Friday, July 22, 2016

Governance toolbox: Great expectations - board responsibilities, impacts, roles

A couple of new offerings from the Twitter feed set a theme this week that I'm not sure I've featured before - our expectations of boards and board members.

Nonprofit governance principles #nonprofit boards -- I saw a tweet referencing the "commonsense principles of corporate governance" earlier this week but let it pass in the push of urgent tasks of the day. My friend Mike Burns didn't let it slide by. Instead, he considered how some of the concepts put forth in that document might be translated to a nonprofit setting and outlined a thoughtful application of governance principles destined to enhance the leadership effectiveness of our sector's boards. This post has the potential to be the foundation for a significant conversation about the roles and impact to which your board should be aspiring.

Best board member behavior: 15 common sense pieces of low hanging fruit -- Similarly, this Credit Union Insight post by Deedee Myers lists 15 "commonsense behaviors" emerging from a discussion involving 80 board members. They truly are "commonsense" ideas that both articulate the bottom-line (e.g., "proactively support board decisions") and the bigger picture (e.g., "stay in your lane, focus on the big stuff"). As with Mike's post, it can be shared as a discussion starter or an individual member reflection opportunity.

Board roles in major campaigns -- Continuing the "roles" theme unfolding this morning, Jeff Jowdy offers a simple list of four ways in which nonprofit board members can support major campaigns. Not all of our organizations embark on large fundraising initiatives, but the idea that board members must participate in fundraising more generally. If you're planning a major fundraising campaign, this post provides a solid foundation for launching the conversation about how board members should expect to be involved. If you're not, Jeff's list reminds everyone that there are different ways that board member participation can be conceived (e.g.,  points three and four on his list). That cannot be overstated.

Association of Chairs (UK) 2016 survey of chairs and vice-chairs -- Finally, a new report highlighting UK research on the experiences of charity board chairs and vice-chairs. I'd appreciate seeing even more of their results, but this report offers a good overview of the items the association found important to highlight. How closely do they match the demographics and experiences of board leaders in your community? Wouldn't it be nice to gather that group and use this report as a discussion starter.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

One board thing: Set annual learning goals



If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd


Set annual individual and group board learning goals


What does your board need to know/do to fully live up to its governance and leadership expectations? What do members need to know/do to understand your organization, your programs, your mission more fully? What do members need to know/do to engage more effectively with your community and your key stakeholders?

If you followed last year's "Nonprofit Board Learning Environments" series here - or spend any time on this site - the recommendation to identify annual individual and collective learning needs comes as no surprise. I've recommended setting annual board development goals here in the past. I'm not the first nonprofit consultant/educator to recommend setting those benchmarks. It is sound advice, and one board thing with great potential impact on your governing body's effectiveness.

But I have a twist for you today. Rather than take the common approach of translating board development into "board training," think about ways in which you can use the concepts behind the 70:20:10 framework of adult learning to create meaningful, performance-related goals that actually enhance the way your group governs.

The premise of the 70:20:10 framework is that adults learn in three basic ways:

  • By informal learning (experience)
  • By social learning (exposure)
  • By formal learning (education)

The 70:20:10 represents the rough percentages of time spent actually learning in each mode. Whether the numbers shake out exactly that way, consensus continues to grow that the message behind them is accurate: we learn far more often - and far better - through experience. We learn by trying, working, observing, making mistakes, and reflecting on our experiences. We also learn by working with, and from, others - mentors, peers, coaches, staff, etc.

And, finally, we learn from training and other formal educational experiences. But take note of those numbers: the formal processes that so many of us rely upon for board development probably are the least valuable for actually changing or enhancing board behavior. That doesn't mean there isn't a legitimate role for formal training. But that role may be more narrow than the space we create for it.

I've offered detailed examples of each type of learning elsewhere (click HERE to read that post.) For today, I will encourage you to draw from this perspective to identify group and individual member goals. Here are a few recommendations to consider as you develop that list.

