When asked what should be included in an Executive Director’s report to the board, I responded with this model of “OARS” to help the board be aware of the steering environment:

  • 
O = Opportunities . . . that the organization can (and perhaps should) pursue
  • 
A = Accomplishments . . . both little and big successes
  • 
R = Risk factors . . . things that look like they might go wrong, including action taken to 
mitigate these.
  • 
S = Surprises . . . that the ED encountered. Yes — even in a well run organization, with 
very professional staff, there are surprises

This model was inspired by the “Significant events” report I had file each week when I was a mid-level manager at General Electric. Each of my staff had to write such a report to me, and I distilled and condensed these, along with my own list, in my report to senior management.  Our “significant events” were named differently, but functioned in the same way to alert our managers about situations that would likely develop — either into more mature problems, or into inspiring successes.

The underlying value here is truth telling.  I knew it was easy for my staff to report great successes, or opportunities that seemed to be developing.  It was much harder to report those out of control situations that could get worse, those stakeholders whose dismay was escalating, those situations that seemed only to work against us.  But my job was to know of such situations, and to organize appropriate responses.  Were I kept in the dark, I couldn’t really do my job.

Recently I was asked to comment about how best to engage donors to a nonprofit.

My answer — Ask the right questions.  Decide what conversation you’d like to have, and figure out what QUESTIONS will start that off.  Donors like to be listened to, like to be heard, and like to be treated as important.  Asking the right questions, and then listening carefully will make a huge difference.

Is there a story that you’d like to tell. Don’t just blurt it out. Wait for the question, to which your story is a wonderful answer.

An example: “Why have you been so generous with us . . . with three very significant contributions in just the past year?”  That’s not a question many fundraisers would ask. But prompting the key donor to review his or her satisfaction in supporting your work may be more effective than any words you might provide about why your work matters.

One caveat, however:  You must care about the answer you will receive.  Asking questions just for effect won’t work at all.  The donor or prospect may surprise you, may confirm your understanding or expectations, may challenge you.  But, whatever its effect, the answer will be important.

The importance of the answer – That’s a major part of what makes a great question.

One caveat

I wrote this in response to a query about a board that was not fulfilling its mission — at least according to the groups Executive Director.  After reading a detailed analysis of ways in which the board appeared to be failing, I added these thoughts . . .

I believe the solution must involve both left and right brain thinking — both an analysis of what’s being missed, and some candid sharing about the context of board work in support of the organization’s mission.

I can imagine leading a workshop in which board members list

  • Expectations about their roles
  • Personal evaluation about their performance in each role
  • What energizes each board member to do this work
  • What de-energizes each board member, or puts limits on the energy they can expend
  • What makes board meetings fun, exciting, vital, and worth attending
  • What makes board meetings dull, frustrating, obligations that one might rather skip.

Then have the Executive Director (and perhaps other members of the executive team) list his or her expectations of the board, which of these are met and to what extent, and which are left unfulfilled in a way that really hurts the organization, or at least the work of the Executive Director.

I expect that mixing structural and personal will help everybody find more trust and develop a more collaborative spirit, and that this sharing process will expose some of the real issues.

One final note — Don’t assume that the problem lies totally with the board. It may be that unclear expectations or communications, confused agenda, vague decision making processes, or other such external problems are part of what holds the board back. For this reason, it’s extremely helpful to have the session facilitated by somebody from outside — somebody who is not identifed with any part of the organization or its governance.

What’s the real problem?

October 12, 2012

How often we try to solve a problem in the terms first presented to us.  Occasionally this works.  But very often the statement of the problem is self-limiting, and tends to steer us away from finding a real solution.  Or — and this is just as problematic — we may re–phrase a problem in limiting and perhaps misleading terms.

Not long ago I changed the e-mail address at which I receive notices from what had been a very active mailing list.  Instantly, I noticed that incoming mail from that list had stopped.  What was going on?  Was there a spam filter?  I realized that I’d changed the list settings before creating my new email account.  Had the list sent mail to the momentarily non-existent email address, and then turned me off?  What other scenarios could lead to such an email blockage.  I worked diligently on this problem, sought the assistance of the list owner and of several list participants, but got nowhere.  A whole weekend went by, but no solution appeared.

And then the email I wanted started to flow.  It turned out that this once-active list had experienced a significant decline in traffic, and there had been absolutely no messages during the whole weekend.  Come Monday there was a trickle of emails on the list — and they all came through to me just as they were supposed to.

In fact I had originally seen the problem as, “No emails coming through”.  But then I had quickly rephrased it into a question that I thought would be more helpful — “What is blocking my emails?”  And holding on to that paradigm had blinded me to the very simple solution — “There were no emails for anybody”.

