Tag Archives: leadership

Is Your Board… Bored?

Bored Board

We've all experienced a rut. You fall in and it seems like all you do is spin your wheels in that proverbial ditch. It can happen with the best nonprofit boards as well. 

You know it’s happening when… You've been talking about revisiting your vision, mission, and values statements, for like… forever! When you've gone through several board members in the last year and you suddenly find half your team is gone. When your meetings consist of nothing more than business as usual, or when your query for questions on the Treasurer's report is met with silence. When members are more interested in their mobile devices than the discussion at hand, or when you spend the majority of your board meetings discussing reports or policy rather than the future of the organization.  Yep, you guessed it; these are all signs you're in trouble.

An organization can hit these speed bumps at any stage in their lifecycle.   It's easy to become mired in minutiae, tactical details, or malaise rather than a big picture that creates excitement and enthusiasm. Here are some Hip Tips to get you out of that rut and with a little luck, perseverance, and strategy, steer clear of it!

Raison d'être

Nothing gets a group more excited than a higher purpose, a common goal, or shared vision. As explained by Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, a shared vision is: "the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create" (1990: 9). As such, a shared vision has the power to be uplifting and to encourage experimentation and innovation… It works to transform your nonprofit into a learning organization, which continually evolves and grows.

When a vision is shared, "People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit." (Senge 1990: 13)

Routinely revisit and refresh your vision, mission, and values. Work to get your team excited about a new project, strategy, program, or campaign. Just as important is finding evidence of your impact to the community you serve.  Evaluating and understanding your Triad of Value will guide you to better service and better service creates a sense of purpose, which leads towards personal fulfillment and deeper commitment.

Embrace Opinion and Encourage Debate

Beware when all you encounter is agreement. If your meeting conversations lack strong opinions, passion, or questions and if they are generally measured, or worse, nonexistent, you may have a problem.  These may be signs that your team lacks the enthusiasm to rise beyond the day-to-day agenda and consequently, is just going through the motions. 

Despite what some may think, spirited debate means your members have genuine interest and concern. Difference of opinion creates a pathway to creative solutions, better understanding, evolved thinking and strategy. Remember to remind everyone to do their part and ensure they "understand what the other side is saying."

Also understand that diversity and inclusivity run deeper than you may think. You need to involve each member of your board and other stakeholders at a deeper level. There are demographics beyond race and ethnicity that shape a person's culture; great ideas and understanding can come as a result of a range of experience.

Recognize, Utilize, Reward, & Celebrate

Nothing drives a board member battier than when they offer their expertise only to have their experience and talents rebuked or ignored. More importantly, your organization may falter as a result.  Understand why a member wants to be involved and create a position that provides satisfaction for that member.  People are your MOST valuable asset. Anyone who volunteers and makes your organization a priority should be celebrated and nurtured.

Take note that some individuals may desire to learn something new or perform something different from their day job. As my father used to say, "You never know unless you ask", so ask! If you desire to maximize your team's effectiveness, dig deeper by getting to know each of your members on both a personal and professional level.  Then, encourage the rest of your team to do the same and you'll create a winning atmosphere. 

Look Beyond the Playbook

Often policies and procedures are the focus of board development.  That's because aside from being good governance, they are tangible and much easier to get your hands around than really important issues like strategy, or impact.  A good foundation for your organization is important, so make sure you have a copy of Robert's Rules; apply them during your meetings to give them weight and importance.  Just understand that policies and procedures don't necessarily create an effective organization. People do! Inspire them, employ their talents, and reach for the stars!


Bring the Rain

If you saw my last post, a humorous look at starting a movement, (if not, check out the 3 minute video under "Leadership & the Courage to Follow", it's worth your time) you may be thinking a bit about your leadership style. Perhaps you're shifting towards a better understanding of what makes followers (the critical sauce for success), well… follow!  If so, here is the question that is probably uppermost in your mind: "Is there a formula for how leadership develops a strong following?"

