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My Advice to Boards: Keep the Doors Open

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Closed meeting. Executive session.

Whenever certain people are excluded from a board meeting, it’s a red flag. In my experience, it’s an immediate tip-off that an organization is in trouble.

Why do I say that? A couple of reasons come to mind.

First, transparency in decision-making is a very important value in nonprofit work. Closed-door board meetings are the antithesis of transparency.

Second, the exclusion of certain people from a board meeting (typically the executive director or other staff) immediately sets up an adversarial situation. Staff worry about what is being said. Board members, pledged to keep mum, do nothing to reduce the tension. The division between board and staff just grows and grows, fueled by deepening mistrust.

Third, a board that meets without the executive director must rely on its own knowledge base. This means their perceptions, understanding, and beliefs are what counts, not technical expertise or day to day management experience. One better hope board members have been listening well and taking notes about complex topics, that they are truly well-prepared for flying solo.

Fourth, without the mediating influence of staff and an audience, a board of directors can get swept up in a more refined version of ‘mob psychology.’ Extreme views can dominate and the consequences can be serious – both for the executive director and the organization’s long-term future.

What’s a better alternative to closed meetings or executive sessions? Open door meetings that are structured to support honest dialogue and collaborative problem-solving are a way better strategy. More difficult in the short term because board members have to stow their power reflex in favor of collaboration but easier in the long term because the damage to board-staff communication and trust is avoided.

Board leadership should think long and hard about setting up the negative dynamics launched by closed door meetings. Resist the urge to pull that power play. Choose to be a leader who is not afraid to do the hard work of governing a nonprofit in public.


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Why Are We Solving the Wrong Problem?

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What if you’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

Think about it.

Your organization could be hammering away every day, working hard on projects, spending down grants and newer even come close to solving the real problem.

It’s a horrifying thought, isn’t it? But it’s more common than we’d like to think.

Here are some reflections about this curious phenomenon:

All organizations are geared to protect the status quo. Funding, staffing, public relations all align to support the status quo. That makes sense (except when it doesn’t).

Boards of directors worry about change. Maintaining fidelity to the core mission often becomes the responsibility of the board of directors. And they take that job seriously.

Sometimes we don’t know how to do what is needed. So we do what we know. Change in human services or community development isn’t as simple as swapping out one machine for a new one. Mindsets and skill sets have to be changed and that is often very daunting.

The accountability connection is stronger between the organization and its funding sources than between the organization and its customers. Meaning what? Meaning that an organization will generally pay more attention to funders’ interests.

Funders increasingly drive the solution train. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Both. Funders have a macro view; they have access to broader data and deeper thinking. That’s good. They also have distance; they are a long way from problems as they exist on the ground (that’s where you and your organization live). That’s not so good. It means that while they might be seeing a problem, they aren’t feeling it. There’s a difference.

Community input is hard to get and, often, hard to take. It’s a sturdy organization that can handle regular exposure to community evaluation and input. It is so much easier to believe that you represent the community than to frequently go back and check. Few organizations are this brave.

Any of this hit home with you? Ever think that maybe you’re doing good work but still missing the mark? Maybe if the problem you are trying to solve continues; if you don’t see significant changes from your efforts, you ought to rethink your approach. Maybe it’s time to rethink everything, from the ground up.

 

 

 


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Maybe It’s Time to Overthank

 

Jan Portrait 3 (2)“Is your board absent or just useless?”

An acquaintance started a conversation with me this morning by telling me that her board of directors was useless. This is a pretty common claim. I hear it all the time. But the question to me is: are your board members absent and useless or showing up and not knowing what to do or how to do it?

There’s a difference. When board members find every possible excuse not to show up to meetings or to carry through with simple jobs, that’s a problem of interest and commitment.  Maybe they joined the board by mistake, maybe they thought the organization is doing something different from what they’d envisioned, maybe they’ve gone on to a new issue, a new cause. People are fickle. This week’s big issue may have won their heart away from your organization. You never know unless you go ask them.

Sometimes, you can win back absent board members. Sometimes, you just have to kiss them goodbye.

But what to do about the other type: the board members who are not absent but are pretty useless when they show up.  Now nobody is truly useless. Just by showing up, a person demonstrates a certain level of interest and commitment. It’s not easy for the normal person, working a full schedule, managing a family and other obligations, to come to meetings. But that’s what we expect: be there every time and be cheerful about it!

