Finding Common Ground Between Nonprofit Board and Leadership

There is no question that one of the biggest challenges in nonprofit board and leadership work is… people. Because people are also who make up nonprofit board and leadership teams—and who makes the work so good, too. It helps to have some good and effective ways to untangle things.

Often there is a level of stress both within the board and between the board and the leadership team that seems to have, at its source, the different phases of life each are in. Being able to de-personalize the friction is really helpful to diffusing and managing situations effectively, and it also has the added benefit of demonstrating leadership by example to everyone in and outside the organization.

Look for the Stress in the Whitespace First

Boards are separate creatures from the organizations they govern. They are comprised of people. They also have their own rulebooks (bylaws) that govern both the organization and the board’s functioning. Both the organization AND the board have their own individual life cycles—meaning they grow and change on their own schedules. Ideally, these are aligned with one another; as a practical matter, often they are not. We’ve put together a graphic (Figure 1) that shows the life cycle of the nonprofit and the nonprofit board as they go together, along with the transitions—the whitespaces—and the little tornadoes of change in the whitespaces, as they move from one stage of growth to the next.

If you’re a parent (human or pet) or have planted a garden, you understand the challenge of managing something alive through a transition. Transitions are often the most stressful moments—when kids cry, dogs bark and plants wilt. There are two ways things can go: the stress can go on for a while unchecked, or it can last for just a moment in time. The goal is the latter!

Leadership During Mini Tornadoes

When you know stress (even good stress) is coming, like the stress created by a cyclical, transition-driven mini-tornado, it’s much easier to manage. It’s also easier to name, talk about and understand as not directed at any one person. All of those things are key to effective management.

The best way to know when to expect a natural transition is to know where you are now in both your organization and board life cycles. The more incongruities you see in either one of these entities and certainly between these two, the more likely it is that you can expect a transition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—in fact, it could be great! But it does mean at the very least some level of change. It also gives you time to prepare yourself and those around you.

Some questions to ask include:

  • What roles and responsibilities currently belong to the board and to the organization?
  • What roles and responsibility currently live inside the organization?
  • Does the board function as a governing board or are they involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization?
  • Is the space served changing rapidly?
  • Are donors pushing back for more information about what the organization does and how it operates?
  • Is there a lot of staff turnover?

If the answers to these questions suggest to you that change is coming to your world, or should be, it probably is.

Using a nonprofit LifeCycle model as a way of talking about organizational change during times of stress is a healthy and neutral way of framing a conversation about growing and managing nonprofits. It’s an effective way to take individual people out of the conversation and put structure and business on the table for the benefit of those being served and everyone having the conversation. Give it a whirl!

First published in NonProfitPro on June 12, 2018.

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