May 24, 2023

3 Breakthrough Questions to Ask in Rocky Board Meetings

Is your board stuck? Circling? Confused?

Probably–if your nonprofit board has grappled with the same topic for what seems like forever.

You’d like them to decide—because the topic is central to your work. Plus, you have other issues to tackle, and no one is happy. What can you do?

This post provides three game-changing questions that generate clarity, alignment, and sometimes immediate consensus on important nonprofit decisions. Bookmark this evergreen post because you’ll want to use it often.

Questions are powerful! “Change can happen the moment a question is asked…” 

Conversations Worth Having

The Game-Changing Board Questions

① Are we discussing more than one question?

Our human wiring makes us mono-taskers, not multi-taskers. That’s why air traffic controllers focus on landing one plane at a time, even under duress.

Many meeting agenda items look like one question but hide several—sometimes issues no one saw coming. So by asking this question, you invite your board of directors to examine the issue and determine if it’s an issue clump. Transforming multiple-part questions to a list will unleash your board from determining which “aircraft” to focus upon. Instead, they can pick one and land it before moving to the next.

For example, a board wrestled when a board member ran amok and left a trail of blowback. The chair asked the board, how do we deal with this person? They circled.

When they answered the question, they discovered that the initial request contained three linked topics:

  • How do we solve the problem the board member was trying to solve?
  • What do we do, and what do we ask the board member to do to fix the mess?
  • How do we prevent this situation in the future?

The first question was strategic, the second was how to respond to behaviors that hurt the nonprofit, and the third was skill building on creating clean agreements and a policy. No wonder the board was circling! By seeing the issues that needed decisions, the board finally moved forward.

② What other solutions exist? 

The board received a nasty email from a donor complaining about their lack of diversity. The note’s subtext was that the board should invite the writer to join them.

After working through their ire about the note’s tone, the board agreed that the donor had a point. But they had no interest in inviting him to the table. The discussion circled as they searched for how to say yes and mean no.

The chair flipped the conversation by mentioning another other option. “Let’s take the advice,” she said, “And thank him for it. Then let’s ask three donors, all who meet his criteria and whom we’d be delighted to have join us.” The answer was a unanimous yes.

Like everyone else, boards rush to the first solutions that come up—or, in this case, get pushed on them. It’s the closest tree syndrome.

Decision-making on important issues thrives with more options, not less. Admittedly, this can be more messy and confusing—at first. However, exploring a handful of distinct alternatives allows groups to picture the impact of different options.

Getting groups to consider the impacts of their decisions produces better results, as does exploring the consistency of their choices which leads us to our final game-changing question.

③ What light do our current shared agreements offer?

Most groups create shared agreements. By this, I mean your vision, mission, strategy, and values (hopefully prioritized, see 2 Hard-boiled Eggs & the Importance of Ranking Your Values for more.) Your board member may view the creation of these documents as necessary evils. They’ll be surprised to discover their usefulness in clarifying choices and decisions.

 Asking this question invites everyone to consider your agreements and rely on them to illuminate answers consistent with who you are and who you aspire to be.

For example, a home-ownership nonprofit took on rental development to survive a crisis. When the crisis eased, board turmoil erupted on whether to continue with the successful and profitable rental development or abandon it.

(And, if they abandoned rental development, what to do about their current project. See question number 1. Sometimes you’ll need to ask more than one question of these questions.)

We partnered with them and generated six options for moving forward. The answer came from asking two questions.

  • What does our mission say that we do?
  • And what do you really want to do?

Forty-five seconds later, they had a collective aha. The solution that had evaded them for eighteen months came from their mouths in unison, “We want to build homes.”

✅ The Big Takeaway

Replace confusion with clarity and alignment and bolster your nonprofit’s decision-making. Identify all the questions being discussed, seek multiple solutions, and embrace the wisdom in your agreements. These three questions will give you the confidence to guide your board to effective decisions.

Will you use them to stand in a new spot at your next meeting?


Chat with Karen about creating effective nonprofit boards.  


Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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