Your Nonprofit Should Mean Business

In my time walking with one foot in the business world and the other in the nonprofit environment, I’ve seen a few things. My experience and education in business and nonprofit leadership has shown me some repeated problems in many nonprofits I’ve studied. While nothing is ever as simple as a black and white list of principles (I’m looking at you, business world) I’ve noticed some trends over the years that cause nonprofits, in particular, small ones, to struggle. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but I’ve put together what I’ve seen as the primary offenders if you will.

Lack of Understanding

A common thread through many nonprofit organizations is lack of comprehension regarding the fact that while their mission and methods may differ from the business world, they are indeed a business. Too many times, those who lead, operate, and volunteer for a nonprofit organization get so caught up in either the idea of “nonprofitness,” or so mission-focused, they either lack the ability or refuse to understand the fact they are also a business. This mindset sets up many of the other problems on this list – not realizing that operating not for profit does not mean working outside of core business principles. Without a grasp on this concept, nonprofit boards and executive leadership teams look for and hire the wrong people for the job.

This is especially true for Christian nonprofit organizations. These types of organizations many times not only lack the understanding to see the business side of the industry, but they also latch onto this idea that they are a “church.” Many Christian nonprofit organizations are founded either from within a church or by well-meaning, mission-minded Christians. They then set out to run the organization as if it is a church. While churches also need a business focus (that is another discussion) running a church is not the same as running a business. To be successful, nonprofit organizations have to run themselves in much the same manner as any other for-profit business.

Lack of a Strong Leader

The lack of business understanding often, but not always, leads to this problem. Too often, when nonprofit organizations on are the search for a leader, they are looking in the wrong places. Most of the time, the primary concern centers around fundraising. Organization boards and leadership are looking for the person who can bring in the most money. There are many problems with this, but we will only look at a few.

First, let’s address the rebuttal. Yes, a nonprofit organization needs to hire a leader that can get in front of individuals and groups and convince them to give money. That is a vital component of the job. However, the problem I’ve seen in my time within the nonprofit environment is not money, its leadership. Too many nonprofit organizations are worried about hiring someone who can fundraise when fundraising is not their problem. I’ve seen nonprofit organizations that have full-time, professional fundraisers on staff bringing in more than enough money. However, the inner workings of the organization are all over the place. The organization is not growing, there is too much drama between the staff/volunteers, the programs are outdated or ineffective, or the mission just needs to be more focused.

In these cases, fundraising is not the problem. I personally know of nonprofit organizations bringing in plenty of money, but their use of that money is anything but efficient. The problem is not cash flow. The problem is the person at the top. Too often, nonprofit boards and leadership look over people who have not worked in the nonprofit field or lacks “adequate” fundraising experience because they’ve spent their careers in for-profit businesses. Often, this is the exact person those organizations need. They need someone who can come in and straighten out messes, put out fires, balance budgets, better allocate funding, and exercise strong leadership.

This situation is many times exponentially worse, again, in a Christian nonprofit organization. These organizations often take and even further step. I’ve seen too many times Christian nonprofit organizations looking for an Executive Director and INSIST this person must be a pastor. Required qualifications often look like, “a seminary degree and fifteen years in the pulpit.” I am not here to speak ill of pastors. However, pastors are called to do one thing, pastor. I try not to stereotype anyone, but few full-time pastors make excellent businessmen. That is not to say there are none, but they are rare. If you look at any thriving large church, you will almost always find an executive of some type running the operations side of the church.

Pastors are called to shepherd. I can give you real-life examples of nonprofit organizations that have gone under almost solely on the fact that they refused to hire someone who was not a pastor. There are more than enough Christian business people in the world who can lead businesses. In my retail days, I knew a lot of managers who would only hire people with retail experience. They did not want to add the extra work of training people on cash registers and such. This was a mistake. When I hired, I looked for someone who was a good fit on our team, could fill the role I had vacant and could move the mission of the organization. I could train a monkey to run the cash register (from the systems I often had it would seem as they were designed by monkeys so getting them to run them didn’t seem too much of a stretch) Secular and religious organizations alike need to get out of this cookie-cutter leadership mindset.

