- Nonprofit work is hard work. It is complex, adaptive work where the answers are not known in advance — we have to invent them as we go. Most nonprofits are tackling huge problems with few resources and many face deep-pocketed opposition.
- Nonprofit work is long-term work. The problems we’re working on — climate change, inequality and injustice — didn’t emerge overnight, and we’re not going to solve them in a couple of years.
- Because nonprofit work is hard, long-term work, the nonprofit sector needs to attract the most talented people we’ve got — and keep them around long enough for them to become wise and masterful practitioners.
- The skills and talent nonprofits need to solve big social problems are complex . We need to be able to draw in people with a broad range of experiences, skills and talents. Failure to do this not only hurts us tactically, it limits us strategically.
- Right now, access to wealth — inherited wealth, earned wealth from a prior career or spouses/partners who are the primary breadwinners in their households — is often an implicit filtering criterion for long-term nonprofit employment. This perpetuates and deepens the structural racism and inequity in our society, even as we say we are working to eliminate it.
- The student debt crisis is a huge, largely unacknowledged talent problem in the making for the nonprofit sector. While many millennials are drawn to mission-based work, their student debt will prevent them from entering the sector, or ensure that their stay here is short.
- The skills that it takes to build and sustain a successful and effective nonprofit are becoming more varied.
- Because of the explosion of nonprofits — and the immediate accessibility of a global audience afforded by the internet — nonprofits must not only be skillful at more things, they must be relatively more skillful at more things if they want to break away from the pack. The bar for success is, paradoxically, rising, even as the barriers to starting a nonprofit are falling.
- The skills that nonprofits must master to succeed in the twenty-first century are rapidly converging with the skills that organizations in other sectors must master to succeed.
- We can see this most clearly in the area of technology. But it’s not just technology, it’s also finance, leadership, marketing and more.
- The rise of mission-based “social enterprise” businesses and B-Corps further exacerbates the nonprofit’s sector’s intensity of competition for talented, mission-minded people.
- Nonprofits are therefore competing beyond the sector for talent more directly than ever before and the intensity of this competition is only going to continue to increase.
- Nobody expects (or deserves) to get rich working for a nonprofit.
- Many nonprofits are (or can be) amazing places to work. People will sacrifice some amount of money for challenge, meaning, flexibility and autonomy.
- Despite this, we should not expect nonprofit workers to forgo home ownership, children and a secure retirement in order to work in the sector.
- If nonprofits want to successfully compete for talent — and keep good people around for the long haul, they need to pay enough so that money isn’t an issue, then out-compete other employers on meaning, relationships, autonomy and opportunity.
- The amount of money that makes “money not be an issue” for the diverse, talented people we need to attract and retain is often more than the median nonprofit is paying right now.
- The amount of money that makes “money not be an issue” for the diverse, talented people we need to attract and retain is not insanely large. People who are drawn to and can succeed at the complex, adaptive challenges of nonprofit work tend to have strong intrinsic motivation and are rarely highly materialistic.
- There are many roles in nonprofits for which it is believed to be difficult to objectively and fairly evaluate employee performance and/or contribution to either the organization’s bottom line or its mission impact.
- Nonprofits rarely cut low performing staff.
- Nonprofits rarely if ever pay their top performers significantly more than their median or low performers.
- Most nonprofits would rather spend additional dollars growing their team or launching new programs and accept turnover as a “fact of life” than invest in retaining their best people for the long haul.
- Nonprofits rarely account for the full costs of turnover: lost relationships, lost knowledge, lost productivity, damage to morale, etc.
- Many of the nonprofit sector’s most highly skilled people eventually are forced to leave the sector entirely or go into private practice as consultants in order to meet their financial needs.
- The “consultant-ization” of the nonprofit sector has some benefits (e.g. rapid, flexible team formation, deep specialization, diffusion of knowledge, etc.) but also considerable costs.
- While nonprofit culture and management practices contribute to some of the sector’s dysfunctions around compensation, nonprofit board members, donors and funders play a significant role in shaping the sector’s culture and determining how it allocates resources.
- The overhead myth, preferences for new programs over proven effectiveness, underinvestment in leadership development, failure to admit and embrace failure — these phenomena all contribute to unhealthy ideologies about compensation in the nonprofit sector.
