Five ideas for staying focused as an executive

July 23, 2021

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:10 pm

Quite a few times in my years as a consultant, I’ve encountered Executive Directors who accomplish tasks very effectively.  Their writing is cogent.  Documents they produce are always well-formatted.  They are well-spoken in person, laying out clear ideas.  They get a lot of stuff done.  They clearly work a lot of hours. 

Yet, their organization is floundering. 

Almost always, it’s because they’re getting the wrong tasks done. 

By “wrong,” I don’t mean they are doing tasks that are inherently counterproductive and take the organization backwards.  It’s that they’re doing tasks that should be priority 6 through 10 when priorities 1 through 5 are crying out for more attention.

Peter Drucker wrote extensively about this 50 years ago in his seminal book: The Effective Executive.  What separates the great from mediocre executive is a relentless focus on getting the right things done, not just doing things right.

In every organization I’ve encountered, the Executive Director (or CEO by whatever title)) could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and not run out of useful things to do on behalf of their organization.  Of course, in the real world you have 35-50 hours per week on a sustained basis.

How can an executive stay focused on the top priorities in order to be more effective?

Here are my top five recommendations.

Recommendation 1:  Actually decide rather than letting events push you around.  I’ve met more than one executive who, beyond keeping a calendar, has nothing that could be described as a work plan beyond to-do lists scribbled on pieces of paper.    

There are dozens of ways to give yourself a work plan.  As an Executive Director, I used an Excel spreadsheet broken down by major categories of work and tasks within them, with deadlines.  I’ve worked with an Executive Director who used a Word document effectively.  Today, many executives have moved to online project management systems like Asana or Trello.  (I use Asana for my consulting work planning).   

Whatever technology you use, the bottom line is for the system to allow you to identify your big-picture goals (outcomes) that you aim to achieve, along with major activities underneath them.   Whether the time frame is monthly, quarterly, or some longer period of time, it should be updated regularly.

Of course, a corollary to this recommendation is you shouldn’t skimp on planning time. More than once I’ve had an executive say they’re too busy to invest the amount of time in the planning that I am recommending to them. This brings to mind one of my previous blog posts: have you sharpened your axe lately? The short version: a timber cutter who takes 10% of their time sharpening their tool and 90% cutting likely cuts more than one who just ignores the need to sharpen their tool. Think of planning as sharpening the axe. 10%-90% may not be the precise ratio to shoot for, but in my experience there is no way to confidently “get the right things done” without taking real time to think things through, whether alone or with your team.

Recommendation 2:  Don’t prioritize in a vacuum. Prioritize within your work plan by staying focused on your most important organizational goals and strategies.  Whether embodied in an organizational strategic plan or some other document that the Executive Director writes up, the goals selected should clearly tie back to important organizational outcomes and the strategies should match up with the organization’s primary activities.

When a new idea emerges (presented to you or generated by you), assuming it’s not already clearly within the work plan, ask three questions as a filter before adding it to the plan:

Question one: Is the task squarely within one of our organization’s strategies? If not, it is almost always suspect.

Question two: Should I be the one to do this task?  Just because it should be done, doesn’t mean the Executive Director should tackle it.  What tasks should fall to the Executive Director and what to other staff, to contractors, or volunteer leaders?  If it’s at all possible to delegate it, do so.

Another way of approaching this question is to ask: is this something that requires my participation either because of my unique skills or relationships?  If not, is there someone else able to do it?

This filter is especially important for an executive to use when receiving requests to participate in meetings.  More often than not when I encounter a floundering executive, they are heavily scheduled into meetings where they aren’t essential participants.  They just don’t want to miss out on the “action.”

Question three: Is the task the cake or the icing on the cake?

Put another way, is accomplishing this task an essential element towards what I’m trying to accomplish or just a nice additive.  Unless and until you are confident all the essential building blocks are being achieved, tasks that are merely positive should be shelved.

Recommendation 3:  Use your calendar to block off the important tasks that you tend to struggle to complete.  Schedule yourself into a block of time when you’re committed to just that task, avoiding all distractions. Often times in the nonprofit sphere, major donor fundraising is what tends to get pushed off for other things that seem more time-sensitive. That was true in my case. I finally forced myself to stick to a schedule where everyone on my team knew I wasn’t to be disturbed.    

