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093 – How to Retain and Inspire Your Non-Profit Team with Patton McDowell

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In this episode of Non-Profit Digital Success, we’re joined by Patton McDowell, a seasoned expert in non-profit leadership from PMA Non-profit Leadership. Patton shares invaluable insights into mastering leadership for non-profits.

Tune in as Patton uncovers the common pitfalls non-profit teams face and offers strategic advice on turning your leadership efforts into a powerful tool for engagement and donor retention.

Discover how to craft compelling strategies that resonate with your team, effectively use networking to sharpen your leadership skills, and learn the dos and don’ts that can make or break your non-profit’s success. Whether you’re looking to overhaul your approach or refine your tactics, this episode is packed with actionable tips to enhance your non-profit’s impact.

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David Pisarek: Unlock the secrets to non-profit success. How today’s top leaders are transforming impact. Discover the game-changing strategies that are not just inspiring but also revolutionizing non-profit leadership. Are you ready to lead and innovate? Let’s go!

Welcome to the Non-profit Digital Success podcast. Hi everybody, I’m your host, David. Today, we’re diving into the world of transformative leadership within the non-profit sector. I’ve got Patton MacDowell with me here as well. Patton is the founder of PMA Non-profit Leadership.

He excels in university fundraising works with Special Olympics International, and teaches at Cornell’s Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. He’s also a podcast host. I’ve been on his podcast. You should listen to it.

He’s an author and an AFP global master trainer with degrees from UNC Queens University and USC. Patton offers deep insights from his extensive experience. Patton, welcome to the show.

Patton McDowell: David, delighted to be here. Grateful for this conversation.

David Pisarek: How’s your day going? How’s everything going?

Patton McDowell: It’s going great. Friday, as we record, is a good day. It’s fun to have this conversation to take both of us into the weekend. Amazing.

David Pisarek: Can you share maybe a pivotal moment from your non-profit journey that influenced your approach to leadership?

Patton McDowell: Happy to. In fact you alluded to Special Olympics an organization I have a particular affinity for. I was a college student at UNC Chapel Hill and had an opportunity to intern in Special Olympics Global headquarters in Washington DC. I really didn’t know what I was getting into.

For me as a college student my reaction was “Okay. Washington DC sounds fun. I’ll get a summer there.” But what it happened there David is it proved to be a career-defining opportunity because I arrived when the founder Eunice Kennedy-Schriver was still there and actively involved in the organization that she founded in her backyard in Maryland. And now of course you and I both know it’s a global movement that I was very fortunate to work for.

So I always start with that story that one the power of internships and two the opportunities for leadership in the non-profit sector. Many people even told me after I did that “Well all right well Pat when are you going to get a ‘real job’?” And I was like “Well I think I am in a real job and the non-profit sector is providing leadership opportunities.” I’ve been involved ever since.

David Pisarek: That’s amazing. We’ve got a co-op student from University of Waterloo with us right now as well. I love connecting with people that are in university or college getting new perspective.

Things change over time. There’s only so much that we can stay up to date with ourselves. Connecting with people that are in school that are on the bleeding edge of tech that are doing new interesting different things it expands our minds and it teaches us stuff as well.

Patton McDowell: Well put. Back when I was doing it there weren’t as many university programs that had students interested in non-profit. Now, nearly every university you or I could think of has or is considering programs, both undergraduate and graduate, in non-profit management philanthropic studies or some such design academically.

That’s going to benefit organizations like yours and mine and certainly the non-profit organizations we’re trying to help.

David Pisarek: I think there’s some hesitancy around non-profits and working in non-profits. They’re quite often understaffed which means much bigger job descriptions. They’re often underfunded, which means you’re not being paid as much or you don’t have as much to go around as you would necessarily in the big corporate world or even the small corporate world.

