Nonprofit Board Discourse: a Meeting of the Minds??
By: Eugene Fram
Several years ago, a nonprofit director complained to me that there was too little “conflict” at board meetings. Too few hands were raised to challenge or simply question the efficacy of certain important agenda items. Having participated in hundreds of nonprofit meetings, I can vehemently report that this laissez-faire response still typifies the majority of director attitudes, especially for items that deserve vigorous discussion. Why is that? And why is the term conflict perceived as an asset to an organization that is determined to move forward? Below are some answers based on my own experience in the nonprofit environment.
- Major Focus is on Operations: As I have commented in other posts, focusing on operations seems to be a default option for many nonprofits. Unlike members of business boards who have substantial financial investments in their organizations, nonprofit board members are volunteers with little personal risk and with insufficient motivation to challenge the status quo. Since the median nonprofit director’s term of service is seldom greater than 6 years, a board member can lack significant interest in the nonprofit’s long term future. In addition operational items are more concrete and inherently more interesting because many center on people related decisions. Then there’s the “nice guy” impulse—directors’ meetings are usually brief (1 to 1.5 hours) and board member are often reluctant to voice dissenting views that may offend colleagues and extend meeting times.
Encouraging “Constructive Conflict”
- Preparation Is Critical: Review of governance agenda materials leads the way to more rigorous discussions. This requires nonprofits to provide meeting materials at least one week in advance to facilitate fact- based discussions. Some may argue that busy board members will ignore materials well in advance of the meetings. But isn’t it a solid advantage to have some of the most interested board members well briefed for the meeting?
- The importance of mission: As much as possible, the board chair needs to frame each agenda item in light of its impact the nonprofit’s mission. This helps eliminate frivolous comments and questions, e.g., voting on the color of the menu at the annual diner. These distractions, like responding to tweets, detract from discussing substantive issues. Chairs can diplomatically eliminate them by simply suggesting the issue can be handled “off line.”
- Recruitment: Nominating candidates for the board who have the abilities to interact effectively at meetings are important to improving the quality and quantity of meeting discussions. While nonprofits often need a diversity of board members from different fields and backgrounds, they also must have a core of directors who know the differences between governance and operational activities, who understand what is involved in critical thinking, have demonstrated leadership elsewhere and have broad understandings of what constitutes strategic planning. Otherwise the board, like the one I encountered, had many very busy middle level managers who did well on time-constrained specific projects, but they had no interest in governance or strategic planning. The de facto result was that the Board Chair authoritatively operated the board.
- Getting Together: Currently, most nonprofit board members live time-compressed lifestyles and only connect with others at formal board or committee meetings. To build an effective team decision-making, board members need to know each other personally and professionally. Board chairs and CEOs must take steps to provide social or professional occasions for the board at which directors can interact. Sometimes a simple 10-minute agenda item at a meeting asking each member to briefly review personal or professional events can help—as proven by organizations like Rotary.
The absence of conflict reflects blind trust rather than a good professional relationship. Likewise, professional tensions between the (board and management) are signs of a well-performing board. We should habitually become suspicious when we observe boards where dissent is absent.*
Passion vs. Passivity: The nonprofit director who lamented the absence of “conflict” in the boardroom recognizes that an engaged and often challenging governing body is in the best interest of a healthy and forward moving organization.