Leadership

One Reason Why I Love the Nonprofit Sector

Image: Maayan Ohayon

Image: Maayan Ohayon

At Wellspring Consulting, we work entirely with nonprofits. I am often deeply moved by the leaders in our client organizations, their selfless approach, and the missions they are serving.

I vividly remember one day when we were helping the leadership team at Open Circle rethink their pricing. Open Circle trains grade-school teachers in methods to help their students learn how to get along interpersonally. To assess Open Circle’s pricing, we studied their competitors, interviewed their customers, and built an economic model of their costs and revenues. We found that Open Circle could charge more for their services, and we suggested that they do so.  But Lisa Sankowski, Associate Director at Open Circle, pushed back, saying, “We wouldn’t want to charge the schools more. They’re already under enough economic hardship, and higher prices would only make it harder for them.”  So we chose not to increase prices to the schools. Instead, we presented funders and donors with a clear depiction of Open Circle’s economic model to demonstrate why additional support was needed. This worked. Open Circle raised more money and met their economic needs.

To me, Lisa’s response crystallizes something I love about the nonprofit sector, and which I have seen many times over. Leaders of nonprofit organizations care deeply about the ultimate wellbeing of their customers. Laura Walker, President and CEO of New York Public Radio stayed at the radio station through the terror of 9/11, keeping it open while the frightening chaos rained about their offices. Thanks to her bravery, listeners all over the city were helped in their response to the crisis. Debbie Bial, Executive Director at Posse Foundation – which supports low-income youth in going to top colleges – communicates an infectious enthusiasm about Posse’s kids, their talents and their potential. Through her leadership Posse now operates in ten cities across the country, and she has personally taken scores of photos of radiant young adults on their college graduation day, which now hang on the walls and website pages of the Foundation. And Kathy Douglass, who left a lucrative career as a partner at one of the top law firms in New York City, founded In Motion, an organization providing free legal services to victims of domestic violence. Over 20 years under her guidance, the organization has served thousands of women.

Daily, I am touched by such leaders’ caring, vision and tenacity. I believe in them, and what they are doing. I am stirred by the amazing ways they are making change happen. And through them, I am able to be a part of something much larger than myself.

Strategy consulting in Wonderland = Asking the right questions

Tennel_Cheshire_proof
Tennel_Cheshire_proof

This past year, I worked with a nonprofit organization to develop a strategic plan, and as part of the process, we at Wellspring Consulting facilitated a full-day retreat, bringing together key Board and staff members who were committed to the organization’s future. The President of the organization was a master storyteller. His reputation for exceptional tale-telling and side-splitting punchlines was known by all in his field. During the retreat, the President recounted a story that I had heard many times before, but within this context, I was able to hear it in a new way. Now, his gem of wisdom allows me to explain what outstanding strategy consulting is.

When introducing Wellspring at the Board retreat, the President started with a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. [see here] At this point in the story, Alice has entered the woods and arrives at a fork in the road. She looks around to see if there are any clues as to where the paths might lead and is suddenly startled to see the Cheshire Cat sitting on the bough of a tree.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the CheshireCat.

"I don’t much care where…" said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

“And this,” declared the President of the organization, “is why we have Wellspring with us.”

As the story unfolds, we see that the Cheshire Cat’s role in guiding Alice on her adventures was to pose the right questions. From the vantage point of his perch up in the tree, the Cat could see the landscape of Wonderland and could watch Alice traverse the terrain. At each vexing crossing, the Cat would pop into the scene to push her thinking again and again. As her guide, he enabled Alice to navigate her way through Wonderland by posing the right questions to elucidate the right insights. Though seemingly disorienting at times, his astute, logical line of questioning brought Alice through a process by probing further and further, allowing her capital-T Truth to rise to the surface, until Wonderland began to make sense to her.

This is what outstanding strategy consulting is. Excellent strategic planning entails asking the right questions, which in turn requires strong skills in logic, in analytics and in “organizational therapy,” the term I use to describe the process of reflecting on what is seen from an objective outsider’s perspective.

The Cheshire Cat’s extraordinarily talent in bringing Alice through a process by posing the right questions is no surprise given Lewis Carroll’s expertise as a mathematician, logician and teacher. Carroll understood how asking simple, mindless questions lead to simple, mindless answers, whereas asking great questions can invoke great answers and, in turn, lead to great decisions.

Pushing your thinking until the vision for where you want to go becomes clear is the power of outstanding strategic consulting. At its core, strategic consulting is about asking the right questions – ones that are nuanced and thoughtful – in order to make the right decisions. Through this process of questioning, a shared understanding among organizations’ leadership unfolds, and like Alice with her eventual new-found orientation, you can get to where you want to go.

Checklist for a Successful Leadership Transition

In our work, we've seen a number of top leaders move on to other jobs. The transition is not always smooth. If the Executive Director or CEO of your organization is planning to leave, use the following checklist to see if your organization is ready:

  • Shared identity. Does the Board and remaining senior staff share a clear and coherent understanding of the organization's identity and purpose?
  • Buy-in. Has the organization been sufficiently prepared for the transition, allowing it to develop buy-in for the leadership transition?
  • Mechanics. Are the mechanics and schedule of the transition well planned, including the timing of announcements to employees, Board, funders, and other stakeholders, and the process of hand-off from one leader to the next?
  • Bench strength. Are the staff just below the leader strong enough to carry the organization during the transition period until a new leader is solidly in place?
  • Institutional memory. Has the organization instituted a method to transfer knowledge and relationships held by the exiting leader to others in the organization?

For many organizations, it will take time to put these elements in place. To the extent possible, plan ahead for a successful leadership transition.

Do you have other points to add to this checklist? Please leave a comment. We'd love to hear your ideas.