Friday, April 29, 2016

Governance toolbox: April 2016 potpourri

While "potpourri" has been the informal theme of the weekly toolbox posts for awhile now, by tradition, the last Friday of the month marks the official call for a healthy mix of Internet goodness carrying the promise of enhancing your nonprofit board's effectiveness.

Do you have a contrarian on your team? -- Even if the answer to the headline for your current board is no, chances are good that you have had the pleasure of having someone who functioned as a devil's advocate in another governance setting. "Pleasure" may not have been the descriptor you had in mind at the time. I've certainly had other phrases bouncing in my head while interacting with individuals who poked and prodded us in sometime uncomfortable directions. But the team research described in this Stanford Business School post offers evidence for not only tolerating the counterpoint that these individuals bring to the table but welcoming and maybe even seeking it out. The critical qualifier here is "constructive." The dynamic introduced in presenting divergent opinions should be a constructive push to consider alternatives and seek out information about weaknesses in dominant positions and arguments made.

The five biggest mistakes new leaders make -- As usual, I'm sure Dan Rockwell didn't have nonprofit board leaders in mind when he wrote this recent post. But I see application to that group, some crystal clear and some a slightly bigger stretch. While any of the five mistakes can challenge a board chair's term of service, and the "bonus mistakes" also can be problematic, I'm most drawn to numbers one and three on his list. Boards have a broad range of responsibilities to which they must tend during the year. But they also are volunteers with limits on time and energy for the job. Their organizational missions are (we hope) as broad as they are inspiring. The risk of boards spreading themselves too thin and losing focus for what matters most, right now, is high. That's true of the board chair as well. It also is a significant responsibility that that leader assumes in the position: to challenge the board to identify priority areas where their impact potential is highest and to help that body maintain focus and motivation for succeeding.

Board culture determines governance outcomes -- On first glance, the topic of Cathy Trower's latest LinkedIn post may seem too fuzzy to qualify as a "tool." But I see potential here as a resource for two things: one, individual and collective reflection on how we really function as a board; and two, as the source of potential questions for our next board self-assessment process. In fact, I may just put some energy into doing just that for a self-assessment project I'm developing. What potential "culture" questions does this post spark for you?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Unique board contributions, specific qualifications


"What is one thing that this board contributes that others cannot do? What are our specific qualifications to provide it?" 

In an environment where many/most nonprofits have at least one staff member and frequently rely on volunteers to provide organizational support and/or services - in a time when boards and board members find themselves called to occasionally step into volunteer mode - we may find ourselves forgetting why our governing body exists in the first place.

When board members like, even prefer, the here-and-now volunteer tasks over future-facing governance roles, the challenge to focus on the latter increases. I've encountered this scenario many, many times in my consultations with various boards. Some see work that must be done despite having limited staff. Others see "real work" that is not only necessary but deeply satisfying to carry out.

Still others come because they are asked. They have a general idea of what board work looks like and a tradition to follow that was defined by generations of board members who came before them. But they lack the complete picture of what nonprofit governance actually means and what it requires of them that others in the organization cannot fulfill.

What's so special about nonprofit boards and the governance they are called to do? That may be the bigger question that boards need to ask but many will be challenged to answer. Today's two-part question is a step in that direction. It asks them to reflect on one specific, unique contribution that they make as a leadership body - that is different from what the CEO, staff, and volunteers do - that makes a difference in the organization's mission advancement.

I can see two layers of response: one a more general reference to a role that comes with the job, the other a specific example of how they are fulfilling that responsibility. If I were facilitating this discussion, I think I'd want to see the board attempt to respond to both while emphasizing the latter element. Boards need to be constantly aware of the leadership functions of nonprofit governance so that they don't lose track of their ultimate purposes. But they also need to be able to articulate specific ways that they are accomplishing them.

And let's be honest. For a board struggling with all that is asked of it, being able to identify one example of leadership fulfilled may be a challenging first step.

The second question posed above encourages board members to be aware of their capacity needs - the skills, perspectives, expertise, etc., that they require to govern well. Some boards will find the answer to this piece to be an affirmation that they have recruited well and that they are attuned to their specific leadership needs. For others, the answer to this may be a wake-up call, to be more conscious of what they need to govern effectively and to address those needs in future recruitment processes.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A higher governance calling: nurturing, reaching for an unknown future

I'm not sure I could come up with a more perfect definition of nonprofit governance if I tried. I've definitely never seen a more perfect, succinct description from any other source in the last 33 years.

