15 lessons for the nonprofit sector we learned in 2015

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fireworks-728412_960_720Hi everyone, I hope you are having a restful and much-deserved break and are reading this in bed while sipping on a nice single-serving box of red wine, like I like to do on the weekends. Next week, the new year starts, and I am excited. Personally, because my new baby boy arrives in March, and I’m looking forward to meeting him. He will be named Equity and get all his older brother’s used clothing. As soon as he can hold his head up, his training to be a nonprofit warrior will start, just like for his brother, who at 2 years old can put sticky dots on easel paper at community forums.

2016 will be a game-changing year for our sector, I just know it. From my conversations with readers and colleagues, there is a hunger for us all to do things differently, to examine complex issues, to talk honestly about challenges, to express our needs assertively and push back against the forces that prevent us from doing our work. There are long-held philosophies and beliefs, among ourselves as well as within society, that we must unravel, and there are several critical polarities we must shift. NWB will continue to bring up these conversations, this time with more urgency, more attitude, more moxie—whatever that is—, and possibly…more merchandising. (Be on the lookout for NWB T-shirts and mugs, and, if I can swing it, severed stuffed unicorn heads you can send as warnings to under-performing colleagues and board members, Godfather-style).

But first, we need to close 2015 by reflecting on the lessons we learned. Below are a few of the many I gathered, frequently the hard way, as well as some shared with me by the talented and very good-looking members of the NWB community. Some of these we’ve talked about before, and some I’ll elaborate more on in the coming year. Jot down your thoughts and lessons learned in the comment section:

15 lessons for the nonprofit sector we learned in 2015

  1. An organization not built on strong values will crumble like dried hummus. As a start-up in its second year, my organization, RVC, has learned just how powerful values are when we spend time agreeing to them and defining what they mean. In some of our most challenging and confusing times, our values are beacons, guiding us to make the most effective decisions. Without clear strong values, we are at risk of bringing in people who are not good matches, making unsound decisions, and having our missions drift. If your organization has not talked deeply about its values, it is not too late; take the time in 2016 to do it. At least have some team values/agreements in place; see “10 agreements for a happy and well-functioning team.”
  2. An elephant in the room is most destructive when it is ignored. Every organization has an elephant. Or an 800-pound gorilla. Or whatever large animal is representative of a problem that everyone knows exists but no one wants to wrestle with. Deal with it head-on, because ignoring it usually makes it worse. Have difficult conversations to make? Stop procrastinating.
  3. Diversity means differences, including of perspectives. We accept that diversity means skin color, ethnicity, abilities, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, etc. But it also means different perspectives and ways of thinking. People keep forgetting this last one. If we are truly inclusive, that means we have to be willing to have conversations with people who may differ from us in these areas. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with people—some people’s perspectives are ridiculous, and those people tend to wear skinny jeans and infinity scarves even when it’s hot—but it does mean we need to allow for dissension and hearty discussions.
  4. There is more than one way to do activism. Social justice activism is complex, yet some believe there is only one way to do it, sometimes to the point that they consider anyone who does not hold the same beliefs to be enemies. That is isolating and destructive. We all must understand our own strengths as well as each others’ and recognize that we engage in movements in different ways and have different roles to play. The important thing is that we all engage in it.
  5. Anyone of any age can be totally awesome or totally crappy. I’m getting sick of the “Millennials are this way” and “Baby Boomers are so-and-so” articles. Here’s what I learned: Yes, there are a few commonalities, but in general, people are individuals. I’ve met Millennials who don’t use social media, Boomers who are tech whizzes, Gen X’ers who act like 14 year-olds, and 14-year-olds who are as wise as octogenarians. Let’s stop stereotyping generations and instead treat people like the uniquely beautiful, or crappy, snowflakes that they are.
  6. The perception of who is leading matters as much as who is leading. We need to be thoughtful about who is seen leading, who is actually leading, and who should be supporting from behind. Perception is often reality. Says a white colleague: “This year, I learned that my commitment to being a good ally is solid enough so that I’m no longer willing to apply for jobs that ought to be going to a leader of color.” This is complicated. We’ll be exploring this further in 2016.
  7. Bigotry is like getting something stuck in your teeth. This is one of the best analogies I’ve heard this year, and I don’t remember who said it. I think this guy, Jay Smooth, who says “Being a clean person is something that you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that I’m a clean person therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth. And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say ‘Wh-what do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth? I’m a clean person!’” Just because we attend a racism or sexism training or whatever, doesn’t mean that we are done forever. We need to constantly look in the mirror and floss each day, and appreciate those kind enough to give feedback (“Dude, you got a little racism stuck in your teeth…”)
  8. Not taking risks is one of the biggest risks of all. I’ve seen orgs get into trouble because they become too risk-averse. For example, afraid of liabilities, they keep a terrible team member who is clearly bad for the organization, and then that person ends up causing all sorts of headaches and increasing liabilities, which then spirals out of control. Or orgs who hire the same sort of staff and don’t take risks on people who have different skills and backgrounds, resulting in huge gaps on the team, especially around community engagement and cultural competency.
  9. If there’s writing on the wall, don’t whitewash it. This is from a colleague, who adds, “Leave it as a reminder (or maybe a warning). Be honest with the CEO, the Board, everyone.” This ties well with not ignoring the elephant in the room. I’ve learned when there are scary things on the horizon, it’s far better to be honest about them than to be mysterious about it. Teams are often strengthened by working together to deal with the threats head on.
  10. We cannot compare a nonprofit platypus to a for-profit porcupine. We cannot move forward by emulating the for-profit sector. There is a deep vein of frustration among nonprofit professionals regarding the double standards, as talked about here in “Hey, you want nonprofits to act like businesses? Then treat us like businesses.” We need to blaze our own path, because copying the for-profit sector is not just not working, it’s actually reinforcing some no-good, very-bad systems stymying our work.
  11. When we use silver bullets, we often shoot ourselves in the foot. Be it Collective Impact, Social Enterprise, individual donors, big data, social impact bonds, or Synergistic Paradigm Action Matrix, we need to get over this belief that there’s a panacea that will solve everything. It doesn’t exist, all right? There is no one magic bullet that is going to solve our sector’s challenges. It’s going to take a combination of stuff (See “The frustration with innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effects on the nonprofit sector”)
  12. Donors are looking for authentic partnerships. I’ve found that it is way better to be honest with donors than to tell them what we think they want to hear. They want to know the challenges, the triumphs, the way we connect to other missions, the failures, the heartaches, and why the hell we do this work each day. The ones I’ve talked to want to be challenged and argued with. They want to be a part of the solution and not the center of it. (See “Winter is coming, and the donor-centric fundraising model must evolve.”)
  13. The squeaky wheel gets the worm, and it is inequitable. This year, I’ve learned that besides building strong relationships, being assertive and loud is often the most effective way to get attention and resources. This is reflected in many of our systems, such as the most in-your-face parents and neighbors at a school board meeting usually get what they want. This is also a terrible thing, because the people who usually need the most resources and attention probably won’t be the loudest. It is our sector’s charge to make sure their voices are heard, even while we change the culture where the loudest voices win.
  14. If no one is listening, it’s probably because you’re not either, says a colleague. Listening is a two-way street. This is at all different levels, from bosses and their direct reports, to foundations and grantees. Communities are getting so tired of being “listened to” without actually being listened to, i.e., the listeners cherry picks the things they like and want to act on. That’s not actual listening; let’s knock it off (See “Is your organization or foundation being an Askhole?”). And finally:
  15. A unicorn in the hand is worth two working in real estate. Our sector must stop the hemorrhaging of talent. Brilliant people leave and, at least in Seattle, become real estate agents. As a colleague says, “the field has lost 100 person-years’ experience in marketing, fundraising, managing, program developing, coalition building, comforting the distressed, building institutions, training young’uns, etc. Some of us may drift back, but wary. Others are gone for good.” See “All right, everyone, we need to freak out more about nonprofit leadership.” 

