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leadership

Why I’m Taking a Small Break From The Blog

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting to the blog as often lately. There is a good reason for this, and I want to share it with you, since you all have been such wonderfully loyal and engaged readers.

I launched the Social Velocity blog in September of 2008, nine years ago this month. I started writing these blog posts (largely to myself and a few friends and family) as a catharsis. I was often frustrated by dysfunctions I saw in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, and I felt a burning desire to call a spade a spade. Over time, to my immense surprise and delight, my audience grew. A few years in, I began to create some regular series — Financing Not Fundraising, 10 Great Social Innovation Reads, the SV Interview Series — and am lucky enough to host several amazing guest bloggers. And thus the blog became a very regular part of my life.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we are, in our modern lives, so completely driven by the to do list that we rarely (if ever) take a big step back and ask what it’s all about. I have found myself in recent months needing to distance myself from the endless to do list and carve out some space for bigger, deeper thinking, writing, exploring. I have begun feeling a real need to find more quiet so that I can listen more intently to what I’m supposed to be doing.

At the same time, the 2016 election and the subsequent relentless blow after punishing blow against the progressive causes I have spent my life championing has really thrown me for a loop, as I know it has many of you. I’m feeling a desire to figure out a bigger role for myself in the social change arena, to figure out how I can, as Darren Walker put it, “take up the mantle and choose to lead.” Because I truly believe that now, more than ever, we are all called to play a bigger role in the social change we seek.

But figuring that out takes time for thinking, analyzing, scheming. And it’s hard for me to carve out that space when I’ve got a blog publishing schedule breathing down my neck.

The constant drum of the blog deadline (I try to publish most Tuesdays and Thursdays) has become a bit of a burden. Rather than always writing because my heart required it, I began writing because the calendar required it. Instead of being a joy, the blog began to feel stale and punishing to me. Add to that the many other things I have been working on (my consulting practice, book ideas, other projects), and I have begun to realize that I need space to think bigger about what my voice in the social sector should be. I am, it seems, finally taking my own advice to “find the value in quiet.”

And don’t think that I have made this decision lightly. It terrifies me to walk away, even briefly, from something I love doing and a readership I am so fond of. But sometimes you have to do the thing that scares you most.

While I so appreciate you, my loyal readers, and your emails, comments, Tweets and support, I need to take a bit of a step back and find some space to figure out what is next for the blog. Rest assured, I have no visions of ending the blog. I know that if I give up my outlet for the things I need to say, I will probably explode. But I do need some space to reinvent the blog.

So I may not write as often for awhile. Or I may write soon on new and different topics. I don’t have a timeline for when I’ll write again. I just know that I will. It might be tomorrow, it might be next week, it might be in 3 months.

I hope that when I figure it out, you will join me again. So stay tuned!

Photo Credit: Richard Revel

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When The Searing Truth Comes Into Focus

It has been a really difficult couple of weeks. And I think for those of us in the social change sector — the sector that works for equity, justice, compassion, inclusion, civility — these days have been particularly challenging. The events in Charlottesville have made obvious that there is so much work to do, and in fact, battles that we thought we had made real progress on (against Nazi-ism, anti-semitism, rampant racism) are far from over.

But if there is any silver lining to the events of the past weeks, it is perhaps that America is beginning to reckon with its past. One thing that has brought me solace during this time is Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu’s beautiful speech from last May where he described why he led an effort to remove several confederate monuments in New Orleans. (An effort, by the way, that came out of an interesting –and now expanding — philanthropic experiment in bringing community together to have open, honest conversations).

Landrieu gave a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we must take down these monuments. As he put it:

“These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city…

[A] friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.”

Particularly in these times when leaders are in such short supply, I find Mitch Landrieu’s leadership and eloquent arguments inspiring.

He sees in this challenging moment an opportunity for Americans to come together, recognize our past, and create together a more just, inclusive and equitable future, as he described:

“Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians…A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place. We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves…if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces … would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story? We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals. We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is what really makes America great and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America. Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in, all of the way. It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes.”

As any good leader does, Mitch Landrieu helps us rise above division, turmoil, and adversity and see a new, better path. Perhaps what we are experiencing in America right now — the vitriol, the divisiveness — is an opportunity for us to confront our past and more consciously and inclusively create our future.

Photo Credit: Workers securing straps to the Robert E Lee statue at Lee Circle prior to it being removed from atop the column, May 19, 2017, Infrogmation of New Orleans.

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We Need Great, Courageous Leaders

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately. Well, to be honest, I am often thinking about leadership. I’m perpetually fascinated by it in all of its forms — the good, the bad, the ugly. In particular, lately I’ve been mulling on Nancy Koehn’s definition of leadership. She spoke at this Spring’s Center for Effective Philanthropy conference on what history can teach us about leadership. And what she discussed has really stayed with me.

