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  • 06/25/2022 10:11 PM | Gordon Mayer (Administrator)

    Innovative cloud technologies can do wonders to increase nonprofits’ reach, efficiency, and cost savings - and the list of benefits goes on.

    But the benefits come with a price. Planning your approach when signing up for a yearly agreement with a particular cloud technology provider is important to get both the best cost and the most effective solution for your nonprofit.

    Even with the growing efforts of some tech start-ups to help shed light on cloud technology pricing, there are situations in which one organization provides similar services but still gets a significantly different price than another. What’s missing?

    Sometimes, the missing element is one or more key players in the nonprofit organization looking to add a cloud based solution (some well-known examples: SalesForce,Mailchimp, DocuSign).

    Many cloud-based applications target a specific line of business (HR, Procurement, Marketing, Legal etc.) as opposed to just IT. But those directly involved in that business area may lack the time, effort and experience to understand and negotiate critical terms in a cloud technology contract. 

    For-profits may have a dedicated “Head of Technology Sourcing.” The person in this role is specifically tasked with overseeing such cloud technology contracts/subscriptions, leveraging their experience and relationships with the business, IT and Legal to do so. 

    In nonprofits, we often see just the person leading that line of business or just the IT contractor left with the responsibility of reviewing and understanding what they are getting into. Neither of these individuals or teams alone can fully align on the importance of the cloud application to the organization overall.

    It’s helpful to get your full team at the table, specifically the line of business, Legal and IT with the understanding that each of their inputs will impact both what will be paid, and the overall relationship with the cloud technology provider. You will need everyone's commitment throughout the process. 

    Here are some additional tips on evaluating cloud-based technology solutions:

    1. Do some research prior to signing. What have your peers paid? Why? What measurable value did they ultimately get? How does the pricing provided compare to what is publicly listed on the cloud provider’s website? Are there additional discounts available for the nonprofit customers?

    2. Seek to understand the cloud technology business model along with common terminology that may show up in your agreements. This includes common acronyms like ACV (Annual Contract Value), TCO (Total Cost of Ownership), SOW (Statement of Work), SLA (Service Level Agreements), MTTR (Mean Time To Repair) and others. Uncover what else is going on behind the scenes that can influence what you will end up paying through conversations with others besides the sales team.

    3. Where necessary, get outside help.  While your internal team and the research you’ve done will certainly help equip you for the negotiation, having a partner that has experience in these types of transactions to advise on various topics, will only increase the value you plan to get from your investment while mitigating risks due to missed/overlooked nuances.

    4. Vendors can be an asset to the process. Approach these new contractual relationships in the spirit of transparency and collaboration, and avoid the combative techniques associated with the old “them vs. us” mindset. You will end up with a real partnership based on value and accountability that will ultimately result in the mutual success of your nonprofit and the cloud technology provider. 

    Planning, research and internal alignment are the biggest challenges to understanding and signing up for cloud technology subscriptions. These are never easy - but again like most other things in life, the effort you’ll put into them can pay off in effectiveness, efficiency, and cost savings. 

    Kevin Christopher-George of GreenMerits Consulting is tapping into his 20+ years of experience across different areas in technology management to advise nonprofits on how to find, adopt and use technology that will increase their positive impact. His passion is geared towards how organizations can build meaningful, value driven, and mutually beneficial relationships with technology providers.

  • 05/09/2022 7:44 PM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    by Amelia Kohm, ACN Member

    Nonprofits–both large and small–are awash in data. And every one of them faces the challenge of extracting meaning from all that data and communicating it to show their impact. The problem is that the human brain processes data at a lumbering pace. Fortunately, our brains can process well-designed visual information at lightning speed. Using visual elements (like bars, pie slices, and sloping lines) to illustrate our data can make it clear and compelling for our audience.

    Nonprofits are most familiar with the humble bar chart. But there are many more visually engaging ways to capture your audience’s attention and use your data to tell a memorable story about the problems you’re addressing and the difference you’re making.  Here are four ideas:

    Divergent Stacked Bar Chart

    You probably know what a divergent stacked bar chart is, even if you don’t call it that. It’s easier to show you than to describe it. So take a look:

    As you can see, the divergent stacked bar chart aligns each bar around a common midpoint. That makes it much easier to compare, for example, positive and negative values across categories. Divergent stacked bar charts work best when categories have an intrinsic order. For example, you might use this type of chart to show the following survey responses:  Strongly disagree and disagree to the left of the midpoint and agree and strongly agree to the right. Here are directions for making divergent stacked bar charts in Excel and Tableau.

    Funnel Chart

    Another variation on the bar chart is the funnel chart which helps a reader visualize a process (such as the steps to complete a food service training program) where something (such as the number of participants) decreases at each step. The chart below illustrates the decreasing number of participants at each stage of a food service training program from orientation through employment. We can see at a glance how few make it all the way to a job and at which stages there is the most and least drop off.

