Can Transformative Leaders Succeed on a Nonprofit Board?

Can Transformative Leaders Succeed on a Nonprofit Board?

By Eugene Fram

According to Malcolm Gladwell, noted writer and analyst, people who drive transformation share three traits: courage, the ability to reframe problems and a sense of urgency “It is not enough,” he continues, “to have ideas— but (you must have) the discipline to carry them out. One has to tune out the naysayers and the rest of the world.”

Gladwell’s reported verbiage on the subject fairly crackles with energy and initiative, just the ticket for nonprofit boards who want to recruit and maintain engaged directors. But–not so fast—change is tough in the slow-paced nonprofit environment. CEOs and boards alike should look at Gladwell’s power markers in the context of the typical nonprofit culture.


Gladwell reportedly concludes, “people who possess courage are:
• Massively open and incredibly creative, willing to consider all kinds of innovative solutions
• Conscientious, willing to follow through on their ideas.
• Disagreeable and independent, willing to disagree with what the world perceives as a ‘norm.’ ”

My hunch is that Gladwell’s transformative “super stars” would likely grow impatient on a nonprofit board—perhaps lose interest in their intended quest for major change. They might even become more “disagreeable” in a setting where norms of collegiality and conservatism prevail. Self-starters are not always encouraged in many nonprofit environments. And innovation of any kind would probably be regarded as suspect. “We’ve tried that before,” is a common response when alternative solutions are proposed.

That being said, there are notable exceptions. One local human services board elected a director who was on the faculty of a nearby university and happened to be an expert in the mission’s field. Upon his arrival on the board, he immediately proposed radical changes, which he recognized as imperative to the organization’s growth, then threatened to resign if they were not adopted. During his four year tenure on the board, (and with the CEO’s strong support) he succeeded in creating expanded client capabilities, a feat which the CEO later said would have otherwise taken a decade to accomplish. In this case and others, chutzpah pays off!

Ability to reframe the problem

Gladwell’s emphasis on the ability of leaders to reframe problems is well taken. The value of developing fresh perspectives has been proven over and over in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. For 50 years, railroads of the last century declined because CEOs and their boards lacked the vision to reassess the nature of their market. Their entire focus had been on railroad operations, when in reality there was a more pressing need for expanded modes of transportation. In the human services field, there is the classic survival story of The March of Dimes whose mission was completely transformed after it was recognized that the discovery of the polio vaccine would decimate its founding purpose. Likewise, counseling agencies were late in reacting to the expanded use of improved medication, significantly reducing the necessity for one-on-one therapy.

Reframing problems can be difficult for nonprofits because directors do not work with the organization’s challenges every day and are often oblivious of looming crises. With exceptions, most boards look to the CEO and/or other senior managers for clues of potential problems.

Sense of Urgency

Gladwell is reported to conclude that “…change is so hard for many because of the difficulty of letting go of the legacy that was already built, no matter how outdated it is…it is a threat to someone’s ego…But to stay relevant, one needs to be open to transformation, even if it means rebuilding from scratch what one spent years constructing.”
Overnight changes and nonprofit boards are oxymorons. Most nonprofits are conservative bodies with a deep reverence for “process.” Their charters often call for that process to be deliberate and for directors to conserve the assets of the organization. There are serious financial constraints resulting from the nonprofit’s dependence on donation income. Outside of a significant crisis, working in this environment makes it its hard to generate a sense of urgency.

Gladwell Takeaways for Nonprofits

It is unlikely that there will be many nonprofit board members who possess all three of the qualities Gladwell describes. And it is equally unlikely that one or two board mover/shaker personalities can evangelize a change without the CEO solidly behind him/her. Yet, recent experiences with several nonprofit boards have convinced me that directors are generally apathetic to the idea of change, and the disruption that often comes with it. They appear to prefer the status quo. Unfortunately, this mindset persists even when confronted with the projection of alarming data that can impact the organization’s future. Those indications, in my opinion. call for a dash of Gladwellian director “courage”—regardless of the prevailing board culture!

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