In episode 58 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Deneisha Thompson discuss:
A licensed social worker turned social entre/edupreneur, Deneisha Thompson is a consultant, facilitator and coach who specializes in change management, leadership development, group facilitation, and building strong teams. She is the founder of 4 Impact Consulting, a social impact firm, that provides culture-influencing organizational development services focused on building, repairing and positioning nonprofit teams for impact and growth.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Deneisha Thompson. Deneisha and I talk about what the drivers of impact are, the factors that contribute to toxic cultures within nonprofit organizations, and why it is often so hard to have conversations about communications and accountability
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.
Welcome Deneisha. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Deneisha Thompson: Thank you, Carol. It's wonderful to be here,
Carol: So I'd like to start with a question of what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Deneisha: Okay, so as you said, I'm Deneisha Thompson. I am the founder of 4impact consulting. It is a consulting firm, a social impact firm that really is focused on what I call culture, influencing organizational development. As a black girl born in the Bronx, New York who now knows that they grew up quite very much so with a life of privilege. Both of my parents were immigrants who came to this country who sent me to Catholic school and told me, get an education, and that would solve all your problems. But now as a black woman and as an adult, I recognize The oppression and poverty and just systemic injustice that I was surrounded by as a young person. And I was given a lot of opportunities, which is why I was able in my adult years to start a firm. But right out of college, I knew that something was different and I felt really. Call to give back. One of my favorite sayings is to whom much is given much is required. And I looked around me and a lot of the people who I grew up with in the Bronx have very different outcomes. And I'm not really curious about why that is. Why is it that we can grow up very similar? Environments that have completely different outcomes. And so my very first job was as a case manager in a homeless shelter. And that was transformative for me. It was where I really began to learn about systems, where I began to learn about the isms and began to see just how difficult some people have it in spite of quote unquote, doing everything right. And I was very lucky and, and really worked hard, but moved up in the nonprofit sector quickly.
I have sat at every level of a nonprofit from direct service to supervisor, to senior management. I've been the chair of a nonprofit board. And really now, 10 years later after starting my firm. While well intentioned and well meaning non profit org, the whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. And so One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally. Don't treat each other well, internally have a toxic culture, internally have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued. And so when I found it was oftentimes I would do strategic planning, for example, with a nonprofit. And they would say things like this has been our third strategic plan and the other ones didn't work. And it's like, well, why not? What's the real issue around why you are not reaching the impact that you hope to have both in communities and internally as a team. And again, the through line of that is culture. You need to have a culture that is going to allow you to get to the impact that you want to be able to grow organizationally, to be able to support your staff so that they are able to do good work. And so that's why I do what I call culture, influencing org development. In short, I help nonprofits, get it together, get your stuff together. These communities cannot wait for you to figure it out for you to, , have these tough conversations and learn how to work better together so that you actually can achieve the type of impact that everyone is working so hard to achieve on a daily basis.
Carol: There's so many things I wanna follow up with on that, on what you just said. First, yeah, just certainly as I have come up and, thinking about my trajectory in the sector, become more and more aware of all the privileged boxes that I definitely check in terms of my identities and where that situates me. But one thing that really struck me from what you were saying is the sense that the nonprofit sector is broken. And I think what was my catalyst for shifting my focus into organization development and kind of. Why don't organizations work like I think they should? And why don't people work together? , why are they getting in their own way? Was that same discrepancy or cognitive dissonance between these really. Ambitious and wonderful. And sometimes just well intentioned, sometimes really grounded missions that that organizations wanted to have for the change that they wanted to see out in the world. And then not seeing that mirrored inside the organization, or actually even, opposite of that. Like, totally not. Living the, , embodying the values that they want to have other people embody somewhere else, but not embodying them internally. So yeah, that, that was definitely my catalyst as well.
Deneisha: Yeah. And I will say, it's not for lack of trying. Sure. I think nonprofits often, like I said, are well meaning. Full of people who really believe in what they're doing and wanna see the change that their mission is really driving. And, and so my company wasn't always called 4impact consulting. It was initially called rent an expert cause I wanted to connect. Expert consultants with the right nonprofit projects, that it was a win-win situation. And then after doing work for so long, people were like, we don't wanna work with other experts. We wanna work with you. And so it was Thompson LLC for a while.
