I distinctly remember a conversation thirteen years ago with my then ten-year-old son, where I told him I had been offered the chance to serve as President/CEO of Chaddock. His (at least in my memory) wide-eyed response was, “Does that mean you’ll be the boss?” To which I responded, “No honey, now I’ll have about 25 bosses.” Come to find out, I underestimated that number by a fair amount.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of nonprofit organizations is the range of stakeholders to which a nonprofit leader must respond. By stakeholder, I mean someone who can impact a nonprofit’s attention or resources, or whom the organization impacts. The list of stakeholders influencing a nonprofit leader’s actions may include: board members, a diversity of government and external oversight bodies, contracting bodies, charitable foundations and individual donors, employees and volunteers, elected officials, service recipients, community partners, and the general public. I’m sure my nonprofit colleagues can add to that list.
The challenge comes not so much in the number of groups that impact the organization, but the fact that these various stakeholders often, with the best of intentions, have competing or even conflicting expectations. As a result, the ways in which nonprofit leaders are able to assert their influence is both more complex and more diffused. For example, some stakeholders may try to persuade nonprofit leaders to take actions to reduce risk while others encourage the leader to make strategic decisions that may increase risk. Some have stipulations tied to funding that may ultimately undermine an organization’s ability to succeed… the project that is funded isn’t really what the service recipient most needs… or the action that seems obvious to one group is not possible based on the parameters of another group… you get the picture.
Given this push-pull of expectations, how does a nonprofit leader move the dial forward?
- Name the elephant in the room. One of the first steps to tackling competing demands is to clearly identify what they are . . . lay them out side-by-side considering both short-term and long-term implications. It is surprising how often processing through the issues out loud brings clarity regarding the best path forward.
- Communicate — the good, the bad and the ugly. When stakeholders have competing expectations, regardless of where you land, someone may be disappointed. Your best chance of avoiding this, or at least building understanding, is to articulate the “why” clearly and repeatedly. If you don’t provide the rationale for your decisions, others will fill in the blanks. Explain why the decision was made. Repeat. Repeat again. And once more for good measure.
- Tie it to the big picture. Often times, a strategic decision may not make sense to some stakeholders in the short-term — because strategic decisions are long-term. Connect the dots from the action to the vision. Yes this takes more time. And I assure you, it is time well spent.
Stakeholders are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. They are the means through which we can accomplish our missions… and they can make or break a nonprofit leader. Twenty-five bosses? Nope. Twenty-five ways to move the mission forward.