ONEplace Blog

News, comments, resources, and more for nonprofits.

The Madness of Winners & Losers

Our April NEWSletter arrives in the midst of March Madness. Those who attend to such things complete their brackets, contribute to the office pool and cheer on their team. And, while there may be several moral victories, the final result is one winner and several losers.

Sports competitions provide entertainment for most of us and build skills and character for those on the court or the fairway or the field. That spirit of competition also informs many approaches to business. However…

…competition is no way to run a nonprofit.

Successful nonprofits (as well as most successful businesses) thrive because they work cooperatively with other organizations. (BTW, this is confirmed by hundreds of studies dating from the late 1800’s through today.) They place their long-term vision and desire for impact above their own self-interest. And they increase their impact by embracing a network mind-set, giving knowledge and resources away to accomplish more than if they acted alone.

The funny thing is this: even though a network mind-set appears as generous and altruistic, it’s actually a function of enlightened self-interest. By focusing beyond your personal career and organizational success to the impact you wish to make, you increase your chances of being successful.

In their book, Forces for Good, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather Grant identify four tactics to implement this mind-set:

  1. Work to increase the resource pool for your cause more than grabbing for your share
  2. Share knowledge and expertise to gain more influence as a collective
  3. Develop leadership throughout the network
  4. Grow small networks into increasingly larger coalitions

Overall, it’s not about who gets the biggest grant or who gets the credit. It’s about getting that change.

ThomA

Just ONEthing - April

Every month, we learn much from the participants and presenters we meet at ONEplace. In Just ONEthing… we highlight an insight gained during the past month from our nonprofit community and its partners.

This month’s insight comes from Mary Jo Asmus, President of Aspire Collaborative Services. In her recent workshop, Coaching for Breakthrough Performance, Mary Jo taught and demonstrated the power of focused attention.

Spending as little as ten minutes being focused on the other person and asking them open questions, allows the individual to peel back layers of understanding and discover more effective courses of action.

Unlike feedback which offers evaluation of previous acts or consulting which offers specific direction, coaching opens individuals to the insights and possibilities within themselves.

More specifically, coaching:

  • Helps an individual visualize the current situation and desired future situation
  • Restates and builds on an individual’s own insights to co-discover possible options
  • Explores necessary tasks to remove barriers and achieve desired ends
  • Ensures commitment of the individual to take action and be accountable

Find out more about Mary Jo, including her informative blog at aspire-cs.com.

ThomA

Data-driven...Purpose-driven

In these days of big data, organizations are encouraged to embrace data-driven decision-making. “Trust the data!” becomes the grease on the wheels of success.

And yet, when provided access to the same data, different people arrive at different conclusions. Business leaders, politicians, and others will take a variety of actions based upon the same data. Why?

You cannot remove the human element.

Occasionally I stumble upon the quote, “Data is the seed…information is the crop…knowledge is the harvest.” How data becomes information and knowledge seems to make all the difference. In fact, I’ve seen self-proclaimed “data-driven organizations” intentionally take action directly counter to the data presented to and understood by them. They do this because they process the data through their purposes and priorities (and, perhaps, their politics) to arrive at meaningful information and knowledgeable action.

Big or small, data is an extremely valuable input, but it’s not the driver.

Purpose is the driver. Purpose drives it all – individuals, organizations, communities…everything.

Well-known living systems author Margaret Wheatley lays this out in her book, The Community of the Future. She observes that communities (i.e., organizations, neighborhoods, nations) driven by a common purpose support both an individual’s self-determination and their need for interpersonal relationships.

She suggests that an organization, community or any other entity achieves clarity of purpose and then lets each contribute to that purpose in his/her own way. This approach draws upon the energy created within the paradox of individual freedom and connected community, attracting people to the entity without asking them to shed their uniqueness.

While the human element may be messy at times, it brings the determination, vitality, and resilience required to develop effective, stable and sustainable entities. Plus it provides the security to reach out and collaborate with those around them.

So gather good data and give it your serious attention. But let your purpose be your driver.

Best,

Thom 

ThomA

What's a board to do?

Faced with an ever-changing landscape and the annual coming and going of members, boards often scramble to keep up. Time and again, however, our research and experience show that keeping the basic responsibilities in front of the board provide the needed grounding and focus to maintain the board’s effectiveness.

