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?”
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.
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.
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.
Over the past two years, I’ve visited over 30 board meetings to provide training, facilitate discussions, and assist with transitions. I’ve also held individual meetings with several other board leaders. In each one of these meetings I’m reminded of a critical, yet elusive, fact:
The Board acts as one.
Many boards lack this unity. The organization may have a clearly written mission statement but board members are not on the same page with how this impacts their work. The executive director may have a clearly written job description but there are disconnects between board leadership and the executive staff that create confusion and impair operations. The board may have a recruitment plan for members and officers but they struggle to find people to fill the positions.
These three issues – getting everyone on the same page, managing critical governance relationships, and finding great board members – thread their way through many boards locally and nationally.
The most recent Governance Report (Leading with Intent) from BoardSource shows that, while members do a good job with technical concerns such as financial oversight and compliance (things that many do in their own jobs), they underperform on the adaptive concerns related to strategic direction and community connections. In contrast, top performing boards get the “right people on their bus” through a deep understanding of cause, purpose, and strategy that enables thoughtful planning, determined dedication, and collective commitment from board members as well as executive staff.
Let me be frank: I’m seeing too many boards struggle with ambiguities that can be addressed. I’m seeing too many organizations struggle because the board and executive staff fail to develop strong, working relationships.
Board service is serious work, affecting the lives of many – staff, volunteers, clients, and others. Every year, board personnel undergo change, so board development requires continual effort. Our Better Board Series (Jan 12, 19, & 26) offers a taste of what ONEplace can do to assist you in this effort.
Every few months we offer Grant Writing Basics – an introduction to grant writing. Always a well-attended and well-liked workshop, the Basics class emphasizes one key element: worry about what you can control.
Grant seekers often worry on concerns outside their control: who else is applying this round, how will we stack up against the competition, what pet concerns drive the panel, etc. Even if we could answer these questions, it would make little difference in how we write our proposals.
Instead, grant seekers have plenty to focus on within their control. Up to 80% of grant writing is research. Grant writers need to know: details on the organization’s cause, purpose and strategies; details on the proposed program development; the organization’s history of handling such projects; details on the need being addressed and the population being served; details on how other organizations are serving similar needs or the same population; and more.
Once the grant writer knows the details above, then begins the hunt for the funder with a hand-in-glove mission fit. This, too, is within the grant seeker’s control. Using the Funding Information Network (available at ONEplace Center) and other tools, the funder search can be narrowed quite quickly.
I once spoke with a young grant writer who said, “I wrote 100 grants last year and didn’t get a single one.” Don’t be that person. Grant writing is not a numbers game. It’s more akin to finding the right pair of gloves – appropriate material, solid construction, engaging color, and perfect fit.
Few people have the talent to start working as a camp counselor right after freshman year in college, and progressively rise through the ranks until earning an executive position. That is one of the compelling facts I learned about Tanequa Hampton, the current Camp Director of Pretty Lake Camp. She graduated from Western Michigan University last December with a degree in Child and Family Development, and accepted the Director position one month later. During our interview she discussed working with a multigenerational staff, and how she uses experiences from her own childhood to inform her work.
What is one of the most energizing aspects of your job?
Working with the campers who are misbehaving and trying to redirect their behavior. I try to get the staff to come alongside and understand what we’re doing here. During staff training, it is important to me to try to explain why we’re doing this and why we sometimes keep [misbehaving] campers longer than some staff think they should be kept. I try to share my heart because people using understand once they have a heart connection with it. It’s one of the most energizing aspects and it can also be one of the most draining. I think it’s cool to see a camper who has been misbehaving turn their behavior around and to see their growth year to year. Also, to see a staff member really connect with a camper and help that camper believe they have the power to decide how they behave. It’s really profound and powerful.
Do you feel like your early life and education directed you to your current career path, or are you surprised at where you are?
I’m both surprised and also kind of knew I’d end up in a place like this. I had a rough life growing up, and even from a young age I knew I wanted to work with kids, especially kids who had a story like mine. Or who maybe didn’t have an adult in their life to tell them their value. Did I think it would be a camp? No, it never crossed my mind until I got to college.
What has been one of your most impactful professional experiences?
For a couple of semesters [in college] I was a lead infant/toddler teacher for a childcare center and I think that helped me to see I could be the leader and delegate and what have you. So that kind of prepared me for my current role, but Pretty Lake has been the most impactful experience I’ve had because of how it has helped me grow--the multigenerational work I do here, like working with the staff and the campers, figuring out boundaries, and those kind of things. It’s given me confidence that I can rock out in something like this. In anything, for that matter.
Are there many early career professionals in your workplace? Does that make your job more challenging/simpler?
The year-round staff has one person close to my age, but most others are several years older. That part of my job makes it easier for me because they have a lot more experience in life and so they help me prepare for camp, and it allows them to share their wisdom. Only one part makes it difficult: trying to get the summer staff to understand the impact of their behaviors (while campers are here and when they aren’t). I think our culture sometimes makes it hard to truly get this concept. We aren’t taught boundaries and professionalism soon enough and our early adult years. We’re all learning and growing. If I had older people on the seasonal staff this maybe wouldn’t be an issue but there wouldn’t be the energy there. So, [the age differences] are a kind of checks and balances.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about millennials/early career professionals today?
