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Perhaps, over the last month and the holidays, you’ve had some time to reflect about your work performance in 2019.  And, perhaps, you’ve taken pen to paper and made a list of habits that you’d like to change to improve you, and your organization, this coming year.

Or not.  You just may have been engaged in what Shonda Rhimes calls “veal practice” – lying very still, on the couch, eating copious amount of wonderful foods and drinking too much.  No judgment here.  The holidays are celebrated in very personal ways!

Either way, professional growth is one way we can move forward in our careers and one way to really accelerate growth is paying attention to delegation.

One time, while I was still employed in the nonprofit sector, it was brought to my attention that our nonprofit needed a leadership and managerial change.  And, since I didn’t recognize the issue, it was pointed out to me in very clear terms that the issue was ME. That I was getting in my own way by not leading or managing well.  The crux of the matter was my inability – and unwillingness – to delegate.

So, let me set some baseline parameters before you read on.  I’m hoping that you know that as a nonprofit executive director, your roles include:

  • Holding the vision
  • Inspiring your board and staff
  • Fostering key relationships with donors, volunteers, community partners and stakeholders

If you’re an Executive Director, this is your role.  Keep reading.

My board chair shared with me that in order for our nonprofit to thrive, I needed to let go of some things I held dear: program design, volunteer training, day-to-day administration.  Many of these items you handle out of necessity because (pick one) – no staff, no volunteers, no money.  Folks-you have TO FOCUS on your role as ED.

But what about all these things you need to do?  Are doing?  Used to do?

Delegate them. Assign the job to someone else. Start good habits here.

What’s your highest value contribution?

Think about your highest value contribution to your nonprofit. Which of your activities generate the most revenue, brand awareness, connection to cause? Where do you get the most bang for the buck? Like most ED’s, your greatest leverage is in mobilizing the forces around you – your board, staff, donors and volunteers. Everything else becomes secondary to that in terms of impact.

So the answer is yes. You should give away even the things you are “best” at. And then make sure they are done right. Make sure they are up to par and delivered on time.

The cost of holding on

Now, the thorny part. Many ED’s refrain from delegating responsibilities they’ve labeled “critical”. They fear the job won’t be done correctly. Or no one else can do it as quickly, and it won’t get done on time. Or the right attention won’t be paid. Or training takes longer than doing it yourself. Or something else.

Give it up, please. The growth of your nonprofit will be stifled to the extent that you hold on to critical functions. Your nonprofit will suffer in the exact areas where you think you are the expert.

Program design? You hold up the development of a key rubric, because you are the expert, yet you are away at a donor meeting. Staffing? Two new team members can’t be hired because you haven’t signed off and are out of town at a meeting with a family foundation.  That capital campaign? Discussions with a major donor are held up because you’re out of state at a donor software conference.

You become the choke point on each of these vital functions. And you feel – of course – “I have to be involved.” No, you don’t. To the exact degree you have not developed your board, staff or volunteers to assume these functions, the growth of your nonprofit will be stifled.

Aside from fear the job won’t be done as well, there is another, more insidious reason ED’s do not delegate. If you aren’t doing the “important” stuff, you become redundant. Dead weight. Overhead. If you have a great Chief Philanthropy Officer, or a Program Director, what will you do?

You feel this way because you haven’t completed transitions one and two: you haven’t taken the trouble of understanding how you personally create value in your organization, and you haven’t fully assumed the role of leader. Once you make these transitions, you won’t have time for the rest.

Five components to successful delegation.

Many ED’s delegate like this. They say, “Janice, would you take on this project? It has to be done by next Thursday. Thanks.” That’s it. Then, when the job comes back incomplete, they are infuriated. What happened? They left out accountability. They neglected the structure for making sure things happened according to plan.

Here is my insight on how to create a structure that will help your nonprofit thrive.

  1. Give the job to someone who can get it done.

This doesn’t mean that person has all the skills for execution, but that they are able to marshal the right resources. Sometimes the first step in the project will be education. Maybe your delegate has to attend a seminar or take a course to get up to speed.

  1. Communicate precise conditions of satisfaction.

Timeframe, outcomes, budget constraints, quality metrics, delivery method- everything must be spelled out. Anything less creates conditions for failure. It’s like the old story about basketball – without nets the players don’t know where to shoot the ball.

  1. Work out a plan.

Depending on the project’s complexity, the first step may be creation of a plan. The plan should include resources, approach or methodology, timeline, measures and milestones. Even simple projects require a plan.

  1. Set up a structure for accountability.

If the project is to take place over the next six weeks, schedule an interim meeting two weeks from now. Or establish a weekly conference call, or an e-mailed status report. Provide some mechanism where you can jointly evaluate progress and make mid-course corrections. This helps keep the project, and the people, on track.

  1. Get buy in.

Often timeframes are dictated by external circumstances. Still, your delegate must sign on for the task at hand. If you say, “This must be done by next Tuesday,” they have to agree that it is possible. Ask instead. “Can you have this by Tuesday?” or “Knowing our schedule, what is a realistic timeline for you?” To you this may seem a bit remedial, but the step is often overlooked. Whenever possible, have your delegate set the timeline and create the plan. You need only provide guidance and sign off. As General Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

If you skip any one of the above steps, you dramatically reduce the likelihood things will turn out the way you want them to. On the other hand, if you rigorously follow the steps and get into great delegating habits, you greatly increase the odds in your favor. Are you asking yourself “Isn’t this more work than doing it myself”?

Ensuring success

The time it takes to do these things is not equal to the time it takes to execute them. That is how you gain leverage. This is how you multiply your efforts.

(Occasionally it does take longer to communicate something than to do it yourself. Delegate it anyway. The next time will be easier.)

Above, I’ve referred to projects. This is not to say delegation is reserved for specific tasks and problems. You also delegate ongoing functions. The process is the same in each case.

As an exercise, ask yourself, what am I unwilling to delegate? Make a list of the reasons why not. Identify the best person in your organization – other than you – to take on this project or function. Then call a meeting. Begin the meeting with step one, above.  Rinse and repeat.

If you continue your current behaviors, don’t be surprised if board members don’t engage, staff burns out and volunteers retreat. Be brave and delegate. You’ll feel great when your bravery shows up as success.

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