Elevating Engagement with Amanda Kaiser
In episode 68 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Amanda Kaiser discuss:
Amanda Kaiser is a member engagement strategist and author of Elevating Engagement: Uncommon Strategies for Creating Thriving Member Communities. As a researcher, author, and co-creator of the Incubator Series and the New Member Engagement Study, she is at the forefront of exploring how member and attendee engagement is rapidly changing within professional communities.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Amanda Kaiser. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. Amanda and I talk about engaging members especially in today’s shifting realities. We explore why organizations need to shift from solely focusing on the value they provide and give equal emphasis on the experience they are creating, why focusing on how people are feeling at each stage of engagement is so important, and some simple things folks can do to improve the experience of their members and volunteers.
Welcome, Amanda. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Amanda Kaiser: Thanks, Carol. It's so great to be here.
Carol: So I'd like to start out with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What would, what would you say motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Amanda: Oh, that's really interesting. I feel like, as a recovering marketer, I need to have that one pithy sentence, but I don't, I'm gonna go on a quick ramble here. My career journey is really squiggly like everybody else's. And, I started out at Crayola. And then eventually moved into my people, which is the association community, and, and worked as a director of marketing for a national association and, and loved it. And while I was there, I wanted to do a bunch of member research and we didn't have the budget and the, the CEO at the time said, well, you call our members and you talk to them, which I was really afraid of doing at the time. But the more, the more I talked to our members and interviewed them. The more I started actually loving the work. So I opened a qualitative research agency for associations and conducted about 477 interviews, about 33 research projects, and I love that. But the thing that kept drawing me was the importance of member engagement every single conversation, no matter. The type of association, , the, the, whether it's professional or trade and where people were at their career level. But every conversation kept coming back to member engagement. And the more I thought about it, the, the more I wanted to just move into what is member engagement? How and why it doesn't work sometimes and why it does work sometimes. And, and that's that, that's kind of. Sorry that was a lot longer than a short squiggly answer.
Carol: Well, our careers are long. Are long and squiggly, at least mine has been. So, yes, definitely appreciate that. And I mean, building on that interest in, in member engagement, you recently published a book called Elevating Engagement on Common Strategies for Creating a Thriving Member community. What would you say are some of the common mishaps or mistakes that you see organizations making when it comes to their member engagement?
Amanda: Yeah, so I don't think that associations are alone in this. I think it's happening at organizations and just about every single industry you can imagine from the really, really big ones to the really, really small ones, and that is so there's a formula for engagement, and the formula is value plus experiences equals engagement. And for decades now, I think we've been all banging the drum on value. We've got to have the right value proposition. Our value has to change with our members' needs. We need to be able to communicate value. We need everything's value, value. And man, we've all been leaning into that really hard.
And the thing that is the biggest opportunity for us now is to start I don't know, imbuing experiences into all of that wonderful value. So yes, we're, we're, I think the biggest opportunity is for associations. And not just associations, everybody, but associations we're talking about today is to really start punching up the creation of positive experiences for our members.
Carol: And I have folks who are in more traditional nonprofits as well as associations in the audience. And I think, but I think the same principles really apply, maybe you have a membership program, but maybe it's you're, you're. Your volunteers that you're trying to engage or, or different constituencies that you're trying to engage and, and thinking about those in different ways. Can you say what you, you talked about the equation of value plus experience and I can imagine, thinking about, of my experience of being inside organizations. Yeah. It was all about, what, what. What's the next conference gonna look like? Who's speaking? What's the next white paper that we're publishing? What's the next course that we're rolling out in terms of workshops or training or e-learning? And so very focused on content delivery, on knowledge helping people increase their skills, their knowledge , and I think I was on the learning side when I was inside the organization, so we did approach, experience somewhat from the lens of trying to incorporate adult learning principles into the whole thing.But I, I don't know that we put it front and center. So I'm curious how you see, like, how is that different? How, how would people know? , if we're gonna have those be more equal. What does leaning into experience look like?
Amanda: Yeah, so everything you just mentioned is critically important. we, we need to have the, the learning and we need to have the keynote and we need to have the hotel, and we need to have all of that when I'm talking about experience, there's so let's just, cuz we're talking about events, so let's, let's just talk about one of those places where you can add an experience that maybe people get and sometimes maybe people don't get. It might be inconsistent. And that is at the registration table. So for really big conferences there's huge registration booths and like a whole lot of lines. And then for maybe a small conference or a chapter, you see the registration table, and sometimes when we're working behind the registration table, we're trying so hard to get people their badges and their bags and their, and their programs really quickly that we just, we're just, we're doing the transaction. We're just trying to get everybody served. And, and the experience part of it is, can you, can you do it with some small talk? And if you can't even do it with some small talk, that's totally. Can you at least do it with a smile so that, that's, that's one example of how you just add in an experience in the course of doing everything else that you're doing. And there's, there's other things, you know associations and nonprofits, they do have these fleets of volunteers, whether you call them a volunteer or not. And, and so another thing that you could, that you could do that's relatively easy is you could say to your speakers, let's say you've got 50 speakers. For the time that they're at the podium or on the stage in, in a way, they're sort of speaking for the association and you can say to them, Hey, we've got a member culture, or We're trying to have a member culture that is. Open and generous and kind and enthusiastic and energetic. And can, can you, can you try to model that? Just try to, keep those, keep those adjectives, keep those emotions in, in your brain, and as you're speaking, just try to model that. And, and I think a lot of your speakers would, and that's just, one, one more away. That, that you can add some experiential stuff into the stuff that you're already.
Carol: Well, and you named having a member culture and people and someone being able to name even what their intention is around that. And I don't, I just wonder how many organizations have even spent any time thinking about what member culture do they wanna cultivate?
Amanda: Yeah. So we are all about talking about STA staff culture, but communities have cultures too, right? Members definitely have cultures too. I think there's a, there's a couple of ways to, to get at that. And one of the things that I love to do is I love to sit back and say, okay, so at each of the member stages, how do we want our members to feel? And so, you can, you can do this at a staff meeting or you can do it at a board meeting. You can say, hey new members are joining and at the one year mark how do we want them to feel? Or the day after they join, how do we want them to feel? And, answering that question will start to help you get not only that experience, but also the culture part of it. Because, because in order for us. To have the feelings that we want them to feel, likely there's, there's a, there's a, a culture that is supporting that, and I guess some, some, some examples of when I, when I first glommed onto this culture idea was when I did a bunch of research with chapters, so chap members of chapters, and the one story that kept coming back to me over and over and over and over again. I'm a brand new member, and I decided to go to my very first chapter meeting, and I, I walked into the room and, and all, and it hadn't, the event hadn't started yet and everybody was sort of like clustered at the front talking and I didn't know anybody and I was so awkward and it just felt so ugh. And so I found a seat and tried. appear like I was listening in on their conversations and I just, I just never went back. And, and so that's, it's a cultural thing. The new member is perceiving cliquishness and it's probably not happening at all. But, had there been a culture of welcoming a new face and introducing them around, then that thing wouldn't have happened.
Carol: Right. I mean, the people who are all catching up with each other at the front of the room who haven't seen each other for a month or whatnot aren't thinking that they're being exclusionary or that they're coming off as cliquish, but the fact that they didn't have, and so a simple thing I would imagine that, that they could have done would be to intentionally have someone, or several, someones on the lookout for new people to be able to, welcome them, introduce them to people. But yeah, I think I just have that intention. And, and you talked about also the, the, the assembly line that goes to a big conference or even a, like you said, even a small conference, there's often. That volunteer or or person, whoever's doing the managing is much more worried about, did I get everything in the stuff that I'm supposed to hand to them? Versus I'm interacting with a person, they're nervous about being here. How can I make that experience a little more enjoyable, welcoming and helping them navigate that first interaction?
Amanda: Yeah. Another way to think about it is it's a transition. So your memory is coming in off the street and then maybe they just flew all day and they had to catch a taxi in there, or maybe they had a Dr a drive through downtown Washington, DC and, and they're just frazzled. And so, so sometimes it's helpful to think like, oh, let's help them make that transition from perhaps grumpy or at least super tired and frazzled too, being ready to be their best self when they go ahead and enter our event.
Carol: Having some empathy for where they've been or putting, putting yourself in, in their shoes and, and you talked about the stages, kind of, of a, of a member journey. What, what are some of those and, and what are those key points where, or organizations can do a better job of, of creating the culture that they probably do think that they are creating or want to? Yeah.
