8 Things I’d Like You to Know

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 10th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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There seems to be a growing tendency for teaser titles to articles, presentations, webinars, with some variation of this theme:  The Top 10 Things….  The number doesn’t matter; it’s what follows.  The Top 10 Things you Need to Know about Starting a Nonprofit,” “…About Being a Board Member,” “…Every Manager Should Know About Hiring,” or “…You Need to Build a Strong Program.”  It seems that our attention span has dwindled even shorter (that’s what comes from communicating in 140 characters or less) and we must whittle things down to itemized lists.  My staff does it as well.

So, here’s this week’s list of my eight hot buttons mistakes that those working and/or volunteering in the nonprofit sector regularly make—in no particular order.

1.  Ignoring the fact that nonprofits are ecosystems and, therefore, what happens in one part of the system, such as deciding not to let go of an underperforming employee, has repercussions throughout the organization, such as reducing performance and/or morale of the other employees.  Perfect real life example:  Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure just announced the cancellation of seven walks because of low participation, the result of on-going fallout from its poor decision making to defund Planned Parenthood, decision made more than 15 months ago.  Had they thought through the idea, before making it a decision, they would have come across an indication—a hard statistic, an anecdotal sense, something—of what percent of their supporters were also supporters of Planned Parenthood.  And with that data point in hand, could have easily done the map.  Leaping before thinking is never a smart thing to do.

2.   Which brings me to number 2:  jumping before learning.  I am really tired of people coming up to me after workshops or at the close of one-on-one conversations and saying, “I wish I’d known this three months ago/before I started.”  Well, that is your job to learn before you leap.

No different with nonprofits.  Given how few Americans (proportionately speaking) know anything about nonprofits, it is imperative that people learn about them before they decide to start a nonprofit, apply for a job at a nonprofit or volunteer to be a board member for a nonprofit.  It is important that they understand the challenges of sustaining a nonprofit and how they differ from for-profit businesses, or being an independent contractor or a teacher or a mom who doesn’t work outside the home, etc.

3.  Board members should actually read important documents.  Recently, I was given a brand new set of bylaws to review that had been put together earlier this year and accepted by the Board soon thereafter.  While there were so many egregious things in the bylaws (from a best practices standpoint and things that reasonable board members should recognize on their own) there was one clause at which every board member should have howled :  board members may be notified of special meetings by telegram!  To many times to even begin to count, I review bylaws—that should, in best practices mode, be reviewed every 2-3 years—where reference to notification by telegram still remains in the language.  The board members were quick to note that perhaps they should have read the document a little more closely!

4.   Some people apparently believe the false maxim, “Ignorance is bliss,” and prefer not having to do the hard work that facing the red flag being waved in their faces represents.  The sad part is that more often than not, doing the hard work is a lot less hard work than what eventually will be required as a result of their neglect.   Just ask the 19 officers and dozens of other board members of the Board of Chicago’s Field Museum. They ignored the imploring of three former board members pointing out major financial difficulties and instead suggested that the complaining folks were selfishly motivated by the false claims and were expressing sour grapes.  Now, the secret is out that the museum is $170 million in debt.  Now, not only do they have to face that reality that the tangible problem is probably bigger than it was when their colleagues tried to get their attention seven years ago, they also have to deal with the negative press and reputation assault.

5.   It saddens me still to have this be another hot button, but this problem just doesn’t seem to disappear and it is killing us as a sector:  bosses who micromanage (in this case I am not talking about boards of directors).  Why is it that the same folks who go on and on about micromanaging boards are often times the very same people who are simultaneously micromanaging their employees?  If you want to do it all, cut your personnel expenses by firing everyone else and have more money left for programs!  Seems like a no brainer to me.

Micromanaging bosses are the epitome of insecure people and those who haven’t learned the most important  adage of being a boss:  hire wisely and then get of your employees’ way.  Sage, sage advice!  You know if you are a micromanager; what you may not know is the effect that has on your employees.  So, take an honest minute and do an exercise:  Google the impact (or whatever word you prefer) of micromanagement.  Skim—you don’t even have to read–several of the articles.  You’ll see that your behavior—in addition to costing the organization double—squashes motivation, enthusiasm, creativity, growth, etc.  You’ll see that there are survival guides for those who are micromanaged—and we don’t generally see survival guides of positive behavior!  (ah, the popularity of survival guides – I think I feel next week’s blog coming on)  If you need help to stop this destructive behavior—go get it.  And if you see it in others in your organization, and you are in a position to do so, get them help as well.  In the long run, it will save you lots of money and build a stronger better organization with a much happier and more productive workplace.

