I met Lynn in 2007 after having just moved to San Francisco for a relationship that fell apart pretty much on arrival. With almost no money, and an unpaid internship at a marketing agency, he rented me his spare room in his downtown apartment for way below market value. Living with Lynn was a formative experience in many ways; he introduced me to Myers Briggs, helped me begin to accept and understand myself, and taught me the importance of thinking about the impact one wants to have in life. He could also make a killer Dry Martini. We spoke on a Friday in early May, he in his San Francisco office, and I in my London bedroom.
Lynn is a man with an impressive resume who always seems to be involved in multiple projects at the same time, so I started by asking what he is focusing on right now?
“I currently spend two days a week as Chief Development & Strategy Officer for The Bread Project, which helps unemployed and low-income people in the San Francisco Bay Area gain the skills they need to go into professional baking, restaurants, or in some instances start their own baking related businesses. I also facilitate retreats for Board of Directors and senior non-profit teams to help them ‘sing from the same hymnal’; get them on the same page, to understand this is who we are, this is who we serve, this is how we can have the greatest impact.”
He also spends considerable amount of time on pro-bono work. Four years ago, he became involved in Rotary, taking the lead in the club’s Rotary Youth Leadership Awards and doubling the number of attendees at the yearly three-day camp to over 250 people.
“We focus on helping youth gain confidence and self-esteem, understand that there is not one kind of leader, that everyone can be a leader. We coach them in team work and giving honest feedback through a framework from The Leadership Challenge, which distils research into who we follow and what we respect in leaders. It essentially boils down to five things: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act and Encourage the Heart. So we are giving them this framework, which James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner developed, that they can use now and throughout their career.”
Lynn became interested in the non-profit sector in the mid-80s when he started to take positions on boards and realised there was nothing to read about the sector. He reached out to his boss Allen Jossey-Bass, the then CEO of Jossey Bass publishers, and told him that there were 400,000 non-profits in the US but no literature on leadership, strategy, governance, fundraising etc. This gave Lynn the opportunity to research a field that by 2015 had ballooned to 1,4 million organisations in the US.
“There has been an explosion and I would say that too many of them have sprung up. If people see a need they often don’t look around to see if someone is already servicing that community. When something like Covid-19 comes along it’s going to flush out a number of organisations, where they either need to merge with another organisation or close their doors. We are going to see some who are really getting laser-focused on what they do and why they do it. Resilience is key. We cannot teach people to bake and work shoulder to shoulder in our Bread Project, so our pivot is to raise additional funds to support our graduates -- we’ve educated 2000 in the last 20 years -- and many have lost their jobs. So resilience and pivots will be key and since our funders see that we are addressing the impact of Covid-19 they are much more understanding than if we would say that we can’t do anything because of this situation.”
The non-profit sector as a whole has matured significantly, and one result is the importance of the bottom line.
“When I went to meetings in the 80s the bottom line was that you are doing God’s work and you get a pat on the head. Today the bottom line is IMPACT. You have to articulate, very sharply, who your target population is and how their lives will be changed by the service you are offering. There has been a huge shift toward measurable outcomes and the current generation of donors are very savvy.”
With the sector focusing more on impact, partnerships have become more important, and Lynn believes Covid-19 will accelerate this trend.
“Non-profits used to go at it alone, but you increasingly need partners to have an impact. Looking at The Bread Project we can train people through our 4-week, 130-hour bakery bootcamp, but some of them are borderline homeless, so we partner with an organisation that can help with that. Some of them have health issues or disabilities, so we partner with organisations that can help with that, so we have a bit of a wraparound service if you will. The younger generation understands this more than people my age. I’ve advised organisations that have been run by the founder for 20 years and it can be a real shit show because the board has typically been populated by friends of the founder and there are set ways of working.”
As with many other sectors, diversity & inclusion is increasingly being recognised as key to effectively serve communities.
“We never talked about social equity in the 80s but there is a huge focus on race and justice now. Part of the idea is that the board of directors and staff of a non-profit will have more impact if they look like the community they serve. It’s been a struggle to get there, one board I was working with was all white for a long time and maybe 5-7% of those they served were white. So that is another major shift, instead of doing something ‘to’ or ‘for’ a population it’s doing ‘with’. The whole principle of co-creation, so it isn’t just white folk coming in saying we will help you.
Lynn returns to the importance of pivoting several times during our conversation, but how is he taking his own advice?
“I’m toying with the question if I have one more major CEO-ship in me. Or a major role in a foundation. I’ve been looking into philanthropic advising to help wealthy people who have an idea of the impact they want but don’t know which organisations would have the most impact. So that interests me. I enjoy what I do, but I probably have one more major thing in me.”
Before we hang up, Lynn shares a thought from one of his mentors, which encapsulates both the idea of The weak ties project, and his own career approach.
“The key is to make a mesh of things”, interdependence and interrelationships are important, to have an impact you need to make a mesh of things.”