Better Living For All of Us

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 23rd, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I recently facilitated a board discussion in an effort to help the group reach consensus on a very divisive issue that had been consuming their time, energy and good will. far longer than it.  The clock was ticking down to the allotted time of reckoning, and despite my greatest attempts, I did not see the group getting any closer to resolution.  Literally, at the 11th hour, a thought came to me and I proposed it as a third option for them to consider.

The room went silent (and there were 25 in the room, so not an easy thing to achieve) and then the smiles started appearing on faces, the heads started nodding and a collective breath of relief was expelled by all.  Then one board member, “accused” me of holding out on them, suggesting that I had that solution in my hip pocket all along.  We all laughed and I assured them that it did not come to me until I spoke it.  As we find so often, we need the process, the circumstances, the head in the right place, to connect the dots for the light bulb to go off.

So it was with these two ideas that I stumbled across in very quick succession.  A week or month before, I might have skipped right over them; but last week, they spoke to me.

It is alleged that General Omar Bradley said, “Amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics.”  While the attribution is tenuous, the prevalence of this statement in military tomes on war is not at all.  In speaking about strategic planning, I often start with the concept’s military origins, as it provides valuable context to understand the purpose, value and process for creating a strategic plan.  I never thought, though, that I’d be quoting General Bradley in talking about the differences between boards and professional staff.

Yet, when I came across this statement, I thought, “That’s it!”  That is the tension that so frequently frustrates both board and staff:  the board—the amateurs, if you will, and meant with absolutely no disrespect, when it comes to doing the mission work of the nonprofit —are supposed to be operating at the strategic level. The professionals, the staff of the nonprofit, are supposed to be taking the strategic direction, bringing it down from the stratosphere and implementing it—in other words, handling the logistics.  Too often, however, we run into problems with this division of labor.

There is an old phase, origins of which I do not know:  “nose in, fingers out.”  It says it all:  boards need to keep their nose in and stay informed about what is going on (i.e., executive director reports, other means of getting information about the organization’s operations and accomplishments to the board) but keep their fingers out and leave the doing, the logistics, to the executive director and the staff.  Another problem with this division of labor is that the amateurs don’t always listen to the experts.  Not every great idea a board has can—or should–be put into practice immediately; the reality of the organization’s situation may simply not allow it.  The staff is there to take the dream down to scale.  When the board ignores the words and warnings of its professionals, it is asking for defeat.

Nonprofits ask for defeat in so many ways of which they are not even conscious that we certainly don’t need to do it intentionally.  One way that frustrates me to no end is the perception that far too many in the nonprofit sector hold that “business” and “for-profit” are dirty words.  Too many bristle at the thought of needing to be “business-like” or the suggestion that, in fact, a nonprofit is a business—with a twist.  I have seen nonprofit employees totally balk at the changing of the title of the highest paid person on the organizational chart from “executive director” to “CEO” saying that makes them a business and they are a nonprofit.

The flip side of that is I have run across nonprofits that think simply by using the title of CEO they are businesses.  Folks:  it is symantics and, ultimately, doesn’t matter.  A title at the top of an organizational chart doesn’t make an organization what it is or define the organization; how the work is carried out, how organizational performance is evaluated, how the public perceives the organization is what defines an organization.  That is what makes an organization “good” or “bad”.

Given that this is such a central frustration for me, and I continually struggle with how I can help nonprofits break through the misperception that being a business is an opposition to being a nonprofit, I was thrilled to hear about Tom Watson, Jr., the second president of IBM.  Apparently, Mr. Watson was known for regularly sending up pithy missives to IBM staff, things that would inspire, define IBM, encourage, etc.  And some of these concepts went beyond IBM walls.  In 1967, at a speech to the Pace College Advisory Council, Mr. Watson advised the following:  “Corporations prosper only to the extent that they satisfy human needs. Profit is only the scoring system. The end is better living for us all.”

Exchange “corporation” in that sentence with “nonprofit” and “scoring system” with the “means to the end” and you have a good understanding of a nonprofit.  Nonprofits prosper only to the extent that they satisfy human needs.  Profit is only the means to the end.  The end is better living for us all.”

Who says nonprofits and businesses have nothing in common?


The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.


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