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Sustainability – Will the Path You Are On Lead You There?
Interview with John Sebesta
John Sebesta has experience working in the government, private sector, and non-profits, which provides a diverse perspective with which John views and analyzes the world. The foundation of his career took place in the private sector, where he has extensive experience in financial and business strategy. He previously served as the business manager for international programs at Lockheed Martin, leading the proposal, negotiation and management of more than $500M in contracts. Seeking a change of pace, John and his wife Claire then moved to Guatemala to focus on using business as a tool for positive change, and transitioned to consulting with social entrepreneurs in Guatemala. This opened the door to an opportunity for John to serve as a co-founder and head of Business Development & Strategy for a social enterprise startup in Puerto Rico. Currently, as founder of Business Stewardship Partners, LLC, John provides business leadership to purpose-driven leaders of non-profits and social enterprises. He holds a Bachelor’s of Finance from NMSU and an MBA from Southern Methodist University.
This interview is about the following:
How we steward the resources entrusted to us and our organizations will ultimately determine the impact that we are able to create. An unhealthy perspective toward money often hinders non-profits from achieving the very impact they aspire to. Recognizing the important role that money plays in enabling your success, and critically thinking through how to optimize the inflows and outflows to further the mission of your organization, will ultimately lead to a more effective and sustainable organization.
We must ensure that the entire structure, from governance to funding sources to expenses, drives the organization to stay aligned to the mission, instead of slowly enabling mission creep. The world is changing rapidly around us, providing both threats and opportunities to innovate, improve relevancy and improve the sustainability of our organizations.
Learn more about John and Stewardship Partners at https://stewardpartner.com
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Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. Welcome to another episode of The Nonprofit Exchange with Hugh Ballou and Russell Dennis. Russell, top of the day to you, sir.
Russell Dennis: Greetings and salutations from the snowy mountains. Here we are again, bringing you another brilliant expert to help you take your operations to the highest level possible.
Hugh: You’re the one who brought this gentleman to the show. You both live in Denver. We are in the latter part of May 2019. People might be listening to this any year, but we are in May. I wouldn’t think it would snow. I understood you had four to five inches last night.
Russell: A little bit. It’s the heavy stuff that turns up in the spring just to remind you how good you have it when the sun shines.
Hugh: Our guest today has a really great topic: sustainability. Will the path you are on lead you there? John Sebesta, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange.
John Sebesta: Thank you very much for having me, Hugh and Russell. Pleasure.
Hugh: Tell us who is John Sebesta? What has led you to doing what you currently do, which we want to know about, too?
John: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here and have a chance to communicate and share with so many incredible leaders out there who are trying to make the world a better place. That is where I fall into this, too: trying to make the world a little bit of a better place and use the gifts I have to do that. I was raised in a wonderful Christian home in New Mexico. Given lots of good opportunities for school.
Started my career in government. I worked for NASA. After being there for a short bit, I realized the best engineers in the world work at NASA, but the best businesspeople don’t necessarily. With a finance degree, I wanted to get somewhere that valued and appreciated the business experience a little more, so I jumped over to the private sector and spent about a decade in the private sector as a business manager. I got into international negotiations. I found that to be a fascinating path and an enjoyable time. However, it was all profit-driven. The goal is how to maximize profit. If we are going to give away profit, how do we maximize cash? Cash is king. That focus led me to realize there has to be something more. We have to have a broader perspective than this. While there are incredible business minds there, they were too narrowly focused. My wife and I said, “What can we do differently? How can we use business more impactfully and our business training more impactfully?” Through that path, I had been able to get an MBA. We are running too fast, traveling too much, so we are not going to figure this out while we’re here. So we both quit, booked a one-way trip to South America, not knowing where that was going to lead us, but knowing we were called to a different path.
Through that, found an organization called Alterna in the western highlands of Guatemala. It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit in the United States and down in Guatemala. They are developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem throughout central America. I came on board as a finance manager both to offer the business training they were giving throughout central America as well as develop that curriculum and add to it. What is your business model? Who are your customers? How do finances work? We wanted to take people further. Now I can take on investment. I understand the terms and how to prepare for that. What is due diligence? How can I make my organization sustainable for the long term? Use market forces to do that although these were social entrepreneurs. Using business to make the world a better place. I developed that training and worked with 80 entrepreneurs.
