Episode 4: Navigating Challenges in Nonprofits: A Conversation with Tycely Williams on Courage and Change
Discover nonprofit leadership insights with Tycely Williams in this dynamic interview with Robbe Healey. Explore equity, courage, and cultural choices. Uncover allies, activate courage, and nurture healthy cultures. Navigate alliances, political nuances, and compromise. Embrace change with power and courage, lifelong learning, and persuasive donor pitches. Tune in for impactful change-making insights.
Categories: Nonprofit Expert Podcast
Episode 4: Navigating Challenges in Nonprofits: A Conversation with Tycely Williams on Courage and Change TranscriptPrint Transcript
Welcome to Nonprofit Expert presented by DonorPerfect.
Robbe Healey: 0:14
Welcome to Nonprofit Expert presented by DonorPerfect, and we’re continuing our series of conversations about case culture and Read More
Welcome to Nonprofit Expert presented by DonorPerfect.
Robbe Healey: 0:14
Welcome to Nonprofit Expert presented by DonorPerfect, and we’re continuing our series of conversations about case culture and courage, and I’m so excited today to have Tycely Williams join me and we’re going to do a bit of a deep dive into courage. But before we get started, tisley and I met each other through AFP and we’ve served on several work groups and task forces together, primarily in the area of non-profit fundraising ethics, and it’s been a very interesting and exciting opportunity to get to understand more about her professional journey, the way she looks at things, and she’s the perfect person to share with us some insights into the courage it takes to be a really good fundraiser. So let me pause for a moment and let Tisley say a few words about herself.
Tycely Williams: 1:10
Well, before I say a few words about myself, let me say a few words about you and the element of gratitude that I have. You talked about non-profit experts in the beginning, and you have been a non-profit expert that I have held in high esteem for many, many years, so it’s great to have this conversation with a dear friend and a cherished mentor. So thank you, Robbe, for the chance to talk about one of my favorite superpowers, which is the activation of courage.
Robbe Healey: 1:44
That’s why we have you and we’re so grateful for that. So, thinking about what it takes to call out the need for a courage conversation, I think if you report to the CEO, or if you were a CEO talking with a board chair, you can’t go in the room and say so, our culture needs a reboot, we need to fix this and you’re in charge. I think that could be career limiting or career ending, depending on what role you have in the organization, how you bring that to someone’s attention and it isn’t always obvious to people. So I think for all of us who’ve done fundraising or non-profit work in our careers, sometimes things really do need to have a reboot. You’ve either gotten into a pattern or you don’t know what you don’t know and you need to call it out. You need to really begin to examine are we where we need to be? If we’re not, what’s holding us back? So I think of you as a change maker. So when the roles you’ve had, either professionally or as a volunteer, you do call that out. So, as you’re thinking about perhaps past work you’ve done or maybe some of the present work you’re in, how do you bring that up? How do you say to the organization we could really use a makeover in our culture. How do you get the courage to do that?
Tycely Williams: 3:13
I’ll start with sharing a little bit about some of the innate characteristics and strengths that I had, because, whether it’s me remembering to follow my own advice or imparting guidance and counsel to others, I always begin with what’s in reach and what’s in reach before we step into employment opportunities or volunteer commitments. What’s in reach are these innate, inherent strengths that exist within all of us. What’s also within reach are a core element of personal values that have likely attracted us to the interview process to learn more about the opportunity. Those personal values are likely what elevated us up and above the competition, and I always begin any journey, any relationship, with introducing myself and my values, and the point that you raised about how I’m often seen actually aligns with how I define myself, and I consider one of my strengths to be that I am creative and I am resourceful, and because I’m creative, I have an ability to look at things as they should be rather than how they are. And so my first bit of advice is to give thought to when you’re in situations when you’re having these interpersonal connections and building relationships, are your personal aspirations aligned with the institutional aspirations? Because, Robbe, in the event they don’t align, the change can be viewed as negative and bad. You know, all change is a positive. It’s relative to where you sit and what you’re driving for as a result of the change. The change is positive when you and the employer, or you and the institution, are driving for the same aspirational destination. And so what I think is critically important, before we concede our power in these cultures, to make really wise choices and decisions about the types of cultures we’re saying yes to, and to recognize that an interview is also an opportunity for us, as professionals, to discern whether or not a job and an employment opportunity aligns with who we are. Now, here’s the deal we’re relationship builders and we know that sometimes things don’t always appear to be what you eventually learn that they are or they can become.
