Board of Directors
In an ideal world, one of the things a nonprofit board of directors does is annually evaluate the performance of the executive director. But let’s be honest, how often does that actually happen?
I once had an executive director so desperate for feedback about her job performance from a board who refused to evaluate her that she hired me to interview board and staff and write her performance review.
Perhaps boards are uncomfortable with reviewing the CEO, or they don’t know how to manage it, or they are simply unaware that it’s their responsibility. Whatever the reasons, effective evaluation of nonprofit CEO performance doesn’t happen enough in the sector.
But for a nonprofit to be effective and sustainable there must be a system in place for regularly evaluating it’s chief staff member (not to mention the rest of the staff and the board of directors itself, but those are for another day).
As I’ve said before, the head staff member (CEO or executive director) is the most important position in a nonprofit organization. She affects the level of engagement of the board, the financial sustainability of the organization, the productivity of the staff, and ultimately the organization’s ability to achieve it’s mission. She is the chief spokesperson, chief fundraiser, chief cheerleader and so much more. At the very least, she deserves to know, on an annual basis, how well her board and staff think she is doing.
The CEO evaluation is an opportunity for the board to discuss the performance of their lead staff person, whether the organization is going in the right direction, and what, if any, adjustments need to be made. The discussion can offer a real point of organizational self-reflection that can re-energize and re-orient all involved.
So in order to inspire your nonprofit to create an annual system for evaluating the performance of your CEO or executive director, I’d like to offer some suggested questions to guide your board’s process. Ideally the board’s Governance or Board Affairs committee would be charged with managing the CEO evaluation each year. These are the types of questions they would want to answer (by surveying, compiling and analyzing staff and board feedback):
- What does the CEO do really well? What are his/her strengths as the leader of our nonprofit?
- Where is there room for improvement? What are his/her weaknesses as a leader of our nonprofit?
- How well does she/he recruit, manage and develop the board?
- How well does she/he recruit, manage, and develop the staff?
- How well does she/he guide the overall strategy of our nonprofit?
- How well does she/he serve as a spokesperson and external relationship builder for our nonprofit?
- How well does she/he ensure the financial sustainability of our organization?
It is critical to mention that the data gathered in the review process should be kept anonymous. You want board and staff to feel free to be honest in their responses and not fear reprisal or embarrassment for their candor. And when the board delivers the final evaluation to the CEO, they should do it in a way in which the CEO feels appreciated for the things she does well and supported in addressing any areas of concern. Ideally both board and CEO come away from the process feeling that the CEO has a clear path for the coming year and the tools and support she needs to get there.
If you need help getting your board moving forward on this process, or help coaching your leader to become more effective, check out the Leadership Coaching services I provide.
Photo Credit: Packer, poster artist, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
I have a heavy heart today. I found out yesterday that my first boss, long-time mentor, and most influential teacher of all things nonprofit management died over the weekend.
Mary Jubitz was the CEO of SMART (Start Making a Reader Today), a statewide early literacy nonprofit in Portland, Oregon. I met Mary when, as a new college graduate, I responded to a classified ad (yes, that is truly how we used to find jobs) for an office manager at a startup nonprofit. I had never worked at a nonprofit, but I was hungry to learn. And Mary proved to be an excellent teacher. So much of what I write, speak and consult about in the nonprofit world today was born out of what I learned at Mary’s side over the first two years of my career.
She was first and foremost an excellent fundraiser. Over the course of her 12 year tenure as CEO, she grew the budget by 400% and built a highly engaged donor base. She did that through an amazing mix of charisma, drive, organization, and exceptional relationship-building skills. I have never met someone who was so incredibly skilled at making a donor or potential donor feel that their involvement was absolutely critical. She rarely walked away from a meeting without the prospect wanting to be part of the exciting, game-changing partnership she described.
From her tenacious ability to find a connection to a prospective donor, to her skilled mastery of the meetings and conversations necessary to entice them to get involved, to her eloquent and (always!) grammatically correct letters and proposals, to her beautiful hand-written thank you notes, to her ongoing invitations to keep the donor invested, she was a thrill to watch.
