On the value of one-on-ones

April 30, 2024

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 10:37 am

I was recently talking to an Executive Director and it became clear they hardly ever met with anyone else one-on-one. They were doing so much writing, emailing, and group meetings that they were hardly ever talking to just one person.

When I pushed them on this, they responded that meeting with just one person is inefficient.

I believe that is short-sighted. Organizations thrive based on personal relationships and it’s very, very hard to forge such relationships other than in one-on-one (or one-on-two settings when you’re forging a relationship with a couple).

Something happens in a one-on-one conversation that doesn’t happen at events and certainly not via email/mail or even on the phone.

You can form a stronger personal relationship and you can ask people to take personal responsibility.

Let’s start talking about forming relationships.

It’s not rocket science to understand forming relationships is easier in person.  Legions of studies have demonstrated the role of body language and facial expressions in communications – neither of which works over the phone. 

And in one-on-one meetings, you can make the communication truly two-way – asking questions of a potential organizational supporter and not just talking to them.  This can help you understand what motivates them so you can calibrate any asks to match their needs. You can do this in an authentic and not a staged way.

Meeting with people one-on-one also allows you tap into personal responsibility and not just collective responsibility.

At an event, it’s about how all these people in the room can help.  One-on-one, it’s about how you can help. Yes, peer pressure can matter. And well run events tap into that collective power. But getting somebody to take real ownership and dig deep when giving almost almost always works better off outside of events.

Studies done in the 1970s and 1980s focused on personal versus collective responsibility in a different context.  Scientists had people fake epileptic seizures in public places to see who would help. Sometimes they did this when only one person was around. Other times they did this when several people were around. Which situation led to more help?

Interestingly (to me), the answer is you were more likely to get help during the seizure if just one person was around. This is contrary to what I would have thought.

But it rings true upon further reflection.  When something happens and other people are around, you tend to look around to see how they’re responding.  And in unusual situations, people are often slow to act. If everyone else is also just looking around, you may think: I guess it’s not my problem. 

But if there’s nobody to look at for social cues, you know it’s about you, and you alone.

When you’re invited to give and the invitation is clearly about you, that’s when people tend to step up and make larger donations. 

In these contexts, as you get to know people, you’re also in a better position to add in further opportunities for them to step up — will they champion the organization to their friends, will they volunteer, etc.

This helps explain why time and time again, organizations that invest their staff and board time in doing one-on-one donor meetings are quicker to transform themselves financially than those that bank on fundraising events. 

The same thing is true beyond fundraising. Time and again, I’ve seen organizations build far more effective coalitions and partnerships with allies by doing a series of one-on-one meetings rather than relying on group meetings with several organizations at once. One-on-one meetings are also the bread and butter for community organizing where you’re trying to build not just an episodic volunteer base, but one where the volunteers are willing to take on leadership.

So stop putting your time into the next great event and banking on social media revolutionizing your organization.  If you want to grow, and grow quickly — get out and meet with more people and invite them to take responsibility.  Of course, for many Executive Directors, that requires figuring out what you can jettison from your busy schedule, a topic I’ll discuss next month.

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Tools for an Executive to Stay Focused

April 24, 2023

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:46 pm

Quite a few times I’ve encountered Executive Directors who come across as very competent.  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. Many tasks are clearly getting crossed off their to-do list. They clearly work a lot of hours.

Yet, their organizations flounder.

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.  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, which I have reviewed.  The effective executive not only does things right, they do the right things. 

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

In every organization I’ve encountered, the Executive Director (or CEO) 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 40 hours per week on a sustained basis, with some executives able/willing to let that spike to 50-60 hours for extended periods.

How do you decide what to do within the time available?

My first recommendation for an Executive Director when evaluating a potential tasks/projects is to filter it through three questions to determine whether to not do a task.

Question one is: is the task/project essential to our organizational strategy. Whether or not the organization’s strategy is embodied in a written strategic plan, you should know what your goals are and the strategies you’re using to achieve them. If a task doesn’t squarely fit within one of the strategies to achieve one of your goals, it is almost always suspect.

Question two is: should I be the one to do this task? Just because it fits within the organizational strategy doesn’t mean the Executive Director should tackle it. What tasks should fall to the E.D. and what to other staff, to contractors, or volunteer leaders?

Even in an organization with no other staff or contractors, an E.D. who isn’t finding ways to delegate tasks to the board or other volunteers is almost always going to tackle tasks that take them away from higher priorities.

