Much has been written about the role of nonprofit boards and their individual members. Most articles focus on the eight, 10 or 12 responsibilities of high-functioning boards. This list usually includes duties such as setting the direction of the organization, assuring that adequate planning is undertaken on a responsible schedule, writing an annual budget, and funding the plan with adequate resources.
No one would disagree that it’s the board’s role to determine why an organization exists—the benefit the organization will provide to society—and the plan for implementing that benefit. One of the most fundamental responsibilities of a board is to assure that everyone working in an organization, including stakeholders and clients, understands the reasons the organization exists and what it strives to achieve.
Unfortunately, while the role is clear, the ongoing nature of the process is often confusing. Establishing the agenda, determining the mission and casting the vision are often framed as activities the board does once—actions to be completed versus ongoing conversations. The world around us is changing at an accelerating pace and, as a result, organizations are often asked to achieve seemingly contradictory agendas. However, in the midst of this changing environment, you can foster discipline and consistent results by measuring your organization against an annual plan. This seems reasonable, but how do you access information in a changing environment?
Boards must reframe their roles. The requirement today is to be leaders of two seemingly opposite agendas: How do I lead, as a board member, for discipline, consistency and dependable organizational results, while simultaneously challenging my fellow trustees and staff to think nimbly about the environment in which this organization operates? This challenge is sometimes described as either/or when it needs to be both. Boards must continue to foster sound planning and fiscal processes that result in organizational discipline and doable strategic and operational plans. Sound plans do not limit our opportunities to collect new intelligence or integrate the results of continuous environmental scanning. Successful organizations learn to foster these two contradictory perspectives—simultaneously operating with a plan while incorporating new information.
More questions, fewer reports
Each board member represents a trove of information and experience that is external to the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit. However, rather than seeing board members as “knowledge contributors,” they are often viewed as vessels to fill with what they need to know about the organization. How can information flow into the nonprofit rather than only out?
What would we learn if meetings were conversations rather than reports? Are agendas more interesting with more question marks and fewer periods? Would that task force, committee or board meeting outcome differ if there were more questions posed and fewer reports made? Ask board members:
- What was the most surprising event in your office in the last 30 days?
- What did you learn on your trip to India (or China or Russia or New Jersey)?
- Do your company’s customers have new expectations or service requirements?
- What is making a positive (or negative) difference in your business partnerships and strategic alliances?
- Have you attended any great training sessions, professional meetings or investment seminars?
- When do you do planning at your office, how and who participates?
- Are you seeing any new trends in employee benefits, travel or contracting for goods and services?
- Have you read any books that rocked your world? Discovered any new tips on how to be a better leader or manager?
Each board member is a roving ambassador, spreading the good word about the nonprofit’s work, and collecting information that they may, or may not, realize is valuable to the future of that nonprofit.
Connect the dots
The follow up to each of these questions is, “How do you see that fact, idea, insight, experience impacting the goals, clients, outcomes, future of this organization?” Opening the dialogue not only brings a fresh perspective on how the world is changing outside the doors of your institution, it also challenges your board members to think critically about this organization’s challenges. Over time, pursuing questions and a focused discussion develops new awareness in both board and staff to trends that may accelerate, change or impact your plan. The more engaging the dialogue is, the more skill a board and staff develop in fostering meaningful collaborative thinking. In the short term, it may challenge the boundaries of your plan, but in the long run, it offers incalculable benefits, including fostering early awareness of trends and engaging board members in new and exciting conversations.
By Raylene Decatur, a nonprofit strategic planning and executive search consultant.