Monday, December 28, 2009
Part one, "The research: Finding focus," describes the focus of the study, as well as my motivations for embarking on the project.
Part two, "The theory behind the research," introduces the theoretical perspectives underpinning my work.
Part three, "Domain: The board's reason for being," outlines the key findings of this component of a community of practice.
Part four, "Community: The organizational foundation," discusses the second component and the findings that supported it in my research.
Part five, "The practice of effective boards," shares the compelling findings that illustrate the third component of a community of practice.
Part six, "Research: Takeaway messages for nonprofit boards," wraps up the series and offers four of the most critical findings that would benefit governing bodies.
As I continue to work with the findings of my dissertation research, there are several key messages from this work that I would share with nonprofit boards.
It’s quite likely that none of these messages will surprise veteran board members. What I can provide, via the case study behind this research, is a positive exemplar for other boards. This group demonstrated that these principles foster the capacity to govern more creatively and effectively.
Here are my four top takeaway messages for nonprofit boards:
A constant focus on mission is critical. This should be obvious, since mission is the reason nonprofits exist and the primary responsibility of the board. But we all know how challenging it can be to maintain this focus amidst the distractions and day-to-day concerns of nonprofit life. There are many ways in which boards can ensure that mission remains at the center of their work. Here are some specific recommendations I can make, based on the case study data:
Role clarity is essential, in recruitment and beyond. Before your board approaches anyone to join you in service, be absolutely clear about the contributions you expect a new member to make. Use that information to help identify prospective board members (from a pool of people who support your mission, of course). In your recruitment efforts, be up front with what you expect the individual to add to the board’s capacity to govern. I am convinced that one of the single greatest factors in the study board’s capacity to govern effectively and creatively is the fact that members are clear about why they are there and where they can best provide situational leadership.
Recognize, value and use peer learning. I obviously anticipated expanded understanding of how boards learn naturally in their routine governance, without the intervention of outsiders in formal training events. What I did not anticipate is the strength and breadth of peer learning as discovered in this case study. I also did not expect to find such value in the second, non-expert, role in that process. Conceiving of that as a “role” may be a stretch, but the bottom line is noteworthy for anyone serving on a nonprofit. Do not be afraid to ask seemingly “naïve” questions. Acknowledge that is an important part of the deliberation process to introduce an outsider’s perspective to a question for which there is an obvious response. Value and encourage both ways in which members contribute to board learning – as experts who have knowledge to share and as non-experts who can challenge assumptions and encourage broader thinking.
A safe, respectful environment is critical. I’ve admitted elsewhere in this series to being most energized by the general fit to a community of practice found in the case study board and to the specific findings that supported the domain and mission components of that framework. But the fact is, without the strength of a supportive community, nothing else is possible. Members of the study board regularly and unanimously described their relationship as one of respect, trust and collegiality. These factors are so essential that they may be largely invisible to effective group processes. That should not be the case. It is important to actively foster an environment where board members feel safe to interact openly, disagree when needed, and come together to fulfill a common governance call.
This concludes the series introducing my dissertation research to a wider board audience. Each post in the series offers only a brief introduction to its topic. I undoubtedly will return to many of these topics, to explore them in greater depth. I look forward to building upon this brief overview, of both sharing my own knowledge and learning from your good examples.
In many ways, this is only the beginning -- of my understanding how effective boards govern, how they engage in generative governance, and how they create communities of practice where they can focus on their leadership role in fulfilling organizational mission. It certainly is the beginning of my scholarly exploration of boards as communities of practice. It also has transformed my understanding of my contributions as a consultant to nonprofit boards and as a part of the broader discussion represented in this blog.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
While the entire community of practice framework offers great value for conceptualizing the work of nonprofit boards, and all three components contribute to its descriptive value, I must admit that I was particularly energized by my findings under the practice umbrella.
Four strong themes arose in the practice data: peer learning, member questions, role clarity and learning resources.
All four add explanatory power, to be sure. I am especially interested in the ways in which the first two on that list – peer learning and member questions – are encouraged in board meetings. Fortunately, the case study board offered vivid examples of both phenomena.
Role clarity. I need to acknowledge this factor before sharing those examples, because it provides the foundation for peer learning. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this series, members entered their service on this board with strong clarity about why they were recruited and how they were expected to contribute to the group.
Most members articulated responsibilities connected to their areas of expertise and knowledge of the organization’s mission area. Some individuals recognized that offering a different perspective on an issue or being able to engage the group in critical thinking advanced the group learning process. Clarity about what they could contribute empowered members to take an active role in board deliberations and learning opportunities.
Peer learning. I identified two roles that members play in peer learning. First is the obvious role, as a board expert on a skill area (e.g., financial management, public relations, human resources) or on the organization’s mission area. While I witnessed multiple examples of board members sharing their expertise in routine board work during the study period, two instances stand out for me.
In the first instance, during time set aside to discuss financial reports, a board member with fund-raising expertise raised concern about the convergence of several factors likely to impact the agency’s capacity to meet community needs. This board member raised issues that others likely already knew – that demand was likely to increase at the same time that access to resources (e.g., grants and individual donations) could decrease. She took the initiative to articulate those strategic challenges, encouraged fellow board members to consider how to anticipate and adapt to a changing environment.
This board member suggested ways to respond proactively within their fund-raising activities, offering examples of steps they could take. Two meetings later, at the board’s request, she led a led an educational discussion focused on the board’s role in cultivation and stewardship of donors. She drew upon her development expertise to introduce several ways in which the board could take a more active role in fund-raising. She then facilitated a discussion ended with a board plan to expand its role in maintaining a strong agency donor base.
