nonprofit leadership: too busy mopping

Your lists are getting longer. Your “To-Do” list is overwhelming. Everyone needs “it” NOW. Really, RIGHT NOW! Everything is overdue. Disaster will occur if you don’t do this right now. And now you can’t even find your To Do List. The stacks are getting bigger. And people all around you are saying things like:

“Income is down, we have to send more mail.”

“Income is down, we can’t afford to send any mail.”Stop Mopping!

“Income is up on this report, but this report is wrong, I’m sure income is down, get me a new report NOW.”

“We forgot to print more receipt forms, we have to get those done now.”

“The Board’s not going to like that, you should write a memo.”

“We don’t have enough help in gift processing, we need help NOW.”

“No one is getting email from me, who can fix that NOW?”

And on and on and on. Overwhelming.

I suspect you know how that feels. Most ministries, businesses and nonprofits are doing more with less (less money and less people). You’re stretched thin and every one needs everything now… no, really, NOW.

Here’s what’s happening most of the time: You’re too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet.

Get the metaphor? Or is that an analogy?  Doesn’t matter, anyway, here’s the picture: the kitchen sink is overflowing because the faucet is running and water is cascading on to the floor….the growing pool of water is headed to the living room and your new carpet. You do the logical thing, you grab a mop and you mop…and mop…and mop…and mop. But you never make any headway. You’re so busy mopping that you don’t reach over and turn off the faucet–stop the problem and then mop up the water.

Easy in an analogy (I think that’s what it is), hard in life. How do you stop mopping and turn off your faucet?

Here’s how: do what’s “Next.” I have to credit my brilliant friend Al Doyle for helping me conceptualize this. I don’t care if you’re a multi-tasker or not. Do what’s “Next.” “Next” isn’t what is on the top of your list. “Next” isn’t what you forgot last week and need to do.

“Next” has a very specific definition: “Next” is the single action in your control that will deliver the highest return on your investment with the time and resources you have right now.

“Next” might be making sure that when all those gifts come in, everyone knows how to process, code and receipt them on time.

“Next” might be investing hours you think you don’t have in training an admin person to do tasks so that those tasks become their “Next” not yours.

“Next” might be getting those receipt forms ordered first. Then you can worry about training on the use.

“Next” might be making sure all the appeals and newsletters between now and the end of the year are good to go.

“Next” is always important, in your control and will have maximum impact. Some “Nexts” take hours. Others take minutes. Do the quick ones first, then tackle the long ones…unless you know you won’t have another long stretch of time for “Nexts.” Some of the very best “Nexts” are delegating.

And some of the absolutely best “Nexts” involve building and maintaining relationships with important people in your life.

One key. You may need someone to help you keep “Next” clear in your mind (I do). “Next” isn’t necessarily urgent, but it is always important.

Just turn off that faucet, don’t remodel your kitchen and put in a new faucet. In crazy times, you may have to postpone other people’s urgency… even if they are the boss. Many bosses often have a huge problem with “Nexts” because they aren’t worried about your flood, they have another faucet running in their office. When they come with their “Next” give them a clear choice–“your “Next” which is vitally important or my “Next” which is vitally important.” They’ll be impressed with your thinking and may like your “Next” better.

Give it some thought. You’ll love doing “Next” and even more, you’ll love the result.

So tell me about you. Do you feel like you’re mopping like crazy? What does that look like for you? What do you think about the “Next” concept?  I’m still noodling around on it. Tell me what you think. Whew, now I’m moving on to my next “Next”! Hope you can, too.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: Noël Zia Lee)

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

15 thoughts on “nonprofit leadership: too busy mopping”

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  2. Love the post! That ol’ AL, he sure gives good advice sometimes. He said to me many years ago, “If you never say, ‘no,’ your ‘yeses’ will become meaningless.”

  3. What a great post!

    Love the mopping or turning off the faucet analogy. And, as difficult as it is for me, the “do what’s ‘Next’” advice is super.

    As we watch and witness changes in the nonprofit world, “Next” for volunteer leaders should be an examination of the management model.

    For the last 40 years, the vast majority of nonprofits have used the “self-managed” management model which including hiring staff and renting (or buying office space). A smaller number of organizations used two other models: volunteer managed or association management.

