We live in a strange new world. Not a particularly kind and generous one if you ask me.
Our world is polarized as never before and civility in dealing with those with whom you disagree seems to have been erased from our society’s hard drive.
And I am so not talking only about politics. I see it with nonprofit organizations galore.
The negativity comes from both inside the organization (a staff upset with a change in health benefits) and externally (community members who feel voiceless in some kind of directional change.)
Or a local blogger or journalist with a big ol’ bone to pick. My phones have been ringing more and more asking for help with these kinds of issues. Some might frame this as crisis management but I would prefer to dig at the root cause.
Often, a full-blown crisis is the result of something small handled poorly.
Or something small that leaders got so worried about that it became big. I believe nonprofit leaders can often cut crises off at the pass if we handle the challenge or the criticism well.
Today, I want to help you think about how to handle criticism without anger or defensiveness so that it doesn’t blow up into a full-blown crisis. If I do only that, it will be a good day at the office for me.
A CRITICISM BECOMES A CRISIS
Example 1: E.D. Head on a Stick
Here’s the scenario.
A new E.D., Sara, is hired following the tenure of someone who was seen as a terrific leader and manager. Sara arrives to find “dust bunnies on top of dust bunnies”. Some are related to admin policies, lack of staff accountability, maybe even financial challenges.
The need for change is so obvious to the board and Sara and off they go. The more change the merrier, the faster, the better so we can do what needs to be done to remove obstacles that stand in the way of the mission.
But change takes time and you start to hear some rumblings of criticism.
Change agents see the changes as so obvious. But not the staff. The critics get louder.
Some of the criticism is legit; some is because they don’t see the issues as closely as the leadership.
Staff of larger organizations take a major step and unionize. They send a formal vote of no-confidence in the E.D. to the board. The power balance goes terribly out of whack. It shifts to staff, board capitulates to the union / organized staff.
Sara is forced to resign.
If you recognize this scenario, the likelihood is that it is not an organization you know or support. Because I have in the last 6 months, heard this story about three very different organizations.
In fact, I am seeing this with greater and greater frequency. Executive recruiters talk with me about it endlessly.
Example 2: The Squeaky Wheel
In this second scenario we have a community center with insufficient clarity about who can book rooms for meetings.
A pro-Israeli group books space. Then, a week later, a pro-Palestinian group books space.
A good majority of the clients served at the center are Jewish. The community begins criticizing the center, asking the E.D. to withdraw the booking for the pro-Palestinian group.
These two rather small groups become very loud and consume the time and energy of the E.D., senior staff, and the board. Suggestions are made to bring the two groups together (and we all know how successful that has been for decades).
The board’s primary motivation is fear of negative press; the E.D. simply wants everyone to be happy.
Neither the board nor staff wants to say yes to one and no to the other. Meanwhile the organization is consumed by the concerns of about 55 people when 5,000 people are served weekly by this center.
These two examples offer a glimpse into what can happen when criticism gets out of hand.
So here are a few things to remember and a bit of practical advice you may find helpful.
And by the way, if this has not happened to your organization, among your staff or in your community, you may be very good. But it is equally likely that it just hasn’t happened yet.
5 WAYS TO HANDLE CRITICISM AND AVOID CRISIS
1. Preempt it. Is there a decision you are going to make that may be met with community, board, or staff criticism? Meet ahead of time with key influencers. Sell in the benefit or the importance of the decision. You hear the positive nature of that statement? No defensiveness.
Don’t lead with, “Look, I know you are not going to like this but….”
Here’s an example on a small scale: I was in love with a new logo we had designed. But it was abstract and open to interpretation. Frankly, that’s why I loved it and also why I knew some board members would hate it.
As the E.D., the decision was mine. But the board’s criticism would be singularly unhelpful as we took on re-branding.
So I went to the board members I was sure would hate it and the ones whose voices would carry the most weight. In my presentation about what we loved about the logo and why it was powerful, I included quotes from those folks. Some of them were actually pretty funny.
