Over decades of service to the nonprofit sector, I’ve come to inherently believe that most board members mean well. I have rarely met anyone – even the most difficult and divisive members – who set out to hurt the mission or the clients of a nonprofit organization intentionally. In other words, they have positive intent and hope for the success of the nonprofit business.
Recently, though, I wonder if we’ve gotten too wrapped up in the sector in a culture of nice. One that’s getting in the way of our business models AND our sector’s impact. If 2020 showed us anything, it’s that business is no longer – can no longer be – “business as usual.” It’s time for us to pivot away from the avoidance of tough conversations and consider how engaging in them will create sustainability – I daresay innovation. In fact, Inclusivity says that addressing cultural competence and engaging in generative discussions isn’t just a good practice, it’s good business.
Admittedly I have been part of board meetings – as a consultant and a member – that included sharp words and raised voices. Perhaps I have even participated in these exchanges though I’m hoping that wasn’t included in the meeting minutes. Certainly NOT the best experience for anyone and definitely NOT serving the work.
But are we avoiding our legal duties of board leadership by not engaging in constructive, sometimes conflicting, conversations about issues impacting our work? I believe the answer is YES. Below are a few topics that I believe belong in board discussion and in our meetings.
Yep, I said it. Discussion of politics and how they impact our mission work 100% belongs in the board room. We can’t keep saying “we’re not going to talk politics” in meetings, trainings and forums where real, generative and strategic conversations have to happen for us to legally be good stewards of our nonprofit businesses. Nonprofits (yes, even 501c3s) are allowed to have a role in advocacy and lobbying [quick rule: political issues, YES. Partisan support – NO]. We can’t as board members avoid discussions on those issues that impact our ability to serve our communities. Especially when many of those issues are impacting our funding, our operations, and our clients.
Does your nonprofit board have an advocacy committee? In what ways might your mission work be served by empowering a more active and engaged one? How can you share advocacy updates at board and committee meetings to keep your board up-to-date on legislative trends, obstacles to existence, or networking opportunities?
Yes, I’m pulling out all the stops now. Many boards say they want to have a diverse board but diversity does not mean diversity of thought or tokenism, it means real systemic – and often cultural – change on our boards. This does not happen overnight nor does it happen without addressing the discomfort of addressing our own biases (conscious or not) and privilege, leaning into the vulnerability of saying/doing the wrong thing, and being open about how inequity impacts how we lead AND those we serve. Is this a comfortable conversation? No. Is it a necessary one? Hell yes. To be sure, discussions about racism are just the start for boards. There is more to diversity than what we can see, but it’s often an easier place to begin.
What does “diversity” mean currently to your board of directors? If someone were to make assumptions about our organizational values based on our current board composition, what might they be likely to think? If you were to make a deeper commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity what would that look like for your board and mission?
At this point, I feel like I should’ve written a disclaimer before you read this. Are you still able to breathe? Are you still with me? Hopefully so. I am not going to take a stance and say that all nonprofits need to consider mergers over the next 12 months. I am going to say that there are a lot of nonprofits (94,000 in Florida alone with budgets over $50,000!) and many serve similar clients/communities and provide duplicative or synergistic services. We can’t let our scarcity mentality and competitive spirit rule our good business decisions as board leaders.
What other organizations (nonprofit, for-profit or public) can you be learning from? What can our relationships with those organizations look like to enhance our mission? In what ways will you incorporate sharing these trends at meetings and within your planning?
Revisiting your WHY
Many of our Connect For More team members are fans of Simon Sinek and his work on Start With Why. In fact, we used the recent year of recalculating to look at our own way and consider how it needed to evolve in the wake of the pandemic, social injustice, and burnout. During our annual August team retreat, it was officially adopted to the following: “We are committed to addressing inclusion & equity in all strategic work, empowering more than “just” diversity of thought and moving beyond tokenism for all nonprofit leadership, and continuing to create space to navigate tough conversations together”. Find out more about our original WHY here. Though committed to the work for years, we felt the explicit need to move it to the forefront of our work in ever-divided leadership teams, board rooms, and communities.
What is your nonprofit’s WHY? What is a topic your leadership team has been avoiding discussing over the last 12 months? How can you move it to the forefront of your mission work?
Are you a nonprofit looking to reimagine your organization’s structure? Is your board or leadership team considering a collaboration, partnership, acquisition or merger?
Join us February 17th for our FREE Virtual Workshop Examining Your Organizational Opportunities featuring business expert Jan Baskin of Business Enhancement Strategies to learn more about what you need to know to successfully navigate these tough conversations to achieve your mission work.
Are you a leader looking to navigate tough conversations with your team?
Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a FREE 30-minute consultation with one of our expert facilitators to learn how we can help.
Are you looking for a dynamic and engaging speaker for your virtual conference?
Book Liz today by contacting her amazing team member at email@example.com. Keynote topics include: Embracing Your Humanity, Courageous Leadership, Owning Your Entrepreneur, Somehow I Manage, & Shame(less): Surviving Self-Judgement & Maximizing Self-Care.
About the Author: Liz Wooten-Reschke is President/CEO of Connect For More. She engages leaders and empowers philanthropists by sharing resources necessary to help them accomplish their mission. Liz provides executive coaching, strategic facilitations and customized solutions for all sector leaders, philanthropists, consultants and rising stars interested in making a difference in their communities. She is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator, BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer and a professional member of the National Speakers Association. Liz is also a proud member of the University of South Florida Alumni Association Board, a fourth generation Floridian and Key West Conch. She lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, three children, two dogs, one cat and three fish. For more information about Liz or her work, please visit her company website, follow her on Twitter, or visit her Amazon author page.