Distancing language, what it is, and why you must crush it

Meeting-of-the-BoredLast week was rough, as we received not one, not two, but…ok, two grant rejection notices (so sweet and thoughtful of people to wait until after the holiday break to send rejection letters). Whenever I get stressed, my face breaks out, which causes me stress, thus perpetuating a vicious pattern that I call the Pizza Face Cycle. During these times, to avoid scaring small children or potential donors, I usually hole myself in my cubicle, away from the world, listening to 90’s Hip-Hop, coming out every once a while to feed on ramen while avoiding the gaze of cruel or indifferent passersby.

And that’s what happened last week after getting the grant notices. Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid several meetings and thus had to bring my face, like a minor Jackson Pollock painting, out in public. It was during one of these meetings that I noticed the nuances of the words we use during meetings. Specifically, how people unconsciously use inclusive or distancing language and how it affects the rest of the group.

Simply put, inclusive language indicates that you consider yourself a part of a team (e.g, “We need to revise our mission statement to include unicorns”) while distancing language indicates that you see yourself not a part of the organization or effort (“You need to revise your mission statement to include unicorns.”) This may seem trivial, you guys, but it is not:

  • New board members will use distancing language when they first join the board. As they identify more and more with the organization, they should start using inclusive language pretty much all the time.
  • If you do a good job at your programs, the clients should see it as THEIR programs, and they will use inclusive language when talking about these programs.
  • Consultants for short-term projects will use distancing language. The longer they are with a project, the more likely they will lapse into inclusive language.
  • Donors and volunteers who are especially invested in the organization will sometimes unconsciously lapse into inclusive language. This is a great sign. I was inviting one of our donors to our holiday party. “We should have beer at the party,” she said. “We totally should!” I said.

Distancing language can be a symptom of a greater problem. For instance, if after a year serving on the board, one of your board member says something like, “So when is your annual dinner this year?” something is not right.

It is also extremely contagious, and if left untreated will infect an entire group. I was on a committee made up of people from several organizations. We were brainstorming ideas about outreach. “I have an idea,” said one person, “you should make a list of all the organizations in the area and then call them individually.” “Great idea,” said another person, “you should also visit the community centers.” “Yeah, face-to-face is really critical for relationship building,” another person chimed in, “you’ll get better results that way.” It was a surreal meeting.

And that’s why you should be on the lookout for distancing language, and when appropriate you must crush it like an overcooked lentil! Here are some ways to do that:

  • Counter with inclusive language. If you use “we” often enough, especially after every instance of distancing language, it will likely stick in people’s minds.
  • Counter with your own distancing language. If you are the lead of a committee, people may direct all their ideas and feedback at you, unconsciously implying that you are going to do all the work. Use distancing language back at them might shock them out of it. E.g., “I completely agree. You should visit the community centers!”
  • Gently call it out. Say something like, “Hi everyone, I notice that we’ve been using ‘you’ a lot. This is a collaborative effort, and all of us are on the team, so let’s try to use ‘we’ more often?” It is helpful to pair this speech with inclusive body language, opening your arms wide and sweeping them toward yourself to emphasize “we.”
  • Follow up individually with people whom you notice use distancing language often and ask for their thoughts on the project. Chances are, they are not yet fully committed, and their language reflects that. The more you communicate with them, the more invested they’ll feel.
  • Be more direct. After several gentle reminders, I just correct people on the spot: “You should have a graphic design student work on the logo—” “We, John, WE should have a graphic design student work on the logo. Don’t make me have to remind you again…”

Once you start paying attention to this, it can be very helpful. Just a quick word of caution, though. At one of the meetings this week, the finance committee, we were discussing VFA’s financial management system. “You should revise your charts of accounts,” said one of the members of the committee, “and you should start developing a dashboard of financial health for the organization.” I knew from experience that I had to put a stop to the distancing language before it went too far. “Whoa, whoa, what’s with the distancing language, lady?!” I said, “You’re a part of this organization, aren’t you? What’s with all the ‘you should do this’ and ‘you should do that’ here, huh?!”

Apparently, that is not how you’re supposed to talk to a board member, especially a very dedicated one who had given months of notice in advance that she may be taking hiatus from the board to focus on taking care of other important things, so I would like to apologize.

Body language basics for nonprofit professionals

CatapultaIn this field, we deal with people a lot. In fact, over 80% of my work is attending meetings. (Of the remainder, 20% is spent emailing and 10% is spent cowering under my desk, rocking and shaking, staring at our budget, wondering why it wouldn’t balance). Considering that at least half of our communication is nonverbal, it is shocking how little we pay attention to body language. But body language is awesome, and learning even the basics will give you a leg up—ha! Body language joke!—at the next site visit or presentation or board meeting.

So today I am going to delve into some of the signals that I have been studying. It is good for you to learn a few of them so you can better interpret people’s moods and emotions, and also for you to be cognizant of your own body language so you can better communicate.

