Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The board chair experience: Collected preparation series posts

improving nonprofit board chair performance
(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

This post captures all components of my recently-completed series on nonprofit board chair preparation data from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management national survey.

As noted in the disclaimers at the end of each post, the analysis and commentary are mine and do not necessarily represent the interpretations of my fellow survey team members or the Alliance. These posts also can be found on my "Chairing Nonprofit Boards" Pinterest resource.

Just released: Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey
How helpful were common information sources?
Helpful people
Helpful resources - the rest of the story
"I wish I'd had..."
Most helpful related leadership roles, functions
How did you get to this governance leadership role?
Applying the 70:20:10 framework to preparation data
Lingering questions, research regarding preparation

Monday, October 17, 2016

The board chair experience: Lingering questions, research regarding preparation

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What did we really learn about the way nonprofit board chairs prepare for their significant leadership responsibilities? What are the big, yet-to-be-answered questions that need to be researched next? How might this data inform board leadership practice? By whom?

As I wrap up this series on board chair preparation data from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management survey, I find that I have a longer list of questions than answers. That's not surprising. Surveys capture some types of information well but not every aspect of the topic at hand. Even the most comprehensive, realistic survey could tell us only so much about the nonprofit board chair experience generally and the preparation undertaken specifically. 

I'm feeling the need for a bit of personal closure on this process. As I reflect on the big takeaways - and the big questions that remain (possibly for my own research agenda) - I hope that you also will share whatever feedback or questions that the series raised for you.

My major ahas and takeaways about board chair preparation

Overall, writing the series and revisiting the data both affirmed many of my working assumptions and expanded my understanding of what is - or is not - happening in the field. Some clear themes emerged, none of them terribly surprising. Among those themes:

Board chairs mostly learn from experience. That experience comes from their own previous board service, from experiencing predecessors leadership styles, and from applying workplace experience and expertise to the board setting.

From an adult learning perspective, that can be encouraging. Survey respondents recognized the capacity building potential of their experiences in learning/preparing for this new role, even when the questions did not specifically address them. Practically speaking, that bodes well for any effort to apply adult learning principles (e.g., the  70:20:10 framework) to expand thinking about board development. As we do in other settings, adults learn in many ways. Whether or not these board chairs connect those dots naturally, it should not be a revelation as we facilitate new kinds of development experiences for chairs and their fellow board members.

If you read other parts of this series, you know the big "HOWEVER..." that bears repeating here: not all experience is equally applicable or valuable.  To the extent that board leaders lack that awareness, and assume that what works in one setting will fit naturally in this one, they not only miss opportunities to explore more effective work modes but risk replicating the next generation of marginally effective to downright dysfunctional governance.

Most of their learning sources are internal. For the most part, their human sources of information and role models are internal: their predecessors, their CEOs, their friends, etc. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it relies on the assumption that those sources have a deep, holistic understanding of nonprofit governance and what boards do.

That is a risky, limiting assumption. I've served on enough boards, provided enough training sesions and facilitated enough retreats and planning events to affirm that many are functioning on incomplete to fairly inaccurate definitions of what it means to govern a nonprofit. That's not a criticism of those specific boards. It simply affirms that we do a terrible job of making accessible resources that inform the work of our boards and an even worse job of facilitating broad discussions and opportunities to share between boards and across organizations. Boards and board leaders do the best they can with what they have available, but what they have frequently falls short of what they need to govern to their fullest potential.

Our boards and their leaders may go on indefinitely without encountering different perspectives and accessing tools to enhance their performance. They may never feel the need to seek out those resources because they don't know any better. In most cases, it's not that our boards are actively doing damage to their organizations or their communities. They simply aren't reaching their full leadership potential and not tending to the larger challenges of mission and vision that are the primary domains of governance. To the extent that their board chairs also operate on the assumption that what their predecessors did will be fine for them, they limit their own leadership.

As a fellow member of BoardSource's Nonprofit Governance LinkedIn group pointed out in response to one of the posts in this series, many board leaders (and, I would add, most boards) don't know what they don't know.

