Thursday, February 2, 2012

When organizational, personal values collide

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. I'm not sure whether I'll ever click 'publish.' But I'm feeling a need to process in this setting the heartache of a very personal decision I made this week.

I resigned from a board yesterday, an affiliate board of an international organization whose name you may recognize (especially if you were anywhere near a news outlet or social media vehicle in the last 48 hours). I've been squeamish about activities emanating from headquarters throughout my years as a volunteer and board member (dating back to 1996).  This time was different for me, as an individual event and as the latest example of things that bother me deeply about the larger entity.

I've held my nose - a lot recently - and kept my focus on the good work we've been able to accomplish in Wyoming. I've chaired the affiliate's grants committee since joining the board in 2007. I've seen the numbers and can state unequivocally: we saved lives. We educated. We raised awareness. We provided services to populations that would otherwise not had access. We also saved lives. That's always been the bottom line for me, and my motivation for local service with this group. It's kept me going when the stench rising from the south was particularly bad.

However, the latest action by headquarters left me feeling that I had no choice. There are other reasons, other factors leading up to this point, that are neither germane nor appropriate to discuss here. But the final straw feels like a lesson fitting a larger theme of this blog: my personal values no longer fit those of the larger organization.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know my mantra: If you can't fully support the mission, vision and values of the organization, you have no business serving on its board. Usually, I'm sharing that in the context of new member recruitment. Yesterday, I was facing that dilemma five years into my own six-year commitment to this organization and its work.

Yes, I could have bitten my lip, sucked it up, and plodded through for one last year.  (Though some of those other factors not discussed here were making that an increasingly impossible option.) In the end, it came down to walking the talk. How could I face you, how could I preach personal/organizational alignment in my work with boards, if I'm living in conflict with what I believe is the essence of nonprofit governance? Our local affiliate has some degree of independence. But in the end, our organizational mission and values are those defined and exercised by the international entity. They cannot be completely separated. Their enacted values ultimately are ours. But they aren't mine.

If you're reading this, I've obviously decided to go ahead and publish. I don't make that decision lightly. I am aware of the potential perception that I'm only seeking some kind of personal validation, or joining the growing national bandwagon protesting the organization's actions. Neither is true. Mostly, I'm just sad and angry.

Nonprofit governance ultimately is as much a process of the heart as it is the head. Our heads may be able to walk us through the motions of meetings and committee work. But if our hearts aren't in it, we are probably not providing the kind of leadership that our organizations require.

I'm not saying quit when it gets tough. I am saying don't ignore your gut. Listen when your heart is telling you that something is not right. Act with all your might to change that. Stand up for your collectively held values and the ways in which they are demonstrated in your organization's work. But in the end, if that gap still exists, do what is right for you and the organization - even when doing what's right means going your separate ways.


Bonnie Koenig said...

Debra - Thank you for having the courage to hit publish - I know it was not a decision you took lightly. The kind of transformative change we want to see in the world is only going to come about when people are willing to take difficult stands, to 'walk the talk' and live their values. Thank you for being a role model for us all.

Nancy Iannone said...

Thank you for sharing your personal struggle with this difficult decision.

I wish that all board members looked at these issues of commitment, organizational values and personal values, not only when joining a board, but throughout their service. To invest oneself deeply can lead to amazing outcomes. Unfortunately, as you've shared, sometimes it also leads to painful choices.

Thank you for sharing your experience. Your walk through this choice is not only a personal story but an important lesson in governance.

Ericka said...

You are a leader. You took a stand. You showed us the way. Thank you.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Thank you, dear friends, for your words of encouragement. I debated whether to even write - let alone publish - this one. Even rereading it is hard, frankly. That moment will pass. In the meantime, your support expressed here will carry me over.

Cynthia Bemis Abrams said...

Preparing for a leadership development session next week, I re-entered term "organizational values" in Google Alerts. Your post appeared in my e-mail almost immediately, and I find it to be timely, gripping and very real. Thanks for mustering the courage to share. As difficult as it surely was to write it and even read it now, your clarity and precision carries the right amount of emotion. You've earned a new reader in Minnesota!

Ken Goldstein said...

Great posting, and great lesson. The personal/organizational alignment is vital. Walking the walk consistent with our talk is everything. Thank you.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

So grateful for your feedback, Cynthia and Ken. I've kept a low profile with this one, because it was such a personally painful decision decision. We make very deep commitments when we accept a board position. Quitting shouldn't be easy- and it wasn't.