“How do I steer my nonprofit through the uncertainty?”
Nonprofit leadership often resembles navigating through uncharted territories. With shifting power dynamics, potential declines in philanthropy, and a persistent undercurrent of uncertainty, leaders grapple with a myriad of challenges while striving to keep their mission afloat.
In this episode of THRIVERS, Tucker Wannamaker engages in a candid conversation with Nisha Anand, an activist, mom of two, and CEO of Dream.Org. They unravel the multifaceted nature of nonprofit leadership, emphasizing the power of authenticity, reflective practices, and collaborative decision-making.
In their conversation, they uncover a wealth of insights for fellow nonprofit leaders:
They explore the ripple effects of leadership decisions on the staff, highlighting the delicate balance between firmness and empathy that underpins effective leadership. Throughout the discussion, they offer practical steps that nonprofit leaders can take to tackle challenges head-on.
Join in on this engaging discussion as Nisha shares her journey through the labyrinth of nonprofit leadership. Her experiences and insights shed light on the tools and mindset required to navigate the uncertainties and foster a thriving, mission-focused organization.
Need to create a strategic plan (or breathe life into your existing one)? Schedule a free Design Session and we’ll explore the areas of opportunity and co-create a plan that fits your organization’s needs and budget.
Tucker: Welcome to THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal. I am your host, Tucker Wanamaker, the CEO of THRIVE IMPACT. Our mission is to solve nonprofit leader burnout and to really right some of the injustices that are happening against nonprofit leaders. Burnout is the enemy of creating positive change, and we want to connect you with impactful mission-driven leaders and ideas so that you can learn to thrive in today’s nonprofit landscape. And today I’m joined by a special guest, a guest that I’ve just recently met. We had a conversation even just before this recording. That was… I loved hearing it, Nisha. I loved hearing that there are things stirring right now in your heart, in your soul, in your mind.
In the wholeness of who you are as a nonprofit leader, there’s much stirring. So let me do a brief intro. I know you gave us a bio and it’s I actually love it. I love your bio. This is Nisha Anan. She is an Indian American activist mom of two teenagers, and as I just learned, one going off to college and a boundary-busting.
I love that it’s so good. Boundary-busting national leader for social and racial justice. Once you are, you’re a grassroots activist that was arrested, is that right? You were arrested in Burma…
Nisha Anand: About a dozen times and… Yeah. In the military dictatorship of Burma also, that’s true.
Tucker: Oh my gosh. And you are the CEO of dream.org, which is a essentially where you’re guiding a team of storytellers, organizers, and policy experts working on some of society’s toughest problems to create a better future for all of us. So, Nisha, it is really a delight to have you here on the podcast today.
Nisha: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
Tucker: And as we were talking just before, we were originally gonna be talking about fundraising, which may be… that may come up, that may come up. But then you really got into some of the I don’t know if it’s too strong, but maybe it is strong to say some of the, maybe it is some of the injustice that maybe you’re feeling.
In your role as a woman, as an Indian American activist leader in nonprofits. And then we also talked a little bit about your approach from a dream.org perspective, and how do you do this radically inclusive type of approach. And at the same time in a sense, kinda what you said, be taken seriously for what you do.
And I feel like a lot of what you were sharing are many pains and issues that nonprofit leaders just like you are dealing with. So I’m curious where you’re at. What are you thinking? What are some of the pains that you’re dealing with right now that you’re noticing are that other nonprofit leaders may be dealing with as well?
Nisha: Yeah, some of it isn’t new. Some of it’s always been there. Right now when I was thinking about it, I didn’t get into nonprofits to make money and be this huge successful, celebrity. I got into nonprofit cause I’ve just always been that kid that is passionate about injustice, fixing the world, fighting for people who’ve been left out and left behind.
It’s part of my story, that’s why I’ve done it. My career was always gonna be in the world of advocacy, activism, social justice, social change. Yes, and nonprofits and there’s something, there’s this dichotomy of growing up that way. And, I was a grassroots activist on the streets, as you said, getting arrested dozens of times.
There’s something about that outsider agitator role, and now in middle age, being the leader, the CEO, being the person where I’m the person in charge, I’m the one with the power. There’s a dichotomy there that’s sometimes really hard to make sense of. I feel like I’m the outsider fighting the power.
And at my own organization as a leader, I’m running a staff where I am the power. Couple that with the fact, you know, being a first-generation Indian American growing up in the South and all of the other identities that I carry with me sometimes it’s a bit confusing, and leading in that is also confusing.