Amanda: Yeah, so, so I identified six stages of the member journey, and the first stage is to observe and so at that point, members join. And what they're doing is they're looking at everything. They're looking at your websites, they're looking at your emails. They might read a short article or watch a video, and they're just, they're just taking everything in. The second stage is assessed. And so at that point, they're taking a lot in and they're starting to ask themselves this question and that question. Is this the community of people like me? Is this for me? Am I gonna be proud to be here? Do I think sometime in the future I'm gonna feel like I belong? Like I found friends, like I've found colleagues. The third stage is participation. And so at this stage they've an, they answered that question like, oh yeah, there's a lot of potential here and I want to be. And so they dip their toe in the water and they participate and it's just a little thing. They might come to a virtual event and write a little note in the chat. They might rest, yeah, write in a comment on social media or on an article. It's just a little dipping the toe in the water that contributes to another stage, and that's when they're ready to start bringing much more of themselves. And so your contributors, contributors. , they're your speakers, they're your writers, they're the people you're interviewing. They might do short videos for you. They're all of those folks. And an under leverage stage is collaboration. So as we advance in our careers, We start bumping up against thorny, hairy problems, really difficult problems to solve. Problems that that just, they, they just keep showing up year after year after year. And what folks at that stage of their careers like to do is they like to get together with others and problem solve. They don't necessarily wanna listen. Stage on the stage anymore, they want to work together and problem solve. And so sometimes associations lose their members at that stage because they're not necessarily offering a lot of problem solving activities. And so those, that group that's really invested in solving a problem, might splinter off. And then the final stage is lead. And lead is what I would think of as your typical volunteers, however you define them. But in the book, there's a lot of folks that want to lead. They wanna volunteer, but they can't volunteer in the shape of the volunteer box that you've put them in. And so I talk a lot about how you open up volunteerism to a lot more people who are really ready to step into that role. So, at each stage you asked that question of like, where, where are the barriers that association should be on lookout for. And what I try to do in the book is really identify when people make the no-go decision to engage and when people make and why people make the, the yes decision to engage. And so, it's a little bit different at every single stage. However, the through line running through it all is usually an experiential thing. Usually there's something going on where people stand back and they say, oh, Oh, no, I, I don't feel like I belong here. I don't feel like these are my people. Even if everybody has my title, there's still a million ways that you can thank them, these are not my people. I don't feel like my contributions are wanted, I don't feel supported. And then, the reverse is true. So the reason why people stay is because they say, oh, This is my community. I am super proud to be here. I want to collaborate. I want to give my time. I want to give my ideas. My ideas are valued. I'm supported, and all of those wonderful things.
Carol: What are some of those things at the, at the very beginning stages that observe and assess? And I love that question and I didn't fully write it down, but is this the community? Well, I, where will I feel like I belong? And just thinking about all the different groups that I've been part of. Associations that I've joined and then dropped out of I don't think that I ever necessarily said that specifically, but it certainly, if looking back on the ones that I'm no longer participating in it would be that sense of even after trying, still feeling on the outside. So that's such an interesting topic, and of course, there's so much conversation now in the broad, broad, more broadly around inclusion and, and how people either feel included or not. But yeah, just that experience made me feel like these are my folks, or these are not my folks. It's pretty visceral.
Amanda: It is. And it's quick. You start to observe and you assess super, super quickly, and that's what members talk about. One of, one of the, the things that was a real big surprise for me, Is when I worked for an association, there was, there was this, this thought that you had a year to engage them before they made the decision to renew. But in my research, what I'm finding is they make the decision to engage and then consequently the decision to renew. really quickly, maybe as quickly as three days, maybe as quickly as three weeks. But it's, it's within those first couple of touches that they're making the decision to renew, which is pretty amazing. But I know what you're talking about. So when I first started this business and started my speaking career, I felt like I needed to do some brushing up. And I decided to join Toastmasters, and there's three clubs in my local area. And somewhere along the way somebody said, Hey, go to all of the clubs and just figure out which one you like. And they were all fine, but the one that I went to had the very best new member experience. So I showed up for the very first time and they had a welcomer at the door. Person chit chatted with me and asked me why I was there and what my speaking goals were, and then they took me 10 feet and showed me the bagel and juice table, and then they walked me another 10 feet and found me an empty seat, and it introduced me to the person right next to me. And then that person took it away and, and asked me more questions, and, and there was, there was no, none of that. . Ooh, awkward. How do I fit? Where do I go? What should I do? How do I fit in? None of that. They, they, they took care of it all. It's, it's, and it's, and it's really interesting how quickly you can say, oh yeah, the, these po these are, these folks are great. They're gonna be my friends.
Carol: Yeah. And it's amazing how that act of I've been so. Events, and I've probably been guilty of this myself, where somebody asked me a question, I'm a staff person, and I'm like, oh, it's over there. Versus, oh, let me take you over there and make sure that you, you find it. Yeah. And that. What will probably be three minutes or five minutes, depending on how far the thing is away makes such a difference because then you're, you're arm in arm with the person, you're next to them, you're, you're, you're with them on their journey and they feel supported. Yes. I love that. What are some things that, so we've been talking a lot about events, and of course things have changed a lot around events. Not everyone, not everything's in person these days. I'm actually finding that I'm doing a lot more of my networking through the Zoom screen than I am in an in-person event. But what are other ways that organizations can create that sense of welcome outside of events in that critical beginning period.
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. I'm so glad you asked that question because I love virtual events. I know, I know There's a lot of people out there that are like, oh no, zoom fatigue. One more zoom. But, but for me, I love presenting. I love interacting. I love being in the virtual room just as much as I love being in person. So I got together during the deep dark doldrums of Covid with my partner's, matchbox Virtual Media, and we can, we. We ran a series called the Virtual Networking Incubator, and there's actually at the end we wrote a report that talks about how you make really engaging virtual meetings. And then we wanted to take that environment that was, so difficult in virtual to do really good virtual networking and then apply it back in person. So now that we've done it, it's really difficult. What are the learnings that we can take back in person? And, and so a lot of, what we learned was the, the, the, the tone. So there's the welcome when you come into the room, but then there's even the welcome in the tone setting before you even come to an event or before you log onto a webinar. Or any virtual event. So what we were trying to do is we were trying to have a super participatory event. We knew we wanted a lot of psychological safety. We want, because we were experimenting, so we wanted people to feel free just to shout half baked ideas off the top of their head. And we went into it, very much defining how we hope for the culture. Would emerge and we started at the very beginning. So every, every single email that went out, we tried to make it super kind, super funny. If we made a mistake at any point, we totally would fess up to it and we're like, Hey, we totally made this mistake and that's okay cuz we're all experimenting here. so there we did a lot of things like that. And then when we, when we started having the event, We, we just, we leaned hard into the chat. So if I was talking, we had 150 people, which was awesome. But it also posed a bit of a problem because now we're trying to network with 150 people. And so my solution was, let's lean real hard into the chat. And, and so we would do, lots of warmups and progressive participation and just, really thinking about. How do we get even the most introverted of introverts feeling super comfortable to play with us? And so yeah, I, I guess the, the quick answer is, start thinking about how you welcome new members at the first possible point. if, if the very first touch they get is an invoice or receipt, what can you do? Warm it up, make it more surprising, exciting, something maybe, maybe you, maybe you don't send that receipt first and you send them a quick, loom that's 30 seconds of you just saying, Hey Carol, so glad that you just joined. just, all of those things. And, and I'm sure that there are some big associations and big nonprofits listening to this right now and saying, oh my gosh, we've got 10,000 new members joining every single day. We can't possibly do that. Well, there's some really interesting technology I think that will help you scale those things and still have the, still have an experiential common component that makes people feel like, oh, this is a great organization. They're so warm and kind and wonderful.
Carol: Yeah. To me, what I, what I'm hearing is really about humanizing that experience. So it's not, you're not just another email to deal with or another name in a database, but you're, there's an actual person behind that and, and they have hopes and, and. Goals for themselves that they're trying to achieve through joining. And, and just taking a little bit more time to recognize who's on the other side of that email can be so important. You talked about the participation stage where people are just starting to dip their toe in. I think the last stages contribute, collaborate, and lead. To me, those are the more obvious ones, the folks who are, who get super involved. And, and then, then they prob once they're involved and they have a good experience, you probably have them for life. Maybe not. But it feels like that participation stage is a real critical inflection point.
