Monday, October 15, 2007


This entry ends the four-part series on the components that make up my LeaderCulture model.

How does your nonprofit recognize the contributions of its board members? How do your board members prefer to be recognized for their contributions of time and expertise? What value do you really place on the board’s leadership of the organization?

Recognition should be freely given, varied, timely and individualized (Don’t know how an individual board member likes to be recognized? Ask!) It reinforces the qualities that your nonprofit values in its leaders and models desired contributions for others who aspire to a leadership role in the future.

When most of us hear the word “recognition,” we probably think first of appreciation banquets, plaques or certificates, and other formal mechanisms. But informal methods also can be meaningful – sometimes more than the token handed out once a year for some board volunteers (I fall into that category myself.). A sincere, timely thank you – verbal or hand-written – can hold particular power for many individuals.

Board members may appreciate less obvious acknowledgment forms. For example, some may find motivation in being asked to assume a leadership role with more responsibility. Others may appreciate opportunities to attend training sessions on behalf of the organization, events that expand both their capacity to serve and their set of skills that transfer to other areas of their lives.

Examine the ways in which you recognize board volunteers. Do you have a strong understanding of the types of motivators that drive each member? Do you attempt to tailor your acknowledgments to their preferred methods? Identify new recognition vehicles that may inspire board members in different ways. Don’t be afraid to be creative in showing your board members you value their commitment.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Visionary Lost

I’ll conclude the description of my LeaderCulture model in the next entry. Today, though, I want to honor an individual whose vision of a breast cancer-free Wyoming inspired me and countless others across the state.

Debra Wasser lost a long battle with ovarian cancer on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007. I share so many others in Wyoming the grief that comes with losing a friend, a visionary, and a leader who truly made a difference.

No one told Debra “no.” That’s how I ended up on the organizing committee for the first Komen Wyoming Race for the Cure. A mutual friend recommended that I get involved and that I meet Debra. I went to her house on a Sunday afternoon. I left with a job – and a sense of excitement about the vision she laid out.

Over the months leading up to the first race – and in the years that followed – I witnessed the myriad ways in which Debra drew others into her vision of a world without breast cancer and inspired those individuals to play a role in making that happen. They couldn’t help themselves: the picture Debra painted was simply too compelling, the cause too urgent. She had a magical way of giving life to Komen’s mission and her personal motivation for helping to fulfill it. She made us want to be part of the solution.

Debra moved on to other personal, professional and volunteer priorities. So did I. But I took away from that experience lessons about mission and passion that have carried me forward, to new challenges and opportunities. I thank Debra for that. I know I’m not alone. Countless others involved with Komen over the years drew inspiration and became empowered by the sheer sense that we would succeed, that Debra created. She truly exemplified the power of mission passion that moved people and changed lives.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Setting and ensuring direction of the organization is one of the most critical responsibilities of a nonprofit board. In fact, I’d say it is the ultimate role, from which everything else emerges.

Most of us are not present at the birth of our organization. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to be in the position of defining a nonprofit’s purpose and the vision of a better world if we succeed. Most of us enter board work committing to an existing mission and to doing the work that moves the organization closer to its fulfillment. Hopefully, we’re also taking time periodically to re-examine and reaffirm (and update, when necessary) that mission.

It can be challenging to keep the board’s focus on mission advancement amidst the “urgent” details of organizational life. But it’s essential. Board members provide leadership in asking the questions: How is this program/initiative moving us closer to our mission? What progress are we making toward that mission? How can we make the most of opportunities while minimizing challenges to forward progress? Are we good stewards of ALL of our organizational resources – are we using them as effectively as possible toward our mission?

Make a point of posing mission-related questions regularly in board work. Include a “mission moment” in each board meeting, highlighting a project or recognizing an individual or group making a particularly important contribution.

Be good guardians and advocates for your nonprofit’s mission.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Communication is the primary way a nonprofit perpetuates its mission and educates its constituents. It’s the vehicle by which members of the nonprofit conduct its business.

What we communicate, directly and indirectly, tells a lot about the value our organization places on leadership and how it identifies its leaders. This is particularly important when communicating with internal audiences. Freely sharing information helps equip people across the organization to make informed choices and take more active roles. Sharing stories helps to create common understandings and a joint commitment to mission.

Communication with external audiences advances our mission, with the potential to attract and sustain resources of all types: volunteer, financial, and policy. Communicating clearly, honestly, regularly with external audiences also creates opportunities to attract leaders to your mission and to your organization. Can community and volunteer leaders see themselves not only supporting your mission but also joining your effort to advance it? Can they see themselves in the vivid portrait of the future that you have painted?

Creating the palette from which it is painted is a joint effort, led by a nonprofit’s board. What kind of masterpiece are you creating for your community?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


(In the next four entries, I’ll explore each of the components of LeaderCulture, my nonprofit leadership model.)

Shared experiences are not only the vehicles by which we accomplish the work of our organization, they also create opportunities to build commitment to its mission.

When we have the chance to experience firsthand the impact on lives, we draw energy and understand why it is important that our organization exists. From there, our commitment can grow – along with our potential to become leaders in the mission fulfillment process.

Everyone should have multiple opportunities to participate in activities that advance the mission. The board’s role should be clear; but in all but the smallest nonprofits, board members may find themselves removed from the front line work and feeling somewhat disconnected.

Board leaders should foster opportunities to engage members in high-impact, mission-critical work. They also should create spaces in board work to reflect on how they are making a difference, as individual members and as a group. Engage members in meaningful work as soon as they commit to the organization, and help them maintain focus on how they are advancing your organization’s work in everything they do.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Creating a Board LeaderCulture

As I’ve continued my journey of understanding the nonprofit sector and nonprofit governance, I’ve developed my own conception of leadership within this setting.

The name, LeaderCulture, reflects my belief that leadership is a cultural phenomenon -- it flourishes in a collaborative culture of shared commitment. LeaderCulture is based on four factors: participation, communication, direction and recognition. I’ll discuss the thought behind the model. Then I’ll discuss each factor in future entries.

(Thanks to my friend, Carol Stevens of Lynx Design, for giving life to LeaderCulture!)

Lau-tzu articulated one of my inspirations for LeaderCulture this way in the Tao Te Ching:

“When [a leader’s] work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: We did it all by ourselves!’”

I’ve long believed that leadership inspires and empowers everyone, to work toward a common purpose. In the nonprofit sector, that common target is the organization’s mission. Each person brings to the effort energy, effort and commitment necessary to move the organization forward. That doesn’t just happen: we can’t train it, we can’t mandate it, we can’t cross our fingers and hope things come together. We must create an environment in which that kind of committed leadership can develop and grow.

Each of the four factors contributes to a culture in which leadership can grow and flourish across an organization. Where all intersect, the greatest potential for true leadership emerges.

Next time, I’ll begin describing how I believe each factor helps to create a LeaderCulture.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute Agenda

This blog has another short-term competitor for my time and attention: the 2007 Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute (Aug. 5-7 at the University of Wyoming campus).

I'm very proud of the agenda that our (volunteer) curriculum team put together this year. I had the pleasure of unveiling that agenda on their behalf this week, and I want to alert readers of this blog to its availability. I also want to let you know that the early bird registration deadline is next Friday, July 27.

To access the agenda, please click on this link to go to the SRNI website. There you will see a link that says "This Year's Institute." Click on that to see the agenda. If you prefer a downloadable PDF file, click on the "download agenda" link at the top of the page.

Some agenda highlights that may be of interest to local boards:

  • The opening session on "Collaborating with Main Street," featuring Mary Randolph of Wyoming Main Street
  • "Transparent Nonprofit Governance," featuring Laramie CPA Mark Mader
  • A lunchtime roundtable featuring Lorna Johnson, Jill Lloyd and Anne Bunn of the Downtown Clinic (a case study highlighting the collaborative effort that created the clinic)
  • "Effectively Operating a Nonprofit Board," featuring extension educator Milt Green
  • "Nonprofit Boards -- Governance or Not," featuring Joanne Davis of Wyoming Analytical Laboratories
You'll also be wowed by our keynote speaker, Jody Kretzmann, co-founder of the ABCD Institute at Northwestern University. Dr. Kretzmann brings deep experience facilitating successful community collaborations in a variety of settings.

