A nonprofit organization that has been around for quite some time is facing a crisis of leadership. Founded by a dynamic and charismatic woman in the early 1990’s, the organization’s mission was to distinguish itself among many others with a similar cause with a clear and very specific mission and purpose, to identify and support innovative approaches to a type of cancer. Sadly, though, the founder died in the early 2000’s; since then the nonprofit has really lost its way.
The org had a series of well-meaning, yet inexperienced executive directors, a board that was made up of one part serious academic researchers, two parts well-meaning but inexperienced affluent people that had been affected by the disease and one part ‘seems to get it’ board member. There was no core leadership, no strategic goals other than to ‘keep going and get more money’, with no plan in place to figure out how to do this.
Where Are We Going?
No one wanted to accept the leadership role of Board Chair, and the decision was made to change the role to one of Board Chair Committee. This committee was made up of the caring and well-meaning people devoted to the cause, and among them they shared exactly ZERO nonprofit management experience.
As time went forward, clarity abut the goals and how to achieve them as well as the day to day routine became muddled and unclear. What constituted ‘innovative’, who got to decide how to choose what to support, who to connect with and what direction? With no one person at the helm, the board separated itself into a couple of smaller groups, and the one board member who ‘got it’ found herself in the impossible position of attempting to be a peacemaker among them. Newer board members came, and soon left. Those that remained loyal and really wanted to see this organization regroup and find its path again stayed on, however without any real idea of how to turn things around.
A woman who had been part of the original founding group over 20 years ago was brought back in the position of part time E. D. with the directive to organize the chaotic office and records, clean up the mess of a donor list and records, provide administrative support, manage events and fundraising, and anything else any Board member asked of her. (I thought this was a terrifying job description; how in the world could anyone do all this?)
Responsibility vs. Authority
The combination of lack of experience, knowledge and leadership then begat the responsibility/authority friction that was inevitable. The board wanted authority without responsibility; the Board expected the E.D. to be responsible with no authority. The lack of policy, procedures and understanding of the special needs of managing a nonprofit created a very uncomfortable unproductive situation.
The E.D. had business sense and common sense going for her, along with the history of the organization since inception. But she found herself acting as the little Dutch boy, running from hole to hole in the dyke, trying to stop the leaking. She did not have specific knowledge of some of the intricacies of nonprofit management and was pulled in multiple directions simultaneously, everything was a priority to someone.
The board members knew what they wanted in general terms, but not how to achieve those goals; what the actual mechanics were of creating a fundraising strategy, acknowledging and recording gifts, and soliciting new donors. It felt as if everyone was treading water trying to remain afloat, without real energy devoted toward accomplishing the mission and vision of the organization.
The Wheels Fell Off
The wheels fell off as different board members had different expectations from one another and the E.D. As there was no ‘one’ in charge, disagreements became series of email strings filled with misunderstandings, miscommunication and naturally, mistrust. The buck stopped nowhere. As the old sayings goes, no one ever erected a statue to a committee.
This is a recipe for disaster for everyone. The E. D. felt she had no other option than to leave the organization she loved. The board lost the continuum of office management and then was in the unenviable position of having to hire a new E.D. without a comprehensive understanding of who and what they really needed.
What’s the Point?
Taking responsibility, putting oneself in the line of fire is tough, but someone has to do it. Being is leader is much more than giving orders, it is making the tough choices, guiding the function and efficacy of the organization. Sometimes it can mean being a referee; sometimes it can mean being a translator, visionary or facilitator. But that role has to be filled, and not by a committee.
Check your articles of incorporation or association and by laws, be sure you are aware of how many board members and what board roles are listed in the organizing documents. Each role in your nonprofit deserves care and respect, as well as a commitment to the vision and mission you all serve.
Nonprofit work is hard enough; don’t shoot yourselves in the foot by allowing infrastructure problems add to the challenge. Take the time to sort out who, what and when what does, and how it will be done. It may be rough at first, but I promise, it will be worth it.
Some unfortunate rancor, some burnt feelings and fingers. The E.D. did leave,the board fractured between the more academic members and the well-meaning but inexperienced members. The academics declined to involve themselves in what they perceived as internal politics, and waited for someone else to do something.
The group ended up turning on itself: several board members still were looking for someone to ‘do the work’ but were unwilling to do many tasks themselves. There was a thought about hiring an HR person to help them create a job posting for the open position of part time E. D., but so far, that has not happened. Fundraising was essentially suspended as no one took any steps ton communicate and contact donors, which then created a vicious circle of not enough money to pursue the mission or promote the programs.
What’s going to happen?
It remains to be seen, and we can only hope that someone gets it together and takes a leadership role. It is a shame to have so many people with similar goals and concerns to be sidetracked by politics, lack of experience and information to find themselves at odds. No good work is being done, no innovative research is being considered or supported.
We will watch and see how the entire situation unfolds and hope that the situation can turn itself around. No doubt it will be a big challenge, and possibly uncomfortable, but it requires vision, confidence and a strong spine to be a leader.
Any committee is only as good as the most knowledgeable, determined and vigorous person on it. There must be somebody who provides the flame.
Lady Bird Johnson
Image credit: http://teaching.monster.com/nfs/teaching/attachment_images/0005/9834/shutterstock_19853341_crop380w.jpg?1234366793