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.

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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?

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Facilitating hybrid meetings

August 10, 2021

Filed under: Consulting,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 4:34 pm

Good facilitation is a core part of my work.  Since I had already begun facilitating many meetings online pre-pandemic, the switchover to all virtual meetings for the last 16 months being virtual was seamless.  There are some clear best practices I like to follow.

Lately, though, I’ve been fielding questions that have prompted me to think harder about “hybrid” meetings.  These are meetings where a majority of people are in a single conference room, but one or more other participants are participating remotely.

I’ve done this a few times over the years, but usually with just one or two remote participants. In those cases, it was understood the remote participants were being “allowed” to participate remotely, but with a recognition the experience was going to be inferior. 

But as more organizations work in a hybrid space with employees permanently in the office and others permanently at home, it is critically important remote participants are genuinely and fully included as meeting participants.

That’s going to be challenging. I have no doubt that facilitating these so-called “hybrid” meetings is more challenging than either in-person or all-virtual.

I’ve come up with some tentative strategies (best practices) that I’ll be following and recommending in the months ahead.  But I would very much like to hear back from others who’ve facilitated or experienced such meetings and have further thoughts.

So here are my tentative hybrid meeting facilitation strategies.  Eight of these are technology related and ten are more general. 

Let’s start with the eight technology focused recommendations.

  1. Don’t simply re-create a virtual meeting by having all the in-person participants on their computers individually on zoom or whatever platform is being used.  You might as well not be in person if that’s the approach.   (However, if everyone does has a laptop and the potential to participate in zoom during breakout sessions, that’s great – see below).
     
  2. If you have staff that will regularly engage in remote meetings, invest in second video monitors for them that can hook into their laptops.  They are not expensive and they absolutely boost productivity when they can both participate in a zoom on one screen and also view a shared document.  (This is something I’d recommend for those who use remote staff even in the absence of hybrid meetings).

  3. Make sure audio is high quality.  Invest in a high-quality microphone so that people participating virtually can hear anyone in the room.  That may mean a microphone system.  It also means a high-quality speaker so that those in the room can hear those participating virtually.

  4. Think about what video from the room to project for those participating via the internet.  That may very well mean two videos, or even three.  These can be detachable webcams hooked into laptops via USB cables showing a combination of participant faces in the room and any whiteboard or flip chart that will be used. 

  5. If there is a portion of the meeting when you will share a document on a screen that everyone needs to see, figure out how to simultaneously project it on a big screen (for in-person) and also share online for remote participants.

  6. Also think about video from the perspective of in-person participants and their ability to see remote participants.  If the room allows it, set up a screen and project remote participants onto it, as large as possible (up to life sized if possible).  This will give in-person participants a constant reminder to treat them as full meeting participants.  If feasible, set up the speakers for remote participants next to this screen, so the voice will emanate from the visual image.

  7. Test the audio-visual set up in advance so that you’re not floundering for the first 10 minutes.

  8. To capture meeting notes, use an online white board or focus a remote camera on a flip chart so everyone can see what’s happening.

Beyond these technology recommendations, here are ten additional recommendations.

  1. Try to reserve meeting time for things that require active discussion, using preparatory meetings shared in advance to get people on the same page.  Consider generating some of the input prior to the meeting using polls, googleforms, etc., rather than using up meeting time for it.
     
  2. Use an icebreaker or some other method to ensure everyone in the room and everyone remotely is talking at least once in the first 5 minutes just to get everyone engaged.

  3. Think about how to integrate remote participants into breakout sessions.  Don’t just default to have the remote participants always be their own breakout.  If you have the physical space where you’re meeting and extra laptops for the setup, figure out if you can do breakouts where the remote participants are distributed among the in-person.  For example, this could involve mini zoom meetings for groups of 3-4 people with 2-3 of them in a corner of the room and one remote.

  4. During overall sessions, the facilitator needs to pay special attention to the remote participants.  Don’t make the default be “and what about those of you not here” as something that only comes up at the end.  Sometimes ask them for opinions first, sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the end.  Mix it up just as you would if they were in the room. 

  5. Establish a clear groundrule not to have sidebar in-person conversations where a couple participants aren’t paying attention to the main ongoing conversation, but rather having their own conversation.  This is probably something you should always have as a groundrule, but sidebars are especially challenging for remote participants as it becomes even harder for them to hear accurately what’s going on in the room.

