Everyone Must Step Up: A (Short) Manifesto on Nonprofit Leadership

Feb 5, 2013 by

Two articles and a recent staff retreat have got me thinking about the changing nature of leadership and mentorship in nonprofits.

Jack Marshall’s article over at Digiday titled “What Millennials Want: Mentorship” was actually written from the perspective of the for-profit sector, but it was incredibly relevant to us nonprofiteers as well. Jack discusses agencies that “talk a big game about appealing to young staffers, [but tend] to fall down on the most basic of requirements: training them and helping them along in their careers.” He offers two core reasons for this 1) that traditional sit-down-in-a-room-and-get-trained models of staff development are either not useful or barely even used anymore (because of companies cutting corners, etc.) and 2) that most managers are stretched so thin that they don’t have time to spend with junior employees providing guidance and feedback.step up

While business may have only started seeing this trend in the last few years, nonprofits have been seeing it for decades. In the interest of saving donors’ money, serving more people and getting a high ‘efficiency’ score on all those nonprofit rating lists (most of which are bullshit IMHO – but we’ll save that for another post), nonprofits have consistently cut – or in some cases never even offered – training to their staff. And as a ‘middle manager’ myself, I can testify to being stretched too thin to spend as much time as I want with those I supervise.

At my organization’s recent mid-year staff retreat, we had some extensive discussions about professional development, staff evaluations and knowledge-sharing. And if I may be frank, we were able to come to very few clear conclusions. Why? Not because we didn’t try or because people aren’t interested, but because each individual within the organization has different needs and desires in terms of his or her professional development. I’d go a step further and suggest that the many of the younger staff members have an all together different view from the senior management of what professional and leadership development should look like.

Enter Trish Tchume, the National Director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. Her fantastic article on HuffPo titled “A Field Guide for Recognizing Millennial Leadership” was exactly what I was looking for in terms of a way to focus on solutions to the challenges presented above. In her post, Trish identifies transformational millennial leaders that are breaking down traditional notions of what a nonprofit leader looks like (both physically and reputationally). And they are doing it by doing what millennials do best: networking with others, crowd-sourcing solutions, ignoring ‘turf’ or toes that can be stepped on and understanding that great ideas can come from anyone, no matter whether or not they are ‘known’ in the sector.

We all must take part in being the change we want to see. Here what we can do make it happen:

  • Nonprofit organizations and senior leaders:
    • First, acknowledge the truth: the more you ignore and fail to develop your staff, the more they will put on their walking shoes and leave your organization behind. Not only does this significantly erode your nonprofit’s ability to execute its mission, but the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkley suggests that staff turnover often costs 150 percent of that person’s salary (translation: if that person makes $60K, you’re paying $90K to replace him or her). If the nonprofit efficiency ratings took those costs into account, they might actually be more helpful.
    • Second: institute training programs, even if its mostly staff training each other or attending very cheap local events. Even a couple each quarter can make a difference in terms of your staff’s productivity, knowledge and happiness.
    • Third: make staff development and mentorship part of your organizational culture – make sure both your managers and employees know that taking time for mentoring conversations is acceptable and even encouraged; mentor staff yourself; share your network with your employees and be open to suggestions for improvement from EVERYONE in the organization from interns to senior staff.
  • Managers
    • Push back when your time is assigned 100% to projects/programs and none to all to the other important work, including staff development. No one can realistically spend 100% of their day just on programmatic work (even eating lunch takes away from it), so make sure you don’t just accept when organizational leadership tries to do that.
    • Even when things are incredibly busy, do whatever you need to in order to prioritize staff development. Take time out for lunch with junior staff. Save time in meetings for non-programmatic topics. Go get coffee or a drink after work with your staff. Sit next to them on the airplane during travel and take some time to talk about their goals instead of just burying your head in your laptop. The list goes on.
  • Junior staff/millennials
    • Push for those training opportunities and then take them when they come. They may not be exactly what you need or want, but every one is an opportunity for growth or at least networking with your peers.
    • Ask for feedback constantly – Not just on the report you drafted or the email template you just built, but on your performance as a whole. Be proactive in telling your managers about your longer-term goals and aspirations. Ask lots of questions and ask for connections to others who can help. (After a while, you’ll train your managers to offer this without even soliciting it, so start now!)
    • Remember that things are changing and while you may be on the leading edge, everyone else is not. While you’re working on getting mentorship, training and feedback at the workplace, don’t forget about your personal/alumni/social networks. Volunteer or serve on a board with your peers (YNPN local chapters are a great option) and offer them constructive suggestions and feedback about their work – and ask for the same on yours.

Of course, these ideas just scratch the surface on what can and should be done to move the state of nonprofit leadership forward. What else do you want to see to bring the sector and its employees truly into the 21st century of leadership?

