In episode 24 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Bobbi Russell discussed include:
- Transitioning back to in person
- How nonprofits can make accommodations while working from home
- How investing in systems and organization can help in the long term
Bobbi is an operations executive with 20+ years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for 10+ years. While similar systems and processes can work for many organizations, she sees success when organizations apply solutions that are customized to their culture. She’s really good at understanding the human aspect of how any new system, tool, or process will integrate with an organization’s culture. Earlier in her career, she worked in marketing, membership, strategic communications, and journalism. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Clarion University of PA and an MBA from George Washington University. Her non-work passions include her dog, craft beer, and writing parody songs to entertain friends and family.
Important Guest Links: Contact Us:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Bobbi Russel. Bobbi is an operations executive who works with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own consulting practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for more than 10 years. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Bobbi and I talk about how investing in operations boosts morale and saves your organization time in the long run. What helps staff thrive in a remote work environment, what organizations need to think about as they are thinking about whether they will be heading back into the office and how your organization’s insurance and benefits providers can be partners in supporting your organization’s HR function especially if you are a small organization without a dedicated HR person.
Welcome Bobbi. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Bobbi Russell: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm glad to be here today.
Carol: So I like to start with the question about your motivation for the work that you do. So, what drew you to your work? What motivates you? What would you describe as your, why?
Bobbi: I've worked in the nonprofit community for more than 20 years. And for a large chunk of that was running an organization. And about four years ago, I had the chance to do some consulting. And my, when I think about the why for that, it's a mix of collaboration and independent work. That's a great fit for me. That's on the very tactical level. But also, I get to be a part of many different teams in working with different clients. And it's such a learning exchange of getting to experience different cultures, different ways of operating the different kinds of work. And so in addition to the work that I do, the fulfillment I get from coaching and collaborating with somebody doing direct HR support or helping with operations, I get that fulfillment from other interactions and learning about different cultures and styles.
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that idea of a learning exchange. Cause I, I definitely feel like that when I'm working with clients that it's a partnership and I may be walking them through a similar process that I've walked another group through, but their issues, their team, the personalities, the issue that they're working on, what's going on inside the organization, all of that is new. So I'm always learning and, and I just appreciate that. It just keeps everything really interesting. It does. So, as you mentioned, a lot of your work with organizations revolves around operations, which isn't always the most sexy or exciting thing, or the thing that people actually associate with nonprofit work, but it really is so critical for organizations. In order to achieve their mission. What would you say are some of the benefits of actually investing some time on your, on the organization's operations?
Bobbi: I think one of the biggest benefits is running your nonprofit. Like a business and nonprofits are unique. We have we're mission focused and, and are working for the greater good and investing in that infrastructure. Always save time. We'll save time later. So I like to share with clients, they don't like to have too much process, too much structure. Have a little bit it's, it's good for employee morale because people like to be able to refer to things, to have a good sense of how things are done. It doesn't have to be a 95 page handbook, but some guidelines for how things work. So there's that investment for the organization and saving time and the investment in your team for retention purposes of giving them some structure. So they know what to expect and what they can look for in the future. For me, that's one of the biggest ones, the financial and.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting that you mentioned employee morale because I was working with an organization recently on strategic planning and, and it was an organization that had started with one person and the founder. Who's just very visionary and doesn't need a lot of structure or she has all the processes cause she built them all. And as she's built her team, there was this need to actually get clear about what each person was doing. Get clear about, what is the step-by-step for this process or that process. And, and I think because it wasn't a need for her. She didn't necessarily see it. But once folks said, this is what we need, they were able to identify who in the team is actually good at this stuff and can get us where we need to go in terms of building those structures so that people know where their lane is and how they can contribute.
Bobbi: Even for those folks who liked them who liked the freer form structure, you can have that in other ways in your work, but don't when it comes to how you structure positions and responsibilities and how people are responsible and accountable for their time, all of these different aspects, it, it gives people a sense of, of some structure and it, it is really helpful for morale.
Carol: And a lot of your work really involves how organizations work with, as you're with teams, with your people, recruiting, managing their HR processes, and certainly with the pandemic. And we're recording this right in May of 2021, so things are starting to shift perhaps, or people are starting to think about a shift away from remote work, but a lot of organizations had to make that shift really quickly. They may not have had practices or policies around telecommuting or remote work. What would you say has where, where have you seen organizations do a good job of, of that and helped their team really thrive in that remote work environment?
Bobbi: There were a couple of things. One of the biggest ones was understanding that each person was having. A different experience in this pandemic from an emote, a personal, emotional perspective, and then their own home family situation, whatever that might be. And you started to see folks who were in a shared apartment and there was only one room with good internet and they were taking turns using that room to be on meetings. And, and then also of course, families with kids and balancing all of that. So really understanding what people's limitations were, and how can the organization still get done? What they needed to get done while supporting whatever those limitations were. And then similar to what we were talking about with operational processes is coming up with some level of guidelines for staff, because it didn't work from what I saw, when organizations said do the best that you can. People were looking for a little bit more than that. So it was even if it was around. Hours or how they communicated about their schedule, but providing some guidelines of what the organization is expecting during this time, what flexibility there is when people should plan on using pay time off versus this is flexible and you can just balance out your schedule. So really providing those kinds of guidelines and then. A third thing is keeping up with the personal aspects that you don't get when you're over video or over phone and being intentional about making human connections and with the pandemic. We also had a lot of unrest happening in the country, along with that. And that also was impacting people. So making space to talk about those things or not talk about them if people didn't want to, but at least acknowledging it was happening and people could be having experiences around those things and wanting to create open lines of communication.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's, I mean, all those differences always have been there in terms of how different people were experiencing the workplace and their work and the team. But certainly, this past year has just amplified that in the same way that it's amplified so many other things as you're talking about. And Yeah, I think, I've heard a lot of people talk about while you, it's so hard to have the human connection or those, those accidental, you bump into someone things that happened naturally in offices when you're all there together. And it's, and that's certainly true. And at the same time, I think there's something. That this experience of having to work remotely gives a gift to organizations when they can start to think about how to build that in more intentionally and for everyone, because I feel like maybe it happened for some people accidentally just serendipitously, but it may not have, it may not have actually been the experience for everybody in the office, but people assumed that it was because everybody was together.
Bobbi: That's a great point. Yes. And even just thinking about how some people really love face to face interaction and like being on zoom or some other type of video chat where other folks need a break from that. And seeing organizations give people the space for that. If you're not required to be on video, let people know I'm going to take a break. I've had back to back video calls all day and just giving people space to do. The advocate for what worked for them, so they can be bringing their best. And that works for the individuals and for the organization.
Carol: And as organizations think about shifting back Or shifting towards some new, new version of working whether it's a hundred percent remote or everybody back in the office or somewhere in between, what are you, how are you seeing organizations start to think about that transition?
Bobbi: People are starting to talk about it. Now there's a lot of information gathering and I'm hearing a lot of eyeing. September is the return to physical offices. If they exist, even if it's in some sort of hybrid way, but gathering information from staff, what is your life going to look like? What is your comfort level? Without disclosing specifics. Do you have health concerns about potentially returning to the office, all of these different factors of gathering the information and then coming up with really clear guidelines. This is what we're expecting. This is when we'll be phasing things in when we might resume travel, and just giving staff really clear guidelines about what could be coming and making sure there's good communication. There's also an aspect of. Not just to be preparing physically to come back to the office, but mental preparation from all of this time that we've been at home and in a different space where some people have been sick and lost family members and friends and people have been through all types of experiences during this time and thinking of ways to make space. Or coming back together, coming up with maybe some mental health support system within the organization, making sure people are aware of what their benefits are related to that through insurance and other services. A lot of times insurance packages like life insurance and short-term disability have those employee assistance programs as well. And making sure employees know what's available to them, how they can get help, who they can talk to and making it a safe place. If people are having a challenge coming back and really struggling.
Carol: And, and I mean, most nonprofits are relatively small and oftentimes don't necessarily have a dedicated HR person. How can, how can those small organizations work towards building some of those systems?
Bobbi: I say, just relying on insurance providers and brokers, depending on how their policies are set up. Those individuals very often have all the information about what those programs are. Probably have flyers template, emails, things like that that can easily be sent out. That wouldn't create a lot of labor burden on the smaller organizations. There is also a significant amount of information and data out there and blogs and websites. Providing samples of how template, emails, or examples of how people can create programs for coming back online and providing information for staff. So there's some light touch options that can really be helpful for small teams.
Carol: Yeah, and I, I really appreciate your point about prepping, not just the logistics of, where are we going to put desks and what's the cleaning procedure going to be, and, all of those kinds of things, but also that mental preparation or. Even just starting to, maybe it's not even preparation. Maybe it's just acknowledging that it's going to be weird and awkward for a little while. People aren't used to being together and, are you going to, is it okay to, are you, how are you going to greet? Are you going to shake someone's hand? Are you going to bump their elbow? Are you gonna, how do we do these meetings? Are we all gonna sit in the conference room? Like we used to, or be a part and then to try to think about how to manage a hybrid situation, I think is just much more challenging. I mean, I managed that before the pandemic. I worked in an organization where I had remote staff, but it was so out of the ordinary that it was very hard to get folks who are. At the central location to remember that, a remote staff person was involved in the meeting. So when I, when I could have influence on the meeting set up, I would make sure that we use the video and had them up on screen so that people actually remembered they were there. Instead of just being on a conference call, they might, they might as well not have been at the meeting.
Bobbi: Right. Yes. And there's also that technology aspect. Can you bring that up when going back into the office? There's still going to be a distributed team structure and thinking through how systems will continue to support the work and the humans doing the work.
Carol: So many organizations, some hiring or onboarding on pause thinking, well, well, let's just wait this out. And, but, as it's gone on longer, organizations have had to bring people on while they're working remotely. What have you seen work well in terms of hiring folks during this period, and then, then that onboarding process.
Bobbi: Interesting because the way that I approach hiring hasn't changed significantly from before, except that certain phases of interview processes are over video right now, rather than in person. I think the best thing any organization can do is really think through clearly, what are the competencies that we're looking for in somebody, those skills and, and that level of experience, what are the things we must have? What are the things that are nice to have and coming up with a clear, readable, digestible job description. That's fair. And, and isn't a wishlist, but it's more the actual job. And I really like a process that supports each candidate who is invited for various stages of interviews to get to know the culture of the organization and, and investing time upfront. I like to do phone interviews as a first round, not over video, but just over the phone, have a conversation without worrying about cameras and invest about an hour in those, and really get to know candidates’ resumes. You understand that they've got the qualifications that we're looking for based on work experience, but let's get to know them as individuals and understand the stories that have helped them get to where they are. So I like that upfront investment. I think it always returns better. Pool of candidates and then investing in an equitable process where you have the same hiring panel. If there's a panel style interview and the second phase of interview and making it really clear to candidates, what they can expect and what the timeline is. So the biggest challenge of. Hiring right now is if you can not meet somebody in person, a lot of people rely on that to make a final decision about a candidate. Are they going to work with our culture? They've got the right skill set, and we think they're going to succeed in this role, but will they fit in with our team? And so I'm seeing some meet and greet style interviews getting added in. Maybe it's a handful of staff members they're not interviewing, but it's, let's get together and get to know each other, almost like a virtual coffee as a way of getting to know candidates and have a more that more social feel. So that's one thing that I'm seeing that's different. Otherwise I'm just not seeing, I haven't seen a new trend to something that's brand new and hiring that really wasn't there before.
Carol: Well, that's, I really appreciate that. You say that actually it hasn't changed a huge amount and what's important. Hasn't necessarily changed. going to what you've said at the very beginning, just taking the time to identify what the competencies are. In the role what's actually needed. What's a must have, and what's nice to have right. Cause I've certainly seen so many job descriptions where there's such a wishlist that I'm like, even the superheroes and the Avengers couldn't do this job and we, what are they thinking? So what are some of the steps that organizations can take and teams can take to, to really identify what those competencies are.
Bobbi: A lot of conversation and there are two, I guess there are two paths. If it's an existing role and someone is moving on and they're replacing a team member taking a good look at the original job description, did that work well? Was it realistic? Does it really cover what this person did and how can we adjust it to fit what we're really needing thinking through what are the outcomes? What does success look like in three months, six months, a year into that position. And I think that's what can really help identify those competencies. And I also think keeping that to six to eight competencies is. Efficient. If you try to go above and beyond that, we get back more to that Avengers style person who maybe doesn't exist, of having everything on that list. So keeping it realistic and coming up with definitions for those competencies, there are existing. Definitions out there, but coming up with ones that are meaningful to the organization, what does being a clear communicator look like to us at this particular organization? What does being a superior relationship builder look like to us? And being able to convey that into questions that you ask the candidates is an important part too.
Carol: Can you say more about how you link up those two things?
Bobbi: Let's say that relationship building is one of the competencies and you define what that means coming up with some questions that 's an X asking for a specific story about how somebody built a relationship, maybe with someone that the organization was struggling with, maybe it's a funder. Maybe it's a relationship that needs to change because the person who was managing that relationship before was struggling with it, or wasn't being very successful. So asking for examples of that and the outcomes, and, and also trying to understand what somebody might do differently in a situation. So I like scenario based questions for understanding, really trying to get at. Where are they within this, within that competency in terms of their expertise
Carol: And how have you seen organizations be able to convey what their, what their culture is because, too often, I've, I've. Ask that question when I've been in the interview process and people are like, well, you'll know it. When you see it, I'm like, well, that's not helpful. Can you say a little bit more?
Bobbi: Yes. If the organization doesn't have an existing statement about their culture, that might be in the handbook. I like to start with talking about them. What's your compensation philosophy, because I think a lot of things trickle out from that. What's important to you as an organization. How do you define salaries? How do you determine what additional benefits you'll add into the package and what amount are you contributing to that? I think that can set a tone also talking through what our expectations are around let's say things like dress code. If those things still exist, some organizations still do have them or still have expectations for external facing events. Making that super clear that really can help you understand how as well, my disorganization B or how maybe stiff might this organization be and where might a person fit in along there? I think asking when, when I want to understand the culture, what type of social events do you have? How do you get to know your new staff members? When they come on board, do you have celebrations for birthdays or work anniversaries? So trying to understand how they invest also in staff, after they've come on board, do they do 90 day? Check-ins: what are their performance evaluations? Like? All of that feeds into what the culture is. So I ask a ton of questions.
Carol: That's great and about really specific things. Right. So it's not just generally describing your culture to me, but describing this piece and this piece of this piece and from all of it, I can really get a picture of what that adds up to. So, yeah. What would you recommend to clients in terms of successfully onboarding, onboarding new hires, especially now, again, with us being in this remote work environment,
Bobbi: Depending on the size of the organization, figuring out what's the checklist: who will do what, what do we want our first interaction with our newest team member to look like after they've accepted the offer. And I would say communicating more than you might, if the person we're going to be showing up in in-person and making sure they understand this is what your orientation looks like. By the end of week two, we expect you'll have. Had exposure to all of our systems. You may not know them exactly in and out yet, but you'll have gone through this checklist of learning, to use these tools and making it super clear how, what systems they need to have set up at home, how equipment will get to them.
If they have any home office expenses, which I'm seeing, many organizations get an extra reimbursement for that for internet and home costs. And having a plan, making sure that person's supervisor, if that's, if that's relevant is having personal check-ins with them. And that there's a process for that person getting to know the organization and their job, and what's expected of them and really trying to incorporate them as much as possible. So it could be different depending on each organization. What, how many systems and tools they have or how many staff they have on board. And it's a really important thing I think, to have. Touch points with each staff member as well for any new person, not just to a staff meeting, but maybe just 15 minute quick coffees with people or a quick slack video to say hi so that people get connected personally to the rest of the team.
Carol: And I could imagine going through a process of trying to figure out what all those things are and creating that checklist could actually be useful for people who've been on staff for a while. Like what are all the systems that we're using and how do they interact with each other? How does each person see their role and how it connects? I could see that being a really fruitful conversation, regardless of an onboarding process
Bobbi: That’s a great point. And a lot of times organizations will have resources that they launch. And maybe because there isn't a point person reminding staff that they have access to it, it's really when new staff come on board, that they're reminded, oh yes, we have this great shared Kindle library with 50 books in it that would help anybody who's interested in learning about various professional skills development. And I do think that's a great idea. If the organizations for arts, a great benefit, rather than staff existing staff, to see those resources if the organization is big enough, there might be an opportunity for individual staff members to be the champion of certain pieces. There's a, maybe a tools person and maybe this is how we do our staff meetings. Let me introduce you to that. And, having people be the. The go-to person and having that list be shared with the original, with a staff member, excuse me, joining the team. Here's who to go to for what? And To get a really good orientation to the organization.
Carol: Well, the idea of splitting it up and having it not be just a siloed experience, so that only, not, not only distributes the, the, the process of either putting that together or implementing it, but it also, with each person that's that champion, the new person gets, starts to build a relationship with them as well.
Bobbi: Yes. I think for individual staff members throughout the opportunity to take the lead on things like that, too, it's an investment opportunity for them as well. They get to show off their knowledge of the organization and take the lead on something. So it's a great, I think retention opportunity as well.
Carol: So on each episode, I like to play a game by asking one random icebreaker question. And since we mentioned the Avengers if you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why
Bobbi: I think I would choose the power of invisibility. I really liked to observe, and I liked the idea of being able to observe without being noticed and being able to use that for good, maybe. Interject if I need to, or take information back to somebody else reported. I don't know, but I like that idea. And also being able to disappear quickly if needed
Carol: I love it. I love it. Yeah. I've often thought, well, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall and that means they didn't see what really happened versus the report out afterwards. So that's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Bobbi: Got a couple of really fun projects coming up.
One is. It's fun because it's collaborating with a friend who, with her firm I'm going to support a project on hiring a new team member for one of their non-profit clients. And so just getting to know their process and bringing, merging our processes and plus getting together. I'm excited about that for one of my longer term clients we're working on job trajectories. They've been growing as an organization and. Haven't had an exact map. How do you grow at this organization? What does it take to get a promotion? What does that look like? So we're working on those trajectories and salary bands and making that all transparent within the organization, a growth path. And then the other is expanding voluntary benefits for one of my clients. And thinking about what are the host of things that staff might like to have access to. It's not something the organization’s necessarily paying for, but they'll pay for the administration of those benefits. And we often have. Life insurance that you can add onto accidents, things related to health. They're also financial planning, types of services, health, and wellness, and even things like pet insurance to make available with your people. If you're maybe getting a better deal because you're working with one provider. So I'm excited about expanding those offerings.
Carol: That's awesome. I love the idea of the growth trajectory, because I think so often in the sector, certainly if I look back at my career, most of the ways in which I grew, I ended up always having to hop to a new organization. And, there wasn't a clear path. Within the organization to, to, build on what I already had, had done and, and build on the work. So that's, that's really cool to start being a little more intentional about that.
Bobbi: I think so too. And not everybody wants to move up and be a supervisor for other people. They maybe are expanding their skills and can take on. More advanced work as they grow, but maybe that's not for them. And if it's possible to create those types of positions, make that clear, this can exist. And that's what it looks like. And that might impact pay scale, I'm not sure, but it could, but just making that super clear to staff, I think a lot of times people might not ask those questions. Do I have to be promoted and become a supervisor? And these organizations end up losing great folks because they haven't had that conversation.
Carol: Right. I mean, some people that they don't necessarily want to move up in, in that moving to a supervisory role, they really just want to go deeper and deeper into what they're, what they're doing as an individual contributor. So that's a great point. Well, thank you so much. It's been great having this conversation.
Bobbi: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you inviting me. It's been fun.
Carol: All right.
I appreciated how Bobbi described her process for hiring and how in many ways it has not changed a lot even in the past year beyond final interviews being via video instead of in person. Her process starts with defining the competencies needed for the role. And she nudges organizations to not create the wish list job description that essentially describes a super human. That first step of getting clear about what is actually really essential with a job. This could include questioning whether the qualifications you have required in the past are really needed – i.e. does the person really need a college degree to do this job? Or a Masters? What is essential and what is nice to have. And being consistent across interviews to aim for a more equitable process.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
In episode 23 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Engel discussed include:
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting. For more than twenty years, Elizabeth has helped associations grow in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, and garden.
Important Guest Links:
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. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
My guest today is Elizabeth Weaver Engel. Elizabeth is Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting where she helps associations grow. Elizabeth periodically writes white papers on topics of interest to association staff and board members. These white papers go in depth and provide interesting and actionable insights on the topics she explores. On this episode, Elizabeth and I delve into the topic of digital transformation, the focus of her upcoming white paper that she co-wrote with Maddie Grant. In our conversation we explore what digital transformation is and why it is important to associations. We also talk about some of the key differences between associations and for profit companies that most of the literature to date about digital transformation has focused on and the implications of those differences.
Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast today.
Elizabeth Engel: Thank you so much, Caroline. We're very happy to be here. So
Carol: I'd like to start out with the question. What, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you or what's your, why?
Elizabeth: You mean, like in the, in the largest sense of why, why do I work in associations? You're why am I in the nonprofit space? It goes back to when I was in graduate school. So initially I'd gone to graduate school at the University of Virginia. I was studying political theory. I was intending to be a professor of political theory. That's not really a job that exists anymore. Even back then that did that job didn't really exist anymore. Even 25 years. And so, when I, when I decided to bail out of the PhD program and do the terminal masters and I was graduating, and then I was like, okay, well now what and we were living in Charlottesville, which is lovely, but small lot of overeducated people running around there who don't want to leave. I was one of them And so I started looking for work in DC, the first interviews, God we're with for-profit companies. And I realized pretty quickly that I just could not bring myself to care about making the widget 5 cents cheaper than the other guy and selling it for 5 cents. More like I just. Did not care about that. And so I thought, okay, well, clearly non-profit industry is, is for me. And I started applying only for nonprofit jobs. Got my first job. I was applying both in sort of fundraising calls, oriented organizations and associations, got my first job working in an association, my first capital R capital J Real Job and never looked back.
Carol: It's so funny that you talked about being a professor and I sounds like you got a little further along that path than I did, but that was definitely my idea in college that I would be a history professor, but then I was working on my my final project not a dissertation, cause it was just a BA I don't know the big paper that I had to write at the end of my, at end of end of my degree. And I was doing some research in the library, in the big central library in Philadelphia. And reading these old magazines ‘cause I was doing a project on basically how women were being told how to be mothers advice to mothers at the turn of the century Germany. So I was reading women's magazines from the turn of the century Germany. I realized that I was, I had a mad dust allergy. So I was like, clearly my life's work needs to not be in archives. That's going to be a real problem. Yes. Yes. So, so being a professor, being a history professor was not, not going to be what I was going to be doing. So I had to figure it, figure out something else. And I did. My first job was with a for-profit company and it was When I helped out w w when, when, of course it was all clients, all comers, we were helping people get on talk shows and it was after that, there was like, no, if I'm going to be promoting things, if I'm going to be publicizing, if I'm going to be moving some cause forward, you know I want to have it be something that I believe in. So that's when I made the shift to the nonprofit sector. Yeah. Yeah. So one of the things that I really appreciate about your work is your generosity in creating free, very substantive, white papers on a variety of topics. And, and you've, I think maybe it's going back to that drive to research that originally would've been, would have been in that professor realm. ‘Cause you really go all over the place and, and, and dive into a lot of different topics. And I think actually, It's where we originally met because you did an interview with me as a per case study for one of your white papers.
Elizabeth: Yeah. When you were at NAFSA.
Carol: Yes. Yeah. So around design thinking, lean start up. Yeah. So, so how did you get started doing those?
Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. So that was yes, you are correct. This definitely relates to my interest in research and writing. And there's a range of length, I guess, Israeli types of writing, everything from tweets, obviously, of course, all the way up to books and the length that I always liked was the extended essay. Something that falls into that 25 to 40 page range where you can, you can really have an idea and develop it, but you haven't committed yourself to a 400 page book. And so when I was first launching star back in 2012 I was part consulting. One of the things that I was, I was thinking about is, okay, well I'm going to need to do stuff. To get my name out there. And, and I had already started doing some of that in the association world prior to launching the business. I had been really involved in training people for the certified association executive exam through ASAE. For like the period from right after I earned it myself 2004 through 2010, I was super involved with that and that got me started on the speaking track for ASAE and I, and I had had, and other associations and I, and I had had employers who were supportive of that. Even while I was, I was still an association executive working directly for associations myself and had been doing it association blog for a number of years at that point. And, and that was all great. Like I was enjoying all that planning to continue all of that and whatnot. But I was looking for something a little bit more substantive, I guess, or a little bit more something that has, has a longer shelf life, I guess that's, that's the best way to put it, right? Because if you're speaking at a conference, well, that's great for the people who go to the conference, but what about everybody else? Right. and, and blog posts tend to be somewhat ephemeral. So I was looking for something that would have a little bit more, more staying power to it. So it was a fall of 2012 and I got contacted by a state society to come and speak at their conference. And so we're talking about potential topics that I could cover. and did they want something that was sort of more, personal story inspirational or did they want them to be, it was a little bit more research-based and they, they said, all we know are, are. Opening keynote is going to be a little bit more of that personal story. So like, let's go with something a little bit more. Research-based we're bouncing some ideas around and I was like, well, look, what, what about this, this concept of information overload and, and content curation, and this is something that we're all dealing with. Both personally for ourselves and also as association professionals, trying to deal with our members and others audiences, you know? So what if I dive into that and look into that a little bit more and then, and then make the case for associations to begin focusing less on content creation and more on content duration. They're like, Oh yeah, that sounds, that sounds really interesting. So that ended up being the first white paper and I revisited that topic for the white paper that I turned out last year. Because so much had changed in the intervening eight years with regards to both the volume of information that we're dealing with, and also the association environment for doing content curation. But people are still interested in the topics. So I was like, Hm, I really need some updated information here and ended up revisiting that. But anyway so I, I went ahead and created that white paper for the event. And I, I will say I. Bombed at the safe society event. I have never bombed at a speaking gig like that before or since. But we did learn a very valuable lesson, which was that their audience really preferred, inspirational personal stories. But the thing that I took away from that other than, than, quizzing my, my potential. Speaking employers a little bit more closely about their audiences of what they really wanted was, Hey, this white paper thing is a pretty interesting idea. And I think this might be my thing, my thing that I'm going to create, that is that more lasting longer shelf life way of contributing to the body of knowledge and the association industry, which turned out to be the case.
