In episode 65 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Lisa G. Hazirjian discuss:
● Some common mistakes and misconceptions nonprofits have about policy advocacy
● Simple steps to take to get to know policy makers better and build relationships
● How to build a ladder of engagement for your supporters and volunteers
Lisa Hazirjian, PhD, founded Win Together Consulting to help progressive change makers develop strategy, build power, engage supporters, and leverage strengths to achieve their goals. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy Studies, Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, and Ph.D. in U.S. History from Duke University, and is working toward a Nonprofit Leadership Certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School. You can reach Lisa at email@example.com.
Important Links and Resources:
● Win Together Consulting
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Lisa Hazirjian. 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 of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Lisa and I talk about public policy advocacy for nonprofits. We explore how anger and sadness can be a catalyst for action, how nonprofits – specifically c3s in the US – can incorporate advocacy into their work and to further their mission, why it is so important to think about why your issue could matter to a decision maker – from their point of view, some simple steps you can take to start building a relationship with policy makers, and how to identify and build a ladder of engagement for your supporters
Welcome Lisa. Welcome to the podcast.
Lisa Hazirjian: Thank you so much, Carol. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here today.
Carol: I'd like to start out with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you and what would you describe as your why?
Lisa: A lot of answers to that question, but they really all come back to two things. One of which is really at, at a few key points in my life needing to find an outlet for a lot of sadness and anger during times of loss. And the other being my training as a historian, I did a career change. I have a PhD in modern US history and I studied social movements and public policy and how they influenced one another. And the moment when all of that came together Was 2008. The moment really lasted about six months starting with a tenure track job offer which was great. Except at the university where I was offered a job. This is back before marriage equality. And I would be moving with my partner now, my wife and the university didn't offer domestic partner benefits and that. Could have been a big issue. And so I asked if they might be able to come up with some way for my wife to get onto the university's health insurance policy. I pointed to a couple of examples of other universities that had made these kinds of accommodations. And long story short the response, I got a few days. The immediate response I got was being yelled at, which was not good. But the ultimate response was being told the university is no longer considering your candidacy for this position. And I. That was very upsetting as you can imagine.
And this was 2008 and I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands because the contract I had had just ended. And I didn't know what I was going to be doing, but. I was approached and asked to pull volunteers together for the Obama campaign to have a presence at the Cleveland Pride Parade and Festival and I did that. And I did that specifically. Because Barack Obama was a candidate who, although he did not at the time support marriage equality yet he did support an employment non-discrimination act that we still don't have. Still trying to get what's now the Equality Act passed. But for me, this was a way, not just to get something for myself, but to get something for everyone to fight, to have a president who would sign a much needed non-discrimination act. And that became the thing that I put all of my emotions into for the next several months. And really saw a lot of the things I had studied coming into action in terms of what it means to do.
Marshall your leadership skills in a way that draws in hundreds of people to build the collective power you need to achieve a goal, which in this case was getting Ohio for, for the campaign. After the campaign I took some time to take stock and realized that I should build myself an off-ramp from academia and an on-ramp into professional advocacy work.
Carol: I feel like that's an off-ramp that a lot of people are exploring these days. But that's a different conversation.
Lisa: I would say it is a different conversation. And I can recommend someone to talk to you about that.
Carol: I appreciate that story and I do think that a lot of advocacy work does start with something you're angry about or something that pisses you off, or sadness or any of those things that can be a catalyst to, okay, well I can sit in this, or I can try to move things forward and. Said, have things be different for me, but have things be different for a wider group of people, which is, which is so important. My exit from history, I was a history major back in college, was much less dramatic than yours. I was doing my thesis for my BA and at the library, the big library downtown in Philadelphia and reading magazines from the late 1800s. I was looking at the role of advice being given to women on parenting in that time period in Germany. And I found that I was allergic to old paper. So a life of being an art for sure was not going to be in my future. So, not quite the same, but got that commonality, that background. So as you said, you've shifted into doing political ad advocacy work and, and helping people with their political campaigns. With, with nonprofit organizations, and I think there are a lot of misconceptions that people have about what's allowed, what isn't allowed. What would you say are some of those, some of the biggest misconceptions that you run into in terms of advocacy work and organization, non profit organizations that you work?
Lisa: It's interesting. I mean, I think plenty of people before me have said that one of the biggest misconceptions out there is this idea that nonprofits can't do policy advocacy. And that's just absolutely not the case. Of course they can. And I would argue they should, right? Nonprofits have a lot more knowledge and experience in a whole range of fields than our areas where public policy is made than most of the people who are making those decisions.
And when nonprofits bring their voices and bring the voices of the people they serve into those conversations. To try to advance policies. They're really doing a service to everyone cuz it's not like lawmakers can be experts on everything, none of us can. AndI'm, I'm not an attorney and if I were, I would have a disclaimer that I'm not giving legal advice. But, but the short of it is that, As long as you aren't endorsing a particular political candidate doing anything to try to affect the to try to elect person X over person y it's very likely that you're perfectly legally compliant. And it's nearly impossible for most organizations, even full-time advocacy organizations. Run up against the IRS limits on how much time and money you can spend on advocacy.
But that misconception aside, cause that's one that comes up over and over. I actually think another really really major misconception is, progressive nonprofits can't get anything done unless Democrats are in power. Or the flip side of that, that having democrats in power means that progressive nonprofits can get things done. Neither one of those is completely true. And, both of them miss the reality that there are a lot of things competing for attention at legislatures, and at the end of the day, it's anyone's ability to influence those decision makers that matters.
And there are a few things that nonprofits can do that can really help with that. And one of them is simply, Having supporters who are constituents of those key lawmakers and the other is speaking their language. So when I was executive director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network I, I did not harbor any illusion that many of the Republican lawmakers in control at the North Carolina General Assembly were going to be moved by A lot of the things that motivated me, the fact that I had lots of gay male friends living with HIV, for example. But I did think that they would probably be moved by the idea that it would be great if our kids could grow up in a world where, once they are adults, they're not worried about HIV. And that in the meantime it'd be great if the state wasn't spending as much money dealing with HIV. And having those messages that resonated with the lawmakers really, really made a big difference.
Carol: A couple things. Obviously our conversation is all grounded in the context of the United States. I do have folks who listen to the podcast from around the world. So for this topic, it's all within the particular laws and institutions that we have here. You mentioned the IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, that's what it's called. And I think the limits that you were talking about also are particular to one type of nonprofit, which is, I don't know the percentages, but I'm guessing the most common is the c3 within that code. And then of course our politics in terms of our two-party system and all of that. But with all of that in mind I think about what you're saying, taking all of those particularities of the US aside, what you're talking about or really thinking about what matters to the decision makers that you're trying to speak to, and share your message. Share your, trying to move things forward, getting in their shoes, thinking about how they're looking at things where there might be common ground. I mean, that's something that folks could do
Lisa: anywhere. Absolutely. No, that's, that's exactly right. And , I have some colleagues in Canada who, who I've talked with about similar things , and different particulars about how the government is structured, what parties might be called, et cetera, but the same basic principles. And I would add that, a lot of these tips for doing better public policy advocacy also apply to just any mission advocacy, including fundraising. I think many of us have had the experience of sitting down and trying to figure out how to translate how we talk about our work and our mission in the day-to-day. The language of whatever major funder we might be applying for funding from and just , speaking their language is half the battle there.
Carol: What matters to them and, and how do you, I mean, so that, that. What are some of the, specific or concrete steps that people can take to start being able to shift their perspective and get a better understanding of the folks that they're trying to influence?
Lisa: So I mean, always sort of trying to ground ourselves in who's our audience. Who is it? Who, whose help We really need. Because if it was just us , right? If it was just our staff, our board, the people we serve, the people on our email list, then we could just mobilize everyone and do it. But when we need to persuade. People who are on that, on the outside of that us, that we really need to think about who are these people? And , these days it's not that hard. Everyone's got a website. It's , you can start doing things. I think one step that is really useful is to. To do like a really quick survey of the people who receive your email. Your email blasts and simply asks like, Hey, do any of our policy makers at the local level, county, state, or whatever the kinds of divisions of government might be in other countries? Because. a good chance that there are people who are receiving your emails, who do have relationships.
And that's important in two ways. The first being they're really gonna know and understand those people a lot better. And second many times the best messenger is somebody who already has a good relationship. With that lawmaker. So that's, that's just one, one really simple thing that people can do.
Carol: And all those steps that you take to build, build that relationship, start to get to know the person. And I was listening to another podcast last week, and this was more in terms of kind of. , business networking and, but the person had a, had a principle of no ask before one year of, of being in relationship with that person. So not like, okay, I'm gonna knock on your door and I'm gonna ask you immediately for something that, that and, and she used the word political capital, although it wasn't, capital p and I don't know what you think about that or. . It, it, that's just, that's just one framework for thinking about it. But what I did appreciate about it was that you need to invest something in that relationship before you're asking something of the person.
Lisa: So, I mean, I would not wait a year, not wait a month. Okay. If you need something, you ask, but I, but I definitely concur that it is always better to start building a relationship before you need something. And I, I recently, well a little while back wrote a blog piece that the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits put out. It actually came out shortly after the November election here in the US and it was simply a sort of , why and how to congratulate the people who just won. And , basically saying like, this is a great opportunity just to get on their radar, tell them a sentence about what you do, what you care about, make sure you're gonna get their emails. And it's just, it's going from being a complete stranger. To have that initial point of contact, which can be really important later on when something comes up and you and you really need to have a more substantive conversation. .
Carol: So I think some other things I really appreciated that post of yours and cuz it's so simple, right? And anybody can, any, can, anybody can do that. But not everybody's going. Which will be the differentiating thing. And then other simple things helping, celebrating wins, and thanking someone for, for lots of different things. Just all those little bits and pieces that you can do to start cultivating that relationship.
Lisa: That’s exactly right.
Carol: Are you saying some of the big mistakes that people make?
Lisa: Well, one of the biggest mistakes I've made and have really learned from is Limiting trying to do everything ourselves and limiting opportunities for other people to get involved. , the reality, I, I love that part of your tagline is that, that this podcast is for progressive nonprofits and associations, organizations , wanna achieve big things without being martyrs through the cause. And I have definitely been in positions where I have. Worked myself to the brink of needing to be admitted to the hospital for rehydration and rest. And that is not healthy and it is not sustainable. But it's not necessary either. The reality is that whatever it is that we're doing, whatever.
Mission is whatever our immediate goals are, there are other people out there who want us to be successful and there are a lot of people out there who wanna help and we just need to ask. And the reality is that when we give people. Strategic opportunities to help out at whatever level of engagement works for them.
Whether it's , let me take three minutes and do something, or let me take three hours and do something once a week. Or let me take three hours one time in my life. Whatever it is, that gives us so much more capacity. to get things done. And so II, I think one of the most important things that any organization can do is think about the best ways to engage their supporters more frequently in more meaningful ways.
Carol: , and I appreciate what you're saying around, it's not necessary, but I would also say especially in this work and probably any work, the more people you have involved, the more effective you're gonna be anyway. Oh, absolutely. But I see a lot of times like organizations that let's say they're an environmental organization and they do environmental education and they have this assumption.
So we bring these kids out, they're doing environmental education, they're gonna talk to their parents, and their parents are gonna become advocates for the environment. And it's like, there's so many leaps between the one to the other that , maybe one or two of the folks will have that ultimate outcome.
But if there's so many little breadcrumbs that you could, you could, or. . Steps that you could offer people, but I find it's hard for people to think of what those little steps
Lisa: are. Sure. And I, so, yes. And . Okay. . I, I think that there are a, another mistake I see a lot are organizations who have a ton of ideas, let's do this thing and let's do this thing.
And here's another thing we can do, and here's another thing that we can do. And all of, and some of those ideas can be fabulously creative and innovative and do a good job of leveraging their strengths, but they aren't necessarily attached to a core strategy. To achieve a particular campaign milestone or particular goal nor are they attached to a more overarching organizational goal of building long-term power.
And , I, I, I want to destigmatize the word power because the reality is, Power is what you make of it. And having the power to make the world a better place in whatever way your nonprofit or association is trying to do should be celebrated. And one thing that I help organizations do is take a step back, and this is a place where my training as a historian really helps.
Even though you stopped in those archives , you can understand that as a historian you develop this perspective that is simultaneously very long range. And has a ton of attention to details of how change happens over time. Like that is very much what historians do. And it's what successful advocacy organizations Do if they're doing a great job of developing strategy, is they think ahead a few years down the road to the impact they wanna have, and they backfill and think about, okay, well we can't.
We don't have the resources we need right now. We don't have the capacity we need right now to achieve this big thing that we wanna achieve by 2025, let's say. But we can get there. Let's think about the steps to take to get there. And it could mean just growing the number of people who. Who are part of your organization, who you're in dialogue with, who you can mobilize in support of a goal.
