Meaning and the Nonprofit Sector
The Washington Post recently featured an article about the correlation between having a sense of meaning in life and greater longevity.
This set me to thinking about meaning and the nonprofit sector. If any sector of society has “cornered the market” on meaning, surely it is our sector.
Even though different people find meaning in different things, opportunities for meaning abound in the nonprofit world. Nonprofits care for people: for the very young and the very old; for those who are ill or disabled; for those who are homeless, imprisoned, or impoverished. Nonprofits advocate for civil rights and racial justice. Nonprofits care for animals and the environment. And so much more.
Many years ago, I read an article suggesting the practice of putting on paper just a few words about what is most important to you – and then carrying this paper around with you. On a small piece of cardstock, long since tattered and then lost, I wrote the names of my dearest loved ones, along with these three words:
My career in the nonprofit sector has enabled me to work toward justice and has helped me to find both meaning and joy.
I’ve chosen long-term positions in organizations addressing homelessness, poverty, and mass incarceration because these are the issues closest to my heart. They are all justice issues and working on them has brought me both a deep sense of meaning and many small moments of joy.
Even in selecting short-term positions as an interim executive director, meaning is important to me. As an interim, I’ve led organizations addressing hunger, immigration, and LGBTQ rights because those issues are deeply meaningful to me, both personally and professionally.
I’ve had a varied career in nonprofits across four cities over many years, so I’m going to make a few bold claims here:
Here’s the bottom line: Meaning is a powerful force for human well-being that is widespread in the nonprofit sector, but its effects can be diluted.
Meaning can only stand up to so much. Meaning helps people to hang on when negative things happen. But meaning doesn’t completely inoculate us against “bad stuff” – and especially not against chronic bad stuff. Meaning struggles in the face of toxic leadership or culture. Nepotism, favoritism, microaggressions, yelling, overwork, and unfair pay – these are among the things that wear people down, even in an environment of abundant meaning.
It’s great news for nonprofits that there’s research showing that meaning helps us to live longer. But let’s not just skate on meaning. As nonprofit leaders, we still need to make sure we’re treating our staff well while they are living their longer lives.
After serving three times as an interim executive director, I’ve become obsessed with organizational culture.
Earlier in the year, I read a lot of articles about culture change, and from these I gleaned a few interesting ideas. Overall, though, I found these readings pretty underwhelming.
Then I stumbled on a fascinating book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, who are brothers. I loved this book. To be sure, it’s based on a corny metaphor – but it also distills a great deal of research in an accessible manner and provides the reader with a do-able change system to experiment with.
Crediting psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the Heaths use the metaphor of an elephant (our emotional side) and its rider (our rational side). They lay out an approach to change that has three parts:
Direct the Rider.
Motivate the Elephant.
Shape the Path.
Unsurprisingly, each of these parts also has three parts. Here’s a quick “cheat sheet” I created for myself, using the Heaths' chapter titles and a few snippets from the book:
In order to Direct the Rider:
In order to Motivate the Elephant:
In order to Shape the Path:
That’s a lot to think about. And not every change situation will be amenable to all nine of these approaches.
I’m particularly interested in exploring bright spots – because I know it’s all too easy to focus on correcting what’s wrong rather than expanding what’s right.
I also appreciate the reminder to focus first on seeing and feeling – a lifelong challenge for me, since I can too easily default to logical, analytical reasons for doing something. The Heaths present several great examples of using compelling visuals to jump-start change, and I’m interested in experimenting in this vein.
Finally, I want to think more about rallying the herd. The Heaths assert that “In this entire book, you might not find a single statement that is so rigorously supported by empirical research as this one: You are doing things because you see your peers do them.” That’s a wake-up call.
Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, is quoted in the book as saying, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game---it is the game.”
That’s something that I, too, have learned through experience. It’s a sinking feeling to realize that you have a culture problem but don’t have the right tools for culture change. After reading Switch, I’m feeling hopeful that next time I encounter a tough culture problem, I will be better equipped.
How to Change A Culture
In my first position as an executive director, I was fortunate to have a wise and effective predecessor. In my second, I founded a brand-new organization. So, it wasn’t until I became an interim executive director – a position that I have now held three times – that I had any reason to think about how to change a culture.
What is organizational culture? In a 2016 article, Katzenbach, Oelschlegel, and Thomas describe it as “the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.”
Culture matters. A problematic culture can hold an organization back from fully achieving its mission. Failure to address culture problems can affect staff retention and stand in the way of achieving key program or policy changes.
Over time, I’ve found that some types of culture problems are relatively easy for new leaders to address with modeling and limit-setting. Coming into organizations with a culture of disrespect, leaders can turn this around relatively rapidly by never yelling at, belittling, or berating those around them – and by refusing to tolerate this type of behavior from staff or board members. Coming into organizations with a culture of over-work, leaders can turn this around fairly quickly by taking vacations, staying home when sick, and setting reasonable limits on their own work and email hours – and by giving staff permission and encouragement to do the same.
But some culture problems are both hard to spot early on and much more resistant to change.
Recently, I’ve spent time reading about organizational culture in hopes of finding guidance about tackling particularly resistant culture problems. My number one take-away is that this is tough work! Nothing I read offered a clear and compelling answer to this conundrum. But a few intriguing themes did jump out:
1. Resistance may be more about fear and loss than about the change itself. Understand and acknowledge what people fear – and especially, what they fear losing. Clearly demonstrate respect for precious things that are healthy parts of the organization’s culture. This may reduce resistance to necessary changes in other areas.
2. Focus on changing behavior rather than changing attitudes. Keep the focus on a small number of behaviors – including those that seem innocuous but may be precursors of more problematic behavior. Attitude change will follow behavior change.
