My Final Assignment as a Graduate Student

I do believe this is the very last thing I have to do to complete all three of my graduate degrees. I want to have something especially insightful, but the reality is that much like graduate school started four years ago, I am still burning the midnight oil and insight cuts into sleep time. That said, this last week, including my final presentation to BEST this early morning is a real testament to the work I’ve done through these graduate programs.

Last week was my first full week as a post-graduate Hatfield Fellow working at Oregon Housing and Community Services, where I am a special projects assistant splitting my time between strategic planning, organizational development, and performance measurement on one hand, and policy analysis and data visualization on the other. Every single day so far I have found myself looking through the technicolor lens provided by my conflict resolution, public administration, and nonprofit management perspectives—applying this lesson and that to new situations.

In addition to my Hatfield work, this weekend I got to facilitate an Oregon Humanities dialogue on the values associated with Oregon public lands and forestry. I followed up the weekend with a marathon of meetings and presentations, including chairing the McKenzie River Trust Development Committee, finalizing training plans for my other internship with the City of Eugene, and presenting my recommendations to the BEST Board of Directors. At each of these meetings, I was essentially offered a follow-up job lead using this combination of group process, policy, and nonprofit skills to use. With eight months to go on my post-graduate fellowship, I basically turned them all down, but it is nice to know that it was all very likely worth it. Even better to know that such a diverse group of people see me as a professional that can offer value to their own work.

This is technically a post for my BEST internship, so specifically to that project, my presentation went great today. Although I talked about future value in my asset post, I actually got to see some instantaneous results as Board members volunteered left and right to create and lead new committees on my recommendation. I also got to take advantage of a teachable moment, by facilitating another part of the agenda in a way specifically designed to bring voices into the room. Afterwards, the Chair who has been rightly accused of stifling open discussion, came up to me and thanked me for so graciously modeling a new way for him to do his job.  Finally, as I am tasked at my new job this week with sorting through slide decks in preparation for an all-staff report out, I am reminded of the value of keeping it simple and not being afraid of a little color. Maybe in eight months time I can help to shift not only organizational culture in my new job, but also the culture of powerpoint!

And, I guess, that’s a wrap. A bittersweet good night.

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Working Board, Governing Board, … Policy Board?

Red fish, blue fish, but where’d this yellow fish come from? In providing BEST with organizational development consulting, I have come across a term that never came up in my nonprofit management work: policy board. Rob and many of the other Directors keep saying, “but we are a policy board.” At first, I thought they were referring to being a governing board, which is one that, in addition to legal requirements of a board like being a fiduciary, focuses on setting internal policy and strategic direction for the organization, but doesn’t do much actual “work.” At least that is in contrast to working boards, which essentially take up some of the day-to-day operational duties that in larger or more sophisticated organizations would be accomplished with staff. But no, to many involved with BEST, they believe that they are a policy board that sets the external policy or positional stance of BEST, such as setting the position the organization takes on a given ballot measure and providing guidance on strategy for political success. As a political scientist, I’m all game, that is the fun stuff, but just doing the fun work of policy analysis and lobbying strategy doesn’t make a full organization run–heck it doesn’t even make a good campaign run. There is work to do, organizational work.

In a young organization with one paid staff person, everyone doing the fun work of policy leaves a potentially dangerous vacuum for both the internal governance and the day-to-day mission-fulfillment work. While such a situation would be utterly untenable to most organizations, BEST has survived and even thrived because of their superman Executive Director, who is a one-man machine with the most impressive Rolodex I’ve seen in Eugene. It is also evident that this is why they (read: Rob) went both to the Nonprofit Law Clinic and to me. That superman is getting burned out. No man is an island, and no man can be a whole organization, no matter how capable. Now to be fair, many board members are engaging and doing some work, and there is a history a few years back of a highly engaged strategic planning process, but right now there is not remotely the level of work or the systems sophistication that is necessary to leverage and support their minimal staff capacity to meet their ever-expanding and urgent mission.

Much like their Advisory Board, I actually like that BEST has taken the nonprofit model and made it their own, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of that old fashion model was there for a reason. Whether monthly meetings or traditional committee structures or dare-I-say-it the Board being responsible for fundraising, I think a fair number of my final recommendations will be a call back to the tried and true of nonprofit board governance.

Oh, the places a memo will go!

Back in winter 2017, I was in Lorna Flormoe’s “Public Participation for Diverse Communities” course, and as can happen with a procedurally motivated person like myself, I found myself frustrated with the course. During the course, Lorna and I even met on a Saturday for almost three hours to talk about my concerns and my ideas to improve the course. At the end of the course, Lorna offered to substitute one of my assignments in exchange for me writing up a memo on how I think the course she be redesigned. I didn’t really want to do the original assignment, so I took her up on her offer and turned in a two page memo outlining how I would not only re-design this specific course, but how I would re-center the role of public participation in the department by offering a workshop on facilitation (a key technique for all good P2), as well as a community seminar project to have teams of students actually do equity-focused and culturally responsive public participation. I thought it was a pretty good plan, if I say so myself, but I never heard anything back and assumed it got lost in the shuffle of life.

