About Me
My consulting practice is designed to bring a variety of resources to nonprofits, including foundations.

Oak Park, IL 60304
alicecottingham (at) gmail.com


Why do you do that?

I recently facilitated a 2-day staff retreat.  I opened both days with icebreakers and put out a mix of art materials in the middle of the table around which the group sat. 

One of the group asked me why I used games and art supplies.  I was surprised, because I've been in training, retreat, staff, and planning sessions for many years in which icebreakers were always used, and while I first experienced the utility and pleasure of playing with clay and pipe cleaners in a retreat led by Stephanie Clohesy, I've seen art supplies in more and more meetings.  But it was useful to have say why.

Icebreakers help groups ease into what can sometimes be stressful work.  They help raise energy and generate a lightness that is a good place from which to begin to think together.  They can be an opportunity to for those participating to get to know one another -- particularly helpful for newer group members, and to the facilitator.  I also use them to help me get through the start-up jitters, to get a little bit of a read on the group dynamics, and I try to use what I learn about people in other parts of the meeting. 

As to art supplies, I put them out because they have a funny way of helping people think/feel/know what they think and believe, can leaven a heavy moment, and offer something to do in the more boring or anxious parts of a conversation.  They offer distractions without detracting.  Their use is entirely voluntary and some like them more than others.  The person who asked why I brought them was among those most actively using them.



I am so fortunate to have been hired to coach an executive director as she reconsiders the structure, purpose, and values of the nonprofit she founded.  She is thoughtful, creative, and insightful in her medium -- and in her organization.  Strictures that bind many nonprofits are chafing and she is considering how to best loosen the bonds, if not cast them off altogether .

Coaching in this instance consists of my listening deeply, asking questions, and reflecting themes, contradictions, and overlaps.  I also tap my own experiences with and observations of nonprofit organizations and leaders, and organizational and leadership development over time.  Homework consists of writing to go deeper about a subject raised in a session, development of an image to clarify a thought, or a trial of new behavior or practice. 


4 insider suggestions from a proposal reviewer

#4: Please don't say the work of your organization is unique, unless it truly is.  Chances are it's not, and most the time that's fine.  Of course if you work for Totally New All the Time, yours might be an exception.

#3: Break it down for the non-expert.  Having your proposal reviewed by someone who is not an expert in your field can be a big advantage, because you're getting a fresh pair of eyes.  But it becomes a downside if you've used insider jargon and acronyms and assumed your reader knows important policy context and history.  Some reviewers can handle the time-consuming and possibly humbling experience of having to ask a hundred questions about definitions and the implications of what you propose. Others cannot, and that could mean your apparently impenetrable proposal is dinged early on.

#2: Funders like to see cooperation among groups with allied missions and working in similar or overlapping communities.  Tell the reader how you play well with others.  If you don't, change.

#1: Does your budget tell the same story as your narrative?  You might be surprised how often it does not.  Some readers begin with the financials.


Why working for several clients at once is to everyone's advantage

Working for myself is still new enough that I want to make note of what works and what doesn't.  Working for several clients at once works because thinking about several challenges on parallel tracks results in a kind of cross-pollination of ideas and insights.  Taking a break from one project by thinking of another assignment diverts my conscious attention from a problem I'm stuck on, allowing new ideas and options to sidle in sideways.  Figuring out one puzzle opens doors to others.  I don't know why creativity begets creativity, but it does, and it's much easier and often downright fun to generate from several sources.


The value of reflective conversation

One of the hardest parts of being a staff leader of a nonprofit is the challenge of finding good listeners with good questions at those times when the right thing to do next is far from clear.  Many executive directors believe they should not share those moments with those they supervise.  I disagree.  Assuming you have clear boundaries and aren't asking others to do your job for you, letting others in on what you're grappling with can be liberating and fruitful.  This doesn't mean you have to ask for the answers.  In fact, asking for a good ear and for reflection about what you've said often does the trick.  That it encourages learning throughout the organization is a very good thing.

Other good listeners?  Trusted colleagues, a performance coach, and my family social worker are all options I've used with happy results.

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