Dear Nonprofiteer, Whose Board Is This, Anyway?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I serve on the Board of a women’s organization.  We’ve just undergone a strategic planning process, but I wasn’t able to be involved as much as I wanted to because of conflicting responsibilities at home and at work.  Now I’m looking at the final report of the planning process and I see we–or rather they, my fellow Board members–have adopted new expectations that include a greater financial contribution than I’ve ever made and a greater time commitment for committee service than I’ve ever been asked for.  What can I do about this bait and switch?  Signed, On Board With What I Thought The Job Was

Dear On Board:

You’ve described a couple of fairly common scenarios, including the women’s organization where people feel free to cite family obligations as a reason not to show up when they wouldn’t think of saying that to a roomful of men.  Having no family herself, the Nonprofiteer is more than a little impatient with people who make their families an excuse for charitable inaction.  What do you want to teach your kids?  That their soccer game is more important than someone else’s civil rights or need for shelter?

But be that as it may: decisions are made by those who show up.  If you weren’t able to participate in the strategic planning process, you can’t be terribly surprised that it doesn’t reflect your priorities and concerns–or rather that it does, in the sense that your priorities didn’t include participating.

Your other point is the more complicated one: what to do about Board service when it undergoes a seismic shift while you’re standing on the tectonic plate.  To some extent, the answer depends on your resources: if you can’t give or get whatever the number is (and I assume that’s what they’ve adopted, a write-or-raise figure you can fulfill in cash or by selling tables or soliciting contributions) and/or you can’t attend whatever the required number of meetings is, then you need to leave the Board.  You can do so huffily, or you can do so recognizing that the agency that recruited you has become something different and you’re not interested in the structure or function of the new agency.  This happens with every strategic planning process: it’s not a tragedy, it’s just (as Melanie Wilkes would say) life renewing itself.

The real question is whether you can persuade yourself (or your Board colleagues can persuade you, as they should be trying to do if they hope to succeed with their plan) that you can do what’s newly being asked of you, and that you want to.  If you’re committed to the work of the agency, what would really be involved in changing other aspects of your life to give it higher priority–that is, more time and more money?  If it’s not feasible (because you have a special-needs child or a big out-of-town trial that’s going to last for the next 18 months or some other exceptional situation), then you need to say goodbye and confine yourself to waving enthusiastically from the sidelines–which is mostly what you’ve been doing anyway, it sounds like.

But if you’ve had a more active role and your estrangement from the planning process was just bad timing and ill luck, then see whether you can’t come to a) understand and b) fulfill the expectations your fellow (and sister!) Board members now have of you.  Remember: they’re making the same demands of themselves, and they probably never faced them before, either.  The only difference is, they were there to debate and adopt them: a harness feels a lot different when you slip it on yourself than when someone tosses it over your neck.  And while the demands may seem excessive at first blush, they may be just what’s required for the group to fulfill its mission.  The new strategic plan should make clear the connection between the Board’s new role and the agency’s future, and if you understand and believe in that connection as well as in the agency, maybe you ought to give its new approach a chance.

Or, as a Board president wiser and pithier than the Nonprofiteer once said to members of her irate crew after promising them staff and peer support for their changed roles, "Just give it a year!  If that doesn’t work, then you can call it quits."

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