How do you help ‘useless’ board members become useful? Here are some ideas:

  1. Ask them. Ask them about their skills and their work history. Ask them what they’re good at. Better yet, ask them what they’d like to get good at! Ask them where they think they can fit in. Little or large – appreciate every idea.
  2. Revamp your menu. Telling board members that you want them to fund raise will make them break into hives. I’ll tell you that right here. Don’t do it. Tell them you want them to post a specific message on their social media. Ask them to sell 10 tickets to an event. See if they’ll bake for a party or get one of their friends to donate their talents. Be specific and small. Little doable tasks. That’s the ticket to building capacity.
  3. Love them up. I’m of the school of thought that no one gets appreciated nearly enough. So I am an ‘overthanker.’ I thank people in emails, I send them notes, but, most important, I thank them in public. That’s how you show people what you value – by thanking them. All that thanking also inspires other people — to also be overthankers and to do things that will inspire overthanking. Trust me. I’m right about this. I’ve seen this unfold a million times.

‘Useless’ board members don’t have to stay that way. If they show up, that means you have something to work with. Try my three ideas and let me know if they work. And remember especially to overthank!


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Four Signs That It’s Time for Nonprofit Leadership to Move On

 

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In last week’s blog post, I laid out five arguments for longevity in nonprofit leadership. This week, I’m taking the opposite view. When is it time for an executive director to be replaced?

If it’s time go when the writing is on the wall, what might the writing say? Here are four things that signal time for leadership change.

Number 1: The exec is on autopilot. What does this mean? It means that the exec is keeping his or her seat warm, showing up at meetings, signing documents and posing for pictures. It means the exec has forgotten how to start something new or isn’t interested in taking on new challenges. An exec like this is a drag on an organization.

Number 2: The exec won’t adapt. Adaptation is a key component of effective leadership. A leader who won’t adapt to technology, political changes, diversity and new funding expectations keeps his/her organization stuck in the past. Nostalgia is great but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Number 3: The exec has an excessive number of enemies. In last week’s post, I talked about how an organization’s persona often takes on the characteristics of its leadership. This is both a positive and a negative. An exec that has burned a lot of bridges curtails transportation for everyone in his/her organization. [An interesting note: interagency animosity is often handed down from generation to generation.]

Number 4: The exec has lost the trust of his/her board of directors. This is really the death knell for an executive director. When the board of directors doubts the exec’s intentions or word, when the board questions every decision because they don’t trust the exec’s judgment, when board members communicate directly to staff rather than going through the exec, that’s big, big trouble and a signal that it’s time for new leadership.

I still tend to think that longevity in nonprofit leadership is a plus. But necessary for successful longevity is the need for executive directors to keep themselves current, energetic and positively engaged. Those execs who have figured out how to play the long game are gems in the nonprofit world. If you know one, pat him or her on the back. And take notes. There’s a lot to learn from the senior class.

 

 


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Five Arguments for Longevity in Nonprofit Leadership

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Two extremes in local nonprofit leadership: recently hired LISC Executive Director Laura Bray resigned after only four months on the job and Lupe Martinez marks 40 years as Executive Director of UMOS.

Ms. Bray’s experience is unusual in Milwaukee. Generally, leaders of nonprofit organizations tend to have significantly longer tenure and some, like UMOS, have directors, who, if they aren’t founders, certainly seem like they are.

So one wonders: is longevity in nonprofit leadership a good thing or a bad thing? Here are five arguments in favor of executive directors staying with it over the long haul.

Number 1: Successful nonprofits flourish in a web of relationships with constituents, funders, elected officials, media, government bureaucrats and other organizations. Those relationships aren’t between organizations. They are between people. A long term executive director has hundreds of these relationships – major and minor – critical and casual – that are impossible to replicate.

Number 2: An executive transition takes a huge bite out of an organization’s productivity. First, there is the executive search. This is something that consumes enormous staff and board time and energy. Then there is the learning curve. Even the sharpest new exec will need months to be working at full capacity. This could extend to a couple of years depending on the quality of staff already on board.

Number 3: The old adage that funders fund people, not organizations is absolutely true.  Fundamentally, a funding source (public or private) needs to trust that their funding will be used wisely and effectively. At the end of the day, funders need to look good, need to be able to demonstrate impact. They do that on an objective level with grant proposals and evaluation results and on a gut level using their belief in and trust of the executive leadership. Lose the executive leadership and there will be a lot of rebuilding to do with funders.

Number 4: Organizations headed by stable executive leadership tend to take on the ‘personality’ of the executive. So ways of approaching problems, discussing solutions, representing the organization to the public are patterned after the exec’s modus operandi. An organization’s internal management style can be completely thrown in the air with a change in executive leadership. Yes, sometimes this needs to be done. But often, it’s a completely unintended consequence of a leadership change.

Number 5: It only takes a few executive leadership changes for people to regard and organization as ‘unstable’ or ‘shaky.’ Especially in Milwaukee, where leadership tends to stay in place, executive tenures of two or three years get people talking about an organization’s ‘revolving door.’ Maybe it seems unreasonable but it’s true. And the perception of instability is not helpful for community standing, funding or board development.

These are just some of the things to consider in the discussion of executive leadership longevity. Next week, I’ll present some alternative arguments: why (and when) changing executive leadership is a smart thing.

