How My Recent Vacation Changed Me

vacation

I just had a real honest-to-goodness vacation. I’m still pinching myself.

Not one week. Not even two weeks. Three and a half weeks. Away. Not checking email. Not writing this blog.

And it wasn’t just the length of time that was remarkable. We traveled halfway around the world. The trip of a lifetime to Australia and New Zealand.

I learned a few things during my vacation. More than a few. Really important things that I need to share with you. They are kinda “Dorothy wearing the ruby slipper things” and I believe they will mean something to you. So, stay with me.

But I’ll start with a few basics.

There are five sheep for every one person in New Zealand. The genius behind the Sydney Opera House actually never saw it completed. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is just as thrilling as you might imagine (and they should call it something more than ‘great.’ That’s SO not a big enough word.)

The whole kangaroo with the joey in the pouch – it gives you goosebumps. And yes, everything in New Zealand looks like a set from Lord of the Rings (actually, I believe every nook and cranny of New Zealand was a set element from Lord of the Rings).

And lastly, Jupiter has moons and Saturn has rings. I saw them with my very own eyes.

But I need to tell you the biggest lesson I learned. And it does not require a trip halfway around the world.Continue Reading

The Dirtiest Word in Nonprofits

prioritize

It was somewhere around day 60 of my tenure as the Executive Director of GLAAD when I figured out the dirtiest word in nonprofits.

Want a hint? I’ll give you two.

  1. It’s not usually a dirty word outside of the nonprofit sector.
  2. And no, it’s not “fundraise” or “committee” or “grant application” or anything like that.

And yes, I realize that last one was two words anyway.

No, it’s something much more problematic for many many nonprofit leaders. In fact, most people I know who are drawn to be an Executive Director don’t handle this word very well. They kind of suck at it.

Want to guess what it is…?

I ask this question when folks sign up for my free online mini-series that premieres this week called High Impact, No Burnout. The idea behind the mini-series is to show you the 3 keys to building a thriving nonprofit without burning out. Which isn’t so easy.

Interested? It starts on Thursday, April 23rd. It’s free. And it very much focuses on how to overcome this dirtiest of words.

You can sign up here, and I encourage you to do so.

I guess I’m about to give away the answer, so keep reading… 🙂Continue Reading

What’s The Single Best Sign of a Healthy Nonprofit?

I'm a kind blogger. Here's a clue to the answer to today's question.

I’m a kind blogger. Here’s a clue to the answer.

So riddle me this batmen and women.

Tell me the ONE thing that tells you a nonprofit is thriving.

You can pick just one.

No fair you say? Well it’s MY blog so my rules. But let me help you get your creative juices flowing.

Let’s start with the wrong answers. It has nothing to do with:

  • A strong mission
  • A cash reserve
  • The diversity of your revenue streams or meeting your annual revenue goals
  • Your staff turnover %
  • The size of your board

Yes, these things are really important, but the charge here is to pick ONE. And these aren’t it.

OK, give up?

Read on and I’ll give you the right answer.

Continue Reading

Stop Feeling Guilty For Wanting to Work Less

A nonprofit executive director client of mine is headed out for vacation next week.

Re-read that sentence if you don’t mind. Note that the word “executive director” and “vacation” appear in the same sentence. Without the word cancel.

So we are headed in the right direction. Then I ask the key question. “Will you be checking your email while you are out of the country?”

The answer is pretty typical: “Maybe just a few times a day, but that’s all. I’ll definitely work less.”

Like I was supposed to offer a round of applause. Like “that’s all” is evidence of a remarkable commitment to self care.

She received no applause from me.  

“That’s all.” Let’s tease that out, shall we?  

  • That’s all… Because I don’t trust anyone else to take care of things?
  • That’s all… Because I have to demonstrate that I work really hard all the time?
  • That’s all… Because I’m a “pleaser” who has trouble saying “no”?
  • That’s all… Because just the thought of focusing on my own well-being makes me feel tremendous guilt?

I’m going to dive into this issue – this sense of guilt so many nonprofit leaders have about any kind of self-investment. It’s time for some tough love from Joan.

Continue Reading

Before You Take That New Executive Director Job…

executive director jobs

The story is mine but it’s oh so common. When I was hired to be an Executive Director of a nonprofit organization, I had no idea what I was getting into. The board had even less of an idea. We had a budget on paper. Paper, it turns out, we couldn’t afford. From tip to toe, there was a lot of work to be done, starting with raising enough money for payroll.

I often wonder. If I had asked the search committee the right kinds of questions, would I have understood the depth of the challenges? And here’s an even better question. Would I have walked away from the opportunity that turned out to be one of the most professionally rewarding roles in my career?

That’s the thing about applying for Executive Director jobs. I don’t think I asked particularly good or smart questions of the search committee. Funny, right? I pride myself on asking good, smart questions.

And why didn’t I? Perhaps I wanted the Executive Director job so much I did not want to be dissuaded. Or maybe I thought the board really wouldn’t know the answers.

