Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding the right board: A prospect’s view

The quest to bring the right people to the nonprofit boardroom table usually takes the organization’s perspective: identifying what our nonprofit needs and strategizing ways to mine the community to find just the right person to meet them.

Whether by design or happy coincidence, yesterday’s Twitter feed brought a stream of links that take the other side of the equation: exploring and evaluating the right fit for an individual seeking an opportunity to serve.

It started with this Board CafĂ© post, “Finding the Right Next Board to Join,” by Jan Masaoka. Of course, I loved that the first question she posed focused directly on mission: “Is this the right cause for me?” If you can’t answer with a resounding “yes,” please move on.

The next link took me to the second half of a two-post series on “What You Should Know About Joining a Nonprofit Board” by James D’Ambrosio. I’d read part one, but discovering the latter post completed the circle. The questions in this series focus a bit more on structural aspects of a prospective board and may resonate with different people in slightly different ways.

While clicking various links related to those posts, I ended up at the Bridgestar site, and an even more comprehensive list of questions in a post titled, “What Should I Know Before Joining a Nonprofit Board?” You’ll see some overlap with the other lists and some thought-provoking additions as well. You’ll also find a downloadable version of the list at the bottom of the post.

Finally, as I read that post I noticed another link, to a post, titled “Nonprofit Boards: How to Find a Rewarding Board Position.” That particular article highlights considerations that I believe have great potential for an ultimate right fit, digging into some of the deeper motivations that draw and inspire not only board service but governance leadership. Note that, like the other Bridgestar post, a downloadable version is available.

You know how much I’m drawn to great questions. The plethora of great questions to ask – of ourselves and the boards we are considering – forming these posts felt like a gift, to me and to anyone wanting to take a thoughtful approach to making the right commitment to the right organization.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Engaging boards in social reflection

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you're used to me hammering away on the importance of reflection in nonprofit governance.

I try to include some insights into what that might look like amidst the preaching for thinking time. The adult educator in me also is always looking out for resources to help illustrate and expand upon the ideas I'm sharing.

Today's Twitter feed brought just such a gift. Blogger Donald Clark (@iOPT) connected two of my favorite topics in a useful way in a post titled The Social Learning and Reflection Continuum. "Continuum" is the operative word: from an activity conducted primarily with others on one end to one conducted primarily within our own heads on the other. At the midpoint, Donald introduces "social reflection," an idea that has potential for nonprofit boards (and all adults who work and learn in group settings).

If you scroll down the post, you'll find a graphic that illustrates nicely how learning (informal to formal) interacts with the social learning/reflection continuum. You'll also find a few examples of the kinds of activities that might lie within each quadrant.

As you read that graphic, within the context of board learning and deliberation, what comes to mind? What are you already implementing within your board (Or, if you're a consultant, what have you recommended and/or seen work effectively within boards you've encountered?)?

What intrigues you? What could you see exploring within a board context? What other examples could we add to that quadrant?

I'm attracted to a couple of the examples that he provides: action research and interviews. Yes, I know that boards are challenged to simply meet their baseline responsibilities. Adding an action research project to the mix likely would be both realistic and counterproductive. But I have to wonder how identifying and exploring burning questions - owning their learning in service to mission - might engage board members in ways that not only increase effectiveness but bring them closer to the purpose they protect. Maybe it's not becoming action researchers but adopting the inquisitive mind that comes with the process that would benefit boards.

I'm also still pondering the "social reflection" idea, and how it might be used to spark new thinking about governance. I welcome your thoughts about that as well.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A few of my favorite: governance books

Today, I share a few of my favorite nonprofit books. Not every title directly addresses board roles, but they do inform some aspect of governance and would be an asset to any nonprofit organizational or board member library.

The Handbook of Nonprofit Governance


I was pleasantly surprised by this new (2010) title by BoardSource. It does a good job of providing the reader something more than a passing-glance view of a wide range of board member responsibilities. Readers won’t have everything they need to understand those roles, but new board members will have a good starting point for grasping what they have signed on to provide. My dilemma in recommending (and using) it is a practical one. It’s a large book, too large to be a realistic part of an orientation process. It’s also expensive; putting one into the hands of every board member is not an option for most nonprofits. One potential solution: housing one in your organization’s library and using it as a foundational reference for peer-driven learning experiences (asking individual members to explore and lead brief board development discussions).

Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses

(Alice Korngold)

Among many things I like about this book is its attention to the value of engaging the private sector to build support for mission. One of the book's highlights, for me, was Alice's in-depth discussion of the board’s boundary spanning opportunities/responsibilities as part of that process. It’s one of the better overviews of governance that I’ve encountered in a long time, unanticipated and welcome as I read the book.

The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing “Nonprofit Organizations” to Create the Future of Our World

(Hildy Gottlieb)

I was drawn to Hildy’s work long before I obtained a copy of Pollyanna, so the underlying philosophy didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was, even though her framework for describing and conceptualizing the work of the “community benefit sector” is pretty unique, my entire reading experience was a series of nonstop “Yes!” “I knew that!” and “Of course!” responses. There’s a strong common-sense element behind what is recognized as a novel perspective to social change and community benefit work.

FriendRaising: Community Engagement Strategies for Boads who Hate Fundraising but Love Making Friends

(Hildy Gottlieb)

One thing Hildy always does well: she grounds her writing in reality, connecting the reader to the points she is making to scenarios and illustrations that feel accessible. FriendRaising is one of those extended examples. It’s full of ideas to involve board members in the process of engaging existing and potential supporters. Every board member will recognize one (or more) action that he/she will feel comfortable adopting as a boundary-spanner on your behalf.

The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change

(Beth Kanter and Allison Fine)

This book caused a tremor in the sector earlier this year, and with good reason. The authors do more than offer tips for using social media to tell our organization’s story. They challenge us to think differently about how we engage others on behalf of the social change to which we aspire. Board members will identify with – and be challenged by – the conception of a networked nonprofit and the new demands (and opportunities) to reach out in unexpected ways.

How are We Doing? A 1-Hour Guide to Evaluating Your performance as a Nonprofit Board

(Gayle Gifford)

It’s a quick read (I covered it in less than an afternoon), with a lot of potential to introduce the process of self-assessment to a board. Gayle poses 34 questions designed to encourage group reflection and evaluation. Pose one question. Pose four. Use the topics presented in a range of ways to spark conversations with the potential to prompt deeper thinking and commitment to more effective governance service.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards

(Richard Chait, Bill Ryan and Barbara Taylor)

How important is this book to understanding and re-conceptualizing the way we think about nonprofit governance? I wrote a doctoral dissertation exploring one of the more novel aspects of the GAL model. The framework is built around three governance modes. Two, fiduciary and strategic, will undoubtedly ring familiar to most boards. The third, generative, is the creative twist – and the place where the work that inspires and moves boards closer to mission fulfillment usually will lie.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A few of my favorite: governance blogs

Today’s gift to readers is a list of some of my favorite bloggers who cover a range of nonprofit governance topics.

I learn constantly from the individual and collective wisdom of these individuals. If you don’t already subscribe to their blogs, now is the time to do so. You won’t want to miss the learning that will take place in 2011.

(Note: there’s no implied ranking in how they’re listed. Everyone’s remarkable. I pulled them, randomly, from my “governance gurus” Twitter list. Click on the blog title to access the link.)

Cause and Effect

(Gayle Gifford) With provocative questions like “Abolish the nonprofit board?” and “If fundraising is a profession, why are we so angry with our amateur board members?,” Gayle’s writing is virtually guaranteed to stretch your mind (and your assumptions about nonprofit governance).

Leading by Design

(Anne Ackerson) Anne and I have had more “great minds…” moments in 2010 than I can count, when we’ve discovered that we’re pondering the same big questions about ways to enhance the governance experience and the capacity to lead boards to greater effectiveness in fulfilling their responsibilities. She’s also a master of strategy – planning and beyond.

Alice Korngold’s Fast Company Expert Blog

(Alice Korngold) Alice gained a fan for life when I read her 2006 Leader to Leader article on the need for a fourth board duty – a duty of imagination. That led me to her Fast Company blog and a wealth of insights that have informed and expanded my understanding of governance.

Marion Conway – Consultant to Nonprofits

(Marion Conway) The breadth of topics, and the resources to fill our governance toolboxes, are two of the biggest reasons I read Marion’s blog religiously.

Creating the Future

(Hildy Gottlieb) Reading Hildy’s writing inspires a combination of “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking” and “Wow, I never thought of that...” responses for me. She covers more than governance issues, but it’s all tied to the larger responsibilities of nonprofit boards.

Lucy Marcus Notebook

Lucy writes on a range of governance topics, always bringing something new to the table for me. As my learning journey moves into 2011, I trust that Lucy and a new group of Twitter peers (to whom she introduced me last week) will expand my corporate governance immensely.

