Values based strategic planning
In episode 70 of Mission: Impact, Carol goes solo to discuss:
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Carol Hamilton: Welcome to episode 70 of the Mission Impact Podcast. To mark this milestone. I'm going solo. 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.
Today I'm gonna talk about my favorite topic, strategic planning. It is the main thing that I do with organizations, and I often go on other people's podcasts to talk about it, but I don't always talk about it. So one thing I'd like to start with are what are the guiding principles that really undergird the way that I approach strategic planning?
The first is being collaborative. I really am looking for a way to help organizations create a shared understanding by bringing all of their stakeholders together in a meaningful way that brings their input, brings their voice into the process, and then enables a smaller group, usually the staff and board to collaborate to define what the organization's future is going to be. And that starts by, usually by looking back, taking stock of where you are currently, and then looking forward a couple years and saying, okay, given that our North star, our mission and our vision for what's different, what we want to be different in the world is this, what are the things that we need to focus on over the next couple years and put our energy towards, to move us closer to that?
I also take a strengths-based approach where I'm not looking to come in and assess them on all the things they're doing wrong that naturally will come up in the conversations. People will have ideas about what could be strengthened, areas for improvement, but really helping people recognize the strengths that they have as an organization.
What are the resources that they're building from? , Makes it a much more joyful and fun process, , to build on those strengths rather than only being focused on what needs to be fixed or what needs what, what, , needs to be addressed and through that participatory process. In addition to integrating that participation, I also want to focus on how we are bringing an equity lens?
How are we integrating the kind, the, the notion of equity into every step of the process? And with that, also bringing a cultural humility. There's a lot of talk about people building cultural competence, but I really appreciate the concept of cultural humility more. I think there's certainly some basic competence that people can build, but you're always, there's always gonna be blind spots.
There's always gonna be things that you don't know about a different culture, a different, whether it's at the, different individual. The organizational culture, the cultural context that organization is working with, the different cultures that are represented within the groups. And then with that equity lens, really making sure that, who's being represented in all of that, the gathering of information and the participation.
Create space for folks who don't have as much power, may not feel as comfortable speaking up to feel safe, feel so, feel safer in contributing their perspective, , into the process.
And building on that, I do wanna talk about a couple different misconceptions that I think people have about strategic planning.
And a few things that I've seen organizations get. Might be able to do better with, since I just talked about being strength-based, I was talking about getting wrong, but what they might, , think about or think about differently when they approach planning. And I think one of those major misconceptions, or maybe it's not even a misconception, maybe it was the conventional wisdom, some 10, 20, 30 years ago and, and is still in parts of the sector that the.
The board or the leadership team and the leadership team and the board is quite unquote the head of the organization. That's where strategy lives and I really see it as a partnership with the stakeholders of the organization. Definitely a partnership between board and staff to decide on what the future of the organization's gonna look like.
And that just because you sit at the board table, just because you are part of a leadership team, Anoint you somehow with a more strategic capacity than someone who works directly, at the front lines of your organization is more of an individual contributor. I really believe fundamentally that everyone can contribute to that bigger picture.
It may take some structure and some guided conversations, cuz I think it's not the natural place. Most people don't. naturally are in that strategic thinking mode, but you can bring people there through a series of guided conversations, which is the whole purpose of a strategic planning process and what a consultant can bring, to help people step into that strategic space and think longer term, bigger picture.
Fundamentally, when people have a part in creating the thing, they're much more likely to want to help move it forward. So that is essentially how you build buy-in. You build buy-in by having people at the table with you to create the plan. And then I think a big reason that folks choose not to do a strategic plan is that they may have been part of a process in the past that took a long time, took a lot of resources, and then was just a plan on the shelf.
Or perhaps today, more likely hidden in some folder on the computer and wasn't referenced again. It was, where's that Dropbox link to that document? , and nobody has it anymore, and, and it's not integrated into people's day-to-day work. And I did a workshop recently on strategic planning and I really appreciated some of the simple steps that participants talked about to mitigate this concern of how do we really integrate the plan into our work?
How do we implement, how do we do that failure to operationalize a plan is, is, can be just the biggest sticking point to many plans. And I think the first is probably the simplest, just having regular meetings about your progress on the plan. And there are a number of ways that that could, that could show up.
It could be a meeting specifically about the plan. It could be, an item on a, an agenda, , on at your regular meetings every, at a certain cadence. Maybe it's once a month, maybe it's not every, every. Meeting, but, but, at a, at a certain cadence that you agree on that makes sense for your organization.
And then, another suggestion that I thought was so important is, taking the time to celebrate, celebrate Progress, and celebrate those small wins. We're such an action oriented culture. We're such a move on to the next culture that we forget to take a breath and pat ourselves on the back and say, Look, we did this thing, we checked this thing off the list.
We've moved this, this, we've moved a little closer to this milestone. and let's celebrate in some way. I mean, the simplest way that I do this on a daily basis is that at the end of the day, the beginning of the day, I write a to-do list. At the end of the day, I write a to-do list. What did I do?
And for those implementations, really thinking about that, you've got your bigger plan, but thinking about, creating an implementation plan that's really with a shorter timeframe. your bigger picture plan, maybe at a three to five year timeframe. Three to five big goals that you're working towards, but then your implementation plan is either in three or six months or a year, whatever makes sense for your organization.
That really goes into who will do what by when. And I would add it's not just about measuring progress, it's also about having the time and space to consider what the goal means for the organizations. What are the implications? How are we interpreting? What adjustments do we make?
And there are four key questions when you put that thing on the agenda, when you put strategic planning on the agenda, or you wanna have a check-in meeting. Four key questions that I would offer you to use to frame that meeting would be, what have we done that we meant to do? In other words, what can we check off the list?
What, what progress have we made? What were things that we did that we did not plan to do, but we did and it had good results. The world is constantly changing and shifting. A new opportunity may have popped up. You took action on it. Celebrate that.
What did we plan to do? But we don't need to do it anymore. Things have shifted. We recognize that it doesn't, it no longer fits today's realities. What can we let go of? And is there anything we need to add to our plan given today's new realities? At each point we're saying, okay, where were we? Where have we come?
What's our current state? Where do we want to go and all the steps on where we want to go. Are they still fitting our current assessment of today's reality? And so those action steps that you may, may have set a year ago at that retreat, probably that's the part that's gonna get updated, on a continual basis because it will recognize that progress.
It will adjust to the new reality. And you'll have that living docent that we so often talk about and so infrequently actually implement. Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me. You can find the full transcript of this episode as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/show notes.
And I'd like to thank Isabelle Strauss Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as Cindy Rivera Grazer of a hundred Ninjas for her production. And I would love it if you would take a minute or two to rate and review mission impact on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
It helps other people find the podcast and we definitely really appreciate it. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Get that Money Honey with Rhea Wong
In episode 67 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Rhea Wong discuss:
Rhea helps nonprofits raise more money. Though she has deep experience with institutional, corporate and event fund-raising, she is passionate about major individual donors and helping organizations to establish individual giving programs. She has raised millions of dollars in private philanthropy and is passionate about building the next generation of fundraising leaders. She has become a leader in the New York nonprofit community and is a frequent educational commentator in the media. She has been recognized with the SmartCEO Brava Award in 2015 and NY Nonprofit Media’s 40 under 40 in 2017. Rhea lives in Brooklyn with her husband. When she is not raising money for causes she loves, she can be found hosting her podcast, Nonprofit Lowdown, promoting her newest book Get that Money, Honey! or onstage as a newbie stand-up comedian in downtown Brooklyn.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Rhea Wong. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Rhea and I talk about how founders have to shift their thinking if they want their organization to grow, what rocks and pebbles have to do with nurturing donor relationships, and how accidental fundraisers can build their confidence.
Well, welcome Rhea. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Rhea Wong: Thanks so much, Carol. It's so fun to be here with you.
Carol: I have to say thank you for back in the day when you actually had me on your podcast before I had started mine, and it was part of what helped me have the courage to step out, and launch my podcast. So thank you for that.
Rhea: Oh, you're so welcome. I love it. I feel like the more the merrier we all need. good voices out here sharing knowledge. So awesome.
Carol: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I like to start out each conversation with what drew you to the work that you do and what would you describe as your why, what, what motivates the work that you're, that you're focused on?
Rhea: So sort of different iterations. So I started as a 26 year old executive director in New York City. And first at 26, I knew everything right? But in retrospect, I don't know whose idea it was to hire a 26 year old. Anyway, I talk about this a lot, but on my first day on the job, I did two Google searches. Google Search. One was, what did this executive director do? and Google search too was, how do you fundraise? Because I was that clueless.
And so over the course of 12 and a half years, my team and I built up the organization from 250,000 a year to just a little bit under 3 million in private funds in New York City. And it was a great ride and, and I really credit a lot of folks helping me in a really great team, but I also just thought, why did it take me 12 and a half years to figure this out? Like I'm a smart person. Surely this should be.
And what I found is that a lot of people have been put in these positions as executive directors or even development directors without ever having received formal training. I called them accidental fundraisers, right? And so in the next iteration of my career, I am doing it for the 26 year old me that was super clueless. I mean, I Googled, I got meetings with anyone who would meet with me. I sort of cobbled together what I would consider an MBA in. And fundraising. And the truth is the world needs a lot of healing and the folks who are doing the healing don't have time to waste to figure it out, like I had to figure out how to fundraise to bring the resources to the work. And so I do what I do because I remember what it feels like to be in. A seat and feel such a sense of responsibility and yet feel so clueless and alone in how I'm supposed to do this.
Carol: At least at that point there was Google for you to tap into folks beforehand, probably were, were flailing around and, and having less, less easy access to, to ways to learn. But I love you. Taking that and really streamlining it cuz, right. Why, why should it take anyone that long to really get good at what a it's a basic function for most nonprofits. Although it's rarely why people go into the field or go in and, or want to do the work that they're doing. it's often around. They wanna move a mission forward. They have a, they, there's something that, I was talking to somebody yesterday and she got started because X, Y, Z thing really pissed her off and those kinds of things. Mm-hmm. are the things that draw people into the field or have them start organizations or join organizations cuz they wanna make that difference and yet without money, without funds to and resources. There. There, there's. you can pursue a mission, but you're just so much more limited in your scope. So really being able to step into fundraising is so important. So what would you say to people? What are they, what are the first things that they have to learn as they're, getting, getting better at fundraising and a, and advocating for their cause?
Rhea: Before I answer that question, can I just respond to Sure. Absolutely. Cause I think it's really important if you're 100% right and this is usually the curse of the founder. So in, in a sense, I'm a little bit of a founder as well, but nobody starts a nonprofit cuz they're excited about fundraising. I totally get that right. On the flip side though, I think people who start nonprofits have to really come to terms with the fact that they're starting a small business. Mm. And a small business does not run without revenue.
And so, As you are growing an organization, especially if you are the executive director, you have to recognize that what got you here won't get you there, right? Your job is no longer, I, I like to say pet the panda bears as just a. a cheeky way, like your job is not to pet the panda bears anymore. Your job is to bring in the resources to hire people, to pet the panda bears. And where I see a lot of folks stumble, particularly founders, is that they have not upgraded in their own minds what the job is now. Like they realize, they don't realize that the scope of responsibility has changed because they're so connected to this vision and identity of themselves. It's like, well, I'm just the one who pets the panda bear.
And so that's where we see a lot of founder syndrome, like people who failed to build an institution around the idea. And so without a clear strategy for revenue, without an institution, you just have a hobby really. It could be a well-funded hobby, but it's really just a hobby. And so that's for all the folks out there listening, especially the, the founders in the eds, you are my people and I love you to death, but also. You have to run it like a business because it is a business.
Anyway, To get to your point though the question about what are the things that people have to know I mean, there's so many things, but I think so many things, right? So many things. But, one of the first training I do with the folks that I work with is around money mindset. So I think. Carol, I know you and I spoke about this, but we operate in such a scarcity mindset in the nonprofit sector. Like, oh, we can't afford that. And even the word is, is a negative, a nonprofit, right? We don't have enough time. We don't have enough money, we don't have enough staff, we don't have enough. No, we can't, can't, can't. And so what that does is it puts us in a survival mindset. And so when we get into a survival mindset, that's when we get reactive. That's when we get stressed, that's when we get transactional and we treat people like they're walking ATMs. And so the thing that I really want to get across to people, is that the job is not about chasing people down and extracting money from them. The job is to attract. Partners and inspire them and compel them to give because who they are in the world is intertwined with what you do as an organization and that there's an ever-growing cycle of growth and learning and interconnection.
Carol: I was just talking to someone recently about what they termed the ladder of engagement and, and I was actually reflecting on the number of. Newsletter, email newsletter lists that I'm on for nonprofits. And when I receive the number of invitations that I have to donate mm-hmm. But how few invitations I get in a really concrete way of how to get more involved and, and volunteer with them so that they, I would actually learn more about the organization. They would learn more about me. to me, to my mind, I probably would also be more motivated to give more versus mm-hmm. the 10th email that they've sent me for donations. So I love that. What you're talking about, about that interconnection.
Rhea: Well, the other thing too is I think, gosh, Cal even began, but so many nonprofit people have no expertise in marketing, which like, why would you? Right? I mean, that's not what the job is. But there's a concept of marketing of a nurturer sequence, and what a nurturer sequence is, is you're literally nurturing the relationship. And so what. Talk about a lot with my nonprofit clients if you have to think of all the communications that you're putting out as pebbles and rocks. Pebbles are the nurture sequence. Pebbles are the stories that you tell. Pebbles are the invitations to come to an event or volunteer or anything that builds trust. The rocks are the actual tasks. The thing, the mistake that I see people making all the time is that all they're throwing out are rocks. All they're throwing out are asks without the pebbles of building the trust and nurturing relationship, and fundamentally, Trust equals donations. So if you haven't done the hard work of building my trust in you and building my relationship to the organization, you have not earned the right to ask me for a donation because you have not gotten the trust.
Carol: And I, the, the image of people throwing rocks at me is not very inviting.
Rhea: That's true. Well, just think about like a pond, right? Like a big splash. So your, your rocks are like, they make a bigger splash, but you need the little pebbles to agitate the surface. I dunno if this is the best analogy, but the point being that you can't be throwing rocks out all of the time because people get tired of that. And also you. Established enough trust. You haven't established a relationship. You were just talking to me as if you're just extracting and like, by the way, 10 emails sent to me to ask me for money does not make it more likely that I'm gonna send you money. Right.
Carol: Right. And no. I haven't necessarily responded as they want me to. But, and probably because it is feeling transactional on my end.
Rhea: I mean, I think the other mistake, and I think it's a function of being so deep in this scarcity mindset, is that fundraisers, and I get it, fundraisers are getting it from both sides, right? They'll probably have an ED sitting on top of them or a board sitting on top of them being like, bring in the money. And then you have donors on the other side and, and you're just, you're in the middle. We so often think about what we want as a nonprofit. I like my fiscal year. I wanna do this. Me, me, me, me, me. It's the rare nonprofit that thinks about the donor. Like, what does the donor want? What does the donor experience, what do they want to achieve with their money? Right? Like, we all want something in the world. Good or bad, right? Like maybe I care about the pan bears, or maybe I wanna think of myself as the person who is in conservation or whatever it is. But how often do nonprofits actually ask me like, what do I want to achieve with my money? Like, why would I give to this organization and how is it aligned with my values and my purpose? And so, I think we as fundraisers need to think of ourselves as facilitators of our donors' experience. we're, as philanthropic advisors as opposed to, extractors of resources.
Carol: And I love that idea of a facilitator of an experience because that that would, if, if someone were thinking about it that way, they'd provide. different ways to have experiences with the organization and, and not just that one that keeps getting, drum drum, drum on. So, that facilitation is a really interesting idea.
Rhea: I mean, it's like, why, like why is Disneyland the happiest place on Earth? Like it's, and they're making money and make no mistake about it. But I would submit. it's because they've really thought about how to make a magical experience. And when you go to Disneyland, you're essentially buying an emotional experience, right? And you're like, what? Fine, go on the rides, whatever. But you're buying awe. You're buying magic in a sense. And I think as nonprofits we really have to orient ourselves to asking like, what kind? Experience, what value are we offering our donor? By being a donor with these NPSs? That doesn't mean I get the experience of getting like 10 more emails asking me for money. Like, that's not, that's not why I give money. And like also, I'm actually, I'm also pissed off at the donor. Like when I give to particularly political, political campaigns, I'm calling you. Hey, what's the thanks I get for donating? Oh, I get 50 million more people asking me for money cuz you sold my email address. Like that does not inspire trust and confidence.
Carol: Amen to that. Amen to that. Where have you seen organizations do a good job in creating that experience? Maybe that magical experience that you're talking about.
Rhea: Honestly I don't know that I, I can point to an exemplar. Let me think. I mean, look, how about good? Let's say good. I mean, what, I'm, I'm just gonna, everyone says, I'm just gonna call it Charity Water does a great job, and I, I'll tell you why. So, From a communication standpoint, most nonprofits put too much information on their website. It's very confusing. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. When you go to Charity Water, it's very clean, it's very straightforward, and they answer three questions. What problem are you solving? Why should I donate to you? So it's about competency and transparency and what's in it for me. And so if you scroll down and it's like, oh, well you can be part of our, peer-to-peer giving thing and it's really about building a community around an idea.
And so, I mean, I think Charity Water probably does the best job of understanding that. Are designing around a donor experience and a donor emotion as opposed to making it about them and about talking about what they need or what they want. Because in a sense it's sort of irrelevant. And like, here, I wanna be really, really clear because I, I know I might get some pushback here from people who are donor-centric versus community-centric. And I, I'm not gonna step into those muddy waters. Fundamentally, what I'm advocating is, is being empathy centric, right? We all have stories, we are all the main characters of our own personal movie, and there's space for all of it. But if I'm a donor and I don't feel appreciated, if I don't feel. Like I am part of a community. If I feel like you're just looking at me like I'm a walking track book, I'm gonna take my track and go somewhere else.
Carol: Actually as you were talking, I was, I was thinking about the whole move towards community centric fundraising, which I'll, I'll have to admit, I don't know a ton about. But I like that rephrase of empathy centric fundraising. So it's, and that can be e e e empathetic for any of the people involved in the whole experience.
Rhea: That's exactly right. I mean, I think there are a lot of things that I agree with in community-centric fundraising. Like, I think, I think that there have been a lot of toxic behaviors in the sector around, treating the donor like they're a savior. Like that's not, we, we're not, we don't need saviors, we need partners. But the thing that makes me very uncomfortable about community centric fundraising, and I'm part of, slack channels and all that is. There feels like there's an undercurrent of hostility towards people who have wealth. And I just wanna be really careful that we are not falling into this trope of like, well, rich people are bad and they did bad things to get their money. I mean, the truth is like most wealthy people in this country are first generation wealth creators. They're entrepreneurs. They made their money. Most of them did not do bad things to get their money. And, and yet I think in American society, the last great prejudice is against people who are wealthy. Like, we see villains that are wealthy and I mean, the truth is money is not. Money doesn't change anything. Money is just an amplifier. So if you are a good, generous person with no money, you'll be an even better, more generous person with money. If you were a stingy miserly person without money, you're probably gonna still be a miserly stingy person with money. Right? So I fundamentally believe that money is an amplifier of what's already there. And so this went on a weird tangent, but I, I, I would really caution. Who are talking about community centered fundraising to be careful that we're not demonizing people of wealth.
Carol: And just for folks, can you just give a brief definition of what community centered fundraising is?
Rhea: So it's an interesting model of fundraising. It's coming out of the Pacific Northwest, and it's really a reaction. The tradition of donor-centric fundraising, which is about making the donor the hero of the story and the center of the story, and really putting the community at the center of the conversation. I would actually Nuance it a little bit. I think the work needs to be at the center of the conversation. And I think of it like stone soup. Like everyone has a part to play. Everyone can bring a little something and we create something better together. And so, and I think in the Community-centric fundraising world. I think there are a lot of interesting conversations that are happening, particularly among younger philanthropists and what their responsibility and obligation is to decolonize wealth. So I think there's a lot of interesting ideas coming out, a lot of which I do agree with. I think the tricky piece for me is that I've actually never seen it done in practice. To me, there's a lot of theory behind it. But anyway, if there's anyone out there listening who has seen this done in practice, let me know. I'd be thrilled to talk to you and possibly have you come on my podcast.
Carol: I mean, I think there are a lot of pieces in that, where folks are questioning a lot of them. I'm strongly in the commonly held wisdom about this, that, or the other in the nonprofit sector, which I think is really healthy to mm-hmm. to critique that and, and look at it and say, how can we do this differently? But I appreciate we're, we're back to stones and rocks and pebbles with your stone soup of everyone having a part in it, and how can we all work together. So, and, and talking about how money is an amp amplifier, I would say I've, I feel like I've heard power described that way as well. That you really, know, really learn about someone's character when they have power, mm-hmm. and it wasn't, isn't the power necessarily that did it. Their character that they bring to them, that level of responsibility that they have. What do you, what would you say helps folks who may be reluctant or accidental fundraiser fundraisers, what, what are some things that help them be more successful in stepping into that? You talked about money mindset. Are there other things that folks need to address? Is to, to become more confident, more comfortable in that?
Rhea: Well, you can definitely take my course. So I am a fundraising accelerator. But it's so funny. When I started fundraising I heard this commonly held piece of advice, like, listen for the gift, listen for the gift. And I was like, I don't really know what that means. And the truth is, giving people the space to talk about themselves and what they want in the world and what they desire and what and who they are in the world is really important. What's equally as important, actually more important is that. There are really three levels of listening. The first level is I'm listening with an, with an agenda, and unfortunately that's where most of us reside, right? So I'm listening to you, Carol, but really I'm just filtering through with my own agenda and for what I want to hear. The second is listening with no agenda, so really just being fully present. And then the third is listening for what's not being said. And I'm gonna credit Jason Frack for this. I did not come up with this. I think as a fundraiser, if you are positioning yourselves not as an extractor of resources, but as a facilitator of an experience, then I think you calm your lizard brain enough to at least try to get to level two listening. Because at the end of the day, this is a, this is a people business, and if people don't like you, if people. Trust you. If people don't feel connected to you, you're probably not gonna go very far in this business. and I, as much as I think that people like to put a lot of philosophy and psychology behind it, the truth of the matter is people do business with people that they like, the people that they know, people that they like, people that they trust. And so be the person who is. Trustworthy. Be the person who's likable, be the person that people want to spend time with. I mean, it's pretty basic.
Carol: And that what, what, what, what is not being said? So I'm trying to think of how I can put a question together, so what's not being said here that you would wanna tell people about?
Rhea: The idea of what's not being said is actually really, really hard to do. It takes a lot of energy and it takes, and here I'm gonna get a little boo cuz I'm a Californian. That's just how we are. But it takes quieting the voices in your own head. How often are we really fully present? And so what's not being said? It's your reading tone, right? Like we communicate a lot with our voices, we communicate a lot with our body language. We communicate a lot with our energy. And so if I'm in a meeting with you and your, your mouth is saying one thing and your body language is saying another, like, do I have the courage to be like, Carol, I'm just, can we just pause for a second? It seems to me that, you're saying, And I'm getting something else. Can you tell me what's happening for you? But it takes a level of sensitivity and a willingness to step into something outside of the script to have that authentic human conversation.
Carol: That's, that's taking a risk, right? Because the in, in pausing, noticing, asking the person about it. And then I think where I, when I've done things like that, where I've made the mistake is that I haven't then just been quiet. Hmm. To allow them to decide whether they not wanna say anything
Rhea: Like, we're so afraid of silence, right? I mean, I, I'm, I'm guilty as well, but we, we like to rush in cuz like, we don't want uncomfortable silence. The other thing too that I would really say, particularly to new fundraisers out there is please, please, please, please stop the pitch. Ditch the pitch people. Now let me nuance that. I think it's important to have a pitch for you. Have the salient points boiled down in a concise way. That part of the pitch I agree with. The part of the pitch I disagree with is how we teach people. Like you just need to like to throw that pitch out at people and like to splatter them with it, right? I mean, I've raised millions of dollars. There's no magical combination of words. I'm going to say that. It's going to convince you to give me a gift. It is. It's a conversation and so I think the reason. especially young fundraisers, rely very heavily on the pitches that they're nervous about. And so instead of actually connecting as a human, I'm just gonna memorize like these, five slides and exactly what I'm gonna say to avoid making a mistake or avoid an uncomfortable situation or avoid being vulnerable myself.
Carol: I feel like that is something that, really, could be applied in so many different situations. I'm thinking of it. instances where folks are going to see their legislator or, or legislative staff too, and they go in, they've got their talking points, and they're gonna talk at the person. Or even, someone who's a consultant or vendor or whatnot, comes in and gives you a pitch on why they're the great ones and you should hire them. And I think of a situation where I was working in an organization and we were looking to do branding work. And we had a couple different firms come in and one came in very much with the pitch model. They just. Gave us a fancy slide deck and talked to us. The other folks came in. They had nothing. They had no presentation. They spent the time asking us questions, listening, and responding. We began how they would work with us, but really Their approach was learning more about us. And I feel like that, or in, in sales, in fundraising, in advocacy, all these different arenas where you're, where your ultimate goal is to try to influence someone. When you come at them hard like that, the rocks that you were talking about before it, it's just a turn off and you just stop listening. But Oh, if you come in with questions and, and have a conversation with someone and want to know more about them, it's just a totally different feeling.
