Eight Questions Nonprofit Leaders Must Ask

Eight Questions Nonprofit Leaders Must Ask

Consistent good leadership is an essential skill, one more important than ever in all workplaces – private, not-for-profit or government. Although this article focuses on nonprofit leadership, many of these questions apply to anyone already a leader, or aspiring to be one. The last two years with the global pandemic and social, political and economic turmoil, have tested our professional acumen, stress levels and maybe even our health. If you need to be inspired in your leadership in these difficutl times, do read this article: Leadesrhip Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the nonprofit sector, the upheaval in employment and hence personal finances has impacted philanthropy. Volunteers may not have been available due to lockdowns, safety protocols or time available. Educators have somehow managed to move to online learning and empty campuses. Even your devoted employees energized by your organization’s mission may have unexpectedly left for remote work or more money, and it’s hard to recruit talented replacements.

This is a lot, even for the most experienced nonprofit leaders and professional colleagues. Take time to pause, grab a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and ask yourself the following eight questions to help reset your organization for success – and why not invite your leadership and diversity of professional colleagues to join in too?

Are We Still Connecting with Passion and Purpose

Nonprofit organizations are founded with a clear purpose – be it providing learning, improving the human condition or benefiting the local community. Talented professionals who look to these workplaces for employment are usually motivated by deep passion in their work, and donors and volunteers are moved to invest because of the mission’s purpose. 

Consider: Is my organization still serving its purpose, and if yes, to what degree and for whom? Do I and my colleagues still have the passion to navigate our current challenges? Can we benchmark that passion on a scale from one to ten, and is there agreement? If there are questions or doubts, how can we rekindle the fires? 

Take a deep breath. These are hard questions for any leader and organization.

Do you have the resources – from your board, leadership team, mentor or coach – to provide the necessary support to look for and respond effectively to the answers? 

Does Everyone Know Where We are Going

Great nonprofit leaders also know that all organizations – alongside their board of directors or executive committee – should periodically review its vision and mission. Have you recently revised, adjusted or created a new strategic and implementation plan given the disruptions of the last two years and the dynamics of the environment we find ourselves in?

Nonprofit organizations also have many invested stakeholders (remember that purpose and passion above) so it’s critical these diverse constituents know where you and the organization are headed. Are you staying the course or taking a detour or a new direction, maybe to get to the same place or a new destination because of the circumstances that require it?

Do you have the required creative and conceptual skills to keep all the stakeholders going in the same direction, and if you see gaps, are you able to address them?

Several of my clients seek to hone their elevator pitches, telling a new story with the most impact. They know there are limited attention spans, especially over a screen. They also know that successful leaders need to garner support by sharing their vision and the organization’s journey, with passion, clarity and confidence. 

Are We Still Connecting Vision and Mission to the Investment

Nonprofit leaders know they must provide a social return on investment as opposed to a financial return sought in the private business world. As the Third Sector Company points out, the nonprofit leader has to not only create a positive financial bottom line but must also work equally hard to show a measurable social bottom line or social profit, resulting from the work. This is often more complex with variables that come from working with a community, instead of a building or factory.

So, do we still have tangible evidence of the impact from our mission? How are we demonstrating that impact to our diverse stakeholders? Have we adapted our communication to tell a powerful and compelling story? 

Are We Investing in Staff and their Learning & Development

Financial realities impacted many line items, from headcount to travel expenses. Professional development monies are also easier to reduce, and in many cases, have remained depleted as organizations balance smaller budgets.

With financial mitigation also comes disruption of traditional learning and development. Depending on the sector, in-person conferences, on-site training workshops and staff retreats have been non-existent, moved on-line or not funded. Add to acute screen fatigue and many staff may show little interest in learning new things. 

Depending on resources available, what are the skill gaps to take your organization forward (for example, instructional design to deliver virtually learning)?

