In this podcast episode, Carol Hamilton and Susan Kahan discuss the importance of donor trust and nonprofit accountability. They challenge misconceptions about fundraising, such as the focus on overhead costs and the belief that it is a necessary evil. They argue for reframing negative attitudes towards fundraising in order to build confidence. The conversation also addresses the "overhead myth" in the nonprofit sector and emphasizes the need to invest in staff and create a healthy organizational culture. They discuss the challenges of asking for larger donations and stress the value of building relationships and learning from others in the field. They also highlight the importance of building a culture of philanthropy within nonprofit organizations and using donor feedback to improve programs. Overall, the conversation emphasizes the need for effective fundraising strategies and the importance of transparency and accountability.
(00:00:01) Donor Trust and Nonprofit Accountability
(00:06:05) The Overhead Myth
(00:12:19) Building Confidence in Fundraising
(00:18:07) Building Relationships in Fundraising
(00:24:13) Building a Culture of Philanthropy
(00:30:47) The Challenges of Nonprofit Fundraising
Carol Hamilton: Getting donors to see beyond supporting your direct services can be challenging. What is my money going to be used for? is the question that is driving this concern. Donors want organizations to steward their gifts well. The myth persists that the smaller the overhead percentage the better the nonprofit organization. Yet in reality an organization needs staff and a wide range of infrastructure from communications to finance to operations to run well. Skimping on these foundational elements – paying well trained staff fairly, ensuring they have what they need to do their job well, that systems are up to date and well integrated – does not actually achieve what donors want – a fully realized group of people working toward an important mission. The pressure to fit within an unrealistically slim overhead budget leads to many of the things that I frequently talk about on this podcast – not being able to support staff in a way that promotes a healthy organizational culture. Obsolete structures and processes and ultimately contributing to the burnout many are trying to recover from. Mission Impact is the podcast for nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategy consultant.
My guest today on Mission Impact is Susan Kahan. We explore what the overhead myth is and why it is still getting in the way of organizations doing their best work. What it means to create a culture of philanthropy within your organization. As well as the power of practicing big asks and the importance of curiosity in fundraising. Mission: Impact is brought to you by Grace Social Sector Consulting. Grace Social Sector brings you whole-brain strategic planning, mapping, & audits for nonprofits and associations. We combine Left-brain strategy and analysis + right-brain wisdom about human complexities for a proven, whole-brain, whole-organization process through which every stakeholder thrives. Reach out to us for support and facilitation of strategic planning, mapping your impact, auditing your services and getting an organizational assessment. We especially love working with staffed nonprofits and associations with human centered missions.
Well, welcome Susan. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Susan Kahan: Thanks, Carol. It's great to be here.
Carol: So I'd like to start each conversation with what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you, or what would you describe as your why?
Susan:Well, again, thank you so much for having me. I'm really honored to speak to you today. And I would say, what drew me to my work is that I really love helping people and I love connecting people to the right thing that they care about. So, in fundraising, I'm a fundraising consultant. In fundraising, it's all about finding people who care about something and giving them the opportunity to do something about it. And there's no greater thing that you can do, in my opinion, than donating to a cause. So to be able to help nonprofits find those people, to help the people who care about those causes and give and do something is really something that draws me in. And the final thing I'll just say is that there's this Hebrew proverb that has always meant a lot to me, which is that if you save one life, you save the world. And so to me, that's why I care so much about philanthropy is that if you can just save one life, you're, you're my you're, you're doing so much. And so I think that that's what compels a lot of people who work in nonprofits and in philanthropy. And that's definitely why.
Carol:, a couple different things come to mind.
As you were talking I often, love to quote Mr. Rogers and it's like, look for the helpers. I was talking to one of my sisters, and she said, I read the paper and she's a diligent newspaper reader. And she was like, I get so depressed, and I wish at the end of each article they're like, okay, here's all the depressing reality, but here's three simple things you could do.
Yes. To address that issue, right? Yes. So you're not feeling so helpless. And I love the idea that even if you may not have time to volunteer, you may not be able to fit that into your schedule right now. You may not be able to be an activist. Yes. But, you probably can donate to an organization in some way.
Yes. And, what, what's the thing that really connects to what's important to you? And then how can you find organizations that match that? And I'm curious, there's a lot of, I think when people think about donating to organizations, there's a lot of fear around, how will my money be used and mm-hmm.
So what do you say to donors? In terms of them? I, I, if they're not familiar with an organization, ways to, to look for an organization that will meet what they're trying to achieve, but then also to have some kind of. Sense of this organization is doing good work?,
Susan: That's a great question and I think it's becoming more and more important.
I think we're seeing just nationally, not just for nonprofits, but, for the government , different things that people in general in the United States have less trust in institutions. So I think that that is a big hurdle that our sector has to overcome. Think about it, because you're right that there're, I think, more questions than 20 years ago, definitely 50 years ago.
, and how is this nonprofit using my money and, and I want more of a say in it. So I do think that that's something that we all need to think about in a way that. Probably wasn't considered or as valued as much. So I think from the donor side, you should be looking for, do they, are they on Candid and GuideStar?
Do they share their finances? Do they have a board of directors that's clearly listed? Do they, do you see their staff even listed or. At least some of their staff because, putting up faces to who are the people behind this, I think that shows some credibility. I think you can, hopefully the nonprofit on their website or when you talk to someone they share, their past accomplishments.
We hear a lot about impact. So what does that look like? And again, that shouldn't be something too specific because we wanna make sure that nonprofits have the opportunity to run and, and develop programs. I do think that they should be able to share updates, regular updates on what they're doing, who they're helping, who they're serving.
So those are the types of things as a donor to look for. And again, it's about, okay, I care about this cause what is this nonprofit doing about it? So let's say I care about climate change. Well, That can mean a lot of different things. So, there, and there are a lot of nonprofits that are working on the issue of climate change.
So what specifically does this nonprofit do on this topic of climate change? From the nonprofit standpoint, I'll also just say that I think you need to have a conversation with your donors and you also have to explain to them, unless it's a restricted gift, and that's a whole other conversation, but you do need to let them in and.
See what you're doing. Give them opportunities to be involved and trust that they can understand how things work, and have a conversation with the donor about that. And donors, I think it's important that they understand that, their $5, their a hundred dollars, Not all of that will go directly out.
It might be used towards the dreaded overhead, which I think is a huge myth that we need to debunk that overhead is a bad thing. Our staff deserve to be paid well. They deserve to work in nice places, they need technology. Technology has costs, all those things. And so I think it's, it's, it's a conversation that needs to be had between the donors and nonprofits.
Carol: Say more about that overhead myth because what, when I was thinking about you, me, you mentioned Candid and that's a website where you can look up every nonprofit in the United States and Right. See their, their tax form that they're required to, to publish and make public as long as they have a budget of a certain size.
Right. And all sorts of information is available there. But then candid and then organizations have. Layered on that, all sorts of more ways to enhance their transparency. And so organizations can earn, I don't know, I think, what it is, up to the platinum level of their transparency. They're,.
And, and it's just all the different information that they're sharing. But there are other, good, good housekeeping seal of approval websites. Yes. For nonprofits, yes. But some of them to my mind, are, are, are feeding into that. Overhead myth of, saying basically this is a good nonprofit because they only spend X percentage on overhead and everything else goes to quote programs or the people that they're serving.
Right. Can you explain to folks why that isn't necessarily a great idea?
Susan: Oh my goodness. I could, I could talk for days on this topic. It really, it riles me up because I think, donors feel, I want my money going to the cause and Sure, I agree. I get it. But let's, again, I'll take an example of an organization.
Let's say you have a shelter that helps people who have been affected by homelessness. Okay? And so you're saying, I care about this issue. I see it in my community. I wanna do something about it. I'm gonna donate to this shelter. Okay, well not all that money is gonna go into housing. Some of the money's going to go to paying for marketing the services to get people to go there.
