Where are you?

28 10 2011

Before 1973, no one ever had to ask “where are you?” when they reached you on the telephone.

Of course they knew where you were – you were within 3 feet of the telephone they had called. Now, because of mobile phones, one of the first things we ask when we call someone is, “where are you?”

Where are you? An innocuous question when asked casually, but quite profound when you ask it of your organization. If, in 30 years, the world has changed so we now call individuals instead of a place, what does that say about your nonprofit? Do you still ask your constituents to come to your place, or do your meet them where they are? Have your programs evolved to meet the new mobility of society? Has your mission changed?

Society’s rate of change has accelerated. How often does your board of directors evaluate whether your programs are still relevant, much less whether your mission is? Once every 10 years isn’t enough (and maybe it never was). But certainly ‘never’ shouldn’t be the answer.

How about ‘now?’


Hey! Why’d you cut me off?

17 03 2010

Cheating the Meeting Reaper : Avoiding Death by Meeting IV

Let’s see…right place, right time, right people, few topics, timed agenda…what else do you need for a good meeting?

Aha! Control! Yes, all the good intentions in the world aren’t going to keep your meeting on track. This is the job of [pause for effect] Super Leader!

All kidding aside, the meeting chair is responsible for keeping the meeting on track. In a board meeting, that’s the President. In a committee meeting, it’s the committee Chair. Make no mistake, though, someone has to be in charge, and that someone has to make it known that he or she is in charge.

Start on time. This simple step sets the stage, and lets the attendees know you mean business. Don’t wait until everyone gets here. It’s discourteous to the people who came on time, and encourages everyone to dawdle. A corollary to this rule is: Don’t go over what’s already been covered in order to bring people up to speed. It takes up time, and rewards the dawdlers. Eventually, attendees will learn that they have to get to the meetings on time.

Assign a Queue Keeper. When discussions ensue, this is a way to keep order among the many people who want to speak. We all know committee members who dominate discussions. Those who rarely speak up may find their voices trampled by the dominant speakers. The solution is to have a designated Queue Keeper. Each attendee who wants to speak raises a hand and the QK puts his/her name on the list; each person has an opportunity to speak in turn. This method serves several purposes.

  1. Each person is assured of an opportunity to speak.
  2. People no longer have to spend their attention and energy getting noticed. Instead, they spend their time actually listening to the other participants in the discussion.
  3. Because there is time between wanting to speak and when that thought will be spoken, people jot down their ideas so they won’t forget them. This means that when they do speak their minds, their contributions are more concise and precise.

Using a Queue Keeper may feel awkward the first few times, but the benefits will soon be apparent to everyone.

Stick to the timed agenda. Periodically reference the agenda and the time, so attendees are also aware of its status. If you’ve slightly misjudged the amount of time it will take to get through a subject, there may be some slack elsewhere. But if a topic starts getting very lengthy, act appropriately. There are four main possibilities.

  1. The subject warrants more serious discussion than originally thought. In that case, table the topic until the next meeting, when you can give it the attention it deserves.
  2. Attendees are repeating previously made points. Here, the Chair has to stop the discussion by saying, “does anyone have anything new to contribute? If not, will someone call the question?”
  3. There isn’t enough information to really come to a conclusion, and the discussion is spinning its wheels. In this case, the Chair has to stop the discussion and put it back to committee – either the originating committee or an ad hoc committee for this particular topic.
  4. Rarely, you may have a fourth situation. You may encounter an urgent question for which a lot of discussion still needs to take place.  In this case, you can decide to drop a later agenda item, or conclude that a specially called meeting for this particular topic should happen very soon.

The important thing to keep in mind is to give each agenda item the appropriate attention. Big items should be given enough time for productive, substantive thought and discussion.

Of course, in the case of committee reports, an agenda item may take too much time because the speaker is running over. Then the Chair should politely, but firmly, ask how much longer this will be since “we have many items to cover,” and request only the highlights.  As a committee report, the information should have been sent out in advance anyway, and the speaker should only be hitting highlights unless a vote is needed.

