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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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The Difference between a Discussion and a Facilitated Discussion: Part 1

The nonprofit world loves meetings. An issue comes up. We need a meeting. A plan needs to be developed. We need a meeting.

We move as a group.

Personally, I think this is a good thing. Most projects will be made better if more people participate in the discussion.

But the key word is participate.

How many group discussions have you attended this month where two or three people do all the talking and the rest of the folks might as well be potted plants? It’s more than one, isn’t it? Two, three, dozens?

Generally a group discussion will follow an agenda. Most people think that an agenda is enough to keep a discussion ‘on track’ and keep participants from wandering off or circling back. An agenda may accomplish that goal but it won’t produce the type of results possible with a facilitated discussion.

Among the shortcomings of a regular group discussion is that a few people will dominate and others will coast. Unless an issue is of critical importance to a participant, he/she will wait for someone else to speak up and lead. That someone else invariably becomes the opinion leader for the group. If there are a couple of folks who speak up, they steer the discussion. In the absence of countervailing forces (other points of view), they set the group’s direction. But because not all were heard from and not all ideas put on the table, enthusiasm for next steps is weak, ownership is shallow, and progress is negligible.

Another problem with agenda-driven, non-facilitated group discussions is that they are topic-focused and not outcome-focused. When the group decides that an agenda topic has been covered (usually because no one has anything else to say), the next topic is tackled until each agenda item has gathered its share of opinions. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” is a question usually met with silence. “Ok, then, let’s go to the next item.”

People will leave a group discussion like this one feeling as if they have done their duty. They attended the meeting and maybe put in their two cents. Scratch that one off the calendar and go to the next gathering of the potted plants.

They probably won’t feel like they’ve made progress, built something, laid the foundation for a larger effort. That’s what would come from a facilitated discussion.

More about facilitated discussions in Part Two of this series.

 

 

 

 


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Protect Yourself from the Nonprofit Bully

Last week in a post called “The Nonprofit Bully,” I wrote about the phenomenon of individuals or whole organizations in the nonprofit world using many of the tactics of the schoolyard bully as a way to gain power and position among funders, policymakers, and the community at large. A companion piece, “The T-Rex, the Woodchuck, and the Wildebeest,” was written as a fairy tale about bullying. The central theme of both essays is that bullies bully because people let them.

Whether it’s with their naivete, lack of confidence, or plain old unvarnished FEAR, the bullied basically pave the road that the bully uses to run them over. A lot of the time, the bullied have no idea how complicit they’ve been in their own oppression, gathering together to talk about the bully as if s/he is a force of nature, uncontrollable by mere mortals. A tsunami, if you will, or tornado flattening a small town.

Nonsense!

Bullies can be stopped or, if not stopped, seriously hobbled. Here’s how you can avoid being being the victim of nonprofit bullying.

Believe what you see. A nonprofit bully is great at managing the environment so that his/her targets are often caught off balance. Treated as friends one day, they’re isolated the next. They learn not to trust their own instincts, to never really know where they stand. “Did that really happen?” “Did s/he really say that?” Because many of the things a nonprofit bully will do are outside the boundaries of what most people would consider acceptable, the bullied are often surprised and taken aback. Here’s where naivete comes in. Just because you wouldn’t do it doesn’t mean that a bully won’t. A bully counts on you playing by the rules while s/he is stealing the ref’s whistle. Spend the time it takes to really understand what’s going down. Make no assumption of fairness or fair play. Give everything the deep, thorough eye.

Work the process. The best protection against a bully is a transparent process. This won’t stop a bully altogether but it requires that s/he channel his bullying behavior into a structured process. If the bully is operating in a coalition framework, there needs to be an agreed-up process for making decisions and expressed sanctions for going around the process for one’s own benefit (also known as double dealing). If the bullying is happening in a smaller context, then the tried and true approach of laying out decision steps, documenting the process, and having a witness to every interaction is a must. When the bullying is offline – happening in a way or venue that it is very difficult to capture and adress – figure out how to get it online. What’s the process that could be used to bring the bullying in from behind the barn? That’s what you need to think about. How do I shine a process light on this?

Establish your own relationships. In my experience, some nonprofit directors spend a lot of time on relationship-building with funders, elected officials, and policymakers. A successful bully will have very, very strong relationships with these entities and will use them to create an implicit or explicit insider decision strategy. Other nonprofit directors unwisely beg off building these relationships, saying that they don’t have time, don’t want to be ‘political,’ and want their work to stand on its own merits. This is a strategic error. There’s a reason why courtiers fought so hard to be in the king’s privy chamber: they knew the king would listen to the last person who tucked him in at night. Should you be that person? Or the bully? Here, I think there are important gender differences. In my observation, male nonprofit directors spend much more time relationship building (maybe because the elected officials, policymakers and funders are still predominantly male?) than female nonprofit director do. Women, I think, tend to have a stronger belief in the meritocracy; men are more into the great fruits and benefits of the locker room. Just a theory.

