Weak Ties, Strong Boards, and Finding Resources

Weak Ties, Strong Boards, and Finding Resources

How well did you know the other people on your board before they (or you) joined?

Were you good friends? Did you live near each other? Did you work together? If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll probably expect me to tell you – again – that boards need diversity.  It helps with innovation, it avoids tokenism, it promotes sustainability.

I’m not the only one writing about it. Many studies, like here and here, show that diversity increases the success of a group or an organization. Whether we say we need diverse viewpoints, diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, or diverse voices, it all translates into this: groups perform better in the long run if they are not homogeneous.

Network analysis gives us an insight into why this might be especially true when it comes to finding knowledge and resources.

Mark Granovetter posited that information flows through weak ties more than through strong ties. If you travel in the same circles and have the same friends, you are said to have strong ties with each other. If you happen to know someone whose circle is different, but don’t interact frequently with them, you are said to have weak ties.

These acquaintances are exposed to different ideas and different information than you are. So when you interact with these acquaintances, you are then exposed to new information that your strong ties do not have.  In the words of Skye Bender-deMoll,

although your close friend may work harder to help you get a new job, it is likely to be an acquaintance that actually gets you a useful lead.”

Let’s extrapolate that to your organization. If most of the board travels in the same circles, their knowledge of resources is more likely to be similar than when members of the board come from diverse communities.

But if different members of the board have different networks, they bring those networks with them when they come to the board table. Along with their different experiences, they bring different knowledge and different entrees to resources.

As boards emerge from the founding stage, they tend to seek people with ‘deep pockets,’ implying that money is the only resource that matters. However, dollars are only one kind of resource; they are often a proxy for the resources that are really needed. They seek dollars because dollars can buy the resources that are needed to fulfill the mission: staff, rent, supplies. But resources come in many forms: community good will, contacts with particular skills, potential clients, individuals with elbow grease, advocates in different communities.

In many cases, the tangible resources themselves are available, without having to expend dollars – if you have the contacts that can bring them in.

By diversifying the composition of your board, you increase the number of weak ties for your organization. Weak ties multiply the opportunities for finding and developing resources that make it possible to fulfill your mission.

Why is diversity on your board important? More voices, more viewpoints, AND MORE KNOWLEDGE AND RESOURCES.

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The Leverage to Move Really Big Things

The Leverage to Move Really Big Things

ship-mark-detwiler-2“That’s the way things are always done.” “It’s too big to move.” “It’s too hard to change.”

We hear these statements all the time. The group comes up with a lofty goal, and the naysayers start their work.

  • We don’t have enough staff to do that.
  • The ship is already moving in one direction; we can’t change now.

Are you sure?

Last month, I toured the Kalmar Nyckel, a replica of the 141 foot long 17th century Dutch Pinnace that carried Peter Minuit and the founders of Ft. Christina – now New Castle, Delaware – in a 2-1/2 month journey across the Atlantic from Sweden.  Carrying about 50 people in a ship whose deck was only 93 feet long, the ship made at least 4 round trips across the Atlantic, and was then outfitted for naval duty.

Each anchor on the Kalmar Nyckel weighs 900 pounds, far too heavy for individuals to even join together to hoist. But a simple machine, the windlass, magnifies their strength 10X.

Working together, the sailors inserted levers into the horizontal windlass, pushed down, and repositioned the levers, continuing the process to hoist and lower the anchor, or hoist topmasts and yards too unwieldy to manage alone.

In the 17th century, and for millennia well before that, humanity already had the tools to magnify our strength. Together.

In the 21st century, our machines may be different, but they are still tools that can magnify our strengths. Especially when we work together.

One of the greatest assets an organization has is the people who can see beyond their own strengths, to the possibilities of engaging others with complementary strengths. Using technology, we are now able to meet people who share our vision, even if they don’t live in walking distance. They may not be on the same ship as we are, but we can still work together to do big things.

