Dani Robbins

Does Your Agency Aspire to Social Justice or Charity?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on May 23, 2017 at 11:40 am

The two questions I repeat the most, in both my classes and in my practice, are these: What’s the goal?  Who decides?

What’s the goal?

Is your agency’s goal to be the best food pantry (or any other service providing/safety net charity)? Or is it to address the underlying issues related to food scarcity (or any other complicated, multi-layered critical issue)?  If it’s the former, that’s charity.  If it’s the latter, that’s social justice.

Social Justice is working to change systemic issues. Charity is responding to immediate needs.  As anyone who has ever taken my class or worked in our field will tell you, we need both.  We’re not going to ignore the hungry child in front of us to work for social justice.  Yet, we can’t only get food for those who are hungry, because the root causes are what’s causing food scarcity.

Every person who serves a nonprofit has to decide where to plug in. Every staff member. Every researcher. Every leader. Every volunteer. Every donor.

What’s the goal?

Do we keep fishing cats out of the river, or look upstream and deal with whatever or whoever is causing the cats to be in the river? What’s the goal? (It’s a handy question.)

Nonprofit Boards, in concert with their CEO, set the goal. The goal sets the path. (This could be a great generative conversation for a future Board meeting.)

If the goal is to be the best food pantry –  and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best food pantry –  unless your goal is social justice, and then you’re on the wrong path. The path supports the work toward the goal.

Maybe you want both?  I always did.  I wanted to run the best agency I could, doing good work, meeting our mission, with a well trained, dedicated and talented Board and staff, serving our clients with dignity AND I want to work with my community partners to eliminate the need for my agency.

That means dual goals with dual paths. You can be the best food pantry and also work with community partners to eliminate food scarcity.  Food scarcity, and all systemic issues, is a big scary multi layered bucket of issues that include privilege, implicit bias, legal and policy challenges, poverty elimination, racism, sexism, classism, housing, school funding imbalances, and lots of other things that are hard to tease out and even harder to solve.

Being the best is a go it alone, we have the answers, and we’ll get it done model. It’s a bit more territorial and a lot less collaborative, but it’s not ineffective and sometimes the circumstances call for it.

Am I competing against my partner agencies for funding?  Sometimes I am.  Does that mean I can’t also work with them to address the underlying issues in our community. Some will tell you it does.  I’m here to tell you it doesn’t.  Where you sit always determines where you stand.

Its why your values have to match your agency’s policies and its aspirations?  As I mentioned in Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice “saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing message. If we want our teams to live our values, then we have to live them and our policies and systems have to reflect them.”

Who Decides?

You do, collectively and individually. You decide at the agency level.  You decide at the community level. You decide at your leadership level- on your team, in your neighborhood.  Every day.  With every decision. Every donation. Every allocation. Every choice.

There was a great piece on NPR this morning  In Some Rural Counties, Hunger Is Rising, But Food Donations Aren’t looking at just this issue. It’s not just SW Virginia.  There are communities across the country that are discussing systemic issues and setting goals for change in their community.  I’m proud to tell you that several of those cities are in Ohio; Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus have been and continue to have these conversations.

I’m hoping it’s a national trend. Even if it’s not yet a trend that has come to your community, you can still move toward social justice.

We each get to decide if we run our agencies to be the best organization, alone or if we work together to eliminate the need for all of our agencies, because we addressed the systemic issue requiring our agencies.  How?

By deciding to be less territorial and more collaborative. Call your partners and other leaders in your community who work on like issues and invite them to discuss the options. Are you ready to set a Theory of Change for your community?  If so, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a great manual on how.

Before you do, you might have to stop being afraid of scarcity and start embracing abundance.  If you’re currently looking at the world and your ability to impact change as a zero sum game –  and it’s how many of us have been trained to think –  I invite you to read Agreements, Vibrancy and Abundance.

We can change our corner of the world, alone at our desks or we can do it together.  If our goal is social justice, together will get us farther, faster.

