We Always Have Choices
In these columns I address real-life obstacles and challenges that nonprofits face in creating sustainable funding to deliver their missions and achieve real impact. Readers write via email to receive a quick consultation and perhaps have their particular problems addressed in these columns.
We all have choices. All of us. Always.
I recently heard from a past client with with whom I had been involved in some rather unpleasant work several months back. I say "unpleasant" in as much as some when confronted with this situation manage to avoid dealing with it for years — to the detriment of many.
We all have choices in life. The key is recognizing these when they appear and knowing who should make which choice. Some of the choices with which we're presented will not be easy to make. The tough ones, those that we might seek to avoid, are usually the ones we need to make — indeed, we must make — to achieve the best outcomes.
I was met at the airport by the board chair, who was my ride to the board retreat I was leading. Immediately upon entering the car, he informed me that we were having breakfast with another key board member.
After being seated at the restaurant and making the expected introduction, the conversation very quickly went to the matter at hand. It wasn't to entertain me with a pleasant meal.
The executive director of this social-service agency was also its founder. Like many founders, genuine passion generated from personal experience had given birth to an embryonic undertaking. Twenty-five years later, the organization had grown into the significant force of community renewal it is today.
The simple truth was that the organization was in full throes of what some call "founder's syndrome." The founder had become the problem rather than the solution.
Many of us have been there — or at least know of a situation like this. The specifics of how and why the founder had out-stayed his effectiveness really don't matter. The crux of the issue was what to do.
Folks who really mean well and seek to do good work staff most nonprofits. They really do. They may have even given exemplary service or provided a singular vision — past tense. Because of this, there is often a great reluctance to confront a situation that has gone south and make the hard choice.
The difficult option is, of course, to remove the executive who has now become an impediment to the fulfillment of the organization's mission. I unabashedly assert the need for this whenever the delivery of the mission and the impact of the organization in the community it serves begins to suffer.
Such a choice is made far easier if the organization has a history of clearly understanding the role of its donors. Donors are the investors in a charitable organization. By extension — and specifically in the policy governance model — they are its owners.
The board's role is to keep faith with the investors while being true to the organization's mission. Donors make gifts to see their personal values and visions realized. They do not make investments simply to provide employment or to further the dreams and values of others.
When these dynamics are understood, the likelihood of confusing sentiment and loyalty with keeping faith with the vision becomes a lot less likely.
As you would expect, there was a lot of emotion tied up in the particular situation — among everyone. There was even the threat of legal action should the board remove the executive.
My role was to examine the details, define the options open to the board and let them make the choice. Fortunately, they made the correct one.
Rather than confuse sentiment with vision or be bullied by threats, the board moved to gracefully but deliberately remove the executive. There were hurt feelings, no doubt. The threats continued to be made — although they were just that.
Within a month, a whole new climate had come over the organization. Donors felt free to express their opinions. Board members felt free to debate the real issues facing the organization. They energetically embraced their roles as the chief advocates and fundraisers for the organization. Within six months, giving was up substantially.
The organization has gone on to achieve even greater successes for the community it serves. The board is on the cusp of launching the organization's most ambitious campaign — a project that had been blocked and delayed by the previous executive.
One would hope that the founder sees this. That's not really the board's concern, however. The choice to see beyond himself is the executive's. The choice to maintain faith with the donors and the organization's vision is the board's. When we don't attempt to make the choices that others should be making, life works out a whole lot better for everyone.
Please let me hear from you concerning your particular situation and the difficulties you face in developing sustainable revenue streams. Email me and I'll give you a quick response. I'll choose some of these thorny obstacles to share, along with my insights, in upcoming columns.
An internationally recognized philanthropy and fundraising thought leader, Larry C. Johnson trains the staff and volunteers of worthy causes to achieve real impact through the creation of reliable, growing revenue streams. He emphasizes principles before methods as the key to long-lasting success. He stresses the simple, the practical and the joyful.
Larry is the founder of The Eight Principles, the premier brand for educational products and services in relational fundraising and philanthropy. The Eight Principles provides digital education, live workshops and structured coaching to nonprofit organizations.
Author of the award-winning book, "The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising," AFP named Larry Outstanding Development Executive in 2010. The Wall Street Business Network ranks him in the Top 15 Fundraising Consultants in the USA. Larry is a graduate of Yale University. Larry speaks widely and serves on numerous nonprofit and corporate boards, including The Philanthropy Council of The Carter Center, the philanthropy of the 39th President of the U.S.