I’ve worked for a nonprofit organization for a number of years. The former organization president now volunteers with our organization. Unfortunately, he is meddling in current organization work, while also serving on the board of a competing organization. He acts like he is still the president, and that others should do what he says. No one has the guts to tell him to go away. He doesn’t always win, but his interference slows us down and makes our work harder. The current president doesn’t want to confront his behavior. So all of us in the middle — staff, other board members, volunteers — have to deal with the dysfunction. Any suggestions?
We All Mean Well
Dear We All Mean Well,
Nonprofits are a strange animal. (Not that for-profits are any more functional.) There’s an interesting dynamic with nonprofits: everyone is dedicated to the organization’s mission, but egos or power struggles get in the way. I’ve worked in the both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. In some ways, the for-profit sector was more honest: personal goals of money, power, or popularity were obvious. In nonprofits, those drives are hidden behind dedication to the mission, religiosity, or portraying oneself as the suffering servant. I’d venture to say that your former organization’s president likes to believe that he is helping, to be honored as a wisdom figure, and to take credit for successes. He just can’t help himself from dabbling in his former organization while he’s serving the new one. It’s astounding that he can’t see it’s a conflict of interest. Lots of behaviors are excused when we’re “serving” the “good of the organization.”
It takes a special mix of dedication to the mission, and managerial savvy, to be successful in nonprofit leadership. Most people possess one or the other—not both. I don’t think your former president fits the bill, either. Your letter says you’d like to see some change, but don’t know how to bring it about. I don’t know what your position is within the organization, so you may have minimal influence on the outcome. Sometimes, survival is as simple as waiting for the issue to go away.
For starters, keep a discreet file of circumstances where this former president has overstepped his bounds. Though many people within your organization are aware of this behavior, it still needs to be documented. Depending on your position within the organization, present these findings to the current president. The documentation might support your current president in this difficult conversation. If the current president does not act on this evidence, you, at the very least, have the peace of mind of knowing that you presented your case. I spent most of my career in a nonprofit setting, and it’s often difficult for these organizations to grab the reins and make healthy choices. You didn’t mention if this former president is a major donor to the organization? This too would influence the current president’s reluctance to confront the issue.
If you are in a position of influence within the organization — Executive Director, executive committee of the board, etc. — you might propose that the board engage in a board development process. This is where an outside consultant facilitates an evaluation process, and gives feedback on how the board is functioning, including recommendations on improved operations within the board, and in the board’s interaction with the staff. This process shines a light on areas that need improvement, and gives the board members an objective standard by which to initiate systemic changes and articulate measurable results. If you’re not able to influence this process, then you may want to dust off your resume. Take the edge off with a visit to http://nonprofitwithballs.com/
In the meantime, return to your signature line whenever you feel frustrated. No matter the intentions of the individual, they are involved with the organization because they share a desire to see its mission fulfilled. There’s the vision, and the on-the=ground reality of working toward it. We bring our human limitations to every aspect of our work. And that complicates things! When you witness and struggle with the dysfunction in your organization’s system, remind yourself that everybody means well. They’re doing the best they can.
I’m afraid I don’t have much more to offer than that. Readers: What say you about our letter writer’s predicament?
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