I consistently saw the same problem. We were asking great questions. We were teaching good material. They didn’t have the time or the business acumen to absorb it and implement it. They needed something more. They needed someone to be more of a partner to them as they walked through their journey, not just to ask them if they were measuring their impact appropriately or if they understood their financials or if they had a five-year forecast, but to sit down with them and build that forecast and those measurement tools. That experience is what drove me to start the Business Stewardship Partners. The goal is to come alongside people, ask the right questions, but also be there to help implement the analysis and the products that are needed to take those organizations to the next level. I like to do that both with for-profit social enterprises, but also nonprofits, as they play a critical role in the ecosystem.
Russell: What’s changed a lot is as we navigate through this world, there are different structures that are required to tackle some of these problems. We have to be entrepreneurial. To me, the word “sustainability,” what we are talking about is profit, which is a dirty word in some circles, but you have to operate at a surplus. If you spend more money than you take in, you’re going to close your doors. This word “sustainability” gets a bad rap. The idea of profit gets a bad rap. The idea of having extra money. It’s important to have this money and not be in life support mode. It’s also important to take good care of the things that are entrusted to you. Talk a little bit about that. By the way, I commend you. It takes a lot of courage to quit safety to do what you love. Very few people do that.
John: Thank you very much. You’re absolutely right. Profit has a negative connotation in a lot of circles. It’s an improper and unhealthy view of money. It’s really what plagues a lot of nonprofits and hampers their effectiveness. Like you said, if we spend more than we take in, we close our doors. Money is a tool that enables a nonprofit to be effective. If we view it as such, it’s a tool like any other. It should be measured, it should be stewarded responsibly, and having more of it, having excess of it at the end of the month or year means that we have a wonderful problem on our hands. We get to figure out how to do more impact, how to be more effective as an organization, how to grow and spend those extra dollars in the most responsible way possible. That is one of the key elements as to why I do love working with nonprofits. If we can shift that mindset from money being a necessary evil to an empowering tool, it really can change the game of how we view our companies and even help us as we continue the conversation on sustainability. As we have that longer-term perspective and align our resources to give us more runway, we can plan better and give our employees more stability.
Having worked at a nonprofit, one of the things I have seen is that employees don’t know if there is going to be resources this month, next month, three months down the road. There is always an uneasiness of if the resources are going to be there. A lot of challenges come about because of that negative or improper view of money that can be switched and corrected.
Russell: With employees looking at the organization and feeling they are in survival mode, you also run across funders, some of who want to see results, and they have ideas of what they want to have measured. A lot of times, people want to write checks to run programs, but they are hesitant as far as structure. How do you bridge that gap with that relationship that each party has with money?
John: Open communication is critical in all organizations. Helping funders to see how everything that the organization is doing is furthering whatever the impact that organization is set to achieve. Like you said, people want to fund programs, but they don’t want to fund overhead. Overhead is critically important to the success of the organization. I find it fascinating that in for-profit organizations, where the primary goal is to take as much money and flow it back to shareholders as possible, we are still spending significant amounts of that money on overhead, on financial teams, on accounting teams. Those groups are big and well-resourced because they further the objective of the organization. I think that helping funders to make that connection between their own business, where they have those and support those expenses, to the nonprofit and how they should be supporting those expenses in that organization as well.
You mentioned another thing of funders want you to measure certain things. That is another rabbit hole we can go down on mission drift and recognizing the impact that our funders have on both the viability as well as the direction of our organizations. Finding ways to define what that purpose is. Find aligned funders. Measure the results that keep us pursuing that path. How to identify where we are being taken off of our path one way or another.
Hugh: John, one of the organizations I work with in the mountains of Virginia is a private school that did not teach what the public schools in Virginia have to do with standardized testing. They thought that was dumbing down. They taught children how to learn. Their #1 guiding principle—we think we need to write core values down, but those are no longer any good because they are static words that you put into statements. Statements are guiding principles—is we will not accept money from anyone who wants to change how we educate children. I missed the word you said. Funders will say they want to give you money if you just do this. We tend to follow the shiny object, which we then are in trouble. That money runs out. Our core work is not what we have stayed to. Being differentiated, being aligned, being clear on our value proposition and our vision. Say more about that. Is that a consistent problem you see out there?
