This week we’re talking to Rebecca Murphy.
We talked about:
Rebecca has been a consultant for over 20 years. She considers herself an “interpreter,” as she has worked in multiple sectors including government, nonprofit, business, and philanthropy. She is adept at explaining/translating one to another. She is a generalist with a broad knowledge base – including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and place making. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with particular expertise in public-private partnerships, community engagement, and strategic collaborations. Hers is a mission-focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity, and avoiding mission creep.
This week we’re talking to Moira Edwards.
We talked about:
• how technology supports the work of nonprofits and associations.
• Moira explains the three levels of IT infrastructure that leaders need to consider and how an organization typically would apportion the budget to support those three levels
• the concept of the peace time and the war time CEOs come into play as organizations manage the quick shifts forced onto them by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moira Edwards is the President of Ellipsis Partners and focuses on the impact of technology on organizational strategy. As head of Ellipsis Partners, she helps associations and non-profits make smart technology decisions to create member value and support critical business operations.
Carol: Welcome Moira. It's great to have you on the podcast
Carol: Just to get us started, tell folks a little bit about what drew you into the work that you do, and how you got to where you are now.
Moira: You know what gets scary as you get older? How much this spans decades rather than years; but I’ve always been an analyst of some sort, right out of college my first jobs were about finding problems and digging into them to find sometimes a software solution, sometimes a statistical model as a solution. Actually, the first job I had in the U.S. after I came here from Ireland, I was at the Federal Aviation Administration and I worked on the Land and Hold Short Operations Program. So what's fascinating about that is if you imagine any air course that has multiple runways, some of them intersect and the Land and Hold Short Program was that the larger aircraft would use the entire length of one runway and the middle of smaller complex Sesnas and things would land on a different runway and hold short of the intersecting runway. So what I did was I gathered all of the stopping distances for the little tiny aircraft and calculated what length of runway they would need in order to stop and safely land and hold short.
After that, I went to work for my first association and that was providing help-desk support to people who are using members who are using software that the association has actually developed. During that time is when it became really clear to me that technology is about people really, and truly. For our members to get value from the technology that we offered, it had to not just work for them, but it had to work for everyone involved in delivering it. So the developers have to say, ‘yeah, that software works’ and the people who offered support and the people who did the training and the people who mocked this, everybody all have to say; ‘yeah, that works well.’ We have this concept of an elegant solution that, when we were developing a new iteration of the software, we didn't want it to be like this old Victorian house with staircases to nowhere and lots of additions cobbled on that. We want it to be this really elegant, seamless solution that people could use. So I think I still do that.
I still try to help associations and nonprofits make really good decisions about technology and understanding what everybody wants to do. The members of staff, understanding the systems, fitting it with the organizations and their strategies and their capabilities, and making sure that the technology would work for the future and bringing it all together into a decision and a solution that everybody goes: ‘yes.’ You can almost hear the CyberKnife. Everybody goes, yeah, that works. So that's what I do. It's been an evolution along that path for 30 years and I get to do what I love. I consider myself so fortunate.
Carol: Well, I love your analogy of the old Victorian house versus the modern house with the essential elements really there, because I find that not just in technology and the technology infrastructure that organizations need to do their work well, but also in so many things that nonprofits do, they end up adding. It's like this Victorian house that's had lots of different additions built to it and no one ever stopped to say, ‘what are we actually going to get rid of and stop doing, before we add something new on,’ and I've gone over this, she's talked to me about those staircases to know where they’re forgetting to take it into a dead end in the software or in the process. It's very choppy and I think that sense of bringing it all together and understanding how the technology supports the overall goal, and also keeping up with technology because it changes, and if you don't change with it, to some extent you do that cost and stagnate and are kind-of trapped by it. So it's about recognizing all these cool new things coming out and figuring out how to use them. For many organizations, I would guess that some kind of technology investment is going to be one of their biggest investments in terms of infrastructure, some of their bigger projects, when you're helping leaders think about and move through one of those projects, what are some of the key things that they need to keep in mind?
Moira: When we think about how leaders use technology or work with technology. Sometimes I think it's really scary for many of those in a leadership position. I mean, in many ways, technology is as essential to achieving their vision as people as money. Right. It's just one of the things you've got to factor in. I think that for many leaders, they're thinking ‘I have this vision, I need to take a risk and I should, but I don't know how to use technology to do that.’ So one of the things we do is try and make this a little easier to understand.
We divide technology into three levels and the foundation, the basic level is technology is operations. So this is all about, ‘do things work? Can I send an email? Can I open a document and work on this? Do I have a laptop? Do I have a secure connection? Do I have the basic skills to run the organization and to do my work.’ that technology is operations, it’s foundational. It's about keeping the lights on and that's where your managed services provider is an absolute godsend, because this is very much a foundational operational support that you get from your managed services provider. There are certainly things you can outsource and, as a leader, you don't have to pay as much attention to it. Apart from the security aspects, you just need to make sure your managed service provider, the people who provide your desktop support, who would be your call center? They would probably provide your email solutions, they're probably the people who have put your servers out into the cloud. They're the people who crawl under desks and figure out what's going on under there. These days, most organizations do not have a server in a closet in the office anymore. They have a managed services provider who's taken over all of that for them, and it's great. As Reggie Henry says, no association or nonprofit should have a server on premise anymore. It should all be out in the cloud and managed by people who do this for a living. You can outsource a lot of technology operations these days.
The next level, if you're a leader and you're trying to think about the next level up is technology as service. At this level, you're serving your staff. Do they have the software they need to do their jobs in terms of running membership and offering events and doing learning. These would be where your enterprise-level systems come in, your AMS, your LMS, and you're also serving your members. Can they come to your website and do what they need to do easily and efficiently or is everybody doing a work-around, do you remember having to call in to get something done? Do your staff keep having to export things to Excel in order to get things done? If that's the case, then your technology as a service is maybe not working so well, but you can conceptualize that. Okay, I'm serving people and again, this is important to do, and you need to invest money in us because this is what makes you different to your members. This is why they come to you rather than any other organization, this is how they know they experience it as good service.
Carol: You used a couple acronyms and I just want to make sure people know what they are. AMS and LMS.
Moira: AMS is an “Association Management System.” So that's going to be a membership database, and it's also going to be the place where you run your e-commerce, maybe you run your login for your website. It's a pretty central ERP - enterprise, relationship, platform.
Carol: If an organization isn't an association, what would that typically be called for a non-association, nonprofit, that'd be IT customer-relation management or CRM, or some kind of donor relation management system something like that, and who you're serving as well, so that central database that holds all your essential information about the people you serve, the people you work with.
Moira: Exactly, that core operational database. You want to get that right, the elements of your learning management system. If you're offering any learning to your members, to your constituents, you might have a learning management system (LMS). Again, how do they experience your organization? Whether your LMS is smooth, easy to log into, easy to access, easy to see where you are in their learning progress, then they're going to have a positive experience with your organization.
So when we think about leadership having a vision moving forward, that really comes into that top level, which is [that] technology is innovation. So if you think about [it], we've got a foundational level of technologies [and] operations, making things work with a middle level of technology, a service really making things smooth and work[ing] well.
Technology is innovation where we sometimes think about taking risks, because here's where you might develop your own software to offer to members. Here's where you might really use design thinking to figure out what they need and how you can solve their problems. So at this technology's innovation level, you're really thinking about how you could serve your members or your constituents, your donors, your grantees in ways that they have not taught you that serves them before. That's where maybe there's some risk, but it's a smaller investment that perhaps might be 10% of your IT budget and it's also where you experiment, where you use the agile methodology or fail fast to go out. You try out something new, you get some feedback and you do a more interwoven approach to technology development so that each individual experiment is not a huge risk. That's how, as a leader, you can think about technology in different ways and decide where to devote your attention, where to devote your budget. Does that make sense?
Carol: Makes a lot of sense. When I did some research a couple years ago, just looking at how associations were approaching innovation, I saw when at most it was interesting and that most organizations really saw the field as not very innovative, but saw their own organization as very innovative and one of the three top projects that folks mentioned, that when [asked] what innovative thing are you doing now? Most often it had to do with technology, and then the other one that was kind of related, was doing some type of learning online. We're recording this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of organizations are having to make a quick shift in terms of how they're working, how they're delivering services. Technology is undergirding everything that's able to move forward, but all those assumptions that you talked about in terms of those three tiers are coming into play in terms of, if an organization has never had a culture around remote work or any of those things, or not had the the technology to support it makes that shift particularly hard. I'm observing lots of steep learning curves with people in terms of different technologies that some of us have been using for a long time, but for others are brand new. So what would you say can help organizations as they're kind of confronted with this sudden shift that's happening right now?
Moira: Well, one of the things that you and I have talked about is how do you stay strategic? How do you keep yourself focused on the long-term when you're surrounded by short-term chaos and stress? I think that's a useful lens through which to see this because we are so frantic and I know [that] at times I'm panicked by it, everything that we're trying to deal with.
I'm going to point back to a blog post that was written by a guy called Ben Horowitz in 2014 but HBR, Harvard Business Review had picked it up and talked a bit about it around then. It's this concept of there being a war-time CEO and a peace-time CEO, and I know separate to whatever has ever been done. That's been used in the media right now at the time.
