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nonprofit leadership

Making the Case for Nonprofit Leaders: An Interview with Linda Wood

Linda WoodIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Linda Wood, Director of the Haas Leadership Initiative. Over the past decade, the Haas, Jr. Fund has invested over $20 million in strengthening the leadership of more than 75 grantees in its key priority areas– immigrant rights, education equity, and gay and lesbian rights—through the Flexible Leadership Awards program. In that time Linda has become a leading voice on the topic of leadership in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Prior to joining the Fund, she advised senior leaders on strategy, organizational performance and change management at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

You can read past Social Velocity interviews here.

Nell: The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund has put a lot of investment behind the development of nonprofit leaders, but you are quite an anomaly in the philanthropic world. Support for leadership development is taken as a given in the for-profit world, but rarely recognized, let alone funded, in the nonprofit world. Why do you think there is that discrepancy in leadership development between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds?

Linda: It really is striking to see how differently the business sector and the nonprofit world view the issue of leadership. I went to business school myself, and spent eight years working as a management consultant in the private sector where it’s basic good practice to invest in the people you’re counting on to move the work forward. Strengthening leadership is seen as part and parcel of what it takes to fuel innovation and success.

On the other hand, in the social sector, a lot of foundations think of leadership development as a luxury–a nice-to-have that’s not linked to impact. That’s reflected in recent estimates that less than 1% of total foundation spending is going to strengthen leadership in the nonprofit sector.

Why? Well, I think we’ve got a lot of myths about leadership in our sector.

One myth is that leadership development is simply not a priority for nonprofit leaders because most don’t ask for it. And, when grantees don’t ask, many foundations assume that there’s no need. But we have not yet created a culture in the nonprofit sector that says it’s ok to invest in yourself and in other senior organizational leaders. We place a high value on self-sacrifice. Given the choice, nonprofit leaders will almost always direct general support to critical services and programs. That’s why actually I think it’s important for foundations to earmark funds for supporting leadership.

Another related myth is that leadership is part of overhead, and overhead should be minimized at all costs. From this perspective, investments in the organization’s leadership are cleaved off from the work and seen as wasteful overhead rather than intrinsic to achieving the organization’s goals.

Nell: You recently curated a blog series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review where funders who have supported nonprofit leadership development articulated its value. How helpful do you think that step was in getting the broader philanthropic community to understand the value of leadership investment? And do you have additional plans to help move leadership development forward among your peers?

Linda: Our goal in putting together the SSIR blog series was to help build momentum around the idea of investing in leadership being a core grantmaking strategy that can catalyze diverse programmatic goals and not just a boutique strategy that only some funders can afford. By featuring perspectives from top-level executives from a half dozen foundations of very different sizes and with very different funding priorities, ranging from the Omidyar Network to the Women’s Foundation of California, we hoped to offer examples that would inspire more foundations to see possibilities for their own work.

To be honest, it’s hard to know whether we are moving the needle. But it does seem like there has been mounting attention to philanthropic underinvestment in leadership lately. Just over the past couple of months GEO and then NCRP have both released major reports making the case for more attention to leadership and talent development. And the Talent Philanthropy Project held a meeting in New York in March that attracted over 60 people including nonprofit leaders, funders, consultants, and intermediaries.

I think the real question is whether increased interest will translate into significant increases in investment—the kinds of sustained, strategic investments in leadership that advance the capacity of organizations, networks and movements to achieve better outcomes. The danger is that we foundations will sprinkle a little leadership development funding here and there, perhaps send a handful of our grantee leaders to a training, and call it a day.

Nell: You recently announced a new initiative to seek solutions to the challenges, which you uncovered in your 2013 UnderDeveloped study with CompassPoint, facing nonprofit fundraising. What are your long-term plans with this initiative and what do you hope to find?

Linda: The UnderDeveloped report caused such a stir across the country. I have heard from so many people—funders, grantees, consultants, board members, etc.—that the report gave voice to concerns they’ve held for a long time. It clearly hit a pain point. And the big question it begs is what to do about it?

At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we’ve decided our next step is to try and refine concrete strategies that will help our grantees, and hopefully others, achieve breakthroughs in their fundraising.

One of our goals is to help organizations be more strategic about their approach to fund development. There’s so much out there. The nonprofit fundraising industry is full of consultants, speakers, large trade associations and technology providers. They offer costly, sometimes contradictory advice, patented approaches, one-off success stories, and a dizzying array of technology tools and platforms for raising money. As a result, our work in fundraising may be less about innovating and more about separating the wheat from the chaff, helping grantees chart a coherent, fruitful course through the thicket of possibilities.

