January 20: How to Lead in Uncertain Times


The word I hear lately more than any other is uncertainty.

Here in the US, every four years on January 20 there is a change of power. It comes with the awesome privilege of being part of this great democratic experiment called the United States of America.

In my lifetime as a voter, there have been plenty of times when the guy I voted for lost. In fact, that’s probably more the rule than the exception. And no, I didn’t vote for the man being inaugurated this week.

But this feels different. I am anxious in a way I never have been before. More uncertain. Less because of the “who” as much as the “how” and what all of it says about the world we live in.

In this, I know I am not alone. Not at my kitchen table. Not in my neighborhood and certainly not among nonprofit leaders I connect with every day.

And the anxiety isn’t just coming from those who didn’t vote for him. I know Republicans who feel uncertain as well. Sure, they voted for our new President. But they’re not entirely sure what to expect going forward.

There’s a lot we all just don’t know yet.

But this blog isn’t about politics. It’s about nonprofit leadership. And that’s what I want to discuss today – how nonprofits are navigating a world turned upside down.

I have questions. I know a lot of you have questions.

– Has there already been an impact on the way nonprofits are doing things?

– How are nonprofit leaders approaching the uncertainty strategically?

– What’s the best way for nonprofit leaders to lead those in their organizations that are feeling particularly anxious or vulnerable?

I asked some folks in the trenches – five wonderful and diverse nonprofit leaders across sectors – to share their thoughts about how they are approaching the uncertainty in their organization and to offer a piece of advice on how to contend with the unchartered waters ahead.

One important note. The uncertainty does not rest solely in what would be called “progressive” or “liberal” organizations. And the list below is hardly representative. I do hope that folks of all ideological stripes will weigh in with comments.Continue Reading

The Key to a Successful Performance Review Process

performance review

We all know this person. Let’s call him Jeff.

At a glance, Jeff appears to be a high performing staff member. Yes, his ego is out the wazoo (what exactly is a “wazoo?”). But he cares about his department and his own success. Jeff is super smart, maybe the smartest person in the room.

But also… Jeff is not a team player. He gets away with behavior that is intolerable by any standards because he delivers. And he does deliver. But Jeff also seems to enjoy crushing his co-workers like bugs.

So riddle me this…

Is Jeff a high performer? Without a formal and effective performance review process, how would he know? I bet he thinks he is a high performer. But truly, he is probably more trouble than he’s worth.

Maybe your nonprofit already does a performance review for each and every staff member. If so, great! But maybe you think they’re not super effective and could be handled better.

Or maybe you’re just not doing them at all for whatever reason.

Either way, I have some critical tips on how to give a performance review the right way.Continue Reading

Your 10 Favorite Posts of 2016

favorite posts 2016

Ah 2016.

Well, certainly nobody can accuse you of being boring.

As I do in December each year, I sat down and reviewed my blog statistics to see which posts resonated with you the most.

I am blown away at the piece that landed in #1 spot – I found your receptivity to this post quite inspiring.

As for the other nine, you’ll see a diversity of topics represented and worth reading (or re-reading) as you take at least a short break between the end of one year and the start of another (she says hopefully.)

I’d like to make one last suggestion before I head out to enjoy the holidays with my family.

If you are a board chair, would you take a few minutes to write an email to the entire staff on behalf of the board? Wish them a happy holiday, tell them how much respect you have for them and how proud you are to lead the board of your remarkable organization. Maybe point out one accomplishment that really stood out for you. And say thank you.

If you are a staff leader, I’d love to see you take a few minutes with your senior team (if you have staff and maybe lead volunteers if you don’t) and kick around what each of you saw as the most significant accomplishments of the past twelve months. One of you should jot them all down. I guarantee each of you will have something different to say and will inspire each other.

And then take a few more minutes and write a note to your staff. Thank them for their passion, their energy and their determination. Ask them to thank their families on your behalf for putting up with moms, dads, kids, partners who live and breathe their work much of the time. And then offer them your list of accomplishments. Suggest they read them again on New Year’s Eve and that you intend to do the same.

It will remind you all of what often gets lost. That your work is a joy and a privilege.

Wishing you all a warm and wonderful holiday and a 2017 that exceeds every expectation.

And now, here are your favorite posts from 2016.

Drumroll please…

Continue Reading

The Problem With Executive Sessions

With no warning, the board decides to go into Executive Session. The Executive Director is asked to leave the room. An hour or more goes by, but to the ED it seems much longer. When it’s over, the ED isn’t told what was discussed.

Have you ever seen this happen? I sure have.

There’s little that does more to kill trust between the staff and board than poorly conceived executive sessions. In this video, I discuss a better approach.

Continue Reading

The Problem With Special Events

Nonprofits LOVE special events. And why not? They’re exciting and bring in revenue. But there’s a huge problem with them. In this video, I tell you what that is and suggest a better approach.

Continue Reading

What Really Matters

what matters

This is not a typical post for me. But yesterday was not a typical day. Not for America and not in my family.

