What Not to Do

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

It’s finally that time of year when new episodes of my favorite TV shows will be ready and waiting for late-night viewing. Like the nonprofit sector, Hollywood is adapting and learning to do less with less. The dramas we enjoyed during the eighties and nineties have been replaced with “reality” programs where the contestants aren’t members of the Screen Actors Guild and viewers send costly text messages to “vote” complete strangers “off the island” or out of the running for the prize money. At first I found these programs distasteful—essentially showcasing average Janes and Joes willing to embarrass themselves for cash. But within the genre of reality TV I’ve found a niche that I appreciate. That niche is the subset of reality programs featuring contestants who want to learn from their mistakes and improve their professional standing, become comfortable taking risks, or improve their self confidence.

One such show is The Learning Channel’s “What Not to Wear.” Although each episode begins with the hosts pointing out the lucky contestant’s fashion “don’ts,” by the end of each segment an inspired young woman emerges with an updated hairstyle, a snazzy new wardrobe to complement her body type, professional aspirations and a new outlook on life. All is right with the world.

During the past year we have received an unprecedented number of calls from employees and volunteers expressing distress about the circumstances in which they find their beloved (or once beloved) organizations. In answering these calls I’ve noticed a few common themes. This week I want share them with you in the “What Not to Do” and “What TO Do” categories.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t lie to your employees about the reasons for reorganizing, downsizing, or other action adversely impacting their status or that of their co-workers. The truth will come out and if you lie about the reasons behind the process you will lose the trust of the survivors.
  • Don’t wait until your organization is on the brink of disaster to tell your board where things stand or to reach out for help from the board or other stakeholders. These key people want you and the nonprofit to succeed. They will not be able to help you if you are past the point of rescue.
  • Don’t ignore the fact that board members seem disinterested with the dire or difficult situation in which you find the organization. Disinterest is a warning sign of an even greater disaster looming on the horizon.
  • Don’t take your funders or vendors for granted and don’t believe that any partner or provider is irreplaceable.

What TO Do

  • Harness your compassion for your fellow man when designing and undertaking any reorganization, downsizing or layoff plan. Follow the Golden Rule by doing unto others as you would hope someone in your position would do to you, your best friend, adult child, mother or sister. Err on the side of compassion. Treat any employee who is being dismissed—whether or not their performance has in any way contributed to their dismissal—with kindness. It’s not only the right thing to do, it will reduce your nonprofit’s risk of facing protracted and costly claims from departing employees.
  • Regard your board as a valued partner in leadership. Members of your board cannot provide exceptional leadership if you keep them in the dark or dodge their questions and requests. Rather than looking for excuses and blaming the board, look for ways to empower your board to advance the nonprofit’s mission. Make a list of steps you can take in 2010 to ensure that the board has the training, resources, knowledge and support it needs to discharge the duties of care, loyalty and obedience. This enables them to contribute in a meaningful way to the mission of your organization.
  • Learn from mistakes, near-misses and personal missteps that occurred in 2009. Just as some leaders fear the result of imagining risks (“they might occur!”), others fear reflecting on things that haven’t gone well. The first step in any organizational “treatment plan” is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Make a list of the “problems” you intend to address in 2010 and note the resources you will need (e.g., quiet time for reflection, trusted advisors, empowered and motivated staff, etc.).
  • Keep your options open. Every nonprofit leader can identify one stakeholder (such as a funder, volunteer, or employee) “I can’t do without…” Yet the world we live in provides constant reminders that change is the only constant and there is NO downside to having a Plan B. Becoming overly reliant on any contractor or overly compliant with any funder creates exposures for your nonprofit that could have dire consequences. Just as your board should be thinking about and drafting a succession plan for the top position in a nonprofit (for many readers that means YOUR job!), you need to consider what you would do if it became necessary or desirable to replace a long-term consultant, contractor or funder.

While many leaders would no doubt prefer to move on into 2010 without looking back at 2009, I have a hunch there are a few lessons remaining from your experience leading a nonprofit or managing a nonprofit program last year. Before banishing the “bad and ugly” from 2009 to the recesses of your memory, take a few minutes to draft some “to do” items that will help you make lemonade out of last year’s lemons, enabling you to move on with confidence to provide the experienced, thoughtful leadership your nonprofit needs and deserves.

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your feedback on this article and questions about the NRMC’s resources at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.