Archive for March, 2015

The year-end ask: Has your nonprofit scheduled all 6 steps?

Last week we introduced Laurence Pagnoni’s notion that “Fundraising is a practitioner’s craft. It requires the intuition of the artist and inquisitiveness of the scientist.” The Nonprofit Fundraising Solution author adds there is no one-size-fits-all method of fundraising; every organization has a unique mission and strategy for supporting its mission.

Don’t ignore what you can’t see

While each fundraising program is different, what remains consistent among celebrated revenue results is the connection to a strong organizational culture. You might be asking, “Why are we talking about culture when this is a post about Pagnoni’s book on fundraising? He says, “Ignore organizational culture at your own peril because you won’t get depth in the fundraising program unless the culture is aligned with the fundraising goals.”

Pagnoni asserts, “Your organization will do better by seeing itself as a multifaceted entity with fundraising entrenched firmly at its center. Why? Because the barriers to better fundraising performance are, so often, the same obstacles to organizational growth.”

After giving you some essential guidance on the conversation you should be having with leadership about fundraising’s role in the organization, Pagnoni focuses on the organizational connection with tactical strategies for improving your advanced fundraising efforts in constituency building, face-to-face cultivation, challenge gifts and other tools, year-end giving, social media, leadership councils, corporate giving and major gift campaigns. In short, the book leads with the importance of organizational strength for optimal fundraising and closes with a punch on fundraising strategies.

This week, I wanted to highlight year-end appeals because it’s never too early to think about when we raise the most funds: December.

Year-end giving

One of every three dollars is donated to nonprofits in the month of December due to income taxes, financial planning and the holiday season. Hopefully, says Pagnoni, you have contacted your donors eight times that year to prepare for the year-end ask.

Here are the steps in a successful year-end drive in chronological order:

Thanksgiving Thank-A-Thon: Board members, staff and volunteers call to thank donors, personally connect and answer any questions a week before Thanksgiving either on a weekend afternoon or weekday early evening.

First year-end appeal letter mailed out the week of your Thank-A-Thon: Customize to include the giving history of each donor. Include emotional stories about beneficiaries as well as numbers served and numbers of those who will be served in the future. Ask for a 50 percent increase from the last donation and include a reply envelope and pledge. You can use a mailing house to organize all these items. You can also target lapsed donors. Make sure you have updated your donor database. The author provides a list of resources that can help gauge your donor’s giving potential, such as Blackbaud for prospect research. In addition, post your appeal letter on your website so donors can contribute online as well. Tell your donors how much you appreciate them and how they can make a specific difference and be transparent about how you spend the money.

Second year-end appeal letter mailed between the first and third week of December: Add new highlights and do not send to donors who responded to your first letter. After 30 days, send a “Haven’t Heard from You…” postcard. Let them know what you’ve accomplished but also how much more needs to be done and the cost.

Last four days of the year online: Email your donors every day for the last four days telling stories about your organization. Remind them of the December 31 tax-exemption deadline.

January follow-up: Thank the top 20 percent of your donors and send out tax receipts. You can survey donors, too, on how they would like to be contacted.

Donor meetings to discuss major gifts: 80 percent of your funding typically comes from 20 percent of your donors. Segment your donors to set up personal meetings with the top 20 percent.

We asked Laurence Pagnoni about the most common objection to linking culture and fundraising:

CausePlanet: What is your most common objection to the prerequisite of great culture for effective fundraising? What has been your response in the past?

Pagnoni: So many objections, it’s hard to say which is the most common! One could easily say, “People don’t want change.” Maybe. I often hear, “We don’t have the funds for that,” but even when they do, many clients have stayed stuck. If I had to pick one objection, I’d say it’s not understanding that the vision of where we want to be really does start with me, whoever I happen to be in the organization, whether the janitor or the CEO. Without a vision the people perish, so says the Proverb.

Choose a vision for your year-end appeals and consider one or more of Pagnoni’s six-step process. Better yet, have the conversation about culture and create a climate for your appeals to succeed.

See also:

The Ask: How to Ask for Support for Your Nonprofit Cause, Creative Project or Business Venture

The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand: Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving

Fundraising the SMART Way™: Predictable, Consistent Income Growth for Your Charity + Website

The Essential Guide to End-of-Year Fundraising

Image credits: Amacom books,,

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Is your nonprofit team fired up or burned out? A case for connection

Connected organizations are more productive, more innovative and more profitable; conversely, a lack of connection will gradually burn employees out. Author Michael Lee Stallard makes the case for increasing connection at work and shows you how to build a “connection culture”—a culture that increases connection among people—by increasing the elements of a connected culture: vision, value and voice. Paying attention to these so-called “soft” aspects of the work environment will help increase employee engagement and, in the end, will make your organization more successful.