And what does that mean? That needs to go to paying for the salaries if you don't have the people to operate and then the people to run the place. If you don't have the people paid to be there. Then you don't have a shelter. You could talk about utilities, electric bills need to be paid. How do those get paid through donations?
You could talk about having a website. Websites cost money. You need to pay for these things. You need a database to track your information, to track your donors. These. All have our expenses. And, I think those who work in the nonprofit get frustrated cuz we hear about, well, what's the percent that's going to quote unquote overhead?
And it's like, who cares? I mean, I don't understand why this is a number that becomes a priority because especially I'll say from the outside, someone who's not involved in the decision making of the budget, you tell me what's the right percent, should it only be 10%? Okay. Should it be 25, should it be 30?
Should it be five? Like, how are you coming up with these numbers to say this is what makes sense for this specific organization, if you think about your house household, for example, you, you earn a certain dollar living, you maybe have income in various streams. Maybe you have investments, whatever it is.
But let's say you have a monthly budget, however, that gets determined. How would you feel if someone who had no idea your circumstances were to say you're spending too much on groceries? I mean, it's none of their business, so I, I feel very personally affected by this, cuz I think it's hard to judge someone else's budget when you're not really involved in the decision making.
Now I will say, I don't think we wanna go, We, we, we, we don't wanna go too far and, and not have a lot of the money go towards quote unquote programs or, the people served. But I also think it's important that our staff are paid well because staff turnover costs a ton to nonprofits every year.
And we want our, most people don't go into nonprofits because of the salaries. So, I, I don't think we're overpaying our staff. I don't think that's a problem we should worry about.
Carol:, we talk a lot on this podcast when I'm, I'm talking to other guests around how we can make the whole process of working in an organization feel healthier.
, like the more that you cultivate an inclusive and healthy organizational culture, the more you're gonna be able to do in terms of pursuing your mission. And the less. You're worried about the chair that's broken. Yes. And the computer that's too slow. And so ,It's finding that sweet spot.
But I think the emphasis has been way too much on, we're gonna, we're gonna slim all those things. And it, and it, and over time, of course there's another extreme where we need to also have all those. Systems in place so that you're paying attention to any financial malfeasance and the fiduciary responsibility of the board.
Exactly. But the reality for 99% of organizations is that they're feeling squeezed to make due and. That actually can get in the way of them being more effective in pursuing those programs and providing the best services that they can and, and, really taking a holistic approach. So, I'm there, I'm there with you on the whole it's, it's just a.
I can understand why people grabbed onto it as a metric. Mm-hmm. But it can really screw things up in some weird ways as well.When people try to, like, make their budget look like that, and it's like, well, no, you wanna invest in the people who are gonna, who are, who are. Essentially make the nonprofit.
Susan: So,Well, and I also think that, I don't even know what the benchmark is because I, I find it silly personally, but, there's these benchmarks. So you should have your overhead only, I don't know, 15% of your total budget or whatever the number is. And I'm not recommending that number at all, BEC, but I think, an organization that's a national organization with.
10 different offices across the country and 200 staff is gonna have very different needs than a one office, 10 person staff and, or someone that, again, they have a physical, a facility where people come to, to do, whatever versus, like the. To compare how budgets should be made.
I mean, again, there's so many variables. There's so many variables. So to just say, well, here's a number that we can compare, app, apples to apples. Well, does that actually make this apple better? I, I, I think it's, I think it's sort of,
Carol: We wanna be in the, let's make the apple better business.
Susan: make the apple better.There's nothing I could take away. Make the apple better. Don't worry about comparing apples.
Carol:. That's funny. So when you're working with people inside organizations on helping them get more comfortable with fundraising what would you say? What are some things that help people step towards that?
Cuz I think I've, I've said before that very few people get into the nonprofit sector in order to raise money and raising money is necessary.
Susan: Yes, yes. So true. I, again, it's sometimes I've seen in organizations where fundraising is seen as sort of the. Dirty, evil, like, like the ne or necessary evil, and it's like, what about this is evil?
I think first of all, we need to change that mentality, talk about overhead is a problem. Also saying that fundraising is a necessary evil. Of course we have funds, of course, things cost money. Of course, you need to find ways to get the money. I, I don't know why. I mean, it's like a company. Of course you need sales, you need to operate.
So again, I think some of these, the way we talk about it needs to change. But in terms of confidence building, I think that that is a really important part because if you are more confident, you'll be better at most things that you do. And so much of fundraising is about relationship building and getting to know people.
And if you come across as. Not confident or insecure or unsure of it. Talk about lack of trust in a mission. I mean, if I were to say, well, I guess we need the money and will you donate? And I mean our organization is okay. I mean that no one will give. But if you say, look, we are solving this problem and we are really having an impact on this work, and I know this is something you care about and I want you to come along and help us make a bigger impact.
I mean the difference of what that can do to connect with your Don, and notice I didn't talk anything about dollars, that is what is so important. So, confidence, confidence, confidence. And to get there, I think there are two main things. One is practice. I didn't just get to these words and know these things on my first day, but just like anything else, you need to practice.
You need to observe how other people do it. I speak in a very specific way and that serves me and it's authentic and it's true to me. And Carol, you have your own speaking style and you speak your way, and someone else would speak some other way. It's important that you practice and learn your speech.
Speaking style. And then the second thing, it's about communication, persuasion, listening and developing those skills really well. To get to know your donors, to get to know how to talk about your organization because it's not just about a mission, it's not just about talking about the programs, but it's about sharing stories and connecting those stories in a way that someone can say, I wanna be part of this.
I wanna do something. Cuz you're getting them to. Do something. And I think that those skills can be learned. Another skill I would say is perseverance as a fundraiser. I was just on a call earlier today and we were talking about how hard it is to hear rejection. And it is, it's really hard to hear rejection and it, it, it.
It can really dampen your confidence, but you've gotta persevere. There are other people, other companies, other foundations, other institutions out there that do wanna support us. Our mission matters. I just need to keep going.
Carol: What do you, what are some things that you would say help people kind of
build that confidence? So you've talked about that practice and I'm wondering What are, I mean, what are some things that people can start practicing to help them?, so get more comfortable with their, their elevator pitch or their talking points, or that it sounds more natural and isn't just like, okay, I'm reading my script to you.
Susan: Well, the first thing is to speak out loud. That's the first practice. Whether it's o, you record yourself. On Zoom, I do this. All the time where I will record a pitch or something to myself, and then I watch it back and you say, oh, is that what I sound like? Or do I do this weird thing with my eye?
Like you, you'll be amazed, recording yourself speaking. You just, there are things you've never noticed, so that, or even talk to yourself in the mirror, like literally saying these words, prac and practice saying, if you're gonna ask for a gift, maybe you've never asked for a gift over a certain amount.
Say in the mirror to yourself. Carol, thank you so much for your past support. Will you give a gift this year of a hundred thousand dollars? And just practice saying that because just by saying, being comfortable with using big numbers. Cuz sometimes you, you're gonna make a big, hopefully you're making a big ass.
I think that there's just, there's nothing like that. I think observing others is also a great tool. Learning what to say. I think writing stories, knowing your story, why are you connected to the mission? Knowing the different success stories of the organization and I think being prepared with great questions.
Again, this is about building relationships. So what types of questions can you ask your donor when you meet with them? How can you be a curious and interested person? I think curiosity is really important. So those are some of the things I would think about when it comes to practicing.
Carol:, it's funny that you talk about, recording yourself and then listening. Mm-hmm. On, on, I guess I should have anticipated this, but doing this podcast, I know, before the episode gets released, when I'm working with my audio engineer, I'll listen to a, to a version, the first draft of the episode, and I am now aware of that.
Apparently I have a slight stutter. Apparently a lot of people do. Yes, or I'll say or, or so, or all the filler words that you say, you, you start to become aware of your patterns of speech that you would not be aware of at all. Yes. And it certainly has. By hearing myself over and over, I still say those words.
