role. And she nudges organizations to not create the wish list job description that essentially describes a super human. That first step of getting clear about what is actually really essential with a job. This could include questioning whether the qualifications you have required in the past are really needed – i.e. does the person really need a college degree to do this job? Or a Masters? What is essential and what is nice to have. And being consistent across interviews to aim for a more equitable process.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
In episode 23 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Engel discussed include:
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting. For more than twenty years, Elizabeth has helped associations grow in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, and garden.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
My guest today is Elizabeth Weaver Engel. Elizabeth is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting where she helps associations grow. Elizabeth periodically writes white papers on topics of interest to association staff and board members. These white papers go in depth and provide interesting and actionable insights on the topics she explores. On this episode, Elizabeth and I delve into the topic of digital transformation, the focus of her upcoming white paper that she co-wrote with Maddie Grant. In our conversation we explore what digital transformation is and why it is important to associations. We also talk about some of the key differences between associations and for profit companies that most of the literature to date about digital transformation has focused on and the implications of those differences.
Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast today.
Elizabeth Engel: Thank you so much, Caroline. We're very happy to be here. So
Carol: I'd like to start out with the question. What, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you or what's your, why?
Elizabeth: You mean, like in the, in the largest sense of why, why do I work in associations? You're why am I in the nonprofit space? It goes back to when I was in graduate school. So initially I'd gone to graduate school at the University of Virginia. I was studying political theory. I was intending to be a professor of political theory. That's not really a job that exists anymore. Even back then that did that job didn't really exist anymore. Even 25 years. And so, when I, when I decided to bail out of the PhD program and do the terminal masters and I was graduating, and then I was like, okay, well now what and we were living in Charlottesville, which is lovely, but small lot of overeducated people running around there who don't want to leave. I was one of them And so I started looking for work in DC, the first interviews, God we're with for-profit companies. And I realized pretty quickly that I just could not bring myself to care about making the widget 5 cents cheaper than the other guy and selling it for 5 cents. More like I just. Did not care about that. And so I thought, okay, well, clearly non-profit industry is, is for me. And I started applying only for nonprofit jobs. Got my first job. I was applying both in sort of fundraising calls, oriented organizations and associations, got my first job working in an association, my first capital R capital J Real Job and never looked back.
Carol: It's so funny that you talked about being a professor and I sounds like you got a little further along that path than I did, but that was definitely my idea in college that I would be a history professor, but then I was working on my my final project not a dissertation, cause it was just a BA I don't know the big paper that I had to write at the end of my, at end of end of my degree. And I was doing some research in the library, in the big central library in Philadelphia. And reading these old magazines ‘cause I was doing a project on basically how women were being told how to be mothers advice to mothers at the turn of the century Germany. So I was reading women's magazines from the turn of the century Germany. I realized that I was, I had a mad dust allergy. So I was like, clearly my life's work needs to not be in archives. That's going to be a real problem. Yes. Yes. So, so being a professor, being a history professor was not, not going to be what I was going to be doing. So I had to figure it, figure out something else. And I did. My first job was with a for-profit company and it was When I helped out w w when, when, of course it was all clients, all comers, we were helping people get on talk shows and it was after that, there was like, no, if I'm going to be promoting things, if I'm going to be publicizing, if I'm going to be moving some cause forward, you know I want to have it be something that I believe in. So that's when I made the shift to the nonprofit sector. Yeah. Yeah. So one of the things that I really appreciate about your work is your generosity in creating free, very substantive, white papers on a variety of topics. And, and you've, I think maybe it's going back to that drive to research that originally would've been, would have been in that professor realm. ‘Cause you really go all over the place and, and, and dive into a lot of different topics. And I think actually, It's where we originally met because you did an interview with me as a per case study for one of your white papers.
Elizabeth: Yeah. When you were at NAFSA.
Carol: Yes. Yeah. So around design thinking, lean start up. Yeah. So, so how did you get started doing those?
Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. So that was yes, you are correct. This definitely relates to my interest in research and writing. And there's a range of length, I guess, Israeli types of writing, everything from tweets, obviously, of course, all the way up to books and the length that I always liked was the extended essay. Something that falls into that 25 to 40 page range where you can, you can really have an idea and develop it, but you haven't committed yourself to a 400 page book. And so when I was first launching star back in 2012 I was part consulting. One of the things that I was, I was thinking about is, okay, well I'm going to need to do stuff. To get my name out there. And, and I had already started doing some of that in the association world prior to launching the business. I had been really involved in training people for the certified association executive exam through ASAE. For like the period from right after I earned it myself 2004 through 2010, I was super involved with that and that got me started on the speaking track for ASAE and I, and I had had, and other associations and I, and I had had employers who were supportive of that. Even while I was, I was still an association executive working directly for associations myself and had been doing it association blog for a number of years at that point. And, and that was all great. Like I was enjoying all that planning to continue all of that and whatnot. But I was looking for something a little bit more substantive, I guess, or a little bit more something that has, has a longer shelf life, I guess that's, that's the best way to put it, right? Because if you're speaking at a conference, well, that's great for the people who go to the conference, but what about everybody else? Right. and, and blog posts tend to be somewhat ephemeral. So I was looking for something that would have a little bit more, more staying power to it. So it was a fall of 2012 and I got contacted by a state society to come and speak at their conference. And so we're talking about potential topics that I could cover. and did they want something that was sort of more, personal story inspirational or did they want them to be, it was a little bit more research-based and they, they said, all we know are, are. Opening keynote is going to be a little bit more of that personal story. So like, let's go with something a little bit more. Research-based we're bouncing some ideas around and I was like, well, look, what, what about this, this concept of information overload and, and content curation, and this is something that we're all dealing with. Both personally for ourselves and also as association professionals, trying to deal with our members and others audiences, you know? So what if I dive into that and look into that a little bit more and then, and then make the case for associations to begin focusing less on content creation and more on content duration. They're like, Oh yeah, that sounds, that sounds really interesting. So that ended up being the first white paper and I revisited that topic for the white paper that I turned out last year. Because so much had changed in the intervening eight years with regards to both the volume of information that we're dealing with, and also the association environment for doing content curation. But people are still interested in the topics. So I was like, Hm, I really need some updated information here and ended up revisiting that. But anyway so I, I went ahead and created that white paper for the event. And I, I will say I. Bombed at the safe society event. I have never bombed at a speaking gig like that before or since. But we did learn a very valuable lesson, which was that their audience really preferred, inspirational personal stories. But the thing that I took away from that other than, than, quizzing my, my potential. Speaking employers a little bit more closely about their audiences of what they really wanted was, Hey, this white paper thing is a pretty interesting idea. And I think this might be my thing, my thing that I'm going to create, that is that more lasting longer shelf life way of contributing to the body of knowledge and the association industry, which turned out to be the case.