It can mean building out, cultivating a group of people who can talk to the media and be effective storytellers on behalf of your organization. It can. People who can bring some specialized skills that you need. You brought up an environmental piece. It could be that you need the capacity to just get water samples from across the entire state.
And it turns out that. That's something where you can teach everyday people to go out and help be water monitors. I have very little expertise in this. I'm just using this as an example. Sure. . .
Carol: I was thinking about what you were saying, and I think one of the things that the nonprofit sector does not struggle with is a deficit of ideas.
And a deficit of things that they could do or ways that they could try to move their issue forward. But can you give me an example of when folks have taken those ideas but really built a strategy to move their issue forward, and how they've engaged people.
Lisa: You like the pregnant pause? . . Well, I, I'm gonna give you an example that I know well which again, is drawing from my own work with the North Carolina AIDS Action Network. When I was hired I was the, the first The, the first full-time staff person the, the first executive director staff of one, and the first thing I did was ask like, Who, who are we?
Who are all the people who've ever been involved in this formerly all volunteer thing, and it was a list of 243 people who I either was able to find an email or a phone number for. And I started building and I, I started building for a very particular need that we were aware might be coming down the pike.
A program that at the time was called the AIDS Drug Assistance Program had There have been funding crises in many of the states in the US including North Carolina that resulted in waiting lists and and we were anticipating a state budget battle that I needed to prepare for, and I knew that No matter how great a one pager I developed and no matter how much of a collegial relationship I was able to form with the heads of the Health and Human Services appropriation subcommittees that at, at the end of the day, I was gonna need more to convince them.
And, and so I started tapping the people who we already had as folks who had ever done something and using them as my starting point to recruiting more people across the state, just needing numbers and also needing breadth of coverage, particularly in the district. Of the legislators who sat on that super important health and human services appropriation subcommittee.
So I was very intentional about going to those particular corners of the state and finding constituents of those specific people so that when the moment came around, I kept on chasing after Nelson dollar trying to talk to him, and he kept on not talking to me. and I kept on trying to schedule an appointment.
We had a, a list, a deep list of people who lived in his district and we mobilized them to make phone calls into his office. And , gave them a little bit of training about what to say on the phone. And I gave it a couple of days, and then I went back to the office to make an appointment and the legislative aid said, oh , we've been getting a lot of calls about that issue.
Let me fit you into his schedule. And II, I mentioned this because a lot of us who got a lot of education might have some letters after our name, are under the illusion that all we have to do is, is. Develop a compelling argument. But actually we need to actually force people to listen to our argument.
And , I I I like to say that there can't be persuasion without the pressure to actually listen to you. And so that's a case of doing that base building, that intentional base building to create the pressure for a key legislator to. and that
Carol: base building. I mean, I'm on a lot of newsletter lists and, and , get advocacy alerts.
And some I respond to and some I don't. And I, I don't consider myself , someone who's really that, that that'sI've, I, I would say probably I'm a reluctant advocate. And so even something like that, I feel like. It takes some steps to get people comfortable to pick up the phone, send an email, do any of those things, and contact decision makers.
And it is one of the things that we talked about beforehand, that, that. I think it is relevant in a lot of different circumstances is this notion of a letter, a ladder of engagement. And you talked about before the kind of thing someone can do in three minutes, or maybe it's three hours in a week or maybe it's three hours one time.
Can you talk a little bit more about that and, and kind of. cultivate your base. That's a, that, that, there's a lot of things that could go into that Right. To actually have it be successful.
Lisa: Sure. . No, I would love to talk about that. And, and, and I will say that when I was with, with N C A N, with the AIDS Action Network, just about every board meeting my staff and I would tell a story about that.
Explained the roles of in the end it was me and a community organizer and a communications person. And we would tell a story that demonstrated what each of us did in the organization. But it also talked about our ladder of engagement. And the story would go something like this. , it would go something like Our community organizer went to this event in the community and met a bunch of people and had conversations with them and moved some of those people from being members of the general public to being people who we had the ability to get in touch with.
By getting their contact information, getting them signed up to receive our emails. And at the same time he invited them to become part of our volunteer team, where we would ask people if they would make a commitment to. Devote three hours one time in the next three months to helping us out. And so we wanted to give people a sense of, we're not asking for your whole lives, but we also don't wanna bother trying to get you out to things if you're not thinking that.
, sometime in the next three months, don't wanna do this. And that was.
The beginning of us explaining our ladder of engagement, the first rung is simply putting your foot on that bottom rung and saying let me get on your email list. Let me get on your text list. Here's how to hear from me.
But maybe you might grab on higher on that ladder and say, what? I have this intention of becoming a volunteer and stating that And then we would move people. And , I would say the next real step our communications person would move people from being signed up to getting people to take that first click action.
The getting people to respond to an action alert, getting people to share something on Facebook and. and we, we really developed a few different ladders of engagement and one of them was more of a base building lane of volunteering with us at community events to do the same thing our community organizer had done.
Go around with clip petitions, postcards, et cetera, and bring more people involved. And another piece was more storytelling oriented. Get people involved in telling their stories about why our work mattered to them, and why the policies we advocated for were important in their lives. But the basic concept is to have a predefined.
Set of steps that people can take from not being anywhere on the ladder to climbing up that ladder to positions of. Increasing responsibility and importance to the success of what you do? I personally am okay with letting people skip a few steps. Sure. But, not be all the way at the top. Because having those steps is important for getting some proof of concept that somebody is going to be reliable and be effective at particular things.
And there's also a certain amount of skill building that one wants to do. If you have someone who's volunteering as a phone banker you want them to be really good at it before they host their own phone bank and need to support other people who are doing it for the first time.
Carol: Well, I love the specificity of, of that.
, the email one, I think , or contact information. I think a lot of people are probably already doing building their list, building how they get in touch with people. But that next step of the way that you talked about three hours in the next three months it's memorable for one.
And it's possible to, it's, it's. I mean, it's a commitment, right? It's not nothing. It's not, I'm just gonna ask you to do this little thing that doesn't really matter to you. It's, it's, it's more than, It's something you need to advocate and actively say yes to. And yet it's not so huge that it becomes you get paralyzed by, oh my God, they're asking me to do something and I'm not ready.
. And I, and I love the idea of also that , through that One, you're seeing who does step up. And then two, you're having a chance to build their skills as they, as you, as you go. And then also , seeing, do they follow through? Do they say what they're gonna do? , and I think that's applicable in so many different parts of the work that nonprofits do.
Ofsomeone may be trying to build their board and I often talk to groups about, okay, so get them involved in some other way. A committee, a campaign , some specific things that you can see how they are to work with. Do they follow through? Do you have to chase after them? , what, what?
What's, what's their work style? Does it fit, is it contributing, is it draining? Before you ask them for something really big, that could have just a huge impact on your organization. Oh
Lisa: my gosh. Well, that is excellent advice You're offering Carol , but there's another piece that I wanna put out there.
So, and, and really just talking with youI remember. The community organizer who was on staff when I ultimately left CAN he reminded me one day that. The first time he met me, he was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and I was a guest speaker in a class he was taking.
And that was his first awareness of me and what I was doing. And he waited tables at a local diner. andI bumped into him there and then he showed up as a volunteer. And was someone who I saw had some real natural abilities in this area and got him involved more. And then he had a job where we were coalition partners and , I.
And finally I was able to hire him at, at one point. But so he went all the way from being a member of the general public in a classroom. And getting involved as a volunteer and then being a volunteer leader to ultimately being staff. And I, I, one thing that I'm really proud of to this day about the program that we built and what our supporter engagement program looked like is the number of people who.
Were involved as volunteers or interns who now work in the field. It's actually a really great way to build the profession, a really great way to help people build their leadership skills.
Carol: Absolutely. And I helped an association build their ladder of engagement. And this wasn't from a policy point of view, but from a volunteer leadership point of view.
And it was just okay, you have the first step is to become a member, maybe, or maybe even the first step is to come to an event that the association holds or, or even. Well, I guess the first step before that would be it'd be in the field and , be, become aware of the organization, come to an event.
And then use the resources of the organization to step up to volunteer to be a presenter or write something for, and it could be at the local level or, or regional level. And it's just like one small step, as you say, after another of taking increasing risk. Responsibility. And then in that case for that person building their visibility over the course of their career and their leadership skills.
But I think it's also one of the things that we tried to do, as we were mapping that volunteer leader experience and also thinking at each step, what is, what is the person. , not only what they're contributing, but what they're gaining through that experience of the, the, and, and being explicit about the skills that they're able to learn.
As they go and how, what they're doing ultimately is contributing to that bigger picture.
Lisa: Well that, that piece is huge. And one thing that's always been important to me whenever I do any training, well first of all, I always believe that if you have volunteers, you need to actually spend some time training them before you just throw them into whatever they're doing.
But then, yes, please . For me, the training should always have a why as well as a how. Hmm. And have the big picture of what we are doing because here's how this little thing that we're gonna be doing fits into the bigger picture. And then with, with the, how I like to have let me explain it.
Let me demonstrate it. Let's have your role play it. Let's evaluate. Okay, now you're ready. And I think that that is super important to the quality of volunteer experience that people have as well as being important to helping to really build those skills. , to me, one sign of a great volunteer program is an intention of.
Of having this ladder of engagement where a volunteer who's come three times Has an opportunity to say, yes, I would like to take on the next level of responsibility where I can be the person who trains and coaches new volunteers doing the same thing. And that expands the organizational capacity so much.
And These are still folks who might just be giving three hours a month. If you have 10 people doing that, that's a huge amount of capacity that you're adding. .
You're, you're, you're creating more and more ripples that they, that they can contribute to. And I think another thing that you were talking about, the why and the how I I. I work with groups helping them with their strategic planning and, and it's a, it's a process, right? There are lots of steps to it.
And one of the things that I've realized recently is that I, it's so obvious to me what the why is that I forget to, to tell people. The why of all these steps that we're taking through the process. And so I had an instance recently where there was a, there was just a real misalignment of expectations because I hadn't done a good job of explaining why.
And I think for any of us who do the thing that they do you get to be very familiar with it. And it all seems just as obvious. I don't know what anything is, and so it's easy to forget. So I appreciate that of course
Lisa: Of course. And what, even though I said it as I just listened to you, I realized that what you are saying applies to a situation I am in right now.
Carol: Well, I think I'm gonna make it my mantra for 2023, the why and the how , not just the how. Well,
Lisa: Great, great. It is good, it is a good mantra. I just need to apply it to all aspects of my life, not just. That particular one.
Carol: Right. Right. And I, I, what I also appreciate about what you're talking about, we started talking about , decision makers that you're trying to influence and looking for how, where the commonality is. But I think it's really with your base, it's also looking for what, what's gonna. Influence them to take action. Those, those smaller steps that you're asking people to take. And some people I was thinking also, I was focusing on skills, but. Some people may be very motivated by that. Other people, it may be other things of, being part of a community that's, that's, that's taking action , seeing those and, and you, I think it's, it's hard to go to wins cuz. I don't know, policy campaigns, there's often, it's, it's often a very long process before you really get the big triumph. So finding those small wins as you go to keep people moving and motivated, but thinking about different things that will engage people and motivate them. People at the same time of being strategic, of not trying to do all the things for all the people.
Lisa: No, I mean that, that's right. And, and listen, you're very much in touch with the reality that That policy change can be glacial except when we don't want it to be Right. like having this bullet train of bad policy coming right at us .
Carol: Although the people on the other side will probably think, well actually we've been building towards that for the last 50 years.
Lisa: No, and and, and you're exactly right. You're a hundred percent right about that. But , I think that The way I and other people who have volunteered have experienced these policy campaigns. Part of the win, again, is just the opportunity to be helping them, let me try that again. I think that for a lot of people, the win is simply being able to do something with other people to help move closer to that eventual win. And because of the isolation and the frustration of being by yourself, being frustrated by something and just feeling helpless. That's terrible. I hate it. , other people hate it. And so for me, and I'm like, look, let's just, let's create, create ways to bring folks together.
And I'm, I'm thinking about back, I think it might have been 2016 when the North Carolina legislature passed HB two, which. National press. It was one of these anti-trans bills. And I was pissed. Lots of people were pissed. And , I decided, all right, I gotta do something. What can I do? What's, what's gonna be helpful? And I decided just to take some skills. That I had learned in, in other campaigns to do some grassroots fundraising to try to unseat some of the co-sponsors of that odious bill. And so I just put together this little , grassroots fundraising thing where I invited people to join me. I had a friend who was able to. Like the community room and her neighborhood for us, I did a little training. We made phone calls just to our own personal contacts, and we raised about $5,000 one evening for some of these candidates to help get them elected. And , in the grand scheme of a campaign for State House or state Senate, that's not a ton of money. But it's also, A significant amount of money. And We all felt like we helped with getting a few good people elected, but also it just meant that we could all be in a shared space and do something ourselves. And everyone we called to help make a donation was also someone who we knew was feeling like, oh, this HB two thing stinks. I wanna do something, but I don't know what to do. So it had those multiple layers or ripples as you said, that reallyI knew that, wellI can donate money, but I, I have onlyI work in the nonprofit sector, how much money can I possibly donate? Well , but I know people and they can donate and they know people and they can donate. Right.
