Impact-Focused Governance: Catalytic Thinking and Your Board

We recently asked a group of consultants to name the biggest problems they encounter with nonprofit boards. We then added their list to the results from asking Google the same question.

The most remarkable thing about that long list is that it isn’t remarkable. Board members who are disengaged, who micromanage, who don’t understand their job, who aren’t familiar with the programs they are supposed to be governing. If I didn’t know the year, I would have guessed I was back in 1994 when I started out as a young consultant to boards.

Sadly, in my 30 years in the nonprofit world, not much has changed. Back in the 90’s, the Wall Street Journal quoted a survey where corporate leaders were asked, “If your board were captured by aliens, would anything change at your company? And would anyone pay to get them back?” The question alone suggests the answer: virtually no one thought their board was worth the ransom. And that was corporate boards, who pay their board members handsomely!

In my book, The Pollyanna Principles, I posited that if every board in the world could be a candidate for board development work, that is not a problem of each individual board – it is a systemic problem. That means it will take considerable shifting of mindsets to get beyond the mess that is the current state of nonprofit boards.

At Creating the Future, our board members are veterans of almost every aspect of nonprofit work, a mix of governance consultants, academics, and both current and recovering social entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives. We have all spent decades grappling with the issues that keep organizations stuck. It is what has led us all to this work of making social change as effective as possible via the questions of Catalytic Thinking.

By applying Catalytic Thinking to every question that comes before us, our board models what inspired, engaged leadership can look like. In the words of one of our board members, “These conversations are our greatest asset to build upon.”  

That is because Catalytic Thinking naturally turns your board
into an Impact-Focused board.

If we want to reach beyond the list of board problems, towards the potential boards have to make a real difference, there is no better pathway than the questions of Catalytic Thinking.

Shifting Mindsets about Nonprofit Boards
Catalytic Thinking takes advantage of the power of questions to change mindsets. While so many social innovation efforts focus on creating innovative actions, the more impactful change happens when we begin to think differently, because it is our thoughts that create our actions.

When we change our actions without changing the thinking that created those actions, our results are likely to be pretty much the same. That is why so many board interventions fail to help boards reach for what is possible. We keep changing actions without changing the thinking that has created those actions. However, when we change our thinking, everything can change in that new direction, like dominoes toppling into place.

What, then, does it take to change our thinking? The knowledge that our thoughts and assumptions are actually just the answers to questions.

Can I trust that person?
What will happen if I walk down that street?
Why can’t I get more done on this project?

Boxes with arrows of causality. The left-hand box says "Change the questions." That leads to a box that says "Change the assumptions." That leads to a box that says "Change the actions." Which leads to a box that says "Change the results."

Catalytic Thinking uses questions to shift our thinking in powerful ways:

  • From reacting to what’s wrong to creating what is possible.
  • From suspecting the worst in each other to bringing out the best in each other.
  • From the scarcity of going it alone to the enoughness of realizing that together we have everything we need (Collective Enoughness).

Unfortunately, the traditional “board roles and responsibilities” are all about the opposite of those shifts. Here is just a taste of how that reactivity, suspicion, and scarcity play out at the board table.

Creating – or reacting?
The bulk of time spent by most boards is reactive. As part of the board’s oversight role, a great deal of traditional board work involves listening to reports – financial reports, program reports. Those reports all describe things that have already been decided, and in many cases, have already happened. And there is nothing you can do about the past except REACT to it.

When the board does address current or future issues, it is still too often in response to problems – either reacting to current problems or preventing future problems. And that again puts the board in REACTIVE mode.

There is a huge difference between reacting to problems vs. creating what is possible.

Bringing out the best in people – or suspecting them?
The board’s oversight role is also rooted in SUSPICION. Suspicion is at the heart of the battle cry for accountability. When people demand accountability, it is generally because they suspect the people they want to hold accountable. SUSPICION and mistrust are at the heart of micromanagement. We SUSPECT our community members (How can we prevent them from cheating / double dipping?). We SUSPECT our employees (Current Human Resource practices are all rooted in the assumption that employees will act badly). We SUSPECT others who care about our issues (i.e. “the competition”).

When we work to bring out the best in people, we have less reason to suspect them.

Enoughness – or scarcity?
Even when boards are asked to consider what might be possible, their response is rooted in SCARCITY – some form of “Where will the money come from?” From employee benefits to new computers or the thousands of ideas that could help with mission effectiveness and employee joy, a board’s scarcity-driven response too often shuts down discussion before it can even begin.

When our first question is, “What do we have to build upon? Who has the stuff we need, that we might share with them?” we move from scarcity to possibility.

The board table is where good ideas either become a roadmap for change, or go to die. This is therefore where the power of asking more effective questions can move a whole organization away from reactivity, suspicion, and scarcity.

