by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc. 2005©
on the road a lot these days, and wherever we go, we continue to learn as much
as (and often more than) we teach. Last month was no exception. A whirlwind 10
days showed us some of the extremes of life in America, and reaffirmed for us
the importance of taking a more holistic and community-driven approach to the
work nonprofits do.
follows then is a bit of travel log, a bit of insight, and a tip or two for
doing the work we do every day.
Danville, VA & Chicago,
began in the small Virginia town of Danville, and ended in the heart of
Danville - a rural southern town trying to
reinvent itself as its economy of textiles,
furniture and tobacco are no longer able to
keep the town flourishing.
Chicago - one of Americas poster
children for rebirth.
Danville - a place of classic Virginia
gentility, where our favorite waitress, Dixie, nurtured us as if we were her
Chicago - at the
airport, the cabbie yelled at us for having too much luggage, yelled at us for
not wanting to sit with it all in our laps, and yelled at us for not getting
into the cab fast enough. (Thank goodness the rest of Chicago was kinder and
Danville - our first day was blue sky sunny
and 70 degrees.
Chicago - our
last day was blue sky sunny, with the wind coming off Lake Michigan and a wind
chill of 14 degrees.
importantly to us, In Danville, we
taught rooms full of leaders of small nonprofits - arts and human services and
economic development groups - all struggling to help their community through
each of their own missions.
Chicago, we taught leaders from Bar
Associations across the country, daily trying to do their work in the most
ethical ways possible, to help both their own profession and their communities
overall, all while struggling against the stereotypes found in lawyer jokes and
political spin machines.
The Work: Danville,
In Danville, we did 2 intense days of facilitating and
educating 15 or so groups at a time through our Capacity Planning model.
confess that we love working in small and rural communities. In small
communities, the challenges are harder, the resources more limited, and the
spirit overwhelmingly willing to do what it takes. We were happy, therefore, to
be able to share a way of seeing organizational capacity that taps into the
collective abundance in every community, even in a small rural community where
the economy has certainly seen better days.
those 2 days, we enjoyed a spirited morning, facilitating discussion among some
of the regions funders, examining ways they could work together to create
more impact for the community.
Danville, our sponsor was a leader in the communitys economic development
efforts - the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. We were impressed
with how forward thinking the Institute is overall, but more impressed with
their understanding that we cannot have strong communities without a strong
sector dedicated to community benefit!
Chicago, the American Bar Associations annual Bar Leadership Institute is
a whirlwind of workshops for the leaders of state and local bar associations
from all over the country - mostly board presidents and executive directors,
and most of them attorneys. This year the conference creators added a day of
workshops for those who wanted to hone specific skills. And they asked us to
teach 2 brief workshops as part of that effort.
focus of those workshops was supposed to be Board Orientation. But
one cant discuss orientation without discussing why we do orientation in
the first place - so boards have the knowledge they need to govern accountably.
Therefore, the sessions focused on far more than just orientation. They focused
instead on doing what it takes to ensure boards remain consciously accountable.
struck by the forward-thinking of the ABA in bringing the topics of boards,
orientation, and accountability to their conference. If bar associations are to
be effective, it takes more than understanding the bar part of the
job. It takes understanding what is needed to lead and govern an association.
It takes asking those bigger questions: What is the association really here to
do? What are we really all about? How can we do the job even
In no particular order, then, some insights from the
road... and a tip!
attorneys running state and local bar associations, to mom-and-pop,
all-volunteer organizations, these two very different groups made clear the
critical need for all boards to understand why boards exist in the first place.
the common practice is to talk about what boards should do. But
because those checklists rarely include the context of why, those
lists can only assist willing boards in specific functions (such as
accounting). Without that bigger context, those lists of board responsibilities
wont engage a board around walking a higher road. And that higher road is
what governance is really all about.
when a board knows why it exists - when the context of the boards work is
the community it serves - then boards have a framework for making better
Thats exactly what we found in both Danville and
Chicago (and what we find everywhere we talk about this topic). Board members
enjoy discussing their shared vision for a better community, specifically as it
relates to their mission. They enjoy discussing the core values and
philosophies that will guide their work. They enjoy discussing organizational
capacity in a proactive and positive light.
we plan to ensure community impact?
we create a code of values and core philosophies to guide our work?
we ensure we have the capacity to get the job done, instead of a litany of
excuses for why are not providing the extent of benefit the community needs
we ensure we prevent risk and liability from eating away at our capacity to do
discussions of accountability for the things that matter most for any nonprofit
organization are significantly absent from congressional discussions about
accountability, and from the national standards weve seen. And we fear
that will further urge nonprofit organizations to focus on money, rather than
community benefit - their reason for existing.
president of a large urban bar association, to the retired rural school teacher
starting a program for disadvantaged kids, it was exciting to see our
Community-Driven governance model resonate so deeply across disciplines and
across communities and cultures. In both Danville and Chicago, the discussions
no one wanted to end centered around a vision for a better community, and the
core values that inform vision. These are the topics that create amazing
boards, leading amazing organizations, all towards creating amazing
talk about community impact and core values, people often ask: Our
meetings are already jam-packed. How can we find time to talk about anything
more than what we're already discussing?
