Episode 10: This week we’re talking to Heather Yandow.
We talked about:
• What gets in the way of nonprofits hiring consultants successfully.
• Why an RFP process is often not the best approach to having a great experience with a consultant.
• The trends we are observing in this time of disruption.
Scenario Planning: An article describing the process from MIT Sloan management school
Heather Yandow brings more than 20 years of experience as an outreach coordinator, coalition leader, project manager, and fundraiser to Third Space Studio. She helps organizations with strategic planning, board development, change management, leadership development, and going from good to great. She has also served on the Board of Directors of Democracy NC, ncyt: NC’s Network of Young Nonprofit Professionals, and the Beehive Collective (a giving circle). She is also the founder of Nonprofit.ist, an online platform for nonprofits to find the consulting expertise they need.
Carol: Welcome Heather. Welcome to the podcast.
Heather: Thanks so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.
Carol: So just to give people some context. Can you tell me a little bit about what drew you to this work and describe your journey?
Heather: Yeah, so I started this work when I, when I kind of dig back into what really prompted it, I think about my parents always engaged in the community and that's just what I knew to do. So when I went to college I was really engaged in lots of different social activism there. I was part of the environmental group on campus. I helped to start a feminist group on campus and really loved that and thought I was going to be a math teacher.
I studied mathematics and thought that was my path. And then really started thinking about what if I could do all of this fun activism stuff as a career, and got really lucky and found that the statewide environment, because C group was hiring what they called it at the time an outreach coordinator, which was basically doing a lot of the same stuff I had kind of trained myself to do while I was in school.
And I did that work for a couple of years. And then they offered me to be the director of development and communications. So I got to move into that position and got a lot of great training and support and learned really how to do the fundraising. After seven years of doing fundraising, I still do it in my volunteer work, but decided I didn't want to do it full time.
And that's when I transitioned into being a consultant. And so I've done that work for about 10 years now. And I do strategic planning, leadership development, meeting design and facilitation work.
Carol: So funny that you said your original idea was to be a math teacher. Cause my first notion was that I was going to be a history professor and then did my senior thesis in college and discovered as I was in the archives of the library, reading these, I did a thesis on women, kind of the parenting things that were told to women in Germany, in the late 1800’s. And so reading these old magazines and discovered that I had a wicked allergy to mold. And so spending my life in archives was not going to be my future. So then I had to figure out what's next.
Heather: I love that. Yeah. It's one of my favorite questions. When I meet people who were in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, what did you major in? Because most of the time, people are not doing the work that they studied to do, particularly folks like us who were in nonprofits or as consultants.
Carol: I did discover anthropology in the last year and I feel like what I do now is essentially applied anthropology. All the, you know, Interviews that we do with people and the discovery and kind of seeing how groups work and seeing how culture shows up in organizations. So that's the connection that I have.
Heather: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Carol: So one of the things that you have started recently is an online platform to help nonprofits find consultants. And I feel like nonprofits often struggle when they think about hiring consultants. What do you think gets in the way?
Heather: I think a couple of things get in the way.
One is just not knowing where to find people. So I actually started nonprofits just in part, because I get a lot of requests from past clients and friends asking who do you know that does X, Y, and Z. Who do you know that has a background in mergers that also knows a lot about land trusts. Well, that's a very specific subset of people.
Yeah. So if you're a nonprofit leader, you may have a few connections, but you might not have a broad enough network. So you can find the right person who can really help you. Of course cost is often a barrier for organizations. And sometimes organizations that are new to hiring consultants are a little bit surprised by what our fees are that we are a lot of times covering all of our costs and those fees.
So you're paying not just what you might pay somebody for a salary, but you're also paying for our benefits and our office space. And all of those overhead costs are included. And then the third piece is that I think organizations often aren't really clear about what they need and why before they get into a first conversation with a consultant.
And sometimes I’m wondering whether I find that in those first conversations if the group feels like they've already decided what the solution is going to be.
