Creating a Strategic Board
Back in 2005, BoardSource commissioned a study called “The Source” to identify factors that differentiated high performing boards from others. They identified twelve factors that fall into 4 groups. But of these, perhaps the most important is that effective boards think and act strategically because from that single action, most of the others follow.
Creating a strategic plan serves as one important aspect of thinking and acting strategically, but that alone is not enough. The planning process – when done well – should start the board on a path for strategic thinking that should continue at each board meeting.
So, what does it mean to think and act strategically?
Merriam Webster Dictionary has numerous definitions of “strategic,” the most relevant of which comes from evolutionary biology: “the ability to adapt to a changing environment.” Just like a living, breathing (carbon-based) organism has to adapt to its environment or face extinction, so does an organization. Those that don’t – or can’t – adapt, die. Think of the giraffe’s ancestors who grew a long neck and knobby knees to efficiently eat the leaves off the tree as grass and other ground-based food became scarce. Those with genes for shorter necks that could not reach the trees died off and, along with it, the genes that created short-necked giraffes ceased to exist.
So how does this apply to nonprofit organizations and boards?
The environment in which nonprofits operate changes constantly, must faster than the evolutionary factors that created giraffes. Government regulations (or lack thereof), the economy, tax laws, and a myriad of other factors continually exert changing forces on nonprofits. This means board members need to adapt must faster to effectively respond to these changes.
Boards that think strategically take into consideration these environmental factors not only today, but those that could impact it in the future and then respond accordingly. To paraphrase hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, they “skate not where the puck is, but where it will be.”
How can boards create an environment for strategic thinking and action?
Educate board members on the organization’s programs so they have a firm understanding of what the organization does, how it operates, and who it serves.
They need to start from a foundation of truth and reality, not a passive understanding of the organization. And board members need to take the time to learn about the organization.
Provide information on the broader environment in which the organization operates and the implication of those broader factors on the organization.
Will pending legislation impact your organization? Will some larger social trend impact your community’s need for your services? Make sure you share these with your board members – and board members, take time to learn about and truly understand these broader environmental factors.
Create time for strategic thinking.
The strategic issues the board needs to discuss often do not have simple answers. A meeting agenda filled with reports leaves no time for strategic thinking. Be sure you leave ample time to have these discussions at each meeting.
Create an environment for strategic thinking.
Strategic thinking gets messy. With no clear answers, the board chair needs to create an environment of trust and openness in which every board member feels comfortable and safe enough to ask questions and express his or her opinion. Encouraging everyone to participate, allowing constructive and respectful disagreement, and respecting everyone’s opinion and perspective start to create this safe environment.
Provide a mechanism to convert strategic thought into strategic action.
Some boards talk an issue to death but never get off the dime to make any changes. How will you act differently because of this issue? You may decide not to take any action at the moment but to continue to monitor the issue. If so, put it on future agendas. You may decide to make a radical change in how the organization operates. Begin to put the pieces in place to make that change. Regardless, have an end goal of the strategic thinking in mind.
Just like the environment never stops changing, the board’s need to engage in critical thinking and action never ends.