Tools for Culture Building: The Case for Support

Recently, I attended an event celebrating my friend Michelle’s 10th anniversary as the development director of Legal Voice, an extraordinary women’s rights advocacy organization. Let’s just say they’re super busy these days with no shortage of alarming issues to respond to. But, as their Executive Director made clear right from hello, everything they do is about long-term systemic change.

By the time I got my coat off and ordered a beer it was obvious this organization is soulfully clear on its purpose. Every person in that room got it — the love, meaning, and gratification of being part of a family of change makers. That and the jojo’s (my friend hails from Ohio) filled me up.

I’m smitten by a deep sense of purpose. Aren’t you? We’re wired to notice it. It’s irresistible.

So how do we build a culture that connects us to that pulse of purpose and to a loving invitation to be part of our movement from the moment anyone walks through that door?

Welcome to my series on culture building where I share powerful and proven tools that enable you to create more of what you want (anything in this list grab you?) by paying attention to what matters.

  • More revenue,
  • Better employee retention,
  • Stronger boards,
  • Real change, and
  • Joy

First up? The Case for Support.

What is a Case for Support?

Your Case for Support is a comprehensive articulation of why we should care. The Case captures the issue in the community that your organization is responding to, your vision and goals for change, your plan for making that change, and why your organization is credible to successfully fulfill that plan.

This is not a quick two-page, bulleted PDF. That comes later. All sorts of “case products” in various sizes and formats, including grant proposals, websites, major donor proposals, event speeches, etc., draw from your Case. Rather, your Case is a long-form, internal document, your mega FAQ, a repository of your strongest answers to external facing donor and general questions. You will be polishing, and turning to it again and again.

Your Case should reflect your organization’s best thinking. It should align with your strategic plan and with your leadership team’s best wisdom. It should make the program staff smile. It should inspire your fundraising team.

Developing Your Case: The Process

The process of developing a great Case for Support is as important as the final product. To the extent that your organization has not fully articulated what you are asking funders and donors to support, your fearless fundraising professional often serves as Case Custodian in Chief. Wearing multiple hats -– researcher, departmental liaison, program planner, project manager, detective, cajoler, editor –- s/he/they leads the organization to harvest its best thinking around the story of impact. Top leadership’s job is to help ensure the Case is a visible and shared organizational priority.

A strong Case assumes your Board and staff are aligned around a comprehensive strategic plan. If you have no strategic plan, here is some reading to start that conversation.

In the typical pressure-cooker environment of a nonprofit or government agency, it is tempting (and all too common) to defer development of your Case, to instead charge someone to churn out proposals to fit whatever a funder or powerful donor wants to hear. We direct communications professionals to craft the annual report, brochures, or other key communications with little foundational guidance. Without a Case, you are submitting proposals and communicating on the hope that you can “iron out inconsistencies and inaccuracies later.” The organization tells the donor what she wants to hear and then, most often, gets found out. “Did we promise to serve 500 veterans when realistically we can only serve 150?” This is how you harm your organization’s reputation, poison the relationship with a donor, make staff look back, and, most importantly, sell out the beneficiaries you might have helped.

Make sure what you communicate and promise is accurate and aligned. Senior leaders, you must empower fundraising leadership to internally align what you do with whatever you promise in the community.

Case for Support Homework

In the graduate fundraising course I teach, the very first assignment my students tackle is to pick a nonprofit they feel passionate about and use public sources to draft a Case for Support. I ask them to use the headings in the outline below, and to simply draft or copy and paste narrative responses they can find into each heading. We then workshop the gaps in class.

As staff, you have a great deal more to draw on:

  • Recent grant proposals;
  • Coffee meetings with program staff;
  • Board presentations of your program scorecard;
  • Text from the executive director’s speech from the gala;
  • The long-form version of your strategic framework and program plan;

After you’ve compiled the language by heading, begin your critical review. What are the gaps in your argument? What questions can you anticipate donors having? Who should be involved in addressing these gaps and answering these questions? Sleuth out answers and craft your text accordingly.

All assertions of fact and/or statistics must be accompanied by appropriate citations along with links to the source material wherever possible. You don’t want to have to spend hours hunting for the source of a key data point on poverty that anchors a key element of your Case. Be ready to back up what you say.

