Elevating Engagement with Amanda Kaiser
In episode 68 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Amanda Kaiser discuss:
Amanda Kaiser is a member engagement strategist and author of Elevating Engagement: Uncommon Strategies for Creating Thriving Member Communities. As a researcher, author, and co-creator of the Incubator Series and the New Member Engagement Study, she is at the forefront of exploring how member and attendee engagement is rapidly changing within professional communities.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Amanda Kaiser. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. Amanda and I talk about engaging members especially in today’s shifting realities. We explore why organizations need to shift from solely focusing on the value they provide and give equal emphasis on the experience they are creating, why focusing on how people are feeling at each stage of engagement is so important, and some simple things folks can do to improve the experience of their members and volunteers.
Welcome, Amanda. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Amanda Kaiser: Thanks, Carol. It's so great to be here.
Carol: So I'd like to start out with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What would, what would you say motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Amanda: Oh, that's really interesting. I feel like, as a recovering marketer, I need to have that one pithy sentence, but I don't, I'm gonna go on a quick ramble here. My career journey is really squiggly like everybody else's. And, I started out at Crayola. And then eventually moved into my people, which is the association community, and, and worked as a director of marketing for a national association and, and loved it. And while I was there, I wanted to do a bunch of member research and we didn't have the budget and the, the CEO at the time said, well, you call our members and you talk to them, which I was really afraid of doing at the time. But the more, the more I talked to our members and interviewed them. The more I started actually loving the work. So I opened a qualitative research agency for associations and conducted about 477 interviews, about 33 research projects, and I love that. But the thing that kept drawing me was the importance of member engagement every single conversation, no matter. The type of association, , the, the, whether it's professional or trade and where people were at their career level. But every conversation kept coming back to member engagement. And the more I thought about it, the, the more I wanted to just move into what is member engagement? How and why it doesn't work sometimes and why it does work sometimes. And, and that's that, that's kind of. Sorry that was a lot longer than a short squiggly answer.
Carol: Well, our careers are long. Are long and squiggly, at least mine has been. So, yes, definitely appreciate that. And I mean, building on that interest in, in member engagement, you recently published a book called Elevating Engagement on Common Strategies for Creating a Thriving Member community. What would you say are some of the common mishaps or mistakes that you see organizations making when it comes to their member engagement?
Amanda: Yeah, so I don't think that associations are alone in this. I think it's happening at organizations and just about every single industry you can imagine from the really, really big ones to the really, really small ones, and that is so there's a formula for engagement, and the formula is value plus experiences equals engagement. And for decades now, I think we've been all banging the drum on value. We've got to have the right value proposition. Our value has to change with our members' needs. We need to be able to communicate value. We need everything's value, value. And man, we've all been leaning into that really hard.
And the thing that is the biggest opportunity for us now is to start I don't know, imbuing experiences into all of that wonderful value. So yes, we're, we're, I think the biggest opportunity is for associations. And not just associations, everybody, but associations we're talking about today is to really start punching up the creation of positive experiences for our members.
Carol: And I have folks who are in more traditional nonprofits as well as associations in the audience. And I think, but I think the same principles really apply, maybe you have a membership program, but maybe it's you're, you're. Your volunteers that you're trying to engage or, or different constituencies that you're trying to engage and, and thinking about those in different ways. Can you say what you, you talked about the equation of value plus experience and I can imagine, thinking about, of my experience of being inside organizations. Yeah. It was all about, what, what. What's the next conference gonna look like? Who's speaking? What's the next white paper that we're publishing? What's the next course that we're rolling out in terms of workshops or training or e-learning? And so very focused on content delivery, on knowledge helping people increase their skills, their knowledge , and I think I was on the learning side when I was inside the organization, so we did approach, experience somewhat from the lens of trying to incorporate adult learning principles into the whole thing.But I, I don't know that we put it front and center. So I'm curious how you see, like, how is that different? How, how would people know? , if we're gonna have those be more equal. What does leaning into experience look like?
Amanda: Yeah, so everything you just mentioned is critically important. we, we need to have the, the learning and we need to have the keynote and we need to have the hotel, and we need to have all of that when I'm talking about experience, there's so let's just, cuz we're talking about events, so let's, let's just talk about one of those places where you can add an experience that maybe people get and sometimes maybe people don't get. It might be inconsistent. And that is at the registration table. So for really big conferences there's huge registration booths and like a whole lot of lines. And then for maybe a small conference or a chapter, you see the registration table, and sometimes when we're working behind the registration table, we're trying so hard to get people their badges and their bags and their, and their programs really quickly that we just, we're just, we're doing the transaction. We're just trying to get everybody served. And, and the experience part of it is, can you, can you do it with some small talk? And if you can't even do it with some small talk, that's totally. Can you at least do it with a smile so that, that's, that's one example of how you just add in an experience in the course of doing everything else that you're doing. And there's, there's other things, you know associations and nonprofits, they do have these fleets of volunteers, whether you call them a volunteer or not. And, and so another thing that you could, that you could do that's relatively easy is you could say to your speakers, let's say you've got 50 speakers. For the time that they're at the podium or on the stage in, in a way, they're sort of speaking for the association and you can say to them, Hey, we've got a member culture, or We're trying to have a member culture that is. Open and generous and kind and enthusiastic and energetic. And can, can you, can you try to model that? Just try to, keep those, keep those adjectives, keep those emotions in, in your brain, and as you're speaking, just try to model that. And, and I think a lot of your speakers would, and that's just, one, one more away. That, that you can add some experiential stuff into the stuff that you're already.
Carol: Well, and you named having a member culture and people and someone being able to name even what their intention is around that. And I don't, I just wonder how many organizations have even spent any time thinking about what member culture do they wanna cultivate?
Amanda: Yeah. So we are all about talking about STA staff culture, but communities have cultures too, right? Members definitely have cultures too. I think there's a, there's a couple of ways to, to get at that. And one of the things that I love to do is I love to sit back and say, okay, so at each of the member stages, how do we want our members to feel? And so, you can, you can do this at a staff meeting or you can do it at a board meeting. You can say, hey new members are joining and at the one year mark how do we want them to feel? Or the day after they join, how do we want them to feel? And, answering that question will start to help you get not only that experience, but also the culture part of it. Because, because in order for us. To have the feelings that we want them to feel, likely there's, there's a, there's a, a culture that is supporting that, and I guess some, some, some examples of when I, when I first glommed onto this culture idea was when I did a bunch of research with chapters, so chap members of chapters, and the one story that kept coming back to me over and over and over and over again. I'm a brand new member, and I decided to go to my very first chapter meeting, and I, I walked into the room and, and all, and it hadn't, the event hadn't started yet and everybody was sort of like clustered at the front talking and I didn't know anybody and I was so awkward and it just felt so ugh. And so I found a seat and tried. appear like I was listening in on their conversations and I just, I just never went back. And, and so that's, it's a cultural thing. The new member is perceiving cliquishness and it's probably not happening at all. But, had there been a culture of welcoming a new face and introducing them around, then that thing wouldn't have happened.
Carol: Right. I mean, the people who are all catching up with each other at the front of the room who haven't seen each other for a month or whatnot aren't thinking that they're being exclusionary or that they're coming off as cliquish, but the fact that they didn't have, and so a simple thing I would imagine that, that they could have done would be to intentionally have someone, or several, someones on the lookout for new people to be able to, welcome them, introduce them to people. But yeah, I think I just have that intention. And, and you talked about also the, the, the assembly line that goes to a big conference or even a, like you said, even a small conference, there's often. That volunteer or or person, whoever's doing the managing is much more worried about, did I get everything in the stuff that I'm supposed to hand to them? Versus I'm interacting with a person, they're nervous about being here. How can I make that experience a little more enjoyable, welcoming and helping them navigate that first interaction?
Amanda: Yeah. Another way to think about it is it's a transition. So your memory is coming in off the street and then maybe they just flew all day and they had to catch a taxi in there, or maybe they had a Dr a drive through downtown Washington, DC and, and they're just frazzled. And so, so sometimes it's helpful to think like, oh, let's help them make that transition from perhaps grumpy or at least super tired and frazzled too, being ready to be their best self when they go ahead and enter our event.
Carol: Having some empathy for where they've been or putting, putting yourself in, in their shoes and, and you talked about the stages, kind of, of a, of a member journey. What, what are some of those and, and what are those key points where, or organizations can do a better job of, of creating the culture that they probably do think that they are creating or want to? Yeah.
Amanda: Yeah, so, so I identified six stages of the member journey, and the first stage is to observe and so at that point, members join. And what they're doing is they're looking at everything. They're looking at your websites, they're looking at your emails. They might read a short article or watch a video, and they're just, they're just taking everything in. The second stage is assessed. And so at that point, they're taking a lot in and they're starting to ask themselves this question and that question. Is this the community of people like me? Is this for me? Am I gonna be proud to be here? Do I think sometime in the future I'm gonna feel like I belong? Like I found friends, like I've found colleagues. The third stage is participation. And so at this stage they've an, they answered that question like, oh yeah, there's a lot of potential here and I want to be. And so they dip their toe in the water and they participate and it's just a little thing. They might come to a virtual event and write a little note in the chat. They might rest, yeah, write in a comment on social media or on an article. It's just a little dipping the toe in the water that contributes to another stage, and that's when they're ready to start bringing much more of themselves. And so your contributors, contributors. , they're your speakers, they're your writers, they're the people you're interviewing. They might do short videos for you. They're all of those folks. And an under leverage stage is collaboration. So as we advance in our careers, We start bumping up against thorny, hairy problems, really difficult problems to solve. Problems that that just, they, they just keep showing up year after year after year. And what folks at that stage of their careers like to do is they like to get together with others and problem solve. They don't necessarily wanna listen. Stage on the stage anymore, they want to work together and problem solve. And so sometimes associations lose their members at that stage because they're not necessarily offering a lot of problem solving activities. And so those, that group that's really invested in solving a problem, might splinter off. And then the final stage is lead. And lead is what I would think of as your typical volunteers, however you define them. But in the book, there's a lot of folks that want to lead. They wanna volunteer, but they can't volunteer in the shape of the volunteer box that you've put them in. And so I talk a lot about how you open up volunteerism to a lot more people who are really ready to step into that role. So, at each stage you asked that question of like, where, where are the barriers that association should be on lookout for. And what I try to do in the book is really identify when people make the no-go decision to engage and when people make and why people make the, the yes decision to engage. And so, it's a little bit different at every single stage. However, the through line running through it all is usually an experiential thing. Usually there's something going on where people stand back and they say, oh, Oh, no, I, I don't feel like I belong here. I don't feel like these are my people. Even if everybody has my title, there's still a million ways that you can thank them, these are not my people. I don't feel like my contributions are wanted, I don't feel supported. And then, the reverse is true. So the reason why people stay is because they say, oh, This is my community. I am super proud to be here. I want to collaborate. I want to give my time. I want to give my ideas. My ideas are valued. I'm supported, and all of those wonderful things.
Carol: What are some of those things at the, at the very beginning stages that observe and assess? And I love that question and I didn't fully write it down, but is this the community? Well, I, where will I feel like I belong? And just thinking about all the different groups that I've been part of. Associations that I've joined and then dropped out of I don't think that I ever necessarily said that specifically, but it certainly, if looking back on the ones that I'm no longer participating in it would be that sense of even after trying, still feeling on the outside. So that's such an interesting topic, and of course, there's so much conversation now in the broad, broad, more broadly around inclusion and, and how people either feel included or not. But yeah, just that experience made me feel like these are my folks, or these are not my folks. It's pretty visceral.
Amanda: It is. And it's quick. You start to observe and you assess super, super quickly, and that's what members talk about. One of, one of the, the things that was a real big surprise for me, Is when I worked for an association, there was, there was this, this thought that you had a year to engage them before they made the decision to renew. But in my research, what I'm finding is they make the decision to engage and then consequently the decision to renew. really quickly, maybe as quickly as three days, maybe as quickly as three weeks. But it's, it's within those first couple of touches that they're making the decision to renew, which is pretty amazing. But I know what you're talking about. So when I first started this business and started my speaking career, I felt like I needed to do some brushing up. And I decided to join Toastmasters, and there's three clubs in my local area. And somewhere along the way somebody said, Hey, go to all of the clubs and just figure out which one you like. And they were all fine, but the one that I went to had the very best new member experience. So I showed up for the very first time and they had a welcomer at the door. Person chit chatted with me and asked me why I was there and what my speaking goals were, and then they took me 10 feet and showed me the bagel and juice table, and then they walked me another 10 feet and found me an empty seat, and it introduced me to the person right next to me. And then that person took it away and, and asked me more questions, and, and there was, there was no, none of that. . Ooh, awkward. How do I fit? Where do I go? What should I do? How do I fit in? None of that. They, they, they took care of it all. It's, it's, and it's, and it's really interesting how quickly you can say, oh yeah, the, these po these are, these folks are great. They're gonna be my friends.