But it was not just her exceptional fundraising ability — she also translated that relationship-building acumen into deft management of her board of directors. She made a habit of regularly meeting one-on-one with each board member to ensure that they were continually engaged. And it worked. Every single board member was not only personally giving, but also introducing their own networks to the organization. And beyond ensuring the board’s active money role, Mary made sure that they were all completely engaged in board meetings and decisions.
The board was so engaged certainly because SMART was a great cause, but also — and maybe even more importantly — because they simply didn’t want to let Mary down. No one wanted to let Mary down. As a true leader, she set the bar high making those around her want to give their best and then a bit more. She created and continually inspired a winning team of board, staff and donors who truly believed they were changing the future of the children of Oregon.
And they did. Over the course of SMART’s history the organization has reached almost 200,000 children who were found to be 60% more likely than other students to reach state reading benchmarks.
20 years after I left her employ, Mary continued to be a tremendous mentor to me. Throughout my career she was always available for advice, recommendations, words of support. She took real joy in watching the progression of my career, which is as it should be since she built its foundation. As a female leader, she took great interest in other women who were doing their best to rise through the ranks of the nonprofit world and devoted time and energy to helping groom the next generation of nonprofit leaders.
She was an amazing leader. She will be missed.
Photo Credit: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
Note: With a current political climate which is arguably more challenging for many nonprofit social change efforts, I believe (along with many others) that now is the time for nonprofits to move more actively into advocacy. But many nonprofit leaders don’t know how to get started. So I asked the expert on all things nonprofit advocacy — Tim Delaney, President & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits — to write a guest post describing how nonprofit leaders can move into advocacy. Here is his post.
Given the new realities at the state and federal levels of governments, nonprofit leaders (board and staff) are recognizing that nonprofit advocacy is more important than ever before. They suddenly feel compelled to engage in advocacy. Yet many admit privately that their advocacy know-how has either atrophied or never gotten off the ground. As we witness a re-birth of interest in nonprofit advocacy, this article offers initial steps along a pathway to effective advocacy.
Nonprofit advocacy is a lot simpler than most people realize, with easy steps involving the heart, mind, body, and soul.
Care. The very first step in advocacy is to care deeply about something. For nonprofits, this means caring about your organization’s mission. When you really care, then you will see the barriers blocking your way … and be motivated to remove or overcome those barriers to advance the organization’s mission. Consider this mom who worried that she would be ineffective as an advocate, yet when motivated to protect her child’s safety, she championed changes to federal and state laws.
Know you are not alone. If you start to get weak of heart, know that you are part of a community that includes more than one million organizations, employs ten percent of the American workforce, and contributes billions to the economy. Your nonprofit’s mission is unique, but your organization is part of an expansive ecosystem of nonprofits working in every community across the country. We are all stronger if we honor the Three Musketeers’ motto of “All for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.”
Realize that you are already advocating. People sometimes fret that they don’t know how to advocate. But it’s so easy that first graders do it! So do you, every day. Did you share an update with your nonprofit’s stakeholders (such as donors, board members, or reporters) recently, so they know about the impact your organization is having in the community? Congratulations, you are already advocating! We like to say that the definition of advocacy is answering the question, “Who can I talk to today to advance my nonprofit’s mission?”
Lean into the news to stay informed. It’s too late for action when reading that the Governor signed a bill to regulate nonprofits or the city council voted to pass an ordinance to tax nonprofit property. Nonprofits need to pay attention to the news so you’re ready to speak up for your communities. To help nonprofits make sense of the swirling policy issues in Washington, DC, we wrote this analysis in the Chronicle of Philanthropy identifying six sector-wide issues that we foresee impacting all nonprofits in the coming months. Your local state association of nonprofits can help keep you up-to-date on what is happening, and you can subscribe to our free policy newsletter, Nonprofit Advocacy Matters.
Focus. One danger of paying attention to the news is most people suddenly will see multiple things that motivate them to action. Yet there is only so much time in each day. When taking the Heart Step of identifying what you deeply care about with your nonprofit’s mission, define and then refine the topics on which your nonprofit agrees in advance that it will devote some of its limited resources to advocate for or against. Reduce that in writing as part of your Public Policy Agenda. (Here’s a link to our Public Policy Agenda, which you can use as a rough draft to start your own.)
Work smarter, not harder. The old Fram oil commercials used to say, “You can pay me a little now … or a whole lot more later.” So it is with advocacy. If you invest a little time now to lift your voice instead of sitting silently while your local government imposes new taxes on nonprofits, then you can avoid the added burden of trying to raise additional money. If government contracts impose mindless administrative burdens and costs, then you can either keep paying people to do wasteful acts or band together with other nonprofits to ease the burdens of government and nonprofits. Our hallmark as nonprofits is that we solve community problems. Advocacy is a powerful leveraging tool to do just that.
Take the (h) election. Sometimes called the best, easiest, and cheapest (free!) insurance in America, filling out IRS Form 5768 can simplify life for most 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits advancing their missions through advocacy. Taking the “(h) election” doesn’t cost anything, and gives many benefits for nonprofits.
Build relationships. The poet’s line that “no man is an island” underscores not only a universal interconnectedness that feeds our souls, but also a basic tenet of advocacy: relationships are fundamental. You will be more effective when those you are advocating already trust you and know the impact your nonprofit is having. Whether you are advocating to a potential funder or to an elected official (or a member of their staff), relationships matter. Take the time now, before you have a distinct ask to make, to make friends before they are needed. They will come in handy later, for you and for them. Even without further advocacy, informing officials of the work your nonprofit is doing can pay dividends as they consider proposals down the road.
Stand for Your Mission. No matter who is in office or which party is in control, nonprofits can’t afford to sit silently on the sidelines on issues that affect their ability to serve their community and advance their mission. The nonprofit community is at its strongest when every nonprofit, and every person associated with that nonprofit, raises their voice. To help board members in particular, check out this website on steps your nonprofit can take to stand for your mission.
Use Your Voice. Advocacy takes many forms. You can write or call your representatives or attend a Nonprofit Day at the Capitol. You can make a video demonstrating the effects (or potential effects) of an issue. Even social media has become a part of the advocacy toolkit. Read more stories of nonprofit advocacy in action to learn about the other ways you can engage.
Be a Team Player. Nonprofit advocacy is a team sport. Most funders and nonprofits focus on their narrow issue area. But some policy issues affect all nonprofits and thus require collective action. The current federal attempt to erode trust in nonprofits and foundations by removing or weakening the 60+ years of protection against politicizing nonprofits during elections, and local attempts to impose taxes, fees, or payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), are attacks on all nonprofits.
Be Vigilant. My football coach used to say, “Keep your head on a swivel,” meaning always be on the lookout, watching everything on the field. Public policy is even wilder than football because it’s played on a three-dimensional chess board, with activity happening up and down the local, state, and federal levels of governments and across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. While many want to focus on the new President, the White House is only one source of policy action. Federal legislative priorities this year will likely flow down to hit the states to implement. Domestic spending cuts are a near certainty, and with states currently receiving, on average, 30 percent of their revenue from the federal government, it’s important to see the interconnections. The White House might dominate the nightly news, but life is lived at the local level and not in faraway DC.
Just as Plato wrote that “necessity is the mother of invention,” policy threats can spark inspiration for advocacy action. Although dismayed by the cause, I’m heartened by hearing how many nonprofit leaders are now seeing the value and power of advocacy. Let this be the re-birth of nonprofit advocacy, which is deeply rooted in our collective DNA.
Photo Credit: National Council of Nonprofits
A few weeks ago I wrote a post on a controversial topic, “How to Remove a Troublesome Board Member.” As I wrote in the post,
Of the many taboos in the nonprofit sector, the taboo against asking bad board members to resign is one of the most destructive. Instead of encouraging ineffective or meddling board members to move on, nonprofit leaders often show misplaced gratitude for those errant board members continuing to take up space.