Actually, you'll be wowed by our entire group of speakers. Click on the "News" link, where you'll find profiles of many of our workshop presenters (with more added daily).

Please consider joining us for SRNI 2007. If you're unable to attend personally, please consider sending members of your staff. It's a great professional development opportunity, right here in Laramie.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Problem Boards or Board Problems?

Last time, I mentioned the thought work I’m doing in preparation for dissertation research on board learning, and the reading that is helping to shape the theoretical foundation from which that work will be built.

One of the key resources for that foundation is a recent book, Governance as Leadership, by William Ryan, Richard Chait and Barbara Taylor. This text adds new insights every time I re-read it, becoming essential to the ideas behind my research questions.

You’ll be hearing more about some of those insights in the months ahead. Today, I would like to share an article based on one of the more important chapters to the model they create, “Problem Boards of Board Problems?” This version appeared in the summer 2003 issue of Nonprofit Quarterly, in advance of the book’s publication.

As I read this article, and eventually the chapter, a lot rang true based on 24 years of board work. Other notions stretched my understanding a bit, either because I had not experienced the phenomenon directly or because I hadn’t considered it in quite the way the authors portrayed it. The bottom line for these authors, which resonated immediately: that board challenges are not necessarily performance-based (though I do believe we have plenty of issues in that area), but rather that board members don’t see their purpose as compelling.

The more I read, reflect on personal experiences, and engage with boards as a member or consultant, the more that clicks for me.

I’d be very interested in any response you might have to the article. A broadly informed reality check is crucial as I proceed with exploring board learning processes. This is an important piece of the puzzle, and your reactions to their argument would help me understand better whether they are on the mark with this.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Board Summer

You may have noticed that I’ve struggled lately to keep up the posting routine that I committed to when I began this blog.

It hasn’t been a bout of laziness keeping me from my writing routine. Instead, I’ve been immersed in the topic of the Laramie Board Learning Project, spending what feels like every waking moment pondering the ways in which boards learn how to govern.

This is a critical summer in my doctoral journey. I’m developing the theoretical foundation that will help me answer the burning questions I’ve had for years: how do board members work together to create group knowledge that helps them govern better? What experiences build member commitment to organizational mission? How are boards inspired to learn and grow and increase their effectiveness? What are the primary obstacles to that kind of effort?

I’m making some hard choices about the adult learning theories that give me the best tools to research my questions. So many choices seem to contribute something to the conversation, but the right fit is my goal.

I’ll share some of my insights and emerging questions as I proceed along this journey. Being able to check my ideas against nonprofit realities is essential to me. At the moment, most of it is very, very fuzzy – and I’ve been living this for months now. I’ll spare my readers the more esoteric notions and bring those ideas that would most apply to real-life board work (and a reality check) as they emerge.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll be patient when the space between entries seems to grow. In the long run, the time I’m investing elsewhere should lead to a stronger, original voice for board development – and concrete ideas for enhancing that important practice.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Board Priorities: Public Awareness

(Part 3 of 3)

Nonprofit Congress delegates identified one final sector-level priority, “public awareness and support of the sector,” which they defined as “increas(ing) public understanding and support(ing) support so that nonprofits can continue to do their best work” (Source: Nonprofit Congress).

I’m a PR professional by training and trade, so seeing the board’s role in reaching out and raising a nonprofit’s visibility has always made sense to me. Each board member brings to the table personal and professional relationships that may be drawn upon to support the nonprofit.

Some of those connections will be clear: they involve people or groups that have a vested interest in our nonprofit’s mission. Others may be more of a stretch to find that link. Whatever the scenario, the board member can be an effective, credible voice for our organization.

Does your board recognize its members’ potential (and responsibility) as ambassadors for your nonprofit? Are they enthusiastic and willing to talk broadly about your work and your needs? Are they confident in their ability to speak knowledgeably about you? Are they not only thinking about opportunities to speak up on your behalf and, more important, are they taking them? Is this a priority for them? How can we make it a priority?

Please share your successes – and challenges – engaging board members in raising public awareness of your work by commenting on this entry.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Board Priorities: Advocacy

(Part 2 of 3)

The second sector priority identified by delegates to the first Nonprofit Congress is “advocacy and grassroots community activities,” defined as “advocat(ing) for the sector at large and engag(ing) our constituents to solve problems at the grassroots level” (source: Nonprofit Congress).

Advocacy may not pop immediately into the typical board member’s mind when asked about the responsibilities that come with the job. But I believe it is one of the areas where they can not only contribute but make a significant impact for the organization.

If we’ve done our recruitment job right, our board member peers are connected community leaders who understand and support that mission in deep ways. Besides the staff, who is better equipped to make your case with policymakers, opinion leaders?

National Congress delegates generated a list of implications for the sector if it met its advocacy goals. As I review that list again today and apply it to the organization, I see several items where board contributions in this area can truly make a difference. Among those impacts:

• Having a larger impact and a force of change on public policy
• Having a presence at the table when decisions are being made
• Adopting different ways of thinking
• Improving organizational visibility
• Increasing visibility for social change

Has your board acknowledged its advocacy role? Has it seriously discussed the specific ways in which it can fulfill those responsibilities and envisioned how that work will advance your organization’s mission? Does it understand the places where members can impact policy and effect social change?

Next time, I’ll discuss the third sector priority and consider how individual nonprofit boards can address it in their organizations.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Board Priorities: Effectiveness

Last time, I shared information and links related to the proposed sector-level priorities defined by delegates attending the 2006 Nonprofit Congress. Today, I’d like to offer some thoughts about the board’s role in addressing the first of those priorities: nonprofit organizational effectiveness.

Congress delegates identified two major areas of concern under the effectiveness banner:
  • Accountability and best practices, described as “accountable, responsive, and operating efficiently and is accountable to its clients and donors”
  • Leadership, described at the sector level as “effective and strong leadership with a focus on mission” (Source: Nonprofit Congress)
As I think about the ways in which these apply to board work, I see some pretty clear connections. In fact, I’d say the two elements are the essence of nonprofit governance as we currently define it.

If you’re on a board, you know the accountability responsibilities well. A longtime bottom line of the job is careful stewardship of all of a nonprofit’s resources: financial, human, etc. Funders, clients policymakers and the public expect us to behave in ethical ways, monitor use of resources closely, and treat employees and volunteers fairly. That spotlight has become blinding, as scrutiny from many sources (rightly so) continues to increase pressure on boards to attend to these concerns. The calls for attention to accountability issue are strong, occasionally overpowering.

Leadership is equally critical to governance. As a board, we are charged with defining and advancing the mission of our organization. We should be continually asking ourselves: How does the decision we’re about to make move us closer to achieving our mission? Is there any chance that it will divert us from our highest priorities? Will our community, however we define it, be better off because we’ve taken this step?

Both are equally critical to the success and vitality. Both are places where governing boards have not only ultimate responsibility but true contributions to make.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Sector Priorities-Board Roles

Our individual nonprofits act on mission-based priorities every day. Do similar priorities exist for the sector itself and, if so, what might they be?

No official “nonprofit priorities” list governing the sector exists. However, a 2006 gathering of practitioners, the Nonprofit Congress, yielded both rich conversations about their work and consensus about three broad priorities for the health of the sector.

The delegate-identified focus areas were:

• Nonprofit organizational effectiveness
• Advocacy and grassroots community activities
• Public awareness and support of the sector

They also identified an overarching goal within each priority, representing greatest potential for advancing the sector.

I’ve been pondering those priorities since the Nonprofit Congress announced them in its post-meeting report. Since board work has become the lens through which I view most topics lately, that focus has turned to identifying the governing body’s role in achieving them. In coming entries, I’ll share some of my ideas about board leadership for each priority area.

In the meantime, I’ll offer links to portions of the Nonprofit Congress website. For the Congress home page, click here. For the list of priorities and a brief description of each, click here. To access a copy of the meeting highlights, including notes from the conversations leading to the priority list, click here.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Committee Chair-No Solo Act

If you’ve served on a nonprofit board for any period of time, you’ve undoubtedly had opportunities to lead board and/or organizational committees.

