In episode 24 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Bobbi Russell discussed include:
- Transitioning back to in person
- How nonprofits can make accommodations while working from home
- How investing in systems and organization can help in the long term
Bobbi is an operations executive with 20+ years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for 10+ years. While similar systems and processes can work for many organizations, she sees success when organizations apply solutions that are customized to their culture. She’s really good at understanding the human aspect of how any new system, tool, or process will integrate with an organization’s culture. Earlier in her career, she worked in marketing, membership, strategic communications, and journalism. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Clarion University of PA and an MBA from George Washington University. Her non-work passions include her dog, craft beer, and writing parody songs to entertain friends and family.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Bobbi Russel. Bobbi is an operations executive who works with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own consulting practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for more than 10 years. 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. Bobbi and I talk about how investing in operations boosts morale and saves your organization time in the long run. What helps staff thrive in a remote work environment, what organizations need to think about as they are thinking about whether they will be heading back into the office and how your organization’s insurance and benefits providers can be partners in supporting your organization’s HR function especially if you are a small organization without a dedicated HR person.
Welcome Bobbi. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Bobbi Russell: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm glad to be here today.
Carol: So I like to start with the question about your motivation for the work that you do. So, what drew you to your work? What motivates you? What would you describe as your, why?
Bobbi: I've worked in the nonprofit community for more than 20 years. And for a large chunk of that was running an organization. And about four years ago, I had the chance to do some consulting. And my, when I think about the why for that, it's a mix of collaboration and independent work. That's a great fit for me. That's on the very tactical level. But also, I get to be a part of many different teams in working with different clients. And it's such a learning exchange of getting to experience different cultures, different ways of operating the different kinds of work. And so in addition to the work that I do, the fulfillment I get from coaching and collaborating with somebody doing direct HR support or helping with operations, I get that fulfillment from other interactions and learning about different cultures and styles.
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that idea of a learning exchange. Cause I, I definitely feel like that when I'm working with clients that it's a partnership and I may be walking them through a similar process that I've walked another group through, but their issues, their team, the personalities, the issue that they're working on, what's going on inside the organization, all of that is new. So I'm always learning and, and I just appreciate that. It just keeps everything really interesting. It does. So, as you mentioned, a lot of your work with organizations revolves around operations, which isn't always the most sexy or exciting thing, or the thing that people actually associate with nonprofit work, but it really is so critical for organizations. In order to achieve their mission. What would you say are some of the benefits of actually investing some time on your, on the organization's operations?
Bobbi: I think one of the biggest benefits is running your nonprofit. Like a business and nonprofits are unique. We have we're mission focused and, and are working for the greater good and investing in that infrastructure. Always save time. We'll save time later. So I like to share with clients, they don't like to have too much process, too much structure. Have a little bit it's, it's good for employee morale because people like to be able to refer to things, to have a good sense of how things are done. It doesn't have to be a 95 page handbook, but some guidelines for how things work. So there's that investment for the organization and saving time and the investment in your team for retention purposes of giving them some structure. So they know what to expect and what they can look for in the future. For me, that's one of the biggest ones, the financial and.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting that you mentioned employee morale because I was working with an organization recently on strategic planning and, and it was an organization that had started with one person and the founder. Who's just very visionary and doesn't need a lot of structure or she has all the processes cause she built them all. And as she's built her team, there was this need to actually get clear about what each person was doing. Get clear about, what is the step-by-step for this process or that process. And, and I think because it wasn't a need for her. She didn't necessarily see it. But once folks said, this is what we need, they were able to identify who in the team is actually good at this stuff and can get us where we need to go in terms of building those structures so that people know where their lane is and how they can contribute.
Bobbi: Even for those folks who liked them who liked the freer form structure, you can have that in other ways in your work, but don't when it comes to how you structure positions and responsibilities and how people are responsible and accountable for their time, all of these different aspects, it, it gives people a sense of, of some structure and it, it is really helpful for morale.
Carol: And a lot of your work really involves how organizations work with, as you're with teams, with your people, recruiting, managing their HR processes, and certainly with the pandemic. And we're recording this right in May of 2021, so things are starting to shift perhaps, or people are starting to think about a shift away from remote work, but a lot of organizations had to make that shift really quickly. They may not have had practices or policies around telecommuting or remote work. What would you say has where, where have you seen organizations do a good job of, of that and helped their team really thrive in that remote work environment?
Bobbi: There were a couple of things. One of the biggest ones was understanding that each person was having. A different experience in this pandemic from an emote, a personal, emotional perspective, and then their own home family situation, whatever that might be. And you started to see folks who were in a shared apartment and there was only one room with good internet and they were taking turns using that room to be on meetings. And, and then also of course, families with kids and balancing all of that. So really understanding what people's limitations were, and how can the organization still get done? What they needed to get done while supporting whatever those limitations were. And then similar to what we were talking about with operational processes is coming up with some level of guidelines for staff, because it didn't work from what I saw, when organizations said do the best that you can. People were looking for a little bit more than that. So it was even if it was around. Hours or how they communicated about their schedule, but providing some guidelines of what the organization is expecting during this time, what flexibility there is when people should plan on using pay time off versus this is flexible and you can just balance out your schedule. So really providing those kinds of guidelines and then. A third thing is keeping up with the personal aspects that you don't get when you're over video or over phone and being intentional about making human connections and with the pandemic. We also had a lot of unrest happening in the country, along with that. And that also was impacting people. So making space to talk about those things or not talk about them if people didn't want to, but at least acknowledging it was happening and people could be having experiences around those things and wanting to create open lines of communication.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's, I mean, all those differences always have been there in terms of how different people were experiencing the workplace and their work and the team. But certainly, this past year has just amplified that in the same way that it's amplified so many other things as you're talking about. And Yeah, I think, I've heard a lot of people talk about while you, it's so hard to have the human connection or those, those accidental, you bump into someone things that happened naturally in offices when you're all there together. And it's, and that's certainly true. And at the same time, I think there's something. That this experience of having to work remotely gives a gift to organizations when they can start to think about how to build that in more intentionally and for everyone, because I feel like maybe it happened for some people accidentally just serendipitously, but it may not have, it may not have actually been the experience for everybody in the office, but people assumed that it was because everybody was together.
Bobbi: That's a great point. Yes. And even just thinking about how some people really love face to face interaction and like being on zoom or some other type of video chat where other folks need a break from that. And seeing organizations give people the space for that. If you're not required to be on video, let people know I'm going to take a break. I've had back to back video calls all day and just giving people space to do. The advocate for what worked for them, so they can be bringing their best. And that works for the individuals and for the organization.
Carol: And as organizations think about shifting back Or shifting towards some new, new version of working whether it's a hundred percent remote or everybody back in the office or somewhere in between, what are you, how are you seeing organizations start to think about that transition?
Bobbi: People are starting to talk about it. Now there's a lot of information gathering and I'm hearing a lot of eyeing. September is the return to physical offices. If they exist, even if it's in some sort of hybrid way, but gathering information from staff, what is your life going to look like? What is your comfort level? Without disclosing specifics. Do you have health concerns about potentially returning to the office, all of these different factors of gathering the information and then coming up with really clear guidelines. This is what we're expecting. This is when we'll be phasing things in when we might resume travel, and just giving staff really clear guidelines about what could be coming and making sure there's good communication. There's also an aspect of. Not just to be preparing physically to come back to the office, but mental preparation from all of this time that we've been at home and in a different space where some people have been sick and lost family members and friends and people have been through all types of experiences during this time and thinking of ways to make space. Or coming back together, coming up with maybe some mental health support system within the organization, making sure people are aware of what their benefits are related to that through insurance and other services. A lot of times insurance packages like life insurance and short-term disability have those employee assistance programs as well. And making sure employees know what's available to them, how they can get help, who they can talk to and making it a safe place. If people are having a challenge coming back and really struggling.
Carol: And, and I mean, most nonprofits are relatively small and oftentimes don't necessarily have a dedicated HR person. How can, how can those small organizations work towards building some of those systems?
