…And Now For Something Completely Different!

That’s a quote from Monty Python, one of my favorite comedy troupes. This blog is undergoing a radical transformation and I give those of you who have subscribed to email notifications that you may want to unsubscribe.

As passionate as I am about voluntarism, relationship management, and customer experience, my employer of 31 years and I have parted ways. The organization has been going through a “transformation,” for three years now and, sadly, there is no room for me.

But that’s okay. I am landing on my feet and in the process of obtaining my real estate license. I’m also going to keep this blog going, but it’s going to be more of a personal journal about my new career.

Therefore, feel free to unsubscribe from notifications or drop me from your RSS feed.

Unless of course you live in Central Texas and want to buy some property. I’ll be happy to help (after I’m licensed).

Have a great 2014!


Where Nonprofit Staff Should Focus

Are you a nonprofit staff person responsible for fund-raising events or programs providing services to your clients or members? Are you expected to work with volunteers in governance, event management, and/or program delivery?

Where’s your focus?

Is it on the tasks related to those events or programs?

Or, do you focus on the volunteers who provide the governance, raise the funds or deliver those services?

If you work for a nonprofit using a model where volunteers provide leadership at the governance, event and program levels, then your focus should be on your volunteers, not on the tasks you need to complete.

A Tale Of Two Staff People

Gretchen, a staff person with both fund-raising and mission responsibilities, was very detailed oriented. She was adept at taking a goal and breaking it down into manageable parts. But she only cared about this year’s goals. To her, fund-raising volunteers existed only to raise funds, she never thought they might be interested or able to help mission delivery or marketing the organization. She couldn’t see outside the silos. A hard worker, she made her goals the first year. But many of the volunteers “retired” rather than work with her the next year. She found it harder to recruit volunteers to fill those positions and wound up doing the volunteers’ work herself. She burned out at the end of her second year and left the organization.

Tina also had fund-raising and mission responsibilities. But she made it a point to get to know her volunteers and to determine what motivated them to volunteer. She would discuss mission needs with fund-raising volunteers and vice-versa. She took time to explain the “big picture” to her volunteers and to show them how they made a difference. She spent additional time providing volunteers with recognition related to their motivations. For example, her volunteers who worked in banks and utilities were expected to be involved in civic activities. When they successfully completed an event or program, she wrote a thank you letter to volunteers’ managers. Her volunteers were more motivated, which meant they were more successful. They volunteered longer meaning she spent less time recruiting replacements. As they became more experienced, they found it easier to raise funds or deliver those programs because they learned what worked and what didn’t.

Gretchen focused on tasks. Tina focused on people. Gretchen left after two years. Tina was promoted and then promoted again.

All too often we get caught up in the tasks and fail to focus on people.

Zoom Out To 50,000 Feet

Let’s add some context.

Nonprofits must always keep their mission in mind. I call this being “Mission-driven.” This means that everything the organization and its staff does relates back to the mission. One of these is performance objectives for staff, another would be volunteer goals (especially in fund-raising).
Nonprofit staff should focus on developing their volunteers. If you work directly with donors, your focus should be on them, in the way that Nordstroms, Amazon.com and others focus on the customer.

But volunteers and staff are, ultimately, just resources (Okay, I apologize for saying “Just” in the preceding sentence.) They are the means to an end. The end consists of the results an organization needs to accomplish in order to fulfill its mission. Therefore a nonprofit should be:




For individual staff, your focus should be on your volunteers, not the tasks nor the organization.

Focus on your volunteers in order to produce the results needed to help fulfill your mission.

You’ve Just Recruited A Leadership Volunteer–Now What?

You’ve just learned that a key leadership position has been filled by a highly qualified volunteer. You will be the person working closest with this volunteer. This volunteer will play a critical role in not only the success of the nonprofit, but in your success as well.

What is the single most important thing you can do to ensure that success occurs?

