Stand in the Gap

It’s fairly dumb… when you think about it. When you chart it on a whiteboard and stare at it for a while. Why does anybody decide to go work for a nonprofit? Can you even make any money doing that? (the name seems to indicate a real lack of profitability) In general, you’re going to work an excessive amount of hours averaging 60+ per week for an excessively low amount of compensation. Why, why, why would anyone do that? Or keep doing that? I have been for more than 14 years. Perhaps I’m fairly dumb… when you think about it. But the need must be met, and some of us are the ones who must stand in the gap on behalf of others.

3 Reasons to Work for a Nonprofit Today

It’s A Calling – Yes, we are starting with a cliche. Where else could we begin? Nobody with talent is going to work for a nonprofit without having a true, legit passion for the cause being advanced. You’re going to shed tears, sweat, and likely blood in your pursuit of success in this sector, and none of that is worth anything to you without a personal connection. If you have a deep yearning within to own property, retire early, and have any amount of disposable income, seek work elsewhere. If you want to toil and grind and accept only those recognitions that come in handshakes and smiles, then nonprofit is for you!

It May Be Your Why – We all have one. A why. Why we’re here… our purpose. Have you figured yours out yet? It could be within your work. We spend all of the best, most capable years of our lives working. Does your career have purpose? Do you have purpose? Perhaps those answers lie within the mission of a nonprofit. I did not know that my purpose would align with the nonprofit I chose to work for at the beginning. Fortunately it did, and in fact, my why (Why with a capital W??… idk) evolved and was only to be fully discovered a decade in to my profession as I gained new responsibilities and my true talent unfolded. Purpose is important, and you may be more likely to discover it pursuing a cause than a bottom line.

Someone Must Stand in the Gap – Nonprofit work, whatever the cause, is important. Invaluable. Without the effort that volunteers and staff give to impact these missions, the world would be an even darker place that it can feel at times. If not you, then who? Who will stand up and fill the gap on behalf of those who cannot? Who will ensure the future for our kids, our economic development, our ability to meet critical needs? I’ve seen so much talent come and go in the nonprofit sector. People who have the ability to capitalize on their gifts and make more money have gone on to do so. And good for them! Yet, there is a gap to fill. And there always will be.

I found my niche in the nonprofit world. And I have found it to be extremely profitable, despite it’s namesake. I have profited from the impact I’ve made and the growth I’ve experienced. But I’m just me. Just one. It will take many more to fill the gap. And I hope you’ll consider it – if not as a career, than as a volunteer cause to champion. Real talent is rare and fleeting, bring yours to bear on something that matters – stand in the gap on behalf of those who cannot stand for themselves.

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To Hop or Not To Hop?

With nearly 13 years spent in the same profession (my first out of college by the by), I am fascinated by the ever increasing rate at which individuals are job hopping.  Maybe it’s a case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) that makes me wonder how they keep being lured by greener pastures.  Or perhaps, like more and more trends these days (looking at you snapchat), I just can’t relate to the impulse felt by my younger colleagues.  I was recently asked by a habitual “job hopper”, how I could possibly have stayed so long with the same organization.  Upon reflection, I gave three reasons:

1. I do what I love – I often don’t love what I’m doing in a given moment, but I certainly am passionate for the work and impact that I make through my organization.  But a worthy mission or cause will only sustain you so long.  Every day, I schedule time to do things within my role that I truly enjoy.  And I strive to make each moment valuable for those around me.  An early mentor of mine told me to “be the best part of someone else’s day”, and I’ve greatly benefitted from that advice.  You have to find a career that you can be (and stay) passionate about, and that allows you to operate in a way in which you thrive.

2. I’m good at it – I’m not always great at it, but my job is extremely well suited for my God given talents.  If there wasn’t a match between my abilities and my responsibilities, I likely would have jumped myself.  A large part of job satisfaction is derived from goal achievement and subsequent recognition.  Either find something that you can excel at, or invest the time to gain the skills and become excellent where you are.  The latter requires a commitment to stay though…

3. I hop jobs too – Every 2-3 years I’ve hopped to a new job, but they’ve all been within the same organization.  This was only possible because of 1 and 2 above: doing what I love + being good at it = bigger opportunities.  Be willing to bite off more than you can chew, step out of the boat, lean in, (insert cliche of choice) and commit to do the work.

