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Innovators

Why Nonprofit Leaders Should Play Big

One of the many books I read on my social media hiatus last Fall, was Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead. Her argument is that there are countless women out there who could be contributing so much more to society but are holding themselves back for various reasons. I think the same could be said for nonprofit leaders, many of whom are women.

Mohr argues that as our country faces increasing challenges we need more women who have solutions to offer to step up and lead:

“The past was a world defined, designed and led by men. The future – we hope – will be a world defined, designed and led by women and men. The present is the transition. Those of us born into this time were born into a unique and remarkable historical moment, a moment of in between…When we understand our moment as one of a major transition that will take decades to enact, and when we see ourselves as forgers of that transition, things shift. We can focus on how we want to help move the transition forward, and we can feel less wounded and frustrated by the myriad ways the transition is not yet complete. We can also feel honored and grateful to be alive at this transition moment and to be stewards of it.”

I would argue that those in the nonprofit sector are also leaders of a critical transition. At this historic moment when it feels like so many daunting problems face us (growing wealth inequality, political divisiveness, crumbling institutions), we need nonprofit leaders — those who envision a better, more inclusive, more equitable society — to speak up, create and lead us to a better place.

So I read Mohr’s book, yes as a woman of course, but also as a social change leader, and I would encourage you to do the same. Nonprofit leaders have tremendous ideas for how to improve systems, change lives, strengthen communities — all things we so desperately need right now. But often those nonprofit leaders are held back — by dysfunctions in the system to be sure, but also by hurdles they place in their own way, like scarcity thinking.

Mohr’s book holds tremendous lessons for nonprofit leaders. Because just as our society tends to place less value on the work and voices of women, we also put less value on the nonprofit sector. Her lessons can easily apply to nonprofit leaders, like:

  • Ignore your inner critic that whispers you are failing or unworthy
  • Connect to your inner wisdom that knows the right way forward in challenging situations
  • Overcome crippling fear that holds you back
  • Unhook from praise and criticism which are so often heaped on nonprofit leaders by boards and funders
  • Stop hiding from having a bigger, bolder role and take some big leaps forward, and
  • Communicate with power by infusing your oral and written language with confidence

I would love to see nonprofit leaders, who have something incredibly valuable to contribute to society, start playing much bigger.  Indeed I believe these times require it.

Photo Credit: Jose Murillo

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Is This 21st Century Philanthropy’s Defining Moment?

The Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ (GEO) conference wrapped up last week leaving participants with much to ponder. (If you missed the three guest posts in the GEO conference blog series, you can still read Kathy Reich’s post, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld’s post, and Pia Infante’s post.)

Over the course of the three days of the conference, I often wondered whether this might be the moment at which our generation of philanthropy recognizes and begins to address the fact that it is born from — and thus must consciously address —  inequity. Philanthropy, by definition, is the result of wealth inequality: those who have achieved enormous wealth decide to give some of that wealth away. While wealth inequality is on the rise, so is racial inequality, according to an update to the landmark 1968 Kerner report, which was released this past February.

This situation is quite similar to that at the end of the 19th century. The Gilded Age brought enormous wealth to “robber barons” like Andrew Carnegie who then gave to philanthropic endeavors, like the Carnegie libraries that cropped up across the country and can still be seen in many cities today. But Carnegie’s philanthropy was sometimes seen as perpetuating a system of wealth inequality, as The Los Angeles Herald warned at the time: “[Andrew Carnegie and other philanthropists] have aimed to betray, and succeeded in betraying, the American laborer. It has been the old and only too true story of the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer, year by year.”

The parallels to today are fascinating. The technology boom brought untold wealth to some (like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) who have then made large philanthropic investments.  But several speakers at the GEO conference asked philanthropists to take a hard look at how much their philanthropy has truly sought to disrupt the system of inequality from which it was born. As Kathleen Enright, President of GEO, said in her opening keynote remarks: “If you aren’t recognizing the racial disparities in the solution you are attempting to solve, then you aren’t solving it.”

