Every once in awhile David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, gets it really right. His piece earlier this month, The Moral Bucket List, is a sharp departure from his usual political and social commentary. He went (shockingly) a bit spiritual. And the result is profound.
Brooks describes a type of enlightened person who has made a conscious choice to shun the materialistic rat race which often defines our country. This person has chosen to make a significant contribution to the world beyond them. As he puts it: “People on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”
As Brooks describes it, instead of being self-promotional, these people are humble; instead of hiding their weaknesses, they embrace them; instead of following individual will they recognize their dependence on others in the journey; instead of living a life of self-centeredness, they find a deep passion and love that takes them outside themselves; instead of pursuing a career that brings them money and prestige, they find their calling to contribute to the larger world.
Brooks’ piece is reminiscent of Steven Pressfield’s seminal book from 2002, The War of Art in which he argues that every single person was put on earth to contribute in a specific and significant way, but only those who can overcome Resistance and put in the effort will find that unique calling.
As Pressfield puts it:
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be…Resistance prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius…A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.
Although Pressfield’s book is focused on artists, it is really about all of us. He believes (and I concur) that every single one of us has something unique and very important to contribute to the larger world. It could be a work of literature, a portfolio of photographs, a game-changing idea. The human race does not possess just a handful of geniuses, people like Hemingway and Georgia O’Keefe, rather every human possesses genius within him. Sometimes that genius is artistic, sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s entrepreneurial, or it may be something completely different. It is up to each of us to figure out what our genius is and put in the tireless effort (Hemingway forced himself to write every single day) to unearth and disseminate our genius.
Brooks would seem to agree. He describes a similar force to Resistance, and he sees the enlightened person as having the desire and ability to fight Resistance in order to find something better:
Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were. The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.
For both Brooks and Pressfield, the real work is to fight against mediocrity — career success, money, status, and other self-centered, meaningless pursuits that take you away from your greater calling. The real goal is to figure out why you beat all the odds to end up here and to discover what you are meant to contribute to the greater good — a painting, a novel, or perhaps a solution to a social problem.
When it seems the world is falling in around us, that the social problems we face only continue to mount, that greed, self-interest, and corruption surround us, we must remember that we all have choices. We can choose to wake up from the meaningless slumber and find our true genius. We can choose to create something much bigger than ourselves. And in so doing we may just find for ourselves (and show others) a better way to live.
Photo Credit: Ryan Schultz
As I mentioned last month, the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am a member) recently released the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit. Because I think the Performance Imperative is so important and every nonprofit leader should understand it and begin to use it, today I am kicking off a series to describe, one-by-one, each of the seven pillars of the Performance Imperative.
I think the Performance Imperative is so exciting because it can serve as a north star to the nonprofit sector, helping organizations analyze their own performance and create a clear roadmap for improvement.
As Lowell Weiss, one of the leading architects of the Performance Imperative, explained in my interview with him last month:
High performance is all too rare in our sector today. In fact, we don’t even have a commonly accepted definition of the term “high performance.” The Performance Imperative is our attempt to create that common definition and then start the process of creating guideposts to help nonprofits who are motivated to improve their performance for the clients and causes they serve.
So, first up in this series on the Performance Imperative is Pillar #1: Courageous, Adaptive Executive and Board Leadership.
Without true leadership, at both the board and staff level, you will achieve little as a nonprofit. This pillar is about asking hard questions, pushing the organization toward excellence, continuously improving and taking nothing for granted.
You can read the full description of Pillar #1 in the Performance Imperative, but here are a few key elements present in nonprofits that exhibit this pillar:
- Boards “ask probing questions about whether the organization is living up to its promises and acknowledge when course correction is needed.”
- Executives and boards “know that great talent is a huge differentiator between organizations that are high performing and those that aren’t.”
- Executives and boards “know that they haven’t figured it all out and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do.”
- Executives and boards “are constantly assessing not only what the organization should be doing but also what it should stop doing…redirecting scarce resources to the highest opportunity areas.”
In other words, nonprofit leaders who embody Pillar 1 of the Performance Imperative, ask hard questions, build a stellar staff, seek continuous improvement, and put resources to their highest and best use.
There is no doubt that there are many examples of this courageous, adaptive leadership in the nonprofit sector. One of those, I believe, is Molly Baldwin, founder and CEO of Roca.
