Social profit organizations have their respective mission that sets their team into motion. As much as it is essential to have a clear vision of where an organization is positioned, to keep it engaged to the purpose is also crucial. Diana Gibson, a serial founder of social profit organizations, gives insights on the relevance of bottom-up leadership and flex time in an organization. Even with her track record as a serial leader with countless expertise, Diana still encounters some bumps in the road, revealing the most prominent challenge sectors face nowadays. Learn more about organizational alignment as Diane goes in-depth on how we can improve the structure of mission-driven organizations.
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Diana Gibson: Missions in Motion
On this episode, I’m excited to have a special guest and a good friend, Diana Gibson. She is a serial founder of social profit organizations, a serial leader and a great mind in the sector. Diana, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Doug. I’m excited to be part of this conversation.
I have had the chance to get to know you over a number of years and have a sense of your background, but for people who may not know you all that well, please tell us how you got started in this sector and what are you up to these days?
It’s hard to go back to how I got started in this sector. I have always focused my career on being part of mission-driven organizations. At the very beginning, it was with international work, volunteering and working in India, which moved me into the nonprofit sector at NBC and it’s taken off from there, moving into a variety of different kinds of organizations from mission-driven business to nonprofit preschool and national advocacy groups. It’s a big range of organizations, but always mission-driven.
That’s one of the things I think is so important that you bring keeping that focus on the mission. How do you go about doing that, both as a founder or if you’re coming in as a leader in the organization? How do you make sure that that mission stays first at the top of the pile when considerations are being handed out?
I have seen organizations where there’s mission drift. I do see the organizations start to fall apart fast. I had seen an organization where we didn’t have mission drift and it has been phenomenal. They’re punching so far above their weight as a result. Some of the things about keeping that mission are to ensure that everyone’s engaged in building the mission. The sessions around the visioning and strategic planning, the staff are brought in and the staff is engaged in it. We brought everybody in our business, from the board to the admin and accounting to discuss and plan around division each year. It’s important to have clear metrics that everybody’s agreed on for tracking and accomplishment of the mission and the vision on an annual basis and circling back to those that so you can see the success. Then also making sure than when staff is hired, there is mission alignment. With the board members also, that mission is clear and there is alignment coming in the door so that drift doesn’t start to happen right out of the gates. Those are a few of the pieces that I have seen work well.
The organization organizations that work well, they have that alignment. They have that engagement and they have a lot of similarities in how they work and how they look and how they feel even if they go into the offices or sit in a board room. The ones that are not aligned are all pretty unique and find their own ways to wander off the path. How have you worked with organizations or have been in organizations that have taken a few steps off that path of alignment and how do you bring them back on to the good foot?
The question sometimes is do you need to? Sometimes we have seen that it’s not mission drift, it’s change management. It’s about transforming. You have got a business or organization that’s grown in an area and then it does need to change. There are factors in society that are changing or in terms of how funders are lining up or in terms of where the impact is going to be most strategic. In that case, the change management is about making sure that that process is done as a bottom-up process where everybody’s part of the change management and feels engaged. It isn’t necessarily that mission drift is a bad thing if it’s being done for the right reasons. It’s bad if it’s not done well.Being able to identify when it's time to part ways is important. Click To Tweet
In others, you see the mission drift where you start to have differences of perspective on where the organization needs you to go. You see fractions at the staff level and at the board level. The most important thing in those is to make sure that the conversation is brought back to the super high level of why are we doing this? Most of the people that are in the room in a nonprofit are there because of core values. Bringing back the values and working from where people have that commonality and building back to the vision again, often brings the organization right back to the mission.
I couldn’t agree with you more there. I want to go back to something you said about it’s essential to do this from the bottom up. What would you say to a board chair or a CEO that says, “Yes, I understand we need to engage everybody, but we need to move quickly and bottom up, it takes too long.”
I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. When I say bottom up, it doesn’t mean that you have to make everybody happy because there are going to be people that aren’t going to necessarily be able to fit as the mission changes or that fit before but don’t fit now. Being able to identify when it’s time to part ways is important too. Particularly in the nonprofit and mission-driven sector, their values are solid and they’re good people and don’t want to make those hard decisions to part ways with someone. That often can be a big problem. I have found that some of my colleagues that I work most closely with these days are people that I parted ways with as an employer. They have thanked me down the road because both of us are better off. They’re better off not being in a position that wasn’t a good fit for them.
Very few people have the chance to see that come full circle. When we have had to make those hard choices, we all hope that’s what happens for the people after leaving the organization. Those hard decisions about who’s the right people for the organization, it applies to boards as well. Having founded organizations and having been in that executive director role, how have you found keeping board members aligned with the mission of the organization?
