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Are Your Board and Staff Members "Authentic" about Their Passion for Your Mission? Check here . . .

Updated: Apr 25

globe with hands team culture Tom Iselin

Are Your Board and Staff Members "Authentic" about Their Passion for Your Mission? Check here . . .

What follows is a chapter on authentic passion from Tom's bestselling book, First Things First -- A Leadership Guide to Building a Gold Standard Nonprofit.

Board members say they’re passionate about fundraising. Volun­teers say they’re passionate about giving back. Local businesses say they’re passionate about providing services. Staff say they’re passionate about making a difference. It seems everyone is passionate about his or her pet nonprofit.

Well, that’s the outside of the onion. Peel back a layer or two and you’ll often find a veneer of passion that’s big on talk and little on action—lip service passion. The truth is many board members loathe fundraising, volunteers make commitments they don’t keep, business partners fail to make good on promises, and staff often feel a sense of entitlement.

As nonprofits age, passion tends to become more and more complacent and flaccid. What was once the compelling force propelling the work of a nonprofit becomes little more than a buzzword to excite donors, a hollow claim to motivate staff, and a worn-out tagline in annual reports. “We’re passionate about helping kids!” Passion that once tasted like bubbly champagne now tastes like flat soda.

How does a nonprofit keep the fizz in its passion? It maintains a culture of authentic passion. Defined, authentic passion is how deeply a nonprofit believes its mission (ideology) and how genuinely and actively its mis­sion permeates everything said and done, every minute of the day, by everybody connected with the nonprofit, in the relentless pursuit to ful­fill and sustain its mission.

Authentic passion is the cultural spirit of a nonprofit. It’s emotional, mo­tivational, and contagious, and it suspends the con­vic­tion of those con­nected with a nonprofit. What distinguishes authentic passion from lip service passion is that it’s constant, pervasive and visible—in everything. Lip service passion is talk. Authentic passion is genuine belief manifested in meaningful action.

In short, an authentically passionate culture is a “get it done!” culture.

Why is authentic passion important?

Nonprofits exist to bring about a change in individuals, society, and the environment. People who support nonprofits are agents of this change. Their passion, if authentic, stems from a set of core beliefs and values that drive them to actively and continually use their time, money, exper­tise, and influence to “get it done!” to make change.

The passion of all the people connected to a nonprofit make up a non­profit’s collective passion. The more authentic the collective passion of a nonprofit, the greater the likelihood it will flourish and triumphantly “get it done!” to fulfill its mission.

Without authentic passion taking root on an individual and collective level, a nonprofit will soon begin to wilt. Work becomes “work.” Staff quit. Volunteers leave. Board members hide. Program quality deterio­rates. Funding dwindles. Eventually, the mission erodes and the non­profit begins to travel along a downward spiral of poor service and apathy from which it may never recover.

Authentic passion is a First Things First principle because the success and sustainability of everything a nonprofit does ultimately depends on it. Oh, you can get by for a year or two with one or two people carrying the authentic passion torch, but if authentic passion is not a holistic driving purpose shared by all, those carrying the torch will soon tire and the zeal and purpose behind their passion—and the passion of the nonprofit—will extinguish like a candle that’s burned through its wick.

Case Study: Sun Valley Adaptive Sports

Throughout this book, I share stories, experiences, and observations from the five years I served as chief executive at Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (SVAS) in the small resort town of Sun Valley, Idaho.

I was hired specifically to rescue SVAS, and when I took the position in 2005, it was in crisis mode. The director, who also founded SVAS, had abruptly quit, leaving the organization in turmoil.

At the time, the stated purpose of SVAS was to enrich the lives of people with disabilities through sports and recreation. Although its purpose was noble, the organization was a dysfunctional mess, so there was not much “enriching” taking place.

At my first board meeting, I told the board it would take three to five years to rebuild the organization. I promised to build a gold stand­ard nonprofit of national prominence with innovative programming, effi­cient and effective operations, and a fun and productive work envi­ron­ment that would rival the most noted nonprofits in our industry.