I was just thinking of that, that there’s this bit of a dichotomy and leadership, even though I can manage during these times, I know how to manage and be a good manager leading when you feel like I just wanna be the activist and saying, “This sucks, this is unjust.” But realizing you actually have to be the person that says, “And this is the way forward.” Sometimes that… That’s my Oh, poor me complaint right now.
Like sometimes that doesn’t feel fair and that’s hard. That’s one of the things running through my head. The other thing that I was thinking about that’s probably more present and new for leaders in this moment is leading through uncertainty at this time. I became CEO in 2019 and I thought in 2019 I had my little Bambi legs.
I was learning to walk. I made a big stand. Hey, as CEO, I’m gonna make these changes. And it worked and we slowly got in a groove and then 2020 starts and I say, all right, this year’s all gonna be all about…. And I had a plan of what 2020 would look like three months into 2020 me and every other CEO across every company in every sector.
Had no roadmap for how to lead. Coming out, we learned a lot. Baptism by fire. We learned a lot, but now the uncertainty is still there. I think the world feels uncertain because we had our whole entire worlds change overnight. So there’s still this like trigger response that’s within all of the people we manage, all of the outside factors, all of that uncertainty is still there.
And there are some outside uncertainty. We have no control of just the economy. And that’s where the fundraising piece comes into it. We’re looking to a prolonged recession. Foundations are going to retract more because of how they set up their giving. We’re gonna have a little bit more of that in the future, not less.
We’re not sure. We’re still dancing around the idea is there a recession? Inflation hasn’t dropped as much as we wanted it to. We are about to be on the brink of another election where the amount of chaos that might create for us is there, so that outside uncertainty is there and the inside uncertainty is also there.
So that’s the other piece where I’m feeling like I would love to talk with other nonprofit CEOs. The inside uncertainty part of that is we all are going through different parts of a mental health crisis, whatever it may look like for each and every one of us after living through the last five years on this planet.
But there’s also just getting to, figuring out the hybrid situation is still uncertain how we maintain connection how we lead with the mission first when sometimes you’re not in the mission as much as we were pre-pandemic. So I’d say that’s the other big theme is leading through uncertainty.
The pandemic, I think we did great. I wanna congratulate every other leader that listens to your podcast. Yay, you made it through. But there’s no end. There’s still this thing, and that’s, I think, where I’m feeling a little frustrated and figuring out how do we react, how do we respond, how do we keep our staff motivated through this?
I feel like I used up all my tricks over the last few years.
Tucker: Yeah. You were hitting on kind of the moment in time, both in terms of the, you were speaking to uncertainty, and I, a lot of times I’ll see that as the speed of change is happening at such an exponential rate that it’s hard to know we think we got it and then it changes.
In a sense, uncertainty. I remember watching a video with some fancy tech people about ChatGPT, and they used the words, “double exponential.” When they were referring to the speed of change, I was like, can something go double exponential? Isn’t it just exponential?
And so to your point, there’s a lot of uncertainty and you’re also hitting on such an important point. It’s almost like we’re in this perfect storm of challenges for nonprofit leaders specifically. To your point, recession or potential recession. We have some of the COVID funding that has dried up of course, too.
There’s no more, there’s no PPP loans anymore. You’re hitting on inflation. We also have some of the effects, I think, and I’m curious your thoughts on this. Some of the effects from the great resignation. Of staffing being tougher now, when we say our mission of solving nonprofit leader burnout.
Even to people who don’t even understand nonprofits all that well, they’re like, oh yeah. It’s like culturally people think that’s the thing. And so I’m sure that did not bode very well for the great resignation type of approach. And then we also have one thing you didn’t mention but one thing I was just noticing is—although you actually did mention this, particularly with a new election cycle, but—the surgeon general just came out with a report, I think it was a couple of months ago, around the epidemic of loneliness in our country. And you know that it’s worse for you… Loneliness is worse for you, for us, as humans than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, I think is what the analogy that he gave.
Who is at the, who is at the forefront and in the trenches and in proximity of helping to alleviate those problems that come. From that, the mental health problems, the violence that comes from that all of that. It’s for the most part it’s nonprofit leaders like you. And so it’s this like resources are going down and demands are going up amidst massive uncertainty.
Nisha: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really hard. And it’s… It wasn’t just the PPP loans during the pandemic because the stock market went, there was money flowing in 2020 that we couldn’t have predicted.
So I saw a lot of nonprofits grow and there was a stark downturn. So there’s also, you’re still trying to meet the same need you were meeting before. The need’s increasing and the money is getting smaller and that’s really hard. I resonate with all of that.
Tucker: And as you’re hitting on this, I love where you were sharing this sort of interesting coexistence of fighting the power and yet are the power.
