Class notes - weeks one through four, Spring 2018

In between weeks four and five, here I sit writing a catch up blog post on class notes and reflections. It still feels like I’m slowly readjusting to school after the winter break, but that’s bound to change fast as the first papers of the semester are coming due.

Table of contents

My course load for the first half of this semester is lighter than last semester was. I need 5.5 credits to finish my Certificate of Nonprofit Management. So I’m registered for a 3 credit class on Management and Governance of Nonprofit Organizations which runs the full semester (and is the last required class for the certificate program), a 2 credit class on Information Technology Management (a Carlson School of Business class that I petitioned to get in to) which runs for just the second half of the semester, and a half-credit Skills Workshop on Stakeholder Analysis which was an all-day one-day affair that took place last Saturday (a week ago today).

Management and Governance of Nonprofit Organizations

So far I’m really enjoying the classes I’m taking. The professor for Management and Governance of Nonprofit Organizations is Michael Wirth-Davis, who is also CEO of Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota. He brings a wealth of practitioner experience to the class as well as, in the words of Melissa Stone, a love of the academic side of teaching as well. So far I’ve found him to be very personable and think he does a very good job of engaging the class during lectures.

MGNO, Week 1

The first week back at class felt a little bit rusty. Not only was I trying to shake off the winter inertia, but the class Moodle site wasn’t yet up and no syllabus had been sent in advance. So unlike each of the other classes I’ve taken so far (this time around), there was no reading due prior to day one. Everyone showed up to a blank slate, and the first class ended up being dedicated to a full round of introductions followed by a run through the syllabus. There are three dozen students in the class, a dozen of which I’ve taken other classes with. There’s a contingent of students taking an international development concentration, including numerous students from overseas who bring rich and diverse perspectives to the group. Towards the end of the first week’s class the professor segued into a short lecture, which I didn’t adjust to quickly enough to start taking notes. (Edit: a classmate who did shared theirs)

There was also some encouragement during this first class for students to consider keeping a “management journal” during the semester to record and reflect on the course experience. I smiled a little at this, thinking that this blog fits the model and I’m looking forward to continuing it.

Lecture notes from week 1

  • What do we think we know about governance?
  • Different orgs have different boards
    • Startup board, for example - no staff, a “working board”
      • Term limits are critical because that transition from board to staff is challenging
    • Membership organizations - board made up of members
    • Foundation boards - often made up of family members
    • Board of trustees
  • Moral owner of a non-profit is the board, technically
  • Functions of a board
    • Start up: need capital, friends, space, etc.
    • Need people to have different skills and connections
    • Where strategic plan and governance come together
    • A good plan - board members that can forward that plan
  • Boards are not experts - recruited based on expertise if possible, but make sure they have oversight?
    • Have staff doing that if you are over 10 years old - not directing what management does
    • Worst thing to do - bring them on and don’t use their expertise
    • Board diversity - don’t do tokenism
  • State variances in policy for boards, governance, etc.
  • Boards need management - teach them how to evaluate you as the ED talking to board.

MGNO, Week 2

The class moved to a different room in week 2, which was a good thing. During the first week we were in a square shaped windowless room which was nice for having everyone kind of face each other, but was cramped for the size of the class with desk space that was too narrow to comfortably type notes. The room we moved to is a bit bigger (maybe a tad too large for the class) with a traditional front-to-back layout. The desk space is plenty roomy though, and it has windows - not that windows matter much for an evening class during the winter, but they’ll be nice as the semester moves on and the days get longer.

I was running a few minutes late for this class, coming directly from an end-of-day debrief on the all staff ED candidate interview at work that day. We’re in the midst of a leadership transition there and the two week period encompassing this (and the following) week’s class are where the pool of finalist candidates came on site to talk with staff. It was interesting to go through those interviews with the perspective that I’m garnering through this academic pursuit. I was also able to directly apply my education to this process, contributing a half-dozen staff questions to our list by going back through and mining concepts from last semester’s Strategic Human Resources Management notes.

During this class, we also participated in a guided reading reflection exercise. We formed into groups and used worksheets which guided us to break down the following from one of the readings:

  • What did the author want us to know?
  • What were the key takeaways?
  • How can the reading be applied to assignments?
  • What questions do I have?

The professor suggested that we can use that model throughout the semester to analyze the readings. I’m considering using that on the reading summaries that I do on this blog, though am a little hesitant to add another step on top of this already time-consuming process. So I may or may not use it, or may just use it judiciously as needs arise for deeper analysis of certain readings.

