Episode 10: This week we’re talking to Heather Yandow.
We talked about:
• What gets in the way of nonprofits hiring consultants successfully.
• Why an RFP process is often not the best approach to having a great experience with a consultant.
• The trends we are observing in this time of disruption.
Scenario Planning: An article describing the process from MIT Sloan management school
Heather Yandow brings more than 20 years of experience as an outreach coordinator, coalition leader, project manager, and fundraiser to Third Space Studio. She helps organizations with strategic planning, board development, change management, leadership development, and going from good to great. She has also served on the Board of Directors of Democracy NC, ncyt: NC’s Network of Young Nonprofit Professionals, and the Beehive Collective (a giving circle). She is also the founder of Nonprofit.ist, an online platform for nonprofits to find the consulting expertise they need.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting. http://www.gracesocialsector.com/
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Carol: Welcome Heather. Welcome to the podcast.
Heather: Thanks so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.
Carol: So just to give people some context. Can you tell me a little bit about what drew you to this work and describe your journey?
Heather: Yeah, so I started this work when I, when I kind of dig back into what really prompted it, I think about my parents always engaged in the community and that's just what I knew to do. So when I went to college I was really engaged in lots of different social activism there. I was part of the environmental group on campus. I helped to start a feminist group on campus and really loved that and thought I was going to be a math teacher.
I studied mathematics and thought that was my path. And then really started thinking about what if I could do all of this fun activism stuff as a career, and got really lucky and found that the statewide environment, because C group was hiring what they called it at the time an outreach coordinator, which was basically doing a lot of the same stuff I had kind of trained myself to do while I was in school.
And I did that work for a couple of years. And then they offered me to be the director of development and communications. So I got to move into that position and got a lot of great training and support and learned really how to do the fundraising. After seven years of doing fundraising, I still do it in my volunteer work, but decided I didn't want to do it full time.
And that's when I transitioned into being a consultant. And so I've done that work for about 10 years now. And I do strategic planning, leadership development, meeting design and facilitation work.
Carol: So funny that you said your original idea was to be a math teacher. Cause my first notion was that I was going to be a history professor and then did my senior thesis in college and discovered as I was in the archives of the library, reading these, I did a thesis on women, kind of the parenting things that were told to women in Germany, in the late 1800’s. And so reading these old magazines and discovered that I had a wicked allergy to mold. And so spending my life in archives was not going to be my future. So then I had to figure out what's next.
Heather: I love that. Yeah. It's one of my favorite questions. When I meet people who were in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, what did you major in? Because most of the time, people are not doing the work that they studied to do, particularly folks like us who were in nonprofits or as consultants.
Carol: I did discover anthropology in the last year and I feel like what I do now is essentially applied anthropology. All the, you know, Interviews that we do with people and the discovery and kind of seeing how groups work and seeing how culture shows up in organizations. So that's the connection that I have.
Heather: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Carol: So one of the things that you have started recently is an online platform to help nonprofits find consultants. And I feel like nonprofits often struggle when they think about hiring consultants. What do you think gets in the way?
Heather: I think a couple of things get in the way.
One is just not knowing where to find people. So I actually started nonprofits just in part, because I get a lot of requests from past clients and friends asking who do you know that does X, Y, and Z. Who do you know that has a background in mergers that also knows a lot about land trusts. Well, that's a very specific subset of people.
Yeah. So if you're a nonprofit leader, you may have a few connections, but you might not have a broad enough network. So you can find the right person who can really help you. Of course cost is often a barrier for organizations. And sometimes organizations that are new to hiring consultants are a little bit surprised by what our fees are that we are a lot of times covering all of our costs and those fees.
So you're paying not just what you might pay somebody for a salary, but you're also paying for our benefits and our office space. And all of those overhead costs are included. And then the third piece is that I think organizations often aren't really clear about what they need and why before they get into a first conversation with a consultant.
And sometimes I’m wondering whether I find that in those first conversations if the group feels like they've already decided what the solution is going to be.
Carol: They think that they know exactly what the challenge is and they think they know what they want. That also can be a challenge and, and having those first conversations gives you an opportunity to essentially kind of find the answer together, if you will.
Heather: Yes. Yes. I find that too. If I am sent a request for proposal and there is an 18 month timeline already sketched out with all of the different pieces that they want to include and they've really already mapped it all out. In some ways you're voiding my expertise.
I come to this as somebody who understands how to design processes, how to lead groups through difficult decision making, how to set up action plans. So I like you really to partner on that and to co-design. And part of that is really asking questions to get underneath. What, what is the real issue here?
So sometimes what we find with organizations, what I find is that. They ask for what they know they can pay for. Right. So we know that right. You can hire somebody to do a one day board retreat. And when you actually, when I get into conversation with somebody about that work, what I discover is they're having significant problems around accountability.
Or they've got some folks on their board who they just need to say goodbye to, or they've got some other really big culture problems and they aren't necessarily dealing with those head-on. They want to bring in an outsider, which is me to talk to them about what their roles and responsibilities are.
Maybe I do a little bit of assessment and to hope that that magically solves the problem. So, I see that with strategic planning. I see that with fundraising planning, all of that, these things that people know they can search for and find people. And so I often want to ask, want people to ask and consider before they come with those kinds of requests.
What's the real challenge you're trying to solve? What's the question behind this fundraising that, that clarity that you're talking about, but even if they don't have it going through the process of you know. We would be asking questions there and that helps a thinking process and helps kind of uncover what else is going on.
