When people stop feeling that they belong to a community, they walk away, mentally if not physically. A local association in my network almost learned that the hard way.
Objective 2 in its constitution reads, “To promote a sense of community amongst members of the Association.” This might appear to be a motherhood statement, blindingly obvious, but whether it is in your charity’s constitution or not, it is vital to the sustainability of any organization.
In this case, the constitution was being amended in a way that attempted to resolve an issue between some of the members. The association passed the motion, but the affected members left the meeting feeling that they had not been heard, let alone understood.
How to make enemies and alienate people
The corporate world doesn’t pay much attention to the idea of community when it comes to votes. The person with the majority of the votes wins. End of discussion. It doesn’t matter if the vote was unanimous or if it was split 51% to 49%. It doesn’t matter if after the vote almost half of the people feel disenfranchised, alienated or betrayed. A vote is a vote. Everybody is supposed to accept it and move on.
It doesn’t work that way in the charitable sector. People are engaged at a deeply personal level. If an initiative they passionately support gets voted down, they often take it personally. They may feel angry and hurt. They may stop trusting the organization completely. If there is any indication that a 51/49 split is going to happen, you must negotiate it with sensitivity and diplomacy.
A race between icebergs
People transitioning from the corporate world can find that notion difficult. They tend to think that the non-profit world moves more slowly than the corporate world and is somehow backward – a race between icebergs, as one executive described it.
A successful executive joining a charity may believe that the concept of consensus is inefficient and wasteful. As a lawyer said, “When you work by consensus, you are at the mercy of the person with the least interest in what you’re doing.”
In that situation, I emphasize that when you take the time to build a consensus around an issue, implementing the result becomes that much simpler. People have a common vision and can move forward together.
How to walk the tightrope
Major issues in a charity usually simmer long before they come to a boil. The issues often escalate as a group attempts to resolve the issue in its favour. They may appeal to managers, the executive director, the membership, and yes, even the constitution.
As a leader in the organization, it’s important to realize that your concern is the community, not individual members. Do everything you can not to pick sides. When the discussion gets into side issues, remind the people involved that everything the organization does needs to flow from its charitable objectives.
A popular consensus-building technique is to take the temperature of the meeting informally before anything is put to a recorded vote. For example, one nonprofit uses red and green cards in their national meetings. When the Chair thinks that the organization might be ready, (s)he asks whether the group is ready for a vote. If a significant number of red cards are raised, the Chair knows that the issue needs more work. It also signals to any dissenting members that this is their chance to be heard.
In the case of the small association, a senior member took it on himself to call the different sides individually after the meeting and informally negotiate a solution that worked for both sides. The association was able to put the issue behind it and move forward with the community intact. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Bill Kennedy is a Toronto-based chartered accountant with Energized Accounting, focusing on financial and reporting systems in the charitable sector. He blogs at www.EnergizedAccounting.ca/blog/. Find out more at www.EnergizedAccounting.ca; follow Bill @Energized