It seems like it was just yesterday when the podcast started and now, we’re down to the final episode of our seventh season! We have been gaining so much wisdom on the world of social profit from great guests around the world who have graciously imparted their insights, challenges, and successes. What better way to wrap up the season than to reflect on the lessons we have learned? In this special finale episode, Host Douglas Nelson and Producer Alex Wilson look back on some of the highlights of the season along with their collective realizations on what truly makes an incredible leader in the social sector. Join them in this conversation as we celebrate the breadth and depth of wisdom we gained across the season.
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Season 7 Reflections With Douglas Nelson, Host, And Alex Wilson, Producer
On this show, I’m joined by Alex Wilson, our Director of Communications and the Producer of this show, for our final episode of season seven. As we wrap for the summer 2023, we reflect on the incredible guests we’ve spoken to, the lessons we’ve learned, and what leaders should be thinking about this summer, and I answer my own favorite question. Welcome, Alex.
Thanks, Doug. It’s great to join you.
We made it to season seven. It was lots of great conversations. What was your perspective on the breadth and depth of the folks that we had the chance to talk to over the last few months?
Thank you, first, for having me, and congratulations. We did it. Season seven is in the can. What a wonderful and sometimes exhausting experience. We’ve had the opportunity to speak to 40 leaders from all over the world. We heard so many inspiring and insightful stories. Being able to be your co-host and being part of these conversations gave me insight not only into our sector in Canada but of what our international partners are doing. Also, many of the organizations are facing some of the same challenges, be it the labor shortage in terms of the economy but I thought it was a wonderful season.
There are so many great stories. One of the things that rose to the top for me as I was preparing for this conversation was the leaders that were their authentic selves, both on the show and you could tell that’s how they were based on the stories that they told every day in their offices and with their teams. That authenticity puts organizations and their leaders in a great place.
It’s not that any of our guests weren’t authentic, but in our travels throughout the sector, there are leaders who are sometimes miscast or not yet comfortable in the roles that they’re in. Our guests this past season were very experienced leaders for the most part and gave a strong sense of their organizational purpose, their personal purpose, and how it motivates them to continue to lead and learn in their organizations.
I think that some of the conversations that resonated the most with our readers were the conversations where leaders were able to be candid and share mistakes. Also, to give credit where credit was due, be it other mentors, people that had given them opportunities along their career path, or team members as well. I appreciated everyone coming to the table and dropping any of the facades that sometimes we all carry in life. Also, to have those honest deep conversations, which I think shows the ability and skill that you have as a host to get to the meat of everyone’s personal journey.
One of the things I noticed that came through was so many of the guests had tuned in to other episodes of the show. People are listening to colleagues and fellow travelers as leaders in the social profit sector. They are learning from them and bringing those learnings to the conversation when we’re doing the recording. I think we had several guests referenced having listened to Neelam Sahota of DIVERSEcity as the example of the episode they wanted to live up to.
It’s a pretty high bar that Neelam set for the rest of the guests talking about the importance of the resettlement of new Canadians. There were others that truly brought their A-game. I won’t go into a long list of them, but I do want to single out Melissa Lee of the Chinese Canadian Museum. She is starting a brand new museum from scratch and the candor that she demonstrated in discussing the challenges of the organization and what it means to create Canada’s first Chinese Canadian museum. It was an eye-opener for me and that’s a project that I’ve been fairly close to over the last couple of years.
Both of those guests were a standout for sure. I appreciate also Reeta Roy, the CEO of MasterCard Foundation. In her conversation with you as the CEO of the largest foundation in Canada, you would have maybe some preconceived expectations of the person or the type of leadership that would be there. She came to the table as probably the most humble guest that we had all season and took little credit for the success that their organization. She showcased people that were on her team and other mentors that she had. I thought that was just such a great example of being in the spotlight, but stepping aside to shine a light on all the other people that got her to the success where she’s been.
Another personal highlight for me was the conversation with Jacline Nyman, who was the Vice President of External Relations at the University of Ottawa. She was my first boss in fundraising, for those who read the episode. She said some nice things about me early in my career that I don’t think I deserved at that time and certainly not now.
However, it was great talking to her in her final week in the role reflecting on what had been such an incredible career in organizational leadership over so many years and the wisdom that she imparted. For her, it all came back to keep talking to donors and continue to have those conversations and build those relationships.
