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Question and Challenge

Two of the more important aspects of leadership are asking questions and challenging people.  When done well, sustainability increases.

Our society is constantly changing.  There are new challenges for every organization each year and typically more often than that.  Nonprofit boards meet too infrequently and deal with too many high-level issues to see all of the challenges in a timely manner, which explains why some nonprofits go into crisis even in the best of times.

It is reasonable to assume that the staff should be the ones to spot and respond to the challenges.  However, it is unreasonable to believe the executive has sufficient time, skill, expertise, and knowledge to see and respond to every challenge.  Therefore, the other staff members must identify and handle most of the challenges.  It is up to the executive to ask the questions that will drive innovation, uncover new opportunities, and invalidate traditional methods.  It is also up to the executive to set goals and to change standards in an effort to challenge and inspire the staff to increase effectiveness, relevance, and efficiency.

All areas of the nonprofit (finance, fundraising, administration, operations, etc.) must evolve at the same speed.  When one or more areas are lagging or leading significantly, the business model becomes unbalanced.  When the business model is out of balance, the nonprofit becomes harder to manage and sustainability declines because of the imbalance.

The board must be evolving at the same rate as the rest of the organization. The board is responsible for the governance and strategy portions of the business model.  The strategy is the driving force behind community impact.

It is the executive’s task to find the right questions to ask and challenges to make, which is a challenge by itself.  Focusing on how the community impact (an element of the business model) must evolve with the societal, technology, and other environmental changes is the best way for the executive to identify the key questions and challenges.

Many executives are tempted to answer their own questions and strive to meet the challenges.  This approach has two flaws.  The first is that it minimizes the time the executive has to find the questions and challenges that will raise effectiveness, relevance, and efficiency.  The second is that it limits the professional development of the staff.  This limits the career opportunities for the staff members and makes it more difficult to have an internal successor for the executive.  The lack of an internal successor lowers the sustainability of the mission.

Next Step:

Encourage your executive to lead your nonprofit with questions

Keep your community impact relevant by using questions and challenges

Keep your business model balanced

Encourage your board to keep itself in balance with the rest of your business model

The continuous questioning and challenging of your organization will keep the evolutionary process smooth and timely.  As your experience and skills improve, the process will become more predictive and less reactive.  That will attenuate the change process and make it more comfortable for the staff, easier to budget for, and less disruptive.  It will also provide the trending information that will help the board with its strategic reviews and governance changes.  In addition, it will be easier for you to find ways to increase your competitive advantage and continue to increase the sustainability of your mission.

Take It Further:

Periodically review the balance of your business model

Make a list of the cultural changes that are needed to create a more questioning and challenging organization

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