Is today’s rising workforce all that different than previous generations?  Yes and no.  Each of my parents have only had one career, which is arguably the largest influence on my own career path.  I’m confident that they would share similar reasons above for why they chose not to hop.  Turns out that boomers, x-ers, and millennial (-ers?) all have the same hopes and dreams as well as desires for their careers.  Perhaps the youngest of us are simply braver.  Whatever the motivations, if job hopping ultimately gets more people in the right seat on the right bus, won’t the world be a better place?

1. Jump 2. Build Plane 3. Soar

A friend of mine just jumped off a cliff. He’s hoping to build a plane before he hits the bottom of the canyon. He quit his job and has founded a start up. He’s crazy. He’s courageous. And he’s inspirational. Crazy, because he is well established in his career and has been rather successful. Courageous, because there is little to no safety net for him to land on. Inspirational, because it is that entrepreneurial spirit that so much of the nonprofit sector lacks. And everything that it needs.

The topsy turvy economy of the last decade has hit nonprofits particularly hard. During this time of uncertainty and familiar wells drying up, most nonprofit executives attempted to maintain status quo. Refusing to believe the very writing on the wall, we continued to draw from dry wells believing they would magically refill themselves. Much like the auto industry’s spiraling down was due to a lack of innovation, nonprofits have by and large sat back and only reacted to the shifting environment.

There are of course exceptions. An entrepreneurial buzz word these days is “growth hacking”, which essentially is taking the concepts that computer hackers use and applying them to marketing a startup.

Key concepts in growth hacking include:

– Test the boundaries of what can be done – growth requires the sandbox to be redefined

– Nothing is ever complete, and that it can always be done better – growth comes through innovation and continuous improvement

– Everything is “marketing” – we live in an on demand society and every single thing your organization, your staff, you, and your volunteers is telling your story

– Disruption – upset the status quo to gain attention

– Full socialization – you must connect with the grassroots of your constituents, customers, donors, volunteers, and the general public

The ice bucket challenge created with such amazing success by ALS is perhaps the greatest implementation of growth hacking concepts by a nonprofit. It disrupted the concept of fundraising by creating a simple but shocking visual. It was entirely social but succeeded because it gave a personal call to action. Imagine sparking something of that magnitude not by challenging all to participate, but by challenging just one person at a time. They found something that anyone could do and that would resonate with everyone.

It is this spirit of entrepreneurship that we desperately need in nonprofit leadership today. Not the play it safe, status quo attitude that is so pervasive. But rather to be like my cliff jumping, plane building friend. To be crazy and courageous enough to become an inspiration.

Nonprofit Work is a Contact Sport

Countless applicants to my company walk in assuming that working for a nonprofit is a “happy go lucky” routine where days are filled with easy and fulfilling work. And while it is always fulfilling, it is seldom easy. Affecting social change is difficult. In fact, throughout history, any real and lasting social change has required great struggle and sacrifice. The reality of nonprofit work today is that more resources are needed than ever before, and that those resources are limited. Be it talent, treasure, or time that is being asked of the good-hearted people of the world, there is less to go around. And more organizations are asking than ever before. The resulting environment is one that requires grit, determination, and persistence to achieve success.

How to thrive in the “contact sport” of nonprofit work:

1. Persistence – it’s a game of how many contacts you make. And remake. And remake. When you’re asking people to give of themselves, you typically aren’t speaking to one of their highest priorities. Even if they are extremely passionate about your organization, it will still fall lower on their list than they’re own work, family, and hobbies. Success requires constant development of new contacts, and steady (pleasant) persistence with those that you have made. Keep cultivating, keep seeking the right fit, and keep asking – it will pay off over time.

2. Performance – the margins in nonprofit work can be uncomfortably thin requiring you to perform consistently. It is imperative that you capitalize on the contacts you develop to leverage the resources need to make your organization successful. A bad year for a nonprofit can potentially be it last. And it’s the needy recipients of that organization’s mission that lose out; not a group of shareholders. To ensure consistent performance – be consistent! Have a routine focused on those activities that will drive growth on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis. Commit to achieve that routine on the designed cadence regardless of the environmental factors you face. Focusing on and executing the right process will almost always lead to your desired performance.