The answer is yes!  You can think about this process as you do with most things you build, step by step, layer by layer.  An overarching fundamental is an understanding that is best expressed by Daniel H. Pink in his book: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, "The secret to high performance and satisfaction – at work, at school, and at home – is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world".  So, here are the basics…

  1. Organizations don't have needs… People Have Needs.  Remember to embrace your followers and recognize their needs, desires, and participation. Keep this in the back of your mind as you build your programs and campaigns and you'll find your recruitment and retention efforts to be much more productive.
  2. There is one leadership fundamental that has inspired organizations for thousands of years and it’s the capacity for all involved to envision a desirable picture of the future. Building Shared Vision, illuminated by Peter Senge in his book "The Fifth Discipline", is a vision that is shared by all stakeholders that creates a rallying point, which fires up the base and gets the sauce to simmering. Shared vision is what we hope to accomplish, it's how we see the world, and it's our raison d'etre.  Shaping your vision is critical.  In order to become followers, individuals need to relate and understand; often at a primal level and for that you need to carefully build your case.
  3. Understand the Need: In order to build an effective case for gathering support, you need to develop a thorough understanding of the problem. This shouldn't be based upon a hunch, or a personal opinion.  It takes research into what the community perceives, what already exists in the environment, and an awareness of best practices.
  4. Once you have this knowledge under your belt, the next step is to: Develop an Exciting Plan, which serves to fill the need, or which solves, or alleviates the problem.  But listen closely, because here is a CRITICAL COMPONENT… Your plan needs to be both easy to understand and exciting, so as to build enthusiasm and to acquire and retain interest.
  5. Share Your Victories: Your constituents need to know, but always keep in mind that different audiences will respond to different messages and they respond best when they are moved by powerful stories of how your work affects the lives of those you serve. Remember that a brand is what people think when they hear your name. Message consistency across many touch points and lots of it are the keys to building an effective, accurate brand. A brand that lives on in the mind of donors and constituents must be developed through years of message layering. Creating campaigns designed to inform, motivate, and educate through many touch points, from web, to collateral, to white papers, which build relationships, is essential to success.

Finally, my father often used to say: "You never know unless you ask."  I never connected the dots until it was brought into focus just yesterday, while listening to an interview with former President, Bill Clinton. Essentially, he said: "People are dying to help; they just need to be asked." Click!

The key is to ask in a way that presents the community need, your vision, and your exciting plan in a way that allows each individual to see themselves as part of the solution.  That means providing a rallying point, which includes a compelling and detailed rationale for how they can participate.  You can't simply just talk about generalities.  While a vision: "World peace", or "ending homelessness" is a fundamental goal post, simply talking about your vision without a road map, will not create excitement, or commitment.

Nurture your community with personal details that help them understand and engage and you will see your followers multiply.

Leadership and the Courage to Follow

Yesterday, just for fun, I Google'd leadership and received a response of 506 million articles. Among these replies, I found a range of topics on leadership; they crossed areas covering a broad spectrum of styles, concepts, models, and characteristics.  There were also articles which covered strategies, tactics, mentoring, and visioning; a lifetime of self-improvement reading material!

I've always considered myself a student of leadership principles and process.  As a business owner, board member, nonprofit executive, and especially as a twelve-year field-active member of a mountain search and rescue team, I've learned a thing or two on the subject.  With any luck, some of it may have actually stuck with me.

By far, my biggest lesson was learned when I read a very simple quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lau Tse. Paraphrased, he said: "When the greatest leader's work is done, the people say they did it themselves."

Simple, profound, and true.  While we all strive to be leaders, as leaders, we all know it's not about us, it's about the vision, the movement, the cause.  But more importantly, without followers, there is no movement and sometimes following takes as much, or perhaps more courage than leading.  That's why the following humorous 3 minute video is nearly as profound as what Lau Tse proclaimed over 800 years ago.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hO8MwBZl-Vc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

I hope this serves to remind that while leadership is important, followers are the critical component of getting a movement started, and keeping it growing and persistent.  It takes guts to follow, so nurturing your followers is a fundamental key to leadership.  Viewed from this vantage point, I might catch myself in the camp that finds leadership in and of itself, just a bit over-glorified as well.

Perhaps we should all strive to be better students of following.

Building Bridges

Understand these basics of building strategic partnerships and you'll see your organization blossom. Get off in the weeds and you'll spin your wheels in the ditch.

More often than not, many organizations lack a thorough understanding of what their strategy should be in building collaborative partnerships. They know they need to have them, but they're often unsure of where strength might live.   Strategies for developing good partnerships always revolve around each organization’s goals’, a common interest, and a good relationship.

Therefore, the best partnerships always offer mutual benefit, where all parties bring something to the table and all parties receive a return from their investment.  Arrangements structured in this way create synergy, longevity, and satisfaction.

To facilitate clear goals, the best nonprofit organizations commonly break their partnerships into at least into two categories and understand the difference. The first are complimentary organizations; those whose missions, visions, and values resonate within your area of service.  These types of partnerships are typically collaborations and the kinds of cooperative activities might include any of the following: combined fundraising events, program exchanges, or causal activities like advocacy initiatives, or public benefit activities.

These types of partnerships can work to leverage public relations actions, which can lead to greater awareness, promoting membership, volunteer commitments, or individual donations.  They can also work to promote our second category, corporate partnerships.