Carol: And I think even with those simple requests, can you just come facilitate our board retreat? I think there's often a lot of misunderstanding of, you know, just kind of thinking they're hiring a person to just show up on the day and make some magic happen. And of course, in order for that day to be a productive one, you know, you have to spend some time with the group talking to people, doing some upfront discovery so that you are designing a retreat that meets their needs, not just a generic retreat that's not helpful and not a good use of people's time.
Heather: Yeah. I have a great relation with an organization I've worked with over a number of years, four or five years ago. I did a board fundraising training. It was really well received. Folks had a great time. We did a little bit of role play about how to do a major donor ask, right everything. When I left that day, I thought that was a great retreat.
Well, they called back three years later and asked me to come do another training for their board around fundraising. And as we got into the questions I realized but they were still having the same issue as they were before I did the training. And so, because I had a good relationship, I finally had to say, I don't think the problem is that your board doesn't know how to do that.
I don't think they want to do this. And that's a different kind of challenge and a training doesn't always solve that challenge. It's like a board retreat doesn't always solve a challenge or a strategic plan isn't going to suddenly make your founding executive director share power. It can help. Certainly they can be designed in ways that help, but sometimes it's really scratching and getting into the what's the real issue here? What's going on.
Carol: Although I do think some of those processes help open the door and give us a safe kind of a safe place to start. So I was working with a group recently that, that did have that founder challenge and, and we were working on a strategic plan and ended up with one and I think, you know, going to give them a good one framework to move some things forward.
But the biggest thing that I think it did was create a space where an outsider could compile all the information, talk to everyone back what they said to, to me around these are the things that aren't working. These are the things that are getting in our way and help them have a tough time conversation about what are the roles?
What roles do we need to have on staff? What roles do we need to have with the board? Not to say that it's actually, as you said necessarily going to solve that problem, but I think it at least opened the door to where, before that all those conversations were probably happening, you know, pre COVID in the parking lot after a meeting or, you know, when somebody bumps into each other, you know, downtown or whatnot.
So it at least gets, yeah, it gets it started up what needs to be probably a much more drawn out intentional process that it's not, you're going to do a strategic plan and it's going to have solved all of these other challenges.
Carol: Absolutely. So with that instance where you did the training and you know, and, and that's often what folks will often ask for that, thinking that well, if we just get people to learn how to do the thing, they'll be willing to do it. And especially around fundraising that, I mean, I'm not a fundraising expert, but I certainly see that that can be very intimidating to folks. So when it was actually about not wanting to do it, what were some of the things that you did with the group to help address that challenge?
Heather: Well, then you've got to dig a little bit more into what's behind that. Not wanting to do it. And so some of that can be sussed out through some interviews. Some of that is, is some group discussion. One of the best discussion tools for that is actually something Kim Klein is a great fundraising guru, I saw her do, which is a comparison of how we feel when we give money and all of the positive emotions. Right? So when you're able to make a donation to a cause you really care about how does that make you feel? Lists all these great emotions. And then when you ask someone ready to make a donation to a cause that they really care about, how does that make you feel?
And oftentimes those are some that have really negative emotions. We have some, we have some shame, we have some anxiety we might have. It's around that. And so then comparing those two and really talking about why those are different and, and where that difference comes from. And, and there's a lot of anthropology, there's a lot of cultural feelings about money and who has it and who can talk about it and how they talk about it.
And so really getting folks to, to grapple with that and think about how their own formation around money happened. I think the last piece is making the why really clear. So sure. Board members understand why it's critical for them to do this work. Sometimes I see where organizations are kind of a victim of their own success.
So if you've got a super competent executive director and a great development director, and the board says, you know, next year, we're going to raise $5,000 and there's some support around that. And the board just doesn't do it. They only raised $3000, nothing happens and there's no accountability and the organization doesn't shut down.
Well, then the board really has not much impetus to do that really uncomfortable thing and actually raise the $5,000. So sometimes there's just getting really clear about this, and there's a number of ways to, to build a little bit more heat into the system, to get folks to move into that place that they think is going to be uncomfortable. And a lot of times folks understand once they get there, it's not.
Carol: So with the consulting, hiring practice, what would you say are some mistakes that you think organizations make when they, when they're first doing this? Or you know, even if they've done it before, what gets them, what mistakes do you think are the key ones?
Heather: So one of the key ones we've already talked about is really kind of prescribing the answer before you really understand the question. So you already figured out the process, but you don't really know the true why behind it. The stake that I see is not having all of the people in your organization bought in to both your definition or construction of what you want to address.
And that there's a need for outside help. So if you think there's a problem with accountability on your board and folks really getting things done, your board chair needs to agree that that is true. And most of your board, hopefully, but at least your board chair and your board chair needs to, we need outside help.
Because the last thing that I, as a consultant, want to do is walk into a board meeting where I am not wanted and they don't think they need me. That is not setting anyone up for success. So making sure that all the players involved in that could be staff, board, community members, that we all have a clear and shared understanding of the challenge and the need for help.
And then the third thing I would say is that not allocating enough staff resources. And I guess organizational resources in terms of time and attention. So sometimes there's a belief that if we hire a consultant, they're gonna magically go off into their office and create the most beautiful plan that ever was created and come back and present it to us and we're going to approve it and everything's going to be different.
And in reality, all the projects I do require significant involvement by members of the worker. Patient, whether that is one-on-one yeah. Time with an executive director, time at a board meeting, background information from staff. There's always a need to get their attention and their time and to really have them be part of the process.