    The current recession – combined with increasing costs for technology – has driven an increasing number of volunteer leaders to explore alternatives.

    Just last week, I visited with an association executive who is coordinating his organizations switch from a captive staff to an association management company (AMC). The group has hit the wall. In last two years, cut staff from 16 to 8. They are now “stuck” until 2012 with rent for an office twice as large as they need. In conversation, his goal is for the AMC to retain most of his current staff. I probed about which staff should remain. He included the meeting manager saying “it’s not really full-time work but we have a complex meeting and I would hate to lose him.”

    Self-Managed Option
    Associations that hire their own employees are considered “stand along” or “self managed.” The Association assumes liability for its staff, their compensation, taxes, retirement and other costs. Associations with a “small” budget may have staff “generalists” who perform a variety of tasks. It may mean the executive director doubles as the human resource manager and/or the financial manager. The membership manager may also serve as the marketing manager or meeting planner. The association rents office space or purchases its own building. Ideally, the board delegates personnel and evaluations to the executive director / CEO but the board usually reserves the role of salary policy and other tactical issues related to personnel. The offices often include lobby, conference room(s), lunch room/kitchen and storage. A stand alone association leases or purchases all technology: phones, phone system, computers, servers, association management software, copier, etc.

    AMC-Managed Option
    Associations who select the AMC model use an AMC for its headquarters and staff. The association contracts with the AMC for specified functions. The AMC is responsible for staffing, office space, technology and other personnel-related matters. The Association uses staff specialists only when needed. The association’s staffing capacity flexes based on needs, budgets and priorities. The association has no liabilities related to personnel. In addition to sharing staff, the association benefits from other shared resources including office space and technology. And, often benefits from synergies with other associations its AMC manages.

    In times of recession or growth, an AMC-managed association benefits from flexibility to adjust its staffing and staff capabilities to fit its needs and benefits from updated technology and systems through its AMC.

    This White Paper shows an economic comparison of two bench marking research projects: one for stand-alone associations and one for AMC-managed associations. Worth the read if your “Next” is to evaluate your management model. http://bit.ly/29G4Ih

    If you are an association volunteer, your “Next” task may be to examine your management options to ensure you are benefitting from the association model that best fits your organization and its needs now and in the future.

    Disclosure: I own an accredited Association Management Company (www.drakeco.com) and am currently the president of the AMC Institute, our industry’s trade association.

  4. Someone told me a great tip: Do the most important thing the first two hours of every day, and it’s not answering email. I think of that as my NEXT. It’s hard to resist answering emails, looking at Google Analytics, or Twitter replies, or returning phone calls, but they don’t usually fall into “the most important thing of the day,” do they? Thanks for reminding me of this and expanding that thought to “do the most important thing the first two hours of every day, and make it the NEXT item.”


  5. @Steve–thanks for the great comment (Man you wrote chapter not a comment–great stuff). Hoots and I have seen several organizations face some of the situations you outline–there are no easy choices. The Results Only Work Environment (see http://www.culturerx.com/ for more info) is another option that could work. Thanks for the information.

  6. @Debra–I love your idea. It is amazing how that first round of emails can change the path of the day (for good or bad). I had already shifted to only checking emails about every hour rather than allowing them to ping me constantly. We’re going to try our version of your suggestion–things typically are moving too fast for us to have 2 hours out near the beginning of our day–but we’re developing the plan.
    Thanks again.

  7. Steve – I couldn’t agree more that “mopping” is not only the wrong activity for an executive leader, but it is an indicator that the priorities of leadership are askew. That said, it is not about the “mop” itself… nor is it that janitorial activities are unbecoming! Indeed, it can be very good, appropriate and productive for a leader to pick up a mop and mop! But that is mopping by intention–not reaction.

    I like your “next” idea. Good.

    I’ve come to believe that — if a person would like evidence of their priorities — one needs only to look at their check book and their calendar. Indeed, the names of our gods are written in the registers of our checkbooks, as well as our time logs. If we tell the truth about where we commit resources, we will have mucho material for self reflection re: the priorities which define our leadership.

    Keep up the good work!

  8. @Peter — Love your checkbook and calendar thinking. So true. It doesn’t matter what we say, the doing is what tells the story. Thanks so much for sharing your thinking. Always grateful for your insights and how you make me sharper.

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