Monday, October 5, 2015

The board as community of practice: Reflecting on research lessons learned

What value can we derive from conceptualizing nonprofit boards as communities of practice? How can understanding the interplay of domain, practice and community shape and strengthen the work of our governing bodies?

I knew that revisiting my dissertation research would be an essential part of choosing nonprofit board learning environments as a 2015 theme for this blog. I carry what I learned in that qualitative research daily. Its evidence is everywhere in my writing - here and elsewhere - and in my consulting and teaching.

Would the process of revisiting the data yield anything new for me? To be honest, I wasn't sure that it would end up being anything but a nice memory lane moment and a chance to share what I learned in that process with an expanded readership. But I was pleasantly surprised by the number of insights and personal aha moments that occurred along the way.

Some of those new dot-connecting moments took place in the mid-week "Learning Theory to Governance Practice" series, where I shared some the the key scholarly and practitioner resources that informed my thinking (and discovering the big news that emerged in data analysis: evidence of a strong community of practice in the board studied).

That series also gave me a chance to return to my adult education theoretical roots, which I don't do as often as I should (my natural tendency is to hone in on the content where I practice as an adult educator, nonprofit governance). That was a healthy thing for me personally and professionally. It also is critically important as I continue to develop a model nonprofit board learning environment.

As I review the series again today, and bring personal closure to the process, a few core ideas still ring true.

The research. While one can never officially generalize to broader populations from qualitative research, I affirmed that my decision to choose a case study to explore my research questions regarding routine nonprofit board learning was a solid one. What I witnessed within the routine activity of this high-functioning board could not have been surveyed or predicted. It had to be discovered, observed, queried and compared over time.

The Community of Practice components

I mentioned in the series, multiple times, that the community of practice framework found me in data analysis. I didn't enter the study looking for evidence of this framework. But using it to sort and explain key findings in analysis made everything fit and offered tremendous explanatory power.

Domain. For someone who harps on the critical necessity to ground everything a board does to their organization's mission, finding endless evidence of domain (mission) focus was both heartening and inspiring. It proved - in clear and compelling ways - that consistent, authentic mission focus in board work is not only possible but productive and stimulating. Seeing that mission focus not only inform but transform board decisions was shocking. That individual members also could describe in vivid ways how that mission fit their personal interests and values was an incredible bonus.

Practice. From an adult learning - and a practitioner/consultant - perspective, this was the community of practice component that most excited me. Discovering the practices that helped this board govern effectively was a revelation. Literally. I didn't know what I would find in this area when I embarked on this research. I would never claim that these specific practices will single-handedly equip all nonprofit boards for success. But they are powerful. As a researcher, I can't officially say "do these things and you'll govern well." But as a practitioner, I offer evidence from this board of what is possible when members are clear about their roles, learn from and with each other, have access to learning resources that inform their discussions and decisions, and ask pointed and powerful questions.

At the time, I was wowed by the way this board posed and used questions in meetings. I'm almost ashamed to admit that one of the biggest revelations of this revisiting process was realizing (in one of the last posts of the series) that the questions themselves weren't what made what unfolded from them exceptional. It was the capacity and the willingness of members to use them as springboards for creative, multidimensional, transformative discussions and decisions. I was generally aware, but providing and reflecting on specific examples this summer really brought this message home to me. I come away from this work with a renewed commitment to promoting and creating capacity for rich board inquiry.

Community. My one big regret - even more so today - is lack of attention to capturing detailed evidence of community building within the board that I studied. At the time, the great value of applying the community of practice framework to my data was the opportunity it provided to sort the big ol' mess o' something that taunted me into neat "practice" and "community" categories. But my research attention was elsewhere. Community components seemed obvious and necessary, but they were not particularly sexy or as germane to my adult learning focus as the other two elements.

It's also, I believe, a matter of "community" being largely invisible in healthy organizations (unless you're specifically studying it - which would have been the case if I'd entered this using a community of practice lens up front). Frankly, they gave me nothing juicy to discuss in this area. I know in my gut, if not my researcher's notebooks, that the board's attention to creating a collegial and productive environment for working contributed to their success. I've come to appreciate the importance of tending to factors that create working space that is not only safe but intellectually stimulating.