  • Questions that lead boards to what is possible 
  • Questions that lead boards to trust and connection
  • Questions that lead boards to enoughness

Asking these questions at the board table can lead the whole organization towards creating what is possible in their community. That is what being an Impact-Focused board is all about. Here is some of what that could look like.

Question 1:
Who will be affected by whatever we are considering? What would need to be in place for those individuals to lead the direction the organization takes?

This is the ultimate inclusion question. Because every decision you make will affect other people, you need to be mindful of that from the start. The reason for this is rooted in brain science. If you dive into the conversation without considering all those people, your brain will reflexively focus only on yourselves – your organization, your immediate clients, your budget.

The degree to which the people who will be affected are included in your conversations is the degree to which you will be following the watchword that began with the disability rights movement: Nothing about us without us.

You will also be doing your best to avoid unintended consequences, which are so often the result of making decisions without consulting the people who will be affected by those decisions.

No matter the issue, every conversation at Creating the Future begins with this question. Whether our conversation is about internal functions like employee evaluations or more community-focused issues like planning or programming, every one of our conversations begins by making a long list of who will be affected by whatever we are about to decide. You can see a sample of that here.

Then we determine what needs to happen to have all those people participate in the conversation. Sometimes that means taking 6 months to deeply engage our community in major policy issues. At other times, because our board is so involved in those issues already, we feel comfortable making decisions without more formal engagement.

That latter circumstance can only happen when the people on your board are the people who are affected by your mission – a very different circumstance than the common suggestion to “get business people on your board.” The composition of your board may just be the first test of “nothing about us without us.”

Questions your board can ask:

    • Who will be affected by what you are considering?
    • Who is best suited to make the decisions about issues that will affect the people in your community?
    • Who is best suited to make decisions about issues that will affect your staff and volunteers?
    • What needs to be in place for the people who are affected to be an integral part of the decision? What would people need to know? What would they need to be assured of in order to participate?
    • What systems would need to be in place within your board / organization, to engage that deeply with your community or your staff? What would your board need to know? What would they need to value? What would they need to be assured of?

Question 2:
What are our people’s aspirations? What strengths do they bring to the issue? What are the values at the heart of the issue for them?

We are all so used to listening for what’s wrong. We ask about people’s problems and weaknesses and conflicts. And then that is where we focus. We go down the rabbit hole of how bad things suck, at every step reinforcing and magnifying our feelings of powerlessness to combat it all.

This triggers the reflexive areas of our brains into fight-flight-freeze mode, keeping us from thinking clearly.

Trying to build strength upon weakness and conflict and problems is like trying to build a bridge on quicksand. We can only build strength upon strength. The questions we ask, and what we listen for in response, will determine whether we are building strength or inadvertently creating more weakness.

The vast majority of social change work – including the discussion at board tables – is steeped in asking about what’s wrong. That narrow view excludes what the community aspires to, what they already have to build upon, and what is important to them. Ask about problems, and people will focus entirely on problems.

Interestingly, if we ask people about their aspirations, they will also talk about the things standing in the way of achieving that potential. So it’s not an either/or. If we ask about aspirations and strengths, we will get the whole story. If we focus just on what’s not working, we will only see that slice of the story.

Here is what that looked like as Creating the Future asked our community about next steps for our mission. We asked our community what they thought was possible (aspirations). We asked about how they were already benefiting from our work (strengths) and what they felt was important about that (values). You can see the questions we asked and the answers that folks provided at this link.

One of the simplest ways to build strength in your board is to provide ample opportunity for board members to get to know each other and build trust, to learn what is important to each person (their values). The reason Creating the Future’s board members feel our discussions are our biggest asset is because we have taken time at every meeting to get to know each other, learning what is important to each of us, taking slow time to think together. Then, by focusing on what is possible vs. what is not working, those questions themselves build upon what is strong in each of us.

Questions your board can ask:

    • What do the people in your community aspire to? What do they want life to be like?
    • What do the people on your staff aspire to? What do they want their work life to be like?
    • What strengths do they have to build upon?
    • What is important to them as you consider the issues? What are the values at the heart of the issue?
    • What would it take to build trust and relationship among your board members? What would they need to know about each other? And what would need to be in place for them to know that?

Questions 3:
For each of the parties who could be affected by your organization’s work, what is the best possible outcome of whatever you are considering?

This is the “why” question. The “to what end” question. The “so what” question. The “what’s the big deal” question.

At Creating the Future, this question guides the direction for every decision we make. From our community’s aspirations and our own direct experience with the issues we are discussing, we ground every bit of our discussion in what we want to create (vs. reacting to whatever problem is on the table). You can see an example of that at this link.