For Koehn, leadership is not something inherent in any one person, rather leaders are created when they face a critical event and make a conscious decision to step up to the plate: “Leaders make themselves capable of doing extraordinary things…A true leader has to decide to embrace the cause and get in the game.”

I completely agree. Leaders are not born, they are made. And a leader is made when she or he decides to stand up and do the hard, right thing.

It is, at its essence, a purely selfless act. Leadership is not easy. In fact, it is often difficult, uncomfortable, unpopular. But the true leader, as opposed to the blind follower, makes a decision to step up. Steven Pressfield calls this distinction between the true leader and the blind follower the “amateur versus the professional mindset.” The “amateur” takes the easy path and expects someone else to get them what they need, but the “professional” understands that they must step up and do the hard, right thing. The “professional” says: “I will expect no opportunity and no remuneration until I have first created value for someone else.”

I believe that our country is in the midst of a leadership crisis. No matter your political beliefs, our democracy is facing a critical event. Those we have elected to represent us are faced with a decision about whether they will step up and defend the equal power of our three branches of government or whether they will not. As Max Boot wrote on Twitter:

 

 

 

And as always, history provides an analog. As American Revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

These are definitely interesting times. Only history will tell where we will land. As Robert Kennedy said in a speech in 1966, interesting times demand something from us:

“The temptation [is] to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us…Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society.”

Now is the time for true leaders to emerge. And it is not just a moment for our political leaders to step up. Every single one of us must take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we have the courage, the fortitude to lead us forward.

Because in this moment in our history, as Nancy Koehn put it, “We need great, courageous leaders like we need oxygen and water.”

Photo Credit: Winston Churchill on V-E day, IWM Collections.

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Can Philanthropy Lead In These Challenging Times?

Last week I was in Boston for the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference. It was an amazing gathering of leaders talking about how philanthropy should respond in these difficult times. If you couldn’t make the conference and want a run down of the three days, CEP’s Ethan McCoy recapped Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 on the CEP blog. And you can also see the #CEP2017 Twitter feed.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, so I wanted to share a few of my takeaways.

The conference was bookended by two incredible speakers. I was blown away by the first night’s keynote address by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works to end mass incarceration and challenge racial and economic injustice.

He gave a completely mesmerizing speech about the historic roots of racial inequity and injustice and how we can move forward from America’s past and present toward a more just and equitable society. He argued that there are four things we must do:

  1. “Get proximate” to communities we want to help
  2. Work to understand and change the long-standing American narrative of racial difference
  3. Stay hopeful, and
  4. Accept that the work will be uncomfortable

It is impossible to do justice to his amazing speech, so I offer his Ted Talk from 2012 to show you what a thought-provoking speaker he is. I also plan to read his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about how to fix our broken criminal justice system.

The final keynote speaker of the conference, Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, gave a riveting talk about looking at historic leaders, like Ernest Shackleton — an explorer who led expeditions to the Antarctic — to draw lessons about leadership in our current times.

She argued that “leaders are not born, they are made.” Every single one of us could step up and become a leader. And what defines a real leader is that “effective leaders help us overcome the limitation of our own selfishness, weakness, laziness, fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In between those two amazing speakers were breakouts and plenaries that encouraged philanthropy to step up to the plate. There were urgings for foundation leaders to embrace advocacy, support nonprofit sustainability, explore state-by-state (instead of national) strategies for social change, listen to beneficiaries, understand their own networks, and fund evaluation, among other things. There certainly was an underlying theme that philanthropists should do more and be more in this new political era.

And these are incredibly challenging times, to be sure. Professor of Economics at Stanford, Raj Chetty, painted a very dire picture of income inequality in the U.S. Things have only gotten worse in the past several decades. In fact, as the slide below demonstrates, “the American Dream” is actually now more attainable in the U.K., Denmark and Canada than it is in the United States.

The final plenary session of the conference really pushed philanthropists to think hard about whether they are helping or hurting the causes they support. Jim Canales, President of the Barr Foundation, led a conversation among Sacha Pfeiffer (reporter from the Boston Globe), Vu Le (author of the Nonprofits With Balls blog), Grant Oliphant (president of the Heinz Endowments), and Linsey McGoey (senior lecturer at the University of Essex) critiquing philanthropy’s influence.

In particular, I really appreciated Linsey McGoey’s determination to push philanthropy farther, arguing that philanthropists working on issues of inequity need to address the much larger systems at work: “If foundations care about inequality, they should focus on the tax code and reduced government spending that worsens inequality.”

The CEP conference was an opportunity for philanthropy to take a hard look at itself and, I hope, find the determination to step up as the leaders we so desperately need now.

