Building a Nonprofit Organization from Within

Recently I have been working with a highly centralized organization that has been in existence for more than 15 years. Its CEO has, for all intents and purposes, single-handedly built and directed all of its service provision programs. She was able to recruit a very competent and committed staff that has worked very closely with her. They have been very loyal to the agency and to her. Throughout the past 15 years they have built sterling programs and strengthened the quality of the services the clients continue to receive.

After spending just a few weeks working with the CEO and the staff, it became quite clear that the CEO made all of the major decisions and told the staff what she felt should be done and in many instances how it should be accomplished. Although responsibilities for the administration of the organization were delegated among the senior staff, these professionals were not involved in the decisions to develop the services or in the design of the individual programs. The CEO took responsibility for everything in this realm and relied on the staff to implement what she decided was important.

Due to the great respect that both the junior and senior staff had for the director, there was frustration with their lack of autonomy, but no major tensions that would have a very negative impact on the administration or delivery of services. Despite the strong differences of opinion among the staff, they continued to work together on a daily basis and to follow the lead of the director.

Yet I quickly came to understand that the agency’s development was being hindered because the staff was sidelined and not consulted or involved in developing its programs. After in-depth discussions with the CEO and the senior staff I identified several areas in both strategic planning and program planning and implementation that were most appropriate for the senior staff to be involved in. It was not easy to engage the CEO in a frank discussion of her autocratic style, but slowly she was able to grasp the negative implications of her solo decision making. It took several months for her to recognize how she could include the staff in deliberations without abdicating responsibility for the development of the organization.

Over time, as the senior staff became more involved, the decision-making process focused on the direction of the agency’s services. At the same time the CEO began to feel a difference in their feeling of ownership in what the agency was doing. Previously, each staff member had only been committed to his or her department and area of service provision. There was less of a sense of the staff sharing in the ownership of the whole organization. The CEO only realized this lack of shared ownership after she got the staff involved in thinking about what the agency was doing, how it was doing it, and what it would doing in the future.

After this positive experience with involving the senior staff, the CEO applied the same approach to the agency’s untapped resources. This meant reaching out to other staff members as well as to people in the community and inviting them to participate in discussing the organization’s contribution to the community. It was fascinating to witness the change in the CEO’s approach as she began to welcome input from other people.

I then suggested that the agency hold focus groups with community residents to hear their feedback about the services the agency was providing and its responsiveness to their needs. Prior to my involvement, the CEO would never have considered such a process, believing that seeking input from the community would have been a sign of weakness. Her conception of the agency’s leadership role was for the agency to tell the community what services it would provide and then to offer those services to the people.

Based on her experience with the senior staff, the CEO is beginning to think of leadership in broader terms. She is considering the idea that her success as an executive is not based on her control of the organization but rather will be determined by the agency’s ability to provide needed services in the most professional and competent way. She is beginning to realize that she does not need to control everything to ensure the agency’s ability to accomplish its goals.

When the staff were empowered, the way they engaged in discussions with her changed, and they began to introduce their own ideas and suggestions. In turn the CEO became more receptive to their responses to her ideas. In my conversations with her she reflected on the added value the staff could bring to the continued growth and development of the agency’s services – seeing a new inner strength to the staff and, thus, to the organization. The most significant “aha” moment was when she told me that she understood how differences of opinions and discussions could actually benefit her and the organization.

This realization seems so simple and obvious. However, when executives feel a strong sense of ownership and responsibility, it is difficult for them to open up the decision-making process and to share their ownership for the agency’s continued growth. Once they do so, they can strengthen the organization from within by enlisting the knowledge and skills of staff members, who are only too willing to share in the responsibility for the agency’s continued development and growth.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.