What’s your experience standing in the breech between social justice and charity.  Where did you elect to stand? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Advice for Graduating Students Joining the Workforce

In Leadership, Lessons Learned, Organizational Development on May 2, 2017 at 8:13 am

Four not very long years ago, I wrote the post An Open Letter to College Bound Daughters, including My Own, for my step daughter and the thousands of girls like her heading to college. She, they, my current and former students, and many others are now graduating and beginning their journey forward into the workforce.  As such, I offer each of you my experience, wishes and hard won wisdom about applying, interviewing and selecting your next job.

  1. Apply to Anything that Seems Interesting

I read a Harvard Business Review article a few months ago that said men apply to jobs for which they’re 60% qualified, yet women only apply to job for which they’re 100% qualified. If it seems interesting, you meet most of the requirements, you think you could do it AND you want to do it, or at least learn more about it, apply.  You’ll rarely get an interview for a job to which you didn’t apply.

When I graduated, you had to have nice paper, matching envelopes and stamps  – it took work to apply for a job.  Now you just click a button.  It is, literally, free.  Do it!

One caveat:  if it lists a license requirement that you don’t have, don’t bother.  If they say they need a license, they probably do.

  1. Write a Cover Letter

Always write a cover letter. If possible, try to figure out the name of the manager to whom to send it.  If not, you can get away with To Whom It May Concern.  (Do not send it to Dear Sir.  I know they don’t teach that anymore, but in case we have any older graduates, I wanted to include it.) You can send it to Sir or Ma’am, but I wouldn’t.

In your cover letter, tell them to which job you’re applying and why. Summarize your qualifications. Tell them how you meet their requirements and can address their needs. In other words, tie your experience to the job posting.

Include your name and phone number. You never want someone to have to work to figure out what you want or find your contact info. Make it easy. Tell them. At the end, thank them for considering you.

  1. Have an Appropriate Voicemail Message and Email Address; Check your Social Media Names and Posts

Have a professional voicemail message, and a reasonable email address.  I realize that voicemail is passé for your generation and many of you don’t use it, but until you find a job, use it. No one is going to keep calling. They’re going to assume you’re not interested and move on. Record a professional voicemail message and then listen when you get a message. When you do, respond within 24 hours.

I had Youth Gone Wild by Skid Row on my answering machine (yes, not even voicemail, yet) when I got the message inviting me to interview for my first job out of college.  My article Names Withheld to Protect the Guilty is about that executive director; clearly, she wasn’t the best and I did turn out alright, but please, make a better first impression.

Also check your Instagram, Twitter and other social media names and feeds. If you don’t want to be judged by what’s out there, take it down.  As many celebrities and politicians have learned before you, taking it down does not erase it.  Your best bet is avoiding putting anything on social media you don’t want to have to explain to a potential boss, or your mother.

  1. Before the Interview

Do your research. Remind yourself of the job to which you applied. Learn all you can about the interviewer, the position and the agency. Find a way to work into the interview what you’ve learned.

  1. Be Present at the Interview

Put your phone on silent, or explain why it is not. Bring a notebook to take notes, another copy of your resume and a pen.

Ask questions. You have to have questions! If you don’t, the interviewer will assume you’re not interested. Those questions should be specific questions about the position and the expectations. Some examples:

  • What are your expectations of the first 90 days?
  • By what metrics will you be evaluating the position?
  • What are the goals for the agency?  How do the goals for this position roll up under those goals?
  • What’s your management style?
  • What’s the culture of the office?
  • What are the  organization’s values? Is there a story that demonstrates one value? (Fair game, they may ask you about your own values, too.)
  • After one year, what could have I have accomplished that would make you thrilled?
  • (If you’re in the nonprofit sector, it is fair game to ask) How is this position is funded, and for how long?
  • Ask any other relevant question you have.
  1. Things not to Ask, Say or Do

Do not answer the question of why you want this job with an answer of why you need to live in the city the job is located or why you need a job in general.  The answer needs to be about why you want this job.

