What is leadership with Janice Cunning

Episode aired Feb. 24, 2021: What Is Leadership

Janice Cunning of Fundraising Leadership is an expert in nonprofit leadership development. Leadership is more than the money you raise. In this episode Janice discusses

  • 3 ways to encourage staff to provide honest feedback 
  • what a commitment to vulnerability is  
  • how to turn every staff member into a fundraiser
  • how to fix a common toxic workplace issue and
  • what’s more important than how much money you raised.  

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit and fundraising specialist, Janice Cunning. Janice, how you doing today?

Janice: I’m great. It’s so nice to be here with you on the podcast.

Ephraim: Thank you for being here. Let me introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Janice Cunning is an experienced fundraising consultant and certified coach, who specializes in nonprofit leadership development. As a coach, Janice is passionate about partnering with fundraisers to help them create an inspired vision that transforms lives. In addition to her coaching work, Janice loves working with teams and facilitates online and on-site workshops. Janice combines her coaching skills with 17 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. She was previously a senior consultant at KCI, Canada’s largest fundraising consulting firm. Janice lives in downtown Toronto. She loves to read and most winter weekends you will find her skating by the lake.

Manager vs. Leader

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss ‘everybody wants to rule the world… but can they?’ Let’s dive right in. Janice, what’s the difference between a manager and a leader and how does that difference affect the overall office environment?

Janice: Well I love that question and I’m going to add one more category that we tend to think about. So we tend to, in a lot of our training courses, talk about being a manager, being a leader and then being a coach. So I think it’s sort of the classic idea as a leader, it’s really much more about the vision. You’re asking what’s needed, what’s the right thing to do and setting a vision not only for yourself and your team but actually the organization as a whole.

And then I think managers are the ones who actually make sure things get done right. They’re sort of setting the plans and monitoring progress.

And then we like to bring in this idea of also wearing your coach hat. So that could be like you’re championing the team, like you’re the person who really makes people believe they can do more than they think they can, which I have had some amazing bosses who’ve done that for me in the past. It’s the person who asks me questions, who acknowledges your strengths, who gives you feedback and so I think what’s important and the way we like to think about it is, it’s very fluid.  It’s not necessarily that you have to think about yourself like I am a manager and so I don’t… I don’t have to worry about vision. We think of it more like hats, right? You have to put on these different hats and it’s the more I think we can wear the coach hat, the more success organizations have. But at the same time, there are times when you really need to manage because something needs to get done. 

Everyone’s A Fundraiser

Ephraim: Yes, absolutely. So fundraisers often find themselves in a silo. They’re the only ones taking care of and doing the asking. It’s all on their shoulders. How can they encourage the rest of the staff to become involved?

Janice: I was talking to my business partner, Margaret Katz Cann, who’s the person on our team who kind of works the most with sort of small and mid-sized charities and herself was an executive director in the past. She was talking about… it’s sort of this… she used the analogy like maybe you hire a janitor and you think that’s the person who cleans, so nobody else has to clean, right? Which is ridiculous. We all have to clean our coffee cups. So in some ways I think that’s kind of a fun analogy. This idea like oh phew, we hired a fundraiser. That’s 100% of their job. The rest of us are off the hook and that can be colleagues and staff but also the Board.

So she was talking about… she likes to frame it as really helping people to become an ambassador. At a very minimum they should be able to talk passionately and well about the organization and its mission. She had this great story that happened during her career where their front desk receptionist was just sort of making small talk with this very sweet older man who was waiting for his daughter who was visiting you another organization within their building and she started talking about what they do and he was really interested and they ended up getting a ten-thousand-dollar unrestricted gift from that person, just because that staff member actually was able to talk with that passion. So I think that’s a great story and so I often think that stories are the way to build that. Tell those stories at your staff meetings, make sure that you have retreats where literally every person is invited and you’re talking about your organization’s story and every time something successful like that happens, just build on it. And then I think people will start to see that fundraising isn’t the scary thing but it’s really just relationships and talking to people which most people like.

Encouraging Feedback

Ephraim: Yes, absolutely. Speaking of all staff and today’s actionable item, because of the hierarchy issue, it can be difficult for staff to give feedback to senior managers. Please tell us three ways C-level executives can encourage lower-level staff to provide honest and timely feedback, i.e create a culture of accountability.

Janice: Number one, if you haven’t read ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott, get that book and read it. It’s the book I probably most recommend. Pretty much every coaching client that I work with, I tell them to read that book. And that book is really about many things but a big piece of it is this idea of creating a culture of radical candor. We are being very honest but we’re doing it from a place where we really care about people. It’s a very human way of thinking about feedback. So I think that book is a great primer.

