Great Organizational Answers Come from Community Questions

Question Marks against the skyIs your organization suffering from “if we just had….” syndrome? If we just had rich board members… If we just had another fundraiser…. If we just did a conference…

As a board member, former Executive Director, and sometimes consultant/facilitator, I have experienced this syndrome firsthand. My bookshelves are heavy with the latest and greatest advice from experts (some of it unread). I’ve participated in discussions about program changes, board recruitment, and throwing another event together.

Unfortunately, no matter how much work we put into those efforts, nothing ever seemed to change. That’s because “if we just had…” is all about finding the answer that will solve our problems, and answers and advice can trap us in an endless cycle of problem solving that only seems to beget more problems to solve.

In my decades of community work, here’s what I’ve learned: We can’t get powerful answers until we have powerful questions.

Powerful questions can open our thinking to new possibilities. Powerful questions can inspire creativity and help us see things from a new perspective. A truly powerful question can help people talk with each other.

And the most powerful questions will reconnect us with the purpose of the organization, creating a context of “community impact” even for the most mundane and inwardly focused issue.*

Community Questions to Guide Organizational Answers
There are three questions I use repeatedly to help me see the whole picture, to get unstuck or to just determine which decision is best.

Question #1: If we are 100% successful in reaching our vision or goals, how will the community be different?

Talking about our ideal is energizing and fun, but it also keeps the focus on what is important.

At a school board meeting sitting through yet another work session on budget cuts, we used a couple of crucial questions for framing the discussion. What is the value of public education in our community? If we are successful in our vision for education, what would that look like? When we started from the point of what is important to us as a district, parents, students and community, the focus changed from what to cut, to what we valued most and how to make it happen.

Question #2: Will this decision move us closer to creating more community impact?

Connect Havasu, a group of area nonprofit Execs and board members, meets each month to build relationships and learn together about various sector issues. When the group was formed, a key element of the vision was to work together for the good of the community, not individual organizations. Asking how we can create a bigger community impact has helped us work together to gain a nonprofit seat on the Chamber of Commerce, and to plan to volunteer together on a project, as a show of sector solidarity.

Question #3: Who else needs to be at the table?

Havasu for Youth, a 30 year old local youth organization, starts many discussions with questions about who else is doing what we need, who we can partner with and who else’s voice needs to be at the table. These questions have led to partnerships with student government on preventing bullying, and partnering with other community organizations – using the vehicles of one group to transport students during off hours, and partnering with another group to ensure a major event brings more donor dollars back to the community.

Where do we start?
There are many opportunities to begin using powerful questions.

  • How would meetings be different if you opened with a question on something important to your community? 
  • What would happen if you took 10 minutes to go through the next agenda and write a question or two that might broaden the discussion? 
  • What if you kept a copy of the 3 Powerful Questions and in the office or boardroom as a reminder?

If you have powerful questions to add to the list, please leave them in the comments for us all to share. Together we can overcome “if we just had…” syndrome and build stronger communities. And isn’t that what our organizations are all about?

*Thanks to the participants in the December 2011 #NPCons Twitter chat on Great Questions of 2011, for your inspiration and wisdom

1 thought on “Great Organizational Answers Come from Community Questions”

  1. What a powerful, thought provoking post this is, Nancy! There are so many aspects to what you’ve shared here, beginning with your very first sentence, when you challenge us to rethink the traditional foundation of too many vision-directed discussions: what we don’t have to succeed. Not only does starting there launch thinking from a deficit perspective (we’re behind before we get started), it also provides us with an easy excuse for failing to move closer to the future we should be advancing as boards: “*Of course” we failed – we didn’t have….” It sets us up for failure and removes any accountability, all in one fell swoop.

    Instead, what you’ve provided us as boards is twofold: a challenge to step up and make those leadership stretches that are essential to governance and a different, community-focused foundation. That’s an incredible service, particularly for boards who are not used to this kind of work and who may legitimately not know where to begin.

    It’s a marvelous, marvelous post that simply must be shared (doing my best to help with that!). Kudos!


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