Carol: Yeah. And now you have a, Oh, I'm going to have to wait a second. That changed something on one of the recordings and it started to give an echo. Yeah. So now you have quite the body of work yourself in terms of all of those white papers. And the one that you're currently working on is focusing on digital transformation. Could you say a little bit about what this is and why it's important to organizations.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you mentioned, there's now a pretty significant library. This is number 13, which I think is lucky. Yeah. And so, the, the topic, and, and as you mentioned earlier, it's across a really wide variety of topics. Because I basically look for something that, a major trend or something like that, that I think is either impacting or is about to impact the association industry, where I. I think that we're either not really paying attention to it the way we need to, or, or like with the blockchain white paper, it's something that's really nascent. When I have an opportunity to educate people about this or it's something where the existing literature and advice that's out there. Is maybe missing something and that's very much what was going on with taking on digital transformation. Digital transformation is not a new topic. This is something that organizations have been working on for at least six or eight years, in, in most cases. And so of course that, that immediately begs the question. Well then why, why bother right about this? Right? This is one of those cases where. In my view, the existing literature and advice and case studies and all that stuff that are out there about digital transformation or are missing something fundamental about associations. And that's actually part of the reason why I wanted to work with Maddie grant for this particular white paper. So, as you know pretty much all of my white papers. I worked with a co-author, we look to feature other experts in interviews within the white papers. We do case studies of organizations that are doing work in that area, et cetera. But, I matched my coauthor to my topic. And so, the thing that. Associations have not that that no one's been paying attention to for associations or writing about for associations is the issue of culture change with regards to digital transformation. So there's, one of Maddy's favorite sayings is digital transformation is culture change plus vendor selection. And the technology of culture change is, or of, of digital transformation is very important, obviously. But we do tend to have a little bit of shiny object syndrome and get very focused on the tech pieces of this. And, and we don't think enough about the culture change that's required in order to actually be a digitally transformed organization. And that's where the problem is for associations. The majority of the work. That is ecstatic about digital transformation from a for-profit perspective. That's why they miss that associations are unique. Our cultures are unique, are our relationships with our I'm making air quotes here. So people in the podcast onesies, but our, our customers are very different. A member of an association is not the same as a member of Costco. And all of the digital transformation work that's out there is about how do you deal with a member of Costco, not how do you deal with a member of an association? And so Maddie and I saw a real opportunity to say, okay, look, there's, there's good stuff out there about, you know the tech piece of this. And we do summarize a little bit of that in the white paper. There's good stuff out there about the techniques of this. Let's talk about what makes association culture unique. And then some of the kinds of things that you need to think about as an association executive in dealing with culture change in order to do that digital transformation to truly become a transformed organization, to one of the One of the, the experts that we spoke with for the white paper is a guy named Martin mocker, who a lot of association folks are familiar with the work of Dr. Jeannie Ross because she's been a speaker at some association tech conferences. But they write about digital transformation and the distinction that they make. And, and this is where the transformation piece happens. Is between being digitized and being digital and being digitized is the piece where, you're, you're grabbing all those shiny objects and you're doing exactly what you've always done, just using technology. So it's better in some way. And it tends to start with an internal focus. Like we're going to fix our internal processes and start. doing more, less stuff, analog and more stuff, digital internally. And then it works its way out into customer facing stuff. I remember facing stuff. But if you, if you want to be able to make the leap from getting some cool tech, let's do some stuff in a digital way that we used to do in an analog way versus. Becoming a transformed organization. It's, it's that leap to going digital that you have to make. That's where the culture piece comes in.
Carol: Well, you packed a lot in there. So I wanted to dial back to a couple of different things you talked about. Well, one was interesting and I'd love for you to unpack a little bit more about what you see as those unique aspects of an association and what makes them different from for-profit organizations.
Elizabeth: Sure and for folks who've been in associations for a number of years, this is all going to sound familiar, but it starts at the top. Right? Our relationships to our boards of directors are very different, first of all, plenty of for-profits are privately owned even though even those that are publicly traded that have a board of directors, their boards are very different than our boards. It's a very different relationship. And the board of directors of an association is much more directly the boss of the CEO or ED and the staff than happens in a for-profit company. So, it begins right at the top. The other thing is our, our, again - air quotes for the podcast folks. Our customers are members. They own the organization. If you're a quote unquote “member of Costco,” you don't have an ownership stake in Costco. Right. if you're, if you're an Amazon prime member, you don't have an ownership stake at Amazon, right? You truly, they're calling it a membership and that's all very lovely and it implies relationship, but you're a customer. And, and this is not to say that associations don't have customers. We absolutely do. But the membership relationship is what makes associations unique. And so, all of them. All of those pieces of the role of the board, the board to the CEO, executive director, the board of the staff, the members, how they relate as owners of the organization, all of this gives them a very different stake in decisions that the organization makes. And it also complicates the culture change picture because you have people who are not staff, but have a much greater investment than somebody who's. Stopping by your store to buy a book or whatever is in the organization. And so, that all has to be taken into account. When you're talking about intentionally designing your culture and then intentionally creating culture change.
Carol: Yeah. A couple of things come to mind there. You mentioned that you had interviewed me as part of that case study when I was at NAFSA and that's an association that's. Serves the international educator field. But what was, what was really interesting about that group? And I worked for a number of different organizations, different associations, and I'd never seen this before NAFSA. I don't know if it's still true today, but at least that the generation of members that I was working with would call themselves NAFSAs. And absence, like they've made a country they've made an identity about being part of that organization. So that sense of identifying with the organization, being part of it, being, seeing it, as I'm a member, I am part of this community. It is integral to how I think about my work. And I have some ownership stake in it. Even though I don't know that a lot of folks necessarily. Thought about it exactly that way. But they also, but in many ways they acted that way. They acted that they had that relationship. So, yeah. So super interesting about how, it can just, it's not just sending a check to get a membership, to get a magazine, when it, when it's, when it, well, honestly, when it's done well, right. When, when there really is that sense of identity and not just being a consumer.
Elizabeth: The reason that people associate is because they're trying to accomplish something that they have found either extremely difficult or impossible to associate on their own. So they're gathering with other people with similar interests. Well the very nature of trying to do that means that this has gotta be a long-term commitment, maybe not the rest of your life, but certainly, longer than making a consumer type purchase. And exactly as you, as you just express that can over time. Maybe not for everybody, but certainly for some people it becomes a part of your identity.
