Meanwhile, my wife and I started sleep-training our kids this weekend. It has been rough these past few nights, with the anguished, tormented wailing lasting for hours. And that’s just from us. The kids are even worse! Anyway, because of that, I don’t know how coherent I’ll be for this post. Everyone in our sector has been on edge lately, so I wrote the Nonprofit Serenity Prayer. Here it is below. May it be a beacon to you in the bleakest of times. Continue reading
Some people say that you don’t exist. But I know you do, just like I know that equity and social justice and free food after board meetings exist. I am a nonprofit professional. I get to spend my time making the world better and writing reports. I love my job, but it can be tough. This year, for Christmas, I made a list of things I would like from you, if you think I’ve been nice and not naughty. I know you’re very busy, Santa, with so many people asking stuff from you—you’re technically a nonprofit too!—but even a few of these things below will help me out a lot and will make my work easier.
Things I would love for Christmas:
This sweet carpal tunnel brace! A lot of my work involves writing emails, grants, reports, and emails. This brace would be extremely helpful. If you could spare it, please get the family-size box of carpal tunnel braces so everyone on my team could have one too.
Day 3 of the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). Thank you, Medina Foundation, for this scholarship so I can participate in this program. I am learning all sorts of interesting and useful stuff. For example, don’t eat nine pounds of potatoes before a 3-hour discussion on measurements and evaluations. Kidding, kidding!
A very useful concept that we have learned is the concept of Technical challenges versus Adaptive challenges. Good leaders must understand to differentiate one from the other, and oftentimes we totally suck at doing that. Technical problems are simpler and usually have apparent solutions. Adaptive challenges are so much more complicated and involve human beings and their emotions and crap like that.
“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems,” says Ron Heifetz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, and I am beginning to see that as leaders and as a society we all do this all the time. For example, a while ago, a friend gave me a unicorn poster. I put it up on the wall next to my desk, and the unicorn looked down at me and inspired me to do my work. One day I came to the office, and the unicorn poster was gone! I asked a staff about it, and they said there wasn’t enough Velcro tape for it to stick to the brick wall, and that’s why the unicorn fell and had to be moved to the corner. But this was my unicorn, and I didn’t like it being mishandled and moved around because it was a really cool and rare unicorn poster with significant emotional value and I was used to it being where I left it.
All right, fine, shut up. Here’s a better example. Let’s say you have a program that teaches kids confidence and creativity through cooking. The program, however, is not financially solvent and has been causing the organization to lose money as it operates. The technical solution is to shut down this program. Simple, right? Of course not. “We are leading a blood-and-guts organization with real emotions inside it,” said our instructor, Professor Stephen Page. Staff and volunteers and participants of this program have likely put blood, sweat, and tears into their cooking. Which is probably why their dishes always come out so salty, ahahaha.
All kidding aside, think of the people involved with this program that we are cutting. They are invested in it, this is their baby, and this is a huge change. Change always involves loss, and when there is a loss, there are the stages of grieving, including denial and anger and bargaining and sadness and only at the end is there acceptance. “What is technical to us may be adaptive to someone else,” we learned, and a leader who only sees the technical side of a problem may totally screw up.
Leaders must understand the difference between what is technical and what is adaptive.
We see this misdiagnosis-and-thus-mistreatment (MTM) all over the field though, on larger scales. For example, “Huh, we don’t have enough people of color on our board, and 80% of our clients come from communities of color. Let’s ask a couple of POCs to coffee and talk them to joining our board.” That solves the technical problem and totally misses the point, which is that the organization must adapt and figure out why people of color are not on the board in the first place, what the obstacles are, what the privileges and power dynamics are, etc.
God, this happens all the time, I now realize, and it is annoying at best and absolutely horrendous at worst, perpetuating terrible and crappy systems. A while ago I wrote this post on an awful grant that low-income schools are forced to write. The MTM here is “Oh look, these poor schools need resources. Let’s provide them funding. But wait, with so many schools in need, how should we fairly distribute the money? Let’s make them write 30-page narratives each, and the school with the best written applications should get the funding.” So simple. So technical. And totally screwed up (Schools wih the most needs probably don’t have the resources to write competitive 30-page grants. And forcing struggling schools into a Hunger Games-like battle is fundamentally wrong).
If we truly want to help low-income schools succeed, we must think of it as an adaptive challenge. That means we have to reexamine our beliefs and systems and way of doing things. We cannot reduce blood-and-guts kids and families and communities to technical numbers and rating scales.
Technical fixes are so much quicker and easier to explain and implement, which is why our society loves them so much. But they only work for technical problems. If a plant looks droopy, you water it. If the roof is leaking, you slather some tar on it, stick a shingle on, staple it, and cover with duct tape (Or whatever; I don’t know anything about fixing roofs). We in nonprofits face far more complicated problems, and probably 90% of them are adaptive, not technical. Within our own organizations, we could have change in leadership, or staff turnover, or inactive boards, or a multitude of other challenges, and it is critical for leaders to recognize the adaptive elements and take actions accordingly.
