Strategic Messaging with Doug Spencer
In episode 34 of Mission: Impact, Carol, her guest, Doug Spencer talked about:
Douglas Spencer is president of Spencer Brenneman, LLC, which helps mission-driven organizations reframe their focus and remaster their messages to thrive in any environment. In 2021, Douglas launched the podcast, Messaging on a Mission. In it he talks to leaders of nonprofits, social enterprises, associations about their journeys and the messages they’re using to thrive. He is also the author of Do They Care? The one question all brands should ask themselves, continually, a book that shows leaders how they can create meaningful connections with everyone important to their organization's success.
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Doug Spencer. Doug and I talk messaging for nonprofits. Why it is so much more than branding and branding is so much more than just a logo, and why it is so important to help everyone in your nonprofit get on board with a clear message that everyone can understand. 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.
Welcome Doug. It's great to have you on the pod.
Doug Spencer: I am thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me.
Carol: So I like to start with asking the question of what drew you to the work that you do. What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Doug: Yeah. Okay. Well, let's see. It's convoluted. It's not as easy as, oh, I woke up one morning when I was a child and I knew that I had to do A, B or C. So, I will start there. My parents were volunteers, they just volunteered at different organizations. And so they set a really good example for me, that way. And, I did that throughout high school and college. And after that, I've always been a volunteer, at least in organizations that I cared about. I did work in nonprofits for awhile, but then I got sucked into the for-profit sector and worked there for many years and, but continue to continue to volunteer. I served on the board of directors of a hundred million dollar health center. And, even was its board chair for a while. So I continued doing that, but after a while I left my corporate job, I started working on my own, doing branding. And, really it was last year in the heart of the pandemic where I took a step back and thought. All right. What am I doing? What I really want to do. And it was then that we made a shift to focus exclusively on mission driven organizations. So mostly not-for-profits, but also, social enterprises, the organizations that are trying to. Solve some sort of societal challenge, and, and, and are focused on doing that. There's the environment. There's education there's it's there, there's some really great folks doing some great work in pretty much all, all areas. And so, yeah, that's why I've shifted to mission-driven organizations. There's a lot of things I can't do, but, such as I can't, take care of kids who have been abused. I can't work in biotech. I can't do a lot of things, but I can help them. I can help the people who do. I can help them talk about their work and get their message out there so that more people join them on their mission.
Carol: It doesn't, it doesn't do anyone any good if, it's it's, the organization is hidden and no one knows the good work that they're doing. It's interesting. I'm thinking about my career and I've been in the sector for most of my career and, if you had talked to an organization about branding, when I first started, it was a dirty word. Branding, marketing, all of those things, were, oh, that's what, that's what those for-profit people do. I think that's changed a lot in the number of years that I've been in the sector. but still, it can be. Somewhat neglected or siloed and the fundraising arm or the marketing arm, the communications arm of the organization. Why would you say that it's really important for organizations to get, get those messages, get, get those messages is really integrated through the whole organization.
Doug: Sure. Well, there's many reasons for that. one of which is consistency in order for any message to take hold. And when I think of branding, by the way, I really think of strategic messaging. People sometimes think of a logo when they think branding, but that's just one tiny element of it. So it's really about how you think about your organization, how you think about the relationships you have with all the people. All the people most important to your success. And then how do you talk to them? And when I say all the people important to your success, that's where I think your portion's going. that starts with employees. I wrote a little book a few years ago about branding and the first chapter is all about employees, because if your employees don't understand what you're really about, if they can't talk about it in a way that gets other people excited, then. Wow. You're walking away from a whole lot of great connections, a whole lot of great energy, a whole lot of great information because communication is two ways. But, but, so, so it's important that everybody understands the message for consistency. But also, so they can do their jobs better so they can feel more connected to the organization. So that if you're a volunteer, you can't stop talking about it. And more importantly, you can't stop talking about it correctly. And if you don't have that focus on messaging in the very beginning, people are going to go out, go out, about in their daily lives. And they're going to say whatever they think is right. And sometimes it is, but a lot of the times it's not. So that's why messaging is so important that everyone has to understand it and everyone has to feel it. They have to really feel it and get excited about it.
Carol: Yeah. Oftentimes you think about board members or board members are, are really, encouraged to be ambassadors for the organization, but you make a great point about all those people who are working there. All the folks who are volunteering, it may not be at the board level. It may be in a lot of different aspects of the organization. but any of those folks, any of those stakeholders only kind of, yeah. It sees the elephant from whatever position they're in. Right. So they may just get a bit of the puzzle and not the whole thing. How do you help organizations go about that and get everyone on message?
Doug: Well, the first, the first way to do that is involve them, involve everyone in the development of the message or if it's not development and it, at least it's the. fine tuning or validate or validation of the message. So we have a process that is really research heavy. We focus a lot on research, both qualitative and quantitative, and you bring people into that process to make them feel heard because they do need to be heard. And you're, if you don't. Get input from all the people most important to you, six successes then, wow. You're not doing your job, right? not, I'm sorry to be blunt, but that's just the way it is. You've got to get everyone involved and just that first step does help build that momentum and build that excitement. And then the end product, ideally. We'll have some reflection of what all of those folks have said and input and input, obviously you're not going to just automatically do or say whatever everybody says, but it's, it's the totality of everything they say. So if you do it right, they're going to see a little bit of themselves in there. They're going to see a little bit about the part of the organization that, that they, no. when I was working in the for-profit sector and that's the other reason just, not to be completely stream of consciousness, but that's the other reason that I like what I'm doing now, because when I was working in the for-profit sector, I got a ton of great experience that the nonprofit sector isn't seen there's approaches in this way, just think about that really can benefit the non-profit sector. So I'm, I'm excited to share that where it's appropriate for other organizations, but where I was going before I interrupted myself, right. Where it was, where I was going was that I had a client when I was working with for-profit companies. And he said to me, if I asked every one of my partners, what we do. Every one of them would come up with a different description. And I worked with Harvard medical school and one of their divisions and their executive director had the exact same problem. All the leaders of her. Programs would only talk about the entirety in the perspective of what they did for it, never in how that all adds up to be the organization's true message. So if you get people involved and get them to see how they connect to the greater picture, the greater mission, then they're going to be all that much more excited to be part of it.
Carol: And that that process of research has a very similar to, when you were starting out with a strategic plan. And, the other thing that that brings to mind is that. There's the input process and coming to some conclusion around what are your strategic messages, but through that process, you're also shifting people's perspective and almost going through an education process with them as they talk to other people in the organization and see, see the other sides of things. And then how does it, as you're saying, add up to the total?
Doug: Right. Right. And, and that totality that if you want to call it your mission, you want to call it your why statement, whatever you want to call it, that brings people together and that can actually help, come to life in many other ways. So for example, sometimes there's a lot less bickering in an organization because everyone understands, okay, what they're really there to accomplish. They may all have different approaches to get the organization. There are more different contributions. But they all agree on the end goal and a lot of organizations aren't operating with that. They're just operating little silos, because they think it's more efficient or it's just really, it's just really icky to have to talk to somebody and, and really hear them out and feel what they're saying. And when you just want to focus on your own stuff, but, yeah, it's the mission. And, given the name of your podcast, mission impact, it's got to be the mission, it's gotta be what drives you and your mission’s gotta be what drives your message too.
Carol: So oftentimes, an organization's messaging doesn't keep up with how they've evolved. why don't you say this happens and, and how, how can you kind of, what, how can, what can organizations do to make sure that those two things match.
Doug: Oh, gosh. Yeah. This is something that everybody struggles with from time to time. And there are three main reasons. I see why organizations miss messages that fall out of line. The first is we forget what we know that nobody else knows, and we do our jobs day in and day out. We live, breathe them. Think about them, wake up in the middle of night, thinking about them. And that's what makes us really good at it. But what we all do. Forget that not everybody has that level of detail. And so sometimes we go about talking about what we do as if we're explaining a Netflix show, season three, episode 12, to someone who's only seen season one, episode two.
And so, we forget what we know and nobody else does. So that's the first one. The second one is that we all have to change a little bit here and there. I mean, life comes at us and throws us things that we have to adapt to, global pandemic, anyone, so a little change here and a little change. There is probably not that bad and something you need to do, but your message probably doesn't change a lot. Right. And then the third reason I see is what I call the squeaky wheel syndrome, especially with organizations that are lean and are running, all hands on deck. These squeaky wheels come up and you have to pay attention to them, but sometimes it's at the expense of the entire machine. So what that leads to is over time, sometimes convoluted. confusing and just basically inaccurate message because you've been going slightly different direction, all of a sudden, and then bam, your message hasn't changed and it's still pointing backwards. So those are the three reasons. I think that the organization's message gets out of sync here.
Carol: Yeah. And that makes sense. And as you're talking about those different silos of people, not knowing if they've forgotten what they're doing. So in the details of, episode 22, season three, and they forget the whole long storyline, it seems to me that processes like you lead groups through and, and the work that I do where we're there doing strategic planning and kind of, again, always taking a step back, bringing a larger group of people. Cross-functional groups of people together to think through these things. It helps people reconnect with the why of the organization, whether it's through messaging, whether it's through setting priorities. yeah. It helps them get a better understanding of what everybody does in an organization, oftentimes I'll have board members who've just started and they think, well, I can't contribute anything to this strategic planning process or a messaging process, but they do contribute something and that. One, they're bringing a new perspective and to the whole process they're going to, they're going to be so much further up to speed on the organization than if they had gone to an equivalent number of board meetings. So there's, there's all sorts of other benefits from these processes than just the product at the end. Right? The ripple effects in the organization.
Doug: Right. And one of the things that I think is one of those benefits is focus. So when you step back and really think about your messaging framework, what are the things that we are known for, or want to be known for? What are the things that we contribute to the world that nobody else does exactly the same way? And if you come up with three to four of those, and a new idea comes along, someone says, oh, we should totally do this. Or totally do like adopt a highway program like we do, but for, for, but for rabbits, then you say, okay, well, does that fit into any of the predetermined categories of what we've claimed we do best? And if it doesn't, then you don't do it. And that helps. That helps you stay focused. So you put a line in the sand and say, okay, this is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we talk about it. And anything else. You just have to politely say, sorry, we can't do that. Or, an obviously better option would be to point them to someone who does, not just leave them, leave them hanging, but help them somehow. But don't take that on if it's not who you are.
Carol: So what are some ways that organizations, what are some steps that they can take to get clear about their messaging?
Doug: Yeah. First is, as I alluded to earlier, to do some research. You got to ask questions, you gotta ask questions. All the people who are important to your success. Again, your employees, your volunteers, the people you serve, the people who fund you, the people who used to be on your board and are on your board, or, obviously not everyone, but you have to have a reputation or a representation from everybody that has some sort of a stake or something. A point of view that has value. You have to ask the questions and some of them have to be tough, you know? Do you think, do you have confidence in the executive director? Do you think the organization is prepared to meet the needs of the community in five years? do you think they do the work better than, and then list in some other organizations? So you have to do that work. You have to understand. And the other thing that a lot of organizations don't do that I think is really important is. Take a look at their competitors. And when I say competitors, I know a lot of people go competitors though. We don't have those that's for profit, but no you're competing for the time, talent and treasures of a whole lot of other folks. So, if who else, who else is going to. foundation and applying for the same grant you are, who else is looking for individual donors in say the art space, if that's where you're in or social justice space. So that's where you're in. So you've got to look at what they're doing, what they're saying, and then find a way to authentically position yourselves relevant or relative rather to those other voices, because those voices are out there and you are competing with them before people's time, talent.
Carol: Yeah. And I think people only think about competitors as those direct ones. So an arts organization to an arts organization. And, but if you're a local, a local organization, you're competing with all the organizations that are trying to get donor donations from local folks. So sometimes you have to think kind of, there may not be some, someone who does exactly what you do in your locality, but your, that competition may be maybe slightly.
Doug: Right. And it goes back to your episode, it goes back to thinking about those people who are most important to your success. You got to get in their heads, who is it that they work with? So if you are talking to corporate foundations or you are talking to some sort of a major donor, who else are they supporting? You've got to get a sense of where their attention spans are. Pointing and then thinking about how you fit into that. And it's gotta be authentic as I, as I suggest, is it can't you just can't, you can't be that car salesman. That is all things to all people. You've got to find your authentic voice and speak that in a way that connects with those people in a way that everyone else doesn't.
Carol: So what gets in the way?
Doug: What gets in the way? Well, like I said, just the day-to-day work, people are busy, especially at not-for-profits because they tend to have very lean staffs and sometimes they tend to not sometimes, and they tend to work with some, some really life and death situations. And so if you have to. Getting people into, housing for the, for the night versus, having a conversation with people that might donate, it's, you, you gotta, you gotta balance. And so the day to day really gets in trouble, gets you in trouble sometimes, but you've got to find that balance. That's just part of the job. I had a boss that used to, she used to always say to us, put on your big boy pants and do it. And, Gender aside. I just liked the image of that. But, anyway, that's part of the job and you've gotta stay. You gotta, you gotta do everything. unfortunately, so, just the day to day really does it. The other thing is it's not. Fun necessarily the pre-work, it's almost like some people have fashioned it like going into therapy and who wants to do that? and I, people joke that I'm some, sometimes I'm a therapist, which I am so not because I'm so not qualified, but I asked a lot of questions and I listened. So, I guess there is a parallel. But it's not always fun to really do that soul searching, even if it's not about you personally, but it's about the organization that you love and breathe that you are, it's so important to you. That soul searching can be uncomfortable. And then of course, change is uncomfortable too, for a lot of people, if they don't know. If they're not initiating it like you and I have had conversations and you brought up a great point that a change is great for the people who are initiating it. It's everybody else that gets, gets a little weirded out about it. So, those are some of the reasons, those are some of the things that get in the way. I think of people staying on top of their message and really embracing it and using it as a way to further their work.
Carol: And I love your point about, especially at organizations that are in direct service where, whether they get food to people or housing or all the things, that day, the immediate needs that are right on their doorstep, they need to deal with them. And I guess, as an and other organizations, That are working on issues that can feel like that too, even though they may not have the one person at their doorstep. and yeah, if you can take the perspective of. We're going to do a better job of serving all those people. If we're able to connect with other people who will support us, and, and not have it be a competitive, a competitive thing within the organization of, of competing priorities to say that, no, we need to do both because, that little bit of time that we're taking or that amount of time that we're taking to get clear about all these things is going to serve us in the long run. It may be that. See that, that immediate gratification of helping somebody right there. But over time, it will, it will help them help a greater number of people.
Doug: Okay. It's that, it's another variation on that, that classic, river, metaphor, right. If you're busy pulling people out of the river. One after another is to keep them from drowning. You don't have time to go upstream, downstream, upstream, and figure out why these people are getting in the river in the first place. So it's just another version of that, of that middle.
Carol: Absolutely. So on every episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So one for you is what is something you think everybody should do at least in their lives?
Doug: Oh gosh, that's easy. And I say this all the time and that is. Get into some therapy, talk to a therapist. Oh my God, you have no, you don't, you don't. And nor should you be in therapy forever in my humble opinion, but again, what do I know? But, oh my gosh, our world is so complicated and the pressures that we put ourselves in, the world changes so fast and our parents always do the best they can, but you know what. That doesn't mean that everything was right. So you get to talk to somebody else once in a while, at least once and just help them, help them, help them, help you sort things out in your head, so that you can get a better grip on how to be your best self and how to live your best.
Carol: absolutely. I've often joked with my daughter. I was like, well, I'm just, I'm just helping out your future therapist. Well, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you and emerging in your work.
Doug: Yeah, what's exciting. Well, I'm just excited, excited rather that we are very slowly, more slowly than we should, but more slowly getting a hold of the pandemic and starting to move forward and at least starting to feel more of a comfort level with it. So I think, so we're talking now in August. I don't know when you're going to when this will air, but in August we're I think we're, you've got the Delta variant going on, but I think that people are. Racing themselves for another fall or winter, but it's not going to be as. Awful as it had been. And so I'm looking forward to ideally not having that happen, but if, even if it does, I think it's going to be better than 2020, but I do see the world opening up. I'm really excited. I know this is probably inappropriate to go, get all political, but I'm really excited to see what's going to happen with the infrastructure bill that seems to be going on. I think there's some real, incredible opportunities that are going to come from that. And so I'm really eager to see what this is. Has, and how that benefits, the people that are doing the work that we support. Right? Cause it's not in a vacuthe infrastructure, isn't just something that's over there. The infrastructure is something that impacts everybody and how they do their jobs and how they service the people they serve and how, and the environment is a perfect example. so I'm really excited about that. And, am, in sending positive vibes to Washington that they don't screw it up and that it actually happens.
Carol: Absolutely. It's certainly long overdue. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Doug: This is fun. I'll we should do it again. And you've been on mine and I appreciate your time on my podcast and, yeah, happy to do it anytime. All right. Thanks a lot. Thank you.
Carol: I appreciated what Doug said about stepping back and help people understand the bigger picture of the story of your nonprofit. It is too easy to start with all the details – as he says – assuming your audience is in the middle of the season that you have been bringing with you, instead of setting the scene and giving the big headline – the tagline that folks will be able to remember. Not getting lost in the weeds and the details. And how to connect with what the person you are speaking with cares about. Not to fundamentally change your mission – but to find that point of connection to help pull that person in and help them relate to what you are describing. Getting into their shoes and seeing it from their perspective. 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 Doug as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed the episode I would greatly appreciate it if you would share it with a colleague or friend. Send them a link to the episode - We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
Advocacy with Sharon Anderson
In episode 31 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Sharon Anderson discussed include:
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Sharon. Welcome to the podcast.
Sharon Anderson: Thank you. Pleasure to be.
Carol: So I'd like to start out with a question of what you, what drew you to the work you do, what motivates you and, and what would you describe as your why?
Sharon: Okay, I would actually say the roots of it really go back to my growing up actually, because I saw with my parents, my family a lot of engagement with community service. And that just resonated with me through whatever form of non-governmental organization, the non-profits space, the ways that people found to address needs. And I just grew up with the sense of how important that was. And then. Having some opportunities to serve on some nonprofit boards and to see it in, in that regard. But I think as far as really the motivator around my consulting with nonprofits came from a project that I worked on for capacity building. And this was one of my friends. Projects. When I started as a consultant, I just saw that need and that space of different nonprofits with really good intentions, but needing support, needing the information to help them take it up to the next level. Yeah. And one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with their advocacy and policy development starting with a definition, what, what would you describe? How would you describe advocacy? My conversation opener with advocacy is telling your story. And finding a way to make certain that you are clear about what it is that as an organization, what is the organization about, what do you do? Who are you trying to help? What kinds of things are you doing to make those and make improvements. So That for me is the, the why I, and going back to something I mentioned sort of earlier, just looking at, at nonprofit, I saw some times that there were a lot of nonprofit boards in particular that when you said advocacy to them, it was like, oh my gosh, no, I can't, I can't do that. And so that's what I mean. To address the importance of it not only to their sustainability, but also the fact that, yes, there are rules and you can meet those rules and still do what you need to do in this space of advocacy.
Carol: Let’s start with why it's important. And then I'm curious for you to say a little bit more about why you think it's so scary to folks, and then what the reality is.
Sharon: Okay. The reason that I think it's important is the fact that when you really sort of look at it, And sort of put the nonprofit under the microscope. Almost everything that they do is in that sphere of advocacy, there's raising money. You need to be able to advocate for yourself in order to indicate this is why we are a good investment, because this is what we do. And here are the people that we are right. You are looking at issues around sustainability. You need to be able to advocate for your organization in order to get board members, potential board members in the pipeline to get community supporters in the pipeline. And I think more and more now there's a reality to that in that public policy space. There is a place for nonprofits to be able to come to the table and say, this is an important area. So for instance, as a quick example I worked in a couple of areas with a nonprofit dealing with the foster care system and being able at one point to go before the city council to talk about foster care in the city, what was working, what was needed.
And I think sometimes that gets missed in that legislative space. Which is nonpartisan. What you're addressing are the guts of legislation and why certain legislation is important and what's needed in order for the system to function.
Carol: Yeah. And I think it's important for organizations to remember that in that whole public policy and that policy development process, there's often that, that initial steps where legislators are hearing from a lot of people doing hearings, getting testimony, and they may not have even, I don't I'm, I'm not an expert in this, so correct me if I'm wrong, but they may not have even put a bill forward yet. That may be in the formation phase or maybe they have, and, and it's to inform, what else, what might be missing, what needs to be amended. Correct?
Sharon: Yes. and, and at various stages, yes. In some instances they are looking at legislation sometimes within, especially I would say the local and state government sphere, a lot of times when they are doing budget oversight, because a lot of these profits are working with governmental agencies, the question becomes, how are things working? What's working well with that, and what's not working, in order to make any necessary adjustments or changes to the system. And that's a good space for them to be because of the fact that, government. A lot of times it basically needs those kinds of partnerships with nonprofits to help. When I mentioned the foster care system, for instance working with court appointed special advocates, well, it's a nonprofit that brings in the volunteers and trains them, and then they work. The family court system. And so there is a need to have those conversation lanes open in order to make the necessary improvements in order to share here's, here are the trends so that adjustments can be made or, What, what needs to happen to stop what's going on here? How do we protect the children?
Carol: Yeah. And I think that there are a couple of different things in there, but one thing that comes to mind is with all the growing distrust of the government in our country, one of the things I think people don't realize is how it actually is. Non Profit organizations that are actually getting, being granted money, being contracted with, to deliver a lot of these services. So it's not necessarily the government doing it themselves, but empowering it, giving others the resources to then, fulfill those goals and, and, and provide those services. What, what would you say Are some of the misconceptions, especially among boards that folks have around, what nonprofits are and aren't allowed to do in terms of advocacy.
Sharon: I think a lot of times there's a concern because of the discussion around, especially with a 501C3 designation of not lobbying. And so it's that confusion between what is lobbying and what is advocacy and. And sometimes it's like, I don't, I don't even want to touch it and it is daunting. And, and a lot of times too, especially within the state government, sometimes their additional rules are our requirements, but I think it's been. Clear about what it is that this particular agency needs to do. And I think there are also some very clear points where you can say, okay, first and foremost, you don't endorse. You just have to clearly be key. You don't endorse candidates. That is a definite no-no. So stay out of that realm. However, if as a nonprofit. And maybe in partnership with other nonprofits, you want to put together a candidates forum so that your stakeholders in the community can hear what people feel about income support programs, or about. Foster care. I keep sort of circling back to that one or about these literacy programs. Then basically there's a way to do that. You invite all of the candidates and you make certain that they all come and they all answer the same question. And that's a service. That's a part of advocacy, but it's a service to educate your stakeholders.
Carol: And what is the definition of lobby?
