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Building a Collaborative Nonprofit Board Team

Posted by BoardSource on Oct 2, 2015 11:32:53 AM

sept-blog4By David Styers, BoardSource Senior Governance Consultant; manager of program & business development, Presidio Institute, a Presidio Trust Initiative

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We invite you to join us.

How well would your board stack up against a great basketball team, say my hometown’s NBA-champion Golden State Warriors? And I don’t mean in the racking up of points but in terms of how your members work as a team.

For years, you have heard, “You need to diversify your board,” but once accomplished, what does it take to get a group of individuals with a diversity of perspectives, skills, and experiences to work together to advance your mission when they come from… different planets?! Those corporate folks over there are from Mercury. The ones with ties to the government? They’re from Saturn. And the individuals who work within the nonprofit sector hail from Neptune!

I don’t think I’m alone in noticing a disconnect among diverse board members in how to even talk to and understand each another’s “sector dialect.” For example, the perspective of a nonprofit board member in zero-based budgeting may be completely foreign to one from the private sector, and the corporate board member may embrace innovation and risk a little faster than his or her government partner. The result can be more coblaborating than collaborating, which is what your board needs to do.

Based on what Albert Einstein recognized — "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them” — your diverse board will have to learn to behave differently. Not surprising, it seems to come down to that old adage: teamwork. Collaborative boards, just like the Golden State Warriors, are board teams. They take the time to develop trust, manage power dynamics and conflicts, and foster a culture of innovation.

If there is no trust, board members will not be able to successfully address organizational problems or take advantage of opportunities when they occur. Trust is based on understanding, empathy, and shared commitment. Do your board members understand each another’s experiences, work, training, and pressures? Does your board provide your members with the opportunity to develop that understanding? How do your board members build and maintain empathy for each another and commitment to the work? How do they build the resilience to be able to speak frankly without fear or judgment?

You also need to manage your board’s power dynamics and conflict. How do you acknowledge them and understand the history of the board and organization? How well do you bring a lens of racial/ethnic/gender/class equity and inclusion to the work of the board? How do you approach and enable conflict to occur productively?

Finally, to function well as a collaborative team, a board needs to foster a culture of innovation. How do you build a culture of learning and continuous improvement in your board? How do you make yourselves open to new information, ideas, and ways of developing solutions?

By focusing on leading together, your board will provide better governance and ultimately better advancement of your mission. Maybe there should be a BLF championship for best board team! Again, how well would your board fare?

Topics: BoardSource Leadership Forum

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