Right now, we’re in the R & D phase. Here are some of the questions we’re exploring:

  • What fundraising success stories can be replicated by our grantees? To answer this question, we will conduct “bright spots” research focused on small- to medium-sized organizations who have had sustained success with individual fundraising.
  • How can we address the fundraising talent gap? To answer this question, we are conducting a scan of fundraising training and exploring the feasibility of a “fundraising fellowship.”
  • One fund development approach that’s attracting attention is developing a “culture of philanthropy.” But what does that mean? And what difference does it make?
  • Are there ways to help an entire field of grantees? To identify potential investments that might help a field of grantees, we are testing whether and how donor research can help LGBT grantees with fundraising.

As we tackle these questions, we are sharing what we’re learning along the way through a series of blogs on our website. And we’d love to hear from other people. What questions are missing? What can a foundation’s role be in supporting fundraising capacity?

Ultimately, this isn’t just an intellectual exercise. Our goal is to get better at supporting grantees around fund development, and to that end, we anticipate beginning to pilot some new strategies starting in 2016.

You asked what we hope to achieve with this work over the long term. I think if I could fast forward a couple of years, I would hope we will have made a dent in strengthening the talent pipeline for development directors, and that we are helping organizations bring more skill, focus and success to their fundraising, especially in tapping individual donors.

Nell: Philanthropy has traditionally been less interested in funding capacity building (like leadership development and fundraising). Do you think that’s changing? And/or do you think we will have more hope of changing that as generational shifts take hold in philanthropy?

Linda: Yes, I often feel like there’s a real divide between the folks in philanthropy who are focused on the what and those who are focused on the how.

Obviously, we’re all in this work for the what—to help create a more just and sustainable world. But often in philanthropy, conversations about things like capacity and leadership are disconnected from the conversations about the content of the work. We hold separate conferences; we belong to different affinity groups; we read different articles…

So, as someone who’s a member of the how club (as we sometimes jokingly refer to it among ourselves) I think we need to keep strengthening the connection between building leadership and capacity and delivering programmatic wins. No matter what a given foundation seeks to achieve programmatically–whether that’s community health, environmental justice or education equity–it’s important to ask how they will get from where they are today to where they want to be. What is our responsibility as funders to support the people and organizations who are advancing this work? What kind of staff, board and community leadership will be needed to get where we all want to go? And how can we transmit in words and in concrete actions that we are in this together and that we want to provide them with the resources to do their best work.

Photo Credit: Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund

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Courageous, Adaptive Nonprofit Leadership: Pillar 1

leadershipAs I mentioned last month, the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am a member) recently released the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit. Because I think the Performance Imperative is so important and every nonprofit leader should understand it and begin to use it, today I am kicking off a series to describe, one-by-one, each of the seven pillars of the Performance Imperative.

I think the Performance Imperative is so exciting because it can serve as a north star to the nonprofit sector, helping organizations analyze their own performance and create a clear roadmap for improvement.

As Lowell Weiss, one of the leading architects of the Performance Imperative, explained in my interview with him last month:

High performance is all too rare in our sector today. In fact, we don’t even have a commonly accepted definition of the term “high performance.” The Performance Imperative is our attempt to create that common definition and then start the process of creating guideposts to help nonprofits who are motivated to improve their performance for the clients and causes they serve.

So, first up in this series on the Performance Imperative is Pillar #1: Courageous, Adaptive Executive and Board Leadership.

Without true leadership, at both the board and staff level, you will achieve little as a nonprofit. This pillar is about asking hard questions, pushing the organization toward excellence, continuously improving and taking nothing for granted.

You can read the full description of Pillar #1 in the Performance Imperative, but here are a few key elements present in nonprofits that exhibit this pillar:

  • Boards “ask probing questions about whether the organization is living up to its promises and acknowledge when course correction is needed.”
  • Executives and boards “know that great talent is a huge differentiator between organizations that are high performing and those that aren’t.”
  • Executives and boards “know that they haven’t figured it all out and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do.”
  • Executives and boards “are constantly assessing not only what the organization should be doing but also what it should stop doing…redirecting scarce resources to the highest opportunity areas.”

In other words, nonprofit leaders who embody Pillar 1 of the Performance Imperative, ask hard questionsbuild a stellar staff, seek continuous improvement, and put resources to their highest and best use.