The board’s treasurer provided the second example I want to highlight here. During a one-on-one interview, the treasurer and I discussed her concern about the challenges that financial reporting and budget issues pose for many individuals serving on nonprofit governing bodies. Part of the job she accepted as treasurer was helping her peers be get past any fears so that they can embrace their fiduciary responsibilities.
“I try to put myself in the board’s shoes,” she told me. “What is it that’s really important in an oversight role?” Her monthly reports spotlight those critical elements. She also highlights any outliers that may appear to be unusual, offering explanations and recommendations when needed. As one of those board members who lives in perpetual fear of missing something important on the budget front, her leadership of group learning is appreciated and admired.
I mentioned two roles that members play in peer learning. The less obvious role, but also important to effective board deliberations, is that of the non-expert. Members need to be willing to ask questions, challenge “common sense” assumptions often made inside professional areas. They need to be willing to offer other perspectives, from different life experiences and expertise areas, to deliberations. They need to be willing to be naïve questioners in service to the organization. The board I studied provided ample evidence of members’ capacity to play this learning role.
Member questions. Meeting observations yielded several illustrations of how questions posed by board members functioned to direct, clarify, and expand thinking. Observing who asks what types of questions, and how those questions focused board discussions and resulting decisions, was one of the more fascinating and powerful aspects of data collection.
For example, I observed how one member frequently posed questions that prompted the board to consider the importance of including other voices in deliberations. She regularly reminded them of the value of inclusion, often through her strategic use of prompts.
How does this impact our mission? The frequency with which that question was raised in routine board discussions was remarkable (Part three of this series offers an expanded discussion.). Equally remarkable was the way in which that simple but essential question focused the board on its ultimate responsibility, guarding and fulfilling organizational mission.
Governance learning resources. The fourth factor impacting practice focuses on the resources that board members rely upon to understand the work of the organization and their governance responsibilities.
Members referred to two print resources as essential tools, meeting minutes and the written summary of the executive director’s activities between meetings. They described the minutes as important records of organizational history. They described the executive director’s report as a valued resource for understanding agency operations that also helps them use meeting time as effectively as possible.
This board is unusual, because one current member also was part of the nonprofit’s founding group. While most governing bodies do not have that opportunity, it does speak to the importance of having access to organizational history in governance work. Context is not only inevitable in the situated learning of nonprofit boards, it’s essential to making good decisions. Balancing experience through member retention with the fresh perspectives that new members bring to the table helps to foster rich and thoughtful discussions that lead to effective decisions.
Next, I wrap up this series with a few closing thoughts and recommendations.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
“Community” in a community of practice is demonstrated in the relationships that develop among members that create an environment conducive to working and learning together toward their common interests.
None of the community-building factors uncovered during my multi-month study of a local nonprofit board should qualify as shocking. Rather, they offered ample evidence of how those factors work together to facilitate effective governance. I found three “community” themes: member recruitment, leadership and climate.
The practitioner in me couldn’t help being pleased to find frequent references to the importance of deliberate, systematic decisions about who should be at the boardroom table and why. This should not be remarkable, but I’ve seen (and, yes, participated in) enough “any live body will do” dashes weeks before an annual meeting vote to know that many boards can learn from this group’s example.
Before embarking on a quest for a new member, the board is clear about what it seeks in recruits. The group outlines what skills, perspectives, stakeholder group representation it needs before approaching potential new members. Most interesting to me was the fact that each board member could describe clearly why they were recruited (skills and mission connection) and how that knowledge prepared him/her to assume a share of the leadership responsibility.
It wasn’t the flashiest finding of this study, but it may be the most important. Ensuring that the right people are at the table, bringing the necessary resources and clarity about why they are called to serve, makes reaching full governance potential possible.
Members described three primary sources of leadership in interviews and focus groups. Two of those sources, the executive director (who was openly acknowledged as a leadership partner) and a founding board member, were readily identified.
The third source was perhaps less visible to the board but one that practitioner me would describe as the most critical: the situational leadership role that each member played at different times in board work. This relates directly to my earlier observation about recruitment. Members understood the expertise they were expected to bring to deliberations and to facilitate the board’s understanding of the issues as it made decisions. They also demonstrated this capacity several times during my observations, giving me the chance to see how individual members rose to the occasion when the board needed their guidance.
Two contributors to climate - structure and collegiality - won’t stop any scholarly presses; but without them, the board’s capacity to engage productively in governance work.
Board members described in detail how meeting structure, with the help of a concise agenda, facilitated effective use of their time and focus on the tasks at hand. While no agenda is perfect, or is perfectly followed, consensus was that the agenda format made the most of limited time given by these volunteers.
Trust and respect arose often in descriptors of an environment where board members felt comfortable contributing their perspectives, even when they disagreed with those posed by others. Members of this board trust each other to act in the best interest of the organization. They respect each other’s expertise and discernment in deliberations that lead to actions impacting the organization and the people it serves.
Community may not be the point where the most compelling evidence materialized in my research, but it is the fabric from which generative governance was cut.
Next: the third (and my favorite) community of practice component, practice.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
This is part three of a multi-post series describing my dissertation research, on nonprofit boards as communities of practice. Today, I discuss the findings that support the first component, domain. Click here to access part one (the research) and here to access part two (the theoretical perspectives that informed my work).
