From Little ideas

100 Things We’ve Learned About Nonprofits

On the train to Newark Tuesday ( I was on my way to work on a planning with the amazing staff of ACLU of New Jersey), I thought I’d try an idea I had received in an email just before the end of the year from For Impact, The Suddes Group. The idea was to make a list of 100 memories from the year as an opportunity to reflect and prepare for 2009. Here’s the post if you’d like to read it.

I didn’t make a list of memories (I will do that soon), but instead decided to start a list called “100 Things I’ve Learned About Nonprofits.”

On the train I got to 95 and then ran out of room on my sheets of paper… but I’ll finish the 100. (maybe you’ll help?)

While I’m not sure yet whether the ground moved,? I thought that the list would be great to blog about over the next few months.

Montana Mountain view from BBar ranch

It’s not often that I participate in a board/staff retreat where part of the orientation is “before hiking, pick up bear spray and travel in groups of 4 or more to keep the grizzly bears at a distance.”

Just got back from a retreat with Women’s Voices for the Earth. So for this Monday, a quote about Montana was a have to…

“Before Alaska came along and ruined everything, one of every twenty-five square miles in America was Montanan. This much space has nurtured a healthy Cult of Place in which people find perfection, even divinity in the landscape.”
— from Cecil Migrates by Ellen Meloy

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.


Beyond Robert’s Rules of Order

The blog has been quiet for the last few days because Jon and I decided to stick a short vacation between work and picking up one of our sons from camp where he’s been a counselor this summer. (Short vacation hops to Cape Cod and Portland, Maine – lovely)

The camp, Friends Camp, is run by New England Yearly Meeting of Friends and seeks to embody the Quaker values of community, equality, integrity, peace, & simplicity.

On the way to Friends Camp this year, I had the chance to think about the consensus decision-making process that is used by the Society of Friends and how foreign it feels from Robert’s Rules of Order that so many nonprofit boards try to use.

I was fortunate that I began my nonprofit board service on a board that used Quaker Consensus Process — the area committee of the Rhode Island office of the American Friends Service Committee. Though I’m not a Quaker, I soon came to value a meeting process that sought building unity as a goal of its decision-making. I’ve always felt that it was a great starting place for my work as a facilitator. Read more

Nonprofit statistics

A website that I find myself going back to frequently is the Table Wizard at the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Wondering how many nonprofits are in your state? The Table Wizard can tell you. Curious about how nonprofits like yours in your state rank by size or income? The Table Wizard has the answers.

It’s not hard to use once you get the hang of it. You’ll amaze your boss or colleagues with your extraordinary knowledge of the nonprofit community.