And many other speakers seemed to agree. Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that many philanthropy-backed education reforms of recent years (like charter schools) have focused on fixing surface problems instead of the root cause: “What would our public schools look like if we stopped spending money on trying to make separate equal, and instead integrated our schools?” And Brian Barnes of TandemEd similarly argued that “Philanthropy’s blindspot is that it will only push for change so far as change doesn’t challenge its own interests, positions and reputations.”

In fact many of the speakers and panelists at the GEO conference were asking philanthropists to take a hard look at whether their philanthropy was disrupting or perpetuating the system of inequality from which it was born. Which begs the question: could this be the moment in which philanthropy moves from a band-aid for society’s growing wealth inequality, to a beacon leading society toward a more equitable path?

Certainly GEO is not representative of philanthropy as a whole. By definition GEO members are philanthropists who are seeking to do more with their philanthropy — they are striving to become more “effective” philanthropists. But perhaps this group of philanthropic leaders can start to move philanthropy to become more — to truly remedy the disparities that caused its birth in the first place. That would be transformative.

Photo Credit: Puck magazine cartoon of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy by Louis Dalrymple, 1903

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GEO Guest Post: From Uncomfortable Truths to Courageous Action

Note: The third guest blogger in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference blog series is Pia Infante, Trustee and Co-Executive Director of The Whitman Institute. Her post is below.

The 2018 GEO National Conference came to a close yesterday, and 950 of us headed back to our respective cities, families, teams, and desks with fresh connections, conversations, and challenges to integrate back into our daily lives.  I’ll admit that there are times when I come home from a conference and go right back to business without much thought. This is not one of those times.

Kudos to the 2018 GEO Conference Planning Committee and Staff for weaving together an explicit focus on racial equity with thought provoking content and design.  GEO’s focus and commitment to racial equity could be felt and seen in multiple dimensions – from the big questions being posed on the big stage, to the content found in many of the breakout sessions and auxiliary events, to the lineup of plenary presenters.  No two plenaries were alike, except in the distinct choice to elevate the leadership of women and people of color.

On Monday, I was struck by the number of times — in both plenary and breakout sessions — that uncomfortable truths emerged about philanthropy’s complicity in maintaining structural and economic racism.  Many speakers pointed out that despite the philanthropic and the nonprofit sectors, inequities for black and brown communities continue to rise at every marker — wealth, housing, education, incarceration, technology.

Judy Belk kicked off a first uncomfortable truth by asking us not to look away from the signs of distress evidenced by unresolved homelessness and displacement on the picturesque streets of the San Francisco Bay Area. Another tough pill to swallow rang out during Brian Barnes’ opening comments:

Our commitment to enacting equity and justice is valid solely and only to the point that it does not tamper with the safety and security we have for our families, ourselves, and our professional roles.  In other words, at the very point that our sincere belief in the morality and value of our efforts actually begins to threaten our reputation, our resources, or our relationships, almost all of us will abandon ship.”

On Tuesday, among a number of uncomfortable truths that Nikole Hannah-Jones delivered, was the failure of funder-driven education reforms in making her case that separate but equal is deeply unequal — and that integrating schools is the only way to ensure that black and brown students are guaranteed a quality education.  Nikole noted dryly that philanthropy “cares about data-driven results until it points to an uncomfortable result [action], then we’re looking for the find the next best data-driven result.” This observation of the way our sector may simply pick and choose self-reinforcing data was not lost on me, especially when so many efforts to solicit and act on feedback seem to be embraced more widely of late.  It brings up the question: “Whose feedback are we listening to?  Whose data informs our strategies and decisions?”

On Wednesday, Fred Blackwell seemed to speak directly to this when he said:

I’m a believer in results, a believer in using data to drive strategy and decision making.  But [if you are] using data that isn’t disaggregated by race, I don’t know how you are setting strategy, don’t know how you are responding, don’t know how you are measuring impact.”

