Blog Entries from October 2011 to May 2012

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May 2015 - June 2013

June 2012 - April 2013


5 Ways Nonprofits Can Influence Elections

Pat Libby, Director for the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research

During an election year nonprofits offer wonder (and worry) about what role they can take (if any) to influence the political environment.  Too often organizations do nothing for fear that they’ll violate the law and lose their tax exempt status (I’m speaking here of 501 (c) (3) organizations).  This is a strategy (or lack thereof) born out of ignorance! 

Nonprofits have the legal right to do lots of proactive things during an election year.  And, they should get involved to make sure their views are known and represented properly.

5 Simple and Legal Ideas:

1. Register people to vote!  Registering the people you serve to vote and orienting them on how voting works is a terrific way to engage your community in the political process.  For example, in addition to signing up folks, you might also want to tell them where their polling place is located, show them a sample ballot, explain what the process will look like when they walk in the door of the voting place, etc.  People will be more likely to vote if you can take the mystery and fear out of the process.

2. Endorse a ballot campaign.  Nonprofits can freely endorse a ballot campaign without fear of losing their tax exempt status (the IRS will, however, count toward money you spend on this activity toward your annual legal lobbying limit).  That type of action is so important because there are many issues on the ballot this year that will have a direct impact on nonprofits.  For example, in California there will be ballot questions having to do with raising taxes which have the potential to impact the bottom line of nonprofits and the people they serve that are receiving, or hope to receive, support from the state.  Your board should discuss whether it wants to take a stand on these ballot questions, and if so, how it wants to communicate that stand to your members and to the general public.  You could, for example, write an article or blog on your website or in a newsletter explaining the importance of a particular ballot issue and why your organization supports that issue, you could put a sign in the window of your organization, you could also have an information session at your organization to explain the ballot question. 

3. Invite the candidates for a tour. Invite all of the candidates who are running for office in your district, to tour your organization or community.  Alternatively, take the time to set up a meeting with the candidates to explain your work.  You can do this with candidates who are running for office at the city, county, state and/or federal level.  There is no need to get to them all at once unless you’re sponsoring a debate (see below).  In fact, it is even more effective to reach out to each candidate individually.  This is a terrific, nonpartisan way of making sure that the person who is ultimately elected is familiar with your nonprofit and the issue you represent.  To prepare for that meeting, be sure to have nice looking presentation materials about your organization and the issue(s) that is most important to you.  Keep the length of materials as short as possible (a double sided fact sheet is ideal) and remember too to rehearse your presentation in advance.  Just be sure to treat all candidates equally and provide them the same information. 

4. Be a conduit for information. If you don’t have time for individual meetings with all of the candidates, you can send their campaign a questionnaire asking each candidate to express his or her views on the issues that are important to your organization.  You can then publish the results of those questionnaires in your newsletter or on your website.  Make sure that you aren’t asking “yes” and “no” questions so that it doesn’t appear that you are boxing people into a corner.  Asking more open ended questions will also get you more thoughtful responses.  For example, instead of asking “Are you in favor of subsidies for affordable housing?” you might ask, “Do you believe the state has a role to play in addressing the lack of affordable housing?  If so, what should that role be?”  The IRS requires that you ask about a broad range of issues – not just those that are specific to your area.

5. Host a debate. As mentioned briefly in #3 above, you can also host a candidate debate.  Due to the demand on the candidate’s time, that can be a tall order for a single organization to pull off by itself so you’d probably want to host a debate in collaboration with other like-minded nonprofits.  For example, a coalition of arts organizations, environmental groups, housing groups, etc.  That way you can not only share the work of organizing the event itself, you can also increase the likelihood that the candidates will agree to come because they’ll know that in doing so they’ll be able to reach a large audience of voters.  When you prepare the questions for the debate, be sure to include some general questions so that they are not all focused only on the issue your organization represents (that’s to be in keeping with IRS regulations on political activity).

Do you have questions about lobbying?
Whenever I have a technical question about whether an activity is legally permissible by a nonprofit organization, for example, you may wonder about how you can word an endorsement of a ballot campaign, I always refer to the experts at either Alliance for Justice or Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest.  They’re legal experts in nonprofit lobbying law and always generous with their time in helping nonprofits in this area. 

