Sunday, November 16, 2014

The state of our nonprofit boards: A few observations from the field

What exactly is the state of our nonprofit boards? What are the challenges, as seen in my field work and research? Where is my time best spent in the future as a board consultant and educator?

I've been reflecting on that more than usual lately, as I continue to work on a book, explore other board development-focused projects, and consider future directions for this blog.  As I do that, and as I also continue to reflect on my many interactions with boards, I keep coming back to a few common themes that drive (and occasionally trouble) me. Acknowledging that my experiences - and those of the boards with whom I've interacted - ultimately represent only a small snapshot of what occurs in the larger nonprofit community, I offer up a few of those themes in the spirit of knowing that they will ring familiar with many here.

Theme 1: Boards don't have a clue what they've really signed on to do.

For that, I blame the sector as a whole. We've done a terrible job of jointly creating and advancing a holistic understanding of nonprofit governance. As a result, boards really don't have a firm grasp of what they take on when they say yes to a term. Some sources have made reasonable attempts to create a bottom line, though we've completely failed to share even that work broadly. (I used to watch the color drain from board members' faces when I introduced the BoardSource 10 basic responsibilities as a starting point.) We treat the most basic attempts to shed some light on what it means to be a board member as trade secrets to be hidden at all costs.  Then we gripe when they fall short of those unstated expectations. That is unfair and unrealistic.

We've completely and utterly failed to communicate the bigger picture, the one that truly immerses boards in work that connects them and commits them to advancing the world-changing missions and visions that they are called to define and protect. One potential "bigger picture" already exists in Chait, Ryan and Taylor's revolutionary Governance as Leadership framework. But the lack of discussion, or even access to information about that model, is distressing. Frankly, I can't even keep a reliable set of bookmarked resources alive to share so we can have a discussion.  (Go ahead. Click on a few of those links. I'm betting some already have vanished, even though I review them regularly.) Sure, they can buy the book. But few board members and leaders know it exists. Even fewer have the time and money to purchase and read it. The point is, we need to do a better job of making information and ideas like this broadly accessible to those who need and want it.

Practically speaking, I'm seeing the need for a sector-level commitment to board performance support, more than training. That is the direction my own work will be taking.

Theme 2: What they know over-emphasizes the fiduciary/oversight role.

No, I'm not discounting those important responsibilities. Yes, oversight is an important board function. But it's not the only function of nonprofit governance and it's the one that is most likely to cause members to mentally check out or run for their lives when things get tough. Even when that's all boards focus on, many do a terrible job of it because they're not appropriately educated/prepared and they don't ask the types of inquiry questions that help them uncover the larger issues and opportunities. They just stare at financial statements that may tell only a portion of the true fiduciary story.

Theme 3: They want to be stretched, but the prospect scares them.

I regularly have conversations with boards about what governance really should be like, about the questions they should be asking, about the new ways of structuring their work to accommodate this change/expanded role. Most react positively, even enthusiastically, but they frequently balk. They want to say "YES!" But they stop short of doing so.

Many fear giving up the familiar, or at least traditional ways of dealing with the familiar. It may be work they hate, but they at least know what is expected. This is uncharted territory for many board members. They want clear, specific, definable steps for how to do what I am asking. When I can't always give exactly that, or when what I suggest sounds challenging or new (translation: potential to fail), the response too often is, "Well, then..." And they go no further.

My first reaction to this is to recognize my own responsibility to continue to develop ways to make the work of governance actionable. All of the work, especially the expansive inquiry, creativity and assessment capacities required of generative and strategic governance. As an adult educator, I know that that's a legitimate and very real need of board members. It is my job as a board consultant and coach.

However, I also recognize the need to keep pushing them to try something - anything - that initiates the process of transforming the way they work and govern. One of our biggest mistakes, in my mind, has been trying to reduce nonprofit governance to a series of easy steps that won't scare away prospective members. The important work that we ask them to do seldom is easy, and it's almost never reduced to a few quick steps that they can wrap up in one two-hour meeting. Yet we continue to conceptualize and structure the work as if that were the case.

