December, 2013

It’s a NEW Year!

Doing business in the nonprofit world isn’t all sunshine and roses. It takes a lot of scrambling to stay alive. Funders need to be kept happy. Performance must meet high standards. Staff and boards of directors have to be aware, involved and supportive.  Running a nonprofit is a job at least as hard as running any business, probably harder.

All these pressures mean that it can get wicked out there in the nonprofit sector. At the end of the year, there can be a lot of nonprofit directors picking themselves up and dusting themselves off after having gotten flattened by competitors, funders’ disfavor, or the unhappiness of their constituents.

Looking ahead to 2014, there are three suggestions I want to make to nonprofit directors, the ones who are on top of the world at the moment as well as those wondering if they’ll still have jobs come spring.

1. How you do business is as important as how successful you are doing it.

Being devious, manipulative, and divisive is not a sustainable strategy for nonprofit success. The funding world and the public favor collaborative enterprises. Collaboration evolves from trust, reliability, and transparency. Note here that collaboration is not just an interagency concept; it’s an interpersonal one as well. When you think of it that way, you start to see how some organization directors are so good at moving their organizations forward.

2. Don’t be stuck in what was.

Steve Mahan, director of the City’s Community Development Grants Administration, used this phrase to encourage agencies to think of new ways to address homelessness. It applies in many areas. What was good enough five years ago isn’t anymore. The techniques proven to work by decades of application that seem to be weakening around the edges, maybe it’s time to re-tool them. Every day is a new one. Be new, too.

3. Get out.

The world won’t come to you while you are sitting at your desk pondering your next move. The partnerships, deals, collaborations that work start with getting to know people as people, having lunch for the sake of having lunch, showing up at other organization’s events. If there was to be a resolution to come out of this, it would be – make one date a week. That’s it. Just one. A date where you are talking to someone to get to know them and their organization, not because you want something from them.

2014 is going to be an extraordinary year for nonprofit organizations. It’s a time ripe for new ideas and bigger impact. Think about how you are approaching 2014. Let me know how it goes.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to clients and friends of Wilberg Community Planning!

This year’s clients included the City of Milwaukee/Milwaukee Continuum of Care, Repairers of the Breach, Milwaukee Public Theatre, Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign, Family Drug Treatment Court, Legal Action of Wisconsin, La Causa, Inc., and JusticePoint.

Homelessness, mental health, child welfare, offender re-entry, childhood trauma, and nonprofit sustainability were the topics this year.

One thing my clients share is a deep commitment to the people they serve, a tirelessness about doing a really good job. I admire that about people who work in these really difficult areas. They really have ‘no quit in them’ as my father would say.

It’s exciting and endlessly interesting to be involved with people who keep trying to make their organizations better and more effective.

A great year – 2013!




When and How Executive Directors Leave

In the past month, there have been four big changes in nonprofit leadership. Jan Buchler, long-time executive director of The Parenting Network, completed a year-long transition to retirement that involved a significant length of time during which her successor, newly hired, was able to shadow Jan and become acquainted with her new community. The process culminated in a unique ‘fare welcome’ luncheon that gave a couple of hundred people the chance to congratulate Jan and be introduced to the new director. Artfully done, I thought at the time. I wish all nonprofits would be so careful and deliberate.

Paul Schmitz, the driving force behind or in front of Public Allies, also recently announced that he will be resigning in several months. Paul, the author of the book, Everyone Leads, and a very popular national speaker, is likely looking at other national opportunities. We don’t know, he didn’t say. The key thing is that he has given his board of directors a good long time to find a good replacement and made himself available for consultation about that process. Paul grew Public Allies into a major training and public service organization. He will be hard to replace, but the early heads-up bodes well for the organization’s ability to continue its smooth sailing.

Contrast that to two other local organizations, Community Advocates and Safe and Sound. In both cases, there were press releases that the executive directors, Joe Volk and Barb Notestein respectively, had resigned, one to take a job at a much smaller organization in another county and the other to ‘explore other options.’ Their departures were speedy, one planned for just two weeks hence and the other already occurred, causing a lot of raised eyebrows around town. What does it mean to have long time executive directors make such sudden exits? In both cases, interim directors were appointed pending an executive search and hiring of permanent replacements.

In cases like these where an executive director suddenly resigns, on his/her own volition or at the invitation of a board of directors, there are many things to worry about. Number one is the morale of employees. When the captain of the ship gets on a skiff and motors off to shore, the rest of the sailors wonder what will happen to them. Are their jobs safe? Is the organization in trouble? Will the new person be better or worse than the person who left? A popular director’s exit could inspire departures of other key individuals. Also, a perception of a leadership vacuum can fuel in-fighting and positioning for power within the organization. So, tending carefully to morale and keeping employees feeling engaged and important to the organization are really important.

