Monday, December 19, 2016

Learning from Kind Communities, Bicycles as Canaries

Most of us have been enchanted by places that have no outstanding feature, no grand building or super highway, no monstrous shopping mall or ballfield to draw inane profits. Instead, we enter such places with ease and relax even with activity all around. 

Some of the places that come to my mind include particular neighborhoods within cities; villages in Mexico, Africa, and Thailand, even Bangkok as a whole, though it is a massive city. I’ve worked on farms in villages in Sweden and New Zealand where people care for each other, rallying to help anyone in distress. Nantes, France is another city that makes my list with its playfulness and caring for its residents. These are wildly different places and yet each shares one feature – everyone who lives in places like this, kind places, expects to ride a bicycle.

In Cures for Ailing Organizations I show why organizations, like organisms, need to be healthy in order to accomplish positive change. This includes a strong purpose (skeleton), coordinated people helping each other (muscles), sound policies (nervous system), and steady communications (respiratory and circulatory systems). Now I wonder, could whole communities also function this way?

In 2017, One Street will embark on a new program to unlock the secrets of communities that already enjoy a connected and empowered citizenship. Our mission is based on serving leaders of bicycle organizations, yet we have found that bicycle facilities and programs in communities that isolate people—whether by high-speed roads, sprawl and single-use development, gentrification/displacement, or police harassment—cause little if any change. Many of these bicycle-only victories are eventually removed or vanish because they reside where people are not prioritized.

Bicycles are to communities what canaries were to miners. When few people can ride bikes, or only one sort of people rides bikes, it is a sure sign of disease. In such places, officials base decisions on grand infrastructure, attracting large businesses, and reactions to complaints, isolating and marginalizing people as if they are bothersome, inanimate objects. Streets are widened, housing and public spaces replaced by shopping centers and car parking lots. The purpose or skeleton of such a community is diseased and its muscles, the participation of its citizens, have atrophied.

I’ve been studying several proactive efforts that touch on this topic, but don’t hit the mark:

  •  Intentional communities and ecovillages – focus on kindness and connection within their group, but are usually isolated from mainstream society.
  •  Service communities – serve marginalized individuals, but rarely engage them as leaders or integrate their community into mainstream society.
  •  Placemaking, community development corporations, and other socially sensitive developments – generally focus on infrastructure designed by outside “experts” and diminish the expertise of the people they desire to serve.
Even these promising efforts tend to veer away from integration. Our research into the reasons for this will be important to this new program. We do know that organizations and communities tend to devolve into places where a few people dominate, where new ideas are suppressed, where the hard work of kindness and respect are replaced by sudden pronouncements from those few or their call for a majority vote.

The goals of our new program will include identifying models and creating resources to help organization and community leaders gain the courage to resist this tendency and instead ensure the engagement of everyone (not serving them, engaging them) to better their community together.

Our working name for this new program is Kind Communities because it will examine communities as a whole to find out how some have kept or shifted their focus to break down barriers that marginalize people. And one of our best gauges for finding these model places will be that everyone—no matter their age, ability, or income—expects to ride a bike whenever and wherever they like.

Do you know of places like this? Can you offer pertinent resources, books, websites, or conferences? If so, please offer them in the comments section. Also, we’d appreciate any suggestions for naming the program. Kind Communities will work, but we’re looking for suggestions.

Thanks in advance!


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Annual Planning Prevents Frustration in Nonprofits

In my work at One Street as an on-call coach for leaders of nonprofit bicycle organizations, I often hear frustration from jumping between unrelated tasks. Each day, these nonprofit leaders find themselves running after new opportunities and never get the chance to carry anything through.

In the morning, they might start on a new grant proposal that shifts their work into the grantor’s expectations then have to dash across town to have lunch with a potential partner who wants them to add a children’s bike safety program to their work. Once they get back to the office, they have to return calls and emails from enthusiastic people wanting them to improve particular streets for bicycling or needing their help responding to a car/bike crash. By the time they leave for the day, they’ve accomplished nothing.

Frustrating days like these turning into months, and even years, become a recipe for burnout and are often the reason that talented leaders leave their organizations.

