Asking for help…or opening possibilities?

Asking for help…or opening possibilities?

Change the question; change perspective.

With a pile of work in front of you, or any job that needs doing, do you automatically ask, “How am I going to get all that done?”

In years of working with very different nonprofit leaders, I’ve noticed that’s a common response. It’s especially true among people who are givers at heart – you know, the ones who are quick to volunteer and give their time, or those who went into community benefit work because they’re innately programmed to help others.

Consider these three recent situations:

  • The executive director of a start-up nonprofit looked at everything that needed to be done, and said, “How can I do all this?”
  • The board chair of a mid-sized nonprofit, seeking new board members, asked, “How can I get people to serve on the board?”
  • The facilitator of an online community asked herself, “How can I get more people engaged?”

In each of these [real] scenarios, there is a common thread. In each case, the protagonist used the pronoun, “I.”

We all do this. From the person putting on the gala, to the volunteers in our house of worship, to the grantwriter, to the team leader, to the CEO and board chair. When we’re asked what we’re working on, we talk about a project and then say, “I have to…..,” and list all the things we have to do

Faced with everything we have to do we get a knot in our stomachs. Sometimes, it’s downright terrifying. The burden is on our shoulders, and if we don’t get it done, we’re letting down our clients, our coworkers, our fellow volunteers, ourselves.

Is that really true? Is it really all on our shoulders? What if we reframe the scenarios and ask a different question?

In the case of the start-up nonprofit, consider what changes if we ask,

“What would it take to get all this done?”

When the ED heard that reframe, it opened up a host of new opportunities. Instead of feeling alone with the job, he listed what would need to be in place for the job to get done, then objectively considered different ways to get them done – by anyone, not just himself. Instead of diving in, he started thinking of others who could make it happen.

For the board chair, we reframed the question from “how do I get people to be on the board?” to “what would it take for people to be able to join the board?” Instead of presenting the yes-no question to a prospect, the board chair started asking them, “what would it take for you to be able to say yes?” Potential board members started considering the possibilities, instead of the constrictions.

The facilitator of the online community completely reframed the engagement question. Instead, she invited all the participants of the community to online meetings in which she asked, “what would you like to be engaged in?” “What would you like to see and be part of?” “What would make it possible for people to be engaged?” With the different iterations of the reframing, the discussion became more dynamic, as participants saw themselves stepping into roles they may never have considered before.

What would it take to……?

This simple reframing moves the thought process away from burden and toward possibilities. It works for individuals, and for entire organizations.

The next time an opportunity arises, try moving from ‘we can’t do….’ to ‘what would it take for us to be able to do…..?’

Let me know what happens!

Or if you’d like to know more about facilitating these kinds of discussions.

Only One Resolution

Only One Resolution

Is this a familiar scenario? You follow up on every obligation to your boss, or your board chair, or your spouse. But when you vow to do something for yourself, it keeps moving to the bottom of the list.

Promises to others are easy to keep. You want to help. They’re relying on you. You see and feel the disappointment on their faces when you don’t deliver. That’s true whether it’s a work obligation or a promise to your family.

But when you make a promise to yourself, somehow it doesn’t happen. That promise to make time to plan the future stays just that – a promise. That vow to take an hour a week to keep up on best practices in board governance falls by the wayside. Somehow these promises keep being put off. We’ll get to them “when I have time.”

After all, it’s not going to affect anyone else. Or is it?

You may think you’re only disappointing yourself, but what about everyone who relies on you to be at your best? What about all the people whom your newly gained knowledge or deep thinking will help?

That time you spend on self-discovery or professional development are obligations to others, as well as to yourself. It is part of the fabric of our world that what we do for ourselves affects those around us.

Of course, we can resolve to make obligations to our own self-improvement as high a priority as obligations to others. But if this resolution is like most others, by February it will be broken.

Instead, make a more fundamental resolution. Resolve to find the system that will lead you to making that time for self-improvement.

People go where systems lead them.  Great baseball players know that merely resolving to randomize their pitches doesn’t work. But giving themselves a trigger – like pitching a curve ball every time they glance up and see a ‘3’ on the scoreboard clock – they’ve created a system to randomize the pitches.

People go where systems lead them. By creating a system that works for you, you’re creating a condition for success.

