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.
In episode 17 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Wendy Wolff discussed include:
- How leading a non-profit differs from leading a for-profit business
- Awareness vs. action
- Why people are scared of evaluation
- Assumptions made when working with communities
- Changing social norms
- Where to start evaluation on an organizational level
- The barriers to evidence-based testing
Activating and coordinating community responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic was how Wendy Wolff began her career in the nonprofit sector. Her early career helped her to build a strong understanding about the value and role of the community in program planning and policy development. She brings nearly 25 years of diverse consulting experiences to her role as Director of Strategic Engagement for Maryland Nonprofits. Wendy has collaborated with government agencies; universities; non-profit organizations; and faith-based organizations to enhance the quality of life within many communities throughout the United States. She uses her strategic thinking skills to help clients synthesize information from wide-ranging sources, reframe problems while uncovering root causes to find refreshing, creative and effective solutions.
Over the past two decades, Wendy has helped thousands of organizations and their people to create brighter futures for the communities in which they serve. Her excitement in working with the members of Maryland Nonprofit’s is infectious. She values the genius that each and every person brings to their role in the sector and works diligently to elevate any person that she engages with.
Ms. Wolff holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from New York University. She has resided as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver and as an Associate Faculty Member at Indian River State College. Wendy is a licensed consultant with the Standards for Excellence® Institute. Ms. Wolff’s first book, The Letter Writing Project (Blooming Twig Books), was published in August 2014.
Connect with Wendy Wolff
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Wendy. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Wendy Wolff: Thank you so much for having me, Carol. It's lovely to be here.
Carol: So, to get us started, what drew you to the work that you do? What really motivates you and what would you describe or how would you describe your why?
Wendy: Great question. My why started a long time ago. Over 25 years ago. So, I will share why that happened. But one of the things that I love about the work that I do and what jazzes me all the time is that it's a very lonely job, being the leader of a nonprofit, there are a lot of rules and we have this notion in society that it's easier to run a nonprofit than it is to run a for-profit. I’ve done both and I would disagree greatly. I would say that running a nonprofit takes a tremendous amount of skill and finesse, and it's a very lonely position to be at the top because there's a board element and then of course who are your chief volunteers and motivating them and getting them involved yet not having anybody overstep their bounds is a real dance. Trying to find that and being sustainable is how I want to say that. So I think that's a really big challenge and I find that sometimes we refer to ourselves internally at Maryland nonprofits, sometimes as our job is to validate, we do a lot of validating the instincts of executives and supporting the great work that people do, and if they had enough time and enough freedom in their calendars and enough space for strategic thinking, they wouldn't even need us, but we provide that clarity and that moment of taking a break to think about things in a different way. So that's what I love. There's so many other things, but I really want to say how I started my why, how I got my why was: I was at a local health department in Colorado and I was asked - this was in 1993 - and I was asked to sit on a brand new CDC group, and every state was told that you will not get another dime of funding if you don't create community engagement groups, community mobilization groups to help decision makers identify the priorities for AIDS dollars. At the time, we didn't even know about HIV that much. Anyway, long story short, I was nominated to sit on this committee and I was so frustrated. We just went round and round and round and round, it was one of my first professional jobs. It was early on in my career and I'll never forget it. The meeting was being facilitated by the National Civic League. I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn't even know what I was involved in. I just thought it was outstanding that this exists, it was amazing. There's a facilitation team and people are coming all together to make decisions together, but we weren't being successful. So somehow I got myself on the steering committee. Everybody was supposed to check a committee and I'm in this room month after month after month, getting nothing done. So finally, this exact thing happened: I pick up a marker and I jump up and I go ‘Oh my God, who, what, where, when, how’ and I just write it on the whiteboard. I'll never forget it. We got things done! A facilitator confronts me at the end, he goes, ‘do you facilitate meetings?’ And I was like, ‘what's that?’ It felt so right and so good. That's really how I got my start. After that, I started working with the Colorado department of Public Health and Environment, a little bit more through this process and then became a nonprofit executive. I founded a nonprofit to work with intravenous drug users because at the time the rates were skyrocketing and we didn't have needle exchange and all of those things. So that was what really jazzed me which was that somebody has to be the glue to all the genius in the room. I love that role. I love to listen intently and to thread the story so that everybody can hear it clearly. All the same information so that we can act accordingly and together. That’s what I love.