Sharon: Lobbying is basically getting into the partisan space. So it's also, it's about the people running for office and saying we do or don't vote for them, do or don't vote for somebody. So that is some part of it. And then the other part of lobbying can also be around. And it's tricky. Area, and I will, it really depends on local guidance a lot of times, but it's around legislation and the extent to which you try to make certain that people are informed about legislation and where the particular nonprofit stands on it. Without necessarily saying now, go out there and change this legislation or, it's, it is a tricky navigation and a lot of times it does depend on the state too. So I'm thinking, for example being able to say that this as an organization, we support. Back in when the affordable care act was being challenged, to be able to say the affordable care act is important because of these reasons for our, our community.And it's an essence saying, think about this Congressperson, council member versus putting forth that debate without getting deep into the politics of, and if you don't do this, then we're not going to vote for you.
Carol: Yeah, the way I've heard it described as, and it's interesting that you say that there's, there's variation at each state and locality. So putting a caveat on that, folks should really pay attention to what the rules are in their local area. But the way I heard it described was, advocacy education, when you're providing information. Stories about your constituents and the people that you work with. Statistics, trends that you're seeing, that's all in the realm of education. And then lobbying is only really, when you say, our members where we're getting part we're part of a coalition and our members are supporting this particular bill, we urge you to vote for it. And, and yeah, without any . Connection to whether or not. The people that you represent, the people that you work with might or might not vote for a particular candidate that being walled off, but the space that, that is okay within limits for non-profits 502 and 501-C 3 is to engage in is that piece of, we urge you to vote for HR. Number one, whatever it is within limits and their limits. But, since it's a pretty narrow definition, very few nonprofits. You know that very few who do some advocacy and are actually gonna run up against that limit. And I think that's the part that boards don't understand.
Sharon: Yeah. And, and it's, it's interesting one of the parts maybe. Right, right. And, and, and of course to the whole, when you look at the range of 5 0 1. Organizations, we always focus on the 5 0 1 C3 because of the fact that they generally tend to be charitable. And then, realizing that there are other nonprofits. Who are in that space of doing endorsements and the likes. So this is why I think it also gets to be tricky for boards because they need to understand the range of things the different options that are available to a non-profit and then just be sure to stay within their space. But I, I definitely agree and appreciate the, when you mentioned the education piece that educating people and that's your stakeholders. Elected officials about what's going on in this space that this nonprofit serves, then you're definitely in an, in your lane, that's the sweet spot for nonprofits advocacy.
Carol: Yeah. And I think that another point that you make is that, W w we quote the part of the IRS code, the 5 0 1 C3 that, that designates one particular type, which is, a large portion of the, of the nonprofit sector, but there are others C4, C5, C6, all who, all of which have different purposes and, and then different rules. But yeah, what we were just talking about really pertains to the C3 category, which is. Most organizations that are trying to do either serving a field or trying to do some educational, some, charitable service work, making things better for people, animals meant the whole range, all of it, the whole of things that could be within a mission. What would you say helps organizations be successful with their advocacy efforts?
Sharon: I think being really clear about What is their advocacy policy and their plan. I think having some very doing that work and what the standards for excellence, for instance, program there. Resources there as far as being able to talk about here's a draft plan, but you need to be clear. So from an organizational perspective, who speaks for the organization. So making certain that they've clearly delineated that if a question comes in, let's say the media calls and says, where do you stand on this? Well, everybody in the organization needs to know who's equipped. Answer that question because not everybody in the organization can answer that. So, you want to be clear about that and also be clear about what the objectives are. So, let me pick another organization, like the league of women voters, there's the league of us and then the league in various localities. And so in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a member of the league and the district of Columbia. And, there's a strong non-partisan state. But there, but the, the educational pieces about making certain that people know about the candidates and that there's an effort made to get feedback from all of the candidates. So in an election year, the policy is going to be, we're doing everything we can to make certain that people understand what the rules and regulations are for voting in our community. During an off year, it may be some other thing, but that's the policy. And then you just have to be able to have what the plan looks like as to how you go about doing that? How do you accomplish that and how do you, what are the outcomes you're targeting?
Carol: Yeah. When one point that you made around who can, who can talk to the media, having a plan for that pause for a second while the train goes by. One of those enthusiastic conductors who really likes to blow their horn.
Sharon: Maybe it has some spectators on the side of the tracks.
Carol: Maybe they're waving and yeah, a couple of points there with who can talk to the media or who can talk, who can represent and speak on behalf of the organization. And especially if, if a stance is being taken, who could write a letter to the editor, all those things I think are really exciting. For groups to have conversations about and know, make sure that everyone's clear. I think one of the things that on any board decision is important is for ma board members to understand that they can only work on behalf of the organization as a whole. And so if they're the board member who's empowered, they then need to. I mean to talk to everybody else. So they have a sense of, they know what the organization stance is. They themselves may have a different opinion and to be really careful and clear, are you talking as XYZ, individual citizen? Or are you speaking now on behalf of the organization?
Sharon: Right? Right. And depending on the nature of that organization, there, there may be some very specific pieces of. You know what that looks like and how that's interpreted. So, the, the league of women voters, I'll go back to that, with their non-partisan position, if you're serving on the board, there is a nonpartisan statement, which indicates that, you have this hat on representing the organization writ large and in the interest of not muddying the waters. It's encouraged that you stay in that lane and not get involved in campaigns, for instance. Of course, as an individual, that's your right, but because you are with the board and people, if they know, especially that you're a board member, it gets a little dicey. And in order to just make it clear that policy is you wouldn't be campaigning.
Carol: So you could, after you're done with your board service, that might be something you choose to do, but while you're a board member, they've made that policy just so that they have a super bright line. And again, that's an individual organizational policy. Others might have different ones, but having those policies and having had discussions and then documenting it about. Yeah, how do we take a stance as an organization? What are they, what has to happen? what discussions and processes have to happen so that we know that we're in agreement on this, et cetera, I think would be super important. Yes. Yes. And you had mentioned the standards of excellence before. I just want to make sure folks know what that is. It's Program that came out of and is still housed within the Maryland nonprofit association, the Maryland association of nonprofit organizations. And it's a way for nonprofits to be accredited in this set of very high standards. The standards of. In all aspects of their operations. So, advocacy is just one component. And all the other things that you need to think about in terms of how you run your nonprofit are part of that accrediting program.
Sharon: Yes. And one of the things that I truly appreciate about the standards for excellence program is that. There is that accreditation process. If an organization chooses, they are very generous with their information. So I often use in the work that I do when I do workshops on advocacy their policy and plan. I, I provide copies of that to say, here's the sample that you might work from, just because they are open with a lot of their information.
Carol: Yeah. And they have samples for all, all other aspects. So I've, I've built used pieces from, and we're both standards of excellence consultants. So we have access to all of this, but I've used their board assessments as a jumping off point when working with the boards and organizational assessments, right. Pretty much everything. And, and even if our organization doesn't decide to go through the entire process, there are aspects that could be really useful. And a lot of the state level associations also offer it. So you don't necessarily have to be in Maryland. This is nationwide.
Sharon: Yes. It is a nationwide program and they have, what's a code which basically provides, guidelines, high level. And the code is easy. There's an app for that.
Carol: I didn't realize I'm going to have to look it up. All right. Well, at the end of each episode, I'd like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I have one here for you. I'm out of my handy box of icebreaker questions and it is what is the last random thing that made you smile?
Sharon: Lately, given everything that's been going on with health challenges in the country and the world. The last random thing that made me smile was noticing that birds were starting to be attracted to the flowers on my patio. And, and starting to , I've seen them in the general vicinity flying over, but actually coming down and landing all the table versus just sitting on the fence and it just. Actually that just happened to me before this call. In fact, I just was like, oh wow. And I just was so tickled by that. So it gave me joy.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. I'm not much of a birder, but we are big. We have a lot of flowers around in our front and there was a Cardinal that came by and landed in a tree. So that dramatic red was quite, quite lovely. Yeah. Lovely birds. So, what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you do
Sharon: Currently we’re making some pivots as far as being, if you will, in the nonprofit space, but I'm starting to work with the national museum of African-American history and culture. And I've worked with them previously, but I'm now working as far as with visitor services and it's just First and foremost, I am just taken by the museum and all that it's done and, and just the immense scope and importance of it. And to have an opportunity to contribute means a lot to me. So for me right now, personally, that's where I am.
Carol: Yeah, it's an amazing, amazing museum. I am definitely going to go back to it because you can, it's not possible to do, to really take all of it in, in one visit. So I definitely need to go back.
Sharon: And, and I just I, I guess I should tread gently here, but I think it's legitimate as an employee. I could still say but wonderful resources on their website too, because and, and a huge. I am biased in the museum space, but the Smithsonian has been doing a wonderful job with all of its museums and digitizing a lot of their information and definitely during the pandemic, making that those resources available as a way to reach everyone and definitely check them out because they're just amazing museums within the system.
Carol: Yeah, I think we forget living here in Washington, how spoiled we are to have those amazing resources. So-called so close by. Yes. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Sharon: Well, thank you. I greatly appreciate being invited and I've enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.
In the special 1-year anniversary episode of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton discussed the following:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to mission impact the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I'm Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. This is an exciting episode for me. I've been podcasting now for a year. So this is my one-year pot of nursery, and it's been so much fun doing this podcast. I've had a lot of great guests, wonderful conversations, and have really appreciated everything that I've learned from everybody that I've spoken to. And I launched the podcast back in August of 2020, but actually started doing interviews for it. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, starting in March. And so this has really been a pandemic project, although I will continue. I intend to continue on after that. Hopefully there will be an after at some point But I certainly have learned a lot.
I've learned, heard a lot about how the pandemic has impacted how folks do their work, how they approach their work. And it certainly had a lot of impact on how I approach my work. The default before the pandemic for strategic planning was of course, to have some in-person event where you did the planning of one day retreat, a one and a half day retreat. Where you brought the key stakeholders together, got them all in a room and had a series of conversations that helped them make decisions about the future of the organization. Other parts of the process certainly have been done online though.
Video conference, focus groups, listening sessions, interviews over the phone, et cetera, but that main crux of the process where you bring together the planning group has always by default, been done in person.
And of course we had to shift that overnight to working online. Now I had a head start because I'd been doing online events since the early two thousands, I in fact organized my first virtual conference in 2004 and had been producing a number of different online experiences over the course of those years. And so it was pretty easy for me to switch up how we were going to do strategic planning, but what's been so interesting to me over the course of this period.
As I've done over 10 different processes with 10 different organizations is actually to see the benefit of doing it online, doing it in a, in a remote setting. And most folks think, well, how can you really make good decisions if you're not all in the same room? And the thing that I've really noticed is that when you do that intensive retreat oftentimes right, when you get to the point of making a decision. With the group, they have hit cognitive load. It's three o'clock in the afternoon, four o'clock in the afternoon. They've been thinking hard all day processing lots of different information brainstorming and they are worn out. And that is the point in the agenda often. When you need the group to make some important decisions.
In the virtual environment, there's no need to have that intensive long eight hour experience. You can take that eight hours or 10 hours, whatever amount of time you might've had at that retreat. Pace it over a number of sessions, two hours here, three hours here, and with a contained set of goals that you're trying to accomplish in each one. Then beginning each the next one with, this is what we did last time, and this is where we are in the process.
But what I've seen is that groups really benefit from having a little bit of time to do one piece of the process and then process that integrated, to think more about it. Be able to kind of mull over the conversations that they had to then bring all of those new, all of that thinking into the next session. With a little more pacing over the period of time, I find that groups are able to get further quicker. In some ways it takes a little bit longer because you have a little bit of a gap between those two or three hour sessions, but in the same amount of meeting time, I'm able to get groups further with more clear and more refined goals than I might do if I were working with them in person.
Pacing also allows strategic planning or other leadership groups to do refinement between the large group planning sessions with time, for back and forth. So people really feel like their perspectives have been taken into consideration. And then with the pandemic, of course, everyone has thought it just has brought to the fore how unpredictable our world is. And can you really plan in this VUCA world volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and I can't remember what the, a stands for (ambiguity). And it was always unpredictable. It's just more obvious now.
I always tell folks that a plan is just a plan. It's not set in stone. They aren't tablets from on high. There's something that you created yourself, but the process itself brings clarity and alignment by creating an opportunity to talk together and explore issues together.
Another thing that I'm seeing a lot about recently with people writing about and considering whether they're going back to the office, whether they're going to stay remote, the method they might do, a blended version is talk about that you can't have culture unless you're all together in the same office. And the truth is that any organization always has called.
There's always an organizational culture, whether you've named it, whether you've explored it or not. It really more, a matter of, are you clear about it? Are you explicit about it? Are you, do you have a type of culture that you want to move towards? That that feels healthier, that you're trying to work. And just bringing everyone back into the office is kind of a de default. It's a default that allows that culture to kind of be there by accident. It allows folks to maybe not pay so much attention to it.
I think one of the blessings in disguise is actually working remotely. That we really have to pay more attention to what the expectations are? How are you working together? What are those guide rails in terms of how much flexibility folks have and their schedules and, and how they're doing their work, what are they expected to produce in a particular week, et cetera. And so it's, again, it may be more of. Are the managers in your organization? Do they have the sufficient training and tools for how to, to manage in this remote and. And so in-person can be such a, just a substitute for giving folks the tools and training that they need to really build that intentional culture and manage well within a remote or a blended context.
So this provides you with an opportunity to shift their culture in a positive direction and get everyone in gray involved and envisioning and working towards and creating that new future instead of just favoring the preferences of leadership and defaulting to. Whether you continue remote or go for a blended schedule, all you have to do is decide if you all have to go back to the office together. Think about what you've learned in this past year, past a year and a half. What do you want to keep? What do you want to let go? There's lots of opportunity there for being more intentional, more and more in clear and more explicit about the type of organization and how you want it to feel to work within your organization.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. Again, we're excited to be celebrating our one year anniversary and as with every episode you can find show notes and links and resources at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. And you'll also find transcripts for each episode.
I'd like to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as April coaster of a hundred ninjas for her production support.
Please take a minute to rate and review mission impact on apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. It helps others find the podcast and we appreciate it. Thanks a lot. And until next time.
In episode 27 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Carlyn Madden discussed include:
Carlyn Madden helps nonprofits find new leaders. She is the CEO of Good Insight, a national executive search firm and governance consultancy that focuses on small nonprofits. Good Insight is committed to becoming an anti-racist search firm and she is a sought-after speaker and adviser on the nonprofit workforce’s generational and demographic shifts. She comes to this work through philanthropy, beginning her career at The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, where she managed a portfolio of grants that spanned education, the arts, human services, and the environment.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Carlyn Madden. She is the CEO of Good Insight, a national executive search firm and governance consultancy that focuses on small nonprofits. Welcome to Mission Impact, the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. Carlyn and I talk about why smaller organizations can benefit from the support of a search firm for their leadership searches. She describes some of the newer good practices to ensure that a search is equitable. We talk about how to avoid being an accidental interim executive director and what aspiring executive directors can do to start now to get ready for a future leadership role
Welcome, Carlyn. And it's great to have you on the podcast.
Carlyn Madden: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Carol: So I love, I like to get started just by asking a question about what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Carlyn: Yeah, great question. So, I started my nonprofit career in philanthropy, which means that I have a bird's eye perspective on what happens in the nonprofit sector, particularly with community-based organizations. And so after being in philanthropy for almost a decade, I started consulting and did a little bit of everything for a while and saw a number of my former grantees and clients go through adverse executive transitions. So some of the organizations, unfortunately had founders pass away, unexpectedly. Others had hired the wrong person and really the organization took a nosedive. And so as I was building my own consulting practice, I kept being a sounding board for the boards of these nonprofits and thought. Gosh, I think I have a different vision for how organizations can tackle this and started designing a executive server executive search services that embedded a more racial equity approach to the work and started rolling that out in 2018 and have been really fully focused on that in the last few years.
Carol: So, Yeah, it seems like there's, there's been a body of work around leadership transitions that probably started, I don't know, maybe 20 years ago. And it's been the standard of how you do things. So I'm really curious to hear more about, what, how, how you were seeing and how you are approaching those transitions differently.
Carlyn: Great question. there was an interesting article a couple years ago, maybe, and Carol, I'll send this to you so you can include it in the notes, from Jeanne Bell who talks about, I think it's called hire by hire and talks about, some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographics have not actually changed. And so what is required is are the conditions of executive search have to change. And so while the model that you're talking about, the last 20 years, it's called executive transition management and they talk about, How does it prepare pivot and thrive or something of that nature, that Don Tevye and Tom Adams and Annie E Casey foundation and Compass Point, all of these organizations came together to design this model, which is an effective model at the base of it. But the conditions around the model have changed. And so things that we do that are a little bit different or, or, a lot of my colleagues are starting to do the same, but we're, we're very firm in this. Salary transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not thinking actually building out networks multi-racial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying who do you know in this space, that would be a good executive director. Because there are so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles, our networks are very homogenous. We know that I'm a white lady, you know where this is it podcast, but I'm a white lady. We're two white ladies talking to each other. but our networks are very diverse.
And so we have an open door policy that anybody that has questions about a search can call us, can talk to one of our associates about their interest in the role so that they can really prepare their materials to be successful in front of that transition committee. We're also coaching transition committees on what are some best practices. So if a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for this. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors. And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Some like even subtle things, right? How are we, how are we gender coding? Job descriptions. We know the studies say not just in the nonprofit sector, but HR writ large say women are less likely to apply to a job that is masculine coded. So if your job description says things like. Aggressive goal achievement. Yeah. women, or, women read that as like, well, can I aggressively achieve goals? So we use words like collaborate, not compete, thinking really about gender coding there. So it's a really cool tool. And again, I'll send this to you. You can include in the notes that will read your job descriptions for gender coding and tell you if it's a feminized or masculinized job description, which is really neat. We also avoid militarized language, like execute. We don't say execute, we say implement. And we don't say targets. We say focus, all of these sorts of things that are really subtle, but affect how people are receiving a job description and think about themselves in that position.
Carol: And it seems like, you, you are, are really focused in, on the search phase of that transition.And what misconceptions do you think, you've seen that people have about working with someone on S H working with an outside party to support that search process?
Carlyn: Gosh, I think they think it's really expensive. Right. Like most of my clients are under 5 million. That was the area that, so while I was at, I was at a regional foundation called the Cambridge foundation. I had a portfolio that covered indications with domestic violence survivors, homelessness, and the environment just like a broad generalist. But the thing that they all had in common is that they were relatively small, right. There are under 3 million and we say our ideal clients are under five. And we say that because they don't have, HR apparatus, right? There's not a strong internal system, multiple people they're really helping develop out job descriptions and search services internally. There's no internal strategy around it. So yeah. Our clients are best served. When they're small, we provide good services to small clients, but small clients also lack fewer resources. There's a reason that they're small. And so boards often think that they can do it themselves. But again, what do we know about boards? Many of them are predominantly white led. So we look again at these imaginative networks. they don't have the time to, to do the search themselves. So they're not communicating back to the candidates. And so people don't know where they stand that affects the organization's reputation, all sorts of things like that. So I think a common misconception is that it's really expensive and it's not worth the cost that they can find the executive director themselves. That might be absolutely true. However, the ability, particularly with long tenured and founder transitions, long-tenured executive and founder transitions, is the ability to have a partner that understands where the organization's capacity is.
Can explain that clearly both to the board and to candidates and finding a candidate that doesn't just check all the boxes, but really can meet the organization in this exact moment in time is really crucial. So one of the things that we also know is implicit bias is a big thing. We all carry implicit bias. And so you'll receive a resume from somebody and they'll be like, well, they worked at all the right organizations to successfully lead this nonprofit. But maybe they didn't hold the right roles in those organizations. If you are preparing to launch a capital campaign and somebody has come from a competitor organization, but only worked on the program side, they're not going to have necessarily the skill sets necessary to. Be able to launch that capital campaign that's not going to be their area of expertise. So what we help our clients do is really hone in on the key skills and hire for skills and capacity for that organization's next chapter and boards just don't, aren't going to necessarily understand where the organization is in its life cycle and what's next. And because we are experts in the nonprofit sector, we have a clear vision for that.
Carol: And you talked about, I think, one of those really hard transitions, from a founder and, and how you witnessed, a number of specific examples where that, where that didn't go well, what, what have you seen a transition from, from the founder? Go better or go more smoothly?
Carlyn: Well once they’ve decided that they're going to transition, they do need to identify what the date is of that transition. So, whether that person is leaving in a year, six months, three months, all sorts of, it doesn't, it doesn't matter. But having a firm date in mind and working backwards from that with some succession planning, Carol, I know succession planning is also an area of topic that you care a lot about too. And then the organization can make a decision. Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys, or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because. This person can help steward and steer the organization's operations and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their positions, they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's this accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there much longer term, maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of, of opportunity. And so you need somebody in there for six months to a year, maybe even 18 months in order to make sure that all the systems are go and the fundraising relationships are strong and, All of the things that, that next executive director would otherwise work on and take up a lot of time, rather than being able to implement a bigger vision for the organization.
Carol: And I could imagine, as, or as organizations are becoming more aware and centering, equity and racial equity that. an unfortunate offshoot of that might be that, they rushed to hire a person of color where they've, where there's been a white founder. And then just because of all the founders and plus many other things, that person becomes that accidental, inner, accidental interim. And I'm, I'm just it. I can imagine that it could have an even greater detrimental effect on that person's career than it might be. For a white accidental interim.
Carlyn: Yeah, it's a good point, Carol. And again, we're dealing with individuals so individual by individual basis. Certainly. but I have seen some very specific scenarios where. That has really torpedoed somebody's career, women of color's career. and then she had a successive accidental interim tenure. And then, as people are reviewing a resume, well, why was so-and-so there for just nine months? Well, so-and-so walked into a really terrible situation, but it's hard to communicate that to, a set of board members that are thinking about, gosh, are we going to take quote unquote, a risk? It's like, you're not taking a risk, but. A resume does not show a holistic vision of who a person is. And that's really unfortunate. So it's a good point. It can be very detrimental, particularly for women of color who are already up against it. A lot of implicit bias that comes up during the hiring process.
Carol: It almost reminds me of that. I don't know. What did they call it? The glass cliff? Not just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, women, women of color, especially being offered the impossible job. Yeah. And then people wondered why they couldn't complete it.
Carlyn: There's a really interesting, I can send this to you so you can share, really interesting podcasts and possibly a company article. And I think it's from Forbes or possibly a fast company that talks about this in the for-profit sector. but this exact same thing where women are called in to clean up a mess and then have an impossible job ahead of them. And then their performance is managed in a way that. Is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, right. Or the challenge ahead. So I think it's a very good thing to be thinking about that glass clip. And what does it mean to take over, particularly from a founder who is doing more than an executive director, would traditionally, do you have to reshape that role?
Carol: Yeah. And I think for any role, an executive director or any role when an organization is looking at a job description, especially if someone's been in the role for a long time. and of course a founder has, has its own particular set of circumstances or, or impact on the organization. But, anytime someone's been in a role for awhile, though, if the organization has done a good job of maximizing that person's strengths, the role starts to morph into what works for that person. And then you have to separate it from that person and think, well, what do we need from an organizational point of view? And what is realistic? What, what can really one person take on, how do you help boards walk through that process? So it isn't, and, and identify what those really key competencies are. It's not necessarily something that most people think about on a day-to-day basis. Yeah.