So if an organization is at the same time, as we're doing a project, going through a capital campaign, hiring a bunch of people. If they work on elections and it's an election year or a census year, they just don't have the bandwidth. And so really thinking about how to stage those projects so that they can give it their full attention.
Carol: Right. Cause the project and the plan and it all needs to be the organizations and I, I go to the point of actually saying no, I'm not going to write your plan for you because if I do that, it's my plan. You know, even if you've been involved in all the conversations and in the meetings and it actually reflects all of your input.
Just that act of actually doing the draft yourself makes it yours and you have more commitment to it. And, and clearly involving people. Throughout the process ideally builds that buy in, but yeah, it really is about it being the organization's plan and you're helping them walk through a solid process to get some good outcomes, but it's gotta be, yeah, it's not about, can you go cook us up a strategic plan and come back. That's right. Deliver it.
Heather: Do you have any that you'd add to that list?
Carol: I have one and then it went, it's gone. It's flown out of my brain.
Heather: It'll come back.
Carol: It'll come back. Yeah, I think the whole RFP process can also be really problematic because I understand the need to kind of get a couple of different people responding, but even there you, you can still have had conversations with multiple consultants, ask them to put together a proposal based on the conversations without having to go through the strict process of an RFP which I usually think ends up with a different, with a better outcome.
Heather: Absolutely. I am anti RFP all the way. I think there's real value in an organization. Getting clarity on, as we already talked about what they need, how much money they might have when they want to do the work. But the process, particularly the very structured. So we put it out on X date. You have until a week later to send us your questions, we will compile them and answer them.
We will not be getting, having any conversations in advance of you submitting this proposal. Then we might do an interview or we might just pick you based on the proposal that tends to, to not produce the best results, what you get. There are the people who write the best proposals. It's like applying to college or applying to a job, but only ever looking at the resume.
And it doesn't actually tell you what you want to know. And so much of the work that we do as consultants is really about. Does our ethos match our culture, does our vibe match, you know, so you talk about, and I believe this too, that it's the, it is the organization's work to do, and we are there to create the container for them to do it well.
Well, that's a real ethos. And if you, as an organization's leader, don't have that too, then that's something we need to assess out early on in the process. So having those conversations and I agree, you know, you can have conversations with five people. It's probably gonna take you less time than developing an RFP, reviewing all the proposals, doing interviews, just pick five people and have conversations and see what happens.
Carol: Yeah. And how would you say, how would you advise Executive directors or board chairs as they're kind of going into this process of the kinds of things that they would want to ask consultants or the kinds of things that they need to be looking for as they, you know, not just the proposal, but getting into those conversations and, and maybe even if they do the more formal interview process, what are the kinds of things that you would say are important to pay attention to?
Heather: So I think if you, if you've worked with a consultant before, I think back to what worked well for you in that relationship and what you might have wanted to see differently. So if you're really looking for a consultant, who's a fantastic project manager and keeps you on task. Are you looking for a consultant that's really good at conflict management and having hard conversations, thinking about those things that are almost in between the lines of the official work that you really value in a partner.
Another piece of that is kind of organizational values and what are your consultant's values and are there pieces that overlap there so that you're really on the same page about why you want to do the work together. And then the last piece, I think sometimes I get asked for examples of work product.
Which is really challenging for me to provide. So what I often say to people is the work that I do, to transform organizations, so talk to people about what they do experience with me, and what's different about their organization after their engagement, that's the work product. So I think asking around the questions around who have you worked with.
Where, where you'd be doing similar work. Who can I talk to really getting and checking those references? Vibe values and references basically.
Carol: Yeah. So it's essentially kind of thinking through and listening for a fit when you're having those conversations. So are the questions that the person's asking you, helping you are you further along at the end of the conversation in thinking about the challenge that you're you're describing than you were when you began, and that would be well, that's the kind of shift that you want to, you're there to try to create.
Heather: Yeah. Yeah. You absolutely want somebody who is helping you think through. I also think in a lot of ways you want somebody who is going to show up as a partner. Who has, who brings expertise, but who really wants to be there with you walking alongside you. So this is obviously reflective of my own work as a consultant, but I build out free engagement to fit the organization.
I have things that work well that I bring into lots of engagements, but I don't have. Here's the strategic planning package and I'm just going to put it on top of everything I do. So I want to ask questions to know more about you as an organization and what works well. I want you to know that I'm going to be experimenting as we go and learning about you and shifting up.
The way that we're going to do the work in order to really meet your goals. And, hopefully you're okay with that. If you're, if you're an organization that's super regimented, we're not going to work well together. And I can tell, cause if you send me a 15 page RFP, we're probably not going to work well together. I'm probably not going to apply to that.
Carol: Yeah. So once you go through that hiring process and you've decided on something, what would you say are some things that are important as an organization starts to work with a consultant that can help make that be a more productive process for both parties.
Heather: Yeah. A couple of things. One is it's always helpful for me as a consultant to get some of the basic background information. So obviously I've looked at your website, I've read your RFP, or we've had a conversation, but grant proposals or reports are useful budgets. Honestly, tell me a lot about the organization and where you spend your money and what your activities are.
Annual reports, just those things that can get me kind of up to speed on the work so that I can ask better questions. The second piece is I think having a good launch meeting. Often that is with a small team, particularly if we're doing longterm strategic planning work, or even planning a training for staff, who's the two or three folks who are gonna come together and help shepherd this work at that meeting.