In less than four years, we produced stunning results. Programming grew tenfold. The number of donors grew from 50 to 800. The number of volunteers grew from 10 to 325. Staff grew from 3 to 20 and we had one of the best benefits packages in the commu­nity. Our brand attained na­tional recognition and our budget grew from $150,000 to $2.5 million.

SVAS is an epic turnaround story. I hope you’ll learn valuable lessons from my experiences there as you start or build your own gold standard nonprofit. I also hope you learn to avoid making the same expensive and time-consuming blunders the founding administration and board of directors made when they started SVAS.

Now, let’s continue with the topic of authentic passion. During my first week of work at SVAS, I ran across six different mission statements and no one knew which version was the right one. There was no strategic plan, no fundraising plan, no operating procedures, no policies, no job de­scriptions, and no budget.

Oh, but there was passion. Most board members were quick to tell how passionate they were to help people with disabilities. “We’re passionate about starting a Special Olympics program.” “We’re passionate about helping veterans who have been severely wounded in Iraq.” “We’re pas­sionate about generating sustainable funding.”

It seemed like board members were passionate about this and that, but personally had done little to nothing in six years to make it happen. Why? Because their pas­sion was mainly lip service pas­sion. Sure, they may have been verbally committed to the mission, but they were not willing to take action to fulfill it. And there is a huge difference between those who talk about a mission and those willing to do something to fulfill it!

SVAS was a ship stuck at sea; it had a broken rudder, no map, and its sails were luffing. Its board and staff talked about the destination it wanted to reach, but very few were willing to trim sails, swab decks, and navigate a practical course to take them there. SVAS seemed content to toss about in stormy swells, drifting aimlessly.

What SVAS needed was a plan and a set of tools, like the ones below and throughout this book, to get the passion out of their hearts and into their hands so they could transform lip service passion into authentic passion. They needed to stop talking and start doing.

Tactics and Tips

Authentic passion requires commitment and motivation

Does this sound like a script describing your nonprofit? Are you drift­ing? Are board members talking about the changes they would like to take place, but unwilling to do the work to make it happen? Do staff say they are going to get organized, but less important tasks seem to take priority? Do volunteers pledge to show up on time, but fail to show up altogether? Is lip service passion the mode of passion at your nonprofit?

If it is, you need to transform your culture into one where authentic pas­sion is front and center in the hearts, minds, and hands of all those connected with your nonprofit. If you’re a startup, you have an oppor­tunity to establish a culture of authentic passion from the day you open for business and cultivate it so it doesn’t become off-centered.

One of the core attributes of authentic passion is that it’s an action. Action means doing, and doing requires commitment and motivation. What good is a noble mission if no one is committed and motivated to fulfilling it? What does it say about a nonprofit if the people behind it say they believe in the mission and then make excuses when it comes time to raise money, complete a job task, or attend a training session?

A noble mission with uncommitted, unmotivated people trying to fulfill it is like telling the world you’re Santa Claus and promising to deliver gifts of joy to the Tiny Tims of the world, but then delivering stockings full of coal. Nonprofits operating in this manner dupe supporters, short-change clients, and rob society of social wealth. Eventually, word will spread and apathetic nonprofits like this will lose favor and fade way.

Commit to commitment

The first thing you can do to establish a culture of authentic passion is to commit to making a commitment to fulfill your mission. This means you need to commit to commitment.

Every person connected with your nonprofit must know and understand that the number one priority of your nonprofit is commitment. It’s not the mission; it’s commitment to fulfill the mission. Read that sentence again! Make the commitment to fulfill your mission your number one objective and primary motivation. Embroider this on your culture. Do this before writing the first line of your strategic plan, before asking an­other person to join your board, and before talking to another donor.

If you’re an older nonprofit, you’ll need to change the mind­set of those connected with your organization. Start by holding a se­ries of meetings and discussions with board members, staff, and volun­teers to educate them about authentic passion and get them to adopt and apply this fundamental priority: commitment to fulfill the mission, first!