Carlyn: That's a great question as well. So it goes back to the, again, to the common misconceptions about why use a search firm. Versus being able to self administer a search. One of the things that we do for all of our clients is stakeholder engagement. So on the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents to get a sense of the lay of the land, or what does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, key staff members from membership associations, the actual members of the association, key volunteers. Possibly even program participants, we're talking to funders, we're doing surveys. We're doing one-on-one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It’s just going to depend on what the organization's needs are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what was. What was really stellar about the last person in this position? What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is next? What's on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that needs to, often staff culture is a big piece. I think we're really going through a. Tumultuous time. Rightly so.
In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader and what hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect images, visual organizations. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the, The theses banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon. but enables the search firm to play this intermediary buffer zone and then communicate between the two parties about what are the needs of the organization. What's surfacing? We'll also hear from funders or other key stakeholders. What role does this organization play in the community and what, what gaps exist? So are there things that the organization could be doing that it's not, are there needs of the community that aren't being fulfilled? So it's the chance to do a, I even hate to say it like mini strategic plan, to really understand what are the opportunities ahead, what are the challenges that exist at this organization? And then we can effectively communicate reality to the potential candidates so that the board is choosing a candidate that can deal with the circumstances ahead.
Carol: No. I mean, the way you described it, it really is, essentially a mini strategic plan because all those stakeholder engagement is, is key to, any, any strategic process. And the, the, the timeframe may not be quite as long. To really help the board identify, what is this moment in time? Where are we in our life cycle? and then, what do we need from the person immediately? And then in the, in the short to long-term.
Carlyn: Yeah. And it also has helped them actually in conversation with a client that I've had over the number of years and their founders transitioning. And, we were talking about like, What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible Heights in a very small period of time for a period of time. But there are also things that are pet projects and the board. Recognizes it to some extent, but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay. But what is essential to the mission of the organization and what would be nice to have, but it's not urgent.
Carol: Yeah. I feel like so many of my conversations come down to that. What's truly essential and what's nice to have.
Carlyn: I think the pandemic has helped us get clarity around that. Hopefully as well, maybe not complete clarity, but.
Carol: At least realizing that that would be a good thing. If we can, if we can identify with the essential items, what mistakes do you see organizations making when they, when they're managing these later leadership transitions?
Carlyn: It’s all about timing. It's all about timing. So I'll often talk to people. That'll say. We're looking for the next person to be here by our gala, which is about two and a half months. And, yeah, I'm going to announce them there. Well, that's going to be tough if, if we work together, that's going to be tough. I'm not saying another search firm couldn't do it, but you're not going to have that stakeholder engagement. You're not going to have that reality check. You're not going to have that candidate care that comes through the process so often. Particularly for executive search at executive director or CEO searches boards are unaware of how long the process is actually going to take, which is usually about four to six months and most often six months. and that's from initiation to. Nope start date. So it's not necessarily from like, I, starting the search, the actual recruitment process to the offer, but that's from the stakeholder engagement to the person, actually walking in the front door. When you're dealing with executive directors, they need at least a month to be able to exit their organization and particularly, it's such a. It's going to sound funny to even say this, but it's a really tight job market right now. Like there are people who are very eager to depart their job and there are people that are very eager to hire new people.
I think I've never seen so many calls that we're getting that are going through executive transitions. I think it's a little bit of the baby boomer retirement. People are excited for new opportunities or maybe executive directors are exiting to take care of elder parents or child care. They scale back. They're so burnt out. And so it's just, there's a lot of things that are going to be floating around the market. So if you're an aspiring ed, this is your time to shine. But, if you're a board member, know that that is going to be very competitive to get the right person. And so you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple of different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in the situation where they're. They're negotiating parallel job offers, and you have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table. All sorts of things. People aren't just thankful for a new job. They are careerists that are really thinking about how this fits into their personal and professional trajectories.
Carol: And what would you say to those aspiring executive directors? What are some things that they might start doing now to prepare themselves and help them be well positioned to apply for a leadership role?
Carlyn: Yeah. As much as somebody can do to shadow. The development function of an organization. So if somebody is looking to ascend into an exhibit creative director role, the board is paying close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing experience? I think, unfortunately, and I say this as an introvert, extroverts are rewarded in a search, right. Somebody that can come in and really wow. Somebody, but research shows that introverts are actually better suited for executive director positions or leadership positions. So don't take that. But even introverted people enjoy connecting with others and, Thinking about the fundraising functions of an organization are going to be really key to aspiring executive directors. So even if you are not a development director, looking to move up, if you're a program person, we'll have you start shadowing, start having conversations with fundraising colleagues so that you understand the soup to nuts fundraising process, join a board so that you get hands-on experience of soliciting donations. Those are going to be key for you to be successful in an executive director interview. I tease, I have a colleague that works in a fundraising space and I was like, whenever you're ready to do something like an Institute for fundraising, like a three-day long weekend seminar to help fundraisers understand fundraising too. Do executive director positions. I was like, I will invest in that idea. So anybody has an idea you can call me. I will invest in that idea because it is so important. And it's, it, it really is lacking, unfortunately, in a lot of, a lot of potential, really awesome executive directors. And it's hard to change the board's mind around that because fundraising is so essential to an executive director position.
Carol: And then, once the search process is over, the person has accepted the role, what are some things to help set them up for success?
Carlyn: Yeah. So one of the things we do, bi-fold our onboarding plan with the transition committee and some staff members, so that there's 90 days worth of activities that are happening for that person. Now we can all remember an occasion where we've walked into an office and so much just like. Glad to have you, you sit here. Well, we don't want that to happen. We want everything to start off on a good foot, particularly for those executive directors. So, what are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first few weeks? How are they? Let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members. That's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I’ll meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to have a happy hour, blah, blah, blah, have all of that. Go ahead and set that up for them. So that it's really clear what they're supposed to be working on. how they're going to communicate what the organization's communication is to the community about the arrival, blah, blah, blah. And then what we also do is 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director and the board chair. And we do that for two reasons. One helps us transfer all of this great knowledge that we've received about the organization, through the stakeholder surveys, through people's individual perceptions of the organization, as we're going through the candidate process, tricky board relationships that you might need to navigate, all the things that we've, we've learned. As well as for the board chair, it helps us understand if there are hiccups along the way with that executive director so that we can bring in resources to course-correct if we need to, or if at the end of 90 days, things look like they're going to go sideways, it allows the, the board chair to understand what their options are. And if we need to replace that person, we can always go back to the candidate pool before starting a search. Good search firms are going to give a guarantee of their work that they'll replace the NEC the executive director within a year. we have not had to do that, but it's inevitable it's going to happen. And so, our guarantee is after a year, if within a year, somebody either resigns or is fired, we would start a search for free and. That 90 days helps us do that on the earlier side than like 360 days into that person's tenure.
Carol: Well, at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask a somewhat random, icebreaker question. And so, if you were right, if you were to write a book, what would it be about,
Carlyn: Oh gosh, I mean work is such a big part of my life. I'd like to think I would write like a non-work book. Right. But so if, if I had to write a work-related book, I think we would really feature some of the great nonprofits that we're, that we're working with and use that as case studies. I think there's so many lessons to learn about. The executive search process, but the process happens in a vacuright? We don't get a lot of information about what's happening behind the scenes. Other than an email to say so-and-so is leaving and look so-and-so has arrived. And so what are some of the dynamics that are happening in nonprofits today and what are the different things that are needed that are different than 20 years ago? So what's the contemporary viewpoint on executive search might be my next book. We'll see if I can find time.
Carol: All right. Well, we'll look for that in bookstores.
Carlyn: Coming to a bookstore near you, coming to a bookstore and meeting you.
Carol: And, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Carlyn: It’s been, it's been a really interesting spring into summer. I mean, we're getting so many requests for searches, which is great. so we're building the team, so we'll have two new hires coming on this summer. and so thinking about how we build a team that represents the type of placements that we want to make. So no differentiating, and the nonprofit will only work in the nonprofit sector, but who are people in housing who are people in community development and all of those sorts of things that we're building those skills into the team are looking at racial diversity of our own team. we're looking at gender diversity, age diversity, all of these different elements for us so that we can serve our clients. Well, And I think we're really in just the beginning of a big way for executive transition. So we're trying to wax a surfboard and swim on out and get ready for the wave.
Carol: Sounds great. Well, thank you so much.
Carlyn: Thanks so much, Carol. I appreciate it.
Carol: I appreciated how our conversation about how too often people of color, especially women get handed a “glass cliff” assignment in leadership. This could be succeeding a founder or being hired to turn around an organization. These glass cliff assignments not only serves to hurt the individual’s career, they really do a to the sector more broadly. As organizations prioritize racial equity in their hiring, they need to do the work that ensures that their focus on equity is beyond just the hiring process. That they are doing the work internally to ensure new leaders of color have the resources they need to succeed in their roles and they are not being expected to do all the work of anti-racism for the organization on their own. Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Carlyn as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
In episode 26 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Sabrina Walker Hernandez discussed include:
- How to get comfortable with fundraising
- The breakdown of the fundraising process
- Why both introverts and extroverts make good fundraisers
Sabrina Walker Hernandez is the President & CEO of Supporting World Hope. She has over 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fundraising, and leadership. One of Sabrina’s greatest successes is that she increased operation revenue from $750,000 to $2.5 million over an 8-year period as well as being responsible for the planning and operations of a $12 million comprehensive capital campaign in the 3rd poorest county in the United States. She has also facilitated numerous workshops with hundreds of nonprofit professionals and is a master trainer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Sabrina is certified in Nonprofit Management by Harvard Business School. She is an active community leader and volunteer in Edinburg, Texas where she is based.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Sabrina Walker Hernandez. Sabrina is the President & CEO of Supporting World Hope. She has over 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fundraising, and leadership. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Sabrina and I talk about some fundraising fundamentals. We talk about what makes fundraising so scary – especially the ask – and why the ask is actually only 5 percent of the process. The first part of the cycle is identifying and qualifying potential donors, and then the most important part is cultivation or building relationships. And then ultimately it comes to the ask. And then thanking the donor – the way they want to be thanked! But a lot of the work is the fun work of getting to know people and getting to know whether they would be excited about your mission. We talk about why both extroverts and introverts can make great fundraisers as well as why it is so important to remember that you are not asking for the money for yourself – it is for the mission you are working towards and the people your organization works with.
Welcome Sabrina. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Sabrina Walker Hernandez: Thank you for having me here. I'm excited about our conversation.
Carol: So to get us started what drew you to the work you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Sabrina: Well, I, as I thought about that question it really amazes me that it goes back to childhood. My mom was a missionary in the church and we grew up really doing service projects in the community through the church. And now, in retrospect, I realized that it really had an impact on my life. When I was drying up, I thought I wanted to be an attorney. And so I went to college, did pre law But then I'm going to intern with a non-profit and I realized that being an attorney did not give me any joy. I did an internship with this nonprofit called advocacy resource center for housing. And I had to mediate between landlords and tenants who were being evicted. And I got to work with a lot of attorneys and the way attorneys work is there is no. Right way or wrong way. There is only the law. And I discovered that in that process, and I realized I didn't want to be an attorney, but really what spoke to my heart? What reminded me of my childhood, what reminded me of what my mom taught me was working on the non-profit side. So since that day I have been hooked on this journey.
Carol: And we're certainly grateful for all the work that lawyers do, especially in policy and helping laws get revised, et cetera. But I love the, your, your point about it. Didn't bring me joy, like, okay. How do you “Marie Kondo” your career and the fact that you did it from the very beginning from your very first. Job and an internship that really was a pivotal moment for you. I'd love that. Yes.
Sabrina: Save me a lot of time and a lot of money. Let me just say right.
Carol: I mean, to have done it before, you're going to law school yeah. Too many people wake up 10 years later and go wait a second. What am I doing?
Sabrina: Exactly. So I'm very, very appreciative of the process.
Carol: Yes. Yes, definitely. So you focus on helping non-profits be more successful in their fundraising efforts and a lot of folks when they're new to the sector, whether they're staff or a staff leader or board member, and probably myself too - I'm not a fundraising person - are afraid of fundraising. They don't want to ask people for money. It feels awkward. What helps make it feel less scary for folks?
Sabrina: Well, I think helping people understand that the fundraising process is more than making the ask. The ask is only about 5% of the fundraising process. And so I tell people don't let that 5%, Deter you from, from the whole thing. So 20% of fundraising is really identifying and qualifying who the donors are, do these donors, does my mission resonate with them? Are they passionate about kids - if I happen to service kids. Are they passionate about animals or the homeless or. Whatever it is your non-profit does. And then saying, okay, if they're passionate about my cause now, do they have the ability to financially support my calls? And then once you identify it, that's like 20% of the fundraising process. So now you have your list of the names of people who, having an affinity to origin of mission and have the ability to give towards your mission the next 60%.
And that's the highest percentage of the pie, 60% is cultivation and cultivation is building relationships. And personally, I like that. People and I like building relationships. So building relationships means taking them out to lunch. It means picking up the phone and checking on them. It means inviting them to an event, and making sure that you connect with them at that event. It's inviting them in to volunteer for a specific program or having them come in on a tour of your nonprofit. That's the part that I really like and stuff. I really appreciate that as 60% of the fundraising process. Because if you are a social butterfly, you really like that part. Even if you're not a social butterfly, my introverts also Excel at that part because they actually listen. They can build those relationships and they remember those details. And then 5% is the ask and that's. Oh, it is. And then most of the time, especially with board members, I always say a lot of board members are not going to feel comfortable with the ask, even that 5%. So I always say board members come along with me on the visit for the ask. But what I want you to do is be there to land credibility, because you are a volunteer and. They know that you are volunteering your time. Whereas I'm a staff person. I get paid to do this job. I get paid to perform this mission. So I will make the ask, even if it still makes me nervous, even if that 5% still makes me nervous and it does 20 something years later I will do that part. And uttering that phrase. Will you consider a gift of $10,000 to our ABC nonprofit? Once you say that. You be silent. Right. And I always say the first person who speaks, loses so just be silent. And then beyond that, 15% is thanking, thanking the donor, making sure they understand the impact that their money provided, making sure they understand how that program affected individuals in your clientele roster? So that's the whole fundraising process and I think people still get a little caught up on that 5%. Like I said, I still get nervous, but one of the mantras that I would tell myself before I went into any fundraising ask, It was always, this is not for me. This is not for Sabrina. This is for the kids that I serve because I worked in a youth serving organization. This is for the kids that I serve. They deserve to have the best. They deserve to have opportunities. They deserve to have hope. And you're going in here on their behalf because they cannot. Speak for themselves. So I remove myself from the conversation because all of that nervousness and fear is really about self and you're not there for yourself. You're there for your client. And for those that, you're the reason why you are in this mission. The reason why, if you're a founder, why you started this. So that's one of the mantras that I tell myself as I go into the room. That's a great reminder. Cause it, all, yeah, all that nervousness and how will, how will it come across and what will they, is all caught up in, what will they think of me? And, and so, yeah. So removing yourself out of the equation, reminding yourself, going back to the original question of why do you do this work? Why, what motivates you? Why did you choose to work in this particular organization? All of those things to reconnect you with the mission.
Carol: That is what the person's contributing to anyway, right? Yeah, they may be handing it to you. It may be in the, in the, in the before times, but they're, they're really about supporting that organization and the work it's doing. So you talked about different percentages and the first one being identifying and qualifying possible donors. For someone who's getting started in this. Maybe they've had some, most organizations will be doing something around fundraising, but maybe they haven't really been strategic about it or been really super intentional. Where would you S what, where would you say you should start in terms of thinking about who might be those folks that ultimately would end up on that list to start being qualified as donors.
Sabrina: So one of the exercises that I like to do is I like to do this thing called a list generator. They have the circle of influence and the circle or the sphere of influence. And the sphere of influence is where you draw a little circle and it's you, and then you put spokes off and you identify like. People that, that one for me, doesn't give me enough details. I happen to serve on a board of directors and it is really funny because of my experience in nonprofit. And that's one of the things that I did was like, okay, so we need to we, we, we have this event coming up and we need to get some sponsors. So can you write down different people? And my mind went totally. Blank. And I thought this is how board members feel. Got it. Got it. So it's always nice to have a tool called a list generator. And this list generator is a tool that I use in his front and his back. And basically it says name two people that you are in a service club with name to people that you attend church with name two people that are in law enforcement. Name two people that are elected officials and the list goes on and on and on. And so about the time you finished with that list, you have about 25 names, right? And so then from that 25 names, you can narrow it down and say, okay, of these people who have an affinity towards this mission, who do I think our mission resonates with. So that's one of the ways that you can do it. And then another way that I like to do it once you have those names, I still read the newspaper and I still look at magazines and things like that. And a lot of times non-profits will do the, thank you, post an event and I still scour those and I still look at them and see, okay, who sponsored this event, who, who who's involved in this, because that also helps me generate names and not only generate names, it helps with the affinity part because now not only do I have their name and it might be a name that's on my list. But I also know that they have the ability to give and they, and they have given in the past. So I use those two methods and I encourage boards to use those methods because even if you only have three board members, if it's three board members and you each walk away with 25 names, that's 75 people that you have to vet and go through. And so that's a good pool of people. And if you're lucky to have a CRM system, then I say, go to your CRM system and see who your last donors were, who were your most loyal donors, who's giving the longest and start from that process.
Carol: CRM being customer relations, management, and database thing. One thing that I loved about how you described that process is how you made it so concrete instead of just a blank sheet of paper, and think of the people you gave us all sorts of different categories. And even if someone didn't have two people to put in one specific category that would probably get them to think. Let's say, I don't know anyone in law enforcement, but I think who else works with law enforcement, but I know, this person who is the head of the hospital or whatever it might be in the community, it really, by being concrete, you help people spark the ideas and, and. shift out of that.
Sabrina: I had a blank piece of paper and what am I supposed to do with it? And then what is funny because this, that was my first thought as a board member, I couldn't believe it. And then you also have those that think, well, I don't, you tell them to give names and you talk about fundraising or sponsorships. And one of the first thoughts is also, well, I don't know anybody that's rich, or I don't know, I don't know anyone or, but when you give them that piece of paper with some ideas on it, it starts to generate another conversation and you start to put people on there that you hadn't even thought of. So it's good to give board members and staff members only about staff members. If you have staff members you can go through that process with them as well.
Carol: And you said the next, the next really, and the biggest chunk of the whole process is the cultivation process. And when people hear relationship building and they hear cultivation, they think, oh, but it's all about fundraising. They may still feel a little anxious about it. Well, is this really just transactional? And am I just trying to get something out of someone? So how do you help people really be authentic and how they're building relationships with folks?
Sabrina: It's funny that you asked that question because I had someone to ask that question as well, and I told them, look, you're a nonprofit. They already know you're coming. Yeah, there is no way around it. Just accept that they know that you're a non-profit and that's not a bad thing. I said people should have one or two reactions when they see you. If you're working with a nonprofit, they should like, oh my God, here, she comes. She's going to ask me for something or, oh my God, here she comes. Let me think about what I can give her. Those are these reactions because they should have. It's not a bad thing again, because you're not asking. Meaning for yourself, they are truly identifying you with the mission of the organization in the night. Oh my God, here she comes. What is she gonna ask me for, for herself? It's like, what is she going to ask me for, for her organization? And so it really is As a nonprofit, they genuinely know that you are in the fundraising business. They know that you are developing a relationship with them in order to not as a genuine relationship, but it's also in order to support the work that you do. And I've had some very great relationships that have developed through that process. In 2018, I got diagnosed with cancer and I had been working with my organization for about 20 years and all of my donors came together. These people that I had built relationships with over time and they all pulled together and they sent me a $20,000 check and I did not ask for that. And that was for Sabrina to help with her medical bills. And that was because of their relationships that I had built with them. But when I go out and I take donors, potential donors out and get to know them, it's not necessarily always talking about the organization. It really is learning about their family, learning what they're passionate about, learning about their career. But not what college date they went to, trying to find some of those common grounds? I just enjoy learning about people. And I think that if you go to the table with that in mind, I want to learn about you as a person, then that will also come across. it's not, I want to learn about you as a person, just so you can support me.
My nonprofit, most of the time, what I do is, and I guess maybe this is some tricks, not tricks, but this is, this is some things that I've done that have helped bridge that. So if I invite you out for lunch, I'm going to pay, I don't care if you're worth millions of dollars. That doesn't matter to me. I am going to pay because I extended the invitation to you. The other one is If I, if I am listening and I realize, oh, this person collects horses or this person collects shoes or whatever it is, if I'm out of town or if I see something that I think you might like, I will buy that for you and I will make sure that you get it right. So it's those little things like that. And also another thing that I do is I always go to the table to see how I can be of service first. That is a G that is a true key to it. How can I be a service to this person first? And lots of times that really smooth the process because when I'm at a mixer or I go to lunch with somebody, I'm, I'm constantly listening to what it is that they're doing and what they're passionate about. And I see how I can be a service to them.
Carol: I love that point about listening and really keying into, what's important to them looking at thinking about it from their point of view, what are, what are other interests that they have that, that you can, and then to remember those right, and, and to take the time, be thoughtful enough to. As you said, if you're, if you see something or send them something related to that, so that they know that you, that you care and you took the time to, to pay attention to them as an, as a unique individual.
Sabrina: Yes. Yes. Even if they don't give, you can spend a lot of time and cultivation and ultimately they might not be in alignment for them. That's okay. You do not sever the relationship. You continue with the relationship because there, your relationship is with that person, not with their ATM card. No, that's very important to remember
Carol: For sure. One thing that's interesting from your background is that I think a lot of people think, well, fundraising is easy in New York or Silicon valley where there's these massive cons for DC, I'm in the DC area. Were these, just these massive concentrations of wealth. But you spearheaded a really large comprehensive capital campaign in one of the poorest counties in the U S so I'm curious how you were able to be successful in that situation.
Sabrina: Well, I God, That's what I say, but no, it was, it really was having the right people on the, on the bus and having the right team behind you. So, it was really interesting with that $12 million capital campaign. I had a board of about 17. Board members. But my capital campaign was really five people. And four of them were not board members. I had one board member that was on that capital campaign committee. But the other four people were really just the good team identifying those in the community that were already very, very philanthropic. Right. So having those people and cultivating those people. It took about a couple years to cultivate those people and, and make them aware of who we were and make them aware of our services.
And so we started out, inviting them in, on a tour going in and with a board member and, and making introductions and talking to them, joining some of the same social clubs that they joined, a lot of them. Two of them, half of them, were Rotarians. So joining the rotary club and getting really active there so that they could see the work ethics so they can learn who you are as well. So it took about two years to cultivate that team of people that I really wanted to have as the capital campaign committee. And so that, that was really how we, how it was done. It was thinking very strategically. And saying, okay, who do I want? As my capital campaign team, and I had to look and see who, when you think of especially in a small community, when you think of philanthropy in that community, What name keeps rising up over and over and over again. Now having said that, that everybody is after those same people, right? So now how do you set yourself apart from everybody else? And, and that was one of the strategies, cultivate them, invite them in, but also be in the same circle that they're in. Again, if they're heavily involved in rotary, you get involved in rotary. If they're heavily involved in the chamber, you'll get involved in the chamber. It's almost like social stalking. But it is so that they get to know you on a whole nother level.
