In episode 64 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Sarah Olivieri discuss:
Sarah Olivieri is a nonprofit leader like you who used to spend days and nights asking questions like: “how do I get my board to work with me and not against me?”, “how can I raise more money for this important mission?” and, “how can I show up and love my job as much as I love this mission?”.
Sarah has over 18 years of nonprofit leadership experience. She was the co-founder of the Open Center for Autism, the Executive Director of the Helping Children of War Foundation, and co-author of Lesson Plan a la Carte: Integrated Planning for Students with Special Needs. She holds a BA from the University of Chicago with a focus on globalization and its effect on marginalized cultures, and a master's degree in Humanistic and Multicultural Education from SUNY New Paltz. As the founder and heart behind PivotGround, Sarah helps nonprofits become financially sustainable world changers.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Sarah Olivieri. 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. Sarah and I talk about how to set up systems and processes in your organization so that your work as leader and the work of your staff is made easier, how to have a productive team meeting, and how to assess and be realistic about your current capacity.
Welcome, welcome to the podcast. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Olivieri: It's a pleasure to be here, Carol. Thanks for having me.
Carol: So I'd like to start out each episode with just finding out from the person I'm talking with, what, what drew them to the work that they do and, and what would you describe as your why? What motivates you?
Sarah: Oh, man. I think for most people who work in a nonprofit or work with nonprofits, the fact that every day, no matter how bad things are in the world, when I wake up, I basically get to say, I'm already making the biggest impact I could probably make. And my work trajectory is only about doing more of the same. And that feels really good, when times are good and when times are bad. And I think a lot of people fall into nonprofit work. They have a calling. When I was young, I went to this independent private school that had just started. It was very small, not at all like a prep school, but very education focused. How can we be more human focused and skip forward till I'm out of elementary school. My mom ended up taking over the school. It wasn't her background, but it was one of those nonprofits that was about to go. It had a great mission. It had done great work with kids, but from a business perspective, it had just been run to the ground and was on the verge of closing, not paying their staff. And my mom was one of those people who said, well, I'll try. And she did, and it turned into a job and she grew this. School. And so then skip forward a number of years where I'm working at a nonprofit and it almost went under, it had a bunch of problems and I was like, well, maybe I'll try taking on that and I'll take on this other piece. And my mom was there saying, you can learn bookkeeping and you can do this. And once how to manage the finances and manage the people and manage the prom, You're sucked in really deep, pretty quickly. So that's kinda like how I get started, how I got started, and there's lots in the middle. That's the short version.
Carol: It's been interesting for me as I've talked to various people through this podcast and other places, how many folks have some experience in their childhood that leads them, especially often folks talking about that role model of a parent doing something either, engaged in the community or engaged in some way with service. Politics, whatever it might be, stepping in where there's a vacuum and making things happen and making sure that that resource didn't go away for children, so that's awesome. So I'm curious, as a former executive director of a nonprofit, what would you say was your favorite part of being an executive director? I feel like there's this big generational shift going on finally with new people coming into leadership and. I hear from a lot of younger folks that they're, they look at the job and they shy away from it because it just seems so, like undoable without like a real level of personal sacrifice. So I'm curious what was the upside? What did you appreciate about being in that role?
Sarah: Well, before I answer that, I have to say the secret from my clients who are mostly not young people, they feel the same way. When they come to me, they're like, I hate my job, but I also don't wanna quit. But we'll go into how we get everybody out of that. My own experience as an executive director was something I really enjoyed. Setting things up, scaling things up, making things run better. And even though I didn't know what I know now, I was already pretty good at. This whole thing about systems and processes and making things run better because that is the thing that ultimately makes the job not painful. And I really, really believe that being an executive director can be fun. And it probably helped that I had this example from my mother who had started out in this organization that was in complete chaos, working a lot of hours, and by this time, When I was an executive director, she was at the tail end and she would tell me, I work four days a week partly to, cuz she was older and partly to save money for the nonprofit. And she said, really, I spend a good chunk of my time playing solitaire on the computer. And that was a good thing. What it meant was she had everything running like a well-oiled machine. And now she kept an eye on everything and whenever anything did come up, she was available. She had that time built in. Right? It wasn't just she was goofing off playing solitaire. She kept, that's how she kept herself busy while she kept herself available to deal with things. And that's so important. And I had that lesson early on that you should not be filling every minute as an executive director. Of your job up with tasks and projects and because if you are, you're doing it wrong, you're doing it wrong and great systems, having a great team is how you do that. And so, because I was good at that early on, I was setting up programming, I was attracting great staff who were doing great things. I was attracting funding. Both grants and major donors and a real community quickly formed. And I'm a lover of delegation, so, spreading out the work amongst a lot of people, made everything run quite well. It wasn't perfect, but I certainly was able to enjoy my job. And that to this day, like that's what I. For all executive directors. I mean, your job, it, there's a lot of work to be done and a lot of problems to be solved, but it should feel joyful and it shouldn't feel like opening up your veins and just bleeding for your non-profit until you're dead.
Carol: Right, right. My tagline for this podcast is, working for progressive nonprofits and nonprofit leadership without being a martyr to the cause. So, for sure. And I just wanted to pick up on a couple things that you said. You talked about systems and processes and I, I don't think that's the first thing that most people think of when they think of nonprofits. They think of passion and mission and vision and all of that, but I'm a systems and process person too, so I appreciate those and. And it's not right. As you said, it's not for the I think oftentimes people get real, don't wanna set those up because they feel like they might be restrictive first. Second, they're always thinking about the exceptions. The 20% that doesn't fit into the process. And I feel like I often am talking to folks about how we can identify the 80%. Normally it happens that you can, that you can predict and is that regular or there are some things that are within your control, like how are you doing your fundraising, how are you doing your marketing, those kinds of things. That, that is, that. You can just decide what the cadence is. And then also having that margin, right, not filling up every hour so that you do have the flexibility to be able to respond when things pop up. But, how do you experience it with clients in terms of helping them or helping them think through those systems and processes?
Sarah: So, skip forward a whole bunch of years and I've worked with a lot of nonprofits in, in addition to working in nonprofits. And what I realized, I love all business, first of all. So like, as much as I love non-profits, I also love business. I love how people come together to create things that are bigger than what any one person can do. And all of the, the glue that makes that happen and all the functioning, which is systems and processes. What I have learned is there are some key ways of operating that everybody can implement. And I used to think, oh, well it has to be customized for each organization cuz everyone's different. Well, as much as everyone wants to feel like they're a special snowflake. There are a lot of things right that you don't need to reinvent and that actually can work out of the box for you. The for-profit industry has done this already numerous times. They've created methodologies and frameworks and systems for running a business that help people run better. And so I set out to make the same thing, but specifically for non-profits cuz most of the for-profit methodologies have like Making a profit built in as like this just assumed principle which is not true at a nonprofit, we may very well sacrifice profits. We can have profits, but we also might sacrifice profit for mission. So I've put all those pieces together in an easy-to-implement way. But when I hear my clients think about systems, and so one is I'm telling them, here's this easy way to do it. Like you don't have to be a master chef in order to follow a recipe, right? Right. So I like to get, say, here's the recipe, follow it. And then they do, and then it works. And then they're like, oh my God, my stuff is happier. And wow, I just took my first vacation and like I stopped working on weekends. Like, what is this magic? Let me keep following the recipe. And I think for most people, that is magic and they don't need to become a master chef. But we can also talk about. I would consider myself a master chef. I'm making recipes. We can go into what that is. But if for those of you who have that thought of like, ooh, processes, like that sounds restricting, then you have just experienced a bad process, a great process. Frees you up to do, right? We talked about the 80%, the 80/20 rule. If you've heard of it like it's like 20% of the work does 80% of gets 80% of the results. But then there's also like, what is that other 80% of the work? So if you can clear that 80%. Off and get it all running like a well-oiled machine. Get it off your plate. Now you can spend 20% of your time focused on like the really forward stuff. Usually that involves a lot of thinking and problem solving. Right. And that's what your solitaire moments are about. I'll call them. As doing, having that brain time to really think through how. Move something forward that no one has figured out before. And I love seeing people get that time back in their day and then the results that that gets is phenomenal.