Regardless of whether or not you played a role in recruiting that volunteer, your best chance of getting off on the right foot is to schedule a sixty minute appointment with this volunteer. Depending upon your circumstances and your nonprofit’s culture, you may want to bring along another volunteer with you, perhaps the person this new volunteer reports to in your chain of command (if you’re the staff person).

There are many reasons why you should hold this meeting, but the single best reason is to be sure that the volunteer completely understands your role and responsibilities and what you can and cannot do when working with that volunteer. Failure to clarify your role risks getting your relationship off on the wrong foot leading to misunderstandings, personality conflicts, communication failures all which can snatch failure from the jaws of success.

Can you skip this meeting if the person is a long time volunteer within your organization?

No. But the visit may be shortened since you won’t have to go into as much detail about your mission and staff model. Even a long time volunteer can operate under misconceptions about her role or your role. Make no assumptions!

Couldn’t this meeting be a part of the recruitment call?

No. One is a sales call, the other falls into the category of “training/orientation.” They have two totally different purposes. If you walk into a recruitment call with the 3-ring binder assembled by last year’s chair, the prospect is likely to take one look at it and think or say, “I don’t have time to do all of that!” Then she’ll turn you down.

Get the volunteer committed to the position first, then schedule an  appointment to begin “planning,” or “an orientation to give you more detail about our mission and nonprofit.” Avoid calling it a “training” session. Few people like, or feel like, they need training.

Where should this meeting be held?

You want a place that’s reasonably quiet, where the two or three of you can have a conversation and where distractions such as telephones, coffee shop blenders, and kids coming home from school won’t disturb you. If you meet this person at her place of work, ask to move to a conference room so that she won’t be tempted by her computer monitor or office phone. If this meeting takes place at her home, avoid the time of day when her kids are coming home from school.

Why is this meeting so important?

You’re partners, but you will each have different responsibilities and most likely you have different personalities and styles. Explain your responsibilities. Are you responsible for more than just the program or event she now leads? If you don’t let her know, she will think you are just sitting there waiting for her to call you. She may have worked with staff in other nonprofits where they did all the work and volunteers just signed off on letters and policies. Is that how you work? If not, you better let her know quickly. Otherwise, her perception of what you do will be wrong and lead to an enormous conflict down the road.


Do not go any further in your orientation until she understands your role even if this takes up the entire amount of time. If that’s the case, schedule the rest of your orientation for your next appointment. The time you invest in getting this right is well worth it.

You’re going to be working with this volunteer for a number of months, perhaps longer. It is imperative that she understands your role and what you can and can’t do for her. Clarity on this point means there is much less likely to be a personality conflict between the two of you and more likely that the two of you will establish a productive successful relationship.

How Being Ruthless Can Improve Your Meetings

We’ve all been victimized (or been the victimizer) of boring unproductive meetings. There are hundreds of articles, posts, and books chock full of tips about how to avoid boring meetings, but today I’m going to write about something seldom said. This post concerns any kind of volunteer or staff meeting held on a recurring basis.

Roberts Rules of Order is your friend, not your master.

If you’re using the same agenda template for every single meeting, is it serving your needs or has it become your master? For example, let’s say that your practice has been to give each person (officer or committee chair in a nonprofit) time on the agenda to report. I’m thinking about Roberts Rules of Order for you nonprofiteers out there. That may work for you 90% of the time, but what about the cases where you are faced with a crisis. In a business setting, a key customer may be threatening to take his business elsewhere. In a nonprofit, your capital campaign chair may have just resigned mid-way through your campaign.

Do you really want to give each person a few minutes to speak when you need to devote almost the entire agenda to this one topic? Don’t be afraid to throw the format out the window. Put this topic at the top (oh, go ahead and approve the minutes from the last meeting first, if you need to:-)

Unless there’s something in your bylaws that says you’re required to follow Roberts Rules, don’t be afraid to modify the agenda in a manner that best fits your needs in times of crisis. Don’t be wimpy and do things just because they’ve always been done that way; be ruthless in managing your time and your fellow employees/volunteers time in a way that is most efficient and effective. If that means devoting 80% of your agenda to one topic because it’s a critical time sensitive issue, then go for it.