Carol: Yeah. And it's amazing how that act of I've been so. Events, and I've probably been guilty of this myself, where somebody asked me a question, I'm a staff person, and I'm like, oh, it's over there. Versus, oh, let me take you over there and make sure that you, you find it. Yeah. And that. What will probably be three minutes or five minutes, depending on how far the thing is away makes such a difference because then you're, you're arm in arm with the person, you're next to them, you're, you're, you're with them on their journey and they feel supported. Yes. I love that. What are some things that, so we've been talking a lot about events, and of course things have changed a lot around events. Not everyone, not everything's in person these days. I'm actually finding that I'm doing a lot more of my networking through the Zoom screen than I am in an in-person event. But what are other ways that organizations can create that sense of welcome outside of events in that critical beginning period.
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. I'm so glad you asked that question because I love virtual events. I know, I know There's a lot of people out there that are like, oh no, zoom fatigue. One more zoom. But, but for me, I love presenting. I love interacting. I love being in the virtual room just as much as I love being in person. So I got together during the deep dark doldrums of Covid with my partner's, matchbox Virtual Media, and we can, we. We ran a series called the Virtual Networking Incubator, and there's actually at the end we wrote a report that talks about how you make really engaging virtual meetings. And then we wanted to take that environment that was, so difficult in virtual to do really good virtual networking and then apply it back in person. So now that we've done it, it's really difficult. What are the learnings that we can take back in person? And, and so a lot of, what we learned was the, the, the, the tone. So there's the welcome when you come into the room, but then there's even the welcome in the tone setting before you even come to an event or before you log onto a webinar. Or any virtual event. So what we were trying to do is we were trying to have a super participatory event. We knew we wanted a lot of psychological safety. We want, because we were experimenting, so we wanted people to feel free just to shout half baked ideas off the top of their head. And we went into it, very much defining how we hope for the culture. Would emerge and we started at the very beginning. So every, every single email that went out, we tried to make it super kind, super funny. If we made a mistake at any point, we totally would fess up to it and we're like, Hey, we totally made this mistake and that's okay cuz we're all experimenting here. so there we did a lot of things like that. And then when we, when we started having the event, We, we just, we leaned hard into the chat. So if I was talking, we had 150 people, which was awesome. But it also posed a bit of a problem because now we're trying to network with 150 people. And so my solution was, let's lean real hard into the chat. And, and so we would do, lots of warmups and progressive participation and just, really thinking about. How do we get even the most introverted of introverts feeling super comfortable to play with us? And so yeah, I, I guess the, the quick answer is, start thinking about how you welcome new members at the first possible point. if, if the very first touch they get is an invoice or receipt, what can you do? Warm it up, make it more surprising, exciting, something maybe, maybe you, maybe you don't send that receipt first and you send them a quick, loom that's 30 seconds of you just saying, Hey Carol, so glad that you just joined. just, all of those things. And, and I'm sure that there are some big associations and big nonprofits listening to this right now and saying, oh my gosh, we've got 10,000 new members joining every single day. We can't possibly do that. Well, there's some really interesting technology I think that will help you scale those things and still have the, still have an experiential common component that makes people feel like, oh, this is a great organization. They're so warm and kind and wonderful.
Carol: Yeah. To me, what I, what I'm hearing is really about humanizing that experience. So it's not, you're not just another email to deal with or another name in a database, but you're, there's an actual person behind that and, and they have hopes and, and. Goals for themselves that they're trying to achieve through joining. And, and just taking a little bit more time to recognize who's on the other side of that email can be so important. You talked about the participation stage where people are just starting to dip their toe in. I think the last stages contribute, collaborate, and lead. To me, those are the more obvious ones, the folks who are, who get super involved. And, and then, then they prob once they're involved and they have a good experience, you probably have them for life. Maybe not. But it feels like that participation stage is a real critical inflection point.
Amanda: It is. So let's talk about online communities because that I think is the most public demonstration of what your member culture is. And I am a huge advocate of highly moderated online communities, and I. In, in, in the, what the moderator brings to an online community is the moderator mo models. They model how to be a good online community participant. And, and so I love to see, and I've been a, a, a part of a couple of online communities where the moderators, and sometimes it's one, it's, the owner of a company or, or the CEO. Or the community manager, or sometimes it's, it's sort of a fleet of trained moderators. And, and what they do is they are welcoming new members and they are also they're, they're raising up ideas. So let's say somebody contributed a really good post, but nobody responded in the background. They might be going and saying, Hey, hey, Bob, I know you've got something to say about this. Here. Here's the link. Can you jump on? Or they might wait a few days and they might say to the whole community, Hey, Mike just said this really interesting thing and I'm, I'm just gonna bring it back to the forefront and, and ask you guys, what, where are you on this? I think this is a really interesting thing. So the reason why I think highly moderated communities are so important is that a lot of times if you've got an online community, New members are starting to get that digest and they will read that digest. And that's another, cue of like, oh, okay. so-and-so reacted a, a little bit harshly that, that feel, that fe just feels like that was, somebody maybe got slightly ashamed here. I'm gonna hang back and watch a little bit. And if it happens again, then I know it's a dangerous thing to be part of this community. The other thing is, moderators can't tell when people are posting for the very first time and they can support them in, in a lot of different ways. They can say, oh, that, so glad to see you here posting. I know we've got a lot of really, you know thoughtful people here in the community who are gonna answer your question and. and, and that just, that just, it helps to, it helps new members to be validated. It helps them to be welcomed. It helps, it makes me feel good when somebody shines a light on their post or their reply back and, and lets them know that Yeah. You know that like, Hey, I'm, I'm on the right track. It's always nice to have that.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's so important because I feel like at least in my experience, especially for associations that have been around for a long time I, in, in a lot of instances in the way I've experienced that the online communities, is that they've been something that just got added on. Oh, well we need to do this because it's an easy way for people to participate, but it's often a corner. Nobody's really supporting it. And what I see as a real contrast to that is a lot of for-profit organizations creating communities saying that their c. Focused and actually doing a much better job of really doing what you're talking about in terms of cultivating that online community and, and pulling people in. And it's just so interesting when I go to association conferences where I feel like I've been hearing this gloom and doom about associations and membership and all of it. And, and then on in the for-profit field, this whole thing is growing. Field of organizations, creating communities around their expertise, their brand, a person. So it's an interesting contrast.
Amanda: Yeah, that's why I am, I am, I am so hot on some, this really big opportunity for associations to. To take on the role of being. So one of the, the, the drum that I've been beating lately is have everybody in your association become a Chief Experience Officer. You don't have to give them that title, but this is the mindset I want everybody to start thinking about being a Chief Experience officer. And, and today I was, I was writing an article and I, and what I wanted to do is what I wanted to point to. big companies, big brands, not because they're big and they have a lot of resources, but because they're well known, and so everybody, everybody could sort of say yes, this is a company that has where everybody, from, from the CEO, all the way down to the person that stocks the shelves. This is a company where everybody has taken on the role of chief experience officers. And so I, I thought about it and I thought, I would say Trader Joe's is one of those companies, and I would say Apple is probably one of those companies. And, then I was floundering a little bit and I came up with a couple of more examples, but one of the things that really struck me was. For the examples that I did come up with, these folks are absolute, these companies and brands are leaders in their industry. They're leaders in their vertical. There's nobody else like them. They've set themselves apart and they've done it because not only are they offering value, the value has to be there, but they're also making sure that they offer experiences and they're empowering. Staff offer these really great experiences or motivate their staff, or they're building a culture that, where they're celebrating the, this idea of, you know, customer, consumer, engagement. And so for associations that are starting to feel like, oh my goodness, in, in my, in my profession, in my industry, all of my sponsors are starting to nip at my heels. And, we were starting to have a lot. A, a lot of competition. We associations are perfectly, perfectly positioned to lean into the experiential part of things. And when we do that well, there's a lot of support to say, Hey that, that really sets you apart. It sets you apart so much from all of your other competition.
Carol: And what's so interesting about those two examples is that really the businesses that they're in are so transactional, right? Yes. Groceries and electronics, I mean, to in, in, could be the most vanilla thing. At all. But then they do have, it is a very, very different experience to go to a Trader Joe's than any other grocery store that I, I normally go to Right. So, I was very excited when one moved into my neighborhood where we hadn't had one for a long time. So, yeah. Yeah,
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. Totally. I. So I've gotta tell this, this story of Trader Joe's. My favorite aunt was at a Trader Joe's, and she always gets this one salad dressing. And she went in and the salad dressing wasn't there. And so I think there's, some, somebody, stocking broccoli or something and she said, oh my, my favorite salad dressing, do you happen to have any outback? And the person said, oh no, it wasn't selling well. And so we actually discontinued it. And I can't imagine what was on my aunt's face, but I, I'm, I'm sure she, Devastated and that that person said, but we've got this new flavor and people are raving over it. I'm gonna give you a bottle when you get to check out, tell them that I gave you this as a sample and they won't charge you for it and you can try it out. And we're really so sorry that we discontinued the one that we love. But I hope you love this one too. I can't think of another place where that would ever happen. And so, there's, the, the person stocking broccoli is Trader Joe's chief Experience Officer. And, and I just, I just love that because. It, to me, when I say, Hey, everybody can become the c e o, it's, it's not just for the C-suite, it's for, it's for all of us. And, and I like to, whenever I'm talking about membership, a lot of times people will talk about strategies for member engagement and then everybody will look at the membership people. No, no, no, no, no engagement experiences. It's for everybody in the association. If you are in accounting, you are, you're, you're having, you. Contact with members, if you're in it, you're having contact with members. If you're in research, of course you're having contact with members. And so every single one of us can be a Chief Experience Officer.
Carol: I also appreciated how you described Opportunities for those smaller, you, you, you had mentioned before the big boxes that we've put volunteers in and expected them to sign up for a three year term, a very heavy commitment. But something like being a part of a team of moderators on an online community would be a much lower lift and easier for someone to say yes to.
Amanda: Yes. Yeah. So When a new member, I'm gonna get back to the volunteer thing through the new member lens again, when a new member joins, one of the things they love to do is they love to see people like them. And, so I conducted a piece of research called the New Member Engagement Study with my partner's Dynamic Benchmarking. And one of the things that we found compared to the first time we conducted the research, which was four years ago, Is now. So four years ago, associations did these new member webinars, like a new member welcome webinar, very static, not much interaction between the members and the person giving the webinar. Sometimes they were just prerecorded. Now those have evolved so much. Associations are, they're leaning into responsiveness. They're leaning into connection. I love what I'm seeing here because a lot of these, they were calling them virtual onboarding events. And so new members will come to these events. And a lot of the hosts are saying, Hey, tell me a little bit about yourself and what are your goals and why did you join? And they're taking all of that information and then constructing, maybe a little bit of a tour. Like, oh, I, you, you talked about this. Maybe you'd be interested in our salary survey. Or, or, Hey, let me, I'm gonna drop a couple of links into the chat for some articles. I think that you would really. . But what they're also doing is they're, they're naming Chad ambassadors. So maybe there's somebody who's been in the association for six months or a year, they're really excited about their very first volunteer activity. But they can't, of course they're not gonna be a board member or even a committee committee member yet, and they, they don't want that yet. They, they want, maybe something a little bit more practical. And so we can invite them to be chat ambassadors and we will train them and we'll, we'll tell them what a chat ambassador does. And so, . So there's, a, a six month member, one year member talking to brand new members about welcoming them, pulsing up their ideas, bringing things to the attention of the person who's speaking. So, so, there's, there's a lot of there's, there's so many cool roles that. Members would be delighted to do it because it's fun and exciting and interesting for them. And that would also be really helpful for our organizations.
Carol: Yeah, and it's so interesting. It makes me think of a program that we ran At the association, the last association that I worked at, and it was a very intensive year long professional development for early career folks. And when we first started it it was a coach mentor to one to many models. And when we first started, , all the mentors that were being recruited were, 30 years in the field, 25 years in the field. And over time, what we found was that the coaches who were much more successful were five to 10 years ahead of the folks who were in the program because they could still remember being new in the field and having to learn all the acronyms and having to, , not being sure about things. Someone 35 years in, that's a distant memory. So I love that idea of just six months if you can, you can contribute. You're still remembering what it was like to be a new member. You're still feeling new yourself, but you're just a little bit further ahead of the person that you're helping out at that onboarding. And that in an interactive onboarding event. Cuz I, when I said that I have been doing a lot more networking virtually when organizations have taken. It was already a poorly designed learning experience in person and then plunked it online. It made it even worse. But when, when there is intention about how it's designed and how the conversations are being cultivated, and, how everyone is, is actually feeling like they're part of, part of a. A group versus standing off and looking at something it's, it's totally different.
So I'm gonna shift gears now coming to the end here. And we talked about Trader Joe's. So at the end of each conversation, I ask a random icebreaker question. I now have two boxes of random icebreaker questions that I ask. So we were talking about Trader Joe's, so my question for you is, what's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten? Oh,
Amanda: Gosh. Okay, so I'm probably dating myself at this point, but I did a semester abroad in Australia. And while I was there I traveled in, into the bushes. They called it, with a guide and a bunch of other novice Americans, and it was, I think it. earlier, right about the time that Crocodile Dundee had become super, super famous, and man, our guide leaned into that. And this guy, I, oh gosh, he, he found grubs, he found all kinds of things and cooked it over the campfire. So I, I, have proudly sampled my own Australian grub.
