I’ve summarised the key points from this article by McKinsey& Co which starts with the advice that ‘Directors need to probe, nudge, and prod to make sure the organisation achieves its full potential.’ That reminds me of a board I used to chair some while ago when the CEO said to me one day, ‘I so enjoy having you on the board because you ask the dumbest questions’. I decided I’d take that comment as a compliment although others have suggested that perhaps that wasn’t what she intended!
As the article says, a great many non-profit boards are under-delivering and certainly that has been my observation of many of the boards I have worked with. This could be due to inexperienced board members, boards who don’t follow current good governance practice, or board members who are not particularly engaged with or passionate about the board.
If you know how to probe, nudge, prod, you can help your board perform better. Doing so starts with courage. In our experience, non-profit board members are often reluctant to contribute actively to discussions for fear that they will appear uninformed or cause an embarrassing ruckus. To be effective, you must overcome that fear. And then you must ask questions. Ask all your questions, even ones you fear might seem stupid, and keep asking them until you figure out what the smart questions are. Then demand answers to the smart questions. If you don’t get good answers to your smart questions, or if you don’t get support from your fellow board members when you ask those questions, then resign.
Question 1: Are we succumbing to mission creep?
Many non-profit mission (or Purpose) statements are too vague or too lofty and board members don’t really know their organisation’s mission. An unintended consequence of such fuzziness is mission creep, a debilitating virus that takes non-profits far beyond their core competencies.
Question 2: How is our /theory of change’ informing our strategy?
A theory of change is a rigorous description of exactly how an organisation’s work – its portfolio of initiatives and interventions – will help achieve the given mission. It’s a step-by-step outline of how organisational activity will translate into impact for beneficiaries. An example is, ‘what evidence do we have that our intervention will bring about the intended results?’
Question 3: How are we evaluating our impact? If you are serious about helping your non-profit achieve its mission, you need to insist on regular impact measurement, not as a pro forma obligation but as part of a dynamic feedback loop that helps drive organisational strategy. Far from being a mere box to tick, evaluation can drive a virtuous cycle in which an organisation tests its theory of change and strategy and then improves its programs in response to what it learns.
Question 4: Do we have the right ‘fuel’ to drive our organisation? A non-profit is more than its mission, strategy, and impact. It’s also a living, breathing organism that requires “fuel” – great people, an effective organisation, sufficient funding, and the like – to operate. As a non-profit board member, you need to check your organisation’s “fuel gauges” on a regular basis. Keeping an eye on the fuel gauge also means regularly asking at board meetings, ‘does our organisation have the people needed to achieve our mission?’
Serving on a non-profit board in the years ahead represents an extraordinary opportunity for impact on society, and on the non-profit itself. But if you want to be an effective strategic leader, you must engage fully on your organisation’s mission; seize opportunities to observe frontline works; and at each board meeting take every chance to confront the big, long-term issues by asking tough questions. The best quip that we ever heard on this subject conveys a vital truth: “I have no objection to a good discussion breaking out in the middle of a board meeting”.