Category Archives: leadership

On their own terms

Church members want new people to attend the church because they hope to lighten the load in fundraising events, keep dwindling programs alive, and support the diminishing budget. Sometimes it happens that way, but more often, if the members become intentional about ministering to younger generations, they will move away from assimilating the new people into existing customs and begin the process of forming new communities. (Carol Howard Merritt, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation)

Yes, and that goes for grassroots organizations hoping to attract younger members, too.

The process of becoming intergenerational (or inter-cultural for that matter) is one of mutual transformation. We can’t both say, “we want new people with fresh perspectives and new ideas,” and expect the organization to do the same activities on the same issues in the same ways.

If we are to successfully welcome new generations or new cultures into our communities, our communities themselves will change.

Are we open to that change?

Welcome younger members, care for all members

I’ve just started reading Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, and I’m contemplating how her lessons about intergenerational church life apply to ICPJ.

As I consider our successes in recruiting, retaining, and involving younger people in the life of ICPJ, here are some common themes I observe:

  • ROLES: Many younger people first become involved by signing up for a specific, concrete role. Many of our younger members, activists, and donors first became involved by being interns, CROP recruiters, SOAW trip attendees or organizers, or board members.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: Our most involved young members are also the ones we’ve built the strongest relationships with. We have had more interns vanish than stay involved as members, donors, or volunteers. Those who stay involved tend to be the ones who were more involved to begin with and who had the strongest connections to ICPJ.
  • PERSONAL CONNECTION: relationships are personal. Yes, the connection to ICPJ as an institution is important, but I more often hear reconnecting members remark about a person than remark about the institution.
  • TRANSIENCE: Younger people move more. Many of our most active younger people are now less active. Some have left the area. Some have started families. Younger people tend to face more drastic and rapid changes in their lives. We have to be ready to welcome them in warmly, accept their departure or lessened involvement gracefully, and maintain connections so that they may re-engage.
  • IT’S PERSONAL: Personal connections are made one at a time. At the risk of repeating myself, the people who have been most involved and stayed most involved have done so through personal connections. You can’t automate that. You can develop community norms and organizational practices that support personal connection, but at the end of the day it still depends on people connecting to people, one person at a time.

While some of these observations are especially true for younger members, many also apply to people of all ages.

From these observations, I leave with several questions:

  • How can ICPJ (or any group) create more defined roles as initial contacts for new and/or younger members?
  • After people sign up for these new roles, how can we walk with them to increase involvement and connection?
  • How can we create practices (organizational and personal) to increase the connection among members, especially new members?
  • How can we treat people like people? That is, while ICPJ as an institution is concerned about members, donors, and volunteers, how can we also ensure that we honor, respect, and care for people as their lives demand changes in their levels of involvement?
  • What do our members need from us? How can we meet the needs of our interns, volunteers, and members in terms of community, contribution and professional development? (Coming from the Christian tradition, this question feels to me at it’s core to be, “how do we love each other?”)
Carol Howard Merritt

No More Useless Reports

"Didn't you get the memo?" by nataliej on flickr.comWhen I studied wilderness first aid at the United World College of the American West, one student asked, “how often should you take a patient’s vitals during an evacuation.”

The instructor replied, “Only stop an evacuation to take a patient’s vitals if the results could change your evacuation plan. Otherwise you are just delaying the evacuation.

Tonight I was talking with somebody who works on tech issues with nonprofits, and he talked about how managers often request reports because they like to know things, not so they can make decisions based on the data.

When you ask staff or volunteers to put time into inputting, exporting, or reporting data, you are taking their time away from other activities. It’s like interrupting an evacuation to take someone’s vitals. Sometimes it’s necessary, but you should know why you are doing it.

In an evacuation, there are times it makes sense to monitor an evacuee. You may find out they are in too poor of condition to carry them out and that you need to call in an airlift.

In a nonprofit, there are times that it makes sense to spend a lot of time on reports. You may need to adjust your direct mail program to improve member retention.

But sometimes managers, board members, or committee members will ask for reports without any idea how the data will be used, and we’ve all heard the stories of these reports that have been painstakingly created only to sit on the shelf unread.

So, before you ask someone to create a report for you, ask yourself if this information might “change the evacuation plan,” or are you just, “delaying the evacuation.”

Five Ways to Lead With More Compassion

compassion and empathy are more than feel-good skills, they make you a better leader.

Susan Cramm has an excellent post on the Harvard Business Review blog how to lead with more compassion. The 5 ways are:

  1. Assume the best in others;
  2. Understand what makes them tick;
  3. Serve their needs;
  4. Accept responsibility;
  5. Assume the best intentions.

I’ve said before that  empathy is the core of organizing (and fundraising, and media relations, and volunteer management, and marketing, etc.). These five practices are strong ways to build your empathy and compassion and become a better community organizer. the best in others

Nonprofits that Fear the Least Succeed the Most

Is fear holding you back from success?

Is fear holding you back from success?

On Allison Fine‘s podcast Social Good, Tom Watson made an interesting point about what sets apart the nonprofits that succeed in online giving contests. He said, “The nonprofits that fear the least succeed the most.”

This is true for more than just online giving challenges. It’s true for fundraising, for media, for lobbying, and for much more.