Amanda: It is. So let's talk about online communities because that I think is the most public demonstration of what your member culture is. And I am a huge advocate of highly moderated online communities, and I. In, in, in the, what the moderator brings to an online community is the moderator mo models. They model how to be a good online community participant. And, and so I love to see, and I've been a, a, a part of a couple of online communities where the moderators, and sometimes it's one, it's, the owner of a company or, or the CEO. Or the community manager, or sometimes it's, it's sort of a fleet of trained moderators. And, and what they do is they are welcoming new members and they are also they're, they're raising up ideas. So let's say somebody contributed a really good post, but nobody responded in the background. They might be going and saying, Hey, hey, Bob, I know you've got something to say about this. Here. Here's the link. Can you jump on? Or they might wait a few days and they might say to the whole community, Hey, Mike just said this really interesting thing and I'm, I'm just gonna bring it back to the forefront and, and ask you guys, what, where are you on this? I think this is a really interesting thing. So the reason why I think highly moderated communities are so important is that a lot of times if you've got an online community, New members are starting to get that digest and they will read that digest. And that's another, cue of like, oh, okay. so-and-so reacted a, a little bit harshly that, that feel, that fe just feels like that was, somebody maybe got slightly ashamed here. I'm gonna hang back and watch a little bit. And if it happens again, then I know it's a dangerous thing to be part of this community. The other thing is, moderators can't tell when people are posting for the very first time and they can support them in, in a lot of different ways. They can say, oh, that, so glad to see you here posting. I know we've got a lot of really, you know thoughtful people here in the community who are gonna answer your question and. and, and that just, that just, it helps to, it helps new members to be validated. It helps them to be welcomed. It helps, it makes me feel good when somebody shines a light on their post or their reply back and, and lets them know that Yeah. You know that like, Hey, I'm, I'm on the right track. It's always nice to have that.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's so important because I feel like at least in my experience, especially for associations that have been around for a long time I, in, in a lot of instances in the way I've experienced that the online communities, is that they've been something that just got added on. Oh, well we need to do this because it's an easy way for people to participate, but it's often a corner. Nobody's really supporting it. And what I see as a real contrast to that is a lot of for-profit organizations creating communities saying that their c. Focused and actually doing a much better job of really doing what you're talking about in terms of cultivating that online community and, and pulling people in. And it's just so interesting when I go to association conferences where I feel like I've been hearing this gloom and doom about associations and membership and all of it. And, and then on in the for-profit field, this whole thing is growing. Field of organizations, creating communities around their expertise, their brand, a person. So it's an interesting contrast.
Amanda: Yeah, that's why I am, I am, I am so hot on some, this really big opportunity for associations to. To take on the role of being. So one of the, the, the drum that I've been beating lately is have everybody in your association become a Chief Experience Officer. You don't have to give them that title, but this is the mindset I want everybody to start thinking about being a Chief Experience officer. And, and today I was, I was writing an article and I, and what I wanted to do is what I wanted to point to. big companies, big brands, not because they're big and they have a lot of resources, but because they're well known, and so everybody, everybody could sort of say yes, this is a company that has where everybody, from, from the CEO, all the way down to the person that stocks the shelves. This is a company where everybody has taken on the role of chief experience officers. And so I, I thought about it and I thought, I would say Trader Joe's is one of those companies, and I would say Apple is probably one of those companies. And, then I was floundering a little bit and I came up with a couple of more examples, but one of the things that really struck me was. For the examples that I did come up with, these folks are absolute, these companies and brands are leaders in their industry. They're leaders in their vertical. There's nobody else like them. They've set themselves apart and they've done it because not only are they offering value, the value has to be there, but they're also making sure that they offer experiences and they're empowering. Staff offer these really great experiences or motivate their staff, or they're building a culture that, where they're celebrating the, this idea of, you know, customer, consumer, engagement. And so for associations that are starting to feel like, oh my goodness, in, in my, in my profession, in my industry, all of my sponsors are starting to nip at my heels. And, we were starting to have a lot. A, a lot of competition. We associations are perfectly, perfectly positioned to lean into the experiential part of things. And when we do that well, there's a lot of support to say, Hey that, that really sets you apart. It sets you apart so much from all of your other competition.
Carol: And what's so interesting about those two examples is that really the businesses that they're in are so transactional, right? Yes. Groceries and electronics, I mean, to in, in, could be the most vanilla thing. At all. But then they do have, it is a very, very different experience to go to a Trader Joe's than any other grocery store that I, I normally go to Right. So, I was very excited when one moved into my neighborhood where we hadn't had one for a long time. So, yeah. Yeah,
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. Totally. I. So I've gotta tell this, this story of Trader Joe's. My favorite aunt was at a Trader Joe's, and she always gets this one salad dressing. And she went in and the salad dressing wasn't there. And so I think there's, some, somebody, stocking broccoli or something and she said, oh my, my favorite salad dressing, do you happen to have any outback? And the person said, oh no, it wasn't selling well. And so we actually discontinued it. And I can't imagine what was on my aunt's face, but I, I'm, I'm sure she, Devastated and that that person said, but we've got this new flavor and people are raving over it. I'm gonna give you a bottle when you get to check out, tell them that I gave you this as a sample and they won't charge you for it and you can try it out. And we're really so sorry that we discontinued the one that we love. But I hope you love this one too. I can't think of another place where that would ever happen. And so, there's, the, the person stocking broccoli is Trader Joe's chief Experience Officer. And, and I just, I just love that because. It, to me, when I say, Hey, everybody can become the c e o, it's, it's not just for the C-suite, it's for, it's for all of us. And, and I like to, whenever I'm talking about membership, a lot of times people will talk about strategies for member engagement and then everybody will look at the membership people. No, no, no, no, no engagement experiences. It's for everybody in the association. If you are in accounting, you are, you're, you're having, you. Contact with members, if you're in it, you're having contact with members. If you're in research, of course you're having contact with members. And so every single one of us can be a Chief Experience Officer.
Carol: I also appreciated how you described Opportunities for those smaller, you, you, you had mentioned before the big boxes that we've put volunteers in and expected them to sign up for a three year term, a very heavy commitment. But something like being a part of a team of moderators on an online community would be a much lower lift and easier for someone to say yes to.
Amanda: Yes. Yeah. So When a new member, I'm gonna get back to the volunteer thing through the new member lens again, when a new member joins, one of the things they love to do is they love to see people like them. And, so I conducted a piece of research called the New Member Engagement Study with my partner's Dynamic Benchmarking. And one of the things that we found compared to the first time we conducted the research, which was four years ago, Is now. So four years ago, associations did these new member webinars, like a new member welcome webinar, very static, not much interaction between the members and the person giving the webinar. Sometimes they were just prerecorded. Now those have evolved so much. Associations are, they're leaning into responsiveness. They're leaning into connection. I love what I'm seeing here because a lot of these, they were calling them virtual onboarding events. And so new members will come to these events. And a lot of the hosts are saying, Hey, tell me a little bit about yourself and what are your goals and why did you join? And they're taking all of that information and then constructing, maybe a little bit of a tour. Like, oh, I, you, you talked about this. Maybe you'd be interested in our salary survey. Or, or, Hey, let me, I'm gonna drop a couple of links into the chat for some articles. I think that you would really. . But what they're also doing is they're, they're naming Chad ambassadors. So maybe there's somebody who's been in the association for six months or a year, they're really excited about their very first volunteer activity. But they can't, of course they're not gonna be a board member or even a committee committee member yet, and they, they don't want that yet. They, they want, maybe something a little bit more practical. And so we can invite them to be chat ambassadors and we will train them and we'll, we'll tell them what a chat ambassador does. And so, . So there's, a, a six month member, one year member talking to brand new members about welcoming them, pulsing up their ideas, bringing things to the attention of the person who's speaking. So, so, there's, there's a lot of there's, there's so many cool roles that. Members would be delighted to do it because it's fun and exciting and interesting for them. And that would also be really helpful for our organizations.
Carol: Yeah, and it's so interesting. It makes me think of a program that we ran At the association, the last association that I worked at, and it was a very intensive year long professional development for early career folks. And when we first started it it was a coach mentor to one to many models. And when we first started, , all the mentors that were being recruited were, 30 years in the field, 25 years in the field. And over time, what we found was that the coaches who were much more successful were five to 10 years ahead of the folks who were in the program because they could still remember being new in the field and having to learn all the acronyms and having to, , not being sure about things. Someone 35 years in, that's a distant memory. So I love that idea of just six months if you can, you can contribute. You're still remembering what it was like to be a new member. You're still feeling new yourself, but you're just a little bit further ahead of the person that you're helping out at that onboarding. And that in an interactive onboarding event. Cuz I, when I said that I have been doing a lot more networking virtually when organizations have taken. It was already a poorly designed learning experience in person and then plunked it online. It made it even worse. But when, when there is intention about how it's designed and how the conversations are being cultivated, and, how everyone is, is actually feeling like they're part of, part of a. A group versus standing off and looking at something it's, it's totally different.
