The emotional attachments that some nonprofit stakeholders possess are remarkably powerful. It takes enthusiasm, pride, dedication, and passion to coagulate a community of supporters who are loyal to an organization and its mission.
These emotional attachments might include ideas, mindsets, feelings, programs, relationships, people, and places that are associated with a nonprofit. They may be time-honored and woven into the fabric of the organization, and can even inspire stakeholders to donate, contribute their time, and put the organization’s strategic goals on a pedestal.
But what happens when organizations must develop new approaches to advance their services in an environment that is continuously changing?
This is a turning point in a nonprofit’s lifecycle. It requires the leadership to decide what it will keep doing, and what it needs to let go of, in order to reach a new level of success and prepare for potential challenges in the future. Many volunteers and nonprofit professionals have invested so much time, money, and energy into their attachments that it ends up clouding their judgment. They might not be able to recognize when their attachments are impeding the organization’s development.
The stakeholder’s inability to let go of these emotional attachments poses serious setbacks for new leaders who are trying to move organizations forward. These attachments also have the potential to prevent the organization from facilitating innovation, adapting to change, and navigating through complex environments with confidence and agility.
Signs of Unhealthy Attachments
Nonprofit boards that are serious about conserving their missions must recognize that it’s difficult to reap the rewards of change without repurposing their emotional attachments or letting go of some of them altogether. Here are some behaviors that may hint of unhealthy or unproductive emotional attachments:
- Discounting assessments: Nonprofit professionals and lay leaders who are heavily invested in their attachments may not embrace organizational evaluations for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they may avoid evaluations, surveys, and analyses of the organization’s programmatic and functional areas when there’s a chance that the results might be negative. Conversely, there are times when a report may not be negative, but the emotionally attached individual sees the report as negative because it is misaligned with his or her expectations and/or desires. Reports from an evaluation may suggest that there isn’t a demand for something that the emotionally attached individual has been advocating for, requiring that organizations change rather than remain dormant or complacent. It’s not atypical for individuals with strong emotional attachments to deny or question the results of a report. To assuage longtime lay leaders and donors, boards may argue that an initiative that is driven by an emotional attachment isn’t adversely affecting the organization or even contributing “significantly,” yet fail instead to consider whether the program, mindset, or idea is contributing to the organization’s overall strategic direction. Avoiding performance reviews and assessments are damaging to an organization because data about effectiveness leads to greater impact and, more importantly, action.
- Settling for good intentions and “Band-Aid” solutions: During robust times in the economy, it wasn’t uncommon for organizations to excuse failure when a program, idea, or initiative was done “from the heart” or with good intentions. But today, the rigor around decision making is more imperative considering the economic uncertainty and competition that exists in the sector. The attention that lay leaders and donors devote to these initiatives can detract from more meaningful, impactful, and necessary programs and projects requiring concentrated resources. Organizations that are negatively influenced by emotional attachments may accept ideas that produce “Band-Aid” or short-term solutions to societal problems because it allows the leadership to sidestep long-term planning. According to the Concord Leadership Group’s Nonprofit Leadership Report: 2016, “49 percent of nonprofits are operating without any knowledge of or access to a strategic plan; so rather than focusing on long-term stability, nonprofits are reacting to short-term crises.”
- Promoting personal agendas: It’s difficult to engage some people when changes are being made, no matter how rational your decision for change. They might not be ready to surrender the control they’ve obtained through their attachments. Letting go of certain ideas, feelings, programs, relationships, staff, property, and places means relinquishing some power, and some of the members of your team may not be prepared to take that step. Some people put their personal needs or self-interests ahead of their organizations’ needs and mission. Pay special attention to how people speak about their attachments. Responses such as, “Why are you eliminating my program?” “I created this because I thought it was a good idea,” or “You’re not making changes the way I said you should do it” often suggests ulterior motives and false pride.
- Fearing newness: At the most basic level, people fear change because they fear the unknown. For some people, change feels like the earth is moving beneath them, and this can be physically and emotionally unsettling—especially for long-time staff, donors, and lay leaders who have played a part in helping to build the organization up to what it is today. Mere talk of change is enough for some people to start questioning their own future with the organization. They start to wonder if they’re needed or relevant anymore. Others wonder if they’re going to be replaced by the next rising star, so they begin to create an insular environment or cliques that makes it hard for new talent not only to come into the organization but to succeed in their roles.
