Living in a Bubble

I’ve been living in a bubble.  I attended a seminar by an attorney who works with nonprofits, talking to other attorneys about the world of nonprofits.

Her talk was a shocking reminder of just how widespread misconceptions about board service are.  I’m becoming used to standing on a soap box and expounding with great assurance about the relationships between boards and executives. But every time I hear a professional presenting outdated ideas about board service, I am still shocked.

boy in a bubbleWhat she did was no different from so many other professionals, who know their fields very well, but are less informed about trends in governance. In this case, she launched immediately into the legal duties of care, loyalty and obedience, without setting the stage of what the whole point of a board is. She declared that board retreats could be done maybe every two years, or three if that’s when the full board has turned over, and used the word boring to describe board meetings. She referenced the never-changing agenda of “minutes, financial report, directors report, old business, new business,” and said that sometimes there just isn’t anything going on that’s important for the board to talk about.

There is so much I’ve learned from these professionals. An attorney describing the validity of term limits in ways that other attorneys can understand them; the legal ins-and-outs of confidentiality. But I cringe at the depiction of board service that they’ve conveyed. No one in their right mind would want to be on a board, if they thought that board service was as they describe.

So I have a new challenge. Apparently, I’ve been living in a bubble, where I communicate regularly with like-minded individuals. We see board service as a noble investment in our communities while being fully engaged with others who also see value in the mission, ensuring that nonprofit organizations have the resources with which to continue their work.

The challenge is, how do I—how do WE—get the word out to other professionals, so instead of undermining our work, they are also missionaries for the role of boards and board service?

And, since I’m living in a bubble, what misconceptions do I have, that I need to be disabused of, so I can reciprocate in my work, and provide an accurate picture of their field?

Any ideas?

Don’t Worry, Be Happy? Bah!

In 1988, Bobby McFerrin released a song that drove me absolutely nuts. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Just ask my husband. I cringed whenever I heard it. The whole idea that you should never worry, and that just being told to be happy would work was just crazy to me.sculpture

Frankly, I still feel that way. No, I don’t cringe when I hear the song, but the philosophy that we should never worry just doesn’t work for me.

Stress isn’t your enemy! Stress can be good! It’s how we grow!

Stressing about stress is your enemy.  Stressing without release is your enemy. But stress isn’t bad in and of itself. In fact, in orthopedics, there’s something called Wolf’s Law – bone that is subjected to some stress, grows stronger in the area of stress. The same thing with muscles. That’s why we’re told to do cardiovascular exercise – so our heart muscle grows stronger.

It follows through into our work lives. If we’re constantly working in our comfort zones, then we don’t grow. But working outside of our comfort zones is stressful.

So what?

You didn’t learn to ride a bike by not taking terrifying first peddles and falling down a few times.

When it comes to our nonprofit work, we have to face the fact that working outside our comfort zone is the only way we’ll grow beyond what we’re already doing.  It may be stressful, but as long as we periodically take some time off to relax and look at what we’ve done, then the stress is good.

If you want to work explore how a coach or mentor can help you or your staff embrace the stress – and work with it instead of against it – let me know! I’m happy to talk about it and see if there are ways that you can put stress to work for you.

Better be nasty first

Better be nasty first, before someone else is nasty to you.

Ever notice how that seems to be the attitude of so many people?  It’s an attitude that exudes arrogance, because it asks the world to earn respect, instead of automatically endowing each person with dignity.

people at a meetingOn the other hand, my mother, of blessed memory, always treated people with respect until they lost it, and more often than not, they lived up to her expectations. Never one to be in the spotlight, she earned no honors or awards but she had a smile and a welcome for each new person. 29 years ago, the throng at her funeral testified to just how many people she had touched with this attitude.

In the nonprofit world, you are far more likely to encounter people like my mother than the nasty folks of the first paragraph. But if that’s the case, why is there acrimony when board members, volunteers and staff professionals disagree? If the nonprofit world is filled with people who have the best interests of their organizations at heart, why is it sometimes hard to maintain a cordial discourse?

Maybe, although we profess that each party has good intentions, our actions belie that belief.

Let’s take, for example, a house of worship.

The people on the board of trustees, or vestry, or similar body, are volunteering their time to make this house of worship a healthy, vibrant place for all people who wish to participate. But sometimes, when there is a disagreement on the board, personalities are brought into the discussion, old grudges are revived and arguments become heated. Nastiness occasionally ensues. Trustees storm out. Rumors are spread. Email diatribes fly.

Yet each party to the disagreement probably began by arguing from a position of faith, and love of the organization; each wants the church, mosque, or synagogue to be the best it can be. How much more cordial the discussion would be if each party stepped back, acknowledged that they all want the organization to succeed, and then acted as if they truly believed it.

The disagreement is not who loves the congregation more – it’s about how best to improve it.  The next time a disagreement starts – and there WILL be disagreements – step back and reinforce this. Elevate the conversation. Place the issue at hand in front of the board, and remind all the parties to presume that each comes to the table in good faith.

