Friday, August 28, 2015

Governance toolbox: August potpourri

We wrap up August - and summer - with a toolbox potpourri.

The three hallmarks of a dysfunctional workplace -- This one is not board-specific, but an excellent opportunity for self-reflection nonetheless. I've been a part of, observed, and participated actively in all three of the hallmarks that Crystal Spraggins describes here. I can almost guarantee that every reader - and every board member - has seen at least one in action and knows how it can completely grind productivity and creativity to a halt. Seeing these behaviors that frequently function as blind spots often is half the battle.

10 ways to become a better listener -- One thing that benefits boards - long meeting or not - is member capacity for active listening. The tips shared in this article are both appropriate "ways" to boost our attention level but reminders to resist the temptation to check out because we're bored, frustrated, or otherwise challenged by what is taking place around us. We have a responsibility to not only participate in boardroom deliberations but to speak up and hold each other accountable for staying focused on the work before us.

Fiduciary duties --  They aren't the sexiest governance roles, but the three fiduciary duties - care, loyalty, and obedience - are essential board responsibilities. We tend to pay a lot of attention to "fiduciary" tasks, but I suspect that more than a few board members truly understand the legal duties underlying them. This one must be shared and discussed with your board. Yes, must.

How should a board oversee ethics? --  I'll close with this excellent post by my friend, Richard LeBlanc. Whether the governance setting is nonprofit or corporate, each of these 10 "ways" virtually guarantees a stronger focus - and accountability - for ethical organizational performance and ethical board leadership. Some may feel more applicable to a corporate setting, but there absolutely is a nonprofit parallel if not direct connection to every one.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Creating, drawing from shared vision

Shared vision not only shapes and transforms nonprofit governance, it also drives truly meaningful board learning to feed that work.

Peter Senge's quote, from The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, didn't ping the theoretical radar as I analyzed months of data from my case study exploring learning in a nonprofit board setting

The reason may be obvious to readers following other posts this summer. By the time I sat down to report on those findings, I'd found the clear connection between that work and the community of practice framework. Once that happened, other adult learning theories and sources melted away - at least in my mind and my computer hard drive.

As I revisit Senge's quote above - and the one below - today, I have new appreciation for what he describes. Having a common vision can energize organizational learning and feed the processes that make it generative thinking.


The board I studied embedded the organization's mission, and the work that fed it, in routine discussions and activity. I believe that expanded members' need to expand that understanding, which remained at a level that increased their potential for generative learning. Their nonprofit's mission - their purpose - was a living component of their governance activities.

  • In what ways does your board create a common vision that not only keeps members focused on the task at hand but has the potential to foster excitement and commitment for learning?
  • What steps can your board take to increase that kind of experience?
  • To build greater meaning into their learning and their work?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Nonprofit governance practice: Member clarity about personal, board roles

Note: each of the next four Monday posts will explore one of the major practices that emerged in case study research uncovering an effective community of practice

Board member clarity about why they were being asked to served - before an invitation was made or accepted - provided a crucial foundation for that service.

In individual interviews with members of my case study board, one noteworthy "practice" theme emerged: clarity about the role(s) they would play as individual members. Some of that clarity could be tied to specific expertise (especially professional expertise) that they would bring to the table. For example:

I know how the profession operates and have a pretty good feel as to how other (professionals) in town think and operate from being here for 30 years. I see, from a greater standpoint, what the bigger picture is.

Being a business owner, I understand the whole financial aspect of running a business. When we have the discussions of money in and money out, where to put the money, how to save it, and what to spend – that all makes sense to me… Creatively -- when it comes to promotions, public relations – that’s all stuff that’s up my alley that I’m comfortable with. That’s where my focus lies.

Sometimes I think, or I hope, I can give insight as to what someone’s process might be with regard to their behavior or how we might do better with setting limits or having certain policies to either deal with or avoid certain situations.

Sometimes, that role/contribution could be described as coming from within, a quality that likely was invisible to board members during the recruitment phase but that the individual acknowledged as something of potential value to the governance or group process.

For example, Thomas (pseudonym) described one of his more important roles as bringing a “kind of decisive, critical attitude” to discussions.

Elizabeth (pseudonym) recognized her role in focusing the board on mission during a potentially challenging decision that it faced.

I think critically. I think sometimes ... I hope that I can ferret out what the real issues are and help with the critical thinking process. If we have decisions to make, I hope that I help.

Feedback from other members confirmed that Elizabeth’s efforts in that area were a significant gift to discussions. Her name also arose during at least one individual interview as someone who contributed in this specific way.

From a practice standpoint, we hope that new members launch their service knowing up front what is expected of them. In some ways, being able to articulate a purpose tied to professional roles or expertise (especially in mission areas), should be so mundane and expected that reporting need not have been necessary. 

In practice, that may be an assumption that is not universally accurate. Certainly, most attorneys and finance professionals probably know what kinds of knowledge contributions they will be expected to make, whether or not someone explicitly states it. And if you have fundraising experience, it's not a great leap to assume you will be called upon to at least advise on your organization's programs in that area. Similarly, if you have ties to one or more valued stakeholder groups, you can reasonably expect to help facilitate connections.

