A Not-So-Fine Mess

Posted by Joan Ulmer on October 31st, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Recently, a dear friend brand new to his executive director role and, thus, working in a nonprofit, but well-versed working with and for nonprofits, made the observation from his recently acquired leadership position, “Nonprofits are messy!”   I can’t disagree, but wonder to what extent we contribute to our own messes?

A few days after hearing his remark, a one-day facilitation session with the board and senior staff of an organization brought home that answer, writ large:  a lot!  How could one organization do so many things wrong and create such a mess?  Sadly, that answer is “easily.”  And even sadder?  They are not unique.

Much of it stems from people wanting the bells and whistles before they’ve put down the basics.  (It is like students, who doing poorly as a result of their own failings as a student, ask for extra credit.  My answer has always been:  you can’t do extra until you do the basic.)

Basic number one:  term limits for board members and for board leadership.  (And, this will raise a lot of hackles, the ability to recognize when the term should be up for the executive director, regardless of how long or how well s/he has filled that position.)  There are so many reasons why this is essential, and for every argument that a person against term limits throws at me, I’ve got a counter.  But my current favorite best reason is that long-serving members prefer talking history rather than present and future.

I take to heart George Santayana’s statement that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it;” but knowing it and learning from it are very different things than talking about it at every possible turn.  Nothing takes excitement and innovation to a screeching halt faster than the statement, “We tried that in 1991; let me give you the history.”  Nothing kills creative thinking—so often needed in struggling nonprofits today—than a board president too long in that seat and who shares the exasperation of someone daring to suggest something be tried today in a new world order that was tried 20 years ago, who doesn’t interrupt the umpteenth recounting of history for the rest of the poor fools on the board who, sadly, just don’t understand.

History is important, but not at every board meeting.  Rather, it belongs in writing where folks can read about it; it belongs in a solid orientation program for new board and staff members; it belongs in the organization’s chronology.  But it should never be used as a stick that stifles exploration, new possibilities, and potentially different configurations of past practices.  And those who have been around too long (sometimes) don’t seem to be able to control themselves, nor do their equally long serving leaders.

If you take the high end of the norm of three year terms and the possibility of serving three consecutive terms, nine years is more than enough.  It is enough for the individual, enough for the board and enough for the organization.  I have yet to see a board member or board president, no matter how passionate, still be as effective in his her eighth or ninth year in the second or third.  I’ve yet to see a board that couldn’t benefit from fresh perspective, different ways to think about things, “naïve” questions, and new energy.  Why, then, do boards insist on holding themselves and, therefore, their organizations, back by clinging to the past? 

Basic number two:  a solid orientation process for all new board members.  While a solid orientation process of all new members is essential for every nonprofit, it is, in many respects, even more essential for boards without term limits, as it just confounds the mess.  Failure to educate new board members (which is a process that should absolutely start in the recruitment process) gives even more power to those who have been around forever because of no terms limits as they are the only ones who understand the real ins and outs of the organization.  The idea of a “best practice” size for a nonprofit is built on the understanding that a board is a brain trust; and, while a brain trust of two or three is better than no brain trust at all, a brain trust of 12-14 is even better—but only if all of the brains understand fully the organization.  

Sadly, however, as it would be much easier, understanding doesn’t come by osmosis, or wanting or hoping; it happens as the result of a very intentional, comprehensive process that happens over a multi-month period of time and that is then reinforced over the duration of a term.  The more complex an organization is, the more complex the orientation must be.

But a board that uses the excuse—as far too many do (though, I must admit, one would be “far too many for me”)—that

  1.  our organization is so complex and, thus, we can’t possibly expect board members to understand is dissing its own board members
  2. diminishing, at best, and eviscerating, at worst, the system of checks and balances built into the function of a board and
  3. factionalizing the board into those who know and, therefore, are in the inner sanctum, and those who don’t know, and who—well, why are they even there?

Basic number three:  a balanced partnership between the full board and the executive director.  When will executive directors and boards get the fact that the only relationship between the two entities that provides for the best future for a nonprofit is one that is shared?  Neither extreme—the executive director always leading the board or the board always guiding the executive director—leads to sustainable leadership and, thus, a sustainable nonprofit.  Leadership must be shared, recognizing that there are situations and times when it is important for one half of the partnership to play to its strengths and lead, while the other takes a step back; and there will be times when that situation will flip, and still other times when the partnership can lead equally together.

But when one half—and, to be fair, it is usually an executive director—is dominant all of the time, as in the executive director in control of the board all of the time, what happens when that half leaves in a planned or unplanned way?  And, going back to basic number two, when the board half of the partnership is but a small subset of the full board, say, for example, just those in the inner sanctum, what happens when they all leave?  Executive directors and board presidents, in fact any board member, who believe it is their job is to control are the leaders who scare me most, for they are the ones who have lost sight of the mission having replaced it with their own image.

The beauty (and, dare I say, joy?) of the intended relationship between board and executive director—checks and balances and complementarity—is lost if either one is heavy handed.




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.