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The power of a nonprofit is the size of its “army of the engaged” and the power THEY feel to be engaged in the work. Your army consists of your donors, your volunteers, your board, your supporters, your staff, your advocates. They all play a role.

Sure, strong leadership can lead to strong impact, but that’s not sufficient. As a leader, to grow a movement you need to communicate a clear mission and build an environment in which the actions of your army can lead to real change.

In this episode, you will learn how Rashad Robinson, President of Color Of Change, grew his racial justice organization from a staff of 6, a budget of $650k, and a solid but underutilized email list, to a staff of 40, a budget of $7 million, and a real “army” of 1.4 million people who have been ignited into action. Rashad and his team have built a true movement and he is here today to share what he’s learned.

About Rashad Robinson:

Rashad Robinson is President of Color Of Change, a leading racial justice organization with more than 1.4 million members. Rashad designs winning strategies to build power for Black communities: moving prosecutors to reduce mass incarceration and police violence; forcing over 100 corporations to abandon the right-wing policy shop, ALEC; forcing corporations to stop supporting Trump initiatives and white nationalists; winning net neutrality as a civil rights issue; changing representations of race in Hollywood; moving Airbnb, Google and Facebook to implement anti-racist initiatives; forcing Bill O’Reilly off the air. Rashad appears regularly in major news media and as a keynote speaker nationally.

In this episode:
  • The key to scale an organization and grow a movement
  • Using the model respond, build, pivot, and scale
  • Theory of the ladder of engagement
  • About Stand Your Ground and voter ID laws
  • Passion + Infrastructure + Belief = success
  • Setting the right kind of incentive structure
  • How does your echo chamber affect your communications?
  • The value of playing well in the sandbox to push yourself from an innovation and quality control perspective

The post Ep 81: How to Grow a Movement and an “Army of the Engaged” (with Rashad Robinson) appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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On the one hand, we nonprofit folks are some of the most optimistic people on the planet.

We truly believe we can change some aspect of the world for the better. And rightfully so! One of my favorite things that we do inside the Nonprofit Leadership Lab (my membership community for leaders of small nonprofit) is what we call “Wednesday Wins”. I love it so much because I get to hear story after story of successes (big and small) that our members are having. I cannot tell you how much this lifts me up!

But on the other hand, we nonprofit folks can also be some of the most pessimistic people too. It’s only natural, because nonprofits are messy. Not enough money. Too many cooks. An abundance of passion. Messy. Those words are right at the top of my homepage, after all.

One member of the Lab’s free Thriving Nonprofit Facebook group got to the heart of it:

“I run a nonprofit. I’m everything.” Gets right to the heart of it, doesn’t it?

Being a nonprofit leader (board or staff) is really hard; we all know that. But at the root of what makes it hard is how much it all matters. Emphasis here on the word ‘all.’ Wow. A job where everything matters, where you have to do everything and it is nearly impossible to say no.

I have been there.

Today, I want to help you with a short quiz.

When I have clients or members of the Nonprofit Leadership Lab take a version of this quiz, many of them find that things are actually better in a whole lot of areas than they thought. Wouldn’t that be nice to know?

The other benefit of this quiz is that it will hone you in on what I believe to be the absolute most important thing you can focus on right now. The area where, if you do focus, you will gain the most leverage and momentum and progress for your nonprofit.

Are you ready to begin?

The post Take the Quiz: Is Your Nonprofit Stronger Than You Think? appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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Nonprofits want to change the world in ways large and small. That’s what we’re all about. It’s why so many of us joined the sector.

And yet, when it comes to bringing change into our own organizations, it’s really hard!

To grow the capacity to affect self change, or introduce sustainable change in one’s organization, it’s imperative that we should recognize our natural immunity to change, the language we use, and how the resulting discourse can develop highly functioning teams.

My guest, Lisa Lahey, has, along with her partner Robert Kegan, been studying change for decades and is here to offer you tools you can use to introduce change and make sure it lasts.

Lahey claims there are three forces of nature that can impact our ability to develop, grow and transcend the status quo.

In a dynamic world where transition is often needed, (think leadership transition, new E.D., transforming your board, making changes to the roles and responsibilities in your organization) the ability to become a leader who is aware not only of what they say but how they say it will go a long way toward ensuring change is possible.

About Lisa Lahey

Lisa Lahey is Co-director of Minds At Work, a consulting firm serving businesses and institutions around the world, and faculty at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

She teaches in executive development programs at Harvard University and Notre Dame, and she is regularly asked to present her work throughout the world, most recently in China, Kazakhstan, and New Zealand. Her seminal books, How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work (2001), and Immunity to Change (2009) have been published in many languages. Lisa has been on the faculty of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Conference, and had her work featured in the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times Sunday Business Section, Oprah Magazine and Fast Company.

