5. Time for a serious upgrade?

Whenever a Board is abusive, irrelevant, or dysfunctional that means it's operating...

Outside mission discipline.

And I believe that gives the ED the right to step in and do what she can to fix things.

Standard advice says...

The Board should do all the Board stuff and the ED should stay out of it.


If new members are needed, the Board should form a nominating committee and go recruiting even if they recruit the exact same kind of people who will keep the exact same kind of dysfunction going.

If a Board is a problem and it's not taking responsibility for itself, not fixing itself, then it seems to me it's abandonned its authority. No nonprofit should have to surrender its future to an irresponsible Board.

What can an ED do? There are lots of possibilities.

But first I want to give a warning.

It can be surprisingly easy to fix a neutral, could-care-less kind of Board.

But fixing a Board that's posssessive or entrenched or has a mean streak can be a tricky business. Sometimes the ED finds herself playing with fire.

When I help an ED do an upgrade, we take the time to analyze each Board member one by one, and then each of the the relationships between the members, looking for patterns and possibilities. We look at all the allies and political capital the ED has. We look at whether the staff can be part of this or not.

Then we tailor a game plan for the exact situation the ED is facing.

On the surface Board X might look very much like Board Y, but just a few differences in personalities might mean that you need a very different game plan. One Board might let you get away with bold moves that another Board would never tolerate.

All this is to say, please don't try any of the strategies below unless you've thoroughly analyzed your Board first and you're sure you've got the best strategy. Please don't apply any of these strategies by rote.

Using your moxie and your smarts
Social change leaders are activists at heart, organizers. Sometimes all it takes for an ED to move forward is to give herself permission to intervene. I'm thinking of Shayene.

The leadership of her Board was looney. For reasons of confidentiality I can't tell you their plan, but imagine that a program for substance-abusing teens decided to open a liquor store to make money.

There were some open seats on the Board...

Shayene:  This consultant told me I have to make the Board set up a nominating committee. That's the rule.

Rich:  If you do, what kind of people do you expect the Board leaders will recruit?

Shayene:  People like themselves. People who want to run a liquor store for kicks.

Rich:  And if that happens, then what?

Shayene:  The minute that store opens our credibility in the community will be shot, and funders will cut us off. There's no way they could allow themselvse to be associated with something like that.

Rich:  And where does that leave you?

Shayene:  The minute they vote to lease the shop, I'll have to be gone. I can't personally afford to be connected to such craziness. My reputation matters too much to me.

Rich:  So what would it be like to leave?

Shayene:  I'd hate it. I love my staff. I love our clients. Apart from the Board leadership, I get to work with the greatest people.

Rich:  What's the solution?

Shayene:  I guess I'd have to go recruit new members myself. But I'm not allowed to do that. The consultant said so.

Rich:  That's one consultant. And here's the thing. Nothing in the law says you can't recruit. And even if your Bylaws say you're supposed to have a nominating committee, there are about a zillion nonprofits where the Board is so lacksadaisical about their duties that the ED does the recruiting.

Shayene:  Well, I really think it's a matter of life and death for this organization that I do that.

Rich:  And that means...

Shayene:  I guess I just heard myself make a commitment.

Rich:  How about if we get out your contact database and let's look through the names and be really bold and make a list of the people you would most like to have on your Board. Pick the very best. Don't be shy.

Shayene:  That's will be a big step for me. But if I'm going to do this, why not? And actually, the stronger the people I bring forward as candidates, the harder it will be for the Board to say no to me.

So Shayene made her list and started calling. The following week she had three lunches with prospects. And the next time we met, we had this conversation...

Shayene:  These people really like me.

Rich:  What do you mean?

Shayene:  They liked talking with me. They asked me lots of questions. Two of them asked me more questions about myself than about the work. They kept saying how impressed they were with what I was doing and the effectiveness of the program.

Rich:  And that's a surprise?

Shayene:  Yes, they're VIPs, and I'm...just me.

Rich:  So what did you learn about who you are?

Shayene:  Well, I guess I'm going to have to start thinking differently about myself.

Rich:  And how will that be?

Shayene:  Oh, God, can we change the subject?

Rich:  Okay. How did you feel about them?

