When Consensus is a Bad Idea

When Consensus is a Bad Idea

Which is better – an idea that everyone agrees with, or one that’s the result of conflict? That depends.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. As human beings, we like being with people who agree with us. It’s comfortable. We know what others are thinking. Boards have an easier time coming to consensus.

Unfortunately, that comfortable consensus isn’t always the best solution. The discomfort that comes with having to work with people unlike yourself is actually a good thing. In fact, that ease of working together may be keeping you from taking leaps forward.

Homogeneous groups don’t come to better solutions, as Columbia University’s Katherine W. Phillips, and co-authors Katie Liljenquist and Margaret Neale have found. They’re simply convinced that they did. Heterogeneous groups, on the other hand, come to better solutions. They just don’t think that’s the case.

According to Phillips,

“When you think about diversity, it often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict.”

What I love about this is Phillips’ phrase perceptions of conflict. Having a difference of opinion is often perceived as a conflict, and we humans tend to magnify the potential discomfort in conflict.  For most of us, our default mode is to avoid conflict, and that can lead us to avoid diversifying our boards (or staff!).

Less confidence = better outcome

In fact, it appears that this feeling of discomfort can also lead the group to have less confidence in their ultimate decision, despite actually having a better outcome.

That’s right.

Diverse groups make better decisions and have less confidence; homogeneous groups have more confidence and worse decisions.

Phillips hypothesizes that the very discomfort with diverse opinions causes the group to examine all the opinions more critically. There is less automatic acceptance, and a desire to defend one opinion versus another causes each opinion to be examined more closely.

A lot is written today about the need to diversify boards and staff, to reflect the diversity of the community we serve. We usually point to having a better understanding of needs and being better able to respond and serve those needs. What this study shows is that the benefits go well beyond reflection of the community.

Diverse groups make better decisions. What are you waiting for?

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This post is based on a report in KelloggInsight, from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, which summarizes the work published originally published in Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Is Your Executive Director A Farmer? (And that’s not a bad thing!)

Is Your Executive Director A Farmer? (And that’s not a bad thing!)

How is the CEO of a nonprofit like a farmer? Both must acquire and husband their resources to the benefit of the entire enterprise.

The role of an Executive Director is to acquire and husband all the resources of an organization, so those resources can best serve the mission. These resources may be dollars, good will, facilities or, most importantly, the people who are making a difference.  

This post is based on one I wrote almost 10 years ago. The realization still holds true. Most people looking into the nonprofit world from the outside don’t really understand the role of the Executive Director. Board members and senior staff may, but the clients, visitors, junior staff and general public are often in the dark.

But what do you DO?

When I headed a Hillel (a campus organization for university students), students and parents could see the Program Director in action; but more than one student wanted to know: what did I actually do? At Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, people saw the work of the veterinarians and technicians; but what did I do? At a private day school, they could see the teachers and the principal; but as Executive Director, what did I do? Even now, as consultant to nonprofit organizations, I frequently meet donors and board members who misunderstand the role of the CEO. Some want the CEO to interfere in the daily operation of a program. Others want the CEO to kowtow to the donor or to the board. Still others don’t know why they need an ED at all.

The ED’s Mission Statement

If a job can have a mission statement, then the mission of an Executive Director is to acquire and husband all the resources of an organization, so those resources can best serve the organization’s mission.

Like other good mission statements, this one is simple and can be phrased in one sentence. But this very simplicity holds a myriad of ramifications.

First, define resources. Resources may be dollars, good will, facilities, leaders, or the important people who make the mission a success. An Executive Director recognizes that each of these must come together to make the organization work. Focus solely on dollars to the exclusion of the people, or focus only on the building to the exclusion of community relations, and your world is unbalanced. Ignoring one of the resources while focusing solely on another and you end up fighting fires.

Acquire and Husband…

What does it mean to acquire resources? It means building relationships with others who can provide the resources you need. Donor relations and foundation relationships are part of resource acquisition – to obtain funds or services or in-kind gifts. Developing job descriptions is part of resource acquisition – to hire the best people. Reviewing new facilities and engaging a good real estate broker is part of resource acquisition – to find the best location. Being visible and participating in community functions is part of resource acquisition – acquiring good will and able board members. Acquiring resources is a key part of the job of an Executive Director – it’s important to remember that it doesn’t just mean dollars.