Carol: And so again, that's that . Pulling people in as you talked about, you don't have to do it all yourself. Absolutely. And that actually part of the joy is. Doing it together. . And bringing people together and creating that sense of community. So I really appreciate that. So I'd like to end each episode by playing a game where I ask you an icebreaker question from my little box of icebreaker questions. So we were talking about skills before. What's a skill that you learned when you were young that you would say that you still use today?
Lisa: I'm such a different adult than the kid I was. But there's a really obvious answer. Okay. So the skill that I first used when I was in the fifth grade was simply the skill of not accepting that something has to be the way someone says it has to be. Hmm. And I'm, I'm thinking of a kid, a boy. This is important to the story. A boy from my neighborhood who is in my grade at school decided that girls couldn't play in the fifth grade softball game. And when pressed by me for a reason, why, coming up with this excuse that you had to have a glove, me saying, well, why can't we just borrow gloves? People who are at bat and him saying You have to have your own glove. And so goodie two shoes, I cut recess, to go home and get my own baseball glove. Which I did. But then when I walked out of the door, instead of making a right to go back to school, I made a left. We went to our neighbor's house and knocked on the door and asked to borrow their kids' gloves and went down the street and did it again. I walked back to school with my arms full of baseball gloves. And so at those, those skills of not accepting injustice in the world, doing something so that I get justice for myself, but also taking the step of making sure. , other people have justice too.
Carol: I love that story. That's perfect. I mean, here you were in fifth grade, ? Yep. It's taking, standing up for something you believed in and then doing a neighborhood canvas to collect resources for your cause. . I love it. That's great. That's great. So what are you excited about? What's, what's coming up next for you in your work? What's emerging in the work that you're in?
Lisa: So I am super excited. I have decided that 2023 should be my year of being part of more teams. And I'm excited about a couple of ways in which I see that happening. One is already happening, which is that I'm going to be leading a team of nonprofit. Professionals from various parts of North Carolina where I'm based and leading them through a three month a three month workshop, advocacy academy that we're calling it to help them develop advocacy campaigns that also help them build long-term power. So that's super exciting to me.
And then I'm, I'm really trying to vision into existence. A few more partnerships with organizations and really on the lookout for organizations that are ready to move beyond that. Oh, we've got an idea, we've got an idea. And instead get into the mode of saying, Let's put a pit in this and think about what our desired outcomes are, what we need to get there, actually put together a campaign strategy, take steps, learn the skills we need. And I'm open to doing training and strategic planning, and that's stuff that I've been doing for years. But I, I've recognized that the work that is most fulfilling to me is when I. Have a more sustained engagement with an organization and really be embedded in that team for at least three months to really work alongside folks and ask the questions that prod people and make observations and congratulate people on their great ideas and help make things successful. So I'm, I'm excited. Looking forward and embracing that work. All right. Well,
Carol: Thank you so much, Lisa. It was great having you on the podcast
Lisa:. Hey, this was awesome, Carol. Thank you so much as well.
Carol: I appreciated how Lisa described intentionally building a ladder of engagement. Recognizing that there are a lot of people who want to help and want to get involved but maybe don’t know how. How to shift someone from an email on your mailing list to someone who more actively shows up for your organization. I appreciated the specificity of her ask – are you willing to do something in the next 3 months. And then provide a menu of options – something that takes 3 minutes, something that takes three hours. And by building a pathway of slowly increasing involvement and responsibility you provide folks a way in and you also have the opportunity to get to know them and vet them. See whether they follow through. Do they show up? Do they do what they say they will do? Do you have to chase them?
I have seen smaller organizations want to invite folks on to their board immediately. First being on the board should be just one way to be involved in the organization – even if it is an all volunteer group. And you are taking a huge risk if that is your first ask of folks. It is a big ask for one so one that likely folks who don’t know you that well will say no to. AND you don’t know the person very well either and don’t know how they will or will not contribute to the work of the board. Find smaller ways for folks to be involved. Invite non-board members onto board sponsored committees and work groups. And realize that not everyone is going to make their way all the way up the ladder – some will be perfectly happy showing up for a one off event occasionally or responding to an action alert.
And this ladder of engagement can be for advocacy – but it can be for a lot of other things as well. I am on a lot of email lists for organizations that I support. And I get a lot of donation request emails from them. What I don’t see as often is small ways for me to get involved highlighted or featured. Most organizations put a lot of time into thinking about how to make it easy for me to give them money. Not as many organizations have put the thought into making it easy for me to give them time in meaningful ways. This is a big missed opportunity.
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 Lisa, 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. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it on your favorite social media platform and tag us. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Impactful Boards with Larry Robertson
In episode 61 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Larry J. Robertson discuss:
Larry Robertson is an organizational development and certified governance consultant who specializes in helping nonprofit and state and local governments assess, plan, and improve organizational strategies, governance, leadership, and talent. His work includes organizational assessments, strategic planning, strategy coaching, nonprofit board development and transformation, and talent management. He tailors services to fit the needs and aspirations of each organization through an appropriate mix of analytic consulting, coaching, training, facilitation, and product development. Larry has extensive experience offering these services to organizations that range from small, startup nonprofits to large, mature state and municipal agencies. He has an M.A. in Human Development from the University of Maryland and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Miami.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Larry Robertson. Larry and I talk about the fundamentals of healthy nonprofit governance, red flags that governance needs attention, and why boards should be hearing from and interacting with more staff than just the executive director
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.
Welcome, Larry. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Larry Robertson: Thank you, Carol. Good to see you.
Carol: So I'd like to start the conversation with helping people get some context of your background. So what would you say drew you to the work that you do and, and what motivates you? What would you describe as your why?
Larry: I mean, I think the simplest answer is, is having discernible impact. And I, I, I know we're gonna talk about governance some, but I came that route somewhat indirectly. Okay. I was sitting on a board some years ago and We were nominated for an award. We ended up winning the award. And as a result of that, we got two free trainings. I was one of the people who went to the training. Then out of the two of us, they asked, Well, who can sit on the committee to select our winners for the next year? And so I was that person who didn't step back when they were looking for volunteers. And I ended up being on that committee in 2012. And, and they haven't gotten rid of me yet. And as a result of that, I was on a board that had a significant impact, but that was the impression that I had. But then as I started to learn more about governance, I started to see just how significant an impact the board can have by what it does or what it doesn't do. And we can talk more about that.
Carol: Excellent. You often work with organizations around board development, around governance, strengthening their governance. What would you say are some of the fundamental elements that folks involved with non-profits really need to understand about non-profit governance?
Larry: I think there are probably a couple of things. One is the fiduciary responsibility that a board has, is one of the paramount things. And then one of the things that tends to happen is that boards. Play out how they carry out that function in either a range of ways, one of which can be very onerous and they can be over-involved in the organization and down into the weeds of it. Where if they have competent staff, they don't really need to be there. They need to play a different role and be complementary to the staff. The other one that is equally dangerous is when they fall behind and don't play an active role and pay attention. The detail and one of the biggest ways that that happens is by not observing the extent to which the organization has the capability to survive and then preferably to thrive. Cuz what my work focuses on is how do you actually get organizations to thrive? The sweet spot is the great spot. And that's where boards recognize that they have this, august duty to be the fiduciary body of the organization. But they also are strategic partners with the executive leadership. They recognize as a fiduciary body also and strategically they recognize the need to kind of. Ensure that the board, that the organization has sufficient resources to operate, that there's this clear vision to a path to the future. And that their focus is as much there as it is about the inner workings of the organization. And they look for results to come back to them rather than the detailed process pieces. And, some of the conversations I have with people are really about the concerns they have about the role that the board plays. And if those rules of engagement aren't clear, you can get a lot of fuzziness, you can have 11 people on a board, and they all have 11 different interpretations of what governance entails. And so a large part of what I try to do is some level setting of really trying to get down to things like what's the purpose and do we have a shared understanding of the purpose, the roles, the responsibilities of the board. And then, then we can talk about tactics of how you actually make it work.
Carol: Absolutely. And you started out by saying fiduciary responsibility and I'm, I'm could, could you just define that for folks?
Larry: I mean, you're the stewards of an institution and that means that you have a range of duties, duty of care, duty of loyalty, all those things. But more or less, what it basically means is that the institution is within the grasp of the board and that the board really can be looked upon as the chief responsibility officer. They actually represent the highest level of responsibility within that organization, legally and morally so to speak. And so they need to make sure, much like parents need to make sure that. Their family is taken care of. When you send some of your kids off to college, you wanna make sure that the university takes care of them as well. And so there's a, there's a really August responsibility that you have as a board member and people as they consider board membership, they really do need to take that seriously because legally they're the ones that are gonna be responsible for that institution. And I keep calling it an institution because of some boards. Look more toward the leader and not as the institution, the cause, the purpose of why we're actually having this non-profit exist, and that is really typically supposed to be the paramount reason why the organization exists. It's so easy to get caught up in all those interpersonal things and either, trying to be out front of the staff leader or following the staff leader or, depending on the stage of the organization. They may not even have that yet. But I think a lot of folks go into board membership leadership without really understanding. How they are on the hook for the organization, its purpose. And not necessarily the, the, the people the individuals that happen to be there, happen to be around the table at the time. Although, of course, those individuals have so much impact on whether the organization is thriving or not, particularly if they're founders. And if, if I'm on a board and looking at a founder, I have to look at this as if that is their baby. That is their brainchild, and you have to respect that. At the same time, that can't be the only driver of how you operate. And so you wanna be respectful and it's a really delicate balance to strike.
Carol: And, and I think you've already named a few of those, but what are some red flags when you're coming into organizations that signal to you that governance is weak within the organization?
Larry: Well, I'll say that governance needs opportunity strengthening for improvement. . I think some of the things are: lack of clarity about the purpose of the board, whether the board is really in the game to have true impact, or if it's there because legally you have to have a board in pretty much every state. The extent to which the board members are engaged, and that would mean that they participate in strategy setting. That they recognize that their role is complementary. To the staff, but distinct from the staff that they also have some sense of where the organization is in its development. And that is one of the things that we can get hung up on is some of, I think you and I have talked about this before, some of the orthodoxies that people follow, everything is situational. And if a board recognizes that the organization is at a particular place and its development. It needs to govern according to that and then where it's headed after that point. So a very new board or a new organization that is getting its footing needs a different level of governance than, say, a board that, an organization that has. 20 years of experience resource rich and has, really more existential strategic concerns at hand. The other thing is the extent to which boards have made the simple decisions about what participation entails. What including expectations around whether you give, you, get funds or those sorts of things. And so basically at all to the extent that the roles. The purpose, the responsibilities of the boards are clear and that they actively make a meaningful impact on the organization. And so those are some of the, some of the key features, I think, and the extent to which they actually view themselves as a cooperative body and collaborator with the staff is one of the things I'll look for.
Carol: A couple things in that, that you talked about. I was working with an organization and, and I generally am working with them around strategic planning. I think one value is that those of us who are consultants that go from organization to organization and, and have some of that perspective around, around a life cycle, a typical life cycle of a nonprofit, they were going through that very common transition from a completely volunteer board. They'd had staff for a little while, but we're still struggling with roles and responsibilities and, some of the founding board members wanting to have things, the way they'd always been when, when they did everything. And just being able to share that construct of you're going through a very typical transition, it calmed everybody down. Mm-hmm. because they'd made it so you know about the personalities in the room versus just the very typical organizational transition that they were going through, and how then roles needed to be renegotiated and, and rethought. So I really appreciated that. And then you talked a couple times around the complementary role of the board and staff and then having a collaborative Engagement with the staff. And one of the things that I've seen where some of those orthodoxies around board governance maybe have been misapplied have been where some of them work around. The executive director, as the only staff person of, that's chosen by the board and then that real bright line between board and staff that that can be, can become so, Hard and fast that the executive director is really the pivot point and neither group talks to each other. And so then that, to me, I've observed where that just puts so much power in that executive director role that it can be really harmful to the organization.
