Monday, February 22, 2010

Correlations Between Being a Great Teacher and Being a Great Nonprofit

This is a repost from John's 2/8 post at the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

When my colleagues discuss nonprofit organizations, often they use a variety of analogies and comparisons. Sometimes an analogy is made between a nonprofit and a hospital, often discussing the nonprofits challenges with words relating to “surgery” or at times “life support.” Sometimes they are compared to a car, comparing the various engine parts to the sections of a nonprofit. The comparison I like and most often use is comparing a nonprofit to an elementary school classroom. Having recently volunteered in my son’s Pre-K classroom I know that I could be simultaneously leading a reading group, cleaning up a mess and consoling a crying youngster. Nonprofit organizations, like a classroom, have many moving parts.

I was thinking about this after I read an interesting article in the January 2010 edition of The Atlantic. The article, by Amanda Ripley, asks the central question of “What makes a great teacher?” In getting to this question, Ripley was given access to years of data compiled by the nonprofit group, Teach for America (TFA). Through this analysis, TFA came to some central characteristics that make up a great teacher. They concluded that great teachers:

• Set big goals for their students.
• Continually look for ways to improve their effectiveness and constantly reevaluate their performance.
• Recruited students and their families into the process.
• Maintained focus, “ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning”.
• Planned “exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome”
• Worked “relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.”

When I looked at these characteristics I began thinking about the earlier classroom analogy between a great teacher and a great nonprofit. My thoughts on the comparisons, using additional analogies, are:

• Most nonprofit have lofty dreams. The difference between these nonprofits and great ones is that a great nonprofit’s mission and vision should remain lofty but its closely related goals are realistic and attainable. Many nonprofits often drive in circles toward what they believe is a goal, but really are endlessly driving around that lofty dream.

• Great nonprofits know that their march toward mission effectiveness is a constant working of a muscle, often adding a weight to the bar or altering a routine to reach their potential. Often times ambitious nonprofits approach effectiveness like an audit, performing a Jiffy Lube exercise of creating and monitoring checklists to reach “effectiveness”. Great nonprofits know their dashboard is on a moving trajectory that they are constantly working toward.

• Great nonprofits create an environment in which multiple players all have parts in their symphony, each one important. Many nonprofits have conditioned themselves to believe that real participation into their success is to involve clients and partners in an obligatory bit role, ranging in activities like providing a feedback box for staff or having client representation on an executive or board committee. Great nonprofits know that client and partner interaction needs to be intertwined into the operational fabric of the organization.

• Great organizations are experts at saying the word “No”. “No” to Requests for Proposals that don’t meet the mission, “No” to a board member’s ambition that could take the organization astray, “No” to staff working from their own agenda, “No” to partners wishing to collaborate solely to obtain a resource. While you may think that the word “No” creates an unmotivated environment, it’s actually the opposite in a great nonprofit. The loud roar of the “Yes” significantly drowns out the diminishing whisper of the “No”.

• An easy test I often use when looking at an organization is to see if the threads of planning at the top reach the day-to-day work in the middle or at the bottom. Successful nonprofit organizations are able to plan and create mechanisms to monitor planning throughout the organization. Try this exercise: Grab an organization’s strategic plan, the ED’s most recent report to the board, the job description of a middle manager and that middle manager’s latest performance review. Can you see some symmetry? Poor organizations have little, average organizations have some and great nonprofits have a lot.

• Great nonprofits also say “No” to barriers that prevent them from mission success. “No” to political roadblocks that may shut them out, “No” to technological forces that challenge them to connect and “No” to resource inflows that could be narrowing. Like great teachers, great nonprofits are “relentless” and “refuse to surrender”. This is what I like to call “Third Sector Grit” and is what makes the nonprofit world so great.

While I know that the classroom also has aspects that are different from a nonprofit, I do see a very close relationship to what TFA regards as a great teacher to what I regard as a great nonprofit.

“Flag on the Play” for a Multi-Million Dollar Nonprofit

This is a repost from John's 2/19 post at the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Two February 7th Events – One nonprofit rose over $450 million dollars and the other worked toward a goal of $15,000. Which one is the true nonprofit organization?

On February 7th, the Courage Center held its 4th annual benefit for Camp Courage, which offers safe, accessible, natural environments for children with disabilities. Founded in Minnesota in 1928, the Courage Center is a nonprofit organization that set a goal of $15,000 dollars for its Dance with Courage event.