Lahey and long-time collaborator Robert Kegan are credited with a breakthrough discovery of a hidden dynamic, the “immunity to change,” which impedes personal and organizational transformation. Her work helps people to close the gap between their good intentions and behaviors. This work is now being used by executives, senior teams and individuals in business, governmental, and educational organizations in the United States, South America, Europe, and Asia. Lahey and Kegan recently received the Gislason Award for exceptional contributions to organizational leadership, joining past recipients Warren Bennis, Peter Senge, and Edgar Schein.

For the past several years, Lisa has served as a trusted advisor and executive coach to leaders in the private and public sectors worldwide. A passionate pianist and hiker, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.

In this episode
  • How to recognize certain “defaults” that lower the likelihood of miscommunication
  • What does entropy have to do with organizations and how can it be mitigated?
  • Why is change so hard?
  • What is a language leader?
  • The effect of your inner dialogue on how you communicate outwards
  • Are we aware of how we talk?
  • The danger of limiting assumptions
  • The language of complaint and commitment
  • How is constructive or deconstructive criticism implicit in communication?

The post Ep 80: Why is Change So Hard? (with Lisa Lahey) appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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In the 34 years my wife and I have lived in Montclair, NJ, we have watched arts and culture blossom. That’s due in large measure to those who call this place home. People like my guest, Evelyn Colbert, who is one of the founders of the Montclair Film Festival.

A film festival is a different kind of nonprofit, with a lot of upfront energy and intensity. If it catches on, a festival can develop a year-round presence.

I wanted to know more about this rather unique nonprofit form, to understand the unique gap it fills and what I consider to be its superpower – its ability to build community. As the Executive Director of the SF Film Festival said, “Cinema is one of the most powerful community organizing tools we have.”

I thought you might like to know more about this too.

About Evelyn Colbert

Evelyn McGee Colbert is a founding board member of Montclair Film and currently serves as the President of the Board of Trustees. Ms. Colbert is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Montclair Kimberley Academy and is also a board member of the International African American Museum in Charleston South Carolina. She is an independent film producer and the Vice President of Spartina, a production company that she co-owns with her husband, Stephen Colbert.

Ms. Colbert was formerly the Director of Development for the Remains Theatre in Chicago and, prior to that, the Director of Development for the Drama League of New York. She is a graduate of the Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York and holds a B.A. in English and Theatre from the University of Virginia.

She lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband, Stephen, and their three children.

In this episode:
  • What kind of town welcomes a film festival?
  • What is the requisite background to be on the board of an arts festival?
  • Who’s on first (development, capital campaign, committees…)?
  • The power of storytelling in cinema to build empathy and promote conversation.
  • Can a small town provide sufficient accommodations for a film festival?
  • What does a high-functioning board look like?
  • What are the challenges of sudden growth?
  • Finding new revenue sources that allow for stability.

The post Ep 79: How a Film Festival Impacts Community Building (with Evelyn Colbert) appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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As you read this, there are two things to keep in mind.

1) Great boards often screw up a leadership transition.

2) Mediocre boards always do.

The single most important job a board has is hiring/firing and THEN hiring a new Executive Director. At least a great board stands a fighting chance of getting it right.

I spoke to a board chair once who oversaw a search for a new E.D. after the current staff leader left following a long and strong tenure. The person they hired was kind of a disaster. That’s being kind.

The board chair was actually terrific. I asked him to reflect. “Did you hire the best candidate?” Oh yes, he replied. Then he paused. “But it was a lousy candidate pool and I think we all knew it.”

I’m not at all downplaying just how hard this job is. We’re talking about a group of board members who all have day jobs, working together to make a mission-critical decision.

First let’s talk about why this is so very important today and then I will offer you what I see as the ten most common mistakes boards make when hiring a new Executive Director.


“In the 1970s, a huge, new group of workers entered the workforce. These idealistic world-changers often had nonprofit intentions. Over the next four decades, the number of nonprofit organizations grew from 250,000 to 1.5 million (Hall, 2006; Salamon, 2012). This enormous generation of 75 million people came of age at a time when social justice issues came to the fore and hundreds of thousands of nonprofits were born to address those myriad concerns… Now those same purpose-driven people are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day.”  

This is a quote from a 2018 report by the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management. It’s a very good read about succession planning and I needed a Bayer (aspirin) as soon as I finished reading it.

Our sector is so unprepared for the plight of retiring boomers. And as an aside, the headache inducing report above also calls out the sector for a long list of things – from poor succession plan to retirement plans to boards who hang on to staff leaders who have (their words) “lost their fastballs.”

