Are You a Trusted Advisor?

Are You a Trusted Advisor?

Colleague Kay Keenan and I were having coffee this week, remembering times when we have spoken truth to power. Many people are advisors – consultants and coaches like Kay and myself, Interim Executive Directors, parents, teachers, co-workers. We are all in a position to tell powerful people things they don’t necessarily want to hear.

The question is whether these same powerful people turn to their advisors and ask for the truth.

A trusted advisor not only speaks truth to power, but is also to whom the powerful turn for truth.

The trusted advisor has to earn that position, by being transparent, open, and yet discreet; by mutually sharing personal history with the advisee; by always acting and speaking with integrity. By taking the time to earn that trust. By listening to the whole story, not just the immediate challenge. By asking questions that lead the advisee to finding the answers themselves.

With trust comes responsibility

With that trust comes responsibility. Those who are powerful are in a position to act on the truth they receive. The trusted advisor can be the voice that changes the outcome of a situation.

Who are the trusted advisors of the Chair and CEO of a nonprofit?  The chair or president of the board of a nonprofit is powerful. So is the Executive Director/CEO.  They are in positions to influence the direction of the entire organization, affecting their clients, their staff, their supporters – the entire community.

Do they speak truth to each other? Are they trusted advisors? Do they have others to whom they turn for truth?

Many people can speak truth.
A trusted advisor is one who is sought out for that truth.

When the CEO and Board Chair become trusted advisors to each other, your entire organization benefits.

Sustainability or Mission: Discuss

Sustainability or Mission: Discuss

In recent years, a lot of nonprofit board education has focused on sustainability. Discussions frequently focus on finances: How are we going to maintain our programs? What happens if we hit another recession, or if our major funder disappears?

More sophisticated discussions include sustainability of the physical and governing infrastructure: What can we put in place so we have the board members we need to keep us going? How do we manage succession planning? How do we ensure our roof won’t leak in 5 years?

Fiduciary Responsibilities

However, there is an inherent conflict between sustainability and some of the fiduciary responsibilities of the board. The triumvirate of fiduciary responsibility are Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of ObedienceGrantspace gives these succinct definitions:

Duty of care: Board members are expected to actively participate in organizational planning and decision-making and to make sound and informed judgments.

Duty of loyalty: When acting on behalf of the organization, board members must put the interests of the nonprofit before any personal or professional concerns and avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Duty of obedience: Board members must ensure that the organization complies with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and that it remains committed to its established mission.

These duties are almost always refer to the organization. In most materials about fiduciary responsibility the word sustainability doesn’t appear. Not in Grantspace, nor in this Guidestar blog post on fiduciary responsibility, nor in this Bridgespan article. The National Council of Nonprofits references sustainability, but doesn’t define its relationship to the organization.

Potential Conflict

And that leaves us with a question of potential conflict of duties. The Duty of Loyalty says to put the interests of the nonprofit ahead of personal or professional concerns, and Duty of Care says to make sound and informed judgments. Both of these imply that sustainability revolves around the institution – finances, infrastructure, community goodwill.

At the same time, the Duty of Obedience says you must remain committed to the mission. Therein lies the potential conflict. What if keeping the lights on means accepting a grant that takes you away from your mission? What if another institution is better at ensuring all the children in the neighborhood have winter coats? Do you compete against that other institution for a grant that will provide the coats?

If you do, are you fulfilling your Duty of Obedience to the mission?

What happens when the best decision that could be made for advancing the mission is one that means the organization forgoes a grant needed to keep the doors open?  

This is an extreme question, but as the call of sustainability becomes louder, the conflict becomes more evident. Indeed, there is no doubt that every organization will encounter some form of the conflict between sustainability of the nonprofit and obedience to the mission. We all know of institutions guilty of mission drift, as they ‘chase the money’ by creating programs solely for the purpose of getting grants.

What then? What can a board do when confronted with this conflict?

Conflict….or Tension?

Perhaps a redefinition is in order. Conflict implies they cannot coexist. Perhaps a better word than conflict would be tension.

Tension is not a bad thing. It implies an awareness of differences or awareness of an imbalance. Tension can be addressed in a way that affirms the Duty of Obedience while maintaining the Duties of Loyalty and Care.

This tension can only be addressed if it’s acknowledged. When boards isolate discussion of the budget from evaluation of program impact, they are siloing the Duty of Care from the Duty of Obedience. Similarly, discussion of the impact – or cost – of one particular program without the context of the entire organization risks dropping a highly efficacious program due to cost, or keeping a minimally efficacious program solely because it is inexpensive or brings in dollars.

Awareness of the tension opens the path to collaboration among organizations that have the same mission and vision, rather than reinforcing competition or becoming territorial.

Zimmerman and Bell provide one way to address this tension, but the first step is to acknowledge that it exists. It is then up to the board and administration to research and agree on how to address it.