    A funnel chart can be designed as interactive. This one allows users to set the display to break down the data in the chart above by gender, race and ethnicity, and other characteristics, as shown below.

    Check out these easy instructions for making funnel charts in Tableau and Excel.

    Combo Chart

    Consider the two charts below. Both show the same data: fundraising goals vs. actual funds raised. The one on top uses bars for both categories. The bottom one uses bars for the goals and lines for actual amounts.

    Which works better? I vote for the bottom one. It makes comparing values between two different categories easier because it uses not only different colors to distinguish them but different “encodings” (bars and lines).  The bottom chart gives us a clear view of when we are exceeding or falling short of our goals in any given month.

    Combo charts are good at showing trends as well as deviations in the data that need to be examined such as the significant difference in goal vs. actual during the month of May in the example below.

    Combo charts also are great at showing the relationship of two variables that have different units of measurement. In the example below, the bars show the number of participants in an afterschool program by month while the line shows the average temperature, in degrees, during each of those months.

    Combo charts also are easy to create in Excel, Tableau, and other data viz applications.

    Icon Chart

    Another close cousin of the bar chart is the icon chart. Icon charts can work well but should be designed carefully. The icons themselves should not be used instead of bars because this makes it more difficult for viewers to make accurate comparisons. See the first example below showing how many clients live in different types of homes. It’s quite a challenge to determine how many more clients live in suburban homes vs. high rises. That’s because the height of the icons are difficult to assess.

    The second example makes it a little easier. But I’d argue that in both examples 1 and 2, the icons make the viewer’s job (comparing lengths) unnecessarily difficult.

    The third example, introduces bars back into the bar chart and thus requires minimal viewer effort.

    And the fourth further lightens the load by removing the Y-axis, directly labeling the bars, and placing the bars closer together.

    You can add icons to bar charts in Excel and Tableau as well as in any graphics program such as Canva, which allows you to first create the bar chart and then add icons from its vast library of free images.

    The divergent stacked bar chart, the funnel chart, the combo chart, and the icon chart are all great ways to clarify and engage people in your data. For other ideas on how to visualize your data, please check out the 60-Second Data Tips on my website. While you are there, you can sign up to receive a free 60-Second tip each week.

    Amelia Kohm, PhD, is the founder of Data Viz for Nonprofits which helps organizations to quickly grasp their data, improve their work, and show their impact. Data Viz For Nonprofits custom designs interactive data dashboards as well as charts, maps, and graphs for presentations, reports, social media, or websites.

    Amelia has more than 25 years of experience studying, funding, and evaluating human services. She earned a certificate in data visualization from the University of Washington and applied her data visualization skills in her research at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, a child policy research center. Prior to Chapin Hall, she worked as a program officer at the Sears Roebuck Foundation and at the Illinois Humanities Council.

  • 03/07/2022 11:54 AM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    By Susan Kahan, ACN member

    I used to be involved in a planned giving program, and I had a colleague from another department come over to my desk every once in a while and jokingly say, did anyone die recently, and did we get any money?

    When the answer was yes, I would also say to them, this person that recently passed away cared so much about our work that they wanted us to be successful even when they were no longer around to see it for themselves. That shut him up.

    So many fundraisers think planned giving is scary. You’re talking about death. AND taxes. AND trusts. And did I mention death?

    But what if you flipped the thinking around? A donor is passionate about your cause. So passionate that they want you to be successful even after they are not alive to see the impact of their generous support. Can anything be more altruistic than that?

    Yes, planned giving can provide tax benefits. But most importantly, it is allowing the donor to be remembered generously and positively. Their legacy makes them a hero. As noted planned giving expert Dr. Russell James says, allowing the donor to become the hero in their own story is the best gift we (the fundraisers) can give to the donor.

    With this principle in mind, let’s start with the basics – what is a planned gift? It is a charitable donation that is intentionally planned out in advance, that is gifted either during lifetime or after the donor’s passing. So simple!

    What else can we do to make planned giving less scary? Let’s look at the most common type of planned gift – the bequest. A bequest is simply when a donor writes into their will, trust, or codicil (a fancy name for addition to the will) that they want to leave (1) a set amount (i.e., $10,000), (2) a percentage (i.e., 2% of the estate or trust), or (3) a percent of the remainder of the estate (i.e., the first $5 million goes to the 3 kids, and then 10% of the remainder goes to a charity). See, not scary?

    Let’s go even further, so you know what to say to a donor. If you hear the donor say –

    • I’m retiring.
    • I’m selling my business.
    • I just had my first child or grandchild.
    • This organization is so meaningful to me.
    • I’ve been thinking about what I’ve accomplished in my life.

    THIS IS YOUR CHANCE! This is when you say to your donor –

    Thanks so much for sharing this with me. As you think about how you want to be remembered, have you ever thought about including our nonprofit in your estate plans?


    I’m with you. This organization has also changed my life. Where do you think the needs of this organization will be in 20, 30, or even 50 years from now? Would you consider a way to shape that future?

