When It’s Time to Say Goodbye…

Finishing up my time at NCJW, and I’ve been trying to make sure they have all the information they need for a reasonably seamless transition.

I haven’t been there long, but because I was their first executive director the organization hasn’t had to deal with this type of transition in the past. In addition, almost all of their administrative systems have been modified over the course of the past year, and NCJW will also have to hire a new administrative manager–the only other staff position. Lots of change for a small organization.

To ease the transition, we first made sure that the organization’s operations manual was up to date. It’s a physical document, kept in a secure spot, with information about all of the office systems: computers, printers, passwords, etc. Every group should have one. We updated vendor information, which is kept in our CRM database (Salesforce, in this case), along with many other documents, so that our successors would know where to find it–and where to find help when they need it.

Then I met informally with every program or project chair and every vice president I could squeeze in, to talk about where to find their information, goals and strategies for their programs, and possibilities and recommendations for next steps.

It’s important to recognize, as is pointed out in this article, that invariably there is conjecture about the “real reason” for the departure; that can be forestalled by a straightforward letter of resignation that is distributed to all board members and other key stakeholders. Along with mine, I attached a series of general recommendations for the board, so that even if I hadn’t had a chance to meet one-on-one with them, everyone would have the opportunity to benefit from what I’d learned over the past year.

In the end, everyone’s happy and I feel as though I’ve given them the best preparation I could for the future. Ultimately, that’s the job!



What a Difference a Volunteer Can Make

As I look back over my year at NCJW Greater Dallas, I can point to a number of organizational achievements of which I am very proud. The project I was most proud to be associated with, though, was one that perhaps I had the least influence over: NCJW’s Aid to Immigrant Families program.

In the summer of 2014, Dallas County faced the possibility of an influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children. Social service organizations all over the county tried to understand the problem and came up with all sorts of potential ways to help. NCJW did what it always does: took a hard look, assessed existing resources for the kids, and found the place where it could best make a difference..

Early on, volunteers realized that our immigration courts were working hard to expedite children through the process. This might have served the court, but certainly didn’t serve the children, many of whom were being deported without having the benefit of legal representation.

NCJW volunteers organized themselves to monitor the court and collect data about the so-called “rocket docket,” which information was eventually used in a national class-action suit on behalf of the kids. The court took notice and began to take a more thoughtful approach.

Later, these same volunteers helped develop workshops to teach immigrant families how to apply for asylum, to avoid returning to dangerous situations in their home countries.

We’ll never really know how many children were ultimately helped. One thing we do know: if even one life was saved, it was certainly worth the effort.

Thoughts on Interviewing–LinkedIn’s Founder

I found this synopsis of Reid Hoffman’s book The Alliance pretty interesting. The founder of LinkedIn, and its current executive chairman, he’s clearly given a lot of thought to hiring practices.

This is something we don’t much talk about: that job interviews are inherently dishonest. Both parties are selling something, so they won’t necessarily give an accurate assessment of skills, work habits, working conditions, and strengths and weaknesses in general. It’s particularly true in nonprofits. It’s incumbent on both parties to do their due diligence, using all the resources at hand (and Guidestar is one great resource) to get the full story. There are many. Use them.

The Necessary Leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what enables an executive director to be successful.

I’ve had both good and not-so-good experiences serving as CEO of nonprofits, and it seems to me that the most important element–the sine qua non of nonprofit success–is accountability, both of the volunteers and of the staff.

The relationship between the board chair and the ED is a microcosm of the larger relationship. While the ED may be leading the organization as a whole, the board chair is responsible for guiding. motivating, and holding accountable the board of trustees.

I’m a big fan of fairly detailed job descriptions for volunteers as well as paid staff. Increasingly, I’m also a fan of asking board members to sign their job description, as a way of acknowledging the responsibility they’re taking on. But I’ve had board leadership tell me, “These are volunteers–you can’t hold them accountable.” I couldn’t disagree more.

Sometimes an organization can weather a period of weak leadership, but in times of significant change, the board and staff MUST have a shared vision and a shared sense of what has to be accomplished to make that vision a reality, and everyone has to be accountable for their part of it–otherwise, it’s just not happening.

