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?