Category Archives: Leadership

5 Steps to Crisis Management Nonprofits can learn from Emergency Managers

crisis image ropeJust imagine, your organization is humming along, donations are at par with your goals, your staff is happy and motivated, and there is genuine synergy among stakeholders. What if this good situation were to go bad?  What if… you were to lose a major donor, sponsor, collaborator, or key individual? What if a negative story on one of your programs were to appear on a major news source? What if?

Do you have a contingency plan in place to deal with the unexpected? Planning for every possible scenario is of course counterproductive; but, having an understanding of the process necessary to put an effective plan in place quickly is well within your reach.

Emergency management professionals are experts in dealing with the unexpected. I spent 12 years performing search and rescue operations throughout the Rocky Mountains, mostly in Colorado with Alpine Rescue Team, but also nationally and regionally, with the Mountain Rescue Association and the Colorado Search and Rescue Board.  I would shout from any mountaintop that those years contained some of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of my life.

Nothing can compare to seeing the joy on a lost person's face when they have been found, witnessing a mother's relief when her child has been returned, or the personal gratification of being physically spent and emotionally drained when a mission has been successfully completed.  I'm immensely thankful for this experience; it's where I gained an appreciation for nonprofit work; the collaboration, commitment to a cause, and sense of purpose being the ultimate motivators.

The lessons I learned over those years could fill a Chinook helicopter (yep, they are big), but one analogy recently came to mind while consulting with a nonprofit working through an unexpected executive transition. Crisis management is not something most nonprofits prepare or plan for, the crisis just happens, often out of the blue, and they're usually one of those sink or swim situations. They are similar to the calls I used to get in the middle of the night, those where Aunt Edna was expected home for dinner from her favorite hike and it's now 10 PM and storming. 

We had a process for planning on the fly and the simple steps I learned from emergency management training fit perfectly for any organization experiencing an unexpected situation.

  1. Is the scene (of the accident) safe? Do you understand what the situation really looks like? Are there any hidden traps? Before you leap, this is the perfect time to take a close look around in order to thoroughly assess the situation, understand it, and then determine a reasonable response.
  2. Triage the patients/problems. There is often a hierarchy to your situation and its many inherent problems. Think beyond the obvious to understand where the bleeding is worst and set your priorities accordingly.
  3. Develop an evacuation plan. You're looking to evacuate yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Public relations efforts are usually the first place to start; you need to get ahead of the developing story, so it doesn't get worse, or better yet, so it is perceived as positive.  Next steps are often found in a broader assessment of your organization to learn why the situation got out of hand. Stepping back before stepping forward is often a good strategy.
  4. Implement your plan. Whatever the plan, set a timetable, budget, and measurement system to ensure success.  But most importantly, don't be afraid to adapt as the situation evolves. These situations are often fluid.  New twists can appear around any turn in the trail, behind any rock, or tree; so make sure you don't step off a cliff. 
  5. Mop up the scene. This is often overlooked. Part of your clean up beyond putting away the gear is an overall assessment of the operation.  In the military it's called an after-action review. It looks at what went right, what went wrong, and what can be learned from the gap.

Noted scholar and teacher, W. Edwards Deming once said: “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you do not know what you are doing.”  Always think of your actions as a process, even when you are in crisis mode.

Is Your Board… Bored?

Bored Board

We've all experienced a rut. You fall in and it seems like all you do is spin your wheels in that proverbial ditch. It can happen with the best nonprofit boards as well. 

You know it’s happening when… You've been talking about revisiting your vision, mission, and values statements, for like… forever! When you've gone through several board members in the last year and you suddenly find half your team is gone. When your meetings consist of nothing more than business as usual, or when your query for questions on the Treasurer's report is met with silence. When members are more interested in their mobile devices than the discussion at hand, or when you spend the majority of your board meetings discussing reports or policy rather than the future of the organization.  Yep, you guessed it; these are all signs you're in trouble.