Lack of a Strong Foundation

Most nonprofit organizations start off small – it’s the nature, and the beauty, of the beast. An individual or small group of people see a wrong in the world, and they set out to right it. Many times, none of them have any experience in the nonprofit, or even business, environments. Sometimes, none of them even  possess any business experience. However, they get together and decide, “You’re going to be the Executive Director, you can be the Business Manager, you can handle communications,” so forth and so on. You have a group of friends on fire to change the world and its awesome.

However, this strange thing happens – the organization takes off. Before you know it, this ragtag group of friends has a significantly sized and thriving organization on their hands. However, that same group of friends who were having fun and figuring things out, now find themselves working for an up and coming business in roles they are not qualified to hold. They don’t know anything about finance, or budgeting, or planning, or implementation of strategic goals. This is a big problem. But the more significant issue is they don’t know that they don’t know. So, instead of hiring people with experience in these areas, they trudge along. When they do need to hire someone, they look for individuals who will meet friendship goals instead of those that can help develop and push the mission to the next level. There is not a clear understanding as to what is required in the roles, and qualified business-minded people are passed over. This becomes particularly problematic when new leadership is needed due to people moving on.

Lack of Accountability

All of the above issues lead into this one and, again, Christian nonprofits are the main offenders. Let me start off by saying holding people accountable is tough, especially firing people, and that’s what I am talking about here. While they are so many levels of accountability or should be, before firing, for brevity’s sake, I am cutting to the chase. That being said, most people I know, including myself, who have spent time in the business world hate doing it. Sure, people like to act all tough and tell horror stories about making people cry and kicking people out, but inside, they hate it (or they should). I get more worked up inside waiting for that person coming to the office to be fired than they do, I promise you. However, it has to be, must be, done.

Do any sort of Google search on the topic, and you will find article after article on the necessity of firing people. I don’t need to rehash that here. However, too many nonprofit organizations, and for-profits ones also if we are going to be completely honest, fail in this area. It flows from what we’ve looked at above – weak leadership, the “friendship factor,” and just a general lack of business principles within the organization, particularly the leadership.

Now, I’ve always said that I have never fired anyone. Individuals have decided to terminate their tenure with the organization due to their actions or inactions. However, when push comes to shove, someone has to have the gumption to pull the trigger. That is not to say one needs to be cold, or mean, or rude. I’ve always tried to send someone out the door as gracefully and respectfully as I would want to be sent walking. But the fact is, too many nonprofit organizations, by their nature of heart and help, don’t believe in letting people go.

Again, when you get into the Christian nonprofit world, it’s worse. Not only do you have that caring and loving nature of the nonprofit environment in general, but you also have the issues of grace and forgiveness. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for grace, mercy, and forgiveness. No one on earth needs both more than me. However, Jesus was also all about accountability, tough love, and flipping tables when they needed to be flipped. When looking for leadership, nonprofits need someone who can fundraise, but also internally handle the best interest of the organization and the team when that time comes.

It is necessary for the leadership, the Executive Director in particular, of a nonprofit to understand that while it is crucial to have a passion for the heart and mission of the organization, it is just as vital to operate under the leadership and principals that drive successful for-profit businesses. Missing this will cost you at the least growth and at the most your organization as a whole. These two are not opposed to each other, but like a good marriage, bring the best of each to a successful and organic unit.

The Evolution of Iron Man

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*Warning – This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame – starting in the first paragraph.* (You really should have seen it by now).

With the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the story of these heroes we have followed for the past 11 years comes full circle. But none so much as that of Iron Man. While not technically the first movie in this massive franchise (That would be The Incredible Hulk), Iron Man is the film that set it all in motion. Being the excellent storytellers they are, the writers at Marvel brought the series to an emotional close in this chapter – from the birth of Iron Man to, sadly, his death.

I grew up a Marvel kid. However, Iron Man was not really on the top of my hero list growing up. Tony Stark has always been more of a “grown-up” character. His struggles with daddy issues, women, and alcohol, thankfully, did not appeal to me as a child (well, maybe the daddy issues – but that’s a different post). My go-to, “good-over-evil” hero was Spider-Man. A superhero kid himself in brilliant colors and fun bad guys had me hooked.

Conversely, when I needed real action and some comic-friendly violence, Wolverine was my man. I subscribed to many of the different threads of each one of those guys and filled my room with their action figures, bookshelves, sheets, and everything else I could get my hands on. Iron Man was cool, he was still a key character in the greater Marvel Universe, and I’d pick up comics with him as a player often enough, but he was never my main guy.