I often review the scope that I put together in their proposal. And we adjusted as a team here was my idea. And now we're actually in it. Let's figure out what we need to shift. Also sometimes in that very beginning phase, just having one on one conversations. So as an a organization figuring out who are the few people that we want the consultant to talk to, again, to get a better three 60 view of the challenge to really, and the players to make sure that they are leading off with a really strong background.
Anything you would add?
Carol: Yeah. So that's good cause sometimes I think people want to put every important stakeholder on that strategic planning committee. And I think that's a nice way to do both and to make sure that you're getting the input from all those important stakeholders. And, and there may be other ways that you're doing that as well.
But then also having a small enough working group that it's easy to. Set up meetings and there's momentum and things keep moving. So it's kind of nice both. And yeah, I think just sometimes people jump into the work they're so intent on you know, What the challenges are or whatnot, but I think just taking a minute and oftentimes this will come from the consultant just talking about how you work together, what works for you?
Do you have any pet peeves? What's your style? How do you like to communicate? You know, is it email? Is it a phone call? So that those things can fit together and just being explicit about those things, which I think so often people skip over can really help kickstart a good, a good process in the end, because this is a relationship, particularly with whoever the organizational lead is.
And he was a consultant. So I'm thinking about how to, how to make sure that relationship gets off onto a strong footing.
Carol: So right now we're in a you know, things are so uncertain. A lot of planning processes have basically come to a halt or people have canceled. Maybe they had a retreat coming up. What's your sense of whether people can or can't or should how, how they might approach planning when, when there's so many unknowns at the moment?
Heather: Yeah, it's a question that I hear executive directors really wrestling with right now. In fact, I was just on a call with a group, a peer support group this morning, and an executive director shared that their strategic planning consultant had said to them in March or April. They were trying to finish their plan.
That, that had been in progress for six months and feeling really guilty because they hadn't. And the consultant said right now you've got a circus. You can no longer focus on building the plane. You are dealing with really rough weather. And when you get to a place where you feel like you can fly the plane more easily, you can start building it again.
And so they have actually at this point, given the kind of work they do been able to stabilize and they have are coming back now to that strategic planning. I think for a lot of organizations, what would have been a longer term strategic plan is looking much more short term. It's looking so the end of 2020, maybe to the end of 2021, depending on where they are in the world.
So shortening timelines, not doing future planning when you're still in the midst of crisis. And then I also am seeing organizations use scenario planning a lot more, a tool that's been in our toolbox for a long time, but this is a time when it really matters. It really is, you know if you work in the school system, you have a scenario for, if kids go back, if kids go back for two weeks, if kids go back for a whole semester, and if you run an afterschool program for kids in schools, You've got a button you've had to have all of those different scenarios and having those planned out so that when it switches, you've got a plan that you can pull off the shelf.
We've already had some of those discussions.
Carol: Can you just say a little bit more about what scenario planning is for folks who might not be familiar with it?
Heather: Yeah, I think. Various standard definition would be thinking about creating kind of a matrix of scenarios. So you would think about what are a couple of different unknowns in your community that have a high chance of impacting your organization.
So I did this work a few weeks ago and the two variables we picked one was about how people were going to feel about the economy. Were they gonna feel like it was going down and hilly, going to feel like it was stabilized or maybe even going okay. The other axis we picked the other trendline we weren't sure of was, are we going to be kind of open or closed broadly?
Right. So are things going to be really open and we're going to be kind of back to normal or are we going to be quarantined or in our houses working from home. So in a very traditional scenario planning, you would actually put those on one, on an X axis and one on a Y axis. And now you've got four to five scenarios. What happens if the world is open and everybody feels really good about the economy? Well, bars and restaurants are totally full. Everybody's excited. Right? What happens if people are feeling really terrible about the economy and we're still all at home? That is our Netflix bucket, right? Like people at home with Netflix and cooking, being at home.
So figuring out those areas, whatever those are for your organization and then planning for each of the four, I'm really thinking about what might be true for us in each of those four scenarios. So that's a very traditional example in the school example I gave, there were the school system in North Carolina where I said we have an, a, a, B and a C, and we're going to pick one of these three.
So they've done that work already creating those scenarios for you.
Carol: So, what are some other trends that you're seeing right now, since you work with a lot of consultants across the sector and they're working with lots of clients. So I'm curious to hear from you kind of, what are some of the current trends that you're seeing in the sector?
Heather: So one of the trends I'm seeing is organizations, particularly 10 staff and under. Really saying, I'm not sure we need an office. We need the conference table. We need a conference room every once in a while. We needed a place to start our stuff, our swag, our records, but we don't need it. I need an office space, particularly in places where folks are traveling significantly to get to a centralized office.
And they've discovered that they can really do a lot of that work online. The second trend I'm seeing is that as kind of stress levels have risen, I have certainly seen particularly executive directors dealing with more burnouts and more burnout in their staff and just all of the challenges that come from having an overwhelm.
They’re anxious. That's maybe dealing with kids at home. So there's a lot of shifts in how people are thinking about paid time off leave alternative options for staffing organizations, but there's just this kind of increasing humanity that is coming out of this crisis. And then the third thing that's kind of related to that is I'm just hearing more and more chatter about how the kind of traditional nonprofit structure isn't working for people. And some of that is the board's not showing up well right now either micromanaging or being absentee, some of it is that we're throwing out lots of, of, of old norms that aren't working for us. And so some of those nonprofit norms are going to get thrown out, but I'm seeing a kind of increasing conversation about that piece as well.