Lecture notes from week 2

  • Professionalization; formalization of structure. Oftentimes structure falls apart when people are overburdened and wearing multiple hats
  • Yet when new people are hired, and duties are re-assigned, it can feel like being punished
  • Make sure that you always look at functions before looking at structure. If you’re looking at the people, things get messy. Look at where the functions are and what makes sense. Then as you grow people get stretched.
  • Structure can be changed as you grow
  • What you might miss is where there’s a place for specific functions
  • Anecdote about doing a major realignment. Took every function in the organization, put them on business cards, spread out on the dining room table and started re-arranging them. Took about a month
  • Think of it like designing a home. Might build up a picture of what you like, but then you bring in an architect who tells you where the structural beams need to go
  • Critical for small to mid sized nonprofits to work on those functions, so when volunteers come in you have clear direction for them to do. Easiest way to turn off a volunteer is to greet them with nothing to do.
  • Funding can be prescriptive, comes with strings attached. Can be detrimental when people are excluded from programming due to missing one of the criteria, or worse .. funding is clawed back after program graduation due to that
  • Nonprofits can make profit, in fact need to in order to stay in business. Margin and mission need to go together .. funding and purpose .. “no margin, no mission”
  • It can be hard to do, but funding can’t be the only reason you’re doing something
  • If you have a nonprofit that does a lot of fundraising, people are going to want to know where the funds go. Accountability and transparency are big topics in the nonprofit sector.
  • Overhead myth .. movement in the sector to recognize and fund the costs involved in running organizations
  • Inceptions of the western nonprofit sector came from the church, 17th century poor laws
  • 1st nonprofit management program came from Yale in 1974. Was previously not recognized as a discipline where there was a rigor, dearth of research
  • Now we have a professionalization of the sector. People are starting to look at whether it’s correct and fair that compensation can vary so widely based on where you work.
  • For profit business mission is to satisfy their shareholders. In nonprofits, need to satisfy your stakeholders.
  • Principle of redistribution - all surplus in NP sector needs to be reinvested in the organization
  • If you’re spending every dollar on service delivery, you won’t have rainy day funds or money to invest in staff
  • Need to keep making the case that infrastructure is okay, overhead costs are important to fund. Nobody wants to work or bring clients into spaces that are run down or shabby
  • Student observation - in home country of Mynamar, nonprofit sector is better paid than business sector, employees are a privileged class.
  • Student from Ghana, also in his country, perception of people who work for NGOs as well paid. Jobs are coveted, seen as hitting a jackpot. When he got his first job with a nonprofit, realized that while the pay was high the workload was even higher. In Ghana, many nonprofits are coming in and fading out. Also more concentrated in some regions more than others due to poverty disparities and other factors.
  • Fundraising is important for developing and demonstrating a base of support
  • The community really is the owner of your nonprofit
  • When you become the CEO, you need to be able to look at it all, find the hotspots, and know how to ask for information
  • Living our values - how do we do that? Same values need to apply to our board of directors
  • If you notice something in the readings that’s unsettling, know that it may be unsettling for people broadly in the sector. Be critical thinkers, put those observations in your papers. That’s how the prof recognizes that you’re thinking and reading critically

MGNO, Week 3

This week I was on time for class, but the professor was running a little bit late. Traffic was a mess this day, between the madness of being near downtown four days before the Super Bowl and a political demonstration which shut down a main road near campus roughly a half-hour before class.

At my job, this was also the day that the last ED candidate finalist was in the office to talk with staff. We held an all staff debrief the following morning to synthesize our feedback on everyone we talked with, and that process now moves back to the search committee. We haven’t yet heard any update, but hopefully we’ll know within a few weeks who our next Executive Director will be. There’s a lot I could write about the experience of working through a leadership transition and trying to maintain operations while not being in a position to chart a new course or make any dramatic changes. But what I will write is that on a personal level, I have both hope and trepidation for the change. It’ll be refreshing and exciting to have new leadership and vision there. But what that means for the future of the organization and my future there is an unknown. Truth be told, the previous ED’s announcement of his departure was one of the big factors in my decision to pursue higher education now - not the only reason, but one compelling motivation to get this underway sooner than later.

