“Where you stand is where you sit.”
It’s an old saying, but it’s true. The way you spend most of your time and invest most of your energy influences the way you think about the world and the way you act. For most people most of the time, this is a private choice with limited implications. As a nonprofit board member, that choice can be amplified throughout an entire organization.
With the exception of the top managers, no group in a nonprofit has more potential influence on organizational culture than its board of directors. This is because for strategic and operating purposes the board must work through its top managers. A board can have influence on culture through direct pathways as diverse as fundraising campaigns, advocacy, external relations and senior executive employment.
Streetsmart nonprofit executives often intuitively assess their board’s culture episodically, such as when a major decision must be made in a relatively short period. But it is in the more humdrum affairs of a nonprofit — the kind that show up as items on a board’s agenda — that a board’s culture has a regular impact. Although many nonprofit boards have an implicit expectation of unanimous votes on motions, it is in active discussion that the board most strongly shapes culture.
Board culture is the vehicle that carries the members’ values, and individual values are shaped by personal experiences and temperament, among other things. The title of this column represents the three areas that are most likely to shape board member behavior:
Time – Past, Present or Future
Board members’ orientation to time is a vastly underrated cultural force. A board, by definition, has to help lead the organization and that means the members must focus almost exclusively on the future. This is what strategy is supposed to be about.
A personal tension can arise for board members if their vocational affiliation’s learned habits conflict with focusing on the future. Bookkeepers, for example, must spend the majority of their time on transactions that have already occurred. In fact, many professionals – including attorneys, accountants and engineers – must spend most of their time dealing with decisions and guidelines that have long been in existence and are proven solutions to common problems.
Task – Convergent or Divergent
Similar to time orientation, board members will tend to be more comfortable in either a “convergent” or a “divergent” setting. Here’s what that means.
Many professional tasks require finding “the” right answer – or at least one of the right answers. Physicians do this when they make a diagnosis, and engineers do it when they research construction techniques with which others have reported success in the past. Lawyers search out laws, cases and precedents. For many, these pursuits are inherently satisfying because discovering the right answer offers a sense of symmetry and closure. The symbolism of a long journey toward the truth is irresistible for convergent thinkers.
But when the board must decide which program to expand, or what market to enter, the convergent members are at an automatic disadvantage because there is no obvious right answer. Worse, definitive feedback on the choice is likely to be unavailable for years at best and it might seem forever ambiguous.
Some professional roles demand convergent thinking. People in marketing or fundraising or many parts of the media tend be divergent thinkers. They will typically start with the same information as everyone else but end up seeing patterns, choices, and tendencies. They will usually have creative ideas, but for their convergent thinker colleagues those ideas might be maddeningly unproven or even impossible to prove.
Turf – Local, State or National
Finally, board members will almost always have a preferred orientation to geography which, roughly speaking, will be either local, state, or national/global. These preferences come out most easily when a board discusses expansion or matters of strategy. Readers who have been around different nonprofits are almost certain to have experienced the fierce “homer” board member whose primary strategic interests end at the nearest municipal border, or the global thinker who sees the world through an international lens.
Local turf orientation is a particularly strong cultural force that is often at the heart of nonprofit missions. One of the reasons why there are so many human service nonprofits is because many states sought to motivate grassroots groups in deinstitutionalizing large institutions in the 60s and 70s. Today’s charter schools often replicate this model, although ultimately there is no geographic orientation inherent in charter schools either. Some have already moved beyond their original borders, so board members with strong local orientations have had to change accordingly.
Manage the Comfort Zones
The key for nonprofit managers is to anticipate the impact of their board members’ time, task and turf comfort zones. The first step is to assess each board member’s preferences at the outset of board service and then, with the board chair, try to match their area of responsibility with their styles. This step alone will save time later on by reducing friction points.
Self-selection tends to prevent a lot of mismatches. Past-oriented convergent thinkers are most likely to gravitate to financial committees. Similarly, convergent local thinkers are highly unlikely to be interested in serving on a large entity’s board of directors. They might be pegged as barriers to progress if they do serve.
Future-oriented global thinkers will rarely entertain local board service, while divergent global board members could prove to be fundraising stars. The latter situation is often how nonprofits mount successful development efforts, as compatible board members engage each other in an enduring cycle of oneupsmanship.
The mixture of board members’ orientations is crucial. Convergent thinkers with for-profit backgrounds in law, financial management or consulting might eagerly offer their services on a project for the organization, but this can be like the occupants of a small boat all running to the same side at once. When the nominating committee seeks new members, it should spend as much time considering the new balance they are creating as they do on board members’ skills.
Orientation to time, task and turf is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of nonprofit board culture. Where you stand really is where you sit — and serve. NPT
Thomas A. McLaughlin is the founder of the consulting firm McLaughlin & Associates and a faculty member at the Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis University. He is the author of “Nonprofit Strategic Positioning,” published by Wiley & Sons. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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