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

Are some Executive Directors deliberately disengaging their non-profit board volunteers?

I’ve been on a board governance and board development kick lately. One of the big thought-leaders in this area is Richard Chait, who is a Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the authors of “Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards,” and I am a big fan of his work.

I recently came across a white paper published by Bader & Associates Governance Consultants in Potomac, MD. It is a simple to read two-page interview with Richard Chait about his book and the idea of generative conversations in the boardroom. I keep re-reading this white paper every few weeks, and it sparks a new thought every time I read it.

For example, I read the following passage this morning:

“Generative governance engages and challenges trustees intellectually. It’s what leaders do best. Yet most boards spend most of their time on fiduciary work, and they devote little time to the generative mode.”

In other words, boards are talking more about things like “can we afford that” and “where is the money coming from for that” and not talking about “are we being impacted by a larger trend and if so what should we do about it“.

When I read the aforementioned quote this morning, a wicked thought popped into my head, and I wondered if non-profit executive directors purposely keep their board volunteers focused on the “little picture” in an attempt to keep them out of the decision-making on the “big picture”?

I admit that this is a cynical thought, but I just wonder . . . Hmmmmmmm?

It is so hard to build consensus with 15 or 20 people sitting around a boardroom table. A good facilitator makes it look so easy, but it really is a gift. From what I see from many of my non-profit friends, they are hired for their fundraising and program/operations skills. I can honestly say that I’ve never worked with a search committee that said “facilitation skills” were a top skill set they were looking for in an executive director.

Is it possible that we have a dynamic where the executive director is trying to lead and it is too difficult to get the group to make big decisions on big issues; so they focus the group on tactical issues because it is easier (and important to the day-to-day functioning of the agency). When it comes time to make those big decisions, the executive director engages a few key board members who are of like mind and have influence with their peers and the decision gets made.

The net impact of this approach is widespread disengagement among board members.

OK, so here is the question this morning. Did I just wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning and cynical thoughts are rampaging through my head. Or do you think this is likely happening in a number of non-profit organizations in your community? The better question might be “what needs to be done to fix this, and are Chait’s suggestions this right perscription?”

Please join me by taking a good hard look in the mirror this morning and share your assessment in the comment box below.

Here’s to your health!

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