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.

Nonprofit’s ultimate outcome: Bringing unicorns back to our world

Soup-Kitchen_DBThe concept of “outcomes” has been well-beaten into all of us nonprofit folks. So much so, in fact, that I start to apply this concept to all sorts of non-work stuff. For example, watching Games of Thrones reduces stress, which allows me to be happier, which makes me a more thoughtful life partner. And that’s why I didn’t do dishes yesterday. 

Outcomes and metrics are great and necessary, but I am wondering if we are starting to take them too far. Every once in a while, we in the field do the infamous “so that” exercise. We start with an activity, let’s say tutoring kids, and we think about the effects: We tutor kids so that they can get better grades in school…so that they can move up a grade…so that they can graduate from high school…so that they can get into college…so that they can graduate from college…so that they can get a good job. Therefore, tutoring kids helps them get a good job. Sweet!

But at what point in the “so that” chain is it OK to stop and say, that’s a good outcome to fund? At what point does it become ridiculous? In recent years, it feels like we nonprofits have been pushed to expand this chain, because the further up the chain we go, the stronger and more compelling the outcomes seem to be, and the easier it is for funders and donors to rationalize funding programs. But sometimes it makes no sense. Sometimes it obscures the fact that we should do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Because of the funding dynamics, we often have wacky conversations like this:

Funder (on a program visit): So how many hot meals does XYZ Organization serve each week?

ED: In a typical week, we provide about 900 meals to low-income seniors.

Funder: That’s wonderful. What are the outcomes of your program?

ED: Well…uh…the seniors come in hungry, and they leave full.

Funder: Yeah, but what does that do in terms of impact? Can you elaborate?

ED (remembering the “so that” exercise): Oh, yes, of course. When low-income seniors have access to nutritious food, their health improves, which means they function better. Healthy, well-functioning seniors lead to stronger communities. It also reduces accidents, which every year cost the state millions of dollars in emergency services.

Funder: Excellent! What evaluation instruments do you—

ED: But that’s not all! Those millions of dollars that would have been wasted on emergency services can now be invested in education, infrastructure, and economic development. Those investments will lead to a stronger state, which leads to a stronger United States, which will allow us to be better gunicorn 2uardians of the globe, which may lead to world peace. And world peace means that the unicorns may return. The ultimate outcome of our hot-meal program is for the self-exiled unicorns to return to our world!

All right, that last part is something that we might think when in this situation, but would never say out loud to funders or donors, who wield the power of life and death over programs. We learn to say the right words because we know how vital these services are, but on the inside, we’re screaming “People not being hungry is a great outcome already! Gawwwwwww!!”

A couple of years ago, I helped start the World Dance Party, which is just a giant multi-cultural/multi-generational potluck party where people learn eight different dances in mini 20-minutes lessons, and everyone dances. That’s it. No lectures, no fundraising. It is free and attracts 200 to 400 people of all ages and backgrounds. The outcomes of WDP include getting neighbors to get to know one another and to feel connected to their community. I sometimes get blank stares when I tell people this, though, as if they’re expecting something sexier, like that these World Dance Parties, through getting neighbors to know one another better, reduce gun violence by 25%.

Funders’ push for “more compelling outcomes” goes too far sometimes, forcing us nonprofits to claim to be responsible for outcomes that make no sense for our programs. After-school arts or sports programs, for example, should not have to be directly responsible for and judged on increasing graduation rates, or getting kids into college. They increase kids’ confidence and love of learning and teamwork and a host of other skills. Those are absolutely wonderful outcomes by themselves and should be funded.

If we think about it, everything we do in this field has one ultimate goal: to increase happiness. All of us are happier when everyone’s basic needs are met, when we all live in safe and strong and supportive communities, when we all continue to learn and grow and reach our potential and contribute back.

But increasing society’s happiness is too fluffy an outcome, so we usually stop the “so that” chain at things like reducing crimes and saving taxpayers millions. The insidious effect of this sort of thinking is that we lessen the intrinsic values of human lives. Sheltering our homeless so that they are not battered by the elements for even a single night, that is itself intrinsically worth doing, because we don’t want our fellow community members to suffer. Building confidence and creativity in kids through teaching them photography or beat-boxing or poetry, that is itself intrinsically worth doing, because all kids should have opportunities to grow and explore their world. Having fun World Dance Parties so that people can feel connected to their neighbors and to their community, that is itself intrinsically worth doing because everyone deserves to feel a sense of belonging.

