A Small Nonprofit That Thinks Really Big

small nonprofit stories

Emily Klehm, the Executive Director of South Suburban Humane Society, asked me a question that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Why do you think so many women won’t leave abusive relationships?

I responded the way you might expect. Fear of the unknown. Codependency. Lack of money.

And those are all important reasons. But then she told me another one. In fact, apparently it’s one of the biggest reasons. And my jaw dropped.

Many women won’t leave abusive relationships because they won’t leave their pets.


Listeners of my podcast might remember Emily. In an episode called “Anatomy of a Crisis,” we talked about how a staffer of hers had reported that she had been held up at gunpoint and a dog had been abducted. And then the staffer went missing. The story got weirder and weirder.

Emily gave us a master class on navigating an organizational crisis and how to come through even stronger. This was an amazing episode and I strongly suggest you listen to it, if you haven’t already.

I caught up with Emily several months ago and learned that her tiny nonprofit had a new and outsized vision. And that she received a $6 million grant to bring that vision to life. Yes, I said $6 million.

Game changer.

So, you don’t get $6mm without a big vision. Wanna hear about it?

Spoiler alert: it’s really big, really innovative, and yes, it involves helping victims of domestic violence.Continue Reading

The Day After

They say that patience is a virtue. I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but I have never been entirely onboard with that. The reason is pretty simple.

Because nonprofit staff, board, volunteers, donors – I believe them to be society’s real heroes. Heroes like you. I consider you virtuous. But patient? Not so much.

Allow me to tease this out for you. For as long as you can remember, you’ve been unable to sit on the sidelines. You have been propelled to jump on the field. It may have started early on. Maybe you stood up for someone being bullied. Or shared your lunch at school with someone who said they forgot it (but you knew better).

I know you because I have been you. And in my work to fuel and feed your leadership, I feel this same sense of impatience. If I come up with one piece of practical advice in a private coaching session, I am a woman with a mission to share that advice in a blog post with you. Sometimes I can barely wait.

So I get it.

And I know you do too. Impatience fuels you, doesn’t it? In a way, it’s your superpower. It drives you to advocate for a cause, right a wrong, help a neighbor, level the playing field, fight for what is fair and just. Patient? Not you. Otherwise you might have sat on the sidelines instead of jumping on the field. This kind of work DEMANDS impatience.

Yes, impatience is your superpower.

Just not today.

Today, the day after a Presidential election that is too close to call, you need patience. And a big healthy dose of it. You went to bed not knowing. You woke up not knowing. And we are in for more not knowing.

It’s uncomfortable and unsettling. I’m sorry. I know you don’t live easily in this space. Me neither.

So my post today is not long and not complicated. I’m writing it because it might help you. And if I write it down, maybe I’ll help myself too. Because I’m struggling with staying patient today.Continue Reading

No Virginia, Development Directors Don’t Do ALL the Work

development directors

Hello my fellow nonprofit superheroes! Today, let’s take a very brief quiz.

There’s just one question.

Please read the following statements and put a mental check mark next to any you’ve heard somebody say. If you’ve heard something close, that counts too.

____ Board member: “We finally have a development person! Wonderful! Now they can stop hounding me for money!

____ Board recruiter to prospective board member: “Yes, technically there is a fundraising obligation, but don’t sweat it. We have an awesome development person.”

____ Development Committee Chair: “Our primary role is to monitor the fundraising efforts of the staff to make sure we hit our goals.”

____ Lead Program Officer: “My development director wants me to go out on an ask? Doesn’t she know how busy I am???

____ Executive Director: “I don’t get it. Why is my new development manager always at her desk? Shouldn’t she be out asking for money?

Ok, quiz time is over. Just the one question. I meant it.

So how many check marks did you make? More than one?

If you checked any of them at all, you have some rather unreasonable expectations for your development directors and I have a few important thoughts to share with you.
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What If Your Board Just Disappeared?

board disappeared

I have always been a sporty person. As a kid, softball and basketball (yes, even though I stand at a towering 5 foot 2 inches tall).