Carol: Yeah. And I also, what you were talking about made me think about just really any tech related project where you're trying to bring in something new, have people maybe use a tool, a new tool that will help them do the, hopefully, Obviously the idea usually is to help people do their job easier, better make things better for members for, for constituents. And at the same time folks get very focused on the technology. You get very focused on what are the features that we want, are we picking the right. The right vendor, are we picking the right software to do this job for getting that really what's way more important is after that decision is made, how are you helping people actually learn how to use the thing and integrated into how they're doing their work and, and accepted, adopted. And so it's not just this, shiny object you bought it. And then it's like, okay, now it's gathering dust. Well,
Elizabeth: and, it's, it's funny that you would use that example because that is a further illustration of the difference between a consumer relationship and a membership relationship. Right. if you think about it again, just as a sort of a regular person, your own experience, whatever, whatever vendor you like, that you, that you go to online regularly, they make a bunch of changes to their website and you're like, ah, I gotta figure out how to do the thing again. Like whatever thing it is you go to them to do. Like, I gotta figure out the thing again. Okay. Whatever association, I know that if we make significant changes to our websites and our members don't know, I like them, they're just gonna kinda shrug and be like, Oh, well I just have to, I have to figure out how to find the thing that I normally do here and whatever, it'll be fine. You know? My favorite example for that is like every time my, the, the airline that I usually fly that has where I have on my frequent flyer stuff. Like they make changes. I'm like, ah, crap. Okay. I'll figure it out. It's fine. Right. I don't call them up and chew them out on the phone. If I don't like it. If you do something like that for your members. They absolutely feel like they own the organization and they will call you up or email you and tell you what they think. Right. Because it's not just, Oh, the powers that be on high have done this. And I, the poor consumer, have no power in this situation. That's not it at all. Right. I'm a member. I'm a part owner of this organization. I have a say.
Carol: Yeah. And one of the things you talked about was the difference between being digitized and digital. Can you, can you say a little bit more again about what, what you see as the difference between those two and why that's important?
Elizabeth: Sure. And for people who really want to dig into this, I would definitely recommend that they check out the book. So I am getting the title of it right now. It is designed for digital, how to architect your business for sustained success. So that's by Dr. Jeanne Ross Cynthia and Martin Mocker who's the guy that we interviewed for the white paper
Carol: We’ll put links, we'll put links to that and the paper.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So the, the, the difference is going, B becoming digitized has to do with I'm taking analog functions. And I am now doing the exact same analog functions I was doing before only now I'm using technology to do them. So a great example of this is where I first started my career in association management. It was the mid nineties and we were doing all of our membership join and renew. Everything was entirely analog. Paper form, mail it in with your check to the lock box, the bank, kind of, deal. And yeah, mid nineties, right. That's pretty typical. We worked at associations and were sort of just venturing onto the web. We did have a website. It was your typical mid nineties. Brochureware so our, I arrive on the scene and I'm like, Hmm, I'll bet. Our members would like to be able to join and renew online. Well, let me, let me set up a test of this speaking of lean startup methodology, right. I just threw up a form that dumped all the information to an email. Yes. As a matter of fact, I was dumping unencrypted credit card numbers across the internet into an email that we then had to. Process, like we would print them out to the mall, to the lockbox for processing on the back end. So it was still a little analog there. But from the front end, from the, from the member's perspective, it looks quick digital. And so, that was, that was my, my test to say, Hey, like, nobody has this as a built-in feature of their association management system yet let's find out if it's worth building it. And in fact, it was like our, our members were very much people who wanted to be able to do this online. Then we had data. We were like, yes, we will pay to go ahead and build this because it's going to be worthwhile. But my point is that it’s becoming digitized. Right? We were, we had this analog membership program. We, now you can join and renew online, but it was, it's still the exact same membership. Like we weren't changing anything about the membership. We were just saying, Oh, well, instead of. Mailing in your form with your check to the lockbox, which by the way, you can still do if you want to do this online with your credit card and be fancy and fast, we can, we can do that. Right. That's becoming digitized, becoming digital, has to do with a mind shift. it’s actually the construction specifications Institute story from the, from the the white paper, their, their crosswalk platform illustrates this pretty well. It's about shifting your mindset to say no. What we are going to do is we are going to think differently about our members and our other audiences about how we interact with them, about how they want to interact with each other, being aware of what the technology enables at this point to create entirely new ways. Entirely new programs, products, and services, entirely new ways of building networks and relationships, entirely new ways of creating knowledge, entirely new ways of organizing ourselves, entirely new ways of creating group action that are digital from the start. That to me, that's the transformation bit because it, because you have to change your mind about all this stuff. It’s changing business processes as well, and it's changing product development and all that, but, and this gets back to culture, change, change. It's a complete shift in the way you think about things and view the world.
Carol: Yeah. And what I appreciated about that story. And, and if I can, let's see if I get it right. In terms of my summary, they saw a problem that all their members were having. The problem wasn't necessarily an in, in their work. So out, out in their world, not necessarily about how the association works, but how their members were doing work in the world with a whole bunch of other folks who weren't necessarily members of that association, but lots of different other types of professionals that their members had to work with and how they all had their own way of I guess one Version that everyone could relate to would be the multiple times. You have to fill out your medical history at every doctor that you go to. Right? So all of these different people were, were, were managing information, managing inventory in different ways and had different systems, different technology. So they didn't build something to take over all of those things, but they built a bridge. Building those, what are they called? APIs. Yep.
Elizabeth: Advanced Programming interfaces.
Carol: Yep. Right? So that translation to go back and forth between those different systems, which really transformed how people were doing their work in the field.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And, and honestly, I mean, this is something anybody who's ever done, any home renovation project could totally relate to this. Right. like, so construction specifications Institute, this is guidelines the, the things, the regulations that keep large-scale construction processes. And ensure that you have a good result on the end bridge that doesn't fall down a size skyscraper that doesn't collapse, et cetera. Right. And so anybody who, anybody who's ever done a home renovation project knows how this goes, right? You've got your general contractor that you've got a zillion subcontractors, they're all doing different pieces of the project. And they all have their own systems and their own processes and their own ways of doing things and, and all that. And, unless you are a crazy person and decide to act as your own general contractor, that's what your general contractor is doing is managing all of that for you, right? They're not telling the carpenter or the tile guy or the electrician or the plumber or whatever, how to do their job, or what processes they should use. They manage it for you. Well, CSI construction specifications Institute saw the opportunity to do it. Similar thing for large scale construction projects, where there's everybody from architects and engineers to, all, all of the other types of things that you would think about that would be involved in building something like a skyscraper or a tunnel or a bridge or whatever. And they saw an opportunity to create that shared platform for them to be passing information back and forth so that everybody can still use. The systems that make them happy and the programs that they like to use and can still manage the information internally the way they like to. But all of a sudden, we're all sharing it across this, this bridge platform where it cuts down on waste to time, it reduces risk. It cuts down on errors, and, and this has been it's, it's a completely different way of thinking because. Carol as you just articulated, most of those other players are not and will never be CSI members. But this is an opportunity to create something that serves the entire industry vertical soup to nuts.
Carol: What'd you say are some of the either misconceptions or mistakes that associations make when they. think, okay, well we need to, maybe we've started on some digitizing, but we really want to shift more to this larger transformation moving towards the digital process. Yeah.