3. Pads – nonprofit workers create wonderful and positive impact for people in need, but they themselves need to have a tough skin. Social change can be brutally difficult and most of the contacts that you make (and remake) are going to say no. You may even dream so big, that some people will laugh at you. If not, they will certainly doubt. And that’s okay. It takes a special person to truly commit to and affect real change in the world. For those that pursue that worthy endeavor, I recommend lacing up some thick pads every morning. Armor yourself with the truth of the impact that your organization creates. Take courage and hope in the knowledge that while this day may have been a failure, the war can and will be won because of your persistent performance.

Nonprofit work is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done or can imagine doing. It’s exhausting, requires incredibly long hours, and often feels thankless. It takes sacrifice, an entrepreneurial spirit, and irrational faith. And those are just a few of the things I love about it.

Managing Millennial Managers

Being blessed with the opportunity to coach and guide several young non-profit executives over the last few years has given me great insights about the needs of millennials in the business environment. Recently, I have had the opportunity to start managing millennials who are themselves now managing others – a topic with precious few articles or guidance. As the best of this generation finds success and climbs the ladder, their leadership of our organizations and businesses will be the new paradigm. How do we help develop them in these roles so that they are consistently successful?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Mirror of Management – it’s not until they lead other millennials that they fully recognize the attributes (positive and negative) of their generation. This creates a great opportunity for self reflection and can be the needed catalyst for growth.

2. Faster Feedback – the need for the feedback loop to close quickly increases as millenials lead their peers. Observing and immediately providing honest feedback in a positive way is critical. They crave advancement and leadership, but still need steady affirmation.

3. Voice Validation – while quick to be vocal, most young leaders have not yet found their own voice. Helping them to lead from who they are, not from what they’ve seen or read, and giving that voice honest validation makes a huge difference.

4. Easy Empowerment – be willing to give authority away as much as possible. One of the most frequent complaints of young executives is that they don’t have much say in real decision making. Few things will gain their trust and loyalty more than handing them the keys. My executives know that in nearly all decisions they have 51% of the vote.

5. Constant Collaboration – millennials, more than any previous generation, need to feel valued and trusted. By collaborating at all times in your approach, you will create an environment where value and trust are at the forefront. More importantly, leadership through collaboration of them will teach them to lead and manage their teams in the same fashion.

It’s tough for any generation to fully understand those that come before or after it, however there is a real opportunity to embrace this next group of leaders and managers. They are going to change the way we communicate across the entire organization chart, and be a catalyst for significant growth. By helping to develop rather than bemoan them, we will ensure sustainable success for our organizations and our future.

The Great Divide-d Attention

What are you paying attention to these days? How many screens are glowing in front of you right now? 3 for me. My attention has become so divided that it is a struggle to focus on any one thing, even when I desperately need to. In fact, I find myself seeking division when there aren’t enough streams of information pouring in. I am constantly trying to escape situations that I chose to be in, and most often to focus on something with little redeeming value. The net effect of that is a feeling that my time is constantly being wasted, and what’s worse is that I am the one wasting it! Here are my 4 strategies to tune out and in:

1. No Pushing – I have shut down all push notifications on my phone. No twitter, I would not like to welcome Betty Lou Who. Yes ESPN, I know that my second round fantasy pick WR is benched with a knee injury. And thank you Facebook, I will log right in to view my college roommates latest photo bomb escapades. My phone is a constant companion as it is my calendar, notebook, and keeper of so many other tools. But it must, must, must become a silent partner!

2. Penmanship – Typing quickly may be the most efficient way to take notes, but it is also the most distracting to EVERYONE. Hiding behind the opened lid of a laptop or upright tablet creates enough separation that you might as well leave the room. Plus, it is so tempting to multi task and check my Linked In profile rather than follow along with whomever is speaking… #guilty. I’m carrying pen and paper to all meetings these days for taking notes that I later transfer to Evernote. Keeps me focused and attentive while allowing me to rediscover how to write a cursive Z.

3. Peep Game – Turns out that making eye contact and being an active listener has many other benefits beyond knowing what people are saying. Real conversation is built as much on non-verbal communication as anything else whether sent by the eyes, hands, or otherwise. You may be amazing at listening while texting, but you’re missing half the message looking down and not up.

