Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Good Tension

An informed consensus around mission and the strategic pursuit of it is essential to the effectiveness of a nonprofit. In some areas, however, an easy consensus is not a sign of health, at all, but rather of insufficient diversity of perspectives.

A dynamic tension between opposing perceptions is fundamental to healthy governance. A board that accepts recommendations with little discussion and then accepts them unanimously is doing no better service to its fiduciary responsibilities than one that is unable to agree at all to a course of action.

Some differences can’t—and shouldn’t—be resolved, they can only be managed. In many nonprofits some trustees serve out of deep commitment to a cause, but with little concern for the details of management or finance. Others may have been recruited specifically to bring financial, legal or other professional expertise to the board. These trustees are also devoted to the mission. Why else would they devote their time, energy and financial support to the organization?

When it comes time to discuss the budget, or to prioritize the strategic plan, or to distribute committee assignments, the board may find itself at an impasse. Those whose focus is financial sustainability or the importance of strengthening management resources may be unable to communicate effectively with those who see only the urgent need to apply all possible resources to programs and services. Those who see an urgent need to maintain or enhance facilities may be frustrated trying to discuss the budget with those for whom insufficient staff salaries and benefits, or financial aid, are the critical priorities.

In these situations, an exercise that allows all parties to see the virtues and drawbacks of their position along with the benefits of the opposing position can set up a much more productive discussion of issues.

A polarity exercise uses a matrix with columns for two opposing priorities and rows for positive and negative characteristics of each position in isolation. The matrix can be filled out in a group discussion, or subgroups can consider in turn each of the quadrants. If there are multiple polarities to consider, they can be addressed by separate breakout groups, but it is best if each participant has the opportunity to contribute to each quadrant of each polarity.

The result of this exercise is that reflexive conflict is diffused in favor of reflective discussions. By taking the issues out of their usual decision-making context and examining them dispassionately, all participants are enabled to see the necessity for balance.

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