Carol: Yeah. And now you have a, Oh, I'm going to have to wait a second. That changed something on one of the recordings and it started to give an echo. Yeah. So now you have quite the body of work yourself in terms of all of those white papers. And the one that you're currently working on is focusing on digital transformation. Could you say a little bit about what this is and why it's important to organizations.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you mentioned, there's now a pretty significant library. This is number 13, which I think is lucky. Yeah. And so, the, the topic, and, and as you mentioned earlier, it's across a really wide variety of topics. Because I basically look for something that, a major trend or something like that, that I think is either impacting or is about to impact the association industry, where I. I think that we're either not really paying attention to it the way we need to, or, or like with the blockchain white paper, it's something that's really nascent. When I have an opportunity to educate people about this or it's something where the existing literature and advice that's out there. Is maybe missing something and that's very much what was going on with taking on digital transformation. Digital transformation is not a new topic. This is something that organizations have been working on for at least six or eight years, in, in most cases. And so of course that, that immediately begs the question. Well then why, why bother right about this? Right? This is one of those cases where. In my view, the existing literature and advice and case studies and all that stuff that are out there about digital transformation or are missing something fundamental about associations. And that's actually part of the reason why I wanted to work with Maddie grant for this particular white paper. So, as you know pretty much all of my white papers. I worked with a co-author, we look to feature other experts in interviews within the white papers. We do case studies of organizations that are doing work in that area, et cetera. But, I matched my coauthor to my topic. And so, the thing that. Associations have not that that no one's been paying attention to for associations or writing about for associations is the issue of culture change with regards to digital transformation. So there's, one of Maddy's favorite sayings is digital transformation is culture change plus vendor selection. And the technology of culture change is, or of, of digital transformation is very important, obviously. But we do tend to have a little bit of shiny object syndrome and get very focused on the tech pieces of this. And, and we don't think enough about the culture change that's required in order to actually be a digitally transformed organization. And that's where the problem is for associations. The majority of the work. That is ecstatic about digital transformation from a for-profit perspective. That's why they miss that associations are unique. Our cultures are unique, are our relationships with our I'm making air quotes here. So people in the podcast onesies, but our, our customers are very different. A member of an association is not the same as a member of Costco. And all of the digital transformation work that's out there is about how do you deal with a member of Costco, not how do you deal with a member of an association? And so Maddie and I saw a real opportunity to say, okay, look, there's, there's good stuff out there about, you know the tech piece of this. And we do summarize a little bit of that in the white paper. There's good stuff out there about the techniques of this. Let's talk about what makes association culture unique. And then some of the kinds of things that you need to think about as an association executive in dealing with culture change in order to do that digital transformation to truly become a transformed organization, to one of the One of the, the experts that we spoke with for the white paper is a guy named Martin mocker, who a lot of association folks are familiar with the work of Dr. Jeannie Ross because she's been a speaker at some association tech conferences. But they write about digital transformation and the distinction that they make. And, and this is where the transformation piece happens. Is between being digitized and being digital and being digitized is the piece where, you're, you're grabbing all those shiny objects and you're doing exactly what you've always done, just using technology. So it's better in some way. And it tends to start with an internal focus. Like we're going to fix our internal processes and start. doing more, less stuff, analog and more stuff, digital internally. And then it works its way out into customer facing stuff. I remember facing stuff. But if you, if you want to be able to make the leap from getting some cool tech, let's do some stuff in a digital way that we used to do in an analog way versus. Becoming a transformed organization. It's, it's that leap to going digital that you have to make. That's where the culture piece comes in.
Carol: Well, you packed a lot in there. So I wanted to dial back to a couple of different things you talked about. Well, one was interesting and I'd love for you to unpack a little bit more about what you see as those unique aspects of an association and what makes them different from for-profit organizations.
Elizabeth: Sure and for folks who've been in associations for a number of years, this is all going to sound familiar, but it starts at the top. Right? Our relationships to our boards of directors are very different, first of all, plenty of for-profits are privately owned even though even those that are publicly traded that have a board of directors, their boards are very different than our boards. It's a very different relationship. And the board of directors of an association is much more directly the boss of the CEO or ED and the staff than happens in a for-profit company. So, it begins right at the top. The other thing is our, our, again - air quotes for the podcast folks. Our customers are members. They own the organization. If you're a quote unquote “member of Costco,” you don't have an ownership stake in Costco. Right. if you're, if you're an Amazon prime member, you don't have an ownership stake at Amazon, right? You truly, they're calling it a membership and that's all very lovely and it implies relationship, but you're a customer. And, and this is not to say that associations don't have customers. We absolutely do. But the membership relationship is what makes associations unique. And so, all of them. All of those pieces of the role of the board, the board to the CEO, executive director, the board of the staff, the members, how they relate as owners of the organization, all of this gives them a very different stake in decisions that the organization makes. And it also complicates the culture change picture because you have people who are not staff, but have a much greater investment than somebody who's. Stopping by your store to buy a book or whatever is in the organization. And so, that all has to be taken into account. When you're talking about intentionally designing your culture and then intentionally creating culture change.
Carol: Yeah. A couple of things come to mind there. You mentioned that you had interviewed me as part of that case study when I was at NAFSA and that's an association that's. Serves the international educator field. But what was, what was really interesting about that group? And I worked for a number of different organizations, different associations, and I'd never seen this before NAFSA. I don't know if it's still true today, but at least that the generation of members that I was working with would call themselves NAFSAs. And absence, like they've made a country they've made an identity about being part of that organization. So that sense of identifying with the organization, being part of it, being, seeing it, as I'm a member, I am part of this community. It is integral to how I think about my work. And I have some ownership stake in it. Even though I don't know that a lot of folks necessarily. Thought about it exactly that way. But they also, but in many ways they acted that way. They acted that they had that relationship. So, yeah. So super interesting about how, it can just, it's not just sending a check to get a membership, to get a magazine, when it, when it's, when it, well, honestly, when it's done well, right. When, when there really is that sense of identity and not just being a consumer.
Elizabeth: The reason that people associate is because they're trying to accomplish something that they have found either extremely difficult or impossible to associate on their own. So they're gathering with other people with similar interests. Well the very nature of trying to do that means that this has gotta be a long-term commitment, maybe not the rest of your life, but certainly, longer than making a consumer type purchase. And exactly as you, as you just express that can over time. Maybe not for everybody, but certainly for some people it becomes a part of your identity.
Carol: Yeah. And I also, what you were talking about made me think about just really any tech related project where you're trying to bring in something new, have people maybe use a tool, a new tool that will help them do the, hopefully, Obviously the idea usually is to help people do their job easier, better make things better for members for, for constituents. And at the same time folks get very focused on the technology. You get very focused on what are the features that we want, are we picking the right. The right vendor, are we picking the right software to do this job for getting that really what's way more important is after that decision is made, how are you helping people actually learn how to use the thing and integrated into how they're doing their work and, and accepted, adopted. And so it's not just this, shiny object you bought it. And then it's like, okay, now it's gathering dust. Well,
Elizabeth: and, it's, it's funny that you would use that example because that is a further illustration of the difference between a consumer relationship and a membership relationship. Right. if you think about it again, just as a sort of a regular person, your own experience, whatever, whatever vendor you like, that you, that you go to online regularly, they make a bunch of changes to their website and you're like, ah, I gotta figure out how to do the thing again. Like whatever thing it is you go to them to do. Like, I gotta figure out the thing again. Okay. Whatever association, I know that if we make significant changes to our websites and our members don't know, I like them, they're just gonna kinda shrug and be like, Oh, well I just have to, I have to figure out how to find the thing that I normally do here and whatever, it'll be fine. You know? My favorite example for that is like every time my, the, the airline that I usually fly that has where I have on my frequent flyer stuff. Like they make changes. I'm like, ah, crap. Okay. I'll figure it out. It's fine. Right. I don't call them up and chew them out on the phone. If I don't like it. If you do something like that for your members. They absolutely feel like they own the organization and they will call you up or email you and tell you what they think. Right. Because it's not just, Oh, the powers that be on high have done this. And I, the poor consumer, have no power in this situation. That's not it at all. Right. I'm a member. I'm a part owner of this organization. I have a say.
Carol: Yeah. And one of the things you talked about was the difference between being digitized and digital. Can you, can you say a little bit more again about what, what you see as the difference between those two and why that's important?
Elizabeth: Sure. And for people who really want to dig into this, I would definitely recommend that they check out the book. So I am getting the title of it right now. It is designed for digital, how to architect your business for sustained success. So that's by Dr. Jeanne Ross Cynthia and Martin Mocker who's the guy that we interviewed for the white paper
Carol: We’ll put links, we'll put links to that and the paper.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So the, the, the difference is going, B becoming digitized has to do with I'm taking analog functions. And I am now doing the exact same analog functions I was doing before only now I'm using technology to do them. So a great example of this is where I first started my career in association management. It was the mid nineties and we were doing all of our membership join and renew. Everything was entirely analog. Paper form, mail it in with your check to the lock box, the bank, kind of, deal. And yeah, mid nineties, right. That's pretty typical. We worked at associations and were sort of just venturing onto the web. We did have a website. It was your typical mid nineties. Brochureware so our, I arrive on the scene and I'm like, Hmm, I'll bet. Our members would like to be able to join and renew online. Well, let me, let me set up a test of this speaking of lean startup methodology, right. I just threw up a form that dumped all the information to an email. Yes. As a matter of fact, I was dumping unencrypted credit card numbers across the internet into an email that we then had to. Process, like we would print them out to the mall, to the lockbox for processing on the back end. So it was still a little analog there. But from the front end, from the, from the member's perspective, it looks quick digital. And so, that was, that was my, my test to say, Hey, like, nobody has this as a built-in feature of their association management system yet let's find out if it's worth building it. And in fact, it was like our, our members were very much people who wanted to be able to do this online. Then we had data. We were like, yes, we will pay to go ahead and build this because it's going to be worthwhile. But my point is that it’s becoming digitized. Right? We were, we had this analog membership program. We, now you can join and renew online, but it was, it's still the exact same membership. Like we weren't changing anything about the membership. We were just saying, Oh, well, instead of. Mailing in your form with your check to the lockbox, which by the way, you can still do if you want to do this online with your credit card and be fancy and fast, we can, we can do that. Right. That's becoming digitized, becoming digital, has to do with a mind shift. it’s actually the construction specifications Institute story from the, from the the white paper, their, their crosswalk platform illustrates this pretty well. It's about shifting your mindset to say no. What we are going to do is we are going to think differently about our members and our other audiences about how we interact with them, about how they want to interact with each other, being aware of what the technology enables at this point to create entirely new ways. Entirely new programs, products, and services, entirely new ways of building networks and relationships, entirely new ways of creating knowledge, entirely new ways of organizing ourselves, entirely new ways of creating group action that are digital from the start. That to me, that's the transformation bit because it, because you have to change your mind about all this stuff. It’s changing business processes as well, and it's changing product development and all that, but, and this gets back to culture, change, change. It's a complete shift in the way you think about things and view the world.
Carol: Yeah. And what I appreciated about that story. And, and if I can, let's see if I get it right. In terms of my summary, they saw a problem that all their members were having. The problem wasn't necessarily an in, in their work. So out, out in their world, not necessarily about how the association works, but how their members were doing work in the world with a whole bunch of other folks who weren't necessarily members of that association, but lots of different other types of professionals that their members had to work with and how they all had their own way of I guess one Version that everyone could relate to would be the multiple times. You have to fill out your medical history at every doctor that you go to. Right? So all of these different people were, were, were managing information, managing inventory in different ways and had different systems, different technology. So they didn't build something to take over all of those things, but they built a bridge. Building those, what are they called? APIs. Yep.
Elizabeth: Advanced Programming interfaces.
Carol: Yep. Right? So that translation to go back and forth between those different systems, which really transformed how people were doing their work in the field.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And, and honestly, I mean, this is something anybody who's ever done, any home renovation project could totally relate to this. Right. like, so construction specifications Institute, this is guidelines the, the things, the regulations that keep large-scale construction processes. And ensure that you have a good result on the end bridge that doesn't fall down a size skyscraper that doesn't collapse, et cetera. Right. And so anybody who, anybody who's ever done a home renovation project knows how this goes, right? You've got your general contractor that you've got a zillion subcontractors, they're all doing different pieces of the project. And they all have their own systems and their own processes and their own ways of doing things and, and all that. And, unless you are a crazy person and decide to act as your own general contractor, that's what your general contractor is doing is managing all of that for you, right? They're not telling the carpenter or the tile guy or the electrician or the plumber or whatever, how to do their job, or what processes they should use. They manage it for you. Well, CSI construction specifications Institute saw the opportunity to do it. Similar thing for large scale construction projects, where there's everybody from architects and engineers to, all, all of the other types of things that you would think about that would be involved in building something like a skyscraper or a tunnel or a bridge or whatever. And they saw an opportunity to create that shared platform for them to be passing information back and forth so that everybody can still use. The systems that make them happy and the programs that they like to use and can still manage the information internally the way they like to. But all of a sudden, we're all sharing it across this, this bridge platform where it cuts down on waste to time, it reduces risk. It cuts down on errors, and, and this has been it's, it's a completely different way of thinking because. Carol as you just articulated, most of those other players are not and will never be CSI members. But this is an opportunity to create something that serves the entire industry vertical soup to nuts.
Carol: What'd you say are some of the either misconceptions or mistakes that associations make when they. think, okay, well we need to, maybe we've started on some digitizing, but we really want to shift more to this larger transformation moving towards the digital process. Yeah.
Elizabeth: The most obvious one is the shiny object syndrome. Right. Like we noticed something going on and so we grab a piece of technology and slap it on there and we're like, we're, we're done. Yay. Go us. Yeah, that's, that's not gonna transform your organization. That's the thing to get you in the trouble that you mentioned earlier. Oh, and we had this great idea and if no one's using it we've, we've slapped some technology technological bandaid on a problem that we noticed and, and so I think that's one of the main challenges that we face is, you've got to think about this in a much more strategic way. One of the things that Maddie and I stress in the white paper is that you don't want to have a strategy for digital or a strategy for mobile or a strategy for social or a strategy for AI or whatever, right? Like you, you have your larger organizational strategy and you're looking for how to do things like mobile and social and web and AI and internet of things and data analytics and all that. Like how do they fit into and contribute to your larger organizational strategy. And so as I always try to do with, with the white papers, the final section of this is very much the, okay. All of this information that you've shared with me was lovely and interesting. And I see what you're thinking here, but like, what do I actually do? And so, and we, we lay it right out in a very clear series of steps. You have to start with assessing where you are, if you don't, if you, if you don't know where you are and where you're trying to go, any path is the right path and the wrong path. And you're going to end up in places that you had no necessary intent of ending up. So you've got it. You've got to know where you are right now, before you can figure out where you're going to go. And some associations when they do that, they're going to discover, what. We've got work to do on digitization. First, one of our other stories, the independent community bankers association was very much what my friend, her boss, who works there discovered when he, when he was hired, like we have to, we have to digitize first. Like there's some internal stuff going on here that we're going to have to fix before we can look to trains. Right. But because he assessed, he knew that. Then you got to move on to things like getting support resources. You need to look for strategic areas where all those digital technologies, social, mobile, mobile, mobile data analytics, all the stuff that I just mentioned could contribute, could help, could help fix things. You're going to have to take a look at what's going on with your legacy processes, because you may find yourself in that. Digitization work to do first before we can go digital. Right. But you need to, you need to take a look at that. Then you're going to have to, in addition to getting some sort of leadership support and financial resources, you're also going to have to assemble your team like Avengers unite, right? Like you've got to have Avengers assemble, right? Like you've got to, you got to get your Avengers together. And this is one of the Association cultural things. It's not just going to be staff. You're also going to need to be recruiting volunteers and rank and file members on to your team. Because that's one of the things that's different about our culture. Then you've got to get into that experimental framework and consider how this is all going to affect your culture and engage in that process of intentional culture change in order to get you to the ends that you, that you envisioned when you did that sort of strategic look and how can these technologies contribute to the organizational strategic goals we're already trying to achieve.
Carol: And one of the things that I think people have been advocating for for a long time in the association space, and then the nonprofit space more generally is really, making having staff and boards volunteers make more data driven, driven decisions rather than, Well, the last member who happened to call you and, and, and, and bend your ear relying on those anecdotes and what are, what are some of the key barriers that you see to really effectively using the data that or organizations actually already have?
Elizabeth: Oh man. How much time do you have, especially the TA. This specifically is the topic of one of my earlier white papers on evidence-based decision-making that I wrote with Peter household from Mariner management. Yeah, this is a challenge, right? Speaking of legacy systems this for associations is, is one of the big ones. And we actually talk about this quite a bit in the white paper, because, Consumer businesses would kill to get the data that we have on our members, because we have obviously, again, not with everybody, but for a significant portion of your membership, you have a very long-term relationship with those people where they've been. Doing all sorts of different stuff with you for years. And they've, and, and this is, this is actually born out in some of the, the other studies that we referenced, the white paper that have been done by community brands. But the other thing is our members are more willing to share their data with us. Austin. They are with most consumer brands because they trust us. And they are particularly willing to share their data with us if we're transparent about how we intend to use it. And it's clear that the reason that we're asking for this is in order to provide them with better service, better programs and products, et cetera. so we've, we've got a treasure trove of data. The problem is, one of the, the technology pieces of, of digital transformation. Is data analytics. And as an industry, we've been lagging on that. Some of that is because we have a lot of legacy systems that were built in, in exclusion of each other. And so they don't talk to each other particularly well. And if you can look at the history of association management, Systems and, for, for a while, there was this trend of, we're going to do everything in the AMS and we're going to build everything that is part of the AMS. Anything you could possibly think of, you might want to do with your members is going to be a module. Right. And we pretty quickly all realized that was a terrible idea. So, people went back to more of a, okay, so, we need to. Run conference registration. So we're gonna, we're going to get a best of breed conference registration system, and we need to run professional development. So we're going to get a best of breed learning management system, and we need to manage the content on our website. So we're going to get a best of breed, every content management system there, and, and realizing that it's, it's better to do it that way than to try to have this one mammoth piece of software that handles everything. But the problem is, those things don't always communicate with each other particularly well. So, back to it, we've got this wonderful treasure trove of data, but none of it's talking to each other and we have, have lacked the capacity to figure out how to make that happen. Now we're seeing even, even when Peter and I wrote the evidence-based decision-making white paper a couple of years ago, we're seeing more of a movement towards. Speaking of a crosswalk type platform, something that's, that's on top of all of those things and they don't have to talk to each other, they all just have to talk to this shared platform, and we're seeing that with everything from, actual business analytics tools to data visualization tools and, and so my, My encouragement to associations would be to keep going on that route, to keep, keep looking at those business information and business analytics tools, get educated about them, just dive in and pick one and find somebody on it. Staff, who's interested in learning about it, and just like, just start going and see what you can do and what you can learn and what insights you can gather. So that's that piece of it. The other piece of it is the questions, right? Because it's all just a big pile of data. If you don't know what it is that you're trying to find out. And so in the midst of finding yourself good data, visualization to want a good business information tool and finding somebody on your staff. Who's interested in learning how to use them and, getting them some training and setting them loose and all that. But like all that stuff is good. Right. You also want to think about what are the questions that we are trying to answer about our members and other audiences and what data do we need. In order to answer those questions. And so one of the things that Peter and I very much argue for in the data-driven decision-making white paper is spend more time on the front end asking better questions, because then back to that whole thing of our members being willing to give us data. If we know why. We want it. You'll have a better question that you're asking. So you'll be asking for more targeted data with a clear, this is why we need it, which means people will be more willing to give it to you. Which means you'll be able to have a better answer to the question because you'll be operating from a fuller picture of what's going on.
Carol: Well, and that all goes back to, strategy from the beginning of thinking about, where, where, where are you right now doing that assessment. And, and maybe you need to go back and do your homework and, and, and do more digitizing, maybe work on your data, silos, those kinds of things. Before you can really shift into transformation. But, really having that assessment of where you are and then working together to figure out what's the vision for where we want to end up.
So I'd like to shift gears a little bit at this point. And I always like to ask, I have a box of random ice - they're not random because they wrote them all, but I randomly picked them out of the box of icebreaker questions and always like to end the podcast with one of those. So, I was about to ask you, if you could write a book, what would it be about? But you told me you didn't want to write a book. So I won't ask you that one. So who in your life inspires you to be better?
Elizabeth: Ooh, that's a good one. So many people and now I'm going to have to pick one. This is good. This is going to be trite, but that's okay. It's, it's probably my spouse. So He, he historically has believed in me way more than I believed in myself. The perfect, the perfect story of that being, when I, when I was first thinking about starting the business, I, at the time I wasn't thinking about starting spark consulting, I was thinking about it was time to move on to a different association job. Yeah. It's not there. Yeah. I got my resume to go on talking to people and meeting with recruiters and submitting resumes and whatnot. And, as I'm starting to tell people in my network, Hey I think it's time for me to move on. The almost immediate response from everyone was, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I was like, Oh no, I was going to go work at another association. And so finally I was meeting a friend of mine who is a recruiter for lunch. And I said, Hey, We're going to move on and she's like, okay, so you're gonna start your own consulting business. Right. And I'm like, you're like the 10th person who's asked me that. Could you please tell me what I'm seeing or what you're seeing about this whole situation that I am missing. And she did, she did. She laid out some really great advice for me and everything. And I was like, Hmm. Okay. I really thought about this a little more seriously when I came home that night. And we had friends over for dinner and, we had a nice dinner and we're cleaning up whatever, and it's like time to go to bed, you know? So as we're getting to bed, I say to him, I'm like yeah, I had lunch with my friends this afternoon. And I'm thinking that maybe I want to start my own business and he looks at me and he's like, I think you'd be great at that. You should totally do that. And it turns off the light and I'm like, this man believes in me. Right. If he, if he believes in me to this level, I need to believe in myself to this level. And that, that level of confidence in me and confidence that I'm going to make the right decision and do the right thing, inspires me to make sure that I do
Carol: Awesome. Well, what's, what's coming up for you next. What are you excited about in your work?
Elizabeth: Getting this white paper launched. So yes, for the, for the, the listeners of the pod it is going to be coming out right around June 1st. So we're, we're very excited about that. And then Carol, as you mentioned, it's freely available you don't even end up on a mailing list. I mean, you can just have it, like, I don't, I don't collect your data or anything like that. You can, you can just have it. So definitely getting, getting that launched and also watching the association industry begin sort of poking our heads out post pandemic. This is no great secret, but for a lot of small consultants 2020 was a pretty rough year because associations very much went into hunker down and try not to panic mode. So for a lot of us. 2020 was a little challenging. Totally understandable. Right, when an association doesn't know what's going to be happening and they may even be having lay off staff, they're not looking to be hiring outside help. But I'm, I'm watching again, more associations start poking their heads out, Looker, looking around and start thinking about, okay, we're, we're moving into whatever the post pandemic is going to look like. And now thinking about some of this stuff that we just, for a year, like, We just we're in survival mode here, man. We can't think about any of these things. So yeah, I'm just, I'm looking forward to, to all of that. And seeing where we go as an industry because and this is, this is something we talk about in one of the other case studies in the white paper associations had to make a lot of changes, really fast. And that we, some of them were good choices and good changes, and some of them were less so, right. Like we did not have the luxury of sitting around and assessing everything and, like we had to move right now. And so I'm also really interested to see. See kind of, what's going to stick and what's not going to stick. I'm very curious about that. Yeah, so I'm, I'm eager to see how that all plays out too.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's going to be, I think that's what a lot of people are thinking about right now. And I'm asking the question of kind of, well, we, we, we suddenly, well, one, we suddenly enacted changes that perhaps a few people had been talking about for years and we'd been ignoring them and then overnight we had to do them But then, what do we want to keep? What helps us in terms of maybe being more efficient including more people. But then where is it really important? basically like working remotely or, and doing virtual events. No, where is it really important for people to be in the room together? And, my one wish if, if, if this can happen, it will be just amazing that people start being much more intentional about why are we getting all these people on a train, plane, automobile to come together and be together? And then the answer should not be to sit and listen to a lecture that they could have watched at home since that's what we've done for the past year. That could be the change that comes out of this for organizing patients and their, their convenience and meanings. I would be very excited.
Elizabeth: Yep. Three things related to that. Right? Number one, the whole thing of, anytime you're having a meeting, look around the table, think about how much each of those people is paid per hour and how long you got from there. And that is the actual cost of that meeting. Right. And we don't think about that enough, this flight-shaming becoming a thing. Right. We have to think about the climate impact of our travel, nowadays, I mean, that's, that's very much, much a thing. And there's the issue of being able to include more voices.
Carol: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great to have you on, and we'll definitely put links into the book that you mentioned, and to the white paper when it comes out and more generally to the rest of them so that people can have access to all that wonderful, all those wonderful resources that you've been producing over the years. But thank you so much for coming
Elizabeth: on. Yeah. Thank you for having me and, and, I made these for you also. Please take them.
Elizabeth: Thanks Carol.
Carol: Thank you.
I appreciate Elizabeth’s focus on organizational culture change if an organization is going to truly transform digitally. It is not just about shifting internal processes from analog to digital – it is really thinking differently about how you are using technology to support your mission – and that could have much broader implications than just improving internal processes. Any one who has worked on a technology project knows how easy it is to get caught up in worrying about making the right decision about what system to choose to achieve your goals – whether it is what fundraising software, what customer management system or what team collaboration tool you are going to use – and then what vendor will be the right one to properly service the system. But even if you make the ‘perfect’ decision if you do not bring folks along with you and consider the changes from their perspective, you may find that they do not see the change as the wonderful innovation or improvement that you do. Have you given thought and time to think about how a group will adapt to the new system? What it will mean in terms of their day to day? Can you find a few champions who will lead the way and demonstrate its value to those who are reluctant to jump in? The objects are a lot less shiny when folks won’t use them and they do not end up solving the problem you thought they would – not because the tech can’t do it -but because it is too much hassle for your teammates to take the time to learn the tech and it not an urgent need for them. This past year demonstrated just how quickly people can learn new technology such as Zoom when it is a burning need. So it is not really about whether people can – it is really rather – is it important for them to do so? If not – how can you help them see the importance?