Boards should be well read on this topic of how their organization should be structured and the policies and procedures needed to retain, evaluate, grow, and develop talent. This would make for a fantastic discussion at a board retreat.

So now.

You have either fired a poor former E.D. or your E.D. has gotten a great new gig or has burned out and needs to retire or is burned out and has to continue working because the organization did not offer any kind of retirement plan.


If you think I am referencing your organization, trust me when I say this. I have seen each of these countless times. It’s why I am writing this post. If anything you read today helps you avoid one of these way-too-common mistakes, it’s been a good day at the office for me.

The following are not in any particular order. All ten are big and they are all common.

1. Too Much Time Crafting the Job Description

Word gets out quickly when there is a transition, causing buzz. People start thinking about their own candidacy or who else might be wonderful. You want to take advantage of that buzz. I have seen far too many search committees edit a job description to death, taking what feels like forever to get it out to the world. You lose valuable time when folks are thinking about the transition in your org. Long delays can lead people to think you hired an interim or made an internal pick.

Be honest. You want someone who can do it all and candidates know you want someone who can do it all. Consider having just one person edit/update the old job description and just get it out as quickly as possible after the transition is announced. And you always have the option of making the description super short with a big headline like “Messiah Wanted.”

2. Put the Current E.D. on the Search Committee

When I left GLAAD, my board was wise enough not to ask. My opinion carried quite a lot of weight – too much in this situation. Equally important, the outgoing E.D. has a bias – probably a bunch of them. Bringing those into the search for my replacement could have swayed the process in the wrong direction.

That said, you do want to know what the outgoing E.D. thinks. Ask the E.D. to prepare a confidential two-pager of what she thinks are the skills, attributes and competencies the board should be looking for. Ask her to include any color commentary about staff management, reaction to change, etc. Anything the E.D. feels would be important context for the search committee. This will be very useful to the search and the E.D. will feel that her valuable perspective is actually at the table. Because it will be.

3. Add a Current Staff Member to the Search Committee

This can happen because boards want to be sure that key staff members, especially an MVP, feels really valued during the search. What happens even more frequently is that the staff will believe it is entitled to a seat at the search committee table. Don’t make this mistake.

But do remember that nonprofit staff expects to have a voice in the work – it is a primary driver for folks into the sector. And while you may think it is odd that a staff member would be part of the decision-making process to hire her boss, remember that she won’t be the one making any decisions.

4. Eliminate Candidates Without Fundraising Experience

Boards are hungry for candidates with proven fundraising experience. While typically well intended, they must beware of their own bias (let’s get a great fundraising E.D. and that will take the heat off of us to fundraise). Perhaps more importantly, a focus on this experience may lead you to miss a passionate champion who is an excellent communicator and relationship builder who has exactly what it takes to be a five-star fundraiser.

If the candidate comes highly recommend by someone of note or if the cover letter makes you want to increase your gift, pay attention and meet her. Ask about how she stewards and sustains relationships. Is she still in touch with colleagues from several jobs ago? From high school?

Here’s what you need:

  1. Passion for the mission
  2. Communication skills
  3. Wild enthusiasm to see the organization thrive

A story from a candidate about securing a six-figure gift can sure be enticing, but there is so much about that ask you don’t know. Trust your gut. Do you want to be led by this candidate? When she speaks to the search committee do you feel your checkbook sliding out of your pocket?

5. Put a Board Member in Charge of the Organization During the Transition

I have seen this situation far too many times. It never goes well. Why? The power balance is totally off. Staff members, already shaky because of the transition, can become guarded or even angry that a board member without a deep understanding of the work is running the shop. And the absolute worst scenario is a board member as interim who remains on the board during the transition. So many mixed signals to staff and two very different hats on the board member’s head.

P.S. This is especially true if that board member has ANY designs on the full time gig.

6. Hire Someone Completely Different from the E.D. You Had

I’m not sure why, but often boards go looking for someone really different from the exiting E.D. Perhaps it is about what the board has learned about the vulnerabilities of the outgoing person. That makes sense. But change for change’s sake is not typically wise.

A terrific candidate with a similar background or personality will make her own mark. That’s what terrific candidates do. Boards lean towards difference to avoid inevitable comparisons, but everyone will compare regardless of whom you hire.

7. Select From a Mediocre Candidate Pool

Searches are time consuming and board members are busy. Whether you hire a firm or handle this work on your own, the process is a serious time bandit. You interview the final three candidates. It’s taken a long time. The transition is taking its toll on everyone, especially staff. The board feels it has to decide.