They'll, they'll be in this episode too. Sure. But, I also, I feel like I've been able to become a little more fluid and just by having these conversations I. Get more comfortable in expressing those thoughts, following with the conversation, being a better listener. All of those things have been unexpected benefits of doing this.
And so I loved your point around curiosity and following the conversation and, and cuz people, most people think of fundraising, they think of that big ask. Like, that's all they think about when they, for those of us who don't do it, Uhhuh. And that's why I'm like, okay, I don't wanna do it Uh Huh, but all the other things go into building that relationship.
So what are some things that you feel like help people step into that? And you talked about observation too, for an organization where this. Person might be the first person that's doing fundraising for them. What are some other ways that they can have that chance to observe if there isn't somebody already D in the organization doing the work?
Susan:, that's a great question, and I think it's pretty common actually, where there's maybe only one quote unquote fundraiser official person in a development role. I would encourage them to think about, Can they network with someone and see a, a director of development or some, someone like that at a similar type of organization?
I, I would, I'll say most people wanna help other people. I have a couple of things. I, I say a lot and one of those donors wanna be generous when they can and people wanna help people when they can. And so, it's true. If, like Carol, if I, I was an, I am a newer consultant in nonprofits, then I know you are, Carol, I know you've been doing this a little while longer, and if I had reached out to you over LinkedIn, we didn't know each other at all, but I had found you and I had said, Hey Carol, I'm new to consulting.
Could I, could we take it? 15 minutes. I'd really love to talk to you about your experience. I'm sure you would say yes. I think you did say yes, I'm sure we had that conversation at some point and I think it's absolutely the same thing within the fundraising world, and I think, you can try to get sort of an unofficial mentor to have someone to talk to.
They've been through it, I would, again, I would look for an organization that's similar. So that's one thing I would consider. The second thing is Community foundations can be really helpful in finding resources for you. So they also, again, wanna help their local community. So again, I would go to your local fund community foundation but sometimes they can connect you with someone.
Great. And then there's also AFP chapters, which again are, there's national, there's local, and AFP has had, its. Ups and downs. But overall I've found AFP to be a great resource. Again, great networking to find other fundraisers and I think it's really important to, to have your crew have your people who know what you're going through, who you could say, Hey, I'm having trouble writing this fundraising appeal for giving Tuesday.
Can, what's worked for you in the past? And I bet most people who work in fundraising will have an answer to that. So I think sort of finding your, your people and, and. Again, and I'll also say it's really important as a fundraiser to be able to reach out to someone you don't know. And I think that if you're not comfortable with doing that to a potential donor, then the number one thing you should work on is reaching out to someone you don't know and starting a conversation with them.
And this might be a great way to practice that cuz they're not a donor, they're someone in the field.
Carol:, I love that point of Building that network of peers and, and people who are just a little bit further ahead of you, or maybe even a lot further. Further Yes. Ahead of you in terms of your learning and your network and using that as a way to practice reaching out to people.
Mm-hmm. And it's so funny you're talking about informational interviews when you first get. Started, and in a way that was part of the genesis of this podcast because mm-hmm. I was starting out as a consultant and so wanted to connect with consultants. I was having lots of conversations and, and I thought at one point, well, I should be recording these and I should be sharing them with other people.
Now we're not talking about the business of consulting. Right. But. It, it has just provided a great way to connect and, and build a network. And, and, 99% of the time people say yes, they wanna have the conversation. And, and. They're also, and you mentioned AFP, can you mm-hmm. Can you say what the acronyms stand for?
Susan: I'm sorry. A FP is Association for Fundraising Professionals. Okay. And they have chapters locally around the United States and Canada. And they have, whether it's. Meetups in person or webinars or affinity groups. I'm based in Chicago and they have a really robust chapter here.
But I know they do in other parts of the country as well. They're quite a large organization
Carol: and I think they have chapters we'll look, we'll look it up to see whether they're beyond the United States as well,
Susan: I know they're in Canada for sure. I don't know beyond Canada as well, but they do have chapters all over.
Carol: And of course with the internet, a lot of things are now online and people can access them from anywhere. So geography isn't exactly as much of a barrier as it might have been in the past. Absolutely. So beyond the individual, let's say, you're, you're newer, but you're now, you're, you're a couple years in, you're getting more confident in your personal approach to fundraising. Within the whole organization, what, what are some things that really c create conditions of success for an organization to, really build their, their fundraising approach?, I
Susan: Think about a few things. One is donor stewardship is so, so important. And I think, we talk about the culture of philanthropy sometimes, and, and what does that mean? That means where the entire nonprofit values supports accelerates the role of donors within the organization, sometimes it's like, oh, It just, the development team works with the donors. We, we don't have to, we're in finance, we don't have to work with them, but really, everyone should be thinking about your donors as investors, your donors as your clients, maybe your, your buyers, your purchasers, also stakeholders, you don't want, I. To be completely reliant in terms of decision making on your donors. That is not their role, but you do wanna make sure that they feel valued and appreciated. So I think one thing in terms of donor stewardship is how can you get people from throughout the organization to a. Be aware of fundraising. So talking about big goals are met, or if there's a big fundraising campaign, make sure everyone knows about it. Make sure that they hear the successes, the challenges, the feedback, if, let's say multiple donors reach out. They're like, we're really having, we heard about this new program and we're really, it doesn't sound great, or whatever the feedback is. You hear things once, okay, like, that's one person's opinion on a program. But if you hear something repeatedly in, in a lot of donor calls, then that's something to really take to the team and say, this is what we're hearing. For better or for worse, I think, again, sharing that feedback is really important. And I think the other thing, another way to get people involved throughout the organization is to do what you could either do like a phone-a-thon. So having everyone call donors to ask for a gift, which can get people to understand, even asking someone who's already given before to ask them to renew their $25 gift can actually be really hard. Or you could do something like a thankathon as well, where everyone gets, again, everyone in the organization from top to bottom is responsible for calling, they get their list of donors and they are calling just to say thank you and you can do that too. And that can be a great way to get everyone involved in the process. That's something you can also do with your board. But in terms of other things, I think it's thinking about how we can thank our donors in other ways at events and newsletters and, just wherever there's opportunities to say thank you. Cuz as a reminder, donors do not have to give, even if they've been giving for 10 years at significant levels, they do not have to give again. And it's all voluntary. And so I think that reminding everyone about that is really important.
Carol: It's interesting that you talk about the culture of philanthropy because I, I think when I was working inside organizations and I was not on the fundraising side, it did feel like it was kind of, oh, that's those folks' job, ?
Right. So I love the idea of the thankathon. I mean, that seems like a really. Fun and uhhuh, nice way to give people a baby step into Yes. The process and get everyone involved and get them knowing donors, and it's also just really interesting that I, I heard someone describe this as the three-legged stool that nonprofits have an interest in.
Business model is that a for-profit organization has something they're selling and they have. People who buy it, and it's a very direct relationship. Yes. And in nonprofits most of the time, there's some purpose. Oftentimes, if it's about direct service, then a group of people that the organization is helping who can not, the whole reason that they're, that the organization exists is that those folks cannot, pay for those services.
And so then you need third parties to be. Supporting and, and providing revenue, whether it's individuals or, institutional fund of right funders, corporate, all, all, absolutely. Government, all those. And so you, it ends up with this odd relationship between who's giving the money and, and who is, Working on behalf of the organization Right.
And who's being impacted by the mission. And so it can get a little goofy in terms of who's making decisions about what and who's paying attention to who, but mm-hmm. But it's, it's important for people to remember that because, Especially if they come from the for-profit sector where they're used to that more direct relationship.
Mm-hmm. It takes a little while to figure out how does this all go
Susan: together? Right, right. And, I think just having an understanding of the money doesn't just come. The money, even if you've been a strong, large organization. Every year. I'm gonna guess that's because you have a strong, large development team that's making sure those gifts keep coming in.
It does not just happen and you cannot lie. Right? It doesn't happen by magic. It is, you cannot rely on past success for future donations. So I think it's like the,
Carol: the warnings on the stock market, right?
