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Getting your board to help you innovate

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“Innovation” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the business world. And, in that for-profit sector, “innovation” means dollars in pockets. But, innovation is essential in the nonprofit world as well, and to an arguably better end—sustainable, large-scale positive impact on society.

So, is your board helping or hurting you when it comes to innovation? Research published by Voluntas, the official journal of the International Society for Third-Sector Research sheds some light on how nonprofit boards impact innovation, and the findings could be a board relations game-changer for some executive directors and nonprofit leadership. 

The three key findings from the research were that boards of the most innovative organizations studied had these three characteristics in common: 1) they pose critical questions to the executive director, 2) they hold a shared vision for the organization, and 3) they’re rich in human capital. Here’s what that means for you.

You need human capital for board innovation.

The best board members, according to the research in the Voluntas article, are top players in their professional fields. They also embrace new ideas and knowledge. You might be thinking that this is old news, but here’s the kicker. This research also shows that having too much diversity across sectors (for-profit, business, and nonprofit) hurt innovation. That’s big news, as it goes against what many executive directors were taught and still believe. So, the takeaway—focus on who is in your boardroom (the individual), not the cross-section of fields and professional backgrounds represented. 

You must cultivate a shared vision.

Finally, an oldie but a goodie—innovative boards need to work from a shared vision. Boards headed in the same organizational direction can make insightful decisions about the organization’s future, map out a strategic path, and work their networks to make it all happen. So, it might be time to have a vision conversation at your next board meeting. Is everyone on the same page (or in the same book, even)? If not, stop acting and align. Your innovation depends on it. 

You have to be comfortable with critical questioning.

This final point might be a hard pill for some executive directors to swallow, but the rubber stamp days of board approval are over. In board rooms across the U.S., directors and managers present their ideas and plans, and then, the board offers their approval and moves on to the next item on the list. However, if these organizations want to innovate so that their programs can evolve and expand to meet their communities’ needs, it’s time to change that.

Boards of innovative organizations critically examine the information they receive from the executive directors. In other words, they ask hard questions—and that’s a good thing. Fortunately, they don’t leave it at asking hard questions. They play an active role in the development of ideas and work with the executive director. As a result, your board meetings might start to look a little different. You’ll need to allow time on the agenda for full, creative conversations on important topics.

The good news is that if you have a group of the best and brightest people in the boardroom, who hold a shared vision, they’re going to want what you want for the organization. And, their hard questions will be ones that help you think through your ideas and plans and make them better. And then, you’ll have it—a board and an organization that’s ready to innovate. 


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