< Browse more articles

Not-for-profit organizations are not exactly known for pushing the boundaries on innovation. On the contrary, they’ve sometimes had the reputation of being a tad slow on the uptake.

But that changed recently in at least one area: associations are embracing a modern little hybrid tool that fuses technology with a handy, information-based card deck. It’s called the BoardREADY Card Deck, and somewhat surprisingly, we have The Big Bang Theory to thank for it – the TV show, not the cosmological model for the universe.

“I was inspired by watching The Big Bang Theory, where the characters play a sort of science fiction card game,” says Jeff De Cagna, executive advisor at Foresight First LLC and the lead developer on the project. “I thought, ‘We could do something like that for the not-for-profit sector.’

De Cagna saw a void in the learning curve for not-for-profit boards in Canada and felt that an information-based card deck similar to what he saw on the popular TV sitcom could fill that gap. While board members had access to a great deal of learning material online and in print resources, there was little in the way of a hand-held tool they could take along with them to meetings – and nothing that combined such a tool with a digital component.

Together with the team at CSAE, De Cagna set out to create just such a hybrid physical-digital product that could fill this vacuum. His aim was a tool that would act as a supplement, rather than a replacement, to the resource material already out there. “We didn’t want to simply take the old content and put it into a new format; we wanted to marry the content to a different format,” he explains.

The launch

The Card Deck was officially launched in July 2016 after a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo raised almost $15,000 to fund its development. The deck is comprised of 78 cards themed around different talking points, and each has a QR code connecting users to additional topic-specific content online, which will be updated regularly. There are four subject modes – learn, think, discuss and act – as well as four perspectives – hindsight, oversight, foresight and insight.

The topics themselves are extensive and varied – from “Identifying Business Model Risks,” to “Expressing Dissent,” to “Capitalizing on the Beginner’s Mind.” Each card includes a brief explanation, as well as three questions to springboard users to useful discussions around the board table or beyond. Many touch on probing, tough concepts that board members are not always eager to discuss. “It’s about helping boards grapple with the challenge of governing a 21st century organization,” says De Cagna. “There’s a fairly narrow view of what boards are supposed to do, and we wanted to try to challenge that.”

Aside from its knowledge-sharing role, CSAE president and CEO Michael Anderson, CAE says the deck aims to help boards challenge their own thinking while simultaneously thinking more deeply about the issues that impact them. The cards also act as a prop for new or more reserved board members to help them engage more actively in boardroom debates and discussions. “We saw it as a resource that can empower each board member,” notes Anderson. “It raises questions, but it can also act as a learning tool that people can use on their own at home.”

Early supporter

One organization that was an early supporter and user of the concept is Owl Child Care Services of Ontario. In fact, the organization was the first to start using the deck when it launched. “We build the card deck into every single board meeting that we have,” says Owl’s Executive Director Lori Prospero, CAE, whose board meets every two months. “The card deck gives me all the material I can find on the Web, but in a really organized, hands-on fashion. I don’t have to go through 20 million websites to find the information. Each card directs me to one website, to the one topic I’m interested in.”

The cards are used as a springboard for whatever topic happens to be scheduled for Owl’s board meeting, with Prospero and board chair Corrie Ballantyne selecting applicable cards in advance. For their orientation meeting, for instance, included in the list of selected cards were “Understanding Fiduciary Duties” and “Building a Foundation of Trust”.

Each meeting begins with the board splitting into mentoring triads to discuss the talking points and questions on their BoardREADY card separately within their groups. This is then followed by a debrief and discussion by the entire board. While some board members have been slower to catch on, Prospero now has directors calling her in advance with their own suggestions for cards they feel might be useful in upcoming meetings.

In addition to keeping the discussion on topic, the cards enlighten participants on the subject matter, presenting them with new or different perspectives, says Prospero. Overall, she explains, they have streamlined Owl’s decision-making process substantially and created numerous efficiencies for the organization. “We can now make informed decisions, and we can make those decisions about 40 per cent faster than in the past,” she says.

Learning curve

Not everyone has been as quick of a study as Prospero and her team at Owl. In fact, Anderson says there are card purchasers who have yet to even start using their deck, prompting CSAE to introduce supplementary how-to tools to help get more people on board. The association has already held two online seminars and uploaded informational videos to the BoardREADY website. As well, they’ve developed how-to primers for both board chairs and members. “The question right now is helping people understand how to use the deck,” says Anderson. “We want to show how some groups have used the deck so others can understand the potential.”

There is definitely a learning curve, agrees Prospero, particularly when it comes to narrowing down the selection of cards. Given the sheer number – 78 – this can be a daunting task, and Prospero recommends adding tabs to the deck to help out. She also advises new users to start by looking at the topic list online to get a good general overview. Following that, she says, zero in on three or four cards that sync well with the issues on the agenda for your board meeting. You can also advise board members in advance of the cards that will be used so they can prep if they like.

The key is to focus on card sequences, i.e., selecting cards that work well together either by mode, perspective or virtually any theme. There are no set rules, and users are free to choose a sequence based on their own criteria. To help with card selection, however, CSAE is working on developing sample sequences for its members, i.e., sequences that can be integrated into the typical phases of a board’s work, from selection all the way through to assessment.

Prospero is also a strong proponent of splitting into smaller groups for the initial card discussion to get everyone actively involved. De Cagna agrees that this is a useful exercise and a key benefit of the format, as well as one of its goals. “It’s about choosing cards that might be beneficial in helping start the conversation,” he says. “Because that’s what the cards are really all about – it’s about starting a conversation, and having a different conversation from the one we’ve been having for a very long time.”

This new conversation, adds De Cagna, can sometimes be difficult, which may account for the trepidation some people are having with using the cards. “The card deck and the topics may be different and unfamiliar and therefore may feel daunting to some people,” he says, “but we really want to encourage people to use their imagination around how this resource can change the discussion and get them to overcome the obstacles they have in building a high-performing board.”  

Will the Card Deck actually do what De Cagna and the CSAE team set out to achieve? Will not-for-profit boards use the cards to explore new subject areas, facilitate difficult discussions and ask the challenging questions?

In all likelihood, yes. But first things first: time to open the BoardREADY box. Or better yet, says Prospero, just throw away the box altogether. “It can be intimidating, so my first advice is: ‘Get the cards out of the box.’ Then I tell people to just throw the box away. That’s what I did. ”

And it’s worked like a charm.