April 27, 2023

How to Stop Your Board’s Fixation on the Wrong People

Too many CEOs lose sleep when their nonprofits get stuck. One common cause for getting bogged down is too much focus on the wrong people. Who are these wrong people? And how can you guide your board to focus on the right ones instead?

Early in my career, I served on a nonprofit that had seen better days. Once, they had been the up-and-coming star. Now, they faced competition and declining membership.

Instead of focusing on their assets (a great location) and the right people (dedicated active members and a growing youth program), the board obsessed about “them.” “Them” were the inactive folks. Some showed up occasionally, no one had seen some in years, and a few were dead.

“If only they would return,” they complained.

Meetings were draining and unproductive because focusing on problems, in this case, people who aren’t in the room–never works.

Fast Forward 20+ Years

In my work guiding nonprofits to find consensus about their future direction that generates enthusiasm and engagement, I hear boards and staffs complain a lot about the missing. Fifty percent or more of nonprofits (over ten years old) lament the behaviors of the noncooperative.

Because you can’t fix others but can change your behavior, it’s best to short-cut these discussions and instead focus on active members, experienced staff, and supporters; that is the right people.


3 Result Your Board Gets When They Focus on The Right People
1. You energize them,
2. You stop discouraging engaged people,
3. You make genuine progress and generate enthusiasm.
Positive energy attracts people—both new and old.

However, sometimes groups can’t refocus, like the board I served. I discovered that before you can make genuine progress, some groups must deal with the wrong people.

This post explores the two prime groups that make up the wrong people and how to approach groups fixating on them.

Who Are the Wrong People?
You can divide the wrong people into two categories: The formerly active and system gamers. Both bug people, the first because of missed potential; the second fairness.
Why are They the Wrong People?
You try to fix their behaviors (little control,) instead of changing the your own (lots of control.)  

I. The Inactive

If you’ve lost many people, your board and staff may need to grieve. Death doula, Christine Carroll explains: “People need to grieve.” People may need to say goodbye to their past to be here now and envision the future. It’s like bringing a puppy 🐶 the next day to someone who lost a beloved dog. It may be a good plan after time for grief, but it’s too soon now.  

Satisfying the Urge to Reach Out: The Three Kinds of Inactive People

This section concerns nonprofits with inactive people (most groups do) that want to reengage them.

We lump inactive people into a clump. However, inactive folks include three groups with distinct needs. To engage missing people, split them, estimate their size, and plan how to respond to their needs.

 🛳 1. The Distracted

This includes people with reasons for not engaging who will return. They’re traveling, dealing with health issues, and so forth.  

 Their Needs: Keep them in the loop and care (i.e., ask) about what’s happening in their lives.

 🔑 2. People Open to Returning With Conditions

These people have a barrier that needs removal before they reengage. The roadblocks include needs, wants, and even demands—these range from easy to impossible and in between.

For instance, when gift solicitors asked college alums to donate, many alums asked for the current college president’s name. When they heard it, they said, “Ask me when he’s gone.” (Backstory: The alums loved the college but resented the president’s punitive cannabis policy.)

Their Needs: Ask what’s up; you can fix many barriers. Decide how you can keep them updated.

 🚫 3. The Gone.

These folks aren’t coming back. Let it go.

Their Needs: Bless and release them.

Your Needs: Determine if there is anything to learn, then invest your resources elsewhere.

Does your board or staff need to design a plan to reach the inactive? Do they need to grieve so they can believe that your nonprofit can meet and surpass its past success?

II. More Wrong People: System Gamers

A second group who bug 🐞 boards and staff are system gamers. Everyone has them. These individuals violate our sense of fairness and cause deep-rooted reactions. The tragedy of the commons, Easter Eggs hunts that turn into brawls, and people littering reflect social contract challenges and what happens when they break.

Before our board and staff can focus on other tasks, they may insist on creating policies for freeloaders and discourage social loafing.

Here are some questions to move your board from complaining to policy solutions:

 👎🏽 Dealing with Freeloaders

  • How can we invite freeloaders to enjoy a free sample and then join or step out?
  • How might we prevent freeloading with social cues?
  • What boundaries and consequences can we establish with freeloaders?

😴 Social Loafing

  • How can we shout out those who give their fair share?
  • What’s the best way to tell people what a fair share is?
  • Do we have a challenge with insiders hoarding the good jobs? (i.e., after you’ve been here a year, you never have to pick up dog waste.)
  • How do we want to look at “taking a break” vs. long-term social loafing? 

Who Are Freeloaders? Freeloaders are people who take advantage of your services. They sneak in for free, fail to fulfill commitments, and pick all the strawberries in the school garden before the kids arrive.

What Is Social Loafing? According to Practical Psychology “Social loafing occurs when an individual is doing less when working in a group, as opposed to putting forth full effort if they were alone.” The bigger the team the smaller the average contribution.

Problems, like talking about the wrong people, zap energy. Energy comes from envisioning the future we want and figuring out how to get there. Sometimes, to tap this energy, your board and staff must first deal with grief and system gamers.

How often do you discuss the right people? What percent of your meeting do you discuss the wrong vs. right people? 

Keep up with me by subscribing to my twice-monthly newsletter for nonprofit leaders, Karen’s CEO Solutions





Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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