Dangerous Assumptions: Knowing “Where they’re coming from” isn’t enough!

Dangerous Assumptions: Knowing “Where they’re coming from” isn’t enough!

You need more than empathy to make your case. 

Many people tell you that successful persuasion is built on understanding the other person’s values and frame of reference. What they don’t tell you is that you also have to know what they know.

No Jargon

We usually know enough not to use jargon – the shortcut language that lives in a specific field.  “targeted immunotherapy” “donor-centric fundraising” “UHMW polyethylene” “flux capacitor”[just kidding]

When we’re talking to people outside the field, we’re pretty good at spelling it out.

But even spelling it out assumes that our audience can connect the dots; it assumes they can understand why it’s important. We might say  “boosting a patient’s own immune system,” but we forget to draw the line from that definition to its implications. We might ay, “the donor needs to feel important,” but we don’t draw the line to why that makes a difference to the organization. WHY is it important?

Dangerous Assumptions: Round One

Two recent conversations really showed me the hazards in making assumptions about someone’s knowledge base.

Actually, the first was pretty amusing. It was a late night conversation with my nephews. These are smart, intelligent men. One is a veteran and a lead machinist in the Army Corps of Engineers, returning to school for Engineering. The other just completed a law degree.

Late at night, we’re sitting on a couch in a rented flat. Somehow, as we caught up on each others’ lives, the conversation turned to nonprofits and fundraising and conflict of interest and controlling who raises funds in the name of an organization. I’m still not sure how we got there. It was a strictly hypothetical conversation (my nephews are nerdy cool like that) but I realized that these smart men, with considerable experience dealing with people and the world, had no clue about how nonprofit organizations work.

The idea that a nonprofit can end the year with a surplus to start the next year with, because nonprofit is a tax identity, not a business model. That you can’t let just anyone use your name in order to raise funds because one of the nonprofit’s greatest assets is its reputation – good will and donations are built on that reputation. That there’s a difference between numbers being served and the impact on those being served. That overhead is a slippery term and just like commercial enterprises, you have to invest in infrastructure to have a greater impact.

The hour got later and later as I found I had to keep backing up to explain the background of different concepts. It was like a midnight course in nonprofit governance, hitting all the highlights. Not having another frame of reference, their knowledge of how nonprofits run was based on limited personal experience and what they read in the media. A lot of fun, intellectually stimulating, and exhausting!

Dangerous Assumptions: Round Two

The second instance wasn’t hypothetical. It was working with a client whose frame of reference came from being part of the bureaucracy of a larger entity. He knows his specialization inside and out, and he’s a really great asset to my own understanding of the organization. But when it comes to community relations and nonprofit governance, he has no context. Fortunately, he has the confidence to stop me in mid-conversation and ask me to connect the dots – why is it important to hold off on accepting help from a potential donor right now; what’s the best way to maintain contact with them; what’s the role of a board in helping to break a legislative logjam to release additional funds and accelerate a process?

The naiveté of my nephews and my client’s willingness to ask for that tutorial made me wonder: How many times do we not even realize that our audience isn’t following us? How many people we talk to think they know what you’re talking about? Do your new board members – heck, do your returning board members — really  understand what you’re saying? They’ve heard the terms before and have built an image in their heads of what the words mean. But how much context are they missing?

It’s not enough to avoid jargon. To really connect, you have to start by knowing what they already know.

You can reach me here for a conversation about where to start with your audience; or to ask about facilitating meetings and decisions. Let’s see how I can help.

Is Board Recruitment the Key to Your Vision?

Is Board Recruitment the Key to Your Vision?

credit: John Quidor

In Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, old Rip goes off hunting to the mountains, encounters supernatural beings, drinks of their keg of brew, and falls asleep. Upon awakening, he returns home, only to find that 20 years have passed and the country is no longer beholden to King George III but is instead a republic with George Washington at the helm.

Imagine yourself, 20 years from now, returning to the nonprofit of which you are a part. Would you recognize it? Is the mission the same? Are its values the same? Would you still want to support it?

Organizations review their missions regularly; that’s a good thing.  Nonprofits must evolve over time or risk irrelevance. But there is a difference between evolving to better serve the greater vision and doing a complete about-face on what that greater vision is.

This is the imperative of board recruitment:

Do your new directors aspire to the original vision of the institution?

If not, the organization may, in the words of Nonprofit Quarterly, be hijacked.