What's really useful about this concept is that a peacetime CEO is the transformation leader that we've all come to admire and established as the norm in leadership thinking. We are developing goals, we are creating strategic plans, and we're moving the organization forward in a very thoughtful, collaborative way with lots of emotional intelligence. That's your peace-time, transformational CEO. In contrast, the war time CEO is autocratic, decisive, commanding, and makes decisions. In fact, it can also be just the person we need in a time of crisis. The idea though, in this post is that we actually as leaders, need to be able to move between the two styles. So those of us that are running organizations and having to make that transition to a different way of working extremely quickly, we're out there being decisive right in the face of all of this movement, our events being canceled, having to change our revenue projections, having to readjust our budgets.
So we're being wartime CEOs and managing and responding and getting things done. I think what I would say to anyone in this position is that we need to craft ourselves a little piece of peacetime in the middle of all of that. So for me, that means just spending the time that I used to spend commuting sitting with some coffee, watching the morning sunrise, and letting some of this busyness subside and reading, maybe some interesting books, or just journaling out some thoughts about new directions, new ways to take advantage of what's happening and capitalize on what's changing rather than being overwhelmed by us.
So I think putting that little bit of peace in the morning has been very helpful, and turning off the news for that hour as well so that I'm not tracking the numbers of cases and infections as we are every morning. Another thing that I'm doing and I'm seeing others doing is carving out some time for learning for me and for my staff, because there's travel that I'm not doing, there are meetings I'm not going to because of the stay-at-home orders. So there are gaps of time in my schedule that I didn’t know were going to be there and using that time for some learning is a way to crack my brain open and keep us open.
When a part of me is just responding, and somebody can be reactive during a time of rapid change. Another thing I'm doing, or I'm starting to do, I would say is so I'm having a lot more check-ins with people like I'm at home and people I haven't talked to in months, we're suddenly having zoom calls and phone calls and people say, ‘how are you and what are you doing, and how are you coping?’ So in some ways we're having the same conversations over and over, but these are great opportunities to ask interesting questions of all these people. So sometimes I'll say to them, ‘so what has surprised you about the past few weeks that you didn't think would happen,’ or I might say ‘what has changed in your life that you think will not change back when this is all over’ or I might say, ‘what do you think the new normal would be like for you, for your organization, for the world?’ Having those conversations is also another way to keep my brain from just getting stuck in a reactive mode and thinking, keeping a vision of the future, and that could be a very different future coming up and thinking about how then we can, how are we going to act in that new chair, right?
Carol: Yeah, for me, it's been when I'm noticing myself getting hyped up where I used to be able to sit and read a book for hours. I haven't been able to do that in the last month. So it's much more, tapping into [a] meditative movement, so yoga and walking outside and talking to people while I'm walking outside and taking bike rides and all the things we're still allowed to do to just keep all of that energy moving through my body, to stay grounded.
I love those questions that you're asking. So I'm curious for you, what have you been surprised by in the last couple of weeks and what do you see as the new normal?
Moira: I think the thing that has surprised me is that this feels different to my normal way of working from home, and I think the element here is one around choice, and I think that's going to be an interesting conversation for us, in the coming weeks and months is around choice. First of all, when I work from home, I choose to, [and] now I'm somewhat forced. So that's got a different feel to us, but also what I notice is that when I'm in an office and I have my door open and people come and talk with me, I have very little choice in that matter. I mean, I can maybe close my door if I want no disruptions, I can keep it closed all the time when I'm onsite with organizations and I'm part of the office environment.
At first, I love it. I love the chance to chat to everyone, then after awhile, I realized that I don't have as much control over my schedule as they do. [Now] I'm working from home, and I think in this environment where we're all working remotely, people are going to have a lot more control over their workday because you're going to have to book time on their calendars and maybe you're going to use a tool like Slack or even a text to send them a quick question. They can answer that from anywhere.
I think we are going to come to expect more and more control and choice about when we work and how we work. I don't think that's a bad thing because I think one of the things that we find problematic about the workplace is the distraction where there's the distraction from the open offices and the noise around you, or the distraction of people dropping by, or whatever it is. I think having more control over when I focus on when I'm just available to be disrupted, it's actually great. I think people are going to push back against going into an environment where they can be so easily disrupted.
Carol: At the same time, one thing that I think people miss from when you're working remotely all the time is that sense of the serendipitous bumping into somebody, having a conversation at the water cooler, walking down the stairs that the fact that some companies have now built common stairs to force people to actually walk up and down and interact with each other. So I'm curious what you're seeing in terms of how people are building in some of that as they do remote work and how they might think about it if they haven't yet.
Moira: So I did a section for ASC, the technology conference many years ago, actually at this stage maybe six years ago, and it was about managing virtual workers and the remote workforce. When we did a survey of nonprofit folx and we found that the thing that mitigated a drop in creativity was relationships. If the organization found a way to foster relationships, then people found a way to be creative and have casual conversations. So maybe it doesn't work. Like when I think about Melissa Meyer and bringing everybody back into Yahoo, it's a huge organization. So maybe it's harder than larger organizations, but certainly in smaller organizations. There are ways to foster those relationships.
Yesterday, I was doing an online session and afterwards we had a virtual happy hour. So these are very common during the pandemic. Now people are gathering on zoom and having some sort of virtual coffee hour, a happier, conversational time. It was so powerful. I think it depends how many people are on screen. We have six or seven people at one time and it was. As good a conversation as I have ever had sitting around a table, chatting with people. I felt connected. Some of these people I knew relatively well, others not so well. I felt like I knew everyone in that conversation better afterwards. I would feel much more comfortable now whether it's picking up a phone, shooting a quick email, or using something like a sign to send them a good question because I feel like I know them better and I know how they would respond. So I think that's the thing to focus on in the long-term is building relationships and that comfort with each other so we can have those casual interactions with whatever means there is. Does that make sense?
Carol: Totally makes sense. I'm thinking of a parallel situation. I'm a member of a congregation and of course our services have gone online and we've had virtual or - I actually don't like the word virtual cause it's real, it's just online. Online coffee hours through Zoom, and what I've loved about it is that after everyone's in there and you've got the 50 people or even more on screen, they've randomly assigned us into small groups. So I've talked to people that I would never talk to in Coffee Hour. If it's a new person, great, it's easy to go say hello to them; but if that person's been a member for a long time, and you've never gotten around to actually saying hello. This is the easy way to actually get to know [them].
So it's been a great thing and a wonderful equalizer and community builder. It's been amazing.
Moira: Absolutely, and my meditation class has gone online now. That is so lovely to see a screen full of like 40 people on video with their eyes closed. That is supremely vulnerable,
it really is, it's lovely. What's so interesting, I was talking with the teacher and I was telling her what a great job she's doing. She's like, ‘yeah, I didn't know I would enjoy it so much.’ She is absolutely able to be present and really talk personally with us, whether it's a group or one on one with individual people during the session in a way that I didn't think was possible using an online medium. So I agree with you completely. Relationships and connection are very possible using technology today.
Carol: Yeah. I have had to immediately move to facilitating a number of long, multi-hour sessions from an in-person that were going to be an in-person and now moving them online, and for the one that was going to be a day long, I cut it in half. Because I just don't believe that you should inflict an eight-hour Zoom meeting on anybody. We had a really, really productive conversation and then the first group, they were a lot of people who didn't really know each other well, and just taking the time to - [and] we would have done this in person regardless, but taking the time to check in and then being able to use the small groups to move them around and you're really able to do so much with today's technology.
So wanting to shift into, again in this environment, a lot of organizations, their first reaction was to cancel all their events. How can, as they think a little longer term, like you're saying, keep that, while you're reacting, taking a moment to pause and taking that longer view, how might they approach actually moving some of those events online, especially if this goes on longer than initially anticipated.
Moira: I think it's a combination of being intentional and experimental. The intentional part is stopping and thinking a bit about what is important about your online event. So we worked with one organization where the most important thing, funnily enough, were the coffee breaks, because their attendees did not get a chance typically to meet, they kind-of came from two different fields. So the sessions were great. They would talk about the meat of the science that they were talking about, but the coffee breaks is where they would have the conversations. It's like these relationships we'll be talking about. So when they go online, what's really important to them is a way for people to chat. So breakout rooms and Zooms are our ideal for that. So understanding what are the critical things that make your event unique? Why do people come to your events? Having some focus groups, taking some time to gather requirements from your attendees, your members, your constituents from your staff, and can understand at least five high-level things about what you want to do, but you can then go and look at different platforms. Whether it's Zoom or video, you use your Learning Management System, cause they have a lot of interesting features, or maybe you go to one of the conference-capturing platforms with lots of different ways that you can do this, and you make sure that what you're choosing will support those critical needs. Then the experimental side is to really be open with your members and maybe you do an actual experiment, if you can, to try it out.
Maybe you think of it as a practice run, but the people will really accept what you're doing. If you're upfront, I've got the fact that this is an experiment rather than delivering value. So maybe there might be, either a no-fee or a reduced-fee, if you can swing it, because if you charge the full amount, he was going to expect the sole value. So how can you make this experimental, can you try a plea event with one of your committees? It's a real event, but we are planning to learn from it and by calling it an experiment you set expectations lower, people give you buy-in because they're willing to contribute to the success of this experiment. I’ve found that some sort of pilot or experimental SES really helps before you do the full offering, because don't forget you've gotten really good at doing your in-person events. You've had so many chances to perfect that, you have to go back and approach this with a fresh mind.
