Top 5 Things That Fascinated Me At #AFPFC ’16

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>>  This post was written for the first installment of #afpPOV – an irregular viewpoints series for the AFP Greater Austin Chapter  <<

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International Conference is always a treat. Over the last several years, the attendee base has broadened and diversified. This year in Boston, I met fundraisers from all over the US, as well as New Zealand, Columbia, Mexico, England, South Africa and lots of Canadians. It’s incredible to know that our community is so large and that so many people care about ethical, effective and professional fundraising. There has also been a steady and growing drumbeat as we begin to pool our collective wisdom to ask the tough questions about our sector – who are we, who do we need to be, how exactly are we going to change the world?

We had a great contingent from Austin this year. I look forward to hearing what they took away from the conference. Here are a few things that I’m still thinking about:

  1. It defies all the conventional teaching about branding, but I heard more than once, we’ve actually got to learn to let go of our brand. That list of brand standards that we guard so carefully? It may be time to loosen our grip. Accept the fact that you can’t control what your supporters do with your brand, your messages, your images, or your stories. That is a good thing. These assets are no longer something to be controlled at all costs. The sooner we can learn to embrace the interaction and the ownership our supporters have in our cause, the faster we can get real movements going.
  2.  Likewise, to really motivate your supporters, educate them about the cause, not how to fundraise. (eek! I know – stay with me.) It’s about helping individuals get as close to the issue/change/recipient as possible. What are you communicating that gets in the way and just creates static? How can you share more of what you do and help your passionate supporters feel an urgent connection? If you are interested in learning from successful online organizations that fundraise effectively and sustainably, check out: Liberty in North KoreaPencils of Promise, and Surf Rider.
  3. We really really have to blow up our silos. Fundraising can’t be separated from the rest of the organization. And organizations can’t be separated from each other. We will be more effective in making real change when the issue, not the organization or the department, is front and center. Kumi Naidoo @kuminaidoo, former head of Greenpeace and anti-Apartheid activist, gave the keynote on Day 2 and brought this point home. In explaining the urgency around climate change, he argues that the movement really set itself back by framing its work as an ‘environmental issue’ because it affects so many other things. An environmental disaster is a human disaster too.
  4. Sustainability in our sector was also a huge debate across sessions and keynotes. While we want to save the world, we also know that it can’t be done overnight. So do we plan for sustainability or do we sprint toward the solution? Can we do both, given our limited financial capacity, lack of R&D, and the necessity of constant consensus building and reporting?  Kumi Naidoo told a moving story about his friend who died fighting Apartheid. When Kumi told his friend that giving your life was the ultimate dedication to the cause, his friend replied, “No. Ultimate dedication is giving the rest of your life” to making change.
  5. Kofi Annan @kofiannan, former Secretary General of the UN, was the first keynote speaker of the conference and he embodies the case for deliberate activism. (Seriously, just listening to him makes you feel like despite it all, everything’s going to be ok, providing that we get to work and get going.) He quoted a well-known African proverb that seems especially apropos as I come back to my favorite chapter and city:  “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

The Fear Default

The Fear DefaultA Clear Warning

We were sitting in her office at the small conference table set aside for working and for difficult conversations. Like any busy CEO, every light on the desk phone was lit, her cell phone kept buzzing, and her walls were lined with photos of the smiling faces of volunteers, clients, and staff. This well respected and longtime nonprofit leader was taking time to sit with me and offer her heartfelt advice. And she was making a great case.

Those who most need to do succession planning, won’t. They won’t leave gracefully. They won’t leave without a fight. Her raised eyebrow indicated that I knew exactly what she meant. You don’t want to be a part of that, she said. Don’t do this work, was the clear message.

I’ve heard this fear before – even when it’s not spoken so directly. Nonprofit leaders are too competitive, too overworked, too self-important to take transition planning seriously. Their boards are too afraid to have the conversation and too unwilling to put the needs of the mission over their desire to sweep the topic under the rug.

And maybe, for some in our sector, this is the truth. Some leaders will stay until there is no way to leave without burning bridges. Some boards will turn a blind eye to the responsibility of their office. Those nonprofits will likely not recover from their leadership transition. Anyone who’s spent any time in, or paying attention to, our sector can name at least one scandalous ending of a nonprofit, where the real losers are those the organization was supposed to serve.

The best case scenario may be a limping along, then a short-lived replacement, and finally (hopefully) things get back on track. And in the meantime, good people and energetic missions get lost, stunted or forgotten. The public’s trust may be forever altered.

But I’m a crazy dreamer.

I believe that we can do better – I know that we can build organizations that foster abundant leadership and that push us to greater levels of service and to real social change. I believe in partnership, in honoring legacies, and in planning for the future we want to create, instead of just reacting to the one we stumble into one day.