Molly founded Roca in 1988, and by 2004 it was a multi-million dollar teenage pregnancy and violence prevention program. But that year, Molly began asking some hard questions about the results Roca was achieving. She forced board and staff to take a huge step back and examine what they were doing and the ultimate effect that work had. She led her board and staff through a rigorous refocusing and pruning effort to limit their target populations and use data to drive their interventions. Instead of continuing a laundry list of services to many different populations that had limited effect, she helped her organization refocus resources on where they could create real change — transforming the lives of young men in the criminal justice system.
It was a challenging transition to lead, but the results are impressive. An internal study overseen by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2013 found that Roca reduced recidivism 65% and increased employment by 100% for the men in the program. And Roca was chosen as the lead provider in Masschusetts’ first pay for success effort.
Ten years ago Molly could have continued on Roca’s then current path, continuing to do “good work,” but failing to ask hard questions about whether that work was really resulting in change. But instead, Molly brought everything to a halt and forced board and staff to grapple with some fundamental and incredibly risky questions. In the end Molly’s leadership transformed Roca into an organization that is truly delivering solutions.
That’s the kind of social change leadership we need.
If you want to learn more, download the Performance Imperative and read additional case studies here.
Photo Credit: William B. T. Trego painting depicting George Washington’s army at Valley Forge.
I sometimes wonder how many of the nonprofit sector’s challenges stem from a fundamental lack of confidence. Don’t get me wrong, there are deep structural dysfunctions at play in the nonprofit sector. The sector is held back by a lack of adequate financial resources and an on-going grantor/grantee power imbalance, to name just two.
But how much is a lack of nonprofit leader confidence also to blame? How much further could we go in the sector if more nonprofit leaders confidently stood up for what they believe, what they need, and the value of the work they do.
I am a huge believer in confidence. In fact, I think that those who exude confidence, even when they don’t necessarily feel it, are far more likely than those who don’t to be taken seriously and get what they want.
But often in the nonprofit sector that confidence is absent.
I think this lack of confidence stems from a fundamental feeling of inadequacy that pervades the sector. Nonprofit leaders are subjected to a recurring litany of false beliefs that include, nonprofits: “live beside the economy“, “aren’t as capable as business“, only “do good work,” and “should be grateful” for whatever they get.
But nonprofit leaders must free themselves from those crippling shackles. You must stand up and demand (nicely if you’d like) what you truly need. And you start by articulating the value your organization provides.
Let me give you an example.
A nonprofit leader whose organization had long provided critical services for a school district was fed up with not being paid for those services (they had to privately fundraise for the costs of the program). The nonprofit leader did her research on how much money her organization was saving the district (in increased student attendance, additional staff and instruction time, etc.) and how much the district was investing in other inferior solutions.
She put together a confident, thoughtful and decisive presentation, secured a meeting with the superintendent, and made her case for increased investment. The end result was a superintendent blown away by the evidence and the nonprofit leader’s presentation. For the first time ever the superintendent included significant, multi-year support for the program in the district budget.
This nonprofit leader could have simply swallowed the fact that the school district didn’t value the services her organization provided. But instead she pointed out the disconnect between value provided and money invested and stood up for her organization.
I would guess that most nonprofit leaders lack that kind of confidence. And in fact, for many years even the nonprofit leader above didn’t have it.
But there is so much to be gained from a confident approach. Aside from the potential of securing more resources, when you become a confident player you start to identify strategic partners (like the school superintendent above) who can be your equal in the work of social change.
Because partnerships are infinitely more successful when they are forged by two equal entities coming together to create value. This is true for partnerships between your organization and your vendors (like the school district) but also your funders, board members, advocates, policymakers — anyone that you need on board in order to get the work done.
Confidence isn’t just about getting more of what your nonprofit needs. It’s ultimately about effectively creating social change. And you can’t create social change with your head down and your voice low.
So stop living in the shadows. Arm yourself with data, a compelling argument, an army of advocates and, most importantly, confidence to forge what you need in order to create change.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
As a general rule, nonprofit leaders are a self-less lot. You are so driven by your passion for social change that you are willing to perform any and all tasks required to get the job done. But there is a critical calculation that so many nonprofit leaders neglect. And that is to understand the value of their time and allocate that most precious resource effectively.