The case for connection

Research by the Gallup Organization shows that fewer than three in ten Americans are engaged in their jobs. Gallup also estimates the annual cost to the American economy from the approximately 22 million American workers who are extremely negative or “actively disengaged” to be $250 to $300 billion every year. Unless people in an organization feel a strong sense of connection to their work and colleagues, they will never reach their potential as individuals, and the organization will never reach its potential.

Conversely, employees in an organization with a high degree of connection are more engaged, more productive in their jobs, and less likely to leave the organization for a competitor. One trend in particular makes connection more important than ever: the increasing globalization of labor. As globalization makes it easier for companies to move work and jobs around the world, organizations that want to retain jobs in their home countries will need to boost the productivity of their people or lose business to competitors who reduce their costs by offshoring.

The connection formula

A “connection culture” is a culture that embraces the beliefs and behaviors that enhance connection among people and meet their basic human psychological needs for respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning. There are three elements of a connection culture that meet these basic needs: vision, value and voice. Leaders who intentionally foster these three elements will reap the benefits of a connection culture.

Vision exists in an organization when everyone is\motivated by the organization’s mission;

united by its values; and

proud of its reputation.

Value exists in an organization when everyone

understands the basic psychological needs of people;

appreciates their positive, unique contributions; and

helps them achieve their potential.

Voice exists when everyone

seeks the ideas of others;

shares ideas and opinions honestly; and

safeguards relational connections.

A good way to remember these elements is to remember this formula: Vision + Value + Voice = Connection.

When all three elements are in place, it’s a win-win for individuals and organizations.

The evolution of organizations

Most organizations today focus on task excellence—or the quantitative and analytical aspects of business. However, according to Stallard, organizations that focus exclusively on task excellence will fail to meet the basic human psychological needs that maximize employees’ contributions to the organization.

Stars, core employees and strugglers

Employees fall into three categories: stars, core employees and strugglers. Stars are the superior performers; they are either part of senior management or are on the management track. Core employees are valuable contributors but not stars. And strugglers perform poorly, either for temporary reasons or because they are not well suited to their position. Stars are the “favorites” of management and are treated as such—they may be paid more, listened to or included in social situations. This “caste” system within organizations makes most employees feel like second-class citizens and affects an organization’s economic, political and social aspects.

Core employees, however, are just as critical—and often more so—to an organization’s success as its stars. Core employees make up the majority of an organization’s employees and are often just as intelligent, talented and knowledgeable as stars. They differ from stars in three important ways:

They are less likely to call attention to themselves;

They are less likely to leave their current employer for a different organization or position; and

They are quietly dedicated to their work and to their colleagues.

Core employees are key

Organizations are at risk of losing their core employees if they do not foster a sense of connection in the workplace. The reason is simple: Core employees feel that their ideas and opinions aren’t heard and don’t matter, and that they are not respected or recognized for their contributions. Over time they become frustrated and feel underappreciated. This leads them to becoming disconnected and disengaged which, in turn, causes burn out. Leaders need to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and give core employees opportunities to shine as well as the stars. These so-called “soft” issues are essential to any organization that aspires to be the best.

Nonprofit implications

Much has been written about nonprofit “burnout” and the impending “leadership crisis” as Baby Boomers prepare for retirement. Disengagement, an aging population and globalization are converging to become the perfect storm that will make today’s leaders and organizations vulnerable. However, leaders can gain a performance advantage by intentionally creating a work environment that increases engagement and connection within the organization. Organizations that do this will attract and retain committed employees and, as a result, achieve high impact in the long run.

See also:

Fired Up or Burned Out free ebook

The Leadership Challenge (4th Ed)

The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive

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Put fundraising where it belongs: Firmly entrenched at the center of your nonprofit

“Fundraising is a practitioner’s craft. It requires the intuition of the artist and inquisitiveness of the scientist,” says The Nonprofit Fundraising Solution author Laurence Pagnoni. He adds there is no one-size-fits-all method of fundraising; every organization has a unique mission and strategy for supporting its mission.

What’s the common denominator among successful fundraising programs?

