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
Today I am in Sacramento (it’s a busy travel month) speaking at the Nonprofit Resource Center’s 2015 Conference “Building a Mission Focused Community.” I am honored to share the stage with amazing nonprofit sector visionaries like Jan Masaoka from the California Association of Nonprofits and Blue Avocado, Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, and Robert Egger from LA Kitchen (and past Social Velocity interviewee and guest blogger).
My topic for today’s conference is “Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.” Amid growing competition, decreased funding sources, and more and increasingly complex social challenges, nonprofit leaders must reinvent themselves. They must unlock the charity shackles, embrace strategy and impact, use money as a tool, refuse to play nice, and demand real help. We need a new kind of nonprofit leader.
Below is a Slideshare synopsis of my talk today, and it joins the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations.
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Ann Goggins Gregory, Chief Operating Officer at Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco where she oversees programs, the social enterprise called the ReStore, HR and Operations.
Previously, Ann was a Senior Director at the Bridgespan Group, where she led the organization’s work on organizational learning; managed consulting engagements with human services, education, and youth-serving nonprofits; and spearheaded research efforts on a variety of nonprofit management topics. She remains a Senior Advisor to Bridgespan on issues related to the starvation cycle.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You and your colleague Don Howard are in some ways the catalysts behind the Overhead Myth campaign because of your seminal article, The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in 2009. How far have we come since that article? How prevalent is the starvation cycle today and what can we do to move beyond it?
Ann: “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” names what I consider to be a fundamental truth: “Organizations that build robust infrastructure…are more likely to succeed than those that do not. This is not news, and nonprofits are no exception to the rule.” For decades, researchers and practitioners have argued that low overhead does not equate with efficiency and efficiency, in turn, does not equate with effectiveness.
We are seeing (productive) focus and movement now versus five or ten years ago, yet that starvation cycle is still an entrenched issue. On a positive note, the Overhead Myth campaign has been critical in communicating with donors directly and empowering nonprofits to communicate with “back up.” Though I have mixed feelings about some of the messages in Dan Pallotta’s video, it elevated paradoxes of how costs are treated in the social sector. We’ve also seen targeted efforts to help funders and nonprofits address cost-related issues together. Even the federal government is trying to shift practice: the Office of Management and Budget issued guidance requiring that nonprofits receiving federal funding receive a minimum of 10% indirect rate, or they can negotiate a rate. If this guidance is followed, it will be a major policy win.
Yet we have a long way to go. Talking about terminology isn’t scintillating, but it’s critical to breaking the starvation cycle. Overhead costs aren’t the same as indirect, yet we conflate them. General operating support and capacity building—often seen as ways to help break the cycle—aren’t the same thing. Many nonprofits do not know the full costs associated with their programs, and many funders don’t understand nonprofit finance. Bridging the skill gap on both sides of the equation is critical.
Moreover, a single figure like the overhead rate is appealing because it makes comparison easy. Until nonprofits have better ways to communicate outcomes, we will continue to battle against the simplicity of a ratio. Finally, power dynamics between funders and nonprofits inhibit change; candidly, there aren’t strong forces pushing on philanthropy and government to change their practice. In the absence of such change, nonprofits are understandably worried about shifting their stance on overhead if their competitors do not (I do think there are steps that any nonprofit can take, though).
Nell: Part of what keeps the starvation cycle alive is that it is being fed, as you so clearly point out in your SSIR article, by both funders and nonprofit leaders. One of the things you were working on at Bridgespan was the Real Talk About Real Costs series of nonprofit leader and funder conversations. How effective was it to bring nonprofits and funders together to talk about these issues? And is that potential solution to the starvation cycle scalable?
Ann: Real Talk about Real Costs, sponsored by the Donors Forum with Bridgespan as a partner, brought together 300 leaders from nonprofits and philanthropy to wrestle with what good outcomes really cost. The event built upon a nine-month Community of Practice focused on “tackling the overhead challenge.” This interview has more about how Donors Forum decided to put the cost issue front and center. Another such effort is slated to begin in California in 2015.