Shayene:  I really liked them. I felt right at home with them. They're super bright people who are up to big things in their lives and I loved tossing around ideas with them. I haven't felt so alive in a long time.

Rich:  So that means...

Shayene:  There's a real connection here. I think my self-image is about to go through a big change.

Rich:  And what did they think about being on the Board?

Shayene:  Oh that was easy. I brought it up at the end of each conversation and by then I had them eating out of the palm of my hand! I even let them know that there's some work that needs to be done to upgrade the Board, but these are women who like challenges. Especially when it's a matter of dealing with a handful of jerky guys who are screwing things up.

In three months, Shayene recruited eleven new members and the power balance of the Board was drastically changed and the liquor store quickly became a thing of the past and the nonprofit had a new lease on life.


Leadership capital
In addition to your moxie and your smarts, you have leadership capital you can use.

Or you can call it political capital or personal capital.

That means that who you are and what you have done in your community, give you...

A place to stand, and

Power to work with,

In negotiating with your Board.

You have proven yourself. There are people who know what you have done and what you hope to do. You've developed a network of people who believe in you. All of that energy and support can be alive in you wherever you go.

I've seen remarkably successful EDs consider themselves as nothing more than an employee when dealing with their Boards, even useless Boards.

So I urge you to keep remembering who you are. You're a leader. You're dedicated to the mission.  You matter to your community. That gives you authority. Which means you don't have to defer to a neglectful or obstructive Board...

Leo:  Hey, Rich. Wow!

Rich:  That's a great conversation opener. I'm guessing there's good news.

Leo:  Yes. Let me see if I can put this into words. Last night, I believed in myself.

Rich:  What was it like?

Leo:  It was a total body experience. I wasn't doing affirmations, like trying to talk myself into the right mood, I was really there. And the Board sat up and paid attention.

Rich:  That's quite a change.

Leo:  I don't ever want to be my nice guy self again. I'm so tired of them blowing me off. I've been making it so easy for them to hold us back.

But last night, I didn't give them a choice.

Rich:  What, then?

Leo:  I spoke with an authority I conjured up on my own. 

Rich:  I love hearing that. Tell me more.

Leo:  The issue was this new program I'm trying to launch. The community wants it, I've got 80% of the funding lined up, but the Board is refusing to approve it just because they didn't come up with the idea. They get pissy like that. I don't think even one of them has read all the way through the proposal I wrote.

I made the Board understand that they weren't just dealing with me, but with my whole network, adn the whole constituency of the organization.

Rich:  So you didn't feel alone, like all of the Board against one of you?

Leo:  Not at all. And because I felt like I had back up, I gave the Board a big dose of accountability, which I've never done before.

I explained to them how many community leaders were watching their decision. And that if they voted against the program for no good reason, there would be talk. And there would likely be people coming to the next Board meeting with some hard questions.

I didn't say that as a threat, but as a matter of fact, as a courtesy so they could make an informed decision.

Rich:  And then what?

Leo:  The three officers promised to read the proposal and give me a decision on behalf of the Board at a special executive committee meeting next week.

Rich:  So how are you feeling?

Leo:  For the first hour after the meeting, I was thrilled. Really proud of myself.

Rich:  And then?

Leo:  Then I started feeling really disgusted that I'm putting up with this Board. Suddenly I'm fired up to go recruiting. And there are four people already in my network who I'm going after first. Now that I've stepped up myself, I need a Board that steps up, too.


A starter Board
One morning an ED called me...

Lina:  I'm so frustrated with my Board. Except for Kathy, none of them does anything. We have 17 members and for the past three months only Kathy has shown up for the meetings. It's making me crazy.

Rich:  Let's take a moment and go back to the beginning. When you recruited these people what was the deal you made with them?

Lina:  Oh, I get it. That was back when we spun off from our parent organization. I just needed names on a Board list to impress funders. That's all I asked for.

Rich:  And how did that work?

Lina:  Great. Perfectly. They gave me exactly what I asked for. And now we need an active Board, but that's not what any of them ever agreed to.

Rich:  So now how are you feeling?

Lina:  I'm not mad at them anymore.

Rich:  And instead?

Lina:  I'm feeling gratitude.

Rich:  So if you wrote them a letter. What would you want to say to them?