Yes, you read that correctly.
As the leader of your nonprofit your time is your organization’s most precious resource. Sure, board members, other staff members, and donors are absolutely critical to the work. But without you, there would be nothing. You are the visionary, the cheerleader, the linchpin around which everything (and everyone) revolves.
There are only so many productive hours in the day, so any hour you spend on one task is an hour you don’t spend on another task. You must put each hour of your working day to its highest and best use. As the most important connector for your nonprofit, you should be outside the organization as much as possible meeting with allies, funders, prospects, decision-makers, advocates who can help move your mission forward.
If you are stuck inside your organization updating a database, cutting checks, filing, or putting out fires, you are missing a huge opportunity.
So you need to use your time more effectively. Here’s how to start:
Create a Strategy
When a nonprofit creates and then manages to an overall strategy there is less time spent putting out fires and more time achieving outcomes and goals. So convince your board and staff to create a strategic plan and then manage to that plan. Move your organization’s culture from the reactive to the strategic and watch how you (and your staff and board) get more accomplished in the same amount of time.
Manage To Goals, Not Tasks
Once you have a strategy in place, you can manage your staff to goals, instead of discrete tasks. Whenever possible, delegate whole projects instead of specific pieces. Give a staff person the end goal you have in mind and the tools they need to get there and then empower them to do it their way. Check in on a regular basis to see how they are doing, but resist the temptation to micromanage. In so doing you get more off your plate while giving your staff license for creativity and initiative.
Regularly Meet One-on-One With Staff
I know I’ve said it before, but I’m a HUGE fan of the management power of weekly one-on-one meetings with each member of your staff. There are so many benefits. Your staff interrupts you less frequently because they know they have your undivided attention once a week, you are more willing to delegate because you know you have regular check-in points, staff learn how to problem solve on their own, and (most importantly) you have more time to GET OUTSIDE.
Find Administrative Help
As head of your nonprofit you must free yourself, as much as possible, from paper pushing tasks like filing, database maintenance, accounting. If you have the budget, hire an administrative assistant. If you don’t have the budget, recruit a volunteer to provide office support until you can grow your financial model to support administrative help. And while you are at it, outsource your accounting to a freelance bookkeeper or virtual CFO. Don’t put your administrative support at the end of the list of things your nonprofit needs. The sooner you free up your time, the better off your entire organization will be.
Nonprofit leaders, stop selling yourself and your organization short. Your time has tremendous value. So think clearly about how you allocate that limited resource and find solutions that put your time to its highest and best use. Free yourself to be the connector, fundraiser, and leader your nonprofit so desperately needs.
Photo Credit: National Archives
What a great month March was. Just as the weather started to turn to Spring (I hope it did where you are too), there was a whole host of great reading to digest. From analysis of the new breed of philanthropists, to controversy about contest grantmaking, to mission investing progress, to tips and guides on nonprofit finance, leadership and financial advocacy, there was lots to read.
Below are my picks of the 10 most interesting reads in the world of social change in March, but as always, please add to the list in the comments.
You can also see the 10 Great Reads lists from previous months here.
- Call me biased, but I think the biggest social change news in March was the launch of the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performance nonprofit, by the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am one). Many reviewed the new tool, including Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy who wrote that nonprofit performance is a “moral imperative.” And if you want to learn more, there is a webinar drilling down on the PI later this month.
- Who says online debate never results in change? There was a big discussion on the Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s site this month over the Council on Foundation’s plans to hold a “Shark Tank”-like contest for nonprofits. Many felt this contest would be a step backward, forcing nonprofits to perform for money, so the Council scrapped the contest and created instead a panel discussing the positives and negatives of contest-style grantmaking.
- F.B. Heron Foundation CEO, Clara Miller (formerly of the Nonprofit Finance Fund) is a true nonprofit finance visionary, and this month the Foundation passed the halfway mark on their goal of putting ALL of their capital toward mission. And writing in The Guardian, Tim Smedley would seem to agree with their goal when he makes the case for mission investing.