Robbe Healey: 6:16
I think we’ve all had that experience. Anyone in this work has had the experience of joining a team. Yes, that’s at a different place than they think they are.
Tycely Williams: 6:28
Yes, and so what I often do in those situations, before I chart the path for change, I ask open-ended questions to validate my own assumptions. I first want to gain clarity on the source of the inequity, the source of the unfairness, the source of the bias, and I also want to gain insight into whether or not people are conscious or unconscious, because I hate to tell you a lot of people- are clueless.
Robbe Healey: 7:01
I think their clues speak not necessarily out of a vicious perspective, but more my experiences. They don’t know what they don’t know. Yes, so they can’t question things they don’t know to question. That’s right. So is it following along the way everybody’s always gone? Yes, is it modeling their mentors, who may have also not known what they didn’t know? Yes, what are your thoughts about those kinds of challenges?
Tycely Williams: 7:31
You know it’s interesting. You’re introducing a few dynamics that I think are so relevant to courage. You’re talking about lived experience and that which we’ve seen and how that plays a role in what we are modeling, and you’re also speaking to the power that exists within organizations that elevate certain positions as individuals that we should model. So you think through hierarchy and you think, wow, I should be just like the boss, because the boss is in charge and the boss is showing the way and hopefully knowing the way. But for those of us who have been bosses, we know that you don’t know everything and the best boss and the best use of positional power is to invite people to help you see and recognize and understand that which your lived experience may not have naturally set you up to understand, to relate, and by doing that you’re actually able to not only show up and lead through your lived experience, but you can show up and also lead and learn by listening to the lived experience of other people and especially those who are underrepresented in cultures, because you know how things are. We became fast friends because we both identify as change agents, we’re both fundraisers, we’ve got shared commonalities. That pulls us in closer to getting to know each other, and then, naturally, I’m defending you, you’re defending me, and here we are at work, showing up in a unified way. Sometimes it’s harder for people who don’t have those similarities to create trust as fast, and it’s especially harder for people to have that trust reinforced when you’re making difficult decisions, which is what change in life is all about.
Robbe Healey: 9:48
Well, and you’re talking about the dynamic between and among people with different roles, and I think there’s a unique aspect in our work because, of course, every nonprofit is governed by a board of volunteers. Yes, and that, I think, adds an even more complex layer to bringing your lived experience, bringing your expertise, bringing your passion for the work, because you have volunteers who obviously had some call to action in their personal life to say yes to serving, and those vary depending on who the person is. Then you’ve got their direct report, typically the CEO, the executive director and all the other staff who flow up through that structure. So, when we look at who has the control, who has the power, who knows what they know, who knows what they don’t know, who’s got the courage to say, yes, I want to surround myself with experts. I don’t want to. In my opinion, I never want to be the smartest person in the room, I just want to make the room smarter. Yes, and I think that is something that if everyone could adopt that kind of philosophy, the world would be a better place. But we’re both smart enough to know that’s not going to happen this afternoon. Yes. So, looking at what I think you’re describing is how do you decide where you’re going to offer your skills, abilities and talents? First of all, as an individual professional, you’re trying to do your homework and your real due diligence about where can I make a contribution from a mission perspective, but also, where will my contributions be valued? Yes, not that I’m perfect in every way, but they’re at least going to respect me as a professional, as part of the room, which I think is one of the other things you’ve already talked about, which is what they tell you is going to happen and what does can be different. Yes, I haven’t always opt out, but that probably means looking for a new job and that’s no fun. That’s right. But I think, when you look at, pretend for a moment that everybody respects each other. Just pretend for a moment that everybody respects each other. Yes, and there’s still things that need to really move forward differently in order for you not to raise the most money but to have the best impact in your mission. Yes, money is just a tool for mission. It’s never about the money, it’s always about the mission, and we’re part of that. Revenue generating that allows the mission to thrive. Yes, so if you’re in a culture that is respectful of you. Yes, if you love the mission and want to stay, but it still needs a tweak. How do you bring that up?
