Is Your Non-Profit Organization Suffering from ‘Lights Out?’

Nonprofit organizations are started by people with a passion for making a difference. The vision for the organization is crystal clear, and the organization’s leaders leverage this energy to inspire action and engagement in others. Clarity of vision ignites a common spirit, and ensures the road is well lit for everyone involved to stay focused and true to the mission and direction set forth.

Over time, this vision can start to dim. Somebody initiates a strategic planning process, which frankly, may provide some short term goals, but often fails to provide the emotional traction and energy the organization needs to move forward.

Who is the Keeper of the Flame?

Many an Executive Director has been hired with an expectation to ‘set a clear course’ for the organization. Boards can become administrative in nature and seek to rekindle their own vision for the organization through the wisdom and innovations of their new chief executive. It can become a risky proposition to expect someone of limited history, lineage or experience with an organization to come in and re-write the vision and direction for the enterprise.

Goals and outcomes are one thing. Where in your organization does the ‘spirit’ reside? Like the Olympic flame, does your organization’s true vision and spirit maintain a lineage to its original founders and history? Maybe the organization is ready to establish a new vision for the organization. Whose responsibility is this? Between the board, the executive director, and the rest of the paid staff, which of these is accountable as the true ‘steward’ of the organization’s original vision, spirit, and passion?

Boards Lead, Managers Manage

From my perspective, non-profit boards of directors are expressly accountable for ensuring the vision, purpose, and emotional energy of the organization is clear, alive, and kept burning brightly. Boards must be leaders for their organizations. Leaders set a vision and inspire others to follow. Managers plan and implement ways to fulfill this vision. With this perspective in mind:

  • Boards need to regularly define and communicate a vision for their organization.
  • Boards need to set the tone and tenor for ‘what, for whom, how big, how far, how fast, and how well’ the organization should conduct itself within the universe it serves.
  • Boards must continue to monitor their organization’s results consistent with the spirit and intent of their vision.
  • Boards must accept accountability as stewards of the community’s resources, as well as the passion, purpose, history, and lineage to which they’ve been entrusted.
  • Boards are accountable for hiring the right paid executive to make this vision come to life.
  • Paid executives should lead the paid /volunteer team that realizes the vision, and develop plans, strategies, and achieving outcomes consistent with the organizations vision and goals.

If the organization fails to align and conduct itself accordingly, roles become unclear, and conflict can arise through inconsistent expectations. Many a well intended ExecutiveDirector has been hired to lead an organization, renew the ‘vision,’ inspire both the board and staff, only to learn that the board has later ‘decided to go a different direction.’

Why This is Difficult

There are several reasons why boards tend to ‘lose the flame.’ Consider the following:

Misaligned Agendas

If we’re being honest, people will join a non-profit board for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s a passion for the organization’s mission, personal passions and interests, ego, business interests, career interests, even social status, generations of board turnover often result in a variety of agendas and directions. These disparate perspectives and agendas can certainly detract from the clarity of the organization’s fundamental vision, mission, purpose and scope.

Board Size

Managing board member agendas is much more difficult with boards of increasing size. Is there really any way to get thirty board members fired up, focused, and all on the same page? How about just showing up for meetings? It’s hard. How many board members are needed in the first place? Unclear and undisciplined board member expectations, board composition, and board/executive director governance issues can make consensus of vision and quality of ‘spirit’ difficult to achieve.

Chasing Funds

Some non-profit organizations find their vision altered through ‘following the money’ more than adherence to their original passion, purpose and scope. While not trying to be naïve here, establishing an organization’s vision predominantly on the basis of funding sources can be the first steps toward diluting an organization’s true vision, passion, and spirit.

Creating a clear and compelling vision is the cornerstone of a successful organization. Aligning and inspiring the entire organization to that vision, including the board, executive, staff, funders, and volunteers, ensures this will happen. Organizations lose sight when the road to the future is no longer lit, and the vision no longer crystal clear. It is up to the board to re-ignite the flame and start leading the way.


Michael Tracy is Managing Principal of OMNI Employment Management Services, LLC, a human resources consulting and outsourcing firm located in Overland Park, KS.