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“Learn to Live with Ambiguity” Still Good Advice in 2022

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits


I had the great pleasure of having lunch recently with Margaret Lynn Duggar and Kelly Otte. We had not met in person in quite some time, and it was wonderful to be back together talking a mile a minute about our shared work with nonprofits, current issues, and so much more.

It reminded me of the column we ran in 2015 in which we asked Margaret Lynn to share her wisdom, experience, and insights about nonprofits. When we asked for her best advice to nonprofit leaders, Margaret Lynn said “learn to live with ambiguity.”

We have certainly had our share of that in the past two years! Here’s a look back at the column which still resonates in 2022. 

Interview with Margaret Lynn Duggar

For over 40 years, Margaret Lynn has been a visionary leader and thinker. Her work has significantly impacted Tallahassee, the state, and nation. She launched Meals on Wheels in Tallahassee, is the founding ED for the Area Agency on Aging for North Florida, a former ED of Elder Care Services, and former state Director for Aging and Adult Services under Governors Bob Graham and Bob Martinez.

Since 1989, she has led a thriving consulting firm, that in addition to many other things, specializes in staffing statewide and national nonprofit organizations and associations. 

Alyce Lee:  When you talk with Margaret Lynn, you soon realize something meaningful is going to come from the conversation. In my case, what started in 2010 as an informal chat about why some nonprofits were failing and closing their doors, grew to a larger conversation with more colleagues. This led to the spark that ultimately resulted in the Institute for Nonprofit Innovation and Excellence. She has dedicated her life to improving lives and communities, in large part, by strengthening nonprofit organizations. 

Kelly: I will always credit Margaret Lynn with giving me one of my most important professional wake-up calls. 15 or so years ago, as a consultant working with my Board, she candidly gave me feedback that my board was never going to be high-performing unless I became high performing in my work with them.  After I put away my pouty face, I started working to be exactly the kind of ED she said I needed to be. It’s a delight to share some of her pearls of wisdom with you.

Q. How did you get started in the nonprofit sector?

A. Through the heart of the nonprofit world: volunteering. My mother and I were watching the development of Meals on Wheels in late 1972 to volunteer to deliver meals. I saw in the Democrat they were looking for a director and applied. A wonderful board took a chance on a 27-year-old novice.

Q. Why have you dedicated your professional life to helping nonprofits thrive?

A. I own a for-profit company; I held a high-level position in Governor Graham’s administration. I’ve found that really high-performing nonprofits blend the best of those two sectors, along with missions focused on service to others, board and staff focused on mission and the obligation to donors and funders to fulfill the mission. Because of this, I believe nonprofits have the greatest potential to improve the lives of our communities and our citizens.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge facing nonprofit Board Presidents? What can help them be more successful in moving an organization forward?

A. Engaging the right board members to donate their best knowledge and skills to the organization and leading the organization to utilize those skills and knowledge to best advantage. Presidents often get caught in the traps of their own responsibilities, agendas, issues/crisis du jour, routine business, and topics instead of the strategic ones that will position the organization for the future.
Over several years I interviewed many board members of local and statewide organizations asking to what extent they felt the time and talents they had to offer to their Board positon were utilized. Responses ranged from 20% to 92%. When asked why they were not better utilized, the consistent response was “No one asked me.” My follow up question was, “Would you have done more if asked?” Almost all said yes.

Q. What are some of the innovative ideas you have seen implemented by nonprofits in other communities?

A. Collaboration across sectors: joint fundraising, like a joint golf tournament which expands the donor base and the work; sharing resources e.g., a child-care agency offers child-care slots to an agency teaching unemployed persons job skills or to eligible parents working in low wage jobs in another agency; organizing seniors who need to exercise to walk the dogs from the animal shelter, called Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound. And the ultimate collaboration: mergers!

Q. What role are funders playing in working with nonprofits to address community needs?

A. Some foundations are leading by planning, then targeting new funding opportunities toward the futures they see. Others are funding planning and other critical activities within a nonprofit. Some are funding advocacy and leadership development, even for boards. Many are assessing their internal operations, asking grantees for feedback about their experiences with the foundation.

Q. What’s the most important thing nonprofit leaders should be doing now to help their organization succeed in the future?

A. 1) Planning and 2) Building a secure financial future for your organization.

Q. What’s your advice to the next generation of nonprofit leaders?

A. Learn how to enjoy living with ambiguity. Love change. Grow to be a highly successful expert in all avenues of fundraising. Understand all aspects of politics and be really good at it – on all levels, even in the Board room. Develop excellent skills at board relationships (after all, this board is your boss!). Save for retirement from Day 1.

Notes on Nonprofits is a column in the Tallahassee Democrat produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and includes resources, responses to reader questions, guest columns, and timeless topics. This column first appeared on Sunday, February 27, 2022. Please send your comments and questions to notesonnonprofits@gmail.com.

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