In that same conversation, Christina Livingston posed a question, “What can funders really do differently to hear from communities – what are tangible practices and mechanisms that not only provide information but substantively form strategy?” While on the surface, this is not a question that appears to make our sector uncomfortable (because we embrace feedback loops, right?), the discomfort may come when community and nonprofit partners challenge us to take actions that fall outside our comfort zones.

In that vein, I’ve been taking note — from The Whitman Institute’s stellar network of partners and from the powerful sessions and speakers at the GEO conference the past few days — of concrete ways that we can move from uncomfortable truths to courageous action.  It’s not rocket science, but for those of us inspired to continue to move our institutions in these ways will require us to lean into vulnerability, collaboration, and courage.

Pass the (Decision and Strategy Making) Ball to Community
Instead of trying to get a slam dunk based on our own top-down strategies, what if we passed some of that strategy- and decision-making to community leadership who have direct experience with the issues we seek to address? We’ve heard in various forms that we need to be a sector that listens more closely and becomes willing to follow the direction and recommendations of communities bearing the brunt of generations old structural inequities.

Change the Lineup
I wasn’t intending these recommendations to be totally referential to basketball, but it is playoff season.  While we can and should strive to educate those in power about racial (in)equities, we will not achieve true equity until we diversify the lineup of who sits at the decision-making table.  Remember the graph that Kathy Reich showed us that in philanthropy: 89% of chief executive identified themselves as white, 85% of board members identified themselves as white, and 40% of foundation boards identified themselves as entirely white.  Given that the inequities of our time (economic, environmental, social, political, technological) all fall disproportionately on black and brown communities, our rosters should show a drastically different executive and board makeup by 2038.

Change Up the Plays
The breakfast panel on affordable housing noted that a half million dollar investment in a policy and advocacy strategy resulted in the passing of a measure that would go on to produce 2 billion dollars of new affordable housing.  If we haven’t considered the role of advocacy when funding for complex social change and social benefit, perhaps it’s time we did. If we have only looked at single issues with singular solutions, it might be time to study up on how interrelated our one issue is to many others.

Let Go of Habitual Structures of Distrust
If we really examine our funding protocols, we may find they are based on the premise that we should be inherently suspicious of nonprofits and communities, and that they need to prove their trustworthiness before we enter into relationship with them.  By adopting a trust-based approach — which includes rigorous listening, inquiry, relationship building, and thorough research as due diligence — we can reverse this distrustful paradigm while saving tons of time and trouble.  Before that long climb to the top of our inbox, let us reflect and revisit the underlying values and premises of our grantmaking structures and be willing permanently to bench those habits that don’t align with our values and missions.

Play the Long Game
In terms of relationships and resources, we hear repeatedly that philanthropy’s fickleness and attention deficit disorder wreaks havoc on the health and sustainability of our nonprofit partners and communities they serve.  While we still talk on plenaries and read in GEO reports that multi-year, unrestricted, flexible funding is ideal — the actual practice is still relatively rare in the sector. Why? We know better, when shall we comprehensively and collectively do better?

Put Resources, Reputation, and Relationship on the Line for Equity
A handful of the uncomfortable truths that we heard on the big stage and in many sessions is that philanthropy is too self-preserving.  What would it look like to take more personal and institutional risks in order to address inequities? Perhaps it means having tough conversations with our boards. Perhaps it means taking a long reflective look at our own self preserving mechanisms and see if it is time to step aside and share power.  Perhaps it means getting more proximate to those experiencing the problems of poverty, criminalization, deportation, homelessness — and being in the uncomfortable position of outsider in a room full of those who do not benefit from our privileges. Perhaps it means getting out from behind our bureaucratic processes and having direct conversations about money and time commitment.  Whatever it looks like, I hope we are each willing to take some kind of vulnerable action in this direction.