Whenever I hear stories of frustration like this, my first question is whether they have an annual plan, also known as a work plan and budget. Most often, the answer is no. Without an annual plan that clarifies exactly what the organization needs to accomplish that year, with no more than three defined categories of programs, leaders and staff will be scattered just like the scenario about. But with an annual plan, they can filter out inappropriate grants and guide donors and supporters to help with their current efforts instead of diverting them.

In Cures for Ailing Organizations, I devote a section to annual planning because of its high importance. Here’s how I start that section:

“Planning is the most important responsibility for you and your fellow leaders because no one else will do it. Without a plan, you will waste enormous amounts of time and money dabbling in random activities and will likely lose many potential leaders and helpers along the way. No one stays around long without an effective plan.

There are two types of planning you as leaders have to engage in: long-term planning and annual planning. Briefly, long-term planning creates a clear picture well into the future, including what your community will look like after your work is done. Your mission statement drives all of it. You will read more about long-term planning later.

Annual planning, as the name implies, takes place every year and maps out specific activities toward your long-term goals. Near the end of each year at a special meeting, at least half a day long, you and your fellow leaders will examine your expectations for the past year compared to what actually happened. Using this reality check, you will work together to develop your work plan and budget for the coming year. Reference your long-term plan to ensure that the details you outline for the year will follow the shortest and most effective path toward your mission and general goals…”

This is the time of year to begin scheduling your annual planning meeting. Contact all of your board members and your management-level staff to find out when they can set aside a full day in November or early December. Don’t wait, because if you can’t find a day within that timeframe that works for everyone, you’ll hit the holidays and miss your chance to finish your plan by the end of the year. Once you succeed, you can keep this system going for all future years to prevent frustration of wasted time and ensure your organization is causing positive change.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Right Sizing Your Nonprofit

In Cures for Ailing Organizations I emphasize the importance of appropriate size for any organization working for positive change. Too often, nonprofit leaders get stuck on a fixed image of their organization that does not match its strongest structure.

I’ve encountered both extremes. Some leaders of very small nonprofits believe their organization should be massive with a downtown office, lots of equipment, and an army of staff. Perhaps they are enamored by another nonprofit with this sort of structure, but don’t recognize the differences. Such leaders become obsessed with fundraising and are the most vulnerable to chasing down and accepting inappropriately earmarked funds. When such funds are accepted, they can derail the organization into unrelated work or worse, set them up for years of legal battles.

On the other extreme, are leaders of thriving, medium or large nonprofits who decide that downsizing or merging with another organization is the best move. Sometimes this is so. But too often, these sorts of decisions come from laziness. Such leaders are not good at working in a team or reaching out for helpers. Others never understood the mission of the organization and simply can’t articulate it to attract helpers. They believe that every new effort will mean that they have to do all the work. And so cancelling programs and events or even transferring resources to another organization seems like their only choice.

There’s no need for all this strife and wasted energy as long as you take an honest assessment of your organization’s purpose and match it to the appropriate structure.

If your group came together to accomplish just a few specific projects in your community, perhaps a community garden and an annual event for educating the public, there is no reason for staff or an office. Share the load among your team and keep reaching out into the community for more helpers to ensure the success of the garden and events.

However, if your nonprofit was founded to tackle an entrenched injustice, perhaps gang dominance or animal cruelty, then know that you and your team will have to build a strong structure complete with office, staff, engaging website, and frequent media and communication campaigns in order to turn your particular societal tide.

In the book, I use a star analogy to show what I mean by appropriate size. New stars are nebulous, just like new organizations, and both can vanish with the slightest disruption. All nonprofits go through this stage, but it’s vital to move through it as fast as possible. Knowing how large your organization needs to be to accomplish its mission will help focus your limited resources in the right direction. For small community organization, that will include passing clear, concise bylaws that spell out your purpose, roles of leaders, and how leaders are chosen. This will prevent self-interested people from taking over the organization.