Susan: Oh my goodness. Yes. So I think, the other thing, if I could just, for people who aren't in fundraising to, to think about, when you donate to something you're donating because you're trying to help something in the future, you, that there's a continued need moving forward.
You don't donate because of some past success. So maybe you had an incredible year, an incredible success. Successful whatever campaign, whatever it is that your organization did last year, that does not make a donor give again. They have to know, well, what are you doing now?, what are you doing for me lately?
It's like that. So you have to keep thinking about as you're communicating, as you're marketing, as you're, Giving feedback on what you wanna tell people what you've done. That's how you build trust, which is the question from the start. But as you move forward, you need to think about how you can tell them where we are headed and how you can be a part of that.
And that's why you should donate.
Carol: And so that's where I come in, where I help the group figure out where they're headed and, and why they wanna move forward in that. That's right. In that way, in terms of strategic planning. So exactly on, on each episode, I ask each guest, what permission slip would they give to nonprofit leaders or I.
What would they invite them to consider to not be a martyr to the cause, like I like to say, and as they work to cultivate a healthier organizational culture. So either a permission slip or an invitation and what might that be from your point of view.
Susan:Well, I think that is such a good question. I love that permission slip.
And so what I would say is to remember that, again, at the beginning we talked about overhead and how chances are you're squeezed for cash and squeezed for resources. I'm, again, not every nonprofit, but a lot are. And so remember, and if you're not squeezed financially, maybe you're squeezed with your time.
That, again, I'm gonna assume a lot of that is true for a lot of your listeners. I would say you can't do it all. And so to just acknowledge you cannot do it all. Like, if you can't, say like, and again, something I said in the beginning, you can't save every life, but you can save one life. What one thing can you do?
What one place can you start with? And so I always say start with what you're great at. Start with your strengths. Start with what's easy for you, and build on that and give yourself some grace for the things that you can't get to. That's okay. There's always tomorrow. There's always another way of thinking about it, but you can't do it all and start with what you're great at.
Carol:I appreciate that. I feel like that's become the mantra of this year's series of podcast interviews. Okay, good. It's all like, what, what are you focused on? What can you, what do you, what do you do really well? What are the, what's the one, two, or three things that you're really gonna move forward and, and time to let the rest of it go.
. So where can people find you? How can they be in touch?
Susan: Great. So again, my name is Susan Kahn and I am the founder and principal of Sapphire Fundraising Specialists. And so you can find email@example.com or on LinkedIn. And my last name is spelled k a h a N.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much, Susan.
Thanks for coming on the podcast. Thank you,
Susan: Carol. It was great to talk to you.
Carol: 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 Susan, the full 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 Cindy Rivera Grazer of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 50 of Mission: Impact, Carol went solo to discuss:
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission: Impact. Today, I'm celebrating my 50th podcast episode. I'm going solo. I'm going to discuss why more money and more staff isn't always the answer. 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 more innovative. We dig into how to build an organizational culture where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers, and all of this for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
When I'm doing strategic planning, I often ask in my interviews and in focus groups, if you had three wishes for your organization and you could change anything that you want, what would you wish for? And frequently, I would say 90% of the people that I talked to say that they want more funding for more staff. why isn't that always the answer? I think it comes down to the assumption that more money and more staff is always going to be less work. And when it often doesn't our culture really emphasizes growth. Capitalism depends on growth. If the economy is not growing, even if it's just staying steady, folks, fear a recession. we have a proclivity to always want to grow.
And certainly growing your organization, having more resources to meet the demand. Further your mission addresses the needs that you're addressing. All of those are certainly good things, and I'm not arguing against any of those. I'm not arguing against scaling your organization to meet the needs. What I'm saying is that people fall into a false fallacy where they equate more staff and more funding as a way to get out of overwhelm, overwork and overcome. With the idea that if we just had more staff, I would have people to delegate to, I would have less on my plate, but what I have found and what I have noticed in all my years of working in the nonprofit sector is that the reality is that nonprofit leaders are very ambitious. They have big dreams and goals. Most vision statements, mission statements are way beyond what that organization can actually deliver. And growing is the only way to move towards that. As I said, the need is often greater than your current capacity.
When you grow, when you add them more staff, when you get more funding, it's authentic. Take on new projects, new programs, new services, you try to serve more people. You have a serve, serve additional audiences. You broaden your policy agenda. The work grows with the capacity. In the end you're still overloaded and overwhelmed. And running the organization actually becomes more complicated because you have more people and more things to keep track of. more funding, if we just had more money, everything would be fine. We could hire more people and achieve our goals, but unfortunately, in the scenario above where it does not lighten the load at all. And oftentimes funding rarely covers the full cost of those new initiatives, restricted funding. Doesn't contribute to your overhead. you're expected to find a match for your funding. And now you have more money to attract new reports, to write and new funders to please, as I said before, none of these are inherently bad goals.
I'm not arguing against them being able to serve more people and turn fewer people away is important. Being able to provide them with more comprehensive services, being more ambitious in your policy or research agenda. Having more staff to focus on fundraising, marketing, operations, HR, financial systems, all the things that it takes to run an organization. All of these are good things, but the assumption, as I said that I often hear embedded, is that if I just have more staff just have more funding. When I get that, I will finally be able to relax. Whether it's as a board member, as an executive director, as a lead program person or the development director. The assumption is my to-do list will be shorter. I can finally take that long postponed vacation. I can feel less guilty about taking care of myself, but unfortunately that's only true if you choose not to grow the amount of work with the growth in staff and instead redistribute the work for the pieces of the work pie to be small. The pie has to say the same size and mostly what's embedded in more staff, more funding is certainly growth and therefore does not get you out of the overall.
On episode 38. I explored a related question. What if you did less? If you haven't listened to that, I invite you to, and I also recommend Third studios, recent blog posts, headlines of “what if you did less,” that also looks at our current state of burnout and reflects on why just individual responses to the current state we're in is just not enough. I will post the link to that blog post in the show notes.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and with my guests. You can find a full transcript of the show as well as any links and resources that I mentioned 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 a 100 Ninjas for her production support.
And if you enjoyed this episode, I really would love it. If you would share it with a colleague or friend, we appreciate your help in getting the word out; and the easiest way to do that is to go to pod.link.com/mission impact. Again, that's podlink, mission impact one word, and use that URL to share the show. Then your friend or colleague can listen to the show on whatever their favorite podcast player. Thanks again. I appreciate your time.
In episode 23 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Engel discussed include:
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting. For more than twenty years, Elizabeth has helped associations grow in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, and garden.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
My guest today is Elizabeth Weaver Engel. Elizabeth is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting where she helps associations grow. Elizabeth periodically writes white papers on topics of interest to association staff and board members. These white papers go in depth and provide interesting and actionable insights on the topics she explores. On this episode, Elizabeth and I delve into the topic of digital transformation, the focus of her upcoming white paper that she co-wrote with Maddie Grant. In our conversation we explore what digital transformation is and why it is important to associations. We also talk about some of the key differences between associations and for profit companies that most of the literature to date about digital transformation has focused on and the implications of those differences.
Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast today.
Elizabeth Engel: Thank you so much, Caroline. We're very happy to be here. So
Carol: I'd like to start out with the question. What, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you or what's your, why?
Elizabeth: You mean, like in the, in the largest sense of why, why do I work in associations? You're why am I in the nonprofit space? It goes back to when I was in graduate school. So initially I'd gone to graduate school at the University of Virginia. I was studying political theory. I was intending to be a professor of political theory. That's not really a job that exists anymore. Even back then that did that job didn't really exist anymore. Even 25 years. And so, when I, when I decided to bail out of the PhD program and do the terminal masters and I was graduating, and then I was like, okay, well now what and we were living in Charlottesville, which is lovely, but small lot of overeducated people running around there who don't want to leave. I was one of them And so I started looking for work in DC, the first interviews, God we're with for-profit companies. And I realized pretty quickly that I just could not bring myself to care about making the widget 5 cents cheaper than the other guy and selling it for 5 cents. More like I just. Did not care about that. And so I thought, okay, well, clearly non-profit industry is, is for me. And I started applying only for nonprofit jobs. Got my first job. I was applying both in sort of fundraising calls, oriented organizations and associations, got my first job working in an association, my first capital R capital J Real Job and never looked back.