Recently a colleague shared with me her concerns about the board of the small nonprofit that she directs.  We immediately began talking about various training programs or board retreats that might make the board a more functional support for this nonprofit and for its director.  It felt appropriate for us to talk about the possible agenda for such training, whether it should be for all board members or just those on the executive committee, etc.  Our unspoken paradigm was that the board didn’t understand its best role, and so wasn’t behaving in the most productive manner.  Bring about the required understanding or attitude and the problem would be fixed, we believed.

It took quite a while for us to step back and reformulate the problem, into the simple statement, that “The board is not serving the role needed by the organization and its director”.  And with this understanding we could ask whether, in fact, the right people were serving on the board, whether the personal benefits they sought from board service were consistent with the organization’s situation, and whether there were any positive models of board service within the board’s recent history.  Board training (in the conventional sense) remained one possible option, but not the only option.

Another organization that I’ve worked with found that they weren’t taken seriously when seeking large contributions.  They struggled to produce clearer descriptions of their programs, that they were sure would excite potential major donors.  The new materials were better, and did attract more small donations.  But they didn’t solve the problem — major donors were still holding back.  It turned out that the public financial statements were unclear and inadequate. This didn’t bother small contributors, but were a real concern to major donors.  A new treasurer was able to produce much clearer financial reports, and larger contributions began to flow.

In each of these cases the relevant people heard a statement of the visible problem, but made assumptions as they translated it into a limiting reformulation.  Letting go of those assumptions and asking anew what was the real problem turned out to be the key.

The moral here is simple:  Our first question should always be, “What is the problem?”.  And we need to answer that in the most primitive way, trying to state the problem as seen or experienced, rather than as transformed by some suggestive but often inaccurate assumptions or deductions.

Centering

October 4, 2012

M. C. Richards in her book, “Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person” draws on the metaphor of the potter centering a piece of clay.  The potter pushes against the clay but leaves space for it to move, until it is well centered on the wheel.  At that point the potter can touch one point of the pot and the whole moving piece of clay will respond.

The potter must be careful — for if the clay gets off center a strong touch might pull it apart.  Instead, the potter will carefully lead the pot back on center, and then continue working it.  Of course there are limits to the strength of the clay, especially when it is wet and heavy. An understanding of this reality must moderate the potter’s touch.

Similarly, we need to re-center ourselves as we begin any meeting, or even any task.  Left unchecked, we may drift or get pulled away from where we need to be.  We may find that we’ve taken a wrong turn, or gotten off the trail and need to find it again.  This is not a sign that we are imperfect or inexperienced, but simply that we are human.  And when we are on center — everything is possible.

Things don’t always go well.  Sometimes “centering down” seems impossible, as laundry lists of tasks and issues keep running through our minds.   Undone tasks, complex relationships, or other matters may loom large, and not let themselves be pushed aside even for an hour.   Withhold judgment, be prepared to let go, and wait.  Let the center find you.

 

I do ask lots of questions, but sometimes I also do provide answers! Here’s are some of the answers I provided to the Linked In “Answers” forums:I
As a nonprofit consultant, which assessment tool(s) do you recommend when trying to understand and evaluate where the organization’s biggest problems lie?

The starting point is not a set of “tools” or automated programs, or report. It’s my own ears, listening to staff, board, and critical stakeholders reporting their understanding of the organization and its issues. And it’s the probing questions I ask, to elicit these comments. Once I’ve identified some core issues, various reports and tools may be relevant. And if the issues are primarily with finances, I may involve other consultants who work more intensively in that area.

Think about getting a good physical exam. After a few simple preliminaries (height, weight, pulse, blood pressure, etc.), the doctor will ask how I’m feeling, will look VERY carefully at my posture, demeanor, coordination, etc., will feel my skin for temperature and moisture, etc. More detailed tests may follow, but they are never the starting point.

How do you personally evaluate speakers you hear?

Great speakers have me engaged. They present memorable images, powerful questions, great metaphors. I don’t have to “evaluate” their performance. Their message stays with me, guides me, informs me. I notice that.

How successful is your donor newsletter at raising money?

I’d be surprised if most donor newsletters succeed at raising money — since that’s not what they are supposed to do. They keep donors and prospects in touch with the organization, cultivate them as stakeholders. Then, when the “ask” comes, the donors or prospects want to support the vital organization that they are so clearly in touch with.

What is your favorite way for nonprofits without alumni to get email addresses?

Just be very careful that you understand “opt in”. An e-mail sent without permission, and without explanation, casts a very bad first impression.

