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Just ONEthing - Feb 2016

Three times a year, ONEplace hosts a gathering of our Consultants and Trainers Network – area professionals that work with nonprofits. During each gathering, we check-in with each other and discuss the underlying issues related to nonprofit operations, management, and leadership.

Our recent gathering took a deep dive into the question, “What drives an organization, and what difference does it make?” This was not a philosophical question but one of observation and assessment. We wanted to get a read on what’s happening in the field. Three themes emerged in the discussion.

First, we tend the follow the path we’re on. This was expressed as tradition, the status quo, going down the same tunnel, fear of change, or even as an object in motion stays in motion. While organizations are consistent, they may lose sight of other options or become risk averse.

Second, we’re bound by a common cause. While most organizations have a mission statement, this point gets to a more personal connection to the cause, such as all have a family member who suffers from the same disease or endured a similar experience. Being close to the cause elicits deep engagement, and it may cloud understanding relative to fundraising or community engagement barriers.

Third, the organization will rise and fall with leadership. Organizational success often is determined by how the Board and Executive Director partnership lead the organization. The organization thrives when the board conversation revolves around impact, and it falters when the board conversation delves into operational concerns.

We acknowledged the fact that organizations are always communicating a message – whether intentional or not. Being deliberate about that message and mission creates clarity internally as well as external consistency.

Coffee with Don Nitz

This month we sat down with Don Nitz, CEO at Lakeside Academy. With nearly five decades of experience, Don reflects on the people and events that have most influenced his career, and the lessons they taught him.

Tell us how you got to where you are today

I’ve had a wonderful career – working with kids for 45 years. I started employment in 1970 with Kalamazoo County as an attendant at the Juvenile Home. Over the next few years, I was a Caseworker/Probation Officer, a Supervisor, and Assistant Court Administrator. In 1984, I accepted the position of Superintendent of the Juvenile Home and was asked to clean it up. I fell in love with the place, and we were able to bring the agency to one of the tops in the state. I served Superintendent until I retired in 2003. Funny thing – as I retired from the position, I was asked to re-apply for it. So I was rehired as Superintendent for another two years which allowed me time to finish up some loose ends. I was asked to consult with the Lakeside Academy in 2004, and I joined their board in 2005. I became Executive Director of Lakeside in 2006 and then CEO in 2007 – the position I hold today. 

In my work, I always focused on systems – revisiting why we’re doing what we’re doing. I look to improve the service delivery by improving the systems and processes. As one system changes, it has ripple effects throughout the organization. I got this from my Dad – he like working puzzles.

What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community? 

I’m a promoter of revolution. I enjoy looking down the road to see where new ideas and initiatives will take us, and ask, “Is that where we want to be?” So, Kalamazoo is a great fit for me. It’s a city that provides people the opportunity to think big, try new ideas, pick themselves up when ideas fail, and enjoy the ones that work. It’s in our communal DNA. I stay here because Kalamazoo is constantly working on its brand, maintaining its core, and keeping it a wonderful place to live. In addition, Kalamazoo has a strong downtown, arts, family-oriented, higher education institutions, great size, ease in getting around, surrounding agricultural and recreational areas, wonderful people and friendships. The community allows individuals to become involved in living their passions.

What guides or principles do you rely most upon?

The primary guiding principle has always been to ask, “What is best for the kids and their families?” Related to that, I share with staff, “If your son or daughter was here, how would you want them to be treated?” Sometimes, adhering to my principles meant putting my job on the line – doing what was right rather than following the rules. In fact, a judge actually fired and rehired me twice in the same day! Oh, I also keep in mind that, in addition to skill development and learning, success takes a lot of pure luck.

