Have you ever been a part of a nonprofit board that has been paralyzed and not able to make decisions? It can be incredibly frustrating as a volunteer and have serious repercussions for those who rely on these organizations. People, animals, and environments end up not getting the services they need. Organizations are often stuck or, in some cases, even shut down because of indecision. There are too many nonprofit boards that have the same discussion month after month because people think slow equals thoughtful.
There are ways for you to be thoughtful and move an agenda forward.
By helping your nonprofit make decisions, you will create impact, drive progress, and achieve your mission. Delays in board decision making prove that indecision is a decision, too.
Standing still does not help in many situations – on or off a board. Countless times we, as nonprofit consultants, have heard about the “almosts.” The almost campaign that was delayed for 10+ years before we were called in (causing additional costs in delayed maintenance or a larger deficit). The almost parking lot next door that wasn’t purchased and is now a medical facility instead of a building extension. The almost amazing nonprofit that closed because the leadership could never find consensus about how to shift in the face of external pressures.
Not surprisingly, we prefer to help celebrate the opening of a new building, witness the new programming that the additional endowment supports, and see people leave an upbeat board meeting on time feeling satisfied for all they have helped achieve.
The biggest concern with delays in board decision making
As soon as we suggest putting a time limit on board conversations we hear, “No way! It limits discussion,” or, “Everyone won’t be heard.” It’s true that not everyone will have a chance to talk for as long as they would like at the board meeting. But many would say that is not always a bad thing.
When everyone feels they can talk as long as they would like, there is often repetition. And people stop paying as much attention when they think they have heard it before and know that there are still hours more of the same conversation. Our attention spans have only become shorter and board leaders need to address this – while still being respectful and having full conversations. It is a balance – but one worth striving for.
What’s the solution?
In-depth discussions can be held in committee meetings. Recommendations and highlights of the conversation can be presented to start the conversation at the board level. While it sounds scary to some, shorter discussions are not a bad thing once you get used to how it works. Interested board members can go to the committee meeting. Or, if they choose not to, they can accept the time limits. The first couple of times may not go smoothly., Change is hard. Over time you will have more effective discussions that allow you to move forward with decisions.
Note: You should have some flexibility when considering a delay in board decision making. Extending the discussion by 15 or 30 minutes may occasionally be required to achieve consensus on a tough topic. And that should not be seen as a defeat. The important element is to have a positive experience and to end with a decision or vote.
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