I've saved this Episcopal Charities tweet since it appeared live in my feed nearly five years ago. Seeing it again this weekend was a special treat, not only because it meant I'd successfully sorted through 354 backlogged Twitter favorites, but because it's as fantastic and inspiring today as it was in 2011. I believe the quote actually came from one of my favorite nonprofit authors, Katherine Tyler Scott, maybe from a talk she gave at one of their events. I may have shared it here five years ago, but it bears repeating and deserves a fresh reflection.

Some may read it and think, "Hmph. Too fuzzy. Ignores the meat of board work." Or "But it doesn't tell me what to do..." I read it and see all of that covered, and more. I see the essence of nonprofit governance.

Yes, we must tend to the here and now. We fail our organizations, our stakeholders, and our communities if we ignore today's realities. But our ultimate purpose as governing bodies - our "higher calling" - is to envision a future worthy of all of them and to create an environment where that future becomes possible.

If that vision is appropriately broad and transformative in its potential, it is one that will outlive generations of board members. But that's exactly the point: they are defining and moving toward something bigger than themselves, "for a time they'll never see" and "for people they'll never meet." That requires visionary leadership, governance that tends to today but never lets it obscure their view and their commitment to the future.

Is it really "too fuzzy?" Let me challenge that one. If we are nurturing our organization for those future scenarios and beneficiaries, we must today be:

  • Identifying the questions that help bring that vision to life.
  • Defining the outcomes required to make that future possible.
  • Engaging in strategic thinking and planning to ensure that we will fulfill those outcomes.
  • Hiring and supporting staff leaders with the capacity to advance those plans on the ground.
  • Holding those leaders accountable for that forward progress.
  • Identifying the resources required to move forward and ensuring that the organization obtains those resources, through fundraising, grants, fees for services, contracts, etc.
  • Ensuring that those resources are used wisely and appropriately and communicating that transparently with donors, grantors and other stakeholders. 
  • Reaching out into our communities to tell our nonprofit stories - especially stories demonstrating impact - and inviting them to support us in ways that meet our needs and their interests.
  • Advocating for policies and legislation that supports the environments we need to make our vision possible and against those that threaten to harm our communities and those we serve.
  • Leading in ways that inspire board members to contribute their very best, every day and ever meeting, to our success.

Fuzzy? Nah. Not so much, if you think about it.

This could have been this week's 'inquiring nonprofit boards' series post. Indeed, I hope you will be inspired to share this quote with your board and ask the most obvious question: "How are we nurturing the future for our organization and our community?" But in the end, it was so perfect it deserved the week's spotlight. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Governance toolbox: Jerks, stories, reports and board leader recruitment

This week offers another mixed bag of goodness. No theme emerges from what I chose to highlight, just an interesting quartet of resources for your board to consider.

10 questions to ask when choosing leaders -- I hope your boards already have thoughtful, systematic processes for recruiting and selecting their leadership. In case they don't, or you're interested in enhancing or affirming your existing practices, I offer Dan Rockwell's latest post. The questions are the point of the post and probably its ultimate value for readers here. But I also was taken by his discussion of mistakes at the beginning. Number one, overlooking introverts, hit home because I am an introvert who tends to be more quiet in my participation and contributions to groups. I've seen other introverts - thoughtful people with great ideas and strong passion - bypassed for leadership positions on boards in favor or more outgoing peers. Number three also caught my eye. If we equate leadership exclusively with "doing" - who's the busiest member who always volunteers to take on anything - we're missing the full potential of the role. Dan's description of leading vs. doing is excellent. Click on the link for that description and, of course, the 10 questions.

3 things I learned about storytelling while writing The Storytelling Non-Profit -- This post isn't board-specific, but it offers valuable advice about what makes a powerful story. Board members and senior staff can use it to evaluate and create their own compelling stories about their work and its impact.

Six ways to deal with four types of jerks -- One from the Dan Rockwell archive, this one is workplace centered but still mostly germane to jerkdom in the boardroom. We've all served with at least one. Some of us may recognize ourselves in one of the descriptions, played out at least once in our board lives. As is typical of Dan's posts, its ultimate focus is how we behave and respond as leaders to the challenges that these personalities introduce to a workplace. What I appreciated most is the assumption made that the correct response isn't to dismiss these people immediately, but to step back and assess what is behind the behavior and whether it comes from a place that is not mere disruption. We would hope that the second "jerk" type - "couldn't care less" - would not be a factor in nonprofit board settings. But the potential exists to find one or more of the other three serving alongside us. Finding ways to channel their misguided energies may end up serving the board and the nonprofit well.

