With the economy being what it is, I’ve sensed a very strange undercurrent in the non-profit sector recently. Fundraising is challenging for those agencies that have used fear tactics and guilt to raise money. Government dollars are drying up. Boards have been cutting-cutting-cutting and now there is close to nothing left to cut in their agency budgets. In a nutshell, things feel like they’re coming to a head and it feels intensely personal.
In the last 6-months, I’ve personally witnessed/heard about a few different staff-board encounters that has me very concerned:
- A board president putting their finger in the face of the executive director during a heated discussion over budget cuts involving salaries and benefits.
- An executive director flat-out yelling at the board (it was described to me as a temper tantrum) during the board meeting because they didn’t think board volunteers were raising enough money and were too focused on cutting-cutting-cutting.
- A board volunteer yelling at a donor and leveling personal and hurtful accusations.
- A group of board members coordinating their resignations and then running off to the newspaper to tell their story.
- A board president secretly plotting to fire their executive director.
I get it . . . tough times lead to tough decisions and these decisions are intensely personal which mean they are riddled with emotion. However, the one thing everyone needs to keep in mind is that we all have FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITIES when we agree to work or volunteer for a non-profit corporation.
This means acting in the best interest of those who our organization’s mission calls us to serve. It means exercising the highest standard of care. It means putting personal interests to the side (which I think also includes setting aside personal agendas).
Exercising your fiduciary responsibilities does not mean engaging in emotional battles all in the “name of mission” with those whom you disagree . This slash-and-burn strategy is dangerous, destroys working relationships, and eats at the very foundations of our organizational. In the end, the people who really get hurt are those that we aim to serve — the client.
Here is a some advice that I recognize is easier said than done:
- Board volunteers: Please remember that staff are people, too. They have families, mortgages, and a personal life just like you. You are charged with making tough decisions around finances, but a little compassion goes a long way and adding more emotion on top of an emotional bonfire only makes matters worse.
- Non-profit CEOs and staff: Please remember that board volunteers are exactly that — volunteers. You were not hired into a lifetime position. Different situations call for different types of leadership, and this might be a time for a different leadership style at your agency. Don’t take it personal. A little bit of professionalism goes a long way.
- Board volunteers: Times have changed and the economy we once knew blew up many years ago. There is a “new normal” that we need to get used to. This means changing your non-profit business model. It means rolling up your sleeves, fundraising, and asking people in your social circles to be philanthropic rather than sitting back and watching staff beg for non-existent government dollars. GET INVOLVED!
- Non-profit CEOs and staff: Fundraising isn’t just a board responsibility. You play a huge role in supporting these efforts. It also isn’t something you can usurp from the board and do by yourself in hopes of making yourself indispensible. You are responsible for engagement of board volunteers. START ENGAGING!
Focusing on collaboration and consensus building is a start. Taking the personalities, egos and emotion out of decision-making is important. Keeping mission-focused is imperative in order to avoid hurting those we care about most — the clients.
What do you do as a staff person or board volunteer to keep emotions from getting too high during these difficult times in the board room? How do you keep perspective? Is it possible to extricate ego and personality from these discussions? How do you keep everyone focused on the client and mission?
This is an unusual blog post for me because it involves emotions and feelings; whereas, I normally write more fact-based stories blended with opinions. However, there are many of you and your non-profit friends going through some very difficult times, which is why taking 1-minute to answer some of these questions using the comment box below is so important. We can all learn from each other!
Here is to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
Wonderful summary of what I’ve experienced since 2005. I was the director of development for the largest family camp in the U.S. I had $1.3 million in pledges and cash –their first fundrasing campaign since there 55 year history. In addition I had generated $2.1 million in estate planning commitments. Finally I generated a commitment for a $5 million dollar tax free bond issue and a commitment for a $3 million dollar bridge loan. Then it happened — the Executive Director took a lesser position in a town 1 1/2 hours away and less than a year later most of the front line directors received an e-mail May 15, 2008 that we had been terminated. This after the Board Chair had assured me less than a week earlier that my position was secure. After 40 years plus working with non-profit and small business startups in 29 states and raising over $400 million dollars in cash, pledges, grants, loans, etc. a Board Chair that I recruited sent me an e-mail, on the morning my wife and I were leaving on vacation requesting my resignation or be terminated and informing me the board was not going to honor the personal/sick days, vacation time, etc. I had earned. Not one board member contacted me to provide an explanation. The property is in foreclosure and the scenic camp property is a shadow of when it operated at full capacity.
Larry … my apologies for not responding to your comment sooner. I am on the road and saddled with limited accessibility. Sorry!
Your comment was jarring. While it is hard to comment on your exact circumstances without knowing more, I am shocked that you were informed of your options via email. That is exactly what I was talking about in Wednesday’s blog post when I said boards need to remember that staff are people, too. A little bit of compassion might have turned a horrible situation into just a rotten situation for you.
Well, I hope you landed on your feet and find yourself in a better place. Good luck!
What a great blog post. I agree with Erik, people there is a new normal. We will not go back to the ecconomy of the early 2000’s any time soon. Get out there and fund raise and keep personally fueled vendetta’s out of the Boardroom.
Thanks, John. Isn’t it about time that you start thinking about joining a board? 😉
I have noticed that organization with small boards are typically those who are feeling the most pressure. While many say it’s wise to keep a manageable number of board members, I think when you have multiple members with a diversity of opinons, things can tend to get flushed out and resolved in a more ethical and mature manner. We have 27 board members and when I first joined this organization I was concerned that many of them may be letterhead loafers, but am pleased thus far. Yes, there are still a few handfuls (10-12) members who are doing most of the work on a weekly basis, but when it comes to big events and campaign, about 90% of them are really doing the hard fundraising work. There have been disagreements in board meetings, but they get resolved pretty quickly.
On the other hand, a board that I am engaged with currently on another project has just 7 board members. They are not diverse in ways other that their profession it seems. All but two are sitting back watching and knowing they should be doing more, but see the other two doing all the work so they continue to sit back…and the organization is suffering financially. They all know the ED should not be leading the organization, but are too lazy to go down that arduous road. They are very close to a forced merger.
This is a great post, Erik! I think I will try to find a way to slither this information into the latter organization’s leadership.
Thanks, Teri! Back channeling a blog post into the right hands can sometimes be a catalyst for change. Have a Happy Thanksgiving. I know I still owe you a whitepaper. It is coming. I am off to see Barb tonight for dinner in Dallas. I will tell her you said hello!