When asked what should be included in an Executive Director’s report to the board, I responded with this model of “OARS” to help the board be aware of the steering environment:

O = Opportunities . . . that the organization can (and perhaps should) pursue
A = Accomplishments . . . both little and big successes
R = Risk factors . . . things that look like they might go wrong, including action taken to 
mitigate these.
S = Surprises . . . that the ED encountered. Yes — even in a well run organization, with 
very professional staff, there are surprises

This model was inspired by the “Significant events” report I had file each week when I was a mid-level manager at General Electric. Each of my staff had to write such a report to me, and I distilled and condensed these, along with my own list, in my report to senior management.  Our “significant events” were named differently, but functioned in the same way to alert our managers about situations that would likely develop — either into more mature problems, or into inspiring successes.

The underlying value here is truth telling.  I knew it was easy for my staff to report great successes, or opportunities that seemed to be developing.  It was much harder to report those out of control situations that could get worse, those stakeholders whose dismay was escalating, those situations that seemed only to work against us.  But my job was to know of such situations, and to organize appropriate responses.  Were I kept in the dark, I couldn’t really do my job.

Recently I was asked to comment about how best to engage donors to a nonprofit.

My answer — Ask the right questions.  Decide what conversation you’d like to have, and figure out what QUESTIONS will start that off.  Donors like to be listened to, like to be heard, and like to be treated as important.  Asking the right questions, and then listening carefully will make a huge difference.

Is there a story that you’d like to tell. Don’t just blurt it out. Wait for the question, to which your story is a wonderful answer.

An example: “Why have you been so generous with us . . . with three very significant contributions in just the past year?”  That’s not a question many fundraisers would ask. But prompting the key donor to review his or her satisfaction in supporting your work may be more effective than any words you might provide about why your work matters.

One caveat, however:  You must care about the answer you will receive.  Asking questions just for effect won’t work at all.  The donor or prospect may surprise you, may confirm your understanding or expectations, may challenge you.  But, whatever its effect, the answer will be important.

The importance of the answer – That’s a major part of what makes a great question.

One caveat

I wrote this in response to a query about a board that was not fulfilling its mission — at least according to the groups Executive Director.  After reading a detailed analysis of ways in which the board appeared to be failing, I added these thoughts . . .

I believe the solution must involve both left and right brain thinking — both an analysis of what’s being missed, and some candid sharing about the context of board work in support of the organization’s mission.

I can imagine leading a workshop in which board members list

  • Expectations about their roles
  • Personal evaluation about their performance in each role
  • What energizes each board member to do this work
  • What de-energizes each board member, or puts limits on the energy they can expend
  • What makes board meetings fun, exciting, vital, and worth attending
  • What makes board meetings dull, frustrating, obligations that one might rather skip.

Then have the Executive Director (and perhaps other members of the executive team) list his or her expectations of the board, which of these are met and to what extent, and which are left unfulfilled in a way that really hurts the organization, or at least the work of the Executive Director.

I expect that mixing structural and personal will help everybody find more trust and develop a more collaborative spirit, and that this sharing process will expose some of the real issues.

One final note — Don’t assume that the problem lies totally with the board. It may be that unclear expectations or communications, confused agenda, vague decision making processes, or other such external problems are part of what holds the board back. For this reason, it’s extremely helpful to have the session facilitated by somebody from outside — somebody who is not identifed with any part of the organization or its governance.