3. Even small, short-term successes matter. It makes a difference to demonstrate impact as quickly as possible. Try small pilot efforts and measure their outcomes. Then, celebrate any positive results.
When embarking on an interim E.D. assignment, I begin by individually interviewing staff and board members. I want to understand their roles, their professional goals and interests, and how they assess the state of their organization. Now, after reading more about organizational culture, I know that next time I sit down for these conversations, I’ll be posing some new questions. I’ll be asking each person how they would describe their organization’s culture – and what they hope to preserve or change about it. I’ll be asking not only about their hopes, but also about their fears.
If I run into culture problems along the way, I’ll be experimenting with the three approaches above, to see if they make a difference. Stay tuned.
As an interim executive director, I’ve enjoyed supporting several E.D. search committees.
Of course, the primary role of the search committee is to vet candidates for the long-term executive director position and make a hiring recommendation to the organization’s board.
But as important as that is, it need not be the committee’s only function. Over time, I’ve learned that the search committee has the potential to play a transformational role in additional ways that may not be as obvious.
Although hiring an E.D. is a key function of a nonprofit’s board of directors and requires a vote of the full board, there’s no requirement that the search committee be composed solely of board members. Because the new E.D. will be the staff leader, it’s actually critical that the committee contain both board and staff representatives. This is an important first step in developing the trust of the staff in its next leader.
By putting board and staff representatives together to work on a mission-critical task over an extended period, the search committee gives its members a chance to get to know each other better and see each other differently. Besides creating important bonds among board members, the committee's work may also engender greater respect between board and staff. As committee members come to see each other as unique individuals, this can have the trickle-down effect of improving trust between board and staff across the organization as a whole.
As the committee creates a job announcement, reads resumes, and interviews candidates, its members will find that they have repeated opportunities to speak about the organization’s key values, strengths, and weaknesses. Optimally, this process starts with reflection and ends with cohesion, as the group shares its perceptions with its top candidates. Furthermore, this work should pay off by establishing a foundation of support for the incoming E.D. – and preparing a core group to enthusiastically undergird strategic planning work that will need to take place once the new leader is up to speed.
In the best case, the search committee will become a tight-knit, high-functioning group. By the conclusion of the process, they will have spent many hours together on a complex and satisfying task with a meaningful result. Repeatedly, in order to move the process forward, they will have either reached consensus, or figured out how to separate key points of agreement from less essential disagreements. This is how healthy nonprofits function, and in this way, the search committee can serve as a model of how well the entire organization can potentially operate in the future. That they achieve this result while facilitating the arrival of the organization’s next leader is no small part of this magic.
Service on an E.D. search committee takes a big chunk of time. Dedicated board and staff members agree to serve because selecting the right leader is so important. But it’s worth acknowledging that this time-consuming work can be immensely satisfying and profoundly impactful in other ways, as well.
The Outside Interim Executive Director
Nonprofit A had a long-time executive director who resigned due to a health crisis.
Nonprofit B had an executive director who moved to another organization after giving only six weeks’ notice.
Nonprofit C had an executive director who was asked to resign by its board of directors.
Nonprofit D had a beloved executive director – the founder – who retired after three decades of service.
What do these nonprofits have in common?
Each organization would benefit from the services of an interim executive director. Not a board member doing double duty. Not a staff member temporarily filling two jobs. Instead, a professional interim E.D. brought in from the outside specifically for that purpose.
As I’ve written previously, bosses matter. Bosses matter for good or for ill. A great executive director is going to be missed. There may even be a sort of mourning period. A bad executive director leaves a lasting imprint, too. There is damage, and that damage cannot be fixed in a day.
When a nonprofit proceeds immediately to hiring, there isn’t time for either mourning or healing. The new E.D. begins the job in an environment of unfinished business. Whether it is the lingering reflection of a marvelous leader or the lasting impact of a toxic one, this organizational baggage creates a distinct handicap for the new E.D. It also reduces the likelihood that she will have a successful tenure.
In contrast, the act of hiring an outside interim executive director sends a clear message that this is a time of transition for the organization. A time to acknowledge feelings of grief, anger, or confusion. A time to assess the organization’s strengths and weaknesses and reflect on its needs for future leadership. A time to make difficult changes and fix glaring problems – and to establish processes for addressing less urgent ones.
In this way, an experienced outside interim “takes the hit” for the future executive director. The skillful interim is a “baggage collector.”
Of course, a board member or senior staffer could be called upon to serve as acting executive director. But few board members bring experience in nonprofit management – critical in a position that requires getting up to speed very quickly. Furthermore, success as an interim rides on getting honest and detailed information about the organization, and staff may be less likely to speak freely with someone who retains, or will return to, a place on the board.
A senior staff member asked to serve as acting E.D. will encounter a different set of challenges, starting with the difficulty of doing two jobs at once. Even more than a board member, a staffer lacks the independence to facilitate an objective assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. And then there is the issue of candidacy for the long-term position.
An acting E.D. who is not a candidate must contend with the emotional challenge of becoming the boss, and then subsequently deferring to a new boss. An acting E.D. who is a candidate must make the difficult decision to stay or go if someone else gets the job. In both situations, but especially the latter, an acting E.D. will find it far more difficult to “speak truth to power” with the organization’s board, than would an outside interim.
Actually, it’s hard to think of a scenario in which bringing in an outside interim E.D. would not be helpful. An outside interim can offer board and staff a safe zone to process thoughts and feelings and make difficult changes before moving on to welcome a new leader. Importantly, an outside interim never should be a candidate for the long-term job. By setting this boundary in advance, the interim E.D. will have freedom to speak honestly during the transition – and will find it satisfying to turn over the reins, with pride, when the assignment is done.