Lessons That Inspire Gratitude
I recently finished reading The Way of Gratitude by Galen Guengerich. Long ago, in grad school, my husband and I were neighbors with Galen, so we found the story of his life’s journey from a conservative Mennonite childhood to ministry in the liberal Unitarian Universalist church to be particularly engaging.
More broadly, though, reading this lovely little book slowly over a period of weeks has meant that I’ve had gratitude on my mind.
In a year of global pandemic, it’s much easier to stay focused on all the things we’re NOT grateful for: illness, suffering, and death; food insecurity, unemployment, and economic woes; isolation, loneliness, and fear.
That makes gratitude all the more important this year.
When I think of gratitude in the professional world, I think of mentoring I’ve been given, opportunities I’ve been offered, and trust that’s been placed in me. But I also think of lessons I’ve learned from people I’ve worked with over the years.
Some of these lessons are negative: what kind of boss NOT to be; why NOT to work 24/7; how NOT to run a meeting. The lessons we learn from negative experiences can be powerful and long-lasting. But it’s dangerous to rely too strongly on these types of lessons because we don’t always draw the right conclusions from negative examples.
So, when it comes to gratitude, I prefer to focus on the positive lessons. For instance:
Everyone we spend time with has a lesson for us – spoken or unspoken. Thus, for me, there have been many other people and many other lessons.
But for today, I’m especially grateful for the people above – and for the gift of having been in their presence.
Meaning and the Nonprofit Sector
The Washington Post recently featured an article about the correlation between having a sense of meaning in life and greater longevity.
This set me to thinking about meaning and the nonprofit sector. If any sector of society has “cornered the market” on meaning, surely it is our sector.
Even though different people find meaning in different things, opportunities for meaning abound in the nonprofit world. Nonprofits care for people: for the very young and the very old; for those who are ill or disabled; for those who are homeless, imprisoned, or impoverished. Nonprofits advocate for civil rights and racial justice. Nonprofits care for animals and the environment. And so much more.
Many years ago, I read an article suggesting the practice of putting on paper just a few words about what is most important to you – and then carrying this paper around with you. On a small piece of cardstock, long since tattered and then lost, I wrote the names of my dearest loved ones, along with these three words:
My career in the nonprofit sector has enabled me to work toward justice and has helped me to find both meaning and joy.
I’ve chosen long-term positions in organizations addressing homelessness, poverty, and mass incarceration because these are the issues closest to my heart. They are all justice issues and working on them has brought me both a deep sense of meaning and many small moments of joy.
Even in selecting short-term positions as an interim executive director, meaning is important to me. As an interim, I’ve led organizations addressing hunger, immigration, and LGBTQ rights because those issues are deeply meaningful to me, both personally and professionally.
I’ve had a varied career in nonprofits across four cities over many years, so I’m going to make a few bold claims here:
Here’s the bottom line: Meaning is a powerful force for human well-being that is widespread in the nonprofit sector, but its effects can be diluted.
Meaning can only stand up to so much. Meaning helps people to hang on when negative things happen. But meaning doesn’t completely inoculate us against “bad stuff” – and especially not against chronic bad stuff. Meaning struggles in the face of toxic leadership or culture. Nepotism, favoritism, microaggressions, yelling, overwork, and unfair pay – these are among the things that wear people down, even in an environment of abundant meaning.
It’s great news for nonprofits that there’s research showing that meaning helps us to live longer. But let’s not just skate on meaning. As nonprofit leaders, we still need to make sure we’re treating our staff well while they are living their longer lives.
After serving three times as an interim executive director, I’ve become obsessed with organizational culture.
Earlier in the year, I read a lot of articles about culture change, and from these I gleaned a few interesting ideas. Overall, though, I found these readings pretty underwhelming.
Then I stumbled on a fascinating book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, who are brothers. I loved this book. To be sure, it’s based on a corny metaphor – but it also distills a great deal of research in an accessible manner and provides the reader with a do-able change system to experiment with.
