After leading recent board training, a board member apologized for what she considered to be the rude, disrepectful behavior of some of her colleagues and staff, who had held sidebar conversations throughout the training. Sadly, I had to tell her, I was quite used to it, as it happens far more often than not, along with those constantly checking their phones. She went on to talk about the loss of manners in our society.
And while our society has lost its appreciation for manners, I believe that is a sign of a loss of something far more fundamental: respecting others. And this has what to do with nonprofits? In the last 40 years, every nonprofit with which I have worked helping it to identify its core values, respect—ends up on that list. We will be respectful of all, we treat everyone with dignity, etc., Core values don’t just apply to how we interact with the outside world—clients, partners, donors—but also how we interact with those inside the organization, and those we invite inside our organization. From my vantage point, there are an awful lot of people, and the organizations where they work and volunteer, that talk the talk but are so far from walking the walk.
If respect, in whatever form, is in your organization’s core values, how well are you living that value? Let’s start with the incident that took me down this path. Do your staff and/or board members think nothing of having private conversations while someone else has the floor? Do your staff and board members sit down for a meeting and put their phones on the table, and, as a matter of course (no emergency situation noted), and repeatedly check it, respond to emails/texts while someone else is talking? or while the group is supposed to be having a discussion about something important? Is this respectful behavior? And, if this is happening at internal meetings, is it likely happening at meetings with clients? Donors? At events representing the organization?
Extending that concept to clients, are you showing respect for them by providing programs and services with reliable current impact data? When you tell a client that they will, for example, improve their reading skills, land a job, gain self-confidence, or be healthier, do you really know that is going to happen? If not, are you showing respect or are you actually duping them?
Are you doing any better with donors? Recently, I was asked what to do with a donor who just loves a particular program which you know is ineffective. My immediate thought was how unethical it was to continue to take someone’s money to do something that a donor thinks is doing good while you know it isn’t making a difference. My second thought was what a disrespectful way to treat a donor. Either the donor is thought not smart enough to understand the data that shows the program isn’t having any of its promised outcomes, so why even bother trying to explain it, or you view the donor as simply a means to an end and not deserving of honesty. Either way it is an insolent way to treat a donor.
And what about board members? More often than not executive directors know better than most board members what board members are supposed to do, and most recognize immediately when individual board members and/or the collective are uncertain as to their roles and responsibilities. Allowing boards to mal- or misfunction when you know better, and know how to correct the misbehavior, either by pointing it out or by bringing in an outsider to point it out, is being exceedingly disrespectful of people who are volunteering their time, energy and good will to try to make a difference. Not helping them gain the knowledge and tools needed to do their intended job correctly and well is almost like laughing behind their backs.
Aretha got it right; it is time for nonprofits that profess it as a core value to give some respect.