04/06/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2014

Is Your Nonprofit Forward-Focused or a Prisoner of the Past?

Governance arguably suffers most ... when boards spend too much time looking in the rear view mirror and not enough scanning the road ahead. *

It has been my experience that nonprofits rarely address the possibilities and perils of "...the road ahead." An endless stream of current and pressing issues cause both Board and CEO to take a myopic view of their nonprofit responsibilities -- either totally ignoring strategic issues or procrastinating a discussion of the subject. The results can be damaging to the organization. Here are some "prompts" that might guide nonprofit board members and CEOs as they attempt to provide leadership in this important but neglected area:

Balanced Agendas -- Include and highlight strategic issues on every board meeting agenda (not just when a committee report is presented) until they are resolved with action plans, policy development or thoroughly discussed and removed. This constant emphasis on planning can go a long way towards achieving concrete actions on topics of future concern. A discussion of immediate issues juxtaposed with ongoing strategic concerns will provide a balanced meeting format that may possibly discourage directors' attempts to micromanage, a very common tendency in nonprofit boards!

Short Term Focus -- In a recent BoardSource report, 49 percent of nonprofit CEOs gave their boards academic grades of C, D, or F for their strategy efforts. ** The explanation for weak performance in this area is often attributed to the fact that the directors' terms of service on the board are usually three to six years during which time people's interest in the long-term future of the organization may be compromised. Some boards may be disproportionately represented by "millennials" whose participation comes with heavy time constraints. Problems of this type can be mitigated by seeking board members who are partially or fully retired. They are likely to be better equipped to focus on the important governance functions and the fundamentals in which the nonprofit operates. Boards need to look to look further out than anyone else in the organization... There are times when CEOs (those operationally concerned with strategy) are the last ones to see (environmental) changes coming.

Board Recruiting -- Nonprofit recruiting can be a hit-or-miss process, often producing candidates who are readily available and familiar to the current board. Rarely will the committee seek out people who have strong track records as strategists and/or competent visionaries. This is a real challenge, but a forward focused board should make every effort to identify potential directors who have these types of experience and skills. The topic of recruitment is a challenging one and the process should have continual annual evaluation.

Can Nonprofit Boards Work Smarter Not Harder?
As noted earlier, nonprofit board people are often limited in the amount of time they can devote to board participation. Given these constraints, the board chair and CEO can choose from a range of options that will help orient directors to better understand the external landscape in which the organization operates. These initiatives can include visits to comparable facilities, opportunities to attend field related conferences or inviting experts in the same or similar organizations to interact with board members. The purpose is to infuse each member of the board with an informed view of the organization's long-term future and prepare them to take the appropriate action. The CEO and board chair must address this question with a viable plan: What actually helps... (to develop) a board environment that encourages participation and allows board members to derive meaning, inspiration and satisfaction from their (board) work?

Talent: The Key to Nonprofit Success -- A nonprofit board has one hiring decision to make: the engagement of the CEO. But it also has a significant responsibility to overview long-term talent development in the staff and management. The board of a family service agency needs to assure that its counselors are up to date on current modalities of counseling. A recreational organization must be operating in the context of accepted fitness practices. Annual talent reviews need to be scheduled with CEOs and the appropriate staff. In addition, individual board members, with the concurrence of the CEO, may want to have occasional professional contact with key people below the senior management.

Make strategy part of the board's DNA -- (Many nonprofit) ... CEOs present their strategic vision once a year, the directors discuss and tweak it at a single board meeting (or a short retreat), and the plan is then adopted. The board's input is minimal and there's not enough in-depth information to underpin proper consideration of the alternatives.

An educated nonprofit board will have the depth of understanding to be alert to the future needs and problems of its organization. Typically there is usually an unanticipated "fork" in the road ahead. Status quo, "minding the store," participation by rote are all too easy mindsets that will only hobble the progress of an organization. Board chairs and CEOs are key actors in turning an existing board environment into one that is focused on moving forward.

*Christian Casa and Christian Caspar (2014) "Building a forward-looking board," McKinsey Quarterly, February. Note: Quotations from this article are presented in italics.

** BoardSource (2012) CEO Survey of BoardSource Members, Data Report 1, Nonprofit Governance Index 2012.