Slowing down to speed up

December 29, 2021

Filed under: Board Development,Consulting,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 11:17 am

A few years back, somebody used the phrase “slow down to speed up” in my presence and it really resonated.  Doing some quick google searches, I found dozens of articles that reference the phrase, although nothing that showed me who first said it.

Years ago I also learned of an alternative saying: “There’s so much to do, I must move very slowly” which is often attributed to the Buddha.

Regardless of who coined the phrases, I feel “slow down to speed up” is great advice for many of the nonprofits with whom I’ve worked.  And as the New Year hits, I’d strongly encourage nonprofits to think about it before accelerating into 2022.

The bottom-line challenge:  nonprofits often get so caught up in the small, urgent things that “demand” our attention that we don’t pay sufficient attention to the “why” and the “how,” leading to all sorts of inefficiencies that decrease our ability to advance the mission of our nonprofits.

Put another way, to increase our impact, we need to be more deliberate in the actions we take.

Why is this the case?  And how can nonprofit leaders slow themselves down with long-term effectiveness in mind?

Why can going too fast lead to inefficiencies?

To be sure, you can be paralyzed by indecision and thus not take actions needed.

For most nonprofit leaders I’ve worked with, though, the opposite is the challenge.  The tendency to act too quickly has repercussions on at least four different levels:

  • At the tactical level, trying to do too many different things at once often leads to errors.  These mistakes subsequently cost time and energy when they’re discovered.  Or, short of mistakes, activities are done shoddily and that reflects poorly on the organization (which can negatively influence the commitment of donors, volunteers, and stakeholders).
  • At the relationship level, a relentless focus on your “to do” list can lead you to underinvest in the time-consuming task of having longer conversations with organizational partners that are necessary for long-term alignment and success. 
  • At the strategic level, rushing to get to your destination increases the risk that you actually aren’t using the best method to get there.  Using a map analogy, you may try the most obvious direct route between point A and point B, but perhaps you’ve ignored the lay of the land in between the two points (e.g. a mountain), meaning the fastest route was actually going around the obstacle. Or, continuing the map analogy, it may be the terrain between point A and B requires you to use a different vehicle (e.g. you need an entirely different strategy).
  • Also at the strategic level, still thinking about maps, rushing towards your destination without sufficient attention sometimes means you’re headed to the wrong destination entirely, given your mission and the community needs you’re trying to meet.  In most cases, this is because you’re headed where you’ve always headed as an organization, even though circumstances have changed sufficiently for a strategic reset.
  • Lastly, at the personal level, trying to maximize the number of things you get done increases the odds that stress and frustration will burn you out.  This can lead to employee turnover that creates big organizational challenges, especially at small nonprofits.

Put another way:  Slowing down allows for more attention to tasks, more robust relationships, more strategic decision-making, and a better work-life balance.

How do you slow down when there’s so much to do?

I’ve laid out all the above in a conversation with one nonprofit Executive Director whose organization perennially struggles and I can hear their voice as they say to me: “but there’s too much to do right now to take the time you’re suggesting.”

I don’t want to underestimate the challenge organizations and people face when they want to “slow down to speed up,” but the challenge can be overcome.

Here are five strategies that can help in this situation, both for individuals and organizations:

  1. Use the 5-95 or 10-90 rule for planning versus doing.

If you’re not setting aside at least 5% of your time (2 hours per week), or better yet 10% of your time (4 hours per week) for planning, you’re not spending enough time planning.  If planning isn’t your natural instinct, force yourself to set aside time on your calendar for planning (e.g. every Tuesday afternoon is set aside for planning and unavailable for meetings). 

Set aside time both for personal and organizational planning.  Personally, ask yourself at least weekly, “what are my priorities” in light of the organization’s top priorities?   Organizationally, you should have top priorities, whether established via a strategic plan, an annual work plan, or functional plans (e.g. development/fundraising, communications, etc.).

