The Future is Holistic, Sustainable Leadership

In a recently posted blog “Is Holistic Fundraising a Thing? Can it be? A New Mindset For Fundraising Professionals”, that was shared by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Jennifer Harris talks about something that any lonely fundraiser knows; something that is misunderstood by so many organizations: the ‘place’ of fundraising.

But I think we can take it even further.

Harris explains how fundraising is the “connective tissue” of an organization – not something that stands alone, or worse, is hidden in some lonely tower until the gala begins or the budget is set.

Organizations, people and teams are holistic entities – they do not exist without the other. At the core, holistic approaches recognize that all parts are relevant and related. Harris notes that in a nonprofit, there must be individual recognition of the work (i.e. passion for the cause), organizational commitment to weaving fundraising into the framework and understanding of all parts of a nonprofit, and finally functional manifestations – teams must understand how their work is part of the larger whole.

I could not agree more.

Many (all?) fundraisers will also agree. If you’ve ever had a org budget presented and been told to ‘fill in the gap’, if fundraising’s role in your strategic plan is simply “raise more money”, if program staff have ever asked you why they don’t have more money for their programs, you know the pain of a fractured organization.

“…emergency funds or development staff may resolve an immediate need, but this too does not necessarily lend itself to long-term organizational health. In both instances, a holistic mindset and plan-of-action may prove more empowering, more strategic, and more sustainable. It may also lead to greater efficacy and impact in life and in work.”  –Jennifer Harris

But I know we can go even further. Harris mentions it, but the holistic care and nurturing of individuals is one of the most glaring deficiencies in our sector. Selflessness – to the point of true loss of self – is quite often the celebrated norm. While our people, their talents, passion, wisdom and experience, are our biggest assets, we often shy away from the types of support and care that can make the difference in how someone does their work, or even if they can continue to do that work at all. (Yep, I’m talking about the big B: “burnout”.)

So, how do we support our organizational leaders sustainably? For a start:

  1. Quit the Cult of Busy (and let your employees leave too) – I get it. We’ve all got a lot on our plate. But if you are wearing it as a badge of honor, or your default answer to “How are you?” is “Sooooo busy,” then you may have some priorities to consider. Isn’t there a passion project or good news – or even simply good weather – that you’d rather talk about? Your leadership in this will have huge implications on your team and their work/life balance. There’s plenty written about this topic and its importance. Here’s one I like from Johns Hopkins Health Review (2016): “The Cult of Busy”
  2. Call in the Coach – there is growing support in the nonprofit sector for something business leaders have used for years: coaches. The job of a leadership coach isn’t to tell you (or your direct reports) what to do, but to help support you in being the best leader you can be. It’s a great, cost-effective way to invest in your people. The Haas Jr Fund released a study on coaching effectiveness for nonprofits. Read it here.
  3. Get Quiet – breathe, meditate, chant, exhale at a stop light – however you can start learning to be still, do it. When we are constantly moving at a breakneck pace, we have no time to think, to listen, and to incorporate truth into our actions. Take a quiet pause and then return to the multitasking and ‘all the things’ – your heart will thank you.

What do you think? Can we holistically approach sustainable leadership, for our good and the good of the world?

What are you doing to sustain yourself or your organization more holistically?

So Simple, Too Simple?

So Simple

Clarity (in mission, in goal-setting, in messaging) is important for success.

In order to successfully raise money, chart progress, and declare victory, we have to be able to condense our message and simplify our objectives.

In a world of possibilities, who are we and what are we trying to do?

Some would take that idea even further, arguing that clarity is critical to success. I have camped in that spot. And I’m still sitting around that campfire. Mostly.

 

Image Problem

 It is no surprise that the nonprofit sector has an image problem. The larger world seems to think that our work is ‘easy’ somehow. It is work that can be done in spare time, with little training, or after retirement. Somehow, solving intractable social problems is seen as not ‘real’ work and that it can be measured purely by efficiency.

How many times have we heard people say that they want to get involved in nonprofits now that they are ready to retire and ‘slow down’? Ever wonder why the (ridiculous) overhead percentage myth remains, or why admin is considered ‘wasteful’?

Too Simple?

Maybe some of that image problem comes down to over-simplification.