One person starts to look pretty good compared with the other two. The search committee begins to talk itself into how good that person could be. This mistake is the most common one that will haunt you. Mediocre E.D.s are just that. Mediocre. And they can last a long time because they are hard to fire.

8. Discount Internal Candidates

This is a common mistake that leads me to recommend that someone outside the board serve on the search committee. Maybe a retired E.D. in the community or a respected board member of another respected organization.

It can be really hard to see someone in a different role from the one they are in. In addition, we all carry a bit of age bias. I hear this comment quite a lot. “She’d be great but she is not ready yet.” Are you sure?

I think about this one a lot. When I stepped down from my E.D. role, there were two young rock stars on staff. Neither applied for the job, but I think both could have been persuaded. Did they think they wouldn’t be taken seriously as candidates? Did that keep them from applying?

Are both of them two of the most successful Executive Directors I know today (at other organizations)? Yes.

The search committee may have done the right thing not to consider these two. But I wonder.

9. Too Many Cooks

Please be judicious. A well-rounded search committee willing to do the work is the best recipe for success. What I mean is that everyone on the committee has one question to answer – Is this person the very best to passionately lead and manage this organization? With diplomacy, integrity and joy?

Any other agenda (hidden or otherwise) will spoil the search. Please avoid anyone with undue influence (I mentioned the outgoing E.D. in #2 and staff in #3). Here I’m talking about a founder or a significant donor.

As a general rule of thumb, if you are considering adding someone to the search process because you are afraid of how they will feel or what they might do if they are not on the committee, this should send off many alarm bells.

10. Set Expectations Too High for the New E.D.

Maybe there is a lot to clean up from an E.D. you fired. Or a retiring E.D. overstayed her welcome. You will want to push hard; you will be impatient.

Congratulations. You hired a rock star. Now breathe. Work with the new hire to build a solid 30 and 90 day plan, enabling her to build a strong foundation, build relationships, and establish credibility with some quick wins. And talk a lot about change management – how to be sure that folks are bought into the change that you as board members and the new E.D. see so clearly.


Many boards would not even consider allocating money for an executive coach for their new hire, especially if you invested in a search firm. After all, you hired a rock star.

I work as a strategic advisor for many new CEOs who have followed what we call a “long and strong” E.D. or who follow someone who has been fired (and we all know that if you fire someone, what you find when they leave is always worse than you thought) These folks walk into challenging circumstances and really need thought partners to get things just right.

Include professional development in the compensation package and send a really great message to your “messiah” that you want them to have what they need to be successful. Think Roger Federer. The “messiah” of tennis for over 15 years. He would never walk onto the court without his coach front and center in the Federer box.


It is so very hard to get this transition stuff right. I really hope this advice is of value to the searchers and the candidates. Our sector deserves the very best.

I spend quite a bit of time writing about building strong boards. It’s that critical. Here are a few of my earlier posts to help you continue on your way:

The post 10 Common Mistakes Boards Make When Hiring a New Executive Director appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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Innovation is no longer just a Silicon Valley buzzword. Organizations of all kinds — business, political, educational, cultural, charitable — know the choice they face is to innovate or die out. But it is my hypothesis that this word causes nonprofit leaders to break out in cold sweats. Why?

Innovation – trying something new? Piloting? Risk of failure? Innovation ignites the notion of “task as risk” in the mindset of a nonprofit leader.

Let’s face it. Nonprofit leaders worry about risk. Risk can lead to failure. And nonprofit board members often see their role as managing risk.

And yet……

The demand for social innovation is real. In a 2017 survey of 145 nonprofit leaders, the Bridgespan Group found 80% considered innovation to be an “urgent imperative”, but only 40% believed that their organizations are set up to do so.

What happens when you try to apply the lessons of start-up tech innovation to the social sector? Today we ask someone who was faced with the cold hard reality of these challenges and discuss how she grappled with them. We’ll hear some practical advice about introducing innovation into your work as a nonprofit leader.

You’ll also hear a phrase that is new to me and I’m guessing may be to you. LEAN IMPACT. Now “lean” is a word that the social sector knows way too much about but this phrase is actually a kind of a movement in the tech space that has some real lessons and positive implications in the social sector.

About Ann Mei

Ann Mei Chang is a leading advocate for social innovation who brings together unique insights from her extensive work across the tech industry, nonprofits, and the US government. As Chief Innovation Officer at USAID, Ann Mei served as the first Executive Director of the US Global Development Lab, engaging the best practices for innovation from Silicon Valley to accelerate the impact and scale of solutions to the world’s most intractable challenges. She was previously the Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps and served the US Department of State as Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

Prior to her pivot to the public and social sector, Ann Mei was a seasoned technology executive, with more than 20 years’ experience at such leading companies as Google, Apple, and Intuit, as well as at a range of startups. As Senior Engineering Director at Google, she led worldwide engineering for mobile applications and services, delivering 20x growth to $1 billion in annual revenues in just three years.

