Trust Means More than Buy-In

By Kirk Roberts, Co-Owner of Free Range Nonprofit Solutions


Our nonprofit management company began working with a newly-formed nonprofit a couple of years ago. I had known four of the five Board members for a few years, but I did not know the organization's President. More importantly, he did not know me.

Because this was a state-wide organization, the Board met periodically by phone and then had one of the Board members serve as a liaison with me for day-to-day matters. Not an ideal situation, but these are busy professionals.

As we planned for the coming year, my proposals seemed to be met with resistance. A management contract, an event schedule, a fundraising plan … everything seemed to be an uphill battle. Doubts were raised inside and outside the meetings, and uncertainty was consuming the Board. In conversations with my liaison, I learned that the main source of the doubt was from the President.

To succeed, of course, I needed to resolve this problem of doubt. What I concluded was that the problem was not that the President didn't “buy-in” to our plans. It wasn’t the management plan, nor the event schedule, nor the fundraising plan which were the source of uncertainty. The problem was that the President didn’t trust me. How could he? He didn’t know me.

I proceeded to spend the next few weeks on a trust-building expedition. I arranged weekly calls with the President. We talked about his daughter’s wedding, my bad back, and our elusive golf skills. We talked about the work of the organization as well, but my primary focus was on the trust that is built through knowing another individual.

After two months, the President became my most vocal ally in moving forward.

Too often in the nonprofit world we get lost in strategy and matrices and spreadsheets. We are people—whether volunteer or paid—and trust is established between people, not between plans.

One of my former clients was an association for mental health therapists. These are professionals who work independently and spend their days listening to the problems of their clients.

For a full-day retreat, I hired a renowned nonprofit guru to come and work with us on a strategic plan. This guru came for the beginning of the retreat, and she saw the Board spend 90 minutes on an ice-breaker in which Board members talked about their professional heroes. No kidding, 90 minutes. After completing her strategic planning session, the guru came up to me and said, “I’ve never seen a group spend that amount of time on an ice-breaker … but for these folks, it was worth it.”

This was a group that hungered for peer connection, for finding that personal/professional bond that empowered them not only as individuals, but as a collective group. Sharing their heroes build that trust in a way no amount of time spent building program “buy-in” could.

I can hear you thinking, “I would never spend 90 minutes on an ice-breaker.” Consider it this way: nonprofits create a challenging “workplace.” Nonprofit Executive Directors and Board members typically do not work in adjoining cubicles … or in the same building … or perhaps even in the same city. We meet for perhaps an hour a month, and that hour is usually packed with two hours of content to cover.

Taking the time for conversation can be essential to building trust that will make the business of running the nonprofit that much smoother.

Think of the people in your life who you trust. Why do you trust them? Because they have convinced you to trust them, or because the trust has been built by mutual vulnerability and sharing? And if that person you trust has an idea, or advice for you, do you give it greater weight than someone you have not built trust with? Of course.

Do you trust your Board members? Do they trust you? Can you afford to take the time to strengthen those bonds? Can you afford not to?