Don’t Start the New Year Without Having 3 Important Conversations First

important conversations

One very hot summer afternoon, we took our eldest daughter, Scout, to a local circus. She was maybe 3 and had slept during the ride there. We took this adorable sweaty groggy kid into a really noisy tent, paid for our three tickets, bought some popcorn and took our seats.

It was exciting. Well we were excited – she was dazed and confused.

Until… the first act. Out rolls a cannon. A man climbs in. Another man detonates the pretend wick and BBBBBOOOOOM. The man flies out of the cannon and lands in a net some distance away.

Scout reacted with sheer terror; as if she herself had been ejected from the bleachers. She ran as fast as she could out of the tent. Followed by her two mothers certain she had been scarred for life by a well-intended afternoon at the circus.

Once she had calmed down and started breathing again, she asked a single question. And then she asked it again. And again. And again. For the entire ninety minute ride home.

Her question was simple. “Why’d they shoot dat guy out da cannon?”

And presumably our answers simply were not cutting it. Answers like, “People think it’s fun,” or “That’s what circus performers do,” fell on deaf ears. These answers offered no solace.

In her quite logical mind, the whole thing seemed unfathomable. Someone suggested to ‘dat guy’ that he get into that cannon so that it could be detonated and ‘dat guy’ could fly through the air into a net that was really far away.

And ‘dat guy’ said YES.

Are you wondering where I am going with this? It’s not a story about what lousy parents we are. It’s a story about ‘dat guy.’ And it’s a story about you.

You have just returned from some kind of holiday break after one of the most tragic and terrifying years in American history. Maybe you took a legit break and maybe there was a novel or a board game or an extra nap. And now you are back at work.

You open your laptop and before you is an imaginary cannon. And you are ‘dat guy’

You can agree to begin 2021 by making an intentional decision to be shot out of a cannon. Endless to-do’s. Everything is a priority. So much noise. Stress. Anxiety.

Or… you can take a different path. Today, I’ll offer you suggestions about three very important conversations you need to have this month.

And I’ll give you one piece of advice before we get started.

Say no to the cannon.
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The Nonprofit Sector is the Biggest Source of Leadership in the World

nonprofit leadership

During my senior year of college, I was the dorm director on duty the night a student fell from the window of his thirteen story dorm room. Everything about that evening was terrifying, starting with four dorm directors who were no older than the young man who fell to his death.

I could have been paralyzed by imposter syndrome but the moment demanded something more.

I’m also terribly squeamish and pass out nearly every time my doctor points me toward Quest Diagnostics. But that night the moment demanded courage. I summoned it.

And so Joan Garry, Johnny MacNamara, Matt O’Connor and Jim Kelly (yes, Fordham University was crawling with the Irish) – the four senior leaders on duty that night became a team and turned into the leaders that the students on campus needed us to be. Johnny led the way – the incident happened in his dorm, but we led with him. Long into the night and in the days that followed.

We were not trained in crisis services; we did what we knew to be right. We comforted our fellow students, we opened our doors to the many who just needed to talk. We led, each in our own way.

I remember thinking a few days later that I never once felt squeamish. In this crisis, there was no place for that. It wasn’t what leaders do.

I learned so much about leadership this year – where to find it and what it looks like.

As we close out what may be the most devastating year we have experienced in my lifetime, I’d like to share with you what I have learned about nonprofit leadership in a time of crisis, and why I believe that the nonprofit sector is actually the biggest source of leadership in the world today.

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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.

AN ANIMAL SHELTER WITH A BIG VISION

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

10 Tips for a Successful Staycation

staycation

Since the pandemic began, I have been sheltering in place at my home on the Jersey Shore.

And since then, I have been a total workaholic. I suspect I’m not alone.

Now, I totally get that given everything going on in the world, I’m privileged just to be able to work. So many don’t have that opportunity right now. But still.

I live inside my house in front of my laptop. Up with the birds, coaching, consulting, writing a second edition of my book (coming out in December – be on the lookout), and lots of virtual keynotes and webinars. Literally obsessed with helping leaders during this unprecedented time of pandemic and social unrest.

But after months of working long hours, right through weekend after weekend, I definitely needed a break.

There was a thought we might travel to Acadia National Park and find a pristine AirBnB but we got nervous about the risk. So we decided to stay right here.

A two week staycation.

It didn’t start off great. After a whole two days, I was convinced the entire thing was a bust.

Spoiler alert. It wasn’t the weather. In fact, it basically rained the entire time.

But then something changed. Something really important.

And so as someone who preaches about self-care to nonprofit leaders, I thought I’d share the lessons I learned during my staycation.
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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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