Building consensus is part of everyday hard work at non-profits

idearatingsheetsIt seems like one common theme in my work with non-profit organizations is that “building consensus” is difficult. Getting everyone on the same page can be like herding cats. It was this reality that had me all tied in knots a few months ago as I was sitting down for the first time with my Philanthropy Day planning committee. We had lots of things to decide (e.g. event location, registration fees, training sessions, discussion panels, etc), and there was very little time to do so.
I decided to reach into my magic bag of consulting tricks and pulled out a tool that I’d never used before . . .

Idea Rating Sheets

The tool is simple:

  • One idea is written at the top of each sheet
  • The sheets are passed around the group
  • Individuals rate the idea
  • Individuals provide some feed back on the idea’s strengths and challenges
  • Each person “signs off” on the sheet confirming that they weighed in with their feedback

At the end of the day, it is easy to see which ideas have traction and which ones don’t. Those ideas that have support rise to the top, and the group can focus its discussions and not waste time talking about ideas that are non-starters.
In my experience, I can see Idea Rating Sheets being used very effectively in various facilitated planning processes. This tool might also be very effective for standing committees of your board that are trying to make direction setting decisions.
Want to learn more? Simply visit their webpage by clicking here or their library of resources by clicking here.
Kudos to Jason Diceman and his team for creating a simple yet awesome consensus building tool!
How does your organization build consensus? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Non-profit board volunteers should all dress the same

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

Today, I am focusing on a post that John wrote about “Decision Fatigue,” which is a fascinating organizational development concept that applies perfectly to so many different aspects of non-profit work life. I mean come on, John! It would be soooooo tempting to expand on the “Kissing while driving for non-profit agencies” post from March 9, 2012 and talk about the utter insanity behind most executive director’s day-to-day routines. But I won’t do that and instead decided to focus on the board of directors.

After reading John’s post this morning, I was transported back in time to March 20, 2000. I will never forget that day because it was my first day on the job as a newly minted executive director.

At the top of every new CEO’s “To Do List” is a whirlwind tour of meeting board members. This is one of the most important first tasks because you are trying to get a feel for:

  • what is going on throughout the organization
  • what personalities are sitting around the boardroom table
  • how decisions get made in the board room

When I stuck the thermometer in the turkey on March 20, 2000, it immediately registered “DECISION FATIGUE“.

This board had operated for more than six months without an executive director. Some of the people during our first meeting even told me of their plans to resign. Needless to say, within the first 90 days the board roster shrank from 20 people strong to 11 very weary individuals who bravely faced the future and simply said, “FORWARD!

The list of decisions that fatigued the board prior to hiring an executive director is endless, but here are just a few of those decisions they routinely faced:

  • Where are we meeting? What time?
  • What’s on the agenda?
  • Who is attending? Do we have quorum?
  • What materials should be distributed prior to the meeting? Who puts all of that together?
  • How do we make sure everyone is properly prepared for tough discussions and decisions at the upcoming meeting?
  • Do we have enough money in the bank to make payroll next week?
  • Which employee just quit? At which site did they work? What does that mean for operations? Is there paperwork that needs to get filled out? Who is doing THAT?
  • Who is doing what and with whom with regards to the annual campaign pledge drive that is scheduled to start next week?
  • Uh oh . . . I though we were just focusing on the pledge drive, but now we’re talking about special event planning for the dinner that is 12 weeks away. Who is doing what and with who regards to all of THAT?
  • Ummm . . . how does all of this mesh with the decisions happening at home and at my paying job?

This is just a small sampling of what was on those board member’s decision-making list.

One of the most interesting things I found in my first 90 days was the board decision made right before they hired me. It was the decision to stop meeting monthly and only meet every other month. When I asked why they made this decision, they said that their monthly meetings had gotten way out of hand and too long. Those meetings apparently lasted sometimes three or four hours!

Like you, I scratched my head, and asked how in the world that decision made any sense.

If you think about it for a moment and put yourself in their shoes, it makes perfect sense:

  • They were tired.
  • They needed more time between meetings to re-group.
  • This allowed them to “empower” the executive committee to make decisions for the board during the off-months (e.g. dump the tough work on a smaller group of people).

I don’t need to tell you how damaging that decision was to the agency’s health, but it made sense when you look at it through a “decision fatigue” filter. It took me almost three years to get them to reverse their decision and start meeting every month again.

It is the job of the executive director to help the board avoid “decision fatigue”.

Good non-profit executive directors support the work of their board by facilitating and assisting with everything including:

  • developing agendas
  • taking meeting notes
  • recruiting new board volunteers
  • supporting committee work
  • helping board volunteers process tough issues and position them for making tough decisions in the boardroom
  • supporting all of the planning work that occurs ranging from strategic planning to special events
  • And much, much more!