Here is what that could look like in your own board’s discussions:

If we approve this budget item, what will that make possible for our vision of a community where every child reaches their full potential?

As we consider this agenda item, how does it align with our vision of a community where every person has their basic needs met?

The answer to this “vision” question will define the final domino you want your work to aim at toppling. That will create the context for every decision you make, helping you reach for what is possible vs. the more common practice of aiming to make things incrementally less bad.

Questions your board can ask:

    • If your mission were 100% successful, what would your community look like? What would you see when you walk around? What would you hear? What would it feel like to be in your community? What would a newcomer notice?
    • What will be possible once your problems are solved? After eliminating those “bad” conditions, what would “good” look like?
    • If your vision were reality, what would life be like for a baby, for an elderly person, for a single mom, for a family with kids? What would they experience?

Question 4:
In order for that ultimate outcome to be reality, what conditions would need to be in place? What would people need to feel, have, know, value, be assured of?

This is the question that will lay down the trail of dominoes to your vision, turning your vision into an achievable goal.

If your vision is a community where every person’s basic needs are met and people are free to thrive, what would need to be in place for that to happen?

If your vision is a community where everyone is healthy, physically and emotionally, what would need to be in place for that to be reality?

When Creating the Future engaged our community to determine next steps for our mission, the ultimate goal our community members shared as their answer to Question 3 was the mindset shift at the heart of Catalytic Thinking. They imagined a global mindset shift to what is possible, connecting people to each other in a spirit of enoughness.

We then held conversations where we asked our community members about the conditions that would lead to that mindset shift. What would people need to have? What would they need to feel? What would they need to experience?

Their answers are now leading every step of our work.

Your board can ask these same questions. “Here is our vision. What are the dominoes that would lead to that result?” For an example, this link is to a summary of one of several sessions where Creating the Future’s board answered these questions as we planned for our community engagement efforts.

By defining the conditions that will turn your vision into reality, suddenly your aspirations are not a pipe dream, but an achievable goal. THAT is the highest potential for your board – to ensure that the organization is creating conditions that will make your vision achievable.

Importantly, this question can lead to your board transforming their own agenda items. By asking this one question about your board’s own work, you will be breathing new life into the work they do.

As we create the agenda for our board meetings, what would the board need to know in order for our vision to be realized? What would they need to discuss? And which items on their current agenda do not lead towards our vision – items that could perhaps be a written report, or not on the table at all…?

Questions your board can ask:

    • What conditions will lead to your ultimate vision like a line of dominoes?
    • What would people in your community need to know in order for your vision to be realized? What would they need to feel? What would they need to be assured of? What would they need to value?
    • What would it take for them to know / feel / value / be assured of those things?
    • Importantly, is whatever decision you are considering helping to lay the dominoes that will lead to your goal? If not, what will you do?

The Rest of the Questions
The final questions in the Catalytic Thinking framework are about getting the work done. You can see those questions here. Questions about what actions you will take. Questions about what you will need to have in place internally in order to be able to take those actions. Questions about resources and engagement with the community.

These “doing” questions are for your staff to answer, simply because most board members don’t know enough to answer.

The oversight role of your board is therefore to ensure that the staff’s decisions adhere to your values and your vision. To accomplish that, use the Catalytic Thinking questions!

If your goal is to ensure that your staff is making decisions that adhere to your values and vision, your staff will obviously be affected by whatever you decide. Will those individuals be part of your board’s discussion about this topic that is so important to them? (Question 1).

When you have that oversight discussion, will you ask about what isn’t working and try to fix it? Or will you ask about what is already working, what is important to everyone involved (values), and what good would look like for both the board and the staff? (Questions 2 and 3).

At that point, board and staff together can discuss the conditions that would need to be in place for that goal to be realized. To ensure the work of your teams is adhering to your values and vision, what would need to be in place? What would the staff need to know? What would your board need to know? If applicable, what would your community need to know? What would all those parties need to understand? What would it take for them to understand that? What would they need to be assured of? What would help them to be assured of that? (Question 4).

From there, your staff can put the rest of the pieces in place, knowing what is expected of them.

If you want your board to focus on creating the most impact possible in your community, imagine what these questions could help your board to create! At Creating the Future, these questions led to our board’s role morphing into something we might never have imagined had we simply reacted to the list of complaints about boards. That new role is all about reaching for what is possible in our community and our organization, the most important role any board could aspire to – an Impact-Focused board, leading an Impact-Focused organization.

That same could be possible for your board. And it can all start with the questions your board is asking.

1 thought on “Impact-Focused Governance: Catalytic Thinking and Your Board”

  1. I genuinely agree that asking the correct questions, at the right time, can lead to the total transformation of an organization; as well as individuals. Thank you for the insights shared in this article.


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