Bobbi: I say, just relying on insurance providers and brokers, depending on how their policies are set up. Those individuals very often have all the information about what those programs are. Probably have flyers template, emails, things like that that can easily be sent out. That wouldn't create a lot of labor burden on the smaller organizations. There is also a significant amount of information and data out there and blogs and websites. Providing samples of how template, emails, or examples of how people can create programs for coming back online and providing information for staff. So there's some light touch options that can really be helpful for small teams.
Carol: Yeah, and I, I really appreciate your point about prepping, not just the logistics of, where are we going to put desks and what's the cleaning procedure going to be, and, all of those kinds of things, but also that mental preparation or. Even just starting to, maybe it's not even preparation. Maybe it's just acknowledging that it's going to be weird and awkward for a little while. People aren't used to being together and, are you going to, is it okay to, are you, how are you going to greet? Are you going to shake someone's hand? Are you going to bump their elbow? Are you gonna, how do we do these meetings? Are we all gonna sit in the conference room? Like we used to, or be a part and then to try to think about how to manage a hybrid situation, I think is just much more challenging. I mean, I managed that before the pandemic. I worked in an organization where I had remote staff, but it was so out of the ordinary that it was very hard to get folks who are. At the central location to remember that, a remote staff person was involved in the meeting. So when I, when I could have influence on the meeting set up, I would make sure that we use the video and had them up on screen so that people actually remembered they were there. Instead of just being on a conference call, they might, they might as well not have been at the meeting.
Bobbi: Right. Yes. And there's also that technology aspect. Can you bring that up when going back into the office? There's still going to be a distributed team structure and thinking through how systems will continue to support the work and the humans doing the work.
Carol: So many organizations, some hiring or onboarding on pause thinking, well, well, let's just wait this out. And, but, as it's gone on longer, organizations have had to bring people on while they're working remotely. What have you seen work well in terms of hiring folks during this period, and then, then that onboarding process.
Bobbi: Interesting because the way that I approach hiring hasn't changed significantly from before, except that certain phases of interview processes are over video right now, rather than in person. I think the best thing any organization can do is really think through clearly, what are the competencies that we're looking for in somebody, those skills and, and that level of experience, what are the things we must have? What are the things that are nice to have and coming up with a clear, readable, digestible job description. That's fair. And, and isn't a wishlist, but it's more the actual job. And I really like a process that supports each candidate who is invited for various stages of interviews to get to know the culture of the organization and, and investing time upfront. I like to do phone interviews as a first round, not over video, but just over the phone, have a conversation without worrying about cameras and invest about an hour in those, and really get to know candidates’ resumes. You understand that they've got the qualifications that we're looking for based on work experience, but let's get to know them as individuals and understand the stories that have helped them get to where they are. So I like that upfront investment. I think it always returns better. Pool of candidates and then investing in an equitable process where you have the same hiring panel. If there's a panel style interview and the second phase of interview and making it really clear to candidates, what they can expect and what the timeline is. So the biggest challenge of. Hiring right now is if you can not meet somebody in person, a lot of people rely on that to make a final decision about a candidate. Are they going to work with our culture? They've got the right skill set, and we think they're going to succeed in this role, but will they fit in with our team? And so I'm seeing some meet and greet style interviews getting added in. Maybe it's a handful of staff members they're not interviewing, but it's, let's get together and get to know each other, almost like a virtual coffee as a way of getting to know candidates and have a more that more social feel. So that's one thing that I'm seeing that's different. Otherwise I'm just not seeing, I haven't seen a new trend to something that's brand new and hiring that really wasn't there before.
Carol: Well, that's, I really appreciate that. You say that actually it hasn't changed a huge amount and what's important. Hasn't necessarily changed. going to what you've said at the very beginning, just taking the time to identify what the competencies are. In the role what's actually needed. What's a must have, and what's nice to have right. Cause I've certainly seen so many job descriptions where there's such a wishlist that I'm like, even the superheroes and the Avengers couldn't do this job and we, what are they thinking? So what are some of the steps that organizations can take and teams can take to, to really identify what those competencies are.
Bobbi: A lot of conversation and there are two, I guess there are two paths. If it's an existing role and someone is moving on and they're replacing a team member taking a good look at the original job description, did that work well? Was it realistic? Does it really cover what this person did and how can we adjust it to fit what we're really needing thinking through what are the outcomes? What does success look like in three months, six months, a year into that position. And I think that's what can really help identify those competencies. And I also think keeping that to six to eight competencies is. Efficient. If you try to go above and beyond that, we get back more to that Avengers style person who maybe doesn't exist, of having everything on that list. So keeping it realistic and coming up with definitions for those competencies, there are existing. Definitions out there, but coming up with ones that are meaningful to the organization, what does being a clear communicator look like to us at this particular organization? What does being a superior relationship builder look like to us? And being able to convey that into questions that you ask the candidates is an important part too.
Carol: Can you say more about how you link up those two things?
Bobbi: Let's say that relationship building is one of the competencies and you define what that means coming up with some questions that 's an X asking for a specific story about how somebody built a relationship, maybe with someone that the organization was struggling with, maybe it's a funder. Maybe it's a relationship that needs to change because the person who was managing that relationship before was struggling with it, or wasn't being very successful. So asking for examples of that and the outcomes, and, and also trying to understand what somebody might do differently in a situation. So I like scenario based questions for understanding, really trying to get at. Where are they within this, within that competency in terms of their expertise
Carol: And how have you seen organizations be able to convey what their, what their culture is because, too often, I've, I've. Ask that question when I've been in the interview process and people are like, well, you'll know it. When you see it, I'm like, well, that's not helpful. Can you say a little bit more?
Bobbi: Yes. If the organization doesn't have an existing statement about their culture, that might be in the handbook. I like to start with talking about them. What's your compensation philosophy, because I think a lot of things trickle out from that. What's important to you as an organization. How do you define salaries? How do you determine what additional benefits you'll add into the package and what amount are you contributing to that? I think that can set a tone also talking through what our expectations are around let's say things like dress code. If those things still exist, some organizations still do have them or still have expectations for external facing events. Making that super clear that really can help you understand how as well, my disorganization B or how maybe stiff might this organization be and where might a person fit in along there? I think asking when, when I want to understand the culture, what type of social events do you have? How do you get to know your new staff members? When they come on board, do you have celebrations for birthdays or work anniversaries? So trying to understand how they invest also in staff, after they've come on board, do they do 90 day? Check-ins: what are their performance evaluations? Like? All of that feeds into what the culture is. So I ask a ton of questions.
Carol: That's great and about really specific things. Right. So it's not just generally describing your culture to me, but describing this piece and this piece of this piece and from all of it, I can really get a picture of what that adds up to. So, yeah. What would you recommend to clients in terms of successfully onboarding, onboarding new hires, especially now, again, with us being in this remote work environment,
Bobbi: Depending on the size of the organization, figuring out what's the checklist: who will do what, what do we want our first interaction with our newest team member to look like after they've accepted the offer. And I would say communicating more than you might, if the person we're going to be showing up in in-person and making sure they understand this is what your orientation looks like. By the end of week two, we expect you'll have. Had exposure to all of our systems. You may not know them exactly in and out yet, but you'll have gone through this checklist of learning, to use these tools and making it super clear how, what systems they need to have set up at home, how equipment will get to them.
If they have any home office expenses, which I'm seeing, many organizations get an extra reimbursement for that for internet and home costs. And having a plan, making sure that person's supervisor, if that's, if that's relevant is having personal check-ins with them. And that there's a process for that person getting to know the organization and their job, and what's expected of them and really trying to incorporate them as much as possible. So it could be different depending on each organization. What, how many systems and tools they have or how many staff they have on board. And it's a really important thing I think, to have. Touch points with each staff member as well for any new person, not just to a staff meeting, but maybe just 15 minute quick coffees with people or a quick slack video to say hi so that people get connected personally to the rest of the team.