Carol: They think that they know exactly what the challenge is and they think they know what they want. That also can be a challenge and, and having those first conversations gives you an opportunity to essentially kind of find the answer together, if you will.
Heather: Yes. Yes. I find that too. If I am sent a request for proposal and there is an 18 month timeline already sketched out with all of the different pieces that they want to include and they've really already mapped it all out. In some ways you're voiding my expertise.
I come to this as somebody who understands how to design processes, how to lead groups through difficult decision making, how to set up action plans. So I like you really to partner on that and to co-design. And part of that is really asking questions to get underneath. What, what is the real issue here?
So sometimes what we find with organizations, what I find is that. They ask for what they know they can pay for. Right. So we know that right. You can hire somebody to do a one day board retreat. And when you actually, when I get into conversation with somebody about that work, what I discover is they're having significant problems around accountability.
Or they've got some folks on their board who they just need to say goodbye to, or they've got some other really big culture problems and they aren't necessarily dealing with those head-on. They want to bring in an outsider, which is me to talk to them about what their roles and responsibilities are.
Maybe I do a little bit of assessment and to hope that that magically solves the problem. So, I see that with strategic planning. I see that with fundraising planning, all of that, these things that people know they can search for and find people. And so I often want to ask, want people to ask and consider before they come with those kinds of requests.
What's the real challenge you're trying to solve? What's the question behind this fundraising that, that clarity that you're talking about, but even if they don't have it going through the process of you know. We would be asking questions there and that helps a thinking process and helps kind of uncover what else is going on.
Carol: And I think even with those simple requests, can you just come facilitate our board retreat? I think there's often a lot of misunderstanding of, you know, just kind of thinking they're hiring a person to just show up on the day and make some magic happen. And of course, in order for that day to be a productive one, you know, you have to spend some time with the group talking to people, doing some upfront discovery so that you are designing a retreat that meets their needs, not just a generic retreat that's not helpful and not a good use of people's time.
Heather: Yeah. I have a great relation with an organization I've worked with over a number of years, four or five years ago. I did a board fundraising training. It was really well received. Folks had a great time. We did a little bit of role play about how to do a major donor ask, right everything. When I left that day, I thought that was a great retreat.
Well, they called back three years later and asked me to come do another training for their board around fundraising. And as we got into the questions I realized but they were still having the same issue as they were before I did the training. And so, because I had a good relationship, I finally had to say, I don't think the problem is that your board doesn't know how to do that.
I don't think they want to do this. And that's a different kind of challenge and a training doesn't always solve that challenge. It's like a board retreat doesn't always solve a challenge or a strategic plan isn't going to suddenly make your founding executive director share power. It can help. Certainly they can be designed in ways that help, but sometimes it's really scratching and getting into the what's the real issue here? What's going on.
Carol: Although I do think some of those processes help open the door and give us a safe kind of a safe place to start. So I was working with a group recently that, that did have that founder challenge and, and we were working on a strategic plan and ended up with one and I think, you know, going to give them a good one framework to move some things forward.
But the biggest thing that I think it did was create a space where an outsider could compile all the information, talk to everyone back what they said to, to me around these are the things that aren't working. These are the things that are getting in our way and help them have a tough time conversation about what are the roles?
What roles do we need to have on staff? What roles do we need to have with the board? Not to say that it's actually, as you said necessarily going to solve that problem, but I think it at least opened the door to where, before that all those conversations were probably happening, you know, pre COVID in the parking lot after a meeting or, you know, when somebody bumps into each other, you know, downtown or whatnot.
So it at least gets, yeah, it gets it started up what needs to be probably a much more drawn out intentional process that it's not, you're going to do a strategic plan and it's going to have solved all of these other challenges.
Carol: Absolutely. So with that instance where you did the training and you know, and, and that's often what folks will often ask for that, thinking that well, if we just get people to learn how to do the thing, they'll be willing to do it. And especially around fundraising that, I mean, I'm not a fundraising expert, but I certainly see that that can be very intimidating to folks. So when it was actually about not wanting to do it, what were some of the things that you did with the group to help address that challenge?