Carol: It's so funny that you talked about being a professor and I sounds like you got a little further along that path than I did, but that was definitely my idea in college that I would be a history professor, but then I was working on my my final project not a dissertation, cause it was just a BA I don't know the big paper that I had to write at the end of my, at end of end of my degree. And I was doing some research in the library, in the big central library in Philadelphia. And reading these old magazines ‘cause I was doing a project on basically how women were being told how to be mothers advice to mothers at the turn of the century Germany. So I was reading women's magazines from the turn of the century Germany. I realized that I was, I had a mad dust allergy. So I was like, clearly my life's work needs to not be in archives. That's going to be a real problem. Yes. Yes. So, so being a professor, being a history professor was not, not going to be what I was going to be doing. So I had to figure it, figure out something else. And I did. My first job was with a for-profit company and it was When I helped out w w when, when, of course it was all clients, all comers, we were helping people get on talk shows and it was after that, there was like, no, if I'm going to be promoting things, if I'm going to be publicizing, if I'm going to be moving some cause forward, you know I want to have it be something that I believe in. So that's when I made the shift to the nonprofit sector. Yeah. Yeah. So one of the things that I really appreciate about your work is your generosity in creating free, very substantive, white papers on a variety of topics. And, and you've, I think maybe it's going back to that drive to research that originally would've been, would have been in that professor realm. ‘Cause you really go all over the place and, and, and dive into a lot of different topics. And I think actually, It's where we originally met because you did an interview with me as a per case study for one of your white papers.
Elizabeth: Yeah. When you were at NAFSA.
Carol: Yes. Yeah. So around design thinking, lean start up. Yeah. So, so how did you get started doing those?
Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. So that was yes, you are correct. This definitely relates to my interest in research and writing. And there's a range of length, I guess, Israeli types of writing, everything from tweets, obviously, of course, all the way up to books and the length that I always liked was the extended essay. Something that falls into that 25 to 40 page range where you can, you can really have an idea and develop it, but you haven't committed yourself to a 400 page book. And so when I was first launching star back in 2012 I was part consulting. One of the things that I was, I was thinking about is, okay, well I'm going to need to do stuff. To get my name out there. And, and I had already started doing some of that in the association world prior to launching the business. I had been really involved in training people for the certified association executive exam through ASAE. For like the period from right after I earned it myself 2004 through 2010, I was super involved with that and that got me started on the speaking track for ASAE and I, and I had had, and other associations and I, and I had had employers who were supportive of that. Even while I was, I was still an association executive working directly for associations myself and had been doing it association blog for a number of years at that point. And, and that was all great. Like I was enjoying all that planning to continue all of that and whatnot. But I was looking for something a little bit more substantive, I guess, or a little bit more something that has, has a longer shelf life, I guess that's, that's the best way to put it, right? Because if you're speaking at a conference, well, that's great for the people who go to the conference, but what about everybody else? Right. and, and blog posts tend to be somewhat ephemeral. So I was looking for something that would have a little bit more, more staying power to it. So it was a fall of 2012 and I got contacted by a state society to come and speak at their conference. And so we're talking about potential topics that I could cover. and did they want something that was sort of more, personal story inspirational or did they want them to be, it was a little bit more research-based and they, they said, all we know are, are. Opening keynote is going to be a little bit more of that personal story. So like, let's go with something a little bit more. Research-based we're bouncing some ideas around and I was like, well, look, what, what about this, this concept of information overload and, and content curation, and this is something that we're all dealing with. Both personally for ourselves and also as association professionals, trying to deal with our members and others audiences, you know? So what if I dive into that and look into that a little bit more and then, and then make the case for associations to begin focusing less on content creation and more on content duration. They're like, Oh yeah, that sounds, that sounds really interesting. So that ended up being the first white paper and I revisited that topic for the white paper that I turned out last year. Because so much had changed in the intervening eight years with regards to both the volume of information that we're dealing with, and also the association environment for doing content curation. But people are still interested in the topics. So I was like, Hm, I really need some updated information here and ended up revisiting that. But anyway so I, I went ahead and created that white paper for the event. And I, I will say I. Bombed at the safe society event. I have never bombed at a speaking gig like that before or since. But we did learn a very valuable lesson, which was that their audience really preferred, inspirational personal stories. But the thing that I took away from that other than, than, quizzing my, my potential. Speaking employers a little bit more closely about their audiences of what they really wanted was, Hey, this white paper thing is a pretty interesting idea. And I think this might be my thing, my thing that I'm going to create, that is that more lasting longer shelf life way of contributing to the body of knowledge and the association industry, which turned out to be the case.
Carol: Yeah. And now you have a, Oh, I'm going to have to wait a second. That changed something on one of the recordings and it started to give an echo. Yeah. So now you have quite the body of work yourself in terms of all of those white papers. And the one that you're currently working on is focusing on digital transformation. Could you say a little bit about what this is and why it's important to organizations.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you mentioned, there's now a pretty significant library. This is number 13, which I think is lucky. Yeah. And so, the, the topic, and, and as you mentioned earlier, it's across a really wide variety of topics. Because I basically look for something that, a major trend or something like that, that I think is either impacting or is about to impact the association industry, where I. I think that we're either not really paying attention to it the way we need to, or, or like with the blockchain white paper, it's something that's really nascent. When I have an opportunity to educate people about this or it's something where the existing literature and advice that's out there. Is maybe missing something and that's very much what was going on with taking on digital transformation. Digital transformation is not a new topic. This is something that organizations have been working on for at least six or eight years, in, in most cases. And so of course that, that immediately begs the question. Well then why, why bother right about this? Right? This is one of those cases where. In my view, the existing literature and advice and case studies and all that stuff that are out there about digital transformation or are missing something fundamental about associations. And that's actually part of the reason why I wanted to work with Maddie grant for this particular white paper. So, as you know pretty much all of my white papers. I worked with a co-author, we look to feature other experts in interviews within the white papers. We do case studies of organizations that are doing work in that area, et cetera. But, I matched my coauthor to my topic. And so, the thing that. Associations have not that that no one's been paying attention to for associations or writing about for associations is the issue of culture change with regards to digital transformation. So there's, one of Maddy's favorite sayings is digital transformation is culture change plus vendor selection. And the technology of culture change is, or of, of digital transformation is very important, obviously. But we do tend to have a little bit of shiny object syndrome and get very focused on the tech pieces of this. And, and we don't think enough about the culture change that's required in order to actually be a digitally transformed organization. And that's where the problem is for associations. The majority of the work. That is ecstatic about digital transformation from a for-profit perspective. That's why they miss that associations are unique. Our cultures are unique, are our relationships with our I'm making air quotes here. So people in the podcast onesies, but our, our customers are very different. A member of an association is not the same as a member of Costco. And all of the digital transformation work that's out there is about how do you deal with a member of Costco, not how do you deal with a member of an association? And so Maddie and I saw a real opportunity to say, okay, look, there's, there's good stuff out there about, you know the tech piece of this. And we do summarize a little bit of that in the white paper. There's good stuff out there about the techniques of this. Let's talk about what makes association culture unique. And then some of the kinds of things that you need to think about as an association executive in dealing with culture change in order to do that digital transformation to truly become a transformed organization, to one of the One of the, the experts that we spoke with for the white paper is a guy named Martin mocker, who a lot of association folks are familiar with the work of Dr. Jeannie Ross because she's been a speaker at some association tech conferences. But they write about digital transformation and the distinction that they make. And, and this is where the transformation piece happens. Is between being digitized and being digital and being digitized is the piece where, you're, you're grabbing all those shiny objects and you're doing exactly what you've always done, just using technology. So it's better in some way. And it tends to start with an internal focus. Like we're going to fix our internal processes and start. doing more, less stuff, analog and more stuff, digital internally. And then it works its way out into customer facing stuff. I remember facing stuff. But if you, if you want to be able to make the leap from getting some cool tech, let's do some stuff in a digital way that we used to do in an analog way versus. Becoming a transformed organization. It's, it's that leap to going digital that you have to make. That's where the culture piece comes in.