Carol: And I could imagine going through a process of trying to figure out what all those things are and creating that checklist could actually be useful for people who've been on staff for a while. Like what are all the systems that we're using and how do they interact with each other? How does each person see their role and how it connects? I could see that being a really fruitful conversation, regardless of an onboarding process
Bobbi: That’s a great point. And a lot of times organizations will have resources that they launch. And maybe because there isn't a point person reminding staff that they have access to it, it's really when new staff come on board, that they're reminded, oh yes, we have this great shared Kindle library with 50 books in it that would help anybody who's interested in learning about various professional skills development. And I do think that's a great idea. If the organizations for arts, a great benefit, rather than staff existing staff, to see those resources if the organization is big enough, there might be an opportunity for individual staff members to be the champion of certain pieces. There's a, maybe a tools person and maybe this is how we do our staff meetings. Let me introduce you to that. And, having people be the. The go-to person and having that list be shared with the original, with a staff member, excuse me, joining the team. Here's who to go to for what? And To get a really good orientation to the organization.
Carol: Well, the idea of splitting it up and having it not be just a siloed experience, so that only, not, not only distributes the, the, the process of either putting that together or implementing it, but it also, with each person that's that champion, the new person gets, starts to build a relationship with them as well.
Bobbi: Yes. I think for individual staff members throughout the opportunity to take the lead on things like that, too, it's an investment opportunity for them as well. They get to show off their knowledge of the organization and take the lead on something. So it's a great, I think retention opportunity as well.
Carol: So on each episode, I like to play a game by asking one random icebreaker question. And since we mentioned the Avengers if you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why
Bobbi: I think I would choose the power of invisibility. I really liked to observe, and I liked the idea of being able to observe without being noticed and being able to use that for good, maybe. Interject if I need to, or take information back to somebody else reported. I don't know, but I like that idea. And also being able to disappear quickly if needed
Carol: I love it. I love it. Yeah. I've often thought, well, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall and that means they didn't see what really happened versus the report out afterwards. So that's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Bobbi: Got a couple of really fun projects coming up.
One is. It's fun because it's collaborating with a friend who, with her firm I'm going to support a project on hiring a new team member for one of their non-profit clients. And so just getting to know their process and bringing, merging our processes and plus getting together. I'm excited about that for one of my longer term clients we're working on job trajectories. They've been growing as an organization and. Haven't had an exact map. How do you grow at this organization? What does it take to get a promotion? What does that look like? So we're working on those trajectories and salary bands and making that all transparent within the organization, a growth path. And then the other is expanding voluntary benefits for one of my clients. And thinking about what are the host of things that staff might like to have access to. It's not something the organization’s necessarily paying for, but they'll pay for the administration of those benefits. And we often have. Life insurance that you can add onto accidents, things related to health. They're also financial planning, types of services, health, and wellness, and even things like pet insurance to make available with your people. If you're maybe getting a better deal because you're working with one provider. So I'm excited about expanding those offerings.
Carol: That's awesome. I love the idea of the growth trajectory, because I think so often in the sector, certainly if I look back at my career, most of the ways in which I grew, I ended up always having to hop to a new organization. And, there wasn't a clear path. Within the organization to, to, build on what I already had, had done and, and build on the work. So that's, that's really cool to start being a little more intentional about that.
Bobbi: I think so too. And not everybody wants to move up and be a supervisor for other people. They maybe are expanding their skills and can take on. More advanced work as they grow, but maybe that's not for them. And if it's possible to create those types of positions, make that clear, this can exist. And that's what it looks like. And that might impact pay scale, I'm not sure, but it could, but just making that super clear to staff, I think a lot of times people might not ask those questions. Do I have to be promoted and become a supervisor? And these organizations end up losing great folks because they haven't had that conversation.
Carol: Right. I mean, some people that they don't necessarily want to move up in, in that moving to a supervisory role, they really just want to go deeper and deeper into what they're, what they're doing as an individual contributor. So that's a great point. Well, thank you so much. It's been great having this conversation.
Bobbi: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you inviting me. It's been fun.
Carol: All right.
I appreciated how Bobbi described her process for hiring and how in many ways it has not changed a lot even in the past year beyond final interviews being via video instead of in person. Her process starts with defining the competencies needed for the role. And she nudges organizations to not create the wish list job description that essentially describes a super human. That first step of getting clear about what is actually really essential with a job. This could include questioning whether the qualifications you have required in the past are really needed – i.e. does the person really need a college degree to do this job? Or a Masters? What is essential and what is nice to have. And being consistent across interviews to aim for a more equitable process.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
In episode 20 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Scott discussed include:
Elizabeth Scott, PhD, founder of Brighter Strategies, provides thought leadership and high value organizational development consulting in support of a stronger social sector. Liz has provided consulting services in strategic planning, process-improvement, and human capital development for hundreds of nonprofits and associations. She has been a Baldrige examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia and is a certified Standard of Excellence consultant. In addition to managing the practice, Liz holds a faculty positions at both The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and George Mason University. Liz holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Organizational Sciences from The George Washington University, as well as a second master’s and Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Liz. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Scott: Thanks so much, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So just to get started, can you tell people what drew you to the work that you do? What, what really motivates you and what would you say is your, why.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. Great question. So I think for me, there's a little Y and then there's a big why, and I'll start with the little why my undergraduate and most of my formative studies are in sociology and macro theory. And so for me, it's always been really interesting to understand why organizations. Why people, why groups behave the way that they do. And so that's been something that has stuck with me through my education, as well as, as I went into the workforce, particularly my first job out of college. And I wondered why do people work the way they do? Why is this happening the way it is? And then the bigger ‘why’ is, as I advanced in my career, I began to realize that the non-profit community, the nonprofits are such a, they're a fabric of our community and they touch everybody's lives. And in the nonprofit space, at least at the time when I started writer strategies, there weren't a lot of groups that were focused on building capacity in that space, particularly being here in DC, things tend to be a little bit more federal government oriented. And the nonprofit sector is huge and it really impacts the daily lives of all of us. And so I thought, could I combine the two, could I combine my passion of capacity building and development and nonprofit work. And I was really lucky and was able to do that.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting that you talk about that, why do people work the way they do? I think that's what drew me to the work as well. I was already in the sector and I think so many people come into the sector wanting to work on some cause or some issue that they find really important. And certainly that drew me as well. But over time it was more. Thinking about the function of how people work. always hoping that they're doing good work, but thinking about the function and, and how to help them be more effective over time. So, yeah, I definitely, I definitely relate to that. Motivation. Yeah,
Elizabeth: we always talk about that. Our role as consultants is to help build internal capacity so that they can go out and do whatever that mission work is. And there are so many organizations that are doing really great things and, so our focus is on helping them shore up. Do you have the right people, the right planning, the right processes so that you can be sustainable, so that you can actually impact your community the way you want. And those are really important questions.
Carol: And talking of sustainability, you've done some research recently on nonprofit leadership and its intersection with the organizational code culture during COVID. What would you say are some of your key findings in that research?
Elizabeth: So we had the opportunity to partner with the center for nonprofit advancement. And we did a study that went out to 255 nonprofits here in the DC area. And what we found is that as COVID was rolling out and all of the murders that were happening over the summer and the racial unrest that organizations were really struggling [and] trying to figure out where their place should be. And so what we heard. Was that there was a substantial loss of funding for most organizations. They suddenly were in a position where they could not engage with clients the way they had done it before, nobody was doing virtual or. Doing in-person anymore because of COVID. So they were shifting their energies to think more virtual. Lot of them were completely rethinking their strategic plan. And on top of that, they had a lot of increased costs with trying to move programs online. And then you add on top of that, that a lot of them lost most of their volunteer base because volunteers tend to be in the older community. They weren't leaving their homes. They weren't being engaged. Those who were in the younger community suddenly had children at home that were homeschooling. They could not go out and volunteer and do what they had been doing. And so you add all that and mix it up. And what we found was that. Organizations were being impacted significantly.
