Nonprofit Branding: Here Be Dragons: How Insecurity Undermines Mission

“What dragons?” you ask.

The dragon is a form of pressure. It makes some nonprofit administrators become too focused on advancing themselves and defending their turf. That’s how the dragon keeps their nonprofit from accomplishing its goals.

Over the years I’ve helped chase dragons out of several nonprofits.  To my recent surprise, I saw the dragon again. This one lives in one of my favorite organizations.

This post is personal – I am on the organization’s board of directors. And I just figured out where the damned thing came from.

Medieval maps marked regions of the world as yet unexplored with three words to describe the unknown: “Here be dragons“. That was their reality. It should be yours.  If your nonprofit loses focus it will drift off your chosen path into undefined territory….and that means it drifts towards the dragon of staff insecurity, political games and turf wars.

The end result is predictable. When examining the wreckage, you’ll conclude the dragon is a lousy pet.

The Set-Up: I am on the board of a mid-size organization. It  suffered two decades of chaotic management under a succession of uncommitted boards and inept executives. Now we’re in turnaround mode. We have a good board, on its way to becoming much better. The deceptive clods who nearly put this nonprofit out of business have been replaced by talented, committed administrators.

Yet something is still broken. Or newly broken. Destructive internal dramas keep playing out. We harbor a dragon.

This Dragon popped up in the last three board meetings. It is evident in email exchanges among directors. The beast lurks in regular conversations I have with the CEO. It appears in the behavior of second level executives.

The Issue: Despite progress, good staff and an impressive future, administrative interactions include instances of political opportunism, a pattern of instability and episodes of antagonism, low morale and territoriality.

The Question: I observe this and wonder “What’s wrong with these good people? They have been entrusted with a remarkable opportunity to serve society and build their own careers as they reform this fine, essential organization.”

The Mistake: Because their behavior is weird and the cause is hidden, I have been assuming they were somehow flawed – the Dragon may be elusive, but I was confident it resided within the administrative staff.


The Realization: We screwed up! The Board of Directors, our group of wise policymakers and advocates and providers of oversight on behalf of the public…. we are the ones who introduced the Dragon to our nonprofit!

The Pattern: Even though it took me some months to spot it within this organization, I have seen the same unsettled, and unsettling, behavior in several nonprofits. The powerful force that destabilizes many of our nonprofit brethren, this force I called the Dragon, is that we – the Directors –  have failed to build fundamental infrastructure. The fault is ours!

The Failure: A board of directors must firmly establish a platform of common understanding and institutional focus. That platform gives administrators the security to call forth their finer selves instead of sliding into dysfunctional patterns of competitive, mistrustful behavior. I speak here not merely of establishing a mission statement, but of repeating the essentials of mission in every forum at every opportunity.

The Cause: If an organization doesn’t know who it is and where it is going, strong members of the staff can become political game players. They speculate, convert speculation into alleged “inside knowledge” and, as they joust for position ……they create a swamp of insecurity that destabilizes the staff and harms the organization.

The Cure: There are two elements to preventing or curing this problem. In concert, they will keep the dragon at bay:

Element #1To keep the dragon off its premises, every nonprofit organization must have a focus, a mission, a brand, a central set of core goals and intentions around which EVERYONE is gathered in affirmation. Establishing that is a Board function.

There is no way an insecure organization can move towards the future without eroding its performance, undermining its credibility and leaving a number of bodies along its path – the bodies of professional staff unnecessarily sacrificed to unnecessary internal dysfunction.

Put simply: every person should be made aware of what the organization is trying to do, and how he or she is a part of that endeavor.

Tacky as it sounds, posting the mission statement throughout the offices is useful. So is discussing mission on occasion during staff meetings. Have one annual meeting which measures results against mission and measures mission against results – with the intent of adjusting where necessary. (There is probably no need for secret handshakes or an organizational theme song.)

Element #2A strong governance operation will keep dragons off the nonprofit turf, but only if its strength and commitment are well understood by the staff.

That kind of board deals with policy and oversight and touches the administration primarily through the president and through interaction with community networks. Put that kind of board in place. Insist that it speak truth to power, that it identify when the emperor has no clothes AND when the clothes have no emperor!

Do that and you enable an administration to deal with all the daily stuff, secure in the knowledge that it has clear policy direction, the right focus and the backing of a dedicated governance system… a governance system that will not let the administrative staff down, nor pull its punches, nor play personal favorites, nor switch gears, nor pit one group against another….. nor permit members of the administration to engage in any of these behaviors!

When I figured out the dragon in this organization, when I confronted the fact that we Directors have blown it, I also realized the basic lesson turns out to be a marketing principle.

Here it is: An insecure organization breeds the dragon of opportunism and territorial sensitivity. The organization can be made secure if its fundamental infrastructure is in place. That means its identity and its reason for existing are well crafted, frequently articulated and firmly enforced by a strong board that is focused on results, not on relationships.

In short, this is the marketing principle: a nonprofit organization must protect itself from dragons by knowing what it is and then marketing itself…to itself! To ITSELF! This essential process starts with the Board. It just doesn’t end there…..

2 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: Here Be Dragons: How Insecurity Undermines Mission

  1. I work at a place that is part of a larger organization. The larger organization has its own mission statement. However, within our small part of this larger organization we formed a committee and created our own set of goals for how we wanted to work together and how we hoped to help our clients. These were statements that still fit within the larger organization’s mission, but gave us a kind of ownership of our own special, personalized mission. It was made into a plaque and is on the wall in an area we all use (but away from clients).

  2. Pingback: Nonprofit Branding Blog

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