While every revenue-generating program is unique, Pagnoni firmly establishes the common denominator between every thriving fundraising effort: Organizational development and successful fundraising are inextricably linked. He asserts, “Your organization will do better by seeing itself as a multifaceted entity with fundraising entrenched firmly at its center. Why? Because the barriers to better fundraising performance are, so often, the same obstacles to organizational growth.”

Pagnoni’s book focuses on this premise and strengthens the organizational connection with tactical strategies for improving your advanced fundraising efforts in constituency building, face-to-face cultivation, challenge gifts and other tools, year-end giving, social media, leadership councils, corporate giving and major gift campaigns.

Pagnoni defines three aspects of organizational culture that directly affect fundraising:

Dominant source of revenue vs. multiple revenue streams: If a culture is not open to diversifying its revenue streams, it cannot possibly get to the next level.

Inward or outward focus: Inwardly focused organizations manage their programs with little concern for the surrounding community. Outwardly focused organizations concentrate on marketing, advertising, branding and other types of community outreach. Either extreme can become dangerous, in that the organization either if inwardly focused, loses touch with the community and other fundraising opportunities or if outwardly focused, loses touch with the social problem it is addressing as it works solely on its image.

Capacity of an organization to revisit its fundamental assumptions: These assumptions can relate to streams of revenue, inward/outward focus or anything that relates to moving forward.

We asked Pagnoni in our author interview about how to begin the culture conversation with leadership in order to facilitate better fundraising:

CausePlanet: What’s the best way for a fundraiser to motivate her organizational leadership to consider overhauling culture as a precursor to meeting revenue goals?

Pagnoni: At the end of the day, there is nothing anyone can do to motivate someone else. The people in question must choose to motivate themselves. Recently a trustee told me, “I don’t think the board wants the organizational transformation you’re describing. They are fine with it the way it is.” “So be it,” I said, “but please realize the unintentional consequences of that position.” In this case, it was predictable that only modest fundraising increases would occur, nothing near their potential. It was my job as their fundraising counsel to show them the bar, but it was their job to be motivated to achieve it.

CausePlanet: Which organizational circumstances present the best opportunities for fundraisers to prompt a discussion about changing the culture?

Pagnoni: When a CEO leaves, that’s an opportunity for a self-reflection assessment. Or, perhaps when a new development committee chairperson comes on. Most healthy organizations have some sort of annual planning process within which this conversation can occur. Peter Drucker once cautioned that company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got. So as you can see, there’s a spectrum to live on—from changing culture, to modifying it, to accepting it as it is, to shaking the dust and leaving it behind.

Pagnoni’s discussion about the importance of culture for successful fundraising is a refreshing and helpful section in part one of this book. Part two carries its own weight with numerous proven strategies and tactics to upgrade your new or existing plan. I found this book to be an innovative balance of big picture organizational matters like the connection between culture and fundraising and prescriptive guidance on how to implement a variety of revenue-generating programs.

Join us next week when I’ll share Pagnoni’s year-end giving appeal ideas. It’s not too early (or late) to work these concepts into your plan.

See also:

The Ask: How to Ask for Support for Your Nonprofit Cause, Creative Project or Business Venture

The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand: Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving

Fundraising the SMART Way™: Predictable, Consistent Income Growth for Your Charity + Website

Image credits: Amacom books,,

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Before you can get buy-in, people need to feel the problem

Picture this: you’re in the middle of presenting your proposal and a person at the far end of the table raises her hand. “I’m not even sure the ‘problem’ you’re describing exists, or is a big deal at all!” How do you deal with that?

From reading your responses to my previous posts, I find that many people aren’t able to even reach the point where they can debate the merits of their proposal. Many get bogged down in the quagmire of trying to effectively communicate the nature and extent of the problem. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t much matter what your proposal is. People aren’t going to consider anything until they are convinced there is a problem that truly needs to be addressed.

Have you made the problem feel real?

In scenarios like this, I’ve found that it’s effective to highlight the problem and the people affected by it in a way that makes the problem feel real. What’s less effective — and far more common — is to make a dry business case that, even if correct, is usually less persuasive and less memorable than it needs to be.

424 gloves drive the message home

On this topic, one story I’ve always liked (from my book The Heart of Change) I affectionately call “Gloves on the Boardroom Table.” A large organization had an inefficient purchasing process, and one mid-level executive believed that money was constantly being wasted with each of the organization’s factories handling their own purchases. He thought there could be tremendous savings from consolidating the procurement effort. He put together a “business case” for change but it went nowhere. His boss said that senior executives didn’t feel it was truly a big problem, especially with so many other daily challenges taking up their time.

