How to avoid groupthink in your non-profit boardroom

Kool-Aid, Groupthink and Generative Governance

By Dani Robbins
Re-published with permission from nonprofit evolution blog
groupthink2There have been multiple things that have happened in the past week that have made me re-consider the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
The first was a Board that was exploring introducing a new funding model. The Board, who had been on the inside of a discussion of culture shift for the past year and were familiar with the materials and the arguments, briefly considered not building the organizational culture to introduce the considered change because they “didn’t think it was a big deal.” And it wasn’t a big deal to them because they’d already changed the culture among their group. They’d been thinking about it and reading about it and interviewing other groups that had already implemented the change and there was consensus among the group that it was the right direction for their organization.
Yet… even when there is agreement on the board, there is still the need to create buy-in among others. Without buy-in the potential for failure is high unless all constituents understand the need for change and the foundation is created to implement that change.
The second thing is, in fact, an illustration of just that. The second thing was a local commission’s decision to put forth a levy in the midst of a scandal. They weren’t wrong. They had done their homework, and looked at the issues and put forth a solid plan to introduce change. It failed, primarily and among other things because even though they had a plan to introduce the change and the leaders of the city were behind them, they didn’t have the informal community leaders on board and those leaders didn’t sell it to their constituents.
My intent is not to criticize any of these leaders. Each was in a difficult position and after considering all the options, made the decision that they felt best served their organization, their community and their constituents. That is the very definition of good leadership. Another component of good leadership is to learn from our mistakes and missteps. To that point, we need to ask:

What could have helped? What might have made the difference?

I believe the answer is generative governance. Let’s review how some of the techniques offered in my favorite board book “Governance as Leadership” could have made the difference.
groupthink3Silent Starts — Set aside 2 minutes for each trustee to anonymously write on an index card the most important question relevant to the issue at hand.”
What if a board or commission member had written: “How can we engage community and committee leaders as well as those in informal leadership positions who could, in turn, engage their constituents?”
One Minute Memos — At the end of discussions give each member 2-3 minutes to write down any thoughts or questions that were not expressed.”
This could have been a great opportunity to consider the worst case scenarios and create a plan ensure against such eventualities.
Counter Points — Randomly designate 2-3 trustees to make the powerful counter arguments to initial recommendations.”
This could have been used to dispel all the arguments against the change. From that discussion, marketing materials, talking points and an engagement plan could have been created.
Role Play — Ask a subset of the Board to assume the perspective of different constituent groups likely to be affected by the decision at hand.”
A board member could have taken on the role of a member of the community who would be the most negatively impacted by the change and a plan could be created to embrace those constituents and mitigate their impact.
Breakouts — Small groups counter group think and ask: Do we have the right questions?  What values are at stake? How else might this issue be framed?”
This is my favorite of all the techniques offered. It is the best way I’ve seen to get out of your head, out of the room and really consider all the ramifications of the discussion on the table from all the possible perspectives.
Let me be clear. I wasn’t in the room for any of these discussions; these are my assessments from afar. My intent is not to be a Monday morning quarterback. My intent is always to see if there is a lesson to be learned and how a different outcome might have been achieved. Could generative conversations have made the difference?
When it comes to group think and drinking the Kool-Aid, I try to never forget a church sign I once drove past; it said “Don’t believe everything you think.”
What’s your experience with group think and drinking the Kool-Aid? Do you agree that generative governance could be the answer?  How have you mitigated the effects? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email.
A rising tide raises all boats.
dani sig

Two of the most common non-profit board questions ever asked

How Many Board Members Meeting? How Often?