 


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A Good Board Wants to Hear the Bad News

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If you run a nonprofit organization, you probably already know this: what your board doesn’t know can cause you big problems.

Recently, a long time Milwaukee nonprofit hit the front pages with the news that its board of directors had suspended operations after discovering serious financial problems. While the details are still unfolding, one thing is strongly implied. The board of directors seems to have been surprised.

Now what I’m going to say doesn’t pertain directly to this most current organization since we don’t yet know all the details. But I’ve been in both positions – nonprofit staff and nonprofit board and I speak from that experience.

Surprises aren’t always bad. Boards love surprises like news of a big grant or receipt of a national award. Those are great surprises.

Financial problems, personnel messes, program issues – those are all surprises that boards don’t love. Surprise is the key word here.

A good board wants to hear the bad news. The problem is that, too often, the staff doesn’t want to tell the board bad news. So they omit negative things from board reports, gloss over problems or take the posture that the issue is too complex for the board to understand. Minimizing problems marginalizes the board. And board members don’t like that. They joined a board of directors to be involved, helpful and smart. Board members want their talents and resources to be used, otherwise, they think: why am I here?

When an organization hums along with routine, boring board meetings where critical issues are rarely discussed in any real depth and then something blows the lid off a problem, say, a very bad audit or inability to make payroll, board members tend to get very upset. They feel duped. They feel like staff purposely kept them in the dark. They lose trust in the staff. And that is a terrible thing for a nonprofit. Distrust between board and staff can sink the entire enterprise.

Trust is built on honesty, communication and solving problems together. Strong, effective boards reflect strong, effective staff’s commitment to sharing the good news and the bad news with no extra varnish. Just the facts. Look around at the most successful organizations. This is what they’re doing: making sure the board of directors is always totally in the know.

How healthy is your board staff relationship? Maybe time to do a little check-up!


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What’s Been Great about 2014?

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2014 has been a year of hard work and good results for Wilberg Community Planning. Here’s a quick list of this year’s highlights.

#1: Organizing the very successful Mental Health Redesign Working Forum conducted March 5, 2014, that brought together community members, treatment organizations, county officials, and other leaders to review progress on the Redesign SMART Goals and create plans for going forward with the important task of improving Milwaukee’s community mental health system.

#2: Developing sustainability strategies for the Milwaukee County Family Drug Treatment Court and creating a project summary and promotion newsletter that was widely distributed to elected officials, policy-makers, and funding sources throughout Wisconsin.

#3: Conducting a process evaluation of Milwaukee’s new Coordinated Entry system which provides central access to emergency shelter and homelessness prevention services for individuals and families through 211; the evaluation identified strengths and weaknesses in the new system and made concrete recommendations for improvement going forward.

#4: Developing major revisions to Milwaukee’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness which was originally approved in 2010; the revisions establish measurable goals and provide specific strategies to reach the goals of ending veteran homelessness in 2014, chronic homelessness in 2016, and all homelessness in Milwaukee by 2019.

#5: Working with Common Council President Michael Murphy, the City of Milwaukee Health Department, and the Zilber Family Foundation to organize Not on Our Watch, a five-county symposium held June 4, 2014, attended by over 300 law enforcement representatives, treatment professionals, community organizations, and concerned citizens; proceedings of the symposium can be found here.

In 2014 as in all the years Wilberg Community Planning has been in business (20 years total in January 2015!), I appreciate the many talented and committed people working in local government and the nonprofit community and I’m honored to be part of their good work. I look forward to a busy and productive 2015.

Many thanks to my clients for their trust in me and the opportunity to continue to do work that matters.


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My Love Note to Funders about Outcomes

 

Dear funders,

This is so hard to tell you but sometimes you just expect too much.

On the one hand, you want us to serve those who most need help. You tell us that the hardest to serve should be our target group. No creaming allowed. If we’re really good at what we do, we won’t be afraid to take the toughest clients:

– the chronically homeless with untreated mental illness;

– the long-term unemployed with no high school diploma or marketable skills; and

– the heroin-addicted mother whose children are living in foster care.

And so, because we know that these are the people who truly need our help and because we want to make our funders happy, we reach out to the people with the most serious problems. That’s when we remember: that’s why they’re called ‘hardest to serve.’

We just want to remind you, beloved funders, that ‘hardest to serve’ often translate into zeroes in the outcome column. People with complex, long-standing problems don’t seem to succeed on the ambitious timelines we set out for them in our grant proposals and program designs.

So what does this mean? It might mean that if we meet half our outcome goal, we are showing 100% more success for people than they would have had without us. It might mean that our results don’t tell the whole story about small increments of success in a person trying to find his or her way to a safe, productive life. It might mean that positive change is not a straight line, it zig-zags and sometimes stops altogether for long periods.