And I’m curious from your approach to leadership, and I don’t wanna say this from the role that you have, although that’s part of it, but when you’re an activist or when you’re trying to create change or even just with your own, I think you have two kids, right? With your own two teenagers.
We believe that leadership is an act of influence, not a role per se. In that, we can’t not have influence. And I’m curious, in this particular scenario or in this day and age right now, where you’re noticing this coexistence, what is shifting in your leadership?
That you’re realizing, like what are… This is gonna be a deeper question, but what is dying and what is needing to die in your leadership and what is seeking to be born of sorts because of the time is calling it out of you?
Nisha: Yeah, that is a great question. I actually… What a good question!
I believe that I got to where I am because I’m deeply empathetic and because I relate to the whole ecosystem of social change. I feel like I’ve been a part of each of the pieces that’s necessary to create progress, whether it’s being in government, being on the streets—being an on the streets like an activist— being in direct service, being in advocacy, I’ve seen all the pieces of it. So I can relate really well to a lot of my staff. I think that’s helped me be a good leader. I think understanding what motivates people has been a good leader, but I think that one of the things that I have to… And it’s funny because I think it’s dying, but I also think about, as leaders, we have access to a whole suite of ways of being.
And it’s not necessarily that this piece of me needs to die, I just tend to overuse it. And I need to know when to use it at the right time. And knowing which tool I’m gonna take out of the pieces of who I am and everything I’ve learned along the way. I tend to over-rely on the empathizing and heart piece and it makes it hard for me sometimes to make the hard decision.
So the piece of me and when I know what the hard decision is, that is a piece I’ve been struggling with for a while and I definitely, I’ve had plenty of practice. I’ve made a few very hard decisions recently. It’s not that I don’t know how, it’s just knowing I don’t have to put it away all the time. But I need to put it away some of the time.
And it’s interesting because my regular, what I believe is necessary is that love is at the essence of everything we do for social change. So it’s funny to hear myself saying it out loud.
I do believe leading with love helps, but sometimes leading with love means being clear, and that’s where I get confused. That’s what’s wrong, is that sometimes doing the thing that legal or HR wants me to do might feel cold. And against everything I wanna do. But in fact it’s it is a piece of love.
I’m doing it out of love for the organization, love for all the people in it. I think balancing that, how do you balance love with legal? That’s a fine art. So I think that if you ask my staff however, what they would want to die, I think that it’s a similar piece where they know that if I listen to different people, I can easily be swayed and take in a bunch of other perspectives.
I think that’s how they would describe it, and that’s because I am very consensus-based. I wanna hear from everybody, but sometimes when I hear from everybody I take on their feelings more. So I think if you ask my other leaders on the team, they’d say, Nisha needs to sometimes not listen to everyone else’s opinions.
And stick with her. So that’s a similar way of describing the same thing. Sometimes I have to be more dictatorial and authoritarian than I want, and I need to kill the piece of me that says, that means it’s not love when I do it that way. Great question. I’ve never thought about that before.
Tucker: If I know that Sarah, our Chief of Impact, will be listening to this. She’s usually my co-host and the statement that she has so graciously and gratefully have brought forth, which is a Brene Brown quote, which is, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” And she has been such, so helpful internally and externally too, but internally within our organization, where she just asks clarifying questions on a regular basis.
She says, “What is it that you want?” Like she brings forward and helps us to lean into clarity, which is kind. Clarity is kindness. But with this, I wanna dig in with you a little bit Nisha, on when you were saying around you can easily be swayed and it goes back to what you were talking about around the fighting the power versus I am the power.
And I’m curious about the word power itself in that if you are a collaborative leader, This is what I’m noticing if you’re you want to build consensus and as I listened to your TED talk, from, I think that came in, what was that, February, 2020, like just before all the things went down.
In speaking to bringing people across the aisle, and I’m curious of, is there a deeper leaning into that. We use the words literally, it’s one of our core values is co-creation. When you were talking about I am the power or the decisions is that—and I’m honestly curious what you think about this—is that what that side of it needs? What needs to die or needs to go by the wayside? Meaning, That the belief of what power is in the first place? Or is it a leaning into, when you were saying, and I, your energy changed a little bit when you’re like, I need to be a little more dictatorial and I’m just curious about the… We’re talking so much in nonprofit leadership about the next normal of, when we talk about things like co-creation it’s really about power.
And is it the consolidation of power or is it the diffusion of power? What is the new operating system around the diffusion of power, if that’s where we want to go? And so I just wanna dig in with that with you on that a little bit more of what you’re noticing.
Nisha: I love that. I love thinking about that.