We’d love to hear from you. If you’ve tried any of these strategies, share your story in the comments below.

May 1, 2012

Breaking News: Politicians Love Nonprofits

By Jennifer A. Jones, M.A., Research Assistant at the Caster Center

On Monday March 26th, the four candidates for San Diego Mayor gathered together in front of a “sold out” crowd at the Old Globe to discuss issues relating to the nonprofit sector. One of the candidates, Bob Filner, joined the conversation via phone. Scott Lewis (Voice of San Diego) and Gloria Penner (KPBS) moderated the forum which was sponsored by the Institute for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research, San Diego Association of Nonprofits, San Diego Grantmakers, Nonprofit Management Solutions, San Diego River Park Foundation and San Diego River Coalition, and the Old Globe.

The candidates, who all articulated a deep appreciation for the nonprofit sector, are:

  • Carl DeMaio, San Diego City Councilman, District 5
  • Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego County District Attorney
  • Bob Filner, U.S. Representative, 51st District of California
  • Nathan Fletcher, California State Assemblyman, 75th District  

The audience response to the forum was captured via #sdmayornp at: https://twitter.com/#!/search/realtime/%23sdmayornp

Politicians Love Nonprofits

It’s no secret, politicians love nonprofits. All of the candidates indicated that they were involved personally and professionally with local nonprofits. Among those mentioned are Voices for Children, Angels, YMCA, Second Chance, Stepping Stone, the Trevor Project, Big Brother/Big Sisters, Reality Changers and MADD.

Bob Filner mentioned spending time anonymously in a homeless shelter. Nathan Fletcher serves on the Board of Directors for Voices for Children and has volunteered with the YMCA. Bonnie Dumanis discussed her experience in college as a Vista Volunteer with Legal Aid and her more recent volunteer work with hospices and the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentor program. Carl DeMaio discussed his founding of the Center for Nonprofit Innovation, a training program which grew out of his desire to improve government outcomes and performance based contracts.

A Focus on Arts and Culture

Perhaps because the forum was held at the Old Globe, much of the early part of the debate centered around the importance of nonprofits in keeping arts and culture strong in San Diego. Candidate Nathan Fletcher envisions San Diego as becoming the “World’s Most Innovative City” which, he believes includes a robust arts and cultural life. Current City Council Member Carl DeMaio argued that arts and culture bring businesses and people into San Diego and  thus stimulate the economy. For example, San Diego companies can entice executives to San Diego in part because of the quality of life here which is further enriched by the Opera, Symphony, theater companies and museums.

Thoughts on TOT

The candidates discussed the current Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), which funds, in part, the San Diego Commission on Arts and Culture. While all of the candidates agreed that this funding was important and should continue, exactly how they believed it should continue wasn’t clear. DeMaio stated his desire to double this funding by increasing the amount of money coming in through the TOT. Filner argued that the city and its residents (not the hotel/motel owners) should have control over how the funds were disbursed. Fletcher discussed the value of what author Richard Florida calls the “Creative Class” and the research documenting how the number of patents in a city correlates with the number of artists. Dumanis indicated she is comfortable with the TOT because she believes San Diego should have great businesses, great schools, and great arts and culture.

Nonprofits and the Future Mayor

When asked how the candidates as future mayor would choose to interact with the nonprofit sector, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

  1. DeMaio would establish a Nonprofit and Community Service Cabinet-level position
  2. Filner would involve nonprofit stakeholders from the very beginning of projects
  3. Fletcher would ask for help in developing an approach he would model after the Clinton Global Initiative (stakeholders sit around a table and each offer to tackle a part of a larger problem)
  4. Dumanis cited the public/nonprofit partnerships that exists around the police and fire departments as examples she values

The Lines are Blurring

It became clear at this point during the debate that the link between government and nonprofits is becoming increasingly blurry. Public functions such as libraries, police, and firefighters are receiving support from private philanthropists. The candidates at first celebrated this as an example of public/private partnerships. For example, when city budget cuts had previously threatened to close down the fire pits, private funds were raised through a nonprofit entity to keep them open. When pressed by the moderators, the candidates retreated somewhat to say that government should be covering these core functions. In fact, when it came to the core functions of government, Dumanis argued that public safety should come first.