So I'm gonna shift gears now coming to the end here. And we talked about Trader Joe's. So at the end of each conversation, I ask a random icebreaker question. I now have two boxes of random icebreaker questions that I ask. So we were talking about Trader Joe's, so my question for you is, what's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten? Oh,
Amanda: Gosh. Okay, so I'm probably dating myself at this point, but I did a semester abroad in Australia. And while I was there I traveled in, into the bushes. They called it, with a guide and a bunch of other novice Americans, and it was, I think it. earlier, right about the time that Crocodile Dundee had become super, super famous, and man, our guide leaned into that. And this guy, I, oh gosh, he, he found grubs, he found all kinds of things and cooked it over the campfire. So I, I, have proudly sampled my own Australian grub.
Carol: Well, okay, I'm impressed. I'm impressed. . So, what's coming up for you in your work? What are you excited about? What's, what's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Amanda: Yeah, so we've, we've been talking a lot about it, and that's the, that's the book. So I, I took all of this research, all of these experiments that I've been doing over the last 10 years and wrote, tried to pour everything that was into my brain out into a book. And so the book has been published. It's out there on all of your favorite online book sellers Worldwide. And it's called Elevating Engagement uncommon strategies for creating a Thriving member community. It's a pretty quick, quick read. I'd, I'd say about two hours-ish. And in what I, what I wanted to do is I wanted to make it engaging. So there are. There's lots of stories in there, and there is a, my fictional hero, her name is Kat Taylor. She actually demonstrates or you get to walk through every single stage of engagement through Kat's eyes. And what Kat is, is, is really an amalgamation of hundreds of stories that are just like hers. And so you, so you really get a sense of. How, how members are feeling at every single one of these stages where they're making that so critical. Go, no go decision to engage.
Carol: And I can attest it is, it is a very accessible and quick read. But there are lots and lots in there and so many actionable Approaches that, that is, that are built in. And I love following Kat on her, on her journey through her professional, professional life through the book. So, well, thank you so much. Thank you, Amanda.
Amanda: Thank you. This is, it's so delightful to talk to you.
Carol: I appreciated how Amanda described the common experience of someone trying out your organization for the first time. Do they feel welcomed? Does the welcome extend beyond a quick hello, here is your name tag at the registration desk? Think about the events you hold – could you have 1-2 people designated to keep an eye out for newcomers and engage them in conversation and help introduce them to one to two people at the event. I also appreciated her point about the often missed opportunity of purposely engaging and moderating your member online community. For associations, this is often one of the most immediate and obvious benefits that the association offers. I have been a member of online communities and message boards that are dominated by a few frequent posters. When those who engage frequently are pretty homogeneous – the cases I am thinking of it is a couple white men who post long treatises in response to questions. What they offer is often useful yet it can create the impression that there isn’t room for other voices – or if you do not have time to write 3-4 paragraphs you might as well not bother. The for profit memberships I am part of seem to all prioritize having a community manager. This person posts open ended questions regularly prompting and spurring group conversation. More active community managers might pay attention to who is posting for the first time and immediately respond so when a person takes the chance to shift from lurker to engaged they have a positive experience. They might also tag people in the community to ask how they are doing or when they might have a perspective to offer for an inquiry. Curating the community a little more can help intentionally create the culture that Amanda talks about and avoid having the culture determined by a few frequent posters. This could be a volunteer role that you prepare folks for and have a team of community managers rather than just 1 paid person.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Amanda Kaiser, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback, and until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Healthy organizational culture highlights
In episode 62 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton looks back with past guests to discuss:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission: Impact the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. My name is Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and strategic planning consultant.
A big part of not being a martyr to the cause is building organizations with healthy cultures. To round out the year of podcasts, I am going back to a number of interviews I did this year to pull out some gems on what it really takes to build a healthy organizational culture. There was so much great material to pull from. I am actually going to do this as a two-parter. This is part 1 and part 2 will come out in early January. I am taking a break at the end of the year – and hope you have a break coming up soon as well so I am releasing one episode this month instead of my normal two.
In part one, we are going to talk about what organizational culture actually is and who is responsible for it, why values are so essential to culture, and how courageous conversations and feedback are so critical to healthy cultures.
You will hear from episode 36 with Anne Hilb, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows; Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall; and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by organizational culture. Edgar Schein first described the concept and his definition is: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” To me, the key in that definition is that culture is made up of shared basic assumptions – and over time these become invisible. But you definitely learn them when you are new and bump into them inadvertently and get schooled by those around you in the “way we do things around here.” Terrill describes their approach to culture.
Terrill Thompson: We define culture really broadly. ? The essence of it is what does it feel like to work there? . Every organization has a different call. The people who can most clearly see the culture are often the new folks, because once we're in it, it's like the fish in water that doesn't know they're in water. It's all around us all the time. Newer people who are coming into organizations can often tell you a little bit more about the culture. When we're looking at culture, we're really looking at it holistically, how are people behaving in the organization? How do they treat each other? What are the relationships like the level of trust? What do we do about birthdays or holidays, all of that? Even how we dress is part of culture. And so we're really taking a broad approach. It's really about the people. The people make up the culture.
Carol: As Terrill describes, culture is made up of things we can see and a lot we can’t – some of it may show up in your policies and procedures. Even more will be invisible. A lot of leaders have been wanting everyone back in the office saying that will create culture. But the truth is culture is there – whether you are in an office or fully remote or something in between. Culture is made up of all the small actions and behaviors of the group – whether you are meeting in the hallway or proverbial water cooler or on a Slack channel or Zoom room. How you care for and cultivate that culture is a different thing. There were plenty of unhealthy cultures in the before-times when working together in one space was the default – so the office does not create the culture, the people do. I appreciate How Deneisha calls out that culture is everyone’s job.
Deneisha Thompson: Culture is everyone's job, it's not just the HR person's job. It's not just the job of the supervisor. It's not just the DEI person's job. All of those things require all of us to be embodying the values as we have defined them. And to make sure that everyone is contributing to trying to have a more positive and healthy work culture.
Carol: So while leaders have an especially important part of creating and modeling the culture – whether they are doing so intentionally or not – everyone can contribute to making the culture healthier. Yet it may not be on people’s minds because as Monique points out, culture can be so invisible.
Monique Meadows: The other piece around talking about culture in general, because it's so invisible, folks can kind of dismiss its significance. Like how much it really impacts, how far you're getting along in your work and how you're able to really fulfill your mission. And so naming it and, and really identifying this is why it's so important.
Carol: Peter Drucker famously said culture eats strategy for lunch. So while I focus on strategy with organizations – I also assess their culture while I am working with them because the culture has to support and align to the strategy you are trying to enact. And it starts with looking at the good, bad and the ugly. Anne Hilb provides this warning about your organizational culture.
Anne Hilb: culture is dictated by the worst behavior we allow. The cultural component of that is as soon as something that's inappropriate happens, it's absolutely imperative to. Say we do not allow that here. There's not going to be tolerance for that. That being said, there's a very big component of how we handle harm in this culture?
Carol: This could be truly worst case scenario of sexual assault or harassment, racialized harassment or embezzlement. But it doesn't need to be so egregious. Do you have a team member who has followed through on responsibilities inconsistently? Have you been avoiding having a conversation with them about it? Do you excuse board members who do not show up at meetings? Do you allow one or two people to dominate the conversation? What is the worst behavior you are allowing? How might you address it?
Anne: Condemning the deed and not the person separating those things out. . The way that you handle a bad act versus a bad actor is also going to be something that's important and says a lot about your culture.
Carol: It is easy to get caught up in blame and blaming the person instead of addressing the behavior that is problematic. I certainly know that I have fallen into this trap too many times. I have also seen leaders want to avoid dealing 1 on 1 with an individual and having that tough conversation. Sometimes when a leader calls wanting team development or board development, once we get into the conversation what is really needed first is for the leader to have a brave conversation with an individual – whether on staff or board member. Team building will not address individual issues and may actually be detrimental to your overall morale. There is a place for team building and board development – but think about whether the issue you want to address is at the individual level or the group level. Deneisha describes the thing that got me interested in organization development in the first place – the cognitive dissonance that too often occurs between the organization’s mission and vision and how it treats the people involved in the organization. She also makes the good point that each organization is not operating in a vacuum – they are operating in the larger sector and the broader culture and systems.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally. Don't treat each other well, internally have a toxic culture, internally have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued.
