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?’





Mission Before Money

28 12 2010

This post was originally on Ingrid Zacharias’ excellent blog, Envisioning the Future.

Capital Campaigns Require Deep Foundations

Ever notice how ancient buildings have deep foundations? Visiting France last year, we took a guided tour of the breathtaking Notre Dame de Chartres – a millennium old church built on the same spot as many churches that came before.  Much of theNotre Dame de Chartres - spires foundation of this church was put into place during Roman times!

It’s the same thing with a capital campaign. A strong campaign needs a strong foundation. You may be sure you need a new building or renovated space, but fundraising will be a long hard slog with a lot of surprises if you don’t build your foundation first.

The absolute first pillar in that foundation is Mission.

For those of us in the nonprofit world, it’s a given that Mission is the essential that drives our entire enterprise. Who are we serving, what are we trying to achieve, what outcome are we working toward?

It’s the same thing with a special campaign. The need for that new building, or renovation, or endowment, starts with how it’s going to serve your mission. If you don’t have a clear mission, easily articulated by each of your constituents, then your campaign is starting with a handicap.

Your school doesn’t need 5 new classrooms; it needs to help 30 more special needs students achieve independence. Your library doesn’t need a new building to house the books and computers; your community needs a safe and free space for the unemployed to seek information about new jobs and get the training they need to pursue them. Your zoo doesn’t need a veterinary clinic to retain accreditation; your community needs to show its children that we are obligated to care for the animals in our world the best way we know how. Your soccer fields don’t need lights for night games; you need to provide an opportunity for people to come together in the evening, building family and community unity.

Mission, then, is the first pillar in your foundation. Is it clear? Compelling? Articulated? Is your potential new project clearly in support of your mission? Most importantly, can everyone associated with your organization recite and support your mission?

Yes? Great! You have the first foundation of a great organization and an excellent campaign. Now build the next pillar: Governance.

Stay tuned!





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.





I read it in the NY Times

25 08 2010

When I was growing up, any time I wanted to prove that the fact I had just spouted was true, all I needed to tell my Dad was that I’d read it in the New York Times. I’m pretty sure he knew that sometimes I just said that to get him off my back, but there’s no doubt that a trusted outside source can still go a long way toward bolstering your case.

Take, for instance, dealing with a board of directors that’s reluctant to try something new, or when a director or volunteer questions your wise counsel.

For example, I’ve advised several smaller nonprofits to accept online donations. There’s the usual grumbling about security concerns and that credit cards take too much out of the donation.  But pointing to studies that show the advances in credit card and online donations go a long way to convincing the nay-sayers.

This study by Blackbaud (The Blackbaud Index of Online Giving) is a good one to show your reluctant boards. It’s particularly good to show to small and medium-sized nonprofits, whose peers had their online contributions increase by an average of 7%, year -over-year.

Personal experience, industry knowledge and good research is a hard combination to refute.





I’m not saying please, I’m not being reasonable, I’m making the decision

13 08 2010

Ever read or hear a statement that just begs to be quoted? When it happens to me, I may not know when I’ll use it, but it’s just so appropriate to something that I have to write it down. I may be watching TV or a movie with my husband, or reading a novel. It may be in a nonfiction book or a random sentence in a magazine.

This time, it was a line in an early episode of the FOX drama, Bones. Dr. Walker, head of the fictitious Jeffersonian Institute, was finally fed up. He had already explained, many times, the priorities of a case to his extremely intelligent and all-too-eager-to-argue staff.  He had other constituents to serve; he knew what had to be done, and he had to ensure their completion.

“I’m not saying please, I’m not being reasonable, I’m making the decision,” he declared, and walked out of the room.

Harsh. However, in a situation when someone has to stop the wheels from spinning, the executive makes that decision. Definitely, concretely, and in no uncertain terms. There may be fallout, but the job of the executive is to make the hard decisions and anticipate and mitigate any negative effects.

It’s not fun to be the dictator, but as Dr. Walker (or the show’s writers) illustrated, it is sometimes part of the job.

What hard decisions have you had to make on behalf of your organization? What might have happened if you hadn’t stepped up and taken charge?





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!