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.

How about an example and then off to the download I hope will be helpful.Continue Reading

How Nonprofits Can Take Advantage of the 2020 Election Cycle

Listen up! The 2020 election presents a HUGE opportunity for your nonprofit. Here’s how to take advantage of it.

Let’s Play the New Year’s Eve Game!

favorite posts 2016

It’s nearly time to light a menorah, decorate a Christmas tree, do both or neither. You’ll spend time with family or with your chosen family. You will be nearly forced to stop working because the whole world slows down in the last week or two of each year.

At some point in these next few weeks you’ll have time to reflect – to consider who you were and what you accomplished in 2019.

I know. I know. You’ll say, “I can’t believe it. Wasn’t it just Valentine’s Day?” You might utter a few sentences that start with, “If only I…..” And, of course, given the political climate, there will be some jaw dropping and eye rolling.

Perhaps you will use my favorite phrase of 2019. “I can’t even.”

That came in pretty handy every time I read the news.

But I’d like to suggest that you play The New Year’s Eve Game at some point. It’s a very simple look back on the year. You need a way to capture a list of no more than 10 things.

List the 10 biggest things you did this year that make you really really proud to be a nonprofit leader.

That’s it. Just ten things. The biggest things to you – they don’t have to be earth shattering – they can be a small thing that is actually a really big thing. Review them closely, own them. Maybe when they feel right, write an email to your staff and board with your reflections about the list and thank them for the role they played in making that list possible. Let them all know how grateful you are that their passion and determination found its way to your organization. And that their fingerprints are all over each item on the list.

That email will mean the world to them.

Speaking of lists, I have one too. It’s a list of the blog posts I wrote in 2019 that my readers – people like you – seemed to like the most.

It’s not the same kind of list but it does give me pause to reflect on how lucky I am. Over 1 million views of my posts this year supported your work. And in this very crazy and kinda ugly world, I saw thousands of nonprofit leaders – board and staff – working to create a sense of fairness and beauty in a world that often feels painfully lacking in both.  And that makes me feel lucky indeed.

So holiday reflections, a few words of advice, and a list of posts folks found most useful this year. If you missed some of them, it’s a good time to catch up. I hope they help you.

Happy Holidays from a not-so-secret admirer.Continue Reading

Holiday Gifts for Nonprofit Readers

holiday gifts

Nonprofit leaders impress the heck out of me. Not gonna lie.

I call them superheroes for a reason. They raise money, recruit and engage board members, design programs, manage staff, and there are dozens of other important responsibilities they juggle.

But there is one thing that nonprofit leaders make time for that truly surprises me.

Wanna guess?

OK, time’s up.

The answer: THEY READ.

Nonprofit leaders are readers. They look for and consume books for the express purpose of thinking about their work in a smarter way, managing their time, and understanding what leadership is really about. They strive to be really really good at their jobs.

For this reason, we run quarterly book clubs in the Nonprofit Leadership Lab (my online membership program). Members are hungry for resources and always on the hunt for the “thing” that will solve a problem or improve performance.

So is there someone on your gift list this year who works for a nonprofit or is a dedicated board member or volunteer? Need some help finding holiday gifts?

Look no more. Any or all of the following books would be perfect to place adjacent to a box of Chanukah candles or under the glow of the family Christmas tree.Continue Reading

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

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.

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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