Governing with seat belts fastened

The advice from the cockpit to keep our seat belts fastened in case of unexpected turbulence applies as surely to the boards of faith-based nonprofits as to the passengers with me this past week on a cross-country flight. Although the skies through which nonprofits fly these days are far friendlier than those a few years back, it’s the fool-hearty CEO or board members who assume there won’t be bumps ahead for their organizations.

riding_the_winds_13990Turbulence is part and parcel of our new normal. And as the authors of a piece in a recent issue of Trusteeship magazine remind us, the organizations most at risk are those that fail to adjust and innovate.

“Boards,” we are told “must be tough-minded in asking if clinging to historic strengths is a sound strategy or merely wishful thinking. Trenchant discussion of the real value proposition will help separate pleasant fiction from disturbing fact.”

Or as governance guru Barry Bader puts it in a recent issue of his Great Boards newsletter, “In times of great change, governance practices must be sufficiently robust to trigger early warnings and signal unexpected opportunities amidst turbulence and uncertainty.”

Which leads me to repeat advice I’ve offered many times here at Generous Matters and with which I begin consultations with nonprofit boards.

  • Bad board work can do real harm to an organization.
  • Good board work, however, always advances an organization.
  • An organization will be no stronger than its board, at least in the long-term.

Throw in a bit of turbulence and good work by the board becomes all the more important. Three practices in particular from the Great Boards article are worth considering. In turbulent times, boards should:

  • Recruit and develop new competencies tied to the transformation strategy.
  • Learn from the past to identify and monitor enterprise risk.
  • Develop key organizational metrics for the board to monitor the strategic plan.

Bader warns/promises: “Governance . . . in the coming era will not be for the fainthearted. The times will call for candor, courage, and a willingness to face reality.”

So buckle in dear board members. It’s not if turbulence will come, but when. What you do in the calm times prepares your organization for (un)expected rough air ahead.

For more about the importance of exemplary board work in turbulence or calm, see:

Four lessons for nonprofit boards from the Alban Institute’s obituary

Donors may not care about results, but boards should

Re-visioning nonprofit boards as innovators and change agents

What's your take on this topic?

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