6 Guidelines For Nonprofit Board Transformation

Board transformation is tempting. Many nonprofits feel hamstrung by sluggish governance or old board models no longer providing the kind of nimble, business-oriented leadership required in today's market.

But, the territory is a challenging one, with unseen dangers for the ill-prepared. Common things that go wrong include:

  • Not understanding the forces that have shaped the board to be what it is today. Without clear insight, the new board may repeat the old board's behavior.
  • Failure to include key players not on the board who have the power to derail or impede success.
  • Acting in isolation, failing to study relevant examples in other organizations.
  • Communicating in jargon or legalese resulting in key stakeholders who do not understand what you are trying to achieve and how you are going about it.
  • Circumvention of due process, the very activity that is your best insurance for success.
  • Faltering or hesitant execution, once the path forward is known.

I have worked with over 100 nonprofits since 1996, and been privy to multiple board transformations as well as directly involved in a few. Here are six guidelines for making sure you get your board transformation right:

1. Understand the legacy trajectory
Every organization has its own trajectory, a unique path in consideration of current forces. The board in its current state, however challenged, has evolved in response to these factors and provided a complimentary set of forces that must be taken into consideration or you put the entire interconnected system at risk. Some of these influences include:
•Financial solvency, set-backs, or gains
•Market forces
•Influential leaders or the lack thereof
•Political expediency
•Balances of power among constituents
•Organizational skills and assets

When considering transformation it is imperative to engineer a path from the current state to the new state that avoids unnecessary disruption while maximizing value added. Where disruption is unavoidable it must be balanced by value generated.

2. Take into consideration the needs of the larger system.
Every board is but one body in a constellation that includes the leader (CEO or equivalent), senior leadership team, staff, satellite offices or affiliates, investors, customers or members, allies, and partners. A change in the board, especially a dramatic one, will have impact on these stakeholders. Thought must be given to consequences and appropriate responses in kind as part of the planning process. It is best to include consultation with key players of each group prior to endorsing a strategy.

3. Learn from others.
Although it is a truism that every organization is unique, it is also the case that there are a myriad of organizations that have undergone or attempted similar changes. Significant effort must be expended to learn from those whose circumstances match the present situation.

4. Make clear recommendations.
The strategy and tactics for board transformation must be spelled out in articulate, unambiguous terms. Every stakeholder should be able to understand the proposed changes and desired outcomes. Documentation should be written concisely and in lay terms with every attempt to avoid confusion.

5. Due process must be conducted with rigor.
When a transformation is being proposed, due process must be observed. This includes legal oversight as well as the current protocols for introducing changes in procedure and composition. Any attempt to circumvent due process will likely result in extensive reactions that cost much more than was saved in money, time, and good will. Further, they jeopardize the transformation putting it at risk of annulment.

6. Implement to succeed.
Once recommendations are clear, strategy is agreed upon, and tactics are chosen, move decisively to execute each phase in a timely fashion. Secure buy-in, establish early wins, and work consistently toward long-term successes. Report progress to key constituencies. Be ready to respond in real time to unplanned exigencies, as is often the need in critical transformations. For more detailed information read and apply my book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out.

—Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. He has consulted with CEOs and executives organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, American Geophyscial Union, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His new book, Getting Innovation Right, comes out in March. His previous book, Getting Change Right, is a business bestseller. Learn more about Seth's work at VisionaryLeadership.com.

[Image: Flickr user Namelas Frade]

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