Curb Your Enthusiasm…Before it Kills Your Nonprofit

Enthusiasm is great to have, until it’s not.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a transition meeting of the outgoing and incoming boards of a local nonprofit organization to advise on some projects the organization was implementing, one of them being the dwindling number of actively involved members, particularly senior members of the organization. The new board wanted to focus specifically on creating value for those longtime members, to keep them involved and accessible to newer members as mentors in the organization. I left convinced that the group was going to dissolve within the next few years because they completely overlooked the dangers of their enthusiasm, and I just heard that I was right: the group finally dissolved this year after more than a half-decade of steadily declining involvement from its members. It died in part because it had an enthusiasm problem.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” and he was right. But “great” can be good OR bad. Great enthusiasm can carry nonprofit organizations to success or disaster, depending on how it is harnessed. As I sat in this meeting, I watched a good organization begin to die through improperly channeled enthusiasm.

Picture the scene: A new president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and several directors are gathered around a restaurant table. Also present are the outgoing president and the couple of officers who chose not to continue in different board positions. After the official handover of authority (signing new banking forms, the transfer of files, etc.), the two groups begin to discuss plans for the upcoming year. The enthusiasm of the newly elected board is palpable as they discuss their hopes and dreams for the organization, and how they plan to achieve their goals. None of them see their dreams begin to wither in front of them as the outgoing board gradually moves from supportive to silent to completely disengaged right in front of them. The organization has begun to slowly die from unbridled enthusiasm.

In the excitement of finally starting on their year in office, what the incoming board didn’t realize was that in their excited discussion of plans, they were criticizing the outgoing board at the worst possible time: what for the outgoing board was the end of a long, tiring journey. Yes, the organization had issues that need to be fixed, and the opinions and ideas I heard discussed were necessary to develop plans for the year. The problem lay in the analysis of issues that needed to be dealt with. Not one person took into account how the discussion would be received by those whose terms had come to an end – those who had give their time, expertise and in some cases their money to keep the organization going. As the critique grew, the outgoing board gradually stopped participating in the discussion because the incoming board failed acknowledge the successes of the previous year’s board, just the things that didn’t work. The new board continuously criticized the failures and not-quite-successes of the prior year right in front of the people who had been putting in the work on these efforts the previous year.

In their enthusiasm for the work that lay ahead, the new board damaged the relationship with the very senior members they wanted to keep involved in the organization – all because they didn’t curb their enthusiasm where it mattered. During a follow up call with the new president several months later, I checked on the success of the plans to keep senior members involved, and not too surprising, none of the former board members had been actively involved in the organization’s events. And just a few years later, the organization is now gone.

The experience led me to come up with a list of tips for nonprofits as they transition from one board to the next:

  1. Make sure the vision for the future is shared by both incoming and outgoing boards.

    Your transition meeting is just that: a transition, not a complete change, especially if you have some board members who were re-elected to the board for another term, or whose term carries over for multiple years. It is a process, not an abrupt change, so plan your process accordingly.
  2. Treat the outgoing board as you want to be treated.

    The Golden Rule applies to almost absolutely everything, doesn’t it? Put yourself in the place of the outgoing board members, because one day you will be in that position. How would you feel if, after dedicating much of your free time and energy to a nonprofit, all you heard was how nothing you did worked, how the new board is going to solve problems that most likely existed before your board service, and how many problem you created (because they appeared during your term, so the implications are that it’s your fault)? Perhaps you are inheriting a mess, perhaps it is the fault of the outgoing president. Nothing is going to be achieved by saying so, even by implying it. Let it go – for now. There will be time later for a blunt assessment of the situation, but not now.
  3. Emphasize what worked before analyzing what didn’t.

    It may sound simplistic, but praise before plans. Look at the who situation and focus on what worked first. Talking about what worked first sets the tone and perspective of what you need to do as a board leader. Also, the lessons about what worked may have applications for the things that need work.

  4. Do the nuts-and-bolts planning for your term in a separate meeting with just the new board.

    This is the time to dig deep into what didn’t work and what needs to be fixed – just keep in mind the impact critiquing past efforts can have if members of the prior year’s board are continuing to serve on this current board.
  5. Harness the enthusiasm of your board to give it focus.

    Enthusiasm can give your board the energy needed to tackle the issues facing you during the year, if you harness it effectively. People who are enthused about what they are doing will stick with it when things slow down. They will take on what needs doing and enjoy the process, instead of ending the year burnt out and dispirited.

Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing, if harnessed to move your organization forward. Use it to get people passionate about achieving the things your organization needs. Use it to get people to work together, and you’ll have a successful year. Let it cause friction and hurt feelings, and your organization will fail. So curb your enthusiasm, and make it take you to a successful year!