  6. Likewise, establish a clear groundrule that remote participants shouldn’t multi-task , where they have the meeting on one screen, but their second screen is being used for something unrelated.

  7. Have a second “facilitator” assigned who’ll pay special attention to the remote participants.  This can be a meeting participant (as opposed to truly a second facilitator).  Remote participants should be able to reach out to them via chat or text during the meeting if they have an issue to address.  Also, ideally someone other than the facilitator is “in charge” of the technology.  

  8. Schedule sessions to have more shorter breaks.   A traditional 3-hour bock might involve 80 minutes, followed by a 15 minute break, and then an 85 minute session.  Instead, have an initial 55 minute session, then 7-8 minute break, then 55 minutes, then another 7-8 minute break, then a final 55 minutes.  It’s just harder for people remotely to stare at a screen for more than an hour at a time. 

  9. After breaks, where in-person people may have been chatting about the meeting topic, give a couple minute opportunity for them to share any “aha” moments that those on remotely should also know about.

  10. Especially if your team is going to be doing these more frequently, acknowledge the challenge openly in the beginning of the meeting and your hope to run an inclusive process, while seeking feedback for future meetings.  Don’t assume you’ll get this perfect the first few times you run a meeting in this manner.

So what do you think and what have you experienced?

Any of these recommendations seem off to you?

Has something worked well for you that I’ve left of this list?

Please use the comment section to share with everyone.

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Ticket to Ride and nonprofit leadership

January 27, 2021

Filed under: Communications,Consulting,Fundraising,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

One of my pandemic “weaknesses” has been the amount of time I’ve spent playing Ticket to Ride – the online version.  For those not familiar with the game, you can read about it here. 

In short, your intent in the game is to connect train routes between different cities, collecting cards of varying colors and playing them in a strategic way before your opponents take the connections you need.   Longer routes are worth more than shorter routes.  You can add routes during the middle of the game, not just the beginning. For the most part, two players can’t use the same connection.

In order to “justify” my time spent, I started thinking recently about the lessons Ticket to Ride offers to nonprofit leaders.   

So here, without further delay, are my top 5 lessons for nonprofit organizations.  Of course, I’m pretty sure these lessons are worth reading even if you have never and will play the game . . .  .

Lesson 1 – In Ticket to Ride, there is a tension between waiting to have all your cards collected to complete a whole series of connections versus seizing some early connections that are good enough to get you started.  If you wait too long, though, you can miss your moment — in particular, somebody else may claim the same connection.

I’ve seen some nonprofit leaders fail because they were so focused on getting everything right, making sure all the plans and resources were perfectly aligned, that they took action too late.  A certain degree of boldness is essential to lead a nonprofit. 

Lesson 2 – In Ticket to Ride, there are eight different colored cards and one wild color (e.g. yellow, green, black, etc., plus wild.) and you have to be mindful of what colors you need now, what colors you need in the future, and what colors are available right now (you get to see 5 options or pick a mystery card). If you focus too much on your short-term needs only collecting colors you need for a few early connections you want to make, you’ll find yourself short of what you need for subsequent connections.  Of course, sometimes that first connection is critical and it’s worth the short-term focus.  But, over time, I’ve found that I tend to score highest when I focus on a diversity of objectives, looking beyond the initial few steps and towards the next set.

So too in nonprofits I’ve seen nonprofit leaders become so short-term focused that they find themselves emerging from a successful early activity completely ill-prepared for what comes next.  In contrast, nonprofit leaders who amass a variety of resources with the aim of pursuing a series of objectives over time tend to achieve greater success.

Of course, astute readers may ask: “doesn’t this contradict Lesson 1?”  In part, yes.  But not completely.  You must be bold (as described in Lesson 1), but not so bold that you fail to build up the resources (money, people, other assets) that you need to be successful in future endeavors. 

Lesson 3 – in Ticket to Ride, there is a benefit in collecting a series of routes that piggyback on each other, so that you can advance towards multiple objectives (e.g. routes) with a single connection.  For example, connecting Denver to Kansas City could help you connect Salt Lake City to Chicago as well as San Francisco to Washington DC.   You can use that connection on both routes.   