I developed a personal mission statement around 1994, and it stays before me to this day. It’s a series of principles influenced by my parents: Be fair with others; Honor my parents; Appreciate the wonders of nature and protect it; Advocate for the underdog; Maintain a high physical regimen; Nourish the spiritual inner self; Prepare mentally for a positive departure (death); Let determination and perseverance rule; Give back more than I take from this world; Accept my deficits and tolerate those in others; Leave no financial or emotional debt for others; Practice the development of new life skills and knowledge; Live a clean, orderly lifestyle; Never lose sight of the vision on how the world could be; Allow my sense of adventure and curiosity emerge, to seek personal fulfillment; and Crave learning and gaining knowledge.

Who was one of your mentors and what do you carry with you from that relationship?

First, my parents were great influences. Both had 8th grade educations and worked hard for low wages. They valued a strong family, open-mindedness, taking in others in need, and being fair. They taught me about social justice and working hard, and they always said, “You WILL go to college.” Among all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, only my siblings and I went to college because of my parents’ encouragement.

Harold Dyer, Court Administrator, also was a mentor to me. He took me into his administrative domain and taught me the rigors of politics, administrative struggles, human resources, and the importance of staying focused on end results. He made my career!

What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

The Peace Corps changed my life at a young age. Living outside the USA opened my eyes to the many terrible things my country was doing around the world. Living in a mud house without toilets, running water, or electronics, relationships and daily survival were the common foundation for living. This made me question the USA model.

Another learning moment came in Kalamazoo when I was asked by a Chief Judge to clean up our Juvenile Home after numerous serious problems were discovered. After becoming Superintendent, I developed a 3-year plan for functional changes and never met my goal. To be successful, I needed to functionally change my approach and relationships with all other staff members before changing the system. This was a real “aha” moment that carried my career.

What’s an average day like for you at work?

At Lakeside, the executive director handles the organization, so for me, an average day is pretty low key: licensing, accreditation, audits, legislation watch, requests from prior students, consulting with peers and talking with students. It’s a big change from my days at the Juvenile Home where I was working 50-60 hour weeks.

What are the types of challenges/opportunities that keep you up at night?

My greatest challenge at Lakeside was in 2006-07 when trying to save the agency and convince the Board members that “we could be a national model.” We faced the challenge and went from worst to first in Michigan as a residential treatment facility. It took many sleepless nights to get there. Today, our biggest challenge is educating our community on the outstanding work we do with our students and the sustainable health of the agency. It is slowly coming around.

How do you stay up-to-date on latest trends in your field?

I constantly keep my ear to the ground: legislative searches, talking with similar agencies, being a member of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families, and receiving updates on state and federal policy and legislative decisions. I chair the local DHHS Board of Trustees overseeing the local operations and I’m a member of the Michigan County Social Services Association. MCSSA keeps a finger on the pulse of Lansing policy and legislation, and it offers opportunities to discuss program needs and immediate citizen issues at any age.

What advice do you have for those wishing to have a long lasting career in the nonprofit sector?

Most of all, know who you are. Challenge yourself to be your best. Overcome competitiveness, defensiveness, and ego. Be forward thinking and fresh.

On the content side, understand the politics of your board and where each member stands on their view of the agency. Be inclusive in idea sharing and decision making. Also, understand organizational finance: budgets, audits, balance sheets, and fiscal health for the agency. 

I’ve found that the really fun side of living is talking with people and getting to know so many good people. The greatest joy in work is having an idea, sharing it, and watching it develop. That only happens in relationships.

What hobbies or outside interests do you enjoy?

I enjoy hiking, biking, golf, running, swimming, tabata training, weight training, yoga, pilates, gardening, cross country skiing, reading, international travel, college sports, Rotary, and family.

One more thing

I started a physical regimen in 1972, and it has been an integral part of my lifestyle all through the years. It’s worked well for me, and I’m grateful for it. Too many sacrifice health for work, and it’s not something that you can buy back. You must start early and maintain it.