On the other extreme of the star analogy are the red giants. These are stars that have grown so large they hardly give off any light or energy. Instead, they turn inward and consume themselves forming a hard outer shell. The relation to oversized nonprofits is very disturbing. Here’s how I describe it in the book:

“…There is indeed a desperation about red giant organizations. They seem to believe that as long as everyone who works for them is doing something, they’re okay. Yet if you ask people outside the organization what it has done to benefit its target community, no one can say. Much like red giant stars, these organizations usually create hard, exclusive shells that prevent people from getting involved or learning much about them. Instead, they focus inward using exclusive jargon to create extravagant materials that justify their existence. And just like red giant stars, these massive, expanding organizations eventually run out of internal energy, their hard outer shells collapse and, in their desperation, they grab at other organizations, stealing credit for the others' work…”

The important difference between stars and nonprofits is that all stars will eventually become red giants, but nonprofits have the choice not to.

The aim for any healthy nonprofit should be the type of star that is between these two. Much like our own sun, these stars give off the same amount of energy they produce and with this balance, they can look forward to a long life of benefiting their target community.

So how can you gauge whether or not your organization has settled into the appropriate structure? Ask yourselves these questions:

·         Have you established strong bylaws and are you following them? If not, you are still in that dangerous nebulous stage.
·         With a clear picture of the goals needed to reach your purpose have you and your team mapped out the structures and steps needed to reach them? If not, do so right away before chasing after any inappropriate funding.
·         Are any of your leaders fed up with doing too much work? Then take an honest look at how all of you have been communicating with your constituents. There is a reason people are not offering to help. Find it or you will fall into the red giant danger zone.

There are many other signs of inappropriate size. Please email me at sue{at} if you think I can help or leave your concerns in the comments section.

Also look for the positive signs that you and your team have hit that right-sized sweet spot. Here’s how I describe it in Cures for Ailing Organizations:

“…Health is easy to identify. We are attracted to it and seek simple ways to achieve it. By now you should have several healthy organizations in mind; perhaps a charter school, a dog owners’ club, a neighborhood watch group or a gang intervention organization. Their boards are strong and working as a team with the executive director. Each executive director is confident and comfortable in his or her position. Appropriate candidates for the board are regularly invited to take part in activities and learn about the organization before being invited to serve. The organization is following a plan that aligns with its mission. Start a list of your favorite healthy organizations so you can refer to them as you work through this book and bring your organization back to health. Consider how they present themselves and attract great people to help their efforts. Reach out to them and note how they communicate with you. Use them as your models for your own organization…”

If you already enjoy this sort of a supportive and gratifying atmosphere you can rest assured that you and your team are making the right decisions and ensuring the long term health of your organization.

Do you have healthy nonprofits in mind that you would like to share and some details about how you think they reached this point? Please share them in the comments section.


Monday, July 4, 2016

Fighting Our Dysfunction Default

Today is Independence Day here in the United States when we celebrate our declaration to rule ourselves, which set in motion the building of our nation. So it seems like an appropriate day to write about the opposite of successful efforts—the tendency within nonprofits toward dysfunction.

Nonprofits proliferate because established governments are so bogged down in corporate dealings, politics, and bureaucracies they cannot provide basic services. Here in the U.S., our government can’t get past the insurance industry to provide basic health care. In Africa, foreign aid lures government leaders into massive projects rather than programs to serve their people. And most recently, immigrant-hating hecklers seem to have convinced the UK government to break away from Europe and set the stage for years of rebuilding for no measurable gain.

I’m somewhat glad that governments tend toward dysfunction because otherwise they would wield too much power. But this leaves the responsibility for significant societal benefits squarely in the laps of nonprofits. Unfortunately, as I show in Cures for Ailing Organizations, nonprofits are just as inclined toward dysfunction.

Dysfunction seems to be our default setting. Even in nonprofits, we set out to achieve critical missions only to spend our time in meetings and developing projects and programs that change nothing. For instance, at One Street I work with many leaders of bicycle organization who find themselves in ruts of time-sucking programs such as bike education events or rides that only attract current enthusiasts. Worse are the programs that undermine bicycle advocacy such as pushing bicycle helmets.

Most people are not leaders and prefer finite tasks over developing long-term visions and the disruptive steps necessary to reach them. Even those with leadership skills find relief in simple tasks like laundry or chopping vegetables. But if we expect to change the world, we need more than chopped vegetables.

Here are some steps you can take toward fighting the dysfunction default when you realize your nonprofit is spinning in place:

STEP 1: Check your mission. If it does not clearly state significant, positive change it could be at the heart of your problem. Consider a rewrite with the rest of your team to change out passive wording for eyebrow-raising terms that shock casual observers. Read more about developing an effective mission and vision here.