Larry: I think that it's a communication, but more or less it's a management leadership issue around permeability. It's true that the board does oversee one person, which is the exec, the chief exec. However, that is not a hard and fast firewall. A good board is gonna be inclusive. And it's gonna be comprehensive in where it gets its information from. It's gonna get that information from staff as well as external parties as well, who have a vested interest in the organization. So I'll, so let's base it on, what I've seen is the high functioning organizations and what they typically, what you'll typically see at the board meetings are open staff who are welcoming and sometimes actually have a role in those. They pay very particular attention to key staff, particularly financial staff in, in board meetings because they have a level of insight that is contributing to board's decision making. They will play a big role with development people. And oftentimes, I know at least on the board that I was on, we would follow the lead of the development person and the chief executive. And so there was a very close relationship there. They'll pay a lot of attention to what's going on programmatically, but only in the sense of not getting into the machinations of programming, but in terms of the impact that the programs are having on the population that they're intending to serve. And so that relationship tends to be really collaborative in the sense that the board needs to make, needs to deliberate and take certain actions, and they can't do that in a vacuum. And the chief executive. A good chief executive will recognize that they don't have to be the expert in the end all in the conversation. And so they will invite into that conversation the people who have the bird's eye view of those particular areas. And that will inform the board in making, really having well rounded deliberations because the staff will be right there in the mix of that conversation and there, and there's a clear distinction between who has voice and who has vote. What a tendency in these really high functioning boards, a staff board and other people that they invite into the conversation have a voice. At the end of the day, the board has the vote, but the question is, what does the board have the vote on? And so that brings to another chapter in the conversation, which is how do you make a clear delineation between that, which is the provide of staff and that which is the provide. The board and while they might have conversations that have some overlap, who takes action and makes decisions is gonna be, should be clearly delineated. It makes it, it's not as nice and neat as I'm portraying it, but to the extent that you can get it close to there, it will make for a better partnership between the two parties. And there will sometimes be some tension, but tension isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means there's a resolution that needs that's around the. If you work it the right way.
Carol: And I think what I've observed is folks really wanting it to be a very bright line and, very. And, and so struggling with the ambiguity of, is this ultimately a board responsibility and role or what role does the staff have in it, especially around strategy, aligning to the mission and those kinds of things. What have you seen where organizations have, have done a good job of, really setting their, their strategic alignment and being inclusive and yet, honoring the responsibility the board has with that fiduciary.
Larry: I can think of a couple of recent examples from me of organizations that have won the board leadership award, and they both, they actually both have, they have a couple of things in common. They serve marginalized communities by and large, and they were large organizations that decided to make huge changes. Their physical plant, including one, in one case, the place where they serve, because where they served really affected who they served. And they made changes to partnerships. And so all of these things came into play that affected how they looked at what their mission was and any shifts that they made in mission. They had those conversations in concert with the staff and the communities that they served, so they weren't just doing it in isolation. They engaged very thoughtfully in a very planful, intentional way over a significant period of time and made these significant shifts in that. Put them on the line in terms of how they raise money, what they raise money for, the partnerships that they created to create these new physical plans, because they actually had to do that in one case, the organization moved from one part of DC to a different part, and that was a radical shift, and they basically referred to themselves as a placed based organization, but they had to get staff aligned with that. Both of them did if they recognized it in order for them to make the major shifts, they were pretty bold moves in both cases. They had to adopt the mentality and an orientation and a practice of full ownership. Of all partners, staff were partners. Not these, not something, they weren't doing things to staff, they were doing things with staff and in the end it made their success more apparent because they were able to accomplish these, these, big things. And, a few years out, in both cases, they're actually now, you know, prospering as a result of that relationship. And they don't have the types of tensions that a tendency when. Are not, they're not necessarily an afterthought, but they're not engaged in the processes as genuinely as they should be. And staff will know if they are really owners. And it's, and I make the distinction between owning and buying in, It's great to buy into something, but you actually get a whole lot more bang for the buck when you can get everyone to own it because they actually are part of the making of it. And, and I think in these cases, that's the difference.
Carol: . And I, the way you're talking about it when it's, when folks are trying to really, I think find that, that perfect bright line of, the, what's, what's on the board side, what's on the staff side. There's the, there's often To me, what it comes down is, is power dynamics and the healthy relationships that you're talking about are more of that partnership, more of that power with rather than power over. And so really appreciating that we all have our different roles. We're not gonna all be doing exactly the same thing, but if ultimately we're pulling in the same direction and, and own those decisions I think that makes a huge difference. But it takes a lot of trust. I'm, I'm working with a group and there's, there's a lot of questioning around all, all the different basic VO vocabulary and what do people mean by each thing and, and, and to some extent, I, I'm curious about what the real level of trust is with between the different parties that's there,
Larry: You said something, Carol, that I think triggered something that I hadn't thought about as overtly as this before, and that, and you basically described emotional intelligence. Maybe a different twist on a question you asked earlier. What would I, what do I see in those boards that really work well? That's actually one of the things
Carol: Is it the board members and those and the leaders all?
Larry: It’s an emotionally intelligent organization.
Carol: So say more about what an emotionally intelligent organization looks like.
Larry: Well, one of the biggest things is that everyone is gonna be mission driven. I'll give you another example of one of these organizations, and they just blew us away. When they were coming up for the board leadership award a few years ago, they recognized that they were at this inflection point, some time ago, that they had lost a significant funder. They were doing work both nationally, internationally, and thought that they needed to, really focus and make a shift. So it's a part of their strategic plan. They did a couple of things. They wanted to focus more on really serious aggressive development of raising funds. So they brought a couple of people onto the board who were, and one of whom I know. So it's like if they got hurt, then they were rocking . They got these two high level development people on their board and they started to create this whole path of development as a part of the board membership. But one of the other things that they did that I thought, One of the most emotional and intelligent and mature things I've seen is that they actually set out a plan to fire themselves as a board.
Carol: Say more about that.
Larry: What does that look like? So what they essentially did is they set within a certain amount of time, each member of this board will be off of the board. And I think it was maybe about three or four year period. And at the time that they came up for the board leadership award, we, we were talking to the last two or three members of that original, that previous board. Both of whom I would put on any board on Earth, quite frankly, they were just that good. But the thoughtfulness and the selflessness behind what they did was just so admirable. It was one of the few times in the interviews and boards, I didn't ask any questions and at, and at the end I asked my committee mates, Can anyone poke a hole? And we are a really critical group, , and the room went silent and they, and it was just because they had that, they had, they were just pumping on all cylinders. And that was a good example of how the organization from staff to board recognized that culture is based upon leadership, and leadership is dependent upon the emotional intelligence of its.
Carol: And what they did there sounds like they were really intentional about essentially succession planning for, from the board point of view and, and really building a, a pipeline and, and seeing their exit versus, I've gotta stick around cuz I was here at the beginning.
Larry: Right, and they also understood what drove them was, they looked to the future and said here are the competencies, here are the skills, the, the experience, the attributes that we need to have now and into the future. And I know you and I did the piece on succession planning with another group and that it sounds very familiar, doesn't it? That they looked into the future and said, this is what we're gonna need. . And so let's now start to prepare for them, and that is like one of the biggest things that a board can do is to be, and that is really one of the charges as a strategic body. What a board should be able to do is to start to project and, and, and you don't do it with a crystal ball because life does interrupt, but you wanna look into the future to the extent that you can and start. Look at, what aspirations, what challenges, what opportunities are down the pike and who's around the table to help us address those things. And that's what the, and that, and I think in the, the cases that I've presented so far, that's what the boards have done, is they've all been really very intentional about recognizing what the future might look like for them and how they can have an impact on that future by making, smart strategic decision. By incorporating the input from different sources of information, data, people, et cetera.
Carol: And one of the big things that has been demonstrated through research over and over again is how White, top organizations are, especially at the board level and, and that disconnect between the folks who are sitting around that table and the purpose of the organization, who they're trying to serve. And, and, but that, that lived experience not being centered in the conversation. So I think a lot of organizations are really grappling with that right now. And, and it does take some emotional intelligence to realize, Okay, it may be time for me to step aside.
Larry: True. And because the question is who are you serving? Are you serving self or institution? And in each of the cases that I've talked about so far, it was very clear that these really high functioning boards understood what their purpose was. That their purpose was not about them. It was about the mission. It was about the people that they serve, and they put that above all else.
Carol: Well, that's why I started each of these conversations with a question around why, because it's, it's just so important.
So at the end of each episode I play a game where I ask a random icebreaker question that I have a box of. So. I always put out three so I can just grab one from it. So what mistake would you say you keep making over and over again or, what lesson does the universe keep throwing in front of you that you have to learn over and over again?
Larry: Let's see. Only one?
Carol: One's good enough for today.
Larry: I think the one that I remind clients of that I have to keep reminding myself of is that it is around the concept of the stages of change. And I know if you're familiar with what Percha and Clement's work and recognizing that you can't always jump into action mode if. Haven't gone, worked through the processes and basically the stages of change. Talk about pre-contemplation, where you're thinking about thinking about it, and then contemplation, and then you're actually thinking about it and then planning and, and, but much like most consultants, I have to take a step back and constantly remember, we're not ready for action yet because they are not emotionally, mentally at that place. And so I have to keep reminding myself. The process begins is really about figuring out where someone is in the stage of change and getting them to move from that. Your task is to get them to move from that stage to the next, not directly to action if they're not ready for that. And so I think that is an age old thing that most consultants battle with. And we have to, we actually have to pray on it, meditate about it, or whatever. It's a level of mindfulness that's important to keep driving us.
Carol: Always a question that I have for myself is, am I doing what I'm asking my clients to do? Am I doing it myself and staying true to that? Or am I just yapping about something? ? So it's an important thing to remember. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Larry: I think I've. Finding these opportunities with these small startup organizations and I'm finding some real stars. There's one I'm working with now that I've been really excited about because they've only been around since 2018, but they have already progressed beyond the thinking and how they have actually put together their pieces. They've already passed a lot of organizations that have been around a lot longer because they do something very simple, which is that they listen. And they ask questions about what they should be doing, and it's like, Oh, I love these. And they're, and they're a group of young people and young people of color. And so they, they've, they've gotten my attention. And there's another project that you'll probably relate to this, that. I'm working with the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in the DC Bar, Pro Bono Center on, it's putting together some sort of a package. We haven't put together this toolkit yet on helping folks think through the process of starting a non-profit. What you experience, what I experience as consultants is that we walk into habits that have already been formed. And so what this initiative is that we are trying to kick off probably in, in 2023, is to get them on the thinking, the conceptual stage of it, and to give them a good running start to include the recognition that you need to have the right people on the board to. They may not be the people who are gonna be on your board three to five years from now. Right.
Carol: And start that mentality from the very beginning.
Larry: Understanding the developmental stages as an organization that you're gonna go through and what you need now and what you need as you move on toward, having your feet solidly, planet on earth will be a very different type of dynamic. And some, in some cases it may mean that the founder may need to shapeshift into a different role as.
Carol: , I really appreciate folks who are founders who realize that that's their energy, that they're really good at getting things started, but not necessarily the right person to stick around for a long time. And they may need to go start something, a new thing or, or they become
Larry: The face to voice, the passion of the organization. It depends. I mean, it depends. And someone else can operate it. And that happens a lot with the people I've worked with. Arts groups, particularly performing arts groups, and that tends to be, what they do is they siphon off the artistic part from the organizational part, right? And they have this bifurcated management structure, but it works for them as long as they, again, have clearly delineated roles.
Carol: Exactly. Well, you mentioned the board leadership award. It's, and it's the org I think it's the organization that you mentioned, Center for Nonprofit Advancement in DC which is essentially the, the state non-profit association for the DMV area and I'm on their other awards committee, so for full transparency, the one that looks at the executive director and the CEO of nonprofits. And, and, in that, in those conversations we're having the same deliberations and the people that end up winning that award really have that Emotional Intelligence, but also I think the emotional maturity and health to be truly collaborative, both with staff and with the board. So. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast. It was, I, I really appreciated our conversation.
Larry: Thank you. And I'll think about that last question again.
Carol: I appreciated Larry’s point that while the roles and responsibilities of the board and staff need to be clear – they are not a bright line – and there should not be a firewall between board and staff beyond the executive director. This is always a balancing act because it can be too easy for board members to get too far into the operational aspects of the organization or start acting like a staff member’s boss when that staff member reports to the Executive director. So it is messy – and needs frequent attention and likely renegotiation as the organization grows and matures. I also appreciated Larry’s point around cultivating open communications throughout the organization. That for the culture to be truly impactful and collaborative – board members should know staff and likewise. The executive director should not be the sole source of information that the board relies on. I have worked at organizations where staff were literally prohibited from speaking to board members unless they were on the senior staff. To me this is a red flag. It points to a very controlling and top down culture. What is the ED afraid of in that case? Perhaps it is inappropriate complaints by staff going to board members? And if so – is there a safe and clear way for staff to share their feedback and challenges? I have experienced executive directors so closely managing what information was shared to hide real challenges within the organization from the board – to the point in one case where the senior management almost bankrupted the organization. So communication, trust, collaboration and transparency – all things that will result when the folks involved in the board – staff partnership that undergirds healthy governance have the emotional intelligence and maturity that Larry mentioned.
