January 26, 2015

When Board Members Get in the Way of a Great Redesign


Boards of Directors are key to the functioning of successful nonprofits. They look out for the long-term direction and fiscal sustainability of the organization and open new opportunities. They hold leadership accountable. A lot is asked of board members in terms of financial contributions, connections, and time - often for little in return except for a few networking opportunities and the satisfaction of having helped out.

However, while organizations should be grateful to their hardworking board members, too often members overreach and can have a negative impact on decision making. This is especially true when it comes to marketing, design, and communications, disciplines that seem to attract an outsize share of unqualified participation.

Familiar patterns include a longtime board member who is understandably attached to a charity’s history, logo, name, and brand or a new trustee who mistakes his general business skill for specific marketing and design expertise. In either case, the interference often hinders the process.

A nonprofit hiring a financial consultant would be shocked to see a board member with little or no finance background suggesting major modifications to a carefully thought-out fiscal plan, but many executive directors regularly anticipate such intervention on marketing and communication projects.

I once worked on a project in which a board member neglected to participate in a rebranding effort until after a logo had been chosen, only to perceive a resemblance to a common retail brand he didn't care for. His reservations threatened to derail what had been a long and hard-fought process.

This resemblance was not observed by the CEO, director of marketing, or our team, and luckily with some careful diplomatic maneuvers the issue was resolved, and the logo has been a great success for the organization ever since.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but I see it all too often. Most board members trust their CEOs and executive directors and have a healthy awareness of their limitations. However, some board members fail to see where their participation is unhelpful to the process.

Here are a few suggestions for everyone involved in a major communications overhaul that can be especially effective in mitigating the issues above.

Involve the right people early. Start any major rebrand by talking to a large number of relevant constituents (board members, donors, staff, clients, partners) and look for common insights in their narratives. If you know some decision makers have the power to derail a decision, bring them on early in the process so their concerns can be integrated into the thinking and their objections can be evaluated. People who are too busy to get involved should understand their opinions cannot be fully informed, so they need to allow the process to unfold without their full participation.

Create a framework. Far too often someone chimes in that a logo should be red instead of blue. Typically this advice comes from someone who is neither an expert in color theory nor an active participant in the communications process. A framework -- a list of necessary conditions -- allows you to highlight in advance the key attributes that are needed for a design or communications decision to be successful and then to weigh input against that framework. In this way, we know to implement the change from red to blue only if it serves a strategic need, like if red better fits our goal of being bold than does blue.

Educate participants on the psychology of change. As humans, we prefer the familiar over the new, and we typically fear loss more than we see opportunity. A once ambitious rebranding can easily morph into a cautious and ineffective crawl toward mediocrity and compromise when excitement about the process starts to encounter the reality of its permanence. Recognizing these tendencies can help counteract them.

Sometimes board members need to put egos aside and be open to uncomfortable but necessary changes. That may not be easy, but it is crucial for a successful evolution of a brand in an increasingly dynamic world.

Matthew Scharpnick is the co-founder of Elefint Designs, a strategic design studio that works with good causes.