Might as well face it…you’re addicted

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 20th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Several years back, a funder introduced me to a group of her grantees as the “bad cop” in the tag team which was about to do a presentation, a persona that continues today.

Call me what you will, but I am on a crusade to help you help yourself, your organization, your group move forward so that you can maximize the delivery of your mission.

Earlier this week, I had a 45 minute, heartbreaking conversation.  And despite that, I played the bad cop throughout.  Telling the truth, telling it directly, doesn’t have to come off as an attack.  Perhaps if we worried less about hurting people’s feelings and more about the goal that needs to be accomplished, individually and collectively, we’d all be more successful.  Of that, I’ve no doubt.

This intense conversation was with an executive director who is at the end of her two year plus rope trying to get her board to do its job.  She has educated, encouraged, nudged, pushed,  brought in outside experts.  She’s even tried leading.  All to no avail!  Nothing has moved.

After a recent attempt by an outside expert to move this board off the dime, the newest board member sent an email to the full board outlining what needed to be done, what he was willing to do and asking others to get involved.  Besides the executive director’s response, he got one other response.  He never even heard from the board president!  As a small organization, no matter how well she does her job as executive director, no matter how hard she works, the ability to maximize that mission is truly curtailed by a board that fails to do its job.

Years ago, when I was teaching undergraduates, I had a very bright young woman who was clearly struggling with an addiction of some sort.  At first, I thought it was alcohol; later decided it was drugs.  Turned out it was both.  I probed gently, then more seriously.  She responded; told me her story, her issues, her addictions.  I tried repeatedly to get into rehab, into counseling, to talk to skilled counselors and not just me.  She had no problem spilling her heart out to me, telling me all that was wrong, but never listened to my suggestions, advice.  I even offered to take her to a counselor, rehab, etc.  I turned to a friend who was an addiction specialist and she told me that I could do all the talking, all the leading, all the handholding I want, but until the addict wanted to be helped, nothing I did would make a difference.  One night, I got a 3:00 am phone call from this student; she had hit rock bottom.  I picked her up, took her to 30 day program and to her hard work and credit, she’s been clean ever since.

I have come back to addiction theory again and again in working with nonprofits—individuals, boards, organizations.  Until the individual, board, organization, etc. wants to be helped—and I mean truly wants to be helped—there is nothing anyone else can do, except go through the motions.  Or, worse, which we see all of the time, enable the addiction by doing for the addict.

The executive director who takes over the event that the board swore it was going to run is enabling.  The executive director who writes all of the handwritten notes on the solicitations and all of the handwritten thank yous because the board hasn’t stepped up to the plate is enabling.  The executive director who goes out and recruits new board members because the board simply wrings its hands, is enabling.

There are those who love the problem so much, they really aren’t interested in a solution.  They love to talk about the problem, massage the problem, look at it every which way from Sunday.  And the worst part is that in talking about it, again and again ad nauseum, people actually think they are making progress.  And calling in an outside expert to talk about the problem shows just how serious they really are.  But truly fix the problem?  But fix the problem? Don’t be ridiculous.  Who throws their love object away?

This isn’t a one-off problem.  It gets repeated again and again in my email, my phone calls, my face-to-face conversations.  Today, I talked with a wanna-be executive director whose current executive director told her board a year ago that she would be leaving the end of 2012.  For most of 2011, I heard this wanna-be talk, again and again, about the board that had done nothing to prepare, about the executive director who seems to have already “retired” and how she was doing it all.  January 2012, everyone is still in the same place as a year ago, and it now looks like the board will just “tweak” the job description to make it fit her.  And, surprisingly, she still wants the job.

I had another conversation with a member of a senior management team who is saying a year later the exact same things she said about her boss, her organization’s position, her co-workers, her potential for growth in the organization, her frustrations, her disillusion.  If you listened to a recording of our conversations we have had on a rather periodic basis throughout the year, it would be impossible to know which was first, second, third, except for the fact that my urgings and suggestions become less enthusiastic, as the neon of the signs blinked brighter and brighter.  These people are in love with their problems; they’ve yet to hit rock bottom—if they ever will.

This is a trap into which too many nonprofit employees far too easily fall.  After all, most work in the sector to help, to try to make things better.  Guilt rises quickly and furiously, like bile in the throat, at the thought of walking away leaving things unfixed.  So, people hang-in there, go back, try again—and again; soon, the dent in the wall is a full-fledged chasm and years have gone by.  Truth is, this is not helping—anyone or anything; it is only hurting.  Good people with expansive energy, first rate ideas and strong skills are wasting their assets on people and organizations that do not want to achieve greatness, let alone mediocrity.

All of us in the nonprofit sector—from staff to board to other volunteers—must practice loving the solutions more than we love the problems.  Or, we must succumb to our own addiction.



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