An organization can hit these speed bumps at any stage in their lifecycle.   It's easy to become mired in minutiae, tactical details, or malaise rather than a big picture that creates excitement and enthusiasm. Here are some Hip Tips to get you out of that rut and with a little luck, perseverance, and strategy, steer clear of it!

Raison d'être

Nothing gets a group more excited than a higher purpose, a common goal, or shared vision. As explained by Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, a shared vision is: "the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create" (1990: 9). As such, a shared vision has the power to be uplifting and to encourage experimentation and innovation… It works to transform your nonprofit into a learning organization, which continually evolves and grows.

When a vision is shared, "People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It becomes quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit." (Senge 1990: 13)

Routinely revisit and refresh your vision, mission, and values. Work to get your team excited about a new project, strategy, program, or campaign. Just as important is finding evidence of your impact to the community you serve.  Evaluating and understanding your Triad of Value will guide you to better service and better service creates a sense of purpose, which leads towards personal fulfillment and deeper commitment.

Embrace Opinion and Encourage Debate

Beware when all you encounter is agreement. If your meeting conversations lack strong opinions, passion, or questions and if they are generally measured, or worse, nonexistent, you may have a problem.  These may be signs that your team lacks the enthusiasm to rise beyond the day-to-day agenda and consequently, is just going through the motions. 

Despite what some may think, spirited debate means your members have genuine interest and concern. Difference of opinion creates a pathway to creative solutions, better understanding, evolved thinking and strategy. Remember to remind everyone to do their part and ensure they "understand what the other side is saying."

Also understand that diversity and inclusivity run deeper than you may think. You need to involve each member of your board and other stakeholders at a deeper level. There are demographics beyond race and ethnicity that shape a person's culture; great ideas and understanding can come as a result of a range of experience.

Recognize, Utilize, Reward, & Celebrate

Nothing drives a board member battier than when they offer their expertise only to have their experience and talents rebuked or ignored. More importantly, your organization may falter as a result.  Understand why a member wants to be involved and create a position that provides satisfaction for that member.  People are your MOST valuable asset. Anyone who volunteers and makes your organization a priority should be celebrated and nurtured.

Take note that some individuals may desire to learn something new or perform something different from their day job. As my father used to say, "You never know unless you ask", so ask! If you desire to maximize your team's effectiveness, dig deeper by getting to know each of your members on both a personal and professional level.  Then, encourage the rest of your team to do the same and you'll create a winning atmosphere. 

Look Beyond the Playbook

Often policies and procedures are the focus of board development.  That's because aside from being good governance, they are tangible and much easier to get your hands around than really important issues like strategy, or impact.  A good foundation for your organization is important, so make sure you have a copy of Robert's Rules; apply them during your meetings to give them weight and importance.  Just understand that policies and procedures don't necessarily create an effective organization. People do! Inspire them, employ their talents, and reach for the stars!



balance1-crop 800x224We all understand balance, it's yin & yang, light & dark, heavy & light, just enough stuff on both sides to keep the equilibrium.  But, in the world of nonprofit leadership, do we really understand what that means?

While, board & executive staff relationships fall on both sides of the fulcrum, all too frequently, they land on the downside of sustainability. One well-know organization recently lost it's founding executive director because a new board didn't feel they should be responsible for fundraising.  Another has recently tossed out team-work, inclusivity, and transparency deciding to deliberately set aside time at their board meeting sans executive director. Of late, I've been coaching several executives and they all have the same complaint, it's me vs. them! Yes, I too have found myself staring at this same chasm.

Why is there often a delineation between staff and board? Frequently, a leadership job description requires passion for the mission.  That passion should indicate there is a mutual bond, a shared vision, interest, and a collective soul. So, why is there often this permutation, which considers the operational leader an outsider? Peter F. Drucker in his article titled: "Lessons for Successful Nonprofit Governance" wrote:

"Boards of nonprofit organizations malfunction as often as they function effectively. As the best-managed nonprofit organizations demonstrate, both the board and the executive are essential to the proper functioning of a nonprofit organization. These administrative organs must work as equal members of a team rather than one subordinate to the other. Moreover, the work of the executive and the board does not divide neatly into policy-making versus execution of policy. Boards and executives must be involved in both functions and must coordinate their work accordingly."

