Chances are your organization doesn’t have people in senior leadership roles with experience in digital campaigning, technology development, or online movement building. No high-level ability to analyze and manage the relationship between technology and programmatic outcomes may be one of the greatest obstacles to organizational growth and success today. And too few are talking about it. Get your board and managers together and chances that visionary and capable leaders comfortable with technology are the elephant in the room.
Yesterday, NARAL Pro-Choice America announced that Ilyse Hogue will become its next president. Ms. Hogue brings deep campaigning experience and, notably, a background in meshing online and field systems to build movements, raise money, and change politics. I don’t know exactly why NARAL made this choice but I suspect that online experience played a role.
Technology is Pervasive
If you work with technology at all you likely are (or have been) overwhelmed by the complexity and variety of ways to solve every problem. Web and social media metrics, application development, video production, and even web design are just a few of nonprofit tech subjects that are continually evolving yet increasingly basic to digital advocacy and marketing. Continue reading “Your leadership elephant”→
A grantmaking investment model that assumes an 80% failure rate among grantees may not be our best option. What I find most interesting about the Rachleff piece, however, and potentially most useful in the social sector context, is the risk tolerance that permeates the private investment landscape. Even the most optimistic of the experienced investors know that most of their investments will fail. They are willing, to varying degrees, to invest in organizations each of which only has a small chance of succeeding.
Fostering a Nonprofit Culture of Risk-Tolerance
Fostering a culture that genuinely encourages and supports risk-taking, within organizations and between organizations and their funders, is a real weak spot among nonprofits. Doing this means that the price of a failed project can’t be very steep. It means that organizations and funders have to provide positive feedback for smart risk-taking. Claiming to support experimentation and risk-taking but penalizing people and organizations with experiments don’t work out as planned fosters a culture of risk-aversion, not risk-tolerance.
Risk-Tolerance Doesn’t Mean Reckless
Risk tolerance shouldn’t mean encouraging reckless gambles. In fact, a smart risk-oriented strategy will include explicit expectations: clearly identifying the assumptions underlying any particular risk, having a clear process or tool for explicitly testing those assumptions and learning from the experience regardless of the outcome, ensuring that effective feedback loops use this learning to improve strategy and execution.
Innovation – both the incremental and the huge-leap-forward varieties – require people and organizations to take risks, and that only happens in a significant way when the rewards for taking those risks are high enough and the penalties for failure are gentle enough.
In our research on nonprofit organizations, we found that more nonprofit staffers complained about the weak management skills of their executive directors and supervisors than about any other problem.
Among the most critical but under-developed skills: feedback-giving. Here is some straightforward advice:
1) Actually give feedback to your staffers. The alternatives (passive-aggressive outbursts, complaining about one staffer to other staffers, abruptly firing them, wishing you had the gumption to abruptly fire them) all suck.
2) Provide feedback frequently. The annual evaluation has its place, but it’s a poor substitute for regular feedback throughout the year.
3) Assume she was acting in good faith with good intentions. Assume her motives were all spot-on, in other words, and focus instead on her words and actions.
4) It’s often helpful to start by asking your employee to talk through what happened, what she did and why, and how she would evaluate her own performance (whether you are talking about a specific event or performance over the course of some time period). It gives her a chance to set the tone and she may have already identified some of the successes and critiques you had planned to raise. You might even shift your view on her performance if you know more about what she did and why.
5) Be direct and clear when providing feedback on the things she did that you liked and on the things she might (or should) have done differently. Even managers who do a good job of providing regular feedback often stumble on this point, just as many people often stumble when communicating with board members, friends, lovers, spouses, and kids. You have to be clear about what worked and what didn’t if you expect your staffer to remain motivated and improve her performance.
6) But don’t be a jerk about it! “Direct and clear” doesn’t mean patronizing, insensitive, or rude.
7) Offer very clear direction on what she might do differently next time, on what lessons to draw from the experience, and on how to improve. If you don’t do this, and she doesn’t improve, her subsequent underperformance is on you.
8) If you are trying to foster a culture of innovation you have to reward people for taking risks. This doesn’t mean that you should celebrate every risk someone takes; if you establish clear boundaries and expectations for risk-taking, you can evaluate your staff based on how well they operated within those limitations. But if your team believes they’ll get chastised when risks they take don’t pan out, you’ll be encouraging risk-aversion rather than risk-tolerance. Likewise, if you find ways to reward your team for taking smart risks even when they don’t work out, you’ll incentivize the innovative culture you are after.