But there still are too many "any live body will do" and "friend of a friend/someone I know" approaches to filling too many board seats. From that perspective, the fact that every, single member could articulate some specific reason why he or she was recruited to serve felt noteworthy by itself. It is especially noteworthy when paired with their individual articulations of specific connections between their interests/motivations/values and the nonprofit's mission. (Studying this board's recruitment and orientation processes was one of my fantasy follow-ups.)

More to the point of the larger study of board learning, watching how members stepped up when needed to inform the group's thinking about a topic or responsibility, deepened my appreciation for the processes that produced role clarity. They knew what they could contribute - add value - to the board's larger work, and they demonstrated multiple examples of doing just that in the months that I sent with them.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Governance toolbox: Boardroom behavior

Dan's tweet launches this week's toolbox with a reminder about the importance of values to leadership. Do you know your expressed organizational values? Your board's values? Your personal leadership values? How do your actions and discussions enact those values - and your vision of the future?

How to eliminate passive-aggressive behavior in your office -- Nonprofit board meetings are not exempt from this common organizational-dynamics challenge. Heaven knows I've witnessed it in action in that setting. Hey, I've worked my own passive-aggressive muscles in that setting, too. This Fast Company post offers board leaders, and members, examples of passive-aggressive behavior (because, author Dishman is right: we aren't always aware of the variations that can emerge in groups). Naming it is half the battle. That obvious theme is helpful. But I also appreciated two recommendations shared toward the end of the post: Bandirma's call for after-project reviews (reflection-on-action!) and Nasser's suggestion to collectively identify "high-performance member behaviors." Directing members' attention to the behaviors they want in the boardroom - and those they don't want - increases the likelihood that they will work toward fulfilling the former.

7 ways to make team meetings work today -- Number seven on Dan Rockwell's list generally won't apply to boards (though it's worthy of consideration for board committees: do they all need or deserve to live on indefinitely? Probably not). But the other six offer ideas for strengthening your time together as a team. Dan recommends a self-assessment tool, available for purchase at the link he provides. Whether you use that specific vehicle, or another with a similar purpose, I can see value in engaging your board in this kind of collective/individual exploration (especially since I caught myself thinking, "The 'TJ' in my Myers-Briggs profile was raging in that meeting...").  Pick one of these recommendations, present it to your board, and see how you might use it as inspiration to spice up your your meeting potential.

Summer 2015 issue of Great Boards explores how to implement best practices; Assess/develop effective board culture -- Great Boards has been one of my favorite resources for many years. This issue, on board culture, is an excellent example of why this is the case. The two features within are general enough - and thought-provoking enough - to spark interesting discussions about board culture.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Meaning-making in generative thinking

What is generative thinking? What did I hope I might see, generatively speaking, in my time with the nonprofit board that I studied over the course of several months?

I mentioned at the beginning of the series describing that research that I hoped I might be lucky enough to see hints of generative governance, a concept described by Chait, Ryan and Taylor in their groundbreaking book, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards.

While I can't say I witnessed any full-fledged, extended examples of generative thinking/governance during my research time frame (and that's okay, because my focus really was elsewhere), I did see brief moments and discussions where the board clearly engaged in discussions and question-driven inquiry that were generative in spirit.

In the brief examples I saw during my board observations (one described in an earlier post and at least one more likely to appear later in the series), I saw the spark that has the potential to move nonprofit boards from competent governance to generative and exemplary governance. More to the point, I saw governance as leadership.

Until this very moment, I've never considered looking at my data (informally, of course) through a GAL lens. That's personally surprising, since Chait et al's book launched the questioning that became my research topic - even if it isn't officially represented in focus that I took. And, while Researcher Me has (and respects) clear boundaries that come with my choice to do a case study, Practitioner Me feels inspired to say that the kind of generative capacity observed made this board exemplary.

As I reflect on the second quote shared above, I'm torn between the "not organized" notion than the "not...equipped" idea as the difference between this board's example and those that fall short of their similar potential.

"Not organized" should be clear: too many board agendas - literal and philosophical - are structured for "action," not reflection and meaning-making. ("Action" is in quotes, because too much of it still comes in the form of approving plans developed by others and reporting on events in the past.) If we want generative work, we need generative space for it. That means space for, and value of, the kinds of questions that my study board asked and used so naturally.

"Not...equipped" can take at least a couple of directions. One, in my experience, is rarely really the case: recruitment of people who lack the capacity for generative thinking. Our boards are filled with smart people. So how do some of our governing bodies seem to end up as less than the sum of its member parts? Anyone who tries to make that case to me - and it happens occasionally - might receive one of two responses: "A lack of organizational capacity to engage the brilliance in the room is not the members' fault" or "That's the fault of a failed recruitment process, not the people you brought on board in that process."

"Not...equipped" also might be a matter of not ensuring that board members have the resources - information, stories and otherwise - they need to think and govern generatively.

  • How is  your board providing the kind of environment that is conducive to generative thinking? 
  • How is your board challenging that capacity? 
  • What might building that capacity make possible for your board and, ultimately, your organization?