But a great mission cannot prevent our dysfunction default. If your nonprofit is not causing measurable results, something needs to change. Leaving a dysfunctional nonprofit in place is harmful because it prevents an effective one from being formed.

STEP 2: Find more leaders. Leaders thrive on long-term visions. Their pulses race when asked to define goals years in advance and map out the steps to reach them. They understand the intricate web of experts, partners, and supporters needed to achieve significant change and easily prioritize the necessary tasks for staff and volunteers.

But talented leaders are deflected away from dysfunctional organizations. They’ve been burned too often in leadership roles where others prefer their rut, where current leaders take pride in the wasteful programs they developed. Friends defend useless efforts by people who should never have been given responsibility. Even hecklers are defended. And when new leaders who bruise those egos finally give up and leave, the remaining leaders snap everything back to their former ineffective ways.

I have a rather sick affection for this video of wildebeests and an alligator that serves as comedic relief each time I encounter this snap-back reaction in dysfunctional nonprofits. It shows the value of recording and then believing in progress made. Use this to present your nonprofit as eager to change. That sort of humility will increase your chances of attracting great leaders.

Look for those with big ideas toward your mission (be leery of ideas that stray or suggest personal gain). Those who harp on immediate tasks will be great volunteers, but not leaders. Guiding task-oriented people away from leadership roles should not be offensive. Finding the best role for each individual is not only respectful, it will set them up for success. Read more about the value of appropriate roles in my last blog post.

STEP 3: Plan to fight chronic dysfunction. Realize that because your nonprofit slipped into dysfunction it will always have this tendency. Of course all nonprofits are in danger of this slip, but once it has happened, some people will defend it. We’re no better than those wildebeests in that video. Set in place policies that spell out what progress means and checkpoints that measure progress. Your fight against dysfunction will never end.

If you are a leader of a bicycle organization that has slumped into a rut of dysfunction, please don’t hesitate to contact me: sue{at} I’m sure I can help. 


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Nonprofit Priority Matrix Focuses Limited Time

Nonprofit organizations usually struggle with two limited resources – money and time. One Street’s Priority Matrix is designed to help nonprofits achieve the most from the finite time their team has to offer. Before using the Priority Matrix, the first step is to ensure that everyone is serving in the best role for their character and skills; both staff and volunteers.

In Cures for Ailing Organizations, I emphasize finding proper roles for everyone in an organization. Those who are experts and specialists should not be expected to serve in leadership roles that require broad, long-term vision. On the other hand, visionaries with leadership skills should know that their role as leader is plenty and should not be expected to accomplish complex tasks. Some individuals will want to hold multiple roles. Just make sure these roles are distinct. By finding proper roles for everyone who wants to help your organization, you will ensure that their time achieves meaningful success. And people who see their efforts causing positive change will stay around for more.

Once everyone on your team is happy and effective in their roles, the Priority Matrix will become a useful tool toward greater efficiency. With it, you can distinguishing between critical work that the organization relies on and urgent tasks that require immediate attention. Critical work is always best done well before it becomes urgent. And urgent work that is critical must be kept to a minimum to keep stress levels low and prevent programs from being compromised.

The matrix highlights ways to avoid the critical/urgent mode by keeping your team working steadily on current tasks so they are never surprised by a deadline. Note that 100% of volunteer time is shown in the not-critical category. This is because non-leader volunteers should never be placed in a position where the organization’s success depends on them. They are still placed in the urgent section because the role of volunteers is to make current projects even better.

Post this matrix where members of your team can check it to make sure they are working effectively. Use it during planning meetings when inefficient ideas are offered such as asking staff to spend time on tasks that are not critical when volunteers are available to do that work.

This Priority Matrix is one of my favorite tools for ensuring effective use of time in nonprofits. Do you have another favorite you’d like to share? If so, please include it in the comments sections.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Confronting Dictators

Dictators come in all shapes, sizes, and roles. We see too many in the news, but the dictators most of us have to confront will never make headlines.