    THEN STOP TALKING! Let them think about it.

    So, stop being scared. Stop putting off the conversation with your donor. Give a gift to your donor and let them be a hero. Start the planned giving conversation now and imagine the power those planned gifts will one day have have in furthering your mission.

    Susan Kahan is the Founder/Principal of Sapphire Fundraising Specialists, a fundraising strategy consulting business for small to medium-size nonprofits with a focus on major gifts, planned giving, capital campaigns, and solicitation training.

  • 02/08/2022 12:39 PM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    By Emily Taylor, ACN Member

    When people support your mission, you can make the world a better place. If you want to see a change for better in this world you can’t do it alone, you need collaboration with a variety of stakeholdersbe they donors, program participants, or other supporters. This type of complex collaboration requires listening. How often are you intently listening to your constituents? They hold a wealth of information that can help you build momentum for your work.

    What do we learn by listening?

    When you listen to your people, you can learn what motivates them, how they connect to your mission, and what gaps they have in understanding your work. It gives you context for all that data you’ve collected. Why did someone make that last donation? What competing priorities do they have that affects how they engage with us? How do they decide to participate with our organization? When you know this information, it can help you guide people closer to your organization in a more meaningful waybeyond email automations and TikTok videos.

    What are some methods for listening?

    Knowing the tools of listening can help prepare you for it—whether you decide to listen yourself or hire a professional. Below are some of the methods I use most that can be tailored to gather quick or more in-depth feedback.

    Interviews: This is my favorite method. Have an in-depth conversation with people about your organization. Try to get to the “why” of how they made a decision that affects your organization. A survey can answer how well they liked a program but, in an interview, you have the opportunity to answer why they liked it AND why that matters to them. These can be done occasionally as convenient over a defined period of time or more in-depth with set questions with a strategic population.

    Casual Conversations: Similar to interviews, this can be a few questions you ask at the end of another conversation, be it a coffee or program. It is an easy way to build on already having someone’s attention. They can be one-on-one or in a trusted group and is also a great way to build relationships with these stakeholders.

    Surveys: Short, informal surveys allow you to capture people’s thoughts more frequently throughout the year, which is especially important during unpredictable times. Surveys are not great at predicting people’s behaviors, but you can gather a sense of what people are currently doing and preferences for new program ideas. Include open-ended questions to listen for perspectives you might not have thought to ask about.

    A/B Testing: Not every way of listening needs to be through your ears, you can also observe how people react to two slightly different approaches. For example, you could initiate two fundraising campaigns, each with a different story or visual about your need, with one going to 50% of your audience and the other to the other half. Observe which story or message led more people to make a donation. Over time, you can see which stories, images, or calls to action are more impactful with your audience.

    Observing: Similar to testing, observing how people behave in a situation can also tell you about them. Do they seem to be interested in only parts of your program (virtual or in-person)? Are they registering but not attending? These are forms of communication and if you need more information on why they are doing them, it might make sense to follow up with a survey or short interview.

    Where do I start?

    If you could reach into your audience’s brain, what would you want to know? If you don’t know the answer to this question, take a step back before you start listening and create a goal. For instance, if you want to better understand why someone isn’t engaging more in a program, you’ll want to ask them questions that help you listen for barriers to them attending or learning about it—not about their giving or other engagements.

    Whether you go all in on listening to your audience or start slowly, the benefits to listening are great—a better understanding of how your audience views your organization and a clear picture of how to engage them. It lays the foundation for building your strong coalition to make the world a better place.

    Emily Taylor is the principal of teenyBIG, which uses Strategic Listening to engage nonprofit audiences. Learn more at www.teenybig.com.

  • 01/11/2022 7:49 PM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    By Gioia Giannotti, ACN Member

    Although many have insisted since the pandemic began that “the death of the office” is imminent, some nonprofits embraced the opportunity presented by remote work and empty offices to enhance and re-energize their workspaces. Over the course of these last two years, studies have shown that people want to return to the office — for reasons that are both practical and emotional. Employees cite the desire for a greater sense of social connection — engaging in collaborations and meetings, as well as training and career development opportunities.  Some state that a change in scenery and a break from home life are additional reasons for wanting to return.

    What appears evident is that a hybrid workstyle and hybrid workspaces may be more of the norm across industries moving forward. Therefore, as folks return to the office, many may be greeted by spaces that may look, feel and function a little differently in order to accommodate this shift. Others may be pleasantly surprised by having access to new amenities intended to enhance their comfort—mentally, emotionally, and physically.

    As nonprofits re-define their return-to-work policies, many are also rethinking their physical spaces. While nonprofits typically have limited budgets for remodeling, even small investments can boost productivity, attract and retain employees, appeal to clients, and bolster your mission.  Here are few ideas to consider:

    Create a Warm, Welcoming Entry. Renovating your entry, such as the façade or reception area, could be a relatively inexpensive way to attract clients and establish your brand identity. For instance, repainting your exterior entrance or recladding it with an inexpensive material can enhance visual appeal. Repainting and recarpeting your reception area can add personality and color. If you need to post legal documentation at the entrance, creating a framed or organized display will reduce a sense of clutter and enhance its attraction. Signage and imagery that reinforces your brand identity can also help staff, clients and guests feel more comfortable.