Charity Channel’s online Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review published an interesting article last week (“Serving as a Committee Chair is Not a Solo Act”) that I thought I’d share with you, by Paulette Vinette. As I look to my current committee leadership assignments, Vinette’s brief piece offered a timely reminder of the importance of the responsibility.

The article’s title should make Vinette’s premise self-evident: committee leadership requires a focus on participation: the right individuals, drawn together for the right reasons, working toward the right goals. Committee leaders must think broadly about the voices and talents that they bring to the table, about how they will engage those individuals – and others – to achieve goals that advance the organization’s mission.

I invite you to read Vinette’s piece (click on the article title in the first paragraph to access it) and offer your thoughts and experiences. How do you envision your role as committee chairperson? What are some of the greatest rewards of the work? The challenges? How do you create a rich working environment in the committees you lead?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Boomers: An Undertapped Resource?

This week, the topic of recruiting Baby Boomer volunteers came up in a presentation I delivered on the sector. The context: thinking broadly about recruiting new volunteers from new sources.

Boomer volunteerism isn’t new. But there may be expanding opportunities to engage Boomers as they begin to redefine retirement and the years leading up to it.

Emerging research and anecdotal evidence suggest that my generation will take a very different approach to this next life phase. First, many of us will continue working, at least part time. Financial necessity won’t be our only motivation in this shift. We may see this as our opportunity to act on our passions and ideals without worrying about contributing to pensions and paying mortgages.

This is good news for the nonprofits. While many of the Boomers who have driven the sector look forward to their own life transitions away from the stress of years doing all-consuming work, others will look to the nonprofit in our search for meaning (and a bit of income) in our later years.

We’ll also turn to volunteerism in new ways, with new commitment. As the constraints of daily life that dominated much of our adult lives begin to loosen, those of us who have given our time may find new energy to share. Other Boomers who do not share that volunteerism history may now be ready to consider taking that step. It is an opportunity that nonprofits should be preparing to address, in creative ways that acknowledge the interests and motivations of this generation.

A good starting point for understanding the potential and the challenges of engaging Boomers in new ways, visit this links page.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Nonprofit Books

As summer reading season begins, I’d like to share links to a few of my favorite nonprofit books (Click on book name to for a link.). Enjoy!

The Nonprofit Leadership Team
by Fisher Howe. I believe I’ve shared this one before, but it’s worth mentioning again. It provides a good ‘101’ overview of not only board responsibilities but also the critical importance of recognizing and nurturing the leadership partnership that should exist between the board and the executive director.

Governance as Leadership by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this one in future entries: it’s taking a centerpiece role in my dissertation research (on how nonprofit boards learn). Reading it was a paradigm-shifting experience. I continue to draw new insights – and new questions – each time I read it.

The Seven Faces of Philanthropy by Russ Prince and Karen File. While this ground-breaking research into the motivations of giving focuses on major donors, I believe we can make the case for applying the seven “faces” to giving of money at all levels and giving of time. A fascinating framework for thinking about the ways in which we match donor interests to organizational needs.

Leaders Who Make a Difference by Burt Nanus and Stephan Dobbs. The authors provide an accessible, thought-provoking perspective on the unique leadership challenges that the nonprofit sector provides.

Breakthrough Thinking for Nonprofit Organizations by Bernard Ross and Clare Segal. The authors encourage nonprofits to stretch their thinking about the ways in which they address opportunities and challenges, and to explore different approaches to their work.

Working Across Boundaries by Russell Linden. This is a great text for exploring the ways in which collaboration for the common good can be designed for success.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Few of My Favorite NP Links

This spring, I set up a social bookmarking site for my favorite nonprofit-related websites that may be useful to readers of this blog.

Click here to access that site. On the right side of the page, you’ll see a column titled “tags.” These are categories of the links I’ve provided to assist visitors in their search for online resources.

Please bookmark my bookmark site and visit again soon – I’ll be updating regularly.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My Favorite Bookmarks - Publications

I’m a reader. To me, nothing is better than sitting down with a stack of new magazines of journals, a highlighter and a notebook where I can capture the ideas that most excite me – that expand and inspire.

While they will never replace the pleasure of marking up a hard copy, the following online publications provide a great way to access some of the best and most accessible writing for nonprofits and their boards.

Nonprofit Quarterly. The print version is my nonprofit lifeline. The topics are timely and thought provoking, the writing accessible but not overly simplistic. The online version offers few articles, but whatever is posted is guaranteed to be of interest. I assign many of those online articles in my nonprofit courses; and they usually generate lively, rich discussions.

Stanford Social Innovation Review. SSIR is a fairly close second on my print reading list. The topics are more of a stretch from my natural interests, but I always find something that expands my thinking. As with NPQ, the writers and editors always manage to provide content that acknowledges both the practitioner’s need for useful information and the nonprofit professional’s intelligence. Like NPQ, SSIR posts a limited sampling of articles online.

Nonprofit World. Different in feel and tone, Nonprofit World has found its own place on my regular reading list. Non-subscribers have online access to a sampling of articles from the print publication.

Great Boards. While focused on the issues affecting its target audience – hospital boards – this online publication frequently features articles of general interest to any nonprofit board.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Laramie-Based Board Development Opportunity

One of the great joys of my life is coordinating the Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute, an annual professional development opportunity held on the University of Wyoming campus.

While I’m always proud of the quality of our curriculum and our attempt to tailor everything we offer to meet the needs of nonprofit practitioners and volunteers, I’m particularly pleased to alert readers of this blog to the wealth of board-focused topics this time around.

On the agenda for this year’s institute, scheduled for Aug. 5-7 in Laramie, are the following workshops:

• “Transparent Nonprofit Governance”
• “Effectively Operating a Governing Board”
• “Recruiting Community Leaders to Nonprofit Boards”

I’d encourage you to both bookmark our site – updates will be posted regularly – and to consider registering for the three-day event (and bring friends). It’s a great opportunity to access high quality board development in our own back yard.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Using the Board Building Cycle

Last time, we wrapped up our exploration of the nine components of the Board Building Cycle. The obvious question might emerge: now what?

I shared my approach to applying the BBC with students in my “Topics in Nonprofit Management and Leadership” course (offered through Online UW) earlier this semester, and similar questions arose. Some of their questions and concerns may resonate with readers who have read the BBC series on this blog.

The BBC model, presented as a never-ending cycle, is impressive but potentially daunting. Where do we start? Do we solve our issues at one point before moving on to the next step in the cycle? Does attention to the work described in the BBC take over our board?

I certainly advocate the BBC’s holistic approach to board development. In each phase of the cycle, I see potential to not only increase effectiveness but also enrich the experience for the board and individual members. But I also see how the big picture can feel overwhelming. If you’re intrigued but a bit intimidated by the scope of the Board Building Cycle, I have two suggestions.

First, acknowledge that your board probably is engaged in most (if not all) of these areas. You recruit new members. You orient those new recruits and provide at least basic continuing education opportunities once they are on board. You’re not starting from scratch.

Second, select one or two areas in the cycle where you believe focus will have the best chance to improve your board’s effectiveness. Could you do a better job of identifying the skills, knowledge and connections you need at the table to govern? Are there ways to more strategically engage board members in meaningful work? Do you know what motivates your members, and do you tailor recognition to fit them? Begin where you think your efforts can have success, and can make a difference to your board and its work.

As you begin to see results, explore opportunities to enhance your efforts in other areas in the cycle.

(NOTE: BoardSource recently released a new edition of its Board Building Cycle publication. Information is available here.)

Friday, May 11, 2007


Take time to celebrate board successes, large and small, throughout the year. Celebration acknowledges achievements to internal and external audiences. It also reinforces behaviors and values that perpetuate the board’s work and its sense of community.

Different people value different types of recognition for their efforts. Some prize that certificate that they receive at the annual banquet. Others consider that to be a waste of paper. Some appreciate recognition of their accomplishments in their hometown newspaper or your college newsletter. Still others respond to new leadership responsibilities and a title to acknowledge their expanded role.

Don’t assume you know how individual members like to be recognized. Aren’t sure? Ask! This increases the likelihood that you will reward people in personally meaningful ways.

Newer boards – As you achieve milestones in your efforts to establish and build your board, take time to recognize both the milestone and the individuals who played leadership roles in attaining it. Include recognition of individual and group contributions in your strategic planning and your organizational framework.

