Star Trek, Nonprofits and Ideals

Star Trek, Nonprofits and Ideals

I grew up on Star Trek – not just the show, but the idealistic vision of a future in which a United Federation of Planets could boldly go where no one has gone before, seeking out new life forms and new civilizations. Conquest was wrong. Help was right. People got along.

I once had a conversation with my son about the original Star Trek, and how it differed from subsequent versions. In the original Star Trek, each show was a parable, a small morality tale, in which we were being taught about right and wrong. True, the writers were sometimes (often?) heavy handed with their messages. Nevertheless, through the interplay of the emotional Kirk, the logical Spock, and the pragmatic and sometimes cynical Bones or other characters, we saw different sides and different approaches to the same situation. Usually, the resolution came about through some combination of the first two, aided by the actions or intervention of the other characters.

I wonder how many nonprofit executives and philanthropists received their initial grounding in the possibilities of a better world through watching Star Trek. Is the idealism that surrounds so much of our work the product not just of faith and parenting, but also those small glimpses into a better world?  Like M&Ms coated in sugar candy, the ideals were coated in action, costumes, and amusing interplay between characters whom we came to know and predict. We thought we were just watching a fun show, but we were being molded.

In retrospect, I suspect that I was affected by Star Trek; not just by the shows themselves, but by the implicit approval given to those messages by my parents as we watched together.

Looking around the table at board and staff meetings, do you know what has molded your colleagues? We now have four generations working and serving together. What television shows, books or movies formed their ideals? What are their cultural touchpoints? Through what lenses do they view the world?

A good board is not homogeneous. Each member brings their own history and ideals. What would it make possible if you were to create time to explore these cultural references together? What bonding might occur? Might understanding and then trust increase as the conversations unfolded?

Business can occur mechanically, or it can occur in an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie. Would could you accomplish if you took the time to learn about each other before embarking on the future?

Note: portions of this post were originally posted May 22, 2009.

Thank you for your support! Let’s talk!

Thank you for your support! Let’s talk!

Frustrated by supporters who want to restrict their gifts? Maybe it’s time to rewrite your Gift Acceptance Policy so it can open a world of opportunity.

Across the Internet, we can find all kinds of essays about why it’s important to have a Gift Acceptance Policy. And most of them point you to pretty standard templates. But instead of thinking of how the policies can limit your liability, what if your Gift Acceptance Policy opened up opportunities?

Taking a cue from Creating the Future, let’s start by asking how a gift acceptance policy can support your mission, vision and values.

Looking around at your community, you see clients, staff, board members, and supporters. What should the gifts acceptance policy do for each of them? For your clients, you want to have the maximum amount of flexibility so you can serve them in whatever way is necessary. You want your staff to have clarity as to what they should do when offered a gift.  You want your board to know that the resources you receive are used appropriately and transparently.

And you want your supporters to know that the resources they are giving you – their gifts – are truly making a difference.

In a spirited online conversation among nonprofit consultants, we debated what to do about restricted gifts. How do we handle gifts that are designated for a specific program, but may not take into account administrative costs? That’s when Hildy Gottlieb produced a policy that is brilliant in its simplicity. Without tying anyone’s hands, the policy says to the donor – Thank you for caring about the people we serve. Thank you for using us as a way to help them. Let’s work together to figure out the best way that your funds can help.

“When we have the opportunity to receive restricted gifts, it is our policy to work with each donor to co-create the best possible result of improving life for the people we serve.

“As part of that policy, we will learn both the immediate thing / service the donor wants their gift to purchase, as well as understanding what the donor hopes that gift will make possible for the people we serve.

“As part of that policy, we will work with the donor to co-create how their intended results will be achieved, and the true allocation of resources for achieving that result – how their monies will be used, as well as how other resources will be leveraged to achieve that result.

“This policy of co-creating results is rooted in our core values of trust, transparency, and building deep relationships, because that is what builds strong communities.”

As John Baker, CFRE, Executive VP of Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, commented, “I bet their gifts will soar. Simply being able to promote a policy like this in ones materials, and then to live it, leaves me with a reenergized sense for Resource Development.”

What does your gift policy say? Are you inviting your supporters to co-create your future?

Right Message. Wrong Words.

Did you read the BBB, Guidestar, Charity Navigator letter about The Overhead Myth ? I did. And even as I cheered the message, it felt wrong.  It was written to the wrong audience. The donors who commented were not convinced.

The same day I read Michael Schrage wrote in Harvard Business Review’s Good Leaders Don’t Use Bad Words, and I saw the problem; the authors were being lazy with their words. Instead of speaking to their audience’s needs, they were speaking to their own.

Nonprofits will certainly be better served if donors don’t focus solely on overhead as a measure of competence. But what’s the upside for the donors? Why should they care? That’s where the authors fail.

Donors should be looking for measures that demonstrate value to society. Are people’s lives being changed? How lasting is the change? How is the nonprofit making sure that it’s effective? What does it need in order to stay on track? These are the measures that donors should be looking at.

Instead of telling donors that overhead is the wrong measurement, we need to help them see the benefit of seeking alternatives.

Do you really need a board?

“Do you really need a Board or does having one just lead to more chaos…?”

A few months back, this loaded question was asked of the Nonprofit Professionals Group on LinkedIn, and a robust discussion followed.

My favorite answer, though, came from colleague John McClusky.

need-a-board“…we, the public, “entrust” the “trustees,” the predominantly volunteer body named “the “board,” to serve as our agent to ensure that the NPO actually pursues the socially beneficial purpose (mission) it claims to fulfill and acts in a fundamentally responsible way with the charitable donations and tax exemptions we grant it…”

In other words, the Board of Directors is entrusted with the responsibility to make sure that the mission is fulfilled.

For years, I have been telling boards that their job is to ensure that the mission of the organization can be fulfilled now, and in the future. It lays the groundwork for the board’s role in ensuring that the resources necessary for this fulfillment – financial, intellectual, capital, social, vision —  are available to the organization.

But I’d never really looked at the other side of the role. When we serve on boards, we are not only serving our own nonprofit organization, we are also serving society. We, the Directors and Trustees, are the eyes and ears of society, are responsible for making sure that the dollars which society entrusts to us are used wisely and to fulfill the intent which we proclaim. Our donors give us their wealth; our government is giving up tax dollars to us.

As directors and trustees, we serve our nonprofit. But we are also trustees of society, and as such, responsible for upholding our end of the bargain.

Being on a board is an awesome responsibility. Let me know if you’d like to talk about instilling this vision of a board’s role throughout your work.

Machiavelli was Right

Niccolo Machiavelli was right, when he said. There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

machiavelliWow. He sure nailed it on the head. If you’ve ever come into an organization and tried to change its course, you know just how right he was. Change is hard, change is risky, and change is resisted.

And even when people claim to be willing to change, almost to a person, they will tell you that their peers will resist it.

In February, Julia Kirby wrote an analysis of the downfall of a change agent. As I read her blog on Harvard Business Review, most of her analysis boils down to arrogance. Coming in as a white knight that will rescue a situation, creating an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality, presuming that everyone agrees that change is necessary – any one of these will create resentment in an organization. Doing all of them is sure to make change even harder.

An organization is made of people who have invested time and their lives in building something good. To be told that it has to change implies that they have wasted their time, or that what they have built is not good.

Instead, engaging every level in the organization in making the already good even better creates a team more willing to work on change. And change is important, to keep up with society, and to ensure that you’re delivering your mission in the best way possible.

It’s not a panacea – change IS hard – but a willing attitude goes a long way toward making those difficult transitions easier to take. Instead of imposing change, inspire the team to aspire to greatness. Change will follow.