Carol: Well, okay, I'm impressed. I'm impressed. . So, what's coming up for you in your work? What are you excited about? What's, what's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Amanda: Yeah, so we've, we've been talking a lot about it, and that's the, that's the book. So I, I took all of this research, all of these experiments that I've been doing over the last 10 years and wrote, tried to pour everything that was into my brain out into a book. And so the book has been published. It's out there on all of your favorite online book sellers Worldwide. And it's called Elevating Engagement uncommon strategies for creating a Thriving member community. It's a pretty quick, quick read. I'd, I'd say about two hours-ish. And in what I, what I wanted to do is I wanted to make it engaging. So there are. There's lots of stories in there, and there is a, my fictional hero, her name is Kat Taylor. She actually demonstrates or you get to walk through every single stage of engagement through Kat's eyes. And what Kat is, is, is really an amalgamation of hundreds of stories that are just like hers. And so you, so you really get a sense of. How, how members are feeling at every single one of these stages where they're making that so critical. Go, no go decision to engage.
Carol: And I can attest it is, it is a very accessible and quick read. But there are lots and lots in there and so many actionable Approaches that, that is, that are built in. And I love following Kat on her, on her journey through her professional, professional life through the book. So, well, thank you so much. Thank you, Amanda.
Amanda: Thank you. This is, it's so delightful to talk to you.
Carol: I appreciated how Amanda described the common experience of someone trying out your organization for the first time. Do they feel welcomed? Does the welcome extend beyond a quick hello, here is your name tag at the registration desk? Think about the events you hold – could you have 1-2 people designated to keep an eye out for newcomers and engage them in conversation and help introduce them to one to two people at the event. I also appreciated her point about the often missed opportunity of purposely engaging and moderating your member online community. For associations, this is often one of the most immediate and obvious benefits that the association offers. I have been a member of online communities and message boards that are dominated by a few frequent posters. When those who engage frequently are pretty homogeneous – the cases I am thinking of it is a couple white men who post long treatises in response to questions. What they offer is often useful yet it can create the impression that there isn’t room for other voices – or if you do not have time to write 3-4 paragraphs you might as well not bother. The for profit memberships I am part of seem to all prioritize having a community manager. This person posts open ended questions regularly prompting and spurring group conversation. More active community managers might pay attention to who is posting for the first time and immediately respond so when a person takes the chance to shift from lurker to engaged they have a positive experience. They might also tag people in the community to ask how they are doing or when they might have a perspective to offer for an inquiry. Curating the community a little more can help intentionally create the culture that Amanda talks about and avoid having the culture determined by a few frequent posters. This could be a volunteer role that you prepare folks for and have a team of community managers rather than just 1 paid person.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Amanda Kaiser, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback, and until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Get that Money Honey with Rhea Wong
In episode 67 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Rhea Wong discuss:
Rhea helps nonprofits raise more money. Though she has deep experience with institutional, corporate and event fund-raising, she is passionate about major individual donors and helping organizations to establish individual giving programs. She has raised millions of dollars in private philanthropy and is passionate about building the next generation of fundraising leaders. She has become a leader in the New York nonprofit community and is a frequent educational commentator in the media. She has been recognized with the SmartCEO Brava Award in 2015 and NY Nonprofit Media’s 40 under 40 in 2017. Rhea lives in Brooklyn with her husband. When she is not raising money for causes she loves, she can be found hosting her podcast, Nonprofit Lowdown, promoting her newest book Get that Money, Honey! or onstage as a newbie stand-up comedian in downtown Brooklyn.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Rhea Wong. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Rhea and I talk about how founders have to shift their thinking if they want their organization to grow, what rocks and pebbles have to do with nurturing donor relationships, and how accidental fundraisers can build their confidence.
Well, welcome Rhea. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Rhea Wong: Thanks so much, Carol. It's so fun to be here with you.
Carol: I have to say thank you for back in the day when you actually had me on your podcast before I had started mine, and it was part of what helped me have the courage to step out, and launch my podcast. So thank you for that.
Rhea: Oh, you're so welcome. I love it. I feel like the more the merrier we all need. good voices out here sharing knowledge. So awesome.
Carol: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I like to start out each conversation with what drew you to the work that you do and what would you describe as your why, what, what motivates the work that you're, that you're focused on?
Rhea: So sort of different iterations. So I started as a 26 year old executive director in New York City. And first at 26, I knew everything right? But in retrospect, I don't know whose idea it was to hire a 26 year old. Anyway, I talk about this a lot, but on my first day on the job, I did two Google searches. Google Search. One was, what did this executive director do? and Google search too was, how do you fundraise? Because I was that clueless.
And so over the course of 12 and a half years, my team and I built up the organization from 250,000 a year to just a little bit under 3 million in private funds in New York City. And it was a great ride and, and I really credit a lot of folks helping me in a really great team, but I also just thought, why did it take me 12 and a half years to figure this out? Like I'm a smart person. Surely this should be.
And what I found is that a lot of people have been put in these positions as executive directors or even development directors without ever having received formal training. I called them accidental fundraisers, right? And so in the next iteration of my career, I am doing it for the 26 year old me that was super clueless. I mean, I Googled, I got meetings with anyone who would meet with me. I sort of cobbled together what I would consider an MBA in. And fundraising. And the truth is the world needs a lot of healing and the folks who are doing the healing don't have time to waste to figure it out, like I had to figure out how to fundraise to bring the resources to the work. And so I do what I do because I remember what it feels like to be in. A seat and feel such a sense of responsibility and yet feel so clueless and alone in how I'm supposed to do this.
Carol: At least at that point there was Google for you to tap into folks beforehand, probably were, were flailing around and, and having less, less easy access to, to ways to learn. But I love you. Taking that and really streamlining it cuz, right. Why, why should it take anyone that long to really get good at what a it's a basic function for most nonprofits. Although it's rarely why people go into the field or go in and, or want to do the work that they're doing. it's often around. They wanna move a mission forward. They have a, they, there's something that, I was talking to somebody yesterday and she got started because X, Y, Z thing really pissed her off and those kinds of things. Mm-hmm. are the things that draw people into the field or have them start organizations or join organizations cuz they wanna make that difference and yet without money, without funds to and resources. There. There, there's. you can pursue a mission, but you're just so much more limited in your scope. So really being able to step into fundraising is so important. So what would you say to people? What are they, what are the first things that they have to learn as they're, getting, getting better at fundraising and a, and advocating for their cause?
Rhea: Before I answer that question, can I just respond to Sure. Absolutely. Cause I think it's really important if you're 100% right and this is usually the curse of the founder. So in, in a sense, I'm a little bit of a founder as well, but nobody starts a nonprofit cuz they're excited about fundraising. I totally get that right. On the flip side though, I think people who start nonprofits have to really come to terms with the fact that they're starting a small business. Mm. And a small business does not run without revenue.
And so, As you are growing an organization, especially if you are the executive director, you have to recognize that what got you here won't get you there, right? Your job is no longer, I, I like to say pet the panda bears as just a. a cheeky way, like your job is not to pet the panda bears anymore. Your job is to bring in the resources to hire people, to pet the panda bears. And where I see a lot of folks stumble, particularly founders, is that they have not upgraded in their own minds what the job is now. Like they realize, they don't realize that the scope of responsibility has changed because they're so connected to this vision and identity of themselves. It's like, well, I'm just the one who pets the panda bear.
And so that's where we see a lot of founder syndrome, like people who failed to build an institution around the idea. And so without a clear strategy for revenue, without an institution, you just have a hobby really. It could be a well-funded hobby, but it's really just a hobby. And so that's for all the folks out there listening, especially the, the founders in the eds, you are my people and I love you to death, but also. You have to run it like a business because it is a business.
Anyway, To get to your point though the question about what are the things that people have to know I mean, there's so many things, but I think so many things, right? So many things. But, one of the first training I do with the folks that I work with is around money mindset. So I think. Carol, I know you and I spoke about this, but we operate in such a scarcity mindset in the nonprofit sector. Like, oh, we can't afford that. And even the word is, is a negative, a nonprofit, right? We don't have enough time. We don't have enough money, we don't have enough staff, we don't have enough. No, we can't, can't, can't. And so what that does is it puts us in a survival mindset. And so when we get into a survival mindset, that's when we get reactive. That's when we get stressed, that's when we get transactional and we treat people like they're walking ATMs. And so the thing that I really want to get across to people, is that the job is not about chasing people down and extracting money from them. The job is to attract. Partners and inspire them and compel them to give because who they are in the world is intertwined with what you do as an organization and that there's an ever-growing cycle of growth and learning and interconnection.
Carol: I was just talking to someone recently about what they termed the ladder of engagement and, and I was actually reflecting on the number of. Newsletter, email newsletter lists that I'm on for nonprofits. And when I receive the number of invitations that I have to donate mm-hmm. But how few invitations I get in a really concrete way of how to get more involved and, and volunteer with them so that they, I would actually learn more about the organization. They would learn more about me. to me, to my mind, I probably would also be more motivated to give more versus mm-hmm. the 10th email that they've sent me for donations. So I love that. What you're talking about, about that interconnection.
Rhea: Well, the other thing too is I think, gosh, Cal even began, but so many nonprofit people have no expertise in marketing, which like, why would you? Right? I mean, that's not what the job is. But there's a concept of marketing of a nurturer sequence, and what a nurturer sequence is, is you're literally nurturing the relationship. And so what. Talk about a lot with my nonprofit clients if you have to think of all the communications that you're putting out as pebbles and rocks. Pebbles are the nurture sequence. Pebbles are the stories that you tell. Pebbles are the invitations to come to an event or volunteer or anything that builds trust. The rocks are the actual tasks. The thing, the mistake that I see people making all the time is that all they're throwing out are rocks. All they're throwing out are asks without the pebbles of building the trust and nurturing relationship, and fundamentally, Trust equals donations. So if you haven't done the hard work of building my trust in you and building my relationship to the organization, you have not earned the right to ask me for a donation because you have not gotten the trust.
Carol: And I, the, the image of people throwing rocks at me is not very inviting.
Rhea: That's true. Well, just think about like a pond, right? Like a big splash. So your, your rocks are like, they make a bigger splash, but you need the little pebbles to agitate the surface. I dunno if this is the best analogy, but the point being that you can't be throwing rocks out all of the time because people get tired of that. And also you. Established enough trust. You haven't established a relationship. You were just talking to me as if you're just extracting and like, by the way, 10 emails sent to me to ask me for money does not make it more likely that I'm gonna send you money. Right.
Carol: Right. And no. I haven't necessarily responded as they want me to. But, and probably because it is feeling transactional on my end.
Rhea: I mean, I think the other mistake, and I think it's a function of being so deep in this scarcity mindset, is that fundraisers, and I get it, fundraisers are getting it from both sides, right? They'll probably have an ED sitting on top of them or a board sitting on top of them being like, bring in the money. And then you have donors on the other side and, and you're just, you're in the middle. We so often think about what we want as a nonprofit. I like my fiscal year. I wanna do this. Me, me, me, me, me. It's the rare nonprofit that thinks about the donor. Like, what does the donor want? What does the donor experience, what do they want to achieve with their money? Right? Like, we all want something in the world. Good or bad, right? Like maybe I care about the pan bears, or maybe I wanna think of myself as the person who is in conservation or whatever it is. But how often do nonprofits actually ask me like, what do I want to achieve with my money? Like, why would I give to this organization and how is it aligned with my values and my purpose? And so, I think we as fundraisers need to think of ourselves as facilitators of our donors' experience. we're, as philanthropic advisors as opposed to, extractors of resources.
Carol: And I love that idea of a facilitator of an experience because that that would, if, if someone were thinking about it that way, they'd provide. different ways to have experiences with the organization and, and not just that one that keeps getting, drum drum, drum on. So, that facilitation is a really interesting idea.
Rhea: I mean, it's like, why, like why is Disneyland the happiest place on Earth? Like it's, and they're making money and make no mistake about it. But I would submit. it's because they've really thought about how to make a magical experience. And when you go to Disneyland, you're essentially buying an emotional experience, right? And you're like, what? Fine, go on the rides, whatever. But you're buying awe. You're buying magic in a sense. And I think as nonprofits we really have to orient ourselves to asking like, what kind? Experience, what value are we offering our donor? By being a donor with these NPSs? That doesn't mean I get the experience of getting like 10 more emails asking me for money. Like, that's not, that's not why I give money. And like also, I'm actually, I'm also pissed off at the donor. Like when I give to particularly political, political campaigns, I'm calling you. Hey, what's the thanks I get for donating? Oh, I get 50 million more people asking me for money cuz you sold my email address. Like that does not inspire trust and confidence.
Carol: Amen to that. Amen to that. Where have you seen organizations do a good job in creating that experience? Maybe that magical experience that you're talking about.