Carol: Can you give me an example, one of those recipes?
Sarah: Sure. So a really simple one is how to run a team meeting. We have numerous types of meetings in the framework that I teach. Well, not that many. We actually only have three and the most basic one that typically replaces your staff meeting. I call it an issues meeting, but there are a few key things in it that are probably different from what you're doing right now that make the meeting way, way better. If I could see your audience right now, I'd say raise your hand if you have wasted time wasting meetings or you hate meetings, and probably most of you would be raising your hand, right? So one of the things we do, it's the same agenda every time, and probably one of the most important things we do is we identify the issues that are facing the team, but we don't discuss them when we identify. And everybody has to get trained in, don't just launch into talking about this issue, or we'll be stuck talking about issues all day long. Step two is we're going to then decide which is the highest priority issue. And then step three is we're going to then talk about that issue, make sure we understand it and work through it until we've identified a solution that basically we all agree will work and then we can assign somebody to go implement it. And so by being way more intent, Systematic about the priority that we work through our issue. Is a game changer because first people are like, oh, we actually produced something. We produced a solution in this meeting. That's great. But when you do it consistently, like replacing your staff meeting, initially, most organizations have this, like all these issues, like a long, long list. But a lot of those issues are usually symptoms of a higher priority issue. So often what happens is as you tackle the highest priority issues first, a lot of the issues that were on your. Just diesel resolve on their own because you hit the core underlying issue and then you don't even have to worry about tackling them. And the list gets short, short, very, very fast. Because of that, you're not just tackling issues meaningfully, but you're eliminating a lot of the issues because you got to what was really going on.
Carol: That's the common practice or habit that you described to people, like they name the issue and then we start talking about it. I'm on a volunteer team right now where we're having that exact challenge and I'm planning at our next meeting to bring it up as one of our habits that's not helping So I, I might, I might borrow that and say, well, I think we, we actually do have a list of our priorities, but, but, or a list of our issues. I don't know that we've done a good job of prioritizing them or even thinking about how we're gonna sequence this so that it makes sense to tackle one after another. So, but that habit of like, we bring it up so we have to talk about it, like, take a moment, put it on, put it in the. Folks don't call 'em parking lots anymore on the bike rack. Someone else that I talked to recently said, don't call it a parking lot or a bike rack because that's the place where those things go to die, but call it an on-ramp or the runway of the things that we'll get to as we get down the runway. So, fundamentally, I mean people spend so much time in them and so many of them are so poorly designed that it's, it's sad that folks have to be stuck in those, and, and it's some, there's some easy things that you can do to, to make them just a little bit better.
Sarah: And I would say a lot better. It's actually not learning how to do business well as a for-profit or a non-profit is not rocket science. And some small easy tweaks. If you find the right ones and then really implement them, it can make dramatic results. And I'd say the hardest thing is adjusting to that new meeting or actually it's not so hard, but it takes some time. And for those of you who are like Brene Brown followers, like all of her work comes into this learning to bring, be vulnerable enough to bring the real issues, create that culture where people feel. To bring that real issue to the table, that underlying core issue, and then also training your team and getting everybody used to interrupting each other, saying, oh, Or interrupting themselves. Like I interrupt myself all the time. Like I started talking about the issue. Excuse me. That's ok. I started talking about the issue. I'm gonna be quiet now cuz it's not time to talk about the issues, it's just time to stick them on the list. And that takes a little bit of adjusting because usually we're told not to interrupt each other. But after a few times of giving everybody permission, anybody's allowed to interrupt anybody. Who starts launching into talking about an issue when it's not time for it yet.
Carol: And I, the other thing that I like about what you were describing is that it, it get, it gets clear what we're doing at this moment. And I, I try to do that when I'm working with, with groups cuz, during a strategic planning process that I, that generally what I work on, There are points at which you're exploring, where you're opening everything up, where you're imagining, where you're visioning, and you're maybe getting like even a little bit really out there beyond what is really feasible. There's a time for that, and then there's a time a little bit later in the process to cut it down and, and put some criteria on what's gonna be more feasible. What, what do we have the capacity for? What, what's really gonna move our mission forward in a different way. But being clear about what you're doing in each meeting, in each session, in each portion really helps people have.
A more constructive conversation and feel like they, they, they knew what was expected of them so they could show up in a, in a helpful way. a hundred percent. So you, you, and I'm gonna use your words, you work to help nonprofits become financially sustainable, world, world changers. What would you say is really the key to achieving that with an organization?
Sarah: So for nonprofits specifically, there are three key areas that I think they need to be focusing on. First is capacity. Right. So that includes who's on your team, how many team members you have, how much money you have. Although money is usually a byproduct of core capacity. It's not the capacity itself and how aligned that team is, right? So the bulk of what makes up. Our organizations are people really, so right. Who are the people and how well do they work together and are they the right people on the team? And a lot of building that capacity has to do with creating great alignment. And that really means understanding who you are as an organization, how you behave, and then attracting people who want to behave in the same way. and all work together. So we can do a lot too. Capacity by making sure we have the right people aligned in the right way, and great systems and processes for keeping them gelled together as a well-oiled team. So capacity, right? And then actionable strategy, I always say actionable strategy. Which should be assumed, but there's so many people who have strategies that they aren't taking action on. And so just to quickly define some terms, to me, a strategy is a set of goals with a set of actions that you're going to take to achieve those goals. And in the method I teach called the impact method, we always have our highest level strategic goals tied right into our tasks day to day. And it goes through. In the impact method, we actually do strategic planning every two months, and then we map out a two month work plan. We check on that work plan every two weeks, and then each, each two week chunk everybody has their tasks that they're working on for those two weeks. So that's what I mean by what a really actionable strategy looks like that's like dialed in and people aren't flying off doing other things. And then the third piece, which is not true for all businesses, but is true for most non-profits. So if your non-profit has a mission to solve a problem that has never been solved before, so if you're working to end hunger or homelessness, Or solve mental health issues, any of those things. You have to be great at innovation. And to be great at innovation, you basically need some sort of built in process for improvement. You have to be able to experiment and improve and try things and, and have room to fail. That's where the capacity comes in and modify. So really having those three things, capacity, actionable strategy, and a continual process of improvement is what it takes to really have success as a non-profit.
