OAARSN Book Review

Pressure Points and Possibilities: 
25 issues facing human service organizations
and what to do about them
By Tom Little and Nancy Moulsdale. 
Published by 1466523 Ontario Limited: Ajax, ON, 2002. 
Review by David DeVidi

This book is intended as a guide for people running non-profit human service organizations.  The authors, who are the principals of cmcs, a consulting firm that specializes in advising such organizations, advertise this self-published booklet as “filled with concrete tips on what non-profit organizations can do to improve services, create a productive working environment and get the most out of their volunteer boards.”  The bulk of the book is organized around 25 areas the authors have found to present obstacles to the successful management of non-profits in their years as consultants, along with tips intended to help organizations steer clear of the obstacles.

The authors are obviously after a niche market here—sadly, the people with a keen interest in management issues related to non-profit human service organizations don’t make up a huge chunk of the reading public.  But the target market for much of the book is probably even smaller than advertised.  The intended audience seems to be board members and upper management of organizations which are large enough for this distinction to mean something—several of the issues considered as problems confronting boards of directors have to do with appropriate relationships with executive directors and other high executives.  A striking piece of advice is this: “When hiring a new Executive Director, a Board’s first priority should be to fund a changeover of other Management personnel.”  Other management personnel?  People involved on boards for many non-profits will no doubt become wistful at the very thought of an executive director, let alone other management personnel.  So it’s the larger outfits that the authors have in mind—roughly speaking, those large enough to possibly have budgets for hiring consultants, I suppose.

This by no means makes the book useless for people involved in smaller organizations, though.  Reading it is sure to provide useful advice and good ideas to anybody playing a leadership role in a non-profit organization.  That’s a pretty good payoff for reading this book, since reading it won’t take long. It checks in at 95 pages, but there’s lots of white space in those pages.  The style is mostly straightforward and mercifully free of jargon—which is an achievement in itself, as the authors faced the twin temptations of the obscurity of human-services-speak and the pretend sophistication of management “science”. 

On the other hand, what makes the book easy to read is also one of its frustrations.  It won’t take long to get past the stuff that isn’t important to the organization you care about, and the stuff you do care about is likely to prove stimulating.  However, the stuff you care about is also very brief, and you may find yourself wanting a lot more detail in those parts.  To take one example where this happened to me, the authors advise that organizations should “make recruitment of independent Board members a key function of the Board.”  Good advice, of course. But if you’re part of a board that’s keen on getting new blood, what you want is some strategies for carrying it out, which you don’t get.  You do get the feeling that a lot of the point form text might have begun life on slides for presentations the authors give when hired as consultants.

In summary, if you are part of a non-profit human services organization of any size, you should consider getting a copy of this book and having several members of the board and upper management flip through it.  It at least can serve as a starting point for useful discussion about things you’ll want to think about—whether it’s the relationship between the board and management in a larger organization or, in any organization large enough to employ staff, how to better ensure staff satisfaction with working conditions in the notoriously low-paid human services field.

That said, I’d like to conclude with a couple of complaints.  (These should be taken with a grain of salt, as I’ve always got something to complain about.  I’ll have complaints about this review when I reread it tomorrow.)

First, in a discussion of the “problem” of board members with a self-interest in the services of an organization, the authors uncork the following claim: “A board made up solely or primarily from this constituency is one that is likely to have difficulty leading the organization to the forefront in service delivery.”  Now, as I understand it, a common complaint against larger human service organizations is that they tend to set up services then expect people to conform themselves to what’s available, instead of making the services conform to what people actually want or need.  People sometimes get onto boards, or form their own organizations, precisely to allow the dog to wag the tail for a change.  But it looks rather like the authors might incline to the view that the mysterious forefront of service delivery requires that the tail be in charge.  A worry one should always have when somebody tries to apply management techniques developed in one field in another is whether they’re appropriate in the new field.  There are other places in the book where I get the feeling that it’s management theory rather than on-the-ground experience that’s driving what the authors say. This is why I think you’d be wise to take the advice in this book as a starting point for discussion, and not as gospel.

Secondly, the authors must recommend a dozen times that non-profit organizations consider hiring consultants to, for instance, help them with year-to-year planning or to evaluate their organization.  Curiously, these seem to be precisely the sort of consulting jobs cmcs specializes in.  This lends an otherwise laudable book the flavour of an advertisement.  Too bad.

For more information about cmcs and its publications, visit its website at
http://www.cmcs.on.ca/

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