Because it is such a taboo idea, I predictably received several emails, Tweets and comments in response to the post. The most thoughtful of which was from Tom Klaus, who wrote:
Like anyone who has ever led a nonprofit, I’ve wanted to make changes to my board to make everything run a lot better, and I can sympathize with the folks for whom your blog is intended. What I’d like to hear, though, are your thoughts on the legal and ethical aspects of a nonprofit leader making such changes to board.
In most states, the by-laws of a nonprofit organization establish the board of directors as the legal entity upon which the organization is established. The ED or CEO is typically not also a member of the board of directors, in my experience. Hence, there is a legal conundrum facing the leader. He or she may not have legal standing to make the changes to the board you are suggesting in your blog. Now, this is not to say, of course, that nonprofit leaders don’t try to do it anyway; only that doing so might provide the grounds for board members to significantly challenge and even release the nonprofit leader.
The ethical challenge this presents, I believe, is this: Is it ethical for a nonprofit leader to try to change the makeup of the group that hired her or him?
I think the most difficult governance challenge in a nonprofit organization is achieving the delicate balance between the power of the ED/CEO and the power of the Board of Directors. I’m sure we’ve both known organizations that have done this remarkably well, and they become high performing, heartily sustainable, and wildly successful in their work. I’m sure we’ve also both known organizations that just can’t seem to get the balance right.
One of my clients is like this latter. Over the years they have continued to fluctuate between too much power in the hands of the board and too much power in the hands of the ED/CEO. These are among the most unproductive times for them, of course. Just curious about your thinking on this.
Tom raises an excellent point. The nonprofit board of directors are and should be charged with the legal authority to hire and manage the nonprofit executive director. However, that does not mean that they are the only ones to possess the power to make changes in the leadership of the organization. It is important to understand that both board members and executive directors possess power but very different types of power.
In the 1950s two social psychologists, John French and Bertram Raven, defined a new way to think about the kinds of power people possess. They classified six bases of an individual’s social power:
- Reward Power is based on a person’s ability to give rewards
- Coercive Power is based on a person’s ability to give punishments
- Referent Power is based on a person’s ability to make others want to model his/her behavior
- Legitimate Power is based on a person’s official title or role
- Expert Power is based on a person’s expertise
- Informational Power is based on a person’s possession of specific content
Instead of the Legitimate Power that board members enjoy because of their legal title of “board member,” I was referring in my previous blog post to the Expert Power a nonprofit executive director can employ.
A nonprofit’s executive director possesses tremendous expertise in (to name a few):
- The mission, program delivery and results
- The organization’s strategy and goals
- The organization’s day-to-day work
- The skills, experience, networks needed on the board
- The resources (potential funding, strategic alliances) available to the organization
The most effective boards are those which are led by the Legitimate Power of the board chair and her committee chairs, paired with the Expert Power of the executive director. Because the reality is that as a group of volunteers who have many more pressing items on their to do list, a board of directors rarely functions at their best when left to their own devices.
Therefore the executive director can and should play a critical role in helping the board leadership to assemble the type of board that will help move the mission forward. This includes:
- Helping the board to analyze the board skills, experience and networks necessary to deliver on the strategic plan
- Identifying potential new recruits to fill those gaps
- Helping to structure the board to be most productive
- Meeting one-on-one with board members annually to determine where and how they can be most helpful to the mission
- Working with the board chair to hold board members accountable and ask them to resign when necessary
While the nonprofit executive director does not have Legitimate Power because, as Tom rightly points out, she serves at the behest of the board of directors, she can and should wield Expert Power to help assemble and manage a board that can be instrumental in the nonprofit achieving it’s mission and being sustainable.
To learn more about how to do that, download the 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board book.
Photo Credit: 24×7 Photo
The other day I was talking with a nonprofit leader and was suddenly struck by how much his story echoed so many of the stories I hear from nonprofit leaders.
See if your nonprofit fits some or all aspects of the scenario he faces:
- His board is passionate about the mission and wants to be helpful, but they don’t really contribute much to the financial model.
- His staff and board want to expand services, but they can’t grow their budget past where it has been for years.
- Their funding is fairly dependent on just a couple of sources.