There is no doubt that there are many examples of this courageous, adaptive leadership in the nonprofit sector. One of those, I believe, is Molly Baldwin, founder and CEO of Roca.

Molly founded Roca in 1988, and by 2004 it was a multi-million dollar teenage pregnancy and violence prevention program.  But that year, Molly began asking some hard questions about the results Roca was achieving. She forced board and staff to take a huge step back and examine what they were doing and the ultimate effect that work had.  She led her board and staff through a rigorous refocusing and pruning effort to limit their target populations and use data to drive their interventions. Instead of continuing a laundry list of services to many different populations that had limited effect, she helped her organization refocus resources on where they could create real change — transforming the lives of young men in the criminal justice system.

It was a challenging transition to lead, but the results are impressive. An internal study overseen by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2013 found that Roca reduced recidivism 65% and increased employment by 100% for the men in the program. And Roca was chosen as the lead provider in Masschusetts’ first pay for success effort.

Ten years ago Molly could have continued on Roca’s then current path, continuing to do “good work,” but failing to ask hard questions about whether that work was really resulting in change. But instead, Molly brought everything to a halt and forced board and staff to grapple with some fundamental and incredibly risky questions. In the end Molly’s leadership transformed Roca into an organization that is truly delivering solutions.

That’s the kind of social change leadership we need.

If you want to learn more, download the Performance Imperative and read additional case studies here.

Photo Credit: William B. T. Trego painting depicting George Washington’s army at Valley Forge.

 

 

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What Is A High-Performance Nonprofit?

PI-Poster-WebPromoGraphic-580x750I’m really excited to announce today’s launch of the Performance Imperative. The Performance Imperative is a detailed definition, created by a community of nonprofit thought leaders, of a high-performance nonprofit. The hope is with a clear definition of high-performance we can strengthen nonprofit efforts to achieve social change.

As we all know, we are living in a time of growing wealth inequality, crumbling institutions, political divides, and the list of social challenges goes on. The burden of finding solutions to these challenges increasingly falls to the nonprofit sector. So “good work” is no longer enough. We need to understand — through rigor and evidence — which solutions are working and which are not.

The Performance Imperative was created by the Leap Ambassadors Community, a network of 70+ nonprofit thought leaders and practitioners of which I am a member. The group emerged from the 2013 After the Leap conference, which brought nonprofit, philanthropic and government leaders together to create a higher-performing nonprofit sector. The group is determined to lead the fundamental, and critical, shift towards a more effective nonprofit sector.

The Performance Imperative defines nonprofit high performance as “the ability to deliver—over a prolonged period of time—meaningful, measurable, and financially sustainable results for the people or causes the nonprofit is in existence to serve.”

The Performance Imperative further describes seven organizational pillars that lead to high performance:

  1. Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership
  2. Disciplined, people-focused management
  3. Well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies
  4. Financial health and sustainability
  5. A culture that values learning
  6. Internal monitoring for continuous improvement
  7. External evaluation for mission effectiveness.

Each one of these 7 pillars is fully explained in the Performance Imperative.

Over the next several months I will write a blog series that digs into each of these 7 pillars to understand what each one means for a nonprofit organization and to examine case studies of how other nonprofit leaders have approached the pillars. And next week on the blog I’ll interview one of the founders of this movement toward high performance.

Although the Performance Imperative is targeted toward $3M+ nonprofits, it can also be a benchmark upon which any social change nonprofit can measure itself. Nonprofit boards and staffs can use the Performance Imperative as a north star to guide their journey toward higher performance.

To learn more about the Performance Imperative, watch the video below (or here), or download the complete Performance Imperative here.

The critical necessity of a high performing nonprofit sector is clear. We no longer have the luxury of benevolent good works that sit aside the business of our country. Now is the time to find solutions that really work and develop the leadership and sustainability to spread them far and wide.

As Mario Morino, founder of the Leap Ambassador Community has said, “If we don’t figure out how to build high performing nonprofits, nothing else matters. This is the last mile. Our nation depends on it.”

 

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Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader [Slideshare]

Today I am in Sacramento (it’s a busy travel month) speaking at the Nonprofit Resource Center’s 2015 Conference “Building a Mission Focused Community.” I am honored to share the stage with amazing nonprofit sector visionaries like Jan Masaoka from the California Association of Nonprofits and Blue Avocado, Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, and Robert Egger from LA Kitchen (and past Social Velocity interviewee and guest blogger).