Admittedly, I have a conflict of interest in urging every organization to have a strategic plan, but every organization should have alignment (board and staff leadership) around your organizational purpose, the long-term outcomes you’re seeking to achieve, and the primary activities you’re engaged in that lead to those outcomes.  (Whether or not you call it a “strategic plan” and what terminology you use (e.g. “goals”, “mission,” “strategies,” etc.) is immaterial).   

2. Calendar for relationship-building

In your goal-setting and in your calendar, be explicit that you’re setting aside time for longer, relationship-building meetings, whether with board members, allied organizations, or other stakeholders.  When I was an Executive Director, the commitment I settled upon was two such longer meetings per month.  I forced myself to treat these conversations as very big-picture and relationship-focused rather than task-focused.

3. Let go of some things

It can be incredibly freeing to have some things you’ve done before that you let go of as an individual and/or organization.  I inherited some strategies when I became an Executive Director that I felt compelled (initially) to continue, even though I had some doubts about their effectiveness.  When (after some planning) we let go of those strategies to free up space to dive deeper into other existing strategies, it felt liberating.  And led to more organizational impact. 

Beyond strategies, at the more tactical level, ask yourself periodically, what are some things that can be streamlined?  Are there things you do now where spending half the time would yield 90% of the benefit?  Give your team at least a couple times per year when you think specifically about this question instead of just assuming your tactics and organizational procedures are set in stone or will somehow “streamline themselves” on an ad hoc basis.

4. Consider some form of mindfulness practice

This is more at the individual than organizational level, but it’s important to provide yourself mental space.  For some, that’s meditation.  For others, that’s exercise or yoga.  I’ve had some of my best inspirations about nonprofit strategies when riding my bike for fun, even though that was definitely not my intent when setting out on the ride.   

Organizationally, I also had some luck taking some meetings outside whether sitting on a park bench or walking.  There are some notetaking challenges this way, so it’s not for every meeting, but for some types of meetings it can give 2-3 participants the mental space to think outside the box. 

5. Talk to your board about this specific challenge

If you’re an Executive Director and you want to slow down to speed up, but you feel that the ideas above just won’t cut it, set aside time at a board meeting or hold a meeting with a few key board members to discuss this precise topic. 

Your board leadership may have creative ideas and may give you the “permission” you need to let go of some organizational activities (in the short run) in order to generate more organizational success (in the long run).

*****

Do you have other suggestions to your peers about how to slow down to speed up?  Please share them!

Be Sociable, Share!

Thankful nonprofit quotes

November 24, 2021

Last month, in the spirit of Halloween, I shared the scariest things I’ve heard uttered by nonprofit leaders.

As a counterpoint, this month I offer up some “thankful” comments about and from nonprofit leaders.

These are things I’ve actually heard nonprofit leaders say, or close paraphrases, to the best of my recollection and/or based on looking back at interview notes I’ve taken down over the years.

  1. Our donors are really amazing. Getting to know them is one of the best parts of my job as Executive Director.

  2. I really enjoy working with the rest of the staff. The team has really gelled over the last few months. It gives me such a thrill to see them working so well together.

  3. It feels so good to start work every day knowing I’m making people’s lives better.

  4. I love, love, love our volunteers.

  5. My board is our secret superpower. They provide so much great energy for our work.

  6. When we lost our largest funder, our board really stepped up and helped me find a path forward.

  7. I’ve only been at the organization a couple of years, and I’m sure I’ve made several life-long friends already.

  8. When one of the students [we’re teaching] eyes just light up because they’ve learned something new, I have to resist the urge to go give the a high five.

  9. I know this sounds nerdy, but I love crunching data with our fundraising database.

  10. [AND LASTLY, MY FAVORITE]: The strategic plan has been incredibly helpful as a roadmap and in securing big gifts.

Be Sociable, Share!

Scary nonprofit quotes

October 29, 2021

In honor of Halloween 2021, here are the the scariest things I’ve heard from nonprofit leaders.  These are paraphrases as I wasn’t writing them down at the time.  If you read one of these and don’t think they’re scary, let me know and we can discuss. 