Pass the Wealth, Too
Lastly, I do wonder what it would look like to put ourselves out of business as a sector in 20 years?  Often we hear from communities who have suffered from structural racism like redlining and upon whose lands and backs the wealth in this country has been built — that the ultimate goal is self determination.  As a sector, what would it look like to transfer self-generating and wealth-building mechanisms to our communities? This could look like resourcing long term reserves, providing land trusts, offering loan signatories, funding capital campaigns, or endowing community led organizations.  Many of us fear building a dependency on our grant dollars, so if we are brave and willing to risk our own comforts, it may make the most sense to figure out how to invest our endowments in ways that ensure self sufficiency for those to whom we should be most accountable — the intended beneficiaries of our organizational missions.

It seems appropriate to close with the uncomfortable truth, voiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., which Janine Lee lifted up as we began these three days of celebrating GEO’s last 20 years and visioning philanthropy 20 years into the future: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Photo Credit: The Whitman Institute

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GEO Guest Post: Confronting Our Complicity in Racial Inequity

Note: The second guest blogger in this week’s Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference blog series is Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of Building Movement Project. His post is below. And don’t forget to follow the conference via #2018GEO.

If Monday’s plenary inspired us to dream about GEO’s 2038 vision, the discussion during Tuesday’s lunch snapped us back to the fierce urgency of now. When John Funabiki – a Professor of Journalism at San Francisco State University and Executive Director of Renaissance Journalism and Storytelling Center – interviewed Nikole Hannah-Jones – the award-winning investigative journalist who was named a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant fellow – their conversation challenged all of us to confront our complicity in maintaining racial inequity in these troubling times.

Nikole’s 2016 article about choosing a school for her daughter in New York City’s segregated school district highlighted the systemic factors that keep our nation’s schools separate and unequal. But the article also zeroed in on how the personal choices made by middle-class parents – like Nikole and her husband – reveal that even though people may say they want “equality for all,” their choices indicate that what they really want is advantage for their own children.

Nikole warned that her job was to hold a mirror up and make people uncomfortable, and I wondered how much discomfort people were feeling as she spoke critically about funder-driven education reforms over the past decade. She said that too often funding decisions failed to deal with the root of the problem with public schools: segregation.

With school districts across the country abandoning desegregation initiatives – in the form of bussing programs to take kids to schools outside of their neighborhoods – many schools are just as segregated as they were before the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. In arguing for integration, Nikole said that the goal is not to have white kids and kids of color sitting next to each other in class, as if proximity magically makes kids smarter or better. Integration is a pragmatic strategy for ensuring that white parents and the government invest the same level of resources in schools with kids of color as they do in majority white schools. She reminded us of the lesson learned six decades ago: “separate but equal is not equal.” So for schools to be equal, we can’t keep them separated by race.

Earlier this year, my organization analyzed data from our survey of over 4,000 nonprofit staff about the nonprofit racial leadership gap, paying special attention to the respondents from California in this third report in our Race to Lead series. When we looked at the CEOs in our sample, we realized that half of the leaders of color were running organizations that they categorized as identity-based groups focused on communities of color, whereas two-thirds of white leaders didn’t categorize their organizations as identity-based groups at all. This data suggests that we have segregation in the nonprofit sector too.

While we certainly need to take steps to diversify historically white nonprofit institutions, I also want to affirm the critical role of people of color identity-based organizations. As someone who worked most of my career in identity-based advocacy and organizing groups, I know that those organizations are great places to work, support the leadership development of staff of color, and make critical change in the communities most impacted by systemic and structural racism.

The problem is not that leaders of color work in identity-based organizations, the problem is that those organizations don’t get the same level of investment. Roughly three-quarters of CEOs of color in our sample agreed that organizations led by people of color have a harder time fundraising than similar organizations with white leaders, only a third of white leaders indicated that they were aware of this phenomenon. Separate but equal is not equal.

Photo Credit: Building Movement Project

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The Danger of the Nonprofit Savior Complex

You know the Nonprofit Savior Complex, I know you do. It’s when a nonprofit leader begins to believe that she (and only she) cares enough, knows enough, or is enough to fix the massive problem she cares so deeply about.