Crediting psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the Heaths use the metaphor of an elephant (our emotional side) and its rider (our rational side). They lay out an approach to change that has three parts:
Direct the Rider.
Motivate the Elephant.
Shape the Path.
Unsurprisingly, each of these parts also has three parts. Here’s a quick “cheat sheet” I created for myself, using the Heaths' chapter titles and a few snippets from the book:
In order to Direct the Rider:
In order to Motivate the Elephant:
In order to Shape the Path:
That’s a lot to think about. And not every change situation will be amenable to all nine of these approaches.
I’m particularly interested in exploring bright spots – because I know it’s all too easy to focus on correcting what’s wrong rather than expanding what’s right.
I also appreciate the reminder to focus first on seeing and feeling – a lifelong challenge for me, since I can too easily default to logical, analytical reasons for doing something. The Heaths present several great examples of using compelling visuals to jump-start change, and I’m interested in experimenting in this vein.
Finally, I want to think more about rallying the herd. The Heaths assert that “In this entire book, you might not find a single statement that is so rigorously supported by empirical research as this one: You are doing things because you see your peers do them.” That’s a wake-up call.
Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, is quoted in the book as saying, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game---it is the game.”
That’s something that I, too, have learned through experience. It’s a sinking feeling to realize that you have a culture problem but don’t have the right tools for culture change. After reading Switch, I’m feeling hopeful that next time I encounter a tough culture problem, I will be better equipped.
How to Change A Culture
In my first position as an executive director, I was fortunate to have a wise and effective predecessor. In my second, I founded a brand-new organization. So, it wasn’t until I became an interim executive director – a position that I have now held three times – that I had any reason to think about how to change a culture.
What is organizational culture? In a 2016 article, Katzenbach, Oelschlegel, and Thomas describe it as “the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.”
Culture matters. A problematic culture can hold an organization back from fully achieving its mission. Failure to address culture problems can affect staff retention and stand in the way of achieving key program or policy changes.
Over time, I’ve found that some types of culture problems are relatively easy for new leaders to address with modeling and limit-setting. Coming into organizations with a culture of disrespect, leaders can turn this around relatively rapidly by never yelling at, belittling, or berating those around them – and by refusing to tolerate this type of behavior from staff or board members. Coming into organizations with a culture of over-work, leaders can turn this around fairly quickly by taking vacations, staying home when sick, and setting reasonable limits on their own work and email hours – and by giving staff permission and encouragement to do the same.
But some culture problems are both hard to spot early on and much more resistant to change.
Recently, I’ve spent time reading about organizational culture in hopes of finding guidance about tackling particularly resistant culture problems. My number one take-away is that this is tough work! Nothing I read offered a clear and compelling answer to this conundrum. But a few intriguing themes did jump out:
1. Resistance may be more about fear and loss than about the change itself. Understand and acknowledge what people fear – and especially, what they fear losing. Clearly demonstrate respect for precious things that are healthy parts of the organization’s culture. This may reduce resistance to necessary changes in other areas.
2. Focus on changing behavior rather than changing attitudes. Keep the focus on a small number of behaviors – including those that seem innocuous but may be precursors of more problematic behavior. Attitude change will follow behavior change.
3. Even small, short-term successes matter. It makes a difference to demonstrate impact as quickly as possible. Try small pilot efforts and measure their outcomes. Then, celebrate any positive results.
When embarking on an interim E.D. assignment, I begin by individually interviewing staff and board members. I want to understand their roles, their professional goals and interests, and how they assess the state of their organization. Now, after reading more about organizational culture, I know that next time I sit down for these conversations, I’ll be posing some new questions. I’ll be asking each person how they would describe their organization’s culture – and what they hope to preserve or change about it. I’ll be asking not only about their hopes, but also about their fears.
If I run into culture problems along the way, I’ll be experimenting with the three approaches above, to see if they make a difference. Stay tuned.
