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  • Caryn Bosson

Let's hear it for stupid questions

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool

Than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

If you are a nonprofit board member, you should never think this thought. Never ever ever. You were selected to be on a board because you are not a fool. And your job in nonprofit governance is to ask the hard questions, the stupid questions, any questions. The fate of your organization depends on it.

In fact, the mantra for nonprofit board members should be just the opposite:

“Better to open your mouth and be thought a fool

Than to remain quiet and remove all doubt.”

How many new board members sit silently through meetings dazed by a fast-paced blur of acronyms, assumptions, and unspoken norms? How many don’t want to rock the boat, slow things down, or draw attention to their own ignorance?

Too many, judging by the number of preventable non-profit crises. The financial reports that aren’t closely scrutinized, the personnel turnover taken as “typical of the field,” the incomplete background provided for decision-making, the unexamined policy and regulatory contingencies that could impact progress. The list goes on of items that should be asked about...but too often aren’t.

The good news is that this is entirely fixable, with an investment in time, systems, and training. Here are three ways to make “asking a stupid question” a welcome meeting interruption from any board member, no matter how clued in the rest of the board seems to be…

  1. Take time for board orientation and annual self-evaluation

Too many boards spend all their time and attention working on the organization they serve. Is that a bad thing?

It is, because investing time in also working on the board itself is essential for a strong nonprofit. This means:

  • Providing a thorough orientation for each new board member (the great Joan Garry has a detailed template here).

  • Undergoing a board self-evaluation process at least every two years. (An excellent sample is here.)

The benefit of taking these steps is a solid, shared agreement on what the board is supposed to be paying attention to, adhering to, and accomplishing. Therefore “stupid” questions have less chance to come off as personal, and instead are understood to be in service to the shared rules and the shared goals that everyone is pulling towards.

2. Take time to establish trust

The great Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team vividly shows that without trust there can’t be constructive conflict, and without constructive conflict there can’t be commitment, and without commitment there can’t be shared accountability, and without that, success is a lot harder. I recommend the book and the model as required reading for every nonprofit board member.

But taking the dedicated time to build trust can be hard to come by with busy boards.

The answer is to prioritize occasional board retreats and more frequent formal and informal opportunities for board members to get to know each other outside of regular meetings. Knowing more about each others’ strengths and weaknesses is critical for creating the candid and trusting atmosphere where stupid questions and wild ideas can make a hugely positive difference.

The hours spent in building relationships will save many times that many hours in productive board meetings. I promise.

3. Facilitate to ensure constructive conflict

A brave board member brings up a thorny issue. In the old days, her courage would have been rewarded with a quick shut down by the board chair: “We don’t have that problem here.”

But with training, even the least receptive boards can get onto a healthier footing.

For this organization, board leaders were trained in skills that created a sense of safety in the boardroom for all opinions to be expressed. The board chair learned to give each opinion respect and acknowledgement, and to ask for the thoughts of others before expressing his own.

Further, as facilitator, he learned to actively, even enthusiastically, ask: “Who here disagrees with this?” and genuinely await and listen to the responses. As a result, engagement and productivity in meetings increased dramatically, as no one held back.

With adept facilitation -- a skillset which can be learned -- the collective intelligence of a board of directors can inform the wisest decision-making. The result is a more fulfilling boardroom experience for all, let alone a more successful nonprofit.

Even in the smartest boardroom we need more stupid questions.

Want to learn more? I am one of several seasoned nonprofit leaders presenting the upcoming Board Leadership Institute, a six part, monthly, interactive series from the Ventura County Center for Nonprofit Leadership starting in January. Learn more here.

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