Wanting to be seen as problem solvers, we have simplified ourselves out of the complexity of the work we do. We don’t readily talk about the fact that many factors affect our work. There are not often linear or 2-step solutions. Homelessness is a classic example. Solving homelessness requires way more than just putting someone in a house. A person cannot afford to stay, or have a chance to thrive, without addressing a host of other issues. Are they employable? Why not? If so, can they make a living wage? What do they need to support themselves? What about transportation? Are there health issues? Are there issues of abuse, physical, substance or mental, that must be addressed? And so on – people have complex histories and stories, experiences and backgrounds, none of which can be reduced to a one-size-fits all answer. The same can be said for education, for domestic and dating violence, for environmental issues, for animal welfare, for healthcare, for…well, you get it.

Complexity requires effort. It means that I can’t just pat myself on the back for volunteering with a hammer and some nails every once in awhile. I can’t make it better by just writing a check.

We set goals and we plot out metrics because we need a path through the complexities.

But if we want to change the way that many people view our work – as something ‘easy’, something that should not require computers, or expensive college degrees, or long term investment, or as less important than ‘business’, then we have to stop talking about the work we do as simple.

Whatever little bit you can give is fine. We’ll make do.

Unless all we want to do is make do – and not truly solve problems.

In this political climate, it is that much more critical that we work to tell the whole truth. With the abundance of fake news and twitter-sized explanations, we must establish a place as trusted experts in the work we do everyday.

As Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, once advised his students,“seek simplicity, but distrust it.”

Reflections: Marching, MJ, and My Kid in a Blazer

Being presidential

It’s the dawn of a new administration.

More people marched in protest the day after the inauguration than have ever marched before. Women and men around the world gathered in solidarity.

It’s empowering and exciting and exhausting.

It’s also frustrating. I ran into a friend walking her dog. When I asked what she thought of the Women’s March she said, “I have a lot of rage…at my fellow progressives.”

I was so sure she’d say “at Trump,” or about a certain issue, or even “at Trump supporters.” But her rage faces inward. I paused for a second, because I get it. I wonder the same things that she does – what more should I have done? And where were all these people four months ago?

For those of us out here trying to do good every day, it can feel like too much. I spent the first weeks after the election numb and tired. As the reality set in and the work of unraveling all kinds of social progress began, I was sick. Scared. Uncertain.

I know this for sure, and I know it in my bones: things have to change.

Change is messy and uncomfortable and uncertain. As I often tell my coaching and strategic planning clients – if doesn’t feel messy and difficult, then we aren’t doing it right. We aren’t really asking the tough questions, and we aren’t trying to name the elephant in the room. Change is supposed to be messy and scary.

And change, as Michael Jackson says, begins “with the (wo)man in the mirror.” I’m committed to taking a step back and examining more closely my own ‘why’. We have not time nor energy to spare. What cause is most important to you and what actions will have the most impact? In other words, can you dig deeper into what you are already doing and ask, is it the right thing? Is it enough? What do I need to change?

The beauty of the Internet – for all its challenges – is that we can hear other people’s opinions, and people’s responses to those opinions, and we can decide what we think for ourselves.

If you haven’t seen it, and you are curious, google #notmymarch. All I will say is, I don’t have time for Christie. I’ve spent too much of my life and career so far worried about Christie. Christie is not worried about me or the people that I care about or the equity that I believe in. Christie has a world of information at her fingertips and she chooses what to do with it.

I do have the time to keep checking my white privilege. Several people have also posted, and written, eloquently on the racism problem in feminism. (See bell hooks and this great list on Elle for a start – share more resources in the comments!) What does that have to do with the March? It was a peaceful protest, and while I support nonviolent actions, it’s important to unpack our pride at being ‘peaceful’ – recognizing the limitation of personal experience when it comes to political violence and what assumptions we make about how we will be treated. See Jahmelia Lindsay’s post on Facebook for more perspective.

At school last Friday, my daughter dressed as her role model: Hillary Clinton. When I asked her why she chose HRC, my kiddo taught me a lesson in leadership. She spoke eloquently of Hillary Clinton’s strength, that she kept going even when people said mean things, that she did what was right, and she tried to take care of people. My daughter is convinced that Hillary will get back up and keep fighting. There was nothing in her answer about the loss. It was all about the leadership.

Y’all – we can do this, and it’s going to take all of us.

Let’s get to work. #breadandroses

Who Do You Love?

Happy 2017 y’all!

2016 ended a little breathlessly – like we were waiting to exhale, hoping to avoid one last tragedy in the final hours. 2017 is off to a choppy start, too, and maybe this feeling is going to be very familiar over the coming months.