My topic for today’s conference is “Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.” Amid growing competition, decreased funding sources, and more and increasingly complex social challenges, nonprofit leaders must reinvent themselves. They must unlock the charity shackles, embrace strategy and impact, use money as a tool, refuse to play nice, and demand real help. We need a new kind of nonprofit leader.

Below is a Slideshare synopsis of my talk today, and it joins the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations.

And if you want to learn more about how to reinvent your nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book or on-demand webinar.

Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader from Nell Edgington

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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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5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2015

5 Nonprofit Trends to WatchI love this time of year. Not just because of the approaching space for relaxation, friends and family, and great food, but more importantly because it is a time for reflection. The end of the year offers a natural analytic marker between what was and what is yet to come.

And as is my end of the year tradition on the blog, it’s a time to look ahead to what the coming year might bring for the nonprofit sector. I’ve always said when I create my Trends to Watch lists that I am less clairvoyant and more optimist. I am always hopeful that the nonprofit sector is growing more effective, more sustainable, more able to create lasting social change. That’s the trajectory that (I freely admit) I am predisposed to see.

So here are 5 things I’m really hopeful about the nonprofit sector as we head into the new year.

You can also read past Nonprofit Trends to Watch Lists for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

  1. Growth of the Sharing Economy
    The emerging “sharing economy,” where a good or service is shared by many instead of consumed by one and managed largely through the use of social technologies (think AirBNB, Netflix, TaskRabbit and countless others), will have wide implications for the social change sector. The sector that employed “sharing” long before it was cool will need to understand this changing environment and the implications for their work. Nonprofits should figure out how to navigate this growing interest (and increasing for-profit competition) in the realms of community and goodwill. It will be fascinating to watch.

  2. More Focus on Crowdfunding
    One element borne out of the sharing economy is crowdfunding, and there is no doubt that it is everywhere. I have written before about my skepticism. But my hope is that crowdfunding will move away from ALS Ice Bucket Challenge-like hype and become another financing tool that nonprofits can use strategically. We need to get smarter about what crowdfuding is, and what it isn’t. A Kickstarter campaign makes sense for startup and other capital needs, but not for ongoing revenue. And while Giving Days are exciting, I’d like to see more analysis of what’s new money and what is cannibalized money. There is no doubt that crowdfunding is a force to be reckoned with, I just hope we turn it into a useful, strategic tool that contributes to — not detracts from — sustainable social change financing.

  3. Decreasing Power of the Overhead Myth
    The Overhead Myth, the destructive idea that nonprofits should spend as little as possible on “overhead” expenses (like infrastructure, fundraising, and administrative costs) was laid bare in 2013 when GuideStar, CharityNavigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance wrote their famous Letter to the Donors of America. This year they wrote a follow up Letter to the Nonprofits of America, arguing that both nonprofit leaders and donors must stop judging nonprofits by their overhead rate and instead focus on a nonprofit’s outcomes. It’s exciting to see this most detrimental of nonprofit myths beginning to crumble, but there is still much work to be done. Not least of which is helping nonprofits articulate and measure their outcomes so that they have a more effective measure with which to replace the overhead rate.

  4. Growing Emphasis on High Performance
    Which brings me to the growing movement for creating more high performing nonprofits. Over the past several years there has been an emerging effort to move nonprofits toward this outcomes approach to their work. The idea is that if nonprofits can better articulate and measure the social change they seek, more resources, sustainability and ultimately more change will follow. In the coming year, a group of social sector leaders (of which I am a member) will release a framework for what practices constitute a high performing nonprofit. But that is just one example of a growing emphasis in the social change sector on results.

  5. Greater Investment in Nonprofit Leadership
    Nonprofit leaders have long traveled a lonely road with inadequate support and resources. Funders and board members often assume that a leader should go it alone, even while for-profit leaders benefit from on-going coaching, training and development. But that is starting to change. A few savvy foundations have invested in nonprofit leadership, and they are beginning to trumpet the benefits of such investments. As more funders understand why investing in the leaders of the nonprofits they fund makes sense, I am hopeful that nonprofit leadership support will become less of an anomaly. And with stronger, more effective and supported leaders comes — I firmly believe — more social change.

Photo Credit: slorenlaboy

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How Do We Fund Nonprofit Leadership Development?

LeadershipSomething pretty exciting is going on. Perhaps I’m an eternal optimist, or I’m suffering from confirmation bias, but it seems to me that more funders are starting to talk about investing in the capacity of nonprofits, particularly around nonprofit leadership development.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review kicked off a new blog series this month focused on the topic. Over the next three months, six foundation leaders will blog about why they have made investments in the leadership development of their nonprofit grantees and what the return on investment has been.

