Organizations are Not People - A Cautionary Tale
Updated: Apr 24
I’m sharing the following lengthy and raw personal journey post in the context of helping others who want to help repair our natural world reflect more carefully on where and how to spend their energy. I promise I tie this up with hopefully helpful advice at the end!
Almost two summers ago when we were all still living through the pandemic, Leslie Inman of the popular Pollinator Friendly Yards on Facebook invited me to join her at a start-up meeting for a new Georgia Native Plant Society in the Metro Atlanta area. I told her I’d go but wasn’t going to get involved at a leadership level like I’ve done throughout my adult life. I’ve been honored to serve on over a dozen boards, including two of the largest synagogues in the country and many small non-profits including an herb society. Years ago my husband and I also started a niche special needs school designed for kids who needed intense educational support and served in a volunteer capacity as founders, funders and leaders of the school. One of our responsibilities involved building a well-rounded board with strategic community members and leaders who worked to support our mission. I am fortunate enough now to enjoy the slow pace of my Golden Girls stage of life where I can pick and choose how I want to spend my time. For my own self-care, I also have a mantra to keep my cortisol and stress levels low and not unnecessarily get involved in other people’s mishegoss (craziness!).
Yet, the more chapter formation meetings I went to the more involved I became, and I continued to help the organization get off the ground. I decided to join the inaugural working board when I saw they could benefit from a seasoned gardener who transitioned to native plants and has a lifetime of entrepreneurial initiatives and board work experience. I’m not young and didn’t need to pad a resume - my only motive was to help advance the mission and help spread the word about the habitat value of native plants. One of my first tasks was helping screen and interview the initial board member candidates.
Since then, I have charged forward and actively worked collaboratively with the leadership in making tough and sometimes hotly debated strategic decisions around building a strong, scalable organization for the future. I know from experience that unlike working for larger organizations, the pressure that you feel to make things happen in a start-up is pressing. Going from zero to one is the hardest part for any organization – from there it’s a much easier task to build on what others have done. I don’t regret the work I did because it wouldn’t have happened without someone with my particular quirks who volunteered 20-30 hours a week behind the scenes to move things along in countless and not so obvious ways including thousands of e-mails and phone calls.
The board is a working board meaning the board members are expected to be active and engaged as both the board of directors and the staff to help implement the daily activities of the organization. To me the most obvious way a board member should be expected to participate in the organization’s activities at a leadership level is by being a committee chair, so I raised my hand to be a chair on the Programming and Education committee which is one of the keystone operational committees. It has been the most cohesive and active committee for a few reasons - we had two chairs for its, and I’m an optimistic, reasonable risk-taking worker bee, and tend to over-function when I get going. An active volunteer on my committee explained to me that she went to other committee meetings and the programming was the one where things seemed to get done. As Programming co-chair the events I was instrumental in working to help make happen by engaging and supporting planning committee members and event volunteers included -
Helping to promote, secure the location, and find a speaker for the inaugural chapter meeting attended by 100 people.
Organizing the planning and promotion of the wildly successful Native Plant Habitat Tour at six sites with over 300 attendees
Supporting my co-chair who organized a speaker panel called Adding Native Plants to Your Intown Landscape
Organizing five leaders and sites throughout Atlanta for Pollinator Picnics
Organizing the planning of a Native Plant Share & Swap with 85 participants and over 600 plants shared
Organizing a popular speaker presentation called Your Yard IS Nature’s Best Hope, 10 Ways to Bring Nature Home with over 100 folks registered.
Organizing and presenting speaker presentation on Winter Sowing Native Plants with 85 folks registered.
Supporting my co-chair who organized a speaker presentation on How to Remove Invasives
I went the extra mile to make every event special because I believe an organizational generosity of spirit is contagious and helps connect people. At one of our events, an attendee told me she loved coming to our events because they were first rate, friendly, and not randomly thrown together like so many events of a similar nature seemed to be. My over-the-top touches included
Making over a hundred newspaper pots with native blue-eyed grass to give away at the Native Plant Habitat Tour
Potting up and donating dozens of native plant raffle items for events and along with another friend, making and donating multiple winter sowing kits.