The positive side to the Savior Complex is it compels people who see an injustice in the world to stand up and do something about it. It is their very belief that they can make a difference that compels them to act, and often to make positive social change. Indeed, it is this altruistic entrepreneurial spirit that drives the social change sector. And it can be a beautiful thing.

But when it is taken too far, the Savior Complex can become dangerous.

Instead of reaching out to other leaders, building networks, being open and brutally honest with funders, demanding more from their board, the Nonprofit Savior instead chooses to go it alone. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen it in myself.

It’s the program director who refuses to take a vacation because she thinks her program will fall apart in her absence. It’s the executive director who rather than demand real engagement from her board, just soldiers on by herself. It’s the activist who marches every weekend — to the detriment of her health, her family, her job — because she thinks no one else will.

The reality is that the complex problems we face cannot be solved by a single savior. Let’s face it, Superman doesn’t exist. So as a true leader you have to create the space — in your own organization, in your own community, in your own social issue area — for others to step up and lead alongside you.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that nonprofit leaders should sit back and let nature take its course, particularly when progressive social issues are seemingly under constant attack.

Rather, I am arguing that you must begin seeing yourself and your organization as part of a larger complex of committed, capable, caring, effective people and organizations. You must move from creating individual action that will only get you so far, to creating coordinated network action.

To move away from the Savior Complex you have to reach out to others, to form partnerships, to build networks. So start by recognizing that others beyond you care just as much, are just as capable (maybe in different ways), and are worthy of your time to figure out how you can work together effectively. There is tremendous power in numbers.

So to overcome the Savior Complex, you can:

You might be surprised as the leaders (within your organization, within your issue area, within your community) step up in the space you have finally left open.

The Savior Complex is ultimately about an overactive ego. Someone who suffers from the Savior Complex fundamentally (but perhaps unconsciously) believes that no one can or will do it as well as she does. But the fact is that there are others out there. And to truly accelerate change we need more people working together within and across organizations, rather than working themselves to the bone amid an isolated, competitive, singular view of the world.

Photo Credit: Tom Bullock

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Why Women Will Lead the Social Movement For Gun Control

As a mother and a human being, the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Wednesday cut me to the core. As I know it did so many of you.

And as someone who spends my time writing about and advising social change efforts, I am also curious about how growing momentum to create change to the obviously severe social problem of gun violence in America will evolve. Because it can often seem that gun violence is an impossible problem for America to solve. But as Daniel Kibblesmith put it on Twitter, it is not:

 

True, smoking was once so pervasive in America, and the tobacco lobby so strong that there was little hope that change would happen, but it has. There are now few places where you can smoke inside and smoking rates have dropped dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1965 almost 43% of American adults smoked, in 2014 only 17% did.

History shows that this pattern of social change repeats again and again — from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the legalization of interracial marriage. An issue becomes so egregious that it builds enough critical mass to force change.

Bloomberg did a fascinating graphic of 6 social issues and how quickly they went from a flash point of public interest to a change in federal policy. The issues ranged from prohibition, to women’s suffrage, to abortion. The amount of time that spanned between an issue’s flash point and change to federal law ranged from 2-19 years:

 

The idea is that once an issue becomes so important to the American public it is only a question of time (and relatively short time at that) before the issue moves through the states to eventually become a federal policy change. As Bloomberg writers Alex Tribou and Keith Collins put it:

“Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

The 10+ year social movement to legalize gay marriage is an excellent example of this. Launched in 2004 as a collaboration among many social change organizations, funders, and experts, by June 2015 (11 short years later) gay marriage became legal across the country.

So, what will it take for Americans, who overwhelmingly support common sense gun legislation, to rise up and convince their elected officials to make change? It is already beginning in many states, with hundreds of gun control laws passed at the state level since Sandy Hook. I think we will see a federal-level change to gun control in the next 5-10 years. It is within the realm of possibility to push the federal government to change gun laws.