That’s an interesting question because sometimes board members are there with a skill set. They don’t necessarily come in with solid mission alignment as much as they come in with some skills or contacts or networks that are important for growing the organization. One of the things around that is to recognize the role of the board. Where those people bring the value and work with them to identify and make sure that they see their value but know where it fits and where it doesn’t, in terms of that mission and line with the organization. It can be a struggle to engage with board members who don’t necessarily have mission alignment but have to bring great things to the organization. That clarity of a conversation of this is the mission and this is where we see a value add and this is what we’d like to work with you on can be a difficult conversation but not an important one to have.
One of the things we see a lot through our work with boards is board members who agree with the mission and the vision of the organization, but may not have a full understanding of the work of the organization or how the organization lives that mission or the work it does on a daily basis. It’s very difficult to align their expertise to the work of the organization because they’re not fully aware of the core business of the organization.
I have seen where the staff have become overwhelmed and aren’t listened to as well. From the board members around to having these great ideas for the mission, but the doability of that for the staff, the feasibility is a problem. That communication is so critical. That’s why I see it does need to be bottom up. If the board and the staff aren’t working together as a team, it starts to fall apart quickly.
That feasibility question is always important. One of my observations is the boards are good at saying yes to new things and struggle to say, “No, we’re not going to do that anymore.”
I do see that a lot, particularly in this sector because the staff are in the sector because of wanting to make an impact. Because their values are there, burnout is such a huge issue. I remember I was working with an organization that the board had identified burnout as an issue. They had asked me to help them. They gave me a whole lot of information on Thursday and wanted the response by Saturday and a meeting by Monday. I said to them, “If your concern is burnout, you need to look at your expectations because this indicates that you don’t have an understanding of getting quality work and turnaround time and respecting people’s work-life balance.” The board was incredibly meaningful and they’re with all the right values, but they didn’t have this concept of the impact of the demands that they were making on the staff, that work-life balance and stuff. It’s funny because trade unions also are not particularly good employers often and the nonprofit sector and it partly is because there’s always more to do than it can be done and where do you draw that line?
I had the chance to work with an organization that as part of their strategic plan is they wanted to have a work-life balance addressed. Have a positive statement about how much they valued work-life balance. There needed to be a meeting between the board and the senior team on what that would mean in terms of flex time in the organization. The board chair wanted to schedule it on a Sunday morning. I started laughing and she looked at me sideways for a second and then went, “We can probably do it during the workday.”
The irony of having a work-life balance conversation over the weekend, this board didn’t catch the irony of that.
She got it pretty quickly, but it showed how when you have got people around the table who are cause-committed and mission-driven, both on the staff and the board side. How do we make that into the organization we want it to be? We know it can be recognizing the constraints of time, resources and human frailty often.
It’s interesting because the board members are often doing this on their volunteer chair time outside of work hours. There is a need for them to engage with staff outside of regular work hours to meet their own time availability windows. That does mean that staff often are working that double shift and there’s not enough recognition of we need to structure their work week so that they don’t end up working eighteen hours instead of seven and a half.
This conversation about work-life balance and being in those leadership roles in organizations, what advice will you give to someone who was about to take on their first executive director role, the first CEO role? In terms of working with the board and creating that alignment that you have talked about?
In terms of that, a lot of people are seeing developing that mission and vision for an organization, a strategic plan is never a one-time thing that you never read or look at. For me, it’s important to ensure that the mission and vision are a living thing that people circle back to regularly. That they’re up front and center of every project that’s done. That there’s regular circling back in terms of celebrating successes. I think that helps to keep people’s eye on the goal that this organization has set for itself, rather than all the exciting projects that we could do. Engaging regularly with staff, not on annual strategic planning that they don’t then circle back on, but more regular planning and tweaking the plan according to changes. That thing where it’s something where you’re not talking about it once every year or two years, but it’s something that is engaged with on a regular basis.
Being able to talk to the board about why we’re here or have a shared understanding of why we’re here, often makes the issues you’re dealing with, even when they’re difficult, much more straightforward.If anything didn’t go as well as you wanted, take a deep breath and move on. Click To Tweet
Celebrating small successes and identifying those. Even if this team worked incredibly well together and delivered an incredible product or this team worked well together and their product didn’t come out as well as expected and we’ve learned amazing things. We’re going to be so ready to hit this the next round. The other thing that I find in the nonprofit sector is that everybody’s focused so hard on sprinting as hard as they can to the mission and to the next deadline. There isn’t enough recognizing of the contributions of people going into the room and you start immediately getting into something that involves a critique or learning from some challenges.