In watching funder-nonprofit “mixed company” interactions, I was struck by how many funders expressed dissatisfaction with the grant-making status quo, yet frustrated that foundation trustees did not feel the same way. And I noticed how uncomfortable both funders and nonprofits were about having a tough conversation about full costs. At the event, we gave participants a role-reversal case study where a fictitious grantee and grant-maker had to discuss the terms of a grant; nonprofit attendees acted the part of the program officer and vice versa. In feedback surveys, the majority of comments focused on the discomfort and lack of knowledge they felt in talking about costs. Finding more ways for nonprofits and funders to wrestle with cost issues together would go a long way to building empathy and skills.
I don’t see a single scalable solution, but what feels most scalable as a starting point is a fundamentally different approach to communicating about costs: on websites, in collateral, and in conversations between nonprofit and funder. I believe that most funders can still make restricted grants without making unrealistic demands about how the funds are spent. For instance, what if funders asked “what type of capacity will you need to deliver on this grant?” vs. “what is the overhead for this project?” What if funders moved away from prescribed budget templates that don’t align with how nonprofits think about their resources? Even these seemingly small steps would go a long way to empowering nonprofits to communicate differently. Below I share a few specific ways I think nonprofits can help break the cycle.
Nell: The starvation cycle is just one example of the many ways we hold the nonprofit sector to a higher standard than we do the for-profit sector (costs for R&D, marketing, infrastructure, technology are taken as a given in the business world). Why does that discrepancy exist and how do we overcome it?
Ann: Overhead in the for-profit world—sales, general and administrative costs as a percentage of total sales—is 25% across all industries and 34% for service industries. The cruel irony of holding nonprofits to a much tougher standard is that donors often say that they do this because nonprofits ought to “run more efficiently, like a business.” Most people don’t know the overhead of businesses because profitability matters more.
Unlike businesses, nonprofits can’t report results in a single figure that makes apples-to-apples comparisons easy. One way to overcome this challenge is to move toward highlighting outcomes. I don’t mean standardizing outcomes (although efforts like Perform Well are very powerful), and I don’t mean doing away with financial indicators entirely. I mean moving from touting our overhead to sharing our program results. In an ideal world, nonprofits would be able to share not only their outcomes but also the costs associated with producing them.
I know this doesn’t happen overnight. Starting immediately, I would love to see more funders speak out in support of—and actually fund—these investments. And nonprofits have a role to play in shifting the conversation: by sharing for-profit overhead as a way to challenge assumptions; by taking down the overhead pie chart and other “we’re lean!” messaging from websites; and using systems like the Guidestar Exchange to share our goals and strategies in our own words.
Nell: You recently left the consulting/thought leader side of the sector (as a senior director at The Bridgespan Group) to work in the nonprofit trenches as COO of Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco. What are you learning as you work to turn theory about overcoming the starvation cycle into action inside a nonprofit organization?
Ann: I am learning that it is doable and reminded that it is hard. In the last few months, we have taken down the efficiency statement on our website (“87 cents of every dollar goes to helping families…”) and will soon to replace it with statements of outcomes we see for Habitat homeowners. We walked away from a $100K+ funding opportunity because the grant would have allowed a maximum of 10% for indirect costs, and we estimated that the compliance costs alone would have been 2-3 times that. The grant’s focus aligned well with a nascent program, so it was a tough decision.
Under our finance team’s leadership, we also implemented a time tracking system. We now have better information on how people spend their time and can compare actual versus what was allocated in the budget. We learned, for instance, that in the last quarter we spent more time on G&A than we’d projected. This makes sense: this summer a small team of board and staff, including myself, negotiated a lease for a new office space, then transitioned to managing the move out- and move-in process. I don’t think anyone would say that was a waste of time; finding a space that met our budget in the San Francisco real estate market has been a challenging but important task.
