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.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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