Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Don't Drink That: How The Habit of Tasting the Bad Milk Hurts Us All

I was on the board of the Loudoun County United Way for a short time when I lived in the Washington D.C. area. It was right after the famous scandal that rocked the United Way in that area. It was a rought time for local nonprofits in the region, even though the local economy was thriving. Groups spent much time and resources on positioning themselves to donors to obtain confidence. What I felt mostly is that at times nonprofits were equal to a glass of spoiled milk.

The article in the WSJ regarding the Bernie Madoff scandal hurts nonprofits, in a similiar way. Nonprofits had nothing to do with the Madoff scandal, yet again there is a bad milk smell that causes donors to hesitate. This is happening in the midst of a the current economic climate.

My assessment on all of this is that nonprofits are unfairly tarnished by some bad apples but also bad media. The stories often look for the opposite sides of the spectrum, either new milk or smelly milk. Madoff is a good case in point. Ponzi scheme for the wealthy that goes terribly wrong. How does that have anything to do with a great human service agency in Harlem. Nothing at all but that Harlem group's bottom line will suffer because of the rush to cover the bad milk.

Tough economic times call for us to watch our bottom line more closely, but I also think it should involve more work at showcasing the fresh milk. There is a lot of it.....

Monday, December 15, 2008

Do Successful Corporate Leaders Equal Successful Nonprofit Leaders

This weekend I read an article in the NY Times (www.nytimes.com/2008/12/13/business/13next.html?scp=7&sq=David%20Gergen&st=cse). The article is about a program at Harvard University that is training former corporate CEOs in a one year fellowship on being nonprofit CEOs. While I am for further education, three thoughts crossed my mind. They are as follows:

  1. I feel a little disrespected when people think that a one-year, once a week/month fellowship is enough for someone to be able to come in an run a nonprofit effectively. It makes me think that there is little regard for the sector.
  2. Why isn't there a similar program for corporate CEOs. I think the corporate sector could really gain from the leadership of a nonprofit CEO.
  3. While much has been stated in the nonprofit world about the impending leadership gap regarding the baby boomers retiring and not enough nonprofit leaders able to take over, I do not see this as the only reason to leap over to the help of the corporate sector. I am sorry, but every headline I read in a business periodical relates to an issue that can be directly tied to bad corporate leadership. And this is the pool that the nonprofit sector should be begging for.
Maybe I am over-reacting but I get a little angry when people immediately think that either corporate practice or leadership can swoop in for the lowly nonprofit sector. In my opinion, it should be the other way around. Maybe a bailout would not be needed if the corporate leader spent time on the ground floor of a nonprofit and worked their way up.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nugget: Free Capacity Building Training from White House

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the United States Department of Labor Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives invites you to participate in a unique, three-part training to improve your organization's ability to measure, manage, and communicate results. Participants who complete the training will also receive free case management and outcomes tracking software.

This valuable Results-Based Management training is free and will be offered in three, 90-minute webinars on December 18, 2008, January 6, 2009, and January 13, 2009, from 2:00-3:30 p.m. (EST). This opportunity is open to faith-based and other community nonprofits engaged in addressing poverty, disease, and other critical human needs.

Results-Based Management training strengthens organizations' information management capabilities and services, spurs strategic thinking, and equips organizations to communicate more effectively about what funders care most about: real impact in the lives of people in need.

The first 90-minute training webinar on December 18, 2008, will teach the fundamentals of creating and applying an outcomes-focused, case management information system. At the conclusion of the first webinar, you will be asked to complete and submit a logic model (evaluation plan) for one program offered by your organization for evaluation by experts.

Prior to the second training webinar, experts will assess your logic model and provide feedback. The second 90-minute training webinar on January 6, 2009, will build on the first by fine tuning your organization's logic model with the help of experts and peers taking part in the webinar.

The third 90-minute training webinar on January 13, 2009, will teach you how to use case management and outcomes tracking software and customize it for your organization's specific program(s). If you or your colleagues participate in and complete all three training webinars, your organization will also receive a free, one-year license to use ResultsOnline2, a web-based case management and outcomes tracking software.

To register for this unique training opportunity, please click here and complete the online registration by Friday, December 12, 2008.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Chapter 11 for Nonprofits: Why This Idea Should Not Be A New One

I was reading the New York Nonprofit Press today and going over the article discussing the November 19th event hosted by the NYC United Way regarding the economic challenges facing the sector. Interesting synopsis and seems like every get together has the title "tough economic times". Paul Light expressed that "100,000 nonprofits will close their doors in the next 2 years". Many other displayed similiar catastophic sentiments and voiced the need for a fund to support nonprofits.

During this conference I was in Detroit visiting with national foundations. No where else in the country is the feeling of the economy felt like it is in Detroit. It is gray everywhere. A similiar statement was made to say that a relief fund (distressed nonprofit fund or DNF) should also be created for the nonprofit sector. A follow-up comment was made to say that the tough economic climate should support those agengies at-risk of closure and therefore at at-risk of not being able to provide adequate services to those most in need. While I agree that such a fund might be neccessary, I do not think that such a fund should exist because of what is being felt right now. This fund should have always existed.