- Nonprofit boards rarely involve themselves in staff salary structures or policies, restricting themselves to setting CEO compensation and perhaps approving incremental increases to the overall salary pool during the budgeting process.
- Foundation program officer salaries often serve as an effective upper bound on nonprofit CEO compensation.
- Funders rarely reward their highest-performing grantees with game-changing infusions of general support dollars — and even more rarely do they cut their low-performing grantees to free up resources for their high performers.
- Many funders are happy to reward effort rather than results. This is closely tied to risk aversion, because big results require big risks and it is often hard to claim credit for long-term success.
- There is no silver bullet solution to these challenges, but the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors must work together to open a more courageous conversation if we are to make progress.
I’d love to see a course for leaders (or prospective leaders) of social change organizations built around the following core readings:
- “Nonprofit Strategy Revolution” by David La Piana
- “Immunity to Change” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey
- “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath
- “The MoveOn Effect” by David Karpf
What else would you add to this list?
I’m pleased to announce the release of “Engagement Organizing,” a short whitepaper about the culture and technology of building power for social change in a networked era. I had the great pleasure of collaborating with my dear friend Matt Price, and I’m really pleased with the final results. If you are working to make progressive change in the world, please give it a read and share your thoughts with us at http://engagement-organizing.org.
This didn’t make it into the paper on Engagement Organizing that we’re about to release, but I thought it was an important point on its own. Curious to hear your thoughts.
One thing is common to all of the engagement organizations we interviewed: authenticity. These are organizations that are so comfortable with their identity and able to explicitly connect their work of the moment to deeply-held core values that their supporters feel it and respond to it with higher levels of engagement than in other organizations. In a world where people are less trusting all the time, authenticity is a critical foundation of social change.
I’m working on a fairly big chunk of writing about advocacy campaigns, organizing and strategy. (More on that very soon!) In the meantime, one idea that popped out along the way that didn’t really fit into the main thrust of the piece was the observation that, for many organizations, there’s a deep tension between building an army of passionate followers and being credible with the not-already-converted. One manifestation of this tension, with which we’re all probably familiar, is the organization that is extremely fired up but decisionmakers don’t take them seriously. More common, though, is the organization that is well positioned to be credible, but extremely weak. The creative challenge, I think, is to be both passionate and credible.
I’ve been reading and thinking a bit about “collective impact” lately. (Here’s the seminal article introducing the buzzword.) It’s a solid, mostly-common-sense framework for thinking about collaborative/coalition efforts. There are five elements that define a “collective impact” approach:
- Common agenda. If you don’t have a shared vision for change, you can’t really expect to collaborate effectively.
- Mutually reinforcing activities. Successful collaborators need to coordinate their activities, play to their strengths, and know their role in the larger effort.
- Continuous communication. If you don’t communicate regularly you can’t hope to build enough trust and shared language to collaborate effectively.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Jon, why are you wasting my time with such obvious folderol?” Most coalition efforts I’ve seen fulfill these first three conditions pretty well. Hang in there, it’s the next two that are the most interesting:
- Shared measurement systems. Hmm, now we’re getting somewhere. Collective impact suggests that collaborative efforts need agree on a shared set of indicators of success and the systems for monitoring and reporting on those indicators. Without shared indicators, collaborators have no way to really know if they are succeeding or failing, and no feedback systems that allow them to “course correct” as needed.
- A backbone support organization. Proponents of collective impact assert that successful collaboration efforts need to have a strong, staffed organization at their center, in order to run the collaborative process with sufficient intensity and focus to drive it forward in the face of distractions. It’s not clear to me whether they think a strong “lead coalition partner” fulfills this condition or not. (I suspect not.)
It’s these last two points where most collaborations falter, and probably not concidental that they require sustained, long-term resource commitments. How do collaborations you’re involved with stack up?
The thing I am loving most about grad school so far is that it is exposing me to bodies of literature that my former life as a nonprofit sector consultant just didn’t. (Whether it could have, that’s another story.) Today, I read Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s article “A Failure in Generalship,” which resonated for me in unexpected ways.
Yingling’s brief article is a tough look at the reasons why America’s military leaders failed in almost identical ways in both Vietnam and Iraq, despite the nearly thirty years they had to learn and adapt. He concludes that the reasons are not about individual personalities, but in the systemic ways that we select our generals, and the ways those systems fail to produce generals that are capable of succeeding at important aspects of their jobs.