Finally, end on time! Meeting management is not rocket science, but it does take control. It means the Chair should be firm and consistent. There may be an occasional grumble the first few times you stop a discussion. But when your meeting ends in 90 minutes, instead of 2 and a half hours, your attendees will thank you!

Only one more topic left in Cheating the Meeting Reaper! Follow-up. Stay tuned.

My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I are presenting more detail on meeting management at the International Association of Fundraising Professionals meeting in Baltimore, on April 12, 2010. Join us, and then meet us at the Bloom Metz Consulting exhibit!

Anyone Know Why We’re Meeting?

7 02 2010

Cheating the Meeting Reaper: Avoiding Death by Meeting III

Congratulations! You’ve limited your meeting attendees to those who need to be there.

Now, how are you going to keep from wasting their time?

Your valuable volunteers are smart. They can come up with great ideas and engage in really substantive conversations that result in good policy. That only works though, if they’ve been given time to think about the subject. If your attendees have advance time to think about the subject, they come up with more in-depth questions and analyses that will help you come up with a better decision.

So, the best way is to prep for the meeting by:

  1. Limiting the meeting focus to no more than 1-3 topics
  2. Making sure that everyone has all the materials they’ll need in advance.
  3. Creating a timed agenda

Declare in advance the purpose of the meeting and the subjects that will be dealt with. Your volunteers should know that if the topic is not on the agenda, it will not be entertained. Harsh? Not as harsh as seeing 15 people around a table spending time on subjects they’re unprepared for, and which are really not their purview.

Similarly, if you want to have a focused meeting, attendees should be given the courtesy of having their materials in advance. No more sending out last month’s minutes the same day as this month’s meeting. No more handing out financial statements at the start of the finance committee’s report. No more handing out background on new policies at the moment the discussion begins. There’s no reason for meeting time to be spent on clarifications; with advance notice, all the initial questions for clarification can be asked of the committee chair before the meeting.

Be fair to your volunteers — and fair to your organization. Your smart, enthusiastic volunteers deserve to be given the tools to do what needs to be done. Hampering their efforts only hinders your organization.

Finally, once you know that all the materials will be in the hands of attendees in advance, you can create an agenda that shepherds the meeting towards focused discussion. That’s the timed agenda. [See Sample Meeting Agenda.]

Think about your own time management. Consider the effect of having an appointment you have to get to. When you’re at your desk, knowing that you have an appointment coming up focuses your mind and helps you avoid distractions. The same thing happens when you have a timed agenda.

If committee reports should only take 10 minutes, these reports will be brief and on topic. Details are in the written, advance reports. There is more compliance when the Board President says, “We have a lot to cover, let’s send that topic back to committee.”  Do emergent situations happen? Of course. But they should be the exception, not the rule. The timed agenda makes sure that the 90 minute meeting spends 60 minutes on important, policy-making decisions, instead of having those decisions left for the last 15 minutes.

The result?  Your attendees know what to expect when they come to the meeting. They know they’ll be able to engage in substantive discussions about important topics.

Most importantly, you end up with satisfied, productive volunteers, eager to tackle the big challenges.

Next: Keeping the Meeting on Track

My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I are presenting more detail on meeting management at the International Association of Fundraising Professionals meeting in Baltimore, on April 11, 2010. Join us!

Presume Good Will

17 08 2009

The nonprofit world is filled with people who have the best interests of their organizations at heart. Then why is it, when these board members, volunteers and staff professionals disagree, it is sometimes hard to maintain a cordial discourse?

Newspaper headlines focus on the negative, but I believe in the presumption of good will. I believe that most people really do want what is best for the organization. Let’s take, for example, a house of worship.

The people on the board of trustees, or vestry, or similar body, are volunteering their time to make this house of worship a healthy, vibrant place for all people who wish to participate. But sometimes, when there is a disagreement on the board, personalities are brought into the discussion and arguments become heated. Nastiness occasionally ensues. Trustees storm out. Rumors are spread. Email diatribes fly.

