Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Nonprofit Professionals - Amateur Managers?

Jonathan Peizer, of JP's Philanthropy Blog, had a great post yesterday called Being Smart and Being a Good Manager is Not the Same, and I've got to agree with him. JP says, in part:
Not that they are exclusive mind you. However, in my travels I have found many smart/intellectual/degreed people who assume that because they hold the title of manager and they are smart, they are de facto good managers. This is ironic because if you asked these same people if they were expert in an academic field that was not their own, they would defer to others who were.
Think about this in relation to how nonprofit managers come up through the ranks. People who are highly trained and qualified at helping people with their individual problems, or delivering a particular service, are put into situations where they are supervising other professionals and creating budgets, all without any prior preparation. If you ask them, they'll say they are social services experts or program experts, and that is their qualification to manage the agency, but they will never say, "I'm an HR expert and I just love spreadsheets."

After reading JP's posting yesterday, I began thinking about my own preparation for my career in nonprofit management, and now consulting.

Certainly my undergraduate degree in Politics gave me absolutely no background in supervising the work of others or running a program, let alone an entire organization. I learned critical thinking skills, I learned written communications skills, and I learned quite a bit about how to avoid some of the mistakes of the Cold War, should I ever happen to be transported back in time into Truman or Eisenhower's cabinets at certain moments in history. But I didn't learn about management.

My graduate program (Master of Public Policy and Administration, MPPA) provided a bit of management theory (Frederick Taylor and Max Weber) and organizational behavior, but the main focus of the program was on policy analysis and econometrics.

One management course I remember best from that time was one I took through the MBA program on employment law, where one of our texts was The Short Works of Herman Melville. We had a great time discussing the legal ramifications of the management decisions in "Billy Budd, Sailor" and "Bartleby the Scrivener", but I'm not sure that that's ever helped me in supervising a social worker who was dealing with her own family problems on the job.

Some of my best, and most relevant, management training came from professional development workshops at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. I first sat in on these workshops as a staff person (I was the Director of their Silicon Valley office for several years) and eventually wound up teaching a couple of them. I continue to do occasional Supervisory Skills workshops for my clients as an independent consultant.

When I find myself wrestling with a management question, it is these workshop materials that I find myself looking back to for reference, not "Billy Budd" or "Bartleby." (Don't get me wrong; I love these stories, just not as management reference works).

(I should also mention that I had great mentoring at both CompassPoint, and at HandsNet before that, and it is that experience which most prepared me for my current role).

Which brings me back to my point and a question. How is your organization preparing your next generation of managers and leaders? Are you investing in their professional development? Are you making sure that they get the skills they need beyond program implementation, whether through workshops or mentoring?

How about yourself? Are you prepared?

1 comment:

  1. My 20 years of experience in nonprofits was a grim reminder of how little regard most social service professionals have for management. In my experience, most abhored the very idea of management, seeing it as a tool for oppression. With that attitude as a foundation, those of us who "rose" from the service delivery to "administrative" (or "supervisory," never "management") end of the operation acted more like kindergarten teachers than leaders, sort of letting the kids explore their world and keeping them from harming one another (too much!) Of course, this was the 70s, so I'm sure things have changed.

    Nevertheless, assuming one is a good manager without spending time learning what management really entails is a little like thinking you're a surfer after watching the first two episodes of HBOs new show, John From Cincinnati. In either case you're likely to wipe out pretty spectacularly when you try out your new "skills."

    I recently blogged about something similar here: