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Reflective Thinking

Board members should receive a board packet about a week in advance of board meetings. In the packet are the financial figures, reports from the various committees and staff, the agenda for the meeting, and a summary of the key issues to be discussed. The details important to the key issues can be found in the various reports. Hopefully, one committee has provided its perspective on an issue in its report and other committees and staff have provided other perspectives. If all of that is true, the board members will have had time to reflect on the key issues, formulate thoughtful questions, effectively deliberate, and cast an informed vote during the meeting. As a result, the board will make high-quality decisions and be able to complete their business in the time allotted.

The preceding may seem unrealistic. However, it is what effective boards do.

Most board chairs inherit the leadership role from someone else. If your board chairs failed to encourage the board to be reflective, your current board chair may assume that it is unnecessary to be reflective. In other words, the culture of your board may be the reason your board is less effective than it could be.

Sometimes all it takes is for one person leading by example to empower others to do the right thing. Be an example of a reflective thinker: Create opportunities to look back on events, decide what worked, and determine how you can optimize the next decision. Postpone making decisions during the meetings until you have had a chance to consult with your staff. That will give you time to reflect and to tap into the wisdom, knowledge, experience, and insights your staff has developed over the years. It is important to remember that very few decisions need to be made immediately. The ones that do require immediate attention are usually handled in special meetings called specifically for the urgent matters.

Executives should help the board chair set the meeting agenda. Executives can use their influence to lobby for changes in the gravity and timeliness of the items on the agenda. Minor issues should be handled by the staff or a committee. Only the most important (strategic, policy decisions, or mission related) should be made by the entire board. With a little planning, there will be plenty of time to research, analyze, and deliberate before making a decision.

It should never be a surprise that a lease is up for renewal. Therefore, there is plenty of time to ask for options during one month, pare the list the next month, and bring the two or three best options back to the board in the third month for their decision. Better still, ask the finance committee, fundraising committee, and programing committee to develop the best-options list and bring it to the board with the pros and cons for the board’s deliberation.

If it is just one committee creating the options, the options will be narrowed by the bias of the committee. In addition, the wisdom, knowledge, experience, and insights of the other committees will be given limited consideration. When committees collaborate, your staff representatives supporting each committee will have more opportunities to influence the options and develop a broader perspective. Using multiple committees to formulate choices will help to bring your board and staff closer together, make better use of the intellectual capital you have available to your nonprofit, and create a more intentionally reflective-thinking organization. Encouraging collaboration between committees slows the process but creates greater value for your nonprofit, clients, and community as well as increases your nonprofit’s sustainability.

While controlling costs is important, it is much more important to make decisions that are good for the clients and mission, increase the impact of your services on your community, and increase sustainability. Making decisions that affect clients, mission, impact, value, and sustainability should be handled thoughtfully by the board with adequate time for research, considering options, and deliberating before making a decision.

Next Step:

Model reflective thinking for your board and staff

Help your board chair create agendas that encourage reflective thinking

Ensure your board committees collaborate on issues before the issues appear on the agendas

Ensure that every issue under consideration has two or more options

If there is only one option to consider, it is impossible to engage in reflective thinking. For example, if the boiler fails, it is silly to ask the board if the boiler should be replaced. If you do ask the board, you risk disengaging the board members. No one wants to give of their time to make an obvious decision. When that happens regularly you are sending a message to the board that their vote and attendance is perfunctory. In addition, you recruited board members for their wisdom, knowledge, experience, and insights. They want you to challenge them. When they are challenged, they feel necessary and will find helping you to make an optimal decision rewarding. When you challenge your board members, they know they are in the right place doing something meaningful which will have an impact on your clients and community, increase your nonprofit’s sustainability, and help to increase the effectiveness of your mission.

Take It Further:

Think about your board’s suboptimal habits and practices and determine if they lack the skills, will, or understanding (because of modeling by recent leaders or culture) to be highly effective

Provide your board with all of the materials they need to prepare for board meetings

Ask your board development committee to hold board members accountable for coming to the board prepared to discuss topics on the agenda

Ask your board development committee to recruit candidates who are reflective thinkers

Ask your board development committee to collaborate with the other committees on the skills and abilities they want new members to have

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