The power and presence of mission – the domain of a nonprofit community of practice – in my observations was surprising and striking.
Yes, I know that mission is the reason nonprofits exist, and that the most important responsibility of boards is guarding and upholding that mission. In practice, both as a board member and a consultant to boards, I know that the kind of focus I witnessed is a rare and wonderful thing.
Early in the first meeting observation, as the board was considering a request from a colleague working in the same field, a member asked one simple but profound question: What about the mission?
Perfectly diligent boards would have taken the request, accepted the short-term benefits to the organization, helped a colleague, and moved on. In this case, posing the question prompted the board in my study to consider legitimate impacts on donor and volunteer relations, the agency’s staff, and potential granting sources. In the end, members decided that fulfilling the request stretched their mission too far.
This early and remarkable example set the tone for one of two sets of findings related to the domain: the ways in which mission served as the foundation for board work and member motivations for serving.
Mission focus. The deliberation just described illustrates what I call mission focus, one of three factors that fell under the “mission” umbrella. This side of the domain equation also included definitions of success and members’ commitment to advancing the mission of the organization.
Defining success. Members had different ways of evaluating whether or not the board had succeeded in its responsibilities for advancing the mission. Some of the variation in definitions reflected members’ professional background and perceived roles within the board.
For example, the treasurer and another member with financial expertise first described financial stability as critical evidence that the board was fulfilling its responsibilities.
Others gravitated immediately toward evidence that they were moving closer to the mission. “The numbers of people that we serve” and “we can make a difference in people’s lives” exemplify this success definition.
Another theme that emerged in the “success definition” conversation was evidence of increased donor and volunteer support. “A lot of people give very substantial amounts,” one member said, “and it seems like whenever we ask for a special need, people respond.”
Members also were attuned to relationships within the community, to their organization’s role as a good neighbor and a contributor to the well-being of its citizens.
Building mission commitment. One of the things this board does best is recruit people who have an interest in advancing the organization’s mission. Yes, this is another bottom line requirement for service on any nonprofit board – and, yes, experience tells me that this is not the given that it should be in many boards. Members were clear about why the organization exists and were committed, and even passionate, about the agency’s mission before they agreed to serve. That set the tone for service and gave the critical foundation for how they would fulfill their responsibilities.
As important as understanding and committing to support the organization’s mission within the board member role was the second key theme under the domain, connecting that mission to personal motivations. Three themes arose when exploring how individuals connect service on this board to values, interests and other personal life factors.
Civic motivations drew upon an individual board member’s sense of responsibility to help support an organization that addresses a community need. “We have a responsibility to give back to the community,” one member said simply.
Moral/spiritual motivations linked board member interests to a sense of calling and commitment, frequently linked to religious beliefs and traditions. “You find some way to make some contribution,” one person said. “I think it’s an incomplete life if you don’t do something for somebody, somehow.” One of her peers stated it this way: “I feel a responsibility…I believe that some good things that happen to us are through our own doing. Most is not.”
Social/political motivations related to the belief that nonprofits like their organization play an essential role in meeting the needs of underserved populations – needs that they often felt should be the responsibility of other parties but that had to be addressed whether or not those parties were prepared and willing to step up.
There was a general sense that this organization served a critical need in the community and that support of that effort was a driving force for serving on its board. The more I learned about the members’ strong commitment to the mission, the less surprising it was to identify and understand the ways in which the board raised the question of mission in meetings and used it as a guide in decision making.
Next: Evidence of community.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
I entered this research in exploratory mode. I had some general ideas about the adult learning theories that might be useful, but I wanted to enter the journey completely open to what I might find (even/especially if it did not fit my general expectations about what would happen).
Because of that, I read widely from a variety of theoretical perspectives in advance of the work. In the end, there was a clear foundation from which I explained my findings. Theories of practice, particularly situated learning, ultimately provided the greatest explanatory power.
I believe that situated learning theory has a lot to teach the nonprofit sector about how people learn, and how we can be more conscious and more effective in understanding these processes. In a nutshell, situated learning theory says that
• Learning occurs in everyday life
• Learning is context-driven
Learning takes place in our informal interactions and activities. It is not confined to training, school and other formal events. Learning also cannot be separated from the context in which it takes place. Learning does take place in board work, and it is shaped by the environment, constraints, and other aspects of organizational life.
I was not surprised that situated learning theory would assist me in my analysis of data gathered during my research. That I would find such strong evidence of the centerpiece of situated learning theory, the community of practice, was surprising. In fact, the board I studied offered compelling evidence of a high-functioning example.
A community of practice has three core components, which will be explored in other parts of this series. They are:
• Domain of knowledge – a common ground and identity
• Community – a group of people who care about the domain
• Shared practice – a framework, routines, ideas, language, etc., from which they act on the domain
I was interested in the community of practice framework early, and I couldn’t escape reading about it in my immersion in situated learning theory. But I was smart enough to realize that exploring the concept in any depth could influence what I saw in data collection. I deliberately set it aside and, frankly, struggled early in the analysis process as I wrestled with two big themes that had emerged.
The first theme, mission, was surprisingly strong and pervasive. The second theme, which I initially called capacity, was big and unruly. I struggled to find meaningful ways to organize those factors (e.g., activities, structures and resources) that fueled governance. Frustrated, I returned to my literature review and was reminded of the community of practice. Within minutes, my dilemma was resolved.
The community of practice’s three components added missing clarity: the mission theme connected directly to the domain; the jumbled mess I called “capacity” easily organized between the other core components, community and practice.
