An article about how Wyoming relies on Federal dollars to support its arts, brought back memories of a panel of philanthropists I heard speak many years ago.
It was a frustrating experience. At the time, I was Executive Director of a small nonprofit. The panelists represented major, national level foundations. Each foundation funded national nonprofits and national causes. Each also funded their local communities.
Had I lived and worked in one of their communities, I would have been thrilled to hear how much they funded their home towns.
Unfortunately, my nonprofit was in a small state, with few heirs to phenomenally large endowments. To obtain money from these large foundations, I needed to apply to one of the national nonprofits they funded, competing against other small nonprofits for the trickle-down largess.
During Q&A, I asked what recourse we agencies in the hinterlands had when it came to applying for their funds. Would these large foundations consider supporting us, as well as their hometowns?
The answer was no.
They supported their home towns, and they supported the national nonprofits. It was up to us to figure out how to survive without having ‘angels’ in our midst.
A HARD LESSON
It’s a hard lesson for us in the hinterlands to learn. Of course, I use hinterlands figuratively. All you need do is look around, and see where the major corporations and major foundations reside. Everywhere else, nonprofits start with at least one fewer arrow in their quiver, at least one fewer prospective major funder. Small communities in particular are vulnerable, as they have fewer prospective donors in general. The arts and culture sector can be particularly vulnerable; unlike in the social sector, there are few government contracts available for their work.
Maybe that’s why boards of directors keep saying things like, “The Gates Foundation has a lot of money; let’s ask them!” and “Maybe Meryl Streep will come to our gala!” Hopes are high, but the reality is that the local nonprofits are not on their radar.
Yet these nonprofits DO succeed, because the national organizations DO make some funds available. In many cases, the Federal government steps in – at least for now, in the arts and humanities, there is the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, each funding large percentages of the rural arts and humanities programming. Other Federal agencies serve other areas, like Department of Education, Corporation for National and Community Service, Department of Labor.
BOOTSTRAPS ARE HAD TO COME BY
These outlying nonprofits also do a very commendable job of enlisting their communities. Often there is volunteerism providing support in the form of unpaid labor. But the very fact of being in smaller communities makes it harder to get sufficient volunteers, either because the communities are small, or because there are barriers in smaller communities (e.g., lack of transportation, lack of childcare) that make volunteering more difficult.
Is this a plea for consideration by the large, national foundations? Maybe. I think it’s more a reminder that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Telling small-town organizations in unconnected communities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is naïve at best, and cruel at worst. First you need bootstraps.
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Does your staff know what the board does? Really?
In conversations with emerging professionals, I find they often haven’t a clue what the point of a board is. Frankly, I sometimes get that question from Executive Directors, too [but that’s a whole ‘nother issue].
Passionate people working for you.
Right now, I want to talk about the staff. The young professionals. The people you rely on at the front lines to deliver your mission.
Most of them care about the mission. They care about why you exist. Many of them care deeply and passionately. It’s not just a job. Unfortunately, they often lack a big picture of the entire organization as a unified entity, supported by the volunteer board of directors.
They don’t see how they fit into the scheme of the whole organization. Looking upwards, their view often stops at the program manager, director, vice president, or perhaps the executive director level. They don’t even see the board. If they do see the board, its purpose is hazy.
Worse, that view of the board is often negative.
How do you portray the board to your staff? How often do you say things like,
- “The board said we have to do it this way.”
- “We can’t afford it because the board didn’t approve the budget.”
- “The board retreat is coming up and we have to make sure our presentations are perfect.”
What messages do these statements deliver?
The board is demanding,
doesn’t understand their realities
and is only worried about dollars.
Even if staff members can parrot back the purpose of a board, do they understand the ramifications and significance for their work?
What would be different if the staff knew that board members care as much as they do about the mission? That the board makes decisions with the future in mind?
What would be different if the board was transparent in why certain decisions are made? Not because you don’t have the funding, but because the funding is supporting the mission in other ways.
What would be different if staff understood that board members were doing their damnedest to make sure they had the resources to do great things?
Five ways to start building a better view.
