PMA’s First 10 Years: Five Takeaways

May 2019

By: Patton McDowell

We've been fortunate to work with over 200 nonprofit organizations since the firm was founded in 2009. While our team brings unique individual experiences that benefit our clients, I'm sure my colleagues would agree we are constantly learning from the "front line" of the nonprofit world. As I reflect on PMA's first decade of consulting experiences, five themes emerge:

  1. It's lonely being an ED.  I find it incredibly rewarding to work with dynamic Executive Directors whose dedication and energy are apparent in everything they do. In coaching these talented folks, I'm struck by the challenge they often face from two directions. One, their boards are either micromanaging them OR are disengaged; both ends of that spectrum are difficult at best. Two, their staff are turning over at an alarming pace, and they spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with hiring and HR challenges. Often the greatest outlet and resource for these ED's are other ED's, and simply finding the time to connect with them is the challenge. These other ED's can often become what Keith Ferrazi describes as a "personal board of directors" in Never Eat Alonewhich provide a tailored and responsive sounding board for an ED who otherwise lacks adequate counsel from their own. We're also looking for more ways to connect these leaders with their peers in mutually beneficial settings like Leadership Gift School
  2. It's difficult for organizations to focus. There is no doubt lots of good work is going on as nonprofit organizations tackle many community challenges and opportunities. However, three factors prevent many of them from following Stephen Covey's key maxim: "keep the main thing the main thing": staff limitations, reactionary funding activities, and mission-creep in an effort to show progress. Trying to do too much is exhausting and ultimately unsuccessful, but it's sometimes easier to slip into "busyness" as a cover for actual productivity. Strategic planning has a painful connotation for many organizations; past experiences reinforce a viewpoint that it is time-consuming and not helpful. I disagree. If done correctly, strategic planning can be engaging and offer relief from the treadmill of reactionary activity. Simply put, the best organizations have a clarity of purpose and are comfortable saying no.
  3. We're struggling to integrate the next generation of talent.  The good news is that lots of talented folks are looking at the nonprofit sector as a viable career path, and more universities are developing programs and coursework that help prepare them. We in the nonprofit sector, however, still do a poor job orienting and training (and thus retaining) this talent. There are a few examples of organizations that invest in a professional development strategy for all of their team members, and not surprisingly, they are among the few that are not struggling with constant staff turnover. 
  4. Board members aren't sure how to engage.  As noted in the lonely ED commentary, I still run into too many board members who are not sure how to meaningfully engage with their nonprofit. Some of them certainly bring their own idiosyncrasies to this relationship which limits their engagement, either over-committing themselves when they shouldn't have joined in the first place, or using their passion for the cause to justify micromanaging the staff. Yes, there are "bad fits" on many boards, but a solution is still within reach for many other nonprofits. It starts with a board job description that clearly spells out expectations, an orientation that offers examples of great board performance (and not just a big 3-ring binder!) and an annual board evaluation process that reinforces a best-practice mentality. 
  5. We're all sitting through a lot of bad meetings.  You don't have to read Patrick Lencioni's Death by Meeting (but you should) to understand the pain staff and volunteers feel as they contemplate the next meeting on their calendar! I still love Lencioni's diagnosis of many meeting's dilemma: "meeting stew." Without clarity of purpose, many meetings try to do too much, and everyone leaves frustrated. Those who want tactical updates and an efficient agenda, are immediately squirming when those who want to brainstorm on strategy move into a 5-minute monologue. Likewise, those around the table who want to finally delve into the strategic issues that are critical to the future of the nonprofit are irritated at their colleagues looking at their watches and texting under the table. Most organizations rely on a recycled agenda for staff and board meetings, and they continue to wrestle with the tactical vs. strategic tug-of-war. The good ones, of course, differentiate the types of meetings they host, and everyone shows up with the right mindset around near-term tactical activity or long-term strategic planning. Setting an appropriate frequency for both types of meetings (perhaps monthly tactical, quarterly strategic) makes every meeting more productive. The same approach can apply to board meetings as well.

While I'm admittedly focusing on key challenges, we are certainly seeing many examples of best practices that counter each difficulty noted above. By constantly cataloging and learning from organizations that are thriving, we are better positioned to apply these good examples to other nonprofits looking for ways to improve.