We recently read an article about “mind control” parasites affecting wolf pack behavior in Yellowstone National Park. Which sounds like a horror movie come to life. But here at Funding for Good, it also reminded us of a problem that many organizations face at some point: nonprofit groupthink.
Groupthink happens when people stop asking tough questions or challenging underlying assumptions and start “rubber stamping” proposals. It can happen with boards of directors, senior leaders, or even project or program staff.
This is different than consensus or alignment. Creating consensus requires that participants first express their unique viewpoints, then work together to come to agreement on a path forward. Nonprofit groupthink is more like those mind control parasites we mentioned. As CNN explains:
Researchers found that gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park infected with a parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii were more likely to leave the group of wolves they were born into or become a pack leader.
That certainly sounds like a case of groupthink to us. And groupthink really can act like a parasite within an organization, draining it of talent, innovation and, ultimately, impact.
What Are the Risks of Nonprofit Groupthink?
When it comes to major decisions—such as adding a new program or changing a major organizational strategy—groupthink poses serious risks to your organization’s long-term sustainability.
- Nonprofit groupthink can disguise underlying issues, such as low morale or staff burnout. People may just want a meeting or conversation to end. Agreeing is the path of least resistance.
- Nonprofit groupthink can silence underrepresented voices, particularly if people feel that different interpretations or perspectives won’t be considered.
- Nonprofit groupthink can skew power dynamics. While power dynamics are a natural part of any organization, there’s a difference between leadership and dictatorship. As nonprofit leaders, one of our jobs is to cultivate the next generation of leadership, not suppress it.
- Nonprofit groupthink can result in bad decisions. Program and project plans won’t be vetted properly. Brewing crises may be ignored until they boil over. And unexpected opportunities may be missed.
How Strategic Planning Prevents Nonprofit Groupthink
As an activity outside of your day to day, strategic planning can be the perfect opportunity to shake up groupthink.
- If you invest in strategic planning stakeholder surveys or stakeholder interviews, you’re guaranteed to get competing ideas and perspectives to consider. Your strategic planning consultants will summarize the themes that emerge. Then they’ll work directly with your team to understand the results and integrate them into your planning process.
- At your strategic planning retreat, your facilitator will push your planning team to delve deeper into challenging topics like organizational weaknesses and challenges. Hearing a range of perspectives—and then working through them together—is what makes these conversations rich and productive.
- Undertaking a consensus building process is an expectation when it comes to strategic planning. Participants agreeing too quickly and too often will be a red flag for your facilitator. They may take a pause and then push the group to be more honest and open. This will give your team a chance to see consensus building in action—including how it differs from groupthink.
So if you’re worried about nonprofit groupthink at your organization, think about those Yellowstone wolves consistently choosing parasite-infected pack leaders. Then get ready to invest in a strategic plan.