6 Lessons I Learned in the First 6 Months of Nonprofit Management Consulting


CC BY-ND 2.0 Deveion Acker

Last October, I offered up a bundle of my ideas, dreams, and experiences, granted it a name and a business bank account, and launched it onto the World Wide Web: Groundwork Consulting.  Groundwork was a way I could formalizing and publicize work I’d been doing for years on the side: working with friends and acquaintances in the nonprofit world to tackle management challenges and think through new opportunities.

Six months later, I realize I’ve been learning a ton about nonprofit management consulting without a lot of chance to reflect on it all. So, here’s a listicle of lessons to commemorate the journey so far:

  1. You can’t change other people. You can only support them in changing themselves. I think this is a lesson I will be blessed to learn again and again in my consulting work. As a management consultant, I can’t make someone change. When talking to a client who has slipped back into a bad pattern, I sometimes wish more than anything that I could just do the work for them. But that’s doesn’t actually help anyone. Only the client can ultimately do the work. My job is just to be a coach, a collaborator, a sounding board, a guide, and a cheerleader in their process. The process can be slow and stumbling at times, but it’s their journey and I need to be present to support it. 
  2. My job is to see the best version of my clients. The more I do this work, the more convinced I become that my ultimate work is to believe in the best version of someone else, and reflect that vision back. No matter how down a client may feel on where they are in adopting changes, my job is to keep strong in the belief that they can and will reach their ultimate potential. The world is full of doubters and nay-sayers. But through my consulting work, I get to always believe in the best in others. 
  3. Nonprofits are systems whose problems must be viewed holistically. Sometimes a client wants me to help address one small piece of the organization. But no sooner do we begin than all the connected problems and concerns start rearing up, demanding attention. Fixing any one problem requires stepping back and looking at the whole picture. 
  4. Changes have to be made one tiny bite at a time. Success helps clients feel optimistic and engaged, and helps them believe in the process. But if they bite off too much, they’re destined to trip up. So my job is to make it easy by drilling down to a single, achievable thing that we can change right now, and then moving on to the next step only once the first change has been mastered. 
  5. Relationship problems are the root of many organizational problems. Sometimes nonprofits come to me wanting solutions to what they see as huge organizational problems around structure and strategy. And while it can be useful to get aligned on structure and strategy (and I love hosting those conversations), many of the day-to-day issues boil down to relationship issues. These look like communication problems, unresolved jealousies, hurt feelings, and broken trust. Fixing the relationships makes all the other problems easier to address. 
  6. I need to practice what I preach. Even as I have advocated for other people to believe in themselves, practice self-empathy, repair relationships, and adopt big changes by splitting them up into manageable bites, I see countless ways I fall short in these respects. As I look at the next six months, I’m recommitting to holding myself to the same ideals I hold my clients, including making sure that I’m not letting the work run my life. 

I’ve had a lot of other moments of insight along the way, but not all of those lessons fit neatly into a list like this. So I’ll leave it there for now. And if  you’re interested in my nonprofit consulting services or just want to brainstorm about management challenges you’ve been facing lately, drop me a note and let’s chat.

Better Than a New Year’s Resolution: A Thank You Letter

writers-desk-with-cappuccinoIt’s a new year, which brings a new opportunity to create the life you’ve been longing for.

It’s a chance to give deep reflection to where you’re trying to head in your life, and maybe start committing to taking a few steps to get there.

On this blog, we tend to discuss career goals and organizational health. But this time of year is also great for thinking through goals and hopes for your whole life—work, personal, physical, mental, etc.

Lots of people like to make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you call yours an intention instead of a resolution.

But New Year’s resolutions can be a bit unyielding. If your life and circumstances change, making the possibility of achieving a resolution unlikely, it can be demoralizing. It might feel like failure. And if life opportunities and circumstances change, you want to make sure you aren’t locked into a resolution that doesn’t make sense for your path anymore.

This year, I’m avoiding a full-blown New Year’s resolution in lieu of an exercise I hope will be more forgiving, insightful, and meaningful: a New Year’s thank you letter.

Want to try it? It’s simple.

First, take a few minutes to imagine where you’d like to be headed in your life. Imagine it’s a year or two down the road, and things are really going well for you. How do you spend your days? How do you feel? What have you invested more of your energy in? What have you given up or turned away from? How are your relationships? How is your health, your savings, your career? Sit and picture this for a few minutes, and imagine you are really there, in that better place.

Often, we have a sense of what we want our future life to be, even if that’s just because we know what parts of our lives are causing friction right now. Feel free to really step into the role for a while.

You may find yourself holding back, thinking: That’s unrealistic. I won’t get there in a year, or even more. Try to set those internal fears aside and just imagine, at least for a bit, that your life really can be where you want it to go.

Now, start writing the letter. It’s a letter that future you is writing to current you. And you are thanking yourself for taking the steps you need to take to get to that better place.

Future You might have a lot to say—reassurances that the difficult times will get better, acknowledgement of the hard work and sacrifice that will be necessary. The journey ahead might take some courage, some persistence. But remember to write the letter from a state of deep fulfillment, knowing that you have gone through the hard times and on to the better part of your life. Write as if everything worked out for the best.

It can be useful to describe the life Future You is enjoying. Talk about relationships, career, joys, current challenges, and how things have changed with time.

But remember that this is ultimately a thank you letter. Thank yourself for the work you did. Try to tap into that gratitude.

Then give whatever salutation seems most appropriate and sign it “Your future self.”

That’s it. Be open to whatever you notice in the process. And then close it up and keep the letter nearby and reread it whenever the time feels right. It can serve as a reminder for where you are going and why you want to get there.