Ideally, change takes place only when is “a critical mass of board and staff want … it. A significant … portion of leadership must realize that the status quo won’t do.

Based on my experiences, this ideal is rarely achieved because:

The CEO needs to support the changes being suggested and/or mandated by a majority of the board.   But, if not fully invested in the change, he/s can accede to board wishes for action but move slowly in their implementations. The usual excuse for slow movement is budget constraint.

Complicating the situation is the fact that most nonprofit boards are hesitant to remove a CEO who has a nice personality but lacks vision, makes modest revisions each year and keeps budgets in balance. As volunteers, board members know that removing a “status quo” CEO can cause board and staff conflict. These events require more meeting times and can cause board members to turn against one another. Volunteers accept board positions to promote positive outcomes, not to become involved with the stresses that accompany conflict.

Changing a CEO, board members or the governance model, etc., can easily send negative signals to the staff because they may view it as leading to disruption in their jobs and working environments. Most nonprofit staffs are only one or two organizational levels away from the board and may become concerned that new influential board members can have significant impact.

For example, two professors persuaded their board colleagues that the agency needed a “management by objectives program.”  The staff became so involved in establishing and measuring objectives that they neglected client services.

Critical actions that boards can take to overcome these barriers. * 

Agreement about what “change” means. Perhaps it is increasing clients served and/or simultaneously having to increase donations to maximize the mission’s service? These changes can be readily measured. However, nonprofits often have revisions that can only be measured approximately in the short-term because of the significant costs involved. These include such items as improving public awareness or community influence. They require use of more qualitative measures over time to assess trends and improve the measures.

Those responsible for change need to be reminded that words have meaning, and the words used to describe revisions can create negative attitudes from board members and staff. Those with negative connotations include “profit, efficiency, and restructuring.” Positive words include “mission, serving and compassion.”

  • Radical honesty about the hurdles standing in your way. It’s important to be upfront about the “bandwidth” in staff and board resources needed to implement any major modifications. This involves having three or four board members who are experienced with implementing change, willing to assume leadership of the process and have the interpersonal skills necessary to “sell” other board members on the benefits of the new plan. In one situation, where a governance model was changed and the ED’s title revised to President/CEO, a traditional board member was dissatisfied.  He complained about the new title “What do we call the ED now, Presco?”   The implication was that the new title was satisfactory for the head of a business organization but too sophisticated for the operating head of a nonprofit organization.
  • Commitment to do whatever it takes. Driving changed from a nonprofit board position isn’t for the person or team that gives up easily. A realistic plan is to anticipate the bumps in the road along the way. For example, if some board members agreed to a revision with limitations, it’s the responsibility of the CEO and board members to make certain they are consulted as the change progresses, helping them, if they can, to be more comfortable with it. If the change has substantial impact on the staff, the CEO and board members need to be certain that false rumors are handled appropriately when they appear. This also applies to rumors circulating in the community or in an industry, if the nonprofit is an association.

When boards fail to take the types of actions cited above, the impact can affect the nonprofit’s culture for decades. For example, a nonprofit engaged a new executive director with an authoritarian leadership style.  His long-term predecessor was very relaxed, often casually taking staff meeting time to read poetry. The Board concluded major changes were necessary.

As a first step to solve the problem, the board made a mistake by demanding the new ED modifies his management style. But concurrently, a union organizer heard about the dissatisfaction and persuaded the social workers on the staff to form a union. Results: the problematic ED was finally terminated, and an experienced ED, who had worked previously at the agency, was engaged. But the social work staff is still unionized. Trust between management and the professional staff was never restored.


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