A question any Executive Director can ask: is this something that requires the E.D.’s participation either because of my unique skills or relationships? If not, your first step should always be to ask: who else would be better to do it?

This filter is especially important for an Executive to use when receiving requests that they 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.”

A third filter to apply is to ask the question: is the task the cake or the icing on the cake?

Put another way, is accomplishing this task an essential building block to the overall success of the organization or is it just one nice outcome we want? Unless and until the essential building blocks are achieved (or on track for achievement), tasks that are simply positive should be shelved.

Think about posting a sign within your eyesight at your desk with these three questions:

  • Is it strategic?
  • Am I essential?
  • Is it the cake or just the icing?

In addition to using these filters to nix involvement in some tasks, there are three other tactics I recommend to Executives looking to become more focused.

First, identify up-front what are the most important tasks you struggle to complete. (Oftentimes that’s major donor fundraising). The solution: calendar large blocks of time to focus on the activities you struggle to complete and rigorously stick to that schedule. Force yourself to stick to a schedule where everyone on your team knows you aren’t to be disturbed.

Second, cut out the easy time-wasters. Examples of these include:

  • The meeting that takes an hour that could just as easily be accomplished in 30 minutes.
  • The half-dozen times during the day checking your Facebook because there might be something relevant to the organization’s work.
  • The extra 15 minutes formatting a document to be perfect when it was already good enough to be understood. (Occasionally, that extra 15 minutes matters, but usually not).

Lastly, beware shiny objects. These are the opportunities that come along that seem exciting on the surface. 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.

Do you have techniques of your own to share? I’d love to hear them.

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Board members in management roles – updated

February 28, 2023

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 8:53 am

Originally published in August 2022, this edition of the post expands upon the suggestions I offered in August.

A challenge unstaffed nonprofits face is that board members necessarily take on roles that are not board governance.   These other roles are hard to categorize with a singular term.  They include management, administration, coordination, program administration – pretty much anything that one would expect to be done by staff in a large organization. For purposes of this article, I’m going to lump them together as “management.”

This challenge isn’t just for unstaffed organizations.  It is also true for many small or even medium sized nonprofits where the group’s ambitions exceed the staff capacity, leaving board members playing additional non-governance roles.

I have often been tasked with assisting clients on how to help their boards be more effective.  For smaller organizations, I have repeatedly found that confusion regarding the additional non-governance roles taken on by directors is a problem that metastasizes in a variety of ways to make the board dysfunctional.

This article is my attempt to both explain the challenge and to point nonprofits towards some practical steps to address the challenge. I have seen a few nonprofits employ at least some of these strategies, but rarely have I seen them deployed aggressively in combination.

The Challenge

Let’s start with a basic premise:  in any nonprofit, there is a need for governance and management.  (Here, I’m using management as a catch-all term for everything that is not governance). 

The board must govern.  Everything else can be delegated to either staff or other non-board volunteers.

It would take an entirely separate article (or book) to fully explore what fits into the governance category.  I’m fond of BoardSource and the way they lay out 10 responsibilities of nonprofit boards. Big-picture, governance is making sure the organization has the right boat, the boat is pointed in the right direction, and it’s well-provisioned. Management is rowing the boat.

If all an organization did was governance, though, that means the boat would simply sit in place. The actual mission “work” of the organization would never get done, nor would much of the behind-the-scenes administration necessary to support that mission work. 

The result in small organizations:  board members take on management roles in addition to their governance role.  Board members necessarily row. And this leads me to my most important point:  too often, in board meetings and board governance discussions, these extra “rowing” roles are treated as part of the governance role, rather than as a separate non-board role.

Why is this a problem?

First, board meeting time gets filled up with discussing and coordinating management and programmatic tasks, which often seem more urgent.  The result: the board doesn’t spend as much time on governance as is needed to meet governance responsibilities.

Second, even between the board meetings. board members spend so much time addressing management, they lack the time or mental energy to perform their governance roles to the level required.

Third, the board applies to management the decision-making and communication norms meant for governance.

What do I mean by decision-making and communication norms? Norms are the ways we generally operate culturally; they are what seem normal.

In particular, governance “normally” tends to operate by consensus, with ample input from everyone before a collective vote.  That’s really important, particularly around governance responsibilities where all board members have legal duties to engage.

Yet, consensus and high-input decision-making processes are a recipe for inefficiency (or even paralysis) when it comes to management tasks.  I sat through a board meeting where an agenda item was to receive everyone’s input on a draft email newsletter and it was a deadly waste of time. Don’t even get me started on the board meeting that turned into a detailed conversation about table arrangements for a fundraising event.

