Singularity of Purpose

My two dogs have always been pretty opposite.  The mostly border collie is lithe, graceful and likes to move fast.  The keeshond/chow/who knows what else is large, lumbering and would prefer not to move at all. Walking them was always a challenge.  Cocoa, the border collie, wants always to be out in front.  Ursus, well he stays far back, sniffing every single blade of grass. Slowly.

In recent months, however, the challenge has turned impossible, and I no longer even attempt to take them together.  If my husband isn’t around to walk one, I take them on serial walks—or leave Ursus happily ensconced on the sofa while Cocoa and I move quickly around the park.

I was thinking about my dogs recently as I was facilitating a meeting.  The board and staff were a lot like Ursus and Cocoa:  One slow and not interested in going anywhere, happy where they are; the other straining to move forward.

It’s often like that.  Two different groups wanting the organization to go in seemingly opposite directions.  Sometimes it is factions within a group:  Some board (or staff) members want one thing, the others something else.

This isn’t always a bad thing.  One group can temper the other.  If one wants to jump precipitously, the more cautious group can pull things back and make sure that all things have been considered for a safe landing.  On the other hand, pushing from action or change seekers, can move a moribund organization toward a more exciting future.

Most of the time, alas, this push/pull results in stalemate. And that serves absolutely no one.

As a consultant who has a fair amount of my practice focused on facilitations, I have a vested interest in recommending that an important first step is getting the players together in a room with a third party facilitator to get you unstuck from stop. So I’ll step back in time to when I was the senior administrator faced with similar scenarios.  The only way out of this morass, I found, was—yes!—get the players together with a third party facilitator.  And in that room, find clarity.

Get all the issues out on the table, and then go through them, finding out what the issues really are.  Sometimes they are what they seem, but most of the time I’ve found that there is something else at play.

For example, oftentimes board members are reluctant or downright unwilling to introduce their contacts to the organization.  And oftentimes this is the result of fear of fundraising.  But about a year ago, I worked with a group where what was really going on was that many of the board members were uncomfortable with the way money was being handled by the organization.

The staff, on the other hand, were so worried about being micro-managed that they avoided telling the Board anything useful.  Starting at the retreat, a process was developed where staff was far more transparent about the use of funds, and board members gained greater insight into why certain financial decisions were made.  The result:  More trust on both sides—and more prospects brought to the organization’s door.

In another case, the board wanted a new project to be brought to the table.  Staff refused to consider it at all.  At the retreat, staff finally—and it was like pulling teeth—revealed that they believed the project would cause mission drift and pull the organization in directions they did not believe it should go.

This opened up a wonderful (and painful!) discussion about the organization, its mission and where it was headed in the next 3-5 years.  It was eye-opening for everyone and after a few years of angst, they are a stronger, more focused organization.

With clarity comes cohesion.  Instead of pulling against each other, you are now all headed in the same direction.  You may not be moving at the same speed, but you have created a commonality of purpose.  And, as Vince Lombardi noted, “Success demands singleness of purpose.”

Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and to build better, more involved and engaged boards.  She is the co-teacher of the online Get Grants class, and co-author of Get Ready, Get Set, Get Grants.  Learn more about Janet’s consulting and training at