John: I do think it’s a consistent problem. It’s a problem that builds on itself. As soon as we take money that leads us off of our original path, then we will attract more money that wants the same thing. It will keep pushing us further and further down that path. By staying true, and declining a donation or contribution because it will pull you off your path, sends a very clear message to all existing and potential funders of your priorities and your willingness to stick to those priorities. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reevaluate our priorities and if we are pursuing the right thing.
Yes, I think it is a very common problem. There is a book that I really enjoyed called Mission Drift by Peter Greer and Chris Horst that speaks a lot to that and the dramatic drift you see in organizations over their life cycles if there aren’t the correct systems in place to prevent it.
Hugh: Drift. Drift. We do that, don’t we?
John: We sure do.
Hugh: Russell and I have seen that before, haven’t we, Russ?
Russell: There is always a squirrel leaping out from behind every tree. It’s easy to get distracted by something that’s shiny. Sometimes, when it comes to a pocket of money, it may look very tempting. You walk into organizations, and they have a brilliance. They have something about them. Sometimes they feel they have to make some changes to get the money that they need just to survive. When you come into contact with an organization and you look at what they got, what they’re doing is brilliant, there may be a lack of confidence or certainty as to how they will sustain themselves, how do you have that conversation with them to say what you’re doing is very good and works very well? You should stick to this, and it is possible to get you the resources you need. How do you have that conversation with them to build their confidence back and point them in the direction that serves them?
John: If they are being successful and effective in whatever their stated goal is, then typically the challenge is one of a couple of things. Am I communicating the right thing? Do I have the right messaging that will gather the attention and interest of donors? Along with that, is it differentiated? If I’m not getting attention and donations, is it because people are unaware of how effective I am? Is it because people don’t care about the problem I’m addressing? Thinking through what are the gaps. It’s either a problem of awareness or motivation. How do we communicate and address that communication issue? If the effectiveness is there, we communicate it correctly, and it’s a problem that people care about, which these days we can get people excited and emotional about almost any project, we just have to communicate it the right way and target that to the specific people who really care about it. Different people have different causes laying on their hearts.
My aunt is an enormous animal lover and animal protection. If you talk to me about that, that’s not my passion. No matter how effective you are, that’s not where I’m going to give. If she becomes aware of a new, effective organization, she will throw her whole weight and network behind it. Getting in front of the right people is the final element of that.
Russell: That speaks to stewardship. That is what people don’t always have the language to communicate is that value they are bringing and they are working in partnership. Now you have this certain type of person who looks at no matter what the cost is, I want to write checks for programs, I don’t want to pay their rent or salaries, I just want my program. How do you have conversations with folks who are resistant to looking at the infrastructure of an organization? Maybe they have had a bad experience. How do you address that with people who are stuck in that state of mind?
John: It’s a good question. It’s a very real and common challenge that nonprofits face. Like we talked about before, if they are running a business themselves, chances are they have all of those expenses in their business. Starting with why are you opposed to this? Do you feel the organization is too fat? Do you feel potentially that your own organization is too fat, and you are putting that on us? That is a real challenge; people in the business world see there is more fat necessary and assume that is the case in every organization. Trying to get to the why they feel that way would be the first step. Then trying to break that down to show how the overhead is effective and critical in furthering the mission of that organization.
If that doesn’t work, then I’ve definitely seen where there are two different groups of funders. There are funders who really recognize the value and necessity of overhead. You can work with those funders so those funds will go solely to cover that overhead. You can take on separate donations that go specifically to programs. Then you oftentimes end up with different things you are reporting to each set of funders. You have people who are truly experts in funding overhead and recognizing what is effective and excessive who will support that and enable that and help you structure that most appropriately as a partner and aide in addition to a funder. If you can’t get that person to shift that mindset, that would be my recommendation. Figure out if you can attract the two separate funding sources. It requires more accounting work. Driving up your overhead expense is the irony of those kind of requests.
Russell: Do you find a lot of organizations you work with really aren’t sure exactly what their overhead costs are? Or that they have some leakage in there somewhere in their spending.