The Nonprofit Foundation
While I also read broadly from the scholarly and practitioner nonprofit literature, one work in particular contributed to the framework for my research question. That work was Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Chait, Ryan and Taylor. The “generative governance” mentioned in my research question is the mode of the Governance as Leadership model with which most boards would be unfamiliar – and the most difficult to carry out in their work.
Generative governance is the most exciting and most potentially transformative idea emerging from the model, and perhaps from recent board thinking. Communicating generative governance in terms that boards could not only understand but upon which they could act was a personal challenge for me. Focusing my research on meeting processes that not only advanced learning but gave life to generative governance and provided an added incentive.
In a nutshell, generative governance
- Is a creative, exploratory process
- Spotlights the future – what may lie ahead, what might impact what lies ahead – where uncertainty is not only a given, it is embraced
- Emphasizes meaning making – understanding what data, stories, etc., mean.
- Focuses on setting the questions to be explored, not on answering them (defining the problem vs. seeking the solution)
While early opportunities to share my work with nonprofit scholars have been validating, I am most energized by the fact that I emerged from this research with a framework (communities of practice) for describing effective board practice. I have vivid ways of articulating how generative governance can be fostered within the routines and deliberations of these critical leadership bodies.
Next: I describe my findings on the first community of practice component, the domain.
(To access my bookmarks on situated learning theory, click here. To access my bookmarks on communities of practice, click here.)
Monday, December 21, 2009
Given my passion for all things governance, the decision to explore some aspect of how nonprofit boards learn for my dissertation research was an obvious one. How to find a meaningful focus within such a broad and virtually untouched topic would be my test.
Very little energy to date has been spent trying to learn what boards need to understand their responsibilities, use information and otherwise learn to be as effective as possible. Any insight would move the discussion forward and provide something potentially useful to the sector. Any question I chose to explore would make a contribution.
As a trainer and adult educator, I know that formal learning experiences contribute to s board development. But as a veteran board member, I also know that workshops and retreats offer only a sliver of an opportunity to introduce new ideas, tools and information. Translating them into action afterwards is difficult at best. Boards learn. Most of their learning occurs somewhere else.
I believed I knew that “somewhere else.” I thought I might have idea of how learning occurs there. But I needed to set aside my assumptions and explore the question with an open mind.
The place? Regular board meetings. The how? Routine interactions and deliberations that make up board work. That became my starting point.
The question driving my research was this:
How do preparation for, and participation in, nonprofit board meetings impact board members’ ability to engage in generative governance?
I needed to immerse myself in a board environment as an observer, to see how and where learning might take place within a meeting setting. I needed to have a chance to interview board members, to ask them about what I had seen, and to probe them for insights into their challenges, motivations and successes. I needed to conduct a case study to uncover and analyze potential answers to my research question,
The board with which I’d spend several months couldn’t struggle with the basic responsibilities of governance. It needed to take those roles in stride and, if I was lucky, would engage in a truly interesting example of board learning from which I could learn before the research ended. I had one must-ask local board. Fortunately, members said yes. Even more fortunate: this board not only offered vivid examples of not only learning during effective governance, it demonstrated learning in the process of truly exemplary governance.
The Research Process
Research was a multi-phase process. I observed several consecutive board meetings. I conducted two focus groups, to ground myself in what members considered to be important regarding some foundational questions I hoped to explore. I conducted a content analysis of the key documents and sources that members use in governance work. Finally, I interviewed every individual board member and the agency’s executive director. Each data gathering experience added new layers of information to analyze.
Next: The theory behind the research.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Watching these brief videos again, from an August workshop on "Building an Energized Board," inspired me to share the whole series with you while pointing out some of my favorites. You'll see links to each clip on the righthand side. Click on any title that interests you to access the video.
I do want to point out my favorites, those I consider to be must-watch. Topping that list is a clip on boards as guardians of organizational vision. That is your ultimate purpose as a governing body. Nothing you do is more important or has more impact on the future of your nonprofit than keeping and advocating for the vision. Click here to view Hildy's comments on this critical topic.
"Boards and Values," accessed here, emphasizes the absolute importance of 'walking the talk.' Does your board ground its decision making in your organization's values? If not, you are failing to meet your responsibilities.
"Boards & Vision: Turning Passion into Action" reminds us that our organizational vision is not about your better future. It's about your community's better future. How to harness that energy to actually move toward that better future is the task at hand.
Every clip on the list offers something to ponder - and potential to transform your board. My gift to you today is the invitation to spend a few minutes watching these videos, share them with your fellow board members, and reflect as a group on how you can commit to a more effective 2010.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The wisdom that these writers offer on a regular basis is transformative. I learn from each new post. Sometimes, what I learn is new to me. Frequently, I learn from the ways in which they frame already familiar topics. I'd encourage any nonprofit board member, and executive director who works with a board, to bookmark these blogs, add them to your RSS feed, and follow them on Twitter.
Alison Rapping (@AlisonRapping), Alison Rapping's Blog. Her most recent post illustrates why she is on my must-read list. Engaging and Energizing the Next Generation of Board Leadership should be required reading for anyone considering board service, anyone in the process of recruiting new members, anyone thinking of accepting an invitation to serve, and anyone already serving on a board. It's one of those "I wish I'd written that" contributions to the governance conversation.