Rhea: Honestly I don't know that I, I can point to an exemplar. Let me think. I mean, look, how about good? Let's say good. I mean, what, I'm, I'm just gonna, everyone says, I'm just gonna call it Charity Water does a great job, and I, I'll tell you why. So, From a communication standpoint, most nonprofits put too much information on their website. It's very confusing. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. When you go to Charity Water, it's very clean, it's very straightforward, and they answer three questions. What problem are you solving? Why should I donate to you? So it's about competency and transparency and what's in it for me. And so if you scroll down and it's like, oh, well you can be part of our, peer-to-peer giving thing and it's really about building a community around an idea.
And so, I mean, I think Charity Water probably does the best job of understanding that. Are designing around a donor experience and a donor emotion as opposed to making it about them and about talking about what they need or what they want. Because in a sense it's sort of irrelevant. And like, here, I wanna be really, really clear because I, I know I might get some pushback here from people who are donor-centric versus community-centric. And I, I'm not gonna step into those muddy waters. Fundamentally, what I'm advocating is, is being empathy centric, right? We all have stories, we are all the main characters of our own personal movie, and there's space for all of it. But if I'm a donor and I don't feel appreciated, if I don't feel. Like I am part of a community. If I feel like you're just looking at me like I'm a walking track book, I'm gonna take my track and go somewhere else.
Carol: Actually as you were talking, I was, I was thinking about the whole move towards community centric fundraising, which I'll, I'll have to admit, I don't know a ton about. But I like that rephrase of empathy centric fundraising. So it's, and that can be e e e empathetic for any of the people involved in the whole experience.
Rhea: That's exactly right. I mean, I think there are a lot of things that I agree with in community-centric fundraising. Like, I think, I think that there have been a lot of toxic behaviors in the sector around, treating the donor like they're a savior. Like that's not, we, we're not, we don't need saviors, we need partners. But the thing that makes me very uncomfortable about community centric fundraising, and I'm part of, slack channels and all that is. There feels like there's an undercurrent of hostility towards people who have wealth. And I just wanna be really careful that we are not falling into this trope of like, well, rich people are bad and they did bad things to get their money. I mean, the truth is like most wealthy people in this country are first generation wealth creators. They're entrepreneurs. They made their money. Most of them did not do bad things to get their money. And, and yet I think in American society, the last great prejudice is against people who are wealthy. Like, we see villains that are wealthy and I mean, the truth is money is not. Money doesn't change anything. Money is just an amplifier. So if you are a good, generous person with no money, you'll be an even better, more generous person with money. If you were a stingy miserly person without money, you're probably gonna still be a miserly stingy person with money. Right? So I fundamentally believe that money is an amplifier of what's already there. And so this went on a weird tangent, but I, I, I would really caution. Who are talking about community centered fundraising to be careful that we're not demonizing people of wealth.
Carol: And just for folks, can you just give a brief definition of what community centered fundraising is?
Rhea: So it's an interesting model of fundraising. It's coming out of the Pacific Northwest, and it's really a reaction. The tradition of donor-centric fundraising, which is about making the donor the hero of the story and the center of the story, and really putting the community at the center of the conversation. I would actually Nuance it a little bit. I think the work needs to be at the center of the conversation. And I think of it like stone soup. Like everyone has a part to play. Everyone can bring a little something and we create something better together. And so, and I think in the Community-centric fundraising world. I think there are a lot of interesting conversations that are happening, particularly among younger philanthropists and what their responsibility and obligation is to decolonize wealth. So I think there's a lot of interesting ideas coming out, a lot of which I do agree with. I think the tricky piece for me is that I've actually never seen it done in practice. To me, there's a lot of theory behind it. But anyway, if there's anyone out there listening who has seen this done in practice, let me know. I'd be thrilled to talk to you and possibly have you come on my podcast.
Carol: I mean, I think there are a lot of pieces in that, where folks are questioning a lot of them. I'm strongly in the commonly held wisdom about this, that, or the other in the nonprofit sector, which I think is really healthy to mm-hmm. to critique that and, and look at it and say, how can we do this differently? But I appreciate we're, we're back to stones and rocks and pebbles with your stone soup of everyone having a part in it, and how can we all work together. So, and, and talking about how money is an amp amplifier, I would say I've, I feel like I've heard power described that way as well. That you really, know, really learn about someone's character when they have power, mm-hmm. and it wasn't, isn't the power necessarily that did it. Their character that they bring to them, that level of responsibility that they have. What do you, what would you say helps folks who may be reluctant or accidental fundraiser fundraisers, what, what are some things that help them be more successful in stepping into that? You talked about money mindset. Are there other things that folks need to address? Is to, to become more confident, more comfortable in that?
Rhea: Well, you can definitely take my course. So I am a fundraising accelerator. But it's so funny. When I started fundraising I heard this commonly held piece of advice, like, listen for the gift, listen for the gift. And I was like, I don't really know what that means. And the truth is, giving people the space to talk about themselves and what they want in the world and what they desire and what and who they are in the world is really important. What's equally as important, actually more important is that. There are really three levels of listening. The first level is I'm listening with an, with an agenda, and unfortunately that's where most of us reside, right? So I'm listening to you, Carol, but really I'm just filtering through with my own agenda and for what I want to hear. The second is listening with no agenda, so really just being fully present. And then the third is listening for what's not being said. And I'm gonna credit Jason Frack for this. I did not come up with this. I think as a fundraiser, if you are positioning yourselves not as an extractor of resources, but as a facilitator of an experience, then I think you calm your lizard brain enough to at least try to get to level two listening. Because at the end of the day, this is a, this is a people business, and if people don't like you, if people. Trust you. If people don't feel connected to you, you're probably not gonna go very far in this business. and I, as much as I think that people like to put a lot of philosophy and psychology behind it, the truth of the matter is people do business with people that they like, the people that they know, people that they like, people that they trust. And so be the person who is. Trustworthy. Be the person who's likable, be the person that people want to spend time with. I mean, it's pretty basic.
Carol: And that what, what, what, what is not being said? So I'm trying to think of how I can put a question together, so what's not being said here that you would wanna tell people about?
Rhea: The idea of what's not being said is actually really, really hard to do. It takes a lot of energy and it takes, and here I'm gonna get a little boo cuz I'm a Californian. That's just how we are. But it takes quieting the voices in your own head. How often are we really fully present? And so what's not being said? It's your reading tone, right? Like we communicate a lot with our voices, we communicate a lot with our body language. We communicate a lot with our energy. And so if I'm in a meeting with you and your, your mouth is saying one thing and your body language is saying another, like, do I have the courage to be like, Carol, I'm just, can we just pause for a second? It seems to me that, you're saying, And I'm getting something else. Can you tell me what's happening for you? But it takes a level of sensitivity and a willingness to step into something outside of the script to have that authentic human conversation.
Carol: That's, that's taking a risk, right? Because the in, in pausing, noticing, asking the person about it. And then I think where I, when I've done things like that, where I've made the mistake is that I haven't then just been quiet. Hmm. To allow them to decide whether they not wanna say anything
Rhea: Like, we're so afraid of silence, right? I mean, I, I'm, I'm guilty as well, but we, we like to rush in cuz like, we don't want uncomfortable silence. The other thing too that I would really say, particularly to new fundraisers out there is please, please, please, please stop the pitch. Ditch the pitch people. Now let me nuance that. I think it's important to have a pitch for you. Have the salient points boiled down in a concise way. That part of the pitch I agree with. The part of the pitch I disagree with is how we teach people. Like you just need to like to throw that pitch out at people and like to splatter them with it, right? I mean, I've raised millions of dollars. There's no magical combination of words. I'm going to say that. It's going to convince you to give me a gift. It is. It's a conversation and so I think the reason. especially young fundraisers, rely very heavily on the pitches that they're nervous about. And so instead of actually connecting as a human, I'm just gonna memorize like these, five slides and exactly what I'm gonna say to avoid making a mistake or avoid an uncomfortable situation or avoid being vulnerable myself.
Carol: I feel like that is something that, really, could be applied in so many different situations. I'm thinking of it. instances where folks are going to see their legislator or, or legislative staff too, and they go in, they've got their talking points, and they're gonna talk at the person. Or even, someone who's a consultant or vendor or whatnot, comes in and gives you a pitch on why they're the great ones and you should hire them. And I think of a situation where I was working in an organization and we were looking to do branding work. And we had a couple different firms come in and one came in very much with the pitch model. They just. Gave us a fancy slide deck and talked to us. The other folks came in. They had nothing. They had no presentation. They spent the time asking us questions, listening, and responding. We began how they would work with us, but really Their approach was learning more about us. And I feel like that, or in, in sales, in fundraising, in advocacy, all these different arenas where you're, where your ultimate goal is to try to influence someone. When you come at them hard like that, the rocks that you were talking about before it, it's just a turn off and you just stop listening. But Oh, if you come in with questions and, and have a conversation with someone and want to know more about them, it's just a totally different feeling.
Rhea: Well, and, and I would also say with questions, like, actually listen to the answer. I mean, I, there you go. We ask questions. I mean, I, I have to tell you, Carol, I was once on a podcast. and literally the person had sent me the questions in advance and she just went through the questions like, like a robot. And I was like, I could literally say anything right now. And you wouldn't change the cadence of this conversation because in her mind she was just like going through the questions and it was very off-put because ostensibly though she was asking questions about me, there was no. Like there was no connection there. it was. Okay. The next question you were like, she was lobbing tennis balls at me and I was like, okay, I, the, we are not having a conversation it felt like an interrogation actually
Carol: Right, right. So there, there is, there is nuance in that, in that if you're all, and then I think at that point it's probably nerves again. Mm-hmm. and wanting to do it right and like, let me get through. but the focus is on yourself. Cuz it's like, I can. That's right. Control this by asking all these questions versus let me be in this conversation with you, hear what you're saying, and respond to it in some appropriate way.
Rhea: I mean, I have to tell you, you, I had one of the most incredible interactions I had as an executive director. I met this guy, he was very successful, a finance guy, whatever and I went into the conversation, I was super nervous. I was just thinking about like, okay, basically like how do I not screw this up, right? Cause I was like, I feel like I have one shot here. But I decided, and, and to his credit, he actually helped this along, but we actually had this really connecting conversation and it wasn't about the non-profit. It was about how he was on the board of his college and why he was on the board of his college and how going to this college had meant so much to him. And just like this opportunity to be. With another human being and just learn about who he was and, and, and put aside my own nerves of like, oh gosh, he's this super successful finance guy who has so much money. Right. And we were just humans and it was an incredible conversation. I came away incredibly energized.
Carol: So connecting it, as you said before, it's really a people business. And it's all about, cultivating those relationships.
Rhea: Definitely. Well, I, I think too, the reason why people get so nervous is it, it's all about that scarcity mindset. That's just this belief that, like, this is the last person I'm ever gonna talk to who might fund our organization or might give us a gift, or might give us a donation, like the truth is, it's probably not the last person you're ever gonna talk to. And not all donations are meant to be yours, right? Like if I talk to you, Carol, and I tell you about my organization, I learn about what you're interested in. And it turns out that you're really into saving the whales and that's not what we do. My job is not to convince you. My job is to say, Carol, that is wonderful cuz the world needs people to save whales too. Can I make an introduction to some people who are doing that work or at the very bravo. So glad that you figured that that's the thing that you wanna do and, go forth and do that. So I just think we have to let go of the desperation, ? So a lot of the times when we go into conversations like, I need to convince someone to do the thing that's like, That's like going on a date and convincing someone that we need to get married. I'm like, I don't even know you like that. Like what? Stop trying to push things. Like maybe it works out, maybe it's right, maybe it's not. But we need the space to be able to figure out if we like each other.
Carol: It reminds me of the small group that I was working with, and they were shifting from that all volunteer stage to having staff. But they were still very much in that scarcity mindset around board recruitment. Mm-hmm. And so it was like each new person that they met, they asked them to be on the board. And that's like, oh no. Asking someone to marry them. Like, no, you need to get to know this person. They need to get to know you. You need to know whether they're gonna show up and do what they say they're gonna do. Are they interested in your organization? Lots of different things. And so what are all those little pebbles as you talked about, what are all those little steps that you can provide people to, to give, have a way in if, if it is the right organization and cause and, and thing that they're really passionate to contribute.
Rhea: I talked about this a lot, Carol. So I love the dating analogy of people who have listened to me. No, it's number one, desperation is a stinky perfume. So I'm, I'm married, I've been married for a long time, but once upon a time I was single and I would go through these periods where I couldn't catch a date to save my life. It was just like a dry spell, right. And the minute I was in a relationship, everyone wanted my number. And I was like, what's up with that? Like, where were you a month ago? and it was because of the vibe I was putting out, right? Like when you feel secure, when you feel confident, when you feel just sort of in integrity with yourself, like that's very attractive and people want to be part of that. But when you're desperate and you're like, well, you go out on a date with me, will you be my boyfriend? It's like, no crazy person. I like to calm down.
Carol: Well, right. As you were talking about the, the other conversation where, you felt like this is my one shot. That just, that it's like, it just, even, even just saying that I feel myself tensing up, and, and so where you're calm and confident in your, in your, in your own power.
Rhea: Just comfortable in your own skin.