This shift may require an overhaul of staff and board culture and some of the philosophies and policies governing your nonprofit. Making large-scale change is difficult, so expect resistance. Be sensitive to people’s feelings and opinions as you make a compelling case why it’s important for eve­ryone to make a commitment to fulfilling the mission his or her primary commitment. Emphasize that the success of everything the non­profit does hinges on this commitment. First things first!

Authentic passion requires a clear sense of purpose

Your board, staff, volunteers, and donors may be committed and moti­vated, but if they are committed and motivated to separate purposes, your nonprofit will have no unifying purpose to propel everyone’s work.

Another important attribute of authentic passion is having a clear sense of purpose. Successful nonprofits know where they want to go, what they want to do, why they want to do it, and how they’re going to achieve it. They have a clear sense of purpose (intent) and it provides a backdrop for every important deci­sion and action.

The three documents you’ll want to develop to define a clear sense of purpose are a mission statement, vision statement, and statement of purpose. Embedded in these statements are the guiding principles and core values that create the unifying purpose to chan­nel and propel the commitment (individual and collective) and motiva­tion (passion) of your nonprofit.

In their own right, each statement is a declaration people can read to determine if their beliefs, interests, and motives match that of your non­profit. They also create standards by which your nonprofit can measure its efficiency and effectiveness.

Once these core statements are in place, you should have a clear under­standing of why you’re in business, who you plan to serve, how you plan to conduct business, why you care about the work you’re doing, and why people should support you.

Ah, but don’t frame these statements and hang them on the wall just yet. You’ll want to use the content and intention of these statements to write your articles of incorporation, bylaws, business plans, corporate policies, marketing materials, grant applica­tions, job responsibilities, and various types of “case for support” documents.

Everything your nonprofit says and does should be connected to the intent and meaning of these statements, including how you manage staff, inspire volunteers, develop programs, and measure success. For exam­ple: “Do the outcomes of our programs align with the purpose of our mission?” “Are the fundraising tactics used in our major donor fund­raising program aligned with the principles outlined in our case state­ment?” “Do volunteers know the core values driving our vision?”

There are dozens of books and online resources to help you develop a mission statement, vision statement, statement of purpose, and a case for support. I suggest you search out and read a handful of quality examples before you begin drafting these statements.

My objective is to show you the importance of these statements and to en­courage you to make them foun­dational to all you do and say in your efforts to build a gold standard nonprofit.

Nonetheless, I know some of you are new to the nonprofit world, so I’ve provided a simple definition of a mission statement, vision state­ment, and a statement of purpose. This way, you’ll have a basic under­standing of what goes into these statements.

Mission statement

A mission statement should state what your nonprofit stands for, why it exists, and who it serves in a manner that inspires courage, commit­ment, and innova­tion. It should be results oriented, not activ­ity oriented. It should be meaningful, measurable, and explain your intentions and priorities. Keep it to five sen­tences or less; three or less is better yet.

Vision statement

A vision statement should be a picture of your preferred future. It should be a glimmering, distant light that inspires your team to travel toward it. Design the content to be clear, uplifting, hopeful, and memorable. A vision should be aspiring and a big challenge to achieve, but it should also be obtainable and aligned with your val­ues, culture, and strategic objectives. Keep it to a sentence or two.

Statement of purpose (basic “case for support” document)

This is a broad document often broken up into five or six sec­tions. The first section should briefly list your core values and beliefs. The next few sections should highlight what your nonprofit does in terms of programming and services and the stated purpose for do­ing what it does, why it does it, how it does it, and why it’s worthy of support. The final sections, if you choose to add them, should pro­vide a brief history of your nonprofit, its legal structure, future plans, and funds you hope to raise. Keep it to three pages or less.

No matter what the age of your nonprofit, make it a pri­ority to define a clear sense of purpose by writing or revising your mis­sion statement, vision statement, and statement of purpose. Each should be precise, con­cise, and shared with everyone. More importantly, every staff, board member, and volun­teer should be expected to know the content of each, if only in their own words.

Think about it. How can you expect people to be authentically passion­ate about your vision, and be authentically committed to fulfilling your mission, if they don’t under­stand, believe, and value them? How can people effectively raise funds if they can’t make a good case for support? How can you plan for the future, if you don’t know where you’re going? It’s critical to lay a solid foundation before you begin to build.