Hildy Gottlieb (@HildyGottlieb), Creating the Future. Hildy expands my thinking with every post and tweet. She has a broader vision of the work that nonprofits do and the potential for accomplishing true social change. Her most recent post, 3 Steps to Changing the World, is a good illustration of her approach to that work.
Rosetta Thurman (@RosettaThurman), Rosetta Thurman: Promoting the Next Generation Leadership for Social Change. In an expanding universe of "young" nonprofit voices emerging, Rosetta represents the best of what lies ahead for the sector. Rosetta is not afraid to ask the questions that need to be asked or to offer a fresh perspective on the challenges of nonprofit leadership. We need to listen to her, and to her peers.
Ellis Carter (@CharityLawyer), Charity Lawyer Blog. Ellis has this uncanny knack for translating some of the most challenging legal concepts into plain English. I've been particularly appreciative of her recent "Nonprofit Law Jargon Buster" posts. This entry, discussing "tax exempt purpose," is a good example.
Beth Kanter (@Kanter), Beth's Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media to Achieve Mission. No one - no one - knows the power that social media can bring to mission fulfillment more intimately than Beth. No one has the capacity to translate that potential into descriptions that will resonate with a broader audience than Beth. She challenges readers to think beyond narrow conceptions of communication and offers examples of successful integration of social media.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Yesterday, Hildy shared this profound comment on Twitter. It stopped me in my tracks, not because the idea was new, but because the way in which she articulated it was so profound and so lovely. Hildy tweeted:
"An energized board is engaged in making a difference, and engaged in engaging others to make a difference."How does your board engage others in the mission of your nonprofit? How do you communicate your passion for your work and your commitment to your nonprofit's mission? How do you draw others in and help them see that they can, indeed, make a difference?
How would success in this boundary-spanning work energize you, and your board peers, for the leadership role that you play?
How can you engage someone on behalf of your nonprofit today?
Sunday, November 29, 2009
The Facebook feed of last week's post drew strong interest among a group of women who share an interest in increasing the effectiveness and capacity of their nonprofits - and who understand the leadership role that their boards play in that success. We're an action-oriented group. Thursday's chat will begin the exploration of what is needed, what is possible, and what is worth creating for our community.
I'll share the highlights of that discussion here following the discussion. In the meantime, if you have any ideas that you would like to contribute to the initial conversation, please share them via comment here. I'll carry them to Thursday's meeting.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
When wireless access allowed, I tweeted from the sessions I attended. My Twitter profile offers a glimpse into the ideas I found most share-worthy in those sessions. It's not the same as being in the room, but it will offer a glimpse into what I considered to be important (see the tweets dated 11/18-21).
Particularly exciting was the chance to sit in on several fascinating sessions on nonprofit governance, and to engage a new peer group in conversations that identified many intersections between our individual research interests. An observation made during those talks: the ways in which our respective efforts focused on individual motivations, shared meaning making, and group communication processes. We've committed to continue the discussion and, best of all, explore collaboration.
This was my first experience with social reporting. I must admit that it was exciting to not only share my thoughts via Twitter but to read what my peers were posting in real time from the sessions they were attending. It also gave me a sense of what is possible, and how technology can help extend the reach of rich learning opportunities. The potential is great, especially for our more 'local' efforts (like the Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute).
I'm still processing all that I have learned from this trip to Cleveland. Other posts may expand upon some of the ideas that resonate, as I reflect on how they might apply to readers of this blog.
How can I best support Laramie nonprofits, specifically, the boards that govern the organizations within that community?
That is a question I’m perpetually asking myself, more so now that my doctoral dissertation is behind me and the need to share what I learned about boards grows more urgent. I had a chance to think about it with friends Saturday, as I participated in a lively discussion about bridging the theory-to-practice divide during the 2009 ARNOVA conference.
I am a practitioner at heart. Concerns about whether my activities result in scholarly publications do not drive decisions about what I do, with whom, when. I am intensely driven to co-create a supportive environment where sharing and learning can occur. “Co-create” is the key in what I envision. Certainly, I have and am prepared to provide knowledge and leadership on topics related to nonprofit boards and their governance responsibilities. But I do not see my role as an exclusive one. Rather, I envision an engaging environment for our local nonprofit boards, where we each play a role in learning and growing together. Each of us can teach each other, just as we can learn from each other.
What would that look like? I have a few ideas, but it’s ultimately not about me. I’m interested in hearing from local nonprofit board members: what are your strengths, your challenges? What do you need to succeed? What do you need to stay passionate and confident about your ability to make a difference? How can we partner to make that happen? Please share your thoughts via comment, so we can have begin the conversation.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
It will be a great opportunity to share impressions and insights as I learn from scholars and practitioners focused on understanding and supporting the nonprofit sector. Particularly exciting will be the chance to participate on what promises to be a thought-provoking panel on Thursday afternoon, titled "Board Process and Context: The Role of Communication, Interpretation, and Learning."
Not only will I be sharing highlights from my dissertation research (video overview here), but I'll have a chance to meet and hear from the authors of three intriguing papers I've been privileged to read. Great minds apparently do think alike: there are many intersections across our work. There's so much to learn - and share - about nonprofit governance!
You can follow my Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/npmaven. To follow all of the Twitter activity from the conference, follow the hashtag #arnova09.