Effective board reporting: Writing -- I'll close with a post that ties into Wednesday's "one board thing" entry. How do we write reports that others will find informative and useful? This Australian Institute of Company Directors post targets corporate boards but the essential guidance offered applies to nonprofit board reporting as well.
3 Things I learned about Storytelling While Writing The Storytelling Non-Profit - See more at:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

One board thing: Clear space in meetings by adopting, using a consent agenda

If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd

Adopt a consent agenda

"But we don't have time for all of this strategic work you're suggesting. We don't have time to sit around and discuss big questions about our mission. We have real work to do."

I've said it here before and it remains equally true today.  If I had a nickel for every time I got that response to a recommendation to restructure meeting agendas to make space for leadership-driven inquiry, I'd be writing this from a sunny beach somewhere.  Here's the rest of the story: almost without exception, the "real work" that protesters think they can't give up seldom is substantial governance work. It's the stuff of mundane tradition.

I knew this needed to be the next in the "one board thing" series, because it's one thing that can clear a path - and meeting agenda - for the strategic focus and generative discussions that transform nonprofit governance. It's one small thing. But it's a powerful one.

A consent agenda is a meeting tool that gathers routine board actions that require no discussion and are not controversial into a single item. They are approved and voted on as a package.

Among the routine items that are placed on the typical consent agenda:

  • Meeting minutes
  • Treasurer's report
  • CEO report
  • Committee reports
  • Appointments to committees and task forces
  • Correspondence that requires no action

Think of all the time represented in the items on that list. Think of duplicating that block of time, meeting after meeting. Think about all the other, governance-focused work you could be doing with that time. 

Now, let me predict which items will concern some readers.

The treasurer's report -  Tending to the financials, ensuring that resources are used wisely and that no questionable activities are taking place under our noses, is one part of our most fundamental fiduciary responsibilities as a board. But ask yourself, how often does the treasurer's report vary widely from one meeting to another? In most cases, line items fluctuate in a somewhat predictable, orderly fashion. Departures from that routine can be explained in a note attached to the report.

The CEO's report - Clearly, we need ongoing updates about organizational operations from our chief staff leader. We need to know that that person is focusing his or her time and energy on the priorities we set for the year. We need her/his ideas, concerns, etc., on the issues and opportunities we are considering. But do we really need to hear about the routine events that have already occurred in oral form? 

Committee reports -  This was a hot button topic in a recent discussion with my new governance explorer friends. Among the potential reasons offered for why some of their boards insist on giving committees regular, equal agenda time was one that was expected and one I hadn't considered before. The expected: these work groups had information that they needed to share with their peers and oral reports were the vehicle they were used to using to do that. The unexpected: being able to share that information verbally recognized the value of that work. They received affirmation in the act of having the time to share and to be heard. 

The value of committee work should never be underestimated or undervalued. Used properly, they are our board peer researchers and idea generators. They do the legwork and develop the deeper specific knowledge in their assigned areas. They feed our governance work. But as with the CEO reports, sitting around listening to descriptions of activities that took place in the past is not a good use of anyone's time. Instead, committees serve us better by providing written reports about those past events and taking an active role in informing or even facilitating real, fruitful board discussions about issues and opportunities in their expertise areas. They should be sharing their knowledge and helping to frame governance-focused questions informed by that knowledge.

Valuing the work of our committees, and individual members, is essential to building and sustaining motivation. But I would maintain that giving them space to contribute to - even lead - substantive discussions grounded in the results of their hard work will be far more satisfying than simply giving them time to talk about the past while their peers' eyes glaze over. 

Those bigger inquiry opportunities that enhance the board's capacity to make the best decisions possible are what the time freed up by the consent agenda makes possible. They are the "real work" of a board tending to its leadership responsibilities.

Boards have the option to ask to have something removed from the consent agenda if questions arise or clarification of a point is needed. But that clarification often can take place in advance of the meeting. Providing the reports and other consent agenda items in advance of the meeting allow members to review, pose questions, and receive timely responses ahead of time. In most cases, those questions can be resolved without taking up meeting time. In cases where consensus does not exist or an item really needs discussion, the item in question can be removed from the consent agenda and addressed elsewhere in the meeting.

Preparing the written reports for a consent agenda also ensures that information board members may need at a later date, and the institutional history/context that future boards need, are created and can be stored for later reference. A consent agenda helps to naturally populate part of the performance support resources that members need to succeed.