Other Ways Foundations Can Help

Traditionally, foundations have played the role of funders to nonprofits almost exclusively. Lately, in the spirit of “give a man a fish…,” a number of forward-thinking foundations have looked at other ways to support individuals and community-based groups.for the longer term.

One group I have a lot of respect for is the Rhode Island Foundation. Rhode Island is a small place with perhaps a disproportionate number of artists (RISD is located in Providence) that is headquarters of the Alliance of Artists Communities, a group I became familiar with while I was working with La Reunion TX. The two groups are collaborating this year to present the annual Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowships, which are grants of $25,000 awarded to individual Rhode Island artists. The Foundation provides the funding and the AAC folks, who know the artists, administer the program. That’s refreshing: many foundations, in part because of tax laws, will not support individual artists. This collaboration supports both artists and a significant arts group.

The Foundation’s other individual-oriented program is a fellowship for mid-career nonprofit executives designed to give EDs the chance to take “productive, short-term sabbaticals from their organizations.” What a great idea, and in many ways of greater value to a nonprofit than a simple program grant. A gift that keeps on giving.

Good ideas for foundations across the country.

Membership Development–Changing Rapidly

National Trust Membership Development monographIt was rewarding to learn recently that the National Trust’s template for organizational assessment includes in its references a guide to membership development I wrote for them many years ago.

As flattering as that might be, I’m not so sure it’s still relevant. The concept–and perceived value–of membership is changing rapidly, with young people not feeling as compelled to be part of a club as they once were.

There is a real movement toward experiential participation, through events and one-shot volunteer opportunities, especially those that don’t require membership as a prerequisite to participation.

This is a topic I hope to develop in a future post; it is of critical import for nonprofits that have traditionally relied on membership dues for a significant part of their revenues.

The Job That an Intern Might Find Insignificant

Some years ago, I moved back to my native Atlanta, where opportunities for geologists were few, so I had to find another career. My college placement office showed an opening for an intern at the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the larger preservation groups in the country. Having just returned from Maine with a new-found interest in historic buildings, I decided to accept the internship while I found other work.

Little did I know that that internship would evolve into a career in nonprofit management that included almost 20 years with historic preservation organizations, then arts groups, conservation organizations, and others. It changed the course of my life.

The fact of the matter is that those who are connected will find it much easier to find a job, and internships provide an important means of meeting and becoming connected to leaders in the field.

Besides the importance to the individual, frequently interns make remarkable discoveries that aid the organization–and the community–in the long term. Here are two illustrations:

15-Year-Old Intern Discovers Planet
The Trinity Connection: A Student Uncovers the Lost O’Neil Ford Drawings

Job Reviews are Critical

One of the most important duties of the nonprofit board of directors/trustees is to ensure review and evaluation of the work of the executive director/CEO. In my opinion, the first job review should take place 90 days after the hire.

A three-month review gives everyone the opportunity to evaluate the fit and to learn, early on, expectations of the ED and of the board, and, if things are clearly not working out, it gives everyone an out. The review doesn’t have to be a formal affair, but it should include some written conclusions, both from the board or board chair and from the ED.

Writing it all down ensures there’s a permanent record of the event, and also, I think, helps people to be thoughtful about the process. This recent article about gender differences in job reviews is particularly relevant in the nonprofit community, where many CEOs are women. It bears thought.

I have to say–and of course this is from the perspective of a perennial staff person–I deplore the concept of a “performance review.” The relationship is mutual, and boards have to do their jobs, just like staff members and volunteers, so the job review should always be a two-sided affair.


Organizational Assessment

Want a strong organization? Just as you might review a staff member at least once a year, every group–nonprofit or for-profit–should put aside some time during the year to assess where the board and where the organization is, relative to where it wants to be.

Presumably you have a strategic plan, and that can provide some good metrics for the process. But in addition each board member should take a good look at the contributions he or she is making, whether their expectations as a board member are being met, and how to work most effectively with board colleagues.

There are a million templates, some so simplistic that they really don’t help much. One I’ve found to be very useful is from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it looks at a variety of areas: administrative, governance, and programmatic. Take a look at the National Trust’s organization assessment form and adapt it as you see fit. But make sure the board is taking a good, hard look at itself, so that it can be the best steward possible for your donors and for the community.