Carol: Well, you packed a lot in there. So I wanted to dial back to a couple of different things you talked about. Well, one was interesting and I'd love for you to unpack a little bit more about what you see as those unique aspects of an association and what makes them different from for-profit organizations.
Elizabeth: Sure and for folks who've been in associations for a number of years, this is all going to sound familiar, but it starts at the top. Right? Our relationships to our boards of directors are very different, first of all, plenty of for-profits are privately owned even though even those that are publicly traded that have a board of directors, their boards are very different than our boards. It's a very different relationship. And the board of directors of an association is much more directly the boss of the CEO or ED and the staff than happens in a for-profit company. So, it begins right at the top. The other thing is our, our, again - air quotes for the podcast folks. Our customers are members. They own the organization. If you're a quote unquote “member of Costco,” you don't have an ownership stake in Costco. Right. if you're, if you're an Amazon prime member, you don't have an ownership stake at Amazon, right? You truly, they're calling it a membership and that's all very lovely and it implies relationship, but you're a customer. And, and this is not to say that associations don't have customers. We absolutely do. But the membership relationship is what makes associations unique. And so, all of them. All of those pieces of the role of the board, the board to the CEO, executive director, the board of the staff, the members, how they relate as owners of the organization, all of this gives them a very different stake in decisions that the organization makes. And it also complicates the culture change picture because you have people who are not staff, but have a much greater investment than somebody who's. Stopping by your store to buy a book or whatever is in the organization. And so, that all has to be taken into account. When you're talking about intentionally designing your culture and then intentionally creating culture change.
Carol: Yeah. A couple of things come to mind there. You mentioned that you had interviewed me as part of that case study when I was at NAFSA and that's an association that's. Serves the international educator field. But what was, what was really interesting about that group? And I worked for a number of different organizations, different associations, and I'd never seen this before NAFSA. I don't know if it's still true today, but at least that the generation of members that I was working with would call themselves NAFSAs. And absence, like they've made a country they've made an identity about being part of that organization. So that sense of identifying with the organization, being part of it, being, seeing it, as I'm a member, I am part of this community. It is integral to how I think about my work. And I have some ownership stake in it. Even though I don't know that a lot of folks necessarily. Thought about it exactly that way. But they also, but in many ways they acted that way. They acted that they had that relationship. So, yeah. So super interesting about how, it can just, it's not just sending a check to get a membership, to get a magazine, when it, when it's, when it, well, honestly, when it's done well, right. When, when there really is that sense of identity and not just being a consumer.
Elizabeth: The reason that people associate is because they're trying to accomplish something that they have found either extremely difficult or impossible to associate on their own. So they're gathering with other people with similar interests. Well the very nature of trying to do that means that this has gotta be a long-term commitment, maybe not the rest of your life, but certainly, longer than making a consumer type purchase. And exactly as you, as you just express that can over time. Maybe not for everybody, but certainly for some people it becomes a part of your identity.
Carol: Yeah. And I also, what you were talking about made me think about just really any tech related project where you're trying to bring in something new, have people maybe use a tool, a new tool that will help them do the, hopefully, Obviously the idea usually is to help people do their job easier, better make things better for members for, for constituents. And at the same time folks get very focused on the technology. You get very focused on what are the features that we want, are we picking the right. The right vendor, are we picking the right software to do this job for getting that really what's way more important is after that decision is made, how are you helping people actually learn how to use the thing and integrated into how they're doing their work and, and accepted, adopted. And so it's not just this, shiny object you bought it. And then it's like, okay, now it's gathering dust. Well,
Elizabeth: and, it's, it's funny that you would use that example because that is a further illustration of the difference between a consumer relationship and a membership relationship. Right. if you think about it again, just as a sort of a regular person, your own experience, whatever, whatever vendor you like, that you, that you go to online regularly, they make a bunch of changes to their website and you're like, ah, I gotta figure out how to do the thing again. Like whatever thing it is you go to them to do. Like, I gotta figure out the thing again. Okay. Whatever association, I know that if we make significant changes to our websites and our members don't know, I like them, they're just gonna kinda shrug and be like, Oh, well I just have to, I have to figure out how to find the thing that I normally do here and whatever, it'll be fine. You know? My favorite example for that is like every time my, the, the airline that I usually fly that has where I have on my frequent flyer stuff. Like they make changes. I'm like, ah, crap. Okay. I'll figure it out. It's fine. Right. I don't call them up and chew them out on the phone. If I don't like it. If you do something like that for your members. They absolutely feel like they own the organization and they will call you up or email you and tell you what they think. Right. Because it's not just, Oh, the powers that be on high have done this. And I, the poor consumer, have no power in this situation. That's not it at all. Right. I'm a member. I'm a part owner of this organization. I have a say.
Carol: Yeah. And one of the things you talked about was the difference between being digitized and digital. Can you, can you say a little bit more again about what, what you see as the difference between those two and why that's important?
Elizabeth: Sure. And for people who really want to dig into this, I would definitely recommend that they check out the book. So I am getting the title of it right now. It is designed for digital, how to architect your business for sustained success. So that's by Dr. Jeanne Ross Cynthia and Martin Mocker who's the guy that we interviewed for the white paper
Carol: We’ll put links, we'll put links to that and the paper.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So the, the, the difference is going, B becoming digitized has to do with I'm taking analog functions. And I am now doing the exact same analog functions I was doing before only now I'm using technology to do them. So a great example of this is where I first started my career in association management. It was the mid nineties and we were doing all of our membership join and renew. Everything was entirely analog. Paper form, mail it in with your check to the lock box, the bank, kind of, deal. And yeah, mid nineties, right. That's pretty typical. We worked at associations and were sort of just venturing onto the web. We did have a website. It was your typical mid nineties. Brochureware so our, I arrive on the scene and I'm like, Hmm, I'll bet. Our members would like to be able to join and renew online. Well, let me, let me set up a test of this speaking of lean startup methodology, right. I just threw up a form that dumped all the information to an email. Yes. As a matter of fact, I was dumping unencrypted credit card numbers across the internet into an email that we then had to. Process, like we would print them out to the mall, to the lockbox for processing on the back end. So it was still a little analog there. But from the front end, from the, from the member's perspective, it looks quick digital. And so, that was, that was my, my test to say, Hey, like, nobody has this as a built-in feature of their association management system yet let's find out if it's worth building it. And in fact, it was like our, our members were very much people who wanted to be able to do this online. Then we had data. We were like, yes, we will pay to go ahead and build this because it's going to be worthwhile. But my point is that it’s becoming digitized. Right? We were, we had this analog membership program. We, now you can join and renew online, but it was, it's still the exact same membership. Like we weren't changing anything about the membership. We were just saying, Oh, well, instead of. Mailing in your form with your check to the lockbox, which by the way, you can still do if you want to do this online with your credit card and be fancy and fast, we can, we can do that. Right. That's becoming digitized, becoming digital, has to do with a mind shift. it’s actually the construction specifications Institute story from the, from the the white paper, their, their crosswalk platform illustrates this pretty well. It's about shifting your mindset to say no. What we are going to do is we are going to think differently about our members and our other audiences about how we interact with them, about how they want to interact with each other, being aware of what the technology enables at this point to create entirely new ways. Entirely new programs, products, and services, entirely new ways of building networks and relationships, entirely new ways of creating knowledge, entirely new ways of organizing ourselves, entirely new ways of creating group action that are digital from the start. That to me, that's the transformation bit because it, because you have to change your mind about all this stuff. It’s changing business processes as well, and it's changing product development and all that, but, and this gets back to culture, change, change. It's a complete shift in the way you think about things and view the world.