Bottom line: meetings become bogged down in the wrong topics. Board members tune out listening in on decisions/discussions that really should involve a small subset of the participants, if they should involve discussion at all. Governance responsibilities get neglected and it becomes harder to recruit new board members being asked to take on both governance and management tasks. It becomes a vicious circle.

Suggestions to Address the Challenge

So how do you get past this conundrum? After all, if the organization had funds to pay for staff, it probably would.

Suggestion 1:  Be clear about roles and that these roles include both board roles and management roles. Management roles will vary wildly by organization, based on your administrative and programmatic needs.

One person may take on two (or more) separate roles that fit into separate categories. For example, Person a might be both (a) a board member and chair the board recruitment committee and (b) also serve as newsletter editor.

The important point: when playing the “management” role (in this case newsletter editor), the “board” member is not acting as a board member, but rather as a volunteer. After all, there’s no inherent reason the newsletter editor needs to be on the board. (Conversely, the chair of the board recruitment committee really should be a board member).

Suggestion 2: Treat these management roles held by volunteers as quasi-staff in how they work. There should be written “job/position” descriptions laying out their general responsibilities and areas of authority. 

People playing these roles should be given authority to operate as a leader and make decisions within their area of responsibility, without having to get pre-approval from the board. With the added authority should come some responsibilities. Most importantly, people playing these roles should be asked to provide something in writing that serves as the equivalent to a “staff” report prior to meetings so that meetings aren’t taken up with oral reports that are of no value to those not at the meeting.

Accountability, as with staff, should be after-the-fact, with potential removal from their role.

Suggestion 3: Recruit for these roles. Identify what you most need from these roles, write the descriptions, and share them with those who may be interested. Treat this as importantly as you treat board recruitment, if not more so.

What if some board members opt not just to take on this second management role, but to leave the board because they’d rather do “program” than “governance. That’s okay!

Suggestion 4: Formally separate out the board meeting from a second management coordination meeting that addresses non-governance topics.  For efficiency sake, these can be back to back, since many of the same people will be involved. Take a 5-minute break between these two meetings.  The latter meeting may just be a subset of the board who are actually needed for it; and it ideally should include some non-board volunteers who’ve taken on an ongoing management role.

Importantly, for the “management coordination” meeting do not use the norms you use in the board meeting. The fundraising coordinator doesn’t get equal say on the newsletter content as the newsletter editor. The newsletter editor doesn’t need to weigh in on what someone is doing with regard to a specific program. The purpose of this meeting is to share essential updates and to ensure coordination is happening where needed between several people playing various roles, not to make collective decisions.

Suggestion 5: Just because a volunteer takes on a “management” role with the organization (e.g. leading on some program), doesn’t mean you should elect them to the board, especially not to “fill a slot.”  Reward and acknowledge people playing these non-board roles on your website, in your communications, etc., but don’t fill up your board with people who aren’t fully committed to the “governance” responsibilities that come with service. 

This may mean jettisoning some people from the board who really just want to volunteer in a management role.  It’s better to have a smaller board that focuses on governance than a larger board with uneven participation on governance because some “management” volunteers are sitting around the table without the time or expectations to actually govern.

Of course, it’s okay for some people to have dual roles – if they have the time to do so and understand they have two sets of responsibilities – governance (board) and management (volunteer).

Suggestion 6: Focus on Communications

The strategies above don’t work if you don’t adequately communicate across roles. Written reports prior to board and management coordination meetings should be the norm. They should be shared across the team. Short memos should be written after board meetings and management coordination meetings encapsulating key decisions and action items. (With the board, this should be above & beyond the formal minutes).

While your management team doesn’t have to include board members, you probably need one board member to attend those meetings and serve as a liaison if they are truly separate.

Suggestion 7: Efficient Meetings

Clear agendas. Written materials shared ahead of time with an expectation they will be read so that meeting time can be focused on discussion and decisions, not oral reports. Active facilitation to keep people on topic. Stay out of the weeds unless absolutely essential.

I’ve sat through too many 2 hour board meetings that should have been 90 minute board meetings with even halfway decent facilitation. The collective time saved can be substantial.

Suggestion 8: Embrace collaborative tools

Small nonprofits that embrace technology spend a little time up-front for large time-savings down the road.

Most importantly, technology now allows “asynchronous” planning where multiple people can be working together on the same document at different times, without having to email it back and forth and not knowing who’s working on the latest version.