Then 2008 came along and not only did Marvel change but so did my life. I lost everything after a very long fight to save that which I loved most in the world. It was a terrible conflict that cost me just about everything a person can lose. To say I nearly died fighting this battle is not overselling it. The trial that was this time of my life still haunts me to this day. (More on this in another post). I learned through this experience that loss can birth new life – if you are willing to learn from experiences. This transformation is precisely what created such a huge Iron Man fan in me. It was the evolution of Tony Stark, the change in his life that loss brought on, that revealed some needed truth in my life and changed the way I see myself.

2008’s Iron Man introduces us to Tony Stark, an arrogant, self-absorbed, careless, conceited, billionaire weapons developer and arms dealer on tour in Afghanistan to showcase his latest creations for the U.S. military stationed in the country. On his way, he finds himself escorted by a threesome of young, starstruck members of the military. However, their convoy is attacked, and Stark watches all three of these all-but teenagers die, and himself nearly with them, at the hands of his own technology by terrorists who were specifically targeting him.

One might think a scenario such as this alone would be enough to change a man. However, Tony is not finished watching people die at the hands of his weaponry. Stark is escorted to a cave where he meets fellow prisoner and scientist, Yinsen, who also loses his life as an indirect result of Tony’s life and choices. These deaths, up close and personal, set Tony Stark on a transformative journey unlike any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, all the characters throughout the 22 movies grow and change, but none like Tony Stark.

The opening scenes of Iron Man give way to Tony giving up the profits-over-everything mentality and changing everything about himself and Stark Industries. The company becomes a producer of clean energy and Tony begins to use his tech to fight the bad guys he once armed. At the same time, he must deal with his own mortality as the technology keeping him alive is also killing him. His attempts to ignore these issues reveal to him his need for others and force him to confront his father’s legacy that has been killing him spiritually as much as the palladium has physically.

From here he is denied “membership” to the Avengers by Nick Fury. Once things get bad enough that he’s allowed to help, he gets an ego check through accepting he is not the leader of the Avengers. This acceptance does not come easy as he repeated knocks heads with Captian America along with the rest of the team. Tony had been a supplier of war all his life, but it took him actually being in one to make him realize he did not deserve to be the leader. Here he began to understand that others had things to offer he did not.

But these revelations are of no consolation when Tony finds himself alone, dealing with PTSD, and the only help he can find is a young boy with daddy issues of his own. Growing through this scenario sees Tony finally give up control, destroy his suits, and throw his arc reactor into the sea. However, Tony Stark is an addict, and giving up one addiction often leads to finding a new one. Now that he has given up protecting the world, he lets fear fully manifest itself, and he bullies Bruce Banner into creating Ultron to defend the earth.

The results are, disastrous and Tony’s guilt gets the best of him. For maybe the first time, Tony learns that actions have consequences. So, to clear his conscience, the man who once told the government they’d never have his tech becomes their poster boy. Turning his back on his friends to calm his own demons, Tony tries to mitigate this newly created guilt by mentoring young Peter Parker. Still struggling to admit his wrongs, he, like many of us, just moves on. Tony makes amends with Pepper Potts and, with Captian America out of the way, becomes the face of the Avengers once again. However, I would go out on a limb and say that Tony saw Peter as a possible way to rebuild the burned bridges between him and the friends he turned into fugitives one day.

By the time we get to Infinity War, Tony’s sentiments reveal that time has allowed him to get past the civil war between Steve Rogers and himself. He seems to be genuinely sad that he and Steve, “fell out hard.” While his relationship with Peter has grown, Peter’s rejection of Tony’s offer to join the Avengers may have been another wake-up call for Tony. Learning that his friends don’t need him as much as Tony needs them is part of his final transformation. Tony, once the ultimate loner who lived on the outskirts of life, now only desires to be surrounded by his friends.

