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The Network Approach to Social Change

nonprofit networkAlthough I already mentioned (in my September 10 Great Reads list) a really interesting article about “network entrepreneurs,” I want to further explore the concept because I think it could be a game changer for nonprofit leaders willing to embrace it.

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in September, Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer describe a “network entrepreneur” as different from, and much more effective at creating social change than a typical nonprofit leader. As they put it:

A network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal.

And this mirrors Wei-Skillern’s earlier article from 2008, “The Networked Nonprofit” where she described how a “networked nonprofit” builds alliances far beyond its own walls and is thus much more effective at creating social change that a traditional nonprofit:

Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts. And unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.

In essence, the network approach to social change is one of true leadership — leadership writ large. Because a true leader leaves their ego, and the ego of their organization, aside in order to assemble all the required resources (individuals, institutions, networks, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of leading an organization, a network entrepreneur is, in essence, leading a social change movement.

A network entrepreneur understands that social change lives beyond any single organization. It requires someone (or a set of someones) to marshall all the necessary resources, create a larger change vision and lead people towards that vision.

This concept is so critical to nonprofit leaders who are often working with such limited resources. If instead of working to build an institution, a nonprofit leader worked to build networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change.

So what does this network approach look like in practice for a nonprofit leader?

Instead of thinking just about your organization, your staff, your mission, your board, your donors, you must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside your walls. You need to analyze the other people and entities working on similar challenges, and not just in the nonprofit space, but also in other sectors, geographies and time periods (yes, history matters!).  Determine how other places, other people, other organizations, both past and present, addressed similar problems. You need to understand the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than your single organization can. Figure out who the influencers are in the space and how to connect your work with those other individuals, institutions, networks.

The network approach also requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding. Instead leaders must take an abundance approach that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder approach.

And the network approach involves having the confidence to think that there is potentially a larger solution and that you might be part of it. The dysfunctional power imbalance present for so long in the nonprofit sector has bred a crisis of confidence that keeps nonprofit leaders focused just on their own work, instead of seeing the larger picture and envisioning a larger solution or role in that solution.

The network approach to social change involves taking a big step back from the work you have always done. It requires asking a much larger set of questions. And having the faith, confidence and leadership to plug into the network for social change.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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Why Some Nonprofits Leap, And Others Don’t

leapI am back after an amazing three weeks away from the world of social change. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my job and the ability it gives me to work each day with incredibly inspiring, passionate, and driven social changemakers.

But as I’ve said before, time away is absolutely critical to feeding your soul and making you a more complete, interesting and effective person. I am so grateful to the amazing guest bloggers who wrote incredible pieces for the blog while I was away (you can read their posts here).

One of the benefits of giving your brain a break is new insight. It occurred to me while I was away that there is a big difference between social change efforts that just exist and those that reach the tipping point of achieving real social change. I work at the nexus between the two because nonprofit leaders often come to me when they hit an inflection point. They desire a big change — to move out of the status quo and take a big leap — but they don’t know how to get there.

Sometimes they make the leap, and sometimes they don’t. And the difference often comes down whether or not they possess (or cultivate) these traits:

Those nonprofits that make it have someone (or a handful of someones) who are the cheerleaders for the change they seek. These are the people who are constantly reminding board members, staff, donors about why change is necessary and all of the great things that will happen if they continue with the hard work. To achieve true change you must have a leader who can see the ultimate goal and rallies everyone together to get there.

To take a big leap (scale your solution, rebuild your board) you must have the confidence that you can do it. And you need the confidence to convince others to join you. You have to “fake it ’til you make it.” Some leaders are really good at this, others are not. It amazes me how important confidence is and how many in the nonprofit sector often lack it. You must fight the fairly normal state in the nonprofit sector of supplication and instead make confident demands for what it will take to achieve the change you seek.

Related to confidence — but different — is a necessary fearlessness. A nonprofit leader I worked with several years ago wanted to dramatically grow her services, and she knew she needed a bigger, more networked board to get there. So she had to get over the fear of asking for new connections. It is terrifying to ask someone to help you in new ways, or to ask for something you’re not sure the other person is willing or able to give, but you don’t get anything unless you ask. The path of change may be really difficult, or it may force you to make hard decisions. But if you want real change you have to face those uncertainties head on.

Changing minds, changing systems, changing habits is really hard work, and you must be dedicated to seeing the change through to the end. I know that the daily work of your nonprofit is already hard work. But I’m talking about a different kind of hard work. It is the hard work of explaining to ineffective board members why they have to resign, or letting poor performing staff members go, or educating donors about how they are holding your organization back, or creating new performance management systems. I have found that those nonprofit leaders who are constantly fighting the urge to settle back into the status quo are the ones who succeed.