    (r)evolution architecture design for Healthcare Alternative Systems, Chicago

    In the past, many nonprofits and businesses have favored open office plans, both as a cost-saving measure and as a way to encourage communication through random encounters that build relationships and spark new ideas. But in recent years, research has pointed to a need for more varied work spaces. Employees have expressed that they want and need a choice of where and how they work, with access to areas that are both open and collaborative, as well as private, heads-down, get-the-work done spaces. A well-thought-out design plan can ensure that space is used flexibly yet efficiently and cost effectively.

    In an era of hybrid work, many organizations could also consider supplementing traditional multi-purpose/conference rooms with smaller virtual collaboration spaces (equipped with audio visual capabilities) to allow employees on site to plan or brainstorm with those working from home.

    (r)evolution architecture design for Health Communities Foundation, Riverside

    Create Rest Space. Staff need designated break areas to decompress. Consider going beyond a kitchenette to provide an area with comfortable furniture that encourages employees to relax and socialize. Doing so can help build relationships among staff that strengthens their connection with each other and your organization.

    If possible, create an outdoor break area in addition to an indoor one. Access to the outdoors can refresh and enhance productivity. At a minimum, ensure that your staff has access to natural light in both rest spaces and work spaces. Research shows that natural light energizes people and benefits mental health enormously.

    Build Connection through Design. While redesigning your workplace can take time and resources, the potential benefits are great. Thoughtful design both communicates your brand identity and accommodates human needs. It makes workers more productive and attracts clients and employees. It makes people feel welcomed and taken care of, increasing their sense of belonging and commitment to your organization. Especially in the COVID era, people are longing for a sense of connection that good design can help you provide.   

    Gioia Giannotti, ACN vice president, is also the vice president of business operations and co-founder of (r)evolution architecture, llc. She enjoys collaborating with clients across diverse industries to create unique holistic and inclusive spaces through a methodical pre-design plan development through design and construction administration. Her diverse background includes marketing strategy leadership, business development, and customer experience management for Fortune 500 companies, marketing agencies and non-profits. As a bilingual and bicultural Latina, Gioia brings an equity and belonging lens to her work, community and civic service efforts.

  • 01/06/2022 11:27 AM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    The pandemic may have dragged on in 2021, but we at ACN continued to keep our members connected and supported by embracing virtual opportunities—and grew our organization at a record pace.

    2021 Board and Committee Updates

    In 2021, we unveiled a new strategic focus as well as related Mission Statement, Statement of Purpose and Core Audience.  One of our goals is to make diversity, equity and inclusion a priority at ACN. We are also working on new ways to engage members nationwide, and our board and committees now include members from across the country.

    We also welcomed the following new board members:

    Gioia Giannotti of (r)evolution architecture

    John Bauer of John E. Bauer Consulting, LLC

    David Dow of Schooley Mitchell

    Aashi Mital of Pivotal Solutions Consulting

    Arthur Padilla of StrataG.Works

    Read more 2021 board updates

    2021 Committee Highlights

    Marketing & Communications Committee

    Board Liaison: Lidia Varesco Racoma; Co-Chair: Gordon Meyer

    The Marketing & Communications Committee is responsible for ensuring that ACN's brand and messaging is consistent in all outreach and across all channels. In 2021, they:

    • Refreshed the ACN website—including adding photos that highlight our members’ work.
    • Launched an Instagram page. You can follow ACN there, in addition to Facebook and LinkedIn.  
    • Implemented a new social media strategy so you will be seeing more consistent ACN content and stories.

    Nonprofit Relations Committee (NPRC)

    Board Liaison: Don Raack; Co-Chairs: Paul Cox and Amelia Kohm

    NPRC works to widen the nonprofit sector’s awareness of ACN and the resources available to nonprofits by establishing and maintaining partnerships with other nonprofit organizations (e.g., foundations, other associations that serve multiple nonprofits). In 2021 they:

    • Established a series of ACN member-facilitated webinars with Nonprofit Learning Lab (NLL). Through their website, e-newsletters, and programs, NLL reaches 65,000 nonprofit professionals from all 50 states. This partnership provides a growth opportunity for ACN members looking to share topics/content relevant for the nonprofit community and connect with potential nonprofit clients. 
    • Developed a toolkit that committee members can use to form partnerships as well as a memorandum of understanding template to use in the formalization of partnerships.
    • Continued our partnerships with Forefront and Nonprofit Learning Lab and began discussion of new partnerships with six other organizations.

    Membership Committee

    Board Liaison: Jim Javoricic; Co-Chair: David Dow

    First and foremost, we have broken our highest membership number on record— including an increase in national members (our membership now represents 15 states). 

