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The board room is where the decisions are made, right?

At my university's recent professional development day, a researcher spoke about his field, which is called “the diffusion of innovations.” He studies how worthy innovations can reach intended users and find wide adoption, and his research has revealed something surprising: When seeking support for an innovation from potential partner organizations, more often than not, the people who hold formal authority do not necessarily have the most influence.

In the context of board governance, this suggests that while board chairs and presidents hold the reins, the de facto influence over decision making may lie elsewhere.

This may seem obvious. Nonprofit Quarterly shared an article earlier this month that talked a little about the dominant coalition, “a discrete collection of people outside of the board who act as a group to exercise power and engage in some or all dimensions of governance.” 

And veteran board members understand that the board's influence is often limited. Denominational schools, for example, are tied to a vast network of stakeholders that can influence budgets and leadership assignments. At non-denominational schools, networks maybe be more nebulous, but they are just as powerful -- perhaps even more so because they're implicit and rely on personal relationships and trust.  

The professional development talk I attended advised that if you're looking for a favorable reception for your ideas, it's critical to identify and convince influencers. 

And this, it seems to me, applies to board members who want to bring about real change. They need to figure out where the real influence lies.

So, who has that influence in your school? What are the mechanisms for that influence? What about new board members? Are the fields of influence obvious to initiates, or must they feel around in the dark until they get the lay of the land?

Something to think about as a new academic year is about to begin.


Image credit: Albert Bierstadt, "Fishing from a Canoe"

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