In episode 64 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Sarah Olivieri discuss:
Sarah Olivieri is a nonprofit leader like you who used to spend days and nights asking questions like: “how do I get my board to work with me and not against me?”, “how can I raise more money for this important mission?” and, “how can I show up and love my job as much as I love this mission?”.
Sarah has over 18 years of nonprofit leadership experience. She was the co-founder of the Open Center for Autism, the Executive Director of the Helping Children of War Foundation, and co-author of Lesson Plan a la Carte: Integrated Planning for Students with Special Needs. She holds a BA from the University of Chicago with a focus on globalization and its effect on marginalized cultures, and a master's degree in Humanistic and Multicultural Education from SUNY New Paltz. As the founder and heart behind PivotGround, Sarah helps nonprofits become financially sustainable world changers.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Sarah Olivieri. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. Sarah and I talk about how to set up systems and processes in your organization so that your work as leader and the work of your staff is made easier, how to have a productive team meeting, and how to assess and be realistic about your current capacity.
Welcome, welcome to the podcast. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Olivieri: It's a pleasure to be here, Carol. Thanks for having me.
Carol: So I'd like to start out each episode with just finding out from the person I'm talking with, what, what drew them to the work that they do and, and what would you describe as your why? What motivates you?
Sarah: Oh, man. I think for most people who work in a nonprofit or work with nonprofits, the fact that every day, no matter how bad things are in the world, when I wake up, I basically get to say, I'm already making the biggest impact I could probably make. And my work trajectory is only about doing more of the same. And that feels really good, when times are good and when times are bad. And I think a lot of people fall into nonprofit work. They have a calling. When I was young, I went to this independent private school that had just started. It was very small, not at all like a prep school, but very education focused. How can we be more human focused and skip forward till I'm out of elementary school. My mom ended up taking over the school. It wasn't her background, but it was one of those nonprofits that was about to go. It had a great mission. It had done great work with kids, but from a business perspective, it had just been run to the ground and was on the verge of closing, not paying their staff. And my mom was one of those people who said, well, I'll try. And she did, and it turned into a job and she grew this. School. And so then skip forward a number of years where I'm working at a nonprofit and it almost went under, it had a bunch of problems and I was like, well, maybe I'll try taking on that and I'll take on this other piece. And my mom was there saying, you can learn bookkeeping and you can do this. And once how to manage the finances and manage the people and manage the prom, You're sucked in really deep, pretty quickly. So that's kinda like how I get started, how I got started, and there's lots in the middle. That's the short version.
Carol: It's been interesting for me as I've talked to various people through this podcast and other places, how many folks have some experience in their childhood that leads them, especially often folks talking about that role model of a parent doing something either, engaged in the community or engaged in some way with service. Politics, whatever it might be, stepping in where there's a vacuum and making things happen and making sure that that resource didn't go away for children, so that's awesome. So I'm curious, as a former executive director of a nonprofit, what would you say was your favorite part of being an executive director? I feel like there's this big generational shift going on finally with new people coming into leadership and. I hear from a lot of younger folks that they're, they look at the job and they shy away from it because it just seems so, like undoable without like a real level of personal sacrifice. So I'm curious what was the upside? What did you appreciate about being in that role?
