Dear Joan…

by Joan Garry

So many readers send along questions. Here are my thoughts on some of them.

I recently asked the members of my mailing list to send me their struggles and told them I’d answer some in my next post.

( Note: You are on my mailing list, yes? You’re not? Then go sign up here and come back when you’re done. You won’t regret it.)

Thanks to the MANY folks who wrote to me. What I heard in every one was a passion to get it right.

As a quick aside, two days of Passover reminded me how important your work is — each of you devoted to righting wrongs, increasing tolerance, serving the needy, working with the marginalized communities around the world. I thought a lot about all of you throughout each of my evenings.

And so, in that context, it continues to be a privilege to help you with your struggles. And so here goes. A sample of questions I received representing what I felt were issues with universal application.

Please note that a) I do not have all the answers and b) the answers attempt to lead you to possible ways of untangling the knot (I didn’t want to over promise.) 🙂

Better Fundraising

Dear Joan,

As board chair, how do I help our board — and help our staff help our board — become better at raising funds (through development efforts, not events)? We need to move beyond the “who do you know on this list.”

– Donorless Don

Dear Donorless –

First, hats off to you as a board chair that you’re making this a priority. This puts you way ahead of many. Remember that board members (or any fundraiser) are especially motivated when they’re fully engaged and inspired by the work. When was the last time a staff member came into a board meeting and rocked the house about the work? Or a client? Or someone who could talk about your work in the greater context of your movement or sector? My other quick thought is that the question needs to be bigger and broader and it needs to be not a question but a conversation. A guided conversation. Training is obvious but without the other two, it won’t stick.

For more on this, see A Board Meeting Should Be Like a Bowl of Wheaties

– Joan

Bad ED Hire

Dear Joan,

What’s a staff to do when the board makes a really bad Executive Director hire?

– They Hired a Lemon

Dear Lemon,

Let’s take a step back. Did the staff have any involvement in the hiring process? Were you (either individually or as a group) asked what you felt the core skills and attributes should be? Listen up boards out there. This is key. Nonprofit staff come to their work with a voice and expect it to be valued.

OK, so the hire is made and there you are. What do you do? You remember every single day that your work is about the mission of the organization, it’s about moving the needle on the issue or it’s about the clients you serve. This will keep you focused during a bumpy ride.

Last but not least, don’t sit by and watch the new person take the organization down (and it happens!) You will never forgive yourself. I can’t tell you how to do it but you need to build staff allies and figure something out. If you don’t, the responsibility will not simply rest with the bad hire. Your fingerprints will be on it too.

I’d like to think sometimes it can still work out when the staff didn’t get enough say in an ED hiring. After all, the staff at GLAAD didn’t want to hire me!

– Joan

Handling Media

Dear Joan,

I am the first E.D. of three-year old organization. Getting lots of media attention, need to put together a list of the top things I want to be sure and say in every interview while staying spontaneous. How to narrow the list?

– This Spotlight is Too Bright

Dear Spotlight,

Media attention. There is something most organizational leaders dream about. So you’re right to want to squeeze all the juice about the opportunity but that doesn’t mean you make a list. Don’t. Spend time and think about the three most important things you want people to know in order to move them to care, engage or both. Those three things plus one real, authentic story that speaks to your work, or the need for it — someone touched by it. That’s all you need.

And don’t forget to practice.

For more on how to develop your elevator pitch, I have a post called The Big Mistake That’s Hurting Your Nonprofit (and How to Fix It).

– Joan

Burning Out

Dear Joan,

I am an E.D. trying to get everything done that my board feels should be done. There is only myself and my assistant in the office. It’s been one of those days. I am at the end of the day and feel I have not accomplished anything. I know I am burning out but I love my job. What do I do?

– End Of My Rope

Dear End,

It’s time to take control. The key phrase in your comment is, “Everything that my board feels should be done.” Now I know that you “work for them” but it’s time to look at things differently. What do YOU think are the priorities? What do YOU need to get the job done in a way that is the best interest of your organization’s mission. Take a weekend day and take control. Write a plan of your proposed goals and priorities for the next six months. Explain it to your board chair and/or executive committee. Highlight what’s on it and why and what’s NOT on it and why. Take charge, be proactive. Get behind the wheel!

If you’re burning out, you have to do something about it. I know from experience. (Think “heart monitor”… not my finest moment.)

– Joan

Lack of Diversity

Dear Joan,

How can we more effectively recruit and retain people of color on our board?

Although “ethnic diversity” shows up each year as a priority when we recruit new members, we still keep putting together a prospect list of predominantly white men. As a white man myself, it’s awkward to keep pushing the issue with my board and have them not see it as a priority. Neither I nor many board members seem to have inroads into our non-white communities.

– Same Old White Dude

Dear Same,

Here’s some tough love. Why does ethnic diversity show up as a priority? If it’s because a board should be diverse, good luck with recruitment. That’s not enough of a reason. Your board will be of real interest to people of color if (a) the individual is in a business that connects in some real way with your mission (a chef on the board of a food rescue organization, a media executive on the board of a media watchdog organization) or (b) if the mission of your work resonates for people of color. When I ran GLAAD, our board members of color came from the media business and there were precious few. When we launched programs to ensure that Spanish language media was more respectful and inclusive of gay and lesbian people, poof! More Hispanic staff, volunteers, donors and board members.

You diversify your board when the work of your organization resonates for people of color. And that’s how you build a great board.

– Joan

Have a Question?

Want to ask a question of your own? Every month or two I plan to directly answer questions people send my way. But even if I miss yours, don’t be surprised if I end up writing an entire blog post that covers your issue.

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