Carol: Right. Because they're looking for your competence. Do they have confidence in you that you can talk about a wonderful mission and it sounds great, but do they, do they trust that you'll be able to make that vision happen? I do a lot of strategic planning and of course organizations are oftentimes through a process coming up with a big vision that then they're like, oops, how are we going to, how are we going to fund this? So What, what do you say in terms of getting started in terms, just in terms of building a fundraising strategy, you talked about the different phases, but I'm wondering about what some of the first steps for coming up with a good plan are?
Sabrina: So I think one of the first steps of coming up with a good plan is it's always amazing to me. How many nonprofits, especially the newer nonprofits now just winging it as far as the budget is concerned. And so I'm like, look guys, It's a guesstimation, especially in your first year, right? It is how much revenue do you anticipate bringing in and breaking that down as in. Okay, so I'm going to do a peer to peer campaign and it's going to bring in this much, I'm going to do an event and it's going to bring in this much. I'm going to budget this much for grants. Okay. Okay. And then have your expenses. The expenses are generally a little bit more concrete than that than your revenues, right? So what your expenses are, and then you're going to work your butt off to hit those revenues. And if you don't hit those revenues, then you have to adjust your expenses. Something has to go. So having an operating budget in place would be one of the first strategies that I say that you need to have. And then beyond that, I think that Nonprofits need to be innovative in their pursuit of different revenues. And when I say innovative I hate that nonprofits get on that specially vent wheel. I want them to get off that wheel so bad of jumping from one event to the next event. To the next event, because that's really not getting you anywhere, especially about a time you factor in hours, board, our staff hours, all of these things. So I always tell them to have maybe two signature events figure out what your signature events are. And the first year, of course, you're not gonna. Raise a huge amount.
But as you, as you move forward, you will improve the event and you will continue around the innovation specifically, though. I think that people need to look at social enterprise. They need to be looked at, depending on what state you’re in, and of course I'm in the great state of Texas and we're a little bit more loosey goosey down. Yeah. Y'all seen our rules, they got that tight on. So we can do a lot more things than others. look at bingo revenue. Look at, like I said, a social enterprise looking at how you can do some type of business partnership as well. As far as sharing the credit. And that's when businesses can designate a part of their credit card processing fees to a nonprofit. So look and be innovative, explore some of those innovative things that you can do that will help you towards your revenue. So don't get stuck in the traditional and the mundane because that traditional, most of the time, people. We'll go to the special event and Vince can be very straining on time and on budget.
Carol: Yeah. And, and off too often, I think Organizations, if they really factor in all the work that goes into producing that event they may have had a nice number on their gross revenue raised, but the net doesn't look as pretty,
Sabrina: It does not look as pretty, especially by the time you factor in all those hours. Yeah. So yeah. I would do no more than two signature events, if I can get anything out there, no more than two signature events, that's it.
Carol: So in the last year, obviously a lot of fundraisers have really relied on those face to face events. And of course, couldn't, couldn't do those. What kinds of innovations have you seen over the past year as people have had to pivot.
Sabrina: Well, I've seen I attended a lot of virtual events. Of course I attended them just kind of, I guess I'm a stalker. I stopped a lot of virtual events. And I saw people do some really creative things. I think some type of hybrid events are here to stay. I hope they're here to stay because they're less, the cost is less to put on a virtual event and you can still even engage. If a celebrity, if that's who you want to engage, you can engage them. At a much lower cost because it is virtual and there's no flight involved. There's no hotel involved. It might be a discount, a speaking fee because it is virtual. I saw one local nonprofit that raised money for scholarships. They actually bought in a comedian from Saturday night, live home. Yes. And I thought that that was. Great. Cause it's kinda right there, you live where you get to laugh, you get to the end. And not only that, they also partnered with the local restaurant so that everybody received the delivery of some wine and like let's just say wine and a meal. So everybody was enjoying their wine and meal at home while they got to listen to this comedian. And I thought that that was good. I liked the concerts as well. So things like that. I think that hybrid is, like I said, I think that some form of hybrid is here to stay. As long as the donors will support it. I tend to appreciate not having to get up off my couch and go somewhere. That's just me though. So we'll see how it goes. But I will say at the same time, just this past week I went to two different events. Because even though I enjoy the virtual world, there is something about getting out, people are ready to get out. But I think that the pendulum has swung and it will come back to where you can do some hybrid things that people are very used to now.
Carol: Yeah. Even before I'm thinking of this, it wasn't a fundraising event, but it was a conference where I was on staff with the organization and it was a big conference and they had a fair, a good budget for, for really. Premiere speakers and, one year the person that they had lined up something happened either with their travel or something with their family. They weren't able to show up. They got them on the equivalent of zoom at that time. That was several years ago, and had them up on the big screen. And honestly, because it was such a big event for most people, they were looking at the JumboTron, you, even if the person was in the front of the room, if they had been in front of the room.
Sabrina: So, they probably had a better seat.
Carol: They probably had a better view? And it had a different feel. Yeah. It was very interesting to see. So yeah, it gives you, it gives you access. So even if all of your local people, you want to have come and gather and be able to socialize face to face, if you think about that, you can. You could. potentially pull in someone with a little higher profile that you wouldn't be able to afford normally.
Sabrina: Exactly. Yes. And they wouldn't say yes. And then on top of that, you will also put a pool in some additional donors. Like I said, I attended a lot of virtual events and none of them were necessarily in my backyard. They were on the east coast or west coast or somewhere in between. And I would not have had that opportunity to do that, had it not been virtual. So I think it's a good thing. I hope it is here to stay. Like I said, I hope it's here to stay only because of the cost factor for nonprofits and saving on the staff hours and, and all those things that go into those events I think would be a good thing for nonprofits. And I think, I had a donor that used to tell me, don't buy me that plat, that just put the money towards the mission. I hope that at some point we will. donors will say, what, y'all need to hold that in-person event. Let's do this hybrid to save some money for the mission. it might become a standard like that. So we'll just have to wait and see, the world is constantly changing. So we just go with, go with the flow.
Carol: Yeah. And I mean, having produced a lot of virtual events, not necessarily fundraising events, I wouldn't want. Organizations to, to think, I think from an hours point of view, it's pretty equal in terms of the planning and all of that, that has to go into it. But the direct cost is substantially different. Cause you're so right. You may cater from a restaurant, have people deliver some food, but. you're not paying for hotel space in a ballroom and all of that. So yeah.
Sabrina: Yeah, so that directs their direct cost which is a lot less, the centerpiece is the linen, the napkins, the plates,
Carol: You don't have to worry about it.
Sabrina: And then the cleanup afterwards, God forbid, you don't have to deal with any of that.
Carol: At the end of each episode, I play a game where I ask folks one icebreaker question. I've got one for you here. Okay. If you could be famous, what would you want to be famous for?
Sabrina: if I could be famous what would I want to be? If I could be famous, I would want to be famous for curing cancer because I've had that journey. And I know a lot of people who are having that journey and it's not something I wish on my worst enemy. So it would, it just seems like it seems like more and more people are having that experience. And I think that that would really truly impact the world in a positive way.
Carol: It sure would, no doubt. No doubt about it. What are you excited about? What's coming up for you in your work? What's emerging?
Sabrina: What's coming up for me and my work is, I am in October holding a summit and I will be launching that pretty soon, but what I really want people to, to, to leave with people is to join my Facebook group is called nonprofit professionals exchange. And I live there every Thursday. And I do like 30 minutes to an hour coaching, free coaching based on the questions that they post in the group. So again, and I share in that group, I share a lot of free content. And every day at two o'clock in my group, a free tool pops up every day. No doubt about it. There is a free tool out there. I remember being a CEO of an organization and not having time to research because you're wearing so many hats. So that's one of the reasons why I started this group. I'm going to do the research for you. Here you go, come to one central location, find that, that information. So you don't have to go down. I call it the Google rabbit hole. You don't have to go down the Google rabbit hole.
Carol: We'll put a link in the show notes to that group so people can find it. And that's, and as you talked about, I mean, you talked about from the beginning what got you into this work was an ethic of service and approaching fundraising from that point of view, and then sounds like how you're approaching this work as well. So I really appreciate it. Thank you. All right. Well, thanks a lot. It's been great talking to you. Thank you.
I appreciated how Sabrina reflected on her experience as a board member and how that experience made her a better fundraising consultant. When she was asked to ‘think of 20 people’ to reach out to – she went blank. So now instead when she is working with a board, she has very specific prompts that help spark people’s thinking. I also appreciated her point – that when you are with a nonprofit and you are getting in touch with people in the community – they know….they know you have to fundraise and if they are working on connecting with you and building a relationship that part of it will be about how you might be able to support the work of the organization. They know you are coming! So with that in mind, it is easier to put that concern aside.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Sabrina Walker Hernandez as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed the episode, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Until next time!
In episode 25 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Kristin Bradley-Bull discussed include:
Kristin Bradley-Bull’s tagline says it all: “Illuminating your vision. Extending your vast roots and branches to get there.” She runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, NC. At Roots to Canopy, Kristin consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. She does the same in her coaching practice: supporting people to crystalize their vision and orient toward their North Star – as non-profit leaders and as humans. Kristin loves people, justice, organizations and movements, and transformation on all levels. Her background includes co-founding a training and leadership non-profit, being a full-time public health faculty member, and consulting (20 years+) with organizations ranging from multilaterals to grassroots social justice groups.
Important Guest Links: The book mentioned during the show is Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant
Information on the size of the nonprofit sector in the US:
Divorcing White Supremacy Culture website http://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Kristin Bradley Bull. Kristin runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, North Carolina where she works with nonprofits to illuminate your vision, extending your vast roots and branches to get there She consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. Kristin and I talk about how strategic planning processes when done well can actually enliven everyone involved and help reconnect them with their “why” and their purpose in doing the work they do. We explore how the stories organizations tell about themselves are alive and evolving as new people come into the organization. How they can sometimes keep people out – even unintentionally. And how organizations – especially white led organizations – need to really listen deeply to the stories of the people and the communities they work in and focus on relationship building instead of just jumping to the next new initiative.
Welcome Kristin. Welcome to the podcast.
Kristin Bradley-Bull: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here, Carol. Thanks for the invite.
Carol: So just to get us started and, and to give some context for the conversation, what would you say drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Kristin: I would say that my life is really wrapped up in being extremely curious about people and about non-profits and really. Trusting that there is a big why or big purpose for each of them. Right. And, finding that or reframing that is really important and is an ongoing process. So I know for me that my why has changed over time and it's important for those conversations to happen. And so I just love that I get to work as a consultant and a coach at those really juicy places for people and organizations. So yeah, I feel really honored and humbled to be. To be witness to that process and where possible to be a support in those processes.
Carol: For me, one of the favorite things about working with organizations for me is when I get to help people reconnect with the why of why they're in the organization, why they're doing the work. And because so often, the day-to-day the deadlines, the, the grant reports that everything that everyone has to work on, you can lose sight of that and be able to help everyone articulate why they do the work that they do and what connects them, what, what, why are they excited about it? Why are they passionate about it? It's just fun to see people read about the hard work that most organizations are tackling.
Kristin: Totally agree with you. And I know that you and I both do a lot of work in the strategy realm and. I think a lot of organizations go into those processes, really feeling like we have to do this. This is something we do every once in a while. We're going to come out with some big old report or hopefully they're not thinking about the report anymore, but anyway, whatever it is, some deliverable. And like you said, what a good process like that does actually is enliven. Right. Help people open their eyes to what's possible and get, get that zest and commitment back for the work. So, yeah, there's so much, there's so much there to cultivate and bring forward which is mostly done by the organization itself. And at least speaking for myself, I am mostly just a midwife or a doula in that process.
Carol: I like the phrase of a midwife or a doula. I've been thinking of it sometimes as I'm acting as a sheep dog, but that doesn't really put my clients in a good position in terms of being the sheep. So I don't really mean that, but it's more like I'm going to. Nudge over here and nudge over there and we're going to have to go in this direction, but we're all doing it together and we're going to get there and always trusting, like trust. It's okay. We're going to get there. It may feel messy right now, but we're going to get there.
Kristin: We all have to want it wilderness. Right. It's part of the process. And that's also prior to thinking of the storytelling, right. That there's nothing wrong with wandering in the wilderness. It's necessary for us. As people and as organizations to have those periods of time. So that's because they're really fruitful. They lead to huge discoveries.
Carol: Yeah. And, and thinking about that work that you and I both do, helping organizations and groups really surf at their, their visions, their aims, and then, and then come, work towards coming to agreement to a path forward, in a way that they're going to try to get there. One of the things that often happens in that process is sharing and reframing stories. it could be sharing the story of a founding of the organization and then. sharing that with newer participants, but then what meaning are they making of it? It might be, sharing stories of joy, triumph, wandering in the wilderness that you just talked about. It might be sharing stories of misunderstanding and hurt. I mean, lots of stories get told through these processes. And, and how have you seen this process of sharing and reframing show up in your work?
Kristin: That's a great question. I would say that there, first of all, that stories and history are alive, right? So they're constantly changing. And we need to allow them to change and acknowledge when they're changing. Right. And how they're changing, not making that some sort of magic trick and never to be mentioned. But the idea that the history of an organization or history in general is alive, I think is really important.
Because it allows us to evolve, right? And to see the same situation with fresh eyes. And of course that's what some of the newer folks coming into organizations often do. Right. Or, or people on the outside looking in to organizations do that. A new board member can say Okay, well, that's so interesting. Thank you for telling me that story. And it sounds like this is how you interpret that story. I interpret that story from my vantage point. I interpret that story a different way. Right? And someone like a new board member or a new executive director may be taking over for a founder, which of course is as a particularly important and challenging role that the.
There is a, there is the opportunity to really, as you said, reframe at that time and to say, like some of the stories of grand success, viewed from a current lens are not as successful. Right. And some of those pain points are, have actually been absolutely essential for the organization to get to where it is now, or for me to, as a new, a new ed to even get in the door, let's say I'm a person of color and there, and it's an organization serving primarily working primary, not serving on. So, I don't like that word, but working primarily in black and brown communities. That’s what has changed in the story, is partly what has allowed those, those leaps and bounds forward to happen. And so when we talk about. When we talk about stories to me, it's just really important that they be alive and that we constantly be examining, what is this? What's the, what is the, what is the juice in this story now? How does that tell us about our past and how can that inform our future? So I think there's a lot there that can be mined over time and that there are ways that stories invite people in. To the organization. And there are ways that stories keep people out. So for us all, to be really mindful about how that all works and what the opportunities are to extend the circle so that we have more and more perspectives and more and more stories that actually serve, serve us, moving into. Service in the present moment and moving toward the next present moment.
Carol: Back in college, I was a history major. And so one of the things that I really appreciated, maybe beginning at that time which is at this point is pretty much ancient history and, and but, but more and more so in, in the present is people's greater awareness of. I feel like history used to be in this could be, history at the big level, but then history at the organizational level too used to be seen as a fixed thing. And, there was an objective history and the understanding and appreciation now of how. There was someone telling that history and they had a particular point of view and a particular experience of it. And so then what are all the other stories that need to be told as well?
Kristin: Yeah. That whole idea that history is written by the so-called winner. Right? I think that's all wrapped up in what you're talking about. And one certainly of the primary opportunities for so many nonprofits is to, and especially ones that are white led is to really. Start listening a lot more, especially if they're working. Well, and not just white led organizations, but organizations generally also to listen more deeply to stories right. From the communities that they are a part of, or not as much a part of as they wish that they were because that's, that's where so much wisdom. Wisdom rests. And it is in storytelling that many learnings, many examples of resilience and creativity and perseverance live and live actively. And I think one of the things that is. Really important to think about for organizations, their leaders, and me and you, hopefully, all of us is to think about the fact that from, what we know from.
Let's say what, let's just say from science. Well, we know from science that neural pathways are really important and what we focus on grows, right? That's what we're learning about. The brain, what we focus on grows. And so. There's been super interesting science around that, like what fires together, wires together in terms of neurons and all of that thing. And I have no expertise in this arena. So I'm just saying that sort of as a general idea. And so when we hold on to stories that are particularly negative, that are no longer serving us as a learning, as an area of learning. Then those stories actually hold us back. Right. We develop a rut, we go around that same track and we develop a rut. And so it's really important to, for us to think as an organization, as individuals, what are the stories. That is, they can be really tough stories and they're still serving us, right. Because they're helping us, they're helping propel us into perhaps an uncomfortable, but important way forward. So there are those stories, but then there are the stories that have basically outlived their purpose and we really need to be examining how to, and, and practicing how to move away from those stories. So that we don't get stuck, so many organizations are stuck. And so I think there's a lot to think about relative to our own stories. And also, as you said, the stories that we have are absorbed from that, whoever the teller of the story was, and whether that teller is, is still relevant and important for us, our organizations, our communities now is it's an important question.
Carol: And I think people often think about that dynamic at the individual level. Like what do I need to let go of the stories about, that, that, or the maxims that maybe I've learned over time, or think that, I act in a certain way. And so I need to let go of this, that or the other, but I don't feel like Folks, never necessarily think about it. When it's a whole group of people working together towards, towards something. Can you, can you give me an example of what you're talking about?
Kristin: So I think a lot of what organizations, and especially within white supremacy culture think, well, this is how we've always done it. And there are reasons why we've done it. They have a whole narrative around why, right? Why do we do it this way and we don't do it that way? We tried it, it didn't work, all that thing. And especially when new people come in, either on the board or on staff or volunteers or other community members and they have, they have an idea and they're told, We already tried that it didn't work or, whatever, there are those, there are those stories. And so I think the opportunity is really to unpack all of that and say, why, why are, why are we thinking this? Why? Why do we stick to this particular, particular approach? And there are times when they're going to conclude that there are good reasons for that and they can, they should be in genuine conversation, authentic conversation with other folks about that. If they make those choices. But I think the trick is that especially in, white dominant culture kinds of circles, the trick is. That there's just such a big echo chamber. Right. And so it's really hard to get away from those stories. And so I think for organizations to become more violent, all right. Again, as you said, there's, there's a lot of work being done on the individual level, right. To Brene Brown and all of these folks who are, talking about research on vulnerability. And Brene Brown and those folks are also now talking about vulnerability within organizations too.
Right? So that's not it, it's not just on an individual level, but there are so many chances for us to think and open up to other possibilities and to be humble about what we don't know. Right. And what other. Other individuals, other communities, other organizations can potentially help us learn. Right. And so I think I have the chance to be in authentic dialogue with people with no particular. Prescribed outcome, right? That relationship building and the sharing of stories within an organization or within a community. But those kinds of things really open up a lot of possibilities for us that we were just not aware of. Most organizations really benefit from that porousness just like individuals do. Right. I might say all organizations do, but I'll say at least most. And we can, we can go far with, with those possibilities and we have to recognize that all of this takes time. Right? So part of this is just oftentimes slowing it down. We're not, we're not hearing one another stories with the intention that we are immediately going to shift that into our newest project that our organization is going to launch. We're actually developing relationships. So, and hearing stories and hearing old stories, freshly I'm hearing new stories so that we can begin to think about where we can Best show up as an organization which may be where we've shown up before, but it could also be other places and spaces. And so to really give time and space for that. And of course, one of the paradoxes of our time is that there's great urgency for change. We are in the midst of a huge era of change on multiple levels, I think. And there is the temptation of rushing and rushing tends to bypass. As we hear from many people of color, rushing tends to bypass a lot of what's really foundational to true change. And so if an organization really wants to invest in being part of, Broader change work then often slowing things down is an important and important way to be, as it is an important stance. In other words, an important posture, but it's, it's, it's, it's both and right there is urgency and there is the need for stillness and openness and listening and being very attentive to who we're listening to.
Carol: Yeah, there were a lot, a lot, a lot of things in that that I want to follow up on. Yeah, I think that, that temptation and I would say even it's, it's more than a temptation, it's like a cultural imperative in our society to always be running faster than you can possibly run. And the, and the scarcity that, that, that Has baked into the, the nonprofit sector.
It seems challenging even to slow down enough to do a pretty traditional strategic planning process or other planning process. And then to, and I think people get anxious and nervous if it's wow, you want me to talk to all these different people? And we're going to have all these voices. It's just going to be this cacophony of opinions. How on earth are we going to synthesize it and come to some agreement? And, and yet as you've said, I think, and you've talked about that, those ruts that, that organizations get in, and I can even think about that like we got to hurry up and do it yesterday. A sense of urgency. That we also are in this rut of, putting a bandaid on things versus really looking to how can we imagine a really different whatever it might be for whatever, whatever Mission the organization is focused on and then there's their mission within a broader system usually to even take the time, to think about, what could be different from what is right now, it's easy to not always easy. It's often that way, but it's easier. I think, to identify the challenges, the problems, all the ways in which the system is broken. But I think it's really challenging for folks to even imagine what might, what could be the more positive possibility.
Kristin: Okay. Yeah. I completely agree with you and yeah, and again, just like you said, what I said, I, there are many ways to many different threads there to pick up on. So I think the piece around urgency culture is essential to the conversation, right? So I have this, I have this piece of paper that I have written on geologic. It says geologic time, right? So what it says is the universe is 13.8 billion years old, Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and humans have been here for about 10,000 years. That's the equivalent of 12 seconds.
[Kristin clarified that the 10,000 years mention refers to the period of time during which humans began to produce food, form large communities, and make significant change to the planet itself.]
Kristin: The reason why I think this is helpful is one, we're just a very young species, right. And we are. We're children, as a species, it's still children. And so we have a huge amount of responsibility and we can see that obviously, and sort of what our environmental situation is. We can see that in many different arenas. So there is urgency. And we don't have all the tools in the sense of everything already having been created. We're in a, we're in a period of great reckoning and, and great possibility. And there's precariousness in that, right? Because we aren't over the, at all. We are not at all over the crest of the hill to mix a metaphor. And so. We, I think the idea of. Especially for service oriented organizations that they've, that's where they've, that's where they've always put their emphasis. We know that there is a need on those levels. But the idea that there are many ways that we're not working ourselves at all out of the, out of the need for a service. A nonprofit service oriented sector, because we are not, as you said, addressing the systems level issues and how can one of those organizations slow down enough to have an opportunity to even, think beyond the fact that we, we have people, we have people sleeping on the doorstep, waiting for, waiting for shelter, food, et cetera.
And of course, all of these things, to me, bring us to bigger questions around how late stage capitalism and the patriarchy and white supremacy culture, or, sort of collude to keep things exactly like this, that serve a very small percentage of humanity. And I would say ultimately they don't serve any of humanity because there's so much. There's so much loss for everyone and separation for everyone. And perhaps it's mentioned here, there’s a new website called divorcing white supremacy culture that looks a lot at white supremacy, what white supremacy has done to white people, as well as to people of color, you know? So there are there's loss, there's so much loss, being so separate. And so I think that whole question around how to create space away from, how to shift from. Urgency enough to have space for being creative and thinking about the possibilities is essential, or we're just going to be on the same hamster wheel forever. Right. And I think that some of the movement building that's been happening for black lives matter, et cetera, where there's much more of a focus on sustainability. Like how does this work sustainable? How do we take care of ourselves? And one another on multiple levels gives, those kinds of, and there are many nonprofits that are shifting more and more in those ways. And I think there are black and brown nonprofits that have been like that forever. And some, some white nonprofits, white led nonprofits to black and brown lib nonprofits, maybe I think being in the lead, but where there is the sense that yes we are, we are. Handing out bags of groceries, et cetera. And we have to be thinking about what else is possible here.
