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We're not changing for the sake of change. We're changing because we wanna do something different or grow or improve.” - Ashley Fontaine

get unstuck with Ashley Fontaine

We’ll all be there - stuck! In a rut. Bored. Trapped.

It feels like this is just part of the nonprofit experience. But this can be hurting our missions. And ourselves. In today’s episode, Ashley Fontaine, founder of Flux AF Consulting shares with us how she is helping nonprofits navigate getting “unstuck” by building skills, improving leadership, and avoiding burnout.


  • The story behind her upcoming book “Unstuck: Disrupting the Status Quo”

  • The dichotomy of change and status quo bias

  • Power and influence of nonprofit leaders

  • Values-based leadership for creating change

Resources Mentioned In This Episode:

Connect with Ashley:


[00:00:00] Cindy: Hello and welcome to the podcast! I don't know about you, but one of my pet peeves in our sector, really anywhere, is when people say that's just the way we've always done things, and this is really common. And if you've read my book, Raise It: The Reluctant Fundraiser’s Guide to Raising Money, you know that I talk about status quo bias.

[00:00:27] But we're not here today to talk about my book. We are actually gonna talk about how this shows up outside of fundraising for our organizations and really how we can get moving through change. Because if we've learned anything it's that things are changing constantly. Some big changes, some little ones, but we have to be in control of how we change in order to be successful.

[00:01:08] I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and you're listening to the Small Nonprofit Podcast where we bring you practical down to earth advice on how to get more done for your small organization. You are going to change the world we're here to help.

And today's guest is Ashley Fontaine, who is the founder of Flux AF Consulting and she helps nonprofits do their work differently. She spent her whole career in the sector, started her own business because she was really burnt out and her nickname is 'Smash' which I love because it's a beautiful remnant of growing up. It was her father's nickname for her and it stuck through her professional life, which is just a lovely little snippet that made me smile. So I thought it would you too, but mostly what I love is she said we have the power to change things, and really we're gonna be talking about that today that we are in control, not of over, over everything, but we have spheres of control that with are within our power and influence. And of course I would be reluctant if I don't mention that Smash is also the author of Unstuck; disrupting the Status Quo, which we are going to dive into.

[00:02:34] So Ashley Smash, welcome to the podcast.

[00:02:38] Ashley: Hi, thanks for having me.

[00:02:40] Cindy: I am obsessed even just with the title of your book. I think this is such an important conversation we need to be having. What is, give us the origin story like, tell me about why this book needed to be written.

[00:02:58] Ashley: Yeah. It's funny cuz I had a different idea of what I thought I was gonna be writing about and then it unfolded in a different direction when I started at first because I left the sector as an executive director due to burnout and really needed a break. I thought I was gonna be focused more on burnout and as I started writing it and thinking about it and the way my own brain works,

[00:03:18] It really went in another direction. It became much more about, how do we ask strategic questions and how there are certain things that I do in my work where people are like, wow, how do you, how did you figure that out? Or how did you know that? And it's I realized there are certain things that I am particularly good at that are not just the way that everyone's brains work

[00:03:37] And so when something comes to you naturally, it's very easy to take it for granted and assume that other people also think the same way, right? That's part of our cognitive biases. And so I thought to myself, how can I take some of the things that I have found most useful in my own leadership and kind of turn it into a guide so that other people can learn this particular skill. Because at the end of the day, those are skills that we can all learn and cultivate for ourselves.

[00:04:03] Cindy: Yeah. And you learned on this journey of writing the book that we all get stuck, that it's actually a universal experience based on our biology and science. Tell us a little bit about status quo bias, and what really stuck with you in your research for the book?

[00:04:26] Ashley: Yeah. I think one of the things that I find really interesting in that is a push pull, if you will, is this concept of status quo bias. And, we are wired to look for security and to keep things the same. And also my also shared pet peeve of, oh, we've just always done it that way. That's just the way it is sometimes, even trying to confront that particular habit can feel disruptive for people, right? And so we are naturally seeking like safety, stability, security. We wanna know what's gonna happen to us.

[00:05:04] And at the same time, there are lots of things in this world that many of us would like to change. And so already those two things are at odds, right? Just from a basic like survival and human brain wiring perspective. Dichotomy kind of, and the push pull between those two things is something that really stuck with me as I was researching and doing some of the initial writing for this book and thinking about, okay, so if we are trying to create change, how do we do that in ways where people feel like they're part of that change and not like change is being done to them.