Carol: Yeah, I'm thinking about that, but not really sure.
Carol: Cause it also feels like it's so embedded in, in all the systems the many, many systems that aren't working right now and, and the nonprofit sector has a lot of those assumptions built into. So yes. So at the end of every episode, I play a little game just to kind of shift things up a little bit.
So I'm going to ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. And I had picked out three out of the box before, before we got on. So based on your scenario where if I, hopefully we won't be stuck in the, the economy is tanking and we're all forever and ever, but with that, what's your most recent, a guilty pleasure in terms of maybe binge watching a show or, or something.
Heather: Oh, well, My favorite. I don't know if this is a guilty pleasure, but in May I bought myself a blow up pool from my backyard and my absolute favorite thing to do. And I might do it this afternoon. If it doesn't rain, I will get in the baby pool with my Kindle and a glass of wine at the end of the day. And that just makes me so happy.
And I read a book that has no redeeming value. That just is pure floss and it's fantastic.
Carol: I don't think you need to be guilty about that. That sounds like a lot of fun. What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you kind of what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Heather: Well, one of the things I'm really excited about in the nonprofits world is that we just launched a learning series for consultants around how to better incorporate race equity into our work.
And so I was sitting on a zoom with 50 consultants who are all trying to figure out how do we do this work better? How can we be in the work with people helping to raise these issues, helping to have careful conversations. So I'm really excited about that series and about the shifts that are coming for myself and my own consulting work and for hopefully lots of other people in those conversations.
Carol: That's great. And how can people find you? How can they can get info?
Heather: Yeah. So if you are interested in the consulting work I do, my company is called Third Space Studio, all spelled the thirdspacestudio.com. And if you're looking for a consultant or accountant or coach or other expert, you can find me at https://www.nonprofit.ist.
Carol: And we'll put all that in the show notes. So people will be able to get the links. Well, thank you so much, Heather. It has been great talking to you.
Heather: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.
This week we’re talking to Rebecca Murphy.
We talked about:
Rebecca has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an “interpreter,” as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit, business, and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining/translating one to another. She is a generalist with a broad knowledge base – including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and place making. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with particular expertise in public-private partnerships, community engagement, and strategic collaborations. Hers is a mission-focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity, and avoiding mission creep.
Sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting.
Learn about the Effective Online Facilitation, 4 week group coaching program.
Carol Hamilton: Today I want to welcome Rebecca Murphy to the podcast. Rebecca Murphy has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an interpreter as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit business and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining and translating one sector to another. She's a generalist with a broad knowledge base, including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and placemaking. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with a particular emphasis in public private partnerships, community engagement. and strategic collaboration. Hers is a mission focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep. She is an optimistic activist with a passionate lived commitment to diversity. Join me in welcoming Rebecca Murphy!
Well welcome, Rebecca. I'm glad to have you on the mission impact podcast. I want to start out by just having you share with listeners your path? How did you get drawn to this work? How did you end up where you are now?
Rebecca Murphy: Well, Carol, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it. How I got drawn to this work is really very simple. It's something that I always seen myself doing from my early 20s I think I always saw myself as having some business that allowed me to help groups and organizations whose missions I believed in, do the work they did better, do the work they did differently and achieve the objectives that they were setting out to achieve.
Carol: Coming into this a little bit later than you, I'm impressed that you had that vision for yourself so early on. What was the background to that?
Rebecca: Well, I think it's a couple of things. I think the first is I have always been somebody who appreciated and was engaged in community development work. I came at it through a political lens primarily because that's what my parents did. My mother did community development work and they were both very involved socially and civically. so there were always groups and organizations in our kitchen, and we were very engaged. so I knew a lot about the universe of nonprofits and the universe of mission-driven work from a really young age. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I never really saw a full time job for a company as my path. so that's really that's really how I came at it. I also feel like I was a little bit ahead of my time. I really wanted to be able to work from home so that I could raise my kids. Even when I was young, I knew that that was what I wanted.
Carol: Yeah that's awesome, just the image of growing up around that. My dad worked for the government for the Foreign Service. so he went to work, it was a very traditional job and it was very mysterious to me as a child. All I really understood about it was that there was a big desk involved, and a big building, and some legal pads and government pens, but beyond that, I really didn't understand it. so it's really cool that you were able to absorb that from an early age.
Well, one of the things that you focus on is partnerships, including public-private partnerships, and I certainly believe that partnerships are so key to many nonprofits and how they do their work and at least my belief is that more should consider them with so many small organizations all going at the same issue. What would you say are the key things that nonprofits really need to think about when they're getting started with partnerships?
Rebecca: I think that's a great question, and it's one that I get asked a lot in my practice. I think that the most important thing that a nonprofit needs to do when they're thinking about a partnership is: what is their why? Why are you engaging in a partnership? Second to that, but equally as important: what do you bring to the partnership? It can't be about only what it is that you think you'll get out of it? It has to be about what you bring to that, what are your assets? What are your strengths? I think partnering from a place where you don't know that is a recipe for disaster.
