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.

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.

Get it done

July 3, 2012

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:42 pm

I sometimes feel like there’s two types of people, those who talk about doing things and those that do them.

Talkers tend to talk a good game at first, but then remain remarkably passive in actual implementation of their ideas.  Often, when you ask them why something hasn’t happened, they revert to the passive voice.

“My board wasn’t engaged.”

“The donors weren’t enthusiastic.”

When you poke behind the surface, it’s often because the passive voiced talker sat on their buns expecting everyone but them to get it done.

I remember talking to one Executive Director who complained about their board’s lack of engagement and quizzing him about it.

Me: “Have you sat down with your board members one-on-one to talk about what they want to get out of service and to get to know then?”

ED: “No.”

Me: “Why not?”

ED: “I don’t know.  I guess I was waiting for my board members to call me”

Likewise, I recently engaged with a fundraiser who was great at building relationships, but it was never the right time to make an ask.

Fundraiser: “I spent the last year building relationships with these people.  If I ask them for money this year, they’ll think fundraising is all it was about.”

Now I’m all for relationship-based fundraising — indeed, it’s at the heart of what I train.  But you build the relationships as you ask for money, not as an alternative to asking for money.

In the end, the people who have get it done mentalities tend to do a bit less talking, and more time setting up clear plans, clear objectives, and then engage actively to get things done.

So one question I’ve come to ponder is this: how do you identify the talkers versus the “get it done” mentality in the hiring process?  Let me know if you have any ideas.

Nonprofit leadership traits

June 29, 2012

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — Tags: , , — jonathanpoisner @ 1:55 pm

In doing their hiring processes, most boards focus on what skills they want their Executive Director to have.

In my experience, it’s equally if not more important to identify the traits or personality characteristics you want.  Skills can be learned.  Personalities evolve infrequently.

So what traits/characteristics would I look for first?  Admittedly, this may vary based on the size and needs of the organization.  But this list is a pretty good starting place that any board could adapt to fit their own situation.

1. Self-Starter.  Good Executive Directors do not need somebody else to motivate them.  They are driven to be successful.

2. Passion for the mission.  Some people are highly professional, but it’s exceedingly rare that an Executive Director will excel if they do not feel a strong passion for the organization’s mission.  This will impact everything from their own motivation, to understanding the motivation of their board, donors, and volunteers.

3. Ability to motivate others.  No thriving organization relies upon the Executive Director to carry the load him or herself.  Rather, thriving organizations involve a team of staff, board, and other volunteers working together.  The key to all that is an Executive Director who values teamwork, is excited by watching their co-workers develop professionally, and who puts the team first.

4. See the forest and the trees.  An Executive Director must be able to view the world at two levels.  They must see the big picture (e.g. the forest) and think strategically about how to get the organization from here to there.  But they must also see the trees, being able to wade into the details of budgets, task lists, databases, and other nuts and bolts.   Very large organizations may be able to get by with a visionary Executive Director who has an assistant and is also paired with a Chief Operating Officer who handles the “trees.”  But for smaller or medium sized groups, having this dual personality is critical.

5. They have a service mentality.   They’ve probably volunteered for other nonprofits.  The questions they ask should suggest they are mostly concerned about how they can make a difference through the organization.  If a prospective Executive Director mostly asks about compensation or demands more than the organization can afford, this should be  a red flag.

6.  They are very comfortable and competent fundraisers, particularly with regard to individual major gifts.   Some may think this belongs in the list of “skills” instead of “traits.”  Perhaps it’s so important it belongs in both lists.  Regardless, the knack for being fearless in both forming relationships with prospective donors and a willingness to ask may be as much a personality trait as it is a skill.

7. Deal well with conflict.  All organizations have setbacks.  Thriving organizations handle them well, learn from them, and move on.  Since setbacks often involve conflict, Executive Directors need to be calm under fire, yet not be averse to conflict when it’s sometimes the right choice.

8. Doggedness.  They don’t let the little things get them down, but keep plugging away.  It is rare that a nonprofit thrives overnight.  Rather, it’s the accumulation of smaller victories over time that gets the boulder rolling downhill.  That means an Executive Director who works hard day in and out and not just at the obviously critical times.

What do you see as missing from this list?

Look for a future blog entry on how boards can use the hiring process to identify which candidates have these traits?

Should you hire for skill or spirit?

November 11, 2011

Filed under: Human Resources — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 10:15 am

I’m not sure I’d use the term “spirit,” but I definitely think too many nonprofits hire based solely on who has the experience/skill and not enough attention is paid to passion, authenticity, teamwork, and natural aptitude. Those can’t be taught.

Here’s an author who agrees with me, from the for-profit business perspective.


When do you hire a Development Director?

July 26, 2011

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 10:43 am

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the transition of organization from all-volunteer, to their first Executive Director, to the build out of additional staff.

One of the recurring questions that comes up — when do you add a Development Director to the staff?

I know of several organizations that hired a Development Director as the first or second hire after the Executive Director, and the results have been mixed.

So here are some of the questions I’d ask myself before hiring a first Development Director:

Do I have a clear fundraising plan so they can hit the ground running?  If not, they could wind up spinning their wheels at the beginning or worse, going off in pursuit of the wrong strategies.

