This is the Sam Sector III (get it, third sector) saga. If you check on a regular basis you can follow the escapades of Sam “the greatest and only nonprofit detective in the world” as he answers the questions facing today’s nonprofit leaders. Each installment will take only a couple of minutes to read, will provide you with some information, and will end in a bit of a cliff-hanger so that you will return in about 7-10 days to find out what happened. This of course is fun for me, and a different way to get information out to all of you who have an interest.
“I hear you’re lookin’ to help replace Gracie, is that right?” The man sounded hard.
“Naw, ya got your info wrong, I’m just helping a friend. Besides, what’s it to you?” Sam was surprised that the word was out on the street so soon. It had to be an inside leak.
“Well, some people I know don’t think that Gracie has the skills that are needed for her organization — the next ED better bring somethin’ else to the table or some people with money will not be supportive of the organization — if ya know what I mean, gumshoe.” The man’s eyes shifted warily to behind Sam, and in response to what he saw, he hobbled quickly toward the trees.
Sam tensed and turned in time to see a newer model, silver Chevy pull away from in front of one of the restaurants that ringed the park. “Who’s callin’ the shots here?” Sam wondered out loud. Although the Board Chair had raised the issue privately with Gracie, this future transition was attracting more attention than a schooner of green beer on St. Pat’s Day.
Saturday saw rain move in from the Dakotas, and Sam decided to spend the inclement weather doing something constructive. So after a breakfast of a can of chili and some oyster crackers washed down with buttermilk straight from the carton, Sam walked around his one-bedroom at the Hotel Twin Cities just off the Hennepin bridge and pulled together his laundry for the month. After retrieving his last white shirt from the lampshade where it had been draped since two weeks ago Friday, Sam headed three flights down to the basement coin-operated washers and dryers. Thirty minutes later, as he watched his clothes swirl around the round windows in the machines, Sam was reminded of the life cycle that all nonprofits experience. On a scrap of paper he drew a simple diagram that demonstrated the different kinds of staff leadership needed for each stage in the cycle.
Since Gracie was the founder and first Executive Director, she brought passion, vision, and understanding of the needs of the customers; but Sam had to admit that she was really not known for her management skills. Drawing the chart reminded the aging detective that the crisis that often occurs with first-stage nonprofits is related to meeting the reporting expectations of funders. Frequently, staff leadership is so focused on mission and serving the clients that they do not pay attention to building the infrastructure, such as developing internal systems, policies and procedures. This might explain the strange message that he received from that guy in Loring Park. If Gracie’s organization was true to form, the next leadership would need to have good management skills, and be able to strengthen those important internal systems.
Sam made a mental note of his observations as he stuffed his unfolded clean clothes into the bureau in his room. Then, just after noon, he entered the Dew Drop Inn, a tavern down the street, run by Harry, a retired Executive Director. Harry, as usual, was behind the bar, rubbing the well-seasoned wooden surface with a red and white towel and looking every bit of his seventy-five years.
“Hi-ya, Sam! I got some nice headcheese sandwiches on spring water rye and a new German Pilsner on tap — if you like,” hawked Harry.
“Sounds good, Harry. Can you serve it up with some info?” countered Sam. “What do ya hear from the foundation program officers who come in here? Any of ‘em talking about Gracie’s organization?”
“Funny you should mention, Sam, I just overheard two of ‘em talking about the need for Gracie to do a better job reporting to the funders. Something about not being able to demonstrate outcomes with the data that she has been sending them. They sounded disappointed in her, like they expected better for the funding provided. It ain’t the first time I heard something like this,” Harry remarked, while Sam wiped beer foam off his mustache with his left sleeve, while spreading coarse mustard on the headcheese.
“Ya know, Sam, when I was an ED, back in the day, we just reported the activities that we did to funders. They kinda gave us money because they thought that we ‘did good stuff.’ Now it’s a whole new ballgame with foundations. They view themselves as investors and expect that their investments will provide outcomes — in other words, the world will be different because of their investments. I think that executive directors need to understand this change in philanthropy and pay attention to the data they collect and the outcomes they achieve. It is no longer sufficient to just document activity.”
“Yeah, Harry, times have changed, but I wonder why Gracie is behind the 8-ball. It’s not like her to get in trouble with funders — she has a great rep. What do you think is going on, Harry — I mean, based on your years of experience?” Sam worked his way through the first half of the sandwich and belched some pilsner.
“I think that it is the age-old story, Sam, ‘Founder’s Syndrome.’ Gracie’s hung on too long. If you weren’t such good friends you’d see it too, Sam — I think that you are too close to get what’s goin’ on. Do ya want another pils?” queried Harry.
“No thanks, I’m done — obliged for the info, Harry.” Sam tossed a coupla sawbucks on the bar, folded a napkin around the uneaten half sandwich and tucked it into his jacket pocket — which immediately sported a yellow mustard stain. Sam did not like the way things were going, and he needed to get some distance in order to get perspective. It was time to go fishing, in more than one way.
If you have ideas that can help Sam as he works on his current case, or if you have "cases" that you would like to see Sam take on, please email me.