Does your board use a consent agenda? Has your board ever considered  using a consent agenda? What kind of increased governing capacity might you see if you adopted this "one board thing?"

Monday, April 18, 2016

Accountable to whom: Member discipline, motivation belong to the nonprofit board

When a nonprofit board member falls short of expectations, who must respond? 

When a nonprofit board member needs encouragement to stretch and find a place to lead, who must offer it?

When a nonprofit board member needs a reminder of the awesome responsibility that comes with a seat at the governance table, who needs to issue the call?

To whom are nonprofit board members accountable?

I've been having this discussion with a new group of friends this week, as part of our exploration of what it means to govern a nonprofit. It's a topic that rings familiar to those with experience on either the board or the staff side because, frankly, one or more of those scenarios is all too common. It was, therefore, not terribly surprising that the responses in the group was a mix - a mix that I suspect we'd find if we gathered this blog's readers together and asked the same questions.

I'm not talking about our larger accountability to our community, to donors, and to other stakeholders. I'm talking about our accountability to the board and the organization itself. To whom are we accountable as individual nonprofit board members? To whom do we owe our best when we participate in board or committee meetings  or when we commit to specific tasks or roles that support the board's work?

In a nutshell, in the board setting, we are accountable to each other.

We make commitments to attend and participate fully in meetings. We make commitments to coming prepared for those meetings. We make commitments to carry out more focused work in committees and task forces. We make commitments to assume leadership roles that make the board's work possible, stepping up when we are called and even before we are called.

We make commitments to provide the leadership required of nonprofit governing bodies.

But we sometimes fall short, for a range of preventable and inevitable reasons. When that happens, the person(s) holding us accountable should be within the board. When we fail to turn in our reports on time, when we come to meetings clearly unprepared, when we don't follow through on commitments on which others rely, the person who deals with the issue should never be the CEO or other staff member. Peers discipline peers in a board setting. Usually, that peer is the board chair. Sometimes it may be the board's governance committee. But it always should be a peer.

The bottom line is that the board itself is responsible for its own performance. Yes, the CEO plays a critical support role as the board's leadership partner. But that person is not our nanny or our dad. 

  • We define our success parameters as a board.
  • We define the bottom-line expectations via our board job description.
  • We define our leadership role in fulfilling our organization's mission and vision.
  • We measure our progress and challenges via our self-assessment processes.
  • We identify our needs, as individuals and a group, for successful fulfillment of all of this.
  • We take responsibility for ensuring that our members have what they need to succeed.

We hold ultimate accountability for our performance as a board. An essential part of that accountability is having the tough conversations with members who are struggling or who simply don't make the effort needed to live up to the responsibilities that come with the job. If we delegate that to our CEO, either deliberately or by default, that is a board-level failure.

What performance challenges are keeping your board from full success? What individual or group issues have you been ignoring or minimizing that need to be addressed? How will you take a step toward correcting the challenges and feeding your members' motivation to bring their best to their work with you?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Governance toolbox: A board skills/jobs mix

This week's tools ended up being a mix of governance functions and group dynamics skills.

A quick guide to writing an impactful vision statement -- This post, by the great minds at Conscious Governance, offers a solid primer on the role and value of the vision statement. Having a strong vision that provides the foundation for a compelling mission is essential to nonprofit impact. If your nonprofit doesn't have a vision - and many I know do not - use this as a conversation starter. If you have one, use this as a guide for reflecting on how to make the most of it, especially in your strategic and generative work.

Do you serve your team or are you a self-serving team member? -- Jesse Lyn Stoner's post may be convicting for some - or most - of us. (I'll consciously admit to a couple - probably guilty of more.) And that's the point. It offers a chance for a bit of personal reflection and an opportunity to commit to adjusting our behaviors in the boardroom where necessary. It also can be a group conversation starter for identifying and affirming how we will and won't work together.

The 12 most important missing soft skills -- Might as well continue the group dynamics theme, because the right or wrong mix can make or break a board's effectiveness potential. This TrainingZone post takes a positive approach in proposing qualities that build the governance team's performance capacity. This also can serve as both an individual reflection opportunity - what do I bring and where can I step up - and a group conversation about the skills that it most needs to govern well.

39 ideas from AFPFC that will make you a smarter fundraiser in 2016 -- As someone who has both contributed to a conference backchannel and absorbed everything offered by the same, I appreciated Gail Perry's effort to share highlights from the recent Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) conference. Food for thought galore!