    In 2021, the Membership Committee also launched EMPOWER Groups: members-only forums for similar or complementary groups of professionals to empower each other with a diversity of thinking, knowledge, shared experience, perspective, support, intentional networking, business development, and inspiration.

    The first four EMPOWER groups are Administrative Professional Services led by Sam Odishoo of USI Insurance Services, Working Parents led by Megan Angle of Porte Brown, LGBTQ+ led by David Dow of Schooley Mitchell and Grief & Loss led by Lidia Varesco Racoma of Lidia Varesco Design.

    "I look forward to the deep-rooted relationships EMPOWER Groups can build."  — Fernando Avila, Video Producer, Social Impact Films

    ACN Member Anniversaries 

    Congratulations to our members celebrating anniversaries in 2021. We are grateful for your dedication and participation!

    5 years:

    • Clara Lucia Carrier of Breaking Through Consulting, LLC
    • Suzanne Griffith of VEGA Partners
    • Kathryn Scanland of Greystone Global LLC
    • Jake Cowan 
    • Michael Mayse of Michael Mayse Consulting
    • Megan Angle of Porte Brown LLC
    • Genevra Knight of Porte Brown LLC
    • Jacki Davidoff of Davidoff Mission-Driven Business Strategy
    • Gordon Mayer of Gordon Mayer Communications
    • John Bauer of John E. Bauer Consulting, LLC
    • Lidia Varesco Racoma of Lidia Varesco Design
    • Kristin Patton of Ensemble Consulting
    • Alexis Allegra of Allegra Consulting

    10 years:

    • John Davidoff of Davidoff Mission-Driven Business Strategy
    • Jeff Marcella of Marcella Consulting Corporation

    15+ years:

    • Elizabeth Richter of The Richter Group
    • Margaret Hennessy of Hennessy Consulting Inc.
    • Amy Cornell of Cornell Consulting, Inc.
    • Carol White of CBWhite
    • Steve Pratapas of Pratapas Associates, LLC
    • Amy Wishnick of Wishnick & Associates, LLC
    • Kelly Kleiman of NFP Consulting
    • Joyce Golbus Poll of J.G. Poll & Associates

    "Being a member of ACN has helped me to make meaningful connections, learn from colleagues, and grow as a consultant. Joining was one of the best decisions I made in 2021!"  Allecia Harley of Prevention Advisory Group

    We are only as strong as our membership and we are grateful for the support and participation of our members. Here’s to a successful 2022!

  • 12/10/2021 11:53 AM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    By Michelle McConnico, ACN Member

    Giving Tuesday, which follows the post-Thanksgiving shopping madness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, is a big day for nonprofit fundraising. Was your organization’s Giving Tuesday everything you’d hoped? If not, don’t be glum. Here are a few tips from MuvaShip Marketing to boost giving to your nonprofit all year round:

    1. Engage Donors Frequently

    Coming out of the woodwork the day after Thanksgiving to ask for money won’t get you far.  Have your donors or prospects gotten a holiday card from you lately, a thank you note, an email, anything? It is important that donors feel like they are a part of your mission, connect to your mission, and understand the impact that you are having within your space. Don't pop-up like a whack-a-mole just when you need funds to drive your ideas. Bring potential donors on a journey with you and your organization. Send monthly or quarterly emails about the impact you are having. Schedule a happy birthday email to acknowledge your donors on days that are special for them. Release annual reports that remind donors of the impact that your organization is having. Do this, and you will always be top of mind when a gifting opportunity comes around.

    2. Get Social

    Social media has become the most useful tool to engage an audience around a cause and to find like-minded individuals to either be a part of your audience or join your band. Invest in the ability to regularly schedule updates on social media about the progress of your efforts and why your cause is important. Share the stories of the lives you are impacting and be authentic with who you are and why your organization matters. Creating connections, even on social media, allows organization to break through the noise and build awareness well in advance of the ask. If your organization is not active on social media, you are cutting off what could be a viable pipeline of engagement and support.

    3. Take Advantage of Pre-Tax Season

    If there is anything that annoys high rollers more that cold-calling fundraisers, it is taxes. In many cases, taxes are the pain of a high earner’s existence. As a fundraiser you must understand that your organization is here to help. Quarterly or toward the end of the year, even after Giving Tuesday, is great timing to reach out and give donors the last-minute chance to help a cause that they love and possibly enjoy a sizeable tax break.

    Donations to charity are tax deductions from income that may be carried forward for up to five years. Each year taxpayers are required to claim the maximum deduction possible in the current year—the deductibility limits are 60% of adjusted gross income for cash and 30% for long-term appreciated securities—but they can then carry forward any unused charitable deductions for up to five more years. That's a major relief and solution for high earners who need to find feel-good tax breaks before the start of the new year. In addition to individual donors, identify and partner with large organizations or corporations who match your mission in some way. These days, corporations want to be good and do good. Make them a partner in working toward a common goal and solving a major problem. This creates longer term sustainability of your fundraising efforts.  You have married a big brand and a beautiful cause.