4. No Power Hour – Remember when you walked into a coffee shop without scouting out all the available outlet locations? Me neither. I’m going to start carving out an hour every day where I will not use any devices whatsoever. No phone, tablet, tv, laptop, ebook, etc. Anticipating the challenge here being equally split between actually finding that time, and then keeping myself from napping during it. But I’m excited to find out what I might do in that time. Read, write, pray, think, talk to myself… Who knows?

Paying someone your undivided attention is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, and as a bonus it is also a tremendous gift to yourself. It will lead to deeper relationships, more efficient communication, and perhaps better handwriting. You will also distinguish yourself from everyone around you who is too busy “escaping” the moment.

Swing and a Miss? It’s Not the End of the Game

You’re at the plate. It’s finally your turn. You’ve been preparing for this moment with intention, purpose, and a singular focus. The possible outcomes range from a “hero crowning” grand slam to a “loser labeling” strikeout. It’s your time. And then it isn’t. You swing for the fences and miss the ball. Your goal slips away. All eyes watch you as you walk back to the dugout. Your teammates, your coach, your family, your supporters – all eyes are on you. Are you studying your shoelaces, or walking with the confidence that comes because you earned a spot on the roster?

When you play hard there are bound to be disappointments, especially once you reach the “big leagues”. It is quite easy to let the hurt and the loss show in very apparent ways, and to let those emotions rule you over the coming days and weeks. Depending on the scope of your “miss”, it might even be understood by all who are watching. But what opportunities are you missing by focusing solely on yourself?

Striking out gives you the chance to model humility and grace and to show the true character you possess. Every person watching you will one day deal with a loss equal to what you’re experiencing. Let your steps off the field, and the actions that you demonstrate, be a model to them. Acting in anger and frustration is only going to sow seeds of those same emotions within them.

My organization has a fairly well known motto of “Be Prepared”. It’s in times of struggle and loss that I find those words the most profound. I reflect on how I have been prepared for those moments by all the people I esteem and have watched in similar circumstances. And most importantly, I reflect on how my failure is preparing me for my next at bat. Because I will be back to the plate again and again.

Effective Engagement of Volunteer Boards

As the demand for people’s time is ever increasing in today’s over programmed society, their interest and ability to give of what they can spare is diminishing. No longer are people getting involved just because its a good cause. There needs to be a deeper connection that creates a strong affinity between the individual, the organization, and its mission. And more and more, there needs to be a direct return on investment for the volunteer. While these truths have always been present, they have never been more stark. Understanding and leveraging these ideas will help your organization achieve more success. Here’s how you can create more effective engagement of volunteer non-profit boards:

1. Be Mission Minded – lead with your values and core objectives in every conversation, meeting, and communication to your constituents. The individuals who have committed to give of their precious time did so because of what the organization does and represents. Make sure you are keeping that in front of you, your team, and all stakeholders at every opportunity. Constantly reconnecting people to the “why” will keep them consistently focused on the “how”.

2. Build Real Relationships – it is just as (and becoming more so) important for volunteers to have a relationship with the people that work for your organization, as it is with the mission itself. We all want to have meaningful and substantive connection to the people we spend time with. When a volunteer leader can give time to a cause they are passionate about and be fulfilled by the people they work alongside, their engagement will reach new heights. Both volunteers and staff will have a deeper commitment to achieve, because they won’t want to let the other down. And as the lines between “giving time to” and “spending time with” start to bleed together real win-wins will develop.

3. Actively Acknowledge – giving thanks just isn’t enough when people are giving what has become their most precious commodity. Go deeper and recognize your volunteer leaders for the things they achieve outside of your organization. Most of their life is spent in pursuit of their career goals and family happiness, and they will be deeply touched to know that you care about them for those things in addition to what they give. Actively investigate the things that matter to them and recognize them for success in those areas. Acknowledge it personally with a note, publicly at your next board meeting, and proactively in front of their peers. The more they feel valued by you, the more they will value what they do for your organization.

For non-profit organizations that depend on volunteer leadership and oversight to successfully achieve their mission, effective engagement at the board level is critical. Recognize that the face of volunteerism is rapidly changing, and be committed to adapting and innovating how you engage volunteers. Being intentional and strategic in that process will yield exponential returns.