Bill Gates has His List, Here’s Mine

Posted by on Dec 19, 2019 in Articles, Blog

Bill Gates recently shared his annual list of favorite books, a collection of powerful stories from 2019 I’d like to share my own year-end list, albeit of a different nature.   I serve in many roles working with foundation and nonprofit leaders, boards and staff – thought-partner, planner, facilitator, coach and oftentimes organizational “therapist.” The connecting thread is helping people and organizations pursue change – first in themselves and their organizations, then in their work out in the world.  In this spirit, here is my list of particularly insightful quotes I’ve come across over the past year or so.*  Each piece of wisdom strikes me as a truth in our journey through change, as individuals and as organizations.  Enjoy!Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.      – Franklin Pierce AdamsIt is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.      – Eugene IonescoWe are often unable to tell people what they need to know because they want to know something else.      – George MacDonaldThe only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.      – Arthur C. ClarkeWe so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.      – Alexander Graham BellIt is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old; they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.      – Gabriel Garcia Marquez*Tip of the hat to the Economist Espresso morning briefing where most of these quotes...

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Sometimes Board Chairs Need Support, Too

Posted by on Oct 17, 2019 in Articles, Blog

It is common practice for chief executives of foundations and nonprofits to utilize coaching to bolster their leadership and management skills. This can ultimately benefit the entire organization.   It is less frequent for board chairs to have a similar kind of support even though their unique leadership role in governance often presents its own challenges. The chair can’t always confide in or consult with the chief executive or other board members – so who do they turn to when navigating or untangling particularly difficult moments? I served as a coach to the board chair of a family foundation which was going through a bumpy generational transition and asked the chair to share this story of our work together. (I always provide such support on a confidential basis so am not including the chair’s name or affiliation.)  Q:  What moved you to seek assistance for executive coaching as the foundation’s board chair? A:  I was fairly new in the role of board chair and found myself forging through the challenges of bridging our founders’ intents and leadership style with the enthusiasm, broad skill sets and expectations of the next generation.  We kept bumping against issues like governance, communications, family factions, grantmaking protocols, etc. that caused stresses and frustration. You had worked with the larger family in our planning and retreats, and were aware of each family member and our various dynamics.  Having you as the outside coach helped me establish a plan of action. You were also my “911” at times as some of these challenges arose. Q:  What did you learn through our coaching work, and how did you apply that learning inside the foundation? A:  Some of the most valuable tools were around how we set expectations and how we communicate.  We use these in the foundation’s deliberations but also in other family/group settings.  It has been the goal to get consensus on how we’ll work together, to learn how we process difficult conversations even it that means we agree to “park” them for a while, and how we invite family members to express themselves in a different format.  Q:  What counsel would you share with board chairs at other foundations who might be thinking of utilizing an executive coach to strengthen their work? A:  It is helpful to have an outside party who is experienced, skilled and unbiased.  For me, it was invaluable to have an ongoing consulting relationship with someone who came to know our foundation issues, the parties involved and who cared about a positive outcome for all of us. An outside coach is also able to bring fresh perspectives and ideas to the process.  In my case, it was extremely helpful to learn of new practices, and also to recognize timeless values that honored the intents of our founders. There is huge benefit in receiving counsel from someone who has experience working with other foundations and families with similar challenges.  A coach’s insights into effective solutions and positive outcomes can help create a pathway for continued growth and success for the foundation and its...

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Going Deep into Organizational Change

Posted by on Sep 19, 2019 in Articles, Blog

(Part Two of a Two-Part Series) Last month, I shared Part One of a two-part interview with long-time colleague, Jill Blair, about her paper,“New Leader, Endless Possibility” (Read here) Jill describes the year-long journey she spent as an embedded Senior Fellow change-agent during a critical transition phase of a legacy agency.Here is Part Two of my interview with Jill as we look at other dimensions and challenges of this deep-dive experience in organizational change. If you missed Part One of our conversation, you can find it here.  Q: I loved the simple technique you utilized at the beginning of your year at the Center to visually note change is in the air. You put up several large post-it notes with key comments on your office door for everyone to see. What kind of reactions and comments did you get right off the bat?A: I think folks appreciated it – they stopped and read – they sometimes wrote. But maybe the biggest effect was that my open door with post-it notes was an invitation to conversation. I think it was the key to so many drop-in visits from people at all levels of the organization – for all different reasons. My door was a canvas for sharing feelings, thoughts, reflections, hopes and fears – it was a place where I expressed vulnerability by putting my own thoughts on display. The combination of my door literally being open along with the posted notes “said” I am human and accessible. So much of what I came to understand about the organization and the people within it was a result of that very, as you say, simple technique.  Q: Throughout the year, you were intentional in designing disruptive approaches to shake up the same old-same old. “Crazy Concepts,” for example, sounds like it may have begun a bit light-heartedly, but it turned out to produce substantial change efforts. What was happening at the Staff level through such disruption?A: Funny you should say that it started “light-hearted.” The first Crazy Concepts session we held, Paul arrived wearing a really silly hat. Everyone chuckled as they settled down in their seats. He set the stage for open minds and hearts. Crazy concepts was a solution-strategy exercise that brought people together across program areas and from different levels within the organization. It was an opportunity for people to learn about the organization and about one another. It was problem-solving and it was an exercise in risk-taking. The Center needed to develop both of these muscles – the problem solving (not just problem-finding) and the risk-taking muscles. The solutions we adopted through Crazy Concepts were framed as time-limited experiments and they required people to stay in these interdisciplinary, cross-level groupings – so this really helps build relationships in service or the organization’s interest rather than just in the interest of a particular program or department. As for staff reactions to disruption – of course, there was anxiety about change – no question. But there was also a certain amount of positive energy. People were hopeful and fearful at the same time.This is the nature of change. There will be resistance and there are resistors. There will be some early adoption and there will be some early and brave adopters. My sense is that it is important to name what you see – to acknowledge the fear and the hope – to share the enterprise as an adventure. I am comfortable with the tension and ambiguity associated with change and I can tolerate the emotional aspects of it too. My bottom line, harsh but true: I encourage leaders to “go for the light.” When seeking to make significant change, find people who bring light to the effort – they bring their hope in a basket and they share the journey with you. And avoid the people who say “yes” and do “no.” It’s easy to spot them; call them out and (sometimes) let them go.  Q: Much of your work as the Maestro of Mayhem was with the CEO and the Staff, less so with the Board. In retrospect, was this...