Next on the list is an internal conversation about Charity Navigator and the way we promote our four-star rating on our website. It will be a healthy debate. On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on accountability and transparency, and I’d be naïve if I thought we hadn’t received donations from donors who use these ratings. On the other hand, I have deep reservations about Charity Navigator’s financial health methodology, particularly in that it penalizes nonprofits with higher overhead regardless of context. If we invest to support our growth—spending time finding a new office in a tough market, or upgrading our HR systems to find and retrain the best staff—we ought not to feel embarrassed about that, nor be penalized for it.
I am fortunate to work with a board and staff who are open to these changes and debates. My hope is that our experiences can serve to keep my perspective about the starvation cycle grounded and productive.
Photo Credit: Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco
A couple of board members approached her to ask what she needed to continue to move forward. They wanted her to be blunt about the obstacles in her way. She was equally honest, telling them she could really benefit from leadership coaching on how to manage a staff, grow an organization, continue to develop the board, build financial sustainability. The board didn’t bat an eye. They told her to figure out how much it would cost so they could foot the bill.
How amazing is that?
A group of board members not only recognized that their executive director might have challenges that she wasn’t expressing, but also listened to those challenges and invested in their solutions. What a dream scenario!
How great would it be if more board members, and even some donors, did that?
There is some hope. A small subset of funders are recognizing and investing in the tremendous need for leadership development in the nonprofit sector.
But a nonprofit leader who is really struggling doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for her board (or donors) to wise up and ask her about the challenges she is facing. So in lieu of a truly enlightened board of directors, here is what you can do to encourage your board (and close donors) to become capacity builders:
Identify a Few Allies
As executive director you probably have at least one or two board members, and perhaps a couple of donors, who are very supportive of what you do. They strongly believe in the work of your organization and your ability to effectively lead that work. Meet with them one-on-one to discuss the challenges you are facing – not in order to vent your frustrations, but rather to explore proactive solutions.
Describe the Capacity Challenges
Really analyze what is holding you and your organization back. Where do you struggle? Why are you hitting your head against the wall? Describe in an honest (but not whining) way the capacity constraints (lack of adequate staff, effective technology, long-term planning, verified program results) and how those issues keep you from delivering more social change.
Quantify the Capacity Building Solutions
Figure out what it would take to clear those hurdles. How much would a Development Director cost? Or an evaluation program? Or a strategic plan? Then break those costs into investable amounts. A single board member or donor may not be able to fully fund a $50,000 evaluation program or a $75,000 Development Director. But if 3-5 board members made their own investments and then identified a couple of other people who could also invest, you would quickly get there. Show your allies how achievable, with their (capacity capital) support, the solution is.
Create Champions in the Cause
But don’t let them off the hook when they write that check. Enlist their help in convincing others inside and outside the organization why you need to invest in capacity building. Have them articulate to others how important this next step is and the potential return on investment to the organization, and the social change you all seek. Create an army of champions who will advocate for your capacity building cause.
The challenges you face as a nonprofit leader are very real. But they won’t get any better unless you become proactive. Find partners among your board and donors to help you remove those obstacles standing in your way.
If you want to learn more about the leadership coaching I provide nonprofit leaders, click here, and if you want to learn more about raising capacity capital, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign guide.
Photo Credit: Paul Keheler
In today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Kathleen Enright, founding president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). GEO is a diverse community of more than 450 grantmakers working to reshape the way philanthropy operates and advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to grow stronger and achieve better results.
Prior to GEO, Kathleen was at BoardSource, where she was responsible for building public awareness of the importance of strong nonprofit boards. Prior to joining BoardSource, Kathleen was a project manager for the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation where she directed a Ford Foundation funded project to encourage collaboration between nonprofits and local governments.
Kathleen speaks and writes regularly on issues of nonprofit and grantmaker effectiveness at national and regional gatherings of executives and trustees and in various publications including Investing in Leadership: Inspiration and Ideas from Philanthropy’s Latest Frontier and Funding Effectiveness: Lessons in Building Nonprofit Capacity. She is also a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: GEO has been around for 15 years working to “advance smarter grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to achieve better results.” In that time, has the work gotten harder or easier? Is the foundation community more effectively contributing to nonprofit results?
