Tag Archives: nonprofits

Three dimensions of transformational leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes truly effective leaders in the social change sector. There are people who’ve devoted their entire careers to the question, and I don’t presume to their erudition. But lately, I’ve been reflecting on three key dimensions of organzatioal leadership that have really helped me understand organizations I’ve been involved with over the years.

External relations leadership

External relations is the classic, outward-facing dimension of leadership. It’s the one we often mistake for the whole ball of wax. External relations is about charisma, storytelling and selling the organization to the world at large. It’s a vitally important dimension of leadership, especially in the nonprofit sector, where donors and grantmakers often give based on emotion and relationships. Many nonprofits are founded by leaders who are strong on this dimension of leadership.

Management leadership

This is the internal-facing “make the trains run on time” function. Management leadership is what builds systems and processes; it allows organizations to execute consistently, with excellence and at scale. Few organizations can grow or be successful over the long term without developing strong management leadership. Leaders who are strong at management are often very different personalities than those who excel at external relations–they tend to be more introverted and detail-oriented. Many management oriented leaders are found in COO roles.

In many nonprofits, the top two people are a strong external relations leader and a strong management leader. This can be a pretty effective leadership model for some organizations, and is far preferable to a single CEO trying to perform both roles.

But if we stop with just these two leadership functions, we overlook something critical to the long term health and success of an organization: the leadership function that is focused on taking care of its people.

Nurturant leadership

Leadership is not just about strategy, sales and management, leadership is motivating and supporting people so they thrive and excel. It’s great to have a charismatic leader out front, and a management leader who can build and refine the internal processes. But someone has to be focused on taking care of the organization’s people as whole human beings. This is not an “HR” function; it’s a core leadership function.

Nurturant leadership is this dimension of leadership–and, unfortunately, it’s often overlooked–and consequently one of the biggest barriers to long-term organizational excellence.

Lots of organizations have a strong ED/COO combination providing external relations and management leadership. But these organizations sometimes have a tough time retaining talented staff over the long haul, because they are missing third leg of the leadership stool: a strong nurturant leader.

“But isn’t this the CEO’s job?” you ask. Well, it’s certainly the CEO’s responsibility to make sure the organization has sufficient nurturant leadership. But many CEOs struggle with this leadership function–particularly CEOs who are focused on external relations. External relations leaders are charismatic and visionary, but they are often ineffective at nurturant leadership for several reasons:

  1. Being outward-oriented means you’re out of the office lot. There are so many meetings to go to, donors and clients to pitch, speeches to give. External relations leaders are often on the road so much and in so many meetings with stakeholders that they don’t have the focused time it takes to nurture their teams.
  2. The more visionary and charismatic the leader, the more intimidating they often are. It’s hard to nurture people who are a little bit scared of you.
  3. A certain degree of narcissism often goes with the territory, and while it’s not unhealthy per se, it does tend to interfere with the empathetic demands of nurturant leadership.

Similarly, many management leaders struggle with this as well. When you are focused on building systems and processes, it is easy to slip over the line into caring more about “the system” than the people that must operate within it. Overall, though, I’ve seen a lot more people who are successful management/nurturant leaders than people who combine external relations and nurturant leadership.

The biggest lesson for organizations, though, is to explicitly attend to and elevate nurturant leadership as a discipline co-equal to external relations and management leadership. More on this in a future blog post.

How to measure the effectiveness of GiveBig and other “day of giving” campaigns?

Today, May 15, is GiveBig, Seattle’s third annual “day of giving” event. Created by the Seattle Foundation in 2011, the idea is to focus attention on charitable giving, raise the public profile of the Seattle Foundation and of course raise some dough. There are similar events in many other cities now, and even a national “GivingTuesday” event right after Thanksgiving.

But how do we know whether GiveBig and similar day of giving type events are really working?

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Needed: an open data standard for volunteer opportunities

I was chatting today with my friend Sameer about the challenges and opportunities in volunteer management software and had a bit of a realization: it’s crazy that we don’t have an open data standard for volunteer opportunities, so that organizations can publish a machine-readable list of volunteer opportunities on their websites, and let them get picked up and syndicated by services like VolunteerMatch and Idealist that specialize in aggregating and curating volunteer opportunities.

I’m thinking of something like RSS (or even better, ATOM), which provides a simple, open standard for publishing information about articles on websites so that they could easily be picked up, remixed and syndicated to reach a far larger audience.

Let’s call it “VSS” (Volunteer Syndication Standard). I haven’t thought about this deeply, and I’m no expert on designing protocols like this, but I would start by seriously examining ATOM, the most modern RSS-like standard for publishing articles. I’d also look at hATOM for inspiration about how to embed machine-readable data directly into a standard webpage. EDIT: Probably also .ics (the standard for event syndication, because volunteer opportunities often–but not always–resemble events.)