Carol: Yeah. And what I appreciated about that story. And, and if I can, let's see if I get it right. In terms of my summary, they saw a problem that all their members were having. The problem wasn't necessarily an in, in their work. So out, out in their world, not necessarily about how the association works, but how their members were doing work in the world with a whole bunch of other folks who weren't necessarily members of that association, but lots of different other types of professionals that their members had to work with and how they all had their own way of I guess one Version that everyone could relate to would be the multiple times. You have to fill out your medical history at every doctor that you go to. Right? So all of these different people were, were, were managing information, managing inventory in different ways and had different systems, different technology. So they didn't build something to take over all of those things, but they built a bridge. Building those, what are they called? APIs. Yep.
Elizabeth: Advanced Programming interfaces.
Carol: Yep. Right? So that translation to go back and forth between those different systems, which really transformed how people were doing their work in the field.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And, and honestly, I mean, this is something anybody who's ever done, any home renovation project could totally relate to this. Right. like, so construction specifications Institute, this is guidelines the, the things, the regulations that keep large-scale construction processes. And ensure that you have a good result on the end bridge that doesn't fall down a size skyscraper that doesn't collapse, et cetera. Right. And so anybody who, anybody who's ever done a home renovation project knows how this goes, right? You've got your general contractor that you've got a zillion subcontractors, they're all doing different pieces of the project. And they all have their own systems and their own processes and their own ways of doing things and, and all that. And, unless you are a crazy person and decide to act as your own general contractor, that's what your general contractor is doing is managing all of that for you, right? They're not telling the carpenter or the tile guy or the electrician or the plumber or whatever, how to do their job, or what processes they should use. They manage it for you. Well, CSI construction specifications Institute saw the opportunity to do it. Similar thing for large scale construction projects, where there's everybody from architects and engineers to, all, all of the other types of things that you would think about that would be involved in building something like a skyscraper or a tunnel or a bridge or whatever. And they saw an opportunity to create that shared platform for them to be passing information back and forth so that everybody can still use. The systems that make them happy and the programs that they like to use and can still manage the information internally the way they like to. But all of a sudden, we're all sharing it across this, this bridge platform where it cuts down on waste to time, it reduces risk. It cuts down on errors, and, and this has been it's, it's a completely different way of thinking because. Carol as you just articulated, most of those other players are not and will never be CSI members. But this is an opportunity to create something that serves the entire industry vertical soup to nuts.
Carol: What'd you say are some of the either misconceptions or mistakes that associations make when they. think, okay, well we need to, maybe we've started on some digitizing, but we really want to shift more to this larger transformation moving towards the digital process. Yeah.
Elizabeth: The most obvious one is the shiny object syndrome. Right. Like we noticed something going on and so we grab a piece of technology and slap it on there and we're like, we're, we're done. Yay. Go us. Yeah, that's, that's not gonna transform your organization. That's the thing to get you in the trouble that you mentioned earlier. Oh, and we had this great idea and if no one's using it we've, we've slapped some technology technological bandaid on a problem that we noticed and, and so I think that's one of the main challenges that we face is, you've got to think about this in a much more strategic way. One of the things that Maddie and I stress in the white paper is that you don't want to have a strategy for digital or a strategy for mobile or a strategy for social or a strategy for AI or whatever, right? Like you, you have your larger organizational strategy and you're looking for how to do things like mobile and social and web and AI and internet of things and data analytics and all that. Like how do they fit into and contribute to your larger organizational strategy. And so as I always try to do with, with the white papers, the final section of this is very much the, okay. All of this information that you've shared with me was lovely and interesting. And I see what you're thinking here, but like, what do I actually do? And so, and we, we lay it right out in a very clear series of steps. You have to start with assessing where you are, if you don't, if you, if you don't know where you are and where you're trying to go, any path is the right path and the wrong path. And you're going to end up in places that you had no necessary intent of ending up. So you've got it. You've got to know where you are right now, before you can figure out where you're going to go. And some associations when they do that, they're going to discover, what. We've got work to do on digitization. First, one of our other stories, the independent community bankers association was very much what my friend, her boss, who works there discovered when he, when he was hired, like we have to, we have to digitize first. Like there's some internal stuff going on here that we're going to have to fix before we can look to trains. Right. But because he assessed, he knew that. Then you got to move on to things like getting support resources. You need to look for strategic areas where all those digital technologies, social, mobile, mobile, mobile data analytics, all the stuff that I just mentioned could contribute, could help, could help fix things. You're going to have to take a look at what's going on with your legacy processes, because you may find yourself in that. Digitization work to do first before we can go digital. Right. But you need to, you need to take a look at that. Then you're going to have to, in addition to getting some sort of leadership support and financial resources, you're also going to have to assemble your team like Avengers unite, right? Like you've got to have Avengers assemble, right? Like you've got to, you got to get your Avengers together. And this is one of the Association cultural things. It's not just going to be staff. You're also going to need to be recruiting volunteers and rank and file members on to your team. Because that's one of the things that's different about our culture. Then you've got to get into that experimental framework and consider how this is all going to affect your culture and engage in that process of intentional culture change in order to get you to the ends that you, that you envisioned when you did that sort of strategic look and how can these technologies contribute to the organizational strategic goals we're already trying to achieve.
Carol: And one of the things that I think people have been advocating for for a long time in the association space, and then the nonprofit space more generally is really, making having staff and boards volunteers make more data driven, driven decisions rather than, Well, the last member who happened to call you and, and, and, and bend your ear relying on those anecdotes and what are, what are some of the key barriers that you see to really effectively using the data that or organizations actually already have?
Elizabeth: Oh man. How much time do you have, especially the TA. This specifically is the topic of one of my earlier white papers on evidence-based decision-making that I wrote with Peter household from Mariner management. Yeah, this is a challenge, right? Speaking of legacy systems this for associations is, is one of the big ones. And we actually talk about this quite a bit in the white paper, because, Consumer businesses would kill to get the data that we have on our members, because we have obviously, again, not with everybody, but for a significant portion of your membership, you have a very long-term relationship with those people where they've been. Doing all sorts of different stuff with you for years. And they've, and, and this is, this is actually born out in some of the, the other studies that we referenced, the white paper that have been done by community brands. But the other thing is our members are more willing to share their data with us. Austin. They are with most consumer brands because they trust us. And they are particularly willing to share their data with us if we're transparent about how we intend to use it. And it's clear that the reason that we're asking for this is in order to provide them with better service, better programs and products, et cetera. so we've, we've got a treasure trove of data. The problem is, one of the, the technology pieces of, of digital transformation. Is data analytics. And as an industry, we've been lagging on that. Some of that is because we have a lot of legacy systems that were built in, in exclusion of each other. And so they don't talk to each other particularly well. And if you can look at the history of association management, Systems and, for, for a while, there was this trend of, we're going to do everything in the AMS and we're going to build everything that is part of the AMS. Anything you could possibly think of, you might want to do with your members is going to be a module. Right. And we pretty quickly all realized that was a terrible idea. So, people went back to more of a, okay, so, we need to. Run conference registration. So we're gonna, we're going to get a best of breed conference registration system, and we need to run professional development. So we're going to get a best of breed learning management system, and we need to manage the content on our website. So we're going to get a best of breed, every content management system there, and, and realizing that it's, it's better to do it that way than to try to have this one mammoth piece of software that handles everything. But the problem is, those things don't always communicate with each other particularly well. So, back to it, we've got this wonderful treasure trove of data, but none of it's talking to each other and we have, have lacked the capacity to figure out how to make that happen. Now we're seeing even, even when Peter and I wrote the evidence-based decision-making white paper a couple of years ago, we're seeing more of a movement towards. Speaking of a crosswalk type platform, something that's, that's on top of all of those things and they don't have to talk to each other, they all just have to talk to this shared platform, and we're seeing that with everything from, actual business analytics tools to data visualization tools and, and so my, My encouragement to associations would be to keep going on that route, to keep, keep looking at those business information and business analytics tools, get educated about them, just dive in and pick one and find somebody on it. Staff, who's interested in learning about it, and just like, just start going and see what you can do and what you can learn and what insights you can gather. So that's that piece of it. The other piece of it is the questions, right? Because it's all just a big pile of data. If you don't know what it is that you're trying to find out. And so in the midst of finding yourself good data, visualization to want a good business information tool and finding somebody on your staff. Who's interested in learning how to use them and, getting them some training and setting them loose and all that. But like all that stuff is good. Right. You also want to think about what are the questions that we are trying to answer about our members and other audiences and what data do we need. In order to answer those questions. And so one of the things that Peter and I very much argue for in the data-driven decision-making white paper is spend more time on the front end asking better questions, because then back to that whole thing of our members being willing to give us data. If we know why. We want it. You'll have a better question that you're asking. So you'll be asking for more targeted data with a clear, this is why we need it, which means people will be more willing to give it to you. Which means you'll be able to have a better answer to the question because you'll be operating from a fuller picture of what's going on.
