Ep 85: Managing Rapid Growth – the Story of charity: water (with Lauren Letta)

nonprofits are messyI (and many others) have long held up charity: water as a prime example of how a nonprofit does things the right way. Their growth and impact has been nothing short of remarkable.

But the actual story of how this organization grew so rapidly in the first place is fascinating, and a premier lesson for every nonprofit that wants to grow and scale. Especially when you consider that the org was founded in 2006 with $1,100 by a 31 year-old former nightclub promoter who knew nothing about nonprofits. charity: water has raised $360 million with a staff approaching 100.

And so I was so thrilled to invite Lauren Letta, the Chief Operating Officer of charity: water, to join me on the podcast. We discuss how to staff up, how to best approach hiring decisions, how to align values and create culture, and how a founder can scale an organization beyond a personal story.

About Lauren Letta

Lauren Letta is the Chief Operating Officer at charity: water. Departmental oversight is the crux of the COO role at any organization, but what makes Lauren’s role unique is the way she bridges seemingly disparate aspects of charity: water – from the engineering expertise of the water projects to the state-of-the-art technology used by website development and marketing teams – to work in tandem toward a single goal of bringing clean water to as many people as possible.

Lauren first joined charity: water in 2010 as a consultant, drawn in by the organization’s creative, startup-like approach to solving a humanitarian crisis. Since then, Lauren’s role has expanded to include overseeing major campaigns, special projects and production, and she has built a team and a culture that values excellence and remains as committed to its mission 12 years as it was on day one. Prior to joining charity: water, Lauren worked in fashion and events, managing global campaigns for brands like Warner Bros., Saks Fifth Avenue, and Swarovski. Outside the office, Lauren enjoys exploring the New York City pizza scene with her husband and young daughter.

In this episode

  • When it’s time for disruption and how it can inspire supporters
  • How to get the right people on the bus
  • How important are titles?
  • The value of humble confidence
  • Do you really need to formally restructure? When is it safe to do so?
  • Mirror mirror on the wall – what’s not working?
  • Why it’s important to make your recruiting process crystal clear
  • What does it mean to be a CEO/Founder and how to scale beyond a personal story?

Continue Reading

Ep 84: Passion, Conflict, Diversity, and Leadership (with Parisa Parsa)

nonprofits are messyBe careful what you wish for.

You want a diverse work environment. And you should.

But then you had better prepare yourself to develop the skills to manage the conflict that accompanies passionate and diverse points of view.

And for most of us, conflict is not fun. We avoid it whenever possible. After all, it’s triggering to be told you are wrong.

While normalizing conflict might sound counterintuitive, the Executive Director of Essential Partners, Parisa Parsa, says training and equipping leaders to welcome conflict and meet difficult conversations is a way to build capacity, become sustainable and is critical to growth.

Ok, so even if you agree with this concept in theory, how do you move from dialogue to action?

Have a listen. You will find that this podcast will offer tools, techniques and mechanisms to respond effectively to conflict and extend beyond your current comfort zone.

About Parisa Parsa

Rev. Parisa Parsa is Executive Director of Essential Partners, advancing the work of the Public Conversations Project.

Essential Partners’ mission is to offer concrete skills and facilitation to communities in divisive conflict over issues of belief, identity or world view, and works nationally and internationally to train facilitators and equip communities for constructive conversations and more effective collaboration across difference.

Before joining Essential Partners, Parisa served in many roles in nonprofit and religious leadership. As an ordained minister, she served in community based ministry with the UU Urban Ministry in Boston, the Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco, and as the coordinator for a group of urban social justice ministries known as the Urban Disciples. She for 10 years was the senior minister of First Parish in Milton, MA. Throughout her career, she has taught at seminaries and mentored secular and religious leaders. She currently serves on the board of Meadville Lombard Theological School.

Parisa is originally from Iran, and was raised at the intersection of Islam and Christianity, Persian culture and American norms. She enjoys mixes of people, ideas and arts that bring about both friction and harmony, and learning from the ways we can engage our differences in service of creative, life-giving solutions to the world’s problems. She lives in Arlington, MA, with her husband Enrique Silva and their two sons. Together they enjoy soccer, music and movies. When she can, Parisa loves getting out to the theatre or into the woods.

