A riddle about 5 frogs – updated

July 11, 2014

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:31 pm

About 15 months ago I created a blog entry: 5 frogs sitting on a log. 

Here’s an updated version.

The riddle:

Five frogs are sitting on a log.  One decides to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

The answer is five.  Deciding to jump off is not the same as jumping off, so all five are still on the log.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One gets training on how to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

Five, of course.  Being trained on somethings is no guarantee of action.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One decides he’s a lily pad frog and not a tree frog, so he’ll jump off and onto a nearby lily pad.  He recently was trained on effective jumping.   He’ll jump at sundown.  He knows he’ll have been effective if he winds up on the lily pad.

In short, he knows who he is, where he wants to get to, how he’ll get there, and by when.

How many frogs are sitting on the log?

Of course, the answer is still 5.  But I’d venture to bet that the odds of it soon being four are very high indeed.

Although the parallels to nonprofit work are clear, I’ll hit you in the face with it:  An organizational strategic plan should answer who the organization is, where it wants to go, how it will get there, and how it will know if it’s successful.  In strategic planning terms, this is usually a combination of mission/vision, goals, strategies, and a timeline.

The best written strategic plan, even when combined with training, are no substitute for taking action.

But those who are trained and plan are far more likely to take action (and take it effectively) than those who are not.

 

 

 

Guest blog: Grantwriting as a Team-building exercise

May 19, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Guest blog by Sami Fournier of Element Exercise.

Faced with the prospect of submitting a grant proposal, consider what a great opportunity you have before you. Beyond being a challenge and a bit of a chore, the grant writing process can define your organization’s work in a way that also improves the leadership of your team.

A looming grant deadline can be a team-building experience.

Let’s take the example of applying to a foundation for a general support grant.

Your first instinct as Executive Director might be to sequester yourself in your office and just write it.

But consider this alternative possibility:  Get your team together (on a rational, roomy timeline, if possible) and build an outline using the funder’s guidelines and requirements. Suppose you start with something like this:

  • Intro
  • History and Background
  • Statement of problem and need
  • Goals and objectives
  • Solution to the problem
  • Budget
  • Timelines
  • Applicant qualifications
  • Evaluation
  • Organizational Sustainability

Carve out assignments for your team members, knowing that each will review and edit and feed into the main narrative as well.

Whomever is drafting the narrative is not working in a vacuum. That person is hopefully starting from the organization’s strategic plan and building on the organization’s mission and goals.

The main job of the narrative writer is to organize and delve into the details of the how and each step along the path to the goals. The proposal should describe clear goals, activities and tasks you will do toward each goal, the target audience, and the intended impact. Be honest and direct about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and make it clear how you will evaluate the success of your efforts.

Now, back to your team.  Perhaps you had a lead and some other folks (board? staff?) assisting with various sections, or perhaps it was a set of reviewers providing input. No matter how you organized yourselves, the process helped each team member feel pride of ownership, and the end product gave them more guidance in their work.

That’s how you got the multiplier effect of improving and developing staff as they work through drafting and presenting your organization’s proposal to a funder. Throughout, you can be making process improvements and tweaks, and finding and developing leadership qualities in each staffer.

By this time, you have a proposal that can be submitted as a centerpiece of your group’s work. It describes a problem, but puts much more emphasis on your approach to solutions and their execution. In the process, you came away with a tighter team, and more direction and sense of purpose. The support you got from the funder went well beyond the financial benefit. You arrived with stronger leaders and greater skill than ever to go forward. No matter what, make sure to tell the funder how much you grew in the process.

Sami Fournier has a Bend, Oregon-based consulting company called “Element Exercise,” which sounds like a personal training outfit, but actually specializes in grant writing in the field of alternative transportation.  She formerly directed the League of American Bicyclists’ Education programs.   Sami can be reached at elementexercise@gmail.com.   http://www.Elementexercise.com

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Learning to let things go “wrong.”

April 29, 2014

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 5:11 pm

One of the trickier challenges facing a nonprofit Executive Director with supervisory responsibilities is leaning to let things go “wrong.”

If you are to empower your staff to have areas of responsibilities and for them to flex their own leadership, they must be allowed to make mistakes. That means giving them authority to make some decisions without prior authorization.