Veteran boards – Periodically review both your recognition efforts and individual volunteers’ preferences regarding recognition of their work for you. As you evaluate your recognition program, ask these questions: do we reward what we say we value? How can we better acknowledge behaviors and attitudes that we value? Do we send any contradictory messages?

Some questions to guide discussion:

• How do we mark our accomplishments?
• How do we recognize those who help us achieve our goals?
• What type(s) of recognition is meaningful to us? To our volunteers? To our donors and other supporters?
• How can we enhance our recognition efforts?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Regular, systematic evaluation of both the group and its individual members helps the board focus on progress made toward its mission, and to make adjustments when approaches taken prove to be less-than-effective. Evaluation can take many different forms, from highly formal to informal, and should be a regular part of your work.

At minimum, the board must revisit its strategic plan on an annual basis: has it accomplished what it intended to achieve in the last year? If not, why? Were the goals or deadlines unrealistic? Did you lack needed resources to complete the job? Use this as an opportunity to revise your plan and/or identify alternative ways to reach your goals. Consider making this a semi-annual or quarterly process, to help your group focus on goals and make adjustments as needed.

On a more basic level, take some time after each meeting to evaluate the experience and your performance. Did you accomplish your group goals for the session? Does everyone have clear direction for individual and committee work to be done between now and the next meeting? Was the meeting format functional? Listen and learn from the answers.

Individually, take time throughout the year to review your performance. Are you living up to the responsibilities of board membership? What tools/support/information do you need to be more effective? Where can you obtain them? If you continue to struggle to meet your obligations, should you reconsider your position on the board?

Newer boards – Build evaluative processes into your board and committee structures, and communicate from the beginning the importance of regular review of progress made and obstacles to success.

Veteran boards – Review your evaluation processes for effectiveness – do they exist? Do they measure what you intend to measure? Do they provide useful information? If not, revise them to increase their value to your board. If you do not already have evaluation processes in place – at the board, committee and individual level – consider instituting them at an annual (minimum) basis.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• How do we measure “success,” both for the group and individual members?
• How do we evaluate ourselves as board members?
• Are our goals measurable?
• Do our evaluation tools measure the right things?
• How can we enhance these processes?

Monday, May 7, 2007


Retaining good volunteers, particularly board members, is a perpetual struggle for most nonprofits. When we find a good volunteer, we want to retain that individual for as long as we can keep him/her. However, very long-term service is seldom healthy for either the individual or the board.

Defining -- and enforcing -- term limits for board members are essential. Term limits should be spelled out in the board’s by-laws/policies; cumulative service of no more than four to six years is optimal.

Your board may want to consider a clause that allows a new term of service after taking a minimum of one year off. Requiring a break from board service accomplishes two things: it guarantees a systematic way to infuse the organization with new ideas and perspectives, and it provides the board member with a rest. (Rotating terms also allows the board a graceful way to “retire” inactive members.) Look for meaningful new opportunities for retiring members to serve, perhaps developing projects they didn’t have time to implement while on the board.

Rotation also applies to your leadership. Make a point to shift responsibilities for committee and board leadership across your membership. Give everyone an opportunity to contribute in a leadership capacity.

Newer boards – Build term limits totaling no more than six years into board by-laws. Include an option to renew only if a break in service is required.

Veteran boards -- Enforce your board term limits policies. If desired, identify more targeted volunteer roles for retiring board members who wish to continue service to your organization. Find ways to approach inactive members to explore whether board service is right for them. When appropriate, find less time-consuming ways for them to contribute.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• What are realistic terms for board members?
• What are the greatest obstacles to completing a board term?
• How do we deal with inactive members?
• How do we encourage leadership across the organization?
• How can we enhance these processes?

Friday, May 4, 2007


All board members require regular, continuing education at two levels. First, they need a solid understanding of your programs, so that they can speak credibly in their role as ambassadors for your organization. Second, they need tools to help them work effectively as a board. Education is a board responsibility – the board itself must determine its continuing education needs and how they should be met.

Education may take several different forms. Face-to-face interaction provides an opportunity for joint processing of information, debate and decision-making regarding application of concepts learned. Consider including an educational component in every meeting – even a 15-minute presentation or discussion can produce significant learning opportunities. Retreats offer this same face-to-face opportunity, in a concentrated setting and should be planned annually.

Written, web-based or audio materials also extend the “continuing education” value for individual board members. When possible, include time to discuss what they have been learning individually, to facilitate application of useful ideas and spark exchanges about broader issues as they affect your organization. ASK your board members how they prefer to learn in their personal and professional lives - and how that might be applied to their board development needs.

New and veteran boards – Include an educational component in every board meeting ( e.g., guest speaker) to address one of two educational needs: organizational (information about the organization) and board development (how to be a more effective board). Print and electronic media may be particularly useful as delivery vehicles. Establish a board development committee, or assign development tasks to an existing committee. Assign that group responsibility for identifying and scheduling educational programming.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• What are the continuing education needs of our members, and how do we address those needs?
• RE: our organization, our mission and our issues?
• RE: being effective board members?
• How can we enhance group and individual learning opportunities?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Engaged, active board members can be your unit’s greatest allies. It’s important to help each individual identify ways to use his/her talents to benefit the organization, via committee/task force participation, leadership positions and special projects. Offer each board member an opportunity to expand participation in ways that are mutually beneficial to the individual and the organization.

Newer boards – New boards have no room for inactive members. Involve each member in some important aspect of the groundwork, especially mission development, strategic planning and structure building (e.g., by-laws and board policies). Assign each member to an active committee charged with some core aspect of your mission; and provide (via the board) measurable goals, with deadlines. Build a culture of accountability from the beginning – the board must take responsibility for achieving group and individual goals.

Veteran boards – As new members are recruited to the board, work with them to identify individual interests and talents. Then assign them to an active committee that will utilize those talents immediately. Ask the committee chairperson to contact the new member to discuss the group’s activities and define ways to participate immediately. Verify that the board mentor/mentee relationship is meeting the new board member’s orientation needs; make adjustments, if necessary.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• How do we bring new members into our work and our organizational culture?
• What are our “bottom line” expectations for our board members?
• What does a “good” board member do?
• How can we enhance our early involvement processes for new members?

Monday, April 30, 2007


All new members must receive a thorough orientation to both the organization and to the board that extends the basic information already presented in the recruitment process.

Some of this orientation is informational and may be provided via fairly straightforward means (e.g., handbooks, articles, web resources) that the new member can peruse at his/her leisure. Other aspects of the recruitment process should include one-on-one contact with your board leadership and/or your dean/director, as well as additional opportunities to acquaint themselves with you and your programs.

Critical to the orientation process is early immersion in your organizational culture. Immediately assign new board members to active committees that use their interests and talents. Engaging new members in stimulating and useful work builds understanding and commitment and draws them deeper into organizational operations. It gives them a role in the larger process.

Consider assigning new members a mentor, or “board buddy,” for the first six months to one year. A mentor’s duties might include meeting periodically with the new board member and being available to answer questions about the organization and/or the board’s work.

Newer boards – Develop an orientation process, preferably face-to-face, and institutionalize that process into your operations. Consider flexible delivery options to make the process as easy as possible for the new member (e.g., meet individually at his/her office or home, schedule group or individual sessions immediately before or after a board meeting). Use print and electronic vehicles to augment the learning process and reinforce messages/expectations conveyed verbally.

Veteran boards – Assign board mentors to new members, with the expectation that the mentor will work with the recruit for at least six months. If logistics allow, consider adding the expectation that each board member will serve as a mentor at least once during his/her term. (Mentoring frequently strengthens the experienced member’s understanding of the board/organization and revitalizes that person’s commitment to your work.)

Some questions to guide discussion:

• What do new board members need to know to succeed?
• How do we orient new board members?
• What works well in that process?
• What could be improved?
• What would an effective board mentor program look like?

Friday, April 27, 2007


When you identify a good match of board need and individual qualities, it’s time to invite the prospect to become a member. Any invitation should include a description of what the board needs/expects from board members. Don’t minimize your requirements – it is better to provide an accurate picture and be turned down than to bring on board someone who is unwilling or unable to fulfill his/her responsibilities later on.

