How can someone working with non-profit boards both help members feel good about their work on the board while also challenging them to help make the board be more effective and resolve problematic issues?
One thing that I have learned about non-profit boards as both a consultant and as a participant is that people work on these boards in order to feel good about themselves. They want to feel good about being effective. They want to feel good about doing something that will help other people or that will be valuable to other people. They want to feel good about working with and getting to know other people. They want their interactions with others to be pleasant if not fulfilling. The corollary of this is that the last thing they want to experience is to feel bad about their work on the board.
This presents a challenge to the consultant or concerned board member who knows that the board can likely be more effective in terms of what they are doing. How do you raise an issue that is traditionally seen as conveying the idea that "you have a problem," or "we have a problem?" How can you help a board address specific areas where they can improve as well as their general level of effectiveness?
I have had a good deal of success in these situations using "strength-based approaches." These include what is referred to as "Appreciative Inquiry." I have found that these ways of working with boards enable the board to make progress towards improvement while also supporting members to continue to feel good about what they are doing. This approach rather than catching members doing something wrong focuses on catching people doing something really well. It helps boards to appreciate what they do well.
Many studies have shown that focusing on problems acts to drain energy from individuals and groups. Though it looks like they are being helped to focus on a problem, what really happens is that their energy and motivation to improve gets drained away. Defensiveness in these situations is also likely to increase. Instead, when focusing on what a group does well, energy and motivation increase.
Strength-based approaches ask us to help a group focus on what are their existing competencies. We notice that they are able to bring their conflicts to the table. We notice that people are so committed to issues that they are willing to spend a great deal of their valuable time discussing them until the issues are resolved. We notice that people continue to have the good of the organization at heart.
By doing this, we are not being naive to reality. We are in fact recognizing what is as much a reality as anything else. Individuals, groups, boards are good at a variety of things. We help them to become aware of these things, to explore them, to feel good about them. We then help them to build on this by transferring these capabilities to other areas. By doing so, they can improve these other areas. When issues are raised that traditionally are seen as problems, we help them to understand that implicit in these statements of problems is a strong desire to be different, better. We help them explore what this improved state is, what it will look like and what it will take to achieve this preferred state.
Being good at one thing usually has a cost to it. Other things may remain underdeveloped. The competitive figure skater or budding concert pianist by spending countless hours working at their skill has less time to devote to other skills. The board that is really good at voicing contrasting opinions may devote less focus on just hanging out with one another and feeling good about each other's company. The board that spends most of its time on operations and as a result has day-to-day operations running smoothly may as a result spend less time on fundraising issues.
At some point in the process of working with a board, it does become germane to look at areas less attended to where the board might want to begin to try some new things. At this point the board will likely have a stronger degree of confidence and a higher level of energy and motivation to do this.