No organization wants to hear bad news about itself. Boards and lead executives of non-profit organizations are no different. They understand the business! They have confidence in their people! They are already addressing the challenge!
This is entirely normal. Boards and senior managers do know a lot about their organizations, or should. They may be involved in delivering programs, they may be making site visits on a regular basis. They have a strategic plan that they spent months developing. They have a strong vision of what they want to achieve. And, above all, they have invested their time and their reputation in making the organization a success. So, it hurts when people have complaints or criticisms.
Sometimes the Board is familiar with the issue and is already struggling to address it. Sometimes the challenge may seem beyond the Board to address – it’s a systemic, societal problem that their organization doesn’t have the mandate or the resources to change.
Some organizations establish processes that enable bad news to filter up to them: complaints about harassment usually have to follow such a process; client evaluations may or may not be conducted, and even if they are, they may not be shared with anyone but the staff person directly involved. It’s especially tough in a small organization, where the person being criticized may be the founder, or a charismatic staff member that everyone on the Board admires.
A small organization has had trouble keeping an executive director. Among other issues, there have been complaints from colleagues and clients about the key operations lead, the visionary founder of the organization. The Founder doesn’t want to manage, and doesn’t want to be managed.
A membership organization that relies on members having a specific occupation organizes a public awards show, online. They hire a new producer who does a fabulous job and showcases the members and the work they do. As part of the program, the producer puts members and non-members on a panel to discuss diversity and inclusion in the organization. Members are irritated that they are being discussed in this way, especially as they believe they are already doing everything they can to address diversity and inclusivity.
Difficult conversations, to be sure.
Rather than avoiding them, Boards of Directors are wise to encourage them, and to encourage them in a public forum.
Your first step is to take a breath. There is probably some truth in the charges, and there is probably an explanation. Talk among your fellow Board members: what are they hearing?
If you think there could be repercussions for anyone’s career, or personal safety, the issues need to be addressed privately first. (Managing personal relationships and feelings in a professional manner is a topic for a different blog!)
Then, if the matter is of a more general nature, allow people with opinions and facts to share them openly. Ask positive, open-ended questions. Listen attentively. Structure the process, including the venue, so that people who may otherwise feel uncomfortable feel safe, and are safe.
Engage all of your stakeholders a process so that everyone feels heard, including the staff, members, volunteers and leaders who may at first feel defensive about the conversation. And then, turn the discussion to the path forward: what will change? Who will take responsibility? And who will report back to the stakeholders on progress?
Consulting Matrix helps you to manage the engagement process, discern what the real issues are, and find meaningful, sustainable ways to make change.