What’s that smell?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 9th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I came across this quote by former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson:  “He who rejects change is the architect of decay.”  I screeched to a halt in my reading because it called up too many recent conversations I have had.  (To be clear, I have had these same conversations not just of late, but multiple times over the past 30 years).  I’d like to take that quote, change the start to “S/he” and send it to every nonprofit organization, staff member and board who stick to the line, “but this is always how we’ve done things.”

Nothing is a surer kiss of death to innovation—and I’m not talking about wild innovation—than that whine “but we have always done it this way.”  The ways of a workforce are not cultural icons and traditions on which one may not tromp or which we much revere forever; they are meant to be continually assessed for ongoing improvement.  Should we ever get to a way of doing something that truly cannot be improved upon—given different times, different skills of employees, technology, etc.—then, and maybe only then, will I accept that it is okay to fall back on what has always been done.

But until that point, lose the excuse.  Because, after all, that is all that it is:  an excuse not to have to work, think, try harder.  When we don’t change, at best we remain stagnant, and we know that stagnant organizations are dying.  Some die quickly, but others engage in that long, slow, drawn out process of decay.  You can pick your own demise.

What makes the message of this quote particularly important now is that change is imminent—whether staff and boards like it or not.  We already are seeing the tip of the long-predicted and awaited departure of hundreds of thousands of executive directors.

A young and new executive director gave firm numbers to another trend that we knew was coming:  60% of her staff is within three years of retiring.  These departures are followed closely by their replacements who will, without an iota of doubt, bring new ways of doing things.  If an organization isn’t open to that change we can predict what will happen:  the board will chafe at being asked to do things differently; the remaining staff will complain how awful the new ED is, and the board will let the new ED go, sad that they had hired poorly but convinced that, in this case, it wasn’t them, it was the new ED.  And the hiring cycle will repeat, so it will look to the outside that the organization is moving forward, but really the organization is decaying as the board hunts for someone who won’t make them, and the organization, change.

The other quote that caught my attention this week, but not in the way the speaker intended it, was from Speaker of the House John Boehner:   “[G]arbage men get used to the smell of bad garbage.”  And while decay does smell, this took me to what is, apparently, my favorite topic:  ethics—or the seemingly widespread lack of them in the nonprofit sector.  Have we as a sector become inured to the stench of unethical behavior?

Every day a headline—or six—grabs my attention as an indicator of the decaying state of ethics in our sector.  To wit: Gotham Chamber Opera, a critically successful, boutique NY opera company.  It has announced that it is closing because of newly discovered, large—mid-six figures—deficit (in an under $2 million budget), exposed when the brand new executive director found a lot of unbooked bills.  The former ED claims they might not have been booked but they were disclosed; the board claims total surprise.  Someone, clearly, isn’t being truthful, and both the failure to book invoices and the failure to tell the truth are violations of my code of ethics.

Early in my career, working in New York City’s courts and jails, I learned a tip from some members of New York’s finest that, until now, I’ve never had to use:  when you go into a building with a decaying body inside, smear Vick’s VapoRub on your upper lip (also seen in countless TV dramas).  Guess I see you in the drugstore.

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