Board members need to be able to see that path. We constantly talk about our organization’s finite resources, without recognizing that in our daily lives we already magnify our resources by working together. As individuals, we ask for help when needed; we plan trips and parties with others.

The next step is to apply that same thinking to the whole organization. When faced with a lofty goal, the response is not,  “We can’t do that.” The response is “Who else can we bring into this to make it possible?”

What big things can we do if we engage with others, using our 21st century tools? Instead of letting the naysayers affirm the status quo, board members can ask – how can we make it possible?

What leverage can YOU apply to make big things happen?

Can you Blend Millennials and Boomers?

Can you Blend Millennials and Boomers?

Congratulations!  You’ve built a board with members of every decade of adult life. You have 20-somethings, 50-somethings, 70-somethings, and every decade in between.

Now, how do you strategically take advantage of the fresh ideas while integrating them into existing relationships?

Losing institutional knowledge has dramatic consequences. Leonard, Swap and Barton researched the consequences in corporations, with great lessons for nonprofits.  Losing the knowledge of a resident board expert can mean losing key relationships with donors, losing key background on why the community is wary of the agency, not knowing whom to call in important government offices, missing important foundation meet and greets. These relationships were built up over time and the proverbial Rolodex – or CRM – can’t help.

By having a spread of ages on the board, you’ve made these consequences a lot less likely. Since you didn’t wait until all the incumbents retired, you now have a fertile field for collaboration between old and new. Make mentoring a new board member part of the portfolio of existing members and you take a step in the right direction. Ask board members to take new members with them when they meet with donors, foundations and community representatives.

Don’t be afraid that this implies to the world that the older board member is on the way out. Not at all – quite the opposite. It conveys to the community that you have succession planning built into the ethos of the agency. It builds trust. It builds confidence in the longevity of the organization. When the older member leaves the board, the new member already has a budding relationship with the foundation.
Internally, pairing new and returning board members builds trust between them. It’s hard to view an older member as a dinosaur when you’ve spent time with her one-on-one and learned her philosophy of building relationships. It’s hard to view a new member as an upstart when you’ve spent time hearing his new ideas and exchanged thoughts on how to execute them.

The relationships continue when the older board members leave. The trust they’ve built allows newer board members to continue calling on retired members, keeping them engaged. It’s a win-win-win for the organization, the board, and the individuals involved.

Putting different generations on a board together is a great first step. Building a team out of them requires strategic thought, but the benefits are manifold.

For more about nonprofit succession planning, board education and facilitation, go to www.detwiler.com, or get in touch with me directly at sdetwiler@detwiler.com. If you have an experience to share, let me know!

A Board Exercise in Gratitude

A Board Exercise in Gratitude

Where there is no gratitude, there is no meaningful movement; human affairs become rocky, painful, coldly indifferent, unpleasant, and finally break off altogether. The social ‘machinery’ grinds along and soon seizes up.

Margaret Visser

Thanksgiving is an obvious time to write about being thankful, and it’s nice to have a time to stop and consider all that we have to be grateful for. We think about our friends, our family, our health.

It’s also not such a bad time to stop and contemplate how awesome your board is, and how much they’ve contributed to the well being of your organization.

When was the last time you thanked your board members? They’re each making your agency a priority in their lives, giving time, talent and treasure. They could be giving it somewhere else. They could also NOT be giving. But there they are, week after week, month after month, making difficult decisions, acting as cheerleaders, supporting your work, being ambassadors for your agency.

Each board member is the equivalent of a major donor. Whether or not the dollars are substantial, she has the capacity to make your life easier, introduce you to supporters, provoke new ideas, stabilize a situation. She should be told how much she means to you.

Quote from Cicero on gratitudeHere’s a simple exercise. If you’re the Executive Director, the next time you write a thank you note to a donor, also write one to a board member. Do that until you’ve written one to every member of your board.  If you’re the board president, sit down and hand write a thank you note to each board member. If you can, name a specific action for which you are grateful.

