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A Summit Grows in Brooklyn

Notes from the field from Dart Westphal, Senior Associate at the Support Center

The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce hosted its first-ever Nonprofit Summit just a few weeks ago in June. As an attendee and speaker, and as a supporter (that is, the Support Center as a supporter!), I was energized by the dynamic nonprofit professionals I met, the conversations in the halls, and sessions I participated in. Through those interactions, a few clear trending themes emerged:

•   The first is how eager nonprofit leaders are to learn with their peers. The organizers were originally hoping for 100 attendees for this inaugural effort, but three times that many people were there. The sessions on leadership, one that I was honored to be a part of, and the sessions on fund raising and partnership with boards were uniformly excellent (present company excluded of course). But beyond that, the attendees were clearly energized to be among friends and colleagues, away from the daily grind, but still serving their organizations.

•   Secondly, change is constant, but sometimes it’s a bit more urgent. Now is one of those times. Greater scrutiny from everywhere, more work for boards of directors and more demands from strapped funders have all hit us at once.  Nonprofit leaders want to do the right thing, but what the right thing is differs among funders and other decision makers. Such a situation makes peer interaction more important than ever.

•  Thirdly, we need to do a better job as a sector making sure the general population knows how important the nonprofit world is. And I am not just talking about the world of the 501(c)(3) “charitable” sector. I mean the whole part of the economy that is mission rather than profit driven. That includes coops, and fraternal organizations, and credit unions and membership associations. Some people still don’t really understand who we are and what we do. The people who do this work need to be understood and appreciated in a new way. We are not just providing a nice ‘extra’ or a good deed outside the mainstream of doing ‘business’. Nonprofits are as much a part of the way the country works as General Motors. It’s just that they exist for the sake of a mission, not for profit!

The hunger for networking and learning was clear. Hopefully these nonprofits and others like them, and their funders, will continue to provide opportunities that foster learning and “growing” among nonprofit professionals on the front lines!

Change – Do We Have a Choice? – Five Key Elements for Managing Change through a “Transitions Management” Approach

Change….  The one constant in our life is change but, despite the relentless charge of change, we never seem to embrace it, do we?

A few years ago, the State Department of Transportation started a comprehensive renovation project on one of the main routes I take to work each day.  The rationale was that the road needed to be widened to reduce congestion and improve safety.  The road was to be closed for 13 months.  Worst of all, this meant I needed to find another Dunkin’ Donuts at which to secure my morning coffee.  I was not happy.  I guess sometimes we just don’t have any say in change.

And now, many of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are faced with huge changes.  Nonprofits, particularly those funded by government are facing significant budget cuts and “competition” for all dollars is increasing daily.  Grantmakers and other donors wonder if their donations are risky investments in organizations that might not be viable in the long-term.  For many of us, there can be growing feelings of resentment, anger and/or fear.   Change…do we have a choice?

William Bridges begins his book Managing Transitions by saying that “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions”.  Change he says is situational; Transition is psychological.  Many of our best nonprofit organizations are going through change (executive turnover, downsizing, merging, closures, new structures) and unfortunately, they are being bashed and bruised by the changes and missing the opportunities available when the people who are experiencing the change are not engaged through the psychological process.

We have discovered five key elements critical to successfully navigating the executive and organizational transitions we facilitate:

1)  Acknowledge Change:  First, it helps to acknowledge change is happening and that individual responses (shock, anger, fear) are natural.  Denying that change is happening will just make the “transition” more painful and will limit exploration of opportunities for a healthy future.  Guided discussion about the changes and potential opportunities are essential.

2)  Recognize loss:  It’s often hard to embrace new beginnings if we don’t recognize and acknowledge the loss resulting from the change.  Expressions of sadness, grief, anger, confusion, and fear often come first, before those impacted can begin to think about new beginnings.

3)  Take Time to Reflect and Plan:  Don’t rush!  Organizational and individual risks are increased by rushing through change.  When a CEO retires or funding is suddenly cut back, there is often a knee-jerk reaction to make the change quickly, without much reflection.  While timely responses are often needed, this rapid knee-jerk response will inevitably lead to bad results, including increased frustration, isolation, anger, and skepticism. Rushing may lead to bad decisions that lose resources and damage the reputation of the organization.  Bridges points out that a thoughtful process can cultivate discovery, optimism, and creativity.  “Interim” solutions can often help the organization to pause in the process of change and make the most of this neutral zone “discovery” period.

4)  Don’t Isolate:  Often when organizational leaders experience unwanted change they withdraw and attempt to hide the changes from staff, community partners, donors, and other investors.  This behavior leads to rumors, misunderstandings, and negatively impacts trust.  It helps to see the change process as a learning and “life cycle” event.  Communicating with and hearing from staff, partners, and investors on how best to navigate the changes can increase commitment and enthusiasm, and relieve some anxiety and worry.