Ann Mei currently serves on the boards of BRAC USA and IREX. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, is a member of the Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellows’ class of 2011, and was recognized as one of the “Women In the World: 125 Women of Impact” by Newsweek/The Daily Beast in 2013. She is a keynote speaker who has been featured at TEDx MidAtlantic, SxSW, Social Good Summit, SOCAP, and Lean Startup Week, as well as numerous nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies.

In this episode
  • What are the ‘lean impact’ techniques you can apply today?
  • How to apply the lessons of start up tech innovation to the social sector
  • Why success may rest in starting small
  • How the scarcity model can become self-fulfilling prophecy
  • How to appropriately size up your risk and therefore mitigate losses
  • Staying laser focused on your problem may involve changing what you thought was the solution
  • How do you shift the mindset of your board?
  • Are metrics always numbers? What matters more than vanity metrics?
  • Should you be in love with your problem or with the solution?
  • How evaluating solutions with an open mind to experiment, adopt best practices and partner with others may get you where you are going faster.


The post Ep 78: What Nonprofits Can Learn from Tech Start-ups (with Ann Mei) appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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My glass? Half full. As far as I’m concerned, running a nonprofit is a joy and privilege.

But I’m also a realist. These jobs are hard. You throw your heart and soul into educating, advocating, feeding, lobbying, sheltering – the list goes on.

During my time as an Executive Director, the toughest thing for me was the enormous responsibility I felt.

There was this therapy session. So why are you here? My therapist (who was wonderful) had one of those voices that’s supposed to calm you down. But I was so riled up, her voice could not even make a dent.

I cut to the chase. I really like to help people. It’s part of my DNA. And for the most part I think it is one of my finer qualities…. And probably because of this, I just took a job running a gay rights organization. But I’ve gone overboard. Now I feel like I need to help all the gay people.

Over eight years, I had days when the responsibility felt crushing and I developed some go-to strategies for when I was having a bad day.

Today I offer you my take on the top ten toughest things about being an Executive Director. And because I cannot contain myself, some color commentary and maybe an antidote for each.

10. When a Donor Prospect Says No

There was this trip to San Francisco early on in my tenure. We were broke, but we secured three meetings. Each was going to be a $25,000 ask.

I brought my 9 year old daughter with me on the trip and a friend took charge of her while I had these meetings. I went 0 for 3. Back to the hotel, Scout asked, “So how did it go?” When I told her I was empty handed, she was pensive for a moment and then she asked, “Did you tell each of them how nice they looked?”

This strategy had not crossed my mind. But I laughed long and hard and I never again went on a donor ask without complimenting the prospect on how nice they looked.

9. When Something Goes Horribly Awry

It’s the most solemn moment of your annual gala. Over 2,000 people in the room. A victim of a hate crime is honored. A standing ovation. Solemn music is queued up.

Or so you think.

And then you can’t believe your ears. Frank Sinatra singing New York, New York. You turn to your wife and calmly whisper, “I’m going to get fired tomorrow.”

Turns out absolutely no one even noticed. No idea how that could have been, but just know that sh*t happens. And it is very rarely the end of the world.

8. When You Can’t Decide How To Spend That Big Fat Year End Bonus

While I recognize that this does not happen nearly often, I wish for each of you reading that one day, this one makes your list.

7. When You Can’t Hit Payroll

You’ve seen it coming and tried everything. Of all the emails I receive, this one is the most heartbreaking. Just remember. It is not your fault. And secondly. It is not your job alone to solve it.

Be totally transparent with your staff. Get your board chair to call a special meeting. Open that meeting by saying, “We are in this together. Our work is so very important and it is our people who do it. I need your help. Let’s look at both revenue and expenses. Together.

6. When Your Board Has Disappeared. Like Vanished

It happens. I like to say that the official insect of the nonprofit board is the cricket. Because E.D.’s send out emails, make phone calls and that is what they hear. The sound of crickets.

Please be sure you are communicating in a way that is a) not filled with a list of things you need to nag them about and b) includes something that allows them to touch the work – a story they can share and one that inspires them.

Reduces the cacophony of crickets. I promise.

5. When Literally Every Decision Feels Like It Matters So Much

Just after college I worked in customer service. If I screwed up, maybe the delivery was late. Not the end of the world.

But in the nonprofit sector, it feels like there is absolutely no margin for error.

There is. Honest. Think of yourself as a juggler. A very good juggler. You just have too many balls. Remember that the object of the game is not to keep every single one in the air. You actually can’t. The object of the game is to make intentional decisions about which ones to drop. Stop, prioritize and drop. And then repeat.

