Engage the Forest Thinkers

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A recent Nonprofit Quarterly posting grabbed our team’s attention. What Staff? Keeping Operations and Governance Separate in an Organization with No Staff, by Mitch Dorger, tackles a common challenge that many (most?) boards face: how to keep board members seeing and thinking at the forest level, despite the allure of examining the individual trees.

Here’s a diagram to capture the various activities that are happening within any organization (staff or no staff).

The key role of the board is to lead the area of governance – this is equal to overseeing the forest. Depending on the age and size of the organization, the board may also play a role in management and operations - tending to individual  trees. For example, “working” boards are often found in  organizations that have no or few employees where board members are leading in all areas.

No matter what type of board you have (i.e., working, policy, governance, etc.), the most important thing is that the board cannot abdicate its governance responsibilities. Even in an organization with no staff, the board must govern. Hardly a controversial notion – and definitely easier said than done.

Mitch Dorger suggests in his article a variety of innovative approaches to keep governance separate in an organization with no staff. Because no one size fits all in this area, he emphasizes that it’s about adapting, tailoring and even rejecting the suggested strategies for your specific board and organizational culture.

That said, I believe there is one (longer-term) lever for all organizations to improve their time spent in governance mode –  build your board with forest thinkers. These are the naturally generative thinkers who want to dwell on mission, relevance and values (to borrow a page out of the Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s ever-relevant work in Governance as Leadership). These are the people that are comfortable strategizing and visioning how to improve the beauty of the whole – the forest. These are not the people that are attracted like a moth to the flame towards asking questions and wanting details about individual trees.

As I contemplate joining the board of a very small, grassroots organization with only one paid staff person, I am committing to test my theory. It will be a long project, for sure. Have you already begun a journey to engage the forest thinkers? What impact have you seen? What bumps have you hit along the way?

You can download Vantage Point’s Board Recruitment Tool to find sample board member attributes that identify Forest Thinkers in your recruitment process.

About the Author

After working in London and completing her MBA at INSEAD in France and Singapore, Maria Turnbull joined Vantage Point’s team in 2006. Rooted in the not-for-profit sector through numerous leadership roles with the British and Canadian Red Cross Societies, OXFAM and Amnesty International, Maria loves...


Trina Isakson's picture
Trina Isakson (not verified) on

Thanks for this reminder! My (working, no paid staff) board is currently in mini-recruitment mode and this helps re-align me. However, even the forest-thinkers needs to have a can-do attitude and the time and willingness to do hard work - the work just looks a little different.


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