Carol: There's so many things that I want to follow up on from that. I think one of them is your comment at the very beginning where you said that there's this assumption that working in the nonprofit sector is easier, running a nonprofit is easier than a for-profit organization. I've had so many articles about people who come to the end of their career and they say ‘I want to dial back, I'm going to go work at a nonprofit’ or nonprofits are always being told ‘well, people are more business.’ I'd love for you to say a little bit more about, what is it that you believe, or in your experience, really makes it harder to run a nonprofit than a for-profit organization.
Wendy: Maybe harder isn’t the right word. They're just different to me. They're different organisms. Nonprofits have significant cultural rules, they have processes that they follow. I've had several clients over the last seven years at Maryland Nonprofits where they hired a For-Profit Executive to come in and be the new CEO only to be really dissatisfied that all of a sudden the board - here's the bottom line: in the for-profit world, we don't have to answer to our board of directors in the same way. For somebody who has run their own business, someone else's business, or led a for-profit, they are used to making decisions and there isn’t a considerable amount of decision making that an executive director does that doesn't need the oversight of their board. But when they do, that's when there are a lot of problems. It's already a unique relationship because there has to be attention given to the relationship between the executive director and the board chair. That is not a passive relationship, that is an active relationship. That is two people coming together to decide: where are we heading? And they do this every two years. So they get somewhere and when you bring in a for-profit person, they don't always understand that. So you get the lone ranger aspect, which is: ‘why do I have to answer to you?’ But in fact, you do. That's one element that I think is weird. Then the other thing is that relying on sales or product movement for a for-profit, to me seems a little easier. You have an unlimited, potentially unlimited, revenue source, right? It just means that you have to be a little bit more creative. You have to narrow down who your folks are, that you're marketing to. In the nonprofit, you have to figure out really creative, unique ways to sustain salary for everyone on your operating expenses and admin. We have these rules that you can't have administrative overhead costs, right? Well, you can, but you can't always get funded for them. So it's just difficult and hard. And not impossible, but different. And I think it's just harder.
Carol: I think it is. It's so interesting, especially with everything that's going on right now in the country and our democracy. I think that the organizations people spend a lot of their time in - whether they work for a for-profit organization, a nonprofit, or the government sector, obviously, it's government, but in the for-profit many organizations try to have more of a bottom up approach- but ultimately the decision-making and the ‘bucks stops here’ ends with the CEO and the leader of the organization. And they can be very effective by being very top down and very directive and in some ways almost autocratic. And in a nonprofit it's much more of that distributed democratic, division of power, not exactly the same as the way our government is set up, but that key relationship between the executive director and the board chair. The executive director working for the board, the board being a collection of, an organ of people. People who then have to act as one and keep that fresh in terms of new people and. So there's so many more constituencies, you're managing a lot of constituencies. So often, I've heard it referred to as herding cats. I'm sure there's aspects of that in the for-profit sector as well, but I've definitely seen folks who’ve made that switch say that they were even more challenged because there were so many stakeholders and constituencies that they had to think about. Then the fundraising side, as you talk about, it's not that direct, ‘customer to company’ relationship. You ended up having, again, a triangle of - especially in cause-related non-profits- a donor who gives to the organization because they're motivated and for a variety of different reasons. But then the people who actually receive services may be contributing a small amount, may not be contributing anything or large funder- all of that complication of that indirect relationship of how the money flows
Wendy: You just said it. It may be the trick is that it's not harder, it's much more complicated. It's complicated to run a really streamlined, effective, prosperous, sustainable nonprofit. It is. And I don't know if it's complicated in the for-profit world in the same way.