I did not see when the economy was flush a move to support nonprofits approaching the same position on the cliff as I do now although there were many groups on the edge. General operating, the base of a nonprofit's lifeline, was still challenging to obtain then as is it now. Foundation giving is still focused, for the most part, on program giving with little flexibility on their giving to go outside of direct program expense. The need for the DNF should not only be created in this time, but should be a fund that is available at all times. I think it more dangerous to offer up such a fund sporadically rather than having ongoing.

The NYNP article stated that Gordon Campbell, my former professor and CEO of the UNited Way stating the Rahm Emanuel quote, "you never want a crisis to go to waste". I would voice the same thing instead I would say thay sometimes a crisis gives us the lense that we should of had all along. With the words of Chapter 11 being thrown around everyday as a safety net for struggling corporations, I say that an ongoing Chapter 11, or DNF Fund, solution for nonprofits is an idea that should be seriously explored.

Monday, December 1, 2008

More Please: Thanksgiving Nuggets

Here are a couple of leadership opportunities, or "nuggets" that might be of interest:

  • MTV and Ashoka GenV want to know what solutions you have and how you can help improve the environment. Submit your ideas and you can get up to US$1,000 to make your ideas a reality. Some of you might even be featured in a new MTV show in 2009! Also, the Lemelson Foundation will award five project leaders a trip to Boston, USA to take part in a roundtable discussion on climate change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  • The John W. Gardner Leadership Award was established in 1985 to honor outstanding Americans who exemplify the leadership and the ideals of John W. Gardner (1912-2002), American statesman and founding chair of Independent Sector. Independent Sector presents the Award each year to an individual whose leadership in or with the nonprofit community has been transformative and who has mobilized and unified people, institutions, or causes that improve people’s lives.

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.....

Friday, November 21, 2008

Detroit: A Case Study in Broken Leadership

I have just come back from Detroit for a couple days and I have to say that the spirit in that city is definitely broken. From my talks with the cab driver who picked me up at the airport, to the hotel concierge who told me how to get to Motown (which was not what I had hoped) to the foundation executives whom I met with, everyone I talked to was speaking about the city in very distressed terms. The culture was similar to an individual who has been beaten down time and time again. From scandalous politicians, to closing auto plants to a severely distressed economy, Detroit is suffering.

I began thinking about Detroit in the context of leadership. What could leadership do to assist in this dire circumstance? I think, above all, leadership could have more of a positive effect than any economic injection. Having someone that could throw a vision on the wall and then inspire the city toward that vision would be paramount. Money cannot be the motivator, but surely someone with an eye on a new direction could. Unfortunately, sometimes those people are clouded by the enormity of the challenges.

I also thought about Detroit and how it compares to non-profits in a similar state. The organizations that I see in deep despair are similar, not only because their resources are scarce, the morale is low or leadership is ineffective. More, it is the culture that has been developed by the three converging simultaneously. Breaking past a culture of challenge and failure is harder than winning an organization-saving grant (do these exist?) or bringing on board a new Executive Director. Organizational culture, as it has been described my many non-profit experts, can be the slow death of an organization. Real organizational turnaround cannot happen unless the cancer of a negative organizational culture is reversed.
I hope, for the sake of Detroit, that they can not only find new leadership and inlets for new economic movement, but think the culture will be the largest hurdle to climb.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Transition Matters

For most of the week, since the election of Barack Obama, I have heard some stating that they do not view the world the same way anymore or that America will instantly be viewed by the world in a different light. While I do not subscribe to this point so quickly, I do see some correlations to how this relates to the addition of a new leader of an organization. I remember my stints in leading organizations and how individuals would come up to me and say, "You are going to bring great change to our organization" or I would get several needs for sit down visits for people to discuss their immediate challenges and how I could solve them with a snap of my fingers. I, for a time, was the bright, shiny coin.

Because part of what I do professionally is help organizations in time of transition and change, I can say that I have seen various angles of the shiny stage. Sometimes that time is short and sometimes it is very short. In each case, the more effective the transition the longer my shine stayed. For instance, if my introduction to staff was the only transition point, then I may only have until the end of the week until the natives started to grumble. If I met with a formal transition team and they led me through a mapped out transition, I may have had a couple of months. In all, there was a direct relation between the organization of the transition and the ease for which I was able to relate to internal and external stakeholders.

In looking at the Obama transition (all one week of it), it is apparent that there has been a very organized and thoughtful process regarding transition. A committee has been working on the effort for several months and concrete action steps are being orchestrated to a very tight tune. While it is too early to see how the effects of this effort will play out, it is easier to believe that the transition and early days of Obama's presidency will be positive because of this work. The opposite to this could be seen with some New York City agencies at the time of mayoral transition, where the interruption has caused severe mismanagement of essential city services.

