Heads Up!

My Advice to Boards: Keep the Doors Open


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?



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


Jan 2013 Portrait BW

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


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

Jan Portrait 3 (2)

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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The Pain of Comparison

Jan 2013 Portrait BW

It’s tough being compared to others, having your results put side by side with other agencies’.  This is especially true if your outcomes fall short.

Programs are sufficiently different that it’s always easy to claim that comparisons are apples to oranges. Mitigating circumstances are never fully explained when numerical data are  used to describe programs’ activities and results. But program managers always want the backstory to play prominently in any analysis of data.

“You need to explain our special situation, our staffing issues, the problems with resources,” a program will say to me.

That sounds like what you want me to explain are your excuses.

It is one thing to provide context for data. It is quite another to protect programs from comparison or to let programs ‘off the hook’ for their performance because of their special circumstances.

Ultimately, funders and the public want to know what is working and what isn’t. Programs that can show results and aren’t afraid to have their results compared to others are the ones that earn more investment.

The pain of comparison might be acute but it’s worth it if the result is better programs and improved outcomes.


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Great Work Groups are Made, Not Born

Jan Portrait 3 (2)

Last week, I gave you 5 Ways to Doom a Work Group. Today, let’s look at how to make a work group thrive.

One overarching thought: work groups require good staffing to be productive. In other words, unless a work group is comprised of exceptionally committed people, it is unlikely to get traction and make good progress without a lot of in-between work. Generally, not always, that in-between work is done by paid staff. Happily, that is often me so I don’t complain about this.

Just having a group meet every month without the in-between heavy lifting will result in minimal progress, circular conversations and high attrition. If a work group isn’t making progress, the smart people leave, no matter how nice the other work group members are or how tasty the donuts. This is just how it works in life. Successful people put their time where results can be achieved.

Want your work group to be a beacon of success in a sea of floundering? Here’s how:

#1:  Balance having an open door for volunteers with getting the specific people you need to get work done. I hate to exclude enthusiastic people from a work group but I also hate spending weeks on learning curve issues. How to overcome this? Balance. Go recruit who you need to make a work group function well and then fill in with volunteers.

#2: Begin the work with a clear statement of what needs to be done. Work groups don’t necessarily have the right of self-determination. Usually they were formed at the behest of a larger organization or coalition and when they were formed, there was a specific reason. If I’m forming a work group, I like to start off with a written scope of work. Even if the group adjusts it, a scope of work sets an expectation for the group. We’re here to do some very specific things.

#3: Organize the work around decisions that need to be made. A decision-focused agenda does a couple of important things. First, it improves attendance. People don’t want to miss a meeting where a decision will be made. Second, decisions are cumulative, one leads to another, one brick on top of another until the entire house is built. Third, a decision culture prevents circling back. We already decided that!

#4: Be joyful about being together and making progress. Not everything about work and professional life needs to be such a dreadful chore. There’s a reason why the people you are working with do the work they do. Remind them of that core purpose or help them remind themselves. Make working together to slay a difficult dragon a cause for celebration. Compliment your group and make sure it gets the credit it deserves with the organization or coalition that created it.

#5: Know when to quit. A work group is a vehicle for getting something done. It is not the United States Senate or the Catholic Church. It does not have to last forever. Once its task is done, a work group does not have to cast about to find a new task. It should disband. A new work group can form when there is a pressing need.

Organizing great work groups is a science and an art. It’s also fun and terrifically energizing.

Try out these strategies and let me know how it goes.

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5 Ways to Doom a Work Group

Jan 2013 Portrait BWSometimes I watch a meeting of a work group and it seems like the leaders are trying to kill off the group.

Maybe they volunteered to organize the work group to tackle a difficult problem encountered by several agencies or to coordinate a joint effort like a neighborhood clean-up or community outreach campaign. They recruit people to participate and forge on with the best intentions. But then things disintegrate. Why would that happen?

Clearly, they’ve gone to the special workshop where they learned the five ways to doom a work group. Do you know them?

#1: Clearly designate some people as insiders and the rest as out of the loop.

#2: Spend no time preparing a decent agenda. The insiders will know what to talk about. The outsiders don’t matter.

#3: Have no supporting materials, hand-outs or distributed information of any kind.

#4: Use the same answer, variations on the theme “it can’t be done/we tried that before/they won’t let us,” over and over until people give up offering new ideas.

#5: Congratulate yourself on your tremendous progress and hard work.

These tried and true methods work every time. They inevitably lead to work group leaders bemoaning their lost membership and questioning people’s commitment to the cause. Soured on the work group experience, people run for cover the next time a call goes out for volunteers. A bad experience can influence people for a long time.

Like many dysfunctional things in nonprofit life, it doesn’t have to be this way. Work groups can be dynamic, energizing and very, very productive. Short-term focused problem-solving and action planning can be exhilarating but only if everyone at the table is welcomed, valued and expected to contribute.

That’s what I think based on 40 years of nonprofit experience. What do you think?





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Bless the Can-Do Folks!

Heroes and villains. Saints and sinners. In my work, I run into all of those folks but today’s topic concerns another dichotomy: the can-doers and the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks.

As a consultant, my work is about change. No one hires a consultant to maintain the status quo. They can do that on their own. So my mission always has to do with doing something new or doing something better.  This makes for exciting and very interesting work but it’s not without its difficulties.

Because I am a consultant on a temporary mission, I have to engage other people in the task at hand. Often this means suggesting to people who have done things in a particular way for a long time or those who’ve never done it but have an opinion none the less that they do something new or better.

Here’s where we meet two kinds of people. The can-doers are the ones who were waiting for someone to bring the secret code to unlocking the door to new ideas and they are ready to rock. They’re the ones in a meeting who are totally focused, intent on the topic, nodding and taking notes. They’re the students every instructor loves to have in class. All in and ready to one up the instructor. When that happens, when you’re the consultant and someone comes up with an even better idea because you created the environment for change, that’s even better than having the great idea yourself.

The flip side are the ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks. These folks are death to a dynamic group. Everything suggested has been tried before, is too expensive, would never be approved by management, is too much work, will take too much time, and, my favorite, will require hiring another consultant. The ‘you can’t get there from here’ folks, also known as YCGTFR’rs, can deflate and depress a group beyond recognition, leaving the consultant the only person in the room with new ideas.

So are these two dichotomous groups born or made? A topic for another blog.

Let me know what you think — ever run into these folks in your work?

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