- Reframe how you speak about board decisions. Instead of blaming the board for unpopular decisions, or acting like popular decisions are a surprise success, put the decisions into context, including the considerations taken into account.
- Introduce individual board members to the staff. Give staff members an opportunity to meet and get to know the board as a collection of individuals, rather than a monolithic, enigmatic entity.
- Include information about the board in employee orientations. Integrate the board into the organization chart, with information about its purpose – not just as the last resort for employee grievances.
- Invite staff members to sit in on open board meetings. Board meetings are frequently open, but staff may not believe they would be welcome. Even if employees don’t attend, the fact of the invitation is an indicator of welcome.
- Consider mentorships between board members and staff. While young employees are frequently mentored by senior employees, board members often have special skills they may be willing to impart.
Each contact between board and staff builds a greater rapport, and a greater respect on each side.
Its a simple start to a new year of building the trust needed for accepting and working with hard decisions and new opportunities.
May 2018 be a year of harmony, respect and trust!
“The plans say you’re responsible for this. Make sure you get it done by June.“
Too often, we treat planning and execution as two separate things. Leadership make plans; departments and workers are told to execute them. Meanwhile, those charged with execution don’t see the full vision of the plans. They end up in silos, blithely executing their tasks, without knowing how their work affects the work of others, or how their work is woven into the whole.
But planning and execution are a seamless fabric; planning must include execution, and execution must reference the underlying plans. Building execution into the planning, and including those who do it in the process, makes for a smoother transition from the theoretical to the practical.
There is a cascade from vision to plan to strategy to action, that creates a picture of how each action contributes to the whole. When this cascade is shared with – and built with! – those tasked with execution, everyone has a common language and goal; everyone understands where they fit into the whole. Whether it’s a small museum or a large public garden, including staff in planning generates buy-in and pride in the organization. Ultimately, each person sees how they contribute to the enterprise.
Yet detailed, inclusive planning comes with a risk.
When everyone knows where they are headed, and execution is planned in detail, changing course can seem as impossible as turning around the Titanic. This is where a culture of innovation and risk leadership is important.
This is a second benefit of including everyone in planning the execution.
There is empowerment when everyone in the organization knows and participates in generating the ultimate goal and strategies. This empowerment means they feel permitted – perhaps even obligated – to bring new ideas to the table. Instead of focusing on new ways to execute a strategy, they can seek new ideas for reaching the ultimate goal. They can think of solutions at levels beyond their own tasks.
When everyone in the organization can bring new ideas to the table, the sheer abundance of new ideas provides fodder for thought. Goals may stay the same – but strategies will benefit from the abundance of ideas.
Inclusive planning takes advantage of the brains, experiences and points of view of many more people. Why waste these talents?
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My colleague, Shoshana Fanizza, posted an interesting analogy in her blog, Specials for What They Buy. Shoshana specializes in audience development for theatres and performing arts, but her insights are definitely relevant to more than cultural institutions.
Her point is that grocery stores and stores like Target send you coupons for what you are most likely to use, based on past purchases. Why can’t venues use their databases of attendees and subscribers to pinpoint specific audiences for special attention?
It made me think about boards and their audiences. While cultural institutions can mine their databases for ‘likes,’ many nonprofit organizations can’t just go to their records and see who likes what, not to mention those potential clients whom you’ve yet to touch. But that doesn’t mean that the concept of knowing your audience has no validity.
Do you know your audience?
How well do organizations really know who their audiences / clients / targets / constituents are? How well do we know what their interests are, or what will be most useful to them (remember, we started with targeted coupons)?
In program evaluation, we are thankfully spending more time looking at impact than merely counting participants. Yet we are still often measuring things which matter to third parties, not necessarily what is important to the constituents themselves. We measure that students graduate from college and are employed. But does that person end up with debt? Does that person end up with a job that doesn’t pay as well as one she could have gotten with a 2-year certificate in plumbing? Maybe she’d rather be working with her hands.
Co-creation of programs requires not just offering ideas and getting feedback from constituents. It means bringing them in at the beginning of any effort, and asking, what is it that you want your life to be like? and what will it take for that to actually become reality? Developing ways to measure your impact means working with constituents to determine meaningful benchmarks.
