3 Ways to Foster Innovation Within Your Board

Let’s be honest — no matter how amazing the mission, board meetings are often the uneasy, unavoidable part of nonprofit life.

Don’t get us wrong — the board of directors is critical to the health and longevity of any nonprofit. Best-case scenario, they’re made up of smart, passionate people who get your mission and have the skills, leadership or capital to both move your organization forward and keep it on track. How is it then that boards can feel stale, even if its members are open-minded and creative?

As a nonprofit social innovation firm, we realized at Design Impact that innovation didn’t have to stop at the work we do; our board could be another opportunity to do things differently. After all, if our theory of change is built on the intersection of creativity, leadership and social change, it only made sense our board is built on those same principles. (Dig into our theory of change in our latest impact report)

We still have a lot to learn, but here are three significant changes we made to the typical board model so that our board is not only more effective, but more innovative.

1. FIND BOARD MEMBERS THAT MAKE YOU BETTER

While power and influence are always helpful in getting more work or more donors, we saw the board as an additional opportunity to further our mission through our internal culture. Instead of asking ourselves, “Does our board have an accountant? A lawyer? What about big donors?” we instead asked:

Do our board members represent the people our organization serves?

Do they offer expertise and frames of reference that can help our organization look at problems in new ways?

Do they already demonstrate inclusivity and creativity in the work they do?

When we answered the second set of questions instead of the first, we were left with a multi-disciplinary team of leaders who come from academia, community development, corporate design, and social service organizations (Learn more about our newest board members).

While our board is a great place to drive divergent thinking, we also wanted it to be a place where we prioritize relationships and personal connection. Expertise and experience are still valuable, but we wanted people that could both advocate for us and challenge us. In short, we wanted board members that we could be real with and who could be real with us.

2. BREAK THE RULES

We’ve learned that some of the advice out there on building nonprofit boards is pretty prescriptive. We questioned whether these best practices were really the right things for us, and identified places where we could design our own way forward. To be clear, we’re didn’t circumvent our board’s mandatory, legal responsibilities. Those we kept. But nonprofit boards generally follow similar formats, and we’ve discovered where there’s room to break the rules.

First, we abandoned Robert’s Rules of Order. Secondly we decided to stop holding meetings around a board table in an office and instead hold them on couches in our living room. We found that the comfortable seating and the more intimate setting helped us share the hard stuff and really dig into the work as a team. After all, who says you need to meet in a conference room to do your best thinking?

3. MEET WITH MEANING

A couple years ago, we decided to turn our design process on ourselves. Instead of assuming we knew what an ideal board membership would feel like, we asked the board members to design the kind of board experience that they wanted. As a group they decided on elements like how often they’d like to meet, how board meetings should be structured and what happens between meetings.

We used the worksheet below to guide that conversation — which also later inspired us to move our meetings to our own home! Download a copy for yourself.

As a result of those conversations, DI’s board now only meets three times a year. Instead of scheduling frequent meetings that ask a lot from people’s calendars, we have three in-depth meetings that have resulted in better attendance and higher productivity. And because our board members are already key advocates and partners in our work, not just outside agents that aren’t familiar with our day-to-day operations, we see them frequently in-between meetings for other organizational needs.

Another change we made was sending financial reports and updates on the organization’s latest projects via a short video before meetings. Nothing fancy — just something filmed on an iPhone with minimal production. This means that the time as a group is spent on tackling big picture questions about the strategy and mission of the organization rather than reading financial reports or listening to a laundry list of updates.

Finally, in order to maximize the skills and talents of our board, members also opted to forgo the more typical committee structure for a more collaborative and democratic leadership structure.

By finding the right board members, breaking the rules and meeting with meaning, Design Impact has been able to deeply engage our board as key problem-solvers of the challenges we face as an organization. From helping us better tell our story, to designing our organizational structure, or just helping us “do less, better” (our theme for this year), our board has dug into what matters and been actual co-designers of the work.

If you’d like to learn more about our board and how we roll, reach out to kate@d-impact.org.