By Aspen Baker
“Are all your board members this involved?” Deb, a donor in Seattle, asked me as we both waved goodbye to Julie, a board member who had just co-hosted a fundraising party at Deb’s home in November 2009.
“Yep!” I said. “It’s very impressive,” she replied.
Impressive is a great word to describe the board service of Jennifer Rudy, Julie Davidson-Gómez and Susan Osborne. Brought onto the board of directors as a cohort in 2005, Jen, Julie and Susan have recently left the board after successful completion of our maximum board term: two, three-year stints of service. From their board member orientation to their transition celebration, their leadership has shaped what Exhale is today; and what we will become in the future.
Jen, Julie and Susan benefitted from the partnership of other board members (thank you Lisa Lepson, Talia Walsmith, Ellen Wu, Tulin Acikalin, Amy Moy, Cathy Schreiber and Jason Schultz!) throughout their service; yet as a cohort who came onto the board together and left together, their group has played a key role in Exhale’s growth and evolution from an organization primarily known for our direct services to one that is leading successful efforts to change the culture around abortion.
With this blog post, I write to acknowledge their service to Exhale; and to highlight a few of the key contributions that they have made towards solidifying Exhale as an innovative, entrepreneurial organization; and their impact on future board leadership.
Board Roles and Responsibilities
The role of a board member can be as expansive or as a minimal as an organization wants to make it. Certainly there are laws and ethics guiding the role of the board, and traditional functions, but once the Executive Director has been reviewed; finances overseen; strategic planning facilitated; and fundraising successfully integrated into board roles and responsibilities, what other opportunities for leadership can board members provide to advance a social change mission?
Board performance is one-of-the most talked about and debated issues in nonprofit governance (especially among Executive Directors), and CompassPoint’s recent “Daring to Lead” report shows that Executive Directors have very mixed experiences with their boards. Yet, CompassPoint’s paper on Next Generation Organizations; Beth Kanter’s book on the Networked Nonprofit; and networked models like the WikiMedia Foundation, for example, point to where board leadership is headed.
But, systems, process, ideas, and strategies don’t add up to a whole lot without leadership. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is showing the need for change, or how many expensive consultants tell a board what they should do moving forward, if the leadership isn’t there to endorse, encourage and enable change, then it’s probably not going to happen.
This kind of leadership – the kind that facilitated Exhale’s ability to grow and evolve – is the gift that Jen, Julie and Susan have given Exhale. They joined the board five years after our founding and they were the right leaders at the right time to provide exactly what Exhale needed over the last six-years: a strong foundation to foster and grow an organizational culture rooted in Mission, Abundance, Excellence, Innovation and Self-Care.
The Practice of Organizational Culture
Putting words down on paper does not a culture make. Organizational culture is a practice. It is the values, assumptions, norms and behaviors that are shared and exhibited by people within an organization. Sometimes it is referred to as an organization’s personality, character or core identity. An organization’s culture is reflected in interpersonal communication, leadership style, systems in place and traditions followed – it is the often-unwritten or unsaid understanding between people that creates the way work is conducted.
Exhale, with the board leadership of Jen, Julie and Susan, encouraged, enabled and endorsed the effort to advance our internal organizational culture. Throughout their board term, our team of volunteers, staff and board changed our professional behavior with one another, assessed our decisions in a new way, strategized and planned from a different set of considerations, and identified potential team members – from funders to volunteers – with this new, proactive criteria.
We focused on this effort because we wanted to create an organizational culture that was aligned with our values; and mostly, because we need every part of Exhale to be focused on one thing: achieving our mission. The culture in which we operate and do our business has a tremendous impact on our ability to flourish and grow; as an organization with a mission to change the culture around abortion, changing our own gave us first-hand knowledge and experience of what it takes to be successful.
Accepting the Need for Change
What was so bad about our culture that Exhale needed to spend years transforming it?
It’s nothing you haven’t seen or experienced before. We weren’t that much different from most other nonprofit organizations. We operated out of scarcity, and the idea that there was “never enough” of what we needed to be successful. We practiced personal sacrifice, putting the organization over personal wellbeing, and we watched people burn-out. We were afraid to take risks that could lose us the few assets and allies we felt we had. We accepted other people’s ideas of us, that we weren’t organizers, advocates, or powerful change agents, and we apologized and tried to make what we did more acceptable and comfortable for others.
These practices aren’t unique to Exhale. In fact, professional consultants in the field and leaders with decades of experience gave advice that endorsed and promoted this culture. This is what we were told was typical, and what we needed to do to raise money.
But Exhale wasn’t started to raise money. We were started to move a mission.