The blurring of the lines between sectors is not unique to this debate. We are seeing this emerge in many ways: cause marketing and social enterprises blur the distinction between nonprofits and for profits; increasing government contracts and partnerships with nonprofits blur the lines between nonprofits and government.  The nonprofit sector plays an increasingly important and complicated role in our local economy and civic life. Few of us – including those of us who study the sector – can fully comprehend the porous boundaries between sectors.

Some Misconceptions

It was clear that among the candidates there may be some misconceptions about the nonprofit sector including, the definition of a nonprofit, the sector’s relationship to government, and the sector’s increasing number of opportunities for training and development. Were the candidates aware that San Diego already has several strong organizations (including the forums’ sponsors) that already provide excellent education, training, and support to nonprofits?

Innovation and Nonprofits

There was also a continued call for innovation. This makes one wonder – where exactly does innovation come from? If it is housed in a sector, then it might just be housed in the nonprofit sector which has been leading the way in innovation for years. The nonprofit sector plays a critical role in curing diseases, educating our country’s innovators, providing exposure to and developing artistic capacity, and solving tough community problems. The creativity that exists in the nonprofit sector is often unseen. It is, perhaps, one of San Diego’s’ greatest untouched assets.  If innovation is not housed in a sector but in an individual, then that individual was undoubtedly nurtured by the nonprofit sector’s healthcare, museums, art, education and more. Additionally, nonprofits are continuously evaluating and developing themselves in order to stay current with local needs and marketable to local funders. . . A call for innovation in the nonprofit sector is somewhat akin to a call for exercise at boot camp.

Making Sense of the Debate

When listening to politicians, it can be difficult to separate out the truth from the rhetoric.  We encourage all residents to educate themselves about all candidates and to heed Bob Filner’s advice to voters, “If you want to know where you’re going, see where you’ve been.”  Candidate’s track records on all issues are available through their websites (linked above) and independent agencies such as the San Diego League of Women’s Voters.  

On a humorous note, one thing we can (hopefully) all be confident about: Nathan Fletcher, who wondered aloud if the term “America’s Finest City” refers to our weather, promises to not harm our good weather if elected.

Register to Vote

If you aren’t already registered to vote, it’s time! The primary election is June 5th. The general election is November 6th.

Nonprofit Board Diversity: Should Clients Serve on Boards?

By Elaine Lewis, M.A., Research Assistant at the Caster Center

A Board of Directors is the governing body of a nonprofit organization and they are legally and morally responsible for fiduciary, strategic, and generative stewardship of the agency. The composition of a Board of Directors (BOD) has been a topic of much debate recently; specifically, many nonprofits are asking if, when, and how their clients might participate in board leadership.

While it is generally accepted that responsible governing boards have an obligation to understand the constituents they serve (Brown, 2003.), much of the research suggests that many times constituents on governing boards are seen as tokens and are not valued for what they can bring to the board. Based on informal interviews from nonprofit practitioners, we have identified a few governing boards that embrace and encourage primary recipient participation while others resist having constituents on the board. There are also some organizations that encourage potential board members to accept services so they may meet the criteria from funders for constituents as part of the board composition.  

Client Participation: An Example of Board Diversity
In 1964 President Johnson reinforced the belief that organizations could and should benefit from primary recipients of services participating in the governance of the organizations they receive services.  President Johnson stipulated that boards of low income housing projects must have direct recipients of services as voting members of the board (US Department of Health and Human Services, The Office of Community Services, 2004.)

Currently several State and Federal government funding agencies either require primary recipients to participate on specific boards or take in consideration board composition when reviewing applications for funding. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires that two people who do not have a home or have been recently homeless participate in the local governing board of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) as a funding requirement. (CRS Report for Congress 2005).

Potential Benefits of Client Participation
There are a number of potential benefits to client participation on the BOD. Clients as voting members of the board may have increase social status allowing for greater opportunities to advocate for the organization and services.  The organization may experience increased status within the community in general based on their inclusion of recipients of services. The BOD and administration of organizations would have the ability to gather firsthand knowledge of how their services are utilized and where improvements can be made.

