Nonprofits

Let Me Put On My New Hat

Being forced to step outside your comfort zone and take on a new perspective can help you think about something in a new way.  This isn't particularly earth-shattering news, of course, but there is an easy way to foster this kind of thinking and get staff to take a new stance.

Often, it seems like the same people in an organization consistently take on the same role; perhaps the COO’s practicality and financial mindset mean she is always concerned about funding and tends to nix ideas early on, while the Director of Strategy’s optimism translates to seeing a lot of potential in every new program idea. We all fall into patterns like this, where every new idea seems infeasible (or wonderful) and we can’t help but play devil’s advocate (or cheerleader) at every meeting.

To keep conversations fresh and staff engaged, it can be helpful to take on new roles. In Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, he suggests ways to provide different perspectives on a challenging topic. By assigning each person at a meeting (or each phase of a meeting) a different “hat”, it is possible to ensure deliberate discussion around the challenge – and how people are reacting emotionally, objectively, critically, or in other ways. Each hat has a different set of guiding questions to consider, from what information do we have or need, to how do I feel about this idea, and what could go wrong?

Based on these Six Hats, we recently facilitated a client meeting with our own adapted set of seven hats: the Analyst, Opposer, Advocate, Feeler, Connector, Questioner and Joker. Every attendee was assigned a role – and many were deliberately given roles outside their comfort zone. For example, the CEO, who admits she is often critical of new ideas, assigned herself as Advocate so she would be sure to focus on the positive side of things. We gave each attendee a little sign on a popsicle stick, with their role on one side and the questions for them to consider on the other, to continually prompt them and guide their thinking. Holding a physical sign also served as a safety blanket, allowing people to justify viewpoints that may have been out of character for them.

At the start of the meeting, some comments felt a bit canned as people tried to embody their roles (“This idea feels great”, “We don’t have the money!”), but soon, conversation became richer as attendees became comfortable with their hats. Additionally, while some people might have deferred to more senior staff at a typical meeting, the hats allowed everyone to take on a new voice and personality. There was no need to feel nervous about being critical (in the role of Analyst or Opposer), or to feel judged for supporting something simply because it felt right (as a Feeler). Ultimately, people moved around, in and out of their hats, and there was meaningful conversation with a balance of critical and positive feedback.

If you’re looking to shake up a meeting or make it more fun, try assigning your own hats to help foster interesting and creative conversation. Here are ours:

  • Analyst: Is this feasible? What does our data tell us about this idea? What does logical reasoning tell us?
  • Opposer: Why would this not work? What is wrong with this idea? What have we not considered?
  • Advocate: Why is this a good idea? How could this work?
  • Feeler: How does this idea feel? What is my gut reaction? How would it feel to our staff, Board, funders…?
  • Connector: How might these different ideas connect? Where are the places of consensus in our discussion? Where do we seem to be converging?
  • Questioner: What questions does this raise for me? What should we be asking ourselves?
  • Joker: How can humor be used to illustrate my thoughts? Can humor or sarcasm be useful to help evaluate these ideas?

We’re Growing... But Not Yet

Growth makes for an inspiring organizational story. Boards of Directors and staff can be mobilized around growth. But if work must be done in the near term in order to prepare for growth later, the story may be less than inspiring. People may ask, "If we can't make growth happen now, why expect it in several years?" I faced just this situation recently. One of our clients had just come off a highly successful run of completing innovative projects and raising a large amount of funding to support general operations. However, most of their major projects were nearly complete, and a campaign for unrestricted revenue was ending. These efforts seeded a huge potential for new, innovative program work and an increase in revenue, but that potential was unlikely to be realized until after several years of less outwardly visible initiatives—to plan and begin working on new educational projects, to align work internally and to improve their internal functioning. This organization therefore faced a major challenge: how to communicate with their Board about why growth wouldn't be realized right away, while still telling an inspiring story.

This nonprofit found a way to mobilize their Board members. Rather than avoiding a discussion about two years of flat budgets, the Executive Director explained exactly how the organization was preparing for growth in the future. She shared their new fundraising tactics. She described how increased coordination among staff groups would leading to higher organizational effectiveness.  She worked with her staff to develop a balanced scorecard for the organization, and committed to sharing the results regularly with the Board. And, she asked her Board to help realize the growth by forming committees around a new set of products; reaching out to bring their friends to events; and helping to find new trustees with expertise in needed areas.