Recommendation 4:  Cut out the easy time-wasters.  Examples of these include:

  • The impromptu meeting with co-workers that takes half an hour that could be done in 15 minutes.  At the beginning of any such impromptu meeting, ask: “what do we need to get out of this conversation” and stick closely to that subject. 
  • The half-dozen times during the day you check your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media because there might be something relevant to the organization’s work.  (This is one of my weaknesses). Unless it’s your job to manage these social media platforms, once per day should be sufficient.
  • The extra 15 minutes formatting a document to be perfect when it was already good enough to be understood.  Occasionally you’re producing something worthy of that extra 15 minutes, but most of the time that’s 15 minutes better spent moving onto the next important task. 

Recommendation 5:  Beware of shiny objects.  These are the opportunities that come along that seem cool.  They may even come with funding.   Perhaps you’re asked to speak to a group.  Or to put together a media release on some breaking news of relevance.   Often, these are things that may gratify the ego, but really aren’t essential building blocks to organizational success.   Get used to saying no and feeling good about it because when you say no to something new, you’re saying yes to the core work you already have underway.

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Do you have your own techniques for staying focused on the right tasks?  Please share them in the comments.

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The bricklayer parable and nonprofits

June 17, 2021

Filed under: About My Work,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:29 pm

An Executive Director working for a former client recently invited me out to have lunch at a park and then go kayak on the river with her.  We spent most of the lunch talking about the organization’s challenges and the potential role an upcoming strategic planning process could play in meeting those challenges.  

Then we went for our paddle.  Just a short one, about 40 minutes.

The Tualatin is a gentle river in a suburban area, but we saw (and heard) some lovely birds and this turtle sunning itself on a log.  

Despite the short amount of time involved, the experience was enough to get my brain recharged and think about the incredible role that rivers can play in improving our communities, which was well-timed given one of my current clients is entirely focused on watershed protection.   Thanks Jan! 

In thinking about the experience, I was reminded of the parable of the three bricklayers and the importance of nonprofit leaders taking steps to ensure they don’t lose touch with their deeper purpose.

This is a variation on a famous parable that supposedly was first told by Christopher Wren, in 1671, while he was serving as chief architect for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

A woman was walking down a street and came across someone laying bricks.  The first bricklayer was dejected and doing a sloppy job as they laid bricks on top of each other.  The woman asked the bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The first bricklayer’s answer: “I’m putting bricks in a row and then putting another layer of bricks on top of them.”

Further down the street, the woman came across a second bricklayer.  This bricklayer was workmanlike – doing their job in an apparently competent manner. 

The woman asked the second bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The second bricklayer’s answer: “I’m building a wall that will form the side of a building.”

As the woman walked even further down the street, she came across a third bricklayer.  This bricklayer was whistling as they worked, obviously happy, as they methodically and competently put bricks together in rows, mortared them, and slowly built upwards.

The woman asked the bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The third bricklayer’s answer: “I’m building the wall of a hospital that will save people’s lives.”

Is it any wonder that the second bricklayer was more productive than the first, and the third was most productive of all? 

The first was given a task, but had no purpose. 

The second had a purpose, but it was shallow. 

The third had a task, a purpose, and the purpose was framed in a deeper way that could arouse passion.

So how does this apply to nonprofits?

Almost always, small, new nonprofits are like bricklayer three.  They are founded around a purpose and that purpose tends to remain front and center as the team is built and tasks are divided up.  Executive Directors who are founders are particularly like bricklayer 3. 

Yet, over time – whether the organization grows or not – nonprofits often wind up treating their staff, board, and other volunteers like bricklayer 2, or even worse bricklayer 1.

I saw this repeatedly when I was an Executive Director interacting with other organizations, and I see it sometimes as well as a consultant. 

As organizations grow, there is a tendency to focus on specific duties or tasks that need to get done at the expense of the mission.  This is particularly true on the organizational capacity side of the equation. 

It’s easy to stay focused on the purpose when you’re doing the programmatic work of your nonprofit that directly advances the mission.  It’s harder to say focused on the purpose when you’re working on board governance, or fundraising, or information management systems.  

These are the “bricks” that form the foundation of the organization, so it’s easy to get caught in the trap of focusing on the process of laying bricks or the fact that it’s a “foundation.”

Yet, in failing to keep your deeper purpose front and center, groups are likely to go off course as they lose some of the passion essential to fuel volunteer and staff activity. 

Here are a few examples. 

Your board is asked to raise money.  You pay a great deal of attention in training them to the mechanics of raising the money and the need to hit certain financial goals.  Yet, if the staff doesn’t repeatedly tie those financial goals back to the purpose as it talks to the board, the board is less likely to go the extra mile to ask their friends for money. 

