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

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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. He/s also needs some modicum of culture intelligence (CQ) to understand  the strengths and limitations being addressed for change.  It may be that the nonprofit’s culture is strong, but it faces significant headwinds to which the culture is oblivious.  Example: Many nonprofit counseling agencies ignored the increased used of prescription medicines that significantly impacted their client counts.

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 to join 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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4 comments

  1. An interesting article. It brought to my mind what I think of as lazy decision makers – board members who support a decision without actually giving the matter any thought. Give me a DA anytime ahead of someone who always goes with the flow.

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    1. I agree, but many organizations have cultures that shun them and venerate the lazy decision makers. Humorously, the latter group can be described as suffering from “Gonnaitis” — always going to do something.

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  2. Great article and conclusions, Eugene. One key you mention and I think it’s THE key – the DA makes their case in a non-confrontational way. DAs who do that end up having the respect of the full board even when the majority disagrees with them.

    There are other self-proclaimed DA’s that I have witnessed who are about their own agenda and use intimidating tactics under the guise of accountability or something else. This should be rare on a board but I have seen it too often.

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