I’ve had the chance to work with a number of non-profits recently. I always enjoy these opportunities for a number of reasons, but generally it’s because the clarity of mission and the passion for the work of the organization. Whether it’s focused on social service, the environment, history or culture, or education, it’s fun to know that at some point an individual or group saw a need in their community and organized to address it.
While non-profits face many of the same challenges as for-profits, they have unique challenges related to they way they are structured, how they secure funding and how they recruit and manage volunteers among other things. Non-profit boards, in particular at small non-profits, present an entire host of opportunities and challenges. Is it a “working” board or a “policy” board, do members understand what the expectations are when they are recruited, and does the board function well enough to move the organization forward and give guidance to employees and volunteers?
If you are involved with a non-profit board here are two things to keep in mind if your organization is dealing with policy, change or growth or a changing environment in which you do your work…in other words all non-profits.
Mission Statements Matter
Often in my strategic planning work with non-profit boards we end up taking a look at the the Vision and Mission of the organization. When the topic comes up, people’s body language often visibly shifts, they get tense, and some start to look for the exits. I think this happens because most of us have been involved in at least one horrible process in which we fell into a vortex of minutia and semantics that resulted in hours of meaningless debate and word-smithing to come up with a statement that no one will ever actually use to inform their work.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I was listening to a podcast recently in which former staffers for President Obama said that when they were stuck on a policy decision, they would go back to his 2004 Democratic convention speech to help guide their decision. They said that the speech clearly identified his beliefs, his goals and his values. It helped them clarify their thinking or settle disputes. That speech has acted as an accessible guide for the administration’s work ever since.
A well-written mission statement or strategic plan can be that for your organization, an anchoring document that drives decisions, large and small. If a new project or funding opportunity doesn’t line up with your mission, there should be a very good reason to pursue it rather than just chasing dollars or participants. When hiring new people, the mission can communicate who you are to the candidates as well as test if they are a good fit for the organization. And, maybe most importantly, the process of creating or revising a mission or vision statement can give the organization an opportunity to have important and challenging conversations before a crisis necessitates them. Strategic planning or revising a mission statement should never be a stand-alone exercise that creates a document that is never accessed again, until it’s time for a “retreat”.
Passion is a Plus…Usually
Many people involved in non-profits are very passionate about the mission of the organization, and that is generally a good thing. This allows people to get a tremendous amount of work done and when conveyed to funders it can persuade them to be generous with their dollars. And, as many of us have seen nothing encourages spirited debate among boards, staff or volunteers like passion on a subject that matters.
But, passion can have some downsides as well. Burnout is a real possibility with people who care about something deeply and make all aspects of their work personal. I’ve seen so many non-profits who seem to measure the level of commitment of employees or volunteers by the number of hours worked. Someone actually once said, “Our workweek is 40 hours, but if I’m not here at least 50 to 60 hours, even if I have my work done, I get comments from my co-workers.” It’s key for people involved in non-profits to work to maintain balance in their lives so that their passion is sustainable for themselves and their loved one.
Passion can also lead people to be less inviting or accepting of new people. I’ve seen this time and again; a long-time volunteer who knows everything there is to know about the subject and the process loses their patience with new volunteers or participants who have entry level questions or who make mistakes. Whether it’s along the lines of, “It’s just easier if I do it myself,” or “The signs clearly says that you need to go to that line before coming here,” those interactions turn people off and are more common than you might be willing to admit. This often leads to the inevitable conversation, “We can’t find any volunteers. No one wants to step up to help,” or it can lead to an unexplained attendance drop in programs or events.
Passion can also lead to unproductive conflict at all levels of the organization. Values-based conflict over ideas, managed in a positive way can yield tremendous outcomes, but sometimes people demonstrate their passion for a cause through trying to be right in disagreements. It’s important to create a culture for conflict in your organization that allows for passionate debate, but channels it to productive outcomes. It may even take significant work with individuals who engage in this type of behavior well away from the meetings in which you want to make decisions. As a leader, you never want to squash enthusiasm or passion, but it may be important to temper your own and at appropriate times encourage others to do the same.
Next month, we’ll be looking at a couple more challenges specific to non-profits and how to address them.
True North Consultants works with non-profits and for-profits to improve performance and increase the impact of individuals and the organization. We would love to work with you to help you meet your goals.