Consider the American Bible Society, which moved from a nonsectarian mission to distribute bibles to one that overtly espouses an evangelical point of view.  As Ruth McCambridge relates, the move has been gradual, but appears caused by having individuals with a particular point of view on the board. These individuals in turn recruited like-minded other directors, until board level decisions began reflecting their particular view, affecting all their programs and policies.

This very clear example is a cautionary tale.

Whom your board recruits today affects what your organization looks like 20 years from now. 

Each successive board moves the institution forward, and the tiny shifts build up over time.

Diversity of viewpoints keep the organization from shifting too far in one direction or another. The vibrant discussions that diversity leads to is one factor in ensuring that each decision is thoroughly examined.

Diversity of experience, viewpoints, skills and aptitudes keeps organizations relevant. It’s also a way to keep the vision front and center.

Recruitment is a fiduciary responsibility and a crucial investment in your future. 

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Just Say No…..3 Keys to Staying Focused

Just Say No…..3 Keys to Staying Focused

Focus “means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are…innovation is saying no to 1000 things.”   Steve Jobs, 1997

We are a naturally giving people. Those of us working in the nonprofit world, or volunteering on boards, are preconditioned to saying yes.

“Of course we can help with that.”
“That sounds like a great idea, how can I help?”
“They’re doing such great work, we should help them.”
Can you do this? Yes.”
“We need more staff next week, can you send over some people? Of course.”
The city needs more day care centers, can you put one in? Sure.”

Working in this arena such a pleasure – we are among people who, like us, are naturally giving. It is a joy to be surrounded by people whose first impulse is to say yes.

Unfortunately, it also means that we have to take care to not dissipate our own energy and resources, leaving less for the programs and work which we have declared to be OUR focus.

SAYING “NO”

When Steve Jobs said that focus “means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are,” he was talking about his own company. When Brené Brown called focus her word of the year, she expanded the meaning to personal focus. What can we do if we set our own goals, and minimize the extraneous pulls on our attention? Inc. Magazine also expanded on these ideas, with specific guidance on ways to maximize focus.

What does this mean in the world of nonprofits? It means the same thing.

We naturally want to help the world; we naturally want to do everything that will contribute to our mission. But we can’t. At least not all at once.

The important thing is to decide what it is you – all of you – your board, staff, volunteers —  will focus on right now. Then stay focused on doing that. Listen to other ideas, and be ready and willing to say ‘no.’ If you can’t say ‘no,’ say ‘not now.’

There’s a reason you decided on your course of action. Bolster your resolve by reminding yourself and others what those reasons are.

  • Analyze
  • Decide
  • Remind

Focus – and success – means saying no to the rest.

Sign up here for other hints about successful decisionmaking, staying focused, or making that first decision. Or if you want a no-obligation conversation about board relations, let me know.

 

You are Hereby Invited to a Boring Job

You are Hereby Invited to a Boring Job

 “A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done.” Fred Allen

“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” Milton Berle

Then there’s this rubber stamp I was given, that said,

“Great idea! Assign a committee to foul it up!”

There is an image of nonprofit board committees as the place where ideas go to die a slow and lingering death; where process overcomes inspiration; where group-think strangles innovation.

But if you’re running an organization, it’s really hard to get anything done if you can’t segment off a group of people to work on specific jobs. How do you get people to work on these jobs? You invite them. Nicely.

The problem with committees is that word: “commit”.

That’s especially true in today’s society. Sometimes I feel so rushed and overwhelmed, that the thought of taking on another commitment sends me screaming in the other direction –Noooooo!!!!! You mean, I have to come to meetings and be obligated for two whole years???

But if someone said to me, “Hey, Janay has this great idea; Jim and I are going to help her make it happen. Can you join us?” my answer is probably going to at least lead to a query for more information.

Asking someone to join the Finance Committee might be deadly. Asking someone to help figure out the best way to maximize the dollars we have available for our mission…? Well, that’s intriguing.

Being offered an idea for engaging new supporters and telling them to give the idea to a committee is disheartening. Being asked to explore the idea with others and generate ways to make it work is an invitation.

Committees aren’t inherently bad. It’s how we ask people to serve that creates the deadly atmosphere surrounding them.

Invite people to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.

Let’s change the conversation.

This is based on a January 2014 post. It bears repeating!