NOTE: When we recorded this podcast Parisa was ED and has since left to pursue independent consulting.

In this episode:

  • Conflict resolution or disagreeing with respect and shared purpose?
  • The implications of an increase in the demand for people to be seen and heard
  • The pressures of inclusiveness
  • Being with each other versus being right
  • Staying curious while engaged in conflict
  • How you define conflict affects how you react to it
  • Can you move forward on organizational goals while working on conflict resolution?
  • Naming the tensions and “gray areas” in the moment
  • What are the responsibilities associated with stating that decisions are richer with a diversity of perspectives

Continue Reading

Ep 83: You’re Doing Meetings All Wrong (with Priya Parker)

nonprofits are messyImagine for a moment that your next board meeting is both ridiculously meaningful and productive. Everyone is engaged and leaves knowing their next actionable steps.

Sounds pretty great, no?

Creating transformative gatherings is both the topic of my guest Priya Parker’s book and a necessary narrative for anything from effective meetings, to conflict resolution, to killer dinner parties.

Written out of pain, frustration, and anger at gatherings that did not achieve their purpose, this author and founder of Thrive Labs, has become well known for her book The Art of Gathering and for her TEDx talk on purpose.

So how exactly does the desire to belong and become drive the process of a meaningful gathering and how can an aware leader design for that? What creates transformative experiences that makes meetings worth having?

Whether you are planning a wedding, a staff retreat or a family reunion, our guest today offers us invaluable and actionable advice on creating successful gatherings.

About Priya

Priya Parker is a facilitator and strategic advisor. She is the founder of Thrive Labs, at which she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She works with teams and leaders across technology, business, the arts, fashion, and politics to clarify their vision for the future and build meaningful, purpose-driven communities.

Her clients have included the Museum of Modern Art, LVMH, the World Economic Forum, meetup.com, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the Union for Concerned Scientists, and Civitas Public Affairs.

Trained in the field of conflict resolution, Parker has worked on race relations on American college campuses and on peace processes in the Arab world, southern Africa, and India. She is a founding member of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. She has been appointed a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Values Council and the New Models of Leadership Council. She is also a senior expert at Mobius Executive Leadership.

Priya is the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (Riverhead Books, 2018). She is passionate about helping people create gatherings in their work and life that are transformative and meaningful for the people in them. She is also the co-creator of the 15 Toasts dinner series format and I Am Here Days. Her TEDx talk on purpose has been viewed more than 1 million times.

Priya studied organizational design at M.I.T., public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and political and social thought at the University of Virginia. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, Anand Giridharadas, and their two children.

In this episode

  • The magic of purpose
  • The correct role of PowerPoint
  • What happens when meaning comes from things versus people?
  • Can simply sharing information be enough to make a meeting successful?
  • What is the essential question a meeting must answer?
  • How to achieve better gatherings
  • What to think about when tackling content and process
  • How important is it to frame a gathering with an agenda?
  • When people have competing agendas

Continue Reading

Ep 82: Helping the Helpers

nonprofits are messy

There are a lot of small nonprofits. In fact, roughly two thirds of the 1.5 million nonprofits (in the US alone) have budgets of under a million dollars. Nearly 25% are under $250,000.

In these past two years I have had the privilege of meeting and working with thousands of amazing nonprofit leaders and they lift me up. Every. Single. Day.

In a world that all too often feels mean, divisive and downright broken, these folks remind me that there are good people in the world. Really good people in the world, tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges.

In this podcast, I highlight the story of some of the organizations and amazing nonprofit leaders that I have the honor and privilege of working with inside the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, my membership site for nonprofit leaders.

In this episode:

  • Compassion fatigue
  • Research based bridge building organization that provides baby carriers and educational programming as a public health tool
  • Preparing students for college and supporting the parents
  • Helping kids stay in their extended family environment in Uganda
  • The Nonprofit Leadership Lab community that supports amazing nonprofit leaders all over the world
  • Mobile food pantries across by providing hunger relief that comes to you (on a bus!)
  • Teachers using curriculum in conjunction with performances to build community and create social change

Continue Reading

Ep 81: How to Grow a Movement and an “Army of the Engaged” (with Rashad Robinson)

nonprofits are messy

The power of a nonprofit is the size of its “army of the engaged” and the power THEY feel to be engaged in the work. Your army consists of your donors, your volunteers, your board, your supporters, your staff, your advocates. They all play a role.