Carol: Yeah, and I think you might actually find that through those experiments, you learn some interesting things that you want to keep doing, even in the future or that there might be all sorts of unexpected benefits from going online. Not to say that face-to-face events won't happen again in the future, they certainly will, but I think the impact might be that things have to meet a much higher threshold to warrant a face-to-face event than they did before this, because people will realize that it is possible to do a lot of what we've traditionally done in face-to-face events online, and in some ways there's the pet peeve I've always had with conferences is the coffee hour, if you can figure out how you can reiterate that,
but I've often questioned, why did I bother getting on a plane to go and sit and listen to panels where there was no interaction, if you're not doing anything to facilitate, any kind of experiential learning and not to say that that's not possible online, it is also with planning, but if you're not doing that in your conferences, there's never been a reason for anyone to fly, except for all the extra things that happen in between all the things that you plan. It'll be interesting to see the longer-term impact.
Moira: That's so interesting because the great thing about a conference is [that] you meet people you would not have met. Otherwise you form relationships with people or you strengthen relationships because you're sitting, you're eating, you're drinking, you're having experiences together and you're sharing knowledge and experiences and time with people.
When we do surveys for our clients and they talk about ‘why do you join,’ the top reasons are often the information, the resources, the education. So people are definitely there for the topic and the speakers, but what makes them come back is the experience. And that experience is from how they felt and who they chatted with on the coffee hour and what that led to when they came back. I think you're absolutely right.
Carol: And so, with those experiments of trying to do some of this online, I think being really intentional, as you said, about what those main things that people are looking for are and how might we, not necessarily replicate, I mean, it's not going to be replicating, it's going to be different, but how do we foster those same or similar experiences, as people come together.
Moira: Right, because your online event is not just about putting a speaker or a panel in front of you, it's the interaction afterwards. So the educational session that we had yesterday, for AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions - which is this nonprofit that I'm on the board of. We had a speaker, she gave an amazing presentation sharing slides, then when the slides were over, but we stopped the screen share.
So the screen was full of the videos of the participants. We had a conversation, which was amazing, like a really good question-and-answer, give-and-take, back-and-forth. Then you went into a happy hour for anybody who was left, which is even more connective and informative. So we can share [and] we can make this technology support that, which is important within our virtual events.
Carol: Yeah, and same as before, it's always a tool, right. It's a tool to get other objectives done. So what I heard you saying before was [that] it's so key to figure out what those objectives are, what those requirements are. And maybe it provides an opportunity if you're going to be doing this differently, to have a different kind of engagement beforehand with members that you might not have had in a long time, if you've been doing a similar event year after year, to dig into what it is that they really need and what they’re looking for. What do they need now that's different?
Moira: This provides a huge opportunity and many of our constituents would have been resistant to some of the online technology, but now they're sitting at home, they're using zoom for their work calls, they are using zoom to have birthday celebrations with their kids and grandkids. So suddenly they've realized that this isn't that hard, or maybe the tools have actually come a long way towards not making it hard anymore. So there's less resistance. I think that we will experience our constituents going online because they now know what it's like.
Carol: So many people are familiar with the term early adopter and it's from - and I'm forgetting the guy's name, but I'll put it in the show notes - the innovation curve and part of the innovation curve. There’s a big gap between the early adopters and the early majority and something like this just pushes a lot of people over that chasm suddenly. It goes back to your original thing of choice of, in this instance, there's no choice around working from home. If you have the kind of job that's possible to do working from home, so then to use all these technologies that they may have said, ‘oh, I don't want to learn that.’ Or ‘that would never work,’ or ‘I could never facilitate that way.’ Or, ‘I could never have a meeting that way, it would never be the same.’ Suddenly it's like, ‘okay, well, are you just not going to ever talk to anyone again?’ Probably not.
So, seeing as we're coming to the end here, I like to play a little bit of a game at the end. I have a box of icebreaker questions, so I've chosen three and I'm going to ask you one of them. So, if you could meet any historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Moira: Oh, wow. I’ll tell you that sometimes these icebreaker questions, I find them difficult ‘cause I need about a second or two to think about them. Because a number of images of people have come to mind. I would have to say that it would be the Buddha. That would be the historical seeker I would love to meet because, of all of the different people in history who have changed history, given us great insights, I think the Buddha is probably going to be the calmest one. I would just like to experience that. I'd just like to be close to that and see what that felt like. I don't even know that I would necessarily talk to him, I would just like to see what radiates from that.
Carol: Just bathe in that calm, open presence as the enlightenment. Yeah, I’ve been doing more meditations recently and did one recently that talked about imagining that very calming presence, whether it's a relative, or an ancestor, or a spiritual figure. Then at the end being reminded, well you imagined that, so you have it within you. I thought that was a really interesting way to think about it.
Moira: That is, yeah, that's really nice.
Carol: So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you, what's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Moira: Absolutely. I was sitting here today and I'm looking out my window. So from the little world that I'm occupying right now, which is my home, one of the things I'm excited about others are the leaves coming on the trees. And the days are getting longer because, in this world, in some ways we're stuck in place. It's lovely to look out the window and see spring and growth and life continue. So that makes me very happy and excited for the rest of the year.
From a work perspective, there are some experiments we want to try within Ellipse’s partners. As we look at the world and we're trying to keep ourselves open about how to do things differently in this changed environment. We're looking to try some experiments to connect people together, to share knowledge, because I really see that working. So that's a little exciting. We're figuring out what that will look like and creating new ideas is always fun.
I mentioned the AWTC - the Association for Women Technology Champions. I am so excited by that group. It's a group that formed, some of us had just met on a regular basis to talk about technology and life. So I'm one of the founders, but now we have expanded that and we want to bring the knowledge, the connection, the insights to the greater group of women who are working to promote and advance technology in their nonprofit organization.
We just became officially incorporated. We're going to file now for our 501C3 status.
Moira: We will now have the foundation too, the paperwork, the credentials to actually offer more education, more connection, more ability to advance women in the technology community and that's very exciting.
Carol: Awesome. Well, how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Moira: Sure, the nonprofit that I talked about, AWTC, our website is awtc.tech. We use a cool ending, so I'd love you to check that out for us, for Ellipsis partners, our website is ellipsispartners.com E-L-L-I-P-S-I-S Partners dot com. Since I'm Moira Edwards, my email is email@example.com, and would welcome a connection with any of your listeners, it would be lovely to chat further, about anything we talked about today.
Carol: All right, well thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on. I enjoyed our conversation.
Moira: I did too. Thanks, Carol.
This week we’re talking to Tip Fallon.
We talked about:
• the masks many people feel forced to wear or personas they assume in the workplace.
• Why we need to do some preventative work to make things easier for people with targeted identities.
• How we are the product of the history that has created systems of oppression, as well as creating history ourselves
Tip Fallon is a coach and consultant who is passionate about working with people to reach their potential. He integrates both a strategic and analytical approach to solving problems with a human-centered focus, tending to people's motivations, group dynamics, and organizational culture. He brings over 15 years of change leadership experience and a background in business and engineering, nonprofit management, and a decade of coaching and consulting to clients in US-based and global organizations. He has served projects with organizations such as Annie E. Casey Foundation, American Institutes for Research, and the Nature Conservancy.
The project Tip mentioned at the end of the interview has launched. Learn more about All In Consulting here.
Carol Hamilton: I’m very excited to welcome our guest today, Tip Fallon! Tip is a coach and consultant who is passionate about working with people to reach their potential. He integrates both a strategic, and an analytical approach to solving problems with a human centered focus, tending to people's motivations, group dynamics and organizational culture. He brings over 15 years of change leadership experience and a background in business and engineering, nonprofit management, and a decade of coaching and consulting clients in the US and abroad. Tip is also a passionate advocate for improving the organization development (OD) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) fields. He teaches in OD and DEI programs at American University and Georgetown University. He convenes nationwide groups of practitioners in both fields to collaborate and advance their practitioner skills. He also serves as an executive committee member on the board of the NTL Institute, a global network of organization development consultants and coaches committed to social justice. He holds a bachelor's in mechanical engineering and a master's in organization development and is also a certified professional diversity coach.
Welcome Tip, thank you for being a guest on the Mission: Impact podcast. We're excited to have a conversation today. Just so people have a little more sense of how you're coming to this work, what drew you to do the work that you do?
Tip Fallon: Oh, that's a great question. I'd say a few threads that come to mind. But one is just my personal experience of growing up in a community in a neighborhood where we observed those with more privilege and access and resources in the community versus those with less, both at the very local level but also at a global level. My mom and family on her side, the family lives in a more rural part of Thailand, so just at that global level, from a very early age I was really noticing the inequality that exists and how communities and people are really impacted by that. Not only that individual lack of access, but the loss to the greater society when such great talent and passion, those people don't have access to bring their fullest gifts to the rest of the world. So I'd say that's probably the underlying driving draw for me to be doing this work.