On the same day, the National Football League (NFL), a registered nonprofit organization, successfully raised an estimated $463 million dollars through its annual Super Bowl event, according to Sports Research Institute. The event was seen by over 100 million people and an estimated 112,000 people were in attendance. Some other interesting facts include:

* The highest donation category for the Camp Courage event was the “Mikhail Baryshnikov” level at $100. The Super Bowl sold 30-second commercial advertising space for approximately $2.6 million dollars a spot.
* The NFL’s CEO Roger Goodell is reportedly paid over $10 million dollars, which is approximately three times more than the top nonprofit CEO salary cited by Money Magazine, James Mongan of Partners HealthCare Systems in Massachusetts. Mr. Goodell makes nearly 44 times more than the CEO at the Courage Center according to 990 records.
* The NFL has 13 subsidiaries, seven of them tax exempt. The smallest of the seven tax exempt subsidiaries are those that are dedicated toward philanthropic causes, including NFL Charities and the NFL Youth Fund. Rick Cohen, in his Nonprofit Quarterly blog The Cohen Report (8/12/08), cited that in the 2005 990, the NFL gave away to charitable causes slightly under $10 million dollars. This is approximately one tenth of 1% of its annual revenue. Foundations are required by law to distribute annually at least 5 percent of their net assets.
* The NFL’s 2009 annual revenue is $7.6 Billion dollars, according to Forbes Magazine. That would make it over $2 billion more in revenue than the Mayo Foundation, the largest U.S. charity cited by Forbes. The league’s least valued team, the Oakland Raiders at $797 million dollars, is greater than many large for-profit companies.

Something is wrong with this scenario. I am not sure if the NFL truly complies with the nonprofit corporation definition of operating for educational, charitable, social, religious, civic or humanitarian purposes.

While the proceeds of the Camp Courage event will be dedicated toward advancing the lives of children and adults experiencing barriers to health and independence, the proceeds of the Super Bowl will go to the NFL’s mission of “promoting interests of its 32 member clubs”. The mission statement originally filed by the NFL is unknown. According to Josh Peter of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the “NFL said it has lost its copy of the application it filed with the IRS in 1942, and the IRS also said it was unable to find a copy of the application.”

I guess this is equal to the dog eating your homework and so I am sure advancing the interests of the Washington Redskins is equal to the missions of organizations like the Courage Center or smaller “folding-table organizations” that earn their non-profit status each and every day.

I am an avid football fan. I played throughout high school and college. I enjoy a Vikings or Jets game on Sundays. That said, there is something very wrong about the NFL being a tax exempt organization and my greatest challenge is how the nonprofit sector can be manipulated in this way. What is even more worrisome is how much more other tax exempt statuses are being manipulated in this fashion.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy Holidays and New Year's Challenge

First, Happy Holidays to all of you hard working people in the third sector. 2009 saw some interesting challenges to the sector and I am forseeing the following in 2010.

Based on some recent economic data I saw from the Chief Economist from the NEA (see above, although blurry), the upward climb out of this economy is going to be more difficult than imagined. What you see above is that as an economy we will not reach zero (October 2008) until 2016.

What this has done to state budgets is astronomical. States are now each month waiting for tax revenue to come in in order to pay bills and when there is a gap are doing a variety of things to meet zero, including I.O.U.'s. In looking at the blow NFF chart, you see that the larger nonprofits are the most reliant on government sources, essentially becoming a more flexible (ok, maybe not) wing of government. If the blood is cut off, these large organizations are really going to suffer, as we are just starting to see.

As we look at the smaller organizations, we are also seeing some real challenges on the horizon, mostly in terms of liquidity. The below NFF chart shows that organizations that are smaller have very little in terms of receivables coming in to help them make cash flow. The days of cash on hand is just over one month.

What does this mean? It means that this year's challenge is to actually partner and collaborate. Now, before 2010 this idea has been done to real perfection about once or twice, but no where near the level that is suggested in literature and conferences. Having looked at the financials of nearly 20 organizations this year, the proof to good partnership should be seen there.

How many mergers have we seen in NYC in the last year? How many organizations, from a percentage standpoint, are actually sharing administrative, operations and fund development staff? I suggest the number is low single digits.

If we are to see the best sector make it, we will need the current song and dance of partnership and collaboration become very real, quickly. I suggest we get a donated auditorium and bring index cards with all of our assets listed on each card. We take those assets, tape them to the walls and we start mixing and matching resources. Am I crazy? Crazy is not trying something resembling this......

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Nonprofit Consultant (Part 1)
What a Nonprofit Consultant Should Be – The Offensive Lineman Theory

When I was in sixth grade gym class, I was given a yellow mesh jersey to go over my normal jersey. This indicated that I was an offensive lineman and not one of the “sexier” positions such as running back or wide receiver. My designation as a lineman followed me all the way through college, and it is also very closely aligned to how I work as a nonprofit consultant.

If you ask moderate sports fans, they can probably name a favorite player, but they probably cannot name one offensive lineman. Linemen are not in the limelight. But, ask any football players or gridiron experts about who the most important player is on their team, and they will likely name an offensive lineman.

To parallel my professional career, I once served as an Executive Director, the equivalent of a football team’s quarterback. Both are unbelievably difficult jobs, and both carry similar benefits of being in the public arena, making speeches, accepting checks, being quoted, etc. However, while I noticed that I was able to make a great impact as an ED, I have made the most impact as a nonprofit consultant.