- Chris Gates (from the Sunlight Foundation) and Matt Leighninger (from the Deliberative Democracy Consortium) wrote a fascinating letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Philanthropy taking issue with Diana Aviv’s comments on recent Independent Sector research about technology and nonprofit institutions. Gates and Leighninger argue that there is great opportunity in technology if nonprofits embrace it effectively, as they put it, “It is true that the rise of the Internet is forcing institutions like governments, foundations, nonprofits, and professional associations to rethink how they operate. They have to adapt to the needs and goals of 21st-century citizens or perish. But ultimately, people want the same things they always have: to belong to a community, to have a voice, and to make an impact…if institutions can provide those things in this interconnected time, they will thrive.”
- American educators and education funders have focused in recent years on science and math to create a more effective and competitive American education. But Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post, thinks that’s a big mistake, “As we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.” Amen!
- The fourth installment of Tom Watson’s on-going series about the changing face of American philanthropy focuses on the class of new, entrepreneurial philanthropists, those young, tech wealthy donors who are pushing for data-based social change. And Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry takes it even further arguing that “effective altruism,” what he calls this data-centered approach to philanthropy, is only one potential method of investing in social change, not the only or best approach. As he puts it, “making the world a better place is an inherently speculative behavior — if we knew how to do it we’d have already done it. Therefore the most prudent collective thing to do is to try a very wide swath of different approaches rather than a single one.” And as one of these new philanthropists, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in Newark public schools continues to come under fire.
- The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy put out a fantastic report on the need for more philanthropic investment in nonprofit leadership development. This should be required reading for every philanthropic and nonprofit leader in the country.
- The National Council of Nonprofits developed a guide for nonprofit leaders to advocate for their funding rights, particularly around indirect rates, with government funders.
- And there were lots of great tips and tools this month for becoming an effective financial leader. The Nonprofit Finance Fund released a list of tips to help “keep business and finance an integral part of decision-making.” And Kate Barr offered 6 Takeaways from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund’s annual Nonprofit Finance and Sustainability Conference.
- Finally, Jocelyn Wyatt from IDEA.org argues that general funding for nonprofits is the “future of innovation”. Yes please!
Photo Credit: BibBornem
We talked about:
- How broken fundraising is
- A more effective financing approach
- Nonprofit fear of money
- The passion of nonprofit leaders
- The need to articulate a nonprofit’s message
- Capacity capital
- Social entrepreneurship
- Nonprofit boards
- And much, much more…
I really enjoyed the conversation and hope you will too.
You can listen to the podcast below, or click here to listen to it on the Panvisio site.
Photo Credit: Makingster
There are many things that hold the nonprofit sector back, not the least of which is a lack of money. But perhaps a bigger impediment is the scarcity thinking that may actually contribute to that lack of money.
Most nonprofit leaders, their staffs, board members, and even funders automatically think that resources will always be scarce. It is such a profound psychological impediment because if your assumption is constant deficiency, then you will never try for more.
But shifting this nonprofit mindset from never having enough (scarcity), to endless potential (abundance) could transform the sector.
Scarcity thinking is dangerous because it demonstrates a destructive fixed mindset. Carol Dweck’s pivotal 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, describes two ways that people view their abilities, a fixed and a growth mindset, and I think her approach holds great insight for the nonprofit sector.
A person with a fixed mindset believes “that your qualities are carved in stone,” whereas a person with a growth mindset believes “that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
Dweck describes the benefits of the growth mindset:
[In the growth mindset your] traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with…In [the growth] mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development…People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive in it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch…Sometimes people with the growth mindset stretch themselves so far that they do the impossible.
Isn’t that exactly what we need more of in the nonprofit sector, more seeing the hand you’re dealt as just a starting point, more doing of the impossible?
The growth mindset ultimately leads to “an ever-higher sense of achievement” and “a greater sense of free will.” Wouldn’t that improved sense of achievement and greater sense of free will be transformative to the nonprofit sector?
Nonprofit leaders can drive this shift by moving their organizations and supporters from a fixed to a growth mindset, in several areas:
- From Charity to Social Change
Instead of operating from the fixed charity mindset of “good work” that is tangential to and less valuable than the “business” of the world, move to a growth mindset that offers board members, funders, volunteers, advocates an opportunity to create meaningful, lasting social change.
- From Fundraising to Financing
Instead of focusing on a fixed ceiling of money you think you can raise, figure out what your nonprofit ultimately exists to accomplish and create a financial growth plan to realize that.