There are lots of other lessons, from the role of effective delegation, to the importance of “moving forward, even when you get knocked on your backside,” to “keeping your integrity is worth losing funds/friends/plans,” to “Vu, please stop dressing like Oliver Twist on site visits.” But it’s not as catchy to title this post “48 lessons we learned in 2015.” Write in the comment section your thoughts and other lessons you learned this year. I’ll collect them, and they will serve as bedtime stories for my kids.  

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  • Cashain

    I love this blog as i work in the non-profit in the UK and we are having a hell of a beating. Thanks for sharing and Happy Christmas !

  • betty barcode

    No. 8 has the potential to end a real stalemate, which is the fact that most of those calling someone out for racism and most of those being called out for racism agree with each other that racists is really bad.

    Thus, the defensiveness seen when accusations of racism arise. Two versions of the logic are:

    1. Racists are bad people.
    2. I am a good person.
    3. Therefore I am not racist.

    1. Racists are white people.
    2. I am a person of color.
    3. Therefore I am not racist.

    So: What if we stopped trying to diagnose whether this or that *person* is racist and instead limited the discussion to whether this or that observable action was racist?

    It changes the conversation from the accusation of a fatal & discrediting character flaw to a request for a behavior change.

    Those who actually do bear malice towards people of color rarely end up in the nonprofit sector. They’re more likely to run for office.

    Which brings up another issue: horizontal hostility. How many social change organizations get bogged down in policing their members for ideological purity instead of concentrating on their real enemies?

  • House0fTheBlueLights

    My kids were stuffing envelopes at the dining room table from the time the were in gradeschool until they finally rebelled as teens. At a penny-an-action, a 1000-name mailing with two sheets (1- collate), trifold (2-3 fold), response card, envelope, and tip in (4-5-6 stuff) and label and seal (7-8), could yield almost a dime per mark donor. They made a killing.

  • lcb

    i am so glad i found this blog. new to the NP world, you are giving me great food for thought.

  • First, an end-of-year thank you for your extraordinary posts, Vu! Always on-target and provocative. Since cloning you is not yet possible, at least you are having children to train as next-generation unicorns.

    A lesson I’ve learned and you practice is: a sense of humor brings perspective to most situations. Humor is also powerful. Just think of how Jon Stewart and other political satirists engage their audiences with passion as well as laughter. Nonprofits spend so much time crusading righteously that they elicit guilt (and the instinct to flee) in potential money and time donors. Laughter born of truth, not mockery, is a tool of engagement. Let’s smile a little more in the new year.

  • jahphotogal

    I just started reading The Fifth Discipline, which seems to be about systems thinking. Even though he uses mostly for profit businesses as his examples, I’m looking forward to exploring how this concept applies to our work in nonprofits. His point is (so far, I’m on page 65 of a 400 page book) that individuals acting as best they can will never solve the big problems because the system is built to thwart them. It’s sort of obvious and infuriating at the same time. (Another book I want to come back to that I think is really relevant to the struggles we face is Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.) Neither of these books directly address any of the issues you raised, especially the the ones about diversity and inclusion – rather, they are about how to be the small little rudder that changes the direction of the great big ship.

  • Sandy

    I really want the stuffed unicorn heads!! You must do this !!

  • Karen Staley

    Thank you for starting my week with a good laugh..and a bright light shining on some of the uniqueness that is Nonprofit leadership. I love these lessons and #’s 3,5,10,14 and 15 really stood out to me. I am looking forward to 2016, with the hope that our organization and the people will find great success!
    Happy New Year!

  • Sofia S Crisp

    What a great takeaway from 2015! I like so many of these points….I like #1,2,5 and 12. Strong values, elephants and destruction, age is nothing but a number and genuine partnerships all resonate with me and our organization. I too am glad I’ve found your organization! The success to all non profits in 2016!

  • 19lammacl42

    OK – I just cannot let this go. I have been successfully involved in, and have trained, non-profit management for over 30 years. None of these 15 items (except perhaps #10) relates only to the non-profit sector. Every one of them applies, not only to non-profit management, but also to for-profit management. In fact, they are all what we usually call “good” management practices – whether non-profit or for-profit. Furthermore, I would take exception with #10 and say that we should emulate “good” for-profit management practices rather than flounder around pursuing “bad” non-profit mismanagement. All organizations, whether non-profit or for-profit, should pursue their values, vision, mission and goals. What we can always work toward within non-profit organizations is better management to meet our mission and goals supported by the values and vision of our organization. But for-profit organizations must pursue the very same results. The values, vision, mission and goals of non-profits is what differs them from for-profits. I guess I must applaud your learning these 15 lessons this past year – better late than never. Thank you.

