Creating Generous Cultures in Our Nonprofit Organizations

An organization that honors generosity is clear in its mission and encourages bold implementation. Because the stakes are high and our resources are limited, we are all too often afraid of boldness.
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I've worked in leadership positions in nonprofits all my life, and my study of the quality of generosity for my book Inspiring Generosity has led me to ponder how our organizational lives could be dramatically transformed by imbuing these cultures with a greater spirit of generosity. All too often, we restrict our thinking about generosity to the contributions of our donors in support of our organizations and their missions. But if we are to bring the concept home, we owe our organizations, our colleagues and ourselves a greater breadth and depth of generosity in the cultures we create at work. We need to walk the talk in new ways. My experience is that the rewards of this shift in culture can well exceed our imaginations.

What follows are some musings on how such a culture might begin to take shape.

Let's be more open to new ideas, whether we initially like them or not. We pay lip service to this notion, but do we really practice it? We all know that the world if full of bad ideas -- some organizations seem to specialize in them. But I believe that an organization that welcomes all ideas and encourages freewheeling, creative brainstorming is acting generously to both its employees and those it serves. We need to erase the culture of dismissing or belittling those who step forward with a new idea that we don't like. We need to abolish the phrase "But that's the way we've always done it." Let's remember that openness to new ideas is where innovation is born.

An organization that honors generosity is clear in its mission and encourages bold implementation. Because the stakes are high and our resources are limited, we are all too often afraid of boldness. But timidity and great caution will not move mountains. Sometimes generosity is required in order to act with courage.

Generous cultures make their members eager to give the credit away. No one in these cultures scrambles for credit for the new ideas or the latest fundraising gift. They truly feel part of a generous and creative community that is its own reward.

We can help create generous organizational cultures by making them gossip-free zones. Consider efficiency alone -- think about how much time gossip takes up in our days. I never fully realized this until I became a consultant; working for myself, largely divorced from the water cooler, I saw how many working hours could be consumed by negative energy. We can foster positive morale in so many such seemingly small ways.

Celebrate small successes. A generous culture of celebration renews mission and fosters a sense of close community. It's also just a lot more fun to work with the celebrators.

Make a habit of "five-minute favors." This concept comes from Adam Grant's wonderful new book, Give and Take. You're late for a deadline, your computer has frozen, your child needs to be picked up early from daycare ... and a colleague arrives at your door in distress, asking for five minutes of your time. Try to give it. It's not always possible, but try -- and read Adam's book for inspiration about how and why. His thesis, which he supports with compelling data, is that generous people become successful people, not the other way around.

Listen. I can't emphasize this one enough. And don't just listen -- stop and listen. Focused and thoughtful listening with total attention is a powerful force. I believe that the best leaders are great listeners. The best fundraisers are certainly listeners. But isn't it odd that, in both fields, what we teach is how to talk, how to take hold of the microphone, make our point, be forceful? I believe that there is untapped power in focused listening, which is essentially generous communication among individuals and groups.

Unplug and be present. Has all that information really made us smarter or more connected? Of course we're all grateful for modern technology (some of us less than others), and we can all relish long-distance connections with colleagues, heroes, classmates and long-lost lovers, but real connection does not lie in that screen. Give yourself the gift of unplugging periodically during the workday, not just on weekends. Long ago, I made a rule for myself that when someone is in my office, I don't answer the phone. People who don't know me get a bewildered look on their faces when the phone rings and I stay focused on our conversation. Invariably, they ask, "Don't you need to answer that?" No, I tell them, I'm with you now. I'll take care of that later. "But it might be important!" Actually it is the current conversation that is important.

Mentor others. Giving to the next professional generation is one of the great joys of this stage of my career. There's no clear career path for success in nonprofit leadership, particularly in fundraising, so all of us who have been successful owe it to our younger colleagues to share what we know. Mentoring is a gift to the younger person, to the profession, and to yourself.

Give honest, respectful feedback. This is not just good business advice. Responding honestly, openly, kindly, and at the right time is generosity in action -- even when it's not what someone wants to hear. I've been astonished at the number of times over the years that employees who I have actually had to fire have come back to me, often many years later, to thank me for what they learned from that very uncomfortable situation.

Volunteer your time and expertise for other causes. None of us doing this work has enough time, staff, or money, so it's very easy to become single-mindedly focused on what's right in front of us. But do yourself a favor and volunteer your time to another cause that's important to you. You'll not only refresh yourself and your skills in the process, but you'll likely have the opportunity to spread the word about your own organization, do some good, and learn a lot.

Abolish the culture of exhaustion. Why is it such a badge of courage in our work to talk about how busy we are? How often do you greet a colleague, ask how they are, and get a one-word answer: "Busy." Really? Busy is at the top of the list of how we are? Another common answer is "exhausted." Very well-meaning leaders who are devoted to their work can inadvertently create organizational cultures of exhaustion, where there's an undeclared prize for staying late, coming in before anyone else, and working through weekends. Where do those batteries get recharged? How can innovation take place here? Be generous to yourself and erase "exhaustion" from your vocabulary. The very best director of development I ever hired (and mentored) had very clear time boundaries. She had a full life, with young children at home, and was very clear that she would arrive a few minutes before 9:00, give her all during the workday, and leave promptly at 5:00. And, although her responsibilities at home would be enough to exhaust most of us, her boundaries kept her fresh, present, and more productive than any of her "busy" colleagues.

Don't hold grudges. It's the opposite of generosity. It hurts you and it hurts the team. It hurts your organizational morale. It emits destructive energy. Move on. Enough said.

Give the benefit of the doubt. You won't always be right. But, more often than not, you will be glad you made the generous gesture. We need to make extra space for the fact that we each learn and communicate in enormously different ways. And sometimes we trip over our own feet as we try to get a point across. Go easy.

Give yourself the gift of inspiration. Instead of one more nonprofit management book, read a biography about a remarkable person. Read poetry. Listen to great music. Pick up a paintbrush. Go outdoors. This will inspire you far more than the last issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I promise you. It's a gift to yourself, and the perspective you gain actually makes you better at what you do. It's also a great burnout inhibitor.

There are many books emphasizing the importance of the cultures that we create for ourselves and others at work (in particular, see Sharon Salzberg's wonderful new Real Happiness at Work). Imbuing these cultures with a spirit of true generosity brings a sense of much greater meaning to us, to our colleagues, and to all those touched by the work we do.

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