[00:05:39] Cindy: There's so many examples of change all around us these days that are happening to us, that on a good day, it feels deeply challenging to our core . But these days I think we have a lot less tolerance for that. So how do we start to look at, where do we change? How do we change? Obviously there's something specific we're looking to change. We're not changing for the sake of change. We're changing because we wanna do something different or grow or improve. But often, and I hear this a lot from people in our sector, they feel like they have no influence. So how do we start to move forward feeling like we don't have influence or power.

[00:06:31] Ashley: Yeah. So this is the other thing that was one of the inspirations of the book. And sometimes there are so many, it's easy to forget. Some of them when someone asks I've been a volunteer moderator. For executive director, happy hour for a number of years at this point, which if, Lule, who writes nonprofit AF those groups were started by him.

[00:06:51] Originally, there used to be in person things, pre pandemic, and now, this online Facebook group has over 8,000 nonprofit leaders in it. And one of the things that I see happen over and over again is people sharing things where it's oh, I'm having this particular challenge. And for whatever reason have totally let go of the power they have in the situation, when you're the executive director of a nonprofit, like you are the leader of that organization. And so when you, as a leader, Are behaving as if you are disempowered and have no influence at all. Imagine how that kind of unfurls for the other people in your organization. Because it's simp, it's simply not true.

[00:07:29] First of all, like that is not, your feelings are not facts. And so the feeling that you don't have any power over what happens in your organization is not a factually correct. Feeling right. And I feel like we talk a lot about oh, validate feelings and yes, feelings are data and they are very important and not every feeling is a fact oh, love and love. That is something that has all of us to embrace that and really monitor oh, am I have a post. I write about this in the book. Actually, I have a posted note on my monitor. I come from a mental health background. I've seen my therapist for a number of years. And one of the things she taught me to ask myself is what are the facts.

[00:08:07] And so that's something that I personally practice and I also teach other people to practice because sometimes our feelings about a thing can run away with us.

[00:08:15] Cindy: Yeah. Oh, that, that is such, such a good starting point. I in my sort of coaching education, we always talk about the situation. That's the fact, and it has to be observable. Yeah, someone a fly on the wall should be able to see what's happening and if they can't see it, it's probably your thoughts or emotions or beliefs, but it's probably not fact. So I think that is I think we often forget how our own self talk influences our outcomes and it takes us back to that idea of what are we in control of? What do we have power over?

[00:09:03] Ashley: Yeah. And this idea of influence. So that's not to say, I think change can be difficult, right? Period. Like it just is . And I think sometimes when we feel stuck or things are really frustrating, it's hard to think creatively about other ways that you can move forward. And that's also a cognitive bias, right? The binary bias where things are black and white. Yes and no. And that's one of the things I talk a lot about in coaching is if you're looking at something that is a decision you need to make, and there are only two choices in front of you, it's very likely that you have fallen into this binary thinking trap, where it’s like either A or B and I can't C or think of any other potential opportunities in front of me and that, when you ask so how do we move forward? I think that is really the power of coaching often, right? Is that, and also mental health services. Like you have this other person to reflect things back to you and give you different ways of thinking about something and like looking at it from a different viewpoint.

[00:10:02] Cindy: So I wanna step back or go back a little bit. We talked about your sphere of influence that it's not true, that you have no influence or power that, sometimes those are the stories we tell ourselves, how do we become aware of that? Or how do we start to define where we can start to make change?

[00:10:26] Ashley: So I think a lot of this comes down to relationships, right? And when I think of a place like executive director happy hour or other places where you have peers or a mentor or something like that, like those are really good places to get some of that outside perspective.

[00:10:41] This question makes me think of when I was an executive director. One of the first times we had applied for a grant and they had responded and were gonna come to our office, building to do a site visit and see the place and meet some of our staff. Great. For the first time I looked around the office as if I had never worked inside of it before put myself in the thunder's shoes to prepare, to tidy things up and make sure everything's welcoming for them.

[00:11:07] And there were so many things that I literally, my brain on a daily basis just would glaze over. Yeah, I've never noticed, this janky whole punch, like thing in the front room or, whatever the thing is. And so when it's our, when it's our regular day to day, it's very easy for some of the details to blend into the background, but putting yourself in that perspective of, oh, if I'm, if I was pretending to be somebody else and looking at this thing with fresh eyes, like where would I start? That strategy can work really well.