Rhea: Well, and, and I would also say with questions, like, actually listen to the answer. I mean, I, there you go. We ask questions. I mean, I, I have to tell you, Carol, I was once on a podcast. and literally the person had sent me the questions in advance and she just went through the questions like, like a robot. And I was like, I could literally say anything right now. And you wouldn't change the cadence of this conversation because in her mind she was just like going through the questions and it was very off-put because ostensibly though she was asking questions about me, there was no. Like there was no connection there. it was. Okay. The next question you were like, she was lobbing tennis balls at me and I was like, okay, I, the, we are not having a conversation it felt like an interrogation actually
Carol: Right, right. So there, there is, there is nuance in that, in that if you're all, and then I think at that point it's probably nerves again. Mm-hmm. and wanting to do it right and like, let me get through. but the focus is on yourself. Cuz it's like, I can. That's right. Control this by asking all these questions versus let me be in this conversation with you, hear what you're saying, and respond to it in some appropriate way.
Rhea: I mean, I have to tell you, you, I had one of the most incredible interactions I had as an executive director. I met this guy, he was very successful, a finance guy, whatever and I went into the conversation, I was super nervous. I was just thinking about like, okay, basically like how do I not screw this up, right? Cause I was like, I feel like I have one shot here. But I decided, and, and to his credit, he actually helped this along, but we actually had this really connecting conversation and it wasn't about the non-profit. It was about how he was on the board of his college and why he was on the board of his college and how going to this college had meant so much to him. And just like this opportunity to be. With another human being and just learn about who he was and, and, and put aside my own nerves of like, oh gosh, he's this super successful finance guy who has so much money. Right. And we were just humans and it was an incredible conversation. I came away incredibly energized.
Carol: So connecting it, as you said before, it's really a people business. And it's all about, cultivating those relationships.
Rhea: Definitely. Well, I, I think too, the reason why people get so nervous is it, it's all about that scarcity mindset. That's just this belief that, like, this is the last person I'm ever gonna talk to who might fund our organization or might give us a gift, or might give us a donation, like the truth is, it's probably not the last person you're ever gonna talk to. And not all donations are meant to be yours, right? Like if I talk to you, Carol, and I tell you about my organization, I learn about what you're interested in. And it turns out that you're really into saving the whales and that's not what we do. My job is not to convince you. My job is to say, Carol, that is wonderful cuz the world needs people to save whales too. Can I make an introduction to some people who are doing that work or at the very bravo. So glad that you figured that that's the thing that you wanna do and, go forth and do that. So I just think we have to let go of the desperation, ? So a lot of the times when we go into conversations like, I need to convince someone to do the thing that's like, That's like going on a date and convincing someone that we need to get married. I'm like, I don't even know you like that. Like what? Stop trying to push things. Like maybe it works out, maybe it's right, maybe it's not. But we need the space to be able to figure out if we like each other.
Carol: It reminds me of the small group that I was working with, and they were shifting from that all volunteer stage to having staff. But they were still very much in that scarcity mindset around board recruitment. Mm-hmm. And so it was like each new person that they met, they asked them to be on the board. And that's like, oh no. Asking someone to marry them. Like, no, you need to get to know this person. They need to get to know you. You need to know whether they're gonna show up and do what they say they're gonna do. Are they interested in your organization? Lots of different things. And so what are all those little pebbles as you talked about, what are all those little steps that you can provide people to, to give, have a way in if, if it is the right organization and cause and, and thing that they're really passionate to contribute.
Rhea: I talked about this a lot, Carol. So I love the dating analogy of people who have listened to me. No, it's number one, desperation is a stinky perfume. So I'm, I'm married, I've been married for a long time, but once upon a time I was single and I would go through these periods where I couldn't catch a date to save my life. It was just like a dry spell, right. And the minute I was in a relationship, everyone wanted my number. And I was like, what's up with that? Like, where were you a month ago? and it was because of the vibe I was putting out, right? Like when you feel secure, when you feel confident, when you feel just sort of in integrity with yourself, like that's very attractive and people want to be part of that. But when you're desperate and you're like, well, you go out on a date with me, will you be my boyfriend? It's like, no crazy person. I like to calm down.
Carol: Well, right. As you were talking about the, the other conversation where, you felt like this is my one shot. That just, that it's like, it just, even, even just saying that I feel myself tensing up, and, and so where you're calm and confident in your, in your, in your own power.
Rhea: Just comfortable in your own skin.
Carol: Absolutely. Exactly. Exactly. So at the end of each episode, I like to ask an icebreaker question that I pull out of a box. So I've got one here for you. Oh, how fun. Which, which famous person I you're, you're in New York, you're in I think, Southern California right now. Maybe, maybe not Southern California.
Rhea: No, I am in southern California right now. What
Carol: A famous person have you met? And, and any level of fame is fine
Rhea: oh, okay. I'm gonna share the story. I hope, I hope this doesn't get back to me. So, I am a big Game of Thrones fan and Peter Dinklage lives on my block. So for those of you who don't know his Tyrion Lannister, and I have for the longest time. Tried to befriend him and he is not having it. he's not having it. He's not having it. I mean, so I see him walking his dog. I'm walking my dog. I try to be super cool, like, oh hey neighbor, good morning. And he is like, not unfriending, he'll say hi, but like he is just not trying to be my friend. So I don't know if I could say that I met him. I definitely have interacted with him where, Tried to have interactions with him, and he is not about that life. So Peter Dinklage, if you're listening to this, I am your neighbor. I'm not a weird stalker, but we should definitely be friends
Carol:. Sounds good. And a dog. A dog is always a good way to get to know people. So what do you,
Rhea: So wait. Okay, wait, quick story. So he has a dog and I have a dog. My dog has passed away, but anyway, I have a dog and I was like, oh, I'm gonna be in, like, we're, we're gonna be dog friends and then we're gonna see each other on the walk and then like start chit-chatting. But then, My dog decided to have beef with his dog and started yapping at him. And I was like, dog, dog. I, I don't ask for anything except for this one thing. You could have gotten me in with Peter Dinklage's dog, and it was a tremendous failure. So like, then I had to cross the street when I saw him and his dog because my dog was being a jerk. So sad times with the dogs.
Carol: Well, you can blame it on the dog then. Poor, poor puppy. I know you're a cutie. I know. Or was, I'm sorry to hear he passed away.
Rhea: That's it. Stevie Wonder. Well, we have a new love Stella, but Stevie will always hold a special place in our hearts
Carol:. Yes, absolutely. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's, what's emerging in the work that you're
Rhea: Good question. So I, as I mentioned, have a fundraising accelerator. So I'm actually promoting my cohort now. And this is ideal for executive directors and development directors who are accidental fundraisers who wanna learn how to get out of the transactional into the and what else? I have a book that came out last year, so I'm still out in the world promoting that. What else? I'm doing some speaking and training around the country, so that's a lot of fun. But I continue to have my podcast and my weekly newsletter. So there are lots of ways if, if you want more of this action, there are lots of ways to get it.
Carol: Definitely. Remind me what the book is.
Rhea: Oh, get that money, honey
Carol:. All right. I love it. I knew it was, I knew it was a good title. I knew it was a good title. Get that money.
Rhea: It's so funny when I put it out to a group of pre-reads, someone responded like, I don't know what you should call it, get that money, honey. Because as a man, that feels alienated to me. And I was like, I hear your feedback and I respectfully override it.
Carol: That is always our prerogative with feedback. Right. It's just information. We don't have to follow it all. I hear you and well, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on the podcast. It was great to talk with you.
Rhea: Thanks so much, Carol. It's a lot of fun.
Carol: I appreciated what Rhea said about cultivating an experience as a fundraiser for a donor. Truly being present in the conversation, putting away the script and truly listening. Listening for the gift instead of jumping in with your talking points and your pitch. Very few people want to be pitched to. They want to have a conversation. And know that you are really listening to their answers so that they can connect with you as another human being.
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 Rhea, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Natasha DeVoise of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We always appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 64 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Sarah Olivieri discuss:
Sarah Olivieri is a nonprofit leader like you who used to spend days and nights asking questions like: “how do I get my board to work with me and not against me?”, “how can I raise more money for this important mission?” and, “how can I show up and love my job as much as I love this mission?”.
Sarah has over 18 years of nonprofit leadership experience. She was the co-founder of the Open Center for Autism, the Executive Director of the Helping Children of War Foundation, and co-author of Lesson Plan a la Carte: Integrated Planning for Students with Special Needs. She holds a BA from the University of Chicago with a focus on globalization and its effect on marginalized cultures, and a master's degree in Humanistic and Multicultural Education from SUNY New Paltz. As the founder and heart behind PivotGround, Sarah helps nonprofits become financially sustainable world changers.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Sarah Olivieri. Mission Impact is 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. Sarah and I talk about how to set up systems and processes in your organization so that your work as leader and the work of your staff is made easier, how to have a productive team meeting, and how to assess and be realistic about your current capacity.
Welcome, welcome to the podcast. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Olivieri: It's a pleasure to be here, Carol. Thanks for having me.
Carol: So I'd like to start out each episode with just finding out from the person I'm talking with, what, what drew them to the work that they do and, and what would you describe as your why? What motivates you?
Sarah: Oh, man. I think for most people who work in a nonprofit or work with nonprofits, the fact that every day, no matter how bad things are in the world, when I wake up, I basically get to say, I'm already making the biggest impact I could probably make. And my work trajectory is only about doing more of the same. And that feels really good, when times are good and when times are bad. And I think a lot of people fall into nonprofit work. They have a calling. When I was young, I went to this independent private school that had just started. It was very small, not at all like a prep school, but very education focused. How can we be more human focused and skip forward till I'm out of elementary school. My mom ended up taking over the school. It wasn't her background, but it was one of those nonprofits that was about to go. It had a great mission. It had done great work with kids, but from a business perspective, it had just been run to the ground and was on the verge of closing, not paying their staff. And my mom was one of those people who said, well, I'll try. And she did, and it turned into a job and she grew this. School. And so then skip forward a number of years where I'm working at a nonprofit and it almost went under, it had a bunch of problems and I was like, well, maybe I'll try taking on that and I'll take on this other piece. And my mom was there saying, you can learn bookkeeping and you can do this. And once how to manage the finances and manage the people and manage the prom, You're sucked in really deep, pretty quickly. So that's kinda like how I get started, how I got started, and there's lots in the middle. That's the short version.
Carol: It's been interesting for me as I've talked to various people through this podcast and other places, how many folks have some experience in their childhood that leads them, especially often folks talking about that role model of a parent doing something either, engaged in the community or engaged in some way with service. Politics, whatever it might be, stepping in where there's a vacuum and making things happen and making sure that that resource didn't go away for children, so that's awesome. So I'm curious, as a former executive director of a nonprofit, what would you say was your favorite part of being an executive director? I feel like there's this big generational shift going on finally with new people coming into leadership and. I hear from a lot of younger folks that they're, they look at the job and they shy away from it because it just seems so, like undoable without like a real level of personal sacrifice. So I'm curious what was the upside? What did you appreciate about being in that role?
Sarah: Well, before I answer that, I have to say the secret from my clients who are mostly not young people, they feel the same way. When they come to me, they're like, I hate my job, but I also don't wanna quit. But we'll go into how we get everybody out of that. My own experience as an executive director was something I really enjoyed. Setting things up, scaling things up, making things run better. And even though I didn't know what I know now, I was already pretty good at. This whole thing about systems and processes and making things run better because that is the thing that ultimately makes the job not painful. And I really, really believe that being an executive director can be fun. And it probably helped that I had this example from my mother who had started out in this organization that was in complete chaos, working a lot of hours, and by this time, When I was an executive director, she was at the tail end and she would tell me, I work four days a week partly to, cuz she was older and partly to save money for the nonprofit. And she said, really, I spend a good chunk of my time playing solitaire on the computer. And that was a good thing. What it meant was she had everything running like a well-oiled machine. And now she kept an eye on everything and whenever anything did come up, she was available. She had that time built in. Right? It wasn't just she was goofing off playing solitaire. She kept, that's how she kept herself busy while she kept herself available to deal with things. And that's so important. And I had that lesson early on that you should not be filling every minute as an executive director. Of your job up with tasks and projects and because if you are, you're doing it wrong, you're doing it wrong and great systems, having a great team is how you do that. And so, because I was good at that early on, I was setting up programming, I was attracting great staff who were doing great things. I was attracting funding. Both grants and major donors and a real community quickly formed. And I'm a lover of delegation, so, spreading out the work amongst a lot of people, made everything run quite well. It wasn't perfect, but I certainly was able to enjoy my job. And that to this day, like that's what I. For all executive directors. I mean, your job, it, there's a lot of work to be done and a lot of problems to be solved, but it should feel joyful and it shouldn't feel like opening up your veins and just bleeding for your non-profit until you're dead.
Carol: Right, right. My tagline for this podcast is, working for progressive nonprofits and nonprofit leadership without being a martyr to the cause. So, for sure. And I just wanted to pick up on a couple things that you said. You talked about systems and processes and I, I don't think that's the first thing that most people think of when they think of nonprofits. They think of passion and mission and vision and all of that, but I'm a systems and process person too, so I appreciate those and. And it's not right. As you said, it's not for the I think oftentimes people get real, don't wanna set those up because they feel like they might be restrictive first. Second, they're always thinking about the exceptions. The 20% that doesn't fit into the process. And I feel like I often am talking to folks about how we can identify the 80%. Normally it happens that you can, that you can predict and is that regular or there are some things that are within your control, like how are you doing your fundraising, how are you doing your marketing, those kinds of things. That, that is, that. You can just decide what the cadence is. And then also having that margin, right, not filling up every hour so that you do have the flexibility to be able to respond when things pop up. But, how do you experience it with clients in terms of helping them or helping them think through those systems and processes?
Sarah: So, skip forward a whole bunch of years and I've worked with a lot of nonprofits in, in addition to working in nonprofits. And what I realized, I love all business, first of all. So like, as much as I love non-profits, I also love business. I love how people come together to create things that are bigger than what any one person can do. And all of the, the glue that makes that happen and all the functioning, which is systems and processes. What I have learned is there are some key ways of operating that everybody can implement. And I used to think, oh, well it has to be customized for each organization cuz everyone's different. Well, as much as everyone wants to feel like they're a special snowflake. There are a lot of things right that you don't need to reinvent and that actually can work out of the box for you. The for-profit industry has done this already numerous times. They've created methodologies and frameworks and systems for running a business that help people run better. And so I set out to make the same thing, but specifically for non-profits cuz most of the for-profit methodologies have like Making a profit built in as like this just assumed principle which is not true at a nonprofit, we may very well sacrifice profits. We can have profits, but we also might sacrifice profit for mission. So I've put all those pieces together in an easy-to-implement way. But when I hear my clients think about systems, and so one is I'm telling them, here's this easy way to do it. Like you don't have to be a master chef in order to follow a recipe, right? Right. So I like to get, say, here's the recipe, follow it. And then they do, and then it works. And then they're like, oh my God, my stuff is happier. And wow, I just took my first vacation and like I stopped working on weekends. Like, what is this magic? Let me keep following the recipe. And I think for most people, that is magic and they don't need to become a master chef. But we can also talk about. I would consider myself a master chef. I'm making recipes. We can go into what that is. But if for those of you who have that thought of like, ooh, processes, like that sounds restricting, then you have just experienced a bad process, a great process. Frees you up to do, right? We talked about the 80%, the 80/20 rule. If you've heard of it like it's like 20% of the work does 80% of gets 80% of the results. But then there's also like, what is that other 80% of the work? So if you can clear that 80%. Off and get it all running like a well-oiled machine. Get it off your plate. Now you can spend 20% of your time focused on like the really forward stuff. Usually that involves a lot of thinking and problem solving. Right. And that's what your solitaire moments are about. I'll call them. As doing, having that brain time to really think through how. Move something forward that no one has figured out before. And I love seeing people get that time back in their day and then the results that that gets is phenomenal.
Carol: Can you give me an example, one of those recipes?
Sarah: Sure. So a really simple one is how to run a team meeting. We have numerous types of meetings in the framework that I teach. Well, not that many. We actually only have three and the most basic one that typically replaces your staff meeting. I call it an issues meeting, but there are a few key things in it that are probably different from what you're doing right now that make the meeting way, way better. If I could see your audience right now, I'd say raise your hand if you have wasted time wasting meetings or you hate meetings, and probably most of you would be raising your hand, right? So one of the things we do, it's the same agenda every time, and probably one of the most important things we do is we identify the issues that are facing the team, but we don't discuss them when we identify. And everybody has to get trained in, don't just launch into talking about this issue, or we'll be stuck talking about issues all day long. Step two is we're going to then decide which is the highest priority issue. And then step three is we're going to then talk about that issue, make sure we understand it and work through it until we've identified a solution that basically we all agree will work and then we can assign somebody to go implement it. And so by being way more intent, Systematic about the priority that we work through our issue. Is a game changer because first people are like, oh, we actually produced something. We produced a solution in this meeting. That's great. But when you do it consistently, like replacing your staff meeting, initially, most organizations have this, like all these issues, like a long, long list. But a lot of those issues are usually symptoms of a higher priority issue. So often what happens is as you tackle the highest priority issues first, a lot of the issues that were on your. Just diesel resolve on their own because you hit the core underlying issue and then you don't even have to worry about tackling them. And the list gets short, short, very, very fast. Because of that, you're not just tackling issues meaningfully, but you're eliminating a lot of the issues because you got to what was really going on.
Carol: That's the common practice or habit that you described to people, like they name the issue and then we start talking about it. I'm on a volunteer team right now where we're having that exact challenge and I'm planning at our next meeting to bring it up as one of our habits that's not helping So I, I might, I might borrow that and say, well, I think we, we actually do have a list of our priorities, but, but, or a list of our issues. I don't know that we've done a good job of prioritizing them or even thinking about how we're gonna sequence this so that it makes sense to tackle one after another. So, but that habit of like, we bring it up so we have to talk about it, like, take a moment, put it on, put it in the. Folks don't call 'em parking lots anymore on the bike rack. Someone else that I talked to recently said, don't call it a parking lot or a bike rack because that's the place where those things go to die, but call it an on-ramp or the runway of the things that we'll get to as we get down the runway. So, fundamentally, I mean people spend so much time in them and so many of them are so poorly designed that it's, it's sad that folks have to be stuck in those, and, and it's some, there's some easy things that you can do to, to make them just a little bit better.
Sarah: And I would say a lot better. It's actually not learning how to do business well as a for-profit or a non-profit is not rocket science. And some small easy tweaks. If you find the right ones and then really implement them, it can make dramatic results. And I'd say the hardest thing is adjusting to that new meeting or actually it's not so hard, but it takes some time. And for those of you who are like Brene Brown followers, like all of her work comes into this learning to bring, be vulnerable enough to bring the real issues, create that culture where people feel. To bring that real issue to the table, that underlying core issue, and then also training your team and getting everybody used to interrupting each other, saying, oh, Or interrupting themselves. Like I interrupt myself all the time. Like I started talking about the issue. Excuse me. That's ok. I started talking about the issue. I'm gonna be quiet now cuz it's not time to talk about the issues, it's just time to stick them on the list. And that takes a little bit of adjusting because usually we're told not to interrupt each other. But after a few times of giving everybody permission, anybody's allowed to interrupt anybody. Who starts launching into talking about an issue when it's not time for it yet.
Carol: And I, the other thing that I like about what you were describing is that it, it get, it gets clear what we're doing at this moment. And I, I try to do that when I'm working with, with groups cuz, during a strategic planning process that I, that generally what I work on, There are points at which you're exploring, where you're opening everything up, where you're imagining, where you're visioning, and you're maybe getting like even a little bit really out there beyond what is really feasible. There's a time for that, and then there's a time a little bit later in the process to cut it down and, and put some criteria on what's gonna be more feasible. What, what do we have the capacity for? What, what's really gonna move our mission forward in a different way. But being clear about what you're doing in each meeting, in each session, in each portion really helps people have.
A more constructive conversation and feel like they, they, they knew what was expected of them so they could show up in a, in a helpful way. a hundred percent. So you, you, and I'm gonna use your words, you work to help nonprofits become financially sustainable, world, world changers. What would you say is really the key to achieving that with an organization?
Sarah: So for nonprofits specifically, there are three key areas that I think they need to be focusing on. First is capacity. Right. So that includes who's on your team, how many team members you have, how much money you have. Although money is usually a byproduct of core capacity. It's not the capacity itself and how aligned that team is, right? So the bulk of what makes up. Our organizations are people really, so right. Who are the people and how well do they work together and are they the right people on the team? And a lot of building that capacity has to do with creating great alignment. And that really means understanding who you are as an organization, how you behave, and then attracting people who want to behave in the same way. and all work together. So we can do a lot too. Capacity by making sure we have the right people aligned in the right way, and great systems and processes for keeping them gelled together as a well-oiled team. So capacity, right? And then actionable strategy, I always say actionable strategy. Which should be assumed, but there's so many people who have strategies that they aren't taking action on. And so just to quickly define some terms, to me, a strategy is a set of goals with a set of actions that you're going to take to achieve those goals. And in the method I teach called the impact method, we always have our highest level strategic goals tied right into our tasks day to day. And it goes through. In the impact method, we actually do strategic planning every two months, and then we map out a two month work plan. We check on that work plan every two weeks, and then each, each two week chunk everybody has their tasks that they're working on for those two weeks. So that's what I mean by what a really actionable strategy looks like that's like dialed in and people aren't flying off doing other things. And then the third piece, which is not true for all businesses, but is true for most non-profits. So if your non-profit has a mission to solve a problem that has never been solved before, so if you're working to end hunger or homelessness, Or solve mental health issues, any of those things. You have to be great at innovation. And to be great at innovation, you basically need some sort of built in process for improvement. You have to be able to experiment and improve and try things and, and have room to fail. That's where the capacity comes in and modify. So really having those three things, capacity, actionable strategy, and a continual process of improvement is what it takes to really have success as a non-profit.
Carol: No, those sound like definitely three key key areas that I'm often working with clients on as well. And one, one I wanna go back to cuz with, with capacity and what we were talking about before, when you can set things on a, on a process and, and make it easier, you're not having to constantly decide, you kind. For me, when I have a good process, I know it's working well because I, I'm not experiencing that decision fatigue of having to make all sorts of little choices and like you said, then have time freed up for that bigger thinking. But what I see groups do, and there's a lot of pressure to scale up is each time they, they, they do something smarter and they create a little space instead of taking that time to think or think big? Differently one not necessarily bigger, they add more, add more, add more. And so, while the, the kind of, the promise is if you work smarter, you're not gonna have to work harder, but then people add more, so they're still working harder. Mm,
Sarah: mm-hmm. So I think some of the ways that I tackle that one is in the process of improvement that I teach. It includes this concept of respite and we also, I also just talk about brain space all the time. Mm. So part of it is about this concept of how we work when we work. But in another part of that is how you define the roles in the organization. So I'll talk about respite first. So, I already said like, we work in these, we do strategic planning every two months. So it's a two month strategic cycle with many two week tactical cycles built in. If you put that into a 12 month calendar year, you will find that there are four extra weeks left over which you totally gain back in efficiency and probably many times over. And so actually built into the framework as a thing is respite. And respite are those extra four weeks. They're not really extra where. Organizations, I teach them to build this into their way of operating, and this is separate from vacation time. Respite is where you're not working on a goal, a big goal or a project you might totally shut down. You might just do minimal operations. Some organizations do all four weeks at once. Some do a week here and there. Some who really like vital, life or death services will scatter different people's respite. So like. What am I thinking? Like overlay it so that no, nothing is ever quite shut down as much, but starting to really like, use a new piece of language, right? It's not vacation. I intentionally didn't use the word rest, although it's designed to allow our brains to have that time. But I call it respite because it's not a word we use a lot in our everyday lives. So introducing that as an important concept and a thing that you're gonna schedule in is really key. And then when part of actually what I think of it as a capacity piece is how you design your team. And a lot of people call this an org chart. I take a slightly different approach because the traditional org chart is really. Who is in charge of who, and I think to run any business better, what we really need to be thinking about is what are the functions of this organization Like, what if it were a machine? What are the pieces of the machine? What outcomes do we need for each of those? Pieces of the machine to be produced and then just who's in charge of those outcomes. And to me, that's what makes me a leader in an organization. We talk about roles that are very, like brain based versus roles that are, we call, I say hands based, but it's like doing the task versus being, trying to get a result that you're not, don't necessarily have control over. And just as a side note, I find, those who are leaders, In many ways, are people who they're, they're built for being responsible for things that aren't in their control. like a parent, right? Like parents are natural leaders. Are they forced leaders? Because you're responsible for this, a kid and you're not really totally in control of the outcome. But you've agreed to be accountable for it nonetheless. Within all these functions of what makes a nonprofit run, there's a really important role of, I call it visioning and innovation. And then you start to see that, especially if it's a CEO or a founder, is often owning this role of literally visioning and innovation and they, that role requires a ton of brain. Or we can call it my mom's solitaire time, right? Like you need to be paid to be just thinking, because that's how we innovate with a lot of thinking and problem solving. And so we start to embrace this as a valued role in the organization as well as a valued activity that everyone's participating in.