  • Because learning never stops and learning needs never end, identifying annual development goals is important to the board's success. What are the current issues, challenges, interests - right now - that will impact how you govern in the future? What is the gap between what you know and can do right now and what you will need to know and do in the next year?
  • Learning targets always must be tied to the board's broader goals and responsibilities.
  • As you set goals, remember that boards typically have four types of learning needs: about your organization and programs, about your broader mission area, about governance, and about effective group dynamics.
  • Learning is more than adding and storing knowledge in our heads (hence, the know/do references).  In the end, what matters is board performance. That means, among other things, that our board's capacity to act in new and more effective ways must also grow. It is the ultimate learning goal.
  • Some needs are primarily informational. That is where training can be an appropriate answer. If the topic is new to the group, or a subset of the board, scheduling a training session is an okay response. 
  • Include follow-up support and activities for each training event. (Click HERE to read a related post.)
  • Group and individual goals frequently will overlap, but individual goals may also be more specific to a member's roles and member knowledge gaps. For example, new members will continue to have specific needs to understand and experience your work and your mission in deeper and more vivid ways. A new board treasurer may benefit from additional learning and coaching regarding financial processes more generally and your financial data specifically.
  • You have expertise on the board itself. Identify opportunities for member experts to provide leadership in meeting learning goals in their knowledge/skill areas.
  • The power of informal learning cannot be understated. As you identify your board's capacity needs, look for ways to not just send them to a website or hand them a book to read (or schedule a training). Look for ways to immerse them in a setting that brings that learning to life. 
  • For example, find ways to bring members into your work - via volunteer experience, observation, or other first-hand engagement - if the identified need is to understand your work more fully. If members are unsure about their ability to effectively articulate your mission impact, provide training focused on public speaking or marketing and follow up with multiple opportunities to practice sharing your story with others.
  • Another example: if your board chair is new, find ways to connect him/her with peers to talk about and explore common challenges and questions. Seek opportunities to see how other boards work and how other board leaders facilitate governance work. 
  • As you set up committee charges for the year, include goals that require research that both informs their work and provides an opportunity to share with the rest of the board.(Click HERE for more detail on the role of committees as learning labs and HERE for a personal example.)
  • Extend the board's knowledge of your mission and programs by finding (appropriate) opportunities to interact with staff and volunteers. For example, include staff on board committees and task forces where their expertise and knowledge overlap with group charges. Invite staff to attend select board meetings to share information and insights. Encourage your development director to work with the board as a whole and coach individual members to support their fundraising responsibilities.
  • Schedule the learning experiences that need to happen. If you don't, they can too easily slip away amidst the day-to-day and "urgent" tasks that tend to consume a board's time. 
  • As with other goals, include periodic check-ins to identify progress made, update goals as needed, and otherwise reinforce that tending to board development is a priority. Because it is. A bonus: reflecting on our experiences, good and bad, is a form of learning.

This list is far from complete, but I hope it offers a broader starting point for anticipating, identifying, and fulfilling the learning needs of the community leaders who govern your organization. The next time you set board learning goals, try to do so with an eye toward the "experience-exposure-education" mix.

NOTE: The "one board thing" series is designed to remind boards that enhancing governance effectiveness and satisfaction often can be sparked by fairly simple adjustments to the ways in which they work. For quick access to series posts, visit my "One Board Thing" Pinterest board.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Governance toolbox: Engaging our boards via storytelling, planning, engaging, (& big convo)

There's a minor storytelling theme embedded in this one, along with a conversation starter and a great groups tip. Enjoy!

Sample board annual work plan and calendar -- You need to sign up for Rebecca Davis' email newsletter to access this tool. But once you do, you'll receive two tools: the user-friendly plan template, in Excel, and Davis' wisdom via the newsletter. This tool makes the process of laying out a road map for the year fairly simple. Many of your boards will appreciate this one.

Beyond storytelling: StoryLIVING with Tammy Zonker -- In this Amy Eisenstein video interview, Tammy describes ways to bring your organization's stories closer to those who need to hear them. The specific focus is donors (a help to board members engaging in that outreach work). But it's also a process that can inform board members themselves and deepen their own commitment by drawing them closer to your mission and your work in authentic ways.

9 sources for inspiration for nonprofit storytelling -- Continuing the storytelling track, this post by Ellie Burke offers exactly what the title promises: nine types of stories that exist within a nonprofit, ready to be discovered, articulated and shared with others (including your board). Some will be more obvious than others. All offer a spark for thinking and conversation, with staff and board, about ways to illustrate your impact more powerfully.

The new work of the nonprofit board -- This Harvard Business Review article, and the concepts behind aren't "new;" but it popped up in my Twitter feed this week. This, my friends, is important reading. It calls on us to rethink what we consider to be "board work" and board relationships with others (e.g., the CEO) responsible for leading, creating, and evaluating impact. Two of the three authors, Barbara Taylor and Richard Chait, developed the revolutionary Governance as Leadership framework. The arguments made in this article are part of the foundation of that model, starting with shifting where we focus board attention and energy. You and your board need to have this conversation - and it should not be a one-time event. It represents the essence of governance for impact.

