In episode 71 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guest, Dr. Orletta Caldwell discuss:
Dr. Caldwell is a passionate and qualified educator and nonprofit management specialist. Caldwell brings more than 30 years of administrative and leadership experience to the CEO of Beyond Existing Enterprises. Highlights of a stellar and diverse career include Executive Director, Camp Baber, and Assistant Professor at Grand Rapids Community College. She has served in many professional and volunteer capacities, including Tech Soup, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), Metro Detroit Council of Christian Churches, Urban Renewal Commission for the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado; Board Member/Secretary, Association of Gospel Rescue Missions and the Southfield Downtown Development Authority for Southfield, Michigan. She earned her Bachelor of Public Affairs from Wayne State University, Master of Science in Management from Cardinal Stritch, and Ph.D. in Public Policy & Administration specializing in Nonprofit Management from Walden University.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Dr. Orletta Caldwell. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Orletta and I talk about her work with African- American led community-based organizations. We explore the specific challenges these organizations face, what folks need to be aware of when they shift from being a project to being an organization, and why it is so key to understand that even as founder you do not “own”
Welcome, Orletta. Welcome to Mission Impact. Thank you. So I'd like to get started with a question around what drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you? And what would you say is your why?
Dr. Orletta Caldwell: My why? I grew up. In a black church, save a community, help people that are worse off to you. I have been truly blessed in my life and I've just always wanted to give back, and that's my why. And one of my reasons is funny. I'm not interested in being in the front so much, like, president of this or that, but it was always more to provide resources so people can do what they want. Better. So that's been my wife for a long time.
Carol: I love that. I also am more of a behind the scenes person, so when I describe my work, I describe it as I help the helpers mm-hmm. I'm multiple steps away from whatever help is being done. But, helping them do their work better is where I can then see impact.
Orletta: And that, and that's always been my thing. It. Putting those tools together, coming out of a process, but making other people be able to do their jobs better. So that's why.
Carol: You and I both do capacity building with nonprofits, but you really focus specifically on African American led organizations. What are, what are some of the specific opportunities or, or challenges that those organizations face?
Orletta: Well, traditionally in the research shows, they always say they're smaller and have less access to money. And I had one guy who was at his clinic, it was his workshop, and he said, we're not grassroots. We're mud roots. We don't even have enough money to get grass. And that's. What I've seen so many times, and it's always because they may not know what's going on, and I've always wanted to be this bridge to say it. It even led me to go for my PhD to find out what's going on in the nonprofit sector and take it back to my people, my community. And that's why I've focused on them. I'll work with anybody, but I've focused on African American nonprofits for that.
Carol: What are some of the things in terms of building that bridge that you're helping folks gain connection to or access to?
Orletta: A lot of it is compliance issues, filling out that paperwork knowing that that paperwork should be filled out and it's not so much. If you don't fill out the paperwork, bad things are gonna happen. Sometimes I'm like, because you don't have this proper paperwork, the good things can't happen. You don't have access to the grants and the funding that you could have. You miss out on little things. People don't check your credibility. So I'm really into helping nonprofits stay compliant and making sure you understand the rules. Filling out the charitable solicitation paper. Don't let a $275 fee stop you from getting a 501C3 that can open up opportunities for your mission.
Carol: Because I can imagine folks might start something and it's really more of an informal project or initiative. And, they may not be aware of those steps. So what are some of the steps that people need to be aware of? And this certainly in the US context of to shift from just a, a passion project or to, to really becoming an organization.
Orletta: Well, one thing, I live in Michigan and I'm like, just get your, they don't really understand. Once you get your articles of incorporation from the state of Michigan, for example, you're truly a nonprofit corporation, and now we can work on your tax exemption status, which you have 24 months to do, and they don't really understand that, so they're paying out of their pocket. A lot of them, again, when they file for the incorporation papers, they're incorporated. They don't realize they have 24 months where it can still be considered tax deductible donations to them because you have the intent to file for your tax exemption and so they lose 24 months. Of money they could be receiving, cuz they're like, well we're not, they don't think they're a real nonprofit until they get to 5 0 1 So it's those little, niggling things like that. And then my favorite one is the Founder's Syndrome. They think that this was my dream. I thought of it, I ran it. And when I come into a class and say, we don't run, you don't own a nonprofit. That's not how it's set up. That, that, those are interesting conversations. So it's those little things, and those little things. Having a real budget, planning for that, having a board that's gonna actually help you and not just grab your family and your friends. Those are the things, and it's the small things, but it keeps them from having the impact that they can have.
Carol: I don't know that they're that small necessarily. I think there is a lot of misconception about this notion of being a corporation, but that a nonprofit can't be owned by an individual. Can you say more about that?
Orletta: I always tell 'em that the nonprofit system, what I do with my, I teach a nonprofit management series course I wrote, and one of the things I, every time somebody wants to say, Or get into that groove of I'm the owner of my nonprofit, and it's like no, you are you doing this on behalf of society. The reason the nonprofit sector was set up is that you're supposed to be, you're doing it on behalf of society, and if you do it on behalf of society as a reward, we exempt you from your corporate income taxes. But that's, since you're doing it, it's a higher level of standard. We have to make sure that you're doing that and you're not what we call, getting personal gain from the quote unquote profits. And so we, I'm saying, I always try to pull my students back to, why are you doing this? Because you can be nice and not run, start a nonprofit corporation, and I always tell 'em that too. So if you're doing this, you're doing it on behalf of society as such. There's certain rules. And one thing is you don't own a nonprofit. And actually the board is the stewards on behalf of society to make sure that you're running that organization correctly. And that's how I put it to them so they can understand, foundationally what we're trying to do here. And we're not saying you gotta go. We're just saying, you can't take those funds and have a good party.
Carol: It's a whole notion of being a fiduciary for the board or being a steward of those resources on behalf of, of society, of the larger society community. Which I think. Is that a thing? Gap where people not, may not realize, the intent and the purpose of the non, the tax exemption
Orletta:. there's a little, so many misconceptions about the nonprofit sector. So I just, I just chuckle and smile and it's like, okay, we're gonna get through. I had one student, she cracked me up. She's one of my best students and she's getting grants and everything now, but she was just like, but this is my concept. What do you mean? Can my board let me go? Oh, yes, the board runs it. That's the way they are set up. So a lot of them, and it's a lot of that information. If they, if a person doesn't know it, they just don't be, they don't run the organization correctly. And so I really try to work with that.
Carol: You talked about having a real board, not just pulling your friends and family. Can you say a little bit more about that as people are getting started?
Orletta:. What typically do they do? Cuz this is what I always heard. Can I put my husband and my daughter and my cousin in and I'm like, okay, you can legally yes. However, The board is the people that are supposed to look out for your mission. They're the one. So when you out of organization may be having money issues, it's the board that's supposed to help you get that money. So I'm like, why don't you use those purposes, find somebody who has connections, find somebody who has money, find somebody who has expertise, maybe some accounting expertise or different things that you need to run? Increase the impact of your nonprofit and what a lot of people do when you get your friends, that's what you got, your friends, and then again, you feel like you're the founder cuz you're pulling the whole organization on your back instead of getting some people that can support you and grow the mission. Everything should focus on the. I, that's why I don't like nonprofit terms so much. I always prefer mission based cuz everything we should do emanates from the mission and you should have boards that's going to push and impact that mission together with you and not you got people cuz you gotta fill it out on a form.
Carol:. And that whole question of like, who are you pulling in? I mean, certainly people are gonna start with their network, but thinking a little more strategically about, what skills do we need? What competency, what social capital do we need to move this mission forward? I was working with an organization once where it was essentially. One person was running the organization and the board was made up of a group of college friends. And I think it was fine for the first couple years they were excited, but over time, people became disengaged and because they had friendships, the, the, oftentimes groups are already conflict averse, but it made it even more so because they were not gonna just lose them. They were putting the not wanting to harm their relationships as friends, Over what they needed to hash out as a board. And so they really got stuck, mm-hmm. And so, it may be easy. It seems easy, but It also makes it hard to bring in new people, right? Because if you have a subset that really knows each other and they've known each other for the last 15 years or whatever to be able to come in as a new person, how long are you gonna last? If you don't feel like you're actually part of the group, so, Coming on as a board member for the organization versus I'm doing you this, doing you a favor because you've started this thing. It has a really different motivation.
Orletta: It does. And again, it takes the focus, it puts the focus on the founder and the mission. Right, and I think that's the key thing when you really, I find, when you really think about what is this mission, what are we trying to do here? That focus, if you focus on that, it just changes how you make decisions.
Carol: What are some ways that you found seeing people be successful about getting out beyond just their friends and family to build a board that is really gonna move the mission forward?
Orletta: I even recommended people to who, who's volunteering with you. That really is. Into what you're doing. Those are potential board members. And then I said, you can even put on like indeed.com or even some of the free, I know in Detroit we have like a board. I can't, my brain is like an internet listing or something. So if you're looking for a board member, you can put it on there. And I said, it's fine to find a stranger. You may find a stranger. That's so, that's so much more into your. Thank you. So I, I say, see those people that's donating to you and they don't, you, you barely know what you're talking about yourself, but they're helping you. That's a good board member. That's somebody who's really into what you're doing and really into you too, if you wanna, if you wanna have a good relationship with them. So those are the things I say, find people who's into the mission and wanna
Carol: be, and they're there for, the purpose versus just the person.
Orletta: We're, I know we're a very individual driven sector, but, I think we do need to look at what's the mission. So those are the kinds of things I think about, like who are good board members.
Carol: So you're in the process right now of working on a book about the history of African American organizations. Can you give us a few, I know it's not finished yet, you're probably who knows how, I'm not sure how far along you are, but any, any interesting things that you're researching right now that are coming up and bubbling up?