As a result, Board members were galvanized and excited. Rather than being disappointed that growth would wait for several years, they were inspired to help realize future success. They understood how they could contribute, and could see clear links between the organization’s plans and the outcomes predicted.

What is the Right Organizational Structure for Us?

Org chart 24Mar14-001
Org chart 24Mar14-001

Over the years, I have worked with Chief Executives seeking to get their organization's structure right. They have grappled with questions such as: Should we have a COO to oversee operations? Do we need Regional Directors to run areas of the country? What control should the national office have over local offices? To whom should the Development Director report? One way to answer such questions is to use objective criteria. For instance, a span of control greater than 6 or 7 is a stretch. Or, work conducted by senior people should be delegated down to those more junior wherever possible.

However, objective criteria alone cannot specify an organization's structure. There is the human factor to consider -- we all come with our idiosyncrasies. Take the case of a brilliant Program Director who is expecting a promotion to the COO position, but isn't strong in management and delegation skills. Moving someone else into the COO role could cause the Program Director to leave, while the promotion might cause him to flounder. A third option of assigning an excellent Project Manager to work with the Program Director in his new role could lead to success. Consideration of human factors -- the specific capabilities of the people involved -- leads to an improved solution.

An organizational structure solution may also be temporal -- its value having a shelf life. Because a given structure tends to optimize for some factors while attenuating others, using one structure for too long may cause problems to arise. To address this, organizations may alternate between different structural approaches. For instance, in a national organization with affiliates and a central office, a period of tighter central-office control aimed at reining in quality infractions may be followed by a more laissez-faire approach from the central office to stimulate local innovation. Organizational structures may oscillate over five-to-ten-year periods, first optimizing for one thing, then another. 

Finally, it is useful to remember that a structural solution can only go so far in solving an organization's problems.  People may need to be replaced, or training may be in order. Conversely, when an organization's staff is excellent, one of several different organizational structures may work just fine.

Don't Fundraise for Your Means, Fundraise for Your Ends

Money stars
Money stars

Would you donate money to help improve the skills of a teacher? Or, would you be more motivated to donate so the children in that teacher's classroom would get a better education, and would be more likely to stay in school?

Would you donate money to help a scientist track the pounds of carbon released into the atmosphere? Or, would you be more motivated to donate so that better carbon emission data from that scientist would influence public policy leading to reduced carbon emissions, and thus slow global warming?

Glynwood Center, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable land use was raising money for a program that brought  together land developers, town officials and land owners to decide on the best use of open space. When the organization asked donors to "Help us bring people together to decide on the best use of open farmland," funding support was meager. When Glynwood Center changed its message to "Help us save farmland," their funding increased dramatically.

Habitat for Humanity in Wilmington Delaware would report the number of homes built each year to its funders. When  the organization added information about the reduction in crime rates and increased employment due to their new homes, funders were more interested in providing support.

Tell your donors about the ends you are furthering -- the benefits to individuals, to society or the environment. The dollars are more likely to roll in.

Is My Organization Creating Benefit? Four types of rationale

City_Harvest_Truck
City_Harvest_Truck

I expect it is important for you to know if your organization is creating social benefit. I think about this a lot, both with the clients we serve, and for our consulting firm. Donors, funders, constituents, and employees also want to know.

Here are four different types of rationale to ascertain the benefit created by an organization. While a higher level of proof may be more desirable, it is not feasible to fully prove benefit for all activities. Thus, all four rationale can be acceptable tools to inform leaders and decision-makers.

  1. An observable, causal relationship - When City Harvest collected 46 million pounds of food from the food industry and distributed them to hungry people, there was an observable, causal relationship: hungry people have been fed. City Harvest can declare the benefit it achieves based on such numbers.
  2. Evidence-based research indicating a causal relationship - The Parent Child Home Program conducted longitudinal research showing that children who had been through their program graduated from high school at higher rates than control groups. This demonstrated a high likelihood that other children going through the program would have their chance of graduating from high school  increased. The Parent Child Home Program can use this longitudinal research as convincing evidence of its benefits.
  3. A theory of change - When Garrison Institute brings together environmentalists, industrialists and government officials and uses meditation to help them find new solutions to environmental issues, Garrison Institute believes that this will help stem environmental degradation. Because this result is difficult to measure given the vast array of factors impacting the environment, Garrison Institute relies on its theory of change to guide its choices and verify the value of this work.
  4. A personal desire - Ethel Donaghue established the Donaghue Foundation with a vision of "continual improvement in people’s health as a result of research being converted to practical benefit." In doing so, she made a choice about where to focus her resources, based on a personal desire. Given that Ethel Donaghue passed away in 1989 leaving her foundation as a permanent legacy, at this point no proof is needed to determine if Ethel's vision is where the foundation should invest.