Elizabeth: The most obvious one is the shiny object syndrome. Right. Like we noticed something going on and so we grab a piece of technology and slap it on there and we're like, we're, we're done. Yay. Go us. Yeah, that's, that's not gonna transform your organization. That's the thing to get you in the trouble that you mentioned earlier. Oh, and we had this great idea and if no one's using it we've, we've slapped some technology technological bandaid on a problem that we noticed and, and so I think that's one of the main challenges that we face is, you've got to think about this in a much more strategic way. One of the things that Maddie and I stress in the white paper is that you don't want to have a strategy for digital or a strategy for mobile or a strategy for social or a strategy for AI or whatever, right? Like you, you have your larger organizational strategy and you're looking for how to do things like mobile and social and web and AI and internet of things and data analytics and all that. Like how do they fit into and contribute to your larger organizational strategy. And so as I always try to do with, with the white papers, the final section of this is very much the, okay. All of this information that you've shared with me was lovely and interesting. And I see what you're thinking here, but like, what do I actually do? And so, and we, we lay it right out in a very clear series of steps. You have to start with assessing where you are, if you don't, if you, if you don't know where you are and where you're trying to go, any path is the right path and the wrong path. And you're going to end up in places that you had no necessary intent of ending up. So you've got it. You've got to know where you are right now, before you can figure out where you're going to go. And some associations when they do that, they're going to discover, what. We've got work to do on digitization. First, one of our other stories, the independent community bankers association was very much what my friend, her boss, who works there discovered when he, when he was hired, like we have to, we have to digitize first. Like there's some internal stuff going on here that we're going to have to fix before we can look to trains. Right. But because he assessed, he knew that. Then you got to move on to things like getting support resources. You need to look for strategic areas where all those digital technologies, social, mobile, mobile, mobile data analytics, all the stuff that I just mentioned could contribute, could help, could help fix things. You're going to have to take a look at what's going on with your legacy processes, because you may find yourself in that. Digitization work to do first before we can go digital. Right. But you need to, you need to take a look at that. Then you're going to have to, in addition to getting some sort of leadership support and financial resources, you're also going to have to assemble your team like Avengers unite, right? Like you've got to have Avengers assemble, right? Like you've got to, you got to get your Avengers together. And this is one of the Association cultural things. It's not just going to be staff. You're also going to need to be recruiting volunteers and rank and file members on to your team. Because that's one of the things that's different about our culture. Then you've got to get into that experimental framework and consider how this is all going to affect your culture and engage in that process of intentional culture change in order to get you to the ends that you, that you envisioned when you did that sort of strategic look and how can these technologies contribute to the organizational strategic goals we're already trying to achieve.
Carol: And one of the things that I think people have been advocating for for a long time in the association space, and then the nonprofit space more generally is really, making having staff and boards volunteers make more data driven, driven decisions rather than, Well, the last member who happened to call you and, and, and, and bend your ear relying on those anecdotes and what are, what are some of the key barriers that you see to really effectively using the data that or organizations actually already have?
Elizabeth: Oh man. How much time do you have, especially the TA. This specifically is the topic of one of my earlier white papers on evidence-based decision-making that I wrote with Peter household from Mariner management. Yeah, this is a challenge, right? Speaking of legacy systems this for associations is, is one of the big ones. And we actually talk about this quite a bit in the white paper, because, Consumer businesses would kill to get the data that we have on our members, because we have obviously, again, not with everybody, but for a significant portion of your membership, you have a very long-term relationship with those people where they've been. Doing all sorts of different stuff with you for years. And they've, and, and this is, this is actually born out in some of the, the other studies that we referenced, the white paper that have been done by community brands. But the other thing is our members are more willing to share their data with us. Austin. They are with most consumer brands because they trust us. And they are particularly willing to share their data with us if we're transparent about how we intend to use it. And it's clear that the reason that we're asking for this is in order to provide them with better service, better programs and products, et cetera. so we've, we've got a treasure trove of data. The problem is, one of the, the technology pieces of, of digital transformation. Is data analytics. And as an industry, we've been lagging on that. Some of that is because we have a lot of legacy systems that were built in, in exclusion of each other. And so they don't talk to each other particularly well. And if you can look at the history of association management, Systems and, for, for a while, there was this trend of, we're going to do everything in the AMS and we're going to build everything that is part of the AMS. Anything you could possibly think of, you might want to do with your members is going to be a module. Right. And we pretty quickly all realized that was a terrible idea. So, people went back to more of a, okay, so, we need to. Run conference registration. So we're gonna, we're going to get a best of breed conference registration system, and we need to run professional development. So we're going to get a best of breed learning management system, and we need to manage the content on our website. So we're going to get a best of breed, every content management system there, and, and realizing that it's, it's better to do it that way than to try to have this one mammoth piece of software that handles everything. But the problem is, those things don't always communicate with each other particularly well. So, back to it, we've got this wonderful treasure trove of data, but none of it's talking to each other and we have, have lacked the capacity to figure out how to make that happen. Now we're seeing even, even when Peter and I wrote the evidence-based decision-making white paper a couple of years ago, we're seeing more of a movement towards. Speaking of a crosswalk type platform, something that's, that's on top of all of those things and they don't have to talk to each other, they all just have to talk to this shared platform, and we're seeing that with everything from, actual business analytics tools to data visualization tools and, and so my, My encouragement to associations would be to keep going on that route, to keep, keep looking at those business information and business analytics tools, get educated about them, just dive in and pick one and find somebody on it. Staff, who's interested in learning about it, and just like, just start going and see what you can do and what you can learn and what insights you can gather. So that's that piece of it. The other piece of it is the questions, right? Because it's all just a big pile of data. If you don't know what it is that you're trying to find out. And so in the midst of finding yourself good data, visualization to want a good business information tool and finding somebody on your staff. Who's interested in learning how to use them and, getting them some training and setting them loose and all that. But like all that stuff is good. Right. You also want to think about what are the questions that we are trying to answer about our members and other audiences and what data do we need. In order to answer those questions. And so one of the things that Peter and I very much argue for in the data-driven decision-making white paper is spend more time on the front end asking better questions, because then back to that whole thing of our members being willing to give us data. If we know why. We want it. You'll have a better question that you're asking. So you'll be asking for more targeted data with a clear, this is why we need it, which means people will be more willing to give it to you. Which means you'll be able to have a better answer to the question because you'll be operating from a fuller picture of what's going on.
Carol: Well, and that all goes back to, strategy from the beginning of thinking about, where, where, where are you right now doing that assessment. And, and maybe you need to go back and do your homework and, and, and do more digitizing, maybe work on your data, silos, those kinds of things. Before you can really shift into transformation. But, really having that assessment of where you are and then working together to figure out what's the vision for where we want to end up.