Recruitment should be a two-way process that provides the prospect an opportunity to ask questions and clarify expectations ahead of time. You may want to include a trial period, e.g., ask the recruit to visit one or more meetings before a commitment is requested. This will allow the prospect and board to get acquainted and to test the fit before a commitment is made.

Newer boards – Identify baseline materials needed to bring board members up to speed as they join the group, and create a board handbook for distribution to all new recruits. Select a format (e.g., three-ring binder) that allows updating as they receive new printed information. As you recruit charter board members, target individuals who can be active. Establishing and developing a new board is labor-intensive work that should be shared by all members.

Veteran boards – Consider requiring prospective board members to visit at least one meeting, and giving them a chance to ask questions about that visit, before making an offer to join. As new recruits join, present them with a board handbook (including minutes from at least two previous meetings) and spend some time (board president, board mentor or other designee) reviewing its contents with them.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• How do we recruit prospective board members?
• What information do we provide to assist them with their decision?
• How can we diversify our pool of recruits (and referral sources)?
• How could we improve these processes?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Cultivating prospective board members should never be a blind process. Boards should carefully consider whether an individual would be a good fit. Describe your needs to current board members, organization staff and friends and ask them for recommendations. Approach constituency groups for names of prospects on a regular basis. Remember – cultivation is a year-round process.

Consider non-board volunteers in your pool of prospects: they have already identified themselves as supportive of your programs and demonstrated that support by sharing their time and talents.

Once prospective board members have been identified, find ways to connect with them, gauge their interest in your organization, and update them on new developments. Ask them to volunteer for specific projects. Add them to your publication mailing list. Make sure they receive invitations to events. Begin increasing quality interaction and information sharing with your prospects.

Newer boards – Identify volunteer leaders in other areas of your organization who have demonstrated an interest in your work and in helping you achieve your mission. Keep them informed about the board’s work and show how that work fulfills your organizational mission. Build interaction opportunities between the board and other key volunteers into your annual planning calendar.

Veteran boards – If you already have an advisory group, use that body as a prime cultivation source: individuals have already shown a commitment to your organization, and board service is an appropriate “next step” in deepening that commitment. Continue to build in joint interaction opportunities for all of your volunteers, including the board.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• How do we identify and approach prospective board members?
• What groundwork do we lay (e.g., how do we inform them about our activities, how do we include them in our work) before prospective board members become recruits?
• How could we improve these processes?

Monday, April 23, 2007


Effective boards bring the right mix of talent and energy to their volunteer service. While it is tempting to find anyone willing to fill a slot on your roster, it’s more important to think strategically about the human resources that your board needs to succeed. When many boards assess their needs, they focus on demographic characteristics -- e.g., gender, ethnicity, age, and residency. In fact, there are other factors that your board may want to consider, including:

• Skills (e.g., fund raising, public relations, special events, accounting)
• Knowledge (e.g., art history, K-12 education, medicine)
• Connections (e.g., constituency liaisons, “people who know people”)

Your group likely will find that a mix of perspectives and talents will be optimal. Once you’ve listed the range of needs that your organization requires, take some time to identify the qualities and skills that your current members bring to the group. (Don’t assume you know the answer to that question – board members may individually identify “hidden” talents that they’ve never disclosed before, usually because no one asked). Using your board’s needs list, ask each member to indicate what skills, knowledge, etc., he/she brings to the group, then create a group profile. Doing so will uncover the obvious – and perhaps not so obvious –- contributions that individuals bring to the board. It also will unveil the gaps that can be used to guide recruitment of new members. As you embark on this process, you may find value in creating a grid similar to the example provided in the appendix.

Newer boards – As you develop your group, spend some time discussing what qualities and voices you need to accomplish your goals. Do you need representation in specific geographic areas? Specific educational backgrounds or professions? People who know major gift prospects? People with access to specific stakeholder groups? Volunteers with a record of supporting your unit? New people looking for a way to get involved? What is the right mix of needs to help your board do its work?

Veteran boards – Include a regular (annual) assessment of board skills/needs and the contributions that current board members bring to the group. Use that assessment to identify gaps, and let that information guide your recruitment process.

Some questions to foster discussion:

• How do/will we identify needs for board membership?
• How do/will we identify the qualities that our current board members bring to the group?
• What are our biggest board needs?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Board Building Cycle

In my years of work with nonprofit boards, I’ve encountered a handful of writings and tools that stand out above all others in their creativity and applicability to the real organizational lives of these governing bodies. One of those seminal models is the Board Building Cycle (BBC).

The Board Building Cycle, developed by Marla J. Bobowick, Berit Lakey, and Sandra R. Hughes for the National Center for Nonprofit Boards (now BoardSource), offers a framework for understanding the complex processes required to develop strong, proactive governing and advisory boards.

The BBC offers a thought-provoking way to understand the factors that impact board performance. Understanding is the first step toward enhancing that performance. Most boards manage to engage in activities that produce most factors, though with varying levels of success. Generally, individual boards may show strength in one or more phases of the cycle and struggle with others.

Over the next three weeks, I will share my interpretations of each phase of the BBC cycle. I also will offer some application recommendations for both veteran and newer nonprofit boards, and some basic questions to initiate meaningful discussions about each stage of the cycle.

* Graphic reprinted with permission from The Board Building Cycle, by Marla J. Bobowick, Berit Lakey, and Sandra R. Hughes, Copyright 2000, National Center for Nonprofit Boards. For more information about NCNB (now BoardSource) call 800-883-6262 or visit

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rewriting the Job Description – Round 2

Last time, I began sharing my early attempt to create my own nonprofit board member job description, one that speaks to the broader, unique contributions of governance. Today, I introduce the second half of this work-in-progress.

In the AMBASSADOR role, the board member acts as boundary spanner – reaching out from the organization and building relationships with key stakeholders. As community leaders and volunteers, board members have a credibility that staff on the organizational payroll can never have with many audiences. That gives great power to the contacts that board members make – power to engage donors and potential donors, policy makers, opinion leaders, volunteers and others. Whether these contacts occur in a formal setting, or in the informal interactions of daily life, they carry great potential to make a difference and build support.

The VISIONARY role may be the biggest stretch for the board – and the hardest to squeeze into the press of everyday responsibilities. But it may be the one of greatest long-term importance. It’s where the board creates the future: anticipating the issues and opportunities, generating ideas that shape what the organization will become. Boards must make time for visionary work, to generate a compelling image that will inspire greatness within, and commitment to, the organization.

In reframing the way board work is portrayed, I hope to balance the emphasis on the fiscal with the equally critical roles that often take a back seat. They’re all important, they’re all the responsibility of a nonprofit’s governing body. They are all worth our time and energy.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Rewriting the Job Description

Between ongoing preparations for my dissertation research and my real-life responsibilities serving on nonprofit boards, I’m spending a lot of time these days pondering the ultimate contributions – and the most compelling responsibilities – of governance.

One thing that’s been troubling me of late: the increasing emphasis on the oversight tasks of board work. Obviously, organizational accountability is critical work, work that falls squarely on the board’s shoulders. Educating board members about those responsibilities and helping them be as effective as possible in carrying them out is vitally important.

However, I fear that we risk minimizing equally vital functions that require board leadership in our intense focus on this one area – functions that not only sustain the organization but also create a rich future that moves closer toward its mission.

As I’ve attempted to put my concerns into context, I’ve begun to articulate an alternate job description that comes closer to describing in a balanced way the areas where board members can not only fulfill governance obligations but also make a specific unique impact.

My job description is very much “draft,” a work in progress. But I’d like share where I’m headed right now, and welcome feedback that might help me refine my thinking.

Right now, I see a four-role model:

* Steward
* Leader
* Ambassador
* Visionary

I’ll conclude this entry with a brief description of the first two roles. My next entry will describe the other half of the model.

As a STEWARD, the board member takes responsibility for appropriate use of the organization’s resources – human, financial and reputational. Boards spend vast amounts of time – appropriately so – setting budgets, approving and monitoring expenditures, and other duties involving numbers. But stewardship extends beyond money: it’s doing everything in your power to ensure that your nonprofit meets all legal requirements and the highest ethical standards. Stewardship is more than oversight. It’s protecting and growing resources to help you achieve your mission – and ensuring that what is given is used effectively toward that purpose.

