Monday, July 6, 2015

Leading with belief: A few questions to help nonprofit boards define "making a difference"

Do we really - really - believe that we can make a difference? Are we governing like we believe that is the case?

I'd already saved this tweet as the focal point for today's topic when I stopped by a Facebook group discussing a Chronicle of Philanthropy article covering a series of listening/brainstorming sessions "to consider how their organizations should adjust to upheavals in their working environment." At the center of the conversations were "Nine Key Trends Affecting the Charitable Sector," a report released by Independent Sector. At the center of my Facebook friends' discussion was this quote:

"Despite all the good work we’ve done and all the resources we’ve expended, we have yet to solve the big problems of the day," she tells them. "I’m concerned that the world around us is changing at such speeds that it will pass us by in a single generation unless we take action."

Now,  my friends and I share a common rallying point: we don't get to fulfillment of our ambitious visions and missions while stuck in day-by-day, incremental mode. Still, I've worked with nonprofits and their boards long enough to recognize the frame of thinking and the concerns that are all too real to those working and governing in the field and in the moment. 

It's foolish to pretend that the very real challenges that our nonprofits face don't exist. We can't govern in oblivion. But it's equally wrong to simply shrug our shoulders and give in to the obstacles that can seem insurmountable.

So how do we get past that sinking feeling that we'll be forever treading metaphorical water? I can't promise any magic answers, but I would like to offer examples of questions that might help keep our boards focused on their larger purposes. None of these are necessarily earth-shaking - and that's the point. Simple questions, and a commitment to future-focused inquiry, are powerful things. 

Take one or two of these questions and build your next agenda around them. Use this list as a launch point for more appropriate questions of your own. Whatever the format, find ways to keep your board, and board discussions, focused on purpose and impact.

A few future-, impact-oriented governance questions

  • What does our vision of the future we are working toward look like? How will we know we've succeeded? What will be different?
  • What is our specific piece of that vision? How does our mission define and advance our specific contributions as an organization? (For example, providing temporary shelter is only one challenge in ending homelessness but it is an appropriate mission.)
  • What are the board's specific roles in creating that future? What can only we do/what are we best positioned to do to advance that work?
  • Who else is doing work related to our mission and vision? Do we see those entities as competition and, if so, in what ways? Is there potential in collaboration with them? What are our mutual interests? How can we work together to expand and advance those mutual interests?
  • What do we expect individual board members to contribute to the governance effort, with what impact? How will we know, as individual members, that we have contributed something of value to the leadership expected of the board?
  • Where will our time and leadership be best spent this year as a board? What special initiatives, questions, projects, etc., can we own to move us closer to our vision and mission in the next year? What outcomes will we use to determine whether or not we have succeeded? Who will lead what aspects of that work to ensure that it happens? What kind of support will they need to succeed, and how can we ensure that they get it?
  • Does the way we work as a board facilitate success and impact? In what ways? If not, what is keeping us from effective governance? How can we change that?
  • If the board as a leadership entity disappeared or disbanded tomorrow, who would miss us? Why?
  • What is the one thing we made possible, as a governing body, that best exemplifies our leadership? 
  • At the end of your service, what will it take for you, as an individual board member, to feel that your time on the board was well spent? That you made a difference?
  • How did we advance our mission in this meeting?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Governance toolbox: A few nonprofit boards-focused Pinterest treasures

Normally, I reserve this weekly "toolbox" space for found resources created by others that offer something to make nonprofit governance easier/richer/more effective. It's a rare thing for me to include a source that I developed.

Today, I'm breaking my own informal rule and sharing links to several of my governance-focused Pinterest boards. Well, I'm somewhat breaking the rules. While some boards clearly feature my own work and most have at least a couple blog posts from here, the majority of the resources shared on these boards represent some of the best thinking and tools created by others.

I launched these boards partly for my own reference but mostly as online handouts for workshops that I do and ready resources for sharing when I receive requests for information.