I’ve seen the same situation happen with staff playing a non-program role.  Whether they’re doing your human resources, your database management, your accounting, or any of the myriad of other tasks that go into a medium or larger sized nonprofit, it’s easy to fall into the trap of training them in isolation on just their own jobs.  Many nonprofits can find competent administrative staff to “lay bricks.” 

Yet in my experience, administrative staff who’re repeatedly shown how their work is critical to your deeper purpose, are stronger performers.  It may take a little extra time up-front to consistently keep the purpose front and center, but the payoff is almost always worth it.  They will work harder and are less likely to leave for another job. And they will be more creative in finding ways for their work to better support the programmatic work. 

How about volunteers?  

A great deal of my experience managing volunteers is in the election context, so my example will lie in that realm.  Election volunteers are asked to step out of their comfort zone to talk to strangers at the door or on the phone on behalf of candidates or issues.  

In the election context, I repeatedly found that enthusiastic, repeat volunteers emerged most often when they were informed not just about the task at hand (the phone bank – bricklayer 1), and not just about the campaign (the phone bank as key to winning the election – bricklayer 2), but also the underlying purpose (the phone bank as key to winning the election so the candidate can lead on policies that save lives from dangerous levels of pollution — bricklayer 3).

So what are some management techniques leaders can use as a manger to avoid going off course by losing touch with your deeper purpose?

Three techniques come immediately to mind:

First, get really good at talking about your organization’s fundamental purpose, whether you call that your mission or otherwise.  Make sure this is about underlying values and not first-order impacts. Keep talking about it.  Just because you think everyone’s heard you talk about it before, don’t be shy about bringing it up again to reinforce the message.

Second, make sure the agenda for any significant meeting and the talking points for any presentation have some time set aside that connects the topic at hand to your deeper purpose.  Even if you think everyone attending already understands your purpose, consistently reminding people of that purpose when they’re together as a group is a powerful way to build community and teamwork.

Third, as you grow, don’t completely silo those people who perform largely administrative or capacity building functions from your program work.  They should be part of staff meetings or retreats that are focused on program.  As you hire, train, and supervise these staff, make sure you find ways to continually connect them to the purpose.

In the end, of course, some people are going to naturally think like bricklayer 1, just as others are naturally going to think like bricklayer 3.   But nonprofit leaders are absolutely in a position to make sure their organization doesn’t go off course by letting the purpose be lost amidst the details.

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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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Naive optimism

December 7, 2020

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:22 pm

I recently was speaking with Amanda Caffall, who helped start and currently leads the Commons Law Center, a relatively new nonprofit.  The Center is clearly thriving, even with the challenges posed by 2020, and I asked her to what she attributed their success.

Among the various reasons cited, she used a phrase about herself that struck a chord in me: “naive optimism.”

The optimism part was straightforward.  Basic personality matters when it comes to nonprofit leadership.  People who see the world as “glass half empty” tend not to perform as well in Executive Director roles as those who see it as “glass half full.” 

People whose instinct is to ask: “how do we get this done?” tend to perform better than those who instinctively think of all the reasons a program or project will fail.

Of course, people who are pessimistic and focused on what could go wrong play a really important role within nonprofits in keeping teams grounded, helping avoid problems, etc.  They make awesome chief fiscal officers.  But usually not Executive Director.

But what about the word “naive?”  Why does it matter in this context?

The key insight is that some people have been “educated” by seeing or being told about failure in all its myriad of forms.  And as their naivety is hammered out of them, they become more likely to inappropriately second-guess themself and they can become paralyzed by indecision and excess caution.  

“Naive optimism” is that lucky place some leaders find themselves in where they’re inherently optimistic and they haven’t yet “learned” something can’t be done.  So they go out and do it – often by leading a team.   

As I reflect, I can think of a dozen Executive Directors (mostly younger) who really shined in their roles because they combined strong leadership skills with “naive optimism.”  

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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
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Holding up the wall

October 1, 2020

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:48 pm

As a nonprofit Executive Director, do you ever feel like if you walk away, things will crumble?

I felt this occasionally as an Executive Director, particularly in my first few years.

Strategies I employed to get beyond this feeling:

  1. Take deep breadths
  2. Look back at my to-do lists and short-term plans, break them down in chunks, and think hard about what else can be either delegated or pushed off/let go.
  3. Map out my major yearly, quarterly, and monthly tasks. Figure out which ones can be delegated. If to nobody right away, figure out how somebody can eventually take over those tasks. (Of course, for some, the answer is nobody because they’re inherent to the E.D. role).
  4. If appropriate after #2 and #3, ask for help. Be candid with your board chair or, if that would be awkward, somebody else who you can confide in who will grasp the picture. Sometimes just talking about it’s enough to recognize you’re probably not actually holding up the wall.