Do your meetings enhance or hinder your work?

Is it your custom or bylaws requirement that you have regular meetings? If so, is every single one necessary? Do you really need to have monthly meetings just because that’s the way  it’s always been done? Is that the best use of everyone’s time? If not, be ruthless and change the bylaws or custom to quarterly, or every other month. Meetings should advance your mission or contribute to your goals, not hinder them.

Encourage dialogues, discourage monologues

Even if you’re rolling out a new plan that requires a presenter spend the bulk of the time presenting, you must still allow time for not only questions but suggestions and brain storming on implementation. Be ruthless in sending out information to attendees in advance and in creating the expectation that they will review it as pre-work. There’s nothing worse than wasting meeting time on something that could have been sent out in as an update in an email. Use your meeting time to focus on what’s truly important.

Imagine what would happen if you developed the reputation of having relevant meetings that helped people meet their goals as opposed to those that were inefficient.

Sometimes it’s okay to be ruthless.

Three Tips To Engergize Your Volunteer Meetings

Decades ago, when I started in the nonprofit sector, my first boss took a sledge hammer and beat the following into my brain:

If nothing changes as a result of your meeting; that meeting was a waste of time!

I’m not here to suggest you use written timed agendas (you should) or that your meetings start and end on time (they should). Instead, I want to tell you a story about how we turned around a board that had meetings so boring that attendance took a nose dive into one that was energized, effective, and fun to attend.

After suffering through a number of boring meetings, I was discussing the board’s lack of effectiveness with my mentor. In a free wheeling conversation, I still remember from two decades ago, he convinced me to approach my board president and suggest the following:

  1. Reports of past activity would be submitted in writing. Working with my board president, we asked officers and committee chairs to submit their reports of the prior month’s activities in writing, preferably in advance. Those reports would be placed in the meeting folders at the board members seats when they arrived in the meeting room.
  2. Verbal Reports would focus on the future. Committee chairs were asked to focus their verbal reports on discussing future plans, especially emphasizing any obstacles, problems, or “doors” they needed opened in the community.
  3. Board Members were encouraged to bring guests. This nonprofit’s board meetings were open to the public and we wanted to attract visitors who might volunteer with us.

Within two meetings a sea change took place. Before we had been a servant to Roberts Rules as each officer and chair felt obligated to deliver a verbal report centering on what had already happened. But now, they still delivered those reports focusing primarily on what they were doing and what help they needed between then and the next meeting. With the death of boring monologues of reports read by officers and chairs, dialogue flourished. Questions were asked, answers offered, brains were stormed.

The meetings became much more livelier. As they changed, guests started getting more involved. By our third meeting, we filled an important chairmanship when a guest volunteered.

For me, these meetings became fun to plan as opposed to a burden to suffer through. I started to look forward to them whereas before I had come close to dreading them.

Over time attendance increased and the overall morale of the board increased as well.

If your meetings are focused on the past, convince your volunteers to change to the “future tense.”

An Open Letter To A Cyclist

An open letter to the young cyclist I’ve passed twice this week.

It’s early. Dawn is still 45 minutes away.
You’re riding your bicycle down the street.
You are dressed in dark clothing
You have neither a reflector nor a flashing LED light on your bike.

I’m in the car coming up behind you at somewhere between 30 and 50 mph.
Are my eyes on the road?
Am I…

…Adjusting my radio?
…Looking down to make sure I get my coffee cup back into the holder without spilling it?
…Reaching behind me to make sure I put my computer in the car before I left home.
…Being distracted by a dozen other things that may not allow me to see you?

Or just not awake yet.

Fortunately, the first time I saw you, I was paying attention. But I was within 50 feet of you when I saw you and had to swerve around you at the last second.