Lina:  The first thing is "Thank You!" You were there for us when we needed you. And your names made a big difference. You impressed our funders. You got us up and running.

Rich:  And then?

Lina:  I'd explain that we're ready to go to the next level now because of our success. We now have the foundation in place to do bigger things. And that means we need an active Board.

So, let's see, I don't want to fire them. That wouldn't be nice.

Okay, I'll tell them I'd like them to let me know whether they want to continue on the Board given that the duties are now going to include x, y, and z. Does that sound unfriendly?

Rich:  Imagine you're a Board member who doesn't want to do the new Board work?

Lina:  Personally, I'd be relieved that I'm being given a very gracious way of exiting. I could feel good about having lent my name, but no one is going to try to pressure me into doing more than I agreed to do.

I like it.


What happened? Sixteen of the Board members resigned. Kathy took over as Chair, and she and Lina built a smaller, active Board together.

One big problem
Sometimes I get a call from an ED who tells me. "My Board is driving me crazy. They've got such a bad attitude and they give me grief all the time and they're dragging down my mood."

Then I ask her to tell me about each Board member one by one and it turns out that it's really only one Board member who's a bully causing all the trouble.

I understand how an ED would paint the entire Board with the same brush, because they aren't doing anything to stop the bully, so it feels like they're with him.

So in a situation like this, what do you do?

You can talk with the other Board members to see if the bully is upsetting any of them. Start with the members you feel closest to or trust the most. You might be surprised to find that there are a bunch of Board members who are only reluctantly tolerating the bully, and now you can get them to organize and take a stand for themselves and make the bully stop his bad behavior or get off the Board.

It's really great if you have a Chair who is with you on this and can use his title and authority to help get other Board members together on a plan to solve the problem.

If that doesn't work, then you can switch to a strategy of bringing on some new Board members who have the moxie to put a stop to the bullying. That's coming up next.

And here's one more thing to think about. In some cases a heart-to-heart conversation will do the trick. Notice I said "in some cases." Board-repair strategies depend on so many variables including the personalities and relationships involved.

Let me give you an example, though. In my old organization CAP, back in our early days, we had a Board member who seemed like a super nice guy. Then one day we heard that he had started doing our project in the southern part of our county as a for-profit venture on his own. So he was competing with us.

It was such a dumb move. First, that he thought he could keep it secret. And second, that he thought he could compete against us running as a for-profit. But that's what he was doing.

The next Board meeting night, Yuana, one of our staff caught him on the stairs and said...

I'm so disappointed in you. You're part of my community. I brought you into this organization. And now we find out that you're ripping us off. It really hurts my feelings. I don't understand why you're doing this to us. You're on our Board. You're supposed to be helping us. I want you to stop using our program for your personal gain.

He stammered a bit, turned around and left. We never heard from him again. But the grapevine told us he closed his project the next morning.

One strong ally
One reason Boards drift into trouble is that no one steps into genuine leadership and takes a passionate stand for mission discipline.

Sometimes if you have a neutral, do-nothing Board, bringing on one ally is all you need.

Rennie:  Hi, Dustin, I wanted to talk with you about my Board of Directors.

Dustin:  Hi, Rennie. Go for it. What's up with them?

Rennie:  First, could I ask you a favor?

Dustin:  Shoot.

Rennie:  Could we keep this conversation absolutely confidential? Sometimes people say that and they don't really mean it. But in this case I really, really mean it. Leaking any of what we talk about today would hurt my organization and it would hurt me.

So would you be willing to promise me absolutely confidentiality. I mean really. So I can tell you the truth during this conversation and breathe easy?

Dustin:  Wow, you're really serious about this. And I can tell you yes. I am actually really good at keeping secrets when that's necessary. So, yes, I will keep this to myself and I really mean that.

Rennie:  Thank you! Here's the deal. My Board is what we call a neutral Board.

Dustin:  Meaning they do nothing.

Rennie:  Exactly.

Dustin:  Which is why I quit being on nonprofit Boards.

Rennie:  Whoops. That's exactly what I want to talk with you about.

Dustin:  Well, don't stop. You've got me curious. And I get that this is something important to you.

Rennie:  It really is. We've got one bully on the Board who gives me grief, nothing I can't handle so far, but if we were to get another one like him it would make my life awful. And meanwhile, this do-nothing Board is holding us back.

