Spies, Jurors, and Nonprofit Boards: Seeking Ground Truth

“Bond—James Bond!”

Those words from the movie Dr. No introduced me to spies. (Dr. No also introduced Ursula Andress, but that’s another blog.)  A summer visit to Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum provided a fascinating look at spies and their history, tools, and techniques. Their “Ground Truth Theater” discussed the 21st century challenge for spies to provide decision makers with unvarnished and objective facts.

The geospatial intelligence exhibit displayed satellite and high-tech intelligence gathering techniques then unavailable to James Bond and “Q”. But data gathered from spy satellites must be reconciled with what literally and simultaneously occurs at ground level to be credible. This factual and objective confirmation and reconciliation of multiple perspectives describes the concept of “ground truth”.

Wikipedia suggests the military’s slang definition migrated into current scientific usage. Military slang defines ground truth “to describe the reality of a tactical situation as opposed to what intelligence reports and mission plans assert the reality to be.” A foot soldier’s view differs markedly from a general’s. Both are needed!

Spies seek to secure early, objective, and actionable data for decision makers without direct access and far removed in time and place from a spy’s sources. Decision makers use this information to confirm, deny, test, and modify underlying assumption(s); learn; and, hopefully, make better informed decisions.

As deliberative bodies juries and boards require ground truth to work. Jurors decide based on relevant facts and conflicting interpretations about their significance. Successful trial lawyers learn to anchor their case on unquestioned and irrefutable objective facts. When facts are accepted as true, a jury evaluates the litigants’ conflicting interpretations for legal significance and meaning. When rendering their verdict, a jury establishes the case’s ground truth.

Boards of directors must determine their organization’s ground truth. They lack in-depth knowledge derived from daily operations compounded by the quality and timeliness of board information and members’ preparation for and substantive engagement at meetings. Designed with packed agendas, sole reliance on staff, and social functions members may be distracted by their personal concerns. Board members don’t run their own business or personal lives based on a few meetings lasting several hours a year. Yet this is how boards govern.

Ground truth should guide board decisions. With access to timely and unfiltered data members first form their assumptions based on ground truth as they understand it. But members must then test them openly and explicitly through a healthy board’s hallmark of give and take discussions.

Boards have implicit and explicit expectations. When ground truth conflicts with expectations, the gap between expected and actual results, whether positive or negative, should facilitate the nonprofit’s examining it underlying assumptions and theories of change. Failing to engage in this analysis or take timely action may have adverse effects.

Conflict often arises when challenging assumptions (“sacred cows”).  A board’s social nature may seek to limit, if not eliminate, conflict engendered when members assert fundamental differences. Boards may ignore or, worse, affirmatively shut down or eliminate dissenting members, thereby creating a perilous “group think” phenomenon! Dissenting views often should be heeded, but particularly when based on ground truth.

Fostering a board culture designed to test assumptions establishes healthy dialog when board members’ differing views emerge. This is why boards meet. Through critical analysis and discussion, their decisions should seek to reflect ground truth. Otherwise, their ability to confront reality and implement change diminishes.  As the saying goes, “denial” is not just a river in Egypt.

What if the Raleigh, North Carolina YWCA timely addressed multiple years of operating in the red instead of closing abruptly without notice and then filing for bankruptcy? What if Penn State University and the Second Mile boards addressed their painful ground truth earlier?

They are today’s headlines.  Their legacy serves as a warning beacon for boards to seek ground truth no matter how painful and act accordingly.

Boards built on ground truth will persevere, survive, and ultimately thrive more readily than those built on the gossamer of opinion, feelings, and influence untested and unchallenged by ground truth.

How willing is your board to seek “ground truth”?

About Marty Martin, JD MPA

Marty Martin, JD MPA, Martin Law Firm, Raleigh, North Carolina, provides legal, tax, and training services related to nonprofit, tax-exempt, and social enterprise organizations serving local, regional, state, national, and international constituencies. He works with them throughout their lifecycle including start up, operations and management, board governance, merger, and closing down. He is an instructor with the Duke Nonprofit Management, Intensive, and Advanced Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership programs. He is a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer. Martin is affiliated with North Carolina State University's Institute for Nonprofits. Martin served for three years on the IRS Advisory Committee for Tax Exempt and Government Entities ("ACT"). He was awarded the IRS TEGE Commissioner's Award which "is the highest honor of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, and the highest honor we can personally bestow" for his service. He received a Master in Public Administration (MPA) degree with a concentration in managing nonprofit and public sector organizations from the Harvard Kennedy School and Juris Doctorate (JD) degree from Western New England University School of Law. He completed advanced training in nonprofit organizations from: Harvard Business School's Initiative on Social Enterprise; Harvard Kennedy School's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations; Duke University's Nonprofit Management Program; University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business; Center for Creative Leadership; BoardSource; and the TCC Group.
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