Finding solid and compelling evidence of a community of practice was the "big news" of my research and all that followed from it. That's still the theoretical focal point and the foundation for my connecting to the adult learning scholarly community.

From a practitioner standpoint, this process has reminded me that effective governance, where generative thinking and leadership is embedded in the work and outcomes, requires more than a magic mix of the right structures, job descriptions and many of the other elements so often held up as the keys to board effectiveness.

The fact is, we need all three of the community of practice elements - domain, practice and community - for that nonprofit governance to reach its full potential. Specifics may end up looking different in your board than what I saw in my case study. But the essential factors represented in the three COP components are, well, essential.

  • Without individual and collective commitment on the domain/mission, our work will wander and fail to fulfill what our organizations and communities require of our governing bodies.
  • Without practices that facilitate that mission focus and work, we fall short of our full leadership potential and likely waste time and energy in ways that challenge board member engagement.
  • Without a community that is not only safe and respectful but also stimulating and generative, we will fail to take full advantage of members' wisdom and talents.

When one of these is missing or weak, our boards - and their full governance potential - are impacted. When they are present, our boards have what they need to succeed and lead.

I look forward to embarking on the next chapter of this blog and the next phase of the board learning theme. I do so with renewed clarity about, and appreciation for, the research that launched my ongoing commitment to rethinking and reshaping the way we prepare our boards for their significant responsibilities and expand their capacity for leadership.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Governance toolbox: Brain-tickling, board-succeeding community advocacy

I've been monitoring the DevLearn Conference & Expo backchannel this week, mostly because I can't help myself. I also recently wrapped up reading of a new learning-themed book (that will make one or more posts, soon), so thoughts automatically turned to board development as I read highlights in my Twitter stream.

In the case of the tweet above, it sparked a caution that boards - and board trainers - need to heed. Just as we can't keep beating up ourselves for perceived failures to fulfill sometimes overwhelming responsibilities for this part-time volunteer position, we also can't allow ourselves to get to the point where we think we have it all figured out. This tweet prompted three questions for me that I offer as possible discussion starters with your board:

  • On what topic(s) do we feel high confidence that we fully understand what is expected of us?
  • What is the source of that confidence? 
  • What is at stake, for whom, if there are gaps in our understanding?

Another conversation-starter from the #DevLearn backchannel - what kinds of questions tickle our collective board brain? (I loved this one.) Ask your board members: What kinds of questions tickle our brains? What questions - about our mission, our organization, our impact, etc. - excite us and stimulate our commitment to our work?

4 essentials to effective board succession planning -- I found this video interview, from a credit union board perspective, to be thought-provoking and interesting. How is your board handling succession planning? What can you take away from this video to inspire your governing body to support or expand your thinking about that process?

Community nonprofits, communicate like the experts you are! -- Speaking of thought-provoking... This isn't board-specific, but it addresses something we need from our boards: a voice in speaking up for the work that we do and advocacy of our missions. From a "tools" perspective, consider sharing this with your board and challenging them to identify how they can use their local authority to extend your story's reach in your community.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The final puzzle piece: Building, sustaining community in a nonprofit board setting

Consistent, persistent focus on a domain (mission) and practices that translate that commitment into cohesive and effective action are critical to high-functioning nonprofit boards. But without an equally strong community component, the process is incomplete. 

As I bring this series, grounded in my case study research, to a close, I find myself lamenting the lack of appreciation for, and attention to, this final element. To be fair, I didn't enter this exploration looking to find a community of practice; that emerged as a theoretical fit to my findings during the analysis phase. But while I was able to return to both the dissertation and the raw data behind it to discover fresh insights regarding the domain and practice findings, I am not similarly able to do that with the "community" evidence. 

Let me share the highlights and the key evidence points that emerged in the data. Three common "community" themes arose in analysis: 

  • Recruitment of members
  • Leadership
  • Climate

Member recruitment. The practitioner in me couldn’t help being pleased to find frequent references to the importance of deliberate, systematic decisions about who should be at the boardroom table and why. This should not be remarkable, but I’ve seen (and, yes, participated in) enough “any live body will do” dashes weeks before an annual meeting vote to know that many boards can learn from this group’s example.

