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?’





Vision is overrated.

1 09 2010

Vision. Vision. Vision.

Everyone talks about making sure your board has a vision. To paraphrase Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady — words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…don’t talk of Vision, Show me!

Whatever happened to implementation???

Look, I’m not saying the first step isn’t important – it is! Without vision, you stagnate. If you don’t know where you’re going, you waste time spinning wheels.

But once you know what you want to become, it takes decisions and details; process and payments; learning the laws and following them; checks and balances; good management and good manners. And all the while, staying focused on the vision.

But JUST having a vision isn’t enough. Nonprofit leadership is fostering that vision, planning to make it reality, inspiring everyone to get on board, and then, well, making it happen.

Vision AND Implementation. It takes both. As consultants, we do our clients a disservice if we stop at the first step.





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!






Why Am I Here?

21 12 2009

Cheating the Meeting Reaper: Avoiding Death by Meeting II

Meeting attendees sit around a table, still doodling on their pads. They’re wondering why they were invited. Is there a diplomatic way to depart? You’ve already planned this as an important meeting, so there must be some other problem. One strong possibility is that you didn’t think about the invitation list.

Once you’ve decided that you need a meeting, the next step is to consider who should be there. This is just as important as the agenda. Having the right people at your meeting makes it much more productive, your staff is happier, and your volunteers are more enthusiastic.

Time is your most valuable asset. In any service business, and especially nonprofits, payroll is your most costly expense. Every hour a person spends in a meeting is an hour that is not being spent elsewhere. If you ask staff to step away from their work and come to a meeting, it should be worthwhile. Otherwise, you are wasting your agency’s resources.

Volunteers are also agency resources. Consider your Board of Directors. Of course, the entire Board should be at full board meetings. But committee meetings and ad hoc meetings are a different story. Inviting an important board member to a meeting to which he has little to contribute is a sure way to diminish his enthusiasm. Caring about the mission may not change, but if he sits there wondering if it is worth his time, he may think twice about coming to the next meeting.

Make sure that every person invited to a meeting is invited for a reason, and you know what that reason is.

Decisionmaker – someone who has to be fully informed to make a good decision on behalf of your agency
Opinionmaker – someone who has insight and opinions that will be beneficial to the decisionmakers
Information provider – someone who has factual information or experience that will be beneficial to the decisionmakers

I’ve been in organizations where everyone was invited to every meeting. Needless to say, after a while, they started coming late or leaving early….if they came at all. It’s like crying “WOLF!” Sooner or later the villagers stop coming to the aid of the little shepherd, and even the people who should be at your meetings will not be there. You’ve lost your willing workers.

Who should be at a meeting? People who will have to make a decision based on the discussion, and people who have information to contribute to the discussion. That’s it. Don’t leave out someone with extensive front line experience just because he’s a lowly staff member. Conversely, don’t invite someone just because she believes she should be there. There may be extenuating circumstances, but carefully consider the pros and cons.

True, an important board member may be offended not to be invited to a committee meeting; yet that same board member may stifle discussion, have the reputation of not being discrete, or have a hard time thinking beyond personal self-interest. Not inviting him may create ill will, even if the discussion is more robust. Similarly, inviting a really great person but whose input is minimal is also wasteful. Inviting a valuable board member to a meeting where she will have minimal input risks losing her enthusiasm.

In these cases, finesse the situation. Plan the meeting with the people you need, and if these upper echelon individuals might be offended to not be included, take them into your confidence. Let them know that you are having this meeting, but didn’t want to waste their time since there are other things that only they can do. They may still want to come, but at least they are the ones who made that decision.

Good luck! As a leader, you have to husband the resources of the organizations, and use them wisely. When it comes to attendees at a meeting, the most important thing to remember is that extraneous people is wasteful of time and talent.

In the words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men go aft agley”  Since  plans can and do go awry, you still have a few more tools available. Timed agendas and meeting management techniques will help corral overbearing speakers and keep the meeting moving. More on these in subsequent posts.

Note – My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I will be presenting Cheating the Meeting Reaper at the 47th annual international conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, April 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.





WHY AN INTERIM EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR?

19 07 2009

I’m working as an Interim Executive Director again! It’s for a great nonprofit organization, with a truly committed board and staff. The past three weeks have been incredibly intense: being an interim means that the usual getting-to-know you period has to be shortened, as I try my best to get a quick grasp of the organization, its mission, its priorities, the personalities, and how things are done, in order to be effective in the short time I might be at this organization.

Despite the intensity, I’m getting nothing but support from the people here. As I told my husband, it’s like the Verizon commercial with the lone cell phone user surrounded by Verizon personnel: I’ve got people. The Board is working hard at finding a permanent replacement for the previous Executive Director, but they took an important step in hiring an Interim while they conduct the search.

In fact, the situation reminds me of a post I put up on another blog (the Nonprofit Watercooler). Prosaically titled, “Why Hire an Interim Exec or Director,” it walks through the benefits of having someone at the helm while you seek a new hire.

Since I still firmly hold to everything that was in that original article, this time I’m just going to point you to that post. Meanwhile, I’m working on another article about  how the actual benefit of having an Interim may depend on the quality of the support s/he gets from the Board of Directors and staff. So next week, I’ll share some steps to getting that Interim Executive relationship – and perhaps any new Executive Director’s work – off to a grand start.

Meanwhile, enjoy!