That’s ultimately what leaders in the social profit sector, particularly those with a significant fundraising mandate are measured on the relationships we build, the evidence that the community is supporting the cause and the purpose of the organization and willing to do so on a consistent basis. She embodied that as a professional. Jacline was a great boss.
The other conversation that I was smiling and thinking about the last season was with Farah Mohamed of the Prince’s Trust. We had a great conversation about King Charles before the coronation continuing his relationship with the Prince’s Trust and the tremendous work that they do across the country.
Here’s another thing I don’t like about the social profit sector. Here’s another thing that needs to change and it felt like we were sitting together over a beer trying to solve all of the world’s problems in a twenty-minute episode. I don’t know about you Alex, but I think we did a pretty good job of offering some positive directions for change that might come.
I feel we could go through the entire list and say great things about each guest. Everyone brought a different perspective, but there were common themes that came up over the course of this season. I have the pleasure of turning the tables on you to ask the questions I know our readers want to ask, and that’s the first question. What were the common themes or challenges that you heard throughout the season from our great lineup of guests?
I think any leaders of organizations in our social profit sector are ambitious souls. They want to accomplish a lot for their organizations, for themselves, and their teams. They feel a real responsibility to be adding value and making progress towards the purpose of their organization. One of the common challenges that came through was how difficult that has been over the last couple of years.
Also, managing both the fatigue of the team after the pandemic, and figuring out how many days in the office everyone needs to be. We heard from leaders who have everyone on their team back on a full-time basis in the office to some organizations that hadn’t yet had a leadership team meeting, even the leadership of the organization hadn’t been in the same room for a few years.
It was across the gamut but that’s something very significant leaders have been facing. The labor shortage and being able to find the people not only to grow but to sustain your organization and deliver the services to raise the money you need to do the work of your organization was a big one. The other one that is an inspiring piece that we should hold onto and probably should have let off with is the incredible dedication of leaders across the sector and the country.
We had several international guests in this episode. The dedication to purpose, being able to articulate what their organizations are there to do, who they’re there to serve, why it’s important, and what is the change that they seek to make in the world consistently. The leaders we spoke with were able to answer all of those questions effortlessly and seamlessly. It’s clear that the answers to those questions guide their actions on a day-to-day basis.
You touched on this a bit, but based on the conversations that you had, what is your perception of the entire sector? Where are we now and where is it heading?
I think this is a common theme, certainly, for me and from all of us here at The Discovery Group. We’re excited and highly anticipating the future of the social profit sector. New organizations are on the rise, and new forms of organizations are coming together. The leadership of the sector is increasingly becoming more diverse.The leadership of the social profit sector is increasingly becoming more diverse. Click To Tweet
There is more gender equity and the leadership of organizations than ever before. Certainly, there is a lot of work to do across all of those fronts. One of the themes we heard from so many of the leaders in this season was the reminder that equality and equity are not a destination but a journey. Many of the different organizations that we spoke with and leaders we spoke with would put their own organizations at different parts of the journey.
There is important work to continue to do but so many of the leaders that we talked to and so many of the conversations gave some insight into how they approached the concept of diversity and improving it around their board tables, in their donor base, and with their teams. I think there were some great actionable strategies that came out of those conversations.
You’ve been in the sector for the entirety of your career, but I’m hoping that there are still some things that surprised you and some new learnings that you get. Was there anything this season that surprised you or that you learned?
I learned so much from every conversation. One of the most fascinating things, when you ask about the origin story of the leaders when they come on the show, is very few of them set out to be leaders of social profit organizations. They ended up their successful careers in other sectors or were working in different parts of the social profit sector. The music stopped, they sat down, and it turned out to be the executive director’s chair. Now they were in leadership.
Some individuals we spoke to like Christine McIver from Kids Cancer Care who founded the organization that she has led for so many years, there was a real variety there. What surprised me was, and it was a good surprise, the level of humility and curiosity that so many of the guests demonstrated when we ask what makes you successful. How do you keep your team engaged? These are very frequent questions throughout the conversations. Be open, ask questions, show up, and be a leader who is interested in the people around them.
Surprise is the wrong word, but I was pleased to hear how that genuine curiosity about their organizations and most importantly, the people that make up their organization really is to these leaders. It’s a great example for people who are reading and who are planning on or hoping for one day to be in a senior leadership role in a social profit organization. Once you become the leader, you have to start asking a lot more questions, not fewer questions of the people around you.
