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April 1, 2015
Break Free: The Big Payoff from Kicking the Habit
By Melanie Lockwood Herman
Nonprofit leaders are guided and inspired by the missions and values of the organizations they serve when they are called on to balance risk and reward in programming. And when it comes to the toughest choices, most leaders go with their gut. But what if your gut is leading you astray? Without realizing it, decisions about what risks to avoid, embrace or work-around may be influenced first and foremost by intrinsic beliefs, habits and dangerous assumptions.


Everyone holds certain beliefs about the world, including perhaps, that one type of fizzy soft drink is obviously better than another. And although some of us boast about being risk takers and drawn to experimentation and trying new things, humans are creatures of habit. However, when intrinsic beliefs and habits affect workplace decisions, from hiring help to heating the office, you might want to review your behaviors and check your assumptions and habits at the door.

Risky Habits and Erroneous Assumptions
Stop Judging People Based on How They Appear - While packing for a trip I asked my daughter if she thought anyone would notice that one of my boots was a bit scuffed up. "Should I pack something else?" I asked. She replied: "I don't think anyone notices footwear on old people." After realizing that her reference to "old people" meant me (!), I pondered her theory that people don't notice what you're wearing or the condition of your shoes. I'm not sure that's true. Although we've been told over and over not to "judge a book by its cover," many nonprofit leaders are guilty of making snap and erroneous judgements about someone's competence based on what they look like.
Turn up the Heat! - As nonprofit offices across the country thaw out from this winter's record-setting low temps, disputes about the office thermostat are finally on the decline. Since I've always assumed that being a bit chilly is conducive to critical thinking, I used my executive veto power this winter to keep our office temp at a refreshing 65 degrees. Yet according to a study shared by one of my bundled up colleagues, warmer workers make fewer typing errors and are generally more productive! (See: "Warm offices linked to fewer typing errors, higher productivity," Cornell Chronicle.) Oh dear. 
Stop Coveting Your Neighbor's Framework - One of the most prevailing assumptions related to risk management practice is that "editing" another nonprofit's risk management framework, system or policy is faster than creating something from scratch. During the Center's 25-year history our team has reviewed countless examples of ill-fitting frameworks and policies. One of our favorite examples is a ten-page policy on absenteeism for a religious nonprofit with fewer than 10 employees. Cut and paste gone very, very wrong.
Focus on Tomorrow, Not YesteryearWhen I was a child I vowed that I would never begin a sentence with "when I was your age..." But I've broken my vow countless times during arguments with my teenage daughter. The problem with dispensing advice based on a foggy memory of the past is twofold: first, our brains often remember things in a way that suits our current needs or wants. Second, although there's nothing wrong with nostalgia, yesterday's problem-solving strategy is likely to be a poor fit for today's reality.
Inspire LearningOne of the most common, but risky assumptions in the workplace is that to perform a job well you need prior experience doing something similar. I recently encountered this assumption while working on a screening process for a client. My client expressed his preference for candidates with similar experience in a similar agency. While I understood the risk-averse logic of that view, I pushed back: isn't it possible that hiring the most creative, brilliant applicant is preferable to hiring someone who's been there and done that? And what about the incredible satisfaction of watching a colleague take on a new, complex project and perform well above your expectations! There are few experiences as satisfying for a manager.

Since unveiling the new website for our 2015 Risk Summit, we've received numerous inquiries about the program. Several callers have asked: "When will the final program be in place?" We recognize the sentiment behind those calls: it's customary to peruse a detailed conference agenda before deciding to attend. We're taking a counterintuitive approach this year, consistent with our determination to challenge our most familiar habits. Instead of waiting to unveil the full program, we're posting additions to the program each week. We invite you to join us for what we promise will be a thought-provoking, entertaining, and thoroughly worthwhile 2.5 days of learning this September 20-22, 2015 at the Hard Rock Chicago.

Melanie Herman is Executive Director at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your questions about risk topics or the services available from the Center. Melanie can be reached at 703.777.3504 or melanie@nonprofitrisk.org.


Exposed: A Legal Field Guide for Nonprofit Executives.The newly released second edition of Exposed offers practical advice about a variety of legal risks facing nonprofits today.


Staff Screening Notebook. Use this easy 10-step guide to screening to find the best staff for open positions at your nonprofit. Find the staff your mission deserves!


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