What Nonprofit Boards Can Learn from a Race Car

photo: moose/adobe stock
Recently, I went to see the movie Ford v Ferrari (I was born in Michigan, I had to go). Despite not being a "car" person, there was plenty to captivate my attention. Apart from the allure of Matt Damon and Christian Bale, the film was oozing with "org sciency" themes such as leadership, group dynamics and strategic choice. Particularly relevant to what I do, there was a particular reference I found apropos to working in nonprofit governance (though I'm not sure anyone else noticed it).

In a pivotal scene, Carroll Shelby (played by Matt Damon) has to explain to Henry Ford II why the new Ford race car could not win at the 24 hours of LeMans. He recalls observing a single red folder as it changed hands several times before landing on Mr. Ford's desk. It was emblematic of his experience working with the Ford Company to date. Every step in the design process had to be informed by myriad suit-wearing corporate actors (lawyers, marketers, VPs etc.), very few of whom actually knew anything about racing. Articulating his exasperation with the process, Shelby says to Mr. Ford "You can't win a race by committee!"

Despite the pejorative reference, that line immediately made me think of all the ways in which nonprofits try to do just that! It's not uncommon for some boards (and their committees) to want to put their "stamp" on certain projects and activities. As a result, volunteer leaders find themselves weighing in on matters that are not their domain and often beyond their expertise. This can especially happen when they lack strategic orientation. They get into the weeds and want to have a say in how things are done.

There is a later scene in Ford v Ferrari which, in contrast, offers an ideal rebuttal to the bureaucratic corporate nightmare that Shelby complained about. After being given freer reign, Shelby and his team tackled a problem with the car's brakes, which they learned would burn out half-way through the race. The team tackled the problem through dialogue -- by raising ideas, offering potential solutions and not being afraid of it not working. It was a clear depiction of how collaboration drives team performance.

I think it's easy for boards and committees to forget that their nonprofit's work is intended to be collaborative. As leaders with a strategic duty to the organization, their role in that collaboration is to give broad direction about outcomes, not to interfere with how things are done. Rather, boards and committee leaders help their nonprofits "win the race" when they support and empower staff teams to address challenges with a clear sense of where they are going.

What examples can you think of where nonprofit boards and committees collaborate effectively with staff teams? What makes that collaboration work or not work?


Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE is a nonprofit governance consultant and owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. To learn more, visit www.millerbleichconsulting.com.


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