On that same line of thought, was there a perspective or something that you heard this season that changed the way that you think or see things?
There were a number of conversations about how the sector is evolving. I’ve said on the show a number of times and any of the clients we’ve worked with most assuredly heard me say this. The world outside of our sector is changing so much faster than the work within our sector. I see that as the greatest risk to our sector and to the work of social profit organizations in general.The world outside of the social profit sector is changing so much faster than the work within our sector. Click To Tweet
There is a need for all of our work to move more quickly, to be more effective, and to be more focused on the purpose of each organization. The perspective that changed for me was hearing from so many organizations that have picked up the pace and are moving at the pace of change. I mentioned her before, but Neelam Sahota’s organization was a great one.
Sharon Avery at the Toronto Foundation gave a beautiful summary of how a community foundation can be an active agent for change. Also, the important lessons that she’s learned along the way as the leader of that organization and the energy behind some of that social change. Zahra Esmail of Vantage Point is another person that shared some inspiring stories about how her organization is moving so much more quickly and purposefully over the last couple of years to meet the need of the sector.
I guess when it comes to the pace of change, in my perspective, it’s not as bad as I thought, generally speaking, and there are some bright spots. Hopefully, through our work with clients and through the next season of the show, we can put a spotlight on those places where the pace of change is meeting the challenge of the world outside of our sector.
Doug, as we head into the summer and people are thinking about vacations, we know that boards are taking a break from their activities before everything resumes in the busy September. What do you think board chairs and members should be doing this summer as they prepare for the fall?
Alex, I think they should all listen to Rahul Bhardwaj as the first episode of calendar 2023. He’s the President and CEO of the Institute of Corporate Directors. He talked a lot about exactly what boards need to be doing. Over the summer, I’m hoping that leaders in the sector have the chance to reflect, take a deep breath, go outside, go for long walks, and reconnect with their loved ones around them.
They should come back to their work through the summer and into the fall with a renewed urgency and an energy that’s going to allow them to focus on the purpose of their organization. To think about it in terms of very tactical, it’s a great time for leaders and organizations to be connecting with board members one-on-one if they’re in town or they can be reached through Zoom or Teams.
It’s a great time for one-on-one conversations with members of your team to assess where they want to be in the year and the years ahead. It’s a great opportunity to go back to the business plan that was approved a few months ago and evaluate where you are. Those moments of reflection that the summertime sometimes makes possible are important for organizations that are back to running events every weekend and twice during the week. You don’t have that time for reflection, but maybe that time for reflection will come after Labor Day.
For boards, I think that the biggest challenge facing boards is understanding how they can contribute more to uplifting the organization with less emphasis on providing oversight and judgment on the performance of the organization. Certainly, oversight is an important part of being on a board and the role of a board, but contributing to the uplifting of the organization, benefiting the organization, and helping it move towards purpose is the great value that board members can bring to an organization. It’s where board members are most committed.
When we talk to board members, they don’t want to learn more about the logistics of the organization. What they want to do is learn more about how the organization is meeting the needs of the issue that it exists to serve. What boards need to do with that is to commit to making sure that their next year of recruitment for new board members takes them closer to their goals around the expertise they need around the table.
Also, the types of professional and lived experience they need around the table, the type of cultural and gender diversity that they need around the table, and to make a real commitment to ensuring that their board reflects the communities they serve. It cannot be an issue that is resolved. The diversity of the boards in the social profit sector in Canada can’t be resolved two months before the AGM. It takes a yearlong commitment and there’s no time like the present. Let’s say to do it and start it over the summer.
That’s such a great point, Doug. As I mentioned, the fall is historically busy, especially for campaigns. We see several campaign launches over the course of the fall. If a reader is responsible for a capital campaign, what are the steps that they should be taking over the next few months?
The biggest one is to set reasonable expectations with either the leadership in your organization or with your board around what is possible. We saw a number of really significant campaigns launch in the fall of 2022. Some of them have been very successful and some of them have not been decidedly unsuccessful.
One of the big differences there is that those that were successful had done their homework. They’d done a proper market survey. They’d align their volunteers. They could answer the key questions that donors ask like, “What are you going to do with the money? What’s the timeline? What’s the impact? Who are you going to rely on? Who are your partners? What’s the difference you want to make in the world once this project or this campaign is complete?
