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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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 recover.

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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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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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