7. Status issues: trouble ahead

Sometimes I get distress calls from EDs...

This guy on our Board is lobbying hard for us to give our favorite program away to another nonprofit—where his girlfriend is the program director! And yes, I'm mad at him about this, but who I'm really mad at is the rest of the Board because they just sit there in silence and listen respectfully to his conflict-of-interest craziness.

My Board president, who won't even talk with me about the Board doing fundraising, just signed us up to do our annual retreat at a super fancy spa where she's reserved rooms for everyone the night before. This is going to cost $5,000 with everything included.

That much money for a meeting we could hold at our office for free—and I just had to cut my schools coordinator back to 50%. A couple Board members are grumbling to me privately, but as a group, the Board is silent.

Sure we're in a down economy, but I have the best team I've ever had. A year ago we made a commitment to each other to take our work to the next level. And since then we've increased our productivity by an astounding 30%. That's why our funding is up and why our funders have become raving fans.

So I told the Board I wanted to raise salaries. Not a lot. But I want to give a ten percent premium over what the competition pays because I want to keep them happy and here. And they just simply deserve to be rewarded for extraordinary effort.

But when I proposed this at the last Board meeting, Gregory blurted out, "I didn't get a raise this year so they shouldn't. It doesn't look seemly for a nonprofit to increase salaries during a down time when so many corporate people are hurting."

And he got really emotional, so none of the other Board members said a word. I had even gotten buy-in from my chair and treasurer before the meeting, but during the meeting they sat there in silence.

I understand this was a challenging moment, but they let one member's personal upset take precedence over a smart business decision to insure the future of the organization.

 My Board chair this year, Gwendolyn, I send her e-mails, I leave her phone messages, and she never gets back to me. She never gives me a chance to bring her up to speed before a Board meeting.

So her agendas are screwy. They're unreal. And she looks stupid by the end of each meeting. But does she take responsibility for her behavior? No, she blames me. She says I'm not a good communicator and I'm not updating her in a timely fashion and that I have to start doing better or that's going to show up on my next evaluation. She says that kind of stuff right there in the meeting.

And the other Board members? They know I'm super responsible. They know the problem is with Gwen not me, but they just sit there in silence and watch this injustice go down.

There are things you can do about these kinds of messes, and I work on that with the EDs, but the first question they have is...

Why does this happen?

These people are successful in their careers., Shouldn't that mean they know the difference between good behavior and bad? Should that mean they know how to speak up when things are obviously going wrong? Shouldn't that mean they have a least a little bit of good judgment?

So then why do they sit and watch and say nothing and do nothing?

I used to be just as puzzled as they were—until one day when I was listening to an ED an old riddle popped into my mind...

Why don't great white sharks eat lawyers? Professional courtesy!

And then it all made sense to me...

Status courtesy.

That's what we were seeing.

And I understood why these silent Board members were holding back. They were caught in status thinking...

This is a really bad idea that Tim's pushing, but he's a Board member, too, and his status is equal to mine, so what can I say? Let's just hope no one' encourages him and he let's the idea die a quiet death.

Or worse...

If I want the freedom to exercise my privileges as a Board member without interference, then I have to let my fellow Board members exercise theirs without interference.

Status thinking is trouble...

I'm now in a top position in this nonprofit, so that makes me a privileged person here.

The ED and staff should defer to me.

They should never disagree with me or contradict me.

I get to give orders and not have them question me.

I get to move this organization in the direction I think best because it now belongs to me.

Is there a cure for this kind of thinking? Absolutely. And the cure is...

Mission discipline.

First...

You want to make sure you're absolutely clear in your own thinking that Board membership is not a position of personal privilege, but of service. You get to claim the right to have a great Board.

And, second...

You want to make sure that every candidate for Board membership is absolutely clear about this, too, before you officially invite them onto the Board.

If you want to prevent status messes, the best thing you can do is to set up a disciplined, mission-focused processs for recruiting Board members. And then give yourself permission to follow it every single time without exception.

And as part of that process, you get to address the issue of status explicitly, directly, maybe even bluntly, so there's no mistake that you really mean what you're saying...

The most important thing I want to tell you about our Board is that our culture is based on mission discipline. And we've worked hard to develop this culture and we're proud of it and it's something we never compromise on. Because of this culture our Board members get to make meaningful contributions to the work of our nonprofit. That's what makes them happy.

I'm glad to be able to assure you that we don't ever tolerate any kind of relational aggression like negative gossip or put downs or personality battles. You can count on that. Our Board is a place of mutual support. We work hard together and we have a lot of fun together.

The stand we take in our organization is this:

No one is above the discipline of our mission.

Including Board members. Especially Board members.

When it comes to mission discipline our Board members are exemplary not exempt.

We don't think of Board members as having special status or privilege. We think of them as having a special opportunity to make a difference for the mission.