Case Outline:

  • Issue Overview: Define the community problem you are solving. What is the community issue your organization’s work is focused on?
  • What is your vision statement: What will be so if you’ve been 100% successful?
  • What is your mission: What is your organization’s role in advancing your vision?
  • What are your values: What are the principles/standards/norms that guide your behavior, decisions, and actions, big and small?
  • What external conditions need to be in place to make your vision possible: What are the most crucial factors that must be addressed to create the conditions for change?
  • What specific strategies is your organization employing to create these conditions for success: What approaches are you taking to create the conditions for change?
  • Theory of Action/Change: How will your organization’s strategies make change? Can you summarize how your approach translates to actual impact?
  • How does your organization track progress toward desired impact: What indicators are you tracking to determine whether you are on course?
  • Organization history/Genesis story: What is the story of how your organization came to be?
  • Cost of doing nothing/delaying: What makes this work so urgent right now?
  • Organization Leadership: Who are the key staff and board leaders? What is their background? How are your organization’s leaders well-positioned to help advance the goals of the organization?
  • Community Connection/Partnerships: What organizations are partnering with you to increase your reach, or make your work more effective than it would be were you acting alone?
  • Overall Budget – Financial Model: How is your organization financed overall? How does your organization invest its resources? % Admin? % Fundraising? % Program?
  • Program Overview: Pick a program area to describe in detail. Is this a new program or a proven solution? Why is your approach effective? If a long-time program, what kind of track record does it have and how might it now break new ground? What sparked the development of this programmatic approach?
  • Program Goals and Objectives: What are the major goals and specific measurable objectives for this program?
  • Program Financial Metrics: What is the annual budget allocation for this program? What does it cost to deliver this program per program recipient? Are there any metrics related to financial return-on-investment you can cite?
  • Project Timeline: What is the timeline for the project? Is your project 3-years, 1-year, 6-months? What are the important steps/milestones of the project for the funding period?
  • Specific Project Costs: For the project period, what are the project costs including portion of ongoing admin, overall program costs, and specific additional project costs?
  • Project Budget Narrative: How will you spend the money (exactly)?
  • Sustainability Strategy: What is this organization’s plan for sustaining/scaling this program long term?
  • APPENDICES: What other supporting material, articles, data, or anecdotal account lend evidence to the effectiveness of your work?

Big Questions and Great Conversations

All this stuff I’ve written here? I did not get it from a book. I learned it by scrapping it out in the real world of sourcing support for my cause. As a consultant, what amazes me sometimes is the degree to which organizations wait for the consultant to show up to have the important conversations. The Case process is one way to identify your big questions, and start having those great conversations now.

What big questions need exploring? Who needs to be part of this conversation? How can we engage them? What will it take to have the conversations and decide what needs deciding to make the extraordinary work we are doing as irresistibly compelling as possible? If you need a coach to support a strategic planning refresh, to design and facilitate crucial conversations with board and staff, or just to help you develop a strong Case for Support, let’s talk. I can help.

This is culture building. This is leading. Stay tuned for more!

Where are you with your Case for Support? What cultural challenges are your confronting? Thanks for your ideas, comments, and questions below!

What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.

Putting Values to Work

When you’re spending a Saturday afternoon, a sunny one, away from family, in a “retreat space,” seated on a plastic folding chair eating Costco snacks, talking about values, it begs a few questions:

What are values?

Can we go home? What do values have to do with making this an effective social change organization?

How do we know what our values are? After we define them, then what?

Values are core principles expressed as action, norms of behavior, or attitudes. They get forged in an individual or group psyche by positive models or painful experiences. Whether or not you measure up every day, values are the gauge.

It’s important to define our values. Great Britain might easily have surrendered to the 3rd Reich. Surrender was a no brainer. But working backwards from values, not knowing how it would turn out, Churchill stood up to his naysayers, and called on his entire country to fight. Values compel us, no matter what the data say.

Action guided by values has persuasive power at an order of magnitude that boggles conventional thinking. This is why values are the cornerstone of any worthy human endeavor and essential to our community-benefit-driven enterprises.