This is phenomenal because the more we talk about and demonstrate the return on investment of nonprofit leadership development, and really of any capacity investments, the more likely we will be to see other funders follow suit.

As Ira Hirschfield, president of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, points out in the inaugural post in the new SSIR series, less than 1 percent of overall foundation giving went to leadership development between 1992 and 2011, while the private sector allocates billions of dollars to it.

Why are we not investing in our nonprofit leaders? If we truly want to create change to some of our most pressing social issues don’t we need the strongest, most effective leaders possible?

As Hirschfield puts it so well:

Foundations ask a great deal of the organizations we support…in short, we hope grantees will deliver transformational results for the people and places they serve. So it’s striking how seldom we back that up with funds to help organizations develop and strengthen the ability of their leaders to meet those high expectations. People are not born with everything it takes to manage and motivate a team, build coalitions, and lead change…Leaders who have the opportunity to reflect on their strategies and hone their skills make better choices, develop innovative solutions and forge stronger collaborations. This is what leadership development is about—and to the extent that foundations decide it is important and fund it, then we and our grantees will be better positioned to achieve our goals for impact.

In other words, foundation funding will go further if funders also invest in the leaders of those organizations they fund.

It seems like a no-brainer. And it is a no-brainer in the for-profit world. But as we so often do in the nonprofit sector, we are selling the sector, and its leaders short.

But it is not enough (nor are we anywhere near it anyway) for funders to understand the need for investing in nonprofit leaders. Nonprofit leaders themselves need to stop apologizing and start demanding (in a nice way!) investment in their own capacity. And leadership development is only one of the many areas in which nonprofits need capacity investment. Nonprofits also require fundraising expertise and staffing, program evaluation, technology and systems, and the list goes on.

So if we are to have any hope of moving this topic beyond the blogroll, nonprofit leaders and funders need to start having better conversations about what it will really take to accomplish their joint impact goals. Because if, at the end of the day, we are all looking to achieve more impact, then capacity to deliver on that impact must be part of the conversation.

If you want to learn more about capacity investments from both the nonprofit and funder sides, download the Power of Capacity Capital book, and if you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Clinton and Charles Robertson

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Investing in Nonprofit Leadership: An Interview with Rick Moyers

Moyers-PortraitIn this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Rick Moyers, vice president for programs and communications at the Meyer Foundation in Washington DC – a regional grantmaker that is nationally recognized for its capacity-building programs. Rick is a co-author of the Daring to Lead 2006 and Daring to Lead 2011 national studies of nonprofit executive directors, and has written and spoken extensively on executive and board leadership. He currently serves on the boards of BoardSource, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, and the Community Connections Fund of the World Bank Group.

You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.

Nell: You write a lot about nonprofit boards of directors. As a general rule, because they are volunteers, nonprofit boards tend to be pretty ineffective and disengaged from truly leading their organizations. Can the current structure of nonprofit leadership be made more effective? Or is there a better structure, and if so, how would we undertake such a fundamental shift in the sector?

Rick: We can’t give up on boards just because many boards are ineffective, any more than we can give up on public schools just because so many are struggling. And the fact that board members are volunteers doesn’t necessarily account for their disengagement—some of the most passionate and productive contributors to the nonprofit sector are volunteers.

But just because I’m not ready to give up doesn’t mean we can just keep doing the things we’ve been doing to improve boards, hoping our efforts will produce better results, and wringing our hands when they don’t. We’ve heaped so many expectations and roles onto the backs of boards that I’m not sure it’s possible for any board to fulfill all of them all the time. A good place to start improving things would be to become much more focused and pragmatic about what we expect from boards. A clear set of expectations – one that’s not simply a laundry list of everything we wish boards would do – would be a start. Along with the recognition that organizations need different things from their boards depending on their circumstances.

We need to recruit board members with at least as much thought and effort as we put into recruiting employees, if not even more given that board service is a multi-year and often multi-term commitment. I know board members who have been invited to join the boards of organizations with which they were completely unfamiliar after a 15-minute conversation with the chair of the nominating committee—or a casual lunch with the executive director. And then we wonder why they have a hard time engaging. If we recruited board members as if the job mattered and their selection was an important decision, perhaps they would start taking the job more seriously. We can’t give up on boards without doing a better job of trying to help them function better.