And I honestly think that that push will come largely from moms. Women like me, who watched in horror as children the exact same age as my youngest son ran, arms locked with classmates, screaming in terror out of Sandy Hook Elementary and then just 5 years later watched again in horror as children the exact same as my oldest son shared video on SnapChat of the bloodshed they witnessed.

Let me tell you, there is hardly a more powerful force in this world than that of a mother wanting to protect her child. 2018 has been called “The Year of Women” because women are stepping up in record numbers to run for office, to advocate, to volunteer, and even take to the streets all in the name of social change. I think gun violence — violence that increasingly threatens to harm our own children — will compel women who are already stepping up to force change.

As a dear friend and fellow mother texted me Wednesday morning:

“Just reading all the politicians offer their bullshit condolences and take money from the NRA makes me sick.”

And as Margaret Mead (also a mother) famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Yep. I’m telling you. Our leaders’ willingness to turn a blind eye to the daily carnage around us is wrong on every single level and it will and it must change. I don’t think moms are going to take it much longer. Change is coming. Just you watch.

Photo Credit: Slowking4 

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Creating Honest Conversations Between Nonprofits and Funders: An Interview With Eric Weinheimer

Eric WeinheimerIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Eric Weinheimer, President and CEO of Forefront, the only regional association that represents grantmakers, nonprofits, advisors, and social entrepreneurs. With 1,100 members in Illinois, Forefront provides education, advocacy, and research, and mobilizes its members around issues that are important to the nonprofit sector.

Prior to his current role, Eric was the CEO of The Cara Program, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive training, job placement, and support services to individuals who are homeless and struggling in poverty. Eric was selected as a member of the Emerging Leaders Program for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and as a Chicago Community Trust Fellow. He was also appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to the Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Enterprise Task Force. He serves on the Advisory Board for the Social Enterprise Initiative at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and on the Board of Directors for the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Nell: Forefront is the only statewide association that has both nonprofit and funder members. How does Forefront deal with the power dynamic that is so often present between grantors and grantees?

Eric: Forefront talks explicitly about the power dynamic in much of our programming and classes, specifically our annual Grantmakers Institute for new program officers. We have candid conversations with these grantmakers and present actual case studies to give them a better understanding of their power and unique position. We also discuss how others perceive them and their roles, and how those perceptions can impact their effectiveness.

Forefront also has a non-solicitation policy that prevents nonprofits and grantmakers from discussing specific requests or proposals with each other when they gather at Forefront. The spirit of that policy also extends to how we bring grantmakers and nonprofits together. When nonprofits and grantmakers meet at Forefront, there is an explicit goal or purpose related to an issue in their fields or in the sector. While the power dynamic still exists, putting the focus on a larger purpose rather than on money helps our members build trust, leading to more genuine and balanced relationships. We also make sure that grantmakers and nonprofits co-chair some of our affinity groups to ensure balanced perspectives.

Nell: One of Forefront’s biggest initiatives is Real Talk about Real Costs, a series of funder and nonprofit convenings (the first in the nation) to talk about funding the full costs of nonprofit organizations. What have you learned through this series both about how to encourage more effective conversations between nonprofits and funders and about how to better support strong nonprofit organizations?

Eric: In the conversation on Real Costs we’ve learned that it’s not about creating another resource or a toolkit. Its not about what grantmakers or nonprofits should or should not do. Rather, it’s about starting an honest conversation. There are so many grantmakers and nonprofits that haven’t had the opportunity to dig in and engage with this work, either independently or with feedback from their counterparts. Our value-add is to catalyze these conversations. Forefront’s role is to create the space for honest dialogue, mobilize our members around this issue, promote best practices, and curate and share the newest research. It’s a slow and gradual process, but it ultimately leads to change in awareness, understanding and behavior.

Nell: How far do you think the national social sector has come in terms of more effectively supporting strong nonprofits and building more transparent and effective funder/nonprofit relationships?

Eric: We’ve certainly made some progress in the last 15 years, but we have a long way to go. It’s encouraging to see more funders express interest in general operating support and capacity building. However, too often, funders’ still feel the need to be in control and prescribe certain solutions rather than engage communities for their feedback and ideas.