In addition to updates on this blog, check out these ARNOVA member blogs:
- Heather Carpenter (nonprofitleadership601.blogspot.com)
- Graham Dover (www.inov8.ca & www.si2.ca)
- Lindsey McDougle (leadershipasafieldofstudy.blogspot.com & thirdsectornetwork.org)
- John Ronquillo (johncronquillo.wordpress.com & thirdsectornetwork.org)
- and guest bloggers Taylor Peyton Roberts, Alice Walker and Debra Weiner
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
An article in the latest issue of Nonprofit World, and a consultants-eye view of a start-up board collaborating via wiki, raise the question for me again this week. It's not a new idea, but I'd venture a guess that most boards lack a basic awareness that this is an option for both gaining 24/7 access to information needed to govern and reducing the sometimes crippling amount of paper that jams mailboxes.
You may wonder, "what's she talking about?" Let me share a brief outline of the approach my friend has taken in setting up a passw0rd-protected wiki for her board. On that site, she currently has the following:
- Mission statement
- Contact information
- Current activity (including background on how/why the organization recently moved to nonprofit status and her activities as executive director)
- Resources of interest to the board
- A list of board members, with brief bios and contact information
- A page for financial information
- A page of running updates for the board
- A page devoted to planning, including notes, activities and resources
I tend to fall toward the 'geek' end of the technology adoption continuum, so I'd leap at the chance to serve on a board that uses an online portal for governance communication and information sharing. But I also know that I am in a distinct minority at this point. Would you, and your fellow board members, be open to using an online space to share information and continue the collaborative governance process? Do you know of organizations that have attempted to create and use such a tool? I'd love to visit with you about the possibilities and the potential challenges. Please share your thoughts, via comments on this post.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The post, found here, does a good job of summarizing the trends and challenges surrounding the issue. One that I wish had been addressed in greater detail is something I've seen and heard described by others more frequently: the attention that many funders pay to how boards respond to that question and how that can impact their response to your request.
My advice to boards is always "do what's right for your board and its members." But I also point out that many individual donors and funding organizations take seriously board commitment as demonstrated by member giving. Being able to say that, yes, 1oo percent of our board members contribute to our nonprofit is a compelling - and sometimes qualifying - statement for prospective donors.
My recommendation to boards who do not have a giving provision is covered well in Jan's post: consider a policy that requires members to give, preferably at a level that is meaningful to them. In all of the cases with which I am familiar, how much is not the issue: full board participation is.
For the vast majority of our boards, even those who take great care to ensure broad participation across socioeconomic groups, this is a reasonable expectation to make. "Meaningful" can be $1,000. It can mean $1. It is an important additional statement of your board's commitment to funders and other stakeholder groups, one worthy of consideration (and adoption). It is one that the board and its members should take seriously. It also is one that they should enforce, allowing them to say annually, yes, our board puts its dollars where their time and their hearts already lie.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Today's RSS feed brought an article on the topic that really clicked for me. "Young Turns on Board" is both affirming what this Boomer already believes about the value of bringing fresh voices to the boardroom table and expanding my understanding of why doing so is good for the health of our organizations.
I would offer the same caveat that I always do about targeted recruitment from 'special' groups: do your best to avoid tokenism. Make sure that anyone you bring to your board supports your mission fully and is valued for more than membership in a demographic group. Make sure that the young person you recruit to the board (or, better yet, young persons) is also expected to contribute expertise, energy, and creative approaches to fulfilling your mission.
I'd love to hear your reactions to this article, as well as your experiences with recruiting and engaging younger members to your boards.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Saturday, August 22, 2009
If I wait for that perfect presentation venue to come to me, I'll never have a chance to share what I learned with boards and others who might benefit from this knowledge. In the end, I've decided to simply dive in and offer a rough outline of the work and the takeaway messages. The video below is my first attempt to articulate that publicly.
I welcome questions, feedback, etc., on what is offered. That, frankly, would be a service to me as I find ways to translate this work into resources that could be useful to working boards.
With the hard part now behind me, I look forward to expanding upon key components of my findings in future entries. Hold me to that promise!
Monday, August 3, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Based on 2008 data, the report offers a rather detailed picture of the scope and the depth of the ways in which we give our time in service to others. Statistics are available at the national level. They also are available for individual states. Wyoming's latest volunteerism information can be found here.
A few highlights that stick out to me this morning:
- 132,100 Wyoming residents volunteered their time in 2008, 32.4 percent of our state's population (29.6 percent of adults). We rank 16th amongst the 50 states and DC.
- We donated 40.1 hours per individual, placing us 19th amongst the 50 states and DC.
- The value of that human power is an estimated $331.2 million.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Posted on the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals site, the list is broken into two sections: "Fundamental Characteristics" and "Personal Commitment." That framing resonates for me, because I've always felt (and you and I both know) that governance is more than the bottom line list of roles and responsibilities. There also is a fundamental need for not only basic acceptance of the organization's mission but a deep commitment to advancing that mission, as a member of the governance leadership team and as an individual member of that group.
I wouldn't say that anything on either list is particularly revolutionary. But the its creator did a nice job of articulating what is needed beyond the bottom line to serve your organization -- and your organization's mission -- effectively. You may have your own additions, qualities that you may think that the author left off.
Share this with your board as a conversation starter. Use as an opportunity for individual reflection on how you can increase your commitment to moving your board and your nonprofit closer to fulfilling your mission.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Usually, when I am asked to facilitate a retreat, the goal is focused on a specific outcome, often a strategic plan (or the framework for a plan – it’s virtually impossible to create a complete, useful plan in four to eight hours). In this case, I’m helping the board engage in an extended conversation about its leadership role.
While I’ll leave the specifics of the session to the retreating board, I thought I’d share some of the general questions that will help frame the discussion.