And then on top of that, there was this huge gap of services. So when we did the survey, we actually found that organization saw an 80% increase in the needs that they saw in their communities. And that they saw that these were gaps that their organization and other organizations weren't able to sustain. And so, some organizations did get some aid, but the need is really outpacing the funding. And so that was a really interesting study. The full report is actually available in the center for nonprofit advancements website. So if anyone wants to go there and see some of the other pieces We also did a followup, a bunch of focus groups in January to get a sense. And that was a partnership with ACRA Alexandria to get a sense of what are people experiencing now, now that we're about a year in, and there were some really interesting findings there, particularly around the culture piece that you were talking about. And the first one was that people are still rethinking strategy and operations. So they've moved to virtual, but now they're beginning to think about how do we reintegrate when we go back to being in person, they're really concerned about low morale and trying to figure out how to keep people connected and looking for ways to support people during this time of uncertainty.
We also heard that fundraising is top of mind for people. Everyone is in need. Everyone is asking for how do we do this the right way without overtaxing or over asking? Staff in general, executive directors are a little bit burned out and staff are tired. They're emotionally exhausted. And so there's a lot of emphasis on self-care and building better support systems. And then I think to no surprise the conversation around racial equity is something that people are spending a lot of time talking about. So how do we send her race equity with our board? How do we center it with our staff? How do we think about how we're engaging communities in a mindful and thoughtful way? And then the last thing we heard was around governance. So all those volunteers that we talked about earlier sitting on boards, many of them have dropped off boards. They have been busy with their own lives and suddenly can not be as engaged as they want to be. So a lot of the organizations that we talk to are rethinking board governance. They're rethinking their overall strategy, rethinking recruitment. So there's a lot on people's plates right now, I think.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. You're talking about struggling to keep that place whole then One of the things that, oftentimes during a recession you'll have that dual impact on nonprofits of increased need for their services and decreased funding and revenue, but it feels like. With this there's even more layered on top of that with the impact on volunteers, the impact on boards having to do your program in a totally different way. It's, it's even more so than what maybe organizations had. Might've been able to work through and, and be, be resilient through a recession or, or in the economic downturn in the past. And this being wholly different.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think of something you said earlier, you layer that on top of the fact that we're all now isolated and many of us are virtual. And so how do you keep a positive sustaining culture within your organization when. People are all over the place. And not only are people working from home, but they're dealing with homeschooling, they're dealing with elder care, they're dealing with lots of other personal life issues that are going to influence how they're able to show up on the job. And so I think that's important to note too. So this focus on. Self-care this focus on building morale on making sure that people don't feel burned out, that they feel valued, that they're contributing to the organization. I think those are really important elements and a little bit of a silver lining that we're having these conversations.
Carol: And how would you say what are, what are some things that you see are working in terms of organizations being able to address that morale issue?
Elizabeth: Great question. So what we've seen work really well are for organizations that have really ramped up their communication processes and organizations that have involved staff in these decisions. So we have a number of clients that are having regular touch point meetings with staff they're doing some of them are doing things like appreciative inquiry style workshops, where they're really trying to think about. What's good and what's working and how do we harness that? So they're using staff to brainstorm and to think through solutions to problems. We've seen organizations put together really intentional care packages. So things from, stipends, or we had one client that is in person right now. And so they partnered with an emotional support animal rescue. And so they're bringing the animals by on a weekly basis for staff to get an opportunity to hang out with them, to be able to sit with the dog, pet the dog for a little bit. So I think people are being really creative, but those that are being successful are doing it with intentionality and they're not doing it in a vacuum. They're there, they're involving their staff and trying to identify solutions for how to move forward.
Carol: That's so key because I, I, wait, in the, before times way before the pandemic was working in an organization where, there was a sense of like, we're really stodgy and we don't have fun. And so, the CFO decided it would be a great idea to put a foosball table in the, in the kitchen area. And that was a nice idea. And 2 out of the 80 staff would regularly use it. But it just didn't fit with the culture. People knew that they would not be looked well upon if they were actually playing foosball on work hours. So, involving staff and having a conversation about what, what works for us, what works within our culture, I think is super important.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And it's not all these things like foosball tables or, people try to do fun. Those are good. There's nothing wrong with infusing some fun into the workplace. But a lot of culture is really built off of what we value and how we behave and how we treat one another. So I think involving staff in these conversations that say, look, things are weird right now, and we're acknowledging that what do you need to be successful? How can we support you? I think having those more, what I'll call more real conversations as opposed to, Hey, we bought you a popcorn machine can be really helpful and appreciated by staff. At the end of the day, we all want to feel valued and we want to feel heard and. So organizations that are doing that I think are able to traverse some of the difficulties that we've talked about during COVID easier than organizations that are not putting time and intentional thought into culture.
Carol: And how would you say that organizations are dealing with that loss of the volunteer base? I mean, what have you seen, what steps have you seen organizations take in that direction?
Elizabeth: that's actually huge. What we've seen is that a lot of them are completely rethinking their programming and rethinking ways to engage volunteers. So I'll go back to the study that we did with the center, but we found that 56% of the organizations, and this was about October, November, timeframe had transitioned all of their in-person. Activities to virtual 62% created entirely new programs. So things they weren't even running pre COVID. And then another 25% started doing emergency in person programming, which was also not part of their original charter pre COVID. And so in all of those cases, being able to think about how we use volunteers in different ways. It's not just the socially distancing piece, but can we get a volunteer to run a virtual event, for example, as opposed to having a staff person do it? Or can we partner? One of the things that we've learned with virtual events is it's better to have more than one person on there. And so can we partner a staff person with a volunteer to help facilitate a support group for example, or a parent teacher evening or whatever it is, educational format or whatever it is that they're doing. So I think people are just being really creative, but they're also creating entirely new service offerings, which is interesting. There's a little bit of a silver lining there that it took a pandemic, but people are being really creative and that's a positive thing.
Carol: Yeah. I think the assumption that you can do things only in person or only online. I think after we go back to whatever, not back, but go to whatever the next normal will be. There's, I think there's going to be this heightened assumption that people can access things online, not having to travel and all of those kinds of things, when you're trying to do both at the same time in person and online is harder than doing one or the other. So that's going to be a really hard challenge, I think, that raised [the] expectations that people have.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I would totally agree with you. I think that we're not going to go back to being in person the way we were. I think we're going to end up being hybrid for quite some time. People's work habits have changed. People have realized that they can work in other environments. even in my own friend circle, I've had four sets of friends that have moved outside of the DC area and relocated because they've realized that they can do their jobs from anywhere. And so I think nonprofits are not immune to that. I think they've started to create new programming and I think some of that programming is going to stick. Obviously the in-person stuff is going to come back too, but at the end of the day, I think we're going to have this hybrid work experience and learn to do that, at least over the next two or three years. I don't know that anyone has that down pat yet, but they're working on it and I think people are smart. We'll figure it out.
Carol: Can you give me some examples of those kinds of new, new programming elements that people have developed?
Elizabeth: Yeah. one of the really creative things that we've heard is actually around fundraising. So a lot of people, a lot of organizations are dependent on an annual event, like a gala or a walk or something that is very in-person oriented. And a lot of the organizations. That we work with have been really creative about repurposing and reformatting those experiences. And interestingly, they've actually, for the most part made more money off of them because they're not paying for all of the, the hotel, the rental, the food, all that sort of thing. The trick there seems to have been to create a personalized experience for the donor. So some of these groups. Would mail care packages to people's homes. We had one client that did a wine tasting and they mailed the wine tasting to everybody. And then Somalia came on zoom and walked you through your personalized wine tasting and groups have music and other sorts of things that are happening in the background. So they're just thinking about how do we, how do we take what was in person and create meaningful value? In a virtual experience. And I think that outside of fundraising and operations, we're seeing that on the program side too. Right. So how can I connect with my clients in a way maybe we were doing in-person support groups. Well, now we can do them virtually and one client, by way of example, said that their support groups, which were regionally oriented tended to have about. Seven to maybe 12 people that showed up. Now those same support groups have over 50 people showing up because people are no longer tied to the geographic region. You want to go to the Dallas support group, but you're in Boston. Sure. Go for it. And so they've been able to reach more. People have more of a positive impact in their community, but do it in a way that has been innovative and creative.