Orletta:. This is my dissertation. I got my PhD at 20. I earned it in 2021. I was looking at
Orletta: Thank you. I was looking at what keeps, what do African American leaders do to sustain successful nonprofits. But part of my literature review when my chair said, I need you to. On the history of African American and his non-profit history. And here I am, I studied this stuff and all this, and I scoffed and I remember reading that memo and thinking what, what history? And it was just ridiculous. But that was the first thing I thought. And it was even worse because I grew up African Methodist Episcopal, that's the first African American. Over, I think there've been since 1787. So I'm like, what are you talking about?, the Free African society. So as I was looking into this and I was writing this literature review, there was an organization, I think it was the Massachusetts Negro Bureau and I wish I can remember the name, but I know they started in 1693 and that was you. Over 400 years ago, and they've been running, they were running, their mission was to help their enslaved brothers and sisters. And that's when I'm like, we've been doing this. We've been doing this. While enslaved, we've, through reconstruction, civil rights or whatever. And so I talk, I'm talking to a book editor right now. We're hashing out what we're doing and he wants to call it the Invisible History of African-American Nonprofits. And it's been like, for me, it's been like a faith journey too. It's sobering. But hearing li reading these stories and researching stories of these people, Who could have just said, forget it, you're on your own. And it always came back for the community and Randy's organizations and some of these organizations are still in existence cuz I'm looking from 1693 through civil rights. And that's where the book is gonna span from. And that whole entire time there's been pivotable figures and organizations that kept doing the work to keep the community.
Carol: That’s amazing to be able to really bring that history to the fore and that, that the length of that legacy that it's always been there. Yes. It's always been there. It may not have been celebrated, but it's always been there. That's amazing. I'll look forward to it, when it gets published. But you also talked about With your, with your work, with your PhD around what makes African American leaders successful, so what were some of the things that really helped people move forward, bottom line, line, once it got beyond some of the stuff that you're talking about, of that and getting beyond the basics of really being able to succeed.
Orletta: Beyond the bottom line, they persist. I mean, even with the lack of money, the smaller ones. But one thing I found out cuz I, what I wanted to make sure, academically, cuz they always, it was always like some of the research tried to say is we didn't have to have particular skills intrinsically as, black people. And I'm like, okay, I know that's not true. That's stupid. So let me, so I want to find out, what do successful nonprofit leaders across the sector do? Well, they get training, they build boards. They build a team around them. And then I looked at what these African Americans were doing. I had interviews. They did the same thing. And not only did they do the foundational things they knew they needed to do to be successful, build better boards, build a team. But because of one interview in particular, she was telling me how, she got a grant from the state and the program manager didn't think they were worthy of it cuz it was a black organization. So how much harder she worked to make sure that all the dots were crossed and everything was done correctly so that they couldn't say this organization C couldn't do it because that's what she had, had to deal with. They knock on doors hard, more, they have, because we, that's one of the things we don't have access to the boards and foundations like our counterparts. So they knock on more doors. I always tell my students you have to go to functions and you just gotta talk and talk and talk and talk, more and you have to do more. The one thing I did find there is an innate loneliness. Hmm. Because often the community that you're fighting, To serve, don't understand what you're doing, and they'll fight against you, while you're fighting for them. Plus, they're being bridges. They can't just do their job. They have to be a bridge, on behalf of a, a whole group or community, and a lot of times to get into those stores to get the money. So it's a. They have a heavier lift, but they do persist. All nine of them persist. And I interviewed nine people. The one thing I found was this was their second career. Mm, all of them. It was like, so you are interested. Can just retire and go home and say, forget this. Which is always, it's been a trade in the nonprofit field, but none of them came in as nonprofit leaders or anything like that. They just saw a need and I looked at what we call a social contract. Socially, I think it's contract theory, Bandura. And it was something innate in them from their community that they learned that I have to give them myself. And so that was a trade I saw over and over. I have to give of myself, not of my wealth. Black philanthropy is not given of our wealth, it is given what we have, but giving of my time and talent and treasure to help the community as a collective. So you, I saw a lot of that too from that.
Carol: There's an organization that I'm aware of here in Maryland that I think is, it has goals to go national, but a black ed network, black executive director network for African-American nonprofit leaders, executive directors. And I think, anytime you're a leader of an organization, it can be lonely. Mm-hmm, but those particular challenges and to be able to come together and compare notes and, and help each other. Persist. When you get to the point where you're like, oh, I cannot knock on another door. I cannot do my little elevator pitch One more time. Colleagues can encourage you to step, get back up and, and move, keep going
Orletta:. we get a lot of microaggressions. it's that small thing when you go like, ugh, and they go like And you just talk, you don't even say a word and it's like, okay, get back out there. And, and, and that's encouraging. So, because it, it, it's a, I and a lot of them are tired. I can, I can see it. It's like, oh my god. ? So, but they just keep doing it. I have this one woman, she runs a garden program and she's teaching sixth graders. She should be sitting in her rocking chair having a good time, and she's trying to teach sixth graders that I don't even wanna be with to show them how to plant a garden so they can sustain their lives in this neighborhood that has food.
Carol: Excellent. Excellent. And, being able to bring the whole career experience to the sector, I think so, but then there is that gap, right? Of mm-hmm. Not knowing all the nuts and bolts about this particular sector, how things work, what's different about being in a for-profit business versus a nonprofit corporation, all those kinds of things. Yes. So appreciate that you're, you're addressing those items.
Orletta: That was my real goal. I mean, one, the, the great, one of the greatest things I feel I've accomplished is, is this, it's just a seven week course. I teach at community college, a local community college, but now I can do it virtually too. And it just, in seven weeks, we hit on every aspect of what it's gonna take to manage a nonprofit. So it's not like you're gonna be, I'm proficient now. I've got it. They come out with a one to two page blueprint for the organization. And so I've taught the class enough now that I've had students that use that blueprint. So now I have data. We love data. Yep. I have data to show that I know what I'm talking about. And if you put a good effort into this, you can get your nonprofit running and be compliant. And, some two of them have gotten grants and are working on programs. And I
Carol: I love that. It's just a one one to two page road roadmap? Keep, keep it simple. Keep it moving, right?
Orletta: Yes. That, and that was my thing. And when they do their presentation at the end, I only give them 15 minutes. I'm like, if you can't tell me in 15 minutes what you wanna do, you don't know what you wanna do. And they get frustrated, but it's like, no, you only need 15 minutes to tell me what you're gonna do. That's all you need. Right.
Carol: What are some other things that you found in your studies, beyond persistence? What were some other things that stood out?
Orletta: Is it for me? The difference between white philanthropy and black philanthropy. I did the presentation, I was at my job at TechSoup and I, we were an, they were asking me questions and how we can get African Americans, more leadership and stuff. And I was like, okay. And for somehow we got into this conversation about, philanthropy in general, and I said, you have to understand why philanthropy, and I don't wanna be critical, but basically it was a bunch of robber barons that, raped and pillaged the land and, gathered their resources, got rich, very wealthy, had to clean their past, and now they give their wealth and then their spouses had some jobs, they had something to do. I said, versus black philanthropy, we didn't have a massive wealth, we gave her what we had, washer, women, janitors, porters, gave off what they had and we gave it to us, the collective. And the one example I always use, I used to run camp Babe. That was the ame church's camp, the way that camp was. To be purchased was one of the members. The lady put a second mortgage on her home for $16,000 back in the forties, and that's how the AME church got that camp. So obviously it wasn't, she wasn't wealthy, she mortgaged her home. And so you can see the disconnect and the difference between how, when we look at philanthropy a lot of times, Organizations is to keep, literally keep our communities alive and fed. Like the one woman, I said Detroit is getting better, but we have some food deserts and she started a community garden and she lives in the neighborhood. Actually, this neighborhood I grew up in, it's the land of time and people have forgotten, but she's determined not to forget them. And so they're not, they don't have this proclivity. Community organs. D, she makes them, she actually runs Mimeographs almost and go up and down the street and make people show up for block club meetings. And she's out there in the summer with sixth graders when she should be at home, drinking lemonade, pushing people to keep their properties up and that stuff. So that was the thing I learned. It is just this, it's a life or death situation. One of my students was taking money out of her pocket to feed her. So now I've taught her how to get a domain and she's got all her paperwork now so she can have somebody help pay for this cuz she's literally feeding the children in her neighborhood during the summers. And then on holidays she does neighborhood dinners. Hmm. So, that's the kind of, those are the differences and the things that they're doing, and they do it on very little. Like when he the guy who worked for I o b, it, when he said mud groups, it really is, I mean, they're taking so much that muster seed of faith and just pushing it.
Carol: Well, thank you. Thank you for all you're doing. At the end of each episode, I ask an ice, a random icebreaker question from mm-hmm. A box of cards that I have to ask some questions about. So what would you say is an interesting tradition that your family has
Orletta: tradition interest? Oh. Or unique. My daughter and I, oh, my daughter and I, every time my daughter is an alumni at Michigan State University go green. We go, when they play Northwestern in Chicago, we've, for the last five or six years, we always go to that game. No matter how cold, how hot, whatever. No matter if the Spartans are doing well or not, we always go to that game. We spent a weekend in Chicago and we went to the game and we sang the fight song on the EL train with the rest of the things, and we acted very obnoxious. So it's just something we do, and it's like every other year. It's like, well, they're playing Northwestern again. Okay And we go. Awesome.
Carol: So what's, what are you excited about? What's coming up for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Orletta: Well, the book is coming together and it's so funny imposter syndrome when a book editor is like, taking you seriously is talking about, I'm like, oh, so this is actually good. So I'm excited about that. Like I said, I like to be in the background, but I am being considered for ED for a role. So I'm, but it's, it impacts everything I've ever done in my life. So the mission is totally what I'm into. So lemme see if I'm well ready to go to the front again. But those are the things I'm excited about and my daughter moved back to. Oh, nice, nice, she's my only, so. Yep.
Carol: I've got an only daughter too, but she's trying to train right away, so.
Orletta: Good. Okay,
Carol:. All right, well thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast and I definitely once, once the book is out, we'll have to have you back and have another conversation about that history. I'm definitely interested to learn more. Okay,
Orletta: great. I love to talk about it. You can say I'm, I love, it's just been, it's been life changing, so I'm, I'm looking forward to it.
Carol: I appreciated Orletta’s reminder that no one owns a nonprofit organization. This is a basic concept but because both for profits and nonprofits in the US are organized as corporations it is easy to confuse the two. For nonprofit corporations, everyone involved – especially the board – is stewarding the resources for the good of the community. The mission or purpose of the organization that has a public benefit is why the organization is given certain privileges – tax exemption for example – or the ability for donations to be tax deductible. I also appreciated her tip for founders to get out beyond their friends and family as they recruit board members. Those folks might be easy to get involved with – but do they really want to be part of your organization to support the mission or to support you, the founder? Board members need to be recruited for their support of the mission and what time, talent and/or treasure they are going to bring to help you move your mission forward. I can’t wait until Orletta’s book on the history of African- American nonprofits and philanthropy comes out. I think it opens a lot of eyes to a history that has always been there but hasn’t been fully told.