What are these responsibilities? They may be described in various ways. Under the law, board members must meet certain standards of conduct in carrying out their responsibilities to the organization. These are usually described as:

  • Duty of care – exercising reasonable care in making decisions as a steward of the organization
  • Duty of loyalty – acting in the best interest of the organization and never using information obtained as a member for personal gain
  • Duty of obedience – being faithful to the organization’s mission and acting in ways consistent with the organization’s central goals

In our recent Leadership Academy class, Larry Hermen took the Ten Basic Responsibilities of a Board and categorized them as:

  • Mission – This includes establishing and evaluating mission & vision, engaging in strategic planning, overseeing programs, and helping the organization communicate effectively
  • Money – This includes overseeing the organization’s finances, fundraising, and ensuring sound risk management practices
  • Management – This includes managing the work of the board, member recruiting and orientation, and executive director hiring and supervision

In our recent Better Board Series, we reduced the Ten Basic Responsibilities to three foundational tasks:

  • Manage relationships – This sets the foundation for fundraising, board recruitment, executive director hiring and supervision, and enhancing the organization’s public standing
  • Set direction – This sets the foundation for establishing and evaluating the mission and vision, ensuring effective planning, and monitoring the effectiveness of programs and services
  • Ensure integrity – This sets the foundation for proper financial oversight, protecting assets, and ensuring legal compliance

I’m sure there are many other ways to slice and dice these core responsibilities.

The sum of all of these is that they encourage the board to:

  1. Keep focused attention on its mission as well as the larger cause that it serves
  2. Work together because no one person or ad hoc group may act on behalf of the board

Keeping these basic responsibilities in front of the board goes a long way to keeping the board engaged and the organization sustainable.

Best,

Thom

ThomA

I'd like to thank...

I don't go to many movies but I always watch the Oscars. This year was no different.

Every year, without fail, the one thing you can count on is that every acceptance speech will include a long list of names – usually too long to name everyone. These lists include close colleagues, family, and long-time supporters; people to thank and to share in the award. Why? The point is clear:

No one achieves great things alone.

I see the same thing happen at any awards program from the national stage to the local community center. Working together is the only way we can move the needle, change the conversation, create collective impact or fulfill our vision. So, a key question for each one of us is this:

With whom do I need to connect?

I recently talked with a board president who told me that their board created a list of key influencers - people who would support their cause and were in a position to advance their cause. After refining the list, they divided it up, each person taking responsibility for connecting with the people on their list. In this way, the board engaged efforts towards building public support and laid the foundation for sustainability.

What’s your vision for a better tomorrow, and who shares that vision? Who can help address the cause your organization is working so hard to advance? These and similar questions may stimulate discussion at your next management or board meeting. If you’re not sure how to proceed, contact ONEplace and we’ll work on a strategy together.

Best,

Thom

ThomA

Direct Assistance for Unique Challenges

Many of you are aware that ONEplace offers direct assistance services, i.e., first line consultation on unique challenges and concerns faced by nonprofit staff and boards. We average about six contacts each day, attending to phone calls, emails, and personal appointments.

We value this work in large part because of the trust inherent in our conversations. You not only trust us to provide sound guidance and resources but also to hold your concerns in confidence. We honor this position and hold it as a cornerstone of our organization’s integrity.

Building upon this position, we have responded to specific needs by conducting limited on-site facilitation and training for organization staff and boards of directors. These tailored events not only address your specific challenges and concerns, they also provide a common experience upon which to build. Responses to this service so far have been very positive.

Another extension of our direct assistance services comes in recognizing that ONEplace doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes your best solution resides within another organization that has faced a similar challenge in their recent past. So, from time to time, we facilitate introductions and connections between nonprofits to address the specific concern and to continue to strengthen the overall nonprofit sector.

We value your trust and hope you will extend it to your colleagues as we assist one another in building more effective organizations and a stronger community.

ThomA

Coffee with Pat Taylor

This month we sit down with Pat Taylor, Executive Director of the Eastside Neighborhood Association. She shares her vast experience in working in the nonprofit sector and her creative approach to solving local issues.