Sometimes I see nonprofit consultants who struggle with using their unique role within the team to help move and guide the process from the support position. Many times consultants want to move upfront and play the sexier positions to be in the limelight. The sooner a consultant can understand that he has chosen a profession in which his work will be conducted through others, then the better his work, the organization, and the sector will be. Consultants, grab your yellow mesh jersey with pride.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Crazy Uncle Syndrome – How to Confront Wacko Board Member Moments

“O.K., everyone I would like to start by holding hands and saying a prayer,” stated my board chair as we started the most important meeting of the year. We were meeting with the Senior Vice President overseeing Corporate Philanthropy at one of the largest corporations in the United States. Everyone was looking forward to it. The day before, my board chair emphatically stated, “I will meet you in front and we will walk in together.” My stomach sunk and I thought, “Crap!”

Crazy Uncle board member situations happen more regularly than you think. The term “Crazy Uncle” came from one of my clients who has had a board member act like Kanye West at an award-show on several occasions. Another client had a corporate-titan type who believed that working with philanthropy was the cross between verbal arm wrestling and Let’s Make A Deal; a funder literally ran a sprint out of the room for fear of her life. So, how we tame the Crazy Uncle board member? Especially since we may feel like he holds the Executive Director’s job in his hands. Here are some ways to work through this challenge:

  • Discuss Talking Points Ahead of Time, Give Crazy Uncle a Specific Role – While this seems like a given, I am always amazed how this step is missed. Often schedules become too busy or simply you trust all of those invited to represent the organization well. This will not happen unless you go over the script the beforehand.
  • Give Crazy Uncle Another Venue – Sometimes individuals think they are skilled in areas that they clearly are not. I used to think I was a great orator, like MLK-esque, until I saw a video and realized I was far from it. While I have moved onto other dreams, sometimes using the board members perceived asset could be done in another vein. Try having them speak in less pivotal situations: addressing staff at the annual meeting or speaking to clients on his passion for service.
  • Talk To Another Board Member – I am sure that you have noticed the rubbing of the eyes and looking at the shoes of other board members when Crazy Uncle speaks. Have a board peer approach C.U. This can be a difficult conversation for them to have, but if other board members can muster up some strength, they should do it.
  • Forewarn the House Guests – I think most VIPs know that board members are volunteers. A call to the VIP ahead of time to signal that Crazy Uncle is a very dedicated volunteer and is passionate about the work, but because of his military training he might just ask everyone to do 20 push ups. Ask the VIP not to hold this against C.U. (and she can ask for a rain check on the push ups); this should not diminish the important work your organization is doing.
  • VIP is Sacrificial Lamb – Sometimes the Crazy Uncle has been mumbling “Oh Suzanna” at the end of the table for many years and you have just dealt with it by talking louder. Well, this is probably one of the reasons you have not been able to move forward and letting this situation become exposed can help address the issue. This may seem extreme but I have seen it work. Of course, choosing a smaller VIP to sacrifice might be preferable.

All the recommendations have one common thread and that is to plan out a response. As these situations can be embarrassing, responding in anger will only exacerbate the situation.

In the situation with my overly religious board chair, I actually re-focused the situation by stating that part of the custom of the organization was to give thanks for bringing everyone around our mission and that we were especially thankful to the funders for hosting us. I stated we looked forward to them joining us in a site visit and seeing our work. The board chair sat quietly during the meeting, and while embarrassed, she also stated that she was out of line.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Quick Time Poll - Is This a Corporate Perspective or a Nonprofit One?

Are the following are non-profit or for-profit executives? (CEO's, ED's or Presidents):
  • 90% of executives say the U.S. is in poor shape
  • 45% percent think the U.S. economy will recover in 2010
  • 26% say cutting costs is the most important decision
  • 47% say health care costs have more impact
  • 50% say executive compensation plans have changed
  • 65% are spending more time reporting to the board
  • 41% percent plan to spend more time on customer/client relationships
Please select your answer through the poll next to this question. I will post the answer at the end of next week. If you leave a comment, you will be eligible for a prize!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Summer Lovin' - Had Me a Blast

Summer is coming to a close and if you listen closely you can hear nonprofit organizations taking a huge breath as the fall is a very busy time for the sector. What do we anticipate seeing:
  • Academics will be back in the classroom and in their nooks finishing their writings for their publishers delights. I am sure more writings on how the nonprofit sector should be more like the business sector.
  • Managers and Executive Directors will be welcoming back staff who had the summer to think about new ideas for the organization or avenues to get out.
  • Foundations are preparing for the fall grant cycle and board meetings, where they will continue to pull back and make more difficult decisions.
  • Government funding, especially federal, will be going to those other than ourselves, or it will seem that way.
  • We all will be confused with nonprofit press outlets who say things are going down hill but things are looking up.
Just my sense on the above but know that September is a month that feels more like renewal than January does, so here a glass to the little break we got this summer and the intensity of the fall. Let me know how I can help!