As an interim executive director, I’ve enjoyed supporting several E.D. search committees.
Of course, the primary role of the search committee is to vet candidates for the long-term executive director position and make a hiring recommendation to the organization’s board.
But as important as that is, it need not be the committee’s only function. Over time, I’ve learned that the search committee has the potential to play a transformational role in additional ways that may not be as obvious.
Although hiring an E.D. is a key function of a nonprofit’s board of directors and requires a vote of the full board, there’s no requirement that the search committee be composed solely of board members. Because the new E.D. will be the staff leader, it’s actually critical that the committee contain both board and staff representatives. This is an important first step in developing the trust of the staff in its next leader.
By putting board and staff representatives together to work on a mission-critical task over an extended period, the search committee gives its members a chance to get to know each other better and see each other differently. Besides creating important bonds among board members, the committee's work may also engender greater respect between board and staff. As committee members come to see each other as unique individuals, this can have the trickle-down effect of improving trust between board and staff across the organization as a whole.
As the committee creates a job announcement, reads resumes, and interviews candidates, its members will find that they have repeated opportunities to speak about the organization’s key values, strengths, and weaknesses. Optimally, this process starts with reflection and ends with cohesion, as the group shares its perceptions with its top candidates. Furthermore, this work should pay off by establishing a foundation of support for the incoming E.D. – and preparing a core group to enthusiastically undergird strategic planning work that will need to take place once the new leader is up to speed.
In the best case, the search committee will become a tight-knit, high-functioning group. By the conclusion of the process, they will have spent many hours together on a complex and satisfying task with a meaningful result. Repeatedly, in order to move the process forward, they will have either reached consensus, or figured out how to separate key points of agreement from less essential disagreements. This is how healthy nonprofits function, and in this way, the search committee can serve as a model of how well the entire organization can potentially operate in the future. That they achieve this result while facilitating the arrival of the organization’s next leader is no small part of this magic.
Service on an E.D. search committee takes a big chunk of time. Dedicated board and staff members agree to serve because selecting the right leader is so important. But it’s worth acknowledging that this time-consuming work can be immensely satisfying and profoundly impactful in other ways, as well.
$2 a Day in the U.S.A.
More than a million American children live in households surviving on two dollars per person per day in cash.
Think about this. For a single parent and two children, this means no more than $180 dollars per month to cover all the essentials: housing, utilities, transportation, laundry, and absolutely everything else. This family probably receives SNAP (food stamps). But SNAP covers actual food only – not diapers or soap or toilet paper. Their health expenses may be covered by Medicaid. And there is a small chance that they have subsidized housing. But still.
Do you think you could live like this? Here in Washington, DC it costs $2 just to take a bus one way.
Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer’s powerful book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, presents both the data and the very human stories behind this desperate poverty – which has skyrocketed since the “welfare reforms” of the 1990s. While these reforms and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) may have reduced poverty among families able to find steady work, way too many families have been left behind.
Like Matthew Desmond’s brilliant ethnography Evicted, Edin and Shaefer’s book touches on family homelessness. Evicted took us into the world of families doubled up under duress – the most common form of family homelessness. $2.00 a Day takes us into the lives of families in abject poverty – and unsurprisingly, such poverty frequently involves lacking or losing a home of one’s own.
The families profiled by Edin and Shaefer sell homemade goods, recyclables, and blood plasma. They gain and lose jobs. They take advantage of resources offered by charitable organizations. They stay with friends and relatives in overcrowded housing. They spend time in homeless shelters. They barter in creative and sometimes risky ways. And when most desperate, they may take major risks like selling food stamps, sex, or the use of their children’s Social Security numbers.
Despite all this, Edin and Shaefer don’t pine for the days of more widespread cash welfare benefits. When looking for solutions, they emphasize two principles: minimizing stigma and shame for families; and gaining public support by stressing core American values. They discuss subsidized private-sector job creation; WPA-style job creation; raising the minimum wage; and addressing wage theft and just-in-time scheduling. They ask us to consider the contrast between public benefits, which stigmatize, and tax credits, which normalize.
