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May 13, 2019
Posted Under: Leadership Summit President's letter

Thank you is the best place to begin. Thank you to all of you who made space in your life to show up and be present for two full days of the Leadership Summit and to those who took the extra day to come to our pre-conference classes. Thank you for stepping in and stepping up to comfortable and uncomfortable conversations. Thank you for making space to laugh and connect and learn and dance. Thank you to our sponsors that walked alongside us to offer travel scholarships and keep two days of powerhouse presenters affordable and available to the sold-out house of just over 500 attendees. Thank you to our enthusiastic and all-in board members who hosted breakfast roundtables and lunch time conversations and breakout sessions. Thank you to staff who spend so many hours making it all feel seamless and jump in to troubleshoot a question or offer a helping hand when regular life stuff popped up for people. Thanks to the staff at the Dena’ina Center who are often unseen while doing their very best to keep everything running perfectly.

Thanks, also, to those of you would could not attend for any number of reasons. I thank you because you remind us that summits are not just a one-and-done experience. The lessons from this kind of convening come back over and over in a variety of formats and opportunities. You remind us that large gatherings are not for everyone and that barriers to participation still exist. You remind us that this is all a grand journey and while all of us don’t stop at the same spots to connect, share, and learn, we can find other spots along the way.

So, to those who came to the 2019 Leadership Summit and those who did not, I offer a bit of context on our theme and a few highlights to help energize us all for the journey ahead.

At our Leadership Summit six years ago, we introduced you to our new book, Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey. The Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model has now been shared with tens of thousands of people across the country and around Alaska. It continues to guide our work, and we continue to learn every time we use it. This summit specifically honed in on how the lens of “Right People” guides our work.

What do we mean by “Right People?” The “Right People” are those who can use the values and culture of their organization to move mission forward. This has little to do with any outsider’s judgment about who is right or wrong and, instead, is all about creating a positive and welcoming workplace culture, developing talent, and engaging staff, board, and volunteers with purpose. It is also about nurturing the critical relationship between the board and the CEO and ensuring strategic attention is placed on this partnership.

It is hard to begin determining the right people without first looking through the “Focus” lens in the model. Focus reminds us of our core purpose, core values, and strategic goals. By having clear focus, we can begin the journey of strategically recruiting and engaging the right people at the right time, rather than anyone anytime, to meet the short- and long-term goals of the mission. To be clear, “Right People” does not mean all the people are the same, nor does it mean simply meeting a list of qualifications. The “Right People” are diverse in perspectives and experiences. They are the glue that holds us together.

Since nonprofits require a board and may have staff, everyone must agree on what should be done and who does what, while at the same time remaining in balance with one another. Maintaining a balanced and healthy relationship between the board and staff is best understood as a partnership, not a hierarchy. When you don’t have the right people at the right time, working together, we spend too much time on conflicts, leaving less time to focus on mission. At this summit we explored these topics, along with others like the generational shift in leadership, diversity and inclusion, effective governance, the power of a generosity mindset, a happy workplace culture, self-care, effective searches and transitions, and more. I believe that as a sector these are the topics to explore so we ask better questions about how to adapt in our leadership models, and our recruitment and engagement efforts. As we do this work, we will undoubtedly encourage more diverse perspectives and experiences. While this work might stretch the comfort zone for some, it will create opportunities that last a lifetime for many more.

And, indeed, we did stretch some comfort zones and created rich learning spaces throughout the two days. There are far too many highlights to mention all of them. Some of our speakers have blogs and books and so many wonderful ways to stay connected (see below for more links). But here are a few thoughts to get us started.

We kicked into high gear with some happy brain science. Scott Crabtree brought us the science and the fun in a profoundly authentic way. We knew science was fun, but Scott took it to the next level. By the end we understood that we need to eat seven vegetables a week to improve our mood – we have to focus on the positive even when our brains are drawn to the negative – we need to hear or say five positive things to combat one negative piece of feedback. And, as an added bonus, we learned that it never hurts to throw soft brain-shaped toys across the room and play a happy song on a ukulele.

Akaya Windwood reminded us of the power of generosity in our work – to give freely without expectation of return. She asked us to consider the everyday gesture – to notice what is possible when generosity is the motive and the outcome. The ideas flowed around the room as board and staff members noted what they would do differently in their everyday lives from the simple to the profound. Along the way we heard gifts of gratitude to other nonprofit partners and funders who were taking the extra step to not ask us to compete while asking us to collaborate – a rare moment indeed to be celebrated.