Lecture notes from week 3

The first half of this week’s class entailed a lively discussion of the week’s readings:

  • Question posed, what do you think of early nonprofits in the US
    • Comment that they seem to follow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Starts with subsistence level needs and gets more sophisticated.
  • “The lifeblood of a nonprofit is public trust” – if you lose that, funding and credibility goes away
  • Root cause analysis - term came from QA engineering. In management, means that if you get to the root question that will affect the answer direction that comes out of asking it.
  • We’ve talked about how nonprofits are founded and get started, but not how nonprofits go away. What happens when a nonprofit completes its mission? In business there’s often an exit strategy, but not as common in nonprofit sector.
  • Notion of oppression as a lens through which to understand the relationships between nonprofit sector and society
  • Need to be mindful of and true to the rubric of the values your nonprofit was founded upon
  • “White savior” problem in American nonprofits
  • Ranging discussion on the topics and issues facing nonprofits, UBIT issues, fitting business models under missions, etc.
  • Nonprofits are an open system - affected by all manner of societal influences, and constantly changing based on current trends, policy changes, public sentiment, etc.
  • Discussion on compensation and minimum wage, about balancing philosophy with resources

Second half lecture:

  • Wasn’t until 1970 that the concept of nonprofits emerged as a coherent sector.
  • Newness of the concept of the sector is why there’s a lack of depth of articles and scholarly resources
  • Nonprofit/NGO sector is the most rapidly growing sector in the world
  • Nonprofit organizations are often difficult to define and to define what they do
  • North Star Test - evaluates whether a nonprofit is acting in accordance with the public interest
  • The Attorney General in every state has the power to shut down nonprofit organizations
  • There is no one unifying theory of nonprofits
  • We know what some of these theories are, but they’re not necessarily helping us
  • Lenses of failure, voluntary, altruism, etc. - these are macro ways of looking at nonprofits
  • Charter, purpose, mission - often mean the same thing .. all get embedded into the articles of incorporation. Must meet the north star test that they’re in the public interest
  • Nonprofits get called private organizations, but they’re often very public. Part of the tension in our language around nonprofits.
    • Operate privately even when majority of funding is provided by government
    • They do however have considerable autonomy around what they want to do.
    • When funding constrains autonomy, frustration ensues
  • They’re non-distributing. Can make a profit, can keep a profit, cannot distribute profit to shareholders
  • Reasonable compensation and no enurement to the board members. (Can pay board expenses, but cannot compensate board members for their service)
  • As a CEO, he would slap a board member on the wrist (figuratively) if they suggested someone that he should interview, hire, etc. Remind them that they have one employee, him, and are they aware that’s a conflict of interest?
  • The board has one voice, not just the loudest voice or the chair’s voice. If you have an organization whose board operates this way, they need training.
  • When organizations get themselves in trouble, what’s the first question that people ask - “where was the board?”
  • Boards can sue and can be sued
  • Mission trumps anything else you do - do not take money from sources counter to your values
  • Resource dependency is true in most cases, but doesn’t always hold as a good theoretical construct for an organization
  • The person served is seldom addressed in a theory
  • If you don’t define who you are, somebody else will

MGNO, Week 4

  • Rights-based approach contrasts to … needs-based approach
  • Tools - are a tool, not a cure-all. You need to have a basket full of tools, but also have the awareness and sense of which to use and when.
  • Management vs. leadership - leaders are often trying to make decisions, have a lot of tools, look at a lot of data sets, work to frame / reframe the issue to get to “question zero.”
  • Framing an issue is an art more than a science
  • Tools don’t give you an answer, they help lead you a step closer to it
  • Three sectors (nonprofit, for profit, govt) often overlap and bump into each other in service delivery areas. Belies market failure theories.
  • The essence of the question of rights is whose rights? Most will go with the UN Declaration on Human Rights for that baseline
  • Just because we know stuff doesn’t necessarily mean we know the answer to stuff
  • Knowledge is fine but you need to do something with it.
  • As leaders a lot of knowledge will come your way. A lot of knowledge will also be kept from you.
  • “Promise me that when you become leaders in your own right, you check your ego at the door every day.” At high levels you are working through people. It’s a difficult thing to learn to let people find their voice and their work style.
  • Stakeholders may not always tell you their priorities, but they do hold you accountable for those
  • Sometimes you need to dig a little deeper. Ask:
    • I wonder what that means?
    • What could that lead to?
  • This can happen in consumer behavior, you have an internal definition of what acceptable quality is and you’re not always going to tell me
  • Stakeholders have competing interests
  • There’s more than one stakeholder to listen to. Listening to one stakeholder of a representative group does not mean that you’ve heard the concerns of that group as a whole
  • Uncover unstated expectations and priorities - keep digging deeper
  • Use innovation to improve stakeholder satisfaction and improve services
  • Some vital lies about stakeholders:
    • Complaints were so few that stakeholders were satisfied
    • No news is good news (people vote with their feet)
    • Stakeholders don’t know what they want
    • Your criteria for services are all that is needed to satisfy the stakeholder
    • Performance measures confirm an organization’s excellence
    • What we do every day is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our customers
  • Reading recommendation: The Reflective Practitioner
  • Your customer service improves when you ask people what they want
  • Move to a user-centered experience rather than customer centered - a bit of a mind shift
  • Be careful with empowerment - it sounds like you are doing something to someone, like you are giving them power that you have. You can work with people and ensure they have resources, but cannot save them. Be careful that this doesn’t become a condescending term.
    • Comment from student - the domestic violence org they work for uses the term mobilize rather than empower