But what I recognize is that it is really important to think about what the drivers of impact are. And for our company, we see them as being four very specific things that, , if you work on one, that's great. But if you work on all four, you actually can move the needle and get to meaningful change. And so those impacts or those four pillars are leadership. And that's tied to executive coaching and making sure you have strong leaders who are positioning themselves to learn and grow and be responsive to the needs of their team. It's around team professional development. So no more just sending one person to training and thinking they're gonna come back and change the entire organization, but how do we learn and grow together as a team so that we're rowing in the same direction, it's around communication. How do we create the environment to have a real life? Tough conversations, important conversations, brave conversations, so that we are respecting each other and sharing and allowing the brilliance of our diversity rise to the top. And then finally strategy. What does our strategic planning look like? Do we have a north star? Do we have a clear set of goals and targets that we're all working towards? And so what we try to do is really help the organization. Think about all four and whether or not you are hiring us for one service or all four services. We really think that together by doing those , really thinking about those four pillars and, and being active around them, you can build the type of culture you need to make the impact that you want. And so when we influence culture, we think, unless you really are taking an effort to think about all four of those pillars and thinking about how they work together, collectively extra organization, it's why people will say, well, we've done coaching it didn't work, or we've done. We had a mediator come in and that hasn't helped, or we've done some training. We've sent our leadership team to training and we did a retreat, but it's still not working. Or this is our third strategic plan. And the other two were not successful. It's like, yeah, because are we thinking about this as a collective, as four things that we are working on together to really influence the culture of the organization.
Carol: Yeah, I love how you break that down because , in the work that I do, I'm, I'm primarily focused in, on, on that strategic planning aspect, but always wanna come at it from a team perspective. So really engaging all staff [and] board in that process. Hopefully helping people have conversations. With people that they might not normally be interacting with. So a lot of those things, but I always think of the strategic plan as, and that whole process as in service of the rest of it and not a one. And , the one thing that's gonna, , mean success or, or not success, I think it's important, but I think it's, it's part of a bigger picture. Like you're talking about indeed.
Carol: So you talked about culture influencing and you talked about the, the. The toxic cultures that can often emerge in nonprofit organizations and also said people aren't trying to create these, it's not usually out of maliciousness or anything. It's, it's, , they're very well intentioned. And what do you see kind of, or, or what would be. And I'm sure it's by, , each organization obviously is, is individual and has its own set of circumstances, but in your experience, what are some things that contribute to that? And perhaps make it more prevalent. I don't know whether it's more prevalent. I don't know that anyone's done the study, but I think maybe some, some part of it for me at least, is that when you're in the sector and you're wanting to work for an organization that is driving towards a mission beyond profit, a mission that that's designed to, , In your estimation, make some positive change in the world. You also hold your organization to a higher standard in terms of how it treats everybody and, and how that culture is created. But I'm curious for you, what are some of the things that are kind of. Common traps,
Deneisha: perhaps. Right? So there are lots of feeds of what I would say, create toxic cultures, particularly in the nonprofit sector. And, there's no one size fits all. There's no one type of nonprofit. So whether we're thinking about service organizations or we're thinking about philanthropy, or we're thinking about think tanks, there's lots of different makeups of nonprofit fors, but at the heart of it, It usually is a set of people that are trying to tackle a problem. And what I say is nonprofits are made up of humans, right. And in the business sector and like the private sector, when you are driven towards profit, there's like a very clear north star, right? Like, are we making more money? Are we, are we building our customer base? Whatever that is in a nonprofit. You often have people who are really passionate about the mission, which then makes it hard. And what I say is you can't like people say, leave your personal self at home. And like, just come to work that doesn't work in the nonprofit sector, whether you are working on issues related to poverty or education or homelessness, or, , especially with service orgs. We're often looking at places where people care a lot and their passions. Drive how they show up. So that's one thing, just like the idea of people who love the work are passionate about it, and really come in with their own personal perspective around how the work should be done.
The other thing is, , unlike some other sectors, there's a lot of diversity in terms of experience and education in the nonprofit sector. And so you have people with all different types of backgrounds, not necessarily humans oriented backgrounds that come in and. , either lead at nonprofits or are part of nonprofits. So everything from lawyers to MBAs to human services, professionals, to social workers, all of which have their own code of ethics. So their own way of approaching. How you show up at work. And I think oftentimes what happens is that nonprofits are not always good about declaring the lane that they're in the expectations. They have the shared values that you have that are going to drive your work. And so you have people with all these different educational backgrounds. Who are coming in, have learned different ways of approaching problems.
And then the nonprofit doesn't do the internal development to say, well we're a values driven organization. These are our values. This is how we embody them. And these are the expectations we have of the people who work here, not only of how we treat communities, but how we treat each other and how we speak to each other. So there's that then there's always like the stretch too thin. Funding is a difficult thing to do, but nowadays there's a lot of competition out there for it. And so while we're not businesses, we often operate through a business lens that then become places that aren't always connected to our values and embodying values and are just chasing contracts, chasing dollars, treating clients and participants like another number and really putting pressure.
Staff without actually supporting them to do the type of difficult work they do on a daily basis.
And then finally, I would say power depending on whether you're a small nonprofit or huge nonprofit. And how the systems of hierarchy work within your nonprofit. As nonprofit organizations, we're often trying to reorient power in communities and to think about how we think about self-determination, how we promote that, how we promote communities being part of the solution. And then we don't do that internally. You may have a group or a committee who holds the power, who holds the influence and then makes lots of decisions for people who don't feel like they can actually be a part of it. So it just becomes adversarial in terms of internal operations. And oftentimes the people who are closest to. The members of the community who you're trying to work with and for are the people who have the least amount of power, the least amount of influence. And so then resentment bills and, , people say things like, I feel like a hamster on the wheel, or I feel like we're not really tackling the problem or we know what the problem is, but we can't talk about it openly here, or they're gonna do whatever they want. So now I'm just showing up for a check.