So too for nonprofits, it’s important to look for synergies and other ways in which the same activity can serve multiple purposes.  To take just one obvious example I’ve experienced recently, if you write an article for your email newsletter, are you also posting the same content (with either no or minor edits) on a blog?  Posting it on social media? 

Similarly, if you build relationships with constituents as part of your volunteer program or advocacy, are you taking advantage of those same relationships when fundraising rather than treat your fundraising as unrelated? While this may seem obvious, I’ve watched more than one organization fail to take advantage of the volunteer-fundraising synergy. 

Lesson 4– in Ticket to Ride, you can play cutthroat, where instead of building your own connections/routes, you anticipate the routes others appear to be building, and you block them on your turn.  This is perfectly legal within the rules of the game. 

But within my own social circle and with those I’ve been randomly playing online, it’s considered a social faux pas, and people (including yours truly) will often refuse to play in the future with those who compete in this “blocking” manner. 

A similar dynamic is true for nonprofits.  There can sometimes be short-term advantages you can seize away from an organization with which you are sometimes allied and sometimes in competition.  An example I’ve observed: raising money from a set of overlapping donors with a fundraising message that’s explicitly anti the other allied organization.  This may yield some short-term donations. However, if you get a reputation of being not a good collaborator, future opportunities to collaborate/partner will disappear, to your detriment. 

I can attest first-hand that as an environmental group Executive Director there were some environmental organizations who I cut out of opportunities because I’d seen them repeatedly use messages that undercut other allies.  If you develop a reputation for not being a “fair” player, your nonprofit will be weaker in the end.    

Lesson 5 – In Ticket to Ride, most players exclusively focus on building connections that complete their routes, and nothing but their routes.  However, I have noticed that really stellar players are aware of the overall board and sometimes build beyond their routes, to the next major city.  Perhaps they have to go from Boston to Phoenix and they go ahead and build as well to Los Angeles.  This is because late in the game you can score extra points by drawing new routes and some cities in particular (Los Angeles being an example) come up a lot.  This is an “if you build it they will come” approach, to quote the movie Field of Dreams. 

So too in nonprofits, sometimes when launching a new program, you just have to go the extra mile and do it, even if there’s not yet funding attached.  Build the program and then go out and seek funding for it, rather than the other way around.  I’m not saying always do that; you have to evaluate the level of potential benefit and financial risk.  But on several occasions, I’ve seen organizations grow dramatically in their impact by taking leaps of faith like this at key junctures.

And there you have it – five lessons for nonprofit leaders from Ticket to Ride.  I can now play the game some more without feeling guilty.  And if anyone is playing it online and looking for an opponent, just email me and we can set up a game. 

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How much input should we seek?

February 15, 2017

Filed under: Consulting,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:27 pm

When starting to talk to a potential strategic planning client, one of the first questions that comes up relates to the level of input they are seeking to solicit as part of the process.

I’m specifically referring to input from those not on the board and staff.  I take it as a given that no strategic planning process is likely to achieve its desired purpose if board and staff – those responsible for implementing the plan — aren’t given significant opportunities to provide input throughout the planning process.

But once you get beyond the board and staff, there is no right answer to the amount of input worth seeking.

Some factors that argue for more expansive input include:

  • Input can increase the commitment of those solicited to the organization.
  • Input from those who have significant control over the organization’s future success will help make it more likely the resulting plan will be one they support.
  • Input may generate critical information about the external lay of the land you will be facing.
  • Input may allow you to hear views from constituencies you’re trying to help that aren’t already adequately represented on your board or staff.
  • Input may help you generate an assessment of how those not on the organization’s “inside” view the organization.

Counterbalancing this desire for input are other factors:

  • Input is costly — it takes time and, if a consultant is collecting the input, money.
  • Input can give those being solicited unrealistic expectations regarding their degree of say in the organization’s future.
  • If you generate too much information, it may be hard to assimilate all the information in a meaningful way.
  • Input can have an opportunity cost if it gets in the way of your ability to ask the person being solicited for some alternative use of their time that’s more critical.

So how decide?

There’s no scientific answer.

You’ll need to think hard about the factors arguing for expansive input and weigh them against the others.

It can be helpful to have someone write up an initial plan for input that tries to find the sweet spot, and then have people react to that plan.

