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.
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
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
As the year draws to a close, it’s time for all of us to take some time off to relax, be with friends and family, and most importantly rest up for the year ahead.
2016 was rough, folks. So now it is critical that you take some time off to reconnect with your core.
But before I head out myself for some time off, I want to leave you with a list of the 10 most popular Social Velocity posts from this year, in case you missed any of them. And, if you are so inclined, you can also read the 10 most popular posts from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
I so appreciate you, dear readers. You are an amazing group of social change leaders who inspire me and give me hope for the future. Indeed, when it is darkest you help me see the light. We need you now more than ever, social change leaders, so please take good care of yourselves and come back to 2017 ready to get to work.
The 10 most popular Social Velocity blog posts of 2016 were:
- Is Your Nonprofit Board Avoiding Their Money Role?
- 5 Fundraising Mistakes Nonprofits Make
- Why Some Nonprofits Aren’t Ready for a Strategic Plan (Yet)
- Why Nonprofit Boards and Fundraising Must Mix
- How is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?
- 5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change [Slideshare]
- Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader
- A Nonprofit Culture of Philanthropy Is Not Enough
- 5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have
- The Network as Social Change Tool: An Interview with Anna Muoio
Photo Credit: nicoleleec
These are difficult days. This past week I have felt incredibly lost. I have been thinking a lot, trying to understand what is happening in our country, in our communities, to and with our people. And I have been grappling, as I know you all have been, with how we move forward from here.
I have struggled with how to write the blog, doubting whether I can shed any light on something that none of us really understands. But then a colleague said to me, “It’s even more important now that you write. You have followers, and thus you have a responsibility to lead them toward hope.” That is a heavy lift, and I doubt that I can really hope to fulfill it, but I will reluctantly stand up and play my role as a leader.
But I ask the same of each of you.
Because the only way forward for our country is if each one of you, as our country’s social change leaders, stands up as true leaders in your work, your communities, our country.
And in my mind here’s how we start to make that happen.
Build community inside and out.
This week I attended a conference of social sector leaders and one of the speakers described how a sense of community is the backbone of resilience. If we are going to get through this, we cannot isolate ourselves. We must find and forge community. And we must go beyond our own comfortable spheres. Our country is really struggling right now. We must find ways, big and small, to connect communities, tap into new ones, and stretch our networks. We cannot let the red/blue, rural/urban, middle/working class divides that this election highlighted define us as a country. We are better than that. So wherever you are, break down those walls and connect — really connect — with people inside and outside of your circles.
And in order to do that, you must embrace empathy. Another colleague said to me this week, “Do you know how we can move forward from this? Empathy.” And that is absolutely right. Start here. Yes this election brought out the worst in us, but perhaps it did so because of some pretty stark failings of our economic and political systems. So let’s stop blaming and instead work to understand the realities that people are living and figure out solutions.
Be a real leader.
Which brings me back to where I started. We are suffering a crisis of leadership in our country. I truly believe that the majority of people who voted for Trump were not casting a vote for hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia, but were instead casting a vote against a deeply flawed economic and political system. We need real leaders — big and small, and in every corner of this country — to stand up, speak up, and do the hard, right thing. We have to stop waiting for someone else to come forward. We are each responsible for whatever corner of influence we hold, and we must use that influence for good. So dig deep and figure out how you can help, not hurt, your communities and your country. Step away from the despair and the fear and instead move whomever you can, however you can, toward the light.
I am choosing to find the opportunity in this darkness. And yes, that is a choice I have made today, and a choice I will have to continue to make every single day after.
And the opportunity I see is that these times can force each one of us to take a hard look at ourselves and emerge as empathetic leaders willing to bridge divides, build communities and help our country, our democracy, ALL of our people, find a way forward together.
If you have felt (and continue to feel) like giving up — as I have many times over the past week — please hear me when I say that you simply cannot. Now more than ever our country needs you social change leaders to point the way toward the future. We must resist — at all costs — the urge to stick our heads in the sand, curse those who didn’t vote the way we wanted, or slink away in fear of the future.
Now more than ever we must all, every single one of us, step up as leaders for these new challenges we face. Whether that’s inspiring your staff, or marshaling your colleagues, or getting outside your own walls to find common ground. We all have at least one way in which we can be a true leader.
So find it, embrace it, and get to work.
Photo Credit:Wilson Lam
It never ceases to amaze me how often nonprofit leaders give away their expertise and their time – for free.
Here’s just the most recent example I’ve encountered.
A leader of an education nonprofit, let’s call her “Amy,” was approached by a group of funders who wanted to start a similar program in a different city. They had already identified a potential leader of the effort, but this leader, let’s call him “Mark,” was pretty inexperienced in working with school districts and in managing a large scale nonprofit effort.
So the group of funders asked if Amy would be willing to help Mark. This would involve Amy sitting in on some community meetings and providing one-on-one coaching on a regular basis to Mark.
Because Amy’s nonprofit also received funding from some of these funders, she felt obligated to comply. And let me be clear, Amy was offered absolutely no compensation for her time, effort and expertise.
There are several things wrong with this situation.
First, although this group of funders found tremendous value in Amy’s expertise, they did not assign any financial value to that expertise. They sought her out, and indeed already determined that their effort would be hampered without Amy’s guidance. However, they also assumed (perhaps subconsciously) that this nonprofit leader was so passionate about the education space, that she would be more than willing to donate her time.
Second, Amy herself did not assign a financial value to her time. She was complicit in the funders’ assumption that, while her time has huge social change value, it has no financial value. But the two must correlate. Amy’s time is a limited resource. And thus she must calculate the financial value of that resource.
But, third, nonprofit leaders don’t necessarily have the tools to calculate the value of their time.
In the hopes that other nonprofit leaders don’t get caught in Amy’s predicament, here’s a quick three-step process for calculating the financial value of your time as a social change expert, based on the financial value your organization assigns to your time.
- Determine Your Annual Cost: Take your annual salary and add the monetary value of your annual benefits (healthcare contribution, social security contribution, etc.). Typically benefits are calculated at an additional 25% of your salary. So, if your annual salary is $85,000 you would multiply that by 1.25 to get the total of your salary plus your annual benefits: $85,000 x 1.25 = $106,250.
- Determine Your Hourly Cost: Then, divide that salary + benefits number by the average number of working hours in a full-time position (so 52 weeks a year at 40 hours per week is 2,080 hours per year). I know you probably work more than 2,080 hours in a year, but this is just a general full-time number of hours. So, in this example, your hourly rate would be $106,250 / 2,080 = $51.08. Or $51 per hour, just to make it easy.
- Determine Your Hourly Value: If you are feeling bold, you can add a profit margin to this number, just as anyone who is paid to offer their expertise (lawyer, consultant, doctor) does. The idea here is that if someone pays you $51 for an hour of your expertise, you are only breaking even. But if you actually want to make a bit of profit that you can plow back into your organization, you could add in a little margin. So perhaps you round up to $65 per hour.
Now, you have a number you can use.
If Amy had been armed with such a calculation, when the group of funders came to her, she could have estimated the number of hours required (including community meetings, coaching, etc.) and then presented it to the funders. Perhaps the hours totaled 50 over the course of a 12-month period. This would have a financial value then of 50 x $65 per hour = $3,250, which I would argue is still a very conservative valuation.
So that group of funders would need to make a payment to Amy’s nonprofit (above their normal contributions) of $3,250 in order for her to agree to their request.
(And now that you have a way to calculate the hourly value of your time, you can also use it to determine the value of your time spent on other things — for example, fundraising activities like this.)
I can hear nonprofit leaders and funders gasping, “How dare you suggest that a nonprofit leader ‘charge’ a funder for her time.” And others might worry that funders would be offended by the request and end their other contributions to Amy’s nonprofit.
But shouldn’t nonprofit leaders be aware of (and transparent about) the costs embedded in how they are spending (and being asked to spend) their time? Nonprofit leaders and funders could then have a more illuminating conversation. Perhaps Amy’s group of funders won’t want to invest $3,250 in starting up Mark’s new nonprofit. If that is the case, then they probably weren’t very committed to the new effort in the first place. Far better to know that up front rather than after Amy sunk 50 hours into something that has nothing to do with her organization.