So I'd like to shift gears a little bit at this point. And I always like to ask, I have a box of random ice - they're not random because they wrote them all, but I randomly picked them out of the box of icebreaker questions and always like to end the podcast with one of those. So, I was about to ask you, if you could write a book, what would it be about? But you told me you didn't want to write a book. So I won't ask you that one. So who in your life inspires you to be better?
Elizabeth: Ooh, that's a good one. So many people and now I'm going to have to pick one. This is good. This is going to be trite, but that's okay. It's, it's probably my spouse. So He, he historically has believed in me way more than I believed in myself. The perfect, the perfect story of that being, when I, when I was first thinking about starting the business, I, at the time I wasn't thinking about starting spark consulting, I was thinking about it was time to move on to a different association job. Yeah. It's not there. Yeah. I got my resume to go on talking to people and meeting with recruiters and submitting resumes and whatnot. And, as I'm starting to tell people in my network, Hey I think it's time for me to move on. The almost immediate response from everyone was, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I was like, Oh no, I was going to go work at another association. And so finally I was meeting a friend of mine who is a recruiter for lunch. And I said, Hey, We're going to move on and she's like, okay, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I'm like, you're like the 10th person who's asked me that. Could you please tell me what I'm seeing or what you're seeing about this whole situation that I am missing. And she did, she did. She laid out some really great advice for me and everything. And I was like, Hmm. Okay. I really thought about this a little more seriously when I came home that night. And we had friends over for dinner and, we had a nice dinner and we're cleaning up whatever, and it's like time to go to bed, you know? So as we're getting to bed, I say to him, I'm like yeah, I had lunch with my friends this afternoon. And I'm thinking that maybe I want to start my own business and he looks at me and he's like, I think you'd be great at that. You should totally do that. And it turns off the light and I'm like, this man believes in me. Right. If he, if he believes in me to this level, I need to believe in myself to this level. And that, that level of confidence in me and confidence that I'm going to make the right decision and do the right thing, inspires me to make sure that I do
Carol: Awesome. Well, what's, what's coming up for you next. What are you excited about in your work?
Elizabeth: Getting this white paper launched. So yes, for the, for the, the listeners of the pod it is going to be coming out right around June 1st. So we're, we're very excited about that. And then Carol, as you mentioned, it's freely available you don't even end up on a mailing list. I mean, you can just have it, like, I don't, I don't collect your data or anything like that. You can, you can just have it. So definitely getting, getting that launched and also watching the association industry begin sort of poking our heads out post pandemic. This is no great secret, but for a lot of small consultants 2020 was a pretty rough year because associations very much went into hunker down and try not to panic mode. So for a lot of us. 2020 was a little challenging. Totally understandable. Right, when an association doesn't know what's going to be happening and they may even be having lay off staff, they're not looking to be hiring outside help. But I'm, I'm watching again, more associations start poking their heads out, Looker, looking around and start thinking about, okay, we're, we're moving into whatever the post pandemic is going to look like. And now thinking about some of this stuff that we just, for a year, like, We just we're in survival mode here, man. We can't think about any of these things. So yeah, I'm just, I'm looking forward to, to all of that. And seeing where we go as an industry because and this is, this is something we talk about in one of the other case studies in the white paper associations had to make a lot of changes, really fast. And that we, some of them were good choices and good changes, and some of them were less so, right. Like we did not have the luxury of sitting around and assessing everything and, like we had to move right now. And so I'm also really interested to see. See kind of, what's going to stick and what's not going to stick. I'm very curious about that. Yeah, so I'm, I'm eager to see how that all plays out too.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's going to be, I think that's what a lot of people are thinking about right now. And I'm asking the question of kind of, well, we, we, we suddenly, well, one, we suddenly enacted changes that perhaps a few people had been talking about for years and we'd been ignoring them and then overnight we had to do them But then, what do we want to keep? What helps us in terms of maybe being more efficient including more people. But then where is it really important? basically like working remotely or, and doing virtual events. No, where is it really important for people to be in the room together? And, my one wish if, if, if this can happen, it will be just amazing that people start being much more intentional about why are we getting all these people on a train, plane, automobile to come together and be together? And then the answer should not be to sit and listen to a lecture that they could have watched at home since that's what we've done for the past year. That could be the change that comes out of this for organizing patients and their, their convenience and meanings. I would be very excited.
Elizabeth: Yep. Three things related to that. Right? Number one, the whole thing of, anytime you're having a meeting, look around the table, think about how much each of those people is paid per hour and how long you got from there. And that is the actual cost of that meeting. Right. And we don't think about that enough, this flight-shaming becoming a thing. Right. We have to think about the climate impact of our travel, nowadays, I mean, that's, that's very much, much a thing. And there's the issue of being able to include more voices.
Carol: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great to have you on, and we'll definitely put links into the book that you mentioned, and to the white paper when it comes out and more generally to the rest of them so that people can have access to all that wonderful, all those wonderful resources that you've been producing over the years. But thank you so much for coming
Elizabeth: on. Yeah. Thank you for having me and, and, I made these for you also. Please take them.
Elizabeth: Thanks Carol.
Carol: Thank you.
I appreciate Elizabeth’s focus on organizational culture change if an organization is going to truly transform digitally. It is not just about shifting internal processes from analog to digital – it is really thinking differently about how you are using technology to support your mission – and that could have much broader implications than just improving internal processes. Any one who has worked on a technology project knows how easy it is to get caught up in worrying about making the right decision about what system to choose to achieve your goals – whether it is what fundraising software, what customer management system or what team collaboration tool you are going to use – and then what vendor will be the right one to properly service the system. But even if you make the ‘perfect’ decision if you do not bring folks along with you and consider the changes from their perspective, you may find that they do not see the change as the wonderful innovation or improvement that you do. Have you given thought and time to think about how a group will adapt to the new system? What it will mean in terms of their day to day? Can you find a few champions who will lead the way and demonstrate its value to those who are reluctant to jump in? The objects are a lot less shiny when folks won’t use them and they do not end up solving the problem you thought they would – not because the tech can’t do it -but because it is too much hassle for your teammates to take the time to learn the tech and it not an urgent need for them. This past year demonstrated just how quickly people can learn new technology such as Zoom when it is a burning need. So it is not really about whether people can – it is really rather – is it important for them to do so? If not – how can you help them see the importance?
Thank you for listening to this episode. It’s an honor for you to spend this time with me. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for their support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, it would be great if you would share it with a colleague or friend or on social media – please tag us if you do! We really appreciate you helping us get the word out.