What are critical skills and  networks that your organization will require to move forward? With turnover, lots of new supervisors and managers will need investment to be successful. Are you able to adequately ensure diversity, equity and inclusion? Is your staff burned out, hence lacking motivation, and feeling less connected to their purpose for work? What energizes them? If they are burned out, is it okay for a pause? Does the team require professional coaching?

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Can the Organization Align with the New Workplace

Even with compelling passion, purpose and mission, an organization and a great nonprofit leader cannot counter national trends, and the workplace and compensation are two drivers that have left many nonprofit professionals ready for a retreat, or a coach. 

Obviously, where employees do their work is the conversation of the year. Some nonprofits are able to offer remote or hybrid work, and may encourage it as a tradeoff to reducing or exiting out of physical office space. Others are unable and unwilling to leave the traditional workplace, especially those in education (teachers!), higher education campuses and those who work directly with the local community.  

More likely, you may have a workforce that is gathered in centralized places, and now employees each have a different opinion – hate work from home, need to get away, don’t feel safe in the ‘office’ and others who love hybrid… What is a leader to do?

Keeping up with compensation expectations is also a big challenge for any nonprofit leadership team and board. Recruiting qualified staff with the old adage, “I don’t do it for the money, I love my job” may be gone. The reality of small margin budgets make things an ever bigger challenge. 

Have I Prioritized Mindfulness

Leading mission-driven organizations and assuring mission realization is some of the most critical work on the planet. We support people when the government can’t and business won’t. Our day-to-day work is life-giving.

Dr. Theresa Ricke-Kiely, author of the forthcoming book, Mindful Nonprofit Leadership, advises that “in today’s nonprofit organizations, being mindful is becoming an essential skill. It is a paradox- if you cannot manage yourself, how can you effectively lead others?”

Ricke-Kiely explains that mindful leadership is about being proactive and responding- not reacting to the outer (or inner) world voices. Leaders are attentive and act with intention. They observe (not judge) and listen deeply without getting distracted by the noise.

You may already have a mindfulness practice. If not or you want to re-engage, check out Coach Muriel Murphy’s article on 10 Practices for Rejuvenating Your Body & Mind Through Better Sleep on this blog.

How do I Show Vulnerability as a Nonprofit Leader

Since Brené Brown’s best-selling books, The Power of Vulnerability, Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead, vulnerability has become part of the leadership toolkit. Brown’s extensive research shows that being vulnerable is being authentic, and as a leader, involves a change in mindset that enables you to see through the eyes of the people you lead. By doing so, you invite them to become the drivers of the conversation. The result is that people become more involved and invested. 

Have you paused to assess how you show vulnerability as a leader? Take the opportunity to explore how to learn its value, recognize your own vulnerability, practice and use it as a new or reclaimed superpower. 

Have I Assessed my own Power Skills

Speaking of superpowers, have you evaluated your own power skills, formerly known as soft skills? Which are your strongest? Can you identify and articulate to strengthen your gaps?  

A recent McKinsey Global Survey found that most respondents say that skill building (more than hiring, contracting, or redeploying employees) is the best way to close performance gaps and that respondents have doubled down on their efforts to reskill or upskill employees since the pandemic began. The survey results also point to a shift in the most important skills to develop, which tend to be social and emotional in nature: for example, empathy, leadership, and adaptability. 

Work through your power skills, celebrate your strengths and get vulnerable and authentic about your gaps in leadership. Invite your board, leadership team, and staff to participate in reflecting on their power skills. 

One last suggestion: consider getting a Professonal or Executive Coach. You can check out our MMSNorCal Coaching Collective – we can facilitate these conversations and our coaches can work with you to clarify your goals, map your path, hone your skills and provide steady support to ensure your success!

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How to Reset, Reflect, & Rejuvenate Yourself for 2022

How to Reset, Reflect, & Rejuvenate Yourself for 2022

Today, 21 December 2021, is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, just before one year ends and a New Year begins. As holiday preparations are in full swing and we are getting ready to ring in the New Year, we asked MMSNorCal coaches about how they reset, reflect and rejuvenate.