Carol: Yeah, I've heard a lot of organizations talk about increased participation in the variety of events or programs that they offer simply because that, the, the commute time having to just be out of the office. All of those things are, are taken, taken away, or are no longer there. So it just makes it easier. The ease of entry is just there and in comparison to going to an event and committing not only to the time you're there, but the time on either end to get there and get back.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it's interesting. I remember a couple of years ago in the fundraising space, there was this huge trend to have events where you would pay to not go. it would be a fun run or something like that. And someone like me who's lazy would say, eh, I'll give you a hundred bucks. I don't actually want to run. So you were paying to not be involved in a way. This is another new creative way of thinking about. How do we engage people? How do we provide something tangible, but yet you're not actually going to an event. Right. But I think people are concerned about how much appetite will people have for virtual convening? And it's not just fundraisers, but it's also programming. And I think we're all feeling a little zoomed out right now. And so how many hours a day is it healthy to be on zoom and to engage in virtual dialogue with people? I think all that is still maybe a little bit of a question mark.
Carol: Yeah, I don't, I don't think it's an all or nothing. Right. I mean, and, and having to do it all the time. I had a particularly long day of zooming yesterday and I was just wiped by the abdomen and, and some people that's their reality all the time. Now I have the luxury of having a little more control over it. How would you say organizational cultures really need to do in order to, to adapt to this new reality?
Elizabeth: That's a good question too. I think that organizations are going to have to start thinking about work in different ways, and they're going to have to start thinking about how people communicate in different ways. So some organizations. Zoom is one thing, right? Some organizations were fast adopters of that. Other technologies like Slack or I'm sure there's lots of other mediums out there as well. I'm not extremely well versed in those, but the idea of thinking of how we communicate in real time, how we manage workflow. Having even things as simple as having all of your files be on the cloud. So people can access the same material that when we're editing documents, we're not working over each other, but working collaboratively with one another. So I think that as organizations continue down this path, having strong communication strategies makes sense, doing workflow mapping makes sense. How do we want to work together? What does that look like? I think revisiting strategies. Makes sense. So much has changed for a lot of organizations. The strategic plan that they put in place may or may not be relevant at this point. So a lot of the groups we're working with right now are actually looking at one year strategic plans, as opposed to the more traditional three to five-year plan, because they're really trying to think about how we get through the next 12 months. What does that look like? And we'll talk about beyond later. So I think just being flexible and revisiting the what and the how of how work happens is really important.
Carol: Yeah, going to that strategy piece. I think when, when people are in that crisis mode and you talked about all the different stressors that are, that are hitting organizations. And so it is, about, can we, can we get through, can we survive this? And when you're in that survival mode, I was doing a focus group the other day and was asking about trends in the particular field that these folks worked in, and they were talking and saying how ‘we're just trying to survive.’ I can't think long-term right now. And, we know that our brains just don't work that way. Like when you are in crisis, you are short, you do, short-term thinking. So, just accepting that reality, that where we are. That's where that organization is.
Elizabeth: one interesting thing that jumps out for me as you were sharing that. We had the opportunity to run a focus group. It's actually more like a large listening session with about 25 nonprofits that use a design thinking process to help them think about what partnership and collaboration in COVID looks like. And it was this really interesting dynamic conversation where people realize to your point, they can't go it alone. So if I am struggling. And you're struggling. Chances are we're struggling in different areas. So how can I support you? How can you support me? And so getting these organizations together to brainstorm and think about what might a more collaborative future look like, where could we partner and share resources. Share connections, share relationships, maybe even go after [some] larger foundation or larger grant money through a more collective collaborative pool. So having those conversations I think is incredibly powerful and it was really neat listening to the different connections that some of these groups were making.
And some of them were connections that you would think are sort of obvious, like, okay, we all work in early childhood education. So we could all band together this way. However, some of the connections were a little bit less obvious: people might've been in the same geographic region or they might've had similar funders or had similar interests in the business community where they could bring boards together to leverage resources that way. So again, I think it's just another opportunity to be really creative. And mindful about how to do business differently.
Carol: Yeah. I love the point that you're making that, organizations may be struggling, but they're probably not all struggling in the same way and something is going well in the organization.
And how can they share that with others?
Elizabeth: Yeah exactly. And you talked about communications. Can you say a little bit more about [the] organizations that are doing this well are really focusing on that. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how, if, if an organization wanted to spend more time focused on that, what they might do? I think it's about the organization and the people within it, having real time access. And all getting information at the same time. So making sure that everybody has access to information and resources that people understand what decision-making processes are in place around the information that's being communicated to them, that they understand what next steps are. One of the things that we talk about at the team level is something as simple as putting together a team charter that identifies communication protocols, who's responsible for communicating what we talk about to other areas or groups within the organization. So information it's like water, it's a waterfall, right? It should cascade from one group to the next group and it should go up through the organization as well as down through the organization. So I think groups that are doing this well, have an actual communication plan in place where they're thinking about who needs to know what, when, and they're transparent, they're not operating in silos or hoarding information. And some of that can be done through technology. Things like Slack, for example, gives you the opportunity to send information to everybody, as opposed to maybe an email where I forgot to include a name, but it's not just technology. It's also about behaviors and habits and transparency, which I think is equally as important.
Carol: Yeah, because oftentimes, organizations relied on informal processes that people didn't really think about how information was disseminated. May it may be a few key pieces where an email goes out to everybody, but oftentimes it was much more informal. Oh, you went to that meeting and then you stop by and see somebody. And, Oh, what, what did you talk about in that? What's going on with your team and you don't have those opportunities in a remote working environment to be able to bump into people and have those informal. So it all has to be much more intentional and much more explicit. And I also appreciated what you said about decision making, because that's, I think another area where there've been a lot of implicit norms that people have about how decisions get made, but there isn't necessarily a common kind of. Yeah. Explicit understanding of how that happens. Yeah.
Elizabeth: We've actually sat down with teams and done decision trees. Right. So this is a particular type of decision who needs to be involved, who needs to be communicated with whoever is the ultimate decision maker on this. And what's fascinating about doing that. I mean, it sounds like a boring exercise, but what's fascinating about that is you get three or four people around a table. They have completely different understandings of how a simple decision should be made. Right. And you realize these are things we don't really talk about in team meetings. We talk about the work that needs to get done, but we don't often talk about the process by which that work happens. And that brings me full circle back to my passion for sociology and looking at how that applies to an organization because the, how the work happens. In many cases it is much more important and impactful because you cannot have an impact or the impact that you want in the community. If you're not operating in a way that is sustainable or that builds internal capacity.
Carol: Yeah. And so that also brings to mind something that you mentioned before of workflow mapping and all of these things, if someone's struggling to keep their head above water, they're like, well, you don't have time to do all of this. And yet, investing a little bit of time in doing these things that can seem prosaic and boring can actually almost, get, get, get some of the static out of the system because people then have a common understanding.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of the manager who says I'm so busy. I don't have time to delegate yet. They're so busy that if they actually could delegate, they would be in a much less stressful position. It's sort of that same notion.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. So I know that you in addition to leading brighter strategies, you're a professor. So I thought you would appreciate this question. If you could instantly be an expert in any subject, what would it be and why?
Elizabeth: Ooh, any subject. Okay. So my husband has tried to explain how electricity works to me probably 50 times. And I get it. It's like water. That's what he keeps telling me. But I don't get it. I just do not understand. It's like magic. You flip a light switch on and it happens. And I just have never really understood hard sciences were never a strength of mine. So if I could be instantly smart at something, it would be understanding some of the hard sciences, understanding how things work so that I could have an actually a more intelligible conversation with him and others. When those sorts of topics come up. You bring up anything science oriented and I'm like, I have no idea.
Carol: So it's how things work versus how people work. Yeah. All right. Well what are you excited about with your work? What's coming up next for you and what's, what's emerging in the, in the work that you're doing.
