Why Disaffiliations Really Happen at Nonprofits
The prefix “dis,” meaning “to do the opposite,” triggers mostly unpleasant associations. “Dismember” is the first one that pops into our minds.
“Disaffiliation” is another one that suggests there’ll be no fun had. In the nonprofit sector, it describes a change in relationships, in organization. Disaffiliations aren’t usually driven by whether the proposed change is good or bad. Disaffiliations happen because humans are involved. And like most things involving humans, there are parts that are spoken and parts that go unsaid.
Chapter or affiliate, disaffiliations happen for several reasons that are spoken aloud. Typically, some significant change is a catalyst for the conversation. Often the change is toward unification, streamlining in some way, or a significant program change. The narrative regarding the change goes along the lines of, “But, we’re different here,” or “They (the other side) can’t serve constituents as well as we do,” or “I just can’t trust them.” Are these just clever rationalizations? No. These narratives are believed by those who utter them.
People are driven to create what psychologists call “self-justification.” It’s not the same thing as lying or making excuses. Instead, it allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. Self-justification has both costs and benefits. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It explains how two well-meaning entities can have radically different mindsets. Because we humans are all affected by myriad biases that make sure we see ourselves as the good guys. There’s the self-serving bias, the tendency for people to give themselves the credit when things go right but blame circumstances or bad luck when they go badly. This bias protects our self-esteem. And sometimes it’s responsible for people blaming others for their own shortcomings.
We like to think we're rational human beings — but we’re prone to hundreds of documented biases that cause us to think and act irrationally. Even thinking we're rational despite evidence to the contrary in others is known as blind-spot bias. For more about this topic, see psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s classic book, “Mistakes Were Made, (But Not by Me).” The title alone will tip you off to the content.
Here’s something that happens a lot in unification — the chapter CEO wants to keep the CEO title and autonomy. However, leading a mission-driven organization, the goal is to help the greatest number of people, not further one’s career. You’re probably familiar with the term “cognitive dissonance.” It’s the hardwired psychological mechanism that creates self-justification and protects our beliefs and our self-esteem. Tavris and Aronson say, “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent with each other.” We humans don’t like being in that situation and find a way to resolve the dissonance. Although most people are familiar with the term, few understand its enormous motivational power.
So, the chapter CEO can’t say, “I want to keep my title and power” out loud, even to themselves. The dissonance of the two stances — I want my power, and I want to support the mission in the best way (here we’re assuming that the change is the “best way”) — requires the CEO to create a new narrative. That’s how they get to, “We can do it better, by ourselves, locally,” or something similar.
This explains why major changes (sometimes even small changes) often happen in the most agonizingly slow way. We must give people time to accept and work through the change in a way that puts conscious (mission) concerns ahead of (unconscious) self-justification concerns. By the way — no matter which side of the conversation you are on, this is not easy stuff.
The thing about these biases is they’re unconscious. Over thousands of generations on the African Savanna, they became hardwired into human behavior because they helped people survive. Today, they work their influence without our awareness.
So, the drive for self-justification is not a product of the C-Suite. The good news is that by understanding how this mechanism works, we can defeat the wiring.
Another Example – Unification (or Merger)
In the case of unification, how can we avoid (to the extent possible) disaffiliations produced by individuals’ need for self-justification? Starting at the national board level, here are the broad strokes. Expect countless meetings in which some people say the same thing over and over; then new people say the same thing over and over. In any case, if you are pushing toward unification — sit, smile, affirm, restate. Repeat. Then repeat again. Your national board is the first entrée into the chapter network.
Define the Mission (Yes, Really)
Define the mission very specifically at the national board level. This seems obvious; it is not. Typically, there are different interpretations of the same set of words, with the chapter folks inserting the unspoken word “local” into every sentence and national inserting the unspoken word “everywhere.”
Avoid Crossing Conversations
Separate conversations about “defining the mission” from conversations about “tactically executing the mission.” These two conversations can’t happen at the same time. Nor can they happen out of sequence (mission comes first).