4. When You Have To Fire Someone You Were Sure Was a Rockstar

You thought she was perfect. And you have tried everything to help her. You’ve probably tried everything twice because you are someone who believes deeply in helping people.

So you’ve waited too long. Two thoughts for you if this one rang a bell. First, don’t try everything twice. Once is just fine and the longer you wait, the more the work suffers. Second, dig deep and consider the interview process. Include anyone who was involved in a thoughtful debrief (at least 30 minutes). You need to be sure to learn from making the wrong hire. Were there red flags? Pink ones? Did you ignore them? What did you miss?

I generally find that a debrief unearths clues, signs that pointed to the exact issues that led to the termination. Next time, don’t ignore them.

3. When the Responsibility of the Job Crushes You

As I mentioned, this one was very tough for me. I know I am not alone.

You sit at your desk and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Like the “man behind the curtain” in The Wizard of Oz (the technical term for this is “imposter syndrome.”)

You are waiting for the real and qualified leader to walk through the door. Grab your phone and turn the camera on yourself (assuming a mirror is not handy) and repeat after me. “The board believed I could do this job. This week I did _____ and it had real value. I can do this.”

And then go find some work to touch. Answer a phone call, meet a client. And just take it one person at a time.

2. When You Run Out of Kleenex

When I moved from the for-profit sector to nonprofit, I had no idea. Fifteen years in corporate and not a single tear.

In my office I had a nice pen holder, post-it notes, pictures of my kids. But Kleenex? Nope. And then I began my work as a nonprofit Executive Director. Within two day (maybe less), a staff member sat in my office to explain a problem and I watched in stunned silence as the staffer started to choke up and then actual tears. I felt like I had arrived in an alien land. With not a single Kleenex. I would not be caught gaping like that again without supplies, so the next morning I brought in a box of tissues.

Good thing. That morning, I got down to business. I hit ‘print’ on a solicitation letter to a significant prospect. The letter had to go out ASAP; we were short for payroll (see #7 above). I pulled the letter off the printer. There was not one but two typos. I had wasted a piece of letterhead. We couldn’t even afford letterhead. I was overcome. I burst into tears.

I grew to understand that the passion your team feels about the mission is essential to your organization’s ability to have real and lasting impact. And so except for tears that came with firing someone (see #4), I came to really appreciate the need for Kleenex.

1. When You Simply Do Not Know Where To Start

You are absolutely paralyzed. You are reminded of the job interview when a search committee member said with excitement, “You’ll get to do everything in this job!!!!”

She meant it. And you took the job anyway. And now here you are staring at “everything.”

My antidote for this condition: First pick one thing on your list that really can wait. Secondly, pick a thing on your list that someone else can (or should) do.

Third, call your favorite board member, volunteer, staff member or donor. Take just five minutes to tell that person how grateful you are for what they do for the organization.

Next, grab your phone and take another five minutes. Scroll through your photo stream and look at the faces of the people you love. And be reminded that they love you back.

OK, now you are ready. Pick one thing you absolutely need to do and get to work. The world is counting on you.

Are there others that drive you nuts? Tell us about them in the comments below.

The post The Top 10 Things that Drive Executive Directors Nuts appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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Development and Communications departments in nonprofits have not always seen eye to eye. It’s more than just a lack of interaction – more than just, “We know enough about what ‘they’ do.”

There has historically been tension between the two. Staying on message is the wheelhouse of the Communications team and there are times when the development folks need the message to be different. A certain kind of arrogance maybe? Development staff might say, “We know the messaging that really speaks to donors and your branding messaging does not work – we can’t hit our goals using that messaging.”

This tension leads to silos – never a good thing in nonprofit organizations. And silos lead to competing messages. Also never a good thing.

More and more nonprofits are merging these functions under one umbrella – often called External Affairs.

I found us a guest who can help us make sense of all this. He is a career nonprofit communications professional who less than a year ago took charge of the Development function and is in fact his organization’s Director of External Affairs.

I wanted to learn more about all of this – the origins of the tensions and whether this merging works or muddies the water. And I thought you might benefit from learning about it too.