  1. I don’t have time to plan.  I’m just too busy.
  2. I don’t want an engaged board of directors.  They’ll just get in my way as Executive Director.
  3. I sent an email to my board asking for someone to volunteer for a task and nobody responded.  I guess they don’t care.
  4. I’ll be so glad when we get our Development Director hired and I can cut back on most of my time fundraising.
  5. “I hate hitting up people for money,” said by a Development Director.
  6. Not really something said, but I had lunch with a new Development Director.  It was a get acquainted meeting.  They talked about themself the whole time and didn’t ask me a single question.
  7. My staff’s pretty mediocre, but I’ve just come to accept that’s the way it is.
  8. I don’t care what the data says, I know it’s true.
  9. “It’s not that I don’t want coalition partners, it’s just that I think the other organizations who’re doing similar work just keep making stupid decisions.”  (Pretty sure that one’s an exact quote).
  10. Nonprofit leader: “I was really upset with the decision we made to X.” 

    Me: “But you didn’t say anything during the meeting!” I replied.  ‘If you disagreed with the potential decision, why didn’t you speak up?”

    “I didn’t want to make anyone upset,” he replied.

Have you heard any of these before? Something else scary to share?

Be Sociable, Share!

Effective board governance in a nutshell

September 28, 2021

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 1:45 pm

Not every one of my client engagements involves work with a board of directors, but enough do that I can safely say I’ve worked with a lot of boards and that’s allowed me to reach some conclusions regarding what separates those that truly lift up their organizations from those that drag them down.

Unfortunately, it could also take a book to spell out all these differences, along with recommendations for how to improve boards.

Nonetheless, someone challenged me to identify the most important attributes of a high-functioning board so they could know where to begin for improving their own board.

So without further ado, here’s my best effort.

High functioning boards do five things particularly well:

  1. They are efficient
  2. They are responsible
  3. They are financially supportive
  4. They are connected to the cause
  5. They are continually improving

An efficient board holds well-run board meetings that are actively facilitated and focus on essential topics, they use committees or task forces where appropriate between meetings, and board-staff relationships are managed in a way that doesn’t create additional, unnecessary time sinks.

A responsible board meets its legal, ethical and fiduciary responsibilities.  Responsibility also means the board has a culture of accountability — if someone commits to a task, they do it.  

Financially supportive means they donate themselves and they have some involvement in raising funds or securing revenue for the organization.  Not everyone needs to be an asker, but everyone needs to somehow engage as an ambassador, steward, cultivator, or in some other way that either directly bring in dollars or helps someone else on the team bring in dollars.

They have some connection to the cause (that staff continually reinforces) so that their passion for the mission can help get past any inertia or fear that would otherwise block them from being effective board members.

Lastly, they are continually improving, meaning they are constantly asking relevant questions, such as: “What skills and attributes do we need to add to the board?” And: “What could we be doing better?”

There are, of course, many details underneath each of these.  Books worth of details.  And the process of taking a mediocre board to high-functioning can take multiple years. There is no silver bullet.

But, if you’re beginning the process of building or improving a board, I think reviewing the above with the board and asking them: “how are we doing?” is a good place to start.

Be Sociable, Share!

Strategic Planning and the board-ED relationship

November 25, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:53 am

I recently wrote an article for Blue Avocado on the board-Executive Director relationship.

When I talk to nonprofit leaders about strategic planning, they often voice some of the obvious benefits of aligning teams around organizational identity (mission, vision) and organizational priorities (goals).  In contrast, they rarely voice a benefit I think is undervalued: the opportunity strategic planning presents for a board and executive director to strengthen their relationship. 

Strategic planning can be a relationship-building tool from the perspective of three A’s: Aspirations, Alignment, and Accountability.

Read the full article on Blue Avocado  

ED & Board Chair
Be Sociable, Share!

Overcoming fear

September 23, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:28 am

For many of those responsible for securing major gifts for their organization, it’s one thing to know in theory what should take place when meeting with a donor.  It’s another thing to overcome their “fear” or “discomfort” that gets in the way of asking.  This is true both in-person and virtually.