Carol: Absolutely. Exactly. Exactly. So at the end of each episode, I like to ask an icebreaker question that I pull out of a box. So I've got one here for you. Oh, how fun. Which, which famous person I you're, you're in New York, you're in I think, Southern California right now. Maybe, maybe not Southern California.
Rhea: No, I am in southern California right now. What
Carol: A famous person have you met? And, and any level of fame is fine
Rhea: oh, okay. I'm gonna share the story. I hope, I hope this doesn't get back to me. So, I am a big Game of Thrones fan and Peter Dinklage lives on my block. So for those of you who don't know his Tyrion Lannister, and I have for the longest time. Tried to befriend him and he is not having it. he's not having it. He's not having it. I mean, so I see him walking his dog. I'm walking my dog. I try to be super cool, like, oh hey neighbor, good morning. And he is like, not unfriending, he'll say hi, but like he is just not trying to be my friend. So I don't know if I could say that I met him. I definitely have interacted with him where, Tried to have interactions with him, and he is not about that life. So Peter Dinklage, if you're listening to this, I am your neighbor. I'm not a weird stalker, but we should definitely be friends
Carol:. Sounds good. And a dog. A dog is always a good way to get to know people. So what do you,
Rhea: So wait. Okay, wait, quick story. So he has a dog and I have a dog. My dog has passed away, but anyway, I have a dog and I was like, oh, I'm gonna be in, like, we're, we're gonna be dog friends and then we're gonna see each other on the walk and then like start chit-chatting. But then, My dog decided to have beef with his dog and started yapping at him. And I was like, dog, dog. I, I don't ask for anything except for this one thing. You could have gotten me in with Peter Dinklage's dog, and it was a tremendous failure. So like, then I had to cross the street when I saw him and his dog because my dog was being a jerk. So sad times with the dogs.
Carol: Well, you can blame it on the dog then. Poor, poor puppy. I know you're a cutie. I know. Or was, I'm sorry to hear he passed away.
Rhea: That's it. Stevie Wonder. Well, we have a new love Stella, but Stevie will always hold a special place in our hearts
Carol:. Yes, absolutely. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's, what's emerging in the work that you're
Rhea: Good question. So I, as I mentioned, have a fundraising accelerator. So I'm actually promoting my cohort now. And this is ideal for executive directors and development directors who are accidental fundraisers who wanna learn how to get out of the transactional into the and what else? I have a book that came out last year, so I'm still out in the world promoting that. What else? I'm doing some speaking and training around the country, so that's a lot of fun. But I continue to have my podcast and my weekly newsletter. So there are lots of ways if, if you want more of this action, there are lots of ways to get it.
Carol: Definitely. Remind me what the book is.
Rhea: Oh, get that money, honey
Carol:. All right. I love it. I knew it was, I knew it was a good title. I knew it was a good title. Get that money.
Rhea: It's so funny when I put it out to a group of pre-reads, someone responded like, I don't know what you should call it, get that money, honey. Because as a man, that feels alienated to me. And I was like, I hear your feedback and I respectfully override it.
Carol: That is always our prerogative with feedback. Right. It's just information. We don't have to follow it all. I hear you and well, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on the podcast. It was great to talk with you.
Rhea: Thanks so much, Carol. It's a lot of fun.
Carol: I appreciated what Rhea said about cultivating an experience as a fundraiser for a donor. Truly being present in the conversation, putting away the script and truly listening. Listening for the gift instead of jumping in with your talking points and your pitch. Very few people want to be pitched to. They want to have a conversation. And know that you are really listening to their answers so that they can connect with you as another human being.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Rhea, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Natasha DeVoise of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We always appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 25 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Kristin Bradley-Bull discussed include:
Kristin Bradley-Bull’s tagline says it all: “Illuminating your vision. Extending your vast roots and branches to get there.” She runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, NC. At Roots to Canopy, Kristin consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. She does the same in her coaching practice: supporting people to crystalize their vision and orient toward their North Star – as non-profit leaders and as humans. Kristin loves people, justice, organizations and movements, and transformation on all levels. Her background includes co-founding a training and leadership non-profit, being a full-time public health faculty member, and consulting (20 years+) with organizations ranging from multilaterals to grassroots social justice groups.
Important Guest Links: The book mentioned during the show is Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant
Information on the size of the nonprofit sector in the US:
Divorcing White Supremacy Culture website http://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Kristin Bradley Bull. Kristin runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, North Carolina where she works with nonprofits to illuminate your vision, extending your vast roots and branches to get there She consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. Kristin and I talk about how strategic planning processes when done well can actually enliven everyone involved and help reconnect them with their “why” and their purpose in doing the work they do. We explore how the stories organizations tell about themselves are alive and evolving as new people come into the organization. How they can sometimes keep people out – even unintentionally. And how organizations – especially white led organizations – need to really listen deeply to the stories of the people and the communities they work in and focus on relationship building instead of just jumping to the next new initiative.
Welcome Kristin. Welcome to the podcast.
Kristin Bradley-Bull: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here, Carol. Thanks for the invite.
Carol: So just to get us started and, and to give some context for the conversation, what would you say drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Kristin: I would say that my life is really wrapped up in being extremely curious about people and about non-profits and really. Trusting that there is a big why or big purpose for each of them. Right. And, finding that or reframing that is really important and is an ongoing process. So I know for me that my why has changed over time and it's important for those conversations to happen. And so I just love that I get to work as a consultant and a coach at those really juicy places for people and organizations. So yeah, I feel really honored and humbled to be. To be witness to that process and where possible to be a support in those processes.
Carol: For me, one of the favorite things about working with organizations for me is when I get to help people reconnect with the why of why they're in the organization, why they're doing the work. And because so often, the day-to-day the deadlines, the, the grant reports that everything that everyone has to work on, you can lose sight of that and be able to help everyone articulate why they do the work that they do and what connects them, what, what, why are they excited about it? Why are they passionate about it? It's just fun to see people read about the hard work that most organizations are tackling.
Kristin: Totally agree with you. And I know that you and I both do a lot of work in the strategy realm and. I think a lot of organizations go into those processes, really feeling like we have to do this. This is something we do every once in a while. We're going to come out with some big old report or hopefully they're not thinking about the report anymore, but anyway, whatever it is, some deliverable. And like you said, what a good process like that does actually is enliven. Right. Help people open their eyes to what's possible and get, get that zest and commitment back for the work. So, yeah, there's so much, there's so much there to cultivate and bring forward which is mostly done by the organization itself. And at least speaking for myself, I am mostly just a midwife or a doula in that process.
Carol: I like the phrase of a midwife or a doula. I've been thinking of it sometimes as I'm acting as a sheep dog, but that doesn't really put my clients in a good position in terms of being the sheep. So I don't really mean that, but it's more like I'm going to. Nudge over here and nudge over there and we're going to have to go in this direction, but we're all doing it together and we're going to get there and always trusting, like trust. It's okay. We're going to get there. It may feel messy right now, but we're going to get there.
Kristin: We all have to want it wilderness. Right. It's part of the process. And that's also prior to thinking of the storytelling, right. That there's nothing wrong with wandering in the wilderness. It's necessary for us. As people and as organizations to have those periods of time. So that's because they're really fruitful. They lead to huge discoveries.
Carol: Yeah. And, and thinking about that work that you and I both do, helping organizations and groups really surf at their, their visions, their aims, and then, and then come, work towards coming to agreement to a path forward, in a way that they're going to try to get there. One of the things that often happens in that process is sharing and reframing stories. it could be sharing the story of a founding of the organization and then. sharing that with newer participants, but then what meaning are they making of it? It might be, sharing stories of joy, triumph, wandering in the wilderness that you just talked about. It might be sharing stories of misunderstanding and hurt. I mean, lots of stories get told through these processes. And, and how have you seen this process of sharing and reframing show up in your work?
Kristin: That's a great question. I would say that there, first of all, that stories and history are alive, right? So they're constantly changing. And we need to allow them to change and acknowledge when they're changing. Right. And how they're changing, not making that some sort of magic trick and never to be mentioned. But the idea that the history of an organization or history in general is alive, I think is really important.
Because it allows us to evolve, right? And to see the same situation with fresh eyes. And of course that's what some of the newer folks coming into organizations often do. Right. Or, or people on the outside looking in to organizations do that. A new board member can say Okay, well, that's so interesting. Thank you for telling me that story. And it sounds like this is how you interpret that story. I interpret that story from my vantage point. I interpret that story a different way. Right? And someone like a new board member or a new executive director may be taking over for a founder, which of course is as a particularly important and challenging role that the.
There is a, there is the opportunity to really, as you said, reframe at that time and to say, like some of the stories of grand success, viewed from a current lens are not as successful. Right. And some of those pain points are, have actually been absolutely essential for the organization to get to where it is now, or for me to, as a new, a new ed to even get in the door, let's say I'm a person of color and there, and it's an organization serving primarily working primary, not serving on. So, I don't like that word, but working primarily in black and brown communities. That’s what has changed in the story, is partly what has allowed those, those leaps and bounds forward to happen. And so when we talk about. When we talk about stories to me, it's just really important that they be alive and that we constantly be examining, what is this? What's the, what is the, what is the juice in this story now? How does that tell us about our past and how can that inform our future? So I think there's a lot there that can be mined over time and that there are ways that stories invite people in. To the organization. And there are ways that stories keep people out. So for us all, to be really mindful about how that all works and what the opportunities are to extend the circle so that we have more and more perspectives and more and more stories that actually serve, serve us, moving into. Service in the present moment and moving toward the next present moment.
Carol: Back in college, I was a history major. And so one of the things that I really appreciated, maybe beginning at that time which is at this point is pretty much ancient history and, and but, but more and more so in, in the present is people's greater awareness of. I feel like history used to be in this could be, history at the big level, but then history at the organizational level too used to be seen as a fixed thing. And, there was an objective history and the understanding and appreciation now of how. There was someone telling that history and they had a particular point of view and a particular experience of it. And so then what are all the other stories that need to be told as well?
Kristin: Yeah. That whole idea that history is written by the so-called winner. Right? I think that's all wrapped up in what you're talking about. And one certainly of the primary opportunities for so many nonprofits is to, and especially ones that are white led is to really. Start listening a lot more, especially if they're working. Well, and not just white led organizations, but organizations generally also to listen more deeply to stories right. From the communities that they are a part of, or not as much a part of as they wish that they were because that's, that's where so much wisdom. Wisdom rests. And it is in storytelling that many learnings, many examples of resilience and creativity and perseverance live and live actively. And I think one of the things that is. Really important to think about for organizations, their leaders, and me and you, hopefully, all of us is to think about the fact that from, what we know from.
Let's say what, let's just say from science. Well, we know from science that neural pathways are really important and what we focus on grows, right? That's what we're learning about. The brain, what we focus on grows. And so. There's been super interesting science around that, like what fires together, wires together in terms of neurons and all of that thing. And I have no expertise in this arena. So I'm just saying that sort of as a general idea. And so when we hold on to stories that are particularly negative, that are no longer serving us as a learning, as an area of learning. Then those stories actually hold us back. Right. We develop a rut, we go around that same track and we develop a rut. And so it's really important to, for us to think as an organization, as individuals, what are the stories. That is, they can be really tough stories and they're still serving us, right. Because they're helping us, they're helping propel us into perhaps an uncomfortable, but important way forward. So there are those stories, but then there are the stories that have basically outlived their purpose and we really need to be examining how to, and, and practicing how to move away from those stories. So that we don't get stuck, so many organizations are stuck. And so I think there's a lot to think about relative to our own stories. And also, as you said, the stories that we have are absorbed from that, whoever the teller of the story was, and whether that teller is, is still relevant and important for us, our organizations, our communities now is it's an important question.
Carol: And I think people often think about that dynamic at the individual level. Like what do I need to let go of the stories about, that, that, or the maxims that maybe I've learned over time, or think that, I act in a certain way. And so I need to let go of this, that or the other, but I don't feel like Folks, never necessarily think about it. When it's a whole group of people working together towards, towards something. Can you, can you give me an example of what you're talking about?
Kristin: So I think a lot of what organizations, and especially within white supremacy culture think, well, this is how we've always done it. And there are reasons why we've done it. They have a whole narrative around why, right? Why do we do it this way and we don't do it that way? We tried it, it didn't work, all that thing. And especially when new people come in, either on the board or on staff or volunteers or other community members and they have, they have an idea and they're told, We already tried that it didn't work or, whatever, there are those, there are those stories. And so I think the opportunity is really to unpack all of that and say, why, why are, why are we thinking this? Why? Why do we stick to this particular, particular approach? And there are times when they're going to conclude that there are good reasons for that and they can, they should be in genuine conversation, authentic conversation with other folks about that. If they make those choices. But I think the trick is that especially in, white dominant culture kinds of circles, the trick is. That there's just such a big echo chamber. Right. And so it's really hard to get away from those stories. And so I think for organizations to become more violent, all right. Again, as you said, there's, there's a lot of work being done on the individual level, right. To Brene Brown and all of these folks who are, talking about research on vulnerability. And Brene Brown and those folks are also now talking about vulnerability within organizations too.