We want to think in terms internally for our organization, we want to live in our organization in a way that we're what we're trying to manifest externally beyond the walls of our organization. We need to manifest internally because if we're whole, then that supports the wholeness of the broader community. Right. And so. I think even things, very basic things that seem impossible were made possible or suddenly possible during COVID. Right. So we have to take all those learnings forward with us and those stories of how we did things that we thought our organization could never do. And I don't mean the heroic things. I mean, the internal thing I had her OIC is also not a thing, but I mean, the internal things like.
We realized that our staff was totally burned out and we found ways to give people way more time off or to change our policies on how people work. people working from home, which works for some people doesn't work for other people. Right. like all of these kinds of things, like a lot is possible. And if we tell the stories of what we do in times of hardship, those are the stories of what is possible and what creativity and courage lent us to create new things. Then again, the end of COVID does not mean the end of those things. It just means, oh, we figured out that we're even stronger and there are more possibilities than we thought, and let's continue, continue to work in that direction. So as we think about not getting back on the hamster wheel, are we going to devote a certain percentage of our time to. Systems work, even if we are in a service arena, are we, if we're not going to do that, how can we at least support those efforts of our colleague activists and other organizations and how they're pursuing those things? How do we, how do we message around those systems questions with our funders, with our other stakeholders, so that. So that everyone is more engaged in the bigger picture because we have to build the, we have to build the demand, the demand for systems change, and that has to be ongoing. Right. And so the way that we tell those stories, the way that we innovate, the way we take care of one another. Are all parts of that system change process to me among others, right? Those are some of them.
Carol: A couple of different things come to mind. One, I hope it's late stage capitalism. I feel like some people are banking on that and we'll see. But it would be good. It'd be good. Well, we assume it would be good for whatever would come on the other side. But, you talked about what showed up in this last year, how organizations just shifted on a dime in a lot of different ways in ways that they never thought were possible or never had, never had thought about. So they demonstrated it to themselves, their capacity for very fast change. And I've lost my train of thought. There was something else you were talking about. And what were you or were you just saying at the end, but before that?
Kristin: I think we were talking about just this idea that what was possible in COVID is ongoingly possible, right? That people are creative. People are courageous. They're doing, they can, they can, we can take care of one another what we're trying to.
Carol: I feel like in the past there's been this very much an either or either you do systems work or you do direct service. And I even remember there was a book that came out. And I'll have to look it up. It's probably 10 or 15 years ago. That was a study of, what are the most effective non-profits and, and even then their findings were that the organizations that do both that do service that informs their advocacy are really super effective. And then of course, you go to the next level of those, the movement level, where people are approaching that very differently now in terms of it being a network and not so, caught up in individual organizations and being more fluid in how they organize that. And also yeah, just an appreciation for I don't know which generation, the next generation of activists who are really putting care for each other care for themselves care for each other front and center, to be able to to be able to be in it for the long haul.
Because I think part of what I'm thinking about is late stage capitalism, I think. Well, actually in the United States where we have the most extreme version of capitalism and we have the biggest nonprofit sector, I think, we have to check that. But to me, it's that sector was, it's just like a giant band-aid to the wound that capitalism is inflicted on us. So, and I'll stay in it because it's the best bandaid I can find for now.
Kristin: Yeah, it's a big, big, big thing. And you and I could have a whole separate conversation and you could have this conversation with someone way more intelligent and on it than I am, but those questions about the degree to which the nonprofit sector is serving as a band-aid. Right. And. It's the same questions that are really interesting questions in the mutual aid movement, right? So there's as much as possible in mutual aid, right. Sort of grassroots support and person to person, neighbor to neighbor, kinds of support, which really grew a lot during COVID in the United States and, and beyond, and there's a big debate in that community, as I understand it about is this really our job? shouldn't, shouldn't the government be taking care of this. So, and then other people who are this is, this is part of community sovereignty, right? Like community self-help, et cetera. So there are lots of questions around all of that. And certainly in the nonprofit sector, how are we, how are we supporting How are we supporting a system that how are we supporting the larger system that isn't serving a lot of our community members? So I think there are lots and lots of questions and all of that. And some of what I take hope from is that piece around, we have activists and movements who are pushing, right? And so when the more. Traditionally, shall I say, the nonprofit sector is in good dialogue with movement folks. There's lots of zest there, right? There are lots of, there are lots of aha moments.
And so I think we just have to continue again. It's that porousness, it's that sharing of stories that. That helps. And just, as you said earlier, when organizations are doing some, sort of some work in advocacy, they have one foot in the advocacy world and one foot in the direct service world than lots of things are possible because they have they have a more nuanced appreciation of, of of it all and they can make, they can make key choices around how they're using their resources and.
They can tell a lot of stories from multiple perspectives and hopefully as much as possible people speaking for themselves. Right. Rather than others speaking for them. But yeah, there's a lot, there's a lot we could talk about there.
Carol: Yeah. And, and I just want to well, since we're talking about reframing, I just want to put a caveat on my description of the whole sector as a bandaid. To me, that's more a reflection on our economic and other systems, just not working for folks. And so people have tried to step into that void. And, but, but it does come to the question of whose, whose job is it and, and what needs to shift to have less need for all, So that, so that organizations that are trying to end hunger and homelessness and all those things can actually get to those things. Yeah, so, so not denigrating anyone's work cause I'm really glad that there are folks doing it. And that's why I love to work with organizations and help them. Get clear about how they want to move forward. And stepping back, I'm appreciating the questions that the younger generations are asking about the role of the different sectors of our, if you only want to think about it as the economy, but our culture, our economy.
Kristin: absolutely. And we could throw in there, sort of. The power that billionaires have in this country, right. For setting an agenda. So, again, we could have a whole separate conversation about, about all of that, because there are, there are all those questions whose job is this? Do we actually want, who do we want to have this job? Even if it is technically their job, you know? So there are lots of things there, right?
Carol: So as we're starting to see the possible close of this chapter with the pandemic what are you hoping organizations will keep with them from this time as we move forward? And, what have you witnessed people learning? We talked a little bit about that before, but I'm curious about some other examples.
Kristin: The primary piece is that I'm hoping that people keep open to possibilities that they somehow managed to tap into during COVID, so the crisis provides opportunity. I don't say that lightly, because the suffering has been immense and disproportionate. So all of that being said there. That there was so much nimbleness. There was a lot of new collaboration. There was a lot of new thinking, a lot of busting through barriers. Right. And so all of those things I think are really important to keep momentum around and not go back to sleep. Right. be easy just to just let out a big sigh of relief and be okay, wow. Now we can get back to where we were. And, as many people are saying. That is not a, is not possible. And B is not advisable, right. Because what we actually want to do is keep catalyzing. Right. And keep an eye on the big picture. Why are we here? Like we were talking about earlier, why are we here? How, what is our unique, unique role at this time? And how can we make sure that we are. Part of the larger momentum for deeper, deeper solutions, greater sustainability, et cetera.
And so one thing that I think will be important too. And sure what happens in, and this is very specific is that there are a lot more there's a lot more recognition of, of the great possibility as and gift of black and brown executive directors and others and leadership positions. And I think as more of those positions transition out of white leadership, it's really, really important that those leaders get our support, our support, whether we're board members, whether we're other staff members. Whether we are donors, because we know that funding often decreases when black and brown people become executive directors. So anyways, there's lots of specifics like that.
Let us make sure that we give as much trust. And support and even more support because they're working in a racist system to these new, these new, but new, but not new, right? These folks who've been waiting in the wings forever who have been overlooked and bypassed a million times for these positions. So I think that's an example of something that's happening, but we need to, we need to usher it in, in a way that. Support success, like would be done with, with weight leaders and has always been done invisibly with Wade leaders. So I'd say that's an example. I think the work we've been talking about is about where there's more conversation between activists and sort of more. And others in the nonprofits sphere or grassroots activists and people who are nonprofit in the formal nonprofit sphere, as well as grassroots groups that are not 501C3.
There's a lot of, there's a lot of possibility and bringing all those folks into, into conversation, storytelling deep deep consideration of common. Common interests, which is not necessarily the first thing that people recognize, but we have common interests in what I would call, collective liberation. And so, and that looks different in different ways, people might not use that term, but I think that's where w. Where I hope we are heading. And so how can we have those conversations? So being bold, right? Like there are certain, many studies have shown, like even not, not like COVID related, but when, in times where there were political situations did not support did not support a lot of creativity and possibility for nonprofits, the nonprofits that still. Went for it. We're much more successful in getting done what they wanted to do. Then those who like who stepped back and just said, we're going to just, we're going to just shelter in place until the storm has passed. So let's do this thing, right?
Like this is, this is the time we are, we are in a period of momentum and let's just. Let's keep it going. And at the same time, take care of like you and I were talking about taking care of our people, our people being broadly defined, right? Like take care of all the people that are part of this and see this as a long-term this is the long game, right? So we need to do this in sustainable ways.
Carol: What do you feel like you've learned personally through this last year, year and a half?
Kristin: I've learned that I need more time in nature. I've learned that sometimes I need to really step back and make a lot more space for other people. And as a facilitator, that's great, there's a great dance in that, right? What is my role in this very moment? What's not my role? And can I just trust in that more? So I feel like there's been a lot for me this year or 15 months. That's about trusting, trusting in the group. I am. I've had a lot less time alone then I have in the past and because I'm in a pod. And so I have, I have loved that and I also.
I've recognized. I really need more alone time. Like that's really important for my well being. And so the way that I've been able to craft that in the past is it has not been so conscious for me and now I need to, I need it to be much more conscious so that I can make it happen. And It's renewed. My faith in possibility, I, at this time has removed, renewed my faith in possibility, which is very different from what some people would say. But, as we've been talking about, there have been so many things that have had light shined on them, which is absolutely essential for change. There have been amazing steps forward and I am eager to see that continue. And in my little way, be part of that.
Carol: So one of the things that I do at the end of each interview is pull out one of my icebreaker card questions. Since we've been talking about the long-term and the long game and movements and systems. The question I have for you is what are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
Kristin: Oh, my gracious. What a great question. I am most looking forward to - and this is really aspirational - I am most looking forward to greater and greater recognition among people and communities among and across people and communities and really the planet. Of deep interconnection and that the wellness of, of one, it relates to the wellness of all and the Wallace fall relates to the wellness of one. And so I feel like if we can continue to deepen our commitment to that, that unbelievable things are possible.
Carol: And then maybe more, a little bit more in the short term. What, what are you excited about? What's emerging in your work that 's coming up for you?
Kristin: Yeah. I'm really excited to be in conversation with a funder around ways that they can help that they can bring about greater equity in the ways that they operate. Those are the ways that they operate internally and the ways that they operate externally, the way that they relate to their funding partners, what their expectations are of their funding partners, what their expectations are of themselves, and what and how they relate to their community and communities and the ways that they will continue to try to influence the funder world. So that there are more possibilities because of course, this is another. Huge arena that you and I really didn't talk about today, but where funders are within the nonprofit world, funders are a really essential piece of the puzzle and, and they're part of systems change, right? So I love the possibilities and this particular funder is very. Very committed to the work. So I'm super excited about that. And I also really love the opportunity that I have right now to be doing some coaching with some executive directors and some other folks in these kinds of spaces and topics, but also really As we were talking about at the beginning, really diving into what, what is, what is my, why? Meaning there is not mine, but what is, what is my why for now? Like what, what is that? Where's the spark and what is my place in co-creating the world? And so I just always. Gained so much from my clients, both, both the individuals and the organizations and in those realms.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much for bringing your spark to this podcast. It's been great to talk to you. I've really enjoyed the conversation.
Kristin: Thank you so much, Carol. It's been a real pleasure and I really enjoyed listening to your podcasts and look forward to more of your conversations ahead.
Carol: All right. Thank you.
The past year and a half of the pandemic has brought so many reckonings. And I appreciate how it has brought working towards equity front and center in the sector – and how so often the sector has fallen short. It makes me think about the evolution of the sector over the course of my career. When I started working in nonprofit organizations in the 90s after the Reagan Revolution the whole country had shifted to the right and embraced a business mindset. Nonprofits were told to act more like businesses – embrace marketing and branding. There was a push to professionalize so many areas. Masters degrees in nonprofit management were designed and launched. The push to demonstrate impact, measuring success and proving it to funders. For associations it was all about diversification of revenue sources. And now a generation later the conversation has shifted to examining the nonprofit industrial complex and its implications.
So many things assumed to be ‘just how things are’ and part of the water we swim in are being questioned. I welcome this deep examination of the role of the sector in our economy. And I appreciate all the people who have stepped into the void and multiple wounds that our version of capitalism here in the US creates to try and make things better –at the immediate and direct service – helping people in need today as well as those working to imagine how to repair and move systems through policy change and movements. Thanks to everyone and your contributions.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Kristin as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
In episode 22 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Michelle Nusum-Smith discussed include:
Michelle Nusum-Smith is owner and principal consultant at The Word Woman LLC. A licensed nonprofit consultant, coach and trainer, Michelle helps nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals achieve their goals. With over 20 years of nonprofit experience, she has expertise in all areas of nonprofit development and sustainability. Michelle has extensive speaker and facilitator experience. She is licensed to offer consulting services for the Maryland Nonprofit’s Standards for Excellence® program and has the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to work with nonprofits across the country. A graduate of the Honors Program at Coppin State University where she earned a BS in Management Science with a minor in Marketing, Michelle is a member of the Grants Professional Association and an Associate Consultant at Maryland Nonprofits.
Important Links: Interview Transcript:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Michelle. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Michelle Nusum-Smith: Thank you, Carol. Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Carol: I'm sure we're going to have a great conversation and people are going to learn a lot through all the expertise you bring to nonprofits, but I like to start with what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Michelle: Interesting question. I would certainly say my mom is definitely, I think the seed planter. So I was a do gooder before I knew what do you put or meant? We were always involved in some kind of community outreach, giving engagement, volunteering something. And so, my first job was in retail. Like most of us. Well, my first professional job was in health and human services, and I just loved the idea of helping people and giving back. But if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I would have been a teacher. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love using tools and techniques and resources. And so I echo spending most of my professional career in the sector and learning that most of us are very passionate. But we don't necessarily realize that nonprofits are businesses like for-profit businesses. They are best practices. And so people would ask me for help and assistance. So I eventually went from being an unofficial consultant to thinking one day, maybe I should officially do this. And so Almost 11 years ago now I started Word Woman LLC.
Carol: Well, that's awesome. And congratulations on your longevity because a lot of folks think, oh yeah, let me go out and do this, but not everybody makes it and makes it for eleven years. so congratulations on that. I appreciate what you said about your mom. My brother has special needs. He's autistic and profoundly deaf. And my mom was always his advocate. And then through the work, being his advocate, she became an advocate more broadly in the disability community. And it really was an inspiration for the things that he was not always thinking about. Well, certainly you want to make sure that all of your own folks, your family is taken care of, but then, what's the broader implication of all the folks who need the same help and what skills can you bring to help them take those same steps. So, appreciate that, that beginning. And what are the areas? I know you work in a lot of different areas, but one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with pursuing grants. And it seems to be that oftentimes. This is the first thing that people think about when they get into the nonprofit sector they're passionate about, an area they want to help people. They want to create some change or some good in the world and they come out with grants, we have to go after grants. What would you say is the most common misconception that people have about pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, it's interesting the way that you tee that up, because that's exactly it people, I think I've actually had to talk people out of starting a nonprofit simply because they narrowly think about the grants and the fact that, hey, you have to be a nonprofit to get one. So I would say that the biggest misconception is that just because you're doing good people won't want it. Like funders are going to want to give you a grant. So you don't have to think it through. You don't have to actually have a plan. Just tell them that you have a 501-C, three status, and they'll give you a grant.
Carol: Yeah. And I love the comment that you made about actually talking people out of starting a nonprofit. Tell me more about that motivation? What caused that conversation?
Michelle: Sure. I tell people all the time I am the nonprofit consultant that will talk you out of doing something you were willing to pay me to do. And that's because I'm very passionate about the nonprofit sector. And I know how critically important it is to protect it because with for-profit businesses, if a business does something wrong, it's the public that kind of singularly looks at that business and says that business is bad. But in our sector, if a nonprofit ends up on the front of the newspaper for the wrong reasons, it's not just that nonprofit, it's the entire sector, that's bad and corrupt or what-have-you. And so I really like to talk through with people when they approach me about helping them with starting a nonprofit, why do you want to do it? Let's explore the reason, let's explore some different fits, right? Let's explore if there were some alternatives. So a great example would be just last week. I talked to a group and they wanted to start a nonprofit simply because they wanted to get grants. And I explained to them that what they wanted to do, they could easily start a fund at the community foundation or get a fiscal sponsor or a nonprofit partner. And after a bit of back and forth, because they had made up their mind that they wanted to start this nonprofit, I put them in contact with some folks and they came back and circled back to me and said, you know what, Michelle, you were absolutely right. We're getting a fiscal sponsor. So. Yeah, other times it's you really should start a for-profit business let's own that M.O. and move forward.
Carol: Right. And there are different options now within the for-profit sector of being a B Corp or other kinds of, kind of for benefit, corporations that where, where the organization is not necessarily putting. only putting profit as the bottom line, but looking at a triple bottom line, if you will, but still being created as a for-profit entity. You talked about a couple of different things that folks may or may not be familiar with. One of them was a fiscal sponsor. Can you explain a little bit more about what that is and what the benefits are for someone getting started with a fiscal sponsor?
Michelle: Absolutely. So whether even if you start a nonprofit, so one of the things I explain to people is that just because you have a nonprofit doesn't mean that you have tax exempt status or you're eligible to receive charitable donations, that's getting the 501c3 status from the IRS though, when you start a nonprofit or you have some kind of informal program or activity that you want to be able to secure community support. That may come in the form of France that may come in the form of donations. A great strategy for that is through fiscal sponsorship. And what a fiscal sponsor is, is a nonprofit organization that has the 501c3 status from the IRS, but also has the capacity and willingness to bring your activity under their umbrella. And so the program, the nonprofit gets the benefit of 501c3 status. Without having the responsibilities. So all of the funding goes through the fiscal sponsor who helps to sort of manage those resources will be kept for the program or the nonprofit that doesn't have that 501c3 status. So it positions you to be able to still do your charitable work, to still get community support, but to do it with the support of an entity that is positioned and has the capacity and resources to. To properly manage that support.
Carol: Yeah. And oftentimes that capacity that could be difficult for organizations or when they're not, when they're fairly organizations where then when their program, when they're a person with an idea, is, managing the money, managing the accounting. If you end up with any staff, people, or contractors managing all of that, all of the kind of operational it, all of that kind of thing that, the, one of the things that I see is so many people have great ideas, but then every time you create a new organization, you also have to have some way of, accessing that, all of that infrastructure and, most times most people go into the sector or if they want to start an organization, their motivation is not around creating those operational, that operational infrastructure it's about helping people. Right. and so, yeah, so the fiscal sponsor can kind of. Take on some of that and provide some of that. So that the person with the idea who wants to create the program or who has created a program and wants to build it can really focus on that rather than. more of the administrative side or plug into already a system of administration that, that can, can support them. And then the other thing you talked about was, community foundation a little bit more about what they are and how they can contribute to someone who wants to get started.
Michelle: Oh, yes. So everyone who is listening, if your nonprofit is looking for support or financial support or capacity support, third, we go and have a conversation with your community foundation representative. The community foundation, unlike a family foundation or even a corporate foundation where they may have one singular purpose or focus area, the community foundation, a model, a Fords, nonprofits, the opportunity to make, to potentially tap into multiple sources more though at the same time. So the foundation has its own funding that it distributes. But there are also funds that individuals, corporations, community groups may establish that had their own purpose, their own criteria. So it could be grants, it could be scholarships, it could be seed money for a host of different causes. And so, one of the problems that we often have with accessing those resources is. The failure to have the conversation. And so we immediately just want to look for the current opportunity, submit the grant requests and cross our fingers and hope that we get funded. But if we have a conversation prior to you and we explore, well, where are the opportunities? I have a friend who is the president of the community foundation, and then. She was sharing with a group that was presenting, at the foundation for it. And she said that, we have people who have these funds who have an interest in supporting various causes. And we don't always know the nonprofits that fit that criteria. And so it's important for us to have these conversations, to explore with the different organizations, what their missions are, how they carry them out. So that the staff, the community foundation can figure out, well, how do we connect the individual who has the resources and wants to give it the organization that has the need and is trying to figure out how to cover it.
Carol: So almost like a matchmaking process, if you will. Absolutely. And when you talked about your, the kind of main misconception that people have is, I've got a great idea. I want to help people. I'll just go, I'll just fill out some forms and foundations are magically going to give me money. And you said that the biggest thing was, not having a plan. Can you just, can you say more, a little bit more about what you mean by that and what are the kinds of questions that people should be thinking through and kind of making decisions about to create that plan?
Michelle: So doing the homework. So what is homework? Homework is having a clear understanding of your mission and your vision and your strategy is developing programs based on those strategies that include a clear plan. Who, what, where, why, how and a budget to match it. So a lot of times organizations will identify an opportunity and then try to develop a program or project around the opportunity. Best case scenario is that you've already determined what you want to do. how much it costs, you have a timeline, and then you're looking for the opportunity that aligns with that plan. So that when you, when he gives it to you, the paperwork you begin to fill out the application, it's less of a, does this fit? Will they be interested? And more of, we know that this is a fit and we're just plugging in the information we've already developed. The other thing of course would be. how do we ensure that this is a good fit? And one of the ways that we do that is that we reach out to the funder in advance. Doesn't always happen, but sometimes the stars align and you can actually have a conversation with a foundation representative, send a quick email, potentially even have a meeting with them so that they can have a conversation and understand what it is you're planning to do. Ensure that, give you some assurance that it does align with what the foundation is interested in supporting. And that way, when your grant application arrives, it's not a surprise. They're expecting it. And, and having them that pre-work particularly the conversation positions us as non-profits to have an ally on the inside because when the decision-making starts. And nobody's sitting around the table, knows anything about your organization. They can look to what I call the gatekeeper, that program, officer, whomever, who could say, Oh, yes, I know about that organization. I can answer some of those questions you might have.