In my experience there are five primary fears – three that are openly acknowledged and two that are more under the surface.

Commonly stated fears:

1.            Fear of harming relationships

2.            Fear of receiving reciprocal asks

3.            Fear of looking foolish/don’t know what to say.

Common unstated fears:

4.            Fear of rejection

5.            Money as a taboo topic

Each are worthy of discussion.

Fear 1:  Damaging relationships

For some fundraisers, relationships are like a cup of water and asking for a donation is like withdrawing water from the cup.  In reality, meetings done properly should add “water” to the relationship, even if they say no. 

This is because:

  • They will learn your story and you will learn theirs.
  • You will have shared with them something you care about, making the relationship more authentic.
  • They will most likely respect you for having the courage to make the “ask” (since most people who haven’t done it much fear fundraising).
  • They will often feel flattered that you felt they were the type of person who’d make a major gift.

Of course, if meetings are mishandled – heavy handed, language around guilt used, no effort made to listen to them, etc. – these benefits might not accrue.   If the only time you ever speak to someone is when you ask, relationships could fray.

The good news: avoiding those downsides is entirely in the control of a well-trained major donor fundraiser.

Fear 2:  Reciprocal Asks

Some of those I train, particularly board members, worry that if they ask friends for a donation, the friends will turn around and make a reciprocal request.

This is a relatively small risk.  The universe of those who fundraise is vastly smaller than the universe who give, so the odds start out low that those you’re asking have some other organization for which they will be raising funds.

Beyond this small risk, two other factors mitigate against it.  First, you’re not obligated to say yes if the cause they pitch to you isn’t a priority for you.  You do have an obligation to be authentic – to say no to a request that doesn’t match your values or priorities.  I’ve had to do this a few times over the years and I’ve never felt damage to a relationship because I was able to frame my “no” in a respectful manner.  

Indeed, in a few instances I very much appreciated the reciprocal ask as they introduced me to organizations doing great work.  To that extent, one could just as easily see reciprocal asks as an opportunity rather than something to fear.

Fear 3:  Looking Foolish

Nobody likes to do something where they feel inadequate and may appear foolish or incompetent.  Having talked with many board members, I’m convinced this fear is both overblown and straightforward to address when it comes to donor meetings.

For starters, there are many resources available to boards (and staff) to develop basic skills for fundraising.  When you combine training with some degree of ongoing support/coaching, pretty much everybody who would otherwise be an appropriate board member should be able to avoid looking foolish while fundraising.

Board members should also understand that those asked do not hold board members to the same standards they would staff.  The value of board members as fundraisers is from sharing passion, not expertise.  And for both board and staff, it’s always acceptable to tell a donor “I’ll get back to you” if they ask a question you’re not equipped to immediately answer.

In the end, adequate training and support should be able to get all board members (and staff) to the point they should be able to make an effective ask while coming across positively.

Fear 4:  Rejection

Major donor fundraisers will feel rejection.  Prospects will say “no.”  As much as half of the time.  Indeed, a useful maxim is that if nobody is saying “no” to you it means you’re not asking enough people for money.

Some techniques that have helped other fundraisers get past this fear:

  • Recalibrate in your mind what is meant by success.  Don’t judge yourself by school standards (90% = an A, 80% = a B, etc.).  Judge yourself by major donor fundraiser standards (anything better than 50% yes is pretty darn good).
  • Recognize that most “no’s” are really “yes” to something else.  You may be “selling” “racial justice,” while they’re prioritizing “climate change.”  Or they may be prioritizing personal/family needs at this point in their lives.  It will be an exceptionally rare circumstance where someone will say “no” to you while saying they’re going to invest in something you actively oppose.
  • Recognize that many of those who say “no” are really saying “not now.”  They may have already given away all they can during the period in time, but perhaps you’ve set them up for a big gift next year.
  • Recognize that other positive outcomes can come from meetings where those solicited say no, such as volunteering, new ideas, more knowledge of other things in your community, and/or leads/referrals to other prospects.    