Tony Stark began his journey believing everything began and ended with him, and if something happened to not fit that mold, he ignored it. Gaining a family, then losing it, helped Tony to realize how wrong he was about things – it tends to do that. Following the life of Tony Stark, his, “arc” if you will, we watch a self-centered man evolve from believing his life was the only one that mattered to sacrificing that life to literally save the world. While all the characters in the MCU change and grow over this Three-Phase adventure, none experience the transformation that Tony Stark encounters. Many of the Avengers began their journey as heroes. Tony had to suffer and experience loss, many times at his own hands, to understand that sometimes not wanting to be a hero is what makes a hero.

The evolution of Iron Man teaches us that it’s a long, and challenging, journey from child-like attitudes to being a hero. That Tony Stark’s walk through life mirrored Robert Downey Jr.’s so closely only made the character more relatable. It took Tony Stark 10 years to come out on the other side and RDJ even longer. There were ups and downs, and for every two steps he took forward, he sometimes took ten back. I think that gives us hope that maybe being a hero is about more than just saving the day and fighting bad guys. Sometimes is about just getting through the day and fighting your own demons. But if an alcoholic, self-entitled, jerk with daddy issues like Tony Stark can become the hero we got and the end of Endgame, perhaps there is hope for us too.

Maybe, I am Iron Man.

Maybe she’s born with it – but probably not…

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy

I know you’re looking at this thinking, “Another discussion about whether a person is born with leadership skills or can they learn it? Hasn’t this been discussed enough? Why should I read this…again?” I would counter with yes, it has been argued to the point of exhaustion, however, with each experience we learn new ways of looking at situations and discover different ways to discuss them.

As said, this has been covered, and there are views on either side. However, when one peruses the literature on the topic, it is not difficult to see it leans one way. Most people interviewed on the subject assume that leaders are born. These people believe that some enter into the world possessing a natural ability to lead, and all others do not. Further, they think that there is not really much you can do for those who are not born with it.

Truth be told, most studies on the subject over the years show there really is more of a bell curve on leadership capability. Some people indeed are “born with it.” Others, on the other side of the curve, are just not going to lead the troops into battle. However, the majority of the people out there fall somewhere in the middle, and that’s where the potential lies.

There was one point in my career I lost nearly my entire management staff. We were going into a busy season, and I had to fill those positions quickly. Additionally, my part-time pool to pull from was made up of fresh faces who barely knew how to do the essential functions of the job. Having no other choice, I consulted with my assistant, and we made the hard decisions of whom we would bring onto the management staff.

We felt both of these ladies had the potential to work well as leaders within the business. One from experience in the educational system, and the other from her attitude and willingness to jump in where needed. What we found were two completely different views on what it meant to take on a leadership position.

The individual we had the most hopes for due to her background in education turned out to be the bigger surprise. While we had high expectations for her ability, we were mistaken. This person was a fantastic employee in a lesser role. She was great with customers, helped her younger co-workers, and worked hard on day-to-day tasks – all the reasons we promoted her. However, once put in a leadership role, all of that seemed to end.

She maintained a great relationship with the others, continued to help customers, but show little to no interest in advancing. Any occasion we used as an attempt to teach her thinks left us frustrated. As soon as we began teaching, she tried to cut us off, “Yep, uh-huh, got it,” whatever she could do to move on. It has taken her time to get past a lot of mistakes, but she has gotten to a point where she can function as a minimal manager.

This is in stark contrast to the other individual we promoted. She is a young woman with no managerial experience. We knew this going in, but we saw something in her we thought we could work with. While she struggled with the operational aspects more and had no understanding of how to lead the team, she was and continues to be, teachable. She asks questions, looks for advice, watches what her leaders do, and genuinely cares about those she has been entrusted to lead.

This individual possesses two of the many traits required in leadership learning – the ability to adapt, and the desire to grow and learn. While I cannot deny there are those who are born with skills relevant to leadership, I also believe much of what is needed to lead others can be learned. Even those born with these traits can benefit from being teachable. I know I have, and this is what makes her a benefit to the team.

When we begin our search for members of our leadership teams, we have to look past credentials. Of the two we promoted, one seemed much more apt to perform in the new position than the other. However, what we found was heart was worth much more than experience. When hiring or promoting, we have to remember that the best person for the job is not necessarily the right person for the job. People, born leaders or not, will lead when they are empowered to do so. How they lead will be determined by how much time you invest in molding their leadership. This includes spending in their correction. We as leaders must have the managerial courage to mentor not only the ones with pedigree but those who maybe don’t even believe in themselves.