How to handle the person who talks too much - validate and hear from others -- Craig Freshley is such a non-stop source of practical group-dynamics/effectiveness information and inspiration (tools!) that I'm finding that I have a hard time deciding which to spotlight. This one felt like a must: a quick (video) tip on how to handle that person who simply won't stop talking. The specific recommendation for how to handle that sticky situation - one not uncommon in nonprofit boardrooms - will be of value to board chairs and committee leaders. Perhaps of equal value, because this should be a common-sense notion, is the validation that he offers us for actually identifying and dealing with this potential conversation killer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: What would be lost if we disappeared tomorrow?



"What if our board no longer existed? What would be lost?"

This week's "inquiring nonprofit boards" post comes from multiple sources - frequently asked or offered as wistful fantasy when governing bodies seem to cause more trouble than they are worth. Occasionally, the "what use are boards, really?" is posed in all seriousness by individuals and organizations withing and around the perimeters of the sector wanting to know:

Are nonprofit boards worth the trouble? Do they bring anything of actual value?

Now, I can imagine conversations affirming the leadership, community outreach and significant skills both within boards on which I've served and with which I've worked. There would be an element of truth to those conversations, as each brings some mix of valued contributions to their organization. Some of those boards could legitimately respond that the organization would be lost without them, as they largely live up to the lofty expectations of governance.

Those affirmative conversations are legitimate and valuable, both for acknowledging the gifts that members bring/responsibilities they fulfill and for defining the foundation from which to expand to reach the board's full potential.

But let's not be afraid to admit the less-than-rosy picture when it is a fair representation. Boards can be dysfunctional. Boards can be passive and unfocused. Boards can be a terrible drain on CEO time and energy, without a corresponding leadership return.

We need to be honest in acknowledging where we fall short - or completely fail - in meeting our full range of governance responsibilities.

A high-functioning governing body provides leadership, vision and outreach that only a group of passionate, committed community volunteers can bring to the table. Boards offer legitimacy, by their simple existence and by their active engagement in the community, that staff cannot offer. But they must bring their best to the boardroom if they are to respond with complete positive confidence to this question.

This is a conversation that all boards need to have, with some degree of regularity. It's not only a chance to recognize and grow from their strengths. It's also a chance for a gut-check about where we have fallen short in the past and a commitment to change.

Could your staff do just fine without you? Would they miss your leadership and your unique contributions to advancing your mission? Is their impact felt, within the organization and in your community?

NOTE: This post is part of a series highlighting questions designed to promote inquiry in the boardroom. For others in the series, and a more general pool of resources on the topic visit my "Inquiring Nonprofit Boards" collection on Pinterest.



Friday, July 8, 2016

Governance toolbox: Collaboration, culture, compliance, evaluation and stories


Craig Freshley's "attitudes" offer a perfect, inspiring opening for this week's toolbox. It applies to collaboration across organizations, as well as for our collective work in the nonprofit boardroom.  I share it as a "tool" for sparking conversation about how we support and engage each other for the greater good that we hope to create. Visit Craig's website for more specific recommendations for creating that environment.

Treating nonprofit board members as mushrooms? -- Hardy Smith's research-driven advice led him to five, on-the-mark "actions for turning communication from poor to positive." His recommendations should be common-sense, though some of us often don't act as if that is true. Are you communicating and interacting with board members that meet their needs? Are Hardy's recommendations your standard mode of working with and supporting your board? If not, change that. Today.

The value of evaluation in board governance -- Elena Harman's post is a contribution to the board assessment conversation, both in terms of advice articulated and linked resources shared.  Read both. Reflect on how they reflect or depart from your board's evaluation processes. Then engage your board in discussion about how you can use what she offers here to enhance or improve those processes.

Board members & storytelling: a powerful combination -- In this Movie Monday video, Lori Jacobwith offers a fantastic idea for not only bringing the mission to your board, but for equipping your board to share it more broadly with the community. I'll let Lori's words speak for themselves. It's a quick watch - one worth sharing and discussing with your board.

At the heart of culture: Work that matters -- This post refers to a workplace setting, but the "matters that work" list absolutely can apply to nonprofit governance. It especially applies to nonprofit board work. Sure, we may have the occasional member who sees a seat at our table primarily as a strategic line on a resume. We may have the occasional member who is there simply because he/she didn't summon the courage to say no. But for the vast majority, board service is an opportunity to merge personal values and purpose with organizational values and purpose. We manage the mundane and put up with the tedious because we believe we can make a difference in our broader scope of responsibilities. "Work that matters" should be the essence of what we call on our boards to do. If we can't - if we don't ground that work in matters of vision, values, teamwork, excellence and focus - we don't get to blame members when they check out, mentally or physically.

5 reasons your board should care about fundraising compliance -- It's not a warm and fuzzy topic, but it's a core part of the board's fiduciary function. This Guidestar post makes the case for the board's responsibility, the "why." The linked resources offer more detail on the "how."