I’ve been working with a small nonprofit that does excellent work for their community. Recently, one of their worthy projects, a proposed community park, was derailed by a man in another nonprofit that is a necessary partner to the project. There is no logical reason for this man to block the park. He simply sees it as a threat to his authority and has no interest in leading the project himself so he has sabotaged it.

I’ve also been working with leaders of nonprofits in the Ukraine as they develop bicycle and sustainable transportation campaigns to help reunite their torn country; torn by a well-known dictator. Other front-page confrontations of dictators show similarly unnerving situations that have persisted over too many decades including some positive results from President Obama’s efforts in Cuba and few changes in the Big Man Syndrome in Africa.

Dictators come in many forms, some working from the shadows within nonprofits, others blatant and confident at microphones on the world stage. But all share these characteristics: 

  • A belief that their power cannot be challenged.
  • Certainty that they are the expert and have superior knowledge over anyone else.
  • Treating the people they work with as their minions who must follow their commands.
  • No interest in discussion of issues or alternative plans.
  • Disgust of visionary ideas and seeing such ideas as threats to their power.
  • A history of being rewarded for manipulative and bullying behavior i.e., elections, promotions, awards, accolades, supporters.
  • Often, but not necessarily, a large physical stature and noteworthy charisma.

In Cures for Ailing Organizations, I discuss cultures of brutality within organizations that incubate such dictators. Even a bylaws document that provides ultimate power of some over others can give people with this tendency and background the greenlight to become dictators. In other cases, the organization structure itself creates a system that is easily exploited by dictators. Prisons are one extreme example of this.

In his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr. Philip Zimbardo describes his discovery of this phenomenon through his Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. He had encountered strange behaviors through his work as a psychologist at prisons and wanted to see if he could recreate them in a controlled experiment. He created a makeshift prison in a Stanford University basement and hired 18 young men for two weeks – nine he randomly chose to be guards, the other nine to be prisoners. By day six, the guards’ brutality toward the prisoners had become unthinkable. Even then, as the overarching authority (dictator), Dr. Zimbardo pushed for the experiment to continue. It took a concerted and relentless confrontation from his girlfriend and peers to snap him out of his spell of power and end the experiment. He writes about his experience as someone who had lost control over himself and his empathy toward others. Dr. Zimbardo has subsequently been hired to analyze similar situations that hit the world stage such as the horrible incidents at Abu Ghraib.

The Stanford Prison Experiment proved that we all have a tendency to become dictators given the proper recipe of situational support, an abusive and secretive system, and a lack of training in empathy and respect for others. If you have never bullied, demeaned, or manipulated another person, think back to your role models. How did these kind people instill in you a default of caring and empathy toward others? Now, imagine your life without these people. Wouldn’t the temptation to act on your anger be so much more enticing? Wouldn’t the fantasy of forced power where everyone jumps to your every wish actually seem comforting? How easy everything would be. How lazy and luxurious your life would become.

Dictators are humans like us, but most have never had the benefit of kind and empathetic role models. They have never known a moral compass and don’t have the slightest clue what this is. Even if they did have such role models, they have found a way to dismiss them, just as Dr. Zimbardo did when he pushed to continue the Stanford Prison Experiment. None of us are guaranteed a firm grip on our moral compass.

Such empathy toward dictators does not excuse them. All of us have a moral obligation to confront dictators if we are in a position to do so, especially dictators doing harm. Such confrontations are about as appealing as throwing yourself off a bridge, with about as much expectation of coming through the incident unscathed.

First, check your level of responsibility for the situation before embarking on this treacherous path. Most readers of this blog are leaders of an organization and we will unfortunately find ourselves in situations that give us no option but to confront – to protect our organization, to ensure the success of a project or campaign, to defend victims of abuse, and so on.

Next, gather trusted advisors, perhaps your fellow leaders or the role models I alluded to earlier. Present your concern objectively to them and see how they react. Ensure that your ego is in check and the reason for your concern has nothing to do with hurt feelings and personal anger. If your advisors agree that a confrontation is needed, start preparing.

Learn about the system and culture that supports this dictator. Find those he or she must answer to and bring your concern to them. If such a discrete confrontation does not resolve the problem, return to your advisors to plan a more public confrontation.

Confronting dictators will never be pleasant, but if we find ourselves to be the best suited for the job, we must take on this challenge. Otherwise, people who have lost their kindness, even humanness, to become a dictator will be left unchecked to trample their victims.

