Monday, September 1, 2014

The work of nonprofit boards: What's possible when they are empowered to govern

The road back to the writing life after long-overdue surgery earlier this summer has been a surprisingly challenging one. This morning, I woke up with a bit of inspiration from the American holiday. Here's a little ditty in support of the important work that our nonprofit boards are called upon to do. I'd love to hear your thoughts, additions, etc.

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

As my fellow U.S. citizens and I acknowledge the value of the American worker today, I can't help but stop for a moment to reflect on the value of the work of our nonprofit boards - the real work of nonprofit governance, when we empower and support them in that effort.

What's possible,  for us and those we serve, when boards are able to focus on the critically important work of nonprofit governance? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind for me:

  • We have ongoing access to the deep expertise and varied talents that individual members bring to the board. We learn from their wisdom, shared freely and in the spirit of expanding our impact. They do so willingly, because they are respected and engaged in ways that are personally and professionally appropriate.
  • We stretch our thinking via interaction and debate informed by the wide range of life experiences and perspectives around the boardroom table.
  • We welcome - and, indeed, solicit - questions that facilitate that expanded thinking. We know those questions lead to richer, deeper, and more informed decisions as we move toward the compelling vision of the future that drives us.
  • That vision, and our specific mission/role in making it happen, are equally rich and high in impact, because our board (which holds ultimate accountability for their definition and advancement) has grounded us in community need while also demanding that we reach beyond what feels possible in the limited moments of today.
  • We move closer toward that vision and mission, because our board holds us accountable for programs and performance that advance them. We welcome that accountability, not only to our board but to the community that they represent.
  • We engage in critical thinking - and occasionally pointed questioning - as a healthy part of that accountability process. That work begins in the boardroom, where robust and respectful debate around complex topics is the norm.
  • We enjoy ever-broadening connections to new groups of stakeholders and supporters - and credibility with those groups - thanks to the personal and professional networks that our board members make accessible to us. 
  • We extend our impact on public policy changes required to fulfill our mission, because our board members regularly make our case with legislators, city council members, Congressional delegations, and other opinion leaders.
  • We unleash on our community - and the world - a committed, passionate group of advocates devoted to us far longer than their board terms.

Now, what will we do to support our boards and help ensure that they are able to focus their gifts of time and expertise on this work?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Reflect on energy-draining board members

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a new series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.

Okay, so this one isn't technically a "nonprofit" quote. It also isn't a quote from the type of resource used as inspiration for the rest of the series. 

But I couldn't resist, because it asks us to reflect (the point of this series) on one of the chief obstacles to highest board performance: those energy-draining members that divert attention from our work and make the service experience at times deeply unpleasant.

I hope I've never been "that" member (though I know I've had my moments when I definitely added to someone's discomfort). But I've certainly served with members who simply dragged us down. I suspect you've served with your own version of "that" member. You know how deeply, terribly frustrating the experience can be - and how detrimental it is to fulfilling the board's governance responsibilities.

The source of that tweet is important here, and to my larger point in sharing it. Dan Rockwell's Leadership Freak blog is a constant source of information and inspiration on its title topic. (Subscribe. You won't regret it.) The larger point: energy-draining board members and the troubles they bring are a leadership issue. They must be addressed by leadership. 

That's not easy, especially in an environment where we're contributing time and talent to do good work. But that's also why we (especially board leaders) must be willing to address the challenges to our effectiveness and productivity, even/especially when one of our own is "the challenge."

I've written several posts on nonprofit board dynamics that may be of value here. In the meantime, and in the spirit of this series, here are a couple of questions for reflection:

Do we have interpersonal issues that keep our board from functioning fully, effectively, and creatively?

What do we need to do about them?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Building board member community

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a summer series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.

Over the last two years, I've become more convinced than ever that this is a major, missing piece of the board performance puzzle. 

Not that we don't have other significant challenges - some of our own making, others not. But the fact is, too many nonprofits bring bright, committed, talented leaders into their boardrooms only to have them wallow and wither on the governance vine.

Why is that?

Gail's quote (from her marvelous book) reminds us that when boards are a team - a community - their potential to collaborate, to create, to envision expands exponentially. But how often do we take the time to create that community? To get to know each other? To find and build upon our common visions of what is possible? To do more than get together long enough to check off the items on our overcrowded agendas?

I fold broader issues of board dynamics into the concept of community. Governance is not one, non-stop Kumbaya moment (as much as that might make the process easier). True communities deal with the highs and lows of working closely together, of debating sometimes thorny issues, of bouncing around wide-ranging (and sometimes contradictory) visions of the future, of challenging each other to be the best we can be so that we can collectively reach our dreams. They not only survive, they often thrive - and succeed.