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 Dr. Orletta Caldwell, her full bio, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as Cindy Riveria Grazer 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.
Exiting Gracefully with Don Tebbe
In episode 32 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Don Tebbe discussed include:
Guest Information: Don Tebbe is an organizational planning consultant and one of America’s most experienced advisors on nonprofit CEO transition and leadership succession. He experienced, first-hand, the challenges of sustaining an organization and navigating leadership succession as a former nonprofit executive director and five-time interim CEO. Since 1993, he’s helped hundreds of nonprofit leaders plan for and manage turnover in their chief executive positions. Don was one of the national thought leaders involved in an Annie E. Casey Foundation-sponsored project to develop better practices for nonprofit leadership succession. Many of the concepts and practices used by succession practitioners today originated with the Casey project. He is the author of Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire & Support a Nonprofit CEO and The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter.
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Carol Hamilton: Welcome Don. Welcome to the podcast.
Don Tebbe: Thanks Carol. I'm excited to be here. Have this chat with you and.
Carol: Absolutely. And I always like to start out and I know you've had a very long career. So this made this, this, the answer to this question may have changed over time, but what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Don: I see you sent me that question in advance and I had really pondered that because I think it's been more of a feeling than an explicit calling. In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I am trying to figure out why I was attracted to this, to this nonprofit sector work. But it just seemed like a great place to really do work that's meaningful. And that's one of the things I discovered in doing the research on callings is that everybody has this innate desire for a meaningful life. And I couldn't think of any, I tried business, I tried government. But I couldn't think of any place else where you could have a much more meaningful life than the nonprofit world.
Carol: Yeah. I've definitely found that as well. I mean, it's meaningful in the work that you're doing, but I also find it attracts other good people. And so I enjoy it. I often really enjoy my colleagues and enjoy their thoughtfulness and their sense of calm.
Don: Yeah, I think for me, the perfect place was to move in. In the consulting arena. I had been an executive director and deputy director for about 10 years before I moved into consulting in 1993. And I just really, I just fell in love with it. the opportunity to work with great people to work with them at a very meaningful moment when they're particularly, if they're. Maybe not necessarily struggling, but questioning, like when we're doing planning work. And it also gave me a lot of flexibility to really double down on, on the missions that I really care about without having the, the daily grind of, of being an executive, like developmental disabilities, like food security, like housing like, child services.
Carol: Yeah. Getting to contribute to all of those different things rather than having to pick one, one major passion. Yeah. So you, as you said, you've had a long career in the sector ranging over a number of different areas and, including executive search and really pioneering, how many transition specialists approach executive search today? I think actually. You're one of the people who's been quoted multiple times on this podcast over the past year. So kudos for that. And one thing that I especially appreciated about how you address this issue is that you address it from both sides, from the point of view of the board and the organization, but then also the point of view of a long term executive director or the founder. In your book the nonprofit CEO succession roadmap. I'm your guide for the journey to life's next chapter? Why was it important for you to address the exiting executive director directly?
Don: Well, it can't really came out of work that Tom Adamson I did when we were partners in a firm called transition guides. Tom and I met when he was leading a project for the Annie Casey foundation that was looking at the question of how we can have better transitions in the nonprofit world. Invited a small group of practitioners when myself included at the time I was the interim executive director of the interim ministry network. So Tom and I put together this program a two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors. Cause it was, yourself, those are some of them. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there. And, I think it's just, it's, it's, it's, it's a space where governance, executive leadership and strategy all come together in, in one moment. And so I think it's a great opportunity to really address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. So we started off with, we were focused on executive transitions in, came up with the executive transition management model, all that, and what we realized that we needed to be working with organizations. Earlier, before they hit that moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. And then in early two thousands, I was looking at the, I do these deep dives every few years. And the deep dive I was doing then was around really organizational vitality. I did 140 CEO transitions in my career and managed 104 of them. And some organizations come to you in all sorts of conditions. There's the high performing organizations. There's the low performing organizations. There's the organism. They are firing their executive director. I really wanted to take a look at and see what characters, what are the characteristics of these high valleys? Tell the organization, those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment, the impact I am w what's what was going on in those organizations that I came away from. I did literature review and some case study research and came up with these three tiers, that base level there's organizational stability, the, the vital signs that are okay. It's not at risk, it's not in the intensive care ward. The next level up was what I would call Sustainability. And then, layering on top of that. What is vitality? And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and, and work leadership on that board higher. So the executive, the board, is responsible for shepherding the mission and shepherding him. And obviously the executive is their key partner in driving that impact. So I think it's terribly important to address both. But we found though with these retreats we had about, I think we had about 600 alumni when I left transition guides. We would do it a couple times a year, small groups, about 25 to 30 executives. It may, when I did interviews with. So folks that are with our alumni, what I found was that just really, They, they, they were our point of entry into the organization and, and, the opportunity to then work, with a board. So I think also my belief is that the executive really should initiate the succession process. And rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. So I think, it's, it's, it's. It's just like in a situation with a nonprofit; their key partners need to be working with both of them.
Carol: What would you say is important for exiting executive directors to realize about the transition?
Don: Well, probably the thing that I heard the most and was most surprising is to a person for these interviews, they. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. So we really tried to make sure that they understood that in, in, in this retreat process. So I think that's, I think that's one thing that's a surprising thing, but I think in terms of the points that I would make with executives is you probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people for three to four to five years ahead of their Parker, I'm thinking of one particular instance this executive was a household name and, she was not just the, the leader of this nonprofit. She was a leader of a whole movement and she was, that's, that's a pretty hard person to replace. So we actually, I started talking with her 10 years before she left and I don't, I don't think that was the cause, That there needed to be some capacity building around the movement and not just inside her for her organization. So, and that's an extreme case, but usually I'd say three to four years, it's not too early. because particularly if it's founder or long-term executive, cause there may need to be some capacity building needs to take place in the organization. They baby, They grew into the role as the organization grew up around them. Right. And so there may be, they may be covering for somebody, they are, there may be a hole in their operation or there may be somebody that they'd been making do with in, in the organization. Also, there may be a board that's overly dependent on them and really needs to do some board building work to make sure that there's a, I would call. The board's gone through a reformation process and it's not a friend's a founder board any longer, it's a fully functioning, or that has a, it has a sense of itself independent of the founder. And so I think that you just can't start too early. And I think the third point that I would make is that a lot of times executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process. It's to me, there's no ambiguity, you got three jobs. Job number one, lead the organization through the transition, of course, but understand that that role is going to evolve as your departure date draws closer. Number two is to prepare yourself for that next chapter of life. Like if you're going to retire, have something magnetic, that's drawing you forward rather than a job that you're leaving. And job number three is to prepare the organization for the succession and transition process.
Carol: And you mentioned that often folks were caught off guard with how emotional the whole process was. What were some of the common things that folks experienced as they, as they move through? And what were some of the unhelpful behaviors that came out of that, that, that roller coaster, that emotional roller coaster.
Don: Yeah. I think it'd be a lot of it distributed by the executives personality. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld was at Yale university and wrote a book a few years back about the hero's farewell and he outlined four different characters for different profiles. There were the ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything's going to be just fine. Governance. Who went on to other, big, big jobs and left the organization behind, so forth. And Oh, I forgot the other two right off the top of my head here, but the Monarch and the steward, right? Oh, that's right there. Exactly. Yeah. Well, steward was my year's term monarch, that you're going to be carried out feet first or X showing the door kicking and screaming. But my belief is that there's a fifth category out there. Another category out there is called stewards. And that's what I see most. In, in the nonprofit world, people that can, leave gracefully and but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization science and courage to pardon executives, to think of themselves as stewards. And they're going to hand off the organization to the next sewer. So did that answer it quickly?
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So what would you say you, you talked about the three tasks that are inherent in the job of leading an organization through the transition. What can executives do to help make the transition go more smoothly?
Don: Oh, gosh encouraging the board chair to pick good leadership for the succession process. And as I said, starting the succession process earlier, and I also, I've been listening to your interview. Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of, of interim executives being the standard approach for an organization. Now that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations, right? Place what's called a settled pastor until there's been an interim there for at least a year, so that there is that breathing room, that separation, but the challenge, and I brought that into discussions with the KC project and what we found. By comparing notes with compass points in our own practice, for a lot of organizations that just don't work for you, you've got fundraising relationships that you need handoff, or you've got P government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, have you. Having an interim in there and doing that handoff twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work. And so that's one reason why we took a step back and said, let's start earlier, work intensively and encourage the executives to get some coaching in the process so that they're, they're dealing with their own stuff. About how the transition is going, because the job does evolve and, or, people can feel a sense of loss when decisions are deferred to the new executive and so forth.
Carol: Yeah. And one of them is that I'm not listening to the train. And so I totally lost my train of thought, wanted to follow up on, oh, I remember what it is now. One of the points that you made, which I thought was really key, was the scent, the recommendation to pick a date and stick with it, not to be going back and forth. Well, I thought that was a good idea, but really we've got one more project to do, one more project to do and kicking the can down the road. What, how, what impact have you seen that have on the rest of the organization? When, when. That executive isn't it from, and their plans and how they move forward?
Don: Yeah. One person comes to mind very clearly. I was coaching him on his departure and we were having coffee. About a month after our initial meeting, he then let out to me that he was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and quit and said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never going to leave this organization. I'm going to go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but what do I mean? It really upset the applecart. And I think I'd also feel whipsawed. Cause for the staff a departure particularly of a founder or long-term executives, this may be the only boss they've ever known. Right. and particularly to their long term staff members and it's unnerving for the staff. And so you don't want your best people to be, cause people. It's an unknown and nerving time men, particularly if you couple that with, The executive or the board being guarded about information. It can be a real stew for the staff and right, for people, you're some of your best people to look elsewhere because they're questioning them. The future with the organization again, and there's always questions anyway. we'll, we like the new executive, can we trust the board to pick the right person for the job? Are they going to bring in some, somebody that's going to bring in their own team and they want a gun we're going to clean house when we don't necessarily need to clean houses as a high-performing organization, all those things.
