Kevin Essington

  • Do You Need Radical Transparency?

    Your non-profit, no matter the size, runs on an important currency: information. Yet, interviews with staff and volunteers in almost every organization reveal a discontent with the way information is, or is not, shared. Even relatively open and transparent organizations have blind spots, secrets, hidden agendas, and personal biases that mean that not all information is shared equally with everyone. That invariably leads to team members feeling left-out, underused, and undervalued. 

    We could chalk this dynamic up to human nature, an unavoidable consequence of placing a group of humans into an organization. If knowledge is power, assembling people together means they will automatically create relationships that lead to imbalances of power. But this is a passive reaction, and it might reduce your organization’s ability to reach its potential.

    Almost every leader and organization thinks of “information sharing” as the movement of packets, like managing electronic files. Instead, we need to think of information as a process, and our organizations as self-organizing systems of information. Margaret Wheatley writes, “One of an organization’s most critical competencies is to create the conditions that both generate new knowledge and help it to be freely shared.” She uses the metaphor of the human body to think about information; we replace our brain cells every 12 months, and yet our memories (largely!) persist.  

    Even the top-down networks of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps have evolved to allow information to move “horizontally” within and between units. Ray Dalio reveals how at Bridgewater Associates, “radical transparency” means they go so far as to record every meeting between every employee and make the recordings available to every other employee. Bridgewater became the largest and most successful (measured in profit for its investors) hedge fund in the world. How would you act, speak, and interact with your colleagues if everyone knew what you said?

    What can you do in your organization to facilitate an open, dynamic, network of energy that allows information to generate and flow in organic ways? How can you create a culture that dispels older models of rigid information flows? How about weekly all-staff meetings with your executive director or CEO? How about “office hours” for top leaders, where anyone can stop in and share (and generate) information? Would a monthly all-staff email about wins (and losses) help? The time you put into building a network that shares information will prove returns of creativity, innovation, and strategic discipline.

  • Are You Outcome Oriented?

    At the start of each year, personal finance experts remind us of some resolutions we can make for a sounder financial life: calculate your taxes early, reduce your debt, and build an emergency fund. It is important to have that emergency fund and to budget for those unexpected problems that modern life might throw at you. Your roof could leak, your car’s “check engine” light could activate, or you could break a finger at pick-up basketball. 

    Well-run non-profit organizations avoid bad financial surprises (more on that another day). But even well-run organizations can be ill-equipped to handle the inverse situation: assessing and acting on an exciting new opportunity that you had not budgeted for. Few businesses are as regularly tested by “market” opportunities as non-profits. When you exist not to return value to owners, but to serve the community, the way you serve your community is constantly evolving. New funds, new partners, and new elected officials are common changes that require your non-profit to pivot, sometimes multiple times each year.

    As a leader, these are exciting! In my leadership roles, these were the moments that would motivate me to do more, and to “level up” my impact. Unfortunately, the resource-constrained environment of non-profits makes these moments critical decision points.

    Each opportunity is a calculus of community impact, new funding, public profile, unbudgeted expenses, overstretched staff, and the squishiest problem of all: possible mission creep. How will you run this calculation?

    If you have already created an outcome-oriented strategic plan, your calculations will be grounded and avoid the fuzzy math of navigating vague, vision-like goals. For example, if your strategic plan is designed in part around a goal of “reducing overdoses in Springdale by 10% in the next five years” the new partnership with an expanded health-care company will be easier to assess than a goal of “reduce or eliminate overdoses.”

    I have seen hundreds of strategic plans and, by my estimate, only about 25% of them are based on measurable outcomes. The other 75% have a “we will figure out what this means later” approach. 

    A good strategic plan is the basis for ongoing decision making. It is a point of reference that your team organizes their work around on a weekly and monthly basis. A bad strategic plan outlines a to-do list, or vague goals, neither of which guides you when opportunities arise.

    What about you, do you have clear community-oriented outcomes for your work? If you do, you are most of the way towards good strategic discipline!

  • Should You Be Working Side-To-Side?

