When we do board retreats, we almost always survey the board beforehand to give us feedback on where they think the foundation is and what they would like to see for its future. The surveys help us identify not only what board members understand about the foundation's work, but the issues we may need to focus on during the retreat.
The one thing the surveys can't do is show us how ready the board is to have discussions about the "big picture." There is no way to know this until we get in the room. In some cases, it takes a little prodding to get them going, but other times they are fired up and ready to go right from the start. This enthusiasm is often a sign that they have been itching to have the discussion we are facilitating and can be a direct result of prior discussions, which may have fallen into one of four categories:
- "Silence is golden" - The issue gets discussed after all of the reports and approvals are done during board meetings (which means it rarely, if ever, happens).
- "The elephant in the room" - The issue everyone wants to talk about, but is afraid to bring up.
- "That's not your job" - An issue that has been brought up, but the board has been told in no uncertain terms that it's not their purview (sometimes that's accurate, but not always).
- "Wandering in the desert" - In this case, the board has been discussing the issue at meetings (likely more than once), but it hasn't been able to reach a decision.
Nearly every board member we know equates the amount of time they spend talking about "big issues" with a more worthwhile board experience and a deeper commitment to the foundation. You might ask, "Doesn't this take time away from other things I have to do?" The answer is yes, but we believe it's the right way to spend your time. Enabling board members to be strategic partners in the foundation's work will generate a bigger long-term payoff than nearly anything else you can do.
So when should you "allow" the board to discuss the "big picture?" Every chance you get.
Steve Alley, Managing Partner