Nonprofit MythBusters Myth #2: Good Boards Agree on Everything
By Judy Chambers
Myth #2: Good Boards Agree on Everything
If you serve on a nonprofit board, then you probably know how uncomfortable a disagreement among members can be. You might wonder if you’re being too nit-picky or negative. Maybe you’re a new member and don’t want to challenge the collective wisdom of the other members. If you’re serving in a small community, you may cross paths with other board members where you work, where you worship, or in a variety of other roles and you don’t want to seem difficult. It’s tempting to “go along to get along” and vote with the majority, even when you aren’t sure that’s the right decision. Avoiding conflict may solve your immediate problem, but it may not be good for the organization you’re serving.
Nonprofit boards are responsible for governing the organization. They provide financial stewardship and make sure the organization is in legal compliance with local, state, and federal regulations. They hire and supervise the nonprofit’s executive. They make strategic plans to guide the nonprofit’s future. And they stay attuned to community and donor relationships. They do all of this through decision-making, and if they’re an effective board, they probably don’t reach consensus on every issue.
What is consensus? It’s a decision on which all members agree. On boards, a consensus is reflected in a unanimous vote. There are some organizations, usually faith-based, that are committed to consensus. They do not make a decision until all members are truly in agreement. But most boards use a majority-rule approach instead. Consensus works well for any nonprofit when voting on minor actions such as reviewing meeting minutes—usually everyone agrees that the minutes are correct before voting unanimously to approve them.
However on major issues, a healthy difference of opinion is often reflected in a split vote rather than a unanimous one. And here’s why: differences are inherent in the structure of most boards. Members represent different segments of the community and bring differing perspectives to the board. Members also bring experience and expertise in a variety of fields. While one member may focus on the community served by the organization, another may be more concerned with donor relations. A third member with experience in risk analysis may bring yet another perspective. Each of these members may have a different opinion as to the correct course of action, and it’s their responsibility to the nonprofit to share their perspective.
Board members are expected to support the decision of the majority, no matter how they voted. So it’s important that the board chair encourages discussion before the vote. When the board explores disagreements before voting, there’s an opportunity to provide more information or correct misunderstandings. The course of action can be modified to address concerns—or members may change their minds on how to vote. If they don’t, there’s still been an opportunity to explore their concerns.
Agreeing on everything can actually be an indication of dysfunction on a board. Does it mean that the board doesn’t want to deal with conflict? If that’s the case, there could be more serious issues, such as board members who don’t speak up for fear of a verbal attack. When members don’t speak up, the board loses the benefit of their perspective. More importantly, board members who don’t fully participate are not fulfilling their responsibility.
Total agreement can also indicate “groupthink,”, a phenomenon in which members place the importance of consensus above all other considerations. As Psychology Today explains on its website, “even in minor cases, groupthink triggers decisions that aren’t ideal or that ignore critical information” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/groupthink accessed 2/17/22). When this happens, boards may find themselves avoiding the moral and ethical implications of their decisions, because working in unity becomes more important than governing the nonprofit.
There are many reasons boards make decisions the way they do. Here are a few that might apply to your board, and ideas for addressing them.
Unequal power—If some board members wield a lot if power in the community, there can be a tendency to follow their lead rather than cross swords with them. One way to counter the power effect is to play devil’s advocate. Announce yourself in that role by saying something like “Just to be sure we’ve looked at this from all sides” or “Let’s consider both pros and cons.” Be the person who introduces new perspectives to the discussion.
Time constraints—If the board feels it has insufficient time, it may rush into a decision. The most obvious clue is when members start checking their watches or cell phones. Unless there is an urgent need to act on the matter, can a committee be asked to dive deeper into the issue before the next board meeting?
Lack of respect—There are many ways to signal your lack of respect for a member’s ideas, from eye-rolling to finger-tapping, or even getting ready to leave the meeting by gathering up papers or shutting down laptops. This is the time to model respectful behavior through body language that shows you are listening carefully to the speaker. You might say, “This is an important matter that deserves our full attention.”
Maybe your board just works really well together—everyone gets along, everyone’s opinion is respected, and you always agree with each other. Rare as that is, it’s certainly possible. And it’s a wonderful thing, as long as agreeing on everything is the result of a healthy board, not its default method of decision-making. Remind your fellow board members that it’s okay to agree to disagree, and set your sights on open, honest discussion and decisions that are the best for your nonprofit.