We are at a place in our organization development where we need an active Board. We need people who will stand with us publicly and who will be thought partners and who will help with the major donor asks.

Dustin:  That makes sense.

Rennie:  So I'm looking for someone who has the moxie and the smarts and the drive—which is exactly how I would describe you—to come in and be my partner and get this Board upgraded within the next year.

Of course we'd give the current members a chance to step up to a higher level of performance.

But more importantly, I've got a list of potential new members, and it would mean the world to me if you'd help me check them out and screen them and negotiate the ask with them and make upfront contracts with them.

And then once we've got new people on the Board you could help me move them into leadership by passing the old guard.

Is this too much to ask?

Dustin:  Ohmigod, no, it's not too much. I like the big challenges. Mostly people ask me for stuff that's too small. Boring. Pitiful. Stuff other people could do. I like the serious stuff.

Rennie:  I think that's why I have my heart so set on you, because I see you as that kind of person. You know, my current Board members are not bad people, it's just that...

Dustin:  They're not up to speed. They're not what you need. I get that. We don't need to attack them. We just need to move on. And if some of them want to take the journey with us, so much the better, but it's not necessary.

Rennie:  I just heard you say "we."

Dustin:  You did, indeed. I got to tell you I like this. It's exactly the kind of adventure that gets me revved.

And I get it that you need someone who's not going to do half a job of this, but do it full-on, for real. Someone who's going to commit to going all the way to the result you need. And I'm not too modest to tell you that that's me.

I love this. I've never heard of an ED doing this, but, God, it needs to be done at so many nonprofits. I'd be proud to do this project with you. Thank you for asking me. It feels really good the way you've claimed me. Count me in. Now let's make our plan.


A team of allies
Now let's say your Board is a bit more trouble. Suppose you have a couple bullies on your Board and one is the Chair and the other is the Vice Chair and they like being in charge and you expect they will give you stiff resistance if you try to change things.

Let's pick up where we left off with Rennie and Dustin, but now she's got two bullies, and he's agreed to help her, and so they start talking strategy...

Rennie:  So given that I have these two bullies happily ensconced in the top officer positions, I'm wondering what kind of game plan we need.

Dustin:  Well, I could come on by myself and do battle with them and I'd have fun doing that. I'm doing tough negotiations all day every day for my company, so that would not be a problem. But it might freak out your other Board members.

I think there's a smarter way to do this.

Rennie:  I really want to hear that.

Dustin:  Here's a way we could play it. I'll agree right now to be your partner for the upgrade, but we don't put me on the Board, not yet.

First, you and I find another two or three people with moxie who would be willing to join us. I'm actually thinking of someone I know. He works for a competitor, but he's really good.

I call him "Dan the Man." He keeps his eye on the prize. He's right out there on the far edge of assertive just before it turns aggressive, but he never goes over that edge.

Rennie:  Would it be okay for you to work with a competitor?

Dustin:  Sure, just because we compete doesn't mean we don't have respect for each other. I think we'd get a kick out of working with each other. And actually, with a touch of competitive tension between us, you'd get the best out of both of us.

Rennie:  Okay, I like that. And I had somebody in mind in case you turned me down.

Dustin:  Somebody else?! You had somebody else in mind? How could you!

Rennie:  Wait a minute! I said they're #2. Did you notice how I came to you first? You're my main guy!

Dustin:  All right! That's what I like to hear!

Listen, I know this is big and serious stuff. But you know what, we're going to have a lot of fun. In fact, having a playful attitude is part of what's going to make us effective.

So who's this other person who's second in your affections and nipping at my heels?

Rennie:  Her name is Denise. She does turn arounds, so she knows how to handle the tough stuff. And she's absolutely trustworthy.

Dustin:  She sounds perfect. So here's the plan I want to propose. You and I meet with Denise and then with Dan, and if they're on board then all four of us meet together. 

And here's what we can do. The three of us will start involving ourselves very assertively in your organization. Maybe we'll go do some fundraising, and then come to the Board bearing checks. And then we'll volunteer to join the Board.  

Rennie:  What if they say no?

Dustin:  It would be very hard for them to turn down people who are willing to bring in money...

Rennie:  Which they are not doing and never have done...