Carol: What are other mistakes that you've seen executive directors make as they're exiting?
Don: There's a touchy topic there. One of the points I try to make is you need to take responsibility. You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I will try to clarify that that doesn't mean you surf the board's authority and try to force in your hand pick success or are on the one hand nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. And saying, Hey, it's their, it's their problem. It's their job. I'm running the organization. It's finding that, that, that place where you can really be a good steward of this entire process without, without rush riding rough shots over the board and not dumping it all in their laps, which volunteer boards are. Oftentimes really pretty clueless about what's really needed in that, in that way.
Carol: Yeah, so helping them through. And that's where I think, bringing in external help because, if the person's a founder, it's unlikely that they've managed a transition or their own exit before in, in that case. And so may not know all the things that that could be helpful to, to pay attention to as they're going through that process.
Don: Yeah. I think the other thing is that I am paying a lot of tension, a lot of attention to the preparation for the hand. And that can be a great comfort to you, to your leadership team, to your staff. If they're helping to prepare the way for the new executive. In fact, that really is one of your roles as a departing executive is to prepare the way for your successor. And so getting staff engaged in that, whether it's paying the CEO's office. So rewinding here a little bit is, I think it's really important that executives pay attention to the, the preparation to receive and work effect for causation work effectively with the new executive and paying attention to the handoff. So preparation for the new executive. I think there's a, I think. Engaging the board in some con getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship do they want with us new executive, you spent a long time, writing this profile, imagining what this new person going to be like, getting clear about, the priorities for the first 12 to 18 months of their tenure. Well, what relationship? Should you have, within an executive, particularly if you've got a founder or long-term executive leading staff preparation, getting the staff involved in preparing briefing materials for the new executive that it becomes part of that, the handoff, getting some bios together about what the team looks like that sort of. And then expecting that there might be a little bit of overlap between you in, in your successor and that's, that can be fair. Yeah. in small organizations, it may be a couple hours, a couple of days in a large organization. Like one of our clients was an international health charity that had, has. Offices are all around the world. So the current CEO stayed on and the new CEO came in and worked out a month, I think, going on listening tours, visiting all the facilities around the world as the CEO of. And so paying attention to how that, that handoff and making sure that the, the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive, that there's an opportunity to really get it's no the organization that they're taking over and and then, then, riding off handoff and ride off.
Carol: I love it. So at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. And so what's something that you believed earlier in your career that you think about differently now?
Don: Oh my gosh. Well, I think a hard lesson I learned as a, as an executive director was not to expect the board to spontaneously fundraise. Yeah. Do you mind if I go back to a point about that? Yeah, sure. Go ahead. Okay. Well, so one of the things back in the mid nineties I had a great opportunity working with organizations in Silicon valley based here, but worked out there almost a quarter of the time and. So I wrote a book for this and worked for the center for excellence and nonprofits in San Jose. It was started by Dean Martin. When he retired as a CEO of COO of Hewlett Packard, he was the board chair and he was on the Packard foundation board and a really great guy, a great relationship, and worked with him and bopped on Bob carton on the evolution of this organization. Seven years. So one of the things I did with them was do this report, looking at governance practices in highly effective nonprofits. It's really had a very formative relationship for me, our impact on me because I was fresh off a fairly new consultant at that time, fresh off the heels of, of Relationship with a board. And one of the things that really saw was that it really opened my eyes to that whole board executive relationship. And by the way, I loved Mary Highland's interview with you on that, on that point, Mary and I are old friends and what I came away with and it's really had a forum. Fo helped really from my approach to executive transitions and the importance of following through and having that onboarding process and having an intentional relationship building process with the board. What I saw in these organizations is what I came to call the board executive social contract, you in every work situation, we've got our literal contract. Maybe it's as simple as a job description, or maybe it is a formal written contract, but then we have, how do we live? And that's the social contract. And when I saw his organization's spine large, they were clear about four things. Number one, they were clear about the priorities that they were pursuing together as a board and an executive team. That might be what's in their strategic plan. It might be some developmental work with the organization. It might be exploring new ventures or something like that, but they were clear about their priorities that they were going to work on together. They were clear about their roles and responsibilities. And I know you've got an organizational development background, so this is going to make lots of sense. I'm sure. you're you got that separation of executive roles or board roles and responsibilities. How do you tie that together? Well, you tie that together with some sort of accountability mechanism, that thing, that relationship looks different in every organization, but. Every one of those seem to have those four characteristics to it. So that really made an impact on me. And so I brought that into the executive transition work to make sure that there's an intentional way of the board, an executive building that relationship and that there's a process, a guided process that they could actually go through.
Carol: Yeah. I had the chance to work with one organization that was going through that executive transition and worked with the group before, it wasn't part of the search process, but then came back afterwards to help the board and the new executive director have that exact conversation about what's important to us in terms of how we work together. How are we gonna, what are the ways that we're going to show up? What are the behaviors that we're going to demonstrate that are going to support? Working together in a collaborative, positive way. So, I had a chance to work with them on their strategic planning. And so then I was able to remind you, and these are the things you said you were going to do when you worked together. And none of them were, that they're all good things. People would come up with in terms of being respectful and communicating and collaborating, but I think being explicit about it and then coming back to it and reminding yourself and then thinking, so how are we doing on that? Are there other places where we could adjust and, and, and tweak it to make it better, can be really helpful.
Don: Yeah. And, and having been clear that that, that, that. The connecting mechanism, that evaluation mechanism, has an evolution to it, and should be multi-stage at least in the first year, because, what's the big question on the board? I often hire the right person. Right. And so you want it to, you want to have an intentional non-intrusive way of a non-intrusive way of, of. Yeah, getting that information, getting, getting that. Sure. And so, it might be the first 30 days, having a ha how's it going at conversation? Maybe the first quarter, that's a little bit more of a ha ha how are you, how are you feeling about, your. you're taking charge because there is a taking charge process that John Kabarro at Harvard documented a number of years ago. And so it's, rather than an executive, parachuting in and stepping into the role, it's oftentimes a ramping up process. And so understanding that and just being realistic about that evaluation process. So quarterly. First quarter. Half of the year and then, maybe the annual review after that, but thinking of it as an assurance mechanism and in being realistic about it, because the executives aren't there. They're coming into an organization, they may be confronting problems. There's oftentimes as, legacy issues that don't come up and don't get the cat's not out of the bag until the new executive is there. And so making sure that they're feeling well supported on that. And everybody's being realistic about this.
Carol: Yeah. And you've got all those lines of communication open, which is really key. And yeah, so we did that once, but it doesn't mean that it's done, right. It's not something you just checked off the list. It's something you'd come back to and what needs to be adjusted and how are, where, where are we now? And what else, what, what do we need to think of? So what, what, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging and the work that you're doing now.
Don: Oh, wow. Just a bunch of things. I'm retooling a course that Susan Shaffer and I developed called going solar going big. It's of course for consultants. And so I'm doing some editing of that after it's been out there for a couple of years online. We do it in person. Yeah. Yeah, some are retooling that this sounds very nerdy, but I'm really excited about a series of books, discussions that I've been facilitating with a group of consultants, mostly alumni from our workshop. Last year we worked on productivity and the sugar we're going to work on communications and insights. And so doing that and just and really, really enjoying, my practice now is primarily focused on succession planning and organizational planning, and I'm developing a process that I call impact crafting, and I am working. I've worked with about five organizations now with that pilot, it can bring in a lot of the ideas from my executor transition work, I've looked at air free organizations, strategic plan and ask them how they, developed it and really discovered that a lot of organizations, th they, They think the board should do it. They think the staff shouldn't do it. sort of trying to bring that into sharp focus and also discovered in the transition work, a lot of organizations have broken business models and the board doesn't understand how the work really gets done, in the organization. So one of the pieces that I bring to an organization is really to clarify their impact statement beyond their vision, bring it down to a little bit more operational level, and then work with them to actually make. Yeah. Using a variation of the business model canvas to actually map how the work gets done, how they turn vision over here into impact over here. And so that's been really satisfying work and I think it brings a much more grounded feel to the. The planning process.
Carol: Well, we'll probably have to have you back on, to dig into that a little bit more because you love to use all the words that I like to use. So I want to get one, I like to open the door and see what's behind it, but thank you so much for coming on. It's been great talking to you.
Don: Thanks Carol. Great talking with you. Good luck on the podcast, loving the episodes thus far.
Carol: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
In episode 24 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Bobbi Russell discussed include:
- Transitioning back to in person
- How nonprofits can make accommodations while working from home
- How investing in systems and organization can help in the long term
Bobbi is an operations executive with 20+ years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for 10+ years. While similar systems and processes can work for many organizations, she sees success when organizations apply solutions that are customized to their culture. She’s really good at understanding the human aspect of how any new system, tool, or process will integrate with an organization’s culture. Earlier in her career, she worked in marketing, membership, strategic communications, and journalism. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Clarion University of PA and an MBA from George Washington University. Her non-work passions include her dog, craft beer, and writing parody songs to entertain friends and family.
Important Guest Links: Contact Us:
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Bobbi Russel. Bobbi is an operations executive who works with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own consulting practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for more than 10 years. Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Bobbi and I talk about how investing in operations boosts morale and saves your organization time in the long run. What helps staff thrive in a remote work environment, what organizations need to think about as they are thinking about whether they will be heading back into the office and how your organization’s insurance and benefits providers can be partners in supporting your organization’s HR function especially if you are a small organization without a dedicated HR person.
Welcome Bobbi. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Bobbi Russell: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm glad to be here today.
Carol: So I like to start with the question about your motivation for the work that you do. So, what drew you to your work? What motivates you? What would you describe as your, why?
Bobbi: I've worked in the nonprofit community for more than 20 years. And for a large chunk of that was running an organization. And about four years ago, I had the chance to do some consulting. And my, when I think about the why for that, it's a mix of collaboration and independent work. That's a great fit for me. That's on the very tactical level. But also, I get to be a part of many different teams in working with different clients. And it's such a learning exchange of getting to experience different cultures, different ways of operating the different kinds of work. And so in addition to the work that I do, the fulfillment I get from coaching and collaborating with somebody doing direct HR support or helping with operations, I get that fulfillment from other interactions and learning about different cultures and styles.