In episode 22 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Michelle Nusum-Smith discussed include:
Michelle Nusum-Smith is owner and principal consultant at The Word Woman LLC. A licensed nonprofit consultant, coach and trainer, Michelle helps nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals achieve their goals. With over 20 years of nonprofit experience, she has expertise in all areas of nonprofit development and sustainability. Michelle has extensive speaker and facilitator experience. She is licensed to offer consulting services for the Maryland Nonprofit’s Standards for Excellence® program and has the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to work with nonprofits across the country. A graduate of the Honors Program at Coppin State University where she earned a BS in Management Science with a minor in Marketing, Michelle is a member of the Grants Professional Association and an Associate Consultant at Maryland Nonprofits.
Important Links: Interview Transcript:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Michelle. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Michelle Nusum-Smith: Thank you, Carol. Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Carol: I'm sure we're going to have a great conversation and people are going to learn a lot through all the expertise you bring to nonprofits, but I like to start with what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Michelle: Interesting question. I would certainly say my mom is definitely, I think the seed planter. So I was a do gooder before I knew what do you put or meant? We were always involved in some kind of community outreach, giving engagement, volunteering something. And so, my first job was in retail. Like most of us. Well, my first professional job was in health and human services, and I just loved the idea of helping people and giving back. But if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I would have been a teacher. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love using tools and techniques and resources. And so I echo spending most of my professional career in the sector and learning that most of us are very passionate. But we don't necessarily realize that nonprofits are businesses like for-profit businesses. They are best practices. And so people would ask me for help and assistance. So I eventually went from being an unofficial consultant to thinking one day, maybe I should officially do this. And so Almost 11 years ago now I started Word Woman LLC.
Carol: Well, that's awesome. And congratulations on your longevity because a lot of folks think, oh yeah, let me go out and do this, but not everybody makes it and makes it for eleven years. so congratulations on that. I appreciate what you said about your mom. My brother has special needs. He's autistic and profoundly deaf. And my mom was always his advocate. And then through the work, being his advocate, she became an advocate more broadly in the disability community. And it really was an inspiration for the things that he was not always thinking about. Well, certainly you want to make sure that all of your own folks, your family is taken care of, but then, what's the broader implication of all the folks who need the same help and what skills can you bring to help them take those same steps. So, appreciate that, that beginning. And what are the areas? I know you work in a lot of different areas, but one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with pursuing grants. And it seems to be that oftentimes. This is the first thing that people think about when they get into the nonprofit sector they're passionate about, an area they want to help people. They want to create some change or some good in the world and they come out with grants, we have to go after grants. What would you say is the most common misconception that people have about pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, it's interesting the way that you tee that up, because that's exactly it people, I think I've actually had to talk people out of starting a nonprofit simply because they narrowly think about the grants and the fact that, hey, you have to be a nonprofit to get one. So I would say that the biggest misconception is that just because you're doing good people won't want it. Like funders are going to want to give you a grant. So you don't have to think it through. You don't have to actually have a plan. Just tell them that you have a 501-C, three status, and they'll give you a grant.
Carol: Yeah. And I love the comment that you made about actually talking people out of starting a nonprofit. Tell me more about that motivation? What caused that conversation?
Michelle: Sure. I tell people all the time I am the nonprofit consultant that will talk you out of doing something you were willing to pay me to do. And that's because I'm very passionate about the nonprofit sector. And I know how critically important it is to protect it because with for-profit businesses, if a business does something wrong, it's the public that kind of singularly looks at that business and says that business is bad. But in our sector, if a nonprofit ends up on the front of the newspaper for the wrong reasons, it's not just that nonprofit, it's the entire sector, that's bad and corrupt or what-have-you. And so I really like to talk through with people when they approach me about helping them with starting a nonprofit, why do you want to do it? Let's explore the reason, let's explore some different fits, right? Let's explore if there were some alternatives. So a great example would be just last week. I talked to a group and they wanted to start a nonprofit simply because they wanted to get grants. And I explained to them that what they wanted to do, they could easily start a fund at the community foundation or get a fiscal sponsor or a nonprofit partner. And after a bit of back and forth, because they had made up their mind that they wanted to start this nonprofit, I put them in contact with some folks and they came back and circled back to me and said, you know what, Michelle, you were absolutely right. We're getting a fiscal sponsor. So. Yeah, other times it's you really should start a for-profit business let's own that M.O. and move forward.
Carol: Right. And there are different options now within the for-profit sector of being a B Corp or other kinds of, kind of for benefit, corporations that where, where the organization is not necessarily putting. only putting profit as the bottom line, but looking at a triple bottom line, if you will, but still being created as a for-profit entity. You talked about a couple of different things that folks may or may not be familiar with. One of them was a fiscal sponsor. Can you explain a little bit more about what that is and what the benefits are for someone getting started with a fiscal sponsor?
Michelle: Absolutely. So whether even if you start a nonprofit, so one of the things I explain to people is that just because you have a nonprofit doesn't mean that you have tax exempt status or you're eligible to receive charitable donations, that's getting the 501c3 status from the IRS though, when you start a nonprofit or you have some kind of informal program or activity that you want to be able to secure community support. That may come in the form of France that may come in the form of donations. A great strategy for that is through fiscal sponsorship. And what a fiscal sponsor is, is a nonprofit organization that has the 501c3 status from the IRS, but also has the capacity and willingness to bring your activity under their umbrella. And so the program, the nonprofit gets the benefit of 501c3 status. Without having the responsibilities. So all of the funding goes through the fiscal sponsor who helps to sort of manage those resources will be kept for the program or the nonprofit that doesn't have that 501c3 status. So it positions you to be able to still do your charitable work, to still get community support, but to do it with the support of an entity that is positioned and has the capacity and resources to. To properly manage that support.
Carol: Yeah. And oftentimes that capacity that could be difficult for organizations or when they're not, when they're fairly organizations where then when their program, when they're a person with an idea, is, managing the money, managing the accounting. If you end up with any staff, people, or contractors managing all of that, all of the kind of operational it, all of that kind of thing that, the, one of the things that I see is so many people have great ideas, but then every time you create a new organization, you also have to have some way of, accessing that, all of that infrastructure and, most times most people go into the sector or if they want to start an organization, their motivation is not around creating those operational, that operational infrastructure it's about helping people. Right. and so, yeah, so the fiscal sponsor can kind of. Take on some of that and provide some of that. So that the person with the idea who wants to create the program or who has created a program and wants to build it can really focus on that rather than. more of the administrative side or plug into already a system of administration that, that can, can support them. And then the other thing you talked about was, community foundation a little bit more about what they are and how they can contribute to someone who wants to get started.