For the most part, corporations are all about making money and returning it to their shareholders.  Except for those with a triple bottom line strategy, they are not typically in the business of giving their money away.  Therefore, corporate partnerships are characteristically sponsorships, which work to brand the corporation or business as favorable to a segment of the community to which they wish to promote themselves.  In many ways, there is no limit to where leverage may exist in your community and synergy may be found among any number of companies.

It's always more important to understand the why of building bridges, rather than the how of building bridges.  The key to a successful corporate partnership then, is in finding an angle that will lead to crafting a mutually beneficial campaign.  So, the critical questions to ask and answer are: “what does your organization have to offer a partnership, why would a prospect’s management be interested, and then, who might be interested?

Finally, always remember that each bridge is built on a relationship and if that relationship falters, so will your bridge building.  You never know where each relationship will lead and you should know that sometimes a bridge can appear from out of thin air as a result of an unassuming relationship.

Practice these principles and you'll build a bridge to greater awareness, powerful partnerships, and subsequent sustainability.

Build Your Brand Through Actions!

As a career-long marketing professional, I believe in truth in advertising. That is not to say you can't spin or slant your argument to present a fresh alternative, or provide a different perspective, but you need to back up your claims!

This brings me to the state of customer service, about which I often find myself wondering aloud. Haven't we all found ourselves arguing with many of our service providers?  It seems like the only way to get anywhere is by kicking and screaming and threatening to quit.  Yet, they all claim to have customer service as their number one priority.

We have also of late been inundated with political advertisements; with each candidate pointing out the others flaws, rather than presenting the case of why we should vote for them over their opponent.  In some incidences, they have been downright dishonest, presenting not just half-truths, but what I would characterize as outright lies.

These are not ways to build your ideal brand!

We have all been told that actions speak louder than words, but how often do we market ourselves by words alone?  That's why I promote a holistic approach to your nonprofit marketing activities.  Marketing that takes a holistic approach to promoting your organization is developed by thinking about your organization as a whole, which includes its place in the broader community and society, in the lives of its consumers, and its niche among other service providers.

All your activities should be viewed through the prism of your stakeholders: constituents, consumers, donors, employees, volunteers, and the community at large. Holistic nonprofit marketing takes an active and prominent place at the decision-making table.  It plays an active role in programming; examining and influencing outcomes measurement and community impact, aligning your programs and activities to coincide with your values and your vision. Marketing tactics then glean success from program and work to effectively communicate your accomplishments.

Most importantly, promoting your brand starts from within, so it lives throughout your organization. Top-down commitment and involvement of each person in the organization is fundamental to success. Your brand should become a shared vision.  It needs to live in the hearts and minds of every stakeholder in the organization; it must be embraced and promoted from inside out.

Plant these seeds, nurture them, and watch as your vision becomes reality, and your funding and sustainability grow. Remember, there’s no substitute for simply being remarkable. Work towards excellence in all things you do.  Aspire for greatness and your vision, the brand you imagine will come with ease.

Turning the Tables

Thanks to Anna DeBattiste, I read an article with an interesting proposition the other day: "If You Don't Like Your Future, Rewrite Your Past," by Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Harvard Business Review's blog.  Her premise was simple, "Sometimes strategic change just means taking something from the periphery — an anomaly, a demonstration, a small innovation — and redefining it as central."  It reminded me of something I learned a long time ago… periodically your brand needs not so much an overhaul, as some strategic tweaking.

Often the notion of a re-branding effort falls under the heading of a dramatic change like a new name, logo update, or new business venture, but usually all it takes is a fresh viewpoint; a new way of telling your story. Kanter's article used an excellent example of a first rate re-branding effort by IBM.  Facing a lagging economy and tougher competition for computer hardware sales, they went back to the basics.

Early in my business career I learned that you never just sell features such as: faster, lighter, stronger; instead you sell the benefits of your work, how your products and services effect your customer's lives. That's because unless you're selling a race car, faster is not all that important.

For far too long the computer industry was all about twiddling bits: more memory, faster CPU's, higher throughput, all the basic features that combined add up to an end result.  IBM finally got it and they re-branded themselves as a solutions provider, rather than a computer hardware manufacturer, and that propelled them far into the future. They had been selling software with their hardware for years, so they didn't necessarily change their business model, they simply changed their audience's perspective, and as a result projected real value in their message resulting in increased sales.

This premise extends to the nonprofit community, so take a lesson from the big boys…

Your audience needs to get it.  Fundraising, like selling computerized solutions, is about relationships.  Building this deeper commitment only comes about when your audience completely understands and is emotionally engaged in your mission. Sometimes that means turning your program on its ear, sometimes that means a subtle change.