Then, when you know this, you can offer more like it.
Really knowing your constituents – your “audience” – allows you to effectively tailor your programs and collaborations to their true interests.
Surely, that’s at least as important as knowing when they need to buy more paper towels.
Working on strategic planning with several organizations, I was reminded of the importance of execution – and this post from 2014. Here’s an updated version.
Ahh, the glorious feeling of looking at the month after next on your calendar and seeing whole empty days. How easy it is to be magnanimous and say “yes” when asked to take on a job that isn’t due for two months. So we say “yes,” and put it on the calendar. When another someone asks us to do something in the future, we again check our calendar, see that it’s still pretty empty, and again say “yes.” This happens a few more times, and all of a sudden, the 1st week in December starts looking pretty full.
Then as December 1 approaches, all the things we want to accomplish – long term projects, researching new programs, reading for professional development – have to get squeezed into the unscheduled times, alongside putting out the inevitable fires that weren’t anticipated, calling our parents, and taking our kid to the doctor.
If we’d scheduled the projects, research, and professional development, then that week wouldn’t have looked so free. We might have more carefully evaluated the request, and said ‘no’ to some of them, in order to have time to accomplish our own long term goals.
Almost everyone experiences this phenomenon. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who wrote Predictably Irrational, said:
“Because of the ways calendars are created, people actually take more meetings than they should… We have this satisfaction of having our calendar seem busy. We have the satisfaction of not saying ‘no’ to things. But at the same time, we’re chasing away things that are important to us for things that are unimportant.”
When you add together the many individuals on a board or in a department, the problem gets compounded. We all know whole departments and companies that fill their time with tasks and meetings, leaving all the workers wondering if they’ve actually accomplished anything. Similarly, nonprofit boards of directors are often left wondering why their strategic plans are never accomplished.
A strategic plan without concrete, timed, scheduled milestones is a wish list.
Several organizations I’ve worked with want to build a stronger board. The sequence goes like this:
- In 2014, they stated that by the year 2017 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community.
- In 2016, they determine that by 2019 we’ll have a stronger board, representative of the community.
- In 2018, are they going to say that by 2021 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community?
Probably. Unless they schedule the time to think through what it will take to make that shift. Then schedule the time to execute each step on that newly planned path.
We all have the best intentions in the world to accomplish our strategic plans. Yet without putting them on the calendar, those planned goals are going to get squeezed out by the so-easily scheduled meetings, the inevitable fires, and the daily tasks that we take for granted and therefore forget that they take time.
Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence is famous for the dictum, “What’s measured gets done.” Back in business school, I learned this phrase as a component of Managing by Objective, which requires that these critical questions be answered:
- What are you planning to do?
- Who will be in charge?
- By when will it be accomplished?
The problem is that MBO leaves out the step of scheduling the time to actually work on it. There is still room for procrastination. Even if the objective is accomplished, nothing keeps it from being done at the last minute or squeezed into inconvenient half-hour chunks of time around scheduled meetings. The result is frenetic or burned-out workers and volunteers.
After a recent strategic planning session, a participant approached me and said that it was one of the most intense sessions she’d ever experienced. She really felt that they had the path forward. She said the biggest difference was that they actually set completion dates for every activity, and scheduled when they would work on it.
On the two hour drive home, I remembered Ariely’s column about personal planning. In an aha moment, I realized that while setting milestones may get activities accomplished, it’s:
- Acknowledging that those milestones exist,
- Keeping them in front us, and
- Scheduling the time to accomplish them,
that makes the plan realistic.
Scheduling the time in which to accomplish the milestones forces you to acknowledge that accomplishing these goals will take time. It makes it a lot easier to say ‘no’ to a request that will divert your time away from the agreed upon goal.
What gets measured gets done. True. What gets scheduled gets done more sanely.
If we don’t plan our own future with the things that matter to us, then we relinquish our future to the obligations of others.
Will your plan be accomplished on time? Will your board and staff stay sane in the process? Let me know what you think! Post them here or you can reach me at email@example.com.
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.