Thank you for listening to this episode. It’s an honor for you to spend this time with me. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for their support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed this episode, it would be great if you would share it with a colleague or friend or on social media – please tag us if you do! We really appreciate you helping us get the word out.
In episode 22 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Michelle Nusum-Smith discussed include:
Michelle Nusum-Smith is owner and principal consultant at The Word Woman LLC. A licensed nonprofit consultant, coach and trainer, Michelle helps nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals achieve their goals. With over 20 years of nonprofit experience, she has expertise in all areas of nonprofit development and sustainability. Michelle has extensive speaker and facilitator experience. She is licensed to offer consulting services for the Maryland Nonprofit’s Standards for Excellence® program and has the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to work with nonprofits across the country. A graduate of the Honors Program at Coppin State University where she earned a BS in Management Science with a minor in Marketing, Michelle is a member of the Grants Professional Association and an Associate Consultant at Maryland Nonprofits.
Important Links: Interview Transcript:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Michelle. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Michelle Nusum-Smith: Thank you, Carol. Thank you for this opportunity to speak.
Carol: I'm sure we're going to have a great conversation and people are going to learn a lot through all the expertise you bring to nonprofits, but I like to start with what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Michelle: Interesting question. I would certainly say my mom is definitely, I think the seed planter. So I was a do gooder before I knew what do you put or meant? We were always involved in some kind of community outreach, giving engagement, volunteering something. And so, my first job was in retail. Like most of us. Well, my first professional job was in health and human services, and I just loved the idea of helping people and giving back. But if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I would have been a teacher. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love using tools and techniques and resources. And so I echo spending most of my professional career in the sector and learning that most of us are very passionate. But we don't necessarily realize that nonprofits are businesses like for-profit businesses. They are best practices. And so people would ask me for help and assistance. So I eventually went from being an unofficial consultant to thinking one day, maybe I should officially do this. And so Almost 11 years ago now I started Word Woman LLC.
Carol: Well, that's awesome. And congratulations on your longevity because a lot of folks think, oh yeah, let me go out and do this, but not everybody makes it and makes it for eleven years. so congratulations on that. I appreciate what you said about your mom. My brother has special needs. He's autistic and profoundly deaf. And my mom was always his advocate. And then through the work, being his advocate, she became an advocate more broadly in the disability community. And it really was an inspiration for the things that he was not always thinking about. Well, certainly you want to make sure that all of your own folks, your family is taken care of, but then, what's the broader implication of all the folks who need the same help and what skills can you bring to help them take those same steps. So, appreciate that, that beginning. And what are the areas? I know you work in a lot of different areas, but one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with pursuing grants. And it seems to be that oftentimes. This is the first thing that people think about when they get into the nonprofit sector they're passionate about, an area they want to help people. They want to create some change or some good in the world and they come out with grants, we have to go after grants. What would you say is the most common misconception that people have about pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, it's interesting the way that you tee that up, because that's exactly it people, I think I've actually had to talk people out of starting a nonprofit simply because they narrowly think about the grants and the fact that, hey, you have to be a nonprofit to get one. So I would say that the biggest misconception is that just because you're doing good people won't want it. Like funders are going to want to give you a grant. So you don't have to think it through. You don't have to actually have a plan. Just tell them that you have a 501-C, three status, and they'll give you a grant.
Carol: Yeah. And I love the comment that you made about actually talking people out of starting a nonprofit. Tell me more about that motivation? What caused that conversation?
Michelle: Sure. I tell people all the time I am the nonprofit consultant that will talk you out of doing something you were willing to pay me to do. And that's because I'm very passionate about the nonprofit sector. And I know how critically important it is to protect it because with for-profit businesses, if a business does something wrong, it's the public that kind of singularly looks at that business and says that business is bad. But in our sector, if a nonprofit ends up on the front of the newspaper for the wrong reasons, it's not just that nonprofit, it's the entire sector, that's bad and corrupt or what-have-you. And so I really like to talk through with people when they approach me about helping them with starting a nonprofit, why do you want to do it? Let's explore the reason, let's explore some different fits, right? Let's explore if there were some alternatives. So a great example would be just last week. I talked to a group and they wanted to start a nonprofit simply because they wanted to get grants. And I explained to them that what they wanted to do, they could easily start a fund at the community foundation or get a fiscal sponsor or a nonprofit partner. And after a bit of back and forth, because they had made up their mind that they wanted to start this nonprofit, I put them in contact with some folks and they came back and circled back to me and said, you know what, Michelle, you were absolutely right. We're getting a fiscal sponsor. So. Yeah, other times it's you really should start a for-profit business let's own that M.O. and move forward.
Carol: Right. And there are different options now within the for-profit sector of being a B Corp or other kinds of, kind of for benefit, corporations that where, where the organization is not necessarily putting. only putting profit as the bottom line, but looking at a triple bottom line, if you will, but still being created as a for-profit entity. You talked about a couple of different things that folks may or may not be familiar with. One of them was a fiscal sponsor. Can you explain a little bit more about what that is and what the benefits are for someone getting started with a fiscal sponsor?
Michelle: Absolutely. So whether even if you start a nonprofit, so one of the things I explain to people is that just because you have a nonprofit doesn't mean that you have tax exempt status or you're eligible to receive charitable donations, that's getting the 501c3 status from the IRS though, when you start a nonprofit or you have some kind of informal program or activity that you want to be able to secure community support. That may come in the form of France that may come in the form of donations. A great strategy for that is through fiscal sponsorship. And what a fiscal sponsor is, is a nonprofit organization that has the 501c3 status from the IRS, but also has the capacity and willingness to bring your activity under their umbrella. And so the program, the nonprofit gets the benefit of 501c3 status. Without having the responsibilities. So all of the funding goes through the fiscal sponsor who helps to sort of manage those resources will be kept for the program or the nonprofit that doesn't have that 501c3 status. So it positions you to be able to still do your charitable work, to still get community support, but to do it with the support of an entity that is positioned and has the capacity and resources to. To properly manage that support.
Carol: Yeah. And oftentimes that capacity that could be difficult for organizations or when they're not, when they're fairly organizations where then when their program, when they're a person with an idea, is, managing the money, managing the accounting. If you end up with any staff, people, or contractors managing all of that, all of the kind of operational it, all of that kind of thing that, the, one of the things that I see is so many people have great ideas, but then every time you create a new organization, you also have to have some way of, accessing that, all of that infrastructure and, most times most people go into the sector or if they want to start an organization, their motivation is not around creating those operational, that operational infrastructure it's about helping people. Right. and so, yeah, so the fiscal sponsor can kind of. Take on some of that and provide some of that. So that the person with the idea who wants to create the program or who has created a program and wants to build it can really focus on that rather than. more of the administrative side or plug into already a system of administration that, that can, can support them. And then the other thing you talked about was, community foundation a little bit more about what they are and how they can contribute to someone who wants to get started.
Michelle: Oh, yes. So everyone who is listening, if your nonprofit is looking for support or financial support or capacity support, third, we go and have a conversation with your community foundation representative. The community foundation, unlike a family foundation or even a corporate foundation where they may have one singular purpose or focus area, the community foundation, a model, a Fords, nonprofits, the opportunity to make, to potentially tap into multiple sources more though at the same time. So the foundation has its own funding that it distributes. But there are also funds that individuals, corporations, community groups may establish that had their own purpose, their own criteria. So it could be grants, it could be scholarships, it could be seed money for a host of different causes. And so, one of the problems that we often have with accessing those resources is. The failure to have the conversation. And so we immediately just want to look for the current opportunity, submit the grant requests and cross our fingers and hope that we get funded. But if we have a conversation prior to you and we explore, well, where are the opportunities? I have a friend who is the president of the community foundation, and then. She was sharing with a group that was presenting, at the foundation for it. And she said that, we have people who have these funds who have an interest in supporting various causes. And we don't always know the nonprofits that fit that criteria. And so it's important for us to have these conversations, to explore with the different organizations, what their missions are, how they carry them out. So that the staff, the community foundation can figure out, well, how do we connect the individual who has the resources and wants to give it the organization that has the need and is trying to figure out how to cover it.
Carol: So almost like a matchmaking process, if you will. Absolutely. And when you talked about your, the kind of main misconception that people have is, I've got a great idea. I want to help people. I'll just go, I'll just fill out some forms and foundations are magically going to give me money. And you said that the biggest thing was, not having a plan. Can you just, can you say more, a little bit more about what you mean by that and what are the kinds of questions that people should be thinking through and kind of making decisions about to create that plan?
Michelle: So doing the homework. So what is homework? Homework is having a clear understanding of your mission and your vision and your strategy is developing programs based on those strategies that include a clear plan. Who, what, where, why, how and a budget to match it. So a lot of times organizations will identify an opportunity and then try to develop a program or project around the opportunity. Best case scenario is that you've already determined what you want to do. how much it costs, you have a timeline, and then you're looking for the opportunity that aligns with that plan. So that when you, when he gives it to you, the paperwork you begin to fill out the application, it's less of a, does this fit? Will they be interested? And more of, we know that this is a fit and we're just plugging in the information we've already developed. The other thing of course would be. how do we ensure that this is a good fit? And one of the ways that we do that is that we reach out to the funder in advance. Doesn't always happen, but sometimes the stars align and you can actually have a conversation with a foundation representative, send a quick email, potentially even have a meeting with them so that they can have a conversation and understand what it is you're planning to do. Ensure that, give you some assurance that it does align with what the foundation is interested in supporting. And that way, when your grant application arrives, it's not a surprise. They're expecting it. And, and having them that pre-work particularly the conversation positions us as non-profits to have an ally on the inside because when the decision-making starts. And nobody's sitting around the table, knows anything about your organization. They can look to what I call the gatekeeper, that program, officer, whomever, who could say, Oh, yes, I know about that organization. I can answer some of those questions you might have.
Carol: Yeah. So that first step of really ensuring fit, that, that you've done your homework and I would guess, and I'm not a fundraiser, but I would guess, just the basics of have you read what the foundation covers funds. Is what is the work that you're doing within their purview? Is it something, within one of their, one of their programs, cause most, most foundations and, and you said it's different than community foundations, which can have a wide variety of, of, areas that they're interested in, depending on all the different donors that might have funds with them, generally, Family foundations, corporate foundations, large and small typically have made some decisions around their own strategy around what they are interested in and what they're pursuing. So that first check of, well, let's read to make sure that we fit in some way. And then if we think we do reach out and say, well, I'm thinking, and so would it be something like this of, you write an email, this is kind of a para paragraph, like this kind of what we're, what we're aiming to do is this, within what you guys are interested in, in funding,
Michelle: That it's funny because I'm always reminded of, I was doing some grant work for an organization and I found this family foundation doing some research. I sent an email and it basically was like, you described a paragraph that introduced them to the organization. This is our mission. This is who he served. This is the work that we carry out. We will love to explore, Learning more about your foundation and where we might fit the president of the foundation. Now, of course, it's a small family foundation. So when I say presence, there's a small, but mighty group, email me back. Actually she called and left the voicemail and she said, we've never heard of this organization, but we're very intrigued that email that took me a couple of minutes to write resulted in a face-to-face meeting. An invite to apply for funding at the maximum amount that the foundation funds it. And that organization was funded twice, simply because I found the foundation and sent an email. So it does work.
Carol: And it can save you a lot of time if the answer is no, absolutely right, because it takes a lot of work to write a grant. Yes, sir. And if you don't even meet the first criteria and you get, you get pushed to the side in the first cut. That was a lot of work for nothing.
Michelle: I tell folks all. So you, you keep, you were saying, read, read, read, and I can't emphasize that enough. Read the bill, the foundation's website, read the request for proposal years ago, I was a volunteer to do grant reviewing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I did that for three years and these were 50 page documents. Grant applications for requests between half a million and a quarter million dollars. I can tell you that some of the applications were denied simply because it was very clear that the applicants have not read the request for proposal. They didn't submit the information that was appropriate. So we had to score them poorly. So you gotta read, read, read, and then follow the guidance.
Carol: So, what are some things that help people do a better job of pursuing grants?
Michelle: Well, like I said, definitely don't want that homework. I would say really making sure that you read and re-read your proposal, your material before you submit it, make sure that your budget. Aligns with your narrative. I shouldn't say things in your budget that weren't mentioned in your narrative and vice versa. And then I think the other way to be successful with brands is to make sure that you deliver on your promises. So don't just get the money and then, go off celebrating, take it seriously and then deliver so that the funder will want to support you again.
Carol: Yeah, a couple of things you said there. I think oftentimes they may not think of the connections between the budget and the narrative, or, think of it. Oh, that's that last thing that we have to fill out, but really a budget in, in a way is like it's a plan in numbers, it's a plan and money and, so it really should connect back and it should be clear for the funder, how you're planning to spend their money because obviously, that's a key concern for them.
Michelle: There you go. And the budget should be real. I have had times where I've gone to meet with folks and I asked them for their budget. They slide it across the table and I slide it right back because I get to hell. It's just a bunch of numbers that you've made up. So. Actually be the homework and research. You shouldn't have to guess on certain things that you could just Google to find out. What is the, what is the cost of that item? and so it gives you, like you said, you get this mirrored version of the project in numbers that mirrors the narrative and it positions you so that you can actually deliver on what you propose because. If your budget doesn't align, then you're put in a position where you may run out of money, which you've told the funder, this is all the money that we need. So it's very important to make sure that the budget is based on doing your research and based on actual need and that it mirrors your plan.
Carol: Yeah, it seems like, another thing that I've experienced more from being on the program side of, here, all of the million things that we promised to the funder that we were going to do, and it's like, well, it's just me and this other person. And we only have so much time in the day and I don't know how we're going to deliver it all.
Michelle: Yes, yes, yes. Please do not over promise. First of all, if it's not feasible, it doesn't make sense. Years ago I was doing a, I was working with an organization and this was pre pandemic, but we were still by as Dean because they were in another country and they were going to be doing this maternal health project where they were responding to a request for proposal. So the project idea was already set and they were supposed to work with pregnant women and follow them through their child's third birthday. And I asked, there were two folks that I was meeting with, only two people who staff this organization. And I asked the simple question, how many pregnant women are you going to serve? I kid you not, The executive director said a thousand, and that was my face because I was thinking, first of all, where are you going to find a thousand pregnant women? Number one, but number two, how are you going to possibly follow them? Plus their children for three years? And so I think that what they were thinking was we need to give this big number. So it sounds like we're making a huge impact into that. I would say years ago, it was all about the numbers, the outputs, which is a grant term. So you're counting people, you're counting that you're counting, beads. Right? So that's how we measure success. The bigger, the number, the greater the success. But now we talk about impact, which is more about the outcome, the result of the work that you did. So we, instead of touching people. So it's great that you could say, well, we, we touched a thousand people, but did you actually affect change with them if you just simply touch them? Not really, but if you could actually work with a hundred and move them from where they are to a better position, a better situation. Then that's more impactful. That's more significant than simply just touching a thousand.
Carol: Yeah. So really looking at, and that goes from the request for proposal, the fact that they wanted those pregnant women to be followed through for three years, that's a significant amount of time. and yeah, to think about what's feasible in terms of your staffing and, and how many people you can reach and how many people will you be able to continue to work with over time. Yeah. What would you say? I think there are folks who are starting out, they have some misconceptions. I also find that sometimes board members can really have misconceptions about, grants and, and be very focused on grants. What would you say are, I mean, there are obviously a lot of upsides to getting grants, but are there any kind of hidden costs that you would, you would, talk about that to just caution people that they need to kind of consider those things as well when they're pursuing grants.
Michelle: So you touched on one of the things earlier where you said there's a lot of time and energy invested in just preparing the grant proposal. And, and if you have paid staff, then that means that's money or investing. So that may not result in a grant. And when it comes to getting the grant, there's a cost per se, related to that as well, because there's the cost of managing, there's costs related to investment of time for reporting for evaluations. So it's not just give us the money and, and, and we'll just go off with you, our mission, you, you touched with something else too, which is, this whole idea of the board and let's get grants, let's get grants. I actually have a client right now who, I just, before we got on our call, she, I was receiving emails where the board members found grant opportunities, which is great because that means that they were engaged. But we do want to recognize that grants cannot, should not and won't be your only source of funding. Grants have a lot of limitations. They don't pay for everything they're time bound. And so it's very important that as part of from the board level, part of our strategic planning that we're thinking about all of the available funding sources, And then we're thinking about how do we tap into all of them to ensure that we had adequate resources, whether that's individual donations, corporate support in the form of donations or sponsorships membership dues, do we pay half to like programs where folks may pay for services or as fees related to being involved with our organization, we need to look at all of the available funding sources. And then have a strategy so that grants are part of the strategy, but not be the strategy.
Carol: Yeah. And I wanted to, to ask you that, obviously grants are just one way to, to raise funds. And so you talked about those different types of possible revenue streams. What are some of the key aspects that organizations need to consider when they're thinking about putting together a fundraising plan?
Michelle: I would say certainly the fundraising plan should be driven by our strategic plan. So we're, we're planning to raise the money to support our, our program plans, our operating costs. Thirdly, there are costs that, as I said, are not going to be covered by restricted sources of funding, such as grants, keeping the lights on. So you may have a grant where the fundable say, we'll pay for the person who's presenting. We'll pay for the materials. We'll pay for food, but we're not paying the electricity, the electricity bill. And so we need to incorporate as part of that fundraising plan forces, better unrestricted. So individual gifts, you have some individuals I should say, could be central to our fundraising plan. And it should incorporate the various sources of revenue and an action plan or strategy for how we're going to carry it out. And that again, should be top down. So the board should be driving this effort, even when you have staff that may be implementing your plan.
Carol: So you talked about a couple terms that some people probably are already familiar with, but others may not be restricted and unrestricted funds. Can you say a little bit more about what that means?
Michelle: Sure. So the way I like to describe the differences for those of us who go to church and you make your tithes and offerings, most of us don't ask any questions about where that money's going. We just trust that it's going to be used for good. We go about our business. So as individuals, we're making contributions to our church without any strings attached or expectations, other than seeing the manifestation of, of the good, right. Whereas if you receive a grant or you receive a large gift from an individual donor, it may come with some expectations, some straights. So it may be restricted regarding the budget. So when we submit a grant proposal, we include a budget. The funder expects for you to spend the money as you budgeted it, as opposed to, if somebody just writes a check, there are no restrictions. You can use the funds or the benefit of the organization based on what's needed. There are restrictions that are related to the time and use. So, for example, you may receive less than you receive a grant for $50,000. And because of the funders approach, you get one check upfront of $50,000. So you're looking at your bank statement and it says there's $50,000 in there, but that $50,000 is tied to what 12 year I'm sorry, 12 month grant periods. So, although it's sitting in the bank, it's supposed to be spent according to the budget over that 12 month period. So restricted means there's some guidance around how you use it. Unrestricted means thank you, we'll pull together our strategy and then determine how to spend it.
Carol: Thank you. Thank you. So, on each episode I play a game at the end asking one, random icebreaker question. And so I have one here, what's something you believed earlier in your career that you think differently about now?
Michelle: Ooh, that's an interesting one. So something that I thought early in my career. That I think differently. This is a funny answer, but it's the one that popped in my head. So that's the one I'll share. So when I was younger, I looked young and I thought that people wouldn't take me seriously until I was old. And so I had this crazy idea that once I turned 40, that miraculously people will begin to take this seriously, but now I realize that people have always taken me seriously. Maybe not as seriously as I had bought or had hoped, or just, just didn't realize it. And age doesn't need to be a predictor of your credibility or your impact. And so I'm a believer that anybody and everybody, no matter your age can have a huge impact.
Carol: Awesome. I love that. Thank you. And so what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing these days.
Michelle: So I'm doing lots of different things, but I'm a Gemini. So I've always had my hands in a lot of different things. But one thing that I will mention that's related to our discussion is I have been wanting to do a grant writing boot camp. I've done them in the past. The one that is much more technical and much more, hands on and practical in application and I'm going to be I'm. So it's still in the works, but I will be doing that over the summer. It's going to be a six week virtual, I believe, virtual program. and so I'm looking forward to that and looking forward to you, Being who, who, who participates and, and the work that they do because of it.
Carol: So. Awesome. Well, we will put links in the show notes to your website so people can check it out and see when that program, when, when you launch it, which I'm sure will be super useful for many people because, yeah, sometimes it's, it's oftentimes that nitty gritty, that, that can get in people's way. When they're, when they're trying to, trying to, Put together, those, those grants, those proposals hopefully avoid all the things that we just talked about, but learn even more. I'm sure with you so, well, thank you so much. It's been great talking to you today.
Michelle: Thank you, Carol. I appreciate this opportunity.
In episode 21 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Andy Robinson discussed include:
Andy Robinson provides training and consulting for nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. Over the past 25 years, Andy has worked with clients in 47 US states and Canada. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, he has designed and facilitated 70 online meetings, webinars, and remote workshops covering a variety of topics, including fundraising, board development, marketing, leadership development, facilitation, and train-the-trainer programs. Andy is the author of six books, including Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money, www.trainyourboard.com. His latest is What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid. He lives in Plainfield, Vermont.
Carol Hamilton: Well welcome, Andy. Great to have you on the podcast.
Andy Robinson: Thank you for inviting me, Carol. It's good to be here with you.
Carol: So just to start out, I like asking the question of all my guests of what drew you to the work that you do, what, what motivates you and how would you describe your why?
Andy: So you're looking for my origin story in this work.
Carol: Well, I mean, it could be a more recent version of that, cause I'm sure it's evolved over the years.
Andy: All right. Well, for those of you who are listening, but not watching, I'm an old guy with a gray beard. And my, my origin story goes back to 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and I was fresh out of college and I didn't know who I wanted to be when I grew up or what I wanted to do. And I was a little stunned. I was like, what, what happened here? What do I do? And so I was casting around for something to do, and I opened the newspaper and. I looked in the classifieds and there was a job title called activist, and I thought, huh, that's interesting. What does that mean? What do those people do? And I applied for this job and I was hired and it turned out what I was doing was door to door canvassing. So I was one of those nice young people who came to your door and knocked on your door and told you about an organization. I had a conversation, asked you to give money. And that was my entry point into the world of nonprofits. And I think also the worlds of social change, social justice and community organizing. So what. Moves me now is what moved me then, which is the desire to create a positive change in the world and looking for tangible ways to do it. And for the last 25 years, I've run my own consulting practice as a trainer and consultant and facilitator. And I work with groups on planning and fundraising and facilitating meetings and building leadership and some of the stuff that you also do, Carol.
Carol: Yeah. It's interesting that you talk about that period right after college. It took me a little bit longer, but my first job that I got was working for a company that helped people get on talk shows. And so I found that I was actually rather good at writing the publicity and PR for folks and decided that I wanted to apply that skill to causes that I believed in. So that's what prompted my shift into the nonprofit sector.
Andy: This is sort of hilarious, cause you've recruited me to be on the talk show today.
Carol: Yeah, I've come full circle, I guess. So you said you, you've been in business for a long time and before that obviously had a long career in the sector and well, all the entire career in the sector, but in, in different roles. And you've said recently that you're shifting now into semi-retirement. And intentionally stepping back, taking shorter gigs. What's, what's your intention in doing that?
Andy: Well, there's three or four things. It's, it's a, it's a lovely question. The first thing is my own. Sustainability energy. One of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you work for yourself, but one of the pleasures of working for yourself is that you often never stop working. So I'm one of those people. Who's often at my desk at 10 o'clock at night, responding to emails that I didn't get to during the day. And I'm, I've reached the age where it's time for me to dial back my work so I can have more fun though. That's one answer to your question. The second answer to your question, and this slides us into the topic of succession planning. I have been helping and supporting other people enter this work for a number of years as facilitators and trainers and consultants. And I helped to lead a university program on this and then. I'm an informal coach to a lot of people who are entering into supporting nonprofits and, and, and the work that meets. So I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring those out to other people or jobs that I don't get any more. Cause it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who want to enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and they've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants, black indigenous people of color, as a way of supporting social justice and equity. So that's my current thinking and I'm spending more time having fun. I'm, I'm hiking out in the woods and I'm cooking good food and I'm spending time with my spouse whom I adore. And I still have enough work to keep things going. And that seems like a good balance right now.
Carol: Yeah. And a couple of things that you talked about you've worked with other leaders on succession planning. What do you think other nonprofit leaders could, could learn from your approach and how you've been doing it? It seems like you've been very intentional in how you're approaching it, which. I don't think it's particularly actually very well supported in our culture.
Andy: Well said. Well, I wanna, I wanna frame this two ways. One of the things I've done with organizations over many years is strategic planning, which is also something you've done a lot of. And one of them, I have a couple of favorites. Planning questions. One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the workflow of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge many organizations are perpetual organizations, hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? And we spend some time chewing through because it might be a generation or two generations or three generations, right? Depending on the organization. Then I say, are you going to be here for the victory party? And of course, everybody laughed and said, no, I'm not going to be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. So, this is not this optional thing. If you don't have a succession plan, excuse me. If you're not building leadership, as you're building your organization and doing your work and changing the world you're failing. So that's a little aha for people. And I wanted to apply that same thinking to myself, you know? So there's an old thing that people might remember if they were Scouts or they learned how to backpack, you're supposed to leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. Like if you show up at the campsite and there's trash, pick up the trash, when you, when you check out, take the trash with you, don't let somebody else deal with the trash. And so literally I am trying to leave the campsite. In better shape than I found it. And I feel like the way I can do that is by handing off and supporting, and training and building other people who are coming in behind me. And I will tell you, I have, I don't know the number there's at least 50 and probably more like a hundred different peers that I interact with over the course of a year, in terms of sharing jobs, trading notes, doing referrals. Picking each other's brains. I mean, I have an amazing network and that's what sustained me for all the years. I've been self-employed as all these lovely peers who are generous to me and I aspire to be generous to them. So if I can help people do that for themselves. And built that peer network and what a gift. Right. That's beautiful. So that's my intention here and I will do it imperfectly, cause we all do everything imperfectly, but so far so good.