We need to stretch them, support them in that stretch, and display confidence in their capacity to succeed when they do. They are smart people, after all. They are community leaders, chosen for all that that leadership entails. We need to finally act as if that were the case. Because it is.

Theme 4: The board and ED co-lead with complementary but not identical interests.

Nonprofit governance carries enormous leadership responsibility and potential for impact, but too many boards act as if that were news to them. Instead, many passively accept work tasks that, if not directly defined by the CEO, are heavily influenced by that person's agenda. Too many boards either don't understand, or don't choose to accept, the fact that both parties have legitimate, complementary responsibilities that together provide the leadership needed for the organization to move beyond mere survival.

See Theme 1 for a big part of the context for this one. Boards - and often CEOs - generally don't know better.  Sometimes, sadly, it's also often by design. I've worked with many EDs whose sole purpose in calling me in seems to be to act as the big meanie who'll straighten out their boards as if they were naughty children. That pretty much never works, mostly because that's not the real problem behind their boards' performance breakdowns.

We need to do a better job of not only creating and reinforcing bottom-line expectations but creating and supporting board self-empowerment. That starts with empowered and supported board leadership. It continues with empowered boards who work with their executives but who accept their own set of responsibilities that work in tandem with that person.

Theme 5: When boards are bored, fatigue hits more quickly and performance suffers.

Let me be frank. I see many willing hearts, hands and souls in the field. But mostly, I see a lot of bored board members who feel helpless to change their situation. That is not a place of empowered leadership. It's not reality. But it is their reality unless we do something to change that. Maintaining "the way we've always done it" will not do that. Treating generative discussions and fun breaks from the routine as something we do once a year, at the annual retreat (where they give up a precious Saturday to participate), will not do that. We need to commit to finding new ways to engage, educate, and stimulate our board members. We do not do that by adding on to an already long evening meeting. We need to commit to tossing out the dysfunctional practices and embedding those ways into the work that our boards do - acknowledging along with them that it may feel uncomfortable at first, but affirming that doing so will not only make them more productive but more personally fulfilled.

Inspired board members, who regularly do work that sparks their imaginations and draws on their greatest personal potential, are board members who will succeed collectively. The winners will be our organizations and our communities. Why in the world do we not act as if we don't know or want that?

Writing this particular post has been more of a "thinking aloud" experience for me as a reflective practitioner than an informative piece for readers. I chose the graphic to accompany this post as a personal reminder that I need to continue to translate this knowledge into actions and products that support the transformative work I'm addressing here and elsewhere.

It also is renewing my personal commitment to continue to build my voice, not only as an educator of boards but an advocate of boards. The more I continue along this journey, the more convinced I am that the latter may end up being my most important professional role.

What I hope it will offer readers is a chance to confirm or contrast your experiences with what I'm sharing here. More important, I hope it will inspire you to engage in a conversation about the similarities and differences - and that we might think together about what we can do to strengthen and support our nonprofit boards.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Dealing with nonprofit board dysfunction

How do we help our boards avoid the dysfunction that too often comes between them and the work that they gather to do? How do we handle that dysfunction as effectively - and quickly - as possible when it does enter the boardroom space?

This week, I share another video, produced by the Stanford Graduate Graduate School of Business, that addresses that topic in a succinct and helpful way.  I also offer a few reactions to what they provide here.

The first, and most important, point that they make comes at the opening: addressing boardroom issues is a peer-driven event. Ultimately, it belongs to the board members themselves to create - and reinforce - a healthy culture. That includes tackling problematic interactions, attitudes and performances themselves.  It's not fun. But it's critical to overall board performance.

The recommendation to document the dysfunctional behavior is important to making a credible case for change. That not only provides evidence to which the individual and group can respond (also note the call to consider group-level intervention), it also reduces the risk of it being perceived as a personal attack. It also offers a foundation for coming up with healthy and appropriate strategies to deal with the problem.

