Monday, February 26, 2007

Basic Board Responsibilities-Round Two

Responsibilities 3 and 4 continue our exploration, focusing on the leadership team and the planning process.

Responsibility 3: Support the chief executive and review his or her performance. Nothing may be more critical to a nonprofit’s health than a strong board/CEO partnership. Building a resilient relationship between board and executive director requires an understanding and appreciation of what each contributes to leadership of the organization. Just as the executive director has significant responsibility for supporting the board and its governance work, the board supports its key management partner in important ways.

One of those ways comes in the form of regular evaluation opportunities. The board owes its director frequent and constructive feedback on his/her performance. This process is strengthened when it begins with mutually agreed-upon annual goals and objectives. Beyond this yearly formal process, board members should be attuned to the many informal opportunities to check in with their director: to understand and acknowledge the successes, big and small, and the challenges to effective organizational management.

My favorite resource on the ED/board relationship is Fisher Howe’s “The Nonprofit Leadership Team” The Albany County Public Library has a copy available for checkout. Your favorite local or online bookseller also should be able to order a copy for you.

Responsibility 4: Ensure effective organizational planning. Some may cringe when they read the word “planning,” recalling horror stories of “strategic planning” gone awry or endless examples of plans that go nowhere. As I think back on my own experiences, as a board member engaged in planning processes and as a facilitator of parts of that process, I have come to understand the importance of board leadership in ensuring that:

• planning is a high priority to the organization;
• the process is inclusive, providing opportunities for staff and volunteers to participate in shaping goals and objectives;
• flexibility is built in, to allow for the inevitable twists and turns that occur;
• the plan is an action plan, with clear identification of what will be accomplished, by whom, by when; and
• the plan is not set on a shelf until the time comes to update it – that it drive activity within the organization and that regular reviews are built into the year.

Finally, I’d like to propose that even more important than strategic planning is strategic thinking. Board members and staff should be continually focused on the horizon, anticipating the issues and opportunities that will impact their community, their stakeholders and their organization.

We'll have many opportunities to explore strategic planning and thinking in future posts. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Basic Board Responsibilities-Round One

When you signed up for your first board assignment, did you have a clear understanding of the responsibilities involved? Were you oriented to the job, and were the board’s roles described in an understandable way? Did this happen whenever you joined a new board? What are the responsibilities of nonprofit boards, anyway?

One of the more comprehensive and user-friendly descriptions of the board member’s job that I’ve found comes from BoardSource , which offers up “Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.” In the next five posts, I’ll share those roles and some thoughts about each one.

Responsibility 1: Determine the organization’s mission and purpose. Everything in governance starts with attention to mission. Your mission is your reason for being: why you exist, for what purpose. It not only defines who you are as an organization, but what who you are not, by providing reasonable boundaries that facilitate focus. Your mission drives decisions about programming you’ll offer; groups you will serve; donations you’ll accept, from whom; messages you’ll convey in your communication efforts. It drives strategic planning processes and discussions.

The National School Boards Association has a brief overview of mission (and vision) that I’ve often found helpful. The Teal Trust also does a nice job of explaining mission in a nutshell.

I’ve also drawn on these resources in retreat settings, to good reviews from board member participants:

• Grantsmanship Center. How to Write a Mission Statement.
• TCC Group. Mission Possible: Improving Your Organization’s Mission Statement.

Responsibility 2: Select the chief executive. The executive director is the board’s partner in the leadership team. Having a clearly articulated job description is essential. Going into the process with a list of the essential characteristics and skills you seek, based on that job description, is equally important. Clarity about the organization’s short- and long-term priorities as it moves closer to its mission will help you and the applicant anticipate whether or not a hire will be a good fit for everyone.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Thoughts about the Data – and the Future

Is there room for board development serving Laramie’s nonprofit boards? Responses by the eight boards participating in my needs assessment suggest that there is. As I compare responses across the sections of the needs assessment, I see potential for a handful of next steps to recommend to the boards in our community. I offer them up for your consideration and comment: do any of these ideas seem worth pursuing to build nonprofit – and, ultimately, community -- capacity?