Carol: So, as you were saying there are, there, there needs to be that downtime in organizations and I think culturally we're so conditioned to always add more. Yes. And so I love the idea of just taking those. Not even take more, protecting those for extra, those extra four weeks. And, and designating them for some downtime, for some respite for thinking time and, and or just, just not, not doing, doing, doing so that you can. And I, I feel like. I don't know what to do. Well, we all think all the time. If you've ever tried to meditate, you find that out real quick. But if I'm concentrating on it, it doesn't necessarily work. So doing something easy, like solitary, as you talked about, helps just like the brain relax and then you start associating different things and then, it's like, why? We get our best ideas in the shower or on a good walk or something like that. But I definitely appreciate what you're, what you're sharing with people because the tendency so much is to just pile on new things.
Sarah: And, in the way you work too. I referenced a couple times, like, we work in these two week sprints and I teach all my clients to do. That is the, one of the first things they realize. Oftentimes it's the first time they've written down all the projects they're working on at one time. And literally we use a Kanban style, meaning like we put each of our projects that are in progress in a column and the ones that are coming up next to another column, and once it's visual and I just tell them the rule is you can't work on more than three projects at once. And if you wanna go faster, you should only work on one project at once. And it's visually there in the column, you see the boxes stacking up in the column, and people start to realize, What can they actually get done in two weeks? And they start to see that the impact of overloading their plates, of adding more and more and more at once is actually slowing them way, way down. And so as they realize that and see it in a visual way as well, they start to go, oh, Less is more right? Less at a time is faster. I will complete more projects in a two month period if I'm only working on one or two at a time. And they start to realize that a lot of the things they think they're adding that are just little things are huge things like we need to rebuild our. I can say it so easily, rebuild websites, projects I used to build websites professionally. They are multiple projects in one, and your website is never done. So they start to realize, like, understanding how to pull things apart and understand the true load of what's on their plate. And that has all sorts of positive ripple effects. Like oftentimes I see, board members start to really understand why this organization needs more resources and, and leaders start to really understand, oh I do need to be fundraising a lot more because I'm totally underestimating the true load. That we're either carrying or that we're not caring, but we need to be doing, if we're gonna make a dent in solving whatever the problem of our mission is.
Carol: And I think the other thing that doesn't get calculated when you're thinking about projects and some people's work, is, is, is project focused. But other, there's always those things I have to do every day, something I have to do every month or every week. And those regular, repetitive, those things that you systematize, those become invisible in those, those planning out all the stuff that has to happen. And so, Being mindful and remembering you've gotta block space for them, just those regular things as well, is really important.
Sarah: Totally. And we track those and I have a number of ways that I teach my clients to track them, so it's not time consuming just to track them. Right. Sure. You don't wanna spend more time tracking them. No. Them. So, but it can be as simple as every two months, each team member, just like estimates, like what percentage of my work time is taken up by recurring tasks. Mm-hmm. And when they're at 80%. They don't have, I tell them once you hit 80%, you don't have time for any projects, and this is the time to hire or have the one project of streamlining so that you can get that 80% back down to like 50%, 60%, something like that.
Carol: So at the end of each episode, I like to ask an icebreaker question, and since we've been talking about processes and systems, I'll, I'll choose this one. So what do the first 30 minutes of your typical day look like?
Sarah: Oh, coffee definitely, and I journal most days. It can vary. I have a son, I'm a single mom, I have a son, so there's usually getting him. I do what I need to do to be ready to get him ready for school and then face my day. But I will share. When I was newly a single mom and launching a business in the most crazy time of my life, I had this, I called it like my super routine, and it took about 30 minutes. I did 12 minutes of meditation, usually with my son sitting in my lap watching cartoons. He was a toddler at the time. I did the seven minute workout on my phone. And I took a quick shower and there is nothing like, even though each thing was short, there is nothing like a little bit of intentional just, brain time. That's that brain time, right? I gave myself that brain time. I had probably a little more brain time in the shower too. And a little bit of body exercise and just that little bit of self-regulation, self-regulation took me through the hardest times in my life. And. With energy and strength, it was great. Awesome, awesome. And it took about 30 minutes. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.
Carol: We can optimize those things for sure. We can, or, or just fit in a little bit and you can fit in more later if, when you have, when you have time and space, but at least doing a little bit each day is really grounding. So what's coming up from you? What are you excited about and what's emerging in your work?
Sarah: Well, I continue to offer the Thrive Program, which is where I take CEOs from non-profits who wanna be like me. I wanna learn everything that Sarah's teaching and work with her every week.
So I continue to love offering that program. I'm really excited to be coming out with a new program called Pivot this year. Access to all of the curriculum I use in the Thrive program, but aren't ready to dive in with all the support and wanna just try some stuff on their own. That'll be coming out in 2023. And also I continue to do this board retreat that I developed in a number of board training related to it. To really help boards get engaged. It comes with a new job description for the board. And the results from that have been so fantastic that I'm very excited to get it out there. And it's, it's, I'll just give you a sneak peek of some of the ways it's so different. I no longer have boards. Approving budgets, and yet they're more engaged with the finances than ever before. I have boards not participating in fundraising, and yet board members are more engaged in helping with fundraising than ever before.
And I have boards really starting to understand. Stand some of this, like how nonprofits work stuff so that they can truly be supportive and have their leadership teams back in a way that just feels great to CEOs and never ever hints on overstepping or micromanaging.
Carol: Awesome. Well thank you so much and thank you for coming on Mission Impact.
Sarah: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
In episode 63 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton focuses on healthy organizational cultures with past guests to discuss:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to episode 63 and the first episode of 2023 of Mission: Impact. This is the second part of a two part highlights episode. Our topic today is healthy organizational cultures and what gets in the way of them. I am pulling clips from conversations with Anne Hilb from episode 36, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows, Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall, and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson. We talk about why it is important for leaders to invest in themselves and consider getting a coach, why paying attention to power dynamics and naming them is key, and why it's important to realize that it takes time and investment to shift a culture away from less healthy practices.
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.
Reva Patwardhan explains why many nonprofit leaders struggle with the idea of investing in themselves for executive coaching even though as the leader they have a broader impact on the organization and thus shifting their own behavior to healthier habits can have a big impact. As Reva points out it is in service of the mission.
Reva Patwardhan: The nonprofit sector, for whatever reason, has been behind. And really recognizing how important it is to invest in leaders, as individuals, as human beings. And that is what leadership coaching is. It's really investing in you. I think that's why it's hard for people. It's hard for an executive director to say, Hey, I'm going to spend some money on an executive coach because it's really for her. It is for her in service of her mission. And when I coach with people, we do have the mission centered in our work, but it is for her and her ability and her passion and her values. That is part of the process of what we're doing to serve the mission. In order to center your own wellbeing and your own development, I think it's a hard thing for a lot of people to do. We're very much conditioned out of that. And I do work with a lot of women but very much conditioned to always be giving to others, not to ourselves. And that is what coaching does.
Carol: Deneisha also prioritizes coaching in her practice in working with organizations trying to shift their cultures. Leaders have few spaces where they can be safely vulnerable and coaching is one space where they can own up to their own struggles.
Deneisha Thompson: Executive coaching and making sure you have strong leaders who are positioning themselves to learn and grow and be responsive to the needs of their team. Leadership is so, so, so important in building a culture. And when I do coaching with executives, I really try to work, to create environments where people can be honest and vulnerable. What I've heard from so many leaders is “I know that I have room to grow, but it can be really isolating as a leader to get the type of support that you need.” So who are you surrounded by? You have your staff who work for you you're supposed to know what you're doing. And so you don't really wanna be vulnerable with them and say, you know folks, I don't have this, so I'm not sure about this. I don't really have experience in this area. I'm not really sure what to do. No leader wants to tell their staff that they don't know what to do. Then you have your board who is supervising you, that's not necessarily the space where you also can be vulnerable and honest about your opportunities for growth. And then you have your colleagues who are other leaders of other organizations, and you definitely don't wanna tell them most of the time that you don't have it all together. And so. It becomes really hard for leaders to get the type of support that they need in order to be good leaders. And a part of that is also not creating systems to get feedback from your team around your leadership. And it is one of the most common things that I see that leaders are not getting evaluations.
Carol: I have also seen this. Even when an organization has a positive culture and the executive director has cultivated a really healthy relationship with the board. The board may not see the need to provide the leader with feedback if things are going really well. But that is not the time to sleep at the wheel – Recalling the conversation about feedback from episode 62 – feedback is both positive and constructive. Both are needed for the leader to learn and grow. And coaching can provide a safe space to confront one’s shadow side as Deneisha describes. Coaching provides a space to practice slowing down and being more mindful of the intentional response you would want to have in a tough situation instead of just reacting out of fear or anger or frustration.
Deneisha: Let's get in touch with your shadow side, because we all have one. It's never really the thing. We're proud of stuff, but what happens is it shows up at work and your teammates see it, and they don't know that. We do a lot of work around, who am I as an individual? How do I show up? When things come up change my reflex. So I am not automatically thinking about the external factor or the person who caused this thing or caused me to be frustrated. My first instinct is to be reflective and think about , how am I showing up right now? How did I contribute to this thing? How do I calm myself down so that when I do go to have this conversation, it can be productive and get us to a better place and not just be like a way for me to vent and, and, or feel vindicated. So I think it really just takes a lot of intention.
Carol: In the safe space of coaching you can shift from just venting to thinking more productively about the situation and how you want to show up in the future. Reva also notes that Younger leaders coming into positions have higher expectations for their role and what it will contribute to their career. They are not as willing to put up with poor working conditions that previous generations have become used to.
Reva: There is a wake up call going on for the sector. If it's not happening already, it's going to very soon because there is this emerging sense that people don't wanna put up with any of this crap anymore in their jobs. It's getting harder and harder to fill the position of executive director. In the for-profit sector being a CEO is seen as this glamorous thing. I think part of that is because of the ridiculous salaries and we don't necessarily wanna model ourselves off of that. Part of it is that they have resources, they have support to do what they need to do. In the nonprofit sector, [when] becoming an ED, you should feel proud. If the mission matters then so do the people who are working for the mission.
Carol: It is too easy for folks in the sector to prioritize mission over people. In the for profit sector, the call is for people over profit. In the nonprofit sector – there needs not to be a binary of choosing one or the other. They go hand in hand. If people are treated well and have good working conditions, they will be able to do that much more for the mission. And if you have been in a position of power in an organization you may forget your impact as Anne Hilbe points out. You may be aware of all the things you cannot do, and forget the agency you have. Yet staff will be waiting to watch and see what you do. Remembering what your position brings with it and being cognizant of that and willing to admit the privilege you have to just proceed with a decision at times is important.
Anne Hilb: Those who would be doing the asking have much less power in the organization. The folks with formal power and titles need to really understand the power over that they have , and take ownership over that. The understanding of that power, because I think oftentimes we are a manager or in the C-suite, or even just have informal, formal power or hurt in that we. Are positioned to take power in a manager position purely because of the type of role that we have, because it's a more formal desk job and it can roll into a manager position or because we have Privilege. We tend not to recognize that. And so working on that, understanding in an organization or just as an individual is really important in order for these shifts to happen.
Carol: Those power differentials are just one of the aspects behind how we see the world and the lens that may become invisible to us. Your social identities such as your race, gender, sexual orientation, class and education status all impact how you see the world. And you cannot assume that we all see things similarly or are having the same experiences as Danielle explains.
Danielle: We need to be able to. Understand that we are not all seeing the world. Similarly, we are not all having the same experiences. There is this really interesting thing in the US where [because of] the melting pot everybody's supposed to blend together. Therefore we all have to be the same. I don't agree with the fact that we should all be the same but beyond that, it was never true to begin [with]. There are different cultures. There are values, there are different beliefs that people bring to the table. There's just simply different understandings of the world. To not look at that is a detriment to us because yes, we may have gone through the same situation, but how we experienced it is vastly different, so we've all gone through this period of COVID right now. And depending on who you were. So did you live in an urban environment? Did you live in a more rural environment? Did you have a stable job or were you one of the first people to go on furlough or lose your job?
Carol: Reva speaks to an additional element of the differentiation that Danielle names – being the only. This puts additional pressure on the individual as they are often then seen as a representative of a larger group. Or having to engage in a circumstance where others have set the unspoken rules and standards.
Reva: The problem is the fact that you are the sole member. You're the sole representative of your community. No one else in the room looks like you, you're the only person of color in the room, and that's the problem because you feel ashamed of the anxiety. You're trying to solve the problem yourself. Trying to hide the fact that you feel the anxiety. It's actually very normal to feel anxious in that situation. That's not the problem. I think people in this situation – this is just a very ripe moment for imposter syndrome. They might be thinking , someone else could be doing this job better. The person who was in this role before me did it better. Or they might be thinking , I'm the least competent person in this room, which makes it feel like this is a problem with me. That's just paralyzing. What I do is, I help people take their power back and find their voice. Part one by realizing you're not crazy. This is a genuinely hard situation. You are not broken. So taking your power back [and] finding the things that you can do in your immediate sphere to take action.
Carol: Shifting from the individual level – and thinking more broadly at the group and organizational level – starting a process to examine the culture and start to dig into the challenges – and then shutting it down. Or just letting it fizzle due to neglect or the initiative getting over run by other priorities – can have a really detrimental effect as Terril and Monique describe. It can actually be even more damaging than doing nothing – because staff get their hopes up about positive change. So if you start a process – be in it for the long term.
Terrill Thompson: But it's really, really damaging. To open it all up, bring people's hope up and then nothing changes.
Monique Meadows: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals, here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they don't first feel like they're crazy? Like this is actually happening. What agency do you have? What power do you have within the system to make the changes? That's also a part of our work is to see at all levels within the hierarchy that there's some power there. And so how. With the role that you have, how can you move this along so that you can move closer to fulfilling your mission?
Carol: Starting with an organizational assessment can help get things out in the open through the conversations that are sparked by the findings as Deneisha explains.
Deneisha: I do an org assessment to get us started. And I always pride myself. It's similar to supervision and with the evaluation that at the end, when someone gets their org assessment and you share it with the leadership and share it with the team that it should feel familiar, it shouldn't feel like, like a bomb just dropped and there's all this new information. But oftentimes the response that I get, people get their org assessment and they'll read through it. And they're like, yeah, we knew all of this. And it's almost as if they're expecting it to be a document full of secrets and things they didn't know. And that says to me, these are issues that everyone knows about. We know the landscape of where we are, but we don't have a system for us to have that conversation, which is why we had to hire a consultant to come in and tell us where we already know. And we could have elevated in a landscaping conversation if we just had a team that was able to communicate and talk to each other. And so it'll be like their assessment. It'll have recommendations. It'll have questions for further consideration. And I find, oftentimes the staff are like, this is amazing. I've been saying this for years. And then the leadership is. Oh, we, we knew some of this or, , it's good to see it, or you really captured , our organization
Carol: All these processes have the impact of slowing things down. Stepping away from the day to day work and the to do list and examining HOW you are doing the work and the why – not just the what is something I talk about often on this podcast. Reva also describes the benefits of taking a beat.
Reva: The ability to pause and to actually say, , I'm a leader in this organization and I'm gonna decide to actually program into my day to day and set boundaries, time to reflect and pause. And that is a priority because when I do that, I'm better at my job. A lot of times people are truly experiencing urgency in their work. There's urgency coming from somewhere. Often people are working with, or serving communities that are experiencing urgency. It can sound bizarre. Who am I to slow down? Why do I get to do this but one of the things that can happen with coaching is you start to see, oh, this actually is gonna help me be more in service than I currently am, because it'll help me. See the forest rather than just the trees. If I'm constantly moving from one task to the other, I'm never able to ask the big questions, or if I'm asking the big questions, I'm not able to do anything about it. There's the undercurrent of frustration there of, there are things I'd like to do and there's no space to do.
Carol: Whether it is pausing as an individual or taking the time as a group to really dig in and get vulnerable with each other – it takes an intentionality and investment as Monique shares.
Monique: Groups say they want to do the organizational culture work. They bring in folks and. When they realize that the depths of time, like the amount of time, like the kind of commitment and the vulnerability that is really present, they shut down. Groups also don't always have the resources to really invest the time. Right. Folks are pulled in a thousand different directions. We found that to be one of the challenges. Are you really able to commit the time and the resources, the people power to be able to dig in and do this.
Carol: But as Danielle notes – it is feasible – it is possible – and there are folks already doing it.
Danielle: Some people are doing it every day. They don't necessarily stop to think about it. If I'm working with a group that is dealing with food insecurities, and they're also trying to tackle, let's say racial equity systems, they're not stopping the feeding of people. That work continues, but they are allocating time to sit down as a team to review the policies, to begin to look at data, who works in this organization. What's our retention rate based on the disaggregated data, are there certain demographics that are promoted at higher rates to are maybe leaving the organization? Or even hired into the organization at that point. So they're doing both sets of things and I, by no means, would say it is easy because it is an intentional carving out of time. But the people that are able to hold those two things as truthful and important in the moment, those are the groups that I see having the most success.
Carol: It is possible – and it is also important to recognize that we are all caught in systems that are not working. The wider system is broken yet we need to keep working to create a better world – internally for our staff and externally in the mission we are pursuing. Deneisha describes some of the challenges that come with working within that broken system.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally they don't treat each other well, internally they have a toxic culture, internally they have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued. What's the real issue around why you are not reaching the impact that you hope to have both in communities and kind of internally as a team. Again, the through line of that is culture. You need to have a culture that is going to allow you to get to the impact that you want to be able to grow organizationally, to be able to support your staff so that they are able to do good work. These communities cannot wait for you to figure it out for you to have these tough conversations and learn how to work better together so that you actually can achieve the type of impact that everyone is working so hard to achieve on a daily basis.
We blame the government. We blame communities. We blame each other. How do we reduce the culture of blame? Everyone has to have skin in the game. Everyone needs to work on personal accountability and everyone contributes to whether or not we have a healthy culture.
Carol: It can be hard to face those realities and it is easier to look outside of ourselves to blame others, blame the system. Yet as Terril points out, we need to give ourselves grace. We are human, we will make mistakes. And we are able to acknowledge those and keep moving forward.
Terrill: when we show up as full human beings who make mistakes, who are learning along with the client, people trust us more because we're not robots and neither are they. We need to be all in it together.
Monique: We look at the multiple aspects of identities. As we do that, we invite people to look at the places where they have identities that are privileged identities and the places where they have identities. [They’re] oppressed. In terms of the modeling and the transparency that Terrell, and I do, we share our full selves with folks. Acknowledging that I have certain identities that are very privileged. I'm a US born English speaker. I live a middle-class life. And I have identities that are oppressed. I'm black, I'm a woman. I have a disability. What we do is, we invite people to look at their whole selves, not just through a single lens. And so. That really shifts how the conversation happens for groups. ? So you've got, white folks who are used to being in the conversation where they are the oppressor. I mean, that's, that's what we're working with here. We're saying, well, actually, you're more than that. You have many identities that you're holding where you're impacted by systems that. Take power away from you too. We bring that kind of conversation into a group when we're talking about equity and we find that for the folks of color, for the trans folks, for the LGBT folks, It's a, it's a new way of looking at ourselves. It's really powerful to be part of those moments where the group's like, oh right. Because there's so much fear going into conversations around equity. We've found that that type of approach kind of that's what the fear go away, but it definitely just creates compassion for each other.
Carol: That grace, that compassion we need for ourselves and each other will fuel the way forward. Then we are more ready to step in and have the brave conversations we need to create healthier cultures. As Deneisha points out – it is everyone’s job. Whether you are the staff leader, on the board or part of staff – you can do your part to contribute to your organization having a healthier culture. Remembering that it takes time. Allowing ourselves to get the help that we need. Finding safer spaces to have tough conversations. Bringing in someone from the outside who can hold up a mirror and help you look at yourselves – for the good, bad and the ugly. All of these actions are small yet important steps toward building braver organizations.
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 the guests highlighted in the episode, the full transcript, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Impactful boards with Larry Robertson
In episode 61 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Larry J. Robertson discuss:
Larry Robertson is an organizational development and certified governance consultant who specializes in helping nonprofit and state and local governments assess, plan, and improve organizational strategies, governance, leadership, and talent. His work includes organizational assessments, strategic planning, strategy coaching, nonprofit board development and transformation, and talent management. He tailors services to fit the needs and aspirations of each organization through an appropriate mix of analytic consulting, coaching, training, facilitation, and product development. Larry has extensive experience offering these services to organizations that range from small, startup nonprofits to large, mature state and municipal agencies. He has an M.A. in Human Development from the University of Maryland and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Miami.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Larry Robertson. Larry and I talk about the fundamentals of healthy nonprofit governance, red flags that governance needs attention, and why boards should be hearing from and interacting with more staff than just the executive director
Mission Impact is 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, Larry. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Larry Robertson: Thank you, Carol. Good to see you.
Carol: So I'd like to start the conversation with helping people get some context of your background. So what would you say drew you to the work that you do and, and what motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Larry: I mean, I think the simplest answer is, is having discernible impact. And I, I, I know we're gonna talk about governance some, but I came that route somewhat indirectly. Okay. I was sitting on a board some years ago and We were nominated for an award. We ended up winning the award. And as a result of that, we got two free trainings. I was one of the people who went to the training. Then out of the two of us, they asked, Well, who can sit on the committee to select our winners for the next year? And so I was that person who didn't step back when they were looking for volunteers. And I ended up being on that committee in 2012. And, and they haven't gotten rid of me yet. And as a result of that, I was on a board that had a significant impact, but that was the impression that I had. But then as I started to learn more about governance, I started to see just how significant an impact the board can have by what it does or what it doesn't do. And we can talk more about that.
Carol: Excellent. You often work with organizations around board development, around governance, strengthening their governance. What would you say are some of the fundamental elements that folks involved with non-profits really need to understand about non-profit governance?
Larry: I think there are probably a couple of things. One is the fiduciary responsibility that a board has, is one of the paramount things. And then one of the things that tends to happen is that boards. Play out how they carry out that function in either a range of ways, one of which can be very onerous and they can be over-involved in the organization and down into the weeds of it. Where if they have competent staff, they don't really need to be there. They need to play a different role and be complementary to the staff. The other one that is equally dangerous is when they fall behind and don't play an active role and pay attention. The detail and one of the biggest ways that that happens is by not observing the extent to which the organization has the capability to survive and then preferably to thrive. Cuz what my work focuses on is how do you actually get organizations to thrive? The sweet spot is the great spot. And that's where boards recognize that they have this, august duty to be the fiduciary body of the organization. But they also are strategic partners with the executive leadership. They recognize as a fiduciary body also and strategically they recognize the need to kind of. Ensure that the board, that the organization has sufficient resources to operate, that there's this clear vision to a path to the future. And that their focus is as much there as it is about the inner workings of the organization. And they look for results to come back to them rather than the detailed process pieces. And, some of the conversations I have with people are really about the concerns they have about the role that the board plays. And if those rules of engagement aren't clear, you can get a lot of fuzziness, you can have 11 people on a board, and they all have 11 different interpretations of what governance entails. And so a large part of what I try to do is some level setting of really trying to get down to things like what's the purpose and do we have a shared understanding of the purpose, the roles, the responsibilities of the board. And then, then we can talk about tactics of how you actually make it work.
Carol: Absolutely. And you started out by saying fiduciary responsibility and I'm, I'm could, could you just define that for folks?
Larry: I mean, you're the stewards of an institution and that means that you have a range of duties, duty of care, duty of loyalty, all those things. But more or less, what it basically means is that the institution is within the grasp of the board and that the board really can be looked upon as the chief responsibility officer. They actually represent the highest level of responsibility within that organization, legally and morally so to speak. And so they need to make sure, much like parents need to make sure that. Their family is taken care of. When you send some of your kids off to college, you wanna make sure that the university takes care of them as well. And so there's a, there's a really August responsibility that you have as a board member and people as they consider board membership, they really do need to take that seriously because legally they're the ones that are gonna be responsible for that institution. And I keep calling it an institution because of some boards. Look more toward the leader and not as the institution, the cause, the purpose of why we're actually having this non-profit exist, and that is really typically supposed to be the paramount reason why the organization exists. It's so easy to get caught up in all those interpersonal things and either, trying to be out front of the staff leader or following the staff leader or, depending on the stage of the organization. They may not even have that yet. But I think a lot of folks go into board membership leadership without really understanding. How they are on the hook for the organization, its purpose. And not necessarily the, the, the people the individuals that happen to be there, happen to be around the table at the time. Although, of course, those individuals have so much impact on whether the organization is thriving or not, particularly if they're founders. And if, if I'm on a board and looking at a founder, I have to look at this as if that is their baby. That is their brainchild, and you have to respect that. At the same time, that can't be the only driver of how you operate. And so you wanna be respectful and it's a really delicate balance to strike.
Carol: And, and I think you've already named a few of those, but what are some red flags when you're coming into organizations that signal to you that governance is weak within the organization?
Larry: Well, I'll say that governance needs opportunity strengthening for improvement. . I think some of the things are: lack of clarity about the purpose of the board, whether the board is really in the game to have true impact, or if it's there because legally you have to have a board in pretty much every state. The extent to which the board members are engaged, and that would mean that they participate in strategy setting. That they recognize that their role is complementary. To the staff, but distinct from the staff that they also have some sense of where the organization is in its development. And that is one of the things that we can get hung up on is some of, I think you and I have talked about this before, some of the orthodoxies that people follow, everything is situational. And if a board recognizes that the organization is at a particular place and its development. It needs to govern according to that and then where it's headed after that point. So a very new board or a new organization that is getting its footing needs a different level of governance than, say, a board that, an organization that has. 20 years of experience resource rich and has, really more existential strategic concerns at hand. The other thing is the extent to which boards have made the simple decisions about what participation entails. What including expectations around whether you give, you, get funds or those sorts of things. And so basically at all to the extent that the roles. The purpose, the responsibilities of the boards are clear and that they actively make a meaningful impact on the organization. And so those are some of the, some of the key features, I think, and the extent to which they actually view themselves as a cooperative body and collaborator with the staff is one of the things I'll look for.
Carol: A couple things in that, that you talked about. I was working with an organization and, and I generally am working with them around strategic planning. I think one value is that those of us who are consultants that go from organization to organization and, and have some of that perspective around, around a life cycle, a typical life cycle of a nonprofit, they were going through that very common transition from a completely volunteer board. They'd had staff for a little while, but we're still struggling with roles and responsibilities and, some of the founding board members wanting to have things, the way they'd always been when, when they did everything. And just being able to share that construct of you're going through a very typical transition, it calmed everybody down. Mm-hmm. because they'd made it so you know about the personalities in the room versus just the very typical organizational transition that they were going through, and how then roles needed to be renegotiated and, and rethought. So I really appreciated that. And then you talked a couple times around the complementary role of the board and staff and then having a collaborative Engagement with the staff. And one of the things that I've seen where some of those orthodoxies around board governance maybe have been misapplied have been where some of them work around. The executive director, as the only staff person of, that's chosen by the board and then that real bright line between board and staff that that can be, can become so, Hard and fast that the executive director is really the pivot point and neither group talks to each other. And so then that, to me, I've observed where that just puts so much power in that executive director role that it can be really harmful to the organization.
Larry: I think that it's a communication, but more or less it's a management leadership issue around permeability. It's true that the board does oversee one person, which is the exec, the chief exec. However, that is not a hard and fast firewall. A good board is gonna be inclusive. And it's gonna be comprehensive in where it gets its information from. It's gonna get that information from staff as well as external parties as well, who have a vested interest in the organization. So I'll, so let's base it on, what I've seen is the high functioning organizations and what they typically, what you'll typically see at the board meetings are open staff who are welcoming and sometimes actually have a role in those. They pay very particular attention to key staff, particularly financial staff in, in board meetings because they have a level of insight that is contributing to board's decision making. They will play a big role with development people. And oftentimes, I know at least on the board that I was on, we would follow the lead of the development person and the chief executive. And so there was a very close relationship there. They'll pay a lot of attention to what's going on programmatically, but only in the sense of not getting into the machinations of programming, but in terms of the impact that the programs are having on the population that they're intending to serve. And so that relationship tends to be really collaborative in the sense that the board needs to make, needs to deliberate and take certain actions, and they can't do that in a vacuum. And the chief executive. A good chief executive will recognize that they don't have to be the expert in the end all in the conversation. And so they will invite into that conversation the people who have the bird's eye view of those particular areas. And that will inform the board in making, really having well rounded deliberations because the staff will be right there in the mix of that conversation and there, and there's a clear distinction between who has voice and who has vote. What a tendency in these really high functioning boards, a staff board and other people that they invite into the conversation have a voice. At the end of the day, the board has the vote, but the question is, what does the board have the vote on? And so that brings to another chapter in the conversation, which is how do you make a clear delineation between that, which is the provide of staff and that which is the provide. The board and while they might have conversations that have some overlap, who takes action and makes decisions is gonna be, should be clearly delineated. It makes it, it's not as nice and neat as I'm portraying it, but to the extent that you can get it close to there, it will make for a better partnership between the two parties. And there will sometimes be some tension, but tension isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means there's a resolution that needs that's around the. If you work it the right way.
Carol: And I think what I've observed is folks really wanting it to be a very bright line and, very. And, and so struggling with the ambiguity of, is this ultimately a board responsibility and role or what role does the staff have in it, especially around strategy, aligning to the mission and those kinds of things. What have you seen where organizations have, have done a good job of, really setting their, their strategic alignment and being inclusive and yet, honoring the responsibility the board has with that fiduciary.
Larry: I can think of a couple of recent examples from me of organizations that have won the board leadership award, and they both, they actually both have, they have a couple of things in common. They serve marginalized communities by and large, and they were large organizations that decided to make huge changes. Their physical plant, including one, in one case, the place where they serve, because where they served really affected who they served. And they made changes to partnerships. And so all of these things came into play that affected how they looked at what their mission was and any shifts that they made in mission. They had those conversations in concert with the staff and the communities that they served, so they weren't just doing it in isolation. They engaged very thoughtfully in a very planful, intentional way over a significant period of time and made these significant shifts in that. Put them on the line in terms of how they raise money, what they raise money for, the partnerships that they created to create these new physical plans, because they actually had to do that in one case, the organization moved from one part of DC to a different part, and that was a radical shift, and they basically referred to themselves as a placed based organization, but they had to get staff aligned with that. Both of them did if they recognized it in order for them to make the major shifts, they were pretty bold moves in both cases. They had to adopt the mentality and an orientation and a practice of full ownership. Of all partners, staff were partners. Not these, not something, they weren't doing things to staff, they were doing things with staff and in the end it made their success more apparent because they were able to accomplish these, these, big things. And, a few years out, in both cases, they're actually now, you know, prospering as a result of that relationship. And they don't have the types of tensions that a tendency when. Are not, they're not necessarily an afterthought, but they're not engaged in the processes as genuinely as they should be. And staff will know if they are really owners. And it's, and I make the distinction between owning and buying in, It's great to buy into something, but you actually get a whole lot more bang for the buck when you can get everyone to own it because they actually are part of the making of it. And, and I think in these cases, that's the difference.
Carol: . And I, the way you're talking about it when it's, when folks are trying to really, I think find that, that perfect bright line of, the, what's, what's on the board side, what's on the staff side. There's the, there's often To me, what it comes down is, is power dynamics and the healthy relationships that you're talking about are more of that partnership, more of that power with rather than power over. And so really appreciating that we all have our different roles. We're not gonna all be doing exactly the same thing, but if ultimately we're pulling in the same direction and, and own those decisions I think that makes a huge difference. But it takes a lot of trust. I'm, I'm working with a group and there's, there's a lot of questioning around all, all the different basic VO vocabulary and what do people mean by each thing and, and, and to some extent, I, I'm curious about what the real level of trust is with between the different parties that's there,
Larry: You said something, Carol, that I think triggered something that I hadn't thought about as overtly as this before, and that, and you basically described emotional intelligence. Maybe a different twist on a question you asked earlier. What would I, what do I see in those boards that really work well? That's actually one of the things
Carol: Is it the board members and those and the leaders all?
Larry: It’s an emotionally intelligent organization.
Carol: So say more about what an emotionally intelligent organization looks like.
Larry: Well, one of the biggest things is that everyone is gonna be mission driven. I'll give you another example of one of these organizations, and they just blew us away. When they were coming up for the board leadership award a few years ago, they recognized that they were at this inflection point, some time ago, that they had lost a significant funder. They were doing work both nationally, internationally, and thought that they needed to, really focus and make a shift. So it's a part of their strategic plan. They did a couple of things. They wanted to focus more on really serious aggressive development of raising funds. So they brought a couple of people onto the board who were, and one of whom I know. So it's like if they got hurt, then they were rocking . They got these two high level development people on their board and they started to create this whole path of development as a part of the board membership. But one of the other things that they did that I thought, One of the most emotional and intelligent and mature things I've seen is that they actually set out a plan to fire themselves as a board.
Carol: Say more about that.
Larry: What does that look like? So what they essentially did is they set within a certain amount of time, each member of this board will be off of the board. And I think it was maybe about three or four year period. And at the time that they came up for the board leadership award, we, we were talking to the last two or three members of that original, that previous board. Both of whom I would put on any board on Earth, quite frankly, they were just that good. But the thoughtfulness and the selflessness behind what they did was just so admirable. It was one of the few times in the interviews and boards, I didn't ask any questions and at, and at the end I asked my committee mates, Can anyone poke a hole? And we are a really critical group, , and the room went silent and they, and it was just because they had that, they had, they were just pumping on all cylinders. And that was a good example of how the organization from staff to board recognized that culture is based upon leadership, and leadership is dependent upon the emotional intelligence of its.
Carol: And what they did there sounds like they were really intentional about essentially succession planning for, from the board point of view and, and really building a, a pipeline and, and seeing their exit versus, I've gotta stick around cuz I was here at the beginning.
Larry: Right, and they also understood what drove them was, they looked to the future and said here are the competencies, here are the skills, the, the experience, the attributes that we need to have now and into the future. And I know you and I did the piece on succession planning with another group and that it sounds very familiar, doesn't it? That they looked into the future and said, this is what we're gonna need. . And so let's now start to prepare for them, and that is like one of the biggest things that a board can do is to be, and that is really one of the charges as a strategic body. What a board should be able to do is to start to project and, and, and you don't do it with a crystal ball because life does interrupt, but you wanna look into the future to the extent that you can and start. Look at, what aspirations, what challenges, what opportunities are down the pike and who's around the table to help us address those things. And that's what the, and that, and I think in the, the cases that I've presented so far, that's what the boards have done, is they've all been really very intentional about recognizing what the future might look like for them and how they can have an impact on that future by making, smart strategic decision. By incorporating the input from different sources of information, data, people, et cetera.
Carol: And one of the big things that has been demonstrated through research over and over again is how White, top organizations are, especially at the board level and, and that disconnect between the folks who are sitting around that table and the purpose of the organization, who they're trying to serve. And, and, but that, that lived experience not being centered in the conversation. So I think a lot of organizations are really grappling with that right now. And, and it does take some emotional intelligence to realize, Okay, it may be time for me to step aside.
Larry: True. And because the question is who are you serving? Are you serving self or institution? And in each of the cases that I've talked about so far, it was very clear that these really high functioning boards understood what their purpose was. That their purpose was not about them. It was about the mission. It was about the people that they serve, and they put that above all else.
Carol: Well, that's why I started each of these conversations with a question around why, because it's, it's just so important.
So at the end of each episode I play a game where I ask a random icebreaker question that I have a box of. So. I always put out three so I can just grab one from it. So what mistake would you say you keep making over and over again or, what lesson does the universe keep throwing in front of you that you have to learn over and over again?
Larry: Let's see. Only one?
Carol: One's good enough for today.
Larry: I think the one that I remind clients of that I have to keep reminding myself of is that it is around the concept of the stages of change. And I know if you're familiar with what Percha and Clement's work and recognizing that you can't always jump into action mode if. Haven't gone, worked through the processes and basically the stages of change. Talk about pre-contemplation, where you're thinking about thinking about it, and then contemplation, and then you're actually thinking about it and then planning and, and, but much like most consultants, I have to take a step back and constantly remember, we're not ready for action yet because they are not emotionally, mentally at that place. And so I have to keep reminding myself. The process begins is really about figuring out where someone is in the stage of change and getting them to move from that. Your task is to get them to move from that stage to the next, not directly to action if they're not ready for that. And so I think that is an age old thing that most consultants battle with. And we have to, we actually have to pray on it, meditate about it, or whatever. It's a level of mindfulness that's important to keep driving us.
Carol: Always a question that I have for myself is, am I doing what I'm asking my clients to do? Am I doing it myself and staying true to that? Or am I just yapping about something? ? So it's an important thing to remember. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Larry: I think I've. Finding these opportunities with these small startup organizations and I'm finding some real stars. There's one I'm working with now that I've been really excited about because they've only been around since 2018, but they have already progressed beyond the thinking and how they have actually put together their pieces. They've already passed a lot of organizations that have been around a lot longer because they do something very simple, which is that they listen. And they ask questions about what they should be doing, and it's like, Oh, I love these. And they're, and they're a group of young people and young people of color. And so they, they've, they've gotten my attention. And there's another project that you'll probably relate to this, that. I'm working with the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in the DC Bar, Pro Bono Center on, it's putting together some sort of a package. We haven't put together this toolkit yet on helping folks think through the process of starting a non-profit. What you experience, what I experience as consultants is that we walk into habits that have already been formed. And so what this initiative is that we are trying to kick off probably in, in 2023, is to get them on the thinking, the conceptual stage of it, and to give them a good running start to include the recognition that you need to have the right people on the board to. They may not be the people who are gonna be on your board three to five years from now. Right.
Carol: And start that mentality from the very beginning.
Larry: Understanding the developmental stages as an organization that you're gonna go through and what you need now and what you need as you move on toward, having your feet solidly, planet on earth will be a very different type of dynamic. And some, in some cases it may mean that the founder may need to shapeshift into a different role as.
Carol: , I really appreciate folks who are founders who realize that that's their energy, that they're really good at getting things started, but not necessarily the right person to stick around for a long time. And they may need to go start something, a new thing or, or they become
Larry: The face to voice, the passion of the organization. It depends. I mean, it depends. And someone else can operate it. And that happens a lot with the people I've worked with. Arts groups, particularly performing arts groups, and that tends to be, what they do is they siphon off the artistic part from the organizational part, right? And they have this bifurcated management structure, but it works for them as long as they, again, have clearly delineated roles.
Carol: Exactly. Well, you mentioned the board leadership award. It's, and it's the org I think it's the organization that you mentioned, Center for Nonprofit Advancement in DC which is essentially the, the state non-profit association for the DMV area and I'm on their other awards committee, so for full transparency, the one that looks at the executive director and the CEO of nonprofits. And, and, in that, in those conversations we're having the same deliberations and the people that end up winning that award really have that Emotional Intelligence, but also I think the emotional maturity and health to be truly collaborative, both with staff and with the board. So. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast. It was, I, I really appreciated our conversation.
Larry: Thank you. And I'll think about that last question again.
Carol: I appreciated Larry’s point that while the roles and responsibilities of the board and staff need to be clear – they are not a bright line – and there should not be a firewall between board and staff beyond the executive director. This is always a balancing act because it can be too easy for board members to get too far into the operational aspects of the organization or start acting like a staff member’s boss when that staff member reports to the Executive director. So it is messy – and needs frequent attention and likely renegotiation as the organization grows and matures. I also appreciated Larry’s point around cultivating open communications throughout the organization. That for the culture to be truly impactful and collaborative – board members should know staff and likewise. The executive director should not be the sole source of information that the board relies on. I have worked at organizations where staff were literally prohibited from speaking to board members unless they were on the senior staff. To me this is a red flag. It points to a very controlling and top down culture. What is the ED afraid of in that case? Perhaps it is inappropriate complaints by staff going to board members? And if so – is there a safe and clear way for staff to share their feedback and challenges? I have experienced executive directors so closely managing what information was shared to hide real challenges within the organization from the board – to the point in one case where the senior management almost bankrupted the organization. So communication, trust, collaboration and transparency – all things that will result when the folks involved in the board – staff partnership that undergirds healthy governance have the emotional intelligence and maturity that Larry mentioned.
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 Larry Robertson, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it! And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 58 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Deneisha Thompson discuss:
A licensed social worker turned social entre/edupreneur, Deneisha Thompson is a consultant, facilitator and coach who specializes in change management, leadership development, group facilitation, and building strong teams. She is the founder of 4 Impact Consulting, a social impact firm, that provides culture-influencing organizational development services focused on building, repairing and positioning nonprofit teams for impact and growth.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Deneisha Thompson. Deneisha and I talk about what the drivers of impact are, the factors that contribute to toxic cultures within nonprofit organizations, and why it is often so hard to have conversations about communications and accountability
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Welcome Deneisha. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Deneisha Thompson: Thank you, Carol. It's wonderful to be here,
Carol: So I'd like to start with a question of what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Deneisha: Okay, so as you said, I'm Deneisha Thompson. I am the founder of 4impact consulting. It is a consulting firm, a social impact firm that really is focused on what I call culture, influencing organizational development. As a black girl born in the Bronx, New York who now knows that they grew up quite very much so with a life of privilege. Both of my parents were immigrants who came to this country who sent me to Catholic school and told me, get an education, and that would solve all your problems. But now as a black woman and as an adult, I recognize The oppression and poverty and just systemic injustice that I was surrounded by as a young person. And I was given a lot of opportunities, which is why I was able in my adult years to start a firm. But right out of college, I knew that something was different and I felt really. Call to give back. One of my favorite sayings is to whom much is given much is required. And I looked around me and a lot of the people who I grew up with in the Bronx have very different outcomes. And I'm not really curious about why that is. Why is it that we can grow up very similar? Environments that have completely different outcomes. And so my very first job was as a case manager in a homeless shelter. And that was transformative for me. It was where I really began to learn about systems, where I began to learn about the isms and began to see just how difficult some people have it in spite of quote unquote, doing everything right. And I was very lucky and, and really worked hard, but moved up in the nonprofit sector quickly.
I have sat at every level of a nonprofit from direct service to supervisor, to senior management. I've been the chair of a nonprofit board. And really now, 10 years later after starting my firm. While well intentioned and well meaning non profit org, the whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. And so One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally. Don't treat each other well, internally have a toxic culture, internally have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued. And so when I found it was oftentimes I would do strategic planning, for example, with a nonprofit. And they would say things like this has been our third strategic plan and the other ones didn't work. And it's like, well, why not? What's the real issue around why you are not reaching the impact that you hope to have both in communities and internally as a team. And again, the through line of that is culture. You need to have a culture that is going to allow you to get to the impact that you want to be able to grow organizationally, to be able to support your staff so that they are able to do good work. And so that's why I do what I call culture, influencing org development. In short, I help nonprofits, get it together, get your stuff together. These communities cannot wait for you to figure it out for you to, , have these tough conversations and learn how to work better together so that you actually can achieve the type of impact that everyone is working so hard to achieve on a daily basis.
Carol: There's so many things I wanna follow up with on that, on what you just said. First, yeah, just certainly as I have come up and, thinking about my trajectory in the sector, become more and more aware of all the privileged boxes that I definitely check in terms of my identities and where that situates me. But one thing that really struck me from what you were saying is the sense that the nonprofit sector is broken. And I think what was my catalyst for shifting my focus into organization development and kind of. Why don't organizations work like I think they should? And why don't people work together? , why are they getting in their own way? Was that same discrepancy or cognitive dissonance between these really. Ambitious and wonderful. And sometimes just well intentioned, sometimes really grounded missions that that organizations wanted to have for the change that they wanted to see out in the world. And then not seeing that mirrored inside the organization, or actually even, opposite of that. Like, totally not. Living the, , embodying the values that they want to have other people embody somewhere else, but not embodying them internally. So yeah, that, that was definitely my catalyst as well.
Deneisha: Yeah. And I will say, it's not for lack of trying. Sure. I think nonprofits often, like I said, are well meaning. Full of people who really believe in what they're doing and wanna see the change that their mission is really driving. And, and so my company wasn't always called 4impact consulting. It was initially called rent an expert cause I wanted to connect. Expert consultants with the right nonprofit projects, that it was a win-win situation. And then after doing work for so long, people were like, we don't wanna work with other experts. We wanna work with you. And so it was Thompson LLC for a while.
But what I recognize is that it is really important to think about what the drivers of impact are. And for our company, we see them as being four very specific things that, , if you work on one, that's great. But if you work on all four, you actually can move the needle and get to meaningful change. And so those impacts or those four pillars are leadership. And that's tied to executive coaching and making sure you have strong leaders who are positioning themselves to learn and grow and be responsive to the needs of their team. It's around team professional development. So no more just sending one person to training and thinking they're gonna come back and change the entire organization, but how do we learn and grow together as a team so that we're rowing in the same direction, it's around communication. How do we create the environment to have a real life? Tough conversations, important conversations, brave conversations, so that we are respecting each other and sharing and allowing the brilliance of our diversity rise to the top. And then finally strategy. What does our strategic planning look like? Do we have a north star? Do we have a clear set of goals and targets that we're all working towards? And so what we try to do is really help the organization. Think about all four and whether or not you are hiring us for one service or all four services. We really think that together by doing those , really thinking about those four pillars and, and being active around them, you can build the type of culture you need to make the impact that you want. And so when we influence culture, we think, unless you really are taking an effort to think about all four of those pillars and thinking about how they work together, collectively extra organization, it's why people will say, well, we've done coaching it didn't work, or we've done. We had a mediator come in and that hasn't helped, or we've done some training. We've sent our leadership team to training and we did a retreat, but it's still not working. Or this is our third strategic plan. And the other two were not successful. It's like, yeah, because are we thinking about this as a collective, as four things that we are working on together to really influence the culture of the organization.
Carol: Yeah, I love how you break that down because , in the work that I do, I'm, I'm primarily focused in, on, on that strategic planning aspect, but always wanna come at it from a team perspective. So really engaging all staff [and] board in that process. Hopefully helping people have conversations. With people that they might not normally be interacting with. So a lot of those things, but I always think of the strategic plan as, and that whole process as in service of the rest of it and not a one. And , the one thing that's gonna, , mean success or, or not success, I think it's important, but I think it's, it's part of a bigger picture. Like you're talking about indeed.
Carol: So you talked about culture influencing and you talked about the, the. The toxic cultures that can often emerge in nonprofit organizations and also said people aren't trying to create these, it's not usually out of maliciousness or anything. It's, it's, , they're very well intentioned. And what do you see kind of, or, or what would be. And I'm sure it's by, , each organization obviously is, is individual and has its own set of circumstances, but in your experience, what are some things that contribute to that? And perhaps make it more prevalent. I don't know whether it's more prevalent. I don't know that anyone's done the study, but I think maybe some, some part of it for me at least, is that when you're in the sector and you're wanting to work for an organization that is driving towards a mission beyond profit, a mission that that's designed to, , In your estimation, make some positive change in the world. You also hold your organization to a higher standard in terms of how it treats everybody and, and how that culture is created. But I'm curious for you, what are some of the things that are kind of. Common traps,
Deneisha: perhaps. Right? So there are lots of feeds of what I would say, create toxic cultures, particularly in the nonprofit sector. And, there's no one size fits all. There's no one type of nonprofit. So whether we're thinking about service organizations or we're thinking about philanthropy, or we're thinking about think tanks, there's lots of different makeups of nonprofit fors, but at the heart of it, It usually is a set of people that are trying to tackle a problem. And what I say is nonprofits are made up of humans, right. And in the business sector and like the private sector, when you are driven towards profit, there's like a very clear north star, right? Like, are we making more money? Are we, are we building our customer base? Whatever that is in a nonprofit. You often have people who are really passionate about the mission, which then makes it hard. And what I say is you can't like people say, leave your personal self at home. And like, just come to work that doesn't work in the nonprofit sector, whether you are working on issues related to poverty or education or homelessness, or, , especially with service orgs. We're often looking at places where people care a lot and their passions. Drive how they show up. So that's one thing, just like the idea of people who love the work are passionate about it, and really come in with their own personal perspective around how the work should be done.
The other thing is, , unlike some other sectors, there's a lot of diversity in terms of experience and education in the nonprofit sector. And so you have people with all different types of backgrounds, not necessarily humans oriented backgrounds that come in and. , either lead at nonprofits or are part of nonprofits. So everything from lawyers to MBAs to human services, professionals, to social workers, all of which have their own code of ethics. So their own way of approaching. How you show up at work. And I think oftentimes what happens is that nonprofits are not always good about declaring the lane that they're in the expectations. They have the shared values that you have that are going to drive your work. And so you have people with all these different educational backgrounds. Who are coming in, have learned different ways of approaching problems.
And then the nonprofit doesn't do the internal development to say, well we're a values driven organization. These are our values. This is how we embody them. And these are the expectations we have of the people who work here, not only of how we treat communities, but how we treat each other and how we speak to each other. So there's that then there's always like the stretch too thin. Funding is a difficult thing to do, but nowadays there's a lot of competition out there for it. And so while we're not businesses, we often operate through a business lens that then become places that aren't always connected to our values and embodying values and are just chasing contracts, chasing dollars, treating clients and participants like another number and really putting pressure.
Staff without actually supporting them to do the type of difficult work they do on a daily basis.
And then finally, I would say power depending on whether you're a small nonprofit or huge nonprofit. And how the systems of hierarchy work within your nonprofit. As nonprofit organizations, we're often trying to reorient power in communities and to think about how we think about self-determination, how we promote that, how we promote communities being part of the solution. And then we don't do that internally. You may have a group or a committee who holds the power, who holds the influence and then makes lots of decisions for people who don't feel like they can actually be a part of it. So it just becomes adversarial in terms of internal operations. And oftentimes the people who are closest to. The members of the community who you're trying to work with and for are the people who have the least amount of power, the least amount of influence. And so then resentment bills and, , people say things like, I feel like a hamster on the wheel, or I feel like we're not really tackling the problem or we know what the problem is, but we can't talk about it openly here, or they're gonna do whatever they want. So now I'm just showing up for a check.