Carol: No, those sound like definitely three key key areas that I'm often working with clients on as well. And one, one I wanna go back to cuz with, with capacity and what we were talking about before, when you can set things on a, on a process and, and make it easier, you're not having to constantly decide, you kind. For me, when I have a good process, I know it's working well because I, I'm not experiencing that decision fatigue of having to make all sorts of little choices and like you said, then have time freed up for that bigger thinking. But what I see groups do, and there's a lot of pressure to scale up is each time they, they, they do something smarter and they create a little space instead of taking that time to think or think big? Differently one not necessarily bigger, they add more, add more, add more. And so, while the, the kind of, the promise is if you work smarter, you're not gonna have to work harder, but then people add more, so they're still working harder. Mm,
Sarah: mm-hmm. So I think some of the ways that I tackle that one is in the process of improvement that I teach. It includes this concept of respite and we also, I also just talk about brain space all the time. Mm. So part of it is about this concept of how we work when we work. But in another part of that is how you define the roles in the organization. So I'll talk about respite first. So, I already said like, we work in these, we do strategic planning every two months. So it's a two month strategic cycle with many two week tactical cycles built in. If you put that into a 12 month calendar year, you will find that there are four extra weeks left over which you totally gain back in efficiency and probably many times over. And so actually built into the framework as a thing is respite. And respite are those extra four weeks. They're not really extra where. Organizations, I teach them to build this into their way of operating, and this is separate from vacation time. Respite is where you're not working on a goal, a big goal or a project you might totally shut down. You might just do minimal operations. Some organizations do all four weeks at once. Some do a week here and there. Some who really like vital, life or death services will scatter different people's respite. So like. What am I thinking? Like overlay it so that no, nothing is ever quite shut down as much, but starting to really like, use a new piece of language, right? It's not vacation. I intentionally didn't use the word rest, although it's designed to allow our brains to have that time. But I call it respite because it's not a word we use a lot in our everyday lives. So introducing that as an important concept and a thing that you're gonna schedule in is really key. And then when part of actually what I think of it as a capacity piece is how you design your team. And a lot of people call this an org chart. I take a slightly different approach because the traditional org chart is really. Who is in charge of who, and I think to run any business better, what we really need to be thinking about is what are the functions of this organization Like, what if it were a machine? What are the pieces of the machine? What outcomes do we need for each of those? Pieces of the machine to be produced and then just who's in charge of those outcomes. And to me, that's what makes me a leader in an organization. We talk about roles that are very, like brain based versus roles that are, we call, I say hands based, but it's like doing the task versus being, trying to get a result that you're not, don't necessarily have control over. And just as a side note, I find, those who are leaders, In many ways, are people who they're, they're built for being responsible for things that aren't in their control. like a parent, right? Like parents are natural leaders. Are they forced leaders? Because you're responsible for this, a kid and you're not really totally in control of the outcome. But you've agreed to be accountable for it nonetheless. Within all these functions of what makes a nonprofit run, there's a really important role of, I call it visioning and innovation. And then you start to see that, especially if it's a CEO or a founder, is often owning this role of literally visioning and innovation and they, that role requires a ton of brain. Or we can call it my mom's solitaire time, right? Like you need to be paid to be just thinking, because that's how we innovate with a lot of thinking and problem solving. And so we start to embrace this as a valued role in the organization as well as a valued activity that everyone's participating in.
Carol: So, as you were saying there are, there, there needs to be that downtime in organizations and I think culturally we're so conditioned to always add more. Yes. And so I love the idea of just taking those. Not even take more, protecting those for extra, those extra four weeks. And, and designating them for some downtime, for some respite for thinking time and, and or just, just not, not doing, doing, doing so that you can. And I, I feel like. I don't know what to do. Well, we all think all the time. If you've ever tried to meditate, you find that out real quick. But if I'm concentrating on it, it doesn't necessarily work. So doing something easy, like solitary, as you talked about, helps just like the brain relax and then you start associating different things and then, it's like, why? We get our best ideas in the shower or on a good walk or something like that. But I definitely appreciate what you're, what you're sharing with people because the tendency so much is to just pile on new things.
Sarah: And, in the way you work too. I referenced a couple times, like, we work in these two week sprints and I teach all my clients to do. That is the, one of the first things they realize. Oftentimes it's the first time they've written down all the projects they're working on at one time. And literally we use a Kanban style, meaning like we put each of our projects that are in progress in a column and the ones that are coming up next to another column, and once it's visual and I just tell them the rule is you can't work on more than three projects at once. And if you wanna go faster, you should only work on one project at once. And it's visually there in the column, you see the boxes stacking up in the column, and people start to realize, What can they actually get done in two weeks? And they start to see that the impact of overloading their plates, of adding more and more and more at once is actually slowing them way, way down. And so as they realize that and see it in a visual way as well, they start to go, oh, Less is more right? Less at a time is faster. I will complete more projects in a two month period if I'm only working on one or two at a time. And they start to realize that a lot of the things they think they're adding that are just little things are huge things like we need to rebuild our. I can say it so easily, rebuild websites, projects I used to build websites professionally. They are multiple projects in one, and your website is never done. So they start to realize, like, understanding how to pull things apart and understand the true load of what's on their plate. And that has all sorts of positive ripple effects. Like oftentimes I see, board members start to really understand why this organization needs more resources and, and leaders start to really understand, oh I do need to be fundraising a lot more because I'm totally underestimating the true load. That we're either carrying or that we're not caring, but we need to be doing, if we're gonna make a dent in solving whatever the problem of our mission is.
Carol: And I think the other thing that doesn't get calculated when you're thinking about projects and some people's work, is, is, is project focused. But other, there's always those things I have to do every day, something I have to do every month or every week. And those regular, repetitive, those things that you systematize, those become invisible in those, those planning out all the stuff that has to happen. And so, Being mindful and remembering you've gotta block space for them, just those regular things as well, is really important.
Sarah: Totally. And we track those and I have a number of ways that I teach my clients to track them, so it's not time consuming just to track them. Right. Sure. You don't wanna spend more time tracking them. No. Them. So, but it can be as simple as every two months, each team member, just like estimates, like what percentage of my work time is taken up by recurring tasks. Mm-hmm. And when they're at 80%. They don't have, I tell them once you hit 80%, you don't have time for any projects, and this is the time to hire or have the one project of streamlining so that you can get that 80% back down to like 50%, 60%, something like that.
Carol: So at the end of each episode, I like to ask an icebreaker question, and since we've been talking about processes and systems, I'll, I'll choose this one. So what do the first 30 minutes of your typical day look like?
Sarah: Oh, coffee definitely, and I journal most days. It can vary. I have a son, I'm a single mom, I have a son, so there's usually getting him. I do what I need to do to be ready to get him ready for school and then face my day. But I will share. When I was newly a single mom and launching a business in the most crazy time of my life, I had this, I called it like my super routine, and it took about 30 minutes. I did 12 minutes of meditation, usually with my son sitting in my lap watching cartoons. He was a toddler at the time. I did the seven minute workout on my phone. And I took a quick shower and there is nothing like, even though each thing was short, there is nothing like a little bit of intentional just, brain time. That's that brain time, right? I gave myself that brain time. I had probably a little more brain time in the shower too. And a little bit of body exercise and just that little bit of self-regulation, self-regulation took me through the hardest times in my life. And. With energy and strength, it was great. Awesome, awesome. And it took about 30 minutes. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.