Kathleen: We have some new data on that exact question. GEO’s fourth national study of staffed grantmaking organizations is due out next month. The headline is that while the field is moving in the right direction on many fronts, we still have a long way to go.
We appear to have reached a “tipping point” on a few issues. At long last, the majority of staffed foundations in the US report seeking and using grantee feedback to inform their work. As good practices like this one become more common — even expected — it’ll become harder and harder for holdouts to justify the status quo. Similarly, on general operating support — one practice that has stubbornly held steady for years — we’re finally seeing movement in the right direction.
The reality is that there’s a lot of work still to be done. In our last survey we learned that during the economic downturn — when nonprofits needed flexible, reliable, long-term dollars the most — many foundations backpedaled on things like funding multiyear grants. That the new survey shows we’re back to pre-recession levels is a positive step, but we have a long way to go until we’re able to flip the default setting in philanthropy. Achieving this goal means making it so that multi-year, general operating support is the assumption and program officers and grantees need to make a specific case for why a program-restricted or short-term grant makes sense.
Nell: According to the most recent State of the Sector Survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, 41% of nonprofit leaders cite long-term financial stability as a top challenge, yet only 9% of them feel they can have an open conversation with funders about operating reserves. How do we bridge that gap and make it easier for nonprofit leaders and funders to talk openly about and invest effectively in financial stability? Do you think foundations’ appetites for capacity investments are growing, or waning, and how do we make capacity investing more appealing to funders?
Kathleen: Our field study will expand on this point as well, but the perception gap is huge. Funders declare themselves willing to talk about financial health, but grantees still don’t feel safe to do so. My takeaway here is that foundations need to do much more to signal to grantees that they are open to having such a discussion. Closing this perception gap won’t happen in one go. We need to find ways to normalize these conversations, including the questions or fears a grantee might have. We need to be conscious that sometimes our funding practices act as nonverbal cues that close down conversations about financial stability. It’s hard to believe a funder is earnest about discussing financial health if they aren’t already doing the basics, like offering flexible, long-term support. Ensuring that nonprofits feel empowered to have these conversations will only happen through word and deed.
It really comes down to a fundamental shift in how many funders think about nonprofits. When a funder thinks about grantees as merely suppliers who offer what amounts to an appealing product that leads to a bit of tunnel vision. However, when grantees are seen as crucial actors in efforts to create lasting change on the complex social challenges a funder cares about, they are much more likely to take a broader, long-term perspective.
In terms of the appetite for capacity investments, we held a series of “listening sessions” with nonprofit leaders last year to learn more about their experiences with capacity-building. Most staffed foundations in the US do provide some sort of capacity building support, so some of what we wanted to uncover is how to make the most of those investments. Based on those sessions and 15 years of experience on this question, we believe that by taking an approach that is contextual (tailored to the unique needs of the grantee), continuous (taking the long view), and collective (considering how the parts add up), grantmakers will be well positioned to provide capacity building support in ways that effectively support nonprofits to achieve lasting impact.
Nell: In recent years there have been studies and efforts aimed at getting more donors to channel donations to nonprofits that can prove results. How optimistic are you that we can change donor, particularly foundation, behavior toward funding based on results? And what will it take to get there?
Kathleen: It’s reasonable for foundations to want to make sure their funding leads to impact. And with technology making data collection easier, it’s natural that there’s a lot of buzz in the field about evidence and results. But it’s complicated terrain.
Not only do we lack a shared agreement on what proof or evidence means, most grantmakers and their nonprofit partners are focused on complex social problems with no easy answers. There was an excellent article in Forbes on the limitations of what the authors call “moneyball philanthropy,” where too great on an emphasis is placed on a clear or measurable cause and effect between the work and the impact. The bottom line is that if foundations only fund those things with “proven” results, they’ll miss opportunities to support important work on systems that has the potential to be game-changing.
Job number one in our view is to understand what’s working, what’s not and how we can continuously learn and improve. It often means taking risks and understanding what went wrong. The reality is that many nonprofits are ill-equipped to build the appropriate information infrastructure or conduct evaluations because they haven’t received the financial support to enable them to build that capacity.
