Five things that stuck at Stanford

I was one of 350 people who attended the Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford University on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012. I met inspiring, passionate, intelligent people from the Lower Mainland and from around the world. I heard respected thinkers speak about things that made my head spin. I came away refreshed and refocused.

Eight weeks later, I asked myself: What were the top three things that stuck at Stanford? That list of three things became a list four things and then a list of five things. That says something. Here is the final list.

  1. Brand is nested in the mission of the organization. Brand, says Nathalie Kylander, is a promise and an idea that lives in a person’s mind. Not to be mistaken for a logo or set of graphic standards, a brand carries an organization’s meaning, and has been constructed by the organization and increasingly by the people who share an affinity with the organization. She sees the sector moving from brand policing to brand democracy with organizational boundaries becoming increasingly pores.
  2. Challenge assumptions by asking disaffirming questions. This topic was raised by several speakers. People tend to ask questions that support their biases. When we do that, we are likely missing opportunities. For example, let’s say I want to take that course, but I think it’s too expensive. A bias affirming question would be: Can you really afford to spend $500 on a course? Disaffirming questions would be: What’s the cost of not taking the course? Is it really that expensive when you compare it to a software upgrade or paying for the use of a cellphone? Asking questions that don’t support your natural conclusion opens your thinking to a wider range of possibilities.
  3. Our sector is becoming an economy. Presenters Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich spoke about the growth of the sector, but more importantly about the changing mindset that is contributing to the sector becoming an economy. Reich, who is an associate professor of political science at Stanford University, said that 20 years ago, university lecture theatres were populated with kids in two camps: the ‘do gooders’ who would one day work in the nonprofit sector and the majority who would one day work in the for-profit sector. Today, students are in one camp. They all want to improve the world, somehow. Which sector they affect change through matters little, if at all to them. With this and other factors in mind, Reich sees the mingling of capital streams and more donor choice for social change. Additionally, the speakers foresee a future in which nonprofits will be more regulated and held more accountable. The presenters believe that this in turn will lead to differentiation within the sector, where a church, a university, and a make-a-wish foundation, for example, will be held to differing levels of mandatory accountability.
  4. Strategic plans are being replaced by a flexible, direction-setting process. With the rate of change being what it is, plans that look three or four years out are often outdated before they are even operationalized, leaving the organization directionless. External forces impacting these plans include natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, world markets and political change — things that  impact donor behaviour and revenue streams. Taking the place of the strategic plan is a flexible, direction-setting process.
  5. To be specific and authentic about things that matter. Akaya Windwood is president of Rockwood Leadership Institute. In her presentation on leadership, trust and collaboration she touched briefly on validating people by meeting them authentically and speaking specifically and meaningfully to them. That spoke to me. In the past eight weeks I have revisited what may have accounted for one or two minutes of Akaya’s one-hour-long presentation. In those minutes, she singled out a woman out in the room, asked for her name and said, “Nathalie, that’s a great scarf you’re wearing. The colour looks terrific on you.” She contrasted that exchange with one that sounded like this: “Nathalie, I want you to know that I noticed how you handled the situation with Peter. That was a difficult conversation, and I really respect your honesty and your diplomacy.” We make choice about the things we draw attention to. The point here is to be specific and authentic about things that matter.  Pick people (personal attributes) over things (scarves) every time.

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