The caution to avoid unnecessary burning of bridges is an important one. First, as noted here, it's unlikely that whatever problem lies solely within one individual's actions. There may be one or more organizational/group factors that also contributed to the breakdown - including whether/how the board chairperson handled any challenge before the situation reached a point of no return.

Second, whether or not continuing on the board is a good option for the individual member or the group, that person undoubtedly still carries a commitment to the mission and the potential to continue to serve as a viable and valued ambassador for your mission. How you handle the problematic situation, and potential separation of service, can mean the difference between a continued loyal ally and an indifferent former member (or worse, an enemy).

I'm spotlighting this video as an encouragement to use it as a discussion starter for your board. What are your challenges to a functional and healthy boardroom culture? How do you handle them as a group? Do you accept collective accountability for tending to group health, or do you ignore it (or almost as bad, expect the CEO to handle the messy stuff for you?). What can you do to increase a collective sense of commitment to not only governance outcomes but to the environment in which those outcomes are created?

What can you do - as a group - to commit to making your board work not only more productive but more fun and fulfilling for members in the midst of it?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Overhead or impact: What do we want our nonprofit governance legacy to be?

I don't have much to say about this tweet that it doesn't say for itself. I'm sharing because it captures the theme of pretty much everything I write here: we do this important volunteer leadership work for the chance to make an impact. We want and deserve the opportunity to do so.

Not only is ensuring and increasing impact an essential responsibility of nonprofit governance, it's also a core motivator for most of us as community servants. That's the ultimate point of this quote (original source Dan Pallotta?).

As I've stated many, many times before here, we can't ignore the oversight responsibilities that come with governance. Obviously. But they shouldn't be our sole focus - and too many board meeting agendas are structured as if that were the case.

I'll leave this quote with you to ponder and to share with your own boards. What does it bring up for you? What changes might it prompt you to consider? How can you connect your board and individual members more closely to evidence that their contributions matter?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The power of intention in nonprofit governance: Building reflective leadership

"Get the big ideas right."

"Seek to strengthen organizational culture."

"Engage in dialogue (like never before)."

Transforming nonprofit governance is that simple. And that hard.

Daniel Forrester offered those three points during his BoardSource Leadership Forum keynote, "Boards, Leadership and the Power of Intention," earlier this month. In this talk, Forrester calls on boards to make reflection a highest leadership priority and practice. But in a distracted larger culture that places a premium on "busy-ness" - and a sector that demands "action" from its volunteer leaders, whether or not that "action" accomplishes anything resembling leadership - making the case for reflection and intentional practice can be a surprisingly tough sell.

I encourage you to watch, learn from, and reflect upon Daniel's entire keynote. In the meantime, I'll share my reaction to the three points above (beginning around 15:43 in the video) that Forrester call "a boardroom imperative."

"Get the big ideas right."

Governance is about big ideas: ideas about defining the future, ideas about meeting community needs in strategically smart ways,  ideas about stakeholder accountability and stewardship. It requires expansive, open conversations. It requires time to think, to incubate, to let the best possible "big ideas" emerge.

"When you're in the state of reflection," Forrester says in his keynote, "that's the moment when the real juice starts."

That's the moment where board members, individually and collectively, exercise their ultimate leadership potential. But how often do they spend their time exploring big ideas? If you asked them to articulate their big ideas for your organization, could they articulate any? Would there be any consensus in their attempts?

Do your meetings and other venues for board work even allow spaces for little ideas? Or are they crammed with "action items" that allow little interaction, let alone reflection? Do they create environments where your boards - and board members - become diminished with participation?

"The state of thinking is under attack," Forrester says. "Thinking and getting to decisive thought is what we are called to do. Boards and individuals can't become greater than the sum of their parts unless we reset the contract with ourselves."

"Getting the big ideas right" requires a radically different way of meeting and interacting. It requires deep, extended conversations in which organizational leaders communicate mission and vision and actually create opportunities for synergistic thinking.