And we make no exceptions. If someone is following their own agenda or violating our Board culture, we'll talk with them once, but if they continue to violate our culture, we're very quick to ask them to leave and we're unapologetic about this. Because this discipline we follow is how we keep our Board strong so together we can play our crucial role in moving the mission forward.

Now, let's take as much time as you need so you can ask any and all questions you have about what we mean by 'mission discipline.'

What I've written out here is not a script for you to follow. It's not the specific words that matter but the principle. You'll use your own personal style and approach. But please make sure to get an upfront agreement from each and every candidate about the kind of behavior expected of Board members.

And you want more than a grudging agreement to the upfront contract. You want to see the candidate's eyes light up when you tell them about mission discipline.

You want to hear them say something like...

"This sounds great. I hate personality battles. I really want to make a difference not waste my time with Board politics. I can't wait to sign up and and join you and get to work."

 

Status and society
Status is not just an issue in the Boardroom, it's fundamental to human society.

I've written this page because status is something we usually don't talk about in the nonprofit sector. But there's an awful lot of Board trouble that can be fixed, or prevented...

When leaders are conscious about status issues and assertive about dealing with them.

The underlying purpose of a social change nonprofit is to change in fundamental ways how power works in our society so it stops hurting people and killing the planet.

So no wonder there's an underlying tension between social change and the status quo. Even direct opposition.

What is status? It's a power differential. It means that some people, due to money or position or influence, have more power than others. And they can use that power for good or for ill.

Which begs the question...

How can we do effective social change work if our Boards are replications of the status quo?

 

Champions with status
In a minute I'm going to have more cautionary words for you about status, but I want to be clear that I'm not against recruiting high-status people for your Board. Not at all.

There are high-status people who choose to use their wealth and their position in service of serious social change.

And I want to honor them for that commitment. And commitment is the key word. If they are willing to join you and abide by the discipline of your mission, if they're genuinely aligned with your work, they can be invaluable partners.

And I think as long as high-status people are truly on your team, it's perfectly fine to give them certain kinds of special treatment...

When I first met Jonathan, who I had always admired, and he told me he was interested in our work, I asked him about being on our Board. But he said his schedule was crazy because he travels so much and besides he already had too many meetings in his life.

But he was eager to help us raise money, so I made a deal with him. I told him we'd put him on the Board but give him a waiver so he wouldn't ever have to attend meetings. Instead, I would work with him personally on how to talk about our mission with donors. He jumped at the chance.

We gave him that waiver, not because of his high status per se, but because he genuinely needed a special arrangement so he could make his contribution. And his contribution is amazing. He's become a stellar champion for our cause.

 

Status savior
A champion is someone who works with you as your partner. A savior is someone who you hope will do the work for you. Save the day. Use their wealth and connections to put you on easy street.

The relentless pressure of fundraising is so intense and exhausting that the idea of recruiting a savior is tempting. Oh, is it tempting. I remember coming up with scheme after scheme to find us a fairy godmother. I refused on principle to buy a lottery ticket, but I was obsessed with winning the savior lottery.

 

Status danger
The core problem with the savior strategy is that it runs directly counter to the core idea of social change.

It makes us dependent on one person of high status. And this kind of dependency is not healthy. Resentment follows. And what if this sole savior of yours starts making demands to change your program in ways that violate your mission? If you're dependent on this person for your funding how hard will it be to tell him no?

And the point of social change work is to build movements, because without significant numbers of people getting involved we can't make significant change. So organizing and grassroots fundraising are core activities for us.

And if we are too desperate to recruit a high-status person to support us, we might forgo due diligence.

I've seen this many times. People skip the crucial conversation about mission discipline and they skip the upfront contract.

But taking that short cut is the quick way to end up in a mess. Instead, here's what I recommend. If you're recruiting a high-status person for your Board...

Do an even more thorough and forthright negotiation than you normally do.

Don't walk on egg shells. Don't pussy foot around. Because, while a high-status person who decides to help you can really help you...

If he decides to hurt you, he can really hurt you.

 

Status deference
One thing I like about putting mission discipline at the core of your Board culture is that it provides a solid basis for equality.

There's a tendency, well, more than a tendency, to defer to people of high status. But that's not helpful to the mission. For example...

My VIP Board member came up with an idea for our annual event and got very excited about it. It was something we had tried three years ago and it absolutely did not work for our constituency of donors.

But none of the other Board members wanted to disappoint him by shooting his idea down. They're so taken with sitting in the same room with Mr. VIP and so invested in staying in his good graces, no one wanted to tell him about the lesson we had learned. So I told him.

Now this guy is a class act. He immediately said, "Oh, then of course we don't want to do it. Let's keep on brainstorming."

And just before the end of the meeting he did something extraordinary. He said, "You're all usually pretty talkative, but when I came up with my idea for our event, you all fell silent. You know I really want to be an equal member of this team. Please don't treat me special because then I feel like the odd man out, and I get that kind of treatment too often in too many places and I'm tired of it.

