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A Nonprofit Paradox: Weak Leadership Pool, Positive Organization Outcomes?

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By Dr. Eugene Fram, Professor Emeritus, Saunders College of Business, Rochester Institute of Technology. Reprinted with permission of the author. Blog: Nonprofit Management

It happens: one or both of the two nonprofit engines—governance and/or management — sputters out, yet the organization continues to meet its goals and deliver adequate service to its constituents. Some examples: a child placement agency manages to maintain the quality of its oversight while struggling to deal with an admittedly inept board and CEO. Another example: An ineffective volunteer board at a youth center, meeting quarterly for a couple of hours, allows the CEO to really manage the board and to motivate the staff. The CEO realized he and the agency were in dangerous positions without an innovative board providing standard oversight, although client services were positive.

A staff, dedicated to its own professionalism, can on occasion compensate for a lackluster board and/or senior management team by continuing to provide reasonable value to the nonprofit’s clients. Another example involved the Executive Director,* simultaneously a deputy sheriff, and his law enforcement colleagues taking payments to refer wayward youths to the ED’s shelter. However, the staff continued to provide valuable services. In the end it’s about leadership and the ability to step up to the plate when dysfunction occurs. In the last case, the staff acted in a professional manner, although the management was entirely corrupt and the board evidently inept.

Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, has some innovative thoughts on that subject. He identifies four key characteristics** he believes are critical to strong innovative organizational leaders. I have listed them below, and the ways I think his ideas can be applied to nonprofit governance.

1. Systems Thinkers (Brains): Deep knowledge in their area of work. Our current economy and future opportunities will continue to value knowledge, expertise and ideas.

Nonprofit CEOs need not only cutting edge knowledge of their field—they must have a firm grasp of what nonprofit governance implies, particularly the shared leadership style demanded by accrediting agencies. Many CEOs also need to acquire the skills involved to interact well with higher-level executives from business and governmental organizations, in order to partner with them or to take an active role in fundraising.

Nonprofit directors should have a “strategic bent’ to their decision-making and an understanding of the serious downside of micromanagement. Since most directors’ everyday professional lives center on commercial endeavors, or the professions, they must adjust their board mindsets to focus on mission not profit. This is especially pertinent when applied to assessing nonprofit qualitative outcomes, e.g., community impacts. Using imperfect metrics – that are anecdotal, subjective, interpretative — outcomes or impacts can be roughly assessed. Also imperfect metrics can rely on small samples, uncontrolled situational factors and cannot be precisely replicated. Over time they can be highly useful in tracking progress and driving change.***

2. Deep Collaborations (Soul): Even when a leader has unwavering commitment to his or her personal values; he or she cannot operate as an island…. Trust among collaborators from a variety of perspectives forms the foundations for deep and ongoing collaboration, which is essential for leading (organizational) change.

Nonprofit directors are part-time volunteers with very little opportunity to have contact with the staff. This lack of interaction can encourage mistrust on both sides. Some informal board/staff social events or board/staff working task forces can go a long way towards promoting a spirit of cooperation.

Although there exists a vast literature on the necessity to build a trusting relationship between volunteer chair and CEO, there is only modest mention of the trust required between nonprofit boards and staff. Many nonprofits are “flat” organizations, meaning there may only be one or two management layers between staff and board. Consequently, this relationship needs to work reasonably well to have operational success; few CEOs or boards can survive a staff “revolt.” Nonprofit CEOs and boards walk a difficult trail in maintaining a deep and trusting collaboration.

3. Empathetic Innovators (Heart): Passion is a key innovator, but to create social (and organizational) change empathy must plan a central role. Innovation must be rooted in deep empathy – a real understanding and sensitivity to the experience of another person –to be most appropriate and effective.

Nominating committees are often seduced by a display of passion for the mission in a board recruit. Passionate directors are driven but not always responsive to other governance interests and perspectives. But candidates who have low or moderate interest can make some surprising contributions because they can take their governance responsibilities seriously or lead in other areas. True board innovation is based on empathy with fellow board members and management. It is also a collegial effort towards fulfilling the mission.

Nonprofit innovators may become frustrated when they want to improve the performance of an established organization and find some of the staff, especially those in management positions, are unable or unwilling to change. In some cases, the answer may be well-planned terminations, showing an appreciation for what the person has contributed or moving the person to an individual contributor position, allowing him or her to be measured for a fulfilling a familiar operating service.

4. World Visionaries (Nerve): Social (and organization) innovators …must be skilled at integrative thinking — the ability to hold two opposing ideas in their minds at once and then reach a synthesis that improves each one. They must…. be comfortable navigating ambiguity and seeing possibilities in the fragmented, complex nature of our social reality as they envision a better future.

The word “nerve” usually conjures up aggression, risk taking or chutzpah! Klaus Schwab brings to it a more nuanced interpretation. My nonprofit “take “on it is a director’s ability to think critically, to weigh the risk of a proposed action with the possible outcome in thoughtful consideration of what is in the best interest of the organization. It is a standard to which nonprofit organizations must aspire if they are to survive and meet the needs of their community and professional clients in the 21st century.

It’s time to banish the old paradox in which productive staffs can compensate for incompetent volunteer boards or managements. Klaus Schwab expands the criteria for leadership in governance. In doing so, he raises the bar for the entire organization.

*For an example see: Ann Eigeman (2013) “Targeted Editorial Stands Out for Separating a Nonprofit’s Poor Management From Its Value,” NPQ Newswire, November 4th.

**Klaus Schwab (2013) “4 Leadership Traits to Drive Social Innovation,” Stanford Business Center for Social Innovation, October 31st.

***Eugene H. Fram and Jerry L. Talley (2012) “Using Imperfect Metrics Well: Tracking Progress and Driving Change,” NPQ Newswire, July 24.

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