Director of Meetings

The easiest job I’ve never had: Director of Meetings.

I’d ban them.

Cultivating Conflict

I think we often do internal organizational conflict wrong. Plenty of nonprofit folks and organizations actively avoid conflict. Nonprofits collaborate, we don’t fight. It just feels wrong, so we do what we can to avoid it.

Or we fight in the wrong ways about the wrong things.

What we often don’t do is deliberately cultivate and encourage conflict, yet conflict is actually healthy and important, I think. That’s where teams really push each other, challenging each other’s assumptions, pushing back against each other’s ideas, probing for the flaws and the opportunities. Conflict, when done right, creates a “productive range of distress,” to use Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s term from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. The challenge isn’t to sterilize or repress conflict out of our office environments but to make sure we contain it and shape it so that it really does serve those sorts of productive purposes.

I don’t claim any expertise here, but I have noticed a few things that seem to help contain and shape it in useful ways:

  • The discussion is respectful even if heated … personal critiques and attacks usually aren’t helpful.
  • Establishing some ground rules about decorum. I don’t know that it matters much what those ground rules are, so long as the group feels some ownership over them and so long as they are consistently enforced.
  • Someone playing the role of facilitator, which might be the ED, or it might rotate, or with some other arrangement, but someone who’s job it is to make sure everyone has a chance to contribute, to pull back the tension if it climbs too high or push the conversation forward if it starts to stall.

How does your organization manage conflict? Does it ever cultivate conflict, and if so, how? How well does it work?

(Photo by Flickr user iansand).

Watching the Game Film (for Nonprofits)

This post was originally published on Amy Sample Ward’s terrific nonprofit technology blog earlier this week.

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.

(Photo credit: Flickr rburtzel)

The “Hot Seat” (or, “Talk Less, Listen More”)

As I worked my way through the Founder Institute’s startup incubator program last summer, my incubator classmates and I would frequently find ourselves on the “hot seat,” presenting a short pitch to a panel of mentors, after which the mentors would proceed to brutally critique our performance. Among the inviolate rules: even as the panel of mentors would lambaste our pitch, we had to simply stand there and listen. We weren’t allowed to respond, to rebut, or to push back. I’m told this is a conventional practice in architecture programs and art schools, but having attending neither it was new to me.

And it was awesome. We each had to learn, in a humbling and publicly painful way, to shut up and listen. It didn’t matter what my intention was, or how right I was, or what I knew that they didn’t … they were the audience, and if they understood something differently than I had intended, or if they didn’t buy my argument, or if my story wasn’t persuasive, the challenge for me was to listen intently enough to understand what they heard. Only by keeping my mouth shut, and not defending, challenging, or explaining, was I able to really hear them and consequently improve my pitch.

I think the key was grasping that the success of my pitch wasn’t about me, it was about them. It didn’t matter how right I might have been, or how compelling I thought my arguments were. If they weren’t persuaded, then I had failed, and the only way to learn where my powers of persuasion had fallen short was to shut up and listen.

Anyone who has spent time fundraising or campaigning knows this to be true, but even when we know it in the abstract it can be tough to remember in the heat of an actual pitch to an actual prospect, or when a colleague or (gasp!) employee is telling you what they think you did wrong, or when you are trying to sell a story to a reporter or an idea to an elected official.

Talk less, listen more.

The Counter-Intuitive Secret About Hiring

Most people view the hiring process as the opportunity to screen candidates, learn what you need to know about them, and select one lucky enough to join your team. And yes, of course that’s one goal of a hiring process.

But here’s the part that’s easy to miss: Persuading them that they want to work for you is at least as important as deciding whom you’d like to bring on board. The very best candidates in your pool, even in a buyer’s market, are likely to have other options. Whatever you weave into the hiring process to help you assess skills, experience, and cultural fit, don’t forget that your candidates are also interviewing you.

Your job, in other words, is as much or more to persuade them that your organization is truly amazing and worthy of their talents as it is about you figuring out who you want to hire. Your hiring process amounts to a marketing campaign (in the best sense of the term), and the most successful efforts not only result in a great hire but also leave all of your other candidates – including all of the folks who didn’t get the job – talking about how awesome it would be to work for your organization.