Carol: So what would you think? What, what, what are some ways in which inside an organization, a leader can, can start to groom that next generation.
Andy: Yeah, well, once upon a time I mean, I've done webinars on this topic and, I could probably rattle off 10 steps. I don't know that that's a lot, but I'll throw you two or three, which is one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand off, I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the menial stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate? Reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center of things. That's one idea, second idea. And this speaks to the facilitation work that you and I both do is when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's going to lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda because the ability to. To run a meeting, to facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. So I am currently chairing a board and I had a board meeting last night. So this is top of mind. And as I was building the board agenda, I had about, I think, five different people leading different parts of the meeting. And so that's a second idea if you're actually bringing groups together, share the power within the group so that you have that agenda where people are. Taking turns, facilitating and leading and, and building the conversation. The third one is one that I've touched on already, which is don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way, and often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. And so part of it is accepting the fact that other people do things they think about. Problems or challenges or opportunities differently. They approach them differently. That's something that should be embraced by leaders, as opposed to we have one way we do things here. So those are some ideas. I mean, I kicked this back to you. I know you think about this. When you're advising leaders on succession and distributing power, what tips do you offer?
Carol: Well, it's interesting that you talked about delegation because I think people think about that. That's an obvious one, but yet folks struggle with it for so much. And I think it goes to the last point that you've talked about. And I've been in situations where I've dealt with things delegated to me. And the leader has told me explicitly that, that, no, you, however you approach it is great until I stumbled upon the way that they actually wanted me to do it. Yes. And I think it's not even conscious on their part. Right. It's not their, their conscious intention was to hand this off and let me run with it. And then, I approach it differently and, and it was like, Ooh, well, wait a second. Not so much. And I think you can then ideally you then have a conversation to figure out what's the middle ground between the two. I don't know that I always handled it that way. Because I think my perpetual lesson that I've had to learn over and over again is indeed that people do things differently than I would do.
Andy: if you've done any anti-racism training, anti-oppression training, one of the first things they talk about is the difference between intention and impact. Sure. Right. And often we have very good, positive, sacred, Holy high-minded intentions, but we're clueless about the impact we're having on other people. And this is one of those examples. It's like, My intention is to give this job to you. But the impact I'm having is I'm micromanaging you while you're doing it. I'm just doing that. So, I mean, I have a mental way to do this, which is I would have people imagine there's a spectrum. And at one end of the spectrum, I'm pointing to my left are people who are really good at empowering others and supporting others and delegating. That's one of the ends of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum pointing to my right. People's responses, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier to just do it myself and full disclosure here is I live down at that. Right, and the second end of the spectrum, my default button is, the heck with it. I'm just going to do it myself. It's easier. And what's interesting here is I have spent an entire lifetime trying to move myself down that line to the opposite end of the spectrum. Getting myself out of the way. So, I mean, I don't know if this is today's topic, but I will touch on it. I carry a lot of privilege. I'm an upper middle-class, white, cisgendered, straight male. I have an Ivy League education. I'm able-bodied. I mean, I have all the markers. I have English as my first language. I am, I have all the markers of privilege and I feel like my work for the last several years and maybe the last decade is to shrink my footprint and take up less space. And because that's what that's, what privilege is, is you take up a lot of space that you're not even aware that you're taking up. So, and I'll talk about this in front of groups and, there's a chance to bring this into a training or a facilitation, and there's a moment to have this conversation. I'll have it, but one of the ways that I can delegate perhaps in an we'll use the word unintentional, but as a secondary way is to just take up less space, to speak less to. Shrink my presence in whatever way that looks like, because that creates space for other people to step in and embrace their leadership skills. So I am like the amazing shrinking man, but I still take up huge amounts of space, but I'm mindful of it. And I am checking that whenever I can. And I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space? And how do you really underline that and embrace that as a, as a strategy and a tool?
Carol: Yeah. So one of them is just, let's say, you're, you're discussing a topic with a group and trying to figure out different ways that you might approach it brainstorming. And if the leader can take a beat and not be the first person to talk can be huge.
Andy: Yeah. And I’ve facilitated a couple of online things over the last year where I've had leaders say to me, I'm not, I'm going to say very little, I'm going to not speak first. I'm going to step back intentionally. This is not me telling them this is them coming to me and saying, FYI, if you see me being quiet, it's me stepping back. And my response is thank you. And if I, if I feel as a facilitator, I need their voice. I can call on them. And say, Martha, haven't heard from you yet on this, what's your thinking. And I can cue them when needed, but that's, that's a great level of self-awareness and I'm, I'm glad you brought that up.
Carol: Yeah. And there's some tools, I mean, for brainstorming, there's some tools that you can use to help everybody's voice get in the room. By just having people, write things down first, like, the classic sticky notes and, and now in the virtual space on something like mural or jam board and, before anybody says anything, allowing people a few minutes to get their ideas out onto the board and in some cases you can trace, who's had what, but most people, by the time they're on there, they're not paying that much attention to it. And so it gives space for people, all, all the folks who are participating to step in. And, and one other thing that you talked about at that rotating facilitation, which is a simple thing, I was in this past year I've been teaching folks how, how to facilitate effectively online. And I was working with an intact team walking through the program and then they were trying to think about, okay, so how do we actually, the classic challenge with training of how do we actually make this stick? How do we, that was nice, but we did it in your, in your session. How do we actually start implementing this in practice? And so we talked about them using it in internal meetings first so that the stakes are lower. And so when I had my one-on-one with their leader, one of the things we talked about, I was like, well, okay, so what meetings do you typically lead? And he always led their weekly staff meeting.
I was like, well, what if, what if you rotate that. And, the intention there was to make sure that everyone was practicing facilitation. But as you say, facilitation and leading a meeting, thinking about an agenda, how are you guiding the group? How are you guiding the conversation? What questions are you asking about self leadership skills? So just by that, by him stepping back and saying, no, I'm not going to be the default, in a weekly meeting that doesn't need to be me. Is an easy first step to take. Yeah,
Andy: I totally agree. And one of the things I'm noticing about all these zoom meetings is all the boxes are the same size. And if you're fairly skillful, I mean, my experience of Zoom so far is that the alphas who tend to dominate it's a little harder to do it in that environment. And especially if there's some good facilitator helping work the process the alphas are less alpha and. That creates an equity opportunity. So what's one of the things I'm appreciating about all these virtual meetings is I think they do level the playing field a little bit if you handle them properly.
Carol: Right. And again, it all goes back to how you're structuring them. And and, and I think it's interesting to also watch how some people who might not speak up then have access to the chat. And so, they may not be contributing verbally to the meeting, but they're contributing often very coherent and quite eloquent thoughts in the chat. So, there's, it just gives people different ways to interact with the group and contribute. Again, as he said, if you kind of. Position that well, so
Andy: Carol, can I bring some Shakespeare into the car? Sure. In many, many Shakespearian tragedies, there was a fool and the fool is the person who says to the King when the King is being a jerk and maybe he gets whipped or beaten a little bit, for the most part, it is their job to speak truth to power. And I feel like if you're a leader and you're thinking about succession, you need to designate somebody in your organization who will call you out when you're overstepping your boundaries and not be punished for it. So I think, I think every leader needs a full. Where they trust and love, but who will speak truth to them and say, you're overstepping here. Or you're, you're AWOL what's up. Or you really handle that one. You could handle that one differently than you did. And it takes some courage to have somebody who is your designated call you out person, and it doesn't have to be publicly, can be privately like, FYI at that meeting, you missed an opportunity. I want to share with you what I saw that opportunity was. So. Sometimes as the consultant, we fill that role. Sometimes our job is to speak truth, to power and name things that people don't want to talk about because they're difficult. But even if you had somebody like that within your organization who had that role and handled the Def that's a succession tool as well.
Carol: So what I think we've talked about this a little bit, but what are some of the mistakes that you've seen leaders make when, when. When they're thinking about their exit or perhaps not even not even thinking about it and then that broader transition that's, cause it's never just one thing. There's always a ripple effect. Yeah, it goes through the organization.
Andy: There's a guy named Don Tebbe. Who's written a lot about this. And one of his quotes is leading well is leaving well, or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's leaving well is leading well, it works either way. So first of all, we have to lift that up as a value. It's okay to leave well, in terms of mistakes. Oh, let us count the ways. I think a classic mistake is hanging onto them, you know? And I am I'm I'm right in the middle of the baby, boom, I'm boomer through and through boomers, we need to step aside and I acknowledge that maybe you haven't saved all the money you need to retire, or maybe you're having too much fun or maybe there's still work to do that you want to do. And that's awesome. And time to step aside, at least figuring out what that looks like for you. So one thing is just hanging on too long and it is, it is baked into the system, but the skills that one needs to start a company, a business, an organization to start anything is a different skill set that is required to build it to maturity. And it's few people that have both of those skill sets. So you and I have both. I dealt with this thing called founder's disease or founder's syndrome or founder itis. Right. And God bless founders, ‘cause we need them. They make stuff happen. They are amazing people, but founders sometimes leave trouble in their wake. So I think one thing we have to do is to be mindful of that as we're doing this, you and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this. And it's a different world. Would that be a second mistake? And I'll kick this back to you. I can come up with more, but I mean, what have you seen as the biggest challenge to succession? What gets in the way?
Carol: Well, one that was interesting. I was working with a group where it was that classic thing of the board members. originating founder, the founder was still on the board. some of the founding board members were still there. And I think part of the challenge, like, and the person, said that they wanted to step back, said that they were tired and they didn't, they wanted to groom new people and said all the right things. And again, behaved in the absolute opposite way of micromanaging staff and, and, questioning if a board, if the board made a decision then going around the board to undermine it when the, they didn't agree in those kinds of things. And I think what was as part of that challenge, and I think for many people is that for that person, it was so much part of their identities. That they couldn't imagine what they would be without leading that organization.
Andy: I came up in an era. I mean, again, my career started in 1980. I came up in an era where if you were working for nonprofits, especially these, heavily mission-driven nonprofits, the assumption was you were, you would bleed for the cause. And you'd come in early and you'd stay late and it was your life. And one thing I'm loving about working with millennials is they actually want to have a life outside of the office and an identity that's not connected to their jobs. And that's great. So I think the problem is, a generation that came up the way that I came up, which is your identity is your work. And your identity is the causes that you care about. And there's something positive about that. I mean, that's, that's commitment and that's powerful, but it's also destructive. So yeah, you're right. I think we have to have identities that are, at least we can separate from the work we do or the organizations we're involved with. Because I think the classic problem is people won't let go because their identities are tied up in the work.
Carol: Yeah. And then they feel, less than, or they don't, they're not useful or, they have no purpose without, without this work that they're doing. And I mean, I guess for me, I, I saw my dad struggle with that. He was the greatest generation and dedicated every minute. Of his working life to his working life. And just struggled when he retired or, it was in a system where you, you had to retire at a certain age. And because everything about his adult life had been wrapped up in that job. And watching the difference. And my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she also shaped, like we. He was in the foreign service. So we traveled around the world and every country, she would get a new degree. So she entertained herself by getting degrees, taking care of us. But then like, but she was never as attached to those. I don't think in the same way, it's just, wasn't the same. And so for me, going into the workforce, I always had the, and my, my tagline for the podcast is how, how to be in the nonprofit sector without being a martyr to the cause. Cause I just think that martyr syndrome is just so toxic to our sector. And so I've always tried to think about, well, there's work. And then there, then it's not that there's like work in life. Like your work is part of your life, right? It's not that separate, but how do you kind of. Keep cultivating other communities, other networks and other aspects that you want to develop. I mean, I, I do know a lot of people through my faith community who are retired and I've just, I've seen some amazing transformations of, someone who was a lawyer who specialized in some incredibly arcane aspect of, Law who then after he retired and he struggled to retire, took him like five years from when he started talking about it to when he actually did. But then started taking classes, started taking art classes at the local community college and mean has become quite the, I don't think he was trying to become a great artist, but, but he's become quite accomplished and really enjoys that.
Andy: So exploring different aspects of yourself is as important I think. And, and I will argue that our greatest ex president is Jimmy Carter. He did, a lifetime's worth of work after he left the white house. Right, right. Amazing things, amazing things. And so, yeah, I mean, that's someone who had a third act or a fourth act, or however you want to count it. So, yeah, it's certainly possible to have a life after work. Like maybe you all have that.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I've also worked with yes. And you named it, you named it. So I'll, I'll say it, the baby boomers who would be having conversations with me and I'm, and, just baffled with this baffled look on their face. So I just don't know where the leaders are going to come from. And I'm like, okay. I know when you started being a leader, you were like 15 years younger than me. In your career, but you don't think that I could possibly be in that role, you know?
Andy: So yeah. Yeah, that's right. I am carrying the shame of an entire generation.
Carol: Well, we will, we will require you to do that.
Andy: No problem. It's it's, it's, it's the old thing. It's, it's like men have to talk to men about sexism and misogyny and. White people about racism and boomers have to talk to boomers about letting it go. So here we are.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So since we've been at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask one ice breaker question from this box of icebreaker questions that I have. So since we've been talking about, second, third acts, fourth acts retirement what's the last thing that you completed on your bucket list and not as soon as of course that you have a bucket list.
Andy: Oh, interesting. Yeah, we just bought an electric vehicle. Oh, wow. Yeah. From a neighbor. So we got a second hand Chevy bolt and I've been driving it for the last month and I'm learning all the bells and the whistles, but it's one of the things. And actually we had a We had a charger installed in our garage some time ago. And then we were going to buy another car. This is more detailed, but anyway I wanted to get an Evie and now I have one. So that was on the bucket list and it has been completed.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. Well, when, when our cars die and we're waiting well, We're just watching them and they will die soon. That is on our list next to, to try to try to buy an electric vehicle. And probably we'll probably end up with a used one cause we ended up with a used Prius, so that'll be next. So, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you?
Andy: We talking about work or, or fun, or where do you want to get?
Carol: Wherever you want to go
Andy: Well, I will say this next Thursday, which is the 28th, excuse me, the 25th. I am teaming up with my buddy Harvard, McKinnon, who is one of North America's great fundraisers. He's written many books. He's a lot of fun. And he and I are doing a webinar together called raising more money by asking and to answering better questions. And it's all about. Questions that donors think that you really have to anticipate and answer, but also questions you can ask donors to deepen the conversation. So for the fundraising webinar, it's sponsored by the sustainability network, which is Canada's national support network for the environment. And that's on the 25th. So people can track it down and go to my website, you'll see the information there. And so that's coming up and that's something I'm excited about.
Carol: This episode will probably be published after that happened. So will that be possible for people to access it after the fact?
Andy: It's a great question. I don't know. But I suspect if they go to the website for the sustainability network, which is sustainability to sustainability network.ca and poke around there, you may find it if not reach out to me and I'll put you on my list for future events, I'm doing lots of webinars and trainings. Someday I may actually go back on the road again when that's allowed. We'll see. And I look forward to supporting you in whatever way I can.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great talking with you this morning. Thank you Carol.
Andy: For inviting me. It was fun talking with you too, and have a good day, everybody.
In episode 20 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Scott discussed include:
Elizabeth Scott, PhD, founder of Brighter Strategies, provides thought leadership and high value organizational development consulting in support of a stronger social sector. Liz has provided consulting services in strategic planning, process-improvement, and human capital development for hundreds of nonprofits and associations. She has been a Baldrige examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia and is a certified Standard of Excellence consultant. In addition to managing the practice, Liz holds a faculty positions at both The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and George Mason University. Liz holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Organizational Sciences from The George Washington University, as well as a second master’s and Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Liz. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Scott: Thanks so much, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So just to get started, can you tell people what drew you to the work that you do? What, what really motivates you and what would you say is your, why.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. Great question. So I think for me, there's a little Y and then there's a big why, and I'll start with the little why my undergraduate and most of my formative studies are in sociology and macro theory. And so for me, it's always been really interesting to understand why organizations. Why people, why groups behave the way that they do. And so that's been something that has stuck with me through my education, as well as, as I went into the workforce, particularly my first job out of college. And I wondered why do people work the way they do? Why is this happening the way it is? And then the bigger ‘why’ is, as I advanced in my career, I began to realize that the non-profit community, the nonprofits are such a, they're a fabric of our community and they touch everybody's lives. And in the nonprofit space, at least at the time when I started writer strategies, there weren't a lot of groups that were focused on building capacity in that space, particularly being here in DC, things tend to be a little bit more federal government oriented. And the nonprofit sector is huge and it really impacts the daily lives of all of us. And so I thought, could I combine the two, could I combine my passion of capacity building and development and nonprofit work. And I was really lucky and was able to do that.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting that you talk about that, why do people work the way they do? I think that's what drew me to the work as well. I was already in the sector and I think so many people come into the sector wanting to work on some cause or some issue that they find really important. And certainly that drew me as well. But over time it was more. Thinking about the function of how people work. always hoping that they're doing good work, but thinking about the function and, and how to help them be more effective over time. So, yeah, I definitely, I definitely relate to that. Motivation. Yeah,
Elizabeth: we always talk about that. Our role as consultants is to help build internal capacity so that they can go out and do whatever that mission work is. And there are so many organizations that are doing really great things and, so our focus is on helping them shore up. Do you have the right people, the right planning, the right processes so that you can be sustainable, so that you can actually impact your community the way you want. And those are really important questions.
Carol: And talking of sustainability, you've done some research recently on nonprofit leadership and its intersection with the organizational code culture during COVID. What would you say are some of your key findings in that research?
Elizabeth: So we had the opportunity to partner with the center for nonprofit advancement. And we did a study that went out to 255 nonprofits here in the DC area. And what we found is that as COVID was rolling out and all of the murders that were happening over the summer and the racial unrest that organizations were really struggling [and] trying to figure out where their place should be. And so what we heard. Was that there was a substantial loss of funding for most organizations. They suddenly were in a position where they could not engage with clients the way they had done it before, nobody was doing virtual or. Doing in-person anymore because of COVID. So they were shifting their energies to think more virtual. Lot of them were completely rethinking their strategic plan. And on top of that, they had a lot of increased costs with trying to move programs online. And then you add on top of that, that a lot of them lost most of their volunteer base because volunteers tend to be in the older community. They weren't leaving their homes. They weren't being engaged. Those who were in the younger community suddenly had children at home that were homeschooling. They could not go out and volunteer and do what they had been doing. And so you add all that and mix it up. And what we found was that. Organizations were being impacted significantly.
And then on top of that, there was this huge gap of services. So when we did the survey, we actually found that organization saw an 80% increase in the needs that they saw in their communities. And that they saw that these were gaps that their organization and other organizations weren't able to sustain. And so, some organizations did get some aid, but the need is really outpacing the funding. And so that was a really interesting study. The full report is actually available in the center for nonprofit advancements website. So if anyone wants to go there and see some of the other pieces We also did a followup, a bunch of focus groups in January to get a sense. And that was a partnership with ACRA Alexandria to get a sense of what are people experiencing now, now that we're about a year in, and there were some really interesting findings there, particularly around the culture piece that you were talking about. And the first one was that people are still rethinking strategy and operations. So they've moved to virtual, but now they're beginning to think about how do we reintegrate when we go back to being in person, they're really concerned about low morale and trying to figure out how to keep people connected and looking for ways to support people during this time of uncertainty.
We also heard that fundraising is top of mind for people. Everyone is in need. Everyone is asking for how do we do this the right way without overtaxing or over asking? Staff in general, executive directors are a little bit burned out and staff are tired. They're emotionally exhausted. And so there's a lot of emphasis on self-care and building better support systems. And then I think to no surprise the conversation around racial equity is something that people are spending a lot of time talking about. So how do we send her race equity with our board? How do we center it with our staff? How do we think about how we're engaging communities in a mindful and thoughtful way? And then the last thing we heard was around governance. So all those volunteers that we talked about earlier sitting on boards, many of them have dropped off boards. They have been busy with their own lives and suddenly can not be as engaged as they want to be. So a lot of the organizations that we talk to are rethinking board governance. They're rethinking their overall strategy, rethinking recruitment. So there's a lot on people's plates right now, I think.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. You're talking about struggling to keep that place whole then One of the things that, oftentimes during a recession you'll have that dual impact on nonprofits of increased need for their services and decreased funding and revenue, but it feels like. With this there's even more layered on top of that with the impact on volunteers, the impact on boards having to do your program in a totally different way. It's, it's even more so than what maybe organizations had. Might've been able to work through and, and be, be resilient through a recession or, or in the economic downturn in the past. And this being wholly different.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think of something you said earlier, you layer that on top of the fact that we're all now isolated and many of us are virtual. And so how do you keep a positive sustaining culture within your organization when. People are all over the place. And not only are people working from home, but they're dealing with homeschooling, they're dealing with elder care, they're dealing with lots of other personal life issues that are going to influence how they're able to show up on the job. And so I think that's important to note too. So this focus on. Self-care this focus on building morale on making sure that people don't feel burned out, that they feel valued, that they're contributing to the organization. I think those are really important elements and a little bit of a silver lining that we're having these conversations.
Carol: And how would you say what are, what are some things that you see are working in terms of organizations being able to address that morale issue?
Elizabeth: Great question. So what we've seen work really well are for organizations that have really ramped up their communication processes and organizations that have involved staff in these decisions. So we have a number of clients that are having regular touch point meetings with staff they're doing some of them are doing things like appreciative inquiry style workshops, where they're really trying to think about. What's good and what's working and how do we harness that? So they're using staff to brainstorm and to think through solutions to problems. We've seen organizations put together really intentional care packages. So things from, stipends, or we had one client that is in person right now. And so they partnered with an emotional support animal rescue. And so they're bringing the animals by on a weekly basis for staff to get an opportunity to hang out with them, to be able to sit with the dog, pet the dog for a little bit. So I think people are being really creative, but those that are being successful are doing it with intentionality and they're not doing it in a vacuum. They're there, they're involving their staff and trying to identify solutions for how to move forward.
Carol: That's so key because I, I, wait, in the, before times way before the pandemic was working in an organization where, there was a sense of like, we're really stodgy and we don't have fun. And so, the CFO decided it would be a great idea to put a foosball table in the, in the kitchen area. And that was a nice idea. And 2 out of the 80 staff would regularly use it. But it just didn't fit with the culture. People knew that they would not be looked well upon if they were actually playing foosball on work hours. So, involving staff and having a conversation about what, what works for us, what works within our culture, I think is super important.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And it's not all these things like foosball tables or, people try to do fun. Those are good. There's nothing wrong with infusing some fun into the workplace. But a lot of culture is really built off of what we value and how we behave and how we treat one another. So I think involving staff in these conversations that say, look, things are weird right now, and we're acknowledging that what do you need to be successful? How can we support you? I think having those more, what I'll call more real conversations as opposed to, Hey, we bought you a popcorn machine can be really helpful and appreciated by staff. At the end of the day, we all want to feel valued and we want to feel heard and. So organizations that are doing that I think are able to traverse some of the difficulties that we've talked about during COVID easier than organizations that are not putting time and intentional thought into culture.
Carol: And how would you say that organizations are dealing with that loss of the volunteer base? I mean, what have you seen, what steps have you seen organizations take in that direction?
Elizabeth: that's actually huge. What we've seen is that a lot of them are completely rethinking their programming and rethinking ways to engage volunteers. So I'll go back to the study that we did with the center, but we found that 56% of the organizations, and this was about October, November, timeframe had transitioned all of their in-person. Activities to virtual 62% created entirely new programs. So things they weren't even running pre COVID. And then another 25% started doing emergency in person programming, which was also not part of their original charter pre COVID. And so in all of those cases, being able to think about how we use volunteers in different ways. It's not just the socially distancing piece, but can we get a volunteer to run a virtual event, for example, as opposed to having a staff person do it? Or can we partner? One of the things that we've learned with virtual events is it's better to have more than one person on there. And so can we partner a staff person with a volunteer to help facilitate a support group for example, or a parent teacher evening or whatever it is, educational format or whatever it is that they're doing. So I think people are just being really creative, but they're also creating entirely new service offerings, which is interesting. There's a little bit of a silver lining there that it took a pandemic, but people are being really creative and that's a positive thing.
Carol: Yeah. I think the assumption that you can do things only in person or only online. I think after we go back to whatever, not back, but go to whatever the next normal will be. There's, I think there's going to be this heightened assumption that people can access things online, not having to travel and all of those kinds of things, when you're trying to do both at the same time in person and online is harder than doing one or the other. So that's going to be a really hard challenge, I think, that raised [the] expectations that people have.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I would totally agree with you. I think that we're not going to go back to being in person the way we were. I think we're going to end up being hybrid for quite some time. People's work habits have changed. People have realized that they can work in other environments. even in my own friend circle, I've had four sets of friends that have moved outside of the DC area and relocated because they've realized that they can do their jobs from anywhere. And so I think nonprofits are not immune to that. I think they've started to create new programming and I think some of that programming is going to stick. Obviously the in-person stuff is going to come back too, but at the end of the day, I think we're going to have this hybrid work experience and learn to do that, at least over the next two or three years. I don't know that anyone has that down pat yet, but they're working on it and I think people are smart. We'll figure it out.
Carol: Can you give me some examples of those kinds of new, new programming elements that people have developed?
Elizabeth: Yeah. one of the really creative things that we've heard is actually around fundraising. So a lot of people, a lot of organizations are dependent on an annual event, like a gala or a walk or something that is very in-person oriented. And a lot of the organizations. That we work with have been really creative about repurposing and reformatting those experiences. And interestingly, they've actually, for the most part made more money off of them because they're not paying for all of the, the hotel, the rental, the food, all that sort of thing. The trick there seems to have been to create a personalized experience for the donor. So some of these groups. Would mail care packages to people's homes. We had one client that did a wine tasting and they mailed the wine tasting to everybody. And then Somalia came on zoom and walked you through your personalized wine tasting and groups have music and other sorts of things that are happening in the background. So they're just thinking about how do we, how do we take what was in person and create meaningful value? In a virtual experience. And I think that outside of fundraising and operations, we're seeing that on the program side too. Right. So how can I connect with my clients in a way maybe we were doing in-person support groups. Well, now we can do them virtually and one client, by way of example, said that their support groups, which were regionally oriented tended to have about. Seven to maybe 12 people that showed up. Now those same support groups have over 50 people showing up because people are no longer tied to the geographic region. You want to go to the Dallas support group, but you're in Boston. Sure. Go for it. And so they've been able to reach more. People have more of a positive impact in their community, but do it in a way that has been innovative and creative.