After the decision with which you disagree, usually that means just accepting it and moving on. Sometimes, the situation may be repeated, so you’ll want to discuss the decision and find out what the staff person being supervised was thinking. This should be done by asking questions designed to understand their thinking rather than starting with: “that was a mistake.”

Even if they come to you for advice, sometimes the right answer is: “here’s my initial instinct, but I haven’t thought about it much and its your area of responsibility, so the call is yours.”

The benefit of this approach isn’t just that it gives junior staff a positive work environment in which they’ll develop more leadership skills. And it isn’t just that highly competent staff are less likely to leave your organization if they are given responsibility.

The benefit of this approach is also about how much time the Executive Director can put into their other duties.  If the Executive Director is weighing in on matters that are really the province of someone else on staff, that means the Executive Director is taking time away from their core responsibilities.  Every minute debating some minor potential “mistake” is a minute taken away from fundraising and other core Executive Director job duties.

Of course, sometimes you do need to intervene — on mistakes that would be serious. And serious is a subjective term.

But all in all, I’ve experienced more examples of Executive Directors who over-manage to ensure everything is perfect than the opposite problem of just letting everything slide.   Bottom line: Executive Directors need to learn to let things go “wrong.”

Have you sharpened your axe lately?

March 27, 2014

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:49 pm

A friend was recently describing to me a challenge he faced as a new board member of a relatively healthy organization, but one that seemed to have a frenetic culture.

He said the situation reminded him of an allegory a colleague once told him and I liked the story so much I’m repeating it here.  (If anyone knows the source of this allegory, please let me know).

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman who made his living cutting logs into firewood.  People kept coming to him requesting his work, so he got very busy.  He complained to his neighbor about how busy he was.

The next day, when he had a lot of wood to cut, the neighbor came by to observe his work and asked him why he didn’t stop to sharpen his axe. 

The woodsman replied: “Can’t you see I’m too busy to sharpen my axe?”

Of course, the moral of the story is that the woodsman would actually cut more wood in less time with a sharper axe.

This lesson applies to organizations and not just individuals.

I’ve known many nonprofit organizations with a culture of “getting it done” that are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff to do” so they never take the time to “sharpen their axe.”

In the organizational context, sharpening the axe can mean many things:

  • Professional development/training for staff and/or the board.
  • Strategic or other long-term or short-term planning
  • Team-building exercises/retreats

So organizational leaders out there as you plot the year ahead, don’t forget to build in multiple ways in which you’re sharpening the axe and not just swinging it.

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Invest in professional development

December 6, 2013

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 10:54 am

A recent Huffington Post blog article focused on the importance of the nonprofit sector investing in professional development. As a whole, the sector has a poor track record in training its employees on effective leadership.  That needs to change.

What I particularly liked about this blog post is it didn’t stop there. Rather, it included some practical tips for how nonprofit employees can take some steps on their own to improve their leaderhip/management skills.

I won’t repeat their recommendations — best for you to read it for yourself.

Outcomes Schmoutcomes

October 3, 2013

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 4:20 pm

I am a big believer in nonprofit organizations measuring the outcomes they achieve.

It’s an essential tool for any staff/board to know they’re having the impact desired over time.

And if not, to adjust their strategy.

I also understand quite a few foundations are looking at demonstrated outcomes as part of their grant criteria.

However, I recently had the experience of having a nonprofit Executive Director tell me (and separately tell one of their board members) that their biggest challenge with major donor fundraising is they haven’t measured outcomes, so they can’t go make the case effectively to potential donors.

To that I say “outcomes schmoutcomes.”

In my 13 years of directly raising major donor money for a not-too-dissimilar organization, I can count on one hand the number of major donors for whom documented outcomes was a big deal.

This particular organization has a great brand, lots of long-term donors in the right age and income bracket to give, and lots of passion.

For donors giving at the $500, $1,000, and $2,500 levels — which is where this organization is focused — the key factors impacting a major donation are: do they share a passion for the mission, do they feel personally connected to the person asking, do they feel the organization is generally competent, and do they feel a sense of urgency that the donation is needed now, not some far off time in the future.  Emotion, not reason, is the dominant force in these donations.