Ten Ways to Change a System

Network diagram v2
Network diagram v2

This morning, my husband and I hunkered down on the squat wooden chairs in our son’s first grade classroom and had a conference with his new teacher. From our first interactions it was clear she has a keen intelligence and a gentle bearing, and she has me reflecting on my own extraordinary teachers, from childhood to today. Inevitably, I think of Dana Meadows, a scientist, writer, and systems thinker who was a professor of mine in college and who fundamentally shaped my life path. Dana was a brilliant scientist who built computer models to generate insight into how complex systems function – and who fearlessly brought her heart as well as her brain to the undertaking. She was a pioneer in the field of system dynamics, yet she took the time to invite my whole class to her house to watch the movie Gandhi and snack on carrots from her garden.

Since blogs these days seem to be replete with top ten lists, here is one from Dana:

"Places to Intervene in a System” (in increasing order of effectiveness) 10. Constants, parameters, numbers. (such as subsidies, taxes, standards) 9. Material stocks and flows 8. Regulating negative feedback loops 7. Driving positive feedback loops. 6. Information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information). 5. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints). 4. The power of to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure. 3. The goals of the system. 2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structures, rules, delays, parameters - arise 1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

To decode much of this, you will want to her full article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. But for those among you on the hunt for magic buttons to get change fast, be forewarned. These are the final lines of the article:

“Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

Be rigorous, be humble, and let go strategically. These are lessons from an exceptional teacher that I expect to be learning for some time to come.

Good Money or Bad?

I have been thinking about my work helping organizations resolve issues of revenue, funding and sustainability, a perennial issue among nonprofits. To support its mission sustainably, an organization’s impulse is often to “get funding from whoever will give it.” This reminds me of a theory developed by Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School, which asserts that good money comes from funding sources that are impatient for profit, and patient for growth, while bad money comes from sources impatient for growth, yet patient for profit. In business, profit can be an indication that a company provides value and its strategy is on target, suggesting a solid basis for growth. If a business scales before proving that its model will make money, it risks scaling a model that is not viable long-term. When a business accepts bad money, its decisions can be inordinately influenced by the funder, causing the business to scale rapidly before vetting the soundness of its model.

Nonprofits face similar pressures, and in many cases are more vulnerable to accepting funding from any willing provider. Additionally, due to many nonprofits’ shoestring budgets, they may lack the wherewithal to push back on funder influence. To avoid this pitfall, organizations would do well to distinguish between good money and bad before accepting funding. Similar to a business, it is often beneficial for a nonprofit organization to be clear about the value it provides and to whom – proof that its model works – before attempting to scale. Otherwise, the organization may not survive for the long-term.

I recently worked with an organization hoping to scale significantly in coming years.  I was impressed by this organization’s Board members who, when facing a substantial funding opportunity focused on growth, thought hard to determine if they had sufficient proof for the viability of the organization's model to be comfortable with scaling.

Given that a concrete predictor of viability is often hard to come by in the nonprofit sector, it is important that organizations accept major funding from those committed to proving the organization's strategic viability before investing in its growth. This in turn will help organizations avoid a potential boom and bust cycle created by focusing inordinately on growth.

Social Media: More Shallow or More Deep?

There is a book you should read: Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. It turned my thinking around. For me it clarified how social media and web communities are becoming an increasingly important way to build meaningful business relationships.

I have heard critics say that social media is downgrading our interactions into large quantities of relationship snippets. However, I find myself observing that a whole new order of social interaction is emerging, and we all are in the process of learning it.

When Brogan and Smith urge us to be kind, humble, on time, and helpful in our web interactions, it becomes an important admonishment as I rush through my web communications and emails. A little more care in my communications often leads to heartfelt interchange. In fact, I find web technology allows us to connect in genuine and helpful ways with a greater span of interaction than ever before. Used well, we will all be emotionally and spiritually richer for it.

What do you think? Leave us a comment.