Carol: Yeah. As you said it's really just that in a lot of ways, there's so many things that are different. And the rules, the structures, the processes and the culture, can be very different.
Wendy: This is not to say, ‘don't hire a for-profit person to be your CEO’. This is not to say that, but give them ample opportunity to understand the culture and the nuances of the nonprofit, business cycle and the life cycle of a nonprofit. All of that has to go with that.
Carol: Yeah. You work across a range of different areas, some of them being strategic planning and evaluation. And that's another piece, I think that, in a way, is so different in the nonprofit sector. Especially those working with missions that have a long horizon; you're not going to see change over a long period of time. There may be a lot of different factors that go into being able to demonstrate outcomes, but yet that's so important. I'm curious, how would you define evaluation and why it's important for nonprofits?
Wendy: That’s a great question. The first thing I want to say about evaluation that I've figured out over the last 30 years or so, is that people are definitely afraid - not definitely- people are afraid of evaluation, just that word. The truth is we evaluate all day long. I'm evaluating right now. We evaluate: ‘Should I wear this? Should I wear that? Should I eat this? Should I eat that? Should I wear my seatbelt? Should I not wear my seatbelt? Should I drink water? How much water?’
So the first thing about evaluation is that we do it all day long. That is how we get from moment to moment in this lifetime. We decide where we're headed and we figure out the degree to which we have succeeded. So evaluation to me is, and this is such a sticky part because there's two pieces about evaluation. There is this whole notion of evidence-based programming. And then there is this notion of ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’ And ‘how close are you to accomplishing that?’ I love this phrase and I use it a lot when I work with people around evaluation: “What we're trying to figure out is the degree to which something has been achieved.”
‘Has it been achieved fully?’ And ‘what was that?’ And ‘are there things beyond once it's been achieved fully, that will keep happening? Or has it been achieved slightly? Or middle of the road?’ So when we're evaluating the degree to which our programs are successful, we have to keep that in mind. It's not a, ‘did we do it or didn't we do it?’ It's ‘how did it go?’ And what was accomplished and what, what, and even more importantly, what wasn't accomplished is also-
Carol: Can you give me an example of that one? I think in some ways, I think it's easy for people to kind of- I mean, the place that my brain went when you started describing in that way, it was almost like the kind of tactics in a strategic plan that are like, ‘have we checked these things off?’ But I don't think that's really what you're talking about. So I'm wondering if you'd give me an example.
Wendy: Sure, sure. So I'm going to try thinking on my feet, it’s the end of the day, but the first thing I do want to say is there are four- Oh, dear, this is an evaluation class, isn't it? So there's four-
Carol: We'll try to make it not scary. Because I agree with you, people find that they're just like: “Evaluation. Oo, it's a big E and a big V!” What's that, you know?
Wendy: Yeah, and we have these things where the same terms mean different things. There's formative evaluation and that you execute when you are trying to determine if something will work. Informative evaluation, you are pilot testing, you are asking questions, you are talking to the community before you do anything. Just to find out, ‘Is that this right?’, ‘Is this wrong?’, ‘Will it work?’, ‘Will it not work?’
Here's a great example. Okay, well, I'll get you the example in a second. Then you've got process evaluation, which is widget counting. ‘How many brochures do we hand out? How many meetings did we do? How many people attended the meetings?’ When we do, then we have [an] outcome and impact. Outcome evaluation is ‘what happened and did that change anyone's life, now?’ ‘How has it changed someone's life, now?’ An outcome evaluation to me- first of all, there's also not one school of thought, some people use different schools of thought and timeframe- but to me, timeframe determines whether or not we use outcome evaluation or impact evaluation. Outcome tells me what occurred and how did that-, how was that set up for people's lives to change? ‘Did they change to what degree, what worked, what didn't work’. And then impact evaluation is longer. Longer down the path that says, ‘So what are the results? Did people change? And was it lasting?’ That costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oftentimes, people interchange, misuse, the words ‘impact’ and ‘outcome’. So [I] just wanted to share that because even I think, in my opinion, I know a lot about evaluation. I'm not an expert. I don't like to call myself an expert in anything, but I know I like it and I know quite a bit about it.
