Director’s Dispatch – Small steps –> radical culture shifts: “The December Strategy”

Photo credit: Unputdownablebookclub.com

by Trish Tchume, Director, YNPN National

Recently we here at YNPN have been discussing how important it is for us to model the way that we think the sector could be doing social change work so that the way we work and the amount we work is sustainable and leads to real transformation.  This is one in a series of posts about the small steps we are making internally towards radical culture shifts that will facilitate just that.  

By 2011, after years of being an all-volunteer organization, YNPN National managed to raise enough money to hire our first ED, who turned out to be yours truly.  Not only was this role a first for the organization but it was a first for me, so I wanted to learn not only the practical basics of running an organization but also how people in my position personally handle the ‘swirl’ of nonstop to-do’s.

I learned two basic things about being an ED from these conversations with other ED’s:

1) Being an ED was apparently going to be really hard and overwhelming. And if it’s not hard and overwhelming, you’re probably doing it wrong.

2) It is very important to talk all the time – with other EDs, with your board, on panels, on Facebook, to toll booth operators (whoever has ears, really) – about how hard it is to be an ED.

Equipped with this information, I settled into my role and prepared for it to be hard and overwhelming. Not surprisingly – it was hard and overwhelming.  Up until this point the network itself and the myriad of people and organizations interested in the network had been dreaming big about “what we could do if only we had more capacity…” This list ranged from the practical (i.e. finally upgrade that ugly website) to the revolutionary (i.e. become THE pipeline for moving diverse talent throughout the social sector) and everyone could not be more excited to finally have a person – an actual person! with a face!  and an email address! – to share their big ideas for how to make these dreams real.

This translated into a lot of meetings. I mean A LOT of meetings. Notebooks filled with the ideas that people would very much like to see me move forward. Yesterday, please.

I said yes to everything and promised to do even more.  I also felt completely overwhelmed and wasn’t sleeping, but then I remembered from my conversations with the other EDs that horrible feeling meant that I was doing things right.  I remember lying in bed thinking about how many meetings I had each day and how little I was looking forward to most of them.  It took me awhile but finally, I started thinking about the one part of being an ED that no one had really said much about up to that point:

For the first time in my life, I was “the boss.”  Technically, I could decide to do whatever I want.

This, however, landed on me not as a realization of power but as a sense of responsibility.  I wasn’t just “the boss,” I was the leader of an organization founded in part to counter the culture I was currently swept up in. (Apparently that point was lost on me in the swirl.)  So I began to think very practically about how I would want to make more space for myself but also what I would want to model for both our members and the wider sector.

Thus the December Strategy was born.  

Initially, I set the entire month of December aside as a time to regroup, reflect, and think big picture. I turned down all meetings, phone calls, and speaking engagements for the whole month of December in order to catch up on work and sleep and I just hoped that people would understand.

I still remember the first email that I sent in response to someone requesting a meeting in December. It was right before Thanksgiving and the thought of asking someone to hold their idea till January 2012 seemed both outrageous and rude.  But I’d made a commitment to myself and I was determined to stick to it.  So I agonized over the wording of the email for 45 minutes, read and re-read it, hit send, and waited for the reply.  I expected a few things in return:

1) Pushback from the person letting me know that their issue was incredibly important and they couldn’t possibly wait for 6 weeks to discuss it.

2) No response at all from the person, ever, and refusal to partner with YNPN whose Director was clearly a giant diva.

To my huge surprise, I didn’t get either reaction.  The person actually wrote back 10 minutes later to give me props!  In her response, she let me know that of course the conversation could wait till January and she congratulated me for being so good about setting boundaries for myself.  Of course, I didn’t tell her that I was setting these boundaries now because I’d done such a bad job of setting them during my first two months that I no longer had a choice, but her encouragement built my confidence.  Soon I found myself firing off “Talk to you in January!” emails without flinching.

And just like that, the December Strategy became a thing.

While technically, the December Strategy remains the space that I will set for myself for the third year in a row during the last month of 2013, it has come to mean much more to me than that.

- First, it has come to symbolize a resistance to the notion that all types of nonprofit work carry the same level of urgency.  The work that YNPN National does is important.  But we are not Doctors Without Borders.

- Second, it’s a tribute to a Meg Wheatley quote I once heard during a speech given by Kim Klein: “If we want our world to be different, our first act has to be claiming time to think. We can’t expect those who are well served by the current reality to give us time to think.  If we want anything to change, we are the ones who have to reclaim time.”

And she’s right.

-      Finally, it’s a reminder that I and so many of my fellow YNPNers were drawn to this network and continue to be committed to it because it gave us the space to organize in a way that values both mission and the people working towards that mission – something that many of us were not seeing in the vast majority of the organizations where we were actually employed.  In this way, the December Strategy feels like as much of an opportunity as it does a responsibility to model the way we believe the sector could be working more strategically towards social change.

Do you have a version of the December Strategy – a small but radical way that you or your organization is changing the way you work, in order to work better for change? Let us know in the comment box!

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