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How Foundations can Support Generating New Ideas & Engaging New Voices in Community Development

Posted by on May 29, 2019 in Articles, Blog

My experience working on community and economic development issues in mid-sized metropolitan areas around the country has taught me a couple of key lessons. It’s difficult to get traditional players to truly think outside of the proverbial box. Some places are insular and hesitant to look externally for ideas and learning. Local folks with new ideas and energy are turned off by the same-old, same-old or just aren’t welcomed into the conversation.Here’s a great story about how one community transcends these dynamics. I talked with Brady Groves, President, Richland County Foundation, on how philanthropy took a leadership role in shaping a new approach, generating new ideas and bringing new voices into the work. Q: The Foundation was looking for new ideas to stimulate economic and community development in Mansfield, Ohio. How did you end up supporting a group of local folks to travel to SXSW in Austin?A: We had seen a variety of architectural proposals from groups seeking funding for development of our downtown. While all the plans were impressive, they lacked that emotional connection we were seeking. During this time, we were approached by our Chamber of Commerce and local on-line news source to provide a grant that would send a couple of community members to the South by Southwest conference as a way to invigorate creative thinking in our business sector. It was at this point, the community foundation decided, why not send a group to the conference with the express purpose of bringing back ideas to create an investment strategy for downtown Mansfield. In order to create the emotional connection we were seeking, we selected 15 individuals that skewed very diverse and young, but all had a personal connection to the central business district. Q: Sometimes communities are inward-focused and are reluctant to look outside their borders. How did you bring people along with this thought of learning from the outside?A: As a visual representation, we collected all the community development reports for Mansfield that have been produced in the last 30 years. They were stacked from the floor beyond the table; truly an indication to try something different. Part of the requirement of being selected to attend SXSW was the responsibility of providing daily blogs which were published by the local on-line news source. The blogs allowed the community to get a glimpse of the things the group was seeing and hearing during the conference. The views and time spent on those pages were enormous – over 18,000 people read the blogs and the #SXSW419 had an additional one million views. We quickly realized people were interested in what was going on. Q: What have been some of the most important moments for you in this venture?A: Watching non-traditional leaders, with little “street-cred” in the power circles of Mansfield, present ideas to 28 mentor leaders, with an established history of community leadership, in creating an 86- page investment strategy which highlighted 39 different projects. This community collaboration turned the trip from just sending a bunch of previously unconnected people to a music/geek-fest conference, to a community experience that everyone could share and become involved. Q: What advice would you share with other foundations involved in similar community building endeavors?A: Look at our plan. The first 18 pages of the Mansfield Rising plan talk about how this started and how people were chosen to participate. The goal was to be transparent and intentional in our communication to the public. Investing in local leaders was the first key to our success and attending SXSW was second. Without these two factors, we would not have gained the wide community interest nor allowed to think broader than our own...

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Why it’s Important for Foundations to Align Their Investments with Their Values