Questions for reflection with your board:

Is our board a community? How do we know?

If the answer is no, what is missing? What would make the difference?

What can a successful board community accomplish for our nonprofit? For our community?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Reflective nonprofit board practice: Stop, think, and create something wonderful



"Stop, think, and don't do something stupid!"

This Robert Bea quote opens Daniel Forrester's book, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization

Bea, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkely, was addressing his students and drawing from a long career working with industry - especially industry in the midst of environmental crises. But he could very well have been speaking to our local nonprofit boards when he uttered those seven fateful words.

In many respects, Bea's call to his students also describes the ultimate bottom line for nonprofit governance: be thoughtful and don't screw up anything when you're gathered around the boardroom table. But he also provides the foundation for Forrester to launch what promises to be a compelling call to reflective practice in a world where action and distraction dominate.

I'm still reading Forrester's book (and impressed by what he's sharing so far). But the opening passages sparked such a strong reaction that I simply had to share and react.

Forrester lays out the challenge that most of us face: living and working in a world filled with distractions, demands on our energy and attention, and a constant flurry of activity that is far from conducive to effective action. It's an environment where, at the end of the day of "busyness," the best most of us can hope for is to get through the night with enough energy to do it all over again.

"It makes us feel wanted and useful," Forrester writes, "but at the same time we feel drained and uncontrolled."

That, my friends, is the state in which too many of our board members enter our meetings. We're tired - sometimes literally so, in meetings that begin at the end of already long days. We're distracted and mentally exhausted by demands placed on us, not only in this lead volunteer role but in our work and personal lives.

It's also a factor in the familiar refrains of being "too busy" to sit down, breathe, and ask ourselves the big questions required of us. We too often enter the work of the board already tired and stretched - and impatient when someone tries to suggest what Forrester says we need most (especially when dealing with world-changing issues and challenges).

"We are living in an age of immediacy that can't be singularly managed with instantaneous responses. For these reasons, stepping away from the problem - and structuring time to think and reflect - just may prove the most powerful differentiation to remain relevant and survive."

Forrester reminds us of what we all know to be true, even if we don't act like we do: "the best decisions, insights, ideas, and outcomes result when we take sufficient time to think and reflect." This raises a critical question for organizations:

"Will we elevate the importance...of consistently adopting think time and reflection, or will we pass it over as our work pace gallops to a new, dizzying speed?

As our boards increase their awareness and commitment to addressing fundamental questions about the future, will we heed Forrester's call to step back and commit to the thoughtfulness and reflection that the work demands? Or will we simply add "big questions" to our already mile-long checklist of tasks to cram into already overpacked meetings?

Will we realize that the complex work that can't be answered in one quick vote is where our ultimate impact can be made and felt? Will we respond by clearing those agendas of the superficial (and managerial) tasks so that we can engage in the ongoing, thoughtful deliberation and reflection that Forrester calls on us to do?

Will we commit to governing differently? Will our peer leaders facilitate that and hold us accountable for that?

"When overworked people declare that they 'just don't have time to think,' leaders have a choice: They can settle for the status quo and declare that it's the way the world works today, or they can insist that reflection is a strategic business enabler."

In the end, Forrester tells us (what we already know), we hold the key to our future.

"The choice in how we behave is ours. So are the consequences that result from such a critical decision."

I'm overwhelmed by pretty much every other sentence as I read this excellent book. I can guarantee follow-up posts as I continue reading and processing. Building boards' capacity for reflective practice may be the single most powerful - and transforming - investment that everyone in the sector should be making. It's a strong theme throughout everything I've written so far and will continue to be so in future posts.

In the meantime, I leave you this week with this wisdom from Forrester and two questions for - yes - reflection:

What can we do to identify and reduce the counterproductive "busyness" that lies in the way we have structured our board's work?

What steps can we take - now - to begin not only adding "time for reflection" to meeting agendas, but to build a culture where thoughtful, non-rushed deliberation is both valued and expected?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Removing the unexpectedness of fun on boards

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a summer series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.

Admit it. You mostly agree with it - or at least have your own board experiences where this Gail Perry quote was true.

Is having fun in the boardroom an unreasonable expectation? Is board work so inherently not fun that we've given up even trying (or know that we can - and should - try)?

In boards where this is not true, what makes the biggest difference? 

What does "fun" look like in nonprofit boardooms?