5)  Celebrate the past along with the new beginnings:  New beginnings can bring excitement, but other emotions, too, can arise.  For those most ready to embrace the new, enthusiasm and impatience may set in.  Others may remain skeptical.  It provides perspective to celebrate the history of the organization along with the new beginnings and change.  Such an approach allows those who are impatient to see that there is movement and progress.  Simultaneously, others can see that past efforts are honored and appreciated.

Well, enough said – back to the Department of Transportation and my route to work.  I was angry and resentful for sure – especially when the trip took me an extra twenty minutes each way!  But now, two years down the road, there is some good news.

Even though I hate to admit it, now that the route is wider, more smoothly paved, and better lit, it is indeed a safer, more enjoyable, and even faster route – regularly about 8 – 10 minutes faster; and far less of the once routine one-hour congestion delays!   More importantly, I did find an alternative Dunkin Donuts to fill my short term need and it has now become my favorite!  I wonder if the former Dunkin Donut folks miss me?

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The Support Center works with grantmakers and nonprofit organizations to effectively manage change and transitions, including Executive Transitions , Organization Assessments, Turnarounds, and Restructuring.

Ensure Your Next Retreat Makes Forward Progress

Do you eagerly await your next board or staff retreat, or does the idea make you groan? Do you want to jump-start discussions, make your meetings more interactive, or most importantly, increase the likelihood of successful meeting outcomes that can be acted upon after the room empties?  You are certainly not alone. An experienced meeting facilitator can make all the difference—and the benefits can be enormous. Here are a few:

  • During the retreat, staff or board can step out of their roles and participate fully in the meeting because they are not running it!
  • As part of the preparation process for the meeting,  a facilitator can help to think through the desired goals and outcomes of the meeting and how to achieve consensus.
  • A facilitator can also help you think about format, what materials should be distributed in advance, and whether the desired outcomes would benefit from ice breakers, small group work or other activities.

A good facilitator is neutral and unbiased—it is someone who does not hold a stake in the outcome of the meeting. They do not know about the quirks of your board or staff, and they invite all points of view.  Their objective is solely to plan and guide your meeting to a productive and successful outcome. If you have a single meeting or a series that would benefit from objective, outside expertise, contact Julia Lu (jlu@supportcenteronline.org or 917-522-8308) to discuss engaging one of our experienced nonprofit consultants.

Support Center Expands Executive Search & Change Consulting Services for Area Nonprofits – Grantmakers Contribute to Ensure the Health and Stability of their “Mission-Critical Grantees”

The economy remains volatile and government cuts are upon us.  The needs in our communities are growing and even the strongest nonprofit organizations are struggling to “steady the ship.”  Executive Director and CEO transitions, too, are disrupting the ability of nonprofit organizations to remain effective.

As nonprofit funding changes, community need incDon Crockerreases, and executive directors transition, it makes sense that the most caring and connected foundations and corporations are looking for ways to ensure the health and stability of their own “mission-critical” grantees.  Karen Brown (Support Center Board Member and Fairfield County Community Foundation VP of Programs), in a recent interview in Philanthropy News Digest’s Philantopic said, “We’ve been urging grantees to continue to invest in staff and professional development and not to look at those kinds of investments as frills…funders need to consider supporting these programs in order to help organizations hold the line on their budgets without sacrificing effectiveness.”

Many private and corporate funders are investing in efforts to ensure the health and well-being of the nonprofit groups and communities they care about.  JPMorgan Chase Foundation, the Altman Foundation, and the Prudential Foundation are just three of the many foundations that are demonstrating a real commitment to nonprofit effectiveness and impact, and are partnering in the Support Center’s efforts to guide nonprofit change and transition.

While we know that some of our readers have worked directly with us and have experience with all of these services, we realize that many of you may not be as familiar with our full scope of offerings.  Here is a brief overview:

Executive Search and Transition Management (ESTM)

A change in leadership, whether from a founder, long-time executive director, or a mismatched hire, can be a pivotal time in the life of a nonprofit—presenting an opportunity to examine organizational challenges and make decisions for future directions. Here at the Support Center, we use the proven techniques of Executive Search and Transition Management  to address organizational needs and work to strengthen the whole organization, while also successfully managing the hiring of a new leader. Our three-phase process addresses a nonprofit’s needs through an organizational assessment, facilitates the hiring of the new executive, and guarantees a successful outcome with “on-boarding” consulting for the new leader. Throughout the process, our consultants work hand-in-hand with board members, staff, funders and other stakeholders in the community.