Ultimately, the goal has the same name: sustainability. But it encompasses so much more.

Let’s Cheat a Little More

Let’s Cheat a Little More

Traveling from Wilmington to NYC is a great time to catch up on reading, and I used it to absorb an interesting mix of articles. Two apparently very different articles stood out as having a lot to say about the same thing: leadership and diversity.

Does Diversity Harm Execution?

In this Harvard Business Review article, Does Diversity Actually Increase Creativity?, author Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic contends that while diversity is great for generating new ideas, implementation bogs down in diverse groups. This observation is based on a meta-analysis of more than 108 studies and 10,000 teams. While I don’t have the knowledge base to review the data, he states one conclusion that belies the entire premise that the problem of poor implementation is due to diversity:

            “Good leadership helps. The conflicts arising from diversity can be mitigated if teams are effectively led.”

Further, yet another conclusion states,

            “Knowledge sharing is key. No matter how diverse the workforce is, and regardless of what type of diversity we examine, diversity will not enhance creativity unless there is a culture of sharing knowledge.”

So, while the data shows that diversity is great for creativity, but bogs down in implementation, the correlation does not necessarily mean causation. The cause may not be diversity, but the lack of leadership and the lack of knowledge sharing.

Do We Cheat Enough?

Which leads me to the second article, in ForbesBrandVoice, Trust, Diversity and Passion – The Three Ingredients of Successful Organizations. Here, author Richard Bliss tells the story of a team of highly intelligent, forceful young leaders, who, in a military test, failed spectacularly. There was great diversity of thought and passion, but instead of sharing their knowledge with each other, each contended to prove that they had the right answer. They wanted to show that they were right, instead of working together.

Why is it so hard for smart, intelligent people of diverse backgrounds and thought processes to work together? Bliss quotes Vivek Wadhwa, of Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering:

             “When you and I went to school, we were taught to be individuals. … If we shared knowledge with each other, it was called cheating.”

How true! Our educational system rewards individual achievement. If we share our knowledge with others or ask for help from other students, we are cheating.

What is the Leader’s Role?

Bringing together diverse viewpoints, experiences, mental processes, and aptitudes; sharing what we know; allowing others to also contribute – these all go against our childhood training.

Does diversity lead to more creativity? It appears yes. Does it take good leadership to make the most of the diversity? Again, it appears yes. Merely creating diverse teams is not a magic bullet.

Leadership is fostering the growth of the team so they can listen to, acknowledge and learn from each other, in order to achieve extraordinary ends. No one person has all the answers. No one type of person has all the answers.

Choose Your Own Adventure: 5 Steps to a Sustainable Strategic Plan

Choose Your Own Adventure: 5 Steps to a Sustainable Strategic Plan

Photo Credit: Credit to Sharon Fullerton Photography.

Life is like a “choose your own adventure” book.

With each choice we make, our adventure changes. With one big difference. In a “choose your own adventure” book, we don’t know where the decisions will lead us (unless we look at the end). But in real life, we’re pretty good at anticipating consequences – if we think of it. It’s one of the things that makes us human.

Consider – if you look backward, you can probably describe the path that led you to live where you live, work where you work, love whom you love. Hindsight makes the path easy to see.  Moment after moment you made choices – consciously or unconsciously – and each choice created the possibility of making the next choice.

Each moment is the result of all the moments that came before. As Hildy Gottlieb wrote in The Pollyanna Principles: Each and every one of us is creating the future, every day, whether we do so consciously or not.

We can choose our own adventure when we plan for the future.

Not only can we anticipate the consequences of a particular choice, we can reverse engineer the future we want, imagine the steps that led us there, and consciously use those steps to build a path to that desired future. We can imagine we are standing in that future, and use imaginary hindsight to recount how it happened.

What about Strategic Planning?

In an organization, reverse engineering is tailor made for strategic planning. Here are the five steps:

  1. Gather all the people who have a stake in your future – board, staff, volunteers, clients, supporters, funders, government – and envision the future.
  • If we are 100% successful in whatever it is we decide to do, what will be different?
  • For whom? What does that future look like? Who will be affected?

THIS is the inspiration. By envisioning the future, you inspire each member of the board, staff and community to make it a reality. What will be different because YOU exist?

Asking many people who will be affected reminds us that whatever we do is being done by – and affecting – people: clients, frontline staff, administration, community, donors, board, neighbors. This is key to the success of the plan. Think about how difficult change is for some people. It’s often because the people who were planning didn’t include and get buy-in from the different people who would be affected.

  1. Consider what needs to be in place for that future to be a reality.
  • What do each of these ‘whoms’ need to know, believe, have, for you to achieve this success?
  • What needs to be in place for this plan to be successful?