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that idea of a learning exchange. Cause I, I definitely feel like that when I'm working with clients that it's a partnership and I may be walking them through a similar process that I've walked another group through, but their issues, their team, the personalities, the issue that they're working on, what's going on inside the organization, all of that is new. So I'm always learning and, and I just appreciate that. It just keeps everything really interesting. It does. So, as you mentioned, a lot of your work with organizations revolves around operations, which isn't always the most sexy or exciting thing, or the thing that people actually associate with nonprofit work, but it really is so critical for organizations. In order to achieve their mission. What would you say are some of the benefits of actually investing some time on your, on the organization's operations?
Bobbi: I think one of the biggest benefits is running your nonprofit. Like a business and nonprofits are unique. We have we're mission focused and, and are working for the greater good and investing in that infrastructure. Always save time. We'll save time later. So I like to share with clients, they don't like to have too much process, too much structure. Have a little bit it's, it's good for employee morale because people like to be able to refer to things, to have a good sense of how things are done. It doesn't have to be a 95 page handbook, but some guidelines for how things work. So there's that investment for the organization and saving time and the investment in your team for retention purposes of giving them some structure. So they know what to expect and what they can look for in the future. For me, that's one of the biggest ones, the financial and.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting that you mentioned employee morale because I was working with an organization recently on strategic planning and, and it was an organization that had started with one person and the founder. Who's just very visionary and doesn't need a lot of structure or she has all the processes cause she built them all. And as she's built her team, there was this need to actually get clear about what each person was doing. Get clear about, what is the step-by-step for this process or that process. And, and I think because it wasn't a need for her. She didn't necessarily see it. But once folks said, this is what we need, they were able to identify who in the team is actually good at this stuff and can get us where we need to go in terms of building those structures so that people know where their lane is and how they can contribute.
Bobbi: Even for those folks who liked them who liked the freer form structure, you can have that in other ways in your work, but don't when it comes to how you structure positions and responsibilities and how people are responsible and accountable for their time, all of these different aspects, it, it gives people a sense of, of some structure and it, it is really helpful for morale.
Carol: And a lot of your work really involves how organizations work with, as you're with teams, with your people, recruiting, managing their HR processes, and certainly with the pandemic. And we're recording this right in May of 2021, so things are starting to shift perhaps, or people are starting to think about a shift away from remote work, but a lot of organizations had to make that shift really quickly. They may not have had practices or policies around telecommuting or remote work. What would you say has where, where have you seen organizations do a good job of, of that and helped their team really thrive in that remote work environment?
Bobbi: There were a couple of things. One of the biggest ones was understanding that each person was having. A different experience in this pandemic from an emote, a personal, emotional perspective, and then their own home family situation, whatever that might be. And you started to see folks who were in a shared apartment and there was only one room with good internet and they were taking turns using that room to be on meetings. And, and then also of course, families with kids and balancing all of that. So really understanding what people's limitations were, and how can the organization still get done? What they needed to get done while supporting whatever those limitations were. And then similar to what we were talking about with operational processes is coming up with some level of guidelines for staff, because it didn't work from what I saw, when organizations said do the best that you can. People were looking for a little bit more than that. So it was even if it was around. Hours or how they communicated about their schedule, but providing some guidelines of what the organization is expecting during this time, what flexibility there is when people should plan on using pay time off versus this is flexible and you can just balance out your schedule. So really providing those kinds of guidelines and then. A third thing is keeping up with the personal aspects that you don't get when you're over video or over phone and being intentional about making human connections and with the pandemic. We also had a lot of unrest happening in the country, along with that. And that also was impacting people. So making space to talk about those things or not talk about them if people didn't want to, but at least acknowledging it was happening and people could be having experiences around those things and wanting to create open lines of communication.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's, I mean, all those differences always have been there in terms of how different people were experiencing the workplace and their work and the team. But certainly, this past year has just amplified that in the same way that it's amplified so many other things as you're talking about. And Yeah, I think, I've heard a lot of people talk about while you, it's so hard to have the human connection or those, those accidental, you bump into someone things that happened naturally in offices when you're all there together. And it's, and that's certainly true. And at the same time, I think there's something. That this experience of having to work remotely gives a gift to organizations when they can start to think about how to build that in more intentionally and for everyone, because I feel like maybe it happened for some people accidentally just serendipitously, but it may not have, it may not have actually been the experience for everybody in the office, but people assumed that it was because everybody was together.
Bobbi: That's a great point. Yes. And even just thinking about how some people really love face to face interaction and like being on zoom or some other type of video chat where other folks need a break from that. And seeing organizations give people the space for that. If you're not required to be on video, let people know I'm going to take a break. I've had back to back video calls all day and just giving people space to do. The advocate for what worked for them, so they can be bringing their best. And that works for the individuals and for the organization.
Carol: And as organizations think about shifting back Or shifting towards some new, new version of working whether it's a hundred percent remote or everybody back in the office or somewhere in between, what are you, how are you seeing organizations start to think about that transition?
Bobbi: People are starting to talk about it. Now there's a lot of information gathering and I'm hearing a lot of eyeing. September is the return to physical offices. If they exist, even if it's in some sort of hybrid way, but gathering information from staff, what is your life going to look like? What is your comfort level? Without disclosing specifics. Do you have health concerns about potentially returning to the office, all of these different factors of gathering the information and then coming up with really clear guidelines. This is what we're expecting. This is when we'll be phasing things in when we might resume travel, and just giving staff really clear guidelines about what could be coming and making sure there's good communication. There's also an aspect of. Not just to be preparing physically to come back to the office, but mental preparation from all of this time that we've been at home and in a different space where some people have been sick and lost family members and friends and people have been through all types of experiences during this time and thinking of ways to make space. Or coming back together, coming up with maybe some mental health support system within the organization, making sure people are aware of what their benefits are related to that through insurance and other services. A lot of times insurance packages like life insurance and short-term disability have those employee assistance programs as well. And making sure employees know what's available to them, how they can get help, who they can talk to and making it a safe place. If people are having a challenge coming back and really struggling.
Carol: And, and I mean, most nonprofits are relatively small and oftentimes don't necessarily have a dedicated HR person. How can, how can those small organizations work towards building some of those systems?
Bobbi: I say, just relying on insurance providers and brokers, depending on how their policies are set up. Those individuals very often have all the information about what those programs are. Probably have flyers template, emails, things like that that can easily be sent out. That wouldn't create a lot of labor burden on the smaller organizations. There is also a significant amount of information and data out there and blogs and websites. Providing samples of how template, emails, or examples of how people can create programs for coming back online and providing information for staff. So there's some light touch options that can really be helpful for small teams.
Carol: Yeah, and I, I really appreciate your point about prepping, not just the logistics of, where are we going to put desks and what's the cleaning procedure going to be, and, all of those kinds of things, but also that mental preparation or. Even just starting to, maybe it's not even preparation. Maybe it's just acknowledging that it's going to be weird and awkward for a little while. People aren't used to being together and, are you going to, is it okay to, are you, how are you going to greet? Are you going to shake someone's hand? Are you going to bump their elbow? Are you gonna, how do we do these meetings? Are we all gonna sit in the conference room? Like we used to, or be a part and then to try to think about how to manage a hybrid situation, I think is just much more challenging. I mean, I managed that before the pandemic. I worked in an organization where I had remote staff, but it was so out of the ordinary that it was very hard to get folks who are. At the central location to remember that, a remote staff person was involved in the meeting. So when I, when I could have influence on the meeting set up, I would make sure that we use the video and had them up on screen so that people actually remembered they were there. Instead of just being on a conference call, they might, they might as well not have been at the meeting.
Bobbi: Right. Yes. And there's also that technology aspect. Can you bring that up when going back into the office? There's still going to be a distributed team structure and thinking through how systems will continue to support the work and the humans doing the work.
Carol: So many organizations, some hiring or onboarding on pause thinking, well, well, let's just wait this out. And, but, as it's gone on longer, organizations have had to bring people on while they're working remotely. What have you seen work well in terms of hiring folks during this period, and then, then that onboarding process.
Bobbi: Interesting because the way that I approach hiring hasn't changed significantly from before, except that certain phases of interview processes are over video right now, rather than in person. I think the best thing any organization can do is really think through clearly, what are the competencies that we're looking for in somebody, those skills and, and that level of experience, what are the things we must have? What are the things that are nice to have and coming up with a clear, readable, digestible job description. That's fair. And, and isn't a wishlist, but it's more the actual job. And I really like a process that supports each candidate who is invited for various stages of interviews to get to know the culture of the organization and, and investing time upfront. I like to do phone interviews as a first round, not over video, but just over the phone, have a conversation without worrying about cameras and invest about an hour in those, and really get to know candidates’ resumes. You understand that they've got the qualifications that we're looking for based on work experience, but let's get to know them as individuals and understand the stories that have helped them get to where they are. So I like that upfront investment. I think it always returns better. Pool of candidates and then investing in an equitable process where you have the same hiring panel. If there's a panel style interview and the second phase of interview and making it really clear to candidates, what they can expect and what the timeline is. So the biggest challenge of. Hiring right now is if you can not meet somebody in person, a lot of people rely on that to make a final decision about a candidate. Are they going to work with our culture? They've got the right skill set, and we think they're going to succeed in this role, but will they fit in with our team? And so I'm seeing some meet and greet style interviews getting added in. Maybe it's a handful of staff members they're not interviewing, but it's, let's get together and get to know each other, almost like a virtual coffee as a way of getting to know candidates and have a more that more social feel. So that's one thing that I'm seeing that's different. Otherwise I'm just not seeing, I haven't seen a new trend to something that's brand new and hiring that really wasn't there before.
Carol: Well, that's, I really appreciate that. You say that actually it hasn't changed a huge amount and what's important. Hasn't necessarily changed. going to what you've said at the very beginning, just taking the time to identify what the competencies are. In the role what's actually needed. What's a must have, and what's nice to have right. Cause I've certainly seen so many job descriptions where there's such a wishlist that I'm like, even the superheroes and the Avengers couldn't do this job and we, what are they thinking? So what are some of the steps that organizations can take and teams can take to, to really identify what those competencies are.