Carol: As Deneisha points out, you can’t have a healthy organizational culture that doesn’t value inclusion, diversity and belonging. By definition, if you are not working on intentionally building a culture where those from historically marginalized communities feel a sense of belonging your culture is not healthy. You do not have a healthy organizational culture if it only works well for some people. What you value and how you embody those values is a key component of this. Danielle describes an exact conversation I have had with groups.
Danielle Marshall: What does respect mean at the organizational level? And what does respect mean for you Carol, versus how I view respect? Because that's where I think things get a little tricky. We use words, just assuming that everyone is behind the definition, they're seeing it in the same context, because again, we're minimizing right differences without digging into.
Carol: Beyond just naming what your values are as a group – spending time talking through what behaviors demonstrate those values is so important to know whether you are talking about the same thing when you say “respect” or “integrity” or “equity” How will I be able to see it and really know we are walking our talk? As Anne describes, this ‘walking the talk’ comes out in whether our values are just listed on the website but not lived – thus they are espoused values but not really alive in the organization.
Anne: If there's misunderstanding or miscommunication, we know that something in the organization has gone amiss. And that means that we're saying that we have these values, we have these espoused values and we're not practicing those values in action. And that's going to lead to conflict when that happens in a place where there's harm created with sexual violence, let's say a leader. Creates an instance of sexual harassment and they're covered by the firm's lawyer. And now the leader leaves or gets pushed out. But the firm's lawyer is still there, which is why I've had this incident happen many times. Then there's all this animosity towards the lawyer because he's doing his job folks feel like, well, why are they still here once that all comes to light? So then you have this schism in what the firm says they stand for, especially if they're an organization that says it supports a women's issue. How do you then look at smoothing over the lack of alignment in a way that you haven't technically broken policy, but you have broken the values or the espoused values of the organization. That's an instance where you're going to have to work with folks in a way that gives them voice. And those back to the foundation of what do we stand for? What's our mission and how do our policies, our processes and what we say we want to do line up.
Carol: The degree of lack of alignment that Anne describes can lead to more extreme staff revolts and disillusionment. But it can also be in the little things as Terrill describes.
Terrill: The other thing is that oftentimes our practices and policies are written down that should define a culture, often contradict the culture. For example, we'll see policies that say everybody takes an hour for lunch, but then when we look around the office, everyone's sitting at their desks, cramming food in their face while they're typing emails. Culture often trumps everything else.
Carol: There is a lot of conversation about self care and setting boundaries at work these days, quiet quitting and the great resignation. But self care and setting boundaries – while important – put the onus on the individual to set these up for themselves. Culture writer Anne Helen Petersen describes what she calls ‘guardrails’ as a structured alternative to boundaries. She says, quote, “ I came up with a concept of boundaries vs. guardrails when I was trying to describe something new to protect against the runaway train of working all the time, that isn’t boundaries which has become so worn out as to effectively be meaningless.” So in the example Terrill offered, the organization has at least in policy created a guardrail of a lunch break. But if the leaders do not actively encourage this behavior or even more so – model taking a lunch break themselves – then those are just words on a page. What guardrails do you need to establish for your organization to promote everyone’s well being? And then as Deneisha points out – how you are going to hold yourself and other accountable?
Deneisha: When accountability doesn't happen, it hurts trust. But it's also a really hard thing to have that conversation. People are saying, this is my job and I can be responsible for this, but when things go wrong, Owning up to it and, and being able to recognize how, whatever you didn't do impacted your team is a really scary thing. As humans, we are defensive beings. We are not bred to be public about accountability. You may feel bad internally, but to actually come out and say, you know what? I screwed this up. I'm sorry. Or I had a bad day and I didn't show up. Those things are not valued. We actually have a very punitive approach to how we deal with people not doing what we need them to do. And that's very present in the nonprofit sector. While we talk about things like restorative justice, and we talk about things like healing and bringing people together, and building bridges. These are all terms we hear around the sector a lot. We don't really create mechanisms internally for people to feel safe to do that. And so what ends up happening is that we have lots of teams who are individuals. Just try to escape accountability, because I don't wanna be written on, I don't wanna a bad performance review. I don't want to be othered or, or to be rejected and feel like I don't belong. It is a. Difficult difficult thing to be accountable to your team. And so part of that is like, I tie that in with communication because what we wanna do is to normalize like imperfection. No, one's perfect. We all make mistakes. We can be transparent and it's not gonna happen overnight. But how do we build trust with each other? How do we start putting systems in place and taking baby steps towards normalizing the things that people are often running from really being able to declare when you're not ready for something or when you've hurt someone's feelings, being able to go beyond ‘I'm sorry.’ Because ‘I’m sorry’ doesn't solve everything. These are really important skills that need to be taught. You're not born with that. And if you don't practice it it's like anything, you lose the muscle for it. It's about consistently building in opportunities for teams to be vulnerable with each other.
Carol: How are you making it ok for people to be honest about it when they screw up? None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Do you have a CYA culture? Or one where mistakes are shared as learning opportunities? As Terrill says, trust is key to start being able to make shifts that build towards a more healthy culture. And as Monique points out there may also be past harm that needs to be addressed and worked through.
Terrill: We've got to have the trust to hold what comes up so that when the group is ready to actually hold the experience, then we can bring that in and start to make those shifts.
Monique: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. . We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they first don't feel like they're crazy, ? Like this is actually happening.
Carol: So in the best case scenario, you address an issue immediately as Anne described earlier. But sometimes it gets swept under the rug or ignored. It doesn’t mean the issue is no longer active in the system. You can address it and acknowledge it and work through it. And as we talked about boundaries being an individual solution to an organizational – and even wider cultural problem, It is easy to think when something isn't working, it is your fault – again with the driver to cover it up as Reva describes.
Reva Patwardhan: I've noticed that there are certain very prevalent, toxic dynamics in the nonprofit sector that when you are in the middle of that dynamic, when you're really a part of it, it can feel like a personal problem. . Something's going wrong. and in the organization, but because it feels like a personal problem, I treat it like a personal problem. If you imagine you're an ED and things aren't going right. Really feels like the thing that's not going right is me. My efforts to address it have failed. So what do I do? What you do in that situation is you hide it, you hide the problem. If you blame yourself for the problem and you haven't been able to adequately address it, you hide the problem. You're then unable to do anything about it. Some examples I've seen of this are Executives, who've gotten really good at hiding their overwhelm. It's just become this really normalized thing that their funders don't fund overhead. It's been like that for so long. A culture where overwhelmed and burnout are just normal. If you are overwhelmed or if you have a problem with being overwhelmed, that's a problem with you. And so let's hide that rather than actually trying to figure out how to do it.
Carol: Addressing issues openly instead of covering them up or trying to hide them is so important to a healthy culture. Deneisha describes the importance of having those brave conversations. She also gives a masterclass in the importance of feedback and how to provide effective feedback.
Deneisha: How do we create the environment to have really tough conversations, important conversations, brave conversations, so that we are respecting each other and sharing and allowing the brilliance of our diversity rise to the top. And then finally strategy. What does our strategic planning look like? Do we have a north star? Do we have a clear set of goals and targets that we're all working towards? You often have people who are really passionate about the mission, which then makes it hard. You can't say, leave your personal self at home. , just come to work that doesn't work in the nonprofit sector, whether you are working on issues related to poverty or education or homelessness, or, you know, especially with service orgs, their passions drive how they show up. Feedback should be happening constantly. We should not just be waiting until something goes wrong to have conversations around how we can do better. To supervisors, if someone is seeing something for the first time on the performance review, you have failed. You have plenty of opportunities between annual evaluations to share your feedback. It should not be in the form of criticism. You don't wanna be criticized; that does not feel good. What this should be is, how can we grow? How can we do better? There is an opportunity every single day to provide feedback. And you should be also saying as a supervisor, how can I support you? What do you need from me to be able to do these things? So feedback doesn't just go from the top down. It should also be able to go from the bottom up for a staffer to say, okay, I hear you. These are the things you'd like me to do, but here's the support that I need or the resources I need to get that done. So number one, feedback should be in a 360. Feedback isn't also just an outward thing. Sometimes feedback is listening, a key component of being able to give good feedback is to also listen and to hear and to synthesize that information and then to provide something back to the person that is actually actionable, that's meaningful.
Carol: And as Deneisha says earlier, just saying you are sorry is likely not enough to address harm. Anne describes all the parts of a good apology.
Anne: A good apology says, I'm sorry. I take responsibility for that and here's what I'm going to do going forward. And here's what I learned from it and how I'm gonna use this as a learning example.