People and the future of organizations

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.

Organizations rely on people for inputs and actions. Image: Bartolomeo Eustachi: Peripheral Nervous System, c. 1722 via @brain_blogger, Flickr.

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.

Are Organizations Ready for People?

At last month’s Nonprofit Technology Conference we had opportunity to meet Maddie Grant and talk with her about her new book, co-written by Jamie Notter. The book is called Humanize: How people-centric organizations succeed in a social world. This is an important book that we hope you’ll read.

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.


Giving Feedback: A Starting Point

This was originally published as a guest post on Frogloop on April 30, 2012.

Some approaches to giving feedback are more useful than others. Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games photo via Inc. Magazine (Creative Commons).
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.

Some advice:

* 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).

A lot of smart folks have written a lot of smart things about giving feedback, and it might be worth spending some time skimming through some of the literature for ideas. The Harvard Business Review blog,, and the Manager Tools podcast are just a few good examples.

But these five principles, mixed in with a healthy dose of your own intuition and thoughtfulness, and topped with a commitment to try, learn, and improve, are a good place to start.

The scarcest resource at nonprofits is bandwidth. Period.

Ever been in or around a nonprofit and heard something like:

Think of what we could do if we raised another $500 (or $50,000 or $5,000,000)!

What would you do?

In our experience, the answer is often something like “we would do this new campaign or program by hiring another person or part-time researcher or a consultant.” Or the need for new money/people is driven by the desire to take on a new project.

Let’s face it, ambition and heart are huge in most organizations. Nonprofits and the people in them want to do good. One more campaign. One more program. We can do it.

Stop. Organizations (even, ahem, cushy ones) are stretched thin. Even if you’re managing time well and not burning out chances are good that you’re tackling too much and maybe turning out some mediocre results (which, by the way, would probably be improved by the extra funding that would pay for more people – right?).

You never ever have enough bandwidth

This piece is inspired by Mark Suster’s recent piece on the scarcity of management bandwidth at startups. Mark points out that as a VC he meets with leaders of new companies all the time and his most common reaction to hearing them describe what they’re doing is basically, “whoa, that’s way too much.”

At a tech startup this is seen most often in new features. Every new feature, project, or marketing idea adds complexity and, most likely, is something that will need to be supported forever regardless of whether or not it works.

Complexity adds to staff time which is a burden on management. A new idea or project (no matter how brilliant) is a shift of focus. Even if you cut previous programs you’re redirecting staff and management time to something new and adding to lead time.

The time and mental energy it takes to get a project rolling is rarely accounted for in nonprofits (or startups, apparently). Shifting gears (or adding gears, as the case may be) means more planning, more meetings, more reporting. Less doing.

Mark Suster focuses on scarce management bandwidth at startups. And for good reason. I think the problem at nonprofits is bandwidth in general. This can inevitably become a debate over scarce resources (if only we had more money, better computers, better facilities, more volunteers) and for some direct service agencies its true that more resources often means more service provided and more people helped.

Yet in most cases this is an issue of not focusing, unclear goals, weak management, being pushed by leaders (inside CEOs and outside funders, for example) to do more. Resulting work can often be of the mile wide and inch deep variety – broad but shallow.

Many startups will flounder and go out of business at this point as revenue/capital/enthusiasm dry up. Nonprofits, however, can plod along with diminished resources. This may create a culture of diminished expectations, where doing okay is worth a pat on the back, a raise or, heck, a step up into directing programs.

Bandwidth is precious. You get used to stretching it, doing too much, accomplishing less than you should.

Protecting and creating bandwidth

What’s to be done? Here are a few ideas.

