The Odds of Success

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 2nd, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Long ago, at the start of my volunteer career in the nonprofit sector, a development expert told me that one of the most important ratios in her field was that of successful asks to number of asks made:  how many asks did you have to make before receiving a positive response.  This, she told me, was helpful not just for planning, but for morale.

I was reminded of this through a number of questions asked of me and observations made by a group of board members and the executive director working hard to change its board culture.  After many hours of meeting to work on everything from bylaws to committees to on-boarding and orientation to selecting the leaders with the right skill set to making board meetings strategic, one of the group of five board members (5:12—five board members working to turn things around out of 12 total board members) asked me:  is this ever successful?

In other words, can a 5:12 ratio actually change a board culture from passive to active, and active on the “right” things?  My immediate answer was a solid yes.  But as a numbers person, I wanted to be more specific.  And there I was stymied.  Is it 1 in 100? 5 in 10?  Does success vary with the size of the group looking to turn the ship?  The respect won by the folks in the group?  The power dynamic of those in the group versus the rest of the board members?  The commitment of the executive director?  All of this ran through my head as I framed the answer to the question—a question, I should add, I’ve been asked many times before.

Every time I am asked that question, or similar ones, I wish I had been keeping records.  The one that I would like most to have tracked is the ratio—well, actually, the ratios.  How many boards that say they want to improve—as indicated by having the board, as a whole, engage in professional development to learn what exactly is its job as a collective and the job of the individual board members?  Or to learn how to be a better fundraiser?  Or how really to understand the financials of the organization and make sense of the financial sustainability of the organization, etc?  To actually follow-up that professional development with efforts of their own?  And, then, of those who actually try to pivot, how many are successful, either in whole or in part?  I simply do not have the numbers, despite having a sense.

It is truly amazing to me how many organizations invest the time and money in professional development for the board and the board turns around and wastes it all by doing nothing.  Amazing, no?  If you were to ask a board directly, “Would you like to waste $X?,” you would get a resounding and immediate “NO”.  And, yet, too many see no problem in getting board education and doing nothing with it.  This, by far, is the largest ratio:  the number who do nothing with their new-found knowledge:those who gain new-found knowledge.  I’d even be willing to take a guesstimate that this ratio stands around 80:100.  Not a fan of those odds.  But, of the 20:100 who actually take what was learned and use it to move the board forward to any degree—recognizing that change is very hard and always too slow—the ratios are far better.  Depending upon my mood I’d put that at 7.5:10 or 1:2.

Margaret Mead was absolutely right:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  As hard as it sometimes appears, changing a board is a lot easier than changing the world.

Another ratio that I wondering about is how many board members you have to invite onto the board for every great board member you get?  Recently, a very conscientious board member said to me that everything he has learned about being a great board member came from other board members, not from the executive directors of the organizations on whose boards he sat.  The former part of this statement is how it should be:  great board members model behavior, instruct on behavior, others follow.  Sadly, the flip side works just as well:  bad board members model behavior, directly or indirectly instruct on behavior, others follow.  Unfortunately, however, too few board members, through no fault of their own, know how to distinguish between the behavior they should emulate and that which they should reject.

This is why it is extremely important to clean up a board before bringing on new board members. And while we all know it is a dicey situation to be a direct report teaching your boss how to do her/his job, executive directors can absolutely help board members learn how to be great board members without directly telling them how to do their jobs.  They can suggest readings, videos, workshops; they must model the right relationship between management and governance; they can stop enabling boards; they can propose hosting in a great board member from another board as the educational component of a board meeting, etc.

But to have learned nothing about being a great board member from an executive director is a sad commentary.  The odds are stacked against an unsuspecting new board member absent a good on-boarding and orientation processes, further reducing this ratio.  Which brings me back to my earlier question: how many board members does it take to find a great one?


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