It’s not enough to want a bigger, better, more effective organization. You must cultivate the vision, drive, confidence and fearlessness to get there.

Photo Credit: Stuart Anthony

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Nonprofit Leaders, Take a Breath

nonprofit leaderEarlier this month, after much effort, I finally convinced a worn out nonprofit leader to take some time off to rejuvenate. But it was a battle.

Because they are often incredibly driven by ambitious social change visions, tremendous empathy for the plight of their clients, and an overly developed gratitude to their board and donors, nonprofit leaders push themselves extremely hard.

In fact, nonprofit leaders are really quite excellent at self-denial. I see this all the time in my coaching practice.

But nonprofit leaders you must give yourselves permission to breathe. And I don’t mean an afternoon off, or a weekend without checking email.

I mean a real break. A break where you start to find yourself again.

Not yourself as a nonprofit leader, but yourself as a human being with interests, connections, and passions outside of your organization. Someone who explores the world around you. Someone who realizes that you are on this earth for a very short time and while your role in social change is absolutely necessary, it is not your only contribution, nor is it the only place you can (or should) find meaning.

Because let’s be honest, the only way a pace like yours ends is in complete social change burnout. By existing only on the unending treadmill of work, work, work and ignoring your very human need to reconnect with your passions, your spirit, your family and friends you are setting yourself up for eventual breakdown. And make no mistake, without you as leader at the helm, your nonprofit’s work will grind to a halt.

So during these summer months when things are perhaps a bit slower, give yourself permission to take an extended period of time away.

And I mean really away.

Turn off your phone and your email. Step back from social media (believe me it will still be there when you get back).

Without the constant deluge of information and demands on your time assailing you, you are free to hike the mountains, get a massage, take in an art exhibit, watch your children or your grandchildren play (and join them!), explore your hobbies, read an amazing book. It really doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do something different and meaningful. Embrace the parts of yourself outside of your social change job, those things that make you fully human.

You may even consider taking it further, as philanthropic thought leader Lucy Bernholz did recently with a “digital sabbatical” where she went offline (no email or social media) for six weeks. She found the experience incredibly rejuvenating: “Without the addictive stimulation and distractions of digital life it feels like my brain grew three sizes.”

As the daily glut of information continues to increase, it becomes more important than ever to take a breather, to embrace the quiet. There is tremendous value in reconnecting with what makes us human, not machine.

And let me assure you that I am giving myself this same advice. I know how hard it is to step away from the email and social media beasts. I’m as concerned as you are with letting people down or not making enough progress.

But I am slowly coming to realize that sometimes progress is found in the quiet. And sometimes it is enough — more than enough — to just be. To sit and watch the world in all its beauty float by and have absolutely no effect on it other than to appreciate it.

If you need help finding the space to do this, check out the Coaching I offer nonprofit leaders.

Photo Credit: pixabay


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The Nonprofit Sector’s Crisis of Confidence

rosieI sometimes wonder how many of the nonprofit sector’s challenges stem from a fundamental lack of confidence. Don’t get me wrong, there are deep structural dysfunctions at play in the nonprofit sector. The sector is held back by a lack of adequate financial resources and an on-going grantor/grantee power imbalance, to name just two.

But how much is a lack of nonprofit leader confidence also to blame? How much further could we go in the sector if more nonprofit leaders confidently stood up for what they believe, what they need, and the value of the work they do.

I am a huge believer in confidence. In fact, I think that those who exude confidence, even when they don’t necessarily feel it, are far more likely than those who don’t to be taken seriously and get what they want.

But often in the nonprofit sector that confidence is absent.

I think this lack of confidence stems from a fundamental feeling of inadequacy that pervades the sector. Nonprofit leaders are subjected to a recurring litany of false beliefs that include, nonprofits: “live beside the economy“, “aren’t as capable as business“, only “do good work,” and “should be grateful” for whatever they get.

But nonprofit leaders must free themselves from those crippling shackles. You must stand up and demand (nicely if you’d like) what you truly need. And you start by articulating the value your organization provides.

Let me give you an example.

A nonprofit leader whose organization had long provided critical services for a school district was fed up with not being paid for those services (they had to privately fundraise for the costs of the program). The nonprofit leader did her research on how much money her organization was saving the district (in increased student attendance, additional staff and instruction time, etc.) and how much the district was investing in other inferior solutions.