Resist the confrontation. Nothing gets bullied folks more jazzed up than the rumor of an impending showdown with the bully. “We’re going to call him/her out on this one.” “We’ve had enough.” Let me tell you – from both my experience as an executive in a bullying organization and as the target of bullying – 99.9% of the time, the showdown is less dramatic than an old man sleeping in his La-Z-Boy rocker. Snooooooze. Orchestrated confrontations, unless they’re invasions of Normandy or the UAW striking GM in the 30’s, fall as flat as the period on this page. Your colleagues? The ones who swore they’d had it and were going to really lay down the law with the bully? Ha! They’ll turn tail like Susie Wildebeest’s scaredy-cat brethren. The upshot? The bully’s power is unwittingly reinforced.

Play the long game. First and foremost, your job as a nonprofit director is to run a fine agency, not to play  mind games with a nonprofit bully. Still, you have to protect your agency and your interests. Nonprofit bullying isn’t about getting a nicer seat at the annual banquet; it’s about money and power and determining the future for the people you serve. That means you need to be tough and enduring, patient and smart, grounded and strong. And you need to be these things over the long term. You need to be a force to be dealt with even when you want to run for the door. When you or your nonprofit colleagues are being bullied, practice saying this over and over until you can say it without going weak in the knees: I refuse to be bullied. I refuse to be bullied.

I REFUSE TO BE BULLIED.

Believe me, I know from experience that it is very hard to stand up to a bully. So much easier to choose another route to school so you don’t have to pass ‘that’ corner or find another funding source so you don’t have to deal with ‘that’ organization. Everytime, you make that choice, though, you’re putting muscle on the bully. Every time you acquiesce, don’t question, don’t insist on a process, and let others define you to the rest of the world, you are putting more and more and more muscle on the bully.

Does it have to be that way? You tell me. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Nonprofit Bully

Bullies don’t just hang out on the playground. They live in the grown-up world of nonprofit organizations, too.

They’re in the next cubicle, in directors’ offices, and in the board room. Bullying happens between people and between organizations. Generally, the bully is focused on increasing his/her power at the expense of others. How is this done?

Disinformation campaigns: One of the primary tools of the grown-up bully is the spreading of disinformation. “People don’t do anything but hang out all day at that program. No real services are provided.” “They’re having a lot of financial trouble, haven’t you heard?” “They take all the easy ones; they don’t know how to work with the really tough cases.” The steady rat-a-tat-tat of disinformation is very effective in planting the seeds of doubt and lack of confidence in another organization’s programs – especially among policymakers and funders who lack firsthand knowledge and rely a lot on the loudest drumbeat.

Insinuations about a colleague’s motives or competence: Casual remarks that colleagues lack experience or are not truly committed to the people they serve are a key tool of the bullying nonprofit professional. Because these things are never said directly to a person’s face, he/she often has no idea that this kind of negative chat is going on about him/her. And, of course, because the insinuations are indirect and amorphous, it’s nearly impossible to confront the bully.

Control over money and process: Much like the abusive husband who cuts off his wife’s access to their bank acount, a bully finds ways to control others’ access to funding. This can be through the vehicle of being a fiscal agent or by controlling the design and implementation of the process by which funding decisions are made. Very often, bullied programs have no idea that they are being controlled financially and programmatically until after the fact. Or, if they do see it happening, they feel powerless to intervene or advocate on their own behalf. They fear the repercussions of speaking up.

What happens when a bully goes unchecked? He/she is emboldened. If the playground bully gets a little kid’s lunch money on Monday, he’s going to take it Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, too. Compliance with a bully brings immediate relief and long term oppression.

Next week, I’ll talk about some strategies for dealing with bullying in the non-profit world. Meanwhile, if you have experiences or suggestions, be sure to share them in the comments.


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What Comes First: Mission or Money?

A mission-driven organization is a thing of beauty; that is, until the checks bounce. Then it’s just another organization that thought running on dreams was more important than having money in the bank, an organization where the director used the Scarlett O’Hara Accounting Manual and decided, everyday, to think about it tomorrow.

Harsh?  Maybe.

Most new nonprofit organizations, like small businesses, are established out of the hopes and dreams of a founder or a small founding group.  These are people who are fundamentally mission-driven.  Maybe they’ve experienced the problem they are trying to solve or they’ve spent months and years working as a volunteer to save a community.  Whatever the core motivation, they are setting up a nonprofit organization in order to bring their hopes and dreams to scale.  That’s wonderful and so important to our community.

Right away, though, there is risk.  And the risk is this.  Like new entrepreneurs, new nonprofit directors get carried away with the work they are doing.  They are all about getting their office space and logo, applying for grants, and running their programs.  Almost guaranteed is that setting up a sound financial system will be their last priority. Few people understand nonprofit financial management and fewer yet are interested in learning. This includes nonprofit directors who are reluctant to avail themselves of workshops or technical assistance because it would require opening their situation to outsiders and admitting that their management shortcomings.

