How to Get Their Attention: What You Have To Do When No One Understands

One of the regular readers of this posting stopped me the other day and said although she found the articles interesting very few people in her organization were willing to implement what needed to be done to strengthen her non-profit organization. She asked me, “How should I work with people who do not understand the basic principles of working for an organization? We are focused on providing services and our major goal is not making a profit at the end of the year. What should I say to the director of the organization or to the chair of the board.”

The real issue is what we do when we work with people who “just do not get it”? How do we speak with them and engage them in a discussion that will help them understand the differences between a proprietary organization and one that has been established as a voluntary venture to achieve social goals focused on making our community and society a better place to live? Does it mean the person has leave the organization and look for another place to fulfill her interest?

A professional raised the question with me, and it is not uncommon for experienced lay leaders to ask the similar questions when they find themselves serving on a board that is not working in an appropriate fashion for non-profit organizations. Although the obligations and responsibilities of professional staff and board members are different, the dilemmas they face are sometimes very similar when it comes to the effective, efficient and ethical functioning of a non-profit agency. The question is what does the person do who is troubled by an issue in the context of their work or service with the organization?

There are a number of possible options that can be explored by both the professional staff member and the involved lay leader. Each is in accordance with their respective positions and the relationship they have with their colleagues in the organization. A key principle in dealing with sensitive issues within an organization is to raise questions and not to make accusations. It does not matter what position a person occupies in an agency, no one likes to be accused of doing something wrong. At the same time it is perfectly appropriate to raise questions about practices that have been instituted or followed within the agency.

When questions are raised for the purpose of trying to have a clearer understanding of a policy or practice, people in responsible positions will be happy to try and provide clarification. Learning is always a cooperative process and senior staff members and veteran lay leaders are generally willing to help others learn more about the agency’s programs, policies and structure, to mention a few areas that often need clarification. The process of continuing education for professionals and formal and informal meetings for lay leaders provide the appropriate setting for raising questions and discussing issues, questions, dilemmas, etc.

Often an executive or senior professional may welcome the opportunity to address a concern of a staff member that is focused on the governance or policies of the organization. Of course, these concerns need to be addressed in an appropriate way through a conversation with the executive or with the involvement of a supervisor. Often such issues provide opportunities for the agency to clarify their own policies and practices. One approach is to suggest that group of staff members discuss the issue and draft a memorandum about how the issue could be handled. It would be sent to the executive and followed up with a discussion with the staff group. Of course, there is no guarantee of any changes but the process itself will often have an impact on the organization.

In a similar way, a committee member or board member has the right to speak to the chair of the board and to raise questions about board policies and practices. Depending on the issue it could be referred to a specific committee to be discussed or an ad hoc committee would be formed to look into the issue. The process often leads to an increased involvement of lay leaders and a strengthening of their connection to the board. Of course there are times when a member will feel frustrated when the recommendations are not accepted. Hopefully, the person has a sense of the responsiveness of the board to deal with the issue and the resolution will not determine their commitment to the organization.

There is an exception to the practices discussed in this posting and this is in the area of the accepted ethical practices. Whether one is a member of the board or the professional staff, when there is no doubt about the violation of the accepted ethical guidelines then it needs to be reported to the appropriate parties. Of course the decision should not be made in a vacuum and colleagues and supervisors are consulted to determine the necessary steps to guarantee the organization maintains its transparency and reputation in the community.
Everyone has a role in insuring that the organization maintains the highest standards for professional practice and governance. The challenge is to find a way to raise the issues with the relevant people so the questions are responded to and the agency is strengthened not weakened in the process.

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.