What strategies have you used when you have this feeling? I’m looking for other ideas to share!

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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!

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Planning and Management Amidst a Pandemic

April 28, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 1:42 pm

I’ve worked with quite a few clients over the last few years developing strategic plans.   A few have called me and asked: what now in light of the pandemic?

I always start with the question: has the lay of the land materially changed in a way that renders key strategies unworkable and/or goals unobtainable? 

Every time the answer has been “yes.”  Usually, it’s because they fear (accurately I assume at this point) that their plans hinged on fundraising that will not materialize in light of the pandemic.  Other times, the change to the lay of the land isn’t about money, but rather the fact that their programmatic work depends heavily on in-person forms of outreach or other work that has become impossible.

Here’s four pieces of advice I’ve given Executive Directors and Board Chairs who find themselves in either or both of these predicaments.

1. Hug your donors, just not literally.

Any reasonable fundraising strategy involves a combination of maintaining and upgrading existing donors (both individual and institutional), while also seeking new ones.  During the immediate health crisis and the economic fallout, organizations are going to have more success with their existing donor base as compared to attracting new donors.    

That means using multiple avenues to communicate with them (e.g. email, phone, online briefings, etc.).   And for those donors who love you the most, be really candid with them about where things stand for you.  They are the most likely to dig deeper to help you get through the crisis.

2. Don’t forget to plan

There may be a temptation in a crisis to mistake activity for productivity.   It may feel “good” to get really busy, but it’s critical that you focus on the right things.  That means reevaluating your goals (the ends you’re trying to achieve) and your strategies (the major types of activities you’re undertaking to achieve your goals).  What priorities have shifted?  What strategies are no longer tenable and what can replace them?   

I recently facilitated a team meeting planning for a 2021 grant and we had a robust conversation about the ways in which the world will look different and what that means for their programs.  We touched on everything from changes to volunteerism, to how people engage politically, to whom people are willing to talk.  They may not have accurately predicted all these shifts, but it’s far better to have the conversation than to just plunge forward without thinking.

3. Don’t throw out the whole past plan

Some people are tempted to just throw out their strategic plan and start from scratch.  There may be a few organizations for whom that may make sense.  But for most, if your plan was solid before, ask yourself:  do you just implement the same plan just over a longer time period, assuming everything takes longer?  Or have the fundamentals changed such that some of the goals or strategies needed to change? 

In most cases, starting with the old plan and editing it makes more sense than a blank slate.

4. Give your staff (and yourself) time and space to grieve and experiment

Your staff are your most precious resource and it’s important to recognize that they need special handling in this environment.  Beyond the obvious shift many organizations have to go through of suddenly managing an employee working remotely, staff are likely to feel agitated, upset, uncertain, etc. 

While not everyone has experienced the loss of a loved one or even someone they know, there is a degree to which nearly everyone is mourning the loss of the world as we knew it.  You should find ways to give people the space to share their feelings and concerns, even if that costs you time and productivity.

The flip side is that the new context for some people provides a burst of creativity.  I’ve seen this first-hand with another one of my clients where a staff person came forward with some really interesting and implementable ideas for taking real-world activities into the virtual world, with some potential amplifying affects for the group’s ability to communicate – at least in theory.   As a manger, it’s imperative that you keep an open mind towards new ideas that are worth an experiment.

Have you had some experience managing or planning amidst the pandemic you’d like to share? I’d welcome additional thoughts or experiences.

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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.

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Relentlessly Focus on Relationships

November 30, 2017

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 11:23 am

This is a republication of Chapter 1 of Why Organizations Thrive.  

Organizations that thrive relentlessly focus on relationships.   This must begin with the Executive Director and the Executive Director’s relationships.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that successful organizations are constantly expanding their pool of relationships and strengthening existing relationships.  Then they consciously activate those relationships.

To understand why, it’s helpful to take a giant step back and talk about network theory and social change.  A wide variety of books have come out in the last decade detailing the various ways in which social change happens via networks of people connected by relationships.    The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a good example from this genre.

While people receive information outside of relationships, relationships have a powerful role in how people react to information.

People listen more to people with whom they have a relationship.

People are more likely to be persuaded by people with whom they have a relationship.

People take action more when requested from people with whom they have a relationship.

Of course, the quality of the relationship matters too.   The deeper the relationship, the greater the odds that we will listen to someone, be persuaded by them, or take action at their request.