It would be hard to inspect one’s navel to design this right, so I’m not even going to try. But I’d definitely definitely want to include folks like:

  • Organizations that publish lots of volunteer opportunities
  • Organizations that aggregate and curate volunteer opportunities or recruit volunteers for many organizations
  • Makers of volunteer management software (or other tools that let groups publish volunteer opportunities online–this could include major CMS platforms, for example)

I think that a standard like this, if sufficiently widely adopted, could unlock a huge amount of innovation in how organizations (and intermediaries) recruit volunteers, especially if it was coupled with another set of standards for intermediaries to use to push data about volunteers directly into groups’ volunteer management databases.

 

 

 

 

On boards

As a public administration grad student, I’ve been thinking a fair amount about nonprofit boards of directors lately. I’m not the first person to think that nonprofit boards can be super-dysfunctional; there’s a whole industry of “self-help” books for boards. (The one I’ve most enjoyed lately is Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, if you’re looking for some bedtime reading.)  But the roots of board dysfunction are not to be found in some sort of failure to implement “best practices,” though. There are deeper problems with the institution of the board itself, and I’ve rarely seen these talked about.

Most of the time nonprofit boards work just fine, because there is nothing difficult they need to do. Sometimes, though, boards have to do urgent, important, difficult work–like an executive director transition–and that’s when they can get into big trouble.

The hard truth is that nonprofit boards have almost zero accountability for performance beyond meeting the bare minimum legal standards of “don’t steal the money or let it be stolen.”

  • Board members have no financial assets at stake, unless they also happen to be major donors–and that is all sunk cost anyway. And of course, nonprofit board members are typically unpaid. So there’s no economic incentive.
  • Board members have no real professional reputation at stake, and will typically experience no or few negative consequences even if they destroy the organization through mismanagement.
  • Most boards aren’t elected by a membership, and when they are, the elections are rarely competitive. So, pseudo-democratic accountability is rarely a factor, and weak at best.
  • Much of the time, board members don’t have strong enough relationships with each other to effective hold each other accountable for high performance. How many boards do you know of where the members are close collaborators or, god forbid, friends, outside the boardroom?

To be sure, board members have their own consciences to guide them, and for many boards, that is enough to carry them through the good times and even the slightly rocky times. But when the going gets really tough–as it sometimes does–it is far easier for board members to avert their eyes, pull away and even just resign rather than to “lean into the messy” and grapple with the really tough questions of organizational identity, executive performance, and leadership. There are few rewards for high performance, and fewer disincentives for low performance.

If that’s not bad enough, consider that the number of nonprofits in the US continues to grow rapidly–from 2001 to 2011, the number of nonprofits increased by 25% to over 1.5 million. More nonprofits means more board seats to fill, and last I checked, good board members were hard to find. (Proof? Name an E.D. you know who is turning away highly qualified board candidates.) At what point have we created more board seats than we can fill with talented, motivated people? Is this contributing to the phenomenon of low-performing boards that I describe above? How would we know?

Should grantmakers be more like VCs?

At Web of Change 2012 last week, I had an interesting conversation with Drew Bernard about nonprofit boards vs. the boards of internet startups, and the very different roles that nonprofit and VC funders play.   Drew’s a great person to chat with about these topics, because he’s worn all the hats: startup entrepreneur, angel investor, startup board member, nonprofit tech consultant and nonprofit board member.

We think that advocacy nonprofits and startups have one huge thing in common: they are both highly entrepreneurial organizations, in that, as Eric Reis puts it, they both need to operate under conditions of extreme uncertainty.   Nonprofits are funded by grantmakers, startups by venture captial (VC) firms.  A typical VC firm has partners, each of whom has a portfolio of investees.  Grantmakers have program officers.

In a VC firm, each of the partners will carry a portfolio of roughly 7-12 firms, and in exchange for the firm’s investment, the partner will sit on the board of each of the firms in his or her portfolio.  VC board members not only look out for the interests of the investors, but they also serve as mentors, advisers, connection-makers and often-vigorous advocates for the startups they advise.  Even in situations where the VCs have relatively small amounts of money on the line (e.g. in angel-funded startups, which are what Drew works on), the VC board member<>startup relationship is often intense, hands-on and collaborative.  “I’m on the board of one startup right now,” Drew told me, “and I’m probably in their office at least once a week.”

Compare and contrast to the nonprofit sector.  All of the foundation program officers I know carry portfolios of roughly 20-50 grantees.  Serving on the board of an grantee is rare, and in most cases it’s done out of personal interest rather than as a part of the job.  There’s some coaching and mentoring and network-making that’s part of the relationship, but with 20-50 grantees, that’s just not a lot of program officer time per grantee.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m about the last person in the world to put VCs on a pedestal, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if a grantmaking foundation tried to use the VC model for its grantee relationships: big investments, small portfolios, intensive, supportive, hands-on involvement.