"Seek to strengthen organizational culture."

We can't afford to ignore organizational culture, Forrester says. We also cannot separate strategy and culture and expect to succeed. Without a high-performing team ready to receive and act, we will fail in our efforts to change the world. You know. Our reason for being as nonprofits.

Daniel hones in on organizational values in unpacking this point. We must do more than plunk out a list of values, he says. We must enact them. We need to define them collectively and identify collectively the behaviors that represent those values in action. People inside and outside of the organization need to be able to see and experience our values in action.

"Culture matters deeply," Forester says, adding that ultimately it comes down to local leadership, starting with the board.

"Engage in dialogue (like never before)."

He had me at this quote: "Great dialogue...requires moments of pause."

Periods of collective reflection, time to take a breath and consider before leaping into decisions. "People need time to think," he says. "They need time to process." Do we build the pauses into our board routines and agendas? Experience tells me that most of us do not. 

Responsibility for creating that space lies in the hands of board leaders, he says. I agree. There is nothing sacred about common notions of board meeting agendas, even though we often act as if that were the case.

Board leaders have the power to structure governance work in very different ways.They have the power to clear the junk from meeting agendas. They have the power to focus board attention on big ideas and open, expansive dialogue. They have the power to engage member brains and imaginations in ways that lead to "1+1=3." They have the power to create moments of reflection that foster meaning-making and more nuanced, thoughtful decisions.

As Forrester says, they have the power to "change the entire trajectory" of their organizations and the boards that govern them. But will they? What do we need to do to spark that transformation?

The other lessons within this brief talk are myriad. I invite you to watch. Then watch again. Then share and discuss with your boards the steps you could take today to govern more intentionally and reflectively.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Effective nonprofit board meetings: Questions, engagement, energized exits


I said that a lot while watching this brief video from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The themes of what is shared will ring familiar to regular readers of this blog. But the chance to share these expert voices advocating for the kinds of meaningful member engagement - and discussion-focused agendas - in board meetings feels like a great idea this week.

A few of the highlights to point out as you watch:

  • Bruce Lesley's call for "thoughtful" agendas and treatment of board meetings as events - where  there is clarity about what is to be accomplished, where the board chair acts as facilitator and draws out participation by every member. Oh, and most noteworthy (because of its clear departure from where our usual attention is focused): awareness of "how you want people to feel during and after the meeting." I love that he's raising member experience as a concern to which we should be tending. Fulfilled, stimulate members are productive leaders.
  • Ben Klasky's description of  how his board uses consent agendas to free up time for substantive discussions, often conducted in small groups to encourage full participation. Doing so, he says, allows focus on asking for and receiving board advice on pressing questions and concerns - a far better use of members' time and expertise than asking them to listening to endless "talking heads" reports. (Note his lack of anxiety, as a CEO, over not having his time to share an oral version of his report to his board. EDs, the world won't end if we receive your updates in writing.)
  • Ruth Jones' observation about how flipping her board's agenda ensures that prime thinking time is spent on forward-thinking discussions on topics that matter, moving fiduciary/oversight functions until the end.
  • Jones talking about how attention to building relationships and trust is time well spent for her board. And absolutely priceless to me as a board member: her description of how they use that investment in relationships to create meeting experiences where "people leave the meeting feeling...more stimulate and energized than when they arrived." As she so wisely observes: "A board meeting where people leave feeling drained and tired is a board meeting that has failed in its purpose."
A. Men.

If you were to pick one piece of advice from what is shared in this video to implement in your board, what would it be and why?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Messing around in the nonprofit boardroom: How we REALLY learn how toact, work

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

How do nonprofit board members mess around, and how does that impact what happens when they gather to govern?

I couldn't help asking myself that question last week, while reading a new book on a totally unrelated topic. (Regular readers know how I love creative and occasionally insane stretches.) The author, Reynol Junco, was making a slightly smaller stretch of his own, drawing from research on "messing around" as a developmental process in which young people learn how to interact and work with their peers.