Do I already have more true organizational prospects to solicit than I have time to solicit?  If the biggest barrier you have to major donor fundraising is lack of prospects, how does adding a Development Director help?

If I expect the development director to manage low dollar fundraising, have I made a realistic assessment of the time that will take and the net revenue it will generate, taking their staff costs into account in determining net revenue.  Low dollar programs are very valuable over the long-run, but often cost money in the short run to develop them, particularly when staff time is included in the evaluation.

If they will be taking over management of a major fundraising event or series of events that I have previously managed, how much time will that free up for me to raise money through other methods?   What will those methods be?    And am I taking into account the time I will need to supervise the Development Director?

Can I find somebody who’s a true self-starter and who starts out with relationships they can tap into for fundraising, so that they’re bringing new donors to the table with less time necessary for my management of them?

If they do start bringing in more donations, do I have the administrative systems and staffing in place to handle a larger flow of donations (eg. banking, databasing, thank you’s, cultivation, etc.).  Or will the development director have to manage all of that?  Have I taken that into account when guesstimating how much money they will be able to raise?

Have I set aside in savings up to 3 months of their salary so that they can ramp up their work methodically for the long-run, rather than forcing them to cut corners up-front trying to raise money at all costs.  I’ve seen Development Directors start who’ve come in with a burst of frantic energy tapping a small number of their own relationships with some success, but having done nothing to lay the groundwork for future fundraising, so it sputters to a halt.

From the above, one would think I’m negative on hiring Development Directors.  To the contrary, for a thriving organization, you will at some point reach the stage where the Executive Director must have somebody else whose full-time job is thinking about and executing development plans.

But adding that staff prematurely is as likely to set you back organizationally as move you forward.  So think it through!

What do you think?  Are there additional considerations that I haven’t mentioned?

Some questions to ask before you hire staff?

March 17, 2011

Filed under: Human Resources — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 1:56 pm

My last post was about reasons to hire a consultant.

I had a conversation yesterday with the Executive Director of a small nonprofit wrestling with the question of whether to hire another permanent staff person and, if so, how much pre-planning do you do for the position.

Here are a few of the questions I asked her to consider.

Do you have enough current cash flow and expected cash flow to ensure that you can keep this position employed for at least 1 year?  If not, think twice — unless it’s a fundraising position where you can then readjust upwards your expected cash flow . . .

Is it clear under your organizational strategic plan (or its equivalent) what set of goals/programs this person would work on?  This is more than: can you write a job description?  It’s: could you craft this person’s work plan and show how those responsibilities match up against your strategic plan?

Do you ever hire if you can’t do this?  Maybe if you know you need to work in an area, but lack expertise on staff to lay out a reasonable work plan and goals.  I expect some organizations hiring new staff to work on social media/web are necessarily dependent on hiring people with expertise to help them develop reasonable work plans.

Another question I asked:  Do you have the institutional systems in place to handle a larger staff (office space, other systems)?

Still another question:  is there right person available?  Getting the right people on staff is probably your most important challenge as a nonprofit manager, so if you run a hiring process and nobody strong emerges, you are almost always better off not hiring a mediocre candidate.

What’s your first hire?

January 27, 2011

Filed under: Human Resources — jonathanpoisner @ 8:53 am

A few days ago I was chatting over coffee with a new acquaintance who serves as Executive Director of a small, 3 year old organization.  As of now, the staff consists of her and 2 staff people, both of whom work half-time on programs.

We had an interesting conversation about what the appropriate hiring sequence is for smaller organizations that want to grow.  In her case, the decision to hire program staff was driven by program-specific grants.

But if grant restrictions don’t exist, what’s the next hire?

Some organizations hire staff to do mission-driven program work.  The choice here is to free up the Executive Director from program work as much as possible, so that they can focus on fundraising and building organizational administrative systems.

Some organizations hire development staff.   Under this choice, the goal is to augment the organizations fundraising as rapidly as possible, freeing up the Executive Director to do higher level relationship building, organizational systems, and programs.

My own recommendation is a third path — a part-time administrative assistant.  Maybe you call this person Office Manager.  Regardless, the goal of this position is to identify 10-20 hours of work that implement basic organizational systems, removing from the Executive Directors plate the least complex tasks that can be done by somebody who’s paid far less and is happy without significant work stress in their life.

With the time freed up for them to do extra fundraising, a competent Executive Director should be able to raise far more than the cost of the new staff person.

Let’s do the math.  If you hire an administrative assistant at $10-15/hour for 15 hours per week, taking into account overhead and taxes, that roughly means $200-$300 per week in extra expense for the organization.   This should free up an absolute minimum of 5 hours per week for the Executive Director to do more fundraising.  The question is: can the Executive Director raise an extra $40-$60 on average for every extra hour they fundraise?

My answer is, if they can’t, then they shouldn’t be your Executive Director.   A good Executive Director should be able to raise far more than that.    That puts the organization in an even stronger position to then hire a subsequent staff person — whether for program or development — or for some combination of program and development.

Of course, the danger of this approach is some Executive Directors reach this point and redirect their extra time into program instead of into fundraising.

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