Presume Good Will – redux

Presume Good Will – redux

It’s hard to write a blog post in December without somehow bringing in the winter festivals.  They are hard to ignore. Whether we observe a festival or not, we get caught up in end-of-year fundraising appeals; endless staff, neighborhood, organization and family parties; last minute shopping, travel and cooking.

Yet with all this busyness, it is also a time when, regardless of your faith, it is a little easier to see the good will in others.

So today I refer to an earlier essay on Presuming Good Will. Originally written in 2010, the message still resonates.

No one is on a board of trustees because she wants to see the agency die. No one is on a board of directors because he wants to run it into the ground.
There may be strong disagreements, but it’s important to assume the disagreement is based on good intentions, and presume good will on the
part of the ‘other.’

Let’s use this time of year to really see the good will in our colleagues, friends and family. Let’s recognize that we can all agree that we want what’s best for our organization, even if we may not agree on what that best is.

Then let’s bring this perspective with us into the new year, and remember the good will we share as we build towards our respective visions for our communities.

If you are celebrating a holiday this season, I hope that it is warm and meaningful. If not, may you find the time to enjoy the lights and festivities that others provide.

Happy New Year!


Learn more on building a team out of your board members, and bringing together board and staff at or reach me at

Can you Blend Millennials and Boomers?

Can you Blend Millennials and Boomers?

Congratulations!  You’ve built a board with members of every decade of adult life. You have 20-somethings, 50-somethings, 70-somethings, and every decade in between.

Now, how do you strategically take advantage of the fresh ideas while integrating them into existing relationships?

Losing institutional knowledge has dramatic consequences. Leonard, Swap and Barton researched the consequences in corporations, with great lessons for nonprofits.  Losing the knowledge of a resident board expert can mean losing key relationships with donors, losing key background on why the community is wary of the agency, not knowing whom to call in important government offices, missing important foundation meet and greets. These relationships were built up over time and the proverbial Rolodex – or CRM – can’t help.

By having a spread of ages on the board, you’ve made these consequences a lot less likely. Since you didn’t wait until all the incumbents retired, you now have a fertile field for collaboration between old and new. Make mentoring a new board member part of the portfolio of existing members and you take a step in the right direction. Ask board members to take new members with them when they meet with donors, foundations and community representatives.

Don’t be afraid that this implies to the world that the older board member is on the way out. Not at all – quite the opposite. It conveys to the community that you have succession planning built into the ethos of the agency. It builds trust. It builds confidence in the longevity of the organization. When the older member leaves the board, the new member already has a budding relationship with the foundation.
Internally, pairing new and returning board members builds trust between them. It’s hard to view an older member as a dinosaur when you’ve spent time with her one-on-one and learned her philosophy of building relationships. It’s hard to view a new member as an upstart when you’ve spent time hearing his new ideas and exchanged thoughts on how to execute them.

The relationships continue when the older board members leave. The trust they’ve built allows newer board members to continue calling on retired members, keeping them engaged. It’s a win-win-win for the organization, the board, and the individuals involved.

Putting different generations on a board together is a great first step. Building a team out of them requires strategic thought, but the benefits are manifold.

For more about nonprofit succession planning, board education and facilitation, go to, or get in touch with me directly at If you have an experience to share, let me know!

Are Your Trustees Smarter than a 6th Grader?

With the start of school, education gets a lot of attention. Keeping up with the sector means perusing the legislative, governance and financial news. It also means listening to the people on the frontlines.

While scanning an education site, I was struck by how closely classroom management lessons match the latest in governance wisdom. Those values we learned in grade school have a great impact on the way our boards work together – if we actually bring those values to our nonprofit.

On the first day of school, this grade school teacher* introduced to her class “Six things sixth graders say:”

I don’t know….YET. In the context of nonprofit board work, are we able to recognize that we don’t know everything, and there is much we can learn? How does that recognition affect our interaction with staff, clients, the community, our peers?

I’ll give it a try.  Even if things are going well, perhaps doing something new will be even better. Innovation is key to avoiding stagnation.  Are the members of our board open to trying something we’ve never tried before?

