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How to Improve Collaborations With Your Nonprofit Board

From the very first board meeting, nonprofit boards should work toward building an environment of trust. That’s no small feat for a group of strong leaders who may be relative strangers to each other. Honesty, integrity and trust are highly important for nonprofit boards because nearly all of the work they perform together requires collaboration. Trust has to be earned. It develops over time as people share different experiences together. Trust can develop on its own, but because boards need to develop trust quickly, nonprofit boards need to work toward a trusting relationship at the start of their relationships. Trust also requires parties to be eager to work with each other.

Boards that use a board portal by BoardEffect will have a safe place in which to collaborate and work together.

Accepting Your Limits and Your Peers’ Limits, Too

No one is good at everything. Under the best circumstances, each of us knows our own strengths and weaknesses. People with strong leadership qualities sometimes have a difficult time letting go of the reins and accepting their own limits. Other board members also have strengths and weaknesses, which is why collaboration can be such an amazing thing when it works well. Peers fill the gaps in skills and abilities. Collectively, an entire group surpasses anything an individual can do on his or her own.

However, strong personality types often have difficulty in collaborating with one another. Egos sometimes get in the way. Leaders aren’t always quick to recognize when they’ve stepped on a few toes.

Nearly all of us have had past negative collaborations at one time or another. Those negative experiences can color new relationships if we let them. Collaboration works best when everyone can leave the past in the past.

Every board director of a nonprofit has a different sphere of influence. Collectively, the spheres of influence can be large enough to accomplish great work together. Making connections with every new sphere of influence gives nonprofits the chance to share their mission and goals. This is a theory that’s consistent with collective impact grants and network approaches to solving problems.

There is much value in positive thinking when striving to improve collaborations within a nonprofit board of directors. Positive thinking promotes forward thinking and mobilizes stakeholders. Positive thinking can be quite contagious, and it can be instrumental in influencing a greater number of people.

Collaborative Efforts Require Defining Success and Articulating Shared Goals

Board directors work closely together, which means that collaboration is a regular activity. Boards are more likely to be successful in collaborations when each party is clear on their respective roles in the collaborative process.

A good first step toward this is having written job descriptions for board members and officers. Boards can then rely on role descriptions and board policies to sort out any issues around boundaries and responsibilities.

Things are bound to go wrong even under the best-intentioned circumstances. Boards will have better success when they spend some time talking about the types of things that may throw them off course. Boards might consider setting some time aside to discuss this during a regular board meeting. A board retreat is also a good time to discuss sensitive issues.

By being honest about how the group intends to handle potential conflicts, the board may be able to work together better to avoid obstacles and head off problems. Having a shared long-term vision helps many boards overcome some of their challenges.

The National Council of Nonprofits provides a good example of board collaborations by how they approach their collaborations with others. They have a practice of jointly preparing a letter-agreement that outlines the shared goals of both parties. The agreement defines who is responsible for what. When they collaborate with a for-profit entity, they’re careful to specify and document how the collaboration’s goals will work toward advancing their own organization’s charitable mission.

Acknowledging the Value of Honesty on All Sides

Loosening the reins of power isn’t usually a natural thing for board members, but it’s an issue that they can work toward developing. Collaboration requires people on all sides to cede control and share power. All parties need to develop a level of trust that allows them to share control, power and responsibilities.

Perhaps the biggest issue with that is that earning trust takes time and there is little time to develop it. The best way to overcome this is for boards to look for opportunities to talk about trust. It helps to notice when friction is developing and to discuss it openly, honestly and sensitively before it gets out of hand. The key is for everyone to be patient and to keep the lines of communication open.

Nonprofit boards that already have cultures of accountability and transparency will be ahead of the game, as they will already be comfortable having conversations about trust.

Taking Risks Requires Embracing Mistakes

Collaborative efforts sometimes entail taking risks. Some people are more inclined toward taking risks than others, which can cause conflict. Nonprofit boards should have a mutual understanding that they can’t possibly know everything. Sometimes things won’t work out for various reasons and they will sometimes learn things by trial and error.

It can be difficult to persuade non-risk-takers to try a variation of something that failed in the past, especially if the stakes were high. Nonprofit board members will have good success when they take a collaborative approach to taking risks and agree to be supportive of each other and their efforts regardless of the outcome.

Improving Nonprofit Collaborations Requires Accepting Conflict Gracefully

It’s nearly impossible to avoid conflict altogether when working in a collaborative atmosphere. This is all the more reason for board directors to work on improving their conflict resolution skills.

One strategy for dealing with conflict is to try your best to get the group focused on the big picture. This approach should subdue some of the high emotion that accompanies conflict. Focusing on the big picture may open up minds and attitudes enough to help them decide if the collaborative goals are still attainable. Vet the issue without ignoring obvious tensions and move past it as smoothly as you can. Minding basic manners goes a long way. The final effort will be worth it in the end.

A Culture of Collaboration Promotes High Impact

In the book, Forces for Good, the authors studied 12 high-impact nonprofits. They found that high-impact organizations embraced a collaborative mindset. Their mindsets were evident in their dealings with each other as well as with their collaborations with other organizations. Collaborative, high-impact nonprofit organizations have the potential to use their collaborative efforts to create greater impact together than any of them could working alone.

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