Perceived Challenges in Client Participation
There are also some perceived challenges for nonprofits attempting to integrate their Boards with service recipients. Some nonprofit organizations cite personnel confidentiality as the primary reason for not including recipients of services on governing boards. Additionally, it was revealed in a confidential conversation with an executive director that the director felt the learning curve would prevent recipients of services from contributing to the governing board, “We need professionals who know what they’re doing. We don’t have time to train people.”

These challenges are not insurmountable. In fact, the benefit of including clients as voting members of the BOD may far out weight any challenges that might be encountered.

What do you think? Join in and share your thoughts about board diversity.

***

Resources:

  • A 1979 article entitled “How to keep your mandated citizen board out of your hair and off your back: A guide for executive directors” by Steckler & Herzog was published by the American Journal of Public Health.  Although the title of this article is irreverent, the article offers solid advice on how to recruit, train, and support mandated citizen boards. View it at:http://ajph.aphapublications.org/cgi/reprint/69/8/809
  • Board Source
  • Board Café

References

CRS Report to Congress, 2005. Accessed on the internet April 23, 2011 Retrieved fromhttp://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS22286.pdf

Brown, W. (2002). Inclusive governance practices in nonprofit organizations and implications for practice. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 12 (4), 369-385. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/nml.12404/pdf

March 5, 2012

What Nonprofit Managers Should Know About Young, Early-Career Employees

By Taylor Peyton Roberts, M.S., Research Assistant at the Caster Center

For young people looking to make a positive difference in the world, the nonprofit sector can be an attractive place to work.  Many may begin their careers as employees of nonprofit organizations and, not too far down the road, some may suddenly leave the sector, no questions asked.  . . . What happened?

Research shows that young employees who often enter nonprofit organizations and have very high job expectations often also report low levels of job satisfaction.  They are also more likely to leave when they are unhappy with their job setting or are frustrated with work relationships.  Young employees are facing unprecedented levels of student debt and are also more likely to switch jobs across sectors

What are some of the unique challenges faced by entry-level employees? 
At the 2011 Annual Conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, a study by Marlene Walk addressed these questions.

Walk analyzed interviews from 28 entry-level nonprofit employees (ages 25-35) to explore the causes of low satisfaction at work.  The study found that young employees’ expectations often did not align with their workplace reality. 

Some employees entered their nonprofit’s workforce based on the organization’s mission statement, only to realize that their personal values did not actually match with the organization’s values.  Other young employees were disheartened to learn that their hiring organizations were internally unethical, despite the moral good they marketed externally.  Additionally, early career nonprofit employees reported little opportunity for professional development, and complained of high workloads contrasted with low pay.

The reality of work life can shock early career employees, particularly when expectations from both sides are not verbalized and remain unmet.  Besides improving employee relations, skillfully managing employee expectations can also be fiscally smart; Walk also found that money matters more as a motivating factor when there is a greater mismatch between expectations and work experiences

How might nonprofit managers retain young talent?
 Here are some questions worth considering:

  • Even if my nonprofit has no budget for professional development, are there ways to provide free or low-cost learning opportunities for young employees who are eager to climb the career ladder? 
  • Are my employees comfortable approaching me and sharing their thoughts?  Do I check-in with my employees regularly?  Do I make time to share performance feedback with them?  Have I verbally expressed to my employees that I care about their growth?
  • How might our nonprofit’s hiring process accidentally misrepresent our organization’s values in practice?  Can we do a better job of providing future applicants with a realistic job preview?
  • What formal support might our organization provide to new employees as they transition into our organization (e.g., employee orientation, mentorship programs)?

What are your ideas? Please share them by leaving comments below.

February 27, 2012

Nonprofits and Lobbying: Yes You Can!

Pat Libby, Director for the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research

Throughout the course of modern American history, nonprofit organizations have made a huge impact on the lives of millions of Americans.  As we give back to our communities through our work, lobbying allows us a tool for expanding the scope of our impact.    

There is much to say on the topic of lobbying (so much, in fact, that I’ve recently had a book published on the topic).  In this blog post, I will do my best to briefly touch on the core elements.

First, it is 100% legal for all 501 (c) (3) organizations to lobby!  Right after reading this post, you could walk down the street to talk to your city councilor, board of supervisor, state legislator or congressperson about a specific legislative issue and that would be just fine under the law governing nonprofit corporations.  