Right? So that's not it, it's not just on an individual level, but there are so many chances for us to think and open up to other possibilities and to be humble about what we don't know. Right. And what other. Other individuals, other communities, other organizations can potentially help us learn. Right. And so I think I have the chance to be in authentic dialogue with people with no particular. Prescribed outcome, right? That relationship building and the sharing of stories within an organization or within a community. But those kinds of things really open up a lot of possibilities for us that we were just not aware of. Most organizations really benefit from that porousness just like individuals do. Right. I might say all organizations do, but I'll say at least most. And we can, we can go far with, with those possibilities and we have to recognize that all of this takes time. Right? So part of this is just oftentimes slowing it down. We're not, we're not hearing one another stories with the intention that we are immediately going to shift that into our newest project that our organization is going to launch. We're actually developing relationships. So, and hearing stories and hearing old stories, freshly I'm hearing new stories so that we can begin to think about where we can Best show up as an organization which may be where we've shown up before, but it could also be other places and spaces. And so to really give time and space for that. And of course, one of the paradoxes of our time is that there's great urgency for change. We are in the midst of a huge era of change on multiple levels, I think. And there is the temptation of rushing and rushing tends to bypass. As we hear from many people of color, rushing tends to bypass a lot of what's really foundational to true change. And so if an organization really wants to invest in being part of, Broader change work then often slowing things down is an important and important way to be, as it is an important stance. In other words, an important posture, but it's, it's, it's, it's both and right there is urgency and there is the need for stillness and openness and listening and being very attentive to who we're listening to.
Carol: Yeah, there were a lot, a lot, a lot of things in that that I want to follow up on. Yeah, I think that, that temptation and I would say even it's, it's more than a temptation, it's like a cultural imperative in our society to always be running faster than you can possibly run. And the, and the scarcity that, that, that Has baked into the, the nonprofit sector.
It seems challenging even to slow down enough to do a pretty traditional strategic planning process or other planning process. And then to, and I think people get anxious and nervous if it's wow, you want me to talk to all these different people? And we're going to have all these voices. It's just going to be this cacophony of opinions. How on earth are we going to synthesize it and come to some agreement? And, and yet as you've said, I think, and you've talked about that, those ruts that, that organizations get in, and I can even think about that like we got to hurry up and do it yesterday. A sense of urgency. That we also are in this rut of, putting a bandaid on things versus really looking to how can we imagine a really different whatever it might be for whatever, whatever Mission the organization is focused on and then there's their mission within a broader system usually to even take the time, to think about, what could be different from what is right now, it's easy to not always easy. It's often that way, but it's easier. I think, to identify the challenges, the problems, all the ways in which the system is broken. But I think it's really challenging for folks to even imagine what might, what could be the more positive possibility.
Kristin: Okay. Yeah. I completely agree with you and yeah, and again, just like you said, what I said, I, there are many ways to many different threads there to pick up on. So I think the piece around urgency culture is essential to the conversation, right? So I have this, I have this piece of paper that I have written on geologic. It says geologic time, right? So what it says is the universe is 13.8 billion years old, Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and humans have been here for about 10,000 years. That's the equivalent of 12 seconds.
[Kristin clarified that the 10,000 years mention refers to the period of time during which humans began to produce food, form large communities, and make significant change to the planet itself. ]
Kristin: The reason why I think this is helpful is one, we're just a very young species, right. And we are. We're children, as a species, it's still children. And so we have a huge amount of responsibility and we can see that obviously, and sort of what our environmental situation is. We can see that in many different arenas. So there is urgency. And we don't have all the tools in the sense of everything already having been created. We're in a, we're in a period of great reckoning and, and great possibility. And there's precariousness in that, right? Because we aren't over the, at all. We are not at all over the crest of the hill to mix a metaphor. And so. We, I think the idea of. Especially for service oriented organizations that they've, that's where they've, that's where they've always put their emphasis. We know that there is a need on those levels. But the idea that there are many ways that we're not working ourselves at all out of the, out of the need for a service. A nonprofit service oriented sector, because we are not, as you said, addressing the systems level issues and how can one of those organizations slow down enough to have an opportunity to even, think beyond the fact that we, we have people, we have people sleeping on the doorstep, waiting for, waiting for shelter, food, et cetera.
And of course, all of these things, to me, bring us to bigger questions around how late stage capitalism and the patriarchy and white supremacy culture, or, sort of collude to keep things exactly like this, that serve a very small percentage of humanity. And I would say ultimately they don't serve any of humanity because there's so much. There's so much loss for everyone and separation for everyone. And perhaps it's mentioned here, there’s a new website called divorcing white supremacy culture that looks a lot at white supremacy, what white supremacy has done to white people, as well as to people of color, you know? So there are there's loss, there's so much loss, being so separate. And so I think that whole question around how to create space away from, how to shift from. Urgency enough to have space for being creative and thinking about the possibilities is essential, or we're just going to be on the same hamster wheel forever. Right. And I think that some of the movement building that's been happening for black lives matter, et cetera, where there's much more of a focus on sustainability. Like how does this work sustainable? How do we take care of ourselves? And one another on multiple levels gives, those kinds of, and there are many nonprofits that are shifting more and more in those ways. And I think there are black and brown nonprofits that have been like that forever. And some, some white nonprofits, white led nonprofits to black and brown lib nonprofits, maybe I think being in the lead, but where there is the sense that yes we are, we are. Handing out bags of groceries, et cetera. And we have to be thinking about what else is possible here.
We want to think in terms internally for our organization, we want to live in our organization in a way that we're what we're trying to manifest externally beyond the walls of our organization. We need to manifest internally because if we're whole, then that supports the wholeness of the broader community. Right. And so. I think even things, very basic things that seem impossible were made possible or suddenly possible during COVID. Right. So we have to take all those learnings forward with us and those stories of how we did things that we thought our organization could never do. And I don't mean the heroic things. I mean, the internal thing I had her OIC is also not a thing, but I mean, the internal things like.
We realized that our staff was totally burned out and we found ways to give people way more time off or to change our policies on how people work. people working from home, which works for some people doesn't work for other people. Right. like all of these kinds of things, like a lot is possible. And if we tell the stories of what we do in times of hardship, those are the stories of what is possible and what creativity and courage lent us to create new things. Then again, the end of COVID does not mean the end of those things. It just means, oh, we figured out that we're even stronger and there are more possibilities than we thought, and let's continue, continue to work in that direction. So as we think about not getting back on the hamster wheel, are we going to devote a certain percentage of our time to. Systems work, even if we are in a service arena, are we, if we're not going to do that, how can we at least support those efforts of our colleague activists and other organizations and how they're pursuing those things? How do we, how do we message around those systems questions with our funders, with our other stakeholders, so that. So that everyone is more engaged in the bigger picture because we have to build the, we have to build the demand, the demand for systems change, and that has to be ongoing. Right. And so the way that we tell those stories, the way that we innovate, the way we take care of one another. Are all parts of that system change process to me among others, right? Those are some of them.
Carol: A couple of different things come to mind. One, I hope it's late stage capitalism. I feel like some people are banking on that and we'll see. But it would be good. It'd be good. Well, we assume it would be good for whatever would come on the other side. But, you talked about what showed up in this last year, how organizations just shifted on a dime in a lot of different ways in ways that they never thought were possible or never had, never had thought about. So they demonstrated it to themselves, their capacity for very fast change. And I've lost my train of thought. There was something else you were talking about. And what were you or were you just saying at the end, but before that?
Kristin: I think we were talking about just this idea that what was possible in COVID is ongoingly possible, right? That people are creative. People are courageous. They're doing, they can, they can, we can take care of one another what we're trying to.
Carol: I feel like in the past there's been this very much an either or either you do systems work or you do direct service. And I even remember there was a book that came out. And I'll have to look it up. It's probably 10 or 15 years ago. That was a study of, what are the most effective non-profits and, and even then their findings were that the organizations that do both that do service that informs their advocacy are really super effective. And then of course, you go to the next level of those, the movement level, where people are approaching that very differently now in terms of it being a network and not so, caught up in individual organizations and being more fluid in how they organize that. And also yeah, just an appreciation for I don't know which generation, the next generation of activists who are really putting care for each other care for themselves care for each other front and center, to be able to to be able to be in it for the long haul.
Because I think part of what I'm thinking about is late stage capitalism, I think. Well, actually in the United States where we have the most extreme version of capitalism and we have the biggest nonprofit sector, I think, we have to check that. But to me, it's that sector was, it's just like a giant band-aid to the wound that capitalism is inflicted on us. So, and I'll stay in it because it's the best bandaid I can find for now.
Kristin: Yeah, it's a big, big, big thing. And you and I could have a whole separate conversation and you could have this conversation with someone way more intelligent and on it than I am, but those questions about the degree to which the nonprofit sector is serving as a band-aid. Right. And. It's the same questions that are really interesting questions in the mutual aid movement, right? So there's as much as possible in mutual aid, right. Sort of grassroots support and person to person, neighbor to neighbor, kinds of support, which really grew a lot during COVID in the United States and, and beyond, and there's a big debate in that community, as I understand it about is this really our job? shouldn't, shouldn't the government be taking care of this. So, and then other people who are this is, this is part of community sovereignty, right? Like community self-help, et cetera. So there are lots of questions around all of that. And certainly in the nonprofit sector, how are we, how are we supporting How are we supporting a system that how are we supporting the larger system that isn't serving a lot of our community members? So I think there are lots and lots of questions and all of that. And some of what I take hope from is that piece around, we have activists and movements who are pushing, right? And so when the more. Traditionally, shall I say, the nonprofit sector is in good dialogue with movement folks. There's lots of zest there, right? There are lots of, there are lots of aha moments.
And so I think we just have to continue again. It's that porousness, it's that sharing of stories that. That helps. And just, as you said earlier, when organizations are doing some, sort of some work in advocacy, they have one foot in the advocacy world and one foot in the direct service world than lots of things are possible because they have they have a more nuanced appreciation of, of of it all and they can make, they can make key choices around how they're using their resources and.
They can tell a lot of stories from multiple perspectives and hopefully as much as possible people speaking for themselves. Right. Rather than others speaking for them. But yeah, there's a lot, there's a lot we could talk about there.
Carol: Yeah. And, and I just want to well, since we're talking about reframing, I just want to put a caveat on my description of the whole sector as a bandaid. To me, that's more a reflection on our economic and other systems, just not working for folks. And so people have tried to step into that void. And, but, but it does come to the question of whose, whose job is it and, and what needs to shift to have less need for all, So that, so that organizations that are trying to end hunger and homelessness and all those things can actually get to those things. Yeah, so, so not denigrating anyone's work cause I'm really glad that there are folks doing it. And that's why I love to work with organizations and help them. Get clear about how they want to move forward. And stepping back, I'm appreciating the questions that the younger generations are asking about the role of the different sectors of our, if you only want to think about it as the economy, but our culture, our economy.
Kristin: absolutely. And we could throw in there, sort of. The power that billionaires have in this country, right. For setting an agenda. So, again, we could have a whole separate conversation about, about all of that, because there are, there are all those questions whose job is this? Do we actually want, who do we want to have this job? Even if it is technically their job, you know? So there are lots of things there, right?
Carol: So as we're starting to see the possible close of this chapter with the pandemic what are you hoping organizations will keep with them from this time as we move forward? And, what have you witnessed people learning? We talked a little bit about that before, but I'm curious about some other examples.
Kristin: The primary piece is that I'm hoping that people keep open to possibilities that they somehow managed to tap into during COVID, so the crisis provides opportunity. I don't say that lightly, because the suffering has been immense and disproportionate. So all of that being said there. That there was so much nimbleness. There was a lot of new collaboration. There was a lot of new thinking, a lot of busting through barriers. Right. And so all of those things I think are really important to keep momentum around and not go back to sleep. Right. be easy just to just let out a big sigh of relief and be okay, wow. Now we can get back to where we were. And, as many people are saying. That is not a, is not possible. And B is not advisable, right. Because what we actually want to do is keep catalyzing. Right. And keep an eye on the big picture. Why are we here? Like we were talking about earlier, why are we here? How, what is our unique, unique role at this time? And how can we make sure that we are. Part of the larger momentum for deeper, deeper solutions, greater sustainability, et cetera.
And so one thing that I think will be important too. And sure what happens in, and this is very specific is that there are a lot more there's a lot more recognition of, of the great possibility as and gift of black and brown executive directors and others and leadership positions. And I think as more of those positions transition out of white leadership, it's really, really important that those leaders get our support, our support, whether we're board members, whether we're other staff members. Whether we are donors, because we know that funding often decreases when black and brown people become executive directors. So anyways, there's lots of specifics like that.
Let us make sure that we give as much trust. And support and even more support because they're working in a racist system to these new, these new, but new, but not new, right? These folks who've been waiting in the wings forever who have been overlooked and bypassed a million times for these positions. So I think that's an example of something that's happening, but we need to, we need to usher it in, in a way that. Support success, like would be done with, with weight leaders and has always been done invisibly with Wade leaders. So I'd say that's an example. I think the work we've been talking about is about where there's more conversation between activists and sort of more. And others in the nonprofits sphere or grassroots activists and people who are nonprofit in the formal nonprofit sphere, as well as grassroots groups that are not 501C3.