Carol: Can you give an example of some disaster stories?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think I’ve had a couple of clients who thought that partnering was a good idea because it was going to get them out of a bad situation, and I think that's so common. I think that too often organizations are scrambling when they're really struggling, and then they think, “Oh well, we'll partner or we'll merge," and it seems like there's rarely a good time to try to step into those kinds of relationships. Partnering for weakness or desperation is a terrible time because you don't have clarity, and when you partner with an organization, you have to have clarity. You have to have clarity of mission, you have to have clarity of your goals, and you have to have clarity about the risk. I think that's the other thing a lot of nonprofits don't think about is what could go bad. They think about, “oh, this is gonna be great. it'll help us build our capacity. It'll help us raise money, it'll help us," whatever it is that they think it's going to do. They don't ever think about what's going to happen if it goes sideways, and whether there are different types of going sideways. There's recoverable going sideways, and then there's sort of the epic, this is the kick back sideways. I think that that's an equally important thing to be thinking about when you're thinking about a partnership is, what are we going to do if it goes south? How do we extricate ourselves? What are we going to do [if it goes sideways]?
Carol: So I usually like to focus on the more of a strengths-based approach and when things go well, so describe a partnership that you've seen when they really did things right, they did the due diligence and it really benefited both organizations in a way that you were even surprised by maybe.
Rebecca: Okay.… The stories I can tell best really relate to collaboration, which are - I think - partnerships with more than two players. and I think that they've worked, the ones that I have seen or been a part of that have worked really well. Were those where there was a common goal, whether it was a common problem that needed solving or a common issue that needed to be addressed. and everybody who was there brought different strengths to the table. They were partnering not from weakness, but in a manner that compensated for each other's sort of skill gaps, because I don't think that anybody in that particular industry killer scenario was weak. I think they just have different skill gaps. and I think that's almost the best way to think about a partner. Is this partner somebody who's going to fill my skills gaps? and can I do the same for that?
Carol: so what are those complementary pieces where you, you don't all have to bring the same strengths to the table.
Rebecca: I mean, it could be something from something as simple as “these people understand organizational development. I don't understand organizational development, but I want to work with somebody who does.” Two organizations that are focusing on one issue, one organization has real strength in advocacy and organizing it, while one organization has real strength in writing and policy work, those are two sets of skills that it's really rare to find in one organization. some organizations are good at service providing and other organizations are better at management. I think that a lot of times organizations can partner to build capacity or to test something you could market through a partnership. I particularly found this true in the community development space. There are lots of nonprofits that want to get into community development, whether that is they want to build themselves a facility, whether they're in the housing business, there could be a church or some other big nonprofit that doesn't provide a service that they want to provide in the community development realm. Partnering with somebody who has that skill can be very successful because for everybody Think because the organization that needs the partner that wants to develop the housing or the community center or whatever, they have clarity of mission, they have built in constituency, they can fill the rooms, they can, run the programs, and they partner with somebody who understands how to actually get a building built, or how to get houses built, or, how do you raise money for that? How do you think about that? How do you budget? How do you plan? Those kinds of things.
I think that those are very successful partnerships generally, I think partnerships and community development work, especially where there's potential for a cut to reach economies of scale, for example, especially this gets really to what you talked about from the very beginning, if there's a space where there are lots of actors - in Baltimore, this was true in the out-of-school space, there was a period in I think the 90s, late 90s, early 2000s, where everybody it seemed, was an out-of-school time after-school program business, and some people were operating out of their homes or they were operating out of a church basement. some people had more robust programs or they had bigger space, so they had outdoor space, but the marketplace was so crowded at that point, and the small guys were really in danger of not being able to survive, not because they weren't doing really good work, but because they didn't have the capacity or the need for a nonprofit organization, but they didn't know about Fiscal Sponsorship. They didn't have all this sort of back-office stuff, but they were providing an extraordinarily high-quality service, so I facilitated a collaboration amongst six small providers in a neighborhood in Baltimore City that all had different types of service. There was an arts group, there was a tutoring group, there was a sports group, I think there might have been two of each one. I said to them, “okay, you don't all need a lawyer. You don't all need an accountant, but you've got to have a structure.," so they pulled together a collaboration and they identified a single fiscal sponsor, and somebody who was able to manage all the admin for all six of them. In the course of a year, they were each able to raise enough money to operate both independently, but also, for the first time, to do collaborative programming.
Carol: That's awesome. Yeah, it seems to me that it's too easy for many organizations to really get caught up in their own work and not really take the time to think about who else might be in their ecosystem., and as you're saying, even in their neighborhood, their community of who they might be working with for greater impact in that back office stuff. I mean, I'm not sure what the statistic is, and I should probably look it up, but it's like 70 to 80% of nonprofits with less than $750,000 budgets. If every single one of them is replicating that back office, It's a huge amount of resources that could be put to program could be put to program if they were to partner up with some other organizations and share those resources.
We're recording this in the midst of the quarantining for the Coronavirus, so I'm guessing that that this is going to have some impacts on people where they start looking at those things and start doing what solo entrepreneurs have been doing for years, hiring virtual assistants and virtual back office, virtual accounting, all of those things; and I think there's a difference between a partnership, just a one to one and then that that multi-party partnership and then even to the next level, and you’ve talked about how why you're getting together is so important, and I've seen in larger collaborations where it may seem obvious why everyone's together, and yet without having a deliberate conversation about how are we defining what our goal is really specific Basically, everyone can have their own definition of what that goal is.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think too, that you can end up in the space of too many cooks in the kitchen, not enough sous chefs; whatever the metaphor is. It's really about leadership, and about who's going to be in charge - for lack of a better term. It's like if you had a room full of first children, do you know I mean?