Carol: We can optimize those things for sure. We can, or, or just fit in a little bit and you can fit in more later if, when you have, when you have time and space, but at least doing a little bit each day is really grounding. So what's coming up from you? What are you excited about and what's emerging in your work?
Sarah: Well, I continue to offer the Thrive Program, which is where I take CEOs from non-profits who wanna be like me. I wanna learn everything that Sarah's teaching and work with her every week.
So I continue to love offering that program. I'm really excited to be coming out with a new program called Pivot this year. Access to all of the curriculum I use in the Thrive program, but aren't ready to dive in with all the support and wanna just try some stuff on their own. That'll be coming out in 2023. And also I continue to do this board retreat that I developed in a number of board training related to it. To really help boards get engaged. It comes with a new job description for the board. And the results from that have been so fantastic that I'm very excited to get it out there. And it's, it's, I'll just give you a sneak peek of some of the ways it's so different. I no longer have boards. Approving budgets, and yet they're more engaged with the finances than ever before. I have boards not participating in fundraising, and yet board members are more engaged in helping with fundraising than ever before.
And I have boards really starting to understand. Stand some of this, like how nonprofits work stuff so that they can truly be supportive and have their leadership teams back in a way that just feels great to CEOs and never ever hints on overstepping or micromanaging.
Carol: Awesome. Well thank you so much and thank you for coming on Mission Impact.
Sarah: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
In episode 63 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton focuses on healthy organizational cultures with past guests to discuss:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to episode 63 and the first episode of 2023 of Mission: Impact. This is the second part of a two part highlights episode. Our topic today is healthy organizational cultures and what gets in the way of them. I am pulling clips from conversations with Anne Hilb from episode 36, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows, Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall, and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson. We talk about why it is important for leaders to invest in themselves and consider getting a coach, why paying attention to power dynamics and naming them is key, and why it's important to realize that it takes time and investment to shift a culture away from less healthy practices.
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.
Reva Patwardhan explains why many nonprofit leaders struggle with the idea of investing in themselves for executive coaching even though as the leader they have a broader impact on the organization and thus shifting their own behavior to healthier habits can have a big impact. As Reva points out it is in service of the mission.
Reva Patwardhan: The nonprofit sector, for whatever reason, 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. 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. 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 always be giving to others, not to ourselves. And that is what coaching does.
Carol: Deneisha also prioritizes coaching in her practice in working with organizations trying to shift their cultures. Leaders have few spaces where they can be safely vulnerable and coaching is one space where they can own up to their own struggles.
Deneisha Thompson: Executive coaching and making sure you have strong leaders who are positioning themselves to learn and grow and be responsive to the needs of their team. Leadership is so, so, so important in building a culture. And when I do coaching with executives, I really try to work, to create environments where people can be honest and vulnerable. What I've heard from so many leaders is “I know that I have room to grow, but it can be really isolating as a leader to get the type of support that you need.” So who are you surrounded by? You have your staff who work for you you're supposed to know what you're doing. And so you don't really wanna be vulnerable with them and say, you know folks, I don't have this, so I'm not sure about this. I don't really have experience in this area. I'm not really sure what to do. No leader wants to tell their staff that they don't know what to do. Then you have your board who is supervising you, that's not necessarily the space where you also can be vulnerable and honest about your opportunities for growth. And then you have your colleagues who are other leaders of other organizations, and you definitely don't wanna tell them most of the time that you don't have it all together. And so. It becomes really hard for leaders to get the type of support that they need in order to be good leaders. And a part of that is also not creating systems to get feedback from your team around your leadership. And it is one of the most common things that I see that leaders are not getting evaluations.
Carol: I have also seen this. Even when an organization has a positive culture and the executive director has cultivated a really healthy relationship with the board. The board may not see the need to provide the leader with feedback if things are going really well. But that is not the time to sleep at the wheel – Recalling the conversation about feedback from episode 62 – feedback is both positive and constructive. Both are needed for the leader to learn and grow. And coaching can provide a safe space to confront one’s shadow side as Deneisha describes. Coaching provides a space to practice slowing down and being more mindful of the intentional response you would want to have in a tough situation instead of just reacting out of fear or anger or frustration.
Deneisha: Let's get in touch with your shadow side, because we all have one. It's never really the thing. We're proud of stuff, but what happens is it shows up at work and your teammates see it, and they don't know that. We do a lot of work around, who am I as an individual? How do I show up? When things come up change my reflex. So I am not automatically thinking about the external factor or the person who caused this thing or caused me to be frustrated. My first instinct is to be reflective and think about , how am I showing up right now? How did I contribute to this thing? How do I calm myself down so that when I do go to have this conversation, it can be productive and get us to a better place and not just be like a way for me to vent and, and, or feel vindicated. So I think it really just takes a lot of intention.
Carol: In the safe space of coaching you can shift from just venting to thinking more productively about the situation and how you want to show up in the future. Reva also notes that Younger leaders coming into positions have higher expectations for their role and what it will contribute to their career. They are not as willing to put up with poor working conditions that previous generations have become used to.
Reva: There is a wake up call going on for the sector. If it's not happening already, it's going to very soon because there is this emerging sense that people don't wanna put up with any of this crap anymore in their jobs. 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. I think part of that is because of the ridiculous salaries and we don't necessarily wanna model ourselves off of that. Part of it is that they have resources, they have support to do what they need to do. In the nonprofit sector, [when] becoming an ED, you should feel proud. If the mission matters then so do the people who are working for the mission.
Carol: It is too easy for folks in the sector to prioritize mission over people. In the for profit sector, the call is for people over profit. In the nonprofit sector – there needs not to be a binary of choosing one or the other. They go hand in hand. If people are treated well and have good working conditions, they will be able to do that much more for the mission. And if you have been in a position of power in an organization you may forget your impact as Anne Hilbe points out. You may be aware of all the things you cannot do, and forget the agency you have. Yet staff will be waiting to watch and see what you do. Remembering what your position brings with it and being cognizant of that and willing to admit the privilege you have to just proceed with a decision at times is important.
Anne Hilb: Those who would be doing the asking have much less power in the organization. The folks with formal power and titles need to really understand the power over that they have , and take ownership over that. The understanding of that power, because I think oftentimes we are a manager or in the C-suite, or even just have informal, formal power or hurt in that we. Are positioned to take power in a manager position purely because of the type of role that we have, because it's a more formal desk job and it can roll into a manager position or because we have Privilege. We tend not to recognize that. And so working on that, understanding in an organization or just as an individual is really important in order for these shifts to happen.
Carol: Those power differentials are just one of the aspects behind how we see the world and the lens that may become invisible to us. Your social identities such as your race, gender, sexual orientation, class and education status all impact how you see the world. And you cannot assume that we all see things similarly or are having the same experiences as Danielle explains.
Danielle: We need to be able to. Understand that we are not all seeing the world. Similarly, we are not all having the same experiences. There is this really interesting thing in the US where [because of] the melting pot everybody's supposed to blend together. Therefore we all have to be the same. I don't agree with the fact that we should all be the same but beyond that, it was never true to begin [with]. There are different cultures. There are values, there are different beliefs that people bring to the table. There's just simply different understandings of the world. To not look at that is a detriment to us because yes, we may have gone through the same situation, but how we experienced it is vastly different, so we've all gone through this period of COVID right now. And depending on who you were. So did you live in an urban environment? Did you live in a more rural environment? Did you have a stable job or were you one of the first people to go on furlough or lose your job?