So a good example would be, let's say, we did a series of discussions in the community about quitting smoking. Right. What about- let me see if that's the [example] I want to use. Hold on. Oh, let's do nutrition. That's better, that's better. So we have, we're doing a series of discussions and it's been so long since I've been in person with people that I'm like, ‘do we even do that anymore?’ Yeah, let's pretend we're in person. We're doing community discussions, we invite the community in, because we know that that high blood pressure is running rampant in a certain community. We invite people in to help them understand how to control it, right?. And so in the formative stage, we might ask five or six individuals from that community: ‘What should be in our program? What would make this more meaningful? How could we get people to come?’ So we do all that work. We create some networks and we actually get quite a bit of people. We've had 50 people come. It's amazing, right? To two sessions, 50 people to two sessions. Could we say that that was a success? Yes, only though it was a process success. It was not an outcome that 50 people came because we have no idea the degree to which they are going to go home and make it change their lives. So maybe the class was about not using salt because we know that salt is really bad for high blood pressure. Well, the fact is that a lot goes into decision-making. So the question is will two classes [that were] wildly attended- which is great, that's nothing to sneeze at- but could we say that those two classes will have a direct result in people's lives being changed? I don't know. I don't think so. So programs need to use this and this is why the logic model is so interesting and now we're really geeking out.
Carol: Let's just get geeky on this. Tell people what a logic model is.
Wendy: It's so great because the logic model is the roadmap, right? So it gives you an opportunity to go, ‘Where do we want to be?’ And then logically work backwards from where we want to be, where we want the community to be, or our participants at the target population. And then we work backwards and ask ourselves, ‘Well, if we want to be there, does this make sense? Does this make sense? Does this make sense? Does this make sense?’ So, and- at this point, actually in our evolution, and with the internet, there are so many, so many things that have already been evaluated that we could build on the successes of others without just developing new programs. So evaluation provides an opportunity for us to be thoughtful, think strategically and make sure that things are lined up. To get the best result possible for the community. And logic is a great word because if it's not logical, if it doesn't fit, then [you] probably are not going to have strong outcome results. So that was four hours in about five minutes.
Carol: Yeah and I appreciate that because I think one of the things that actually having a group build that logic model for themselves- and it sounds, it sounds geeky and cumbersome, but really it's, ‘Let's map out what our thoughts and assumptions are.’ And by making it a visual, and by going through the process, you have a chance to dig into what those assumptions are. I've worked with a lot of organizations that work in the conservation and environmental field. Oftentimes, especially around their program, their work that's with people - often citizen scientists or they're doing environmental education or other things like that - they can't measure that or demonstrate the impact of that in the same way that they can measure the pollutants in a river, let's say. But so often the vision is that a group of people by participating in their programs will become advocates for their local river, let's say. And yet, when they think about what they're doing in their program, their goals are that people will understand more about the river. Then you have to say, okay, it's kinda like the geometry teacher wanted you to show their math and all your steps. ‘How do you get the people from, they understand a little bit more about their river and they've gone to it and they'd been on it, to this leap of and being an advocate. Like there's gotta be some more ladder, you know? So, sometimes it's, ‘Well, that's where we actually want to get, this is what we're doing over here.’ How do we help people? Or, it's probably a subset of the people. Take those extra steps to move them closer to what we're hoping for them rather than just being a hope.