Elizabeth: Well, I'm really excited about a new project. We have for February, for black history month, and then for March for women's history month, we have our highlighting clients and individuals running nonprofits here in the DC area that we're doing little biographies on them and the impact of their work within their community. So we have a couple up on the website. Site already for February. And we've got a couple more coming up in March and we're going to be continuing that throughout the year. And it's just a really awesome way to point out really good organizations doing great work with amazing leaders. So I would encourage people to check out the blog on our website and to read a little bit about some of the amazing leaders that are out there.
Carol: Well, we will put a link in the show notes to that. So thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Elizabeth: it was great to be here. Thanks, Carol
In episode 18 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guests, Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee discussed include:
Shelley Sanner, CAE, MA, Senior Vice President, Industry Relations:
As senior vice president of industry relations, Shelley fosters knowledge-sharing and partnerships to promote innovation and excellence within the association industry. Her main areas of focus include identifying association challenges and trends and translating them into resources that benefit the community at-large. She also coordinates McKinley’s presence at events and within industry publications to ensure that we serve as a resource to the community on best practices and other insights.
Before joining McKinley in 2007, Shelley served as Membership Director at a higher education association. On a national level, Shelley has served in various volunteer leadership positions, taught courses and presented at many industry events. She has a Master’s in liberal studies from Georgetown University and an undergraduate degree from Juniata College, where she majored in French and education.
Alanna Tievsky McKee, MSW, Director:
As a director within the consulting department, Alanna leads client engagements designed to maximize organizational efficiency and mission impact. She brings a creative and thoughtful approach to each of her clients, combining skills acquired through her training and experience as a consultant, clinician, and coach. During her time at McKinley, she has nurtured an expertise in member engagement and retention, strategic planning, governance and staff and volunteer leadership facilitation.
Alanna has worked in and with the nonprofit sector for more than a decade and has supported nearly 100 unique associations as a member of the McKinley team. She is a social worker by trade and feels passionate about helping individuals and organizations solve challenges and reach their full potential. Alanna holds an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in nonprofit management and a B.A. in developmental neuropsychology from the University of Rochester.
Contact our Guests
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Shelley and Alanna to the podcast. Great to have you on today.
Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee: Thanks for having us.
Carol: I’d just like to start out and for each of you, ask what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you say is your why? Shelly, why don't you go first.
Shelley: I'm thinking of my colleague who is waiting for their CAE exam results right now. So that's probably top of mind but yeah, the CAE was really a pivotal moment for me. I passed the exam and I was in a large higher ed association. I realized that I knew a lot more after having taken the exam than I did before. I wanted to become more of a generalist and in a larger association, sometimes it's hard to grow and move up and have more oversight over areas. A friend and colleague of mine through ASAE reached out and said, ‘I think you might be interested in my company.’ And it was McKinley. That’s what brought me to McKinley 13 years ago.
Carol: Could you just tell people what the CAE and ASAE are?
Shelley: Sure! ASAE is an association for association professionals. So anyone working in an association at any level could join, and the CAE is Certified Association Executive, and it means that you've made a commitment to stay in the field. Technically it means that you have aspirations to one day lead an association, but a lot who passed the exam or take the exam, moved from industry roles to consulting like I did.
Carol: How about for you Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah! I took a fortuitous path to get to McKinley. I started my career as a clinical social worker, working with students in schools and ran into so many systemic policy issues that, at a certain point, I decided I needed to make change at a higher level. So I went into an association and worked on mental health policy. Eventually I heard about McKinley and really saw it as an opportunity to affect change of the world at an even higher level than I was doing at my job at the association. I'm a firm believer that associations make the world go round. They impact every industry and profession that we have, and I see my role as supporting associations doing their best work. So I'm really driven by my opportunity to better every profession or industry that I touch throughout that association.
Carol: So often I feel like I have to explain to people what associations are often starting like: well, what's the field that you're in? Then, so are you a member of an organization that brings everybody in your field together? Okay. Well that means that you're a part of an association. And if one were to fall apart, someone else would say, ‘shouldn't we all be working together towards common goals’ and they'd recreate it. So, what, what would you say since you've got that higher-level view of working with lots of different clients in the association space, what would you say are some of the key trends that you've been noticing over the last couple of years as you've been working with clients?
Alanna: Sure. So one, is this a real focus from the member standpoint on customer service and customer experience? I think this is a trend that we're seeing outside of the association space, but just generally in how we like to operate with the organizations and businesses that we buy from, or the restaurants we go to. I think Amazon has really created an incredible standard in terms of the customer experience. It is so easy to buy something from Amazon and our expectations as a customer or stakeholder. We want our association to deliver that same experience and ensure our website that the opportunity to engage in education, networking that we're consistently delivering a really strong customer experience with best in class customer service is necessary. So that's definitely one of the themes I'm noticing. Another would be that this previous approach of ‘one size fits all’ really doesn't work anymore. Our associations are becoming more diverse in terms of the stakeholder groups that are encompassed within an association. Those groups have very unique needs and preferences that we have to address. It's our responsibility to have a comprehensive understanding of the unique groups within our membership and deliver experiences that are meaningful and that support those groups’ needs to the best of our ability.
Carol: Shelly, do you have other observations?
Shelley: It gets to the heart of the value proposition. I think it's really customized because it's something people have created for themselves. I've been thinking recently about what I'm missing right now in my professional career and my professional development. It's the fact that I used to go to face-to-face meetings and, organically or intentionally, run into a lot of people I knew. That was the same network that introduced me to McKinley and got me my job. It's the same network that has mentored me, has supported me, has taught me things has really upped the game in some cases. I feel like this past year - and hopefully on into the future - there's been this renewed focus on humanity like that. We are human beings and people have really struggled over the past year. There's been more transparency around those struggles and honesty around that. There's also the need to connect with others, which is such a basic need, but it's something we realized we took for granted. I wonder, how can associations take the model that they have in place and this incredible ability to convene people, and through no direct action, connect people together just to provide a forum for people to meet each other. What does it mean to young professionals who don't have that? They're not going to face-to-face meetings and making connections with future employers or mentors or peers. What does that gap look like and how can association really get at the heart of humanity and get to the heart of the emotional or psychological challenges and struggles that people have and really create a stronger emotional bond and build that loyalty and that engagement with the association? I don't have an answer to that. It's actually something that's been in the back of my head, but it really struck me recently that I think there's something there because the associations are well poised to leverage that and strengthen that sense of community.
Carol: Yeah. But in terms of that humanization and being so limited now, in terms of only being able to connect people with people remotely through screens, through virtual meetings, the things that work that are hard to do and yet easy to do in terms of delivering content and information, and knowledge which has always been central to associations, has been able to continue and organizations where I participated in virtual conferences this year. Organizations did a great job of pivoting quickly to that. And yet all that hidden part, or maybe it wasn't visible because we hadn't yet missed it. It was that thing that suddenly was gone: the face-to-face meeting of the person that you meet at the cocktail hour, or in line for coffee, or all those kinds of things. In the virtual space, having to be much more intentional about how you help people create those connections, I think it can be done. I think it just hasn't - I don't know that it hasn't been created, I'm sure that there's somebody who's doing a good job in that already - but there are new tools or new ways of convening that need to be imagined so that that social aspect and that emotional aspect you're talking about can really be addressed and incorporated in a more intentional and explicit way, because I think that that desire to associate often comes from not wanting to feel alone in whatever struggles you're having in your profession.
Shelley: Yeah. And if I could give another example, because I realized there were two things embedded in what I was saying, one is that we're all individuals and that humanization piece, and then the idea of community and connecting. I remember doing a focus group - it was probably 10 years ago - it was for a healthcare association, extremely high-achieving medical professionals, doctors. I remember in the focus group a woman saying, ‘when this association first introduced a dedicated room for nursing mothers, my loyalty went up exponentially. And I knew I could continue to come to this meeting and it changed my whole sense of how this association understood and was accommodating and thinking about me.’