Our nonprofit organizations aren’t facing down tanks and fighter jets, but pretty darned close. Chronic homelessness, under-resourced education, straining health care systems, chronic disease — big stuff. Whatever our missions, collectively speaking we are Winston Churchill, facing challenges that will overwhelm us unless we can inspire people to pay attention, dig in, share resources, and confront the gaping maw of uncertainty.

Values compel us to do what’s right by the world, yes, but internally, with our organizations, they guide us to be true to our standards of behavior such that our means are aligned with our ends. Ever been mired in the misery of an organization that says one thing and does another? Values disconnects are the stuff of workplace hell. Why the high turnover? Why are we losing some of our best board members? Frequently, values disconnects occur not out of malice, but because an organization’s board and senior leaders have not invested the time to define and integrate values into the functional and decision making processes of the organization.

Whether you need to update your values or start from scratch, here’s what not to do. Don’t start asking people to swarm over a list of words and place sticky dots next to their favorites. The dictionary assigns each word multiple definitions. Words are complex and laden with our subjective meanings. Let’s not doom ourselves to this frustrating rabbit hole.

Instead, start with stories of when you’ve lived your values. Your good times, your challenging ones, the more epic the better; stories are how you suss out what you truly care about.

Here’s an exercise I use with board/staff groups to discern organizational values. This exercise takes about 90 minutes. (Skip past the fine print if you prefer to refer to this later.)

STEP 1: (15 min) Work on your own, timed writing exercise:

  • Write down a story of a time when your organization did something you are proud of. What made it challenging? Why did it come together?
  • Write down a story of a really hard time your organization faced and how you got through it. Who were the s/heros? What made the critical difference?
  • Write down the story of how your organization got started? Why was it imperative your organization come into being? What was special about it?

STEP 2: (15 min) Work with a partner, share stories, listen for values:

Turn to a partner and share your stories one at a time. Partners, as you hear the stories, listen for and write down values words. Words like honesty, equity, tenacity, fairness, creativity, etc. When the first storyteller has finished telling all three of her stories, the listener reports back the values words to the storyteller. Now switch. The first storyteller now becomes the listener and writes down values words while his partner reads aloud his stories. Repeat the process above. After having heard both person’s stories, choose your favorite, most values-rich story from among your six to share with the full group.

STEP 3: (30 min) Work as a whole group, each pair shares favorite story, facilitator lists values words.

As a group, the facilitator asks pairs to share out their favorite story with the whole group plus their corresponding values words. The facilitator writes down the values words on a sheet at the front of the room.

STEP 4: (30 min) Work as a whole group to define categories, group values words, select:

After all groups report, review your full list of values words. Notice any natural groupings or themes and whether any categories seem to emerge. Group words by category (aim for no more than 6) and pick a single word from each category that best captures the essence of that category. Finish up by assigning 1-3 people to draft up descriptions next to your values words for review at a subsequent face-to-face meeting.

After defining values, then what?

Here are a several excellent examples of Values Statements or Guiding Principles. Creating a written statement is a fantastic milestone. But don’t stop there. Operationalize it. You can use the following questions to get started:

  • Where are we already living our values and how can we build on that?
  • What would integration of our values in our workplace and board culture make possible? What would it take to create that integration?
  • If our program approach were 100% aligned with our values what would that make possible? What would it take to move toward that alignment?

Looking for examples? In her September 11, 2015 column in Nonprofit Quarterly Column “Values in Your Organization and What they Have to Do with Making Money: Part 2”, Simone Joyaux offers eleven ways to operationalize values in your organization. My idea number twelve is to build values into high stakes decision-making with a “Strategy Screen.” Your Strategy Screen reminds you to consider what’s important — including values — as you weigh which direction to take.

A values vacuum hurts people and compounds the suffering our sector exists to ease. In 2012, Susan G Komen announced it would withdraw nearly $700,000 in funding from Planned Parenthood claiming it was doing so in response to in inquiry by a member of Congress. Its decision directly defunded breast screenings for poor women. In response, Komen affiliates experienced a huge backlash and support plummeted. The organization has never recovered and continues to see declining revenue and affiliate consolidations. In 2010, The American Red Cross raised $500,000 for Haitian earthquake relief that today, in 2018, has not been accounted for. No rebuilt roads, no more than six permanent homes. Contributions are on a death spiral. What values were at work here?