The answer is found in a consent agenda.
consent agenda, it is critical that board members read their materials prior to
the meeting. A common lament among boards using consent agendas is that board
members dont always do that reading.
result, an item approved by consent agenda in April may come back up in July,
only to have a board member say, I dont remember voting on that! We
need to talk about it! And thats simply because he voted on the
consent package without reading what he was voting on.
heres a tip from the president of a bar association. I wish I had gotten
his name, because Id love to give him credit!
approval of the consent agenda, a form is passed around. The form includes the
meeting date and a list of all items approved in that meeting's consent agenda.
The forms then states, "I have read the items in the consent agenda, and I am
fully aware of all the issues approved on this date." After voting, each board
member signs his/her name.
board president told us that this form went a long way towards
encouraging board members to read their materials and to know what
they were voting to approve. And so we share it with you!
we have come to disdain the word collaboration. While nonprofits
are told that collaboration equals success, in reality, that
success is often elusive. Instead, what we see in collaboration is
2 or 3 organizations sharing decision-making and funding, often to less than
It is no
wonder. The nonprofit world has been sold on a fantasy that organizational
leaders will happily share control, share precious funding, share access to
their key funders, just because they are told that is the only way their
projects will be funded. Instead, human issues of ego, turf and control seem to
rule many collaborative efforts.
of 5 could tell us this approach wouldnt work. Regardless how much ice
cream is promised, it is the rare child who will happily take turns, share
precious toys, share Mommys love. Why are we surprised when it
doesnt work with grown-up things like money, power, and community
founded an organization based on a model of shared resources / functions at
every level of the organization, we keep careful watch over what works /
doesnt work about collaborations. Clearly, one of the most important
factors is trust. And just as clearly, one can see why trust-based
collaborations havent worked: Funders continue to use competitive
processes to award grants, and folks who compete have no reason to trust each
though, many funders blame the nonprofits themselves for collaborations
failure. I wish I had a dime for every funder that tells us, The
nonprofits in our community just wont work together! It never
occurs to them to look instead at their own flawed logic - that a competitive
funding system is not the place to force trust-based collaborations between
otherwise competing agencies.
experience, we have found that systems generally fail before people fail. When
we find a better system, the people who were formerly considered part of the
problem almost immediately become willing partners in the
do you build systems that begin to build trust? To do our small part, about a
year ago we decided to see what would happen if we turned our workshops into
opportunities for building trust, shared learning, shared experience. What if,
in addition to each individual organization learning to do its own work more
effectively, a whole room full of organizations began to learn to do the work
of the whole community more effectively?
approach has been the guide to our developing all our workshops. We have taught
sustainability and fund development using that approach. And in Danville, we
taught the subject one would assume to be the most proprietary of all -
analyzing the things about each of their organizations that worry board members
and EDs on a daily basis, and making plans to address each of those
helped so many organizations build Capacity Plans to address those critical
issues. But when it came to teaching this subject, we wondered: Would competing
organizations talk candidly about the trouble they are having finding board
members willing to serve? Would they confess that their personnel policies
havent been reviewed in so long they cant recall? That their
signature event cost more to produce last year than it brought in?
way to find out would be to do it.
as weve done with all our other workshops, we facilitated all the
organizations in the room as if they were one organization - asking all 40+
attendees to share their concerns, their fears, and their aspirations about the
issues they face every day. After that large-group discussion, the individual
organizations broke out to focus internally on the proprietary issues related
to that topic. Then back to the large group for the next topic, back to the
individual agencies - back and forth throughout the day.
those Capacity Planning workshops as shared facilitations reinforced for us
that even with a topic every group assumes it should tackle privately, there is
more strength in multiple agencies working and learning together than apart.
Organizations new and old, large and small, arts and human service and
education and economic development, all learned together about the
issues common to all nonprofit organizations. They griped
about their boards together; they griped about finances together; and they
learned to build a vision together. Then they broke into groups within their
individual organizations, working on their own stuff.
matter how many times we do our workshops this way, at the end of the day,
folks take us aside to tell us they wished they had had more time to learn from
each other. In Danville they told us in person and wrote it on their
elated! Our experiment is proving that its not just with the
easy topics that organizations want to work and learn together. In
the most proprietary subjects of all, organizations find tremendous value in
sharing each others wisdom. And that sharing of wisdom builds
brings us back to collaboration. As we watched rooms full of otherwise
competing organizations share their fears and their dreams, we realized there
are absolutely ways to build trust. Perhaps if we were to stop forcing
collaboration and start building trust first, cooperation will
happen on its own.
