8 ways to get the board decisions you want

publication date: Sep 6, 2013
author/source: Jane Garthson

They changed WHAT? To THAT?

You wrote the best fundraising strategy ever! If implemented, it would give the organization the money it needs for current programs and planned initiatives. But the document disappeared into a black hole for months and the board approved something quite different. In your professional opinion, there’s no way the revised strategy could produce the desired resources.

Your board of directors was probably trying to do its job as best it could, in the best interests of the organization. They didn’t mean to make life difficult for you or harm the organization. So what went wrong?

In all likelihood, the board members did not feel they had been supported well enough to make a good decision. They may have felt very uncomfortable voting on something outside of their expertise – but they are asked to make numerous decisions at every board meeting and often feel that any decision is preferred to no decision. They understand that many issues are time-sensitive. And, sometimes, that means a group of intelligent, well-meaning people makes foolish changes.

What can you do to support them better next time? Here are eight ways.

1. Agenda clarity

Use a wording that helps them know what action will be expected of them. A phrase like “fundraising strategy” doesn’t tell them. If the agenda is not divided into decision, discussion and information items, clarify the individual agenda item by putting a verb like discuss or approve in front. Most directors want to be well prepared to discuss and/or vote (and if yours don’t, that’s a much larger problem).

2. Time

Check when the board package is distributed. Make sure your document is included and matched up to an agenda item. Such packages need to be available online or received in hard copy at least a week in advance; two is better. Separately, and especially if you are proposing major changes in how revenues are generated, can you provide a discussion paper first? The board could talk about revenue types at one meeting. You could learn about their comfort level, preferences, and need  for more information. You then come back with a decision document for the next meeting. It saves you pursuing a fundraising type they clearly won’t support, and gives them time to reflect. Reflection time makes most people more relaxed and more able to make high quality choices.

3. Champion

Who will lead the discussion on this item? If the board has a fundraising, development or other such committee, coach that chair on the key messages and critical aspects of the strategy, or provide briefing documents. If that position does not exist, find out who will lead and help them. It may be your Executive Director. Ask to attend to answer technical questions at the board meeting. If possible, directly or through the Executive Director, make sure the chair of the board also understands the importance of the strategy as a consistent whole. Answer questions at the meeting in a fully professional manner without getting defensive or making directors feel stupid (yes, this does happen).

4. Context

Make sure the fundraising strategy document puts the strategy in the context of decisions the board has already made, such as the strategic plan, fundraising policies, ethical values and the budget. You want them to see your strategy as a logical next step, not a stand-alone initiative. Remember to keep the document at a strategic level; giving operational details invites micro-management. However, giving more external information is highly desirable. Reflect key relevant changes in your community, such as major campaigns by similar organizations and changes in general income and employment levels.

5. Communication style

Help the directors understand the depth of knowledge it took to develop this strategy. Make it evidence-based – as a development professional, you know the return on investment from galas versus planned giving much better than the average director, so tell them. You also know more about what your donors say they will support, and what makes people want to give (and at what level). Make the information stand out through graphs, charts and other visually attractive means.

6. Options

The board has been elected to make decisions for the organization. Are there some parts of the strategy where there are several realistic choices? Are there parts that require a variance from, or a change to, fundraising policies? Show what options you considered, how you analyzed them and why you recommend what you chose. Explain the consequences if they pick a different option.

7. Risk

A key role of directors is risk oversight. That doesn’t mean risk avoidance, but it does mean rational understanding of the degree of risk, chance of harm and how risk is being managed. In the document, show the risk level for each type of fundraising, including how you have assessed it and what will be done to reduce risk or mitigate harm. This can be done at a minimal level for ongoing fundraising activities, but if you are moving into territory that is new for your organization, tell them more.

8. Understanding

Go through a mental exercise of putting yourself in their shoes. You might use a board decision support document from another part of the organization, one you know little about. Would you feel comfortable approving what it recommends? Why or why not? Can you even tell what decision is recommended? I’ve seen boards left to make decisions on highly technical topics after receiving raw data, poor or no analyses and no recommendations! When staff members complain about the quality of board decisions, sometimes (not always) they should look in the mirror.

The board may still alter what you recommend, but they will notice your good decision support. They should respect your professionalism and judgment. That can only help with future decisions – and your career.

Jane Garthson is a leadership consultant based in Toronto, serving nonprofit boards, senior management and communities since 1992. Visit www.garthsonleadership.ca for more information. Her article Effective Board Decision-Making is included in You and Your Nonprofit Board, just published by Charity Channel. 

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