Our values guide us to stand up and do what’s right even when it’s difficult or lonely. But don’t think that values are old fashioned, even in this crazy era of rampant lying by people in high places. Rock solid, unambiguous values are your power source to advance along your strategic mission making path.

Need help operationalizing your values? Let’s talk.

What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.

Choice, Voice, Power, Control: The Power of Vision

Thanks to the wisdom and compassion of Melinda Gates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken a powerful stand for gender equality, making it the centerpiece of their vast global health and development initiatives.

This spring, the Foundation unveiled its strategy statement and white paper on gender equality. Acknowledging missed opportunities and harm done by top down and simplistic technical approaches to problem solving, they pledged to put people, and specifically the empowerment of women and girls at the center of their global investment strategy.

The Foundation spent the last several years developing a framework for their approach to gender equity, in particular their notion of “empowerment.” That word – empowerment – is so fraught. It can imply an unequal relationship in which power is conferred from on high to the lowly — most unsavory and loaded.

For this reason, many are loath to utter the term “empowerment,” or to use it in their communications, preferring less graceful but more careful phrasing of power centered in the beneficiary. Hence, when this word empowerment came up in the announcement of the Foundation’s gender-equity emphasis, it was quickly qualified, and by that, I mean it was backed up by a rigorous process of inquiry.

Working with an international team based in The Netherlands called KIT Gender, the Gates Foundation reviewed 115 empowerment models from around the world. After, an extensive and inclusive process, they devised the following definition:

“Empowerment of women and girls is the expansion of choice and strengthening of voice through the transformation of power relations, so women and girls have more control over their lives and futures. It is both a process and an outcome (page 13).


Choice. Voice. Power. Control.

These words spark conversation. Certainly they have already. As the focal point of billions of dollars in global health and development investment, they will transform our planet and change the trajectory of millions of people’s lives in a short time. There is no quantifying that potential – the leaders born, the political systems reshaped, the doctors, surgeons, lawyers, social change agents, economic and scientific innovators who emerge. On the most fundamental level, women and babies will cease dying for reasons they should not -– all because of the empowerment, as defined here, of women and girls.

This statement of empowerment is an example of a powerful vision.

Most visions are terrible. A great vision gives you goose bumps. It is not neutral or easy. It is a challenge to the world to change. These are the only kinds of visions we remember. They serve, on their own, as instruments of change.

  • Liberty and justice for all
  • Peace on earth
  • Equal pay for equal work

And now, I challenge you. Chances are, your organization is playing way too small. Go bigger! Your vision can go beyond your direct sphere of influence. A great vision has the power to call to action not only your specific constituents, but all people and organizations of good will who didn’t know they care, but now do.

Our organizations are not islands, they are platforms for influencing the conversation, and for shaping what people are talking about. So go big. Lead. Change the conversation. Change the world.

What’s your vision?

What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright July 2017

Casting the Role of Your Next Leader

“I can’t afford to make a mistake on this next hire, Andrea. It has to be the right person. What should I do?”

On hiring the right person, especially in our “data-is-all-powerful” era, advice abounds. Here is mine:

  1. Your organization and the environment have not stood still. Be clear what brand of leadership is needed now for your community and for your organization’s evolution.
  2. Your organization is about the purpose, the people, the culture, and the experience of being part of the team making it happen. Knock prospective candidates’ socks off with a position description that captures your organization’s heart and soul.
  3. Leadership is not management. If you want to attract a leader, frame your description as a call to adventure.
  4. Management is important too, so check in with your team about what effective management would actually look, smell, and feel like. In addition to experience, qualification, and know-how, describe qualities and style traits in your position description.
  5. Source outstanding candidates from your existing team and peers in your field. Internal referrals result in a higher quality candidate pool, and far greater retention.
  6. If you can, use a qualified, highly recommended search firm. Expect to collaborate with the process, and not just outsource it.
  7. Candidates are assessing you as much as you are assessing them at every touch point. Conduct a relational, respectful, and expeditious hiring process.
  8. Set your pay scale and your overall compensation to attract the very best, and share your salary range on your position announcement. Don’t believe the adage that nonprofit staff work for the mission. People have families to support and retirement looming. Turnover, lost productivity, opportunity cost, talent burnout are real – take care of your most crucial resource — people.