What can we do to add fun - that fuels board member passion and motivation - to board work?

(By the way, the book containing this quote is a must-read for nonprofit boards and CEOs. Gail addresses the title topic without bashing board members - actually acknowledging our legitimate needs to finding meaning and connection to the work we are called to do. Very refreshing, frankly.)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Living organizational values: An example from a favorite private sector company

Do organizational values really make a difference? Don't they just take up place on the office wall - or board handbook - gathering literal or metaphorical dust? Is it actually possible to live our organizational values?

I'm a rabid fan - and regular customer - of the Virginia-based Goulet Pen Company, so anything from the company catches my attention. This little jewel, which popped up in my Google+ feed this afternoon, was no exception.

Customer Me enjoyed seeing faces of the people who leave handwritten messages (and baby Tootsie Pops!) in my orders. Nonprofit Consultant Me gravitated toward something else: the way in which the Goulet values are not only clearly articulated but a driving force for the people who work there.

Watch the Goulet video. Take note of the organization's seven core values. Listen to the employees' vivid descriptions of how those values drive customer service, their commitment to the company and their jobs, and their commitment to their teammates. Contemplate the underlying message of what they share and what it must be like to be members of the Goulet team.

Now imagine that same kind of living, breathing translation of values in a nonprofit setting. Imagine board members describing your organization's impact in similarly vivid ways. Imagine them explaining how those values inform every decision they make. Imagine them expressing their individual commitments - to you and to their work - in similarly passionate ways.

If we turned on a video camera and asked your board members to describe the role of organizational values in their work with you, what would they say? Would they be able to make the same kinds of explicit connections to their governance responsibilities? Could they couple their individual service motivations and leadership accomplishments with these foundational principles?

What can you do - today - to make your nonprofit's values as real and relevant to your governing body as possible?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Governing with impact: Asking different strategic questions, gathering different data

Say the words "strategic planning" and many around you (especially those in nonprofit boardrooms) will respond with a labored sigh, a rolling of eyes, an occasional "Blech!" - and sometimes all of the above. There are multiple reasons why "strategic planning" has a bad reputation. But true or not, deserved or not, another fact remains:

The nonprofit board has a core strategic governance function for which it is uniquely responsible.  We can't afford to shuttle this multi-layered and mission-critical process to the periodic, formal planning processes that all too often fall short.

The primary focus of this video, featuring Hildy Gottlieb of Creating the Future, is the role of data analysis in the planning process. Understanding how, when and why to analyze data is important not only to strategic planning, but to all of the board's strategic thinking and decision making.

But Hildy also calls for a totally different approach to envisioning the future around which those plans are built. That is the focus of today's post. It's one that I suspect will ring quite familiar - and perhaps somewhat challenging to accept for some, given that the shift in thinking that Hildy challenges us to make may feel like an incredible leap from the reality that we believe we face.

In priming our thinking to understand how data analysis can be done differently, Hildy describes a common scenario for many boards and their nonprofits: initiating planning processes starting with what we don't like in our communities. From the beginning, we begin with a pretty serious limitation: what's wrong with now, rather than what's right about the future we want to create.

Hildy is right when she says, "What we're inadvertently doing is creating reactive plans, in the image of today, suggesting that the best we can possibly hope for for the future is today, minus the problems that we have."

Now, I get that. I've planned that. I've facilitated that. I also know that, if we're at our very best in that environment - and we succeed (a big 'if") - we get incremental movement from our current existence. Technically speaking, that's "progress." But it's not the kind of progress that gets us to the expansive vision of the future that we define and are accountable for achieving.

"We have to envision the future that we want to create and then ask the question, 'What do we need to know in order to take the steps to create that future,'" Hildy says. Naturally, she's talking about the data gathering and analysis. But she also places it in the context of focusing on the right end goal: a truly different, better future for our communities.

And that takes a different kind of planning process, one that starts with that better future and works back, rather than the flawed reality of today.

As my wise friend says in the video, "If we're going to create a future that is significantly different than what we have today, we cannot tether our plans to what today looks like."

That's where the scary part comes in. We look at our limited budgets, our facilities problems, our staff retention issues, and we believe that a 5 percent increase in client numbers and a 10 percent boost in donations is a pretty grand step forward. Maybe. But it's not enough to change the world or our communities.

What does that mean for your nonprofit?
For your board?
For the goals you set to reach your vision?
For the data you gather to understand the path to those goals?

As you begin to ponder those questions, I encourage you to explore the Creating the Future website and the rich resources available to help you with that process.