Pushing Back on Old Rules in the Nonprofit Sector

July 13, 2023
by Lindsey Baker

Executive Director Lindsey Baker looks at how organizations can fight stagnancy and reflects on Vu Le’s latest Nonprofit AF blog post.

a professional headshot of Lindsey Baker. She is a white woman with brown, curly hair past her shoulders. She wears a royal blue blouse that fades into purple. The second image is a logo.I’m constantly holding policies and procedures up against the light to see how they could be better. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in the day of being a small museum Executive Director and creating exhibits each year by committee. Each year, we’d have volunteers who would write text, then edit their text once it was mocked-up and on the walls, putting post-it notes triumphantly over what they had already written. Trying to make it “just right”. This effort to always look for improvement is one I definitely understand. 

This dedication to constantly do better was in my mind when I read  Vu Le’s piece about being lazy in the non-profit field. As usual, Vu’s writing hit a nerve in me. One line in particular, about how laziness shows up in CEOs/EDs, sent me into a tailspin of deep thought:

“Forcing your team members to follow inane and nonsensical rules because you’re too lazy to try to improve your skills as a leader so you stick to archaic, ineffective, and inequitable BS.”

Whew. That hit hard. How many times have I looked at a policy or procedure and thought…BUT…WHY? Why does this exist? Why hasn’t it been changed? I had never considered that it might be laziness.  

My first thought is that some leaders may find it hard to envision a way that is different from the “inane and nonsensical rules” they themselves followed. In my mind, this camp is aligned with the same thought processes that support unpaid internships and hate student loan forgiveness. They might think, “I paid my dues” and so should others. As a leader who is always trying to make things better, I struggle with this. I know these things made my life more difficult and created barriers for participation. So, I can’t imagine perpetuating them if I have the power to change them.  

Others may be afraid of what it might take to overturn some of those rules. Or what the unseen impact might be if they change them. Many of us land in leadership positions with a lot of knowledge about our content area, but not a lot of training or support in terms of leadership and decision making. So often, it seems inane rules are created as a CYA. I know sometimes I think about a change I’d like to make to make our team’s working lives easier and I wonder…what was the reason this rule was created in the first place? Am I missing something here and I’ll regret this change later? 

One way I’ve combatted this fear is inclusive decision making. I can’t know everything. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to know everything. But I can include my staff in decision making for policies and procedures. Often they will think of something I haven’t—a reason that implementation will be difficult, a tweak that makes the change more feasible—and we are able to move forward towards the end goal better prepared. This type of leadership opens up space for each staff person to use their voice and their personal experience to guide the policies and procedures of the organization. While it isn’t always clean, and it isn’t always quick I am sure that our organization is better for it. 

And then, there are times where I think some leaders WANT to change something, but in the nonprofit world, like many of their staff, they lack the capacity. They simply do not have the time to make the change happen.  A really straightforward example of this for me is our attempt to create an equitable spot bonus policy. Every version we’ve come up with doesn’t feel “perfect”. And while great is the enemy of good, we do want to make sure we’re satisfied with the policy we create. So we’re going on 6 months of using a draft form policy. Sometimes, all we can do is admit something’s not perfect while creating the fairest version we know how to at the moment.

For me, learning and doing better is a vital aspect of my leadership style. It requires me to  challenge the status quo, question outdated practices, and strive for equitable and efficient solutions. While some leaders may hesitate due to a fear of change or a lack of resources, inclusive decision-making and collaboration can alleviate these concerns. By involving our staff and valuing their unique perspectives, we can navigate the complexities of decision-making and create policies that better serve our organization and its stakeholders.


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