August Topic: What Does An Adaptive Board Look Like?

How do non-profit boards cultivate an organizational culture that embraces change?

In August, we're exploring how a nonprofit board's openness to change can cultivate an adaptive organization. Image: EmcArts.
In August, we’re exploring how a nonprofit board’s openness to change can cultivate an adaptive organization. Image: EmcArts.

This post is the sixth in a monthly series of investigations into the practices, processes, and behaviors that organizations undertake in order to stay continuously adaptive. Learn more about this series.

We’re continuing with our new editorial direction, in which we’re deeply exploring our 2014 Research QuestionHow do organizations stay continuously adaptive?

In August, we’re focusing on boards and governance.

How do non-profit boards cultivate an organizational culture that embraces change?

In my experience as a non-profit arts administrator and facilitator for EmcArts, I’ve interacted with a few different kinds of boards. I would roughly group them into four categories:

  • Change-averse boards: Seeing their role primarily as fiduciary overseer, this kind of board is focused on the maintaining a health bottom line (and usually with sticking with the status quo… so long as it’s working). They tend to support a risk-averse culture.
  • Change-tolerant board: These kinds of boards tolerate some level of experimentation, but do little to encourage large scale innovation and change. They support a culture that acknowledges risk, but they do not embrace it.
  • Change-positive boards: These boards welcome and recognize the importance of adaptive change and innovation by supporting and encouraging risk-taking efforts.
  • Change-agent boards: These kinds of boards expect and drive innovation throughout the organization. They see adaptive change as essential and support risk-taking both financially and by contributing ideas and provocations.

I don’t mean to imply that change-averse boards are necessary bad, nor that change-agent boards are always good. The role of the board in cultivating an organization that embraces change is different for each organization, and dependent on where that organization is in its development.

In that same vein, though, I can imagine that’s it’s particularly frustrating to be an change oriented organization (in leadership and staff) with a change-averse board. In building a culture that embraces change, it seems essential that the board’s approach to change should complement the values and the goals of the staff, and vice-versa.

It makes me wonder: Do we need to rethink what it means to be a “qualified” board member? How do we shift the relationship between our boards and support for processes of change? How do we get our board to redefine success, especially around risky new ventures?

The board’s role in change processes

One thing I’ve learned through my work with organizations is that it is essential to have the board “on board” during a change process.

I often work with groups of 10 to 15 people from any one organization as they try to tackle a complex problem together over the course of many months. What I’ve noticed is that groups that include 3 to 4 board members tend to do more rigorous and lasting work than staff-only groups. The board members bring a different perspective than the organization’s staff or artists, and by being deeply involved in the process, they become champions for the work when the full board meets.

It also seems that having board members involved in the difficult work of questioning assumptions and exploring divergent new directions gets them more comfortable with sitting in ambiguity – an essential capacity when undertaking adaptive change.

Some of our earlier posts, such as this one about what it takes to put together an Innovation Team, discuss the role of boards in processes of change. Many of our Innovation Stories videos feature board members, as well, because their perspectives are often critical to understanding the vision behind an organization’s shift towards adaptive capacity.


How do non-profit boards cultivate an organizational culture that embraces change?

This month, we’re exploring two questions to learn about how your organization’s board approaches change.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.