Dustin:  Good. Me and Dan have really great reputations in the community and I'm assuming the same of Denise. If they turn us down, they'll look like idiots and I for one won't be shy about talking about that. And we'll keep coming to meetings till they vote us on.

But trust me, on this, you're dealing with three really good negotiators here. I think they won't dare say no.

Rennie:  And then when you're on the Board...

Dustin:  We start organizing the other Board members and see who's ready to get on our team.

You know I've seen it again and again that people don't like being bullied. We might have more allies than you think.

In less than six months, the three of us will be the officers, unless we manage to recruit someone better for the long term. No matter what it's going to be a new day around here.

Rennie:  Well, that would be a dream come true.

Dustin:  D is for dreams and D is for Destin. That's what I do. I make dreams come true.

Rennie:  I believe it. And thank you. I haven't felt so hopeful and so light in a very long time.

Dustin:  Well, my commitment is to keep it like that.


The fundraising finesse
The last scenario hinted at this. Do-nothing Boards usually do the most nothing about fundraising. Which gives you a great opening for bringing on new Board members. Especially if you need fundraisers anyway.

Wouldn't it be fun to make a pitch like this...

"Our organization needs Board members who will help us with major donor asks. I can keep going out on these asks by myself, but for the really big ones it makes such a difference to have a Board member on the team and for the Board member to actually do the ask.

"Before I say anything else, though, I want to be clear that not all Board members have to do fundraising, not at all. If you hate asking, you don't have to do it.

"But it would make such a big difference if we had a few Board members who really and truly liked asking and could handle that part of the Board's responsibilities.

"And I'm bringing this up now, because in the past month I've met three people who like asking and who have expressed definite interest in joining the Board. One of them offered to give me mentoring and actually went out on an ask with me this week.

"You know how Mrs. Jackson has always given us $1,000? Well, here's her check for $5,000 for this year. That big jump was due to Hector who I learned so much from in just one ask.

"So how would you feel about voting him and Irene and Johanna onto our Board? I've got their bios here and I'd love to tell you about the conversations I've had with them."

Now, how could a Board possibly say no to three eager fundraisers?

And if your Board did say no, that would, first of all, be revealing. It would indicate that they are worse than a do-nothing Board, they are willing to actively defend their nothingness at serious expense to the organization.

Second, this would not be the end of the story, but the beginning of a serious ongoing negotiation or campaign. You don't have to quit pushing just because you get a no. That's when you look at other kinds of leverage you might have.

Like maybe a funder who could put pressure on the Board to increase major donor fundraising. Or a community leader. Or a person on the city council who cares about your work. When you take an organizing approach to Board repair and development, that means there are lots of options to consider.


The shadow Board strategy
If you've got definite resistance from your Board about new members, you can try this. Recruit a number of great people to work with you on something like fundraising or program development.

I'm talking about champions, people who want to make a difference and will really do the work, people you'd like to have on the Board.

And the more your special team does, the more your do-nothing Board just might start to feel shame.

Some of them might pull up their socks and get to work. Some of them might actually suggest bringing a couple of these stellar supporters on to the Board. Some of the people on your special team might start lobbying to get on the Board...

Marco:  Hey, Livia, our team brought in $30,000 in the past three months, so tell me again what your Board is doing for you.

Livia:  Well, our current Board actually doesn't do fundraising.

Marco:  Not at all?

Livia:  None.

Marco:  Why? How come? Really?

Livia:  Really. They don't like it so they don't do it or do anything about it.

Marco:  Is that okay with you?

Livia:  I wish they would do fundraising. You three on my special team have been so great. That $30,000 is what's keeping our teen program from being cut back.

Marco:  Well, how about...really, they don't even talk about fundraising?

Livia:  Not for the past year and a half. Whenever I raise the issue they change the subject.

Marco:  That makes no sense. What about if I go tell your Chair that Suellen and Jim and I want to volunteer to be on the Board and do fundraising?

Livia:  You'd really do that?

Marco:  You bet.

Livia:  I'd love it. I'd be so happy to have the three of you on the Board. I think that would make all the difference in the world.

Marco:  Give me the guy's number. I'm going to check with Suellen and Jim tonight, because they were also wondering why we never hear anything about what the Board is contributing to the cause.

