DYO | Does board work have to be relational?

Dr Maureen Cleary

Nonprofit organisations are established to fulfil a specific mission within the community. It is the board’s primary responsibility to ensure that the mission of the organisation is being achieved. It is not surprising that many boards invest much of their time considering strategic planning, roles and responsibilities (especially delineating board from staff), setting policies, recruitment and meeting processes. Focusing exclusively on these board activities often leads to recruiting people with particular technical and organisational expertise as the highest priority.

Because board work and decision-making are a collective activity, achieving credible outcomes involves not only attention to technical details but the ability to come to a group decision in a complex environment. This type of decision-making involves ‘extended discussions, in depth analysis and a considerable knowledge of the organisation’s context’ (Chait et al. 1996). This type of decision-making requires that the board has, in its collective competencies, social and emotional intelligence.

‘Social and emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of one’s own and others’ feelings – and use that information to lead yourself and others’ (ISEI)

These capacities may be demonstrated by (MacDonald, 2004):

  • Listening more to understand than to respond. Being attentive to others means not passing judgment or constructing a reply or counter argument before we have really “heard” the message.
  • Speaking from our own direct experience, be aware of our assumptions and “own” our feelings.
  • Dealing with heated exchanges. Communicate directly with compassion. Try to understand how others see things.
  • Exposing our own thinking process and invite others to reveal theirs. “This is what I believe we should do. I came to this conclusion because of… I am also operating with a couple of assumptions which are…”
  • Speaking to what we do not know and what we are unsure of, as well as what we are confident about.
  • Being genuinely curious about ideas and people around the board table. Even seemingly contradictory statements can reveal important perspectives if we work at exploring them further.
  • Showing real appreciation to other board members. Even when we do not share another person’s view, we can thank a person for putting an idea forward.
  • Avoid assuming that we really understand other board members’ intentions or motivations from what they said or, for that matter, that we have clearly revealed our own “good” intentions. 

Some thoughts:

  1. Does your board consider a person’s social and emotional intelligence when conducting board member recruitment?
  2. What do board meetings ‘look like’ when the chair has few relational skills?
  3. How does this ‘look’ change when the board is relational?


Did you know …..

ACPNS offer courses for staff, board and other volunteer professionals who work, or are entering the philanthropy, nonprofit or social enterprise sectors.  There are units that relate specifically to governance – read more here.



Abzug, R. and Webb, N. J. (1999) “Relationships between nonprofit and for-profit organisations: A stakeholder perspective”, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 28, 4, 416-31.

ISEI, Institute for Social and Emotional Intelligence:

Chait, R., Holland, Thomas P., and Taylor, Barbara E. (1996) Improving the Performance of Governing Boards, Phoenix, Ariz: Oryx Press.

MacDonald, Grant E. (2004) How to Have Better Conversations Around the Boardroom Table. Dalhouse University, Nova Scotia, Canada

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