Squirrels, Context, Assumptions, and Checking Business Sense at the Door

There is a squirrel that has started hanging out outside my window. I’ve tried to take a picture of it to share, but it seems to get scared off by too much movement (that includes my reaching out to grab my phone to take a picture). My office window looks out on the roof of the kitchen, so it’s not especially close, just close enough to peer in the window. Sometimes it just runs by – other times it stops, lays down, puts its head down, and hangs out (for lack of a better description).

So I’m pretty sure that squirrels don’t have too much cognitive thought, but I do know that they can be clever – especially when it comes to getting birdseed out of the birdfeeder. Even with that, I’m pretty sure the squirrel has no idea what I’m up to – clicking away on this keyboard and drinking my coffee. Perhaps it’s admiring the flowers in my window – or perhaps it knows that there’s food somewhere in the house and is just searching for a way in.

But what does this have to do with nonprofits? And with fundraising?

In order to understand a situation, we need to understand the context. We need to be able to process and see the full picture to fully assess the right next steps.

Too often, I’ve seen executive directors not fully deliver on the role of providing context and enough information to our volunteer board members that they are able to make good strategic decisions on behalf of the organizations they are providing leadership for. They overestimate the knowledge that board members already have – and underestimate the value of the information they have to share.

There is no way I could educate a squirrel about what I’m doing when I’m sitting at my desk and it’s sitting outside looking at me. Sure, I could try to talk to it, but my neighbors might start getting a little worried about me :-). Our board members are smart – we can explain the context of our work. But first we need to stop assuming that they already know everything they need to know. And board members too need to acknowledge that they might need more information.

On the other hand, I believe that board members also need to realize that nonprofits do operate in a completely different world than they are used to. Things generally move a little slower (there are many more stakeholders to be taken into account when considering changes – donors, clients, community members, etc.). Our board members need to be willing to see their Executive Director as a partner in the process – someone who can come and help bring context to the cause and to the positive changes we are all trying to make in the communities we serve – and who can help provide information that is needed to make the best decision for the community.

Board members also bring a lot to the relationship – knowledge about the community (both about donors and the community at-large) and often about solid business practices. Just like the executive director needs to be willing to speak up about the context the organization is operating in, board members need to stop checking their business sense at the door. If something wouldn’t fly at your day job or in your business, why would you let it fly at the organization you’re supposed to be leading? This shouldn’t include day-to-day operating situations, but does include personnel issues, ensuring that proper financial controls are in place, and development of a long-term vision / strategy (among others).

I could probably go on, but will let this conversation continue in the comments. What do you think about the partnership between board and staff? What’s working? What isn’t?

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