9) Finally, you may have to work hard to avoid making people feel defensive when initiative a feedback interaction. Part of managing this is ensuring that you are calling out the good and the bad throughout your frequent feedback interactions (and making a point of calling out the good more often is usually pretty helpful). Part of tackling this is clearly establishing the feedback process in your organization as a frequent learning loop. Every feedback interaction is an opportunity for someone on your team to figure out how to improve their performance and for you to learn more about what they need from you to excel in their work. And part of sidestepping someone’s instinctive defensiveness is getting to know them well enough to figure out how – with each of your direct reports – to create the right space for a productive feedback interaction.
These tips are easier to write down in a blog post than they are to execute, but none are especially difficult if you commit to making productive feedback interactions an important part of your organizational culture.
I had a conversation earlier this week with a friend whose dad has been suffering from intense gastrointestinal problems for months. Multiple doctors and tons of tests but nothing to show for it except ‘hang in there, maybe it’ll clear up on its own.’
After being hospitalized during a particularly severe bout, the doctor persuaded him to head to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Four hours after arriving there, with zero new tests, his team of Mayo Clinic GI specialists figured out he was having an extremely rare allergic reaction to his blood pressure medication. They’ve seen only 15 other cases; it’s rare and new enough that there isn’t anything in the medical literature yet. One of the problems confounding the diagnosis: he’d end up in the hospital only when his symptoms were severe. His blood pressure would be unusually low as a result of those symptoms, they’d remove him from the blood pressure medicine, he’d feel better, and then after being discharged he’d start taking the drug again and the symptoms would return.
How was it that the doctors in Minnesota were able to figure this out – a complex and extremely rare condition – in a matter of hours while countless doctors before them failed? A big part of the answer is that through their role at the Mayo Clinic, which is essentially a teaching and research hospital, they collectively see a huge number of patients with an extremely wide array of challenging cases. Their breadth of experience, and especially with difficult diagnoses, meant they’d simply seen a much wider variety of conditions than most and their diagnostic skills were sharper as a result.
How does this relate to nonprofits? Most nonprofits don’t invest much of their intellectual capital or their resources into staff development, growing and stretching people through their tenure at an organization or over their career to help them become exceptional advocates and nonprofit leaders. Some of the best nonprofit folks incidentally end up with exposure to a wide variety of specific challenges and circumstances, and some figure out how to seek that breadth of experience out themselves, but most nonprofits could probably do a better job of deliberately exposing their staff to a wider universe of new challenges and difficult problems.
This doesn’t necessarily mean someone needs to spend time working across different fields, moving through fundraising, program management, administration, organizing, and other departments. The GI specialists at the Mayo Clinic are truly specialists in a very specific field. But it does mean figuring out how to exposure your team to a wide variety of challenges within that field, making sure they are building up loads of real experience problem solving (problem solving skills) and exposure to a wide array of circumstances from which to draw when troubleshooting problems and crafting strategies (“maybe this time we could use that strategy we tried that other time combined with this new idea I’ve been thinking about”).
A lot of nonprofit folks end up with this sort of exposure along the way, but I suspect most nonprofit managers could do a better job of deliberately making sure that their direct reports pick up a wide and challenging array of experiences.
For professional football players, the six days between games are jammed with practice, gym workouts, and travel. They also include time spent watching the film from the previous game, play by play, evaluating, learning, and preparing for the next game. I don’t know as much about other sports, but I’m guessing that professional basketball, hockey, baseball and other players have similar routines during their seasons.
It’s true that for pro athletes, everything they do during the week amounts to preparation for game day. Game day performance is what matters. It’s also true that many pro athletes are supported by extensive coaching staffs, sophisticated video recordings, and powerful analytic tools to help them understand what they did and how they might improve.
But a lot of what nonprofit folks do is similarly performance-oriented: every time you present on a panel at a conference, every time you pitch a prospective donor or funder, every time you talk to a reporter. You prepare (or not), and then you perform well (or not). And even without the same kind of evaluation and training resources at our disposal, we still have tools and capacity to carefully evaluate our performance and plug it in to fast-cycle feedback loops so we can continuously improve. Nearly every nonprofit has a video camera now, tripods are cheap, and it’s easy to set up to record right before you begin your presentation. When you talk with reporters, it’s easy to evaluate the print story or broadcast (not just reviewing it, which everyone already does, but studying it to figure out what you did well and what your screwed up). You may not have someone with you on every funder pitch, but it’s not hard to arrange at least some of those conversations with a colleague who won’t do too much talking during the meeting, so someone else can pay more attention to how well you do. For much of what you do, you can figure out ways to intentionally review your performance, identify what you did well and what you need to work on, and then craft a strategy for improving.
