We live in an age of an (often sickening) glut of information. Sometimes just thinking about Twitter, Facebook, Google, or BuzzFeed makes me really tired. And I love technology and media. But they can be absolutely overwhelming.
I recently finished Nate Silver’s phenomenal book, The Signal and the Noise, in which he offers a new way to approach our age of information overload. Silver’s book is about how we can better predict things like weather, economic fluctuations, and climate change by finding the right “signal” amidst the exponentially expanding body of data, or “noise.”
Silver describes how our current Internet age is very similar to life after the invention of the printing press, when books were suddenly cheap and everywhere. The result of this sudden enormous increase in the availability of information was, unfortunately, 200 years of holy war. Although Silver doesn’t believe we’re headed for another 200 year war, he argues that we must understand the parallels and the dangers of too much information. As Silver puts it:
We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.
In other words, we need to figure out how to organize the firehose of information that faces us everyday. I don’t know exactly how to go about that, but for my own sanity I have developed a few strategies.
First is taking regular time away from all of the information just to process and think alone, without screens, books, or chatter. We all must claim our very real need to turn off the noise and look inside for the meaning, the right approach, the way forward.
Second is seeking out the past. I was a history major in college and still love the subject, so my predisposition when I am overwhelmed is to look at how we approached things in the past. There is great peace there. In particular, I love the weekly email from Brain Pickings where writer Maria Popova delves into the works of past writers to help understand our world today. Aside from finding new things to read, it is incredibly comforting to realize the struggles we face today are really not all that new.
And finally, I believe that dissent holds promise for finding shelter from the information glut. One of the things Silver warns against (and we see this everyday) is that in an age of information overload, people tend to shut out things that are at odds with their opinions or experience. Our country’s current deep political divide is an example of this. So we need to break down those walls and surround ourselves with people who make us pause and who make us think. We need to seek out people who share our values, but not necessarily our life experience, education, politics, income level, or opinion on how the world should work.
We don’t have to succumb to the exhausting deluge of information. As Callie Oettinger put it, “The Internet is ours to shape. We can’t let the howling spread.”
Photo Credit: Roy Miller
As the year draws to a close, and you (I hope) make time to relax, reconnect with friends and family, and reacquaint yourselves with some much-needed quiet, you may also want to reflect on your role as a social change leader. Effective leadership is really, really hard work, but it is also incredibly necessary and needed.
So if you find time over the next few weeks to take a look at your role as social change leader and you want some help along the way, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Here is an excerpt:
Chapter 3: Refuse to Play Nice
As a by-product of the charity mindset, nonprofit leaders often suffer from being too nice. The thing I love most about nonprofit leaders is that, for the most part, they are truly good, decent people. They are trying to make the world a better place, so by definition they are considerate of others. But sometimes you can take being nice too far. Being nice to the donor who leads your nonprofit the wrong way, or the staff member who is not performing may work for the individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.
Indeed, according to a 2010 study by researchers at Stanford University, nonprofits are perceived as “warm, generous and caring organizations, but lacking the competence to produce high-quality goods or services and run financially sound businesses.” In other words, we think nonprofit leaders are nice — but not competent.
But this reality is often imposed on nonprofit leaders. Nonprofit leaders are encouraged to collaborate instead of compete, hold onto under-performing staff, accept martyr-like salaries, smile and nod when funders push them in tangential directions, and keep quiet when government programs require the same services at a lower price.
This demand that the nonprofit sector play “nice” is the result of (at least) three aspects to the sector:
- A Focus on the Social. The sector exists to address and (hopefully) solve social problems. Thus, by definition, it is socially oriented and has an inclusive, consensus-based approach to doing business.
- More Customers. Nonprofits have two customer groups, as opposed to the single customer for-profits have: 1) those who benefit from the services a nonprofit provides (clients) and 2) those who pay for those services (funders).
- Multiple Players. In addition to their customer groups, nonprofit leaders must corral their board of directors, which often includes individuals with competing interests, and external decision-makers (policy makers, advocates, leaders of collaborating organizations) who have an impact on the change the nonprofit seeks. The end result is that multiple players must somehow be brought together and led in a common direction.
But in order to work toward real solutions and get out from under consensus-based mediocrity, you need to break free from the niceness trap. Rest assured, I am not asking you to get mean and ugly. But there is a way to politely, but assertively, make sure you get what you need to succeed.
In other words, the reinvented nonprofit leader needs to:
- Say “No” to funders who demand new programs or changes to programs that detract from your nonprofit’s theory of change and your core competencies.
- Diversify revenue streams so that you are not beholden to any one funder or funding stream.
- Demand that board members invest significant time and money in your nonprofit, or get out.
- Fire under-performing staff. This is such a taboo in the sector, but with limited resources and mounting social problems to be addressed, we do not have time to invest in people who cannot deliver.
- Be brutally honest with funders and board members about the true costs of running operations effectively and stop apologizing for, or hiding, administrative expenses.
- Create a bold strategic plan that will drive your nonprofit toward social impact and sustainability, not mediocrity.
- Make an honest assessment of your nonprofit’s core competencies, competitors and consumers so that you understand and can articulate where you fit in the marketplace — and act accordingly.
- Stop waiting for your board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow you to do something that you know is the right way forward.
- Refusing to play nice is not easy. And it often culminates in a difficult conversation, perhaps with an underperforming staff member, an ineffective board member, or a time-consuming funder.
In order to manage these difficult conversations for success, you need to approach them in a thoughtful and strategic way. Here are the steps…
Photo Credit: Satish Krishnamurthy
As summer draws to a close and my own downtime ends, it occurs to me that there is a real need, in our increasingly always-on world, for leaders to find time for quiet reflection, to reconnect with their core.
And particularly in the nonprofit world, where a leader is constantly bombarded with suggestions – from funders, board members, staff, fellow leaders, Facebook friends – it is critical that she find regular solitude to analyze and plan the best way forward.
Indeed true leadership lies not in finding the lowest common denominator among a disparate group of supporters, volunteers and staff, but rather in analyzing all options and then driving the most effective way forward (even if it is unpopular). Real leadership is not about giving the people around you what they want. It is about doing what is best and what is right. And often you find that path through time alone to think.
Perhaps thoughtful, reasoned leadership has taken a hit in recent years. Our push toward social technology has created a culture of extreme extraversion and constant noise. Dave Eggers 2013 novel, The Circle, describes a world where companies like Google and Facebook have taken over. He offers a chilling view of social media taken to the extreme with destructive group think and no room for solitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of social media, but I also think there is tremendous value in regular, silent retreat.
And I’m not alone. Amid the broad adoption of an increasingly social way of life, we are, in certain pockets, beginning to realize that quiet has its place as well. Some politicians, finally turned off by the constant screaming of our increasingly partisan political system, have begun turning toward inner reflection to find a better way. Steven Pressfield describes the importance of getting away from it all and “letting the well fill up overnight.” And even social media mavens, Beth Kanter and Arianna Huffington have both recently begun promoting solitude and reflection.
Could it be that we are realizing that while new tools to make us more social have their place in the work of social change, individual reflection is also quite necessary. While crowdfunding and crowdsourcing and crowdthinking all have an important role to play, there is also tremendous value in a leader spending time, alone, to process the world around her and then emerge with a plan.
Nonprofit leaders are often working on large, intractable social problems. Those problems require the right way forward, not the most popular way forward. As a social change leader you must claim your very real need to turn off the noise. Amid the quiet you may just discover the necessary path. And perhaps also, the will to lead us there.
Photo Credit: Sebastien Panouille
As I mentioned earlier, leadership is on my brain this month. And I was reminded over the weekend that inspiration and leadership go hand in hand. You cannot lead real change unless you are able to inspire those you are leading to do great things.
On Saturday I watched the movie Invictus with my sons. The movie chronicles the 1995 Rugby World Cup championship which South Africa hosted shortly after the end of apartheid and the election of their first black president, Nelson Mandela. Mandela saw, before anyone else, the opportunity the World Cup offered to unite a country divided by decades of segregation.
Mandela also recognized in François Pienaar, the captain of South African rugby team the Springboks, the opportunity to create a real leader. Although at first a reluctant leader, Pienaar finds inspiration from Mandela and uses it to rebuild his disheartened team and eventually go on to win the World Cup.
Although the movie came out several years ago it seems particularly timely now because of Mandela’s recent death. The movie demonstrates what an amazing social change leader Mandela was. He had the uncanny ability to recognize people’s strengths and offer them an opportunity to rise to heights they had never imagined.
It seems to me that what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders is this ability to inspire others to greatness. A true leader asks us to rise above circumstances and do more, be more than we ever thought possible. It is at those times that real change can happen.
Through a seemingly innocuous sporting event, Mandela and Pienaar took the rubble of a horribly segregated and angry country and built unity. It is amazing to watch:
My focus this month at Social Velocity is nonprofit leadership. As I mentioned earlier, May’s webinar is Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader. And I’m delighted to release today, as promised, the companion book, Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.
Here is an excerpt from the new book:
The new millennium has been a difficult one. A crippled global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap comprise a few of the social problems we face.
And as our social challenges mount, the burden increasingly falls to the nonprofit sector to deal with the fall out.
So it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to lead the nonprofit sector, and our communities, forward. Indeed it is up to the leaders of our great nonprofit sector, to face, rather than shrink from, these many challenges.
It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real social change.
So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, I have written this book. It is based on my many years of coaching nonprofit leaders to success. This book lays out the elements that those nonprofit leaders have learned in order to embrace their role as reinvented nonprofit leaders.
The reinvented nonprofit leader:
- Unlocks the Charity Shackles and demands to be treated as an equal and critical part of the economy, the community, the solution.
- Refuses to Play Nice and gets real with funders, board members, partners, and staff who are standing in the way of progress.
- Embraces Strategy that moves beyond just “doing good work” and gets real results.
- Uses Money as a Tool because big plans will not come to fruition without a sustainable financial engine behind them.
- Demands Real Help and the tools necessary to achieve the mission because the best leaders recognize weakness and solicit help to address it.
- Breaks Down the Walls of the organization and lets the world in as fully engaged partners, advocates, and supporters.
- Remembers the Dream that got them here in the first place because often it is the big idea that propels great leaders forward.
It is a tall order, but true leadership is.
We no longer have the luxury of mediocre leaders. These times demand confident, capable, engaging leaders who are a beacon to a society whose mounting problems are overwhelming at best.
While it may seem like an impossible transition to become a new kind of nonprofit leader – one who is more entrepreneurial, innovative, confident and strategic – let us remember that nonprofit leaders have always been entrepreneurs. They have recognized some sort of disequilibrium in our society and have created, out of nothing, an organization, a solution and an assembly of staff and volunteers to fix it. In essence, I am simply encouraging you, the nonprofit leader, to claim your rightful place.
The reinvented nonprofit leader is confident, engaged, and savvy. She will, I have no doubt, lead this great nonprofit sector, and all of us who benefit from it, to new heights.
So how do you become a reinvented nonprofit leader? Let’s take these one by one…
If you want to read more, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book now.
And if you register for the webinar before May 21st the companion book is free. You can register for the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader webinar here.
Nonprofit leaders have been given a seemingly endless list of tasks: develop and execute effective programs, manage a diverse and underpaid staff, chart a bold strategic direction, create a sustainable financial model, wrangle a group of board members with often competing interests, and recruit and appease a disparate funder base.
All with little support along the way.
I think its time for us to reinvent the nonprofit leader. In order to better lead her staff, board, and donors to greater social change, the reinvented nonprofit leader must:
- Unlock the charity shackles that keep nonprofits beholden to dysfunctional expectations
- Refuse to play nice with staff members, board members, or funders who stand in the way of the mission
- Embrace strategy that gets results
- Wield the money sword
- Break down the walls of her nonprofit to let in more supporters, advocates, and partners
- Demand real help and the tools necessary to do the work well
- Remember the dream for change that inspires the work
So in the hope of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, I am offering a new Social Velocity webinar, Reinventing The Nonprofit Leader.
Informed by years of experience coaching nonprofit leaders, the Reinventing The Nonprofit Leader webinar will help nonprofit leaders like you to:
- Adapt to a rapidly changing world
- Find the confidence, energy and will to lead more effectively
- Better engage your staff, board, and donors in the work
- Stop apologizing for what you really need
- Use money as a tool
- Embrace new technologies and approaches to build momentum
- Become inspired for the work ahead
Reinventing Nonprofit Leader
A Social Velocity Webinar
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 1:00pm Eastern (or On Demand)
Don’t worry if you can’t make the time of the live webinar. All of our webinars are recorded and available On Demand, so simply sign up now, and you’ll be sent a link to watch the recording of the webinar after it airs. You can see the entire Social Velocity On Demand Webinar Library here.
I hope to see you there!
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
In today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Pat Lawler. Pat is the CEO of Youth Villages, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully. Youth Villages is often heralded as a model for high performing nonprofit organizations. In 2006, Lawler was recognized as one of “America’s Best Leaders” by U.S. News & World Report.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: In 34 years of your tenure at Youth Villages you’ve grown the organization from serving 25 youth to now serving 22,000 families. Very few nonprofits are able to grow to that level, let alone sustain it. What are the factors that make nonprofit growth attainable and what holds more nonprofits back from achieving it?
Pat: First, an organization must have a clear mission and defined values. When we started Youth Villages, we knew who we were. We didn’t just want to respond to RFPs; we wanted to do what was best for kids. No more of the status quo, instead we used our expertise and created best practices. We built our leadership team and our culture around a clear mission and set of values. Our culture is a big part of who we are and what we’ve done over the years. We’ve also been willing to change directions. We’re willing to do different things based on the needs of kids and families. At one time, we only provided residential treatment services, but now residential services comprise only about 35 percent of our work. Don’t anticipate the future, create it.
As an organization, we were also careful not to grow too fast. We were constantly assessing what was best and reevaluating. We also implemented a feedback system to learn what was working and what was not so we could improve our outcomes.
It’s easy for nonprofits, especially those focused on social services, to make decisions with our hearts instead of our heads, but we must still maintain a strong focus on the business aspect of our work. After we got through our first 12-13 years, when we were just trying to survive as an organization, we began thinking about strengthening our financial reserves because we were responsible for more children and families, as well as our staff and their families. So we really started trying to build a stronger financial foundation that would help us successfully transition through turbulent times.
Nell: Often when a nonprofit becomes very large finding on-going sustainable funding sources can be difficult. The majority of your funding comes from state contracts. Is government the ultimate answer to long-term funding for large nonprofits? Or are there other ways?
Pat: It depends, but in general, I think it’s important for organizations to have a diverse set of funders to achieve maximum stability. Having at least three or four funding sources and a relative balance among those sources is a good way to go. If government is a major funding source, you want to make sure that’s diversified among different programs, geographies, etc. and not all one contract.
Nell: Youth Villages is also unusual in that you have a robust performance management system and are considered one of the leading nonprofits in the country in that arena. Why did you make the decision many years back to invest in performance management and what do you think the return on that investment has been?
Pat: Youth Villages’ goal has always been to provide the best services for children and families. That’s one of the reasons why we started collecting data, using measurement, benchmarking and total quality improvement. It was all about getting better outcomes for kids. We didn’t realize how valuable our data could be until the mid-‘90s when some of our state funding was at risk. Using our data, we were able to convince the state to spend money for in-home services and develop a continuum of care — because we had really good data to show them what worked and how much more cost-effective it was. Throughout the years, we started trying to convince other states and funders. A few were pretty enthusiastic about our data and outcomes. When the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation met with us nine years ago, they were very interested in our data and outcomes, and that was the first indication that the private sector was becoming interested in doing what works.
Even today, we’re asking ourselves where is the best place to put our resources, and more often, we’re finding it’s better to serve a larger number of children through community-based services rather than in a residential setting. You can make such a greater impact in the community serving a large number of youth, rather than serving a small number with the greatest needs. We’re trying to do both. But we’re asking ourselves what’s the biggest return on our investment so we can have the greatest impact on our community?
Nell: Funders and nonprofits themselves are often reluctant to invest in nonprofit leadership development. How do we solve this need and how did you grow your leadership skills over the course of your career? What role do you think funders should or could play in leadership development for the sector?