If they're in agreement with this plan, then I'll call your Chair and volunteer us.

Livia:  Here's Bob's number. I hope he says yes. It would be such a good thing for this organization if the Board welcomed you in.

Marco:  If he's hesitant or puts me off, I just might get a bit pushy. I'm quite serious about this. I've gotten very attached to this place in the past several months. There's no reason you can't have a Board that hits a few out of the ballpark when it comes to fundraising.

Wit this strategy, your champions start out in the shadows, but once they swing into action, they start putting your real Board in their shadow. And that changes things.

It's very hard to say no to people with good reputations and serious positions in the community who are contributing way more than the Board is. It's possible but it's not easy.

You can give these special supporters whatever name you want to, like the Fundraising Task Force. Or you could name them after your organization, the CAP Champions.

And giving them a title of some kind gives them an official relationship with the organization and more status than being "just a volunteer."


Blue Ribbon Panel
Here's a Board-change strategy which is for extreme situations, and I hope you never even come close to needing this. But I want to mention it as another perspective on where Board authority stops.

Imagine this situation...

You've got a nonprofit that provides lots of core services to the community.

Your major funding comes from your city or county.

Your Board is making terrible, thoughtless decisions that are hurting the organization so badly it's in danger of going under.

What do you do?

If you love this organization and if the community needs it, you can call a closed-door meeting of key decision makers, like community leaders, elected officials, and funders. You explain to them how bad things are and what the consequences will be for the community if the Board drives out your best staff or crashes the nonprofit.

And then you ask them if they would be willing to do an intervention. Would they put together a Blue Ribbon Panel of respected community leaders to appoint a new Board of directors to save the organization. And then put community and political pressure on the current Board to resign.

I said this was extreme. And depending on how dug in the destructive Board is, it could get ugly. So it's not something to do without a whole lot of thought and preparation. But it is a way, a last-ditch strategy, to try to save a nonprofit that the community depends on.


Bailing out
In talking about all the strategies for upgrading Boards, I want to be clear that I'm not saying that any particular ED should do any of these things.

You get to assess the situation and decide what you want to do. Not what you should do, but what you want to do. You get to take care of yourself. As you saw on my homepage, I believe that your welfare comes first.

So I want to say that bailing out can be quite honorable, too.

For example...

I know an ED, Anyeli, who ran a community service agency that was well-loved and effective. The staff, clients, and community were almost 100% people of color.

The Board was almost 100% white. When people talked about the nonprofit they called it "The Center." When they talked about the Board, they called it "The Plantation."

And the Board leadership had an attitude that justified that epithet.

They were patronizing in the way they treated Anyeli. In many Board meetings they said things that were put downs of the community. They refused to let the staff change programs in response to changes in community needs. And they spent a lot of money putting on events that featured themselves.

They treated the Center as if it were their own private club and they were not about to let anyone budge them.

Anyeli decided to try bringing on a couple new Board members to see if she could get away with it and maybe start to transform the Board. She had lunch with three community leaders to see if they would volunteer to serve on the Board, which they were eager to do.

And then the plot thickened. A friend of the Board Chair saw the four of them sitting in the window of the restaurant. She didn't hear anything that was said, but reported this sighting back to the Chair.

The Chair called Anyeli that afternoon and said, "From now on you are not allowed to talk to anyone in the community without prior authorization from the Board."

Hard to believe. But that's what she said.

Two weeks later Anyeli was still trying to figure out how what to do, when two Board members from another nonprofit walked into her office. Their ED was resigning and they were there to recruit her.

She hated leaving her staff at the Center, but she jumped at the chance to work in a place where she'd be appreciated. She was a single mom with two small kids and couldn't see that fighting a bitter battle to try to remove the leadership of her Board would in any way be good for her or her family.

So she bailed, and good for her.


Breaking the rules to stand by the mission
I want to tell one last story on this page to illustrate why it's so important that mission discipline supersedes the rules of Board authority.

This happened years ago. Karen was the ED of a small nonprofit in a rural county where she started up a CAP project inspired by the project my friend Kate and I started.

Over the next three years she put hundreds of volunteer hours into building her project. She became the voice of child abuse prevention for her county. She gained the respect of everyone she worked with.