There are a lot of old words and phrases and ways of being because of how I was brought up and how I was raised that are always gonna be there. And certainly, when I’m faced with power, I go back to these old ways of thinking about it. Am I outside the power or do I have the power? And underneath that you can hear.
And I think what you heard is this feeling of power is a bad thing. And I don’t believe that anymore. I really don’t. And so your question like how do we think of co-creation and what power that has? I’ve been thinking that definitely when I was young and very much on the outside, I saw myself as powerless and the powerful could do something and therefore they needed to change.
I’ve realized that, through the years, the change that I’ve been able to make is when I have the power to make it. And in fact, we have this phrase, people power. Power to the people. All of these phrases we use because we want that power to be in different hands than it is. And so I’ve been thinking a little bit about the way we think about redistribution of wealth, which obviously people think is, they have feelings about it.
I’ve been thinking about redistribution of power. That power in itself isn’t bad. There are a lot of people I would love to. Share power with, for them to have power, I’d give over complete power. Michelle Obama could run my family. I’d be happy for her to take over and run my family. There’s certain people I would give all the power to and that isn’t a bad thing.
I think co-creating can be a really beautiful thing and for me it is. It’s like a power redistribution proposition. And so what we try to do here is make sure at the table when we’re crafting solutions, we bring all different types of representatives of power. We make sure we have political power and people in the DC kind of corner of the world.
And financial power and Wall Street and the creatives. What makes up that whole Hollywood influencer, creative side, that’s a type of power. And then just proximity. I’m out here in the Bay Area. Technology and what Silicon Valley represents, that technological power they can be at the table and if they’re all together if they’re co-creating a solution together and you put us dream.org and our dream people power right in the middle, we believe amazing things can happen.
That’s our unlikely allies idea. And at my best, I remember I’m all those things too inside of me. I have all of those things. I do have this experience of being first generation young woman being raised in the South all of that. And I have being a leader and I have having a master’s degree, like I have all of these multiple complexities inside of me, which have a different relationship to power.
So at my best, when I’m a leader, when I talk about being deeply empathetic, it’s because I can relate to the different types of power I think that everyone holds and brings within them. So I’m really glad you highlighted that because I think it’s a checkmark. There’s this way of thinking in which feels, today I was feeling this tear between it, but on my better days, I am, I’m all of the things and it actually works better that way.
Tucker: Yeah. And what I appreciate about what you’re sharing is, That you’re an honest learner on the journey, quite literally. How many times are you noticing, literally with our, I was mentioning one of our core values of co-creation and man many times have I noticed as a CEO, wow.
I didn’t co-create there. Oh my gosh what was I doing? I just bulldozed or I just didn’t tell people and I just did my own thing, which is sometimes what I can do. And realizing that’s okay. We’re just we’re learning into our own values many times. And it’s an ideal, but there’s also the real, which is I don’t even know that I’m the fish who doesn’t know it’s wet, half the time. And that’s where, Nisha, you were getting more into around when you were talking about what your staff would say needs to die. That, Nisha can easily be swayed and, when it comes to decisions… And I’m curious how this approach translates into decisions.
When you’ve done collaborative type of work when you’ve been on, maybe your most effective leadership self how did, how do you see decisions. Are made in their most effective way? Is it a one person makes a decision? I’m curious, like what have you noticed in your own experience as a nonprofit leader how decisions in a sort of a next normal way of decision making is done?
Nisha: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m also a persuader as captain of the debate team. When I know what I want, I’ll go around and organize every single person here and persuade them so they’re on board and I’ll get it done. So I know how to persuade, but I also think because of our approach. Our theory of change is that we all have blind spots, and the reason why we’ll work with Republicans on legislation is they will point out our blind spots just like we will point out theirs, and that is a beautiful thing.
So for me, decision making, I have to know what my blind spots are before I make the decision. And just that question, a lot of leaders ask what am I not seeing? What piece am I missing? That’s really important. So I want that information before I make the decision. Just like all of my staff, I want them to have that before they push policy.
It’s consistent. So there’s a piece of me being collaborative and wanting to know everyone’s opinion that is consistent. That’s not gonna change. I think one of the problems is when you know, I think I know exactly what I wanna do, and then a new piece of information comes in. How do you analyze that and make the change?
And if you wanna make the change when a new piece of information comes in, that’s hard. One of the things I think is best right now is me as CEO, not making all the decisions, letting go of most of the decisions. I think that’s been one of the biggest upskills for me. And we actually borrowed this from Amazon, the one has anyone talked to you about the two-way door decisions or one-way door decisions?
Tucker: No, tell us more.