I became involved in the nonprofit community with the high-minded ideal of an elevated process for achieving the greater good.  All for one, one for all, let's make the world a better place!  Through trial and error, I've learned that top down management is not always effective in a collaborative environment and debate, dialog, and creative difference is healthy. Teamwork is a beautiful thing when implemented in an environment of inclusiveness, common interest, and confirmed direction.

So, as to boil this down to the essential, I urge nonprofit leadership to remember the following…

  1. It is not about you, or even us, it's about them: our constituents, our consumers… yes, THE mission.
  2. For high-level effectiveness and mission success, both vision & leadership should be shared.
  3. Remember, we're all in this together; check your ego at the door.

Work to make this an integral part of your organization and embrace all stakeholders, both paid and volunteer as equal partners.  Let everyone know, their business and life experiences are important and they are welcome to the TEAM.

Leadership and the Courage to Follow

Yesterday, just for fun, I Google'd leadership and received a response of 506 million articles. Among these replies, I found a range of topics on leadership; they crossed areas covering a broad spectrum of styles, concepts, models, and characteristics.  There were also articles which covered strategies, tactics, mentoring, and visioning; a lifetime of self-improvement reading material!

I've always considered myself a student of leadership principles and process.  As a business owner, board member, nonprofit executive, and especially as a twelve-year field-active member of a mountain search and rescue team, I've learned a thing or two on the subject.  With any luck, some of it may have actually stuck with me.

By far, my biggest lesson was learned when I read a very simple quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lau Tse. Paraphrased, he said: "When the greatest leader's work is done, the people say they did it themselves."

Simple, profound, and true.  While we all strive to be leaders, as leaders, we all know it's not about us, it's about the vision, the movement, the cause.  But more importantly, without followers, there is no movement and sometimes following takes as much, or perhaps more courage than leading.  That's why the following humorous 3 minute video is nearly as profound as what Lau Tse proclaimed over 800 years ago.


I hope this serves to remind that while leadership is important, followers are the critical component of getting a movement started, and keeping it growing and persistent.  It takes guts to follow, so nurturing your followers is a fundamental key to leadership.  Viewed from this vantage point, I might catch myself in the camp that finds leadership in and of itself, just a bit over-glorified as well.

Perhaps we should all strive to be better students of following.

Leadership – Check Your Ego at the Door

I've had the opportunity to collaborate with, work for, and advise many nonprofits.  There's a big cultural difference in the dynamics of a nonprofit vs. a for profit business.  It's part of what I really like and it's part of what I really dislike.

There's just something dynamic about a group of diverse minds turning an idea or issue over and over again until it lands right side up.  Real diversity is more than color; it's about background, orientation, and thought process.  When you have real diversity you find more complete solutions and salient outcomes.  But therein lays the rub.  You also find individual egos superimposing themselves upon the decision process.

There's an old fundraising axiom that goes a little like the following: people give because of self-interest.  This extends to all sorts of gifts, including the in-kind gifts of expertise, connections, or other personal resources.  Board members all have an internal set of priorities they bring to the table.

It's important to illuminate that all boards of directors have certain duties to the organizations they serve.  These duties include Care, Loyalty, and Obedience.  Personal ego and the Duty of Loyalty often conflict, because board members and the board as a whole must put the best interests of the organization first.  When personal ego gets involved, people become vested in their own ideas, agendas, and futures and the organization suffers.

If you ask most nonprofit professionals about their board frustrations, you’ll find the prevailing wind blows in the direction of ego.  Many board members come from the corporate world.  It is important for those participants to remember that you can call your own shots when you own the company, but at a nonprofit, only the board acting as a unit can set strategy, direction, and policy.

More nonprofits have fallen apart at the hands of ego, check it at the door.