The trouble with American values is that they are sometimes in conflict. Love your neighbor as yourself—and—pull yourself up by your bootstraps. The same week’s news may bring us both discussions of a guaranteed minimum income and proposals for new work requirements in public benefits.
Bottom line: with $2.00 a Day, Edin and Shaefer have made it significantly harder for us to ignore the presence of extreme poverty in our nation. There is no quick fix for this problem. But it’s a crime to look away.
Last fall, my friend and former colleague Ed Batista, an executive coach who has written extensively about leadership, posted an article titled, “Dysfunction Isn’t Heroism.” This wise essay reviews the well-established case that forgoing sleep and exercise, scrimping on time with family and friends, and packing our work schedules so tightly that we lack time for reflection all are counterproductive. Ed writes that:
…we've recast dysfunction as heroic sacrifice. We've collectively created a narrative around the nature of work that not only justifies…dysfunctional practices, but also regards those who engage in them as selfless heroes, sacrificing sleep, relationships, and even their health in order to help the organization achieve its goals. We brag about how little sleep we're getting, how busy and over-scheduled we are, how poorly we take care of ourselves--all of which plays into and reinforces this narrative of heroic sacrifice.
Ed coaches CEOs and other business leaders, and teaches MBA students at Stanford University. So it’s understandable that his bottom line is this: “Ultimately we have to recognize that there’s a difference between actual heroic sacrifices and imaginary ones.”
Ed is right.
Still, as I read his article, I found myself wondering how his words would be received in the nonprofit sector. I could almost hear the chorus protesting: but what if the work actually is heroic?
What if the work is housing and support for homeless youth who might otherwise be sleeping on the streets of a frigid city? What if the work is a free clinic in a rural area where thousands are uninsured and medical resources are limited even for those with money? What if the work is feeding kids who get almost nothing to eat at home when school is out? Sometimes lives really are at stake.
Ed is still right.
Interestingly, long before I was familiar with the research Ed references, I learned this lesson in the same place that he likely did: from nonprofit leader Liz Resner. I’ve written previously that Liz successfully taught and modeled the message that you can’t effectively care for others unless you care for yourself as well. Trained as a clinical psychologist, she recognized the trap that leaders and staff in “do-good” organizations often fall into: seeing an overwhelming need; feeling a personal calling to fill it; and working night and day to do so. But then: making themselves sick; or making others miserable; or burning out and disappearing from the work altogether.
Of course, there are times when it’s critically important to work extra hard. Even with extreme intensity. But we can learn that it’s counterproductive to work that intensely all the time.
If we stay late because a child has been hurt, we can leave early some other day. If we staff an event all day Saturday, we can stay home on Monday. If we work furiously for weeks on a major funding proposal, we can take a vacation. If we find ourselves in a life of back-to-back meetings, we can schedule (and stick to) regular times for planning and reflection.
Beneath all this, we can accept the reality that even when the work is heroic, the workers are human. We still need to sleep. Exercise. Breathe. Spend time with people we love and enjoy.
It’s tempting to believe that this wisdom doesn’t apply to us, because the world needs us so.
It’s smarter to accept that it does. Because the world needs us so.
In 2009, and for several years after, I spent a lot of time talking about clergy sexual abuse. These were not social science conversations. This was personal.
Family and friends gave me the enormous gift of listening supportively to my tale of abuse and manipulation – starting at age 19 – by the 67-year-old man who was my childhood minister. Finally being able to speak my story out loud was a critical step in healing from the intense physical and emotional pain these events had caused. I had been silent about this for so long.
When the #MeToo Movement took off this fall, I felt at first that I had already had my “me too moment.” In the phraseology of Time Magazine, I had already been a “silence breaker.”
But this is a critical time in our country’s history, and I’ve decided I want to weigh in again now.