Likewise, nonprofits have become more transparent, but they are still too reluctant to admit to challenges or failures because of possible consequences to their funding. Funders could model this practice for the nonprofits much more than they currently do. Funder transparency is only in its infancy.

Nell: Your national counterpart, Independent Sector — a national membership association of nonprofits and funders — had a recent change in leadership with Dan Cardinali taking the helm. What would you like to see Independent Sector doing to move this work forward on the national stage?

Eric: Dan is terrific – smart, experienced, strategic and passionate. He will do a great job. Under his leadership, Independent Sector (IS) has a real opportunity to be the connective tissue for our sector and elevate the good work that is happening around the country. I would encourage Dan to focus on a few of the critical issues facing our sector, both internal and external. Whether it be real costs, transparency, the power dynamic, or policy and advocacy, IS can highlight and amplify where real progress is being achieved and help to transport those examples to other locations. Once new practices take hold in certain geographic locations, other regions will follow suit. Organizations are eager for strong leadership that informs, inspires and mobilizes them to action.

Photo Credit: Forefront

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The Right Questions to Ask A Potential Board Member

Recently, fundraising maven Kay Sprinkel Grace wrote a post on the GuideStar blog outlining four questions to ask prospective board members when interviewing them for board positions. While I heartily agree with her that nonprofit leaders should institute and follow a rigorous due diligence process in recruiting new board members (rather than just shoving anyone into an empty board seat), I disagree with most of the interview questions she proposes.

In my mind, Sprinkel Grace’s questions for prospective board members focus too much on what’s in it for the potential board member, rather than what value the board member could bring the nonprofit. And in this way, nonprofit leaders are again encouraged to present themselves on bended knee to those from whom they need support or help. I would much rather see nonprofit leaders interview board candidates by confidently asserting the value that their nonprofit creates and determining whether potential board members have something of value that could further that work.

Sprinkel Grace’s first question for prospective board members — “How passionate are you about our cause?”– is absolutely right and helpful in determining whether a prospective member has the requisite amount of interest in the cause they might be helping to lead. But her other three questions (“What personal aspirations of yours could be enhanced by serving on our board?”, “Of what importance to you is social interaction with other board members?,” and “How much time can you give us?”) all put the burden on the nonprofit leader to demonstrate the value a board position will bring to the prospective board member, rather than helping to discern whether the prospective board member will bring value to the nonprofit. For the most part, Sprinkel Grace’s questions are about what the nonprofit can do for the board member, not the other way around.

Instead nonprofit leaders should use questions like these to determine whether or not a prospective board member is a fit for the nonprofit:

In reading through our nonprofit’s strategic plan (or whatever background documents we gave you ahead of time) what things excite you?
This question provides an opportunity for you to judge 1) whether this board member demonstrates enough of an interest in the organization to have done their homework, and 2) whether your work elicits enough intellectual and/or emotional energy from them to fuel their future work on your behalf.

What specific skills, experience or networks do you think you could bring to the table in order to help us move forward on our goals? 
This question makes very clear that you expect something unique and specific from this prospective board member (just as you do with all of your board members), not just a warm body. But more importantly, this question helps you gauge how well this board member understands your work and your plans and how willing they are to get in the game. This question can also help to get the right board member really excited about how their unique contribution right from the start.

How do you think you might go about meeting our give/get requirement?
I know it’s controversial (and I’ve talked about it manymany times before), but I strongly believe that you have to connect every single board member to the financial engine of your nonprofit. If you have a specific give/get requirement for your board (and I hope you do!), then you want to know from the outset how this prospective board member feels about it, and how they might approach it.

If we are going to create strong, effective, sustainable nonprofit organizations, we have to stop begging board members to join. A great board is created when you recruit people who have the specific skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your mission and you effectively engage them to do the work.

If you want to learn more about creating an effective, engaged board, download the “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” book.

Photo Credit: Ethan

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