And she self-published a book for children on preventing abuse. This was going to be her career. She and her family were rooted in this community. So she was thrilled that she could do what she loved right there in her hometown.

Then one day the State issued an RFP for funding for CAP projects. Karen was jazzed. These were monster proposals. For a small county like hers it required 100 pages of documents. It was so much work and she was doing it by herself, but she was diligent and motivated.

There was a certification page that the Board Chair had to sign to show Board approved submitting the proposal. She had her Board Chair lined up to sign at noon on Friday, and then Karen would drive the grant to Sacramento to submit it in person before the do-or-die deadline of 5 p.m.

She got to her Chair's office and the Chair refused to sign.


"I'm not in the mood." That's what she said. And she was walking around her office complaining and spluttering and being out of sorts. Karen begged her to sign. The Chair seemed to take delight in that and got even more stubborn and ultimately told Karen to get out.

So that was it. Karen's career, which she had worked so hard to build, was over. The State, having no submission from Karen's county, then took it upon themselves, because they didn't like working with nonprofits (and said that straight out), to recruit the county welfare department to run the program. And it became the only game in town.

Now if Karen had called you at 1 p.m. that Friday wondering what to do, what would you have advised her?

The rules say that the Board Chair is the Board Chair. The rules say the Board is the boss and the ED is the employee. The certification page asked for the Chair's signature.

But what does the mission say?

And what does common decency say?

And what do we owe people who give as much to their communities as Karen had given?

If she had called me, I would have urged her...

Put in an emergency call to another Board member. Explain the situation. Ask him to sign the certification as the Acting Chair, because the Board already voted to support the grant.

Ask that Board member to call an emergency meeting for next week to vote the Chair out of office and off the Board for violating her key duty according to state law, which is to look after the well-being of the organization.

Board members are supposed to stay within the mission discipline of the organization. Whenever a Chair refuses in such an egregious way to do that, then I think there is no need at all for an ED to follow the conventional rules of authority, because such a Chair, so it seems to me, no longer counts as any kind of authority. It's as if she abdicated her position by her behavior.

And in such a situation I would hope other Board members would step up and back up the ED and take a stand for doing the right thing.


Mission discipline, again
Now, you notice I've been talking about Board situations where things are going wrong, sometimes very wrong. And I've been using some negative words like "bully" and "do-nothing." So I want to say something about this kind of language.

I'm using these words as a shorthand.

It gets clumsy to keep saying longer phrases like "he's a person who makes use of bullying behaviors to get what he thinks he wants." But that's much more accurate. I can dislike the behavior without demonizing the person.

I believe in Marshall Rosenberg's advice that it's always best to speak to the person's good heart. Even in the case of "a bully" (somebody who's employing bullying behaviors.)

I like this because...

Even though some bullies seem very intimidating and you might thinking there's no chance for a change of heart, that in fact does happen in some cases. And it's worth trying for.

And because...

Whether or not we can get a bully to change his behavior, it's best for us to stand in that possibility. And address his good heart directly, even if from our point of view he doesn't seem to have access to it right now.

It's good for our souls not to vilify the other person. It's good to understand that everybody has their limitations and issues. And sometimes people with good intentions fail to live up to them. And sometimes people with less than good intentions are in pain and actually wish in their heart of hearts that they got along with people better.

I like to think that responding to people with compassion is very much a part of mission discipline.

But that doesn't mean you don't do self-defense. Mission gives us permission to take a stand. It gives us permission to defend our nonprofits whenever that's needed.

And let's look at this from the Board member's point of view...

What does mission discipline give them?

In the end, isn't the mission where the serious fun is? Isn't it in...

Making a difference that really matters.

Being part of a team doing good work together.

Building lasting relationships in the midst of that kind of comraderie.

And doesn't mission discipline give people protection? Think about Karen's Chair. What happens if she ever wakes up to what she did to Karen and to the nonprofit that was in her care? Wouldn't that be utterly painful?

We all have our limitations and failings. So being part of a team that stays accountable to mission discipline means that we can achieve our best together and together protect ourselves and each other from our worst. And I for one find that to be very much a blessing.

So the way I see it, doing what you can to bring a Board back in alignment with mission discipline is an act of kindness toward everyone involved.


© 2009 Rich Snowdon