#changeforgood: Overcoming Nonprofit Board Resistance
A favorite quip (in my notes, it is attributed to SNL) goes like this:
It’s a good idea;
But it’s a new idea;
Therefore, we fear it;
Therefore, we must reject it.
If that resonates with you relative to your board work, your board may have resistance-itis. When experiencing nonprofit board resistance, you’ll know it, you’ll feel it. You’ll feel the frustration when you have a brainstorm and send a quick note or text—excited by the opportunity to share your new idea and, audibly, hear the dull thud of it landing, fully unread, in the recipients’ inboxes or phones. You’ll see it in the faces of your colleagues in meetings. You’ll read it in notes back to you. Enough said.
We know this happens, now let’s look at why, and what can be done to move past it.
States of Intractability
Resistance happens for a bunch of reasons.
- Fear is absolutely one of the top reasons for resistance to change and new ideas. People can worry that they won’t be included in the change, so to them, the best plan is just to obstruct it. End of story.
- Skills. People may not have the skills or talents that are required post-change. And rather than get the skills, they pick door No. 2 and block the change.
- Control. Change very often means, you guessed it, change in who is in charge. The people who formerly controlled a place, a board or an agenda by managing access to information or through some other similar mechanism just won’t have that lever to pull anymore. And, say it with me now, rather than embrace the change and find their new place in it, they get in the way of the change.
I’m sure you could add to this list.
If we agree and also accept the academic well-trod ground that many of the roots of resistance to change are, at their core, and I would add perhaps particularly in the context of nonprofit boards, essentially about power and control, our approaches to overcoming resistance must address this.
Here are a couple of approaches we find particularly helpful for nonprofit boards.
- Find a quiet place and game out the dynamic you are seeing. What’s happening? Who’s in charge on paper? In reality? Who is worried about what? Why? The faster you know what’s happening, accurately and precisely, the better equipped you will be to deal with it.
- Carefully, very carefully, get the resistance out in the open. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Ask questions, gently. Put items on meeting agendas that will open up conversations that will creep up softly on resistance spots so others can see them, too.
- Determine who is committed to resistance and who is open to migration to change. Resistance is not a permanent state for everyone, particularly when it is fear-driven. Sometimes when board members who have been around since the early days see an organization they deeply love change and grow in ways they don’t understand, they will throw down the gauntlet of resistance just to stay in the game. Shown a path to help effectively in today’s cause environment, they can become some of the most ardent supporters. Give them that chance.
- Offer an opportunity for skill development and keep a good flow of relevant information going to your board. Giving them a way to stay on top of what they need to know to be good board members means they can participate by, well, participating, and not resisting.
And sometimes, there is no way to overcome the resister, and the resister must simply be asked to move to a different role or a different organization, where they cannot obstruct the much needed and wanted change. #changeforgood