So before we move too far in the direction of funding only based on results, grantmakers must consider how we can help grantees build their sophistication around evaluation. It’s a first step — and an incredibly powerful one — to help nonprofits grow their impact. This may mean providing flexible funding or tailored funding to support the development of evaluation plans, staff training or paying for third party evaluators. GEO members like the Bruner Foundation, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and Mile High United Way have worked diligently over many years to strengthen nonprofit capacity for evaluation. Their work suggests that such investments often have much farther-reaching positive effects on the organizations they support. We produced a short video on the Hartford Foundation’s work to build grantee evaluation capacity (which actually draws from the Bruner Foundation’s impressive body of work) that you can find here.
Nell: Foundation money only accounts for about 2% of all the money flowing to the nonprofit sector, which is a fairly small piece of the funding pie. Is there a role, and if so what is it, for foundation leaders to lead other larger sources of funding in the sector (government, individual) toward more effective giving?
Kathleen: Institutional philanthropy has incredible insights and wisdom that could be enormously helpful to help steer other dollars intended for the public good. One of our newest board members, Peter Long, President and CEO of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, is an advocate for creating more “open source philanthropy”. His idea is that, as a field, we’ll be able to make faster progress if we’re generous with our thinking. What if every funder interested in improving health outcomes could benefit from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s wealth of knowledge? This is especially important for newcomers, as building this open knowledge base both gives them a place to start from as well as gives them an opportunity to build our collective knowledge. Being “experts” in philanthropy is a role that foundations can — and should! — embrace.
Another way foundations can show leadership is by pooling resources to address complex issues. The Washington Families Fund is an example of just how powerful it is when foundations come together and work with public entities. As a public-private partnership, the Fund is capitalizing on the resources of foundations — including GEO members like the Campion Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medina Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, and Seattle Foundation — coupled with the on-the-ground capacity of government entities like the Washington State Department of Commerce to reduce homelessness in their region by 50 percent by 2020. Examples like these demonstrate just how powerful public-private partnerships can be.
Photo Credit: GEO
My hope in creating the growing library of Social Velocity videos is that nonprofit leaders will use the topics as a jumping off point for honest discussions with boards and donors. It can often be intimidating for a nonprofit leader to raise a controversial question like:
- “Should all board members be required to fundraise?”
- “Should we stop worrying about program vs. overhead expenses?”
- “How do we get our board more engaged?“
A nonprofit leader could set aside 30 minutes in a board meeting agenda for a discussion kicked off by a 2-minute video. Play a video, and then simply ask “What do you think?” Or you could show a video to a donor when you meet and ask for their opinion.
Some will disagree vehemently with what I have to say, but others might agree, or at least be open to thinking in new ways. An interesting, thought-provoking conversation might ensue. From that discussion you might start to plant seeds for change.
So to add to the library of conversation starters, today I offer this video on What Nonprofits Really Need From Their Donors. And if you want to see other videos in the series go to the Social Velocity YouTube channel. Good luck!
Something pretty exciting is going on. Perhaps I’m an eternal optimist, or I’m suffering from confirmation bias, but it seems to me that more funders are starting to talk about investing in the capacity of nonprofits, particularly around nonprofit leadership development.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review kicked off a new blog series this month focused on the topic. Over the next three months, six foundation leaders will blog about why they have made investments in the leadership development of their nonprofit grantees and what the return on investment has been.
This is phenomenal because the more we talk about and demonstrate the return on investment of nonprofit leadership development, and really of any capacity investments, the more likely we will be to see other funders follow suit.
As Ira Hirschfield, president of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, points out in the inaugural post in the new SSIR series, less than 1 percent of overall foundation giving went to leadership development between 1992 and 2011, while the private sector allocates billions of dollars to it.
Why are we not investing in our nonprofit leaders? If we truly want to create change to some of our most pressing social issues don’t we need the strongest, most effective leaders possible?