Nisha: We borrowed this. It’s one of the things they do at Amazon that if all decisions are… They try to put them into, is it a one-way door decision or like a saloon door that goes back and forth? A one-way door decision is one that you walk through that door, it would be really hard to walk it back.
The door doesn’t swing in the other direction. So if we decide we’re gonna shift our entire database over to a new database that would take hours and money and time and that. That’s really a one-way door decision. It would be very hard to walk it back after you could but it’d be very hard.
Versus a two-way door decision, which is are we gonna put out this social media post? If it doesn’t work, don’t put it out next time or take it down. That’s easy to fix. So anything that’s a two-way door decision, don’t be involved. Let people decide and fix and iterate. And if you’re a nonprofit that’s an experimental nonprofit that wants to take risks and wanna play big, it means you have an evaluation mechanism, which means any two-way door decisions.
You can walk right back and change them that bad decisions are not consequential if you can walk them back and change them easily. Bad decisions are learning experiences. So that’s been one that’s helped me really let go. And I made a one-way door, two-way door decision type. And if it’s a one-way door, come talk to me, or come talk to your manager, or the person above you.
Other than that, I really wanna empower my leaders. Not just to make all the two-way door decisions themselves, but all of the people under them to make the two-way door decisions. We need to learn from making bad decisions and we practice that with our kids. If I could make all the decisions for them, trust me, I would.
But they learn nothing that way. And I think that’s the same thing with staff. Yeah, letting go has been a really big piece of making the right decisions. Yeah.
Tucker: And that’s where I’m curious what kind of I love that you’re hitting on learning. Learning for us is… Peter Senge is one of our teachers.
I’ve never met him, but his work has been really helpful for us around being a learning organization and one of the things in being learning organizations… And in fact, he even said in a video I was watching of his from quite a while ago that the prevailing system of management, which was the industrial age form, consolidating of power system of management, is destroying people because it’s about the consolidation of control, not about learning.
And I love that you’re hitting on this point around learning. And I’m curious when you were just saying when you have the information and then you make a call or y’all make a call as group and then you get new information. I’m curious what kind of rhythms of learning does you and your team have?
Or what are you trying to get into that allows for you to be agile? Because I think to your point, as you were hitting on the uncertainty that speed of change, uncertainty, we’re gonna get new information all the time now. Which means that maybe, again, going back to the operating system, maybe our operating system and how we function needs to adjust.
And I’m curious, what are some of those rhythms of learning that you have done or are wanting to do more of or that you’ve seen have been innovative with other organizations. That have been helpful for you to be able to be agile?
Nisha: Yeah. I think it’s important to have a North Star. I think it is very important to think 10, 20, 30 years down the road, what does success look like?
But you can’t have a 20-year plan. I don’t even think you can have a three-year plan in this day and age. Even one year is a lot for people. So what I think is have that North Star and have the right metrics of how you’re gonna measure you’re getting towards that. The metrics are the most we can plan about.
How we make that impact, how we get to that metric, that should be a constant change in iteration. The problem is our funding sources don’t reward that. So where I’ve applied for a grant, let’s say to it’s easy to think about what this direct service like, I applied for a grant, and I have to feed, 600 people.
That’s what I have to do. That what’s, that’s what’s the money for. But what if I find out that I can feed a lot more if I stop for six months? Do this one thing, then all of a sudden I’ll be feeding 2000 instead of that 600. The foundations don’t let you change that. Like it’s not rewarded that innovation and that need to pivot.
And so us and at dream.org, we’ve had to say, that is what we’re going to do. I’m gonna tell you what my vision is at scale, and then I need you to fund me to find out how to get to that scale, which means you can’t hold me to any specific deliverables this year. The only thing you can hold me to is that I’m gonna learn how to meet that metric and I’m gonna keep iterating because the world changes too fast.
If I say I’m gonna pass 10 bills in these 10 states, Anything could happen, and I have to take these three states out, add those three states in whatever. Technology, if I need a bunch of funding for a bunch of writers, guess what? AI, I don’t need the money for that anymore, but it’s already in my budget.
Like we have to embrace change, and I think all of our funding sources have to embrace it too. So for me, the constant evaluation is, are we meeting our metric? Could we meet it in a better way? And to drive towards that biggest North Star in scale. And it means you have to say bye to some of the programs, which are the most beautiful ones sometimes and heart-centered.
And our example was we have been doing this model of training. For technological jobs in big tech companies, we wanted to get more black kids trained and into these jobs of the future. And for about five years we worked on the model of how to do it. And we found a model that worked and we have big clients.
