As they steer the direction of your organization, you want your board to have the tools they need to assist your nonprofit's growth and mission. Jeb Banner, CEO of Boardable, relays his expertise and outlines several key tips that will increase your board's effectiveness.

Boards face tough decisions every day. What’s more, they have to come to a decision that everyone can agree on. They can’t always predict the outcome of certain situations with 100% accuracy, but in the mission-driven world, they have to act quickly to keep supporters interested, make the most of every dollar your organization earns, and continue pursuing your mission.

There’s no room for procrastination or poor decision-making abilities when serving on a board. After all, the organization’s direction and fate rest in this group’s hands.

If you work with or volunteer on a board that struggles with making decisions, there are several ways you can enhance their abilities. While you can recruit board members that have innate decision-making abilities, others may need a little extra help. Refining the process and having a more structured approach will help your entire team generate solutions, select the most effective route, and push the organization forward.

Here are three easy steps you can introduce to your board members to help them refine their decision-making skills:

  1. Define your voting process.
  2. Seek help from external resources.
  3. Try out new decision-making techniques.

Hesitation to make critical decisions can expose your organization to unnecessary risks. It’s time to put poor and hesitant decision-making to rest. If you’re ready to reinvent your approach to decision-making and transform your board into highly efficient leaders, let’s get started.

1. Define your voting process.

When it comes to poor decision-making, the problem may lie within your voting process. You can’t expect the board to arrive at sound decisions in a timely manner with an unstructured and chaotic voting process. While each organization has its own official voting method, the vast majority of boards follow the parliamentary procedures known as Robert’s Rules of Order to guide their meetings and make official decisions.

These rules bring structure to your meetings and explicitly state how voting should be conducted. Boardable’s ultimate guide to board voting walks through the recommended four-step process:

  1. A motion is made. A member makes a statement that proposes a particular action. For instance, they might say, “I move to approve the budget for this year’s annual 5K.” Another member must second the motion for it to move forward, signaling that the topic is worth discussing.
  2. The floor opens for discussion. Board members discuss the proposed action, ask questions, and present their perspectives. The chair gives people the floor to speak, and comments must be addressed to the chair to avoid hostility.
  3. Amendments are proposed. If the motion isn’t worded as clearly as it could be, a board member may move to amend the motion, which usually occurs after more information is presented during the discussion. This helps clarify what exactly board members are voting on.
  4. The motion either goes to a vote or is withdrawn. When discussion winds down, it signals the board chair to either call for a vote or have the board member withdraw their motion. Everyone either votes ‘yea,’ ‘nay,’ or ‘abstain.’ Methods for voting vary based on the decision. For instance, most can either be a simple raise of hands or roll call vote, while more sensitive decisions may be submitted via ballot.

Review these steps with your board members and work with them to implement this process in their own meetings. Having a solid framework to follow each time will make voting more efficient when everyone knows what’s supposed to happen next.

Simplifying The Voting Process Further

Electronic voting simplifies this process immensely. The traditional way of voting requires everyone to raise their hands or submit private votes via ballot. Everyone would have to wait until the chair tallied up the votes before they knew the final decision.

Now, everyone can fire up their personal devices and enter their votes using an electronic voting tool within their board management system, helping your team reinvest time into reaching goals rather than just talking about them. You can enable anonymous voting for more sensitive decisions, but either way, there’s no need to sit around waiting for the chair to count votes and the secretary to record the results when it’s automatically tallied and recorded.

2. Seek Help From External Resources.

A board cannot make sound decisions without considering all available perspectives. Sometimes this calls for reaching out to different segments of the community that the organization serves. Other times, this involves seeking input from professionals who specialize in board and nonprofit management. Let’s review both options to learn how to bring new perspectives to your work.

Community Input

As part of their official duties, your board has a commitment to act in the best interest of your organization and the population it serves. In an ideal world, those who serve on your board will reflect the population you serve. However, that’s not always the case.