Yet each party to the disagreement probably began by arguing from a position of love of the organization; each wants the church, mosque, or synagogue to be the best it can be. How much more cordial the discussion would be if each party stepped back and acknowledged that they all want the organization to succeed. The disagreement is about how best to improve the organization, not about one party or the other wanting to see it fold. If we see that we each want what is best for the organization, perhaps we can be more tolerant of those who disagree with us.

Many people go through life with the attitude that it’s better to be nasty first, before someone else is nasty to you; an attitude that each new person must earn their respect. On the other hand, my mother, of blessed memory, always treated people with respect until they lost it. Watching my mother as she encountered new people, I realized that her life was richer, and new people she met were likely to live up to her expectations. She was a woman whose work was always behind the scenes. She earned no honors or awards but she had a smile and a welcome for each new person; at her funeral, we realized just how many people she had touched with this attitude.

Of course, there are disappointments. I am not a Pollyanna, and I will not deny that there are people who don’t have good will, are regularly nasty, or are just plain bad guys. But you can’t convince me that the majority of the world would not want to see it improve. I continue to believe in the presumption of good will. I may occasionally be wrong. But I know I will be far more often right.


10 06 2009

The role of an Executive Director is to acquire and husband all the resources of an organization, so those resources can best serve the mission. These resources may be dollars, good will, facilities or, most importantly, the people who are making a difference.  

In the past few years, I’ve been asked several times what an executive director does. At Hillel, students and parents can see the Program Director in action; but what did I do? At Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, people can see the work of the veterinarians and technicians; but what did I do?

If a job can have a mission statement, then I believe the mission of an Executive Director is to acquire and husband all the resources of an organization, so those resources can best serve the organization’s mission.

Like other good mission statements, this one is simple and can be phrased in one sentence. But dissecting it shows that its very simplicity holds a myriad of ramifications. 

First, defining resources. Resources may be dollars, good will, facilities, leaders, or the important people who make the mission a success. An Executive Director needs to recognize that all of these are part of what makes the organization work. Focusing solely on dollars to the exclusion of the people, or focusing only on the building to the exclusion of community relations is unbalanced. You end up fighting fires if you ignore one of the resources while focusing solely on another.

Next, acquiring resources means building relationships with others who can give you the resources you need. Donor relations and foundation relationships are part of resource acquisition – to get funds. Developing job descriptions is part of resource acquisition – hire the best people. Reviewing new facilities and engaging a good real estate broker is part of resource acquisition – find the best location. Being visible and participating in community functions is part of resource acquisition – acquiring good will and willing board members. Acquiring resources is a key part of the job of an Executive Director – it’s important to remember that it doesn’t just mean dollars.

What about husbanding resources? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of the verb ‘husband’ is to use, spend, or apply economically; to make the most of. Applied to the role of Executive Director, it means making wise decisions on how to use the resources at hand. It means knowing when to spend more in order to achieve great things, when to spend less in order to preserve assets. It means creating a budget that balances the needs of the organization and understanding the impact on the mission when cuts have to be made. It means knowing when to spend on air fare in order to meet with a major donor, and knowing when to expend good will in order to save the organization from mission creep.

The Executive Director is the Board’s partner in driving and fulfilling the Mission and Vision of the organization. It is up to the Executive Director to acquire the resources necessary to fulfill the mission, and use them wisely.

PS….When you don’t have an Executive Director, you should consider an Interim. See this post for more about Interims. 


31 05 2009

Where do your donors come from? How did you meet them? How did you meet the person who introduced you to them? 

In a previous life, I ran a for-profit market research consulting firm, focusing on medical and healthcare information. This is a fairly specialized field, but it suited my medical device industry background. 

About 5 years into the business, I decided to figure out how I was getting new clients. Where did they come from? What prompted that call?  How did they hear about my services? 

I decided to conduct a genealogical study of my client base.

First, I ranked each client by the amount of business they gave me. Then, for the top clients, I walked backwards through our relationship. When did I get my first job from them? Why did they call me? How did I first meet them? How did they first hear about me? What was the very first contact?

