Dear Nonprofiteer, Where, oh where, has my agency gone? Where, oh where, can it be?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Help! I’m the new-ish ED of an organization that serves victims of intimate violence. Our bylaws require that a certain percentage of the board identify as female. I get this, and am completely supportive of it; I believe that the board composition reflects the values of the organization and its leadership, and the organization’s understanding of the world. Problem: the board pres doesn’t get it, and isn’t happy about it, and wants to remove it from the bylaws because she thinks gender has nothing to do with good governance.

For this and a couple of other reasons, I am finding myself looking at being the director of an organization whose board seems to have different values than I signed on for. I came to the organization completely inspired by its anti-oppression, progressive voice for survivors of violence- it was edgy, pushed the boundaries, had a very diverse board, etc. I am finding that through board turnover, and a board recruitment process that had excluded me, we have a more conservative, homogenous, and less connected-to-the-issue board.

I know I have an important role in board development, and the recruitment process does now include me, but I feel like it’s too late–not to mention that I don’t feel like I have the internal or external resources, support or mandate to change board members’ values and worldview to become more in line with what I understood to be the organization’s philosophy.

I know I am framing the issue as a no-win, but I can’t see out of this. Whew. Do I have to find a new job? What about the tragedy of this organization becoming a cookie-cutter social service agency, instead of an instrument of social change?

Signed,

Disappointed

Dear Disappointed:

Whether that’s a tragedy or not depends on whether your community is in need of a social service agency that serves victims of intimate partner violence. But I take your point: you signed on to make change and instead you’re simply providing services.

If the question were just the one about women on the Board, I would suggest that you sit down with your Board president and spell out to her as you’ve done to me the way in which having a certain percentage of Board members identified as female makes for better governance of the institution. It’s easy to say she “doesn’t get it,” but it’s also exclusionary and snobbish: if fostering social change is an important part of your work, then you have to be prepared to spend time with lots of people who don’t get it–so that when you’re done with them, they do.

But if as you suggest it’s a broader problem–that now you’re surrounded by people unsympathetic to your goals–you have two choices: you can throw up your hands, or you can help those people enlarge their perspectives. That’s an often-overlooked part of Board development: educating Board members after you’ve recruited them. Can you and your Board president agree that the subject of how social change intersects with social services is important enough to the Board’s governing competence to warrant a thorough conversation?

In other words: you only have to leave this group if you’re not willing to do the work of orienting and persuading people who’ve joined its Board in good faith and probably have no idea that there’s anything wrong with being “a cookie-cutter social service agency. ” If you can make them see that there is, and that there’s something more the group should be doing, you can stay.

Otherwise: the Board always wins. Find yourself a different job.

The Nonprofiteer was once hired to run an agency which she understood one way, the Board understood a different way, the staff understood a third way and the clients a fourth way. The bad news was, she didn’t realize that, and spent all her time wondering why nobody seemed to get–that term again!–what she was trying to do.

You DO realize that, and that realization gives you the chance to shape the conversation about what the agency is doing, what it used to be doing, what it could be doing, and how the Board can contribute with more than just dollars and cents. Take the lead in setting up that conversation (though perhaps have the conversation itself facilitated by a neutral outsider), and see what progress you’re able to make. The worst that will happen is you’ll end up very clear that you need to go.

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4 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Where, oh where, has my agency gone? Where, oh where, can it be?”

  1. Jen Says:

    Welcome back. I missed your sage advice.

  2. Newstips v2.0 » Blog Archive » Return of the Nonprofiteer Says:

    […] appears that after an extended hiatus, the Nonprofiteer is back on the scene — asking what to do if you don’t like your agency’s shift […]

  3. melindaklewis Says:

    Such a key point, about Board development including working with Board members after they come on–otherwise, stagnation, ‘groupthink’, and staff frustration are almost inevitable.

  4. Disappointed Says:

    Thanks, Nonprofiteer. I’ve missed you!

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