Something’s Wrong if You Need Healing Sessions

In this article, I am starting a series that will focus on transitions, especially around founding boards and Executive Directors. In this story, an individual working on capacity building with a nonprofit describes how the emotional attachment board members felt to the organization’s mission prevented them from providing good governance. Making change required lots of listening and changing the board.

Emotion and Passion Prevent Strategic Discussions

From a board member somewhere in the US.

I was a representative of a granting organization that was also working on capacity building. The organization was 15 years old. Its board members had come together due to a shared type of personal tragedy. They were so attached to the organization that they had established life terms for board members, which meant most had been with the organization for more than a decade.

The board was not as effective at governing as they were at wearing their hearts on their sleeves. This amplified the typical nonprofit board politics. They felt strongly about every action of the staff. There was a great deal of passion around being involved with this organization as well as pride for having done the things they had done. They’d steered the organization through a leadership change and had earned some important victories in their state legislature. They were able to bring high-net-worth people to the table. So financially they could continue indefinitely. But the successes were over shadowed by the fact that they could not carry out a strategic discussion. They struggled to set a long-term vision and strategic direction.

There were so many fears and anxieties that had accrued over the years that they hurt each other’s feelings all the time. Individual people would feel offended by decisions or statements that got said in the board meeting. We had to hold healing sessions at the end of these meetings to cool the emotions that were triggered.

New Board Members Were Necessary to Move Forward

After many weeks of listening to individual stakeholders, we learned how deep the passions and resentments ran. So much so the organization had two factions around a big program and were at deep loggerheads over how the ED should lead. We realized lifetime board terms perpetuated their challenges. We recognized that the current board members needed to move on and that new board members with new skills were necessary to move forward. We knew that if this board stayed in place, the trajectory of the organization was capped. They weren’t able to have a strategic plan because they were not able to have a strategic conversation.

It took a lot of diplomacy to get the board to agree to make the change. The factions dug in for a while. But we made a concerted effort to make sure everyone was heard. Then someone brought forth the thought that for their success and growth, they needed to embrace letting go.

We created an honorary board structure for the lifetime members to migrate to. We opened up board recruitment which went well as the organization had an impactful mission. Part of what convinced the current board members was the quality of the people we found to bring on. Still, not surprisingly, it was very touch and go up until the final vote.

Lessons Learned

Need Objective Board Members: Make sure your board is not just made up of people who are emotionally attached to the mission because they cannot see beyond the attachment and be objective.

Listen Before Making Change: Second, before making a big change, take time to let people feel heard, let everyone tell their version of the story. What was hard was to make sure everyone got heard. Be patient.

Bring n Neutral Party: In this situation, outside voice was needed. A neutral third party is sometimes required to give an organization the strength and direction it needs. Once you are on the inside, you can be seen to be having an agenda.

Address Structural Issues: Finally, by addressing a structural issue – life-time board terms — in a diplomatic manner, the organization was able to emerge stronger and better able to focus on its mission and maintain the passion of its founders and early supporters.

3 Comments

  1. Susan Howlett

    Great article, Janet! I see this happen a lot in social service organizations, where people are eager to serve on the board because of their personal connection to the mission (sexual assault, infant death, abuse), but they may be using their board service to “do their own work” around the trauma. I’ve also heard from other consultants that sometimes the organizations created to address these types of issues end up recreating a similar environment, e.g., a strong-willed or manipulative Executive Director in domestic violence orgs. Keep up this good work! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Janet Levinger

      Great points! I can see that happening.

  2. Tim Schottman

    Good story Janet. I think if you have the right mission it can encourage the right difficult conversations, e.g., do we have the right leadership to achieve the mission? When relationships supersede the mission then everything goes off track. Keep it coming!

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