Carol: Several years ago, Elizabeth Scott of Brighter Strategies did research on what organizations that have a healthy culture (based on an organizational assessment by Cooke and Lafferty of Human Synergistics International did differently from those with a less healthy culture. Today’s experts – Deneisha, Danielle, Terrill, Monique, Reva and Anne – highlighted several that came up in her research findings. The first is a feedback rich culture – and that is sharing specific positive feedback – celebrating the wins – and addressing the growing edges and having brave conversations. And another is the importance of valuing balancing self care and work-life balance – through those guardrails that Anne Helen Petersen describes.
What feedback do you need to provide team members? Board members? How are you asking for regular feedback? How are you modeling what you expect from your team members? Saying do as I say not as I do, does not cut it. Are you modeling healthy habits around self care? What conversations do you need to have as a team if how you work is driving you all to burn out? Do you admit to mistakes you make? Do you share those with your team and what you learned from them? Do they feel safe admitting to not being perfect? Is there a past harm that you need to make amends for? And use Anne’s model of a full apology. Is there a brave conversation you have been putting off? What support can you get to make it possible to have that conversation? Again – none of us are perfect. Values are always aspirational and we will inevitably fall short. But it is not a life sentence. You can pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, admit to the challenge, talk it through and set intentions for more fully living into your values moving forward.
Thank you for listening to this episode. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 16 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Rosalind Spigel discussed include:
Rosalind Spigel believes in the difference nonprofits can make. Her vision is to increase the effectiveness of organizations and coach them – and the people in them – to grow and prosper. In consultation with her clients, Rosalind designs and facilitates strategic planning and implementation, leadership development and coaching, professional development, and capacity building interventions.
Carol: All right. Well welcome Rosalind. It's great to have you on the Mission: Impact podcast.
Rosalind: Great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Carol: Just to give people some context, I'd like to ask you what drew you into the work that you do? What motivates you, how would you describe your work?
Rosalind: Well getting ready for the show today, I thought about my values, right? Because we were going to be talking about values. I want to help give organizations and the people in them a better understanding of where they are and where they're going. Why they're stuck, how they can unstuck themselves. But certainly the bigger - and I'm sure that I've heard your guests say one version or another of this - we want to help make the world a better place. That's the big picture. Then specifically with organizations, just to help them fulfill their missions more effectively, productively and joyfully.
Carol: You mentioned that you really use center values when you are doing work with organizations. Why do you think they're so important? What's so important about values and people being clear, not just about their personal values, but then collective values within an organization?
Rosalind: For sure. I was listening to some of your other [episodes] - and by the way I really love these conversational interviews that you do. Folks out there, if you haven't heard other episodes, I encourage you to do that. Because, when I listen to other consultants do what they do and [explain] how they do it, it's really helpful to me and anything I can do to bring more value to my clients by listening to shows like yours I think is really good so it felt like values were really a resting place for many of the conversational interviews you've had so far. I really wanted to stir this values conversation up and talk about that more explicitly because it's not just that we work with these non-profits that have terrific missions and visions. It's how an organization goes about fulfilling their mission-vision programs. That is as important as the mission itself. So how an organization treats its people, how an organization treats its clients, its members, its vendors, its board, its funders. It's all that. Everything an organization does should be driven by its values, including what an organization says and no to. We can talk about that a little bit later on, also the values and how that organization defines those values really gives people a sense of, ‘yes, this is an organization I want to be a part of.’ As a consultant, ‘this is an organization I want to consult for with my own values.’ My values include equity, engagement, and capacity building. So if I'm doing some strategic planning work with a client, the process of getting to that strategic plan really includes capacity building, it includes sharing some process. It includes implementation and planning because I want an organization to be able to fulfill its plan. And if an organization expects me to drop a strategic plan on my way out the door, then that's not really a client I'm interested in working with. I just can't stand all the time and effort that goes into a strategic plan and then not have it go anywhere. But engaging levels of the system in the plan itself, I know you and I share a value that people who are impacted by the change should be a part of the change process. That’s just a good idea to help give the strategic plan some legs. So I think that that's part of why I want to talk about values.
Carol: Then we can talk about how organizations decide those values. That’s important, I think sometimes people are a little bit leery and maybe even myself, as a consultant about having those group processes around writing a mission statement or a vision statement or value statements and being afraid of it being too abstract. Anything written by a committee, you can just see it in the language, that disjointed stone soup sentences that you end up with everything in the pot. I'm curious about how you approach that so that people really get a chance to dig into what's important to them in terms of their values, without it feeling like it draws momentum out of that planning process.
Rosalind: Yes. Well, that's so great, right? Because the way an organization comes up with its values is in and of itself a reflection of its values right? So if you've got three leaders in a room coming up with the organization's values and they say that engagement and collaboration are values, then that's off. That's inauthentic, unless your values are domination and control, then it's okay for three people to dictate what those values are, but probably that's not the case. So how you do bring people in from different levels of the system to come up with the values and, and then that's just the first piece. One of the things I've done while in the before times, but even in these times, when I'm doing a check-in for a values conversation, I'll have a list now. We could write another long story about how we're working online, but I'll have a list of values that I've either inferred from the organization or that may even be listed on their website. If you've worked with a client before and they have agreements that they sort out at the beginning of meetings, you can infer what the values are from those two, but I'll put a list together in such a way that at least a couple of individuals are picking the same word. So in the check-in when people talk about ‘here's the word I picked and why I picked it, why it resonates with me.’ You can already hear that one couple, or three people can pick the same word and it's different. They define it differently. It resonates differently. So it's the same in organizations, right? Let's find out what those words are. We can talk about how to do that in a second, and then how do we as an organization define those words? So one way I've done this is to have people think individually about a big, huge success the organization has had like this big, hairy victory, this great thing that we did, and it ticked all the success boxes and think on that for a minute and then mix people up into small groups. Again, how that's done could be a reflection of the values. Do you mix people up across departments, across functions, just by whoever's sitting next to each other, whatever. Then in those small groups, they think about what was going on that had things be such a success. How are we operating, how are we treating each other? What was happening? Who else did we include? Were there people we included we didn't normally include? Did we show up on time? What was it that happened? So they're having these small conversations and then the report outs when you've gotten the whole group back together, that consultant can begin to list these things. Because often you have to get to values backing into them through behavior, right? So then the consultant can begin to make a list - and I got this from another colleague of mine, Stacy Heath, who said on the West coast, she's like values on one side of the flip chart or Google doc, behaviors on another and really have the client think about what's the behavior and what's the value. How are you defining these things? Because respect could be both for example. So, how were they defining all that stuff? Then you begin to get a sense of what the words are and what the behavioral indicators are. So hopefully at the end of this process you've got, let's say 5 values because I know you've seen this too. You've seen websites that have 14 values and that's meaningless because you just can't keep track of all that.
Carol: Can you give people an example of what might be on the value side and what might be on the behavior side?
Rosalind: Sure. Like for respect, for, for instance. Everybody wants it and everybody experiences it differently. And that's, oh my God, we're getting, that's a whole other thing about how we bring equity into systems as well, but right. So respect could be showing up to meetings on time. Doing what you say you're going to do, you don't roll your eyes when somebody makes a comment. Those could be behavioral indicators of respect. Really getting specific about what that means and that's definitely part of one of the next steps too. So once we've got the words, how does this organization define those words? Respect could mean something different in a women's organization than it does to an education organization, or a social justice organization, or a homeless organization. So how do we define these words for us? Then what are those behavioral indicators at an individual level, at a group, team, or department level, and at an organization level? You've got all that going on, but wait, there's more! Then how do you begin to operationalize those and what are the mechanisms? What are the practices that we can adopt to make sure that we're adhering to those values, that we're behaving in a way that's consistent with our values?
Carol: Can you give me an example of what some of those practices that organizations can start when you've been working with a client, what you've seen through that process?
Rosalind: Yeah. There's a great one that I got from Robert Gass who does the art of transformational consulting. He's got a lot of great resources on the website, the social transformation project website this one's called outshine educate. And it's basically a feedback loop. It's basically ‘when you said X, I felt Y because...’ I mentioned equity a little bit earlier, that's a little bit of a soap box of mine, but often nonprofits are white-led, right? They're white-led boards. And they want to have BIPOC folks as part of their leadership, which is great. But the step that they skip is ‘how do we prepare ourselves to welcome others on to our board?’ You don't just start doing equity when you've got a BIPOC person sitting on your board. Then they leave in a year and you wonder why. So educating as a way that organizations and boards serve. Staff can begin to practice what they preach. So let's say you and I are at our board meeting with a bunch of other white people - who are mostly white men - and you say something, and nobody pays much attention to it. Then like three minutes later, Charles says the same thing and people go ‘hmm. That's a good idea.’ I'm sure you've never experienced that.