Carol: One of the things that you've written about is the sense that when you're working in a system - I have to stop myself and qualify some organization development jargon along the way - systems are, any human system when you're working in an organization, a network, a group of people coming together. You see effects, and one of the things that we've talked about before and you've talked about is the sense of people not being able to show up as their whole selves and what gets lost in organizations when people have to put on masks and and that's at so many different levels, but certainly when folks have targeted identities, identities that aren't accepted in the in the dominant culture, and I'm curious, how have you seen that show up?
Tip: One way it shows up in a pretty pervasive way - and by that I mean that so much of it is internalized in us - so just for example, even in nonprofit organizations who may be providing social services or direct support in the community in in one sense, but they sit within a larger society right? So in this larger society, if we talk about whether it's patriarchy, or racism, or xenophobia, or any of those things, but even sometimes just the capitalist mindset and the individualistic mindset that promotes a belief of scarcity, that there's only so many grants, only so many dollars, only so many resources to go around. Then when you layer that to the structural beliefs that there is one ‘white and right’ way to be successful, or smart, or have the best ideas, or whatever it is; it just gets very competitive. So I think a lot of times we default to 'let me wear the mask because, as I know, at least I may be able to survive in this space, and maybe be able to foster some relationships with that and get my agenda across,' and what I find is sometimes, that mask, there's a permeable boundary between the mask and us, sometimes it seeps into us at an unconscious level, and we end up - myself and others - sometimes perpetuating some of the mask wearing in our organizations. So for me, a big piece of work is in some of our training, we use the term use-of-self but just [asking], how am I showing up? Not just what are my intentions, but what are the impacts that I'm having on my peers, my colleagues, those who might come to my nonprofit for services, on funders, on the community at large?
Carol: Can you give me an example of when - you talked about how we internalize all of those beliefs, the cultural assumptions in how we're supposed to show up, you know, what the word professional means, all of those things. Can you give me an example of that?
Tip: I'll try to think of a very concise yet relatable example. so this one organization that I worked for, there was a black woman, and she just felt like she wanted more out of her role. She said, ‘I started in this position, but I've got these ideas about programming, about strategy,’ and she was in more of an admin or executive assistant role, and through some of the team development work there was, just a sense of, ‘well, she doesn't have the degrees,’ or just culturally and visually, how she showed up wearing her hair, with more natural styles. Even using age, there was still a little bit of othering that happened. So even in that culture - and this is just my assessment and analysis, some of the people in positions of decision-making power were people of color, or black women there as well - but there's a generational divide as well. So even there, there's a little bit of tension, just generationally.
This is a big generalization but sometimes those who are younger coming into the workforce now, have a little bit more latitude and say, ‘hey, I want to wear my hair or keep my skin, or even my clothing and appearance, or even my language in a style that seems authentic and natural to me.’ and it's 2020, like, we shouldn't be afraid to talk about this. So, ‘hey, supervisor, can you call some of this stuff out? Because I don't really feel included.’ Then in this example, but also I see this broadly, a supervisor - and sometimes they are the older generation - might say, ‘hey, I've gotta negotiate my boundaries with these funders or these community partners are XYZ and I'm trying to toe that line. And, we're going to get more bees with honey, if you will, so let's not rock the boat’ or whatever the addages are. So in that example there was some of that language of saying, ‘hey, that's that a little bit much for the appetite and the culture of that organization.’ so what we see in that situation is, is someone who says, ‘hey, this is what being authentic means to me, and because I don't feel I can be authentic, you the organization are not getting my best thinking, you're not getting my ideas about what's happening within this organization that I only have a purview about.’ and the system is losing out, the clients and beneficiaries are losing out as well.
Then you have others in the organization who are essentially, trying to survive in a way, are like, ‘these masks are also a survival tool.’ We need them to survive. So my sense is that if I were to go to the next question, my mind is: ‘what do we do with that?’ So another thing that draws me to the work is finding space of connection, of asking ‘what are our shared goals?’ and helping us to get out of either-or thinking. So for me, it's how do we soften for a second and talk about: what would an ideal look like with some of the best of both worlds in there?
Carol: I think one of the things that we bring as consultants - which is so hard for organizations to do in our ‘always urgent, hurry up, gotta be busy. Never enough time.’ culture is just that sense of slowing down and taking a step back and thinking about ‘where's that common ground,’ or ‘where's that middle ground?’ between, ‘you've got to totally code switch, and blend in with the white dominant culture’ or you're completely showing up in that authentic way. Is there a middle ground, or is it one or the other we need to do? Even having a chance to have that conversation and think about it differently can be so challenging, that time factor. How have you seen that show up in your work?
Tip: One thing that I'll share for the listeners - and I want to caveat that these are thoughts that sometimes I practice when I'm being my best self - but the inquiry that I offer to leaders, and to myself, is that we say we don't have time to to find a middle ground, we don't have time to do some deeper coaching, I don't have time to do one-on-ones, I don't have time to think about ‘how am I perpetuating a high quantity but low quality culture,’ we don't have time for all those things; but we have time to spend about 30, 40, 50, 60% of our week solving the problems that were created by our lack of thinking about those things. So, if that's how we're spending a lot of our time, then at least to me, I think the logical solution is to muster up some of that internal discipline and say, ‘I'm tired of this cycle,’ because it's not like this is a cycle. This is a process, or a pattern at this point. These are often not isolated incidents.
So I'd offer a couple things: first and foremost is compassion, and understanding the system, and I think admitting to ourselves that we live in a very oppressive hierarchical system where we have to do a lot of things to survive and keep some of our basic needs met. So A is just offering compassion to ourselves that we don't have an ideal choice set in front of us. Holding that compassion, but then also just thinking: where can we make a little bit of time to deepen the inquiry into what you and I sometimes call the double-loop learning. So not just solving the thing in front of us but trying to get to the root. Let's solve the pattern right after the fourth, I don't know, 20-something black woman leaves this position after 17, 18 months in a row. I'm like, ‘Okay, now it's clearly a pattern.’ Let's not just throw this position description back out there on the web, but let's look at the system. How did this happen, how did we get here? Then try to work upstream. How do we do the preventative work so we can actually reduce turnover, reduce burnout a little bit, and do better work and feel - like you said - more whole in the work.
Carol: The nonprofit sector certainly mirrors the rest of the culture in terms of who shows up in what levels of leadership and on boards and there have been calls from major institutions in the sector for years to work on the issue, and yet the needle hasn't really moved much in terms of diversifying and I think a lot of it has to do with this notion, especially in predominantly white organizations [that] it's just about diversity, it's about numbers, [the attitude is] let's get at least one person, one person of color, one person with some diversity factor beyond white and men and women, but then that underlying factor of how is the culture supporting that person to be able to be successful and really contribute in a meaningful way? Have you seen how organizations, any places where organizations have taken steps and been able to do some meaningful work in changing that dynamic?
Tip: Short answer, yes. So some pockets of that and, in short, they seem more like the exception than the norm when I think about the nonprofit sector in aggregate, so much of it is is down to the individual level, right, so much a bit of what I see is frontline managers, mid level managers, or EDIs/CEOs who, it's just in their blood, if you will, they just have a drive and they show up to work and say ‘I'm going to look out for my people, especially those with marginalized identities no matter what, and often that means a lot more labor for them, But that's where I see a lot of it. One of the trends, for example, of trying to challenge even the underlying ideologies of our current nonprofit sector is when we see foundations, they may have different terms for it, but doing the spin down strategies, so if we have a cycle where the very rich set up our endowments, foundations and give whatever it is 4% or something that a year out, where we're still perpetuating a very highly dependent relationship. So when we say, ‘hey, let's interrupt this entire cycle, and take ourselves out of that.’ What would that look like to me? That's a great model or symbol of just starting where you are, if you're adding a foundation, what structures and ideologies are you perpetuating? I think the bottom line question is just: what are you willing to give? What are you willing to commit to with respect to how you use your privilege in the system to interrupt the system?
Carol: Trying to do those things, any either organizational culture change, or - and we're talking organizations embedded in systems that have been built, not for millennia, just for the last couple hundred years - in terms of the nonprofit sector - certainly in terms of race, structural racism, etc. it goes way further back than that, but one thing that you wrote recently that I thought was such an interesting perspective is, ‘if you've ever thought an organization or culture is dysfunctional, I invite you to consider that it is functioning perfectly as it's designed.’ Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that and how you’ve seen that show up?