But I was able to position the logo exactly the way I wanted it to be understood. Open to lots of interesting and powerful interpretations. I even asked my ten year old and included her quote.
The presentation was a hit. The logo was embraced.
2. Honor the voices of dissent. This can be very hard for folks who are defensive or have big egos, but you have got to go there. It’s best if you can get to those folks ahead of time, before you decide, so that you can honestly say you heard from them some of the potential downside.
3. Paint a vision. In the first example above, the criticism came because of some kind of change. People really don’t like change (most of the time… a clear exception here would be a salary increase) and will find reasons to criticize it.
In my mind, the biggest obstacle to successful change management is that there is no vision attached to the change. “As a result of this new thing, our organization will, in two years, be able to X.” Get folks excited about what the change represents and the decision goes down a lot easier. It is the best way to turn critics into champions.
4. Communicate twice as much as you want to. And in person. Early on in my tenure, I made a significant decision in the organization – one that would seriously diminish the power and authority of a group of volunteers.
For many important reasons, I felt it was critical that the staff own the decision. But I had already made up my mind so this was not a situation where I could ask for legitimate input. Doing that can make matters worse, by the way.
I had to tell the volunteers, some of who had been part of the organization for a decade. Most of them were in LA and I was in NY. My gut said I had to go and meet with them in person.
I did. None of them could remember the last time the E.D. had met with them. I had learned their names and was able to talk about something they had contributed. When I talked about the new decision making, they were unhappy but my decision was clear and I had a very clear rationale and it was also clear they were being told and not asked for their advice.
Some of those volunteers said that was when they knew they had a really good leader. And I was taking power and authority away from them!
Please remember: a gap in information is ALWAYS filled. If you have a group that is concerned about something and feels voiceless, they will fill it.
And not the way you want them to.
5. Just apologize. Sometimes criticism is real and justified. I’m not sure why it is so damned hard for folks to offer a simple, no-strings-attached apology. But sometimes it is the single best way to acknowledge the voice of the critic and ensure that the criticism does not escalate.
ONE BONUS PIECE OF ADVICE
Get outside of the echo chamber. In the heat of criticism, ten client or community voices can feel like three hundred.
I’m not saying those ten people matter less because there are only ten. But I am saying that if you serve 5,000 folks a week, you need to remember that they are also your clients or members of your community.
What I really mean is that there is no better antidote to help you contend with criticism then to touch the work.
How do you handle criticism? What advice can you offer your fellow nonprofit leaders? Let us know in the comments below.
Giving Tuesday, #MeToo, the Ice Bucket Challenge, the out-of-nowhere victories of Obama and Trump…
They all have something important in common – they were movements forged by “New Power”. A deeper understanding of this new power shift gives all of us a better opportunity to build an “army of the engaged” and make a much bigger impact.
What is New Power? You may have heard of a state of flow; you know, being in the zone, focused, energized. You could explain New Power in that way, but not just for the individual, a supercharge for all. But it goes deeper than that.
Timms shares the five critical steps you must take to build a New Power movement, and reveals the skills and attributes the best leaders must have in order to create that dynamic.
Using contemporary phenomenons that foster giving back, our guest describes New Power as a current that flows and surges, moves, is open and accessible for all and can propel us into the 21st century.
About Henry Timms
Henry Timms is President and CEO of 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community center that creates programs and movements that foster learning and civic engagement. Under his leadership, the 144-year-old institution was named to Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” list. He is the co-founder of #GivingTuesday, a global philanthropic movement that engages people in close to 100 countries that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for good causes. Henry is a Hauser Visiting Leader, Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. With Jeremy Heimans, Henry co-authored the book New Power: How Power Works In Our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make it Work for You, described by David Brooks in the New York Times as “the best window I’ve seen into this new world”.
In this episode
How New Power values different things than Old Power
How New Power manifests in large organizations
Does New Power diminish the value of expertise and experience?
Is the person at the top of an organization still the one in charge?