Carol: Yeah, I've heard a lot of organizations talk about increased participation in the variety of events or programs that they offer simply because that, the, the commute time having to just be out of the office. All of those things are, are taken, taken away, or are no longer there. So it just makes it easier. The ease of entry is just there and in comparison to going to an event and committing not only to the time you're there, but the time on either end to get there and get back.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it's interesting. I remember a couple of years ago in the fundraising space, there was this huge trend to have events where you would pay to not go. it would be a fun run or something like that. And someone like me who's lazy would say, eh, I'll give you a hundred bucks. I don't actually want to run. So you were paying to not be involved in a way. This is another new creative way of thinking about. How do we engage people? How do we provide something tangible, but yet you're not actually going to an event. Right. But I think people are concerned about how much appetite will people have for virtual convening? And it's not just fundraisers, but it's also programming. And I think we're all feeling a little zoomed out right now. And so how many hours a day is it healthy to be on zoom and to engage in virtual dialogue with people? I think all that is still maybe a little bit of a question mark.
Carol: Yeah, I don't, I don't think it's an all or nothing. Right. I mean, and, and having to do it all the time. I had a particularly long day of zooming yesterday and I was just wiped by the abdomen and, and some people that's their reality all the time. Now I have the luxury of having a little more control over it. How would you say organizational cultures really need to do in order to, to adapt to this new reality?
Elizabeth: That's a good question too. I think that organizations are going to have to start thinking about work in different ways, and they're going to have to start thinking about how people communicate in different ways. So some organizations. Zoom is one thing, right? Some organizations were fast adopters of that. Other technologies like Slack or I'm sure there's lots of other mediums out there as well. I'm not extremely well versed in those, but the idea of thinking of how we communicate in real time, how we manage workflow. Having even things as simple as having all of your files be on the cloud. So people can access the same material that when we're editing documents, we're not working over each other, but working collaboratively with one another. So I think that as organizations continue down this path, having strong communication strategies makes sense, doing workflow mapping makes sense. How do we want to work together? What does that look like? I think revisiting strategies. Makes sense. So much has changed for a lot of organizations. The strategic plan that they put in place may or may not be relevant at this point. So a lot of the groups we're working with right now are actually looking at one year strategic plans, as opposed to the more traditional three to five-year plan, because they're really trying to think about how we get through the next 12 months. What does that look like? And we'll talk about beyond later. So I think just being flexible and revisiting the what and the how of how work happens is really important.
Carol: Yeah, going to that strategy piece. I think when, when people are in that crisis mode and you talked about all the different stressors that are, that are hitting organizations. And so it is, about, can we, can we get through, can we survive this? And when you're in that survival mode, I was doing a focus group the other day and was asking about trends in the particular field that these folks worked in, and they were talking and saying how ‘we're just trying to survive.’ I can't think long-term right now. And, we know that our brains just don't work that way. Like when you are in crisis, you are short, you do, short-term thinking. So, just accepting that reality, that where we are. That's where that organization is.
Elizabeth: one interesting thing that jumps out for me as you were sharing that. We had the opportunity to run a focus group. It's actually more like a large listening session with about 25 nonprofits that use a design thinking process to help them think about what partnership and collaboration in COVID looks like. And it was this really interesting dynamic conversation where people realize to your point, they can't go it alone. So if I am struggling. And you're struggling. Chances are we're struggling in different areas. So how can I support you? How can you support me? And so getting these organizations together to brainstorm and think about what might a more collaborative future look like, where could we partner and share resources. Share connections, share relationships, maybe even go after [some] larger foundation or larger grant money through a more collective collaborative pool. So having those conversations I think is incredibly powerful and it was really neat listening to the different connections that some of these groups were making.
And some of them were connections that you would think are sort of obvious, like, okay, we all work in early childhood education. So we could all band together this way. However, some of the connections were a little bit less obvious: people might've been in the same geographic region or they might've had similar funders or had similar interests in the business community where they could bring boards together to leverage resources that way. So again, I think it's just another opportunity to be really creative. And mindful about how to do business differently.
Carol: Yeah. I love the point that you're making that, organizations may be struggling, but they're probably not all struggling in the same way and something is going well in the organization.
And how can they share that with others?
Elizabeth: Yeah exactly. And you talked about communications. Can you say a little bit more about [the] organizations that are doing this well are really focusing on that. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how, if, if an organization wanted to spend more time focused on that, what they might do? I think it's about the organization and the people within it, having real time access. And all getting information at the same time. So making sure that everybody has access to information and resources that people understand what decision-making processes are in place around the information that's being communicated to them, that they understand what next steps are. One of the things that we talk about at the team level is something as simple as putting together a team charter that identifies communication protocols, who's responsible for communicating what we talk about to other areas or groups within the organization. So information it's like water, it's a waterfall, right? It should cascade from one group to the next group and it should go up through the organization as well as down through the organization. So I think groups that are doing this well, have an actual communication plan in place where they're thinking about who needs to know what, when, and they're transparent, they're not operating in silos or hoarding information. And some of that can be done through technology. Things like Slack, for example, gives you the opportunity to send information to everybody, as opposed to maybe an email where I forgot to include a name, but it's not just technology. It's also about behaviors and habits and transparency, which I think is equally as important.
Carol: Yeah, because oftentimes, organizations relied on informal processes that people didn't really think about how information was disseminated. May it may be a few key pieces where an email goes out to everybody, but oftentimes it was much more informal. Oh, you went to that meeting and then you stop by and see somebody. And, Oh, what, what did you talk about in that? What's going on with your team and you don't have those opportunities in a remote working environment to be able to bump into people and have those informal. So it all has to be much more intentional and much more explicit. And I also appreciated what you said about decision making, because that's, I think another area where there've been a lot of implicit norms that people have about how decisions get made, but there isn't necessarily a common kind of. Yeah. Explicit understanding of how that happens. Yeah.
Elizabeth: We've actually sat down with teams and done decision trees. Right. So this is a particular type of decision who needs to be involved, who needs to be communicated with whoever is the ultimate decision maker on this. And what's fascinating about doing that. I mean, it sounds like a boring exercise, but what's fascinating about that is you get three or four people around a table. They have completely different understandings of how a simple decision should be made. Right. And you realize these are things we don't really talk about in team meetings. We talk about the work that needs to get done, but we don't often talk about the process by which that work happens. And that brings me full circle back to my passion for sociology and looking at how that applies to an organization because the, how the work happens. In many cases it is much more important and impactful because you cannot have an impact or the impact that you want in the community. If you're not operating in a way that is sustainable or that builds internal capacity.
Carol: Yeah. And so that also brings to mind something that you mentioned before of workflow mapping and all of these things, if someone's struggling to keep their head above water, they're like, well, you don't have time to do all of this. And yet, investing a little bit of time in doing these things that can seem prosaic and boring can actually almost, get, get, get some of the static out of the system because people then have a common understanding.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of the manager who says I'm so busy. I don't have time to delegate yet. They're so busy that if they actually could delegate, they would be in a much less stressful position. It's sort of that same notion.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. So I know that you in addition to leading brighter strategies, you're a professor. So I thought you would appreciate this question. If you could instantly be an expert in any subject, what would it be and why?
Elizabeth: Ooh, any subject. Okay. So my husband has tried to explain how electricity works to me probably 50 times. And I get it. It's like water. That's what he keeps telling me. But I don't get it. I just do not understand. It's like magic. You flip a light switch on and it happens. And I just have never really understood hard sciences were never a strength of mine. So if I could be instantly smart at something, it would be understanding some of the hard sciences, understanding how things work so that I could have an actually a more intelligible conversation with him and others. When those sorts of topics come up. You bring up anything science oriented and I'm like, I have no idea.
Carol: So it's how things work versus how people work. Yeah. All right. Well what are you excited about with your work? What's coming up next for you and what's, what's emerging in the, in the work that you're doing.
Elizabeth: Well, I'm really excited about a new project. We have for February, for black history month, and then for March for women's history month, we have our highlighting clients and individuals running nonprofits here in the DC area that we're doing little biographies on them and the impact of their work within their community. So we have a couple up on the website. Site already for February. And we've got a couple more coming up in March and we're going to be continuing that throughout the year. And it's just a really awesome way to point out really good organizations doing great work with amazing leaders. So I would encourage people to check out the blog on our website and to read a little bit about some of the amazing leaders that are out there.
Carol: Well, we will put a link in the show notes to that. So thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Elizabeth: it was great to be here. Thanks, Carol
In episode 19 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Nancy Bacon discussed include:
- Learning in nonprofit organizations
- The best methods nonprofits or associations can use to train their staff
- How habits and accountability helps people follow through on the behavior change they are aiming for
Nancy Bacon is a teacher, instructional designer, and learning strategist who has worked for over 25 years in the nonprofit sector. She works with nonprofits, associations, and networks to strengthen how nonprofits are able to serve their communities. She has trained thousands of people in-person and online, speaks on learning and leadership, and writes books and blogs on topics at the intersection of learning and nonprofits. Nancy also co-hosts the
Nonprofit Radio Show.
Carol: Welcome Nancy, it's great to have you on the podcast.
Nancy: I'm delighted to be here with you.
Carol: Just to start us out, could you tell me what really drew you to the work that you do and what, what would you say is your why and what motivates you?
Nancy: when I first thought about this question, I was thinking, what is this work, this work being nonprofits. And, I think what drew me to that work is the same that draws many of us, and that is the desire to serve and to make the world a better place. But then I started to drill down into the question and what my work specifically is really at the intersection of nonprofits and learning. And so that got me really thinking about. the larger story. And I have to say that, that I have always been working with one foot in two places. So I'm always playing in two different sandboxes at the same time. And, even going back to like, you and I both went to Swarthmore and we had that experience and I was an economics, German literature, double major. And people thought that, that's crazy, but there was a desire to both play in the organizational development analytical world, but also to play in that world of the human story and language. So I have found that those two threads have carried me through and that, having been a teacher and created learning programs and all that, living in the world of learning, but also living in the world of nonprofits and so many nonprofit people are accidental non-profit people, right. They start because they care about something. And then all of a sudden they have to do that compliance stuff or read a balance sheet, or, have a board that misbehaves there's something there. I really was called to this work of working at the intersection of learning and nonprofits. And having a foot in both of those spaces and doing whatever I can to bring them together. Cause I think ultimately that's how nonprofit nonprofits are going to thrive.
Carol: Yeah. You talk about that intersection. And it sounds like you were a double major before that was super popular with everyone, everyone having a double major, but I appreciate how there are some people who are super focused and they have, they have one goal. They have a clear sense of their purpose. And then there are others of us and I'll include myself who meander a little bit. And, and I appreciate that sense of being in to, having to two focuses not necessarily only right. One. But why, why do you think is so important for nonprofit organizations and professionals?
Nancy: So if we think about like, what are the big issues we want for nonprofits, we want nonprofits to be sustainable. We want nonprofits to integrate equity into their daily lives. We want nonprofits to collaborate and we assume that they know how to do those things. We assume that it's just natural, that they figure out how to work together or that it's just intuitive to integrate equity and into their day-to-day lives. And we expect that while off, they're often really struggling, particularly now during COVID times, just those day-to-day activities of raising money and finding volunteers and keeping your board meeting that's hard enough. And then we put this other stuff on top of it. So. I believe that there's a whole world of understanding and knowledge and experience around adult learning around behavior change around psychology and how we move people to action. And that the only way we're ever going to achieve our nonprofit goals. Is, if we figure out how to take everything we know about learning and action and make sure that nonprofit people have that available to them, that, we've all been to those nonprofit trainings that are ghastly, where somebody who's a really good fundraiser is just telling you what want Y how to raise money. And so much time is wasted. if we could actually have excellence in learning every time we're going to get where we need to go with nonprofits, I think.
Carol: Yeah. I worked for an association for a while and, and the, the members were all people who worked with them. They worked in higher education and so they weren't, they weren't teachers, they weren't on the faculty side of things. They were on the student service side. And we had a very robust training program to train them in the basics of that field and all the very intricate and arcane knowledge that they had to have around immigration visas and all sorts of different technical issues. And We ended up having to build out a whole program to train all of our, essentially what we're subject matter experts into and train them how to actually help people learn what they already knew. And what was the, one of the most interesting things in working with some of those groups was how when you get a bunch of experts in the room, they want to talk about all the exceptions. They want to talk about the really interesting, intricate 10% of the cases that they experience. And so they want to share that with the audience, having forgotten that the audience doesn't even know the basics. And so, we kept having to steer them to the, what was to them was the boring 80%. but like, what are the actual fundamentals of this? And then how do you help people actually practice it? So it's not just this big data dump of information. But they actually have some, some way in the learning you're offering to, to practice what they're, you know what you're asking them to then go back to the office and apply.
Nancy: Absolutely. And, there's so much really interesting research around that. There's really interesting research around how information, how, like, what is knowledge and how does knowledge get created and what does prior knowledge, what you already know will dictate what you can know. And so what does that mean? If you have an expert in the room? There's another interesting statistic I read recently that experts tend to leave out 70% of what learners need to know. Well, okay.
Carol: So, I guess that it was 80% and then the research says it was 70. Okay.
Nancy: Yeah, but I mean, whatever that is, it just says that your best trainers are probably not your experts. I just did a curriculum development project this morning with wonderful people doing really important work in the world. And they are making so many assumptions that I, as an outsider, I keep asking what, may sound dumb questions, but they're truly honest questions that I'm trying to understand so that I can help them teach others about their work. So that's the stuff that if we can bring that research. Informed, adult learning practice into nonprofits, we are going to get, it's going to be so much easier. Yeah, because
Carol: There is so much that people have to learn, and often are either accidental fundraisers, accidental marketers, or accidental managers of boards, all of those things that come with nonprofit work. And yeah, there is no you don't just walk in the office and drink, drink the water and somehow you've learned it all. And then, so many, many organizations are offering training. But is it actually resulting in people learning and being able to do the work better when they get back to the office?
Nancy: That's a great question. And, and, and I think that's a culture shift. So within the nonprofit world, we have very much a consumption mentality when it comes to training. you need to know how to fundraise, go to a training. Oh, I went to a training, therefore there's some assumption that your performance is going to be different. So I think that a key piece to this is really moving to a place where we're outcome-based, we're performance-based are people actually doing the job differently because of whatever we've put into place. But I think the other culture shift that needs to happen is moving away from workshops as the. the pinnacle of training and I deliver a whole lot of workshops. This is, this is my bread and butter. And yet I am now consistently advising people to, to slow down with the workshops and do much more around templates and tools and job aids and micro learning and really understanding the workflow. It could be that trainings aren’t what's needed. Yeah, there's an, a myriad of other things that you can do to improve performance that's outside of a training.
Carol: Yeah, I'm thinking of an instance when I, I started a new job and the, the time that I started that job, the, the organization, it was a small organization and they had a big event coming up. So they were particularly overwhelmed at that moment. And I wanted to be able to help out and chip in with the team. And they gave me a very discreet task that had to do with the, the, the, the. The event that was coming up. And the fact that I had to go find that information based on an actual task than an actual product that was going to help the team. I actually remembered so many more of the things that I ended up having to go find. Then if I had sat in a room and people would just talk to me about it, all that engagement with it and acting, I think trainers know things about what, templates and tools and micro-learning and job aids. Can you, especially microlearning and job aids. Can you describe a little bit more about what you mean by that and what those are?
Nancy: Yeah, so it really, I mean, they really are learning when you need it, not learning when that training is being offered. So that notion that - and I particularly want to talk about not learning just when you need it, but when your colleagues need it. So for example, you want to improve how your board raises money. And so you could send your whole board to some training and maybe some fraction of your board will go. And whether they apply that training is pretty hit or miss instead, what you can do is record a short video with very outcome-based ideas. As a board, I want you to do these three things, a, B and C. And you make that video short enough that it fits within a board meeting. So we all train our boards to leave 10 minutes, 15 minutes for learning. And so why not provide them with the tools to fill that time and the support that they then need, so then job aids would then support that. So that would be, what do you need to do the job? And as you mentioned, you have a checklist. It could be, we talk a lot in the nonprofit where you go to meetings and Hey, you wrote that great fundraising letter. I stole it. And I'm using air quotes for the radio audience here. I stole it in order to because it was such a great fundraising letter, but that's a worked template. That is a worked example. It's a job aid and I think, yeah, that fine. That's working within that culture of sharing. So that's what I'm speaking of with job aids
Carol: Yeah. And the idea of - and making a video may sound intimidating, but I've started using, and this is a particular tool that's available right now. One called loom where you can just make little short videos, could just be a screen-share. Very easy. You push a button and it starts recording. And I've done that to tell team members, Oh, I'd you to do this thing and I'm going to show you how to do it. And they're never, well, you're not allowed to have, it would be more than five minutes or at least on this account. So that keeps me in that very short, very focused. And, and then, then it's not hard to do. Cause I think video. May sound intimidating, but if you keep it simple it doesn't, it doesn't have to be an, it can be, we can make videos on our phone and easily on a computer. So it's, it can be accessible for, for groups.
Nancy: It absolutely can. And all of us are zoom masters now, right? We all got the certification that we know how to do breakout rooms. And so I've done short videos on zoom where I all teach a class and I might have a little bit of homework and, or a little bit of explanation that I want to provide. So I'm just going to hop right back on zoom and record myself telling them something. And then I upload it to YouTube, so that they can access it that way. But I mean, there's tools all around us.
Carol: Right. Right. And what would you describe as a learning mindset for organizations?
Nancy: That's a great question. I think the first thing is to understand that that learning itself has research behind it. So. Education in general suffers from this problem. And it starts in K-12 education where we all went to school. So we all know what good school is. Right. And we're always anecdotal about it, what should happen in third grade? Well, when I was in third grade, this happened, or as soon as we have children, we then refer to that as our anecdotal experience. Right? Well, my third grader, X. Okay. And learning in general isn't professionalized - we don't consider it as a profession. We don't think about it in terms of, there are people who are actually experts in adult learning. And so when I think about workshop presenters or people who are training. I don't look just for content. We want excellent content. I want you to know your stuff, but I also want you to have that adult learning piece so that you are, you have that mindset, that, that teaching itself is a profession. It is something to be good at. So I think that's the first piece.
Carol: For sure. And how would you, you talked about that, the research being behind adult learning, what are some of the things, if folks are not familiar of some of the principles of adult learning, what would you name for them as a good starting place to, to think about and how they might shift their training even just a little bit so that it's more learning.
Nancy: Yeah. So some of the ideas that I love to play around with, so cognitive overload, where, we know this, our brains can only handle so much, so we know that intellectually, but how do we then integrate it in our PowerPoints? How do we integrate it into our delivery? Things that. The other thing that I love talking about is forgetting and memory that we tend to say, Oh, I told you that and you still haven't done it. What's wrong with you. And we don't really acknowledge the fact that people only, remember things in that we can do things to help them remember, and we can do things to decrease that forgetting curve. And that, that, that right there could set you up for more success. So those are just two ideas that I like to play with.
Carol: Yeah. And I mean, I don't think I remember anything anymore. I just rely on the electronic to-do lists that I update at the end of every day to make sure that I know what I'm supposed to do the next day.
Nancy: No, I think that's, we all rely on that. And yet we still obviously have. So much knowledge that we have gained over the years and all of that, I think so another point that I just want to bring up and it, because it goes to something I said earlier, and that is the research around fast thinking and slow thinking and that we tend to be very efficient minded. We got to just get it done. We tend not to make time for reflection. And it's the research by Daniel Kahneman and thinking fast and slow, that research and that Culture shift learning mindset is really going to help us to get where we need to go as a sector. So for nonprofits to actually embrace equity, to look at co collaboration, to look at ways to be sustainable we need that slow reflection time along with our fast thinking that we have just to get the job done.
Carol: And can you give me an example of what that slow thinking that slow, that reflection time might look like? In a week of, I don't know, a fundraiser.
Nancy: Yeah, well, and there's big chunks of time and, and small chunks of time and alone time and together time. So it might look like, keeping your Wednesdays free of all meetings so that you can slow down and think about something. It might mean at the end of every meeting with your staff, you might carve out an hour to just think about what happened there and what you're going to do, and really frame it around. What are the key questions that you need to get answered? So that's building in time for you as an individual to address that, that reflection. I love Paula Fraidy, the Brazilian sociologist who talks about that connection between reflection and action. That reflection with no action is, is some version of navel gazing, right? I'm paraphrasing and action with no reflection is uninformed. So you really need to have that reflection and action paired together. But in addition to that, I think it's important to reflect collectively, so to reflect together. And that might look like a board retreat. I'm sure you facilitate a lot of board retreats and gatherings and having just that right level of collective reflection so that people are sharing their ideas together. I think that's also really important for nonprofits.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes that's when organizations bring in someone from the outside, whether it's a board retreat or for a strategic planning process, or to help them think through, what their, what their program outcomes are, what their theory of change is. And often folks are very focused on what the outcome of that process is going to be. But I think oftentimes it's the. The framing and the, the one giving people space to, to actually slow down and think, and have a shared conversation that can get to exactly what you were talking about before, with where you're under. You're you're, you're helping people say what their assumptions are, get those out loud and to, to see whether there's shared understanding across the group. And so for me as a consultant, The quality of the conversation and the process is as important as a good product at the end of it.
Nancy: I think that's really important. And I think that's where so good learning also has that level of accountability. I think a really interesting idea to think about is this whole idea of how to make learning, stick, how to make learning transfer happen such that not only do they learn stuff, but they do things differently later. I mean, there are so many examples all around us. so many people are learning how to, so for example, The people want to learn how to sew masks and, and help out there. So you need to have the goal I want to, so, 50 masks for frontline workers, and then you have that reflection time of, okay. I cut out that pattern out of the New York times, but I'm not really sure it's going to work. In fact, it didn't work the first time I tried it, so I had to remake it. And then there's that accountability piece that 's going to make sure that you follow through when you actually do what you say you're going to do. So what friend is going to call you to make sure you've got those 50 masks on?
Carol: Right. And then, that product at the end documents the agreements that people came through through the process. And so you can then check, check in on those and see, okay, are we, are we doing the things that we said we were going to do? And of course then evaluate, perhaps some of them are, Things have changed and we need to refresh this. They're not as relevant anymore. But it's that those processes really almost enable an organizational level learning where oftentimes people only think about learning as at the individual level.
Nancy: I'm really glad you brought that up because I think a key piece to this is that strategy. And I invite people to have their own learning strategy, over the next year. Hey, we're almost at the beginning of the year, you might think, over the course of 2021, what do I need to learn? And who's going to hold me accountable, but then you also have that organizational and I would even say sector level learning. So at the organizational level if you want your board to help you raise money, for example, What does your learning program look to support that? What is the group learning individual learning? How are you going to really look at behavior change and how are you going to support it? Not just the learning in terms of workshops, but those job aids that we talked about earlier, those tools that are going to help at a sector level. I also think that we need a strategy and a lot of our nonprofit state associations or a sector level. Associations are hopefully trying to move the needle on things. And those guys having a learning strategy is also really important for that alignment so that we actually get the movement that we need.
Carol: And what are you seeing in terms of that? Are you seeing collaborations across those organizations to, to try to create that or,
Nancy: I'm experiencing that the concept of a learning strategy is a new idea that a lot of, a lot of associations or nonprofits or consultants even don't quite yet have that learning strategy. I see a lot of, of these various groups, just, they put out a lot of work. So they're either doing trainings or they're producing, white papers or checklists or whatever. But I don't necessarily see that there's a strategy behind it. It's more of a, I, what do you think, would you say, is there a strategy behind stuff or is it just churning stuff out? I mean,
Carol: I think there are different levels of sophistication in that arena. And yeah, I think, for a lot of organizations, if they have the luxury of having someone who's actually in charge of training or learning people come to that with various backgrounds and a lot of people don't necessarily have a background in, in adult learning. And so they replicate what they've seen at many. Conferences, trainings, workshops and all that. It's so much easier to ask presenters to do something that is very much for the participant, when I have heard other people refer to it as the sit in and get just listening to lectures. And it, or panel discussions, all those things that we're very familiar with in terms of conferences. And, and it's very few organizations I would say, are doing a lot that really aligns with how we know, that brings that, that knowledge around how, what we know about how people learn and how to, how to deliver that. So that, so that there is some behavior change. And you, you talked about behavior change. I'm wondering what are some things that the research says actually supports that?
Nancy: Well, we talked about that accountability piece that that's, that's important. There's some really interesting research around identity and. And moving people to, to be who they think that they are. So, really interesting research from Robert Cialdini and Pre-Suasion for example, that I hold up as a great example in the nonprofit sector. So his research, I forget the exact numbers, but it's something if I ask you for your email address on the street, would you give it to me? Chances are no. If I say, Carol, are you an adventurous person? You'll probably say yes. May I have your email address? And the rate by which you'll give me your email address goes way up. And why is that? I've invited you into a certain identity that you now want to live up to. And Robert Cialdini provides lots of examples of that, and there's a great leading learning podcast where they interview him. For that. So, so, so that directly ties to the nonprofit world. When I first heard that podcast, it was at a time where leading board curriculum designers were talking about, the failure of board members that board members were not living up to their jobs. They were not raising money. They were not doing advocacy. There was some report card that came out that said they were failing. And I, I just found that so sad. Not that board members are supposedly feeling, but that we missed the boat on inviting, calling out the courage that I believe all board members have. Board members are incredibly courageous to step forward and serve their community on the whole. And I just need you to be a little bit more courageous. Will you call your legislator? Will you call your friend and help, fill up that table at our next gala. Why are we not using this notion of identity to lift people up and to celebrate who they are rather than push them down. So that's like, that's a long answer to your question about behavior change, but that's one little piece that sparked some ideas for me.