By Dani Robbins
Re-published with permission from nonprofit evolution blog
boardsize4The two questions I get asked on a regular basis are “What is the right number of board members?” and “How often should our board meet?” The answer to both is the same: whatever it takes. You should have the number of board members you need who meet as often as necessary to get the job done.
While, it’s true, I appreciate that it’s not that helpful.  When I serve as an Exec, my preference is boards of 24 members who meet monthly. I also like a range of board members to be included in the by-laws; 18-30 is my favorite.  For me, it allows the access I need and the number I need to move the agency forward, but doesn’t hold us back if we have an excellent prospect and a full slate. I have primarily run smallish to mid-size social service agencies with budgets from $250k-1.4M, with 3-5 committees, some which had 1-3 sub-committees that allowed non board members to participate. I can see why it’s a lot for board members and also execs…yet, the goal is to meet as often as you need to get the job done.  All of our jobs as leaders is to do what’s best for our agencies.
boardsize3There has been some movement in recent years toward boards meeting less often with committee meetings in between. Some boards meet every other month. Some boards (mine obviously) meet monthly and their committees do as well. Some boards meet quarterly.
I’m not a big fan of quarterly board meetings. They usually require a powerful executive committee to meet in between, which I believe alienates other board members. Powerful executive committees, who have the authority to act in lieu of the full board, take the majority vote and make it minority rule. Let me demonstrate: 24 board members with an executive committee of four officers and five committee chairs need a majority of that group to make decisions. This means that five people, which is 20% of your board, are making the decisions.  If you don’t have committee chairs on the executive committee (and many agencies don’t), you are down to 3 people deciding for the board, just over 10%.
Meeting quarterly also serves to ensure your board members aren’t plugged in enough. They miss one meeting; they miss six months of information. Finally, I am not convinced quarterly meetings are often enough to maintain fiduciary responsibility. Three months later may be too late to get your arms around a budget issue or a program problem.
boardsize2Still, as I stated at the beginning, only you can decide what the best model is for your organization. I offer some questions for you as you consider the right number of meetings:

  • Do you have enough time to complete the work of the board?
  • Are your meetings so rushed that generative and strategic discussions don’t happen, even when included on the agenda?
  • Do your board members feel confident they know what is happening?
  • Is the meeting schedule your board follows forcing, either by choice or need, your executive to do the work of the board?
  • Is your executive missing opportunities because she cannot get board approval?
  • Is your current schedule an effective model for your organization or merely convenient for its members?

The question of Board size is also all over the map. Some agencies have very large boards, which in and of itself becomes a problem to manage; 50 board members is a lot to track, communicate with and engage. Alternatively, some boards are very small and govern enormous agencies with multiple programs operating in a variety of locations. This can lend itself to the executive overstepping her role.
boardsize1Again, only you can decide what the best model is for your organization.  I offer some questions as you consider the right number of members:

  • Is the number of members forcing, either by choice or need, your executive to do the work of the board?
  • Do you have committees of one and, if so, are they effective?
  • Are there committees you cannot introduce or board work you cannot accomplish because of lack of members?
  • Do your members feel so overwhelmed that it is driving disengagement?
  • Do you have a formal board development plan to attract, train, evaluate, recognize and renew board members?
  • Is your current number of members an effective model for your organization?

How many and how often may very well lead to all the other pieces of board development and board engagement falling into place. They’re great questions and great place to start.
How have you answered the questions posed in this post?  How many board members do you have and how often do they meet? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions. A rising tide raises all boats.
dani sig

Who is showing up to your non-profit board meetings?