- How are we, as a governing body, moving our organization closer to its mission?
- How am I taking an individual leadership role in that process?
- How can we frame our work (e.g., how we spend our meetings) to enhance our governance responsibilities?
- How do we move forward?
Thursday, July 9, 2009
How clearly can our nonprofit boards articulate the impact their organization's make on our local economies?
Whether the services provided can be described in tangible ways (e.g., jobs create, budgets spent) or in more subtle ways, every nonprofit adds value to its community economy. I'd like to challenge your board to do this: articulate, in ways that are meaningful to your stakeholders, the ways in which your organization contributes to the vitality of your local economy.
What appears on that list? What was an obvious addition as you began thinking about this? What were the surprises? How will you communicate what you have created with groups and people who need to hear it?
Friday, July 3, 2009
Since it provided the foundation of my dissertation -- and has kept me pondering the possible in nonprofit board work -- the title at the top of my list goes to Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership. The authors introduce a model of nonprofit governance that I find fascinating and exciting as both a board member and a consultant. Their model focuses on three modes of governance: fiduciary, strategic, and generative. Most of us are intimately acquainted with the fiduciary parts of our job. Many of us give a good effort trying to carve out time for the strategic work (and find it exciting when we do). Generative governance, the topic of my dissertation, truly has the potential to transform board work. It's a "must read" for nonprofit boards and staff.
Culture of Inquiry: Healthy Debate in the Boardroom also had a strong presence in my dissertation. This brief, accessible book from BoardSource offers up a vision of a board environment in which curiosity is encouraged and where divergent views are welcomed as opportunities to seek creative solutions to emerging issues. In my experience, such a culture is not as easy to create as it should be; but it is possible and it is effective in helping boards fulfill their governance potential.
Don't let the cheesy subtitle ("8 Ways to Grow a Nonprofit that Builds Buzz, Delights Donors, and Energizes Employees") sway you away from reading the third book on my list, The Charismatic Organization. Board members and managers alike will find ideas that resonate in the eight focal points described. Four in particular -- "Mission Motivation," "Active Outreach," "Meaningful Involvement," and "Data-Driven Decision-Making" -- should resonate for boards exploring ways to enhance their effectiveness as a leadership body.
It's hard to avoid discussions about generational differences in work and life lately, particularly comparisons between "Baby Boomers" and "Generation Y" or "Millennials." The best nonprofit-focused work exploring ways to bridge the divide to benefit our organizations is Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership. The authors discuss the varying needs and motivations of individuals drawn to nonprofit work from different life phases. They also offer strategies for appreciating their diverse talents and drives and bringing them to a common purpose: fulfilling your mission.
If your organization isn't actively engaged in reaching your audiences via social media -- or at least actively exploring ways to do that to move you closer to your mission -- now is the time do do so. If your board isn't part of that discussion, thinking strategically about taking advantage of new paths to outreach, it should be. Allison Fine's Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age is a good starting point.
Speaking of social media, a terrific board resource that I met on Facebook, Hildy Gottlieb, has written my favorite book on that perpetually terrifying topic: board members' fund-raising responsibilities. That title, FriendRaising: Community Engagement Strategies, is chock full of practical, fun, non-intimidating contributions that fit a range of board member comfort levels with their fund-raising role.
Finally, I offer up an oldie but a goodie, The Seven Faces of Philanthropy: A New Approach to Cultivating Major Donors. As the name suggests, this book outlines seven giving personalities that emerged in research targeting major gift donors. I've always believed that, while some of the specifics described reflect that limited focus, the bigger picture -- the donor personalities themselves -- actually can be used to describe and understand giving of both time (volunteers) and giving at all levels.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
The direct link to the quiz can be found in the Blue Avocado post, or here. It's quick, easy and interesting.
While it's probably written to target those employed in the sector, having board members take the quiz and then compare results would be a terrific developmental exercise. (I'm a "Blue Whale:" I am "thoroughly immersed in nonprofit culture" and can "swim anywhere in the ocean.") How committed to nonprofit work are your members? What's better for your organization: consensus and full commitment or diversity of motivations and interest? How have individual members exemplified the outcome of their quiz on behalf of your organization?
Periodic group reflection, particularly reflection that affirms members' commitment to your mission, is healthy for any nonprofit board. It is healthy for your organization, too, as board members have new opportunities to clarify and commit to their critical role in your success.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
For the first 15 years-plus of my board service, I lived in fear that someone would hold me accountable for that responsibility. (Fortunately for me - and unfortunately for the organizations I served - that call never came.) It has been only in the last decade that I have come to understand that "asking" is only one way for a board member to participate in the process.
Recently, the blog "Advisor to Superheroes" published a short post on the topic, including a graphic representation of multiple ways in which board members can contribute to a nonprofit's fund-raising program. The post, found here, identified four such roles: Connector, Storyteller, Visionary, and Closer. Those categories fit my understanding and experiences of how we board members can participate in ways that are both comfortable for us as individuals and valuable for the organizations we serve.
Obviously, someone still needs to make the ask. A nonprofit needs leadership, board and staff, capable of bringing donor cultivation to a request for donation. But the rest of us can help facilitate the critical work that leads to that moment.