[00:11:37] Cindy: I love that. I wanna talk a little bit about questions and strategy, because I think that's also, sometimes we are so resistant to change and sometimes we're so quick to change. Once, once we make that decision, sometimes we act too quickly. And I think the context in which we're making these decisions is driven by our ability to ask the right questions and think strategically about what our options are and why we're doing things. And as you said, that dichotomy thinking is very often not, that's not the right mindset or strategic approach to have optimal outcomes. So how do we think about the problems we're trying to solve for in a way that actually lends itself or lends us to getting unstuck.

[00:12:33] Ashley: So one of the things that I write a lot about in the book actually is values based leadership. And like, how do you come up with your own personal values? How do you create organizational values? So when it comes to change, that's one of the ways. We talk a lot about this term, like creating buy-in, which I'd love to come up with a new term, cuz it feels very transactional and I don't love that. But when it comes to creating other people being bought into something, into a change and feeling motivated around that change values are one of the ways that we can do that.

[00:13:04] It's also one of the reasons. Trying to change people's minds with facts and figures don't work because we're not speaking to their personal values when we do that. So when it comes to asking questions, I actually have this handout, but just as asking powerful questions at the top, and it runs through some particular examples.

[00:13:21] But I think one of the ones that I really appreciate is how do we know what we think we know. Because for me in particular, I tend to be a very intuitive person who, I will self describe as not being very good at showing my work. Which yes, as you can imagine, makes writing a book very difficult where I'm literally trying to show my work so that other people can try to use it where it's useful to them.

Love that,

but taking the MIS, because this comes back to some of the cognitive biases, right? Our brain creates shortcut. Based on past experience and all of these things. And so sometimes we have jumped to a particular conclusion that we have not even stopped to think about.

[00:14:03] How did I get to that conclusion? Do I actually know the pieces of information that took me from point A to this conclusion at point B, that is gonna influence what I think I and our organization should do next. So that's the meta level, like question to ask yourself is how do we know what we think we know. Just as a starting point. And then I have a whole list of other questions. Like why is this our particular goal? Cause sometimes we get really down into the tactical weeds. This is an example. I also share in the book about, developing a database for this organization because we were trying to address some problems with their helpline, where people could call to get assistance around mental health. And we jumped straight to problem solving. Instead of asking some of the questions, we probably should have asked that would've changed how we approached solving the problem. So that's one of the things I just really like to encourage people to do is.

[00:14:55] You know, not saying slow down on change, necessary like change often needs to happen and we wanna be strategic about it so that we're not having to constantly rego through this cycle of making dramatic changes in our organization over and over again.

[00:15:10] Cindy: Yeah. So we understand strategically, we need to ask questions to make sure we have clarity. Where we're going to get unstuck, understanding our spheres of influence or that we do actually have some power and control in getting unstuck. What comes after that? Like change management is like a whole, the whole body of work. How do we start to think about , we have again, not the perfect term, but buy-in we have buy-in we know where we're going. Based on what I know about the neuroscience, we still get drawn back to our old ways of doing things. And so sustaining that change, I think is also really challenging.

[00:16:01] Ashley: Yeah. I recently, so we all have things we've learned about ourselves, right? While we're working and, in your family life and all these things and something, once I started working for myself, I recognized that I was constantly underestimating how long something would take me.

[00:16:17] And so I created sort of this guideline for myself, whatever I initially think it's gonna take add 30% to the number of hours that I'm guessing. Cause I always think I will be faster than I am. So even though I have that guideline in my mind, and I apply that to myself. It is also very easy to slip up so that happened to me recently. I did a new project. I did not do the add 30% and I was like, 'oh, rookie steak, Fontaine, what are you doing? You know etter. And so I think one of the things is of course, like having grace for yourself, when you slip up on a thing that you've already learned once and try have implemented and maybe fell back on. And secondly, I think taking a inventory of what are some of those types of things for you where maybe there are some habits that are undermining your ability to make change for me, it's time estimation is one of them, right?

[00:17:10] So how do I build that into the work that I'm doing in a way that it's recurring and is in front of me on a regular basis. They talk about, there's a bunch of books about building habits, right? And so if you think of change management and sustaining change as some of the habits that you can build, I think that's a helpful way to keep it in front of your line of sight.

[00:17:34] Cindy: And it's one thing to be responsible for our own sustained change. How do we continue to motivate and inspire those around us to keep going? Because I think that's also an area where people fall sure or they are so focused on themselves that they forget that they can, they should be mobilizing the people around them. And then again, change slower or it doesn't happen, or one person adopts things, but it doesn't move forward in the organization cause no one else does.