Carol: Well, I guess that's an old why you, I was just in a, in a session today where I was doing I'm in the middle of a strategic planning process with the organization and Today's session was helping them do visioning. So who do they want to be in five years? And, they gotta elaborate that the things that they came up with were way beyond the capacity of the organization as it is today, but just imagining those things. I think, yeah, as you say, creates those aspirational lenses to then say, okay, so what are the three things we can do? that, that we do have funding for that? We do have a capacity for that'll get us a little closer to that aspiration. I'm not, I'm not one for having plans that are so aspirational that they're, that they're just pie in the sky. But I think for a moment within the process to invite that bigger. Like, what's the really big thing we're trying to do here can be
Nancy: helpful. Right. And, and inviting people we are an organization that is learningful. That is curious. That is that walks the talk. When it comes to equity, inviting people to say, we are this then invites everyone to really get up behind that. And that's when you start to have behavior change. I mean, another example, being James Clear, who wrote the book Atomic Habits, he talks about if you're trying to change your behavior around exercise, it's one thing to change your routine. It's another thing to change your goals, but what he cites as, as what all the evidence says is changing your, or naming your identity. I am someone who exercises. That is more likely to get you into the habit of exercising and, and habits are where it's at, when it comes to behavior change, right? we don't want people to do things once we want them to do it every time. So really understanding what we know about habits can really move boards in the nonprofits in general, in the right direction.
Carol: As you were talking about the boards and the research is they're failing, they're not doing what they're supposed to do. There's so much angst around what role does, is the board supposed to play? How are they supposed to work with staff? And it does sometimes feel a little punitive. So, what is, what does a courageous board look like? And yeah. And then you also named some very concrete things. And I want you to do this one thing. I want you to make one phone call to a friend to do this, so it's not only an aspiration, but also something very concrete that is doable. You can put on your to-do list, you can check it off and get that, whatever the hormone is. The ha when you, when you accomplish something to feel good about yourself and then want to do the
Nancy: next thing. Exactly. And then you want to come to the next board meeting. You want to, you want to participate? I have an experience with a board where every meeting is so incredibly negative that that many of us have just stopped. Paying much attention to it. How do we flip that? How do we make it such that we want to give, we want to come together. That's all, when I talk about learning, I want to be clear and I should have said this right at the top, I'm talking about every single thing it takes to move people to action. So not just learning in terms of knowledge, but learning in terms of knowledge, skill, behavior, and really changing our practice over and over so that we're, we're delivering on whatever it is we're supposed to be doing.
Carol: Yeah. And so often, I mean, there's all the nuts and bolts things that people have to learn to actually run the organization. But so often the programs that are being designed are there, their ultimate goal is to produce some behavior change with the people that they're working with. And too often, you'll see, the, the, the outcome as they understand this and they understand that and they understand the other. And of course, what we also understand about understanding is that it doesn't necessarily produce action.
Nancy: You're absolutely right. I love the article and I forget, I think it was Brian Washburn who, who referred me to it a long time ago and that is change or die. And it came out by fast company. an online article that I read and it is so interesting because it talks about, if I asked you to fundamentally change your life, Change what you eat, how you exercise, blah, blah, blah, would you do it? And I run this in trainings and people are often like, yeah, of course I would. Well, the research says, no, you would not. Even if you were going to face a really painful, open-heart surgery, you would not change your ways. And so my laugh line when I deliver a board training is so if you're not going to change your life, your life to stay alive. Why would you change your ways for a volunteer gig that meets once a month on Thursdays? You're not right. So these are the kinds of things that I think are really interesting to think about internally, as you say, we're pretty good at thinking about our clients or, how do we get those folks out there in the community to do what we need them to do? We sometimes think about that, but then how do we think about internally within our organization as well?
Carol: And I think, as you talked about the fast thinking and slow thinking, if people are just running at a million miles an hour all the time they'll keep, they'll keep doing, they'll keep producing, but they're not taking that time to reflect on how this is working? How might we be doing it differently? What have we learned from all of this that we've done in the last, whatever number of funds and all of this sounds? I mean, I think it's sometimes I can, I can just imagine a little eye-rolling going on Oak to consultants talking about this time to have reflection. I'm trying to keep my, my organization afloat. So, what, what, where do I have the time? But I think even big organizations that have lots of resources, there is this pressure to just be moving all the time. And so I don't actually think it often doesn't necessarily have to do with the amount of resources, but more to do with the commitment to take the time.
Nancy: Well, there's certainly the commitment to take the time. And then how do you use that time? That I think that I don't want to, I mean, I, if you have the time to sit around and just reflect emptily with a journal and just imagine. Okay. But most people don't have that time. So then what I would say is even micro bits of reflection around framing some big questions in front of you. And, I've been teaching a curriculum development class, it's been super fun. And what I'm, what I'm trying to get people to to think about is how, how do you live in that divergent phase? And this from strategic planning, right? how do you get people to just. Then time in that divergent phase before they then start closing doors in the convergent phase. And how do you work on that skill of being comfortable in the unknown, being comfortable in that ambiguity, being comfortable, just playing around with ideas. And so I think, carving out that reflection time with a very clear sense that for 30 minutes, I want to be in that divergent phase to just play around with all the toys in the toy box. And then after 30 minutes, I can start to, to narrow the scope as to what, what we will carry forward into our organization.
Carol: Yeah. And I think well just for one. Convergent and divergent, divergent being opening it up and, and thinking of all the different possibilities convergent as you converge and come to some agreements start calling down. Yeah, I'm often when I'm talking to people about brainstorming and some people love it and some people hate it. And so for the people who hate it, I was like, well, we're holding to do it for a set amount of time. Mm. And the reason that we say things like, there are no bad ideas, which of course we know there are bad ideas. You just can't do both at the same time. Your brain needs to be able to go wild and then come back together. But even thinking about the session that I did today and we were. We were less, we were, the very first session was all going wide. And I warn them ahead of time. We are, we are exploring today. We are not deciding. And then this session today was like, we were doing a little bit of both. So, but still, mostly on the. Exploring side. And there was definitely at the end, folks who are like, I'm really eager to get to action. I'm eager to get tangible and make some decisions. And I think even just warning them that that's where we would be in that two hours helps a little bit with that sense of can we just decide already.
Nancy: Right. But it, and it's that's where it's such a waste of time to make the wrong decision. So there's times to make decisions and times not to, but, but I think, I mean, you asked earlier about what's in that learning mindset. And I think part of that learning mindset is. Is an appreciation for playing with ideas, a curiosity, a desire to play in that space where anything is possible, but having a framework for doing that. So whether it's limiting the time or model thinkers is a new online list of great ideas. And I love it. And they just came out with a frame storming idea where it's not brainstorming open-ended, but it's frame storming where there's kind of, you put a frame around it with key questions. Another example I heard recently was, what ideas would solve a problem, but get you fired. I love that. I love that because it was funny. My husband's a school principal and he started to have lots of fun with that, what are, what would solve the problem, but get you fired, and then the follow-up question is, ‘okay, well, what would have to happen to make those things happen?’ Like, then you drill down into each of those ideas and there are nuggets in there. you may not go all the way to the idea that would get you fired, but there may be little nuggets in there that are worth pursuing and that could save you time. It could save you money. So those people who want to rush to conclusions and make those decisions, they may regret that if they see some of these other ideas come out.
Carol: Yeah. And I think, yeah, brainstorming Dunwell definitely has those framing questions that, that sets some parameters and kind of, what's the playing field that we're on right now. What, what are we considering? What's inbounds what's out of bounds, that thing. So at the end of each episode, I play a little game where I ask an icebreaker question. And so I've got three out here and I'm going to choose one. So if you could buy your dream house, what is one weird room or feature you would have?
Nancy: I would have a little artist studio. Not that I'm a particularly good artist, but I hack at it. And I sew, I paint, and I don't clean up afterwards. So if I had my own room, I would not have to clean up.
Carol: Well, I'd be in agreement with you. That's one of the things I might do in the same space that I'm in right now is just to create, although I don't think I could do painting because it would be a little too messy, but just to, just to play around and I, and I refuse the term artists, cause it feels that's way too much pressure. I'm just somebody who plays around with this stuff. So
Nancy: yes, but, but I'm so glad that that you do, because to go back to our, our topic here of learning is we all want to have that beginner's mindset and there's no better way to have a beginner's mindset than to, than to play around in a, in a motor, a medium that's that doesn't come naturally. So that's so fun.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Nancy: I'm really excited about three workshops I'm working on in March. I have two with my colleague, Scott Schaefer. He is a finance wizard and we're running a class on mergers and on finance strategy. So both. Excellent. And then to go to our conversation earlier, I am teaching a learning strategy class and I am very excited about that.
Carol: Well, excellent. People can learn more about that. And we'll put links in the show notes so that you can, everyone can find Nancy and find out all the good stuff that she's doing so well, thank you so much. It was great having the conversation.
Nancy: I've really enjoyed it. Thanks so much.
In episode 18 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guests, Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee discussed include:
Shelley Sanner, CAE, MA, Senior Vice President, Industry Relations:
As senior vice president of industry relations, Shelley fosters knowledge-sharing and partnerships to promote innovation and excellence within the association industry. Her main areas of focus include identifying association challenges and trends and translating them into resources that benefit the community at-large. She also coordinates McKinley’s presence at events and within industry publications to ensure that we serve as a resource to the community on best practices and other insights.
Before joining McKinley in 2007, Shelley served as Membership Director at a higher education association. On a national level, Shelley has served in various volunteer leadership positions, taught courses and presented at many industry events. She has a Master’s in liberal studies from Georgetown University and an undergraduate degree from Juniata College, where she majored in French and education.
Alanna Tievsky McKee, MSW, Director:
As a director within the consulting department, Alanna leads client engagements designed to maximize organizational efficiency and mission impact. She brings a creative and thoughtful approach to each of her clients, combining skills acquired through her training and experience as a consultant, clinician, and coach. During her time at McKinley, she has nurtured an expertise in member engagement and retention, strategic planning, governance and staff and volunteer leadership facilitation.
Alanna has worked in and with the nonprofit sector for more than a decade and has supported nearly 100 unique associations as a member of the McKinley team. She is a social worker by trade and feels passionate about helping individuals and organizations solve challenges and reach their full potential. Alanna holds an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in nonprofit management and a B.A. in developmental neuropsychology from the University of Rochester.
Contact our Guests
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Shelley and Alanna to the podcast. Great to have you on today.
Shelley Sanner and Alanna McKee: Thanks for having us.
Carol: I’d just like to start out and for each of you, ask what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you say is your why? Shelly, why don't you go first.
Shelley: I'm thinking of my colleague who is waiting for their CAE exam results right now. So that's probably top of mind but yeah, the CAE was really a pivotal moment for me. I passed the exam and I was in a large higher ed association. I realized that I knew a lot more after having taken the exam than I did before. I wanted to become more of a generalist and in a larger association, sometimes it's hard to grow and move up and have more oversight over areas. A friend and colleague of mine through ASAE reached out and said, ‘I think you might be interested in my company.’ And it was McKinley. That’s what brought me to McKinley 13 years ago.
Carol: Could you just tell people what the CAE and ASAE are?
Shelley: Sure! ASAE is an association for association professionals. So anyone working in an association at any level could join, and the CAE is Certified Association Executive, and it means that you've made a commitment to stay in the field. Technically it means that you have aspirations to one day lead an association, but a lot who passed the exam or take the exam, moved from industry roles to consulting like I did.
Carol: How about for you Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah! I took a fortuitous path to get to McKinley. I started my career as a clinical social worker, working with students in schools and ran into so many systemic policy issues that, at a certain point, I decided I needed to make change at a higher level. So I went into an association and worked on mental health policy. Eventually I heard about McKinley and really saw it as an opportunity to affect change of the world at an even higher level than I was doing at my job at the association. I'm a firm believer that associations make the world go round. They impact every industry and profession that we have, and I see my role as supporting associations doing their best work. So I'm really driven by my opportunity to better every profession or industry that I touch throughout that association.
Carol: So often I feel like I have to explain to people what associations are often starting like: well, what's the field that you're in? Then, so are you a member of an organization that brings everybody in your field together? Okay. Well that means that you're a part of an association. And if one were to fall apart, someone else would say, ‘shouldn't we all be working together towards common goals’ and they'd recreate it. So, what, what would you say since you've got that higher-level view of working with lots of different clients in the association space, what would you say are some of the key trends that you've been noticing over the last couple of years as you've been working with clients?
Alanna: Sure. So one, is this a real focus from the member standpoint on customer service and customer experience? I think this is a trend that we're seeing outside of the association space, but just generally in how we like to operate with the organizations and businesses that we buy from, or the restaurants we go to. I think Amazon has really created an incredible standard in terms of the customer experience. It is so easy to buy something from Amazon and our expectations as a customer or stakeholder. We want our association to deliver that same experience and ensure our website that the opportunity to engage in education, networking that we're consistently delivering a really strong customer experience with best in class customer service is necessary. So that's definitely one of the themes I'm noticing. Another would be that this previous approach of ‘one size fits all’ really doesn't work anymore. Our associations are becoming more diverse in terms of the stakeholder groups that are encompassed within an association. Those groups have very unique needs and preferences that we have to address. It's our responsibility to have a comprehensive understanding of the unique groups within our membership and deliver experiences that are meaningful and that support those groups’ needs to the best of our ability.
Carol: Shelly, do you have other observations?
Shelley: It gets to the heart of the value proposition. I think it's really customized because it's something people have created for themselves. I've been thinking recently about what I'm missing right now in my professional career and my professional development. It's the fact that I used to go to face-to-face meetings and, organically or intentionally, run into a lot of people I knew. That was the same network that introduced me to McKinley and got me my job. It's the same network that has mentored me, has supported me, has taught me things has really upped the game in some cases. I feel like this past year - and hopefully on into the future - there's been this renewed focus on humanity like that. We are human beings and people have really struggled over the past year. There's been more transparency around those struggles and honesty around that. There's also the need to connect with others, which is such a basic need, but it's something we realized we took for granted. I wonder, how can associations take the model that they have in place and this incredible ability to convene people, and through no direct action, connect people together just to provide a forum for people to meet each other. What does it mean to young professionals who don't have that? They're not going to face-to-face meetings and making connections with future employers or mentors or peers. What does that gap look like and how can association really get at the heart of humanity and get to the heart of the emotional or psychological challenges and struggles that people have and really create a stronger emotional bond and build that loyalty and that engagement with the association? I don't have an answer to that. It's actually something that's been in the back of my head, but it really struck me recently that I think there's something there because the associations are well poised to leverage that and strengthen that sense of community.
Carol: Yeah. But in terms of that humanization and being so limited now, in terms of only being able to connect people with people remotely through screens, through virtual meetings, the things that work that are hard to do and yet easy to do in terms of delivering content and information, and knowledge which has always been central to associations, has been able to continue and organizations where I participated in virtual conferences this year. Organizations did a great job of pivoting quickly to that. And yet all that hidden part, or maybe it wasn't visible because we hadn't yet missed it. It was that thing that suddenly was gone: the face-to-face meeting of the person that you meet at the cocktail hour, or in line for coffee, or all those kinds of things. In the virtual space, having to be much more intentional about how you help people create those connections, I think it can be done. I think it just hasn't - I don't know that it hasn't been created, I'm sure that there's somebody who's doing a good job in that already - but there are new tools or new ways of convening that need to be imagined so that that social aspect and that emotional aspect you're talking about can really be addressed and incorporated in a more intentional and explicit way, because I think that that desire to associate often comes from not wanting to feel alone in whatever struggles you're having in your profession.
Shelley: Yeah. And if I could give another example, because I realized there were two things embedded in what I was saying, one is that we're all individuals and that humanization piece, and then the idea of community and connecting. I remember doing a focus group - it was probably 10 years ago - it was for a healthcare association, extremely high-achieving medical professionals, doctors. I remember in the focus group a woman saying, ‘when this association first introduced a dedicated room for nursing mothers, my loyalty went up exponentially. And I knew I could continue to come to this meeting and it changed my whole sense of how this association understood and was accommodating and thinking about me.’
I think about that now with parents trying to work and be successful and continue to advance in their careers with their kids at home, struggling and trying to learn. Does the association acknowledge that formally to show that we understand that this is a challenge and then try to create a community of support or try to help solve those challenges for trade association. What's the future of the workplace? We're trying to figure that out at McKinley. Could a trade association help its members? Figure that out and come up with a few models. That's being able to rapidly adapt by paying attention and listening to what people really need as individuals or as a collective.
Carol: And I think that goes to something that Alanna said around that customization that people expect and that personalization of dialing into the subsets of membership. So the woman who talked about the organization having a room for nursing. She may not have reflected the majority of that association at that point, and yet it was meeting a need that she had. So it helped her feel more connected, and that sense of belonging.
Alanna: Shelly, your thoughts also crystallize another theme that I've been seeing, not only in the association space, but generally the world, which is that younger generations are really focused on what companies or organizations are doing to better the world. Tom's is a great example of that. The shoe brand that donates a pair of shoes for everyone that's bought. For those who are super bowl fans, you've probably heard that Coke and Budweiser and several other organizations are not having commercials to promote their products this year. They are reallocating that money to support communications around the COVID-19 vaccine. That is a clear way that they're taking a stand to say, ‘hey, we hear you world. And we're going to do our part to support our communities, to support the health of our communities and better the world.’ Associations are perfectly positioned to do that same work, whether it is, volunteer opportunities for members, or thinking about how their specific industry perhaps impacts the environment. It will be increasingly important that associations consider how they can not just support their specific profession or industry, but their communities, country, or world at large, because this is something that's increasingly important to their customer base and may make or break the decision to engage as a member or customer.
Carol: Yeah. And when you look at the research around what motivates people, having a sense of a connection to purpose and mission is really key. I think younger generations, they're just more willing to put that upfront where folks in the past may not have felt like they had the agency to say ‘no, I need that.’ Yeah. What’s Shelly’s perspective on that?
Shelley: I agree with that. I was thinking about one of the other themes that's all over the literature and people are talking about it quite a bit. It relates less to the mission of the organization, or the brand, or the position of the organization. And that's been fascinating to watch, which associations are in this incubator. Over the past year, the whole world was in an incubator. The world changed so rapidly and radically. I mean, we all knew something was coming at McKinley of course, we said, ‘there's gonna be another downturn,’ economists were saying that also, but who would have ever thought it would have looked like it did and that it would have had so many prongs to it that fundamentally changed how we lived our lives every day. We've been really fascinated by associations in their response to that. And associations are made up of people who lead or execute, and this whole idea of creating an association that is something different from what it is today. So I think that the majority of association professionals we might talk to would say, ‘well, we should be more nimble and we should be more diversified.’ And I think that that is certainly a lesson learned. I think sometimes there are pitfalls of categorizing it or labeling it in that way, because we know that a lot of associations that were really diversified in their revenue portfolios actually struggled throughout COVID because those non-dues products were not successful. They didn't see the same numbers or had to really reduce fees for them. There seems to be the shift back to the core membership and how important that is as a concept, but also how important it is to have some dues revenue, not 95% dependency on dues, but also not 95% dependency on a trade show and the sponsorships that come with a trade show and everything affiliated with that. Then the idea of a nimble organization. We're definitely seeing that. It's one thing to say, ‘let's be more nimble,’ but how do you really create that environment and create the processes to support that? In some cases, how do you create the mindset and the people who are leading it, or the people who are working for that organization. That's been fascinating to watch and there are certainly resources out there that help create the discipline around it. The characteristics of CEOs or other leaders that translate in the depth into that type of a culture. I think change management is a big piece of it. How do you actually move that organization in the direction more than just the systems you might put in place, but it's certainly the culture and the change management. And then creating a structure that can ensure that the organization can continue to adapt in the future as it needs to, there's a lot of associations that look very similar to what they did 20 years ago or 10 years ago. There's not a lot of impetus to change an association sector.
Carol: Also, structurally there's a lot of things that actually impede any kind of nimbleness or being able to change rapidly. It's almost like the purpose of the Senate: to slow everything down, like the distributed democracy or the board, the relationship between the board and the leadership team and all of those different stakeholders that you have to take into consideration just means that everything takes longer. It is something like a crisis that then enables organizations to rapidly move from one state to another, where there were a lot of organizations that had been doing online learning for the last two decades, but it was always a minority of organizations, maybe a small portion of what they were doing. And then suddenly everybody had to figure out how to do it.
Alanna: Yeah, this idea of being nimble and agile, it's just so important considering the rapid pace of change going on in the world today and the volatility of our markets and industries there. Shelly touched on. Some really critical points around the culture piece and change management. When we talk about that and McKinley, this idea of having a nimble culture, we're asking, are we empowering our staff to execute their role? Do we have a culture of risk-taking and inquiry? Those are the kinds of building blocks to create this culture of being able to execute your work and doing it efficiently and effectively. Governance is also a huge part of this as well. Associations are very good at having bylaws that haven't been touched in years outside of having more and more policies and regulations added to them. So it's a great opportunity to dust those off and see, we built systems that support rapid decision-making and change. Or have we created a system that slows us down and prevents that agile, nimble execution?
Carol: I really appreciate what you're saying about, it's easy to say ‘we should be more nimble. We should be able to move and be innovative and all of those things, big big catch words, but really digging into what are the behaviors, what are the mores within an organizational culture that actually supports that? Or does the opposite, right? If it's not okay for anyone to make a mistake and admit it, you're not going to have a real risk-taking culture then.
Alanna: And, in order to be nimble and agile and stay effective, your organization also needs to have a solid strategic plan. So I think that the idea of having a strategic plan has become increasingly important as well. Knowing what your organization's goals are for the next three years, let's say, and having a clear charge for staff volunteer leaders. Ensuring alignment from top to bottom, for those organizations that don't have a strategic plan and are saying, well, I just don't know that this is the right time because of the volatility that's going on in the marketplace. Rather pace of change. Well, strategic plans are also meant to be nimble and agile. They're not something that's set in stone and put on the shelf. They should be revisited quarterly or yearly to make sure that they're still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, there's something that can be changed, but it's that guiding light that is going to unify the individual, the staff and volunteer leaders that work on your organization to ensure that we're all reaching that common goal. And for those organizations that do have an existing strategic plan that was perhaps created before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it's time to dust that off and take a look and, and make sure that it's still appropriate. Given what's going on in the world around you, I've worked with a handful of organizations. That needed to take a hard look. And in some cases it meant new priorities and letting go of others. For some, it was that the priority, these didn't change, but how the association was going to achieve those priorities, that shifted the approach. And having that clear plan to guide the organization forward I think, is critical. Then having the systems in place to execute your work in a nimble and agile way rounds it out.
Carol: Yeah. I think there's a temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water with, well, it's, everything's changing so fast right now. We can't possibly do planning. But yeah, strategic planning is more about setting some intention, setting some direction, creating some parameters, and it actually does help to what you were talking about before of empowering employees. If they know what the whole organization is moving towards and they have clarity around that. Then they have more agency to be able to step into their role and really fully execute it.
Alanna: That's exactly right.
Shelley: It's ironic but, to be more nimble, you really have to be more disciplined.
Carol: Say more about that because I think most people wouldn't see those two coming together.
Shelley: Being able to have a level of nimbleness requires an upfront. Dialogue and investment of time and development of structure to guide that otherwise nimbleness could take you in a lot of different directions with people moving within their departments into different areas and interpreting things differently. So it's like creating the glue that will bind everything together and then really. Putting it all together and having it be more solid. And another way to look at this is the re-skilling of professions and industries. That advocacy is always really important to associations. I mean obviously, the lobbying that happens, the presence on the Hill, those fly-ins that associations have, where they bring their members together to meet with Congress is so critical because people feel marginalized in their roles or they feel like they are not getting their burdensome regulations, or they're not being acknowledged in the way that they need to be. I think about all the hiring that Amazon is doing, and particularly in the shipping and delivery area, it's guaranteed that those people are going to be out of work within the next couple of years, because Amazon is absolutely going to automate that. They're going to automate delivery. They're going to automate shipping and packing. And so what happens to those people who during a crisis, struggled to find work and maybe found that field and entered that industry and now are going to have to reinvent themselves. It absolutely happened for meeting planners. This year. So it happens within the association community, but then it's also happening within the industry and the field. And if an association is not tight in terms of its own focus and its own approach to looking at the products and services it's offered, it's going to really struggle to be able to lead the industry or the field forward as that profession changes. So there are two ways of looking at the importance of nimbleness and looking at the importance of being disciplined to get to the nimble place.
Carol: Yeah. And I think going back to what you were saying before, in terms of being involved in workforce development and thinking about the field more broadly, you're serving the field. How are you part of essentially leading the field and being ready for things that are coming down the pike and making those necessary changes? What would you say are some of the ways we've been talking about them? What about other changes that the associations need to make to really adapt to these trends that we've been talking about this morning?
Alanna: I'd say one is really making a commitment to leveraging data, to improve your organization's performance. That's everything from collecting market research to understanding the needs of your membership so that you can deliver that customized experience to collecting data, to inform your strategic plan and tracking your progress towards achieving your goals.
Carol: So, Shelly: adaptations that associations are having to make in light of these changes, in light of these trends?
Shelley: I definitely agree with Alanna. We haven't talked about inclusion and diversity, but I mean, how can we get through a conversation without mentioning it? And associations are struggling to capture that demographic information, not everyone wants to share it, but I think there's so much to learn from this whole DEI movement, because a lot that's happening around that. It has to be more than just a statement or pledge. It has to be action. Well, that's the case for anything that you promise to your membership or make a commitment to advance for them? Capturing data and thinking about a baseline. If an association didn't capture data before COVID, it would probably be pretty disappointing because you couldn't go back and see how things changed or you can't necessarily see action and outcome and how those might be correlated because of something that you did. So I definitely agree. The data is really important. Obviously the mental health aspect of our current climate and how leaders can continue to rally volunteers and staff. I read an article recently about managers and leaders really trying to get into the thick of it with their staff and their teams, because it's not going to be enough to say, Oh, we're going to get through this. Like people realize this is very prolonged. And even when it gets better, it's not going to be better in the sense of what we knew before. So how to adapt the approach to communication and transparency and engagement of a team and motivating a team. I think that's going to need to change. And then I would just say an association really needs to look at its systems and its structure and its business model. So again, like so many organizations just get burnout or excited about the next new thing. And if you take some of these trends, we're talking about coming into a nimble organization, or really having an impact around DEI or the value proposition and being more customer centric, like a lot was talking about. You can't just do that for a couple of months and then move on to a new trend. Those have to be really embedded within the organization. People need to know how to execute on that. There needs to be a spotlight on that and accountability around that so that the organization can really fully realize the impact of it.
