The School Zone – Taos

Just before I left Dallas, I ran into a couple of SMU alumni in the ice cream line at SavorDallas. When they learned I was moving to Taos, they asked if I might like to be involved in a project there called The School Zone – Taos, an offshoot of a project that was established by SMU in West Dallas several years ago.

Some months later, with the results of the presidential election dimming the prospects for public education, I decided to become involved.

Taos is a predominantly rural, predominantly low-income community. However, the population includes quite a few people of means who’ve decided to retire here or who are part-time residents. The purpose of The School Zone – Taos (TSZ-T) is to bring to bear some of SMU’s educational resources, along with others in the local community, on the schools, the teachers, and the nonprofit community that works with school-aged children.

What TSZ-T does is foster a strategic approach and collaboration among those groups that are all working to promote success among K-12 students–and then it sets out to measure that success. In Taos, we really need that. So I am bringing my nonprofit organizing skills to bear on this program in the hope that, over time, we can make a significant difference in this community.


New Places, New Friends, New Organizations

I’m pleased to say that I’ve moved myself and my consulting practice to Taos, New Mexico. I’ll still be working with people and organizations in Dallas, but I’m happy to be able to add my talents to those of folks who are working hard to improve the lot of one of the lowest income states in the country. It’ll be less about buildings and more about helping of children and adults who are struggling to find ways to remain in an area that has one of the strongest senses of place I’ve ever seen.

Stay tuned.

It Sold!: My House at 3216 Jacotte Circle, Dallas

3216 Jacotte CircleThe longer I have lived in this house, the more I have loved it–that must be one of the definitions of good architecture. The way the light comes into the house and changes throughout the day. The screened porch on the second floor that both protects the house from the southern sun and provides a wonderful sanctuary at all times of the day. The expanses of hardwood floor that are a foil for the lightness of the interior walls. The way that art looks hanging on the walls.

3216JacotteCircle Flyer

Real Estate Flyer for 3216 Jacotte Circle, Dallas

As a proponent of sustainable architecture and resource conservation, I have been amazed at how well the house is sited for the Texas climate. The louvered exterior doors and the screened sleeping porch allow for both ventilation and security. The orientation of the house catches the prevailing winds. The enormous Texas red oak on the west side, coupled with the glass blocks on the western facade, ensure that the hot summer sun is kept from heating up the house and provide privacy from the street. I’ve tried to enhance the house’s natural energy efficiency with my choice of heating and air-conditioning units, and my utility bills have been minuscule.

Architectural Record 9-40Howard Meyer was one of Dallas’s most significant architects and an early proponent and practitioner of modernism. Here are links to the documentary on his life: A Well-Made Object, Part One and Part Two. He designed the house for Eugene Kahn Sanger, who was president of the E.M. Kahn Company, one of the foremost mercantile establishments in Dallas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was published in the September 1940 issue of Architectural Record, as shown in this illustration.

The house is for sale at $739,000. Agents protected. Please contact me if you think this might be the house for you or for your clients.

Interview Behavior for Interviewers and Interviewees Alike

A job interview is a negotiation, just like any other business transaction. It’s the best opportunity for two parties to develop knowledge and understanding about each other. What it is NOT is a one-sided negotiation, with one side having all the power and the other side playing the role of supplicant. These guidelines apply just as readily to interviews with prospective board members and other volunteers, who will have an important role to play in your organization.

The interviewer has to be looking for the right fit, which includes the right skills and the right outlook, so that the successful candidate will be appropriate for the new organization both in terms of providing the needed services and in terms of fitting into the existing culture.

The interviewee is essentially looking for the same: they want to make sure they’ve got the required expertise–and can grow their skills–and that they’ll feel comfortable in their new position.

For both parties, behavior before, during, and after the interview is telling–and should not be ignored. Pay attention to:

Communication: Are both parties timely in their communications? Thank-you notes tell you a lot, particularly in a nonprofit, about how the individual or organization will treat its staff and its volunteers. Organizations should keep candidates apprised of the progress of the search, and candidates should let organizations know immediately if they want to withdraw from the process.

Listening: It’s important for both sides, and important to read between the lines of the answers given.

Courtesy: Do both parties speak with respect, or with a tone that seems arrogant or patronizing? Is the interviewee offered hospitality, or made to feel uncomfortable in any way?

Truthfulness: Is either party trying to sell itself, downplaying or discounting challenges that have been faced? Every organization and every individual has and is facing both opportunities and threats; the most successful will be transparent in disclosure, face the issues head on, and find solutions.

We’ve all been on both sides of the table. The best interviews, I hope you’ll agree, are the ones where everyone walks away feeling as though they’ve learned a lot and want to learn more.


What Is a Sustainable Organization?

