Case Study | Transforming a Non-Profit

          I was asked to chair the Search Committee for a new executive director of a century-old non-profit organization with a $2.5mm+ operating budget, a sizable staff, a high profile in the community, and significant assets, including a large endowment and a for-profit apartment complex on its grounds. The organization had been racked by terribly bitter infighting: a majority of the board quit. Factions left and took with them, virtually overnight, nearly a third of the operating budget’s funding. Morale was at an all-time low. Staff was leaving, longtime supporters were deserting, and doubts were surfacing about its continued viability. Though an interim director had been appointed, he was threatening to quit. Having served on the board twice and done legal work in the past with the organization, I was familiar with decision makers and the organization’s personality.
          I saw the process as taking a year of many hours of hard work. My first job was to select twelve committee members. I spent days reflecting on who would make an effective member. For the process to have legitimacy and therefore confidence in the new executive director, I sought members from every part and persuasion of the organization. After much soul searching, I selected those, who, in hindsight, turned out to be some of the finest, most committed men and women I have ever worked with. I also selected two “advisors” who had worked with the organization for years. Though non-voting, they would lend objectivity and institutional history to the search process. I called them the committee’s “ballast.”
          It was critical that they all be individuals for whom personal relationships were important and who could work together as a team. It would both impair our process and send the wrong message if we viewed ourselves as a mini city council with factions. One of the reasons for the organization’s prior divisiveness was that there had been little sense of community: its sub-communities did not interact with one another.
          From the outset, the committee spent much time in relationship building. With my committee, I borrowed skills I had learned in mediation over the years. We spent much time together: we ate together, we drank together, and we traveled together in groups of three to visit candidates. Discussing issues as a full committee, I attempted to convey openness to any idea.
          Over the course of a year we began to trust and respect one another and our differing points of views. I was able to get members to accept that one could disagree without it being personal. It’s what I call the “both-and” – i.e. a person can have strong views about several issues without it detracting from his ability to decide the larger issues with others of differing views.
          Believing that the best authority is that which is least exercised, I saw my role as more of a facilitator and less than that of an authority figure. Eventually, members invested into something larger than themselves or their parochial issues. I believe I transformed a collection of individuals into a unified group that took on its own organic personality with vested interests disappearing.
          The fruit of this hard work was the unanimous selection one year later of a new executive director. In the short span of a year and a half he has transformed the organization by providing the vision and leadership we lacked. Now contributions are close to their peak as in years past before the turmoil, and old hurts are healing. Indeed, the organization is the healthiest in its history, and committee members are clamoring for a reunion.