True or False? Over 78% of nonprofit board members voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016

© Nick Solari

What do you think?  (Scroll down for the answer.) 







The headline is bogus. To my knowledge, no one has studied this question.  

If you answered, “true”, then you likely believe board members serving nonprofits must be politically liberal. This headline only confirmed what you already believed to be the case and speaks volumes about prejudices and preconceptions people carry with them all the time.

This exercise is an illustration of something behavioral economists call confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is a psychological tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs, and discounts or disfavors information that goes against these beliefs. 

How can nonprofit board members overcome confirmation bias and think clearly about a critical issue? How can these decision makers avoid dismissing information that could shed light on their organization’s imperfections or a rival’s smart moves? 

I have five ideas you can use right out of the box, but first a comment about irrational nightmares.

The “Ponzi Scheme” nightmare

In nearly every competitive workshop I’ve run – for nonprofits or for corporations – there’s always one organization most of the audience belittles or feels is “evil” in some way.   

“Oh, the CEO of this social action organization is a grandstander, a publicity hog,” a few stated at one event.   Yes, I counter, he may be a publicity seeker but look at how much press he’s gained for such a small organization.  He’s stays on message and receives lots of favorable press.

In another strategy workshop for a transportation and tech company losing market share, I pressed them on one new-age competitor – Elon Musk – whom they generally dismissed in earlier conversations. 

At one point during our session, I highlighted Mr. Musk’s successes. Almost immediately after listing his achievements, a participant at one table shouted out, “Musk runs a Ponzi Scheme!”   Many in the room nodded their heads in agreement.

That was a confirmation bias moment. 

I’ve heard the Ponzi Scheme accusation many times over the years and in every instance it was false.  But how do I convince those who supported the “Ponzi scheme” position in the workshop that this was not the case and that by believing it they dismiss good and valuable information?

I decided to launch a role-play exercise.  First, I assigned the Ponzi Scheme table the role of Musk’s chief strategy officer, then I gave them a couple of hours to digest the information I had prepared on Musk’s enterprises. When the two hours were up, team members delivered their case.

Despite acknowledging their leader’s mercurial personality, they presented a list of Musk’s successes, including dominating the electric car market and winning nearly half of all new commercial rocket contracts with NASA, etc.  By the end of their presentation, they, too, were convinced of Musk’s competitive threat.  Claims of a “Ponzi Scheme” faded into the background.

This role-playing exercise helped them break through the confirmation bias barrier.


Five bias-busting ideas

Here are my five thoughts on how to reduce and possibly eliminate confirmation bias when a board must make critical decisions.

  1. Forget about SWOT. I don’t like to begin any list with a negative but in this case it’s worth it.  SWOT stands for Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities- Threats.

    The SWOT exercise begins very simply.  Typically, someone in a meeting goes to a whiteboard and draws four boxes with each box dedicated to one of the four categories. That person then asks meeting members to call out an organization’s strengths, weaknesses, as well as the marketplace’s major opportunities and threats.   Moving from one organization to another, the people around the table draft a SWOT chart for each. 

    In theory, participants can compare one chart to another and draw conclusions about a rival’s relative strengths and weaknesses.

    My experience with SWOT charts is they are certainly easy to create but nearly worthless in any competitive discussion – because the boxes are filled with confirmation bias.

    Here’s one example of a SWOT failing:  One person says about a local nonprofit, “Oh, they are finding it difficult to recruit new volunteers.”  That person labels this as a rival’s weakness.  But another person might counter, “Yes, they have few volunteers, but they are high quality volunteers.” Label that comment a strength. Who’s correct?  You don’t know.  Whoever wins the argument gets his or her information in the “strength” box; whoever loses, finds his or her opinion vanquished from the chart.  Not a very satisfying or definitive way to draw a conclusion.

    Stay away from SWOT. Yes, it gets people to participate in a discussion. It’s easy, but it’s also a “confirmation bias generator.”

  1. Find third-party experts: Nonprofit executives must force themselves to look outside for information, wherever it lies.  The challenge for nonprofit executives is exactly that, looking outside.

