Pros and Cons of ED Transition Processes

September 25, 2017

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:42 pm

I was recently asked to write up some pros and cons for an organization when it comes to different hiring approaches to take for an upcoming Executive Director transition.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.  Interested in additional feedback.

In my mind, there really are three scenarios for any organization:

Scenario 1: Hire from within without an open search.

Scenario 2: Hold an open search with internal candidates welcome to apply.

Scenario 3:  Hire an Interim Executive Director for a 6-12 month period and then figure out whether to move to Scenario 1 or 2.

Scenario 1 (hire from within) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Maximizes odds the new E.D. will be a good cultural fit for the organization.
  • Minimizes risk that a new E.D. will try to take the organization in a sharply new direction
  • Minimizes the amount of training/on-boarding likely needed.

Cons

  • If there are two strong internal candidates, it often leads to the departure of the one not chosen.
  • Can lead to insular thinking in the absence of new strategic-level leadership.
  • Focus on current organizational culture can limit the ability to achieve a more diverse workplace.

Scenario 2 (open search) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Has the potential to bring in someone with significant new relationships with funders, partners, and potential board member
  • The search itself can increase the profile of the organization.

Cons

  • Hiring of an external candidate can be discouraging to and even lead to the departure of a strong internal candidate who isn’t selected.
  • An external candidate who was strong on paper may prove to be a poor fit in practice.

Scenario 3 (Interim ED) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Someone with expertise in the Interim role can help identify organizational challenges with a fresh perspective and advise the board on the best path forward and give a candid assessment of whether there is, in fact, an internal candidate who’s ready.

Cons

  • Additional period of uncertainty for funders/allies.
  • Harder for the outgoing Executive Director to “train” their successor.

Additional Notes

  1. Of course, for some organizations Scenario 1 isn’t even a consideration if there’s obviously no internal candidate potentially available.
  2. Scenario 3 would normally be used when the departure of an outgoing E.D. is abrupt, without time prepare.  But occasionally I’ve seen it selected when the board desires significant change and needs time and expertise to figure out what change is needed.
  3. Regardless of the Scenario, it’s advisable to have a 1-2 month overlap between the outgoing E.D. leaving that role and the new E.D. taking the helm. During this period, the E.D. plays a training and special projects role.

Are there additional pros and cons that should also be considered of the various approaches?

Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory

October 31, 2016

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

Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory of Volunteer Responsibility

Most organizations with whom I consult make some effort to involve volunteers.

Some are wildly successful.  Others are not.

There are many factors that lead some to be more successful than others, but two stand out that I want to explore in this article.

First, most successful programs are crystal clear about why they’re mobilizing volunteers and they design their program accordingly.

Second, most successful programs find the right balance between asking volunteers to take responsibility and giving them power.   That gives rise to my Spiderman theory of volunteer management.

Why Volunteers?

Before we can get to Spiderman, it’s important to first ask the question: why volunteers?  There are dozens of potential answers, but in general they tend to fit into three big categories:

  1. Getting more stuff done
  2. Building power
  3. Generating leaders

Getting more stuff done

If I’m a staff person for an organization, I can spend an hour doing an activity.  1 person x 1 hour = 1 unit of activity.

If instead I spend that hour recruiting volunteers and find one volunteer who’ll show up and do the activity for 3 hours, then I’ve magically transformed my 1 hour into 3 units of activity.

Of course, there are many assumptions here, such as the assumption of 1 hour = 1 volunteer recruited, that the volunteer can do the activity as effectively as the staff person, that it won’t take even more staff time overseeing the volunteer, etc.

Each organization needs to unpack the various activities for which it’s looking to use volunteers and run the math (using the best estimates you can for your rate of volunteer recruitment, how much training and oversight time will be needed).  Then it can answer the question:  will a volunteer recruitment focus lead to more bang for the buck than just doing the work without volunteers.

Building power

Organizations also use volunteers to build power.  To the extent our organizations are trying to impact public decision-making, perceptions of political power matter.  And in general, organizations who appear to be backed by lots of people have more power than those backed by fewer.  And volunteer activity can be harnessed to be visible to public officials.

Beyond this general maxim, it’s also the case that public officials are more likely to respond to the pleas of their constituents than they are to paid staff for organizations.  Of course, that assumes the constituents are on-message, well trained, etc.  And not all constituents are equal – as much as we wish they were.  Some constituents will be especially appealing to some elected officials based on their role in the community (e.g. business owner, clergy, neighborhood leader, etc.).

Generating leaders

Beyond building power and getting more stuff done, we also use volunteers to generate leaders.