As a practical matter, the power of relationships can impact organizations in many ways.  One example related to Executive Directors:  An Executive Director may give a pitch-perfect donation request to John Doe.  A board member may give a mediocre donation request to the same John Doe.  If the board member and John Doe are friends, the mediocre board request is more likely to succeed.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think of relationships as just about fundraising.   Relationships impact an organization’s interaction with volunteers, media, allied organizations, elected officials, and people the organizations are working to serve.  Any time you’re trying to shape behavior, relationships matter.

So how should an organization systematically expand the number of relationships its Executive Director and other key leaders have with those that matter?

Here are a few examples of ways I expanded my pool of relationships as an Executive Director.

  • I attended fundraisers for peer-organizations, if possible sitting at the table of people I didn’t already know well.
  • I instigated lunch or coffee with the leaders of current and potentially allied organizations, particularly those I didn’t already know well.
  • I asked board members to invite me to any non-fundraising parties they were throwing so I could meet more of their friends.
  • I asked elected officials for advice, as a way to get to know them.
  • I attended conferences more with an aim towards meeting new people during breaks and social times than out of a desire to tackle the subject matter of the conference work sessions.

None of this would have worked if I hadn’t been genuinely interested in getting to know these people.  You can’t fake authenticity in building relationships.

Of course, relationship building isn’t just about the Executive Director’s relationships.

In planning programs and fundraising, relationships by everyone on the staff and board should be front and center.   Some Oregon LCV activities, for example, never made sense as stand-alone activities.

Examples:

  • Hosting brown bag lunches to compare notes with allies;
  • Volunteer appreciation parties;
  • Trainings for members of the community;
  • Hosting happy hours.

While they had some value, their primary value was to build relationships that our staff could subsequently tap into in other ways.

If you’re using this approach, staff should know their role at events like these is to get to know new people rather than hanging out with existing friends.

There are three other practical implications that follow from relentlessly focusing on relationships.

First, you need to be systematic in planning for relationship-building and tracking relationships.  As an Executive Director, that means setting specific goals (e.g. 5 per month) for how many new relationships you want to develop in the most important categories (e.g. peer Executive Directors, elected officials, potential major donors).  And it means actually using a “database” – whether your donor database or otherwise – to track relationships.

Second, you need to recognize that not everyone is equal when it comes to relationships.   In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about three types of people who play a particular role in social change:

Connectors have an unusually large number of relationships.

Mavens have a strong need and ability to help solve other people’s problems.

Persuaders are particularly likeable and charismatic.

In hiring, in recruiting board members, and in recruiting volunteers, Executive Directors should keep an eye out for people who fit these descriptions and put an extra emphasis into developing relationships with them.

Lastly, the organization should think hard about how to maximize the value of relationships once they are generated.

In my experience, the key step in maximizing the value of relationships isn’t the initial “ask” you might make of someone (e.g. donate, volunteer, etc.), it’s in having your relationships tap into their own relationships on your behalf.

As I write this, I have 581 people in my Linked In network.   Those 581 people have 127,965 direct LinkedIn connections.  Of course, LinkedIn is just being used as an illustration of a point:  the people with whom any individual has relationships open them up to a vastly larger network of relationships than they can ever tap directly.

Organizations that thrive don’t just systematically build and activate first-order relationships – they get first-order relationships to tap into a further network.    As a practical matter, thriving organizations tend to turn donors into fundraisers and volunteers into volunteer recruiters.

How do you make that happen?  In the online world it’s seemingly easy – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and dozens of other sites are specifically geared to allow people to spread information and “asks” throughout their social network.   But while easy to spread information and asks, online response rates are abysmal.

The real payoff comes when people spread information or make requests where two-way communication is happening in real-time – which usually means on the telephone or face-to-face.

How do you get your first-order relationships to turn around and ask their friends for donations, to volunteer, to attend an event, to write their Congressman, or just to talk up your organization when at a cocktail party?

At the simplest level it’s by having a compelling message that motivates them.   (More about this in Lesson 13, Know and Tell Your Stories).

But beyond message, you need to structure their involvement in ways that motivate.  At Oregon LCV, we did this first and foremost by organizing teams of volunteers at the local level who took ownership of certain organizational decisions, thus motivating them to act.  With their help, we grew from an organization with a few dozen volunteers in 1996 to more than 1000 by 2004.

Of course, you can have all the relationships in the world, and your organization won’t thrive without many other elements.  But organizations that thrive almost universally place a very high value on building and strengthening personal relationships.

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