Sure, strong leadership can lead to strong impact, but that’s not sufficient. As a leader, to grow a movement you need to communicate a clear mission and build an environment in which the actions of your army can lead to real change.

In this episode, you will learn how Rashad Robinson, President of Color Of Change, grew his racial justice organization from a staff of 6, a budget of $650k, and a solid but underutilized email list, to a staff of 40, a budget of $7 million, and a real “army” of 1.4 million people who have been ignited into action. Rashad and his team have built a true movement and he is here today to share what he’s learned.

About Rashad Robinson:

Rashad Robinson is President of Color Of Change, a leading racial justice organization with more than 1.4 million members. Rashad designs winning strategies to build power for Black communities: moving prosecutors to reduce mass incarceration and police violence; forcing over 100 corporations to abandon the right-wing policy shop, ALEC; forcing corporations to stop supporting Trump initiatives and white nationalists; winning net neutrality as a civil rights issue; changing representations of race in Hollywood; moving Airbnb, Google and Facebook to implement anti-racist initiatives; forcing Bill O’Reilly off the air. Rashad appears regularly in major news media and as a keynote speaker nationally.

In this episode:

  • The key to scale an organization and grow a movement
  • Using the model respond, build, pivot, and scale
  • Theory of the ladder of engagement
  • About Stand Your Ground and voter ID laws
  • Passion + Infrastructure + Belief = success
  • Setting the right kind of incentive structure
  • How does your echo chamber affect your communications?
  • The value of playing well in the sandbox to push yourself from an innovation and quality control perspective

Continue Reading

Ep 80: Why is Change So Hard? (with Lisa Lahey)

nonprofits are messyNonprofits want to change the world in ways large and small. That’s what we’re all about. It’s why so many of us joined the sector.

And yet, when it comes to bringing change into our own organizations, it’s really hard!

To grow the capacity to affect self change, or introduce sustainable change in one’s organization, it’s imperative that we should recognize our natural immunity to change, the language we use, and how the resulting discourse can develop highly functioning teams.

My guest, Lisa Lahey, has, along with her partner Robert Kegan, been studying change for decades and is here to offer you tools you can use to introduce change and make sure it lasts.

Lahey claims there are three forces of nature that can impact our ability to develop, grow and transcend the status quo.

In a dynamic world where transition is often needed, (think leadership transition, new E.D., transforming your board, making changes to the roles and responsibilities in your organization) the ability to become a leader who is aware not only of what they say but how they say it will go a long way toward ensuring change is possible.

About Lisa Lahey

Lisa Lahey is Co-director of Minds At Work, a consulting firm serving businesses and institutions around the world, and faculty at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

She teaches in executive development programs at Harvard University and Notre Dame, and she is regularly asked to present her work throughout the world, most recently in China, Kazakhstan, and New Zealand. Her seminal books, How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work (2001), and Immunity to Change (2009) have been published in many languages. Lisa has been on the faculty of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Conference, and had her work featured in the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times Sunday Business Section, Oprah Magazine and Fast Company.

Lahey and long-time collaborator Robert Kegan are credited with a breakthrough discovery of a hidden dynamic, the “immunity to change,” which impedes personal and organizational transformation. Her work helps people to close the gap between their good intentions and behaviors. This work is now being used by executives, senior teams and individuals in business, governmental, and educational organizations in the United States, South America, Europe, and Asia. Lahey and Kegan recently received the Gislason Award for exceptional contributions to organizational leadership, joining past recipients Warren Bennis, Peter Senge, and Edgar Schein.

For the past several years, Lisa has served as a trusted advisor and executive coach to leaders in the private and public sectors worldwide. A passionate pianist and hiker, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.

In this episode

  • How to recognize certain “defaults” that lower the likelihood of miscommunication
  • What does entropy have to do with organizations and how can it be mitigated?
  • Why is change so hard?
  • What is a language leader?
  • The effect of your inner dialogue on how you communicate outwards
  • Are we aware of how we talk?
  • The danger of limiting assumptions
  • The language of complaint and commitment
  • How is constructive or deconstructive criticism implicit in communication?

Continue Reading

Ep 79: How a Film Festival Impacts Community Building (with Evelyn Colbert)

nonprofits are messyIn the 34 years my wife and I have lived in Montclair, NJ, we have watched arts and culture blossom. That’s due in large measure to those who call this place home. People like my guest, Evelyn Colbert, who is one of the founders of the Montclair Film Festival.

A film festival is a different kind of nonprofit, with a lot of upfront energy and intensity. If it catches on, a festival can develop a year-round presence.

I wanted to know more about this rather unique nonprofit form, to understand the unique gap it fills and what I consider to be its superpower – its ability to build community. As the Executive Director of the SF Film Festival said, “Cinema is one of the most powerful community organizing tools we have.”

I thought you might like to know more about this too.

About Evelyn Colbert

Evelyn McGee Colbert is a founding board member of Montclair Film and currently serves as the President of the Board of Trustees. Ms. Colbert is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Montclair Kimberley Academy and is also a board member of the International African American Museum in Charleston South Carolina. She is an independent film producer and the Vice President of Spartina, a production company that she co-owns with her husband, Stephen Colbert.

Ms. Colbert was formerly the Director of Development for the Remains Theatre in Chicago and, prior to that, the Director of Development for the Drama League of New York. She is a graduate of the Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York and holds a B.A. in English and Theatre from the University of Virginia.

She lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband, Stephen, and their three children.

In this episode:

  • What kind of town welcomes a film festival?
  • What is the requisite background to be on the board of an arts festival?
  • Who’s on first (development, capital campaign, committees…)?
  • The power of storytelling in cinema to build empathy and promote conversation.
  • Can a small town provide sufficient accommodations for a film festival?
  • What does a high-functioning board look like?
  • What are the challenges of sudden growth?
  • Finding new revenue sources that allow for stability.

Continue Reading

Ep 78: What Nonprofits Can Learn from Tech Start-ups (with Ann Mei)

nonprofits are messyInnovation is no longer just a Silicon Valley buzzword. Organizations of all kinds — business, political, educational, cultural, charitable — know the choice they face is to innovate or die out. But it is my hypothesis that this word causes nonprofit leaders to break out in cold sweats. Why?

Innovation – trying something new? Piloting? Risk of failure? Innovation ignites the notion of “task as risk” in the mindset of a nonprofit leader.

Let’s face it. Nonprofit leaders worry about risk. Risk can lead to failure. And nonprofit board members often see their role as managing risk.

And yet……

The demand for social innovation is real. In a 2017 survey of 145 nonprofit leaders, the Bridgespan Group found 80% considered innovation to be an “urgent imperative”, but only 40% believed that their organizations are set up to do so.

What happens when you try to apply the lessons of start-up tech innovation to the social sector? Today we ask someone who was faced with the cold hard reality of these challenges and discuss how she grappled with them. We’ll hear some practical advice about introducing innovation into your work as a nonprofit leader.

You’ll also hear a phrase that is new to me and I’m guessing may be to you. LEAN IMPACT. Now “lean” is a word that the social sector knows way too much about but this phrase is actually a kind of a movement in the tech space that has some real lessons and positive implications in the social sector.

About Ann Mei

Ann Mei Chang is a leading advocate for social innovation who brings together unique insights from her extensive work across the tech industry, nonprofits, and the US government. As Chief Innovation Officer at USAID, Ann Mei served as the first Executive Director of the US Global Development Lab, engaging the best practices for innovation from Silicon Valley to accelerate the impact and scale of solutions to the world’s most intractable challenges. She was previously the Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps and served the US Department of State as Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

Prior to her pivot to the public and social sector, Ann Mei was a seasoned technology executive, with more than 20 years’ experience at such leading companies as Google, Apple, and Intuit, as well as at a range of startups. As Senior Engineering Director at Google, she led worldwide engineering for mobile applications and services, delivering 20x growth to $1 billion in annual revenues in just three years.

Ann Mei currently serves on the boards of BRAC USA and IREX. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Stanford University, is a member of the Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellows’ class of 2011, and was recognized as one of the “Women In the World: 125 Women of Impact” by Newsweek/The Daily Beast in 2013. She is a keynote speaker who has been featured at TEDx MidAtlantic, SxSW, Social Good Summit, SOCAP, and Lean Startup Week, as well as numerous nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies.