Potting up an embarrassing number of plants (~80!) to ensure success for the first native plant swap.
Throughout my time volunteering I never thought twice about buying and donating materials for events.
Advocating to have refreshments and/or receptions at our events if possible. It surprised me to have to explain my idea that these are basic ways to help people connect to each other. I also have a professional cooking background and love any excuse to share food now that my family is grown. I made hand baked and decorated cookies with help from my daughter, the artist and baker. In addition to baking, I bought and donated refreshments for events and when hosting committee meetings.
I’ve also spent countless hours strategically elevating the mission of the organization in the community in a number of ways.
By coordinating content, photos and graphics with the chapter leaders who were spreading the word directly to members
By being instrumental in keeping an active organizational social media presence on Instagram and Facebook
By cross-posting with aligned organizations
By writing targeted blog posts to help cross-promote events I was organizing.
By taking photos and writing promotional content for events
By making sharable graphics and collages for events
By documenting our activities and writing follow-up blog posts about our events – some were even published locally to reach an even wider community audience.
I’ve reached out generally and personally to encourage and engage an increasing number of member volunteers at all levels in implementing our activities including leadership roles, planning, and volunteering on the day of our activities. I spent hours organizing a strategically designed Programming and Education planning meeting for 2023 that I hosted at my home. My co-chair and committee members who attended helped us more than double the number of programming activities and initiatives planned this year over our first year. We now have over a dozen volunteers who have stepped up to be leaders for these events, with Programming Committee co-chairs as the point and support people (except a new program around neighborhood native plant support group pods that I fleshed out with the potential leader and the board leadership inexplicably decided to manage from a board level)
I've helped others facilitate partnerships with multiple aligned community members and organizations including Leslie Inman of Pollinator Friendly Yards, Vickie Mann of Quiet Georgia, GSU Perimeter College, The Atlanta History Center, the Wylde Center, the Great Southeast Pollinator Census, the Druid Hills Civic Association, and Emory University student groups.
My involvement also contributed to most of the donations received that were not membership connected. The state organization gives 25% of the membership fee to the chapter a member affiliates with and most chapters raise the rest of their operating money by hosting plant sales. The board adopted my idea not to raise money by selling native plants so we can support a growing number of local native plant nurseries. This leaves organizational energy to strategically reach out to a wider community and make more connections with high quality programming, and to ask for donations in a more consistent and diverse way in connection with our activities. The strategy seems to have worked. Combined, we received or will receive $5310.78 in donations through the various events and community relationships I actively spearheaded. This outcome was ignored and even chastised.
It's uncomfortable for me to list out the immense work I’ve done. My goal is not to brag or pat myself of the back, but to give context to the situation at hand and why I unfortunately am regretfully resigning from my leadership position in the Intown Atlanta GNPS. The ongoing chaos and lack of experienced leadership at the board level is making it impossible for me to effectively continue to facilitate quality programming initiatives, reach out to the community as a representative of the organization, engage and motivate volunteers, empower strong leaders, and continue to cheerfully volunteer to nurture this organization in addition to the hundreds of other things I've done. This is a hard and painful decision because I believe so much in the mission and potential this organization could have. Sadly, despite being supportive and respectful of those I work with there is a persistent lack of reciprocal respect and an oddly competitive mean girl leadership vibe complete with secret meetings and e-mails, snarky and passive-aggressive comments, and most bizarrely, alleged accusations of unfamiliar grievances from unnamed people about me. I'm a direct person and don’t have enough time left on this earth to spend a minute playing games of this sort.