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 Larry Robertson, 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. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it! And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Influential leadership with Hugh Ballou
In episode 59 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Hugh Ballou discuss:
Hugh Ballou works with visionary leaders and their teams to develop a purpose-driven high-performance culture that significantly increases productivity, profits, and job satisfaction. through dramatically decreasing confusion, conflicts, and under-functioning. With 40 years as musical conductor, Ballou uses the leadership skills utilized daily by the conductor in teaching relevant leadership skills creating a culture that responds to the nuances of the leader as a skilled orchestra responds to the musical director while allowing each person to excel in their personal discipline while empowering the culture.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Hugh Ballou. Hugh and I talk about what defines leadership and why moving from idea to action is so critical and too rare, how influence is key to leadership, especially nonprofit leadership, how communication flows within organizations are so important, and why they are too often ineffective.
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.
Welcome Hugh. Welcome to Mission Impact.
Hugh Ballou: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Carol: So I like to start to give people some context and just ask you what, what drew you to the work that you do, and what would you say motivates you? What would you say is your why?
Hugh: I am a leader because I influence people and I enjoy helping people who are visionary create the skill set and the tactics to be able to influence other people because out of every a hundred people have an idea, only three people do something about it. And so I really like working with non-profit leaders cuz they have such great programs and ideas, but they need what I have to be able to accomplish their work and completely fulfill their mission rather than getting stuck partway.
Carol: . So you, as you said, specialize in working with leaders and particularly non-profit leaders. And there are lots of books about leadership. There are lots of people who talk about leadership. How would you define leadership? What does the word mean to you?
Hugh: Well, I spent 40 years as a musical conductor. And people perceive the conductor to be a dictator. That doesn't work very well in today's world. you got a bunch of union players in an orchestra, you paid 'em for two hours, they're gonna leave in two hours. Whether you've accomplished what you wanna accomplish or not, they're not very sensitive. Like, Oh, I need two more minutes. No, you've paid us for two hours. We're going. So we're not a dictator because we got this little white stick. You can't really make people do anything. What you can do is influence people to function at a higher level. So leaders have a position of influence and we influence people to work in the vision that we've defined. So a transformational leader transforms ideas into reality. Transformer leader is the whole methodology of transformational leadership is focused on the culture of building high performance.
Carol: You talked about influence. What, what are some ways, what do you see as being effective in influencing the group that you're trying to lead?
Hugh: If I'm in front of an orchestra and it's not, I'm not getting what I want, then I need to go look in the mirror and work on myself. If I'm at a board meeting as a non-profit executive, and it's not going well. Well, maybe I haven't been really clear on where we're going. I haven't been very clear on everybody's role and responsibility, and I have not been very clear about how I expect them to step into this place of performing. And so I've created a look for, for look, performing culture. Just by my lack of preparedness, my lack of understanding, how to motivate and engage people. And right there if I'm prepared, I'm on time. I'm enthusiastic, I'm an expert at what I'm doing because I've studied it and I've worked on myself, then people will respond in kind. It's the reciprocity of what we do as leaders.
Carol: . And you talked about vision within that and. Sometimes an organization could be led by an or with a, by a leader that has a really strong vision. But it seems to me that reciprocity that you were talking about, of helping everyone see themselves as part of that vision, building a shared vision is, is also so important. How have you seen that work in organizations?
Hugh: Well, that's essential. Here's an example. Now leaders have the vision period, but leaders don't do it alone. And leaders wanna get other people to ratify that vision and then come back up with a plan of how to get to that vision. So your vision is the idea that what about, what are you doing? Center vision. Transforms leaders, transforming organizations, transforming lives. So we, it's a transformational process. We do this in our, our mission through, through coaching, through planning, strategic planning, through, leadership empowerment, through board development, et cetera. So We do it because we've got a team behind us and I created the vision. I've had others that have created parts of that to apply it. So we send the vision out and then people come back and they might have some modification of how it sounds because it's gotta be really clear to everyone. So we, we, we'd accept those modifications so it's clearer and. We've been to namby pamby and it needs to be more profound in the language. So we negotiate those changes and then it's up to everybody. So you're in strategic planning. If you, if you write a strategy and you give it to the board, you've completely cut 'em off at the knees. They cannot engage because it's your plan, not their plan. So we guide the planning process. They participate, and once they start creating these, these parts of the plan, they own it. And what goes on in the culture that we orchestrate, That's my word. I'm a conductor. We orchestrate that system. There's a whole shift in the culture because we've co created the plan based on the leader's.
Carol: I think that co-creation process is so important when I'm working with clients non-profit organizations, and it's usually the board and staff working on that strategic plan and, and vision. And, sometimes they'll want me to write it at the end, right? And I like literally no, you. This is your plan. You need to, you need to craft it. I can help, I can guide, I can provide feedback but it's gotta be yours. So that piece is so important. You've mentioned being a conductor a couple times. What would you say having been a music director, having been a conductor, what, what has that taught you about leadership?
Hugh: People respond and we can create problems. We can make problems worse, or we can make it very clear so people know how to respond. And so the culture is a reflection of the leader.
Carol: . And that culture piece is so important. I've noticed that recently there's been so much conversation about folks going back to the office. Sometimes people trip and say they're going back to work. Well, we've all been at work for the last. Two and a half years. That we're going back to the office because we need to have culture. Forgetting that when you have a group of people, you always have culture. What are some things that you've seen leaders be able to do to really build effective cultures?
Hugh: Well, and many leaders in this time, we were separated for two years plus. Didn't miss the Olympics, they just went virtual, but they really created systems. No matter where people are, we could be engaged. So my teams, I guess your teams too are pretty much in different continents all the time. They have people all over the world. And so it really amplified our presence. It's so, the culture piece is that relationship piece. Now, in a musical ensemble, like other ensembles, there's a very clear culture. If I wanna say something to the violin, I talked to the concertmaster, and I said, They need the bowing to do this. The concertmaster turns around, interprets it in violin talk. There's a certain language they use and I don't just say, Hey, you over there do this. No, there's a very clear protocol there. And it's a very clear protocol that you start the rehearsal with the concertmaster right on the lick of the hour cuz there's somebody from the union there. So you start now and you end now. So it's my job to get the work done in the time allotted. So this is a very clear culture and nobody criticizes the conductor. People raise the bar on their performance and they try to do it. The culture respects the leader, which is the conductor, they play as the leader intends. If they don't respect, they play exactly as they direct, which could be choppy. Which could be fragmented. So there's a, there's a relationship piece that defines the culture. And they respond to the person because I treat them as individuals and respect the individuals. So the culture is the center vision, is my brand. It's the synergy of the common vision. So if we go through that exercise like we talked about a minute ago, of, of defining not only the, the milestones that you want to achieve, your ultimate long term objectives and your short term goals, and those milestones along the way. Then we've got this, this energy, which really sets the bar for the culture cuz now we're working together and we see how we can tag team on things. So it helps you prevent these things called silos where some people are working independently and not connecting with the community. Lack of communication is the biggest problem. And most nonprofits I've seen in 34 years of doing this and nobody. Why it's there cuz we haven't created the messaging and then we haven't created the relationship. Because sending an email doesn't cut it. Seven percent of the message is in the words. Seven. And so what about all the rest of it? So you make sure that they understand it. So part of culture is creating that respect for one another and the relationship underneath what we do. We aren't what we do, we are beings, and so we look at the tactical stuff and skip over this human being part of it, which is so critical to a leader.
Carol: , absolutely. And building those relationships. , I feel like every organization that I've ever worked with talks about, communication challenges or silos. And, too often I've seen the, the recipe or the, the solution to that being a restructuring or reorganizing, which really only, it shuffles the deck for a little bit and then people reorganize back into new silos. So I, paying attention to how, how do we bring people together in a cross-cutting way? Or if there's a really, if there's a very clear protocol on, as you had gave that example of I'm gonna talk to the concert master and they'll talk to their folks, that the message chain, but most, most groups are, the non-profits are, are relatively small, small teams, informal. They don't necessarily have a lot of really strong protocols, but they can still, even with a small team, get siloed if they're not figuring out ways to have the information or go across functions and share information in a useful way. What are some ways that you've seen leaders be able to set up some of those cross-cutting mechanisms to really help with those communication challenges?
Hugh: When you have, like we have boards that come together and board meetings, you don't work at board meetings. You report on what's happened and you structure the next happening. So you work between meetings and the biggest mistake is we try to dig into the work in the meeting when we really need to spend time talking about what we're doing. And that's where you start fostering. Cuz I'm working on this, somebody else is working on this, somebody else is working on. Different, but there's an interdependence in all of that. And so if we start talking about what we're doing and say, Okay, here's what I could use from the communications committee. Here's what I need from the finance committee. I'm doing marketing. So we start, Bridging those gaps by saying, This is what I need. And by the way, I've created this data, which the two of these committees will find helpful to other committees. I wanna send this to you cuz it'll save you duplicating the work. And so thinking about the reciprocity of how we work together intentionally. And then when we have committee meetings, We never think about the specific messages that need to be communicated, others. So I insist that when we end meetings, any kinda meeting, there's an exercise. What's a message that somebody needs to know? Specific message for somebody who wasn't here, and you start thinking about, Oh, Soso needs to, oh, so and so, and then, okay, then who's gonna tell 'em? How will they tell 'em, or when will they tell 'em, we need to happen before the next meeting because there's some stuff here they need to know so they can show up at the next meeting. Or it's their responsibility to find out, well, how are they gonna find out? And unless we create the message and then send it out. So having somebody that's the communication clearing house, somebody. Y better if it's a staff person, but sometimes there's some really good volunteers that do that work and are better and want to step up. So what do other people need to know that weren't in the room? And then how will they know that? So being intentional if you do that in every meeting and insist on that, that does a lot to start closing that.
Carol: . Well the other thing that made that, as you were talking, sometimes meetings would just be one update after another and, and people aren't necessarily asking the question of how do all these things relate? And there may be somebody in the room who thinks that way, so brings it up. But thinking about and asking the question intentionally about what are the dependencies? How could we, What, what does one project have to do with another, could, could bring that and, and also help people stay awake while they listen to all those updates. Cause that's another thing. I know I can, if I'm in a meeting, that's all that I sometimes will, will get distracted and so I'm not following where the opportunities are for intersection.
Hugh: And there's, there's a, there's a rest. There's also how much people can take in one sitting, right? So we tend to want to dump all the information at the meeting when in fact, when you send out the deliverables for a meeting, I suggest deliverables are not on agenda. So we talk about stuff. So what? Let's get something done. So if you shift your paradigm from agenda to deliverables, we're gonna accomplish abc. People go, Oh, that's just semantics. No, it's a paradigm shift. We're not gonna be guilty of activity. We're gonna be charged with and, and driving. Results and people like that. And so if you say, Okay, two days before meetings at seven, here's another thing people know they're supposed to be on time and we say stupid things like be on time. Well, they know that. So instead of saying, We're gonna start a meeting at seven o'clock, You could say to them, Okay, we normally start at seven. We need to get more done this time, so we're gonna start early. So please be ready to go at 6:59. And people go, Why do I come in? Well, if you come at seven, you'll be late. And we're starting. So that gives them a specific time because seven o'clock is sort of, Oh, it's around. And we know we're a little bit late. They're gonna wait for us. No, we're starting at 6:59. So our job is to start on time. So the communications start with. We're gonna start at 6:59. We're gonna be through at 8 27. So we have to state that commitment. But if we're specific and we say two days before we're, we're gonna talk about fundraising. So we're gonna, we're gonna, our deliverable is to, to define five. Strategies for increasing our revenue by 25%. That's very clear. So we've defined five strategies. Now we have that as the number one deliverable. Now my job is to go backwards from that and figure out, we brainstorm, we sort common ideas, we prioritize the ideas, then we make a plan, and then we assign it to a committee to do the details. And so our off limits are, What we're not gonna do is the details of those plans, cuz you can't do all that work and do the details of the plan in the same. And we shouldn't. It's not a work meeting. So we've defined the brainstorming work, so we define what we're gonna do there. So the other communication piece is what meeting is it? Okay. It's brainstorming. All ideas go, it's sorting, it's focus, and then it's planning. So there's three different activities, and we need to be clear on what we expect people to do. Two days before we send that deliverable. We may have one or two others, but we're gonna do this so people know when we leave, we're gonna have completed these, this, this item, and then we send them any relevant information so they can come prepared. So it's like a conveyor belt. It's going, We get on the conveyor belt, we do the meeting, and we get off. And so we've helped. Get smart enough to have the data to make the decision, so we don't download a bunch of stuff at the same time and expect people to process it, think of the questions and make decisions. That's just not good.