Authentic passion centers on work and service

Okay, you’ve updated your mission, vision, and purpose statements. Good! Everyone says they understand the big picture and your intent, and everyone claims they’re committed to commitment. Now what?

Well, it’s all still lip service until commitment and motivation become manifested in work and service. The next step to developing authentic passion is to transform the idea of work and service into a culture of work and service. This may seem obvi­ous, but we’ve all seen our share of disengaged board members, lazy staff, and irresponsible volunteers.

Define and assign the work

If you expect people to “work” (to “get it done!”) at your nonprofit, and you should, they need to know what to do, why they should do it, and how to do it. This sounds elementary, but you would be surprised how many nonprofits fail to have a single defined job description or list of roles and responsi­bilities for its staff, board members, and volunteers. The result is apathy, confusion, and poor performance.

If you’re serious about authentic passion, you need to determine what work needs to be done and then identify who is available to do the work or provide the service based on everyone’s time, skills, expertise, and availability.

Below is a simplified matching matrix for a handful of general work and service categories. Build one for your nonprofit and replace the general categories with more detailed ones. This means you should replace “staff” with the names of each of your staff. For “programming,” out­line spe­cific details about the type of work and service required to achieve your objectives and outcomes.

Needs People Resources

Operations Staff Skills/Expertise

Programming Board Time

Services Volunteers Influence

Planning Contributors Wealth

Fundraising Partners Services

This is a simple and useful exercise to get nonprofits thinking about how to accomplish the work they must do. It’s the responsibility of the chief executive and managers to build a work and service matrix for each functional area of your nonprofit including operations, pro­gramming, fundraising, and volunteering. If your nonprofit is new, the founding board members can build the matrix.

After building the initial matrix, the chief executive and managers may want to expand the matrix to add “how” people should do their work, “why” their work is important, and “when” their work is due.

For board related needs, the chief executive and board chair (or board committee) can build a “work and service” matrix for board members, targeting board related responsibilities and tasks. Again, if you’re a new nonprofit, the founding board members can perform this task.

This all seems rudimentary—almost obvious, doesn’t it? But if it’s so easy and fundamental, why do so many nonprofits have such noncha­lant work and service cultures? Why do so many nonprofits have so many disengaged board members, aimless staff, and fruitless volunteers? It’s because most nonprofits operate un­der a veneer of lip service pas­sion, not authentic passion.

I suspect your hope for each person connected with your nonprofit is to feel that his or her commitment is making a difference to help your non­profit fulfill its mission and purpose.

Transforming this hope into reality will require your management and board to see to it that these commitments—through work and service—are de­fined and that people are held accountable and praised for fulfilling their commitments. When commitment mani­fests itself in action, when peo­ple roll up their sleeves and work, authentic passion flourishes.

Authentic passion needs reminding

How many board members can explain your vision and purpose? How many staff and volunteers can recite your mis­sion and core values? The truth is, people forget. Most of us have trouble remembering anni­versaries and dentist appointments, let alone material from work.

If you want authentic passion to remain front and center in the minds of your staff, board, and volunteers, you need to remind them. There is no need to make a big production out of the process; simply set aside time on a regular basis to talk about your mission, vision, and statement of purpose.

For example, once a month ask one of your staff to recite your mission at a morning staff meeting. Write one of your core values at the top of the agenda you use for board meetings, and encourage your volunteer coordi­nator to share your vision at a training session.

What’s most important is making an effort to remind people of your mission, vision, purpose, and culture on a regular basis, and that commit­ment to doing quality work is a primary objective and a core value of your nonprofit. Otherwise, the authentic passion you worked so hard to build will get dusty and stale.

You’ll know authentic passion is alive and well when you hear board members say things such as, “Will this new program align with our vi­sion?” Your board chair says, “What additional responsibilities can I take on to help with fundraising?” Or, your program director challenges a proposed staff change by asking, “Will another coordinator really help fulfill our mission more effec­tively?” When you start hearing statements like this, smile; you’re on the authentic passion track.