Preparation is not seen as a necessary step for many board chairs. Ruth's observation in that LinkedIn discussion hit on the head another takeaway that has been troubling me for as long as I've been reviewing our raw data. That about half (51 percent) of board chairs responding our survey reported taking no specific action to prepare for their responsibilities, and that the "not applicable" column percentages were so high when asked about information sources accessed, affirm her point. Again, this is not an indictment of the individual respondents so much as it is about the sector's failure to tend to the care, support and development of our boards and the community leaders who serve on them.

What Ruth described in our discussion is called "unconscious incompetence" in a popular "stages" model of how we learn. We function under a pretty major blind spot. If we don't know that we don't know, we don't feel the need to seek out additional information, perspectives, role models for our board leadership. I found it simultaneously fascinating and heartening that some hint of the next phase in that model - conscious incompetence (we KNOW what we don't know) - in the open-ended "wish I'd had..." question. Unfortunately for many, those revelations came too late in their current leadership term to be of value.

My lingering (research) questions about board chair preparation

This particular research experience is now over; but the opportunity exists to engage in next-step exploration of some of the questions that still weigh on my mind as a scholar, adult educator, and consultant/trainer.

Here are some of the resource/support access questions most weighing on my mind today:

  • What prompts someone to seek information or other support when preparing for this leadership role?
  • Where do they naturally turn when they have a learning need related to nonprofit board leadership?
  • What paths do they take to find those resources? 
  • What organizations, sites, etc., do they find most credible and accessible when searching for either information or support? How do they connect those resource dots?
  • What barriers do they face when they do search for information or support? Why are they experienced as barriers?

Here are some of the questions about the path(s) to the board chair role that intrigue me:

  • Are there actual, well-defined paths to this role? If so, how is preparation included in that process?
  • Knowing some of the common roles served prior to the board chair (e.g., committee chair), whether deliberate or not, how can we enrich those as leadership experiences so that they not only build capacity for those specific responsibilities but also inform the individual's work as board chair if that is a next step? 
  • What other kinds of leadership experiences can we foster in a board setting, formal or not, to fuel individuals' capacity to succeed in the ultimate board role?
  • How do we, as a sector and capacity builders, increase the quality and quantity of board chair resources and increase the accessibility and visibility of their existence?
  • How do we help new board chairs find the resources that they say they want and that already exist?

From those and similar questions taking shape in my mind are these next-step research questions:

  • What prompts a new board chair to seek information or support for the role? To what sources do they most frequently go in that search? Why? 
  • What sparks the perceived need to search for help or guidance? 
  • What qualifies as valuable, helpful resource(s) in that search?
  • How do they learn and support their performance in other areas of their lives (e.g., what tools, information sources, human resources do they use for other learning needs)? How closely do those sources of support fit those they turn to for support in this role? 
  • Do they perceive preparation for the board chair role to be worth the investment (time and money)? If not, what factors would make such a commitment worthwhile to them?

  • How do new board chairs apply previous experiences from other settings to this role? How do they define application potential to the nonprofit board setting? What do they do when they find the fit to that new setting isn't perfect - or even problematic?
  • How do their board role models and resources inform their thinking and practice as chair? Do they mostly rely on those individuals as positive sources? How do they respond to examples that are less than positive?

Clearly, these three rough research themes represent a lifetime of work if I were to let them become that.  Clearly, some of these questions cannot be adequately addressed using quantitative methods. I/we need to sit down with board chairs and talk about their support needs, their experiences, and their role models' influence. Clearly, as I - anyone else - move forward to address these general topics, the questions themselves will face refinement. But they beg to be asked, and asking is essential if we really want to ensure that our board leaders are prepared for successful service. It is worth the investment of time and energy.

This concludes the series spotlighting board chair preparation data. I have at least two or three topics from the second half of our survey that I would like to discuss in coming weeks. In the meantime, I will publish a post this week containing links to the various components of the preparation series to make accessing them easier for readers, students, and others interested in exploring the topic in greater depth. They also are available on my board chairs Pinterest board.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The board chair experience: Applying the 70:20:10 framework to preparation data

Can we find evidence of the 70:20:10 adult learning framework in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey preparation data? As I begin to wrap up this series highlighting that portion of our research, I can't help but notice some pretty clear connections between participants' responses and that model of describing how adults learn.