Even if you check off every item on this list, all of you grizzled veterans out there know, the likelihood of a failed hire is still high.


To reflect on this question, I turn to the world of casting. After a movie, do you stay behind watching the credits roll on the screen? Next time notice the casting director. The casting director works closely with the director, studio execs, sometimes even investors, to find the perfect actors to play every single role in the film. It’s an incredibly important and often unsung role.

Ever heard of Marion Dougherty? Of course you haven’t! Marion was a hidden figure of the motion picture industry who pioneered the field of casting. In the 1960s, she set up a casting office in New York City and was ultimately recruited in the 1970s by Paramount. At Paramount she developed a reputation for casting “unproven” actors in high profile, big budget films. Her choices were gutsy. Marion launched the careers of iconic talents like Dustin Hoffman, Glenn Close, Robert Redford, and Jon Voight. Her choices were responsible for one epic blockbuster after another. Her success was uncanny. How did she do it?

As Jon Voight said, Marion “could see what people couldn’t see.” What was her secret? Unlike the stodgy studio executives who fought her tooth and nail, she understood the changing social context of the 1960s and 70s. Audiences wanted a more authentic kind of human being on the screen. She was not afraid to innovate – to bring an edgier style of acting to film. She had a sense for chemistry and ensemble – how a particular actor would play with other actors.

But Marion was not casting from a recipe book. Her decisions came from the genius of “gut reaction,” as she called it, or what Malcolm Gladwell referred to in his book “Blink” as the “adaptive unconscious.”

“Blink” explores the way people make decisions. Through stories and research, Gladwell debunks the conventional assumption that decisions based on tons of data and analysis – aka “conscious strategy” — are superior. In fact, it turns out, conscious strategy is less reliable than adaptive unconscious decision-making. Such heresy! (If you have not already, I highly recommend checking out “Blink” and all of Gladwell’s wonderful books.)

Even if you are still skeptical about this business of gut instinct, consider the metrics — Marion Dougherty’s successful track record. When you engage in a hiring practice, should you follow all of basics (see above)? Of course! Does that guarantee a great hire? Of course not?

Think back to the times you’ve faced an unsuccessful hire. In spite of doing all of the right things, were there warning signs you ignored before you made the offer?

Before you decide on your next hire, consider this. Can you see this person bringing something fresh, perhaps something unexpected (maybe even some much needed creative tension) to shift things into a higher gear? Could this person be more than good, but great, and could their presence on the team help others feel and be great?

What about you job seekers out there? Try these questions on from your vantage point. Looking back on your career, where did you become the role and experience yourself in a whole new way? When did your team bring something out of you that inspired or antagonized you to be your best self? What epic community results were made possible in part because you were part of that cast?

Do your due diligence of course, but in the end pay attention to your gut.

Are you embarking on a leadership transition? Let’s talk.

What’s your purpose, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright July 2017




Hiring a Consultant

Beware the consultant with all the answers. Beware the consultant who agrees with everything you say. Look for someone who helps you explore your assumptions, what you are seeking, and why.

For instance, if you want to raise more money, what will that mean? If you need a strategic plan, what will that plan result in? You may come to the initial conversation having carefully drafted a “Request for Proposal,” eager to post it online, or blast it out to ten consultants. But hold on. Would you use this approach to find a marriage counselor? How about a car mechanic? A realtor? An RFP invites a consultant to sell you.

Of course, you have a strong sense about what you need. You have filters for your search. You know a lot. If you blow this choice, there isn’t another pot of money for a do over. So, yes. There’s a lot riding on it. Precisely because of that, it helps to come to the process with big ears, and an open mind about what your investment in a consultant might mean for your organization.

A consultant is a business investment that yields short and long-term benefits — especially when you aim for those benefits intentionally. For example, any of the following:

  • A sharper story of impact to attract donors and funders;
  • A program strategy that’s easy to track and convey;
  • A strategic lens to analyze how to respond to opportunities;
  • Lower turnover; or
  • More engaged board members.

