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




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.

What if we all had the same Vision? The Power of WE.

A remarkable event occurred in the Fall of 2013, that demonstrates the power of a community coming together to embark on a new venture.

The community foundation in a rural Pennsylvania county decided it wanted to build capacity in its community. Acknowledging that there is wisdom beyond its own borders, they invited colleagues from far and near to a two-day conversation led by the organization, Creating the Future.creating the future logo

Before you read the blog post about that conversation, I invite you to envision what your community would be like if you, your organization, and your sister organizations, as well as each of your organizations’ supporters and suppliers, all had the same vision for your community. Now add in each of your organizations’ funders. Now add in the local and state government.

What could you accomplish together?Change Montage 2

It takes reframing how you envision working together. Read what they did here in Building Community Capacity.

And join me next week at the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations/Creating the Future Conference: The Power of WE.


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

The Magic is Gone

“Follow Jane Doe to customize what you see in this email.”

“People who bought this book, also bought….”

“Because you liked this movie, you might also like…..”

When Amazon, Netflix, LinkedIn  and Facebook curate what they show me, I find out about movies I would never have otherwise known about; books and articles that are right up my alley.

Rabbit and Hat But I miss The Magic of Serendipity.

I’m a serial reader, and often go back to the same authors again and again. But in the library, I browse the books next to that author, and I’m exposed to writers that have nothing in common with my current favorite other than the first 2 letters of their last name.  Serendipity.

General circulation newspapers keep me informed of things going on around the country and the world, not just topics I’ve decided to stay informed about. Even if I don’t really care about what’s happening in Antarctica, the paper covers it, and I at least glance at the headline. I find connections between ideas and events I would otherwise overlook. Serendipity.

Attending conferences, asking how participants ended up in this field, I emerge with connections made by doctors, lawyers, cab drivers, librarians, therapists. Serendipity.

I’m not a curmudgeon pining for the old days. Curating by Amazon, LinkedIn and their ilk allow me to dive ever deeper into areas I already know I care about. This is a good thing.

Serendipity EquationBut how do we get exposed to other ideas? To other subjects? To other fields?

When we’re caught up in a particular field like nonprofits or, more specifically, local homelessness, the religious response to hunger or LGBT issues, it is easy to be so focused that we essentially wear blinders. We lose the opportunity to look beyond the all-consuming topic. We don’t give ourselves permission to read speculative fiction, or nonfiction beyond our own sphere.

We lose the clash of ideas and thoughts that spark creativity. We lose the spontaneous creativity that lies in the serendipitous Aha! moment emerging from seeing connections between 12th century commerce and the current distribution of food in the state.

Having diverse viewpoints on my board of directors leads to robust discussions about our issues. Just as important, though, are the serendipitous comments made about things outside our realm that spark creative ways of envisioning our future.

Amazon and Netflix use algorithms to give us more of the same.  It’s time to find a book or a movie that has nothing to do with anything you’re currently working on, and that is nothing like anything you’ve read recently. Watch a documentary about a subject you’ve always been curious about but didn’t indulge.serendipity definition

Ask your board members to talk about their lives outside of their board service.

It’s time to break out and look for serendipity.
Our creativity relies on it!


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

How is Improv Comedy Like Appreciative Inquiry?

For years, the words Appreciative Inquiry seeped into my consciousness.

It began at a two-day national development seminar, and most recently at a five-day conference for lay leaders, nonprofit professionals and clergy. By this time, it appeared everywhere, either explicitly or implicitly; there seemed to be a whole track of sessions that demonstrated appreciative inquiry in different settings.

On a very simple level, Appreciative Inquiry begins with:

  1. appreciating and valuing what is;
  2. envisioning what might be;
  3. engaging in dialogue about what should be; and
  4. innovating to create what will be.

So what does Improv Comedy have to do with Appreciative Inquiry? Good question. Two main rules of Improv Comedy are “Yes, and…” and “your main focus is on your partner.

First, whatever is thrown at you, you have to accept it and build on it. Man talking into a bananaFor example, if someone picks up a banana and uses it to call you on the phone, you can’t say, “you idiot, that’s a banana!” You have to go with the flow, answer the phone, and say, “Hey! I was just about to call you – your Mom’s here and wants to know what you did with her gold-plated antique chamber pot she inherited from your Dad’s Aunt Phoebe in Alaska!” The point is, you have to accept what has been handed to you, and figure out what to do with it.

Second, with every sentence being a potential surprise, you have to focus closely on your partner, listen to whatever is being said and try to understand where she’s going with it.

In a nonprofit setting, if a board member says, “our students aren’t showing up for tutoring,” the response is “yes, and let’s figure out the ideal situation.” If you can envision an ideal situation, then you can work towards that ideal. If you say, “yes, but they’re dealing with issues at home, the buses aren’t running at the right time, their parents don’t push them….” you’re not adding to the conversation. You’re focusing on problems and seeming defensive, instead of hearing that the board member cares about the situation and inviting him to a shared vision of a better future.

“Yes, and…”

acknowledges that the comment was made,

appreciates that it is a concern,

inquires into what would be better.

And starts a dialogue about creating a better future.

How are Committees Like Mothers-in-Law?

They both get a bum rap!

“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done.” Fred Allen

“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” Milton Berle

Then there’s this rubber stamp I was given, that said, “Great idea! Assign a committee to foul it up!”

There is an image of nonprofit board committees as the place where ideas go to die a slow and lingering death; where process overcomes inspiration; where group-think strangles innovation.

But if you’re running an organization, it’s really hard to get anything done if you can’t segment off a group of people to work on specific jobs. How do you get people to work on these jobs? You invite them. Nicely.

The problem with committees is that word: “commit.”

That’s especially true in today’s society. Sometimes I feel so rushed and overwhelmed, that the thought of taking on another commitment sends me screaming in the other direction –NOOOoooooo!!!!! You mean, I have to come to meetings and be obligated for two whole years???

But if someone said to me, “Hey, Janet has this great idea; Joe and I are going to help her make it happen. Can you join us?” my answer is probably going to at least lead to a query for more information.

Asking someone to join the Finance Committee might be deadly. Asking someone to help figure out the best way to maximize the dollars we have available for our mission…? Well, that’s intriguing.

Being offered an idea for engaging new supporters and telling them to give the idea to a committee is disheartening. Being asked to explore the idea with others and generate ways to make it work is an invitation.

Committees aren’t inherently bad. It’s how we ask people to serve that creates the deadly atmosphere surrounding them.

Invite people to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. Let’s change the conversation.