    Nonprofits and their boards work very hard to serve their beneficiaries.  They spend many hours just trying to improve their service, alleviate suffering, or help improve someone’s life.   That leaves them little time to review and analyze outside information.

    You need to bring in outside experts.

    Where do you find these experts? Some may be found among your donors and stakeholders.  Others might come from a local university.  Check out LinkedIn within the group who directly connect with you.  You can also simply Google for news articles on your subject and contact the names of experts cited in these articles.

    Once you find an expert, you can interview that person and report what you heard at an upcoming meeting.  But what may be more valuable to you and every other board member is to invite the expert to join you during the meeting itself.  Allow this outsider to ask and answer questions. Give him or her permission join in the various conversations. 

  1. Play Devil’s Advocate: The Devil’s Advocate began as a way for the Catholic Church to question the eligibility of candidates for sainthood.   The Church appointed a “promoter of the faith,” an advocate, to challenge nominations.

    Nonprofit boards will find this process a handy, effective tool to defuse and shed light on contentious issues, or on decisions that may appear extreme.

    The Devil’s Advocate activity is a simple one.   Take an issue.  Let’s say it’s your plan to dramatically improve book collection for a literacy program.  The collection process your staff has spent months developing is complicated and expensive yet promises great success.

    Before you pull the trigger to launch the program, you assign a team to play the Devil’s Advocate and offer all the reasons why the nonprofit should not begin the new initiative.  Even if the team does not truly believe in this position, its job is to fearlessly and aggressively poke holes in your plan.  Identifying your plan’s weak spots ahead of time places everyone on notice:  You need to fix plan weaknesses or at least stay alert to potential stumbling blocks.

    The Devil’s Advocate’s job is to call out weak arguments and false assumptions.   

  1. Let YouTube argue for you: YouTube is a rich source of what I call “soft facts.”  A three-minute video can present a compelling display of image and emotion. A well-produced clip can move you or disturb you in ways a printed article cannot.

    The right clip at the right moment can dispel preconceived notions; it can give you pause to think that there’s another point of view, another reality to consider.

    As with the Devil’s Advocate, I recommend running a video that convincingly argues for the other side of the issue.  Then ask your board members to comment on what the video gets right?  Assign participants the task of listing five points that could convince a donor that they should give their money to this rival nonprofit, over all others serving the same stakeholders.

    Videos are powerful and immediate communications tools. They are handy, easy-to-access confirmation-bias busters.

  1. Run a number-blind test. Create a chart of impact numbers without disclosing which organization represents which numbers.    Use the same format for your nonprofit and those of your rivals.  Here are some suggested methods.

    You could display a comparative chart on competing elementary school literacy programs.   Categories to consider for a side-by-side comparison chart might include: Percent of children reading below grade level, percent with increased literacy level, volunteer service hours per child, number of literacy events run during the school year, and so on.

    Finding data to present should not be a problem. Nonprofit websites are often filled with data – even if you cannot find an official annual report.   

    Ask board members to describe their opinions of each organization and its strengths – purely based on the numbers they see in each column or chart.

    By blinding numbers, you force participants to look at the data based on their own merit without saddling yourself with preconceived notions about the organization that generated them.

Finally, a word about the time a board needs to allow for these important bias-shattering discussions.  The above exercises take time to prepare and to run.  Do not squeeze them into the end of a long agenda.   You want a fresh group of participants who are eager to share and debate. I also suggest you telegraph the seriousness of this exercise by scheduling this part of the agenda far in advance of the board meeting.  

“Agenda is destiny,” commented Dr. Laurence Stybel, a retained search expert who works with nonprofit boards.   

Stybel pointed out to me that when it comes to resolving tough, contentious issues, you need to give those around the boardroom table enough time to examine deep-seated biases and assumptions.   

When you vote in an election, you take your opinion into the privacy of a voting booth, influencing no one other than yourself.  But as a board member, when you bring unchecked biases into a boardroom you affect an entire organization and all its stakeholders.  True?