Decision are Made by those who Show Up

By Dani Robbins
Re-published with permission from nonprofit evolution blog
showing upMy community had a paltry 10% of eligible voters turn out to vote on Election Day. My neighbor said that any vote that didn’t have at least 40% of the eligible voters voting should be thrown out. But, of course and for good reason, it doesn’t work like that. Elections – and most other things – are decided by those who show up.
Now you may be thinking: “That’s nice Dani, but this is a nonprofit blog. What’s this got to do with non profits?” Everything; it works the same way for agencies. Many states ban proxy voting and require email votes to be 100% unanimous. Assuming you have a quorum, the decisions made by the board will, primarily, all be made by those in the room.
That means it not only matters who you elect to serve as Board members, it matters which of them chose to show up to meetings. It’s hard enough to figure out how a large group of smart people are going to vote; it’s even harder if you don’t know who will be in the room. As such, you need to know who’s planning to attend every meeting.
Good Execs do their homework before the meeting and usually know how people are going to vote before the meeting begins……which doesn’t ensure they will do so.” (Board Meetings Gone Wrong) Even when you do your homework, and think you know how they will vote, a parking lot conversation can change someone’s mind.
The foundation for ensuring you have the right people in the room starts long before a board meeting is scheduled. It starts and also ends with the Board Development Committee.
When you are recruiting new prospects, unless you are willing to change the meeting time, those who tell you they cannot come to the meetings should not be considered as board members. Most agencies already carry one or two board members who consistently miss meetings; don’t add to that count.
The agenda that is set should also reflect, to some degree, the behavior of those expected to be in the room. This is most applicable to consent agendas. When you consider if a consent agenda is right for your board, consider the board members who most often attend. Do they typically read materials in advance or in the room? If they read them in advance, consent agendas can allow more time for robust generative discussions. If they read them in the room, they may not have time to read all the materials and may be voting on things about which they are not entirely clear. If that is the case, consent agendas can create issues of liability for your agency.
If you don’t have enough board members show up, the ones that do will not have their votes counted if you do not have a quorum. Quorum issues are the best indicators of disengaged board. As mentioned in Engaging the BoardIf you have consistent issues with having enough Board members in the room to make decisions, I recommend you take a look at how your board was built and how it is being developed.
Finally, it behooves you to consider removing disruptive or disengaged Board members. For instructions on how, click here. It is a difficult option to consider, but each of our roles in nonprofit leadership requires us to do what’s best for the organization. If the work of the board becomes focused on defending or covering for an inappropriate board member, other more relevant work is not being accomplished.
We can’t always control who shows up, but we can control who is invited to serve.  If we build the board intentionally and thoughtfully, it is far more likely that those who show up have the capacity, the wisdom and the experience to appropriately govern our organizations, and our organizations have the resources, impact and reach to change our world.
What’s been your experience? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.
dani sig

Resolving to do things different in 2014 at your non-profit

5 Things Non Profits can Strengthen in 2014

By Dani Robbins
Re-published with permission from nonprofit evolution blog
2014 resolutionsAs I’m sure you aware by now, I like to reflect back on things that have occurred and create a plan to avoid their reoccurrence.  As such, I’ve been thinking about things our field can do to be stronger.
1. Build Better Boards
You’ve seen me write it before and it’s still true, everything flows from the board. Weak boards hire weak leaders who manage weak agencies. Sometimes it goes the other way, weak boards hire strong leaders who do whatever they want because the board is asleep at the wheel. Neither contributes to effectively governed agencies.
Strong boards hire strong leaders who build strong agencies.
For more information on building strong boards, please see previous posts on board development.
2. Create Succession Plans
Agencies that have great leaders need to plan for that leader’s transition as much as agencies with weak leaders.  In fact, and among other things, one of the signs of a great leader is the strength of the agency once they’re gone.
Whether your exec gets fired, wins the lottery and moves to Jamaica, or retires after decades of excellent service, your board will need a plan to hire a new leader.
The Anne E. Casey Foundation’s Building Leaderful Organizations  and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Nonprofit Executive Succession Planning Toolkit, offer a comprehensive look at planning. Each may be much broader than you need, but both can help you figure out what you need.
3. Build Capacity
Most agencies and most leaders, even and especially the ones that are great, can continue to build their capacity. Whether you have experienced tremendous growth, have a new leader, have downsized and now want to rebuild or if you just want to increase your strength, capacity building is the way to go.
Some larger national organizations have proprietary capacity building tools. If you are a part of a national organization, ask if such a thing has been created. If it has, use it. If it hasn’t, suggest it is.
For those of you who are standing alone, The Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Organizational Capacity Assessment tool is the best and most comprehensive I have seen. “It is a self-assessment instrument that helps nonprofits identify capacity strengths and challenges and establish capacity building goals.  It is primarily a diagnostic and learning tool” that was designed to help agencies serving low income communities.  Even if your agency has nothing to do with that community, this tool can help your agency be stronger.
4. Consider Mergers
There are lots and lots of organizations out there, some doing very similar work with very similar values.  If your agency is struggling, is strong or you have a leadership transition, it might be a good time for your board to consider merging with another organization. The decision may be no, but it is an option worth putting on the table.
Again, some larger national organizations have merger tools. If you are a part of a national organization, ask if such a thing has been created.  If it has, use it. If it hasn’t, suggest it is.
For those of you who are standing alone, I encourage you to reach out to your local community foundation or local nonprofit resource center for assistance.  Here are a few links for your consideration:
Bridgespan’s Nonprofit M&A: More Than a Tool for Tough Times
Wilder Research’s What do we know about nonprofit mergers
And from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a report with the same title What do we know about nonprofit mergers.
The larger our field grows, the more we will compete for limited resources.  Can we be stronger together?
5 Get Better at Communicating with Donors
I am consistently surprised by the way some non profits communicate with their donors, or don’t, as the case may be. Here are some questions for you to assess your donor communication practices:

  • Do donors receive a formal thank you note, on letterhead, that includes the amount of their gift within 48 hours of your receipt of their gift, regardless of the gift amount?
  • Does it include the appropriate IRS language?
  • Does someone call to say thank you to your largest donors?
  • Does your Exec or a member of your board call those donors periodically to update them on the agency’s activities?
  • Do you have a gift acceptance policy?
  • Do you have a development plan?

If the answers is no to any of these questions, that is a great place to ramp up your practices.
For more information on resource development, please see previous development posts and Donor Dreams, for which I also blog.
The non profits in my community and communities across the country and the world are moving the needle on the issues they exist to impact.  With on-going assessment, the implementation of best practices and constantly striving to be better and do better we can continue to make our world better.
How do you think we can best strengthen our field?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.
dani sig

The most important non-profit board responsibility

questionsOver the last few months, I’ve found myself doing a lot of boardroom trainings on the subject of “Board Roles & Responsibilities“. When facilitating this training, there are two different slides talking about the board’s collective responsibilities and the other illustrates individual board members’ responsibilities. Listed on both slides at the top of the list is the responsibility of “asking questions“.
At the end of tonight’s training, I went out for a nice steak dinner, but one thing stuck in my head and nagged me all night.

Is the list of roles/responsibilities in a particular order? If so, could it be that ‘asking questions’ is the most important of the responsibilities?

So, I tried to think of other responsibilities that might be more important:

  • Fundraising & securing resources
  • Connecting others to the agency’s mission
  • Advocating and talking about the agency throughout the community
  • Making sure laws and regulations are followed
  • Planning

While these aren’t all of the responsibilities of a non-profit board volunteer, it certainly is a good number of them. In the final analysis, all of these roles/responsibilities are important, but I honestly don’t see any of them as important as asking questions.
questions2Of course, we aren’t talking about asking questions that lend themselves to micro-management of staff. Here are just a few important questions that good boards ask:

  • Where is this agency going? What will it look like in 5-years? 10-years? 15-years? 20-years?
  • Is our organizational mission still relevant? What should it be?
  • What are our shared values?
  • What are our goals?
  • What are the community’s needs and gaps that the agency strives to address?
  • Are we using donor dollars in the manner we promised?
  • Is the agency achieving the program outcomes it promised to donors?
  • Is the organization structured in such a way to achieve what it needs to achieve?
  • Why are we doing what we’re doing? Is there a better way?
  • Do I have a conflict of interest? What should I do to mitigate my conflict?
  • Is this ethical? Is it legal? Even if it is, will supporters view it as otherwise?