A quick how-to, if you're not familiar with Pinterest: Click on a "pin" that you want to view, then double-click on the larger version that will pop up. That will take you to the original source/website.  Also, a disclaimer: while I try to keep these boards up to date, there inevitably will be a broken link somewhere (especially if you're reading and clicking weeks or more after this post is published). It's the web. It happens. If you're willing, please leave a comment on the pin that led to the broken link so that I can see and replace or delete it.

Nonprofit board essentials -- When someone seeks a general view of what it means to serve on a nonprofit board, I send him/her to this board. It's undoubtedly more than the person really wanted to know, but it represents the best thinking and the richest perspectives on what nonprofit governance really entails. Be on the lookout for the sources by Alice Korngold,  Lucy, Marcus, Cathy Trower, Gayle Gifford and Kevin Monroe. They're some of my all-time favorites. It also includes some of the foundational "boards 101" posts that I've published here.

Generative nonprofit boards -- This is my go-to source for questions about the Governance as Leadership model and generative governance specifically.  Note: this one definitely is a moving target. For some reason, resources on GAL come and go quickly. While I'm always checking and updating sources on this board, I can almost guarantee a broken link, whenever you're accessing.

Nonprofit board dynamics and boardroom behavior --  So many challenges to effective nonprofit governance boil down to garden-variety human interaction foibles. This board looks at ways to not only overcome interpersonal dust-ups but build team effectiveness and cohesiveness. It's one of my personal-favorite boards.

Engaging nonprofit boards -- This board emphasizes tips and techniques for bringing out the best thinking and work from individual members and the board as a whole.

Save our (nonprofit board) meetings! -- As the name suggests, this board's primary focus is on building meeting agendas and environments that bring out the best in board members and the best decisions for our organizations.

Building board community -- Grounded in the central idea of a book I'm writing, I connect the resources here to one or more of the three components of Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave's community of practice framework.

Must-read nonprofit board resources -- A listing of my favorite governance-related books and sites. I try to remain retailer-neutral in my links, choosing to pin from the publisher's site or Goodreads. Every one of these titles deserves to be, if not in your personal library, your local nonprofit organization's library. Better yet, share this list with your community library so that some may be purchased and made available for everyone who serves on a board.

Leading nonprofit boards -- This board features blog posts and other online sources that discuss various aspects of leadership that board and committee chairs (and others) may find valuable as they consider their approach to the significant responsibilities they assumed.

Inquiring nonprofit boards -- You know I love a good question and value the central role that inquiry should play in nonprofit governance. This set of resources explores those two ideas in greater detail and offers ideas for how to enhance their role in the boardroom.

Several other boards on my Pinterest profile address nonprofit governance topics. Click here to access all of my public boards, including those additional resources.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Power in everyday nonprofit board life

Learning is embedded in group social life. It's inevitable. It's powerful. It happens - whether or not we realize or acknowledge it.

Yes, I really did read and draw from traditional scholarly sources in preparation for my research. But I return to Etienne Wenger and William Snyder's online article, "Learning in Communities," this week because it provides the perfect next step from last week's post as I recreated the path that I followed in that research process.

It also describes perfectly the motivation for choosing a case study, conducted over months, instead of more expedient research methods (e.g., a survey). To truly reveal, and understand, the full range of adult learning as it takes place in governance work, I had to observe and inquire about the processes that drive it. Most of those processes evolve not in formal training but in everyday board social life. Many of those processes are invisible to the participants creating and perpetuating them. That certainly was what I found in my time with the exemplar nonprofit board I studied.

I didn't know for certain, or how it might be enacted in that real life setting. But even as I came into the boardroom from a traditional training background, I sensed that I would discover something useful in the mundane work that high-functioning boards do. That was the case. Actually, what I found was somewhat miraculous to this board veteran. It changed my perspective completely as a board educator and consultant. It transformed my entire thinking of, and understanding about, how boards build their knowledge and capacity to govern.

Oh, and by the way, I also saw how that work created a natural environment for generative thinking and governing that I'm always calling for here. It required nothing heroic or extraordinary. Just an openness to learn and engage and explore.

