I’m just beginning to design two new “Skillbuilders” (workshops) for the Maine Association of nonprofits. Workshop design comes easy to me, and I’ve a track record of considerable success. Still, I’m expecting to learn significant lessons as we first experience these workshops being presented to live audiences. How can I maximize my learning from these pilot runs?  And how can I organize my initial work so that these questions are clear?

My first rule is to always list the goals, and design the evaluation process, before completing the workshop design itself. Just the titles, in this case “Asking Great Questions” and “Crafting Your Elevator Speech”, are not enough.

For example, digging deeper into my “Asking Great Questions” agenda, I began to see such questions as:

• Who should be learning what about the process of creating, editing, and asking questions? (Who is our target audience?)

• What key ideas or understanding do we believe participants in the skillbuilder should take away? (What are we aiming to teach?)

• What experiences (not what lessons) will have make this happen?

• Are there important things that participants may need to un-learn? (What habits, or what blindness, are we trying to overcome?)

Working with such questions early in the workshop conception stage, I began to see that the kinds of questions that might fit into an employment interview are very different from those that we might want to ask of other stakeholders in our organization, of lawmakers or regulatory officials, of teachers or of researchers and guides whom we trust.

With each clarification of the goals comes new clarity about how to observe and measure whether we have achieved those goals. And, so, the evaluation process is built as the workshop is designed. Even more important, the questioning process informs the whole conception of the workshop.

In fact, I needed to create another set of questions, to evaluate my initial description of the Skillbuilder, before even developing the main workshop agenda:

• Who will the description attract, and are these the people I want in this skillbuilder?

• What expectations will the description create, and is this an expectation that I can and want to fulfill?

• The skillbuilder will be require very active participation, and will include little content that can be received passively.  Will that be clear and a positive aspect of participant’s experience (or will there be comments about the lack of Powerpoint slides with detailed text guides)?

Thinking about this process led me to look back at the first outline I wrote for an earlier Skillbuilder I had developed with Deb Nelson. Along with my first rough draft outline, I had sent her a memo with a heading “Questions for Us”, and the following content:

• Our goals for the workshop

• What we have to tell or teach vs. participants learning from each other

• How we will know we have succeeded — Key evaluation question

• Possible pitfalls — What should not happen?

• Personal goals — Why we are doing this

Ask yourself these and similar questions as you prepare your presentations, your lectures, your workshops.  Even when the answers seem to be obvious and so clear, write them down. Revise that draft copy. And let your questions be your guide.

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What makes a great story?

September 7, 2012

Deb Nelson and I have been teaching a Skillbuilder (workshop) for the Maine Association of Nonprofits entitled “Finding and telling our stories:  Bringing our mission and method to life”.  It’s about helping people identify stories about their organization that are compelling, illustrative, and can be told in just a few words.

As part of this workshop, we ask participants, “What makes a great story?”.  These are some of the answers that we hope to hear (and we usually do):

  • The story has a compelling narrative
  • It’s not obvious (e.g. you must keep listening)
  • It’s accurate, true, really happened
  • It can be told with authenticity and authority
  • The imagery is vivid.
  • It’s culturally relevant for the audience
  • It fulfills the right goals for its audience
  • It has a real beginning, middle, and end
  • It’s suitably short

These are the kinds of stories that we want to tell in describing the work of our organizations — whether in fundraising for a non-profit, marketing a commercial service, or offering an innovative product.  Compelling true short stories draw people in, create interest, and communicate most effectively.

I was so impressed with this article by George Ambler, that I’m posting this link to the article, The everyday tasks of leadership.

Ambler talks about three major leadership tasks:

  • Setting direction (mission, vision, values)
  • Building commitment (trust, accountability, cooperation)
  • Creating alignment (common ground, shared responsibility)

Are there others that he left out?  Do all the significant leadership tasks fit into these three themes?  Please share you comments on this blog, and let’s make this a fruitful discussion.

My best mistake (!)