Most likely, if the organization were to start talking with potential major donors with a focus on “outcomes,” eyes would glaze over and major donor meetings would be even LESS successful.

If the organization is not achieving the success it should with major donors, almost certainly there is something else askew.

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“I was waiting for . . .” is not a valid excuse

July 24, 2013

Filed under: Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 4:58 pm

Pet peeve of mine: Using “I was waiting for” as an excuse.

Too often somebody who’s not meeting a deadline responds that they’re failing because: “I was waiting for John Doe to do X first.”

Sometimes the precondition is totally legitimate.   They really needed John Doe to do X before they could do what they promised me.

But then too often the following exchange happens:

Me: “Why isn’t John Doe doing X.”

Them: “I emailed asking him to do X and I didn’t hear back.”

Me: “Did you pick up the phone and call John to confirm he got the email to make sure it’s getting done?”

Them: “No.”

Me: “When it was clear John wasn’t doing X by the time you needed X done, did you make any further effort beyond email to get X done by them or figure out another path forward?”

Them: “No.”

 

 

Hire for things other than just existing skills

April 12, 2013

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:53 pm

One of my pet peeves when talking to those doing hiring for nonprofit organizations is an overemphasis on finding people with the right existing skills.

A recent article suggests the same problem exists in the for-profit world.  In 5 Keys to Recruiting the Best of the Best, Langley Steinert writes about best hiring practices from the perspective of the high-tech world.

Steinert’s second point hit home for me:

“Companies often put too much emphasis on finding employees with “relevant experience.” Your top performers will end up being smart, resourceful, and innovative–three elements that have nothing to do with prior experience.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Time after time in my own work, both as an Executive Director, as a board member, and as a consultant, I’ve found that the best leaders are those who are adept at thinking strategically, motivating those around them, and are driven to succeed.

These are, of course, harder to evaluate in a traditional hiring practice — by looking at resumes and cover letters.

But it’s worth taking the time to figure out who will most thrive in a role.

Once, when hiring somebody to lead Oregon LCV’s political program, I had the two finalists spend an hour reviewing a scenario and then writing a memo with advice on how to spend political resources.

One of them emerged from the office where he had been working and said “that was hard.”  When the other emerged on the day of his final interview, he said, “that was fun.”

It  wasn’t my only clue, but it was  big final clue that led me to hire the one who thought puzzling through political challenges was “fun.”   And time proved it to be the correct hire.

So don’t be afraid when hiring to be creative in how you evaluate candidates.

A fascinating video about motivation

November 20, 2012

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 5:39 pm

The question I keep asking myself after repeatedly re-watching this video is: what are the implications for nonprofit organizations?

Some implications are fairly straightforward:

For example, with very few exceptions, nonprofits tend to eschew the use of financial performance bonuses as a means to spur better future results. The video suggests nonprofits are right to avoid financial bonuses.

Also, nonprofits have an inherent advantage over for-profit entities, in that their “purpose” is hard-wired into their reason for existence, unlike the “purpose” examples Pink cites from the for-profit world.

But how about mastery and autonomy? I think one of the deeper meanings of the video is that nonprofits can’t simply play the “purpose” trump card as a way to motivate volunteers and staff, if there is no effort to take into account the other two motivators.

If purpose, mastery, and autonomy are three legs of a stool, the nonprofit can’t survive on just one leg.

Another way of putting it is: if you strip away autonomy and mastery as a way to motivate your nonprofit team, what will result?

A nonprofit I’ve known for some time recently changed its decision-making structure to remove a great deal of authority (e.g. autonomy) from volunteers, even as the nonprofit continues to tout volunteers as a critical part of its strategy. Over time, what will that mean for the nonprofit’s ability to attract high quality volunteers? My prediction (which hasn’t yet had time to be born out) is that it will have a significant negative impact.

Aside from giving decision-making control to volunteers, are there other ways to meet their needs for autonomy and mastery?

What about employees? Are there lessons for how to engage them beyond the usual generalities about not micromanaging them?

Your feedback is encouraged.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

August 20, 2012

Filed under: Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:44 pm

I recently reviewed The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

The book is part fable and part logical argument about a series of dysfunctions that Lencioni believes lay at the heart of teamwork challenges facing many organizations.

For the full review, read onward.

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