At the same time, there would be enormous value in trying out alternative structures and talking openly about whether they worked any better than the current model. My hunch is that alternatives are being tried out quietly, but we don’t talk about them much. I’d be interested in learning more about very small boards (four or five carefully chosen people), the impact of compensation on board member performance, boards with greater staff representation, and boards that are more democratic and representative of the constituencies and communities being served. I’m not confident in suggesting any of these as an alternative to current practice because I don’t think we know enough. But we don’t know enough because most organizations don’t believe they have permission to experiment (and maybe they don’t). There’s enormous pressure for “normative” behavior in governance, even though we know that normative behavior often produces mediocre results.

I don’t have a good answer for how we break this cycle, but I think we need a “learning lab” for governance practices. We need to be bolder in our experiments, and more open in sharing the results, even when they are unsuccessful.

Nell: The Daring to Lead studies that you co-authored with CompassPoint demonstrate a deep leadership crisis in the nonprofit sector – nonprofit leaders are burned out, planning to leave, and lack support for leadership development. Is more money for leadership development the answer, and if so, how do we get funders to understand the need and fund it?

Rick: More money is the answer, but not necessarily more money for leadership development. My take-away from this body of work is that chronic under-capitalization is at the root of executive director burnout and dissatisfaction. The problem is not just that organizations don’t have enough money for leadership development. They don’t have enough money for anything.

While I applaud funders that invest in leadership development—and the Meyer Foundation is among them—there’s also a danger that funder-driven leadership development programs become simply another demand on already overextended executive directors. Funders need to recognize the importance of leadership development, but also need a keen understanding of the financial and organizational constraints that have a profound impact on executive directors who may already be accomplished leaders. One of the lessons from my foundation’s experience is that large grants for leadership development can be hard to use when executives are facing so many other challenges and distractions, many of which are related to finances and fundraising.

Nell: Why is leadership development taken as a given in the for-profit sector, but taboo in the nonprofit sector? Why do we assume that nonprofit leaders should be able to go it alone? And how do we change that attitude?

Rick: In the for-profit sector, there are more vehicles for ensuring adequate capitalization and leaders have greater discretion over how they can use that capital, with the mandate of producing the greatest return for owners, investors, and shareholders. That said, it’s very telling that so many large companies spend freely on leadership development without questioning the return on investment, while nonprofit leaders are conditioned to question every penny spent on anything other than program delivery. Boards can be especially shortsighted in this regard, under-investing in current executive directors without considering the costs—in money, organizational reputation, and lost momentum—of an untimely transition. We need more evidence, both anecdotal and quantitative, of the ROI for leadership development in the nonprofit sector. Producing that evidence and telling that story will require resources, but I’m concerned that without that investment we’ll never be able to make a convincing case to boards and funders that are increasingly focused on evidence-based approaches.

Nell: Do you think as Millennials age into leadership positions in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors they will fundamentally change nonprofit leadership? And if so, how?

Rick: While not wanting to sound cranky, I object on principle to making generalizations about a group of 80 million people as if they were a single thing. And as a member of Generation X, I also must point out that we’re the ones who are currently aging into leadership positions. What about us, damn it?

Crankiness aside, as someone who works with younger leaders every day, I have noticed some differences that hold promise for the future. Many in the rising generation are much more socially aware, passionate about social change, and optimistic that they can make a difference than I was at their age. They are choosing careers in the nonprofit sector with more thought and intention than previous generations. The dramatic increase in the number of academic centers and degree programs focused on the nonprofit sector and philanthropy over the past 20 years is producing accomplished young leaders with broad skill sets and considerable insight into nonprofit work.

I do notice a more conscious commitment to work-life balance, and more intentionality around achieving it, which I hope will help reduce burnout and abrupt departures of nonprofit executives. Just within the last six months, I’ve watched three younger executive directors transition out of their jobs because they were seeking greater work-life balance. The difference from what I’ve seen in the past is that these executives decided to leave after successful tenures of more than five years, and after working intentionally to develop a strong board and staff leadership team that could handle the transition. These leaders stepped down before they burned out, and handed off strong organizations that were prepared for the change. That’s very encouraging, and I hope it’s a trend.

A committed and talented cadre of younger leaders is already in the nonprofit leadership pipeline – not by accident, but because they want to be here. Daring to Lead and many other studies have highlighted the challenges inherent in being an executive director, so these younger leaders know what the role entails. And they still want to do it. I think that bodes well for the future, and I’m optimistic.

Photo Credit: Meyer Foundation

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