    Is the direction of your work top-down, bottom-up, or…side-to-side? Bottom-up social impact spreads from the ideas, needs, wants, and often the organization of you and your neighbors. Perhaps you have banded together, or partnered with a community group. Your needs were clear, and highly motivating. Perhaps a local oil refinery’s toxic releases have led to illness and death, making its actions impossible to ignore. Together with your neighbors you sought out help, perhaps from professionals, and took action. 

    Top-down social impact spreads from the science, data, and policy gaps that professionals identified in your community, region, or state. They partnered with other professionals to build a coalition to introduce legislation, apply for government funding, or coordinate activities. The needs were scientifically-supported after years of research and peer review. Perhaps particulate matter and asthma rates were definitively linked and tree canopy investments were clinically proven to reduce PM levels. Together, the professionals reached out to local communities for help with projects or political campaigns, and took action.

    Side-to-side social impact operates both from the “bottom” and the “top.” In this power dynamic, the communities and the professionals find a shared problem that they all agree to act together on. The communities organized themselves over a clear, close-to-home issue (toxic practices from a fossil fuel plant), the professionals identified consensus on a scientifically proven problem (particulate matter in treeless neighborhoods leads to asthma). Together they shared their experiences, knowledge, problems, and ideas for solutions. They found opportunity for action in this space, and combined their skills to act together and improve the neighborhood.

    Top-down and bottom-up are common power dynamics. Side-to-side is rare. Why is that? Are the professionals uncaring or uninterested? Are the communities unread or unsophisticated? Perhaps this is a rare issue because of generations of racial and class segregation. When scientists and professionals live in neighborhoods with other scientists and professionals, they lack the personal networks that engender trust in communities that need investments. When working class people only know other people who need to hustle daily to pay their rent and buy groceries, they lack the personal networks of people who can afford expensive and specialized educations. 

    How can we start to dissolve those barriers, and promote side-to-side power dynamics that would support effective, long-term improvements in the lives of all communities? Desegregation of expertise is one solution. If relocating people is too much to ask (it is), could we mix it socially? Could a professional find a working-class park or garden and volunteer there regularly? Could a working-class resident be paid to attend meetings among professional partnerships? Both? More?

    What about you, can you work side-to-side in your community to have more, and more equitable, impact?

  • Equity Praxis: What Does It Look Like?

    So many community-based non-profits are staffed by hard working, brilliant, dedicated, white folks. These non-profits deliver services and improve lives for millions of people each year. Without these teams, lives would be poorer off. 

    Working in these communities, equity is a central topic. When the community you serve is from around the world, with a diversity of skills, education levels, and incomes, it becomes a mirror to reflect upon who and what a non-profit is. Inclusion and representation are obvious places to self-investigate whether a non-profit welcomes all people, experiences, and ideas. But biases, structures, stereotypes, power, and culture are difficult to diagnose. These “invisible” inequities can be the root cause of some unwillingly insensitive actions. Addressing these symptoms of inequity demands honest, and sometimes difficult, self-analysis.

    Recognizing and calling out the inequities in a non-profit organization is a vital, sometimes momentous, step. But it is only half of the journey. Putting new principles into practice, or praxis, is the often-unfinished work that holds many groups back. Equity praxis may evolve more fully at a non-profit that adopts these principles:

    • Radical Transparency: no secrets, ever,
    • Regular Reflection: annual to daily review of progress towards equity goals,
    • Right People Only: ruthless retention and recruitment of the “right people” to staff and board, and
    • Revenue Stewardship: tell every donor stories of equity praxis changing lives in your community .

    Enter this practice with a sense of humility in staff and board leadership. Project a sense of joy and excitement about the learning and discovery you are embarking on. Seek new donors who share your enthusiasm. And accept that you will fail, learn, and go again, every day, as you build equity praxis throughout your work. 

  • Are we doing philanthropy wrong in America?

    The non-profit sector in America is massive, by any measure. In 2021 there were 1.54 million non-profit organizations, with total revenues exceeding $2.62 trillion. And this list excludes universities which would add another $900 billion. As with household wealth, or donor lists, we can think of America’s nonprofit organizations as a pyramid:

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    Many of the national non-profit organizations in the top tier are household names: the Mayo Clinic, Easter Seals, The Nature Conservancy, and the American Red Cross. Many of them use fees, reimbursements, and contracts to sustain them, but the thing that keeps them elevated is their connection to high net worth individuals who can make transformational gifts.. 