John: Absolutely. That is a result of not having those structures. We have a negative view of money. We feel that analyzing and studying where our money goes means that we are putting too much of a priority on it. Then we are not aware of where it’s going. If it starts to leak out, that is a problem that builds on itself. It is a common issue that leaders don’t understand how the financials of their organizations work, and where those expenses are going, either in terms of programs or overhead. What money is being used most effectively. We may have ten programs, and we know how much money is going to each one, but what program is actually being effective at accomplishing our stated goals? It tends to break down at a variety of levels in nonprofits, centered on that core, “I don’t want to talk about money. I don’t want to analyze money. I want to stay as far away from that conversation as I can.” That’s what I try to help with people. Let’s get closer to it. Let’s not fear that topic. Money is not the root of all evil; the love of money is the root of all evil. We can talk about it and address it and measure it and analyze it without being in love with it.
Russell: What do you find, in terms of stewardship and discussing stewardship and being conscious of it, are there one or two weak spots that are more prevalent in others that you find as you go in and talk to organizations about where they are?
John: That’s a good question. One or two weak spots. I see more of a challenge. Like I mentioned, I work with both for-profits and nonprofits. Part of the reason for that is trying to help, especially the for-profit leaders who usually come into it as this is my business, and I own everything. This is my profit. Trying to break down that belief and drive the thought process behind it. What is stewardship? What is mine? Is this a gift to me that I am managing, stewarding for the benefit of my family, society, and the environment and my employees and customers? Am I stewarding it responsibly with all those stakeholders in mind? I see that much more commonly in the for-profit world.
Here in Colorado, there is far more attention on environment. I used to live in Texas. I spent some time in the Caribbean and central America. There is not as much focus on environment in those places, but there is a focus on community. Here, there is not as much of a focus on community. Trying to look at all of the stakeholders and drive a conversation about who are we ignoring, and who are we overemphasizing? That is true in the nonprofits as well. Overemphasizing the beneficiaries and underemphasizing our employees. We are not paying people a wage at which they can actually live and provide for their families. That is also an imbalance of stewardship. Looking at all areas holistically is a piece I love diving into.
Hugh: Preach it, brother. You are singing our song, isn’t he, Russell?
Russell: Very much so. It all starts with a good strategy. But there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily know what they don’t know.
How do people find you? What is the most common question you get if they are for-profit or nonprofit?
John: I am new to the Denver area. I am just starting to get plugged in to a variety of different networks. Thus far, people have been finding me either through friends or networking events, getting my name out there. It’s easy to find me online. StewardPartner.com. Learning more about services I can provide.
The most common question from a for-profit side is, “How can I get help without having to pay for it right now?” In working with entrepreneurs and small businesses, strapped for cash today, but the future is bright. Figuring out how to define a structure that works for everyone.
Hugh: John, you bring a lot of expertise to the table. I’m sure you find some people get it and some people don’t. It’s interesting. People who are deepest in their own confusion don’t want to learn anything about it. I saw a survey years ago that 50% of Methodists don’t like their worship, but 85% of those don’t want to do anything about it. There is a hole that people get into. We see lots of marginalized practices, which they think they’re being frugal, but they are being stingy. I am of Scottish Presbyterian background. I know what frugal is. I know what stingy is.
Looking at the TED Talk by Dan Pallotta, “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong,” he moves around using the word “nonprofit.” Here we are on The Nonprofit Exchange because people identify this sector. That is a point where we start this deep dive into scarcity thinking. We have to have an overhead that is at poverty level. We pay people poverty pay, and we expect them to work for the good cause. That doesn’t seem faithful to good stewardship of the resources God has given us. Could you speak to any of that? You seem to be right on target with where you are leading people.
John: That is such a common problem that is pervasive across the nonprofit space that I have seen. We are seeing it more and more with millennials especially who want to work for something they are passionate about, where they see purpose. People are willing to sacrifice or take a lower salary because it’s a project or effort they feel passionate about. That is an encouraging thing in that people are looking at their lives more holistically and saying that it’s not just about maximizing my personal income. Meanwhile, that is not something we should abuse as nonprofit leaders. When I started my career with my government, the government doesn’t have the best businesspeople because the government doesn’t value the best businesspeople. It doesn’t pay for the best businesspeople. There are no rewards there. While we will give people to accept less than they could in a different environment in a for-profit model or a pure profit-driven model, we still need to treat those people respectfully and fairly.