  • Say no. That is hardly as easy as it sounds. We know that all too well.  But pushing back on ideas (however great) and requests is the best way to stay focused and not get spread thin. This means saying no or some version of it to staff, board, donors, community leaders and more. If you have clear, program-driven explanations people will understand and probably even appreciate your focus and honesty.
  • Realize that “nonprofit management” is an oxymoron. Nobody gets into nonprofit work because they love management. Few people with nonprofit management responsibilities receive training or support. Most just end up responsible for a team and would rather be doing direct work themselves. This means that as a leader/manager you need to be willing to seek out and accept help in becoming a better manager. And trust your team to do more of the direct work.
  • Make timesheets matter. This isn’t the same as “make sure everyone fills out a timesheet.” No no no. If staff can’t stand timesheets its probably because they don’t seem to matter. It is an HR or grant reporting thing. As a manager, sit down with staff and figure out how to connect time to goals and outcomes. What is the work that actually goes into getting a job done? Be creative with tracking time and continually reflect back with the team on how time connects to outcomes.
  • Kill regularly scheduled meetings and conference calls. Or at least shed some of them. Ever notice that a new project often means a new weekly conference call (and dozens of emails ahead of time to figure out when to have that call/meeting)? Is work getting done in those regular meetings? Or are they “check-ins?” Think carefully about who is there, why, and if you need to meet at all.
  • Reflect. Reassess. Repeat. Get into the habit of checking on progress towards goals, what’s getting your team there and what’s getting in the way. Do more of the former that’s getting you there and less of the latter. Genius. Not really. But we’re surprised by how often it’s simply assumed that work and being busy equals progress. Further, try not to set up weekly check-in meetings to assess progress. See above. Have more conversations. Ask pointed questions. Listen more and listen well.
Good luck and back to work.

Photo: Drowning under a mountain of paper by net_efekt, Flickr.

A Nonprofit Turnaround Story: The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

I’m an energetic fan of Nina Simon’s commitment to designing deeply participatory engagement, her willingness to experiment and take risks, and her transparency and candor in writing about her experiences.

This morning, on her Museum 2.0 blog, she reflects on her one-year anniversary as the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. It’s a great post, in part because of her candor about things that worked and things that didn’t. We would all benefit if more nonprofit executive directors wrote a post like this once a year about lessons learned.

I also love the post because of her characterization of their strategy for recovering a near-fatal financial situation:

Just doing it. We didn’t go through an extensive planning process followed by deliberative, careful steps forward. We had a vision, a short list of goals for the first year, and an energetic (if underfunded) attack. Over the past year, we’ve developed several planning methodologies and approaches to our work—such as our exhibition philosophy and community program development process—and we did it iteratively through a series of experiments. We tried and tested and played and worked our way forward, and we’re still doing it. It is, as Kathleen McLean puts it, “museum as prototype,” and it is exhilarating, thoughtful work for all of us.”

The approach aligns well with an argument Trey and I make in The Nimble Nonprofit: strategic plans can be really valuable, but do them quickly, write them in pencil, and aggressively experiment, learn, and adjust along the way. It’s a powerful model that enables groups to sidestep the typical – and painfully laborious and lengthy – strategic planning process while still taking the time to set a clear, thoughtful course. Importantly, it fundamentally integrates a learning cycle into the execution. The prototype model is powerful so long as it’s explicit and so long as there’s a real commitment to frequent assessments and adjustments. The assessments themselves shouldn’t resemble a traditional strategic planning process, either … they have to be smart, targeted, and fast.

Huge congrats to Nina for the post, and even huger congrats to the entire Santa Cruz Museum team for pulling off a remarkable turnaround.

The Board Of Directors: Guest Post From Matt Blumberg

Photo by Flickr user EMSL.

This is a cross-post of a guest post originally written by Matt Blumberg for Brad Feld’s blog but re-posted on Fred Wilson’s terrific A VC blog (with thanks to Fred for permission to run it here on the brightplus3 blog).

Did you follow that? The blog post (despite its complicated journey) is a great read. It’s focused on what makes for a terrific board of directors member, and while it’s written in the context of a private company, most of what Matt writes here is very applicable to nonprofit boards.


In last week’s guest post Scott Kurnit advised entrepreneurs to put a friend on the Board and keep co-founders off. This week we’ll continue the theme of “who should be on your Board?” with a re-run of a post that Matt Blumberg wrote for Brad Feld earlier this year. The topic is “what makes an awesome Board Member.” I am the person who made the point about firing executives. Brad Feld is the person who downed two shakes in one meeting.