How do they (how did we) "communicate with their peer group, discuss difficult issues, share successes without seeming to brag," etc.? It's a process that happens over time, largely by "messing around." (p. 133)

Junco's stretch is to apply that process to young people's technology use: using social tools to learn how to become part of a larger community, often via trial and error. That leads to insights about "what is culturally appropriate and acceptable and what isn't, within the context of their peer group." They "test the waters" via their interaction.

I read and reflected on both notions within the intended context, wearing my "connected educator" hat. But thoughts about the potential application to what happens in our boardroom interactions and, specifically, how members learn "how things work here" planted themselves in my brain.

How do things work? We may have our policies and our values about boardroom roles and structures. But as they do in any room of two or more people, board members largely learn how things really work by observing and participating.  They learn via trial and error. They learn by stepping on toes and pointing out the uncomfortably obvious.

They learn by messing around.

The question I'm asking myself - and you - today is this: What does "messing around" look and sound like in our boardrooms? What are the types of actions, reactions and markers that members experience and absorb, whether or not they fit the official rules and espoused norms of the group?

The answers to these questions could be endless. But here are some of the examples that come to mind for me today.

Do members show up on time, and does it matter? Are there consequences for not arriving on time, prepared to work, or is it allowed to continue to happen? Something as simple as this not only sets expectations for timely arrival, but a tone that reinforces respect, or lack thereof, for the work undertaken when they arrive.

What do board conversations look like? Are they open and respectful, even when members disagree? Is there a lot of talk overlap, and does the overlap hurt or encourage creative discussions?

Are people allowed to sit quietly in meetings? That one may surprise, since I'm always pushing for full member engagement in discussions. But as one of those quieter members, I'm sensitive to how people like me are drawn to participate. Is their quiet treated as a functional way of respecting their thought processes? Or is it used as an excuse to avoid a contribution that may be contradictory or creating challenges to consensus?

How do we deal with disruption? What happens when that disruption is ultimately a different way of seeing and thinking? What happens when it is interpersonal in nature and interrupts the work we are doing? Is there a difference in how we treat the two scenarios? Do we deal with them at all?

What are the real consequences of not following through on commitments? How do we hold each other accountable for what living up to expectations set and promises made?

How are new members brought into board work? Are they drawn in immediately, in respectful and inviting ways? What happens when they do - for the new members themselves? For the rest of the board?

What happens when someone makes an "inappropriate" statement or asks an "inappropriate" question? What effect does it have on the discussion and tone? What defines "inappropriate" for our board? How do we know? Does the answer differ for different members?

What kinds of activities and actions help us feel like we're in this together? Are they all "business" and on task, or do they allow for informal connections?

What types of markers do we recognize to demonstrate - to us - that we're making a difference? How do we define and articulate that to each other? Do we stop long enough to acknowledge that all of the work we're doing matters? Can we see how it matters, even when it's not easy to see?

How do we have fun as a group? How is that fun treated? As a distraction? As something to save for the next retreat? As a normal mode of working and an integral part of effective leadership team culture?

This list is hardly definitive of how boards "mess around." A few may be off the mark, even with the stretch I'm making and asking you to make. But I hope it sparks some awareness of the kinds of actions and interactions that foster, challenge, or inhibit completely the kinds of group dynamics that shape what really happens when we gather to govern.

For more insights into health board dynamics and the challenges to effective board interactions, visit the "Board Dynamics" resources shared on this site.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Board Leadership Forum: Favorite insights, highlights from day two

Day one of the BoardSource Board Leadership Forum offered so many insights that I couldn't help following the backchannel for day two yesterday.

No surprise: there were as many noteworthy ideas and takeaways shared as there were on Thursday. I'd like to share a few of the tweeted highlights from Friday morning, along with the reactions they sparked for me.

It's about the purpose. Really.