NOTE: I'm collecting posts in the "Learning Theory to Governance Practice" series in a dedicated Pinterest board. Click here to access that board. 

They also are included in the board capturing posts covering this year's Nonprofit Board Learning Environments theme. Click here to access that board.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

Role clarity, learning, questions, resources: Effective nonprofit board practices

I have a confession: What unfolded under the "practice" umbrella during my case study changed the way I think and talk about nonprofit boards and the way I practice working with and supporting nonprofit boards.

From an adult learning standpoint (the discipline where my doctoral work was situated),  this is where the really meaty stuff fell. It's where theory met, well, practice: what actually happens (or not) in nonprofit boardrooms everywhere. It's where the work of nonprofit governance takes place and where the most tangible evidence was likely to come.

That last part didn't surprise. After all, I went into the months of observation and interviews expecting to find examples of board learning in the wild. What did surprise was how nebulous even these very clear, very visible activities were until I had the community of practice framework to help me organize and "see" them in a broader context. 

It's also where the intersections of evidence with both situated learning specifically and practice theories generally occurred. It's where I found the "good stuff," from a research standpoint, and the concepts that I could immediately hone in on as a board educator.

My dedication to that last one should be obvious to anyone who's read at least a week of posts here. In fact, I've been doing that since sending my dissertation off for binding. It's the juicy stuff, the big news, both from an adult learning foundation and a sector practice perspective. It's directly connected to the work of nonprofit boards - because it's actually work, with the power to drive boards to greater effectiveness.

But one thing that definitely has changed since the last time I took a serious look at my dissertation and the data behind it: the understanding that practice alone will not lead to effective nonprofit governance. What made my case study board effective - even exemplary - was the impact of these practices, grounded in the mission (domain) and carried out in the collegial peer community that they created.

That may be the ultimate contribution that this research ends up making to the governance conversation. Too many at the moment hone in on their own sets of practices as the magic, metaphorical "pills" to cure what ails nonprofit governance. If we just get our boards to adhere to these X responsibilities... If we just convince them to focus on these Y tasks... If we just restructure our meetings to do Z... If we focus solely on board practice, all of our board problems will dissolve and we'll reach governance perfection....

Um, no. Probably not. I more or less knew that to be true when I originally closed this research. But today, I have a better understanding - and greater conviction - that that is the case. Practice is one important part of the nonprofit board package; but it is only a part,  not a savior.

There is no way I can do justice to the larger package or the individual, major findings under each of these four factors today. I went into this post thinking I might cover this in two entries, two factors per entry. Instead, I think I'll close this context-setting post and plan to discuss each practice in a separate entry over the next four weeks.

As I prepare to do so, I'll offer one new caveat about what will follow (and this larger "practice" message from my research). These four practices emerged in this particular setting,  viewed through an adult learning lens. Just as I would never ethically encourage anyone to generalize my qualitative research, I also would never claim that these four practices alone will lead to board perfection. I believe my evidence to show their power. But I will never say that only these four practices matter. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Governance toolbox: Reaching out - board participation in fundraising and advocacy

Why not open this week's toolbox with this tweet? The sentiment fits nonprofit leadership (including board leadership) perfectly. And, as someone with an out-of-control office supply fetish, the graphic caught my eye immediately. The Maxwell quote feels like an especially germane follow-up to the storytelling theme in Wednesday's post. It also addresses a critical element of effective nonprofit advocacy and fundraising. We reach others - and motivate others - through powerful stories and connection of our mission to their interests.

Get the most from your board! A checklist for greater member engagement -- Who says there's not a way for board members to participate in the fundraising process? It's tempting to equate that engagement with asking people for money. But the truth is, there are other ways for even the shyest member to participate. This quick checklist reminds us of that. I can easily see using this post as a starting point for a discussion about both how we can expand our collective definition of what it means to "participate in fundraising" and how each member can find steps along the way to be part of that process.

Advocacy: An essential board responsibility -- If you've done any reading in the nonprofit literature lately, you already know about the increased call to push boards to accept - and lead from - their advocacy responsibilities. Gene Takagi offers an excellent overview (with links) of a lead driver of that push, BoardSource's Stand for Your Mission campaign. 

I'm a 20-year-old student and this is why I'm not coming to your fundraiser -- Whether by necessity or by the interest of those who serve, many nonprofit boards find themselves planning or participating in organizational fundraisers. Whether or not you're actively courting 20-year-old students, the advice offered here can serve as a much-needed reality check about what motivates many of your potential supporters to participate. (I haven't seen "20-year-old college student" in the rear view mirror in decades, and I found myself saying "amen..." to every single item on the list.) 

7 threats to nonprofit fundraising sustainability -- We can have spirited conversations about whether fundraising is a governance responsibility (versus something that many boards do). But one thing around which I hope we can find easy consensus is the board's foundational role in ensuring the organization's financial stability. The "threats" described in this Third Sector Today post by Dan Quirk affect not only fundraising specifically but our broader financial health generally. Board members should be thinking and governing strategically, anticipating and addressing the threats (and others) that impact their stability. They also need to be tending to the fiduciary challenges that arise when these threats become real.