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Helping Your Board Develop a Sense of Urgency and Improve Decision-Making

In a Harvard Business Review article there is a quote that I believe every nonprofit organization should have posted in the Board room  “…true urgency is a set of emotions, a gut-level feeling that we need to get up every single day with total determination to do something to deal with those hazards and opportunities and make some progress, no matter how modest, and do so today.” How many times do we feel like we are stuck driving through mud in our organizations waiting for a key decision to be made on a sensitive or urgent issue? 

Our Board members are brilliant and serve the organization because they are subject matter experts and are committed and passionate around the mission of the organization. We also realize that Board members have full-time jobs and other obligations and can only dedicate a small amount of time to the organization.  How do we use that precious amount of time efficiently and effectively? 

  1. Less is More– How many times do we send a “Board Book” that is 50 pages or more, prior to a Board meeting, without context or explanation except for an agenda that lists each attachment? If we do this, are we expecting that the leaders reading the “Board Book” will actually read everything and on top of that, make connections to serious issues or opportunities?  Consider providing an executive summary that outlines each item on the agenda, the main issue, the action required and budget impact (less than five pages). After the executive summary, provide the other relevantattachments and supplemental information that helps to provide detail around each item on the agenda and executive summary. Even though you are providing the other relevant attachments, the executive summary should stand-alone and crystallize the purpose of the Board meeting, the actions that need to be taken and the urgency around issues.
  • Data From Your Most Valuable Asset, Your Members – Use your greatest asset, your membership, to provide valuable feedback and additional validation around issues and opportunities the organization is considering in order to make better decisions. The organization’s members are the ears and eyes of the industry and profession and sometimes see issues and opportunities before the organization does.  We always assume that the input we want to receive from our members is about the quality and relevance of our programs, benefits and service and how we are delivering value.  We certainly do but let’s go beyond this and seek to understand emerging trends and issues. Use these emerging trends and issues as your “crystal ball” to inform and ground the decision-making process.
  • Urgent Decision-Making– When we look at decisions in our lives, we make them every day at the moment when the decision needs to be made in a very natural way whether it happens instantaneously or over a set of days. In nonprofit organizations, key decisions are sometimes held off until the next Board meeting.  Put in place a process whereby the Board is able to quickly respond, and be able to meet on short notice, around urgent issues. The meeting should be focused, short and with good information so that a decision is made during the allotted meeting time. Facilitating the meeting so that the focus is on the main issue and doesn’t meander to other issues is critical. This sends a clear message to your Board that their time is valuable and respected. 

The three key takeaways to maintaining a sense of urgency and making progress in your organization is to:

  1. Deliver information in a digestible way so that decision-making is easier
  2. Use your members as a resource to identify future trends and issues to help with informed decision-making
  3. Utilize the ability to create efficient “spot” meetings on a specific issue in order to resolve it and make progress

Think about other ways in which your organization can be nimble in its decision-making process so that urgent items are urgently discussed and resolved outside of Board meetings when needed. Think of it as adding four-wheel drive to your Board and breaking through the mud!