In 2010, when I made the switch from a mid-level position in a for-profit company to the executive director of a large nonprofit, corporate foundation, I felt instantly frustrated by the level of consensus required to get anything done.
I quickly realized that my new role required a more inclusive, consultative, and consensus-building approach with donors, stakeholders and, especially — my board.
Nonprofit board members arrive with varying goals, personal agendas, and frankly, degrees of interest.
In theory, all board members are aligned on mission. But in reality, the full board is almost never present and completely engaged all of the time.
As a result, decision making stalls, and conversations, discussions, and agendas are on rinse and repeat (is anyone listening?!), and action is delayed and delayed and delayed.
Executive directors need to manage this complex dynamic because, ultimately, they are the ones responsible for unmet goals.
Many times I felt like I was standing on the starting block: Get ready. Get set. Get set. Get set….
Here are 4 strategies that have enabled me to get boards from “get set” to “go!”:
Seek alignment on big picture strategies — not tactics.
You’ve been there. After weeks of research and consultation, you finish presenting an insightful recommendation on how your organization can transform a program to achieve better results for those you serve when a well-intentioned board member raises her hand and wants to know who will be responsible for sending the emails you mentioned on slide three, bullet two.
What? Slide three? Emails!?
This seemingly harmless question now snowballs into a board discussion, and suddenly, your big picture has just been reduced to thumbnails. And your entire strategy is off the rails because of a tactical question on yes — emails.
My advice: Think what and why … not how.
Unless you have a highly strategic board, every time you introduce unnecessary details along with a proposed strategy, you run the risk of taking a hit on operational tactics, which may ultimately call the underlying strategy into question simply by association.
This is because most boards are wired for compliance, diligence, and oversight (and this is a legit part of their role). But, unfortunately, compliance and oversight don’t drive transformational change the way innovation and strategy do.
I am not suggesting deliberately hiding things from your board. But once you have achieved consensus on the what and the why, the how will come easier.
Do your homework and be prepared with appropriate details and tactics should someone ask, but remember that less is more in a full boardroom.
Build trust, one member at a time.
At first this may not seem like new advice — but read closely.
The boardroom is a highly nuanced environment. As much as board members are there to serve the mission first and foremost, they are also made up of human beings with personal and political aspirations and differing points of view.
The more you invest in building relationships with the individuals who make up your board, the more you will understand what makes them tick, what is important to them, and what specific value each brings.
Make it your mission to build relationships with each member individually. And call on members for advice from time-to-time.
As you develop strategies and related activities, think about how each member might respond. Get ahead of their concerns before you approach the full board.
As an example:
I once needed approval from my board about a direction that would likely result in the need for more resources. Before I took the idea to the president and executive committee, I made a list of the board members who were known fiscal conservatives. I called each one and asked for advice and perspective as I built the case (not after). It saved a tremendous amount of time, and instead of naysayers, I had champions.
Find the influencers. So you can turn them into champions.
It goes without saying that you should build a solid relationship based on trust and transparency with your president and executive committee, as they possess the most direct power. However, unspoken power dynamics across the whole board always exist and should not be ignored.
Identify who the informal leaders are. Look for a core group of influencers who have particular power, and make it a priority to understand their agendas and work to build rapport.
In fact, failing to seek out these informal leaders may impact your ability to build trust.
Also recognize there is a difference between interactions outside the boardroom and interactions inside the boardroom. You can cultivate support in advance to rally board members’ support, yet once members are together, dynamics can change.
Be prepared for such a shift — and rely on your influencers to help with the political heavy-lifting.
Create a sense of urgency!
Rather than creating a sense of panicky, cortisol-inducing urgency, strive for inspired enthusiasm that elicits emotion and propels people to act.
In his book Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, argues that emotion is a necessary ingredient to almost all decisions.
When we are confronted with a decision, emotions from previous, related experiences affix values to the options we are considering. And these emotions create preferences that compel our decision.
As a nonprofit executive, you need look no further than your mission to find emotion.
Your overall approach will depend on culture. Some boards are naturally more comfortable moving quickly and others require copious diligence before they will take action.
Bottom line: never propose an action without inexorably linking it to a specific outcome or outcomes.
To bring in emotional elements, consider sharing a story about how board action will lead to positive change for those you serve. And use real examples. Even better, present the counterfactual: “If we do not make this change or a similar one, 30% more of the children in our community will be without the necessary nutrition they need.”
Suddenly, no one cares about emails on slide three.
Although creating a sense of urgency is not as straightforward as the other three strategies, if done well, it may be the most powerful strategy of them all.
Courage, inspiration, and trust.
As much as we’d like to believe that our boards are as close to our work as we are and understand as much as we do, the reality is, very few of them have direct experience serving beneficiaries. As social change leaders, it’s on us to build trust with individual board members in order to achieve collective buy-in. We need to inspire our boards with sound strategies and compelling stories – not tactics to get to “go!” sooner.
Those we serve are waiting.
Tell me how these strategies (or others) have worked for you.