Sarah: Well, before I answer that, I have to say the secret from my clients who are mostly not young people, they feel the same way. When they come to me, they're like, I hate my job, but I also don't wanna quit. But we'll go into how we get everybody out of that. My own experience as an executive director was something I really enjoyed. Setting things up, scaling things up, making things run better. And even though I didn't know what I know now, I was already pretty good at. This whole thing about systems and processes and making things run better because that is the thing that ultimately makes the job not painful. And I really, really believe that being an executive director can be fun. And it probably helped that I had this example from my mother who had started out in this organization that was in complete chaos, working a lot of hours, and by this time, When I was an executive director, she was at the tail end and she would tell me, I work four days a week partly to, cuz she was older and partly to save money for the nonprofit. And she said, really, I spend a good chunk of my time playing solitaire on the computer. And that was a good thing. What it meant was she had everything running like a well-oiled machine. And now she kept an eye on everything and whenever anything did come up, she was available. She had that time built in. Right? It wasn't just she was goofing off playing solitaire. She kept, that's how she kept herself busy while she kept herself available to deal with things. And that's so important. And I had that lesson early on that you should not be filling every minute as an executive director. Of your job up with tasks and projects and because if you are, you're doing it wrong, you're doing it wrong and great systems, having a great team is how you do that. And so, because I was good at that early on, I was setting up programming, I was attracting great staff who were doing great things. I was attracting funding. Both grants and major donors and a real community quickly formed. And I'm a lover of delegation, so, spreading out the work amongst a lot of people, made everything run quite well. It wasn't perfect, but I certainly was able to enjoy my job. And that to this day, like that's what I. For all executive directors. I mean, your job, it, there's a lot of work to be done and a lot of problems to be solved, but it should feel joyful and it shouldn't feel like opening up your veins and just bleeding for your non-profit until you're dead.
Carol: Right, right. My tagline for this podcast is, working for progressive nonprofits and nonprofit leadership without being a martyr to the cause. So, for sure. And I just wanted to pick up on a couple things that you said. You talked about systems and processes and I, I don't think that's the first thing that most people think of when they think of nonprofits. They think of passion and mission and vision and all of that, but I'm a systems and process person too, so I appreciate those and. And it's not right. As you said, it's not for the I think oftentimes people get real, don't wanna set those up because they feel like they might be restrictive first. Second, they're always thinking about the exceptions. The 20% that doesn't fit into the process. And I feel like I often am talking to folks about how we can identify the 80%. Normally it happens that you can, that you can predict and is that regular or there are some things that are within your control, like how are you doing your fundraising, how are you doing your marketing, those kinds of things. That, that is, that. You can just decide what the cadence is. And then also having that margin, right, not filling up every hour so that you do have the flexibility to be able to respond when things pop up. But, how do you experience it with clients in terms of helping them or helping them think through those systems and processes?
Sarah: So, skip forward a whole bunch of years and I've worked with a lot of nonprofits in, in addition to working in nonprofits. And what I realized, I love all business, first of all. So like, as much as I love non-profits, I also love business. I love how people come together to create things that are bigger than what any one person can do. And all of the, the glue that makes that happen and all the functioning, which is systems and processes. What I have learned is there are some key ways of operating that everybody can implement. And I used to think, oh, well it has to be customized for each organization cuz everyone's different. Well, as much as everyone wants to feel like they're a special snowflake. There are a lot of things right that you don't need to reinvent and that actually can work out of the box for you. The for-profit industry has done this already numerous times. They've created methodologies and frameworks and systems for running a business that help people run better. And so I set out to make the same thing, but specifically for non-profits cuz most of the for-profit methodologies have like Making a profit built in as like this just assumed principle which is not true at a nonprofit, we may very well sacrifice profits. We can have profits, but we also might sacrifice profit for mission. So I've put all those pieces together in an easy-to-implement way. But when I hear my clients think about systems, and so one is I'm telling them, here's this easy way to do it. Like you don't have to be a master chef in order to follow a recipe, right? Right. So I like to get, say, here's the recipe, follow it. And then they do, and then it works. And then they're like, oh my God, my stuff is happier. And wow, I just took my first vacation and like I stopped working on weekends. Like, what is this magic? Let me keep following the recipe. And I think for most people, that is magic and they don't need to become a master chef. But we can also talk about. I would consider myself a master chef. I'm making recipes. We can go into what that is. But if for those of you who have that thought of like, ooh, processes, like that sounds restricting, then you have just experienced a bad process, a great process. Frees you up to do, right? We talked about the 80%, the 80/20 rule. If you've heard of it like it's like 20% of the work does 80% of gets 80% of the results. But then there's also like, what is that other 80% of the work? So if you can clear that 80%. Off and get it all running like a well-oiled machine. Get it off your plate. Now you can spend 20% of your time focused on like the really forward stuff. Usually that involves a lot of thinking and problem solving. Right. And that's what your solitaire moments are about. I'll call them. As doing, having that brain time to really think through how. Move something forward that no one has figured out before. And I love seeing people get that time back in their day and then the results that that gets is phenomenal.
