Giving Compass' Take:

• Kris Putnam-Walkerly discusses how foundations may be digging too deep into the details of governance rather than focusing on the broader picture.

• The main takeaway: Always keep the mission in mind, and trust that others will be able to find ways to execute it. Strategy questions start with "what," not "how."

Here are 10 mistakes foundation boards make and how to avoid them.

In my consultations with foundation boards, I’ve met many hardworking, well-meaning people who are often frustrated when they can’t seem to get anywhere in terms of foundation accomplishments and effectiveness. They say things like:

  • “We tried funding that, but it didn’t work.”
  • “We need to do some program-related investments.”
  • “If we had a better email newsletter, people would understand what we’re doing.”
  • “We should require a common budget form from all grantees.”

To these board members, my first word of advice is, “You’re losing sight of the forest because you’re surrounding yourself with trees.” What I mean is, “You’re so focused on tactics that you’ve lost sight of your strategy.

I can’t really blame them, of course. Tactics are easy to understand and grab on to. They imply that you’re taking action, and action is assumed to be a good thing, right?

But as a board member, your job is to focus on strategy, and leave the tactics to your capable staff. You can tell the difference between strategy and tactics by asking yourself two key questions:

  • What do we want to become (or what are we trying to accomplish)? Strategy questions often start with “what.” Ideally, this should be something big and bold, like closing the academic achievement gap in schools or drastically reducing recidivism rates for those formerly incarcerated.
  • How we get there? Tactical questions often start with “how.” “How will we accomplish that great idea you just came up with?” For example, to close the achievement gap, you may need to first disaggregate your data to full understand where the problems, increase access to high quality PreK, and provide books to parents of newborns to encourage them to read to them every day.

Read the full article about strategy vs. tactics in board governance by Kris Putnam-Walkerly at Putnam Consulting Group.