Back when I was teaching about sustainability in the context of green building programs, I used, as a definition of sustainability, “the most efficient use of resources over the lifetime of the building.” I called my consulting firm Sustainable Places, Sustainable Organizations because I believe the same principles apply to nonprofits as apply to any other system: that resources, which include time and people as well as money, must be wisely used, not just for the short term, but also for the long-term well being of the organization.

What makes a nonprofit organization sustainable? Here are a few areas of focus:

Comprehensive relationship management. This requires a single, unified database, that enables staff and volunteers to understand the complete relationship with individuals and organizations: recent and past donations, time given to volunteer projects, involvement with other organizations, participation in events. You should understand all of the ways people are involved and be in touch with them frequently, not just to ask for money, but to ask for advice and let them know what’s happening and how their participation is helping your organization grow. It’s so much easier to build on existing supporters than try to find new ones. I’ve written about CRM programs in the past; Salesforce is one. It’s free. Do make sure that, after taking the time to acquire the data, you use it.

Continual leadership development. Do you know who’ll be leading your organization for the next five years? Do you have a plan in the event the president-elect has to withdraw at the last minute? It’s not just about the next board chair, but about developing leadership strength and depth at all levels: board, committees, one-time volunteers. Don’t assume that everyone has the knowledge and skills to run the board or manage the event or serve on the finance committee just because they’ve offered to. Learning new skills is an important benefit of volunteering and equally important to retention. A leadership pipeline is critical to smooth operations.

The same is true for staff. Make sure you’re budgeting for professional development. In your annual review, find out if there are skills the ED would like an opportunity to develop. Are there clear job descriptions for each position? Should the ED decide to depart, is there a succession plan?

Annual review of systems. Are your systems efficient and up to date or is your staff spending unnecessary time trying to make outdated computer systems work? Does your phone system enable messages to be searched and archived? Do you have systems in place to update software? Does your accounting system need streamlining? Are there other areas that can be automated without “loss of human contact,” to enable your staff and volunteers to spend more time doing the things that only humans can do?

Review your space
. We’ve all visited nonprofit offices that are repositories of incredible amounts of “stuff”: table centerpieces from last year’s luncheon, flip charts from the last strategic planning session five years ago, leftover plates and napkins from dozens of board meetings, boxes of files no one’s looked at for years. Everyone is happier and more productive working in an organized environment and a lot of clutter makes it hard to find needed information. If your office is suffering from accretions from the last few decades, organize an ad hoc committee to spend several afternoons or evenings organizing. The volunteers will learn things they never knew and you may find that missing cd of photos you’ve been looking for for six months.

Document retention. Having important, regularly accessed documents in a central location will save huge amounts of time. Most contact relationship management programs enable digital document storage, including emails and voice mail messages, which can provide an alternative to retaining paper documents in the office. A document retention policy that is integrated into daily operations, with documentation of where documents are stored, will not only save time but also ensure items are available when leadership changes.

Make it easier. Can prospective volunteers find information about volunteer jobs and sign up online? Is the volunteer chair notified automatically and does the volunteer’s information automatically get added to the database? Can a donation be made with one click? Can your donors make donations in monthly or quarterly installments?

In my experience, time is the resource most frequently squandered by nonprofit organizations. But donors and volunteers have little patience for misuse of that resource particularly. Remember that there’s a lot of competition for support of all kinds. By making all of your activities easier and more streamlined, you’ll be making the best use of your donors’ and your volunteers’ time–and they will love you for it.

Using time, money and people effectively will ensure that your organization will better weather the vagaries of the economy and survive for the long term, and that is what sustainability is all about.



Soooooo Many (Free) Resources for Nonprofits

Free webinar on nonprofit branding by Classy

With all the competition for dollars out there, it’s critical that nonprofits operate efficiently and make sure both board and staff are up to date on current best practices. It is now so easy to find good information on the internet on pretty much any topic, that it’s surprising to me that more board and staff members don’t take advantage of what’s available.

I just listened to a very helpful webinar from the law firm Venable LLP, which has a substantial nonprofit practice. They have frequent FREE seminars on a variety of useful topics; this particular one was on legal aspects of executive compensation, and I learned some things I wish I had known a few years ago. You can attend their sessions in person (if you’re in Washington, DC) or participate through a webinar.

The executive director of another local nonprofit introduced me to Joan Garry’s blog, She’s a nonprofit consultant, too, and while I don’t always agree 100% with what she writes, it’s always thought provoking. And Guidestar also maintains a useful blog and offers free seminars..

And of course there’s a lot that’s not free, albeit very helpful. CNMConnect (the new name for North Texas’s Center for Nonprofit Management) and their neighbors Volunteer Now have lots of classes available on a variety of topics. A local accounting firm, CM Rosen, gives monthly nonprofit-accounting seminars under the auspices of the Nonprofit Accounting Society of Dallas. I went to one meeting and got a particularly thorny problem resolved right away.