rubber stamp2I tried to picture what a non-profit board might look like if it didn’t ask questions, and these words all came to mind:

  • rubber stamp
  • disengaged
  • Enron
  • WorldCom
  • Tyco

Over the years of writing this blog, I’ve tackled this subject from a number of different angles. Here are just a few posts I’ve written on the subject of asking questions:

I dunno! What do you think? Are some non-profit board responsibilities weighted more heavily than others? If so, where does “asking questions” rank?
If board members need to collectively and individually get better at asking questions, how do you train for that? Or is it something you recruit for?
Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Is your board of directors exceptional?

exceptionalOn Tuesday evening I found myself sitting in front of a group of board volunteers as well as prospects who were contemplating joining the board. What started off as a routine training about basic board roles and responsibilities morphed into a discussion about what makes an exceptional board.
According to BoardSource and other non-profit experts, the following principles go into making exceptions boards:

  1. Effective partnership between the board and its executive director
  2. Asking questions and engaging in respectful debates and discussions
  3. Strategic thinking and vision-focused discussions integrated into board meetings
  4. Mission-focused and driven with the agency’s mission infused throughout everything it does including fundraising, decision-making, etc
  5. Transparency in everything the board does with the community understanding all of its decisions
  6. Independent minded with conflicts of interest constantly being identified and mitigated
  7. Measuring the agency’s impact and ensuring that outcomes are achieved
  8. Life-long learners sit around the boardroom table and relish evaluation opportunities and want to learn how to do things better
  9. Focused on how to engage all board volunteers in securing more resources and linking the organization’s strategic plan to its budget
  10. Intentional in all of its actions including establishing the size of the board, committee structure, and other various governance questions
  11. Integrity rooted in an ethics policy, oversight and audit
  12. Planned turnover in the boardroom supported by thoughtful recruitment efforts

Do you think these things define an exceptional board? Is anything missing? What are the more difficult things to achieve on this laundry list?
Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

The biggest cardinal sin an executive director can commit

sinWorking with organizations in New Mexico and West Texas means lots of windshield time, and last week I found myself contemplating the question: “What is the biggest cardinal sin a non-profit executive director can commit?” In the final analysis, my conclusion surprised me, which means it was destined to end up here on the DonorDreams blog for you to chew on and contemplate.
In the time you’ve read the first paragraph, your mind already probably started spinning and there are so many good possibilities to choose from, right? Here are just a few examples:

  • embezzlement
  • letting the agency’s fundraising program die on the vine
  • not fostering an organization culture of planning
  • not being transparent
  • treating donors like an ATM
  • hiring bad staff
  • misuse of funds

I could go on and on. You probably already have many more examples to share (and I encourage you to do so in the comment box below).
As for my  number one answer that I finally settled on?

Not understanding, building and supporting a good board development process.

There is a lot that goes into this sweeping generalization. Here are just a few examples:

  • Allowing board prospects to be targeted without any consideration of expectations and necessary skill sets
  • Recruiting prospects without helping them see what they are saying ‘YES’ to doing
  • Failing to develop an annual evaluation and recognition process for board volunteers
  • Failing to provide orientation and ongoing board training

I could provide more examples, but I think you get the idea.
The reason this turned out to be my number one answer is because this cardinal sin provides the fertile ground for all of the other sins I listed at the start of this post.
For example, it is the existence of a weak and unsupported board that creates the conditions for embezzlement or misuse of funds.
Please use the comment box below to share your idea of the biggest cardinal sin and why. Also offer a solution while you’re at it.  😉
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

2014 predictions for the non-profit sector

predictions3It happened again yesterday. A non-profit friend of mine called and we talked for an hour about their revenue model and fundraising issues. Questions included:

  • We need to start doing more with private sector fundraising. Everyone at our agency agrees on this point. It is in the new strategic plan. But after lots of talking no one wants to do anything. What should we do? How do we move forward?
  • We are very dependent on government funding. How should we start diversifying our revenue streams?
  • Our revenue strategies that worked well prior to 2008 no longer work very well. We want to course correct, but the people sitting around our boardroom table were recruited with an old revenue model in mind. Can we ask these people to help us make the necessary changes? Or do we need to change the people sitting around the table? How quickly can all of this be done?

