4 Ways to Lead Your Nonprofit During Tumultuous Times
When times are tough, it’s difficult to think clearly and rationally — or to have time to think much at all. That’s why it’s important to take time to plan during calmer periods.
Christine DiBona Lobley, executive director at Fred's Footsteps, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, participated in the keynote panel, “Board Engagement and Leadership During Uncertainty,” for Armanino’s 12th annual Nonprofit Symposium yesterday. The event was recorded live at its Philadelphia office and broadcast to its Chicago, Denver and Fort Worth, Texas, offices, as well as a virtual audience. Jane Scaccetti, of counsel, and Stacie Cornwell, nonprofit industry group leader at Armanino, also joined DiBona Lobley on stage.
DiBona Lobley’s nonprofit was established to honor the legacy of her late father, Fred DiBona, and his passion for helping critically ill children whose families are facing financial crises. Though calm times are hard to come by in the nonprofit space, aim to develop your nonprofit’s vision, mission, guiding principles and culture during calmer times, she said.
“So I think a lot of organizations can clearly define their vision and their mission, maybe even their guiding principles,” she said. “But sometimes when you get to what your culture is — more specifically, your mindsets and your behaviors — it's a little more challenging.”
For Fred’s Footsteps, the guiding principles are family, compassion, connection, integrity and legacy, while its culture includes behaviors the organization embodies:
- We are pragmatic.
- We are flexible.
- We are thoughtful.
- We are courageous.
- We are reliable.
Regardless of what aspect of your organization you’re defining, here are DiBona Lobley’s four pieces of advice to reach and maintain your goals.
DiBona Lobley noted the words you use to frame your organization are just buzz words without definitions. They are also meaningless if you don’t utilize and enforce them.
“You need to make sure that when you're communicating with your board, your volunteers, your staff that you're using these words, and using these mindsets, and reminding them about them.”
The pandemic forced people and organizations to adapt in different ways, with the return-to-office plan being one such example.
“Just because we've always worked in buildings doesn't mean we continue to,” DiBona Lobley said.
DiBona Lobley listens to her staff and makes sure they feel heard but also makes it clear not every issue can be resolved to their liking. Some staff wanted to be in the office, but not every day. Others wanted to select in-office days week by week. The solution? On Wednesdays and Thursdays, everyone is expected to be in the office but there’s flexibility — as indicated in point No. 2 outlining the culture.
Another example of rethinking how things are done involves the organization’s approach to building its board. Fred’s Footsteps founding board was composed of close family and friends of the organization’s namesake. And though DiBona Lobley admitted that approach is common and makes sense at the beginning, it might not be the best long-term strategy.
“And I think that the mistake that a lot of organizations make is it feels mutually exclusive, that by expanding your circle and adding more and more members, that it means that you are abandoning your roots,” she said. “And you can do both at the same time.”
To avoid offending any members, the team positioned the move as a way to avoid frequently asking them for donations but to also facilitate growth beyond their immediate circles. The organization soon determined that they needed younger board members, including those who are up-and-coming leaders.
“We really wanted to transition from being a board of people who knew and love Fred's [Footsteps] — so they support the mission — to being a board of people who love what we do,” DiBona Lobley said. “And then we're able to carry his legacy on that and tell them more about him. And I think what I'm really most proud of now is [that] most of the board members never knew him.”
Transparent and Frequent Communications
Nonprofits often ask board members to contribute a certain amount annually to a nonprofit as a role requirement, but Fred’s Footsteps wants to ensure it’s welcoming to younger board members so has never mandated a “give-get” policy. Instead, the nonprofit asks board members to “give and give generously,” leaving the definition of that up to them.
“I think that it makes board members feel valued, it makes them feel that we’re meeting them where they are as opposed to $10,000 is what’s expected because the truth is $1,000 from one board member might be more generous than $10,000 from another board member,” DiBona Lobley said.
In addition, Fred’s Footsteps has one board member who made it clear up front that he didn’t want to fundraise but offered to be on the governance committee.
“And he does a fantastic job,” she said. “So setting that expectation upfront, I think, is really important.”
However, if a board member is ineffective in their role, she suggests first trying to find what is the right fit before having a difficult conversation.
“I've found, with ineffective board members, generally, they're just waiting for you to make that call,” she said. “I think it's really hard for people to leave boards on their own. And sometimes it's just waiting for you to make that call. And sometimes it's just a relief [for] everyone. I believe that with staff members as well.”
That open dialogue with the board also needs to extend to the organization's budget. In order to gain approval for a grants management system, for which the organization planned to raise money specifically to fund, DiBona Lobley communicated the need. She explained how the program manager, who is a social worker, could directly help more families solve problems if she wasn’t buried in managing grant applications.
“It was costly for an organization our size,” DiBona Lobley said of the technology. “... And I think that being able to say that to them and putting [the program manager’s] skill set to use in ways that's more useful for our families, and enhancing our mission, and advancing the services, and enhancing the connection to the families as well … then helps us to make a pitch for why we should have this technology.”
Prioritizing Your Team
Nonprofits are constantly doing more with less, and have been dealing with staff shortages especially over the last few years. So prioritizing your team is vital to your organization’s — and your mission’s — success.
“There's a lot of burnout all over,” DiBona Lobley said. “But, in nonprofits, specifically, the team is the greatest asset. Your staff, they can quickly lose passion for your mission if they feel like their well-being — both physically and mentally — is not being regarded by leadership.”
Since DiBona Lobley values technology, she views cloud-based technology as a must to accommodate the organization’s hybrid policy. When it comes to investing in other solutions, like the grants management system, she must validate both the cost of the solution and the staff needed to support it. If both are not feasible at the moment, it’ll go on a wish list for when the capacity exists.
“I'd love to be able to use more donor research, more wealth engines — those types of things,” she said. “We don’t really have the capacity right now to do that — our development department is already stretched thin.”
As another way to avoid employee burnout, Fred’s Footsteps has implemented an open paid time off (PTO) policy in addition to a hybrid work schedule.
“We know you can work from anywhere,” she said. “I'm trusting that you're gonna get your job done, so I don't need to count how many days you've taken PTO. It does not work for everyone. I completely understand that a lot of larger organizations — that doesn't work for, but for us, it did.”