    What does it mean to operate a local or neighborhood non-profit in this environment? How can an all-volunteer organization or a group with a handful of paid staff power their flywheel of success when others are talking to, and securing gifts from, extremely high net worth individuals?  How can a group, organized in a low-wealth setting, break out of its local financial constraints?

    I wonder about the value of mergers among nonprofit organizations, as a way to scale and to present a “bigger” success story to potential donors. Donors give to “winners” and donors typically define winners as, rightly or wrongly, those with the most money and impact. Many local and neighborhood nonprofit organizations also work in communities of color but are not lead by people of color. Can a merger elevate people of color into new leadership positions? Donors may prefer to give to an organization that is authentic about its commitment to anti-racism. Mergers might also make an organization more efficient, centralizing services such as accounting or IT.

    I also wonder about adding in funding arrangements into partnerships with large nonprofit organizations? They cannot usually be as responsive to local and community needs, and they require other nonprofits to fill that blind spot for them. Partnerships between large and small nonprofits without financial support in return perpetuates the imbalance between wealthy and other organizations. Or could those arrangements be another form or merger?

    Finally, as a little guy throwing stones at a few Goliaths; according to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2022 an estimated 41 cents of every 2022 individual donation going to charity went to either a private foundation or donor advised fund. Donor advised funds are on the rise, now making up roughly 25% of all gifts. The dynamic is, a donor gives a $1 million to their donor advised fund, which then sits on the money, pays some fees to an administrator, and gives out $50,000/yr. The donor takes the $1 million tax deduction even though $1M does not make it to people doing the work for another 20+ years. This parks wealth on the sidelines, but is “counted” as philanthropy. Imagine the impact these trickling gifts would have on local and community non-profits if they were made directly. Their revenue would double!

    Maybe it is time to rethink billionaire philanthropy, while doing some hard work among the nonprofits to raise the profile of the work going on to make neighborhoods livable every day.

  • Buy the forest, save the town

    Washington Post photo of the La Tuna Canyon Fire, September 2, 2017

    As the smoke clears from the Camp Fire, I remember another recent blaze that brought so much unexpected destruction. On November 27, 2016, a small fire started on a mountain top in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The next day, that small fire was fueled by historically dry conditions and fanned by very high winds into a 16,000-acre wildfire that roared through and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The fire claimed 14 lives, destroyed more than 2,500 structures (mostly homes) and damaged over $500M of property. The fire was especially destructive in the wildland-urban interface, in the “exurban” neighborhoods that were neither rural nor urban, where homes were built across Gatlinburg’s neighboring foothills. Compare the destruction in the foothills with the comparative survival of the downtown:

    Screen capture from ESRI’s “Sevier County Structure Status”

    The southeastern United States never had to worry much about wildfire the way the western states do; the wet climate did the firefighting for us. The U.S. Forest Service’s 2012 analysis of the future of southern United States forest explains how today’s (and tomorrow’s) hotter and drier climate of the southeast will increase the kinds of catastrophic wildfire conditions that led to that terrible day in Gatlinburg in 2016. And yet the region’s population continues to grow quickly, where land-use standards are low and new home construction in hazardous areas is often acceptable.

    Gatlinburg’s neighbor Dolly Parton made a generous gift to everyone who lost their homes, but Dolly can’t do this everywhere across America! The people of towns like Gatlinburg can take charge of their own situation: they can plan where new single-family home construction will be the most hazardous, and they can acquire those forests themselves. Locally-owned community forests, managed for forest health and wildfire risk reduction, can also generate revenue from timber sales while creating new outdoor recreation centers for mountain bikers, trail runners, and dog walkers.

    The 1,400-acre community forest in Milan, New Hampshire generates enough timber revenue to fund its lone elementary school which teaches 140 kids each year. The tourism from the community forest in Ascutney, Vermont keeps the town open for business. As the breakdown in climate continues, public ownership ensures that no at-risk homes will ever be built on those lands. These small towns will never have to respond to fire emergencies in these beautiful remote locations.