Sure, the above activities and other stuff we do in the field will lessen crimes, save society money, etc., but those effects should be considered awesome bonuses. They should not be the main reason why we do the things we do. We should do our work with the belief that every individual life has an intrinsic value independent of its value to society.

Only when we all truly believe that, will the unicorns come back to our world.

9 lessons from Breaking Bad we can apply to nonprofit work

Breaking-Bad-season-5-1080x1920Hi everyone. Thanks to the long weekend, I was able to completely catch up with Breaking Bad. We were in the midst of Season 3 when the baby was born, so we had to stop, a decision I’ll regret for the rest of my life. But this weekend, while the baby was sleeping, we binge-watched the rest of the episodes, and they were totally awesome. Breaking Bad is about a high-school chemistry teacher named Walter White who is facing cancer. Wanting to leave his family with something after he’s gone, he ends up making meth with one of his former students, Jesse. Walter gradually rises up the ranks to become a total bad-ass in the insanely scary underground world of drug cartels. Not only is this a riveting show, with wonderful acting and complex human emotions, but there are tons of lessons we in the nonprofit field can glean.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the show or are not caught up at all, stop reading this right now and do something else, such as read this NWB post “How to Schedule a Meeting Without Being Punched in the Pancreas.” Or go watch the show. It is that good. I mean, I have an infant, and that hasn’t stopped me from watching this show and others].

Lesson 1: Change can be good. Walter’s cancer triggers his existential/midlife crisis, forcing him to reevaluate his entire life and what he has been doing with it. We in nonprofits tend to like settling into routines. But maybe, once in a while, it’s good to shake things up and make us some meth, yeah! OK, maybe not make meth, exactly, but, you know, do something different, like plan an annual luncheon instead of an annual dinner. Or have happy hour meetings at 10am instead of 5pm.

Lesson 2: Risks pay off. One of the most awesome scenes in the show is when Walter uses his knowledge of chemistry to threaten a drug king pin, Tuco, who had beat up Jesse (using a bag of cash, ironically). Walter carries these explosive crystals right smack into Tuco’s lair, threatening to blow up the entire place, including himself. The risk paid off, as they began a long and rewarding partnership that only ended up with a few people getting killed. We nonprofits need to learn to take more risks. Sure, sometimes, probably most of the time, we’ll probably get beat up by a bag stuffed with cash, but once in a while, it might work. So yeah, open that side business as an earned-income strategy.

Lesson 3: Pick your partners carefully. It turns out Tuco is a complete psychopath with a penchant for beating the crap out of people, including his own goons. Later, Walter and Jesse have to try to kill him. Now, if they had spent some time vetting him first, they might not have collaborated with him in the first place. This is a good lesson for us in nonprofit to learn: Choose partner organizations carefully, or else one party is inevitably going to try to poison the other with ricin.

Lesson 4: Never settle for less than the highest quality. Walter rises up through the ranks because his meth is 99% pure, unlike the rest of the meth out there, which are usually only 60 or 70% pure, mixed with baking soda or sawdust or whatever and might give you, like, terrible hallucinations or syphilis or something. We nonprofit organizations should always strive to ensure that our programs and services are as high quality as Walter’s meth.

Lesson 5: Use the right tools. At one point, Walter and Jesse have to dispose of a body. Jesse is sent to pick up some specific plastic containers so they could dissolve the body with acid. He picks up the wrong kind, and Walter is angry, saying the plastic needs to be a certain type, or else the acid would just eat right through it. Jesse, being an idiot at this point, decides to dissolve the body in his bathtub on the second floor while Walter is away, and the acid just eats right through the tub, making a terrible mess in the hallway. Lesson for us nonprofit folks: Whether it is the right donor database or copy machine or file backup system, use the right tool.