Carol: Can you give me an example, one of those recipes?
Sarah: Sure. So a really simple one is how to run a team meeting. We have numerous types of meetings in the framework that I teach. Well, not that many. We actually only have three and the most basic one that typically replaces your staff meeting. I call it an issues meeting, but there are a few key things in it that are probably different from what you're doing right now that make the meeting way, way better. If I could see your audience right now, I'd say raise your hand if you have wasted time wasting meetings or you hate meetings, and probably most of you would be raising your hand, right? So one of the things we do, it's the same agenda every time, and probably one of the most important things we do is we identify the issues that are facing the team, but we don't discuss them when we identify. And everybody has to get trained in, don't just launch into talking about this issue, or we'll be stuck talking about issues all day long. Step two is we're going to then decide which is the highest priority issue. And then step three is we're going to then talk about that issue, make sure we understand it and work through it until we've identified a solution that basically we all agree will work and then we can assign somebody to go implement it. And so by being way more intent, Systematic about the priority that we work through our issue. Is a game changer because first people are like, oh, we actually produced something. We produced a solution in this meeting. That's great. But when you do it consistently, like replacing your staff meeting, initially, most organizations have this, like all these issues, like a long, long list. But a lot of those issues are usually symptoms of a higher priority issue. So often what happens is as you tackle the highest priority issues first, a lot of the issues that were on your. Just diesel resolve on their own because you hit the core underlying issue and then you don't even have to worry about tackling them. And the list gets short, short, very, very fast. Because of that, you're not just tackling issues meaningfully, but you're eliminating a lot of the issues because you got to what was really going on.
Carol: That's the common practice or habit that you described to people, like they name the issue and then we start talking about it. I'm on a volunteer team right now where we're having that exact challenge and I'm planning at our next meeting to bring it up as one of our habits that's not helping So I, I might, I might borrow that and say, well, I think we, we actually do have a list of our priorities, but, but, or a list of our issues. I don't know that we've done a good job of prioritizing them or even thinking about how we're gonna sequence this so that it makes sense to tackle one after another. So, but that habit of like, we bring it up so we have to talk about it, like, take a moment, put it on, put it in the. Folks don't call 'em parking lots anymore on the bike rack. Someone else that I talked to recently said, don't call it a parking lot or a bike rack because that's the place where those things go to die, but call it an on-ramp or the runway of the things that we'll get to as we get down the runway. So, fundamentally, I mean people spend so much time in them and so many of them are so poorly designed that it's, it's sad that folks have to be stuck in those, and, and it's some, there's some easy things that you can do to, to make them just a little bit better.
Sarah: And I would say a lot better. It's actually not learning how to do business well as a for-profit or a non-profit is not rocket science. And some small easy tweaks. If you find the right ones and then really implement them, it can make dramatic results. And I'd say the hardest thing is adjusting to that new meeting or actually it's not so hard, but it takes some time. And for those of you who are like Brene Brown followers, like all of her work comes into this learning to bring, be vulnerable enough to bring the real issues, create that culture where people feel. To bring that real issue to the table, that underlying core issue, and then also training your team and getting everybody used to interrupting each other, saying, oh, Or interrupting themselves. Like I interrupt myself all the time. Like I started talking about the issue. Excuse me. That's ok. I started talking about the issue. I'm gonna be quiet now cuz it's not time to talk about the issues, it's just time to stick them on the list. And that takes a little bit of adjusting because usually we're told not to interrupt each other. But after a few times of giving everybody permission, anybody's allowed to interrupt anybody. Who starts launching into talking about an issue when it's not time for it yet.