There's a lot of, there's a lot of possibility and bringing all those folks into, into conversation, storytelling deep deep consideration of common. Common interests, which is not necessarily the first thing that people recognize, but we have common interests in what I would call, collective liberation. And so, and that looks different in different ways, people might not use that term, but I think that's where w. Where I hope we are heading. And so how can we have those conversations? So being bold, right? Like there are certain, many studies have shown, like even not, not like COVID related, but when, in times where there were political situations did not support did not support a lot of creativity and possibility for nonprofits, the nonprofits that still. Went for it. We're much more successful in getting done what they wanted to do. Then those who like who stepped back and just said, we're going to just, we're going to just shelter in place until the storm has passed. So let's do this thing, right?
Like this is, this is the time we are, we are in a period of momentum and let's just. Let's keep it going. And at the same time, take care of like you and I were talking about taking care of our people, our people being broadly defined, right? Like take care of all the people that are part of this and see this as a long-term this is the long game, right? So we need to do this in sustainable ways.
Carol: What do you feel like you've learned personally through this last year, year and a half?
Kristin: I've learned that I need more time in nature. I've learned that sometimes I need to really step back and make a lot more space for other people. And as a facilitator, that's great, there's a great dance in that, right? What is my role in this very moment? What's not my role? And can I just trust in that more? So I feel like there's been a lot for me this year or 15 months. That's about trusting, trusting in the group. I am. I've had a lot less time alone then I have in the past and because I'm in a pod. And so I have, I have loved that and I also.
I've recognized. I really need more alone time. Like that's really important for my well being. And so the way that I've been able to craft that in the past is it has not been so conscious for me and now I need to, I need it to be much more conscious so that I can make it happen. And It's renewed. My faith in possibility, I, at this time has removed, renewed my faith in possibility, which is very different from what some people would say. But, as we've been talking about, there have been so many things that have had light shined on them, which is absolutely essential for change. There have been amazing steps forward and I am eager to see that continue. And in my little way, be part of that.
Carol: So one of the things that I do at the end of each interview is pull out one of my icebreaker card questions. Since we've been talking about the long-term and the long game and movements and systems. The question I have for you is what are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
Kristin: Oh, my gracious. What a great question. I am most looking forward to - and this is really aspirational - I am most looking forward to greater and greater recognition among people and communities among and across people and communities and really the planet. Of deep interconnection and that the wellness of, of one, it relates to the wellness of all and the Wallace fall relates to the wellness of one. And so I feel like if we can continue to deepen our commitment to that, that unbelievable things are possible.
Carol: And then maybe more, a little bit more in the short term. What, what are you excited about? What's emerging in your work that 's coming up for you?
Kristin: Yeah. I'm really excited to be in conversation with a funder around ways that they can help that they can bring about greater equity in the ways that they operate. Those are the ways that they operate internally and the ways that they operate externally, the way that they relate to their funding partners, what their expectations are of their funding partners, what their expectations are of themselves, and what and how they relate to their community and communities and the ways that they will continue to try to influence the funder world. So that there are more possibilities because of course, this is another. Huge arena that you and I really didn't talk about today, but where funders are within the nonprofit world, funders are a really essential piece of the puzzle and, and they're part of systems change, right? So I love the possibilities and this particular funder is very. Very committed to the work. So I'm super excited about that. And I also really love the opportunity that I have right now to be doing some coaching with some executive directors and some other folks in these kinds of spaces and topics, but also really As we were talking about at the beginning, really diving into what, what is, what is my, why? Meaning there is not mine, but what is, what is my why for now? Like what, what is that? Where's the spark and what is my place in co-creating the world? And so I just always. Gained so much from my clients, both, both the individuals and the organizations and in those realms.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much for bringing your spark to this podcast. It's been great to talk to you. I've really enjoyed the conversation.
Kristin: Thank you so much, Carol. It's been a real pleasure and I really enjoyed listening to your podcasts and look forward to more of your conversations ahead.
Carol: All right. Thank you.
The past year and a half of the pandemic has brought so many reckonings. And I appreciate how it has brought working towards equity front and center in the sector – and how so often the sector has fallen short. It makes me think about the evolution of the sector over the course of my career. When I started working in nonprofit organizations in the 90s after the Reagan Revolution the whole country had shifted to the right and embraced a business mindset. Nonprofits were told to act more like businesses – embrace marketing and branding. There was a push to professionalize so many areas. Masters degrees in nonprofit management were designed and launched. The push to demonstrate impact, measuring success and proving it to funders. For associations it was all about diversification of revenue sources. And now a generation later the conversation has shifted to examining the nonprofit industrial complex and its implications.
So many things assumed to be ‘just how things are’ and part of the water we swim in are being questioned. I welcome this deep examination of the role of the sector in our economy. And I appreciate all the people who have stepped into the void and multiple wounds that our version of capitalism here in the US creates to try and make things better –at the immediate and direct service – helping people in need today as well as those working to imagine how to repair and move systems through policy change and movements. Thanks to everyone and your contributions.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Kristin as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
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.
Carol Hamilton: Today I want to welcome Rebecca Murphy to the podcast. Rebecca Murphy 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 and translating one sector to another. She's a generalist with a broad knowledge base, including workforce development, affordable housing, parks and placemaking. She has expertise in capacity building, organizational and program development, strategic planning, with a particular emphasis in public private partnerships, community engagement. and strategic collaboration. Hers is a mission focused practice. She is passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep. She is an optimistic activist with a passionate lived commitment to diversity. Join me in welcoming Rebecca Murphy!
Well welcome, Rebecca. I'm glad to have you on the mission impact podcast. I want to start out by just having you share with listeners your path? How did you get drawn to this work? How did you end up where you are now?
Rebecca Murphy: Well, Carol, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it. How I got drawn to this work is really very simple. It's something that I always seen myself doing from my early 20s I think I always saw myself as having some business that allowed me to help groups and organizations whose missions I believed in, do the work they did better, do the work they did differently and achieve the objectives that they were setting out to achieve.
Carol: Coming into this a little bit later than you, I'm impressed that you had that vision for yourself so early on. What was the background to that?
Rebecca: Well, I think it's a couple of things. I think the first is I have always been somebody who appreciated and was engaged in community development work. I came at it through a political lens primarily because that's what my parents did. My mother did community development work and they were both very involved socially and civically. so there were always groups and organizations in our kitchen, and we were very engaged. so I knew a lot about the universe of nonprofits and the universe of mission-driven work from a really young age. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I never really saw a full time job for a company as my path. so that's really that's really how I came at it. I also feel like I was a little bit ahead of my time. I really wanted to be able to work from home so that I could raise my kids. Even when I was young, I knew that that was what I wanted.
Carol: Yeah that's awesome, just the image of growing up around that. My dad worked for the government for the Foreign Service. so he went to work, it was a very traditional job and it was very mysterious to me as a child. All I really understood about it was that there was a big desk involved, and a big building, and some legal pads and government pens, but beyond that, I really didn't understand it. so it's really cool that you were able to absorb that from an early age.
Well, one of the things that you focus on is partnerships, including public-private partnerships, and I certainly believe that partnerships are so key to many nonprofits and how they do their work and at least my belief is that more should consider them with so many small organizations all going at the same issue. What would you say are the key things that nonprofits really need to think about when they're getting started with partnerships?
Rebecca: I think that's a great question, and it's one that I get asked a lot in my practice. I think that the most important thing that a nonprofit needs to do when they're thinking about a partnership is: what is their why? Why are you engaging in a partnership? Second to that, but equally as important: what do you bring to the partnership? It can't be about only what it is that you think you'll get out of it? It has to be about what you bring to that, what are your assets? What are your strengths? I think partnering from a place where you don't know that is a recipe for disaster.
Carol: Can you give an example of some disaster stories?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think I’ve had a couple of clients who thought that partnering was a good idea because it was going to get them out of a bad situation, and I think that's so common. I think that too often organizations are scrambling when they're really struggling, and then they think, “Oh well, we'll partner or we'll merge," and it seems like there's rarely a good time to try to step into those kinds of relationships. Partnering for weakness or desperation is a terrible time because you don't have clarity, and when you partner with an organization, you have to have clarity. You have to have clarity of mission, you have to have clarity of your goals, and you have to have clarity about the risk. I think that's the other thing a lot of nonprofits don't think about is what could go bad. They think about, “oh, this is gonna be great. it'll help us build our capacity. It'll help us raise money, it'll help us," whatever it is that they think it's going to do. They don't ever think about what's going to happen if it goes sideways, and whether there are different types of going sideways. There's recoverable going sideways, and then there's sort of the epic, this is the kick back sideways. I think that that's an equally important thing to be thinking about when you're thinking about a partnership is, what are we going to do if it goes south? How do we extricate ourselves? What are we going to do [if it goes sideways]?
Carol: So I usually like to focus on the more of a strengths-based approach and when things go well, so describe a partnership that you've seen when they really did things right, they did the due diligence and it really benefited both organizations in a way that you were even surprised by maybe.
Rebecca: Okay.… The stories I can tell best really relate to collaboration, which are - I think - partnerships with more than two players. and I think that they've worked, the ones that I have seen or been a part of that have worked really well. Were those where there was a common goal, whether it was a common problem that needed solving or a common issue that needed to be addressed. and everybody who was there brought different strengths to the table. They were partnering not from weakness, but in a manner that compensated for each other's sort of skill gaps, because I don't think that anybody in that particular industry killer scenario was weak. I think they just have different skill gaps. and I think that's almost the best way to think about a partner. Is this partner somebody who's going to fill my skills gaps? and can I do the same for that?
Carol: so what are those complementary pieces where you, you don't all have to bring the same strengths to the table.
Rebecca: I mean, it could be something from something as simple as “these people understand organizational development. I don't understand organizational development, but I want to work with somebody who does.” Two organizations that are focusing on one issue, one organization has real strength in advocacy and organizing it, while one organization has real strength in writing and policy work, those are two sets of skills that it's really rare to find in one organization. some organizations are good at service providing and other organizations are better at management. I think that a lot of times organizations can partner to build capacity or to test something you could market through a partnership. I particularly found this true in the community development space. There are lots of nonprofits that want to get into community development, whether that is they want to build themselves a facility, whether they're in the housing business, there could be a church or some other big nonprofit that doesn't provide a service that they want to provide in the community development realm. Partnering with somebody who has that skill can be very successful because for everybody Think because the organization that needs the partner that wants to develop the housing or the community center or whatever, they have clarity of mission, they have built in constituency, they can fill the rooms, they can, run the programs, and they partner with somebody who understands how to actually get a building built, or how to get houses built, or, how do you raise money for that? How do you think about that? How do you budget? How do you plan? Those kinds of things.
I think that those are very successful partnerships generally, I think partnerships and community development work, especially where there's potential for a cut to reach economies of scale, for example, especially this gets really to what you talked about from the very beginning, if there's a space where there are lots of actors - in Baltimore, this was true in the out-of-school space, there was a period in I think the 90s, late 90s, early 2000s, where everybody it seemed, was an out-of-school time after-school program business, and some people were operating out of their homes or they were operating out of a church basement. some people had more robust programs or they had bigger space, so they had outdoor space, but the marketplace was so crowded at that point, and the small guys were really in danger of not being able to survive, not because they weren't doing really good work, but because they didn't have the capacity or the need for a nonprofit organization, but they didn't know about Fiscal Sponsorship. They didn't have all this sort of back-office stuff, but they were providing an extraordinarily high-quality service, so I facilitated a collaboration amongst six small providers in a neighborhood in Baltimore City that all had different types of service. There was an arts group, there was a tutoring group, there was a sports group, I think there might have been two of each one. I said to them, “okay, you don't all need a lawyer. You don't all need an accountant, but you've got to have a structure.," so they pulled together a collaboration and they identified a single fiscal sponsor, and somebody who was able to manage all the admin for all six of them. In the course of a year, they were each able to raise enough money to operate both independently, but also, for the first time, to do collaborative programming.
Carol: That's awesome. Yeah, it seems to me that it's too easy for many organizations to really get caught up in their own work and not really take the time to think about who else might be in their ecosystem., and as you're saying, even in their neighborhood, their community of who they might be working with for greater impact in that back office stuff. I mean, I'm not sure what the statistic is, and I should probably look it up, but it's like 70 to 80% of nonprofits with less than $750,000 budgets. If every single one of them is replicating that back office, It's a huge amount of resources that could be put to program could be put to program if they were to partner up with some other organizations and share those resources.
We're recording this in the midst of the quarantining for the Coronavirus, so I'm guessing that that this is going to have some impacts on people where they start looking at those things and start doing what solo entrepreneurs have been doing for years, hiring virtual assistants and virtual back office, virtual accounting, all of those things; and I think there's a difference between a partnership, just a one to one and then that that multi-party partnership and then even to the next level, and you’ve talked about how why you're getting together is so important, and I've seen in larger collaborations where it may seem obvious why everyone's together, and yet without having a deliberate conversation about how are we defining what our goal is really specific Basically, everyone can have their own definition of what that goal is.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think too, that you can end up in the space of too many cooks in the kitchen, not enough sous chefs; whatever the metaphor is. It's really about leadership, and about who's going to be in charge - for lack of a better term. It's like if you had a room full of first children, do you know I mean?
