Boards That Spark Innovation

lit sparkler January 18, 2017

Declaring an intention to foster a culture of innovation might be the first step on the path toward developing an innovative association, but it is certainly not the last. People drive innovation, and, according to research supported by the ASAE Foundation, board members have their own role to play.

While a great deal of research has been done on innovation in organizations, associations have not explored extensively the role of boards in influencing organizational innovation. Through its Scholarly Research in Association Management Grants Program, the ASAE Foundation supported a project on this topic by organizational innovation scholar Kristina Jaskyte Bahr, Ph.D., from the University of Georgia School of Social Work and Institute for Nonprofit Organizations.

Bahr's research examined how specific traits and behaviors of boards influence innovation in organizations. By assessing board characteristics as they correlate to administrative, process, product, and service innovation, the research identified certain board attributes that contribute to organizational innovation: critical questioning, shared vision, human capital, and diversity of personality.

Boards that share a collective view of the future of their organization, with a commitment to mutual goals and a shared mission, are innovation drivers.

Critical Questioning

Critical questioning is consistently linked to organizational innovation. Boards that devote time to critical analysis of proposals from management—rather than take a "rubber stamp" approach of cursory approval—are better able to identify where changes may be needed and challenge existing ideas. Critical questioning allows for in-depth discussions of mission and process, enabling board members to identify weaknesses and unearth new solutions.

Interestingly, high scores in information sharing negatively correlated to innovation. The behaviors of information sharing and structural capital—open communication, discussing personal issues that may affect performance, accepting constructive criticism—are not in themselves negative traits. However, the research suggests that these factors work against a culture of innovation by fostering a low-conflict environment that may be more focused on harmony and conformity than innovation.

Shared Vision

Boards that share a collective view of the future of their organization, with a commitment to mutual goals and a shared mission, are innovation drivers. Organizing around a common sense of purpose can shape a board's conversations and actions toward finding strategies and solutions to move an association forward. Quite simply, boards with a destination in mind are more likely to support creative thinking about how to get there.

Human Capital

There is no online store where you can order innovation. Rather, devoted teams develop, test, and create innovative ideas. Boards comprising creative, intelligent people who represent the best in their fields help foster new ideas and bring knowledge to the table. Many associations work to gather the best and the brightest to serve as board members, but for association leaders committed to a forward-thinking, agile, innovative organization, finding these kinds of leaders for their board should be a top priority.

Boards rich in human capital and with a capacity for critical questioning can analyze issues adeptly with thorough conversations, take creative approaches, and make effective decisions swiftly. This capacity to change existing structures allows for organizational innovation.


Diversity in personality among board members was found to have a positive influence on innovation, particularly in creating or significantly redesigning products and implementing administrative innovations, such as new organizational structures, staff development and training, incentives for employees and volunteers, improved recruitment and evaluation, and new fundraising strategies.

Conversely, diversity of industrial background had a negative correlation to innovation, possibly because board members from different industry backgrounds are likely to have markedly different values and attitudes about work. These differences may make productive discussions about innovation difficult.

Understanding the attributes of board performance and board culture is a sometimes overlooked aspect of creating a true culture of innovation in an organization. Association executives committed to developing a culture of innovation would be well served to look to the composition of their boards and consider how board leaders can support the organizational vision.