Monday, December 7, 2015

Google Discovery Could Prevent Fractures in Nonprofits

I try not to read corporate blogs designed to squeeze more work out of their workers. Most stink of patronizing platitudes spewed out by consultants who promise output to whoever pays them for their fluff. So when a reader emailed me a link to Google’s blog for their workers, I groaned. Not only is the thing called re:Work, the home page shouts: Let’s Make Work Better. Better for who?, my cynical self asked.

But then I started reading the particular post. Some of their HR staff had spent two years studying “teams” within Google to find a recipe that could make any team effective. By the second paragraph they’d hooked me:

“…We were pretty confident that we'd find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team -- take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voila. Dream team assembled, right?

We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. So much for that magical algorithm…”

That’s when I realized this was not the ordinary corporate blog post. These HR people had hit on something that matters to any organization, committee, or team; any group within nonprofits.  

Their most profound discovery is that psychological safety is the number one factor in effective teams. I ran this through many of my own experiences as well as those I’ve guided leaders through and sure enough it hit them all. For every organization I’ve seen fall apart, I could recall a loss of psychological safety at the start of the downward spiral. I’d never identified it this way. Rather, I’d viewed these tragedies as the fallout after factions or rogues begin working against the others.

Reading this post from Google I realized that to cause psychological safety in such groups could actually prevent factions and rogues from splitting away. As I explain in Cures for Ailing Organizations, some people truly want to harm an organization by splitting the group, but more often rogues and factions are good people who simply believe they have no other choice but to block the efforts of the group. What if they felt comfortable voicing their ideas? I wonder how many sad stories of broken groups could be avoided.

Take a few minutes to read the short post called “The five keys to a successful Google team” and see what you think. The other four keys are interesting, too, but that first one really hit home for me.

Have you discovered other traits of effective teams? Have you witnessed any of these in action? Please offer your experiences in the comments section.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Charity or Murder: Both Result from Dehumanization

The recent attacks in Paris have caused important discussions and some horrific responses. I know that it is human nature to seek revenge; for the attacked to attack their attacker. This starts from our survival instinct, but soon goes too far. Because of these murders more liberties will be taken from all of us, more civilians will be killed in Syria, more hate talk against various groups will go unchecked.

Leaders of organizations big and small face this swinging pendulum of hate more often than we like to admit. Sometimes factions form within our organization, pitting people who were once friends against each other. Other times we must turn all our resources toward stopping different groups from harming each other. I even found this in the animal rights movement, a movement not even focused on humans, as overzealous activists claimed that people who harmed animals should be harmed in the same way or even killed.

I watch the reactions to the Paris attacks with mixed feelings. Of course it’s good for people to stand up against hate. But do we realize how close we are to hating the haters?

There is an effective response, but it requires perspective, an understanding of dehumanization, and the calming of our initial reaction. I cover this response method in Chapter 3 of Cures for Ailing Organizations because unless we stop such inappropriate behavior at its very beginning, there’s no point solving the easier problems. Surprisingly, this response not only undermines hate, but charity.

The seeds of hate are planted in the same way as the seeds of charity – by making the hater or the charity giver a better being than their target. This is dehumanization.

Sometimes large charity organizations become larger than their cause needs them to be or can support. This inertia and desperation to survive at their current level helps their leaders to justify messages and images that show their constituents as helpless and unable to care for themselves – starving, flies crawling on them, dependent on the organization. This draws people longing to help without having to put in the work to understand the true situation. They ignore the fact that every human has skills, experience, and value to contribute, not only to their own well-being but the causes touted by organizations. This occurs within cities and towns where the well-to-do answer charity pleas as they imagine their assistance going to people lesser than themselves. And it occurs across oceans as developing countries have been flooded by free goods that destroy local businesses and the economies that would lift them from poverty.

What’s wrong with this sort of giving if it is well intended? Everything. The separation. The promotion of some people as helpless. The call to other people that makes them better than those presented as helpless, deficient, wretched. The destruction of the systems that would nurture sustainably and enable struggling people to tap their skills and talents to help themselves.