Carol: , I really appreciate the reframing of an agenda to a set of deliverables and being really clear about that. Sometimes I've seen items on the list of things to talk about if we're gonna discuss this today, or we're gonna have a brainstorm, we're not making any decisions today and be clear about that. Right. Be clear about what stage of that conveyor belt you're on. But the way that you framed it in terms of we're gonna do x for this result, I. For me it would be more motivating to then do all that prep than I might otherwise leave until 6:45 before the seven o'clock meeting to feel like I can show up and, and be helpful.
Hugh: I use storyboards. I use regular paper cut, regular paper in half from the printer, and then I spray a board. It's it's report boards from the office supply, and then everybody has markers and they, everybody's working, so they're not looking at the back of my head when I'm writing on a chart pad, the energy of the room dies and you take one minute, one minute, one minute, you've wasted 15 to 20 minutes in a board meeting for people looking at the back of your head. So if you took that 15 minutes and used it for people, they can, they can write simultaneously and we put the ideas up. They're active, they're creative, they're participating. That changes the culture more than anything. So people say, Oh, that's silly. You should use Sharped. That's the industry standard, Well, that's also the industry problem. And so if people are engaged, you don't have time to sleep. Plus, if you send them the data, then we're gonna process it. And then up in the B top I'll say, Here's the question we're answering or brainstorming around. And I'll brainstorm and they'll say, We're gonna take these cards off the board. We're gonna move 'em over here, and we're gonna group 'em by topic. And so it's sorting it, and then we're gonna move those over into 1, 2, 3. It's a plan. Some things, like you said, we're not making a decision. It's information. Only. People need to relax and just be able to receive the information, so it's our job. To communicate what we're doing and we don't do that very well.
Carol: . Most folks don't think, Another trick that I've seen a colleague use: have them finish the sentence. By the end of this meeting, we will have achieved X and, and be really clear about what those outcomes are. And I use that all the time to just. Get that end state, what, what's the, where are we aiming, where are we aiming for just in this 45 minutes, what's gonna be useful? Where are we gonna get?
Hugh: You form the culture. You rehearse the, like seven, seven guys jump over a wall and ask our race and they change the tires, fill the cast and whatever else. Adjustments in their back over the wall in 13 seconds. And they rehearse that and everybody has a role of responsibility. 13.1 seconds. Driver's gonna lose a spot in the race. And so we need to have that fine tuned. So the other defining piece of a culture I call guiding principles. When we do, you do strategy, we do core values. And core values are essential in that we have to be aligned. And if people aren't aligned with the core values, anything gonna work out. So personal core values or organizational core values and. Those are static, usually. Integrity, honesty, fairness. So that we, I take those another step that's essential. Then they quickly become useless because it's static and people have different ideas of what that means. So we shape those in what we call them. Guiding principles so that shapes how we make decisions. Like one non-profit that I worked with had had a school that didn't teach standardized testing in Virginia, and their students went on to college, made the honor roll because they learned how to learn. They didn't just learn how to regurgitate in a test. And so their number one guiding principle was, we will not accept money from any donor that wants to change how we educate children. E. Guideline for making decisions. So they were aligned around that principle. So we don't think about the principles to apply those values to the decision making.
Carol: , absolutely. I mean, I think naming those values is just a first step. And then having that conversation about, well, what do you mean by integrity? What do you mean by respect? What does, how do you know? How am I gonna know whether I'm being respected? How, how do I receive that? How do I show that to me? And then the other piece around the guiding principles creating some set of. These are the decisions, these are the things that we're gonna map anything against for a decision. So that, so that we're having some consistency around how we're, evaluating new opportunities or new challenges is so important. . So one thing I love to do at the end of every podcast episode is I have a box of random, well, they're not random cuz there's a box of icebreaker questions. But I've got a couple here, a couple here, and I'm gonna grab one for you and I'm gonna ask, the question I'm gonna ask is, what's the last thing you bought for under $50 and you love and use?
Hugh: A burr, a manual burr grinder for my coffee beans. I'm a coffee snob and you have to have a burr grinder. So all of the granules are the same size, so you extract the majority of the flavor. So it's a little hand crank and I'm gonna use it tomorrow. I'm traveling and I have an electric one for home, but it's a little crank one. And it's essential because we all know hotel coffee is terrible.
Carol: Well, I will have to look that up because I also am a fellow coffee snob, but I don't often grind my own. So I'll have to try that and see if that's a new innovation. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Hugh: Emerging is, I just finished a leadership symposium where I live in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had people from around the region come and attend. I had 12 faculty members that
were just out of the box. Brilliant. And if you wanna be a good leader, you surround yourself with better people. And I could, I certainly have done that. So I'm excited about the next chapter, getting people in. We have this community for non-profit leaders and how we get together. It's a free community off of social media, so we don't have all that to mess with. And we talk about leadership and we talk about how to help each other. So in the south we say none of us is as smart as all of us. And that is true, even though we have our own language.
Carol: All right, well you send us a link to that and we'll make sure to put it in the show notes so people can find it. Thank you so much. It's been great to talk to you.
Hugh: You're a great interviewer. Thank you so much. It was my joy to be with you today.
Carol: I appreciated Hugh’s points about defining what deliverables you need from a meeting. I saw a study on LinkedIn recently from Korn Ferry that found that employees spend an average of 18 hours per week in meetings whether in person or virtual and managers spent 22 hours. That is close or more than half of their hours at work. The same study found that a third of those meetings could have been skipped. The study estimated $100 million a year for a single large organization. That is likely large in for profit terms – thousands of employees.
So which meetings on your calendar could be an email, or a short video created using a platform like Loom? And which need to be redesigned.
A key step is to define the purpose of the meeting. Why are you getting together? What are you hoping to accomplish? How are you communicating the purpose? Are folks clear what the expectations are for the meeting? Are you brainstorming? Narrowing options? Making a decision? Looking for intersections across different functions work streams?
Be clear about what your goals are and use the mad lib I learned from a colleage – by the end of this meeting, we will have [Fill in the blank].
This is all especially important for those regular team meetings or other regularly occurring meetings – check in on those – do they have a clear purpose? Does the purpose need to be reconsidered? Nonprofits run lean operations generally. So your Time, money and energy is precious. Taking a critical look at your meeting schedule is a good place to start.
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 Hugh, his full bio, 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.
Best of Leadership Transitions
In episode 54 of Mission: Impact, Carol celebrates the podcast’s two year anniversary by doing a best of episode about executive leadership transitions. We talk about:
Guests and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Today’s episode of Mission Impact is a little different. To celebrate my two year Pod-iversary, I am doing another “best of episode.” Today’s podiversary episode focuses on leadership transitions - a topic that has been the focus of several interviews. We will be hearing from Elizabeth Woolfe, Carlyn Madden, Don Tebbe and Andy Robinson. We talk about the types of transitions that organizations experience and how different leaders approach those transitions, why it is so important for leaders to make space and groom the next generation of leaders, whether or not having an interim executive director is a good idea, and how those exiting the leadership role and those entering as new leaders can prepare themselves for their new chapter.
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 of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Leadership transitions come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of factors will go into what type of transition the organization is facing. One of those is the attitude of the leader, others include the lifestage of the nonprofit – is it a start up? In a growth spurt? Is this the first transition from the organization’s founder? Has there been ongoing transition on the board side, not just the staff side of the organization?
Don Tebbe is a leading expert in nonprofit leadership transitions and with Tom Adams in many ways founded the field of executive transition management. He has written several books on the subject and we will link to those in the show notes. He talks about what inspired him to focus on this aspect of nonprofit management.
Don Tebbe: In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I was trying to figure out why I was attracted to this, to this nonprofit sector work. But it just seemed like a great place. To really, to do work that's meaningful. And that's one of the things I discovered in doing the research on callings is that everybody has this innate desire for a meaningful life.
Tom and I put together this program two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors, cuz those, those are some of the. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there and, I think it's just, it's a space where governance, executive leadership, and strategy all come together in, in one moment. And so I think it's a great opportunity really, to address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. When we realized that we needed to be working with organizations earlier, before they. That moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. What are the characteristics of these high ity organizations? those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment and the impact. And what's going on in those organizations came up with these three tiers, that base level there's organizational stability, the, the vital signs that are okay. It's not at risk, it's not in the intensive care ward. The next level up was what I would call Sustainability. And then, layering on top of that was vitality. And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and board leadership that the board hires the executive, the board, is responsible for, shepherding the mission and shepherding impact.
Carol: Leadership transitions really do impact all aspects of the organization and are an opportunity to take stock of how leadership is being shared – or not- across the organization – between the board and executive director – between the executive director and staff.
I appreciated Andy Robinson’s challenge to organizations and their leaders. His question goes to the heart of thinking about, planning for and preparing for transitions. And normalizing this process, instead of thinking of it as an anomaly.
Andy Robinson: One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the work of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge that many organizations are perpetual organizations. Hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? Then I say, are you gonna be here for the victory party? And of course everybody laughs and says, no, I'm not gonna be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not Actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition.
Carol: If you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. This is a real call to action for leaders – because very few are really putting this front and center as they lead their organization – or their movement. To dig deeper into how different people approach their leaving, Don Tebbe has reflections on the different common styles people take.
Don: The hero's farewell, and he outlined four different characters, four different profiles.
ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything was gonna be just fine. Governors who went on to other big jobs and left the organization behind so forth. Monarchs, they are gonna be carried out feet first. Stewards, what I see most of in the nonprofit world. People that can leave gracefully, but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization. So I encouraged department executives to think of themselves as stewards, and they're gonna hand off the organization to the next steward.
Carol: For those starting to think about their exit from leadership, which of these avatars will you embody? Will you be a monarch, an ambassador, a governor or a steward? And how ready is the organization as a whole for change? How are you cultivating shared and new leadership on your staff and board? Without this, the board – who is charged with finding the new leader can be ill equipped for the responsibility as Elizabeth Woolfe explains.
Elizabeth Woolfe: If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. And it really, that can be a real recipe for disaster because then you have someone coming in new and fresh as a leader who wants to take the organization to the next level or in a different direction, and the board is stuck. When I do board coaching and board development, it's really to view boards on an ever-expanding continuum where they go from this working board as they commonly are in the very beginning, like sheep following the leader, to something that becomes what's more appropriate for a later or iteration of the organization where they're, they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills.
Carol: Andy Robinson echoes Elizabeth’s points.
Andy: You and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years. Term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that even if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this.
Carol: Don advocates for the staff leader to take the reigns in planning their exit.
Don: You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I go to try to clarify that doesn't mean you suring the board's authority and trying to force in your handpick success or on the one hand, nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship they want with this new executive, paying attention to how that handoff and making sure that the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive.
Carol: Carlyn Madden explains some of the work her search firm does to prepare the groundwork for the needed changes.
Carlyn Madden: On the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents. To get a sense of the lay of the land or does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, see staff members for membership association, the actual members of the association, key volunteers, possibly even program participants. We're talking to funders, we're doing a survey, we're doing one on one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It's just, it's gonna depend on what the organizations are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what. What was really stellar about the LA person in this position?
What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that often needs too often, staff culture is a big east. I think we're really going through a virtuous time. Rightly so. In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader.
Carol: She also comments on what has often been missing from how boards approach executive searches.
Carlyn: What hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect individual organization. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the The thesis banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon.
Carol: Andy Robinson pointed out the mission critical aspect of grooming the next generation and preparing a leadership pipeline. We talked about some specific actions that leaders can do to start that process.
Andy: one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand it off. I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the medical stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center
when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's gonna lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda. Cuz the ability to, to run a meeting, facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. Don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way. And often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space?
Carol: One thing that I would say to every leader – you can start creating more space for others to lead by one really simple yet challenging act. Do NOT be the first to speak in a discussion. Wait a beat. Wait two beats. Even when it feels awkward to be in silence. Let others step in and share their perspective before you. If you always go first – most likely everyone around you will be sharing in reaction to and in light of your contribution. I observe so many leaders dominating conversations and not realizing the impact they are having. By doing this, they are leaving a lot of good thinking on the table from those around them. If it feels super awkward – tell people you are going to do this – and have them hold you accountable.
If you do try this, I would love to hear some results of your experiments.
As Elizabeth points out, your leadership pipeline doesn’t have to only be inside your organization. You can be looking to cultivate leadership with those in your wider ecosystem.
Elizabeth: If it's that organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that but most often in larger organizations, yes, that is more typical, but in smaller organizations, there's not.
Enough people working there for it to really be an appropriate way of organizing succession, but it is always nice. And, I encourage organizations to do this, to have sort of a. A running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in, in a search or someone who would, they, they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough.
Carol:. Carlyn also talks about how those wider networks and ecosystems are so important for effective searches. As well as tapping into a variety of networks.
