Nonprofit Leadership: Conformity and Individuality
Leaders with good judgment know when to force conformity and when to celebrate individuality. That sounds a lot like a great parent doesn't it?
Getting the balance right can mean millions of dollars for nonprofits and avoiding a fractured relationship with a teenage child.
Successful nonprofits sooner or later must offer shared resources to their subdivisions (we'll call them chapters for this piece). And, typically, they have to enforce use of those shared resources for great reasons, just like a parent has to force conformity to some standards, like getting home before curfew.
Like teenagers, chapters feel frustrated and annoyed by this top-down directive, even when intellectually they understand its purpose. Chapters want to do their own thing. National "doesn't understand how we are in this community." Sometimes chapters throw their hands up and say things like, "I don't know how it works," or, "It just doesn't work like that for us here."
Sometimes, national forgets that most great ideas bubble out of chapters, from individuals. Sometimes, the leaders at national stop listening to their teenagers ... er ... chapters because they've had a long day, are behind goal or have too many chapters hammering on them for attention, and they are just trying to find a way to get it all done.
The empowered chapter represents the empowered staff person and the empowered volunteer. Empowerment leads to hard work, creativity and success. In children, empowerment—when done well—leads to independence, trustworthiness and confidence. Overuse of required conformity in both leads to disenfranchisement, intellectual malaise and discontent.
I can't tell you the perfect balance; you know your world best. But I can tell you how vitally important it is to recognize that you are making decisions each day about what you require for conformity and how much you allow individuality among your subordinates (and kids). And I can tell you that the forces at work on you (stress, pressure, time constraints) don't always position you to make the best choice. Be wary.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.