    Finally, let's be sure to acknowledge our donors. Not necessarily because they love the bright lights, but because their giving is important. Their giving can inspire others to give and let's donors know that you are a credible and trusted organization that will make the positive use of their funds. Thanking your donors and continuing to engage them in the impact you make is a guaranteed recipe for growth. 

    Michelle McConnico is founder & CMO of MuvaShip Marketing, which specializes in helping schools, nonprofit, and government entities with their online presence, marketing, and communications strategy.

  • 11/08/2021 11:31 AM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    By Kelly Kleiman, ACN Member 

    Very few nonprofit organizations use volunteers well.  There are exceptions, of course, like the outstanding docents of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, who conduct virtually all the foundation’s public programs after rigorous training. But much more common is the attitude typified by the head of a large charity in New York: “I wish someone would get these volunteers off my back!”  This is very much like saying “It’s so annoying having to pick up all these $100 bills falling from the sky!” because people who volunteer give more money than people who don’t, and unsurprisingly, most of that money goes to the agencies where they volunteer.  Volunteer workers are only a pain in the ass if you’re not using them right.

    The key to using volunteers well is the Big MAC: Meaningful Work, Autonomy, and Collegiality.

    Meaningful Work 

    No nonprofit has as its mission “stuff envelopes” or “file,” but those are the kind of tasks we tend to assign to volunteers—and, as you may have noticed, there aren’t nearly as many envelopes to stuff as there used to be!  Volunteers, just like staff—even more so—want to do work that contributes directly and obviously to mission.  Several things follow from this:

    • Nonprofits need to have thought in advance of projects—not tasks but projects—that need to be done but for which no one on staff has any time. One of my best experiences as a volunteer began when the executive director responded to my handing her my resume by handing me a list of things the staff was too overwhelmed to manage.  I chose the one closest to my skills and in completing the project, solved a problem for the agency and developed such a sense of its value and my ability to contribute that I joined the board.
    • The most familiar of these projects is “design the website,” which is why the Taproot Foundation is forever assigning volunteer teams to do it.  While this requires some caution—you need to be clear about the volunteer’s level of expertise and what staff support they will require—any volunteer who does this successfully will have received a crash course in everything about your agency and, feeling useful, will commit to it with their dollars as well as their time.                                    
    • The second-most familiar of these projects is organizing a benefit event—the classic activity for the Ladies Who Lunch. 
    • Any executive director who can’t come up with a list of five projects that are always on the back burner (e.g., evaluate the effectiveness of this program!  Rework the scheduling for that program!  Find out why people are ignoring the other program!) is not thinking hard enough.

    Often when I tell nonprofit executives that volunteers require meaningful work their backs go up like exasperated cats: “It’s not my job to bring meaning to their lives!”  No, of course not, but that’s not the kind of meaning we mean when we say meaningful. (Department of Redundancy Department!)  If the project has value to the agency which can be explained, it has meaning to the volunteer.  There won’t always be a perfect match between a volunteer worker’s skills and interests and the tasks available, but in that case acknowledge the mismatch and send the person on their way with a feeling of having been treated thoughtfully and respectfully.  And when there is a match, it’s like having an extra employee—but for free!

    Which leads me to another common problem in using volunteers: the staff’s resentment of people who are doing for a hobby what they do for a living.  It’s essential that staff members understand that they are being supported and not supplanted by volunteers.  This is easiest if, once the match of volunteer to project is made, supervision transfers from the volunteer coordinator or executive director to the appropriate staff member. For instance, a volunteer searching for cheaper office space should be referred to the director of operations and one assisting with event planning to the director of fundraising. We know to do this with interns, so it’s not clear to me why it is so seldom done when the cost-free labor comes from experienced adults.

    And speaking of supervision:


    Your volunteer workers, just like your paid staff, will be happiest when they have a certain amount of latitude in how to complete their projects.  What amount is appropriate varies with each volunteer, each project, and each supervisor—but bear in mind that if you assign a volunteer to write a promotional piece and they come back with something suitable, it’s best not to rewrite it so you think it’s perfect.  Re-doing their work leads inevitably to frustration and a sense of futility on the part of your volunteer.  It’s more important to value someone’s contribution.

    In other words, there’s a difference between supervising and micro-managing.  Err on the side of choosing smart people, giving them the “what,” and letting them choose the “how.”


    People volunteer because they want to exercise their skills, because they want to be of service—and because they want more contact with others than their current life provides.  While it’s not always possible to find more than one volunteer for a project, often it will be—and that sense of working in partnership will make your volunteer worker feel more confident in getting the job done, not to mention more likely to do it when there’s someone else concerned with its progress. 

