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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The Letter You Hope You Never Have to Send

disaster plan

Recently, I introduced you to Cathy, who runs a residence for women struggling with dementia.

In the context of a country being ravaged by COVID-19 there are many awful things that could happen with Cathy’s organization. Families prohibited from visiting. Cash flow problems. An inability to bring in new residents. Social distancing inside the facility.

But we all know what the worst thing is: a resident or staff member could die from the Coronavirus.

Cathy and her board had that hard conversation. That demonstrated real leadership. They all decided that it was important to have a statement at the ready. This is part of their disaster plan.

A lot of you asked to see the letter. I spoke with Cathy and she generously agreed to share both the original draft and the final version so we can pull out the lessons in detail.

I’m very grateful to Cathy for allowing me to tell this story. As you can imagine, she is reluctant to share specifics for fear of alarming her organization’s family but the letters offer us all some valuable lessons.

Here goes.

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5 Steps the Best Boards Are Taking Right Now

best boards

True story. Amy Graves picks up the phone and calls one of the many friends of her organization, BCT Brooklyn Children’s Theatre in Brooklyn.

Her goal is simple – to check in and see how he and his family are doing.

That’s it. Good ol’ fashioned connection. Something we are all pretty damned hungry for these days.

They chat – he’s doing OK under the circumstances. He asks how she’s holding up.

Amy shares her own family update and then lets him know they have decided to engage kids in making movie musicals in lieu of the cancelled live performances. Rehearsals by Zoom are working out surprisingly well and families are excited about the new concept and maintaining an end of year accomplishment.

He thanks her and Amy thanks him. They end the call the way I‘m ending every call now – please stay safe and healthy. He says that he knows nonprofits are struggling and he was going to talk to his wife – he wants to help. He asked if Amy would call him the next day.

You can imagine that it was one of the first calls Amy made. : ) And this is what she heard.

“I spoke with my wife yesterday and we really want to help. We’d like to donate $50,000 and we’ll be sure to get you the donation quickly.”

I’d like to tease out the lessons in this story and show you five ways your board can be helpful to your organization right now. This is what the best boards are doing right now.

Because how you navigate this crisis will also define how you emerge.

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True Leadership in the Time of Corona

You may find this story hard to read. I did.

It was told to me by a member of the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, my online training and support platform for leaders of small nonprofits.

Cathy runs a residence for people with dementia. The vast majority of her patients are elderly, many with all sorts of underlying conditions. Cathy and her team are being vigilant and as of the time she told me this story, no one in her organization had been touched by COVID-19.

But Cathy is not living under a rock. She reached out to me with a draft letter and I offered to help to edit it. It’s the letter she needs to have at the ready. That tells her community that one of the residents has succumbed to the virus.

In a future blog post, I may offer the before and after version as a different kind of lesson, but that’s not my point for today.

(Update: Here is a link to the future blog post with the before and after versions of the letter.)

Today it is about the action her organization took. Take a minute to consider all the components of that story. There are three key lessons.
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When You Can’t Meet In Person

virtual gathering

During the last week, one client cancelled a three-day event, which was to include a day of strategic planning, a full-day board meeting, and a professional symposium.

Another client cancelled a two-day board retreat, one of the only times each year this national board meets in person.

In one case a board chair and in another an executive director described what they saw as an either/or proposition.

“Seems we have two options. Either we are going to cancel and reschedule or figure out some way to do this virtually.”

I wasn’t certain we had all the options on the table. Sure, the organization could decide to reschedule. But in this uncertain environment where we learn new things by the hour, there seemed to be some risk in that option too.

But I had a bigger problem with the second option – figuring out how to do the same meeting virtually. For me, converting an in-person gathering into a virtual setting is a losing proposition. You can’t simply take an in-person agenda and deliver on the meeting’s goals via phone or video conference.

I believe that meetings, designed as virtual gatherings, can be very valuable. As valuable as in person? An unfair comparison if you ask me.

You have to design each type expecting different outcomes. Valuable in different ways. And in this post, I offer a downloadable resource to help you to generate the creative thinking necessary to design a creative virtual gathering.

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Why Board Term Limits Matter

term limits

I have had this conversation so often I can write both parts of the script.