Carol: Right. Never, ever. Right. Never happened. So I might not catch it. Right. I'm just as susceptible to sexism as everybody else.
Rosalind: And white women can tend to be a little competitive, so I may or may not even notice it and not know what to say. Right. But if you've got something like a commitment in place for collaboration, engagement, respect, equity, whatever and a mechanism like ‘ouch and educate,’ then you could say ‘Hey, Charles when I said that three minutes ago, nobody really paid any attention to it. And now when you said something, I noticed that people thought it was a great idea. And because of that, I'm feeling invisible’ or ‘that made me feel invisible.’ Or I might have the wherewithal to say, ‘hey, Charles, I noticed Carol said that a few minutes ago, and I'm really glad you amplified it, but I'd kinda like to hear, Carol's original thinking around that,’ The trick here is that, and here's the thing about this ouch and educate process. The trick is for Charles to say ‘oh wow, thanks for pointing that out to me. I'm sorry. I missed that. I know we have a commitment to this and I'm going to try and do better next time.’ That's the right answer. The wrong answer is for Charles to go. ‘No, I didn't mean to, you're misinterpreting me, that wasn't my intention.’ Because that's a showstopper. So if the commitment is to practice these values, then there's also commitment to learning from, ‘I said this thing, thank you for telling me this thing felt off to you and I'm going to try and do better next time, because we're all part of this team and we all want to make sure that whoever's part of the team feels heard.’
Carol: It's so interesting that you describe it as an ‘ouch and educate’ because I'm in a group where - I don't know whether it's organically, or somebody was already aware of this, but we've come to literally say ouch when something like that happens. In a way, it's a gentle way of saying, ‘oh, something just happened.’ before it might've been just feeling tight or something, but just having a very simple thing to say to acknowledge what's just happened can then create the space to be able to say some of the things like you talked about ‘when you said X, I felt this and the meaning I made of it was Y,’ and I wished that you would do Z in the future. Just having that simple thing in the very moment when that happens to you, you just kinda shut down or, you’re flooded with emotion. So you may not have that tool of that lovely little madlib to fill in at your fingertips while you're in the moment. So, having something simple like that gives people a little bit of breathing space to then articulate what they need to say.
Rosalind: Yeah. I love that because you could feel it. It's like, ‘Oh, something about that didn't feel right.’ but in that moment you might not be able to really put it together. Just to say that out loud and then give yourself a minute to think about why it was an ouch and yeah. I do love that. That's awesome.
Carol: Yeah. And I love what you're talking about in terms of behaviors and practices because it's interesting, when you described that process, I've done a similar process. It was with the intention of coming up with a charter or agreements for a group that's working together and starting again with that good experience of when you've worked either with this team or a different team when you've worked on one that worked really well, and then what made that work well, and what were those elements? When I first did it, I think I stopped at that first level. Then when it was literally the conversation around respect, where we pushed it one more level to the behaviors of how that's demonstrated, how do you experience respect or how does that demonstrate it to you? We have people who talked on the same team completely diametrically opposing answers. One was ‘people don't interrupt me, another person. It was ‘I get into the flow of the conversation and we can interrupt each other and it's great and that's fine.’ So, it was like, ‘okay, well, what do we do with that?’ If we hadn't had that conversation, we would have left in a respect, one person thinking, ‘well, that means no one's ever going to interrupt me.’ And the other person's thinking, ‘wow, that means we can have this “juicy conversation” where it's just flowing and I can interrupt anybody I want.’
Rosalind: Oh yeah that's perfect. Really giving people the freedom to have those conversations, to give people a way to have those conversations. It just reminded me, I worked with these grassroots, social justice organizations, super progressive, really awesome. They had BIPOC and white folks on the board, and at the strategic planning retreat, one of the black board members said ‘I love you guys. I love this organization. I love the mission. I love what we're doing. But there's almost never a board meeting that goes by where I don't experience some microaggression.’ And that was so sad to me. You could just see people groan because they're all about that. They're all about equity and social justice.
Carol: Can you define what a microaggression is like?
Rosalind: Yes! It's small, so maybe an example would be if we're in a meeting and one of the guys says, ‘hey Carol, can you go get us some coffee?’ It's a behavior and action, a request, a demand, an interaction in which one person feels like they're being subordinated in some way.
Carol: Absolutely. I just want to make sure that terms get defined so thank you.
Rosalind: Yeah. Or, ‘why don't you take the minutes,’ right? Not that I’m speaking from experience on that either.
Carol: Wait a minute! I think we're rattling off all the common ones for women.
Rosalind: Yeah. Especially me since I'm of a certain age, I definitely experienced that. It's interesting. So there's another thing that I was thinking of too, when we're doing values work because we do process consultation. So we go into organizations with some great process, some great question because we believe that the client can come up with its own answers and solutions. Maybe a whole other conversation, about to what degree clients to consultants come in with recommendations, with the guidance, with whatever. So I actually do come into these values conversations with a list of values. I know organizations can come up with them or people can come up with them too, but it just seems to be very helpful for folks to have a page or a friend of mine put together like 500 values cards. That's maybe a bit much but a page where people can go, ‘oh yeah, patience or generosity or empathy or courage’ so that they have those words and I think it makes it easier for them. I don't know if you’ve found that as well.
Carol: When you're saying that you're looking at and, and what's so interesting for me about this conversation, as I think about the things that I've experienced in the nonprofit sector over the years is that disconnect between a mission with good work out in the world, and then how people are treated inside the organization. I think part of that is that you're able to look at the statements that the organization is making, the conversations that you've had with folks already. So you already have a sense of taking all of that implied information and then making it explicit and putting it down on a piece of paper and saying, ‘okay, these are the 5, 6, 7 values that I'm seeing.’ So what it sounds to me like is that you're tailoring it to the organization based on what your experience of them is versus a generic sheet of ‘here's 50 values, pick three of the most important ones for you.’ So I think that it often does help to not start with that blank slate but give something to people to react to.
Rosalind: Yeah. I want to pick up on something else you just said too, because once you've clarified the values; defined them, indicators, mechanisms, all that. Then it really is — I think Tip talked about this too, Tip Fallon, one of your other guests — how does this look into how, how our values are embedded in our processes and practices? How do we treat each other, who gets promoted and why. What kind, or do we even subsidize professional development and what professional development, and where do we put out our job postings? Do we make sure that the language isn’t excluding any particular identities? So there are all the ways in which this can really get embedded in processes as well as organizational processes. So when you look at how you embed these things at all levels of the system, you just reminded me about that too.
Carol: Then the example that you were starting to talk about in terms of the social justice organization that you mentioned, and the black board member saying, ‘yeah, we have all these values. We have this mission, we do this work and I'm still experiencing this.’ So I'm curious then what came out of that conversation? I don't want to suppose what might've happened. How did that become an educational moment? I'm sure people just work, but I can imagine how much chagrin they felt of ‘Wow, we really think we're doing the good thing and we're still susceptible to these.’
Rosalind: Yeah. And they are, of course, right. That board member didn't assume any bad intention. I mean, he felt that he was welcomed in many ways. It had been part of it for a long time, but it did highlight ‘okay, well then. if these are your values and this tension, then what are you going to make a part of your strategic plan going forward?’ What board development, what board training, what are the actions you need to take that are going to ensure that you stop doing that and start doing something else that welcomes people in so that they don't experience that. It was a real gift. That's the thing, if someone says, ‘hey, when you said X, I felt Y.’ It is such a gift that that person has given you. How else are we going to learn? Right. I mean, we've all got our work to do. We're not going to be able to get any better unless someone is generous enough to point out where we are sticking our foot in it.
Carol: Yeah. And even if the reaction in that moment isn't the perfect one — I certainly can think of many times I've been given feedback and my immediate reaction is to get all defensive and come up with 6,000 reasons why that was fine and I should have done it and all that. Then later, I calm down and sit with it, think about it, and come back to the person with something a little more rational, a little more reasonable and absorbing it and being able to learn from it. We're human and it's not always in the moment, but the closer it can be, I think that's what I'm striving to do is have it in the past, I think probably between the moment, if it happened to me. And then when I talked to the person, it might be very far apart. So just trying to get that closer and closer together.
Rosalind: I have spent years and years cultivating my ability to get feedback almost into a superpower because I'm right there with you. I can feel it in my body, I can feel that panic tension, whatever it's like, ‘oh god’ and part of that is how much of that is white perfectionism and all the rest of it. It's, ‘oh man’ So we were just grappling with all kinds of stuff, but being able to calmly hear the feedback and just be grateful for it.