    If you can’t give a volunteer worker a partner or a team from within the volunteer group—or even if you can!—make sure they are treated as full team members by their supervisors: have them invited to departmental staff meetings; have them included in brainstorming sessions.  The more they are included, the more they’ll understand how their project fits into the agency’s goals and plans; and the more they understand that, the harder they’ll work—and the more they’ll donate!

    Naturally, inclusion and collegiality are made more difficult if people are working remotely, but it is no more difficult to compensate for that with volunteers than with staff.  That’s why God invented Zoom meetings and phone check-ins!

    One Last Thought

    You may have noticed that I frequently refer to “volunteer workers.”  Keep in mind, that’s what they are: people who have come to offer their skills and labor to your organization.  Because the word “volunteer” has come to suggest—unfairly!—people with nothing else to do who come and kibbitz at your workplace, some places call them “unpaid consultants” or “unpaid staff.”  That may not be necessary (or sufficient), but it is necessary to treat unpaid workers like staff: give them clear expectations, make sure they have the resources they need to accomplish the project with which they’ve been charged, include them in decision-making, and hold them accountable for results. 

    If you do all that, you’ll get more done using volunteers!

    Kelly Kleiman, a lawyer educated at the University of Chicago, has spent more than 30 years in the nonprofit sector. She founded NFP Consulting in 1988 after serving as executive director of the Chicago Children’s Choir and assistant dean of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.  Through her consulting practice, Kelly helps nonprofits with fundraising, strategic planning, board development and the use of high-skills volunteers.  She also advises on issues of charity and philanthropy as The Nonprofiteer, ChicagoNow.com/the-nonprofiteer. Kelly was a founding member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits.

  • 10/12/2021 2:26 PM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    By Shailushi Ritchie, ACN member

    Few phrases seem to strike fear into the hearts of nonprofit leaders and board members as much as “succession planning.”  It’s not that people don’t understand what it is or why it’s important, only that it’s uncomfortable to plan for someone’s eventual departure—like planning a funeral when someone is alive and well.  Although there is a growing understanding of the importance of end-of-life planning, it seems that succession planning in nonprofit organizations hasn’t caught on.

    The State of the Sector

    Planning for the departure of one leader and the hiring and establishment of a new leader is critical to an organization’s long-term success.  Compasspoint’s 2011 report on nonprofit leadership indicates that 67% of CEOs/ED plan to leave their jobs within five years, 10% anticipate leaving within one year, and 7% have already given notice.

    Nonprofits also face hiring and retention challenges due to COVID-19.  Nonprofits are not exempt from the hiring and retention challenges faced by other employers in what is being called the “Great Resignation.”  Forbes reports that 69% of employees, regardless of sector or role, are disengaged from their work and almost half (48%) are actively looking for new work. For decades, nonprofit organizations have developed a culture that prioritizes mission above all else.  Coupled with low pay rates, expected overtime hours, and comparatively few benefits, employees in the nonprofit sector are finding ways to push back against working conditions or leaving their roles altogether.

    Yet, Boardsource reports only 27% of nonprofit organizations have a succession plan in place.

    Why is Succession Planning Important?

    Succession planning is important because it creates a space for nonprofit board members and organizational leadership to assess and plan for potential staffing changes in the foreseeable future.  It is not only to plan for the departure of an executive director or the board chair but also board and staff leadership at lower levels.  When directors and managers of organizational functions and programs leave, their departure can create just as much instability as when an executive leaves.

    Succession Planning as a Route to Employee Engagement

    Succession planning can also help organizations understand the wants, needs, and issues faced by all staff.  This is important for attracting highly-qualified candidates and for retaining staff in their current roles.  If leadership doesn’t pay attention, the organization may find itself in the middle of its own “Great Resignation.”  To paraphrase Forbes Magazine, preventing a Great Resignation is about preventing a Great Discontent. 

    Although more than 50% of respondents indicated they would like to hire an internal candidate for a leadership position, Bridgespan reports that internal candidates apply for leadership positions about 30% of the time but are often not hired because of concerns they do not have enough of the right experiences. Organizations can use their succession planning efforts to consider how to develop a pipeline of internal talent and what kinds of training, support, and benefits they can offer to retain current staff in anticipation of future transitions.  This also bolsters the organization’s long-term stability; staff are engaged, and the knowledge and expertise of existing leaders does not leave the organization when leadership transitions do occur.

    Developing a Succession Plan

    Developing a succession plan can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it.  A basic plan should include the following:

    • Key responsibilities.
    • Who will be responsible.
    • Information about timing and frequency.
    • Connections to other staff (supervisors and support).
    • Plan for recruitment and hiring a replacement.

    A template from Clarity Transitions, one of Sevah Consulting’s trusted colleagues, is linked here. BoardEffect also has a succession planning checklist on its website, linked here.