Carlyn: Hire by hire and talk about some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographic has not actually changed. And so what is required are that the conditions of executive search have to change.
we're very firm in that color transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not actually building out networks, multiracial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying, who do you know in this space. That would be a good executive director because there's so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles. Our networks are very homogenous. If a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for it. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors.
And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Carol: Carlyn also talks about the differentiation process of what is essential for the executive director role and what is there because of the current person in the role.
Carlyn: What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible heights in a very small period of time, short period of time. But there are also things, their pet project. And the board recognizes it to some extent but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay.
Carol: Interim executive directors is something that organizations going through a transition should consider as an option. There are consultants who do nothing but interim work and can bring their experience to your organization. But our experts were not totally in agreement about interims and their value.
Elizabeth: The transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to, to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next. I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason. And, and especially with a founder, and a founder that might have been with the organization for a very long time, it's a big change. It's like when you bake cookies and or, and when you make pancakes and, and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, It's like that. If you hire someone too quickly, that first pancake just might not turn out that well, and that's unfortunate because then the organization is once again plunged into a period of transition, which is not really healthy or something I'd recommend. The statistics about, especially following a founder for new leaders coming in and not being successful is really shocking.
So the interim can really be that bridge very successfully. For all of the reasons that you just outlined, it's like a palate cleanser. It's a good thing to try. The most formative of those relationships, but when you have relationships with funders, when those people have those relationships that are very closely held, there's a lot of insecurity and instability that can affect the organization adversely if it's not handled correctly. And oftentimes that's the best reason to have an interim. Because that person can focus on those relationships. Otherwise it's a board member or maybe a secondary staff person that might not be as comfortable relationship building and relationship cultivating as the leader was. And it could be really debilitating for the organization.
Don: I've been listening to your interview with Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of interim executive. Being the standard approach for an organization now, that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations. For a lot of organizations that just doesn't work, you've got fundraising relationships that you need to hand off, or you've got key government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, you know, having an interim in there and doing that hand off twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work.
Carol: Carlyn and I talked about the danger of a new executive director becoming an accidental interim – especially if they are following a founder or a long term ED.
Carlyn: Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys? Or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because this person can help steward and.
Steer the organization's operation and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their position they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's sort of. Accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there for a much longer term. Maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of opportunity.
Carol: The glass cliff, not the, just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, you women, women of color, especially being offered the, the impossible job. Yeah, exactly. And then people wondered why they couldn't.
Carlyn: Where women are called in to clean out a. And then have an impossible job out of them. And then our, their performance is managed in a way that is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, or the challenge ahead.
Carol: As Don points out it is never too early to start thinking about transition and succession. It is not just a process to follow or a set of steps. In William Bridges work on transition, he describes three phases that people go through - the ending, the neutral zone and the new beginning. In our action oriented culture, we often think we can jump directly from the ending to the new beginning. The liminal - in between spaces of the neutral zone can catch us off guard. It is messy and confusing. And all through the transition, you can feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Don describes how this impacts leaders.
Don: the executive really should initiate the succession. Process and rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. You probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people four, three to four to five years ahead of their departure. A lot of times, executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process to me, there's no ambiguity. You got three jobs. Job number one: lead the organization through the transition, of course, but understand that that role is going to evolve as your departure date draws closer. Number two is to prepare yourself for that next chapter of life. Like if you're gonna retire, have something magnetic that's drawing you forward rather than a job that you're leaving. And job number three is to prepare the organization for the succession and transition process.
Carol: Don talks about how many leaders are caught by surprise by the emotional element of the transition – and I would add - everyone in the organization is going through their own emotional roller coaster too. Don tells a story that illustrates just this point.
Don: He was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and.
Said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never gonna leave this organization. I'm gonna go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but you know what I mean? It really upset the apple cart. And I think it also makes people feel whipsawed. It can be a real stew for the staff and ripe for people, some of your best people, to look elsewhere because they're questioning their career. The future with the organization and, and there's always questions anyway will we like the new executive? Can we trust the board to pick the right person for a job?
Carol: I appreciate Don’s comment about the leader preparing themselves for the next step. In our conversation, Andy described his own process of succession and transition into retirement.
Andy: I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring to other people or jobs. I don't get anymore, cuz it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who wanna enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and I've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants. Black indigenous people of color as a way of supporting social justice and equity.
Carol: Carlyn and I explored what emerging leaders can do to get ready for an executive director role and what the board needs to do to set the new leader up for success.
Carlyn: if you're an aspiring ED, this is your time to shine. But if you're a board know that, that it's gonna be very additive to get the right person. So you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in this situation where they're negotiating a parallel job offer. You have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table, all sorts of things. If somebody is looking to ascend into an executive director role, the board is paying very close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing. What are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first week? How are they let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members so that that's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I will meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to be a happy hour,
We also do 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director, and the board chair.
Carol: The topic of transitions seemed super relevant as we slowly emerge from the pandemic. As the going impacts of the Great resignation, great reshuffle keep reverberating through the economy. And the nonprofit sector as a subset of that – feeling all those transitions too. We are also I think – finally in the much anticipated generational transition as boomers retire and new leaders step into the limelight.
If these clips intrigued you and you want to go back and listen to the full episodes from each of the people featured in today’s best of – Elizabeth Woolfe’s is episode 12, Carlyn Madden is 27, Andy Robinson is 21 and Don Tebbe is 32.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the full transcript, 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. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything that you do to contribute and make an impact.
In episode 53 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Reva Patwardhan discuss:
Reva Patwardhan is the founder of Greater Good Coaching. She works with nonprofit leaders who’ve followed their hearts into careers of service and advocacy. She helps them discover their innate strength, resilience and confidence, so they can use their careers to make the impact they want in their lifetimes. She has 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser, communications director, lobbyist, board member, facilitator, coach and diversity trainer. Reva co-facilitates small experiential learning groups with the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She chairs the Board of Directors at Rethink Media. She is a certified Integral Coach, and a member of the International Coaching Federation.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Reva Patwardhan. Reva and I talk about leadership coaching. We talk about what it is and what it is not, the extra challenges nonprofit leaders have in investing in coaching, why an organization’s mission can push people into a state of constant urgency and how slowing down can actually help them work better and more effectively, and why taking a trauma-informed, somatic approach to coaching is key.
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.
Welcome. Welcome Reva to the podcast.
Reva Patwardhan: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Carol: So I like to start each conversation with a question around what drew you to the work that you do, what motivates you and what would you say is your why?
Reva: So I'm an executive coach and before I was a coach, I worked at a nonprofit for about 14 years. And I had a lot of different roles there, fundraiser, lobbyist, communications director. And in that time there, I realized that I had a real love of supporting the people around me. Even when they were doing jobs that I was not necessarily capable of doing. And I also really just had a great deal. So there were, like every nonprofit we had issues with burnout and not every nonprofit, but a lot of nonprofits have. Right. Hashtag not all nonprofits.
Carol: Just most.
Reva: Yeah. But I stuck around because I just really loved the people I worked with. I just admired them so much. They were so smart and so passionate and just incredibly committed and I believed in what we were doing. So that was just like all the magic components for me. So I decided to make a career out of that. And yeah, I really feel like the people who are actually out there trying to solve problems that we all face that are, they are not there's no. or a little profit motive, it's just like, I am here to try to solve this problem. Those are really hard jobs. And those are exactly the people that we need to be figuring out, like, what can we do for you? Right. And so I really feel passionate about asking, what do we need to be doing to make these jobs that are very hard and also very crucial, more sustainable so that we are not crushing the very people who are carrying. Our hope for us.
Carol: Yeah. A hundred percent. So I feel like coaching it's certainly become more prevalent in the for-profit sector. Yeah. And more well known. But I feel like there's still quite a few misconceptions about what it is and who it's for why it's important. So, how would you describe leadership coaching?
Reva: Yeah, leadership coaching and you're right. There is quite a gap that I've observed between the nonprofit sector and the corporate sector. The nonprofit sector for whatever reason is, has been behind. And really recognizing how important it is to invest in leaders, as individuals, as human beings. And that is what leadership coaching is. It's really investing in you. I think that's why it's hard for people. It's hard for an executive director to say, Hey, I'm going to spend some money on an executive coach because it's really for her. Right. it is for her in service of her mission. And when I coach with people, we do have the mission centered in our work, but it is for her and her ability and her passion and her values. That is part of the process of what we're doing to serve the mission. Right. So, in order to center your own wellbeing and your own development, I think it's a hard thing for a lot of people to do. We're very much conditioned out of that. And I do work with a lot of women but very much conditioned to, to not to always be giving to others, not to ourselves. And that is what coaching does. And I think what it is beyond that, I think it varies quite a bit. I think one reason why there's a lot of confusion about what coaching is because it varies quite a bit depending on who you work with, and there's a lot of great ways of coaching out there. And it really is a matter of finding your right fit. So I'm a big believer in figuring things out, talking to people and finding who's the person who resonates for you. The way that I work with people is I work with the whole person. That means we're talking about feelings, we're talking about the things that really matter to you. We there's room to talk about what's happening in your home life as well. Because you're the same person there. And we're always looking for what is life and work asking of you right now? What edge are you at? Where the way you did things before got you to where you are. Let's thank those methods. Let's honor that. And what new edge is life asking you to meet right now?
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that. And I appreciate the whole, whole person perspective that, just going against that myth, that we park all that stuff at the door. When we come to work, it's all there. Whether we talk about it or not, it's all there. So one of the things that you focus on when you're, when you're working with nonprofit leaders is somatics. Can you tell me a little bit about what somatics is and how you incorporate that into your coaching?
Reva: Yeah. So when I work with someone somatically, what I'm doing is. The reason I do that is I find it's one of the quickest pads for someone to access their innate wisdom. So when I'm working with someone I'm not it's not consulting because I'm not providing you with a bunch of answers. I might offer ideas. I might thought-partner with you, but I'm not offering you suggestions. What I'm doing is asking questions to help you figure out and feel into what is right for you. And it's that feeling. That is the power of coaching. And I really see one of my goals as a coach is when someone walks away from their work with me, one of the things they've learned is how to listen to themselves very deeply. And what are the ways they can be with themselves? How can. , what, what ways of being with yourself and coaching yourself, can you practice and learn that help you learn how to get unstuck so that you become someone who, so everybody gets stuck, but do you stay stuck or do you know how to get yourself unstuck? And all of that is Starts with being able to really slow your mind down. And the container of coaching for that is really, it's a powerful container because that's what we're doing is we're slowing ourselves down and we're pausing. And we're noticing in the moment, right, as an emotion comes up or right. As something important was said, you're slowing down and saying what's happening there in the body. And what guidance can we get from that?
Carol: So somatics being about paying attention to what's going on in the body, not just what we're thinking. Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I feel like, folks. It's always been there, right? Like we've always been in these bodies and yet, in our culture at least in the US context, there's been this mythical separation of our mind in our body. How much resistance or acceptance do you find when you're working with folks to step into that work?
Reva: Yeah, so I always meet people where they are. Right. I think that's really important. That's one of my core values and I don't push. Right. I respect people's boundaries. That's another core value and I do invite, right. And I find that most of the time, people welcome that because what they're experiencing in their day to day life is a lot faster. A lot of fast pace, a lot of rushing from one task to another. So what it often feels like is just having a chance to finally take a breath. And then it's like, okay, what is it like for you when you get to take a breath, let's just spend some time noticing. I don't experience people. Like I think part of it is because a lot of folks and this isn't true for everybody, but a lot of my clients do seem to get pretty quickly the value of tuning in. It's just, it's something we all innately are able to do. It's just that it's conditioned out of us. So when you Remi you're reminded suddenly that, oh, this is something I can do. Maybe you haven't done it since you were four, but oh, this is something that I can do. It's not , it's not wild or scary. It's just like, this is the thing I can do.
Carol: Yeah. And I feel like so many of the conversations that I have with other coaches, consultants doing different work, different work with organizations, PE individuals. Almost always some element of that. Let's just slow down for a minute. Let's take a pause. Let's take a step back. Let's try to pull you out of that rush, rush, rush meeting after meeting mentality that gives people just a little bit more space to think. Yes.
Reva: Yeah. Yeah. And what if we could have that more and more in our lives. Right. Right. What if as a leader, I had the ability to pause and to actually say, I'm a leader in this organization and I'm gonna decide to actually program into my day to day and set boundaries, time to reflect and pause. And that is a priority because when I do that, I'm better at my job. And so part of the, and, and it sounds, I think a lot of times people are truly experiencing urgency in their work, right. There's urgency coming from somewhere, right. And often people are working with, or serving communities that are experiencing urgency. And so it sounds, it sounds really bizarre. or it can be like, who am I to slow down? Why do I get to do this and all of that stuff? But one of the things that can happen with coaching is you start to see, oh, this actually is gonna help me be more in service than I currently am, because it'll help me actually. See the forest rather than just the trees. If I'm constantly moving from one task to the other, I'm never able to ask the big questions, or if I'm asking the big questions, I'm not able to do anything about it. And there's the undercurrent of frustration there of, there are things I'd like to do and there's no space to do.
