Is “A Culture of Nice” Killing Your Nonprofit?
Ted joined the board of a local nonprofit homeless shelter 18-months ago, after volunteering at the shelter for several years. He continues to volunteer at the shelter every Saturday night but has only attended one board meeting, doesn’t make a financial contribution, and doesn’t return the board chair’s phone calls. The governance committee has debated whether to speak with Ted about his poor board performance, but they don’t want him to feel undervalued and quit volunteering.
Other board members only attend about half the meetings, and the board often fails to reach quorum for meetings. In fact, last quarter the board couldn’t authorize a state contract due to lack of quorum, and the state questioned why the execution process took so long.
Marcia has worked as the marketing person at the shelter for almost three years. She meets the minimum performance standards for her position – producing a weekly email blast, writing a newsletter, managing social media, conducting church outreach, and designing collateral materials. Board members and major donors have told the executive director that all the organization’s marketing feels uninspired and unoriginal. The email blast and social media followers have actually stopped growing, and the number of new subscribers barely replace those removing themselves from the list. The executive director isn’t comfortable addressing the issues with Marcia because she is producing the content requested and meeting deadlines.
This “culture of nice” is slowly killing the homeless shelter as board performance and staff-managed marketing continue to crash.
The organization’s leaders need to prepare for conversations with those who are underperforming. Specifically, they need to:
- Clearly set expectations
- Communicate the expectations
- Allow people to recommit to the standards or recuse themselves (which would mean resigning from the board or the staff)
- Agree on next steps if the standard isn’t met
But this initial conversation is actually the “easy part”. The difficult conversation happens if someone recommits to meeting a standard without following through on that commitment. The leader needs to ask the person to step aside so that someone else can better fill their position. This can be done with compassion and empathy, but it needs to be clear that remaining part of the team is no longer an option.
Sometimes a board chair will say to me, “Dolph – if we followed this advice, we would lose a third of our board before the end of the year.” But what have they really lost? Usually, it’s a person who is a board member in name only. They haven’t lost a contributing participant in board-level conversations, a stellar cheerleader for the organization, or an incredible community ally.
As a former executive director, I would rather have a smaller, engaged, and energetic board committed to finding more leaders like themselves.