Carol: I'm a middle child. I don't want to be in that room.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it's that phenomenon. It's everybody thinking that they are in charge and not knowing - not only who's going to do what, but who's accountable for what, who's responsible for what, because those are the tough conversations that you need to have, and that's the stuff that if you don't do it, it can really kill you, not just the partnership, but it has implications for your individual organizations. If nobody talks about who's going to sign on the dotted line, who's going to be the fiduciary, whose insurance are you going to carry? Do you need to get insurance as a group? All of those things are hugely important, and I think when you're engaged in a partnership around an issue, it's easier to put those things aside or if you are engaged in a partnership that is time limited around a legislative issue or a crisis or some one-off challenge. It's very easy to let that stuff go, and then when you finish, and you’ve got to clean it all up, and you have a big old stew of stuff you can't figure out, it's a giant problem. I think the other thing about that, and about partnerships in general is you're talking about relationships. You're talking about people that - presumably - you like and respect and trust. If you don't, you're not doing enough, you're doing a disservice to the relationships if you don't take the time to think about that stuff and really figure it out.
Carol: I mean, in some instances, you can't have that assumption that everyone likes and respects each other and it may be that a funder is saying all of you guys are in this space, and I want you all to work together. When you've seen those kinds of situations,
Rebecca: The arranged marriage.
Carol: there's a whole bunch of steps that you have to take to start building that trust and you probably have to step way back before you can get to action to just ask “why are we all here? What do we think we can get out of this? How are we going to work together?”
Rebecca: You may be competitors, I mean, that's the other thing. I had a client last year who had been repeatedly asked by a prospective funder to partner with what they viewed as a complimentary organization. My clients saw that group as having a very different strategy, a very different objective; they were competitors so they did not want to partner with that group. The mistake they made, however, was not explaining that to the funder. They didn't explain to the funder that, while they respected the work, that group did their mission, and they had a very similar, I guess, 20,000 foot mission and how they got there in my clients view was incompatible. Their strategies were incompatible, and as a result, they really affected their relationship with the funder because they didn't communicate; and then when we were finally able to get that relationship back on track, the funder was like, “well, you should have just said something. I was looking at it from a very narrow perspective, you're doing this, they're doing this, you should all do it together. If you had said to me, ‘meh’ or ‘we could only partner in this one little area.’ rather than just not doing it.”
Carol: That's a really good point about the 20,000 foot mission versus the theory of change. How are you seeing the strategies you use, and how that's getting you to an end goal; and you say that you're really passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep, and I think this is just a huge challenge in the nonprofit sector for lots of lots of reasons. What do you see that really drives mission creep, in your experience?
Carol: Can you say more about that?
Rebecca: The number one thing in my experience that causes mission creep, is fundraising success. I think very often organizations use the availability of funds as a “we'll try this," you know what I mean? It's not very well thought through if you have - actually, let me be more specific: it's less about economics broadly, than it is about covering your operating expense, which I think is one of the single biggest challenges and one of the things I think that the philanthropic community should be doing more of is covering the appropriate percentage, covering operating expenses at the appropriate level, because often what I have seen happen is an organization - let’s say they're a S.T.E.M. organization, they provide S.T.E.M. services, they teach kids S.T.E.M. in the after school space. They raise X number of their $50,000 budget, or $100,000 budget, of which $20,000 is general operating or 30,000 was general operating. They are applying for program grants. There is not an organization that I have seen - and I worked for a philanthropy and our general operating number, I think was 11%, and we were very high at the time. General operating isn't sexy. It's not new, it's not the bright shiny thing, so it can be very hard to raise money for. So this particular organization saw a grant opportunity to provide counseling or to provide family counseling or something, something that was utterly unrelated to but could have been tangentially and their way in was we will counsel the families of the kids we serve, because they were like “we need the money." It was a disaster because it was so far outside of their mission.
Carol: and probably [out of] their core competence
Rebecca: Exactly. I think often - and that's a very extreme example - often it's, “we'll do the same thing in a different issue” or “we’ll do the same thing with a slightly different program area," but the result is the same. I see a lot of medium-sized nonprofits, or nonprofits that want to go from small to midsize. If there is a trend in philanthropy, if there's a new bright, shiny thing that funders are funding, then the temptation is very great to try the new, bright, shiny thing as a means to keep your doors open rather than doing what you do really, really well and working harder to find the funders that support that. That's a hard thing to do, I think that avoiding mission creep is a function of capacity.
Carol: If you've seen - and I am not a fundraising consultant, so this is just from observations - so especially with newer organizations, you're talking about moving from small to midsize, maybe there's a lack of understanding of what really [is] the impact that grants can have on an organization from the board's perspective. It just seems like “oh, wow, it's free money.” I mean, it's not free money because you got to do work for it - but the sense of
never thinking about what that grant might actually cost the organization.
Carol: Is the piece that people miss.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think there's a lot of well-intentioned grant making that isn't necessarily well thought through, and I also think that there's a temptation I think that works counter to that in a mission creep space is empire building.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Rebecca: There are often three or four big dogs [in a city] that started out doing whatever they did, [and] because their organization is really good at whatever it is that they started out doing, they're the ones that get offered the new bright, shiny thing, and because they have the capacity to do it, and even if [they don’t,] they have the capacity to hurry up and figure out how to do it, and somebody asked them to do it. Somebody with money said, “why don't you try this?” I mean, there's an organization in Baltimore, [and] they do great work, but they are the object lesson for empire building. They did one thing exceptionally well, [and] because they did that one thing exceptionally well and ED was out and about, a lot of people knew him. He's a smart guy, he was easy to like, the program was a very feel-good program. Then somebody asked him to go into the housing renovation business or some absurd ancillary thing, and because somebody asked him to do it, he did exactly what you said: he hurried up and figured it out, because he had the bandwidth within his staff and he had the resources to train. He figured out how to do that,
Carol: Or hire some experts doing that.
