Friday, June 2, 2017

The Parallel Universes of Nonprofit Work


I've been following some of the running commentary in a couple of Facebook groups that cater to nonprofit leaders, both veteran and emerging. I'm glad to know there are active and supportive fora where folks can vent their frustrations and celebrate their accomplishments. We all need a safe space in which to do just that.

The venting focuses almost exclusively on workplace issues -- you can probably guess them -- lousy pay, crushing hours, troubles with subordinates, trouble with board members, ethical dilemmas, general frustration with the pervasive notion of scarcity to which many nonprofits cling. While the members of the Facebook groups represent a teeny fraction of the actual nonprofit workforce, I believe their challenges are widespread and probably growing as the number of nonprofits continues to expand.

These challenges aren't new, although increased external scrutiny and competition have made them more pressing, more in-your-face, and no longer avoidable.  Taken together, the nonprofit sector lives in at least two parallel universes:  the lofty, mission-driven world of doing good and the pernicious world of scarcity where board and staff leaders lack the foundational knowledge or the discussion/planning space to grow healthy, prosperous organizations.

The disconnect between these two universes is wide and growing. And we need the entire nonprofit ecosystem (individuals, institutions, professional associations, graduate programs, etc.) working together to close the gap by making nonprofit workplaces as great as the public benefit they say they provide.




Sunday, January 1, 2017

Nonprofit Board Resolutions for a New, Uncertain Year


I've written about resolutions for nonprofits before (see the infographic and read more here), but this year -- especially this year -- nonprofit boards will be put to the test in the face of civic dissonance, uncertain government support for education, arts, history, and science; and the continuation of dramatically shifting demographics.

So, here's my short list:

Know your organization's mission cold and I don't mean memorize the mission statement.  I mean deeply and fully understand the impact your nonprofit makes to those who benefit from the work you do. Understand how you meet the need, how you excel at doing so, and why that's important.  Be able to tell the stories about your organization's impact to anyone.

Get up to speed on what real governance is all about.  Set goals and success measures, exercise oversight, consider the future (a lot), strategize pathways to success, and keep at it.  Good governance is intentional and sustained.

Be the partner your staff leadership needs and wants. Ask what you as a board and as individual board members can do to help staff leaders. Listen. Act together.

Understand that constraints often lead to creative solutions. It's easy (and lazy) to bemoan the lack of resources. Frankly, no institution ever has enough. So, figure out how to use constraints to your advantage.

Know that you are not alone. Almost every nonprofit in the US is considering its options in the face of the next four years. We're traveling the same road, meeting similar, if not the same, challenges along the way.  Reach out. Share information and knowledge. Work together.

We're part of a big, beautiful nonprofit sector. Let's all work together.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Welcome Back


It's hard for me to believe I've let my blog writing lapse for so long and to my many readers I apologize for that. It's not that I haven't been writing, because I have, just in other fora. The last year-and-a-half was taken up with co-authoring a new book, Women and the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which will be published next spring by Routledge.

Gender equity for all women is on my mind. Hardly a day goes by without seeing or hearing a story on this topic, but there seems to be little movement toward positive change despite the attention it's getting. Lest you think gender equity is a symptom unique to under-resourced nonprofits and old-school for-profits, I'm here to tell you that it plagues every sector from Silicon Valley to higher ed to Hollywood and, oh, yes, it's alive and well at your friendly neighborhood cultural and social welfare organization.

A group of colleagues and I recently published A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace. I hope you read it and share it, no matter what sector you hail from.

So equity is in my sights and I'm mixing and remixing it with larger and broader discussions about race/racism, inclusion, identity, and accessibility. These are conversations I see taking place across the museum, library, and archives professions, and the energy fueling them is passionate, unapologetic, determined, and urgent. I am quietly hopeful that cultural nonprofits might become the equitable workplace model for others. It will take lots and lots of work, but the work begins with a growing chorus of voices. Will yours be one?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Three Most Important Nonprofit Executive Director Soft Skills


If you were asked to narrow down the list of executive director qualifications to the three most important, which ones would you identify? Would the list consist of soft skills, hard skills, or some combination? Would your list be based on the great ED you are or one you've worked for, or would it be your wish list for the ED you haven't been fortunate yet to work for? 

This was an assignment in my recent online class in leadership and administration for the American Association for State and Local History. I asked the class to review three-five advertisements for museum directors and analyze what these listings intimated about the organization’s past experience, current focus and goals, and future aspirations. Then, I asked the class to identify what they consider to be the three most important qualifications they would look for in a director. (Okay, so there's more than three if you dissect my three big groups.) 

Soft skills outnumbered hard skills, although demonstrated museum/nonprofit experience is right up there on the list.  We'll focus on the soft skills in this post; hard skills later.  Here's what the class said: 

Passion, Vision and Creativity 
"Museums need innovative and ambitious thinkers willing to try new things while being careful to not lose sight of those ever-important priorities," wrote one participant.  Another wrote, "Willing to carry out the values and vision of the organization."  Others cited a passion for the museum's discipline (science or history, for example) or special focus (Impressionist art or American arts and crafts). But this is not just about the objects; it's about connecting the dots. In that vein, one wrote, "Passion about the relevance of history to modern life." 

Effective Communication 
How many times have we seen this is a position listing?  When you think about the sheer number of people museums and their leaders interact with, communication is not just about speaking and writing in whole sentences.  This is about being able to build bridges at the staff and board levels, among audiences and within the community; to articulate a vision and purpose in ways that inspire individuals to get involved; to understand different groups and how to talk/work with them and a willingness to keep staff informed; and to negotiate and be able to reach consensus. 