  • Whitney

    from SSIR’s end of year post. Thought you would appreciate. Topic: deficit of NGO leadership development http://bit.ly/1M5Rpow

  • Emillia Noordhoek

    I am already making a list for the stuffed Unicorn heads…I think you may have found your “income stream”! Thank-you for giving voice to what so many in the non-profit industry have struggled with for years… and a Happy New Year to you !

  • Kathy Kniep

    Vu, thanks for inspiring us to think more strategically, work harder, stay hopeful, and laugh more throughout 2015, and for the significant and positive impact you’re making in the nonprofit sector. Happy New Year to you!

  • Very good points. So happy I just came across your excellent blog! I like so many of these. Especially ## 1, 2, 8, 12 and 15. Those big ol’ elephants really do get in the way, and those poor unicorns are truly endangered. If we could just improve our animal mistreatment practices this year, a lot could change.

  • Mary Lou SHookhoff

    Great article! I believe these principles go for life in general & I’ve lived long enough to be able to say that.. It is my experience that anyone without a strong system of values has more difficulty in life. I am a person who does not ignore the elephant in the room. If you do, it may sit on you! Diversity is what saves us from boring lives. If everyone were the same, life would be like only having dandelions for flowers. In my youth, there was a song about the first project homes called Levittown (sorry if I misspelled that) which had a phrase “’cause they’re all made out of ticky tacky & they ALL LOOK JUST THE SAME (caps for emphasis). As a nurse, I felt it unprofessional to join a union because I could never walk out on my patients. BUT, I had a way figured out of how nurses could protest if needed while still caring for their patients. Back then, everything we used to care for our patients from bedpans to casts had a little sticker on it that we would put on a sheet stamped with the patient’s information. Take them home, put them where your children cannot rip them up and the hospital cannot send the charges to either the patient or her/his insurance. Of course that wouldn’t work today. I’ll skip a few things but there is one thing I used to tell my patient when they had trouble getting what they needed which was “Be a polite but persistent squeaky wheel. One doesn’t need to be nasty (at least at first) because calling often & politely makes most people get you what you are asking for just to get rid of you. And the last thing is that, the quality always comes from the top down. I have been a patient in most hospitals in my area. One was so-so and then became really good. By chance, the evening supervisor came in to see how I was doing & to ask me how I felt about my care. I told her what an improvement I could see to have taken place and then asked if there was a change in nursing administration which there had been. The staff was being rewarded for the quality of their care instead of the quantity. The next time I was admitted there was the last because care had become the worst I ever experienced. The reason: another change in nursing administration. Quality trickles down.

  • Richard Gelula

    Questions I ask: Does the organization have business models? Are they scaled to the dimensions of the desired programs? Are the business models effective, implemented effectively. Do stakeholders understand them and their role in their implementation? Are the models measured, updated, adapted to changing circumstances? What is the long-term outlook (now shortened to 3-5 years)? How can we enhance the organization’s positioning, sustainability? What new revenue methods should we consider? How do we develop and implement them? Are there processes to ensure that everyone is consulted and also given feedback on their participation? I think leadership addresses these questions.

  • Sally

    Good list! I would add to that the tendency for extreme empathy that can occur – especially in human service organizations – it can swing the pendulum away from objectivity and rational decision making. Also the thinking that nonprofits and their employees need to be humble slaves in pursuit of their goals. Somehow the lights need to stay on and the bills need to get paid! What we do is rewarding but challenging nonetheless and deserves to be recognized as such. As a nonprofit executive you are held to a high standard and it requires that you basically live the mission most hours of the day and days of the week, etc..

  • Robin M. Healy

    I have to laugh at #15 as I am leaving real estate to work in development!