If your organization is derailing into such destructive charity practices, start changing it back into one that sees your constituents as the same as all of you and find ways for them to contribute to your programs rather than just receiving charity.

Okay, so charity mindsets cause harm, you might say, but at least they are well intended; no correlation to murder. I have to argue otherwise. To help someone because you believe them to be inferior to you is no better than harming them for that reason. Your charity may get them through that day or even a year, but it will establish them in that place of helplessness you intended to help them out of.

People in African countries are some of the hardest hit by this as rampant charity has undermined their locally owned businesses and encouraged them to choose the endless charity handouts over the pursuit of their dreams of self-reliance. Simply understanding that every human needs the dignity of caring for themselves would stop this destructive charity flood. Our hands would pause before dropping a coin into a hat without making eye contact and talking with that person. We’d think twice about sending a check or bag of used clothes to people we will never meet.

This “lesserness,” this diminishing other humans to an inferior level not only inspires charity, but harm. Yes, some murderers are psychopaths. But we can’t make this sweeping claim of murderers like those in Paris who were following the doctrine of their organization. They killed 129. The world is in an uproar.

As people worldwide cry out for change to stop “terrorists” after Friday’s killings, many other murders go unnoticed. This year in the U.S., 2,000 people will die from gang violence, just as 2,000 died last year, and the year before, and the year before that. Also in the U.S., each year there are over 200,000 victims of hate crimes, many fatal. No worldwide uproar. No cries against terrorists and other perceived enemies. Could it be that in these cases we have placed both the murderers and their victims below us, so inferior that they don’t even deserve a place in the news? Why are the Parisians more like us than the victims of gang or hate crimes?

The response to dehumanization is simple: Recognize it and stop it. As soon as anyone sets another person out as inferior, stop it. As soon as we realize we have dehumanized another person, go to that person and apologize; treat them with dignity. Yes, punish murderers. But the response starts far before that by preventing dehumanization that encourages murder.

This is an uncomfortable topic because it forces us to question our own judgment, our initial reaction, our “gut,” which we so like to trust. I’ve had to study this because I encounter dehumanization so often through my work at One Street. Usually I uncover it while consulting with leaders of an organization being torn apart by factions within their leadership. Other times, it’s through the campaigns I help them develop to stop injustices.

It took me some time before I could believe how rampant dehumanization is in our current society, how prone each and every one of us is to it. Here are a few of the most striking documentations of this tendency, which I hope will open your eyes to the problem: 

  • Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes Experiment - In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Jane Elliott, an elementary school teacher in Iowa, asked her students if they wanted to learn about racism. When they agreed, she told them that all the blue-eyed children were better than the brown-eyed children and gave them special treatment. The next day she reversed it. Watch this video to see how the children in one of her classes responded. Then ask yourself if you have diminished anyone in a similar way. 

  • Stanford Prison Experiment – In 1971, a professor at Stanford University was curious about the striking difference of behavior between guards and prisoners at the prisons he had visited. He launched an experiment with otherwise equal students, some of whom he made guards, the others prisoners, and locked them together in a makeshift basement “prison” for two weeks. Six days later the guards had become so violent against the prisoners and the prisoners so meek as to be unrecognizable, the experiment had to be stopped. The professor had unwittingly uncovered dehumanization, not just in his students, but himself.

Experiments like these are no longer allowed in our schools, perhaps for good reason. But thanks to these courageous teachers we can learn from theirs. When we give something to someone or harm them because we believe them to be different from us, we have fallen into the very same unacceptable behavior as the students in these studies. This is not because we are bad people. None of those students were bad people. And yet they, and we, can lapse into this behavior within a matter of minutes given a few prompts from an authority we trust.

We can also stop such prompts and tell such authorities they are wrong, not meekly like the students did during the experiments, but with the conviction we should all share that such proclamations are wrong. Only when inappropriate images of charity victims are revealed to be wrong and only when hate speak is stopped at its source, authority or not, will we finally abolish the indignity, murders, and violence they breed.