- Their funders support specific projects, rather than the organization or mission as a whole.
- Their strategic plan hasn’t been updated in 5 years.
- The board worries whether some of what the nonprofit does duplicates other efforts out there.
- Board and staff don’t have a common way to articulate what the nonprofit is and does.
- Their nonprofit is just barely getting by and has no cash reserves.
They, like so many nonprofits, are stuck in a rut.
They want to accomplish something much bigger and better but continue to spin their wheels against what they have always done. It’s really a chicken or the egg scenario. A nonprofit is unable to grow their services, their board, and their supporters because the organization has limited resources. And so they keep soldiering on, same as it ever was.
But let’s face it folks, in times like these, the status quo just isn’t going to work anymore.
Luckily, there is a way out.
When I encounter a nonprofit leader like the one above who has a real desire to break out of this pattern, I suggest a Financial Model Assessment. A Financial Model Assessment analyzes every aspect of the organization (Mission, Vision, Strategy, Program Delivery and Impact, Staffing, Board, Marketing, External Partnerships) in order to understand how each element helps or hurts their financial sustainability and their ability to achieve results. It then analyzes all current and potential revenue streams to find opportunities for sustainable growth. Finally, the Assessment gives very detailed recommendations for creating a more effective and sustainable organization.
I am a firm believer in a holistic approach. You simply cannot bemoan a lack of financial resources and call it a day. You must dig deep and figure out how everything you do contributes to or detracts from your current reality.
But because nonprofit leaders are usually consumed by putting out fires and worrying when the next check will come, they don’t have the ability to take a big step back and figure out how all of the pieces can and should fit together. So a Financial Model Assessment allows a nonprofit board and staff to understand what is holding their organization back from becoming financially sustainable AND achieving more mission-related results.
Once I’ve written my final Assessment, I lead a change discussion among board and staff. We delve into the Assessment and discuss how and why I came to the conclusions I did. This is often a galvanizing moment for the nonprofit — a moment when board and staff finally understand together a way forward that can allow them to be smarter, more strategic, more sustainable and ultimately achieve more results.
If you are interested in big change and need help navigating how to get there, download the Financial Model Assessment Benefit Sheet that describes the process in more detail. And if you’d like to read about other nonprofits who undertook a change process, check out these case studies.
Photo Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia
One thing that most nonprofit leaders have in common is that they often have at least one (or more than one) challenging board member. You know — the one who doesn’t show up for board meetings, or doesn’t do what she says she’ll do, or never makes a contribution, or derails meetings with his own agenda.
But do you ever kick them off? I doubt it.
Of the many taboos in the nonprofit sector, the taboo against asking bad board members to resign is one of the most destructive. Instead of encouraging ineffective or meddling board members to move on, nonprofit leaders often show misplaced gratitude for those errant board members continuing to take up space.
But the real risk in keeping a troublesome board member is that his presence will put a cloud over the rest of the board, hampering your higher performing members.
So instead of letting the sickness spread, you must address it. And here’s how:
Be Clear on Your Expectations
You can’t ask someone to resign if you’ve never explicitly told them what you expect of them, so make sure that you have each board member sign a roles and responsibilities document at the beginning of each fiscal year. This spells out exactly what you are expecting from them (in terms of meeting attendance, committee service, fundraising, etc.). The act of having each board member (even those returning from the previous year) sign this annually cements in everyone’s mind exactly what is expected. Better yet, have them sign it as part of your annual one-on-one meetings with each board member.
Tell Them They Aren’t Performing
Managing a board is very similar to managing a staff (or managing your children, let’s be honest). Once you set very clear expectations, then update them along the way about whether or not they are performing effectively. When a board member isn’t showing up for meetings, or is meddling where they shouldn’t, or isn’t meeting their give/get requirement, or is taking committee discussions in unhelpful directions, sit down with that board member (and your board chair and/or your board governance chair) to explain the situation from your perspective and ask them to explain their side.