So the manager had an idea: he collected the 424 different kinds of work gloves the factories collectively purchased and tagged each one with its different price and supplier. He carted the gloves in and dumped them on the boardroom table before a senior
executive team meeting. He first showed the pile to his boss, who was taken aback by this powerful visual display of the waste inherent in having dozens of different factories negotiate different deals for the items they needed!

The boss showed the CEO, who scrapped the meeting agenda to talk about procurement because what he was looking at was so memorable, so compelling, and so real. It galvanized the executives to action. Ultimately, they overhauled their procurement process and saved a great deal of money.

See, feel, change

I’ve called the process used here See, Feel, and Change, as opposed to Analyze, Think, and Change. The latter is all head, no heart, and often fails to motivate people to recognize the importance of a given problem. It’s too easily forgotten or ignored if it doesn’t feel real.

Highlight the personal, real consequences of the problem you want people to see

So what is my everyday advice if you can’t always collect, catalogue, and cart around 424 pairs of gloves? One way is to highlight the real, personal consequences of the problem you want people to see, and to highlight the real people who suffer because of it.

My newer book, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Ideas From Getting Shot Down, features a story of someone presenting a plan to provide new computers for a local library. When dissenters don’t listen because they don’t think there is a problem with the current computers, the presenter has two options. He could use PowerPoint slides to compare the library’s computers to current computer models sold in stores, showing the difference in processing power, memory capacity, and modem speed. Or he could relate the true story of a local fourth-grader from a poor family who relies on the library’s computers for homework — computers that are too slow and outdated to allow her to finish her assignments, leaving her underprepared for school.

Which case would you find more compelling? Which case makes the problem feel real?

See also:

Buy-In: Saving Your Good Ideas From Getting Shot Down

Influential Fundraiser: Using the Psychology of Persuasion to Achieve Outstanding Results

To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

Image credits: Harvard Business Review, harborfreight, channelview

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An unvarnished look at our nonprofit sector’s challenges and opportunities

More than $1.5 trillion flow through more than one million charities, employing 13 million people in the United States. The charitable sector is one of the pillars of American quality of life, yet remarkably, we don’t think much about causes.

Even more surprising is in our results-driven world, the general public rarely presses nonprofits for accountability to results and measures.

Former National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern has written a book to tell the story of charitable failures, misguided incentives and ineffective market structures. With Charity for All is a call to action for the social sector to look at its framework and identify ways in which it can make corrective measures one person, one nonprofit at a time.

Some of the problems Stern challenges us to face include:

Tolerance of low- or no-impact outcomes like water charities that build wells but fail to maintain them or programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) that actually stimulated drug use.

Acceptance of the government’s 99.5 percent approval of all charitable applications: The IRS’ low requirement threshold for nonprofit status further crowds the social sector with charities that don’t always meet two important criteria: 1) charitable tax exemption to “relieve the government of having to provide and pay for certain services” and 2) public benefit: “the charity cannot operate for private benefit; its value must be felt broadly within the community.”

Lack of sector scrutiny: “Ineffective supervision, unclear legal standards, and enormous consumer confusion all create a situation where it is astonishingly easy to set up, operate, and maintain charities that principally benefit their fund-raisers and managers.” Stern gives examples such as donations not going to programs but instead, to fundraising and administrative expenses. For example, the Association for Firefighters and Paramedics (AFP) designate only three percent of the funds to the programs that assist burn victims.

Solutions: a path to a better charitable marketplace

In the final chapter, Stern discusses what we, as a society, need to do to combat the real dangers of the charitable sector as it stands today. Many charities believe the sector does not “lend itself to empirical measurement” because it is difficult to measure social good. Also, people that work for social good should not be evaluated. This belief results in being more fair to the charities than the beneficiaries of their work. Donors’ lack of research and their donations to good stories rather than legitimate impact are exacerbating the problem.

Stern’s paths to a better charitable marketplace include:

Ken Stern

  1. Resist the old ways” by focusing on social impact to beneficiaries based on objective evidence. People must look past charismatic leaders and fundraisers and enticing marketing strategies to real impact.
  2. Look for indicia of quality”: clarity of targets, transparency with goals and research, real growth. Be wary of claims of low overhead because they may be “managing their books for public display or shortchanging their potential, or both.”
  3. Do the work” by researching the charities thoroughly, not just the charities’ websites, but also public reports and other websites. Share the information you find.
  4. Follow the leaders,” or signalers, that have done the research (GiveWell, New Profit and Robin Hood Foundations). These organizations are still small and limited in scope, but it’s a start.
  5. “Reconsider what constitutes a charity: Businesses that look, act, and feel like for-profit operations, like [some] hospitals, … should be treated as for-profit businesses, both out of notions of competitive fairness and out of the belief that such operations neither need nor deserve public support.” What organizations really should receive tax-exempt status?