I think people expect them to behave in a certain way so they don’t set the expectations to bring them up where you actually want them. But a lot of people want to rise to those expectations. So, one of the biggest misconceptions is that we just want to behave in a way that is not acceptable, and people don’t challenge us to meet those expectations. I think a lot of people act the way they do because they don’t know any better, because no one teaches them. Usually people act the way you tell them they should. We want to rise to the occasion.
What has been one of your most useful professional development experiences? (e.g. trainings, education programs, mentorship, etc.)
Probably college, because it reinforced a lot of what I already knew about child development and adolescent behaviors. A lot of the understanding I gained from my childhood was reinforced by my education, so people would believe me when I said, “this is happening because of this.” I recognized a lot of things before I received my education, but I didn’t know formal names for them. For example, some of the ways I deal with campers here I learned through my childhood, but then refined a lot of my knowledge at Western.
What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community?
Most of my experience is from living on campus; people were really friendly. The friendliness of people and finding long-term friends has been long lasting and impactful for me. I like the historical landmarks here and how people go and support them a lot, like the State Theater. I also like the relationships between [Western’s] campus and the college, and the partnerships created through internships.
What is the best piece of advice you've received to date, and who gave it to you?
It’s been echoed through a couple of people in my life. Most recently I heard it from one of my pastors: we’re born for such a time as this. There is something in me that the world needs, so I’m trying to figure what that is and bring that to the world. Essentially I have an irreplaceable role in this world, and that is humbling and frightening at the same time. I try to be really intentional about how I go through life.
Which natural talent do you get to use most often in your work?
Even as a little kid people followed me, and I wanted to care for children even when I was a child. So that care and that mothering heart--and I don’t know if that’s a talent-- but there’s something in me that’s always been motherly, and that’s what I’ve been able to use the most. In this role of being part of a year-round staff and a supervisor of all these other staff, and to the campers, I’ve been able to use that in these three different groups, and that’s cool.
What's your favorite way to spend your free time?
Either reading a book, watching a movie, chatting with my friends, or playing games. I love listening to 90s R&B music, so having a little dance party with my friends is always really cool. I like the simple pleasures of life.
Lastly, how do you take your coffee?
I don’t drink coffee, but I do drink tea.
As we approach the end of the year, two things commonly happen – we rush through last minute holiday details and we pause to reflect on the past year. It’s a holiday twist on “hurry up and wait.”
Of course, some last minute activities cannot be avoided. It seems that every event, project, and multi-faceted effort involves last minute details. We anticipate them, plan for them, and then crank ‘em out. These “hurry up” tasks simply cannot be done any earlier.
The “wait” tasks – often weightier, developmental activities that take time and long-term commitment – cannot be so quickly cranked out. These demand top priority, our first and best energy, and regular time on our calendar.
I’m talking about the kind of activities that populate Stephen Covey’s Important-Not Urgent quadrant. They bring vision and perspective. They develop balance, discipline, and self-control.
In summarizing these, Covey writes
What one thing could you do in your personal and professional life that, if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your life? Quadrant II activities have that kind of impact. Our effectiveness takes quantum leaps when we do them. (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, pg. 154)
So, how would you answer Covey’s question? Or, in the spirit of the season, try this: instead of looking forward, first take a look back. What, during this past year or in previous years, have you done on a regular basis that made a tremendous positive difference in your life? Name your success, celebrate it, and learn from it. And then look ahead and see how you can build on it.
That’s taking the long view – small, consistent steps over a long period of time. It’s the key to great board development, great fundraising, great public relations, great programs…indeed, it’s the key to being great.
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.
At ONEplace we glimpse into a variety of organizations – new, established, small, large, struggling, thriving. Regardless of the size or situation, our area’s nonprofit staff and volunteers demonstrate a depth of commitment and perseverance to address their particular cause. What’s most impressive, however, is the intricacy and impact characterizing each organization.
It’s a gift to listen to someone explain how their organization’s services improve people’s lives. I often find myself pleasantly surprised as I learn how organizations come along side their constituents, navigating systems, removing barriers, and equipping them to move on.
This is why I so enjoy our KICtalks programs. Kalamazoo Innovative Community talks provide organizations an opportunity to spotlight their particular innovation, show how it builds community, and invite others to play a part. I learn a lot about each organization and leave inspired, encouraged, and interested to learn about other organizations.
The next KICtalks is Thursday, November 12, 5:30 – 7 pm at the downtown library. We’ll hear from Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, Kalamazoo Literacy Council, and Restore Ministries. I hope you’ll attend.
Once again, a challenge arrives that stops you in your tracks. What do you do? Where do you turn
Help! I need somebody
You’re the only one in your organization who does this work – a lone ranger. Be it fundraising, communications, executive leadership, program manager – you need to talk through this challenge with someone who gets it.
Help! Not just anybody
After combing the internet, you find information. Some of it may be helpful…you’re just not sure. The more info you find, the more you time you spend, generates as many questions as it does possible answers. So frustrating!
Help! You know I need someone
Do not hesitate to contact ONEplace. We were created by area foundations and nonprofit leaders to offer direct assistance to nonprofit staff and volunteers. You face a challenge and you need to talk it through, to make sense of it, and to set a reasonable course of action. Don’t remain stuck – call (269-553-7899) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
P.S. Enjoy this video of the Beatles singing “Help” on British TV.