We know that funding is all about outcomes and that’s a good thing.  Expecting measurable results makes for better programs and greater accountability.

Just try to match your expectations about results to your desire to put your resources where they will do the most good.

Respectively,

Your funded agency

 

 


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Spruce Up Your Look!

There is a school of thought that says PowerPoint presentations are passé. Today’s audiences need more dynamic presentation media. I agree with that in the abstract. But in the day to day world where I do most of my work, PowerPoint still has a function – a big function.

A PowerPoint presentation:

1. Keeps me as the speaker on track.

2. Keeps the audience focused on the most important content.

3. Allows discussions to revolve around something everyone is seeing at the same time.

So for those reasons, I still like PowerPoint presentations. And because I’m not a genius at organizing and manipulating new, more dynamic media, I’s sticking with PowerPoint presentations for when I have to convey complex information to a diverse audience.

That doesn’t mean that presentations have to be boring.

Let’s not talk about content right now. That can be a topic for another blog. Today, let’s just talk about the look, namely, customized slide formats.

For several years, I have been working with Tessera Design on virtually every product that leaves my office – proposals, reports, and PowerPoint presentations. I find that Tessera’s customized designs elevate my presentations. Through the artwork and formatting, a consistent theme and message are created and conveyed. It’s a big plus.

This format helped me present a potentially touchy analysis of Milwaukee’s shelter system. Created by Tessera in 2010, the design had the effect of conveying that the system was itself embarking on a path of self-improvement.

At the front door1The theme was repeated with the presentations slides, reinforcing the notion that the purpose of the analysis was to drive process improvements rather than criticize.

At the front door2One of my favorite slide formats was put together for a presentation to WISCAP (2012) on developing Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area (NRSA) Plans. The NRSA designation is a creation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that enables a local government to use federal funding much more flexibly in accordance with a plan developed collaboratively with neighborhood residents, business, and other stakeholders. It sounds like a dry, boring process but it’s actually terrific fun. A good NRSA has a lot of community involvement, a lot of people who love their neighborhood come together to make it better.

What better than a beautiful fall scene to make people see the promise of a NRSA?

NRSA1

Can’t you just see the neighbors out raking leaves and hear kids playing basketball in the background? The companion format for this gave just a thread of the same feel.

NRSA2

These are just two examples of many customized looks created by Tessera Design. They are offered here just to spark your thinking about what extra could be added to your PowerPoint. How can you make your PowerPoint pop? How can you separate yourself and your important project from the ‘ho-hum’ of PowerPoint presentations.

This is one way. No singing ducks or interactive surveys. Just good, clear information presented in a new, interesting way.


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Treachery at Work

As a consultant, I need to tune in to organizational dynamics fast. Why? Because I need to be able to maneuver the relationships and politics in order to get my job done.

That sounds cold and it is. My #1 priority, though, whenever a group hires me for something important, is to make sure my product is as good as it can possibly be. Getting it tangled up in an organization’s peculiar toxic environment is a negative. It will impede my progress and affect quality.

So in my travels and in my own employment history (yes, there was life before consulting), I’ve seen many organizations with very dysfunctional internal cultures, many of which would meet anyone’s criteria for toxic workplace.

What does treachery at work look like? It looks like this: unreasonable and changing expectations, poor or no communication, blatant favoritism, high school style cliques, blindsiding, blaming, dismissing, marginalizing, taking credit for other people’s work, gossip, the silent treatment. Shall I stop there?

What is a person to do in this type of environment?

Here’s the most important thing, the absolute must for a person who finds him/herself in a poisonous organizational stew. Don’t be a victim. Give yourself the same advice you would give your son or daughter about coping with bullies on the playground. The bully wins if you act afraid. Or if you begin to believe the bully’s taunts.

Stick with the process. A key element of a treacherous workplace is that so much of what goes on is out of the public eye. Deals are made, understandings reached, plots hatched with only some people in the know and everyone else wondering.  Sticking with the process means always forcing deliberation and decisions to the public venue and, once there, advocating for an open, honest discussion, and insisting on this over and over again until colleagues comply.

Remember you are a professional person with top-notch skills and great experience. That’s your mantra. If you then take your mantra to the high road and stay there, you will be in good shape. Is that difficult to do? Absolutely.

By being the person who sticks to the high road, you offer an example to others who wish they had your courage. Sometimes this can begin to change the culture, sometimes not. It’s very wearing to be a principled person in an environment where others seem to have lost their moral compass. But even if you end up leaving an organization because it is simply too toxic to continue, you will carry your professional integrity and self-respect with you. Those are qualities you truly can take to the bank!

Organizations that allow treachery at work limit their own success. Don’t let treachery at work limit your success!

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A very helpful overview of toxic workplace issues and strategies is provided by Amy Scholten, M.P.H. in “10 Signs That Your Workplace is Toxic and What You should Do About It.”


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