Carol: And I, the other thing that I like about what you were describing is that it, it get, it gets clear what we're doing at this moment. And I, I try to do that when I'm working with, with groups cuz, during a strategic planning process that I, that generally what I work on, There are points at which you're exploring, where you're opening everything up, where you're imagining, where you're visioning, and you're maybe getting like even a little bit really out there beyond what is really feasible. There's a time for that, and then there's a time a little bit later in the process to cut it down and, and put some criteria on what's gonna be more feasible. What, what do we have the capacity for? What, what's really gonna move our mission forward in a different way. But being clear about what you're doing in each meeting, in each session, in each portion really helps people have.
A more constructive conversation and feel like they, they, they knew what was expected of them so they could show up in a, in a helpful way. a hundred percent. So you, you, and I'm gonna use your words, you work to help nonprofits become financially sustainable, world, world changers. What would you say is really the key to achieving that with an organization?
Sarah: So for nonprofits specifically, there are three key areas that I think they need to be focusing on. First is capacity. Right. So that includes who's on your team, how many team members you have, how much money you have. Although money is usually a byproduct of core capacity. It's not the capacity itself and how aligned that team is, right? So the bulk of what makes up. Our organizations are people really, so right. Who are the people and how well do they work together and are they the right people on the team? And a lot of building that capacity has to do with creating great alignment. And that really means understanding who you are as an organization, how you behave, and then attracting people who want to behave in the same way. and all work together. So we can do a lot too. Capacity by making sure we have the right people aligned in the right way, and great systems and processes for keeping them gelled together as a well-oiled team. So capacity, right? And then actionable strategy, I always say actionable strategy. Which should be assumed, but there's so many people who have strategies that they aren't taking action on. And so just to quickly define some terms, to me, a strategy is a set of goals with a set of actions that you're going to take to achieve those goals. And in the method I teach called the impact method, we always have our highest level strategic goals tied right into our tasks day to day. And it goes through. In the impact method, we actually do strategic planning every two months, and then we map out a two month work plan. We check on that work plan every two weeks, and then each, each two week chunk everybody has their tasks that they're working on for those two weeks. So that's what I mean by what a really actionable strategy looks like that's like dialed in and people aren't flying off doing other things. And then the third piece, which is not true for all businesses, but is true for most non-profits. So if your non-profit has a mission to solve a problem that has never been solved before, so if you're working to end hunger or homelessness, Or solve mental health issues, any of those things. You have to be great at innovation. And to be great at innovation, you basically need some sort of built in process for improvement. You have to be able to experiment and improve and try things and, and have room to fail. That's where the capacity comes in and modify. So really having those three things, capacity, actionable strategy, and a continual process of improvement is what it takes to really have success as a non-profit.