A nonprofit community roundtable event that would:
  • Bring together members of the city’s nonprofit boards
  • Offer content that inspires and informs (suggestion: “Building Laramie’s Nonprofit Leadership Capacity”)
  • Engage other community members interested in nonprofits and the work they do in Laramie
  • A board member reading/discussion group, meeting periodically (perhaps monthly, at lunch) to explore governance topics of interest to members
  • Periodic citywide board learning events (face-to-face sessions held quarterly, semi-annually or annually)
  • A website devoted to Laramie nonprofit board learning needs and interests (the “Laramie Board Learning Project”)
  • This blog as a starting point and ongoing resource for information and discussion
  • An information clearinghouse for local nonprofits, including links
  • An online gathering point for local boards to interact, share information and initiate discussions about common issues.

Do any of these proposals seem workable for our community? Do you have other ideas for engaging Laramie’s nonprofit boards to the benefit of all? Please share your thoughts by commenting on this entry, and responding to others’ contributions to the discussion.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Creating Quality Board Development Experiences

I wrap up this series of needs assessment reports by spotlighting responses to questions that address the elements that make board development efforts successful. I asked board member participants to describe the level of importance of seven common training elements (from 1, “not important,” to 5, “essential”).

In this set of questions, examining the means seems to be a more fruitful process. Comparing the high and low ends of the scale , as I did with the topics questions, confirms the means findings/

Means for response to the question, “How important are the following to your experience of a training event (particularly board training),” were:

• Face-to-face – 3.61
• Lecture – 3.06
• Take-home materials – 2.85
• Role-play opportunities – 2.52
• Visuals – 2.52
• Small-group interaction – 3.4
• Ways to integrate – 3.65

I also asked them to rank eight common learning platforms as potential tools for delivering board development opportunities. Respondents could rank individual options from 1 (most attractive) to 7 (least attractive). Examining how frequently each vehicle was ranked first, second or third can give us a reasonably realistic picture of which choices might be most welcome in a board development program.

If we combine all first, second or third place votes for each option, the totals would look like this:

  • Face-to-face, multiple boards involved -- 33
  • Face-to-face, our board only -- 27
  • Electronic newsletter – 21
  • Print newsletter -- 19
  • Website -- 13
  • Listserv -- 12
  • Audio -- 12
  • Podcast – 2

We should be able to see some fairly clear connections between this information and the data reported in the previous entry, on individual learning styles. Do we also see potential for board development opportunities serving Laramie’s nonprofits? Please share your thoughts on that question via a comment – and return to read and respond to others’ feedback.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Individual Learning Preferences

What motivates nonprofit board members to engage in learning activities in their personal and professional lives? How do they meet those needs? The next section of our needs assessment included questions focused on the individual as adult learner.

I asked the survey participants to identify the factors that most frequently motivate them to engage in a learning activity. By a wide margin, personal interest and problem solving topped the list. Following are the percentage of respondents who identified each motivation as influential:

• Personal interest in the subject – 98 percent
• Attempting to solve a problem – 88 percent
• Seeking information about alternative approaches – 69 percent
• Wondering what others do in similar situations – 48 percent
• Responding to a requirement (e.g., mandated by a supervisor) – 27 percent

I also asked them to identify the resources they rely upon most frequently in their learning efforts. Following are their responses:

• The Internet – 77 percent
• Classes or workshops – 75 percent
• Friends or colleagues – 73 percent
• Books – 65 percent
• Newsletters or magazines – 52 percent
• Professional journals – 52 percent
• Professional associations – 46 percent
Listservs/e-mail groups – 42 percent

Two themes emerged as I considered these data sets. First, these board members appear to approach learning with a healthy mix of intellectual curiosity and pragmatic desire to be as effective as possible in their life responsibilities.

Second, they draw upon a fairly broad basket of learning resources in the process, combining interactions with others with more solitary exploration of print and electronic media.

How might we apply these insights about individual learning preferences to board development opportunities? Please comment and share your thoughts with other readers of this blog.

