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Information Avoidance

When difficult issues are unaddressed, a nonprofit’s sustainability declines. When those issues are numerous or left unaddressed for a long time, survival is threatened. One of the roles of a nonprofit board is to make objective decisions related to difficult issues.

All of the preceding seems so obvious that it is hard to imagine any group of responsible individuals allowing it to happen.  However, it happens frequently.  It happens so often that psychologists have a name for it: Information Avoidance.

Talking about good news is a pleasure.  We are all happy to talk about good news for hours.  Talking about bad news can be painful.  It is especially painful when the bad news is the result of what one previously thought was a good decision.

There is also the hope that the bad news is only temporary.  Perhaps by the next meeting things will have (magically) taken a turn for the better.  No one wants to seem like they are panicking so they wait just a little longer.  The hope that things will be better is sometimes still there months after receiving progressively worse news.

Sometimes the bad news is suppressed by a committee or the executive.  However, the board is responsible whether it knows about the bad news or not.  That can seem unfair but your donors, your community, and your clients expect the board to be on top of everything that is happening.

Regardless of the motivation behind withholding information, rewarding the disclosure of information is a way to prevent it from being withheld.  Knowing that they will be rewarded for sharing information helps to encourage those in the know to be more forthcoming.

Training board members to recognize and ask for missing information is another preventative.  There is good news and bad news all of the time.  Board members need to start asking questions when the amount of good news significantly outweighs the bad news.

Next Step:

Reward forthcoming information

Train board members to look for incomplete information

Train board members to ask questions when there is limited bad news

Ensure that early disclosure of bad news is never criticized

There is an adage that goes, “Trust but verify”.  That is good guidance for every board.  Having the courage to look a little deeper is usually all the verification that is necessary.  Knowing the board is going to look a little deeper encourages people to release information as soon as it is available.

Whatever causes bad news usually has consequences attached to it.  Try to keep the consequences to minimum.  When adverse events are treated lightly, it encourages the free flow of information.  Since everyone associated with your nonprofit is probably doing their best, they are working very hard to ensure everything moves forward smoothly.  Knowing about and fixing problems when they are small does more for sustainability than chastising well-intentioned individuals will ever do.

Take It Further:

Do everything you can to create a free flow of information in all directions (the staff needs bad information as much as the board does and having the board model good communications helps reinforce staff behavior and creates an open and trusting culture)

Remember that bad news reported to your board promptly is unlikely to affect your nonprofit’s reputation, success, or relationship with any supporters but one whistleblower or avoidable crisis will hurt your nonprofit’s reputation, lower its sustainability, damage its relationship with supporters, and shake everyone’s confidence in the board

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