Or people are not paid really well. People who are closest to the ground case managers, people who are doing difficult work in communities are not paid very well, are often checking themselves away from needing some service or help. And so it just isn't a space. Promotes wellness oftentimes for staff to be well for staff to be in a good space to do the type of emotional, passionate, difficult work that it requires. And so those things. Collectively together, depending on what happens at a specific nonprofit often breeds a culture where communication is not valued, like honest, clear, open communication at all levels where feedback loops aren't really happening. And there isn't time. You hear a lot, we didn't have time for training. We don't have time to do this meeting. We don't have time to get together and do team building. We don't have time to resolve the conflict. And so it becomes a place where turnover is high. And rather than build culture, you think we're just gonna smooth the chairs around, do a little bit of musical chairs, switch out the people and things will get better. And so I know that was a lot, but there are a lot of differences, it just goes to show. There are a lot of different ways to get to a toxic culture. And my work is regardless of how we got here. Let's try to do a good assessment to understand what the landscape is and why we are, where we are. And then let's as a team collectively through leadership, through communication, through training, through real strategy, deep strategic planning, think about how we can build a better culture that helps us work better together. and, and restore good relationships so that the toxicity is reduced and good teamwork is elevated.
Carol: Yeah. That's awesome. Just talking about the, the passion and thinking about Yeah, most people will end up at an organization because of something in their past or some connection that they have to the issue that leads them there, or even, I know for myself just thinking about my trajectory, it wasn't necessarily , I have a, I have a older brother who has a disability, and so I didn't end up in the disability arena, a lot of siblings do. But I think that was part of what motivated me to step into the nonprofit sector and see all those systems. But, and, and then the other thing that you were talking about in terms of professional backgrounds, I hadn't even really thought about that of each. Each profession, having its own code of ethics, its own way that it sees the world. Right. And what it thinks is, is good practice or not good practice and all of those value systems clashing in, in, in addition to the individual value systems clashing. And then I also think of that. We don't have time. We don't have time for team building. We don't have time for training. The issue that we're working at is so pressing, we have to be focused on that a hundred percent of the time. And so folks who ended up in leadership positions may probably ended up because they were good at.
One of those things that the organization did, they were great at advocacy or great at service or great at program development and may have had no training or development around what it actually means to be a leader. And then you, you give through a lot, Abby. So I've just like, had so many different thoughts of to, to think about, but also the fact that in so many organizations while. The organization and its mission wants to disrupt those power dynamics. And yet the models that we have, and even the models that are built into how nonprofits are structured from a, , as a not for-profit corporation Really just mirror the same hierarchy and, and same power systems that we see everywhere else. And so how do you, how do you start questioning that and what I also appreciate is a way that you elaborated on what you mean by communication, cuz so often when I'm doing that organizational assessment that you talk about, that'll happen for me at the beginning of a strategic planning process. People name well, communication is, , we need to improve communication. And my question is always in what way, what, I always feel like there's many things behind the label communication that are actually other things, but some of the things that you talked about of just that capacity to have. Open and brave conversations are often lacking and people need skill building in those areas. Few people, at least in my experience, were taught how to do that at home.
Deneisha: Yeah. It's one of the things I was just recently talking to a client about the word accountability, because it's the same thing, or really similar to communication where people want members of their team to be accountable for the things they're supposed to do. And when accountability doesn't happen, it hurts trust. But it's also a really hard thing to have that conversation around, right? Like people are saying, this is my job and I can be responsible for this, but when things go wrong, Owning up to it and, and being able to recognize how, whatever you didn't do impacted your team is a really scary thing. We are not. Our culture and just as humans, we are defensive deans. We are not bred to really exist, to be public about accountability. You may feel bad internally, but to actually come out and say, what? I screwed this up. I'm sorry. Or I had a bad day and I didn't show up. Those things are not valued. We actually have a very punitive approach to how we deal with people not doing what we need them to do. And that's very present in the nonprofit sector.
While we talk about things like restorative justice, and we talk about things like healing and bringing people together. And build bridges. These are all terms we hear around the sector a lot. We don't really create mechanisms internally for people to feel safe to do that. And so what ends up happening is that we have lots of teams who are individuals. Just try to escape accountability, because I don't wanna be written on, I don't wanna a bad performance review. I don't want to be othered or, or to be rejected and feel like I don't belong. It is a. Difficult difficult thing to, to be accountable to your team. And so part of that is like, I tie that in with communication because what we wanna do is to normalize like imperfection. No, one's perfect. We all make mistakes. We all have bad days. We all have had times where we were supposed to do something and we didn. And so how can we practice grace on our team and really offer grace to people in the way we would want people to be graceful to us when we make a mistake or we don't show up, or we had something personal or we were, or, or, or our lived experience. Came into play in a way that didn't allow me to be really objective at this moment. Right.
And so I think , oftentimes I say in the nonprofit sector, we do things that are really dehumanizing. And what I mean by that is things that are natural human emotions, like being fearful of getting in trouble or not being honest because you don't know what the repercussions are, or it may impact your ability to be promoted or saying I'm not ready to be a supervisor. I know I've been here 15 years, but I don't really have any leadership development or supervisory skills. Right. Like. The idea of leadership, supervision and management being three different things. These words people use interchangeably. And so sometimes people are promoted into positions that they're really not equipped to do. And being able to say, what, I really wanna get a promotion, but this job isn't for me is not, are not muscles we massage. And so that's why, again, I talk about culture so much because you have to build a culture where we normalize those uncomfortable things, where we normalize people. Being fearful. And we say, we know, but we want to create a system where we can be honest. We can be transparent and it's not gonna happen overnight. But how do we build trust with each other? How do we start having those things and putting systems in place and taking baby steps towards normalizing the things that people are often running from and things like communication. Accountability. Really being able to declare when you're not ready for something or when you've hurt someone's feelings, being able to like go beyond, not just that. I'm sorry. Cuz I'm sorry. Doesn't solve it. Everything is a really important skill that needs to be taught. You're not born with that. And if you don't practice it it's like anything, you lose the muscle for it. And so it's really about consistently building in opportunities for teams to be vulnerable with each other, to, in order to build trust, which we all know is like the foundation of having a really strong team.
Carol: Yeah. So, yeah, absolutely. And I'm thinking back to a program that I was involved in where it was a, a, , a new executive director CEO program leadership development program. And I would say that the number one, we. Did a lot of the more structural stuff here. Working with your board roles and responsibilities. But the crux of the issue that people were, I felt like had the most fear around was actually giving feedback to employees having those challenging conversations.
And even to the point where I was just on a call this morning and someone was reflecting the fact that in this organization, none of their leadership team ever gets any performance evaluation. And then thinking back to my career in organizations, and I would say there was only one that was a larger organization. Had any regular system for that. So, , it may not, it may not need to be a formal evaluation system, but what, how are you building those feedback loop loops so that people have a sense of how they're doing. And, and then also can, , can. Have a space to have those conversations about what's going well and, and what isn't and it isn't. And so, those check ins aren't always like a performance of these are all the awesome things I did last week.
Deneisha: Carol. You just hit the nail on the head. Can I just tell you, this is like one of the main conversations that I have at nonprofit organizations where we have. Especially when I talk to supervisors and then leaders are another topic. I'll come to that in a second, but sure. The idea. Constructive feedback versus constructive criticism. Mm right. And like what role do evaluations and supervision play in that feedback should be happening constantly. We should not just be waiting until something goes wrong to have conversations around how we can do better. And in supervision, it shouldn't just be like a check-in like you said around like, well, this is what we have in college. This is what we do. I always say to supervisors, if you are a match, if someone is seeing something for the first time on the performance review, you have failed. Right. Right.
You have plenty of opportunities between annual evaluations to share your feedback. And it doesn't always have to be in the form and it should not be in the form of criticism. You don't wanna be criticized like that does not feel good. What this should be is like, how can we grow? How can we do better? And so there is opportunity, every single one, to provide feedback. And you should be also saying as a supervisor, how can I support you? Right. Like, what do you need from me to be able to do these things? So feedback doesn't just go from the top down. It should also be able to go from the bottom up for a staffer to say, okay, I hear you. These are the things you'd like me to do, but here's the support that I need or the resources I. To get that done. So number one, feedback should be in a 360. It should go all the way around. Everyone should be providing feedback on a regular basis and feedback's different from criticism. We really should try not to criticize because that feels so personal and traumatic for so many people. That starts to lead to toxic work cultures and then people hiding from accountability. So that's one piece of it. The other piece is around leadership and that's why in my four pillars, we start with leadership. I always say the tail follows ahead. And while it may not follow in a straight line behind the head, it might be like a little wiggly rule behind. It's not gonna be going in the opposite direction. And so leadership is so, so, so important in building a culture. And when I say, , when I do coaching with executives, , we. I really try to work, to create environments where people can be honest and vulnerable. And what I've heard from so many leaders is, is like, what? I know I'm not, I know that I have room to grow, but it can be really isolating as a leader to get the type of support that you need. So who are you surrounded by? You have your staff who work for you and you're supposed to know what you're doing. And so you don't really wanna be vulnerable with them and say, folks, I don't have this, so I'm not sure about this. I don't really have experience in this area. I'm not really sure what to do. No leader wants to tell their staff that they don't know what to do. Then you have your board who often is supervising you, right? like, that's not necessarily the space where you also can be vulnerable and honest about your opportunities for growth. And then you have your colleagues who are other leaders of other organizations, and you definitely don't wanna tell them most of the time that you don't have it all together. And so. It becomes really hard for leaders to get the type of support that they need in order to be good leaders. And a part of that is also not creating systems to get feedback from your team around your leadership.
And it is one of the most common things that I see that leaders are not getting evaluations. And they're also not going to training, so they'll send everyone else to training, but they're not getting professional development. They're not getting coaching. They're not putting themselves in environments to really stretch and think beyond what they currently know. They're not learning new ways of knowing. And so it really, and, and then they think they're hiding. And what I try to help them understand is you're not hiding. Your staff see poor leadership. They might not have a space to tell you that they feel you're a poor leader, but this stuff. Impact, right.
Just like doing the coaching and getting good professional development can have a positive impact, not getting that also has the impact. And you're actually, you may be hiding from your board or you may be hiding from your clients or, or your or your colleagues. You're not hiding from your staff. Your staff are talking about you and talking about your poor leadership, and it would behoove you to really demonstrate that they are not the only ones who need to do better, that you, as a leader also needs to do better. And I will tell you, in organizations where I have seen culture shift, where people talked about it being toxic, and really being able to see where that switch happened when they see their leadership, taking it seriously. And their leadership also has opportunities of vulnerability and being honest and saying like, here's the spaces where I need to grow staff really buy into that because it no longer feels like it's this one sided finger pointing. We just need to get better trained staff. They recognize that this is a team thing, an organizational thing, and we're all gonna work on it together. And so what you said resonates so much because leadership matters, it really, really.
Carol: Well, and I, I see that finger pointing going both ways, right. Of staff in the break room, , venting about the leader, but that feedback not, not ending up. And I think the other thing that I, I noticed from that group and I've certainly seen at other places was that they, that they. The word feedback to them was synonymous with criticism. Feedback was always negative. Like I have to give someone feedback. Well, if you're giving feedback all the time, it can be both recognizing wins, recognizing the positive and having constructive feedback as well. And the other thing, I think that, in terms of feedback, that people Could do with more practice. And that's where the skill building really comes in is getting specific because I've worked for people who are like, you're doing a great job. It was awesome, but it's like, well, what, what was it that you saw that was particularly helpful that I could build on. But that two way feedback and certainly. Those kinds of programs where people where leaders can get a little more vulnerable with peers to be able, or with coaching, to admit their growth edges is, is really, is really key.
Deneisha: feedback. Isn't also just an outward thing. Sometimes feedback's listening, right? Like a key component of being able to give good feedback. Is to also listen and to hear and to synthesize that information and then to provide something back to the person that is actually actionable, that's meaningful. Mm-hmm . And to your point, that's really clear about the next step, right. And then also like to have an opportunity for disagreement. Like we all come from our own perspectives and some things are clear. Cut. Right. That was unsafe, something that you did was unsafe or things like that, but things like you could do better, like that's subjective, right? Like how, how can I do better is the next question? And because we are defensive beings, I think we also have to realize, like we will personalize feedback. And so how can you give it in a.
That feels positive and helpful and not just something that's gonna sting so badly that actually, I haven't been able to take that feedback in and I'm not gonna do anything about it. I'm just gonna be mad, right? Like now I just feel offended, particularly if it's coming in my performance review and we've had all these other opportunities to meet, and you've never said this to me. Right. And so I really do think it's incumbent on supervisors, managers, and leaders to build the muscle, to do. Constructive feedback. And again, even when it's about something that someone can feel is criticism that the way you frame that feedback. Can have very different results in how someone receives it. And so this is not just about wounding people. And what I say is like the punitive approach to things in organizations like that doesn't actually help people be honest. And so how do we get to a space where we create a culture of honesty? It has to be one that doesn't feel harmful to people. Yeah,
Carol: You talked about leaders , thinking that they're hiding X, Y, or Z, and, and staff are in the break room talking about it. And it just makes me laugh because I've had a couple different instances where I've come into strategic planning and the executive director was getting, , maybe they were two years. Maybe they were a couple years out from retiring and they, I don't wanna tell, don't tell anybody about this. And I'm thinking about that. I'm like, okay. So you're clearly in your sixties, seventies. This is not invisible to people. People are talking about this. Like how long are you planning to be here? What's the trajectory, what's your plan? So, , that's just one one example, but this notion that, , they're keeping secrets is, is one that is not helpful. So, I mean, I think about feedback learning how, how to give feedback in a way that. Increases the likelihood that someone can hear it. Right? I mean, you, you can't guarantee that, but there are ways to, to phrase things that are more likely for someone to be able to, to hear that. So what are some of the practical, I mean, what would you say to someone in terms of, Getting better at providing feedback. What are some things that you talk to people about?
Deneisha: So one of the things I say is something you said earlier is that it should happen regularly and should not always be based on what went wrong. Right. So it shouldn't also always just be about the individual person. Have we created opportunities to evaluate our work? Are we creating opportunities to evaluate the effectiveness of maybe a project or initiative or an event that we hosted? Do we ensure that feedback when it's given you also say things. What can I do to support you in doing that so that this person knows they're not on their own to just figure it out?
Definitely making sure that anything you put in a performance review has been discussed with someone. So no one ever feels like the rugs have been pulled out from under them. And then give feedback directly to the person. I cannot tell you how many times there's like all this stuff swirling about a person and no, one's actually told them. They talked about it with their colleagues. They've talked about it with the leadership, maybe even talked about it with HR and no, one's talked about it with the person who is the subject of the conversation.
And so some of it also requires having a direct approach and making the commitment to say, I'm gonna give you this feedback, but I also wanna hear back from you. How, how do you one, how do you feel? That's one of the things that's like the biggest curse word sometimes in our sectors. Like we don't care how people feel. We don't wanna know how you feel. Well, no, actually we are a social service human service sector where feelings actually matter because it impacts. People's actions.
And if everyone feels really horribly, it's really hard to get them to do meaningful work. Right. And so like, no, I hear you. And getting opportunities to be responsive to the feedback and asking again, the question around support, how can I support you in doing this? I also think it is an opportunity for questions. I think sometimes people give feedback and there's no room to ask questions about. How'd you get there? How'd you get, why did you make that decision? And also almost like a little bit of coaching. What could you have done differently, especially if it's something that the person may not, not feel great about one of the things that's thinking about. Okay.
So next time. What are some things we can try proactively developing strategies so that the next time someone is confronted with a similar issue, they don't have to figure it out on the fly. It's really helpful. And so I really think that in supervision, That should happen regularly and that organizations should really train their supervisors. That's another piece of it. I cannot tell you how many times I have done supervisor training and asked people who have been supervisors for five years, 10 years, and they've never actually had supervisor training and it shows, or organizations are not clear about their expectations of supervisors. So everyone's running their team like it's in their own little kingdom. Those are recipes for disaster and actually just increased risk and liability, right. At an organization because it's hard to show consistency, which then people can use in a lawsuit to say, this was discriminatory as opposed to this is what we're doing. And so it's feedback regularly and often. Allow for questions and proactively plan things that you can try next time. So you have some strategies and then check in, how did that go? What did it mean? How did you learn from it? And again, how can I support you and ensure this is something you're actually able to do and accomplish.
Carol: Absolutely. Yeah. And, and I was laughing when you described the swirl around people, because I feel like that's another common thing that people will do. They'll call someone like us. Right. I want to do team building or I wanna do board training or roles and responsibilities. And once you start having the conversation of, okay, why. We're having a problem with this person. And then the next question I'll always ask is, well, have you had a conversation with that person? Well, no, not yet. Nope. Okay. Well, we can talk if we can continue talking about training or team building or whatever it is. And you need to have the conversation.
Deneisha: Yeah. I'll give you another quick example of how I can tell at an organization when there's a communication barrier. So oftentimes someone will hire me and say, for example, I'm gonna come in and do the strategic plan. And as. A part of the strategic planning, like you, I do an org assessment to get us started. And I always pride myself. It's similar to supervision and with the evaluation that at the end, when someone gets their org assessment and you share it with the leadership and share it with the team that it should feel familiar, it shouldn't feel like, like a bomb just dropped and there's all this new information.
But oftentimes the response that I get, people get their org assessment and they'll read through it. And they're like, yeah, we knew all of this. And it's almost as if they're expecting it to be a document full of secrets and things they didn't know. And that says to me, like these are issues that everyone knows about. We know the landscape of where we are, but we don't have a system for us to have that conversation, which is why we had to hire a consultant to come in and tell us where we all already know. And we could have elevated in a landscaping conversation if we just had a team that was able to communicate and talk to each other. And so it'll be like their assessment. It'll have recommendations. It'll have questions for further consideration. And I find, oftentimes the staff are like, this is amazing. Like, I've been saying this for years. And then the leadership is. Oh, we, we knew some of this or, , it's good to see it, or you really captured our, our organization and it's like, yeah.
So did you really need this assessment or did you, right? Like, could you have had these conversations or maybe dealt with some of these things internally before it rose to the level of being a complete issue right now? And. That's another way to show that everyone is itchy. Shouldn't talk to the consultant. I can't wait to talk to you as a part of this assessment. I wanna tell you everything. And then I pulled together this report and everyone's like, yeah, we knew all that stuff already. It's like, yeah. Why have you not been talking about it? What's the, where's the barrier that makes it, so that the only way this rises to the level of something that we're gonna deal with? If someone from the outside comes in and tells us like that is a huge indicator that you haven't set up systems of communication internally for your team to have important conversations that are meaningful to like the impact of your work.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. I have that same experience of people thinking that there's gonna be a big reveal and then saying, well, no, really wasn't that much surprising. I think what they do find what I have experienced is people find there's a sense of relief yeah. Of. We are more on the same page than I thought. I thought I was over here having these thoughts myself and actually everybody else is having those same thoughts. But as you point out, like, why are they just thoughts? Why are they not conversations? Exactly. So yeah, so, and then, I mean, I think sometimes it is helpful. Any process where you're working with a consultant or a coach, or you have a system for doing that in a methodical way, that certainly organizations can do themselves.
And I think it's helpful sometimes to have a shepherd really, to guide you through it. So it's, it's both, but right. Not to just wait every three years for that to happen. Right. If you're on a regular process for a strategic plan, for example, again, like the performance review, you don't have to wait for three years. And then in terms of the goals, I also , if the goals are so far beyond. What's been in the conversations. I also am like, I don't want any of these to be super like a left field either because it needs to relate to what you're already doing and what you're already good at.
Deneisha: Right. That's the part that I actually find is the meaningful part of the strategic planning. Of course, all of it's meaningful. The landscape analysis is important. Having some assessment. Because you need to reflect on the past in order to really build good goals and targets for the future. But I find that's the piece because I always say so. There's a hundred things we can do. Our goal in this process is to build alignment and find consensus around the best next set of things we can do. What is the thing that will help us when it comes to things like operations or development programs and services? What's the right combination? It's putting together a puzzle. So you end up listing all these ideas and then working together to really think about them. What's the right combination of pieces to get us further than where we are? Three years from now. And so that's the part that I think is really helpful for teams in the strategic planning process is building the muscle of being able to like learn from the past, think together, and then develop a plan that there is team alignment and cohesion around the next steps of things that can move us forward.
Carol: absolutely. So we identified a lot of the problems with nonprofit culture. And you talked about some of the ways that organizations can start stepping forward to, to build a more positive culture. What are some other things that you would say are really important as organizations and leaders wanna get more intentional about building a healthy culture?
Deneisha: Yeah. So one of the things I think is just a really easy starting point is to think about how you embody your organizational values and notice I use the word embody. I think all organizations have values, but when we think about, and what does that look like here? Those are questions that need to be answered. I think oftentimes organizations will list their values. And when you ask staff about what that looks like or ask community members about what that looks like, that is not really clear.
Or what is our organizational culture? I always define culture when I'm talking to groups because I Al I use the term like, it's like, look, everybody knows what it is, but if you try to define it, we're all gonna have, there's 10 of us in this room. There'll be 10 different definitions. And so really trying to understand what the culture is. Like that's an important conversation to have. What do people think about our org culture? Is it healthy? Is it toxic? Just asking the basic question. I think another thing is to, , really think about where do we have opportunities for us to connect and talk and like, is there a space for us? , put questions up somewhere that we actually have some conversation and then a, a action around. So lots of conversations happen at nonprofits and sometimes I'll hear things like we've been talking about this for years, but there's no action tied to it.
So having conversations lead to action is a practice that you should have, like do not get stuck in analysis paralysis. , and even like the term parking lot, when I do strategic planning, we don't do that. We don't use that term because people say things like the parking lot is where things go to die. So we use the phrase, a runway and I give the analogy like this is a plane, and we're about to launch something with this strategic plan. What are the bumps on our runway that would keep us from a safe launch, right? From a successful launch.
So identifying the, like, there's always a ton of things that we could work on, but what are the things that are really barriers to keeping us from having the type of culture that we want. And then finally, like really the recognition that culture is everyone's. It's not just the HR person's job. It's not just the job of the supervisor. It's not just like the DEI person's job. Like all of those things require all of us to be embodying the values as we have defined them. And. To make sure that everyone is contributing to trying to have a more positive and healthy work culture. And so defining what that looks like is what I do like with organizations to say, like, what are our expectations of each other and how we work together. And just naming that and saying that we are also individually going to make our commitment around how we're going to contribute to this on a daily basis. So I tell people. Let's get in touch with your shadow side, because we all have one. It's never really the thing. We're proud of stuff, but what happens is it shows up at work and your teammates see it, and they don't know that.
And so we do a lot of work around, like, who am I as an individual? How do I show up? And how do I. When things come up change my reflex. So I am not automatically thinking about the external factor or the person who caused this thing or caused me to be frustrated. My first instinct is to be reflective and think about how am I showing up right now? How did I contribute to this thing? How do I calm myself down so that when I do go to have this conversation, it can be productive and get us to a better place and not just be like a way for me to vent and, and, or feel vindicated. So I think it really just takes a lot of intention.
And I think, again, the number one thing that organizations can do is have a leader that says like, this is meaningful. I want us to have a healthy culture. And I, as a leader, am going to really leave this effort and participate in making sure we have what's necessary to get us there. What are your suggestions? Right, like starting from the top saying this is everyone's job, including mine. and this is what we're gonna work on. And we're like the next year or however long it takes for us to have the types of conversations, get the type of training that we need to set up the systems so that we can be in a better place. This is no one person's fault. I think that's the other thing. We do a lot of blaming in the nonprofit sector. We blame the government. We blame communities. Like we blame each other. How do we reduce the culture of blame? And say that everyone has to have skin in the game. Everyone needs to work on personal accountability and everyone contributes to whether or not we have a healthy culture.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. Well, that leads me into the last part. On every episode, I play a little game where I ask a question from a box of icebreaker questions that I have, and the, the one, one of the ones that I pulled out today was what's the, what's the life lesson or mistake that you keep on making over and over again and keep having to relearn,
Deneisha: To protect my time. I think I do not. Because I have some of the same things I talk about with nonprofits. I am so passionate about my work that I work a lot and I don't always make time to. Have joy, like true joy. I think I worry about clients. I worry about work. I worry about the world and am I taking enough time to replenish my gas tank? Right. Like, I feel like my work is exhausting. It's meaningful. It's hard work. I'm one of the lucky ones that my personal values and passion are very much connected to my professional values and passions.
And how do I actually just sometimes take time to pause and in spite of all of the crazy around me, like, Experience joy, like really like prioritize that. I think it would help me not feel so exhausted all the time and would actually help me just show up in life and be better to myself and get that good balance. I have a big vision board in front of me that I sit in front of every day. And one of the phrases on it is, or two of the phrases are to get balance and rediscover pleasure. And they are reminders that I have to make to myself all the time. And I think it's something that's endemic in our sector of people who are well, meaning passionate, stretched really thin. Always helping others and not really doing what's necessary to help themselves and replenish. So I would say that and ask for help, because I think that's also important.
