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  • Melinda Lackey

Nonprofit Coaching: Beyond the Quick Fix

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Nonprofit leaders must be comfortable shifting between multiple roles. That said, there is one role that our team at SEED Impact brings to every interaction: coaching.

Just as athletes benefit from coaching in their field of sport, coaching can be equally transformational for nonprofit leaders as they strive to make the world a better place.

Case in point: Imagine you are a nonprofit executive director. One thing keeping you up at night is that you can’t get your staff to use the new database purchased to integrate case management, demographics and outcomes across programs and sites.

Thanks to a generous funder who sponsors technical assistance, you can access outside professionals to help your team get unstuck. Thank goodness!

  • You reach out to an expert consultant. Briefly, you explain the need for a simplified data base that everyone will want to use.

o In response to the problem you’ve described, your consultant rapidly recommends their solution. It sounds like they can take this problem off your hands. Hooray! You agree to work together.

o Indeed, your consultant delivers real expertise in refining a more user- friendly data base. They delight in showing you how your life will now be easier.

o Unfortunately, that’s not what happens…

o You presented a problem. Your consultant delivered their solution. Why then are your staff still not using the database?

  • Perhaps more of a teacher is needed? You contract with an expert teacher who presents a series of trainings to deliver knowledge and build technical skills.

o Your staff members show up but seem passive. Something’s not clicking.

o Why aren’t the teacher’s insights translating to new staff behaviors?

  • Now you’re really frustrated. You raise the topic in therapy with a counselor who asks good questions and gives you a space to vent and feel heard.

o Your vision for the data base is yet unrealized. You feel exhausted and hopeless.

o Expertly trained to diagnose and treat emotional, psychological and interpersonal problems, your counselor probes to surface your past experiences that may be triggering such a strong emotional reaction.

o You find yourself exploring shadow work and appreciate all you learn.

You have soaked up everything possible from your consultant, teacher and counselor. You’ve gained valuable insights in your head, but how will you embody these insights in ways that finally move your team to action?

  • Next, you seek the counsel of a generous mentor.

o Your mentor does a lot of talking. They share their expertise and life learnings. You thank them. You feel inspired to try things that worked for them.

o Understanding what your mentor would do and has done, you wonder:

“What am I capable of doing?”

Many of us have learned firsthand that connecting with experts in roles of consultant, teacher, counselor and mentor can be extremely valuable.

As a lifelong learner, three-time founder and nonprofit director over 40 years, I, too, have been blessed by gifts of technical assistance—experts wearing all these hats. I have appreciated the kernel of value in every opportunity. That said, especially in my early days, I also longed for what was missing that I needed most: a nonprofit coach.

SEED Impact was conceived to fill this very gap.

Often, what’s needed is more about process than content. In other words, how your provider works with you is everything. What they know? Not so much.

When it comes to coaching, as Warren Bennis has said, the key is to “be more interested than interesting.”

As coaches, we mostly ask questions and seek deeper understanding:

“May I reflect back what I’m hearing to see if

I’m understanding what you want me to?”

We also use questions to tease out new perspectives:

“How do you suppose ______ might view this?"

You can count on a coach to guide conversations toward your interests and elicit your wisdom, not theirs. As one of my treasured coaches and mentors, Jim Stuart says, “There’s only one way to listen and that’s to care more about the other than yourself.” He reflects:

“How you listen is you disappear yourself.

The center of your listening is humility

leading to love.”

A coach is not there for you to discover their expertise. Rather, they ask questions that elicit your self-discovery and support you in developing your solutions and actionable plans.

A coach then holds you accountable as you implement your plans. They walk alongside you, pointing out when you are repeating what you already know how to do. A coach's insider/outsider perspective makes such a difference in helping you stay on track with new practices until new behaviors replace old habits and yield more satisfying results.

Returning to the challenge with your staff, let's say that you eventually engage a coach who, after a session with you, invites your midlevel leaders to a private group listening session.

Turns out, the real problem is a power differential: midlevel leaders have a serious gripe with executive leadership: they feel their voices are not heard. They feel undervalued, unseen, and worse.

A user-friendly data base is not their priority; what they really want are more listening sessions. The coach offers a follow up, safe space to come together, voice hurt feelings, and recognize that they are not alone. Increasingly:

  • they grasp that the problems they had perceived as deeply personal are actually shared by others facing similar challenges;

  • they transcend their guilt or shame from when the issue seemed all their fault, and

  • they feel heard and understood.

The coach may further assist as they prepare to skillfully voice their constructive ideas with executive leadership. They are excited to share ownership in strategies for improving the work culture (and for making the new data base operational).

When the root problem is not technical, it won’t be cured by a quick fix. Rather, new practices for dealing with breakdowns are needed. Your staff may benefit from being coached (not consulted, taught, counseled nor mentored) to 're-member' their gifts and strengths, generate their own ideas, and deftly solve systemic problems.

Coaching in nonprofit settings, done well, is indeed transformational: The next time there’s a breakdown, you and your colleagues will know how to address it yourselves!

In your work supporting others, what feels more natural to you: demonstrating your expertise or serving as a coach as people seek to find answers for themselves?

Experience shows that your brief, heartfelt questions are worth more than a torrent of “expert” advice.

Melinda Lackey is co-founder and director of SEED Impact, which has assisted more than 300 diverse nonprofit initiatives to communicate and coordinate action more efficiently, sustain higher performance and document greater social impact.

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