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Goodbye to a Mentor and a Friend

I have a heavy heart today. I found out yesterday that my first boss, long-time mentor, and most influential teacher of all things nonprofit management died over the weekend.

Mary Jubitz was the CEO of SMART (Start Making a Reader Today), a statewide early literacy nonprofit in Portland, Oregon. I met Mary when, as a new college graduate, I responded to a classified ad (yes, that is truly how we used to find jobs) for an office manager at a startup nonprofit. I had never worked at a nonprofit, but I was hungry to learn. And Mary proved to be an excellent teacher. So much of what I write, speak and consult about in the nonprofit world today was born out of what I learned at Mary’s side over the first two years of my career.

She was first and foremost an excellent fundraiser. Over the course of her 12 year tenure as CEO, she grew the budget by 400% and built a highly engaged donor base. She did that through an amazing mix of charisma, drive, organization, and exceptional relationship-building skills. I have never met someone who was so incredibly skilled at making a donor or potential donor feel that their involvement was absolutely critical. She rarely walked away from a meeting without the prospect wanting to be part of the exciting, game-changing partnership she described.

From her tenacious ability to find a connection to a prospective donor, to her skilled mastery of the meetings and conversations necessary to entice them to get involved, to her eloquent and (always!) grammatically correct letters and proposals, to her beautiful hand-written thank you notes, to her ongoing invitations to keep the donor invested, she was a thrill to watch.

But it was not just her exceptional fundraising ability — she also translated that relationship-building acumen into deft management of her board of directors. She made a habit of regularly meeting one-on-one with each board member to ensure that they were continually engaged. And it worked. Every single board member was not only personally giving, but also introducing their own networks to the organization. And beyond ensuring the board’s active money role, Mary made sure that they were all completely engaged in board meetings and decisions.

The board was so engaged certainly because SMART was a great cause, but also — and maybe even more importantly — because they simply didn’t want to let Mary down. No one wanted to let Mary down. As a true leader, she set the bar high making those around her want to give their best and then a bit more. She created and continually inspired a winning team of board, staff and donors who truly believed they were changing the future of the children of Oregon.

And they did. Over the course of SMART’s history the organization has reached almost 200,000 children who were found to be 60% more likely than other students to reach state reading benchmarks.

20 years after I left her employ, Mary continued to be a tremendous mentor to me. Throughout my career she was always available for advice, recommendations, words of support. She took real joy in watching the progression of my career, which is as it should be since she built its foundation. As a female leader, she took great interest in other women who were doing their best to rise through the ranks of the nonprofit world and devoted time and energy to helping groom the next generation of nonprofit leaders.

She was an amazing leader. She will be missed.

Photo Credit: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

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Why Nonprofits Need Both Leaders and Managers

In the nonprofit sector the words “leader” and “manager” are sometimes tossed around interchangeably. But the fact is that they are two very different, and equally necessary, elements to an effective and sustainable nonprofit organization.

A leader provides an inspiring, motivating big strategy for staff and board to get behind. She asks hard questions and constantly pushes the organization and its people to do more, try harder, expand their reach, think bigger. A leader makes sure that people are engaged and invested in the work and creates a team environment where each person feels part of something much larger than herself. And in this way, a leader inspires board and staff to do more and be more than they ever thought possible.

Whereas, a manager creates systems that allow the organization to get things done and holds board and staff accountable. He makes sure that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be, has the tools they need to get the job done, and is held responsible for their part. The manager executes the path that the leader has articulated.

So in an ideal scenario, the two — leader and manager — work as a perfect team. One strategizes, propels, and inspires. The other creates systems and accountability to bring the strategy to fruition.

It doesn’t matter if you are a large nonprofit or a tiny one. And it doesn’t matter if the roles of “leader” and “manager” are contained in one person or multiple people, as long as everyone is clear about who is which, and when. Sometimes, in larger nonprofits, the leader and the manager will be contained in two different people, or in several people (senior management team, board chair and CEO). And other times the executive director of a small nonprofit may need to play the role of leader and manager in equal measure.

However you do it, in order to be effective and sustainable as a nonprofit, both your board and your staff need to be led and managed well.

Ask yourself these questions to see if your nonprofit lacks leadership, management, or both:

Leadership

Management

If you answered “No” to some or all of these questions, your nonprofit may lack some key leadership or management capabilities. If that is the case, step up as a leader and encourage a hard conversation about where your nonprofit is lacking and how to fill those gaps.

And if you need some help figuring out what your nonprofit lacks or how to fill those gaps, check out the coaching I provide nonprofit boards and staffs, or download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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Now is The Time for Bold Nonprofit Leaders

Nonprofit leaders tend to err on the side of caution. But these times call for something quite different. These times demand that you overcome the fear and risk-aversion that sometimes cripple your work.