These upstream benefits solve downstream symptoms.

To do this deeper work, your relationship with your consultant must be more than transactional. You must be allies. This kind of alliance has three basic elements:

  • Connection
  • Mutuality
  • Agreement on the purpose and approach of the work

If there is not a strong connection, stop. If the CEO or Executive Director feels a strong connection with the consultant and the board does not, stop. A relationship with a consultant is fundamentally about trust, which takes time to build. If you don’t start with at least a sense of connection your chances of getting to trust are pretty low.

Connection is easy to spot. Do you feel at ease? Do your ideas flow? Can you be candid? Do you like one another? Does this person listen? No need to overthink. This is a quick yes or no.

Mutuality is not so quick. Mutuality and buy in are linked. If you see your consultant as the savior with all the answers, if she is going to do all the work while you sit back, or if you are interested in tools and tricks, but don’t want to bother your board, or change your approach, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, and setting your consultant up for failure. Save yourself the money and buy a book.

As you work out your agreement, even if you don’t know all you are getting into, as hokey as it may sound, understand you are embarking on a journey together. Along the way, mutuality means supporting one another and working through challenges as a team.

Finally, agreeing on purpose and approach is an essential part of your contracting discussion. This means agreeing on outcomes, milestones, processes. Build this into your written agreement. Surprises are inevitable. By agreeing on your approach from the outset, you can work together to adjust the plan as needed along the way.

So, you’ve hired a consultant! Because your choice is built on a foundation of shared understanding, mutuality, and connection, you created the conditions for success. Even better, you gained a long-term coach and ally. Maybe even a friend.

Andrea John-Smith helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright June 2017

The Initial Consult

“We need to [insert the what] in six months.” Raise revenue? Get people aligned and working together? Grow the organization? Hire the perfect new leader? Cultivate a new partner?

Whatever “the what” is, you’ve really thought about it. You may have lost sleep over it, fought with your board over it. Your conclusions may be infused with history and culture. A lot is going on here.

On our first conversation, I am looking through the tiniest window. You say you need “X,” and in the next breath you might say, “Can you do that?”

So far, I do not believe or disbelieve anything you say. But it is not, is not, is not about all the smart stuff I know. It is about you.

So, I listen – no, not the kind of listening where you talk and I sit there like a bump on a log and repeat back what you said. No.

I ask juicy questions. Then, maybe you go quiet for a second or two, listening in before you begin to respond. Or maybe you don’t miss a beat, and you are off to the races – sharing away. Either way, when you respond, I give you my full attention.

I respond to you. If you tell me about a really tough situation, I will surely tell you that indeed you are not imagining it. It is tough. What you are experiencing is not your fault! Because it isn’t. (Hard to hear, I know. It’s so much easier when there is a clear culprit.)

I ask more questions, such as “What have you already tried?” You are smart. You are resourceful. You are probably calling me after a few hundred times around the block. You have learned lessons and crossed some things off your list. You know your organization best. You have unique insight that no expert has about what will work and what won’t.

As you share, here is what I listen for:

  • What do you care about?
  • What is really making your situation hard right now?
  • What is awesome about you?
  • What do you really want?
  • What might it take to create that?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to talk. I can’t think of anything I enjoy more than swapping stories, frustrations, hopes, dreams and ideas with nonprofit leaders. I share stories of organizations that have faced the exact or similar circumstances as you. I get excited about something you’re dreaming up and offer some tips. By the time we’ve gotten off the call, there is a very good chance, even if we’ve decided not to work with one another, we will be friends.

Honestly, my goal is to open up the conversation. Instead of you calling me with a solution you would like me to implement, or a problem you would like me to solve, we come together to explore what success would look like. When we wrap up, I ask you to send me an email that tells me what success would look like 6 months, 18 months and 3 years from now.

My goal is to combine our brilliance to create something that doesn’t just solve that problem, but changes how you think and work for the long term.

Intrigued? I would be delighted to talk with you.

Andrea John-Smith helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright May 2017

The Listening Difference

To blather on smartly is human; to listen is humane.

When people think of hiring a consultant, they imagine paying for a smart person to get instant answers. Consultants are not cheap, so what could be wrong with that?