As Hirschfield puts it so well:
Foundations ask a great deal of the organizations we support…in short, we hope grantees will deliver transformational results for the people and places they serve. So it’s striking how seldom we back that up with funds to help organizations develop and strengthen the ability of their leaders to meet those high expectations. People are not born with everything it takes to manage and motivate a team, build coalitions, and lead change…Leaders who have the opportunity to reflect on their strategies and hone their skills make better choices, develop innovative solutions and forge stronger collaborations. This is what leadership development is about—and to the extent that foundations decide it is important and fund it, then we and our grantees will be better positioned to achieve our goals for impact.
In other words, foundation funding will go further if funders also invest in the leaders of those organizations they fund.
It seems like a no-brainer. And it is a no-brainer in the for-profit world. But as we so often do in the nonprofit sector, we are selling the sector, and its leaders short.
But it is not enough (nor are we anywhere near it anyway) for funders to understand the need for investing in nonprofit leaders. Nonprofit leaders themselves need to stop apologizing and start demanding (in a nice way!) investment in their own capacity. And leadership development is only one of the many areas in which nonprofits need capacity investment. Nonprofits also require fundraising expertise and staffing, program evaluation, technology and systems, and the list goes on.
So if we are to have any hope of moving this topic beyond the blogroll, nonprofit leaders and funders need to start having better conversations about what it will really take to accomplish their joint impact goals. Because if, at the end of the day, we are all looking to achieve more impact, then capacity to deliver on that impact must be part of the conversation.
If you want to learn more about capacity investments from both the nonprofit and funder sides, download the Power of Capacity Capital book, and if you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Photo Credit: Clinton and Charles Robertson
In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Rick Moyers, vice president for programs and communications at the Meyer Foundation in Washington DC – a regional grantmaker that is nationally recognized for its capacity-building programs. Rick is a co-author of the Daring to Lead 2006 and Daring to Lead 2011 national studies of nonprofit executive directors, and has written and spoken extensively on executive and board leadership. He currently serves on the boards of BoardSource, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, and the Community Connections Fund of the World Bank Group.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You write a lot about nonprofit boards of directors. As a general rule, because they are volunteers, nonprofit boards tend to be pretty ineffective and disengaged from truly leading their organizations. Can the current structure of nonprofit leadership be made more effective? Or is there a better structure, and if so, how would we undertake such a fundamental shift in the sector?
Rick: We can’t give up on boards just because many boards are ineffective, any more than we can give up on public schools just because so many are struggling. And the fact that board members are volunteers doesn’t necessarily account for their disengagement—some of the most passionate and productive contributors to the nonprofit sector are volunteers.
But just because I’m not ready to give up doesn’t mean we can just keep doing the things we’ve been doing to improve boards, hoping our efforts will produce better results, and wringing our hands when they don’t. We’ve heaped so many expectations and roles onto the backs of boards that I’m not sure it’s possible for any board to fulfill all of them all the time. A good place to start improving things would be to become much more focused and pragmatic about what we expect from boards. A clear set of expectations – one that’s not simply a laundry list of everything we wish boards would do – would be a start. Along with the recognition that organizations need different things from their boards depending on their circumstances.
We need to recruit board members with at least as much thought and effort as we put into recruiting employees, if not even more given that board service is a multi-year and often multi-term commitment. I know board members who have been invited to join the boards of organizations with which they were completely unfamiliar after a 15-minute conversation with the chair of the nominating committee—or a casual lunch with the executive director. And then we wonder why they have a hard time engaging. If we recruited board members as if the job mattered and their selection was an important decision, perhaps they would start taking the job more seriously. We can’t give up on boards without doing a better job of trying to help them function better.
At the same time, there would be enormous value in trying out alternative structures and talking openly about whether they worked any better than the current model. My hunch is that alternatives are being tried out quietly, but we don’t talk about them much. I’d be interested in learning more about very small boards (four or five carefully chosen people), the impact of compensation on board member performance, boards with greater staff representation, and boards that are more democratic and representative of the constituencies and communities being served. I’m not confident in suggesting any of these as an alternative to current practice because I don’t think we know enough. But we don’t know enough because most organizations don’t believe they have permission to experiment (and maybe they don’t). There’s enormous pressure for “normative” behavior in governance, even though we know that normative behavior often produces mediocre results.