Carol: Yeah. So that first step of really ensuring fit, that, that you've done your homework and I would guess, and I'm not a fundraiser, but I would guess, just the basics of have you read what the foundation covers funds. Is what is the work that you're doing within their purview? Is it something, within one of their, one of their programs, cause most, most foundations and, and you said it's different than community foundations, which can have a wide variety of, of, areas that they're interested in, depending on all the different donors that might have funds with them, generally, Family foundations, corporate foundations, large and small typically have made some decisions around their own strategy around what they are interested in and what they're pursuing. So that first check of, well, let's read to make sure that we fit in some way. And then if we think we do reach out and say, well, I'm thinking, and so would it be something like this of, you write an email, this is kind of a para paragraph, like this kind of what we're, what we're aiming to do is this, within what you guys are interested in, in funding,
Michelle: That it's funny because I'm always reminded of, I was doing some grant work for an organization and I found this family foundation doing some research. I sent an email and it basically was like, you described a paragraph that introduced them to the organization. This is our mission. This is who he served. This is the work that we carry out. We will love to explore, Learning more about your foundation and where we might fit the president of the foundation. Now, of course, it's a small family foundation. So when I say presence, there's a small, but mighty group, email me back. Actually she called and left the voicemail and she said, we've never heard of this organization, but we're very intrigued that email that took me a couple of minutes to write resulted in a face-to-face meeting. An invite to apply for funding at the maximum amount that the foundation funds it. And that organization was funded twice, simply because I found the foundation and sent an email. So it does work.
Carol: And it can save you a lot of time if the answer is no, absolutely right, because it takes a lot of work to write a grant. Yes, sir. And if you don't even meet the first criteria and you get, you get pushed to the side in the first cut. That was a lot of work for nothing.
Michelle: I tell folks all. So you, you keep, you were saying, read, read, read, and I can't emphasize that enough. Read the bill, the foundation's website, read the request for proposal years ago, I was a volunteer to do grant reviewing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I did that for three years and these were 50 page documents. Grant applications for requests between half a million and a quarter million dollars. I can tell you that some of the applications were denied simply because it was very clear that the applicants have not read the request for proposal. They didn't submit the information that was appropriate. So we had to score them poorly. So you gotta read, read, read, and then follow the guidance.
Carol: So, what are some things that help people do a better job of pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, like I said, definitely don't want that homework. I would say really making sure that you read and re-read your proposal, your material before you submit it, make sure that your budget. Aligns with your narrative. I shouldn't say things in your budget that weren't mentioned in your narrative and vice versa. And then I think the other way to be successful with brands is to make sure that you deliver on your promises. So don't just get the money and then, go off celebrating, take it seriously and then deliver so that the funder will want to support you again.
Carol: Yeah, a couple of things you said there. I think oftentimes they may not think of the connections between the budget and the narrative, or, think of it. Oh, that's that last thing that we have to fill out, but really a budget in, in a way is like it's a plan in numbers, it's a plan and money and, so it really should connect back and it should be clear for the funder, how you're planning to spend their money because obviously, that's a key concern for them.
Michelle: There you go. And the budget should be real. I have had times where I've gone to meet with folks and I asked them for their budget. They slide it across the table and I slide it right back because I get to hell. It's just a bunch of numbers that you've made up. So. Actually be the homework and research. You shouldn't have to guess on certain things that you could just Google to find out. What is the, what is the cost of that item? and so it gives you, like you said, you get this mirrored version of the project in numbers that mirrors the narrative and it positions you so that you can actually deliver on what you propose because. If your budget doesn't align, then you're put in a position where you may run out of money, which you've told the funder, this is all the money that we need. So it's very important to make sure that the budget is based on doing your research and based on actual need and that it mirrors your plan.
Carol: Yeah, it seems like, another thing that I've experienced more from being on the program side of, here, all of the million things that we promised to the funder that we were going to do, and it's like, well, it's just me and this other person. And we only have so much time in the day and I don't know how we're going to deliver it all.
Michelle: Yes, yes, yes. Please do not over promise. First of all, if it's not feasible, it doesn't make sense. Years ago I was doing a, I was working with an organization and this was pre pandemic, but we were still by as Dean because they were in another country and they were going to be doing this maternal health project where they were responding to a request for proposal. So the project idea was already set and they were supposed to work with pregnant women and follow them through their child's third birthday. And I asked, there were two folks that I was meeting with, only two people who staff this organization. And I asked the simple question, how many pregnant women are you going to serve? I kid you not, The executive director said a thousand, and that was my face because I was thinking, first of all, where are you going to find a thousand pregnant women? Number one, but number two, how are you going to possibly follow them? Plus their children for three years? And so I think that what they were thinking was we need to give this big number. So it sounds like we're making a huge impact into that. I would say years ago, it was all about the numbers, the outputs, which is a grant term. So you're counting people, you're counting that you're counting, beads. Right? So that's how we measure success. The bigger, the number, the greater the success. But now we talk about impact, which is more about the outcome, the result of the work that you did. So we, instead of touching people. So it's great that you could say, well, we, we touched a thousand people, but did you actually affect change with them if you just simply touch them? Not really, but if you could actually work with a hundred and move them from where they are to a better position, a better situation. Then that's more impactful. That's more significant than simply just touching a thousand.
Carol: Yeah. So really looking at, and that goes from the request for proposal, the fact that they wanted those pregnant women to be followed through for three years, that's a significant amount of time. and yeah, to think about what's feasible in terms of your staffing and, and how many people you can reach and how many people will you be able to continue to work with over time. Yeah. What would you say? I think there are folks who are starting out, they have some misconceptions. I also find that sometimes board members can really have misconceptions about, grants and, and be very focused on grants. What would you say are, I mean, there are obviously a lot of upsides to getting grants, but are there any kind of hidden costs that you would, you would, talk about that to just caution people that they need to kind of consider those things as well when they're pursuing grants.
Michelle: So you touched on one of the things earlier where you said there's a lot of time and energy invested in just preparing the grant proposal. And, and if you have paid staff, then that means that's money or investing. So that may not result in a grant. And when it comes to getting the grant, there's a cost per se, related to that as well, because there's the cost of managing, there's costs related to investment of time for reporting for evaluations. So it's not just give us the money and, and, and we'll just go off with you, our mission, you, you touched with something else too, which is, this whole idea of the board and let's get grants, let's get grants. I actually have a client right now who, I just, before we got on our call, she, I was receiving emails where the board members found grant opportunities, which is great because that means that they were engaged. But we do want to recognize that grants cannot, should not and won't be your only source of funding. Grants have a lot of limitations. They don't pay for everything they're time bound. And so it's very important that as part of from the board level, part of our strategic planning that we're thinking about all of the available funding sources, And then we're thinking about how do we tap into all of them to ensure that we had adequate resources, whether that's individual donations, corporate support in the form of donations or sponsorships membership dues, do we pay half to like programs where folks may pay for services or as fees related to being involved with our organization, we need to look at all of the available funding sources. And then have a strategy so that grants are part of the strategy, but not be the strategy.
Carol: Yeah. And I wanted to, to ask you that, obviously grants are just one way to, to raise funds. And so you talked about those different types of possible revenue streams. What are some of the key aspects that organizations need to consider when they're thinking about putting together a fundraising plan?
Michelle: I would say certainly the fundraising plan should be driven by our strategic plan. So we're, we're planning to raise the money to support our, our program plans, our operating costs. Thirdly, there are costs that, as I said, are not going to be covered by restricted sources of funding, such as grants, keeping the lights on. So you may have a grant where the fundable say, we'll pay for the person who's presenting. We'll pay for the materials. We'll pay for food, but we're not paying the electricity, the electricity bill. And so we need to incorporate as part of that fundraising plan forces, better unrestricted. So individual gifts, you have some individuals I should say, could be central to our fundraising plan. And it should incorporate the various sources of revenue and an action plan or strategy for how we're going to carry it out. And that again, should be top down. So the board should be driving this effort, even when you have staff that may be implementing your plan.
Carol: So you talked about a couple terms that some people probably are already familiar with, but others may not be restricted and unrestricted funds. Can you say a little bit more about what that means?
Michelle: Sure. So the way I like to describe the differences for those of us who go to church and you make your tithes and offerings, most of us don't ask any questions about where that money's going. We just trust that it's going to be used for good. We go about our business. So as individuals, we're making contributions to our church without any strings attached or expectations, other than seeing the manifestation of, of the good, right. Whereas if you receive a grant or you receive a large gift from an individual donor, it may come with some expectations, some straights. So it may be restricted regarding the budget. So when we submit a grant proposal, we include a budget. The funder expects for you to spend the money as you budgeted it, as opposed to, if somebody just writes a check, there are no restrictions. You can use the funds or the benefit of the organization based on what's needed. There are restrictions that are related to the time and use. So, for example, you may receive less than you receive a grant for $50,000. And because of the funders approach, you get one check upfront of $50,000. So you're looking at your bank statement and it says there's $50,000 in there, but that $50,000 is tied to what 12 year I'm sorry, 12 month grant periods. So, although it's sitting in the bank, it's supposed to be spent according to the budget over that 12 month period. So restricted means there's some guidance around how you use it. Unrestricted means thank you, we'll pull together our strategy and then determine how to spend it.
Carol: Thank you. Thank you. So, on each episode I play a game at the end asking one, random icebreaker question. And so I have one here, what's something you believed earlier in your career that you think differently about now?
Michelle: Ooh, that's an interesting one. So something that I thought early in my career. That I think differently. This is a funny answer, but it's the one that popped in my head. So that's the one I'll share. So when I was younger, I looked young and I thought that people wouldn't take me seriously until I was old. And so I had this crazy idea that once I turned 40, that miraculously people will begin to take this seriously, but now I realize that people have always taken me seriously. Maybe not as seriously as I had bought or had hoped, or just, just didn't realize it. And age doesn't need to be a predictor of your credibility or your impact. And so I'm a believer that anybody and everybody, no matter your age can have a huge impact.
Carol: Awesome. I love that. Thank you. And so what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing these days.
Michelle: So I'm doing lots of different things, but I'm a Gemini. So I've always had my hands in a lot of different things. But one thing that I will mention that's related to our discussion is I have been wanting to do a grant writing boot camp. I've done them in the past. The one that is much more technical and much more, hands on and practical in application and I'm going to be I'm. So it's still in the works, but I will be doing that over the summer. It's going to be a six week virtual, I believe, virtual program. and so I'm looking forward to that and looking forward to you, Being who, who, who participates and, and the work that they do because of it.
Carol: So. Awesome. Well, we will put links in the show notes to your website so people can check it out and see when that program, when, when you launch it, which I'm sure will be super useful for many people because, yeah, sometimes it's, it's oftentimes that nitty gritty, that, that can get in people's way. When they're, when they're trying to, trying to, Put together, those, those grants, those proposals hopefully avoid all the things that we just talked about, but learn even more. I'm sure with you so, well, thank you so much. It's been great talking to you today.
Michelle: Thank you, Carol. I appreciate this opportunity.
In episode 21 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Andy Robinson discussed include:
Andy Robinson provides training and consulting for nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. Over the past 25 years, Andy has worked with clients in 47 US states and Canada. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, he has designed and facilitated 70 online meetings, webinars, and remote workshops covering a variety of topics, including fundraising, board development, marketing, leadership development, facilitation, and train-the-trainer programs. Andy is the author of six books, including Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money, www.trainyourboard.com. His latest is What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid. He lives in Plainfield, Vermont.
Carol Hamilton: Well welcome, Andy. Great to have you on the podcast.
Andy Robinson: Thank you for inviting me, Carol. It's good to be here with you.
Carol: So just to start out, I like asking the question of all my guests of what drew you to the work that you do, what, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Andy: So you're looking for my origin story in this work.
Carol: Well, I mean, it could be a more recent version of that, cause I'm sure it's evolved over the years.
Andy: All right. Well, for those of you who are listening, but not watching, I'm an old guy with a gray beard. And my, my origin story goes back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and I was fresh out of college and I didn't know who I wanted to be when I grew up or what I wanted to do. And I was a little stunned. I was like, what, what happened here? What do I do? And so I was casting around for something to do, and I opened the newspaper and. I looked in the classifieds and there was a job title called activist, and I thought, huh, that's interesting. What does that mean? What do those people do? And I applied for this job and I was hired and it turned out what I was doing was door to door canvassing. So I was one of those nice young people who came to your door and knocked on your door and told you about an organization. I had a conversation, asked you to give money. And that was my entry point into the world of nonprofits. And I think also the worlds of social change, social justice and community organizing. So what. Moves me now is what moved me then, which is the desire to create a positive change in the world and looking for tangible ways to do it. And for the last 25 years, I've run my own consulting practice as a trainer and consultant and facilitator. And I work with groups on planning and fundraising and facilitating meetings and building leadership and some of the stuff that you also do, Carol.
Carol: Yeah. It's interesting that you talk about that period right after college. It took me a little bit longer, but my first job that I got was working for a company that helped people get on talk shows. And so I found that I was actually rather good at writing the publicity and PR for folks and decided that I wanted to apply that skill to causes that I believed in. So that's what prompted my shift into the nonprofit sector.
Andy: This is sort of hilarious, cause you've recruited me to be on the talk show today.
Carol: Yeah, I've come full circle, I guess. So you said you, you've been in business for a long time and before that obviously had a long career in the sector and well, all the entire career in the sector, but in, in different roles. And you've said recently that you're shifting now into semi-retirement. And intentionally stepping back, taking shorter gigs. What's, what's your intention in doing that?
Andy: Well, there's three or four things. It's, it's a, it's a lovely question. The first thing is my own. Sustainability energy. One of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you work for yourself, but one of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you often never stop working. So I'm one of those people. Who's often at my desk at 10 o'clock at night, responding to emails that I didn't get to during the day. And I'm, I've reached the age where it's time for me to dial back my work so I can have more fun though. That's one answer to your question. The second answer to your question, and this slides us into the topic of succession planning. I have been helping and supporting other people enter this work for a number of years as facilitators and trainers and consultants. And I helped to lead a university program on this and then. I'm an informal coach to a lot of people who are entering into supporting nonprofits and, and, and the work that meets. So I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring those out to other people or jobs that I don't get any more. Cause it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who want to enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and they've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants, black indigenous people of color, as a way of supporting social justice and equity. So that's my current thinking and I'm spending more time having fun. I'm, I'm hiking out in the woods and I'm cooking good food and I'm spending time with my spouse whom I adore. And I still have enough work to keep things going. And that seems like a good balance right now.
Carol: Yeah. And a couple of things that you talked about you've worked with other leaders on succession planning. What do you think other nonprofit leaders could, could learn from your approach and how you've been doing it? It seems like you've been very intentional in how you're approaching it, which. I don't think it's particularly actually very well supported in our culture.
Andy: Well said. Well, I wanna, I wanna frame this two ways. One of the things I've done with organizations over many years is strategic planning, which is also something you've done a lot of. And one of them, I have a couple of favorites. Planning questions. One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the workflow of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge many organizations are perpetual organizations, hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? And we spend some time chewing through because it might be a generation or two generations or three generations, right? Depending on the organization. Then I say, are you going to be here for the victory party? And of course, everybody laughed and said, no, I'm not going to be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. So, this is not this optional thing. If you don't have a succession plan, excuse me. If you're not building leadership, as you're building your organization and doing your work and changing the world you're failing. So that's a little aha for people. And I wanted to apply that same thinking to myself, you know? So there's an old thing that people might remember if they were Scouts or they learned how to backpack, you're supposed to leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. Like if you show up at the campsite and there's trash, pick up the trash, when you, when you check out, take the trash with you, don't let somebody else deal with the trash. And so literally I am trying to leave the campsite. In better shape than I found it. And I feel like the way I can do that is by handing off and supporting, and training and building other people who are coming in behind me. And I will tell you, I have, I don't know the number there's at least 50 and probably more like a hundred different peers that I interact with over the course of a year, in terms of sharing jobs, trading notes, doing referrals. Picking each other's brains. I mean, I have an amazing network and that's what sustained me for all the years. I've been self-employed as all these lovely peers who are generous to me and I aspire to be generous to them. So if I can help people do that for themselves. And built that peer network and what a gift. Right. That's beautiful. So that's my intention here and I will do it imperfectly, cause we all do everything imperfectly, but so far so good.
Carol: So what would you think? What, what, what are some ways in which inside an organization, a leader can, can start to groom that next generation.
Andy: Yeah, well, once upon a time I mean, I've done webinars on this topic and, I could probably rattle off 10 steps. I don't know that that's a lot, but I'll throw you two or three, which is one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand off, I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the menial stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate? Reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center of things. That's one idea, second idea. And this speaks to the facilitation work that you and I both do is when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's going to lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda because the ability to. To run a meeting, to facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. So I am currently chairing a board and I had a board meeting last night. So this is top of mind. And as I was building the board agenda, I had about, I think, five different people leading different parts of the meeting. And so that's a second idea if you're actually bringing groups together, share the power within the group so that you have that agenda where people are. Taking turns, facilitating and leading and, and building the conversation. The third one is one that I've touched on already, which is don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way, and often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. And so part of it is accepting the fact that other people do things they think about. Problems or challenges or opportunities differently. They approach them differently. That's something that should be embraced by leaders, as opposed to we have one way we do things here. So those are some ideas. I mean, I kicked this back to you. I know you think about this. When you're advising leaders on succession and distributing power, what tips do you offer?
Carol: Well, it's interesting that you talked about delegation because I think people think about that. That's an obvious one, but yet folks struggle with it for so much. And I think it goes to the last point that you've talked about. And I've been in situations where I've dealt with things delegated to me. And the leader has told me explicitly that, that, no, you, however you approach it is great until I stumbled upon the way that they actually wanted me to do it. Yes. And I think it's not even conscious on their part. Right. It's not their, their conscious intention was to hand this off and let me run with it. And then, I approach it differently and, and it was like, Ooh, well, wait a second. Not so much. And I think you can then ideally you then have a conversation to figure out what's the middle ground between the two. I don't know that I always handled it that way. Because I think my perpetual lesson that I've had to learn over and over again is indeed that people do things differently than I would do.
Andy: if you've done any anti-racism training, anti-oppression training, one of the first things they talk about is the difference between intention and impact. Sure. Right. And often we have very good, positive, sacred, Holy high-minded intentions, but we're clueless about the impact we're having on other people. And this is one of those examples. It's like, My intention is to give this job to you. But the impact I'm having is I'm micromanaging you while you're doing it. I'm just doing that. So, I mean, I have a mental way to do this, which is I would have people imagine there's a spectrum. And at one end of the spectrum, I'm pointing to my left are people who are really good at empowering others and supporting others and delegating. That's one of the ends of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum pointing to my right. People's responses, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier to just do it myself and full disclosure here is I live down at that. Right, and the second end of the spectrum, my default button is, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier. And what's interesting here is I have spent an entire lifetime trying to move myself down that line to the opposite end of the spectrum. Getting myself out of the way. So, I mean, I don't know if this is today's topic, but I will touch on it. I carry a lot of privilege. I'm an upper middle-class, white, cisgendered, straight male. I have an Ivy League education. I'm able-bodied. I mean, I have all the markers. I have English as my first language. I am, I have all the markers of privilege and I feel like my work for the last several years and maybe the last decade is to shrink my footprint and take up less space. And because that's what that's, what privilege is, is you take up a lot of space that you're not even aware that you're taking up. So, and I'll talk about this in front of groups and, there's a chance to bring this into a training or a facilitation, and there's a moment to have this conversation. I'll have it, but one of the ways that I can delegate perhaps in an we'll use the word unintentional, but as a secondary way is to just take up less space, to speak less to. Shrink my presence in whatever way that looks like, because that creates space for other people to step in and embrace their leadership skills. So I am like the amazing shrinking man, but I still take up huge amounts of space, but I'm mindful of it. And I am checking that whenever I can. And I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space? And how do you really underline that and embrace that as a, as a strategy and a tool?
Carol: Yeah. So one of them is just, let's say, you're, you're discussing a topic with a group and trying to figure out different ways that you might approach it brainstorming. And if the leader can take a beat and not be the first person to talk can be huge.
Andy: Yeah. And I’ve facilitated a couple of online things over the last year where I've had leaders say to me, I'm not, I'm going to say very little, I'm going to not speak first. I'm going to step back intentionally. This is not me telling them this is them coming to me and saying, FYI, if you see me being quiet, it's me stepping back. And my response is thank you. And if I, if I feel as a facilitator, I need their voice. I can call on them. And say, Martha, haven't heard from you yet on this, what's your thinking. And I can cue them when needed, but that's, that's a great level of self-awareness and I'm, I'm glad you brought that up.
Carol: Yeah. And there's some tools, I mean, for brainstorming, there's some tools that you can use to help everybody's voice get in the room. By just having people, write things down first, like, the classic sticky notes and, and now in the virtual space on something like mural or jam board and, before anybody says anything, allowing people a few minutes to get their ideas out onto the board and in some cases you can trace, who's had what, but most people, by the time they're on there, they're not paying that much attention to it. And so it gives space for people, all, all the folks who are participating to step in. And, and one other thing that you talked about at that rotating facilitation, which is a simple thing, I was in this past year I've been teaching folks how, how to facilitate effectively online. And I was working with an intact team walking through the program and then they were trying to think about, okay, so how do we actually, the classic challenge with training of how do we actually make this stick? How do we, that was nice, but we did it in your, in your session. How do we actually start implementing this in practice? And so we talked about them using it in internal meetings first so that the stakes are lower. And so when I had my one-on-one with their leader, one of the things we talked about, I was like, well, okay, so what meetings do you typically lead? And he always led their weekly staff meeting.
I was like, well, what if, what if you rotate that. And, the intention there was to make sure that everyone was practicing facilitation. But as you say, facilitation and leading a meeting, thinking about an agenda, how are you guiding the group? How are you guiding the conversation? What questions are you asking about self leadership skills? So just by that, by him stepping back and saying, no, I'm not going to be the default, in a weekly meeting that doesn't need to be me. Is an easy first step to take. Yeah,
Andy: I totally agree. And one of the things I'm noticing about all these zoom meetings is all the boxes are the same size. And if you're fairly skillful, I mean, my experience of Zoom so far is that the alphas who tend to dominate it's a little harder to do it in that environment. And especially if there's some good facilitator helping work the process the alphas are less alpha and. That creates an equity opportunity. So what's one of the things I'm appreciating about all these virtual meetings is I think they do level the playing field a little bit if you handle them properly.
Carol: Right. And again, it all goes back to how you're structuring them. And and, and I think it's interesting to also watch how some people who might not speak up then have access to the chat. And so, they may not be contributing verbally to the meeting, but they're contributing often very coherent and quite eloquent thoughts in the chat. So, there's, it just gives people different ways to interact with the group and contribute. Again, as he said, if you kind of. Position that well, so
Andy: Carol, can I bring some Shakespeare into the car? Sure. In many, many Shakespearian tragedies, there was a fool and the fool is the person who says to the King when the King is being a jerk and maybe he gets whipped or beaten a little bit, for the most part, it is their job to speak truth to power. And I feel like if you're a leader and you're thinking about succession, you need to designate somebody in your organization who will call you out when you're overstepping your boundaries and not be punished for it. So I think, I think every leader needs a full. Where they trust and love, but who will speak truth to them and say, you're overstepping here. Or you're, you're AWOL what's up. Or you really handle that one. You could handle that one differently than you did. And it takes some courage to have somebody who is your designated call you out person, and it doesn't have to be publicly, can be privately like, FYI at that meeting, you missed an opportunity. I want to share with you what I saw that opportunity was. So. Sometimes as the consultant, we fill that role. Sometimes our job is to speak truth, to power and name things that people don't want to talk about because they're difficult. But even if you had somebody like that within your organization who had that role and handled the Def that's a succession tool as well.
