Monday, December 28, 2009

Research: Takeaway messages for nonprofit boards

This is the sixth and final post of a series discussing my dissertation research.

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:

  • Make sure everyone you recruit to the board understands and embraces your mission –and can articulate how doing so connects to their own values.
  • Make sure that you recruit people who think critically and broadly, who are inclined to ask on their own, “what about the mission?”
  • Build in mechanisms to ensure mission focus. Build your agenda around mission. Include regular opportunities to learn about how your programs advance the mission. Regularly review and reflect on how your work as a board contributes to mission fulfillment.

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 “na├»ve” 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.

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