Carol: Reva speaks to an additional element of the differentiation that Danielle names – being the only. This puts additional pressure on the individual as they are often then seen as a representative of a larger group. Or having to engage in a circumstance where others have set the unspoken rules and standards.
Reva: 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, and that's the problem because you feel ashamed of the anxiety. You're trying to solve the problem yourself. 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. I think people in this situation – this is just a very ripe moment for imposter syndrome. They might be thinking , someone else could be doing this job better. The person who was in this role before me did it better. Or they might be thinking , I'm the least competent person in this room, which makes it feel like this is a problem with me. That's just paralyzing. 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 [and] finding the things that you can do in your immediate sphere to take action.
Carol: Shifting from the individual level – and thinking more broadly at the group and organizational level – starting a process to examine the culture and start to dig into the challenges – and then shutting it down. Or just letting it fizzle due to neglect or the initiative getting over run by other priorities – can have a really detrimental effect as Terril and Monique describe. It can actually be even more damaging than doing nothing – because staff get their hopes up about positive change. So if you start a process – be in it for the long term.
Terrill Thompson: But it's really, really damaging. To open it all up, bring people's hope up and then nothing changes.
Monique Meadows: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals, here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they don't first feel like they're crazy? Like this is actually happening. What agency do you have? What power do you have within the system to make the changes? That's also a part of our work is to see at all levels within the hierarchy that there's some power there. And so how. With the role that you have, how can you move this along so that you can move closer to fulfilling your mission?
Carol: Starting with an organizational assessment can help get things out in the open through the conversations that are sparked by the findings as Deneisha explains.
Deneisha: I do an org assessment to get us started. And I always pride myself. It's similar to supervision and with the evaluation that at the end, when someone gets their org assessment and you share it with the leadership and share it with the team that it should feel familiar, it shouldn't feel like, like a bomb just dropped and there's all this new information. But oftentimes the response that I get, people get their org assessment and they'll read through it. And they're like, yeah, we knew all of this. And it's almost as if they're expecting it to be a document full of secrets and things they didn't know. And that says to me, these are issues that everyone knows about. We know the landscape of where we are, but we don't have a system for us to have that conversation, which is why we had to hire a consultant to come in and tell us where we already know. And we could have elevated in a landscaping conversation if we just had a team that was able to communicate and talk to each other. And so it'll be like their assessment. It'll have recommendations. It'll have questions for further consideration. And I find, oftentimes the staff are like, this is amazing. I've been saying this for years. And then the leadership is. Oh, we, we knew some of this or, , it's good to see it, or you really captured , our organization
Carol: All these processes have the impact of slowing things down. Stepping away from the day to day work and the to do list and examining HOW you are doing the work and the why – not just the what is something I talk about often on this podcast. Reva also describes the benefits of taking a beat.
Reva: 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. A lot of times people are truly experiencing urgency in their work. There's urgency coming from somewhere. Often people are working with, or serving communities that are experiencing urgency. It can sound bizarre. Who am I to slow down? Why do I get to do this 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. 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. There's the undercurrent of frustration there of, there are things I'd like to do and there's no space to do.
Carol: Whether it is pausing as an individual or taking the time as a group to really dig in and get vulnerable with each other – it takes an intentionality and investment as Monique shares.
Monique: Groups say they want to do the organizational culture work. They bring in folks and. When they realize that the depths of time, like the amount of time, like the kind of commitment and the vulnerability that is really present, they shut down. Groups also don't always have the resources to really invest the time. Right. Folks are pulled in a thousand different directions. We found that to be one of the challenges. Are you really able to commit the time and the resources, the people power to be able to dig in and do this.
Carol: But as Danielle notes – it is feasible – it is possible – and there are folks already doing it.
Danielle: Some people are doing it every day. They don't necessarily stop to think about it. If I'm working with a group that is dealing with food insecurities, and they're also trying to tackle, let's say racial equity systems, they're not stopping the feeding of people. That work continues, but they are allocating time to sit down as a team to review the policies, to begin to look at data, who works in this organization. What's our retention rate based on the disaggregated data, are there certain demographics that are promoted at higher rates to are maybe leaving the organization? Or even hired into the organization at that point. So they're doing both sets of things and I, by no means, would say it is easy because it is an intentional carving out of time. But the people that are able to hold those two things as truthful and important in the moment, those are the groups that I see having the most success.
Carol: It is possible – and it is also important to recognize that we are all caught in systems that are not working. The wider system is broken yet we need to keep working to create a better world – internally for our staff and externally in the mission we are pursuing. Deneisha describes some of the challenges that come with working within that broken system.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally they don't treat each other well, internally they have a toxic culture, internally they have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued. What's the real issue around why you are not reaching the impact that you hope to have both in communities and kind of internally as a team. Again, the through line of that is culture. You need to have a culture that is going to allow you to get to the impact that you want to be able to grow organizationally, to be able to support your staff so that they are able to do good work. These communities cannot wait for you to figure it out for you to have these tough conversations and learn how to work better together so that you actually can achieve the type of impact that everyone is working so hard to achieve on a daily basis.
We blame the government. We blame communities. We blame each other. How do we reduce the culture of blame? Everyone has to have skin in the game. Everyone needs to work on personal accountability and everyone contributes to whether or not we have a healthy culture.
Carol: It can be hard to face those realities and it is easier to look outside of ourselves to blame others, blame the system. Yet as Terril points out, we need to give ourselves grace. We are human, we will make mistakes. And we are able to acknowledge those and keep moving forward.
Terrill: when we show up as full human beings who make mistakes, who are learning along with the client, people trust us more because we're not robots and neither are they. We need to be all in it together.
Monique: We look at the multiple aspects of identities. As we do that, we invite people to look at the places where they have identities that are privileged identities and the places where they have identities. [They’re] oppressed. In terms of the modeling and the transparency that Terrell, and I do, we share our full selves with folks. Acknowledging that I have certain identities that are very privileged. I'm a US born English speaker. I live a middle-class life. And I have identities that are oppressed. I'm black, I'm a woman. I have a disability. What we do is, we invite people to look at their whole selves, not just through a single lens. And so. That really shifts how the conversation happens for groups. ? So you've got, white folks who are used to being in the conversation where they are the oppressor. I mean, that's, that's what we're working with here. We're saying, well, actually, you're more than that. You have many identities that you're holding where you're impacted by systems that. Take power away from you too. We bring that kind of conversation into a group when we're talking about equity and we find that for the folks of color, for the trans folks, for the LGBT folks, It's a, it's a new way of looking at ourselves. It's really powerful to be part of those moments where the group's like, oh right. Because there's so much fear going into conversations around equity. We've found that that type of approach kind of that's what the fear go away, but it definitely just creates compassion for each other.
Carol: That grace, that compassion we need for ourselves and each other will fuel the way forward. Then we are more ready to step in and have the brave conversations we need to create healthier cultures. As Deneisha points out – it is everyone’s job. Whether you are the staff leader, on the board or part of staff – you can do your part to contribute to your organization having a healthier culture. Remembering that it takes time. Allowing ourselves to get the help that we need. Finding safer spaces to have tough conversations. Bringing in someone from the outside who can hold up a mirror and help you look at yourselves – for the good, bad and the ugly. All of these actions are small yet important steps toward building braver organizations.