Humility
I was surprised at how many times this attribute was cited as a top qualification.  This contribution from a class member says it all:  "I think that a good leader should always be open to the possibility that they might be wrong, or at least be aware that there might be alternative ways that something can be viewed. Be cognizant that you can always learn something new from anyone. First and foremost remain open to dialogue and differing points of view and always listen to advice given. You don’t have to follow it, but just listen, it just might be worth it. And don’t tell anyone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Five Questions for the New Nonprofit Board Member


IS 2015 THE YEAR YOU JOIN A NONPROFIT BOARD?  Perhaps you've been thinking that board service would be a great way to give back to your community or perhaps you've decided to give in to your best friend's pleading to join her board.  Whether you're giving back or giving in, don't waste any time in asking these five questions:

1.  Am I comfortable with group work?  

Everything you read on nonprofit governance casts it as group work: deliberation and decision-making as a team; working with and through committees; and working to consensus.  If you're the lone wolf type, preferring to tackle problems and projects on your own, you'll find group work difficult, even drudgery.  So, if you're intent on joining a board know that the group trumps the individual.  Yes, your individual skills, opinions, and talents are needed and will be welcomed (hopefully), but when it comes to execution, it is the group that will capture the flag.

2.  Where will my skills and interests best fit on the board?  

If the organization hasn't given you a good reason why you're being tapped for board service, or if you're unclear what you could bring to the table, take some time to figure this out first.  The nominating or board selection committee should have a clear vision for your participation, but in case they don't, work with them to craft one.  You need to know why you're on the board and they need to know why, too.  The last thing you want to have happen is to get pigeonholed into a committee assignment that doesn't make the best use of your skills and interests.

3.  What is my role in the organization's strategic plan?

A strategic plan is the overarching, mission-driven picture of where the organization is going.  It's the result of group work and broad buy-in.  It should drive everything from who is serving on the board to staff positions to programming.  If the organization doesn't have a written plan or has one that's no more than just a laundry list of tasks to be accomplished, take a step back and ask yourself "Do I have the skills and interest to help the organization get to a plan?"  That alone could take a year or more to accomplish.

If the organization has a strategic plan and it's a good one -- one that energizes both the organization and you -- then it's worth a conversation with the nominating or board selection committee to find where you can advance it.  

4.  What are my organization's financial expectations of me (both giving and getting)?

Many nonprofits are still reluctant to talk about money.  They don't understand that it's the 21st century and an organization can't meet its mission with just a wish and a prayer.  So, you need to know where you stand in helping to put cash in the bank.  Know that you have to give and get.  How much of each is a part of your conversation.  If you can't meet the expectation, say so -- there's valor in honesty (and usually a solution or two).

5.  How can I best help the executive director?

An important part of a board member's job is to support the executive director in doing the very best job she or he can do.  The executive director needs your knowledge and insights, needs access to your networks, needs you to show up and be counted, and needs your understanding.  You can do all of that and still maintain your oversight role.  So, don't forget to ask "How can I be of help to you today?"

Saturday, November 29, 2014

What Would You Do With a $$ Windfall?


RECEIVING A SUM OF MONEY UNEXPECTEDLY (or half-expectedly) isn't as unusual as it may seem in the nonprofit world. It often comes in the form of a bequest, but it might just as often come as a year-end gift from a loyal member.  Sometimes, it's a grant few thought the organization would ever be competitive enough to get.  Or a local corporation or government acknowledges the efforts of a nonprofit that is making the community a better place.

The question that gets some organizations tied up in knots is how to make the best and most efficient use of these funds.  We all dream about how we'd put a few thousand bucks to use if it were to arrive on our doorsteps, but when actually faced with a check in one's hands, the dreams may be...well... too dreamy.  Where should it go, if the donor hasn't stipulated a place for it to land?

The director of a small cultural nonprofit asked me this question.  After several years of increased attendance and program income, should a new source of funding be used to expand promotion to keep those numbers rising or should it be used toward dedicated staffing that ensures organizational stability and related programmatic quality?  

My first response was to ask what the nonprofit's strategic plan said.  Hmmm....no up-to-date strategic plan.  OK, that explains why the organization doesn't readily know where to put its windfall.  Then how about the mission -- what does the organization say it does?  Where does the mission focus the work?  Once those questions can be answered, then an obvious next question to answer is how can that work be best accomplished?  Answering that could lead to a landing spot for the cash.

And what about that phrase "be best accomplished" -- what do I mean by that?  I'm talking about the greatest return for the investment of that money, because, frankly, what to spend the money on is as varied as those staking a claim on it, but clearly some items have greater mission ROIs than others.

There's also this old notion that I particularly like:  windfalls should be invested rather than frittered away precisely because it's money you never planned on and might certainly never see again.  If you use your windfall to pay the electric bill, you've bought yourself a month's ROI.  If you use it to install energy saving systems, your ROI is a whole lot longer.

In the case of the nonprofit that's trying to weigh staffing against a bigger promotion budget, I see the investment in staffing as having greater potential long term impact on developing and expanding the reasons why people would attend.  Will more advertising about the same old programming really keep attendance growing?  To a point it will, but promotion dollars follow great programming (not the other way around) and what really keeps audiences coming back for more is the talent behind the mission.  To me, that's where I'd put the windfall.