We must open our eyes if we’re to make a change

Given the extent to which our society and government increasingly depend on the social sector to deliver critical support to the underserved as well as augment our quality of life, it’s understandable that former nonprofit CEOs like Ken Stern who’ve witnessed the challenges we face feel compelled to give readers an unvarnished look in front of and behind the curtain. With so much riding on our sector’s ability to deliver impact, Stern challenges us to open our eyes and take a closer look at what seemingly has gone unnoticed for too long.

See also:

Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Really Change the World

The One-Hour Activist: The 15 Most Powerful Actions You Can Take to Fight for the Issues and Candidates You Care About

Governance Series–Volume One: Fundraising for Boards, Ethics, Governance as Leadership and Conversations that Matter

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What makes nonprofit failures useful or useless? FailBetter authors answer.

“Not all failures are useful. The key is to enable the productive ones. You’ll need to know what makes some failures worthwhile and others useless.”

Authors Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn have recently published a new book to help you make the most of mistakes. They claim that, “Failure is not necessarily bad. Accepting that it’s inevitable, and maybe even desirable, sets the stage for a more nuanced discussion of learning, failure, and success.”

Today we’re building on our recent introductory post and featuring an excerpt of our interview with the coauthors to give you a better sense of how mistakes can be a path to great efficiencies rather than a source of regret or frustration.

More about the book’s premise

But first, let’s review a little bit more about the book’s premise. Sastry and Penn explain that “smart leaders, entrepreneurs and change agents design their innovation projects with a key idea in mind: ensure that every failure is maximally useful.” In Fail Better, the authors show you how to create the conditions, culture and habits to determine what the most effective solutions are by:

1) launching every project with the necessary groundwork,

2) building and refining ideas, products and services through iterative action, and

3) identifying the learning moments and embedding the knowledge.

Launch, iterate, embed

In other words, the book discusses how to address failures and make them beneficial before (launch), during (iteration) and after (embedding) the project’s work. You will learn an invaluable skill you may never have developed before: how to distinguish “preventable, wasteful and uninstructive failures” from helpful ones you can incorporate into your process.

Interview with the authors

CausePlanet: Where do most people “get it wrong” when they’ve failed? Which part of your model tackles it?

Penn and Sastry: There are so many areas to choose from! Fail Better addresses common failure modes at each step—whether at the outset of a project when the seeds of a failure may be sown in failing to identify faulty assumptions that underpin the rest of the project’s actions or a needed skill set or resource is never secured (the Launch Phase of Fail Better aims at addressing this), or at the end of a project when many a manager and team member rushes into the next project without extracting, sharing and translating into changed behavior the lessons learned (the Embed Phase tackles how to do this).

People often “get it wrong” when they miss opportunities to prevent more costly failures in exchange for smaller, more informative, more affordable mistakes. And they get it wrong when they march to the end of a project on the back of a single monolithic approach, without testing and experimenting along the way. Not much can be done to improve an outcome at the end of a project, so if a faulty path is pursued with determination, larger, more public and more costly failures are bound to be the result. Fail Better’s Iterate Phase intervenes here.

On a more individual level, once failure has occurred, two critical pitfalls often await:

First, failure makes each one of us feel so uncomfortable, that often examining the causes of that failure are avoided and written off to circumstantial issues. This is a coping mechanism, but it’s the exact sort of thing that contributes to repeating similar mistakes. Fail Better works hard to help implementers avoid this outcome by creating the space and structure for reflection and behavior change in a safe way.

Second, there is a temptation as a manager to hide failure stories instead of owning them and crafting a narrative that shows why a course of action was selected, what was learned and what will be done differently going forward. A smart failure that drives learning and positive change and a response that demonstrates resilience and action is highly valued. And it is much better to craft our own failure stories than to have others, who may not know the nuances or intentions, do it for us by default.

CausePlanet: What makes a failure useless? What makes it useful?

