September 28, 2023

Y M L P-222

Did Somebody Say Business?

Non-Profit STRATEGIES – Know When to Walk Away

Good articles need to inspire you to think, question, and take action. It is my hope that this article can be one of those.

Throughout my article series over the past couple of years, I have sought to give advice and encouragement to nonprofit organizations and their leaders about the important role they play in our communities. Nothing about my commitment to that effort has changed. However, today it has struck me that there is a ‘reckoning’ that all of us must ultimately address: is it time to walk away? That is the question. And, it must be framed as different from quitting – anybody can do that – and, walking away must be seen as different from walking away mad. With purpose and appropriate discernment, how do you know when it is time to walk away?

This article is devoted to laying the groundwork for you to explore this challenging – and oft ignored – issue. I would invite you to spend some quality time pondering this issue and, importantly, to share your thoughts with other readers. By creating a dialogue, you have an opportunity to harness the power of the written word and utilize the Internet to share your thoughts with others.

I’ve been thinking about this particular issue for years and discussing my opinions with people in dozens of meetings, but I always wanted to share my thoughts in writing. Yet I refrained. A recent piece of state legislation caught my eye and has helped push me to write this article. Believe it or not, a state code (it does not matter which state) was recently amended to allow a non-profit to set aside mandated term limits for certain board members. I read the amendment, was frankly surprised at the wording (while intentionally not a quote, the above paraphrase is extremely close!), did some research, thought about the issue for a few days, talked to several people, and I still cannot find any well-reasoned justification for ever needing such legislation. In fact, I feel very strongly that term limits on a non-profit board are healthy.

But, term limits could be the subject of another article. This article is about knowing when it is time to walk away. Obviously, the board that sought this state code change has a very different mindset for running its operation.

It’s no secret that I believe the non-profit sector holds tremendous potential for solving a myriad of community challenges. I believe that sentiment is truer now than ever before. Just this past week, in an hour-long telephone conversation with a trusted colleague about a non-profit gone bad, I asserted my standard non-profit governance observation: where is the board and, more specifically, is there no true leadership on the board that can address the problems that have been identified? Sure, executive directors can act up, make mistakes, upset folks – so can board members and even the constituents they serve – but, at the end of the day, the board runs the organization, so I always ask: where is the leadership? I suggest that, try as you might, you cannot get around the importance of the key governance issue of leadership.

I have observed over the years that true leadership on a non-profit is often in very short supply. Sometimes it does not exist at all. It saddens me; it concerns me; and, it often makes me irritable. I fear that too many board members want to feel good about their board service without investing the time and energy required to make a true difference. Come to the meeting (or not?), listen to what is said (maybe?), seek to understand the issues (really?), and be willing to offer genuine opinions, advice, and suggestions as to how to improve the organization (rarely?). In my opinion, a board member needs to work hard if he or she wants to feel good – and, the ‘feel good’ needs to be motivated from within, not without (as in seeking admiration from others for the board position they hold). Albeit anecdotal, my experience leads me to guess that 90% of non-profit board members are unqualified to serve and they make no genuine effort to engage. Everybody seems to want to feel good without doing the work.

Maybe this article is more about what to do if you are among the proverbial 10%, have done your best, moved things forward as far as you can, and need to make an informed decision about your own best interests and your future role. Yeah, maybe that’s the way to think about this issue. If, and I do stress IF, you are an enlightened board member and have done all you can, then you will recognize that you are nothing magic, or special, or required. This article is intentionally written to the person who is at peace with themselves – and, knows who and what they are not. We are not talking about making a decision based on pride but, rather, based on what is right.

A lot is being written right now – current day – about non-profits and the surrounding governance issues that are being raised. Examples include the de-funding of ACORN, the questionable spending practices of Feed the Children, and the high executive salaries at the national headquarters of Boys and Girls Clubs, just to name a few and make a point. So, I would suggest that non-profit governance is clearly an important and timely topic.

Let’s make this very personal: it’s about you; it’s about me; it’s about all of us. As you analyze the issues surrounding your own particular situation, you will find there are only a few categories: (1) you have messed up in some gigantic way and a wrong should be corrected; (2) you have incorrectly been accused and there is nothing that needs to be righted; (3) you have neither messed up, nor been accused, but your best efforts are increasingly falling on deaf ears and you question your ability to make any further positive contribution. Doesn’t this pretty well sum up your possible categories?

This article is NOT about either of the first two categories. If you have messed up, then endeavor to fix it; maybe you can – but maybe you cannot – and your decision to walk away will be revealed as you work through the process. If you have been wrongly accused, then either speak up about it or let it ride – whichever way works best for you – and you can walk away or stay at the table, whichever you choose.

