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Board Essentials: What Every Board Member Should Know Part 3

This week the focus is on the Strategic work of the board. Part 1 covered Parameters governing the work of the nonprofit board of directors. Part 2 explored the Role(s) of the nonprofit board: what effective boards actually do.

And now for Strategy. I checked in on Wikipedia to see how the public marketplace considers the term. Wikipedia considers it in military terms: a plan of action that’s goal-oriented from which tactics are defined and carried out. So that’s nice, isn’t it?  How comforting to know that the word that helps us set nonprofit direction comes from concepts around waging war. Is this the part of the concept that wants nonprofits to be “business-like”?  It’s a dog-eat-dog world? If that kind of thinking floats your boat and the majority of your board members, use it to your advantage.

Most folks I know on boards of directors want to take a more mission-oriented perspective. Is there a bit of religious fervor starting to surface in this kind of terminology?  That, and appealing to the emotions of people who support the nonprofit mission?

In my experience, good nonprofit board strategic work emanates from mission. What are we about at this nonprofit? If we’re a human service nonprofit, whom exactly are we helping?  And in what way are we helping? How are we making life better? As an arts organization, what’s our community purpose in providing theater of exhibition space or helping young students connect with a passion for the arts, for self-expression?

Boards of directors who take some time each year to think and act this way are on their way to clarity and focus in the nonprofit’s direction.  The Chait, Ryan & Taylor book, Governance as Leadership (Wiley, 2005) talks about strategic work and differentiates it from fundamental fiduciary work, and then the higher level generative work. Setting direction for the nonprofit is an essential to success. And it’s the board of directors’ job to do this if the board is ready for it and up to the challenge.

Good strategy is rooted in having a good understanding of the primary customer: the persons served by the nonprofit who benefit from its work. The board understands the needs of these customers or clients. The board is focused outward, assessing need, seeking improved quality in meeting need, achieving clarity on the environment in which the nonprofit works and the role the nonprofit plays in that environment.

This is not nuts and bolts work. Strategic work requires commitment to a thoughtful process. Taking the time to learn, think, discuss and then deliver once direction is set and the nonprofit is ready to assess tactical approach that will deliver best result.  It’s a very market-driven way of thinking and working. Boards that get in this groove are ahead of the game. They’re getting ready for what’s coming tomorrow.

So.  Parameters (Part 1) set the groundrules we can work in. Role clarification (Part 2) gets the board focused on what the job is. and Strategy (Part 3) points us in a direction based on the marketplace we’re working in, and environmental impact that helps and hinders us.

Strategic work is time well spent. When the board is ready to do the work.

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