When I was a “baby consultant,” I thought of myself as an answer vending machine — insert quarter, out pops smart answer. My clients saw me that way too. Meetings were exhausting. I’d get questions in rapid succession. My smart answers, charts and graphs didn’t actually help anyone.

Now, fourteen years later (an adolescent consultant), I have learned that being helpful means supporting people to find their own answers.

Case in point: You and your teenager are driving to a soccer tournament 45 minutes from home when, for some reason, this normally inscrutable human starts to unload about a problem. Maybe it’s school politics, unrequited love, or a lousy teacher. Whatever it is, there you are in the catbird seat behind the wheel. Next to you – your captive (and soon to be grateful) audience awaits your wise counsel.

You begin:

Step 1: Give advice disguised as questions: “Have you gone to your teacher and told him what you’re going through?”

Step 2: Offer immediate intervention: “Are you kidding? On Monday I’m calling the school to give that teacher a piece of my mind.”

Step 3: Goad and shame: “On Monday, you are going to talk to your teacher, and if you don’t, I will!”

For some reason, the conversation stops, the squeak of the wiper blades whining rhythmically the rest of your otherwise silent car ride.

What does a surly teenager have in common with an organizational leader? Transition and uncertainty come to mind. Change is scary. It brings up anxiety. The first instinct is to make it stop! Fire people. Hire people. Wring hands and worry. Find that expert to banish that anxiety. Enter consultant.

The first thing a good consultant does is listen. She asks great questions that help slow you down to reflect, that tap your wisdom and help you step back a few inches. Questions like these:

  • What’s keeping you up at night?
  • What would good look like?
  • If you had that, what would that make possible?
  • Constraints aside, what might it take to create that?

As you reflect and share, a good consultant’s mind is not wandering off to “What smart thing am I going to say as soon as he stops talking.” She is paying attention, and listening for the following:

  • What are you saying and what are you really saying?
  • What does your “what’s wrong” reveal about your values?
  • What is underneath your “make this anxiety go away” questions and worries?
  • What are your strengths and how might we build on those?

Sharing your deepest worries and your big dreams with a consultant feels risky. Does she get me/us/it? Does she know stuff? Will this information stay confidential? Is she a spy?

A good consultant knows that the most important condition needed for working well together is trust. Trust that the consultant truly understands. She has walked in your shoes and not just read about your reality in a book. Her values and yours are aligned. She thinks we have a chance. She likes dogs.

Final word to the wise—beware the guru consultant who has arrived at listening Shambalah — you never arrive. Listening is a lifelong practice.

What difference has listening made in your life? Any stories you can share? Questions? Comments? I’m all ears.

Andrea John-Smith is listener in chief at Scout Finch Consulting.

Andrea helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright May 2017

Change the World in 7 Steps

Everything that we are grateful for today began as a dream, even an impossible dream. Thanks to the advances of neuroscience, we know that people are moved by dreams. Martin Luther King did not say from the steps of the Washington Mall “I have a plan.” Thank heavens, no. His dream sparked a narrative that would ultimately result, among other things, in the election of the first African American to the highest office in the land.

Humans are hard-wired for a great story. We love hearing them. But we love creating them too. This capacity for story, in fact, is the only thing that distinguishes the human brain from other animal species. It makes us us!

But we downplay our capacity to imagine and create bright futures. We poo poo how powerful we are and how much possibility is at the tips of our fingers. The best times to get glimpses of people tapping power they never dreamed they had is when they face obstacles. Something rises up inside us when we are up against it. Things we didn’t believe we were capable of, somehow, become possible.

Case in point. A 17-year-old boy named Chris Wilson in Baltimore was sentenced to life in prison for murder. A good student, a self-described book-worm, chess player, avid cellist, he saw five of his friends murdered before the age of 17. He witnessed his mom’s boyfriend, a cop, beat her and threaten to kill his entire family. While in prison, Chris’s family shunned him; No one wrote or visited. Though on paper he was supposed to spend the rest of his life behind bars, Chris needed a reason to get up, so he created something he called a “positive delusion,” a story about the life he wanted to lead beyond the prison walls. Building on this, he wrote up a “Master Plan” to make his ” delusion” real. Today, that locked up boy is a free man in his 30s running two businesses in Baltimore, about to attend the Harvard Executive Leadership Program.