A critical piece of advice for a nonprofit leader in today’s changing world
Who are your “connected connectors” and how can they help you spread the word?
TED as a perfect example of the transition from Old Power to New Power
How to build a New Power crowd
How does unionizing relate to the Old Power/New Power structure?
You are a nonprofit leader. Likely a type-A kind of person – pretty accustomed to getting 95’s on your book reports.
It’s one of the reasons you have historically found yourself in leadership positions – when there’s a need for someone to be in charge, it’s like a reflex you cannot control – up goes your hand.
You are also a learner. You always want to get better at your job.
Maybe there was a book report (or in your case a board report) you felt was like an 85. Not a grade you are accustomed to. You look for books or podcasts to hone your skills, manage your time, become an even more awesome leader than you already are.
In 1989, Stephen Covey wrote a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I mustn’t be highly effective because I didn’t read it until I decided to write this post. It has been a best seller for THIRTY YEARS.
Is that crazy or what? Thirty years.
So I figure he must be on to something. Thus, with a ‘tip o the hat’ to Mr. Covey, I’d like to share with you my own version of this: The 8 Habits of Highly Effective Nonprofit Leaders.
THE 8 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE NONPROFIT LEADERS
Habit 1: Ask For Help
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Take an issue to your staff.. Tell them you are struggling and see pros and cons on a particular issue and that you need their good thinking.
I’ll admit, it can be harder to do the same with your board. But here’s the thing. If you time and again go to the board with all the answers, they might admire you. But they will be disengaged and will not be the ambassadors you need.
If you are a board chair, I know you don’t know what you don’t know. Leading a board is a tough job to fake. Resources are out there.
Lastly, ask your colleagues. They are NOT competitors. Can you please get that one out of your head? Share your challenges and offer your help with theirs.
I want to invite each and every one of you to my upcoming free workshop, How to Build a Thriving Nonprofit. (Starts October 16th – register for free here.)
As part of the workshop, I will make two critical points about this habit.
Nonprofit leadership is “shared leadership”. If you don’t share the challenges, you have a leader and followers.
You must always grow your village. In the workshop, I’ll talk about how to do that. But one thing I hope is obvious… you have to ask.
Habit 2: Talk Less, Listen More
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway mega-hit Hamilton, Aaron Burr suggests that Hamilton, “talk less, smile more.” With apologies, I’d suggest that ‘listening more’ is a much more important habit.
In fact, I can’t think of a situation in which this is not a critical habit to cultivate.
A twenty minute gala speech? Please don’t do that to your guests.
A 1,000 word speech (that’s about 7 minutes, by the way) that packs a punch and ignites the room? That is what I am talking about.
Less is more.
How about in a meeting with staff? Someone comes in with a problem. Try this: If I were not here what choice would you make? Listen to them, be a thought partner.
Here’s another one – happens all the time. You spend so much time ‘selling’ a board member to climb aboard your organization’s “bus,” that you don’t listen to hear if they have the passion and commitment that will fuel them to be a fantastic ambassador for your organization.
And my oh my, how often nonprofit leaders think that a monologue is the key to a successful ask for money.
Cultivate the habit of really listening to what your prospect cares about, the questions she asks, what motivates her philanthropy. If you are too busy trying to make sure she knows about every single thing your organization does, you will miss all of that.
Habit 3: Exude Passion
You probably assume that since you’re a leader in your org, people know you are deeply committed. Maybe they do. But you have to SHOW IT. Regularly.
People need to be inspired by you. Full stop.
Because passion is contagious.
Think of it this way. The Quakers believe that there is a light in everyone. I suppose you could call it a soul too. I think about it like a “pilot light.” When someone decides to join your “army of the engaged,” her “pilot light” is on. You have determined that this light is deeply connected specifically to your mission and cause. Your job is not just to keep the light on but to stoke it.