Rebecca: Exactly. So even though he went and did it and did a serviceable job at it. He put out of business the two organizations across town that were doing that work successfully, but that were really, really tiny so nobody knew they were there. So the unintended consequences of the intended consequences of not really understanding capacity building and choosing expansion for the known over [just] training somebody who is smaller and maybe less well known. so this organization just to wrap it up in a bow ended up being the go-to organization, they ended up with fiscal sponsorships and blah, blah, blah in 15 different issue areas, and they had a very high opinion of themselves, and they had one of those heavy duty blockbuster boards with all the bold faces and everybody. They were *the* group, and it got to a point where the people who ran it took themselves way too seriously.
Carol: It’s flattering to be asked to do all those things.
Rebecca: It is, and if you're able to figure out how to do them even marginally well, you also have the ability to cover your own failures, you can paper over the fact that you're not as good at it as you were at your core service, but you're passively good at it, and people love you. So they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I was putting together a program - I was working inside government and I was putting together a program and we needed to get a big application, and we were looking for nonprofits to work with who would be the lead for this particular grant. These guys were not the right ones, but they really thought they were, and they couldn't figure out why they hadn't been asked to dance. We went with somebody else because it was an opportunity to elevate that group, they were very, very good and ready to do the next step and it was really interesting having to explain to this very successful organization that they were not the ones [and] I think that happens too. I think that, in every single city there are three or four big dogs, then there's two or three medium dogs, and then there are 35 small dogs who can't get out of the dog run because they can't raise any money.
Carol: Yeah. Well I want to shift gears a little bit and play a game.
Carol: I’ve been a facilitator of many, many meetings and designing lots of retreats and planning sessions etc. I have many things like boxes of icebreakers because other people are better - that's one of those skill gaps -- other people are better at thinking of fun questions than I am, so I'm just going to use theirs…. So the question is: if you could live in a sitcom, which one would it be and why?
Rebecca: [I have] a couple of answers to that. I don't know which way to go. Is this “if my life were a sitcom” or can I pick a sitcom? Am I picking a sitcom to inhabit?
Carol: You're living in it. You're being dropped in, you are now a character in the sitcom.
Rebecca: Okay, all right.
Carol: It doesn't have to be for the rest of your life.
Rebecca: Ok… off the top of my head, [my] answer is Friends because it's impossible to believe that they could all be in New York and not have a black friend.
Carol: Well, there you go.
Rebecca: That was [something] I never understood.
Carol: Well it's funny, when I pulled this card out of the box this morning, I actually thought of Friends also, but then I started thinking “um... well, let's see, I'd be the nerdy friend that certainly wouldn't be hanging out with those folks if I were in college.”
Rebecca: I'd be the black snarky friend, but guess what, that's my thing.
Carol: All right, excellent [I think] mostly because I was a single mom in my 20s and so I didn't get to have that time of hanging out with your friends and that being your family, so I would take a vacation there with those folks as well.
So what are you excited about what's coming up for you that's emerging in terms of your practice and the work you're doing?
Rebecca: I'm really excited about partnerships and collaborations right now, and I was excited about it before all of this craziness, but I am weirdly more excited about it now because I think that what is happening in our country, and in our world is both exposing some real fissures that need to be fundamentally addressed, and - secondarily - I think every crisis is an opportunity, right? I think that the nonprofit sector has a real opportunity to examine their work, to be very creative in terms of service-providing because we are in a period where lots of people need lots of things. I think that both big and small, established and less established organizations of different competencies have real opportunities to come together and increase capacity and develop broader programming and change and think about the ways in which they serve their constituents, and I think that there is a lot of opportunity for people like me who understand and can help you figure that out, so that.
The other way I'm thinking about it is, you know, one of the ways I describe myself in my practice is that I'm an interpreter because I have experience, not just across sectors but across subject matters. I am able to be the fulcrum, be the center of the wheel, and help the spokes communicate to each other for a moment. What that has given me is a certain agility and nimbleness to be able to explain and interpret and facilitate collaborations because I understand how each sector works with the other from their particular vantage point. I always joke that I can translate, I can speak philanthropy to government, I can speak nonprofit to philanthropy. I can be in all of those spaces and create meaningful collaboration and I think that's going to be a very useful skill going forward.
Carol: Yeah, I think people are having to - there are some who jumped on the bandwagon in terms of working from a distance and obviously, not everything can be done from a distance. A lot of places are having to rethink how they do their work and maybe suddenly, things that people doubted, I know [that] in the work that my daughter does, they do virtual advising of college students for financial aid, and suddenly virtual advising is the one thing that they can do right now. So you talked about things emerging for you, so how can people get in touch with you?
Rebecca: People can get in touch with me via my website, which is rcmstrategicconsulting.com . I can be reached via email at RCMstrategicconsulting@gmail.com. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. My Twitter account is RCMStratConsult.
Carol: All right, you can get in touch with Rebecca there and thank you so much for coming on. This was a really interesting conversation.
Rebecca: Thank you very much for having me Carol. It was a lot of fun.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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