One organization I have the pleasure of getting to know the founders down in Guatemala is called Adelante Shoes. What they have done is they make high-quality, handmade shoes in Guatemala and sell them all over the world. They have established a separate nonprofit called Living the Well Line. In this community specifically, what is a salary that is required actually to live well, to put my kids in school, to put healthy food on the table, to have the necessary medical expenses covered? That is the lowest pay that anyone in the organization gets, regardless of their position, and then you go up from there.
Taking that mindset to our nonprofits is an important and valuable thing. We want our people to provide for their families, to have their kids go to good schools, to eat healthy, and to save for retirement, and to give. We want them to have enough to be generous themselves. We have to compensate them in a way that enables them to do that. Looking at what is required for that in your local context and making that the baseline and then only moving up from there is absolutely part of the stewardship component. That is one of the stakeholders we need to be assessing. Happy employees are way more effective. Employees who know there is a plan and know they have longevity and that the organization has longevity are far more effective. Building not only the appropriate compensation but the planning to give them the comfort and peace of mind it will be there tomorrow as well is one of the key roles and responsibilities of any nonprofit leader.
Hugh: I have been posting on social media about this interview. So far, John has been pretty comprehensive. Russell, I am going to throw it back to you with the questions you have up your sleeve, sir.
Russell: I was thinking about what you were saying here. The idea of paying people a living wage really seems to get people in an uproar. It’s amazing to me how many people think that just to have enough money to meet a standard of living will break the bank completely. It’s basic man’s law. People aren’t very creative if they are wondering if they have enough money to make sure the lights stay on. They are able to serve better when they are not in despair and when they are not eligible for the programs they are administering.
How do you have that conversation with folks, whether they are running a business or a nonprofit, who feel that the reality is that today, I think one of the largest expenses as it were for any organization are personnel. How do you help shift their view to a view of what is the value that we are getting here as opposed to this is just costing me money? I could have taken one more trip to Bermuda if I’d paid these folks less.
John: One more trip to Bermuda. What is the objective of my organization? Why do I exist? I think you have to start there. I’m not going to get to the name of the author, but the book is Start with Why [the author is Simon Sinek]. Unpacking that further to get to your own heart of why do I do this? Why am I leading this organization?
One of the efforts, especially in for-profit business, is to provide employment. Small business is the engine of our economy, which is why I work with them. That is where we are going to see growth. That is where we have historically seen growth. If we can structure our small businesses to provide that living well wage for our employees, then they are better actors in the community, and they are the ones buying our products and making the other businesses more effective. Recognizing that the purpose of our organization is only achieved when all of the people on our team are rowing in the same direction. It’s a lot more effective when they are rowing with all our might after having a full meal last night. We stop seeing it as a necessary evil, as an unfortunate expense to be minimized, and as the very engine of our organization that is going to make them successful. Making the tie between the satisfaction of our employees and the effectiveness of our organizations is the key in that conversation.
The other side of it is am I being focused enough? There are certain things that nonprofits are uniquely qualified to do, and there are things that business in the market forces can solve when enough creativity and the right structures are applied. Making sure that we keep our nonprofit focused where a nonprofit needs to be is a critical actor in the ecosystem. When it moves beyond its space, then it can unintentionally cause more harm than good. That is where sometimes we see growth in expenses as nonprofits expand and get beyond their intended needs. That personnel budget grows. Now we are trying to maintain an army instead of just staying focused.
Hugh: You left our government in that scenario. There are things government ought not be doing.
John: That is a true statement.
Russell: I have a lot of experience with government. It’s interesting. I’ve had points in time where I had people working for me. Some of them got this idea they are entitled to a lot more. Hey, I’ve been exerting myself for 15 minutes, and nobody has put a bonus check in my box here. The flip side of that is how people approach their work. You have people who are really motivated. You have people who are there because they are just there. The importance of treating anything you do and being the best at it and having some ownership in it can’t be overstated. I have seen good employees and bad employees. The most important thing is how you show up because you are providing service for people. You are dealing with more than just your employer; you are dealing with the public. At some point, you will be moving elsewhere or starting your own business. How do you want people to view you? This is something that people don’t necessarily think about. They think, Well, this job doesn’t have a lot of prestige. It’s being the best you can at that job, and having some ownership, treating it like it’s something that belongs to you that you want to see expand, grow, your profits increase, whether that is what goes into your paycheck or how satisfied you are when you walk out the door at the end of the day. The truth is you can walk into any type of organization, public or private. If you’re walking around for a few minutes, you can actually spot these folks from a distance.