The point I’m trying to make here is that every ED and every board president should be doing all they can to do the best they can for the nonprofit with which they’ve been entrusted. Money and time aren’t impediments; you can get absolutely free, timely, and accurate information delivered right to your inbox. These are by no means the only resources available, so do a little exploring–it will make you better at what you do, and may save you from disaster one of these days.


Nonprofits and Data Management and Fundraising

Nonprofit data managementI do a fair of work with small nonprofits and it’s amazing to me how many of them continue to use–almost INSIST on using–multiple silos for their donor/volunteer/event records, particularly when there are many free or low-cost options for integrating it all. It’s almost as if they feel as though they’re being good stewards of their resources by spending immense amount of staff or volunteer time entering and managing data. They’re not.

Here’s a great blog post from Guidestar that was published this morning, to which I fully subscribe. It has always been true, and is becoming more and more important, that nonprofits really know their stakeholders and their relationships. My feeling is, you can’t cultivate if you don’t integrate. So take the time–or have an ad hoc committee take the time–to look at your systems and your data and bring them into the 21st century.

Does Your Board Know What It Needs to Know?

One of the most important jobs of organizational leadership is to ensure that board members have the right amount of information to ensure that they can–and will–carry out their fiduciary responsibilities and make the best contribution they can. Summertime, when many organizations begin a new fiscal year but perhaps scale back their activities, is the perfect time to make that happen.

Although in general I support providing documents digitally wherever possible, I’m a big fan of the comprehensive board notebook. This gives trustees a place to organize their information, adding documents as needed, taking notes at meetings, and using as a reference during and between meetings. The notebook should be issued immediately after the individual is elected so that they will have time to review and bring their questions to the board orientation. Going through the notebook page-by-page at the orientation is a real buzzkill at a time you want to generate excitement for their service.

The orientation is the point at which the organization has the best opportunity to tell new board members exactly what the group needs from them–and also to learn what the newbie wants out of their board tenure. Interactivity and getting to know one another is key! Critically, each individual must come away with a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, particularly the legal requirements of board membership.

Here’s some further reading on effective orientations. Do it–a little time invested now will make a huge difference in the long run.

Donor Databases–What I’ve Learned, Part 2

My introduction to Salesforce came about five years ago, while I was working as a consultant for a small (by which I mean no staff) nonprofit. The Salesforce instance had been set up by a volunteer, Teri Walker, who is now a technology consultant for nonprofits and small businesses. It was clear from the beginning that even though the learning curve is steep, Salesforce offers all sorts of flexibility to adapt to the operations of any nonprofit.

Since then, I’ve used it every time I’ve worked with a nonprofit and I learn a lot–always on the fly–every time. Things I’ve learned:
–get a good consultant, experienced with nonprofits, to help with implementation–it will save a LOT of time
–join a nonprofit user group–there’s one in many communities, supported by the Salesforce Foundation
–take advantage of some of the many video tutorials offered by Salesforce–it’s a great way to learn
–if you can possibly swing it, go to the annual convention Dreamforce–they say it’s invaluable in learning about Salesforce and related resources

Dallas Nonprofit User Group

I’ve just recently learned about Apsona, another FREE add-on app that makes using the Salesforce nonprofit starter pack much easier and more versatile to use. Wish I had known about it all along–I learned about it at the Dallas Salesforce nonprofit user group, which meets monthly.

As nonprofit administrators, it’s incumbent on all of us to be good stewards of our organizations’ resources, including keeping up with advances in technology. One other great thing about Salesforce–they keep up with advances, almost automatically, so you don’t have to.


Donor Databases–What I’ve Learned, Part 1

I’ve worked with many, many nonprofits over the years, as a volunteer and as a staff member. Every single one of those organizations–without exception–was looking for the best way to keep track of their donors, volunteers, vendors, prospects, and documents.

At the risk of making this post sound as though I’m advertising, I want to talk about the magic that is Salesforce. It may not be the answer for a fully-staffed development office, but for my world, which is that of the small nonprofit always looking to maximize resources, it’s, literally, a gift.

The Salesforce Foundation‘s philanthropic model famously gives away to nonprofits1% of its product, 1% of its staff time, and 1% of its equity. Ten free licenses and all kinds of support are available FREE to any qualified nonprofit. Because their business model is primarily oriented toward for-profits, Salesforce doesn’t have to rely on nonprofits to make its money, as do companies like Blackbaud, DonorPerfect, and DonorSnap, all of whom charge monthly access fees. That can add up.

Salesforce is cloud-based, which means all the software as well as the data is virtually based (and backed up). No worries about losing the data.

Used in concert with add-on applications that are integrated seamlessly into Salesforce, the enterprising nonprofit can track donations and volunteer hours, create a central repository for digital files of all kinds, manage events, send mass emails, accept credit card payments–manage virtually all of its operations–absolutely for free, once the system is implemented. What could be better?

More about my thoughts and experiences in Part 2.