The board members were frustrated because they had evaded what they had to do for so long. And they were afraid that they might have to close the organization and lose their non-profit status.
In another blog, I wrote about how I use facilitation tools to help organizations extend their life spans (https://goo.gl/ch0m75). Here’s a case study of how I did that.
In this blog, the name of the organization and the people in it are fictitious, but the case study is based on a real organization.
A Typical Situation
In 2012, the board of an organization named the Green Earth Coalition (GEC) asked me to help it create a strategic plan. I met with their officers and board members, who said their efforts were fragmented and unfocused. They wanted to do a lot of projects, but were having trouble prioritizing them. This is typical of a lot of organizations!
The board members agreed to undergo an extensive strategic planning process (https://goo.gl/FtSgKF) with me. They didn’t want a quick fix. Instead, they wanted to explore their goal, barriers that prevented them from achieving it, and strategies for overcoming those barriers.
Over the next three months, we did just that in a series of six two-hour workshops held two weeks apart. A consistent, committed, core group of 14 board members attended every workshop. They were passionate about what they wanted to do.
At the end of the process, I delivered to them a written, ten-page strategic plan. We reviewed it in detail and made changes in a final meeting.
During the next four years, I spoke casually with Paul, the new president, from time to time and asked him how GEC was faring. Paul said they were doing okay and didn’t need any help. They were focusing on fund-raising.
Then in late 2015, Paul called me and said GEC was at a crossroads. Half of their board members were stepping down in 2016. He was going to step down as president and nobody wanted to take his place.
Paul said the board wanted to have a special board meeting with me to discuss the organization’s future. Paul and I had a one-on-one meeting (a “skull session”) at a nearby coffee house beforehand to mull over the issues. I suggested how I might be able to help them and offered him my fee schedule. We planned the date for the meeting and I sent Paul a proposal.
At the beginning of the special meeting, I asked the board if they put their strategic plan into effect over the past four years. They said they did in part, but still had trouble prioritizing their efforts.
During the special meeting, I helped the board identify why they had come together with me again. I was adamant that they articulate what was in their hearts, not how to solve their problem.
Once we had a list of their convictions, we brainstormed what they needed to do to accomplish what was on their hearts. I called these things their categorical imperatives - the things they absolutely had to to do in order for GEC to survive.
Then we developed a broad plan for accomplishing their categorical imperatives. I clarified that I meant now, not six months down the road. Their crisis was occurring now and demanded immediate action.
I also shared with them the options that two organizations I am in considered when they were in a similar situation. These included running the organization with committees and no president, merging, and closing.
We agreed to meet again in two weeks to develop a detailed action plan to implement their imperatives. Paul and I met again to discuss issues and personalities we were dealing with. We discussed how we would proceed at the next board meeting.
The following graphic depicts how the process was shaping up:
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
At the next meeting, there were people there who were not at the first meeting. Some of these new people were the original founders and past presidents. We had to redo the first meeting to bring them up to speed.
We brainstormed a more extensive list of “whys.” Using that list, we identified the low-hanging fruit - actions they could take now to preserve GEC.
Then we developed the action plan. This was where the rubber was going to meet the road. The board members were frustrated because they had evaded what they had to do for so long. And they were afraid that they might have to close the organization and lose their non-profit status.
What It Takes
Developing an action plan (http://www.tomromito.com/terms.html) means getting people to champion each item - take responsibility for it. As a facilitator, I can tell when people are just saying they will and when they really mean they will. It has to do with what I call “the fire in their eyes.” If I think they’re just saying it because nobody else will, I press them.
We came up with six action items, but people were not stepping up to champion them and they were getting angry because I was not letting them off the hook.
There were two people there who didn’t think the action plan worthwhile. They just wanted to philosophize. I kept cutting them off because we just didn’t have time to let them go on and on. That heightened the intensity level of the whole group.
The people who did step up to champion action items were the heros of the evening. Susan, one of the people who did, was not even on the board. She was the head of a partnering organization. She needed the support of GEC and knew how important it was to preserve the organization..
One action item resisted the chance of any one person taking it for action. The group couldn’t even reach consensus on exactly what the action item entailed, but they knew it was imperative that they do it. Paul, the GEC president, said the whole group would take responsibility and work on it at a separate meeting.
I wasn’t buying that. My mantra is “If everybody takes responsibility, nobody takes responsibility.” I pressed Paul on this, but he didn’t give an inch. He repeated, “The board will take responsibility.” I know when to give in and let it go.
At the end of the meeting, I conducted a step to get the board’s input on what happened at the meeting. Some facilitators call this step an after-action review. Other’s call it a “hot wash-up.” I call it “plus-delta.” We brainstormed what went well and what we could change or do differently next time.
People were adamant that they should have had time at the beginning of the meeting to just talk. I can see the value of them just speaking out their frustrations. In future meeting or a similar situation, I would probably give them 30 minutes to talk, then get down to business.
The Elephant in the Room
Paul and I held a skull session a few days later over coffee. I suggested beforehand that he bring someone from the group he trusted, just to get a third perspective. Paul brought his vice president, Donna.
We had a very insightful three-hour conversation about the meeting and the organization. Near the end of our conversation, I popped a question that had been lingering in my mind. It was the elephant in the room.
Traditionally, vice presidents are in office to understudy their presidents, gain training on how to support them, and ensure the future of the leadership of the organization. I asked Donna, “Why are you not stepping up to become president when Paul’s term is over?”
A slight smile formed at the corners of her mouth. Then she said, “Well, I’ve got a lot of other things going on in my life and I don’t have time to do everything I would have to do to keep the organization going.”
I explained that the president doesn’t have to do everything to keep the organization going. A president who manages properly delegates almost everything out to the board members and other officers. Then the president can be the public face and voice of the organization and everyone else makes her look good.
I had planted a seed. Donna got quiet and I could see she was cogitating on this.
The next chapter of the Green Earth Coalition has not been lived yet. What happens to them depends on how well they exercise their “due discipline,” as they term their imperatives.
Tom Romito is an interpreter of Native American Culture, a facilitator of organizations who want to grow, and a Reiki practitioner dedicated to helping people heal. Tom shares stories and skills to help you energize your world.