Before embarking on a quest for a new member, the board is clear about what it seeks in recruits. The group outlines what skills, perspectives, stakeholder group representation it needs before approaching potential new members. Most interesting to me was the fact that each board member could describe clearly why they were recruited (skills and mission connection) and how that knowledge prepared him/her to assume a share of the leadership responsibility.

It wasn’t the flashiest finding of this study, but it may be the most important. Ensuring that the right people are at the table, bringing the necessary resources and clarity about why they are called to serve, makes reaching full governance potential possible.

Also noteworthy were member reports of recognizing the need for a different kind of board, with different capacities and focus, as the organization matured. Rose (pseudonym) described it this way:

We stepped back very methodically. I felt strongly that we had to do that.  We needed a board now that was different than what we started out with. It had to be one that would take the long range. Its role would be in terms of financial, fund-raising, development, policy setting, and strategic planning. We went about then getting people on the board who would help us with that part of it.

Leadership. Members described three primary sources of leadership in interviews and focus groups. Two of those sources, the executive director (who was openly acknowledged as a leadership partner) and a founding board member, were readily identified.

The third source was perhaps less visible to the board but one that “Practitioner Me” would describe as the most critical: the situational leadership role that each member played at different times in board work. This relates directly to my earlier observation about recruitment. Members understood the expertise they were expected to bring to deliberations and to facilitate the board’s understanding of the issues as it made decisions. They also demonstrated this capacity several times during my observations, giving me the chance to see how individual members rose to the occasion when the board needed their guidance.

Climate. Two contributors to climate - structure and collegiality - won’t stop any scholarly presses; but without them, the board’s capacity to engage productively in governance work.

Board members described in detail how meeting structure, with the help of a concise agenda, facilitated effective use of their time and focus on the tasks at hand. While no agenda is perfect, or is perfectly followed, consensus was that the agenda format made the most of limited time given by these volunteers. Rose (pseudonym) said:

I think it’s a tough balance between being too structured and not structured enough.  I think we’ve tended to do pretty well with that. I’ve been on some boards where it’s too unstructured and people wander aimlessly for a long time. Or it’s so rigid that we don’t get good discussion because, if an idea comes up that’s not expected, it gets shot down.

Susan (pseudonym) said:

It isn’t my strength to be patient. I have to keep focused, to keep the meeting moving. It’s too easy to get distracted in meetings, with the sidebars and getting off onto other topics. You’ve got to stay focused, just to get the meeting done. That’s my own sense of urgency. If you keep focused on why you’re there, that makes it easy to be respectful of other people’s time. Time is a very precious thing, and we need to be respectful of that. 

Trust and respect arose often in descriptors of an environment where board members felt comfortable contributing their perspectives, even when they disagreed with those posed by others. Members of this board trust each other to act in the best interest of the organization. They respect each other’s expertise and discernment in deliberations that lead to actions impacting the organization and the people it serves.


I think that’s one of my basic foundations of a board that works well together – respect. We have that respect for each other and treat each other respectfully.  

Obviously, I believe that we need disagreement. Disagreement has moved us forward in many, many ways. That helps us grow. Disagreement is how we expanded our dental program at the board level. But it was courteous, respectful disagreement…It has to be safe for people to bring those things up, or we’ll never get anywhere. We won’t grow.


I think everyone has enough respect for the people and confidence in their judgment and I think that’s something that helps us as a board.

I think people are willing to consider other points of view, even if they don’t agree.  I know I’ve bumped heads a time or two. But still people will say, ‘you know, that’s a good point’ or ‘maybe we should think about it.’ Whether they agree or not, people are willing to consider what other people bring to the table.   

I see that most of my community data are board member descriptions rather than researcher observations. On one important level, that makes sense: my primary research attention was on board learning and practices that feed that process. To the extent that I was taking a wide theoretical approach, rather than specifically looking for evidence of the community of practice that I ended up finding, that was okay.

Another factor that makes sense, even if it is not entirely a justification: this was a largely healthy board that exhibited no clear interpersonal difficulty in their work. Healthy communication, healthy relationships like those board members described, can be largely invisible. We notice, and experience, the breakdowns. When things work well, we must work harder to "see" that.

To the extent that that wasn't the specific focus of my research, that's okay. I had enough evidence to describe the role of community in the community of practice that I found. But I've also come to appreciate, in the time since this research ended, that the challenges vexing many nonprofit boards are not ones of structure or role clarity, but plain, old communication/group dynamics issues. After the fact, since I didn't explore what kept most of those at bay in this board, that now feels like a lost opportunity.