If I hit you. It would be my fault. No doubt about it. Case closed.

But you’d be dead, or at best, seriously injured.

If you were were wearing lighter colored clothing and using a flashing LED which costs you ten bucks at the store, I’d have seen you hundreds of yards sooner. I’d go on alert earlier as I hope other drivers do when I ride my bicycle.

Do you have someone who loves  and depends upon you?

How would they feel if you were killed or crippled in an accident?

What if the difference between living and dying came down to light-colored clothing versus dark clothing? Between a ten dollar flashing LED and a darkened bicycle frame?

I’ve ridden in too many rides honoring the memory of too many cyclists killed by automobile drivers. You’re in your twenties or thirties; you’re much too young to die.

Next time you see me, wave me down. I’ll give you the money for the light. I’ll even install it for you if you don’t have the tools. I’m sure you have a light colored t-shirt. Please wear it instead of the dark one I’ve seen you in.

Be careful out there,


PS: Think seriously about wearing a helmet, also.

One Strategy & Six Tactics Designed To Increase Volunteer Recruitment

There’s a bit of buzz going around the nonprofit part of the blogosphere this week about LinkedIn’s new Board Connect, a premium service offered free to nonprofits to help them search for board members. Both Beth Kantor and Katya Andresen have blogged about it.

Let me be clear that neither Beth nor Katya are suggesting that Board Connect is the sole way or even the best way to recruit board members. They are merely pointing out that it’s a new resource. However, I want to make sure that volunteers and staff in nonprofits struggling to build more effective boards (and committees) don’t substitute a resource for a strategy and its tactics.

Recruiting Volunteers Should Be A Year-Round Activity

Many nonprofits get caught up in the day to day tasks of client programs and event management. A small nonprofit theater group may focus for months on producing a Gilbert & Sullivan play, then find that they have only a few weeks to appoint new members to the board to  fill vacancies or replace those rotating off.

Board Connect may well turn out to be an awesome resource to nonprofits. I hope so. But it’s a resource, not a strategy. If you want to improve your recruitment effectiveness while decreasing the time  and resources you devote to it, then you need a coherent year-round strategy. For example:

Recruitment of volunteers, including board members, is a year-round activity and is the responsibility of all volunteers and staff.

Well, that was easy. Now comes the hard part. How are we going to do it. Here are six tactics that will enable us to execute the strategy.

  1. Management will provide updated resources (training in how to recruit, job descriptions, marketing strategies and support, adding to staff performance objectives, etc)
  2. A succession plan will be implemented so that new volunteers can sign up as members of committees, then move up the ladder to positions of increasing responsibility, including the board.  (A succession plan might include term limits for committee chairs, who is the chair-elect, etc.) Senior volunteers and staff will work to develop relationships with new volunteers that will make it easy to identify those who want to move up. This means, on a year round basis, senior volunteers and all staff will continually watch for those volunteers who are promotable and work to find the best opportunities for them.
  3. Senior volunteers and staff will be provided an accurate up to date list of volunteer vacancies by priority which includes information on the negative impacts of leaving those positions unfilled.
  4. Volunteer opportunities and vacancies will be continually highlighted on our social media pages and web site in a customer-centric fashion.
  5. The diversity of the volunteer base will be monitored and strategies will be developed to recruit volunteers from groups not now fairly represented. Diversity includes race, ethnicity, profession, gender, age, geographic location, social connections, etc. See my post on Outside-In Thinking.
  6. Board Connect will be utilized where possible.

In the above strategy, Board Connect is only one of the tactics used. The two critical components are that recruitment is a year-round activity and that it is shared by all, not just a responsibility of a nominating committee begun two months before the annual meeting.

Relying solely on a resource like Board Connect (or a business process like an ad hoc nominating committee) does nothing to address the underlying weaknesses that create committee and board vacancies. A strategy similar to the one above is more likely to result in a stronger volunteer base requiring fewer resources.