When you walk into an organization and see these types of things, how do you address it? It can be a sensitive thing. You may not address it directly with the employee themselves. If you notice these types of things, how do you bring this up to the organization leader? What do you recommend they do in that case?
John: It’s something that has worked in government and large corporations and small organizations. It’s harder to hide in a small organization or nonprofit. As they get bigger, it gets easier. Setting the right culture is the first and most important step. Even more so, in a nonprofit. We all have this vision, this mission that we are here and we are excited to fight for. We are on a crusade after this objective. That needs to be the mentality of everyone in the organization. Whether that person is on the front lines or that person is your accountant and bookkeeper, they need to be excited about that mission. Making that clear for your team, what the mission is, and making it clear to them how their work contributes to the effectiveness of the organization is the first and most important step.
Where you have people who are not contributing fully, it’s trying to figure out what is causing it. Is there a lack of motivation? Is there a lack of ability? What is really driving it? If they need to be trained, then that’s part of the role of the organization, assuming it has the ability to do so. If you hire them, you should have checked to make sure they have the base level of experience and qualifications so some sort of continuing education is sufficient to keep them proficient at their work.
If it’s a motivation issue, what is driving that? There can be personal things in people’s lives that cause them not to show up and bring their best at work. Frequently, we like to stay away from the personal side of your life when we get to work, but in my perspective, if we embrace our families and treat them well and show we care about them by paying them a living wage and providing them with the benefits, we can envelop them like a family. What is going on in your life? I have seen that you’re not as excited and motivated as you used to be. What is driving that? How can we address it?
If you have people who don’t have the capacity and aren’t going to get there, or for whatever reason aren’t aligned with the mission of the organization, your role as steward of that organization is to remove them and bring in people who are aligned and motivated. It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s one of the most important things, not only for your organization and the rest of the team, the team culture, but for the person who are leaving. Help them find an area where they can be motivated, excited, and driven to come to work. That is a service to them. That is not a mean thing. You are not hurting them. You are actually serving them by helping them find a better fit for them.
Hugh: Hey Russell, I like this guy. He is preaching our song. John, that avoidance of conflict is high with clergy and nonprofit leaders. He is a volunteer. We can’t do that to them. It’s back to this scarcity mindset for a nonprofit. We have a lot of misconceptions. One of our guests a while back said we have a for-profit business, and we have a for-purpose enterprise. We have a purpose. You are so right. Having served the church for 40 years, I had to fire some volunteers, but I did it in a way they were happy and relieved. They felt obligated to stay with it even though they were terrible at it. You are so right. It’s the leader’s duty and delight to step up and say, “This isn’t working. How can we make it work?” Sometimes those leaders have good ideas. Sometimes we have to give them ideas. Always we are in charge. I’m really happy to have you bring that to light. That is one area we actually create more conflict as leaders.
John: It’s part of our role is to recognize and embrace a healthy level of conflict. I realize there are different personality styles. Some people really struggle with conflict. My wife doesn’t like conflict at all. My past job, when I was in corporate America, was in international negotiation. It was just part of the day for me. Finding ways for it to make sure all of those conflicts are constructive and searching for a way to provide the most value to everyone, I found I had fantastic relationships with my customers because the conversation wasn’t just I’ll sell it for X, and you will buy it for Y. What’s important to you? How can we adjust things to find what is more valuable for you that I am not as worried about? When you open up that dialogue, you can find some really creative ways to bring value to one another that hardly costs anything, or are mutually beneficial.
Hugh: Between Russell and me, we have been working with nonprofits for 50-60 years, I’m sure. We never find one that is absent of conflict. As a matter of fact, conflict is a sign of energy. I’m really pleased to have you reframe that. We avoid it, and it escalates. Something that is little becomes nuclear. It’s going to go away; no, it’s not! We have mismatched expectations primarily.
You said your wife doesn’t like conflict. I don’t know anyone who likes conflict, unless they are an antagonist. It comes with the turf of being a leader. The only place I have ever seen that there is no conflict is a cemetery. Unless you are running a cemetery, you will probably have it.
We are on our last 10 minutes here. Russell, how about you ask one more question? I will do a sponsor moment. John, you will offer a tip, thought, or challenge to our audience today. Russell, what is your last question on this really good interview?