Tycely Williams: 12:37
You’ve introduced so much that I want to extend. I’m going to start with the aspirational aim of wanting to win. I would step in a situation like that to validate am I in a culture and working amongst people, whether they are receiving compensation or whether they are volunteers. Am I working with people who want to win? And then I would ask what does it mean to succeed? Talk more about that. What does it mean to succeed? Because, as fundraisers, you referenced the quantifiable impact that we often focus our attention on and you basically said look, it isn’t about the money, it’s about what happens as a result of the money coming. And success is larger than our fundraising goal. Success can be defined in a multitude of ways. So I would begin in this culture, saying to my peers and even to myself how do we define success? And once I have a sense of definition around this construct, this aspirational destination, I then would say how are we measuring this? And then it goes a little bit deeper for me, because at this age in my career, I not only say yes because of the mission, but I say yes because of the feeling I want to have while helping advance the mission. So I say how do we celebrate success. And then my last open-ended question would be how will you resource success? You see my younger self. When I entered this field 26 years ago, I thought I was responsible for resourcing the success of the organization. It wasn’t until I had a few birthdays failed forward, that I began to realize the organization has an equal obligation to me to ensure that I have the tools, including the psychological reinforcement, the emotional, the social conditions that would enable me, as a black woman, to be a success. And once I began to realize that success isn’t solely contingent upon my abilities. It’s the collective responsibility and abilities of everybody moving in the direction, a shared direction of success, to bring to the table what we all need to succeed. Now you talked about volunteers, and I think that volunteers are often an overlooked key ingredient.
Robbe Healey: 15:53
How do you think of them as overlooked? I think that’s fascinating.
Tycely Williams: 15:56
You talked more about that I think volunteers are overlooked largely because we tend to dehumanize the board. It’s the CEO’s boss, they do the hiring and the firing of the chief executive officer and we don’t really give thought to how they get there, who influences them staying. And if we were to just redirect our thinking about where the power truly rests in organizations and shift from the often viewpoint of the chief executive officer and pay a little bit closer attention to the individuals that are hiring and the individuals that are determining the performance of the CEO, then I think we would have a different set of circumstances.
Robbe Healey: 16:56
Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s interesting. In my consulting life I do a lot of strategic planning and oftentimes boards are shocked that they’re actually in charge and while they know somewhere in their head they have to do a performance appraisal and they have to have a succession plan. The idea that they determine strategy is new news to many of them, which goes back to they don’t know what they don’t know and, of course, who’s going to tell them that’s right. My experience is somebody goes to a community foundation workshop and finds out that’s the hierarchy and all of a sudden you have a different voice in the room. That’s right, but it might be one out of 17 or one out of 10 or one out of 30 if the board is huge. But then you’re looking at how do we take this new knowledge? How do we bring that forward? And that brings me to your second master skill, which is being such a good connector. So if you’re that one voice in the wilderness that all of a sudden realizes we have this amazing think tank of experts that in a typical board meeting we cause them to listen, we don’t allow them to think and generate ideas and talk about the generative future of their, their organization? How do you identify the natural allies then? Yes, assuming you are, yes, in a healthy culture where you feel valued. Yes, and clearly that’s a challenge You’ve given to everyone is make sure you are, yes, in healthy culture where you are valued that’s right and know your strengths and your opportunities and move forward that way. That’s right. If it’s worth investing in, how do you identify those natural allies that can help you Advance the change you know is needed?