And, just to be clear that we’re all on the same page, lobbying means “attempting to influence legislation” – which is laws that are in the process of being made.   You are lobbying when you take a position on an issue and contact legislators or others who would influence them (such as the members of your organization on the general public) to urge them to take action on that issue.

Lobbying and San Diego Nonprofits:
Two of my colleagues at the Nonprofit Institute – Mary McDonald and Elaine Lewis – recently completed an eye-opening study of advocacy practices among nonprofit organizations in San Diego.  The study was modeled on similar research conducted 12 years ago by the Strengthen Nonprofit Advocacy Project (commonly referred to as “SNAP”) which sought to get a snapshot of how and the extent to which nonprofits engage in advocacy.  

The depressing new is that 45% of San Diego nonprofits reported that they believed it was not permissible for their organization to lobby.  Even worse, 75% believed that they could not lobby if part of their budget came from federal funds!  This is not to pick on San Diego nonprofit leaders – this data tracks right alongside national surveys of nonprofits and their lobbying beliefs and practices.  But what it does say is that nonprofits are, as a whole, very uninformed about this basic and important legal right.

There are two ways nonprofits can lobby legally: 

1)      The first is called the “insubstantial test” otherwise known as the “substantial part test” which says that all nonprofits may lobby to an insubstantial degree.  The problem with this rule is that the IRS does not define what it means by insubstantial!  Does it mean that if 2 or 3 percent of our operating budget is dedicated to lobbying we are lobbying an insubstantial amount?  We don’t know because they haven’t and won’t define the term for us. 

2)      Alternatively, we can elect to fill out a one line form that is called the 501 (h) election (as in, “have at it, have fun, go lobby!”) otherwise known as the “expenditure test,” which provides nonprofits with considerable legal latitude and clear parameters about how they can lobby.  Some nonprofits fear that the IRS will be more likely to audit them if they take up the (h) election however study after study has shown this is nottrue.  Other nonprofits worry that by filing the (h) election they will have more complicated reporting on their 990s but that’s not true either – in fact, it’s just the opposite!  By filing the (h) election, the time you spend on activities such as nonpartisan issue research, contacting members about an issue, having your volunteers lobby on your behalf along with several other items, are NOT counted toward your lobbying limit whereas they are if you fall under the murky insubstantial test. 

I don’t want to turn this blog post into a treatise on nonprofit legal lobbying rules as so much good material has already been written on this topic (and is available for free online) by Alliance for Justice and Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest.  I do want to urge you to go online to become acquainted with what are really simple rules and generous financial parameters that allow your organization to lobby.

There is one more quick point that I do want to make though:  Foundations can support lobbying!  They can do this by either providing general operating support to a nonprofit that they know is engaged in lobbying and they can directly fund a lobbying campaign orchestrated by a 501 (c ) (3) organization as long as they aren’t funding the entire campaign.  Foundations need to be encouraged to get in the game with their charity colleagues.   Also, nonprofits can fund lobbying activities through general support funds raised through membership dues, special events, etc.  

For more information on Lobbying and nonprofits, please see the Lobbying Strategy Handbook. If you have specific questions or any success stories, please share them in the comments below.

February 7, 2012

2 Questions to Ask: Getting the Most Out of Nonprofit Research

Using Research in the Nonprofit Sector

Nonprofit practitioners eagerly await new research reports on the sector. Often they are looking for new best practices or clues to help them plan more strategically. Not unexpectedly, many of the most pressing questions revolve around financial issues. Specifically, many nonprofits want information which will enable them to make better decisions in regard to the financial crisis that began in 2008.

Figuring out what is the best information to use and how to use it is not always easy.  Two questions should always be asked:

Question #1: “How old are the data used?”

In many cases, the data used in a nonprofit research report may be as much as three years older than the date of the report. For that reason, it is critical to determine the year in which the data were collected, not just when the report was written. Many nonprofit trends are consistent and slow to change. However, since the start of the economic recession, organizational change has occurred at an increasing rate of speed.  Therefore, if you are looking to understand current economic conditions, and the report you are reading is using data from 2007, it may not be relevant to today’s reality.

Question #2: “What information would be useful to me?”