I think there’s hesitancy to go into it. But for me I like to think of it as non-profit doesn’t mean “no profit.” I think there’s definitely opportunity to create change and have a positive impact. I think there’s some legacy stuff to that that a lot of people are really interested in now and certainly getting more I’m going to call it media attention around these groups that really need support.

Patton McDowell: You’re quite right.

I remember you talked about this in your appearance on our podcast that these organizations can feed the soul but they can in fact be even more professional and career-advancing opportunities. I think sometimes yes it may not provide the compensation that the the for-profit sector has but it’s getting better.

And that’s something I always want to emphasize that there is an increasing emphasis on assuring that we pay and retain the talent the non-profit sector deserves. So I’m hopeful that will continue to improve because you’re right it’s every bit as complicated as our for-profit peers but you have less resources you have less people often to do things. But that’s why we need the talent who can juggle the multitasking that is sometimes required.

David Pisarek: Exactly.

And there’s something to be said for feeling like you’re contributing to something bigger than you. That’s what really motivates me to be involved in the sector and so much so that we’ve actually formed our mission around it where we want to empower 5000 organizations to improve the lives of 10 million people through leveraging digital technology.

I think if more people adopted that principle because that’s ours, but I want to give back, I want to participate, I want to connect, I want to do better, etc. I think all of us at some point in our lives have come across some I want to call it diversity.

I’m not sure that’s really quite the right word but some event whether it’s an illness or a friend or a family member who passed away from something. I think that’s what drives a lot of motivation behind either starting a non-profit or being involved with one.

Patton McDowell: I agree. In fact the opening of my book I talked about how people get into non-profit leadership and you just exemplified that.

Maybe it is the loss of a loved one to a health issue and thus you start volunteering for get behind a healthcare non-profit or you volunteer for an organization like Special Olympics because you see what it means to help populations that are often underserved and don’t have those opportunities.

But it’s great that sometimes these volunteers advance into career-defining opportunities as well. Maybe serve on the board first but these opportunities to make a difference in your community lead people in. My hope is that they’ll stay in because we need talent to help our sector advance.

David Pisarek: For anybody listening, think about this for a moment.

Give yourself a moment. Push pause on the episode here. Why is it that… Really get an understanding what is it that motivates you to stay doing what you’re doing and working with the organization or volunteering with the organization or thinking of starting a non-profit? What’s motivating you to do that? Okay so push play now.

Now that you’ve taken a moment… (I guess you wouldn’t hear me say “push play if you push pause.” I probably should have said push play in a minute but pause for a moment). Anyways so how have you seen leaders effectively channel their drive into strategic actions that can advance their organization?

Patton McDowell: I think there’s a mindset of looking at leadership in three different categories.

The leadership ladder that I have become focused on during my consulting practice involves three distinct steps. I think it’s important for non-profit leaders now to think about this if they want to attract and retain the talent their organization deserves.

Number one is the emerging leader that you and I just talked about earlier. They’re the intern. They’re the recent graduate from a program. They’re young in their career but they have great opportunity and potential to make an impact. So, what are we doing to advance that generation of future leaders?

There’s also, I think, David, a second category. I call the mid-career sometimes plateau generation. They’ve been in it for 10 15 years. They like the work but they’re stuck. And we need to make sure they have opportunities for executive leadership if that in fact is something they want to do.

And the third category or third generation is the sitting non-profit executive who often I think feel like they’re in a very lonely spot because their volunteer board members may or may not be engaged with them. Their staff may be small and turning over. We’ve got to support that non-profit executive. Or we’re going to lose them.

And back to what you and I started with the sector needs talent and needs talent that stay and be supported. I’ve been focused on leadership development in all three of those areas.

David Pisarek: I think it’s an interesting point that you talk about is why do people leave the non-profit space.

What I would encourage everybody to do at least as an immediate takeaway from this is if you’re in any management role talk to the people that work with you and just ask them straight out.