We worked with Target, we worked with HubSpot, and we were finding the talent, and training them in a culturally appropriate way. They were getting these jobs, changing their incomes from where they were getting $30,000 to $80,000 overnight. Very successful. It takes so much money. So much labor that it is a very expensive program and we’re getting 20 people at a time into jobs now.
I want more folks to have those good, clean, green, high-paying jobs, but I can’t put that much effort to get 20 people through. So we’ve had to stop and evaluate how can we do this and get more than 20 people through and not sacrifice how it’s done. We really had to pause. Because it was way too intense.
There’s gotta be a better way. So figuring that out took a lot of time and we had to have our funders come along, but we’re like, you don’t want us to just get 20 people jobs. You want us to get 2000 people jobs. So that was a hard learning for us. And it’s not easy to lead your staff through that change, especially when it’s like, “But I just got 20 kids jobs. I wanna get 20 more.”
Tucker: What this speaks to me, Nisha, is that you and your team are mission-driven because you’re looking at data. You’re here for a mission and not to just feel good, although that’s part of it. We do wanna feel connected to our work but I appreciate that you’re bringing in the objective, understanding in a sense of, no this is too expensive.
Based upon, I’m sure a variety of factors for the return on that impact. And so therefore, “How might we?” I love how you’re using these: “So then how might we? If this is important, how might we?” And I’m curious, how did those conversations go? Like you’re telling, you were talking about funders earlier and some it sounds like you, that you work with don’t get iteration probably.
They want real blatant, just hardcore deliverables. And then some. And then you’ve had, it sounds like, have you had to have those hard conversations with some of those funders to be able to get them to the side of more being iterative and then when you were saying, invite our funders into the process, which also means showing the good and the bad.
The win some you learn, some, kind of idea. Like here’s what we’re, here’s where we’re winning, and here’s where we’re learning, of sorts. How do you, how have you had those conversations that helped them lean into your operating system?
Nisha: We have those conversations the exact same way.
We have our conversations with our Republican partners, with legislators on the hill. We be authentically ourselves first and foremost, and that is to me, the most important thing that I’ve learned through years of being a fundraiser for nonprofits and being the CEO is. The only way, go straight to the point, be authentic, say it exactly how it is, and that would be the lesson I’d give to any new fundraiser out there is you’re gonna have all of these feelings about money.
All of these things about, I can’t talk to the people with money. I have to give them what they want. I have to. All of that has to go away. You just have to say, here’s what I see, here’s what I know, here’s what I wanna do. And that those are the most successful fundraisers and all of my history. Those are the people who’ve actually done the best because they’re not playing games.
They’re just completely honest. And some funders aren’t gonna be around for that. That’s okay. They have a board to report to as well. They have to put out there, “Here’s what we did.” And they’re driving to certain numbers, too. I’m an organizer at heart. Like I told you, I’m a persuader, so I’m gonna tell them here’s what it is, here’s where the next thing is.
And that’s what leadership is. To lead means to go first. So sometimes you have to be the first one that tells them, this is how we’re gonna do it now. We’re not gonna do it the old way. And if you’re serious about leadership, you have to be willing to have that conversation and lose funding.
Tucker: Yeah, I like that three, like what I see, what I know, and what I want to do. Yeah, because isn’t that fear? If we put ourselves out there, then we might lose funding or we might not get whatever funding may potentially be there. It’s a little bit of FOMO. Of what could be, and now I’m giving myself fear because I think I could have an opportunity if I end up not being my authentic self. So I’m curious like you’ve lost funding. You’ve gotten funding.
Nisha: Fundraising is a losing game. It is a sport with a very low batting average.
Like fundraising is, it really is like you are a great fundraiser. If 50% of the people you ask say yes. If you send out an email, they want you to get like a 0.5% return rate. That’s like you ask a thousand people and one person says yes, like that is winning. So already you’re gonna lose.
You start approaching foundations, you’re not gonna get even 50% of the ones you approach. So you’re gonna lose anyway. If you’re a fundraiser, you have to get okay with no. You have to know that most of the time you’re gonna get, no, you’re always chasing yeses. If you’re a fundraiser, you are a particular type of masochist, so already you’re gonna get nos.
Why don’t you get nos from the ones that are gonna, why don’t you just be authentically yourself? You’re gonna get the same amount of yeses. That’s part of the FOMO. It’s sure, I might not get this one. You’re gonna get one from the better match. If you just are yourself instead of contorting yourself into these other things you think funders want you to be.
So I think, yeah, I’ve been okay with the no for a long time. In this economy it’s a little bit harder because there are not as many other options to go after. That being said, we are always gonna just sell our vision and some things are slower to catch on and we’re just gonna keep sticking with it if it’s the right thing.
