Why I’m NOT resolving to read more books in 2018

(A day in the life of my nightstand…)

From all sides, we’re urged to set reading goals for 2018 and read more books.

Each time I hear this message, I think, “No!”

I read many books yearly. I have my chaotic, non-linear process down to a science: Friends or colleagues tell me about a book or it is mentioned in a newspaper article or blog post. I request the book at the library, read it, add it to my goodreads collection and pull the next one off my nightstand.

I’m a lifelong learner. I need reading in the same way that I need food, water or sleep. Mostly I read in the evenings. When I need to read a book for work, I read it or refer to it during my work hours.

This past year, I came to an important realization.

I already know enough. Often, I know too much.

I have a different challenge.

I need to spend more time creating content that connects my knowledge with the questions and interests of my communities of nonprofit leaders, consultants and writers.

Sometimes, that means stepping back ten steps to meet learners where they are. The first time I taught grant proposal writing, one of the students raised her hand and asked, “What’s a grant?” A light bulb went off. I couldn’t assume that learners came with any knowledge in this area. The next time I taught the material, I added a clear, basic definitions so that everyone understood the terms we were discussing.

Teaching has given me the opportunity to package what I know in a way that helps others.

Writing consistently is another way for me to synthesize learning and share its implications. When I write, I filter new knowledge through my experiences and questions and think about its application to potential readers or learners.

So I’m NOT resolving to read more books in 2018. I’ve got that one down.

I am resolving to “spit out” more of my knowledge—by creating webinars, workshops and blogs— to share what I know and help all of us do better work.

What should your nonprofit resolve to do in 2018?

I recently facilitated several conversations with staff and board members from Bay Area nonprofit organization about the results of the impact capacity assessment tool (iCAT). The iCAT measures the health of a nonprofit in six core areas: managing, planning, learning, leading, overseeing and generating. Staff and board members take an online survey that asks about perceptions of the organization in these areas. The iCAT converts this data into a report on organizational strengths and weaknesses and recommendations effective next steps.

Recommendations range from strategic planning to fundraising training to investing in systems for greater organizational oversight. Organizations could use the recommendations to plan next steps or apply for capacity-building funding.

A few days before a results meeting, I spoke with a nonprofit executive director to go over last-minute details. She  was excited to hear the results and admitted that the process of taking the survey had been thought-provoking. Whatever results emerged, her mind had been opened by “taking the temperature” of the organization. Her response told me that, even before the results were delivered, the iCAT added value by zooming out from the questions of daily operations. The results added another level of learning and a path forward.

Assess, learn, plan. Repeat!

Which brings me to what all nonprofit organizations should resolve to do in 2018 and every year: Assess, learn, plan. Repeat!

Change is the only constant. We need to continually figure out what to do about that change in order to work effectively. We can’t stand still. As individuals or organizations, we’re either getting better or we’re getting worse. 

Most organizations spend much time and energy at the tactical level: what do we need to do today to serve our clients? Yet organizations must build some “step back time” into their workflow.

In addition to the iCAT, there are many ways for an organization to assess strengths and weaknesses. Many board assessments are available online. Organizations can explore results internally or work with consultants to facilitate next steps.

There are many ways to learn how to work better: read about best practices, seek professional development opportunities, find mentors. From this learning and assessment, organizations can plan their next steps.

When will your organization invest time this year to assess, learn and plan? And how?

Following the recipe

A fragrant chocolate odor emanated from our kitchen. Finally, I could relax. It had been a sprint to prepare our regular dinner in addition to the chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday. Our young daughters helped me to assemble the cake. I loved having them as sous chefs, although I could get distracted managing them and following a recipe.

The cake would take an hour to bake. Thirty minutes in, I checked on the cake. I opened the oven door, expecting to find a slowly rising chocolate mass. Instead, something dark was bubbling. It was not a solid, it was a liquid. What was going on?

Had one of my ingredients spoiled?

I pulled the chocolate goop out of the oven and read the recipe slowly. Eggs, check. Butter, check. Cocoa, check. Flour? Flour?

I had left out the flour.

Running a nonprofit organization is a little like making chocolate cake. Many ingredients are involved. It’s easy to get distracted by the process itself, by the many personalities that make up your organization, and by the dynamic environment outside your organization.

What can you do? You MUST keep reading the recipe. In the case of your organization, your “recipe” is the mission and vision of your organization and your strategic plan: Why you exist, who you aim to serve, your vision of how the world will be different through your work and your priorities as an organization.

What if you don’t have a clear mission and vision or strategic plan yet or your mission, vision and strategic plans have changed since they were written a number of years ago? Bringing board and staff together to come up with clear language that defines your work will give your organization energy and focus. It will help you to clarify your priorities, whether they be program or personnel.

My husband had to stop at the store and buy his own birthday cake that night. But we did not throw the chocolate goop away. It was a key ingredient in our chocolate pancakes the next morning. Similarly, you don’t need to “throw away” the valuable work that you’ve done to move your organization to where it is now.  On the other hand, you owe it to your staff and supporters to find a recipe that encompasses the power of your work.




What to do before writing a grant proposal

Recently I presented a workshop on grant proposal writing at the Dress for Success Affiliate Leadership Conference in San Francisco.

Dress for Success (DFS) has a reputation as a place to pass on professional clothing. Their work goes beyond giving professional clothing a second life: DFS is an international organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

To prepare for the session, I spoke with executive directors at several regional affilates. Each mentioned the challenges of securing funding. One mentioned her hope that she could hire several staff members, one who would do more program-related work and the other who would do more fundraising.

“We’re completely overwhelmed,” she complained. “We don’t even have time to organize the clothes that are coming in. Grant funding would give us the staff to organize our inventory — it could really help us out.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

If I were a potential funder, I would have a hard time approving funding for an organization focusing on clothing that told me they didn’t have the staffing to organize their closets. If the basic systems aren’t in place, I would not trust that this organization would use my funding strategically.

So before sending off a grant proposal, what should this DFS affiliate do?

Take some time to step back and set up the basic systems of managing their inventory. Make sure that they feel competent and successful at those basic systems. Then, seek funding to build on that success.

This advice applies to any non-profit organization. What are the basic systems that keep your organization moving forward? If you want to find funders to invest in expanding your work, you’d do well to make sure that those systems are working well. And if not, before you apply for grant funding, take some time to organize your “closet” of hiring, inventory, data or financial management.

Nonprofits: Speak Up Right Now


Two weeks ago marked a moment of stunning political upset in American politics. Many of us are moving through the stages of grief: sadness, shock, anger and denial.

As I have processed my own emotions with friends, colleagues, and community members, I’ve thought a lot of about how we should be reacting, as individuals. And how nonprofit organizations should react.

Nonprofit organizations are not allowed to endorse a particular candidate. However, all organizations can say what you stand for and how your vision for the world will make things better at this time. People need to hear that the organizations they support are working on their behalf. That is leadership – connecting with the concerns of the people who care about your work and channeling their concerns and fears to hope and action.

I encourage all organizations to speak up and let us know what you’re fighting for right now. Some organizations have so far remained silent. Some organizations have emphasized business as usual, sending updates about mergers, staffing changes, etc. To those organizations, I say: if you’re scared to speak up now for fear of offending someone, you are missing an opportunity to show your own leadership and to guide all of us as we figure out what to do next.