The board member as nonprofit LEADER shines the light on the organization’s vision and mission – and on the processes and relationships that facilitate them. Leadership is a partnership, between board members, and between board and executive director. Leadership defines and supports mission, and ensures that all decisions – particularly program selection – move the organization in that direction. Board leaders speak up, and out, about issues that impact their mission and their organization’s capacity to meet it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

On the Right Track – Perhaps!

It won’t go down as my greatest speaking performance ever, but a recent opportunity to share some of my research on board learning at the UW Graduate Student Symposium provided a bit of a rush nonetheless.

The reason: a warm reception to the ideas behind the research I was describing – and the dissertation research on nonprofit board learning that lies along the horizon.

My talk described qualitative research conducted last summer, a case study focusing on nonprofit board meetings as learning events. A local board welcomed me into its fold for a brief ("brief" for qualitative research) exploration of a strong, diligent governing body learning in action. What I found, in a very short period of time, was quite intriguing and exciting. (I’ll save the themes that emerged for a future entry.)

The Q&A that followed included multiple expressions of support for the foundational idea: that board learning is far more comprehensive, and far richer, than the out-of-context training events that most of us summon in our minds. Audience comments also encouraged me to continue to explore practical ways to communicate whatever I learn in the research process, to benefit nonprofit boards.

Among the possibilities I’m envisioning: print, electronic and in-person sharing of key ideas, including recommendations for how to use that information; new strategies for recruiting board members; different frameworks for defining board member responsibilities and assessing individual and group performance; recommendations for enhancing formal experiences like training events and retreats; development of resources for nonprofit boards interested in learning; and, ultimately, a comprehensive board development model.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mission Moments

Suppose that your board heeds Earl Nightingale’s call to “become what we think about” (see Monday’s entry) and decides to be more deliberate in focusing on mission. It sounds good. It sounds downright exciting. But…

The agenda for your next meeting is more than action-packed – filled with budget approvals, personnel policy updates, proposal approvals, etc. Where in the world will you find time to delve into the reason behind it all? There is plenty of room to debate whether we’re structuring our meetings as effectively as possible. For today, though, let me offer up an idea that your board may find workable: the mission moment.

A “mission moment” involves taking time – not a lot of time – to set aside the routine and learn about the ways in which your organization is working toward its mission. Look for ways to illustrate your story for your board. Share a case study, an individual or group who received support from your organization – or, better yet, invite the client to share the story in person. Read testimonials, kudos and letters of thanks. Find creative ways to illustrate progress made by the program, beyond the usual graphs and charts. Invite front-line staff to share brief presentations on the work they do on a daily basis.

These breaks do not need to consume vast amounts of time. But their potential to energize, to make what the nonprofit does real, is significant.

How would you use your mission moment? Please share your ideas in a comment.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Becoming and Thinking

"We become what we think about."

That quote by Earl Nightingale, which has gotten me through some of my greatest life challenges, serves a slightly different purpose today: inspiring me to focus on exciting new opportunities that lie ahead.

I’m working hard to keep my eye on my future (doctoral work – including dissertation research -- and a new life chapter that will follow that major accomplishment) while juggling multiple daily responsibilities. Some days are easier than others, but I know the investment will pay deep dividends in the long run. I also know that the ‘extras’ that take up so much of my limited free time – like that fast-approaching dissertation – ultimately feed my mind and spirit as I anticipate the future.

My eyes wandered to a copy of the Nightingale quote posted above my desk the other day. It occurred to me that these words also have potential to inspire nonprofits – and nonprofit leaders – to be more deliberate in making sure that they are making time to think about the future. It’s a challenge, to be sure. So many urgent needs of today fill our meeting agendas, demanding our attention and quick decision. We must attend to those important issues, but we must be diligent in creating and using time to think together about the future. It shouldn’t be a once-a-year kind of phenomenon, either. Boards create a better future – for their organization and those it serves – by thinking about and preparing for it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Emerging Board Structure Trends, Options

A recent edition of Charity Channel’s Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review hit home for me, because I seem to be living many of the key concepts the author described.

In “Board Structure: Current Trends and Options,” Alice Collier Cochran described some of the ways in which the shape and function of nonprofit governing bodies are changing.

As I read through each of the trends she listed, I reflected on how they were represented in my experiences serving on the board of a new nonprofit here in Laramie. In a very real way, we exemplify the emerging board that Cochran describes. For example:

We are much smaller than many of the boards of my past, with only seven members on our current membership list. That’s both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. As we’re reminded every day, there’s a lot of work involved in creating an organization from the ground up. It’s exciting work, to be sure. But it also means that everyone must be actively involved in the process and committed to the work, and that we must be especially attentive to some of the issues that appear elsewhere on Cochran’s list (e.g., accountability, member engagement, finance, focus on policy and strategy).

One of the moves of which I am most proud is our board’s decision to establish a leadership team, also part of Cochran’s lists of emerging trends. This group is charged with helping us focus on the big picture and use our limited meeting time effectively. We want to avoid becoming a surrogate board, particularly since the board itself is so small. But so far, I believe the leadership team is succeeding at keeping our eyes on the future and the important work we want to do, while also focusing on the immediate organizational tasks at hand.

I have high aspirations for this board, the organization it serves and the mission toward which we all work. One of my ‘to dos’ for the board -- board development – makes Cochran’s list. Our challenge to fully realizing this is a common one for boards: too little time to cover too many responsibilities. But ultimately, I believe that board development is an investment in the future, giving us strength to serve as effectively as we can. Finding creative ways to engage our individual and collective brains and linking what we learn to our work for the organization is the important challenge.

I’d encourage you to read Cochran’s article, found by clicking on the link above, and reflecting on how your own board might be fit the structural trends she identifies.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Addressing Issues of Public Trust

In a thought-provoking article that appeared in the summer 2004 issue of Nonprofit Quarterly, author Diana Aviv discussed several key contributors to declining public trust in the sector:
  • Sector growth. It is out pacing available resources.
  • A lack of common standards. Perpetuating this challenge is the diversity of organizations, missions and operations within the sector.
  • Doing ‘business’ in the current fiscal climate. Public sector budgets are shrinking faster than philanthropic expansion. Alternative funding sources are needed.
  • Inadequate oversight and structural problems. Existing federal and state laws are not enforced.
  • Inadequate reporting on the sector. Identifying abuses is challenging within existing reporting structures.
  • Media scrutiny. High profile fraud and mismanagement cases have hurt the sector as a whole.

Aviv offered five recommendations for addressing those public trust issues:

  • Promote transparency. Find ways to identify and separate abusers from the ethical majority in the sector.
  • Demand stronger enforcement and oversight. Advocate for improved federal and state oversight and enforcement processes.
  • Improve self-regulation. Initiate a national effort to develop uniform standards of good practice.
  • Improve the practice of individual nonprofits. Individual organizations must be prepared to take voluntary action to become more accountable in key areas (e.g., governance, transparency, fund-raising, conflicts of interest).
  • Increase awareness. The sector must take steps to educate the public, policymakers and opinion leaders about the sector and its issues – including accountability.

One of the better starting points I’ve found for exploring accountability is Independent Sector’s overview of the issue, found here.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Financial Accountability: Some Questions to Ask

What kinds of questions should board members ask as part of their ongoing financial accountability responsibilities? Here are some essential discussion focus points to start the process.

How is this action consistent with our mission? Are you using your resources wisely, advancing the mission in the process? As organizational stewards, your primary responsibility is ensuring that all resources are being used toward your purpose.

Are our finances in line with our budget? Overspending is a major accountability red flag. If you see evidence of that in your budget, find out why that is the case. Is it a matter of a budget that needs revision to meet shifting needs, or is there a broader issue of spending controls and priorities?

Are our expenses appropriate in light of donations? If possible, develop a benchmark against similar organizations to gain sense of whether your balance is appropriate.

Do we have the right checks and balances in place? Do our fiscal processes have the right types and levels of controls built in?

Source: 9/02 Board Member special issue

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bottom Line Board Accountability Actions

What are some of the specific steps that boards can take to assure accountability? Some of the more workable and appropriate recommendations I have found in answer to that question appeared in a 2002 special edition of Board Member magazine.