It is more than belief. Clear planning and honest dialogue proves that dynamic organizations can transition smoothly, not simply surviving but recognizing change as an opportunity to thrive, grow and enhance their community position.

We don’t have to accept the fear default. Fear is not the option we choose when we stare down the social problems that we face everyday. It’s not the option we choose when people tell us that  those problems can’t be solved. As a sector, we choose again and again to get messy and do life-changing work.

Let’s keep doing it – strengthening and supporting our leaders now while creating the leaders we’ll need next. That should be our default.

Leadership: But What’s After Air Traffic Control?

One of the unspoken fearsIMG_1671 about succession planning is – what then? What happens when my team is functional, cross-trained and confident in their work? What happens when others hold the vision for the organization with me, when we can all see the flight patterns? 

Executive Directors often find themselves in a similar role to air traffic controllers. Because so much rests on their shoulders, only they can really make the decisions about take-off’s and landings, which planes to ground and who gets permission to move out of line. It’s an exhausting job and without it, most organizations would experience some painful inefficiencies at best or worse, something catastrophic.

A solid succession plan helps alleviate the burden by distributing the responsibility throughout the organization. Staff are cross-trained beyond their day-to-day roles. Board members not only know there is a plan for emergencies but are equipped to face challenges that arise. Leadership staff and board members understand each other’s functions allowing confusion and conflict to give way to team work and creative problem solving.

Sounds great. But what’s the ED’s job in this utopia?

The former air traffic control tower in the developing Mueller neighborhood is a ripe metaphor. It is currently empty and frankly a little sad. No longer functional for its original purpose, boards cover some the windows where the distinctive blue glass is broken. Weeds are growing inside. Ideas have been suggested about what to do with it, but no decision seems to stick. It is the perfect image for the fear mentioned above.

If I’m a leader, and I no longer maintain and monitor the flight patterns for my organization, why am I here?

Step back. Look around.

Today, there is construction all around the tower. No longer surrounded by miles of concrete runway or dilapidated airport structures, homes are going up at a record pace. Families are thriving, playing, learning, and growing. People are becoming neighbors. Birds and lizards are claiming the park land. None of this could have been envisioned by the person so busy up in that tower, staring at the sky, following maps and making lists.

Air traffic control ensures the safety and efficiency of the now. But you are so much more than a tower and a view. As we learn to stop the glorification of busy and focus on what’s important, we become more capable and less burdened leaders. Once a leader stops managing air traffic, there’s a chance to step back and create the vision, right here on the ground.

5 Reasons You Probably Don’t Have a Succession Plan

 

  1. You just aren’t doing it. That slight look of panic and exasperated eye roll don’t count.
  2. Everybody is waiting on someone else to start it. The CEO is waiting on HR. The board is waiting on the CEO. HR is asking questions but no one is answering. Leadership staff are getting a little testy. Committed donors are grumbling.
  3. Ain’t nobody got time for that. We are running a business here, paying salaries and changing the world. We are already working more hours than we should. There’s no time for one. more. plan.
  4. It’s both deceptively easy and so so hard. A quick Google search turns up checklists and templates, a paralyzing number of possibilities. But where do you start? How does it really happen? Who has time to do this??
  5. It hurts. We don’t want to talk about it, especially in front of our staff or our board. As staff and board, we don’t want to appear disloyal or greedy. We may be here precisely because of the person in the leadership role. Endings are hard and bringing it up feels like betrayal or picking a fight.

Organizations understand the need to have a plan, a strong leadership bench, and resources to ensure the future. But we all know that planning can be messy and intimidating.

Planning, if done well, can also offer growth and renewal for everyone on the team. Succession planning fails to get off the ground, not because isn’t important or because organization’s don’t need it. Succession planning is tough.

Working together, we are tougher.

Let’s talk about how I can help you get started or renew your stalled planning process.

What if succession planning were fun?

What if you could look forward to a process that stretched, strengthened and woke you up to the possibilities of “what’s next”?

Whether you are a nonprofit leader, a board member, leadership staff, or a funder, thoughtful and proactive leadership development is critical – and often overlooked – for almost every organization.

67% of nonprofit ED’s anticipated leaving in 5 years (from 2011)

17% of organizations had a documented succession plan

From Daring To Lead, 2011 national survey of 3000+ Executive Directors by Compass Point and the Meyer Foundation

Through a unique approach that takes into account the full leader, Sally Blue Consulting specializes in the type of leadership development and transition that mean sustainability for mission.

Let’s talk about your vision for the future – for your organization, for those you serve and for the people who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you every day. Together, we can make bold plans.