Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mission passion: Is "too much" possible?

Is it possible to have too much passion for your nonprofit's mission?

I never thought I'd find myself considering any answer but "Never!" to that question. But I recently worked with a board where reining in members' deep commitment to the organization's purpose - at least in terms of recruiting future members - actually made some sense.

While this is a marvelous example of board-level self-awareness, I want to be respectful of our confidential relationship and share only enough detail to set the context for this conversation:

  • This board's mission draws often disparate interests. The potential for broad, community-based engagement and support is massive. So, too, is the potential for conflict.
  • The specialized nature of the work invites expertise from multiple academic fields, the professions they populate, and myriad governmental organizations that monitor and sometimes fund work and resources in their mission area.
  • The work of this organization is necessarily detail-driven, long-term projects that require both deep expertise to implement and broad community connection skills to engage stakeholders.
  • Founding board members had/have deep connections to the work and the skills and networks to ensure success. They also have deep commitment to ensuring hard-won, successful outcomes.
  • They have major, visible "successful outcomes" as a result of that sustained effort and commitment.

Most of us would think we'd died and gone to nonprofit heaven with such a mix, right?

Of course. But board members wisely recognized that there is a potential dark side that can hamper recruitment of the kind of diverse membership that it needs to grow and succeed in its next chapter.

We identified two things:

First, their level of commitment going into the work was unusual. It obviously was critical to getting this organization off the ground and to moving forward on work that would overwhelm others. But it is unrealistic to expect that all new members recruited to this leadership team will have anything resembling the passion that got them to this point.

Second, if they insist on bringing in that same level of expertise and commitment with every new recruit, they are likely to end up with duplicates of themselves. That's not what they need to move forward.  While they do require the mission-area expertise and understanding of processes related to that work, they also need to begin extending their reach and their effectiveness communicating with (and engaging) audiences from vastly different backgrounds. They also need to continue to build their collective capacity to monitor organizational processes and resources. That can't happen if everyone around the table has the same knowledge base, same connections, same way of thinking about the work and the world.

I've added a third, general observation since our discussion. Members who use their own deep passion as the bar by which all board peers should be measured risk creating an insider/outsider divide that can only challenge group effectiveness. While we didn't address that specifically, I trust that this board already understands and wishes to avoid that scenario.

It was, to say the least, an unusual conversation. I usually am reinforcing the idea that "Commitment - preferably passion - for the mission is the recruitment bottom line." Frankly, that hasn't always been the easiest idea to sell. I tend to hold up passion as the ideal. Hey, if the typical board can find someone reasonably knowledgeable about its mission and willing to work on it, that board considers itself lucky. This definitely was a twist for me, if not this particular group.

Now, my board friends have some major work to do. That was what brought us together in the first place. But as I revisit this exchange today, I'm realizing that it may end up being a critical component of the group's future success. It may end up being the difference between a "working" board that has accomplished important work in very little time and a "governing" board that will lead it into a bigger vision of the future with the significant support of a broader base of stakeholders who share that vision. 

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