Like a college kid with a credit card, it doesn’t take long for a new nonprofit organization to get in very tangled financial trouble.  And because it is extremely difficult to find board members with financial management experience, it is common for a board of directors to aid and abet an organization’s poor financial management while focusing its energies on the program and fund development.  It doesn’t take long before it’s impossible to provide funders with correct accounting of expenditures, some vendors don’t get paid in order to pay other vendors, cash flow and payroll become crises, and the annual audit becomes a nightmare.  It is truly a slippery slope if good systems aren’t set up at the start.

I really love nonprofit organizations and the people who work in them.  I admire founders as much as I admire scrappy entrepreneurs.  Both nonprofit and business start-ups need to keep one single imperative in mind.  And, yes, it is more important than mission.

#1 Rule:  Keep the money straight

If the money is straight, if financial systems are in accordance with the best practices of nonprofit management, the mission can flower.  Money’s a mess, the mission won’t matter.

It’s that simple.

 

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Need help with nonprofit financial management?  A good place to start is the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee.  www.nonprofitcentermilwaukee.org.

 

 

 


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Seeing is Believing

When evaluating a program or service, nothing beats a site visit.  Yes, it’s important to review the numbers, look at the logic model, quantify outcomes, and gather customer/client satisfaction data.  These fundamental sources of information are essential to painting the evaluation picture.  But the heart and soul of an evaluation comes from face to face meetings, observations, and ‘walking around’ a program.

I will be doing three site visits in September – three very different agencies in very different parts of Wisconsin, requiring a lot of travel and a lot of time.  So why not just interview people over the phone or do a ‘Go To Meeting’ virtual meeting?

Here’s the answer:  I can’t tell if there’s a ‘there’ there unless I go see.  Seriously, the ability of executive directors to describe their programs in glowing terms is legendary.  If so inclined, an enthusiastic executive director can turn tens of participants into hundreds, good outcomes into astonishing accomplishments, well, you get the idea.  If I’m evaluating a program, I need to make sure the program is operating as described, the participants are really present and engaged and the outcomes are legitimate.

In my experience, these are the things that make for a great site visit:

1.  Genuine welcome:   This begins at the front door.  Do people know I’m coming?  Are they gracious and friendly?  Are the people I need to see available?  Does it appear that the evaluation site visit is a priority?

2.  Openness:  Do people appear to be sharing information freely?  Or are they guarded in what they share?  Does everyone in a group discussion speak or just the executive director?  Are people nervous about sharing or eager to tell their story?

3. Confidence and pride: Are people proud of their organization and happy to tell their story?  Are they willing to share war stories, to describe barriers or problems encountered and how they were overcome?

4. Inclusiveness: Does the executive director leap up to go find “Mary” who is the expert in a particular area or call in a client waiting at the front desk to relate his experience with the program?  In other words, does the executive director or program staff want to include others in explaining the program? 

5. Real Deal Feel:  When I leave, do I feel like I saw the real deal or a show staged for my benefit?  There’s no way to quantify this, but an experienced evaluator can sense an artificiality in the site visit that lets her/him know that the real program wasn’t shared (and may not actually exist).

These are the things I’ll be looking for in September as I travel around Wisconsin.  What about you?  Done evaluation site visits?  Been site visited?  What have been your experiences?  What can we learn from you?


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10 Reasons You’re an Idiot if Your Nonprofit Isn’t Visible on Social Media

There are still nonprofit executives and development directors who think social media is a toy they don’t have time for.

If you’re one of these folks, here are 10 reasons why you’re an idiot:

1.  A nonprofit that is out of sight is also out of mind.

2.  The seat you haven’t taken at the social media table is occupied by someone else who is more eager and more savvy.

3.  Elected officials use social media to get their message out and to understand the world of their constituents, but, oh, you don’t want to be part of that world.

4.  People stopped reading their mail a long time ago – that’s why the U.S. Postal Service is in so much trouble.

5.  Connected people are almost always connected but if you’re not connectable, they ain’t connecting to you.

6. You know who you know but you don’t know who you don’t know but it’s those folks who might be looking for someone like you, but instead they’ll find someone like your competitor.

7. The world is hip, fast, sophisticated.  It’s not drafted, edited, reviewed, refined, and published.  Sorry.  If you can’t function well on the fly, you’re probably in the wrong business. 

8.  Funders are using social media.  And I don’t mean funding organizations.  I mean people.  Oh yes,  people who work at foundations or local government use social media as individuals which gives you a chance to get to know them as people. And, here’s a thought, they get to know you as a person as well instead of Ms. Perpetualhandout.

9. Social media gives supporters an instant brochure that can change every day.  An example: So I’m on your board, I believe in your work…..what if all I can do is point an interested donor to a website that hasn’t changed since the Stone Age.  Is this going to yield money, donations, connections, relationships?

10. And the last reason why you’re an idiot if your nonprofit isn’t visible on social media?  You are telling a huge and growing part of the community – people who use social media as their principal means of communication – that YOU DON’T CARE about connecting with them.  Sorry.  It’s harsh.  But it’s true.

Seriously.


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