It’s time to start asking the hard questions.
Recently a coaching client was telling me that he hadn’t done much on a board and a sub-committee he is a member of. He was trying to summarize those activities into resume credentials and felt he had nothing to show for it after two years!
As a nonprofit staff member I had similar experiences from the other side. I sat in on countless committee meetings where little was accomplished. In particular, one marketing committee even had a consent agenda, minutes, the whole shebang. During meeting, we spent an hour where a board member talked the entire time about his idea: how great it was; how he really wanted input from the staff; how it should align with organizational priorities; here’s how it should be done; here’s how it shouldn’t be done; here’s what he’d say when someone else is doing the work; ad nauseum. I was beginning to worry if he was breathing through all that talking.
At the end of the meeting, we walked away with one idea: call a segmented group of participants within the next two months. Indeed it was a good idea (not original to this board member) and relatively simple to implement. The meeting could have been accomplished in 20 minutes with time to spare for some niceties.
Sometimes we get formality confused with function and usefulness. We’ve been trained to follow Robert’s Rules of Order and we’ve all experienced how that is not enough for a productive meeting.
Here’s the bigger question: Why are we doing this to ourselves?
As a nonprofit employee, it is difficult to be honest with board members and volunteers about their effectiveness. There seems to be spoken and unspoken rules that all volunteers are good volunteers and we can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I’ve done it myself: said “Thank you,” to a volunteer when the help wasn’t all that helpful. And it felt icky.
The relationship is a two-way street, right?
Volunteers and board members: why do you continue to show up when you don’t see any results from your work? You need to ask yourself a really hard question: what are you really getting out of this relationship?
Good intentions aren’t enough.
In our sector, we often rely on people’s good intentions because its charity. Good intentions and “being nice” simply aren’t enough in this work. A few years ago when a major tornado wiped out an entire small Indiana town, people were killed and lost everything. In addituin, there was debris thrown across fields, contaminated flood waters, barns scattered across hundreds of acres, and trees and buildings threatening to fall down at any moment. Disaster zones are quite dangerous when trying to clean up and because of this at Catholic Charities we had a rule that no one under 14 could help with debris clean up.
Upon hearing this rule, a Boy Scout leader, with troops from 10 to 16, demanded that all of his boys be able to help because, “They need to know that you help when disasters happen.” Oh…so it’s about the boys learning, not their safety and certainly not about the farmers and families who just lost everything? Got it.
My friend, Jeremy, puts it best when it comes to why we aren’t asking these hard questions in philanthropy: “Because it is a Squishy Question, a reasonable but uncomfortable one, a question that would require a difficult dialogue about the true societal value of our work and efforts.” For the love of Robert’s Rules, let’s get squishy.
Time is a finite resource and we’ve wasted a lot of it in committee meetings, committee sub-committees, and sub-committee’s project management meetings. More importantly, the clients of these nonprofits would be better served by more focused efforts. As these clients face debilitating PTSD, grief and depression from losing a parent, and eviction (often all 3 at once), we’re sitting in board rooms discussing the merits of chicken vs. steak at the fundraising dinner.
I once had to argue with a committee member over editing an invitation in Word vs. Notepad. I’ll never get those 10 minutes back. Ever.
Be Reminded of Why You’re There
Nonprofits are doing the really hard work in our communities. Board members and volunteers need to support that work effectively. That needs to be in governing the organizations, creating organizational focus and supporting employees.
As a volunteer, find time to directly connect with the real work of the organization. This might mean having a conversation with a kid at the after-school program or sharing (not just serving) a meal with a client.
More importantly, speak out when you’ve lost your way, when a meeting has gone off track, or when too many conversations go by and nothing substantial gets done. Sometimes we all need a reminder of the urgency in this work.
It gets better.
This conversation with a client last week really got me thinking about the ways our relationships with volunteers can be challenging. Of course, most of the work is needed and great. The nonprofit sector relies on volunteers for billions of dollars worth of work each year. Next week, I’ll focus on why volunteers are needed more than ever.