Tell us how you got to where you are today

I began my career in the nonprofit world by volunteering, first at the defunct Civic Black Theatre (acting and technical theatre positions). My next volunteer opportunity came by assisting the Executive Director at that time, late Gayle Sydnor, at the Black Arts & Cultural Center. I really did not think of these positions as any sort of prep for a career move. I was a single parent with two teen-aged boys and I wanted to show them that mom was practicing what she preached: get out and do something positive that you enjoy just for the fun of it.

I enjoyed working in the nonprofit world enough to start thinking about making a career of it when the time (and resources) came that enabled me to go to college. While at WMU, I snagged an internship with Cass District Library working with residents and businesses. I was offered a position there but declined because I am NOT the commuting type!

After my internship with Cass I went into the AmeriCorps program and worked as a Housing Specialist at the Edison Neighborhood Association. After my tour of duty expired, the Executive Director offered me a permanent position working at Edison, which I took. After working for two years at Edison, the position at the Eastside Neighborhood Association came up. I applied for it, was hired, and here I am today!

What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community?

I love how, when faced with major challenges, the Kalamazoo Community usually looks to creative approaches to solve the issue.

What guides or principles do you rely most upon?

The Golden Rule

Who was one of your mentors and what do you carry with you from that relationship?

Of the many folks (mostly women) that come to mind, the late Gayle Sydnor was instrumental in reminding me that there are several approaches to a problem. If one thing does not work, keep looking – the solution just hasn’t been found yet! She taught me that challenges are tools to assist one to shift directions. She also helped me to see that failure is a learning curve, not a punishment.

What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

I think that my biggest learning moment came when, during my first years at the Eastside there were two “camps” (different views on how to make the neighborhood a better place). The more aggressive camp tended to push their agenda through, while the non-assertive camp – even though they did not totally agree with the agenda – stayed silent. This discovery caused me to shift from having to work for several bosses – trying to please everyone – to finding ways to make sure that everyone has a say in the decision-making process in an environment where each individual feels their concerns are heard. Through this situation I realized the importance of including EVERYONE in a conversation, making sure that everybody is really on board with the idea, and finding a venue for those who are not to have a say so the rest of the group knows. And all this must happen in a “safe” environment.

What’s an average day like for you at work?

My day-to-day work tends to be a mix of coaching volunteers, finding information to assist my board carry out their duties, bill paying , meetings, looking for resources to assist the organization and residents, and LOTS of report writing!

What are the types of challenges/opportunities that keep you up at night?

Trying to figure how to have enough time to do all the tasks I feel need to be accomplished to keep the organization moving forward. I feel that everyone involved in the organization should have a say and be empowered to assist with progress in our neighborhood and the association. Through the years my biggest challenge is finding ways that encourage residents and board members to feel comfortable enough to take the plunge. It is not a matter of “one size fits all.” Our residents are a very diverse lot. An approach that encourages one individual may very well repel another, so building relationships is key.

How do you stay up-to-date on latest trends in your field?

Modern technology has its perks! I have found several resources that help me stay up to date with trends related to my field. In addition to this, when I find that I have the time (and REALLY need to see the outside world), ONEplace is another good resource with the many workshops geared towards what local nonprofit folks are looking for.

What advice do you have for those wishing to have a long lasting career in the nonprofit sector?

Always remember that we cannot accomplish our goals of making our world a better place alone. Seek out other individuals who work in the field – not just those that are specific to your industry – who can be a wealth of ideas that one may be able to adapt to the organization you are doing your good work for. …And don’t forget to do what you love!

What do you geek (i.e., what hobby or outside interest do you really like)?

I geek so many things – Arts & Crafts, reading, theater arts, music, the outdoors, gardening, playing with stained glass, and my grandkids!

ThomA

Who's your target?

Our ONEplace Nonprofit Collection has this great little book: The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, by Peter Drucker and others. It’s a quick read that makes a lasting impression. Questions two & three grabbed me: Who is our customer? and What does the customer value? Specific, well-supported answers to these questions could turn your organization around.

Nonprofits have many customers. The authors distinguished between our primary customers (the persons who lives are changed through our work) and our supporting customers (volunteers, members, partners, funders, employees, and others who must be satisfied). Our business is not to casually please everyone but to deeply please our target customers. So, the first job is to clearly define our target customers in great detail. This definition affects everything.