Joan: “So when does your chair’s term end?”
E.D.: “Oh, well we don’t really have term limits.”
Joan: “You don’t really have them?”
E.D.: “I think they are in the by laws or maybe they aren’t – I don’t really know – it doesn’t matter I suppose. Board members would revolt if we tried to enforce them”
Joan: “Revolt?” Why?
E.D.: “Well Cindy has been willing to be board chair for the last six years and frankly, no one else wants the job. And as I think about, no one else would be very good.”

So what exactly is the BIG FAT PROBLEM?

Ignoring the bylaws? Nope. Although that is a problem.

No mention that Cindy is a great chair? Nope not the headline.

No one else wants the job? Getting warmer, but nope.

Give up?

OK, let’s talk about the big fat problem and why term limits really really matter:

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Who Should Serve on Your Advisory Board?

advisory board

Recently I had a long conversation with a CEO client of mine. The topic of our session: her advisory board.

Her question was straightforward enough: Who should serve on our advisory board?

She then began to rattle off names – suggesting the founder, former board members.

I held up a metaphorical stop sign and asked her to tell me the purpose of her advisory board. She was stumped.

She said something like, “I’m not totally sure – I think the organization uses the advisory board to connect valuable folks to the organization who can’t afford the fundraising obligation.”

You know, personal giving or solicitation – what is commonly known as the ‘give/get’.

So I gently pointed out that we can’t identify the ‘who’ until we figure out the ‘why.’

And it goes further than that. You can’t talk about the ‘why’ until you figure out the ‘should’. Should an advisory board even exist at your organization?

Let’s get some clarity here. Advisory boards should not be formed to solve a particular problem. We either need to make them really count or we should not create them at all.

In fact, a poorly constructed advisory board can cause more problems than the one it may have been created to solve.

So how can you make an advisory board really count?

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The One Key to a Great Board Meeting

key great board meeting

I enjoyed an email from a client last week. This CEO had received an email from his board chair who had read my recent blog post, 22 Signs Your Board Meetings Suck, and decided to assess their organization’s last board meeting. The subject line read simply:

“Hey! Our board meeting hardly sucked at all!”

Turns out that my client’s organization understands the value of a great board meeting. How wonderful is that! And how sadly infrequent.

Far too often, a board meeting is big fat missed opportunity to inform, enrich and engage board members in order to ignite them to be the best ambassadors they can be.

Here’s part of another email I got. “Hey Joan, OK so my last board meeting sucked. Can your next post offer a prescription for how to make sure our next board meeting will suck less?

Well my friends and readers, I accept that challenge. And I have good news. There is only ONE thing you need to do differently.

Seriously. Just one.

Read on my friends.

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Ignite Your Board Members’ Passion

board members

Originally posted at the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Imagine this. Your gala is three weeks away, and even accounting for last-minute registrations, you are well below target. You review the list of table captains. The poorest performers? Five of your board members. Three of them aren’t even hosting a table.

You fight the urge to rant and, instead, create a short video highlighting everything the board needs to know to get the word out and increase attendance. You share it with the full board. Separately you ask the board chair to hit ‘reply all’ with an encouraging message to other trustees to recruit attendees.

Four hours later, no responses. The problem: You have a bad board. You’re not alone.

A few years back, Stanford University joined forces with BoardSource and GuideStar to survey nonprofits’ board members about their boards. The picture is startling and probably reflects some serious underreporting by participants:

Almost half (48 percent) do not believe that their fellow board members are very engaged in their work, based on the time they dedicate to their organization and their reliability in fulfilling their obligations.

What’s most surprising is the degree to which executive directors and staff leaders are in denial about the root of board problems. You might blame your board chair for not holding members accountable. You might blame the nominations committee for recruiting members who don’t care. You’re right to be angry, but you’re wrong about why.

The real problem? It’s you. Across the sector, executive directors and key leaders are not holding up their end of the bargain. It is your job — and the job of every staff member at your organization — to be in the business of stoking your board’s passion, the “pilot light.”

Anyone responsible for board recruitment should identify new members who, first and foremost, are in love with the organization. Skills can be learned, but passion has to be in the DNA. Recruitment efforts must give first priority to candidates whose “pilot light” for your cause is bright. When a board member has that kind of passion, you can feel it.

You won’t hit 100 percent all the time, but most of your board members should arrive with their lights shining. Staff leaders tend to think these bright lights just magically stay bright. They don’t.

“Dim bulb” boards govern poorly; they care less. Board members check their phones at meetings while staff members are sharing successes. They focus on cutting expenses when revenue projections are off. They are responsible for more nonprofit leaders returning calls to recruiters than they will ever know.
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