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You can lead kickass meetings and trainings

Sep 13, 2012 by

I’ve ranted about crappy meetings and conference presentations in this space before, but I needed to come back to it in light of the somewhat ridiculous number of meetings, conferences and trainings I’ve been planning and attending lately.

Designing trainings and other adult learning experiences is one of my deepest passions and I spend a LOT of time thinking about how to make them interesting, fun and useful. The same came be said for meetings I lead (though to a slightly lesser extent – its hard to make most meetings fun, no matter how great you are at planning them).

Here are a few suggestions for making your next meeting or training as kickass as it can be:

  • Plan, plan, plan and be prepared – You’re shocked right? The Queen of Planning suggests you plan yet again? Why yes I do. Whether you’re giving a conference session or a training, you should spend AT LEAST double the amount of time the actual session takes planning for it. Along with a coworker, I’m giving a full two-day presentation in early October. Even though each of us have presented on similar topics before, we’ve already spent at least 10 hours prepping and we’ll spend at least 15 to 20 more before we’re done (all for a total of about 12 training hours). For regular meetings that I lead, I spend anywhere from 10 minutes to a few hours prepping for them – the prep includes following up on action items from the last meeting, developing an agenda and making sure any key documents are close at hand before we step into the meeting.
  • Decide on outcomes and goals – This fits into the ‘plan’ category above, but deserves its own separate mention. You should NEVER walk into a meeting, training or conference session without some idea of the goals and outcomes you want to come out with on the other end. It can be as simple as “people will feel they’ve learned something” and as complicated as developing a full workplan for a project you’re doing. Either way, you need to know what is coming out of the meeting and communicate it to others OR cancel the meeting before it even starts.
  • Customize and be Flexible – At this point, I have a few standard trainings that I’ve given several times. While I love designing new trainings, giving a tried and true presentation is so much easier and can be just as fun. The key is that you’ve got to make it relevant to the audience to which you’re speaking. Each training, presentation or meeting should be customized based on that audience and you should also be flexible in case of changes. One never knows what may come up: someone gets sick, a new person joins your meeting at the last moment, the projector won’t work, etc. If you’re prepared and know what your outcomes are, you can flex and bend with the changes.
  • Go with the Flow – This one is a bit more difficult to learn admittedly, but if you think about meetings or trainings you’ve sat through where you jarringly moved from one topic to another or the speaker didn’t explain how an example connects to the overall theme, you’ll know what bad flow means. Try to think of your training and meeting like you used to think about writing papers in college: you start out with a thesis statement, provide some evidence points and then conclude by reiterating your thesis. A meeting or training should be the same and it should make sense.

Now: go forth and kick ass in all of your meetings and trainings!


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Moving on with gratitude

Aug 6, 2012 by

After two great years, I’m wrapping up my YNPNdc leadership position. It’s time to pass the torch onto others who can help lead YNPNdc to even greater things. But just like a lot of transitions, this one is bitter-sweet.

I’ve learned so much since I started with YNPNdc: organizational operations, board operations, maximizing content across multiple communications channels, working with others (especially when you have no power or authority over them), and so much more. I’ve made so many great friends that I know will be there for me in the years ahead; these same people are outstanding professionals in their own right and having them in my professional network will be valuable in the future as we all move into leadership positions in our organizations. I know that I’ve grown as a person and a nonprofit professional from this experience and I believe I’ve been able to help others grow as well.

On the other hand, I’m excited to reclaim a large chunk of time to use in different ways. I’m happy that my email volume will be reduced (by a lot) and that I’ll be able to really focus on other things that matter to me. And my husband is happy that I’ll be home more :).

So what’s next?

For a while, I think I’ll take advantage of the extra time by reading and catching up on some of the household and life chores that I’ve been putting off (for instance: the nearly one-year-old pile of stuff to put in my wedding scrapbook). Then I want to follow my own advice and develop a plan for growing my career coaching business significantly in terms of number of clients, type of work and financial gain.

And in a year or two I would like to join a board again; this time, I’d like a position on a strategic/advisory board as opposed to a working board (which is what YNPNdc’s is). There are so many great nonprofits in the DC metro area and I can’t wait to work with one or more of them!

I can’t express enough how grateful I am to the other leaders of YNPNdc – especially the communications committee – for welcoming me into the fold two years ago and letting me grow and learn with them. It’s been such a fun and rewarding experience and I can’t recommend it more highly to all of you out there.

Thanks for the memories YNPNdc!


