Wanted: People Willing to Talk About Risk

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

“…the traditional division of authority and power is an anachronism that blights the work of public-sector employees as much as private-sector work teams and nonprofit project groups, amongst other things, encouraging the attitude that workers, like little children, should do as they’re told, not think and be seen, not heard. It needs to be eliminated.” – Mark Addleson, Beyond Management

The feedback from last week’s RISK eNews about practical caring in the workplace resonated with quite a few readers who took the time to write to me after the article landed in their inbox. That response inspired me to dive into another chapter of Mark Addleson’s provocative book, Beyond Management. This week I was drawn to Chapter 11: Taking on the work of organizing.

During 2014 I’ll be speaking at a host of conferences in the U.S. and Canada. One of the questions I’m certain to be asked is how to form and sustain a risk management committee. Chapter 11 of Beyond Management has got me thinking about an entirely new approach. Addleson makes a profound statement about organizing work in any workplace: let the people doing the work organize the work! This is a refreshing message for those of us charged with organizing a risk task force or committee. For too long, risk management teams have been initiated by a senior leader, who follows protocol by asking the CEO to officially appoint members of the task force from the management ranks of the nonprofit. Why is this approach less than ideal? Because the vantage point of managers is decidedly different from that of staff on the front lines. And the skewed or obstructed view by the upper echelon is fatal to sound risk management. When the risk team consists of only senior managers who are directed to participate by their CEO, the work is as joyful and meaningful as watching a group of talented dancers interpret your favorite music from an obstructed seat in the theater.

For a long time now I’ve been championing the formation of inter-disciplinary risk teams with representation from each level on the org chart. But now I’m envisioning an entirely different formation strategy. How about a risk team consisting of people who actually volunteer to serve? Staff and volunteers willing to listen and learn from one another in order to create real, practical responses that reflect an operational environment of continuing uncertainty?

The very real world of risk in nonprofit service delivery warrants more than the familiar, top-down approach. A risk team should be the place where ideas are discussed to fortify a nonprofit mission. Anyone who’s been in the risk biz for long knows that inspiring a commitment to risk management is more about inspiring hearts and minds than ensuring compliance with rigid rules. Addleson urges us to “Think of ideas as seeds. A group turns ideas into action by talking about them and taking them to heart.”

Chapter 11 concludes with the author’s view on stewardship. The author writes that stewardship is “leading from the inside, from action or from practice.” Stewardship is about being responsible for your actions while caring for the interests of others. I can’t think of a better way to frame the work of a risk team in a nonprofit!

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your ideas about any risk management topic, suggestions for best-in-class risk management, and questions about the Center’s resources at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504. The Center provides risk management tools and resources at www.nonprofitrisk.org and offers consulting assistance to organizations unwilling to leave their missions to chance.