I'll acknowledge up front that this is a big stretch, one out of the bounds of my role as a member of the survey research team. But the adult educator in me can't help exploring how the findings - including comments - end up aligning with this framework. I began noticing the intersections as I revisited the data during the series. As I started capturing some of those observations, the connections were clear. I won't overstate or pretend that this was something we sought as we designed the survey. It just is. And, for me, what it "is" is somewhat interesting.

A quick recap of the 70:20:10 framework:

  • 70 percent of learning comes via experience - doing, engaging in stretch assignments, making and learning from mistakes, etc.
  • 20 percent comes from working with and under others - collaborative assignments, mentoring relationships, engaging in personal learning networks, etc.
  • 10 percent happens in formal learning experiences - primarily training.

The model also is expressed this way: experience, exposure, education.

Following are some of the noteworthy elements that I identified while writing the series. These are my observations and mine alone. They are merely observations.


Experiential learning (Experience)

One thing should have been clear from my series: evidence of "experience" - reported where we asked about it and even where we didn't - was everywhere. In some cases, we asked directly. But even when we didn't, many respondents volunteered experiences to describe what they found helpful in the context of the question posed. Experience was a common theme in "other" comments for questions about helpful information sources and helpful people - a strong theme, in both cases, even when experience wasn't necessarily the point.

The dominance of experience references was fascinating. One of the reasons for that fascination is precisely what I cannot tell from that dominance. Why was that experience shared germane to their work or preparation as board chair? How did that experience inform their thinking and practice in that role? Was this a quality experience, especially as it relates to nonprofit board service?

Looking back at the "experience" data now, I can say that I'm not surprised that it was so common - especially as I bring 70:20:10 into the picture. In the larger context, though, particularly when offered as "other" resources in lieu of things like reading books or exploring Internet resources about boards and board leadership or participating in webinars or conferences designed to prepare them for the role, researcher me finds it, well, interesting.

Practitioner me finds it a bit troubling, to be honest.  Not all experience is created equal, and not all experience fits perfectly to the unique setting of nonprofit governance. And experience replicated over and over again within a board, or between boards, without pausing to reflect on why we do it that way or introducing different perspectives on how to govern, simply reproduces more of the same - whether or not it's functional or effective. When experience is the only pool in which we dip our toes, we miss significant opportunities to learn and grow as leaders. That is what I am seeing in the data.

Social learning (Exposure)

How this unfolded in survey data surprised me the most. It blew me away, frankly. Yes, there were the expected places where social preparation support emerged, both in the design of the question and the responses offered within it. That was especially true of our "most helpful people" question, where identifying social learning sources was the point of the query.

The epicenter of my "ahas" regarding social learning interests and needs, though, was the open-ended, "in hindsight, I wish I'd had..." question. As I prepared for my post analyzing that question, I must admit that I was shocked by the fact that two of the four dominant themes that emerged were social learning-related. In hindsight, many respondents wanted access to two common social learning resources: mentors and peer networks.  The "wow" moment for me remains that they offered those needs independently, in a setting that offered no suggestion or prompt, and that the threads leading to the themes were pretty strong.

When offered the opportunity to share what they really wanted and needed to enhance their board chair experience after the fact, many described social learning resources.

Formal learning (Education)

I'm not sure what I expected to find here, to be honest. We included formal learning options in the "helpful information resources" question, but responses show that chairs simply did not access them in their preparation for the role.  Now, especially when viewed within the 70:20:10 lens, that makes sense. Formal learning experiences account for a comparatively small source of how adults actually learn. However, in an environment where training frequently is the default learning mode or the perceived solution to all of our board problems, I maybe expected to see more evidence that they turned to formal learning sources to prepare for this new leadership responsibility (at least among those who said they prepared).

But formal learning experiences popped up in comments in two surprising places. One was in the "hindsight" question, where desires for different kinds of training experiences formed one of the four big themes I found. Where that became surprising for me was in the context of the reported lack of access taken in the "information" question. So many of the types of formal learning experiences many sought in hindsight were the very resources that they said they did not access in preparation for the role.

The other surprise, which I acknowledged in the post reflecting on "other" responses to the "people" and "information" questions," was a small but notable minority of respondents who described participating in not only formal learning experiences but courses offered in academic settings. Whether a part of a formal degree program or a certification, they took part in, and drew value from, courses on nonprofit board/leadership-related topics. I teach in both settings. A small part of me took great pleasure  in those references.