All too often we lose sight of what it really is that we are selling. Relating to your audience is a continuous process. Over time your message can become muted and when you are too close to that message, it may become difficult for you to see that it's off center. By employing the Triad of Value, and thinking about your marketing activities holistically, you increase the odds that your audience will appreciate your vision.

I would challenge you to randomly check any unfamiliar organization's website and ask yourself the following: what do they do, why is it important, and why should I give them any money?  My guess is you will come to the same conclusion that I often come to… I really don't know.  If you are not careful, this can happen to you.  By periodically revisiting your brand, case for funding, and other marketing efforts you can avoid brand burnout and keep your audience and community emotionally engaged.

Cultivating Strategy through Crowdsourcing

I've long been a proponent of adopting best practices and successful strategies from other businesses and organizations.  It's a great way to stimulate your organizational thinking and leverage growth without re-inventing the wheel.

So when, my good friend and sometime collaborator and co-conspirator Rachel Emmer sent me an article recently from the McKinsey Quarterly, "The Social Side of Strategy" it led me to think about its application in the nonprofit world. The article highlights several corporate efforts to enhance strategic planning through crowdsourcing strategies. Crowdsourcing is an effort to create a virtual crowd of people around a particular shared interest in order to leverage their synergy. A fundamental principle in crowdsourcing is it needs to be an open call to a largely undefined group of people (you never know where a good idea will come from) and typically it is delivered through the Internet.

Crowdsourcing is relatively new and remains largely untested, so there is no conclusive data that illustrates how it can be successfully applied, especially in a nonprofit environment. Many benefits and pitfalls remain in the shadows. However, one potential benefit found by the authors, which I find encouraging is: "it helped to build enthusiasm and alignment behind a company’s strategic direction.” That's what really got my brain spinning.

As we all know, two of the best ways to create momentum and commitment is through engagement and inclusion.  These practices create "buy-in" and they are the cornerstones of a shared vision.  However, all too often when working to develop strategic direction, only a few at the top, perhaps only an executive committee, are or become involved in setting this critical direction.

In support of this concept, the article went on to state that a common problem with strategic thinking is: "strategy setting sometimes suffers from insufficient diversity and expertise, with leaders far removed from the implications of their decisions and hampered by experience-based biases." Essentially, many at the top are too often, too close to the problem. Prior experience and the day-to-day details divert our thinking away from the larger picture and a focused vision.

More often than not, in developing our strategic efforts, we forget to seek the advice and counsel of those at ground level, those who are affected by our actions. That’s for many reasons, one of which is that marketing research consumes valuable resources; something most nonprofits find in short supply. Crowdsourcing may offer an inexpensive alternative for your organization to control costs and garner valuable insight regarding need and effectiveness, which in turn may allow you to develop new and ground-breaking strategies.

By employing crowdsourcing techniques, you have the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of issues, problems, success, and solutions from those to whom it matters most.  Crowdsourcing presents a natural next step in the evolution of traditional marketing research and a way for nonprofits to engage and include stakeholders in important decisions and directional efforts.

Leadership – Check Your Ego at the Door

I've had the opportunity to collaborate with, work for, and advise many nonprofits.  There's a big cultural difference in the dynamics of a nonprofit vs. a for profit business.  It's part of what I really like and it's part of what I really dislike.

There's just something dynamic about a group of diverse minds turning an idea or issue over and over again until it lands right side up.  Real diversity is more than color; it's about background, orientation, and thought process.  When you have real diversity you find more complete solutions and salient outcomes.  But therein lays the rub.  You also find individual egos superimposing themselves upon the decision process.

There's an old fundraising axiom that goes a little like the following: people give because of self-interest.  This extends to all sorts of gifts, including the in-kind gifts of expertise, connections, or other personal resources.  Board members all have an internal set of priorities they bring to the table.

It's important to illuminate that all boards of directors have certain duties to the organizations they serve.  These duties include Care, Loyalty, and Obedience.  Personal ego and the Duty of Loyalty often conflict, because board members and the board as a whole must put the best interests of the organization first.  When personal ego gets involved, people become vested in their own ideas, agendas, and futures and the organization suffers.

If you ask most nonprofit professionals about their board frustrations, you’ll find the prevailing wind blows in the direction of ego.  Many board members come from the corporate world.  It is important for those participants to remember that you can call your own shots when you own the company, but at a nonprofit, only the board acting as a unit can set strategy, direction, and policy.

More nonprofits have fallen apart at the hands of ego, check it at the door.