Like many of you, I’ve been trying to understand what is happening in our world and in our country, trying to process recent events, guess what is coming, and most importantly – determine how my work and my life can have the most positive impact.

The paradigm has shifted. But how?

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal offered some footing (“We Are Not The World” Jan 6) and the gist is that the political divides that we are so accustomed to – right versus left, conservative versus liberal, Democrat versus Republican – are sooo last century. This makes sense, especially when people on both sides of the aisle seem equally bewildered.

Greg Ip argues that the real divide is between Globalization and Nationalism, free trade, open borders, and multicultural interests versus national unity, identity and way of life. Nationalism is not a left or a right ideal – it can actually be both – just as globalization has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, almost unquestioningly, since at least World War II.

Ip’s essay took me back to my undergraduate days and a fascinating class that I took on nationalism. The course was based on a text called Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson (1995 revised edition). It had such an impact on me that I still have the book (ok, well I’m also sort of a book packrat, but still.) In class, I was startled to learn that nationalism itself was not that old of an idea and that it could take so many forms. Prior to Anderson, nationalism was seen as a negative – it drove people to war and genocide and gave voice to racism and xenophobia. Anderson recognized that there was also a hopeful side to nationalism.

“In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love,” Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities. “The cultural products of nationalism—poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts—show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.”

I appreciate this frame. We all know that the things that face us do not have easy answers and the Other cannot be understood in simple terms. It will be important to not just remember that balance exists – but to search it out, to try to understand it, to know the truth is never as simple as we want it to be.

I don’t have any answers yet – what do you think? Does this resonate for you?

Our Lady Bird Moment #afpPOV

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Fundraisers sit in an incredible position – somewhere between public opinion and the work being done on the front lines of nonprofit work.

From this position, we are more than just translators – we are educators, advocates, and the link that helps wanna-be’s become do-gooder’s. We are often tasked with filling the gaps of knowledge, understanding, and perspective. Maybe even more importantly, we see what’s missing. We know what questions that we wish people would ask. We see who doesn’t have a seat at the table.

As leaders, I’m calling you to believe in the unique perspective that only you have. Speak up. Ask the hard questions. Create spaces for innovative answers…

Read more about Our Lady Bird Moment here.

3 Things to Know This Election Year #afpPOV

Psst. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s an election year. What? I know. If you can’t say something nice, at least be glad that people are participating and paying attention.

But what does this mean for us, as professionals, and for the missions that we serve? Here are some interesting things to consider this election year.

  1. In March, Blackbaud released a research study entitled “Giving in an Election Year: How Political Giving Impacts Nonprofits”. There are some interesting takeaways from the study, namely that philanthropic giving actually seems to increase by those who give to political campaigns. So that idea that scarce donor funds are going to politics and not to nonprofits, isn’t exactly true. It’s also interesting to note that high profile election years might also be a good time to engage young donors. Read more and download the full white paper here.
  2. We’re all embarrassed by low voter turnout and often the people we serve are those most hurt by the lack of voice. It turns out that nonprofits can play a critical role in getting out the vote. When staff or volunteers reach out to their clients and supporters, they can increase voter turnout across all demographics. A recent Tufts study, in collaboration with Nonprofit Vote, showed increased turnout amongst Latino voters (5 points), black voters (10 points), and Asian-American voters (16 points). Also, those with incomes lower than $25,000 turned out at a rate 9 points higher. To read the full report, and help get out the nonpartisan vote, visit: nonprofitvote.org/engaging-new-voters
  3. Did you know that the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) has the only philanthropy-focused PAC in the country? Your PAC is nonpartisan and works diligently on all issues related to philanthropy and our governing bodies. The charitable deduction? You bet. The IRA Rollover? Yep. Recently, the PAC mobilized grassroots efforts and helped ensure that the IRS rescinded a proposal to require nonprofits to collect social security numbers for all donors. Holy donor-centered, administrative-nightmare Batman! Just let the implications of that piece of proposed legislation sink in for awhile…

Finally, in this election season, in the midst of hash tagging, debating, crying, and obsessively refreshing your Twitter feed (just me?), also remember what Jason Sabo, @texassabo, of Frontera Strategy famously told us many moons ago, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

See y’all at the dome!

Sally Blue
Board President
AFP Greater Austin Chapter

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.