I'm revisiting that research this summer, as part of my 2015 blog theme, "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership." (This "lit review" series is another part of that reflection process.) In the meantime, if you're interested in an overview written shortly after I completed the initial research and writing process, I invite you to download my white paper overview. While the larger messages and foundational components will remain the same, I anticipate that time and additional research and experience working with boards will add new layers of insight to the case.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A "Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights"

In honor of the U.S. holiday taking place at the end of this week - and the unique leadership and service roles of nonprofit governance - I offer up anew my "Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights."

Since this site's readership has expanded significantly in the last year, and since the principles that follow remain - in my view - universal, they are appropriate for sharing again this year. The post originally was offered as a counterpoint to an earlier entry outlining a few (sometimes unpleasant) realities about nonprofit governance.  The individual "rights" will be familiar to regular readers, because they're part of the larger message of my advocacy for nonprofit boards.

The Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights

We the community leaders who serve on nonprofit boards, in order to govern toward a more perfect vision of the future and a fulfilling mission that advances that vision, require an environment conducive to fulfilling the responsibilities entrusted to us. To that end, we have the inalienable right to the following:

1) A clear understanding of our responsibilities, outlined before we join the board, and clarity about why we are being asked to serve. We have the right to participation in a thoughtful recruitment process, where a governance-focused job description is presented so we can make an informed decision about accepting the invitation to serve. We also have the right to know the specific skills, knowledge, connections, etc., that make us the right fit - at this time - for the board.

2) A rich, multi-stage, user-friendly orientation process that prepares us for active participation and, ultimately, leadership on the board. The information presented in the recruitment process is only the beginning. We deserve both a thorough initial orientation (including supporting materials) after we join the board and ongoing support in the initial months of our service.

3) Ongoing access to information, stories, etc., that provide the context and data to make the best decisions possible for the agency and the community. We deserve timely, ready access to that information, in formats that are accessible to us and conducive to effective decision making.

4) Work that draws upon our strengths as community leaders. Our governance work is future-focused and impact-driven, grounded in questions of consequence. The work that we do does not waste our time. We come together to govern and lead, not wallow in management minutiae. We expect that that work will draw upon our individual strengths, expertise and skill sets. We expect to use our individual connections to broaden the base of supporters for our mission in engaging and appropriate ways.

5) Meetings that are intellectually and creatively challenging.  We have the right to agendas built around questions about the future, that demand our active participation, and that give us space to reflect and create. We deserve work environments that expect us to contribute regularly, as equal members of the governance team.

6) Experiences that bring us closer to the mission we are charged with advancing. The more vividly we understand the agency's work and the lives touched, the better we are able to communicate that impact to others and the stronger our own commitment becomes. We have the right to build our knowledge, not only in formal training events but in authentic experiential learning opportunities throughout our board service.

7) Expectations that are appropriately high. We have the right to set our own high bar, drawing from our significant collective expertise. We have the right to all of the forms of support required to fulfill those expectations.

8) A strong, effective partnership with our CEO. We recognize the complementary leadership responsibilities that each brings to the table, and we collaborate to ensure that both parties receive what we need to fulfill them. We neither receive our marching orders from our chief executive nor dictate from above.

9) Recognition that is personally meaningful. We deserve regular acknowledgment that what we bring to the board is valued. We deserve acknowledgment that different people prefer that recognition in different formats, and that our individual preferences should be appropriately accommodated.

10) Respect for our contributions as community leaders. We have the right to be supported and valued, not treated as inconveniences. Your power and potential rests, in large part, on our power and potential. Respect us, support us, and we will lead in ways that bring you closer to your mission than you could ever achieve on your own.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Governance toolbox: June potpourri edition

Today, I close out the "toolbox" month with the June link potpourri, a flavorful mix of nonprofit-related goodness from others.