Continue reading “Body language basics for nonprofit professionals”

10 Steps for a Kick-Ass Emergency Succession Plan

pantsMost people who know me know that I have only one pair of shoes and one belt.  They are both made of vegan fake leather and look crappy. That’s because I got married and thus no longer have any incentives to look attractive. Plus, we Executive Directors of small nonprofits must project the aura of scrappiness and frugality.

One morning, though, I had an important meeting and could not find my belt. I spent thirty minutes looking for it, getting more and more frantic. With no time to run out and buy a new belt, I went about my day with a dress shirt tucked into my beltless pants like an animal. An animal!

What’s the point of this story? The ED or CEO of a nonprofit is kind of like a beat-up leathery old belt that holds up the pants of the organization. And like in my wardrobe, there is only one. Life is unpredictable, oftentimes cruel, and yet filled with unimaginable beauty. But usually it’s just cruel. Who the heck knows what could happen? (Which is why I wrote this letter to my newborn son in case I died early, with important life lessons like “be nice to people” and “recycle”). In the terrible worst-case scenario, the ED could get into a tragic accident and die or otherwise become incapacitated. In the best scenario, he could be offered his dream job of starring in a vegan culinary travel show where he eats and drinks his way around the globe. In either of these scenarios, or a variety of other stuff that could happen, the organization is now left without a leader.

That is why it is so important for all organizations to have ESP (Emergency Succession Plan). Now, there are all sorts of ways to go about developing this plan. For the ESP, though, it is more important to have a decent plan right away than a perfect plan that could take a while to create. Which is why I jot down these helpful tips. Follow them and in no time your organization will have a workable plan, just in case the Food Network calls your ED:

Step 1: Emergency succession planning is really the board’s responsibility, so add this to your next board meeting agenda. Seriously, if you don’t have an ESP in place, put this on your agenda. Assign the task to a board member to lead, preferably someone who has HR experience and understanding of the staffing structure.

Step 2. With the assigned board member in the lead, form a committee. Like with other committees, no one is going to want to join. You can attract them by calling it the Emergency Succession Plan Task Force (ESPTF) and coming up with a cool code name for the work at hand using Greek letters and mythological figures, like “Operation Alpha Omega Morpheus”

Step 3: The ED may be the one to push for an ESP and may join the task force, which is great, but if not, someone from the ESPTF should sit down with her and explain the need for the plan and get her perspective on the important things about her work that the task force should take into consideration, along with her thoughts on who may be potential candidates to serve as acting ED in case something happens to her. If she starts freaking out and crying, wondering if she did something wrong, refer her to this blog post.

Step 4: The ESPTF should define the skills and experience needed in an acting ED to help the organization remain functional during the transition. While every nonprofit is unique, there are certain skills that all EDs have in common: Breaking up fist-fights among staff, going to meetings, making inspiring speeches, herding cats, and begging for money.

Step 5: Define a sequence of actions that the board should take in the case Operation Morpheus must be activated. Depending on whether the situation is temporary or permanent, these actions may include calling an emergency meeting, choosing an acting ED, forming a hiring team, changing signing authorization for checks, panicking, etc.

Step 6: Determine a chain of succession, kind of like we do for our government. If something happens to the President, then the Vice President is in charge, and next is the Speaker of the House, etc. You may have a Deputy Director who may take over temporarily, followed by the Director of Operations. Most nonprofits, though, don’t have clear-cut positions like that. At VFA, for example, our succession chain may look like “Program Director/Office Manager, followed by Development Director/Janitor.”

Step 7: Identify important people you need to notify. These include program officers, major donors, contract monitors, partner organizations, clients, etc., Figure out who would be in charge of talking to whom. People might start freaking out, especially if they learn about things second-hand, so it is good to have clear and prompt and personal communication.

Step 8: Work with the ED and other staff to compile copies of important stuff that the acting ED needs to do his work, for example IRS determination letter, bylaws, board meeting minutes, EIN, past 990s, audited financial statements, business license, charitable solicitation license, office lease, bank info and contact, insurance policy number and contact, office security info and contact, office safe combo, computer passwords, water cooler delivery schedule, etc. We EDs tend to hold all this information in our heads, so it’s good to write it down.

Step 9: Finalize the plan and get to the board to approve. Do not make the plan public, or you might freak out people further; keep it among the board and key staff. Designate a board member (usually the chair) to hold a copy of the plan in a secure location away from the office. Another copy should be held at the office in a secure location where no one would look; at the VFA office, that location would be the fresh vegetable compartment of the fridge.

Step 10: Schedule a time once a year to update and revise the plan. Also, update it when there’s significant change in the organization’s structure or staff.

I hope that’s helpful. Let me know what your organization does and if there are steps I left out. Of course, the ESP is just for that, emergencies, and hopefully you never have to activate Operation Morpheus. All organizations should also be working on long-term succession planning, ensuring staff are developing skills and experience to move up the ladder, that there are opportunities for cross-position training, etc. Only by being thoughtful and diligent can we all keep our pants up.

