Overcoming the Fear Factor in Nonprofit Decision-Making 

Nonprofits have the potential to achieve far more by decentralizing and clarifying power and decision-making within their organizations.  Conversations about the need for nonprofits to improve their performance and results abound, but we often pay little heed to solutions that stand right in front of us.

I gained clarity on such a solution in 2010, when I created—with the support of the Boston-based search firm Commongood Careers—a survey that examined decision-making within nonprofits. It was apparent to me through my work with nonprofits that people involved with them—whether executive directors, board members, funders, staff members, or volunteers—are often frustrated with the inefficiency of their organization’s decision-making processes. With the veritable maze of interlocking decisions nonprofits face, and the relative lack of clarity about who has power and who makes decisions, making a decision can be time consuming and inefficient, creating bottlenecks and the prevailing sense that people are spinning their wheels.

We called the survey “Views From The Field: Decision-Making At Nonprofits,” and over the course of two weeks, 218 nonprofit people filled it out.

Though the respondent pool was relatively small, the level of consensus was surprising. Asked whether they were confused about the decisions they could make, more than 78 percent of managers said yes. When asked whether this confusion increased operational inefficiency, 92 percent of the managers replied in the affirmative. But what popped out to me were the short, heartfelt stories that people revealed when we asked them how decision-making happens in their organizations and how these practices affect them. For example:

  • “I left my last organization because of lack of clarity about my role and decision-making capacity. As COO, my decisions were often undermined by the CEO.”
  • “The lack of autonomy to make decisions has negatively impacted my job satisfaction and contributed to my decision to seek employment in a different organization.”
  • “My organization is heavily into ‘top down’ decision-making, which is counter-productive to real team-building and efficiency.”

In my own work with nonprofits, I’ve seen many leaders regularly make decisions without involving others. This leaves coworkers with the sense that they aren’t trusted to participate. Meanwhile, these leaders are typically overwhelmed with unsustainably large workloads, but remain stuck because they don’t have the skills they need to involve others in the decision-making process.

I believe nonprofits have the potential to achieve far more by decentralizing and clarifying power and decision-making within their organizations. What prevents them from considering taking this step? Often, it’s fear.

How? It’s simple. Most nonprofits live close to the edge, with an inherent fear that failure is just around the corner. This constant fear usually results in a situation where a very small cadre of people hold tightly to substantive decision-making. In this context, executive directors tend to underutilize their organization’s human capital and, as a result, often fail to achieve focus on the decisions that can really make a difference. After all, if they are involved in making every decision, then their ability to make the most important ones will certainly erode.

Another common fear is conflict. This fear often leads to organizations taking a consensual approach to decision-making. Unfortunately, this method often takes a great deal of time, may not provide breakthrough thinking, and frequently results in re-visiting decisions until all parties are exhausted.

Taken individually or together, these fears have the undeniable effect of complicating decision-making processes in nonprofits.

The remedy is equally simple: Talking about power and decision-making openly within an organization can go a long way toward diffusing fears. Doing so requires that organizations adopt a common language for discussing who should have decision-making power, as well as an established and transparent process to help navigate the worries that will inevitably spring up during the course of these conversations.

Ultimately, the goal of talking is to help move past fear and enable an organization’s members to make their decision-making process more efficient. To accomplish this, everyone must learn how to speak up and advocate for participating in decisions that affect their jobs.

Here are some ways accomplish this:

  • Be aware of the biases that guide beliefs about who should be making what decisions. For example, do you believe that only people with advanced degrees should make the decisions in your organization? Break down your biases on this issue and challenge yourself to have a more open mind.
  • Manage your fear of rejection and conflict. Often people hold back from asserting themselves because they fear what others might say. One person told us that she didn’t want to advocate for decisions for fear of “being seen as power hungry” by her peers. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I’m honest about the decisions I want to make?” Is potentially avoiding the worst-case scenario a worthy reason to not be true to yourself?
  • Take a careful inventory of the decisions that affect your job. If there are decisions you want to weigh in on but can’t, advocate for your involvement directly and compassionately: “This decision is important to my job, and I want to make it. I’m willing to take the responsibility for making this decision if you will trust me to take it on.”

This shift allows leaders to focus more on making high-impact decisions and everyone else to use more of their natural decision-making capacity to help move the organization forward in a meaningful way. Ultimately, nonprofits have the responsibility to generate the greatest possible social impact. It would behoove us to work through clarifying and driving down decision-making practices that best mobilize all of our human resources to that end.

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