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leadership coaching

Nonprofit Leaders, You Are Not Alone

nonprofit leaderOne of my favorite parts of my job is the time I spend working one-on-one to coach nonprofit leaders. One of my clients jokingly refers to our coaching sessions as “nonprofit therapy.”

While we certainly don’t delve into psychology when we meet, it is, I think often cathartic for nonprofit leaders to have an impartial third party who can listen to their frustrations with a disengaged board, understand the loneliness of leadership, appreciate their dismay with funders who are pulling them in too many directions, empathize with their fear that fundraising goals won’t be met.

We all — every single one of us — need someone in our lives who understands the challenges we are facing and can offer some guidance, new ideas, insights that can move us from a rut to a more productive path.

When I start a coaching session with a nonprofit leader, I often ask some key questions to get us moving forward:

What is the biggest thing bothering you right now?
Sometimes nonprofit leaders are so stuck in the weeds, so overwhelmed, so exhausted, or so alone that they cannot pinpoint one issue, let alone figure out a way forward. So I start by encouraging them to just unpack everything. This will often result in a venting session, and that’s completely fine. Letting off steam is absolutely crucial. And nonprofit leaders have very few confidants with whom they can share those struggles. Since a nonprofit leader always needs to put on a brave face to her staff, her board and her funders, she has very few people she can tell the bitter truth, so that’s a big part of my role.

How can we prioritize these challenges?
While it might be tempting, we cannot stop with venting. Once we’ve made a list of the challenges, frustrations and concerns a nonprofit leader is facing, I help her to prioritize those challenges in terms of the biggest threats and their dependence on other things to be resolved. So for example, a nonprofit leader who is struggling to meet her fundraising goals, is frustrated by an ineffective board, and lacks enough staff must analyze how large a threat each of those issues is related to the others, and which are dependent on the others to solve. It may be that kicking the board into gear might help alleviate the other two problems because if the board can start helping bring money in the door, she can better address her fundraising goals which leads to her ability to add additional staff.

Where can we tap into your existing assets?
But how do you do that? As I’ve said, nonprofit leaders are often very isolated and think it is all up to them. But if a nonprofit leader can think strategically about who might be able to help, he can move forward more effectively. A nonprofit leader who is struggling without enough staff and is challenged by his ineffective board could potentially find an ally or two among his board and/or funders. I help a nonprofit leader to think through potential allies who can help overcome a hurdle. A one-on-one conversation with a quiet, but well-respected board member about the specific challenge a nonprofit leader faces may yield that board member’s support and voice toward bringing the rest of the board around. Similarly, identifying one or two funders who could be convinced of the need to invest in capacity-building could yield additional staff and infrastructure to overcome those challenges.

I firmly believe that there is a solution to every challenge a nonprofit leader faces. But in order to get to that solution, a nonprofit leader must be willing to analyze the problem and think strategically and creatively about how she can solve it.

If you want to learn more about the nonprofit leader coaching I provide, download my Coaching benefit sheet. And if you want to learn more about being a strong nonprofit leader, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar

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Is Your Frustrating Board a Symptom of a Larger Problem?

nonprofit board frustrationOne of the biggest complaints I hear from nonprofit leaders is that their board is not working well enough for them — most often around fundraising. From board members who are largely in name only, to others who refuse to fundraise, to those who meddle or micromanage, to those who don’t understand the organization or its programs, there can be a large list of grievances that nonprofit leaders have about their board. So nonprofit leaders often look for a magic bullet to get their board in gear.

Just last week a nonprofit leader approached me seeking help getting her board engaged. She thought that if she hired a consultant to rewrite their board by-laws and rework the board committee structure, all would be well.

But it just isn’t that simple.

An ineffective board is often just a symptom of a larger problem at your nonprofit. And while nonprofit boards can be incredibly frustrating, it is often not their fault that they aren’t working harder for you.

If you are frustrated with your board, ask these questions to uncover the larger issues at play:

Do We Have a Compelling Case?
You simply cannot get people excited to help further your nonprofit’s cause if they don’t fully understand and embrace that cause. Have you had a conversation with your board about why your nonprofit does the work it does? Have you articulated together your nonprofit’s Theory of Change? Have you involved your board in creating your nonprofit’s Case for Investment? It surprises me how often I see nonprofit leaders leaving these critical and investing conversations at the staff level. The number one way to get your board excited about your work is to get them involved in articulating to others why that work is so critical.

Do We Have a Long-Term Strategy?
But it’s not enough to articulate what you hope to accomplish as a nonprofit, you also need to create a strategy for bringing those goals to fruition. You must involve your full board in your nonprofit’s overall strategy. They must buy in at the ground level to the goals of your strategic plan. And then the board must be in charge, as is their true leadership role, in  monitoring in their ongoing board meetings whether those goals are actually being realized. Give your board the opportunity to create and then drive the overall organizational strategy, and then see how they start to come alive.

