Thursday, December 24, 2009

Community: The organizational foundation

This is part four in a series describing my research on nonprofit boards as communities of practice. Today, I discuss the findings that support a second component, community.

“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.

Click here for part one of this series. Click here for part two. Click here for part three.

No comments: