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
Lest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.
The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.
The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.
There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).
So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.
But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:
- “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.
- “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.
- “Reward Innovation”
The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.
- “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.
- “Invest in Community Leaders”
The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?
Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.
Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.
Photo Credit: Adrian
It has been a rough several weeks. The horrifying brutality in Orlando was just another instance in what seems like an endless stream of gun violence. And that violence is just one of the challenges facing us, from an increasingly hate-filled presidential campaign, to growing wealth inequality, to racial unrest, to political polarization and gridlock. It seems now more than ever we need real leadership to point us toward the light.
But our nation’s leaders themselves are in turmoil. You only need to look at a recent picture of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see how conflicted and immobilized a leader can become.
We are witnessing a time that requires true leadership. This is a time where we need more people to ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the hard, potentially unpopular, but absolutely necessary thing to do?”
I think we saw a brief moment of leadership last week when Senate Democrats staged a filibuster to urge lawmakers to entertain a vote on gun regulation. Regardless of your politics, and the fact that the eventual votes on gun regulation were lost, I think we can all agree that it took courage and leadership for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to stand up for 14 hours demanding that his fellow senators take action. His point, along with the other Senators who stood with him, was that we are experiencing a time when leadership is needed. We no longer have the luxury of simply standing by while events at odds with what we know to be right unfold.
As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it:
“In this body, we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to not be bystanders. We’ve been bystanders in this body, we’ve been bystanders in this nation, as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that’s not heroic. To stand up and say we can be safer tomorrow, we can protect people’s lives, that’s not heroic. That’s just saying, ‘I will not be a bystander.’ And that’s all we have to do.”
A true leader does not ignore the fear that it will be hard, or that they don’t have enough resources, or that they aren’t the right person. A true leader recognizes those fears and proceeds anyway. A true leader doesn’t do the easy thing, or the thing that will benefit him individually or that will benefit the group that he represents. A true leader digs deep and honestly asks — what is the right thing to do? And a true leader does that thing.
As Martin Luther King said:
The great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place…We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
This is a time, perhaps more than usual, for social change leaders especially to step up. Because they are in many respects the moral compass of our country, of our world. They are the ones who are constantly thinking about a better path forward — a path that is more inclusive, democratic, fair and equitable, civil, safe and sustainable. Social change leaders are predisposed to rise up and lead us to a better way (and we are already starting to see that with work to address gun violence).
Social change leaders know better than anyone that times of enormous upheaval can also be times of tremendous opportunity. But only if we choose to act. And, more importantly, only if we are led to act.
At this moment we must not shrink from the darkness. We must not cower in the corner, or think that someone else will do the thing that we all know must be done. We must step up, we must speak out. We must dig deep and ask ourselves, “What can I do (however slight) to shift us from the course of darkness?”
And so we must rise.
Photo Credit: pixabay
Memorial Day is almost here, and in my mind that means so is the beginning of summer. While work surely carries on over the summer months, for many of us there tends to be more space to reflect, recharge, and reconnect with your core.
But you have to make time for it.
Sometimes nonprofit leaders will tell me that they love the slower pace of summer because it means they can catch up on their to do list, move paperwork off their desk, make progress on their filing, get more organized.
Let me tell you right now that your to do list will never be complete, so instead, make better use of the space summer provides by taking a big step back and getting inspired for the work ahead.
Here are some tasks I suggest you put at the top of your to do list this summer:
Before you can do anything else, you need to step out of the rat race for a bit and listen to the silence. There you can reconnect with your core, ponder some bigger questions, figure out what you are meant to do. Maybe you need to take a trip away from your normal routine and the many demands on your time. Maybe you need to find a space to just be. Maybe you need to find activities that are outside of your job, because remember that you are so much more than the leader of a nonprofit organization. However and wherever you do it, you have to make some time to journey inside.
Find Inspiration Again
I know as a nonprofit leader you are (or at least once were) inspired by the work you do. Passion and commitment to mission are often what define a social change leader. But that source of inspiration is not endless. And the day-to-day drudgery of trying to move mountains can wear you down and make that light grow dim. When that happens you have to seek inspiration elsewhere. The world we live in is endlessly inspiring, so when you are feeling that your vision is impossibly narrow, get outside your walls. We must give ourselves permission to reconnect with what makes us human, not machine. But if you simply cannot figure out what will inspire you, go back to the first item and get quiet enough, long enough to figure it out.
Ask Some Big Questions
Once you have found quiet and inspiration you will then have the capacity to figure out what’s next. Nonprofit leaders are so busy with the day-to-day that they often find themselves disconnected from the big picture. Why are you doing this work? What are your ultimate goals? Who is your target audience? Take advantage of the mental space summer provides to ask yourself and your board some of the big questions that can help you recommit to the work and more easily attract the other people and resources necessary for the next chapter.
Figure Out What’s In Your Way
If you are like most nonprofit leaders, you are so accustomed to scraping by without the necessary tools, staff, systems to do your job that you rarely take a big step back and ask, “What do we really need to accomplish our goals?” Take some time to figure out the things that drive you and your staff crazy. What are the hurdles standing in your way of doing more? An ineffective board? A lack of strategy? Not enough money? The wrong technology? Not enough staff? Create a list of what you really need to do the work, put it in front of your board and ask them to help put together a capacity building plan.
Man, are social change leaders hard on themselves. Apparently it’s not enough to work on saving the world, but you have to continually berate yourself for not doing it quickly enough, or well enough. So get over it. You are doing the best you can with what you have. Give yourself a break and you will find that without a bully constantly breathing down your neck you can accomplish much more. Take that knowledge with you into the fall, and you may just be transformed.
This summer, step outside the routine and commit to a real break that allows you the physical, mental and spiritual space that you as a social change leader so desperately need. Happy Summer!
Photo Credit: Unsplash