Strengthening Your Board’s Decision-making Process

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This blog post is excerpted from the new Passages Issue Brief: Demystifying Decision Making in Family Philanthropy

How does your Board of Directors make decisions? Do you gather around a table with a clear, concise packet of relevant materials, a well-prepared agenda that spells out which decision-making process will be used, then calmly discuss various proposals until you reach a decision that everyone agrees with and can support? Maybe. But if your board is like most, there is a lot more going on behind any given decision than meets the eye. Family dynamics come into play in ways both seen and unseen, spoken and unspoken. And just as no two families are alike, the dynamics of each family foundation are unique.

Family foundation decision-making can be frustrating and time consuming unless certain steps are taken to select and communicate an appropriate decision-making process up front. A small investment in planning how to make family foundation decisions can result in better outcomes as well as higher board morale and greater enthusiasm in implementation. When board members have a say in selecting the decision-making process, they feel more invested in the outcome—even when they may not be included in making the final decision or may disagree with the end result.

Sometimes even the best laid plans need to change as new information comes to light. If the board realizes that the original decision-making method may not be the best choice—and everyone agrees to change to a different decision-making method midprocess—this can be productive. It may be helpful to have the assistance of an outside facilitator to ensure that all board members understand and agree to the proposed changes, so that no one feels manipulated or confused.

What matters most is that board members feel confident that their views are respected and the process is handled fairly. If board members feel that their perspectives are heard and factored into a discussion, they are much more likely to support and implement a final decision. Thus, it is very important to reach agreement on the decision-making process to be used (the how), before making a decision (the what).

Preparing your board to reflect on how it makes decisions requires that you first educate board members about their decision-making options, including the potential benefits and downsides of each. Informing your board about a variety of decision-making options helps board members identify which specific decision-making method will be appropriate for any given situation, as well as how to collect the data and perspectives needed to make a well-informed decision.

The goal of this article is to equip you with the three most important steps needed to simplify and strengthen decision-making for your foundation board:

  • Step One: Know your decision-making options. Learn about and educate board members on the full range of decision-making options available;
  • Step Two: Decide how to decide. Evaluate key criteria to determine the most appropriate decision-making method for any given decision or group of decisions your board faces;
  • Step Three: Name it up front. Reach agreement on and communicate the decision-making process before entering into conversations about the content of the decision.

The time it takes to complete these steps will depend on the complexity of the issues, the board’s knowledge and experience, and board members’ ability to communicate and make decisions collaboratively.

Ann Shulman is the executive director of Philanthropy Associates

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.