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 the guests highlighted in the episode, 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 you do to contribute and make an impact.
Healthy organizational culture highlights
In episode 62 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton looks back with past guests to discuss:
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission: Impact the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. My name is Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and strategic planning consultant.
A big part of not being a martyr to the cause is building organizations with healthy cultures. To round out the year of podcasts, I am going back to a number of interviews I did this year to pull out some gems on what it really takes to build a healthy organizational culture. There was so much great material to pull from. I am actually going to do this as a two-parter. This is part 1 and part 2 will come out in early January. I am taking a break at the end of the year – and hope you have a break coming up soon as well so I am releasing one episode this month instead of my normal two.
In part one, we are going to talk about what organizational culture actually is and who is responsible for it, why values are so essential to culture, and how courageous conversations and feedback are so critical to healthy cultures.
You will hear from episode 36 with Anne Hilb, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows; Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall; and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by organizational culture. Edgar Schein first described the concept and his definition is: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” To me, the key in that definition is that culture is made up of shared basic assumptions – and over time these become invisible. But you definitely learn them when you are new and bump into them inadvertently and get schooled by those around you in the “way we do things around here.” Terrill describes their approach to culture.
Terrill Thompson: We define culture really broadly. ? The essence of it is what does it feel like to work there? . Every organization has a different call. The people who can most clearly see the culture are often the new folks, because once we're in it, it's like the fish in water that doesn't know they're in water. It's all around us all the time. Newer people who are coming into organizations can often tell you a little bit more about the culture. When we're looking at culture, we're really looking at it holistically, how are people behaving in the organization? How do they treat each other? What are the relationships like the level of trust? What do we do about birthdays or holidays, all of that? Even how we dress is part of culture. And so we're really taking a broad approach. It's really about the people. The people make up the culture.
Carol: As Terrill describes, culture is made up of things we can see and a lot we can’t – some of it may show up in your policies and procedures. Even more will be invisible. A lot of leaders have been wanting everyone back in the office saying that will create culture. But the truth is culture is there – whether you are in an office or fully remote or something in between. Culture is made up of all the small actions and behaviors of the group – whether you are meeting in the hallway or proverbial water cooler or on a Slack channel or Zoom room. How you care for and cultivate that culture is a different thing. There were plenty of unhealthy cultures in the before-times when working together in one space was the default – so the office does not create the culture, the people do. I appreciate How Deneisha calls out that culture is everyone’s job.
Deneisha Thompson: Culture is everyone's job, it's not just the HR person's job. It's not just the job of the supervisor. It's not just the DEI person's job. All of those things require all of us to be embodying the values as we have defined them. And to make sure that everyone is contributing to trying to have a more positive and healthy work culture.
Carol: So while leaders have an especially important part of creating and modeling the culture – whether they are doing so intentionally or not – everyone can contribute to making the culture healthier. Yet it may not be on people’s minds because as Monique points out, culture can be so invisible.
Monique Meadows: The other piece around talking about culture in general, because it's so invisible, folks can kind of dismiss its significance. Like how much it really impacts, how far you're getting along in your work and how you're able to really fulfill your mission. And so naming it and, and really identifying this is why it's so important.
Carol: Peter Drucker famously said culture eats strategy for lunch. So while I focus on strategy with organizations – I also assess their culture while I am working with them because the culture has to support and align to the strategy you are trying to enact. And it starts with looking at the good, bad and the ugly. Anne Hilb provides this warning about your organizational culture.
Anne Hilb: culture is dictated by the worst behavior we allow. The cultural component of that is as soon as something that's inappropriate happens, it's absolutely imperative to. Say we do not allow that here. There's not going to be tolerance for that. That being said, there's a very big component of how we handle harm in this culture?
Carol: This could be truly worst case scenario of sexual assault or harassment, racialized harassment or embezzlement. But it doesn't need to be so egregious. Do you have a team member who has followed through on responsibilities inconsistently? Have you been avoiding having a conversation with them about it? Do you excuse board members who do not show up at meetings? Do you allow one or two people to dominate the conversation? What is the worst behavior you are allowing? How might you address it?
Anne: Condemning the deed and not the person separating those things out. . The way that you handle a bad act versus a bad actor is also going to be something that's important and says a lot about your culture.
Carol: It is easy to get caught up in blame and blaming the person instead of addressing the behavior that is problematic. I certainly know that I have fallen into this trap too many times. I have also seen leaders want to avoid dealing 1 on 1 with an individual and having that tough conversation. Sometimes when a leader calls wanting team development or board development, once we get into the conversation what is really needed first is for the leader to have a brave conversation with an individual – whether on staff or board member. Team building will not address individual issues and may actually be detrimental to your overall morale. There is a place for team building and board development – but think about whether the issue you want to address is at the individual level or the group level. Deneisha describes the thing that got me interested in organization development in the first place – the cognitive dissonance that too often occurs between the organization’s mission and vision and how it treats the people involved in the organization. She also makes the good point that each organization is not operating in a vacuum – they are operating in the larger sector and the broader culture and systems.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally. Don't treat each other well, internally have a toxic culture, internally have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued.
Carol: As Deneisha points out, you can’t have a healthy organizational culture that doesn’t value inclusion, diversity and belonging. By definition, if you are not working on intentionally building a culture where those from historically marginalized communities feel a sense of belonging your culture is not healthy. You do not have a healthy organizational culture if it only works well for some people. What you value and how you embody those values is a key component of this. Danielle describes an exact conversation I have had with groups.
Danielle Marshall: What does respect mean at the organizational level? And what does respect mean for you Carol, versus how I view respect? Because that's where I think things get a little tricky. We use words, just assuming that everyone is behind the definition, they're seeing it in the same context, because again, we're minimizing right differences without digging into.
Carol: Beyond just naming what your values are as a group – spending time talking through what behaviors demonstrate those values is so important to know whether you are talking about the same thing when you say “respect” or “integrity” or “equity” How will I be able to see it and really know we are walking our talk? As Anne describes, this ‘walking the talk’ comes out in whether our values are just listed on the website but not lived – thus they are espoused values but not really alive in the organization.
Anne: If there's misunderstanding or miscommunication, we know that something in the organization has gone amiss. And that means that we're saying that we have these values, we have these espoused values and we're not practicing those values in action. And that's going to lead to conflict when that happens in a place where there's harm created with sexual violence, let's say a leader. Creates an instance of sexual harassment and they're covered by the firm's lawyer. And now the leader leaves or gets pushed out. But the firm's lawyer is still there, which is why I've had this incident happen many times. Then there's all this animosity towards the lawyer because he's doing his job folks feel like, well, why are they still here once that all comes to light? So then you have this schism in what the firm says they stand for, especially if they're an organization that says it supports a women's issue. How do you then look at smoothing over the lack of alignment in a way that you haven't technically broken policy, but you have broken the values or the espoused values of the organization. That's an instance where you're going to have to work with folks in a way that gives them voice. And those back to the foundation of what do we stand for? What's our mission and how do our policies, our processes and what we say we want to do line up.
Carol: The degree of lack of alignment that Anne describes can lead to more extreme staff revolts and disillusionment. But it can also be in the little things as Terrill describes.