Russell: I knew he was brilliant, which is why I wanted to bring him in to talk to him. On the subject of conflict and cemeteries, there are always a couple of squirrels nearby fighting for some acorns. But the people are not involved, I will give you that much.
In closing, when we talk about stewardship for an organization, we find ourselves talking about all types of assets, but people never come into the conversation. You come in, and they want to talk to you about money and assets and maximizing this or that. You notice that maybe there is not really a whole lot of focus on how they treat their people, or people never come up, or they have excessive turnover. How do you explain to somebody that stewardship involves taking care of all of the people you come into contact with? Beneficiaries, employees, people in the community. How do you have that conversation with someone who may not have a balanced view of that?
John: One of the tools that I will work with any leader on is looking at a stakeholder model, where you are looking at who are all of my stakeholders, and how am I doing with each of them? First, it’s usually people never have thought about it. They haven’t looked at it from that lens to say, Okay, how is my organization impacting the environment, or the community in which we live? Putting it on a piece of paper and asking them to say, Give yourself a score in each of those areas, and justify it as to how you are doing with each of these different stakeholders. That will drive the conversation and make sure we don’t ignore an area. It will expose a blind spot that exists in most every organization.
With the people especially, so many times that manifests itself in the numbers. If I have high turnover, that will show up in my costs. My HR, hiring, severance will show that I have people problems. Typically, organizations are going to be forecasting, if we can get to where we are forecasting, which is a positive step, growth. My question is who is going to do it? Do you have the team in place to meet those objectives you have set out? Those forecasts, those plans. If not, what are you going to do to get there? How will you better equip this team to realize those objectives? As the organization succeeds, how do we make sure everybody succeeds with it? Looking at the numbers to see the problems, to see where those manifest, and then as we lay out those projections, getting into that’s great, that’s important to have that strategic goal for the future, but what are the steps today to make sure that we reach that plan? Who is going to be executing it? We all want organizations to provide more value, to be more effective. It’s the people in the organizations who will do that. It’s your job as a leader to equip, empower, motivate the people on your team to be as effective as possible. That is the #1 role of a leader. The rest of it will come into fruition if that team is as excited and knows how they contribute to it.
Hugh: That’s very wise words. You can find out more about John Sebesta and Stewardship Partners at StewardPartner.com. You will find out more information about John and what he does. What’s so evident here is that any of us as leaders need to reach outside of ourselves and our organization for clarity, help, and perspective. We are updating SynerVision Foundation’s strategic plan. That is our core competency. We can’t do our own plan of reaching outside. Of course, we have colleagues who do the same stuff. We don’t call them competitors because there is plenty of business. We reach out and exchange services. We can’t see our own blind spots. What I’m reminded of as I hear you so eloquently talk about that is we don’t know that, so we need somebody like John Sebesta to help us figure it out.
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John, what is the closing thought you’d like to leave in people’s minds today?
John: A couple of questions for our nonprofit leaders to think about. If you don’t know, go to your team. Go to the other leaders within your organization and discuss, meditate on. Like you just mentioned, go to your tribe. Who are those advisors who can help you think through them? If necessary, bring on outside help. That is what some of us are here for. That is how we contribute to society and organizations by being that outside set of eyes and ears to reframe the conversation.
Do you really understand how money is flowing through your organization? If you don’t, spend some time with your bookkeeper, accountant, or finance manager to get a solid grasp of that.
Do you have a viable plan for the future that lets your team focus on the mission they have as opposed to worrying about if their paycheck is going to show up next week, next month, next year? Do they know you have viability, and a real plan that you are marching down, and how they contribute to it?
The last thought is: If my organization ceases to exist, are the beneficiaries I’m helping going to be better off when I am gone, or have I created some unintended harm or dependency? There is a book I would encourage everyone to read, which shaped my perspective, is called When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. So often, it’s so easy to create unintended harm when we’re trying to do good. Always being mindful of that with the first rule of do no harm, even when we think we’re doing good.
I’d like to say thank you for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure to go wherever the conversation goes. I look forward to trying to do that with any of the nonprofit leaders. I’d love to sit down and talk through your organizations, and how you can be more effective, more sustainable, and have happy, healthy teams.
Russell: Thank you, John. It’s been brilliant.