The pleasure of asking for advice

One of the first things that I get my strategic planning clients doing is having conversations with different members of their communities. I’m reminded of lessons learned from a simulation on school reform that I participated in as a facilitator with the Best Schools project in New Hampshire. The simulation was called “Change is the Name of the Game.”

Each team was given a small amount of information at the beginning of the game and then made decided what steps to take next. The teams that chose to “talk to…. ” various stakeholders for their first few moves ended up with essential information that the teams that didn’t take the time to talk lacked. In the long run, the teams that chose to seek advice first moved much farther ahead with their (albeit simulated) school reform efforts.

There is no substitute for a substantive conversation with people who have a stake in your organization or the issues that you represent. When I come upon an organization that seems to be rapidly shriveling, one of the first things that I notice is that that nonprofit stopped having conversations with the outside world quite a while ago.

You can also contract with a consultant like me to conduct those interviews for you — it will speed up the process and perhaps elicit some information that less experienced interviewers might not surface. Unfortunately, as your consultant, I can’t act on the conversations that I have, I can only pass that information back to you. And it’s too easy, when you’ve got other things on your mind and you personally haven’t been eyeball to eyeball with someone, to delay acting on their request or offer.

But when you sit down face-to-face, you have the ability to negotiate new partnerships or improve strained relationships. You’ll be more likely to remember the details of the conversation than you will reading the report that I provide. You’ll also find, even though you don’t expect it, that you’ll get some very honest feedback about how you go about doing the work that you do.

As your consultant, my services are better used to help you think about who to approach and what questions to as. I can train you in interviewing techniques and debrief the conversations that you have and advise you on next steps.

Here’s another example of how these conversations really matter. When I was Director of Development & Marketing/Deputy Director at Save The Bay, I championed meeting with business donors who were contributing smaller gifts, say $100 to $500. My executive director and I walked many a manufacturing shop floor with a proud business owner. We listened to their concerns and needs. These conversations not only eventually led to some very large gifts, they also helped our program staff understand better how environmental laws needed worked on the ground and where they needed reforming — because sometimes the current regulations prevented responsible business people from moving faster ahead in their pollution prevention efforts.That type of knowledge was so valuable that it landed my Executive Director on an important industry subcommittee for EPA that was reviewing regulations for the metal finishing industry. Not bad for a small nonprofit from little RI.

People love being asked for advice. Its worth getting into the habit of listening.


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