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More Than Passion Needed in Prospective Nonprofit Directors
By: Eugene Fram
What nonprofit selection committee would reject a candidate who demonstrates passion for the organization’s mission? I can attest to the fact that in many recruitment processes, an interviewee who shows strong empathy for the cause is a “shoe-in” for the director position regardless of any obvious weakness in other skill areas. By contrast, one who appears ambivalent about the organization’s mission can be overlooked or even eliminated from the list.
Being emotionally attached to the organization’s cultural tradition can also trump objectivity when a change in format is proposed. I once interfaced with a director who was so attached to his organization’s cultural norms he attempted to block a move towards a more efficient but more formal operational mode, protesting the possible erosion of the nonprofit’s current sense of family.
Founders’ Syndrome: A sense of ownership resides in some long-term directors that can lead to poor decisions that are in the best interest of the organization. Founders of nonprofits, for example, often fail to delegate operational authority properly while they are building the nonprofit. Many even try to retain micromanaging control as a board member after their retirement. This results in continual board crises and has the potential of eroding all the accomplishments of the organization. Alignment with the mission is always desirable in board members. Following are tactics that will help directors to:
Become More Entrepreneurial: Most nonprofit boards are hesitant to develop an entrepreneurial environment in which management can operate. Many nonprofits are dependent on governmental support or donations for their operations. Some board members fear being charged with squandering these types of funds for failed entrepreneurial efforts. But progress in the 21st century requires small experimentation. It allows the nonprofit to examine new systems and ideas, understanding that some will fail. Committed board members can help the CEO to seek additional funding to support these types of activities. For example, I encountered an insurance agent who I can describe as having some passion for the agency’s mission. But he energetically raised funds by using his knowledge of insurance products. He later moved to chairing the board of a major health foundation that was substantially successful in meeting its objectives.
Become More Effective in Strategic Planning: I have frequently noted nonprofit strategic planning that is entirely based on a simple SWOT analysis—simply listing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It is an ineffective internal process that allows board member objectivity to decline. Many nonprofits, such as human service and health organizations recruit their directors from different career backgrounds. For example, a major donor, who was known for a strong affinity to the mission, joined a strategic planning committee. He wielded such power that three thoughtful fellow board members resigned from the committee. None of the other committee members wanted to challenge him.
Recruiting More Effective Board Members: Add to the traditional nonprofit skills grid several career dimensions to recruit, many of whom may be described as being merely empathetic about the mission:
1. Seek recently retired people, both those traditionally retired and those who retried early, who may have time to be candidates for both the governing and consulting with boards.
2. Seek individual contributors who may have more control of their time, such as doctors, lawyers, professors and small business owners.
3. Seek successful entrepreneurs who can schedule their own time, can resonate with the organization’s mission, vision and values and who want to give back to the community.
4. Beyond the time requirement, seek persons with experience on profit or nonprofit boards so they can share their board knowledge and become models for those having their first board experience. Their questions and behaviors can teach as much or more than formal seminars.
There is no doubt that passion for a nonprofit cause drives action. But how that passion is framed–with what degree of respect and objectivity it is presented–can advance or disrupt the organization.