Three Challenges and Solutions To Make Your Nonprofit More Effective

By Martin Woodroofe

Associations and nonprofit organizations often face challenges, particularly in the people management area, which are not experienced by the business world or at least not experienced to the same degree. Here are three challenges your organization may face and tips for tackling the people management side of things.

Challenge One: Multiple Agendas and Lack of Alignment
The challenge of multiple agendas is not unique to the association and nonprofit world. We certainly see people pushing their own agendas in for profit businesses and other arenas. However, what is unique in many nonprofit bodies is that many people within the organization are not there for money. Their pay may well be less than they would make in the commercial world, or they are volunteers. They are, therefore, driven by motives other than financial reward, and one of these motives is the significance, i.e. gaining significance for their lives. They see what they are doing as forming a central purpose to their lives and fulfilling a deep seeded need.

This can be healthy but is can also mean that people become very wedded to their activity and have a high ownership of their area. This activity can become more important to them than what the organization is trying to achieve. They develop their own agendas and then seek to pursue it with a great deal of passion. They can also come to believe that no one else, not even their leaders, can or should tell them how to run their activity. They believe that because they are giving themselves to this area and are doing good, they should be fully supported—regardless of the needs of the wider body.

Tip: Get Aligned and Focus on Doing a Few Things Well
If you want your association to be effective, you have to deal with lack of alignment. If you don’t do this, you’ll be like a rowing boat in which every rower is rowing is his or her own direction; you’ll go nowhere, except possibly round in circles. To get aligned, develop a compelling vision and then reinforce this time and time again. Use this vision to give clarity about what you do as an association and what you don’t do. People can then decide if this is the body for them or if they need to volunteer elsewhere. Hold people accountable against the vision, and define a few key things that you want to achieve as an association. Most great organizations do a few things well and don’t chase too many goals. They know if they do chase multiple goals then they are likely to do things in a sub-optimal way.

Challenge Two: A Lack of Accountability
In the association and nonprofit world, people can believe that accountability is different than in the for profit world. They feel that their environment, by its very nature, should be less judgmental and more patient than a for profit business would be. They can think that because their organization is there to serve a profession, trade, or philanthropic cause then it should be helpful and supportive to them and not challenging and demanding. Sometimes in this environment, leaders (both staff and volunteer) are not so good at confronting difficult issues and poor behavior. In short they are too nice.

Tip: Build Healthy, Rather than Nice Relationships, and Enforce Accountability By healthy relationships, I mean that you should value your people enough to be able to have an adult-to-adult relationship with them. Don’t treat them like a child whereby you don’t confront them with the truth and avoid addressing poor performance. Rather treat people as you would want to be treated, i.e. honestly outline any problems, discuss potential solutions, and agree on a way forward. Be prepared to follow up on these discussions and to measure results of the agreement. In terms of accountability, make sure you include performance management and measurement in your culture. Measure efforts and outcomes against a plan and set of objectives. Ensure you do this both at an individual and team level.

Challenge Three: Working with Volunteers
Working with volunteers is very different from working with paid staff. Someone once said it was like the difference between a South American bolas and a set of planets around a sun. (A bolas is a series of balls attached to a central point by rope, whereas planets only circle the sun because of gravitational force.) The bolas is like an organization with paid staff. They are linked to the organization by strong ties, normally in the form of contracts, job security, and payment. Volunteers are linked by a less tangible force and may spin off if the gravitational pull weakens. So there is a real challenge is effectively motivating and managing volunteers, a challenge all associations and nonprofits face.

Tip: Practice Grown-Up Volunteering
Organizations with a volunteer base should develop a clear contract with them, practice empowerment, and give good feedback. Be clear with volunteers what they can expect of you and what you expect of them; don’t shy away from the latter. Good volunteers are likely to welcome clarity about their mission and may well want it to be personally challenging. They will want freedom to define how they achieve their goals and will expect parameters from the leadership but not micro-management. This is good empowerment. Meet the volunteers on a regular basis and demonstrate that their work is important to the association and that you want them to achieve the goals you have jointly agreed. Give a lot of genuine praise, and give it in a timely manner. Also be prepared address problem issues when they arise, and do this from the point of view that you value them enough to be honest with them. This is the basis of good feedback.

Martin Woodroofe is the author of Beyond Nice—Creating Excellent Working Relationships in Churches and Other Christian Organizations (©2013, Lulu Publishing Services). You can reach him via Twitter @martinwoodroofe.