Fear 5:  Social taboos around money

Lastly, some fear of fundraising actually stems from a more generalized social taboo around money that exists in American society.  It’s generally considered rude to ask people how much they make for a living.  Or to talk too much about money.  So asking for a donation is bringing money into the conversation in a way that makes us uneasy.

There is no magic formula for overcoming this taboo other than practice.  From talking to a lot of fundraisers over the years, those who make a series of asks almost always get past this taboo rather quickly if the asks are done properly.

Getting above the passion versus fear line

I’ve separately blogged about the passion versus fear line.

Imagine two intersecting lines.  One horizontal line is “fear of fundraising.”  Another line running from the lower left to upper right is “passion for the mission.”  When fear of fundraising exceeds passion for the mission, fundraising doesn’t take place.  When passion for the mission exceeds fear of fundraising, it does. 

The techniques discussed above are all aimed at lowering the “fear of fundraising” line.  A separate way of overcoming fear is to raise the “passion for the mission” line.  The more excited board members and staff are about what the organization can and needs to accomplish, the more likely they are to push through their fear and fundraise.  After all, people do things they’re afraid of all the time – if they want the outcome badly enough.

So take time with your boards in particular to keep them jazzed about the mission.  If your board meetings are dry affairs focused just on finances, that can be deadly to fundraising because a board member who’s bored with your organization is unlikely to step out of their comfort zone. 

Feedback for me

Have you encountered fundraising fears I didn’t mention. If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Or if you have additional techniques you’ve used to address fear, please do share them with everyone.

Be Sociable, Share!

The board and nonprofit branding

September 18, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Communications,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 10:49 am

A friend serving on the board of a local nonprofit recently asked me:

” I have a question about the process of rebranding for a nonprofit. Is it your experience that the board is involved in the design committee? And/or how about needing to vote on and approve the new brand before it’s rolled out?  Our board board is having a discussion about this so I want some expert insights.”

I think this will vary wildly based on the size of the organization and expertise of the board and staff.

It also depends on what is meant by the umbrella term “branding.”

Some think of it very narrowly (e.g. logo and organizational name).

Others think of it more broadly (e.g. logo/name/color pallette/fonts/style sheets).

I tend to think of it still more broadly as encompassing your desired identity (e.g. what you want your constituents and the public to think of when they hear your organizational name and see your materials). For example, a nonprofit I’ve advised recently did a branding exercise that concluded they wanted people to think of “science”, “legacy”, and “thriving” as the three words they most associate with the nonprofit.

In terms of board approval, I’d expect a board vote on a name change.

But everything else it really depends on the size of the organization’s staff and board, and the relative expertise of board and staff. More times than not, I think this probably means the board doesn’t vote — with some exceptions — in part because the board has so many other clear responsibilities that they struggle to find time to meet and vote on.

In terms of board involvement for developing a proposed new branding, I think it again depends on the circumstances.

If the branding is a broader question about organizational identity (e.g. what the brand is trying to convey and not just questions of how to convey it), then I’d certainly expect the board to be consulted for their input.  Whether that’s via a committee or interviews or online survey or focus group or some other method doesn’t really matter. 

If it’s more about how to convey the brand identity (e.g. what color scheme to use), I would not expect board involvement in that. The exception: really small organizations where (a) the board is in part playing a management role because staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to do all desired staff functions, and (b) one or more board members has relevant expertise.

But this is the important thing: if one or more board members are brought into the process because of their expertise on branding, I’d view them as participating as an expert volunteer, not in their board capacity.  When board members volunteer for something other than a board governance responsibility, they’re just another volunteer for that activity.

Has your organization been through branding? What role did your board play in these decisions? Please let me know in the comments!

Be Sociable, Share!

The passion versus fear equation

July 16, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:54 pm

When training boards (and sometimes staff) on fundraising, I often refer to the passion versus fear equation or line.

Often, I’m asked to help a board get past their fear of fundraising. There are tools to address their fear.

But there’s another side to the equation: passion.

Imagine two intersecting lines. One is fear of fundraising. The other running from the lower left to upper right is passion for the mission.