For me, lately, that’s been around criminal justice reform, that we’ve been really successful on reform and legislation that makes changes inside the prison, with conditions of confinement or when people are coming home or in probation and parole. We’ve been really successful with our model.
But I wanna fundamentally transform this entire corrupt system, and that’s not gonna do it. So if I’m looking at how do I disrupt a very inefficient, poor, return, poorly run system of incarceration that makes people worse instead of making makes people better. We gotta take some big swings. And there are very few funders that are out there with me. But we’re trying, and so that’s when I think to lead means to go first. I’m not gonna back down and just keep pitching. Oh, we’ll just keep passing laws. Of course, we’ll keep doing that. But I want you to fund us to experiment and think of what’s the big interruption that’s gonna disrupt the entire way that system works.
We need someone to do that. It might be a little more risky, but I know that there are some funders out there that like that risk. So that’s who I wanna look for.
Tucker: And Nisha, I’m gonna, this is a slight curve ball here in terms of the conversation, but when you’re hitting on being your authentic self, sharing of that, putting that out there, even when, like what you were just talking about, criminal justice reform. Where there’s not a lot of funders there yet, and at some point maybe that changes, maybe that doesn’t, I don’t know.
You probably don’t know either, right? That’s part of the uncertainty. How do you stay in that space of authenticity to yourself? To yourself. We like to say from a dear mentor of ours, “If you want to lead well in the world, the first place you need to lead well is within yourself.”
And when you’re saying being your authentic self, that when you’re able to do that, it sounds like the right types of funders and other partners come your way. And the ones that aren’t the right fit for you probably don’t then. How do you stay in that space? What are your practices as an individual person that helps you to stay in that space of being authentic to yourself?
Nisha: Yeah. Look, I think there’s a piece of that’s from where I sit and at this point in my career, that our organization is pretty big, that we’re not dependent on any one funding source to stay alive. I definitely have been in a nonprofit where you will have a month where you’re like, cashflow, we might not make it.
So I think there’s a bit of privilege that I’m not in that, oh my gosh, how am I gonna, pay salaries next month position. We have a good deal of runway, so there’s probably a little privilege in which I say just be authentic. The right funder will come. So I wanna, say that for folks that are in the… This might not apply to you. I remember being in that position and it’s anyone that likes me, I’m going to figure out how to pitch. So I remember that as well. But for me, in those moments, I’ve learned how to have that hard conversation with staff. The problem is, if you say no to funding, that’s not right.
That doesn’t allow you to do what you’re doing. You might be talking about people losing a job. That’s the hard piece of leadership that sometimes being authentic to the mission might have an actual impact on someone’s salary. It is hard. Like I said at the top of this, we got into this job because we have big hearts.
We got into the nonprofit sector because we care about people and justice. So making a decision like that is not easy. Those are the ones where you get the little me going back and forth and talking to people about all the different perspectives because they are hard because I don’t like that the right business decision that might be authentic for the mission might not be the right one for a certain person.
That’s hard. That is hard. And so it takes, for me, it takes a lot of reflection. All of the things you’ve heard, mission first and to make the right decision. And then I think being clear is kind those decisions you, like we said earlier, explaining them with compassion but with clarity is important going forward.
Tucker: And when you were saying reflection too, this is where I wanna I’m curious of your individual practices that you do, you said reflection as an example. When you’re in those moments or even before those moments, the practices, that’s why I use that word, practices of just, it just becomes a part of your being.
It’s your own operating system in a sense. What are those practical things that you do that do help you? That do help you stay in that space of authenticity?
Nisha: Yeah, I am not a meditative person, and so I don’t have a meditation practice. The closest I come to that deep reflection is I have a journal in the morning and the morning journal.
I’ve used all the different planners and the gratitude journals. I am a crafty person, so I made my own. And it has all of the things I’ve liked from different journals and I think the most, so it has just forms for me to fill out. I’m grateful for these three things. These are the most important things I have to do today.
Here’s how I’m gonna show up for, my whatever. But my favorite question that I answer each morning is, who needs me at my best today? That one helps a lot because I have my calendar in front of me. I’m an organized person. I have to answer who needs me at my best, and I know.
What is most consequential just that day? And I can say, oh, who really needs me is my, it could be my kid. It could be that my daughter needs me at my best. I’ve gotta be the best supermom friend today. But it also could be like, my head of fundraising needs me to show up, like very clear in…
You can be anyone for one day. Anyone for one hour. And that question. I’ve carried it in every journal I’ve made. I like have it here. I was gonna show you my journal. I know our audience can’t see it, but it literally is… It literally is I put my little face on the front of it, so I could have it.