Wendy: Exactly. And that was a great illustration. You did a good example and we have to be clear when we're writing proposals and talking to funders about what we're promising, because those advocates, no matter, they are fired up, those folks who come to that first session, those environmental sessions. They could be fired up and super excited, but we have to take into consideration what it takes to get from information to action and also the confounding factors that go into it. I could be absolutely jazzed. You could be the best person; I have come to both of your sessions. I walk away so excited and then I go home, and I've got three kids, and I work full time, and I'm exhausted, and there's no time for myself. And even though my intention is to become an advocate, there are other things surrounding me. So what we have to do in program planning and evaluation starts before people walk in the door. We have to think about ‘what's the trajectory of that person?’ And ‘how do we interact with them?’ And is that an okay result that I've come to two things? We've checked the boxes that we've had 50 people at each session. And that's wonderful because that tells us that people are changing in their awareness , but does it mean that they're taking action? And that's a different thing and sometimes the change in action takes much, much longer. And the last thing I wanted to say is, the word assumption is amazing in the logic model, because along that we have, there are so many assumptions that we have to consider when working with communities. And we also have to look at- I love the theory of behavior change by proChaska and DiClemente, which says people go from precontemplation, to contemplation, to action, to maintenance, and to relapse. Tenants relapse, and if you are not in contemplation, I have to know where my community is coming into a program, so that I can figure out if I can help them change behavior. If you don't even think that smoking's bad, nothing I'm going to do is helping you. So we can't push people along. They naturally go through that process. But we have to recognize that when we plan programs.
Carol: It was actually the smoking piece that made me think that just bringing people to awareness, just providing information, has now been proven over time doesn't necessarily create- it can for some people, they will be self motivated and it will create action - but one does not equal the other.
Wendy: And they have to match. And I always look back on- we did a lot with smoking, right? I mean, we used to smoke in elevators, on airplanes. So we did this huge social movement together. Drunk driving, wearing seatbelts; We've accomplished a lot as a community, but we still have the difficulty of helping individuals changing their behavior. So when we are writing our evaluation plans or designing programs, we need to really hone in on: ‘What's the change we're hoping to see and how does everything we do set a person up to eventually make that, take that leap.’ They may not all take it. And how do we know? So we could go on and on.
Carol: Yeah. And what you also talked about kind of, which is an area that I feel like I want to learn more about is: how does that, changing social norms, actually play into this as well? Because we're such social creatures and I, it was so interesting that you talked about smoking. Cause I was at a meeting, a zoom meeting, today and a woman was smoking and I was just so shocked. And whatever 40 years ago, that would have been totally normal. Every single person would have been. So, yeah, it's fascinating. Yeah. So people think it's scary. We just talked about some complicated thing, we used a bunch of different terms. How do folks- Actually what's a place to get started? If an organization isn't doing evaluation yet, or maybe they're doing evaluation, but it's more of the kind of, ‘are you satisfied with whatever we offered, today?’ ‘Did you like the workshop thing?’
Wendy: ‘Did they come and did they like it?’ And the thing is, workshops. So we-
Carol: And that's just one thing that organizations do, obviously they do lots of other things.
Wendy: They do lots of things. And what I wanted to just say about that is, there's a difference between the changes that people make and the intent to change that we cannot say when we do, workshops that people are going to change. We can say that this demonstrates an intent to change, but anyway, how you would start is this.
I teach a lot of evaluation classes actually. And one of them, what I love, what I always go back to and it's - I have my master's in public health and love public health - I think public health (we're witnessing it right now) but public health for years and years and years has been, for decades and decades has been using terminology for evaluation and requiring programs to be evaluated. So I recommend that people utilize public health, evaluation tools. [The} Center for Disease Control has excellent resources on evaluation, and to me that is the most clear version of it. And then there are a lot of books on evaluation, grab one or go on it, but make sure that it's “evaluation made easy.” It doesn't have to be complicated. We are not talking about evidence-based evaluations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're talking about, how do we build programs so that they're logical and that we can say, ‘Here's what we think will happen at the end of this.’ And then we have to backtrack and go, ‘Well, if we're saying this is going to happen, how will we know? Okay, we've got to talk to people. How will we talk to them? Will we call them? Will we invite them to a meeting? Do we have to pay them for their time?’ So to me, the resources are- definitely go to the CDC. I can't remember, there was- I can't remember. I'll try to get you a list of resources, but any public health organization that is doing evaluation is I think, light years ahead and has a lot of insight personally.
