In our podcast this week with Susan Warshaw, Executive Director of Grades of Green, we discuss the importance of preparation for a smooth leadership transition, not rushing into making changes, making the most of a failure, keeping donor goals realistic, and important traits of nonprofit leaders.
Susan is an experienced leader in the education non-profit sector. She previously held the position of Executive Director at the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation, where she raised millions of dollars annually for programs that inspire learning, enrich teaching, promote innovation and academic excellence in the Manhattan Beach public schools. In addition, Warshaw also recently raised funds for the El Camino College Foundation. Her career began in Washington, DC, consulting to EPA and state environmental agencies. After moving to Los Angeles, she continued working in the environmental field, focusing on public involvement.
Warshaw holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern California, and a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. In her free time, she is passionate about serving the South Bay community, including her position as Vice President of Philanthropy at the Neptunian Women’s Club in Manhattan Beach and previous involvement with the LA chapter of the American Heart Association.
Grades of Green began in 2008 at Grand View Elementary in California by four moms wanting a better world for their children. The founders created a non-profit so other schools would have free and easy access to the tools and information needed to empower and inspire students to care for the environment. Grades of Green offers 40+ activities aimed at instilling environmental values in students, including topics on air, energy, waste and toxins..
You can listen and enjoy the full discussion with Susan Warshaw in our podcast, but here are some of the highlights.
The Importance of Preparation for a Smooth Transition
Susan discusses the transition from the four founders running the nonprofit to their hiring her as their first full-time executive director. Their personal lives were getting busier and the nonprofit had grown into a full-blown nonprofit. The founders had realized they needed to hire someone to run the organization, but it took a little while for the funds to catch up. Since they had been moving in that direction for so long though, they were well prepared for the transition. The atmosphere Susan stepped into was very positive and uplifting as everyone was so happy to finally have her on board. The staff was ecstatic to finally move forward on projects they had been wanting to do. Another key was that the founders recognized they were hiring her for her expertise so gave her flexibility to put her own mark on the organization.
Take Time Before Rushing into Changes
When Susan first started, she was excited to jump in and get a lot of things going. “I constantly want to rush things. I want to check off the boxes…” But she had been told by a wise mentor at an earlier point that it really takes a year to fully learn a new job, and now she understands the true meaning of that. It takes a whole cycle, including going through the full budget planning process as well as program implementation and analysis. After going through a full year, one better understands the process and can fully evaluate what needs to be changed. This also allows for change to happen more gradually and with a much better understanding of the situation. It is not fair to existing staff (who have been doing things on their own for a while) to make abrupt changes. Instead Susan explains that she is “balancing moving forward, and yet taking in all the feedback and knowledge that I need to make smart decisions, and then bringing people along the way with those decisions.”
Leaders Learn to Turn Lemons into Lemonade
When asked to share a failure that turned out to be a learning experience, Susan shared a fundraising experience she had where they had tried a new type of software and a new type of an appeal. It was a failure in terms of raising money, but they were able to turn it into a PR campaign. They increased awareness of their story and created the materials, messaging and videos about their story that could be used again. Upon evaluation of why it had failed as a fundraiser, Susan realized that some of her base assumptions were incorrect which proved to be very helpful in planning future fundraising initiatives.
A Realistic Assessment of Board Relationship Bandwidth
One discussion with Susan centered around realistic goals for fundraising outreach. How many donors can you expect each board member to bring into a fundraiser? What’s a good number? In a previous fundraising initiative, Susan had asked each member to bring in 10, but this failed. To be realistic, one needs to consider how much energy each board member has for making phone calls and having conversations. How many people does one need to connect with to have five meaningful conversations? Then how many of these people are actually going to take action? You need to start with a bigger number and whittle it down to a realistic number.
Important Traits for Nonprofit Leaders: Persuader, Motivator and Consensus Builder
When asked what she saw as the single most important trait for a nonprofit leader, Susan responded that it is the ability to persuade. They need to be a Pied Piper and lead everyone along. Some people are there because they’re working, others because they are passionate about the cause. Some are passionate, but need to be motivated to get more involved. Nonprofit leaders need to be able to bring everyone together to work on behalf of the common mission, while also avoiding conflicts when possible. Consensus building is the key since you are working with a variety of people who are motivated by different things. Once you can do that, it becomes more sustainable.