Expectations: They Can Make or Break The Working Relationships in the Non-Profit Organization

Everyone has expectations of everyone else. No matter what position you hold, or anyone else holds in a non-profit organization we always have expectations of the people we are working with, and they in turn have expectations of us. It is important to clarify expectations in every situation. By neglecting this step we invite ambiguity which in turns leads to misunderstandings and disagreements.

In order to avoid these kinds of difficulties it is best to initiate a process of clarifying expectations whether it is between the chief executive officer (CEO) and the board of directors; whether it is between the CEO and the members of the staff; whether it is between the organization and the clients/members who receive services from the agency; whether the relationship is between the organization and consultants; or whether it is between other parties involved in a variety of relationships in/with the organization.

Examining the relationship between the CEO and the volunteer leadership in the non-profit provides an opportunity to explore how clarified expectations enable the partnership to work effectively and efficiently. If the CEO has stated what he expects from the board and has confirmed the appropriateness of what the board expects from him/her, then there is a sense of mutuality as they work together. This mutuality can lead to a strong partnership that sets the stage for full cooperation and coordination. The partners know what they have to do to reach their goals, and they can focus on the work without continual questioning what one partner expects the other partner in their professional relationship.

For example, a board might engage a CEO and assume that the role includes actively developing the financial resources of the organization. The board leadership understands the CEO will begin fundraising to strengthen the organization’s financial situation. The CEO, however, understands the role is to facilitate the process of increasing the funds raised. She envisions working with the volunteer leadership to enhance their ability to raise funds through a variety of activities including initiating a friends’ group; forming a functioning FRD (financial resource development) committee; and/or conducting an annual fundraising campaign to provide additional funds for the annual budget, among other activities.

In this situation, both parties may understand the importance of the roles of the CEO and the members of the board, however, there are differing expectations as to how each will implement their roles. The CEO aims at facilitating the volunteer leadership, however, the leadership is looking to the CEO to raise the needed funds with their support but not necessarily their active involvement. This kind of misunderstanding can ultimately lead to either re-negotiating the relationship and the expectations or to the CEO leaving the executive position.

In much the same way, there needs to be clarity of expectations between the CEO and the organization’s staff. Often there is much that is left open to interpretation because job descriptions do not always define day to day responsibilities. They are sometimes assumed by the CEO and the staff members engaged by the agency. Often expressions like, “I assume you meant …” or “You did not say that when you hired me …” or “I did not know you expected me to …”

The way to avoid these very uncomfortable exchanges is to clarify the expectations the CEO has of the staff member and the staff member’s understanding of the tasks to be completed. It becomes even more difficult for both parties when there is an evaluation of the employee’s performance.

Of course when staff members are not functioning on a desired level it can be an uncomfortable situation if there is no clear statement of what was expected. The evaluation process can be reduced to “he said this and she said that” and the vacuum quickly becomes filled with allegations that could be avoided if expectations were clearly stated and even stated in writing. Although this is not a perfect method of dealing with differing perceptions it does close the gap that would otherwise exist without a written statement clarifying what was expected from the staff person.

The issue of expectations is sharpened when we discuss the relationship between an organization and a consultant who is engaged to work on challenges faced by the agency including fundraising, staff development, and board development, among others. The process of working with a consultant can be misperceived because the consultant is engaged part-time and does not have a specific task that relates to the agency’s function. The consultant is present to focus on one or more issues to support the organization in its desire to become more proficient at a function or to implement a successful fundraising campaign.

When a consultant is engaged to assist the organization it is very important to clarify what is meant by “assist”. At times assistance means providing guidance and advice. There are circumstances that dictate the consultant taking a more “hands-on” approach to solve a problem. The consultant might actually intervene and perform a needed function. However, when it is not explicit that the consultant should actually assume responsibility for a task this can lead to confusion and disagreements.

For example, the case that was mentioned in the beginning of this posting might just as well apply to a CEO or Board and a consultant who has been engaged to increase the financial resources of the organization. There are consultants who actually raise the funds themselves by reaching out to donors and soliciting them for a contribution. Other consultants work with the CEO in developing the board members’ skills and being a resource for the agency staff in strengthening the FRD function.

One of the many alternate approaches might be engaging a consultant to re-configure the board of directors, for example. This involves preparing the CEO and the board for the process. Even when the expectations are appropriately clarified there is a tendency to forget the ground rules. When the process of clarifying expectations is successful then there is little room for basic disagreements about the role and function of the outside consultant.

It is important to remember that when people know what is expected of them they can move forward to perform the necessary functions as agreed upon. This gives those who are striving to reach agreed upon goals a way to work together that strengthens the organization.

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