Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Avoiding questions that must be asked: Why our nonprofit boards evade inquiry

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If our boards know that asking questions that define and advance the better future we all seek is their ultimate domain, if they long for board meetings that engage their brains and their spirits, if they want to know they're making a difference, why do so many resist asking the kinds of questions that create those pathways?

As I've been recuperating, I've had ample time to pose a few questions of my own. I've also been revisiting a few favorite books that address those questions, including Warren Berger's remarkable A More Beautiful Question. It's in Berger's excellent resource that I found a bit of perspective on that burning question.

Berger offers four potential reasons that we "tend to avoid fundamental questioning." They ring all too familiar as I think about my own board service and about many boards I've researched or encountered. Let's see if these sound familiar to you (p. 183):

"Questioning is seen as counterproductive; it's in the answers that most people are focused on finding, because the answers, it is believed, will provide ways to solve problems, move ahead, improve life."

Let's face it, we recruit smart people to our boards - experts in their fields - to provide answers. We come to them for direction, for solutions to our problems, to improve our organizational health. A boatload of new questions may not feel particularly helpful. Yet that is where much of their greatest value to us can be found.

"The right time for asking fundamental questions never seems to present itself; either it's too soon or too late."

If anything might unwittingly add to the appeal of the mundane but easily answered board agenda items, it's probably this one. Questions about investment options, whether or not to purchase radio ads for the coming gala, if it makes sense to add a case worker to handle an influx of new clients - they have answers. Some are clearer than others. Some are more appealing than others. But they have answers. We generally can see the results of those answers within fairly short order. We know if we were on the mark or whether we made a mistake. We have feedback.

Big questions about the future direction of our communities, the impacts on lives we don't know in and in ways we can't predict, well, they're different animals. They have no optimal time or place for posing. They have no real ending - likely not even within our individual lifetimes (ending hunger or domestic violence, for example).  They are big, challenging, and seemingly impossible to tackle. There's never a perfect time to ask or respond. So we (probably) don't.

"Knowing the right question to ask is difficult (so better not to ask at all)."

It's a hazard of the previous obstacle: the challenges we address, via the visions and missions we define and advance, may have multiple paths. Some paths are better than others, even ideal. Some are different but more or less equal. Some of those paths are most assuredly wrong.

In one case, my fellow board members and I wasted three years wrangling with a wrong question.  Only after a new board member joined the conversation and pointed that out were we able to shift our focus and begin to grapple with our real problem.

The situation demanded that we ask questions; we would have been shirking our responsibilities if we didn't. But because we weren't used to pressing each other to think critically and around larger issues of mission and sustainability, we were completely unprepared to hone our attention in on what ultimately was broken. We get credit for not ignoring red flags, but we failed to ask the right question until it was almost too late.

"Perhaps most significant: What if we find we have no good answers to the important questions we raise? Fearing that, many figure it's better not to invite that additional uncertainty and doubt into our lives."

...or our boardrooms. We may be smart people. We may be community leaders. We may be downright individually brilliant.  But for the kinds of questions that effective nonprofit governance requires us to ask, there may very well be no good answers - at least for now. They are multi-generational problems that most likely require multi-generational responses and solutions. Long term, that is comforting to know. We shouldn't assume we've failed if there still is work to do when our term ends. But in the moment, it can wreak havoc on our motivation and our sense of individual and collective efficacy.

Bottom line: there are no easy answers to the questions we simply must ask. But that doesn't mean we don't try.  We must try.

We find ways to break the big questions into more manageable segments - still grounded in the larger vision and our specific mission in reaching it, but contained for the time being in ways that we can see, grasp and address in some meaningful way.

We also can commit to making question-asking the centerpiece of our board work. If we don't ask the questions that stretch thinking, if we don't ask ourselves and our leadership partners "what if," if we don't engage in creative inquiry and critical thinking as a core component of nonprofit governance, who will?

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