What about husbanding resources? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of the verb ‘husband’ is to use, spend, or apply economically; to make the most of. Applied to the role of Executive Director, it means making wise decisions on how to use the resources at hand. Knowing when to spend more in order to achieve great things, and when to spend less in order to preserve assets. Creating a budget that balances the needs of the organization, and understanding the impact on the mission when cuts have to be made. It means knowing when to spend on air fare in order to meet with a major donor, and knowing when to expend good will in order to save the organization from mission creep.

The Executive Director is the Board’s partner in driving and fulfilling the Mission and Vision of the organization. The CEO’s role is to acquire the resources necessary to fulfill the mission, and to use them wisely.

What do you think?

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3 Ways to Build Nonprofit Growth Mindset

3 Ways to Build Nonprofit Growth Mindset

Do you“fake it ’til you make it?” 

Do you have a “growth mindset?”

Reaching your aspirations requires taking action beyond your comfort zone.

“Fake it ’til you make it” says to pretend you know what you’re doing, and eventually you will. This cynical statement implies you don’t know what you’re doing, even as you actually accomplish things. It sidesteps the obvious – you do know at least some of what you’re doing, and now you’re learning the rest of it on the job. Thinking that you’re faking may keep you from asking for help in accomplishing (or being) what you aspire to. But stepping into a space beyond your comfort zone is a step toward growing into the job.

In “Do you have a growth mindset?” we encounter the sociologically proven axiom that if you believe ability is fixed, you’re less able to improve your skills than those who believe abilities can be learned and improved upon. Those with a growth mindset are often eager to take actions beyond their immediate abilities. They believe that even if they don’t succeed, they will learn from the experience.

It is action that leads to growth.

The act of learning and the act of doing make us step outside what we already know, and we grow from the experience.

Which leads me to this blog post by Seth Godin.  The four elements of entrepreneurship. Subtitled, “Are successful entrepreneurs made or born?” Godin demonstrates that entrepreneurship is a set of actions. Thinking of BEING an entrepreneur leads to the ‘either/or’ question: Am I or am I not an entrepreneur. But if entrepreneurship is a skill set, it can be learned.

What does this mean for your nonprofit?

Your organization can learn to grow, just as individuals can.

1.      Recruit board members with a growth mindset. The forces of society are changing rapidly, and your organization will need to be nimble to stay abreast. Board members who believe that they and others can grow and learn will be better able to adapt to rapidly changing situations.

2.      Recruit CEOs with entrepreneurial skills. They don’t have to have been an entrepreneur, but can they manifest the skills of being nimble, trying new things, learning from others, being decisive, be persuasive? These are entrepreneurial skills, necessary to coping with rapidly changing situations.

3.      Be willing to experiment with new directions and new programs.  Staying in the safety of what worked before isn’t enough. If you’re not sure of what you’re doing, it doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. You know a lot more than you think you do. A failed program is one from which you can learn. A new direction that needs a course correction is proof that you can learn and adapt.

Organizations are collections of people. And if people can learn with a growth mindset, so can your organization. Onward!

Sign up here for other hints about building a great board, or balancing growth and caution. Or if you want a no-obligation conversation about board relations, let me know.

Just Say No. Or, How FOMO* is Hurting Your Organization

Just Say No. Or, How FOMO* is Hurting Your Organization

The board member is excited.

“My cousin in Arizona just told me how his nonprofit is partnering their day care with a senior center and just drinking in the money from all the funders. We should do that!”

Right. Never mind that you’re a public garden with a research mission and you already have robust relationships with several senior centers that bring devoted volunteers to your site. You’re not a day care center, and the research you do requires fine motor skills.

“But we could get so much money from funders!!”

Is that really true?

The first question that major funders ask is how this new project fits into your strategic plan; which in turn has to match your mission and vision. Somehow, this fabulous idea doesn’t look so fabulous any more.

Or does it? What if you don’t have a strategic plan? What if you don’t have a coherent vision and mission? How can you tell whether this is a fabulous idea or not?

When everyone on your board, and everyone on staff, knows your mission, vision and plan, it’s a lot easier to “JUST SAY NO” to the random fabulous idea. 

But when you don’t have this foundation, it’s very easy to be pulled into projects and schemes that take you away from your purpose.

Mark Pettit wrote 5 Steps to Overcoming FOMO about personal goals. With his permission, here they are, with my take on applying them to your organization.