- From a Disengaged to a Productive Board
Instead of bemoaning an unproductive board, seize the opportunity to grow the skills, experience and networks you need on your board to accomplish your goals and build it.
- From a Burned-Out to an Energized Staff
Instead of only paying what you think you can afford for a skeleton staff, figure out what it would cost to hire enough and the best staff you need, then grow your financial model to reach that.
- From Constricting to Allied Funders
Instead of complaining about funders who make restrictive demands, enlist them as partners in the social change you seek, educate them about your true costs, invest them in your theory of change, and then work with them to build the resources you need to get there.
And the list goes on. The point is that there is tremendous opportunity in the simple act of shifting your thinking. By removing the shackles of a fixed mindset you can set your nonprofit, your board, your staff, your funders and ultimately your social change goals on a path toward what you once thought was impossible. That’s powerful.
Photo Credit: astridle
Building and keeping a highly effective nonprofit staff is really tricky. The recently released 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey from NonprofitHR found that 50% of nonprofits surveyed plan to add new positions in 2015, compared to 36% of private companies. But, staff recruitment and retention are still significant hurdles for nonprofit leaders, with 52% of nonprofits lacking a recruitment strategy and 27% reporting their greatest retention challenge is low wages.
So how can nonprofits grow their staffs when they are hampered by significant recruitment and retention challenges?
Here’s how I coach my clients to build a highly effective nonprofit team:
Recruit Outside Your Comfort Zone
The 2015 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey found that the top recruitment strategy for nonprofit leaders is to “use a network of friends and colleagues.” But that’s not a strategy. As with everything, nonprofit leaders must embrace the idea of a “networked nonprofit,” growing their connections to people and organizations outside their comfort zone. To find your next staff rockstar, be strategic about getting your job in front of new audiences and networks. Come up with a list of 50-100 people who might be connected to someone who fits the job’s qualifications. Think of strategic allies, leaders in the field, funders, volunteers. Send the job posting and ask them to direct great candidates to you. And in addition to posting the position on regular job sites, send it out through all of your social media channels and ask your board, partners, allies, funders, etc. to do the same. Cast your net far and wide in order to recruit the best and brightest.
As I said, one of the biggest challenges to retaining staff is low salaries. But the fact is that staff turnover is an enormous cost to an organization (recruitment, lost time, retraining) so convince your board that you should pay competitive salaries in order to save the organization money in the long run. Do salary research (at salary.com, or from nonprofit salary surveys in your region) and determine what a competitive wage for your position really is. Then convince your board to increase the budget to accomodate it. Move from the scarcity mindset to the abundance mindset, or if you just don’t have the funding right now, raise capacity capital to elevate your fundraising function so that you can recruit and retain top talent.
Hire The Right Person
Nonprofit leaders must go against the default, which is to hire someone with less experience than the position requires (since it’s cheaper). Instead hire someone who can take the position to the next level. Hire the person who has the demonstrated experience you need and is hungry to build that function in your nonprofit. But keep in mind that finding that person takes time. Many nonprofit leaders make quick hiring decisions because they are desperate to fill a position and end up suffering a poor fit later. Instead, create a detailed due diligence process which includes multiple rounds of interviews (quick screening phone calls, longer one-on-one interviews, interviews with their future staff colleagues, interviews with key board members), a written “homework assignment” to gauge their skills, and detailed reference checks. Be thoughtful and methodical in your process and spend the time it takes.
Once you have a great person in place, make sure you lead them effectively by using goals and strategy, not micromanagement. The best way to do this is to schedule a 30-60 minute, weekly, one-on-one meeting with each of your direct reports that focuses on your goals for their position. This allows you to give your staff ample leeway to shine, while monitoring their progress along the way. You will also have fewer interruptions during the rest of the week because your staff feels they get the attention and feedback they need in a regular, dedicated meeting. This creates an empowered staff, a confident leader, and a productive organization.
Like anything else, doing something well takes strategy and the will to effectively implement it. You can recruit and retain a phenomenal nonprofit staff, but you must be thoughtful about it.
If you want to learn more about the coaching I provide nonprofit leaders — on staffing, board development, fundraising, strategy and more — check out my Coaching page.
Photo Credit: Maurice Bramley