  • It may be finding an accountability partner; finding someone whom you respect who will hold you accountable for the promises you make to yourself.
  • It may be finding a trigger that prompts you to take time whenever that trigger occurs – like immediately following a regularly scheduled call.
  • It may be scheduling, far in advance, a series of half-day trips.

Instead of resolving to improve yourself, resolve to create that system that will lead to that self-improvement.

Happy New Year!  May we all go from strength to strength in 2017!

Photo credit: By Desde mes de diciembre – Canal 1 Posadas Misiones, Public Domain,

One way to multiply your professional development budget

One way to multiply your professional development budget

Professional development? What professional development? Nonprofit organizations often shortchange the budget line for professional development. And if there is a professional development line, it’s not always extended to the whole staff. Nor is it common to budget for board education.

But here’s one organization that figured out how to parlay a small professional development investment into a win-win for the whole community.  It’s a great example of being what Seth Godin calls a freegiver, as opposed to a freeloader.

Faced with a desire to educate her staff and board on fundraising and planning, Bonnie Hilory, Executive Director of the Institute of Flight, figured out she could send 2-3 staff members to national conferences – or create a conference right in her county.

With this idea, she went to the Community Foundation of Snohomish County (WA). What if, together, they brought in national speakers on fundraising and strategic planning, and invited all of the nonprofit organizations in the county and surrounding area to the conference?

As one of two speakers at this Philanthropy Takes Flight conference, I can tell you: It Worked!

The Community Foundation jumped at the chance to create an educational opportunity for the small nonprofits they supported, and became a key sponsor.  With the foundation on board, and additional community supporters, the Institute of Flight created the philanthropy conference. More than 150 individuals from small to large nonprofits attended – including the full board and staff of the Institute of Flight.

For not much more than it would take to send 2-3 individuals to national conferences, Bonnie Hilory educated her staff and board, gave back to the community, and further established the Institute as an anchor in the county.

  • Her board learned from individuals beyond herself and her staff.
  • The nonprofit organizations had an opportunity to learn together.
  • The Institute modeled the possibility of working together instead of competing.
  • The Community Foundation found a partner in building up the experience and knowledge of the agencies it supports.

In the framework of Catalytic Thinking, this spirit of bringing together the resources of the community is called Collective Enoughness – the philosophy that together we have everything we need, that it is only on our own that we experience scarcity. Looked at this way, we are not only collectively assembling the requirements for whatever project we want to accomplish, we are building the relationships that make it possible to do even more.

Truly building the community in which you want to live takes more than just your organization. What can you accomplish together, that you can’t accomplish on your own?

How can you be the catalyst for that coming together?

Making the Most of Summer:  Strengthening the Board Chair/ED Bond

Making the Most of Summer: Strengthening the Board Chair/ED Bond

Mid-summer. The time of transition. While we enjoy the ease of summer days, Labor Day looms on the horizon, with all the busy-ness that autumn brings.

Many nonprofit organizations take the summer off. Or rather, the Board does. If you generally meet monthly, you skip a meeting in the summer. Or you anticipate that people will be on vacation, so you don’t schedule important votes for the summer meetings. Understandable.

But that doesn’t mean that the work stops.

If your organization is anything like most of the ones I’ve worked with, the Executive Director is busy gearing up for the fall. Behind the scenes, planning meetings are being held. The staff you need to fulfill the newly funded program has to be hired and go through orientation. The new software system has to be run through its paces and tutorials given to staff. That foundation with a September deadline wants a lot of information that won’t write itself.

The Board chair is also busy. That board retreat you’re anticipating in September isn’t going to magically appear. The new board members need to be oriented. The dashboard you want to see each month has to be crafted. That same foundation wants to meet the chair and hear her passion for the work.

“The single best sign of a healthy nonprofit is a strong relationship 
between the Board Chair and the CEO.”

— Joan Garry Consulting

What could be possible if the Board Chair and the Executive Director were to make a point to meet this summer and see what’s on each other’s plates? What would it make possible if the Chair and the ED were to talk about how they can support each other in their respective roles, particularly as the busy season starts? What would it make possible if you then continued those meetings – not just about immediate concerns, but to maintain and deepen the working relationship, talk about broad issues that may be on the horizon, consider how to shape the board and administration to enhance mission delivery, reinforce the focus on ultimate goals?

What would that make possible for the organization as a whole, and for the people you serve?

Working together, the Board Chair and Executive Director have enormous influence on the personality and aspirations of an organization. As the Chair orchestrates and influences the board, the ED orchestrates and supervises the staff. When they are in concert with each other, the entire organization is building toward the same goals.