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Rant, Vent, Resent or Remind? Two questions to set the stage for your board’s success.

Rant, Vent, Resent or Remind? Two questions to set the stage for your board’s success.

Face it. People don’t always do what they’ve promised to do.

They mean it when they promise. They believe in the cause, and they truly believe they will accomplish the task they’ve agreed to do. Board members and program volunteers alike. They’re committed. They know it’s important.

So why don’t they actually do it?!?!

Life gets in the way. Your volunteers and board members don’t eat, sleep and breathe your mission the way your staff does. Their time frame is different from yours. Boards meet monthly or quarterly. If you’re the CEO, you’re on a daily time frame. Your board members eat sleep and breathe their own work.

So as CEOs and senior staff we rant, vent and resent that our board members need to be reminded about their reports (aren’t they grownups??) and we sigh in exasperation that our trustees haven’t made their friendraising calls (don’t they know how important this is???).

Actually, they do know how important it is. And they feel badly when they don’t follow through. But their urgent takes precedence over your necessary. No matter what the level of volunteer, our cause is just one aspect of their lives.

What’s a board president (or executive director) to do?

That’s a great question. Why don’t you ask them?

Janice, I know plan to get the board reports online a week before the next board meeting. What will it make it possible for you to do that? What do you need?

 

DeShon, I really appreciate your commitment to make 4 friendraising calls each week. What will make it possible for you to do that? What do you need from us?

For every end result we want, some things have to happen first. Sometimes we have to set the stage. Our volunteers may not be thinking that way. The questions:

“What will make it possible for you to do that?”  and
“What do you need?” 

starts the mind thinking of what those necessary things are. They may say something like, “remind me on Wednesday.” Or, “can you give me some actual words to say on the call?” Or “actually, this isn’t a great week for me, but can you sit with me on Saturday and help make those first calls?”

Whatever it is, it’s a lot more productive than ranting, and you and they have a path forward.

Now you can think about what to do with that extra energy.

Click here to receive more tips and thoughts on board relations, planning and nonprofit management; or get in touch for a no-obligation conversation about how you can improve your board meetings.

 

Stop the Blame! Six questions to get to continuous improvement.

Stop the Blame! Six questions to get to continuous improvement.

“It is crucial….to identify aspects of the process that worked well and why, and changes to the process that will improve success in the future.”*

If you do 10 things in a day, and 9 of them go fabulously, which one do you focus on? Right. The one thing that was a bust. People seem to find it easier to complain than to acknowledge things that are going well.

The same thing happens when we debrief after a program, project or event.  The default feedback I hear from clients seems to be, “well, in general it went well but……” followed by a litany of things that went wrong. “

We focus on the things that didn’t go as planned. Or rather, we focus on the things that weren’t planned at all.  The things that went wrong. The unanticipated malfunctions.

We glide right over the first part of the feedback, “in general it went well…” and dive right into trying to fix what went wrong. Worse, we lapse into the blame game – “who messed up?”

What we don’t do is spend time on what went right.

What if we asked a different set of questions? What if we held off the negative dissection, and first asked these questions:

  1. “What was the  biggest success of the night / event / program?”
  2. “What did we do that made that happen?”
  3.  “What else went right, and What did we do to make that happen?”
  4. “What can we learn from that?”
  5. “Is there anything we did that we can transfer to other programs/ projects/ events?”

Observe, acknowledge, and deconstruct the success.

Only THEN move on to what could have been done better. In fact, avoid the blame game completely by asking,

  1. “What ‘changes to the process will improve success in the future?’”

These words from Barry Lord and Gail Lord, in Manual of Museum Management, offer a positive way to improve on any program or process. It acknowledges that things could be better than they are – no matter what level they start at.

Framing the ‘what went wrong’ question to focus on process instead of who avoids laying blame on a person, and starts the brain working at analyzing procedure.

This applies to every process. From board evaluations to gala events; from personnel reviews to budget analysis; from Thanksgiving dinners to conversations with a partner. It acknowledges that things could be better – more successful – and moves the conversation to developing conditions for success.

Next time you do a debrief, start with the positive. THEN STAY POSITIVE. Watch how much more thoughtful the discussion can be.

Click here to receive more tips and thoughts on board relations, planning and nonprofit management; or get in touch for a no-obligation conversation about how you can improve your board meetings.

*Barry & Gail Lord, The Manual of Museum Management