Carol: So what I think we've talked about this a little bit, but what are some of the mistakes that you've seen leaders make when, when. When they're thinking about their exit or perhaps not even not even thinking about it and then that broader transition that's, cause it's never just one thing. There's always a ripple effect. Yeah, it goes through the organization.
Andy: There's a guy named Don Tebbe. Who's written a lot about this. And one of his quotes is leading well is leaving well, or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's leaving well is leading well, it works either way. So first of all, we have to lift that up as a value. It's okay to leave well, in terms of mistakes. Oh, let us count the ways. I think a classic mistake is hanging onto them, you know? And I am I'm I'm right in the middle of the baby, boom, I'm boomer through and through boomers, we need to step aside and I acknowledge that maybe you haven't saved all the money you need to retire, or maybe you're having too much fun or maybe there's still work to do that you want to do. And that's awesome. And time to step aside, at least figuring out what that looks like for you. So one thing is just hanging on too long and it is, it is baked into the system, but the skills that one needs to start a company, a business, an organization to start anything is a different skill set that is required to build it to maturity. And it's few people that have both of those skill sets. So you and I have both. I dealt with this thing called founder's disease or founder's syndrome or founder itis. Right. And God bless founders, ‘cause we need them. They make stuff happen. They are amazing people, but founders sometimes leave trouble in their wake. So I think one thing we have to do is to be mindful of that as we're doing this, you and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this. And it's a different world. Would that be a second mistake? And I'll kick this back to you. I can come up with more, but I mean, what have you seen as the biggest challenge to succession? What gets in the way?
Carol: Well, one that was interesting. I was working with a group where it was that classic thing of the board members. originating founder, the founder was still on the board. some of the founding board members were still there. And I think part of the challenge, like, and the person, said that they wanted to step back, said that they were tired and they didn't, they wanted to groom new people and said all the right things. And again, behaved in the absolute opposite way of micromanaging staff and, and, questioning if a board, if the board made a decision then going around the board to undermine it when the, they didn't agree in those kinds of things. And I think what was as part of that challenge, and I think for many people is that for that person, it was so much part of their identities. That they couldn't imagine what they would be without leading that organization.
Andy: I came up in an era. I mean, again, my career started in 1980. I came up in an era where if you were working for nonprofits, especially these, heavily mission-driven nonprofits, the assumption was you were, you would bleed for the cause. And you'd come in early and you'd stay late and it was your life. And one thing I'm loving about working with millennials is they actually want to have a life outside of the office and an identity that's not connected to their jobs. And that's great. So I think the problem is, a generation that came up the way that I came up, which is your identity is your work. And your identity is the causes that you care about. And there's something positive about that. I mean, that's, that's commitment and that's powerful, but it's also destructive. So yeah, you're right. I think we have to have identities that are, at least we can separate from the work we do or the organizations we're involved with. Because I think the classic problem is people won't let go because their identities are tied up in the work.
Carol: Yeah. And then they feel, less than, or they don't, they're not useful or, they have no purpose without, without this work that they're doing. And I mean, I guess for me, I, I saw my dad struggle with that. He was the greatest generation and dedicated every minute. Of his working life to his working life. And just struggled when he retired or, it was in a system where you, you had to retire at a certain age. And because everything about his adult life had been wrapped up in that job. And watching the difference. And my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she also shaped, like we. He was in the foreign service. So we traveled around the world and every country, she would get a new degree. So she entertained herself by getting degrees, taking care of us. But then like, but she was never as attached to those. I don't think in the same way, it's just, wasn't the same. And so for me, going into the workforce, I always had the, and my, my tagline for the podcast is how, how to be in the nonprofit sector without being a martyr to the cause. Cause I just think that martyr syndrome is just so toxic to our sector. And so I've always tried to think about, well, there's work. And then there, then it's not that there's like work in life. Like your work is part of your life, right? It's not that separate, but how do you kind of. Keep cultivating other communities, other networks and other aspects that you want to develop. I mean, I, I do know a lot of people through my faith community who are retired and I've just, I've seen some amazing transformations of, someone who was a lawyer who specialized in some incredibly arcane aspect of, Law who then after he retired and he struggled to retire, took him like five years from when he started talking about it to when he actually did. But then started taking classes, started taking art classes at the local community college and mean has become quite the, I don't think he was trying to become a great artist, but, but he's become quite accomplished and really enjoys that.
Andy: So exploring different aspects of yourself is as important I think. And, and I will argue that our greatest ex president is Jimmy Carter. He did, a lifetime's worth of work after he left the white house. Right, right. Amazing things, amazing things. And so, yeah, I mean, that's someone who had a third act or a fourth act, or however you want to count it. So, yeah, it's certainly possible to have a life after work. Like maybe you all have that.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I've also worked with yes. And you named it, you named it. So I'll, I'll say it, the baby boomers who would be having conversations with me and I'm, and, just baffled with this baffled look on their face. So I just don't know where the leaders are going to come from. And I'm like, okay. I know when you started being a leader, you were like 15 years younger than me. In your career, but you don't think that I could possibly be in that role, you know?
Andy: So yeah. Yeah, that's right. I am carrying the shame of an entire generation.
Carol: Well, we will, we will require you to do that.
Andy: No problem. It's it's, it's, it's the old thing. It's, it's like men have to talk to men about sexism and misogyny and. White people about racism and boomers have to talk to boomers about letting it go. So here we are.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So since we've been at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask one ice breaker question from this box of icebreaker questions that I have. So since we've been talking about, second, third acts, fourth acts retirement what's the last thing that you completed on your bucket list and not as soon as of course that you have a bucket list.
Andy: Oh, interesting. Yeah, we just bought an electric vehicle. Oh, wow. Yeah. From a neighbor. So we got a second hand Chevy bolt and I've been driving it for the last month and I'm learning all the bells and the whistles, but it's one of the things. And actually we had a We had a charger installed in our garage some time ago. And then we were going to buy another car. This is more detailed, but anyway I wanted to get an Evie and now I have one. So that was on the bucket list and it has been completed.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. Well, when, when our cars die and we're waiting well, We're just watching them and they will die soon. That is on our list next to, to try to try to buy an electric vehicle. And probably we'll probably end up with a used one cause we ended up with a used Prius, so that'll be next. So, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you?
Andy: We talking about work or, or fun, or where do you want to get?
Carol: Wherever you want to go
Andy: Well, I will say this next Thursday, which is the 28th, excuse me, the 25th. I am teaming up with my buddy Harvard, McKinnon, who is one of North America's great fundraisers. He's written many books. He's a lot of fun. And he and I are doing a webinar together called raising more money by asking and to answering better questions. And it's all about. Questions that donors think that you really have to anticipate and answer, but also questions you can ask donors to deepen the conversation. So for the fundraising webinar, it's sponsored by the sustainability network, which is Canada's national support network for the environment. And that's on the 25th. So people can track it down and go to my website, you'll see the information there. And so that's coming up and that's something I'm excited about.
Carol: This episode will probably be published after that happened. So will that be possible for people to access it after the fact?
Andy: It's a great question. I don't know. But I suspect if they go to the website for the sustainability network, which is sustainability to sustainability network.ca and poke around there, you may find it if not reach out to me and I'll put you on my list for future events, I'm doing lots of webinars and trainings. Someday I may actually go back on the road again when that's allowed. We'll see. And I look forward to supporting you in whatever way I can.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great talking with you this morning. Thank you Carol.
Andy: For inviting me. It was fun talking with you too, and have a good day, everybody.
In episode 15 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Mary Hiland discussed include:
- The pivotal executive director – board chair relationship.
- Why trust is so key and how to build it.
Mary Hiland brings over 40 years of experience to nonprofit leaders to create a paradigm shift about how to develop an informed and inspired board that is truly an asset. Her mission is to help nonprofit leaders ignite and unleash the potential of the board, getting rid of the mindset that a board is a burden. Her deep expertise and hands-on experience (26 years as a nonprofit executive and 17 as a board member) bring credibility and confidence to nonprofit leaders who know she understands because she’s “been there.” Mary coaches, and mentors executive directors and board leaders. She is a speaker and published author. She has a weekly podcast, Inspired Nonprofit Leadership: conversations to inspire, inform, and support nonprofit leaders.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Mary. Great to have you on the podcast.
Mary Hiland: It's great to be here, Carol. It's always great to connect with you.
Carol: So I'm curious, what drew you to the work you do? What would you say motivates you, how would you describe your why?
Mary: Oh, that's a big question. I've been in the field a really long time, so I'm gonna mostly address the work I'm doing now as a consultant, because that's been the last 18 years. I had a different ‘why’ early on when I was much younger, but I see a lot of potential in the boardroom of nonprofits, having been around for over 40 years in the sector. I see a lot of challenges in the relationships between the executives and their boards, and I had great experiences in both of those scenarios. I had great boards, and I had great relationships with my board chairs, and it's painful to me to see that things aren't as good as they could be. I really want to support executives and board members to reach the potential of those relationships and the functioning of the board. So, I’ve developed a passion for that out of just hearing the stories and observing, and knowing on the other side what's possible, seeing the really powerful impact that boards can have and executives who are just thrilled with their boards, believe it or not, out there.
Carol: Yeah. That executive director-board chair relationship is so key to the effectiveness of the organization. What would you say are some of the key elements that can make that relationship successful?
Mary: Well, it's interesting that you should ask me that because I did my doctoral dissertation on the relationship between the Chair of the Board and the Executive Director, and there was no research out there about the question you just asked, what are the critical success factors in this relationship? I really wanted to learn about it. I didn't get all of the factors out, but there were two themes that came out in my interviews with board chairs and their executives. This has held true in all my observations that the first critical success factor, which is probably no surprise to anyone out there, is trust. But what I found was that people don't always know how to build trust. They really don't know how to build relationships. I went into it thinking ‘everybody knows how to do that. this is a natural thing,’ but it isn't for many people. So I developed a model of trust-building, and we could talk more about that if you want, but trust-building is really important. And there are different ways to build trust that you may not think of, and it's easy to lose. Unfortunately, the other was when they're interacting with each other one-on-one, but not necessarily in person, whether it's over the phone, not in email, but over the phone or zoom these days, or in-person, what are you focusing on in your conversation together? There's a lot of options for that, as you can imagine. And there's different types of interactions that you're going to have, and the interactions can help build the trust. But some were focusing just on the executive using the board chairs as a sounding board and a lot of focus on the day-to-day operation. Then others were focusing on more planning together. They were doing some of that sounding board stuff, and Day-to-day stuff, but then they were planning together and being strategic thinkers together, and then the final level of interaction and topics, and focus of what they were talking about was more, the best word I picked for this was leadership. They were actually leading together, thinking about how to engage with the community, thinking about how to engage the board so that there was this depth in the scope of what they talked about and focused on. I don't want to go on and on and on about it, but I don't see too many board chair-executive relationships where they're even thinking about ‘how do we spend our time together? What do we talk about? What are the agendas?’ It's probably the agenda for the board meeting, maybe a problematic issue with the board member, some other more tactical kinds of things, but that is not wrong. You need all of that, but it's trying to think a little more deeply about the quality of what you're working on together.
Carol: Excellent. Going back to what you initially said around building trust. I know a lot of folks now, they may cringe when they hear the word trust-building exercise, or may think that you're going to make them go out into the woods and high ropes course or something like that. What are some straightforward ways that, in your experience, are the building blocks of building trust?
Mary: Well, that's a great question. And you're right about that in the woods. I'm not that a person and I resisted this issue. Let me just share this one little thing. I resisted this in my research because I said if I stand in front of some Executives and Board Members and say, ‘it's important to build trust.’ They'll look at me like ‘did you have to go do a doctorate to learn that? Let me highlight a couple of different things that people may not think about. I think we all know that you can't be lying to people. You have to do what you say you're going to do. These are the things that people think about typically. One that I think is really relevant for Executive Directors, but also for Board Members is competence. There's a type of trust called competence-based trust in my model. You wouldn't hire a plumber to do the electrical work in your house. Now that seems very simplistic, but Executives, how are you showing your Board Members that you are competent in your job? Now when you're first hired, I tell Executives, you probably gave them a resume. You talked about the networks that you have, your skills, your talents, but after you're hired, when you get new board members, do you do that again? Do you share your resume with them? How are you showing your Board when you gain a new skill,or you think you get better at something, or broaden your network, or just do some professional development? How are you sharing that with people? I know Non-Profit executives can be very humble, which is great. I'm not talking about inappropriate bragging here. It's not inappropriate to demonstrate to people that they can have confidence in your leadership, that they can have confidence in your skillset. So that goes both ways with Board Members helping Executives understand that they're competent in their role as a Board Member. What past experience have they had? What leadership experience?
Carol: That's a great point that you make that, when folks are thinking about orienting new board members, I think most of the time they're thinking about orienting to the organization. Lots and lots of information about that. They often forget about orienting to the role of being a Board Member. I think that other layer that you're talking about of the Executive Director basically orienting the new Board Member to themselves as well and their background and what they're bringing to it. Not acting as if the Board Member already essentially knows them.
Mary: I think that is a very often missed opportunity for executive directors. The other one is giving feedback, communication, and trust. We probably think of it as telling the truth, but there are other elements of communication that help you build trust, other behaviors. And one is actually giving feedback in a constructive way, but the other is being willing to receive feedback and it's really important for executives to be sensitive to the fact that if they come across defensive to their Board it's like saying to them, to the Board Member or the Board Chair, ‘your perspective of me is not valid’ and dismissing it because you're defending yourself right out the gate and that doesn't work. It doesn't mean you have to agree with their perception of you, but it means you need to hear it and you need to let them know you heard it. Then you can say, ‘well, have you thought about looking at it this way?’ or, ‘I have a different viewpoint on that,’ but that's not the same thing as being defensive out the gate. When you're defensive and dismissing people, nothing is going to erode trust faster because they don't feel heard and they don't feel that you're hearing them at all in terms of understanding a different viewpoint. They can't trust that you're open to new ideas. The other is your willingness to give feedback because you're saying to that person when you do that, I believe that you are open to learning. I believe that you can grow and change. You're expressing confidence in them because you're taking the time to share something that you've observed or experienced with them. That can go a long way to build trust. So giving that honest feedback and giving it in a timely manner is really important because it also says ‘I'm invested in your success.’ And I'm sure you've seen it over and over again Carol. The supervisor, the leader who waits and waits and waits when the new person joins their workforce to give feedback that's negative because they feel, ‘Oh, they're just new.’ They just dismiss it because giving negative feedback is uncomfortable. Well, think about it as a way you're building trust with that person. So that's another one that I think sometimes we don't think of.
Carol: I know a lot of people don't really have a lot of skills around giving feedback. People talk about it a lot, but I don't know that I was taught in college, or other places, probably not until I was doing my graduate degree in organization development where we really dug into ‘what is feedback?’ What's the purpose? It actually often says more about the person giving the feedback than the person receiving it. You know how to receive it. So in that instance, where you said when someone is starting to get defensive and they can feel that they might be getting a little emotionally hijacked by the situation for them to even think, ‘I'm just going to say, thank you.’
and ‘I'll think about this.’ and come back to it later when they have a little more perspective at a little more distance from the instance that it's happening.
Mary: I think it's helpful out there that we're spending a little more attention on relationships whether it's driven by some of the horrible situations we've seen, but I think that it's a very important part of growing and developing, particularly as a leader. If it's okay Carol, I do have a trust-building action plan that's free if it's okay, I can tell people how they can get it. It tells a little bit more about the types of trust and these behaviors are available that are listed so people can get that by going to Hilander Consulting. That's H-I-L-A-N-D-E-R consulting dot org, org slash trust building. If you go there, you can get that.
Carol: That's in the show notes as well.
Mary: That would be great. Because I created that to help people broaden their perspectives about trust and get some sensitivity.
Carol: Such a big concept that's really helpful to have it broken down into elements. What are some behaviors? What are some actions that you can take to start working towards building that trust and then you also talked about the different kinds of conversations that executives are having with their Board Chairs and named three different kinds: that sounding board day-to-day is the planning that made them move to more of a strategic level, and then the leadership level, and the first one that you mentioned around the day-to-day I think on one hand, that Executive Director role can be a very lonely place where, Executive Directors don't necessarily have or may not have peers that they can reach out to, to have those kinds of conversations at the same time. I would imagine that if they're drawing their Board Chair into those day-to-day conversations about what's going on. While they may be training the board on, your role is not to be involved in staff.
Carol: They're actually drawing the board into that role through that conversation. Oftentimes, the reports that people have in board meetings and all the different things that they use, they include, and then they wonder why Board Members step into wanting to get involved in operations? Well, you spent half the meeting updating them on that.
Mary: And I think this is such an important point and I would not want to leave people thinking that I would be encouraging going down that operational rabbit hole of detail with your Board all the time, particularly your Board Chair, but here's where, when you're kicking off your relationship with your Board Chair, you need to start by talking about ‘how are we going to work together?’ it's important to establish a ground rule with your Board Chair. That if it's okay for me to bring what's on my mind to you and experience our relationship as a safe place to have you as a sounding board, then I need you to understand and tell me that you get it. That I'm not inviting you to come in and tell me how to do my job, I am inviting you to give me your perspective, but it's creating a different place and environment for us to have that conversation. It's not telling you that I want you to change your role or the boundaries that we have together. I think that's a really important thing to establish upfront because your board chair may not know how to interpret that. Carol, we know that if boards don't have meaningful, strategic leadership, meaningful conversations, values-driven, conflict conversations to have. Discussions about looking for a way to make a difference in half meaning they're going to go to what you leave them. So if you're leaving them the details, that's the only place they know how to get engaged, so be careful and that's where your board meeting agendas and people talk about generative boards and those kinds of conversations, and those are very important for that reason.
Carol: Those are some of the basic things, but what are some ways that a board chair and executive director working together can really shape an agenda that leads the board to have those more strategic conversations.
Mary: Well I think it all starts with having a good strategic plan frankly. I really think if all you have is the answer to this question. If we were really successful in advancing our mission three years from now, what results will we have created? And if you're bored and you can't answer that question, you've got a measurable three or four results that you're working at a high level to achieve then of course, next question. And if you haven't done this, definitely a board agenda item is ‘what's the board's role, does the board have a role in achieving that particular goal?’ And if it does, what is it? How's it going to organize around it, and what result is the board going to accomplish in this first year toward that. So when that framework of your work is in place, it creates the opportunity to look at how we’re doing, how are things going? Also for board discussion, how is the board functioning as a team in its own development? Just like you should be thinking as an executive leader about your own development and what are you doing? So thinking through those higher-level strategic issues, any particular challenges, making room on the agenda for discussing and learning about what some of the challenges facing the organization are. So you can't say exactly what's coming up for you, but that's what you want to bring up and shape that agenda. You're going to have some ongoing work that you need board decisions around, the regular oversight things. Again, the progress on the strategic goals. So if you have the framework around you, hopefully it makes it easier for you to know what we need to talk about.
Carol: Yeah. I think just even having a practice around, ‘we're gonna consider one higher-level strategic question at every board meeting.’ And also separate out, ‘is this a conversation to have a discussion about this and brainstorm and just explore the issue?’ Are we learning something, are we getting some outside input about this? Or is this a point at which we've spent plenty of time discussing and now we have a concrete proposal and we're going to make a decision, but I think there's some folks who want to move to a decision real quick and others who want to explore longer. So being clear about where you are in the conversation on those strategic issues can be really helpful as well.
Mary: Yes. And I think just going through the process of creating awareness about decision-making, ‘how are we making decisions?’ That could be a great conversation at a board meeting. I had a client who called me and said, come teach our board how to make decisions.
Carol: I had a conversation with someone this morning about that. It’s hard for groups. They come with where they've been, how they've done it in other places, all folks are operating from all sorts of different assumptions. So getting that out on the table and talking through, ‘how have we made decisions? How do we want to do that moving forward?’ It's really important.
Mary: That's right. That was a very interesting challenge for me. It was a long time ago to really look at what we know about decision-making and this was a very high-stakes decision and there was a split vote on the board. And when the board, not knowing Robert's Rules of Order, which I don't recommend using by the way, I do think you need something, but they had thought that if someone calls for the question, you have to stop discussion and that's actually not true. When you stop discussion arbitrarily like that, because one person says let's just vote in this case, resulted in a split vote. And one side of that boat got up and walked out of the room because they felt so discounted and not valued, and they were not ready to make a decision.
Carol: Rules can be useful and they have their limitations. When you're in a messy, controversial conversation, it's probably time to put them aside a bit and just allow the conversation to go.
Mary: Yeah, one thing that I've used is that often boards want to have a high level of agreement and may even be trying to work towards consensus and Sam Kaner has the same ‘consensus continuum’ where, it's like one to eight, like I'm totally for it down to one being ‘I veto this’ and all the different gradations in between and just getting a sense of where people are. I was on a board where we had a high stakes decision, and it really was not one where there was a good solution. So, we agreed ahead of time that as long as we got everyone to a three, which was, ‘I think I can live with this. I don't love it, but I can live with it.’ That was going to be good enough because we knew that we weren't going to get to any solution that folks were going to be super excited about wholeheartedly. I think that it's a good strategy for the board chair particularly to stop discussion sometimes and just test and say, let's just do a sample vote here so we see where people are on this. It allows you to have a more efficient meeting if everybody agrees, but they aren't realizing they're agreeing. Also to allow for some agreements about, ‘well, let's talk about it for another 20 minutes or something.’ I think that the value of pushing for consensus is that people will stretch and be more creative about solutions if it isn't too easy to get there. So that's an opportunity, but not always achievable.
Carol: Yeah. You've talked about a third level where the board chair and the executive are working at what you described as a leadership level. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that kind of working?
Mary: Yeah. Now this is about what they're focusing on when they're together. What I found in my research, and I can give you a link, it's not on the top of my head, but a link to an online journal that I wrote a summary of all this research in so [the listeners] can get a little more on this if they're interested. But it was interesting because the pairs that had the highest level of trust, which we didn't talk about, but it's called identification-based trust. And it's when you don't just know the person, you identify with them and it's a little more personal. Those board chairs and executives were sharing more personal [information], but appropriately personal [information]. Like, one board chair knew the executive director - and this may seem silly, but it was really important - collected teddy bears. So he bought her a teddy bear, little things like that. So the highest level of trust pairs were also the ones who most often were at this third level, which was cumulative by the way, when they got together, they were focusing on what I called management planning, and then leadership. Now at the leadership level, it was as if they were standing side-by-side facing out into the community, but they had engaged the board with them. So whatever that took to be thinking about being more outward on their impact, more focused strategically on that versus some of the pairs that were maybe stuck a little more at the managing level where they were always working on what's going on in the organization, always focused only on the organization, the planning groups were focused on the organization sometimes, but also the board and working together more strategically. The leadership level of pairs was more the characteristic thing was that they were doing all of that, but also very outwardly oriented about constituents, about impact, about things going on in the community. So I'm not sure how to describe it more than that. I'd have to go back to my transcripts - this was a long time ago - and read some of the stories.