Example: Googledocs and googlesheets stored in GoogleDrive.

Example: GoogleGroups for email lists for just those board/management & program volunteers focused on a specific task, so that everyone else’s email inbox doesn’t get cluttered up with topics they really don’t need to track closely.

The above tools are free.

There are many even more robust tools for collaboration and communication that cost a bit, but can take you to the next level.

I’ve seen boards composed of older, tech-averse board members take the time to force board members to learn these tools and they’ve always been really, really happy 6 months later.

Suggestion 9: Set realistic expectations

For all of the above, and for your governance responsibilities, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Be realistic. As you make plans, a little boldness is good and can inspire. Excessive boldness can sap your energy when you inevitably fail.

If your team is naturally all optimists who historically have led you to bite off more than you can chew, assign somebody the role of “pessimist” who’ll be charged with the task of asking hard questions during board meetings.

Recognize that you don’t have to do everything everywhere all at once. If you realize you’re not doing well fulfilling 4 of the 10 board governance responsibilities, phase in doing better over the course of a year or two, not over the course of a month or two.

Suggestion 10: Keep the purpose in mind

There’s a bricklayer parable.

Short version: Bricklayer 1 is laying bricks. Bricklayer 2 is building a wall. Bricklayer 3 is building a school.

Who’s likely to be happier and stick with their task the longest? Obviously bricklayer 3 (unless you’re a MAGA trying to destroy public education, but that’s a different topic.;-))

What’s that mean? Find opportunities to make sure that your board and your management volunteers learn about and experience the positive good your organization is seeking to bring to the world.

Your feedback

I’ve only seen a few instances where organizations have gone full-in on the suggestions I’m recommending in this article. I remain genuinely interested in hearing from others who have addressed the challenges I’ve raised either via something along the lines I suggest or some other method.

Shoot me an email or go ahead and comment on this blog.

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Scary Nonprofit Quotes of 2022

October 19, 2022

Filed under: About My Work,Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 4:57 pm

Welcome to the 2nd annual edition of Scary Nonprofit Quotes.

I authored the original Scary Quotes edition in 2021 as Halloween approached, documenting examples of some of the scariest things I’ve personally heard uttered by nonprofit leaders during my time as an Executive Director and consultant.

For this second edition I put out a call to colleagues far and wide to hear their scary quotes.

So without further adieu, here are the top Scary Quotes shared with me for 2022.

1. “We’re a 501c3 so we can’t lobby”

Note: Yes, 501c3s can lobby

2. [As told by a board member to an outgoing Executive Director]: “We’re going to hire a person to run the organization even though they quit on you despite you telling us not to hire them.”

Note: 2 years later the  organization went defunct  

3. [Told by a board member to an Executive Director]: “I don’t want to ask X person for money because I think it would be impolite”

4. “Rather than pay a salary, let’s pay the development [fundraising] staff 100% on commission on the funds they raise.”

5. “Our nonprofit should expand. You’re either expanding or dying.”

6. “Raising funds for our issue is much harder than raising money for other issues.”

Note: I’ve heard person raising money for issue X say issue Y was easier to raise money for even as someone working on issue Y said issue X was easier to raise money for.  Unless your issues is exceedingly niche and unpopular, this is almost never the case.

Alternative version: “It’s much harder to raise money in ____ (locale).  People here just don’t donate like they do in ________.” 

Note: again, almost never true. Yes there are giving differences by location, but that’s very rarely the true barrier to an organization.

7. [By an Executive Director to another staff person]: “They can never fire me.  I am indispensable.”

8. [By a board member}: “We don’t need an Executive Director, a monkey could do that job!” 

Note: This board chair decided to do the job himself and tanked the organization.

9. [By a board member]: “I don’t do fundraising.”

Alternative version: “Why would I share my contacts/friends list with the organization?”

10. “Don’t worry about entry level staff pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. If people leave, no problem. Everyone wants to work here.”

11. [By a board member]: “It doesn’t matter. We’ll never get audited.”

12. [By an Executive Director asked why he wanted to be an Executive Director]: “I figure nobody could tell me what to do.” 

13. [By a board chair]: “The Executive Director doesn’t need a raise because his wife is a doctor.”

Let’s do a poll!  Please vote for your favorite Scary Quote of 2022.  I’ll be sure to post the results on Halloween.

Please also comment if you have your own scary quotes you’d like to share!

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Board members in management roles

July 19, 2022

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:55 pm

A challenge unstaffed nonprofits face is that board members necessarily take on roles that are not board governance.   These other roles are hard to categorize with a singular term.  They include management, administration, coordination, program administration – pretty much anything that one would expect to be done by staff in a large organization.