Among the more critical recommendations offered by various authors in that volume are:

Comply with the requirements of Internal Revenue Service Form 990. Make sure that you are doing everything possible to ensure compliance with these federal regulations.

Draft clear policies on critical areas, such as conflict of interest, fund-raising, and client protection.

Monitor executive compensation, to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between fair recognition of individual work and stewardship of organizational resources.

Adopt a code of ethics. Such a code should articulate broad ethical principles and the values underlying them. It should be the foundation for everything the organization does. Independent Sector offers a Model Code that you may find useful.

Commit to diverse board membership. Bringing to the leadership table multiple perspectives and backgrounds helps to ensure that decisions are made taking into consideration a range of considerations.

Next time, I’ll share some key finance questions that boards should ask.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Board's Accountability Responsibility

Pressure for accountability is especially strong in the nonprofit sector, which cannot exist without public trust and donor/funder confidence.

Accountability is an organization-wide responsibility, beginning with the board of directors. The board sets the tone, the board defines policies, and the board ultimately assumes responsibility for making sure that all of this happens.

To be honest, it was probably five or six years into my own board service that I even began to grasp the true gravity of the job. Understanding the depth of that responsibility has come over time, and sometimes “the hard way.” Board service is not to be taken lightly. Unfortunately, I believe many enter into the commitment without a clear understanding of exactly what it requires. I also believe well meaning people simply don't know the questions to ask before accepting a board position.

Certain aspects have received attention over the years, but a holistic approach to defining accountability is somewhat new. Fortunately, IF they know they need to be concerned about these issues, today's boards have a growing pool of resources available.

Financial accountability is a significant concern (or should be) for a nonprofit board. It's also one of the most terrifying for many members. Thinking over my own board experiences, the one piece of advice I'd take to heart - and share with others - is this: ask questions. Do everything you can to understand the organization's budget and to understand, and demand, regular reports of its financial status. If those reports do not meet your information needs, or if they are confusing, request a different system. As a board member, you not only have the right to fully understand the program's financial health. You have the responsibility to do so.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Conflict of Interest: More than Policy

As I was preparing to launch a brief series on board accountability, Nonprofit Quarterly released a teaser for its next issue, featuring an article on a topic related to those future posts: conflict of interest.

Written by Mel Gill, this article offered a thought provoking way of framing conflict of interest that should prove valuable to any nonprofit board. Today, I’d like to share that article with you, and invite your comments on it. Access “Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Conflict of Interest Demands More than Just a Policy” here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Joining a Board – Some Questions to Ask

Suppose the telephone rings one day, with an invitation to join a nonprofit board. Your friend on the other end of the line is persuasive, and the offer sounds enticing. Do you leap at the chance and say yes?

As tempting as that may be, it’s a good idea to stop long enough to ask the recruiter – and yourself – some questions to determine whether the assignment and your interests are a good fit for everyone.

Some questions I would ask in that situation:

Do I support the organization’s mission? That’s question one. If the answer is no, there is no need to proceed. Hopefully, you are already quite familiar with the organization and its mission. Better yet, you’re downright enthusiastic about its work. But enthusiasm can grow. At minimum, you should be able to say you generally support what the nonprofit is working to accomplish.

What is expected of board members? Every board has certain essential governance responsibilities. How they go about accomplishing them, and what is expected above and beyond that bottom line will vary from group to group. How often do they meet, and when? What are the roles and focus areas of board committees? Are board members expected to be involved in fund-raising? What are the expectations of board members’ own giving? How do they describe the working environment? The leadership style? Be frank in asking yourself: am I able to meet those responsibilities, and can I thrive in this environment?

In what specific ways can I contribute? Is there a place for your skills and interests in service to the organization? Are there opportunities to develop new skills through governance work? How will the organization be stronger at the end of your term?

What kinds of support exist for board members? Ask about orientation for new members and opportunities for continuing education. Is there staff support for board work, or is the governing body expected to be fairly self sufficient? Is there a foundation for board success?

You may have other questions about the specific invitation to serve before you are ready to offer an answer. These questions, however, will give you a basic sense of whether or not that offer is one in which you can be effective and truly make a contribution.

What questions would you add to that list? Please add a comment and share your thoughts.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Community Board Development – A Discussion

Today, I present the Laramie Board Learning Project (LBLP) concept to the United Way of Albany County board and agencies. My goal in making this group presentation extends beyond sharing the idea: I hope to gauge their interest in community-level board development and initiate a conversation about the idea.

What I propose emerged from a board learning needs assessment conducted last fall (see the blog archives, Feb. 10-21 entries, for details on the results). Members of eight participating boards described using a range of sources – human, print and electronic – in their personal learning. They described a willingness to incorporate similar breadth in their board learning. The Laramie Board Learning Project, beginning with this blog, is an attempt to begin providing that community capacity building.

I welcome their feedback in any form they care to share it. But I also will suggest that they visit this blog and share their thoughts in the comments section. If you’re a member of the United Way board or its agencies (or are otherwise interested in what might develop in our community), please click on the “X comments” link at the end of this entry and share your thoughts. Then visit again, to read and respond to what others are thinking.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Board Member Motivations – Emerging Research

My interest in volunteer motivation is expanding, in part, because understanding individual reasons for board service is one part of the question driving my dissertation research.

In the last two entries, we considered frameworks for describing volunteer service generally. Today, I describe on a research-driven scale developed by Canadian scholars Sue Inglis and Shirley Cleave. They reported their findings in a fall 2006 article, published in the journal, Nonprofit Management & Leadership.

The issue arrived in my mailbox as I was starting to think about the ways in which individual board member motivations might shape their participation in governance work and how they might influence their motivation to learn within the context of their responsibilities. I’m also considering how this might be useful in developing any community-level board development initiatives. (For more information on that effort, please visit the blog archives and read the Feb. 10-21 entries.)

Inglis and Cleave’s research yielded six categories of volunteer board motivations:

Enhancement of Self-Worth: “attitudes and behaviors that benefit the individuals” (p. 93).

Learning through Community: “the individual’s growth through learning new skills, learning about the community, developing strengths, and making contacts” (p. 94).

Helping the Community: “(W)orking to help make a difference in the community” (p. 95). This was the strongest of the six components.

Developing Individual Relationships: social relationships, emphasizing “the personal and individual level and on the relations one builds with others” (p. 95).

Unique Contributions to the Board: “skills, expertise, and different perspectives that are brought to the board…what individuals perceive they bring to the board and how they might be able to see things differently and make a personal difference to the challenges faced by the organization...Worthy of consideration is how these types of attitudes and motivations can be emphasized in various aspects of the board’s work” (p. 95).

Self-Healing: “(H)ow individuals may be interested in volunteering as a way of dealing positively and proactively with deeply felt personal needs and problems of everyday life” (p. 96). This one was the weakest of the six components.

It would be interesting to do our own version of this survey, to see what motivates Laramie’s nonprofit leaders. This could be useful in both recruitment efforts and in developing board learning initiatives. As always, I am interested in your thoughts about how we might use this information in ways that benefit our community.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Motivating Volunteers – Board and Otherwise

(Blogger’s note: Readers of my last entry experienced my first blog ‘oops:’ I posted part two of a brief series on volunteer motivations prematurely. Today’s entry is part one. I trust that my first little blogger’s break won’t be my last – and hope that you’ll keep reading. I promise interesting ideas and resources, whether or not they’re shared in the order I intended!)

What motivators drive volunteers to nonprofit service? Through there are different approaches to answering this question, two frameworks in particular always make sense to me. I introduced one of those frameworks in my last post. Today, I’d like to share another way of thinking about the factors driving volunteer service.

This model features four primary motivations:

Altruistic: Volunteering provides the opportunity to serve others, make a difference

Volunteering offers the chance to either learn new skills or practice existing skills

Volunteering provides opportunities to interact with (and have fun with) others who share common interests or values

Some volunteer roles offer the satisfaction of helping to perpetuate the organization (e.g., fund-raising, policy making)

I’ve been drawn to different volunteer experiences for one of more of each of these motivators. The altruistic motivation probably represents my strongest drive to serve; I volunteer, first, to act on my values. When I think about the occasional bad fits, virtually all involve experiences that were the bigger stretches from my core interests and values. Volunteer experiences have both given me opportunities to develop skills I never knew I needed (e.g., crisis intervention and victim advocacy) and give specifically of my existing talents (e.g., public relations). I thrive as a volunteer when I can interact with people who share my interests and values, particularly when they know how to have fun acting on them. And, I must be honest, one of the reasons I gravitate toward board work for the chance to exercise leadership skills and help perpetuate a strong and vital organization.