I think the second thing is when you want to create a culture of feedback and accountability, you actually have to start by asking for feedback. Sometimes I think leaders make a mistake where they start going around and giving feedback and it can be intimidating for people. And one thing I often say to my leaders that I’m coaching is ask something very specific, like what is one thing that I could do differently that would make your job easier. Because if you just say ‘do you have any feedback?’ like you’ve probably been asked that and you’re like no, everything’s great. So I think that some kind of question where it’s, I need you to give me one thing that I can do differently. 

And then I think the third thing I would say is whatever you get- because often it’s very tentative and small at the beginning- be excited about it. Really appreciate the person for giving that think about it and then as much as you can, try to actually make a concrete change and make sure the person sees that loop. Okay, they actually were open to listening to me, they took it seriously and something changed and I think it will be baby steps and then you’ll get to the point where people will be willing to say things that are a little bit more candid.

Ephraim: Excellent. I like all three of those but that third one really speaks to me in terms of letting people feel good that change happened, because they actually spoke up. 

Janice: Yeah. The worst thing is if you get feedback and you try to justify yourself, you’ll never get feedback again.

Toxic Workplace

Ephraim: Absolutely. You’ve been coaching and training nonprofit teams for many years. What’s the most common toxic workplace characteristic that you see and how can it be fixed?

 Janice: I think for me it’s maybe not the most toxic but I think it’s so common that I want to talk about it is I think that there’s the squeeze between once you become a leader as a fundraiser, between still having to raise a lot of money and having your own donors and being a leader. I think what happens I see a lot is many organizations do not prioritize good leadership. All of the kind of measurements and how you’re doing and being rewarded are really more about your Board, volunteer and donor relationship.

So I see a lot of people come to me for coaching and sometimes they’re being sponsored, that’s the ultimate, by their organization but sometimes they’re personally paying which is a big investment they’re making and they do that because they see that this is such a problem. If you’re not a good leader, you’re not going to be getting the most out of your team and it can be seductive when you’re good at fundraising and enjoy it to kind of spend your time there but you actually have to pull back and say I need to learn how to… like we talked about at the beginning, like set a vision, I need to understand my values. What do I actually value as a leader? How do I want to show up? I need to help other people set goals and achieve them and I need to build this culture of trust. I think so much of leadership really is about building a culture. Like you said earlier, nobody’s going to give you feedback if there’s not trust. People are not going to be accountable if there’s not trust and they’re not going to get through hard times if there isn’t trust. So I think it’s not so much like maybe the most toxic but like I said, the most common thing is how do I actually devote time to being a great leader which takes time, especially when you haven’t done it before. 

Commitment To Vulnerability

Ephraim: Absolutely. So on your company website, fundraisingleadership.org you talk about building team trust. We both know about the immense pressures of working at a nonprofit and how difficult cohesiveness can be to achieve. How do you define or what is a ‘commitment to vulnerability’ and how does that connect to team trust?  

Janice: So I’m going to circle back to what I started with, which is that idea of wearing that coach hat. I think that wearing a coach hat is a natural way to kind of create that vulnerability for yourself, because instead of being the expert, which again that’s a hard transition, because that’s often why you got promoted, because you have this expertise, it’s putting on that coach head and saying, You know, I’m gonna ask more questions. I’m going to admit when I don’t have an answer or I’m going to say I have an idea but I want to hear more ideas and so I think that’s a big piece of it.

I also think the other piece of being committed to vulnerability is being hyper aware of your own emotions as a leader, being willing to name things and encouraging your team to name things, like just as you know, I’m feeling some sense of frustration because we’re not moving forward here, because I think for many years and this is hopefully and thankfully changing, people felt like if I was frustrated, I’ll just pretend I’m not frustrated. Well human beings feel other people’s emotions. There’s so much research about that. So I think it’s both of those things, it’s kind of letting go of the expert hat, asking more questions and it’s also being willing to kind of talk about how you’re feeling. And I think last year was, in 2020, it was sort of like a lot of people got an opportunity to see people’s children and I was telling you right before, my husband had to take my dog out. So we just rescued a dog and she’s unpredictable, right? So we’re all getting a little bit more comfortable admitting to people the circumstances, which is a good thing.  

Let’s Learn More About Janice

Ephraim: Very good thing. Excellent. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Janice: So I have a master’s degree in Library Science and when I graduated, there were no jobs in the library world really and so I heard this… somebody actually said to me like oh, there’s this person at the University of Toronto hiring a whole bunch of library graduates. I started in prospect research and then I went into consulting which I loved. I did that for almost 10 years and I think that to me kind of made that transition to coaching because consulting is all about building relationships and rapport with people and that kind of fed my soul. Like I’m a much more… as a prospect researcher I enjoyed the work but I loved relationships with people, so consulting suited me much more.