I’ve used this blog to reflect on three areas that are important to me: poverty and homelessness; nonprofit leadership; and gender issues. #MeToo ties to all three:
Poverty and Homelessness:
Long before I was able to acknowledge to myself that what happened in my youth was sexual abuse – back when I had a totally different and completely wrong-headed internal narrative of these events in my own life – I was simultaneously focused on the abuse of other women. That’s because histories of abuse – physical, emotional, and sexual – are such a common factor in the lives of homeless and very low-income women.
It’s good now to hear from famous women, rich women, powerful women. Their stories remind us that harassment, assault, and abuse – like the rain – fall on rich and poor, black and white. They remind us that even in a life of privilege, the impact can be devastating.
But in the human services sector, one quickly learns that the impact of harassment, abuse, and assault is greatest on those without power, money, and white privilege. It’s important to keep this knowledge front and center. And it’s essential for organizations focused on poverty and homelessness to place a high priority on providing services aimed at addressing and healing abuse.
Sometimes, it feels like nonprofits are a “woman’s world.” But that’s all about presence.
When it comes to power, men still dominate. Although the latest GuideStar report shows gains in the proportion of nonprofit CEOs who are female, the figures are still depressingly low in large organizations.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques are nonprofits too. In this part of the sector, male domination in leadership frequently extends to the unilateral exclusion of women from the clergy.
Real change in the sexual abuse of power by men will not arrive until women share equally in the power to lead our most important institutions. There’s been a lot of emphasis on politics, business, and the media – but nonprofits are important institutions too.
In her book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter proposes that we approach caregiving like athletes approach interval training. She wants us to accept the importance of taking intervals when we step back from – or out of – the work world. Although Slaughter focuses on care for children or elderly parents, it’s essential to accept that it’s also sometimes necessary to spend time caring for ourselves.
The #MeToo Movement has highlighted how much lasting damage has been done to women. This damage can manifest itself in physical and emotional illness, and recovery can take time – especially when the impact of abuse or assault has festered for years.
It needs to be okay for women to step back from the work world for long enough to address and heal from this damage. It also should be okay to return.
I took a long interval away from the work world to attend to my own healing. I was fortunate to be part of a two-income household, to have insurance that covered a wonderful therapist, and to have phenomenal support from a loving husband. But money and marriage shouldn’t be prerequisites to taking time for healing.
As our society comes to grips with how much damage has been done by sexual predation, it’s time to accept that we all benefit when we support the wounded among us as they heal.
The Outside Interim Executive Director
Nonprofit A had a long-time executive director who resigned due to a health crisis.
Nonprofit B had an executive director who moved to another organization after giving only six weeks’ notice.
Nonprofit C had an executive director who was asked to resign by its board of directors.
Nonprofit D had a beloved executive director – the founder – who retired after three decades of service.
What do these nonprofits have in common?
Each organization would benefit from the services of an interim executive director. Not a board member doing double duty. Not a staff member temporarily filling two jobs. Instead, a professional interim E.D. brought in from the outside specifically for that purpose.
As I’ve written previously, bosses matter. Bosses matter for good or for ill. A great executive director is going to be missed. There may even be a sort of mourning period. A bad executive director leaves a lasting imprint, too. There is damage, and that damage cannot be fixed in a day.
When a nonprofit proceeds immediately to hiring, there isn’t time for either mourning or healing. The new E.D. begins the job in an environment of unfinished business. Whether it is the lingering reflection of a marvelous leader or the lasting impact of a toxic one, this organizational baggage creates a distinct handicap for the new E.D. It also reduces the likelihood that she will have a successful tenure.
In contrast, the act of hiring an outside interim executive director sends a clear message that this is a time of transition for the organization. A time to acknowledge feelings of grief, anger, or confusion. A time to assess the organization’s strengths and weaknesses and reflect on its needs for future leadership. A time to make difficult changes and fix glaring problems – and to establish processes for addressing less urgent ones.