Managing Emotional Attachments
Nonprofits should discuss attachments that are worth strengthening and those that should be released. In these conversations, boards must also determine the risks they are willing to take to achieve the type of transformative change they are seeking. It’s necessary for the leadership to acknowledge and accept that there will be attachments that won’t be salvageable. As Peter F. Drucker, a pioneer in management, once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Doing something new doesn’t mean that the leadership must turn its back on everything that is associated with its past. An organization’s history and its past leadership are valuable components of its genetic make-up. Fundamentally, doing something new is about optimizing the emotional attachments that are helping your organization to grow, and letting go of the attachments that don’t align with the organization’s goals and greater mission.
These tips are useful to manage your leadership’s emotional attachments:
- Make sure that your outlook is accurate. Acting before your leadership gets the full details about any issue can lead to a misuse of resources. Cross-examine your leaders about their emotional attachments to gain a clearer understanding of why some are more difficult to let go than others. Questions you’ll want to ask may include: Are we seeing the trends properly? Is the attachment motivated by self-interests? Whom are we listening to? Are we going through the rigors of knowing if a problem is a real problem? Sometimes problems are opportunities in disguise. You should be tuned in to trends and know the differences between fad and passion to determine motives and potential outcomes. The knowledge you gain from these queries can weed out attachments that can instigate uninformed decision making.
- Be aware of alarmists and fear mongers. A “problem” can take center stage when it is an issue for the most vocal lay leader. However, you need to get a sense of the entire landscape before making emotionally charged decisions. If one person complains about something, you should not rush to appease his or her demands without soliciting feedback from other members on your team. It helps to have figures and projections that authenticate decisions driven by attachments. You want to discern if an attachment is powered by hysteria or is presenting an opportunity to prepare for unexpected challenges or demands. Don’t jump so far down any one path that your leadership can’t turn back if needed.
- Engage in data-informed discussions. Many nonprofits are collecting and analyzing data to identify best practices, but it doesn’t have to be absent of values. Since nonprofits are dealing with people and mission–work, leaders have special cares that differ from the private sector that must be considered in decision making. Data-driven decisions that aren’t informed by data-driven discussions tend to ignore the human elements associated with working in the social sector. Engaging in open conversations about change will prevent people from latching onto the things they think are missing. Granted, an organization needs to develop a business model that allows it to reach new levels of growth, but it must also combine this model with employee engagement, passion, meaning, and purpose.
- Pass the baton. Change management can be likened to running a relay race. In relay races, runners in predetermined spots take turns passing a baton from one teammate to the next until the last runner bolts ahead to the finish line. Like relay races, organizational success is achieved when everyone is working together to achieve an end goal. A lack of term limits, for example, can be a source for an unnecessary tug of war between departing and incoming leadership. When this happens, the baton ends up being stuck in transition. Ensuring that term limits are not only established but imposed is an effective way to grow new leadership and share power. You can’t expect to bring in diverse perspectives and fresh ideas if some longtime board and staff members don’t make room for new talent. New talent should not feel as though they are in competition with some members of your leadership, or that they are not welcome to participate in building on the success of your organization because some individuals on your team refuse to pass the baton. Similarly, volunteers must feel equally appreciated. It’s crucial to listen, train, educate, and promote talented staff and volunteers so they are empowered to give their talents to the organization in new ways.
- Repurpose your organization. Some nonprofits start out focusing on one issue, but as time goes by, they redirect their focus to remain relevant and address new demands. Your organization’s primary mission might have focused on helping indigenous migrants assimilate in a specific community, but what if there is no longer an influx of indigenous migrants in that community years later? It’s important to be able to clarify goals, broaden your services, and shift gears when the environment requires it, so that your organization doesn’t dissolve or become irrelevant in the future. Thinking about your organization’s purpose as it matures allows your leadership to reimagine your organization’s potential for growth and success.
The suggested tips are not one-size-fits-all solutions to managing your leadership’s emotional attachments, nor should this process be a one-time pursuit. I often encourage nonprofits to regularly measure the appropriateness of their expectations, understand the scope of the changes that they’re seeking, and explore what these changes would mean for the staff and organization. That way they are not caught off guard by the challenges of change. This understanding might make the act of letting go of unhealthy or unproductive attachments a much more therapeutic process. As nonprofits begin to think about new strategies for sustainable growth, identifying and managing their emotional attachments are central to extending their work and their ability to think differently about achieving their goals in a modern world.
Steve Goldberg is a consultant at DRG Executive Search. He brings more than 25 years of experience in the volunteer, health and human services, and faith-based sectors, having spent the past 17 years as a senior nonprofit executive. Steve has a proven track record of leading successful change, strengthening leadership infrastructure, and improving governance within complex, mission-driven environments.