Castles in the Air

Looks gorgeous, but can anyone live there? 

Looks gorgeous, but can anyone live there? 



“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”—Henry David Thoreau

 I was recently kicked off a position as an adviser to a re-startup of a small environmental nonprofit because the founder felt I was ‘disparaging’ the organization in an introductory meeting of possible board members. She had just finished telling prospective members how she had been repeatedly victimized by others that she had partnered with previously, incidents ranging from total nonperformance to outright theft of a personal database and an attempt to swipe the entire program out from under the founder. These crimes had taken place over a period of 3 years, and thus her re-starting with all new board and staff.

The founder, Nancy, had received a substantial organizational development grant from the Annenberg Foundation to identify and recruit board members, develop a clear business plan and get organized internally.  This grant of $10,000 offered templates of board commitment paperwork, contracts and other organizational lists. She was to use these funds to find board members and train them to adopt different management roles for the organization, including legal advice, financial oversight, fundraising and program development.

The great things Nancy has going for her are her enthusiasm for her vision and her passion and clear commitment when she talks about the world she envisions. The things that are working against her include her expectation that her vision is the greatest contribution she needs to make, and that the identification and recruitment of ‘engaged, energetic and reliable’ board members would shoulder the real rubber-meets-the-road work.

Hire A Director with no Job Description, Location or Budget:

She asked me to help find an Executive Director, great. When I asked her what the scope of work would be, the hours expected, how much financial responsibility and authority this person would have, the answer I got was, “ I can’t tell you that, it is up to the board to make those decisions.” That one stopped me in my tracks, there was no board and everyone would be new! When I asked what the annual budget would be, and who she thought would be some of the first contacts we could make to find support and partnership, I got the exact same answer.

Red flags, warning bells, the railroad crossing gate is coming down. Her meeting included a 15 minute Ted talk video, some great sandwiches, and discussion of her great plans for the future, but all in vague terms about the need for global change. There was no listed agenda, no discussion of the actual elements of her program, her target audience and how to grow interest and engagement with new people. When I brought up the need for internal systems and communications, bookkeeping and financial reporting, donor recruitment, acknowledgment and retention plans, I was told that would be my responsibility to provide! As an adviser, and not a board member, I was thinking privately how to extricate myself as graciously as possible; I could foresee nothing good for me.

The Flaming Email:

I left the meeting and said nothing. The following day, I received an incendiary email, accusing me of being negative, focused on trivia and clearly disloyal to not only her, but to her goals for her organization. Therefore she was severing all ties to me, not acknowledging me in any form going forward the betrayal I had shown her.

There was nothing to say, and I did not reply. I felt badly that she thought my goals were non-supportive and negative, when after the story she told, I believe a well-constructed infrastructure, with clear lines of responsibility, goals, assignments and accountability would be the key to her actually realizing her goals.

Ok, so I was gone, and honestly, felt I had dodged a bullet.

A few weeks later I ran into one of the board recruits I sat next to at the meeting; an attorney with a well-known nonprofit who was considering a board position with Nancy. He told me that she never told anyone she had fired me, but she had several of her recruits had withdrawn for many similar reasons: she could provide no concrete plans, no numbers or reports, no calendar of activities  and could only go back to her grand and wonderful visions.

So, what’s the Point?

Having a great idea, having vision and passion and commitment are only part of the story. Nonprofit or not, noble or not, to make change ‘things’ have to be done. They may not be sexy or particularly fun, but are essential to not only doing good, but doing good business.

Nonprofits are not exempt from needing strong infrastructure and foundations, in fact, I think nonprofits would find life a lot easier if more attention was paid to HOW the works gets done, as much as the good it can do. You don’t need to sacrifice passion and vision, but you do have support them.

Lauren Associates wants to help you do what you do best; let us help keep the backroom streamlined and effective. Call us and see how we can help you get away from the desk. 310 828 6979

 


image credit: http://ratiocinativa.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/shutterstock_31005118.jpg