In this way, an experienced outside interim “takes the hit” for the future executive director. The skillful interim is a “baggage collector.”
Of course, a board member or senior staffer could be called upon to serve as acting executive director. But few board members bring experience in nonprofit management – critical in a position that requires getting up to speed very quickly. Furthermore, success as an interim rides on getting honest and detailed information about the organization, and staff may be less likely to speak freely with someone who retains, or will return to, a place on the board.
A senior staff member asked to serve as acting E.D. will encounter a different set of challenges, starting with the difficulty of doing two jobs at once. Even more than a board member, a staffer lacks the independence to facilitate an objective assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. And then there is the issue of candidacy for the long-term position.
An acting E.D. who is not a candidate must contend with the emotional challenge of becoming the boss, and then subsequently deferring to a new boss. An acting E.D. who is a candidate must make the difficult decision to stay or go if someone else gets the job. In both situations, but especially the latter, an acting E.D. will find it far more difficult to “speak truth to power” with the organization’s board, than would an outside interim.
Actually, it’s hard to think of a scenario in which bringing in an outside interim E.D. would not be helpful. An outside interim can offer board and staff a safe zone to process thoughts and feelings and make difficult changes before moving on to welcome a new leader. Importantly, an outside interim never should be a candidate for the long-term job. By setting this boundary in advance, the interim E.D. will have freedom to speak honestly during the transition – and will find it satisfying to turn over the reins, with pride, when the assignment is done.
Peeling the Onion
Last year I had an interesting conversation with one of the finalists at the presentation of the AIM Award for excellence in nonprofit management. I asked him about his organization’s approach, and he said it was a process of “peeling the onion.”
Peeling the onion! I was glad to hear him use this metaphor, because this has long been one of the ways I have described my own approach to human services.
Why an onion? Not because onions make us cry – although I suppose that’s not irrelevant. Rather, because they have so many layers, each of which hides the layers underneath.
In human services, we generally know that we’ll trip ourselves up if we don’t listen well. When nonprofit clients tell their stories, we try to listen carefully to the circumstances they describe and the needs they express. But that isn’t always enough. Often, we don’t learn what we need to know in order to be helpful, because we don’t know what questions to ask.
Years ago, at Compass Family Services in San Francisco, we were providing a broad range of services for people who were homeless. Early on, these were primarily crisis-oriented services. Even when we saw clients repeatedly, it was in an office setting, and even when we provided temporary housing, it was in rooms leased from others. Then we opened a transitional housing facility for homeless families. The apartments were new and beautiful. Free childcare for all ages was provided onsite. Counseling and therapy was available for all. Families could stay two years, and everyone had the support they needed to participate in employment and education programs.
Suddenly, the viewpoint of our staff was expanded radically. Families shared pieces of their lives with us 24/7. We learned that we had effectively “turned off the crisis” for most residents, but without that all-consuming preoccupation, other needs came to the fore. Families shared much more about their histories of abuse and trauma, their fears and vulnerabilities – including even, their fears of success. This changed our approach not just in transitional housing, but in all of our programs at Compass, significantly increasing our emphasis on helping clients to heal from trauma and abuse.
This was the first – although far from the last – time I saw that peeling the onion was an important metaphor for the learning and growth that must take place in healthy nonprofit organizations.
Taking a “peel the onion” approach makes us humble. After providing crisis services to thousands at Compass, we thought we knew a lot. But we couldn’t know what we didn’t know. I’ve now worked on homelessness on two coasts and in two countries – providing housing, employment, research, and a myriad of services. So sometimes I still may think I know a lot. But keeping an eye on the onion helps me to remember that what I don’t know is more.
Life has lots of layers. It’s complicated. We tend to see and hear what’s right in front of us, and not what’s six layers down. And it can be frustrating, when congratulating ourselves on our response to one issue, to find that there’s more below. But each time we adapt and change – each time we peel back another layer – we get a little closer to fulfilling our mission.