I think about that now with parents trying to work and be successful and continue to advance in their careers with their kids at home, struggling and trying to learn. Does the association acknowledge that formally to show that we understand that this is a challenge and then try to create a community of support or try to help solve those challenges for trade association. What's the future of the workplace? We're trying to figure that out at McKinley. Could a trade association help its members? Figure that out and come up with a few models. That's being able to rapidly adapt by paying attention and listening to what people really need as individuals or as a collective.
Carol: And I think that goes to something that Alanna said around that customization that people expect and that personalization of dialing into the subsets of membership. So the woman who talked about the organization having a room for nursing. She may not have reflected the majority of that association at that point, and yet it was meeting a need that she had. So it helped her feel more connected, and that sense of belonging.
Alanna: Shelly, your thoughts also crystallize another theme that I've been seeing, not only in the association space, but generally the world, which is that younger generations are really focused on what companies or organizations are doing to better the world. Tom's is a great example of that. The shoe brand that donates a pair of shoes for everyone that's bought. For those who are super bowl fans, you've probably heard that Coke and Budweiser and several other organizations are not having commercials to promote their products this year. They are reallocating that money to support communications around the COVID-19 vaccine. That is a clear way that they're taking a stand to say, ‘hey, we hear you world. And we're going to do our part to support our communities, to support the health of our communities and better the world.’ Associations are perfectly positioned to do that same work, whether it is, volunteer opportunities for members, or thinking about how their specific industry perhaps impacts the environment. It will be increasingly important that associations consider how they can not just support their specific profession or industry, but their communities, country, or world at large, because this is something that's increasingly important to their customer base and may make or break the decision to engage as a member or customer.
Carol: Yeah. And when you look at the research around what motivates people, having a sense of a connection to purpose and mission is really key. I think younger generations, they're just more willing to put that upfront where folks in the past may not have felt like they had the agency to say ‘no, I need that.’ Yeah. What’s Shelly’s perspective on that?
Shelley: I agree with that. I was thinking about one of the other themes that's all over the literature and people are talking about it quite a bit. It relates less to the mission of the organization, or the brand, or the position of the organization. And that's been fascinating to watch, which associations are in this incubator. Over the past year, the whole world was in an incubator. The world changed so rapidly and radically. I mean, we all knew something was coming at McKinley of course, we said, ‘there's gonna be another downturn,’ economists were saying that also, but who would have ever thought it would have looked like it did and that it would have had so many prongs to it that fundamentally changed how we lived our lives every day. We've been really fascinated by associations in their response to that. And associations are made up of people who lead or execute, and this whole idea of creating an association that is something different from what it is today. So I think that the majority of association professionals we might talk to would say, ‘well, we should be more nimble and we should be more diversified.’ And I think that that is certainly a lesson learned. I think sometimes there are pitfalls of categorizing it or labeling it in that way, because we know that a lot of associations that were really diversified in their revenue portfolios actually struggled throughout COVID because those non-dues products were not successful. They didn't see the same numbers or had to really reduce fees for them. There seems to be the shift back to the core membership and how important that is as a concept, but also how important it is to have some dues revenue, not 95% dependency on dues, but also not 95% dependency on a trade show and the sponsorships that come with a trade show and everything affiliated with that. Then the idea of a nimble organization. We're definitely seeing that. It's one thing to say, ‘let's be more nimble,’ but how do you really create that environment and create the processes to support that? In some cases, how do you create the mindset and the people who are leading it, or the people who are working for that organization. That's been fascinating to watch and there are certainly resources out there that help create the discipline around it. The characteristics of CEOs or other leaders that translate in the depth into that type of a culture. I think change management is a big piece of it. How do you actually move that organization in the direction more than just the systems you might put in place, but it's certainly the culture and the change management. And then creating a structure that can ensure that the organization can continue to adapt in the future as it needs to, there's a lot of associations that look very similar to what they did 20 years ago or 10 years ago. There's not a lot of impetus to change an association sector.
Carol: Also, structurally there's a lot of things that actually impede any kind of nimbleness or being able to change rapidly. It's almost like the purpose of the Senate: to slow everything down, like the distributed democracy or the board, the relationship between the board and the leadership team and all of those different stakeholders that you have to take into consideration just means that everything takes longer. It is something like a crisis that then enables organizations to rapidly move from one state to another, where there were a lot of organizations that had been doing online learning for the last two decades, but it was always a minority of organizations, maybe a small portion of what they were doing. And then suddenly everybody had to figure out how to do it.
Alanna: Yeah, this idea of being nimble and agile, it's just so important considering the rapid pace of change going on in the world today and the volatility of our markets and industries there. Shelly touched on. Some really critical points around the culture piece and change management. When we talk about that and McKinley, this idea of having a nimble culture, we're asking, are we empowering our staff to execute their role? Do we have a culture of risk-taking and inquiry? Those are the kinds of building blocks to create this culture of being able to execute your work and doing it efficiently and effectively. Governance is also a huge part of this as well. Associations are very good at having bylaws that haven't been touched in years outside of having more and more policies and regulations added to them. So it's a great opportunity to dust those off and see, we built systems that support rapid decision-making and change. Or have we created a system that slows us down and prevents that agile, nimble execution?
Carol: I really appreciate what you're saying about, it's easy to say ‘we should be more nimble. We should be able to move and be innovative and all of those things, big big catch words, but really digging into what are the behaviors, what are the mores within an organizational culture that actually supports that? Or does the opposite, right? If it's not okay for anyone to make a mistake and admit it, you're not going to have a real risk-taking culture then.
Alanna: And, in order to be nimble and agile and stay effective, your organization also needs to have a solid strategic plan. So I think that the idea of having a strategic plan has become increasingly important as well. Knowing what your organization's goals are for the next three years, let's say, and having a clear charge for staff volunteer leaders. Ensuring alignment from top to bottom, for those organizations that don't have a strategic plan and are saying, well, I just don't know that this is the right time because of the volatility that's going on in the marketplace. Rather pace of change. Well, strategic plans are also meant to be nimble and agile. They're not something that's set in stone and put on the shelf. They should be revisited quarterly or yearly to make sure that they're still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, there's something that can be changed, but it's that guiding light that is going to unify the individual, the staff and volunteer leaders that work on your organization to ensure that we're all reaching that common goal. And for those organizations that do have an existing strategic plan that was perhaps created before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it's time to dust that off and take a look and, and make sure that it's still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, I've worked with a handful of organizations. That needed to take a hard look. And in some cases it meant new priorities and letting go of others. For some, it was that the priority, these didn't change, but how the association was going to achieve those priorities, that shifted the approach. And having that clear plan to guide the organization forward I think, is critical. Then having the systems in place to execute your work in a nimble and agile way rounds it out.
Carol: Yeah. I think there's a temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water with, well, it's, everything's changing so fast right now. We can't possibly do planning. But yeah, strategic planning is more about setting some intention, setting some direction, creating some parameters, and it actually does help to what you were talking about before of empowering employees. If they know what the whole organization is moving towards and they have clarity around that. Then they have more agency to be able to step into their role and really fully execute it.
Alanna: That's exactly right.
Shelley: It's ironic but, to be more nimble, you really have to be more disciplined.
Carol: Say more about that because I think most people wouldn't see those two coming together.
Shelley: Being able to have a level of nimbleness requires an upfront. Dialogue and investment of time and development of structure to guide that otherwise nimbleness could take you in a lot of different directions with people moving within their departments into different areas and interpreting things differently. So it's like creating the glue that will bind everything together and then really. Putting it all together and having it be more solid. And another way to look at this is the re-skilling of professions and industries. That advocacy is always really important to associations. I mean obviously, the lobbying that happens, the presence on the Hill, those fly-ins that associations have, where they bring their members together to meet with Congress is so critical because people feel marginalized in their roles or they feel like they are not getting their burdensome regulations, or they're not being acknowledged in the way that they need to be. I think about all the hiring that Amazon is doing, and particularly in the shipping and delivery area, it's guaranteed that those people are going to be out of work within the next couple of years, because Amazon is absolutely going to automate that. They're going to automate delivery. They're going to automate shipping and packing. And so what happens to those people who during a crisis, struggled to find work and maybe found that field and entered that industry and now are going to have to reinvent themselves. It absolutely happened for meeting planners. This year. So it happens within the association community, but then it's also happening within the industry and the field. And if an association is not tight in terms of its own focus and its own approach to looking at the products and services it's offered, it's going to really struggle to be able to lead the industry or the field forward as that profession changes. So there are two ways of looking at the importance of nimbleness and looking at the importance of being disciplined to get to the nimble place.