Tip: My sense is when most folks hear that, even if they're hearing it for the first time - and I don't credit myself for that, I've heard that from a few different angles, from our OD training and so forth - but I think a lot of people, especially marginalized identities, just see more of a nod of acknowledgement, like ‘yes, that's good verbiage to describe what we're living in and existing in,’ and for people who can see the systems yet, I don't know what to say to elaborate on that, except I think for me, what's helpful is just a framing - not only of responsibility, but of opportunity, and in one of the posts I wrote a little bit later, [I said] that organizations and cultures are not things that fell from the sky, so we need to remember that people - maybe not us, but to your point, people maybe generations ago, made some decisions, and many of them very oppressive decisions towards entire groups of races of people that created a lot of these structures and organizations and hierarchies that we're living in. So then for today, what are our decisions? What are the ramifications, not just today, but to borrow from indigenous, mindsets and ideology, multiple generations down the line? Because we're creating cultures today that will last well beyond the 5, 6, 10pm that a lot of people work. So it's both I think, a comeback to compassion for ourselves that we didn't make a lot of choices like we are products of history in a way of what we're living in, but we are also the creators of history. We're creating the history that those people will live in in the future if that makes sense. So it's an invitation to be intentional about the cultures we're creating both actively, but also passively, when we show up. So where were those choice points, and I think at the end of the day, we’re just hoping to find peace, [at least] for me and I know for others who have to make a lot of compromises in terms of their values and how they'd like to show up. It's just what's in our locus of control that we can change, [and] sometimes we talk about culture or systems, and it's big, it's complex. [You think] ‘how could we ever change this stuff?’ For me, the micro stuff matters a lot to write those moments where we feel seen and heard and validated by a colleague, by a partner. I think those things really fill the tank. I think they give people hope in humanity, that no matter what happens during the day, if you've got a really good connection with someone, that can keep our tank full as well. So just being intentional from the very micro, how are we listening to one another, to the macro ‘what policies are we putting in place,’ ‘what are we not challenging,’ and what are the ramifications of those decisions?
Carol: What's one of those micro moments for you recently?
Tip: Good question. One micro moment for me that I try to practice when I'm being more intentional is this concept of ‘to whom do we give our time’ and as a consultant, and as somebody who - basically just go down the column of privileged identities - I hear sometimes from clients like, ‘oh, you must be so busy, I know your time is very valuable,’ all these things, and after I get my ego tickled, then there's this question of, ‘hey, so I don't want to take up a lot of your time.’ and I hear a lot of that, and not so many words. So for me, I was just chatting with a client and an ED about just being a thought partner and how to go about something on a piece of work that I may not even be bidding on or even be providing for them. So for me systematically, I know [that] as a woman of color, trying to navigate that space - how time is just such a luxury for me having a lot of privilege, like I know, that's one small thing. [I know that] I can give whatever it is two, three hours to to just make space for her really just to air out her thoughts and be heard and get some clarity. The feedback that I got was just like, ‘hey, I really appreciated that.’
Then working with her, I see that that’s a behavior that she manifests with her team - and just in a work-life balance or, for example, really holding to 40 hours. I know I’m elaborating a little bit on this, but as in how do I practice it, I think about ‘who do I give my time to?’ and trying to be more intentional with that, but then at the organizational level, how do we treat people's time as well. So this ED, who I'm thinking of, has a younger staff working for her and I think some of the mindset there is when you work for an organization like this doing a lot of direct support with their clientele. It can be really, really long, strenuous hours and sometimes there's an unspoken expectation that work is almost non-stop, and so for this ED having the courage and insight to say ‘Hey, no, if you're not being paid these times, I do not expect you to work. I expect you to have work life balance.’ They even structure things that are just team-building things. I forget how they bill or codify those hours, but they're structured as “non-productive” tasks to just tend to the human needs that we have. So I think that's also a great micro-way to show people that, hey, you can show up and yes, we have a lot of work to do. It's very, very important, and its deeply impacting people's lives and your life. Right, how are we treating each other in this journey? Like, can we slow down, listen, connect with one another, at least some of the time if we're going to be this busy and this hyper productive?
Carol: I think there's so much in the sector that you talked about, the scarcity mentality earlier, and that time scarcity, or it's such a huge cause. We have to martyr ourselves to the cause, or just give all and, the folks who were serving have it so much harder than us. But that sense of I think it's, as self care as a real thing, not self care, as going get a pedicure where people can, can start to put in those boundaries.
And what's so important is, as you said, is to make it explicit, and not have it be implied, and then, of course - [and this part] is even harder for many executive directors - to not only say it, but do it themselves and model it so that their staff knows that's really allowed. Those micro-moments, it just made me think about a conversation I had earlier today where I was doing, what in our work as a pretty simple thing of talking to a number of people getting ready to do a facilitation around a leadership transition; and the woman at the end of the call said, ‘oh, I feel better after talking to you.’ It wasn't like I did anything special, I asked her a couple questions that probably were out of her day-to-day and made her think about things in a different way. Just having the time to talk through them having the time, that full attention just makes a difference. It was interesting to hear her say that.
So, making changes in any of these things, and when you talked about where you've seen it being done well, it's embodied in an enlightened leader, which unfortunately isn't very replicable. It can be really overwhelming to think, how do we even start to make our cultures or organizational cultures healthier? You know, does it have to start at the top? Are there things that individual staff, and volunteer board members can do to start walking the organization towards a healthier, more inclusive culture?
Tip: I just see so many many examples of that. One of the caveats, if you will, is that even when I talk about nonprofits, that’s no monolith, right? There are so many sizes, types, cultures within nonprofits, large, small, based on the geographic region, and the demographics within the organization. So yeah, I've seen so many things. What excites me about the work is, to use some of your example, sometimes there's so much power in just asking different questions. Whether that comes from an external, or somebody who's internal. What if we did explore this? I think so much of why cultures feel stuck, like there's so much inertia in them, and sometimes it's just a function of time. Like, ‘well, it's always been this way, this is the way it is.’ all it takes is just a small thing like, ‘well, what if we tried this?’ some of my questions are, when someone has an idea like that, what's the best case scenario? What's the worst case scenario? What's a more likely middle ground that may emerge, and taking that small risk? So yeah, whether it's a small staff-level implementation of a leader who says, ‘hey, I want to spend an hour every other week just connecting,’ or [if it’s] more organic, if you will.
I've seen a lot of groups - organically or more fluidly - connect with one another based on shared interests. Sometimes those things get formalized, sometimes they don't. I think just talking about policy, for example, if you're on a board, if you're an ED, I really recommend a policy audit once in a while and looking - starting with your bylaws - to HR and employee manuals, and just looking at it from that lens of equity, like, who gets privileged in these processes? How do we make all of our decision-making processes more accessible?
So one example on a board I was working with around pay and they said, we want to hire this position. It's not going to be full time, but we wanted to negotiate the pay in this range. So we think about well, who are we excluding from that by default? I mean, even for volunteer-type boards and organizations, right? It's You know, we're usually talking about people who have some disposable or discretionary time or financial stability to step into these roles and different organizations, so if we have the assets, how can we use that to pay people for their labor, whether it's on a board or leading an internal initiative or an ERG (employee resource group) like that. So how do we make those structures and policies as equitable and accessible as possible? Look at those policies, look at who gets a privileged look at who gets implicitly excluded when you're searching for positions and things like that.
Carol: I think it can be challenging when you're in that dominant privileged position to even see how those things are impacting others because it works for you. Right, the system was built for you. And so then, that comment you made at the beginning or through that, that the cultures are all created by human decisions. When you're someone who benefits from that, and the culture is built for your person, it's hard to see that it’s just the way it is. So I think sometimes that's where the value of bringing an external person to help you walk through and point out how some of those policies might impact folks where you might have a blind spot.
Tip: it's a great example. One thing I see organizations doing, especially those that are working around racial justice or community organizing, if it's a white led organization, they'll find a black, indigenous, and POC-led organization as a source for accountability. So getting that feedback, seeing more of that in organizations, that puts a litmus test on some of our areas where we don't have that awareness. We're just not seeing the water that we're in. I heard a quote at a conference the other day that was, ‘organizations often talk about adding color to the water, [about] diversifying, but few people want to talk about the water itself.’ So well, why don't we actually talk about this toxic water that we're already in.
Carol: That we are all in and is toxic to all of us. I think it's what's important with that accountability and I think too often has been taken for granted as ‘let's have a partnership and let's do community engagement.’ and to not acknowledge that sometimes if folks aren't intentional or careful about it, those can really become extractive relationships. So how is that organization community-based, Organizations led by people of color indigenous people being adequately compensated for the labor, the emotional labor that they're doing to help that predominantly white organization be mindful of those blind spots. So I think that’s a huge growing edge for the field.
Tip: There's the saying that racism is white people's problem right? Like that's where it should be solved, sexism is actually a men's issue that men actually need to work on, so yeah, it's the privileged groups’ [problem].
Carol: I'm sure people have been saying that for years, but I feel like it's only beginning to become acknowledged. Just barely breaking through, people realizing that.
Tip: That's a very, very complex piece of work, it's like - and I've met black people who say, ‘I choose to work with white people because they need it.’ [I’ve met] a black person that says ‘I don't trust white people to do their own work.’ ‘I want to be in there,’ and vice versa. Some people of color, black people, indigenous [people] are like, ‘nope, no way.’ There is no adequate compensation that can be provided for that level of labor. Even equity seems like a word that we can toss around, but what would it take for real equity and justice? Yeah, I think just a much bigger question. I think those are really great points of ‘yeah, how do we really be mindful, really be intentional?’ and what are the external structures and what's the internal work we need to do when our egos get in our way, when we get defensive, when we get fragile in those times, that's where the hard work is.
Carol: We've been talking about some heavy topics but I want to change up the pace of things a little bit. I have a box of icebreaker questions, and I've got one for you. I'm gonna play this at the end of each episode, just to ask one of these questions somewhat randomly and not necessarily related to everything we've been talking about, but maybe it is, we'll see. So if you could create one holiday, what would you create?