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The most important part of career success

Jul 13, 2011 by

Perhaps its not surprising that I think planning is one of the most important elements – if not THE most important element – in success. A good, comprehensive plan can make the difference between a winning issue advocacy campaign and a long, painful campaign that you ultimately lose. I talk about this stuff all the time to advocates around the country and I’ve been thinking more and more of the parallels between campaign planning and career planning.

To be clear, a campaign usually has a fairly limited time horizon (months) and it definitely has a beginning, middle and clearly defined end. Your career plan likely covers a much longer time arc, but it also has a beginning, middle and end – yay, retirement! Because it may cover 20 years instead of just 9 months, you’ll need to think about the shorter-term elements that build to the whole; nonetheless, the process is the same.

So what are the elements of the plan that you need to make your career a success?

First, an honest assessment of where things are now both internally and externally. Internally: your strengths, weaknesses, contacts, skills, knowledge and resources. Externally: the job market in your particular area both in terms of number of jobs and job roles that are available, practical implications of getting to where you want to go (will you have to move or change jobs?), the allies or opponents around you, etc.

Second – and maybe most importantly – the goal. You need to know where you’re going so that you know when you actually get there. But simply having a loose goal like ‘build management experience’ is not enough. The goal must be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Maybe your goal is ‘Get hired as the Executive Director of nonprofit X by 2015.’ Now, I can’t tell you whether that is achievable or realistic, but others you work with probably can. Part of identifying a SMART career goal is doing the assessment and getting some feedback from others who have objective opinions and can help you determine whether your goal is achievable and realistic.

Third: targets. These are the people or things that can get you what you want. It could be your boss, who can promote you up the chain of command; it could be a master’s degree program that can get you the education you need to do your job. Once you figure out who or what can get you what you want, you can move onto…

Step four: strategies, tactics and activities. These are the basic steps you use to achieve your goals – the “business plan” of your career if you will. Strategies are the broad categories of things you will do to get to your targets (your boss, grad school, etc.); tactics allow you to build up to and enact your strategies; and activities are actual, measurable tasks. Here’s an example based on the ED goal above and the assumption that your boss is one of your main targets.

In order to get that ED position, your strategy is to cultivate a mentoring relationship with your boss.

One tactic to build that relationship is to have regular meetings with him/her to discuss your career.

Your activities will then include scheduling those meetings once a quarter.

This seems kind of intense, but to think about in a ‘flow chart’ fashion will help you identify what activities you absolutely have to do and which can be left behind. This is a key piece: Have you ever found yourself going to a happy hour and asking yourself why you’re going? If the answer is ‘to network,’ but its not associated with any specific strategy or goal – meaning if it doesn’t get you any closer to your goal of becoming an ED by 2015 – then it is a waste of your time. Period.

The other big mistake that people make is diving into tactics/activities first. Going to that happy hour to meet potential contacts for a new job is a good tactic…but only if your goal is to get a different job or if you know someone there can help you become an ED. Regardless, you need to have a plan and a goal BEFORE you move onto those tactics.

The natural end point of all of this planning is to actually execute and to periodically review it to see if its still relevant and accurate. It’s also helpful to have an accountability partner who can check you on your goals periodically.

As you start working on your plan, I’d love to know how its going – and I’d love to help you! I can offer personal and professional coaching to get you where you want to go; if you’re interested, contact me!

Flickr photo courtesy of user J’Roo.
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What are you waiting for?!

May 19, 2011 by

Last year about this time, I wrote a blog post singing the praises of YNPNdc and noting my intention to apply for a leadership position (and my application was accepted!). After a year working with YNPNdc as a member of the communications team, I can sing the organization’s praises even more loudly than I did before. In the last year, I’ve had a great time tweeting, advertising our work, editing, drafting press releases and reaching out to the media to promote our work.

Now, YNPNdc is recruiting for new leaders (yours truly will be staying on the leadership team, but others have moved on literally and figuratively) and all I can ask is: what are you waiting for?! Get over to their website and put in your application RIGHT NOW!

If you’ve ever wanted new or different leadership opportunities; if you’ve ever wondered what its like to be on the board of directors of an organization; if you enjoy working with other committed young professionals; if you are dedicated to improving the nonprofit sector in DC and beyond, then this opportunity is for you!

Here’s a bit more info from YNPNdc’s website:

YNPNdc is run by an all-volunteer team of nonprofit leaders who serve on the following operating committees:

  • Professional Development: planning workshops, panels, and other skill-building events
  • Member Engagement: managing our networking opportunities, diversity initiatives, and member outreach
  • Communications: developing regular newsletters, events blasts, and social media
  • Fundraising: develop and maintain strategic partnerships with organizations and individuals to bring in revenue
  • Special Events: planning and executing our annual fall networking event and spring conference
  • Technology: managing our website and online resources

So I ask again: what are you waiting for? Get over there and apply today!

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