Do you want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude within the board? At each meeting, assign one or two board members to offer a very brief statement of gratitude around the organization. It might be why they are grateful the organization exists. It might be what they appreciate about a staff member. It might be what committee they are particularly grateful to.

In many faith traditions, there is the concept “do not withhold the wages of the laborer.” It’s obvious how that applies to staff, but the wages of a volunteer are less obvious.

The wages of a volunteer – the wages of your board members – are the thanks he receives for his work.


Happy Thanksgiving!

The psychology of gratitude and its benefits are being researched throughout the fields of education, and migrating to the business world. Some readings on gratitude can be found at gratefulness.org.

Visionary strategic planning is easier when board members are comfortable with each other. Exercises in gratitude are one way to facilitate this trust. For more about strategic planning and facilitating retreats, please contact me at sdetwiler@detwiler.com or www.detwiler.com.

Exclusive Interview: How They Did It!

Moving your board toward diversity is tough. Everyone knows it has to be done; yet, as Newton’s first law of motion states, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Inertia, the tendency of a body to resist change, is the norm. Similarly, without a push or a pull, we continue to look to our usual sources for new board members. Or worse, to satisfy ‘best practice’ requirements, we collect tokens.

But what if the incentive is big enough to disrupt the inertia? If your board foresaw a financial crisis, all of a sudden the trustees would start looking for funds. But what external force would push a board to focus on diversity? Is there a compelling reason to really embrace diversity on a board?

Yes. The future.

definition of diversityAs reported by David Feitler in Harvard Business Review, two different studies show that diverse groups are more likely to foster innovation. Prof. Lee Fleming and his colleagues at Stanford University found that “higher-valued industrial innovation…is more likely to arise when diverse teams are assembled of people with deep subject matter expertise in their areas.” Prof. Ben Jones and colleagues at Kellogg Business School of Northwestern University found that “the most influential [research] papers…exhibited an intrusion of interdisciplinary information” and “groups were more likely to foster these intrusions than solo researchers.”

Surprisingly, it’s not a great leap to go from research and industrial innovation to nonprofit boards; even in the nonprofit sector, research supports the idea that greater diversity promotes greater organization success.

Of course, research is great, but if you want to hear a real world example, I can attest to the excitement that comes from having a diverse board. Meeting with the board of a regional theater group, I showed them a headline from five years in the future. “Exclusive interview: Theatre Group tells how they did it!”

Their assignment? For the next ten minutes, write down what amazing things the organization had accomplished that prompted this headline. What activities or initiatives did you take that made it possible? How did you do it? Whom did you collaborate with? What did it do for the community?

When we regrouped, the stories started emerging. But instead of centering on what the organization was currently doing, each individAbstract Artual brought her own vision of what the organization could become. One focused on the what the competed capital campaign would make possible. One added the idea that their education programs became a template for programs across the country. Another focused on building the writers’ workshops. Another focused on collaboration with a number of other community arts organizations. As each idea was presented, conversation grew more animated, as each added details from their own backgrounds.

Because of the diversity in age, experience, life stage, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, they built a rich picture of the future that no single one of them could have imagined. The stories they created together are forming the basis for a vision toward which they’ll work.

This same exercise, in a much less diverse group, produced stories that were less visionary.  Group members were almost all of the same ethnicity, age range and socio-economic level.  They built on each others’ ideas, but with incremental steps in the same direction.  The difference between the two groups was evident.

We tell people to think outside the box, but it’s not easy.  We are bound by our own experience.  Yet when your board is filled with people who naturally come from other backgrounds, the scope of imagination is enlarged by this rich diversity.

Diversity isn’t a box to check on a grant application, or an ‘ought to have.  Diversity of experience and thought is vital to the future of your organization.

What do you think? How have you seen diversity add to visioning the future? I’d love to hear your experiences; or, if you’d like to bring these ideas – or this exercise – to your organization, let me know. You can reach me at: sdetwiler@detwiler.com.