Trust-Building for the Work Funders Do
day, when we met with Danvilles funders, they talked of their
frustrations with competition between organizations. We shared with them our
thoughts about competition, and then shared the comments from the day before -
that the organizations do want to learn from each other and work together. We
talked about building trust.
encouraged that group to examine the behaviors they model to the organizations
they fund. If they want organizations to work and share resources together,
then funders should do the same. If they want organizations to avoid
duplication, then funders should do the same. If funders cant walk that
talk, they should not be surprised when the organizations they fund dont
walk that talk either.
frequently share these observations with funders, heres what we found in
Danville: by the time we left, they were making plans to get together again, to
begin figuring out how they could
walk that talk. Had we done no work but this one session, we would have left
Danville elated that change was possible, was beginning.
aim for a sharing of effort, a sharing of focus, a sharing of resources, all
aimed at making our communities better places to live, it doesnt need to
be top-down, and we dont need to call it collaboration. We
just need to decide we will work together to make the community a better place
funders are Community-Driven, the possibilities that trickle down to the
community are overwhelming. Danville reinforced that for us so clearly, that by
the time our plane had left the ground, we had already decided to create a new
e-newsletter just for funders. Thank you, Danville!
Nonprofit Work is All
word collaboration, we note the irony of another common term in the
world of nonprofits: Faith Based Organizations.
this with irony because all of us in this sector, working to benefit the
community and the world - all of us live by faith. We may not be
Religion-Based - may not have our activities stem from a particular
view of God or worship - but one cannot do the work we all do without
becomes more and more clear as we work with more and more groups, from every
walk of life. Faith isnt about established religion. Faith is
about the human spirit - the thing inside us that separates us from the other
creatures with whom we share the planet. It is about life being better. And
every person working in the nonprofit sector taps into that spirit every
trip brought no other subject home for us, it is the conviction that the work
nonprofits do is all work of faith, from feeding the hungry to building
glorious works of public art. And as we spent time talking with pastors and lay
people alike, the one subject all smiled and heartily agreed upon is that this
is a sector filled with faith.
workshops in Danville raised this topic as we watched a broad diversity of
organizations share their dreams for what Danville could be, long into the
future. They quickly realized that they all saw the same future - a future rich
in compassion, grace, respect, opportunity - a vision rich in the human
in Chicago the weekend of the St. Patricks Day Parade, when Chicagoans
tint the Chicago River the deepest Kelly green one could ever imagine - a green
so out of place that you couldnt help but stop, smile, giggle at how
GREEN it is! People laughed, pointed, took
photos of themselves in front of it. That silly green river made a difference
in their day, touching the spirit inside everyone who saw it.
there was music, or sculpture, or a musical sculpture - how to describe it?
Long rods of rebar, sticking straight up out of the ground, each a few inches
from the next, creating a huge musical instrument that could be played by the
wind or by human hands - an 8 foot tall wind chime, held firmly to the earth.
At first, I tentatively clanged a few of those bars against each other. Then
more firmly. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the middle of them all,
dancing and running between them, clanging those bars of different tones,
making a joyful noise.
course, there is Chicagos architecture - a veritable picture book of
faith and the human spirit, as Chicago recreated itself after the fire that
eliminated almost the entire city over 100 years ago.
Music. Faith that the community and the world can be a richer, more plentiful
place for all. While the body and the mind make life possible, it is the spirit
that makes life worth living. In Danville, discussions about the arts led to
discussions about a poverty of the spirit that keeps poor people
from ever thinking or hoping there is an end to their suffering. And in
Chicago, at the Bar Leadership Institute, we watched as discussion arose not
just about how to be more accountable to the dues-paying membership of those
associations, but a larger accountability - an accountability to do good in the
and the human spirit at work again.
fortunate in Chicago to spend time with the director of the Chicago Bar
Foundation - one of many such foundations across the country, whose mission is
to increase access to justice for those impacted by poverty, abuse and
discrimination. For a single mom trying to collect child support. For an
elderly victim of consumer fraud. For a disabled person fighting for the
education that will allow him to live independently. Access to justice speaks
directly to the spirit our country was founded on!
and the human spirit.
It is at
the base of all we do that is good. It is the way we express that which is
meaningful inside us.
||When we divide ourselves into mind/body/spirit, and
believe one is more important than the other,
talk about feeding the poor without addressing that poverty of the
talk about teaching math but provide no means for children to express
themselves outside the work of the mind,
indeed lead lives of quiet desperation.
define faith and the spirit as only possessed by
churches, synagogues, mosques, temples - we are cheating ourselves of what is
really divine in each of us.
what this whole sector is about - the faith that the human spirit can indeed
change the world. It is truly the only thing that ever has (she says, with a
nod to Margaret Mead...)
work to bring a Community-Driven approach to the nonprofit sector, we will
continue to notice and talk about that integration of body, mind and spirit. We
can only build whole communities if we understand what it is to be
honored and humbled, every day, to work with truly faith-based organizations -
organizations of the human spirit. We learned more this past month, from the
small organizations in Danville, from the funders in that small community, and
from the bar leaders we met in Chicago, than we could have dreamed possible.
nonprofit sector has so much to teach, so much to share. By tapping that very
spirit, focusing organizations back on whats important - the communities
they serve - we know the human spirit will be a big part of creating change in
the quality of life in our communities.
all, the human spirit achieves what it aims for. It was the human spirit that
flew to the moon. It was the human spirit that created an internet that
connects the whole world. Together, our collective spirit will make our
communities better places. And we are honored to be part of that