Moving Past Fear to Improve Decision-Making Processes in Nonprofits
“Our fear of failure hampers our decision-making and results.”
“We take a long time to mull over decisions, and we constantly revisit decisions we’ve made.”
“If someone questions what we’ve decided, we immediately think we’ve done something wrong.”
If these statements from nonprofit employees I’ve interviewed resonate at all with your own experience in a nonprofit organization, you are not alone.
Whether you’re an executive director, board member, funder, staff member or even a volunteer in a nonprofit, chances are you feel frustrated with the inefficiency of your organization’s decision-making processes. It’s not surprising. With the veritable maze of interlocking decisions nonprofits face and the relative lack of clarity about who has power and who makes decisions, the mere act of making a decision can be time-consuming and inefficient.
What is surprising, though, is the underlying reason, which each of these statements implies but is rarely acknowledged: fear.
Think about it. Mulling over and revisiting decisions reflects a fear of failure. Worrying that if somebody questions a decision means you’ve done something wrong reflects a fear of making mistakes. Other sentiments I’ve heard expressed reflect fears of upsetting organizational harmony, of challenging authority and of stepping on other people’s toes.
Because making decisions is at it’s essence an act of power, it’s natural that for many, it provokes a whole slew of emotions, including fear. Typically, we see three major fears connected with decision-making in nonprofits: Fear of failure, fear of conflict and fear of rejection.
Fear of Failure
Nonprofits take on huge goals: To end hunger. To eliminate homelessness. They take on challenges that no for-profit company would ever attempt. For-profits are successful if their profits are increasing and their market share is growing. On the contrary, nonprofit organizations are rarely satisfied with their progress, since the needs seem never-ending. This is a perfect recipe for fear of failure.
On a personal level, people who lead nonprofits also fear the potential failure of disappointing the people and institutions that have given them time and money.
Fear of Conflict
People generally don’t enjoy conflict, but in nonprofits, an aversion to conflict can be a by-product of the familial atmosphere of the organization. As J.B. Schramm, chair of Learn to Earn at New Profit and formerly College Summit co-founder, said, “Looking at my own experience as a leader, there were times when I handled staff with kid gloves, concerned because they were working very hard for less money than they could make in the for-profit sector. Upon reflection, I realized that was a myth—and a little patronizing."
On the staff level, consensus and harmony are important in the familial nonprofit atmosphere and no one wants to feel ostracized from the group for violating the established norms. Staff are slow to question the existing process, and reticent to take on decision-making roles unless explicitly encouraged to do so.
These feelings can be further complicated by the unresolved and often awkwardly, if ever, discussed issues of race, gender, class, age and sexual orientation and their effect on decision-making in nonprofits. Whether we want to admit it or not, many nonprofit leaders have biases about who should be making what decisions in their organizations, and these biases are rarely, if ever, addressed.
Fear of Rejection
A particularly raw emotion, fear of rejection confuses discussions of nonprofit power and stymies decision-making by limiting the issues that people are willing to discuss. Exclusion from an organization can have a devastating effect on an individual, and this is particularly concerning for people outside the dominant culture. In our observations, people who work in nonprofits are consistently loyal to their organizations and committed to the mission they serve. None of them wants to be seen as uncommitted, and many are willing to stay in untenable situations for the mission’s sake.
Combined with the anxiety over potential loss of affiliation, this often makes people hesitant to bring up uncomfortable topics that might cause them to be ostracized. Thus, fear of rejection limits the issues—however important—that people are willing to discuss.
Taken individually or together, these fears have the undeniable effect of complicating decision-making processes in nonprofits.
This can be seen in the processes surrounding fundraising decisions. Executive directors and their senior leadership are often asked to be the default decision-makers on the most crucial organizational issues, including fundraising. And this structure is implicit. If an executive director doesn’t initiate an explicit conversation about this, his or her team and board are unlikely to bring up these topics. Everyone will assume they already know where power and decision-making exists, yet when questioned, they may or may not actually know what the executive director wants.
One of our clients had a board that was dedicated to the organization’s mission, but saw its primary function to support the initiatives of the executive director. As board members were always waiting for instructions instead of taking initiatives, they would merely do what was asked of them without pushing the executive director or themselves to raise money or develop new programs. As a result, fundraising goals were seldom met.
But there is a remedy. Quite simply, talking about power and decision-making openly within an organization will go a long way toward diffusing fears. To do so, it’s necessary to have a common language that helps navigate the worries that will inevitably spring up during the course of conversations.
Ultimately, the goal of talking is to help move past fear and enable the members of your organization to work together to make the decision-making process more efficient. One important step will be learning how to speak up and advocating for those decisions affecting your job that you would personally like to make.
If you’re a leader, this will translate into gaining the ability to focus more on high-impact decisions that will make a difference. If you are a team member at the staff level, you will gain the power to use more of your natural decision-making capacity to help move your organization forward in a meaningful way.
Steve Scheier, author of "Do More Good. Better. Using the Power of Decision Clarity to Mobilize the Talent of Your Nonproft Team," is the CEO and Founder of Scheier+Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations distribute power differently so they can do more good. Prior to founding Scheier+Group in 2010, Steve was vice president of human assets and training at College Summit, and president at Entrepreneurs Foundation. On the private-sector side, Steve has served as a vice president of human resources at Food.com and at CKS Group, and worked in marketing at Apple Inc. He is an occasional contributor to the North Bay Business Journal.