No Surprises: Debunking the Mindset That Holds Nonprofits Back

I was honored – and challenged – to report directly to nonprofit boards for over 25 years. I have made my share of mistakes and learned a few things along the way. One of the most knowledgeable and committed boards I worked for had a frequently repeated adage when I arrived – “no surprises.” The idea that a board member would first hear about something from a community member or, God forbid, the newspaper, was abhorrent. Totally unacceptable! At first glance, this doesn’t sound terribly unreasonable. But not being one to blindly accept tradition, I challenged the notion. What was behind this unwritten, but often verbalized, mandate to the CEO? What exactly was the fear or concern?

I’d suggest that a tactically minded board tends to be far more concerned about surprises. These are boards that tend to second guess the CEO, spend lots of time brainstorming, and are often “hands-on” volunteers for the organization. I would call these “working boards” or “tactical boards.” They are in the trenches, and they don’t want to look foolish by being caught off guard by something the CEO does. 

But what if the board is a true “policy board” or “strategic board?” How does this change things? These boards – if they are operating as they claim to be – spend their time focusing on strategy and policy, and they evaluate the CEO based primarily on one thing: Results. Surprises are usually a good thing for these boards. I once served on a board that legitimately wanted to be a policy/strategy board, but the CEO kept pulling us into the tactical aspects of his work. Our board was a group of very busy people, and many of us were consumed with running our own organizations. We wanted to focus on the big picture and see creativity and resourcefulness from the CEO. As a board, our attitude was, “Please, please surprise us! Stop looking to us for ideas. You know the key objective, so go do it! Let us know how we can open doors and support your efforts.”

The ”no-surprises” board I worked for had held onto that mantra over the years. It was what we came to refer to as a legacy characteristic of the board – a tradition that needed to be retired. The board had legitimately evolved into a policy board. So when I challenged the notion, one board member was quick to speak up and affirm that this was an outdated notion that reflected unrealistic fears and a lack of trust in the CEO. “If we are clear on our objectives, and if we trust our CEO, then what are we afraid of,” he said. If there is great clarity regarding strategy and objectives, surprises of a tactical nature should be welcomed, not feared. This, of course, does not excuse poor communication. Rather it affirms that the CEO has a strong and confident mandate to move forward and to get the job done. Obsessing over what the board is and isn’t aware of is not a good thing. And boards should welcome the unexpected from their CEO.

If you serve on a nonprofit board, can you confidently say that most of your board meetings are devoted to strategy and policy? Is your board evaluating your CEO based on a desire for results that match up to your written strategic objectives with specific timelines? If so, I’d encourage you to tell your CEO, “Please, please, surprise us!”