I did this with my team. Just ask them straight out what is it that motivates you? What is your why? What is your reason for wanting to be there? Maybe it’s money. Maybe they’re really struggling financially and they were able to actually get a job at your organization. Maybe it’s a It’s a legacy thing. Maybe it’s being part of a team that they really like.

I think a lot of people are not necessarily as motivated by money anymore. I think there was a shift certainly over COVID. There was the what did they call it? The great resignation. People want their freedom. Working remotely is a big freedom piece. They want some days off or flex time or they can pick their own hours things like that. But working with a really great team people that are A players that know what they’re talking about.

They’re collaborative. Some people are more introverts so maybe they don’t want collaborative. Maybe they just want “Here are my tasks that I got to do and I can come in. I know what I’m doing here and just get it done.” Really understanding the why with your team will help each other work together really well but it’ll help you be able to manage them at a higher level.

Patton McDowell: You’re asking exactly the right question.

My research and that I’ve read suggest that compensation is a factor to your point of “All right why do people leave?” Certainly the stress and burnout and compensation or lack thereof is a factor. But you know what I found is the primary reason is your boss.

The primary reason people leave may be any sector job, but in the non-profit, the mission would keep them there.

But that’s why I think leadership is so critical because when I hear it’s like, “I love the organization, I love the cause, but my boss was driving me crazy,” or the lack of leadership and opportunity to advance and really make a difference like you said David my calling was to do something good for society in my community or whatever.

But it’s another reason I guess that motivates me that we have to equip leaders with all the skills they need so they in turn can retain the talent that the organization requires.

David Pisarek: I think it’s important to make sure that we’re thinking in those ways. I’m super happy that you’re here on the episode talking about this because I don’t think there’s enough people that think through these specific things. Hopefully for those of you listening or watching we’ve got this on YouTube if you want to actually watch us talk.

Patton McDowell: Yes indeed.

David Pisarek: Head over there, subscribe. I think it’s important to think through these things. When we talk about leadership, I think we’ve all had at least one direct superior or maybe two, three to four levels up that you were like not great.

Patton McDowell: So true.

David Pisarek: Think about those things when interacting with your peers.

Forget about employees. When you’re just interacting with your peers how can you not do things you didn’t like? What tools or techniques what can you do to improve the atmosphere?

Maybe thinking about what you’re about to say before you say it would help. Maybe making a note or two before you go and meet with somebody about a project or something that misfired or something like that will help ease some of that a little bit.

Do you have any tips for people that want to drive more collaborative or better atmosphere in their team?

Patton McDowell: The question you posed I think is a great team meeting discussion.

I have a mastermind program where I bring together non-profit leaders virtually from all over the country. And literally in session one one of the questions we discuss are to specifically define examples you’ve experienced of good leadership and bad leadership.

And it’s amazing how that discussion forces frankly all of us to look in the mirror and say “Am I doing things that inspire others? Or am I guilty of some of the things I experienced as a young professional when that boss that I had really frustrated me? “And it is things that… How do we create better collaboration?

And the things I’ve heard from those discussions over and over and over are a boss that is supportive that provides good communication that trusts you that allows you to Excel. But if they micromanage you and if they don’t give you good information and background of course you’re going to look for another opportunity. You think that would be obvious and again I’m careful because maybe I’ve been guilty of that as a boss myself but it’s something worth reflecting on.

And again I’m glad you posed the question. I would take it to a team meeting or a team retreat and just call it out and say “Let’s talk about are we exemplifying some of the characteristics of good leadership that we say we want to embrace?”

David Pisarek: If you’re hesitant to talk about this with your team you’re probably hesitant because you know that there are things that you’re doing-

Patton McDowell: Exactly right.

David Pisarek: So don’t bring this to your team just yet I would say. I would say work on adjusting what you’re doing your approach your messaging your tone your conversations etc and then have a conversation with the team.

Patton McDowell: Hold the mirror up first before you take it public.

David Pisarek: Exactly. Awesome.