Or people are not paid really well. People who are closest to the ground case managers, people who are doing difficult work in communities are not paid very well, are often checking themselves away from needing some service or help. And so it just isn't a space. Promotes wellness oftentimes for staff to be well for staff to be in a good space to do the type of emotional, passionate, difficult work that it requires. And so those things. Collectively together, depending on what happens at a specific nonprofit often breeds a culture where communication is not valued, like honest, clear, open communication at all levels where feedback loops aren't really happening. And there isn't time. You hear a lot, we didn't have time for training. We don't have time to do this meeting. We don't have time to get together and do team building. We don't have time to resolve the conflict. And so it becomes a place where turnover is high. And rather than build culture, you think we're just gonna smooth the chairs around, do a little bit of musical chairs, switch out the people and things will get better. And so I know that was a lot, but there are a lot of differences, it just goes to show. There are a lot of different ways to get to a toxic culture. And my work is regardless of how we got here. Let's try to do a good assessment to understand what the landscape is and why we are, where we are. And then let's as a team collectively through leadership, through communication, through training, through real strategy, deep strategic planning, think about how we can build a better culture that helps us work better together. and, and restore good relationships so that the toxicity is reduced and good teamwork is elevated.
Carol: Yeah. That's awesome. Just talking about the, the passion and thinking about Yeah, most people will end up at an organization because of something in their past or some connection that they have to the issue that leads them there, or even, I know for myself just thinking about my trajectory, it wasn't necessarily , I have a, I have a older brother who has a disability, and so I didn't end up in the disability arena, a lot of siblings do. But I think that was part of what motivated me to step into the nonprofit sector and see all those systems. But, and, and then the other thing that you were talking about in terms of professional backgrounds, I hadn't even really thought about that of each. Each profession, having its own code of ethics, its own way that it sees the world. Right. And what it thinks is, is good practice or not good practice and all of those value systems clashing in, in, in addition to the individual value systems clashing. And then I also think of that. We don't have time. We don't have time for team building. We don't have time for training. The issue that we're working at is so pressing, we have to be focused on that a hundred percent of the time. And so folks who ended up in leadership positions may probably ended up because they were good at.
One of those things that the organization did, they were great at advocacy or great at service or great at program development and may have had no training or development around what it actually means to be a leader. And then you, you give through a lot, Abby. So I've just like, had so many different thoughts of to, to think about, but also the fact that in so many organizations while. The organization and its mission wants to disrupt those power dynamics. And yet the models that we have, and even the models that are built into how nonprofits are structured from a, , as a not for-profit corporation Really just mirror the same hierarchy and, and same power systems that we see everywhere else. And so how do you, how do you start questioning that and what I also appreciate is a way that you elaborated on what you mean by communication, cuz so often when I'm doing that organizational assessment that you talk about, that'll happen for me at the beginning of a strategic planning process. People name well, communication is, , we need to improve communication. And my question is always in what way, what, I always feel like there's many things behind the label communication that are actually other things, but some of the things that you talked about of just that capacity to have. Open and brave conversations are often lacking and people need skill building in those areas. Few people, at least in my experience, were taught how to do that at home.
Deneisha: Yeah. It's one of the things I was just recently talking to a client about the word accountability, because it's the same thing, or really similar to communication where people want members of their team to be accountable for the things they're supposed to do. And when accountability doesn't happen, it hurts trust. But it's also a really hard thing to have that conversation around, right? Like people are saying, this is my job and I can be responsible for this, but when things go wrong, Owning up to it and, and being able to recognize how, whatever you didn't do impacted your team is a really scary thing. We are not. Our culture and just as humans, we are defensive deans. We are not bred to really exist, to be public about accountability. You may feel bad internally, but to actually come out and say, what? I screwed this up. I'm sorry. Or I had a bad day and I didn't show up. Those things are not valued. We actually have a very punitive approach to how we deal with people not doing what we need them to do. And that's very present in the nonprofit sector.
While we talk about things like restorative justice, and we talk about things like healing and bringing people together. And build bridges. These are all terms we hear around the sector a lot. We don't really create mechanisms internally for people to feel safe to do that. And so what ends up happening is that we have lots of teams who are individuals. Just try to escape accountability, because I don't wanna be written on, I don't wanna a bad performance review. I don't want to be othered or, or to be rejected and feel like I don't belong. It is a. Difficult difficult thing to, to be accountable to your team. And so part of that is like, I tie that in with communication because what we wanna do is to normalize like imperfection. No, one's perfect. We all make mistakes. We all have bad days. We all have had times where we were supposed to do something and we didn. And so how can we practice grace on our team and really offer grace to people in the way we would want people to be graceful to us when we make a mistake or we don't show up, or we had something personal or we were, or, or, or our lived experience. Came into play in a way that didn't allow me to be really objective at this moment. Right.