Tycely Williams: 18:47
Yes, so we’ve started the conversation talking about the importance of courage and as we talk about relationships and Mutually beneficial relationships, we’re shifting into the activation of courage, because I think it is a very courageous posture for people to actively form and forge Relationships with people who are different. You see, we’re taught as human beings, even as a defense mechanism, to see in group versus out group stranger danger. In addition to spending my day as a fundraiser, I Am also a matchmaker. When I first moved to the District of Columbia, I would identify myself as a fundraiser and people would often say which side of the aisle.
Robbe Healey: 19:48
Democrat, republican. I can imagine that in the district that’s the first question they automatically assumed I was a political fundraiser.
Tycely Williams: 19:55
So I began to Reshape my identity. And now if people say, how do you spend your day? And again a more inclusive way of asking people what do you do you know in Washington? That’s the question what do you do? And I like to speak to how I spend my day versus what I do. And I often say that I’m a matchmaker and Before leading with how I match people, I lead with the outcome of what happens when you match people. And I say I I deliver common sense solutions to very complex problems that every American faces. And Immediately people are like wow, common sense solutions. I can identify with that. I want to be smart, I want to be wise, I want to be Efficient and ethical. Right, that’s what common sense is all about. One would hope one would help. And then they say, with an element of curiosity how do you do that? And that’s when I Introduce what is often a very judged and loaded description of how I spend my day and I say I Create spaces for Republicans and Democrats To reach Compromise on how we will move our country forward. And there are a few things that I knew before joining the bipartisan policy center, but my chief economist has really helped me to better understand tradeoffs and why tradeoffs exist and why tradeoffs are important, no matter the decision that you’re making or the Relationships that you’re trying to seek and sustain. We’ve talked a lot about aspiration, and In an aspirational world I can get everything I want. We can go and have endless conversations, we can spend amazing Times soaking up the Sun like that is like all of the things I want. It is impossible for me or anyone else in the universe To have it their way all the time, and so with people, and especially people who are different, we have to settle into a level of comfort around, first acknowledging that there’s a high probability. If I’m only looking at an identity marker, either one that’s visible you and I are looking at one another. There’s some visible identities that we could speak to, but there are other identities that we don’t know about each other until we start having conversations. No one is able to look at you to say, is she a grandmother. No one is able to look at me to say is she an auntie. You only learn that by forging and forming relationships and connections, and the more you speak and talk, you find things where you have common ground. But even if you don’t have common ground, courage allows you to say you know, I’m confident enough in my position that I want to hear from you on why you have a dissenting and varying perspective.
Robbe Healey: 23:23
You made an interesting comment about the whole idea of what I think of as compromise and you were talking about nobody gets 100% of what they need and want. I think compromise has become such an undervalued, in fact, something that people have started to see as a loss. That’s right. I’m curious your perceptions about how that changes the ally identification, the work towards change, as we’ve taken this, what I think is an unfortunate turn towards seeing kind of a zero sum game yes, if, if, something works well for you. Somehow that takes something away from me. I don’t understand that, but I see it. And how do you, in creating allyship, how do you start to gain agreement across the aisle or even within the aisles, yes, to say if we have this aspirational goal that we agree is, is the work we want to do together, the way we want to show up for each other, the way we want to behave. How has that changed? How do you navigate that?
Tycely Williams: 24:46
You navigate it with a heavy dose of intentionality. So courage requires us all to be intentional, to be cognizant, to be aware, and courage also allows us to be cognizant and aware of what it means to win, and to also be mindful that we don’t want to create a perception that if I’m winning, that in some way translates into you losing. If you’re able to broaden the abundant mindset which we know a lot about within the not for profit sector, there’s no scarcity.
Robbe Healey: 25:30
No, but I think there’s so many people who believe there’s so many people.
Tycely Williams: 25:34
And to your point about courage, it’s a feeling, it’s a belief, and when those feelings and beliefs are activated in spaces and systems where people coalesce, that creates a culture. It creates a culture where everybody is holding tight because they’re afraid that there isn’t enough to go around. And so I have to fight for what we have versus the recognition that maybe winning is me continuing to have the same viewpoint that I have, but recognizing that the opposing, the different, the varying viewpoint also is able to meet the outcomes I’m trying to achieve.
