Home Remodeling Lessons for Nonprofits

January 31, 2023

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:50 am

Back in 2013, my wife Suzan and I bought a house that was a fixer upper.  Not falling down.  But pretty much every room had at least one significant thing that needed work.

We’ve been slowly tackling the “project,” with an increased pace during the pandemic.

As I was reflecting recently on the process, it struck me that some of the lessons I should share with future home remodelers are also on point for nonprofit leaders.

So here are my top seven home remodeling lessons and their application to nonprofits:

1. Pace yourself

In remodeling, especially a house that needs a lot of work, don’t make your life miserable by trying to get everything done quickly.

There can be a tendency to see all the things you want to do and to try to do everything all at once.   Unless you’re Michelle Yeoh starring in a remarkable movie, you can’t be everywhere at once, so don’t try it. 

Don’t burn yourself out by working excessive hours.  Find work/remodeling life balance.  Recognize you’re looking to generate impact/improvement over time.

Every word above is true about nonprofit leadership. 

2. Set priorities

So if you can’t do everything at once, it’s important to figure out what aspects of your home are most urgent for you. 

We started with what was necessary to preserve the house, its structure, and our wallets (due to energy inefficiency).

Then we asked what improvements would give us the greatest joy while living in the house, as opposed to those that are mostly about the value of the house when it comes to eventual resale.  For me, the fact that the ceilings had lots of cracking wallpaper (yes, some idiots put wallpaper on ceilings) really didn’t impact my state of mind in the house. So I was fine waiting several years to address that task..  I imagine for others that aesthetic would have been a daily affront, so they would probably have tackled it sooner.

In nonprofit terms, are there priorities that must come first to preserve the nonprofits ability to operate? Or where failure to address the situation undercuts the nonprofits’ ability to thrive? Probably do those first. 

While with a home, it’s about joy, for a nonprofit it’s about impact.  What further improvements to your nonprofit will generate the most impact?

3. If you’re a team, work with each other’s strengths

Some people remodel solo, so this lesson doesn’t apply to them. In our case, my wife and I definitely have different strengths when it comes to remodeling.  I’m fine removing wallpaper with her, but please don’t ask me to paint if you want it done competently.  I’m far better than her at the budgeting and task management side of things.  We’ve found our way to work together allowing each of us to do those things where we excel (in comparison to each other).

In nonprofit terms, divide up the workload based on your skillsets and passions.  Of course, a lot of this is done as part of hiring when you hire for specific sets of duties/responsibilities.  But even within the broad confines of job duties, you will sometimes find yourselves working as a team on a project and, when doing so, take into account your relative strengths at tasks in dividing them up.

4. Have plans, but be flexible

Suzan and I had a long-term plan.  We knew what outside projects needed to happen (meditation hut built, deck built, retaining wall, etc.) and what inside projects (insulation, solar power, heat pump with mini-splits, address each individual room, etc.).   We had a rough order and at multiple points have put it in writing.  And we’ve generally followed the order envisioned.

But when the situation changed (such as Suzan having an extended period of not working, thus having more time), we adjusted things in order to take advantage of the situation. We’ve also had a contractor emerge with whom we work well at a good price, so we’ve moved some things up to play to his strengths and availability.

As a nonprofit, it’s essential to plan as well, both for the long-term (e.g. multi-year strategic) and shorter term by function (communications, fundraising, etc.).  But don’t feel like the plans manage you, manage based on the plans.  Adapt when an opportunity emerges if it matches your overall objective.  As a nonprofit Executive Director, I once created an entire program and position because a true rock star emerged who I knew could make a difference as part of our team.

On the flip side, address threats that may have been unexpected, like loss of a key funder.

Then go back and adjust the plans.

5. Pick your battles/don’t sweat the small stuff

Especially when working with contractors, recognize they won’t do everything 100% as you had envisioned/desired.  If something’s clearly wrong and it will bother you, make them address it.  But if it’s small and not really consequential, maybe let it slide. 

Same thing if it’s your own work that’s not superb.  Unless you’re trying to create a “show” house, recognize that the goal is quality not perfection.  So think about what you want to be absolutely right, and what can just be adequate. I absolutely adore the new exposed woodwork in my office after the paint was stripped from windows, doorframes, and the baseboard, but I wouldn’t want to put in the work to do the same in our upstairs hallway.

So too in a nonprofit.  I rarely find perfectionist Executive Directors do well.  They figure out that for most of what they get done, putting in 50% of the time to get to 90% of the quality is the sweet spot. Extra time required to redo a task or get a task done “perfectly” is only occasionally worth it. 

6. Don’t just do the fun stuff

Some parts of remodeling I found fun.  Okay, really not much at all.  Many parts of remodeling Suzan found fun. 

Yet, we recognized that if we only did the parts of a remodeling ourselves and tried to get a contractor to do everything “non-fun,” it would be wildly inefficient (and expensive).

So we removed wallpaper.  Way too much wallpaper.  I really don’t like sweating in a respirator while steaming/scraping.  But I recognized that to match our budget, we really needed to do much of that ourselves, saving contractors for the areas of work where we lacked the skill and equipment (or where Suzan lacked the time; she definitely has the skills).

So too in a nonprofit, there can be a tendency to ignore the parts of the job you find less fun. Perhaps for you that’s fiscal management. Or personnel management. Or fundraising.  You may try to outsource all the things you don’t find fun, but you’ll quickly find that’s inefficient, expensive, and often leads to work that doesn’t meet the organization’s needs.  

7. Think about who comes after you

This brings me back to my wallpaper rant. Whoever owned our home in its distant past thought the solution to cracked lath and plaster was to simply wallpaper over everything. Okay, not everything, but a lot.

It created the appearance a problem was addressed, at least I imagine it did for some period of time, but it left an even bigger problem behind for anyone else who came along later.

I recognize one homeowner doesn’t legally “owe” it to a future owner to have done a remodel in a way that doesn’t create challenges for their successor. But you should have at least some consideration for how things will play out over the extended time of a house with future owners. Hint: wallpaper sucks.

In a nonprofit, you owe a very real obligation to whoever succeeds you in your nonprofit not to have addressed problems in ways that paper over them. If you’re an Executive Director thinking about leaving their role, don’t leave a really problematic employee for a future Executive Director to address. Don’t “paper” over a problem like a non-functional fundraising database by jury-rigging it in a way that “kind of” works. Take the harder route that will leave your nonprofit able to make an impact not only today, but in the decades to come.

What are your lessons?

Anyone else have some home remodeling lessons to share? Please don’t be shy!

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