I have had the good fortune to work at three 501(c)(3) organizations in my career. Two of them were think-tanks, and the other was a charitable, direct-service provider. I also spent a decade working in the government with managers of varying levels and as a manager myself. Presently, I am blessed to be at an organization with stellar leadership.
Along the way, I have had my share of management training and reading. More valuable, however, is that I have met a whole lot of people who manage and work in the not-for-profit world, who shared their knowledge and taught me by example.
Over those 25 years, I have tried to keep a running list of my various “A-ha” moments and learning experiences. These notes have been kept on various papers stowed in my work and home desks, and on Google Drive, where they are doing nobody any good.
So, here they are.
I offer them in hopes they are of use, limited in scope and scattershot though they be.
Since I learn something new regularly, I’ll keep updating this list. I hope you find it useful, and if you have wisdom to share, please let me hear it.
- Make time to check in to align expectations with your colleagues and funders. It is all too easy for one to err in assuming you and everyone are on the same page. That’s how it goes when you are coordinating human beings: it takes a lot of effort upfront and periodic re-sync sessions.
- It is great to partner with other nonprofits. They can help you amplify your effort, and if you share funders, well, funders like to see that too. But, do not forget that rivalries are real, and other organizations may try to eat your lunch. That is not because they are bad; it’s because that is what organizations do: shift their focus to meet evolving demand.
- Building a respected brand is an endless endeavor and a team effort. Remind yourself and your colleagues to protect and build the equity of your organization’s brand.
- Everyone at the organization gains reputational equity from the organization’s equity.
- Be a leader servant, and one with humility. Do as one of my managers once did: Ask your colleagues, “What am I doing wrong, and how can I do better?” And show them you are serious by listening, not getting defensive, and then acting upon their suggestions.
- Share credit for success and even give it away entirely to your colleagues.
- Help people set and meet stretch goals that they want to achieve.
- Chester Barnard was right: an essential duty of an executive or manager is to develop a shared understanding of what the organization is doing. It’s analogous to a coach in a team sport. With trust and shared understanding, you can act collectively. Without it, you have confusion and quarrels.
- A good boss is a good coach, one who learns from colleagues, teaches them, and inspires employees and funders alike.
Goods and services provision
- If your organization is a goods or services provider, you need to be crystal clear as to WHO you serve and what is the process and timeline for requesting goods or services.
- Be clear to beneficiaries that your capacity to give and provide is limited—not everyone who is deserving and asks can be accommodated.
- A research organization needs to hire respected researchers—people with credibility for knowledge and analytical integrity.
- Research tends to produce findings with nuance. Politics and advocacy, unfortunately, are realms hostile to nuance. They are the lands of bumper sticker sloganeering and “Are you with us or against us” dynamics. Do not let your organization be co-opted by these forces. Stick to your purpose: research first.
- In dealing with the world of politics and advocacy, set their expectations upfront about what your role and limitations are. Be clear that you can provide expert analysis and the like, but that you can’t lobby and do other things that political and advocacy world people do.
- Translate your research for your audiences. Budget lots of time to produce communications that are appropriate for your diverse audiences.
- Educating audiences is an essential organizational goal. Treat it as such, and budget the times and funds needed. There are a million things going on in the world, and you have to work hard and for a long time to get others’ attention and understanding.
- People, people, people. Hire people with deep expertise and skills and good character.
- People, people, people. Hire individuals who see their self-interest as pursuing objectives that are your organization’s goals. Do that and you will rarely be forced to tell people what to do. It’s a bit like Adam Smith and the “invisible hand.”
- Managers should take time to learn about the whole person of each staff member and do so with honesty and integrity. Remember, each day when someone comes to work for your organization he or she is taking time out from the rest of their lives, which are filled with other interests, duties, and challenges. Work is important, but it is not the only thing in life.
- Relatedly, don’t merely show your colleagues you care—you should ACTUALLY care about them as human beings.
- Telework is wonderful, but a boss who tries to manage remotely is making a mistake. People are people, and scheduling regular Zooms with them is not the same as being with them in-person and having various serendipitous encounters (e.g., “Morning–hey I was going to try the new Thai joint for lunch this week. Want to join me?”)
- Always be thinking about growth paths for your people, and talk with them about the possibilities. And if following those paths means a colleague must step away from the organization—talk openly and honestly about that!
- Treat anyone who works for your organization as an ally for life. Whether they stay at the company or depart, avoid letting it become bitter. Sometimes things don’t work out; but that does not mean the parting needs to be toxic. Moreover, it does the organization no good to have former employees badmouthing it. In fact, it eats away at the equity of the organization’s brand. And if you are the person whom they feel embittered by, well, your brand also will suffer since you have created negative ambassadors.
- Donors are not customers. If you treat them as such then they will treat you as a vendor.
- Different donors need different amounts of education in their roles as donors. Figure out how they view the relationship ASAP, and then set about clarifying for them what’s in bounds and what is not.
- The best donors are those with a long view whose objectives are the same as your organization’s, and who take an interest in the long-term well-being of your organization.
- In work as in life, one needs to be on guard to avoid allowing urgent stuff to crowd out the important stuff. There are endless things occurring everyday; you can’t absorb all of them, to say nothing of engage all of them. One must prioritize, and what goes at the top should be those things that are most essential to the health of your organization.
- Find time to spend with funders that is simply time together. Have dinner, go fly fishing together, and above all get to know one another.
Warning signs and perils
- If your organization’s leaders are trying to spin you on what’s happening at the office—start looking for another job. Spinning shows they are hiding bad news or mistakes and do not respect you enough to admit they goofed.
- The best leaders have rock solid characters whose words are trustworthy and whose sense of purpose is unswerving. The worst leaders are those who have the opposite characteristics.
- If your people are regularly failing to follow processes, then it likely is due to the processes being poorly designed, needlessly onerous, or poorly implemented and communicated.
- High turn-over often is a symptom of mismanagement.
- Regular interpersonal drama among staff is a sign of poor hiring practices and people management.
- A manager who micromanages others will drive good staff crazy and out of the organization.
- A manager who refuses to manage and inspire others should not be surprised if staff underperform.
- A manager with a passive-aggressive personality will drive good staff form the organization.
- A manager who reads a management book (e.g., How to rock your staff to higher performance!) and then proceeds to apply its lessons aggressively is a manager lost at sea.
- A manager who is uncomfortable around other people will fail over the long-run. Employees can sniff out the discomfort and will feel uneasy, uncertain, and untrusted.
- Growth is an important objective. Growth is exciting—it feels like winning! But, relentless growth is perilous. When an organization adds new people and responsibilities, it must take time to digest them and integrate them. Various internal matters will have to be altered, everything from space utilization (“Do I get an office?”) to redesigning process flows and maintaining organizational culture. Too much growth for too long will exhaust an organization’s staff and leave them feeling lost in a sea of new organizational charts and processes, and surrounded by people they do not know.
- It is better to turn down a big check from a bad donor than to accept the money. Nonprofit leaders who take such money are trading dollars for organizational damage.
- An organization with leaders who have nobody to whom they must report and be accountable is an organization that will fail over the long-run.
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