Oooh! A Challenge!  When things are difficult, do we fall back or step forward? Do we cocoon, or is our board willing to explore the limits of our abilities?  Do we reach out to others who may have the resources to help?

Let’s figure this out together. Science has shown that cooperation and trust among team members foster better results. On a board, cooperation allows each person to contribute his or her particular expertise. Do our trustees cooperate and collaborate?

Of course, I’ll help!   Sometimes extraordinary times require extraordinary effort from staff, board and volunteers. Do our trustees see themselves as integral to the success of the mission, and personally take steps to ensure that success?

Thank you.   Quality of life is proven to improve if we recognize that we have something to be grateful for. Of all the reasons to serve on a board, the opportunity to say thank you by helping others is one of the most powerful. Do we each come to our board work with an attitude of gratitude for the work of others and the opportunity to fulfill the mission?

These are simple statements, but science has proven each to be important components to success. I’ve seen innovation, gratitude, and cooperation create successful teams in organizations as diverse as arts, education and social sciences. I’ve also seen the price paid when trustees forgot them.

Think future! Building these attitudes into regular board meetings fuels dynamic discussions that focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t.

*Special thanks to Aliza Chanales of Yeshivat Noam, for permission to repost her “Six Things Sixth Graders Say” in the context of nonprofit governance.

What are your experiences in building the right attitudes among your board members?  Pass them on!  Post them here or you can reach me at

Before the BHAG*

*Big Hairy Audacious Goal

I’m a really big advocate for starting any project with a Vision.

Where’s your horizon?
What do you need to get there?
What steps do you have to take?

Sometimes, though, even the steps to get there require a lot of little steps first.  This is especially true when the people involved haven’t experienced much success.

That’s a pitfall of focusing on the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. As proposed by Jim Collins, et al, the BHAG is important for inspiring the troops. I agree, our BHAG – our Vision – is the horizon to which we are pointing all our efforts.

However, when the troops are downtrodden or haven’t worked together in the past, they may not have the self-confidence or a level of trust to focus on an audacious goal. In this case, small successes pave the way.

I watched this in action at a private school with an aging, authoritarian founder. The board of this school is hand selected by the founder and will not take a step without his approval. This founder does not let anyone but himself meet with those he considers major donors. The school is viewed as his school; a cult of personality.

The obvious question is whether the school will continue much beyond the founder’s life.  Or rather, the question was obvious to everyone except, it seemed, the founder.

I met with a handful of lay leaders who knew they had to find a way to build supporters with a loyalty to the school, not just to the founder. They also knew the founder would resist every step of the way.

A Big Hairy Audacious Goal for this group would be for the school to have a true governing board, with a succession plan for the founder, deep and broad relationships with existing donors, and plans for growing the image of the school distinct from the founder.

That’s quite a BHAG.  But the initial need was to inspire the confidence needed to act without the founder’s permission.

We began with just meeting to discuss the issues. It may have seemed like nothing happened, but the mere fact that the meetings were being held began the process of instilling confidence in the actors and a trust in each other. Having meetings about board and school issues without the founder was a huge step.

Discussions revolved around ways to engage prospective supporters and advocates without relying on the founder. They knew that trying to wrestle existing supporters from his stewardship would cause a head-on collision. Instead, they sought ways to expand the circle.  It took six months to get to the point of reaching out to potential supporters, yet those six months of meeting for a shared purpose served to build confidence.

Although certain the new ideas were unnecessary, the founder was willing to let the lay group reach prospective supporters outside his circle. After persevering, they reached one high-profile but previously unappreciated individual who became convinced of the group’s sincerity, the value of the school, and ultimately, the value of their BHAG. Together, he and the lay leaders crafted a process that used his influence to approach the founder and reinforce the goals of the group.

As I write this, there are still many steps to take. The culture is slowly changing. The founder is still reluctant to release the reins, but he has accepted that change is needed.

I don’t know if this school will be able to make all the necessary changes. However, I do know that without first building self-confidence in the lay leaders, they would not be in a position to make any changes at all.

Have you encountered boards reluctant to take on Big Hairy Audacious Goals? Try building confidence with small successes.

And let me know if you have other examples!  You can reach me at:


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.