Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Is Consensus Our Board Goal?

How many real decisions did your board make in the past year, beyond the budget and any routine signoffs that various funders might require? Do you ever wonder whether your primary goal, as a board, is to help lead the organization or to be sure everyone gets along and is not offended by a decision or position of the organization?

When I speak with board members of various nonprofit organizations, it seems pretty typical for many boards to go for months, even years, without posing a true decision for the board. How could this be? 

I regularly hear comments like: 
·         We always approve everything unanimously
·         It is uncomfortable to disagree
·         Decisions are made before the issue comes to the board
·         The board shouldn’t be just a rubber stamp

In contrast, I am supporting an organization through a strategic planning process who perceived everyone on the board was in general agreement and had full understanding of their program model and organizational priorities until they got into the planning kickoff discussion. Underlying perceptions and assumptions have come to light and now can be more clearly defined and stated.

If you are a CEO or board leader, these possibilities can feel uncomfortable because it can be difficult to actually get things done if every  decision is opened up to broad discussion. In addition, board members are usually not “experts” on the particular topic at hand and it takes time to appropriately equip your board team to have critical discussion and make important decisions.

A Starting Point:
·         Confirm what authority the staff leader has to make decisions – most organization decisions should be made by the CEO/Executive Director within the constraints of the budget and strategic plan
·         With the full board, define the expectations of the Executive Committee in determining what discussions and decisions come to the board. Define what decisions, if any, the Executive Committee will make.
·         Focus board discussions around future issues and high level discussions of who you serve and how you allocate resources to best accomplish your mission.
·         Don’t bring a decision to the board for approval if the CEO/Executive Director has the authority to make the decision – put it in the CEOs Report as an FYI
·         Clarify what your bylaws say about making decisions. Most boards make most decisions with the majority of members in attendance(assuming quorum). Learn to disagree with each other respectfully and allow time for discussion separate from the decision.
·         How can you better equip your board members to understand the people you serve and the way you do your work?  They will make better decisions and share your story with more confidence and clarity.
·         Do not get stuck in consensus or unanimous mode, because it can empower one or two individuals to control the destiny of the organization by withholding their votes.
·         It is important for board members who disagree to be willing to support the decision after their perspective has been acknowledged and considered.

By Bryan Orander, President, Charitable Advisor and Not-for-Profit News

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