Carol: Oh my goodness. You named my top two too. We seem to have something in common. So what, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Deneisha: So one of the things I'm very excited about is, changing things for a lot of folks. I'm an adjunct professor. So I teach in the school of human services at metropolitan college of New York. And I have been able to take that skill set and translate it into building a virtual classroom. And so I'm really excited about the launch of this virtual classroom that will be able to. Help teams get professional development at the time and that it works for them.
One of the biggest things in our sector is time. And so I'm really excited that the beta testers who are testing the classroom love it. It is gamified and its incentivized staff earn rewards and points for participating in professional development. And I love that. It's not just based on one individual going to get training and thinking. They're gonna bring that back to the organization. This really. Built to cater to all different learning styles, to be training that sticks and to offer people rewards for growing and building and doing better. And so I'm really excited for teams to learn together. Participate in the discussion forms and really create something that's new that I think our sector needs, but is not out there. And I'm really happy to have a real innovative way to help teams get the type of training and learning that they need to build better cultures.
Carol: That's awesome. So you're, you're in beta now. Let us know and we'll make sure to include all the information in the show notes for this episode. And, and I, I love how you phrase it and, and you talked about it before not just sending one person to training X and expecting it to impact, because what happens is people come back from that training, all excited, and then they run into the culture. Exactly. Exactly. And, and so, yeah, so it's all, or they're
Deneisha: Not trainers, they're not facilitators. So it's like, OK, I got the training. I teach everybody training and no
Carol: One, my, my air quotes and it's actually just listening to someone drone on. Right. So they're not actually getting to, to do skill development, but yeah, that sounds really exciting. And we will definitely include that information. I'm sure it will be a really, really rich resource for the sector. So thank you so much. And thank you again for coming on. It was a great conversation.
Deneisha: Thank you, Carol. It's really great to spend some time with you today.
Carol: I appreciated what Deneisha said about feedback. When folks hear the word feedback – they usually assume it is feedback about something bad. But feedback itself is neutral and needs to be frequent and specific. For positive things and for things that need improvement.
Too many organizations lack any system for providing performance feedback on a regular basis – starting with regular evaluations – to integrating feedback into regular conversations. And the key – and it can be challenging – is to be specific. Just telling me “great job” feels a little meaningless. That about it was great – can you give me a specific example. I appreciated when you spoke up in that last meeting and challenged us to think some more about our new direction. Your questions were really thought provoking and helped us slow down and not make a decision too quickly. That is specific positive feedback. And I also appreciated Deneisha’s point that a culture that only provides criticism encourages people to hide from accountability and hide mistakes – they want to avoid being called out and that sting. Yet things will go wrong and they need to be discussed too – How can you create a space where it is safe to admit mistakes – and that the discussion is focused on what can we learn from this and manage and or avoid it in the future. – that it is future oriented vs. blame oriented. And beyond the individual level – how are you creating a learning culture – where your work on a project, program or initiative basis is also being regularly evaluated – and not just whether folks like it or not – enjoyed it or not – but rather it is achieving the goals and objectives it was designed to produce. And if not what tweaks need to be made? And have you taken the time to map out what the assumptions, the expected short, medium term and long term outcomes are?
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Deneisha, her full bio, the transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed today’s episode , please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. The easiest way to do that is to go to podlink. Pod.link/missionimpact and you can share the podcast or any individual episode and then your colleague can listen on their podcast listening app they prefer. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 40 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guests, Monique Meadows and Terrill Thompson, discuss:
Monique and Terrill are long-time friends and co-owners of Banyan Coaching and Consulting, where they partner with clients to create healthy, vibrant, and sustainable cultures through holistic coaching and facilitation. Our love for the natural world is integrated into all that we do. We invite you to tap into your inner knowing as we together transform and expand in ways that are electrifying, unpredictable and imperative. Monique is a lifelong student of energy healing, channeling and a Reiki Master. Terrill lives in a community on a permaculture farm where they draw energy and joy from producing food, nurturing healthy ecosystems, and offering respite to activists, artists, and organizational leaders. Both earned Master’s degrees in Organization Development from American University, where they were awarded Segal-Seashore Fellowships for their commitment to social justice.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guests today on Mission Impact Are Terrill Thompson and Monique Meadows. Terrill, Monique and I talk about what organizational culture is and why it so often trumps any policies and procedures that you may write, what it really takes to shift organizational culture, and what are some signs that an organization is really ready to engage in culture change? Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Welcome. Welcome Terrell. Welcome Monique. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Terrill Thompson: Thank you.
Carol: So I'd like to start out with a question of what drew you to this work? What motivates you and what would you describe as your, why Terrell, why don't you tackle that one first?
Terrill: My story of how I got into this work was I started as an executive director of a nonprofit and I was one of those EDS that really never should have been an idea right out of college. I got hired as an administrative assistant and then the ed quit. And so the board promoted me to be the ed. And in that experience, I learned a lot on the job and really loved the nonprofit sector. But what I was really passionate about was figuring out how to create and shift the culture within the organization. And so that landed me in graduate school, getting a degree in organization development, which is where. Monique. And then we have been, even though our degree and organization development is much more of a for-profit oriented degree. Most of our colleagues work in the for-profit world. Both of us have always been in the nonprofit sector and passionate about social change. And so we have just applied all of that learning, translated it into non-profit language and have been applying it in a nonprofit.
Monique Meadows: Yeah. So, so similarly, I come to this, having worked for social justice organizations for about 25 years now. And initially I was a development director, so I was responsible for raising the money and all that, which is so not what I'm oriented for. And we, I was part of a management team that was really. Struggling. And we brought in a consultant to help us and figure out what was going on and why everything was breaking down. And there was a moment where I thought, I wonder what he's doing. I was like, that's what I'm wired for. Right? Like how do we heal relationships? And how do we make sure that we're working together in ways that really foster collaboration and so, went to graduate school, met Terrell and yeah, I've been really loving it ever since.
Carol: Yeah. And, full disclosure: I went to the same graduate program, not in the, in the same cohort as the both of you, but and, and it, it somewhat of a similar thing that instigated B two. Moving into organization development was, yeah, working at a number of different nonprofits where they had incredible missions, incredible work that they were doing in the world. And, and yet there was this gap between. How, what the change that they wanted to see outside themselves, but then how they were treating, how we were treating each other, how, how the culture of the organization was. And so I didn't actually, I don't know when I finally, just started getting intrigued with. Why, why is there that gap and how could we work more effectively together and finally stumbled upon, oh, there's a field where people do things about this and I can learn more too. So yeah, so similar and. Your work really focuses a lot on that organizational culture change. Just to begin, how would you, I mean, and we've talked, I've talked a lot about organizational culture on this podcast, but I'm curious how the two of you define organizational culture. What are, what are the kinds of things that you're talking about and thinking about when you're, you're looking at an organization's culture.
Terrill: We define culture really broadly. Right? It's really, I mean, the essence of it is what does it feel like to work there? Right. Every organization has a different call. And the people who can most clearly see the culture are often the new folks, because once we're in it, we're just, it's like the fish in water that doesn't know they're in water. It's, it's all around us all the time. And so, newer people who are coming into organizations can often tell you a little bit more about the culture. The other thing is that oftentimes our practices and policies are really down that should define a cartoon culture, often contradict the culture. So for example, we'll see policies that say things like everybody takes an hour for lunch, but then when we look around the office, everyone's sitting at their desks, cramming food in their face while they're typing emails, right. And culture often Trump. Everything else. And so when we're looking at culture, we're really looking holistically, how are people behaving in the organization? How do they treat each other? What are the relationships like the level of trust? What is the culture around, what do we do about birthdays or holidays, all of that. Even how we dress is part of. Okay. And so we're really taking a broad approach. And when we enter organizations to learn about the culture, our processes, predominantly observation and talking with people, because while we do read all the policies and procedures, that's not going to tell us that culture, right. It's really about the people. The people make up the culture. Do you want to add anything to that money? Yeah.
Monique: Yeah. And so once we've done some of that observation, like we reflect back to the organization, like here's what we see. Right. Here's how you're relating to each other. How here's, how you're sharing information. Here's how collaboration is or is not happening. And it's fascinating to see how just the reflecting back, what we see, how that in of itself. The culture, right? Because as Tim said, there's the ideal that they hold and then there's what's actually happening. And so we're coming in and assessing that and reflecting back, really. So we start talking about energy, right? Really shifts the energy in the group and. Work with they're like, oh yeah, okay. This, this looks like us. And this isn't quite where we want to go. And so they're, they're ready to make some of those changes in some of the groups that we work with. Aren't right. And so our work is to, to meet them where they're at, so that we can help guide them through a process that turns their culture into the one that reflects their values and who they say they want to be.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's, that's where, I don't know there was, there was a point at which there are these cynical posters that came out when we, with the values thing and, and, and just the, the, the worst of what it could be. And, that's all a joke because so many organizations have gone through that process of, or maybe articulating values, but then, there can be that gap between what we think we are, but what's, what's really happening day-to-day.
Monique: And part of the thing that we've seen, that's such a challenge is that group say they want to do the organizational culture work. Right. And so they bring in folks and. When they realize that the depths of time, like the amount of time, like the commitment and the vulnerability that is really present, they shut down. Right. And so groups also don't always have the resources to really invest the time. Right. Folks are pulled in a thousand different directions. And so we found that to be one of the challenges. Are you really able to commit the time and the resources, the people power to be able to dig in and do this. And so some groups are like, yes, and some aren't able to, but, but that's where I think some of that cynicism comes, right, because there's so many starts and stops to this type of work, but it really does require just like really diving in deeply.
Carol: What are some things that can help? Yeah, I mean, I think realizing how long a process like that takes and how, how challenging it can be to shift culture, even when you want to, what are some things that help that process move forward and go more smoothly?
Monique: Well, the first piece of television mentioned a minute ago was that, we do the data collection, right? So we go in, we talk to folks, have focus groups, interviews, and really pull together what summarizes who they are. Right. And then we reflect back to them. What our work is, is to introduce concepts and models that resonate with them. Right. And use language, because we know when we're talking about culture, like there's some groups we can go in and work with. And they automatically, when we start talking about how our organizations reflect the natural world and they're like, yes, Instant resonance and we're able to do the work. Other groups were like, what the heck are they talking about? These hippies are crazy. Right? So, so we have that. Right? So, part of it is finding. Specific activities that resonate with the group and help them to connect in new ways and create a safe enough container where people are willing to take some risks with each other, because they're often we find there's a lot of injured feelings, right. A lot of hurt feelings, right. And a lot of old narratives. Become concretized and some of the systems. Right? So, what we do is let's surface this and find where the opening is, right? That's the piece like where the opening is so that we can go in and help shift. So it's really about making sure that we have exercises and activities that they're willing to engage in, right. That matches their culture and, and just moves them through the process. And I think part of it too, is at the beginning, like making it really clear. This is a process that is particularly long sometimes. Right. And so, are you already, and cause so gauging organizational readiness is a big piece of that.
Terrill: I'd love to jump in with a little bit about dating the readiness because a lot of our work is in racial equity and equity more broadly. And we often get organized. Well, we get a lot of organizations reaching out to us. So we're in a really fortunate position of being able to be really selective about who we work with, which is nice. But a big piece of that is really figuring out is the client ready to do the work that they say they want to do? Because oftentimes there's a belief that, well, we can bring in someone and do a few training sessions and that's going to shift our culture. And training is great as educational tools. They do not change culture on their own. They have to be embedded in a whole culture change process. And so we do a whole assessment process in our interview process to decide if we want to work with a client. And some of the things that we're looking for is do they have leadership who's really invested in an equity change process and are they willing to learn? And both of those things. And that means that they're going to make mistakes. And so are they able to handle making a mistake and learning publicly in front of their staff and are they willing to invest time and resources into this? And that includes staff time. And so most of our clients we've been able to work with set aside a portion of their time each week for every staff member to do equity-based. Right. And that ranges and the clients who our clients are doing 10%. So if you're 40 hours, four hours a week is going into really learning and engaging in an equity way that gets self-defined on what their learning curve is. We also know that we need to have access to the full organization. So any organization that says yes, but you can't work with us. That's a flag for us, because if you want to create culture change, it has to be organization wide or else. The default is to pull back to where you've been. So if you have any group that's not moving, it can pull the whole organization back. That's not to say that we can't do work with staff and board, just oftentimes we have to do it separately at first, because they're in two really different places, but we've gotta be moving. And the whole organization, and that can include volunteers depending on how engaged volunteers are in the organization. So those are a couple of the things that we look for. We also talk very directly about clients, about the need for transparency with us. So we need to know that clients are going to tell us for real what's going on when it's happening, not a month later, right? Because we, by definition of the work we do, we come in and stir the pot. Right. Which means that things are going to come up and if we're not informed, because we're not there day to day, we're not going to hear it at the water cooler, which I realize is different in zoom world, but we're not going to pick it up in that same way. And we need to know that information is coming to us so that we can address things in the moment. It's really important to us, to not be the consultant that comes in, stirs everything up and then leaves. We have seen that happen so many times and it's really, really damaging to organizations. So we take a slow and steady long-term approach with our clients. We would much rather have you move like an organization, move an inch and stay there. Then move three inches and go back to where you were. It's really about that slow and steady progress. Always moving in the direction of equity.
Carol: Yeah. A couple of points are built there. I, I thank you for going to the point of readiness, because that's exactly what I was going to ask you about. Like, what are those signals or what are the things that you're looking for to know that an organization is ready to, to engage in the type of work and type of culture change that you're talking about? And one of the things I really appreciated is when I think when. We're talking about culture, people, it can feel very amorphous for folks, but the fact that you get as concrete as we're going to need, X percentage of staff, time to be dedicated to this over a period of time is it. I think that that's what makes it, that makes it real for folks we're not going to, it's not just an add on, it's not an extra, it's not a special thing. And, and your point around, training obviously is important and education is important. And yet it's not sufficient to change culture. Can you say more about what you've seen in terms of stirring the pot? And then I think it's, sometimes it's even just opening things up and not having enough time for some closure that can also give people just. Either hurt or confused, or just like, what was that all about? So lots of different things that some negative impacts that consultants can have, if they're not careful or haven't haven't to really help the client understand, help the organization, understand what partnership is needed to really make the change that they're looking for.
Terrill: To clarify a little bit about what we regularly see coming into organizations is that oftentimes we very often are the second, third, fourth consultant group that a client has worked with. And the pattern that we see is consultants coming in, asking a lot of questions, getting folks to bare their souls about what's really going on there. And then. Moving out without real change happening. And so we're finding people are really discouraged, particularly folks of color who have just put themselves out on the line to say, this is how racism is impacting me in our organization. And then it falls on like it just falls. It doesn't get held. And so part of what our approaches is that the trust building has to happen. At, in par with the level of racial equity work that we're doing, if that makes sense. So we can't, we can't go in and do a race like racism 400 when trust is not present. Right. We've got to have the trust to hold what comes up so that when the group is ready to actually hold the experience, then we can bring that in and start to make those shifts. But it's really, really damaged. To open it all up, bring people's hope up and then nothing changes. Right.
Monique: And it's really, I mean, just the level of hurt that we encounter and some of these organizations post multiple groups of consultants, and this is not to, in any way, like denigrating the consultants. Right. Because, they may have only been able to come in and there was only a certain amount of time that they were given right there constraints that they're working with. Right. But it's. Remarkable. Like how. Just how much, how many tears there are, that's present right. In the, in these groups and for both the folks of color. And then of course the white folks have a lot of fear right around, am I going to say the wrong thing? It's just okay. Like, what, what are the, what are the lines. They do feel like they're constantly changing. Right. And so, so our work is, like I said earlier, it's like, we really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. Right. And, and we've worked with some groups where they're, they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals, right. For people to really name it and let it go. And as long as it works, What the heck are these people talking about, but again, where we're exploring and experimenting too. And then we have those groups where it's like, they hold on so tightly to the injury. And so we move even more slowly. Right. But, but as we're doing. We're naming, like, here's what we're seeing. And here's what, so we're constantly reflecting back to them so that they first don't feel like they're crazy, right? Like this is actually happening. And what agency do you have? What power do you have within the system to make the changes? That's also a part of our work is to see at all levels within the hierarchy that there's some power there. And so how. With the role that you have, how can you move this along so that you can move closer to fulfilling your mission? And I think the other piece is around talking about culture in general, because it's so invisible. Often we find that folks can dismiss its significance, right? Like how much it really impacts, how far you're getting along in your work and how you're able to. Really fulfill your mission. And so naming it and, and really identifying this is why it's so important, and there are moments where you see the light bulbs go off and you're like, oh, okay. This is why we do this work. Right. But yeah.
Carol: And I can imagine coming in after multiple attempts with different consultants to, to move the needle and having things, not, move forward. I can imagine that For some organizations, and clearly as you're, as you're describing, it really ends up creating harm in the organization. And at the same time, I'm guessing that it's also part of what unfortunately helps organizations be ready to receive. Commit in a way that they perhaps weren't in the first or second or third try. Yeah, I just, I mean, that's the story I'm making up, but
Monique: They're like, okay, we gotta do it, the stack,
Carol: Or they thought, well, if we just have these three trades, then we'll be good. And well, no, that wasn't, that isn't quite it.
Monique: Yeah, we're very clear with organizations that we don't come in and only do training, but that's just not our style. We really want to go in and build the relationships and, and help folks see how the training applies to their work. Because sometimes there's this disconnect, like, why are, why am I getting this training, on equity? When we're doing something that's completely separate. So we work to really show how it's integrated in.
Carol: And you talked about the process of building trust and going slow. I'm curious, especially with organizations that have gone through a couple of these processes, probably, multiple people have already asked them many questions, had those focus groups and had those interviews talk to people. They're like, oh my goodness, are we doing this again? Do I have to tell that story again? I'm curious how you approach that in terms of helping people open up again. Or to, to really build that trust.
Monique: Well one of the things we do is just first put it out there. Like, we know you have been asked these questions multiple times. And so sometimes depending, particularly on the length of time, that's it? This is between when the last group of consultants came and when we were coming in. Sometimes we take the reports to the other consultants. And really put that upfront. Like here's what we already know about you. Right. And we want to build on that. Sometimes there's been a good chunk of time. And so we do have to ask those questions over, but again, it's just putting it out there and being really transparent about it. And one of the things that Terrell and I do Is that we're working with the groups so that the groups are willing and able to make mistakes, like we demonstrate that like, we, we are very in the moment with our groups and particularly, oh yeah. I was going to say virtually, but just across the board, we're very. Present. And so in the moment, there are times when we're making mistakes with each other or stepping on each other and we just put it out there, right. Just show, Hey folks, we are going to make mistakes together. Right. You've done this before. You'll keep doing it. And, and we, we can do that and move forward. Right. So it shows them that we're not coming in assuming that they're all wrong and we have all the answers. Right. We're making sure that they don't have that perspective. Cause we, cause we demonstrate it. But, but we really. We, we, we, I think I keep going back to things and things, but we just, we can, we name like here's what's happened already. Here's where we're going to go. And here's where we'd like to go with y'all. So I feel like I might've been repeating yourself.
Terrill: No, I'm going to repeat what you said too. Because it was too. Then, to not say again, it's like a big chunk of our work is showing up and being really present with people and being really transparent. And that alone builds a lot of trust. So when we come in and say, we've heard all of this, we know we're the fourth consulting group to come in. We know the other ones haven't been successful and we don't want to leave you in that place. So help us figure out how we can be successful here. People. They shift their tone. And when we show up as full human beings who make mistakes, who are learning along with the client, people trust us more because we're not robots and neither are they. Right. And so we need to be all in it together. I think another important thing is that we move because we move slowly. I think that helps build trust. And that includes in the interview process. So we have had, multiple months before we've ever signed a contract where we're meeting with different groups of staff to make sure that they're comfortable with the decision to work with us because that's, especially if staff have been really burned in the past, that's an important process because we want them to be. Comfortable with the decision to hire us. And if they're more comfortable with another group, then they should go with another group. We know we are not the best consultants for every organization out there. No consultant is right. It's about finding the right fit. And so we encourage organizations. In fact, we push really hard. If people reach out and say, someone referred you, we'd like to hire you. I didn't say you should really talk to a couple of groups and make sure that we're right. We have the right approach for your organization and where you are, and we can help with that assessment. But ultimately clients got to make the decision when more staff are involved in that, I think the better.
Carol: Yeah. And so you're, you're almost starting the process by, by having that Len lengthy kind of, pre discovery, if you will. As, as you're working through, should we even be working together? Right.
Monique: I remember in our program, one of the classes said that. Every point of contact with the organization as an intervention. Right. And so like, I keep that in mind, when we're doing the interviews and when we're doing the interviews to be hired in the interviews with the staff and look at each step, I remember that, right. So that we know that we're impacting the system right. Each time, each time.
Carol: Yeah. And I think just the, the part that I think for any consulting project that thinks, oftentimes at least in my experience, organizations think, well, I'm just gonna hire a facilitator and you're going to come in and help us have a good conversation. And don't realize there's that whole process of talking to a lot of people getting a sense of where you are. And then, being able to reflect back to them, This is what I'm hearing. This is the snapshot of your organization now, so that, so that there is a common ground of that naming that you're talking about of and, and being able to just that act of being able to describe the organization to itself, to be so that it can say, or the folks in it can say, Yeah, that resonates or that piece doesn't, but I could see, just to be able to start that conversation.
Terrill: So we try to engage staff at every step of the entire. Process it, depending on the size of the staff that has to look different, right? A four-person organization of 400% organization looks really different when we're talking about staff engagement, but that's also part of it. It's leadership does not have the answers, right? The answers need to come from the entire organization. And so we try to engage staff as much as possible, along the way to get a lot of feedback. What is their vision? What do they want to see? How do they want to shift themselves? And what, what training and education work do they most feel like they need? Right. So we can build all of that. And we really deeply trust that the folks in the organization are the ones who know best what's needed. And our work is really to help synthesize that and open the door for them to be able to do that work.
Carol: And how does that show up in terms of equity work? Because sometimes I feel like there's a stance in that work that doesn't necessarily have that trust that the organization knows what it needs.
Monique: Well, in terms of how we approach equity work to kinda, to, to build the trust that we've been talking about and to really open the minds and hearts of the folks that we're working with, we generally have the philosophy that well, one. Equity work w we don't only focus it on race. Right. We look at the multiple aspects of identities. And so as we do that, we invite people to look at the places where they have identities that are privileged identities and the places where they have identities. Oppressed. Right. And so in terms of the modeling and the transparency and that Terrell, and I do, like, we share like our full selves with folks. Right. And acknowledging that, I have certain identities that are very privileged. I'm U.S. born, English speaking. I live a middle-class life. Right. And I have identities that are oppressed, right. I'm black, I'm a woman. I. I have a disability. So, what we do is we invite people to look at their whole cells, not just through a single, a single lens. And that really shifts how the conversation happens for groups. Right? So you've got, white folks who are used to being in the conversation where they are the oppressor, right. I mean, that's, that's what we're working with here. And we're saying, well, actually, you're more than that. Right. like you have many identities that you're holding where you're impacted by systems that. Take power away from you too. So, we bring that conversation into a group when we're talking about equity and we find that for the folks of color, for the trans folks, for the LGBT folks, It's a, it's a new way of looking at ourselves. Right. And that is, I mean, it's, it's really powerful to be part of those moments where the group's like, oh right. Because there's so much fear going into conversations around equity. And so we've found that that type of approach that's what causes the fear goes away, but it definitely just creates Compassion for each other. Right. That's one of our values that we really work with, but like, how do we create more compassion within these systems so that folks can see each other as whole beings and not just, you are the oppressor. I am the oppressed, like, that we're more than that.
Terrill: That's great money. I would, I also would add that to your question, Carol, about like, Do we trust that the organizations have the knowledge internally? Right. And, and what we have found is that yes, because they know enough to know what they don't know, or to know that they don't know at all, if that makes sense. Like, no, I mean, none of us, none of us have that knowledge that we need to. Right. Right. But we hear a number of our clients are predominantly white organizations that are really early in their learning journey. And we can absolutely work with them to help equitable culture when they come to us and say, we're early in our life, when they have a knowledge that they're early in their learning and they have a lot to learn and they can help us figure out what is it that they need to learn to be able to create this culture. Right. That is, that is actually a lot easier to work with in the organizations that come to us and sort of say, well, we already know everything
Carol: Might be one of your red flags.
Terrill: Right. Cause we're all learning. There is no end point to an absolute journey, right? We are all on the journey. The organizations, individuals, teams, all of us consultants as well are on a learning journey. And so I think when we really open up and tap in, we do know what we need to learn and where we need to.
Carol: Yeah. I love that that compassion piece is key in the work, ultimately it's about being a better human being and that's certainly a lifelong should be, hopefully it's a lifelong, if you're like check I'm good. I'm a good person. I'm missing out on what you might be learning. Right. So at the end of each episode, just to very much shift the focus here a little bit, I do ask an icebreaker question as a facilitator. Everyone looks to you and says, well, what are your icebreakers? And, and I say, well, they're in a box. I have, I have a box of cards that I use. So to, to, to go pretty opposite of where our conversation has been, I'm going to ask you this one. If you could arm wrestle any historical figure, who would you choose and why
Monique: I'm like, who am I willing to lose?