National experts and practitioners Tom Adams and Rachael Gibson helped us dive in and more deeply understand the essential elements of a successful executive transition and leadership succession. Tom literally wrote the book on this topic and Rachael is a leader in this work across the country. They provided a safe space to explore how we authentically bring diversity and equity into this work that impacts all of us every day. With an expected 70% turnover in nonprofit leadership over the next three years, Foraker is scaling up our new service of Search and Transition. To find out more, explore the program on our website.

We felt so strongly that any summit on “Right People” had to include the tools to convene because that is how we come together in formal and informal ways to get the work done. Knowing this, we turned to Ted Lord who for several years has been bringing together a group of facilitators, including myself, on the art of convening. This work culminated in his workbook the Powerhouse Convening Guide which provides hands-on, fabulous tips for working with groups inside and outside your organization. Trust me, there are many great ideas for working with groups of any size.

Edgar Villanueva and Will Cordery jumped in deep by asking us what was keeping us up at night around the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. More than nice ideas, Edgar and Will created space for meaningful and heartfelt connection on what it means to create and sustain welcoming workplace cultures.

Joan Garry brought the laughter and the serious. She reminded us that Kermit the Frog might be the best model of a servant leader and that the board/CEO relationship works best as a twin-engine plane headed in one direction. Her gift of telling the truth of the everyday nonprofit experience helped pave the way for needed conversations about board governance and life as a CEO, along with the required role we all have in leading as ambassadors and champions together.

Vu Le reminded us all that we are nonprofit unicorns – slightly mythical in our multitasking and magical in our energy to navigate ambiguity and complexity while still getting a whole lot done. If we can heed his advice and stay out of the “Nonprofit Hunger Games,” we would be wise. Be sure to check out the antidote in the slide deck link below.

Our time at the summit would not be complete without some self-care. From morning yoga, to dance breaks with Stephanie Wonchala of Pulse Dance Company, to a mindfulness session with Woodrie Burich, we were reminded to take care of ourselves before we can effectively lead and be with others.

Whew! If you are interested in learning more or want the handouts from all of the presentations, they are on our website. If you want to learn more directly from some of our speakers, you can follow them online or read their books. Here are some links: Vu’s blog, Scott’s blog, Edgar’s top-selling book, and Joan Garry’s book or blog.

We have so much to still uncover, reflect upon, and rediscover together. The theme of “Right People” was no accident. In this time for our state, when so much of what we strive to do is up for debate and when the foundations from which we operate seem to be rattled like our earthquakes, we must come together and remember what we are good at and where our power lies – in our people, YOU, the ones that make all of this work. The 44, 0000 of you who are directly employed in the sector in Alaska and the 67,000 who are employed as a result. Together, you make missions work.

We are incredibly curious about what you will do next with your learnings and insights from the summit. Will they spark a new conversation for you? Will you ask a new question? Will you make the space to stop, think, and breathe? And just as much as we want you to take something new with you, I also hope you will consider what you leave behind. What ideas and strategies no longer serve your mission? How will you make space for the new by leaving what is no longer useful? Getting energized around the right people doesn’t mean doing more with less. Instead, it asks us to consider our work and do what is core – and do it together, not alone. It takes us all. To those of you who have been in this work for decades and those of you who just got your first job, thank you for each step you take to make this world we care about so deeply a better place for tomorrow and the generations that come after us.

Post Script. I shared a message at the summit that I think is worth repeating so that more of us can take action. As nonprofit leaders we make difficult financial decisions every day and are driven to do what is best by the communities and people we serve. We know that the essential services we provide, the gifts we create for community, and the economic opportunities we create all work because we do it as partners with government, private industry, and individual philanthropists. No one operates in a vacuum, and we need each other. Even if your organization receives no funding directly from government, each decision impacts the people and places we serve. This is Alaska – we are all connected. I strongly encourage you to see public policy as an essential element of your mission. Whether it is getting involved to ensure a full and accurate count of every Alaskan in the 2020 Census, or standing up for the communities where you live, or communicating directly with your legislators, we strongly encourage you to get engaged. In each message you deliver, we encourage you to dispel the myths of your work. Highlight how your mission is serving Alaska communities, and how we are part of, but not the sole solution, to the challenges that face Alaskans. I encourage you to be at the table for discussions and decisions so that decisions are made with us if they are about us. In this way, we can focus on building an Alaska that works for all Alaskans. At Foraker we are proud to be the nonpartisan, nonprofit voice of the nonprofit sector and to amplify your incredible work every day. We endeavor to work closely with government at every level and in many ways. We are standing with all of you as we work to create and sustain the Alaska that works for all of us.