Carol: No, those sound like definitely three key key areas that I'm often working with clients on as well. And one, one I wanna go back to cuz with, with capacity and what we were talking about before, when you can set things on a, on a process and, and make it easier, you're not having to constantly decide, you kind. For me, when I have a good process, I know it's working well because I, I'm not experiencing that decision fatigue of having to make all sorts of little choices and like you said, then have time freed up for that bigger thinking. But what I see groups do, and there's a lot of pressure to scale up is each time they, they, they do something smarter and they create a little space instead of taking that time to think or think big? Differently one not necessarily bigger, they add more, add more, add more. And so, while the, the kind of, the promise is if you work smarter, you're not gonna have to work harder, but then people add more, so they're still working harder. Mm,
Sarah: mm-hmm. So I think some of the ways that I tackle that one is in the process of improvement that I teach. It includes this concept of respite and we also, I also just talk about brain space all the time. Mm. So part of it is about this concept of how we work when we work. But in another part of that is how you define the roles in the organization. So I'll talk about respite first. So, I already said like, we work in these, we do strategic planning every two months. So it's a two month strategic cycle with many two week tactical cycles built in. If you put that into a 12 month calendar year, you will find that there are four extra weeks left over which you totally gain back in efficiency and probably many times over. And so actually built into the framework as a thing is respite. And respite are those extra four weeks. They're not really extra where. Organizations, I teach them to build this into their way of operating, and this is separate from vacation time. Respite is where you're not working on a goal, a big goal or a project you might totally shut down. You might just do minimal operations. Some organizations do all four weeks at once. Some do a week here and there. Some who really like vital, life or death services will scatter different people's respite. So like. What am I thinking? Like overlay it so that no, nothing is ever quite shut down as much, but starting to really like, use a new piece of language, right? It's not vacation. I intentionally didn't use the word rest, although it's designed to allow our brains to have that time. But I call it respite because it's not a word we use a lot in our everyday lives. So introducing that as an important concept and a thing that you're gonna schedule in is really key. And then when part of actually what I think of it as a capacity piece is how you design your team. And a lot of people call this an org chart. I take a slightly different approach because the traditional org chart is really. Who is in charge of who, and I think to run any business better, what we really need to be thinking about is what are the functions of this organization Like, what if it were a machine? What are the pieces of the machine? What outcomes do we need for each of those? Pieces of the machine to be produced and then just who's in charge of those outcomes. And to me, that's what makes me a leader in an organization. We talk about roles that are very, like brain based versus roles that are, we call, I say hands based, but it's like doing the task versus being, trying to get a result that you're not, don't necessarily have control over. And just as a side note, I find, those who are leaders, In many ways, are people who they're, they're built for being responsible for things that aren't in their control. like a parent, right? Like parents are natural leaders. Are they forced leaders? Because you're responsible for this, a kid and you're not really totally in control of the outcome. But you've agreed to be accountable for it nonetheless. Within all these functions of what makes a nonprofit run, there's a really important role of, I call it visioning and innovation. And then you start to see that, especially if it's a CEO or a founder, is often owning this role of literally visioning and innovation and they, that role requires a ton of brain. Or we can call it my mom's solitaire time, right? Like you need to be paid to be just thinking, because that's how we innovate with a lot of thinking and problem solving. And so we start to embrace this as a valued role in the organization as well as a valued activity that everyone's participating in.
Carol: So, as you were saying there are, there, there needs to be that downtime in organizations and I think culturally we're so conditioned to always add more. Yes. And so I love the idea of just taking those. Not even take more, protecting those for extra, those extra four weeks. And, and designating them for some downtime, for some respite for thinking time and, and or just, just not, not doing, doing, doing so that you can. And I, I feel like. I don't know what to do. Well, we all think all the time. If you've ever tried to meditate, you find that out real quick. But if I'm concentrating on it, it doesn't necessarily work. So doing something easy, like solitary, as you talked about, helps just like the brain relax and then you start associating different things and then, it's like, why? We get our best ideas in the shower or on a good walk or something like that. But I definitely appreciate what you're, what you're sharing with people because the tendency so much is to just pile on new things.
Sarah: And, in the way you work too. I referenced a couple times, like, we work in these two week sprints and I teach all my clients to do. That is the, one of the first things they realize. Oftentimes it's the first time they've written down all the projects they're working on at one time. And literally we use a Kanban style, meaning like we put each of our projects that are in progress in a column and the ones that are coming up next to another column, and once it's visual and I just tell them the rule is you can't work on more than three projects at once. And if you wanna go faster, you should only work on one project at once. And it's visually there in the column, you see the boxes stacking up in the column, and people start to realize, What can they actually get done in two weeks? And they start to see that the impact of overloading their plates, of adding more and more and more at once is actually slowing them way, way down. And so as they realize that and see it in a visual way as well, they start to go, oh, Less is more right? Less at a time is faster. I will complete more projects in a two month period if I'm only working on one or two at a time. And they start to realize that a lot of the things they think they're adding that are just little things are huge things like we need to rebuild our. I can say it so easily, rebuild websites, projects I used to build websites professionally. They are multiple projects in one, and your website is never done. So they start to realize, like, understanding how to pull things apart and understand the true load of what's on their plate. And that has all sorts of positive ripple effects. Like oftentimes I see, board members start to really understand why this organization needs more resources and, and leaders start to really understand, oh I do need to be fundraising a lot more because I'm totally underestimating the true load. That we're either carrying or that we're not caring, but we need to be doing, if we're gonna make a dent in solving whatever the problem of our mission is.
