Our Mission

If you have an interest in effective nonprofit leadership, I’m sure glad you’re here. I have a lot I want to share.

Nonprofit organizations are messy. It’s inherent in the formula: A + B + C + intense passion = messy!

A) A poorly paid and overworked group (staff) who…

B) Relies on the efforts of people who get paid nothing (volunteers) and is overseen by…

C) Another group of volunteers who get paid nothing and who are supposed to give and get lots of money (board).

All of this is in the service of something that every single one of them cares passionately about. Wow. Now that is a recipe for messy. And that organization you care so deeply about can get messier still if not led and managed well.

This is where I hope my blog can be of value.

Being a nonprofit CEO is no walk in the park. On my very first day as an executive director, I met with the CFO and learned that we had $360 in the bank. With payroll due in a week for 18 employees. Very messy.

Being tapped to be a board chair can be even worse. First you already have one full-time job and no one has really told you that you now have two. And this one pays poorly. Actually it doesn’t pay at all. And what is the job anyway? Are you a boss? A partner? Are you a lead fundraiser? A human ATM? Or is your role to protect your CEO from fellow board members who have a new (read: bad or expensive) idea every month?

Nonprofit leadership is messy.  But if you love your organization, it is worth every single minute of it.

I have created this website, and my consulting practice, because I have been there. I’ve been an executive director and I’ve been a board member. Today I work with nonprofit organizations all across the country to help sort out the messes. I have been my clients and use what I learned to help them untangle big knots. I work to create strong partnerships between CEOs and board chairs. I arrive on the scene when an organization is in trouble (financial, programmatic). I diagnose the root of the problem and work with the leadership to solve it. Nine times out of ten the solution revolves around building and strengthening institutional leadership — the board, the CEO and the senior management.

But I run an intentionally small firm – it’s less like a firm than a SWAT team of “fixers.” I’d like to reach more people with observations, insights and ideas that might lead you as a senior staff member or board chair to a more effective and rewarding experience in nonprofit. I will talk about what it is really like, how hard it is to be a nonprofit leader. I will draw from my own experience and my experience with clients on how to navigate the rocky waters of nonprofit leadership.

A few years back, I was on the planning committee for a retreat for a group of nonprofit executive directors. I knew that if we didn’t plan well, there would be an unproductive session about boards. There would be lots of venting. I do not like venting. So I suggested something different.   Using a flip chart, let’s have everyone share the stupidest thing a board member has ever said or done. We did that. (Mine was about the toughest question I was asked by a board member on a $4 million budget:  how much is a first class stamp these days?) It was absolutely hilarious and very cathartic.

But we didn’t stop there. We had a real conversation about the root cause of the “stupidity.” What could we as executive directors be doing differently? How could we more effectively educate and engage our board members;  after all board members want to do a good job. It became a great way to create space for their concerns and convert them into object lessons.

This is how I think and how I work and over the last seven years, my clients have reaped the benefit of my expertise, insights and humor.

Doing work that matters may be messy but it is also joyful. Here’s hoping that through this website, I can help you make things a little less messy and a lot more joyful.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Jane

    I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found your site (via Clairification). I have to give a short speech at an event tonight & with your tips, I’m hoping it will go well.

    • Jane. I’m sorry I did not respond sooner but i would SO love to hear how the speech went and if my tips were helpful.

  • Pbjorling

    I am looking for articles that offer justification for why development directors should be part of the leadership team of an organization. We are finally going to restructure so that there IS a leadership team, and it looks like my position as development director is NOT going to be included in the leadership team. I’ve been in a silo the last four years, and now it looks like that is going to continue, but just in another fashion. This is a church-related organization, and I think I’m the only one who has every worked in a conventional non-profit and who has experienced how most non-profits do things.

  • Pbjorling – i will be tackling your question in this week’s email blast so stay tuned!

  • solange

    I’m a new E.D. I came to this job in a very small community where the community is experiencing “donor burn-out”. Yet, in order to keep the lights on, fundraising is a must! I don’t think selling hot dogs for my salary is a good idea. How am I supposed to keep this place running?

  • Solange. I hear some serious frustration in this comment so first off, glad you found my blog. You will find some helpful advice and suggestions along with a tribe of kindred spirits who struggle like you do. A few quick pieces of advices. First, probably not great margin on the sale of hot dogs so you may need some new ideas. Are there any other E.D. colleagues out there you can meet with regularly to share best practices? And if you don’t have a true partner on your board, you need one badly. The board is ultimately responsible for the health and well being of the organization. They must partner with you. If you don’t have someone in that role, go recruit someone ASAP. This could be the life preserver you really need.

  • Tonya

    Hi there….I’m struggling with staff inherited from a recent merger of our two non-profits. I’m having difficulty with them doing things they “way it’s always been done” as opposed to the rules/guidelines currently being given to them. I’ve tried conversations, even a write-up. The job that these two individuals do is HUGE therefore replacement would most likely mean a set back…uggg! Help!

    • Tonya. Mergers are very very hard to do right. I’m working right now with a client about to merge and we are spending ALOT of time before the staff comes over talking about these very issues – to attempt to cut them off at the pass. In just a short few words I can just say that a merger requires a “third solution.” It can’t all happen the way of organization A or of organization B. Together you have to work through the points of tension and build organization C. I know that is very abstract but digging in your heals to do it your way is not the answer.

      • Tonya

        I agree there should be bits of both organizations that “survive” so to speak. I guess more than wanting them to do things ‘my way’ is just wanting them to act professional and know inherently that one cannot assume they can work from home, be consistently late in the mornings., etc.. Stuff most of us older employees know is a no-no. I think it’s time for a sit-down to lay the groundwork for organization C and maybe make sure what’s expected (I shouldn’t assume they know). Thanks for the reply. I find LOTS of helpful stuff on your site 🙂