Are you facing or have you ever faced a situation that forced you to confront a dictator? If so, please tell your story in the comments section below.


Monday, February 29, 2016

Campaign Planning Is a Valuable Tool for Nonprofits

In Cures for Ailing Organizations I show readers how to strengthen their leadership team and organization’s structure. But I also emphasize that without accomplishments, a nonprofit cannot survive. Nonprofits are founded to make specific changes for the communities they serve. The founders saw a problem that was serious enough to go to the trouble of creating an organization to solve it.

Sometimes such societal changes can occur over the long term through ongoing programs. Nonprofits that provide services to particular sorts of people are one example where ongoing programs are the best choice.

However, most other types of nonprofits need the skills to force positive change through advocacy and proper campaign planning. The status quo is not easily changed so a good shove is usually needed. These skills enable the nonprofit’s leaders to choose the best campaigns and carry them through to success. Succeeding with a campaign is one of the best ways to grow a nonprofit because those whose lives were improved by the campaign will want to help the nonprofit accomplish even more.

A few examples of well-known campaigns that succeeded in improving lives:  
Great campaigns don’t have to be as high-profile as these. In fact, some take place in just a few meetings with the appropriate officials.

Campaigns can also be used for malicious purposes, so understanding the way they work can help nonprofit leaders identify and stop harmful campaigns before they gain momentum. One example of a malicious campaign that is particularly galling to One Street is the successful adoption of the car industry’s invention of jaywalking to criminalize those using the public right-of-way without a car. No pedestrian or bicycle nonprofits existed at that time because there hadn’t been a need. So the campaign went unchecked and to this day, anyone who sets foot in an American street is at best mocked and at worst hauled off to jail. I have to admit, it was a damn clever campaign.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of exploring campaign planning processes in detail for a very special project in eastern Ukraine. A few months ago leaders of the Kyiv Cyclists’ Association invited me to come to Ukraine to teach three campaign planning workshops in three eastern cities. The goal of the project is to help reunite the country through partnerships toward positive change, in this case, bicycle and sustainable transportation campaigns.

All three workshops had to be completed by early March in order to meet with the requirements of USAID, the funder of the project. We realized the timeframe wouldn’t work for my teaching the workshops, so we had to find a way to transfer my campaign planning workshop experience to them so that they could teach them themselves. (Read more about the project in our upcoming Jan-Feb 2016 E-newsletter).

Through several Skype meetings and many emails Viktor, Ira, and I worked through best practices and the most common difficulties of these workshops to ensure theirs would start at a high level. We also created a customized workbook for attendees, which Viktor and Ira translated into Ukrainian Cyrillic.

Teaching someone else is one of the best ways to review and learn even more about a favorite topic. I’ve posted the basics on One Street’s Campaign Planning page, but training Viktor and Ira meant a far deeper analysis. Through this project, I have been reminded of the importance of:
  • Ensuring that only leaders of nonprofits attend the campaign planning workshop because only they will know what their organization can and cannot take on.
  • Distinguishing between campaigns and programs.
  • Choosing a campaign that is likely to win.
  • Remembering that problem development is always the most difficult for attendees, so plenty of time must be given for this early step.
  • Emphasizing that attendees are the experts for their unique situations and need workshop time to work through the details, so case studies from other areas are all but useless.
  • Taking the time to allow attendees to fully assess who in their community has the power to solve the problem they have defined.
  • Showing attendees the value of completing a comprehensive campaign plan before launching it. I like to use a favorite quote from Sun Tzu in The Art of War, 6th century BC: “The successful strategist only enters battle after the battle has been won.”

Two of the three workshops have already taken place and the results are outstanding! See them in the E-newsletter article linked above. Most notable are the clear goals for growing each of their nonprofits through their campaigns and using them as springboards for even more positive change in their troubled area.

I’ve learned many times over the years, and especially over these past few months, that campaign planning is one of the most valuable tools for energizing nonprofits and ensuring they forge a confident path toward the mission their founders intended. Eastern Ukraine is becoming a proven model of this through this inspiring project.

If you would like more info on One Street's Campaign Planning efforts please use the comments box below.