Monday, July 28, 2014

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Removing the unexpectedness of fun on boards

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

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

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

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

What does "fun" look like in nonprofit boardooms?

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

I felt compelled to write last week's "Get over it" post to articulate a few realities about nonprofit governance that exist but aren't necessarily exciting and not always conducive to feeding the deeper motivations that drive many of us to serve. I did it so we all could move on to the meaningful work that impacts our communities and inspires us.

But even as I wrote that post, I knew that it could be used as evidence that nonprofit boards really are slackers who don't know or care about their "real" responsibilities, who are lazy and unwilling to do what "we" need them to do so "we" can succeed. That is not at all the case. It certainly is not what I intend to convey or support on this blog. I published that post and immediately felt compelled to write a counterpoint.

In the spirit of the holiday week here in the U.S., I present my "Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights." The individual "rights" will be familiar to regular readers, because they're part of the larger message of my advocacy for nonprofit boards. I offer them as a collection today, as a bookend to last week's post.

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 27, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Stop knowing/doing, start asking

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

This quote, from a book that I believe everyone should read (especially nonprofit sector leaders), packs at least three critical ideas into one brief passage.

First, no surprise, is the call to value questioning - especially the "why" questions that invite nuanced, informed and visionary answers. That, I hope, is obvious.

But there are couple of other key messages for nonprofit boards. Berger not only challenges us to ask more questions but to set aside two of the more attractive functions that board members enjoy and/or are called upon regularly to do.

How many of our boards pride themselves on being "a working board?" Yes, that's often offered as a counterpoint to the suggestion that they might sit around doing nothing but rubber-stamping anything the CEO puts in front of them (though I've seen my share of "working boards" do an awful lot of that). But we boards also get stuck in a cycle of doing that can be counterproductive in a couple of ways.

One, "doing" often equals "getting overly involved in management/administrative issues for no reason other than we want to be involved." We gravitate toward familiar areas (e.g., the management functions many of us engage in at work) because we want to contribute and they're in our comfort zones. Two, "doing" all too often translates into listening to report after report, voting on routine matters, and spending not a lot of time actually leading. Or governing .

Two, "knowing" is a common core function for nonprofit board members, and understandably so. Most of us are recruited, at least in part, for some mission- or organization-applicable knowledge that we have. Sharing that expertise is an important function, certainly. We expand the board's knowledge (and the nonprofit's capacity) when we do that. It is an obvious and appropriate contribution that we can make as individual members.

However, there also is an occasional risk that is related to the larger "question" theme. We may sometimes find ourselves feeling mighty uncomfortable having to acknowledge that we don't know the answers to something (especially something related to our expertise area) in an environment where we are expected to be leaders. Leaders have the answers, right? Well, maybe. But behaving as if we do when that is not the case can put our organizations in some tricky territory via ill-informed board decisions made because someone was afraid to admit he/she didn't have those answers.

I seriously doubt that Berger would advise nonprofit boards to permanently set aside all "doing" and "knowing." I'm certainly not suggesting that. But I am joining him in what I believe is a call for balance and perspective - and the rightful recognition that an essential function of leadership is asking questions.

It's asking those "why" questions that Berger calls for specifically, and for a range of questions that inspire and inform nonprofit boards to think and govern generatively.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Get over it: A few things nonprofit boards must accept so we can move on and govern

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

If you've read more than one post here, you know that my agenda - for this blog and for boards everywhere - is to present a more fulfilling, expansive, effective vision (and practice) for nonprofit governance. 

I advocate as strongly as I can for treating board members with the respect we deserve and for providing us with an environment that allows us to contribute our best to our agencies and the communities we serve.  I'm also constantly pounding on the message that boards should have more fun and pride of fulfillment in our service.

But as much as I try to stretch our vision beyond a narrow list of roles and responsibilities and the dominance of oversight in those criteria, I also owe it to boards and their members to point out a few realities we don't always like or understand. 

In most of the points I'm about to make, it's not the fact itself that board members might not like. Instead, it's a common definition of how we must govern around that reality that causes some of us to balk (or run astray). I raise these "musts" today, in the spirit of acknowledging some core functions that others (and I) consider to be essential to nonprofit governance. I also, however, remind readers that there may be multiple ways of fulfilling these responsibilities - and suggest that many of the common prescriptions offered in the sector need to be changed.

So here goes, boards: a few things we must "get over" so that we can govern as effectively as possible.

We're ultimately responsible for the financial health of the agency

We may rely on others to handle the day-to-day tasks involved in managing the finances and in generating resources (think fundraising and grant writing). But final accountability for ensuring that the nonprofit has what it needs to function long term belongs to the board. The proverbial buck also stops with us when it comes to stewardship of those resources. We must ensure that they are used appropriately and in the spirit and the intent of the donors and others providing them. 

