Last week, Star Trek celebrated its 50th anniversary. It’s had me pondering the stars for the first time in years. The last time was in college when I took a course on astronomy. Back then, I was pretty obsessed with figuring out which phase the moon was in. Frequently, my girlfriend and I would be walking across a field when I’d stop mid-stride, look up and say, “It’s waxing gibbous…” Then I’d pause and turn around 180 degrees and say, “No, it’s waning….” Finally I’d throw up my hands in frustration and say, “well, it’s in some kind of transition.” [despite that kind of behavior, she married me a few years later anyway] While I may never have mastered the finer points of astronomy, I did manage to grasp that that there are a lot of things spinning around out there in the emptiness of space, finding their way into each other’s gravitational paths. Here on earth, I have observed that nonprofits are better off when each staff member brings new people into their orbits. Sadly, we’re sometimes pretty terrible at encouraging staff to spend time on it during work hours, especially if the immediate return on investment (or “Bag of Frozen Veggies,” which Vu Le proposes as a replacement for this arguably overused phrase) isn’t totally clear.
Many of us are stretched so thin that we don’t create enough slack in our schedules to bring people into our orbits. Managers need to not only create the space, we need to encourage it. Like, for real, we can’t say we prioritize it and then fill up every second of a colleague’s day with other work. We need to model it, we need to prioritize it and we need to reward it.
Every so often, I encounter someone who describes the Herculean effort they had to go through to convince their supervisor to step outside the walls of their nonprofit to spend time learning from peers. It kind of drives me crazy. This type of undirected time, while it may be a little counterintuitive, actually directly contributes to nonprofit effectiveness. Nonprofits that encourage employees to bring more people into their gravitational paths are generally the same ones that are the best at serving their clients. It is often the people outside our normal paths that give us new insights that help us do our jobs better.
Most of this kind of activity falls into the category of overhead or indirect costs. I think that’s part of why it all too often gets quashed or stamped out. When nonprofit staff feel overwhelmed with the “real work”, it makes it hard to bring new people into our orbits. Here’s the thing about that. It’s self-defeating. How are we going to convince people to join our sector, and then get them to stick around, if we won’t create the space for them to expand their point of view and build their networks?
When we allocate our staff’s time so tightly that they don’t have time to look to peers for answers, we’re doing them, and ourselves a disservice. My first job in the sector was like this. As a case manager working with seniors in Florida, every single hour we spent at work had to be billed directly to the program. While I had fellow case managers, most of whom had been at their jobs for ten or twenty years, I still felt incredibly isolated. And it makes sense. All of my colleagues felt the same pressure I did to spend every minute of their time on casework. As a young person coming into the sector, it was a shock to the system, especially after having just left the warm, mind-expanding environment of academia. I felt kind of like Pluto must have felt after being kicked out of the solar system by the International Astronomical Union, drifting out there in space all alone (I confess, I still hold a grudge against the IAU, though I wasn’t aware until recently that Earth only barely passes the planet test).
I try to bring more people into my orbit, and I encourage my colleagues to do the same, because it works. It makes us each better at our jobs and it pays off for the organization. The benefits are many, and sometimes they can be intangible. It may also take a while before the payoff becomes evident. Some of the benefits include:
- Accelerating problem-solving – Chances are, if you’re trying to solve a problem, someone outside your organization has figured it out, or at least has faced a similar challenge. By trying to solve it on our own, we run the risk of repeating the same problems again and again. When I first started at GEO and was trying to figure out how to manage a growing membership program, a monthly lunch with other membership directors in the area was invaluable in setting in place a solid system for membership renewal and retention.
- Creating mobility – Bringing new people into their orbits also helps staff with upward mobility. As managers, we ought to care about this a lot, and we ought to be opening doors for colleagues whenever we can. A couple of years ago, one of our summer associates let me know she was applying for a job at a colleague organization. I sent a message to someone I knew on staff at that organization, describing, in detail, our summer staff person’s strengths. I know when I get messages like this from colleagues, I pay attention. This summer staff person effectively used someone who’d come into her orbit – namely, me – to open a door.
- Finding great colleagues – We all know that one of the best ways to find a job is through a connection. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, voila!, my network of peers has aged right along with me. I’m nearly useless when it comes to filling jobs that are aimed at people who are earlier in their careers. But my colleagues in those early career positions, well, that’s a different story. A third of the staff we’ve hired over the past year have come in through a personal connection. As we’ve been working to increase the diversity of our staff, one of the things that has worked the best is when everyone reaches out through their personal networks. The more diverse our networks are, the better, and that can take time and effort.
- Helping out in a jam – Colleagues at other organizations can work wonders when you’re in a tight spot, especially if you’re already in their good graces. For example, a few years ago some of my colleagues were about to hold an important webinar when our server unexpectedly crashed. Our director of operations quickly called someone at a peer organization that he’d met through Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, a network of local professionals he belonged to, and arranged for the webinar to be held in their office, saving the day.
- Filling in blind spots – In our jobs, we all have blind spots. One thing we’ve learned about adult learning is that many of us learn from peers while we’re in the middle of trying to solve a problem. As GEO’s CEO has written, we are working to get better at how we approach racial equity in our organization, and we know we’re going to need to live with the discomfort that creates. I’ve got plenty of blind spots, and I’m making sure I’m coming into the orbit of people who can help educate me.
Here are some questions leaders can ask to see whether our organization has a culture that encourages pulling more people into your orbit.
- Is it a priority? Ask if you think your organization prioritizes it, and what more you can do. Also ask, how diverse are the people who come into your colleagues’ orbits? If they’re not as diverse as they need to be, discuss how you can begin to correct that.
- Is it considered work or do managers signal that it’s something that happens on the side? Set the expectation that this is considered a work activity. Build it into your budget if you need to. We should explain that we won’t find breakthroughs by sitting alone in a room and thinking deep thoughts.
- Are you helping colleagues bring more people into their orbits? Do managers ask what networks your staff are involved in? Leaders should use connections to open doors whenever they can.
- Do employees know you care about it? Leaders can talk about how they’ve brought people into their own orbits, and what the benefits have been. It should also be part of regular goal conversations.
It’s time for all of us to start thinking of orbit-building as a key part of the daily life of working at a nonprofit. The more we do, the better we’ll be at solving the problems we’re all here to solve. As leaders, it’s never too soon for us to start the conversation. Do it before the moon next moves into waxing gibbous. Or is it waning? You get my point.