Self determination

One day, long ago, my 4 year old son was crying. He was frustrated, angry, uncomfortable, or whatever – he was crying. In my wisdom, I offered him this solution…then that…then this…then that. No success. So I went back to the first “this.” Why? All my best data and experience convinced me that this is what he wanted…what he needed. He cried louder, his whatevers all in a twist. Then, having exhausted the taller, wiser parent approach, I tried this:

I sat with him, put all of my good ideas aside, and asked him, “What’s wrong? What do you need?”

Recently I read the January 2016 installment of Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE) – TDCE is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free. It’s often manifested in community-wide efforts that eventually falter under the weight of convening fatigue, a series of false starts, and no dedicated personnel.

Unfortunately(?) I followed the TDCE post with a scholarly article from a national institute staffer who had his “spirit awakened” by a renewed effort by his network of partner organizations to “step up our ambition, performance, and leadership as a national backbone organization.” (Release the Trickle!)

To add salt to the wound, all of this came on the heels of participating in a board meeting in which a list of “gaps” were circulated and discussed followed by a list “ways to fill the gaps” – a list which had no connection to the previous list of gaps. The proposed “ways” came from persons removed from the problems and included a lot of wonky language that didn’t make clear what specific action(s) could be taken.


When do we include the voice of the people being served and the staff who directly perform those services? 

When I worked in a large, multi-building organization in Chicago area, there were managers spending time in meeting after meeting developing policies and procedures to guide the work of people not in the room. These initiatives failed every time. When the managers asked those doing the work to propose policies and procedures to improve their work and job satisfaction, an effective solution was found in half the time. And the buy-in was 100%!

Self-determination goes a long way.

Our motivations and intentions are good, and we need to study all the evidence, data, and best practices. It’s important. Equally important is to sit down with those most affected, set our good ideas aside, and ask: “What’s wrong? What do you need?”



Reflections on Creating Change

With the success of last year’s Inclusion Series, I started 2016 excited to plan our next installment. Conversations about equity and inclusion are happening all over the country, everywhere from the world of literature to Hollywood. Being a part of that zeitgeist, and bringing practical tools to the nonprofit sector here in Kalamazoo is a great privilege.

 Photo by @thetaskforce Twitter used under CC 2.0

I took that energy to Creating Change, a conference hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force, this year held in Chicago. Over 4,000 organizers, activists, and social justice allies came together for workshops and institutes concerning the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities. I attended just three out of the five days of Creating Change, and can’t quite believe how much I learned in such a short period. Here a few of the biggest lessons I took from the conference.


1.      Lean into – not away from – discomfort. One awesome panel that focused on the experiences of queer racial justice activists encouraged the participants to expect discomfort, and embrace that. The moderator noted that turning away or shutting down due to uncomfortable feelings or truths can be a major barrier to advancing important conversations.

2.      Don’t do for, do with. One very serious, heartfelt panel about the crisis of HIV in young Black American queer men focused on how realities specific to the African American community, such as religiosity, are exacerbating the issue of HIV transmission rates. The moderator noted that because these issues are entrenched, health organizations would do well to work with communities rather than dictating terms on how to lower infection rates.

3.      Visions of justice tomorrow may not look like yesterday’s. During the State of the Movement address, one of the Task Force staff members noted that it was the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, guaranteeing women the right to choose. That staffer further explained that while that event is an important one for reproductive justice, there is still much work to do to guarantee access to good healthcare for all, particularly the trans*, disabled and undocumented communities.


Creating Change was an excellent opportunity to illuminate how so many different things so essential to a fulfilling and productive life – secure housing, a good education, a safe work environment – must not be taken for granted. I am excited to use this new information as we plan for the 2016 Inclusion Series. And, if you have ideas of what you’d like to see addressed in the series this year, please email us.

No fear

I dreaded making the call. Every time I talked with this woman – the Treasurer of the New England area, based in Boston – she was short, direct, and seemed angry. Overall, she seemed pleased with our work, but I always felt put on the spot or called on the carpet when we spoke. Then, one day, I met her, and from that day,

I never again hesitated to call. In fact, I looked forward to speaking with her.