Terrill: The other thing is that oftentimes our practices and policies are written down that should define a culture, often contradict the culture. For example, we'll see policies that say everybody takes an hour for lunch, but then when we look around the office, everyone's sitting at their desks, cramming food in their face while they're typing emails. Culture often trumps everything else.
Carol: There is a lot of conversation about self care and setting boundaries at work these days, quiet quitting and the great resignation. But self care and setting boundaries – while important – put the onus on the individual to set these up for themselves. Culture writer Anne Helen Petersen describes what she calls ‘guardrails’ as a structured alternative to boundaries. She says, quote, “ I came up with a concept of boundaries vs. guardrails when I was trying to describe something new to protect against the runaway train of working all the time, that isn’t boundaries which has become so worn out as to effectively be meaningless.” So in the example Terrill offered, the organization has at least in policy created a guardrail of a lunch break. But if the leaders do not actively encourage this behavior or even more so – model taking a lunch break themselves – then those are just words on a page. What guardrails do you need to establish for your organization to promote everyone’s well being? And then as Deneisha points out – how you are going to hold yourself and other accountable?
Deneisha: When accountability doesn't happen, it hurts trust. But it's also a really hard thing to have that conversation. People are saying, this is my job and I can be responsible for this, but when things go wrong, Owning up to it and, and being able to recognize how, whatever you didn't do impacted your team is a really scary thing. As humans, we are defensive beings. We are not bred to be public about accountability. You may feel bad internally, but to actually come out and say, you know what? I screwed this up. I'm sorry. Or I had a bad day and I didn't show up. Those things are not valued. We actually have a very punitive approach to how we deal with people not doing what we need them to do. And that's very present in the nonprofit sector. While we talk about things like restorative justice, and we talk about things like healing and bringing people together, and building bridges. These are all terms we hear around the sector a lot. We don't really create mechanisms internally for people to feel safe to do that. And so what ends up happening is that we have lots of teams who are individuals. Just try to escape accountability, because I don't wanna be written on, I don't wanna a bad performance review. I don't want to be othered or, or to be rejected and feel like I don't belong. It is a. Difficult difficult thing to be accountable to your team. And so part of that is like, I tie that in with communication because what we wanna do is to normalize like imperfection. No, one's perfect. We all make mistakes. We can be transparent and it's not gonna happen overnight. But how do we build trust with each other? How do we start putting systems in place and taking baby steps towards normalizing the things that people are often running from really being able to declare when you're not ready for something or when you've hurt someone's feelings, being able to go beyond ‘I'm sorry.’ Because ‘I’m sorry’ doesn't solve everything. These are really important skills that need to be taught. You're not born with that. And if you don't practice it it's like anything, you lose the muscle for it. It's about consistently building in opportunities for teams to be vulnerable with each other.
Carol: How are you making it ok for people to be honest about it when they screw up? None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Do you have a CYA culture? Or one where mistakes are shared as learning opportunities? As Terrill says, trust is key to start being able to make shifts that build towards a more healthy culture. And as Monique points out there may also be past harm that needs to be addressed and worked through.
Terrill: We've got to have the trust to hold what comes up so that when the group is ready to actually hold the experience, then we can bring that in and start to make those shifts.
Monique: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. . We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they first don't feel like they're crazy, ? Like this is actually happening.
Carol: So in the best case scenario, you address an issue immediately as Anne described earlier. But sometimes it gets swept under the rug or ignored. It doesn’t mean the issue is no longer active in the system. You can address it and acknowledge it and work through it. And as we talked about boundaries being an individual solution to an organizational – and even wider cultural problem, It is easy to think when something isn't working, it is your fault – again with the driver to cover it up as Reva describes.
Reva Patwardhan: 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. . Something's going wrong. and in the organization, but because it feels like a personal problem, I treat it like a personal problem. If you imagine you're an ED and things aren't going right. Really feels like the thing that's not going right is me. My efforts to address it have failed. So what do I do? What you do in that situation is you hide it, you hide the problem. If you blame yourself for the problem and you haven't been able to adequately address it, you hide the problem. You're then unable to do anything about it. Some examples I've seen of this are Executives, who've gotten really good at hiding their overwhelm. It's just become this really normalized thing that their funders don't fund overhead. It's been like that for so long. A culture where overwhelmed and burnout are just normal. If you are overwhelmed or if you have a problem with being overwhelmed, that's a problem with you. And so let's hide that rather than actually trying to figure out how to do it.
Carol: Addressing issues openly instead of covering them up or trying to hide them is so important to a healthy culture. Deneisha describes the importance of having those brave conversations. She also gives a masterclass in the importance of feedback and how to provide effective feedback.
Deneisha: How do we create the environment to have really tough conversations, important conversations, brave conversations, so that we are respecting each other and sharing and allowing the brilliance of our diversity rise to the top. And then finally strategy. What does our strategic planning look like? Do we have a north star? Do we have a clear set of goals and targets that we're all working towards? You often have people who are really passionate about the mission, which then makes it hard. You can't say, leave your personal self at home. , just come to work that doesn't work in the nonprofit sector, whether you are working on issues related to poverty or education or homelessness, or, you know, especially with service orgs, their passions drive how they show up. Feedback should be happening constantly. We should not just be waiting until something goes wrong to have conversations around how we can do better. To supervisors, if someone is seeing something for the first time on the performance review, you have failed. You have plenty of opportunities between annual evaluations to share your feedback. It should not be in the form of criticism. You don't wanna be criticized; that does not feel good. What this should be is, how can we grow? How can we do better? There is an opportunity every single day to provide feedback. And you should be also saying as a supervisor, how can I support you? What do you need from me to be able to do these things? So feedback doesn't just go from the top down. It should also be able to go from the bottom up for a staffer to say, okay, I hear you. These are the things you'd like me to do, but here's the support that I need or the resources I need to get that done. So number one, feedback should be in a 360. Feedback isn't also just an outward thing. Sometimes feedback is listening, a key component of being able to give good feedback is to also listen and to hear and to synthesize that information and then to provide something back to the person that is actually actionable, that's meaningful.
Carol: And as Deneisha says earlier, just saying you are sorry is likely not enough to address harm. Anne describes all the parts of a good apology.
Anne: A good apology says, I'm sorry. I take responsibility for that and here's what I'm going to do going forward. And here's what I learned from it and how I'm gonna use this as a learning example.
Carol: Several years ago, Elizabeth Scott of Brighter Strategies did research on what organizations that have a healthy culture (based on an organizational assessment by Cooke and Lafferty of Human Synergistics International did differently from those with a less healthy culture. Today’s experts – Deneisha, Danielle, Terrill, Monique, Reva and Anne – highlighted several that came up in her research findings. The first is a feedback rich culture – and that is sharing specific positive feedback – celebrating the wins – and addressing the growing edges and having brave conversations. And another is the importance of valuing balancing self care and work-life balance – through those guardrails that Anne Helen Petersen describes.
What feedback do you need to provide team members? Board members? How are you asking for regular feedback? How are you modeling what you expect from your team members? Saying do as I say not as I do, does not cut it. Are you modeling healthy habits around self care? What conversations do you need to have as a team if how you work is driving you all to burn out? Do you admit to mistakes you make? Do you share those with your team and what you learned from them? Do they feel safe admitting to not being perfect? Is there a past harm that you need to make amends for? And use Anne’s model of a full apology. Is there a brave conversation you have been putting off? What support can you get to make it possible to have that conversation? Again – none of us are perfect. Values are always aspirational and we will inevitably fall short. But it is not a life sentence. You can pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, admit to the challenge, talk it through and set intentions for more fully living into your values moving forward.