This one thrilled for two reasons. One: it quotes Richard Chait, co-author of the book that changed everything for me (and the model that promises to transform nonprofit boards, Governance as Leadership). Two, it states so starkly and so beautifully the bottom line for boards. That's single-minded focus on defining and advancing purpose - advancing the mission of the organization and the vision of a better future for all that it feeds.

"As the head turns, so the body turns." Wow. So beautiful. Max's summary statement leading up to it frames it perfectly. Boards aren't helpless minions of executive directors. They are leaders responsible for setting their tone and creating their climate for doing the important work of governance. The essence of that work is dialogue. The content of that work is the larger purpose that draws them together and the responsibility for moving it forward in substantive and meaningful ways.

I was simultaneously glad and discouraged that "dialogue" was a focus: glad because we should be exploring ways to make that process as wide-open, rich, and productive as possible; discouraged because the tone of what was being shared was more a case for dialogue. I've said it too many times to count, here and elsewhere, but the situation begs for one more:

Big discussions about big questions aren't "frills." They aren't "topics to save for our next retreat." The are governance.

BoardSource and its partners launched Stand for Your Mission this week. I encourage you to visit the initiative's site and download the discussion guide (and expect a follow up here in the near future). What I see there is so exciting, so empowering for boards. For the moment, let Tim Delaney's quote here sink in. Think about what it represents for the leadership potential of your board. Imagine what is possible when that full potential is enacted.

It's the process. Really.

Gail! Though I've never met her, Gail Perry is both a kindred spirit and a wise guide who is forever expanding my thinking about how we engage our boards. She is the queen of her specific expertise area: nonprofit fundraising. But she also has deep understanding of the larger motivation needs of board members. Boring meetings=bored boards. Amen, my friend. Amen. Now what are we going to do about that?

Speaking of fundraising... Does anyone see a problem with this? Nothing bothers me as a board member more than having the "fundraising failure" specter held over my head when nothing is done to ensure that I won't fulfill that negative prophecy. I've served on local, state and national boards for 31 years. As I re-read this tweet, I'm hard pressed to think of a single board that offered my peers and me meaningful training or support to rise to the expectations held for us. Is it any wonder that we "fail?"

The very first recommendation I have to change that is to turn to my friend, Gail. Her blog and her fantastic book, Fired-Up Fundraising, address far more than the mechanics of raising dollars. They offer frank and encouraging discussions about what board members need to feel confident, prepared, and motivated to make connections far beyond asking for money. 

Flip the agenda! Yes, flip the agenda! If board members balk at making the changes our agendas really require, flipping the agenda - placing the substantial topics and conversations at the beginning of the meeting and saving the reports until the end - is the best possible alternative. 

The fiduciary mode of governance (one of three Governance as Leadership modes) is far more multi-layered than many boards practice it. The oversight element is most familiar: do the numbers match up? Is our income enough to cover needs? What can we cut when it doesn't? Those kinds of questions matter. But so do the inquiry questions, which ask about priorities: does our spending match our mission? Are we devoting resources - financial and otherwise - to our priorities? Are we good stewards of those resources? Are we making a difference in deploying them?

We humans are meaning-making beings. We board members offer greater value when we create meaning as we work. Boards need to ask "why"in addition to "what" and "how." That needs to be an integral part of every conversation we have.

One more from Gail, because the topic is so close to my heart (and my professional reason for being). Learning doesn't end with orientation. Learning keeps us growing. Learning builds our effectiveness. Learning expands our impact. Learning keeps us motivated. Boards are learning, whether or not we recognize it. (See the "Board Learning" page here for some specifics shared so far. Stay tuned for my evolving Board Learning Environment model.)

I'll end this on a happy note: happy because (a) it's a nod to Governance as Leadership (fiduciary, strategic and generative modes) and (b) it calls on our nominating processes to think more broadly - and more specifically for a GAL boardroom - to the capacities that contribute to the diverse range of perspectives, talents and mindsets needed to govern.