– – – – –

I’ve written a bunch of posts over the years about how I manage my Board at Return Path.  And I think part of having awesome Board members is managing them well – giving transparent information, well organized, with enough lead time before a meeting; running great and engaging meetings; mixing social time with business time; and being a Board member yourself at some other organization so you see the other side of the equation.  All those topics are covered in more detail in the following posts:  Why I Love My Board, Part IIThe Good, The Board, and The Ugly, and Powerpointless.

But by far the best way to make sure you have an awesome board is to start by having awesome Board members.  I’ve had about 15 Board members over the years, some far better than others.  Here are my top 5 things that make an awesome Board member, and my interview/vetting process for Board members.

Top 5 things that make an awesome Board member:

  • They are prepared and keep commitments: They show up to all meetings.  They show up on time and don’t leave early.  They do their homework.  The are fully present and don’t do email during meetings.
  • They speak their minds: They have no fear of bringing up an uncomfortable topic during a meeting, even if it impacts someone in the room.  They do not come up to you after a meeting and tell you what they really think.  I had a Board member once tell my entire management team that he thought I needed to be better at firing executives more quickly!
  • They build independent relationships: They get to know each other and see each other outside of your meetings.  They get to know individuals on your management team and talk to them on occasion as well.  None of this communication goes through you.
  • They are resource rich: I’ve had some directors who are one-trick or two-trick ponies with their advice.  After their third or fourth meeting, they have nothing new to add.  Board members should be able to pull from years of experience and adapt that experience to your situations on a flexible and dynamic basis.
  • They are strategically engaged but operationally distant: This may vary by stage of company and the needs of your own team, but I find that even Board members who are talented operators have a hard time parachuting into any given situation and being super useful.  Getting their operational help requires a lot of regular engagement on a specific issue or area.  But they must be strategically engaged and understand the fundamental dynamics and drivers of your business – economics, competition, ecosystem, and the like.

My interview/vetting process for Board members:

  • Take the process as seriously as you take building your executive team – both in terms of your time and in terms of how you think about the overall composition of the Board, not just a given Board member.
  • Source broadly, get a lot of referrals from disparate sources, reach high.
  • Interview many people, always face to face and usually multiple times for finalists.  Also for finalists, have a few other Board members conduct interviews as well.
  • Check references thoroughly and across a few different vectors.
  • Have a finalist or two attend a Board meeting so you and they can examine the fit firsthand.  Give the prospective Board member extra time to read materials and offer your time to answer questions before the meeting.  You’ll get a good first-hand sense of a lot of the above Top 5 items this way.
  • Have no fear of rejecting them.  Even if you like them.  Even if they are a stretch and someone you consider to be a business hero or mentor.  Even after you’ve already put them on the Board (and yes, even if they’re a VC).  This is your inner circle, and getting this group right is one of the most important things you can do for your company.

I asked my exec team for their own take on what makes an awesome Board member.  Here are some quick snippets from them where they didn’t overlap with mine:

  • Ethical and high integrity in their own jobs and lives
  • Comes with an opinion
  • Thinking about what will happen next in the business and getting management to think ahead
  • Call out your blind spots
  • Remembering to thank you and calling out what’s right
  • Role modeling for your expectations of your own management team
  • Do your prep, show up, be fully engaged, be brilliant/transparent/critical/constructive and creative.  Then get out of our way
  • Offer tough love…Unfettered, constructive guidance – not just what we want to hear
  • Pattern matching: they have an ability to map a situation we have to a problem/solution at other companies that they’ve been involved in – we learn from their experience…but ability and willingness to do more than just pattern matching. To really get into the essence of the issues and help give strategic guidance and suggestions
  • Ability to down 2 Shake Shack milkshakes in one sitting
  • Colorful and unique metaphors

Disclaimer – I run a private company.  While I’m sure a lot of these things are true for other types of organizations (public companies, non-profits, associations, etc.), the answers may vary.  And even within the realm of private companies, you need to have a Board that fits your style as a CEO and your company’s culture.  That said, the formula above has worked well for me, and if nothing else, is somewhat time tested at this point!