I’ve done a lot of broad-brush bashing of charity organizations here. So I have to say that for every misguided charity organization there are dozens of nonprofits who treat their constituents with dignity and as their equals. There’s no need to point at the inappropriate organizations as I hope now you can pick them out. But I would like to end with a story of one that is doing the right thing against gang violence, started by former gang members who broke out of the dehumanization suck hole.

This U.S. News story seems to have begun as a general story about rising gang violence, but the people they interviewed in the video speak of hope rather than despair because they broke the chain of violence and are now helping other gang members to do the same. If any readers are still dehumanizing gang members, this story should break you out of that.

Let’s keep breaking the chains of violence and dehumanization, following the lead of former perpetrators and their victims who have already done so.

Have you been concerned about inappropriate charity images or wanted to stop hate speak against any group? Please offer your experience in the comments section.


Friday, November 6, 2015

November: Time for Work Plan and Budget, No Holiday for Nonprofit Leaders

Most nonprofits see lots of action between February and October. Whether advocating for new laws during legislative sessions or conducting important events and activities for our constituents, those nine months can wear us out and leave us longing for the lounge chair and a stack of Christmas videos.

Unfortunately, November is no time to rest. This drowsy month is our best time to set the stage for the coming year. Here are just a few reasons why:
  • Results from the year are fresh in the minds of leaders, staff, and helpers.
  • Disappointments can inspire improvements for the next year. 
  • Participants are still engaged and are likely to offer ideas for improvements.
  • Board members can still be gathered before scattering in December.
  • Having at least a draft of your work plan and budget for next year finished in November will set a strong start for the coming year.

As I respond to calls for assistance from nonprofit leaders here at One Street, I’ve found that the lack of a work plan and budget is often the core reason for a nonprofit spinning out of control. Sure, I’ve seen this happen because of improper bylaws or a vague mission statement or even a malicious leader. These are all serious and traumatic situations.

But to see an otherwise effective organization derail simply because they skipped the fundamental task of creating next year’s work plan and budget is all the more frustrating. I wonder if the lull of November is responsible for this common mistake. We need to learn from this tendency, stay energized in November, and get this important work done.

Use your November board meeting for this planning activity. Let everyone know that it is a special meeting, sometimes called the annual meeting or board retreat, and will take a bit longer than a normal board meeting. You can invite others to attend or at least reach out to your partners and constituents prior to the meeting requesting their ideas. Bring a flip chart or use a large white board to note highlights from that year and capture ideas for the next. Save at least half an hour at the end of the meeting to organize these sloppy notes into your next year’s work plan and budget.

So what is a work plan and budget? Very simply, your work plan describes your programs and expected goals for the coming year. Your budget shows your projected income and expenses for the coming year; income always on top. Use as few line items as you can while still separating them enough to show where funding is coming from and where it is expected to go. A balanced budget will have the same number in the total income and total expenses lines. I recommend trying for more income than expense to cover unexpected expenses or, even better, to go into a reserve for the following year.

I want to note the importance of combining these two. A work plan is fiction without a budget intertwined with it. And a budget is just a bunch of made-up numbers unless every line item comes from a part of the work plan.

Your work plan will describe each of your programs along with the program goals you and your team expect to achieve in the coming year, who is responsible for ensuring those goals are met, and the percentage of their time needed to achieve them. Major expenses for each program are noted in the text of the work plan. These expenses match line items in the budget. The budget also includes the overhead expenses needed to be successful in all programs and to keep the organization running. Overhead expenses can include payroll, contractor fees (such as bookkeeper, web designer, and building maintenance), phone, utilities, office supplies, and travel expenses.

Combine the work plan and budget into one text document to prevent them from being referenced separately. I like to place the budget at the top since it will take less than a page and this makes it easy to find. The entire document should fit into two or three pages so include only necessary details. This is a reference document, not a literary work of art. By keeping it short and concise you will ensure that you and your leaders understand and remember its contents.