Michelle: Oh, yes. So everyone who is listening, if your nonprofit is looking for support or financial support or capacity support, third, we go and have a conversation with your community foundation representative. The community foundation, unlike a family foundation or even a corporate foundation where they may have one singular purpose or focus area, the community foundation, a model, a Fords, nonprofits, the opportunity to make, to potentially tap into multiple sources more though at the same time. So the foundation has its own funding that it distributes. But there are also funds that individuals, corporations, community groups may establish that had their own purpose, their own criteria. So it could be grants, it could be scholarships, it could be seed money for a host of different causes. And so, one of the problems that we often have with accessing those resources is. The failure to have the conversation. And so we immediately just want to look for the current opportunity, submit the grant requests and cross our fingers and hope that we get funded. But if we have a conversation prior to you and we explore, well, where are the opportunities? I have a friend who is the president of the community foundation, and then. She was sharing with a group that was presenting, at the foundation for it. And she said that, we have people who have these funds who have an interest in supporting various causes. And we don't always know the nonprofits that fit that criteria. And so it's important for us to have these conversations, to explore with the different organizations, what their missions are, how they carry them out. So that the staff, the community foundation can figure out, well, how do we connect the individual who has the resources and wants to give it the organization that has the need and is trying to figure out how to cover it.
Carol: So almost like a matchmaking process, if you will. Absolutely. And when you talked about your, the kind of main misconception that people have is, I've got a great idea. I want to help people. I'll just go, I'll just fill out some forms and foundations are magically going to give me money. And you said that the biggest thing was, not having a plan. Can you just, can you say more, a little bit more about what you mean by that and what are the kinds of questions that people should be thinking through and kind of making decisions about to create that plan?
Michelle: So doing the homework. So what is homework? Homework is having a clear understanding of your mission and your vision and your strategy is developing programs based on those strategies that include a clear plan. Who, what, where, why, how and a budget to match it. So a lot of times organizations will identify an opportunity and then try to develop a program or project around the opportunity. Best case scenario is that you've already determined what you want to do. how much it costs, you have a timeline, and then you're looking for the opportunity that aligns with that plan. So that when you, when he gives it to you, the paperwork you begin to fill out the application, it's less of a, does this fit? Will they be interested? And more of, we know that this is a fit and we're just plugging in the information we've already developed. The other thing of course would be. how do we ensure that this is a good fit? And one of the ways that we do that is that we reach out to the funder in advance. Doesn't always happen, but sometimes the stars align and you can actually have a conversation with a foundation representative, send a quick email, potentially even have a meeting with them so that they can have a conversation and understand what it is you're planning to do. Ensure that, give you some assurance that it does align with what the foundation is interested in supporting. And that way, when your grant application arrives, it's not a surprise. They're expecting it. And, and having them that pre-work particularly the conversation positions us as non-profits to have an ally on the inside because when the decision-making starts. And nobody's sitting around the table, knows anything about your organization. They can look to what I call the gatekeeper, that program, officer, whomever, who could say, Oh, yes, I know about that organization. I can answer some of those questions you might have.
Carol: Yeah. So that first step of really ensuring fit, that, that you've done your homework and I would guess, and I'm not a fundraiser, but I would guess, just the basics of have you read what the foundation covers funds. Is what is the work that you're doing within their purview? Is it something, within one of their, one of their programs, cause most, most foundations and, and you said it's different than community foundations, which can have a wide variety of, of, areas that they're interested in, depending on all the different donors that might have funds with them, generally, Family foundations, corporate foundations, large and small typically have made some decisions around their own strategy around what they are interested in and what they're pursuing. So that first check of, well, let's read to make sure that we fit in some way. And then if we think we do reach out and say, well, I'm thinking, and so would it be something like this of, you write an email, this is kind of a para paragraph, like this kind of what we're, what we're aiming to do is this, within what you guys are interested in, in funding,
Michelle: That it's funny because I'm always reminded of, I was doing some grant work for an organization and I found this family foundation doing some research. I sent an email and it basically was like, you described a paragraph that introduced them to the organization. This is our mission. This is who he served. This is the work that we carry out. We will love to explore, Learning more about your foundation and where we might fit the president of the foundation. Now, of course, it's a small family foundation. So when I say presence, there's a small, but mighty group, email me back. Actually she called and left the voicemail and she said, we've never heard of this organization, but we're very intrigued that email that took me a couple of minutes to write resulted in a face-to-face meeting. An invite to apply for funding at the maximum amount that the foundation funds it. And that organization was funded twice, simply because I found the foundation and sent an email. So it does work.
Carol: And it can save you a lot of time if the answer is no, absolutely right, because it takes a lot of work to write a grant. Yes, sir. And if you don't even meet the first criteria and you get, you get pushed to the side in the first cut. That was a lot of work for nothing.
Michelle: I tell folks all. So you, you keep, you were saying, read, read, read, and I can't emphasize that enough. Read the bill, the foundation's website, read the request for proposal years ago, I was a volunteer to do grant reviewing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I did that for three years and these were 50 page documents. Grant applications for requests between half a million and a quarter million dollars. I can tell you that some of the applications were denied simply because it was very clear that the applicants have not read the request for proposal. They didn't submit the information that was appropriate. So we had to score them poorly. So you gotta read, read, read, and then follow the guidance.
Carol: So, what are some things that help people do a better job of pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, like I said, definitely don't want that homework. I would say really making sure that you read and re-read your proposal, your material before you submit it, make sure that your budget. Aligns with your narrative. I shouldn't say things in your budget that weren't mentioned in your narrative and vice versa. And then I think the other way to be successful with brands is to make sure that you deliver on your promises. So don't just get the money and then, go off celebrating, take it seriously and then deliver so that the funder will want to support you again.
Carol: Yeah, a couple of things you said there. I think oftentimes they may not think of the connections between the budget and the narrative, or, think of it. Oh, that's that last thing that we have to fill out, but really a budget in, in a way is like it's a plan in numbers, it's a plan and money and, so it really should connect back and it should be clear for the funder, how you're planning to spend their money because obviously, that's a key concern for them.
Michelle: There you go. And the budget should be real. I have had times where I've gone to meet with folks and I asked them for their budget. They slide it across the table and I slide it right back because I get to hell. It's just a bunch of numbers that you've made up. So. Actually be the homework and research. You shouldn't have to guess on certain things that you could just Google to find out. What is the, what is the cost of that item? and so it gives you, like you said, you get this mirrored version of the project in numbers that mirrors the narrative and it positions you so that you can actually deliver on what you propose because. If your budget doesn't align, then you're put in a position where you may run out of money, which you've told the funder, this is all the money that we need. So it's very important to make sure that the budget is based on doing your research and based on actual need and that it mirrors your plan.
Carol: Yeah, it seems like, another thing that I've experienced more from being on the program side of, here, all of the million things that we promised to the funder that we were going to do, and it's like, well, it's just me and this other person. And we only have so much time in the day and I don't know how we're going to deliver it all.
