Be sure to check out our blog weekly for ‘Ask Kathryn’ posts, where we’ll tackle some of the tough issues nonprofits are facing right now.
What’s on the docket this week?
- The interplay of a funder or board member’s personal opinions and their service on behalf of a nonprofit board whose mission may be at odds with those opinions
- The challenge of balancing the mission of a nonprofit and its necessary financial goals
It’s the age old dilemma faced by mission-driven nonprofits—managing the balance between financial needs and organization values. In most cases, it’s okay to have a difference in opinion among board members. No board is going to be in complete agreement on everything, and a diverse range of ideas at the helm of an organization more often than not serves to advance the organization. The extent of the difference in opinion that can be tolerated, or withstood by the organization, depends on the extent to which it prevents the board member from advancing the organization’s mission.
For the sake of clarity, we’ll paint an exaggerated example. If hypothetical Organization XX’s mission is the advancement of women’s rights in the workplace, but Board Member XY is a staunch opponent of women’s rights, then that organization is going to face significant difficulties if it chooses to maintain its affiliation with said Board Member XY.
This need not be the case, nor is it usually the case. For instance, if hypothetical Organization XX’s mission is advancing women’s rights in the workplace and one of the organization’s board members believes the organization should focus its energy more so on elevating campaigns for equal pay rather than workplace harassment, that is a difference in opinion that could likely be addressed by the leadership of the nonprofit and likely would not mean a necessary departure from partnership between the organization and the Board Member in question.
The question simply becomes: where along the continuum does an acceptable difference of opinion become unacceptable?
To answer this question, there are a few component questions that you can ask.
(1) To what extent do the board member’s opinions overlap with the organization’s core mission?
If the disagreement is not directly related to the organization’s mission, it is probably not a huge deal.
(2) Is the funder pushing for a change in mission or vision, however subtly?
If you notice that the funder is trying to change the direction of your organization, this can be a problem. Find out the motivation, which is often well-intentioned, before making any accusations. You may be able to work out the problem with minimal conflict.
(3) Does the board member respect the organization’s position and agree to disagree? Does the organization staff show the same respect to the board member?
It is important that all parties can respectfully disagree on ideas that will not directly impact the organization’s mission. Be mindful of your emotions. It can be difficult to separate our opinions, which are value-based, from statements that can be proven one way or the other. If you are arguing something that can’t be proven, it’s often best to redirect the conversation. However…
(4) Does the board member support his opinion with data and/or peer reviewed literature, when available?
If the funder is presenting new ideas that can be proven one way or another, you owe it to them to hear their argument and consider the new idea, however controversial. It doesn’t mean you have to change the way you do something, and in fact, you shouldn’t without convincing evidence from a reliable and trustworthy source (Peer-reviewed sources can be accessed free of charge at many libraries).
(5) To what extent is your organization’s mission and goals based on evidence and data-based best practices?
If your organization has done its research before strategic planning and has kept up on that research, then you will have evidence to support your ideas when challenged. It doesn’t mean that no one will ever come up with evidence to refute your ideas, but it does mean that until they do, you can move your mission forward with confidence. If you are keeping up on your research, it also means you are likely to find new evidence before your funders do and will be able to present the new idea to them!
(6) Can your stakeholders and the public tell the difference between the board member’s opinions and comments and those of the organization?
Sometimes a simple fix is to make sure there is a clear separation between your individual stakeholders’ opinions and the ideas being presented by your organization. Easier said than done, right? With the amount of information available, it is easy to miss the small print. Often a statement on someone’s blog stating that their opinions are their own is not enough. If you use this method, be sure it visible on the person’s blog and not in tiny print at the bottom of the page. For podcasts, you may consider asking that the person states outright at the beginning and end of the podcast that their views and opinions are their own and do not represent the views of the organization. This is a judgment call and will depend on the extent to which each individual stakeholder is associated with your organization by the public.
At the end of the day, if you conclude that the board member’s opinions are legitimately at odds with your organization’s mission, ask yourself why that person is providing support. It’s possible there is a misunderstanding. It is common for there to be as many interpretations of an organization’s mission as there are stakeholders of an organization. If the funder seems to truly disagree with the mission, they can cause mission drift and should not be involved with your organization. Be prepared to lose funding and to be okay with it. Your organization will struggle in the moment but will be stronger in the long-run.
If you need help balancing your mission and your financial goals, contact Oswald Consulting for a free 30-minute consultation.
Do you have a story about a challenge you have had at your organization? Please share in the comments.