Change Consulting and Turnaround Services

In addition to facing leadership changes, NYC nonprofits—like many others nationwide—have been hit by significant declines in funding in the wake of government shortfalls and the volatile economy. Nonprofits—from arts and culture groups to human service organizations—are undergoing painful reassessments and restructuring, including mergers, acquisitions, collaborations, cutbacks and closings. Adjusting to this new economy means increasing effectiveness and sustainability for many small to mid-sized neighborhood based nonprofit organizations. Increased funding from foundations this year allows us to reach out to more nonprofits and provide critical Change Consulting  services that can help them assess current programs, improve financial management, increase board engagement and fundraising effectiveness, while keeping our fees affordable to NYC-area small and mid-sized nonprofits.

Professional Development and Cohort Learning

Each year we strive to develop the best course offerings, listening to your requests and needs for professional development. As we plan for 2012, increased funding will allow us to expand the range of workshops, tailor them to your time-frames (half-day, full-day and evening offerings), and add more custom programming at affordable rates. In addition, we also will be developing new opportunities for cohort learning. The Trajectory Leadership Group we formed this year has confirmed our belief that cohort learning is an effective means for executive directors and other senior nonprofit professionals to learn new skills and learn from one another in a supportive atmosphere outside of their offices and daily activities.

Find out more about our work and partnerships by visiting us at www.supportcenteronline.org.

Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change Through Organizational Lifecycles

November 22, 2011 1 comment

In this new book, authors John Brothers, Senior Fellow here at the Support Center, and Anne Sherman,  of TCC Group seek to help nonprofit leaders figure out how to effectively navigate change within their organization, no matter how large or small the nonprofit might be.  They use the theory of nonprofit  “lifecycle advancement’  as a type of change management that can help organizations build capacities that are appropriate to each stage of a nonprofit.

“A central question for leadership is to identify where, and when, to focus organizational energy, and that is where Brothers and Sherman’s book comes in. Changing organizations is never easy, which is why managers need the right set of maps and tools—like this one.” Jon Pratt, Executive Director, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

What’s Included?

Chapter One:  Change as a defining force in the nonprofit sector

Chapter Two – Chapter Six: Examines the five life cycle phases of organizations, including a discussion of how an organization in decline can navigate a turnaround

Throughout the text the authors:

  • Make the case for a deliberate change process, yet also acknowledge the very real challenges
  • Provide a context for the struggles that nonprofits face
  • Offer success stories
  • Offer frameworks and tools that leaders can apply in their own organizations.

Building Nonprofit Capacity is a highly useful guide for nonprofit professionals who want to focus on capacity building efforts that will yield the greatest impact. Books can be ordered at Amazon.

John Brothers, is a Senior Fellow at the Support Center for Nonprofit Management  and the owner of Cuidiu Consulting in New York City.

Anne Sherman is an Associate Director and Co-director of the Strategy Practice at TCC Group in New York City.

Are we okay with discussing the “M” word?

There was a time in the nonprofit world when bringing up the “M” word (merger) was avoided like the plague.  Our volatile economy and drastic government budget cuts have opened the door to greater discussion and exploration.  While such exploration may not be for everyone, there appears to be evidence that there are a host of benefits to such exploration.

The Forbes Funds in an article from their Tropman Reports publication notes that “The exploration process is time consuming but viewed as worthwhile, even if organizations don’t merge.”  Some of the benefits highlighted include:

  • Organizations that don’t merge often instead structure program alliances with their merger exploration process.
  • The process helped clarify and reinforce organizational missions.

In our own experience at the Support Center, organizations that take this journey of exploration are able to clarify their unique value within their community, have an enhanced understanding of their capacities, and – in some cases – discover cost savings and program innovation opportunities.  A good time to explore a merger is during an Executive Transition (learn more here).

Merger exploration can often result in other forms of restructuring that may be helpful to your organization such as joint programming, strategic alliance, collaborative proposal writing, consolidation of services or administrative functions, and cross-referral agreements.

Can exploring a merger opportunity benefit you? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Considering Collaborations?

April 12, 2011 1 comment

The new economic challenges we are all facing have given rise to a dramatic up-tick in conversations around building collaborations and exploring mergers. Not surprisingly, when I talk to nonprofit CEOs and board members about their success in such endeavors, the reports are mixed.

Regardless of the results, our sector will need to learn more about what makes collaborations and mergers work. We will need to stay nimble, flexible and innovative if we are going to be able to meet the needs of the communities we serve. The Forbes Funds of Pittsburgh recently commissioned research on mergers and collaborations and highlighted the following issues:

  • The primary driver for merger exploration is expansion of capacity to deliver on the mission, closely followed by increased competition and the viability of one of the two organizations
  • Leadership questions are key in mergers
  • The chances for success are heightened when strong ties already exist with a potential partner
  • Although the timeline to complete the merger typically met leaders’ expectations, full integration takes much longer to address due to challenges and obstacles resulting from cultural differences

Are you considering a new partnership, alliance or merger for your organization? Take a look at some of the things that are being learned about mergers (“What Makes Mergers and Collaborations Work?” from The Forbes Funds).

Let me know what you are learning and please leave a comment.

-Don Crocker

CEO/Executive Director