Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Domain: The board's reason for being

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
  • Moral/spiritual
  • Social/political

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.

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