Friday, March 9, 2007

Governance - The Expressive Dimension

As I mentioned in my last entry, I’m on the board of a new nonprofit in Laramie. Over the past several months, we’ve been immersed in critical work. We’re laying the foundation for what we trust will be a healthy, sustainable organization that will serve the community in many important ways. It’s an exciting time and a rare opportunity to participate in building an agency from the ground up.

So why am I feeling so fatigued?

Recently, I ran across a January/February 2005 Nonprofit World article from a long-admired author, titled Putting the Expressive Dimension to Work. Years ago, I encountered a book by David Mason on the topic. His message resonated with me, because it acknowledged the value of my strongest personal motivations for volunteer service: the expressive element of nonprofit life.

Mason describes two dimensions of all organizations, including nonprofits:

The instrumental: “behavior that leads to a concrete, measurable goal”
The expressive: “action for direct, intangible gratification rather than for a defined goal” (p. 23)

Humans require that expressive element in their lives, Mason says, and nonprofits are particularly well suited to meet those needs. In my case, expression has come via immersion in the work of human service nonprofits, where there are many opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.

Mason’s thesis is that the current nonprofit sector environment appropriately focuses on the instrumental, ensuring transparency and accountability. While this is essential work, he says, the sector risks ignoring the expressive component.

“The swing of the pendulum has helped the sector by bringing some positive business practices, but it’s now time for the pendulum to move toward the center again, before it ceases to be a pendulum and becomes a wrecking ball,” Mason says (p. 24). “We need to recognize nonprofit organizations’ relationship to people’s expressive needs.”

I love this description of the way in which nonprofits fill that role:

“As organizations that emphasize human values above profit, nonprofits elicit great commitment and loyalty. They are communities where individuals can function without economic pressures and reach goals consistent with their personal agendas. Nonprofits are incubators for innovation without utilitarian constraints. They’re where individuals are appreciated for who they are. In short, they are our primary expressive arenas.” (p. 25)

How does this relate to that fatigue I’m feeling? As a member of our organization’s board, I must attend to the essential instrumental aspects of ensuring its success. But I also long for the chance to really immerse myself in the expressive elements, realizing the vision that drew me to the commitment a year ago. While I’m not sure we’ve articulated it this way, I believe that our board is feeling the need to balance time spent developing personnel policies and financial reporting processes with the larger purpose to which we all gravitated. That balance begins later this month, at a next-steps retreat.

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