And so I think , oftentimes I say in the nonprofit sector, we do things that are really dehumanizing. And what I mean by that is things that are natural human emotions, like being fearful of getting in trouble or not being honest because you don't know what the repercussions are, or it may impact your ability to be promoted or saying I'm not ready to be a supervisor. I know I've been here 15 years, but I don't really have any leadership development or supervisory skills. Right. Like. The idea of leadership, supervision and management being three different things. These words people use interchangeably. And so sometimes people are promoted into positions that they're really not equipped to do. And being able to say, what, I really wanna get a promotion, but this job isn't for me is not, are not muscles we massage. And so that's why, again, I talk about culture so much because you have to build a culture where we normalize those uncomfortable things, where we normalize people. Being fearful. And we say, we know, but we want to create a system where we can be honest. We can be transparent and it's not gonna happen overnight. But how do we build trust with each other? How do we start having those things and putting systems in place and taking baby steps towards normalizing the things that people are often running from and things like communication. Accountability. Really being able to declare when you're not ready for something or when you've hurt someone's feelings, being able to like go beyond, not just that. I'm sorry. Cuz I'm sorry. Doesn't solve it. Everything is a really important skill that needs to be taught. You're not born with that. And if you don't practice it it's like anything, you lose the muscle for it. And so it's really about consistently building in opportunities for teams to be vulnerable with each other, to, in order to build trust, which we all know is like the foundation of having a really strong team.
Carol: Yeah. So, yeah, absolutely. And I'm thinking back to a program that I was involved in where it was a, a, , a new executive director CEO program leadership development program. And I would say that the number one, we. Did a lot of the more structural stuff here. Working with your board roles and responsibilities. But the crux of the issue that people were, I felt like had the most fear around was actually giving feedback to employees having those challenging conversations.
And even to the point where I was just on a call this morning and someone was reflecting the fact that in this organization, none of their leadership team ever gets any performance evaluation. And then thinking back to my career in organizations, and I would say there was only one that was a larger organization. Had any regular system for that. So, , it may not, it may not need to be a formal evaluation system, but what, how are you building those feedback loop loops so that people have a sense of how they're doing. And, and then also can, , can. Have a space to have those conversations about what's going well and, and what isn't and it isn't. And so, those check ins aren't always like a performance of these are all the awesome things I did last week.
Deneisha: Carol. You just hit the nail on the head. Can I just tell you, this is like one of the main conversations that I have at nonprofit organizations where we have. Especially when I talk to supervisors and then leaders are another topic. I'll come to that in a second, but sure. The idea. Constructive feedback versus constructive criticism. Mm right. And like what role do evaluations and supervision play in that feedback should be happening constantly. We should not just be waiting until something goes wrong to have conversations around how we can do better. And in supervision, it shouldn't just be like a check-in like you said around like, well, this is what we have in college. This is what we do. I always say to supervisors, if you are a match, if someone is seeing something for the first time on the performance review, you have failed. Right. Right.
You have plenty of opportunities between annual evaluations to share your feedback. And it doesn't always have to be in the form and it should not be in the form of criticism. You don't wanna be criticized like that does not feel good. What this should be is like, how can we grow? How can we do better? And so there is opportunity, every single one, to provide feedback. And you should be also saying as a supervisor, how can I support you? Right. Like, what do you need from me to be able to do these things? So feedback doesn't just go from the top down. It should also be able to go from the bottom up for a staffer to say, okay, I hear you. These are the things you'd like me to do, but here's the support that I need or the resources I. To get that done. So number one, feedback should be in a 360. It should go all the way around. Everyone should be providing feedback on a regular basis and feedback's different from criticism. We really should try not to criticize because that feels so personal and traumatic for so many people. That starts to lead to toxic work cultures and then people hiding from accountability. So that's one piece of it. The other piece is around leadership and that's why in my four pillars, we start with leadership. I always say the tail follows ahead. And while it may not follow in a straight line behind the head, it might be like a little wiggly rule behind. It's not gonna be going in the opposite direction. And so leadership is so, so, so important in building a culture. And when I say, , when I do coaching with executives, , we. I really try to work, to create environments where people can be honest and vulnerable. And what I've heard from so many leaders is, is like, what? I know I'm not, I know that I have room to grow, but it can be really isolating as a leader to get the type of support that you need. So who are you surrounded by? You have your staff who work for you and you're supposed to know what you're doing. And so you don't really wanna be vulnerable with them and say, folks, I don't have this, so I'm not sure about this. I don't really have experience in this area. I'm not really sure what to do. No leader wants to tell their staff that they don't know what to do. Then you have your board who often is supervising you, right? like, that's not necessarily the space where you also can be vulnerable and honest about your opportunities for growth. And then you have your colleagues who are other leaders of other organizations, and you definitely don't wanna tell them most of the time that you don't have it all together. And so. It becomes really hard for leaders to get the type of support that they need in order to be good leaders. And a part of that is also not creating systems to get feedback from your team around your leadership.