So you mentioned your book and the podcast. In terms of… I’ve listened to a bunch of your podcasts so let’s talk about that for a moment.

Emerging Trends in Leadership in Gen Z millennials whatever you want to call the younger workforce is what I’ll call it. What strategies do you think leadership or peers could enact to connect with them to help them drive their success?

Patton McDowell: I think they very much want and maybe every generation but I think that generation in particular is very driven to a career ladder opportunity.

In other words they want an organization that will in fact provide professional and career development help that will engage.

I think sometimes bosses are concerned, “Well, if I help them out too much, they’re just going to leave me.” I’m like “Well if you don’t help them they’re going to leave you.”

I would suggest if you create a culture that invests in its people and provides professional development and career opportunities you’re going to be a place people want to come work for.

So you’ll likely retain more but you’re going to be a more attractive place to work. So that generation you describe the generation Z and X and millennial the young ones they want a career path. It doesn’t mean they have to leave.

But I think the other thing they often say in my conversations it is the flexibility. In other words: They want the hybrid opportunities where possible. They want to be given some independence to do their work and to provide the intellectual curiosity that they bring and put that to work.

But I think that is the environment that they expect you to… Or they want to do their job and have the independence to do it. If we provide that flexibility and support I think they can become even more effective and we’ll stay with you longer anyway.

David Pisarek: There’s something to be said for “Look you’ve hired this person to do this thing because you trust them you believe in their capability and their expertise. You wouldn’t have hired them otherwise.”

The whole micromanaging thing, personally, I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you would hire somebody for a and then tell them how to do that job every step of the way. One thing if they’re an intern or a placement student or a co-op or somebody and you’re trying to train them and show them how to do… That’s a little bit of a different story, but actually bringing somebody in. I think that’s an interesting point that you’re talking about there.

Something that I want to mention on the flip side is there is… What was the stat? I saw it the other day. I think it’s $10 trillion of generational wealth that’s going to be transferred down over the next decade or so as the boomers and the older generations pass away. I talk about this on a couple of other episodes and in our blog and in conversations that you need to attract the younger generations as donors because they’re going to come into this money.

Don’t attract them Specifically because of the money. You need to have them be your ambassadors be involved engaged, etc.

To cultivate to educate to let them know what it is why you do how you do etc. And the impact that your organization has on the planet the local the individual person whatever it happens to be.

The other side that we’re talking about is about bringing these people in as employees. If they feel really engaged with your organization they really care and are passionate about what they do it’s possible that you can also turn employees into donors as well where they care about what they’re doing and they would be willing to actually put money towards it.

Patton McDowell: So glad you said this.

And this is where your expertise really helps out because, indeed, there are billions of trillions of whatever. The numbers are so big It’s staggering. But our grandparents’ generation will be passing down an enormous amount of investable assets that can help non-profit organizations. Is your non-profit clear about its intent to utilize legacy giving?

And I’m afraid a lot of our non-profit peers, David, aren’t making that message clear. And that’s where what you do to help them make the point that… Because that’s a significant… If I’m going to invest that asset or that much money to an organization I want to know they’re here for the long term.

And so what are we doing to exemplify that we are committed to our mission and that we are built for the long haul? That to me is where I mean if I were leaving some organization in my will I do want to know that they’re on the right path.

And if they’re just in a scramble mode all the time like sadly some organizations are it’s hard for a donor to feel confident about investing there especially if it is a significant opportunity.

So I hope your message will be clear and will resonate because you need to make that point clear to the potential donors that are certainly out there.

David Pisarek: So, thinking through your amazing experiences working with the organizations you’ve helped, are there any examples from your interviews about how non-profit leaders could navigate new challenges or new technology or things like that?

Patton McDowell: I’m a big fan of strategic networking.

Again the mastermind program that I referenced has been an example of that I’ve seen the power of bringing together non-profit leaders across sector across geography across experience levels. Because again, I worry that it’s an isolating experience often.