In the next entry, I’ll provide an overview of responses to questions specifically targeting respondents’ expectations and recommendations for nonprofit board education.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Content of Governance-Training Topics

Governance is a multi-faceted leadership responsibility, requiring knowledge and capacity to act in the best interest of a nonprofit organization and the stakeholders it serves. The needs assessment’s first section asked board members to rate their level of training on six critical governance roles (from 1, “not trained,” to 5, “completely trained”).

I quickly realized that simply considering the means on each of the topics told an incomplete story. Instead, comparing the low end of the scale (the “not trained” and “minimally trained” responses) to the high end (the “somewhat trained” and “completely trained”) might suggest the potential for more basic training needs in some areas and advanced exploration of others.

Examining the data in this way suggests that this particular group feels fairly confident (“somewhat” to “completely” trained) in the following areas:

• Individual board member responsibilities (56.3 percent)
• Board responsibilities (66.7 percent)
• Board-director relationship (56.3 percent)
• Board-community relationships (56.3 percent)

Lower levels of confidence were expressed in these areas:

• Board member recruitment and retention (35.4 percent)
• Board self-assessment (31.9 percent)

I asked respondents to rate their perceived level of training on seven core governance responsibilities in the second set of questions in this section. Results showed a similar sense of confidence, with responses to five of the seven topics falling on the upper end of the scale:

• Mission development (64.6 percent)
• Strategic planning (56.2 percent)
• Board role in fund-raising (56.3 percent)
• Program evaluation (50 percent)
• Personnel policies (58.4 percent)

Lower levels of confidence were expressed for:

• Financial oversight (43.8 percent)
• Program selection (36.2 percent)

As I review these numbers again, I’m reminded of two things. First, nowhere was there consensus that respondents are absolutely prepared to handle their responsibilities as board members. There always is room for expanded understanding and thinking about these topics in different ways.

Second, I am reminded that respondents are experienced and involved board members. They bring to the table a variety of board experiences, obtained over time, that undoubtedly have a cumulative effect on their understanding of governance. It would be tempting to focus programming on adding to this veteran group’s toolbox of resources. But in doing so, we would miss the obvious opportunities to recruit new board members who bring new energy to community and nonprofit leadership.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Assessing Board Learning Needs – The Process

The Laramie nonprofit learning needs assessment was launched in the fall of 2006. Two research questions drove the online survey:

• What are board members’ perceived learning needs regarding core responsibilities and governance capacities?
• What are board members’ learning preferences, learning and professionally?

I wanted to see if members of local nonprofit boards share any common interests and learning needs and whether they would be open to community-level opportunities if they were available. I sought information on their preferences as adult learners and on their perceived confidence in understanding critical topics of governance.

Fourteen nonprofit boards received invitations to take part in the online survey. Eight of those groups agreed to participate. Of 78 possible survey respondents, 50 individuals (64 percent) logged in and offered their insights. The respondents were:

• Primarily female (76 percent)
• Highly educated (82 percent bachelor’s degree or above)
• Experienced (average 3.51 years on the participating board)
• Involved (serving on an average 2.3 nonprofit boards simultaneously)

The survey instrument focused on two areas: the content of nonprofit board development and adult learning preferences. Next time, I’ll describe which topics board members expressed a higher level of confidence and which represent opportunities for additional exploration. In the meantime, please offer your best prediction: which area(s) do you think topped the list?

About This Blog

I started this blog, first, to share the findings of a fall 2007 learning needs assessment that involved members of eight nonprofit boards in Laramie, Wyoming. Participants helped to create a group snapshot of the factors that facilitate quality learning experiences. They described their individual preferences as adult learners. They shared their thoughts about what makes training events more effective – particularly events focused on nonprofit governance.

One of the more interesting findings of this assessment leads to my second reason for starting the Laramie Board Learning Project (LBLP) blog: support for multi-board activities that expand their understanding of nonprofit governance. This space can be a place to share the key findings of our needs assessment and to spark a discussion about meeting those needs and building community capacity in the process.

I invite you to share your reactions to the research described in future entries and to respond to others’ comments. I also invite you to share your vision about how we might collaborate to create opportunities for all of Laramie’s boards to learn and grow together.

Please bookmark this site and return often to learn more about the needs assessment and help us create a unique community learning experience.