And it is one of the most common things that I see that leaders are not getting evaluations. And they're also not going to training, so they'll send everyone else to training, but they're not getting professional development. They're not getting coaching. They're not putting themselves in environments to really stretch and think beyond what they currently know. They're not learning new ways of knowing. And so it really, and, and then they think they're hiding. And what I try to help them understand is you're not hiding. Your staff see poor leadership. They might not have a space to tell you that they feel you're a poor leader, but this stuff. Impact, right.
Just like doing the coaching and getting good professional development can have a positive impact, not getting that also has the impact. And you're actually, you may be hiding from your board or you may be hiding from your clients or, or your or your colleagues. You're not hiding from your staff. Your staff are talking about you and talking about your poor leadership, and it would behoove you to really demonstrate that they are not the only ones who need to do better, that you, as a leader also needs to do better. And I will tell you, in organizations where I have seen culture shift, where people talked about it being toxic, and really being able to see where that switch happened when they see their leadership, taking it seriously. And their leadership also has opportunities of vulnerability and being honest and saying like, here's the spaces where I need to grow staff really buy into that because it no longer feels like it's this one sided finger pointing. We just need to get better trained staff. They recognize that this is a team thing, an organizational thing, and we're all gonna work on it together. And so what you said resonates so much because leadership matters, it really, really.
Carol: Well, and I, I see that finger pointing going both ways, right. Of staff in the break room, , venting about the leader, but that feedback not, not ending up. And I think the other thing that I, I noticed from that group and I've certainly seen at other places was that they, that they. The word feedback to them was synonymous with criticism. Feedback was always negative. Like I have to give someone feedback. Well, if you're giving feedback all the time, it can be both recognizing wins, recognizing the positive and having constructive feedback as well. And the other thing, I think that, in terms of feedback, that people Could do with more practice. And that's where the skill building really comes in is getting specific because I've worked for people who are like, you're doing a great job. It was awesome, but it's like, well, what, what was it that you saw that was particularly helpful that I could build on. But that two way feedback and certainly. Those kinds of programs where people where leaders can get a little more vulnerable with peers to be able, or with coaching, to admit their growth edges is, is really, is really key.
Deneisha: feedback. Isn't also just an outward thing. Sometimes feedback's listening, right? Like a key component of being able to give good feedback. Is to also listen and to hear and to synthesize that information and then to provide something back to the person that is actually actionable, that's meaningful. Mm-hmm . And to your point, that's really clear about the next step, right. And then also like to have an opportunity for disagreement. Like we all come from our own perspectives and some things are clear. Cut. Right. That was unsafe, something that you did was unsafe or things like that, but things like you could do better, like that's subjective, right? Like how, how can I do better is the next question? And because we are defensive beings, I think we also have to realize, like we will personalize feedback. And so how can you give it in a.
That feels positive and helpful and not just something that's gonna sting so badly that actually, I haven't been able to take that feedback in and I'm not gonna do anything about it. I'm just gonna be mad, right? Like now I just feel offended, particularly if it's coming in my performance review and we've had all these other opportunities to meet, and you've never said this to me. Right. And so I really do think it's incumbent on supervisors, managers, and leaders to build the muscle, to do. Constructive feedback. And again, even when it's about something that someone can feel is criticism that the way you frame that feedback. Can have very different results in how someone receives it. And so this is not just about wounding people. And what I say is like the punitive approach to things in organizations like that doesn't actually help people be honest. And so how do we get to a space where we create a culture of honesty? It has to be one that doesn't feel harmful to people. Yeah,
Carol: You talked about leaders , thinking that they're hiding X, Y, or Z, and, and staff are in the break room talking about it. And it just makes me laugh because I've had a couple different instances where I've come into strategic planning and the executive director was getting, , maybe they were two years. Maybe they were a couple years out from retiring and they, I don't wanna tell, don't tell anybody about this. And I'm thinking about that. I'm like, okay. So you're clearly in your sixties, seventies. This is not invisible to people. People are talking about this. Like how long are you planning to be here? What's the trajectory, what's your plan? So, , that's just one one example, but this notion that, , they're keeping secrets is, is one that is not helpful. So, I mean, I think about feedback learning how, how to give feedback in a way that. Increases the likelihood that someone can hear it. Right? I mean, you, you can't guarantee that, but there are ways to, to phrase things that are more likely for someone to be able to, to hear that. So what are some of the practical, I mean, what would you say to someone in terms of, Getting better at providing feedback. What are some things that you talk to people about?