Heather: Well, then you've got to dig a little bit more into what's behind that. Not wanting to do it. And so some of that can be sussed out through some interviews. Some of that is, is some group discussion. One of the best discussion tools for that is actually something Kim Klein is a great fundraising guru, I saw her do, which is a comparison of how we feel when we give money and all of the positive emotions. Right? So when you're able to make a donation to a cause you really care about how does that make you feel? Lists all these great emotions. And then when you ask someone ready to make a donation to a cause that they really care about, how does that make you feel?
And oftentimes those are some that have really negative emotions. We have some, we have some shame, we have some anxiety we might have. It's around that. And so then comparing those two and really talking about why those are different and, and where that difference comes from. And, and there's a lot of anthropology, there's a lot of cultural feelings about money and who has it and who can talk about it and how they talk about it.
And so really getting folks to, to grapple with that and think about how their own formation around money happened. I think the last piece is making the why really clear. So sure. Board members understand why it's critical for them to do this work. Sometimes I see where organizations are kind of a victim of their own success.
So if you've got a super competent executive director and a great development director, and the board says, you know, next year, we're going to raise $5,000 and there's some support around that. And the board just doesn't do it. They only raised $3000, nothing happens and there's no accountability and the organization doesn't shut down.
Well, then the board really has not much impetus to do that really uncomfortable thing and actually raise the $5,000. So sometimes there's just getting really clear about this, and there's a number of ways to, to build a little bit more heat into the system, to get folks to move into that place that they think is going to be uncomfortable. And a lot of times folks understand once they get there, it's not.
Carol: So with the consulting, hiring practice, what would you say are some mistakes that you think organizations make when they, when they're first doing this? Or you know, even if they've done it before, what gets them, what mistakes do you think are the key ones?
Heather: So one of the key ones we've already talked about is really kind of prescribing the answer before you really understand the question. So you already figured out the process, but you don't really know the true why behind it. The stake that I see is not having all of the people in your organization bought in to both your definition or construction of what you want to address.
And that there's a need for outside help. So if you think there's a problem with accountability on your board and folks really getting things done, your board chair needs to agree that that is true. And most of your board, hopefully, but at least your board chair and your board chair needs to, we need outside help.
Because the last thing that I, as a consultant, want to do is walk into a board meeting where I am not wanted and they don't think they need me. That is not setting anyone up for success. So making sure that all the players involved in that could be staff, board, community members, that we all have a clear and shared understanding of the challenge and the need for help.
And then the third thing I would say is that not allocating enough staff resources. And I guess organizational resources in terms of time and attention. So sometimes there's a belief that if we hire a consultant, they're gonna magically go off into their office and create the most beautiful plan that ever was created and come back and present it to us and we're going to approve it and everything's going to be different.
And in reality, all the projects I do require significant involvement by members of the worker. Patient, whether that is one-on-one yeah. Time with an executive director, time at a board meeting, background information from staff. There's always a need to get their attention and their time and to really have them be part of the process.
So if an organization is at the same time, as we're doing a project, going through a capital campaign, hiring a bunch of people. If they work on elections and it's an election year or a census year, they just don't have the bandwidth. And so really thinking about how to stage those projects so that they can give it their full attention.
Carol: Right. Cause the project and the plan and it all needs to be the organizations and I, I go to the point of actually saying no, I'm not going to write your plan for you because if I do that, it's my plan. You know, even if you've been involved in all the conversations and in the meetings and it actually reflects all of your input.
Just that act of actually doing the draft yourself makes it yours and you have more commitment to it. And, and clearly involving people. Throughout the process ideally builds that buy in, but yeah, it really is about it being the organization's plan and you're helping them walk through a solid process to get some good outcomes, but it's gotta be, yeah, it's not about, can you go cook us up a strategic plan and come back. That's right. Deliver it.
Heather: Do you have any that you'd add to that list?
Carol: I have one and then it went, it's gone. It's flown out of my brain.