So what should we ask search committees when we’re interviewing for Executive Director jobs?

Continue Reading

Executive Directors Are Superheroes, But They Have Their Kryptonite

executive directors

As I write this, the biggest movie in the world is the superhero film, Avengers Endgame.

Now, I’m not the biggest action movie buff in the world, but I do know a superhero when I see one. And Executive Directors are society’s superheroes. There is just no doubt in my mind.

They go toe-to-toe with their opponents on national TV.

They fearlessly meet with elected officials to influence change.

They lead with a level of determination far beyond those of mortal men and women.

But just like Superman (and yes, I know he’s not in the Avengers), Executive Directors have their kryptonite. Their (potentially) fatal flaw.

It’s not a lack of resources… or a disengaged board.

No, those are obstacles for sure. But this problem is actually harder to overcome. And it affects Executive Directors regardless of level of performance.

And it’s not an addiction to hummus either.

Want a hint?Continue Reading

10 Things That Drive Executive Directors Nuts

toughest things about being an executive director

My glass? Half full. As far as I’m concerned, running a nonprofit is a joy and privilege.

But I’m also a realist. These jobs are hard. You throw your heart and soul into educating, advocating, feeding, lobbying, sheltering – the list goes on.

During my time as an Executive Director, the toughest thing for me was the enormous responsibility I felt.

There was this therapy session. So why are you here? My therapist (who was wonderful) had one of those voices that’s supposed to calm you down. But I was so riled up, her voice could not even make a dent.

I cut to the chase. I really like to help people. It’s part of my DNA. And for the most part I think it is one of my finer qualities…. And probably because of this, I just took a job running a gay rights organization. But I’ve gone overboard. Now I feel like I need to help all the gay people.

Over eight years, I had days when the responsibility felt crushing and I developed some go-to strategies for when I was having a bad day.

Today I offer you my take on the top ten toughest things about being an Executive Director. And because I cannot contain myself, some color commentary and maybe an antidote for each.Continue Reading

The Best Book I Read This Past Year

useless meetings

Useless meetings? I have had my share. Bet you have too.

Back in my corporate America days I would find myself sitting in meetings that were just a pure waste of time.

Maybe the meeting was poorly led. Or the convener liked to hear herself talk. Or there was no agenda. Or the meeting got awkward for any number of reasons.

Later, as a nonprofit board member, I left board meetings thinking I could have called in, put the phone on mute and checked Facebook. I had learned nothing that I had not read in the written packet.

My technique for dealing with useless meetings? I called it “wood grain analysis.” My technique for disappearing from the room. A nice close look at the patterns and an opportunity to make mental lists about the work I should be doing.

And I’ll confess. I am certainly not immune to this problem here in my consulting shop. I have let staff members drone on (I did not want to hurt their feelings or embarrass them in front of colleagues). I have raced into meetings unprepared to lead it and pulled some agenda out of thin air.

We have all done it.

But during a recent break I discovered the antidote to this syndrome, and I felt compelled to share it with you.Continue Reading

3 Easy Holiday Gift Ideas for Nonprofit Staff

holiday gift ideas

You slid into Thanksgiving like a baseball player stretching a double into a triple. You are filthy, battered and bruised. Those four days “off” may have included drama at the Thanksgiving table, company that wasn’t supposed to stay that long, and checking email during courses.

Thank goodness for time off, eh?

Now here you are back at your desk. You have tried to block out the light at the end of the tunnel. You know which light I mean. The light of the oncoming train of the holidays.

There’s no time left to ignore it.

My mom would always brag about the holiday shopping she did on December 27th for the following years. I really did not like when she said that. Not one little bit.

Unlike her, I’m not ready just yet. Are you? Probably not.

And if you’re lucky enough to have staff or lead volunteers, you need to do something.

I’m here to help. Seriously. I have three holiday gift ideas. Inexpensive, meaningful, and easy.

Easy means you can pull off within a week. AND not expensive to ship if your team is virtual.Continue Reading

How to Handle Criticism of Your Organization

handle criticism

We live in a strange new world. Not a particularly kind and generous one if you ask me.

Our world is polarized as never before and civility in dealing with those with whom you disagree seems to have been erased from our society’s hard drive.

And I am so not talking only about politics. I see it with nonprofit organizations galore.

The negativity comes from both inside the organization (a staff upset with a change in health benefits) and externally (community members who feel voiceless in some kind of directional change.)

Or a local blogger or journalist with a big ol’ bone to pick. My phones have been ringing more and more asking for help with these kinds of issues. Some might frame this as crisis management but I would prefer to dig at the root cause.

Often, a full-blown crisis is the result of something small handled poorly.

Or something small that leaders got so worried about that it became big. I believe nonprofit leaders can often cut crises off at the pass if we handle the challenge or the criticism well.

Today, I want to help you think about how to handle criticism without anger or defensiveness so that it doesn’t blow up into a full-blown crisis. If I do only that, it will be a good day at the office for me.Continue Reading