The Five Missing Qualities Every Board Member MUST Have

We all know that getting the right board members around the table is crucial. That’s probably why there are thousands of articles and blog posts that talk about recruiting new board members.

Some focus on the “attribute grid” or “board matrix,” or “skills grid.”  That’s the grid that helps you identify the skills and attributes you want on your board, relative to the skills and attributes you already have on your board, and where the gaps are.  Standards for Excellence™   has one for its members, as does KPMG  and many others.

Then there are articles that tell you to throw the infamous grid out the window, like Blue Avocado, in their article ‘Ditch Your Board Composition Matrix’. These make the very valid point that just having a lawyer on your board doesn’t mean a darn thing, if she’s a divorce lawyer and you need someone with real estate law knowledge. Or if he’s a tax accountant, and you need someone who can oversee the nonprofit accounting process.

True confession: In the past, I have been a proponent of attribute grids, while leaning more towards the Blue Avocado model – what are we trying to accomplish? Who do we have, who do we know, who’s in our corner who can help us accomplish this? As a matter of fact, I still think that way.  But there’s a glaring omission.

The thing is, skills don’t make a board, people do. And people have basic qualities that can make a board exceptional – or dysfunctional.  Board members who don’t respect the Executive or each other are toxic. Board members who don’t care about the cause won’t do anything to further it. Board members who live in the past – ‘tried it once, didn’t work’ – don’t consider how the world has changed.

So no matter what other skills a board member has, she must have these:

A passion for the cause
Respect for others
Thoughtful ability to consider issues, and to articulate those thoughts
• A sense of responsibility for making things happen
• The vision to think beyond today

Passion for the cause is first and foremost. Why waste a seat on the board with someone who doesn’t care enough to really work for your success?

Respect is probably next. I’ve experienced too many boards where board members belittle the executive or a staff member in front of the board or their peers. And I’ve experienced other boards where discussions devolve into a shouting match between two members who don’t even try to listen to each other. Time is too short and your cause is too worthy, to waste a seat on a disrespectful board member, no matter how much money they might give.

Thoughtfulness – the ability to really consider the issue at hand and weigh its ramifications for the organization – is a rare gem. The best board members ask questions that cause you to think through your own responses as well. If a board member can’t stop to think about why he is in favor or against an initiative, then you’re allowing his personal past experiences to automatically have a vote, regardless of where those experiences have led.

Passion, respect and thoughtfulness are great, but responsibility is where the rubber meets the road. When it comes time to act, you need board members who take responsibility for ensuring that promises are fulfilled.  Whether it’s connecting the executive with the governor, reviewing the audit, or making calls to supporters, promises don’t cut it. Board members must take responsibility. As sung by Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady,  “Don’t talk of love, show me!

Finally, board members must be able to envision the future and think beyond today. So many decisions affect both today and tomorrow; considering only today’s issue jeopardizes your future. Faced with an excess of income (it does happen!), do you put the funds aside for tomorrow or spend it today? Do you invest in building infrastructure or in professional development so tomorrow you can serve more clients? Faced with a significant deficit, do you cut back programs or invest in development staff? Envisioning the future ramifications of today’s decisions is imperative for your future.Word cloud

Very-Basic-Checked-checkbox-icon Passion

checkboxRespect

checkboxThoughtfulness

checkboxResponsibility

checkboxForward thinking

This is the final checklist when weighing the value of a new board member.  Without these five qualities, you can have the best real estate lawyer, the best CPA, the best HR administrator, each at odds with each other, unable to make a decision and unwilling to connect you to those who can help you change the community.

So go ahead, consider what you want to accomplish, and seek people who are able to make it happen. But before putting them on the board, use this checklist. Ask yourself, do you want to work with this person?

Have some thoughts to share on this subject?  Get in touch with me at sdetwiler@detwiler.com.