In the last decade I have been more strategic. I picked up racquetball a while back – only needs two people, can play regardless of the weather and heavy cardio. Next up for me will be pickleball and platform tennis.

I do love a good sport. Great for socializing and not gonna lie. I have a competitive streak.

I’ve learned that nonprofit leaders love sports too.

And I’ve learned they have a favorite – Board Bashing!

Executive Directors consider it sport to blame the board for lots of things – not responding to emails, not reading board reports, focusing on the trees rather than the forest. And oh yes, then there is the sport of nagging board members to raise money and getting nowhere.

Executive Directors seem to really enjoy complaining about their boards. It’s like they would like the board to just go away and leave them alone.

So today, let’s play that game.

What if after a lengthy nagging session at a board meeting, your board members stood up and never returned.

Or if one day you sat at your desk and said, “I wish my board would disappear.”

And they did.

What would your E.D. life look like without a board?Continue Reading

Strategic Planning Sucks the Life Out of Nonprofits

strategic planning

**First published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Oct 23, 2019**

It’s time for some truth-telling. The nonprofit sector has created a culture in which strategic work is seen as a necessary evil, a process to endure, something to suffer through. Executives often enter the process begrudgingly. They may insist there is no time, money, or support. They may say that the board adds little value, that a bold and expensive vision will be hard to “sell” to a board that must raise money. It’s pretty easy to see how an executive director could have an attitude problem.

When it comes to strategic planning, chief executives often feel sure they know the right answer and already have a sense of what needs to get done in the next few years. Board members will tell you their voices aren’t heard or valued. Precious few board members find making plans invigorating or enriching, nor are they excited to promote a new strategy to potential donors.Continue Reading

When the Disruption Comes From Within

internal disruption

I am not an expert on diversity, equity and inclusion. No one hires me to create a more racially just and equitable organization. It’s not what I do.

I am a white cisgender lesbian. I am a woman of privilege crawling with implicit biases. Like many of us, I am on a journey to learn. A journey to do better.

But often in my work, I am sought out by organizations in turmoil. It can be a financial crisis, a leadership crisis or an internal crisis that threatens the reputation of the institution.

In this work, sometimes the disruptions are internal. They come from those who hold the mission dear – staff, students, volunteers. Folks who walk the walk every day.

So this is not a post about what decisions institutions should make. In this I have no standing.

But when it comes to protesting and being the target of hate, I’ve walked in those shoes. And so I do have some standing and I thought it might be useful to share the insights I have offered those who retain me as clients.

Before we start with some reminders, here’s the big one.

You read my blog. You invest some time regularly to be a better leader. And in my own way, I am pushing you to be a better leader and you value that.

Remember: this is exactly what internal disruptors pushing for change are doing as well. Injecting a real sense of urgency into your organization and pushing you, using all the tools available, to be the best leader you can be. To do better.

I know you want the tactics to be different. I know you want to sit down and talk with the disruptors. Well the tactics are unlikely to change and you might not get that conversation.

So as a crisis management consultant, as a person who has held picket signs and bullhorns, and as someone whose leadership has been questioned by vocal disruptors, I thought you’d find some of these reminders to be of value.

I hope so.
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The Key to Making a Big Decision

big decision

In my last blog post, I told you the story of an organization that decided to apply for PPP funding, secured the approval of the executive committee, and then the full board balked and insisted that the monies be returned.

Today’s blog post is an update and a diagnosis – or Joan’s game of “Coulda Woulda Shoulda”. In order to fully appreciate this diagnosis, it might be a good idea for you to have a quick read and then come back.

I’ll wait for you.

OK, glad you’re back.

I asked readers to review the situation – perhaps as a case study with your board – and to look at two pieces of the puzzle.

For sure, I was interested in folks’ observations about the decision itself – should they have applied for the funding, should they have accepted it, and now, based on board sentiment, should they have returned it?

But even more than that, I was interested in the decision making process itself. Was it spot on or should they have done something differently?