The Talent Development Platform -- Fresh from my LinkedIn news feed comes word (and the initial post) of a series by my friend, Heather Carpenter. The series will explore the talent development framework that she and co-author Tera Qualls developed and described in their marvelous resource, The Talent Development Platform: Putting People First in Social Change Organizations. If you're on LinkedIn, I'd encourage you to follow Heather so that you won't miss a word of what I predict will be a valuable and thought-provoking series. The platform addresses the broader talent development needs of organizations (which boards definitely should understand and tend to as part of their governance responsibilities). But aspects of it also will apply directly to board learning and development needs. Oh, and if you haven't already grabbed a copy of their book, for you and/or your nonprofit's management library, do so today.

Five key conversations about accountability every board should have -- Policy governance consultant Susan Mogensen offers an excellent resource that makes these essential conversations easy to launch. At the other side of a simple and non-intrusive request process, you gain access to pdf and PowerPoint files containing the "conversations" (multiple questions around a specific topic) that boards simply must have. There are many reasons why many boards fear accountability - and why they often fail in meeting these expectations. One that I have found is that they just don't know what questions they should be asking. Susan's resource removes that challenge. Excellent, excellent tool.

Becoming a more diverse nonprofit: Make your values tangible -- "(D)efining diversity as an organizational value." Yes! If we really want to see diversity in our organizations (and on our boards), we must move it from a check-off box on a matrix of a buzzword used in recruitment materials.  This brief, excellent post offers guidance on how we go about moving beyond the superficial to the lived value of diversity. Read it, share it with your board, have the conversation.

Get the right board team by perfecting your person specifications -- I have my favorite board needs assessment/recruitment process. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate another that takes a similarly broad approach to identifying the qualities that drive leadership and effective governance and moves away from a demographics/skills-based check-off. This one, shared by the folks at Leading Governance, is one of those tools. It focuses on competencies such as "directing strategy," "teamworking," and "leading and motivating" and outlines evidence types illustrating how each is enacted by individuals. Not only have I bookmarked this tool, I'll be sharing it with others wanting to expand their thinking about who they bring on board and why.

10 reasons you should invest in board development -- I'll close this month's mix with another Leading Governance offering on my favorite topic. Some of the reasons speak to traditional motivations for board development. Think roles, responsibilities and making sure you all don't screw up. But others address capacity building and motivation needs that are equally important, if seemingly less urgent in the context of limited board member time. They acknowledge human capacity needs as well as leadership needs. If we don't recognize and support all of them, we fail our boards. If all we tend to are the bottom-line basics, that's all we'll ever get. Oh, and by the way, number nine may be my personal favorite.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nonprofit governance: Changing the question

(NOTE: If this post looks familiar, that's because it is. I fixed a typo last night and the post re-published as new, rather than saved at its original release date.)

"We can more easily do this if we shift our thinking from 'What is governing?' to 'Toward what ends are we governing?'"

I already was drawing inspiration from Cathy Trower as I prepared for a recent board training session when I encountered again this quote from her marvelous The Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards. I knew instantly that this was the perfect starting point for the work that the local board and I would be doing. But as I continued to reflect on that quote, and how it set the tone for making the case for Governance as Leadership as the frame upon which they could define their work, I also realized how perfectly it describes the larger case I've been making here and elsewhere in my teaching and writing.

In a world where so much collective attention is focused on the right set of board roles and responsibilities (and, by extension, how completely most of us are failing to fulfill them), and what optimal mix of skills and demographics will lead us to perfection, Dr. Trower calls on us to take a step back and ask a more fundamental question.

While pretty much everything I write here offers some kind of response (usually with a GAL twist), as I reflect on it today, I realize that it comes down to questions centered around three core areas.


  • Why are we here? What is our vision of the future? Our mission in moving toward that better future? What is the purpose of our organization and the work that we do?
  • What is our board's purpose? How does our work advance our vision and mission? 
  • What does board leadership look like for us?
  • What are our unique contributions, as a governing body?



  • What capacities does our organization need to successfully advance its mission? What do we require, to not just get through the day but sustain our work and expand our ability to serve?
  • What specific governance capacity does the organization require from the board? From individual members?
  • How do we not only maintain board effort and motivation but expand its collective capacity to lead?
  • What competencies do we require of all board members to function effectively? What capacities do we need within the board, but not necessarily from every member?
  • In what areas must the board lead in capacity building?