While this framework was presented as applicable to volunteers generally, it certainly offers a useful way to think about what drives individuals to board service specifically. Actually, I’ve personally experienced all of these motivators as a board member. Did you recognize yourself anywhere on the list? How does board service fill those needs?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Volunteer Motivations – Another View

Today, I’ll introduce another way to think about motivations for volunteerism. Overlaps with the framework I presented in my last entry will be clear; the terminology used may suggest a slightly different emphasis. As you read each description, please think about the potential fit to board service specifically.

Achievement: Performance counts; accomplishing goals is a driving force
Affiliation: Volunteer service has value in the relationships it creates and nurtures
Power: Volunteerism provides a chance to make an impact/shape the future.

Given that altruism on the previous list is a particularly strong personal motivator, I find myself focusing first on the power motivation here. One thing I find amazing: the tendency for so many who encounter this framework to equate “power” in this setting with common definitions that focus on “power-over” or “power-to-control” or even “power-to-abuse.” Even when I share no more than the description I provided here, “power” tends to take on meanings bordering on menacing.

While the tendency among audiences I’ve encountered has been to dismiss this framing in favor of the previous model, I believe they both have value as ways to describe the reasons people come to volunteer work generally and board work specifically. I always ask those audiences to remain open about the potential for each to describe and anticipate those factors that drive us to serve.

I’m wondering: what are your thoughts about the common resistance to this way of thinking about volunteer motivations, particularly as it might apply to board service? How might it be used effectively to help us think about motivations and the ways in which we draw upon them? Please comment, by clicking on the “comments” link at the end of this entry.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Governance - The Expressive Dimension

As I mentioned in my last entry, I’m on the board of a new nonprofit in Laramie. Over the past several months, we’ve been immersed in critical work. We’re laying the foundation for what we trust will be a healthy, sustainable organization that will serve the community in many important ways. It’s an exciting time and a rare opportunity to participate in building an agency from the ground up.

So why am I feeling so fatigued?

Recently, I ran across a January/February 2005 Nonprofit World article from a long-admired author, titled Putting the Expressive Dimension to Work. Years ago, I encountered a book by David Mason on the topic. His message resonated with me, because it acknowledged the value of my strongest personal motivations for volunteer service: the expressive element of nonprofit life.

Mason describes two dimensions of all organizations, including nonprofits:

The instrumental: “behavior that leads to a concrete, measurable goal”
The expressive: “action for direct, intangible gratification rather than for a defined goal” (p. 23)

Humans require that expressive element in their lives, Mason says, and nonprofits are particularly well suited to meet those needs. In my case, expression has come via immersion in the work of human service nonprofits, where there are many opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.

Mason’s thesis is that the current nonprofit sector environment appropriately focuses on the instrumental, ensuring transparency and accountability. While this is essential work, he says, the sector risks ignoring the expressive component.

“The swing of the pendulum has helped the sector by bringing some positive business practices, but it’s now time for the pendulum to move toward the center again, before it ceases to be a pendulum and becomes a wrecking ball,” Mason says (p. 24). “We need to recognize nonprofit organizations’ relationship to people’s expressive needs.”

I love this description of the way in which nonprofits fill that role:

“As organizations that emphasize human values above profit, nonprofits elicit great commitment and loyalty. They are communities where individuals can function without economic pressures and reach goals consistent with their personal agendas. Nonprofits are incubators for innovation without utilitarian constraints. They’re where individuals are appreciated for who they are. In short, they are our primary expressive arenas.” (p. 25)

How does this relate to that fatigue I’m feeling? As a member of our organization’s board, I must attend to the essential instrumental aspects of ensuring its success. But I also long for the chance to really immerse myself in the expressive elements, realizing the vision that drew me to the commitment a year ago. While I’m not sure we’ve articulated it this way, I believe that our board is feeling the need to balance time spent developing personnel policies and financial reporting processes with the larger purpose to which we all gravitated. That balance begins later this month, at a next-steps retreat.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Assessing Board Performance

How well is our board meeting its governance and performance goals?

That question has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m part of a relatively new board, in the midst of assessing our efforts to advance the organizational mission. Are we focused on our essential responsibilities? Are we good stewards of organizational resources? Is our board structure conducive to effective work? Can we articulate our organizational mission to others? Do we feel comfortable in our jobs?

Taking time to evaluate your board’s performance is important, to have a sense of your strengths as a leadership group as well as the areas where growth is needed. Regular, formal self-assessment – and the board and individual levels – is one critical step. Our board chose to adapt a self-assessment tool from Jean Block Consulting (go to, select the November 2002 newsletter issue). One of the reasons I like this format: it asks board members to reflect on not only the group’s efforts but our individual progress as well.

Some of us on the board feel like we’re playing dress-up in grandma's closet – like grandma's dresses, the assessment feels way too big for us right now, but we know we’ll eventually grow into the leadership role described. We’ll have more items in the “needs improvement” column than we would like this first time around, but that is okay. This group is committed to growing and expanding our service to the organization and the community.

Self-assessment need not be formal, though. Take some time periodically to stop and reflect as a group. Close your next meeting with a quick check-in: what did we accomplish this time? Did we use our time together effectively? What information did we need to make more informed choices?

Don’t forget to spend time frankly evaluating your own participation and identifying ways to improve your effectiveness. Effective boards lead effective nonprofits.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Board Roles & Responsibilities – Round 5

We wrap up our look at the 10 basic board responsibilities, with an examination of accountability concerns and recruitment and orientation of new members.

Responsibility 9: Ensure legal and ethical integrity and maintain accountability. Certainly, one could make a convincing argument for the notion that ALL organizations should strive for the highest ethical standards in daily business. But that need probably is heightened in the nonprofit sector, where credibility and public good will are essential. For the most part, we feel we can trust our nonprofits to act in the public interest. As a result, nonprofits enjoy relative freedom in their quest to serve the public good. But that freedom has limits. If your organization loses that public trust, if it loses credibility with volunteers, donors, policymakers and other key stakeholders, you have truly have nothing. That fact is the bottom line answer to the “who cares” question of ethics.

A great starting point for understanding accountability issues is the Independent Sector ( On that site, you will find a link to a 2002 publication, Obedience to the Unenforceable, which emerged from a broad discussion facilitated by IS’s Committee on Values and Ethics. One of the more important ideas that emerged for me as I read that report is the list of “essential values and ethical behaviors” that all nonprofits should share:

• “Commitment beyond self
• “Obedience of the laws
• “Commitment beyond the law
• “Commitment to the public good
• “Respect for the wroth and dignity of individuals
• “Tolerance, diversity, and social justice
• “Accountability to the public
• “Openness and honesty and
• “Responsible stewardship of resources” (p. 9).

The committee recommended a series of five foundational steps for all nonprofit organizations:

• “Adopt an organizational creed of ethical practices
• “Conduct an ethics audit or self-evaluation every year
• “Subscribe to and abide by a set of codes or standards
• “Involve all of their constituencies in the process and
• “Infuse the process and the documents into the culture of the total organization” (p. 9).

Responsibility 10: Recruit and orient new board members and assess board performance. When you identify a good match between board need and individual qualities, it’s time to invite a prospect to join your board. An invitation should include a description of expectations. Don’t minimize your requirements – it’s better to provide an accurate picture and be turned down than to bring on board someone who is unable to fulfill responsibilities later on.

All new members must receive a thorough orientation to both the organization and to the board. Some of this information can be shared in a fairly straightforward way (e.g., handbooks, articles, web resources) that the new member can peruse at his/her leisure. Other aspects should include one-on-one contact with board and organizational leadership.

Critical to the orientation process is early immersion in your organizational culture. Immediately assign new board members to active committees that use their interests and talents. Consider assigning new members to a mentor or “board buddy,” for the first six months to one year.