Comments on the post and emails I received were overwhelmingly in favor of accepting the money. One writer wondered why there was any fuss at all.

I actually get the fuss and believe it was a function of the decision making process.

Time for me to offer you my two cents. I’ll also tell you what this organization ultimately decided.

You may not agree. That’s why blogs invented comments. So you can tell me why I’m wrong. I hope you will.

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Should This Organization Have Applied for PPP Funding?

ppp funding

Once upon a time in the land of COVID-19, there was an Executive Director who had to decide whether to apply for funds through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).

Primarily, PPP funding offers small businesses and nonprofits a certain number of weeks of payroll as a loan (that may end up being forgiven by the government). It’s been invaluable in the nonprofit sector and has kept many doors open.

This E.D. has a large budget and no cash flow problems. In fact, the organization has a cash reserve. A gift from a family foundation for a sizable amount seems very promising.

But who knows what to expect? A fall gala projected to generate substantive revenue is in question. Like all nonprofits, there is so much uncertainty.

You may already have decided this org should NOT have applied for PPP funding. But there’s more to this story. And I’ll get into that in just a moment.

First, here’s what I want you to do.

Send this post to your board members as a pre-read for an upcoming board meeting. Ask everyone to be prepared to discuss. What would they do? Why? This will become incredibly instructive for your board about how decisions are getting made.

Alternatively, use this as a centerpiece of a leadership team meeting to dig into the role of the team in decision making.

OK, with that, let’s get into the full story…
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A Priest and a Therapist Walk Into a Bar

leading from a distance

Stay in touch.

How painfully ironic that phrase feels these days. After all, during a crisis, you want – no, you need to feel close to others. But how? You can’t get together in person, and while super useful, Zoom isn’t really the same thing, is it?

As a nonprofit leader, you have to keep managing and leading from a distance.

In fact, you are living and breathing a “change management” endeavor right now as you find yourself changing so much of how you work. You probably didn’t expect to be focusing on that during Q2 when you made your plans going into 2020, did you?

Many of you are on overdrive because of an exponential increase in the need for your services. And then consider you are leading and managing folks who are chronically anxious, some of whom have or will experience tragedy during this time.

How do you communicate in that context? Yikes.

What do people want to hear? Need to hear? What do you need to tell them?

How do you make sure important information sticks? And I know everyone waxes eloquent about Zoom, but is that the only venue?

I help thousands of nonprofit leaders every day to navigate the world of managing and leading. And while I believe I offer them some pretty good advice, I don’t think my clients know how much I learn from them.

So today, courtesy of the leaders I admire and mentor, all of whom are doing a great job leading from a distance, I offer you six pieces of advice on how to best stay in touch.

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The One Thing Every Executive Director Needs Right Now

help executive director

Every single Executive Director reading this right now just yelled at their computer.

“One thing??? You’re kidding me! Joan, my list goes on for days!!!”

I’m not being insensitive or unkind – I swear. I know how much you are carrying. I have a front row seat to the struggles of nonprofit leaders. Work directly with folks who run small community organizations with budgets of less than $50,000 as well as some of the largest nonprofits out there. Please keep reading.

I am hearing about so many things you need.

  • Money
  • Volunteers
  • Grief counseling
  • Engaged board members
  • Someone to nag your teenagers to do their homework
  • Just five minutes where you could focus on one – JUST ONE thing.
  • Did I say money?

For the last month and more, I’ve been writing and podcasting and interviewing on big publications so that your board, your donors, and everyone else can begin to understand what your world is like right now.

Because most folks don’t actually know. They are not getting that while you all are struggling, the need for your work has never been greater.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see a number like 22,000,000 unemployed (and counting!) and connect the dots. Any organization dealing with housing and homelessness is going to be bombarded in unprecedented ways.

But you see, people are not connecting dots. And there’s something they can do they may not have even thought about. It’s not a difficult task at all. And it’s something that every single Executive Director could really use right now.

If you have an Executive Director in your life, please read this post closely and take action today. Here’s the action I have in mind….

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