Tip: Hmm, wow, if I could create one holiday off the top of my head, I'd say mindfulness day.
Carol: How would we celebrate mindfulness day?
Tip: It'd be a day to not be “productive,” spending a little bit of time and self reflection and connecting with others. Just surfacing what's inside of us, all the stuff we carry around and giving that some space to breathe. People's practices will be different of course, but for me, some of the hope is ‘how can we dream the type of life and communities and systems we want to live in.’ Whether that's in a group or individually. I think just a day to be mindful, not only embracing the current moment, but really envisioning the best type of future that we could live in.
Carol: With that in mind, what are you excited about what's coming up for you that you're working?
Tip: One of one of the big, bigger things I'm working on is A collective is what we're calling it now of practitioners, consultants, I guess generally people who are passionate about creating more inclusive cultures and organizations. So right now there's a group of about 10 folks from across the country soon to be international and we are exploring, like, why aren't cultures actually changing? Why isn't a representative token DEI enough? What does it really take to generate buy-in and to provide effective strategies and interventions across those levels of organizations to shift not only numbers, but also the tenor, the deeper culture in an organization. I'm very excited about bringing together people who are passionate about this, who see the issue and who recognize that we need a deeper approach to doing this work. So I'm excited about moving forward.
Carol: All right, awesome. How can people get in touch with you or find out about the work that you do?
Tip: Sure, [my] Linkedin is Tip Fallon, that’s one place to find and follow me. [My] Twitter is @TipFallon, and my website where you can contact me is fallonconsulting.net.
Carol: Thank you so much. I appreciate having you on and I really enjoyed our conversation.
Tip: Likewise. Thank you.
This week we’re talking to Kathy Patrick.
We talked about:
• what it takes to influence decision makers.
• the concrete steps leaders can take to create a plan, identify who is key to your organization and how to start building a relationship with them before you need their help.
• Why it is so important to remember that key decision makers are human first and not fixate on their title and role.
Kathy Patrick, of Strategic Sense, LLC, helps progressive non-profit leaders build influence and create powerful relationships with all types of decision makers, so they can increase the impact and reach of their organizations, attract more resources to their work, and free up time to do the creative, visionary work they were meant to do.
Carol: welcome, Kathy. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
Kathy: It’s great to be here, thanks.
Carol: I just want to start out by asking you what drew you to the work that you do? How did you kind of get where you are? What was your journey?
Kathy: Hmm journey…. Well, I started out in advocacy work and my first big leadership role was running a statewide women's rights organization in Wisconsin. I had two main jobs. They were basically “make good policies happen” and “keep harmful policies from happening”. Then I came to Washington to work at a national women's employment organization, which is where you and I met. Part of my job there was the same thing only at the federal level, but the other part was to help the 1200 or so direct service programs in our national network. They would call with what seemed like policy problems, but in fact they were about something much deeper and they were struggling with all sorts of decisions that were getting made, funding decisions, policy decisions, you name it, but they were all getting made without their input. They were finding out about potential threats and opportunities at the last minute, or sometimes too late to even do anything about it. The result was that they were just constantly in reactive mode, they were feeling powerless, frustrated, exhausted, and demoralized. That's when I realized that what all these problems had in common was that folks just didn't have enough influence with the decision-makers, and until they changed that they weren't going to get different results.
So we started creating training programs to help leaders improve their access and influence, and it worked. They started getting a seat at some of the key tables and helping to guide the thinking there; and that meant more and better opportunities, and fewer disasters started coming their way. When I started my consulting business, I moved out of the employment universe and started working with all different kinds of nonprofits on healthcare, and nutrition, and housing, and a bunch of other issues. I also found that in fact, no matter what you're working on, there is a uniform truth for all nonprofit leaders which is: when you have strong influential relationships with the key decision-makers in your world, you consistently get more opportunities coming your way and have fewer instances of having to deal with the impact of harmful decisions. That means that leaders get to spend more time doing that creative visionary work they were meant to do, which is why we all got into this in the first place right? We want to solve big problems and make a big impact, and that's pretty hard to do when you're being yanked around by decisions that you don't have a lot of control over. So at this point, what I’m all about is helping non-profit leaders create that influence so that they can do what they were really put here to do.
Carol: So in terms of creating that influence and building those relationships, and getting out of that reactive mode, what are some of the key steps that organizations can start taking to start building that influence with decision-makers that you're, that you talk about?
Kathy: Well you know, the good news is it's actually pretty simple. It's not necessarily easy, but it's pretty simple. There's about five and a half steps to getting that done, but the other thing that I would say is that this is perhaps counter-intuitively maybe one of the best possible times to be thinking about either starting that work or doing more of it because, it's really all about figuring out how you can help those decision-makers solve the problems they're working on. I've got some steps that I'll walk us through on how to do that, but the reality is that a lot of times, one of the first steps in figuring out how you're going to build a relationship with a decision-maker is to figure out, well, what are what's important to them?
What problems are they working on? What keeps them up at night? So right now, while we're all in pandemic mode - and we'll probably be there for the foreseeable future, some interesting things are happening, routines are blown out of the water, no decision making processes routine right now, and all of the usual plodding, bureaucratic approaches to things are not really happening. Instead what's happening is that everybody is totally focused on the immediate problems at hand that are coming out of all of the disruption that's occurring. So it's actually pretty easy to figure out what problems people are working on, ‘cause we're all kind of working on the same things. So that actually makes everybody's job a little bit easier if a bit more chaotic.
So basic steps to this are to first of all, just pick a decision-maker or two, and not 20 decision-makers, but like one or two that are really good.
Carol: What would be an example of who might that be like for an organization that you've worked with before, what, who are the key, some of the key people that they might need to be reaching out to?
Kathy: Sure. So you know, the first thing that people always think about with that are like elected officials and that's great. You know, you could, you could think in terms of your city council or your County board, or your state legislature, or members of your state legislature, maybe a key committee chair, somebody who might be in charge of a policy or funding that you would care about, something like that. It would also be administrative bodies. So again, I'm just thinking pandemic terms and all of the problems that are rolling out of that. So it might be a County health department or a city employment agency, or a city housing department, those kinds of administrative creatures. It can also be funders, it could be grantmakers, foundations, corporate partners you have, or corporate partners you wish you had, there are a lot of interesting corporate nonprofit partnerships that are happening right now to tackle some of these problems. So really the way I always put it to two new clients is any decision-maker who has the ability to make a decision that will impact your organization's wellbeing or the wellbeing of the people you serve is potentially a legitimate relationship building target, but those are the kinds of categories that they typically fall into.
Carol: Yeah. and it's interesting. Cause you know, so often people, when they think about this work, they think primarily about government related folks, and I was working in a network that was trying to make change in a large watershed, and one of the things that they were trying to do is employ influence, you know, they were working at the municipal level, so pretty local, but then also with individual landowners and, you know, some of those landowners have large tracts of land, they might be corporate related or whatnot, and, you know everyone's going to the legislative folks trying to get their bit in and I said: well, what if you were to, cause this was about like how you do things, right? How you do things on the ground and changing practice, changing how people do their work. So I was like, there are so many associations for every single one of these fields and there are probably three people who make decisions about what that entire field gets trained on. If you could get to those people, and get them to get trained on sustainable practices for whatever you're trying to do, you can influence huge amounts of people, but it's not on people's radar that there are all these other groups they could influence beyond government folks.
Kathy: Exactly, and I used to use the word advocacy and I stopped using that word because people's brains immediately go to elected officials and they shut out all the other possibilities. So I decided I could either explain 150 times that no, advocacy is much bigger than that, or I could just talk about it differently. I went with talking about it in a different way. ‘Cause when I thought about it more, I realized that it really is all about influencing people's thinking and their decision making process, whatever that that is, but that ultimately what you want to do is be engaged in a collaborative problem-solving relationship with them, and when you get to that point, you've kind of hit the Holy Grail of influence, right? Who do you listen to more in life, as a human being than somebody who's helping you solve a problem?
Carol: Yeah, and I think that's often the challenge again, going back to that word advocacy. It's so - and I'm not an expert in this, but when I've seen it, when I've seen what I perceive as it being done badly, it's all about a one way conversation. “We have these talking points, we're going to tell you what to do.” and you know, if you've ever tried to tell your cat or your child or anybody, what to do, you know how well that works. So I'd love to know more about how you move it towards that collaborative problem-solving.
Kathy: Right. Well, the front, yeah. I mean, I just have to pick up on what you just said ‘cause it's so true, and it drives me crazy and unfortunately there's a bunch of advocacy experts out there that are not helping with this. You know, how many nonprofit leaders who are part of a larger organization of some sort, whether it's a national association or a network or whatever, and you come to Washington for your Hill day, every year, and what do they tell you? You have to have an ass, don't go into your meeting with your elected official without an answer, and there's a certain amount of legitimacy to that in that you don't want to just go in there and blabber, but the worst possible way to initiate a relationship is “Hi, nice to meet you. I want something from you.” No, that doesn't work too well either.