Yet in many organizations, a new Chair steps into the role with little understanding of the pressures on the Executive Director. In return, the ED often has little understanding of the particular strengths and passions of the Chair. Mistakes and missteps happen because they haven’t taken the time to build the rapport that allows them to call on each other as needed.

It’s hard to schedule around many people, and summer is especially hard. But the relative quiet of summer gives the Chair and ED many opportunities to meet. Iced tea? Lemonade?

The Board Chair <-> CEO relationship is so crucial, that the strength of the organization can fluctuate depending on the strength of the relationship. In Delaware, the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement has a Fellowship for strengthening just that relationship. How might YOU strengthen that bond? Let’s talk.  

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

  • “We’ve never done that before.”
  • “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
  • “I don’t know those people.”
  • “But they’re for-profit!”
  • “Why would those liberals care about this?!”
  • “Why would those conservatives care about this!?”

Over the years, I’ve heard variations on each one of these statements from nonprofits across the country. Each statement is more a reflection on our own comfort zone than on reality.

When we allow our habits to keep us from trying new things, we keep ourselves from growing.

When we find new board members just like ourselves, we allow our current lives to restrict our future growth.

When we allow our assumptions to keep us from reaching out to a new contact, we allow our assumptions to narrow our view.

Each assumption we make is based on stories we tell ourselves. Because we know one thing about a person, we assume other things about them. We create stories about what they must be like.

  • Because she is pro-choice, she must also want to take away our guns.
  • Because he wants to repeal Obamacare, he must also be anti-gay.

And since we’re not comfortable with what we believe we know about them, we don’t reach out.

Reaching out to other individuals gives us the opportunity to hear their stories. We learn about a new person and we learn new ways of thinking. Hearing the path they took to their current work gives us points of commonality. They sold encyclopedias door-to-door? So did I! They took their experience with a deaf teammate, and turned it into a new professional path? How inspiring!

When a group of people – your board of directors, for instance – learn each other’s story, they become more open to new ideas. They’ve just immersed themselves in hearing new things, and their minds are open to contemplating new ways of looking at the world.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and reaching out to someone you don’t know is immediately rewarding: you meet someone you hadn’t met before, learning new things you hadn’t yet had an opportunity to learn.

With each step we take, it gets easier to see people as individuals, not ideology.

Most importantly, each time you step out of your comfort zone, your comfort zone gets bigger.

Let’s talk about leading your board to push their comfort zone. Reach me at The Detwiler Group or

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

The authoritarian approach to management – top down, we know best, we’ll make the decisions, you just do it – is usually pretty good at demanding accountability.  It is the Board that answers the questions:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

But nonprofit management is shifting from authoritarian to stewardship* – where the board and Executive Director/CEO are partners.

Further on the spectrum, many organizations are shifting to the stakeholder style, in which different groups are represented on the board.

Even further, and many organizations have democratic decision making. Community members, staff, board, administration are all involved in steering the organization.

Most organizations are a blend of two or more of these management approaches, but as authoritarian approaches diminish, what does that mean for accountability?

If there is no single entity at the top that tells you what to do, and punishes you if you don’t do it, how do you make sure it’s going to get done?

Accountability is not just top-down. According Merriam-Webster, accountability means “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”

An obligation or a willingness to accept responsibility.

Accountability can be self-imposed; as management styles evolve to become more participatory, self-imposed accountability emerges.

As responsibility for the organization and outcomes shifts from the top downward, individuals at all levels participate in crafting the desired outcome. Participants become invested in its success. They decide that it’s an important goal; a goal that they want to be part of, take ownership of, and work to accomplish.

This is where accountability is triggered. As an individual takes ownership of some aspect of the project, they answer the first of the three questions:

  • Who will take on this task?

But the next two questions must also be answered:

  • When will this task be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

As soon as someone takes the lead on a task, it should become automatic that the next two questions are asked and answered.

A strategic plan crafted by multiple constituents will be enthusiastically embraced. It will have major goals and strategies. But even as responsibility broadens, the questions remain. With every decision, in every meeting:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

Accountability requires answers to all three. Make asking them a habit.

*See Governance and Accountability: A Different Choice for Nonprofits, by Tracey Coule in Nonprofit Quarterly.

For more about engaging your board and community, follow me at The Detwiler Group, or contact me directly at