 

 

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Tips for “Virtual” Meetings

May 11, 2016

Filed under: Board Development,Consulting,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 5:22 pm

This blog was originally drafted in 2016.  A lot has changed on the virtual meeting front since them, although many fundamentals remain the same.  I periodically update it to reflect new information.  The most recent update was September 2021. 

In my consulting work, I’m involved in a lot of “virtual” meetings, often as the facilitator.  By virtual, I mean not in-person, so using the phone and/or internet.

I also participated in many virtual meetings over the years running a statewide conservation organization and being on the board of a national network of similar organizations.

I’ve learned some lessons over the years of some things to do and to avoid when planning for virtual meetings.

Before identifying those lessons, it’s important to underscore the two most important challenges posed by virtual meetings.

    1. It’s super easy for participants to be multi-tasking during the meeting.  That could be something else they’re working on or it could be scanning their social media.  How do you get their full attention.
    2. You lose out on many of the social cues that come in an in-person meeting, such as body language.

So if you have a virtual meeting to plan, how do you address these challenges?

First, plan ahead for video technology and don’t take it for granted.  There are many options: Zoom, GoogleMeet, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc.  

If you’re trying a new option for the first time, do a dry run with guinea pigs.  Also, it’s important to identify someone other than the meeting facilitator who is prepared to deal with any technical glitches.  

Second, have an increased energy level as facilitator.  It’s human nature to pay more attention when someone is energetic in their tone of voice.  Pump people up with your attitude.

Third,  take extra steps to make sure everyone is engaged.   There are lots of ways to do to do this.  Ideas include:

  • In setting the agenda, try to give as many people as possible an explicit task during the meeting so they’ll see the value of being fully involved.  Aside from leading on particular topics, other tasks include serving as scribe or timekeeper.
  • Make sure the agenda and supporting materials are distributed ahead of time, in a format easy for them to access online (since many participants will not have a printer handy).  I have found that agendas in googledocs that link directly to all the referenced materials works particularly well. 
  • At the meeting opening, set the explicit expectation that people won’t be multi-tasking during the meeting.
  • Use round robins to hear briefly from everyone on key topics.
  • If it seems like there’s not enough engagement, ask someone who hasn’t spoken in awhile what they think.
  • Explicitly ask people if they agree and ask them to say so out loud.
  • If your chosen platform allows for it, consider using breakout rooms, polls, or other tools that can increase engagement. 

Fourth, think about how notes will be taken and shared during the meeting.  If you would have normally used a flipchart in front of the room in an in-person setting, consider using a shared whiteboard/googledoc or the equivalent.  This can create a disconnect between those who have multiple screens (one for the video and one for the whiteboard), so factor that in as you facilitate.  (If you’re an organization who expects workers to work remotely, invest in their having a second screen; they are really quite inexpensive).  

Fifth, as each agenda item wraps up, be explicit about what was decided and who has agreed to any follow-up task.   And then as the meeting closes, go through every person and ask them what follow-up tasks have fallen to them.

Sixth, structure the meeting time to include more short breaks as opposed to fewer long breaks.  In general, don’t go more than 60 minutes without a 5-10 minute break.  

Lastly, get the meeting notes out ASAP.

Of course, all of the above presumes the meeting is otherwise well-organized.  If a meeting would be poorly designed in-person, no amount of attention to its virtual elements will overcome that.

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Keys to hiring a consultant

March 14, 2011

Filed under: About My Work,Consulting — jonathanpoisner @ 1:06 pm

Okay, one key.

Here’s something I kind of knew when I was hiring consultants, but really appreciate now that I’m wearing the consultant hat.

It’s best to be explicit why you’re hiring a consultant, even if it may seem obvious to you.

I generally find people are looking for consultants for one of three primary reasons.

  1. They simply lack the time to do something on staff, so they contract out.
  2. They lack the expertise within the organization, so they are looking for expertise from the consultant.
  3. The nature of the project requires an outsider to be a neutral facilitator of some process.

In general, I find I can be a more effective consultant if I know from the very beginning what role (or combination of roles) they are seeking from the consultant.

A strategic planning process that explicitly calls for me to offer up some of my expertise will look different than one that’s solely about having a neutral, outside facilitator.

If the project involves something staff could do, but lacks the time to do, that too provides useful guidance on how my work should be structured.

So be explicit folks!

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