Nonprofit Law Blog

(Gene Takagi and Emily Chan) Gene and Emily not only alert us to legal issues that should be on the radar of every nonprofit board, but they do so in ways that are accessible

Board’s Eye View

(Alexandra Peters) Alexandra can be counted on to pose questions boards likely wouldn’t know to ask – and creative ways to spark their exploration of those questions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A few of my favorite: governance videos

As I reflect back on the many gifts that I have received this year from the global governance and nonprofit communities, I'm inspired to share a few of those gifts with readers of this blog.

Today, I offer links to some of my favorite governance-focused videos. The "gift" comes not only via the content but also the voices offering it - thinkers and educators who have helped to expand my conception of nonprofit governance in healthy and creative ways in 2010. Click on each title to access the corresponding video.

Boards: Seeing the forest AND the trees

Regular readers would be shocked if my list of favorites didn’t include at least one video featuring my friend, Hildy Gottlieb. Selecting only one favorite is a challenge – so you’ll get two (an equally big challenge!). I chose this one to share, because it highlights the critical importance of not limiting board focus to financial, legal and ‘mechanics’ concerns. Boards need to be looking to the future, and reaching out into their communities to engage support to accomplish their vision.

BOARDS & VISION: Turning passion into action

Okay, so maybe I do have a Hildy favorite – and this would be it. It’s my favorite, because it gets right to the heart of what matters most to me as a board member and educator (and, I suspect, to most who choose to lead via board service).

Successful nonprofit boards

The oh-so-wise Alice Korngold shares insights into the essential elements of successful governance in this clip from the 2009 Carnegie Council New Leaders event. It should be obvious by the frequent references to her work on this blog that I am drawn to Alice’s thinking on governance. This video offers a great overview of a topic that should be of intense interest to all of our boards.

The changing role of the non-executive board director in today’s world

This is a new favorite, featuring a new governance friend, Lucy Marcus. This video introduced me to Lucy and to her work. Her focus here is not exclusive to nonprofit boards, so a few of the concepts may not feel like a direct fit. But it all expands our notions of governance. I was particularly drawn to her commentary on board member engagement, which should be of interest in any governance setting. The material to which I was particularly drawn begins around 5:53.

Strategic thinking – benefits

"(S)trategic planning, not as a static document, but something that happens every single day...a constant, ongoing process." This is why boards need to listen to Terrie Temkin. This video talks about the importance of thinking strategically in governance (and not exiling it to a rare - and usually hurried - planning event).

Why board composition matters

This “Movie Monday” video makes a case for persistence in addressing a perennial challenge for boards: bringing a diverse range of voices and perspectives to table. It’s hard. It matters. We need to keep working toward this important goal. Expanding our governance capacity is the reward.

BoardSource 10 basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards

Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to see this one on my list of favorites. I’m not a particular fan of the “big 10.” My objection isn’t to the list itself. My objection is to its portrayal as the be-all, end-all representation of the rich and complex (and motivating) responsibilities of nonprofit governance. It leaves out a lot (a lot of what inspires most of us to serve). But it’s a list we cannot ignore, and these brief videos do a good job of introducing them in an accessible way.

Laramie Board Learning Project: Boards 101 video

This video offers my interpretation of the Big 10, with a twist: four additional governance responsibilities that I believe should be included in any accounting of board member roles.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Squandered board seats

“(E)very person at the table is so important. Not one seat can be squandered with someone who is not really present and engaged, either bringing expertise or perspective.”

My Twitter friend, Alice Korngold, was discussing the nonprofit board’s role in ensuring financial sustainability when she made that statement (in this 2009 Carnegie Council podcast). But I trust that, like me, she would apply the idea to governance in general.

I’ve served on my share of boards where inactive members were accepted because of the prestige or access they (supposedly) provided to the organization. I’ve been frustrated serving alongside other board members who, for different reasons, treated board service as an apparently casual commitment. And, yes, I once struggled to stay engaged myself, in a setting where agendas perpetually strayed from mission-focused tasks.

Believe me, I know the importance of not wasting board seats on people who are not present and actively engaged in the critical work of governance.

A range of factors can inhibit board member engagement in governance. Some are found within the individual and generally outside of our control. But a vast number of possibilities exist within the organization itself. Those we can address.

As I listened again to the podcast this week, several of those potentially avoidable scenarios immediately came to mind. My list is far from comprehensive (and will sound familiar in several places to regular readers), but I’d like to share some of the factors I consider to be most critical. I hope that you will share your own insights with me and with fellow readers.