Sometimes, we don’t have the networking that our for-profit partners have. So you can feel isolated because you have so much on your plate.

Those leaders that I see excel because they’re able to have conversations with peers they can learn about the new technologies. They can learn what are you doing in your community that I might bring back to mind.

So I often talk about simple tactics like just identify two people that are in a role like yours in a different community so that you can have the fresh perspective not somebody local that you already interact with but get out of town so to speak and interact with them. And even better would be to identify some aspirational peers.

Ask around. When I was the Special Olympics program director in the state of North Carolina David I was a rookie. I was trying to learn from the best of the best.

And I just had conversations with peers, and sure enough, they identified a couple of aspirational peers for me. They said”You need to talk to Susan in Colorado or Mark in New Jersey.” And those conversations were fascinating and so helpful because it was like I was able to fast forward through their experience because I could ask them “What did you do to get through this challenge? What did you do to embrace the new technology that the national office is suggesting we utilize?”

And so I have found ever since a constant desire to stay connected outside of our normal friends and family network. I think there’s enormous potential if we do that.

David Pisarek: I think there’s a lot to be said for having peer support. Maybe it’s a learning opportunity maybe it’s a networking opportunity maybe it’s a sharing opportunity. I don’t like to think of mistakes as mistakes. I like to think of them as lessons.

Patton McDowell: Learning, yes.

David Pisarek: This is how we grow and we learn. We make a mistake cool. What did we learn from that? How can we move forward? If you’re part of a support group a network of some kind a peer group even if it’s two or three people you can still share connect with each other have conversations about “Hey we rolled out this new HR whatever blah blah blah two years ago. These are the problems we had with it. Have you come across this? How have you dealt with it?” Things like that.

There’s all kinds of conversations that can happen from that. I love your point about connecting with people maybe a level up from where you are or asking aspirational where you want to be.

There’s a quote I don’t remember who said it. I think I’ve heard Michael Dell say it. I think I’ve heard Warren Buffet. “I never want to be the smartest person in the room.”

Patton McDowell: Exactly.

David Pisarek: You can’t learn you can’t grow you can’t engage the parts of your brain the way that we need to to evolve.

Patton McDowell: It takes courage though but you’re absolutely right. If you only associate with folks that are at a similar level that’s fine. I do think there’s value there. But the aspirational peer is how you will get better.

Again, they can help you because you can ask them, “How did you get through this stage in your career when you ran into this problem this challenge?” Often those lessons will be invaluable for you to learn as well.

David Pisarek: It’s like old stories from your grandparents. Asking down generational knowledge. There’s wisdom. The wisdom of one generation to the next. But it might not be different generations but wisdom from organization to organization.

I think that a lot of people would be really surprised that there’s others out there that are willing to connect and talk and engage in some way. It would be a really great exercise.

Go on LinkedIn find some people that are similar-ish to you. Maybe they’re across the country maybe they’re across the city if you’re in a huge metro area. Maybe to your point connect with people that are outside of your network that you might not have had conversations with in the past.

What actionable advice would you give to non-profit professionals who are thinking of stepping into a leadership role?

Patton McDowell: Yeah again I would start with the aspirational networking. In other words, I’ve seen and coached individuals who are dead set on a leadership opportunity. I’m like “All right that may look good on paper but let’s talk to someone who’s in a role that you envision yourself someday.”

Often you will find it doesn’t mean it will scare you away from it but it will give you greater clarity that you never see in reading a job description or a job posting. I think also talking to leaders who hire executives in non-profit organizations I think it’s good to interact with board members. Ultimately they’re the boss for a non-profit executive.

You need to understand the board member perspective. They will hire they will evaluate and sometimes fire non-profit leaders. What are they looking for and how does that shape your learning plan? I’ve got something I’ve used a worksheet of 12 skills and experiences that I think are essential for non-profit leaders. I’d be happy to share with your listeners.