My maxim: when a board member’s passion for the mission exceeds their discomfort/fear about fundraising, they will raise money.

Lowering the blue line (e.g. their level of fear) is one way to make that happen.

But the other is to increase their passion so they’re further to the right on the orange line and thus more likely to have their passion exceed their fear.

After all, people do things they’re scared of all the time if their desire is strong enough. How many of us remember how fearful they were the first time they asked someone out on a date!

So how do you increase a board’s level of passion for the mission:

  • Make sure board meetings aren’t entirely dry affairs focused on finances.
  • Find opportunities to have the board members experience the positive benefits the organization is generating. That could be meeting people who’ve been served, experiencing a location saved, etc.
  • Make this collective: do an exercise where board members share their “personal story” of why they’re involved. They will feed on each other’s passion — not just their own.
  • Create a sense of teamwork and camaraderie: to the extent they are passionate for their fellow board members, that will also count.

None of this discounts the importance of training as a tool to help board members past their fear. But don’t forget the passion side of the equation.

Be Sociable, Share!

Pick up the frickin’ phone

June 8, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 11:41 am

I was recently talking with a fellow consultant about disengaged boards and, in particular, Executive Directors complaining about disengaged boards.

We quickly agreed on one point in particular: many Executive Directors share some of the blame for their disengaged boards because they don’t pick up the frickin’ phone.

They rely upon board meetings and/or emails to communicate with their board. In their over-reliance on board meetings and email, they never engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations with the board to get to know them, to share personal stories, and to make specific requests when appropriate.

So if you’re an Executive Director facing a disengaged board, your first task is simple: schedule a half hour phone call with every board member. You don’t need an excuse for this. Just do it. And if they don’t respond to an email requesting a phone call, just call!

Be Sociable, Share!

Does your nonprofit pass the marshmallow test?

November 18, 2019

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:59 pm

One of the most famous social-science studies was the marshmallow test.  Put a marshmallow in front of a preschool aged child and tell the child they can have a second marshmallow if they wait 15 minutes before eating the first one.  Leave the room and observe. 

The study, which tracked kids for years after the test, purports to show that those kids who, at an early age, had the self-control to double their payout (by waiting for the second marshmallow) do better in life (as measured by various objective means).

Serious doubts have since been raised about the reliability of the study and its purported conclusions when it comes to childhood development, taking into account differences in demographics.  But I want to draw upon it as an analogy to something I’ve seen time and again in the nonprofit world:  many Executive Directors struggle because they are eating their marshmallow too soon.

What do I mean by this?

My thesis:  smaller nonprofits who have the discipline to hold off on eating the marshmallow are more likely to thrive than those who partake right away of the marshmallow.

In the nonprofit world the marshmallow is your program.  Just as eating a marshmallow feels good to a child, it feels good to nonprofit employees to do the organization’s program.

You know what doesn’t feel good?  Doing less of the program work that directly advances the mission, especially when there are obvious community needs you can meet. 

There’s always a time trade-off.  Time you spend on program is time not available for organizational development (fundraising, board governance, administration, etc.).

If you do too much program as a small organization, you’re eating the marshmallow. What do I mean by “too much program?”

I know one nonprofit Executive Director who’s been running the same small nonprofit for the last decade who expresses frustration that other organizations have outgrown theirs.   But when I give advice about ways to raise more money, their answer is always: “I don’t have time because there’s so much of the work to get done.”

And it’s important work.  And they’re getting it done well.

But they’re eating the marshmallow too soon. 

Their theory: do great work and the money will follow.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way since good fundraising takes a real time commitment.

A small organization for whom growth is important should do the absolute minimum level of program work required in order to keep faith with donors.  And then focus every remaining second on fundraising and other essential organizational development activities.

That means leaving marshmallows on the table in the short run.  So that you can get to far more marshmallows — and make a bigger impact towards achieving your mission — in the longer run.

Be Sociable, Share!

Content © Copyright 2010-2013 • Jonathan Poisner Strategic Consulting LLC. All rights reserved.