Fostering Engaged Board Members

Place mission first in recruitment. Recruitment of potential board members begins with commitment to the nonprofit’s mission. If the prospect is not committed to – preferably passionate about – your mission, the process ends there.

Place mission first in governance work. Board members engage when they can see that the work they are doing is moving you closer to mission fulfillment. Two different needs exist here: to help them make those connections, particularly with the more routine responsibilities, and most important, building board meeting agendas around mission-critical work. (My personal engagement struggle was completely tied to failed attempts to push us toward the latter.)

Create absolute clarity about commitments made. Communicate clearly, in the recruitment process, exactly what you expect of board members. Confirm in the invitation and orientation processes that the prospect is prepared to live up to those responsibilities (and never, ever try to squeeze a yes out of someone by promising, “It really doesn’t take THAT much time…”).

Engage members’ expertise. If you have successfully vetted prospective members and recruited for board needs, you already know what each individual is prepared to bring to the table in service to your organization. Confirm his/her willingness to contribute specific gifts of expertise, then regularly engage that wisdom in board discussions, deliberations and responsibilities. Engage them as peer learning leaders, expanding the group’s collective knowledge and capacity to govern.

Ask the big questions, regularly. If you fill your board agenda with reports and trivia, you are wasting their time. Regularly pose mission-critical questions to board members, especially those connecting their governance and community outreach responsibilities.

Encourage storytelling. Particularly powerful are those illustrating community impact. Stories that connect individual or collective board action to that impact carry additional power to engage.

Encourage boundary spanning – and hold them accountable for it. One of the truly unique contributions that board members can make is building support for your organization within their peer groups and circles of influence. Give members the tools – and the responsibility – for reaching out on your behalf and bringing others to you in authentic ways. Expect them to share how they accomplished that, so that they can learn from each other’s example.

Commit to regular board development. Board members need and benefit from regular opportunities to learn about your organization and about their governance responsibilities. Think beyond full-blown “training” events. Look for ways to integrate learning into their meetings and work. Also look for ways to involve them in that learning. If the knowledge doesn’t already exist in the boardroom, encourage one or more members to explore the issue and share what they learn with their peers.

Expect, and learn from, self-assessment. Board members benefit from the opportunity to assess their effectiveness as individuals and as a group. They benefit more when they have the chance to discuss their strengths and their challenges with each other, and when they are able to take steps to increase collective capacity by addressing the latter. Part of that process should include asking, “What matters to you, and how are we helping you to fulfill that?”

I could go on forever, and write a post (or five) on each one. Instead, I’ll click “publish” and look forward to reading your feedback and experiences. How do we reduce the risk of “squandered” board seats by engaging members in ways that move us closer to mission?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hildy: Giving boards time to think

The great Hildy Gottlieb discusses a topic familiar to regular readers of this blog: giving boards the time and space to reflect and think. So critical governance - and so elusive.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Video: Having fun with fundraising

This morning's "Movie Monday " submission from caught my eye, and I want to share it with readers of this blog.

What I appreciate about this particular episode is the detail shared regarding specific ways, beside the ask, that board members can participate in the fundraising process. I've been one of those board members who'd "never" ask people for money. I've served with others who have expressed that same reticence.

Obviously, someone must eventually ask when the fit between donor interests and organizational needs is a good one. But helping board members to identify ways in which they can participate in the process leading up to that point, in some meaningful way, is important.

Click on the link below to access the video and learn more about the "Six Rs of Relationship Building" and their role in helping board members find their place in the process.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Where good (board) ideas come from

Twitter brought this little video gift this morning, from Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From.

As with most everything I encounter in life these days, I couldn't help thinking about boards as I watched. Do we create spaces where the kinds of connectivity Johnson describes can take shape? Do we nurture breathing room and value insights shared amidst the rush to check reports off the agenda? Do we foster opportunities for good ideas inside board members' heads to make it to the surface so they can be connected?

I feel a sense of "deja vu all over again" as I ask those questions. They are not new to me, or to readers of this blog. But I appreciate the way in which this video provides a framework for reflecting on them (and challenging yet again our assumptions about what governance looks like).

I also can't help wondering, as he describes the coffee houses and salons of eras past, whether there isn't merit in providing a similar kind of space for board members and those who support them, to foster the kinds of interactions and "collision of hunches" that might truly impact governance. That's a question I'm always pondering. (You might call it an obsession.)