Thinking about how the data fit 70:20:10 may be a creative stretch, one too far from a formal research analysis standpoint. But I'm finding that this process is helping me to expand my understanding of the preparation numbers from a practical standpoint. It's also an attempt to apply one adult/workplace learning framework to data that we have so far viewed only through governance lenses. There is more to learn about board chairs' preparation when adult learning theories and models are applied. That is part of my process as a researcher tied to this work.

I have at least one, maybe two, more posts on the preparation side of our survey data. I'm debating whether I want to proceed with analysis of the other section of the survey. In the meantime, I'm interested in your thoughts, suggestions, etc., on what I have laid out here.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Governance toolbox: September potpourri

Please pardon the recent absence of the toolbox feature - it's definitely been a "life happens" month here. As September comes to a close, I do want to offer a few of the noteworthy resources that I've been bookmarking along the way.

I want to open with a tweet that is not a tool but a challenge to a notion that I regularly encounter in discussions about board development and learning: "Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep the board member investment as minimal as possible." To the extent that we need to respect their significant time contributions, and to the extent that we must focus our learning and performance support efforts on topics that build governance capacity, yes.  But when the short-and-sweet becomes a bare-bones checklist, when it offers no context for thoughtful discussion and application of nonprofit governance as a leadership function, when it boils it all down to monitoring functions, and when it fails to inspire members to rise to a high performance bar, we should be pushing back. Look at Julian's graphic. Consider what would be possible if all of our boards' learning and development experiences (not just training) could be described by even a few of the descriptors he offers. Anticipating another familiar refrain ("but we don't have time"), I'll offer a simple caveat: it's not a matter of creating new "amazing" opportunities. It's about doing better with the existing learning and capacity building experiences that we already have.

Think your board chair succession is secure? Think again -- In this post, Gayle Gifford analyzes data from our board chair survey through the lens of leadership succession planning. What are we doing to prepare our next generations of board leaders? Her insights on the topic are compelling. The questions she offers at the end provide an excellent starting point for having those discussions with your board.

7 cage-rattling questions every board should answer -- Not getting the best out of your board? Check your questions. Tricia's seven questions are fantastic examples of what we should be asking our boards. Capture them, share them with your board, schedule ample time to address those that are most compelling at future meetings. But almost as great as the questions she offered is this description of why we should care: "When people get invested by contributing their ideas, talent, and creativity, they will move mountains. It’s human. Then, giving money becomes a no-brainer." Are you helping the bright, wise leaders you've recruited to invest in their governance work? If not, that is your issue - one you must address, starting with Tricia's questions.

Visionary, strong, engaged boards: The key to nonprofit success -- Alison Rapping offers her own wise perspective on board member commitment and engagement in this recent LinkedIn post. She makes a strong case for valuing and prioritizing expansive, engaging board discussions (and offers her own great set of questions for sparking some of those conversations). She also reminds us of the very real perils of valuing expediency over thoughtful board deliberation.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The board chair experience: How did you get to this governance leadership role?

How did you come to be board chair? Please check the answer closest to the truth for you. 

Over the years, I've heard plenty of board jokes about missing a meeting and finding out you were elected president as punishment for your absence. I've heard about, and occasionally witnessed, a clearly hesitant board veteran being cajoled into taking his/her turn because there wasn't exactly a line forming to take the lead position when the time came to elect officers.

This question from our board chairs survey offers an interesting snapshot of how that process actually takes place for many serving in that role, describing a more complex picture.

Many respondents described somewhat purposeful steps into the role. There were structural mechanisms for some that put them on the path, e.g., nomination through a defined process, serving as vice chair, being "groomed" for the position. If we were to group them together, collectively, they would represent the more common phenomenon.

Other sets of responses offer hints of that reluctant service in responses to the choices offered - being volunteered by another member (though we have no way to know if that was a positive or negative event) and stepping up because no one else would. But note that percentages choosing one of those options are individually or collectively fairly low. 

More common than that group were two sets of responses that indicate something beyond stepping into some process that propelled them toward the chair role and being dragged kicking and screaming: the "natural progression" (the second most commonly-selected response) and "I actively sought" responses. 