Ever since the economy changed in 2008, non-profits have been wrestling with these kind of questions. What economists and politicians are calling “The New Normal” has non-profit leaders scratching their heads and wondering what to do about it.
I’ve seen some non-profits pivot nicely, and I’ve seen many more struggle. This trend will continue into 2014!
Based on this prediction, I think the following trends are also likely to follow:

  1. Non-profit boards and staff will continue re-examining and tweaking their revenue model. (Click here for more info on different types of non-profit revenue models)
  2. Non-profit boards will continue to struggle with who should be sitting around their boardroom tables as they attempt to change their revenue models.
  3. Non-profit staff will continue to struggle with developing and using volunteer engagement strategies and tools in an effort to move their agency FROM a pre-2008 revenue model TO a new 2014-and-beyond revamped fundraising plan.
  4. There will be renewed interested by non-profit boards and staff to engage the services of fundraising professionals who can provide technical assistance around these questions.
  5. The word “bankruptcy” will be used more and more by donors, stakeholders and the news media in 2014 to talk about non-profit organizations and municipalities (e.g. Detroit, etc) who weren’t successful in tweaking their revenue models.

Is your organization currently engaged in asking questions like the ones with which I started this post? Are there additional questions you’re asking in your boardroom? What do you think about these five predictions I’ve made? Am I full of bologna?
Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

You need more women in your non-profit boardroom!

rosie the riviterLast week I was out to lunch with two male non-profit friends in downtown Chicago when the topic of women board volunteers came up. This happens from time-to-time, and when it does I always bite my tongue because I tend to have strong opinions on this subject. So, I took a deep breath and prepared for what I assumed was going to be one of those “difficult and uncomfortable conversations“. Boy oh boy . . .was I wrong (and pleasantly surprised).
Let me start by explaining what I mean by “I have strong opinions . . .” The fact of the matter is that my opinions are sexist (at least I think they are). When I am engaged in conversations about non-profit board development and I’m feeling bold, I like to say, “If you want lots of discussion in the boardroom about what ‘should’ happen, then recruit a lot of men to serve on your board because they will talk a subject to death. If you want something done, recruit some women because they are the ‘do-ers’ of our society.
A good friend of mine would respond to this by saying, “All generalizations, including this one, are incorrect.
So, I usually shy away from sharing this opinion because:

  1. It feels like a sexist thought
  2. It has gotten me in trouble in the past and sparked heated discussions
  3. The “all generalizations” comment is usually right on target

Let’s fast forward to my lunch conversation in downtown Chicago last week as I prepared for a lunch discussion that I assumed was going down the wrong road.
The first words out of one guy’s mouth were positive and progressive. He shared a story about the women on his board being extraordinarily active and engaged. The other guy talked about wanting to develop what used to be called in the old days a “women’s auxiliary” (and he was calling a Women’s Board). As I shook my head in amazement at the surprising turn this conversation quickly took, the most amazing thing happened. One of the guys validated what I keep referring to as “my sexist opinion” by pointing to research data that he just read about in the OpEd pages of the New York Times on October 23, 2013.
I couldn’t believe my ears, and I asked my lunch partners to please forward me that editorial column.
It arrived the next day in my email inbox. It almost looked like that one special Christmas present that you most prized and treasured as a child (and in the spirit of A Christmas Story read this as me saying that email was the equivalent of an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle).
The editorial was titled “Twitter, Women and Power,” and it was about the all male boardroom at Twitter, which was just a few weeks from launching its IPO on Wall Street.
I strongly encourage everyone who has any role in your non-profit organization’s board development to read this article. It is definitely worth the click! However, for those of you working with very little time today, here are a few of the major points from the article:

  • Domestic companies that have women board members earn a higher rate of return on invested capital
  • International companies with women on their boards earn a surprisingly higher amount of operating capital
  • During the recent government shutdown, it was our nation’s female legislators who were at the forefront of brokering a deal

After reading this New York Times editorial piece by Nicholas Kristof, I now feel empowered enough to admit that I think women are better fundraising volunteers than their male counterparts. (Uh-oh . . . that little voice inside my head is telling me to shut-up again.)
Does your agency have enough women in the boardroom? How does your board development committee ensure gender balance? What has been your experience on this issue? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and opinions.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Finding the right non-profit board prospects might be harder than you think

strategic thinking2Sometimes I hear something that hits me just right, and it takes days to get it out of my head. This happened on Tuesday during the Fox West Philanthropic Network’s Philanthropy Day luncheon. The keynote speaker, Dani Robbins, was talking about the different modes of board governance and the importance of facilitating more strategic and generative discussions in the boardroom. Doing so will result in a more engaged board.
Easy as that! Right?
Well, that little voice inside my head started screaming at me. It was saying, “Whoaaaaa! Can strategic and generative discussions be done with any old board members? Or does it take a certain type of board volunteer?
So, I raised my hand and interrupted Dani’s keynote address. (Sorry, Dani!)
I was half expecting her to say that everyone is capable of engaging in these higher order discussions. I was also expecting her to put the responsibility back on the person(s) who facilitate those boardroom discussions to get the most out of the diversity of people sitting around the table.
However, I got an unexpected answer.
strategic thinking3Dani suggested that board volunteers who are “strategic thinkers” will have an easier time making the transition from traditional fiduciary modes of governance to more strategic and generative modes.
I suspect this means for many non-profit organizations, who want to make this adjustment to governance, that some thought needs to be put into adding more strategic thinkers to their board recruitment prospects lists.
Once I arrived at this conclusion, I got a mental picture of a committee meeting with board governance volunteers going through their prospect identification and evaluation exercises focused on finding strategic thinkers. As this mental picture became clearer, lots of questions flooded into my head including:

  • What does a strategic thinker look and sound like?
  • Where do strategic thinkers live, work and play?
  • How easy will it be for board governance committees to do this work, especially when most committees (in my experience) shortcut the cultivation and evaluation process and go straight from identification to recruitment?

As I normally do when issues like this start bothering me, I open up my internet browser and go to Google.  😉
I quickly found myself reading a post on CEB Blogs titled “5 Characteristics of Strategic Thinkers“. Here are those characteristics:

  1. Open yourself to perspectives from multiple sources
  2. Incorporate both logic and emotion into your thinking
  3. Seek options beyond today’s reality
  4. Question both the familiar and the to-be-determined
  5. Accept open issues

strategic thinking1If you’re scratching your head while reading this list and asking “what does THAT mean,” then click the link and read the CEB Blog post. It really is quite good. If you want to learn more, then I suggest you start Googling around.  😉  You also might want to click here and start with this interesting Wikipedia page on strategic thinking.
Let me bottom line what I’m thinking for you this morning.

  • This isn’t as simple as changing some of the criteria in your gap assessment tool
  • These characteristics are more subtle than questions of age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, fundraising experience, etc
  • Only people who know or work closely with board prospects know whether or not they are strategic thinkers, which puts a spotlight on who is serving on your board governance committee
  • Identifying strategic thinkers for your board recruitment process will require more time spent cultivating and evaluating prospects and less jumping straight from identification to recruitment

What is standing in your agency’s way of transforming its boardroom discussions from fiduciary to more strategic and generative modes of governance? What are you doing to over come those obstacles? Is your board governance committee approaching its job differently when it considers this question? If so, how?
Please use the comment box below to share your thought and experiences. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847