Personally, I am quite comfortable in the middle two roles. As a writer and public relations practitioner by training and trade, I can develop credible and creative descriptions of the work donors are being asked to support. That process is easier for me because I live my "mission first" credo: if I accept a position on your board, it's because I support completely and feel passionate about the organization's mission. That makes fulfilling the "visionary" role a natural one for me. The aspect of board work that I love most is collaborating with staff and fellow board members to dream big and then find ways to move the organization toward that dream. With a strong, colorful, compelling vision, making the case for fulfilling it is easy and enjoyable.
I'm interested in hearing from readers: Which of these four roles do you feel most comfortable fulfilling? Does your board have members willing and able to fulfill all four of these fund-raising responsibilities? How can you use this framework -- or an adaptation that fits your specific situation better -- in new member recruitment?
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Articulating and building the nonprofit sector’s contributions and leadership in transforming Wyoming’s rural communities is the focus of the 8th annual Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute (SRNI), set for Aug. 2-4 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Laramie.
SRNI’s 2009 theme is “The Nonprofit Sector in Context: Creative Approaches to Changing Lives and Transforming Communities.” Concurrent sessions will be offered in two tracks: “Lives in Context,” focusing on individual impacts on nonprofit clients, staff and volunteers; and “Communities in Context,” exploring impacts on and by the nonprofit organization.
Cornelia Butler Flora, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University, will present the institute keynote. Following that session, Dr. Flora will lead an all-institute workshop designed to help participants explore and articulate the unique ways in which their organizations contribute to community capitals.
More information on Dr. Flora is available here. A good, general description of the Community Capitals Framework, the topic she'll be exploring, can be found here.
Among the concurrent session topics are: “The Nonprofit Sector in Energy-Impacted Communities,” “Understanding Change in Your Organization,” “Broad-Based Volunteer Recruitment,” and “Wyoming’s Nonprofit Economy.”
Two post-institute practicum sessions will offer participants an additional opportunity for hands-on, in-depth learning: “Managing Finances: A Guide to the Basics” and “Web 2.0: Utilizing Social Networks.”
Online registration for SRNI 2009 is here. A downloadable copy of the 2009 SRNI brochure is available here. A downloadable copy of the 2009 agenda is here.
SRNI is a project of the UW Cooperative Extension Service Community Development Education Initiative Team . ServeWyoming is SRNI’s presenting partner.
The Regis University Master of Nonprofit Management Program is this year’s opening conversation sponsor. The Parkman Family Foundation has provided a limited number of full-registration sponsorships to first-time attendees, made available on a first-registered, first-served basis.
Monday, June 15, 2009
The Taxonomic Tree of Philanthropy, credited to George McCully, builds upon four primary branches: International, Nature, Human Services, and Culture. A full description of the taxonomy can be found here.
While I think it's one of the better visualizations of philanthropy, it's only one representation of the sector in which we work and volunteer. What are your initial impressions? Do you see your organization here, not only as a branch, but as a part of the larger body? What is added by this particular metaphor? What is McCully missing? I'm interested in your thoughts on this tool.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Click here to access the online registration form.
PLEASE NOTE: The Parkman Family Foundation is providing a signficant opportunity for a limited number of first-time participants. Registration for the first 15 registrants who have never attended SRNI before will be waived. This is offered on a first-registered, first-served basis.
This year's institute theme is "The Nonprofit Sector in Context: Creative Approaches to Changing Lives and Transforming Communities." Two tracks, "Communities in Context" and "Lives in Context," will expand upon that theme.
Keynote speaker Cornelia Butler Flora will set the stage with a Monday morning talk, titled "Nonprofit Investment in Community Capitals: Transformation through Community Assets." She will follow up that talk with an all-institute workshop that will help participants apply the Community Capitals framework to the work of their organizations. For a brief overview of the Community Capitals framework, click here.
Click here to download a pdf version of the 2009 agenda.
For more information, please e-mail the SRNI curriculum team at email@example.com.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Today, I am glad so share a new resource produced by students in my spring 2009 "Nonprofit Management & Leadership" class. They created the wiki, Wyo NP Management & Leadership Source, with the information needs of rural nonprofit practitioners in mind. They addressed four topics in depth:
It's still a work in process, but it's a resource I share now with pride. My students put their hearts and their brains into this wiki, and nonprofits will benefit from their effort. For a list of student authors, please click here.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
If you are on Twitter, please consider joining and connecting with others who tweet. The Twibe can be found at
If you know of friends and colleagues who use Twitter and who would appreciate the chance to find others interested in the work of our sector, please share the URL and encourage them to join. Twitter offers great opportunities to share news, resources, and other useful information.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
While it was valuable to hear about efforts that already exist, both those familiar and new to me (Great people are doing great things to support the sector!), the more intriguing and potentially challenging part of the discussion came when a question was posed to the group: what do we think of when we think of the "capacity building" needs of our state's sector?
The people on the call are knowledgeable, connected, and well-versed in the work of Wyoming's nonprofits. We probably could generate a solid vision that would come very close to what sector practitioners would identify as their capacity needs. Others, including the Montana Nonprofit Association, have contributed research-driven principles and practices to help inform the discussion.
But I also would like to open the discussion to readers of this blog, especially those living and working in Wyoming. What are the critical capacity needs that you have? How do they limit your ability to serve your community and fulfill your mission? How could support in these areas enhance your performance and effectiveness? Please share your thoughts via a comment to this post. If you're not sure what qualifies as "capacity building" in the sector, my bookmarks on the topic might be a good starting point. Click here to access links and resources that I have tagged as "nonprofit" and "capacity."
It would be great to use this venue to contribute to this emerging conversation. This group would be interested in reading your feedback on the topic as we move forward.