Pat: I read a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with great boards of directors and mentors to shape my leadership skills. At Youth Villages, we have an outstanding leadership team filled with better leaders than I am. Together, we make a strong team. Any of us independently might not be as good. I know I wouldn’t be at all. At all levels of this organization, we have very bright people and that is what makes the difference here.
If I had to start over at the beginning, rather than asking foundations for money for programs and services, I would have asked for funds to put toward business planning, professional coaches, leadership development and communications to help with the things I didn’t know about. I’d have asked for money to help build a stronger organization, while at the same time maybe a little money for programs and services. I believe it’s a waste of money for governments, foundations or anyone to spend money on an organization that doesn’t have the necessary skills, organizational structure, leadership and business planning to achieve the goals of their program. It just makes no sense.
From the time an organization is created, I think they have to ask the questions: Do we have the right people in place? Do we have the right business plan and strategy to execute? Do we have the support of the community and board of directors? I firmly believe every foundation should put a significant portion of their funding toward strengthening the organization versus funding some programs and services. If you don’t have the right people in place to execute the strategy then it’s not going to happen. It’s also important for foundations to give organizations time. It takes time for leaders to develop, they get better as they encounter and overcome problems, and it’s important to stick with those organizations for extended periods of time.
Photo Credit: Youth Villages
I came across a great article the other day, Rules for Brilliant Women, and as a female entrepreneur I found it really inspiring and affirming. But I realized nonprofit leaders need a similar list. Because just as women often sell themselves short, so too do nonprofit leaders. In fact, there are some interesting parallels between the place of women and the place of nonprofits in society, but that’s a post for another day.
So in the hopes of inspiring nonprofit leaders to claim their rightful place as true heralds of social change, here are 7 rules for brilliant nonprofit leaders:
- Find and Keep Your True North
As a nonprofit leader you probably receive advice all day, every day. From board members, to donors, to staff members, to colleagues, to bloggers and consultants (ha!), everyone has an opinion about how you should do your job. So close your eyes, take a deep breath, and find your true north. Don’t do what you think you “should” do, or what someone else tells you to do. Follow what you know deep down is the right path.
- Remember the Dream
The daily grind can wear a nonprofit leader to the bone. It is often an exhausting, thankless job. But you have to remember what got you here in the first place. And I bet that was some huge vision for how the world could be a very different place. Don’t lose sight of your overarching goal. And don’t lose heart that you may never get there. It’s the big honking dream that propels great leaders forward.
- Admit When You Don’t Know
Leaders don’t have to know it all. And in fact the best leaders are those who recognize their weaknesses and figure out how to address them. The first step is openly admitting when you don’t know (to your board, your donors, your staff). Only then will you find the freedom and power to scale that wall.
- Ask for What You Really Need
And once you freely admit what you lack, you must ask for it. Whether you need more staff, better technology, greater knowledge – demand it. Create a detailed list of what will make you more effective as a leader, put a price to those items, and then make the pitch to your board, to funders, to anyone who can help you get what you need.
- Don’t Wait for Permission
How many times do nonprofit leaders wait for their board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow them to do something? True leaders find permission internally and then show those around them why their path was the right one. I get that there are times when forging ahead without consent would be politically unwise, but those times are less often than many nonprofit leaders think. Don’t shut yourself and your staff down because you fear making someone else mad.
- Stop Being So Nice
The thing I love most about nonprofit leaders is that, for the most part, they are truly good, decent people. They are trying to make the world a better place, so by definition they are considerate of others. But sometimes you can take being nice too far. Being nice to the donor who leads your nonprofit the wrong way, or the staff member who can’t cut it may work for that individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.
- Hit Pause on Saving the World Once in Awhile
I don’t care how fast-paced and “always on” our world becomes, we always need time and space to breathe, reflect, regenerate. Because you are in the business of improving lives, as a nonprofit leader you are particularly prone to the martyr syndrome of equating taking a break with fewer lives saved. But you will actually be more productive if you regularly focus on things outside the realm of saving the world.
Oh nonprofit leaders, I love you so. You are brilliant, beautiful human beings doing truly amazing things. Own it.
Photo Credit: Shyamal
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