Time consuming? Oh, yes. But it was one of the most worthwhile exercises affecting the future of my business. I discovered that ultimately, about 80% of my business was initially generated by my attendance at one of two particular industry association conferences. I met many clients directly at one of the conferences. A few others had first heard of me because of a session or workshop I had presented there.

What I called second generation clients were those who had been referred to me by one of those first two groups. Then there were third generation clients; those who were referred by one of those second generation clients.

In other words, even if I’d never met client Z at that conference, that conference ultimately led to my work for client Z.

Armed with this new knowledge, I was able to focus marketing dollars and energy on those two industry conferences. I made sure that I attended each and was visible at each. I made sure my existing clients and prospects knew I would be attending. I approached the organizations putting on the conferences and offered to write for their trade journal. Just as important, I allowed myself to stop spending money and time on less efficient venues and activities.

Every dollar that comes into our nonprofits is precious, and I’m not advocating giving up the annual appeal, the 5k runs, or the donor boxes at the door. But I am suggesting that you take the time to do your major donor genealogy. Take advantage of institutional memory that may reside with a long-term employee, board member or past-presidents.

Have them help you conduct a major donor genealogy. Work backwards and consider how you first met this particular donor. Who introduced you? Is there a friendraiser in common among your donors? Is there a function in common? While a major donor is a huge asset to your nonprofit, even greater is a major donor who refers others to your cause.

Then take action. Focus your board and yourself on the most efficient routes to major donors and put yourselves in their path.  It’s a powerful way to leverage your time, dollars and energy. 

Nonprofit professionals ARE different….

8 05 2009

What you should know when making the switch from private sector to nonprofit professional.

It’s certainly not a secret that there are a lot of unemployed private sector professionals. Combine that with projections of 23,000 senior management positions going unfilled in the nonprofit sector, and it’s no wonder that management professionals of all kinds are taking a look at the nonprofit world.

 The last post about engagement brought many of them out of the woodwork, asking how to make that switch. Having moved from for-profit to nonprofit seven years ago, and having had conversations with colleagues making similar changes, I can propose a few guidelines to the uninitiated. 

 First of all, the nonprofit world is different from the private sector. The mind set is often different, with a strong focus on commitment to the mission and doing more with less. Frequently the atmosphere is more team oriented in order to ensure the services are delivered, and more people take on jobs that are technically outside of their own bailiwick, just to make sure they get done.

 Less cutthroat? I wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, but I would say that there are fewer Type A personalities.  The nonprofit world is populated by many people for whom success is measured less by high salaries than by how much they can achieve in furthering the mission.  The extra hours they put in – and they certainly do put in a lot of hours! — is to further the mission. The good vibes are incredible, but the work is intense.

Often, to the detriment of their personal lives, nonprofit professionals don’t have the time to volunteer outside their own organization; the extra 20-30 hours per week becomes their volunteer time. Family life may suffer because their board meetings and meetings with volunteers occur in the evenings and weekends, when the volunteers are free from their day jobs. Yet the professionals don’t feel free to start work any later because of the night meetings; they just lengthen their days.

Even in good times, the dollars are just not there to do what needs to be done. When times are tough, administration becomes even leaner. Long term projects are frequently put on hold because it’s hard to get the money to pursue them. Relying on government or foundation grants and private donors makes cash flow unreliable. Donors must be wooed, and can be fickle; many are willing to give for special projects, but not ongoing administrative costs. Yet the light bill must still be paid.

Good ideas are recognized….but not always acted upon. Cost-benefit analysis is a nice idea, but if it means not feeding an orphan because you’re spending for a long-term goal, well, you may be hard pressed to convince the powers that be that the long-term goal is more important. Even if that long-term goal will ultimately make it possible to feed even more orphans.

Yet for all the challenges, there are many, many people for whom the nonprofit world holds a life they wouldn’t trade for any other. Working through the difficulties, and still making a difference in the world is a special reward. 

After reading all this, if you’re still interested in looking at the nonprofit world for a new start, I’m collecting some tips on the process for the next post. Keep reading!