Sunday, July 1, 2012

Weaving the nonprofit leadership web

We all know how the typical nonprofit organizational chart is set up. At the top of everything is a board of directors, with a downward arrow pointing to an executive director, and more downward arrows connecting that person to one to many staff positions or departments. Specifics may vary, but the message is clear: the board sets policy, and the ED dutifully implements it.

It's clean. It rings familiar to those who work in the private or public sectors. But does it reflect what really happens in a nonprofit setting?

I've long been conscious of the unique nature of the nonprofit board/ED relationship (and how unlike that org chart it really is). While it's implied and embedded in posts across this site, I've never specifically addressed the dynamics of that partnership - or whether the way we officially define it actually is true - on this site. The funny thing is, I once immersed myself in that question, in research that led to an award-winning* master's thesis in organizational communication. Now that I've introduced a more deliberate conversation regarding the nonprofit leadership team, it feels like a good time to share this work with you.

Summarizing months of research, and not writing another thesis, undoubtedly requires more than a single post. My next post will share the theoretical perspective that provided context - and some of the bigger 'aha' moments. Others will discuss the findings and my analysis - then and now. In the remaining space of this post, I'll describe the research questions and the approach I took to explore it.

The research questions

 I hoped to explore the following questions as I embarked on this research:

  • How do organizational leaders develop a cultural identity among volunteers, board and staff and foster loyalty to the group's mission and goals?
  • How closely does the "official" organizational chart reflect actual dynamics and what are the consequences?

The opportunity to  check assumptions, and witness organizational communication and "culture" in the field, provided the larger motivation for this case study. At the back of my mind were experiences as a board member, in another setting, that I struggled to understand.

The case study method

As was the case with my dissertation, the questions driving this research required a qualitative method. I couldn't survey "culture." I couldn't quantify "communication." I chose a case study that included a mix of meeting observations, content analysis of documents and interviews with board members, staff, the executive director, and a sample of front-line volunteers. The goal was thick description (tip of the hat to Clifford Geertz) of those communication processes and an attempt to identify and interpret the ways in which meaning making takes place in the organization. How is "culture" created and sustained, and how does it facilitate collective advancement of the organization's mission?  I had no idea what I would find, or how it might be used to understand how that specific organization helps and hinders its own work. And, while I knew that qualitative research can never be generalized beyond the setting in which it was conducted, I wondered whether there might be lessons learned that could benefit others.

In my next post, I'll share highlights of the literature review that, at the time, felt incredibly revolutionary (and shaped the research questions themselves).

*  The research behind this thesis won the international 1997 Kenneth E. Clark Student Research Award from the Center for Creative Leadership.


Britney Palmer said...
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Zane Hovell said...
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