Chris’s story models the 7 steps of every successful change effort.

Step 1: Experience disturbance.

Behind every success is a story of failure – one time (or two or three) when what you thought was going to work stopped working, when the big karmic hammer fell. Most of us will not be sentenced to life in prison, but we all get to experience devastation of one form or another – personally and in the context of the organizations we are leading. Discomfort is high. The tools that used to work doesn’t anymore. You can either collaborate willingly with your transition, or be dragged along.

Disturbance is Step 1 on the path to transformation — an essential part of powering you out of maintenance mode and into change mode.

Step 2: Formulate a vision – a positive delusion. Write it down.

From the bedrock of disturbance when you might be thrashing around for answers, turn instead to questions. Questions like — “What might good look like?”

What would you create if resources were not a constraint?” “What would be different and for whom if our organization’s mission were 100% accomplished?

If your imagination feels stuck in habitual thinking, start (and say yes to) wherever you are. Whatever your first responses to your initial question, you can move up the aspirational ladder by asking “and what would that make possible?”

For example, if a nonprofit executive director of a youth development organization told me her vision was to “have programs run in the black,” I would say “Great, and what would that make possible?” In this way we continue exploring up the aspirational ladder until perhaps we get to a vision like “Kids in our community feel safe and loved.”

A vision is a statement about how the world will be different and for whom. You will know when you get to your vision because your gut says, “That’s it.” Now, write it down.

Step 3: You have your vision, you’ve written it down. Now, you’re tempted to “get real.” Your mind is exploding with all the reasons “you must be joking.” This is your habitual mind trying to put a stop to this off-script original thinking. Breath, and keep going. Ask “What will it take?” or “What are the conditions that would need to be in place for my vision to happen/be inevitable? Write these conditions down.

You may come up with conditions that you may not feel you can influence, but you will also discover conditions that are very much within reach of your influence. It’s all good! You will come upon ideas that you had not thought about before. Write them down.

Step 4: Focus on one condition at a time and reverse engineer with the “what will it take” question, all the way to now. So, if one of my conditions for kids feeling safe and loved is “Families have a place to turn when they are in crisis.” I can reverse engineer by asking, what would it take to create this. Write down all of the steps it would take and circle actions that are do-able in the next year or two.

Step 5: Ask who you might engage to move faster and further than you would on your own. When Chris Wilson went to prison he was utterly alone. He shared his “Powerful Delusion” and his “Master Plan” with the judge who convicted him, he shared it with the prison administration, and he connected with the people all around him by mentoring and being mentored. His vision and his plan made it possible for him to form a community out of nothing. It is the same in any change process. The power of your dream and the credibility of your plan attract people who bring expertise, encouragement, resources, and access to what you need to make your dream a reality. Your dream lights up others’ dreams. By sharing your dream, you are helping others advance as they are helping you to advance.

Step 6: Celebrate small and big wins. The goal cannot be the source of your joy. The journey, the many small wins, the big victories, and the expression of gratitude and the celebration of what you and the people around you are becoming – all of this is gas in the tank to keep fueling the dream. Slow down enough to take moments to remind yourself of the magic of your dream. Build those into every day. Take photos. Collect mementos. Start every meeting with a story of why this work is so awesome. Don’t skip this step.

Step 7: Take stock/learn as you go and apply that learning – adjusting along the way. The Master Plan is only a plan. It’s not bible and verse. It’s useful to notice how you thought it might go versus how it actually turned out, and then to reflect on what that might mean for your plan. Every step in the process and the people working with you are sources of invaluable insight that you can use to your advantage.

You need a bold vision. Without it, you don’t have a way to attract the support you need and to power through the difficult times. You need a plan. Without it, you seem like a dreamer, not serious — the support you do have will dwindle and new supporters you might attract will shy away.

Are you passionate about transforming a problem in your community? Are you eager to see the work you are doing build momentum? Is your organization ready to attract and build a larger community of supporters who will accelerate your progress?

Andrea John-Smith is the Founder and CEO of Scout Finch Consulting.

Andrea helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright March 2017