Never Waste a Crisis (Part 2): Impactful Decision-Making

3 Tips on Impactful Decision-Making for Charity Boards

Boards are tasked with providing strategic oversight. But the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted some charity boards to become more heavily involved with day-to-day operational activities. Shifting the focus from the here-and-now to more medium- to long-term strategic issues will be essential if boards are to keep their organisations on track. What can boards do to ensure that their decisions lead to effective governance and oversight during a period of remote work, distraction and volatility?

This autumn, whilst I working for the decision-science consultancy Leapwise, we partnered with New Philanthropy Capital on a pro bono project to support the sector. We interviewed CEOs and Chairs of UK charities as well as board advisory experts, collected new data from trustees, and integrated their best-practice insights with our knowledge on decision-science.

You can read the whole report here and our top tips on more effective meetings here . But what can boards do to translate productive discussions into impactful decisions?

3 Tips for Better Decision-Making

38% of trustees we surveyed said they would make creating better follow-through on board decisions their priority if they could change just one thing about board meetings. We encourage you to use the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to consider the decision-making infrastructure at your organisation.

  1. Take a systematic approach to your decisions

Chairs and board development experts we interviewed recommended taking a systematic approach to decisions. This can help reduce uncertainty and free-up decision-making capacities.

  • Area of governance: Clarity on the area of decision-making can help your board discover whether it is allocating appropriate time to different areas of governance and which criteria may be appropriate to make good decisions.
  • Evaluation criteria: Are you comparing options against their impact on staff morale, what your supporters think, or how well they align with your funders’ goals? Rating different options against criteria can be helpful.
  • Type of problem: Leapwise uses the Cynefin Framework,[i] developed by Dave Snowden for IBM, to help organisations think about the situations they are confronting. It distinguishes between simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic decision-making contexts that warrant different types of responses.
  1. Allocate decision roles

Decision-making involves not just ‘the decider’ but also others with clearly outlined roles in the process. For charity boards, they will involve both trustees and members of the executive.

Role clarity is essential, especially where speed and agility matter. Coordination improves and response times become quicker when role assignment becomes routine.[ii] Conversely, when there is ambiguity over who is accountable for which aspect of the process, decision-making can stall.

Use the RAPID framework to create role clarity. This framework distinguishes between:

  • People who recommend a decision or action.
  • Those who have to formally agree to a decision.
  • Those who are accountable for performing a decision once it has been made.
  • People who provide inputinto a decision.
  • And the person who takes the final decision.

Make sure each decision-item has a designated person in charge whose expertise match the decision being taken.

  1. Keep a decision-log

To avoid duplicating decisions, and to keep chief executives accountable, keep a logbook of decisions that have been made by the board. A decision log also serves as a useful hand-over document for new trustees.

The decision-log could include information on decision-roles; timelines; and the state of implementation of any decisions you made. Importantly, information on implementation can help you establish whether any intervention you may take to improve follow-through is effective.


Many governing bodies may be reluctant to review their decision-making processes. Instead they will say: “When we are very busy, how can we take time to do these things?” In our report, we introduce you to many small and low-risk changes that you can trial in your charity ­– especially during a period of uncertainty and change.

We understand that boards often do not have the time or headspace to take on big changes in how they make decisions. But try making small adjustments to your processes, evaluating their effects against a set of pre-determined improvement criteria, and then decide whether or not to stick with your new approach. By adopting such a ‘validated learning’-mindset, you can elicit incremental and sustainable change.

The truth is that one-off exercises do not create the core infrastructure charities need to become truly decisive and effective. For that, we need to build effective decision-making habits bit by bit.

“Don’t expect to go from zero to ten; also be satisfied with a journey of continuous improvement and learning.”

Chair

[i] Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007, November 1). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, November 2007.

[ii] Rogers, P., & Blenko, M. W. (2006, Januar 1). Who has the d? : How clear decision roles enhance organizational performance. Harvard Business Review, January 2006.