Deneisha: So one of the things I say is something you said earlier is that it should happen regularly and should not always be based on what went wrong. Right. So it shouldn't also always just be about the individual person. Have we created opportunities to evaluate our work? Are we creating opportunities to evaluate the effectiveness of maybe a project or initiative or an event that we hosted? Do we ensure that feedback when it's given you also say things. What can I do to support you in doing that so that this person knows they're not on their own to just figure it out?
Definitely making sure that anything you put in a performance review has been discussed with someone. So no one ever feels like the rugs have been pulled out from under them. And then give feedback directly to the person. I cannot tell you how many times there's like all this stuff swirling about a person and no, one's actually told them. They talked about it with their colleagues. They've talked about it with the leadership, maybe even talked about it with HR and no, one's talked about it with the person who is the subject of the conversation.
And so some of it also requires having a direct approach and making the commitment to say, I'm gonna give you this feedback, but I also wanna hear back from you. How, how do you one, how do you feel? That's one of the things that's like the biggest curse word sometimes in our sectors. Like we don't care how people feel. We don't wanna know how you feel. Well, no, actually we are a social service human service sector where feelings actually matter because it impacts. People's actions.
And if everyone feels really horribly, it's really hard to get them to do meaningful work. Right. And so like, no, I hear you. And getting opportunities to be responsive to the feedback and asking again, the question around support, how can I support you in doing this? I also think it is an opportunity for questions. I think sometimes people give feedback and there's no room to ask questions about. How'd you get there? How'd you get, why did you make that decision? And also almost like a little bit of coaching. What could you have done differently, especially if it's something that the person may not, not feel great about one of the things that's thinking about. Okay.
So next time. What are some things we can try proactively developing strategies so that the next time someone is confronted with a similar issue, they don't have to figure it out on the fly. It's really helpful. And so I really think that in supervision, That should happen regularly and that organizations should really train their supervisors. That's another piece of it. I cannot tell you how many times I have done supervisor training and asked people who have been supervisors for five years, 10 years, and they've never actually had supervisor training and it shows, or organizations are not clear about their expectations of supervisors. So everyone's running their team like it's in their own little kingdom. Those are recipes for disaster and actually just increased risk and liability, right. At an organization because it's hard to show consistency, which then people can use in a lawsuit to say, this was discriminatory as opposed to this is what we're doing. And so it's feedback regularly and often. Allow for questions and proactively plan things that you can try next time. So you have some strategies and then check in, how did that go? What did it mean? How did you learn from it? And again, how can I support you and ensure this is something you're actually able to do and accomplish.
Carol: Absolutely. Yeah. And, and I was laughing when you described the swirl around people, because I feel like that's another common thing that people will do. They'll call someone like us. Right. I want to do team building or I wanna do board training or roles and responsibilities. And once you start having the conversation of, okay, why. We're having a problem with this person. And then the next question I'll always ask is, well, have you had a conversation with that person? Well, no, not yet. Nope. Okay. Well, we can talk if we can continue talking about training or team building or whatever it is. And you need to have the conversation.
Deneisha: Yeah. I'll give you another quick example of how I can tell at an organization when there's a communication barrier. So oftentimes someone will hire me and say, for example, I'm gonna come in and do the strategic plan. And as. A part of the strategic planning, like you, I do an org assessment to get us started. And I always pride myself. It's similar to supervision and with the evaluation that at the end, when someone gets their org assessment and you share it with the leadership and share it with the team that it should feel familiar, it shouldn't feel like, like a bomb just dropped and there's all this new information.
But oftentimes the response that I get, people get their org assessment and they'll read through it. And they're like, yeah, we knew all of this. And it's almost as if they're expecting it to be a document full of secrets and things they didn't know. And that says to me, like these are issues that everyone knows about. We know the landscape of where we are, but we don't have a system for us to have that conversation, which is why we had to hire a consultant to come in and tell us where we all already know. And we could have elevated in a landscaping conversation if we just had a team that was able to communicate and talk to each other. And so it'll be like their assessment. It'll have recommendations. It'll have questions for further consideration. And I find, oftentimes the staff are like, this is amazing. Like, I've been saying this for years. And then the leadership is. Oh, we, we knew some of this or, , it's good to see it, or you really captured our, our organization and it's like, yeah.
So did you really need this assessment or did you, right? Like, could you have had these conversations or maybe dealt with some of these things internally before it rose to the level of being a complete issue right now? And. That's another way to show that everyone is itchy. Shouldn't talk to the consultant. I can't wait to talk to you as a part of this assessment. I wanna tell you everything. And then I pulled together this report and everyone's like, yeah, we knew all that stuff already. It's like, yeah. Why have you not been talking about it? What's the, where's the barrier that makes it, so that the only way this rises to the level of something that we're gonna deal with? If someone from the outside comes in and tells us like that is a huge indicator that you haven't set up systems of communication internally for your team to have important conversations that are meaningful to like the impact of your work.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. I have that same experience of people thinking that there's gonna be a big reveal and then saying, well, no, really wasn't that much surprising. I think what they do find what I have experienced is people find there's a sense of relief yeah. Of. We are more on the same page than I thought. I thought I was over here having these thoughts myself and actually everybody else is having those same thoughts. But as you point out, like, why are they just thoughts? Why are they not conversations? Exactly. So yeah, so, and then, I mean, I think sometimes it is helpful. Any process where you're working with a consultant or a coach, or you have a system for doing that in a methodical way, that certainly organizations can do themselves.