I have one more post within me, one wrapping up the series and the lessons learned in this extended reflection. Then it will be time to move on to other board, and board learning, topics.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Governance toolbox: September potpourri

We close September's toolbox posts with a monthly potpourri of random governance linkage.

Are these the worst micromanagers? -- Lucy Marcus never fails to inspire or challenge my thinking in new ways. This post, on a particularly tricky (and often common) board malady, is an excellent example of why that is true. How does you board avoid the micromanagement trap? Lucy offers counsel of value for both nonprofit and corporate governing bodies.

The leadership behavior employees most want -- ...and board members, too. Nothing kills board member motivation quicker than feeling one's contributions are not respected. (I speak from experience.) Dan Rockwell's post identifies 10 actions that foster a feeling of disrespect, as well as seven ways to show respect. It should be required reading for board leaders. Just saying...

From Bored to Blazing: 7 Steps to Get Your Board Reconnected, Re-engaged and Enthusiastic -- Oh, Gail Perry. How I love your understanding of the human beings who serve on nonprofit boards... What I appreciate about her seven steps (and pretty much everything she writes) is the fact that she meets board members where they are and works from that point, rather than from expectations that are often unclear and occasionally daunting.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Inviting 'noisy' generative thinking

(Axelrod, N. (2006). Curious boards. Board Member, 15(3), 8-11.)

Boards cannot fear the noise of generative thinking and inquiry. They must embrace it - and understand it as a core capacity in their governance responsibilities.

In light of the aha moment that I had in Monday's post, I felt compelled to share this quote by Nancy Axelrod. Actually, it covers most of the major insights from my research that I've shared so far this summer.  But it's germane today because it describes the phenomenon that occurred in each of the moments where questions posed by board members prompted their peers to stop, consider, explore, and ultimately come up with decisions - and questions - that may not have been their first impulse.

That's one of the most transformative contributions of generative thinking in the nonprofit boardroom: creating the environment where new possibilities can emerge and the capacity to envision more - and new - options that may end up being better and more effective than those that may seem obvious on the surface.

A board culture that values generative thinking and centers itself in inquiry is noisy. It's also scary at times, as the discussion takes us into sometimes uncharted territory. It can feel simultaneously fast, even as it requires that we take time to really think and consider all options available to us. But it's an environment that nonprofit boards must commit to creating if they are to govern fully - to govern from a place of leadership.

This feels like a potentially natural close to the Wednesday "literature review" series I've been running this summer. It may be, or I may still offer quotes from a couple of other adult learning theories that beg to be shared. For the moment, I'll simply close with the encouragement to explore with your board ways to make fostering a culture of inquiry, where generative thinking and governance comes as naturally as the fiduciary oversight tasks that dominate so many of their agendas.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Nonprofit governance practice: Learning driven by board member questions

Note: this is the fourth of four Monday posts exploring one of the major practices that emerged in case study research uncovering an effective community of practice

Questions, questions, questions... At the time I was analyzing my case study data, this was where the big news appeared for me - so much so that it sparked a years-long obsession with inquiry in a governance setting.

I've shared the most memorable example of a question driving generative board deliberation in an earlier post in this series. But there were many others. Reflecting back on them today, a few in particular stand out as also worthy of sharing.

Questions posed by Natalie (pseudonym) tended to follow two themes. She regularly requested expanded detail on topics placed before the board, on operational issues and policy concerns. Natalie also posed questions that prompted the board to consider the importance of including other voices in deliberations, whether or not their contributions seemed to directly benefit the agency.

One case illustrating the latter arose during the research period, centering on the role of two ex-officio positions. One position was tied to a cooperating organization. The other was a client representative. Both were mandated by the organization's bylaws. The relationship with the other agency had changed and maintaining consistent client representation had proven problematic, leading some board members to question whether they should consider changing the bylaws.

Natalie perceived that there might be other factors influencing the recommendation to eliminate the ex-officio positions. Joan (pseudonym) picked up on the direction Natalie was headed and raised the benefit of providing opportunities for another organization to get to know the organization better. If the agency dropped the partner organization representation, she said, the agency would lose that opportunity. Natalie’s question, and Joan’s reinforcement, led to a board discussion that ultimately led to a decision to extend an invitation, with a commitment to re-evaluate the bylaws provision in one year.