It would be a really bad dating strategy and it's a pretty bad relationship building strategy with decision-makers. So the thing is that relationship building takes an investment over time, and so the idea that you're going to walk into a meeting and start telling somebody what you do, and therefore they should help you with something is almost guaranteed to fail, and so the best time to be developing a relationship is long before you actually need them to do something for you, and also to approach it again with that collaborative problem-solving mindset, that we're peers, we each have an angle on a particular problem. We can help each other solve it. and if you can be a collaborative partner in that way, you're going to go a long way toward having them know who you are, trust you, appreciate your abilities and expertise, and appreciate the contributions the organization can make.
They're also going to start to trust you, and the thing that we forget to talk about a lot of times is that relationships are built on trust. So if they don't have some reason to know, like, and trust that you're going to have an uphill battle if you want to influence them in any way. So how do you do that? Well, basically you make a plan and so, like I said, start by picking one or two, because one of the mistakes people make is they start to think about this and they go, Oh my goodness. Well, if I think about all the decision-makers who could have an impact on my organization and the people I serve, that's a lot of people. Then they make a list of 20 or 50 or a hundred people, and then they get overwhelmed and freak out and don't do anything. So that does not generally work as a strategy.
So what makes sense is, pick a couple, and particularly right now, I'm pretty sure that every nonprofit leader out there has a couple of decision-makers who are kind of on their radar right now that they really like to be engaging with more effectively and take a little minute to write down a few bullet points here and there to just sort of keep your thinking focused, make a few notes to yourself about why they're important. Why did I pick them? How can they affect my organization? How can they affect the people we serve? and also take a minute to take some notes on what your ideal collaborative relationship with them would look like? ‘cause if you don't have some idea of where you're trying to go, it's going to be much harder to get there, and similarly, It requires a little bit of brutal honesty. and this is kind of step two, which is to assess where you are now in your relationship with that person and compared to the ideal that you described.
So if my ideal relationship with a County commissioner is that, you know, there are five things that come across in their jurisdiction and decision making realm that I know on an annual basis are going to have a big impact on my organization, and I need them to ultimately do two things. I need them to give me a heads up, if something new is going to come along, that could either help me or hurt me, and I want to be able to be in on the conversations early enough that I cannot just be coming in at the end, saying, I want you to vote yes or no, but to be saying, I want to help shape the plan that you create, because the work that we do directly intersects with that, and we could help each other out here. So if that's kind of my ideal and what I want that to be looking like, and where I am now in my relationship is they kind of know who I am and they've sort of heard of my organization and they sorta know what we do, but a lot of times when they describe it, they get it wrong.
Well, you know, I've got a ways to go to get to my ideal, but at least I know where I am. You know, and if I'm further along, if we do have a more solid relationship and they maybe come to my events, they know who we are. They've maybe volunteered at our organization. A couple of times they've met our clients, they have a pretty solid idea of who we are and what we do, but they don't necessarily see us as central too the problem they're working on. Well, that's a much shorter trip for me to get to my ideal, and it also gives me some idea of what my main tasks are. So once you have that sense, you can start to build that roadmap between where you are now and what your ideal is, and the biggest question to ask yourself at that point is how can I add value or help solve a problem they're working on right now?
Now, before people get worked up here, this does not mean that you should go out and start a whole new initiative, unless that makes sense for you for some reason, but instead look at what you're already doing. How have you been adapting your operations and services for greater impact in this country, politically chaotic and upheaval time, and how does that help the problem? Obviously, always look at how you can continue to adapt and improve, but basically start with what you're already doing. It's really a matter of how does understanding, how does this intersect with what that decision-makers are working on and what they're focused on. Once you've made some notes to yourself, lay that out. What you've done is you've begun to go down the road of thinking about the world from the decision-maker’s perspective. One of the biggest mistakes that almost everybody makes when trying to engage a decision-maker is they'll go in and it's, you know, a chorus of Me, me, Me me me me! This is what we do, this is what we're about, this is how many people we serve, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. and that's all great. There will be a time and a place to share that information, but it's one of those where you mentioned kids and cats, right? I sometimes think that when we're talking, what they're thinking to themselves is your lips are moving, but all I hear is “blah, blah, blah”. and that's kinda how the decision-makers are going to react, If you're not framing what you do in terms of something they really care about and getting to know them as a person. Cause I think that's the thing that people forget too. They hear it, they see the word decision-maker or that big title of senator, county commissioner, municipal councilperson, whatever, and they forget that there's a person in there. They're people first, and so you know, don’t forget everything you know already about relating to people, verses relating to that title.
I had a client in Connecticut who had an elected official that they needed to, to get on board with something they were trying to make happen and they just couldn't figure out how to connect with her. She was not responding to them, and they had reason to believe that she would be, generally an ally given her political leanings and so they thought, well, if we could just engage with her, we think we could probably get her to play, but we can't figure out how to get her to talk to us. So finally they did some research and found out that well, in addition to whatever else she did for a living, she raised goats as a hobby and she had a little dairy goat farm. So my client went out and visited the dairy goat farm and hung out for a day and just chatted with her about her goats, and it broke everything wide open. All of a sudden, now she was taking his phone calls, she was sending him pictures of the goats and he was a completely different interaction because he approached her as a human being and expressed interest in something she cared about. Now, in that case, it wasn't at all about the thing they were working on. It was like, hey, I took the time to come up here and hang with you and your goats, and that really made a difference to her.
So, you know, it was a, that's a really good point, Carol. and I think that people often will forget that. and related to that, I think is something that, is, is part of the inner game thing that can be such a struggle for folks, particularly if they're leading a smaller organization or one that has had some tough times engaging with decision-makers and have not felt like they've come out too well in that process. There's a tendency to kind of go to decision-makers as a supplicant now and kind of saying, “Oh great Poobah decision-maker person, we hope that you will smile upon us and not kill us and be nice to us and maybe do something for us” and that does not play well. It’s actually incredibly counterproductive, and what they're much more likely to respond to is if you approach them as a peer and someone who has value to bring, who has problem solving abilities, who is going to be able to be a partner in something that matters, and-
Carol: How do you help people step into that? feeling like they're their peer and that they can engage in the conversation in that way?
Kathy: Well, that's an interesting question, it kind of depends on what's in the way in the first place.
Carol: What are some of the things that are typical that get in the way?
Kathy: Well, lived experience, as I mentioned with smaller nonprofits in particular, if their experience has been, for example with funders that they've been kind of yanked around by the funders and felt like no matter what we do, you know, they only pick their friends and they never pick us and the whole system's rigged and then they have unreasonable expectations and they have bad deadlines and they begin to work up a whole story about how this is the enemy and this decision-maker is not my friend and they are going to be mean to me, I just know it, and so if you start with that story, you're pretty much doomed from the beginning, and so one of the things that is really helpful, and this is why I always say to folks at the very beginning, describe what your ideal collaborative relationship with that decision-maker would look like and start part of the inner game transformation is to start to tell yourself a new story about, okay, well then if my ideal collaborative relationship is, like the example I was using earlier with a County board member that, you know, this is what they're doing for me, well why are they doing that? Well, how am I showing up so that they want to treat me that way? Well, I'm coming in as a problem solving partner who has good ideas and who can work together with them to fix this. and I envisioned myself literally sitting at a table with them where we are, well, maybe this is a bad visual, right.
At the moment, since nobody's sitting across the table from anybody, but you know, maybe we're sitting across the zoom table from one another, or we're on the phone together or whatever, and we're talking together about, well, what about this idea? Well, have you tried this? What if we wait a minute, I see this problem over here and this problem over there, and I think this is how they intersect, and maybe there's a way that we could do X to solve both of those at once, whatever it is. If you start imagining yourself in that kind of a role where you're relating to them as a peer that you imagine actually having the conversation, and I had encouraged folks to even - I know people hate role-plays when they're formal, but you know, like talk to your dog and pretend it's the decision-maker, you know, whatever your roleplay version is, but to actually practice those conversations until you get comfortable talking to them that way.
Carol: Thinking about that, you know, cause I could imagine, you know, a situation you're describing where there are certainly power differentials there and, you know, lived experience, but what does that, the person who is looking to build that relationship with the decision-maker. What do they have that the decision-maker doesn't have, they may have perspective about a community, connections to community that the decision-maker would be valuable. There's all sorts of things, all sorts of assets that that person has, if they just start to think about it, and certainly in what you were describing. I mean, I could imagine that, you know, some of that anger and frustration and disappointment could be really valid and it gets in the way of building that relationship. So, you know, so it's both, right.
Kathy: Yeah, and you actually made me think of about half a dozen things there, but I'm going to tackle the last one first, cause it's a little bit of an elephant sitting on the table here that we didn't raise, which is that, you know, when we talk, whenever you start talking about power and influence, you can't really talk about power and influence without acknowledging, systemic racism, sexism, all kinds of economic inequalities of all kinds, you know, cultural biases, there's all kinds of stuff that, you know, there are, there are reasons that entire communities of people have been systematically disenfranchised. So I don't want to pretend that those aren't real and those aren't there. You can’t just wave a magic wand and say, aha, I shall just, you know, make the decision-maker, not the product of all of those realities and systems. It definitely doesn't work that way, or we would have all just done that, and that would be a really awesome magic wand.
