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6 Topics Your Board Should Discuss
6 Topics Your Board Should Discuss
Daniel Forrester, CEO
By Daniel Forrester, CEO
October 30, 2013
In 2013, thousands of well intentioned not-for-profits will cease to exist. Many will blame lack of funding as the impetus for their demise; yet it is leadership and vision that always precedes an “ask” for funding.

In 2013, thousands of well intentioned not-for-profits will cease to exist. Many will blame lack of funding as the impetus for their demise; yet it is leadership and vision that always precedes an “ask” for funding.

For the foreseeable future, boards will continue operating within deeply unsettling macro environments punctuated by donor fatigue and an anemic economy. In this context, there can be no growth trajectory for organizations incapable of re-imagining themselves.

While your organization may have avoided the funding cliff, do not get lulled into thinking that growth now is within sight. Boards must lead like never before; only uncommon thinkers and bold actors will thrive.

Here are six topics that boards should be discussing:

1) Creating a Values Based Culture: A look back at 2012 reveals that organizational leadership sometimes failed to push back on one another and openly discuss uncomfortable issues. Boards must ask: what are our organization’s values and what behaviors do they drive for the betterment of our purpose?

For example, the culture of Penn State can serve a beacon. Boards must ensure that a social contract with declared core values is enabled across the organization. “Dissent” should be a welcomed value as decisions are made and leaders are held accountable. Values are always driven from the bottom up.

2) System Level Thinking: Impact and results matter to those supplying the funding, and increasingly donors are asking for a ‘systems level view’ of how the donation enables change to take place. Boards must ask: what is the system or set of systems in which we operate and what problems rank high in term of our ability to drive change?

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, committed $100M to enable the schools of Newark, New Jersey, to emerge from their years of stagnant performance. What lacked at the outset of this large donation was a system level view of where the greatest need was within Newark School system. Today, networks, ecosystems and systems abound. Even multi-million dollar donations can be quickly consumed without the larger context at the ready.

3) Questioning Orthodoxy for How the Mission is Done: Orthodoxy is a set of ingrained beliefs that often holds an organization to its current levels of performance. It’s tough to question it and even tougher to change it. Boards must ask: how can we create the space to question the orthodoxy within our organization?

For example, one exercise that every board must do is to “stress test” the reality of their funding streams (often a core orthodoxy) tied to charitable giving and personal deductions taken by donors. What role does that deduction play in the giving experience? While the deduction is a tactical concern, boards should consider a scenario driven exercise that examines the real forecast and what could happen if the government banished the incentive today. Reality may then take a different form.

4) More Transparency and Openness: Transparency and openness does not mean that the organization simply follows the criteria so powerfully suggested by examples such as glasspockets.org. The not-for-profit’s digital presence in every channel is under constant scrutiny as all constituencies seek insight into decision-making and how money is flowing to drive impact. Waiting for a journalist to ask a question is not openness and living transparency. Boards must ask and then frame their definition of transparency and how high a standard they can set—regardless of how others are living it.

5) Developing True Partnerships: I have the honor of working with many organizations focused on navigating the massive re-integration that is unfolding within our country for millions of returning service members and their families. There are at least forty-five thousand not-for-profits in this space alone—many with duplicative missions and fighting for scarce dollars from scarce donors. Partnering and consolidating are far better strategic moves then going out of business. Boards must ask: if we needed to link to another not for profit today in order to live out our mission, who would it be? Why would we engage? Is there a case to consolidate now for the benefit of our target populations?

6) Understanding Your “Why” and Your Purpose: With the global and national uncertainty and that will remain the hallmark of operations for years to come, the most powerful exercise that a board can initiate is asking: ‘why do we exist?’ And, if we ceased operations today, would any one care? Purpose is what grounds all of us and it drives employee behavior. Many boards focus occasionally on the “mission statement.” Never before has a mission statement been so important. So often the words within such statement describe “what” and “how” the organization wants to operate. As author and thinker Simon Sinek has taught all of us: always “start with why.” Boards who start with why will finish with a why that will drive deeper connections to stakeholders, donors and the employees they are seeking to inspire.

These are challenging conversations for boards to have across months and even years. We have all observed the vicious way that scrutiny and speed consume poorly considered ideas. To be successful requires discipline and a mindset that everything the organization holds true can evaporate in moments. Boards must bring this level of agility and context to the work they take on—or they will quickly discover how fast it can all be taken away.