How to be a fake consultant to help a colleague deal with their stubborn board

[Image description: Two hands holding a glowing light bulb. The bulb seems to be filled with a string of fairy lights, which makes it glow. Image by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. Kidney stones, along with filing taxes, have been giving me some trouble. At this point, the tax filing process has been much more painful. All that to say, I don’t feel like writing a Serious Post. Hence, today’s piece, what you are reading right now, will be nonsensical and poorly edited and possibly offensive. You have been warmed.

One of the questions people always ask me (besides “Vu, have you considered changing your hair and clothing and just…general style?”) is “How do I get my board to change? The staff are in sync with [disclosing salary range on job postings, three months of paid family leave, an office ball pit filled with 5,000 plastic balls, etc.], but the board keeps holding back progress.”

This is a very common problem in the sector, as common as the lack of retirement savings matching. We can talk about all sorts of solutions—including sending problematic board members a severed stuffed unicorn head, Godfather-style: “Henry, wake up. What’s that on your pillow? It’s dripping…ketchup?…TWILIGHT SPARKLE, NOOOOO!!!”—but the reality is that because of what I call the Outsider Efficacy Bias, internal staff will not be listened to. So one thing you can do is get a consultant to come in.

However, consultants are sometimes pricey (we have families to feed, and fresh imported French black truffles are not cheap). And sometimes you can afford it, but you just don’t have the time. No worries. If the issue is so obvious and your board is just clueless or stubborn, get a friend or colleague, someone who understands your point of view, to be a consultant. Like being a life coach, ordained minister, or parent of human children, there’s very little regulation, so anyone can be a consultant. Your board members will likely have no clue. With the right swagger and a few tips below, your friend, colleague, or cousin, can come in, talk to the board, and you might be able to get that much-needed sabbatical policy in place.

  1. Figure out what the goal is: Is it to convince the board to vote yes on making a policy to close the office for a week so staff can recharge? Is it to tell the board it’s actually really not their business when the office closes, since that’s an operations decision? Is it to “Inception” some idea in their minds about a four-day work week? Make sure you and your colleague are clear and aligned on the goal.
  2. Create a plan of attack: After you figured out the goal, sketch out the sequence of actions. Do some basic research on the issue so you have data and statistics. Have the person who works for the org preempt the consulting visit by saying something to the board like “I have a colleague who is versed in this topic. She might be willing to come in and speak to us. Pro bono.” Board members, who are naturally trained to be very spending-averse, love it when things are pro bono.   
  3. Dress like a consultant. Think of the average nonprofit professional and how they look. Now dress one level better. Voilà, you look like a nonprofit consultant! For really serious issues, you may need to be a “corporate consultant,” since the really clueless board members often have more respect for people from the for-profit world. In that case, make sure you wear a suit, carry a briefcase, and use a fancy fountain pen.
  4. Have the right supplies. Consultants always tow around a plethora of supplies. At the very least, have a pad of easel paper (with the words “Parking Lot” scribbled at the top), some sticky notes, a stack of dot stickers, and a gallon-sized freezer bag of assorted markers. Also make sure you have some sort of sound-making device, preferably a mini chime or gong, which many consultants use to call people back to order after intense small-group discussions, and to announce bathroom breaks.
  5. Be confident: Consultants tend to have an aura of confidence, so try to remember that when you get into the room or virtual room. Smile, make eye contact. If being confident does not come naturally to you, just channel the energy of a donor who has twelve expired cans of beets to donate to a food pantry, or a program officer from a corporate foundation that gives out $5,000 grants.
  6. Use jargon and big terminologies: Most consultants, by their nature, are great at being clear in their communications. But we’re talking about difficult boards here, and if they’re opposed to something as obvious as paid family leave, they are the type who will likely be impressed by lofty words and jargon. So don’t be afraid to pull out terms like “core competency,” “robust,” and “inflection point” or combine jargon like “at the end of the day, equity requires us to move the needles that are in our wheelhouse.”
  7. Use easy-to-understand analogies: Good consultants use analogies all the time. They make the consultants seem extra wise. One that I learned from my executive coach is “are you standing on the balcony or the dance floor?” Or you could use the classic “You are too focused on the forest…and not the trees.” Others to have in your arsenal include “which part of the elephant are you each accessing?” and “are you manifesting the pita chips…or the hummus?”
  8. Whenever there’s disagreement, say “Can both things be true?” This is a very effective technique that is often deployed by our colleagues in the therapy field. Whenever there’s some sort of disagreement between two points of view, just nod sagely, say “can both things be true?” and then calmly scan each face in the room as they bask in your piercing insight.
  9. Make board members think it’s their idea: Going back to Inception, it’s often strategic to get board members to believe that something is their idea. That way, they are more likely to support and implement it. This can be difficult to do, I’m not gonna lie. It works easiest with people who have some ego…so probably middle- or upper-income cis men with a for-profit background.
  10. Force a sticky dot vote: The sticky dot vote is a sacred process in our sector, and the results are binding, with terrible karmic consequences for those who fail to uphold the Will of the Dots. If you believe there may be enough dots to get your goal met, then consider initiating this process. But beware, this move is risky. If you miscalculate, it may backfire and set back the organization for years, and the org will have to continue putting up with a five-day work week like during medieval times.

Getting a friend to be a consultant to sway your board toward something is not a tactic that I recommend you deploy all the time. But sometimes, that’s what it may take. Especially if your board is entrenched in shenanigans and you don’t have the patience or resources to do a legit consulting process, which often takes forever.

Don’t forget, though, after your friend does you this favor, you can pay them back or pay it forward by being a pro bono consultant for another stubborn board.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a wedding I need to officiate in my role as an ordained minister.

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