If you’ve ever been on a nonprofit board with no staff, you know firsthand how different they are from typical boards. In addition to handling governance responsibilities, directors do all of the day-to-day work of the organization. Let’s call these boards operational boards.
Operational boards have so much to do that their directors can easily get overwhelmed. In my own experience of serving on two operational boards in the past five years, I’ve learned that effectiveness depends not only on directors completing their tasks but on building institutional knowledge of how to repeat them in the future. Making careful investments in building and managing the board’s institutional knowledge pays big future dividends. Failing to do so, on the other hand, ensures that the board and organization miss out on opportunities for growth.
Why do operational boards struggle with knowledge management?
They do the work of a typical nonprofit without the infrastructure of one.
Operational boards lack the administrative and physical infrastructure that typically help knowledge management. A nonprofit with no staff, for example, may not have a physical location, making it difficult to store and manage paper files consistently. Digital files can pose problems as well: if only half of the board of directors visit and update its Google docs regularly, institutional knowledge and forward momentum suffer. And when directors store files on their individual computers or email, their knowledge disappears when turnover occurs.
They generate and manage all of their own knowledge.
Boards with staff have their documents and reports managed, coordinated, and prepared for their review. Operational board members must do this for themselves. In my experience, however, they find it easier in the short term to share the information orally at board meetings. This is a mistake: it takes up precious group time and often no one writes down a useful record of the information. But, working faster in the short term (by just discussing and doing it) guarantees having to reinvent the wheel in the long term.
Board membership and leadership change constantly.
In typical nonprofits, built-in organizational “anchors” (executive directors, physical location, etc.) help boards weather membership and leadership turnover. Lacking these common anchors, operational boards can experience major disruptions if they’re not building and managing their institutional knowledge.
It’s easy to see how operational board members default to frenetic “doing” instead of steady “building.” But good knowledge management becomes an operational board’s crucial organizational anchor: it stabilizes the board during membership changes and allows the organization to grow—not just tread water. While each board must develop the knowledge management system that best fits its unique needs, reaching that point requires a universal, simple shift in perspective.
Focus on building, not doing
When you’re working on a board task, ask yourself, “Am I doing or building right now?” Focus on building knowledge of how to do the task next year by taking the time to:
- Document the steps of a new task.
- Write summative reports for recurring tasks.
- Organize files so that they can be found quickly (“Governance,” “Fundraisers,” “Board Development,” etc.).
- Store files in a centralized and accessible place.
- Update or replace previous documents when things change.
- Create a board culture that values effective knowledge management.
Clearly, building takes more time up front than doing. But in the long run it saves time—allowing your operational board to think about meaningful progress instead of the next item on the to-do list.
Indicators of poor knowledge management
If these statements describe your board, you may need to work on knowledge management:
- Your board has no consistent system for storing information.
- You have a good system but some of your board members don’t know how to use it, or don’t use it consistently.
- Your board struggles with routine organizational tasks, such as creating or sending a newsletter.
- Important regular events such as an annual filing or fundraiser seem to creep up without warning.
- Most reports are presented orally with little or no documentation.
- Your board spends more time figuring out what happened in the past rather than what should happen in the future.