To make sure all of your community’s diverse perspectives are reflected in your board’s decisions, seek input from those you serve and those who support your mission. This is especially vital for decisions that your board isn’t fully confident in. Remember, the board can’t develop solutions that positively impact the community if their actual views aren’t considered.

Organizations that want more input from their communities often form an advisory committee, which is composed of individuals who do not serve on the board of directors. Organizations that serve younger populations might establish a different type of advisory team, known as a young professionals board, to gain the perspectives of those who do not meet age restrictions for board leadership. Having some sort of advisory group provides a chance for people to get involved without committing to official board membership.

Not only will this result in more informed decisions, but it also strengthens relationships with your community by letting them voice their perspectives and have some level of input in the actions your board takes.

Expert Input

To develop board members’ knowledge and skills, you may need to turn to experts in board management and development. Double the Donation’s fundraising consultants guide explains that some consultants specialize in board development. Expertise directly related to board management can transform your board’s approaches to decisions and strategies altogether.

Professional consultants help organizations put the right people in charge and provide them with the training and resources they need to become true leaders. These types of experts can observe your board, provide an outside perspective, and offer advice to strengthen board members’ abilities and processes.

Through training and actionable advice that’s rooted in firsthand knowledge, your board can refine its approach to decision making, resulting in better and more timely choices for your organization.

3. Try out new decision-making techniques.

Taking a binary approach to decision-making (yes or no decisions) prevents board members from fully understanding the implications and risks of a particular choice. This can ultimately put your board in a rut of ineffective decisions. That’s why you should test out different approaches, deepening board members’ involvement in the choices they make and opening them up to new ways to consider problems.

Testing out different strategies will enable board members to think about possibilities that they wouldn’t otherwise consider. Let’s walk through a few to get you started.

Decision Sequencing

When it comes to big decisions, rushing your board is not the way to go if you have the option to take your time. Instead of presenting an issue and voting on a decision in the same meeting, present it to your board at the previous meeting. This gives them time to:

  • Think through different perspectives rather than making a rushed decision on an impulse.
  • Discuss potential choices and ask for additional information.
  • Formulate other options that might be a better alternative.

Alternatively, share what needs to be voted on within your board management platform beforehand. Schedule the poll and include decision-making items within your meeting agenda. Then, board members can give plenty of forethought before discussing and voting without having to wait for the next meeting.

Nonbinding Polls

Before even beginning a discussion, create a poll within your board portal to unofficially gauge board members’ perspectives on the matter. These votes won’t count, but the presiding officer can use this to inform discussions, such as by asking each member to explain their vote. This will ultimately result in more targeted discussion and a more informed final decision.

Turning The Agenda Upside Down

The traditional way of structuring board meetings is to put pro-forma decisions (like approving the previous meeting’s minutes, approving committee reports, and so on) at the very start of the meeting. Board chairs then mistakenly put the most important decision-making items at the end.

After sitting through an entire meeting and walking through a series of decisions, they’ll start to tire and experience “decision fatigue.” This can result in limited discussion when board members want the meeting to wrap up. Try restructuring the agenda so that the board votes on the most important items first when their minds are fresh. You’ll catch your board when they’re at peak energy, resulting in more collaborative and sound choices.

The Negative Poll

Whenever a less formal decision is made that might not need an official vote, wrap up the discussion by asking the question, “Is there anyone who absolutely cannot move forward with this decision?”

This is an effective way to voice any dissent that might otherwise go unnoticed. Otherwise, their disagreement will only be shown when they vote no. If someone voices a strong opposition against moving forward, revisit the discussion and see if you can come up with a solution that everyone agrees on.

Between setting budgets, planning organizational strategies, approving board leadership, and approving the executive director’s salary, boards vote on all sorts of matters. Ineffective approaches to decision-making can significantly impact your organization over time, which may result in less support for your cause and—in more extreme cases—difficulty pursuing your mission.

If your board struggles to arrive at effective decisions in a timely manner, start by enhancing your voting procedures. Then, reach out to external resources to open up your board to new perspectives, train board members to be more effective leaders, and redefine the way they approach problems. In no time, you’ll have a more confident and decisive board that will lead your organization to success.