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

One board thing: Assign a peer mentor

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd


Assign a peer mentor to every new member


The first few weeks and months of a new board term can overwhelm even the most experienced community leader. To help ease that process - and deepen the (social) learning experience - I recommend assigning a peer mentor to support each new member.

The rationale for this "one board thing" is multi-layered:

  • Even if the new member is a nonprofit board veteran, there remains a lot to learn about your organization and board. 
  • A traditional orientation event and supportive materials (e.g., board handbook) may provide the foundation for learning about those entities. But (a) they necessarily cover only a portion of what there is to know and learn; (b) there are limits to what an individual can expect to absorb and remember from a single event; and (c) words on a page in a handbook provide a skeleton for understanding processes and policies, but they do not offer context.
  • Questions always arise after formal orientation events end, and they continue across the early portions of a new member's experience. While they can - and should - feel free to ask the board president and organization CEO  for clarification, having an additional peer resource expands the support available.
  • A peer mentor offers a different perspective than the CEO and a slightly different view than even the president. He/she can offer empathy, background, and a peer-level view of board work and responsibilities. Having an additional resource for fielding routine questions also takes some of the load off of the president and staff leader.
  • There is an additional benefit for the mentor: the chance to step back, consider, and articulate "how we do things" is a healthy opportunity to reflect and perhaps add a layer to his/her own understanding. (It's easy to get into autopilot mode, especially on the routine stuff.)
  • Mentoring offers a new layer of situational leadership within the board.

What would a mentorship look like? Well, it can look like whatever you want and need it to look like. But a basic outline might be something like this:

  • Assign and introduce an experienced board member to mentor each new member. The initial announcement would take place when the new member receives her/his invitation to join the board.
  • An official introduction would take place at the new member orientation. The veteran attends that event, sitting with the new member, and having opportunities within that event for the pair to get acquainted and the mentoring relationship. The pair need not wait until the orientation to meet, but this provides a formal opportunity to launch the process.
  • A formal mentorship should last at least six months, giving enough time for the new member to observe, participate, and uncover questions that may not arise until she/he has experienced the board's work.
  • While the new member should feel free to call on the mentor whenever the need arises, the mentor should not wait for that contact. He/she should check in with the new member regularly, offering support. (How and how often that contact takes place will depend on individual preferences. The point is to not sit back and hope the new member will call with questions.)
  • As the new member becomes a board veteran, he/she becomes the next-generation mentor.

NOTE: The "one board thing" series is designed to remind boards that enhancing governance effectiveness and satisfaction often can be sparked by fairly simple adjustments to the ways in which they work. For quick access to series posts, visit my "One Board Thing" Pinterest board.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Addressing organizational financial vulnerabilities



"What are our major financial vulnerabilities?"
"What are we doing as an organization and as a board to address them?"

We all have financial vulnerabilities. What are yours? How persistent are they? What can you do to reduce their potential impact?

Your answers to those questions will differ from the next reader's - or mine. On the income side, we might find some common themes, such as:

  • Lack of funding diversity
  • Inadequate donor base
  • Lack of major donor prospecting/planning
  • Volatility of governmental sources
  • Changing/shrinking client base
  • Inadequate reserves

Vulnerabilities may be on the expense or systems sides as well, for example:

  • Billing system challenges
  • Aging buildings and equipment
  • Inability to maintain staffing needs
  • Inadequate reporting/monitoring mechanisms
  • Missing or inadequate donor stewardship program


Some of those examples may ring familiar, or your organization may have a completely different set of challenges. The point is that tending to the larger view is part of the board's fiduciary function. It's important that members resist wading too deeply into the here-and-now weeds (a challenge, I know). When they do, they risk missing the bigger picture issues - for example, obsessing so much over cutting expenses to match shrinking income that they miss the fact that their billing system is broken and leading to that income decline.

For some boards, this requires a fairly major shift in focus and thinking. By necessity or habit, they are used to - and perhaps more comfortable with - tending to the broken hard drive on the CEO's computer when the entire agency's system is being held together with tape and glue. Or they fret over shrinking donations or lower participation in this year's fundraising event when they should be exploring ways to expand stewardship to those who have been contributing over time and may be inspired to increase their annual gift.

What are your financial vulnerabilities? How do they challenge your ability to move toward fulfilling  your mission? What are real vulnerabilities vs. potential problems? What additional information and support do you require to change your situation?

What can your board do, today, to begin leading you toward a less-vulnerable and more sustainable future? How will members maintain the broader, systemic view required of a governing body?

NOTE: This post is part of a series highlighting questions designed to promote inquiry in the boardroom. For others in the series, and a more general pool of resources on the topic visit my "Inquiring Nonprofit Boards" collection on Pinterest.