She put together a confident, thoughtful and decisive presentation, secured a meeting with the superintendent, and made her case for increased investment. The end result was a superintendent blown away by the evidence and the nonprofit leader’s presentation. For the first time ever the superintendent included significant, multi-year support for the program in the district budget.

This nonprofit leader could have simply swallowed the fact that the school district didn’t value the services her organization provided. But instead she pointed out the disconnect between value provided and money invested and stood up for her organization.

I would guess that most nonprofit leaders lack that kind of confidence. And in fact, for many years even the nonprofit leader above didn’t have it.

But there is so much to be gained from a confident approach. Aside from the potential of securing more resources, when you become a confident player you start to identify strategic partners (like the school superintendent above) who can be your equal in the work of social change.

Because partnerships are infinitely more successful when they are forged by two equal entities coming together to create value. This is true for partnerships between your organization and your vendors (like the school district) but also your funders, board members, advocates, policymakers — anyone that you need on board in order to get the work done.

Confidence isn’t just about getting more of what your nonprofit needs. It’s ultimately about effectively creating social change. And you can’t create social change with your head down and your voice low.

So stop living in the shadows. Arm yourself with data, a compelling argument, an army of advocates and, most importantly, confidence to forge what you need in order to create change.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress


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Nonprofit Leaders, Stop Wasting Your Time

nonprofit managementAs a general rule, nonprofit leaders are a self-less lot. You are so driven by your passion for social change that you are willing to perform any and all tasks required to get the job done. But there is a critical calculation that so many nonprofit leaders neglect. And that is to understand the value of their time and allocate that most precious resource effectively.

Yes, you read that correctly.

As the leader of your nonprofit your time is your organization’s most precious resource. Sure, board members, other staff members, and donors are absolutely critical to the work. But without you, there would be nothing. You are the visionary, the cheerleader, the linchpin around which everything (and everyone) revolves.

There are only so many productive hours in the day, so any hour you spend on one task is an hour you don’t spend on another task. You must put each hour of your working day to its highest and best use. As the most important connector for your nonprofit, you should be outside the organization as much as possible meeting with allies, funders, prospects, decision-makers, advocates who can help move your mission forward.

If you are stuck inside your organization updating a database, cutting checks, filing, or putting out fires, you are missing a huge opportunity.

So you need to use your time more effectively. Here’s how to start:

Create a Strategy
When a nonprofit creates and then manages to an overall strategy there is less time spent putting out fires and more time achieving outcomes and goals. So convince your board and staff to create a strategic plan and then manage to that plan. Move your organization’s culture from the reactive to the strategic and watch how you (and your staff and board) get more accomplished in the same amount of time.

Manage To Goals, Not Tasks
Once you have a strategy in place, you can manage your staff to goals, instead of discrete tasks. Whenever possible, delegate whole projects instead of specific pieces. Give a staff person the end goal you have in mind and the tools they need to get there and then empower them to do it their way. Check in on a regular basis to see how they are doing, but resist the temptation to micromanage. In so doing you get more off your plate while giving your staff license for creativity and initiative.

Regularly Meet One-on-One With Staff
I know I’ve said it before, but I’m a HUGE fan of the management power of weekly one-on-one meetings with each member of your staff. There are so many benefits. Your staff interrupts you less frequently because they know they have your undivided attention once a week, you are more willing to delegate because you know you have regular check-in points, staff learn how to problem solve on their own, and (most importantly) you have more time to GET OUTSIDE.

Find Administrative Help
As head of your nonprofit you must free yourself, as much as possible, from paper pushing tasks like filing, database maintenance, accounting. If you have the budget, hire an administrative assistant. If you don’t have the budget, recruit a volunteer to provide office support until you can grow your financial model to support administrative help. And while you are at it, outsource your accounting to a freelance bookkeeper or virtual CFO. Don’t put your administrative support at the end of the list of things your nonprofit needs. The sooner you free up your time, the better off your entire organization will be.

Nonprofit leaders, stop selling yourself and your organization short. Your time has tremendous value. So think clearly about how you allocate that limited resource and find solutions that put your time to its highest and best use. Free yourself to be the connector, fundraiser, and leader your nonprofit so desperately needs.

If you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader Book or Webinar.

Photo Credit: National Archives

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Finding Shelter From Information Overload

Information 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



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What Kind of Nonprofit Leader Are You?

nonprofit leaderAs 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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…

To read more, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book. Or you can download the on-demand Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader webinar.

Photo Credit: Satish Krishnamurthy

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The Value of Quiet for the Nonprofit Leader

QuietAs 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

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