Re-visioning nonprofit boards as innovators and change-agents

I recently challenged boards faced with tough decisions to choose this day (month or year) which way the organization should go. (here) Yet I know deciding is easier said than done. For boards and the nonprofits they serve, there’s no going back to how things once were. The way forward is obscured and without guarantees of success.

So boards stall. They procrastinate. They sit on the proverbial fence, clinging precariously to an uncomfortable perch between what is and what could be. The grass isn’t much greener on one side or the other. Whichever direction a board jumps, the landscape is bleak.

But jump they must. There’s no place for fence sitters in today’s turbulent environment.

So warns organizational theorist John Kotter in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review.  Not that he doesn’t appreciate the difficulties faced by leaders.  “The tension between needing to stay ahead of increasingly fierce competition and needing to deliver this year’s results can be overwhelming,” Kotter writes.

As a way beyond the tension, he urges a “second operating system” – an “additional element to address the challenges produced by mounting complexity and rapid change.”  Which, to my nonprofit way of thinking, sounds a lot like a board – or at least a board that’s moved off the fence and into action. In other words, a board that’s making choices.

I urge you to track down Kotter’s article for yourself (unless you have a subscription to HBR, my link may not work for you). It’s well worth the price of a reprint. Or better yet, fork over $95 for a customizable PowerPoint presentation  summarizing his 8-step change process.

In the meantime, here’s my bare-bones, governance-oriented summary of Kotter’s points.


1. Urgency without panic. It’s the leaders’ (executive director and board) job to sound the alarm for change, but not so loud and long as to panic staff and constituents. The goal is an orderly march toward change, propelled by a just right mix of “sufficient urgency” and “emotionally exciting opportunity.”

2. A team of equals. Once the board and senior leadership have set the march in motion, a guiding coalition (GC) takes over. Drawn from across the organization, all members “are equal; no internal hierarchy slows down the exchange of information.” In my scenario, the GC includes folks from the board.

3. Picture change. The GC provides “a picture of success and enough information and direction” to inspire others to follow — a “strategic true north” for the direction impaired.

4.Talk it up. The fuel that powers positive thinking is the right messages from the right messengers, beginning with the board. As Kotter promises, it doesn’t take many volunteers to get things moving.

5. Remove barriers. In, but not of, the organization, the board is ideally situated to identify and clear the way of barriers that can impede change and stall innovation.

6. Create wins. With one eye on the end line and the other on the immediate, the board and senior leadership should highlight and celebrate short-term wins. Change comes easier when people are having fun.

7. Keep on keeping on. “When an organization takes its foot off the gas, cultural and political resistance arise,” Kotter warns. It’s the board’s role to keep the pedal to the metal, even when others would prefer to hit the brakes.

8. Make it stick. “No strategic initiative, big or small, is complete until it has been incorporated into day-to-day activities” – including the way the board works, talks, and plans. It’s one thing for a board to champion change. It’s quite another for the board to be changed.


Consider these words from Kotter. Granted, he wasn’t thinking about boards when he wrote the HBR piece, but it’s a lovely fit (I think).

People who have never seen this sort of dual operating system work often worry, quite logically, that a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers [board members] might create more problems than they solve – by, for example, running off and making not very helpful decisions and disrupting daily operations. Here is where the very specific details built into the network and the accelerators come into play. This second system . . .  guides the volunteers with a structure and processes that create a powerful, small, and increasingly needed strategic force.

Or put another way, a board that’s adding value. A board that has decided to decide. A board that’s off the fence and in full leadership flight.  A board re-visioned for innovation and change.That’s a choice I want to encourage.

Talk back: What do you think of my idea for re-visioning boards as a version of Kotter’s second operating system? What might be  the advantages? The potential pitfalls?


  1. Stephanie Montgomery says:

    love it. this is the kind of take charge attitude our world needs. wake up people it’s time to save our lost in ways that’s never been done before.

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