Within our organizations, we’re always looking for the next set of board members and those willing to take on higher-level responsibilities.  If we don’t involve volunteers at the more basic level, it will be harder to identify organizational leaders or take potential board members out for a “test drive” in some other role.

In addition, to the extent our organizations are part of movements, we are hoping to generate movement-leadership as well.   In training a volunteer, they may wind up taking on leadership for an allied organization.  At OLCV, I always took pride when our volunteers wound up serving as staff for other organizations after going through our training program.  Since our organization’s vision was explicitly to serve a network/movement, we saw that as a clearly positive outcome.

Matching your volunteer program to your primary reason

It would be easy to just say: “we want all three of the above” as the reason for a volunteer program.  But in my experience, especially when organizations are first really investing in their volunteer program, it’s important to decide their primary objective among the three, and then design their program accordingly.

  • A getting more stuff done emphasis may lead to a focus on clear, simple-to-do tasks and urgent campaigns around which to motivate lots of volunteers.
  • A building power emphasis may mean a focus not on the overall number of volunteers, but rather identifying volunteers from key audiences (the constituency being served, influential within the community, etc.).
  • A generating leaders emphasis may lead to a focus on a smaller number of volunteers recruited to take on higher-level tasks with a lot of training and relationship-building baked into the program.

Matching power and responsibility

That gives rise to the second point I want to make about effective volunteer programs – they find the right balance between asking people to take responsibility and giving them power.

That’s where Spiderman comes in.  Spidey’s catchphrase is: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  My volunteer corollary for that is:  “If you want your volunteers to take on real responsibility, you must give them real power.”

Many organizations vest real power in their board and zero power in their other volunteers and then wonder why those other volunteers won’t take on more responsibility.  This becomes particularly challenging if the organization’s plan relies on creating a core group of “mid-level” volunteers who’re there to do more than take on tasks, but less than the obligations of board service.

In my experience, the solution lies in providing zones of authority for these mid-level volunteers.  These are areas where they have responsibility and with it, some power to make decisions – whether on organizational policy or allocation of organizational resources.

This can be scary for some boards because it means these mid-level volunteers can make mistakes.  In my experience, though, as long as appropriate side boards are put in place, giving these mid-level volunteers (working through committees, task forces, work groups, etc.) authority can vastly expand their commitment to the organization – and from it the level of work they take on.

During my time at OLCV, this played out with multiple straight election cycles where our campaigns involved more than 1000 volunteers, heavily fueled by chapter steering committees recruiting their friends and families to volunteer.

Of course, your mileage may vary.  The devil’s in the details.

Each organization needs to find the right balance given their organizational culture, lay of the land, and priorities.  But better to think this through explicitly rather than leave it to chance.

Creating a “Time” Budget

June 20, 2016

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:09 pm

As a consultant, one thing I often observe is that clients routinely have staff who are working far more hours than is sustainable.  Moreover, they often have little idea where their time sinks are that are causing this.

I realized that an exercise I did as Executive Director may be unusual.  I created a “time” budget and not just a monetary budget when planning.

I’m finding as a consultant that this concept is foreign to some of my clients.  Yet, I feel it’s an exercise nearly every Executive Director should use, particularly with small, growing nonprofits.

What do I mean by a time budget?

A time budget identifies all individuals who are scheduled to work in the upcoming year and determines what level of staff time will be required for each of their significant responsibilities.   Just like a monetary budget makes sure that revenue and expenses line up, a time budget makes sure that the time expected to be worked by the employee matches up with their responsibilities.

Why create a time budget?

The simple reason is it’s a necessary step in the process of good fiscal budgeting if your budgeting system allocates staff time into different categories of activities by program or function.

This is something that really should be true.  After all, for most nonprofits staff salaries are the biggest expense, so how do you really know where you’re spending your money strategically unless your accounting system tracks staff time and allocates the cost among programs?

Even if that wasn’t the case, I’d still want a time budget to answer some more general questions:

  • Are we trying to do too much given current staffing?
  • Is anyone on staff being given too much?
  • Does anyone on staff have extra room to take on more responsibility?

So how do you create a time budget?

If:

  1. You already have time sheets where you’ve been tracking time,
  2. Your staff will be exactly the same in the upcoming year,
  3. Your programs and their intensity will be exactly the same in the upcoming year, and
  4. All your major administrative and fundraising activities will be the same in the upcoming year . . .

. . . then you can simply do an analysis of how you “spent” your staff time last year and budget accordingly for the year ahead.

The number of times this is likely to be the case is zero.

So how do you create a true time budget from scratch?

Here’s how I did it when I was an Executive Director.