And then each day has all the different questions that I’ve made for myself. And that is, that’s my reflection practice. It also, talks about the end of the day, what worked today. I need it to be structured more than the free meditation. So if anyone else needs structure, you can reach out to me for my little crafty page.
It helps me to reflect that way.
Tucker: Yeah, maybe we can put some of that in the show notes. We usually put… because people always talk about resources, which is part of the point. If you have a PDF or something, or maybe even a picture, we can put it in the show notes.
That’d be great.
Nisha: Definitely. I will send it to you. And the other one that you had me do too is just taking a breath before and after meetings. The biggest thing for me was having my assistant make sure I have five or 10 minutes after each meeting where I can jot down what just happened and reflect. So that is also in my journal.
That reflection piece is so important. Or I forget, we are running a million miles a minute. Knowing what was important after every meeting is huge.
Tucker: And this is where like the reason why I wanted to ask you about your practices, whatever they were, and I’m grateful you brought in what they are is those are things that you now do every day.
And I’m curious because you’ve been able to be in this space of asking yourself the question, who needs me at my best today? As an example. What’s been made possible for yourself and for those around you because of these practices?
Nisha: Everyone says to show gratitude to your staff, cheerlead, shout them out.
I actually have, one where it says, what are in the grateful, and then I get to write to them every day and say how I appreciated them. That is a very practical thing that’s opened up that I can, like I’m, I give myself that homework every single day. Appreciate somebody. But what it’s opened up for me, having that reflective practice is that…
We actually started off this conversation to talk about leading in uncertainty. That’s probably the one moment in the day I feel most certain and grounded because I am able to look at it as a whole and think about what’s most important that day. That’s probably the most certainty I have. So your question, what did that open up for me?
By doing that, by committing to that, by making that commitment, It’s allowed me to have just that one breath outside of the chaos to be in control and lead and show up in the way that I wanna show up.
Tucker: And then I think that probably has ripple effects across your staff with your two kids.
Nisha: I hope so. On the good days.
Tucker: Yeah, I know every parent is always asking the question, am I just screwing them up? Am I just screwing them up? Yeah. I have four kids. So I totally feel what you’re talking about.
Nisha: And are you? Are you screwing them up?
Tucker: Oh yeah. Half the time probably.
Yeah. Somebody once told me well before I was a dad, I was 19, I think. They were like, you know what? Your kids are all gonna have father wounds, so you might as well just get used to it. So I lowered my own barrier a little bit, which was helpful.
But I think we’re, we have some good parenting stuff that we do from time to time.
Nisha: Yeah. I’m pretty sure I know the ways in which, I’ve messed him up now. My son is 18, going off to college, I can see the things that happened, but he’s a great kid, so that’s all I can say is that yeah, I gave him some scars, but man, he’s turned out great, so…
I love that. Hey, just to close you’ve already given some really great practical steps and tips. Is there anything else, any other key bits that if you were talking to other nonprofit leaders or if you wanted this advice for yourself as a nonprofit leader? Is there anything else that you wanna close in terms of words of wisdom or practical steps for other leaders that are out there?
Nisha: One thing we glossed over was when you were talking about loneliness, and I know this wasn’t exactly what you were saying, but it is very lonely. To be the leader and it was created that way. When you’re CEO, there are certain things you can’t talk to everyone else about, and it’s lonely. And so the advice that’s—and this is just for today—the thing sticking with me is let’s not do this alone.
We can be together. And for me, the number one thing that’s helping helped me is my group of other CEOs that I’m a part of that has a lot of deep confidence in sharing and a structured way to share and be with each other. That has gotten me through years of hard things, and so I’d say, don’t be lonely.
Find your folks that are going through it, and let’s do this together.
Tucker: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for being on our podcast and just for having a real conversation about what you’re going through. Some of your practical steps. I feel like we hit, I see the through line of all of them and yet, because they all hit whether, everything from fundraising to power dynamics to personal practices, to I love how you ended of we’re not meant to be alone.
We’re not meant to do this alone. So don’t be lonely. And if you’re lonely, then get out of that as quick as you can. Call me. Call us. We’ll figure this out. Thank you so much for being on here. Thanks for the great work that you do out there. And for being a present and empathetic and collaborative leader, because I think the world needs more leaders like you. My belief of nonprofit leaders is that you’re the leaders of leaders.
You’re the leaders of leaders because you and all the other nonprofit leaders that are out there. We face the most some of the toughest leadership conditions that are in our country, and yet we’re still showing up. And so I appreciate you showing up and still showing up and then showing up again.
Nisha: So thank you and thank you for all that you do.
Tucker: Yeah, thanks for being on Nisha.
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