The Devil’s Advocate on a Nonprofit Board: Asset or Liability

An unwritten rule for nonprofit board membership is that it is best to “go along to get along.” But sometimes a nonprofit director’s “no” vote to an action that has had inadequate discussion can allow him/h to avoid tax penalties that have been levied on other board members for lack of due care.

Stanford University research results indicate that groups with a lone minority dissenter outperform other groups where all members agree. In addition, these groups…”are more successful than (groups) in which all members disagree and fall prey to escalated emotional, difficult-to resolve (group) brawls “ *

The key to success, according to these data, is to,” … have a devil’s advocate (DA) on the nonprofit board. … This is a person or a small board minority that “has the sensitivity to see the differences, perceives them as conflict, and then communicates about the differences in non-confrontational ways.” **

At least one board member with, “high emotional intelligence is needed to play the devil’s advocate role.” *** Other desirable characteristics of a DA are:

  • A person(s) with an emotional attachment to the mission generated from personal experience, e.g., a parent whose child has early onset diabetes and has DA attributes described above.
  • A person(s) who can be involved with board conflict and not be personally overwhelmed by it.
  • A person(s) who does not owe allegiance to friends, family or colleagues also serving on he board.
  • A person(s) who has acted as a change agent with other for-profit or nonprofit boards.
  • A person(s) with sufficient time to positively drive change.

Can/Should Nonprofits Seek Board Candidates Who Might Become DAs?

On the surface, seeking such person might be a waste of time. Most nonprofits seek board members whom they can acculturate to the board norms, not those who might promote board disruptions or conflicts.

Most of the characteristics described above are hard to assess because they are qualitative in character and require the nominations committee to have some unusual sophistication in the interviewing process. For example, the person needs to be visionary to see beyond the current “box” in which the organization finds itself, a difficult trait to perceive in an interview or from records. He/s also needs some modicum of culture intelligence (CQ) to understand  the strengths and limitations being addressed for change.  It may be that the nonprofit’s culture is strong, but it faces significant headwinds to which the culture is oblivious.  Example: Many nonprofit counseling agencies ignored the increased used of prescription medicines that significantly impacted their client counts.

What Can A DA Contribute To A Nonprofit?

  • Help develop an enhanced vision that allows the organization to avoid the impact of disruptions by technology for social changes.
  • Help reduce the conflict that will inevitably take place between legacy minded board members and those who want organization modification or reform.
  • Help set the tone for change.
  • Celebrate the “health and welfare” of what has been accomplished in the past.
  • Demonstrate the importance of independent thinking and how it may impact the future of the organization.
  • Help interest board candidates and potential senior managers to join the nonprofit.

While the need for a nonprofit board DA will be situational, every board needs to occasionally ask itself if a new one will add to its productivity. If the answer is “yes,” then the challenging task is seeking one. Often an independent thinking DA can have productive visions that an acculturated majority on the board needs to consider. In these cases, a DA can be a significant asset.

** Ibid.
*** Ibid


Dr. Eugene Fram
Dr. Eugene Fram
Eugene H. Fram, Ed.D., is an expert in nonprofit governance, a business consultant and an award-winning emeritus professor of the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He is also the author of six books and more than 125 published articles and has been widely quoted by national media on topics ranging from business to high-performance nonprofits. His blog platforms on nonprofit governance have in excess of 3500 followers. He is a past recipient of RIT's highest award for outstanding teaching and one of a very select group awarded the Presidential Medallion, given to those making exceptionally significant contributions to the university. In 2012, a former student anonymously contributed $3 million to endow an RIT Chair in Critical Thinking in his name, an honor Dr. Fram describes as "a professor's dream come true!" Over his distinguished career, he has served on 12 nonprofit boards overseeing diverse community, national and professional organizations, and also has served on five for-profit boards. His particular passion is helping nonprofit boards perform at high levels as more is expected of these boards today than most people realize. He is the author of Going For Impact – The Nonprofit Director's Essential Guidebook: What to Know, Do and Not Do, and POLICY vs. PAPER CLIPS - How Using the Corporate Model Makes a Nonprofit Board More Efficient & Effective.

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