So, I titled this blog post the way I did because of the Vanity Fair article that John cited in his blog post. In that Vanity Fair interview with President Obama, they explain why the President is almost always seen in blue or grey suits. Of course, it has everything to do with decision fatigue, and this got me giggling about non-profit board volunteers as I envisioned a boardroom full of volunteers wearing the exact same thing.

Hmmmm . . . perhaps board tee-shirts might not be a bad idea.  😉

Is your board tired? Have you given any thought to why? What role have you played in their fatigue? What could you be doing differently? Here’s a thought . . . if this is something with which you’re struggling, use the comment box below to ask a few questions of your fellow non-profit peers and see what they have to say. Or if you have a great success story, please feel free to share that as well.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

How many monks vs revolutionaries are on your non-profit board?

Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

Today, we’re focusing on a post that John titled “Forward!“. In that post, he talks about monks and revolutionaries and how crying out the battle command “FORWARD” means different things to those two groups of people. You really need to click over and read John’s post because it hits the nail on the head.

After reading “Forward!” two thoughts came into my head as it relates to non-profit organizations.

  1. The existence of the “executive committee” is dangerous, especially if you aren’t careful about who sits on that committee.
  2. There are so many different decision-making paradigms that non-profit boards can use to make tough decisions, but few ever pay attention to these options.

Executive Committee

I believe that BoardSource is the non-profit sector’s leading authority on all things board governance. In an article titled “Should nonprofit boards have execuitve committees” they say:

“An executive committee can be an efficient tool, but not every board needs one. An executive committee should never replace the full board. “

I go a little farther than my diplomatic friends at BoardSource. While there are certainly times an executive committee makes sense (go read the BoardSource article), I think those circumstances are far and in between, and most non-profit organizations should banish their executive committee to their organizational waste bin!

As John talks about in his post titled “Forward!,” your board of directors has people with different values and agendas. If you boil it down in the same way John did, then you have people who thirst for change and you have people who fight against change. This dynamic is at play all around us (turn on CNN and spend some time following the Presidential election coverage), and it is at play in your boardroom.

If you have an executive committee full of “revolutionaries” (as John puts it), then you have set-up a sitution where a small group of board members can cry “FORWARD” and drag the rest of the board of directors with them (including over a cliff). Chaos reigns!

OK, my example might be a worst-case scenario . . . but I’ve seen it happen with my own two eyes.

Perhaps, a more common situation is where board members who aren’t on the executive committee disengage and stop attending board meetings. Yes, this can be the executive committee’s fault because the disengaged board member doesn’t see the urgency in attending board meetings or ensuring that quorum is attained. Why? Because the executive committee can always meet and take care of any pressing issue.

Ugh! If you must have an executive committee, I encourage you to use it sparingly and only in emergency situation. Most importantly, pay attention to who you put on the executive committee and make sure there is a balance between “monks” and “revolutionaries”.


If you’ve heard it once in the boardroom, then you’ve heard it a million times:

“All those in favor, say aye. Those opposed say no.”

Ahhh, yes . . . .Roberts Rules of Order, bylaws, majority rule . . . BUT it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many different decision-making paradigms that exist and some are better in certain circumstances.

If you have been reading recent posts at DonorDreams blog, then you know that I am on a Tony Stoltzfus kick as I re-read his book “Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills“.  Tony suggests there are 13 different decision-making strategies and he offers a variety of questions to help frame issues when using each of those paradigms. The following are just a few that you might find interesting for your board when making certain decisions:

  • Cost: What would it cost in terms of time and resources to do this? What would it cost if you don’t do this? What’s the cost if you don’t decide or let circumstances overtake you?
  • Alignment: How well does this decision align with your passions, your values, and your calling?
  • Relational: How will this course of action affect the people around you? Who will benefit, who will be hurt?

There are 10 other decision-making strategies that can be used to frame boardroom decisions, but I won’t steal Tony’s thunder. You really need to go purchase his book!

If John is right, then you have monks and revolutionaries in your boardroom. Some decisions will be tough to make. Sure, you can tilt the scales by making sure there are enough of one kind of decision-maker voting in the manner that you want and need . . . OR . . . you can be strategic and thoughtful with how you frame issues and engage board members in approaching certain decisions.

There is nothing that says you have to always use a majorty rule voting paradigm. After all, I bet that there are certain things in your organizational bylaws that require a “super majority” vote. So, why not employ a consensus building model in certain circumstances? It isn’t right in all circumstances, but it is sometimes.

Does your organization still operate with an executive committee? If so, when do you activate that group and what decisions do they typically make? Does your board use different decision-making paradigms in certain circumstances? If so, please share the specifics and how that has worked for you. You can share all of your thoughts using the comment box below.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847