We’re about to hit the halfway point of 2022. If your intention is to produce some truly fantastic results in your nonprofit – and you haven’t yet embarked on that journey for whatever reason – this article is for you. The advice I’m sharing here is exactly how I achieved a $1MM+ budget as Executive Director of a small nonprofit. This is the advice I wished I’d gotten when I was struggling and stuck.
For context, I want to share what I walked into on day one as a brand-new Executive Director. Early on, I discovered the Executive Director before me was in conflict with the Board. I knew she had eavesdropped on Board meetings she wasn’t invited to, took notes, and reported them to the national office.
The Board was fractured. One group was for her, and the other group was determined to replace her. Walking in, I didn’t know what had gone on. I was blinded by the polish they presented to me. Once I knew, it was like being out for a bike ride and seeing a skunk. You ride around it, right? You don’t sit with the skunk and strike up a conversation.
For me, it was as simple as that. I don’t spend my time with people who are not here for the work in front of us. I heard the gossip. I could see the fracture. None of that is who I am, and I refused to participate. Was it easy? No. It would’ve been very easy to take sides, and it would’ve been very easy to replicate the behavior of my predecessor. Instead, I made a choice as a leader about what was best for me, and what was best for that organization. This decision set the tone for my future success and unprecedented results.
My formula for success is simple yet powerful:
30% Courage – to spawn innovation, energy, time and space to create
30% Willingness – to execute what you created
30% Innovation – trying new things
10% Board & Staff – to believe in and execute it
Contrast that with the formula of 99% of all nonprofits:
90% Board and Staff (I call this “The Big 5”)
10% Everything Else (courage, willingness & innovation)
In order to run my formula, it’s important to recognize what I mean by The Big 5…
Toxicity: I wrote about this in a previous article. A subtle toxicity exists in every nonprofit. It lives in some people much more than others. It’s an undercurrent, and it’s poisonous. How alive and real it is in your organization depends on how much you’ve allowed it to grow – in yourself, in your Staff, and in the Boardroom.
Gossip: This exists wherever humans gather. You’ve probably been a part of it at one time or another. It’s very human, and it’s also very damaging.
Babysitting: Now more than ever, we live in an era where initiative has gone out the window. Staff wait. They wait for direction, they wait for solutions, and they wait for someone else to do it. So many staff are idle or stalled. The pandemic hangover has zapped their sense of purpose. In most nonprofits, the Executive Director’s handling of it is to constantly intervene to forward the work.
Undermining: It’s so strong, and it happens at all levels in a nonprofit. From peer-to-peer colleagues, to Board/Staff relationships, to the CEO/Board, to the CEO/Staff. It’s a worm that gets into the organization and eats away at everything.
Example – Paula is a member of the Board. She’s at every Board meeting. Always on time. She appears to be ready and put together for the task at hand. She says nothing for the entire 90-minute Board meeting. No comments and no input, a few nods. The Board meeting adjourns. Then Paula emails Marcy and says, “I don’t get why…” and starts her own little campfire outside the Board meeting on the very issues that were on the table. She had the opportunity to put her hand on them. Instead, she chooses to work outside the Boardroom. She plants landmines, and it grows from there. This is the most common and most toxic behavior I’ve found inside nonprofits.
Blame: You find this between the Board and the Staff in particular. One group is always blaming the other. “If the Staff would just….” and “If the Board would just…” It’s a perpetual misunderstanding between the two groups, and it’s always there.
Nonprofit leaders – if you want to know why your organization hasn’t exploded the way you intended, look no further than The Big 5. Your attention is there. Your focus is there. It’s no wonder you can’t make any headway. With all your attention on The Big 5, you don’t have time for anything else.
So how do you flip the script? How do you become a leader who spends 90% of your time on courage, willingness, and innovation?
1. Recognize that intentionally or not, you cultivate an environment in which The Big 5 (toxicity, gossip, babysitting, undermining, and blame) can exist.
It’s a battleground. People are afraid. It feels unsafe. People are nervous and timid, and always on edge. They attack others and they are waiting to be attacked. As the leader, you are the source of it. It happened on your watch. Acknowledge it. Own it. You can uncreate anything if you are willing to own that you created it.
NOTE: This isn’t about blaming yourself. Rather, it’s about taking responsibility and ownership of it.
2. Recognize that uncreating it takes time, and consistency is how it happens.
It took however long for The Big 5 to grow to the point where it is now. Changing it takes time. Every conversation you have and every move you make matters. You cannot fall back into the same pattern that created this environment and expect it to go away. You have to become a different person. And you can start now.
3. Lead vs. Solve
As an Executive Director in particular – if a problem lands in front of you, listen. Then ask questions that cause them to think and take action. Don’t tell them how to solve the problem, and don’t take the problem away from them to solve yourself. Treat them as the capable human beings they are.
4. Teach people to deal directly and deal privately, and model that behavior yourself.
Guide people to take their issues directly to the people they involve. Deal with it behind closed doors. Never berate them, embarrass them, or make it public. Show them how to be a professional in the way you deal and act.
Once you’ve dealt with them, assure them you know they can and will do better. Leave no doubt that you trust them. Tie up loose ends so they know you still support them and believe in them.
5. Redirect Staff back to the work of the Mission.
They’re used to engaging in gossip and nonsense, and they’ve forgotten their work. It’s very much like a puppy that chews on shoes. Redirecting a puppy once does not stop them from continuing to chew on shoes. They must be redirected over and over again. Staff is the same way. They want to do great work, and they need your gentle hand to get back to it.
Want help? I offer individualized coaching and consulting specifically tailored to meet you where you are, with the people and resources you have available to you, and with your goals in mind.
Reply to this message directly to set up a conversation. Even if we don’t end up doing work together, I promise our conversation will highlight a direction and solutions you haven’t yet considered.
Let’s start there.