  • How will we know we have succeeded as an organization? How will we visualize, and articulate, advancement (and fulfillment) of our vision and mission?
  • How will we visualize, and articulate, the board's ultimate contributions to that impact?
  • What goals will the board set for itself for that advancement? 
  • How will we know we have succeeded? What kinds of accountability measures and processes will help the board maintain focus on the leadership work needed for us to make an impact?
  • How will we acknowledge individual and collective contributions in ways that are authentic and meaningful to those who serve?
  • How will we communicate that impact to the community in ways that invite others to join us?

Boards have legitimate roles and responsibilities in answering these questions in their governance work. Obviously. They require a diverse range of skills and perspectives to accomplish that work. Obviously. But if we let tasks and recruitment matrices drive governance, rather than feed the the more critical question that Cathy poses, we will continue to fall short and we will continue to set up our boards for failure.

Your approach to answering "Toward what ends are we governing?" may not look exactly like mine, and that's fine. But our boards must be able to differentiate between this larger question of purpose and the tasks that too many are undertaking without understanding why.

Learning theory to governance practice: Learning to be vs. learning about

Oh, how I love this quote - and all that it represents for nonprofit board development.

Found in John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information, it offers a particularly compelling way of thinking not only about adult learning generally but about nonprofit board learning specifically.

While I saw evidence of this in action in my case study, it was not the biggest data news of the research. Still, the application to nonprofit governance is so crystal clear - and was so central to my understanding of the learning needs of board members generally - that encountering it was a transformative moment in my early adult learning journey.

I've long held that board members have two essential sets of learning needs:

  • About the mission/organization itself 
  • About what it means to govern

I've recently added a third - how to work effectively as a group - but its connection to this topic is tangential.

As I revisit this quote today, in the context of the two core board learning needs, I'm seeing a slight shift from my original thinking: the presence of a "learning to be" ("acquiring identities") and a "learning about" ("knowledge acquisition") component to both learning needs.  (I originally saw the former topic as primarily "learning about" and the latter as mostly "learning to be.") It's not a drastic shift from my original understanding, but rather an expansion.

Nonprofit board members have clear "acquisition" learning needs, about both the mission/organization and about their governance roles. For example:

  • We need to grasp the issues driving our mission. 
  • We need to know how our specific programs and services address those issues. 
  • We need to understand the political climate in which we operate and the community realities that challenge. 
  • We need clarity about the essential responsibilities that we assume when we accept a board position. 
  • We need to understand the capacities that we need to have and build to succeed in that role and how those capacities are enacted and evaluated as part of our work.

These are some of the straightforward "whats" and "hows" that facilitate boards' ability to make sound, thoughtful, appropriate decisions about resources, responsibilities, direction, etc. These needs are real and essential to effective governance.

But boards also have "learning to be"/identity needs in both areas.

  • What does it really mean to embody the mission and vision they are charged with advancing? 
  • How do they share their commitment to/passion for the mission with others in authentic ways? 
  • How do they understand - and embrace - their nonprofit governance responsibilities as true community leadership, versus just another volunteer job?
  • How do they not just offer individual expertise (e.g., legal, marketing, financial) to board service but understand and apply them through the unique nonprofit context?

Just as I tried to make a distinction between "good" and "great" boards in Monday's post, I see a similar opportunity to make the connection here.

"Good" board development tends to the "whats:" the knowledge acquisition needs of our governing bodies. "Great" boards also tend to the identity needs. The mission focus of nonprofit work makes the "learning to be" component  simultaneously easier/compelling and more critical than in many other settings.  It is the sociocultural core that distinguishes between "good" governance and "great" governance. "Great" boards accept and embrace the "being" work that is so critical to their leadership in making an impact.

  • How are you tending to both your board's "learning about" and "learning to be" needs? 
  • What needs remain unmet, and how are you doing to rectify that?
  • What's possible - for your board, your organization, and your community - if they are governing at full capacity?