Next, ask What does the customer value? This may be the most important – but least often asked – question. The authors suggest beginning with your assumptions of what you believe your customers value. Next, gather customer input and then compare your assumptions with what the customers actually are saying, find the differences, and go on to assess your results. Do this for both primary and supporting customers.

It takes time and hard work, but it’s worth it. The reward comes in a greater focus on your mission, money-saving operational efficiencies, and greater value delivered to all of your customers.

Best,

Thom

ThomA

It comes down to this

Leadership.

We all take our cue from the top. A leader’s style determines about 70% of the organization’s culture which, in turn, drives up to 30% of performance (Firms of Endearment).

Of course, I don’t need to cite research. We all know it’s true. We see it every day: at works, at home, in schools, and in the community.

With few exceptions, when ONEplace staff meets with an organization to discuss concerns and challenges, dysfunctional leadership plays a debilitating role. The flipside is also true. When we work with healthy, effective organizations, we find that vital leadership sits at the hub of their progress and success.

Most often, the crux of the leadership challenge or success rests in the partnership between the executive director and the board. Like ripples in a pond, the actions of this crucial partnership radiate to every stakeholder, often having the greatest impact on those furthest out. This commonly means that those staff and volunteers on the front lines are motivated by impeccable clarity of mission and direction or left frustrated, arguing over ambiguous pronouncements.

So, what to do? Pointing fingers (be it blaming or idolizing) either exacerbate a problem or simplify a success. For now, I ask you to consider two things:

  1. Please share your successes. Leave a comment, post on our LinkedIn group, send me an email or otherwise share what you’re doing that works. Supporting one another in this way builds a stronger sector for us all.
  2. Please do not let a problem situation fester any longer. Problems often take months to develop, and they will take focused effort over time to resolve. Let’s work together to explore your particular situation and begin to take steps to repair your system.

It comes down to this: what’s your next move?

Best,

Thom

ThomA

Looking ahead...planning ahead

How clear is your crystal ball? When we set forth plans of any stripe – strategic, budget, project, etc. – we are saying that this is how we plan for the organization to operate within a given timeframe. In other words, we’re predicting the future.

For the vast majority of us, our past teaches us that we cannot predict the future. We’ll get close, but things happen outside of our control that throw curveballs, plant bumps in the road, and knock us off-kilter.

The lesson is clear: we need to plan for things NOT to go as planned. We need to have back-up. So, how many of your organizations:

  • Build a surplus into your annual budget (e.g., 3-5%)?
  • Maintain an adequate reserve in the bank (e.g., 3-6 months of expenses)?
  • Have succession plans (quick exits and planned exits) for your key positions (both staff and volunteer)?

Building and maintaining an operational reserve means that your organization faces the fact that “stuff happens.” It demonstrates your ability to stay disciplined over the long-term, and it is one of the hallmarks of a sustainable organization. Further, it provides the financial capacity to resist the urge to cling to the familiar and adapt to changing times. It gives you choices!

Operational reserve can also apply to staff time and energy. According to BoardSource’s most recent Governance Index, 22% of nonprofits cut staff and 23% froze or reduced salaries in 2012. While these numbers are lower than the 2010 report, we often find that these cuts are NOT accompanied by commensurate changes in programs and services. In other words, staff must to do more with less.

This trend finds support in two other recent studies. Nonprofit Marketing Guide’s 2014 Trends survey reports that 57% of communicators say they are asked to do more than is possible within the given time. Further, CompassPoint’s 2013 “Underdeveloped” survey reports that the average length of vacancy after a development director leaves is six months. For organizations with operating budgets of $1 million or less, the average jumps to 12 months.

Cultivating a long-term approach to financial reserves AND staff time/energy reserves is critical to success. It develops a strong organizational core that withstands annual ups and downs and develops overall quality and quantity.

This is an area that we can assist one another. What have you done to successfully build your reserves? Leave a comment or send me an email (thoma@kpl.gov).

Best,

Thom

P.S. I posted a recent article on our LinkedIn group that has attracted some conversation. Check it out.

ThomA