Terrill: Okay. I have a response. Also, you can keep these deals to give you some time, Monique. So my answer would be Bayard Rustin, and because I would love to be able to be in his presence so that I could do anything arm, restfully shake his hand, whatever, but he has, he has been a role model for me forever. I mean, I think I was first exposed to his work when I was probably 18 or 19. I actually worked at a summer program for kids from LGBT families and one of our tent circles where the kids lived was the Baird rest. Circle. And so just to know, like he was such, he was the brain behind so much of what Martin Luther king was able to do, but yet he wasn't recognized for it because he was gay. And the fact that at one point Martin Luther king basically kicked him out of the movement and then said to him, nevermind, come back. I can't do this without you. I just think that the amount of adversity he experienced that kept fighting for the rights of his folks, of people, of color, of black people in this country, even as he was facing homophobia within his group is really. So much of what we're dealing with today as well, and that we have to bring that stick to it. of even though. We are not perfect in any of our movements there isms all over the place in our movements. We have to both be addressing those and continuing to move the work forward. It's not an, it's not an either or, and I feel like he held that and balanced that so well, thanks.
Monique: I would say Harriet Tubman. Yeah. I mean, there's so many reasons why I would be more than happy to lose to her, but the main thing is that I found out maybe about five years ago that she had seizures and I have epilepsy. Right. And so whenever I start to feel afraid of. Facilitating in front of a group. Am I going to have a seizure? I've got like those tapes start going. I remember her. And I'm like she, 17, 18, 19 times went back and forth and freed people, right. Led them to freedom with the, without meds, without comfort, without all the things that I have. And so I'm like Monique. Get over yourself like you, that the blood that she has, you have to, like, you're made of the same thing. And so like, I would love to just be in her presence and just soak up some of that power. Cause she was just, I mean,
Carol: Awesome. Awesome breaths, two very powerful people that yes, we're willing to, willing to lose our arm wrestling match with. So for the two of you, what, what are you excited about? What's coming up> What's emerging in your work these days?
Monique: Well, we were just starting in the second phase with an organization that is a very nature based organization. And we have the privilege of being able to work with them for like a year and a half. So we're really able to dive in deep with them and we can integrate all of our. Things like when we talk about the natural world and how that reflects what's happening within the organization, it's like we can do this in a really direct and explicit way with this group in a way that we can't with some others. So I'm so excited about where we get to go with them and, and how we'll get to go out and hug trees together.
Terrill: I'm also excited for the ability to have in-person retreats again, like I, I thought it was here and then it wasn't. And so I'm holding onto the hope that it will be here. Again. One of the things that we've learned over the last year and a half is that we can do really deep work remotely. And it really surprised me. I will completely acknowledge, I didn't think we could do it. And we have, and. It doesn't feed me as the facilitator in the same way, because we put people into breakout rooms on zoom and they just disappear and we have no idea what's happening. Right. And then they come back. And so to be in the room where we can feel the energy of the group in a completely different way and be fed by that, I'm really looking forward to being able to do that and cross my fingers. It will be relatively soon. Yeah.
Carol: Yeah. Although I do, I do love being able to hit a button and have everyone come back. Well, thank you so much. It was great talking to both of you. I really appreciate the time you spent with me and my wireless.
Terrill: Thank you. Thank you, Carol. It's been really, really fun and I'm really appreciative of the work you're doing and this podcast. Yes. Yes.
Monique: Yep. Fantastic. Thank you so much. Awesome.
Carol: I appreciated the unique perspective that Terrill and Monique brought to our conversation about organizational culture change. Especially that so often they are coming in after 2 or 3 or 4 attempts have already been made to shift culture. Those may have started with doing a few training sessions, perhaps a few facilitated conversations. And then wondering – why haven’t things changed yet. They underscore what it really takes – the full investment that is needed to change your culture and create a healthier, more intentional, more equitable culture. And why so often after several rounds of attempts, slowing down and attending to relationships – building in time for healing is so important. And showing up as full human beings who also have made and will continue to make mistakes is so key.
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 Terrill and Monique as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Izzy Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it on your favorite social media platform and tag us. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. Until next time!
Exiting Gracefully with Don Tebbe
In episode 32 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Don Tebbe discussed include:
Guest Information: Don Tebbe is an organizational planning consultant and one of America’s most experienced advisors on nonprofit CEO transition and leadership succession. He experienced, first-hand, the challenges of sustaining an organization and navigating leadership succession as a former nonprofit executive director and five-time interim CEO. Since 1993, he’s helped hundreds of nonprofit leaders plan for and manage turnover in their chief executive positions. Don was one of the national thought leaders involved in an Annie E. Casey Foundation-sponsored project to develop better practices for nonprofit leadership succession. Many of the concepts and practices used by succession practitioners today originated with the Casey project. He is the author of Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire & Support a Nonprofit CEO and The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Don. Welcome to the podcast.
Don Tebbe: Thanks Carol. I'm excited to be here. Have this chat with you and.
Carol: Absolutely. And I always like to start out and I know you've had a very long career. So this made this, this, the answer to this question may have changed over time, but what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Don: I see you sent me that question in advance and I had really pondered that because I think it's been more of a feeling than an explicit calling. In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I am trying to figure out why I was attracted to this, to this nonprofit sector work. But it just seemed like a great place to really do work that's meaningful. And that's one of the things I discovered in doing the research on callings is that everybody has this innate desire for a meaningful life. And I couldn't think of any, I tried business, I tried government. But I couldn't think of any place else where you could have a much more meaningful life than the nonprofit world.
Carol: Yeah. I've definitely found that as well. I mean, it's meaningful in the work that you're doing, but I also find it attracts other good people. And so I enjoy it. I often really enjoy my colleagues and enjoy their thoughtfulness and their sense of calm.
Don: Yeah, I think for me, the perfect place was to move in. In the consulting arena. I had been an executive director and deputy director for about 10 years before I moved into consulting in 1993. And I just really, I just fell in love with it. the opportunity to work with great people to work with them at a very meaningful moment when they're particularly, if they're. Maybe not necessarily struggling, but questioning, like when we're doing planning work. And it also gave me a lot of flexibility to really double down on, on the missions that I really care about without having the, the daily grind of, of being an executive, like developmental disabilities, like food security, like housing like, child services.
Carol: Yeah. Getting to contribute to all of those different things rather than having to pick one, one major passion. Yeah. So you, as you said, you've had a long career in the sector ranging over a number of different areas and, including executive search and really pioneering, how many transition specialists approach executive search today? I think actually. You're one of the people who's been quoted multiple times on this podcast over the past year. So kudos for that. And one thing that I especially appreciated about how you address this issue is that you address it from both sides, from the point of view of the board and the organization, but then also the point of view of a long term executive director or the founder. In your book the nonprofit CEO succession roadmap. I'm your guide for the journey to life's next chapter? Why was it important for you to address the exiting executive director directly?
Don: Well, it can't really came out of work that Tom Adamson I did when we were partners in a firm called transition guides. Tom and I met when he was leading a project for the Annie Casey foundation that was looking at the question of how we can have better transitions in the nonprofit world. Invited a small group of practitioners when myself included at the time I was the interim executive director of the interim ministry network. So Tom and I put together this program a two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors. Cause it was, yourself, those are some of them. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there. And, I think it's just, it's, it's, it's, it's a space where governance, executive leadership and strategy all come together in, in one moment. And so I think it's a great opportunity to really address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. So we started off with, we were focused on executive transitions in, came up with the executive transition management model, all that, and what we realized that we needed to be working with organizations. Earlier, before they hit that moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. And then in early two thousands, I was looking at the, I do these deep dives every few years. And the deep dive I was doing then was around really organizational vitality. I did 140 CEO transitions in my career and managed 104 of them. And some organizations come to you in all sorts of conditions. There's the high performing organizations. There's the low performing organizations. There's the organism. They are firing their executive director. I really wanted to take a look at and see what characters, what are the characteristics of these high valleys? Tell the organization, those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment, the impact I am w what's what was going on in those organizations that I came away from. I did literature review and some case study research and came up with these three tiers, that base level there's organizational stability, the, the vital signs that are okay. It's not at risk, it's not in the intensive care ward. The next level up was what I would call Sustainability. And then, layering on top of that. What is vitality? And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and, and work leadership on that board higher. So the executive, the board, is responsible for shepherding the mission and shepherding him. And obviously the executive is their key partner in driving that impact. So I think it's terribly important to address both. But we found though with these retreats we had about, I think we had about 600 alumni when I left transition guides. We would do it a couple times a year, small groups, about 25 to 30 executives. It may, when I did interviews with. So folks that are with our alumni, what I found was that just really, They, they, they were our point of entry into the organization and, and, the opportunity to then work, with a board. So I think also my belief is that the executive really should initiate the succession process. And rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. So I think, it's, it's, it's. It's just like in a situation with a nonprofit; their key partners need to be working with both of them.
Carol: What would you say is important for exiting executive directors to realize about the transition?
Don: Well, probably the thing that I heard the most and was most surprising is to a person for these interviews, they. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. So we really tried to make sure that they understood that in, in, in this retreat process. So I think that's, I think that's one thing that's a surprising thing, but I think in terms of the points that I would make with executives is you probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people for three to four to five years ahead of their Parker, I'm thinking of one particular instance this executive was a household name and, she was not just the, the leader of this nonprofit. She was a leader of a whole movement and she was, that's, that's a pretty hard person to replace. So we actually, I started talking with her 10 years before she left and I don't, I don't think that was the cause, That there needed to be some capacity building around the movement and not just inside her for her organization. So, and that's an extreme case, but usually I'd say three to four years, it's not too early. because particularly if it's founder or long-term executive, cause there may need to be some capacity building needs to take place in the organization. They baby, They grew into the role as the organization grew up around them. Right. And so there may be, they may be covering for somebody, they are, there may be a hole in their operation or there may be somebody that they'd been making do with in, in the organization. Also, there may be a board that's overly dependent on them and really needs to do some board building work to make sure that there's a, I would call. The board's gone through a reformation process and it's not a friend's a founder board any longer, it's a fully functioning, or that has a, it has a sense of itself independent of the founder. And so I think that you just can't start too early. And I think the third point that I would make is that a lot of times executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process. It's to me, there's no ambiguity, you got three jobs. Job number one, lead the organization through the transition, of course, but understand that that role is going to evolve as your departure date draws closer. Number two is to prepare yourself for that next chapter of life. Like if you're going to retire, have something magnetic, that's drawing you forward rather than a job that you're leaving. And job number three is to prepare the organization for the succession and transition process.
Carol: And you mentioned that often folks were caught off guard with how emotional the whole process was. What were some of the common things that folks experienced as they, as they move through? And what were some of the unhelpful behaviors that came out of that, that, that roller coaster, that emotional roller coaster.
Don: Yeah. I think it'd be a lot of it distributed by the executives personality. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld was at Yale university and wrote a book a few years back about the hero's farewell and he outlined four different characters for different profiles. There were the ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything's going to be just fine. Governance. Who went on to other, big, big jobs and left the organization behind, so forth. And Oh, I forgot the other two right off the top of my head here, but the Monarch and the steward, right? Oh, that's right there. Exactly. Yeah. Well, steward was my year's term monarch, that you're going to be carried out feet first or X showing the door kicking and screaming. But my belief is that there's a fifth category out there. Another category out there is called stewards. And that's what I see most. In, in the nonprofit world, people that can, leave gracefully and but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization science and courage to pardon executives, to think of themselves as stewards. And they're going to hand off the organization to the next sewer. So did that answer it quickly?
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So what would you say you, you talked about the three tasks that are inherent in the job of leading an organization through the transition. What can executives do to help make the transition go more smoothly?
Don: Oh, gosh encouraging the board chair to pick good leadership for the succession process. And as I said, starting the succession process earlier, and I also, I've been listening to your interview. Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of, of interim executives being the standard approach for an organization. Now that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations, right? Place what's called a settled pastor until there's been an interim there for at least a year, so that there is that breathing room, that separation, but the challenge, and I brought that into discussions with the KC project and what we found. By comparing notes with compass points in our own practice, for a lot of organizations that just don't work for you, you've got fundraising relationships that you need handoff, or you've got P government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, have you. Having an interim in there and doing that handoff twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work. And so that's one reason why we took a step back and said, let's start earlier, work intensively and encourage the executives to get some coaching in the process so that they're, they're dealing with their own stuff. About how the transition is going, because the job does evolve and, or, people can feel a sense of loss when decisions are deferred to the new executive and so forth.
Carol: Yeah. And one of them is that I'm not listening to the train. And so I totally lost my train of thought, wanted to follow up on, oh, I remember what it is now. One of the points that you made, which I thought was really key, was the scent, the recommendation to pick a date and stick with it, not to be going back and forth. Well, I thought that was a good idea, but really we've got one more project to do, one more project to do and kicking the can down the road. What, how, what impact have you seen that have on the rest of the organization? When, when. That executive isn't it from, and their plans and how they move forward?
Don: Yeah. One person comes to mind very clearly. I was coaching him on his departure and we were having coffee. About a month after our initial meeting, he then let out to me that he was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and quit and said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never going to leave this organization. I'm going to go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but what do I mean? It really upset the applecart. And I think I'd also feel whipsawed. Cause for the staff a departure particularly of a founder or long-term executives, this may be the only boss they've ever known. Right. and particularly to their long term staff members and it's unnerving for the staff. And so you don't want your best people to be, cause people. It's an unknown and nerving time men, particularly if you couple that with, The executive or the board being guarded about information. It can be a real stew for the staff and right, for people, you're some of your best people to look elsewhere because they're questioning them. The future with the organization again, and there's always questions anyway. we'll, we like the new executive, can we trust the board to pick the right person for the job? Are they going to bring in some, somebody that's going to bring in their own team and they want a gun we're going to clean house when we don't necessarily need to clean houses as a high-performing organization, all those things.
Carol: What are other mistakes that you've seen executive directors make as they're exiting?
Don: There's a touchy topic there. One of the points I try to make is you need to take responsibility. You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I will try to clarify that that doesn't mean you surf the board's authority and try to force in your hand pick success or are on the one hand nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. And saying, Hey, it's their, it's their problem. It's their job. I'm running the organization. It's finding that, that, that place where you can really be a good steward of this entire process without, without rush riding rough shots over the board and not dumping it all in their laps, which volunteer boards are. Oftentimes really pretty clueless about what's really needed in that, in that way.
Carol: Yeah, so helping them through. And that's where I think, bringing in external help because, if the person's a founder, it's unlikely that they've managed a transition or their own exit before in, in that case. And so may not know all the things that that could be helpful to, to pay attention to as they're going through that process.
Don: Yeah. I think the other thing is that I am paying a lot of tension, a lot of attention to the preparation for the hand. And that can be a great comfort to you, to your leadership team, to your staff. If they're helping to prepare the way for the new executive. In fact, that really is one of your roles as a departing executive is to prepare the way for your successor. And so getting staff engaged in that, whether it's paying the CEO's office. So rewinding here a little bit is, I think it's really important that executives pay attention to the, the preparation to receive and work effect for causation work effectively with the new executive and paying attention to the handoff. So preparation for the new executive. I think there's a, I think. Engaging the board in some con getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship do they want with us new executive, you spent a long time, writing this profile, imagining what this new person going to be like, getting clear about, the priorities for the first 12 to 18 months of their tenure. Well, what relationship? Should you have, within an executive, particularly if you've got a founder or long-term executive leading staff preparation, getting the staff involved in preparing briefing materials for the new executive that it becomes part of that, the handoff, getting some bios together about what the team looks like that sort of. And then expecting that there might be a little bit of overlap between you in, in your successor and that's, that can be fair. Yeah. in small organizations, it may be a couple hours, a couple of days in a large organization. Like one of our clients was an international health charity that had, has. Offices are all around the world. So the current CEO stayed on and the new CEO came in and worked out a month, I think, going on listening tours, visiting all the facilities around the world as the CEO of. And so paying attention to how that, that handoff and making sure that the, the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive, that there's an opportunity to really get it's no the organization that they're taking over and and then, then, riding off handoff and ride off.
Carol: I love it. So at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. And so what's something that you believed earlier in your career that you think about differently now?
Don: Oh my gosh. Well, I think a hard lesson I learned as a, as an executive director was not to expect the board to spontaneously fundraise. Yeah. Do you mind if I go back to a point about that? Yeah, sure. Go ahead. Okay. Well, so one of the things back in the mid nineties I had a great opportunity working with organizations in Silicon valley based here, but worked out there almost a quarter of the time and. So I wrote a book for this and worked for the center for excellence and nonprofits in San Jose. It was started by Dean Martin. When he retired as a CEO of COO of Hewlett Packard, he was the board chair and he was on the Packard foundation board and a really great guy, a great relationship, and worked with him and bopped on Bob carton on the evolution of this organization. Seven years. So one of the things I did with them was do this report, looking at governance practices in highly effective nonprofits. It's really had a very formative relationship for me, our impact on me because I was fresh off a fairly new consultant at that time, fresh off the heels of, of Relationship with a board. And one of the things that really saw was that it really opened my eyes to that whole board executive relationship. And by the way, I loved Mary Highland's interview with you on that, on that point, Mary and I are old friends and what I came away with and it's really had a forum. Fo helped really from my approach to executive transitions and the importance of following through and having that onboarding process and having an intentional relationship building process with the board. What I saw in these organizations is what I came to call the board executive social contract, you in every work situation, we've got our literal contract. Maybe it's as simple as a job description, or maybe it is a formal written contract, but then we have, how do we live? And that's the social contract. And when I saw his organization's spine large, they were clear about four things. Number one, they were clear about the priorities that they were pursuing together as a board and an executive team. That might be what's in their strategic plan. It might be some developmental work with the organization. It might be exploring new ventures or something like that, but they were clear about their priorities that they were going to work on together. They were clear about their roles and responsibilities. And I know you've got an organizational development background, so this is going to make lots of sense. I'm sure. you're you got that separation of executive roles or board roles and responsibilities. How do you tie that together? Well, you tie that together with some sort of accountability mechanism, that thing, that relationship looks different in every organization, but. Every one of those seem to have those four characteristics to it. So that really made an impact on me. And so I brought that into the executive transition work to make sure that there's an intentional way of the board, an executive building that relationship and that there's a process, a guided process that they could actually go through.
Carol: Yeah. I had the chance to work with one organization that was going through that executive transition and worked with the group before, it wasn't part of the search process, but then came back afterwards to help the board and the new executive director have that exact conversation about what's important to us in terms of how we work together. How are we gonna, what are the ways that we're going to show up? What are the behaviors that we're going to demonstrate that are going to support? Working together in a collaborative, positive way. So, I had a chance to work with them on their strategic planning. And so then I was able to remind you, and these are the things you said you were going to do when you worked together. And none of them were, that they're all good things. People would come up with in terms of being respectful and communicating and collaborating, but I think being explicit about it and then coming back to it and reminding yourself and then thinking, so how are we doing on that? Are there other places where we could adjust and, and, and tweak it to make it better, can be really helpful.
Don: Yeah. And, and having been clear that that, that, that. The connecting mechanism, that evaluation mechanism, has an evolution to it, and should be multi-stage at least in the first year, because, what's the big question on the board? I often hire the right person. Right. And so you want it to, you want to have an intentional non-intrusive way of a non-intrusive way of, of. Yeah, getting that information, getting, getting that. Sure. And so, it might be the first 30 days, having a ha how's it going at conversation? Maybe the first quarter, that's a little bit more of a ha ha how are you, how are you feeling about, your. you're taking charge because there is a taking charge process that John Kabarro at Harvard documented a number of years ago. And so it's, rather than an executive, parachuting in and stepping into the role, it's oftentimes a ramping up process. And so understanding that and just being realistic about that evaluation process. So quarterly. First quarter. Half of the year and then, maybe the annual review after that, but thinking of it as an assurance mechanism and in being realistic about it, because the executives aren't there. They're coming into an organization, they may be confronting problems. There's oftentimes as, legacy issues that don't come up and don't get the cat's not out of the bag until the new executive is there. And so making sure that they're feeling well supported on that. And everybody's being realistic about this.
Carol: Yeah. And you've got all those lines of communication open, which is really key. And yeah, so we did that once, but it doesn't mean that it's done, right. It's not something you just checked off the list. It's something you'd come back to and what needs to be adjusted and how are, where, where are we now? And what else, what, what do we need to think of? So what, what, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging and the work that you're doing now.
Don: Oh, wow. Just a bunch of things. I'm retooling a course that Susan Shaffer and I developed called going solar going big. It's of course for consultants. And so I'm doing some editing of that after it's been out there for a couple of years online. We do it in person. Yeah. Yeah, some are retooling that this sounds very nerdy, but I'm really excited about a series of books, discussions that I've been facilitating with a group of consultants, mostly alumni from our workshop. Last year we worked on productivity and the sugar we're going to work on communications and insights. And so doing that and just and really, really enjoying, my practice now is primarily focused on succession planning and organizational planning, and I'm developing a process that I call impact crafting, and I am working. I've worked with about five organizations now with that pilot, it can bring in a lot of the ideas from my executor transition work, I've looked at air free organizations, strategic plan and ask them how they, developed it and really discovered that a lot of organizations, th they, They think the board should do it. They think the staff shouldn't do it. sort of trying to bring that into sharp focus and also discovered in the transition work, a lot of organizations have broken business models and the board doesn't understand how the work really gets done, in the organization. So one of the pieces that I bring to an organization is really to clarify their impact statement beyond their vision, bring it down to a little bit more operational level, and then work with them to actually make. Yeah. Using a variation of the business model canvas to actually map how the work gets done, how they turn vision over here into impact over here. And so that's been really satisfying work and I think it brings a much more grounded feel to the. The planning process.
Carol: Well, we'll probably have to have you back on, to dig into that a little bit more because you love to use all the words that I like to use. So I want to get one, I like to open the door and see what's behind it, but thank you so much for coming on. It's been great talking to you.
Don: Thanks Carol. Great talking with you. Good luck on the podcast, loving the episodes thus far.
Carol: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
In episode 28 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Peggy Hoffman discussed include:
Peggy Hoffman is president of Mariner Management, an association management company which is home to two associations and provides an array of support and training to associations and most importantly member volunteers. Peggy has provided training and counsel to dozens of global, national and local membership associations over the past 30 years. She often draws on her own team’s research on volunteerism, member communities and association innovation. Peggy not only enjoys working with association volunteers but is an active volunteer for her professional association – including serving as a chapter past president – so she’ll draw from experience on both levels. Read her full bio at MarinerManagement.com and connect with Peggy on Twitter @peggyhoffman or LinkedIn. And ask her about triathlons, dance or living with three sons.
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission: Impact is Peggy Hoffman. Peggy is president of Mariner Management, an association management company which is home to two associations and provides an array of support and training to associations and most importantly member volunteers. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Peggy and I talk about why volunteers and chapters are the heart and soul of associations and yet a somewhat neglected aspect of working in a membership organization, how the role of geographically based chapters is undergoing so much change, and what implications the rise of online professional development has for local chapters.
Welcome Peggy. Welcome to the podcast.
Peggy Hoffman: It's great to be here, so appreciate you inviting
Carol: Yeah. Should be fun. A fun conversation. We've been in the same circles for a long time and it'll, I'm really excited to dig into the work that you do in associates. Space of associations, but I really like to start each podcast with what motivates you to do the work that you do? What's your why? What, how, what drew you to this particular aspect? And we'll get to this in a minute, of the work that you do with organizations.
Peggy: Okay. So I guess. I'm going to start by saying that once I stumbled into associations, one of the things that I gravitated towards was membership and specifically working with chapters. So I landed at a trade association that had these incredible state groups or regional. And I began working with them and realizing that there were just, they have so many challenges in front of them. So when we decided to start our own business, it was as a management company specifically to be a management service for chapters. So we didn't want any national organizations, but we just wanted to work with chapters in our area. And that business, it was amazing. I mean, they don't have big budgets, but they have big hearts. So naturally because of that, I've spent so much time working with volunteers because they were hiring me to be their staff. Right. So the wonderful journey of trying to support these geographic components of larger organizations meant really getting hands-on with how volunteers operate and think. And I don't know if that's just pretty exciting to work with people who are giving time. So I guess my, my, why is if I can support somebody who's giving their time, that's like a bonus.
Carol: , the volunteer and the chapter, I feel like there's so much at the heart and soul of so many organizations, and yet I feel like it's really a neglected aspect of association management and it's so critical for member engagement. It's so critical for people to be able to connect with people locally. First maybe, for listeners who are maybe less familiar, can you just describe those two arenas, how you, how you define that.