Until the mission is defined, tactical concerns are thrown up as chaff to derail and delay conversations, the unconscious goal of those avoiding change. To underscore this point, (it’s unconscious) the folks throwing the chaff don’t know they are trying to derail the conversation. These are good people doing what they are hardwired to do — protect their status. On the African Savanna, protecting status might keep a family in power and alive. Failing to do so could mean being driven out of a community or losing resources like access to food and a safe harbor, or even death. One could argue that the most evolved of us are the best at preventing change when we’re in power.
Ask for Commitment
Ask for commitment to the mission, as it is defined. Out loud. On paper. In the press. Get the same tattoo. All things will be held against the mission directive to determine its value or lack thereof. Later, ask for a similar commitment to the strategic plan. Psychologists refer to this as the “rule of commitment.” It’s a type of social norm marketers and salespeople often use to get consumers to make purchases. That’s because we typically feel obligated to follow through with something after making a public commitment. Once people have made some public pledge to something, they feel both social pressure and internal psychological pressure to stick to it.
Now the Work
It’s imperative to take these two steps at the national level to avoid the major pitfall that can derail them, namely, talking about tactics to accomplish the mission before agreeing on the mission. After defining the mission specifically and getting commitment, the course and subsequent decisions become self-evident.
Assuming the national board has decided to unify, a similar process happens at the affiliate/chapter level. Helping chapters/affiliates come to the same answers as the national board becomes the blocking and tackling, the spadework. These efforts are borne by the executive staff of the national organization with the full support of the national board. This work is driven by the mission standard to which all have agreed and committed to. Disaffiliations happen when the chapter or affiliate comes to different conclusions than the national organization came to about the two big questions. Specifically, what the mission means, and how to tactically execute the mission. When that happens, they can’t or won’t sign on.
We have met only one social good executive who has lived through both sides of a unification (our Spidey sense tells us that upon publication, we will learn of more, and we welcome that). Calaneet Balas, CEO of The ALS Association, was a chapter executive director for the Arthritis Foundation when it went through its recent — and successful — merger to a single corporation.
Balas says, “In my executive director role during the transition, I felt the pull of self-justification. I felt myself getting anxious and creating reasons why the consolidation might be a bad thing. Now, I know that it’s sometimes hard (if not impossible) to step back and think hard on, ‘What does the mission require?’ The mission required that I not just accept consolidation, but to help with it. So, I did. Did it end up putting me out of a job? No, it put me in a different job, which positioned me for my current job. It was an experience I needed, but more importantly, it was what I needed to do in my role at that moment — to do the best I could do for the mission at hand.”
Now, Balas is leading the unification of The ALS Association, which the national board agreed upon in July.
When It Just Doesn’t Work
So, what really happens when, despite your best efforts, chapters/affiliates disaffiliate? A well-prepared national organization has a lease prepared with an office down the street and a pen poised to sign on the dotted line. The phone system, internet, cleaning crew, staff, etc., has already been selected. There’s a large, green “go” button installed under the desk at the left knee of the transition team leader. They already know the color of the walls and carpet and whether it’s going to be a Keurig or Nespresso.
The affiliate loses some level of assets (depending on how the charter is structured) but, most importantly, loses the ability to use the organization’s brand assets. In addition, the time and effort to re-brand, re-explain, re-acquire, re-staff — re-everything — takes the focus away from the mission and throws the mission community into a culture war.
A new nonprofit is born in an all too familiar way—through distrust, discontent and dissatisfaction (there’s that nasty “dis” prefix again). No wonder that by 2020, Americans’ trust in nonprofits had dropped to 50%. Oh, but for a Certificate of Need program for granting nonprofit status.
In short, the mission loses.
At the end of the day, the math won’t change anyone’s mind. No amount of “streamlined efforts, reduced expenses, path to promotion” will help. When getting a big change done, the human in front of you is the seemingly immovable rock in your path. That rock is a well-intentioned, hyper-motivated, creative, usually kind, almost always smart, strategic person going through a really tough experience.
Your job is to understand what drives that person, things they’re unconscious of. Then find smart ways to help them move forward. All the while trying hard to remain conscious that you almost certainly have biases at work too. And, by the way... why is it you want this change anyway?
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 the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," 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 regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." 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.