What do I really want to do during the Holidays?

reset, reflect, and rejuvenate with family and friends

That’s the question Coach Sarah E. Spencer likes to start with: “There are so many expectations from family, friends and ourselves, some we have control over, some we don’t. I ask myself, what will I find energizing, which traditions do I want to carry forward this year, or is there another way to find the same satisfaction?”

For years she baked, delivered or mailed 100 cookie boxes during this time. 

Sarah loved carrying on the cookie traditions from her mother, grand-mother and mothers before her, so she baked one batch of each favorite cookie to give to the elders. But over time, she also learned to make adjustments to many of her favorite holiday things – lots of cookies and candy, wine that flows at parties, the French cheese plate – and instead, savor a special treat every day, drink extra water, and make sure to get enough sleep. 

Coach Michelle Hayden-Marsan prepares for the holidays by asking: “What do I want to do for myself and for others this holiday season? I make a list with a few very simple things. What do I want to make for others as an act of gratitude for their friendship? I might decide to bake cookies, make a batch of kahlua or fragrant sachets. The act of “making something” with love and tying it up with the perfect packaging brings me joy and exemplifies the holiday spirit for me.”

Coach Michelle Mueller Ihrig believes: “it is a great practice to set regular time aside each week to plan the week ahead. I usually do this on a weekend morning, or if not then, in the evening. I make sure to carve out time to make a plan. This is a great practice to avoid feeling like life is racing ahead uncontrolled, and instead to instill a sense of calm and knowing that I am infusing  my actions with intention and that I am in charge of my time. This is especially true during the holidays.”

Michelle recommends you “grab a calendar, and if the house is busy, take off to your favorite coffee shop or outdoor spot for an hour and you’ll be amazed how much you accomplish. Make a quick list to give you a sense of where you’d like to focus, prioritize, make a plan and feel your empowerment!”

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Practices that can help You to Reset, Rest, & Renew

The holidays are a busy time and we all have the tendency to fill our calendars with shopping, parties and family events. Coach Carla Morton thinks “it’s important to block out down time so we can rest, recover and rejuvenate, rather than press on through the holidays non-stop.”

Prioritize time off from a busy social calendar to keep your immune system in check. Take vitamins, drink a lot of water, get fresh air and make sure to get enough sleep!

Coach Carla Morton

Coach Sarah in fact does just that; she schedules time to ‘Undo the Doer’ – no alarms, no to-do lists, no social engagements, no pre-ordained expectations including social media, texts or calls. Sarah turns off the ringer and sets a timer so that for just a little time – or a few hours – she can just Be; a practice she finds very restorative.

“I like to give myself time to be mindful and grounded around the holidays. I know there will be so many wonderful times with my family, but also exhaustion, frustrations and triggers from the past and family dynamics can feel overwhelming. I go into the holidays and family time with clarity around my intentions and with boundaries, giving myself permission to leave when I feel ready,” says Coach Lindsey Taylor. “This means I spend 15-30 minutes on my own in the morning or before a family meal. I might  offer to do an errand, go for a short walk or rest. During this time I connect with myself and imagine how I want to show up around my family, as my authentic self, confident and secure.”

Coach Muriel Murphy, a very social and fun loving person, lives alone. To make sure she is not over isolating, she makes plans to cultivate a balance of time with others.

She says, “After a busy schedule of parties, dancing to live music and lunch and dinner dates, I love to stay home, make a pot of chicken soup or hunker down in bed with a cup of tea, a good movie or some other binge worthy series and just chill.”

Coach Muriel finds a daily hike to be a huge reset for her nervous system along with a nightly practice of Legs Up the Wall pose, Nadi Shodana or alternate nostril breathing, and a short silent meditation just before bed.

To feel refreshed and renewed in anticipation of the New Year, Coach Michelle Mueller Ihrig also makes time for quiet and time to move the body. “Quiet time can be a morning practice of taking some time to stretch in bed before getting up; Lighting a candle, listening to a guided meditation, mindfully making a nice cup of hot tea or coffee; Waking all your senses – being aware of your body, your mood, emotions, sounds, feeling of your surroundings. Become a simple observer, and in the stillness, set an intention and choose how you’d like to show up that day.” Since moving and stretching releases tension and signals the brain to release endorphins, Coach Michelle then likes doing some simple exercises or walking outside, breathing in fresh air, connecting with nature and grounding herself.

