Monday, July 4, 2016

Fighting Our Dysfunction Default

Today is Independence Day here in the United States when we celebrate our declaration to rule ourselves, which set in motion the building of our nation. So it seems like an appropriate day to write about the opposite of successful efforts—the tendency within nonprofits toward dysfunction.

Nonprofits proliferate because established governments are so bogged down in corporate dealings, politics, and bureaucracies they cannot provide basic services. Here in the U.S., our government can’t get past the insurance industry to provide basic health care. In Africa, foreign aid lures government leaders into massive projects rather than programs to serve their people. And most recently, immigrant-hating hecklers seem to have convinced the UK government to break away from Europe and set the stage for years of rebuilding for no measurable gain.

I’m somewhat glad that governments tend toward dysfunction because otherwise they would wield too much power. But this leaves the responsibility for significant societal benefits squarely in the laps of nonprofits. Unfortunately, as I show in Cures for Ailing Organizations, nonprofits are just as inclined toward dysfunction.

Dysfunction seems to be our default setting. Even in nonprofits, we set out to achieve critical missions only to spend our time in meetings and developing projects and programs that change nothing. For instance, at One Street I work with many leaders of bicycle organization who find themselves in ruts of time-sucking programs such as bike education events or rides that only attract current enthusiasts. Worse are the programs that undermine bicycle advocacy such as pushing bicycle helmets.

Most people are not leaders and prefer finite tasks over developing long-term visions and the disruptive steps necessary to reach them. Even those with leadership skills find relief in simple tasks like laundry or chopping vegetables. But if we expect to change the world, we need more than chopped vegetables.

Here are some steps you can take toward fighting the dysfunction default when you realize your nonprofit is spinning in place:

STEP 1: Check your mission. If it does not clearly state significant, positive change it could be at the heart of your problem. Consider a rewrite with the rest of your team to change out passive wording for eyebrow-raising terms that shock casual observers. Read more about developing an effective mission and vision here.

But a great mission cannot prevent our dysfunction default. If your nonprofit is not causing measurable results, something needs to change. Leaving a dysfunctional nonprofit in place is harmful because it prevents an effective one from being formed.

STEP 2: Find more leaders. Leaders thrive on long-term visions. Their pulses race when asked to define goals years in advance and map out the steps to reach them. They understand the intricate web of experts, partners, and supporters needed to achieve significant change and easily prioritize the necessary tasks for staff and volunteers.

But talented leaders are deflected away from dysfunctional organizations. They’ve been burned too often in leadership roles where others prefer their rut, where current leaders take pride in the wasteful programs they developed. Friends defend useless efforts by people who should never have been given responsibility. Even hecklers are defended. And when new leaders who bruise those egos finally give up and leave, the remaining leaders snap everything back to their former ineffective ways.

I have a rather sick affection for this video of wildebeests and an alligator that serves as comedic relief each time I encounter this snap-back reaction in dysfunctional nonprofits. It shows the value of recording and then believing in progress made. Use this to present your nonprofit as eager to change. That sort of humility will increase your chances of attracting great leaders.

Look for those with big ideas toward your mission (be leery of ideas that stray or suggest personal gain). Those who harp on immediate tasks will be great volunteers, but not leaders. Guiding task-oriented people away from leadership roles should not be offensive. Finding the best role for each individual is not only respectful, it will set them up for success. Read more about the value of appropriate roles in my last blog post.

STEP 3: Plan to fight chronic dysfunction. Realize that because your nonprofit slipped into dysfunction it will always have this tendency. Of course all nonprofits are in danger of this slip, but once it has happened, some people will defend it. We’re no better than those wildebeests in that video. Set in place policies that spell out what progress means and checkpoints that measure progress. Your fight against dysfunction will never end.

If you are a leader of a bicycle organization that has slumped into a rut of dysfunction, please don’t hesitate to contact me: sue{at} I’m sure I can help. 


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