My first response revisiting this question is "what does 'natural progression' mean and why did we word it that way?" My second response is to add this to my list of future research agenda items. Understanding motivations for leadership, understanding what supports and inspirations and experiences fostered that motivation, all could go a long way to creating more attractive, rich, and affirmative board leadership for everyone.

"Other" responses accounted for 8.4 percent of the total on the question, with 62 submitting comments. As with the other "other" comments shared so far, some are more revealing and potentially useful to the question than others. 

Some of the "other" responses describe unusual situations or crises within the organization:

"The board chair and vice chairs just quit one day and I was left. The ED begged me to take it because she needed a Board Chair for grant applications."

"There was a vacuum of leadership after the CEO left for medical reasons and then the board president resigned. This also occurred during a financial crisis. I was already a board member for many years and "stepped up" without assuming a title. After a few months, the board elected me president as much for what I was already doing as for the fact that no one else wanted the position."

"Eight years ago, all the members of the Board of Trustees, with one exception, indicated that they were resigning. I was not on the Board of Trustees: I was a volunteer."

"Took over in a time of crisis that threatened the organization when no one else was either stepping up or had the skill sets or will to save the organization."

I can say that that also was a theme in comments offered elsewhere in the survey. Even when we have plans as a board, life happens and people must step in to fill the leadership gap - willingly or not.

I initially wrote above that I saw no clear themes in the comments. I backed off of that statement when I reviewed again, looking for the above quotes, and saw how many respondents indicated that the CEO/executive director either asked directly or played a role in the request to serve. One of the quotes above includes that reference. But there were many others, along the lines of these:

"The ED and the outgoing board chair asked me to consider serving in the position."

"I was asked to return to the Board Char position by the Executive Director. I had held the position during a critical phase of the organization."

"Asked by the executive directors"

"The outgoing Executive Director also asked me to serve."

"There was no clear board member interested or best suited to take on the role. I was asked specifically by the new ED and Development Director to consider the position."

"I was solicited by the ED to apply for the role."

"I replaced a person who had served 8 years and was looking to step down. The CEO 'volunteered' me and I was quite willing to serve."

That is a far more familiar scenario in some of my interactions with boards (and in my own board and staff experience). I have my biases and my consultant counsel on that that are not particularly germane to this research-focused post. Instead, I'll just say that it affirmed for me that my research teammates and I probably missed another option for this question, covering CEO and other staff encouragement or involvement. 

The mixed-bag nature of responses to this question overall was interesting, particularly in the context of the mixed-bag preparation (or not) described in other questions covered in this series. Still processing this. For the moment, I'll say that maybe their lack of preparation that has been bothering me as a board educator makes a tiny bit more sense, at least for some. 

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The board chair experience: Most helpful related leadership roles, functions

Please rate how helpful you found the following experiences in preparing for and/or serving as board chair.

I have a minor confession to make. Responses to this question in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management's national board chairs survey prompted an almost immediate honing in on a topic that previously had received only minor coverage on this blog. A couple of years ago, nonprofit board committees started gaining more visibility here. This chart is the reason why.

If we combine the "helpful" and "very helpful" responses to the items on this question, the board committee chair role - by far - leads the pack as most common experience prior to chairing a board.

Combining those two columns looks like this:

  • Chair or chaired another nonprofit board - 51.55
  • Chair or chaired public sector or government board or council - 23.64
  • Chair or chaired a for-profit board - 13.9
  • Chair or chaired a committee - 81.74
  • Am or have been a nonprofit CEO - 27.43
  • Other - 30.19

No other experience comes close to leading a committee (81.74 percent). Number two, chairing another nonprofit board, was "helpful" or "very helpful" to 51.55 percent of respondents.

Now, we can't say chairing a committee is a deliberate or a direct path to that highest board leadership role based on responses to this survey question. We only can say that it was a common experience for board chairs participating in the survey, and that it was a helpful to very helpful one.  That is useful information.

I mentioned in the "helpful people" post in this series that I always had a small voice in the back of my mind as my researcher side analyzed the survey data. In this instance, that voice screamed so loudly that I responded here - even as I kept my motivation for the new committee posts to myself.

As with the other highlights posts in this series, researcher me offers the responses for your consideration, inviting you to do your own critical thinking about what they mean and how they might be of value to you and your board.

