It’s time funders take nonprofit leadership turnover seriously

[Image description: A blue frog with black spots all over, looking to the left, while standing on some sort of mossy branch or something. They look serious. Very serious.]

Hi everyone. I have almost exactly one month left before the sun sets on my time as an executive director. (If you want to sound majestic and full of gravitas, just add “the sun sets on [someone]’s time” to anything; for instance, “We have ten minutes before the sun sets on our time together at this dive bar.” Thanks, Lion King.) I explained why I and a whole lot of other leaders, especially leaders of color, are leaving here.

Last week, I got an email from a colleague, a woman of color ED, asking me to call her back. There was no context. I knew what this meant. It meant she was leaving her position and wanted to give me a courtesy notice before the announcement came out. I was right. “I’m tired,” she said; I could hear the weariness in her voice. We were silent for a moment. I didn’t know what to say that didn’t seem trite or patronizing. “I’m sorry,” I said.  

Quietly, nonprofit leaders are leaving their posts. And most of us ED/CEOs swear off ever doing it again. And younger folks, it seems, are increasingly reluctant to take up the mantle. Who the hell can blame them? The ED’s job has always been like Sisyphus pushing the fundraising boulder up a hill, but while the eagle of program impact is pecking out his liver; the Cerberus of board, staff, and community expectations is chasing after him; and he’s trying to avoid looking at the Medusa of cash flow projections.

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10 reasons being an Executive Director is still awesome

[Image: An adorable little corgi, standing next to three trophies. What did they win this trophy for? I don’t know. Maybe CUTENESS?!!]

Hi everyone, this blog may have more typos than normal because it is (was) Father’s Day, and instead of spending it writing and “editing,” I hung out with my kids. They are in bed now, so I can finish this post.

Before we launch into the subject, though, this Friday is the Third Annual Beverage to Enhance Equity in Relationships (BEER), a time, usually on Summer Solstice, where nonprofit and philanthropic leaders can get a beer, ice cream, donuts, or perfectly blistered shishito peppers sprinkled with Maldon sea salt and a spritz of lime (we deserve nice things too!) and get to know one another without an agenda. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a list of events happening. If you’re in Seattle, there’s a get-together from 4pm to 6pm at Hill City Tap House, sponsored by Medina Foundation, United Way of King County, Philanthropy NW, and RVC. RSVP here. I’ll be there; go ahead and come argue with me if you don’t like something I’ve written in the past, but just to warn you, I will crush you.

Last week, I wrote a pretty long post listing some of the serious challenges faced by EDs, and in particular EDs of color. It resonated with quite a few colleagues across the globe. All of us are tired. We’re tired of the lack of trust, the unstable scraps of resources, the funding Sudoku, the power dynamics, the criticisms from staff and board, the involuntary eye twitch, and the sleepless nights listening to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on repeat while hugging a stuffed unicorn that’s designed to smell like baked apple pie. (Shut up, like your coping mechanisms are soooo much better).

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The 7-S’s of effective organizations, plus cherry blossoms and existential crises

cherry blossomsThe dinner went remarkably well, and for the past three days I’ve been feeling a sense of after-event euphoria. That, combined with the contact high from legalized pot in Seattle, has led to one of the best weekends I’ve had in a while. Now I am at a hotel near the University of Washington, sequestered here this entire week for the Nonprofit Executives Leadership Institute (NELI), a time for us nonprofit leaders to take a break from daily work and reflect on things like adaptive leadership, board engagement, strategic thinking, and how ancient and decrepit we are in comparison to the fresh-faced college students here, who are walking around while texting, oblivious to the world around them.

The course is pretty intense, but I might try to use this blog for some reflections on the key concepts that strike me. Apologies in advance if the posts come too often and clog up your inbox.

Today, among several concepts, we learned of the 7-S Model created by McKinsey consultants ad Harvard Business School and Stanford Business school professors. The S’s are:

Strategy (what actions the organization uses to be more awesome than its competitors),

Structure (who reports to whom, how authority is distributed, is it hierarchical, how departments/divisions interact, etc.),

Systems (processes and procedures like a database, budgeting, planning, monitoring, and rules around washing dishes because it’s disgusting when staff leave them in the sink for days!),

Staffing (recruitment, retention, professional development, do we have the right people, and why is Steve still around when doesn’t do any work and never washes his dishes?),

Skills (the organization’s distinct competencies, developed over years, such as “We are the best in the business at teaching youth to make balloon animals”),

Style (the organizational culture, often led by the people at the top. For instance, does the ED have an open-cubicle policy, or does she prefer to close the door in order to weep quietly by herself?).

Shared Values (written and unwritten values to guide the organization, for instance, “focus on quality” or “customer service above all” or “Let’s just try not to screw up.”)

In successful organizations, these 7 S’s are aligned with one another. When there is a disconnect, it could spell trouble for the agency. For instance, if a Shared Value is Innovation, but the organization fails to take risks and never tries anything new, or if the Value is Quality, but the morons who don’t focus on it keep getting promoted, then it may be a serious problem.

It was good fodder for thought. But the thing that really made me think today was something not in class at all. It was the cherry blossoms. UW has a dozen ancient cherry blossom trees in its Quad. Today, the trees are in full bloom, looking breathtakingly magnificent and smelling like Spring, like happiness, like childhood, like general operating funds. Hundreds of people were in the Quad, including a wedding party that used the snowy backdrops for pictures.

Three other EDs and I walked to the Quad and were amazed by the beauty of the cherry blossoms. “The cherry blossoms are a great symbol of nonprofit funding,” I said. Another ED piped in, “Yeah! We wait for them all year. We cultivate them. Then the arrive and they’re gone in days!” Ahahaheheheh, we all laughed. That’s how we EDs laugh. Then we sighed and scoped around for a bar.

The cherry blossoms, of course, are symbolic of both how beautiful life can be and yet how ephemeral it is. I imagine that many of us choose the stressful nonprofit field because unconsciously we know that life is short, and to get a grip on our impending mortality, we strive to do something meaningful with our time. I don’t think this is a bad thing. There are far worse ways to deal with the existential despair we all feel from time to time.

For instance, grabbing some pimply college kid by their hoodie, slapping them around a bit, and screaming, “Stop texting and look at the cherry blossoms! You don’t know how good you have it! Enjoy your youth, you exquisite fool, for soon it will be gone, and you too shall look like I do. Look at me! THIS IS YOUR FUTURE!”


Discussion questions:

Which S does your organization excel at, and which ones does it suck at?

How much do existential factors influence your work?

How much trouble will I get into if I slap some random college student who is walking and texting?