Incidentally, it’s the coaches who really immerse themselves in the film after every game, studying the game film on the flight home or first thing Monday morning, grading every player on every play, and then reviewing the films with the players. What if the more senior folks in your organization were explicitly responsible for coaching the newer members of the team? And what if their job evaluation was based partly on how effectively they are at coaching the more junior folks?
An organizational culture that emphasizes evaluation, feedback loops, learning, and intention improvement doesn’t happen by accident. For most nonprofit folks, the limitation isn’t about resources but about how serious they are about improving.
Our organizations (and their budgets) are made up mostly of people. What we do, what we plan, how well our programs work, how much we spend are all functions of people.
Think of organizations as organisms and the staff (or team members) as organs and limbs. The organization might act and speak collectively but voice, touch, sight and hearing are all based on the people that make up the eyes, heart, fingers, and toes.
Each individual needs to excel on her own and in the system for the organization to be healthy. Creating and maintaining a healthy system is hard stuff that takes up much (or most, at times) of an organization’s resources. Our nonprofits (and businesses) spend hours and hours (sometimes most of the day) coordinating, planning, collaborating, conference calling, managing and generally trying to figure out how to maximize the system’s function.
Meanwhile, communications technology, databases, social networks, email and the Internet have altered the landscape in which organizations and their staff operate. Organizations are more exposed to the public (members, donors, media, everyone). The tools of organizing and fundraising for social change are more readily available to everyone – reduced friction means change makers don’t need to rely on organizations. The 24/7 news cycle (most of which happens on social networks) also means that fingers and eyes can’t wait for the rest of the body to figure out how to react.
How to “get more likes on Facebook” or even “how to engage your social network followers” might be the most common blog and discussion topics of the day but mostly miss the mark. We firmly believe that organizations that are people-ready will have few concerns with getting likes, creating useful engagement ladders, finding volunteers, and getting meaningful support in a networked world.
A few days ago, Maddie Grant posted The Future of Work: A Manifesto which, in some ways, focuses in on how the web, social networks, and changing cultural and economic experiences are altering the role of organizations and people in them. The organizational body is evolving due to external conditions and pressures. But organizations still need people and people still need organizations (though perhaps to a lesser extent?).
The Future of Work speaks primarily to businesses but if you are in or fun a nonprofit we hope you will read, think carefully about and discuss it. Nonprofits don’t produce or sell widgets (or apps) and don’t get feedback from the market. This means that they rely heavily on the people in and around the organization. Questions of how those people – especially staff but also members, fans, donors, followers – fit in the organizational body will dictate success more than ever.
This was originally published as a guest post on Frogloop on April 30, 2012.
Over the course of more than 100 interviews with nonprofit staffers while writing The Nimble Nonprofit, “managing people” turned up on the list of “skills that my executive director sucks at” more than any other. And giving feedback is one of the specific skills that nonprofit managers seem especially weak at.
It’s not just nonprofit executive directors that struggle with this challenge. Anyone at a nonprofit who manages people – a senior staff attorney managing a team of six lawyers, a development director who supervises a grants manager and a membership manager, a communications coordinator directing the work of a media consultant, a program associate managing an intern, a site manager supervising a group of volunteers – giving feedback is an important skill for all of these folks.
And giving feedback, especially negative feedback, is hard. It’s awkward to tell someone you aren’t satisfied with her performance, or to explain to her what she’s doing wrong, especially when you know she puts in long hours, she works hard, you don’t pay her as much as she deserves for the work, and there’s a good chance she’s your friend in addition to being your direct report. It’s not surprising, then, that so many managers give vague, soft-pedaled feedback that obscures the criticisms.
Swinging too far in the other direction is a problem, as well, where the feedback comes off as a brusque attack on the recipient’s character, integrity, and basic self-worth. You might think you’re doing him the favor of candor and clarity, but if it sounds like you are questioning his basic value to the organization your feedback won’t probably have the desired effect, either.
* Offer both positive and constructive feedback every time.
* Be direct, clear, and pleasant (which is very different from being nice, as Mike Monteiro points out).
* Provide concrete guidance on how to improve or remedy the problem.
* Give feedback frequently.
* Explicitly tie your feedback to your previously established and explicit expectations about their job performance.
The goal in giving feedback is – or at least should be – really, really simple: enable your staff to kick ass. Your feedback needs to validate and support. It needs to communicate in concrete terms what they’re doing well and what they need to improve. And it needs to be clear (so they understand it) and actionable (so they can do something with it).