While I try to stay away from telling the nonprofit sector from looking at government and business examples as best practices (some of my colleagues do too much of this), I do think that it would be an interesting exercise for us practitioners to be watching the Obama transition for clues and tools on executive transition. Now all we need is a new puppy.... hypo-allergenic of course.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Board Source Conference Ah-Ha

Last week I was in DC attending the Board Source Leadership Conference. Now, I describe myself as a "Cliff Notes" conference attendee, meaning I like to get in and grab the stuff and then go work in my room. I find myself tired of networking after ten minutes. They are a good ten minutes but I am often incapable of small talk. While I love the nonprofit world, I cannot bring myself to talk about board development for long periods of time. This is one of the biggest pet peeves from my wife as she can have a five hour dinner and I am fine with a good 30 minutes.

In any sense, the conference was very well done. The best session I attended was one that was led by Clara Miller, the leader of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Of course her workshop was on nonprofit finances and that was great but the portion of the training that caught my fancy was the brief discussion she was having on nonprofits view of operating costs (being less than 20%) and having fund diversification. Now, nerdy folk might think this was the interesting part (no offense please as I am part of the nerdy folk) but the most interesting point to me was how the discussion for a small time went to how nonprofit organizations should advocate to funders ( I brought up the point after raising my hand like a 5th Grader) on the problems with the view on operating costs and fund diversification. Ms. Miller stated that there had been a movement to educate funders on this. I had some knowledge of this but frankly thought it was idle chatter. Following the session I immediately went up to Clara and signed up for anything and everything I could do to advocate on this. Maybe the political campaign inspired me as I believe I shouted out, "Yes We Can!" Clara took my card after remembering me as a member of her facebook page and the rather embarrasing picture of me in a full-sized Winnie the Pooh costume.

In all seriousness, the reason I raise this is that I often think leaders in the nonprofit world think leadership is the activity of knowing where the land mines are and avoiding them, with the best leaders being those who show up on the other side of the mine field. Unfortunately, the mine field includes the often unwieldy requests that come from funders. To me, this shows some areas of leadership but mostly it just shows resiliency. The better way to view leadership is the act of removing the mines. Even more, the most successful leaders are those that change the mine field altogether, maybe into a field for all to enjoy. Kickball anyone......

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nugget - Week of 10/27/08

As noted earlier, each week I will feature a "nugget" that I have dug up from the cushions of our nonprofit leadership couch. This week's nugget, in the communication vein, is as follows:


Elevation is a socially conscious, web solutions firm dedicated to helping non-profits harness the power of the Internet. By allocating need based assistance, Elevation is fulfilling the web needs of non-profits throughout the nation.

For each dollar your non-profit spends on web design, programming, or other media related work, they will match that dollar with a dollar of their own.

In 2007, they allocated approximately $150,000 worth of assistance to 55 non-profits in order to help them with web design, programming, and media work. In 2008, they will allocate $400,000 to non-profits on a first come, first serve basis.

Elevation is a web development firm that has one basic goal: to help organizations take advantage of the Internet. Their 20 member team of web consultants, creative designers, copy writers, software engineers and marketing professionals offer organizations a number of media solutions.

Elevation specializes in web design, database & application development, software solutions, flash multimedia, branding, search engine marketing, and consulting services. You can learn more about them by visiting www.elevationweb.org

There is no deadline.


Kissing Babies: Nonprofit Leadership and Political Campaigning

I was recently at a luncheon with an Executive Director who leads a homeless organization in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is a state very much in flux, being that it is one of the fastest growing states in the union but also is suffering the most from the the recent economic downturn. In addition, the state is a highly visible ground battleground state in the presidential election. She began talking about the similarities between her work and that of a candidate, in which she rattled off like a 100 examples ranging from giving speeches to kissing babies. She stated that these examples often left her tired and overworked.

As I looked at her examples I noticed that all of them related to communication. From talking to a group of donors to visiting program participants, most of this work is in displaying and packaging the leader and therefore the organization. Political campaigns are similar and they are experts in kissing babies!

Finally on this point, if communication is one of the central foundations of nonprofit leadership, then why is so little time dedicated to it. I am not talking about the marketing of nonprofits (which a great deal of time is spent on) but I am talking about the communication coming from its leaders. Academia and other nonprofit training mostly miss this important area. If nonprofit leadership is similar to a political campaign as my colleague suggests then maybe more resources should be devoted to how leaders communicate.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Welcome to Couch Cushion Change. This blog is intended to give you up-to-date resources and information in non-profit executive leadership. In addition, we may post our musings on the sector and issues facing our leadership and boards.

If you have ideas or issues that you would like to see discussed or commented on, please do not hesitate to e-mail John at jbrothers@supportcenteronline.org.

Until then, here is the latest couch cushion find...happy digging:

  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellows program provides the nation's most comprehensive experience at the nexus of health science, policy and politics in Washington D.C. The fellowship is an outstanding opportunity for exceptional midcareer health professionals and behavioral and social scientists with an interest in health and health care policy. Fellows experience and participate in the policy process at the federal level and use that leadership experience to improve health, health care and health policy.