About Steve Ralls

Steve Ralls is Director of External Affairs for Public Justice, a non-profit legal advocacy organization that pursues high impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability, and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses. Steve oversees Public Justice’s media, messaging, outreach and development initiatives. Prior to joining Public Justice, Steve was Communications Director for Immigration Equality, a legal aid and advocacy organization dedicated to securing equal access to immigration rights, including asylum and marital immigration benefits, for LGBT immigrants and their families. He also worked for nearly a decade with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, where he spearheaded communications for the successful campaign to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbian and gay service members. Steve’s work has included national media coverage in the nation’s leading print, online, television and radio news outlets. He has placed media stories in, and been quoted by, The Washington Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Politico, Associated Press, National Public Radio, CBS News, CNN and numerous other outlets. He has also placed dozens of op-eds and editorials and has coordinated coverage of impact litigation cases, and diverse legal issues, on national news magazines, including 20/20, Nightline and a groundbreaking 60 Minutes report on openly gay troops serving in the war zone.

In this episode
  • The challenge of having two functions under external affairs
  • How to communicate to a general audience
  • What happens when different departments want to talk about different things
  • The benefits of having development and communications under one roof
  • Where does the messaging buck stop?
  • How does prioritizing mission and message affect donors’ reactions?
  • What is the role of an Executive Director and how can they inspire everyone to have a seat at the table?


The post Ep 77: Navigating the Tension Between Development and Communications (with Steve Ralls) appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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It seems to me that an all white board for the NAACP wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense but having some diversity on a board may be more critical than you think. Without diversity boards lack differing perspectives, skill sets, and backgrounds.

It’s time to speak the truth. To stop hiding behind ‘code.’ Seems to me it is time for us to take a close look at what we mean by diversity and why it matters.

I hear it all the time. “We need to diversify our board.” It’s interesting how often people answer the question using some form of the word “diversity”.

We need diverse perspectives. We have to avoid groupthink – it’s probably impacting our ability to think differently.

I believe there are 4 primary obstacles to building a diverse board. In this episode, I explain what they are and I’ll tell you exactly how you can overcome them.

In this episode
  • What I mean by “diversity”
  • How do founders build boards?
  • What your nonprofit has in common with a Broadway play?
  • The 4 obstacles to a diverse board and how to overcome them
  • How much planning is really necessary for diversity?
  • The importance of “layering”
  • Truth or myth:
    • All board members must be wealthy or know people who are
    • The best place to find board members is in your hometown
    • Term limits are not practical


The post Ep 76: The 4 Obstacles to a Diverse Board appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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Useless meetings? I have had my share. Bet you have too.

Back in my corporate America days I would find myself sitting in meetings that were just a pure waste of time.

Maybe the meeting was poorly led. Or the convener liked to hear herself talk. Or there was no agenda. Or the meeting got awkward for any number of reasons.

Later, as a nonprofit board member, I left board meetings thinking I could have called in, put the phone on mute and checked Facebook. I had learned nothing that I had not read in the written packet.

My technique for dealing with useless meetings? I called it “wood grain analysis.” My technique for disappearing from the room. A nice close look at the patterns and an opportunity to make mental lists about the work I should be doing.

And I’ll confess. I am certainly not immune to this problem here in my consulting shop. I have let staff members drone on (I did not want to hurt their feelings or embarrass them in front of colleagues). I have raced into meetings unprepared to lead it and pulled some agenda out of thin air.

We have all done it.

But during a recent break I discovered the antidote to this syndrome, and I felt compelled to share it with you.


It was a corporate department retreat. I remember it like it was yesterday but it was actually nearly 20 years ago. Arizona. A group of maybe 100? A five-star resort.

The highlight for me was night golf. Each of us equipped with a headlamp and a cup with a corporate logo. Oh yes, and glow-in-the-dark golf balls.

After each hole, there was a bar and buffet, each with a different theme. By hole three, it didn’t matter if the ball glowed in the dark. It could have been a soccer ball and I would have not have been able to see it.

Frankly, I’m surprised I can even remember this golf expedition. It’s the only thing I remember from the retreat.

I suppose that the conveners would say the purpose was to appreciate our hard work or to build a stronger sense of team. Or maybe to motivate us after presentations about the great work our company was going to do that year.

I do remember thinking that it was horribly ironic for a finance team to spend this kind of money.

I’m not gonna lie. It was fun. Really fun.

I felt appreciated and it was great to have a few days off in the sun during the winter. And I actually do play golf.

But the problem? The planning was about location, not purpose. I went home with a cup with the logo, a few golf ball souvenirs and most definitely stories about how my colleagues (and I) made fools of ourselves. Yes, there was some team building but ‘team building’ is not enough. It has to be in the service of something more. Something meaningful.

Make this the year that you gather with purpose.


Here’s my gift to you as you begin to think about how this year might look different, better, and more productive.

It’s a book. The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.  

It will not take you long to read. As a board chair you need to buy it right now. E.D.? Buy it right now.

And if you have a group of direct reports who have teams, buy it for them right now too. Begin to introduce a new way of thinking about how and why you meet.