Carol: I don't know if it's generational, but I certainly didn't grow up learning or having that model for me. It was all about the debate and proving that you're right. It's unlearning all of those very well-honed ways of thinking, ways of being, it's unpacking that and relearning it, unlearning it as an adult just takes even longer.
Rosalind: Yeah. And that's where some coaching can come in. So let's say you're going back to your system now. You've got all these great values in place and you've got somebody in the development department who is really raking it in. They're doing great, they're raising all this money. It's really awesome. But they're stepping on people along the way. They're really not being collaborative or respectful or whatever. Their actions are very inconsistent with those values. So the options are: you coach that person into changing their behaviors and you go through this delicate process of getting the feedback and integrating the feedback. But if that person doesn't change their behaviors, then you've got to let them go. You can't have somebody in the system who is flagrantly stepping all over people and disrespecting them and not acting in a way that's consistent with the values and get away with it. It's horrible for morale. We'd talk about values and what that represents. That's part of an organization's reputation, right? So word gets out and this person's getting away with all this stuff and morale is really bad and you're about to mutiny. Now there may be a hit in the short term if that person needs to go, but in the long term, you've really made the right decision because you can't have somebody acting out and then expect other people to behave consistently with the values either. So that's really hard, but that is also part of how you promote people, how you reward people. It all has to be consistent with the values
Carol: If you've actually had that conversation and you've defined what the values are and how those show up, how you’re going to demonstrate those. Then everyone's come to an agreement when that person then acts that way. you have so much more of a platform to work from because you've had an explicit conversation about what behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. It's just so much easier to start from there then to have started from no conversation at all. Where you infer something, or it doesn't feel right, or it seems out of alignment. But then the person might be able to argue, in some way that it is right from their point of view.
Rosalind: Or they just may not see it. Maybe nobody's ever called them out on it before. There could be some level of obliviousness. I mean, they think they're doing great because they're looking at the numbers. Right.
Carol: And may have believed that that value of bringing in the money is the most important, whatever the means.
Rosalind: Right, yeah. Well, we're starting a new year so it's a good time - I mean, it's always a good time to assess - but generally the values get revisited when you're doing strategic planning. I mean, a lot has happened in the past year. So what I do sometimes with clients, and when you're doing strategic plans, obviously there should be something in place where there's regular checks on progress to the plan. If an organization is about ½ to ⅔ of the way through their strategic plan, then it's a good time to maybe take a moment to really think about how you're doing. How are you doing with the mission, vision, and values? I got this actually from Scott Blanchard, who - and I've done this too with strategic planning - basically there are four questions. If you're looking at this, it can all be framed through the values. So you're taking a breather and you're reflecting on the plan and how you're going through with the plan. So one question is, of course: what have we done that we meant to do? What were those things that we planned to do? We did them, we can check them off the list and claim some victory and go forward. Then, especially given this past year, what were the things that we did that we didn't set out to do, that we didn't plan to do, but it's really, really great. We did that, right? Like we learned about online virtual collaborative learning and we revamped our communication strategy or whatever it is. It's really great. We did that, given the events over the past year, and then you can claim those as accomplishments and celebrate those as well. Then, what is it that we plan to do? Is there anything that we don’t need to do anymore for whatever reason? Like those things that we thought that the moment has passed. We thought we needed to do them, but we don't need to do that anymore. You could just cross that off. Then of course there are the things that we plan to do that we still need to do. Do we need to adjust those things or do we need to adjust how we're doing those things? So that's where the values conversation can come in as well. So I think that that's another way to begin to bring values into the conversation and also check to see where the organization is because, you know, mission impact and martyrdom and all that. There's so much that nonprofit staff does, they're so overwhelmed all the time. Giving the organization a break to reflect on this stuff and think about how they're doing, and what they do as well as why they do what they do. I think it’s a great break.
Carol: I've experienced working with clients sometimes, there seems to be a fear with strategic planning that it might just pin you down or that you have to get everything in there to make sure all the bases are covered, but I tell clients to not only finalize the plan, but finalize the process that you're going to do exactly what you're talking about in terms of those regular check-ins. It doesn't have to be all the time, but at some point, some set period, whether it's a year, halfway through, to check in, ‘where are we?’ Ask those questions that you're asking, ‘what what do we need to continue doing? What've we done? What do we need to stop doing?’ And then, what did we do that we didn't expect is really, really useful. You talked about the implementation planning, I think mapping out how you get started, but not trying to map out every detail all the way through does anything because you end up with this binder that goes on a shelf or holds up computer monitors and doesn't get much use otherwise.
Rosalind: Right. You're reminding me of a client I had. I love this client. One of their values was to be a learning organization. And one of the ways that they put that into practice was the. The strategic plan itself was an opportunity for staff to do that. So the ads themselves came up with their own mini strategic plans that were all aligned with the larger mission, values, objectives, and they came up with their own implementation plans as well. So here's the goals, here's the strategies. Here's the tactics, here's the timeframe notes about when we need to do this and who's going to be responsible accountable with the measures of success are what the budget impact is, you know? So that was really interesting that was part of a way in which they really brought that learning organization to life. They're doing their own research. They decided to take the organization in a particular direction and have become wildly successful, really a mature organization doing some groundbreaking work and in creating all these feedback loops between the client and researchers and staff. And it's just amazing. They're doing great work, but they're really putting their money where their mouth is. It's really paying off in every way.
Carol: That's awesome. Well, at the end of every episode, I play a little game and ask people an icebreaker question. So I'm curious, what was your first job?
Rosalind: This is a good one. I want to know what your first job is too. So, I grew up in a little bitty town in Canada called Niagara on the Lake. There's a little ADPD town and it had a theater called the Shaw festival theater. In between the matinee and evening performances on a couple of days a week, can't remember what they were now, the cast and crew didn't have time to go out and get their own dinners so they needed to get fed. That was my first job. My name is Rosalind and I found a friend of mine named Celia and Rosalind and Celia are characters in a Shakespeare play by the way. So the actors always got a kick out of that, but we had our budget and we would do the shopping and we did the cooking and the serving. We did that twice a week. I think we might've done it for at least a couple of summers, and that was a really fun first job.
Carol: That's awesome. Mine was a little more boring. Being a babysitter was my first.
Rosalind: I was a terrible babysitter.
Carol: I didn't claim that I was a good babysitter. I just said I was a babysitter.
Rosalind: I can't remember. It was certainly pre-driving, so I must've been like 12, 13, 14, somewhere in there. Well, that's very entrepreneurial of you.
Carol: I guess I did my Babysitting gig because I specialized in - I have a brother with special needs - I babysat for families who had kids with special needs because they often couldn't find a babysitter. I got double the rate of like, instead of just $1 an hour, I got $2 an hour. I actually found most of the time that those kids were easier to take care of then typically developmental kids because they saw me as an authority figure, so they would listen. I felt like I was doing one over on the parents cause I got paid more to take care of kids who actually listened. So, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you and what's emerging in your work this year?
Rosalind: Well, I'm actually moving.I love doing the strategic planning work, and making sure that there's some implementation piece and check-ins for the organization as they go. I’m also moving into a little bit more professional development work. I've been working with a colleague of mine. This year we've begun open forums on race. So we're having these open conversations every couple of weeks, and we'll continue to do that this year which I'm loving. So I’m deepening, my own work around race and privilege and my professional work on equity. I think those are the things I'm excited about. How about you? What are you excited about?
Carol: I'm working with a number of clients on strategic planning and really enjoying that because I think as you said, it provides that time to just step away and look at the bigger picture as you described the overwhelm of non-profit work it's hard to have that space and time to step back and think differently or think critically about the work that you're doing. My hope is really to help organizations turn down the noise and turn up the signal, like focusing a lens that, and, and it just gives people a chance to have those conversations so that they're not all working from different assumptions.
Rosalind: Thinking about one of your other guests, Nyako, who talked about mindfulness, and each of us individually really have to take a little bit of time for our own clarity. I'm thinking, in terms of how an organization engages in mindfulness, just by stepping back and getting that clarity as an organization, I love that. Your clients are lucky to have you.
Carol: Thank you. So how can people find out more about you and then get in touch? We'll put the links in the show notes.
Rosalind: Oh, sure. Well I am on Twitter @SpiegelConsultin without the G. Twitter didn't let me put the G in I dunno. So a little bit on Twitter, I'm on LinkedIn, I have my own website Spiegel Consulting. I think those are the big three for now, then of course, my email Rosalind Spiegel Consulting.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. It's been a great conversation. Thank you so much.
Rosalind: Thank you.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.