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Honor the Past, but Don’t Look Back

Honor the Past, but Don’t Look BackI am working with an organization that has a noble mission but hasn’t balanced its budget in a long time. Maybe never. Board members are fatigued and pessimistic, and all have stayed LONG past their terms have expired, because (surprise!) no one else could be recruited to fill their slots.

But there is good news. The new executive director has a bold plan to drag the organization into the black ink zone. Several people in the organization’s orbit see the possibility of revival. They are being enlisted into a turnaround task force, which will eventually morph into a new board.

The question is, what do we do with the fatigued and pessimistic members of the existing board?

We can’t say, “Thank you, go away.” Until a new board is formed, the existing board members are legally responsible. If they don’t feel included in the planning process, they could throw a wrench in the works. Anyway, they have given a lot, and no one wants to be rude.

On the other hand, fatigue and pessimism can’t be allowed to slow down the recovery. Here are several ways to address the dilemma.

  1. Keep them informed of the plans, so no one gets surprised.
  2. Give them credit for staying with the organization through its darkest days.
  3. Invite them, one at a time, to join the new board. They know the situation is dire. If they are given the chance to join new enthusiasts to accomplish a turnaround, they might rise to the challenge. The key is to make sure they know that more will be asked of them than they have given in the past. They also need to know that they can step down with dignity if that is their preference.
  4. Repeat over and over: we have an opportunity for transformation, and the status quo is not viable. People in crisis situations often don’t act rationally. They may cling fiercely to responsibilities they want to be done with. They may be blind to the possibilities created by a new vision and influx of energy. My experience is that giving people a chance to hear themselves talk is often better than taking what they say at face value. 

It’s too early to say if the organization can evolve. But I am confident the executive director is doing the right thing. Hopefully, the people with the power in their hands will either get with the program or get out of the way.

Honor the Past, but Don’t Look BackPaul Jolly is the founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc., and, as of March 2016, major gifts officer for Earthworks. His clients include advocacy and religious organizations, social services, community arts, and education nonprofits.

Topics: Nonprofit Board Board Member
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