Consultant/educator/blogger me experienced a major "aha" moment and ran with it.  I already knew that our committees offer rich opportunities for members to develop deeper knowledge on some aspect of the board's work. I knew that growing expertise also represented a chance to demonstrate peer leadership that both shares the responsibility and fosters broader, meaningful engagement in board work.

Results of this question added a new layer of understanding about how those committee leadership puzzle pieces fell into place. I can't say it shifted my thinking drastically, since we can't make a causal connection between committee leadership and procession to the board chair role from this question alone. But it did expand my appreciation for the experiential value of our committees as learning and leadership incubators. Consultant/educator/blogger me began to think more expansively about different ways to envision our committees and support them with this new insight in mind.

Revisiting the "other" comments today, I see three themes, none of which probably will surprise any of us. "Other" related experiences informing board chair experiences came from:

  • Other nonprofit roles
  • Private sector roles (most dominant of the three)
  • Consultant status

A few representative responses illustrate what was shared:

I'm a faculty member and chaired my department and university committees.

I have been responsible for reporting to boards in my day job - this helped me understand the role of a Board and therefore understand the role of the Chair a bit more. 

I run my own business with numerous employees

I was a Nurse Administrator at the area Hospital.
I've been a senior development officer at a nonprofit for 10+ years and have worked closely with boards.
40 years in public accounting and 35 years as a CPA.

I am a National Consultant on development.

I am a strategy/business consultant to nonprofit organizations and routinely work closely with boards and CEOs.

Former City Council member and Mayor were also beneficial in understanding stakeholder needs and concerns.

I still may have committees on the brain that blind me to additional insights to expand our understanding of board chair preparation. If that is the case, and you see something that deserves consideration, please share in a comment.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The board chair experience: I wish I'd had...

"In hindsight, what one resource, person or experience would you have like to have had to prepare for your role as board chair?"

This open-ended question from our Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey ranks high among my personal-favorite questions, both for the general richness of the data it produced and for the learning/performance-related themes that emerged.

We began coding responses early in our data analysis. I continued that coding this weekend, in preparation for this post. As I remembered, four themes emerged in the 472 comments provided by survey respondents. Those themes:

  • Training
  • Mentors
  • Peer networking and support
  • Performance support

Since I cover all of these here,  and two have become semi-regular topics, I need to acknowledge that my biases run the risk of seeing things that may not actually exist. In that spirit, I intend to mostly turn over this post to the voices represented in the comments themselves, adding a sentence or two of response for each. Selecting the most representative comments promises to be a challenge. I predict this will be a long one, but that the length added via the comments will be interesting and valuable to you and other readers.


Here are some of the training-coded comments that caught my eye and that fairly represent themes among that pool of responses:
"I wish I had been able to attend one of our national conferences."

"I wish I had thought to research a workshop or webinar for non-profit board members."

"Leadership and public relations workshops."

"A conference of Board Chairs to attend. Best timing would be either just before assuming the chair, or just after chairing the first meeting as chair."

"Evaluation training to help board assess organization's impact."

"A course on being a non-profit Board Chair before becoming chair then workshops during term as chair."

"Focused training in managing peer group decision making."
"classes designed for how a nonprofit board functions and responsibility of each member."

A couple of observations about the larger "training" comments pool. The biggest surprise for me, frankly, was the number of comments indicating interest in access to resources specifically described as "training" or experiences that clearly was formal learning experience. They ranged from general course/workshop on being a board chair to training on specific topics, including group dynamics, conflict resolution, meeting management, etc.

The second observation is in relationship to the data offered in an earlier question about steps they took to prepare (and the more basic question - DID you prepare - in which 51 percent answered "no"). Adult educator me would like to have the chance to do follow-up interviews and see how they might connect those dots.


Almost as strong as a theme was a desire for access to mentors or mentor-like relationships. Some representative comments from that pool include:

"A mentor would have been nice - but that would have been my initiative to seek one."

"Mentor Board Chair from a high functioning/role model organization"

"A coach or consultant to help me create a strategy or focus for my tenure as chair, to keep me from feeling overwhelmed or pulled in too any directions."

"A President from another Chapter to give me a different perspective." 

"An experienced former Board Chair that can advise me."

"Advice from chair or CEO of a similar but different organization."

"Talking to an ED that has a successful board chair/CEO partnership to get their advice."