In our private interview, Natalie described her questioning role as a deliberate one: stretch fellow members' thinking. In this case, her questions helped the board avoid taking the expedient approach to resolving minor logistical issues while keeping the bigger stakeholder opportunities. They may have decided to change the bylaws after the observation period, but they gave themselves the chance to consider the broader range of implications in doing so before taking that step.

Natalie had a knack for nudging fellow members beyond their comfort zones and sparking different kinds of responses than their natural instincts might lead initially. I have another great example, that confidentiality commitments don't allow me to share in detail (local readers would immediately identify the organization and possibly Natalie herself). But I will say that she repeatedly pushed the board to take a step back from a decision that seemed absolutely, obviously right - with stakeholder relations in mind - and ultimately led them to an even better decision that flew in the face of what most of us would assume to be true.

Another example comes from Thomas (pseudonym), who was concerned about how the agency used volunteer time. He posed it in a very specific way (paraphrased here, again, to preserve confidentiality): "Are we doing too much of....?" The explanation shared by staff and the board discussion that it sparked ended up being both a mission/learning moment and an opportunity to think about agency processes and volunteer engagement, rather than the isolated procedures implied in the question.

As I revisit these question examples today, one thing becomes clear: It's not necessarily the question itself that matters (though, obviously, we need board members to see and take opportunities to ask questions challenging "common sense" and stretching our comfort zones). It's the board's capacity to take those questions and translate them into expansive conversations that take them in sometimes surprising directions.

It's the presence of members who can think differently, who are willing to challenge their assumptions and the "obvious" answers, and be open to coming up with different kinds of decisions than they might originally expect - and be okay with that. It's the presence of a mix of different ways of thinking and pools of experience that make that kind of potentially transformative discussion possible.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Governance toolbox: Regaining my post-break, post-illness blogging mojo edition

My apology for the unanticipated break here: I picked up something treacherous on the return trip from a Labor Day family wedding in Chicago, and the recovery has been a slow one. Today's re-entry post shares a few of the intriguing resources that accumulated as I continued my quest to rejoin the living.

7 signs your culture is sick -- Heh. That feels like a particularly appropriate opener, given my past week-plus. As I read Dan Rockwell's "sick" list, I could either recall an actual nonprofit board scenario that matched or envision tricky situations that could exist in that setting. Be sure to pay attention to his seven signs of a healthy culture. Culture is one of those things that remain largely invisible until it breaks down. The reminder of the types of actions and environmental factors that contribute to organizational health is a good one.

"The vision thing" - And why it matters to you - "You," as in you as an individual board member and "you" as a board. Erika Andersen's Forbes post resonates this week as I prepare to lead a vision session for a local start-up organization. It also resonates because of this brilliant quote:

We may need our boards to  play a lead role in strategy development and planning. We may require our boards to tend to the fiduciary tasks and responsibilities. But make no mistake: if we've recruited well, with commitment to our vision and mission as the starting point, this is what drives our board members to serve. This is what keeps them motivated to provide the leadership we need from them. If we allow them to lose sight of the vision to which we all aspire, we lose them. Period.

Nonprofit employment trends --  What's really going on in the nonprofit sector? I don't know how often your board thinks about the sector beyond your own doors. But understanding the larger environment - locally if not nationally - is one way to keep governing bodies attuned to the forces that impact both your work today and your potential success in advancing that vision that Erika addresses above. This quick-read piece by the National Council of Nonprofits (an excellent resource for educating ourselves about the sector as a whole, by the way) gives us a taste of some of the employment-related issues to which boards and senior staff leaders should be aware. It's also an example of the kinds of easy-access resources available to boards to help them do a better job of educating themselves about the nonprofits that they lead.

Avoid these 9 leadership traps -- I'll close with this one, as a reminder that leadership requires a bit of bravery that we sometimes lose in the nonprofit boardroom. As I re-read this list just now, it sparked thinking about how we sometimes hunker down and accept whatever offers the least risk. Good, responsible stewardship of organizational resources is one thing (and a critical bottom line for boards). But it shouldn't be used as an excuse to settle for "good enough."