By John Thomas
Not long ago, I asked a board on which I serve to do a little exercise. Each person on the board was to send me an email answering the following questions about one of our key programs:
- What do we want to achieve – what are our objectives for this program and its subparts?
- Are we accomplishing our objectives?
- How do we measure success?
The initial reaction to my request was impatience. Some of the board members seemed to think it was a needless exercise. After all, the program had been going on for some time and “everybody knows” the answers to these questions. And, besides, couldn’t we just have a conversation and get this taken care of?
“Humor me,” I said.
As you might guess, when I got the emailed responses, they didn’t suggest the notion that “everybody knows” the program’s objectives. In fact, the answers varied widely in some cases. After that exercise, we were able to begin a process that resulted in radical change to the program, and a new level of success.
Unfortunately, this “everybody knows” mentality is common with nonprofit boards, and it develops for a number of reasons. For example, a board member often carries forward the mindsets and opinions of the person who recruited him or her; in other cases, a member might join a board with such a passion for the cause that he or she sees it as a moral commitment … that “must” be shared by everyone.
So, it pays to ask the question. But why ask for an email rather than a conversation? For a few reasons:
- Everyone must contribute. In a meeting, it’s easy for people to drop out of the conversation.
- People can’t simply nod and move on. Strong personalities can steer public conversations. In private, people have to deliver their own thoughts. Remember: If you’re seeking to gather information, go one-on-one; if you’re looking to deliver information broadly or generate ideas, the group dynamic often works best.
- People think more when they write. Forced to put something into writing, we tend to consider it more deeply and, therefore, offer something that reflects a core idea rather than the first thing that comes into our minds.
- You know who said what. Individual statements can get lost in meeting minutes. If someone says something that needs to be addressed directly, it’s much easier to have that conversation if you have a direct attribution.
- You know who can deliver information succinctly, and who needs to be coached. You need your board members to be able to describe your organization and its mission in clear, simple terms. If you get their thoughts in writing, you’ll know right away if certain board members are struggling to deliver your key messages succinctly or if they simply have the messages wrong. From this exercise, you might discover that you need to have a Mission 101 session with your board, and a workshop on describing that mission.
Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of group discussions. The collective wisdom and big ideas that can flow from a good meeting cannot be matched by one person sitting alone. But there are times when you need to do a reality check, and when that’s the case, it’s often best to get it in writing.
If you asked your board for this kind of email, would you get what “everybody knows”? Or would you get the clear message that you have a lot of work to do with your board.