Peggy: Yes, that's a great question, actually. And what I really love about that question is that we are in this tremendous mode of change. I know we've heard that. But what's really interesting is there's so many structures within associations that are challenged and that challenge is leading to some really cool innovation. And when you talk about the bucket of volunteers and you're talking about the bucket of the bucket, we call chapters or components the same thing. What is a component in the context of what we're talking about? We're talking about the component of geography. Cause really components are a way of members connecting and it's usually around an issue and interest, a discipline or a geography. So we're really. We're focused more on the geography question. And so it's any entity that allows a subsection of members or key stakeholders within a membership-based organization to collect. So that means some of these groups are completely independent, but carry the same or similar mission name. Sometimes it needs an absolute integrated subsection. There's there, there's relationships where there's charters and there's mostly, but there's affiliation or groups. So lots of different ways of doing that legally, but at the core it's meeting the same member who could be met nationally. It could be. Locally. And sometimes the membership has contingent in. Sometimes it's not mean I can be a member of both or neither or a combination. So the chapter is a, is a, is a moniker. If you will. That may, that means that we're collecting a subsection of our members into that geography. The interesting thing is the traditional model, which was born in a time when we didn't have the internet, is the problem right now because we're, we've, with the legacy systems and for many of these organizations, the key work of it is done by the volunteers. Now we know that about associations, but the chapter level I think it was. The recent benchmarking it's you have to assume that less than half of the chapters out there have staff. So it is largely the will of the passion of volunteers and a volunteer is any stakeholder in an organization, membership based organization. That opps to give time freely and I mean also free. Yeah. Yeah. And I think most people think of chapters as those regionally based Entities. And yet, you can also slice and dice memberships often through an interest around a particular topic, whether it's whether the organization calls some special interest groups or communities of practice or cohorts, there are different ways that people describe that. But, and, and, and in each case there, that volunteer component is just so important. Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's really, really interesting because of one of the dynamics that- What's really interesting about the comment that you just made about this idea of the coagulating. Issue interests, discipline or geography is that one of the changes that is slowly happening, it needs to happen with more with more Gusto is this idea of not siloing off the geographic components from the other ones, you'd see pretty much the communities of practice, the SIGs, those things that have been more baked in and the chapters have oftentimes can be an arms length. And what we began to understand is that the models. percolate to the top for many associations, not all are going to be the, the, the less structured geographic components, which means they're going to begin to act even more like the other components.
Carol: And so interesting. I did, of course the pandemic and everything moving online just, just changed everything overnight. And I did an event for a regionally based association. So one that is the Mid-Atlantic of the thing, the Mid-Atlantic facilitators network and they were doing webinars. So of course that has no geography limits to it. And it was just a very pertinent topic, right. At the beginning of the pandemic of how to facilitate effectively online. And they had people from around the world and this was a local association. So in some ways it feels like some of those things, maybe aren't as relevant as they used to be. And of course, People are still gonna want to be able to meet in person and, and, those geography challenges, we're not going to always do everything online.
Peggy: It’s both, but the blurring of the geographic boundaries is huge. It's it's. It's going to be, what's going to be the catalyst to either kill a chapter or have a chapter thrive, but it's also the catalyst for more competition and we know how nonprofits sometimes butt heads. And I think we're, we're, we're in a situation where that can happen. So the savvy association is going to jump out in front of it right away. Right. And say, okay, how do we begin coordinating the services, our programs, or our, our chapters or components are offering in a way that creates congeniality, right? Bridging all of it for everybody versus feeling like you're in a state of competence. Exactly. Exactly. And I think we do know that the Delta variant aside and other elements aside, we do know that people are going to get back together again, which is actually delightful and, and, and, and. Gonna be well received by, by many folks, but we also think, and Carol, this is the interesting thing. We think that it's going to change the nature of getting together for chapters. In other words because I can get online education so much more readily. And in the case of the one you just talked about, I can be in an online thing. That's perfect to many of us, but get the perspective from, from a different, different area. Right. Then maybe the importance of the chapters is less about education and more about the other elements, whether it is how do we grapple with a very local issue or how do we do networking or how do we do career development or career pathway development, or how do we, how do we really reach the students? Right. So it could shift some of the priorities for our geographic components, which I. It's not a bad thing at all, but we have to be aware of it.
Carol: I know for me thinking about going to in-person events the bar is just way higher for what we're actually doing in person is the event actually designed to leverage the fact that we are in the same room together. And if it's not, I'm not going to travel two hours, cause even in a G, even in the DC area, it's going to take me an hour there, be there. And then an hour back it's half my day. so the bar for me is just way higher.
Peggy: And so now think about that because of the implication there, and I don't think you're alone and I'm certainly the same way. So there's at least two of us in this world. Right? So here's the thing: think about how we are currently resourcing and training volunteers. Because it's still largely volunteer. And even if it's not volunteer, if there's a, if there's a skeleton staff for a chapter, it's often an admin person, right. So how are we resourcing and training them for that new reality? We've been talking in some of the trainings I've been doing, because we do a fair amount of the chapter leader, training chapter staff and chapter volunteers. We've been talking well, at least I've been beating the drum for at least two years on. You've got to do something different at your events. You've got to create events that are experienced. You've got, you've got to stop thinking that I can just fill a room and, and in class, in classroom style and have somebody, screaming, scream at you. Lecture, you
Carol: talk nicely to you, but I haven't, so
Peggy: bam, I get now you're absolutely right. It becomes way more. So am I leveraging, I liked the way you put that. Am I leveraging the fact that I'm in person on this event design? Yeah. And I think it's, it's not just a matter of going back to the way it used to be, because, maybe those networking events worked for a few people, but they actually never worked for a lot of people. So how can we think about those things differently? How can we help, help people have conversations? have, give them a little bit of structure. I mean, people had learned how to do this in, in the online space, through zoom, et cetera. Just a little bit, just a prompt question to get people started can really be helpful. Exactly. Exactly. So it's good. It's going to be really interesting. It's going to change. It's going to change how we train, how we resource it's going to also require in some ways, a refresh to the volunteer pool. Right. And that's such a critical thing because I think it's one of the biggest ones. Big challenge.
Carol: I don't know if the biggest challenge you can tell me with any volunteer-led organization or one that depends a lot on volunteers is that oftentimes those refreshing recruitment cultivation of some pathway to leadership they, most groups don't, don't have it, don't know how to do it. And so then they wonder why, the 20% are the, are doing the 80.
Peggy: Exactly. And that is one of the, definitely one of the top. Challenges for these member components is getting the volunteer workforce that has been a problem that's been really growing in the last I'd say five to almost 10 years. And, and the, the, the. Challenge is now is that because we're in this murky area of what really is the value prop at the local level, it's harder to articulate why it would be great for you to volunteer for this organization. So we've just put things on top of each other. Now, all of this makes of course, Carol, this sound like doom and gloom. On the other side of things there is there's real opportunity for local volunteers, local chapters, local members, and the COVID is one of the coming out of COVID. One of the silver linings is we saw some of those in action, right? We saw, for example, I'm in Texas and this is not, this is not an exception by any means at all, but in Texas, one of 'em AGCS, that's the general contractors groups, did this amazing pivot and went from this basically, education. Forced development to a source for PPE and set up and turn their office into a collection zone and, and an incredible member value point. Then you have, you have some folks out in Ohio for the dental hygienist and that group Basically got the most important legislation or regulatory changes around the protection of, or of dental hygienists on the job.
And then another one of their chapters actually was managed on Facebook to get a vibrant post of yours, the temp job that you, that you need filled and post that you're ready. And they did this incredible moment, matchmaking for folks in the area. So what we're, what we're seeing is that being local to it's like it is just like with health care, it's just like with everything being local became the ability to answer the immediate need of a member. So. The real question is do we, is it time to take those checklists of you did this, this, this, and this, and throw it away and begin saying what the member needs at the moment? Because I think honestly, we saw it and I think chapters can step up because they're driven by volunteers. That's the huge thing. That's the passion that allows them to pivot. If they've been given the permission and some resources. Yeah. There's often, I feel like there's often a tension between a regionally based or a locally-based chapter and the national organization. And, maybe some of those checklists are, are part of it. Why would you say you often see that, or at least I've certainly experienced it in the organizations I've worked in that tension between the two. Well, I think it's, it's really interesting. How are we just, so in, in terms of the work that Marriner is doing we are just, we just began this next iteration of the chapter benchmarking study. And we started with two CEO round tables, virtual round tables. Brought CEOs together to have a conversation around what is this thing about chapters? And, and, we basically were asking the question you just asked.
Carol: Now we did start by saying, what are the orthodoxies around chapters that are just so, what would you say some of those are?
Peggy: So that was the, that was the, Chapter four, the third rail chapters are our political minefield. The problem is that you've got these groups and often too way too often. The leaders that you have sitting up here, making decisions come from that group, and while they put the national or the global hat on, they never take off the chapter hat. So. They see that they see through a lens that is a little bit clouded, a little bit myopic to a certain degree. Right. And so if you start to say something needs to change, well, my chakra was barred or I, and, and meanwhile, you're talking, you're having to convince volunteers to vote members to vote on change. And they don't like to do that anyway in too many cases. It's politically fraught. And so it's easier to kick the can down the road than it is to make a substantive change. But the other critical element is these CEOs bless them. Could not with one, maybe two exceptions. Could not articulate the value of chapters because we have no data around what the chapters are bringing that we can put on our balance sheets. We can put in our operations, we have the expense side. Oh yes. Because we have. That's assigned to it. We might have a chapter leader conference. We might have a shared relationship. We might have a revenue sharing relationship around events or activities. but on the income side, we're not doing any good data collection and data analysis that shows us how that contributes to the value proposition? That generates those important dollar driven pieces, membership, acquisition, membership, membership retention fundraising goals, all those things. So, most of the CEOs have this political problem and they have no data. And so what happens is you get this, you get all these people in the room. Chapters are so important. I came up with it. I wouldn't have been a member or all that stuff. And so, that anecdote becomes the data and we all know, and if it is not data. So that was the key. The other orthodoxy which I thought was a sad orthodoxy is, well, chapters are good and they're mostly bad and that's just the way it is. And you'll live. And that to me is sad because that goes back to, I don't know what the ROI is and therefore, and it's politically difficult, so I'm just gonna live with this. And, and, and, and the assumption is it can't get better. So that's the other orthodoxy we have to live with. It's bad. We can't get better. And one, several members of these two CEO round tables said if they had their druthers, they would just ditch them. And so. Would that be an ortho, what that an, of a mindset it's going to be competitive because you're not in the game together you're surviving alongside, and even the most open-minded of the CEOs. And there were many open-minded CEOs in the effort of figuring it out. All of those really good, important answers didn't seem to, it seems so insurmountable. And so I'm just going to wait and hope that because I guess, because I see some good things, like 1 group said, when it comes right down to advocacy the states that have really rolled up, rolled their sleeves up and, and, and talk with us on a regular basis, we're able to make some significant headways.So they, so they do, they do glean onto that. But the competition comes because we don't know, and we're just living, living next to each other. The other thing is, there's nothing worse. Carolyn, absolutely nothing worse than having your leaders who have to make important decisions, be your members because they will whine the entire time. And so the members are notorious, they think they're not getting a good deal and members who are volunteering for chapters have that double, double down on that. And so they create their own negative language that pushes along this competition.
Carol: And yet you gave a couple examples about how that locality of those chapters, they were able to just jump on needs that were immediate, that would have taken a national organization. There's so many layers of decision making and all of that. They were able to just move really quickly, especially because in this case, I think that volunteer. Group. It can either mean that you're moving incredibly slowly or yes, you can also move very quickly.
Peggy: Right. And the other interesting thing is we did a so ma Marriner and bill highway the highway being a software tech company that does have a banking solution in this space, in any case. We've been doing a series of webinars, monthly webinars for chapter organizations. And I bring this up only because one of the things we keep doing is I say, we look for the bright spots. But we're looking for where our system's working. And one of the, and what, one of the pieces we did was the trickle up and what we were talking about was we were going at it and we were finding where there were successful national programs that actually had been born and bred at the local level. So. PMI is an outreach program and is a great example. The education I'm going to call the action. The education theater group developed this. They had when the floods came through in Houston and the schools were decimated, their theater props and programs were decimated by another group, another state nearby did a match list. Do you have something extra? There's a school there. It needs it. That program is now a school to school support program that went national. So, and, and, and you look at what the landscapes or landscapers have done. So in other words not only can they pivot quickly, but they can also be some pretty good R and D. And by the way, you can do a, you can do an ROI on all of those scenarios.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. And you've been doing some research recently on what you call the volunteer learning journey. Why, why would you say this is important for those who work with volunteers or our volunteers and trying to cultivate other volunteers?
Peggy: One of the things that we have done so I'm gonna, I'm going to first point back to a couple of, of. Of good resources. One is the mutually beneficial volunteering study done in 2017 with the ASAE foundation in which we talked about the readiness of volunteers and that impact on associations, then we did. Now to a chapter benchmarking study, I alluded earlier to the fact that we're in the third iteration now, and we did the CEO's and we're going to be going into the actual survey piece just shortly. But yeah. In the two previous ones one of the issues that came up was volunteer readiness, right? And then we've also over the last 10 years I have worked with thousands and thousands of chapters through chapter training programs and constantly come back to volunteer readiness. And so one of the things that, and we did was a series on financial problems for chapters in which we have looked at fraud, security, risks, those kinds of things. And what's the, what's the, what's the bottom line behind that, the preparedness or readiness of volunteers. So you see this theme that, if the volunteer is the key workforce for the chapter programs, and we're not properly preparing them, what's the issue, how do we resolve that?
Carol: How would you, how would you define volunteer readiness?
Peggy: So I would define volunteer readiness. Excuse me. I would define a volunteer readiness based on their ability to successfully complete the job at hand. So I'm going to be treasurer of a chapter organization. Not only can I, do I know, how do I know? Do I know how the organization is financially set up? Can I read a peanut? Can I make good decisions? Can I make good financial decisions based on risk analysis? Right? Because I mean, I can spend this money and I've got these reserves, like it's been over here, there's just, how do I invest these dollars? And, and how do I. For example, let's look at, look at the pandemic. Cause the one group that we manage, I mean, the first thing we did was the treasurer and I sat down and we pulled up and we did what's plan B, how do we, what's our scenario planning for this year because we don't know how it's going to unfold. So scenario planning. So as a treasurer, when I, the first day I'm in that job, Do I have that set of skills and that ability, and if I don't have the exact set of skills, do I at least know? I don't have them and can seek, can ask the questions because you're not going to know everything you need for every particular. That's okay. Right. But do I know, do I know? So, so readiness is about my ability to do that job and not even stellar. I've just, I just call it success. Like if my goal was this and I'm a volunteer, can I get us to this? Would it be great to get here? Fine, but I'm ready as I get to where we have to get? Not where we necessarily want to get. When we started figuring out why are volunteers not ready? Or why do we get volunteers? the whole, the whole thing. And we need a president and nobody's hand raises and someone sneezes. Oh, good. Peggy. You're going to be president now you're president, but you're not ready. Right. But, there's no other choice. Right. So we kept looking, so all of these associations are offering varying levels. But, it's hard to get volunteers to, to really buy into that support. And that's when I saw something that Christine matters with the crystal lake partners. I had done it with, she had talked about learning journeys for getting beyond basically the concept of the journey map, which by the way, you've done some fabulous work on taking that, I think, and applying it to the learner. Is there a learner journey and I'm looking at this going, is there a volunteer learner? So she and I got together, we pulled together a brain trust of folks, looked at how they were doing it, looked at what we understood about volunteer readiness and realized that the missing piece, as we looked at this, is tying that training to the volunteer motivation. And that's of course what learning journeys do, right. They say, what, where is it? You want to go? What's your motivation for getting there? What, what, and so tie it. So that's really where it came out of. It was trying to find how to take these two issues? where's the, where's the puzzle piece that puts them together.
Carol: And one thing that I appreciate, and we'll, we'll link to the resource that you're talking about. Cause it's really a wonderful piece on working with volunteers. And this could, this, there are so many applications to this. You did this within an association context, but I was looking at it and I haven't yet. On the leadership development committee of my congregation. Right. And so we're thinking about volunteer cultivation and how do we give people some baby steps and not say, oh, you're a new member. Let's get you on the board. No, we don't want to be in that position. And how do we help people take those steps? So I really liked how you broke it down with, maybe that first step. And I can't remember exactly what the categories were, but then, then. They need these couple of competencies and, or this interest. And so that's going to match to more of a micro volunteering or an ad hoc role. And, and I think that that is a hard thing. Where folks are. So organizations are so used to these big roles that people have traditionally had. And how do you break it into smaller chunks that are more manageable and in people's lives today? For a million reasons, folks just don't have the bandwidth that they have available. I don't know, 15, 20 years ago when people were able to step into a board role for three and four years and things like.
Peggy: So there was a lot of stability in people's lives. Obviously, in comparison, a lot of stability, you were in jobs and there's a lot of middle management opportunities there until you were in jobs and you're pretty steady. And you didn't, you weren't looking to change jobs unless something really happened. And the employers there, they, they gave you a little bit more leeway on a lot of things. So volunteering and not only that, but there were generational things. So the boss had volunteered and been on the board. So it's natural that you're going to do that. Right. And lava fell, all those things changed, which is why there is the bandwidth issue. But I think the other thing that we completely underestimate is. Everything we know about volunteers, particularly what we do when we start looking at volunteers over the last 10 years. Okay. Everything we know is that there is this critical importance of connecting with what's in it for me. And I don't mean that in a negative way. Gotta go to my motivation and my motivation is going to be tied to something. I can see an outcome. And so much of our volunteering does not have a demonstrative outcome and it does not plug directly with the motivation. So we can't get people to be on the board because what it looks like is sitting in meetings and it's just keeping the organization going well, I don't want to just keep your organization going. I don't want to do anything. All of a sudden if, if, if we can start making, even that board position looks and demonstrates how there is an outcome we're going to get folks to do that? The reality is that busy people always have time but they have time for the things that match their motivation. One of the things I tell real quickly Carol is we were looking for a treasurer at the local level. It's a Maryland based chapter and we were looking for a treasurer and we were having. Difficult time. That's not an easy position to fill because there are, that's one of the board positions that actually has some key competencies, right? So there was an individual who I, who I knew could do this and would do a good job. And Talking with this individual and they didn't want any more board positions and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then he just happened to say to me, “How come we didn't give out a student scholarship this year?” Cause we always gave that student scholarships and I said, I'm going to give it a student scholarship. Because, and I, and I went through the whole thing and I, it was basically a financial decision, right. And I said, we were there and we fell down here and here, and I just said free, frankly, the right treasurer would get this going and we can rebuild that account and we'd have the giving out student scholarships. And so the neck, I think it was the next day, got an email from him and said, okay, so when does a treasurer position begin? Why? Because now he saw a reason he was, and he did, he did. We got the student scholarship program back up and running.
Carol: Well, yeah. And, to help people think through, especially in a professional context, what are some things that they're going to be able to learn through volunteering that they don't have the opportunity to do in their day-to-day jobs? So, thinking again, I mentioned my congregation and when I first joined people asked me to do lots of different things that I didn't want to do. So I was, I felt like I was like, no, no, no, no, no. So I was like, I got to figure out what I'm, what I want to say yes to. And they were doing their first strategic plan and I was like, Ooh, I want to do that. And of course, that's actually what I do now. Right? This was 20 years ago. And so in my day job, I have no opportunity to be involved in the strategy of the organization. But in this volunteer role, I was going to be able to be a leader. And develop, explore that and develop all sorts of skills that I just wouldn't have the opportunity in my day-to-day. So helping people, whether it's skills or Networking is just such a big amorphous concept, but how is this going to help you build and get connected with people who can help you sponsor you, mentor you and help you solve problems. But yeah, to take what these things are. Jobs or even smaller ones and how people think, well, what are the components that, that that I can connect to, that's going to move me forward, from that professional point of view or. I just moved here and I don't have any friends that I want to make some friends with and let me do that, through, through volunteering.
Peggy: You know what, it's just like the fundraising when you first get called to give, let's say to in my case, my NPR station is WAMU. WAMU. And the first gift that you're asked is, is 25 bucks or five bucks or whatever. And then they, they wrap you up. And pretty soon you're an annual giver of a substantive chunk of money. And I keep telling chapters and national organizations that you, you, you, you gotta do the fundraising model and, and microbes. Get you into it. you had mentioned, you had referred to that, the pathway in which we talk about the emerging volunteer, the learning volunteer, and then you get into leadership. And one of the things that we saw in the mutually beneficial volunteering study, which actually reflected the results from the earlier volunteer study way back in 2008 that ASAE did, which is one of the, one of the. Five reasons for not saying yes is not seeing a picture, not seeing the pathway. And so part of that work came out of this idea of let's paint a password for let's paint. Let's paint the picture and demonstrate a pathway. And there's some really exciting things because if you take that pathway you see, for example, wraps, which is the regulatory professionals they've done this and they're not alone. Other groups have done this. I believe PMI is amongst them, but you take that pathway. And then you start doing digital badging based on that. Right. And now you're actually, you're actually connecting people to the, to a recognition that they can carry with them really from a CV perspective. Right. But then you take someone like NAGP, they're building out a as, as part of their learning management system and they're making some changes right now, but they're building it. Levels of training for volunteers at wraps is doing something similar. So you and I talked to one of the magicians who was looking, who just was looking at that model and saying, wow, you mean, we could do like many, many certificates, right? As I get through this level. So all of a sudden you see what that, that pathway does. It professionalizes the volunteering in our associations and nonprofits. And by professionalizing it, that boosts the motivation to get the learning and the education that you need to be successful in the job. So we're all we're, we're, we're coming at this from all these different directions.
Carol: Yeah, for sure. So on each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. And since I think I've known you long enough that I can ask this question. So who are the three people you would want on your team? If there was a zombie apocalypse? Ooh.
Peggy: Mark Shropshire who no one knows, except that he is my personal trainer. And I mean, strong and, and, and not, Sufficiently un-empathetic that he could destroy anything in the way. So that's good. So definitely, definitely that I'm gonna go with maybe a strange strange one. And I, I'm going to actually go with an association professional. I know Lindsay Curry and you might say, well, why, why would you pick her. I have never seen anybody able to get around a topic with such dexterity and in a way to come up with the question and I have seven feelings if they were, it was Zombieland. She has a way to get them to go now. What are you asking us there? And I need a really strong, another strong, no, you know what, you know what I'm going gonna, I'm gonna also go with my husband. And you might say why, and it goes, if something happens, I think I would just assume that it happened to both of us, but I would throw them out there first just to be on, to be doing the real side. But, having somebody close to you that knows you that knows your vulnerabilities and your strengths. And in that moment can say, can call on your strengths so that you can get past your vulnerability. I think that would be priceless.
Carol: That's awesome. That's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you what's what's emerging in your work these days, so, oh
Peggy: My gosh. There is actually a lot of really exciting work. I'm going to mention three very quick things. One is the chapter benchmarking study because we have brought the CEO voices. And so we're going to do the CEO voice. We're going to do the traditional CRP. That's the component relations professional. That's the association staff position. And you can opt in to have us then go to your chapter leaders. So it's a 360, if you will approach a conversation around chapters, chapter values, chapter optimization. So we're very excited about that. We just launched the ASAE foundation Research, which is going with an incredibly robust brain trust of association CEOs. We're going to design the set of models that will work for associations for volunteerism. So in other words, we're asking the question. What is effective and what model brings out effectiveness for what organizations. So there's not going to be one mile. So, those are two kinds of research projects, but, but listen to those, those are like innovation, right? They're changing. The other thing I want to mention. Just getting started with camp to program camp is the California marriage and family therapist. We're doing a chapter coaching pro program, which I think is going to be really cool. I get a chance to work one-on-one one-on-one with chapters. So those were the, those are the three exciting things. But I, I want to, I guess I want to mention that. there's a balance in life. And so the other exciting thing that the other journey I'm on is I started in January learning titles. And when you put yourself in a place to learn something new and you can screw up with that, anybody like, you don't feel bad about it. it's just you during this learning space and it's a really, really wonderful mind, body centering thing, but also all of the elements about this there's There's w one of the elements is constantly keeping your knees bent and being grounded so that, you can move in any direction. Right. And giving in yielding, and yet being a spring strong anyway, enough of that. But that's,
Carol: That'll help you with the zombies too. Yes. I love it. I love it. Well, Peggy, it was great having you on thank you so much. And we will definitely link to those resources that you mentioned. And then let us know when the newest benchmarking study comes out and we can include it for folks. So definitely appreciate all you all you have to offer. Right?
Peggy: Well, thank you for your time today. This was a fun conversation. It's always good catching up with you. And it was fun today, too.
I appreciated the perspective Peggy brought on the volunteer learning journey. Whether your organization has chapters or has volunteers in other programmatic elements of your work, thinking through their learning journey could be really useful. We will link to the resource that Peggy’s group created about this and it provides a really useful framework for thinking about how to cultivate and develop volunteers. And how to have them move from volunteers to leaders within your organization. From a new volunteer that is just getting familiar with your organization and the work you do – what are the skills and competencies they need? How will your orientation and training program help them develop those skills? How might you be able to break down what used to be a large role into smaller more doable parts? Is it clear for someone wanting to get involved what the steps are? Whom they should reach out to? What support can you provide your volunteers as they become more engaged and encourage them to step into new and larger roles within your organization? Have you built a ladder people can climb? Or a pathway for them? The clearer you are able to make the pathway, the more likely people will say yes when you invite them into volunteering.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Peggy as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes.
I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
In episode 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!
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.