It’s time for nonprofit leaders (and their funders) to recognize the financial value of the social change expertise those leaders possess and invest accordingly.
Photo Credit: David Lofink
Because I talk about change in the nonprofit sector a lot, I sometimes get inquiries from nonprofit leaders who think they want change at their organization, but actually don’t.
A nonprofit leader might be excited by the idea of dramatically improved fundraising results, or a board who is engaged and invested in the work, or funders who want to step up, but she isn’t willing to do the hard work to realize that change.
I recently talked with a nonprofit leader who was interested in a Financial Model Assessment because he was intrigued by the idea of potential revenue increases. But when I explained that realizing those changes might necessitate other changes — like how he structures his staff, how involved in decision-making he allows the board to be, even how he crafted their long-term strategy — he began to balk.
But the fact is that you simply cannot expect a different result if you continue to operate in the exact same ways.
When I work with a nonprofit organization, my role is to lead a change process so that when I leave, the organization is more sustainable, more engaged and engaging, more strategic and integrated, and ultimately more effective at creating social change.
But significant change is not easy. And for it to truly come to fruition it requires that the nonprofit leader must fully commit — and get her board and staff to fully commit — to creating real, lasting change.
The nonprofit sector is sometimes criticized for being too stuck in its ways. And indeed it can be hard to create change amid a sector that is so consensus-based. Sometimes even the smallest decisions must involve discussion among staff, the board, even funders and other stakeholders.
So if you really want the reality that your nonprofit faces to be different, if you want to find greater financial sustainability, if you want to achieve more program results, if you want to attract more and bigger funders, if you want a stronger, more effective board, you have to commit to real change. And then you have to get others at your organization to commit to real change as well.
I can often tell the difference between a nonprofit leader who is just playing at change, and one who is actually committed to doing the hard work. Ask these questions to determine if your nonprofit is truly ready for meaningful change:
- Are we willing (at every level of the organization) to take a hard look at how we operate and make changes where behaviors or systems no longer make sense?
- Are we willing to have difficult conversations, perhaps on formerly taboo topics, in order to find a better way forward?
- Are we excited enough by the potential rewards of change to work hard to convince skeptics (on the board and/or staff) to come along?
- Are we as an organization willing to invest the time (and patience) in a change process that could take months or years to fully realize?
- Are we willing to open everything we do as an organization to discussion and analysis?
If you can find a critical mass of board and staff members who can answer yes to these questions, then your nonprofit is a candidate for true change and a more effective and sustainable path forward.
Because change is really hard. But with effective, meaningful change can come great reward.
Photo Credit: Pat Ronan
One 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
There was a very disturbing report last week. An NPR poll found that half of Americans who work 50-plus hours a week don’t take all or most of the vacation they’ve earned. And among those who do take vacations, 30% say they do “a significant amount” of work while on vacation.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to the critical social change work we are all doing to take a break every once in awhile. And I mean really take a break and reconnect with those things that make us human, not machine. I don’t care what your job is and how critically important the work you do is, you will do it more effectively if you are a whole person. And you become and stay a whole person when you take time away from that job.
And because I believe in practicing what I preach, I’m about to take my own advice and disconnect from the world of social change (and social media) for the next few weeks. Instead I will be relaxing, playing with my kids, reading, hiking, and just being.
But in case you’ve already taken your time off (good for you!) and you want some things to read while I’m out, here are a few things to explore:
- If you are feeling uninspired for the work ahead, read this, this or this.
- If you want to read other viewpoints on social change, check out past guest bloggers here and here, or catch up with some interviews with social change leaders.
- If you want to encourage some big, game-changing conversations with your board, have them read this, this or this.
- If you need help moving your nonprofit in a new direction, check out these step-by-step guides or books.
- And if you like lists, check out the best social change books, blogs, or conferences.
I’ll be back to writing the blog in mid-August. In the meantime, I hope you all find some space to breathe, to think, and to reconnect with what you are meant to do. Because believe me, we need you back in the Fall inspired and ready for the hard work ahead.
Photo Credit: Five Furlongs