The lived experience is incredibly important, but it's also critical not to let that be the determinant of how you operate moving forward, and it may be that there will be some decision-makers who are so fatally biased in one way or another against some aspect of what you or your organization represents that they will not be a good target for relationship building,
Not everyone is. I actually had to have a conversation with a client recently where he was just beating his head against the wall with a particular decision-maker, and I finally had to say to him, you know what, she just doesn't like you, and we don't know why somewhere along the way she decided she didn't like you, and I don't think that's going to change. We need somebody else to build that relationship, who else can we get? So we actually picked somebody else who was part of that coalition, who didn't have baggage with her, and they were able to very quickly establish a decent connection and go forward. So, you know, there also is the reality that sometimes somebody just doesn't like you and there's not always something you can do about it.
Carol: So what are some of the ways that you would have people kind of, you talked about. You know, they start out, they list a huge number of people, it gets overwhelming and they get stuck. I was with a group recently, it was around, you know, what partnerships could they get involved in, and within about 15 minutes of brainstorming, we had a list of about a hundred organizations. When clearly this tiny little volunteer led organization was not going to be establishing partnerships with a hundred organizations, so I had them kind of do a matrix of what's easy and what's impactful, and try to have them focus on those. How do you have people prioritize those, you know, and narrow it down so that it is manageable.
Kathy: Yeah, any of those kinds of tricks work pretty well, I'll sometimes have folks pick like a low, medium high rating for two different axes, and one will be, you know, how much, and in the case of partnership, actually, the thing that you suggest is probably what I would use in the case of a decision-maker role. It's more of- and you might even have three categories. You might have an immediacy category where you know, that in the next six to twelve months, this decision-maker is going to be making a decision that has a dramatic impact on us. So it's both high impact and immediacy, so that would move them to the top of the priority list. The other factor that is relevant is that everybody's got relationships with some decision-makers, they might not be really well developed relationships, but for the most part, if you're functioning, if your organization is still in existence, you as a leader have managed to build some productive relationships with decision-makers or you'd probably be gone by now. So a lot of times when things are feeling kind of overwhelming and you maybe don't have necessarily that immediacy or obvious high impact. Sometimes the best thing to do is say, well, where have we got a pretty good relationship already? but we feel like it could be so much better, and that may be a good one to tackle particularly right now, because again, everybody's bandwidth is a little limited right now. So, depending on the situation that you're in, you might want to say, you know, we've had this decision maker who likes us well enough. They don't totally get what we do, but we're pretty well aligned with what they're working on. Let's see! and so alignment is another piece. If your work is really well aligned with a problem they're working on, that's a really good priority selector as well. So all of those really go back to what's important and what's easy, which is pretty much what you flagged to begin with. Those are just different ways of talking about it.
Carol: Sure, sure, It's interesting. You worked a lot with direct service providers and I feel like oftentimes in our sector there's been kind of a false dichotomy where direct service and influencing have kind of been pit pitted against each other that, you know, where folks who do direct service are often told, well, you know, move further up, you know, you're just throwing the fish back into the sea, go back and see why they're coming out. But to me, it's, you know, there are people in need and there are systems that need to be addressed, so it's both. So I'm curious that you specialize really in working with direct service providers. How do you see how they can bring actually particular value to influencing decision-makers and systems?
Kathy: Well, one, this goes back to something you mentioned earlier, when I said you named like six things that I wanted to tackle in this. One of the huge, huge assets that direct service providers have, that other groups don't have, that classic advocacy organizations and associations and so on really don't have, is they- the direct service nonprofits have a direct connection to the members of the community that they are serving. They have a clarity of understanding what the actual problems on the ground look like and how they're impacting real people's lives, and they're also actively engaged in addressing those needs. So for the most part, they can fill in with a clarity that few other organizations can do, the actual human face of the problem, and for most decision-makers, that's a critical piece of the puzzle. If it's just, you know, chess pieces on a board that they're moving around or other abstract concepts that they're making decisions on data and graphs. You know, and that's all important, we need those too, because data driven decision making is a thing for a reason. So you want to be able to come with data and information like that as well, but to be able to talk about the people who are actually being served and the things that they're struggling with is not only valuable in putting a human face on the problem. It helps the decision-maker understand the problem in a new and different way. The other thing that tends to also happens is that talk about finding personal connections with decision-makers, as human beings for most direct service organizations, whatever they're working on, whether they're serving people with cancer or they're helping people with complicated housing issues as renters or whatever it is or employment services, whatever they're working on.
Chances are someone in that decision-maker’s family has dealt with something connected to that problem. and they will often volunteer that information, you know, I've been in meetings with decision-makers and clients where the client would be talking about, well, you know, here's an example of someone we help and they would describe the person's situation and the decision-maker will pipe up and say, Oh, my aunt had that problem, my cousin had that problem. You know, I have a friend who dealt with that and all of a sudden, first of all, they've handed you information that is absolute gold because now you know how to connect to them on a personal level, but also they're busy making that connection on their own. and so that's a huge value add that the direct service nonprofits can bring. The other thing is that in my experience for the most part, direct service nonprofit leaders are fully well aware that this is the systemic problems and issues and the policy failures that caused the need for their services in the first place. They've chosen because that's where their passion and purpose is to address those problems directly through direct service but that doesn't mean they're not aware of the systems issues and the policy issues that are part of the reason why we have to have those services at all, but what they are able to do is make that bridge between policy and reality on the ground in a way that many others are not. So I would say it's actually an asset; the thing that can sometimes be challenging for direct service nonprofit leaders, is that even more than other 501C3 leaders, they may have to help their boards understand why they are engaging, especially elected officials. That it is not only okay, but important and necessary work, and that can sometimes take a little education, but it helps a lot if you don't call it advocacy, actually because C3 boards, especially direct service C3 boards tend to have a bit of a knee jerk anti- advocacy reaction simply because they don't understand, really what it is and how it works and what the rules are and that not only is it not a problem to do that, but it really should be an essential part of every nonprofit’s mission and part of their strategic plan.
Carol: So I want to shift gears a little bit. You hold a fourth level black belt, and I didn't know that there were levels of black belt. So I now know something new and now, let me make sure I'm pronouncing it right. Jujitsu, Is that right?
Carol: So how has learning that martial art helped you with the work that you do with organizations?
Kathy: Well, what it does is it makes me a way better teacher and coach. I taught Jujitsu and practical self-defense for about 15 years and we would get lots and lots of people who had never practiced a martial art in their life, and it was brand new to them, and you know, it's a constant reminder to me that you don't need to know a lot to be able to be effective. So that was what I really took from that teaching process is that, you know, it takes many, many years to reach even the first level of black belt and then many more years to progress beyond that, and by the time you get there, you know a lot about a lot of different things, but if somebody just wants to know how to defend themselves from a common attack, you know, I can teach somebody in a day what they need to know and give them enough practice at it, to be able to feel like, okay, if something sketchy happens, I might actually be okay. At least I have better tools now than I did when I started, when I walked in the door and so it helps me stay focused on making sure that not everybody needs to become a black belt in anything to be effective at it. They just need to have a decent toolkit that they can access readily, and that feels comfortable to them and that if they've got that, they're good to go and that's true with the kind of work with influencing decision-makers too. You don't need to know a hundred thousand skills, you just need to know a handful and practice them regularly.
Carol: So one thing I do at the end of each episode is play a little game where I ask one semi-random icebreaker question. So given what we just were talking about, I've got one for you. If you could arm wrestle any historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Kathy: Oh my goodness, I wish I'd had time to prepare. That's such a fun question. Wow. Any historical figure. Gee, let's see… do they have to be alive or no?
Carol: No, it doesn't matter.
Kathy: Doesn't matter. Oh dear. You've stumped me completely. I hope-
Kathy: No. Well, the first, the first one that came to mind was RBG but that wouldn't be a fair fight cause I'd flatten her, but on the other hand, if we could arm wrestle our brains, then you know, she'd flatten me.
Carol: All right. Well, there you go. That's your answer.
Kathy: Okay, fun.
Carol: So, how can people find out more about the work that you do and get in touch?
Kathy: Well, I've got a couple of things here that I'd like to share with folks. I've got a - since we didn't get through all the steps, cause we were busy talking about a lot of things. I've got a free worksheet with all the steps listed out for your listeners to help them build their influence with a few key decision-makers that they can start on right now and if they just go to https://strategykeys.com/engagenow they can get their free copy of that worksheet and I hope folks will download that. The other thing that I'm excited about is I'll be launching a new masterclass on building your team of super allies sometime early summer exact date. Not yet known, but if you go to collect your worksheet, there'll also be an opportunity to get on the waitlist for that master class, and that will also be a free masterclass. So I want to just give folks a chance to get their feet wet with that a little bit and learn some more of the techniques and have a chance to get their questions answered as well.
Carol: All right, that sounds awesome. Thank you so much, it was great having you on the podcast and good luck with all your clients and influencing.
Kathy: All right. Well, yes, influencing not advocacy, there we go. Thanks for having me. It's great talking with you always, and I hope we get to do this often.
My goal is to interview a variety of people who help nonprofit and association professionals do their work more effectively. I hope to learn from them.
I especially hope that our conversations will spark insights for you that you can apply to the work you do in your organization.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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