Bobbi: A lot of conversation and there are two, I guess there are two paths. If it's an existing role and someone is moving on and they're replacing a team member taking a good look at the original job description, did that work well? Was it realistic? Does it really cover what this person did and how can we adjust it to fit what we're really needing thinking through what are the outcomes? What does success look like in three months, six months, a year into that position. And I think that's what can really help identify those competencies. And I also think keeping that to six to eight competencies is. Efficient. If you try to go above and beyond that, we get back more to that Avengers style person who maybe doesn't exist, of having everything on that list. So keeping it realistic and coming up with definitions for those competencies, there are existing. Definitions out there, but coming up with ones that are meaningful to the organization, what does being a clear communicator look like to us at this particular organization? What does being a superior relationship builder look like to us? And being able to convey that into questions that you ask the candidates is an important part too.
Carol: Can you say more about how you link up those two things?
Bobbi: Let's say that relationship building is one of the competencies and you define what that means coming up with some questions that 's an X asking for a specific story about how somebody built a relationship, maybe with someone that the organization was struggling with, maybe it's a funder. Maybe it's a relationship that needs to change because the person who was managing that relationship before was struggling with it, or wasn't being very successful. So asking for examples of that and the outcomes, and, and also trying to understand what somebody might do differently in a situation. So I like scenario based questions for understanding, really trying to get at. Where are they within this, within that competency in terms of their expertise
Carol: And how have you seen organizations be able to convey what their, what their culture is because, too often, I've, I've. Ask that question when I've been in the interview process and people are like, well, you'll know it. When you see it, I'm like, well, that's not helpful. Can you say a little bit more?
Bobbi: Yes. If the organization doesn't have an existing statement about their culture, that might be in the handbook. I like to start with talking about them. What's your compensation philosophy, because I think a lot of things trickle out from that. What's important to you as an organization. How do you define salaries? How do you determine what additional benefits you'll add into the package and what amount are you contributing to that? I think that can set a tone also talking through what our expectations are around let's say things like dress code. If those things still exist, some organizations still do have them or still have expectations for external facing events. Making that super clear that really can help you understand how as well, my disorganization B or how maybe stiff might this organization be and where might a person fit in along there? I think asking when, when I want to understand the culture, what type of social events do you have? How do you get to know your new staff members? When they come on board, do you have celebrations for birthdays or work anniversaries? So trying to understand how they invest also in staff, after they've come on board, do they do 90 day? Check-ins: what are their performance evaluations? Like? All of that feeds into what the culture is. So I ask a ton of questions.
Carol: That's great and about really specific things. Right. So it's not just generally describing your culture to me, but describing this piece and this piece of this piece and from all of it, I can really get a picture of what that adds up to. So, yeah. What would you recommend to clients in terms of successfully onboarding, onboarding new hires, especially now, again, with us being in this remote work environment,
Bobbi: Depending on the size of the organization, figuring out what's the checklist: who will do what, what do we want our first interaction with our newest team member to look like after they've accepted the offer. And I would say communicating more than you might, if the person we're going to be showing up in in-person and making sure they understand this is what your orientation looks like. By the end of week two, we expect you'll have. Had exposure to all of our systems. You may not know them exactly in and out yet, but you'll have gone through this checklist of learning, to use these tools and making it super clear how, what systems they need to have set up at home, how equipment will get to them.
If they have any home office expenses, which I'm seeing, many organizations get an extra reimbursement for that for internet and home costs. And having a plan, making sure that person's supervisor, if that's, if that's relevant is having personal check-ins with them. And that there's a process for that person getting to know the organization and their job, and what's expected of them and really trying to incorporate them as much as possible. So it could be different depending on each organization. What, how many systems and tools they have or how many staff they have on board. And it's a really important thing I think, to have. Touch points with each staff member as well for any new person, not just to a staff meeting, but maybe just 15 minute quick coffees with people or a quick slack video to say hi so that people get connected personally to the rest of the team.
Carol: And I could imagine going through a process of trying to figure out what all those things are and creating that checklist could actually be useful for people who've been on staff for a while. Like what are all the systems that we're using and how do they interact with each other? How does each person see their role and how it connects? I could see that being a really fruitful conversation, regardless of an onboarding process
Bobbi: That’s a great point. And a lot of times organizations will have resources that they launch. And maybe because there isn't a point person reminding staff that they have access to it, it's really when new staff come on board, that they're reminded, oh yes, we have this great shared Kindle library with 50 books in it that would help anybody who's interested in learning about various professional skills development. And I do think that's a great idea. If the organizations for arts, a great benefit, rather than staff existing staff, to see those resources if the organization is big enough, there might be an opportunity for individual staff members to be the champion of certain pieces. There's a, maybe a tools person and maybe this is how we do our staff meetings. Let me introduce you to that. And, having people be the. The go-to person and having that list be shared with the original, with a staff member, excuse me, joining the team. Here's who to go to for what? And To get a really good orientation to the organization.
Carol: Well, the idea of splitting it up and having it not be just a siloed experience, so that only, not, not only distributes the, the, the process of either putting that together or implementing it, but it also, with each person that's that champion, the new person gets, starts to build a relationship with them as well.
Bobbi: Yes. I think for individual staff members throughout the opportunity to take the lead on things like that, too, it's an investment opportunity for them as well. They get to show off their knowledge of the organization and take the lead on something. So it's a great, I think retention opportunity as well.
Carol: So on each episode, I like to play a game by asking one random icebreaker question. And since we mentioned the Avengers if you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why
Bobbi: I think I would choose the power of invisibility. I really liked to observe, and I liked the idea of being able to observe without being noticed and being able to use that for good, maybe. Interject if I need to, or take information back to somebody else reported. I don't know, but I like that idea. And also being able to disappear quickly if needed
Carol: I love it. I love it. Yeah. I've often thought, well, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall and that means they didn't see what really happened versus the report out afterwards. So that's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Bobbi: Got a couple of really fun projects coming up.
One is. It's fun because it's collaborating with a friend who, with her firm I'm going to support a project on hiring a new team member for one of their non-profit clients. And so just getting to know their process and bringing, merging our processes and plus getting together. I'm excited about that for one of my longer term clients we're working on job trajectories. They've been growing as an organization and. Haven't had an exact map. How do you grow at this organization? What does it take to get a promotion? What does that look like? So we're working on those trajectories and salary bands and making that all transparent within the organization, a growth path. And then the other is expanding voluntary benefits for one of my clients. And thinking about what are the host of things that staff might like to have access to. It's not something the organization’s necessarily paying for, but they'll pay for the administration of those benefits. And we often have. Life insurance that you can add onto accidents, things related to health. They're also financial planning, types of services, health, and wellness, and even things like pet insurance to make available with your people. If you're maybe getting a better deal because you're working with one provider. So I'm excited about expanding those offerings.
Carol: That's awesome. I love the idea of the growth trajectory, because I think so often in the sector, certainly if I look back at my career, most of the ways in which I grew, I ended up always having to hop to a new organization. And, there wasn't a clear path. Within the organization to, to, build on what I already had, had done and, and build on the work. So that's, that's really cool to start being a little more intentional about that.
Bobbi: I think so too. And not everybody wants to move up and be a supervisor for other people. They maybe are expanding their skills and can take on. More advanced work as they grow, but maybe that's not for them. And if it's possible to create those types of positions, make that clear, this can exist. And that's what it looks like. And that might impact pay scale, I'm not sure, but it could, but just making that super clear to staff, I think a lot of times people might not ask those questions. Do I have to be promoted and become a supervisor? And these organizations end up losing great folks because they haven't had that conversation.
Carol: Right. I mean, some people that they don't necessarily want to move up in, in that moving to a supervisory role, they really just want to go deeper and deeper into what they're, what they're doing as an individual contributor. So that's a great point. Well, thank you so much. It's been great having this conversation.
Bobbi: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you inviting me. It's been fun.
Carol: All right.
I appreciated how Bobbi described her process for hiring and how in many ways it has not changed a lot even in the past year beyond final interviews being via video instead of in person. Her process starts with defining the competencies needed for the role. And she nudges organizations to not create the wish list job description that essentially describes a super human. That first step of getting clear about what is actually really essential with a job. This could include questioning whether the qualifications you have required in the past are really needed – i.e. does the person really need a college degree to do this job? Or a Masters? What is essential and what is nice to have. And being consistent across interviews to aim for a more equitable process.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. Until next time!
In episode 20 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Scott discussed include:
Elizabeth Scott, PhD, founder of Brighter Strategies, provides thought leadership and high value organizational development consulting in support of a stronger social sector. Liz has provided consulting services in strategic planning, process-improvement, and human capital development for hundreds of nonprofits and associations. She has been a Baldrige examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia and is a certified Standard of Excellence consultant. In addition to managing the practice, Liz holds a faculty positions at both The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and George Mason University. Liz holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Organizational Sciences from The George Washington University, as well as a second master’s and Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Liz. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Scott: Thanks so much, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So just to get started, can you tell people what drew you to the work that you do? What, what really motivates you and what would you say is your, why.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. Great question. So I think for me, there's a little Y and then there's a big why, and I'll start with the little why my undergraduate and most of my formative studies are in sociology and macro theory. And so for me, it's always been really interesting to understand why organizations. Why people, why groups behave the way that they do. And so that's been something that has stuck with me through my education, as well as, as I went into the workforce, particularly my first job out of college. And I wondered why do people work the way they do? Why is this happening the way it is? And then the bigger ‘why’ is, as I advanced in my career, I began to realize that the non-profit community, the nonprofits are such a, they're a fabric of our community and they touch everybody's lives. And in the nonprofit space, at least at the time when I started writer strategies, there weren't a lot of groups that were focused on building capacity in that space, particularly being here in DC, things tend to be a little bit more federal government oriented. And the nonprofit sector is huge and it really impacts the daily lives of all of us. And so I thought, could I combine the two, could I combine my passion of capacity building and development and nonprofit work. And I was really lucky and was able to do that.