Penn and Sastry: Our starting point is the idea that the right kind of failure—small-scale, reversible, informative, linked to broader goals, and designed to illuminate key issues—paves the way to success. Such failures are in service of a larger vision or goal, are stepping stones to refined and improved ideas, and create a platform of understanding and learning. In short, a better failure moves you forward. The wrong kind of failure entails waste, leads to discouragement, reflects rigid thinking, “bets the farm,” and contributes to reputational damage.

See also:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

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Build your nonprofit leadership capacity with development programs and learning communities

In recent years, forward-thinking capacity builders have learned that they could build the leadership capacity of the nonprofit sector not just through direct individual consulting, but also through the design and delivery of leadership development programs and learning communities. These professional development modalities provide an intensive learning opportunity, usually for executive directors, structured on a peer-learning model. Through these programs, small groups of executives commit to working and learning together over an extended period, often a year, or, in the case of a learning community, longer. The groups are supported by consultants/trainers who are experienced in organizational capacity-building, leadership development and the nurturing of learning communities.

The goals of these programs include:

Enhancing participants’ management and leadership skills;

Creating networks of nonprofit professionals that can sustain and develop their members; and

Developing each participant’s awareness of the impact of his or her personality upon his or her leadership style.

Leadership development programs

Leadership development programs, which are more formal than learning communities, often work from a core curriculum, which is customized for each cohort and timeframe, and generally covers the following areas:

The role of the executive director—leading the organization

The relationship of the executive to the board—getting the most out of the board

Understanding and managing strategic issues—growth, competition, new ventures

Managing people—volunteers, staff and interns

Communicating your message—internal and external communication strategies

Developing a nonprofit that people want to support—fundraising strategies

Leveraging resources—board members, consultants, peers

Setting and measuring goals—you don’t have to be a research wonk to do it

Developing a lifelong, sustainable approach to leadership development

Leadership development programs usually combine a small amount of reading with discussions and role playing, as well as group and individual projects. The group leader ensures that key concepts are communicated in each meeting, using discussion among peers as an important learning tool. The leader seeds conversations and presents cases for discussion by the group. Group members are encouraged to contact one another between meetings—enhancing the peer-to-peer approach to learning and support.

These programs can also contain informal communication vehicles developed to facilitate between meeting contact. For example, a program might utilize a Web site that is accessible to group members only, where members can post their respective strategic plans or other documents, ask one another questions, etc. These sites can be quite simple and bare bones, or they can become much more elaborate “knowledge management centers.”

Currently, most leadership development programs are designed for executive directors. However, both funders and nonprofits are increasingly asking for similar programs aimed at other organizational leaders and mid-level managers (e.g., the chief financial officer, chief operating officer, program director, development director, etc.), who may be future executive directors. In this way, the current management structure can be deepened as the future leadership pipeline is strengthened.

Of course, the curriculum for these leaders is somewhat different. In place of the leadership development program’s heavy emphasis on the challenges executive directors face working with boards, there might be somewhat less attention to this still critical area, with the addition of a section on “managing up,” or how to manage from the middle of an organization.

Learning communities

Learning communities have similarities to more formalized leadership development programs, but differ in a few meaningful ways. For example, learning communities usually do not have a pre-determined curriculum, but instead are composed of a group of peers, usually executive directors (although this too is changing, with aspiring leader learning communities also on the rise), meeting regularly to discuss issues of mutual concern. The topics for consideration mirror those in the curriculum of a more formal leadership development program; however, they emerge naturally from discussion.

Learning communities are often used as a sustainable follow-up modality to a leadership development program, since they can be self-managed and continue for as long as the members have interest. In creating a variety of leadership development programs and models, and in facilitating various learning communities, I have learned that three elements are essential—not just to the overall success of each program, but also to the individual success of each meeting or session. These three elements must be present for participants to get the most learning out of their participation and to come away with a perception that their time was well spent.

The elements are:

Hard skill development: Participants must actually learn something new and useful at each session, such as how to run a better board meeting, read financial statements, manage a troublesome staff person or develop a personal performance plan.
Networking with peers: Participants need time and opportunity to connect with their peers in the group, through activities, discussion, exercises or other means.
Self-reflection: Participants must be given an opportunity to see themselves as others see them, in order to both build on their strengths and minimize any weaknesses in their self-presentation, communication style or other behaviors.

Well organized and ably facilitated, leadership development programs and learning communities are useful tools for capacity building. Not only do they help participants to develop skills and networks that will improve their job performance, but they are also generally reported to reduce stress and burn out, which may lead to longer tenure in their current jobs. For a board wondering how to keep its high-flying executive director or development director motivated and engaged, these tools might be something to consider.

See also:

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