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Breaking Through Inefficient Decision-Making Processes in Nonprofits to Do More Good

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Steve Scheier head shotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Steve Scheier

Whether you’re an executive director, staff person or member of the board your engagement with nonprofit organizations is often driven by a strong commitment to their mission and a desire to make the world a better place. If only that commitment was sufficient.

Doing good is not easy. Those who work in the field often feel like they’re spinning their wheels. They are passionate and strive to be heard, but often feel voiceless, frustrated and drained. Ironically, while they have no problem advocating for their clients they are often hesitant to advocate for themselves. In my work with nonprofits I have consistently observed that a single, stubborn and harmful core issue is the root cause of much of this frustration:

Inefficient and confusing decision-making practices that stifle innovation and effective operations.

Those working at or with nonprofits are often unclear about what decisions affecting their jobs and their mission they can make. They are often unsure who has the ultimate decision-making authority on key issues. Is it the board, the executive director, a staff person or a manager? In our work we see too many organizations that base their decision-making either on consensus, which is time consuming and inefficient. We also see decision-making power concentrated in the hands of a small group of senior staff. Neither option is optimal, and the mere act of making a decision can therefore be unwieldy. Thus people’s talent is not used effectively.

These inefficient practices persist because the sector has three great fears: First, fear of failure – which often drives concentrated decision-making practices. There’s also a fear of rejection and a fear of conflict, both of which tend to produce a strong commitment to consensus decision-making. Rather than give voice to these fears and to their ramifications for decision-making, the familial nature of nonprofits tends to drive discussions on these topics underground even though this action impacts nonprofit performance. People often just can’t bear to bring up these issues. Do More Good Better article image

In Do More Good. Better., I address the failure to create a forthright and effective decision-making environment. In such an environment, decision-making is pushed down to those who are closest to the decision and the staff and managers are trained in how to advocate to make or support the decisions that affect their jobs. In my time working in and consulting to nonprofits I have seen very few under-performing people but I have seen many under-utilized people. I’ve seen staff that have a title but know that they’re facilitators rather than decision-makers as their titles imply, and I’ve seen many people leave organizations because they don’t feel trusted to make decisions. We underutilize our people and wonder why we’re not achieving our missions.

The way to move past this is for people working at nonprofits at every level to address, together, the power and decision-making processes within their organization and the fears obstructing change. A number of steps will help make the conversation and make it effective:

  • Develop a methodology for taking inventory of and prioritizing the decisions within your organization. Really, forget about your plans and white papers for a second. Get granular. What are the key decisions facing your organization right now? Write them down. How many are there? Probably more than you think. Do you know who’s going to make them? Is your organization clear about that? If you have an interest in a particular decision to you have a way of inserting yourself into the decision-making process?
  • Work out shared language supporting this methodology by providing vocabulary to describe each decision or set of decisions. After you survey the decision list tell your boss, “this decision,_________________,affects my job and I’d like to be the person who either makes it or supports the decision-maker.
  • This shared language will also help teams navigate the worries that will inevitably spring up during the course of conversations. People are often reluctant to be this direct but it’s important to do so. No one will melt and our consulting practice confirms that people don’t go crazy with power. Instead they advocate to make the decisions they initially thought they would be able to make when they entered the organization. Encourage people to speak up and advocate for the decisions they want to make.
  • Recognize how fear complicates the decision-making process, and talk about this too. Given the immensity of your nonprofit’s mission and the difficulty of quantifying results, do you or your colleagues shy away from decision-making or leave it all to the executive director for fear of failure? Are you hesitant to take on decision-making roles for fear of creating conflict among the members of your team? Do you hold back on voicing certain concerns due to a fear that your colleagues will reject them and turn their backs on you?
  • Consider and talk about the role that biases surrounding race, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege may play in shaping your organization’s decision-making dynamics. Decision-makers tend to have more societal privilege than those who implement decisions. Does the concentration of decision-making power evoke fear, discomfort or reticence within your team?

Once the conversation is underway, it’s important, too to support and reinforce a culture that makes it a priority to proactively resolve conflict and confusion surrounding how decisions are made.

Ultimately, gaining clarity into how decisions are made, talking about obstacles and breaking through inefficiencies in the process will help move your organization forward in a far more meaningful way.


Steve Scheier is the CEO and Founder of Scheier+Group, and author of Do More Good. Better. Using the Power of Decision Clarity™ to Mobilize the Power of Your Nonprofit Team.

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