As a board member I was available, responsive, always on time, never missed a meeting, was often the first to jump in and offer to help, and was instrumental in keeping board process and the mission of the organization at the forefront. This was particularly difficult with such green leadership and the resulting confusion, tension, and power jostling around undefined and overlapping roles, responsibilities, and basic lack of knowledge or consistency about how the board and committee process works. Board meetings were not cohesive, efficient, or productive and devolved into negative, top-down micromanaging and discussions about trivial matters. The focus increasingly seemed to be on building a multi-layered bureaucracy. Agendas were distributed last minute and few items on long and official lists were addressed. or resolved. Often, scheduled board meetings were cancelled. Committee reporting became a minefield of negativity. There was a demotivating and ongoing misunderstanding about the role of board members as committee members and what decisions are defined as “board decisions” - which were randomly invoked to shut down progress. Because my committee is central to the activities of the organization, hours of valuable board meeting time was spent directed at questioning me in my role as programming co-chair about my motives and judgment around minor decisions. I mean really small, as in moving the date of an event or the semantics of a word! In all my years doing board work, I've never experienced this kind of dysfunctional group dynamic. The frustration from the negativity and bullying had me wiping away tears after more than one board meeting.
The drift towards pessimism and lack of a clear, mission driven positive direction made the pace of board level decisions eyelash pulling. I’m not kidding.
When another board member quit, our already small, barely functioning board didn't add a new member for almost a half year because of internal conflict around straw man options.
A logo contest was held a year ago and through a comical ongoing turn of events there's still no logo in sight. No logo, no merch to advertise our organization or raise more money. My daughter has a graphic design business and explained that for her clients she could turn around a logo within days and even format it on items to sell.
The most frustrating part of this directionless and random approach is lack of organizational development. After more than a year important committees including advocacy, restoration, and communication either haven't been formed or don't have co-chairs, and new board members will not be tasked with having a co-chair role on committees. It's hard to see a focus on the mission.
Somewhere along the way the leadership of this organization seems to have forgotten this is a 100% volunteer start-up working board and the energy needs to be focused on implementing our own initiatives and supporting each other to grow the organization, There is no staff to oversee. Board members are the staff responsible for implementing our own decisions. I should have followed the lead of some smart and talented GNPS volunteers who wisely stayed away from being in the thick of this mess. Most boards I've been on, particularly small ones with no staff, are more casual, friendly, optimistic, and supportive. This one is wooden, tense, pessimistic, and transactional.
My husband, who has been doing management consulting and building businesses for over 30-years told me a lesson he tells successful executives he coaches who are questioning their role in a changing company. His advice is that unless it’s your own business to remember no matter how much you believe in the mission to never love a company you work for because it will never love you back in the same way and you’ll always eventually be disappointed in the end. It may happen sooner, it may happen later, but it will happen because you’re dealing with an organization, not a person. The best approach is to keep perspective. The organization is not your friend or family and the people in it, even if you are friendly with them, have their own motives and agendas that invariably don’t align with yours.
If I replace the word company with organization and work with volunteer this is how I feel about the Intown Atlanta GNPS. I love the mission of promoting native plants - they are no longer a niche, gardening club hobby but play a key role in helping repair our fragile natural world. I confused my passion for the mission with the opportunity to help spread the word about native plants by spending my time and energy helping build out an organization. I didn't consider whether the organization had the same ability, willingness and urgency I do around that mission.
I’m still in love with the idea of spreading the word about the habitat value of native plants in the context of welcoming nature and creating a healthier landscape where we live. I was happily doing this before I ever went to that planning meeting in summer of 2021. I’ve been doing this in a small and deeply gratifying way every day through writing and by caring for my small, rewilded yard.
I also need to remind myself that when I meet fellow native plant people, there is a lightness. We are immediately what my family refers to as my “plant friends” who fall easily into talking about plants and nature. Oddly, on reflection I realize we rarely talked about native plants or nature on the board. I need to take my husband’s expert advice and continue to seek out and connect to native plant friends who bring joy, and be more careful about confusing organizations with people .
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