Authentic passion is contagious

It will take a little training and a lot of reminding, but as authentic pas­sion takes hold in the hearts and minds of staff, board members, and volunteers, their passion becomes contagious. They will want to share the deep sense of passion and commitment that validates their belief in your mission and the reasons they are involved. As they do, it will inspire others to get involved. Soon their authentic passion will blossom and they’ll want to share their experiences, which will inspire even more people to get involved—and so the authentic passion cycle goes.

You can stoke the flame of authentic passion in your community by pub­licly sharing accomplishments, testimonials, and personal success stories about people connected with your nonprofit. Add these things to your col­lateral material, website, blog, and social media sites. You can also share them at staff and board meetings, volunteer appreciation parties, or during television and radio interviews. Give people connected with your nonprofit channels to spread their authentic passion.


Some of the original SVAS board members had tremendous excitement for the mission. The problem was they made lots of noise about the mission they claimed to care so much about, but did little to fulfill it. Like a faucet, it seemed they would turn on their passion only when it was time to talk with donors, secure a partnership, or bring on new board members. But it was all talk. It was lip service passion.

It took two years and a tremendous amount of resources to replace the SVAS board and transform a culture of lip service passion into one of authen­tic passion.

Can you imagine how much time, energy, and money SVAS would have had available for programming, fundraising, and operations had it not had to redirect these resources to transform its passion?

Luckily for SVAS, things changed and we survived. Most nonprofits ex­hibiting signs of widespread lip service passion do not change; they flail and flounder to the point where funding dries up, people leave, and the mission wilts like a flower that’s been starved of water.

If you want to be a gold standard non­profit, authentic passion must be one of your structural and philosophical cornerstones, and it must be the first stone, and the most stable stone, you put in place. As I said, the suc­cess and sustaina­bility of everything a nonprofit does ulti­mately de­pends on it.

If you’re a startup nonprofit, it’s easier to establish a culture of authentic passion early on. You can include it in your bylaws, outline it in your statement of purpose, and hire staff and nominate board members with track records of authentic passion.

If you’re an established nonprofit, you have your work cut out for you. You’ll need to change your core documents, inspire staff and board members to change their ways (a huge challenge), and change the style in which you manage people and run operations. It will be like remod­eling a home while you’re living in it—expect the process to be messy and incon­venient, cost more than you budgeted, and take twice as long as planned.

The good news? Once you’ve remodeled your nonprofit and authentic passion becomes its driving purpose, profound things happen. Money flows in from unexpected sources. Volunteers offer limitless gifts and talents. Businesses shower you with donated services, and reporters call to write feature stories.

Most importantly, there becomes a steadfast commitment and a Ferris wheel of excitement by everyone connected with your nonprofit to “get it done!” and work with a pressing sense of pride and excellence to fulfill the mission and to share their experiences with infectious enthusi­asm to all they know. Lip service passion becomes full-service, authentic passion and everyone walks the walk with honor, humility, and gratitude. It’s nonprofit bliss.

Are Your Board and Staff Members "Authentic" about Their Passion for Your Mission? Check here . . .

What you just read was a chapter on authentic passion from Tom's bestselling book, First Things First -- A Leadership Guide to Building a Gold Standard Nonprofit.

Tom Iselin

“Rated one of America’s 10 Best Retreat Facilitators”

Tom Iselin has built four sector-leading nonprofits and four foundations. He’s written six books, sits on six boards, and hosts a video blog and podcast. Each year, Tom speaks to more than 5,000 nonprofit leaders at conferences across the country. He is considered a leading authority on high-performance nonprofits, and his impact on the industry has been featured on CNN, Nightline, and in Newsweek. Tom is the president of First Things First, a business specializing in board retreats, strategic planning, fundraising, and executive coaching. To relax, he loves mountain biking, hiking, skiing, tennis, and baking.

If you’re in the hunt for one of the best board retreat/board development facilitators, or one of the best strategic planning facilitators, it would be a privilege to learn more about your organization and the aspirations you hope to achieve as you work to propel your noble mission. Jot me an email to set up a meet-and-greet call.

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