Those organizations that have done their homework were successful. Those that tried to use a big number in place of the hard work of preparing for a campaign hoping that their sheer ambition would inspire donors have been disappointed. If I was putting a campaign together over the course of the summer or focusing on that over the summer, I would be mindful of what success looks like. Be aware of the timeline that you want to do with your campaign.
You can do a smaller campaign over a shorter period of time and it can feel a lot more successful and build a lot more momentum for your organization than a longer campaign timeline that has a higher top-line number. Play with that. Think about that. Talk about those that are closest to the organization and those donors that are closest to the organization. Focus everything you have on making sure that your campaign case and your campaign strategy build credibility and generate momentum for your organization. If you don’t have those two things, it’s simply not going to work.
I’m going to shift the conversation to the topic that I think came up the most this season, which was every guest that we had mentioned the war on talent. What can leaders be doing to ensure that they have the right team in place for the fall?
The first answer I should say is everybody should call our colleague Christoph Clodius, who leads our search practice at The Discovery Group. The other thing that is important is a lot of organizations can do a better job of identifying the talent they have within their organization. Some organizations are too small. They don’t have the size of a team to have an heir apparent in your fundraising roles or essential roles in your organization.
However, those that do have some size need to be building that talent pool within their organization and making it clear to people that there is a pathway to leadership to more senior roles within the organization. For organizations that are smaller, it is understanding what the professional skills that your team wants to be adding, emphasizing, or looking for professional development opportunities where they can build their skills and build their expertise within the role that they’re in within your organization.
The final piece of that is to make sure that in everything you’re doing as a leader and talking to your team, you’re using it as an opportunity to reinforce the purpose of your organization. This is why we are here to do the work we do, and the purpose is king or queen. I guess we used to say queen, but now we say king with King Charles. The purpose is royalty and it’s going to make a huge difference in conversations with holding onto the team that you have and building those skills from within.
Doug, I am so thrilled to have been part of this season and to be a part of The Discovery Group and the show. I’m excited to listen to all the conversations that we have next season, which we’ll be launching in September 2023. I thought the best way to wrap up season seven is to ask you one of our favorite questions, which is, what are you looking forward to, Doug?
Thanks, Alex. I guess I know what it feels like now. You ask such a broad question. As per my advice to other leaders, I am going to take a little bit of downtime over the course of the summer, and I’m looking forward to some family travel and connecting with friends. As it relates to work, I am looking forward to the incredible group of clients that we’re working with now at The Discovery Group.
There is a lot of work and climate action in many aspects of healthcare, post-secondary education, and community development. It’s a real privilege to get to work with the individuals that we work with. I’m looking forward to learning more from them and learning with them through the course of our work. The final thing I’d say about what I’m looking forward to is I’m so encouraged about the future of our sector for all the reasons I’ve said over the course of this show.
What’s most encouraging to me is I believe the world outside of our sector is starting to listen not only to the needs but to the opportunity and seeing the leadership that’s happening within the social profit sector as an example for other parts of our society. There are so many great examples of leaders who represent what’s best for our country and our communities in our sector.
Whether it’s political, business, or some other part, the leadership in our sector is an example that others can learn from. I hope that spotlight continues to get brighter on those exceptional leaders. Many of them have been on the show and several of whom are current clients. Put that spotlight on what leadership looks like when organizations are at their best. The spotlight will find a lot of leaders in our social profit sector.Leadership in the social profit sector is an example that others can learn from. Click To Tweet
It’s a perfect way to end season seven.
Thank you, Alex, for all of the work that you do and all of our colleagues at The Discovery Group. This is a real joy for me, and I know for you, Alex, to get to learn from leaders on a daily basis when we’re doing and preparing for these interviews. I have to say, I had nerves several times as we were sitting down to record with some of the great guests. Looking at the list of people who’ll be on the show for the next season, I think I might start getting nervous now in anticipation of some of those names and some of those great folks that are going to join us.
You’re a pro. I’m looking forward to it. Everyone, have a great summer and please look for updates on when to tune back in for season eight.
- Alex Wilson– LinkedIn
- Neelam Sahota – Past Episode
- Melissa Lee – Past Episode
- Reeta Roy – Past Episode
- Jacline Nyman – Past Episode
- Farah Mohamed – Past Episode
- Christine McIver – Past Episode
- Sharon Avery – Past Episode
- Zahra Esmail – Past Episode
- Rahul Bhardwaj – Past Episode
- Christoph Clodius – LinkedIn