Now, almost four months later, my first meeting with Lorna to talk about my summer internship ended up focusing on implementing that little memo. She has passed it on to the lead professor for this topic, as well as the three Department heads.  Turns out that the department has been approved to hire a new tenure-track faculty to focus on these types of issues, and they are taking my suggestions seriously enough to integrate some of the plan into their position description and potential course plan. This was a strong reminder to me that you never know where your work will end up, which is why you should always try to do your best… even on what may seem like a little throw-away extra credit opportunity.

Stakeholder Interviews: Meetings Matter

With more than 60 interviews under my belt from spring term, I was not entirely surprised to find myself facing another 15-20 stakeholder interviews to inform the case development for my governance project with BEST.  Although I still create my “buckets of inquiry” and brainstorm a couple pages of pre-created questions to fill these buckets, I have also learned that the art of a good interview is walking a line between asking big, broad questions that get the person talking, and smaller, almost closed questions that allow you to establish some common baselines later on.

For this project, my big questions with this first week of interviews have led to some smaller, factual questions. My big questions have focused around how a “grass tops,” advocacy organization with a broad mission but was formed from a very specific campaign engages their supporters for the long haul. These questions have prompted fascinating discussions about what type of action changes policy, the role of representativeness in a community advocacy organization, and whether a “coalition” organization is more or less effective when it is the host of the “table” or fully representing its interests as a “seat” at that table.

Like I said, big questions with big, pondering answers. But also some small questions peaking through the cracks, such as what is the most effective meeting schedule for this organization? That’s right, one of the biggest issues to come forward is dissension around the current meeting schedule and whether or not it is supporting the organization. Sure it’s tempting to just say, “doodle it,” but that undermines the potential objectives that can be achieved through an in-person meeting, beyond just getting through business. For example, many of the newer board members said that they wished the meetings were in the evening so that they might more naturally grab a drink with board colleagues afterwards to build up a sense of team and community. Meetings at 7 a.m., while not interrupting the work day, did place an emphasis on this being all about work and as volunteer board members this wasn’t satisfying their desires to be part of something larger and feel connected to their community.

I’ve always been a huge advocate that “meetings matter,” carefully planned agendas and objectives, clear decision making processes, ensuring the right people are in the room—all of this matters.  So too can something as simple as meeting time. While BEST might not move all of their meetings to the evening based on this feedback, I am highly encouraging that they schedule some of them at a time and place where people might just stick around afterwards to talk off the clock.

The Value of a Good Chart Writer: CWU Retreat

Mar_8_(1) IMG_20170408_110145This past weekend I facilitated a three-hour retreat for the Church Women United (CWU), which is an inter-faith group of women who represent numerous churches in the Eugene/Springfield area. The group has been facing issues of leadership burn-out and difficulty with membership recruitment, especially engaging younger women of faith. To help them with these issues, I designed a retreat that would encourage the members to openly confront these issues that they had been avoiding. Specifically, we developed four objectives for the retreat: 1. Revitalize energy within the group, 2. Explore individual member’s motivations for involvement, 3. Identify current strengths & challenges of CWU activities, and 4. Develop strategies for membership & leadership capacity.

Although I am now used to facilitating solo, this time I was able to bring in one of the current CRES students in the facilitation course, Lauren Asher, who already has a strong background in facilitation. It was wonderful to have the assistance throughout the day. While we all want a chart writer that is an extension of our brain, that only comes with lots of working together. Nevertheless, she had a good sense of what to record and knew chart writing best practices to ensure it was easily readable (especially important for a group with an average age of 70). Having these charts to transcribe and bring back to the group, and having them created without losing my flow of facilitation, was super valuable. However, where she really shown was in her willingness to jump in and assist with small group facilitation. As always happens when dividing a large group into small groups, some of them will naturally “get” the assignment talking about the cues and writing them down as instructed, while others, well, they don’t follow instructions as well. Lauren jumped into one of that latter groups to help draw out their thoughts, and perhaps even more importantly, write them down on the flip-chart worksheets that would become part of the organization’s action plan for the year.

Mar_8(22) carla buckner, anne o'brien, lauren (l to r)IMG_20170408_110705

Lauren working with a small group to develop ways to improve their organization.

One of the hardest and most important elements I have discovered with facilitation is ensuring the creation of group memory.  You can facilitate the most transformative, participatory experience, but if there is no record of it then the likelihood of anything coming from it is pretty limited (which is why facilitation can have a bad reputation as wasted money with many parties). As a solo facilitator this is especially difficult as in-the-moment chart writing can really get in the way of doing my best, most active listening, re-framing, and caring that is needed for high-level participation, but at the end of the day it is those charts that will make or break the long-term success of the work. Having Lauren as a competent, pro-active assistant really helped me to ensure that no ideas were missed that day and that the organization had everything it needed to move forward after that day.