And I think it's helpful sometimes to have a shepherd really, to guide you through it. So it's, it's both, but right. Not to just wait every three years for that to happen. Right. If you're on a regular process for a strategic plan, for example, again, like the performance review, you don't have to wait for three years. And then in terms of the goals, I also , if the goals are so far beyond. What's been in the conversations. I also am like, I don't want any of these to be super like a left field either because it needs to relate to what you're already doing and what you're already good at.
Deneisha: Right. That's the part that I actually find is the meaningful part of the strategic planning. Of course, all of it's meaningful. The landscape analysis is important. Having some assessment. Because you need to reflect on the past in order to really build good goals and targets for the future. But I find that's the piece because I always say so. There's a hundred things we can do. Our goal in this process is to build alignment and find consensus around the best next set of things we can do. What is the thing that will help us when it comes to things like operations or development programs and services? What's the right combination? It's putting together a puzzle. So you end up listing all these ideas and then working together to really think about them. What's the right combination of pieces to get us further than where we are? Three years from now. And so that's the part that I think is really helpful for teams in the strategic planning process is building the muscle of being able to like learn from the past, think together, and then develop a plan that there is team alignment and cohesion around the next steps of things that can move us forward.
Carol: absolutely. So we identified a lot of the problems with nonprofit culture. And you talked about some of the ways that organizations can start stepping forward to, to build a more positive culture. What are some other things that you would say are really important as organizations and leaders wanna get more intentional about building a healthy culture?
Deneisha: Yeah. So one of the things I think is just a really easy starting point is to think about how you embody your organizational values and notice I use the word embody. I think all organizations have values, but when we think about, and what does that look like here? Those are questions that need to be answered. I think oftentimes organizations will list their values. And when you ask staff about what that looks like or ask community members about what that looks like, that is not really clear.
Or what is our organizational culture? I always define culture when I'm talking to groups because I Al I use the term like, it's like, look, everybody knows what it is, but if you try to define it, we're all gonna have, there's 10 of us in this room. There'll be 10 different definitions. And so really trying to understand what the culture is. Like that's an important conversation to have. What do people think about our org culture? Is it healthy? Is it toxic? Just asking the basic question. I think another thing is to, , really think about where do we have opportunities for us to connect and talk and like, is there a space for us? , put questions up somewhere that we actually have some conversation and then a, a action around. So lots of conversations happen at nonprofits and sometimes I'll hear things like we've been talking about this for years, but there's no action tied to it.
So having conversations lead to action is a practice that you should have, like do not get stuck in analysis paralysis. , and even like the term parking lot, when I do strategic planning, we don't do that. We don't use that term because people say things like the parking lot is where things go to die. So we use the phrase, a runway and I give the analogy like this is a plane, and we're about to launch something with this strategic plan. What are the bumps on our runway that would keep us from a safe launch, right? From a successful launch.
So identifying the, like, there's always a ton of things that we could work on, but what are the things that are really barriers to keeping us from having the type of culture that we want. And then finally, like really the recognition that culture is everyone's. It's not just the HR person's job. It's not just the job of the supervisor. It's not just like the DEI person's job. Like all of those things require all of us to be embodying the values as we have defined them. And. To make sure that everyone is contributing to trying to have a more positive and healthy work culture. And so defining what that looks like is what I do like with organizations to say, like, what are our expectations of each other and how we work together. And just naming that and saying that we are also individually going to make our commitment around how we're going to contribute to this on a daily basis. So I tell people. Let's get in touch with your shadow side, because we all have one. It's never really the thing. We're proud of stuff, but what happens is it shows up at work and your teammates see it, and they don't know that.
And so we do a lot of work around, like, who am I as an individual? How do I show up? And how do I. When things come up change my reflex. So I am not automatically thinking about the external factor or the person who caused this thing or caused me to be frustrated. My first instinct is to be reflective and think about how am I showing up right now? How did I contribute to this thing? How do I calm myself down so that when I do go to have this conversation, it can be productive and get us to a better place and not just be like a way for me to vent and, and, or feel vindicated. So I think it really just takes a lot of intention.
