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Connecting Your Organization’s Past, Present & Future

July 19, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. This post first appeared in Charity Channel's Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review. You can find other posts by Thaler here, here, and here.)

Pont-Terenez-Vue-Usager Are your board members reticent to change? Are they pushing back at adopting a new approach to program implementation, service delivery, or staffing? Are they hesitant to embrace, and become ambassadors for, new policies?

Most likely, your board members do not fully understand the proposed change -- or the connection of the new initiative to the "old way" of doing things. Information alone cannot foster acceptance and engagement. Offering explanations, data, and statistics does not necessarily convert information into true understanding.

Your board members can, however, be respectfully guided toward understanding and embracing what seems like change. Provide time and space for them to explore your organization's history and current achievements and they are more likely to forge a strong connection to the future and vision of your organization.

Encourage the sharing of memories among your board members. By revisiting and expanding their sense of the past, reflecting and building on the passion that currently connects them to your organization, and co-creating a strong image of the future, your board members are more likely to see a natural progression from the organization's past to its future.

Consider the following prompts for reflection:

The Past
  • What is your organization's founding story?
  • What prompted the organization to be founded?
  • Who was there at the beginning?
  • What challenges had to be overcome in order for the organization to come into being?
  • Why did you originally join the board?
  • How did you get involved with the organization?
  • Can you recall the first time you volunteered on behalf of the organization? What happened? How did you feel?
  • Can you recall the first time you decided to financially support the organization?

Even longtime board members may be surprised to hear about why things happened the way they did. Preconceptions may be challenged and surprising insight may result from open-ended sharing of anecdotes and stories. A new, or at least rejuvenated, understanding of the past can shed light on making sense of the present and clearly envisioning the future.

The Present

  • Can you share an example of a person or an entity that has been impacted by your organization?
  • Can you recount a recent achievement by the organization?
  • Might you be able to share a moment of clarity in your understanding of the organization’s mission and impact on our community or field?
  • Can you recall a time when you felt really connected to the mission of the organization? Who was there? What happened?

A thorough, empathetic appreciation for and understanding of the present is necessary before one can begin to comprehend the future to come.

The Future

  • Ask each board member to share a vision of what he or she thinks the organization will look like in five years and in ten years.
  • Are there similarities in the visions? What are the emergent themes?
  • Are there discrepancies?
  • Do your board members seem invested in their vision, or are they merely parroting a presupposed image of a successful organization?

Fostering Engagement

These memories, reflections, and visions can be shared in dyads or in small groups. Consider pairing new board members with seasoned members or older board members with members of a younger generation. Or, if your board is small enough, choose a prompt, go around the conference table, and ask members to respond, taking no more than perhaps three minutes. Or designate one person as the "story sharer" for each meeting. With prior notice and planning, perhaps the designee can bring photos, media clips, or other materials that illustrate his or her story.

So go ahead. Invite your board members to reflect on, engage with, and create the narrative of your organization. By revisiting the past and encouraging reflection about more recent events, you can build a bridge to the future. And when your board can see the future as a natural progression from the past, then change no longer feels abrupt and like something to be resisted.

-- Thaler Pekar

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Posted by Anne Ackerson  |   July 22, 2010 at 12:56 PM

Thanks for this post. I think you've hit upon an important way to encourage and foster a board's ability to accept change. This notion of creating an arcing organizational narrative -- to which everyone contributes -- has the potential to open, as well as deepen, conversations among board members, staff, and stakeholders about what impact the organization has (or doesn't have) and what changes might positively increase it.

Posted by Ken Yellis  |   July 23, 2010 at 02:07 PM

At the risk of committing pedantry, I have to observe that "reticence" is used incorrectly here, unless the author means that these board members get really, really quiet in the face of change. You can't correctly call me "reticent" when, as in this case, I vocally push back against this spreading change in usage.

This is hardly a crime but it is a pity. We have perfectly good words that get closer to what I think the author means to say: indisposed, loath, balky, unwilling, hesitant, resistant, reluctant, averse, to name a few. Reticence means something else--a disposition to silence--and we are in danger of losing the only word with this precise meaning. Until the last reticent person dies, we should hold on to the word that characterizes him or her correctly.

Posted by Thaler Pekar  |   July 26, 2010 at 10:19 PM

Thank you so very much for your comments, Anne!
And thank you, Ken. "Reticent when faced with change" would have better captured my intended meaning.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly  |   July 27, 2010 at 04:34 PM

Thelar, thanks so much this is quite helpful, especially as I am working on a strategic plan for the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers!

Kris Putnam-Walkerly,
Putnam Community Investment Consulting, Inc.

Posted by Nancy  |   September 03, 2010 at 11:54 AM

Thank you for these thoughts. I wish I had been aware of these techniques about six months ago. I recently was the Executive Director of an organization that was quite reluctant to change. I made changes in the operations that pleased the funders and the staff but outraged the board of directors. Had I taken the board through this reflection process I think they would have been more open to my changes and I would still have a job.

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