The last portion of this class was dedicated to discussing an assigned case study reading on The Right to be Human: The Dilemmas of Rights-Based Programming at CARE-Bangladesh.

  • A couple of takeaways from the stakeholders standpoint in the case
    • Biggest thing they did was ask the women what they wanted. When they did that they discovered that STD prevention wasn’t their top priority due to other more pressing concerns. Helped them get at the root cause and move towards question zero.
    • The other thing, makes it sound like our chief character was the only one who could make a decision. As leaders, there are always people in the mix making the decision with you. If you go that route, making all the decisions yourself, you will burn out quickly and spend all your time working to get buy in instead of co-creation
  • Takeaways from the case (post-discussion):
    • Case illustrated entrepreneurial effort
    • The case shows the impact of new and innovative approaches on the organization
    • Illustrates how a rights-based approach can affect an organization
    • How diversity and difference can impact the design and implementation of a program
    • The self-contained brothel village has parallels to ghettos in the US and elsewhere in the world, and the social stigmas illustrated here have parallels
    • It’s easier to do project based stakeholder analysis than universal
    • Decision about how to define stakeholders is therefore consequential, and it’s more of an art than a science

Stakeholder Analysis Workshop notes

The Stakeholder Analysis Workshop was a neat experience. Thirteen classmates gathered at 8am on a frigid morning (on St. Paul campus due to it being Super Bowl weekend) for a “day of serious play” .. an academic exercise around a real world case. Prior to the class each student interviewed one stakeholder in the case. We came prepared to discuss our stakeholder’s interests, and were guided through a series of activities to analyze the needs of stakeholders and recommendations in the case.

Notes from the workshop lecture

  • Governance:
    • Mission
    • Structure
    • Resources
    • Accountability
  • In stakeholder work, going to establish a consultation does not involve selling what your goals are. It’s an action step that feeds up into visual mapping
  • Stakeholders come up with clusters of information that move your map around
  • Nutt talks about learning from mistakes, which is maybe easier said than done
  • Healthy organizations will acknowledge mistakes, reward people who make them, and move on
  • Organizations that operate strictly on a timeline provide perverse incentives to shortcut decisions, pay a price in the long run
  • The benefits of doing this systematically is first and foremost to discipline a process.
  • Keeping an intentional list in your mind of who to keep in touch with is healthy practice. It keeps things up in front of you and your organization.
  • Identifying specific claims that need to be addressed sooner than later is extremely important
  • Help craft a successful decision-making process with a realistic timeline and budget
  • One of the things we deal with in public policy is dealing with stakeholders in a shared power world. Lots of issues involve lots of different stakeholders. Need to figure out how to address them, or if you’re going to ignore them figure out why
  • Focus on criteria - what are the things that are important to your key stakeholders. Success will be defined as equal to the satisfaction of key stakeholders
  • The decision making process is as important as the decision itself
  • Four key stakeholder steps:
    • Brainstorm a comprehensive list of stakeholders
    • Assemble stakeholders and ask who is not here who should be?
    • Assemble the full group - everyone should be invited and given opportunity to participate
    • Figure out what the “official” planning group will be with support from everyone
  • Could be important within memos to better identify specific key stakeholders within broader stakeholder groups
  • One of the reasons why stakeholder mapping is important is to figure out who to focus your time on and why
  • It’s great to have a whole bunch of subjects, but you need to make their needs known and heard by higher power context setters in order to get things done
Written on February 10, 2018