I am not a Pollyanna. I will not deny that there are people who are regularly nasty or are just plain bad guys. But you can’t convince me that the majority of the world would not want to see it improve.

Presume good will.

If you’d like to find out more about how to elevate the conversation in board meetings, get in touch with me at  Let’s see if there are techniques for making the meetings more productive, by focusing on why you’re all there in the first place…because you ALL want to achieve your mission.

Machiavelli was Right

Niccolo Machiavelli was right, when he said. There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

machiavelliWow. He sure nailed it on the head. If you’ve ever come into an organization and tried to change its course, you know just how right he was. Change is hard, change is risky, and change is resisted.

And even when people claim to be willing to change, almost to a person, they will tell you that their peers will resist it.

In February, Julia Kirby wrote an analysis of the downfall of a change agent. As I read her blog on Harvard Business Review, most of her analysis boils down to arrogance. Coming in as a white knight that will rescue a situation, creating an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality, presuming that everyone agrees that change is necessary – any one of these will create resentment in an organization. Doing all of them is sure to make change even harder.

An organization is made of people who have invested time and their lives in building something good. To be told that it has to change implies that they have wasted their time, or that what they have built is not good.

Instead, engaging every level in the organization in making the already good even better creates a team more willing to work on change. And change is important, to keep up with society, and to ensure that you’re delivering your mission in the best way possible.

It’s not a panacea – change IS hard – but a willing attitude goes a long way toward making those difficult transitions easier to take. Instead of imposing change, inspire the team to aspire to greatness. Change will follow.

When Good Intentions Get Derailed

When good intentions get derailed.

I’m on the board of a nonprofit contemplating a new initiative, and it’s been taking us a long time to come to a conclusion. When the chair said, “Thanks, Gina, for nudging us back on track,”  I remembered something that nonprofit administrators sometimes forget.train tracks

Boards of Directors have other lives.

Executive Directors eat, sleep, breathe, LIVE the mission. Most boards don’t.

That’s not to say they don’t care. Not at all. They care very deeply! That’s why they are filled with regret when they realize that they’re not living up to their own expectations of what they hope to accomplish during their terms. The Executive Director may be frustrated with them for not following through, but you can bet that most of them are also frustrated with their own lack of progress.

I once worked with a Board President who was dynamite at raising money – when he made his calls. He was completely committed to making those calls When he was at the board meeting, he had no other mission except to make those calls. But he didn’t make the calls.

Something else came up to distract him, and as committed as he was to the mission, the immediate task took precedence, pushing those fundraising calls down the list.

So what’s the solution?

Well, in the case of the board president, we set appointments for him and the Executive to meet in the same room and make the calls. Once it was on his calendar, it became concrete, not just an item on a to-do list.

We figured out what the problem was, what was keeping him from fulfilling his own self-identified commitments, and figured out how to overcome those obstacles.  With this as an example, the Executive Director learned to view each board member as an individual. Each had his or her own external pressures and obstacles, and each had ways in which they worked well. The Executive Director had to spend some time considering how to help each stay on track.

Time consuming? A bit. But so much more productive than fuming, “can’t they see that this is important?!”

And in the case of the nonprofit that opened this post? We set concrete dates and commitments for our next meeting.

What keeps your board members from accomplishing their work? What else is on their minds? How can these obstacles be overcome? If you’d like to hash this out, let me know!

If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway

If it ain’t broke, find a better way.

Usually, I hear if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  At nonprofits, it’s usually used to defend the status quo – we’ve never had term limits, our mission is still as important as ever, the materials in our literacy classes have always worked, we always read our committee reports out loud, Jimmy’s always handled our books, the 5K is our biggest fundraiser!scuplture of man sewing

The problem is, if we only fixed what’s broken, we’d never have the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the iPod, the space shuttle. Heck, if we only fixed what’s broken, we might never have invented the sewing machine! Each of these improvements weren’t fixing something that was broken, they happened because someone said there had to be a better way.

It’s the same thing with delivering our missions. Our programs have been working just fine, thank you very much. Why should we change? The answer isn’t change for the sake of change. The answer is change to do it better. To have a greater impact. To use our resources more wisely.

That’s why strong, effective nonprofits regularly evaluate their programs and measure their effectiveness. It’s not to fulfill funder requirements, although that is a nice benefit. It’s to see if we can learn from them, and find ways of having a greater impact.  Many nonprofits operate in the same mission space, because there is such a great need. It’s not competition if you can learn from each other, and discover the best practices for making a difference.

We evaluate our personnel all the time (or at least we know we should). Shouldn’t we be evaluating our programs?

Instead of saying, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, shouldn’t we be asking, it ain’t broke, but can we do it better?

One of the 55 standards of The Standards for Excellence: A Code of Ethics and Accountability for nonprofits calls for regular evaluation of programs. If you would like more information about the Standards, or ways to evaluate your programs, let me know. Let’s talk.