6.   Budgets and the budgeting process should not be secrets!    I got an email from an executive director who is a non-board member serving on a board committee at another nonprofit.  This is a smart executive director; but even smart folks need reality checks from time to time!  The particulars are not important, but his committee was asked to come up with some recommendations to take to the board.  In order to this job well and wisely, he felt it was necessary to know the budget of the organization so that the committee was working within the financial realities of the organization.  He asked the executive director for the budget and she refused, telling him it was “private.”  He was clear that if he couldn’t get the budget, he was out of there.  He got the budget; he’s cautiously staying for now.

A second incident was shared with me in the same week   A board member, not on the finance committee, expressed interest in joining the finance committee during budget deliberations, as she wanted to learn more about the budgeting process and gain a better understanding of the financial position of the organization.  (Wow!  Don’t you wish all board members had such desire?)  The treasurer told her no, dear, the process was private!  The board president was privy to this exchange and did not counter either the statement or the reality.  The board member rightly resigned.

Where does this notion came from that budgeting and budgets are private?  Both must be clear to both board and staff members.  Anything less smacks of control and secrecy, which smacks of manipulation, hanky-panky and nothing good.  Perhaps too much of this behavior was going on at the Field Museum!

7.   Failure to learn from our mistakes is deadly!  I do believe in the validity of the dictum:  “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. “ (Sir Winston Churchill is too often credited as the author of this sentiment; his is not as he modified the original.  George Santayana, Spanish philosopher and writer, is the true author.)  One of the places I see this most frequently is in hiring—full time employees, consultants, vendors, etc.  These days there is an awful lot of science to hiring; but there is also a fair degree of art.  The former can be learned; the later, you either have it or you don’t.  You can figure out if you don’t by looking back at your success—or lack thereof—in your hiring.  Lots of turn over in positions that shouldn’t turnover frequently (which means excluding front line social service positions and all positions related to development)?  Then you aren’t doing something right or well, and you certainly aren’t learning from the past.  Was the job description/scope of work accurately and honestly written?  Did you “test” during the interview process for the true presence of the skills necessary to do the job?  Did you ask the right questions and listen carefully in reference checking?  And the list goes on.

Other places you see the consequences of no self-awareness?  Unsuccessful major donor campaigns; supervising employees; achieving clearly defined goals, and once again, so many other places.

8.   And finally, my hottest button:  the lack of altruism of our sector.  We are the philanthropic sector—that one that exists in order to improve all aspects of human well being, from a clean and healthy environment to access to the elements of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs  to arts that soothe our souls.  That is why each and everyone who works and volunteers in the sector does so:  to help improve the quality of life for all.  Altruism—a selfless practice of working to help others—goes hand-in-hand with philanthropy.  And yet, too often, those who work in the sector don’t expand their altruism to the sector as a whole.  We invest and work only on behalf of our own organization and not for the sector as a whole.  If we were truly altruistic, we would understand that our sector is also an ecosystem and our organization is but one part.  And what we do within our organization and for our employees will benefit not just us, but the sector as a whole—which, in turn, benefits our organism.

We are all in this together.  When the former finance director and/or executive director and/or treasurer of any nonprofit are headlined as having embezzled, we all are viewed as having lax financial oversight and become suspect.  When one nonprofit has to close its doors because it ran out of money or it was poorly managed or it didn’t survive the transition from a long-serving leader to a new leader (because it didn’t plan appropriately), we all suffer.  When we refuse to invest in our most valuable commodity—our staff—because we “know” they will take their newfound knowledge, skills, credentials to another nonprofit, we all suffer.  But when we understand that by investing in our own people we will not only improve the performance of our own organization for as long as those people stay with us, but we improve the performance, and therefore credibility of the whole sector, we all benefit, then and only then will be truly an altruistic sector.  Which is nothing less than what people expect of us!

Since there seems to be something to this numbered list thing, I’ll probably be back with another list of things you should know.  I’m pretty sure you have your own list, so don’t hesitate to share them, whatever the number.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.