Heather: It'll come back.
Carol: It'll come back. Yeah, I think the whole RFP process can also be really problematic because I understand the need to kind of get a couple of different people responding, but even there you, you can still have had conversations with multiple consultants, ask them to put together a proposal based on the conversations without having to go through the strict process of an RFP which I usually think ends up with a different, with a better outcome.
Heather: Absolutely. I am anti RFP all the way. I think there's real value in an organization. Getting clarity on, as we already talked about what they need, how much money they might have when they want to do the work. But the process, particularly the very structured. So we put it out on X date. You have until a week later to send us your questions, we will compile them and answer them.
We will not be getting, having any conversations in advance of you submitting this proposal. Then we might do an interview or we might just pick you based on the proposal that tends to, to not produce the best results, what you get. There are the people who write the best proposals. It's like applying to college or applying to a job, but only ever looking at the resume.
And it doesn't actually tell you what you want to know. And so much of the work that we do as consultants is really about. Does our ethos match our culture, does our vibe match, you know, so you talk about, and I believe this too, that it's the, it is the organization's work to do, and we are there to create the container for them to do it well.
Well, that's a real ethos. And if you, as an organization's leader, don't have that too, then that's something we need to assess out early on in the process. So having those conversations and I agree, you know, you can have conversations with five people. It's probably gonna take you less time than developing an RFP, reviewing all the proposals, doing interviews, just pick five people and have conversations and see what happens.
Carol: Yeah. And how would you say, how would you advise Executive directors or board chairs as they're kind of going into this process of the kinds of things that they would want to ask consultants or the kinds of things that they need to be looking for as they, you know, not just the proposal, but getting into those conversations and, and maybe even if they do the more formal interview process, what are the kinds of things that you would say are important to pay attention to?
Heather: So I think if you, if you've worked with a consultant before, I think back to what worked well for you in that relationship and what you might have wanted to see differently. So if you're really looking for a consultant, who's a fantastic project manager and keeps you on task. Are you looking for a consultant that's really good at conflict management and having hard conversations, thinking about those things that are almost in between the lines of the official work that you really value in a partner.
Another piece of that is kind of organizational values and what are your consultant's values and are there pieces that overlap there so that you're really on the same page about why you want to do the work together. And then the last piece, I think sometimes I get asked for examples of work product.
Which is really challenging for me to provide. So what I often say to people is the work that I do, to transform organizations, so talk to people about what they do experience with me, and what's different about their organization after their engagement, that's the work product. So I think asking around the questions around who have you worked with.
Where, where you'd be doing similar work. Who can I talk to really getting and checking those references? Vibe values and references basically.
Carol: Yeah. So it's essentially kind of thinking through and listening for a fit when you're having those conversations. So are the questions that the person's asking you, helping you are you further along at the end of the conversation in thinking about the challenge that you're you're describing than you were when you began, and that would be well, that's the kind of shift that you want to, you're there to try to create.
Heather: Yeah. Yeah. You absolutely want somebody who is helping you think through. I also think in a lot of ways you want somebody who is going to show up as a partner. Who has, who brings expertise, but who really wants to be there with you walking alongside you. So this is obviously reflective of my own work as a consultant, but I build out free engagement to fit the organization.
I have things that work well that I bring into lots of engagements, but I don't have. Here's the strategic planning package and I'm just going to put it on top of everything I do. So I want to ask questions to know more about you as an organization and what works well. I want you to know that I'm going to be experimenting as we go and learning about you and shifting up.
The way that we're going to do the work in order to really meet your goals. And, hopefully you're okay with that. If you're, if you're an organization that's super regimented, we're not going to work well together. And I can tell, cause if you send me a 15 page RFP, we're probably not going to work well together. I'm probably not going to apply to that.
Carol: Yeah. So once you go through that hiring process and you've decided on something, what would you say are some things that are important as an organization starts to work with a consultant that can help make that be a more productive process for both parties.
