Healthy Nonprofit Board Decision-Making and Relations

By Sandra Harris HowardSenior Trainer and Facilitator at Joining Vision and Action

In my recent work supporting executive directors with their nonprofit board relations, I was asked a thought-provoking question:

“Is there ever dissention among members of the board of directors?”

My immediate response was, “Of course—how boring would it be if board members always agreed!” The reality is that board members commit to their role of supporting the mission of the organization with passion. It takes intentionality to have a healthy balance of dissent and discussion in making decisions on boards.  Ultimately, decisions made by board members reflect their fiduciary responsibility for the organization and should be carefully considered.

Groupthink

In an atmosphere of respect and responsibility for the board, a robust discussion of issues facilitates the best decision-making, and it is encouraged. Individual members may have perspectives that are vital to the matter at hand. The absence of dissention or discussion of differing opinions reminds me of “groupthink.” You may have heard the term, coined by Irving Janis in 1972¹.  Groupthink happens when members of a cohesive group regularly have agreement without hearing or considering diverse perspectives. Those who do not agree tend to silence their opinion in order to go along with the majority of the group. It is a peacekeeping position, but at what cost?

For the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), groupthink caused the tragedy with the Space Shuttle Challenger on a fateful day in 1986. I was one of millions of children and adults who watched the launch of the Challenger with anticipation and excitement. After 73 seconds, we were horrified as the shuttle exploded and crashed into the ocean.

A few years ago, I learned about NASA’s decision to go ahead with the shuttle launch despite safety warnings from engineers about the O-ring seals in temperatures below 53 degrees.  After reporting the concern to the executives at NASA, a “no-go” from the engineers was changed to a “go” launch. However, the launch day temperature of 20 degrees confirmed the engineers’ apprehension.  The O-rings failed to seal rocket motor gaps and resulted in the subsequent explosion, and loss of life for seven crewmembers, including a schoolteacher².

Rubber-stamping

Another related term for how boards make decisions without discussion is called rubber-stamping. In my very early board experience, we were instructed to read documents, have ideas and ask questions. The instructions were “Don’t just rubber stamp it.” In other words, the chairperson of the board was encouraged to share knowledge and seek input from board members prior to approving a policy or issue.

So, there has to be some harmony between board dissention, avoiding rubber-stamping, and groupthink, right?! On one hand, we don’t want board members to disagree at the risk of delaying important decisions. A “rubber stamp” or “groupthink” culture is not welcome either. What is the happy medium in making great board decisions and maintaining healthy relationships?

Here are six areas to consider:

1. Build relationships.

Get to know your board chair and board members. Allow for opportunities where the board can get to know each other.  These moments can happen in meetings, board retreats and individual calls, or meetings with and among board members.

2. Determine core values.

Establish shared core values with the staff and board. These values are beliefs that help guide the behavior of individual staff, board members and participants in the community of your organization. As an example, our friends at Clinica Tepeyac have core values of dignity, integrity, and quality.

3. Follow bylaws.

Support the board in having bylaws, with frequent review and adjustments when needed. The bylaws govern how the board operates with each other and how decisions are made. Bylaws can include a strategy for how the board steers the organization toward sustainability. They also cover governance around ethical, legal and financial policies. Other topics such as member terms, voting procedures, officers, committees and amendments are often in the bylaws.

4. Share information.

Provide board members with relevant information on key decision items. It is best, when possible, to get the information out prior to the meeting.

5. Value diversity and inclusion.

Be intentional about having diversity on the board. Diverse perspectives, age, gender, race and ethnicity are starting points for considering inclusivity.

6. Provide meaningful work.

Board members are serving the organization as volunteers in an important capacity. Honor their time with worthwhile work that aligns with their interests, skills and talents.

To get more insight, depth, and tools for your role as an executive director, don’t miss the upcoming Executive Director Academy on April 16–20 at JVA!


¹Janis I. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

² Janis, I. (1991). Groupthink. In E. Griffin (Ed.) A first look at communication theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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