Non-profit board work that moves the needle

Dani Robbins is the Founder & Principal Strategist at Non Profit Evolution located in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve invited my good friend and fellow non-profit consultant to the first Wednesday of each month about board development related topics. Dani also recently co-authored a book titled “Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives” that you can find on 

I’ve given a lot of thought lately to how the work of the Board gets done. Mostly, it’s by decisions made in meetings and in-between meetings. Board members go to a lot of meetings, committee meetings, board meetings, and meetings with the executive director. Additionally, there’s work to do between meetings,  and it all leaves me wondering:  Where’s the strategy? Where’s the generative thinking? Where’s the advocacy? Where’s the impact? How do we know?

Boards approve things, they review things, they talk about things, but . . .

Are they the right things?

Boards have to have a quorum.  approve financials and meeting minutes, and a whole host of other things. Hopefully, Board members also represent the agency in the community, understand and talk about programs, support and evaluate the executive director, raise money, and give money. These are their fiduciary responsibilities. But surely, this isn’t all we have our Board members doing. They are the pillars of our community. They are smart, professional and talented people, but . . .

Are we correctly utilizing their collective brain power?

Have they decided upon a strategic direction? Have they discussed the underlying causes that created the issue the organization originally was created to address? I am hearing a resounding chorus of NO!

All too often, there is no plan, strategic or even tactical. There are no metrics. There is no discussion of root causes, alternative options or new ideas. There are talented people sitting in a room because they care about the mission of the agency –- and in certain, but by no means all cases — we are wasting their time. And as such we are wasting our resources.

Strategic planning has fallen out of favor. It kills me to say it, but it’s true. Most Board members have sat through at least one planning session, often more, that were long and boring; yet they sat there in an effort to decide the mission and direction of an agency. And as a prize for their dedication, they got to spend two hours debating if they were going to use the word “a” or “the” in the mission statement. Then, when they were – thankfully – finished after days or months and considerable expense, the plan sat on a shelf, collecting dust, never to be seen again.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

In the article, “Governance as Leadership; An Interview with Richard Chait,” Chait discusses his book “Governance as Leadership” (BoardSource) which “recommends reframing board work around “three modes” of governing. The first is the fiduciary mode, in which the board exercises its legal responsibilities of oversight and stewardship. The second is the strategic mode, in which the board makes major decisions about resources, programs and services. The third is the “generative” mode, in which the board engages in deeper inquiry, exploring root causes, values, optional courses and new ideas.”

You may be wondering how to add generative and strategic to your meetings.

Strategy” is all about connecting the resources to the goals, which, of course, requires having strategic goals.  If you don’t, I encourage you to read my previous blog about wheel spinning and begin to discuss planning.

Generative” is a much deeper conversation about the underlying issues and how to impact them.  Chait presents governance discussions as ones that “select and frame the problem.”   In other words, we’re no longer talking about impact or program outcomes or even the agency itself, we’re talking about how we  — our city, community, country or even world –- got here and what it takes to get out of here.

Chait explains it best when he says,

“Committees need to think not about decisions or reports as their work product, but to think of understanding, insight and illumination as their work products.”

In order to use the collective brain power of our Boards to move our agencies forward, we have to move into strategic and generative governance, while still meeting our fiduciary obligations. The board president and the executive director can, should, and I would submit, have the obligation to use the collective brain power of their board to move the needle. It’s why we’re here. In the absence of that, we approve things, we attend meetings and we go through the motions, but nothing happens.

I want something to happen . . . I want the world to change.

What’s been your experience? How have you utilized the talent on your Board to move the needle? I welcome your comments.


  1. Great article, Dani! Involving the Board in brainstorming and tapping into their diverse talent is a common woe. For so long, I thought that organizational culture was the main culprit, but now I believe that it has more to do with habit. Once we get comfortable and find our routine, it can be tough to motivate that “what if?” mentality. How can we reignite that fire without constantly introducing new Board Members?

    1. Thanks Andrew!

      I define Organizational culture as the acceptable norms and behaviors of the people who make up an organization. It is a combination of invisible elements that impact how people and the organization operate, which includes our stated and agreed upon values, how we talk to and about our clients and each other, the words and the tone that we choose, the norms of the office, the HR systems, the expectations of management and the Board and how those expectations are communicated and people are held to account. These inform how people operate within the environment, what behavior is rewarded and what is discouraged.

      Cultures are often created or influenced inadvertently by our behavior and the systems and processes (vision, reward system, selection process) the organization puts in place.

      In short, habits inform and then reinforce our culture, requiring us to change our habits to impact our culture. I recommend starting with our expectations. What are they? If we change them, what will be the impact? When we change our expectations, do we change the experience?

      Board Development for me (and most other development as well) often comes back to expectations. What did we tell our Board members were the expectations they were expected to meet and are we providing the opportunities for them to be successful? Those opportunities come in the form of mission review, agenda setting, meeting goals and discussion topics, but that’s not all. Our expectation has to be to have robust discussions – of topics, programs, plans, goals and of the issue at hand. To create a culture that encourages different and sometime divergent opinions, we have set the expectation at orientation and reinforce it throughout the year. In the Midwest, where Erik and I live and work, people are very nice, direct challenges are hard to come by and conflict is occasionally avoided at all costs, even to the detriment of the organization. When we allow and encourage discussion at all levels people become engaged, and bring with that engagement their full set of skills and all of their talents. That’s the fire, and it doesn’t have to be reignited because it was never allowed to smolder.

      We, as leaders, have to create safe spaces for (respectful) dissention, and discussion and the challenging of the status quo. If good is the enemy of great, then the status quo is the enemy of progress.

      Thanks for your comments and your dedication to non-profit work!


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