For me if I think I want to be a non-profit executive I want to work toward that not just with hope and wishful thinking but what do I need to do to round out my resume my experiences so that I can be effective? Because I think one of the challenges often I see David is non-profit Profits will elevate someone who’s really good in one area.

But once you get to the senior position you will have to manage and lead every area. So you can’t just be a program person, technology person, fundraiser, or any such position once you’re in charge.

How do we build your plan so that you can feel competent in all areas of leadership and management? That’s what I would… I try to design. It’s almost like a graduate degree. “I want to be an executive in three years. All right I’m going to put together a curriculum that will help me get there so that I’ll be equipped and ready when the time comes.”

David Pisarek: Exactly. There’s different parts to moving up.

There’s budgeting, accountability, people management, and dealing with conflict resolution. There’s a lot a lot more than just going, “Okay, yeah, I’m going to manage these 3 4 5 20 people.” Whatever it happens to be is that next step.

You need to be able to understand what are those pieces for there. Hopefully in the organization that you’re at you can get some of that leadership and mentorship and some of that training.

But I love the idea of connecting outside of there. Maybe you’re not comfortable telling your boss “Hey I want to move up.” You could have that conversation with somebody who’s across the country as part of your peer network.

Patton McDowell: Well put. That’s exactly what I would do and take advantage of the safe space of someone outside of your immediate network.

David Pisarek: Absolutely. Is there a universal strategy that you found to be effective with leaders across generations?

Patton McDowell: That’s a good question. I think some of the principles apply at almost any generation and having a well-rounded background taking advantage of the expertise throughout your office.

I remember when I was a rookie David it was such… The finance stuff was terrifying. I was a program person. The finance person was really generous with her time in helping me get a baseline set of experiences around the budget around the financial reporting around some of the key documents that the board were submitting and reviewing. That was essential for me.

I’ve continued to encourage that at any level being aware of the other aspects around you. What can you learn from that? Because ultimately you’re going to need to deploy those skills and hopefully your organization will give you a chance It’s a practice.

David Pisarek: I have one to add to that which is “Don’t be afraid of change.” Change isn’t always bad.

There’s new software new technology new ways of doing things. Explore it. Don’t be scared of it. You need to learn to lean in on it and how can you leverage it to ultimately save you time.

Realistically saving time means that you’re going to end up saving money. Every non-profit is more than willing to save some money on something if they can.

Patton McDowell: You got their attention there for sure, right?

David Pisarek: Right. Lean on it and maybe it’s not you doing the change.

Maybe there’s some finite little thing that you… Maybe it’s your CRM platform that you have or your donation system. There’s lots of them out there. But understand the risks the pros and cons and the benefits so that you can achieve more and do more and do it better.

Patton McDowell: Yes perfectly said. I think that’s the spirit I hope your listeners and non-profit leaders in general will consider.

David Pisarek: This has been so awesome, Patton. Great conversation.

I’ve got some insights I will take back to my team when we meet on Monday. I hope everybody who’s listening to this has been able to get some really great advice and some pointers from you from the conversation today.

If anybody wants to connect with you, you mentioned that you’ve got this list of qualities for non-profit leaders. What do they need to do to get in touch with you?

Patton McDowell: Just message me on LinkedIn as my primary social media platform, Patton McDowell on LinkedIn. My website is pmanonprofit.com, that’s where you can find out more information about programs we offer like the mastermind or resource material we offer. I’d be happy for any of your listeners to reach out to me.

If I can be supportive and send them some of the material like I described I’d be happy to do so.

David Pisarek: Amazing. Thanks again so much for joining in Patton. It’s been great having you here on the Non-Profit Digital Success podcast.

To everybody listening, if you want the links, we will have them on our show notes page as well as with Patton’s contact information. Just head over to our site at nonprofitdigitalsuccess.com.

Click on this episode for all the details. And until next time keep on being successful!

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