groundwork

6 Lessons I Learned in the First 6 Months of Nonprofit Management Consulting

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CC BY-ND 2.0 Deveion Acker

Last October, I offered up a bundle of my ideas, dreams, and experiences, granted it a name and a business bank account, and launched it onto the World Wide Web: Groundwork Consulting.  Groundwork was a way I could formalizing and publicize work I’d been doing for years on the side: working with friends and acquaintances in the nonprofit world to tackle management challenges and think through new opportunities.

Six months later, I realize I’ve been learning a ton about nonprofit management consulting without a lot of chance to reflect on it all. So, here’s a listicle of lessons to commemorate the journey so far:

  1. You can’t change other people. You can only support them in changing themselves. I think this is a lesson I will be blessed to learn again and again in my consulting work. As a management consultant, I can’t make someone change. When talking to a client who has slipped back into a bad pattern, I sometimes wish more than anything that I could just do the work for them. But that’s doesn’t actually help anyone. Only the client can ultimately do the work. My job is just to be a coach, a collaborator, a sounding board, a guide, and a cheerleader in their process. The process can be slow and stumbling at times, but it’s their journey and I need to be present to support it.
  2. My job is to see the best version of my clients. The more I do this work, the more convinced I become that my ultimate work is to believe in the best version of someone else, and reflect that vision back. No matter how down a client may feel on where they are in adopting changes, my job is to keep strong in the belief that they can and will reach their ultimate potential. The world is full of doubters and nay-sayers. But through my consulting work, I get to always believe in the best in others.
  3. Nonprofits are systems whose problems must be viewed holistically. Sometimes a client wants me to help address one small piece of the organization. But no sooner do we begin than all the connected problems and concerns start rearing up, demanding attention. Fixing any one problem requires stepping back and looking at the whole picture.
  4. Changes have to be made one tiny bite at a time. Success helps clients feel optimistic and engaged, and helps them believe in the process. But if they bite off too much, they’re destined to trip up. So my job is to make it easy by drilling down to a single, achievable thing that we can change right now, and then moving on to the next step only once the first change has been mastered.
  5. Relationship problems are the root of many organizational problems. Sometimes nonprofits come to me wanting solutions to what they see as huge organizational problems around structure and strategy. And while it can be useful to get aligned on structure and strategy (and I love hosting those conversations), many of the day-to-day issues boil down to relationship issues. These look like communication problems, unresolved jealousies, hurt feelings, and broken trust. Fixing the relationships makes all the other problems easier to address.
  6. I need to practice what I preach. Even as I have advocated for other people to believe in themselves, practice self-empathy, repair relationships, and adopt big changes by splitting them up into manageable bites, I see countless ways I fall short in these respects. As I look at the next six months, I’m recommitting to holding myself to the same ideals I hold my clients, including making sure that I’m not letting the work run my life. 

I’ve had a lot of other moments of insight along the way, but not all of those lessons fit neatly into a list like this. So I’ll leave it there for now. And if  you’re interested in my nonprofit consulting services or just want to brainstorm about management challenges you’ve been facing lately, drop me a note and let’s chat.

Note: this was originally published on Groundwork.

Launching Groundwork

Originally published at Groundwork Consulting.

Hello. I’m proud to unveil my newest project today: Groundwork.

Groundwork is a consulting service I’m offering that’s focused on one of the greatest needs I see in the nonprofit world today: leadership and management training. To address this, I’m offering individual coaching for nonprofit leaders of all sorts, from executive directors to first time managers to individual contributors looking to manage projects better.

Groundwork is the next big step in something I’ve been doing on the side for years: meeting with friends and acquaintances in the nonprofit world, talking through challenges, and supporting them in creating positive changes. In building this consulting service, I’ve developed a series of specific exercises and tools to help nonprofit leaders. My services are a blend of guided exercises and coaching sessions, and they’re designed to empower individuals to be better leaders. I offer sliding scale fees to ensure those who need it most can afford coaching.

Launching Groundwork is motivated by an interest in doing my part to fix a bigger problem. I’ve seen too many examples of nonprofit leaders thrust into extremely challenging management situations with few resources, often juggling too many responsibilities and without anyone they can turn to for useful support. Others have strong organizations, but they’re struggling to grow and improve their impact. While there are plenty of books on organizational management and some great executive coaches out there, almost everything is designed for the for-profit world. Often, these tools don’t translate well to nonprofit challenges, where resources are far thinner, the mandate for impact outweighs the mandate for expansion, and organizational culture is often steeped in a shared value system and ideology.

I’ve seen nonprofits stumble and even fail as a direct result of senior leadership feeling burned-out, spread thin, conflicted, and exhausted. I’ve seen other nonprofits struggle during leadership transitions, with experienced staff members quitting in a mass exodus and the board of directors turning against the ED. I’ve listened to countless managers and directors at nonprofits tell me that they hate their jobs, even though they love the work. I’ve seen employee problems derail organizational effectiveness, and I’ve seen unresolved distrust in the workplace blossom into a toxic environment that then drives off key employees. I’ve seen new managers struggling to earn the trust of a team, address major productivity issues, and establish a new team culture—often with the best of intentions but stumbling execution.`

It doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s possible—and sometimes it’s even fun—to establish a functional, collaborative, solution-focused organizational culture, and it starts at the top. I’m interested in helping nonprofits become more efficient, impactful, and creative by supporting those who have to make tough decisions, set policies, and steer the ship. I help nonprofits leaders enjoy their jobs and become more effective without sacrificing happiness, health, relationships, and personal productivity in the process.

Great management can save a nonprofit so much time, money, and energy. Retaining the best employees, attracting star performers, identifying and addressing breakdowns in the organization swiftly, fostering a culture of good communication and collaboration—all of these things result from thoughtful leadership practices.

But most nonprofits don’t invest in leadership or management training of any sort. I’ve asked about this, and often heard some version of “It’s too expensive, we don’t budget for that” or “Honestly, I don’t think anything can help us.” Or perhaps saddest of all: “We’d like to, but we couldn’t find any help that really understood our culture and mission. We don’t want some outside consultant coming in and telling us how to do things.”

I understand those concerns. Traditional coaching can be expensive, entrenched problems can seem insurmountable, and for-profit executive coaching services often aren’t in sync with the needs of many nonprofits.

I’m dying to see these problems addressed so that the NGOs I love and support can thrive. That’s why I launched Groundwork: to show that there are ways to foster highly productive, satisfied, value-driven organizations that are nimble enough to face unexpected challenges and have the tools they need to survive leadership changes well.

I think nonprofits can have all of that without having to allocate a huge budget toward leadership development.

If you want to learn more, please contact me. Please also drop me a note if you know somebody who might be a good fit for these services, and please help spread the word by telling friends and acquaintances about Groundwork.

Visit Groundwork Consulting.

Note: This work is a passion of mine. But it’s not my only passion.  To ensure I have time for my other commitments and for a personal life, I’m strictly limiting how many coaching clients I see at a time.