npo leadership: one key to success

Here are two seemingly unrelated facts that if you can manage to tie together, you’ll immediately improve the way your organization performs. First, I can vividly remember a conversation my high school speech coach had with me well over 3 decades ago. And second, your organization has to produce more income from a smaller investment than ever before.

Here’s how they fit together.

My high school tournament speech coach was Miss Staggs. As a sophomore, I wandered into her speech class and convinced her that she should give me a chance at tournament speech. I really didn’t love debate or giving speeches yet, but I had noticed the number of great looking girls who were on the team. It seemed like the place to be. Miss Staggs gave me a try-out and for whatever reason, she decided to give me a chance. Next thing I knew I was learning about writing speeches and dramatic interpretation. Turns out that was another area of competition I loved.

About half way through my first semester, Miss Staggs stopped me after class and told me she’d had her eye on me. She said she was impressed with how well I was working out. Turns out she had a special project in mind, just for me. I remember she looked me in the eye and said, “I wouldn’t give this to just anyone. This is a really crazy idea that’s going to require extra work and learning to do something new. Really, it probably won’t work at all but I think if anyone can do it, you can do it.” She went on to say, “I’ve been looking for just the right guy to pull this off. It’s crazy. It’s something everyone will think is impossible, but I think you can do it. And if you do, it will be amazing.”

As a 15-year-old, I can still remember standing just a little taller and wondering what adventure was in store. And I remember mentally stepping up to whatever this great coach wanted me to do…

I also, clearly remember gulping when she hauled out a brand new copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” and said, “You’re going to win the biggest poetry reading contest in the state of Texas with this great work of literature.” She laughed, and the twinkle in her eye beat my gulp.

You have to know that not only was I not a poetry reader, most of the poetry that was read was Frost, Sandburg and Sexton. We’re talking angst, depression and roads not taken, definitely not cats in hats.

More on how that worked out in a minute.

The second unrelated fact is that many nonprofits and ministries are struggling to perform well at a time when budgets continue to be just a little too tight. Many are feeling the pinch. You know you need to get more income online but there’s no budget for the redesign. You know that you’re behind the curve on using Social Media but you can’t afford to get the advice you need. You know that you’re not raising as much money as you should be but you can’t figure out how to change the dynamics. You’ve studied the budget and looked for places to get more ROI.

Back to the poetry contest. I worked my tail off. I figured out how to use different voices to do the reading. I developed a snarky, vaguely British narrator voice and two other voices that were just weird enough. I soaked up Miss Staggs encouragement. She was demanding and unreasonable about my work but believed in me as a kid.

If you’re leading an NPO or charity today, you’re in a battle. It can seem like everything is working against you. Your greatest point of leverage isn’t in the budget it is in the people in your organization, specifically one person. Right now, there’s someone around you who is waiting to rise to a challenge. They need you to tell them you are looking for someone to do the impossible. They aren’t looking for more money or more power or a new title. They need you to look them in the eye and say, “I’ve been watching you and you have what it takes to do amazing things.” They’re hungry for you to say, “We need your talent and skills for something that’s probably impossible, but if anyone can do it, you can.” And they need you to believe in them.

Once you have their attention, give them a big problem. Hand ’em the one that keeps you up at night. Yep, don’t be stupid. Keep track of it. But give it to them. Believe in them. Support them. Encourage them. Let them worry about it and figure it out.

And you know what? Odds are they’ll do amazing things.

I really don’t know if Miss Staggs was surprised that day when they read my name as having won the tournament. I know that she was the only one in that packed auditorium who didn’t act surprised. In fact, she acted as if it was a forgone conclusion. Which put a little spring in my step when I picked up the trophy.

Today, believe in someone and hand them something slightly impossible. Start the conversation with a “Good Job Monday” and end it with a challenge worthy of a champion. You (and they) will be glad you did.

What about you? Can you remember a conversation like I had? What motivates you, more money or more challenge? I love hearing what you’re thinking.

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: UggBoy ( photographer without borders ))

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

3 thoughts on “npo leadership: one key to success”

  1. Loved the story, a piece of the Thomas puzzle fell into place.

    Mrs. Hill, my third grade teacher, and Mr. Brick, my high school art teacher, looked at me differently, like they saw something no one else was seeing, including me. Which means they spoke to me differently too.

    But I want to jump forward to grad school when I was working on my masters in ministry at Pepperdine. The only woman in a conservative all-male co-hort, at a time when women’s cultural roles were much more sharply defined. Context matters. Professor Ron Highfield opened his class on theology with the comment. “Nothing is out-of-bounds in this classroom – no question about God that you cannot ask – no subject that is off-limits.” He blew my mental barn doors off. I felt like a colt running free…at last. Realize I was coming out of a strict fundamentalist background where there were many taboo subjects, people, books…and although I was secretly reading “scandalous” books, books that deviated from my denomination’s doctrine – like Augustine’s “Confessions” and Buber’s “I & Thou,” which is really funny when you think about it. My church leaders would have been happier if I was reading pornography than books that differed from their interpretation of scripture or challenged their worldview. With words/ideas this professor liberated my private life and helped me to be more me – publicly.

    He also said something I will never forget. It sounds so simple, and yet it is a profound thought, full of hope. He said, “We will never be present to the whole of our lives.” That thought carries me over the rough patches.

    Thanks for sharing your “Green Eggs & Ham” story. Now, of course, you know I will bug you until you read it aloud for me. Maybe for my class???

    Jolly good,

  2. OOPS! I misquoted my professor.

    He said, “We are never present to the whole of our lives.”

    Not, “We will never be..”
    Being in in the present tense is actually the whole point. We can only live in the present, everything else is memory or not yet.

  3. @Deborah–thanks so much for sharing your experience and your heart. Amazing how teachers at all times touch our lives. Thanks for sharing your heart. This Oneicity tribe is richer because of great folks like you, who open up and let it flow. You know what a fan I am of authenticity! Thank you.

    And I’m thinking my poetry interp days are over, but I’ll be happy teach for you, any time.

    I’m glad you’re around and still keeping us on our toes.

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