What is the biggest mistake you see new, first time EDs make when working with their Board?

The most common mistake I see new executive directors make is to regard their board as more a burden than an asset. Indeed, it takes work to maintain a board, but a board is a resource to help keep an organization on track, connected, and grounded.

How do you find web developers/designers that are willing to offer Pro Bono services to a NFP?

In most communities, you’ll find an organization that brings together web developers and designers to share skills and insights with each other. Try to identify that group (or those groups) in your area, and ask them to circulate a request from your nonprofit. Be clear what the request is, and include a short statement about why it makes a difference. But do be careful that the skill set you get pro bono is the skill set that you need. A web developer MAY not be the best web designer or web marketing consultant. Interview your pro bono workers just as you would any contractor.

What’s the best accounting software for nonprofits?

One early responder to this question asks, “Why do you think it would be different from any profit making business? ” In many many ways, the needs are the same. But many non-profits need fund accounting, as they keep track of many different grants, contracts, etc. There are packages designed for this, and I’m aware of several add-ons for Quickbooks to provide fund accounting functionality. How important is this for your nonprofit? For many, it’s not important at all. But it makes sense to have on your board at least one person who really understands these issues, and can help guide the organization. As with any software choice, the REAL cost is not the cost of the package — It’s the cost of working with it daily, of putting up with unexpected quirks or lapses in support, and — worst case — of replacing it if a wrong choice was made.

Chartered affiliate organization must file state filing and register for the DOJ and FTB, yet Central Org won’t sign documents, claims it’s unnecessary. Central org does not include chapters in 990 or file a group exemption.

Speak to a lawyer in your state. Informal advice on forums such as this can be valuable in many ways. But it’s no substitute for good professional legal advice. I’m amazed how often people don’t go to the source — and here the source is somebody with the precise legal knowledge.

What is your best tip for leading effective online small group coaching programs?

The key to any individual or group coaching is clarifying goals. Often that’s the full agenda, and its’ repeated again and again. “What are we trying to do?” “Where do we want to be?”. Individual (1-1) coaching may be a useful adjunct to group work. But be careful that people don’t try to use this to point towards others as the source of a problem. The only place that belongs is in the whole group, stated in the most positive way. Yes — accountability is important. I’d suggest that the last part of each session be on “confirming agreements”, and that the first part be on “agreement check in”. I agree that “homework” can be a negative word, even though the concept is great. I might call it “preparation”.”

  1. Work with staff and their managers to identify the skills on which training is needed. Communicate this clearly to the training group.
  2. Allow enough time and space for the training to really work. Often going off site is helpful. In any case, staff should be totally free to be present with the training.
  3. Insure that staff will be able to use the skills they have learned right away. I used to run a technical training department, and was amazed how often staff were sent for training on a new piece of software, but didn’t get to work with it for six months or more. By that time, the value of the training has long been lost.

Telling my story . . .

April 16, 2012

As I work with non-profit boards, these are some of the questions I usually raise.  But you can use these on your own.  I’d welcome feedback about which are most important, which need to be changed, and what should have been included but was not.

Mission / Vision:  Does the organization have a clear mission statement, and a vision of what it seeks to achieve? At what point in time might the mission be accomplished? When has the board last revisited mission and vision? Are staff, board, and executive aligned on mission and vision?  Are mission and vision statements referenced when program ideas, and internal policies are being considered?  Does the board notice when stated mission and actual function are different, and can it take constructive action?

Stakeholders:  Who are the stakeholders, or potential stakeholders? How does the board connect with or represent the stakeholders? If some stakeholders are not in some way represented on the board, how does the organization maintain ties with them? To what groups does the organization feel itself accountable?

Board membership:  How are Board members chosen? Does the board include people with experience to evaluate and clarify the organization’s need for legal services, accounting, publicity, marketing, program development, fundraising human resources, etc.? Is the board primarily a policy-making body, or does it seek is it a “working board” (providing some of these services)? Are there term limits for board members? How does the board identify and cultivate new members with the right skills, experience connections, and commitment?  Is there a training protocol for new board members, and a regular check in with continuing board members as they get re-appointed?

Board  meetings:  Are board meetings well attended lively events, that engage the board and that result in useful dialog and decisions?  Do board members come away excited and involved? Is there a clear agenda, with board questions presented in enough detail and accompanied with enough background material?  Are meetings run in a manner that encourage candid sharing, creative problem solving, and the generation of consensus whenever possible?  Is the board able to listen carefully to minority views, to see how these might provide helpful insights and guidance?  Are minutes taken carefully, and then reviewed by the board? Read the rest of this entry »

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