Monday, February 6, 2012

Values and courage (and transparency)

"Values and courage. Values and courage."

Those were the only words I could utter (in a Facebook status update) when hearing that Susan G. Komen for the Cure had reversed its decision to stop funding existing grants providing screening services to Planned Parenthood agency applicants. The statement came after what can be politely described as a firestorm of criticism.

My inability to articulate beyond those six words was, in part, reflecting the continued personal pain of my difficult decision to resign from our affiliate board. But the sparse nature of those words also reflected my skepticism with both the timing and the wording of the statement. I was (and remain) speechless and deeply suspicious.

My real questions that I had then - and still have today - related to values and courage: Are Komen's organizational values really that transient? Where is the courage of the leadership charged with upholding those values and making the tough decisions? And, more to the point of this blog: What is the board's role in all of this?

We can only guess about what the board was - and is - thinking.  I've seen one story so far, quoting a board member who did Komen no favors. But that's it. I doubt we'll be hearing any in-depth, insider analysis of the inner governance processes that led to the events of last week. Still, the lessons for other boards are abundant. Nearly a week later, these are the takeaways that are resonating for me, messages that should be important for any nonprofit board to take to heart.

First is a message I hope was clear in last week's post: Be absolutely certain that your personal values and those of the organization align as perfectly as possible. No individual member can function effectively, or lead fully, if he/she is constantly battling the inner voice that says "This really isn't right..." or asks "Should we be doing this?" Never agree to serve on the board of an organization that cannot state clearly and concisely what its values are and how they advance the mission. Never agree to serve on the board of an agency with values you cannot fully and comfortably support.

Second, ensure that those organizational values are embedded in your board's (and management's) decision making processes. Are your actions defensible when measured against your values? Are they more than words on a dusty values statement tucked away somewhere in your board handbook? Do you live your values as the organization's leadership?

Third, be aware that there are expressed values - the values we say we hold and that we promote in the community - and there are enacted values that we demonstrate via our actions. They'd better match, perfectly, or we're in trouble as an organization. This is where Komen lost me, as a donor and as an affiliate leader. Its actions spoke so loudly I couldn't hear what it was saying. Regularly ask yourself: do we walk our talk when it comes to the values we espouse publicly? If not, fix that. Now. You cannot survive as an organization if you cannot be trusted to act with integrity.

Fourth, own your values, damn it. Embrace your decisions with courage. Have confidence in the actions you've taken. You'll be able to do that if you've approached them thoughtfully and in the context of your guiding values.

Occasionally, we'll make mistakes - sometimes big mistakes. Have the courage to admit when that happens, and show how your values are guiding the necessary corrections to make things right again. But don't use the "Oops, we didn't really mean it..." strategy to backtrack on an unpopular decision.

If you're setting or reinforcing boundaries, if you've found lines you will not cross, if you're committing to one specific direction or declining another, say so. As a donor and/or volunteer, I may agree with you or not. I may increase my support as a result of your actions. I may decrease it, at least temporarily, or choose not to support that particular initiative. But I'll probably retain some level of loyalty if I can see how it fits the bigger picture.

If, on the other hand, I feel that you are lying to me or that you're telling me what you think I want to hear so that I'll get off your back, you will lose me forever.

Which brings me to transparency. Boards need to be accountable to their stakeholders.  You don't need to spill every minute detail, every secret. But you should be transparent in sharing what guides your decision making and how those decisions are moving you ever closer to your mission. Stakeholders need to be able to understand how you got to this point. They will be better able to trust your leadership, even if they don't necessarily like the outcomes of that leadership, if they can see how you got there.

You board and your staff leadership are free to pursue the mission and values that are right for your organization and its stakeholders. You aren't expected to please everyone. They aren't obligated to support you, in part or in whole. You will inspire confidence and build loyalty if you have clearly articulated values that drive all of your decisions and actions, if your expressed and your enacted values match. You will inspire confidence and build loyalty if you have the courage to stand behind those decisions, if you are transparent in demonstrating how you reach them and if you are accountable for them once they are made.

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