Carol: I'm a middle child. I don't want to be in that room.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it's that phenomenon. It's everybody thinking that they are in charge and not knowing - not only who's going to do what, but who's accountable for what, who's responsible for what, because those are the tough conversations that you need to have, and that's the stuff that if you don't do it, it can really kill you, not just the partnership, but it has implications for your individual organizations. If nobody talks about who's going to sign on the dotted line, who's going to be the fiduciary, whose insurance are you going to carry? Do you need to get insurance as a group? All of those things are hugely important, and I think when you're engaged in a partnership around an issue, it's easier to put those things aside or if you are engaged in a partnership that is time limited around a legislative issue or a crisis or some one-off challenge. It's very easy to let that stuff go, and then when you finish, and you’ve got to clean it all up, and you have a big old stew of stuff you can't figure out, it's a giant problem. I think the other thing about that, and about partnerships in general is you're talking about relationships. You're talking about people that - presumably - you like and respect and trust. If you don't, you're not doing enough, you're doing a disservice to the relationships if you don't take the time to think about that stuff and really figure it out.
Carol: I mean, in some instances, you can't have that assumption that everyone likes and respects each other and it may be that a funder is saying all of you guys are in this space, and I want you all to work together. When you've seen those kinds of situations,
Rebecca: The arranged marriage.
Carol: there's a whole bunch of steps that you have to take to start building that trust and you probably have to step way back before you can get to action to just ask “why are we all here? What do we think we can get out of this? How are we going to work together?”
Rebecca: You may be competitors, I mean, that's the other thing. I had a client last year who had been repeatedly asked by a prospective funder to partner with what they viewed as a complimentary organization. My clients saw that group as having a very different strategy, a very different objective; they were competitors so they did not want to partner with that group. The mistake they made, however, was not explaining that to the funder. They didn't explain to the funder that, while they respected the work, that group did their mission, and they had a very similar, I guess, 20,000 foot mission and how they got there in my clients view was incompatible. Their strategies were incompatible, and as a result, they really affected their relationship with the funder because they didn't communicate; and then when we were finally able to get that relationship back on track, the funder was like, “well, you should have just said something. I was looking at it from a very narrow perspective, you're doing this, they're doing this, you should all do it together. If you had said to me, ‘meh’ or ‘we could only partner in this one little area.’ rather than just not doing it.”
Carol: That's a really good point about the 20,000 foot mission versus the theory of change. How are you seeing the strategies you use, and how that's getting you to an end goal; and you say that you're really passionate about mission fidelity and avoiding mission creep, and I think this is just a huge challenge in the nonprofit sector for lots of lots of reasons. What do you see that really drives mission creep, in your experience?
Carol: Can you say more about that?
Rebecca: The number one thing in my experience that causes mission creep, is fundraising success. I think very often organizations use the availability of funds as a “we'll try this," you know what I mean? It's not very well thought through if you have - actually, let me be more specific: it's less about economics broadly, than it is about covering your operating expense, which I think is one of the single biggest challenges and one of the things I think that the philanthropic community should be doing more of is covering the appropriate percentage, covering operating expenses at the appropriate level, because often what I have seen happen is an organization - let’s say they're a S.T.E.M. organization, they provide S.T.E.M. services, they teach kids S.T.E.M. in the after school space. They raise X number of their $50,000 budget, or $100,000 budget, of which $20,000 is general operating or 30,000 was general operating. They are applying for program grants. There is not an organization that I have seen - and I worked for a philanthropy and our general operating number, I think was 11%, and we were very high at the time. General operating isn't sexy. It's not new, it's not the bright shiny thing, so it can be very hard to raise money for. So this particular organization saw a grant opportunity to provide counseling or to provide family counseling or something, something that was utterly unrelated to but could have been tangentially and their way in was we will counsel the families of the kids we serve, because they were like “we need the money." It was a disaster because it was so far outside of their mission.
Carol: and probably [out of] their core competence
Rebecca: Exactly. I think often - and that's a very extreme example - often it's, “we'll do the same thing in a different issue” or “we’ll do the same thing with a slightly different program area," but the result is the same. I see a lot of medium-sized nonprofits, or nonprofits that want to go from small to midsize. If there is a trend in philanthropy, if there's a new bright, shiny thing that funders are funding, then the temptation is very great to try the new, bright, shiny thing as a means to keep your doors open rather than doing what you do really, really well and working harder to find the funders that support that. That's a hard thing to do, I think that avoiding mission creep is a function of capacity.
Carol: If you've seen - and I am not a fundraising consultant, so this is just from observations - so especially with newer organizations, you're talking about moving from small to midsize, maybe there's a lack of understanding of what really [is] the impact that grants can have on an organization from the board's perspective. It just seems like “oh, wow, it's free money.” I mean, it's not free money because you got to do work for it - but the sense of
never thinking about what that grant might actually cost the organization.
Carol: Is the piece that people miss.
Rebecca: I think that's right. I think there's a lot of well-intentioned grant making that isn't necessarily well thought through, and I also think that there's a temptation I think that works counter to that in a mission creep space is empire building.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Rebecca: There are often three or four big dogs [in a city] that started out doing whatever they did, [and] because their organization is really good at whatever it is that they started out doing, they're the ones that get offered the new bright, shiny thing, and because they have the capacity to do it, and even if [they don’t,] they have the capacity to hurry up and figure out how to do it, and somebody asked them to do it. Somebody with money said, “why don't you try this?” I mean, there's an organization in Baltimore, [and] they do great work, but they are the object lesson for empire building. They did one thing exceptionally well, [and] because they did that one thing exceptionally well and ED was out and about, a lot of people knew him. He's a smart guy, he was easy to like, the program was a very feel-good program. Then somebody asked him to go into the housing renovation business or some absurd ancillary thing, and because somebody asked him to do it, he did exactly what you said: he hurried up and figured it out, because he had the bandwidth within his staff and he had the resources to train. He figured out how to do that,
Carol: Or hire some experts doing that.
Rebecca: Exactly. So even though he went and did it and did a serviceable job at it. He put out of business the two organizations across town that were doing that work successfully, but that were really, really tiny so nobody knew they were there. So the unintended consequences of the intended consequences of not really understanding capacity building and choosing expansion for the known over [just] training somebody who is smaller and maybe less well known. so this organization just to wrap it up in a bow ended up being the go-to organization, they ended up with fiscal sponsorships and blah, blah, blah in 15 different issue areas, and they had a very high opinion of themselves, and they had one of those heavy duty blockbuster boards with all the bold faces and everybody. They were *the* group, and it got to a point where the people who ran it took themselves way too seriously.
Carol: It’s flattering to be asked to do all those things.
Rebecca: It is, and if you're able to figure out how to do them even marginally well, you also have the ability to cover your own failures, you can paper over the fact that you're not as good at it as you were at your core service, but you're passively good at it, and people love you. So they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I was putting together a program - I was working inside government and I was putting together a program and we needed to get a big application, and we were looking for nonprofits to work with who would be the lead for this particular grant. These guys were not the right ones, but they really thought they were, and they couldn't figure out why they hadn't been asked to dance. We went with somebody else because it was an opportunity to elevate that group, they were very, very good and ready to do the next step and it was really interesting having to explain to this very successful organization that they were not the ones [and] I think that happens too. I think that, in every single city there are three or four big dogs, then there's two or three medium dogs, and then there are 35 small dogs who can't get out of the dog run because they can't raise any money.
Carol: Yeah. Well I want to shift gears a little bit and play a game.
Carol: I’ve been a facilitator of many, many meetings and designing lots of retreats and planning sessions etc. I have many things like boxes of icebreakers because other people are better - that's one of those skill gaps -- other people are better at thinking of fun questions than I am, so I'm just going to use theirs…. So the question is: if you could live in a sitcom, which one would it be and why?
Rebecca: [I have] a couple of answers to that. I don't know which way to go. Is this “if my life were a sitcom” or can I pick a sitcom? Am I picking a sitcom to inhabit?
Carol: You're living in it. You're being dropped in, you are now a character in the sitcom.
Rebecca: Okay, all right.
Carol: It doesn't have to be for the rest of your life.
Rebecca: Ok… off the top of my head, [my] answer is Friends because it's impossible to believe that they could all be in New York and not have a black friend.
Carol: Well, there you go.
Rebecca: That was [something] I never understood.
Carol: Well it's funny, when I pulled this card out of the box this morning, I actually thought of Friends also, but then I started thinking “um... well, let's see, I'd be the nerdy friend that certainly wouldn't be hanging out with those folks if I were in college.”
Rebecca: I'd be the black snarky friend, but guess what, that's my thing.
Carol: All right, excellent [I think] mostly because I was a single mom in my 20s and so I didn't get to have that time of hanging out with your friends and that being your family, so I would take a vacation there with those folks as well.
So what are you excited about what's coming up for you that's emerging in terms of your practice and the work you're doing?
Rebecca: I'm really excited about partnerships and collaborations right now, and I was excited about it before all of this craziness, but I am weirdly more excited about it now because I think that what is happening in our country, and in our world is both exposing some real fissures that need to be fundamentally addressed, and - secondarily - I think every crisis is an opportunity, right? I think that the nonprofit sector has a real opportunity to examine their work, to be very creative in terms of service-providing because we are in a period where lots of people need lots of things. I think that both big and small, established and less established organizations of different competencies have real opportunities to come together and increase capacity and develop broader programming and change and think about the ways in which they serve their constituents, and I think that there is a lot of opportunity for people like me who understand and can help you figure that out, so that.
The other way I'm thinking about it is, you know, one of the ways I describe myself in my practice is that I'm an interpreter because I have experience, not just across sectors but across subject matters. I am able to be the fulcrum, be the center of the wheel, and help the spokes communicate to each other for a moment. What that has given me is a certain agility and nimbleness to be able to explain and interpret and facilitate collaborations because I understand how each sector works with the other from their particular vantage point. I always joke that I can translate, I can speak philanthropy to government, I can speak nonprofit to philanthropy. I can be in all of those spaces and create meaningful collaboration and I think that's going to be a very useful skill going forward.
Carol: Yeah, I think people are having to - there are some who jumped on the bandwagon in terms of working from a distance and obviously, not everything can be done from a distance. A lot of places are having to rethink how they do their work and maybe suddenly, things that people doubted, I know [that] in the work that my daughter does, they do virtual advising of college students for financial aid, and suddenly virtual advising is the one thing that they can do right now. So you talked about things emerging for you, so how can people get in touch with you?
Rebecca: People can get in touch with me via my website, which is rcmstrategicconsulting.com . I can be reached via email at RCMstrategicconsulting@gmail.com. I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. My Twitter account is RCMStratConsult.
Carol: All right, you can get in touch with Rebecca there and thank you so much for coming on. This was a really interesting conversation.
Rebecca: Thank you very much for having me Carol. It was a lot of fun.
What is on your summer reading list?
Here are three books to consider adding to your list:
The Art of Community: Seven Principals for Belonging by Charles H. Vogl
I was intrigued by the book’s subtitle since I am someone who moved a number of times over the course of my growing up. I spent a lot of time chasing that illusive sense of belonging. With the traditional forms of community breaking down and loneliness on the rise, more people are in the business of trying to create community. It could be an online community, a community of practice or a co-working space. Vogl describes the essential elements to build community including creating a boundary, initiations, rituals, symbols. While a bit philosophical, I found the book very accessible, enriched by stories illuminating the principals.
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up by Jerry Colonna
I heard about this book from an interview that I heard on one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippet. Jerry Colonna is Tippet’s executive coach. His insights on what people bring to their work and leadership from what they learned in childhood and their family of origin were fascinating. Colanna considers growing up part of being an authentic leader, especially identifying and letting go of those “ghosts in the machine” that we learned growing up, drive our behavior but no longer serve us as adults. Learning to sit in discomfort, letting go of our illusion of control, and peeling back the façade of “everything is awesome!” I appreciate his insights into the human condition. Yet I was struck by how like too many other business books the stories he included were from people represented a rarified stratosphere of our society of venture capital and start up CEOs.
The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters by Priya Parker
This book was cited in the Art of Community and since a lot of what I do involves group meetings and gatherings, it caught my interest. What I didn't know is that Parker is a facilitator so the book had particular relevance to my work. Yet the book ranges beyond work focused gatherings and includes what makes a good party or ‘happening’ tick. Like I have advised and then forgotten to follow my own advice, a good gathering/meeting needs a clearly defined purpose. She encourages you ‘not to be a chill host’ and to take leadership of your event, why it is so important to pay attention to meaningful beginnings and endings and how to move the conversation beyond the merely polite to healthy controversy. Whether you would like to make your next get together more meaningful or have an big work gathering to facilitate, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of how to make that happen.
Apparently this summer I am studying the “art” of things – since this shows up in each of these titles.
What’s on your reading list?
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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