Do not ask about anything you should have been able to find, or about the programs in general.

Do not ask about vacation, salary or benefits. The time for those questions is at the second interview, or if it hasn’t been addressed, when you’re offered the job. Is that reasonable? Not especially. Is it factual? Yes.

Also, and I’m embarrassed to tell you this because it’s irrational – especially in the nonprofit field but likely in many other fields as well – you will be applying for jobs for which the salary is not listed. You, literally, will not know what the job pays until the second interview or unless the interviewer deigns to share that interview.  As I said above it’s considered poor form to ask about it until the second interview.  It’s stupid but again, it’s real.

Do not assume that just because you’re not sitting down across a desk the interview is not happening. While you are walking down the hall, if you get invited to lunch, if someone takes you on a tour….  no matter what is happening, the interview is ON! Every one of those people will be reporting back on their impressions of you. It’s not a one-way street, you too should be paying attention to them. Do they seem happy? Do they trash the boss when they’re out of sight?  Do they live the values they purport to hold? Do they seem disgruntled or disengaged? Do you want to work with these people?

  1. Remember the Goal

The point of a phone interview is to be invited to an in person interview. The point of that is to be invited for the final interview. The point of that is to be offered the job.

They want to like you!  Let them.

  1. Trust your Intuitions and Be Clear about Your Intentions

Never go against an uncertain conscience. If you have a bad feeling; a creepy vibe, if the interviewer looks you up and down when you first meet; if you feel something is unethical, inappropriate or just wrong, trust it.  You don’t have to be able to articulate it for it to be real. Pass.

Don’t continue to go on interviews if you’re not interested in the job. If you don’t want to move forward, remove your name from consideration. The first interview is fair game to learn more. Other interviews are less so.

  1. Listen to My Mother, and Likely Yours, too

My mother always said this about interviews: “Stand up straight. Firm hand shake. Look them in the eye.”

You’d be amazed how many people do none of the above.

  1. References

Do not use family for references. The first reference question is usually how do you know the applicant. The answer cannot be, “she’s my niece.” Aunts, mothers, fathers, etc., are not unbiased and your relationship with them is not professional.  When they say references, they mean professional references unless they specifically ask for personal references. If they do, go with a neighbor.

  1. Write a Thank You Note After the Interview

Whether you go with a hand written card or a typed letter is up to you but always write a thank you note, within 24 hours. You can get away with an email for a phone interview.  Say thank you. If you are interested in moving forward, tell them why.  Remind them of why you’re qualified. Thank them for their consideration.

  1. You are Worthy

It’s so easy when you go on job interviews to only think about if they like you. You have to like them, too. It is not a one-way street. They are not doing you a favor.  They are looking for the best person to fill the role they have and you are looking for the best place to land.  Your needs matter, too. Don’t ignore them.

  1. Consider if You Actually Want the Job, then Negotiate

I offer this whether you’re on your first, fifth or tenth job, especially when those jobs come to you: Once you’re done being flattered, you have to actually want to do the job.

If you do, when you receive the job offer, you can ask for a higher salary and possibly additional benefits than they’ve offered.  Do so in a friendly and respectful manner. You can also ask for a day or two to think about it. If you do, confirm when you’ll be back in touch with your answer.

Men often negotiate and women often don’t. This compounds over time. Other than executive jobs, you can’t usually negotiate for additional benefits, though sometimes you can.  You can usually negotiate for additional money. Do.

  1. No Decision is your last Decision

If you take a job and you hate it, find a new job. Life’s too short. If you can stick it out for a year or two, do. If you can’t, get out. Find a new job first if possible.  If isn’t a good fit, learn the lessons and move on. No decision is your last decision.