Heather: Yeah. A couple of things. One is it's always helpful for me as a consultant to get some of the basic background information. So obviously I've looked at your website, I've read your RFP, or we've had a conversation, but grant proposals or reports are useful budgets. Honestly, tell me a lot about the organization and where you spend your money and what your activities are.
Annual reports, just those things that can get me kind of up to speed on the work so that I can ask better questions. The second piece is I think having a good launch meeting. Often that is with a small team, particularly if we're doing longterm strategic planning work, or even planning a training for staff, who's the two or three folks who are gonna come together and help shepherd this work at that meeting.
I often review the scope that I put together in their proposal. And we adjusted as a team here was my idea. And now we're actually in it. Let's figure out what we need to shift. Also sometimes in that very beginning phase, just having one on one conversations. So as an a organization figuring out who are the few people that we want the consultant to talk to, again, to get a better three 60 view of the challenge to really, and the players to make sure that they are leading off with a really strong background.
Anything you would add?
Carol: Yeah. So that's good cause sometimes I think people want to put every important stakeholder on that strategic planning committee. And I think that's a nice way to do both and to make sure that you're getting the input from all those important stakeholders. And, and there may be other ways that you're doing that as well.
But then also having a small enough working group that it's easy to. Set up meetings and there's momentum and things keep moving. So it's kind of nice both. And yeah, I think just sometimes people jump into the work they're so intent on you know, What the challenges are or whatnot, but I think just taking a minute and oftentimes this will come from the consultant just talking about how you work together, what works for you?
Do you have any pet peeves? What's your style? How do you like to communicate? You know, is it email? Is it a phone call? So that those things can fit together and just being explicit about those things, which I think so often people skip over can really help kickstart a good, a good process in the end, because this is a relationship, particularly with whoever the organizational lead is.
And he was a consultant. So I'm thinking about how to, how to make sure that relationship gets off onto a strong footing.
Carol: So right now we're in a you know, things are so uncertain. A lot of planning processes have basically come to a halt or people have canceled. Maybe they had a retreat coming up. What's your sense of whether people can or can't or should how, how they might approach planning when, when there's so many unknowns at the moment?
Heather: Yeah, it's a question that I hear executive directors really wrestling with right now. In fact, I was just on a call with a group, a peer support group this morning, and an executive director shared that their strategic planning consultant had said to them in March or April. They were trying to finish their plan.
That, that had been in progress for six months and feeling really guilty because they hadn't. And the consultant said right now you've got a circus. You can no longer focus on building the plane. You are dealing with really rough weather. And when you get to a place where you feel like you can fly the plane more easily, you can start building it again.
And so they have actually at this point, given the kind of work they do been able to stabilize and they have are coming back now to that strategic planning. I think for a lot of organizations, what would have been a longer term strategic plan is looking much more short term. It's looking so the end of 2020, maybe to the end of 2021, depending on where they are in the world.
So shortening timelines, not doing future planning when you're still in the midst of crisis. And then I also am seeing organizations use scenario planning a lot more, a tool that's been in our toolbox for a long time, but this is a time when it really matters. It really is, you know if you work in the school system, you have a scenario for, if kids go back, if kids go back for two weeks, if kids go back for a whole semester, and if you run an afterschool program for kids in schools, You've got a button you've had to have all of those different scenarios and having those planned out so that when it switches, you've got a plan that you can pull off the shelf.
We've already had some of those discussions.
Carol: Can you just say a little bit more about what scenario planning is for folks who might not be familiar with it?
Heather: Yeah, I think. Various standard definition would be thinking about creating kind of a matrix of scenarios. So you would think about what are a couple of different unknowns in your community that have a high chance of impacting your organization.
So I did this work a few weeks ago and the two variables we picked one was about how people were going to feel about the economy. Were they gonna feel like it was going down and hilly, going to feel like it was stabilized or maybe even going okay. The other axis we picked the other trendline we weren't sure of was, are we going to be kind of open or closed broadly?