Carol: Well, and that all goes back to, strategy from the beginning of thinking about, where, where, where are you right now doing that assessment. And, and maybe you need to go back and do your homework and, and, and do more digitizing, maybe work on your data, silos, those kinds of things. Before you can really shift into transformation. But, really having that assessment of where you are and then working together to figure out what's the vision for where we want to end up.
So I'd like to shift gears a little bit at this point. And I always like to ask, I have a box of random ice - they're not random because they wrote them all, but I randomly picked them out of the box of icebreaker questions and always like to end the podcast with one of those. So, I was about to ask you, if you could write a book, what would it be about? But you told me you didn't want to write a book. So I won't ask you that one. So who in your life inspires you to be better?
Elizabeth: Ooh, that's a good one. So many people and now I'm going to have to pick one. This is good. This is going to be trite, but that's okay. It's, it's probably my spouse. So He, he historically has believed in me way more than I believed in myself. The perfect, the perfect story of that being, when I, when I was first thinking about starting the business, I, at the time I wasn't thinking about starting spark consulting, I was thinking about it was time to move on to a different association job. Yeah. It's not there. Yeah. I got my resume to go on talking to people and meeting with recruiters and submitting resumes and whatnot. And, as I'm starting to tell people in my network, Hey I think it's time for me to move on. The almost immediate response from everyone was, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I was like, Oh no, I was going to go work at another association. And so finally I was meeting a friend of mine who is a recruiter for lunch. And I said, Hey, We're going to move on and she's like, okay, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I'm like, you're like the 10th person who's asked me that. Could you please tell me what I'm seeing or what you're seeing about this whole situation that I am missing. And she did, she did. She laid out some really great advice for me and everything. And I was like, Hmm. Okay. I really thought about this a little more seriously when I came home that night. And we had friends over for dinner and, we had a nice dinner and we're cleaning up whatever, and it's like time to go to bed, you know? So as we're getting to bed, I say to him, I'm like yeah, I had lunch with my friends this afternoon. And I'm thinking that maybe I want to start my own business and he looks at me and he's like, I think you'd be great at that. You should totally do that. And it turns off the light and I'm like, this man believes in me. Right. If he, if he believes in me to this level, I need to believe in myself to this level. And that, that level of confidence in me and confidence that I'm going to make the right decision and do the right thing, inspires me to make sure that I do
Carol: Awesome. Well, what's, what's coming up for you next. What are you excited about in your work?
Elizabeth: Getting this white paper launched. So yes, for the, for the, the listeners of the pod it is going to be coming out right around June 1st. So we're, we're very excited about that. And then Carol, as you mentioned, it's freely available you don't even end up on a mailing list. I mean, you can just have it, like, I don't, I don't collect your data or anything like that. You can, you can just have it. So definitely getting, getting that launched and also watching the association industry begin sort of poking our heads out post pandemic. This is no great secret, but for a lot of small consultants 2020 was a pretty rough year because associations very much went into hunker down and try not to panic mode. So for a lot of us. 2020 was a little challenging. Totally understandable. Right, when an association doesn't know what's going to be happening and they may even be having lay off staff, they're not looking to be hiring outside help. But I'm, I'm watching again, more associations start poking their heads out, Looker, looking around and start thinking about, okay, we're, we're moving into whatever the post pandemic is going to look like. And now thinking about some of this stuff that we just, for a year, like, We just we're in survival mode here, man. We can't think about any of these things. So yeah, I'm just, I'm looking forward to, to all of that. And seeing where we go as an industry because and this is, this is something we talk about in one of the other case studies in the white paper associations had to make a lot of changes, really fast. And that we, some of them were good choices and good changes, and some of them were less so, right. Like we did not have the luxury of sitting around and assessing everything and, like we had to move right now. And so I'm also really interested to see. See kind of, what's going to stick and what's not going to stick. I'm very curious about that. Yeah, so I'm, I'm eager to see how that all plays out too.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's going to be, I think that's what a lot of people are thinking about right now. And I'm asking the question of kind of, well, we, we, we suddenly, well, one, we suddenly enacted changes that perhaps a few people had been talking about for years and we'd been ignoring them and then overnight we had to do them But then, what do we want to keep? What helps us in terms of maybe being more efficient including more people. But then where is it really important? basically like working remotely or, and doing virtual events. No, where is it really important for people to be in the room together? And, my one wish if, if, if this can happen, it will be just amazing that people start being much more intentional about why are we getting all these people on a train, plane, automobile to come together and be together? And then the answer should not be to sit and listen to a lecture that they could have watched at home since that's what we've done for the past year. That could be the change that comes out of this for organizing patients and their, their convenience and meanings. I would be very excited.
Elizabeth: Yep. Three things related to that. Right? Number one, the whole thing of, anytime you're having a meeting, look around the table, think about how much each of those people is paid per hour and how long you got from there. And that is the actual cost of that meeting. Right. And we don't think about that enough, this flight-shaming becoming a thing. Right. We have to think about the climate impact of our travel, nowadays, I mean, that's, that's very much, much a thing. And there's the issue of being able to include more voices.
Carol: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great to have you on, and we'll definitely put links into the book that you mentioned, and to the white paper when it comes out and more generally to the rest of them so that people can have access to all that wonderful, all those wonderful resources that you've been producing over the years. But thank you so much for coming
Elizabeth: on. Yeah. Thank you for having me and, and, I made these for you also. Please take them.
Elizabeth: Thanks Carol.
Carol: Thank you.
I appreciate Elizabeth’s focus on organizational culture change if an organization is going to truly transform digitally. It is not just about shifting internal processes from analog to digital – it is really thinking differently about how you are using technology to support your mission – and that could have much broader implications than just improving internal processes. Any one who has worked on a technology project knows how easy it is to get caught up in worrying about making the right decision about what system to choose to achieve your goals – whether it is what fundraising software, what customer management system or what team collaboration tool you are going to use – and then what vendor will be the right one to properly service the system. But even if you make the ‘perfect’ decision if you do not bring folks along with you and consider the changes from their perspective, you may find that they do not see the change as the wonderful innovation or improvement that you do. Have you given thought and time to think about how a group will adapt to the new system? What it will mean in terms of their day to day? Can you find a few champions who will lead the way and demonstrate its value to those who are reluctant to jump in? The objects are a lot less shiny when folks won’t use them and they do not end up solving the problem you thought they would – not because the tech can’t do it -but because it is too much hassle for your teammates to take the time to learn the tech and it not an urgent need for them. This past year demonstrated just how quickly people can learn new technology such as Zoom when it is a burning need. So it is not really about whether people can – it is really rather – is it important for them to do so? If not – how can you help them see the importance?
Thank you for listening to this episode. It’s an honor for you to spend this time with me. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for their support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, it would be great if you would share it with a colleague or friend or on social media – please tag us if you do! We really appreciate you helping us get the word out.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.