Lesson 6: Keep ego in check. Walter is brilliant in chemistry, but is oftentimes a complete idiot when it comes to real life. As his fake name, “Heisenberg,” gains notoriety, his ego gets bigger and bigger. The Drug Enforcement Agency, where his brother-in-law Hank works, finally discovers the body of someone they think is Heisenberg. This body is actually Walter’s lab assistant, Gale. Hank, over dinner, is saying how Gale is a genius and that he is definitely Heisenberg, case closed. Walter, being a moron, and drunk, blurts out that he thinks Gale is not a genius and that Heisenberg is a genius and he is probably still out there, triggering Hank to search even harder. Lesson for nonprofit folks: No matter how talented or experienced we are at being an ED or Development Director or Operations Manager or Board member or Program Coordinator or whatever, we should keep our egos in check in order to get even better.

Lesson 7: Be indispensable. Several times in the show, Walt is able to save his and Jesse’s life because only the two of them know how to make meth of that high a caliber. At another point, Gus Fring, their very professional and totally evil boss, walks out right into the middle of a sniper attack from a rival cartel, daring the sniper to fire at him. He knew that he is too valuable for their enemies to shoot down. Lesson for us to learn: Our nonprofits and its programs are more sustainable if they are absolutely vital to the community and people understand this. So we should ensure programs are excellent, and our communications to funders and to the rest of the community are constant. (Of course, once someone else understood how to make meth that was 99% pure, Walter and Jesse had to kill him to retain their indispensableness, but that’s a lesson for another day).

Lesson 8: Balance work and family. As Walter gains notoriety, his family suffers. He is never around, or he shows up naked in a convenience store with fake amnesia. He misses the birth of his daughter because he chooses instead to go drop off his meth to a distributor for money. Obviously this is a great lesson for all of us in the field, who tend to work too much and have poor work-life balance. No matter what we do, whether it’s making the world better or making crystal meth to sell to junkies, family is important.

Lesson 9: Understand what your goals and line in the sand are. As Walter White gets deeper and deeper into the business, he loses sight of his original goal, which was to provide for his family. The lines he is willing to cross also change. Now he is fixated on building an empire, even at the expense of his family, and this once-innocent chemistry teacher is willing to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and kill to build that empire. For us nonprofit folks, a regular refresher on the mission and vision of our organization is a good idea, and also what our values are, to ensure that we are actually making the world better, and not just building a nonprofit empire for its own sake.

There are more lessons to learn from this awesome show, but I’m exhausted. Future posts will discuss those lessons, as well as ones learned from The Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

Youth Development: Why it is just as important as Early Learning

teenagerFor the past few months, I’ve been thinking. Mainly about a Broadway show highlighting nonprofit work, called “501c3, the Musical.” It’ll be awesome, and I’ve starting coming up with titles and lyrics for potential songs, for examples “Another Evening in the Office” and “I Should Have Listened to Ms. Cleo.” (Hit me up if you have any connections to Broadway producers).

But I’ve also been thinking about the youth development field. Specifically about the difficulties of seeking funding for direct service youth programs as more and more funders shift their focus to collective impact efforts and early learning programs. It is the nature of the work that the funding tides shift back and forth from one worthy concept to another. But still, it has been frustrating and discouraging, and I don’t think I am the only youth development professional who feels like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, fighting constantly to save programs that serve youth, to convince funders that our society’s well-being depends on our having strong services along the entire continuum of our kids’ journey from birth to adulthood.

Two years ago, I served on the Families and Education Levy advisory committee, which was determining how to allocate the $232 million in funding that we would be asking of Seattle voters. The early learning advocates were organized, providing impressive data on return on investment, showing that a dollar invested in high-quality early learning programs could yield an eight or ten-fold return to society. They had convincing research results on brain development and a compelling argument that an ounce of prevention was so much better than a pound of cure.

No one in their right mind would argue against the importance of early learning, and now that I have a kid, I appreciate it even more. What is alarming, though, is that we have started moving into this zero-sum mentality of funding and programming. I remember during one Levy meeting when someone said, “We don’t have much funding, and if we spread it around too much, it won’t be very effective. I propose we invest all of the funds in early learning.” Several others agreed, and I probably pissed off a few people by opposing that idea, saying that we have to support kids at all points of their lives.