And I think, again, the number one thing that organizations can do is have a leader that says like, this is meaningful. I want us to have a healthy culture. And I, as a leader, am going to really leave this effort and participate in making sure we have what's necessary to get us there. What are your suggestions? Right, like starting from the top saying this is everyone's job, including mine. and this is what we're gonna work on. And we're like the next year or however long it takes for us to have the types of conversations, get the type of training that we need to set up the systems so that we can be in a better place. This is no one person's fault. I think that's the other thing. We do a lot of blaming in the nonprofit sector. We blame the government. We blame communities. Like we blame each other. How do we reduce the culture of blame? And say that everyone has to have skin in the game. Everyone needs to work on personal accountability and everyone contributes to whether or not we have a healthy culture.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. Well, that leads me into the last part. On every episode, I play a little game where I ask a question from a box of icebreaker questions that I have, and the, the one, one of the ones that I pulled out today was what's the, what's the life lesson or mistake that you keep on making over and over again and keep having to relearn,
Deneisha: To protect my time. I think I do not. Because I have some of the same things I talk about with nonprofits. I am so passionate about my work that I work a lot and I don't always make time to. Have joy, like true joy. I think I worry about clients. I worry about work. I worry about the world and am I taking enough time to replenish my gas tank? Right. Like, I feel like my work is exhausting. It's meaningful. It's hard work. I'm one of the lucky ones that my personal values and passion are very much connected to my professional values and passions.
And how do I actually just sometimes take time to pause and in spite of all of the crazy around me, like, Experience joy, like really like prioritize that. I think it would help me not feel so exhausted all the time and would actually help me just show up in life and be better to myself and get that good balance. I have a big vision board in front of me that I sit in front of every day. And one of the phrases on it is, or two of the phrases are to get balance and rediscover pleasure. And they are reminders that I have to make to myself all the time. And I think it's something that's endemic in our sector of people who are well, meaning passionate, stretched really thin. Always helping others and not really doing what's necessary to help themselves and replenish. So I would say that and ask for help, because I think that's also important.
Carol: Oh my goodness. You named my top two too. We seem to have something in common. So what, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Deneisha: So one of the things I'm very excited about is, changing things for a lot of folks. I'm an adjunct professor. So I teach in the school of human services at metropolitan college of New York. And I have been able to take that skill set and translate it into building a virtual classroom. And so I'm really excited about the launch of this virtual classroom that will be able to. Help teams get professional development at the time and that it works for them.
One of the biggest things in our sector is time. And so I'm really excited that the beta testers who are testing the classroom love it. It is gamified and its incentivized staff earn rewards and points for participating in professional development. And I love that. It's not just based on one individual going to get training and thinking. They're gonna bring that back to the organization. This really. Built to cater to all different learning styles, to be training that sticks and to offer people rewards for growing and building and doing better. And so I'm really excited for teams to learn together. Participate in the discussion forms and really create something that's new that I think our sector needs, but is not out there. And I'm really happy to have a real innovative way to help teams get the type of training and learning that they need to build better cultures.
Carol: That's awesome. So you're, you're in beta now. Let us know and we'll make sure to include all the information in the show notes for this episode. And, and I, I love how you phrase it and, and you talked about it before not just sending one person to training X and expecting it to impact, because what happens is people come back from that training, all excited, and then they run into the culture. Exactly. Exactly. And, and so, yeah, so it's all, or they're
Deneisha: Not trainers, they're not facilitators. So it's like, OK, I got the training. I teach everybody training and no
Carol: One, my, my air quotes and it's actually just listening to someone drone on. Right. So they're not actually getting to, to do skill development, but yeah, that sounds really exciting. And we will definitely include that information. I'm sure it will be a really, really rich resource for the sector. So thank you so much. And thank you again for coming on. It was a great conversation.
Deneisha: Thank you, Carol. It's really great to spend some time with you today.
Carol: I appreciated what Deneisha said about feedback. When folks hear the word feedback – they usually assume it is feedback about something bad. But feedback itself is neutral and needs to be frequent and specific. For positive things and for things that need improvement.
Too many organizations lack any system for providing performance feedback on a regular basis – starting with regular evaluations – to integrating feedback into regular conversations. And the key – and it can be challenging – is to be specific. Just telling me “great job” feels a little meaningless. That about it was great – can you give me a specific example. I appreciated when you spoke up in that last meeting and challenged us to think some more about our new direction. Your questions were really thought provoking and helped us slow down and not make a decision too quickly. That is specific positive feedback. And I also appreciated Deneisha’s point that a culture that only provides criticism encourages people to hide from accountability and hide mistakes – they want to avoid being called out and that sting. Yet things will go wrong and they need to be discussed too – How can you create a space where it is safe to admit mistakes – and that the discussion is focused on what can we learn from this and manage and or avoid it in the future. – that it is future oriented vs. blame oriented. And beyond the individual level – how are you creating a learning culture – where your work on a project, program or initiative basis is also being regularly evaluated – and not just whether folks like it or not – enjoyed it or not – but rather it is achieving the goals and objectives it was designed to produce. And if not what tweaks need to be made? And have you taken the time to map out what the assumptions, the expected short, medium term and long term outcomes are?
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 Deneisha, her full bio, the transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed today’s episode , please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. The easiest way to do that is to go to podlink. Pod.link/missionimpact and you can share the podcast or any individual episode and then your colleague can listen on their podcast listening app they prefer. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
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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.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.