Carol: Anything you wanted to add Alanna?
Alanna: Yeah. So I couldn't agree more now is that a time to really invest in the organization to ensure that you're able to capitalize on these opportunities and, and thrive during this challenging time. So making sure that your staff have what they need to execute their role, that the systems are in place to support them, that they have a clear charge that they have the resources they need. Governance is another really important area that I think often gets overlooked. Our volunteer leaders are critical to the success of our organization and how much time have we invested in ensuring that they can do their best work. So do they have the orientation and training? They need to understand their role and how they're going to support the organization. Do you have ongoing training to refine the skills necessary to execute their role? Do they have a clear charge? And are they being held accountable for the work within their committee or the work of the board? I did now, was it a great time to invest in those foundational elements of our organization? Because ultimately they are critical to the success of our governance and of our staff and ensuring that we're able to execute on all of the work that we've, that we've just described.
Carol: I think it's all about moving to being more intentional about those things, because especially as the face-to-face gathering together where those things might have happened a little more informally they, they need to be embedded and, and planned for without, without being able to rely on that face-to-face -- informal mentoring that might happen or other training that might happen.
Shelley: I was going to say, we don't necessarily need to include this, but I feel like I would really like to share it that last time it was at an HOA virtual board meeting. And it's just people from my community, the few who are willing to give us some time. And I, I really flipped my perspective and because the secretary probably talked for 90% of the agenda, And I thought, this is so relevant and familiar because we see it at McKinley with boards, and we can, it's really palpable when you go into a board meeting and you have. Individuals who are, have had a career of being highly involved in volunteer leadership roles, or they've been forced to really look with oversight across their own organizations, just by nature of the role versus those that haven't had a lot of experience to that. And it's no judgment on those people. They're just not as familiar. And if you step into board and there's a culture that's been set and you start talking about. You know the color of the table clothes or where you're going to take the next annual meeting. You think that that's your role to play? And so what Alanna said about board orientation, it's such a small thing, but it is like an essential thing to make sure that volunteer leaders know what they need to do. And also that they're set up for success because you're not going to be successful without having more information than an understanding of, of where you need to focus.
Carol: And I think so often organizations really focus on orienting people to the organization itself and the work, and they forget to orient board members to their role from a governance perspective. So that brings us to a close here. Normally at the end of each episode, I play a little bit of a game and just ask one random icebreaker question. Since we mentioned Amazon at the top of the episode, I'll ask this question. What was the last product you returned?
Alanna: That's a great question. I'm pretty sure that the last item I returned was a mattress topper. I have a wonderful mother-in-law. She is fantastic. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. And we drove down for the holidays so that she could see her new Grant's son. But her guest bed is very uncomfortable. And so we purchased a mattress topper in advance. We were so excited with ourselves. We finally got ahead of it. And in order that mattress topper, and we ordered the wrong size. So we had to shove that back in the box and send it back to Amazon. And that's, that's. The last thing I can think of off the top of my head.
Shelley: Well, first of all, I want to say that I just read an article about what happens to returns of major department stores or a place like Amazon. And it's actually alarming. That a certain percentage of it just gets destroyed, destroyed because it's not worth it for them to try to reuse it. So that makes me think twice about returning things. But actually the last thing I tried to return and was not successful doing was this polish for, I have like an aged bronze front door. I had my siding power wash this past summer. They didn't do a good job and they stripped some of the finish off of the front door handles and backdoor handles. So I bought this thing that had a great review online and it actually made the problem worse. Just return it out of spite. And there was some restriction around it so that they couldn't actually return it.
Carol: Yeah. That's often the challenge. Like they make it very challenging to do that, probably because of the reason that you're talking about, it doesn't serve them for you to return the item. So for each of you what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you and your work? What's emerging?
Shelley: Well, I have roots in membership. So when I worked at an association, I was in the membership department. And before that I worked with students on a college campus. And so I've always been really interested in that concept of serving. At McKinley, over the past year, we've definitely developed more content and more resources. And I just can't help myself. I have to think from that membership perspective, even though we're a consulting firm, how could we take more knowledge that we're gathering at McKinley and translate it into something that truly is public access. Anyone can benefit from it. And we also have it ourselves to archive because knowledge management is really hard in a consulting firm. At least it's been hard for us. People are out doing really good things and how to capture that and to share it across the organization. It's something that we're very aware we're not good at. And our staff tell us we're not good at it. So so yeah, I would say that's the future. How to develop more than resources for the association community.
Carol: How about you Alanna?
Alanna: I'm really excited about the fact that McKinley's taken a lot of time over the past several months to take a look inside and figure out what can we do better to support our staff. We have - I mean, I'm biased - but we have a phenomenal staff. We really have some brilliant, passionate individuals who work for the firm. And we've changed over time and recognized that our structure and some of our systems like I was talking about previously, just aren't allowing our staff to do the best work and and, and fully use their, their potential. So we're doing a lot of internal work to better support our staff and highlight the incredible intellect that we have. So that really excites me.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes, so people don't see that as particularly sexy and exciting, but it's so fundamental. And then Shelly, what you were talking about in terms of garnering those insights across multiple projects to be able to see that next level of what's not just particular to one project that you're working with one client, but what are we seeing across multiple clients? So that's, that's exciting and something, I think there'll be a really huge resource to the field. So thank you both. So, thanks. Thanks a lot for coming on. It was great to talk to you.
Shelley: Thank you, Carol.
Alanna: Thanks so much.
In episode 17 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Wendy Wolff discussed include:
- How leading a non-profit differs from leading a for-profit business
- Awareness vs. action
- Why people are scared of evaluation
- Assumptions made when working with communities
- Changing social norms
- Where to start evaluation on an organizational level
- The barriers to evidence-based testing
Activating and coordinating community responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic was how Wendy Wolff began her career in the nonprofit sector. Her early career helped her to build a strong understanding about the value and role of the community in program planning and policy development. She brings nearly 25 years of diverse consulting experiences to her role as Director of Strategic Engagement for Maryland Nonprofits. Wendy has collaborated with government agencies; universities; non-profit organizations; and faith-based organizations to enhance the quality of life within many communities throughout the United States. She uses her strategic thinking skills to help clients synthesize information from wide-ranging sources, reframe problems while uncovering root causes to find refreshing, creative and effective solutions.
Over the past two decades, Wendy has helped thousands of organizations and their people to create brighter futures for the communities in which they serve. Her excitement in working with the members of Maryland Nonprofit’s is infectious. She values the genius that each and every person brings to their role in the sector and works diligently to elevate any person that she engages with.
Ms. Wolff holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health from New York University. She has resided as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Denver and as an Associate Faculty Member at Indian River State College. Wendy is a licensed consultant with the Standards for Excellence® Institute. Ms. Wolff’s first book, The Letter Writing Project (Blooming Twig Books), was published in August 2014.
Connect with Wendy Wolff
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Wendy. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Wendy Wolff: Thank you so much for having me, Carol. It's lovely to be here.
Carol: So, to get us started, what drew you to the work that you do? What really motivates you and what would you describe or how would you describe your why?
Wendy: Great question. My why started a long time ago. Over 25 years ago. So, I will share why that happened. But one of the things that I love about the work that I do and what jazzes me all the time is that it's a very lonely job, being the leader of a nonprofit, there are a lot of rules and we have this notion in society that it's easier to run a nonprofit than it is to run a for-profit. I’ve done both and I would disagree greatly. I would say that running a nonprofit takes a tremendous amount of skill and finesse, and it's a very lonely position to be at the top because there's a board element and then of course who are your chief volunteers and motivating them and getting them involved yet not having anybody overstep their bounds is a real dance. Trying to find that and being sustainable is how I want to say that. So I think that's a really big challenge and I find that sometimes we refer to ourselves internally at Maryland nonprofits, sometimes as our job is to validate, we do a lot of validating the instincts of executives and supporting the great work that people do, and if they had enough time and enough freedom in their calendars and enough space for strategic thinking, they wouldn't even need us, but we provide that clarity and that moment of taking a break to think about things in a different way. So that's what I love. There's so many other things, but I really want to say how I started my why, how I got my why was: I was at a local health department in Colorado and I was asked - this was in 1993 - and I was asked to sit on a brand new CDC group, and every state was told that you will not get another dime of funding if you don't create community engagement groups, community mobilization groups to help decision makers identify the priorities for AIDS dollars. At the time, we didn't even know about HIV that much. Anyway, long story short, I was nominated to sit on this committee and I was so frustrated. We just went round and round and round and round, it was one of my first professional jobs. It was early on in my career and I'll never forget it. The meeting was being facilitated by the National Civic League. I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn't even know what I was involved in. I just thought it was outstanding that this exists, it was amazing. There's a facilitation team and people are coming all together to make decisions together, but we weren't being successful. So somehow I got myself on the steering committee. Everybody was supposed to check a committee and I'm in this room month after month after month, getting nothing done. So finally, this exact thing happened: I pick up a marker and I jump up and I go ‘Oh my God, who, what, where, when, how’ and I just write it on the whiteboard. I'll never forget it. We got things done! A facilitator confronts me at the end, he goes, ‘do you facilitate meetings?’ And I was like, ‘what's that?’ It felt so right and so good. That's really how I got my start. After that, I started working with the Colorado department of Public Health and Environment, a little bit more through this process and then became a nonprofit executive. I founded a nonprofit to work with intravenous drug users because at the time the rates were skyrocketing and we didn't have needle exchange and all of those things. So that was what really jazzed me which was that somebody has to be the glue to all the genius in the room. I love that role. I love to listen intently and to thread the story so that everybody can hear it clearly. All the same information so that we can act accordingly and together. That’s what I love.
Carol: There's so many things that I want to follow up on from that. I think one of them is your comment at the very beginning where you said that there's this assumption that working in the nonprofit sector is easier, running a nonprofit is easier than a for-profit organization. I've had so many articles about people who come to the end of their career and they say ‘I want to dial back, I'm going to go work at a nonprofit’ or nonprofits are always being told ‘well, people are more business.’ I'd love for you to say a little bit more about, what is it that you believe, or in your experience, really makes it harder to run a nonprofit than a for-profit organization.
Wendy: Maybe harder isn’t the right word. They're just different to me. They're different organisms. Nonprofits have significant cultural rules, they have processes that they follow. I've had several clients over the last seven years at Maryland Nonprofits where they hired a For-Profit Executive to come in and be the new CEO only to be really dissatisfied that all of a sudden the board - here's the bottom line: in the for-profit world, we don't have to answer to our board of directors in the same way. For somebody who has run their own business, someone else's business, or led a for-profit, they are used to making decisions and there isn’t a considerable amount of decision making that an executive director does that doesn't need the oversight of their board. But when they do, that's when there are a lot of problems. It's already a unique relationship because there has to be attention given to the relationship between the executive director and the board chair. That is not a passive relationship, that is an active relationship. That is two people coming together to decide: where are we heading? And they do this every two years. So they get somewhere and when you bring in a for-profit person, they don't always understand that. So you get the lone ranger aspect, which is: ‘why do I have to answer to you?’ But in fact, you do. That's one element that I think is weird. Then the other thing is that relying on sales or product movement for a for-profit, to me seems a little easier. You have an unlimited, potentially unlimited, revenue source, right? It just means that you have to be a little bit more creative. You have to narrow down who your folks are, that you're marketing to. In the nonprofit, you have to figure out really creative, unique ways to sustain salary for everyone on your operating expenses and admin. We have these rules that you can't have administrative overhead costs, right? Well, you can, but you can't always get funded for them. So it's just difficult and hard. And not impossible, but different. And I think it's just harder.
Carol: I think it is. It's so interesting, especially with everything that's going on right now in the country and our democracy. I think that the organizations people spend a lot of their time in - whether they work for a for-profit organization, a nonprofit, or the government sector, obviously, it's government, but in the for-profit many organizations try to have more of a bottom up approach- but ultimately the decision-making and the ‘bucks stops here’ ends with the CEO and the leader of the organization. And they can be very effective by being very top down and very directive and in some ways almost autocratic. And in a nonprofit it's much more of that distributed democratic, division of power, not exactly the same as the way our government is set up, but that key relationship between the executive director and the board chair. The executive director working for the board, the board being a collection of, an organ of people. People who then have to act as one and keep that fresh in terms of new people and. So there's so many more constituencies, you're managing a lot of constituencies. So often, I've heard it referred to as herding cats. I'm sure there's aspects of that in the for-profit sector as well, but I've definitely seen folks who’ve made that switch say that they were even more challenged because there were so many stakeholders and constituencies that they had to think about. Then the fundraising side, as you talk about, it's not that direct, ‘customer to company’ relationship. You ended up having, again, a triangle of - especially in cause-related non-profits- a donor who gives to the organization because they're motivated and for a variety of different reasons. But then the people who actually receive services may be contributing a small amount, may not be contributing anything or large funder- all of that complication of that indirect relationship of how the money flows
Wendy: You just said it. It may be the trick is that it's not harder, it's much more complicated. It's complicated to run a really streamlined, effective, prosperous, sustainable nonprofit. It is. And I don't know if it's complicated in the for-profit world in the same way.
Carol: Yeah. As you said it's really just that in a lot of ways, there's so many things that are different. And the rules, the structures, the processes and the culture, can be very different.
Wendy: This is not to say, ‘don't hire a for-profit person to be your CEO’. This is not to say that, but give them ample opportunity to understand the culture and the nuances of the nonprofit, business cycle and the life cycle of a nonprofit. All of that has to go with that.
Carol: Yeah. You work across a range of different areas, some of them being strategic planning and evaluation. And that's another piece, I think that, in a way, is so different in the nonprofit sector. Especially those working with missions that have a long horizon; you're not going to see change over a long period of time. There may be a lot of different factors that go into being able to demonstrate outcomes, but yet that's so important. I'm curious, how would you define evaluation and why it's important for nonprofits?
Wendy: That’s a great question. The first thing I want to say about evaluation that I've figured out over the last 30 years or so, is that people are definitely afraid - not definitely- people are afraid of evaluation, just that word. The truth is we evaluate all day long. I'm evaluating right now. We evaluate: ‘Should I wear this? Should I wear that? Should I eat this? Should I eat that? Should I wear my seatbelt? Should I not wear my seatbelt? Should I drink water? How much water?’
So the first thing about evaluation is that we do it all day long. That is how we get from moment to moment in this lifetime. We decide where we're headed and we figure out the degree to which we have succeeded. So evaluation to me is, and this is such a sticky part because there's two pieces about evaluation. There is this whole notion of evidence-based programming. And then there is this notion of ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’ And ‘how close are you to accomplishing that?’ I love this phrase and I use it a lot when I work with people around evaluation: “What we're trying to figure out is the degree to which something has been achieved.”
‘Has it been achieved fully?’ And ‘what was that?’ And ‘are there things beyond once it's been achieved fully, that will keep happening? Or has it been achieved slightly? Or middle of the road?’ So when we're evaluating the degree to which our programs are successful, we have to keep that in mind. It's not a, ‘did we do it or didn't we do it?’ It's ‘how did it go?’ And what was accomplished and what, what, and even more importantly, what wasn't accomplished is also-
Carol: Can you give me an example of that one? I think in some ways, I think it's easy for people to kind of- I mean, the place that my brain went when you started describing in that way, it was almost like the kind of tactics in a strategic plan that are like, ‘have we checked these things off?’ But I don't think that's really what you're talking about. So I'm wondering if you'd give me an example.
Wendy: Sure, sure. So I'm going to try thinking on my feet, it’s the end of the day, but the first thing I do want to say is there are four- Oh, dear, this is an evaluation class, isn't it? So there's four-
Carol: We'll try to make it not scary. Because I agree with you, people find that they're just like: “Evaluation. Oo, it's a big E and a big V!” What's that, you know?
Wendy: Yeah, and we have these things where the same terms mean different things. There's formative evaluation and that you execute when you are trying to determine if something will work. Informative evaluation, you are pilot testing, you are asking questions, you are talking to the community before you do anything. Just to find out, ‘Is that this right?’, ‘Is this wrong?’, ‘Will it work?’, ‘Will it not work?’
Here's a great example. Okay, well, I'll get you the example in a second. Then you've got process evaluation, which is widget counting. ‘How many brochures do we hand out? How many meetings did we do? How many people attended the meetings?’ When we do, then we have [an] outcome and impact. Outcome evaluation is ‘what happened and did that change anyone's life, now?’ ‘How has it changed someone's life, now?’ An outcome evaluation to me- first of all, there's also not one school of thought, some people use different schools of thought and timeframe- but to me, timeframe determines whether or not we use outcome evaluation or impact evaluation. Outcome tells me what occurred and how did that-, how was that set up for people's lives to change? ‘Did they change to what degree, what worked, what didn't work’. And then impact evaluation is longer. Longer down the path that says, ‘So what are the results? Did people change? And was it lasting?’ That costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oftentimes, people interchange, misuse, the words ‘impact’ and ‘outcome’. So [I] just wanted to share that because even I think, in my opinion, I know a lot about evaluation. I'm not an expert. I don't like to call myself an expert in anything, but I know I like it and I know quite a bit about it.
So a good example would be, let's say, we did a series of discussions in the community about quitting smoking. Right. What about- let me see if that's the [example] I want to use. Hold on. Oh, let's do nutrition. That's better, that's better. So we have, we're doing a series of discussions and it's been so long since I've been in person with people that I'm like, ‘do we even do that anymore?’ Yeah, let's pretend we're in person. We're doing community discussions, we invite the community in, because we know that that high blood pressure is running rampant in a certain community. We invite people in to help them understand how to control it, right?. And so in the formative stage, we might ask five or six individuals from that community: ‘What should be in our program? What would make this more meaningful? How could we get people to come?’ So we do all that work. We create some networks and we actually get quite a bit of people. We've had 50 people come. It's amazing, right? To two sessions, 50 people to two sessions. Could we say that that was a success? Yes, only though it was a process success. It was not an outcome that 50 people came because we have no idea the degree to which they are going to go home and make it change their lives. So maybe the class was about not using salt because we know that salt is really bad for high blood pressure. Well, the fact is that a lot goes into decision-making. So the question is will two classes [that were] wildly attended- which is great, that's nothing to sneeze at- but could we say that those two classes will have a direct result in people's lives being changed? I don't know. I don't think so. So programs need to use this and this is why the logic model is so interesting and now we're really geeking out.
Carol: Let's just get geeky on this. Tell people what a logic model is.
Wendy: It's so great because the logic model is the roadmap, right? So it gives you an opportunity to go, ‘Where do we want to be?’ And then logically work backwards from where we want to be, where we want the community to be, or our participants at the target population. And then we work backwards and ask ourselves, ‘Well, if we want to be there, does this make sense? Does this make sense? Does this make sense? Does this make sense?’ So, and- at this point, actually in our evolution, and with the internet, there are so many, so many things that have already been evaluated that we could build on the successes of others without just developing new programs. So evaluation provides an opportunity for us to be thoughtful, think strategically and make sure that things are lined up. To get the best result possible for the community. And logic is a great word because if it's not logical, if it doesn't fit, then [you] probably are not going to have strong outcome results. So that was four hours in about five minutes.
Carol: Yeah and I appreciate that because I think one of the things that actually having a group build that logic model for themselves- and it sounds, it sounds geeky and cumbersome, but really it's, ‘Let's map out what our thoughts and assumptions are.’ And by making it a visual, and by going through the process, you have a chance to dig into what those assumptions are. I've worked with a lot of organizations that work in the conservation and environmental field. Oftentimes, especially around their program, their work that's with people - often citizen scientists or they're doing environmental education or other things like that - they can't measure that or demonstrate the impact of that in the same way that they can measure the pollutants in a river, let's say. But so often the vision is that a group of people by participating in their programs will become advocates for their local river, let's say. And yet, when they think about what they're doing in their program, their goals are that people will understand more about the river. Then you have to say, okay, it's kinda like the geometry teacher wanted you to show their math and all your steps. ‘How do you get the people from, they understand a little bit more about their river and they've gone to it and they'd been on it, to this leap of and being an advocate. Like there's gotta be some more ladder, you know? So, sometimes it's, ‘Well, that's where we actually want to get, this is what we're doing over here.’ How do we help people? Or, it's probably a subset of the people. Take those extra steps to move them closer to what we're hoping for them rather than just being a hope.
Wendy: Exactly. And that was a great illustration. You did a good example and we have to be clear when we're writing proposals and talking to funders about what we're promising, because those advocates, no matter, they are fired up, those folks who come to that first session, those environmental sessions. They could be fired up and super excited, but we have to take into consideration what it takes to get from information to action and also the confounding factors that go into it. I could be absolutely jazzed. You could be the best person; I have come to both of your sessions. I walk away so excited and then I go home, and I've got three kids, and I work full time, and I'm exhausted, and there's no time for myself. And even though my intention is to become an advocate, there are other things surrounding me. So what we have to do in program planning and evaluation starts before people walk in the door. We have to think about ‘what's the trajectory of that person?’ And ‘how do we interact with them?’ And is that an okay result that I've come to two things? We've checked the boxes that we've had 50 people at each session. And that's wonderful because that tells us that people are changing in their awareness , but does it mean that they're taking action? And that's a different thing and sometimes the change in action takes much, much longer. And the last thing I wanted to say is, the word assumption is amazing in the logic model, because along that we have, there are so many assumptions that we have to consider when working with communities. And we also have to look at- I love the theory of behavior change by proChaska and DiClemente, which says people go from precontemplation, to contemplation, to action, to maintenance, and to relapse. Tenants relapse, and if you are not in contemplation, I have to know where my community is coming into a program, so that I can figure out if I can help them change behavior. If you don't even think that smoking's bad, nothing I'm going to do is helping you. So we can't push people along. They naturally go through that process. But we have to recognize that when we plan programs.
Carol: It was actually the smoking piece that made me think that just bringing people to awareness, just providing information, has now been proven over time doesn't necessarily create- it can for some people, they will be self motivated and it will create action - but one does not equal the other.
Wendy: And they have to match. And I always look back on- we did a lot with smoking, right? I mean, we used to smoke in elevators, on airplanes. So we did this huge social movement together. Drunk driving, wearing seatbelts; We've accomplished a lot as a community, but we still have the difficulty of helping individuals changing their behavior. So when we are writing our evaluation plans or designing programs, we need to really hone in on: ‘What's the change we're hoping to see and how does everything we do set a person up to eventually make that, take that leap.’ They may not all take it. And how do we know? So we could go on and on.
Carol: Yeah. And what you also talked about kind of, which is an area that I feel like I want to learn more about is: how does that, changing social norms, actually play into this as well? Because we're such social creatures and I, it was so interesting that you talked about smoking. Cause I was at a meeting, a zoom meeting, today and a woman was smoking and I was just so shocked. And whatever 40 years ago, that would have been totally normal. Every single person would have been. So, yeah, it's fascinating. Yeah. So people think it's scary. We just talked about some complicated thing, we used a bunch of different terms. How do folks- Actually what's a place to get started? If an organization isn't doing evaluation yet, or maybe they're doing evaluation, but it's more of the kind of, ‘are you satisfied with whatever we offered, today?’ ‘Did you like the workshop thing?’
Wendy: ‘Did they come and did they like it?’ And the thing is, workshops. So we-
Carol: And that's just one thing that organizations do, obviously they do lots of other things.
Wendy: They do lots of things. And what I wanted to just say about that is, there's a difference between the changes that people make and the intent to change that we cannot say when we do, workshops that people are going to change. We can say that this demonstrates an intent to change, but anyway, how you would start is this.
I teach a lot of evaluation classes actually. And one of them, what I love, what I always go back to and it's - I have my master's in public health and love public health - I think public health (we're witnessing it right now) but public health for years and years and years has been, for decades and decades has been using terminology for evaluation and requiring programs to be evaluated. So I recommend that people utilize public health, evaluation tools. [The} Center for Disease Control has excellent resources on evaluation, and to me that is the most clear version of it. And then there are a lot of books on evaluation, grab one or go on it, but make sure that it's “evaluation made easy.” It doesn't have to be complicated. We are not talking about evidence-based evaluations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're talking about, how do we build programs so that they're logical and that we can say, ‘Here's what we think will happen at the end of this.’ And then we have to backtrack and go, ‘Well, if we're saying this is going to happen, how will we know? Okay, we've got to talk to people. How will we talk to them? Will we call them? Will we invite them to a meeting? Do we have to pay them for their time?’ So to me, the resources are- definitely go to the CDC. I can't remember, there was- I can't remember. I'll try to get you a list of resources, but any public health organization that is doing evaluation is I think, light years ahead and has a lot of insight personally.
Carol: Yeah and you talked about that evidence-based work and programming and the investment that takes. But can you just say a little bit about what that is and even if folks, a small organization, can't try to tackle something like that, what can they learn from what other people have done?
Wendy: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So evidenced-based programs are ones that have gone through a fairly rigorous evaluation model to prove that the structure of their programs and the design works. And that if you hold what's called fidelity, if you hold to everything that they say that has to be done, you too can achieve, with your target population, the same results. So it costs lots of money. One of the difficulties around the term evidence-based programs is that it excludes anything that's not been evaluated already within this very formal type of evaluation. It's difficult. I think there's systemic issues around that because it's only the programs that have the money to do evaluation that get noted as an evidence-based practice. But there are other practices that work while there are promising practices, there are lots of things that work. So, I don't want to be political, I think you could Google a little bit about the politics around evidence-based evaluation, that you could see a bunch of the difficulties that exist around it. And I think personally, Wendy Wolff thinks that just because a program isn't an evidence-based program does not mean it's not valuable and changing lives. It just means that it doesn't have the funding to become an evidence-based program. What we need to do - those of us who don't have the money to prove the degree to which our program has been successful for large groups of people - is to keep track of very good notes to make sure we understand who the target population is and what they come to the table with before they interact with us. That [way] we can measure some way or demonstrate the change that has occurred between them before they came in and then after. And it might be anecdotal information, it might not be scientific. It might not be cutting edge data, but it's interesting and profound and lives are being changed. That has to be honored because- I have a great story that I love. This was in West Baltimore a couple of years ago. We stumbled across a gentleman who was- it was in the summertime - he'd create a fire in a fireplace and people could see it from the road and he had hot cocoa and he had a welcome sign. He invited people to come sit around the fire and have a cup of cocoa, chat and they would connect and would exchange information, help each other, and get each other services. Is that an evidence-based program? No. Was it making a difference? You can bet your butt it was. People were connected. People were getting resources. People had friends, they weren't alone. Those are all good things.
