Your Nonprofit Can Make Smarter Group Decisions
Luna. That was the name voters chose for an adorable sea otter pup at Shedd Aquarium, a Chicago nonprofit. Nonprofits—including yours—make collective decisions all the time, and in a variety of contexts (admittedly more high stakes than naming adorable sea otters). So doesn’t it make sense to make those decisions in the smartest way possible?
Aside from cases when there’s a unanimous agreement, I’ll guess right now how you make decisions. (Note, this article sticks to single-winner decisions.) You come up with a number of options or candidates, you restrict each voter to choosing one, and then you go with the option selected the most. Does that sound right?
You’re not alone. Most organizations use this choose-one approach when they vote. But if you’re among them, and your decisions involve more than two choices, then you’re also using the worst voting method there is. (Sorry for the bad news.)
As the executive director of The Center for Election Science, it’s my job to constantly think about voting. Our mission is to make it easier for everyone to make group decisions in ways that are both smart and easy to utilize. We also get to work with a variety of organizations. For instance, this year we acted as a consultant for the Webby Awards, the largest awards company for Web content.
So, how does better voting apply to you?
Imagine you have a seven-member board and you’re using a traditional choose-one approach to elect your new chair. There are three candidates. Candidate Alice is moderately qualified and is good friends with three board directors. Those three directors vote for Alice. Candidates Barbara and Candace are both highly qualified. They have similarly excellent backgrounds. Your remaining four directors divide their vote, with two directors supporting Barbara and two directors supporting Candace.
Alice, the least qualified candidate, wins (Alice: 3, Barbara: 2, Candace: 2). She wins even though most directors had a strong preference for either Barbara or Candace.
Your directors dividing or splitting their vote is a common theme with a choose-one approach. The easiest way to solve that vote splitting is to make it so voters can choose as many options as they wish. They’re not even ranking. They’re just choosing as many as they want, each selection counting as one. This is called approval voting.
Let’s revisit this election. This time, we’ll use approval voting and let voters choose as many candidates as they want. Now, highly qualified candidates Barbara and Candace can get the full support of the remaining four directors. The inferior Alice no longer wins. If there’s a tie, the board can just have another vote with only the tied candidates.
To go a smidge further, there’s an even more expressive way to vote called score voting. With score voting, you score options on a scale, say 0 to 9 (still no ranking). The option with the highest score wins. This is a hair more complicated than approval voting, but it has the added benefit of reducing ties, which may be more prevalent when you have few voters. It also performs a little better in practice.
So, how do you do this in real life? One way is just pencil and paper, or you can raise your hands if secrecy isn’t an issue (fingers work for score voting). If not everyone is physically present, you can use your phone. VoteUp is a free app for Android and iPhone that supports both approval and score voting. In fact, the developer despises the choose-one method so much that it’s not even an option.
There you have it: Approval and score voting—smarter, easy ways for your nonprofit to make better group decisions. Smarter group decision-making is among a number of issues to figure out within a nonprofit. But now you’ve got that covered—at least the voting part.