Robbe Healey: 26:14
I think two words you just used are huge Opposing and varying. Yes, they can have the same outcome, but they have such different meanings. That’s correct, and I think, if you’re one of those people who is a successful change agent, interpreting it as varying, I’m assuming, is probably a better path than convincing someone that they need to change. That’s correct.
Tycely Williams: 26:40
And it goes back to what we were speaking of earlier, subtracting out the judgment good versus bad, because something is Better versus worse, right because something is different, because it varies, it doesn’t make it bad. Now the piece that I think gets to be really complex, that we deal with a lot within the not-for-profit sector Power.
Robbe Healey: 27:06
Well, and I think power and courage and change you can’t separate them. That’s correct. And the development officer typically doesn’t have the power they have the perspective to be able to see what’s needed. That’s right, which is why creating those natural allies becomes the glide path that I think can often lead to success, because we’re all smart enough to know the development officer is not the chief executive. That’s exactly right. And even a chief executive doesn’t have dominion and control over the board, and a board that is fixed in a particular behavior or a staff that’s fixed in a particular behavior, I think, very sadly, can be holding the mission back Absolutely Because they aren’t aware that they’re holding the mission back Absolutely. So how do we flip the switch? Are there things in your professional life that you think are always and I know always is a never word but typically can be more successful and, on the flip side of that, things that rarely have ever worked? Yes, so we’ve got a toolbox of tips. What are the tactics you might consider implementing and the tactics you probably want to shy away from? Do you have a few in your toolbox of each?
Tycely Williams: 28:30
I’m going to center one that I think has been the most useful and productive for me, not only in my professional life but also in my personal life. We started our conversation talking about our shared identities and as we’ve converse, we’ve talked about some varying identities. I think it is important if you want to win in your career, at home, at play, it is important to identify as a lifelong learner. If you are a lifelong learner and, let’s face it, everyone listening to us shares that identity. They’re taking the time to like, step into hearing and learning and growing. But when you identify as a lifelong learner, you’re able to approach someone who has a different in a varying opinion and you say tell me more about that, Help me to understand. You have the courage to center where you’re falling short in the comprehension and you also have the courage To respectfully introduce what your varying opinion is in a way of not changing someone’s mind but reaching an understanding. And sometimes the understanding is to reach an agreement that we’re not going to change our perspectives. But I better understand your reasoning and rationale because your life, your values, your aim for the future you’re creating is different than mine. So I now see and better understand why what may seem as if it’s great for you doesn’t seem so great for me. So identifying as a lifelong learner, I think, is something more often than not. We should always do so other than tell me more yes.
Robbe Healey: 30:32
Are there other turns of phrases that seem to be useful? If you’re trying to draw that out of someone, so I’m imagining that some people have never had the opportunity to share yes. So if you said to one of those people tell me more. And they’re afraid of telling you the truth, yes. Are there ways you can make them less uncomfortable or more confident in your sincere desire to listen? Yes, instead of patronizing.
Tycely Williams: 31:10
You’re introducing two important dynamics within interpersonal connections and at this age I focus on the controllables.
Robbe Healey: 31:22
And for me that goes back to your beginning. For me, I focus, I figure out where your superpowers are.