Carol: Yeah, it's interesting that you talk about that, why do people work the way they do? I think that's what drew me to the work as well. I was already in the sector and I think so many people come into the sector wanting to work on some cause or some issue that they find really important. And certainly that drew me as well. But over time it was more. Thinking about the function of how people work. always hoping that they're doing good work, but thinking about the function and, and how to help them be more effective over time. So, yeah, I definitely, I definitely relate to that. Motivation. Yeah,
Elizabeth: we always talk about that. Our role as consultants is to help build internal capacity so that they can go out and do whatever that mission work is. And there are so many organizations that are doing really great things and, so our focus is on helping them shore up. Do you have the right people, the right planning, the right processes so that you can be sustainable, so that you can actually impact your community the way you want. And those are really important questions.
Carol: And talking of sustainability, you've done some research recently on nonprofit leadership and its intersection with the organizational code culture during COVID. What would you say are some of your key findings in that research?
Elizabeth: So we had the opportunity to partner with the center for nonprofit advancement. And we did a study that went out to 255 nonprofits here in the DC area. And what we found is that as COVID was rolling out and all of the murders that were happening over the summer and the racial unrest that organizations were really struggling [and] trying to figure out where their place should be. And so what we heard. Was that there was a substantial loss of funding for most organizations. They suddenly were in a position where they could not engage with clients the way they had done it before, nobody was doing virtual or. Doing in-person anymore because of COVID. So they were shifting their energies to think more virtual. Lot of them were completely rethinking their strategic plan. And on top of that, they had a lot of increased costs with trying to move programs online. And then you add on top of that, that a lot of them lost most of their volunteer base because volunteers tend to be in the older community. They weren't leaving their homes. They weren't being engaged. Those who were in the younger community suddenly had children at home that were homeschooling. They could not go out and volunteer and do what they had been doing. And so you add all that and mix it up. And what we found was that. Organizations were being impacted significantly.
And then on top of that, there was this huge gap of services. So when we did the survey, we actually found that organization saw an 80% increase in the needs that they saw in their communities. And that they saw that these were gaps that their organization and other organizations weren't able to sustain. And so, some organizations did get some aid, but the need is really outpacing the funding. And so that was a really interesting study. The full report is actually available in the center for nonprofit advancements website. So if anyone wants to go there and see some of the other pieces We also did a followup, a bunch of focus groups in January to get a sense. And that was a partnership with ACRA Alexandria to get a sense of what are people experiencing now, now that we're about a year in, and there were some really interesting findings there, particularly around the culture piece that you were talking about. And the first one was that people are still rethinking strategy and operations. So they've moved to virtual, but now they're beginning to think about how do we reintegrate when we go back to being in person, they're really concerned about low morale and trying to figure out how to keep people connected and looking for ways to support people during this time of uncertainty.
We also heard that fundraising is top of mind for people. Everyone is in need. Everyone is asking for how do we do this the right way without overtaxing or over asking? Staff in general, executive directors are a little bit burned out and staff are tired. They're emotionally exhausted. And so there's a lot of emphasis on self-care and building better support systems. And then I think to no surprise the conversation around racial equity is something that people are spending a lot of time talking about. So how do we send her race equity with our board? How do we center it with our staff? How do we think about how we're engaging communities in a mindful and thoughtful way? And then the last thing we heard was around governance. So all those volunteers that we talked about earlier sitting on boards, many of them have dropped off boards. They have been busy with their own lives and suddenly can not be as engaged as they want to be. So a lot of the organizations that we talk to are rethinking board governance. They're rethinking their overall strategy, rethinking recruitment. So there's a lot on people's plates right now, I think.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. You're talking about struggling to keep that place whole then One of the things that, oftentimes during a recession you'll have that dual impact on nonprofits of increased need for their services and decreased funding and revenue, but it feels like. With this there's even more layered on top of that with the impact on volunteers, the impact on boards having to do your program in a totally different way. It's, it's even more so than what maybe organizations had. Might've been able to work through and, and be, be resilient through a recession or, or in the economic downturn in the past. And this being wholly different.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think of something you said earlier, you layer that on top of the fact that we're all now isolated and many of us are virtual. And so how do you keep a positive sustaining culture within your organization when. People are all over the place. And not only are people working from home, but they're dealing with homeschooling, they're dealing with elder care, they're dealing with lots of other personal life issues that are going to influence how they're able to show up on the job. And so I think that's important to note too. So this focus on. Self-care this focus on building morale on making sure that people don't feel burned out, that they feel valued, that they're contributing to the organization. I think those are really important elements and a little bit of a silver lining that we're having these conversations.
Carol: And how would you say what are, what are some things that you see are working in terms of organizations being able to address that morale issue?
Elizabeth: Great question. So what we've seen work really well are for organizations that have really ramped up their communication processes and organizations that have involved staff in these decisions. So we have a number of clients that are having regular touch point meetings with staff they're doing some of them are doing things like appreciative inquiry style workshops, where they're really trying to think about. What's good and what's working and how do we harness that? So they're using staff to brainstorm and to think through solutions to problems. We've seen organizations put together really intentional care packages. So things from, stipends, or we had one client that is in person right now. And so they partnered with an emotional support animal rescue. And so they're bringing the animals by on a weekly basis for staff to get an opportunity to hang out with them, to be able to sit with the dog, pet the dog for a little bit. So I think people are being really creative, but those that are being successful are doing it with intentionality and they're not doing it in a vacuum. They're there, they're involving their staff and trying to identify solutions for how to move forward.
Carol: That's so key because I, I, wait, in the, before times way before the pandemic was working in an organization where, there was a sense of like, we're really stodgy and we don't have fun. And so, the CFO decided it would be a great idea to put a foosball table in the, in the kitchen area. And that was a nice idea. And 2 out of the 80 staff would regularly use it. But it just didn't fit with the culture. People knew that they would not be looked well upon if they were actually playing foosball on work hours. So, involving staff and having a conversation about what, what works for us, what works within our culture, I think is super important.
Elizabeth: Yeah. And it's not all these things like foosball tables or, people try to do fun. Those are good. There's nothing wrong with infusing some fun into the workplace. But a lot of culture is really built off of what we value and how we behave and how we treat one another. So I think involving staff in these conversations that say, look, things are weird right now, and we're acknowledging that what do you need to be successful? How can we support you? I think having those more, what I'll call more real conversations as opposed to, Hey, we bought you a popcorn machine can be really helpful and appreciated by staff. At the end of the day, we all want to feel valued and we want to feel heard and. So organizations that are doing that I think are able to traverse some of the difficulties that we've talked about during COVID easier than organizations that are not putting time and intentional thought into culture.
Carol: And how would you say that organizations are dealing with that loss of the volunteer base? I mean, what have you seen, what steps have you seen organizations take in that direction?
Elizabeth: that's actually huge. What we've seen is that a lot of them are completely rethinking their programming and rethinking ways to engage volunteers. So I'll go back to the study that we did with the center, but we found that 56% of the organizations, and this was about October, November, timeframe had transitioned all of their in-person. Activities to virtual 62% created entirely new programs. So things they weren't even running pre COVID. And then another 25% started doing emergency in person programming, which was also not part of their original charter pre COVID. And so in all of those cases, being able to think about how we use volunteers in different ways. It's not just the socially distancing piece, but can we get a volunteer to run a virtual event, for example, as opposed to having a staff person do it? Or can we partner? One of the things that we've learned with virtual events is it's better to have more than one person on there. And so can we partner a staff person with a volunteer to help facilitate a support group for example, or a parent teacher evening or whatever it is, educational format or whatever it is that they're doing. So I think people are just being really creative, but they're also creating entirely new service offerings, which is interesting. There's a little bit of a silver lining there that it took a pandemic, but people are being really creative and that's a positive thing.
Carol: Yeah. I think the assumption that you can do things only in person or only online. I think after we go back to whatever, not back, but go to whatever the next normal will be. There's, I think there's going to be this heightened assumption that people can access things online, not having to travel and all of those kinds of things, when you're trying to do both at the same time in person and online is harder than doing one or the other. So that's going to be a really hard challenge, I think, that raised [the] expectations that people have.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I would totally agree with you. I think that we're not going to go back to being in person the way we were. I think we're going to end up being hybrid for quite some time. People's work habits have changed. People have realized that they can work in other environments. even in my own friend circle, I've had four sets of friends that have moved outside of the DC area and relocated because they've realized that they can do their jobs from anywhere. And so I think nonprofits are not immune to that. I think they've started to create new programming and I think some of that programming is going to stick. Obviously the in-person stuff is going to come back too, but at the end of the day, I think we're going to have this hybrid work experience and learn to do that, at least over the next two or three years. I don't know that anyone has that down pat yet, but they're working on it and I think people are smart. We'll figure it out.
Carol: Can you give me some examples of those kinds of new, new programming elements that people have developed?
Elizabeth: Yeah. one of the really creative things that we've heard is actually around fundraising. So a lot of people, a lot of organizations are dependent on an annual event, like a gala or a walk or something that is very in-person oriented. And a lot of the organizations. That we work with have been really creative about repurposing and reformatting those experiences. And interestingly, they've actually, for the most part made more money off of them because they're not paying for all of the, the hotel, the rental, the food, all that sort of thing. The trick there seems to have been to create a personalized experience for the donor. So some of these groups. Would mail care packages to people's homes. We had one client that did a wine tasting and they mailed the wine tasting to everybody. And then Somalia came on zoom and walked you through your personalized wine tasting and groups have music and other sorts of things that are happening in the background. So they're just thinking about how do we, how do we take what was in person and create meaningful value? In a virtual experience. And I think that outside of fundraising and operations, we're seeing that on the program side too. Right. So how can I connect with my clients in a way maybe we were doing in-person support groups. Well, now we can do them virtually and one client, by way of example, said that their support groups, which were regionally oriented tended to have about. Seven to maybe 12 people that showed up. Now those same support groups have over 50 people showing up because people are no longer tied to the geographic region. You want to go to the Dallas support group, but you're in Boston. Sure. Go for it. And so they've been able to reach more. People have more of a positive impact in their community, but do it in a way that has been innovative and creative.
Carol: Yeah, I've heard a lot of organizations talk about increased participation in the variety of events or programs that they offer simply because that, the, the commute time having to just be out of the office. All of those things are, are taken, taken away, or are no longer there. So it just makes it easier. The ease of entry is just there and in comparison to going to an event and committing not only to the time you're there, but the time on either end to get there and get back.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it's interesting. I remember a couple of years ago in the fundraising space, there was this huge trend to have events where you would pay to not go. it would be a fun run or something like that. And someone like me who's lazy would say, eh, I'll give you a hundred bucks. I don't actually want to run. So you were paying to not be involved in a way. This is another new creative way of thinking about. How do we engage people? How do we provide something tangible, but yet you're not actually going to an event. Right. But I think people are concerned about how much appetite will people have for virtual convening? And it's not just fundraisers, but it's also programming. And I think we're all feeling a little zoomed out right now. And so how many hours a day is it healthy to be on zoom and to engage in virtual dialogue with people? I think all that is still maybe a little bit of a question mark.
Carol: Yeah, I don't, I don't think it's an all or nothing. Right. I mean, and, and having to do it all the time. I had a particularly long day of zooming yesterday and I was just wiped by the abdomen and, and some people that's their reality all the time. Now I have the luxury of having a little more control over it. How would you say organizational cultures really need to do in order to, to adapt to this new reality?
Elizabeth: That's a good question too. I think that organizations are going to have to start thinking about work in different ways, and they're going to have to start thinking about how people communicate in different ways. So some organizations. Zoom is one thing, right? Some organizations were fast adopters of that. Other technologies like Slack or I'm sure there's lots of other mediums out there as well. I'm not extremely well versed in those, but the idea of thinking of how we communicate in real time, how we manage workflow. Having even things as simple as having all of your files be on the cloud. So people can access the same material that when we're editing documents, we're not working over each other, but working collaboratively with one another. So I think that as organizations continue down this path, having strong communication strategies makes sense, doing workflow mapping makes sense. How do we want to work together? What does that look like? I think revisiting strategies. Makes sense. So much has changed for a lot of organizations. The strategic plan that they put in place may or may not be relevant at this point. So a lot of the groups we're working with right now are actually looking at one year strategic plans, as opposed to the more traditional three to five-year plan, because they're really trying to think about how we get through the next 12 months. What does that look like? And we'll talk about beyond later. So I think just being flexible and revisiting the what and the how of how work happens is really important.
Carol: Yeah, going to that strategy piece. I think when, when people are in that crisis mode and you talked about all the different stressors that are, that are hitting organizations. And so it is, about, can we, can we get through, can we survive this? And when you're in that survival mode, I was doing a focus group the other day and was asking about trends in the particular field that these folks worked in, and they were talking and saying how ‘we're just trying to survive.’ I can't think long-term right now. And, we know that our brains just don't work that way. Like when you are in crisis, you are short, you do, short-term thinking. So, just accepting that reality, that where we are. That's where that organization is.
Elizabeth: one interesting thing that jumps out for me as you were sharing that. We had the opportunity to run a focus group. It's actually more like a large listening session with about 25 nonprofits that use a design thinking process to help them think about what partnership and collaboration in COVID looks like. And it was this really interesting dynamic conversation where people realize to your point, they can't go it alone. So if I am struggling. And you're struggling. Chances are we're struggling in different areas. So how can I support you? How can you support me? And so getting these organizations together to brainstorm and think about what might a more collaborative future look like, where could we partner and share resources. Share connections, share relationships, maybe even go after [some] larger foundation or larger grant money through a more collective collaborative pool. So having those conversations I think is incredibly powerful and it was really neat listening to the different connections that some of these groups were making.
And some of them were connections that you would think are sort of obvious, like, okay, we all work in early childhood education. So we could all band together this way. However, some of the connections were a little bit less obvious: people might've been in the same geographic region or they might've had similar funders or had similar interests in the business community where they could bring boards together to leverage resources that way.
So again, I think it's just another opportunity to be really creative. And mindful about how to do business differently.
Carol: Yeah. I love the point that you're making that, organizations may be struggling, but they're probably not all struggling in the same way and something is going well in the organization.
And how can they share that with others?
Carol: exactly. And you talked about communications. Can you say a little bit more about [the] organizations that are doing this well are really focusing on that. Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that and how, if, if an organization wanted to spend more time focused on that, what they might do?
Elizabeth: I think it's about the organization and the people within it, having real time access. And all getting information at the same time. So making sure that everybody has access to information and resources that people understand what decision-making processes are in place around the information that's being communicated to them, that they understand what next steps are. One of the things that we talk about at the team level is something as simple as putting together a team charter that identifies communication protocols, who's responsible for communicating what we talk about to other areas or groups within the organization. So information it's like water, it's a waterfall, right? It should cascade from one group to the next group and it should go up through the organization as well as down through the organization. So I think groups that are doing this well, have an actual communication plan in place where they're thinking about who needs to know what, when, and they're transparent, they're not operating in silos or hoarding information. And some of that can be done through technology. Things like Slack, for example, gives you the opportunity to send information to everybody, as opposed to maybe an email where I forgot to include a name, but it's not just technology. It's also about behaviors and habits and transparency, which I think is equally as important.
Carol: Yeah, because oftentimes, organizations relied on informal processes that people didn't really think about how information was disseminated. May it may be a few key pieces where an email goes out to everybody, but oftentimes it was much more informal. Oh, you went to that meeting and then you stop by and see somebody. And, Oh, what, what did you talk about in that? What's going on with your team and you don't have those opportunities in a remote working environment to be able to bump into people and have those informal. So it all has to be much more intentional and much more explicit. And I also appreciated what you said about decision making, because that's, I think another area where there've been a lot of implicit norms that people have about how decisions get made, but there isn't necessarily a common kind of. Yeah. Explicit understanding of how that happens. Yeah.
Elizabeth: We've actually sat down with teams and done decision trees. Right. So this is a particular type of decision who needs to be involved, who needs to be communicated with whoever is the ultimate decision maker on this. And what's fascinating about doing that. I mean, it sounds like a boring exercise, but what's fascinating about that is you get three or four people around a table. They have completely different understandings of how a simple decision should be made. Right. And you realize these are things we don't really talk about in team meetings. We talk about the work that needs to get done, but we don't often talk about the process by which that work happens. And that brings me full circle back to my passion for sociology and looking at how that applies to an organization because the, how the work happens. In many cases it is much more important and impactful because you cannot have an impact or the impact that you want in the community. If you're not operating in a way that is sustainable or that builds internal capacity.
Carol: Yeah. And so that also brings to mind something that you mentioned before of workflow mapping and all of these things, if someone's struggling to keep their head above water, they're like, well, you don't have time to do all of this. And yet, investing a little bit of time in doing these things that can seem prosaic and boring can actually almost, get, get, get some of the static out of the system because people then have a common understanding.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of the manager who says I'm so busy. I don't have time to delegate yet. They're so busy that if they actually could delegate, they would be in a much less stressful position. It's sort of that same notion.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So at the end of every episode, I play a game where I ask you a somewhat random icebreaker question. So I know that you in addition to leading brighter strategies, you're a professor. So I thought you would appreciate this question. If you could instantly be an expert in any subject, what would it be and why?
Elizabeth: Ooh, any subject. Okay. So my husband has tried to explain how electricity works to me probably 50 times. And I get it. It's like water. That's what he keeps telling me. But I don't get it. I just do not understand. It's like magic. You flip a light switch on and it happens. And I just have never really understood hard sciences were never a strength of mine. So if I could be instantly smart at something, it would be understanding some of the hard sciences, understanding how things work so that I could have an actually a more intelligible conversation with him and others. When those sorts of topics come up. You bring up anything science oriented and I'm like, I have no idea.
Carol: So it's how things work versus how people work. Yeah. All right. Well what are you excited about with your work? What's coming up next for you and what's, what's emerging in the, in the work that you're doing.
Elizabeth: Well, I'm really excited about a new project. We have for February, for black history month, and then for March for women's history month, we have our highlighting clients and individuals running nonprofits here in the DC area that we're doing little biographies on them and the impact of their work within their community. So we have a couple up on the website. Site already for February. And we've got a couple more coming up in March and we're going to be continuing that throughout the year. And it's just a really awesome way to point out really good organizations doing great work with amazing leaders. So I would encourage people to check out the blog on our website and to read a little bit about some of the amazing leaders that are out there.
Carol: Well, we will put a link in the show notes to that. So thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Elizabeth: it was great to be here. Thanks, Carol.
Change management is an illusion
A Buddhist monk, a leftist guerrilla warrior and a technology executive walk into a bar called Changes. “Ah the nature of change,” the monk says, “the world is always in flux, permanence is an illusion and attachment to permanence is the cause of suffering.” The leftist guerrilla replies, “But Mao said there must be a great leap forward.” The tech executive says, “Fast Company says change is happening faster than ever and we must always be the next big thing.” The bartender shrugs her shoulders and asks how each of them is planning to pay for their beers. “Everyone with ATM money again?” she says, “Go somewhere else to make your change.”
Can you manage change?
Sorry for the poor attempt at humor. People talk about change management and say that that is what they do. But can you really manage change? I believe you can be intentional about moving toward change. Yet saying you are managing change gives an illusion of control that I do not think is real in dynamic human systems. Organizations are human systems and are describes as “intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, [and] meaning-seeking” as Meg Wheatley described. While you can force change on people, I do not believe you can force people to change.
There typically is a spark that initiates the change. This could come from outside the organization – a crisis, a major shift in the market, a new mandate or regulation. Or it could come from inside the organization in the form of a vision championed by either formal leaders or through a bottom up effort of informal leaders.
Focusing the effort
When done well, the organization will take advantage of the spark by being intentional in focusing the change effort. Is the organization ready to change and makes the best of the challenge or opportunity? How will leaders choose to invest the time, energy and resources into envisioning and implementing change? What new structures need to be created to support the desired change going forward?
Creating organizational change intentionally means taking time to thoughtfully design and engage in meaningful dialogue. Does the past need to be mourned before a new beginning can be imagined? Is the environment safe enough for people to bring their whole selves to the endeavor? If not, what will increase those conditions of safety?
Systems of support
Once the change is implemented –whether it is new goals and aspirations envisioned in a strategic plan or implementing a new technology system or building a new program – ensuring you have systems in place to support the new change and allow it to take hold is key. Identifying, harnessing and sharing stories of success can be a powerful way to help the change stick.
What change are you trying to make in 2020? Let's talk about them
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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