This happened early in my career when all correspondence was by letter, phone call or face-to-face – no email, text, or Facebook. I learned from my overly blunt colleague and from many others that no strong, working relationship can develop without face-to-face meetings. Email, phone, et al can maintain relationships. However, establishing or developing effective collegial relationships requires face-to-face meetings.

Everyone has experienced this. A lack of nonverbal cues leads to misinterpreted emphasis or tone of voice. And many a joke has gone astray because the reader wasn’t in the right frame of mind to receive our attempted jocularity (ouch!).

Few dispute what I’m writing. Indeed, article after article support the need for building and deepening relationships with colleagues, subordinates, board members and customers through face-to-face meetings. And yet, we do so little of it. Why? Most say this:

“I don’t have the time,” which is simply another way to say, “I don’t make it a priority.” 

From my chair, I can tell you this: those who make relationship building a priority are better supervisors, have functional boards, do effective board and volunteer recruitment, have loyal donors, develop an excellent reputation, and work cooperatively with other businesses and organizations. 

In other words, their investment in getting to know people creates efficiencies and builds effectiveness throughout their organizations. Indeed, strong working relationships increase capacity, saving time and money.

Electronic communication (email, social media) is disaffected connection – information exchange without feeling or subjective experience. It plays an important role in our workday, but it will never replace that which is required to do excellent work – real human connection.

So, have no dread, no fear. Before the day is out, arrange to meet a colleague, board member, or loyal donor for coffee or lunch…just because…just because working with people rather than beside people will transform your organization.



No surprises

I hear it too often. The executive director brings a report to the board. The executive committee announces a decision it’s made. A committee chair proposes an initiative. A board member declares a public position taken. And, when any one of these occurs, the rest of the board is caught off-guard – total surprise incredulity, shock.

It shouldn’t happen.

Several months ago when asked by a new board chair for advice, the first thing that came to mind was “No surprises – especially with the executive director.” Everyone takes their cue from the top, and the relationship between the board chair and executive director – be it positive or negative – sets the tone for the organization. So, it’s to everyone’s benefit for these two to keep in regular, open, and honest communication.

This relationship models “standard operating procedure” for everyone else and it can be leveraged. Taking time to explain how, for example, there is a formal schedule of weekly phone meetings and monthly face-to-face meetings (in addition to email conversations) lets other members know the expectation. It set the bar. It also may increase their confidence in board leadership.

I raise this issue because surprises happen, often with devastating, long-term effects on the organization.

A board culture that allows surprises to occur, implicitly allows speculation, sidebars in the parking lot, and divisive cliques. A few years ago, I sat in a task force meeting where this was happening – “we-they” language was being used about the “nay-sayers” in the organization. I immediately said, “Stop it! We are one organization and cannot allow ourselves to be divided.” We then took time to discuss the merits and respectful intent behind the position held by “they.”

When surprises – or other potentially divisive practices – occur, someone has to interrupt the proceeding, name it, and call an end to it. Everyone knows its poor practice, but it must to be spoken to break the unspoken agreement that allows it to go on.

If you’re nodding right now (literally or figuratively), then that someone is you – take the lead.

Taking Time to Reflect

I don't have to tell you that December is a very full month. You can probably relate to the mad dash to get gifts and prepare for family gatherings. I am also hyper-aware that I want to make the most of the last month of the year. But unlike the fall, where I focused on productivity, this month I am thinking more about reflection. During these last few weeks before the New Year, I am thinking about where I've been, and where I would like to go. Introspection is an important part of learning from mistakes, and perhaps most importantly, setting a new vision for the future.

 Image by, 3/4/15, used under CC 2.0

Here are a few different modes of reflection I have used for personal growth:

Learning from my "shadow" self. One frustrating thing I've encountered is continuing to see weaknesses in certain areas of life. Learning about the "shadow" self, the negative parts of ourselves that we are usually completely unconscious of, allowed me a window into those weaknesses. See this article for a revealing exercise on the shadow, and how to move past those negative behaviors.

Journal. I've always felt that I am a bad journaler because I don't do it every day. Nevertheless, studies show that those who journal display better work performance than those who don't. You can use your journal as an emotional outlet, or even as a way to remember the positive things when you're having a particularly rough day, week, or month.

Meditation. I mentioned in a previous post that meditation keeps me grounded, but plenty of research touts the health benefits of meditating. And while it certainly can seem difficult, it should be relaxing. If you're a true beginner, I recommend the guided meditations on Chopra Center. Find somewhere quiet to sit, dim the lights a bit, and simply listen to the speaker.


However you spend this month, I hope you are happy, healthy, and fulfilled.

Management Track to stay on track

Many nonprofit staff supervise others, manage programs, or both. Acquiring and honing management skills form a continuous process and a cornerstone of organizational effectiveness.

Our ONEplace Management Track workshop series addresses basic management skill development needs. Almost every month, we offer a Management Track series focused on skills critical to your success.

For example, we recently held our Supervision Series (Sep), Fundraising Series (Oct), and Operations Series (Nov). In the coming months, we’ll offer a Better Board Series (Jan), Volunteer Management Series (Feb), and more.

Spending valuable time on professional development is essential to your career growth and your organization's development. By scheduling Management Track workshops further in advance, you can better plan and coordinate your professional development activities and get dates on your calendar.

Plus, we encourage Management Track workshops as preparation for (and follow-up to) a Leader Academy experience.

Your professional development is in your hands. Plan now to make 2016 a growing year (visit our calendar).

Just ONEthing - Dec 2015

November brought the Operations Series to ONEplace providing a detailed instruction on Project Management, Decision Making, and Problem Solving processes. In this series we learned that the key to all three is asking the right questions to achieve better definition.

In Project Management, we ask: What needs to be done? Why are we doing this? At the end of this project, what will we have accomplished? What limitations need to be considered?

In Decision Making, we ask: What are you trying to accomplish? Can you state that more clearly? What must the decision deliver (i.e., what is mandatory & measureable)?

In Problem Solving, we pinpoint the defect through a series of questions that look at what IS the situation and what could be but IS NOT the situation. For example:

IDENTITY – What is the item that is malfunctioning? What is the malfunction?

LOCATION – Where is the malfunction observed (geographically)? Where on the item is the malfunction observed?

TIMING – When was the malfunction first observed? When has it been observed since? When in the operating cycle of the item is the malfunction first observed?

MAGNITUDE – What is the extent of the problem? How many items are affected? How much of any one item is affected?

We also adjust the questions to look at the closest logical comparison, for example: What could be but IS NOT the item that is malfunctioning? What could be but IS NOT the malfunction?

If the item is a person, we can change the language to fit the situation, for example: Who is the person that is underperforming? What is the underperformance?

Good managers don’t know everything, but they know to ask good questions. These processes provide a stable of good questions for those projects, decisions, and problems that inevitably come to your desk.

Coffee with Kristen Chesak

This month we sat down with Kristen Chesak, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. She reflects on 22 years at the Civic and the importance of relationships and risk taking. Kristen is currently in her final season at the Civic after ten years as executive director.

Tell us how you got to where you are today (positions held, career shifts, etc)

I came to Kalamazoo from Seattle to attend Kalamazoo College and major in Biology and Chemistry. I ended up with a Theatre major. I did internships in Seattle as well as a technical internship at the Kalamazoo Civic and ended up taking a job at the Civic as Light and Sound Production Manager. From there, each time I was ready to leave a position, another position at the Civic came open. Four positions later, I became Executive Director – that was ten years ago. While working, I went back to school for a Master’s degree in Performing Arts Administration at Western Michigan University. I already had the local contacts and networking skills. The masters gave me the tools I needed to continue to grow and thrive as executive director. Last September I notified the Civic that this would be my last season, and the search will begin soon for my successor. For me, we’ll see what the next chapter will be.