I’d like to talk about the intersections of those things and maybe help you to think about your own loved ones, your life, your community, and the lives you touch in a way that puts yesterday’s election results in perspective.

My mother is a feisty, irascible 89 year old – sharp as a tack. Tough as nails. <insert hackneyed phrase here>

She went in for surgery to contend with a pacemaker that needed to be removed and placed elsewhere.

My mom survived but whatever else could go wrong did. As I write this, she is on a respirator in the ICU at a great hospital and in the best of care.

This is not what she would want. She had a DNR and every imaginable document to keep from prolonging her life but no document could keep doctors from doing what they do best – save lives. We are now going to take it day by day.

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m writing for perspective.Continue Reading

The Right Way to Run Meetings


I asked a few readers to tell me why they hated meetings.

Here’s one…

I have a quarterly meeting with a funder. I travel 250 miles to get there. When I get there, it’s clear that no one has read the report I spent hours putting together. I essentially recite the report and then travel 250 miles home. ARGHHHHH!!!!!!!

Here’s another one – a cross-departmental planning meeting for the upcoming fall gala….

My boss insists on a weekly team meeting. The agenda hits my inbox minutes before it starts and it’s missing important things, but that isn’t even the point. She begins by reading a list of RSVPs (which is already in a Google doc we all have access to.) Next she reports on things she had previously included in emails she had already sent to us. She then peppers us with questions that make us all feel like we are on a witness stand. We never initiate what we think are important discussion points. What a total waste of time.

No wonder people hate meetings. Meetings like these are keeping them from actually doing real work.

Fascinating, right? Many people see meetings as somehow apart from “real work.”

This is totally infuriating. Especially in the nonprofit sector.

Time is a precious commodity. And as we all know, time is money. And money is programs. And money is precious. And money comes from folks who believe in your mission. And you have a responsibility to those people to make the best possible use of your time to drive your mission downfield.

There is a nonchalance about this that also infuriates me. People just behave like lemmings at meetings they know will not add value to their work. And they do NOTHING about it.

You are all agents of change. And yet you are not prepared to take this on?

Come on!

It’s time to diagnose and fix this problem. And not only do I have a point of view (what a surprise), I also have some suggestions.Continue Reading

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This…

feeling overwhelmed

Oh boy do I get it. Trust me.

The #1 reason people burn out in any job is because they’re constantly feeling overwhelmed. It’s the source of so much that’s negative in our day-to-day lives.

And for those of us in the nonprofit sector? The level of intensity and sense of urgency is just different. It’s more.

You know how it goes.

Every email feels urgent…

Everyone has a question that will take “just a second…”

You’ve got a high-maintenance donor who wants something you can’t give her. And somebody you need to apologize to….

Probably both.

In the episode of my podcast called, “A Day in the Life of an Executive Director” my friend Marea Chaveco spoke about having a plan and watching it go to (as my mother would say) “hell in a handbasket” the minute she walked through the door.

Even Marea, who is an AWESOME leader, admitted that even though she walked into work prepared to control her day, often her day controlled her. Talk about feeling overwhelmed! It’s really easy to do.

So today I want to offer you a quick win — three easy things you can do. Right now. Today. This week.

If you’re really feeling overwhelmed, be really proud of yourself if you do 2 out of 3.Continue Reading

It’s Time For a Nonprofit Reality TV Show

nonprofit reality tv give

Earlier this year, my friend Vu Le suggested on his hilarious (yet pointed) blog Nonprofit With Balls that we need a nonprofit-themed reality TV show.

He suggested titles like:

  • Dancing with Program Officers
  • Hell’s Charity
  • So You Think You Can Run a Nonprofit
  • America’s Funniest Fundraising Videos

I think Vu was serious. And I had some ideas of my own…

Maybe a drama such as CSI — an organization like the ACLU takes on a new case each week.

Or better yet, a nonprofit version of The Office that illustrates the absurdity of high-maintenance donors, board meetings where conversation goes in circles, and so on.

How great would that be?

My secret wish (not anymore) was for a show like Scandal and that central casting would come a-calling and knock on my door. After all, people have called me the Olivia Pope of the nonprofit space (sans the scandals) – “the nonprofit fixer.”

So I have some great news for Vu and everybody else in the nonprofit community.


A reality show? For real? (Did you just say “uh oh?”)

Well, I’ve already seen two completed episodes (I’ll reveal why below.) Here’s my take…

You need to watch it.

Here’s why…Continue Reading

The 14 Attributes of a Thriving Non-Profit

best non-profit organizations

Non-profits are messy. It’s true even for the best non-profit organizations out there.

Not enough money… Too many cooks… An abundance of passion…

Often on this blog I write about what non-profits are doing wrong and how to fix it. After all, “non-profits are messy” is more than just my tagline — it’s my mantra. And my mission is to help non-profits clean up the mess.

But today, I want to focus on what the best non-profit organizations are doing right. My hope is this will inspire you and set an aspirational vision. Maybe your non-profit does a bunch of these really well (I hope so!), but we all have something to work on.

There are fourteen things the best non-profit organizations do really well.

Here they are…Continue Reading