Michelle: Yes, yes, yes. Please do not over promise. First of all, if it's not feasible, it doesn't make sense. Years ago I was doing a, I was working with an organization and this was pre pandemic, but we were still by as Dean because they were in another country and they were going to be doing this maternal health project where they were responding to a request for proposal. So the project idea was already set and they were supposed to work with pregnant women and follow them through their child's third birthday. And I asked, there were two folks that I was meeting with, only two people who staff this organization. And I asked the simple question, how many pregnant women are you going to serve? I kid you not, The executive director said a thousand, and that was my face because I was thinking, first of all, where are you going to find a thousand pregnant women? Number one, but number two, how are you going to possibly follow them? Plus their children for three years? And so I think that what they were thinking was we need to give this big number. So it sounds like we're making a huge impact into that. I would say years ago, it was all about the numbers, the outputs, which is a grant term. So you're counting people, you're counting that you're counting, beads. Right? So that's how we measure success. The bigger, the number, the greater the success. But now we talk about impact, which is more about the outcome, the result of the work that you did. So we, instead of touching people. So it's great that you could say, well, we, we touched a thousand people, but did you actually affect change with them if you just simply touch them? Not really, but if you could actually work with a hundred and move them from where they are to a better position, a better situation. Then that's more impactful. That's more significant than simply just touching a thousand.
Carol: Yeah. So really looking at, and that goes from the request for proposal, the fact that they wanted those pregnant women to be followed through for three years, that's a significant amount of time. and yeah, to think about what's feasible in terms of your staffing and, and how many people you can reach and how many people will you be able to continue to work with over time. Yeah. What would you say? I think there are folks who are starting out, they have some misconceptions. I also find that sometimes board members can really have misconceptions about, grants and, and be very focused on grants. What would you say are, I mean, there are obviously a lot of upsides to getting grants, but are there any kind of hidden costs that you would, you would, talk about that to just caution people that they need to kind of consider those things as well when they're pursuing grants.
Michelle: So you touched on one of the things earlier where you said there's a lot of time and energy invested in just preparing the grant proposal. And, and if you have paid staff, then that means that's money or investing. So that may not result in a grant. And when it comes to getting the grant, there's a cost per se, related to that as well, because there's the cost of managing, there's costs related to investment of time for reporting for evaluations. So it's not just give us the money and, and, and we'll just go off with you, our mission, you, you touched with something else too, which is, this whole idea of the board and let's get grants, let's get grants. I actually have a client right now who, I just, before we got on our call, she, I was receiving emails where the board members found grant opportunities, which is great because that means that they were engaged. But we do want to recognize that grants cannot, should not and won't be your only source of funding. Grants have a lot of limitations. They don't pay for everything they're time bound. And so it's very important that as part of from the board level, part of our strategic planning that we're thinking about all of the available funding sources, And then we're thinking about how do we tap into all of them to ensure that we had adequate resources, whether that's individual donations, corporate support in the form of donations or sponsorships membership dues, do we pay half to like programs where folks may pay for services or as fees related to being involved with our organization, we need to look at all of the available funding sources. And then have a strategy so that grants are part of the strategy, but not be the strategy.
Carol: Yeah. And I wanted to, to ask you that, obviously grants are just one way to, to raise funds. And so you talked about those different types of possible revenue streams. What are some of the key aspects that organizations need to consider when they're thinking about putting together a fundraising plan?
Michelle: I would say certainly the fundraising plan should be driven by our strategic plan. So we're, we're planning to raise the money to support our, our program plans, our operating costs. Thirdly, there are costs that, as I said, are not going to be covered by restricted sources of funding, such as grants, keeping the lights on. So you may have a grant where the fundable say, we'll pay for the person who's presenting. We'll pay for the materials. We'll pay for food, but we're not paying the electricity, the electricity bill. And so we need to incorporate as part of that fundraising plan forces, better unrestricted. So individual gifts, you have some individuals I should say, could be central to our fundraising plan. And it should incorporate the various sources of revenue and an action plan or strategy for how we're going to carry it out. And that again, should be top down. So the board should be driving this effort, even when you have staff that may be implementing your plan.
Carol: So you talked about a couple terms that some people probably are already familiar with, but others may not be restricted and unrestricted funds. Can you say a little bit more about what that means?
Michelle: Sure. So the way I like to describe the differences for those of us who go to church and you make your tithes and offerings, most of us don't ask any questions about where that money's going. We just trust that it's going to be used for good. We go about our business. So as individuals, we're making contributions to our church without any strings attached or expectations, other than seeing the manifestation of, of the good, right. Whereas if you receive a grant or you receive a large gift from an individual donor, it may come with some expectations, some straights. So it may be restricted regarding the budget. So when we submit a grant proposal, we include a budget. The funder expects for you to spend the money as you budgeted it, as opposed to, if somebody just writes a check, there are no restrictions. You can use the funds or the benefit of the organization based on what's needed. There are restrictions that are related to the time and use. So, for example, you may receive less than you receive a grant for $50,000. And because of the funders approach, you get one check upfront of $50,000. So you're looking at your bank statement and it says there's $50,000 in there, but that $50,000 is tied to what 12 year I'm sorry, 12 month grant periods. So, although it's sitting in the bank, it's supposed to be spent according to the budget over that 12 month period. So restricted means there's some guidance around how you use it. Unrestricted means thank you, we'll pull together our strategy and then determine how to spend it.
Carol: Thank you. Thank you. So, on each episode I play a game at the end asking one, random icebreaker question. And so I have one here, what's something you believed earlier in your career that you think differently about now?
Michelle: Ooh, that's an interesting one. So something that I thought early in my career. That I think differently. This is a funny answer, but it's the one that popped in my head. So that's the one I'll share. So when I was younger, I looked young and I thought that people wouldn't take me seriously until I was old. And so I had this crazy idea that once I turned 40, that miraculously people will begin to take this seriously, but now I realize that people have always taken me seriously. Maybe not as seriously as I had bought or had hoped, or just, just didn't realize it. And age doesn't need to be a predictor of your credibility or your impact. And so I'm a believer that anybody and everybody, no matter your age can have a huge impact.
Carol: Awesome. I love that. Thank you. And so what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing these days.
Michelle: So I'm doing lots of different things, but I'm a Gemini. So I've always had my hands in a lot of different things. But one thing that I will mention that's related to our discussion is I have been wanting to do a grant writing boot camp. I've done them in the past. The one that is much more technical and much more, hands on and practical in application and I'm going to be I'm. So it's still in the works, but I will be doing that over the summer. It's going to be a six week virtual, I believe, virtual program. and so I'm looking forward to that and looking forward to you, Being who, who, who participates and, and the work that they do because of it.
Carol: So. Awesome. Well, we will put links in the show notes to your website so people can check it out and see when that program, when, when you launch it, which I'm sure will be super useful for many people because, yeah, sometimes it's, it's oftentimes that nitty gritty, that, that can get in people's way. When they're, when they're trying to, trying to, Put together, those, those grants, those proposals hopefully avoid all the things that we just talked about, but learn even more. I'm sure with you so, well, thank you so much. It's been great talking to you today.
Michelle: Thank you, Carol. I appreciate this opportunity.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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