Give Them One Last Chance
Once you’ve told them they aren’t performing the way you would like, agree on a path to improvement. Decide together what an improved performance looks like (attend all upcoming board meetings, meet the give/get requirement) and the deadline (3 months from now) to get there. It is your job to hold them accountable, so as that deadline approaches, analyze their performance to see if they did what they said they would.
Ask Them to Go
If the deadline comes and they still haven’t performed adequately, sit down with the errant board member and your board chair and explain that while you would love for them to stay on as an informal advisor and supporter, you are asking them to resign to make room for a board member who can fulfill their commitment to the organization. Explain the importance of the work your organization does and how critical it is that you have fully committed and contributing board members. Describe how this is probably best for them as well because it frees them up to focus more energy on the things that are taking them away. If you are truly allergic to confrontation, and this still seems too hard, read Crucial Conversations.
Contain Any Fallout
When asked to resign, not all board members will go quietly into the night. As soon as you’ve asked your troublesome board member to leave, tell the rest of the board what you all have done and why. Help them to understand how this is a positive step for the organization and how it will help further your larger mission. Ask for their support in seeing this decision through, and most importantly, tell them what the next step is.
Find a Replacement
And that next step is to find that board member’s replacement. Beyond the fear of confrontation, many nonprofit leaders are hesitant to ask a board member to resign because they fear they won’t find another warm body to replace that member. But board recruitment should be an ongoing and strategic exercise. Your board governance committee should be constantly analyzing the board matrix of skills, experience, and networks in order to see where holes lie and identifying and vetting new potential candidates. Then when a board member leaves (or is asked to leave) you have several great new candidates in mind.
Stop selling your nonprofit short by letting disengaged, uncommitted, or meddlesome board members get in your way. By setting clear expectations, measuring performance, being honest, and constantly identifying new candidates, you can build a much stronger, more effective and engaged board of directors.
If you want to learn more about building a great board, download the 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board book.
Photo Credit: Jane Davees
One of my predicted “5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2017” is that we will see “More Analysis of What Nonprofit Financial Sustainability Requires.” In other words, I think (hope) in this new year that nonprofit leaders and their funders will work to figure out how to make nonprofits more financial sustainable.
Financial sustainability means that both the way money comes in the door (revenue) and the way money goes out the door (expenses) happen in a smart, strategic way. When they do, you have a robust financial model.
In my mind, one of the first steps toward that sustainability is for nonprofit leaders to look inward. While there are many reasons for the financial instability that plagues the nonprofit sector — from the Overhead Myth, to restricted funding, to lack of financial training — nonprofit leaders sometimes perpetuate the dysfunction themselves with an unhealthy attitude toward money.
Nonprofit leaders must embrace money as a tool — rather than a scourge — that can help them better achieve their mission.
So in this new year, in order to get closer to financial sustainability in your own nonprofit, I challenge you to ask yourself these questions about money:
- Do I embrace money as a tool to achieve our mission?
As the ultimate cheerleader of your nonprofit’s board and staff, you must ask whether you yourself fully embrace money. Money has long been viewed as a necessary evil in the nonprofit sector. We don’t want too much of it (for fear of scaring off donors); we don’t want to ask people for it (for fear of rejection); we don’t want to make our board go out and get it (for fear they will bolt). But it is your role as leader of your nonprofit to eschew those outdated notions and instead recognize that a smart, well-executed money strategy can be instrumental to achieving your mission.
- Do we know our actual costs?
Not just the full costs to run each of your programs (which is important), but the overall costs of executing on your strategic plan. I can’t tell you how many nonprofit leaders I meet who a) don’t have a strategic plan in place or b) if they do, they haven’t tied it to money. You simply will not accomplish anything if you don’t analyze and plan for what it will truly cost to accomplish your goals as an organization. So start by using this Bridgespan tool to figure out the full costs of your programs and then add to that the other organizational and infrastructure costs necessary to achieve your overall strategic goals.
- Do we have a financial model?
So that’s how money flows out of the organization, but to fully flesh out your financial model you need to plan for how money will flow into the organization. The funny thing about money is that if you are smarter and more strategic about it, you will attract more of it. So instead of hoping and praying that enough money will show up at your doorstep, create an overall financial strategy that includes your tactics for how you will attract each applicable revenue line (individuals, foundations, corporations, government, and/or earned income) that flows into your financial model.
