Coordinating Coordinating Committees

Dear Kim:

Dear Kim: Our small nonprofit has had two very successful annual events, the third is scheduled for September. We raised (net) $37k the first year and $57k the second. The committee raised concerns that we should change things to make it interesting….I suggested that with these results we have found a winning formula and should use it as is for a few more years.

One especially assertive (and inexperienced) new board member took it upon himself with no authorization to contact a local TV celebrity and asked him to host the event! We have no reason to believe the “celeb” has any connection to our cause. I am happy to say that this person declined because he has a commitment already.

Though I have extensive experience with nonprofits (staff and board) the group does not perceive me as an expert. I want to educate them about the inappropriateness of any member making this kind of offer–and the appropriateness of planning. Can you provide some insight?

–Leading a Committee Run Amuck

Dear Amuck:

You actually raise a few issues with your question, and I will answer them in reverse order from how you raised them. That this committee does not perceive you as an expert is normal. Once you join the staff or board of an organization, you cease to have “expert” authority. (I know this well, since I am paid to travel hither and yon providing consulting but the groups I am part of almost never take my advice. Fortunately I am without bitterness on this point.) If you really want to hammer home the point about planning and the need to work as a team you will have to bring in an outside consultant.

As to your other problems—your loose cannon board member who took it on himself to ask a TV personality to host your event and his wacky companions on the committee who think an event that nets $37,000 one year and $57,000 the next is not “interesting,” you have a problem. I suggest trying to give in to their exuberance—-the more you position yourself as the expert who insists that everything must be planned, the more they will rebel and act out.

First rule of working with people: assume good intent. They want this event to be even bigger and better and they just need help going about it in a little more scientific way. See if there isn’t one or two members of the committee who haven’t said very much but who may agree that you should stick with your winning formula, or at least that you need a plan. Talk to them privately and try to get them to raise these issues at the next meeting. Begin the next meeting with a review of the goals for the event: more money? More donors? What makes them think that the event must be “more interesting” to do well? Ideally, the chair of the committee will pose this question, and then one or two other people will speak up. You or someone else can then talk about the importance of acting as a team—with a plan for winning and with everyone working the plan rather than going off doing whatever they feel like. I have seen committees go crazy for a few meetings with one idea more wild and unrealistic than the next: “We should really get Bono!” “We should have a bungee jumping marathon!” “I am pretty sure we could get Virgin Airways to underwrite the whole thing. They aren’t that well know in our town.” Then they realize themselves that their ideas aren’t going to work and they settle down and plan a solid event. I have the feeling (and I certainly hope) that’s the case here.

~Kim Klein