Ephraim: Quick follow-up. How do you define library science?

Janice: It’s funny because I was actually the last year of the library science program which is a master’s degree that you need to actually technically be a librarian. Now it’s called… it’s a master of information, so it’s much more technology based. But I learned cataloging and rare books and all sorts of people grew up with using libraries.

Ephraim: Yes. If there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?  

Janice: So it’s similar to what I said earlier. If I had a magic wand, I would put as much or perhaps more emphasis on leadership as dollars raised. I think how you raise money is even more important than how much. So that’s what I would change.

Ephraim: I like that line. That’s excellent. Favorite thing about living in Toronto? 

Janice: Toronto is a city of neighborhoods and that’s not just like a marketing thing. It really is. So I love that. I love walking. I walk everywhere and I love that everything is in my neighborhood but I love that it’s a big city. We have lots of culture, great restaurants and diversity and all sorts of things that big cities have but you can still randomly run into people you know. It’s kind of like… it’s very like Chicago to me. That’s my favorite city in America and Toronto to me is very similar.

Ephraim: Cool. You love to read and talk about books. What’s a favorite book from your childhood?

Janice: So my mom read Little House on the Prairie, the whole series, to me so many times that when I read it as an adult, I really remember especially the earlier books and I am very minimalist but what… pretty much the only thing I have from my childhood is actually the box set of the paperbacks. My mom I think… I love reading and that comes from her but I also think that it’s more that she always gave herself time to do that thing that she loved and that gave me permission to kind of grow up thinking it’s okay to take time for things you love.  

Ephraim: Excellent. I think I might know the answer to this question. If you weren’t working in the nonprofit sector, what would be your profession?

Janice: Well I think that if things had been different, I would have been an academic librarian but I feel quite grateful the older I get. I was always a planner, like especially when I was younger. I had my whole life mapped out and then many things happened personally and professionally that derailed me and I realized the power of those circumstances where different things happen. But I gotta say that I loved being a prospect researcher, I loved being a consultant and now I love being a coach and so I’m glad that nowadays we don’t have to choose one path and stick with it.  

Ephraim: It’s good to find the things you love doing and then to be able to do them. That’s great. Last question. Let’s turn the tables. You get to ask me a surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Janice: So this is a question that we often use as an icebreaker in our workshops, because it’s a fun question but it does start to build trust and rapport with people and so the question is: Tell me one activity that you loved to do when you were a child?

Ephraim: Oh man, okay. So going back like a gazillion years, when I was a child… I grew up in a very small town in Connecticut and we had a large backyard and we had a large front yard and it was in the 70s when your parents weren’t wondering where you’re going. They just said you have to be home for dinner by five and that was the only… and myself and certainly my younger siblings, because I’m the oldest of six, we figured out things to do, activities to do on our own. We didn’t come to my parents and say, what can we do now and we’re bored. There was none of that. So activities… what I did as a kid? I mean I loved sports and so I loved playing all sports. Bike riding was a big one. We rode without helmets. I know that’s not safe but, you know, it was the 70s people.

Janice: I know.  

Ephraim: That’s what it was. My parents surprised me for my sixth birthday with the red shiny bike that I wanted. They taught me how to ride it and then I lived on a very quiet street. I had the street to myself and there were bumps in the streets, so you could do wheelies and all kinds of fun. And then it was just playing in the backyard. We had a swing set back there. My mom also planted a garden, so I spent time helping her with the garden and if I remember correctly, my parents remind me every now and then that had an imaginary friend who was a horse named Fred and I used to play with Fred in the backyard. So that’s how I occupied my time. 

Janice: See? I feel like so much more connected to you. That’s the beauty of that question because I also was a kid of the 70s. I was born right at the end of 69 like the bike riding, the freedom and I had an imaginary friend who was a bear.

 Ephraim: There you go!

Janice: Who I think is called Bear, to be honest. That’s why I love that question because inevitably what happens if you do it with a team is people say, I didn’t know that about you or it’s funny how sometimes you can see what somebody loved to do as a kid is still so evident in how they show up at work. So it’s a really fun question to kick off a team staff meeting.

 Ephraim: Oh man, I love that. I always loved bringing up childhood memories, so thank you for that question because now I’m just smiling from the thought of what we used to have way back when, all those years ago. Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about Janice’s coaching and consulting work at fundraisingleadership.org  Janice, thank you very very much.

Janice: Thank you. It was fun.

Ephraim: Thank you. Have a good day.