Just opening the meeting with recognizing everybody in that room is there on their own time because they’re committed enough to come here and to celebrate that and to celebrate the staff’s commitment. Most staff in the nonprofit sector have taken a pay cut to be there. They are recognizing and acknowledging the work that people are doing. I have somebody that I worked with in our private sector which every time I engage with her was so positive and celebrated people being there, people stepping up. There are few people here, but the people that are here have come with this incredible intention. It was so empowering for people. Even just to address burnout and to keep mission alignment is about celebrating the people that have walked into that room that day and making them feel like that was a valuable thing that they did and that it’s making a difference in the world.
I liked that. Celebrating the people that walked in that day. That’s a great lesson for a leader in any sector. The other things you mentioned there that is all too common in the sector is that urgency fatigue, always sprinting to the next deadline. One of the things I caution a lot of organizations is if everything is a priority, soon nothing will be. You need to be able to acknowledge the end of a project or a moment in time. Celebrate and learn from anything that didn’t go as well as you wanted then take a deep breath and move on to the next part of the work. If you’re running all of the time and holding your breath as you’re doing it, you’re not going to get nearly as far.
I myself definitely suffer from this. There’s a little bit of perfection that gets in the way to get done for a lot of people in this sector. Although, we do need to ensure that our results have quality and they were doing things well. A lot of organizations get bogged down or paralysis around it’s not good enough. That does create a lot of fatigue as well. Being able to identify where a realistic outcome is on a project or a product that isn’t going to burn people out and not feel like everything has to be done to the absolute best possible perfect outcome.
Learn when it doesn’t work but keep moving.
Don’t let the perfect stand in the way of doing because it does a lot of the time. Often, perfect can be done, but not always.
One of the unique parts of the sector that I enjoy watching and participating in is the interaction between the board and the senior management of organizations. You have been on many boards and you have been employed by boards. What is a question that you think boards should be asking more often that they’re not asking?
Often they don’t ask what the executive director or the senior management team needs, “What do you need right now?” Not organizational and structural, but how can we help you best succeed one of them. Also circling more back to the executive team around how to make sure they’re reaching that work-life balance. Board-staff conversations rarely include that aspect.
We often see boards focusing on what addition can we do, what more can we do. Not having that conversation about what do we need to take off the plate, what do we need to take off the priority list in order to accomplish what we have identified as our top priority or most important thing?
There is always some shiny new exciting projects. Being a builder can be very fun and exciting, but it’s about what is doable. That’s out of scope for us at this point in the organization, but that is definitely a difficult conversation for boards.
How have you handled that issue of finding that balance with boards when you have been in that executive director role?
One of them is to put budgets on things. Write down what the staff time commitment is to something. We did that with one organization where a very large and very important project had been done around homelessness. We sat down and documented all this staff time and organizational resources that had gone into it. We found that this nonprofit had effectively given an in-kind subsidy of $20,000 to a project. It was a small nonprofit. The boards are unaware of how much of that extra resources are needed to get a project out, which is what we’ve done. It’s the management’s job in your organization on the boards to be checking on the actual resource allocation to any project. If there’s a new shiny object coming, is to sit down and document what the resource commitment would need to be. Often that’s enough for the board to say, “Maybe we’ll wait for a year or two before we bite off that chunk.”
Being in the organizational leadership chair, one of the worst questions you can hear from a board member is, “What do all those people do?” In those times it’s happened to me. I haven’t done a good enough job or a sufficient job of educating and explaining what the team does, the way the organization works, how the core business fuels the work that we’re doing. The board member is like, “We have got all these people, I don’t know what they do. We probably don’t need them.” It seems to be the underlying question.
The other thing is we need more of these tables. We need more of these conferences or more of these regional networks. We need you sitting on this regional network need to be over it and engaging in this process. None of those is funded. The biggest challenge for organizations, as everybody in this sector knows, is getting that operational funding, ongoing funding for ops work. Those pieces, it feels like it’s the right place for this staff and the organization to be and it’s unfunded. It’s an incredible volume of hours taken in that engagement network. It’s important to work, but it is important for the organization to be tracking how the staffs are allocating their time.
I come out of a consulting legal side in the business that I started and was brought into allocating time and documenting it. It is an incredibly useful process and staff, particularly in this sector, staff can feel like it’s the Big Brother and can react against having to track their time. It’s about how the organization is prioritizing and allocating resources. It’s super helpful if staff and the organization can see it as a positive organizational tool for helping be more effective and helping align work to impact. It can be done positively rather than it can be seen as a disciplinary Big Brother approach. It can be used to say, “Let’s make sure we’re aligning our work for impact into the best ways we could be doing it.” It can be an effective strategy and it can be helpful for the board to be able to see, “Look at these things that they’re making new ideas.”
