Hi 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
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…”)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”)
- 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.”)
- 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.
- 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:
- 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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