Carol: And I think the other thing that doesn't get calculated when you're thinking about projects and some people's work, is, is, is project focused. But other, there's always those things I have to do every day, something I have to do every month or every week. And those regular, repetitive, those things that you systematize, those become invisible in those, those planning out all the stuff that has to happen. And so, Being mindful and remembering you've gotta block space for them, just those regular things as well, is really important.
Sarah: Totally. And we track those and I have a number of ways that I teach my clients to track them, so it's not time consuming just to track them. Right. Sure. You don't wanna spend more time tracking them. No. Them. So, but it can be as simple as every two months, each team member, just like estimates, like what percentage of my work time is taken up by recurring tasks. Mm-hmm. And when they're at 80%. They don't have, I tell them once you hit 80%, you don't have time for any projects, and this is the time to hire or have the one project of streamlining so that you can get that 80% back down to like 50%, 60%, something like that.
Carol: So at the end of each episode, I like to ask an icebreaker question, and since we've been talking about processes and systems, I'll, I'll choose this one. So what do the first 30 minutes of your typical day look like?
Sarah: Oh, coffee definitely, and I journal most days. It can vary. I have a son, I'm a single mom, I have a son, so there's usually getting him. I do what I need to do to be ready to get him ready for school and then face my day. But I will share. When I was newly a single mom and launching a business in the most crazy time of my life, I had this, I called it like my super routine, and it took about 30 minutes. I did 12 minutes of meditation, usually with my son sitting in my lap watching cartoons. He was a toddler at the time. I did the seven minute workout on my phone. And I took a quick shower and there is nothing like, even though each thing was short, there is nothing like a little bit of intentional just, brain time. That's that brain time, right? I gave myself that brain time. I had probably a little more brain time in the shower too. And a little bit of body exercise and just that little bit of self-regulation, self-regulation took me through the hardest times in my life. And. With energy and strength, it was great. Awesome, awesome. And it took about 30 minutes. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.
Carol: We can optimize those things for sure. We can, or, or just fit in a little bit and you can fit in more later if, when you have, when you have time and space, but at least doing a little bit each day is really grounding. So what's coming up from you? What are you excited about and what's emerging in your work?
Sarah: Well, I continue to offer the Thrive Program, which is where I take CEOs from non-profits who wanna be like me. I wanna learn everything that Sarah's teaching and work with her every week.
So I continue to love offering that program. I'm really excited to be coming out with a new program called Pivot this year. Access to all of the curriculum I use in the Thrive program, but aren't ready to dive in with all the support and wanna just try some stuff on their own. That'll be coming out in 2023. And also I continue to do this board retreat that I developed in a number of board training related to it. To really help boards get engaged. It comes with a new job description for the board. And the results from that have been so fantastic that I'm very excited to get it out there. And it's, it's, I'll just give you a sneak peek of some of the ways it's so different. I no longer have boards. Approving budgets, and yet they're more engaged with the finances than ever before. I have boards not participating in fundraising, and yet board members are more engaged in helping with fundraising than ever before.
And I have boards really starting to understand. Stand some of this, like how nonprofits work stuff so that they can truly be supportive and have their leadership teams back in a way that just feels great to CEOs and never ever hints on overstepping or micromanaging.
Carol: Awesome. Well thank you so much and thank you for coming on Mission Impact.
Sarah: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
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.