Most organizations intuitively understand that in order to do more with less, they must build the organization’s capacity to perform at higher levels in a variety of areas. To do so requires a board having the ability to imagine a much better future and the foresight to make it happen. So what if your board is scarcely able to make majorité at meetings, struggles to fill its own account, or disagrees constantly about the direction of the organization? And what if these behaviors have been going on for a long period in a seemingly intractable pattern that only tends to perpetuate itself? How can an organization possibly break this cycle?
Too many nonprofit organizations find themselves in this situation. A typical evolutionary board governance pattern is for the founding director to populate the large A board with friends and/or acquaintances that are excited about the quest. Although a good start, to be certain, this approach is not completely adequate. Many of these board people may well not totally understand their governance role. In the early stages of organizational life, when many board members in many cases are using multiple hats (board associate, volunteer staff person, fundraiser, community spokesperson, and so forth ), this lack of understanding may well not surface as a challenge.
As time passes, however, a particular pattern of board governance behavior starts to emerge and becomes established. In fact, sometimes the board seems to take on a life of its own that is often at odds with the needs of the organization. Major environmental changes, like the recent economic depression, create shifts in funding or reinvent how work is accomplished, and yet the board appears to have on as though absolutely nothing is promoting. Rather than unintended oversight, it is more likely that it is lack of experience that often pushes boards to the point of turmoil, when reacting is the only option left. It is at this point that an organization feels caught – like it is consistently playing catch up.
Altering patterns of behavior is one of the very most challenging attempts individuals undertake. Changing the pattern of behavior of a group of individuals can feel insurmountable. A business may have a long history filled with many stories and legends that new members buy-in to, including the board. That approval of current practice, while efficient, may finally guide to an inability to see the real picture, resulting in undesirable long-term effects.
To become unstuck, a board must decide which patterns of behavior it wants to improve. Current data, however, indicate that practically 70% of most change attempts fail. That’s an amazing waste of resources – resources that most charitable organizations cannot afford to waste. There are numerous approaches to applying organizational change, many of which is often very effective under the right conditions. A board that is caught in the rut of ineffective governance, however, poses unique challenges that do not really lend themselves to traditional approaches to change management.
The main barrier in taking a traditional strategy to implementing change is the fact most models require command commitment. If an business is struggling just to get enough board people to attend a board meeting, trying to help them see the need for change in their conduct, let alone committing to that effort, will be almost impossible. Their emphasis is most likely on the present, and they may be completely not aware of how board behavior is impacting the overall organization. Given their absence of awareness and foresight, they are unlikely to find the value in most traditional approaches to change management.