Tycely Williams: 31:26
Figure out where your superpowers are, and I focus on me, and so I often say to someone I try to model an if-then lens that hopefully they will replicate and reinforce. So an example is I would say you know, Robbe, I want you to better understand why. I reacted the way I did in that meeting. There’s certain beliefs that influence my behavior and because I already know what those personal values are for me, I can say I really value fairness. And in that meeting there was a young woman who just joined the team who was introducing an opinion and before she could complete her sentence, you had stepped in and said we were moving in a different direction. I want you to understand that because I value fairness, I address the issue in the meeting because the offense occurred in the meeting and it made me feel as if we were being unfair to her and unfair to the entire attendees in the meeting, because we didn’t have the privilege to hear from her to weigh in on whether or not her idea was worth considering or in some way incorporating into our solution. So I know you probably feel, as a result of the way that I acted, that maybe I disrespected you or discounted you or made you feel uncomfortable. But it’s important for me to explain and to give you insight on why I behaved the way I did Now. I do that for two reasons. One, I do it because I assume positive intent with people. I assume that most people don’t have awareness for the things that they do. But when I bring something to someone’s attention and I say it really bothers me when you overtly disrespect people by cutting them off, I have a hope that that behavior is not going to repeat and because I am courageous enough to have a candid conversation with you, I am going to continue to be courageous enough to react in a way that I think is appropriate and react in a way that best gives an appropriate centering of my personal values and that at the end of the day, I mean, I don’t really spend a lot of effort and energy on the other person and I also want to go home and I want to be a happy auntie, not internalizing things that go on in an office. And to the point that you made and our dear friend Penelope Burke, she would often talk about what’s going on with resignations. You know, here in the States, when you look at employee tenure, labor just rolled out new statistics. So for men, last year they retained their employment about four years, three months. For women you’re looking at three years, eight months. That says to me you are likely changing careers and with every career, with every employment decision, with every new job, you’re stepping into a new culture and you’re having to activate courage and you’re having to deal with the complexities of people with varying opinions and different ideas. And you can keep yourself sane and better advance the mission and enable yourself to bring in the money If you recognize that winning doesn’t have to come at the expense of someone else losing.
Robbe Healey: 35:21
I think your comments about being able to have a candid conversation with someone whose behavior didn’t move the work forward didn’t support. The healthy culture also requires a reasonably healthy culture. Yes, because you can’t say that in an environment where people are constantly playing gotcha and are ducking cover in every meeting. Yes, so healthy culture goes beyond just mission. It also goes to good working relationships between and among colleagues.
Tycely Williams: 35:54
Yes, and I think that is a wonderful way to center and to put a perfect exclamation point on this exceptional conversation we’ve been having. You have to have enough courage to realize that, even though you may feel powerless, there’s no one more powerful. There’s no one who has control over you. You are the CEO of yourself. You are your own boss. Now here’s where it gets to be complicated and really difficult. We say yes to these opportunities because earning potential is attached. This is a high stakes decision. Very, it isn’t so easy to say you know what, if you’re not in agreement, I’m out of here, I’m going to find another job. The good news is when you reach a place where you feel as if the conditions that you’re trying to influence are not able to be influenced in a way that’s going to create a happy and healthy courage for you. You then devote your effort and energy on exiting, on finding resources that allow you to develop healthy coping mechanisms while you’re there to reflect and give thought on, as I’m beginning to look, what are the signs, what are the characteristics? What am I looking for so that you’re not just saying no to something that isn’t necessarily serving you, but you’re saying yes to something that has a higher potential to serve you and to leave you in a healthier, happier state.
Robbe Healey: 37:34
I think you raise a really good point, because I think, when you feel like it’s not working, if you own the fault, you’re not operating from a position of strength, but what you’re describing is flipping the switch on that. That’s right. So my skills, abilities, talents, superpowers aren’t being used here. How can I create a glide path for myself that allows me to work in a place where the mission is important work and I’m an important part of a team?
Tycely Williams: 38:07
That’s exactly right, because the two M’s that you referenced money, mission and the other piece that I will underscore as meaningful as the money is because it advances the mission, it is not appropriate for us to be a martyr for the mission.
Robbe Healey: 38:31
And, on that note, thank you so much for this conversation. I know the people who are hearing this are probably thinking about two dozen important points that you have made, but you also talked about your journey as a professional and, of course, for each of us that’s very different. For each of us it’s very unique and as we go through different life stages, we have different challenges and different opportunities. And as we continue this series, talking about how we offer our case to donors, how we offer a case that changes the lives of the people who are serving, how we develop cultures that allow us to do our work in a healthy and productive way, having the courage to make it all work is the last piece of the puzzle. So I think you’ve given everyone an opportunity to think about how can I create personal courage that I may not even know I have, not just for my current work, but for me as a life professional. Thank you so much, tysily. Thank you for the opportunity.
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