As budgeting began, I would first identify what the major activities are that would be undertaken by each staff.  This could be programmatic work by program staff, administrative work by admin staff, or fundraising activities.  It would be broken down into the same categories used in fiscal budgeting.

Then, I’d identify how much time I expected each activity to take in hours, rounded to the nearest 10.  (Usually, though, I never had this exercise start with activities that are less than 40 hours (5% of a 2000 hour work year).

Of course, I wouldn’t make up this number.

  • Usually, I’d ask the staff person responsible for the activity to first suggest something and that initial estimate would be reality checked by the person’s supervisor to use their judgment.
  • In other instances, the activity was to be done by someone not yet on staff, so I or someone else was asked to generate the first estimate.
  • In still other instances, a grant or contract already had determined we’d spend a specific amount of staff time on a program.  (Or dollars, which we’d then use to work backwards and determine the staff time).

If following this process, it’s important to avoid leaving out big chunks of time.

  • Most importantly, you have to be sure to include a category for “administration” for each of your staff – to cover everything from filling out expense reports and timesheets, to attending board and staff meetings, to professional development, etc.
  • If you expect some of your staff to supervise others, build in estimates for good supervision.
  • I also usually kept a chunk of 5% of everyone’s time for miscellaneous stuff that will no doubt happen during the year that’s impossible to predict.

Once you’ve done this for everyone, you can then ask the question:  do the number of hours you can reasonably expect them to work mach up with what you need — taking into account vacation time as well.   If someone has too much on their plate, you can ask various questions:

  • Do we lower our expectations for what they will accomplish so we can lower the amount of time a project/program will take?
  • Is there someone else on staff who has some extra time and an appropriate skill-set that can be assigned a piece of the role?
  • Do we have to add staff, either permanent or temporary.
  • Or contractors to carry out some activities previously done by staff.

Breaking it down within the year

Then there’s one more important step:  break it down within the year by reasonable periods, either quarterly or monthly.  It does no good to correctly place 2000 of hours on someone’s plate for the year (50 weeks x 40 hours) if the hours are deeply uneven over the course of the year (e.g. if a development director has a big fundraising event at the same time as some other major fundraising activity is scheduled).  Yes, sometimes in the nonprofit world we have extreme peaks when people work a 60-80 hour week.  But nobody can sustain that long.

Often times the monthly version of the time budget draft led us to shift our planned activities to different times of the year so that work flow would even out.

Other times, it led us to figure out how person A could provide support to person B during a time when person B was overly busy (reducing the burden on person B), with the favor returned in a later month, evening out both of their hours to a reasonable level.

For some, the above process may seem tedious.  Or involved too much estimation.

It’s certainly not perfect.  And in larger organizations, it would probably need to be a series of departmental time budgets rather than one for the organization as a whole.

Yet, despite the imperfections of the process, it’s one I found to be highly useful and would recommend to Executive Directors.

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Preparing for an Executive Director Transition

October 20, 2015

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:37 pm

Often times Executive Director transitions are abrupt, taking place within a 1-2 month period when an E.D. moves onto another professional opportunity.  Rarely, they are even more abrupt after a tragedy or the Executive Director being fired.

However, in many instances an Executive Director is able to give significant advance notice to their board, often as much as 6-12 months.

In those instances, the organization has an chance to make the most of the transition so that it serves as an opportunity as much as a threat.

Below, I list 10 major steps an organization should consider to manage the transition, particularly in the 6 months immediately prior to it.

    1. Make sure that the organization has a current strategic plan. In the absence of a complete strategic plan, the organization should hold a facilitated meeting to ensure the board is aligned with the remaining senior staff regarding the purpose of the organization and major programs for the next 1-2 years.

 

    1. The Executive Director should consciously “transfer” personal relationships with major donors and institutional funders to others within the organization. Depending on the situation this could involve board members or other senior staff.   This could be accomplished by holding meetings (e.g. lunches, coffees, or more formal) with the donors one-by-one or by hosting small gatherings with multiple donors.

 

    1. Communicate early and clearly with allied organizations and funders in advance regarding the transition. In those communications, identify the specific steps the organization will be taking to ensure a successful transition.

 

    1. In public communications, such as newsletters, press releases, the website, etc., tell success stories about other staff and have other staff serve as spokespeople.  The more constituents come to know staff beyond the Executive Director, the less noticeable their absence will be.

 

    1. Have the Executive Director write down organizational stories. These stories could involve the founding of the organization if they were involved in it.  It should definitely involve stories that demonstrate the organization’s success and/or impact.  Depending on the E.D., this may be best done by having someone “interview” the Executive Director and write up the stories as they are told, as opposed to having the E.D. sit at a computer and write.