This post is intended to whet your appetite about the book, not to let you off the hook from reading it in its entirety. So here are a few key takeaways. Here’s hoping they will intrigue you and lead you to want to know more and make the changes that you and your organizations deserve.


You will never say, “I wish we didn’t have so many meetings” ever again if you follow what Parker writes. She notes that the freedom to assemble is a foundational right granted to every individual. Why? Because amazing things can happen “when people come together, exchange information, inspire one another and test out new ways of being together.”


I hear this all the time. “Joan, can you facilitate our board retreat. We have the agenda set and we plan to allocate some of the time for a board meeting. You just need to manage the group.”

I turn down these requests because they are just looking for a traffic cop.

Parker articulates the role of a facilitator simply and with remarkable clarity. “My job is to put the right people in a room and help them to collectively think, dream, argue, heal, envision, trust and connect for a larger purpose…. I strive to help people experience a sense of belonging.”

Wow. Bet you never really thought of a facilitator as being that kind of magician.

You will now.


We do it all the time. We label the gathering and think we are off the hook. The “staff meeting”, the “senior team meeting”, “the board meeting”, “the staff offsite”. Even “the dinner party.” We believe that the name, the category defines the need.

I was coaching a Communications Director, recently promoted to be a member of the senior team of a mid-sized organization. She was puzzled. “I don’t know what it means to be on the senior team. Best I can figure is that I just go to a lot more meetings and I’m getting a lot less done.”

Meetings are convened by these categories and the categories are presumed to define the reason for the meeting.

And don’t get me started by conveners who are unprepared or meetings without agendas.


Weekly staff meetings. Let’s grab the agenda from last week. Or better yet, ask folks what should be on the agenda.

Or how about board meetings? After a while you just follow what you’ve done. Your reports are the same. And this leads right back to ‘wood grain analysis.’


What do you want from the gathering? What will success look like? Then, as Parker says, ‘reverse engineer’ the design to lead to that outcome. She references a quarterly meeting to discuss how the year is going. But that is not a clear enough purpose. What is? If the purpose is to generate a list of actionable changes you will make in the next quarter as a function of the quarterly results, well, that is an outcome.


Ever hear this? “Why was in that meeting?” Or better still, “I don’t know why they had that meeting without me!” If the convener can explain the desired outcome for the meeting with clarity and specificity, it then becomes wildly clear who should be at the table. And easy to explain why someone is or isn’t at that table.


I credit not Parker, but rather my client and friend Dara Klarfeld, the CEO of DRG Search with this takeaway. Actually, I credit Dara with suggesting that I read this book, so I owe her a big ol’ shout out. She had me at hello when she said, “I am changing how I gather at work and I am approaching my son Harry’s bar mitzvah through a completely different lens.”

Here’s what she said that led me to order the book immediately.

“The book has inspired me to make sure that we are always meeting with purpose, and helps us to better keep track of how to make sure that we have balance in our purpose. The book has inspired us to dramatically change the way we think about how we interact as a team—how to help people to manage their time better, and how to better serve our clients.

BUT, the real value for me in the book was about how intentional gathering can be a critical pathway to finding balance in your life. Intentional gathering gives us a pathway and permission to work hard and smart, celebrate with real meaning and purpose, build relationships in an open and honest way and play without being apologetic.

I just thought the entire idea was brilliant—mostly because it’s right there in front of us, and nobody had really named it yet!”


We have an amazing database filled with contacts, leads, projects, and tasks. This helps us to keep ourselves on track and provide the best services to our nonprofit clients.

But I don’t run my business for the huge thrill of crossing tasks off my to do list. I do this work because I am inspired by my clients, and intrigued and motivated to help them solve problems. My clients give me hope and I believe that in a world that feels pretty broken, I am helping to repair some small pieces of it.

But what about Marge my business manager, or Cindy who runs my business and fields incoming requests? Or my admin or our paid intern who answer incoming email from leaders who are really struggling? How do I ensure that they feel that same sense of meaning and purpose?

And so my own new commitment is a one-hour weekly meeting. It’s not to make sure we are all on task or budget, but rather to bring the work to life.

Lindsay and Dan may be working on something that Trevor is not aware of. He may have an interesting perspective based on what he hears from our blog subscribers. The purpose of this meeting – to connect my team to the work, to bring the work to life, to motivate folks and as a result, to take a smart group of people who may very well add value to how we serve our clients and to generate ideas that could lead to new ways of approaching our work, and supporting and advocating for those we are privileged to work with.

Here’s hoping this book inspires you in a similar way.

Want to learn more about the right way to run meetings?

The post The Best Book I Read This Past Year appeared first on Joan Garry Nonprofit Leadership.

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