September 6, 2012

Does something sound wrong with this title? Most of us want to trumpet our successes, and hide our mistakes. And yet it’s through important mistakes that we can learn the most important lessons.

With this thought in mind, here’s my “best” mistake. Mark (no, not his real name) had hired me before, as a consultant with two of his companies. And now he was CEO of an interesting multi-division firm, with lots of appeal. He brought me in first to rework systems in a smaller division, and then to work on the major corporate systems. I was doing a great job (or so I thought), even though I was running into resistance. Projects that create change always incite some resistance, so this was not a concern. But then Mark left the firm.

All of the sudden, I was alone, really reporting to nobody. Nobody owned the project that Mark had created. And, not surprisingly, I was asked to leave as well. It wasn’t because of my work, or my results. I was just an orphan, and nobody was a stakeholder in my success there.

What did I learn from this? Well, no longer after he left, Mark referred me to another firm, whose CEO, Peter, was a friend of his. Again, it was the CEO who wanted to hire me, and I was instrumental in his plans to bring the organization to another level. But I didn’t want to repeat the same boom and bust scenario again. So, this is what I set in place:

I insisted that Peter form a management team, to take supervisory responsibility for my work.

Each month, before I arrived for a week of week, they would set the agenda, identify goals, and develop detailed plans to insure that I was given the needed resources.

Then, after I finished my week of work, they would meet and review the results.

My work was valued, and so there were often conflicts about which projects were given to me. I could deflect all of these, pointing to the management team that was setting the agenda.

In short, I created a place for Arthur Fink the consultant in their management chart — even though I was never a full time (or even part time) employee. And even when Peter became the target of criticism for some of his decisions (or lack of decisions), I was well insulated from this political stuff.

Business, and the work of non-profit organizations, is all about relationships. But when your position of tied to one possibly frail connection based on one relationshp, everything is at risk. By creating groups or communities, and establishing relationships with them, one can be better informed and much better protected.

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.

Any consultant wanting to hone his or her skills should read this recent article by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here are the ten points they list:  (For a detailed explanation, read the article!)

Following this list, I’ve added eight more that I believe are at least as important.

* Have self-confidence and be as adept at delivering bad news as good.

* Have a good understanding of the business and of themselves.

* Have transferable skills.

* Have the ability to simplify and explain a problem.

* Have more than one solution to a problem.

* Be a good listener.

* Be a team player.

* Be able to market.

* Gain client trust.

* Remember who’s the star.

And while I agree strongly with all of these, there are more traits that I believe are equally important:

* Be comfortable telling the truth.  Clients may just want to hear positive words, expressions of praise.  A great consultant is willing to say what needs to be said.

* Be tactful and affirming.  Truthtelling doesn’t need to be negative and abrasive.  A great consultant can phrase criticism as helpful suggestions, and can lead the client toward constructive action.

* Know how to ask great questions.  Great consultants ask great questions.  It’s through such questions that we learn what’s really going on, what the client thinks is going on, and what different groups within the client organization think is going on.

* Be willing to play together.  You can learn only so much sitting at the conference table.  Spending some quality time with the client outside of the office environment is important as well.  A great consultant can engage the client in different venues, and, by so doing, learn much ore about motivations, hopes, fears, etc.

* Have lots of integrity.  Confidences need to be respected.  Promises need to be kept.  A great consultant only makes promises that he or she can and will keep.

* Admit mistakes.  Great consultants aren’t always right.  What’s important is that they take responsibility for the advice they offer, and are willing to acknowledge when it proves to be “off” in any way.

* Love simplicity.  Even when Business and organization problems seem quite complex, some simple models will help clients understand.  A great consultant and report and prescribe in very simple terms, but will still be ready to address the added complexity that may be part of a full understanding.

* Enjoy the work.  Great consultants have fun.  Working with clients can be like playing in a sandbox, and helping clients solve their own problems can be like building those sand castles most of used used to create as children.  Clients will catch on — that it’s fund to learn, to develop new understanding, to think up new possible solutions, to test ideas, and to work together in a collaborative environment.