This challenge isn’t just for unstaffed organizations.  It is also true for many small or even medium sized nonprofits where the group’s ambitions exceed the staff capacity, leaving board members playing additional non-governance roles.

I have often been tasked with assisting clients on how to help their boards be more effective.  For smaller organizations, I have repeatedly found that confusion regarding the additional non-governance roles taken on by directors is a problem that metastasizes in a variety of ways to make the board dysfunctional.

This article is my attempt to both explain the challenge and to point nonprofits towards some new (potentially revolutionary) steps that are worth exploring.   I have seen few nonprofits employ these strategies, so I’m genuinely looking for feedback.  Do my ideas make sense?  Have you heard of nonprofits employing similar strategies?

Let’s start with a basic premise:  in any nonprofit, there is a need for governance and management.  (Here, I’m using management as a catch-all term for everything that is not governance). 

The board must govern.  Everything else can be delegated to either staff or other non-board volunteers.

It would take an entirely separate article (or book) to fully explore what fits into the governance category.  I’m fond of BoardSource and the way they lay out 10 responsibilities of nonprofit boards. 

If all an organization did was governance, though, the actual mission “work” of the organization would never get done, nor would much of the behind-the-scenes administration necessary. 

The result in small organizations:  board members take on management roles in addition to their governance role.  And this leads me to my most important point:  too often, in board meetings and board governance discussions, these extra roles are treated as just another part of their governance role, rather than as a separate non-board role.

Here are three ways this can cause problems.  (I’m sure there are more).

First, board meeting time gets filled up with discussing and coordinating management and programmatic tasks, which almost always seem more urgent.  The result: the board doesn’t spend as much time on governance as is needed to meet governance responsibilities.

Second, even between the board meetings. board members spend so much time addressing management and programmatic “work,” they lack the time or mental energy to perform their governance roles to the level required.

Third, the board applies to management the decision-making and communication norms meant for governance. In particular, governance normally tends to operate by consensus, with ample input from everyone before a collective vote.  That’s a recipe for inefficiency (or even paralysis) when it comes to management tasks.  I sat through a board meeting where an agenda item was to receive everyone’s input on a draft email newsletter and it was a deadly waste of time. Don’t even get me started on one about the table arrangements for a fundraising event. 

So how do you get past this conundrum? After all, if the organization had funds to pay for staff, it probably would.

Suggestion 1:  Be explicit about the fact that a board member may have both their board role and a second volunteer “management” role with an organization.  You could be a board member and also the email newsletter editor, for example.  But the latter is not actually part of your board service, since there’s no inherent reason the newsletter editor role has to be performed by a board member. 

In general, I’d recommend that these management positions/roles be filled by appointment by the Board President/Chair for 1-year terms or ad hoc as the situation presents itself. 

Suggestion 2: Formally separate out the board meeting from a second management & coordination meeting that addresses non-governance topics.  Take a 5-minute break between these two meetings.  The latter meeting may just be a subset of the board who are actually needed for it; and it may also include some non-board volunteers who’ve taken on an ongoing role.

Suggestion 3: Treat those who have volunteered to take on a management role as quasi-“staff” in terms of how they work.  There should be position descriptions.  They should provide the equivalent of a “staff” report prior to meetings.  It should be understood that they have authority to operate as leader in their area of delegated responsibility and should be held accountable afterwards, rather than having the board consulted on decisions ahead of time.

Suggestion 4: Just because a volunteer takes on a “management” role with the organization (e.g. leading on some program), doesn’t mean you should elect them to the board, especially not to “fill a slot.”  Reward and acknowledge people playing these non-board roles on your website, in your communications, etc., but don’t fill up your board with people who aren’t fully committed to the “governance” responsibilities that come with service. 

This may mean jettisoning some people from the board who really just want to volunteer in a management role.  It’s better to have a smaller board that focuses on governance than a larger board with uneven participation on governance because some “management” volunteers are sitting around the table without the time or expectations to actually govern.

Of course, it’s okay for some people to have dual roles – if they have the time to do so and understand they have two sets of responsibilities – governance (board) and management (volunteer).

Your feedback

I’ve only seen a few instances where organizations have operated in the way I recommend.  I’m genuinely interested in hearing from others who have addressed the challenges I’ve raised either via something along the lines I suggest or some other method.

Shoot me an email or go ahead and comment on this blog.

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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!

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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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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.

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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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