10 Steps for Writing a Kick-Ass Nonprofit Organizational Budget

planets-light-380x235Every year, at about this time, I start having night terrors. A lot of this is due to watching Game of Thrones and seeing all my favorite characters killed to death in gruesome ways. But it is also because my org’s fiscal year ends in June, and we must go through the annual budgeting process, which is about as much fun as juggling baby porcupines.

Actually, no, baby porcupines are cute. Budgeting is about as much fun as juggling open jars of spicy chipotle mayonnaise. It’s messy and painful.

So I thought I would write down the steps to developing an awesome budget for a small to medium organization. This is not a guide for those who are starting a nonprofit, but rather for new EDs or board members of organizations that have been in operation for at least a year and will need to develop next year’s budget, or anyone who needs a refresher. Follow these steps below, and you will have a kick-ass budget that you can proudly show to your friends and family.

Step 1: Rally your team. This may be your finance committee. If you don’t have a finance committee, assemble a Budgeting Task Force. Make sure you call it “Task Force,” since Task Force sounds cool, like a team of superheroes who are called into action when the organization sends a distress signal (and at the end of every fiscal year, we are all sending distress signals). Include your board Treasurer, your Accountant/bookkeeper/finance person, one or two key staff, and an astrologer.

Step 2: Have your finance person provide data on up-to-date spending actuals for each program, as well as administrative and fundraising expenses. It is important to know how much you’ve been spending in each category this year, so that you can ignore all of it while you develop next year’s budget.

Step 3: Talk to your key staff to figure out the programming expenses for the next fiscal year. Ideally you will have a strategic plan on which to base next year’s staffing and programming (I’ll write later on how to develop a kick-ass strategic plan). If you don’t, it is important to get an idea from your staff what it is they need to make their programs successful next year. They are in the trenches, so they know best about programming stuff. Be aware that putting all staff into a room together to discuss their needs for the next year may lead to what I call “Mad Max-Budget Thunderdome.”

Step 4: Unfortunately, many requests can only be fulfilled in a mythical magical world with sufficient unrestricted funds, so you must bargain with your staff and be creative to reach middle ground. For example, a staff may say, “I need a unicorn in order to effectively do my work,” then you say, “we can’t afford a unicorn,” and your staff will say, “without a unicorn, I can’t do so and so and I am burning out,” so then you say, “how about a work-study unicorn instead?”

Step 5: Personnel expenses are the biggest and most critical category in your budget, since it takes staff to make things happen. It is important that your staff are paid a fair and decent wage that are increasing with cost of living. Go borrow the United Way’s Wage and Benefit Survey from one of your nonprofit friends (or order it online if you’re one of those big nonprofits who can afford it). Look up all the positions you plan to keep or develop, and it’ll tell you what on average those positions are paid in organizations your size.

Step 6: Put your computer on hibernate, close your door, and gently weep for five or ten minutes, thinking about all your wonderful staff and how horribly underpaid they are, according to the Wages and Benefit Survey, and about all the stuff you could do if you only had more resources. Then dry your eyes, open your door, and if any staff happens to ask what’s wrong, just give them a hug and tell them you’re proud of them and that the work they do is so important and that they’re making the world better, then go on a walk to clear your head.

Step 7: Now that you have all your projected expenses down, you must look at the potential revenues. Review all the funders who supported you this fiscal year, and categorize each of them by “will not renew since it was a one-year grant,” “possibly renewable, but is so restricted that it may actually cost the organization more to administer than the grant is worth,” “long-shot,” and “no clue, since they’re in the middle of a strategic planning process and we’re not sure what their priorities will be next fiscal year.”

Step 8: It is now time to put your astrologer to use. Have them create a chart of where the planets are this year in relation to your organization, as that is the best way to predict where the rest of your funds will be coming from. Mercury (representing foundations), Venus (representing individual donors), and Saturn (representing government funding) are in rare alignment right now, which may mean that it is time to focus more fundraising energy on those areas. The tiny and distant Pluto, representing general operating funds, is no longer a planet, but it still greatly impacts nonprofits, so make sure your astrologer includes its trajectory in the charts.

Step 9: It is unlikely that you will have enough projected revenues to meet projected expenses, so start cutting things and finding creative ways to obtain resources. For example, can you ask for donations of food for programs from local restaurants? Can the children in your programs spend one or two hours a day making products such as shoes or backpacks that could then be sold? And do staff REALLY need dental and vision insurance?

Step 10: Once your Task Force agrees on the draft budget, voila, you’re pretty much done! Forward it to the rest of the board to review and approve. They’ll likely be shocked at how much they’ll have to help raise through individual donations and the annual dinner and will likely ask you to cut down expenses even further. Resist the urge to break down weeping. Just smile, give an inspiring speech about working together, and reassure your board that you won’t be submitting any grants on any day when Mercury is in retrograde.

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