Holiday times often involve traveling to be with family and staying in their homes. Rather than allowing this to disrupt his routine, Coach Charles Vivier prepares himself mentally and shares his practices with family members so that he can take care of his own needs for quiet time and make time to move and stretch his body.

Time to Reflect on the Past Year

As we are wrapping up one year and gearing up for the next, Coach Michelle likes to spend a time reflecting on the following four things:

  1. What accomplishments and acknowledgements did I have this year? 
  2. Which activities do I want to continue to pursue next year? 
  3. What new items do I want to add to the list? For example, new learnings, stretching outside my comfort zone, making time for things that are important but often get overlooked like relationships with people who mean a lot to me.
  4. What are my top 5 Values? Reviewing and prioritizing my top 5 Values, allows me to bring my whole person to the table, and live a Values driven life with intention, purpose and meaning. 

Coach Charles also takes stock of what works and what can be improved to live better with these prompts:

  1. I acknowledge myself for doing the best I can without judgement or comparison.
  2. I cannot change the past, but I can reframe what happened.
  3. I welcome everyday with a growth mindset, an opportunity to learn, change and grow.
  4. I can be conscious, focus on the now, set reachable goals and enjoy the journey.

His practices include eating healthy, exercising for at least an hour every day and abstaining from alcohol for one month. Since sleep is when the body rejuvenates and Charles knows how important it is to health and wellbeing, he prepares for sleep by quieting the mind and visualizing a restorative sleep. To become an even more compassionate coach, Charles is studying Internal Family Systems. Similar to MMS NorCal and Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott’s concept of sub-personalities, this powerfully transformative, evidence-based model of psychotherapy helps people discover, explore, heal and integrate their subs or parts of the mind.

Setting Thoughtful Resolutions and Goals for the New Year

Coach Lindsey says, “In December, I become inquisitive and start asking friends and family about their New Year’s Resolutions. Sometimes I get inspired by their answers and it makes me ask deeper questions to myself. I give myself time to dream and wonder about what I want to grow, change, learn.”

Some of the questions that Coach Lindsey considers include:

  1. What did I do well this year, what am I proud of?
  2. What goal did I not accomplish that I set out to, and why, what got in the way?
  3. What personal, professional, financial, development, & physical goals do I want for the New Year?

She wants to make sure each goal is not too big and feels manageable so she can reach them and celebrate when she does achieve them.

For Coach Carla, this time is not just the end of the calendar year, it is also her birthday and the beginning of another New Year. She reflects on the lesson or theme for the past year. Instead of setting a New Year’s Resolution, Coach Carla likes to think about “the kind of life I’d like to live that is more expansive than the one I’ve been living” and she makes a list of small steps she can take to move in that direction. “Often what I see is that there is a part of me that needs to expand. Perhaps I need to be more open-hearted or take more risks. Perhaps I need to go outside of my comfort zone and do something I don’t usually do. This is also a time where I like to write in my journal a list of intentions for the next year and then read again what my intentions were for the previous year. I usually find a lot of my intentions were realized!”

Coach Michelle Hayden-Marsan also takes this time to reconnect. “I don’t send cards like in previous years because it is too much work and leaves me feeling rushed and pressured. Instead, I take that week of holiday break to call a few of my special people and wish them well and reconnect instead”.

To help prepare for, and welcome in the New Year, Coach Muriel makes it a conscious point to reconnect with friends and family, “asking each person how they’ve been since we last met and simply check in, slow down and catch up.” With the pandemic restricting our lives to meeting online this past year, Muriel practices presence with each person she reconnects with. “This helps me to restore and feel a strong sense of belonging with them in my life.”

How will you Reset, Reflect, and Rejuvenate yourself?

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