But we must also pay attention to the bigger challenges that we are trying to address as a field. Too often our society treats problems (homelessness, hunger, poverty, low-performing schools, gentrification, racism, etc.) as technical challenges and implements technical solutions when they are far more complicated and requires getting people and systems to change and adapt. Sometimes, facing the complexity of adaptive societal challenges, we turn to technical solutions because they are better than the alternative of doing nothing. Let’s make poor schools write 30-page grants! Let’s get a woman to join our board! Let’s get two organizations led by communities of color to apply to join our coalition! Let’s form a collective impact backbone organization! Let’s put all our funds into collective impact even at the cost of vital direct services!
We need to understand these challenges better, because unlike me and my awesome unicorn poster, our kids and families and communities cannot be helped with some additional Velcro tape, no matter how well-meaning.
Hi everyone. This is not going to be a high-quality post, because I spent many, many hours this weekend watching House of Cards on Netflix. Darn you, Frank Underwood, you creepy, effective bastard and your ruthlessly efficient wife! Now it is 12:30am and I am only beginning to work on this post, which is really more like a cry for help. I was going to skip writing this week, but I want to set a good example for my son, who is now 10-months-old. “Son,” I told him today while he was snuggled up on my lap, “always be consistent, sometimes even at the cost of quali—what…what is that in your mouth?! Is that a paperclip?! Ack! Where did you get this paperclip?! Spit that out! Spit it out right now! Stop squirming! Open your mouth! No! You can’t eat this paperclip! Stop biting Daddy! OW!”
So let’s talk about time management. We are all incredibly busy people. Helping make the world better takes a lot of time. I am always amazed at the people who can manage their time well. They tend to be morning people, and they wake up at 5am to do some yoga and drink a green smoothie made from wheatgrass and hemp oil or something before heading to the office by 7am and they’re all like “I feel so good because I exercised this morning, and wheatgrass is soooo good for you.” If you are one of these people, I admire and hate you in equal measures.
I am not one of these people. Before the baby came along, I woke up at 9:30am and got to the office at 10am. Then I’d work until whenever, coming home anywhere from 6pm to 10pm. That seems like a solid 8 to 12 hours per day, except those hours are not efficient. Maybe 5 hours was spent doing actual work. The rest would be filled with reading the news, arguing with various people about the Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, and looking at pictures of cute baby animals. Then, at home, feeling awful that I didn’t get much accomplished, I would put in several hours at night—unless TBS has a marathon of The Golden Girls, because, come on, those girls, Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia are hilarious!
Now that the baby is here, time is even scarcer. My emails are going crazy, I have way too many meetings, and I haven’t been sleeping enough. I must get a handle on things. A while ago I wrote about the four different work styles. Some of us are Dragons, some are Unicorns, others are Phoenix, and others are Lion-Turtles. Reading that post again, I realized that they each handle time management differently:
Dragons are probably the best time managers, since they are action-oriented and are hard set on deadlines. They don’t like excuses. If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it, or a Dragon will set your hair on fire. Quality may sometimes be debatable, but stuff will get done.
Phoenixes will commit to just about anything because they get bored easily and need to work on a billion things all at once. But then they get distracted by shiny new projects and drop balls left and right. They are poor time managers but because they’re usually charismatic, the rest of us tend to let it slide.
Lion-Turtles take forever to think about things because they need everything to be absolutely perfect. They are systematic and organized with their time. They, like the Dragons, are deadline-driven and high-quality, but they need plenty of lead time in order to analyze and think about everything.
Unicorns are considerate and want to be helpful, so they’ll often spend time on other people’s projects even at the cost of doing their own work. They put people before time, and they overcommit. So if a coworker is feeling down, they’ll drop their own work to cheer that person up. In other words, they also suck at time management.
Crap, I think I am a Phoenix-Unicorn hybrid, the two worst time-managers among the four styles. Dragons are awesome this area, followed by Lion-Turtles (I think Frank and Claire in House of Cards are these two styles respectively). I had planned to write a post called “10 Time Management Tips for Busy Nonprofit Peeps,” but I don’t think I am qualified to dish advice on something I pretty much suck at.
So, I need your help. What strategies do you use to manage your time? There are tons of time-management tips out there. They all make sense. “Tip 1: Make a To-Do list. Tip 2: Prioritize your list. Tip 3: Do the stuff on your list.” But it’s not that simple! To-do lists work for some people. Plus, we nonprofits are all understaffed, so we default to the Competency Paradox, which states that the more competent you are, the more work you get. Things are getting out of control! It’s 1:45am and the baby wakes up in 5 hours!
Let me know what works for you, and what style you are. You can type it in the comment section. Or if you’re free this week, I’d be glad to get coffee or a drink to talk about it for several hours.