One of the challenges in allocating time that a lot of organizations deal with is we need to be doing something because it’s good for the awareness of our organization or our mission. It may not be the actual work or the point of the organization, but we need people to know about us. Balancing those awareness activities with the actual work of the organization can be challenging when you have got board members who want that profile to be up. For a good reason, they want the profile to be raised. There’s often insufficient dollar or resources behind those awareness activities.There isn't any magic solution. It's about doing your work. Click To Tweet
A lot of the engagement work is critical for building the organization, but it’s usually unfunded and they have got work that’s funded. They have to get deliverable out the door and this other stuff has to have the corner of their desk in addition. It does take away from the delivery of the actual service or product that the organization’s actual mission is. It’s a fine balance and it is important for organizations to have that clear idea of where they are sitting at, what tables they’re at. Prioritize those for both the staff burn out and for the organizational alignment.
That alignment piece is key. If you’re spending a lot of time on awareness, you better make sure you’re saying the same thing about the organization over and over again.
I’m looking at a lot of the literature on aligning for impact and how many different organizations are there. If you have got a mission, is this a place that lines up with the mission where you’re going to have an impact? Some of it is about engagement in terms of building partnerships and potential future contracts or projects. Some of it does start to be less effective. If you do have the ability to use this lens of where are the places where we need to be in terms of having an impact and which are the ones that maybe we don’t necessarily need to be at.
I want to get your opinion or your thoughts on what is something that you wish everyone in the sector knew better. If you could impart one value or one fact in everyone’s mind, what would you want to see? How can we change the sector for the better?
They are two slightly different questions for me, what I wish people knew about how we can change the sector for the better. What we knew is often people in this sector, it’s a hard work fundraising and building these organizations and keeping them going. The sustainability of them is a constant challenge. They start looking for this silver bullet and I have seen organizations fall apart because they were attracted by some sexy sales job or that this new social enterprise is going to solve all your problems. They do a massive mission directly do the social enterprise that becomes a massive amount of work, with relatively little return. I do feel there’s one of the things that people should know more is that there isn’t a silver bullet.
It’s about having that mission alignment and having your team all motivated, positively engaged and balanced. It’s about having your vision. It’s about having your pieces in place, your fundraising strategies, your administrative capacity, your organizational architecture and your tech pieces. It’s about having the pieces in place. It is about your systems and your organization’s culture and less about a magic silver bullet that’s going to solve all your problems. I do feel like that’s one piece and I have been a part of nonprofits that have started social enterprises and they have been very successful, but they have been more friend makers than fundraisers. It’s hard work. Even if a social enterprise is going to be the silver bullet, it’s going to be a massive amount of hard work. That’s one piece. There isn’t a shiny silver bullet. We have to work well and efficiently.
Your silver bullet is there is no silver bullet.
If it looks too good to be true, it is. The case in this sector is that there isn’t any shiny magic solution. It’s about doing your work well. I do think in terms of transforming this sector for the better, I feel like there are a lot of organizations that stay away from advocacy. I do feel like our society has shifted in terms of how resources are distributed and allocated. Organizations see a lot of social nonprofits and social enterprises moving into much more of a competition model. I do feel like the sector could benefit from more aligned advocacy around seeing our society distribute resources in a fairer way. I am moving away from competition into a lot more collaboration and cooperation around everybody’s big picture goals.
Knowing what you know now and you know more than pretty much anyone else in the sector, would you do it again? Would you go back and start another new organization or go in as an executive director at another organization?
I would. I love working with teams and building teams and building organizations, which is why I’m a serial leader and founder. I like the building phase and I don’t get founder’s syndrome because I do feel like once I see myself bumping against staff around the vision of the future of the organization, I realize I have founder’s syndrome. It’s time to step away. I do see that and move on. The big question is where would I put that energy? It would be about a place that I see is going to have a very strategic impact on changing the way our society is distributing resources and the way the social sector is valued in our society. If there was an organization that I saw and I thought, “This one’s going to have an impact,” I would definitely join it as a builder.
Diana, thank you so much for being on the show.
About Diana Gibson
Diana Gibson has worked nationally and internationally on economic and public policy issues ranging from health care to energy and trade policy.
She has over 25 years of experience in social policy research and has been on faculty with Capilano College and the University of Alberta. She has authored and co-authored many publications on inequality, tax reform, and energy issues at the provincial, territorial and national levels.
She is a Director and CEO of The Firelight Group Research Cooperative, a Director of PolicyLink Research and Consulting, a founding Director and President of the Canadians For Tax Fairness as well as a Research Associate of the Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives, and a Research Fellow with Parkland Institute.