Five concrete steps:

1 – Commit to strong, specific goals. Articulate clearly what your organization’s priorities are. Ask that excited board member how the opportunity fits your current priorities. An important caveat: Don’t squash the enthusiasm, channel it!.

2 – Know the high-value activities needed to hit your goals. When you know the activities that will bring you the most return for your effort, you know where to channel that enthusiasm.  Have her work on the most important things, and keep her and others focused on the priorities.

3 – Recognize the tradeoffs. Questions are rarely ‘yes/no.’ If there’s a possibility that the idea fits, consider both the opportunities and the costs of each choice. My colleagues and I call this the “positive/positive, negative/negative” equation. What’s the upside of saying ‘yes’ AND what’s the upside of saying ‘no?’ What’s the downside of saying ‘yes’ AND what’s the downside of saying ‘no.’ All relative to your goals, of course.

Remind your board that you have more than you think.

4 – Give yourself permission to say ‘no.’ There will always be other things to spend your energy on and other opportunities that look good. Engage your board in a conversation about making choices, and acknowledge that you can’t say ‘yes’ to everything.  This boosts your ability to say ‘no’ when the time comes.

5 – Create an abundance mindset.  Chasing scattered opportunities is a symptom that you aren’t sure of your own plans and progress. FOMO is today’s way of saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.’ Meanwhile, the person on the other side of that fence is saying that about you. Remind your board that you have more than you think. You have a plan. You have rational reasons for each part of it. And feel free to say ‘no.’

*Fear of Missing Out

Lead your board through these five steps, and watch staying true to your plan get easier. Write back, and let me know how it goes!

Let’s talk about crafting that Vision and Mission and making sure you’re all on the same page. Contact me at sdetwiler@detwiler.com and we can talk.  Or sign up here to receive regular updates on board development and planning.

No Bootstraps — The Curse of the Unconnected Community

No Bootstraps — The Curse of the Unconnected Community

An article about how Wyoming relies on Federal dollars to support its arts, brought back memories of a panel of philanthropists I heard speak many years ago.

It was a frustrating experience. At the time, I was Executive Director of a small nonprofit. The panelists represented major, national level foundations. Each foundation funded national nonprofits and national causes. Each also funded their local communities.

Had I lived and worked in one of their communities, I would have been thrilled to hear how much they funded their home towns.

Unfortunately, my nonprofit was in a small state, with few heirs to phenomenally large endowments. To obtain money from these large foundations, I needed to apply to one of the national nonprofits they funded, competing against other small nonprofits for the trickle-down largess.

During Q&A, I asked what recourse we agencies in the hinterlands had when it came to applying for their funds. Would these large foundations consider supporting us, as well as their hometowns?

The answer was no.

They supported their home towns, and they supported the national nonprofits. It was up to us to figure out how to survive without having ‘angels’ in our midst.


It’s a hard lesson for us in the hinterlands to learn. Of course, I use hinterlands figuratively. All you need do is look around, and see where the major corporations and major foundations reside. Everywhere else, nonprofits start with at least one fewer arrow in their quiver, at least one fewer prospective major funder. Small communities in particular are vulnerable, as they have fewer prospective donors in general.  The arts and culture sector can be particularly vulnerable; unlike in the social sector, there are few government contracts available for their work.

Maybe that’s why boards of directors keep saying things like, “The Gates Foundation has a lot of money; let’s ask them!” and “Maybe Meryl Streep will come to our gala!” Hopes are high, but the reality is that the local nonprofits are not on their radar.

Yet these nonprofits DO succeed, because the national organizations DO make some funds available. In many cases, the Federal government steps in – at least for now, in the arts and humanities, there is the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, each funding large percentages of the rural arts and humanities programming. Other Federal agencies serve other areas, like Department of Education, Corporation for National and Community Service, Department of Labor.


These outlying nonprofits also do a very commendable job of enlisting their communities. Often there is volunteerism providing support in the form of unpaid labor. But the very fact of being in smaller communities makes it harder to get sufficient volunteers, either because the communities are small, or because there are barriers in smaller communities (e.g., lack of transportation, lack of childcare) that make volunteering more difficult.

Is this a plea for consideration by the large, national foundations? Maybe. I think it’s more a reminder that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Telling small-town organizations in unconnected communities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is naïve at best, and cruel at worst. First you need bootstraps.

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