Don’t Start the New Year Without Having 3 Important Conversations First

by Joan Garry

You can agree to begin 2021 with endless to-do’s. Everything is a priority. So much noise. Stress. Anxiety. Or… you can take a different path.

One very hot summer afternoon, we took our eldest daughter, Scout, to a local circus. She was maybe 3 and had slept during the ride there. We took this adorable sweaty groggy kid into a really noisy tent, paid for our three tickets, bought some popcorn and took our seats.

It was exciting. Well we were excited – she was dazed and confused.

Until… the first act. Out rolls a cannon. A man climbs in. Another man detonates the pretend wick and BBBBBOOOOOM. The man flies out of the cannon and lands in a net some distance away.

Scout reacted with sheer terror; as if she herself had been ejected from the bleachers. She ran as fast as she could out of the tent. Followed by her two mothers certain she had been scarred for life by a well-intended afternoon at the circus.

Once she had calmed down and started breathing again, she asked a single question. And then she asked it again. And again. And again. For the entire ninety minute ride home.

Her question was simple. “Why’d they shoot dat guy out da cannon?”

And presumably our answers simply were not cutting it. Answers like, “People think it’s fun,” or “That’s what circus performers do,” fell on deaf ears. These answers offered no solace.

In her quite logical mind, the whole thing seemed unfathomable. Someone suggested to ‘dat guy’ that he get into that cannon so that it could be detonated and ‘dat guy’ could fly through the air into a net that was really far away.

And ‘dat guy’ said YES.

Are you wondering where I am going with this? It’s not a story about what lousy parents we are. It’s a story about ‘dat guy.’ And it’s a story about you.

You have just returned from some kind of holiday break after one of the most tragic and terrifying years in American history. Maybe you took a legit break and maybe there was a novel or a board game or an extra nap. And now you are back at work.

You open your laptop and before you is an imaginary cannon. And you are ‘dat guy’

You can agree to begin 2021 by making an intentional decision to be shot out of a cannon. Endless to-do’s. Everything is a priority. So much noise. Stress. Anxiety.

Or… you can take a different path. Today, I’ll offer you suggestions about three very important conversations you need to have this month.

And I’ll give you one piece of advice before we get started.

Say no to the cannon.


Your ability to use January intentionally to get the year off to a good start is key. Because you will blink and it will be St. Patrick’s Day. And you’ll need a lot more than the luck of a four leaf clover to effectively plan a year when you are already three months into it.

This January is different from others we’ve experienced. Not only are we still very much in a pandemic, it’s raging out of control. Very soon, more Americans will have died from COVID than died in all of World War II. That’s just America. And while there’s renewed hope in the form of multiple vaccines, it’s still going to be some time before this is over.

We may have taken a few days off but we are still exhausted. The need for your services will continue to grow even as you struggle to generate the resources you need.

The best leaders are intentional. And they somehow find the time to have the important conversations. It’s a point I bring up many times in my new book, Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because the World is Counting On You. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, what are you waiting for? 🙂


1. An Extended Staff Meeting: Pluses and Deltas

Send a message to your staff (if you are lucky enough to have one). In 2021 you need to take time to breathe. To debrief. To talk through what you learned about our organization during 2020.

Here are questions to chew on.

  • What strengths did you draw on?
  • How was decision making different?
  • What did you make possible that you thought would take months but took weeks (or days)?
  • What made your adaptability possible?
  • Many of you had greater impact and were resource constrained. How did you do that?
  • If your board stepped up, what did they do? How might you motivate them to keep on that same track?
  • You no doubt unearthed cracks in your organization’s foundation. Take ‘em one by one with no judgment. I can already tell you that communications (internal and external) will be on the list. In a crisis we forget that people really need to know a lot and need to hear from you often.
  • End the conversation by going back to talking about new things you tried, risks you took. Celebrate the heck out of that and then make a commitment to infuse this attribute into the DNA of your organization. Nonprofit innovation may be the biggest treasure in the darkness of 2020.

2. A Conversation with Your Board within 45 Days

This is essential. If your organization is to infuse any changes into its DNA, those changes need to be marketed to your board.

You need to ignite them – they were a part of an organization that did remarkable things in 2020, things you might have said no to in the past (maybe a bit too risky?) This is THE BEST OPPORTUNITY you may ever have to move your board’s mindset from one that values “oversight” and “managing risk” to one that values impact and innovation.

In 2020 you illustrated proof of concept. You tested things that worked. You took risks and they paid off. And you did it because your clients or your cause demanded it. You didn’t overthink it.

Now sell that to your board and excite them. But most importantly market the NEW DNA to the board so that they ‘own’ this. Get out in front of this conversation before someone says the dreaded, “So when do you think we’ll get back to business as usual?”

You need to start now to pre-empt that so you don’t have to defend it.

3. A Conversation Led by Your Board Chair About Board Work in 2021

If we begin by recognizing that none of us will ever be the same after 2020, then this would be true for the board of your organization as well.

I propose an executive session with the executive director after conversation #2. The board chair leads a thoughtful conversation that assesses the role of the board in 2020, the lessons it learned, and ends with setting some goals about how it will operate differently in 2021.

Chew on these:

  • How did we as a board show up in 2020? Ask the E.D. for feedback. What are examples of great partnership, first rate ambassadorship? What does the E.D. want to see more of?
  • What could the board have done more of? What would that look like?
  • Clearly we have a marathon on our hands here friends – let’s put these lessons into practice.
  • Get to this conversation: We are so privileged to be on this board – it gives us a sense of meaning in these darkest of days – we should approach board recruitment from this place of abundance and privilege.
  • Be sure to tell the E.D. what would help you be great at your job as board member.
  • And save the most important thing for last. The board chair or a powerful voice on the board needs to end by talking about strategy, innovation, and adaptability. The E.D. can market it, but the chair has to own it.


I’ve told a number of my clients this past year that there are two kinds of activities when it is hitting the fan. The kind of activities that deplete the gas from your “tank,” and the kind that ‘refuel.’

A few examples.

  • Trying to decide which vendor NOT to pay? DEPLETING.
  • Taking a senior center virtual in just a week? REFUELING (tiring but energizing)
  • Climbing into the cannon? DEPLETING

The conversations I am suggesting (and I heard a few of you say something about not having time for this) are REFUELING.

THAT is why I am suggesting them. You have just returned from the holidays and you put some gas in the tank. But if you climb right into the cannon, your gas gauge will be at “E” in no time flat.

If you make these conversations happen, you will not only look back and remember your heroics, you’ll take the core parts of those heroics and infuse them into how you operate this year.

One last thing. You want to know if you have to get on these conversations right away – you have so many emails. Here’s my advice. Send this email to your board chair (or your E.D.) Pick up the phone and talk about it. Get excited about it.

Then cut and paste some of my blog posts into two emails, one for the staff and one for the board. Or share the email in its entirety – that’s pretty easy. Include a note to make it your own. Invite folks to these conversations this week and let them know you’ll be scheduling

I am 100% convinced that these conversations are vital to have and 150% convinced that the longer you wait the less impactful they will be.

You’re back after a break. You can let the work manage you or you can lead with intention. Here’s hoping you pick the latter.

And please stay safe.

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