You no longer have the luxury of sitting by and waiting for “permission” to do what you have to do. This is the time to be bold.

As Greg Oliphant, President of The Heinz Endowments, wrote recently:

“Why speak? Especially when to speak is potentially to be seen as partisan, as taking sides, which is anathema in a field proscribed from politics and deeply fearful of controversy…There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future. These are not partisan truths but rather human truths…They are where we as a sector…must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it.”

Yes, that is the role you play, nonprofit leaders, to speak up and be bold about the change you seek. And it may go against what is comfortable, what you are used to, what you think you are “allowed” to do as nonprofit leaders, but you must stop waiting for permission. You must start pushing yourself, your staff, your board to be less fearful and more bold.

What does that look like?

Think Bigger, Much Bigger
The time for incremental is over. These times call for big, bold, game-changing solutions to the problems we face. You must ask yourselves and your board and staff, “Are we doing enough? Are we really creating change, or are we just perpetuating the status quo?” If the answer is the latter, take a big step back and figure out what you can do bigger to create change.

Embrace Advocacy
And in answering those questions you may find that the methods you are using are too timid. I cannot say this enough, but nonprofit leaders have got to stop being afraid to connect their social change work to the policy arena. While there are some restrictions on what 501(c)3 organizations can do, I assure you they are far less than you or your board may think. If you truly want to see change in the world, it may not be enough to just address the symptoms of the problem. You may need to address the systems that perpetuate those problems, and advocacy might be just the tool to use.

Find New Paths to Social Change
But it may also be that at the federal level there is not much support for your social change agenda right now, so look for other paths. Much social change is happening at the state and local levels (from climate change, to civil rights, to political reform). Instead of continuing to beat your head against an immovable wall, think about other ways forward. Get outside your comfort zone of always approaching your mission in a single way and think bigger and bolder.

Make Your Board Meetings Real
But in order to move forward in bigger, bolder ways you need to bring your board along. So stop having friendly, meaningless, information-dumping board meetings and instead engage your board in real conversations. Start by asking “What do these times demand of us and our work? What are we afraid of, and how do we overcome it? How can be be more bold?” And when you come up against board fear (of doing more, moving into advocacy, building bigger networks), be very clear that it is a brave new world and you simply cannot put your heads in the sand.

Get Tough With Your Funders
But it doesn’t end with your board. You can no longer have tepid conversations with your funders or bow to their whims. You know what you need and what it takes to accomplish your big goals (or if you don’t, you better figure it out). So be open and real with your funders. Tell them what’s holding you back from accomplishing real change and ask for the amount and type of money you really need to get there.

As President Franklin Roosevelt argued in his first inaugural address, lack of action is a far greater risk than anything we might face:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

We must fight the urge to retreat. As social change leaders you cannot allow your fear to paralyze you. These times call for bold advance.

Photo Credit: Andy Spearing

 

 

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Climbing Out Of The Rubble Of 2016

If you’re like me, it was hard to come back to work this week. I spent my vacation oscillating between the tremendous relief of a self-imposed media break after a gut-wrenching year, and fear of what else 2017 might bring.

But the further I got into my time off, the more I came to realize that we thrive only when we make a clear distinction between what we can control and what we cannot. None of us can control what world events (good or bad) 2017 will bring, but we can control our attitude about them.

Believe me, I know it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for the new year. There is so much work to be done. And I promise that I will spend much time on this blog over the next year offering advice and ideas for how that work can get done (like building advocacy efforts, growing networks, strengthening financial engines, creating local and state — rather than federal — strategies for your work).

But before we get there, we each have to start with our own mind-set — our mind-set about where we are and where we are going.

I know 2016 was really hard, and we have heavy hearts as we face this new year before us.  But let’s remember that 2016 wasn’t all bad, in fact there were some pretty exciting changes happening.

And actually, as musician and writer Brian Eno put it very eloquently recently, perhaps 2016 wasn’t the apocalypse, but rather the start of something really amazing:

“There’s been a quiet…but…powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan. This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted – some semblance of truth in reporting, for example – can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones. Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to. There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.”

That’s exactly right. 2016 wasn’t the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of something much bigger and better.

Deep political, economic, technological, and social changes are happening in the world. But they are not happening to us, they are happening with us.

As poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote many years ago:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened…if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”

So check your attitude at the door.

The time for depression, fear, anger, resentment, apathy, frustration, exhaustion is over. We cannot cower in the shadow of 2016. Rather, we must face 2017 with the confidence and determination necessary to bring something bigger and better to fruition.

Photo Credit: Henning Schlottmann

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