Yes, fundraising is part of that mix. However - and I know some will disagree - direct fundraising isn't a core responsibility of governance. We may assume a role, out of necessity or a legitimate use of our individual skills and connections. But selling raffle tickets is not governance. Organizing and staffing special events is not governance. (I served on a board where planning the annual fundraising dinner consumed five to six months of our meeting agendas. We were not governing in that mode for up to half of the year. We failed our agency and our community.) The fact that board members are doing them does not make them governance tasks.

The board's bottom line is making sure that resources are available and sustainable. How that happens will vary from organization to organization, depending on individual circumstances. But the board must find a way to make sure that happens. 

"I'm not good at the financial stuff." "I'm not a numbers person." Heaven knows I've uttered those words too many times to count. You know what? I need to get over that. You need to get over that. Financial oversight is part of our responsibility as board members. If we need a different kind of information than we're getting to accomplish that oversight, we need to demand it. If we need extra help understanding what the numbers mean and what strategies we should be pursuing, we need to ask for it. But we must understand the overall financial picture and be prepared to act, thoughtfully and deliberately.

Don't mistake obsessing over every line on the budget as oversight, though. Frankly, doing so can blind us to the bigger picture. I once served on a board that spent copious amounts of meeting time engaging in exactly that - while the ED embezzled funds from us. Find a balance between the daily details and the agency's overall financial health.

Vision, mission and strategy are not "frills"

If I had a dollar for every time a board told me, "We don't have time to ask all of these big questions. We have real work to do...," I'd be enjoying a tropical vacation right now. Questions about our community impact, discussions about our vision of the future, testing decisions to mission fit are not frills. They are not special issues to save for the annual board retreat. They are the work of the board. They are the ultimate purpose of the board. 

The vision and mission of the organization need to be embedded in all board work and in all of the discussions and decisions that emerge from it. We need to understand that strategic (and generative) thinking and governance are where the board's unique leadership can be expressed and where our most important contributions are made.  If we can't or won't commit to asking big questions, researching big answers, and for accepting ownership of the better future we're called to create, we need to step off the board.

There's a secondary component to this, one that may be uncomfortable. But it's critical. Given the preciousness of board member time, we have an obligation to speak up when that time is misused. Agenda items that are overtly management issues, board members who wander off onto nonproductive tangents, endless reports about events past - if they're dragging us down and away from the focus we need to maintain, we need to step up and demand that those activities stop.

Governance is not management

This may be the biggest challenge for some boards: mistaking management tasks for governance roles. Board immersion in management issues can be, at best, a diversion from the governance work that is their responsibility and, at worst, an obstacle to fulfilling those tasks in day-to-day organizational life. 

There are at least three factors that play into this one. First, we may not know what governance really involves. What is board work? What is management? We aren't sure. That's a sector issue, one that I don't see being resolved any time soon. Barry Bader's article, "Distinguishing Governance from Management," offers a framework for understanding the differences that many boards I've worked with have found valuable.

Second, if your organization is new or small, there may literally be no one else to assume core management responsibilities. Board members may be called in to handle some essential functions in these situations to ensure that the work is done. But be aware of the previous reality point: just because the board, or a board member, is doing it does not make it governance. Boards in these situations need to remember that they cannot afford to let the governance work get lost in the management shuffle.

Third, management questions and functions probably are quite familiar and, as a result, within our individual comfort zones. Depending on our professional backgrounds, we may be not only used to management tasks, we may be downright expert at them. We want to make the most of our board service and contribute something of value, so we make the management leap. We can't do that at the expense of our governance responsibilities.

We must lead

Governance is leadership at its most basic. But to reach our full board potential, all members need to do more than just show up for meetings. We need to lead in some way that advances the work. It may be serving as an officer. It may be leading a committee or task force. It might be taking on a special initiative that draws from your individual passions or expertise. But we must lead.

We must contribute, including financially

I know I'll receive pushback on this one, but it's true for an increasing percentage of nonprofits. If you rely upon grants for funding, if you engage in major gift fundraising, your ability to say that everyone on your board contributes financially to your organization can mean the difference between receiving external funds or not. I've written about this question elsewhere. Your board is free to set any policy it wants on this question. But set it knowing the potential consequences.

We must collaborate, as partners, with the CEO

The board and executive director form a leadership team, with complementary and equally essential roles in ensuring the agency's success. The CEO is neither neither your slave nor your boss. The CEO does not set the board agenda. He/she is your partner in moving toward everyone toward the future you desire. Treat the relationship accordingly.

 Board accountability lies in the board's hands

One thing the CEO is not: she/he is not accountable for the board's fulfillment of its responsibilities. It is not the CEO's job to goad you into doing your job. Peers discipline peers (translation: the board, usually through its leadership, holds individual members accountable for their actions or lack thereof).

The CEO can be a valuable support in developing board development plans and self-assessment processes. But carrying them out, and keeping the board on track, is the board's job.