- Does our board understand and contribute to our financial model?
Once you’ve figured out your financial model, you must get your board fully involved in it. A nonprofit will never be financially sustainable if money is left solely to the staff to figure out. That means the board needs to understand revenue and expenses, over the long-term, and how they apply to the overall strategy of the organization. And it is not enough for them just to understand it, they must contribute (in many and various ways) to the successful implementation of that financial model.
- Do we ask funders to support the effective execution of our financial model?
You can’t just have a great financial strategy on paper, you also need to invest in the structure and systems necessary to execute on that strategy. That means you have to hire talented money-raising staff, acquire functional technology, develop capable donor systems, create compelling marketing and communications. Those elements make up your money-raising function, and in order to make it effective you have to invest in those elements. So figure out what that will cost and convince some funders to pay for it.
It’s time to get over your money issues. You will not achieve financial sustainability unless you fully embrace money as a critical conduit to the social change you seek.
Photo Credit: Daniel Borman
Nonprofit leaders tend to err on the side of caution. But these times call for something quite different. These times demand that you overcome the fear and risk-aversion that sometimes cripple your work.
You no longer have the luxury of sitting by and waiting for “permission” to do what you have to do. This is the time to be bold.
As Greg Oliphant, President of The Heinz Endowments, wrote recently:
“Why speak? Especially when to speak is potentially to be seen as partisan, as taking sides, which is anathema in a field proscribed from politics and deeply fearful of controversy…There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future. These are not partisan truths but rather human truths…They are where we as a sector…must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it.”
Yes, that is the role you play, nonprofit leaders, to speak up and be bold about the change you seek. And it may go against what is comfortable, what you are used to, what you think you are “allowed” to do as nonprofit leaders, but you must stop waiting for permission. You must start pushing yourself, your staff, your board to be less fearful and more bold.
What does that look like?
Think Bigger, Much Bigger
The time for incremental is over. These times call for big, bold, game-changing solutions to the problems we face. You must ask yourselves and your board and staff, “Are we doing enough? Are we really creating change, or are we just perpetuating the status quo?” If the answer is the latter, take a big step back and figure out what you can do bigger to create change.
And in answering those questions you may find that the methods you are using are too timid. I cannot say this enough, but nonprofit leaders have got to stop being afraid to connect their social change work to the policy arena. While there are some restrictions on what 501(c)3 organizations can do, I assure you they are far less than you or your board may think. If you truly want to see change in the world, it may not be enough to just address the symptoms of the problem. You may need to address the systems that perpetuate those problems, and advocacy might be just the tool to use.
Find New Paths to Social Change
But it may also be that at the federal level there is not much support for your social change agenda right now, so look for other paths. Much social change is happening at the state and local levels (from climate change, to civil rights, to political reform). Instead of continuing to beat your head against an immovable wall, think about other ways forward. Get outside your comfort zone of always approaching your mission in a single way and think bigger and bolder.
Make Your Board Meetings Real
But in order to move forward in bigger, bolder ways you need to bring your board along. So stop having friendly, meaningless, information-dumping board meetings and instead engage your board in real conversations. Start by asking “What do these times demand of us and our work? What are we afraid of, and how do we overcome it? How can be be more bold?” And when you come up against board fear (of doing more, moving into advocacy, building bigger networks), be very clear that it is a brave new world and you simply cannot put your heads in the sand.
Get Tough With Your Funders
But it doesn’t end with your board. You can no longer have tepid conversations with your funders or bow to their whims. You know what you need and what it takes to accomplish your big goals (or if you don’t, you better figure it out). So be open and real with your funders. Tell them what’s holding you back from accomplishing real change and ask for the amount and type of money you really need to get there.
As President Franklin Roosevelt argued in his first inaugural address, lack of action is a far greater risk than anything we might face:
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
We must fight the urge to retreat. As social change leaders you cannot allow your fear to paralyze you. These times call for bold advance.
Photo Credit: Andy Spearing