Carol: Yeah. And I think going back to what you were saying before, in terms of being involved in workforce development and thinking about the field more broadly, you're serving the field. How are you part of essentially leading the field and being ready for things that are coming down the pike and making those necessary changes? What would you say are some of the ways we've been talking about them? What about other changes that the associations need to make to really adapt to these trends that we've been talking about this morning?
Alanna: I'd say one is really making a commitment to leveraging data, to improve your organization's performance. That's everything from collecting market research to understanding the needs of your membership so that you can deliver that customized experience to collecting data, to inform your strategic plan and tracking your progress towards achieving your goals.
Carol: So, Shelly: adaptations that associations are having to make in light of these changes, in light of these trends?
Shelley: I definitely agree with Alanna. We haven't talked about inclusion and diversity, but I mean, how can we get through a conversation without mentioning it? And associations are struggling to capture that demographic information, not everyone wants to share it, but I think there's so much to learn from this whole DEI movement, because a lot that's happening around that. It has to be more than just a statement or pledge. It has to be action. Well, that's the case for anything that you promise to your membership or make a commitment to advance for them? Capturing data and thinking about a baseline. If an association didn't capture data before COVID, it would probably be pretty disappointing because you couldn't go back and see how things changed or you can't necessarily see action and outcome and how those might be correlated because of something that you did. So I definitely agree. The data is really important. Obviously the mental health aspect of our current climate and how leaders can continue to rally volunteers and staff. I read an article recently about managers and leaders really trying to get into the thick of it with their staff and their teams, because it's not going to be enough to say, Oh, we're going to get through this. Like people realize this is very prolonged. And even when it gets better, it's not going to be better in the sense of what we knew before. So how to adapt the approach to communication and transparency and engagement of a team and motivating a team. I think that's going to need to change. And then I would just say an association really needs to look at its systems and its structure and its business model. So again, like so many organizations just get burnout or excited about the next new thing. And if you take some of these trends, we're talking about coming into a nimble organization, or really having an impact around DEI or the value proposition and being more customer centric, like a lot was talking about. You can't just do that for a couple of months and then move on to a new trend. Those have to be really embedded within the organization. People need to know how to execute on that. There needs to be a spotlight on that and accountability around that so that the organization can really fully realize the impact of it.
Carol: Anything you wanted to add Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah. So I couldn't agree more now is that a time to really invest in the organization to ensure that you're able to capitalize on these opportunities and, and thrive during this challenging time. So making sure that your staff have what they need to execute their role, that the systems are in place to support them, that they have a clear charge that they have the resources they need. Governance is another really important area that I think often gets overlooked. Our volunteer leaders are critical to the success of our organization and how much time have we invested in ensuring that they can do their best work. So do they have the orientation and training? They need to understand their role and how they're going to support the organization. Do you have ongoing training to refine the skills necessary to execute their role? Do they have a clear charge? And are they being held accountable for the work within their committee or the work of the board? I did now, was it a great time to invest in those foundational elements of our organization? Because ultimately they are critical to the success of our governance and of our staff and ensuring that we're able to execute on all of the work that we've, that we've just described.
Carol: I think it's all about moving to being more intentional about those things, because especially as the face-to-face gathering together where those things might have happened a little more informally they, they need to be embedded and, and planned for without, without being able to rely on that face-to-face -- informal mentoring that might happen or other training that might happen.
Shelley: I was going to say, we don't necessarily need to include this, but I feel like I would really like to share it that last time it was at an HOA virtual board meeting. And it's just people from my community, the few who are willing to give us some time. And I, I really flipped my perspective and because the secretary probably talked for 90% of the agenda, And I thought, this is so relevant and familiar because we see it at McKinley with boards, and we can, it's really palpable when you go into a board meeting and you have. Individuals who are, have had a career of being highly involved in volunteer leadership roles, or they've been forced to really look with oversight across their own organizations, just by nature of the role versus those that haven't had a lot of experience to that. And it's no judgment on those people. They're just not as familiar. And if you step into board and there's a culture that's been set and you start talking about. You know the color of the table clothes or where you're going to take the next annual meeting. You think that that's your role to play? And so what Alanna said about board orientation, it's such a small thing, but it is like an essential thing to make sure that volunteer leaders know what they need to do. And also that they're set up for success because you're not going to be successful without having more information than an understanding of, of where you need to focus.
Carol: And I think so often organizations really focus on orienting people to the organization itself and the work, and they forget to orient board members to their role from a governance perspective. So that brings us to a close here. Normally at the end of each episode, I play a little bit of a game and just ask one random icebreaker question. Since we mentioned Amazon at the top of the episode, I'll ask this question. What was the last product you returned?
Alanna: That's a great question. I'm pretty sure that the last item I returned was a mattress topper. I have a wonderful mother-in-law. She is fantastic. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. And we drove down for the holidays so that she could see her new Grant's son. But her guest bed is very uncomfortable. And so we purchased a mattress topper in advance. We were so excited with ourselves. We finally got ahead of it. And in order that mattress topper, and we ordered the wrong size. So we had to shove that back in the box and send it back to Amazon. And that's, that's. The last thing I can think of off the top of my head.
Shelley: Well, first of all, I want to say that I just read an article about what happens to returns of major department stores or a place like Amazon. And it's actually alarming. That a certain percentage of it just gets destroyed, destroyed because it's not worth it for them to try to reuse it. So that makes me think twice about returning things. But actually the last thing I tried to return and was not successful doing was this polish for, I have like an aged bronze front door. I had my siding power wash this past summer. They didn't do a good job and they stripped some of the finish off of the front door handles and backdoor handles. So I bought this thing that had a great review online and it actually made the problem worse. Just return it out of spite. And there was some restriction around it so that they couldn't actually return it.
Carol: Yeah. That's often the challenge. Like they make it very challenging to do that, probably because of the reason that you're talking about, it doesn't serve them for you to return the item. So for each of you what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you and your work? What's emerging?
Shelley: Well, I have roots in membership. So when I worked at an association, I was in the membership department. And before that I worked with students on a college campus. And so I've always been really interested in that concept of serving. At McKinley, over the past year, we've definitely developed more content and more resources. And I just can't help myself. I have to think from that membership perspective, even though we're a consulting firm, how could we take more knowledge that we're gathering at McKinley and translate it into something that truly is public access. Anyone can benefit from it. And we also have it ourselves to archive because knowledge management is really hard in a consulting firm. At least it's been hard for us. People are out doing really good things and how to capture that and to share it across the organization. It's something that we're very aware we're not good at. And our staff tell us we're not good at it. So so yeah, I would say that's the future. How to develop more than resources for the association community.
Carol: How about you Alanna?
Alanna: I'm really excited about the fact that McKinley's taken a lot of time over the past several months to take a look inside and figure out what can we do better to support our staff. We have - I mean, I'm biased - but we have a phenomenal staff. We really have some brilliant, passionate individuals who work for the firm. And we've changed over time and recognized that our structure and some of our systems like I was talking about previously, just aren't allowing our staff to do the best work and and, and fully use their, their potential. So we're doing a lot of internal work to better support our staff and highlight the incredible intellect that we have. So that really excites me.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes, so people don't see that as particularly sexy and exciting, but it's so fundamental. And then Shelly, what you were talking about in terms of garnering those insights across multiple projects to be able to see that next level of what's not just particular to one project that you're working with one client, but what are we seeing across multiple clients? So that's, that's exciting and something, I think there'll be a really huge resource to the field. So thank you both. So, thanks. Thanks a lot for coming on. It was great to talk to you.
Shelley: Thank you, Carol.
Alanna: Thanks so much.
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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