Posted by on May 7, 2019 in Articles, Blog

When working with foundations in strategic planning or evaluation efforts, I always advise that we start with the organization’s values. What are the fundamental drivers of the foundation’s work, what it wants to achieve and how it will be successful in those efforts. In a recent conversation with Brad Norton, Director of Endowment Solutions, for Winfield Associates, we looked at another important area for foundations to consider – aligning their investments with those core values. Q: First off, why do you advise your foundation clients to prioritize aligning their investment criteria with their core values? A: We advise all our foundation clients, regardless of size, to create an Investment Policy Statement (IPS) that articulates the investment return objectives, asset allocation ranges, and responsibilities of Trustees and third-party advisors/managers. Incorporating trustees’ values into the investment strategy is a process. This requires trustees to reflect on the foundation’s mission statement and consider selecting investments that have value alignment in their business practices. These practices could range from workforce diversity to reducing environmental waste to shareholder-friendly policies. Q: I’d imagine that sometimes achieving that alignment is easier said than done. What sort of guidance do you provide foundations in exploring what alignment can look like for them? A: Every foundation has its own culture and value system. The first question to ask is “Do we want our portfolio to seek maximum returns, regardless of investment type, to provide the highest level of funding to communities?” or “Do we want to align our values with investments that will seek competitive returns but may constrain our opportunity to earn the highest returns?” If values alignment is the primary objective, then a foundation must determine whether to: exclude certain types of investments such as tobacco, alcohol, and weapon manufacturers pursue an inclusive strategy of owning investments that support positive societal values such as diversity and clean environment, or a combination of exclusions and inclusions. Identifying corporate citizens making positive contributions to society should be a goal. A caveat is the more restrictive the values screening, the ability to generate higher returns may be constrained. Q: Do you have a couple of examples of how different foundations have used their core values to clarify or strengthen their investment policies? A: Yes, we have seen foundations clearly set expectations with their investment advisors in terms of acceptable types of investments. As the IPS is an internal document, the foundation can rely on the advisor to select appropriate investments as well as communicate to the underlying investment manager what are acceptable attributes. Investing in companies pursuing sustainability practices is an area of focus for many foundations. Trustees can confidently “advocate” their foundation’s values through the investment process. Q: What advice might you have for a foundation that is thinking about how best to follow its core values into an investment strategy? A: There are numerous approaches a foundation can consider. Incorporating core values into an investment strategy does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Spend meaningful time discussing trustees’ values and how to incorporate these values during your next IPS review. An IPS is a “living” document that should be reviewed every few years. Similar to corporations that may seek to reduce fossil fuel consumption every year, a foundation could set a goal to increase its value aligned investments allocation annually to avoid a one-time portfolio realignment which could potentially harm investment...

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Supporting Innovation to Tackle Poverty

Posted by on Apr 16, 2019 in Articles, Blog

What was it that wise person once said about expecting different results from doing the same thing over and over again? Well, what would happen by coming at a particularly challenging issue like poverty from another angle? What would happen if you took a page from the handbook on entrepreneurship, injected the spirit of innovation and mixed it up with funding and coaching support for smart folks who bring new ideas? The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland did just that with the launch of the Innovation Mission: Fighting Poverty with Big Ideas. Foundation President Susanna Krey talked with me about what they, the social entrepreneurs and the community are learning. Q: The Foundation made a crucial strategic decision with its Innovation Mission. How did you land on this approach? A: We have spent the last two decades deeply immersed in seeking ways to break the cycle of poverty here in Cleveland. We’ve seen some really incredible results, like a forecasted end to chronic homelessness by 2020, but when all is said and done, a full one-third of Clevelanders still live in poverty. A fellowship was merely the vehicle we used to develop more impactful ideas that could address the issue of poverty in Cleveland. We believed that innovation can be learned and wanted to begin to develop this capacity in our partners. We know that innovative approaches can provide depth in understanding the problem. We hope these individuals will help their organizations incorporate these ideas into everyday practice. Q: What have been some of the most significant moments in the process you launched? A: We kicked off The Innovation Mission in December 2017 with an opening reception. It was such a memorable evening, and we were inspired by the fellows’ presentations and passion for the issues they chose to address. It felt like a very exciting moment, for all of the stakeholders who had been involved in the fellowship’s development to see the program come to fruition with such energy. The beginning of the design process was also a milestone. During the beginning months of the fellowship, the fellows faced various challenges and obstacles that seemed insurmountable at different times. Some of these required the fellows to pivot or refocus their projects. But, at 10-12 months into the fellowship, all of the fellows seemed to hit their stride; they had adjusted their projects and were moving confidently in a direction that held opportunity for success. And our first big result from one of the fellowship projects came from the work of Hazel Remesch, a supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. Hazel’s work led directly to a new rule in the Cleveland Housing Court that will make it easier for residents to seal their eviction records, eliminating a major barrier to safe and stable housing. Q: What would you say have been the key learnings thus far from the people which the Innovation Mission is supporting? A: Each of the fellows has made significant progress on their initiatives through research and partnerships, and all have credited The Innovation Mission with helping them think differently about their approach to work in their professional careers. The fellows have learned that true innovation is not just a bright idea; it involves constant iteration, some failure and plenty of learning. When they began the fellowship, the fellows thought they were going to spend 18 months designing a solution, and many were surprised to find that the key to their success was spending most of their time focused on the problem they were trying to solve. By studying the issues, fellows were better able to identify gaps where they could step in to help, and they found it easier to establish partnerships with people and organizations already focused on the same issues. Q: What advice would you share with other foundations based on your experience with this strategy? A: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you want to make a big change, be as thoughtful as you can – make plans, anticipate questions, identify and plan for barriers to...

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