Thank you for listening to this episode. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
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.
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.
Why bother doing strategic planning?
In episode 60 of Mission: Impact, Carol goes solo to discuss:
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission Impact. Welcome to my 60th episode, and in this episode I'm gonna be focusing on the work that I do with organizations and talking about strategic planning. I came to strategic planning, probably naturally I started my interest in working with organizations and their organization development by being part of a strategic planning process at a local organization where I was a member. We used what's known as an appreciative inquiry process, but going through the whole process and being led by the consultant made me very curious about this whole approach.
Welcome to Mission: Impact, 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 host and nonprofit consultant.
On a personal level, I really enjoy planning. Used to love when it was back to school time and it was time to get those new planning notebooks for the school year. And now as a professional, I have probably way too many notebooks where that helped me with my daily, weekly, and monthly planning. And yearly I'm coming to, we're coming to the end of the year here. And I'm looking forward to spending a good chunk of time thinking through what this last year has brought for me and what does the next year look like and how can I get ready for that?
So that's all at the personal level, but why do strategic planning and why is it called strategic planning instead of just, there are other types of planning, but why strategic planning at the organizational level and there are, I think, a lot of things that people fear about strategic planning and I guess I wanna say that you don't need to fear it.
Unfortunately a lot of people have had some not great experiences with processes that they've been involved in before. But I think there's also, with some folks a little bit of hesitancy around a feeling that a plan is gonna hem you in, a plan is not gonna allow you to adjust and iterate as you need. A plan is gonna be constrictive and it doesn't allow for that creativity and emergence and doesn't. It really enables you to respond in the way that you want.
And so when I'm thinking about working with organizations and strategic planning, I wanna help them find that happy medium between a plan that does feel that way, That is very constrictive, that is very defined, and just having no plan. So just being able, just reacting in the moment to whatever is emerging. And I think for organizations, because they're really just made up of a network of people, a group of people who are all ideally working towards a similar goal, the mission of the organization.
To me, what a strategic planning process does is help the group realign around that mission and get clear about. What are they gonna be focusing on in the next three to five years? So, what are those three to five big goals that the organization needs to pay attention to over the next three to five year period? And that really helps get everyone moving in the same direction. So you don't have all of that. Working at cross purposes or confusion or not really knowing what to prioritize when you get to your desk every day. So some of the benefits that I see, finding that goldilocks spot of. just an, just enough structure and planning and direction and still not nailing it down, soak definitively over a, that three year period that there's no way to adjust and make a. Changes as, as needed.
And certainly anyone who's lived through the last three years knows that the best laid plans that's what, that's what happens to them. So I've heard folks talk about how at the beginning of the pandemic, they just had to throw out their strategic plan and react to what was happening there. I'm guessing. It's not like they started over in the pandemic to reimagine what their organization did. The mission was still going to be the same, but it was really about how you can make progress in that mission, in that moment, in the pandemic when everything was so different.
We all live in this. What is known as the, if you've heard the acronym, VUCA. Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, and Ambiguous. We all live in that world. I'm guessing that if we looked back in history, folks across time would have felt that they were living also in a VUCA world. Things that are pr make it particularly. So these days are just the speed at which things happen and the interconnectedness with which we live across our country. So with ambiguity and volatility. There can be a sense of let's just throw this whole planning process out. Let's not even bother. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of time. Why would we, why would we wanna do that? But some of the benefits that I've seen, organizations really come out of a planning process. Is through the structure of the deliberate conversations that you walk through with the group that really help people uncover their, their aspirations, their visions for the organization, what it could be, the impact it could have, as well as the assumptions they're making.
And so through that series of conversations, you're able to. That common ground of where people agree, where the energy is to set some direction. And for me, I essentially think of it as you're, you're setting your intentions. I go out on a walk every morning and I have to decide, am I turning left or am I turning right? You're setting your direction, you're, you're deciding where you're going to go. Of course, on my morning walk, I pretty much know the route and it's not too unexpected, and we can. Predict the future. That's not what the purpose of the, the whole process is. It's really to refine and, and help everyone get into alignment. I
've seen the benefits of boards getting reengaged with organizations, board members who maybe came into the organization at the beginning of a process and didn't feel like they could contribute a lot because they didn't know as much as they wanted to about the organization. Really feel like they'd learned so much through all the conversations with other board members and staff, through the strategic planning process. So, that education process, that process, that re-engagement process with board members can be such a key benefit.
Being able to lift up, being, being able to lift up and, and examine challenges that are going on inside the organization and giving people a safe and constructive place to have conversations about that so that it's not just a conversation out in the hallway, but it's being brought into the room and it's a focus. We're gonna pay attention to this. Not that you're gonna solve that problem necessarily in the strategic planning process itself, but more through the, all the conversations, it's gonna be lifted up and hopefully then prioritized to gather some attention over in that next period of time for the organization to continue to strengthen itself. So those are just some of the benefits that I see.
Oftentimes if an organization hasn't gone through planning in a while, it. A common complaint that isn't just about planning, but, but a common complaint in organizations is the, the sense of being siloed from each other board versus staff of different departments, not necessarily knowing what each other are doing. And through the planning process, you can really help integrate those, all those pieces. So I think of it as trying. lessen the noise that's happening and increase the signal. So if you're thinking about an old time radio where we're trying to dial in and, and get that station, you're, you're reducing the static and you're really dialing into that signal where everyone Says, Yes, I'm in agreement. This is the direction we need to go. This is what we need to focus on over the next couple years, and I understand how it really moves our mission forward.
So there's lots more that I could say about strategic planning. But I wanted to really focus on why today as many people are familiar with the Simon Sinek book “Start With Why.” I start every podcast interview with a question with my guests of what their why is. I wanted to dig into what is the why for possibly thinking about doing strategic planning. So we're coming to the end of the year. A lot of folks are starting to think about next year and perhaps are thinking about strategic planning. So if you're thinking about it those are just some of the benefits that I really see. Educating staff, educating board. Dialing up that signal so that everyone's in alignment around a common purpose.
And it also is a great way to help folks get to know each other. The last couple retreats that I did, I've been obviously doing all of the planning that I've been doing with organizations virtually. And then most recently, a couple in person sessions and both through the virtual and the in person folks talked about at the end of the process how they really appreciated getting to know each other better. So there are lots of different benefits. So I'd just invite you to consider thinking about how that might apply to your organization and think about what, what you could gain from it and why it might be important. So thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me. Just by myself this time. And with our other episodes, with our guests I will put a link in the show notes to a resource that I think is particularly helpful. I have a resource of common mistakes that organizations make in strategic planning. So that's a free download that you can grab from the website. So we'll put that up and there'll also be a transcript of this episode in the show notes as well. If you enjoyed this episode, I'd love for you to share it on your favorite social media platform and tag me it's Grace Social Sector Consulting, or Carol Hamilton at LinkedIn or Mission Impact on LinkedIn. And we appreciate you helping us get the word out.
I also wanna thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production, as well as April Koester of a 100 Ninjas for her production support. 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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