What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community? 

Kalamazoo has big city aspirations and a little town feel. The arts and culture per capita is huge, the institutions of higher learning are strong. These add a lot to the community and culture. Partnerships between and among businesses and organizations are unique. Kalamazoo is a city that creates its own opportunity. The Kalamazoo Promise, for example, was a big call to action for our community, and we responded with increased early childhood learning and arts opportunities. There’s a spirit of cooperation here that continues even after the recession. We know that we’re part of something bigger, and we came through the recession smarter, leaner, and poised to take risks.

What guides or principles do you rely most upon?

I believe in risk taking. The Civic is two businesses: show business where you need to make a profit and art where you should always, always, always take risks. Art allows us to walk off the ledge and then see if there’s anything to catch us. If not, then we pick ourselves up and go again. This duality guides many aspects of my life. We need to be good stewards with solid procedures as well as artists who tell stories by and for the community. It’s liberating.

Another guiding principle is to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?“

Who was one of your mentors and what do you carry with you from that relationship?

I’ve had so many. Each of my board presidents has been a mentor in some way. Each taught me what this organization means to Kalamazoo. Larry Jaquith (Kalamazoo College) was an early mentor. Also, since I’ve been at the Civic for so long, I’ve seen many executive directors come before me: Jim Carver, Betsy Bennett, and Duwain Hunt. Each demonstrated their own style leadership, way to run a business, and willingness to take risks. I learned from each one.

What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

It was the first year of the recession. We were not making budget – losing money. People weren’t calling it a recession yet, so there was a lot of wait-and-see going on. My gut told me, “We’ve got to do something…now.” So, I went with my gut and cut back on programming and staff. It was hard, painful, and it worked. I learned to go with my gut…to listen to my inner voice.

I also learned to take risks. You can ask yourself, “Is this the right thing to do?” and never really know the answer, but you can’t manage, “I don’t know.” Sometimes you have to make the decision and then manage what comes as a result. I was young when I first became executive director, and I had to learn to own my own disasters (potential and real). I got better at owning my disasters, learning from them, and being OK with them. It’s an important lesson.

What are the types of challenges/opportunities that keep you up at night?

Big decisions. I have to decide: what types of shows to do, how to affect change and culture, to take a stand on doing the right thing. In a lot of decision making, you’re not sure how it’s going to come out. Yet, you need to decide and move forward.

When I started at the Civic there were 12 employees. When I became executive director, there were 30 employees, and now there are 38. Regardless of how many people you officially supervise, you’re still in charge of it all. So, the challenge of leadership is also with me every day.

What’s an average day like for you at work?

I talk about theatre, then broken pipes, then databases, then theatre, then the mail…. There’s no average day. Since we hired an artistic director – after several years without one – it’s been easier. While it means more discussions on facility issues than artistic ones, it also means we get to spend more time on high level, strategic discussions – these are very important.

How do you stay up-to-date on latest trends in your field?

I subscribe to various industry blogs and have websites I regularly visit (MNA, Blue Avocado, BoardSource). I also get emails and publications from national and state theatre associations, and interested persons share articles with me. I also enjoy conferences and workshops.

What advice do you have for those wishing to have a long lasting career in the nonprofit sector?

It’s about building relationships and knowing that you are responsible for your own self-improvement. No one will tell you to do it, so go and find it. Enjoy it – nonprofit work is never boring.

Believe in what you do. I’ve lasted 22 years at the Civic because I’ve sincerely believed in what we do here. The more we look to our computers and cellphones for information and interaction, the more we need interactive arts and community events to bring us together. We can’t wait for tragedy to unite us. We need to gather and celebrate.

What hobbies or outside interests do you enjoy?

I love to cook and I’m in my 14th year as a “beginning golfer.” I like to hike and camp. I also serve on a couple of boards. I also enjoy our craft beer scene – it’s good for our community.