A friend recently returned from Sweden and shared pictures from her visit to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It’s a wonderful museum that features a recovered 17th-century warship, along with collections and insights into life in the 1600s.  It made me think back to my visit there years ago, and the story of why that ship sank. I always thought the Vasa presented invaluable lessons that apply to organizational management today.*

You see, in the 1620s, the king of Sweden commissioned the ship to be the pride of his fleet as the most armed cannon ship in the world, decorated with elaborate carvings, serving as a symbol of wealth and power.  During construction, the king was so pleased, he insisted on adding a second gun deck to provide even more cannon power. Dutifully, a second deck was added, even though that was not the original plan.   On the maiden voyage on a calm day in August 1628, about a mile from shore, a gust of wind hit the sails, and the now very top-heavy ship foundered and sank in the Stockholm harbor, where it laid until being raised in the late 20th century, ultimately ending up in the spectacular museum site.

While I was not there in the 17th century, the issues that led to this disaster exist in nonprofit organizations today. And while they may not fully sink the ship, they certainly lead to poor results.

Leaders change plans mid-stream

Detailed strategies, plans and tactics are the foundation of effective development programs, serving as fundamental road maps to achieving any kind of goal.  Once the goals and plans have been set within the operation, it’s important for the organization, and its leader in particular, to maintain the discipline of sticking to the plan.  So often a donor, a board member, a published article, or some other leader will pressure the team to try something “new” midstream.  This inevitably misdirects staff and financial resources, and, not surprisingly, goals are often not met.

In today’s rapidly changing environment, certainly things come up that impact the original plan.  But it is vital not to allow outside influences to change the plan midcourse without very good reason and without fully understanding the implications of a change of course for the program overall.

Team members don’t take responsibility

Many of the Vasa’s crew knew the boat was unstable, but they were afraid to go against the king.  The same situation happens today—many times the development team knows what’s wrong but are afraid of the backlash or have tried to raise issues in the past and have felt ignored or overlooked and are no longer empowered.

This attitude leads to a sinking ship.  As part of any nonprofit organization, we have a duty to the greater good and the success of the overall mission.  It’s important to understand the nature of the work, have ownership and accountability for the results, and to convey concerns about the impact of changes being made.  This also means the team must make a good case for why something is wrong or a decision isn’t a good one.  It isn’t enough to complain or put the problem back on the leader.  The staff and management team need to make the effort to provide data and information to ensure that everyone is aware of the consequences of a decision.  And it’s important that the leadership take that input seriously.

Conflict aversion in the organization

Both issues stem from conflict avoidance.  Many people who work in Advancement do so because they care deeply about people and want to make people happy.  Our profession attracts individuals who like to please others, and, while that is a positive trait, the flip side is that some feel that saying difficult things, or saying no, will be hurtful, so they avoid it.  Leaders say yes to donors, presidents/CEOs say yes to boards about things that they shouldn’t because they don’t want the conflict.  Staff avoid saying what needs to be said to managers, supervisors or peers for the same reason.

Learning to have hard conversations graciously, strategically and thoughtfully is essential for a healthy, successful development program.  Accepting mistakes, owning failures, and having honest discussions are at the heart of building a strong culture that makes mission success possible. This approach helps donors and leaders gain a deeper understanding of the truth and reality of fundraising, and it helps managers and leaders understand more clearly the underlying work, infrastructure and capacity of the team.  With that greater insight, better decisions can be made.

*As it turns out, the Swedes talk about Vasa Syndrome as a management principle, much in the same way the Peter Principle is shorthand in the US.