Do We Have Clear Board Responsibilities?
And they will truly come to life when they understand how each of them individually can and must contribute to bringing that larger strategy to fruition. You simply cannot expect a board to engage when they don’t understand how and where they can be helpful. Give the overall board specific goals and responsibilities and then talk one-on-one with each individual board member to determine together where their unique skills and experience can be brought to bear on the larger strategy. With a clear roadmap for how they can help, you will see your board start to pick up the pace.  

Do We Have the Wrong Board Members?
However, you may find that some of your board members are simply taking up space. It may be that some are disengaged because they simply don’t have the skills, experience and networks necessary to achieve your goals. That’s why you have to do the analysis and look at every single board member against the skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your strategic plan. Please, please, please don’t fall for the temptation of filling your board with warm bodies. Make sure that you are recruiting the type of board members that you truly need to deliver on your organization’s strategy.

Are We Afraid of Asking For What We Really Need?
Nonprofit leaders sometimes fear their board members as much as they fear their donors. Rather than insisting their board members step up to the plate and effectively contribute their time, energy, and resources, nonprofit leaders may be overly grateful for ineffective board members. But when you operate under that dysfunctional power imbalance, you are setting the bar incredibly low for your board. And when a person is confronted with a low bar, there is nothing compelling him to get engaged and get working. So be very clear with your board members about what you want from them, and then be equally clear when they aren’t delivering. There is a nice way to tell a board member that you need more from her. And if she isn’t willing, then it is probably best that she walk away and leave room for more effective board members.

If you are fed up with your board, use frustration as an opportunity to dig deeper to figure out what is really causing their uselessness. And if you need some help to get there, check out the nonprofit leader coaching I provide.

Photo Credit: Peter Alfred Hess

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What Nonprofit Leaders Really Need

Exec Dir Learning ProjectEarlier this month, there was a great post by Linda Wood from the Haas Fund bemoaning the fact that 73% of nonprofit leaders in a recent Center for Effective Philanthropy study said they lack resources to build their leadership skills. And the recent Meyer Foundation Executive Director Listening Project found that nonprofit leaders’ biggest challenges are fundraising, human capital management and board of directors management — all leadership challenges.

This doesn’t surprise me at all.

I constantly witness the lack of support nonprofit leaders receive for building their leadership skills. Leading a nonprofit is an incredibly demanding task and the challenges are only growing. Nonprofit leaders are expected to magically solve the world’s problems, on a shoestring, while herding a disparate group of volunteers, funders, clients.

Which is why I think nonprofit leader coaching holds so much promise for the sector. If a struggling nonprofit leader had a strategic partner who could help her think through staffing, fundraising, board management and strategic decisions, instead of having to figure it out all on her own, it could be transformative.

Nonprofit leader coaching is one-on-one strategic counsel from someone with deep management, financial, and strategy expertise. With a strategic coach, a nonprofit leader can find solutions to issues like how to:

  • Create the most effective staffing structure for growth
  • Recruit and engage an effective board
  • Diversify and grow funding streams aligned with the nonprofit’s specific mission and operations
  • Analyze strategic opportunities for the organization
  • Develop effective collaborations that build on the organization’s assets

The return on investment of coaching can be really exciting. Let me give you some examples:

Increased Board Fundraising
Fundraising is such a tricky business. Often nonprofit boards are fairly ineffective at it, largely because they and their nonprofit leader don’t know how to focus the board’s efforts. This was true for one of my clients whose board didn’t understand fundraising and was confused about their role. Through coaching, both with the executive director and board members, the board now understands how each of them individually can contribute to bringing money in the door. They also understand how to focus their efforts on the most profitable activities and now have the skills and knowledge to move the organization’s financial strategy forward.  As a result, the board has dramatically increased the number of new donors to the organization.

Clearer Strategic Thinking
Nonprofits are constantly bombarded with new opportunities, new partnerships, new funding ideas. A coach can help a nonprofit leader think through how a new opportunity might fit with the overall organization strategy, ask hard questions and analyze the costs and benefits. In this coaching role, I encourage nonprofit leaders to take a step back and examine all of the implications of a decision, how it might draw resources away, what impact it will have on the larger work, how it moves the organization closer to or farther away from strategic alignment, and so on. Coaching can get nonprofits away from group think and towards making smarter, more strategic decisions.

More Productive Staff
Management of staff is one of the hardest jobs of being a leader in any setting, but I think it’s particularly tricky in the nonprofit sector where resources are tighter and nonprofits are often encouraged to play nice at all costs. In coaching around staff challenges, I help a leader create an effective staffing structure for the organization, analyze and resolve staff conflicts, and make sure all staff are playing to their strengths.

Strategic coaching is not right for every nonprofit leader because it takes a real commitment to change, a willingness to analyze situations, and an openness to making difficult decisions.

But coaching is right for a leader who:

  • Leads an organization that is ready for change
  • Is open to trying new approaches
  • Wants to have difficult, but important, conversations with board, staff and funders
  • Needs a thinking partner to help make strategic decisions
  • Recognizes that she doesn’t have all of the answers
  • Is ready to build her leadership skills

If you think coaching could help move your nonprofit forward, and you’d like to learn more about the coaching services I offer nonprofit leaders, let me know.

 Photo Credit: PhilanTopic

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