Carol: I think that gives a good perspective. You can imagine lifting your head up and looking over to the rise and looking outward rather than just in the details.
Mary: Yeah. So then it was cumulative. It wasn't mutually exclusive. It was just, they never got beyond a certain focus, and nobody agreed to be interviewed that didn't think they were doing a good job together. So in that sense, the research was biased. Cause I didn't have any horrible pairs. I had people say, ‘well, I don't want to be interviewed with my board chair.’ I interviewed them separately, but they just didn't want to invite their board chair to participate.
Carol: So, what would you say more broadly beyond the board chair, the executive, what would you say the executive needs to be cultivating in terms of engaging the whole board?
Mary: Well, I think there are some additional things they overlap with the trust-building, obviously you need to do that. You need to build your relationships one-on-one and do you need to be there collectively with them? Don’t control that you're the only one interacting with the board as part of trust is trusting that your staff can interact with the board without you having to be paranoid and controlling about that. But I think that one of the key issues where I see challenges for executives is in communication. You may have 12 to 15 board members, and every single one of them has a different preference for how you communicate with them. How much should be provided on a particular issue. Some people just want the bottom line, and other people want volumes. This was my experience when I was an executive. So I think being proactive with your board and as you get new board members, having the conversation about ‘what are their preferences,’ but then collectively as a board raising awareness that everybody has different preferences and getting the board to agree with you on how much they want, how they're going to communicate. How do you manage say, email communications? Do you have a subject line flag for action now? Information only when you can get to it? Communication agreements and guidelines that you create together are very powerful and can be very helpful for executives because they're not trying to meet 14 different, 15 different people's needs for different kinds of communication.
Carol: You're talking about emails. I've seen those on agendas and hadn't thought about then transferring it to that information that you're sending out to folks of: is this for your backup, for background decision, I need input right away that that's really key to have some agreements around those so that people can differentiate and really focus in on what's the most important.
Mary: Yeah. And I think the other thing that I said about competence, there's a gal who did some research on the board-executive relationship years ago, Maria Galinsky. She coined the phrase ‘executive assets.’ She said that that's something you want to keep your board informed of all the time. That's where I picked up this idea and then melded it with the concept of competence-based trust. That's important for you to keep in mind, and as you're building trust, then you have the safety of not having surprises, which we all know, but different board members are again interpreting surprise differently. So I think that's important.
Carol: Well I'm going to shift gears a little bit here. On every episode, I play a game, where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I've got one here for you: what's something about you that surprises people when they first hear it?
Mary: Oh boy, something that surprises people when they first hear it…. I'm trying to think. I know that there's something out there that I used to say, ‘well, this one, I don't like to say very often because I don't want to feel like I'm bragging.’ I have five degrees and that surprises people sometimes. Also I don't have a middle name, I used to sing when I was younger. There's a few little things like that that I don't talk about very often.
Carol: Well, thank you for sharing that. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing now?
Mary: Well I'm close to finishing my book. I'm very excited about that. I have the final chapter, which is the wrap-up chapter to write. Then of course it goes through that whole long process of deep editing and doing the book thing, but I'm really excited because this book is based on four executive directors and it's based on a couple of my studies about boards, how boards get better and what do you do about the problems you're having with your board? I'll just quickly say that, what I learned after doing a lot of research and case review was that every problem you have with your board fits into one of three areas: capacity, connection, and culture. So I talk about that, give examples of that, but more importantly for executives, I talk about: what are you going to do about it? So I find that - and you probably do too Carol, in your work - that a lot of times when people have issues with their board, the solution is a capacity solution. Where they're saying, we just come and train my board about their job, their roles and responsibilities. I get this every week and then they'll be better bored. Well, training is important, but it's not going to change behavior. So I'm hoping that my book helps executives understand when that's not going to be enough. And when they need to look a little deeper and what they can do when they do feel that the problem's a little deeper, so it's not so overwhelming.
Carol: We'll have to have you back on when the book is published.
Mary: That would be great.
Carol: So you already mentioned your website and the free resource that people can download about trust building. We'll make sure to put those into the show notes, so folks can find them, but yeah, thanks so much. It was great having you on and great delving into that board chair-executive director relationship that's just so key.
Mary: Well, thank you Carol. Thanks so much for having me. I love that you have a podcast out there too, and that we're able to reach people through this medium. It's very exciting, I think. I just want to wish your listeners well and encourage them to take care of themselves and encourage you to do the same.
Carol: Absolutely! That's so important. Well, thank you so much.
Mary: You are welcome. Bye-bye.
Nonprofit Leadership with Keisha Sitney
There is a brief discussion of police brutality in this episode around 16 minutes in.
In episode 14 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Keisha Sitney, discussed include:
- Why leaders need to be role models for their staff and lead by example
Keisha Sitney is the Chief People Officer for The Y in Central Maryland and the founder of Golden Key Coaching. She works to ensure the people strategies and resources support and match the strategic priorities of the organization. Keisha is an executive leader who has been with the Y for 30 years, both at the national and regional levels. With in-depth experience in coaching, talent management, strategic visioning and planning, and facilitation, Keisha has served in operational roles at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, led the national multicultural leadership development movement as well as served as an internal consultant for C-Suite leaders from Ys across the United States. She holds a Master's Degree in Organization Development from American University and a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Howard University.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Keisha, great to have you on the podcast.
Keisha Sitney: Thank you. Thanks for having me, I’m really honored to be here.
Carol: I want to start out by asking, just to give people some context, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you and how would you describe your work?
Keisha: Well, I have worked for Y the organization for [30 years and I’m] celebrating my 30th year there. And being only 35, it's hard to fathom that I've been in that place 30 years. But in all seriousness, I really enjoy helping people to reach their potential. I think that I started off working with young people, and directing childcare centers, and doing team programs and things, and after decades of operations, I really found that my passion is for the people, the associates, the leaders that are doing the work and helping them make sure that they feel equipped, that they feel energized, that they have all the tools and resources, that they have the confidence to do the work that they're supposed to do. Nonprofit work can be grueling, and sometimes we may give and forget that we have to also pour in to ourselves. So that's a part of my why is making sure that people are able to pour into themselves?
Carol: Yeah. What are some ways that you help people do that?
Keisha: Well, I think that a lot of it is in coaching and reflecting and going through and finding ways to reflect on situations: ‘how did I respond to this, how am I going to do this differently in the future?’ I think that that emotional intelligence and self-awareness is really key. We can get so caught up in the doing of the work, and I find myself telling leaders all the time through our organization: the work is not just the work, it's not just the tactics and the processes. It's how we get things done. It's who we work with in order to move things forward. I think that a part of that is how we are aware of our own selves and how we impact that. So it's important, that critical part of leadership, in my opinion.
Carol: I don't know if leaders are always aware that the folks around them, their staff, are paying very close attention to everything that they're doing. And oftentimes, leaders are relying on what they're saying or what they're communicating in an email, but what they're doing, that is always more powerful, for people to watch behavior and, start to unpack, and doing that reflection so that you can think about, ‘okay, well, these are the things that happened.’ someone's telling me what they saw and that they made some interpretation and it maybe wasn’t what I intended, but that was the impact it had. So it's really key to always remember that, as a leader, you're in the spotlight
Keisha: Yeah, you're accountable, regardless of your intent. Maybe the impact is still being impacted. When you're mentioning leaders and people looking up to you or watching, how do we take off? How do we use it, how do we sharpen the saw? How do we develop ourselves? We tend to say, ‘Oh, we're going to send them to training or we're going to make sure you use your leave,’ but then, ‘Oh, well, no, I'm so important, I've got to work. I've got to be here’ or, ‘call me, I know I'm on vacation, but I'll still be a participant in that meeting.’ And it's risky to, to be the person that says ‘I'm scheduled for leave during that time. Can we reschedule that? I really want to be a part of the conversation, but I've scheduled this time and it's really important to my family.’ Not to say that as a leader, sometimes you don't need to just be there. If it's something that's come up, that's an emergency, but every emergency isn't an emergency. So I think that leading by example and taking care of ourselves and our families is really critical. And it's something that I constantly work on. I can't say I've got it down pat, but it's something that I strive to improve every year.
Carol: Yeah, those are hard boundaries to keep, even when we know that's in our belief, I know that's certainly what I believe and I try to do for myself and then to demonstrate to others. And I have the luxury of being an independent consultant. I used to give the explanation of why I'm on leave. Now I simply say that I'm not available. It's a little easier for me to do that without someone having access to my calendar, et cetera, but it's still hard to maintain those boundaries, and even if you're working, just keep some time for thinking and for analysis, for stepping back and not being in meeting after meeting after meeting as leaders are so often in. Especially now, in COVID, the day can never end sometimes. But I think being aware of what really is an emergency, when is it really critical, and when is it not so that you have those reserves when those emergencies come up.
Keisha: And one thing that I try to remember is, as women, and leaders, and moms, sometimes there's a thought you're supposed to be super-woman or super-mom, and I don't try to ascribe to that. I try to remember that, I'm juggling a lot of balls, but. Every ball is not a glass wall. So, there might be some things that I can let drop and they're going to bounce back and I'll just pick them up wherever they are. Or maybe I can pass it to someone on my team or something like that. But things like my children, or my husband, or my health, those are glass balls that I can't get back. If I drop them, they're shattered. That's been helpful for me to prioritize those things that'll be fine until next week, but this is the priority and takes precedent, so I need to calm myself.
Carol: I love that image because we so often hear ‘I'm juggling a lot of things,’ but remembering that all of those balls that you're juggling don't have the same impact and are not all precious in the same way. You don’t have to be the one juggling all of those things, and you can pull other people in, help them grow by giving them a stretch assignment that you may be in charge of, and maybe it can really help their development.
Keisha: Exactly and people want to help. They want to come through for you. So I think it isn't for us to share those opportunities with others and prioritize for ourselves.
Carol: So, part of your work has been working on building a more multicultural increasing equity within the Y. What would you say has been missing in past efforts to address equity in the nonprofit sector? I mean, there are a lot of organizations that are trying to address that in the outside of their organizations, but I'm talking about inside organizations.
Keisha: We have to start with ourselves internally. If it can't be just a process or a policy, or procedures, we have to start as individuals. We come to work with our own beliefs, the way that we are raised and how we see things. And we are all born with biases and it impacts how we show up and impact how we treat others at work. What we value, who we value. Knowing where people's ideals come from and why they make the decisions they make, or the way they behave. It's helpful in us being more empathetic to one another. I feel like the conversations that are being had nowadays, with the pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19, and the epidemic of racism, people aren't able to ignore it. I think having these uncomfortable conversations, leaning into the discomfort, and committing to doing it again and again, is what's going to make the difference.
I've led multicultural leadership-development efforts at a national level for our organization. And there were some times where I felt like we were just teaching the diverse leader how to be within this larger structure that is not necessarily welcome. So, teach you - as a person of color - to straighten your hair, to get in, get the interview, say the right things, and do all those things. But how do we change the system so that it doesn't expect me to conform in order to be successful, that I can be valued for. However, if I choose to wear my hair this way, and I know that sometimes it seems like a small thing, but those small things, they just add up and there seem to be many ways where, as a woman of color, I felt like I haven't always been able to bring my whole self to work. So I do think that it's important that we allow folks to bring themselves, and their culture, and their beliefs, to work and not have to hide who they are.
Those conversations are key. And in that leadership development that you're talking about, it's essentially like we're refining code switching or refining, basically teaching whiteness. I feel like that's probably replicated across not only programs within organizations, but many, many programs that are offered as not capacity-building, but just different levels. So that's essentially what the program is about. How is that really helping us get to equity. We need to teach white people to be okay with people who are different. I know that there's a lot of books and things talking about being anti-racist. But we have to continue to just work on dismantling the systems. It's not just teaching one group how to be, or how to respond. It's educating ourselves on how things got to be the way they are. And they didn't just start with us here. Here's the impact of those things, here's how this group might've benefited from these laws and these systems. And then here's how this group may not have benefited or how they might've been kept back as a result of those. And then getting people to make change, how do we bring it to the forefront and then start to dismantle it. But it's in the long haul. It was built over time and it won't be dismantled overnight either.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting. I was listening to one of Brené Brown's podcasts, she now has two, and I'm not remembering who the person that she was talking to was, but the person she was interviewing was talking about how, when organizations try to start working on diversity, equity, and inclusion. They'll often go to the policies, the practices, and she described that, as the transactional part of the work. And that was interesting to me - because so often it ends up being posed as somewhat of an either/or of either you're doing transactional, or you're doing transformational and what she was saying, which I found so interesting was you have to have both. So you have to deal with all those practices and systems and how that's all embedded in the code of how we work. That's not enough, it's not sufficient. You also have to work at the relational level and then other work. We're trying to come at this from a conscious part of the brain that actually is not triggering a lot of this. That so much is about the unconscious bias that we've been taught over years. And how that's embedded in our limbic system.
Keisha: It is. We have to do something to consciously stop it and be aware that, ‘okay, this is what I'm thinking.’ This is what I'm hearing. This is what I'm saying, what I'm replicated. I found that one-on-one conversations have also been very, very helpful with - and I can't speak for every person who's like me - but I can tell you how this impacts me. I can tell you how this impacts my children. I can tell you how this impacts my family, and it's exhausting to share. There have been times when I'm like, ‘I'm tired of educating everyone else. I'm just going to do me.’ I've got to preserve myself.
Diversity fatigue is a real thing. I’ve found relationships that are important to me and I've really tried to develop those, whether it's professionally or personally, but by sharing, this is the impact of this. When I hear of another police killing a black person, I think about how that could be my son who is 17 now, who's 6’ 4” and it could be my daughter, who's 17 and just a black, young woman. It could be me, it could be my husband. And sharing conversations with folks. One of my colleagues said, that really hit me when you talked about your kids and my kids, because it's always, that's that family over there, but it's like, we have these things in common, but yet our kids can be doing the same exact thing and mine will be killed and Rose’s will not. So I think that that's one way that I've tried to personally make connections with folks and help them to see things in a different light.
Carol: Yeah. I appreciate that. And I appreciate what you're saying, that there are just sometimes when I'm not going to engage. I need to preserve myself.
Keisha: Yeah. I can't always engage in conversations, and it's not always fruitful. There are some folks who, it doesn't matter what you say, and I'm not willing to sacrifice myself for those types of conversations.
Carol: Yeah. And sometimes I find it can be helpful to identify some bright spots, or people who are operating under those same circumstances or constraints, within the same context, but somehow are having better results. In your work, have you encountered some of those bright spots because I think that that's a place to start working from.
Keisha: Yeah. I mean, I've encountered quite a few bright spots. We have a movement of leaders of color throughout the national Y and we call it our multicultural leadership development. It's mentors, coaches, and supports. And we've created safe spaces, similar to the employee resource group models where you have groups of people who may be able to come together and work on policies. You've got the affinity groups, those types of things, but ours is more of a mixture. Not just African-Americans with African-Americans. So you might see African-Americans, Hispanic, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders. There you might have indigenous folks of which we need to improve our numbers versus nationally as an organization with regards to leadership, reflecting the communities we serve. But for those of us who are members of those communities, finding the commonalities and being able to support one another, educate one another, and to be with one another, and developing our own cultural competence, just because you're a person of color doesn't mean that you're going to be culturally competent as well.
The things that we're asking from other groups that we should be able to model those things as well. So it's definitely been a great support system. And we've seen a lot of folks who've been able to engage and advance their careers within our organization. In connecting the dots where they're not just at one small organization, that they can be connected to our larger network of organization. So really a lot of success there. We have seen some increases in our numbers nationally of leaders that are at the top level, in the C-suite CEO position that are of color. But then we've also had some challenges that go on the other side of it. We've done a lot more work on bias and undoing institutional racism. Anti-racism work, a lot more equity work and looking at the systems. And I don't think that that's something that, as national non-profits, a lot of us do. Recognizing that we are a part of those systems that we talk about, a part of this country. We have the same kind of history as we've evolved in these 175 years that our country has evolved. So, I think we're doing a lot and there are a lot of folks who are committed to it. There's much more to be done.
Carol: Sure. Sure. And for the Y particularly, you're a federated system and that can - I'm guessing - make it particularly challenging, but there are many other national organizations that are set up that same way. Can you just briefly say what a federated system is, and then maybe talk about how some of this work has either been able to move forward or, or been challenging.
Keisha: Sure. We're federated meaning each organization, each Y, is its own independent 501 c3. You're all members of the national YMCA, and there are some guidelines that we need to adhere to in order to be a member. But we each have our own boards of directors, our own financial leaders, those kinds of things. And we can make our own decisions. There are a lot of benefits to that because the work that's happening in each community is different. So we don't have to be bound by some national perspective or priorities that are not appropriate for our community. The benefits of being a larger, federated organization, our brand is something that's recognizable that we work hard to have some things that we say are in common and that when you go to a Y, no matter where you are, that there should be these types of things. For us, that healthy, living youth development and social responsibility are three of our big core areas that we do our work.
Carol: So there was a second part to that question. I'm just also wondering, with that federated system, there's also the autonomy of each organization. So, trying to move forward, something at the national level may take longer because you essentially have to persuade or pull in every organization within the system.
Keisha: We're a very diverse country. We have, in some ways, a lot of division and something that we all believe in. And then there are some areas where we're not all on the same side and our organization is not any different from that. so for us to all rally around the same thing, it is not always very easy. It can be painstaking, but I know that there are some things we do believe in equity and inclusion as a national organization. We believe in the safety of children and young people. And there's just certain things that are no-brainers for us. But how that gets implemented in each area is sometimes very different and can be difficult. I'm not speaking on behalf of our organization nationally. It is an area that I've seen that, when we’ve pulled together, it's very impactful.
Carol: You've actually developed your own leadership model. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what you've found wanting and other models that spurred you to create your own?
Keisha: Sure! Thank you for asking about it. It's interesting because I've coached leaders for many, many years, and also had a lot of focus on learning and development. I feel like we tend to highlight leaders who seem as if they arrived; as if they just showed up and they were perfect, these flawless leaders and I've done presentations, and I've done a little riff on Beyonce’s flawless music. We don't really highlight leaders who mess things up or who are learning. When I see someone who's in a position that's at a high level I think, ‘man, how do I get there?’ I don't hear about the times that they failed four times, that they were rejected for six other positions that they've gone for, you just get to see where they've shown up. So I really try to encourage my colleagues to share some of their failures, some of their flaws so to speak. The model is that leaders are flawed and they are not perfect, but we do learn from things. So the [idea is that] we're failing forward. Everyone makes mistakes. And how do we utilize those to propel ourselves and our learning, or whatever it is that we learned from those failures. Then maybe we prevent some of the failures in the future, or maybe they'll be a little smaller. But recognizing that all of us will fail at some point and how we fail forward? the lesson for lifelong learners that we constantly have to sharpen that saw, we have to learn more. Part of it is reflecting and getting better, learning about what we do and how we can improve, learning about our field, our craft, just continuing to [learn]. There's no point where you've just arrived so we need to always be lifelong learners. The A is for authentic! I think authenticity in leadership is very important for us. If you want people to follow you, you want them to trust you. People don't want to follow someone who doesn't seem genuine. And a part of that authenticity is [admitting] that, you’re not always right. I may not be perfect, but sharing more of our why, our story, why we do things or what's motivating our decisions and things like that. Sharing a little bit of a vulnerability. So if we were to talk about Brenè Brown, vulnerability is just super important. So I think that that's all tied to authenticity. And then the W is for work. You can't be a leader without doing the work. You’ve gotta roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. I do believe in working smarter, not harder. I'm not going to try and take the hard way, but in leadership, you definitely have to put in the work wherever it's needed. That's my model: leaders of LAW.
Carol: I love it. I think it was one thing - I don't think much goes viral on LinkedIn - but this one probably did where someone actually wrote their failure resume. Yeah, so when you write your bio for when you're speaking or whatnot, you rarely include: “and right before I got that job, I was the runner-up for four of them.” [You don’t include] where you were laid off here, or where you got restructured out of that job at that. We're resilient. Those are the things that we need to reiterate that, especially with this generation coming up and I hate to sound like the old person in the room, but you want folks to know it's okay, you gotta be resilient. We don't know what's going to happen next, then COVID, and what this next iteration will be, but we will band together. We will be resilient. We'll make it through and figure it out.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think folks have a lot more resilience than they realize, and it's part of it. It's looking back and seeing, ‘that kind of sucked at that time, but I picked myself back up and got back on the horse’ or whatever and [you need to] try it again. And I think just the way our brains are wired, we learn so much more from those failures than we do from all those successes. So, we have such a negativity bias that those are definitely more memorable. But then not only keep it as our own private learning, but I think what you're saying is, for leaders to actually share those with the folks that they're working with so that folks really know that it is okay. We don't want to make a lot of mistakes. Nobody wants to make mistakes. But on the other hand, if there's a culture where making mistakes is punished, then it just has so much impact on folks willing to take risks. That has to be there for innovation [so it] can really have a chilling effect. So yeah, pretending that you're perfect, it's exhausting for the person who wants to work with that anyway. It's not realistic. It doesn't have to be perfect. We're not expecting it to be our final product, but you're going to put this bad boy out, see how it works, and we'll fix it. We'll continue to hone in on it.
Carol: So, you allow people to be okay with, like you said, innovating and we don't want to make huge mistakes, but we know that's a part of the process. Then we can build our confidence in knowing that it's a part of the process that I may stumble.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think, also for organizations to look at who's allowed to make those mistakes within the organization and who it has higher consequences for. And I'm sure in most cases there's probably already research that shows this, but the more male and white you are, probably the more you can get away with. Yup. Very much so. And I didn't necessarily see it myself. Being in HR, coming from operations in so many places that I'm really drawn to making sure that we're consistent with how we handle those situations. Like you said, are we doing the same thing if the person is white and male that we would have done if they were young and female, or a person of color, or something like that. It’s super important that we have that consistency.
Carol: Yeah, well I want to shift focus a little bit. At the end of every episode, I do a little game where I ask a random icebreaker question. So, what is one family tradition that you'd like to carry on in the future?
Keisha: I created a family tradition of cookie baking for the holidays, and I'm not a person who cooks nor bakes. So it was interesting for me to come up with that, but I just love the idea of my children coming together, and having other cousins over, and us getting flour all over the place and making cookies from scratch. It's just a great way to set the holiday season off. It's a big mess, and every year I say, ‘why am I doing this?’ but I'm really trying to figure out how to do it during COVID. I'm like, ‘okay, pass out flour and it could be making an idea, or you do something via zoom. It's definitely one of the traditions that I hope my children pass on and that they continue to do it.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I hope I get a box of cookies.
Keisha: You may not want them! They've gotten better over the years. Like I said, I'm not a baker but, fail forward! I've gotten much better, but I've been failing forward for some years.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much.
Keisha: Thank you. Appreciate you, Carol. Good to talk to you.
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.