Yes, I grasp the big challenges of that notion - especially when talking about a relatively transient bunch of time-pressed volunteers. But it's obvious that something is missing, something that leaves us operating in isolation and frustration. How do those of us who care about governance, and governing effectively, create space - mental, physical, intellectual, etc. - where good ideas can be discovered and grown?

I'd love to chat here about the video and about how we might foster this in nonprofit governance.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lucy P. Marcus - Boardroom Activism

The morning's Twitter feed brought this thought-provoking Tedx talk by Lucy Marcus. Particularly noteworthy is the detail she offers regarding what active, engaged board work looks like.

I encourage you to bookmark, watch, share, and discuss with your board. Sharing your thoughts here is most welcome, too.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Boards 'on fire'

"Board members must be on fire for the organization that they serve..."

That's how one of the students in my "Introduction to the Nonprofit Sector" class summarized last week's too-short unit on boards. Amidst the collective shock of discovering the "10 responsibilities" of nonprofit governance (not unlike many boards I've encountered), this student and several classmates also recognized the importance of board members connecting to more than the bottom line. (For an online version of the video the class was discussing, including my own additions to the Big 10, click here.)

This particular student's "on fire" description summed up beautifully the need for passion for something bigger than oneself: a connection to, and enthusiasm for, the mission and vision of the organization one signs on to govern. Yes, there are other reasons that drive people to board service. Some of us do it to get involved in the community. Some of us say yes because a good friend twisted our arm. A few do it for the line on the resume or the chance to gain some leadership experience. But if we're not excited about the mission we are serving - if we are not 'on fire' for the work of the organization and our role in leading it - it will be a long, tedious, probably ineffective term of service.

How do we stoke the fire of our board? How do we ignite our own passion for governance on the boards where we serve? How do we sustain the flame? I invite you to share your own insights and experiences via comment to this post. In the meantime, I'd like to share a few thoughts of my own.

Lighting and Sustaining the Board Fire
  • Recruit from within. There are many reasons to look to volunteers who serve elsewhere in your organization when the time comes to recruit new board members. The biggest? They're already committed to your mission (hopefully even passionate about it!) and knowledgeable about the ways in which you work to achieve it.
  • Have a compelling mission story - with clarity about the board's leadership role - and tell it often as you are prospecting for new members. Give them a clear, concise, inspiring picture of the difference you are making, and how they will be part of that journey in board service.
  • Infuse your new member orientation process with vivid illustrations of the agency at work, of the board's leadership, of personal accountability for mission success. Tell stories, lots of stories, that bring your mission to life and make it real for new board members. (Note the "process" reference - orientation is more than a one-time event.)
  • Create opportunities to bring members closer to the mission within each board meeting. Keep those stories coming, sharing (anonymous) client success stories, staff accounts of challenges overcome, healthy donor contacts - whatever helps give life to the mission and progress toward fulfilling it.
  • Identify and share multiple venues and resources for learning more about not only the organization but the issues(s) that you address on a daily basis. Encourage board members to develop their own knowledge base, rather than relying on someone spoon feeding them what they 'need to know.' Identify websites, publications, listservs, and other places to deepen their understanding of the challenges, models, etc., that can help them make more informed, mission-focused decisions.
  • Hold board members accountable for their own learning, and for the learning of their peers, by asking them to explore a mission-critical topic and share what they learn via a brief "board learning moment" at a meeting. Our own learning deepens when we share with others.
  • Celebrate the big and small moments of board life, connecting specific ways in which their individual and collective actions moved the organization closer to to the mission. This is particularly important for boards, as the work of governance may feel removed from the 'real work' that staff and other volunteers are accomplishing. Helping them to identify the unique contributions that their leadership makes (which, of course, assumes you're facilitating focus on their ultimate responsibilities) builds satisfaction and commitment.
  • Build in regular time for reflection and assessment: how are we/am I contributing to leading this organization toward our mission? This may feel harder to do for some board members (for example, in a setting where some board members share expertise in the mission area and some don't). Be specific in regularly sharing exactly what their leadership adds to the group's capacity to govern. Some may honestly have trouble seeing it.
  • Encourage board members to attend all of the organization's events. Board members are ambassadors for the organization - whether or not they realize it - and these settings are among the best and most energizing venues for assuming that role. Experiencing and sharing enthusiasm for the cause, whatever it may be, goes a long way toward keeping the fire lit for many of us.
I offer those thoughts in the spirit of sparking a conversation. I'm interested in hearing your reactions and your own recommendations - particularly those that encourage boards toward even deeper levels of commitment and passion for the work. I'll admit that some items on my list feel a little basic. But I also know that 'basic' is a step, or 10, above where many boards dwell when it comes to building and stoking the fire of passionate commitment in their members.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Handbooks and orientation: Providing the foundation

What kinds of information, in what forms, does a new board member require for a fuller sense of her new responsibilities? What additional resources and interactions will help him develop a stronger understanding of the mission and the organization he has committed to advance?

