I love Erin Rubin’s article in Nonprofit Quarterly: Libraries, in a Move for Equity, Scrap Late Fees.
First, because I have an affinity for libraries and I love watching them evolve with the times.
Second, because it has an important message for every nonprofit:
Are you living your mission?
“At their midwinter meeting in 2019, the American Library Association issued a resolution stating “the imposition of monetary library fines creates a barrier to the provision of library and information services,” and recommended that libraries “move towards actively eliminating them.”
Late fees are antithetical to the mission of a public library. Late fees are a barrier to providing free and open access for all patrons, especially to low income individuals.
It’s an interesting innovation for libraries with a profound message for all nonprofits.
When was the last time you looked at your processes and procedures to see if they fit with your mission? What are you doing as ‘business as usual,’ that is actually at odds with the impact you want to have?
You can use this example from libraries across the United States to introduce the idea to your board and staff. What are WE doing out of habit or ‘received wisdom’ that we should eliminate or change?
If this article has provoked some thought, please let me know. If you bring it up to your staff or board, I’d love to hear how it’s received.
And if another article has caught your eye and made you think, pass it on.
More eyes, more wisdom.
It’s human nature to group people and stick a label on them. We segment out individuals who are donors as being different from other people. We talk about ‘donor relations’ as if that’s distinct from building a relationship with everyone, regardless of who they are. Too often, though, we forget that this is just shorthand for real people.
Recently, Harvard Business Review blogger John Michel did an excellent job of explaining the positive impact of focusing on people and not their roles, in his post A Military Leader’s Approach to Dealing with Complexity. It made me revisit a post of my own, C’mon People It’s Not Donor Relations, and consider implications for board leaders.
Donor relations are people relations. Just like employee relations are people relations, volunteer relations are people relations, and board relations are people relations. Any time we interact with another individual we are in relationship with that person.
Michel’s post includes two gems that strongly correlate with board leadership, and the impact of the relationship between people who serve on nonprofit boards and people who are on the frontline of delivering the nonprofit’s mission.
First, if you focus on people instead of their roles, it promotes their inclusion when you craft your vision.
Or, as Michel writes:
“Making inclusivity a priority will increase ownership, enhance motivation, improve information sharing, and result in leaders making wiser, more informed choices.”
We’re all aware of trustees who operate in an ivory tower and create strategic plans without involving the people who are actually charged with executing that plan. Remembering that employees are people with their own ideas and thoughts makes it easier to bring them into the process.
Build your vision in pencil, instead of ink, so you can be flexible enough to hear and incorporate the ideas of staff and increase the buy-in of everyone involved. Increased buy-in leads to increased success.
Second, remember that every single interaction has an impact. Every spoken or written word and every non-verbal communication becomes a part of the whole image of who you are. Relationships are a result of both conscious communications AND unconscious communications. Every time a member of the board speaks to the person on the frontline, that conversation has an impact. All the more so when the communication is nonverbal. That’s when the leader is less conscious of what she is ‘saying.’
As Michel writes:
“Effective leaders understand that every interaction is a potentially powerful means of nurturing a relationship, eliminating an obstruction to progress, or reinforcing trust.”
John Michel based his observations on his experience in the military, relaying the impact of interpersonal relationships when confronting complexity. The situations and scale may differ but the principle is the same. People matter. Relationships matter.
Building relationships is a fundamental tool to make sure that when you lead, others will follow.
Have you seen the impact of leaders who build relationships? Or the impact of those who don’t build relationships? Let me know!
And I’d love to have a conversation about how your strategic planning can successfully include staff, board, volunteers and community. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*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: email@example.com.
Moving your board toward diversity is tough. Everyone knows it has to be done; yet, as Newton’s first law of motion states, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Inertia, the tendency of a body to resist change, is the norm. Similarly, without a push or a pull, we continue to look to our usual sources for new board members. Or worse, to satisfy ‘best practice’ requirements, we collect tokens.
But what if the incentive is big enough to disrupt the inertia? If your board foresaw a financial crisis, all of a sudden the trustees would start looking for funds. But what external force would push a board to focus on diversity? Is there a compelling reason to really embrace diversity on a board?
Yes. The future.
As reported by David Feitler in Harvard Business Review, two different studies show that diverse groups are more likely to foster innovation. Prof. Lee Fleming and his colleagues at Stanford University found that “higher-valued industrial innovation…is more likely to arise when diverse teams are assembled of people with deep subject matter expertise in their areas.” Prof. Ben Jones and colleagues at Kellogg Business School of Northwestern University found that “the most influential [research] papers…exhibited an intrusion of interdisciplinary information” and “groups were more likely to foster these intrusions than solo researchers.”
Surprisingly, it’s not a great leap to go from research and industrial innovation to nonprofit boards; even in the nonprofit sector, research supports the idea that greater diversity promotes greater organization success.
Of course, research is great, but if you want to hear a real world example, I can attest to the excitement that comes from having a diverse board. Meeting with the board of a regional theater group, I showed them a headline from five years in the future. “Exclusive interview: Theatre Group tells how they did it!”
Their assignment? For the next ten minutes, write down what amazing things the organization had accomplished that prompted this headline. What activities or initiatives did you take that made it possible? How did you do it? Whom did you collaborate with? What did it do for the community?