Carol: Yeah and you talked about that evidence-based work and programming and the investment that takes. But can you just say a little bit about what that is and even if folks, a small organization, can't try to tackle something like that, what can they learn from what other people have done?
Wendy: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So evidenced-based programs are ones that have gone through a fairly rigorous evaluation model to prove that the structure of their programs and the design works. And that if you hold what's called fidelity, if you hold to everything that they say that has to be done, you too can achieve, with your target population, the same results. So it costs lots of money. One of the difficulties around the term evidence-based programs is that it excludes anything that's not been evaluated already within this very formal type of evaluation. It's difficult. I think there's systemic issues around that because it's only the programs that have the money to do evaluation that get noted as an evidence-based practice. But there are other practices that work while there are promising practices, there are lots of things that work. So, I don't want to be political, I think you could Google a little bit about the politics around evidence-based evaluation, that you could see a bunch of the difficulties that exist around it. And I think personally, Wendy Wolff thinks that just because a program isn't an evidence-based program does not mean it's not valuable and changing lives. It just means that it doesn't have the funding to become an evidence-based program. What we need to do - those of us who don't have the money to prove the degree to which our program has been successful for large groups of people - is to keep track of very good notes to make sure we understand who the target population is and what they come to the table with before they interact with us. That [way] we can measure some way or demonstrate the change that has occurred between them before they came in and then after. And it might be anecdotal information, it might not be scientific. It might not be cutting edge data, but it's interesting and profound and lives are being changed. That has to be honored because- I have a great story that I love. This was in West Baltimore a couple of years ago. We stumbled across a gentleman who was- it was in the summertime - he'd create a fire in a fireplace and people could see it from the road and he had hot cocoa and he had a welcome sign. He invited people to come sit around the fire and have a cup of cocoa, chat and they would connect and would exchange information, help each other, and get each other services. Is that an evidence-based program? No. Was it making a difference? You can bet your butt it was. People were connected. People were getting resources. People had friends, they weren't alone. Those are all good things.
Carol: Yeah. Even if you don't go to this step of implementing measurement processes, just the fact that you've had a conversation to unlock those assumptions, I think can, bring about shifts in the program, in the staff and the board, around the understanding of what you're trying to achieve. just that process I think can have impact and can be valuable. Yes.
Wendy: Then my last plea is to carve out time at the beach before the program begins so that we- once people walk through the door, we've lost an opportunity for measurement. So we want to understand, we want to really create some thoughtful time to understand what it is that we want to collect along the way. And I want to tell you, easier said than done. I myself have been in the middle of a program and been like, ‘Oh, we haven't done any evaluation indicators yet.’
The idea is that we can never go back. People can't go unlearn something. So we need to know, if we want to capture the degree to which people have changed, we need to know where they come in at. Then we can say, even if it's not this scientific evidence-based program, that change in a person's life is huge and storytelling is enormous. And right now I'm leaving a fairly large project and I- So today, just today, one of the participants in this big cohort that we're leading wrote me a note and said, ‘I'm so excited. I feel great. I'm getting huge results with my consultant. I see that we're going to be in a better place at the end of this.’ (Which is two years) And I save that. I was like, I'm going to need this at some point. It's not scientific, but I can go back to it in two years. I can go back to that and go, ‘This is where he was.’ And actually I wrote back, ‘Can you be more specific?’ So I can go, ‘Oh, this guy was at, didn't have this, this, this, and this. Now look at him.’
Carol: Yeah. And I think that point of, helping, figuring out a way to capture some of that, essentially that baseline of where folks are starting from, you're always wanting to develop a program that meets people where they are. So then also documenting that starting point where they are, is key to be able to then see the difference.
Wendy: Yeah, yeah. And report it. Stories, stories do a lot. Storytelling is amazing.