It is important to know exactly what information you are seeking. Sometimes one report may use several different types of data to talk about several different types of organizations. This may not always be easy to determine without a careful read of the report and its citations for data sources. For example, a report may use IRS data to talk about the nonprofit sector as a whole but use data from a specific survey to talk about only arts organizations.

Here are a couple of tips to help you save time and get the most out of a report.

Tip #1: Places to Look

  • Look at the footnotes on the tables to see what year the data is from.
  • Skim the Methods section of the report to see if there was a survey used, when it was sent out and to what types of organizations. Check to see if a response rate is given or if there is any analysis provided about the representativeness of those who responded (sample) to the entire group being studied (population). If the article doesn’t have a methods section, data sources will probably be discussed in the introduction, the footnotes, or the appendices of the report.
  • Finally, collect your desired information from many different places like blogs, magazines and online research institution reports. Looking at multiple sources will allow you to see from a variety of perspectives. Additionally, you may find consistencies among the various sources. This is important. Data that is well researched and has been presented in multiple ways will typically be more credible.

Tip #2: Places to Get Information

Tip #3: Join the Conversation

  • The Caster Center is committed to creating spaces for nonprofits to share useful data sources. If you know of a website or source which has been specifically helpful, please share it here in the comments and/or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter. If you are looking for information, feel free to ask us and our active social media community for help!

Written by Melanie Hitchcock, M.S.,  Research Assistant at the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego.

January 18, 2012

Creating Energy: Positive Organizational Cultures

The University of San Diego’s 8th Annual Nonprofit Governance Symposium, this year entitled Governance by Popular Demand, featured many seminars, mini-lectures, and gatherings full of information for leaders and stakeholders looking to improve their organizations.

One notable session, led by Marjory Kaplan (Jewish Community Foundation San Diegoand John Ohanian (2-1-1 San Diego), provided helpful tips for creating positive energy and building a healthy organizational culture.  Marjory and John shared their stories and experiences regarding how to do good work while enjoying the everyday, professional environment.  There wasn’t an empty seat in the house.

I attended the session as an audience member and identified five, blog-worthy key themes for anyone looking to create positive energy in their organization’s culture:

1)      Be authentic, persistent, and set the tone from the top

2)      Solicit feedback, involve others, and let your employees do the necessary work

3)      Inspire positive communications in your workplace

4)      Introduce some new practices to build positive energy

5)      Respect those around you, and take the time to demonstrate your respect

Now let’s take a moment to delve into the details of the big question many were asking,“How on earth should my nonprofit begin to do this?”  Below you’ll find bulleted lists offering helpful hints for creating positive energy in your workplace.

Be authentic, persistent, and set the tone from the top.

  • Be authentic in your leadership role.  One of the speakers mentioned the comfort in “being okay with being myself and knowing that’s okay.”
  • Know what type of culture you would like to establish.  Then ask, “How can I create this?  What do I want?”  For example, if you want smart, kind, and resourceful people, hire with that end in mind.
  • Embrace the fact that every day is different.  John emphasized the value in having “the faith and confidence to keep trying.”
  • Remember that it’s okay to make mistakes.
  • Don’t tolerate negativity or disrespect. Marjory discussed the impact of negative events in the workplace, and how such events can really take a toll on the people involved.  She advised that leaders should step in at the first moment when negativity or disrespect might begin to rear its ugly head.  “Don’t tolerate it,” she advised.  “It leads to lack of trust.”
  • Set the tone. As a leader, you need to have the energy and resourcefulness in order to set the tone from the top.
  • Remember that others value friendliness.

Solicit feedback, involve others, and let your employees do the necessary work.

  • Take the time to ask your staff:  Do you think we have a positive culture?  Open up to your staff and ask them about the kind of culture they want to see.  Invite and welcome their input.  Ask them how they would like to see things improve.  Really listen to what others are saying in response, and act according to what you hear.
  • Rather than having performance evaluations come directly from the top,consider inviting your staff members write their own self-evaluations. You may find that self-evaluations are often completed with a surprising amount of heart and conscientiousness.  When people do self-evaluations, they’re often more critical of themselves than their managers would be.  They also end up taking more ownership over goals they set for themselves.  This practice encourages engagement and breaks down the organizational hierarchy.  There is a different type of energy that comes from asking your employees how they did, compared to telling them how they did.
  • In your conscious effort to set a positive tone, remember to step away and let those around you carry out the tone.  This gives your team room to own the positive energy themselves.