When we regrouped, the stories started emerging. But instead of centering on what the organization was currently doing, each individual brought her own vision of what the organization could become. One focused on the what the competed capital campaign would make possible. One added the idea that their education programs became a template for programs across the country. Another focused on building the writers’ workshops. Another focused on collaboration with a number of other community arts organizations. As each idea was presented, conversation grew more animated, as each added details from their own backgrounds.
Because of the diversity in age, experience, life stage, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, they built a rich picture of the future that no single one of them could have imagined. The stories they created together are forming the basis for a vision toward which they’ll work.
This same exercise, in a much less diverse group, produced stories that were less visionary. Group members were almost all of the same ethnicity, age range and socio-economic level. They built on each others’ ideas, but with incremental steps in the same direction. The difference between the two groups was evident.
We tell people to think outside the box, but it’s not easy. We are bound by our own experience. Yet when your board is filled with people who naturally come from other backgrounds, the scope of imagination is enlarged by this rich diversity.
Diversity isn’t a box to check on a grant application, or an ‘ought to have. Diversity of experience and thought is vital to the future of your organization.
What do you think? How have you seen diversity add to visioning the future? I’d love to hear your experiences; or, if you’d like to bring these ideas – or this exercise – to your organization, let me know. You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What could you do with an Innovation Committee?
In their post “How Boards Can Innovate”, Michael Useem, Dennis Carey, and Ram Charan make the case that in corporations, while product innovation is not the purview of the Board of Directors, strategies and structure clearly are.
That division of labor is not so different from nonprofit organizations, where rendering services is the job of the staff, and the structure and strategies remain the job of the board. So how does a for-profit board incorporate innovation?
A very quick look at major corporations show that corporate boards frequently have innovation committees. From Procter & Gamble to Acxiom, corporations have instituted innovation committees that are generally charged with oversight of innovations and new product development. They act as advisors to staff in reviewing innovations, and act as advisors to the rest of the board, helping them to understand the new innovations being proposed.
Wellpoint Corporation has an interesting variation. Wellpoint renamed the planning committee of the board. It’s now the Strategic Innovation Committee,
“to assist the Board in discharging its responsibilities relating to various strategic issues identified by the Board from time to time, including the Company’s long-term plans and its ongoing investment in technology and targeted areas strategic to the Company’s interests.”
Fascinating! The formerly titled planning committee is charged with innovation.
What might this mean for a nonprofit board?
According to Merriam-Webster:
Innovation is: 1) the introduction of something new; 2) a new idea, method, or device
Planning is: the act or process of making or carrying out plans; specifically: the establishment of goals, policies, and procedures for a social or economic entity.
In other words, we might conceive of planning as figuring out how to execute an idea or a concept, whereas innovation is seeking out new ideas or strategies, and bringing something new to the table. Of course, an innovation committee will also plan, but a planning committee doesn’t automatically imply innovation. The word innovation itself implies searching out new, possibly disruptive ideas, and considering whether they may be applicable to the organization.
If, as Hildy Gottleib maintains, language matters, then the name of a committee can influence how the members view themselves. Just as potently, it can influence how the rest of the organization views the work of that committee.
It is exciting. It is forward-looking. It is ‘out-of-the-box.’
We’ve already changed the name of the Fundraising Committee to Development Committee, because raising resources is a process of developing relationships.
How about changing planning to innovation?
What might that make possible for your organization?
Have some thoughts to share on this subject? Get in touch with me at email@example.com.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about Lebanon. Of course, that’s probably because I just told people that I took a week’s vacation there. There’s something about an exotic locale that piques people’s curiosity.
The conversation often goes something like this:
How was the trip? Did you have a great time?
Kadisha Valley at Sunset, Bcharre, Lebanon
Yes! It was fabulous! We were visiting our daughter, and she took us to some of the most beautiful sites we’ve ever been. Did you know that Lebanon has the world’s largest and best preserved Roman temples ? And the city of Byblos is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world? At sunset, the mist seems to pour into the Kadisha Valley, making it appear like Brigadoon.
Really? I didn’t know!
And of course, how could they know? The news from Lebanon is all about how the wars in the neighboring countries are affecting this land the size of Connecticut on the edge of the Mediterranean. Our newspapers are filled with stories about Syria and Israel. Many stories of Syrian unrest are given a Beirut byline because reporters are filing from the safety of Lebanon.
Then I tell them that Lebanon is a country of beautiful, gracious people, living in a lovely land, and struggling under the burden of being on the edge of war-torn countries that use Lebanon as a proxy battleground. Their population of 4 million citizens now carry the weight of an additional 1 million refugees.
Students Dancing, Byblos, Lebanon
The government and humanitarian organizations are working hard; the refugees are evident on the streets and in camps. The ordinary citizens go to work, come home, live their lives; young people attend school, go to clubs, dance and party. They fight incredible traffic and pollution, and stay out of unsafe areas. Life goes on, but progress is not made.
As someone who makes a living helping nonprofit agencies as they develop a vision, craft a path to achieving that vision, and execute that path toward the vision, I am at a loss at how to process the burden this country is under.
I had hoped to find some lesson from the trip to bring back, that would be an appropriate topic for a blog post about governance, nonprofits, strategic planning, leadership.
Instead, I think the lesson is that sometimes, you just have to keep on thinking.
Have some thoughts to share on this subject? Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.