Carol: Right. It doesn't have to be, it doesn't all have to be numbers. There is plenty of, from a qualitative point of view- Very valuable, yeah. Well, we certainly got geeky on program evaluation, but I mean, it's so important and I do think that, try to demystify it a little bit because, for the majority of nonprofits, smaller organizations, small budgets, and yet they're being- hard to get started in that realm and hard to know. They're dealing with so many different things and juggling a lot of different things to build that in as well. Seems hard. but the benefit, well, I mean, what would you say? For those smaller organizations kind of. Why is it worth spending the time to do it?
Wendy: Well, to plan out an evaluation strategy?
Carol: Try to incorporate it, yeah. Evaluate a little more, just a little more, maybe evaluation into your, into your, yeah-
Wendy: Just a little more, yeah. First of all, I think it will be relieving because we are peppered or pummeled with the question of, ‘How's your program doing? What's the results? What's the impact? What's the outcome?’ And that makes everybody so nervous. So the more thoughtful we can be to really think about ahead of time how we will know we've succeeded or the degree to which we've succeeded. That'll help reduce our stress because when we're asked that question, we'll go, well, here's how. These are great- this happened to me just this week. I had to write a report to a funder and I was like, ‘Oh, well, I have that all written because I had been collecting this data all along. Just put it in this file, put it in the file.’ And then when it’s time to write the report, there it is. So I think anything we can do to, to collect, to - I don't want to say the word prove, cause I don't like that - to demonstrate how we are making a difference, whether it's immediate or short term or it has potential for longterm, any way we can demonstrate that it will build our confidence and it will support us and it will help our sustainability.
Carol: Well, at the end of each episode, I ask, a somewhat random icebreaker question. So, if you could have any fictional character as your friend, who would you choose and why?
Wendy: All right, wait a second. Any fictional character as my friend. Oh dear. Hold on. I got to scan through my shows and stuff. Let's see. Fictional character. I really like Lisa Simpson from the Simpsons. I love her desire for good. I like Lisa's musical talent. I like that she doesn't give up on her hope and her commitment to what's right and just in the world. So I really like Lisa Simpson. So off the cuff, not having known that question, I think that would be one of my choices and I'm sure there's better ones, but that's the one right now.
Carol: Well from how you described Lisa, it sounds like she'd be a good addition to the nonprofit sector.
Wendy: Lisa Simpson would be a great CEO and a great activist.
Carol: All right. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you or emerging in the work that you're doing?
Wendy: That's great. Good question. I am really excited that- my role at Maryland nonprofits that maybe people don't know because they see me in the consulting role is that my title is ‘Director of Strategic Engagement’ and my job is to - we restructured a couple of years ago - So the consultant group is in my department. So I am still actively involved, but I'm excited. My role of strategic engagement is to build relationships, bring and dot connect, which I love to do. So what I'm excited about this year, I have three priorities. My three priorities are- Carmen Marshall, our director of consulting, runs a beautiful racial equity program. And Carmen is one of the most lovely human beings I've ever met and I am looking forward to helping her to download all of her thoughts and get that developed and put into a plan we can execute. So I'm really excited about that. I'm super excited about our legal consulting program. Patty Morton has been doing legal consulting for Maryland nonprofits - she's our general counsel and she's also on my team- and up until two years ago, most of the work Patty did was a lot of startup work. She does mergers and other great stuff, but what we have seen over the years is people really love Patty. She's amazing and they need that help, so I would like to build Patty's legal consulting program. That's something else we're going to do. Then finally, the claim to fame for me is our Standards for Excellence Institute. That's my third priority to help more folks understand the standards and understand why being a licensed and accredited organization could be a good choice for them and how to utilize the standards. Those are my three strategic engagement focused areas, and I'm super excited about them.
Carol: That's awesome. And I love that you've got three because as a person who helps groups with strategic planning or your personal planning, three is the magic number. That's just enough. That's just not, not too few, not too many, to really have focus. Well, thank you so much. It's great having you on and we'll put links in to how now people can get in touch with you and learn more and about the things that you're talking about. So it was great, I appreciated the conversation and the chance to geek out with you on evaluation.
Wendy: That's so great. Thanks for having me, Carol. This was a treat.
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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