I was designing a strategy offsite for a board and the chair said, “Can we have some time with the E.D. where he inspires us? We hear that he gives speeches all across the country and folks are totally engaged. We never get any of that and we really need it to be motivated to do our jobs well. But all we just get a report and then we get nagged to raise money.”
Need I say more?
The same is true of staff meetings. The work is hard and it always feels like a steep climb. Your staff looks to you to remind them why it matters. If you are haggard, you give them permission to be haggard. If you complain, you build a culture of complaining. If you encourage powerful storytelling at meetings, folks will follow your lead.
That’s why they call you the leader.
Habit 4: Ask Really Good Questions
I was going to say that the habit is to “ask the right questions,” but if you ask really good ones, they lead you there. Here are a few good examples:
Finance: ”Based on these year-to-date financials, would you suggest that we make any different decisions about our goals or strategies for next year?”
Strategy: “What are we best in the world at? If we disappeared, would there be a gap? Who would fill it?”
Staff: “What do you need to be successful?” or conversely: “Do you still consider this work important, a privilege? If you hear ‘no’ (because you listen more – see habit 2), tease that out. Maybe his pilot light is out and his job performance is suffering. Figure it out together.
Board: “When you leave this board, what do you want to be able to say you contributed?”
Habit 5: Touch the Work
You can sit at your desk and spend your entire day answering emails and putting out “fires.” Or you can meet a client, sit at the reception desk, answer a hotline call.
If you choose the former, you risk your “pilot light” going out. Choose the latter and you remind yourself what really matters. And that is as true for board and staff (non-program) as it is for you.
Get admin staff engaged in the client work. And then, when an admin copies a check that represents a homeless person’s rent, there will be no margin for error for him. Because it’s not a check. It’s a home.
Habit 6: Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
You want to be an effective leader, so don’t dance around tough stuff.
Not inside with your staff, not with your board, not with those outside your organization, and especially not with those who stand in opposition to your work.
Consider some professional media training (FYI – there’s a GREAT masterclass on media training inside my monthly membership community for board and staff leaders, the Nonprofit Leadership Lab.)
After all, it can feel hard to make your point directly.
Do you run a food pantry or homeless shelter? Get ready for folks to take you on. “I saw that person in the food pantry and they had a great looking car. I don’t get it.”
You may want to punch the person in the nose. But learn how to deal with discomfort. “We are not here to judge; we are here to serve.”
Habit 7: Apologize More Often
I have coached countless leaders through their annual reviews. They send me the documentation and then attempt to litigate every point with me, defending how hard they work, calling out the board for not working hard enough, but not hearing what is being said to them.
Defensiveness will take a leader down – I have seen it happen.
Own the decisions you make that aren’t successful. “I thought it would work and it didn’t.” You didn’t return a board member’s call in a timely fashion? Enough already with the, “you just don’t know how busy I am,” and apologize.
Why do people find it so damned hard to just say, I’m really sorry? I dropped the ball.
Get in the habit. I often say that being a nonprofit leader is like being a juggler. But a juggler where someone keeps tossing more and more balls your way.
At some point, you will drop a ball. The effective nonprofit leader makes an intentional decision about which ball to drop.
Habit 8: Be Joyful
If there’s one thing that sets apart a great nonprofit leader from a good one, it’s the joy she brings to the work.
On the good days and on the bad days, there is an underlying vibe – the one that comes with knowing that you are leading an effort to change something in this world that to many seems broken beyond repair.
How can we end hunger? Hey, join me! I run a food kitchen. We make remarkable meals based only on what we pick up at supermarkets. We engage with our guests, brightening their days. We have amazing and joyful volunteers who feel a sense of pride and privilege about their efforts. We all head home tired but knowing that there is something joyful about helping others. It’s a privilege.
ONE BONUS HABIT I’M “STEALING”
Sharpen the Saw
OK, so this one is the same as Covey’s 7th habit. But it’s so important and applies here too.
It comes down to this. If you constantly put the pedal to the metal… if you never take time to develop your skills and deepen your knowledge… you’re going to burn out. You certainly won’t get better at what you do.