 

    1. Create an E.D. “Job Manual” that identifies the systems used by the Executive Director. This should cover all the major administrative and fundraising activities of the organization where the E.D. is involved, identifying what major activities need to be conducted weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.  This might also cover major “program” activities if the E.D. plays a substantial role, again broken down by weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.

 

    1. The outgoing E.D. should talk to other senior staff about their own timelines for professional development and discuss if/how to motivate them to stay on with the organization at least at least 6-12 months after the E.D. transition. This conversation should also be an early flag of whether the senior staff intend to apply for the Executive Director position.

 

    1. As soon as feasible, the E.D. and the board’s Finance or Executive Committee should develop a cash flow analysis of where the organization will be financially as of the date the new E.D. should start.  If at all feasible, additional funds should be raised or spending should be curtailed so as to maximize the amount of unrestricted reserve available at the time of transition.  If cash flow is going to be tight, the board should be asked to increase their personal giving in the short run in order to help.

 

    1. If the outgoing E.D. has relationships where it would make sense, use the transition as a message around which to raise extra funds.  Examples of tactics that have been successfully used include an event that “roasts” the outgoing E.D. and the creation of a “Legacy” fund by which donors can make a gift in honor of the outgoing E.D.

 

    1. The board and Executive Director should identify a “Plan B” should the hiring process for a new Executive Director not succeed in finding someone appropriate who says yes. Boards should be enthusiastic about new Executive Directors and  organizations are almost always better off not hiring someone who they believe will be mediocre.   The Plan B could involve an outsider brought on as an Interim E.D. or the temporary assignment of one of the other staff as Interim E.D.

 

Do you have additional suggestions for steps an organization should take when planning for an Executive Director transition?

If so, please comment below.

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Questions from Joan Garry to ask candidates for your fundraising job

June 24, 2015

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources — jonathanpoisner @ 1:00 pm

Joan Garry has some superb questions to ask those interviewing with you for a fundraising job, as well as what types of answers you should hope they provide.

I particularly liked Joan’s questions on their approach to philanthropy and how they would work with a board.

http://www.joangarry.com/recognize-top-fundraiser/

Why you Lead Matters

July 24, 2014

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:43 pm

I recently came across a study published in Harvard Business Review that crystallized some of my own thinking about how to motivate leadership.

The article outlines the results of a study of 10,000 graduates of Westpoint (the U.S. Army officer training college) through their graduation and well into their careers.  The graduates were asked questions to determine what motivates their leadership.  In general, leadership motivations were classified as intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (instrumental).  An example of an intrinsic motivation is “improving people’s lives.”  An example of an extrinsic motivation is “more pay” or greater status from a position of more stature.  Many people demonstrated evidence of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

I was not surprised that those who were intrinsically motivated had proven over time to be more successful leaders than those extrinsically motivated.  I previously posted a great video on this precise subject.

What surprised me about the study was that those who were both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated also proved inferior in leadership success compared to those whose sole motivations are intrinsic.

In the words of the study author:

“Adding external motives didn’t make leaders perform better — additional motivations reduced the selection to top leadership by more than 20%.  Thus, external motivations, even atop strong internal motivations, were leadership poison.”

Personally, I’ve always been wary of organizations that consider using bonuses or other similar rewards as a means of improving employee performance.  This is especially true in cause-related organizations.  It creates a perverse incentive that can change how employees perceive their role.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen an organization go awry in this way.  A few years back, an organization I knew hired an Executive Director who insisted that the pay for his role be increased to match what they had been receiving at the job they were vacating, even though this higher pay would be dramatically more than the organization’s traditional pay scale.  In their words, they didn’t want to be taking a step backwards in pay.  It didn’t surprise me that the E.D. in question flamed out in 18 months.   They were more motivated by extrinsic factors (pay) than intrinsic (the desire to best fulfill the organization’s mission).

What implications does that have for nonprofits?  For those doing hiring, if a candidate says or does something suggesting their personal motivation is extrinsic, I suggest you think long and hard before going down that road.  Focus on candidates where the flame is burning on the inside to accomplish the mission.  Skills can be trained.  The fire inside cannot.

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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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Connecting fiscal management to strategy

May 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:14 am

I recently published a guest article for 501Commons on the importance of building a fiscal management system that connects with strategic decision-making.

The main point: you should track revenues and expenses by categories that provide information useful for strategic decision-making.  That means moving away from an exclusive focus on a “line item” approach that focuses on things like printing, postage, and salaries and also layers in a way of tracking by functional categories that represent your programs.

Check out the full article on 501Commons website and then let me know what you think.

 

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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