19 February 2015

Thoughts from an NFP/NGO ED Roundtable

Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a roundtable conversation among Executive Directors of Not-for-Profit and Non-Governmental Organizations (hence the NFP/NGO ED alphabet soup of the post title). Included were EDs of arts organizations, a film festival, an Africa advocacy organization, and a peace-building/post-conflict think tank and consultancy. Alan Kay hosted and facilitated the two-hour conversation from a Solutions Focused standpoint.

One of the participants – the ED of the film festival – shared his view of the ED’s role as being more entrepreneurial: “the relentless pursuit of opportunities without regard for resources available.” The inherent transition of (mostly publicly and charitably funded) NFPs and NGOs to having to become more self-reliant and creative for revenue sources has likewise transformed the ED’s role. In the former model, the ED’s focus was primarily on program and budget—creating mission-consistent initiatives that close-to-exactly spent the annual budget grant. With handout funding sources drying up, that administratively oriented ED may find that s/he is lacking crucial, strategic engagement skills essential in today’s complex environment.Such skills have become mandatory in the contemporary world to fulfil the mandate of leader whether it be in a NFP/NGO, a for-profit corporation, or public sector institution: to enable a conducive environment in which people come together to engage so that an alternate future becomes possible.

Speaking of former models, it has always been the case (it seems) that growth was the often-unspoken, driving agenda for EDs in NFP organizations and NGOs. The growth imperative was, of course, consistent with the dominant discourse of late 20th-century capitalism. With so many contemporary NFPs and NGOs all chasing very similar worthy causes, a very serious question emerges: can all of these organizations that share overlapping objectives find sufficient capital and human resources to viably sustain themselves, let alone grow? This query suggests two, vitally important considerations. First, how could these organizations with common purpose meaningfully and materially collaborate in ways that might eventually lead to some sort of merger, either in body or in enacting effect? (One person mentioned the idea of being able to use $1 in 2 ways.) Indeed, combining the resources of two or more organizations may enable opportunities to grow from the tactical wish list into new strategic initiatives for the combined organization. Implicated in such a path are the EDs – specifically, the EDs who would no longer be an ED – who, in most cases, would have to find satisfaction in a modified role. Alternative governance models – a rotating, collaborative leadership model, or a consensus leadership model – might prove to be both useful and valuable in mitigating the challenge to the EDs’ identity-valence relationship with the organization (more on this in a moment).

Second, members of the NFP/NGO sector in general must seriously consider whether growth is always a useful or valid endgame objective. [In fact, such a consideration might well be useful in the for-profit and public sectors as well.] A simple example: an organization whose purpose is to facilitate the eradication of preventable, childhood diseases might legitimately see their endgame as putting themselves out of business! Less obviously, capacity-building NGOs focused on, say, post-conflict regions of the world, may deliberately choose homeostasis for themselves while focusing on capacity growth among their supported constituencies. Determining appropriate strategies to maintain structural stability while dissipating energy through their associated membership around the world presents unique, and uniquely complex, challenges—a very different endgame from that of “growth.”

Should the ED have passion for the cause, or highly developed administrative – that is, program and budget – skills? Ideally, of course, this would be a “both/and” situation. Board search committees often tend to emphasize the latter, drawing from the operational focus that many board members tend to bring from their other business activities. Indeed, such a board may have members all too willing to “drop by” and offer their operational “suggestions” to an ED, subsequently holding her/him to account if the suggestions are not followed. (The clear consensus around the table was that such nominally well-meaning “assistance” undermines the ED’s role by overstepping the legitimate governance boundaries of the board.) A leader without passion for the cause may find their affective connection more strongly expressed in the trappings and social capital of the ED role itself. Preservation and enhancement of their role becomes their personal passion and purpose, a means to achieve more means, so to speak, rather than the intended ennobled ends.

Enabling the organization’s board to become more actively engaged with that higher purpose is of strategic importance to the ED. One participant shared the metaphor of talking to his board more about “what’s on the shelf, not about the shelf itself.” The supporting "shelf" is the stuff of most ED reports to the board: the numbers, statistics, key performance indicators, and other infrastructure metrics of so-called accountability. What’s on the shelf are the stories and experiences that convey embodiment of the organization’s purpose, and particularly, the real-world effects that the organization’s intentions have enacted, enabled, and created. For the film festival, for instance, it is not the box office receipts nor the series subscriptions sold. Rather, it is bringing to the screen the story of a wrongfully convicted youth, the documentary of which caused the New York state Attorney General to order a new trial. [In a similar, on-the-shelf vein, NPR’s hit podcast, Serial, was responsible for enabling Adnan Sayed, convicted for murder in Maryland, to win an appeal of his conviction.] 

Generally speaking, KPIs and metrics are proxies for objectives; effects, on the other hand, speak directly to enacting the organization’s intentions, irrespective of profit motive. This is a distinction I’ll explore further in the next post.

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