Inspire positive communications in your workplace.

  • Pick up the phone to deliver emotional messages, or be face-to-face during hard conversations. Email is a wonderful tool, but it should be used carefully.
  • Recognize others’ successes verbally and through email.
  • Don’t do any kind of assessment tool without integrating the feedback into your operations.  This is easier said than done, but assessments without follow-up action are often a waste of time.  Don’t air your dirty laundry if you’re not willing to take positive steps in response to what you find.
  • Every now and then . . . when you have a little something to talk to your staff member about, rather than sending them an email, invite them to walk to coffee with you This builds stronger relationships and can provide rich contextual information that might otherwise be overlooked.
  • Conduct a casual meeting while taking a walk on the beach.
  • Start a “please” and “thank you” campaign with those around you.  Insert those words into daily conversations.  Write the words “please” and “thank you” on a piece of paper, and keep it on your desk as a reminder.  Why?  Because when language changes, mindset starts to change.

Introduce new practices to build positive energy.

  • Getting organized can produce energy.  One of the speaker’s organizations spoke of the “Purging Party” they have on Fridays . . . when all employees tidy up their stations/offices before they go home for the day.
  • Remember that attractive workplaces feel better.
  • Display flowers, buy plants.  Provide food for those participating in long meetings.  Small, thoughtful touches like these create positive energyand show respect for employees.
  • If your budget allows, consider changing locations to a nicer facility. 2-1-1 recently upgraded their work environment, and John perceived that the new location changed the dynamic of his staff.  He said it felt like a new beginning for everybody, and staff input was collected about the type of workspace they wanted to create together.  Reflecting on the improvement, John expressed,“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
  • Consider taking your staff out on a retreat.  The get-away can be something simple and small, but in process can really help create and maintain the type of culture you’re longing after.
  • Not all developmental opportunities break the bank.  Remember that many training opportunities exist that don’t cost money.  Identify and tap into potential resources for development.  For instance, consider your board members.  What experiences might they have that they can share?  Could they provide shadowing opportunities?  Can other nonprofits be observed for fresh ideas to use in practice?  Go off-site for a few hours, see what others do, and bring the good stuff back.
  • Encourage your leaders to take the time to engage in meaningful interactions with people on a regular basis.  There is value in being around and being present.  One of the presenters called this “walking the floor.”  Remember that chatting with others does not require knowing everyone and all that they do. Walking the floor should be enjoyable and spark pleasant conversations with others.  Most importantly, practices like these are meaningful to people.

Respect those around you, and take the time to demonstrate your respect.

  • Ask yourself, “Do I know the names of the people who clean my office at night?”  You should treat them with as much respect as your best donor.
  • Reflect on how you treat people from outside of your organization. Whenever you have an outside visitor, ask yourself, “How were they treated?”  Also, consider how your organization deals with wrong numbers.  Do people often call asking for another organization with a similar name, and do you have contact information on hand to help connect them?
  • Treat interviewees with respect.  Applicant impressions of your organization matter.  Follow-up with your interviewees shortly after they interview.  They will appreciate considerate, kind treatment.
  • Remember the importance of celebrating when people come onboard.  Take the time to welcome them.  Often organizations spend so much energy throwing going away parties, but just think of how valuable that energy could be at the front end of an employee’s tenure!
  • When promoting from within, remember that current employees really appreciate transparency in the decision making process.  This can help employees understand why they did or did not land the position and ultimately guard against resentment.
  • Showing respect takes time, and that is okay.  Marjory expressed her dislike for the saying, “The devil is in the details.”  Why?  Because she instead believes that “God is in the details . . . we’re painting a picture for our organization, where every little brush stroke counts.”  So embrace the potential value of every action and interaction as you strive to create a positive culture.

Special thanks to Marjory and John for the content they provided in their session to make the above blog possible.  Feel free to share your comments and experiences in the space below.  In your efforts going forward to create positive energy in your organization, please remember that great talent coupled with positive culture makes for an enjoyable place to work.

Written by Taylor Peyton Roberts, M.S., Research Assistant at the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research at the University of San Diego.