Non-Profits – The “Old” Problem

by Sahadev Komaragiri

History is littered with instances of impatient princes killing the king to occupy the throne, only to get replaced in the same fashion at some point. Transition of power from one structure to the next is always a challenge whether it is for great kingdoms or for small organizations, spiritual or secular.

Let us stick this discussion to the non-profit organizations whose purpose is to serve the community. I have worked with non-profit organizations just enough to be dangerous. Being new at one organization I found myself struggling to navigate the organization structures. Very soon I realized it is not the organization and service but individuals and their aspirations that run the day to day affairs.

Defining the “old” problem is not going to be easy or flattering. An organization’s problem becomes “old” when it continues to have the same set of problems year after year with a strong possibility of a recurrence in the following years. Many organizations suffer from these problems. If you are going to be part of a non-profit organization with a desire to take up leadership roles, it is important for you to understand how organizations function and be aware of its power structures. There are two things to look for in an organization. One, its long term sustenance plans and two its ability to make changes.

Long Term Sustenance

The founding members unwittingly create problems for themselves when they do not lay out a clear succession plan or strong systems for long term sustenance. This easily results in the same people running the system for indefinite periods. New leaders are not groomed to take over the reins. When I was involved in a big project and playing a key role, my manager asked me how the project will go on if I were to get hit by a truck on my way home that day. No one is indispensable. Things will go on. Perhaps there will be some struggle but life goes on for the rest. But for organizations the founding members must constantly think of the ways to keep the organization afloat even in their absence, temporary or permanent. One question to ask of organizations is this: How often is it that the founding members made room for a new member in the role of trustee? If the answer is never, it is perhaps because the organization is not able to attract trustworthy people or it has lost its ability to trust anyone other than themselves. Either of them is not a good position to be in.

Many organizations start with a lot of enthusiasm and energy but in a span of less than 5 to 10 years, they are mired into raging controversies. The people who started the organization put in a lot of time, money and resources in stabilizing and growing the organization. But when it comes to succession plans they are totally dumbfounded. The problem is worst in cases where the organization depends on one or two people with a big plan and loads of money but no clear vision on how it will run long after they are gone. The question to ask is whether an organization has a good constitution in place that takes care of succession as a matter of policy rather than by the whims and fancies of a few.

One of the founding trustees of an organization asked me whether the trustees of the future be able to sustain the organization and its values. This organization has term limits for its trustees. It is a damn good question to ask. It  must be a question that must be asked very frequently. Being able to execute plans for the long term sustenance of an organization and its values is one of the key abilities of its leaders.

Ability to Make Changes

The people who remain in executive positions for a long duration accumulate so much experience and wisdom that it soon becomes a liability rather than an asset, a liability because they are too boxed in. They are the ones who are likely to say that things have been running well for years this way and therefore require no change. The organization soon loses the ability to make changes and progress gets retarded.

Without well documented procedures, a few people carry too much information in their heads and their absence for a week or two stalls the entire system and the system awaits their return for a restart. This is indeed a problem.

An ill equipped organization gets overwhelmed when new entrants come in with great vigor, energy and enthusiasm to serve. It gets exasperating when ideas for expanding existing programs or implementing new programs are countered with skepticism. The stock response is “we have tried this before, this will not work!” The old cannot keep up with the new trends, and the young soon get disenchanted with the old ways of doing things.

Absence of well established processes often results in inconsistent behavior. A poor organizational setup relies on one or two people overseeing everything. Every task major and minor is personally monitored by the same few. With the obsession towards getting things right, these few rarely delegate important tasks to others.

The best gauge for an organization that is adaptable to changes is to find out:

  • About the number of new programs that have been added in the last few years.
  • About the creativity employed in automating or efficient handling of tasks that are done routinely.

Last Word

Problems in a dysfunctional organization arise from the early and continuing decisions made by the founding members as well as the key role played by the new entrants. When new people join the organization with strong aspirations and enthusiasm, the old feel wary. The problem is both with the old and new. Many equate the new with cool and the old not so cool. A better way is to equate old with wisdom and the new with energy. Together they can create wonders if they are not antagonistic towards each other.

Once the long term sustenance and ability to make changes are well defined, the organization can focus all its energy on the purpose of its existence – to serve and fulfill its dreams to make changes in the lives of others.

If you read this entire article, I am sure you would be interested in reading my next post on Non-Profits – The “New” Problem?

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