In addition, I now have a “Jacob Smith” author page on Amazon. I wasn’t expecting much when I logged in to set it up, but I must not have paid author pages much attention previously because it turns out they’re actually set up pretty well. In addition to what you’d expect (profile, photo, etc.), they also allow you to bring in a Twitter feed and an RSS feed, which is a nice touch.
The nonprofit world truly is in a state of flux. Much of what used to work doesn’t anymore. The need to invest in growing ass-kicking staff and to develop sustained organizational capacity has never been greater, yet the difficulties of doing so are growing as quickly as the need. In The Nimble Nonprofit we cover a wide range of what we believe are critical challenges facing the nonprofit sector:
cultivating a high-impact innovative organizational culture;
building and sustaining a great team;
staying focused and productive;
optimizing your board of directors;
creating lasting relationships with foundations, donors, and members;
remaining agile and open; and
growing and sustaining a nimble, impactful organization.
We mean for The Nimble Nonprofit to be a guide – an unconventional irreverent, and pragmatic guide – to succeeding in a nonprofit leadership role, and to tackling this incredibly challenging nonprofit environment. We aimed for a conversational, practical, candid, and quick read instead of a deep dive. If you want to immerse yourself in building a great membership program, or recruiting board members, or writing by-laws, there are plenty of books that cover the terrain (and some of them are quite good).
But if you want the no-nonsense, convention-challenging, clutter-cutting guide to the info you really, really need to know about sustaining and growing a nonprofit, well, we hope you’ll check out The Nimble Nonprofit.
This is our first book, and the publishing industry is a state of disarray, so – following the spirit in which we wrote the book – we are taking an unconventional path. We decided to publish strictly as an e-book, and we decided to self-published (with a bunch of help from Ted here at Bright+3). We are offering the book through the big three e-bookstores (Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, and we might add a few more to the mix), and we’ve priced the book at $4.99, which is much less expensive than the vast array of other nonprofit books.
As of right now, the book is available on Amazon (and it’ll hit the other two stores shortly). If you’d like to score a copy of The Nimble Nonprofit and enjoy reading it on your Kindle, iPad, or another tablet, jump on Amazon and grab it (did I mention it’s only $4.99?).
We suspect that most readers will agree with some of what we argue and disagree with other parts, and because we challenge much of the conventional wisdom about building strong nonprofits, we’re pretty sure that some folks will disagree with a lot of what we write. And we look forward to the conversations. Please send us your thoughts, critiques, comments, and ideas
Tell us where you think we’re wrong and where we’ve hit the nail on the head, and please share with us other examples of nonprofits doing a great job of tackling these challenges and where they are just getting it wrong.
There are two kinds of people in the world, as the saying goes, those who divide the world up into two kinds of people and everyone else. One way to draw the line: those, when presented with a new idea, a challenging opportunity, or a risky possibility, who come up with reasons to say no, and those who come up with ways to make it happen.
A couple of decades ago, while sharing office space with an environmental law firm, I posed a question to one of the attorneys: could I use the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to prevent a local government from placing a trail near an osprey nest. The answer, in a word, was no, accompanied by a host of reasons. The law wasn’t designed to prevent that sort of activity. It was hard to enforce. No one had done anything like this before.
You know how this kind of conversation goes. They may be highly skilled at their work, friendly, and supremely earnest. But when presented with the new and different, they tap their creativity and cleverness to present barriers – all of the reasons why it’s a bad idea, why it won’t work, why it will cost too much – rather than ferret out how to pull it off.
Government (sadly) tends to cultivate and reward this approach. Large organizations of all types are notorious for doing the same thing. Even small organizations can inadvertently find themselves elevating inertia over taking risks and tackling the hard problems.
Not liking the answer to my bird protection question, like a kid who tries the other parent when the first answer is no, I tried again with another attorney. The answer: it’ll be really tough, but sure, it might be possible. You’d have to find strong science showing trail impacts to the birds. You’d probably need documents showing that the local government knew there might be impacts. You’d probably even need to show actual dead birds to more clearly establish the link. No sugarcoating and no false sense of optimism, to be sure, but a profoundly different attitude to the challenge: it won’t be easy, but here’s what it would take.
Inertia and the art of ‘no’ cohabitate, and it can take some real effort to hold it at bay, but if your organization wants to uncover better solutions to the problems you are hoping to solve, if it wants to delight its customers and frustrate its adversaries, and if it wants to generate extraordinary results, it’s worth encourage your colleagues to adopt the “here’s a puzzle to solve” attitude instead of the “here’s a bunch of reasons why it’s a bad idea” approach.