    Expanding your succession planning beyond leadership is not much harder.  It does require time and commitment to create professional development that meets the needs of current staff.  MissionBox provides a thoughtful approach for how nonprofits can incorporate professional development into succession planning, including:

    • Understand the connection between performance reviews and professional development.  Clear goals for staff performance can also highlight opportunities for training and new opportunities.
    • Focus on personality as much as skill.  Leadership is as much about personality as it is about skills and expertise.  This isn’t to say that an individual’s personality limits their leadership ability, but rather it is an important component of an individual’s fit with a certain job.
    • Identify opportunities for innovation.  Ask yourself if your organization encourages questions or does it encourage people to agree and move along?  Are people punished for getting involved in new projects or are they praised for new ideas?  Fast Company notes that many Google innovations—including Gmail, Google News, and Google Earth Outreach—resulted from encouraging employees to dedicate working hours to a “passion project.”

    Succession planning might not be the most exciting aspect of nonprofit management, but it is rapidly becoming one of the most critical.  Given the challenges facing the sector, effective planning for staff transitions can make the difference between an organization that merely survives and one that truly thrives, both today and in the future.

    Shailushi Ritchie, founder and CEO of Sevah Consulting in Chicago, helps nonprofit organizations address strategic and operational challenges. As an advocate, writer, and nonprofit professional, she has worked on a range of issues affecting women and girls—including domestic violence, reproductive health, rights, and justice, and media’s impact on girls’ self esteem—and the societal factors that contribute to those issues. Prior to moving back to Chicago in 2016, she ran media and legislative advocacy campaigns at the local and state level in California and was featured in San Francisco Magazine December 2015 “Women in Power” issue.

  • 09/07/2021 3:47 PM | Elizabeth Duffrin (Administrator)

    By Kaycee Bunch, ACN Member

    Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has always been essential in establishing an effective nonprofit board of directors and is even more relevant now in our ever-changing world. We tend to hear these three words together—Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (or DEI)—but what do they really mean?

    • Diversity is the involvement of people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives, especially those who have been historically marginalized by their racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, disability, or economic status. 
    • Equity in DEI refers to social equity, meaning that all members of a community can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Equity is not to be confused with equality, however. Have you seen this clever illustration of the difference between equality and equity? Equality (on the left) provides equally for everyone. Equity (on the right) flexibly accommodates each person’s need to arrive an equal outcome.

    Source: “What Is Social Equity?” Melbourne Social Equity Institute, socialequity.unimelb.edu.au/stories/ what-is-social-equity

    • Inclusion is the practice of including and accepting people who are different from you, in every possible way, and providing them with equitable access to resources and opportunities.

    A diverse board that practices equity and inclusion will greatly benefit your nonprofit.  It will allow opportunities to discuss deeply-rooted community issues from multiple perspectives, leading to more creative and informed ways of tackling challenges and pursing goals.

    Although many boards strive for DEI, they sometimes fall short in recruiting a truly diverse membership. An excellent model for creating a diverse board can be found in the world of community development.

    Some years ago, Future Generations University and Johns Hopkins University conducted a study of large-scale efforts at community change, examining approaches world-wide over the previous century. They identified core principles for successful community change and described them as part of a system they called SEED-SCALE. One of these core principles is the three-way partnership.

    Because social change is complex, creating an effective team representing diverse constituencies, proved essential, researchers found. Future Generations University refers to the three groups that must be included in a partnership for social change as the “Bottom-Up,” the “Outside-In,” and the “Top-Down.”

    The first group—the Bottom-Up—are the people who will do most of the work or reap most of the benefits (think of your staff and volunteers and those your organization is helping). The second partnership, the Outside-In, are the outsiders that have an interest in transforming the community (think consultants, researchers, people interested in your organization although they may not have direct involvement in it). The third partnership, the Top-Down, are the leaders whose decisions effect the community (think of your leadership, board of directors, high-profile donors).

    Because all three of these groups of people have knowledge that should inform the direction of your organization, it is vital they all have representation on your board. Strategic planning and other decision-making are typically undertaken by the Top-Down with their bird’s-eye view, perhaps with input from the Outside-In. Rarely is the lived experience of the Bottom-Up invited in.

    Including the Bottom-Up on your board of directors, particularly those from marginalized groups your nonprofit serves, can present challenges It may require extra effort to create equitable opportunities for everyone to participate, such as additional training or even arranging for their transportation to your meeting. It may include actively soliciting their ideas and then listening to a critique of services you’ve worked hard to provide. It may even feel uncomfortable handing power to someone who you feel is less prepared to lead than you are.

    But the payoff to practicing DEI is great. It can lead to more holistic and informed approaches. It can empower those who have been long excluded from wielding power. And as research has demonstrated, practicing DEI is essential for achieving your nonprofit’s vision for meaningful, large-scale, lasting change.  

    For additional information on this topic, see National Council of Nonprofits, DEI Tools and Resources National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) Diversity & Inclusion Self-Assessment.

    Kaycee Bunch, M.A, is the owner of Kaycee Bunch Consulting, which specializes in Community Development. Kaycee has worked with over 20 nonprofit organizations both nationally and internationally, focusing on strategic planning, program development, and fund development.

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