Right. So are things going to be really open and we're going to be kind of back to normal or are we going to be quarantined or in our houses working from home. So in a very traditional scenario planning, you would actually put those on one, on an X axis and one on a Y axis. And now you've got four to five scenarios. What happens if the world is open and everybody feels really good about the economy? Well, bars and restaurants are totally full. Everybody's excited. Right? What happens if people are feeling really terrible about the economy and we're still all at home? That is our Netflix bucket, right? Like people at home with Netflix and cooking, being at home.
So figuring out those areas, whatever those are for your organization and then planning for each of the four, I'm really thinking about what might be true for us in each of those four scenarios. So that's a very traditional example in the school example I gave, there were the school system in North Carolina where I said we have an, a, a, B and a C, and we're going to pick one of these three.
So they've done that work already creating those scenarios for you.
Carol: So, what are some other trends that you're seeing right now, since you work with a lot of consultants across the sector and they're working with lots of clients. So I'm curious to hear from you kind of, what are some of the current trends that you're seeing in the sector?
Heather: So one of the trends I'm seeing is organizations, particularly 10 staff and under. Really saying, I'm not sure we need an office. We need the conference table. We need a conference room every once in a while. We needed a place to start our stuff, our swag, our records, but we don't need it. I need an office space, particularly in places where folks are traveling significantly to get to a centralized office.
And they've discovered that they can really do a lot of that work online. The second trend I'm seeing is that as kind of stress levels have risen, I have certainly seen particularly executive directors dealing with more burnouts and more burnout in their staff and just all of the challenges that come from having an overwhelm.
They’re anxious. That's maybe dealing with kids at home. So there's a lot of shifts in how people are thinking about paid time off leave alternative options for staffing organizations, but there's just this kind of increasing humanity that is coming out of this crisis. And then the third thing that's kind of related to that is I'm just hearing more and more chatter about how the kind of traditional nonprofit structure isn't working for people. And some of that is the board's not showing up well right now either micromanaging or being absentee, some of it is that we're throwing out lots of, of, of old norms that aren't working for us. And so some of those nonprofit norms are going to get thrown out, but I'm seeing a kind of increasing conversation about that piece as well.
Carol: Yeah, I'm thinking about that, but not really sure.
Carol: Cause it also feels like it's so embedded in, in all the systems the many, many systems that aren't working right now and, and the nonprofit sector has a lot of those assumptions built into. So yes. So at the end of every episode, I play a little game just to kind of shift things up a little bit.
So I'm going to ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. And I had picked out three out of the box before, before we got on. So based on your scenario where if I, hopefully we won't be stuck in the, the economy is tanking and we're all forever and ever, but with that, what's your most recent, a guilty pleasure in terms of maybe binge watching a show or, or something.
Heather: Oh, well, My favorite. I don't know if this is a guilty pleasure, but in May I bought myself a blow up pool from my backyard and my absolute favorite thing to do. And I might do it this afternoon. If it doesn't rain, I will get in the baby pool with my Kindle and a glass of wine at the end of the day. And that just makes me so happy.
And I read a book that has no redeeming value. That just is pure floss and it's fantastic.
Carol: I don't think you need to be guilty about that. That sounds like a lot of fun. What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you kind of what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Heather: Well, one of the things I'm really excited about in the nonprofits world is that we just launched a learning series for consultants around how to better incorporate race equity into our work.
And so I was sitting on a zoom with 50 consultants who are all trying to figure out how do we do this work better? How can we be in the work with people helping to raise these issues, helping to have careful conversations. So I'm really excited about that series and about the shifts that are coming for myself and my own consulting work and for hopefully lots of other people in those conversations.
Carol: That's great. And how can people find you? How can they can get info?
Heather: Yeah. So if you are interested in the consulting work I do, my company is called Third Space Studio, all spelled the thirdspacestudio.com. And if you're looking for a consultant or accountant or coach or other expert, you can find me at https://www.nonprofit.ist.
Carol: And we'll put all that in the show notes. So people will be able to get the links. Well, thank you so much, Heather. It has been great talking to you.
Heather: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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