How Does Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Impact A Nonprofit Board?


How Does Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Impact A Nonprofit Board?

By: Eugene Fram                   Free Digital Photo

There are many ways to assess the balance of capabilities on nonprofit board board members. EDs and board chairs are generally familiar with the implications of terms like IQ (cognitive ability) and EQ (emotional intelligence). New research has added a third characteristic— cultural intelligence or CQ. * Obviously, CQ comes into focus when boards are dealing with global or international issues. But its usefulness is still germane to community-based and/or domestically focused professional/trade associations. Making a change in board strategy is at best a challenging process. But when that plan collides with cultural differences, board culture will trump change. To paraphrase Peter Drucker’s well-known pronouncement—“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast Daily.”

Following are a few of the many types of nonprofit CQ divisions that I have observed:

  • Baby Boomers vs. Millennials: Up to this point in their history, NFP boards have tended to be quite organizationally conservative, but this may be changing rapidly. One of the most prominent developments is the influence of the millennials, those born rough between 1980 and the turn of the new century. The new cohorts tend to have cultural values that are quite different from those their parent or grandparents.

Millennial work patterns, for example, are more informal, often spanning long hours and ignoring 9 to 5 routines. All of this can create a cultural gap between themselves and their boomer board colleagues and between baby boom management and other non-millennial staffs. As they move into senior management positions, will they collide with those who have adhered to traditional conservative nonprofit cultures?    Currently their social values align with those of many human service nonprofits. But in the future, will cultural values they encounter frustrate them to the point of turning their energies toward other career opportunities? One study concludes, “Despite what you may have heard, millennials aren’t lazy.  In fact they’re downright work-obsessed–and it’s making life worse for everybody.”  **

  • Entrepreneurs vs.Public Service Backgrounds: Persons with public service backgrounds tend to move slowly in bringing about change. For example, the challenge of developing consensus among city council members can be daunting.  In contrast, an entrepreneur must be able to pivot his/h organization quickly from plan A to plan B. Consequently, “processing” takes precedent over “pivoting” when  NFP organizational change is proposed. These two board types bring different tempos to board discussions.  If the gap is left unresolved, the entrepreneur may leave and a valuable voice is lost. Unfortunately, in my experience, I have met too many entrepreneurs who simply refuse to accept nonprofit board positions because of this discrepancy.
  • Management Backgrounds vs.Independent Contributors: Persons with management backgrounds are directors who have had leadership responsibilities with small or large groups of subordinates. Independent contributors are those who basically work alone or may only have responsibilities for just a few subordinates—e.g., attorneys, professors, planners or physicians.   Board members in the latter group can assume they have  management knowledge superior to the executive director’s or other senior personnel. Often their insights are outside a manager’s experience “space.”  This creates a cultural gap that can be harmful to nonprofit’s operations.   Example: A medical association board refused to set performance standards for its executive director and staff. The ED commented, Board members don’t want to build trust and establish mutually accepted goals, these guys just want to give orders.  The cultural gap was substantial because management and staff did not know the standards and behaviors by which they will be judged annually. Another staff colleague angrily commented, I’m not going to allow a twenty-something medical intern order me what to do!

How to bridge the gap

  • Board chairs and EDs should develop a realistic inventory of the types of CQs on their board to be certain that one style is does not dominate. It appears that the medical association mentioned  above needs some board members outside if its medical culture.
  • With the continual turnover of board membership and with annually changing board chairs, the ED needs to assume long-term responsibility for the inventory.
  • It probably is not possible to develop a perfect balance of cultural norms.  As a result, the chair and ED must make sure that those who have “minority CQs,” such as the entrepreneur described above, feel that their participation is meaningful and appreciated.
  • Never underestimate the impact of culture and its various CQ components.   The dominant legacy culture, especially with successful nonprofits, must be widely accepted. But it also should be reviewed occasionally to make certain that the board is not simply accepting it at face value. The impacts must be robust performance for all clients, along with innovative and operational effectiveness.

Assessing board members’ CQ categories can be a challenge for many chairs and EDs. These categories often do not fit into discrete groupings like age and educational levels. But reviewing them over time should be helpful. They allow chairs and EDs to better retain those productive outliers whose CQs may not fit the traditional legacy culture.


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