In Cures for Ailing Organizations I warn readers to keep their programs to three. Three is plenty for diversity and ensures everyone, leaders and constituents, knows what the organization does. I also emphasize this when coaching leaders on work plan development. I often get pushback from leaders of larger organization who list off many activities, campaigns, and initiatives they tout as separate programs. But even when their list seems varied and unrelated, we always find three categories to place every activity under and these become their three overall programs. Pull out administrative tasks, partner outreach, and fundraising into a general overhead category. While they are necessary they are not programs because they do not advance the organization’s mission.

By taking care of this planning and budgeting in November, you and your team will be ready to start your programs in January. By February, you’ll be full speed ahead in all the action.

Here’s another bonus for your effort: Once you’ve captured all the details of your three programs and administrative duties into your work plan and budget you will have everything you need to create an impressive year-end fundraising letter. If your organization is large and complex enough to need an annual report, this planning effort will give you the details to make it sing.

So wrap that lounge chair with caution tape, store those holiday videos, and get back to work. If you and your team do a good job with your planning and budgeting your December break will be all the more enjoyable.

Do you have questions about work plans and budgets? Does your organization do annual planning differently? Have tips to add? Please offer them in the comments section.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Opening the Nonprofit Helpline

There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you can help someone, but having no way to do so. I go through this too often at One Street as I connect with leaders of bicycle nonprofits, find out about their struggles, then lose them. They say they’ll call back. They promise they’ll follow the steps I offer, but too often I’m left with only silence.

For all the frustration, I still love being here for their calls and emails and knowing that at least I gave it a try. And for every one that vanishes, I enjoy ongoing discussions with nonprofit leaders who keep at their work to increase their effectiveness. These success stories keep me going, but the ones I lose keep me fired up to do more.

I founded One Street eight years ago to offer a safe haven where leaders of bicycle organizations would feel comfortable going for advice and assistance. Over those eight years, I have worked with our board and partners to develop resources and coaching methods for building influential organizations that never waste energy spinning their wheels. Most of these services we offer for free because helping them equates to increasing bicycling.

The idea came to me after recognizing in the bicycle movement the same patterns of infighting and wasted energy I’d seen in other nonprofits over the previous 33 years. Whether their mission was to defend the rights of animals, save a wetland, battle poverty, or offer wilderness trips to disabled people, they were all prone to the very same derailments.

I have a particular affinity to the bicycle, not only as a sleek and efficient movement machine, but as a canary that can warn of a community’s inhumanity by its absence. As I formed the idea for One Street, I realized that all this new nonprofit organization would have to do to make an enormous impact for increasing bicycling around the world would be to help existing organizations avoid these common traps. Easier said than done.

This blog is the second result of my frustration. The first was to write the book of the same name, Cures for Ailing Organizations, for any nonprofit organization. The book captures the patterns of ineffectiveness I’ve found over my 40 years of working with nonprofits. Tapping my work through One Street to define and break these patterns, it shows readers how to diagnose their own organization’s problems, then walks them through solutions so they can get back to their important work.

The problem with a book is that people have to actually read it for it to do any good. We’ve sold many copies, mostly through this office, sometimes in lots of ten or twenty. But nearly every sale comes with a note of enthusiasm about who the buyer is going to give the book to. At first I hoped these comments would be few and far between, that buyers would finally start buying the book to read themselves. Unfortunately, Cures for Ailing Organizations has turned out to be a book that people buy for other people. And I fear that a free book from a well-meaning person is not going to reach the top of the to-be-read stack anytime soon.

So, let’s try a blog!

This should be fun. I’ll have a chance to offer parts of the book in bite-sized chunks and then embellish them with stories and current happenings. I hope readers will jump in to offer their own experiences, perhaps even argue my points, and bring in other perspectives.

Blog posts are easy to read and forward. Perhaps this blog will provide the means I have been longing for to reach and help many more leaders of nonprofits, bicycle or otherwise, and offer them my hard-won experience from guiding nonprofits out of common struggles.

You, as a reader, are the most important element toward this blog’s success. Please read. Please comment. Please forward. Let’s get these difficult, yet essential discussions out there!

Thanks for taking part.