"I would have liked to have had a Chairman of the Board's 'Coach.' Access to someone who had a wealth of experience dealing with and guiding leaders of a wide variety of non-profit organizations having boards of differing backgrounds, resources and numbers."

"I would have liked more information/interaction and mentoring from the outgoing chair, and earlier conferences/dialogue with the CEO."

As with the training responses, there was no beating about the bush. Many respondents wanted access to someone who could be a sounding board/guide/resource to help them navigate the occasional tricky board leadership waters. Now, yes, as one of the respondents above said, he/she could go out and find that supportive person if that was needed. But there's also potential value in creating sector- or sub-sector or community-level access to mentoring and coaching support.

Performance support

While training is a universally-understood concept, that is not generally the case for performance support, which I consider to be at least as important as formal learning for effective nonprofit governance (and board leadership). Respondents expressing performance support needs didn't identify them as such, but they exemplify the types of resources that board chairs should have available to them. Some representative comments:

"I'd have liked some national materials prepared for non-profit board chairs, and some aimed at the particular sector (youth arts program) in which I volunteer."

"books or articles on chair leadership"

"Website or specific internet resource specifically for nonprofit board chairs"

"Board chair for Dummies or an internet equivalent"

"Specific examples of board committees, and how they contribute to the organization."

"I wished there would have been more information online, free resources that did have quality information included"

"A specific non profit Board chair handbook of best practices."
"A resource on compensation and managing that and the relationship with the ED, because it winds up being such an emotionally fraught process if not handled properly."
"Possibly a job description. I feel I probably perform some tasks that are not typical for a board chair."

"I think a self-assessment tool to help me evaluate my strengths and opportunities for learning as a board chair would have been very useful."

"I would like a local resource for board governance/serving as a chair."

This is another area where I would have liked a chance to interview respondents for more detail and behind their answers - again, within the context of the previous question about helpful resources (and action not taken). Some version of pretty much all of these needs exist somewhere, usually many forms. The question for me continues to be this: did they access those resources and not find them helpful (and, if that's the case, what was missing?) or did they not look for them in the first place? No judgment implied here. Just wondering - especially if what they found was not what they needed, since I'm one who provides different pieces of that performance support puzzle.

Peer networking

The fourth theme was not as strong as the others, and I won't have many different examples. But the need was evident in the number of comments offered. Here are a few, to give you a general idea of how they expressed it:

"I chair a local food pantry board. It would be helpful to learn from other food pantry board presidents."

"I would have liked to have the wisdom and experience of other board chairs/non-profit organization heads. from my organization and definitely from others. Those different perspectives would have been welcome."

"A consultation with experienced board chairs in a webinar or workshop setting."

"Would love to have met with board chairs from neighboring organizations."

Since an original purpose of this site - and the reason behind the now unfortunate name - was networking and support of our local nonprofit boards, I like to think I can envision what these commenters were needing. I like to think there already examples in the wild, maybe some open or potentially open to board chairs, wherever they may be in the sector. I've even built some networking (and performance support) opportunities into my new board chairs course on

But I also know that these types of support networks require some support of their own. I also know that many believe that quality interaction can only take place when all parties are in the same room. Sector capacity builders need to come to grips with the former and commit to that support. Future board chairs need to stretch their imaginations a bit and be open to seeing what can happen when technology connects them to an even broader network of peers with different perspectives, challenges and solutions.

Questions still remain for me regarding the apparent disconnect between the very real needs expressed in 15 pages of comments here and the responses provided in the two questions mentioned earlier (both the 51 percent who say they took no specific action to prepare for the role and all those "N/As" on the options presented in the "helpful resources" question). The opportunity for gathering insights from this particular group has long passed.

If I were to pick a follow-up focus, it would be expansion of this larger preparation question. I'm not unfamiliar with that line of work. In fact, reporting on a local board learning needs survey was the first content focal point of this blog. What this national study reinforced for me was that a survey provides one useful set of data. But we also need deeper insights that enhance our ability to understand what they really need, the barriers they experience, and the potential vehicles for bridging the gap between the two. That requires a qualitative research element.

I have at least one more post in this series, ready for publication next week. In the meantime, as always, I appreciate any insights you might have to help expand thinking (and generate some conversation) about what is shared here today.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.