Carol: Yeah. Okay. And I think when the, when the leader actually does that, and then, people see that on their calendar or they talk about it, it starts to give permission for other people to also do that within the organization and, question this whole culture that we have of, Rush rush, rush, busy, busy, busy, every job description saying you must be comfortable in a fast paced environment, you know? Yeah. And I mean, what my little step in that direction is to try to stop, when it's the first part of a conversation and the hi, how are you? Oh, I'm, you know? Oh, it's been, so it's been so hectic. It's been so. Busy. I try to avoid actually saying whether it's true or not. Cause I just feel like it, it plays into this myth that we all have to live that way.
Reva: Yeah. I mean, I'm not gonna, I'm gonna be real. I also often live that way. Sure. I often also feel overwhelmed and rushed and all that stuff. It's just that I think one of the gifts of doing this work is I don't feel. As guilty about slowing down, because I know that I can't lead from that rushed place. I can get things done, but that's different than leading.
Carol: I haven't quite managed to let go of all of the guilt yet. I'm working on it.
Reva: I said mostly or something mostly. OK.
Carol: That sounds good. But it's gotten better. You also take a trauma-informed approach. And I feel like I am hearing this a lot with clients that I'm working with, that they're taking a trauma-informed approach with their clients. What does it actually mean to be trauma-informed?
Reva: It means being careful of your impact. Mm. I think it means having some humility and respect for the person that's in, that's in front of you. I think it's being aware that there is a lot of trauma, more so than ever, I think, in the world. And there are tools to help people. It's having a toolbox to offer people around that. And it's knowing your lane. So I'm not a therapist. And if I'm really, if I'm seeing real trauma with someone, then I'm going to refer them to someone who can, can help them with that. And when I say trauma, I mean like a level of trauma that I can't deal with, but there is a certain level of trauma we're all carrying, I think. And so everyone has to skill up for that. And part of it is respecting those boundaries. It's like, whatever defenses this person has, they're there for a good reason. And so let's not pretend they're not there for a good reason. And so I do work with people around understanding their defenses and slowly loosening them. But I work slowly, which my, one of my one of the things that I really believe in is in order to move quickly, you have to slow down, go move, slow to go fast. Right. So that is often the most effective way towards transformation is just having patience, continuing to meet whatever's happening in the moment. And not rush it, not push it because that's ultimately not gonna work anyways. Yeah. That's how I think about it.
Carol: Can you give me an example of what some of those defense mechanisms might be and, and kind how to, I don't know that skilling up that you talked about in that arena.
Reva: Yeah. Yeah. So so I work with, so I work with people around emotions, right? So as you said, it's, it's the whole person who's coming in the room. And I see coaching as where we get to work with the human side of our challenges. And so if someone's coming in with a challenge and we're unpacking, what is the, what is the human part of this and focus on that. So there's emotions coming up. So I'm making space for those and we're, we're, we're we're unpacking that we're working with that. Like what's behind these emotions. What are some thoughts? Some, some mindsets or thoughts that are there. What are some wounds that need a little bit of space there? And if I find someone who, if I find that someone is, you know that's really hard to be with a certain emotion. I respect that. So we move slowly. So we titrate. So it's like, So what if you're just with this emotion for one second, just to see what it is, right. And then we back off, we intentionally back off. Right. So I might offer them something to practice on their own. That's just like just saying hello to this part of you that feels this way. once a day and then you just back away and then slow, very slowly increase. Capacity to be with it. So that's one.
Carol: That's awesome. Yeah. So my tagline for my podcast is helping nonprofit leaders have greater mission impact without becoming a martyr to the cause. How do you see that show up with folks you work with and, and how are you trying to contribute to shifting this culture of overwork and extraction in the sector.
Reva: Yeah. So I'll tell you one of the things that I've been seeing a lot lately, And I think it was always there and I've just started to be able to begin to catch onto it more. But I've noticed that there are certain very prevalent, toxic dynamics in the nonprofit sector that when you are in the middle of that dynamic, when you're really a part of it, it can feel like a personal problem. Mm. Right. So something's going wrong. and in the organization, but because it feels like a personal problem, I treat it like a personal problem. So and so what happens there is if you, so if you imagine you're a leader, an E.D. and things aren't going right. And the thing that's not really feeling like the thing that's not going right is me. And my efforts to address it have failed. So what do I do? Like, what do you do in that situation is you hide it, you hide the problem right. If you blame yourself for the problem and you haven't been able to adequately address it, you hide the problem. And so you're then unable to do anything about it. Right? And so like some examples I've seen of this are Executives, who've gotten really good at hiding their overwhelm. And because they're, it's just become this really normalized thing that their funders don't fund overhead. And it's been like that for so long. That it's just a completely normalized culture where overwhelmedness and burnout are just normal. And so if you are overwhelmed or if you have a problem with being overwhelmed, that's a problem with you. Right? And so let's hide that rather than actually trying to figure out how to do it. You feel compelled to hide it. Another example is like so you have to say, part of your job is going to speak at, to represent your organization and your community at community meetings where there's politicians or whatever, and you feel very anxious about it. And you're ashamed of that anxiety. Well when it's not the anxiety, that's the problem. The problem is the fact that you are the sole member. You're the sole representative of your community. No one else in the room looks like you, you're the only person of color in the room, you know? And that's the problem because you feel ashamed of the anxiety. You're trying to solve the problem yourself. And trying to hide the fact that you feel the anxiety. It's actually very normal to feel anxious in that situation. That's not the problem. So I think people in this situation it's like, they're, they might be this is just ripe for a very ripe moment for imposter syndrome. So they might be thinking that someone else could be doing this job better. The person who was in this role before me did it better. And or or they might be thinking like, I'm the least competent person in this room, all of that stuff, which makes it feel like this is a problem with me. And so that's, and that's just paralyzing. So what I do is, I help people take their power back and find their voice. Part one by realizing you're not crazy. This is a genuinely hard situation. You are not broken. So taking your power back, finding the things that you can do in your immediate sphere to take action. And really, and just to the whole taking your power back thing, that's like, What I try to do is I try to help my clients see it for themselves. So it's not just me telling them. It's like, sure, help them see it for themselves and actually feel it actually feel the truth that, oh, oh, I see. It's not me. Right. And so from that place, you can take action. And the fact is most of these problems, they are much bigger than one person. So, and it may be a long game, but just starting the process of strategizing and, and planning out, how can you get more resources in this? Who can you reach out to? Who's gonna be your support system who are gonna be your collaborators and actually problem solving this. Right? So it's putting the problem where it belongs, which is in the collective. right. Not in the individual.
Carol: Yeah. And even some of the things that you talked about at the very beginning of who am I to slow down or who am I to invest in myself and get coaching goes to this whole mindset of if you're passionate about your, your issue and you have to give it all and this selflessness of the helper and that can be just a recipe for burnout. It's like here, here are the five steps to burnout. Here you go, go do these things, go believe these things.
Reva: Yeah, and I think there's also a recipe for burnout for the people in those jobs. And I think there is a wake up call going on for the sector. If it's not happening already, it's going to happen very soon because there is this emerging sense that people don't wanna put up with any of this crap anymore in their jobs. Right. And it's getting harder and harder to fill the position of executive director. In the for-profit sector, being a CEO is seen as this glamorous thing. And I think part of that is because part of that is like the ridiculous salaries and we don't necessarily want to model ourselves off of that. Part of it is that they have resources, they have support to do what they need to do. They don't. And so in the nonprofit sector, I think becoming an E.D. should feel, you should feel proud. You should feel proud of being an executive director or being a leader of a development director. Communication director any, any like any role, like doesn't just not just at the director level, but you should be proud. Anyone should be proud to work in the nonprofit sector, whether you're an entry-level fundraiser. I started out in the, as a door to door canvasser. We should feel proud of our work. Right. But I think one of the reasons it's very hard to feel proud of our work is because we don't feel appreciated. Right. And there is that undervaluing and a big part of that is not being supported in the work. Right. You're just allowed to flail. And so, and so people are saying, no, why, why, why would I do that to myself? You know?
Carol: Just the sense it's like never enough. Yeah.
Reva: And, but the fact is I think that we actually still need the nonprofit sector in this country. We live in this country where this is the way it's set up right now. And if we wanna be able to solve big problems, We have to be able to do work that centers on impact and not profit. We just have to do it. And maybe there's sweeping changes that need to happen, but this is where it is right now. And how do we not lose all our wonderful people?
Carol: Yeah, no, I am seeing that, that, and, and just hearing people talk about it, this underbelly of the sector, that's always, probably always been there. And various, I don't know, historical reasons for that. And just this mythology that gets exploited and folks are saying, no more. How can we do this differently? Doesn't have to be this way. But it's hard to step out. It's hard to step out and, and do it in a, you know, to work on being countercultural, right, even at the individual level.
Reva: Yeah. And that's why I do this work. It's like, okay. I, if I think that this is important work and I really want there to be people doing it, how do we support them? How do we find ways to make this work for them? If the mission matters then so do the people who are working for the mission.
Carol: Right. Yeah. All the people involved matter for sure.
So at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask one moderately random icebreaker question. So I've got three cards from my little box. So if you, for, for any place that you visited, what's, what's a place that you would love to go back to.
Reva: Hmm. Bali.
Carol: Mm. Say more.
Reva: Oh man. So Bali is a beautiful place. Now I'm worried about promoting tourism to a place that maybe can't handle it.
Carol: Don't go to Bali, right?
Reva: I was there maybe 10 years ago, so, and oh, it was just, it was just the, the people are just very, were just very open and lovely. And the. The nature was just beautiful and gorgeous. And it, every, any time I go to a different country, I think I've been to India many times as well. It's my parents' mother country. I've been to Mexico, I've been, I've been, anytime I go to another country, I just feel a sense of freedom because I'm. It's like something about just like now I don't have to follow the usual rules here.
Carol: You have this, the sense of even when you're going, you're, you're breaking cultural rules in the other country. They give you a pass like, Ugh, they're a foreigner, but they don't know so, so you have a little bit of leeway and can yeah. And also like, people give you a little grace.
Reva: Yeah. Yeah. People give you a little grace and it's, it's more, it's just like, it's lovely to just get out of the water that I'm usually swimming in. Yep. It's lovely to get out. What I define or what we define as normal here. Sure. Just to leave for a while.
Carol: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. My parents first posting in the foreign service was in Indonesia. So we have many home movies from there and from Bali. This was before me, but I would love to go visit. I'm sure it would be totally different than when they were there in the 1960s. Yeah. But yeah, it's, it's a place on the list. So thank you. So what are you excited about? What's coming up for you in your, in your work and what's emerging?
Reva: Yeah, the thing I’m most excited about is my work with my one on one coaching clients. There is something so powerful about that moment when someone faces the truth of the challenging moment they’re in and starts to sort through, what are the things that are in your power to influence, and what are the things that are bigger than you that you can reach out for help on, and what starts to become more possible for you when you stand in an unconditional sense of your own belonging and the unconditional belonging of your community. It is really beautiful, powerful, transformative work and it is an honor and a joy to be able to do it. It is the thing I love doing more than anything and I feel blessed to be able to do this work. If anyone listening would like to talk to me about the possibility of working together please come to my website. I would love to talk to you. It's been a long time and I've been at this work for a bunch of years now. And I have a lot of new, a lot of new things to say, and I'm excited about saying them.
Carol: Excellent. Yeah. So what would you say are your top three new things to say?
Reva: Well, one of them is just seeing this relationship between imposter syndrome and the nonprofit sector's inability to address major problems that are sector wide or organization wide. And to see that imposter syndrome is not an individual problem, it's actually baked right into the structures of the nonprofit sector.
Carol: And our society for various identities, if you've been questioned your entire life yes, then you will learn to question yourself, yeah. In your capacity and when you have not. Yeah. Well, thank you so much. And thank you for all you do for nonprofit leaders. I really appreciate it and appreciate you having this conversation.
Reva: Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.
Carol: I appreciated how Reva described her approach for helping her coaching clients deal with uncomfortable emotions. It is not a matter of all in. It is a matter of step by small step – titrating is the word she used. – Meeting folks where they are and only going as far as is a little bit beyond their comfort zone – be with it for a little bit and then back off. I also appreciated her broader perspective on the toxic cultures that too often emerge within nonprofit organizations – overwork, overwhelm, and burnout. That when you are part of it – it feels personal, and it may seem like it is embedded in the personalities of those around you. And as a leader it can feel like a personal problem – which can lead to denial and avoidance and hiding from the challenge instead of addressing it. So instead by naming it leaders and staff can take their power back and address the elephant in the room.
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 Reva, her full bio, 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. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it! And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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