Carol: Yeah. Even if you don't go to this step of implementing measurement processes, just the fact that you've had a conversation to unlock those assumptions, I think can, bring about shifts in the program, in the staff and the board, around the understanding of what you're trying to achieve. just that process I think can have impact and can be valuable. Yes.
Wendy: Then my last plea is to carve out time at the beach before the program begins so that we- once people walk through the door, we've lost an opportunity for measurement. So we want to understand, we want to really create some thoughtful time to understand what it is that we want to collect along the way. And I want to tell you, easier said than done. I myself have been in the middle of a program and been like, ‘Oh, we haven't done any evaluation indicators yet.’
The idea is that we can never go back. People can't go unlearn something. So we need to know, if we want to capture the degree to which people have changed, we need to know where they come in at. Then we can say, even if it's not this scientific evidence-based program, that change in a person's life is huge and storytelling is enormous. And right now I'm leaving a fairly large project and I- So today, just today, one of the participants in this big cohort that we're leading wrote me a note and said, ‘I'm so excited. I feel great. I'm getting huge results with my consultant. I see that we're going to be in a better place at the end of this.’ (Which is two years) And I save that. I was like, I'm going to need this at some point. It's not scientific, but I can go back to it in two years. I can go back to that and go, ‘This is where he was.’ And actually I wrote back, ‘Can you be more specific?’ So I can go, ‘Oh, this guy was at, didn't have this, this, this, and this. Now look at him.’
Carol: Yeah. And I think that point of, helping, figuring out a way to capture some of that, essentially that baseline of where folks are starting from, you're always wanting to develop a program that meets people where they are. So then also documenting that starting point where they are, is key to be able to then see the difference.
Wendy: Yeah, yeah. And report it. Stories, stories do a lot. Storytelling is amazing.
Carol: Right. It doesn't have to be, it doesn't all have to be numbers. There is plenty of, from a qualitative point of view- Very valuable, yeah. Well, we certainly got geeky on program evaluation, but I mean, it's so important and I do think that, try to demystify it a little bit because, for the majority of nonprofits, smaller organizations, small budgets, and yet they're being- hard to get started in that realm and hard to know. They're dealing with so many different things and juggling a lot of different things to build that in as well. Seems hard. but the benefit, well, I mean, what would you say? For those smaller organizations kind of. Why is it worth spending the time to do it?
Wendy: Well, to plan out an evaluation strategy?
Carol: Try to incorporate it, yeah. Evaluate a little more, just a little more, maybe evaluation into your, into your, yeah-
Wendy: Just a little more, yeah. First of all, I think it will be relieving because we are peppered or pummeled with the question of, ‘How's your program doing? What's the results? What's the impact? What's the outcome?’ And that makes everybody so nervous. So the more thoughtful we can be to really think about ahead of time how we will know we've succeeded or the degree to which we've succeeded. That'll help reduce our stress because when we're asked that question, we'll go, well, here's how. These are great- this happened to me just this week. I had to write a report to a funder and I was like, ‘Oh, well, I have that all written because I had been collecting this data all along. Just put it in this file, put it in the file.’ And then when it’s time to write the report, there it is. So I think anything we can do to, to collect, to - I don't want to say the word prove, cause I don't like that - to demonstrate how we are making a difference, whether it's immediate or short term or it has potential for longterm, any way we can demonstrate that it will build our confidence and it will support us and it will help our sustainability.
Carol: Well, at the end of each episode, I ask, a somewhat random icebreaker question. So, if you could have any fictional character as your friend, who would you choose and why?
Wendy: All right, wait a second. Any fictional character as my friend. Oh dear. Hold on. I got to scan through my shows and stuff. Let's see. Fictional character. I really like Lisa Simpson from the Simpsons. I love her desire for good. I like Lisa's musical talent. I like that she doesn't give up on her hope and her commitment to what's right and just in the world. So I really like Lisa Simpson. So off the cuff, not having known that question, I think that would be one of my choices and I'm sure there's better ones, but that's the one right now.
Carol: Well from how you described Lisa, it sounds like she'd be a good addition to the nonprofit sector.
Wendy: Lisa Simpson would be a great CEO and a great activist.
Carol: All right. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you or emerging in the work that you're doing?
Wendy: That's great. Good question. I am really excited that- my role at Maryland nonprofits that maybe people don't know because they see me in the consulting role is that my title is ‘Director of Strategic Engagement’ and my job is to - we restructured a couple of years ago - So the consultant group is in my department. So I am still actively involved, but I'm excited. My role of strategic engagement is to build relationships, bring and dot connect, which I love to do. So what I'm excited about this year, I have three priorities. My three priorities are- Carmen Marshall, our director of consulting, runs a beautiful racial equity program. And Carmen is one of the most lovely human beings I've ever met and I am looking forward to helping her to download all of her thoughts and get that developed and put into a plan we can execute. So I'm really excited about that. I'm super excited about our legal consulting program. Patty Morton has been doing legal consulting for Maryland nonprofits - she's our general counsel and she's also on my team- and up until two years ago, most of the work Patty did was a lot of startup work. She does mergers and other great stuff, but what we have seen over the years is people really love Patty. She's amazing and they need that help, so I would like to build Patty's legal consulting program. That's something else we're going to do. Then finally, the claim to fame for me is our Standards for Excellence Institute. That's my third priority to help more folks understand the standards and understand why being a licensed and accredited organization could be a good choice for them and how to utilize the standards. Those are my three strategic engagement focused areas, and I'm super excited about them.
Carol: That's awesome. And I love that you've got three because as a person who helps groups with strategic planning or your personal planning, three is the magic number. That's just enough. That's just not, not too few, not too many, to really have focus. Well, thank you so much. It's great having you on and we'll put links in to how now people can get in touch with you and learn more and about the things that you're talking about. So it was great, I appreciated the conversation and the chance to geek out with you on evaluation.
Wendy: That's so great. Thanks for having me, Carol. This was a treat.
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.
In episode 15 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Mary Hiland discussed include:
- The pivotal executive director – board chair relationship.
- Why trust is so key and how to build it.
Mary Hiland brings over 40 years of experience to nonprofit leaders to create a paradigm shift about how to develop an informed and inspired board that is truly an asset. Her mission is to help nonprofit leaders ignite and unleash the potential of the board, getting rid of the mindset that a board is a burden. Her deep expertise and hands-on experience (26 years as a nonprofit executive and 17 as a board member) bring credibility and confidence to nonprofit leaders who know she understands because she’s “been there.” Mary coaches, and mentors executive directors and board leaders. She is a speaker and published author. She has a weekly podcast, Inspired Nonprofit Leadership: conversations to inspire, inform, and support nonprofit leaders.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome, Mary. Great to have you on the podcast.
Mary Hiland: It's great to be here, Carol. It's always great to connect with you.
Carol: So I'm curious, what drew you to the work you do? What would you say motivates you, how would you describe your why?
Mary: Oh, that's a big question. I've been in the field a really long time, so I'm gonna mostly address the work I'm doing now as a consultant, because that's been the last 18 years. I had a different ‘why’ early on when I was much younger, but I see a lot of potential in the boardroom of nonprofits, having been around for over 40 years in the sector. I see a lot of challenges in the relationships between the executives and their boards, and I had great experiences in both of those scenarios. I had great boards, and I had great relationships with my board chairs, and it's painful to me to see that things aren't as good as they could be. I really want to support executives and board members to reach the potential of those relationships and the functioning of the board. So, I’ve developed a passion for that out of just hearing the stories and observing, and knowing on the other side what's possible, seeing the really powerful impact that boards can have and executives who are just thrilled with their boards, believe it or not, out there.
Carol: Yeah. That executive director-board chair relationship is so key to the effectiveness of the organization. What would you say are some of the key elements that can make that relationship successful?
Mary: Well, it's interesting that you should ask me that because I did my doctoral dissertation on the relationship between the Chair of the Board and the Executive Director, and there was no research out there about the question you just asked, what are the critical success factors in this relationship? I really wanted to learn about it. I didn't get all of the factors out, but there were two themes that came out in my interviews with board chairs and their executives. This has held true in all my observations that the first critical success factor, which is probably no surprise to anyone out there, is trust. But what I found was that people don't always know how to build trust. They really don't know how to build relationships. I went into it thinking ‘everybody knows how to do that. this is a natural thing,’ but it isn't for many people. So I developed a model of trust-building, and we could talk more about that if you want, but trust-building is really important. And there are different ways to build trust that you may not think of, and it's easy to lose. Unfortunately, the other was when they're interacting with each other one-on-one, but not necessarily in person, whether it's over the phone, not in email, but over the phone or zoom these days, or in-person, what are you focusing on in your conversation together? There's a lot of options for that, as you can imagine. And there's different types of interactions that you're going to have, and the interactions can help build the trust. But some were focusing just on the executive using the board chairs as a sounding board and a lot of focus on the day-to-day operation. Then others were focusing on more planning together. They were doing some of that sounding board stuff, and Day-to-day stuff, but then they were planning together and being strategic thinkers together, and then the final level of interaction and topics, and focus of what they were talking about was more, the best word I picked for this was leadership. They were actually leading together, thinking about how to engage with the community, thinking about how to engage the board so that there was this depth in the scope of what they talked about and focused on. I don't want to go on and on and on about it, but I don't see too many board chair-executive relationships where they're even thinking about ‘how do we spend our time together? What do we talk about? What are the agendas?’ It's probably the agenda for the board meeting, maybe a problematic issue with the board member, some other more tactical kinds of things, but that is not wrong. You need all of that, but it's trying to think a little more deeply about the quality of what you're working on together.
Carol: Excellent. Going back to what you initially said around building trust. I know a lot of folks now, they may cringe when they hear the word trust-building exercise, or may think that you're going to make them go out into the woods and high ropes course or something like that. What are some straightforward ways that, in your experience, are the building blocks of building trust?
Mary: Well, that's a great question. And you're right about that in the woods. I'm not that a person and I resisted this issue. Let me just share this one little thing. I resisted this in my research because I said if I stand in front of some Executives and Board Members and say, ‘it's important to build trust.’ They'll look at me like ‘did you have to go do a doctorate to learn that? Let me highlight a couple of different things that people may not think about. I think we all know that you can't be lying to people. You have to do what you say you're going to do. These are the things that people think about typically. One that I think is really relevant for Executive Directors, but also for Board Members is competence. There's a type of trust called competence-based trust in my model. You wouldn't hire a plumber to do the electrical work in your house. Now that seems very simplistic, but Executives, how are you showing your Board Members that you are competent in your job? Now when you're first hired, I tell Executives, you probably gave them a resume. You talked about the networks that you have, your skills, your talents, but after you're hired, when you get new board members, do you do that again? Do you share your resume with them? How are you showing your Board when you gain a new skill,or you think you get better at something, or broaden your network, or just do some professional development? How are you sharing that with people? I know Non-Profit executives can be very humble, which is great. I'm not talking about inappropriate bragging here. It's not inappropriate to demonstrate to people that they can have confidence in your leadership, that they can have confidence in your skillset. So that goes both ways with Board Members helping Executives understand that they're competent in their role as a Board Member. What past experience have they had? What leadership experience?
Carol: That's a great point that you make that, when folks are thinking about orienting new board members, I think most of the time they're thinking about orienting to the organization. Lots and lots of information about that. They often forget about orienting to the role of being a Board Member. I think that other layer that you're talking about of the Executive Director basically orienting the new Board Member to themselves as well and their background and what they're bringing to it. Not acting as if the Board Member already essentially knows them.
Mary: I think that is a very often missed opportunity for executive directors. The other one is giving feedback, communication, and trust. We probably think of it as telling the truth, but there are other elements of communication that help you build trust, other behaviors. And one is actually giving feedback in a constructive way, but the other is being willing to receive feedback and it's really important for executives to be sensitive to the fact that if they come across defensive to their Board it's like saying to them, to the Board Member or the Board Chair, ‘your perspective of me is not valid’ and dismissing it because you're defending yourself right out the gate and that doesn't work. It doesn't mean you have to agree with their perception of you, but it means you need to hear it and you need to let them know you heard it. Then you can say, ‘well, have you thought about looking at it this way?’ or, ‘I have a different viewpoint on that,’ but that's not the same thing as being defensive out the gate. When you're defensive and dismissing people, nothing is going to erode trust faster because they don't feel heard and they don't feel that you're hearing them at all in terms of understanding a different viewpoint. They can't trust that you're open to new ideas. The other is your willingness to give feedback because you're saying to that person when you do that, I believe that you are open to learning. I believe that you can grow and change. You're expressing confidence in them because you're taking the time to share something that you've observed or experienced with them. That can go a long way to build trust. So giving that honest feedback and giving it in a timely manner is really important because it also says ‘I'm invested in your success.’ And I'm sure you've seen it over and over again Carol. The supervisor, the leader who waits and waits and waits when the new person joins their workforce to give feedback that's negative because they feel, ‘Oh, they're just new.’ They just dismiss it because giving negative feedback is uncomfortable. Well, think about it as a way you're building trust with that person. So that's another one that I think sometimes we don't think of.
Carol: I know a lot of people don't really have a lot of skills around giving feedback. People talk about it a lot, but I don't know that I was taught in college, or other places, probably not until I was doing my graduate degree in organization development where we really dug into ‘what is feedback?’ What's the purpose? It actually often says more about the person giving the feedback than the person receiving it. You know how to receive it. So in that instance, where you said when someone is starting to get defensive and they can feel that they might be getting a little emotionally hijacked by the situation for them to even think, ‘I'm just going to say, thank you.’
and ‘I'll think about this.’ and come back to it later when they have a little more perspective at a little more distance from the instance that it's happening.
Mary: I think it's helpful out there that we're spending a little more attention on relationships whether it's driven by some of the horrible situations we've seen, but I think that it's a very important part of growing and developing, particularly as a leader. If it's okay Carol, I do have a trust-building action plan that's free if it's okay, I can tell people how they can get it. It tells a little bit more about the types of trust and these behaviors are available that are listed so people can get that by going to Hilander Consulting. That's H-I-L-A-N-D-E-R consulting dot org, org slash trust building. If you go there, you can get that.
Carol: That's in the show notes as well.
Mary: That would be great. Because I created that to help people broaden their perspectives about trust and get some sensitivity.
Carol: Such a big concept that's really helpful to have it broken down into elements. What are some behaviors? What are some actions that you can take to start working towards building that trust and then you also talked about the different kinds of conversations that executives are having with their Board Chairs and named three different kinds: that sounding board day-to-day is the planning that made them move to more of a strategic level, and then the leadership level, and the first one that you mentioned around the day-to-day I think on one hand, that Executive Director role can be a very lonely place where, Executive Directors don't necessarily have or may not have peers that they can reach out to, to have those kinds of conversations at the same time. I would imagine that if they're drawing their Board Chair into those day-to-day conversations about what's going on. While they may be training the board on, your role is not to be involved in staff.
Carol: They're actually drawing the board into that role through that conversation. Oftentimes, the reports that people have in board meetings and all the different things that they use, they include, and then they wonder why Board Members step into wanting to get involved in operations? Well, you spent half the meeting updating them on that.
Mary: And I think this is such an important point and I would not want to leave people thinking that I would be encouraging going down that operational rabbit hole of detail with your Board all the time, particularly your Board Chair, but here's where, when you're kicking off your relationship with your Board Chair, you need to start by talking about ‘how are we going to work together?’ it's important to establish a ground rule with your Board Chair. That if it's okay for me to bring what's on my mind to you and experience our relationship as a safe place to have you as a sounding board, then I need you to understand and tell me that you get it. That I'm not inviting you to come in and tell me how to do my job, I am inviting you to give me your perspective, but it's creating a different place and environment for us to have that conversation. It's not telling you that I want you to change your role or the boundaries that we have together. I think that's a really important thing to establish upfront because your board chair may not know how to interpret that. Carol, we know that if boards don't have meaningful, strategic leadership, meaningful conversations, values-driven, conflict conversations to have. Discussions about looking for a way to make a difference in half meaning they're going to go to what you leave them. So if you're leaving them the details, that's the only place they know how to get engaged, so be careful and that's where your board meeting agendas and people talk about generative boards and those kinds of conversations, and those are very important for that reason.
Carol: Those are some of the basic things, but what are some ways that a board chair and executive director working together can really shape an agenda that leads the board to have those more strategic conversations.
Mary: Well I think it all starts with having a good strategic plan frankly. I really think if all you have is the answer to this question. If we were really successful in advancing our mission three years from now, what results will we have created? And if you're bored and you can't answer that question, you've got a measurable three or four results that you're working at a high level to achieve then of course, next question. And if you haven't done this, definitely a board agenda item is ‘what's the board's role, does the board have a role in achieving that particular goal?’ And if it does, what is it? How's it going to organize around it, and what result is the board going to accomplish in this first year toward that. So when that framework of your work is in place, it creates the opportunity to look at how we’re doing, how are things going? Also for board discussion, how is the board functioning as a team in its own development? Just like you should be thinking as an executive leader about your own development and what are you doing? So thinking through those higher-level strategic issues, any particular challenges, making room on the agenda for discussing and learning about what some of the challenges facing the organization are. So you can't say exactly what's coming up for you, but that's what you want to bring up and shape that agenda. You're going to have some ongoing work that you need board decisions around, the regular oversight things. Again, the progress on the strategic goals. So if you have the framework around you, hopefully it makes it easier for you to know what we need to talk about.
Carol: Yeah. I think just even having a practice around, ‘we're gonna consider one higher-level strategic question at every board meeting.’ And also separate out, ‘is this a conversation to have a discussion about this and brainstorm and just explore the issue?’ Are we learning something, are we getting some outside input about this? Or is this a point at which we've spent plenty of time discussing and now we have a concrete proposal and we're going to make a decision, but I think there's some folks who want to move to a decision real quick and others who want to explore longer. So being clear about where you are in the conversation on those strategic issues can be really helpful as well.
Mary: Yes. And I think just going through the process of creating awareness about decision-making, ‘how are we making decisions?’ That could be a great conversation at a board meeting. I had a client who called me and said, come teach our board how to make decisions.
Carol: I had a conversation with someone this morning about that. It’s hard for groups. They come with where they've been, how they've done it in other places, all folks are operating from all sorts of different assumptions. So getting that out on the table and talking through, ‘how have we made decisions? How do we want to do that moving forward?’ It's really important.
Mary: That's right. That was a very interesting challenge for me. It was a long time ago to really look at what we know about decision-making and this was a very high-stakes decision and there was a split vote on the board. And when the board, not knowing Robert's Rules of Order, which I don't recommend using by the way, I do think you need something, but they had thought that if someone calls for the question, you have to stop discussion and that's actually not true. When you stop discussion arbitrarily like that, because one person says let's just vote in this case, resulted in a split vote. And one side of that boat got up and walked out of the room because they felt so discounted and not valued, and they were not ready to make a decision.
Carol: Rules can be useful and they have their limitations. When you're in a messy, controversial conversation, it's probably time to put them aside a bit and just allow the conversation to go.
Mary: Yeah, one thing that I've used is that often boards want to have a high level of agreement and may even be trying to work towards consensus and Sam Kaner has the same ‘consensus continuum’ where, it's like one to eight, like I'm totally for it down to one being ‘I veto this’ and all the different gradations in between and just getting a sense of where people are. I was on a board where we had a high stakes decision, and it really was not one where there was a good solution. So, we agreed ahead of time that as long as we got everyone to a three, which was, ‘I think I can live with this. I don't love it, but I can live with it.’ That was going to be good enough because we knew that we weren't going to get to any solution that folks were going to be super excited about wholeheartedly. I think that it's a good strategy for the board chair particularly to stop discussion sometimes and just test and say, let's just do a sample vote here so we see where people are on this. It allows you to have a more efficient meeting if everybody agrees, but they aren't realizing they're agreeing. Also to allow for some agreements about, ‘well, let's talk about it for another 20 minutes or something.’ I think that the value of pushing for consensus is that people will stretch and be more creative about solutions if it isn't too easy to get there. So that's an opportunity, but not always achievable.
Carol: Yeah. You've talked about a third level where the board chair and the executive are working at what you described as a leadership level. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that kind of working?
Mary: Yeah. Now this is about what they're focusing on when they're together. What I found in my research, and I can give you a link, it's not on the top of my head, but a link to an online journal that I wrote a summary of all this research in so [the listeners] can get a little more on this if they're interested. But it was interesting because the pairs that had the highest level of trust, which we didn't talk about, but it's called identification-based trust. And it's when you don't just know the person, you identify with them and it's a little more personal. Those board chairs and executives were sharing more personal [information], but appropriately personal [information]. Like, one board chair knew the executive director - and this may seem silly, but it was really important - collected teddy bears. So he bought her a teddy bear, little things like that. So the highest level of trust pairs were also the ones who most often were at this third level, which was cumulative by the way, when they got together, they were focusing on what I called management planning, and then leadership. Now at the leadership level, it was as if they were standing side-by-side facing out into the community, but they had engaged the board with them. So whatever that took to be thinking about being more outward on their impact, more focused strategically on that versus some of the pairs that were maybe stuck a little more at the managing level where they were always working on what's going on in the organization, always focused only on the organization, the planning groups were focused on the organization sometimes, but also the board and working together more strategically. The leadership level of pairs was more the characteristic thing was that they were doing all of that, but also very outwardly oriented about constituents, about impact, about things going on in the community. So I'm not sure how to describe it more than that. I'd have to go back to my transcripts - this was a long time ago - and read some of the stories.
Carol: I think that gives a good perspective. You can imagine lifting your head up and looking over to the rise and looking outward rather than just in the details.
Mary: Yeah. So then it was cumulative. It wasn't mutually exclusive. It was just, they never got beyond a certain focus, and nobody agreed to be interviewed that didn't think they were doing a good job together. So in that sense, the research was biased. Cause I didn't have any horrible pairs. I had people say, ‘well, I don't want to be interviewed with my board chair.’ I interviewed them separately, but they just didn't want to invite their board chair to participate.
Carol: So, what would you say more broadly beyond the board chair, the executive, what would you say the executive needs to be cultivating in terms of engaging the whole board?
Mary: Well, I think there are some additional things they overlap with the trust-building, obviously you need to do that. You need to build your relationships one-on-one and do you need to be there collectively with them? Don’t control that you're the only one interacting with the board as part of trust is trusting that your staff can interact with the board without you having to be paranoid and controlling about that. But I think that one of the key issues where I see challenges for executives is in communication. You may have 12 to 15 board members, and every single one of them has a different preference for how you communicate with them. How much should be provided on a particular issue. Some people just want the bottom line, and other people want volumes. This was my experience when I was an executive. So I think being proactive with your board and as you get new board members, having the conversation about ‘what are their preferences,’ but then collectively as a board raising awareness that everybody has different preferences and getting the board to agree with you on how much they want, how they're going to communicate. How do you manage say, email communications? Do you have a subject line flag for action now? Information only when you can get to it? Communication agreements and guidelines that you create together are very powerful and can be very helpful for executives because they're not trying to meet 14 different, 15 different people's needs for different kinds of communication.
Carol: You're talking about emails. I've seen those on agendas and hadn't thought about then transferring it to that information that you're sending out to folks of: is this for your backup, for background decision, I need input right away that that's really key to have some agreements around those so that people can differentiate and really focus in on what's the most important.
Mary: Yeah. And I think the other thing that I said about competence, there's a gal who did some research on the board-executive relationship years ago, Maria Galinsky. She coined the phrase ‘executive assets.’ She said that that's something you want to keep your board informed of all the time. That's where I picked up this idea and then melded it with the concept of competence-based trust. That's important for you to keep in mind, and as you're building trust, then you have the safety of not having surprises, which we all know, but different board members are again interpreting surprise differently. So I think that's important.
Carol: Well I'm going to shift gears a little bit here. On every episode, I play a game, where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I've got one here for you: what's something about you that surprises people when they first hear it?
Mary: Oh boy, something that surprises people when they first hear it…. I'm trying to think. I know that there's something out there that I used to say, ‘well, this one, I don't like to say very often because I don't want to feel like I'm bragging.’ I have five degrees and that surprises people sometimes. Also I don't have a middle name, I used to sing when I was younger. There's a few little things like that that I don't talk about very often.
Carol: Well, thank you for sharing that. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing now?
Mary: Well I'm close to finishing my book. I'm very excited about that. I have the final chapter, which is the wrap-up chapter to write. Then of course it goes through that whole long process of deep editing and doing the book thing, but I'm really excited because this book is based on four executive directors and it's based on a couple of my studies about boards, how boards get better and what do you do about the problems you're having with your board? I'll just quickly say that, what I learned after doing a lot of research and case review was that every problem you have with your board fits into one of three areas: capacity, connection, and culture. So I talk about that, give examples of that, but more importantly for executives, I talk about: what are you going to do about it? So I find that - and you probably do too Carol, in your work - that a lot of times when people have issues with their board, the solution is a capacity solution. Where they're saying, we just come and train my board about their job, their roles and responsibilities. I get this every week and then they'll be better bored. Well, training is important, but it's not going to change behavior. So I'm hoping that my book helps executives understand when that's not going to be enough. And when they need to look a little deeper and what they can do when they do feel that the problem's a little deeper, so it's not so overwhelming.
Carol: We'll have to have you back on when the book is published.
Mary: That would be great.
Carol: So you already mentioned your website and the free resource that people can download about trust building. We'll make sure to put those into the show notes, so folks can find them, but yeah, thanks so much. It was great having you on and great delving into that board chair-executive director relationship that's just so key.
Mary: Well, thank you Carol. Thanks so much for having me. I love that you have a podcast out there too, and that we're able to reach people through this medium. It's very exciting, I think. I just want to wish your listeners well and encourage them to take care of themselves and encourage you to do the same.
Carol: Absolutely! That's so important. Well, thank you so much.
Mary: You are welcome. Bye-bye.
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.