  1. Be Excited and Afraid

That’s how you should feel about a new job. When I started teaching at OSU, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep through the night-  for months!  If you are not excited and afraid, be worried. The other side applies too – if you’re exhausted just hearing about the job, that’s important information too. Jobs that make you tired before you’ve even been offered them should be avoided.

In summary, go get the job you want! Trust your instincts. Listen to your feelings. Be excited! Be great! Change the World!

What advice would you offer to new graduates? Do you have any interviewing stories to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for posts and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

The Thing About Nonprofit Leadership

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on April 13, 2017 at 9:49 am

One of the honors of my professional life, in addition to leading nonprofits and working toward social justice, is teaching at the Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University. The students are so earnest and bright! Every semester, and sometimes every week, a student tells a story and I answer, “that was a leadership decision.”

  • A donor wants to control the programming; that’s a leadership decision.
  • A Board member wants you to co-mingle grant money; that’s a leadership decision- and a teachable moment.
  • A parent challenges a procedure; that’s a leadership decision.

How you react is the difference between an agency that flourishes and one that struggles.

Donors, community leaders and others may want your agency to go in a way that is contrary to your agency’s agreed upon strategic direction. (Saying no to those requests, alone, is worth the investment in a strategic plan.) They may want you to do something with their gift that is against your values. Their values may be contrary to your organizational values. They may not want you to go in the direction that the Board has set.

That is the beauty of a strategic plan. In addition to aligning the work of an agency and getting everyone on the same page working toward the same goals, it allows the CEO to say no. Or, if the opportunity is so fabulous that no is not the right answer, to bring the idea to the Board for their consideration. That, too, is a leadership decision.

It’s easy to say yes. Someone brings you something, you say yes. They go away happy. No, on the other hand, engenders the completely opposite reaction. It’s hard to say no. It’s also critical to your and your agency’s success.

Those are not even, or by a long shot, the only decisions you will make or the only people to whom you will say no. Here’s some more:

  • A funder wants you to apply for a new grant. It’s a lot of money but it’s not exactly what your agency does. Do you say no? (Yes, you do.) Can you? (You can.) Do you follow the money? (No.)
  • A staff member does something that is against the spirit of a policy (or the law) but not technically the letter of that policy (or the law).
  • The Executive Board regularly makes decisions in lieu of the full Board, which very well may be codified in your by-laws. (I recommend that clause is only used in the case of emergency.) That, too, is a leadership decision and while it’s not your decision as the CEO, it’s totally your problem. Fix it.

Your Board members will be as aware of their role as the person who trained them, which may have been no one. If you want your Board to speak with one voice, to understand their role and the expectations of that role, to understand your role, and the responsibilities within each, you will have to train them.

You will get the Board you build; some might say (have said) you will get the Board you deserve. The nonprofit Board structure is an illustration in opposites. CEOs serve at the pleasure of their Board. Our Boards are intended to be representative of the community we serve. We want and need a diverse mix of Board members, with a diverse set of experiences, and a diverse set of skills, who have the time, talent and treasure to help us move our missions forward. It is also true that nonprofit CEOs – many of whom have spent our lives in this field and have advanced degrees, decades of experience working on the issues our agency exits to address, and significant knowledge of board process, nonprofit governance and the law – may be reporting to a group of people who have none of the above.

It’s why building your Board is so critical. You can get a lot done on sheer willpower and many nonprofit CEOs have, but your agency will be unstoppable when your Board is trained to their role and fulfilling that role.

Everyone has different goals and often different priorities. It’s why it’s so important to define both for an agency.

That’s the thing about leadership, whatever you allow, whatever you promote, whatever you support, overtly or implicitly, intentionally or accidentally, you own.

The other thing is this: you also own the decisions the people who report to you make. How you react afterward? That’s all you!

We all know that any day could be the day we quit or get fired. There’s still a job to do – and you’re in the chair. Decide wisely.

What’s your experience with leadership decisions? Do you have a story you can share?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience.  Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email.  A rising tide raises all boats.

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