The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is determining when your role is no longer relevant. The key word here is relevant. Have you ever had somebody look to you for leadership, count on you to do the right thing and, when you do, that same somebody is unhappy because you did not do what they wanted you to do? Have you had experiences relevant to the discussion at hand, been brave enough to share them, only to have folks think you are trying to show off your knowledge and dismiss your thoughts without even giving you an opportunity for meaningful discussion? How does that make you feel? What if that seems to be happening over and over again – i.e. it’s not an isolated incident and you’ve consulted trusted advisors to make sure you are not being overly sensitive or paranoid? What if you are a past chair of the board, filled with knowledge of the organization (its good things and its bad things), and are genuinely trying to help the current leadership avoid the same mistakes of the past, but you are thought of among your fellow board members as ‘out of touch’ and living in the past? What if the organization gets itself in genuine trouble over an issue that you tried to counsel it to address differently, and you had the grace to keep your mouth shut when you were ridiculed and outvoted, but now everybody wants you to solve the problem?

Ask yourself: is your organization currently relevant and is your board service currently relevant? Is it time to walk away?

This is a good place to insert a disclaimer. I do not advocate running away! Walking away is the issue here – never running away. If there are issues which need to be resolved and if there are opportunities for legitimate service, then I do not suggest walking away. I believe that you should not walk away until the circumstances have been made right – and, for better or worse – only you can know when that time has arrived. This is not about being ‘holier than thou’ – nor is it about being selfish or uncaring – but neither is it about being untrue to yourself and your beliefs. It is about doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. Your thing; your time; your reasons. It may even be considered to be the ultimate act of leadership that you can demonstrate – both to yourself and others. And, almost certainly, it will not be understood by many people. That is precisely the point. It is also the challenge.

Let me provide an example. For those of you who have followed my previous articles, you know that I like to call these ‘case studies’ because the truth of the matter is that an actual example is always more instructional than anything I could possibly make up. I believe that we can learn a lot by studying examples. As it turns out, this example is about an experience I had – which I could have chosen to disguise in some third-person manner – but I have decided not to bother.

One of the first leadership opportunities that came my way as a young professional was to serve as president of a community service organization. I would like to think that I had worked hard on various projects over the years and risen to the leadership position because I had genuinely earned it. Who knows? It does not matter. The position was elected by the entire membership, so arguably the majority of the members thought I was worthy (at least at some point in time). Following my year as president, as was the custom, the immediate past president became chair of the board. I should mention this was an all-volunteer organization and there was no executive director, although we did employ a secretary to assist with administrative matters. She was sort of a ‘den mother’ or ‘fraternity mother’ – wise beyond the sum total of all of us members. Chair of this board was purely an honorary position – ostensibly an attempt to keep some continuity at the table as the natural leadership transition unfolded – and I cannot even remember whether the chair had a vote. It doesn’t matter.

But, I do remember that my first meeting as chair involved at least one challenging issue that caused the membership to look to me – not the president – for leadership. As my new role as chair, I was unsuccessful at pitching the issue back to the president. And, I remember it did not feel right. It was awkward. The current president was fully capable of leading, but the membership seemed not to have made that transition quickly enough. It was awkward, I did not like it, and I did not feel that I had handled the situation very well.

I sought the opinion of a trusted elder statesman, one who was himself long familiar with the organization, and his advice was (at least in my recollection) very sound. The advice served to build the foundation upon which I began to act, almost always, at the conclusion of all of my future community leadership positions: he advised me to get out of the way because my time was up (those were his words).

It took me quite a while to understand the importance of getting out of the way – or, as I have called it in this article, walking away – but, I was finally able to understand the concept well enough to proactively articulate it in future situations that I found to be similar. While getting out of the way is hardly a new concept – everything has its season – only change is constant – it still takes some doing to figure out if and how and when to get out of the way. Perhaps getting out of the way is not a very natural action for us to take. After all, we all want to be wanted; we want to matter.

My little speech went something like this. I would call my successor – or, depending on the situation, actually meet with him or her – and I would explain my decision to walk away, step aside, allowing him/her to fully enjoy the opportunity to lead, just as I had. I would explain that I had served my time, tried to do my best, hoped I had made a difference, still cared deeply about the organization, and would always be just a phone call away if I were needed. I would explain that I did not wish to run the risk of interfering with new ideas, being misunderstood for stating my opinions, or – even worse – running any risk of derailing opportunities new leadership had to make even better changes for the future of the organization.

I must admit that my little speech may never have been fully understood. Or, maybe it was better understood than I will ever know. Who knows? But, the point of the story is that I found – with the advice of a trusted advisor – and with my own inner counsel – the approach that seemed to be mutually beneficial for me and the organization. I walked away – I did not run away, nor did I walk away mad. I did not make myself unavailable to those who wanted a sounding board, or an opportunity to vent their frustrations, or the safe harbor to bounce around a wild idea in confidence.

I believe I now have about a dozen of these experiences. Do I ever worry if I did the right thing? Sure. Do I ever find it hard to let go and are there times when I wish I hadn’t? Of course. Do I feel a bit guilty, especially when folks call me up and talk to me about the way things used to be and they wish it could be that way again? Yep.

But, I walked away.