Some of these are beliefs, e.g., staff and board need to believe this vision is possible. It might be knowledge, for example, staff need to know how to do the job – which itself leads to realizing that the staff will need training. It might be feelings, for example, the board needs to feel engaged in the process and willing to step out of their comfort zone — which leads to a need for board guidance. It may be legislation, like appropriate laws or appropriations, which may mean the board needs to advocate. It may be tangible things, like a building in which to work, or updated technology.

  1. Assess the resources you already have access to, and identify the resources that you don’t yet have.

Unlike traditional strategic planning, where you start by considering whether what you have are strengths or weaknesses, when you start with a vision of the future, you have something to measure your resources against. You can evaluate whether your assets are really strengths. Just because you have a great music department, if you’re trying to become a STEM resource center, it’s not necessarily an asset. Framing the question about needed resources this way, you can think of missing resources as just one more step to take on the way to the end result.

Based on our previous examples, needed resources might be time, people, faciliaties. Time for staff to be trained; time and locations for staff meetings; activists or lobbyists to advocate the legislature; a building, funds for a building, or relationships with commercial property owners.

  1. What actions do we need to take to make sure the resources are available; to ensure the things we need are in place?

Now that we know what we need, and what we have, we can figure out what we need to do. When we start with the vision, identify what needs to be in place, and assess what we already have, then it becomes obvious what actions you need to take.

For example, if legislation needs to change, then we know we need to research our legislators’ positions so we can effectively speak with them; we need to train our board members to be advocates; our staff needs to create materials to support our advocates’ work and a calendar that correlates with the legislative calendar.


  1. Individuals accept responsibility for making sure each item gets done.

Plans without accountability – knowing who is doing what, by when – are the kinds of plans that get put on a shelf. Nice ideas, elaborate wish lists, but not truly actionable. As Tom Peters is reported to have said, What gets measured gets managed.

Complexity and Success

These five simple steps become more complex – and far more successful – as we identify more affected stakeholders. Including all the people who will be affected makes it far more likely that the needs of each will be taken into account, and no steps will be missed. You’ve looked at both external and internal conditions for success, with an emphasis on the people, rather than the things.

Congratulations! You can choose your own adventure!

What will YOUR future be?

For more tips and thoughts on nonprofit board governance, planning and facilitation, sign up at The Detwiler Group, or email Susan Detwiler directly.

Originally posted at

Boards: What headwinds are your clients facing?

Boards: What headwinds are your clients facing?

When you travel from New York to London, the shortest flight is about 6 hours and 45 minutes.  When you return, the shortest flight is an hour longer.  Flying east, we have tailwinds helping us along. Flying west, we’re pushing against headwinds.

Every time we make a plan, we’re also making assumptions. Some assumptions are simple and pretty universal – we all experience headwinds and tailwinds in flight.

But other times we are making assumptions based on our own experiences, sometimes unaware of the headwinds and tailwinds that are helping and hindering us.

For example, if you ask me how far the nearest Target store is, I’ll answer that it’s about 10 minutes from my home. Unconsciously, I’m assuming you have a car. If my neighbor doesn’t have a car, it will typically take over an hour – walk to the bus stop, take a bus several miles in the opposite direction from Target, so he can change to the bus that will take him there.

My tailwind is that I have a car and enough money to pay the insurance and fill the tank. His headwind is that he doesn’t have a car. Worse, he also has the headwind that he’s working two jobs, so the time it takes to get to Target is an even greater chunk out of his free time than it would be from mine. He’s flying west, while I’m flying east.

Estimating based on our own personal experience is natural.

It takes conscious effort to parse out the advantages and obstacles – tailwinds and headwinds – that make up our personal experience, so we can more clearly see the advantages and obstacles of others.

When we makes plans, our first inclination is to think about what works for us. What do we like, what resources do we have – time, cash, knowledge – that we can employ.  Planning based on our own experience may work if everyone is just like us – same background, same experiences, same resources.

But our clients, patrons, staff members and visitors are not all the same.

To successfully serve the community, we have to consciously find ways to understand our clients’, patrons’, staff members’ and visitors’ experiences. Not just what the headwinds (and tailwinds) are, but also their ramifications. I may have known that my neighbor didn’t have a car; that doesn’t mean I understood what the implications were when it came to shopping and the decisions they force you to make. If you have to go through that much trouble to shop at Target, then it may make sense to pay the higher prices at the local bodega. The ramifications of one situation affect the next, which affect the next.

Before digging into the myriad of experiences of clients, patrons, staff and visitors, take time to consider the headwinds you’ve encountered growing up and getting to where you are in life. Then stop and consider all the tailwinds that have helped you on your way – the mentors, the education, sustenance, the visits to cultural institutions.

Which of these are universal? Which are uniquely yours? Which make you wonder about the tailwinds and headwinds of others?

To schedule a time to explore your board and staff headwinds and tailwinds, reach Susan Detwiler at or