The nonprofits that fear the least succeed the most.

Think about it. Where is fear holding you back?

If you can delegate, you must

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith has a great sidebar titled “If you can delegate, you must” in which they say:

If you can delegate a task to someone else (or to a machine, for that matter) in order to save either time or costs, it is your duty to do so.

Their argument is about productivity and work quality, but for a community organizer there is another element to this. When you delegate to volunteers, you strengthen your organization by increasing buy-in and improving the connections the volunteers have to your group.

This relates to Saul Alinsky’s Iron Rule of Organizing, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.”

For me, this is a case of something that’s easier to blog about than to do. Whether it’s tweaking our database, developing a flier, or creating a website for a coalition, I have a tendency to do things myself.

So my challenge to myself and my challenge to you is to share the load, delegate what you can, and strengthen you organization by doing so. It’s smart, it will help your work, and it’s good organizing.

Are we too “feel good”?

Want to get better? Learn from, dont avoid, your mistakes.

Want to get better? Learn from, don't avoid, your mistakes.

It seems to me that the often progressives are very affirming.

Maybe instead we should focus more on our mistakes

I’ve known people to avoid language of “what went wrong” to choose instead of “what should we have done differently.”

Often we avoid talking about “mistakes” because we worry that that will create a hurtful, negative vibe.

(Of course, we can also end up with the circular firing squad where we attack potential allies because they don’t have the correct position on class, race, economics, or strategy, but that’s another post).

In Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Cialdini describes a study on two different training program for firefighters. One study focused on how others had made good decisions in the past; the other one focused on other firefighters’ past errors.

Focusing on past errors was much more effective in training the firefighters to make good decisions.

This tells me that we need to create environments where it is OK to honestly asses and learn from mistakes, our own and those of others, not evade them to make sure nobody’s feelings get hurt.

If we don’t do that, well, that would be a mistake.

What’s true for you may not be true for everyone

I’ve been reading Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Cialdini (I’ve blogged before about his previous book, Influence), and he gives a great story that warns us not to assume that what works for us will work for everyone.

He gives the example of efforts to try to get hotel guests to help save the environment by re-using their towels.

How would you promote that kind of program?

Well, if you’re like me, you would be motivated by environmental arguments, so you would be inclined to write a sign along the lines of, “You can help save water by re-using your towel.”

But here’s the rub–there will be a lot of hotel guests who don’t care about that message.

So Cialdini and his co-authors decided to test an alternate message that tells guests that “a majority of guests choose to re-use their towels at least once in their stay.”

There are two lessons here:

1. “Social proof” is a powerful way to influence people;

2. Don’t assume that the messages that work for you will work for everyone.

The power of “thank you”

Its hard to put your foot in your mouth when the words thank you are coming out of your mouth.

It's hard to put your foot in your mouth when the words "thank you" are coming out of your mouth.

Of the 20 destructive habits Marshall Goldsmith identifies in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, five have share a common solution.

Say “thank you.”

Sometimes this is obvious, as with habits #10 and #17, “Failing to give proper recognition” and “failing to express gratitude.” In that case, saying “thank you” is a no brainer.

Goldsmith also recommends saying “thank you” as a remedy for less obvious problems, such as habit #18, “punishing the messenger.”

What does saying thank you have to do with not punishing the messanger?

Think of it this way, it’s hard for you to put your foot in your mouth when the words “thank you” are coming out.

In this case, the “thank you” is less about expressing gratitude and more about stopping you from expressing harmful emotions. “Thank you” is a way not to take out your anger on the messenger.

That’s also why saying “thank you” is part of the prescription for habit  #3, “passing judgment,” and habit #6, “telling the world how smart we are.”

For habit 6, he explains how “thank you” works, “Stopping this behavior is not hard–a three-step drill in which you (a) pause before opening your mouth to ask yourself, ‘Is anything I say worth it?’ (b) conclude that it isn’t, and (c) say, ‘Thank you.'”

For this to work, though, you have to just say thank you. If you say, “thank you, but…” and then launch into a self-serving lecture about how you could improve on the idea (thereby showing how smart you are), you’ve defeated the purpose.

I picked up on this not because I think it’s an easy fix (I don’t think it is), but because it ties into one of my destructive habits. I often get defensive and bristle when given negative feedback or when I feel at my limit and I’m asked to do more or criticized for not having done more.

Goldsmith’s suggested response of “thank you” would be a big improvement over my defensiveness.

Are you saying “thank you” enough? Are there things you shouldn’t be saying where you’d be better off just saying “thank you”?

Why leadership is so hard

The scarecest resource in nonprofits is leadership.

The scarecest resource in nonprofits is leadership.

What’s the scarcest resource for a nonprofit?



The scarcest resource is leadership.

Good leadership can make the most out of scarce time and can raise money, but no amount of money or time can create good leadership (the travails of the Red Cross show that).

Seth Godin explains part of the reason why, “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead.”

Seth’s post points out that leadership takes courage. It also takes skill.

Some people who  have the skill to lead lack the courage. Some people who have the courage don’t have the skill.

As a community organizer, part of your job is to show leadership, to find the courage and develop the skills to be a good leader.

It’s also your job to find, recruit, and support other leaders. Bolster their courage. Refine their skills.

We need more leaders. Help create them.