In this episode

  • What are the ‘lean impact’ techniques you can apply today?
  • How to apply the lessons of start up tech innovation to the social sector
  • Why success may rest in starting small
  • How the scarcity model can become self-fulfilling prophecy
  • How to appropriately size up your risk and therefore mitigate losses
  • Staying laser focused on your problem may involve changing what you thought was the solution
  • How do you shift the mindset of your board?
  • Are metrics always numbers? What matters more than vanity metrics?
  • Should you be in love with your problem or with the solution?
  • How evaluating solutions with an open mind to experiment, adopt best practices and partner with others may get you where you are going faster.

Continue Reading

Ep 77: Navigating the Tension Between Development and Communications (with Steve Ralls)

nonprofits are messyDevelopment and Communications departments in nonprofits have not always seen eye to eye. It’s more than just a lack of interaction – more than just, “We know enough about what ‘they’ do.”

There has historically been tension between the two. Staying on message is the wheelhouse of the Communications team and there are times when the development folks need the message to be different. A certain kind of arrogance maybe? Development staff might say, “We know the messaging that really speaks to donors and your branding messaging does not work – we can’t hit our goals using that messaging.”

This tension leads to silos – never a good thing in nonprofit organizations. And silos lead to competing messages. Also never a good thing.

More and more nonprofits are merging these functions under one umbrella – often called External Affairs.

I found us a guest who can help us make sense of all this. He is a career nonprofit communications professional who less than a year ago took charge of the Development function and is in fact his organization’s Director of External Affairs.

I wanted to learn more about all of this – the origins of the tensions and whether this merging works or muddies the water. And I thought you might benefit from learning about it too.

About Steve Ralls

Steve Ralls is Director of External Affairs for Public Justice, a non-profit legal advocacy organization that pursues high impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability, and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses. Steve oversees Public Justice’s media, messaging, outreach and development initiatives. Prior to joining Public Justice, Steve was Communications Director for Immigration Equality, a legal aid and advocacy organization dedicated to securing equal access to immigration rights, including asylum and marital immigration benefits, for LGBT immigrants and their families. He also worked for nearly a decade with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, where he spearheaded communications for the successful campaign to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbian and gay service members. Steve’s work has included national media coverage in the nation’s leading print, online, television and radio news outlets. He has placed media stories in, and been quoted by, The Washington Post, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Politico, Associated Press, National Public Radio, CBS News, CNN and numerous other outlets. He has also placed dozens of op-eds and editorials and has coordinated coverage of impact litigation cases, and diverse legal issues, on national news magazines, including 20/20, Nightline and a groundbreaking 60 Minutes report on openly gay troops serving in the war zone.

In this episode

  • The challenge of having two functions under external affairs
  • How to communicate to a general audience
  • What happens when different departments want to talk about different things
  • The benefits of having development and communications under one roof
  • Where does the messaging buck stop?
  • How does prioritizing mission and message affect donors’ reactions?
  • What is the role of an Executive Director and how can they inspire everyone to have a seat at the table?

Continue Reading

Ep 76: The 4 Obstacles to a Diverse Board

nonprofits are messy

It seems to me that an all white board for the NAACP wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense but having some diversity on a board may be more critical than you think. Without diversity boards lack differing perspectives, skill sets, and backgrounds.

It’s time to speak the truth. To stop hiding behind ‘code.’ Seems to me it is time for us to take a close look at what we mean by diversity and why it matters.

I hear it all the time. “We need to diversify our board.” It’s interesting how often people answer the question using some form of the word “diversity”.

We need diverse perspectives. We have to avoid groupthink – it’s probably impacting our ability to think differently.

I believe there are 4 primary obstacles to building a diverse board. In this episode, I explain what they are and I’ll tell you exactly how you can overcome them.

In this episode

  • What I mean by “diversity”
  • How do founders build boards?
  • What your nonprofit has in common with a Broadway play?
  • The 4 obstacles to a diverse board and how to overcome them
  • How much planning is really necessary for diversity?
  • The importance of “layering”
  • Truth or myth:
    • All board members must be wealthy or know people who are
    • The best place to find board members is in your hometown
    • Term limits are not practical

Continue Reading