I don’t have a good answer for how we break this cycle, but I think we need a “learning lab” for governance practices. We need to be bolder in our experiments, and more open in sharing the results, even when they are unsuccessful.
Nell: The Daring to Lead studies that you co-authored with CompassPoint demonstrate a deep leadership crisis in the nonprofit sector – nonprofit leaders are burned out, planning to leave, and lack support for leadership development. Is more money for leadership development the answer, and if so, how do we get funders to understand the need and fund it?
Rick: More money is the answer, but not necessarily more money for leadership development. My take-away from this body of work is that chronic under-capitalization is at the root of executive director burnout and dissatisfaction. The problem is not just that organizations don’t have enough money for leadership development. They don’t have enough money for anything.
While I applaud funders that invest in leadership development—and the Meyer Foundation is among them—there’s also a danger that funder-driven leadership development programs become simply another demand on already overextended executive directors. Funders need to recognize the importance of leadership development, but also need a keen understanding of the financial and organizational constraints that have a profound impact on executive directors who may already be accomplished leaders. One of the lessons from my foundation’s experience is that large grants for leadership development can be hard to use when executives are facing so many other challenges and distractions, many of which are related to finances and fundraising.
Nell: Why is leadership development taken as a given in the for-profit sector, but taboo in the nonprofit sector? Why do we assume that nonprofit leaders should be able to go it alone? And how do we change that attitude?
Rick: In the for-profit sector, there are more vehicles for ensuring adequate capitalization and leaders have greater discretion over how they can use that capital, with the mandate of producing the greatest return for owners, investors, and shareholders. That said, it’s very telling that so many large companies spend freely on leadership development without questioning the return on investment, while nonprofit leaders are conditioned to question every penny spent on anything other than program delivery. Boards can be especially shortsighted in this regard, under-investing in current executive directors without considering the costs—in money, organizational reputation, and lost momentum—of an untimely transition. We need more evidence, both anecdotal and quantitative, of the ROI for leadership development in the nonprofit sector. Producing that evidence and telling that story will require resources, but I’m concerned that without that investment we’ll never be able to make a convincing case to boards and funders that are increasingly focused on evidence-based approaches.
Nell: Do you think as Millennials age into leadership positions in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors they will fundamentally change nonprofit leadership? And if so, how?
Rick: While not wanting to sound cranky, I object on principle to making generalizations about a group of 80 million people as if they were a single thing. And as a member of Generation X, I also must point out that we’re the ones who are currently aging into leadership positions. What about us, damn it?
Crankiness aside, as someone who works with younger leaders every day, I have noticed some differences that hold promise for the future. Many in the rising generation are much more socially aware, passionate about social change, and optimistic that they can make a difference than I was at their age. They are choosing careers in the nonprofit sector with more thought and intention than previous generations. The dramatic increase in the number of academic centers and degree programs focused on the nonprofit sector and philanthropy over the past 20 years is producing accomplished young leaders with broad skill sets and considerable insight into nonprofit work.
I do notice a more conscious commitment to work-life balance, and more intentionality around achieving it, which I hope will help reduce burnout and abrupt departures of nonprofit executives. Just within the last six months, I’ve watched three younger executive directors transition out of their jobs because they were seeking greater work-life balance. The difference from what I’ve seen in the past is that these executives decided to leave after successful tenures of more than five years, and after working intentionally to develop a strong board and staff leadership team that could handle the transition. These leaders stepped down before they burned out, and handed off strong organizations that were prepared for the change. That’s very encouraging, and I hope it’s a trend.
A committed and talented cadre of younger leaders is already in the nonprofit leadership pipeline – not by accident, but because they want to be here. Daring to Lead and many other studies have highlighted the challenges inherent in being an executive director, so these younger leaders know what the role entails. And they still want to do it. I think that bodes well for the future, and I’m optimistic.
Photo Credit: Meyer Foundation