Youth Development, as a field, has many weaknesses. First, the term “Youth Development” is confusing. When we hear “Early Learning,” we instinctively have an image of what that is. It is easy to understand: Children, learning early, and thus getting a head start in life. “Youth Development” meanwhile, what the hell is that? It sounds like we’re trying to reverse aging. What’s the definition of youth? And developing what? What are we trying to develop our youth into?

Second, the field itself is nebulous and disorganized. “Youth Development” encompasses so many things: mentorship, tutoring, extended learning, leadership, arts, sports, media, mental health counseling, identity formation, environmental stewardship, career exploration and job searching, etc. Because the field is so broad, we have only started to pin down our common goals, compelling research, key messages, outcomes, evaluation tools, etc. In fact, Youth Development, as a field, is similar to the lanky, awkward, potential-filled youth that we serve. We are trying to find our identity and our place in the world. We have made great progress working together though organizations like Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC), whose board I am on. Still, we are behind and are playing catch up with other much more well-organized fields.

Third, it sounds crass, but let’s face it, babies and small children are much cuter than the pimply-faced and cranky older kids and adults they grow up to be. Just thinking back on what I was like as a teenager, with the braces and the severe acne and the constant sullenness, I can see why it is just easier to invest in the little kids, with their big adorable eyes, innocence, and endless curiosity. (I still have severe acne, but at least most of it is masked by wrinkles). We are programmed to protect our young, and when we have compelling research on brain development and return on investments, funding early learning programs is a sexy no-brainer.

But we must have a balanced approach. Despite all the weaknesses of the youth development field, or because of them, it is more important than ever to invest in youth programs. Just because we, the adults, have not been the best at organizing ourselves and our work and coming up with a more compelling name than “youth development,” it doesn’t mean our kids should be punished.

But that’s what’s been happening. An Executive Director colleague told me last week several hundred thousand dollars in grant funding was moved from her organization’s youth program to fund early learning. Across the board I hear of more and more youth programs being cut. It is depressing. This approach is discouraging, and it is counterproductive. Usually the first programs we cut are programs that kids love–like art, sports, nature exploration–programs that keep them motivated to learn and to remain in school. We MUST support youth programs as strongly as we support early learning programs, for several reasons.

First, kids get older. They will soon grow out of early learning programs, and life only gets more and more complicated. They may now face bullying, identity issues, clashes with their parents, academic challenges, hormones, discrimination, finding a sense of belonging, comprehending the nature of the world and why awful things happen to good people on the news, and multiple other stuff, usually in a single day. All the gains kids make early on in their lives through great early learning programs will likely fade unless we continue to support them through these turbulent years.

Second, many kids do not have the opportunity to benefit from early learning programs. Many of our struggling kids are immigrants and refugees who arrive to the US when they are older, bypassing early learning programs. The ones who arrive after the age of 12 face the greatest challenges, dealing with the above barriers while also experiencing language problems, cultural adjustment, and parents who work several jobs and are never around and who are also struggling themselves. We cut programs that support these older kids, and we wonder why they keep disproportionately failing in school or ending up in the criminal justice system.

Third, the return on investment for youth programs is just as high as for early learning programs. As this analysis shows, an investment of $1 in youth leads to a benefit to society of $10.51, assuming that the program helps the youth to graduate from high school and get a job and pay taxes and stuff. This doesn’t even yet account for the savings we’ll get by not having the kid going to jail and costing tax payers tons of money in dealing with crimes, etc. Yeah, the analysis is not perfect, but it is a good start. We youth development workers just suck at communicating these types of messages.

I know we’ve been talking about making the choice between prevention and cure. But for a second, let’s stop talking about our children as if they are diseases. Instead, let’s agree that all our kids deserve a good start to their lives, and that’s why we should invest in early learning. High-quality early learning programs are critical to our kids’ success.

But as children grow, things get more complex and more challenging, so in addition to a good start to their lives, they need a good adolescence, and a good bridge to their careers, and that’s why we must all invest in youth programs. With everything that our kids face every day, trying to grow and learn and understand themselves and get along with their friends and family and graduate from high school and take care of their acne problem and apply to college and find a job in this challenging economy, it is more critical than ever that all of us—early learning advocates, youth development advocates, collective impact advocates, funders, policy makers—work together to support our kids throughout their ENTIRE journey from birth to adulthood.