Here’s a long excerpt that you should read closely. I’m blown away by how much this analysis is directly relevant to the failures of leadership in social change movements. I’ve boldfaced some of the best bits. Hint: every place he writes “generals” you can sub in “social change leaders” and every place he says “war” you can think “social change.”
I wish that the social change sector had the courage to examine itself so honestly and to ask tough systems questions like this. Of course, it is also true that we lack the systems of accountability that are at least theoretically provided by Congress, so it may be that our challenge is even harder than the military’s. Food for thought.
The Generals We Need
The most insightful examination of failed generalship comes from J.F.C. Fuller’s “Generalship: Its Diseases and Their Cure.”… He found three common characteristics in great generals — courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness.
The need for intelligent, creative and courageous general officers is self-evident. An understanding of the larger aspects of war is essential to great generalship. However, a survey of Army three- and four-star generals shows that only 25 percent hold advanced degrees from civilian institutions in the social sciences or humanities. Counterinsurgency theory holds that proficiency in foreign languages is essential to success, yet only one in four of the Army’s senior generals speaks another language. While the physical courage of America’s generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage. In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters. Now that the public is immediately concerned with the crisis in Iraq, some of our generals are finding their voices. They may have waited too long.
Neither the executive branch nor the services themselves are likely to remedy the shortcomings in America’s general officer corps. Indeed, the tendency of the executive branch to seek out mild-mannered team players to serve as senior generals is part of the problem. The services themselves are equally to blame. The system that produces our generals does little to reward creativity and moral courage. Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer’s potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer’s advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.
If America desires creative intelligence and moral courage in its general officer corps, it must create a system that rewards these qualities. Congress can create such incentives by exercising its proper oversight function in three areas. First, Congress must change the system for selecting general officers. Second, oversight committees must apply increased scrutiny over generating the necessary means and pursuing appropriate ways for applying America’s military power. Third, the Senate must hold accountable through its confirmation powers those officers who fail to achieve the aims of policy at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure.
To improve the creative intelligence of our generals, Congress must change the officer promotion system in ways that reward adaptation and intellectual achievement. Congress should require the armed services to implement 360-degree evaluations for field-grade and flag officers. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers are often the first to adapt because they bear the brunt of failed tactics most directly. They are also less wed to organizational norms and less influenced by organizational taboos. Junior leaders have valuable insights regarding the effectiveness of their leaders, but the current promotion system excludes these judgments. Incorporating subordinate and peer reviews into promotion decisions for senior leaders would produce officers more willing to adapt to changing circumstances, and less likely to conform to outmoded practices.
Congress should also modify the officer promotion system in ways that reward intellectual achievement. The Senate should examine the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star billets as part of the confirmation process. The Senate would never confirm to the Supreme Court a nominee who had neither been to law school nor written legal opinions. However, it routinely confirms four-star generals who possess neither graduate education in the social sciences or humanities nor the capability to speak a foreign language. Senior general officers must have a vision of what future conflicts will look like and what capabilities the U.S. requires to prevail in those conflicts. They must possess the capability to understand and interact with foreign cultures. A solid record of intellectual achievement and fluency in foreign languages are effective indicators of an officer’s potential for senior leadership.
To reward moral courage in our general officers, Congress must ask hard questions about the means and ways for war as part of its oversight responsibility. Some of the answers will be shocking, which is perhaps why Congress has not asked and the generals have not told. Congress must ask for a candid assessment of the money and manpower required over the next generation to prevail in the Long War. The money required to prevail may place fiscal constraints on popular domestic priorities. The quantity and quality of manpower required may call into question the viability of the all-volunteer military. Congress must re-examine the allocation of existing resources, and demand that procurement priorities reflect the most likely threats we will face. Congress must be equally rigorous in ensuring that the ways of war contribute to conflict termination consistent with the aims of national policy. If our operations produce more enemies than they defeat, no amount of force is sufficient to prevail. Current oversight efforts have proved inadequate, allowing the executive branch, the services and lobbyists to present information that is sometimes incomplete, inaccurate or self-serving. Exercising adequate oversight will require members of Congress to develop the expertise necessary to ask the right questions and display the courage to follow the truth wherever it leads them.
Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability among senior military leaders.