Then, obviously, the organization needs to worry about the public perception of the leadership transition. If I’m a foundation director or government bureaucrat, I may be wondering a sudden executive departure means for the overall stability of the organization. Does the organization remain a good risk in terms of the investment of philanthropic and government resources? Will programs be run efficiently and effectively. Bottom line – do people in charge know what they are doing? It is extremely important that the organization’s leadership, especially its board of directors, meets individually with funders to allay any concerns and set the course for the future relationship. It is a very bad idea to allow funders to only know what they read in the newspaper.

I was a second level executive in an organization in which the executive director was suddenly fired by the board of directors. The remaining executive team regrouped into war footing, everyone taking on additional responsibilities, and trying to tamp down the extraordinary anxiety among staff regarding the change. It was a trauma from which the organization never really recovered. More strategic and careful thinking on the part of the board of directors would have protected the organization and its employees from unnecessary upheaval.

There are lessons in these recent leadership changes for everyone running a nonprofit organization. To put it bluntly, it’s not just about you. A lot of people, in an out of the organization, will be affected by a drastic leadership change. Take care with those decisions.  Think of the people around you, those you serve, and the long-term sustainability of the organization. And just be very, very careful.

Cold Case: Having to Construct an Evaluation after the Fact

Cold case detectives aren’t just on TV. Some of them are also called evaluators, experts called in to help a project complete an outcome evaluation after a program has been designed and implemented. In the worst situation,  a cold case evaluator is called in to complete an evaluation with no data or bad data. Frequently, time is short, a funding source is demanding a final evaluation report, and program staff are disinterested and maybe even antagonistic about having an evaluator look at their outcomes.

As a consultant who has been in this situation more than once, I have this to say: You would be amazed at what passes for data collection in many programs – hand-signed attendance sheets, ginned-up pre and post tests, and anecdotes galore. Interesting material, often, but not the stuff of decent evaluations.

What to do when you’re asked to evaluate a program that is nearing the end of its funding period and has had no solid evaluation system put into place? Here are some ideas gleaned from my own experience as a cold case evaluator.

#1: Enlist program staff in your cause.

A quick way to guarantee that you will never get any data with which to evaluate the program is to alienate the program staff. If they feel you are judging them or taking a superior attitude because you’re in the evaluator position, they will make your job harder. Instead of tsk-tsking your way around, make program staff your partners in telling the program’s story in the most accurate way possible.

#2: Use what you have.

Is there any program data? Separate the wheat from the chaff and use it. Are program participants still engaged? Develop a retrospective survey instrument to gather their insights about program impact. Is there a staff person who has been involved with the program from the beginning? Ask her/him a thousand questions. You may find out there’s more data laying around than anyone knew. They didn’t tell you because they didn’t think it was important. Moreover, an evaluation encumbered by lack of decent data can be greatly enhanced by attention to good process evaluation. In that case, telling the program’s story through the views of informed observers can also give insight into the difficulty in establishing an outcome evaluation.

#3: Create a beautiful product.

Present whatever data you have in a clear, readable format. Use graphs and charts whenever you can. Compare the program’s results to the results of other similar programs. Bulk up the content with the insights of program staff and vignettes about representative participants. Include a carefully crafted and objectively stated list of ‘areas to consider for further development.’ In this list, be sure to include the need to design the outcome evaluation when the program is designed and to establish good data collection protocols from the beginning. Say this as a going forward recommendation, not as a criticism. By now, program staff know they missed the boat on designing an outcome evaluation, no need to rub it in. Last, make sure the evaluation report looks good. I work with a professional graphic designer on all my products; it’s money well-spent.

There are important things to be learned from every program’s implementation. Sometimes, we can’t measure all of them but often we can know more than we think if we are patient, professional, and persistent, just like a good cold case detective.


Failure IS an Option

How many times have you heard someone declare, “Failure is not an option?”

Sure it is. It has to be.

What passes for a cheerleading slogan shouldn’t be advice for living or, more to today’s point, advice for a successful professional life. To be successful means to fail because it is in the owning up to failure and the determination to do better that the fine edge of one’s career is honed.

My most admired colleagues are those who have made big mistakes and suffered a lot of negative public reaction, even humiliation, and then decided to hunker down, work hard, stay true to themselves, and be successful. It’s a great thing to see. They don’t deny the failure, they own it. But they don’t dwell on the failure, they sort through what happened and why, use what will help them develop professionally, and bury the rest.

They don’t blame other people, whine and complain, feel sorry for themselves, or hide from the world.

Owning one’s own failure is the number one way to turning failure into fuel for success. When you own it, you are saying that the analysis of whose fault was whose is over. You are taking responsibility and from there on out, you will be in charge of how the failure will influence your professional demeanor and decision-making.

When people talk about ‘seasoned professionals,” this is what they’re talking about – people who got to the top of their game the hard way.