The Devil’s Advocate on a Nonprofit Board: Asset or Liability?

The Devil’s Advocate on a Nonprofit Board: Asset or Liability?

By: Eugene Fram

An unwritten rule for nonprofit board membership is that it is best to “go along to get along.” But sometimes a nonprofit director’s “no” vote to an action that has had inadequate discussion can allow him/h to avoid tax penalties that have been levied on other board members for lack of due care.

Stanford University research results indicate that groups with a lone minority dissenter outperform other groups where all members agree. In addition, these groups…”are more successful than (groups) in which all members disagree and fall prey to escalated emotional, difficult-to resolve (group) brawls “ *

The key to success, according to these data, is to,” … have a devil’s advocate (DA) on the nonprofit board. … This is a person or a small board minority that “has the sensitivity to see the differences, perceives them as conflict, and then communicates about the differences in non-confrontational ways.”**

At least one board member with, “high emotional intelligence is needed to play the devil’s advocate role.” *** Other desirable characteristics of a DA are:

• A person(s) with an emotional attachment to the mission generated from personal experience, e.g., a parent whose child has early onset diabetes and has DA attributes described above.
• A person(s) who can be involved with board conflict and not be personally overwhelmed by it.
• A person(s) who does not owe allegiance to friends, family or colleagues also serving on he board.
• A person(s) who has acted as a change agent with other for-profit or nonprofit boards.
• A person(s) with sufficient time to positively drive change.

Can/Should Nonprofits Seek Board Candidates Who Might Become DAs?

On the surface, seeking such person might be a waste of time. Most nonprofits seek board members whom they can acculturate to the board norms, not those who might promote board disruptions or conflicts.

Most of the characteristics described above are hard to assess because they are qualitative in character and require the nominations committee to have some unusual sophistication in the interviewing process. For example, the person needs to be visionary to see beyond the current “box” in which the organization finds itself, a difficult trait to perceive in an interview or from records.

What Can A DA Contribute To A Nonprofit?

• Help develop an enhanced vision that allows the organization to avoid the impact of disruptions by technology for social changes.
• Help reduce the conflict that will inevitably take place between legacy minded board members and those who want organization modification or reform.
• Help set the tone for change.
• Celebrate the “health and welfare” of what has been accomplished in the past.
• Demonstrate the importance of independent thinking and how it may impact the future of the organization.
• Help interest board candidates and potential senior managers in the nonprofit.

While the need for a nonprofit board DA will be situational, every board needs to occasionally ask itself if a new one will add to its productivity. If the answer is “yes,” then the challenging task is seeking one. Often an independent thinking DA can have productive visions that an acculturated majority on the board needs to consider. In these cases, a DA can be a significant asset.

* https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/do-you-have-contrarian-your-team
** Ibid.
*** Ibid

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10 comments

  1. I disagree that a Devil’s Advocate is helpful to a Nonprofit Board. Differing points of view, alternative problem resolutions offered in discussion can foster a well informed decision. A DA who is habitually argumentative will be more adept at impeding progress, and creating personal conflicts between board members. Even worse the DA can inspire Nonprofit staff to exceed their authority rather than solicit it’s Board for direction. Or disrespect one or more board members and perceive them as incompetent. I have dealt with too many DAs. They claim the intent is to get the board to think more before making a decision. Sometimes the strategy is successful. But the board would be better off with viable action alternative instead of obstinance.

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    1. Norm: Thanks for extending the discussion. As noted in the article, a nonprofit should seek a a DA with a high EQ or Emotional Intelligence. This person knows how to be persistent without alienating all others.

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  2. Very good and needed perspective to counter the softened group think culture that entrenches. I greatly appreciate your work here and this type of diversity is needed on every nonprofit board. It’s important for all to understand this is a smart role by a person who can have critical conversations that are helpful in long run. Thank you.

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  3. An excellent article, Dr. Fram, with sound advice to recruit trustees with the needed skills and attributes to compliment a Board’s overall diversity needs. These recruits must possess mature emotional intelligence and have a compassionate capability to apply this quality when challenging proposed actions (not individual Trustees), which appear to them to be biased, sustain negative or status quo outcomes, or have been inadequately researched or tested to yet be considered by the Board. These are rare individuals, but they can be found if one searches with care and a priority focus upon selecting candidates with mature, emotional intelligence characteristics.

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