Shared Ownership and Involvement of Staff Members Builds Stronger Nonprofits

decision making modelChief executive officers (CEO) face the continuing challenge of determining the extent to which they involve their professional and administrative staff members in the decision-making process. Whether the decisions have to do with setting priorities or initiating new services or with administrative issues such as setting work hours or arranging emergency coverage, there is always a question as to when and how much the CEO consults with and involves the staff in the decisions he or she needs to make. Some CEOs prefer to involve their staff only after the decision has been made, seeking their advice on how to implement a “done deal.” Other CEOs understand the added value to engaging staff members in discussions earlier rather than later.

In the past year I have been working with the executive director of an organization who is a very creative and inspiring leader. He is always thinking not only about what needs to be done today but also about what could be and should be done tomorrow. He uses a great deal of initiative in planning both how to strengthen the organization and the services provided to the community and determining what should be the agency’s response to issues that are likely to emerge in the future.

This CEO believes strongly in the importance of staff development and the need for continuing education to enhance the agency’s ability to provide the most professional services to the community. His strengths are evident from the new programs initiated by the agency over the past twenty years, which have been welcomed and used by members of the community. The agency has a waiting list of people who are seeking the services it provides, and the staff are very committed to ensuring their clients receive the most professional and comprehensive response to their requests and needs.

At the same time the director recognized that his strengths lie in the programming area and not in administration of the organization and implementation of the services in the community. He realized he needed help in developing the structure of the agency and in establishing lines of accountability among existing staff members. Although two senior staff members were responsible for the major departments of the organization, he suspected that there was a “weakness” (as he defined it) in the administrative fabric of the organization. This meant that although each individual staff member understood his or role in the nonprofit and specific responsibilities, there was no sense of team spirit. The staff members did not strongly identify with the agency as a unit, but only as individuals who had specific tasks that they were responsible for fulfilling.

Throughout the entire period of my work with the director, he demonstrated a great deal of ambivalence about the extent to which he was willing to invite staff to participate in strategic planning. He was concerned that he would be setting processes in motion by discussing issues such as the role, mission and structure of the agency and was not prepared to risk opening up what he regarded as a Pandora’s box.

Rather than being fearful of encouraging staff involvement, the director needed to appreciate the positives of inviting their participation. I knew that by making use of his staff’s ideas – generated by their thinking through issues and developing responses to community needs – he would be providing them with an opportunity to become more invested in the agency and not just in their individual programs and departments.

Over several months I was able to convince him to experiment with this approach and to have consultative discussions with the staff. He tested the waters by introducing an issue at a staff meeting and getting a feeling for their approach and their way of thinking about issues. After he found that their participation had only positive outcomes, he gained confidence in the process and did not feel either threatened by their involvement or that he was giving up control of the direction of the organization. By inviting the staff into the discussion and soliciting their thinking and their ideas, he was actually providing an opportunity for them to strengthen their commitment to the agency.

Now that he has gained confidence in the value of staff participation, I have been encouraging the director to engage the staff in a planning process that would examine the agency’s accomplishments, challenges, and future directions. This has not been easy for someone who really wants to call the shots and then ask others to get on board. We have been slowly moving to the point where he now consults with his two senior staff and solicits their opinions on a regular basis. I have been encouraging him to ask them how they would feel about participating in a planning process and how they would perceive their roles. It is important for him that they understand the difference between sharing ideas and thoughts versus engaging in the process of actually making the decisions.

Involving these two senior staff members was a first step. I have recently encouraged the director to think in broader terms and to develop a group of people from the community who would be willing to share their thoughts and ideas about the agency’s place in the community. This group would not function in the same way as a board of directors, but would work more along the lines of an informal advisory group composed of colleagues and interested parties. Such a group would expand his ability to understand what was going on in the community and how the agency could respond to its needs. As with the staff it would serve as a vehicle to strengthen these interested people’s commitment to the organization and provide them with a sense of shared ownership in the agency. It would not only benefit the organization today but also provide a base of support for the future.

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.