This “a-ha moment” is when Exhale started the process to change our culture. Jen, Julie and Susan saw that despite decades of experience, many nonprofit leaders never achieved their social change goals, and in fact, as much as they tried to hold on, they often lost more than they gained. They watched young nonprofit leaders burn-out and leave the field and they didn’t want the same for me. They saw that scarcity-thinking and personal sacrifice were not proving to be effective models of organizational culture, and so they gave Exhale the leadership we needed to try something different.
We began by letting go. We stopped thinking about money and what we needed to do or say to get it. We refused to let it be our motivator. We accepted that finding funding without compromising would be more challenging, and we understood that our mission could live and grow without money. Or even staff. The risk for me was that I might lose my paid job as Executive Director. This highly-intentional act of letting go was not your typical board response to fundraising obstacles. What letting go gave us was a sense of freedom and possibility. It opened the doors to our own creativity and innovation, and our power to change the world.
A Culture that Works With Us, Not Against Us
If scarcity-thinking is the death of social change; then Exhale chose to Operate from Abundance. If trying to fix what’s broken means advocates often lose more than they gain, then Exhale chose to Strengthen What Works.
Here’s what I mean: It’s common for nonprofit boards and staff to lament all the things we don’t have, money, usually being the biggest one, but certainly also time, or prestige. For example, “We can’t do that because we don’t have enough money,” or “we can’t take that risk because our funders might not like it.” This is called “deficit” or “scarcity-thinking” and it’s a focus based on perceptions about what a nonprofit doesn’t have or is afraid to lose.
But, what if instead, nonprofit leaders focused on what we do have? What if leaders said, “We can do that because we have the smartest staff around,” or “We will take the risk because it will help us identify new risk-taking supporters” or “Let’s earn people’s respect by demonstrating the success of our strategies.”
Notice the difference in where the real power lies? It’s in all of us. We already have it.
For example, for the vast majority of Exhale’s organizational life, we’ve had what many might say is very few resources – little money and few staff. But, in reality, we are overflowing with everything we need: great ideas, passionate volunteers, a compelling message and mission, and a robust network of allies. Our organizational culture change from deficit-thinking to operating out of abundance means we always start with our strengths – what we currently have – and we make decisions from there. When we find something works well, we do more of it, and then we focus on turning what’s good into something great.
Our Real, Measureable Results
Our organizational cultural practices produce real, tangible results for Exhale. Look at how we approached the major financial challenges of 2010. Last year, Exhale was at our lowest capacity with a huge demand on our services. Yet, when the board and I looked at the problem, the first question we asked ourselves was: “what do we have that’s strong and effective that can help us get through this?” The answer was our volunteers. Their leadership proved instrumental in getting Exhale through that time. You can read more about their efforts on VolunteerMatch who featured a blog about Exhale’s volunteer leaders in celebration of 2011 National Volunteer Week.
Being a strength-based organization is one thing, but it takes real guts for board members to back up this idea with the nitty-gritty of budget decisions. There is a practice in nonprofit budgeting that ignores the things that are working well and spends money on where the problems are. I have seen nonprofits spend thousands of dollars on organizational planning process or staff retreats because there is one person who is causing problems and disruption. What if instead of letting the problem of a bad employee take up more space, they spent time and money investing in their top-performers? What if the staff person that shows up every-day on time, comes up with great ideas, and has excellent follow-through is rewarded with a trip to a conference where they get to represent the organization, be its Ambassador and have their leadership be witnessed and seen by the rest of the organization and it’s supporters?
Increased responsibility and more complex duties are rewards for top performance. Exhale pays close attention to who shows up on time; who does what they say they’re going to do; who offers thoughtful advice and feedback to peers; and who comes up with good ideas that they take responsibility for pursuing. We reward people with new leadership opportunities, and we give them more opportunities to shine. Check out board member Julie speaking on a panel as a representative of Exhale; and volunteers Claudia and Ijeoma who attended a conference on behalf of Exhale.
Most importantly, changing our organizational culture has made Exhale more effective at achieving our mission. Within the last 12-months we went from facing one of our organization’s biggest challenges to celebrating in one of our most phenomenal successes. It has everything to do with organizational leadership and culture. Today, Exhale’s commitment to mission, innovation and creativity has placed us in the best financial position of our nearly 10-year history.
Exhale transformed our culture from one of deficit to one of abundance, from one that focuses on what’s wrong, to one that invests in what works. This significant change required board leadership to endorse, encourage, and enable it to take place. There have been days, months and years when it seemed this choice may have been the wrong one and our resolve was questioned. It was Jen, Julie and Susan who had the organization’s back and reminded us that social change happens over decades, not in grant cycles. Their leadership has been a gift; and in the ultimate practice of true abundance-thinking, they have transitioned off the board knowing that the culture they fostered is now one of Exhale’s strengths, a strength that will attract, excite and grow Exhale’s next generation of board leadership.
Thank you Jen, Julie and Susan for your board leadership and your contributions to Exhale’s past and future.