Creating a Culture of Inquiry


Do your board members regularly ask inquisitive and challenging questions? Does your board have a culture that promotes dialogue and debate?

An often-overlooked strategy of effective boards is to create and/or nurture a true culture of inquiry. Great boards engage members in a way that truly enlists their collective skill sets, thoughts, and differences of opinion. Dialogue with debate is a great thing to have in board meetings. Open discussions that include diverse perspectives position the board to make the best choices.

Creating a culture of inquiry is not an easy task. It requires that each board member comes from a place of authenticity, vulnerability, and trust. The relationships board members have with each other are foundational for this. Genuine respect among board members with an appreciation for everyone’s differences is required.

How Can You Create a Culture of Inquiry?

  • Create a safe space for open discussion. Board members should feel comfortable sharing their opinions, even if they differ from others. A culture of respect and civility, where everyone feels heard and valued is essential.
  • Encourage all board members to ask questions. The board chair should set the tone by modeling the culture of inquiry—drawing board members into the conversation if needed for differing opinions or thoughts.
  • Provide information ahead of the meeting. Being prepared helps board members ask better questions and make better informed decisions.
  • Ask questions. The board may want to provide information on how to ask effective questions and how to engage in constructive debate, such as:
    • What do I know and what don’t I know about this topic?
    • How is the topic important to us as an organization? For our mission?
    • Who else needs to be at the table to further define and discuss this topic?
    • What other information do we need to understand the topic?
    • How do I know if the information provided is valid?
  • Set ground rules. The board chair should clearly communicate the board's expectations for inquiry. This includes expectations for the types of questions that should be asked, the level of detail that should be provided, and the tone of the dialogue.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate. When board members ask good questions and engage in constructive dialogue and/or debate, acknowledge that the question was helpful.

To practice this, you might consider introducing a topic that is simple to tackle. Break into smaller groups to bring more voices into the room and come back together to share as a large group.

Building a culture of inquiry takes time and effort, but it is essential for a board to effectively govern an organization. By following these tips, boards can create an environment where all board members’ voices are spoken and heard.

How will you ensure your board has a culture of inquiry?


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Posted by Richard Clegg
Richard Clegg

Written by Richard Clegg

Richard Clegg serves as a strategic consultant and thinking partner for a wide range of nonprofit organizations. His 40+ years of experience working in various program, leadership, and executive positions gives him unique insight into the challenges and complexities of managing mission-based organizations. Richard holds an Advanced Consultant certification with BoardSource. Before coming to DBD Group, Richard consulted with YMCAs and other nonprofit community-based organizations with operating revenues from $1M to $80M in the areas of strategy development, strategic planning, board development and governance, executive transition, and organizational capacity building.

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