"I can handle myself in a back and forth conversation. Have faith in me, okay?"

Now let's look at the other side of the status question. It matters that people who think of themselves as low status step up and take a stand for themselves rather than being deferential to status.

I remember one time I decided to pursue the CEO of a mid-sized marketing corporation. I went to a public talk the he gave, introduced myself, then called him the next morning. I got past his secretary easily enough and started my pitch, but in less than 30 seconds he blew me off.

When I debriefed with my trainer, Jim, he asked me to replay the call word for word. After two sentences, he stopped me and said...

"I know what the problem is. You don't believe in yourself. You're too deferential so you don't sound credible. I want you to understand that what you do in one day in your work is worth more than what he does all year with his whole corporation.

"He's a top notch marketer, but he sells hamburgers and cologne. You save kids lives. Own that and you'll get a different response from VIPs."

Mission discipline changes how we relate to status. It means that someone on welfare can sit on a Board with a millionaire and the size of their contributions may be different, but...

If they're both putting heart and soul into the work, they're equal.

 

Status entitlement
In our democracy we like to say that "no one is above the law." Or that "we're all equal under the law." And that's a lovely ideal, but that's not how things play out in practice.

In practice we see disparity. Rob a gas station, and you go to jail. Destroy the nation's economy, and you get a million dollar bonus. It's no secret that there are profound structural inequities build into our society. And if you are one of the people who gets to write the laws, you don't have to worry about being above the law. You just tailor the law so it works in favor of you and your friends and puts those with less power at a disadvantage.

And this disparity is one of the things that social change movements are seeking to change. But there's something else I want to focus on in this section.

Sometimes high-status people can make things happen just using the influence of their status. And that can sometimes have a misleading or distorting effect on the work of a nonprofit.

Social change comes from the labor intensive work of organizing and building movements. There's no easy magic to it. It's a grassroots kind of thing at heart rather than top-down.

But when we see high-status people making things happen through their influence alone, it's easy to start believing in status magic. And high-status people can put too much faith in their status, too.

I used to have three VIPs on my Board, the kind of people who show up in Business Week. But their success seemed to have gone to their heads. They seemed to think every word that came out of their mouths was golden.

So they started giving me orders about how to run our programs. I refused because I knew they were off base. Then they told me, "Well, we can always find someone else to run this place. Lots of great leaders would give their right arm to work with us." Which was kind of arrogant of them since I had been doing a great job here for eight years.

Of course their ideas didn't work. They had never once visited our program to see it in action. They didn't know our neighborhood. They understood giving orders but not how to build community.

Still, they didn't think they were wrong. They told me I just wasn't implementing their ideas the right way.

When they first started giving me orders, I realized I had a state of emergency on my hands and I put everything else on hold and went out and recruited two VIPs who understood the importance of disciplined decision making. And the importance of not making unfounded assumptions. And the importance of listening to people who actually know what they're talking about.

These two came on the Board, argued the case that our programs had to go back to our time-tested strategies for success, and wouldn't take no for an answer. What happened? The first three VIPs, who didn't have a leg to stand on, did a face-saving fade and were gone.

Too bad. This could have been a chance for them to learn something—that just because they have status and success doesn't mean they're infallible.

Social change doesn't happen by finesse, it doesn't happen through deference to status. Quite the opposite. It takes real work, steady and disciplined work.

 

Status attachment
Here's the kind of thing that can happen when Board members are more attached to their status quo position in society than they are to the work of social change...

Seven of my eight Board members travel in the same social circle and they just re-elected Mara as Chair for another two-year term.

Here's how Mara runs a meeting. We have a full agenda, she does the first two or three items, then careens off into gossip about who's dating whom and who's getting a divorce and whose kids are getting into trouble. She loves being the center of attention and no one can get her back on track.

Tina is my one Board member who I can talk to about this. I asked her privately, "Why did they re-elect her? What were they thinking? Can't they see that the Board gets nothing done with her in charge?"

She said, "Oh, Mara is one of their own. And she throws good parties. So they won't ever say boo to her. It's not that they don't care about the Center, it's just that they care a whole lot more about their social standing. They don't want to cause waves and risk getting cut from the party list."

And the same dynamic can happen with business leaders who travel in the same circles. They might not want to take a stand during a Board meeting or contradict a fellow Board member if they think it might in any way hurt their business relationships in "real life." Their "charity work" is just not the same kind of priority for them.

How sad to be hurting a nonprofit when you could be helping it.

 

A blessing
Sure mission disipline is challenging. It might seem like a lot to ask of Board members who are volunteering their time.

But mission discipline is what allows them to make their best contribution. It's what allows them to get the deepest satisfaction that can come with serving on a nonprofit Board.

And isn't making a better world a lot more rewarding than wasting your time mucking around with status games?

If we believe that...

Working for social change is a good way to live,

If we believe...

It's good for a person's soul,

Then mission discipline is not a burden but a blessing.

 

© 2010 Rich Snowdon