New member orientation - bringing that new board member closer to active engagement - is as critical as bringing the right new recruit into the fold. But there are many ways to approach this essential process:
  • What should that orientation include?
  • What are the board handbook essentials? Is a physical handbook even necessary?
  • Should there be a face-to-face orientation event? Who should lead that event?
  • How do we acknowledge the different learning styles that exist for all of our members, especially as they join the board?
  • How do we support the new member, one month, six months, one year into the first term?
As I noted in my last post, I'm thinking deeply about these questions, both as a veteran board member helping to design an orientation process and as a new board recruit needing to come up to speed quickly on the work of a local nonprofit.

One point that should be obvious, but sometimes isn't: Orientation is not a one-time event. New board members deserve - and need - an overview of the organization and the board, and reinforcement of their new governance responsibilities. But one sit-down session, whether in person or via phone or other remote vehicle, is only the start of what a new board member needs.

Some kind of induction process is important. But the format can take different shapes, depending on your organizational circumstances and board member needs. In the case of the board I'm joining, that orientation involved a lunchtime session with the organization's executive director and a fellow new member. In the case of the process I'm helping to develop for the other board (of an organization that covers the entire state of Wyoming), that event will take place via teleconference. The point is, new board members in both cases have a chance to not just receive the whats, whys and wherefores. They also get to ask some initial questions and get a better sense of what they should be focusing on early in their service.

A pleasant discovery in my early days of service on the local board is the fact that all members have access to an online orientation focusing on a federal funding source. (In my first round of service on this board, I was constantly perplexed by the layers of complexity that comes with those grant dollars.) I'm not far into that online training process, but it's exciting to think about the model that it offers for other governance settings. In those cases where an online training component make sense, what would it look like? What would it cover? How might it be used to build upon those traditional orientation vehicles?

A board handbook - or, rather, easy access to details about the organization, the board, and other information essential to full and effective governance - also is critical to share with new board members. I added that qualifier, since I recently witnessed how one nonprofit board used a password-protected website (a wiki) for sharing and storing the types of documents that would typically be placed in a board handbook. I rather liked it, and it seemed to work well for members of the board. Setting up an environment of this type does require some planning, to make finding what members need quickly easy. But it's an option that more boards may want to consider, especially as the range of wikis and other free, collaboration-friendly sites continues to grow.

Whether it exists as a resource someone physically passes on to a new member or an online space where everyone has 24/7 access to board and organization documents, each new recruit needs to have a way to learn more about what is expected.

What do you consider to be the essential components of a board handbook, whatever the format? What do board members need to have at their fingertips to lead effectively? I'm interested in reader feedback on this.

One component that we added to the orientation proposal for the statewide board, that I hope receives the board's approval this week is a mentor plan. Each new member would be assigned a veteran board mentor who would serve as a peer guide and resource through the first six months of the new recruit's service. We all have those questions we don't quite feel comfortable asking - or re-asking. We often feel the need to have someone explain some of the minor to major mysteries of how the board really functions - the ways people interact, the different communication patterns and interpersonal dynamics that exist in any group. A board mentor will be a go-to person for those kinds of questions that always seem to arise, and an additional resource for the new member.

A likely secondary benefit of a mentor program: the veteran may find thinking about the topics that rise to the top of a new member's mind, pondering why we do handle things the way we do, and focusing on the mission through fresh eyes to be energizing.

I'm interested in engaging readers in a conversation about what you believe to be essential to effective orientation. I'm particularly interested in your experiences as a new board member, which may be very different from what we intend as executives and boards creating what we hope will be an ideal process. What helps to pave the way to effective board membership? What is essential to not just meeting the basic responsibilities but moving to true leadership?

How can we, as a board, make that process more fulfilling and fruitful for the peers who will soon be joining us?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

From newbie to board vet: Paving the way

How are new members welcomed to our nonprofit board? How do I go from being a rookie board member, with a general idea of what the mission means and how the agency's programs work toward it, to an active, engaged leader embracing my responsibility to advance it?

Those questions are on my mind these days, for two reasons. One, I'm on a brand new board development committee, collaborating with three peers to design a board recruitment and orientation process for our nonprofit. Two, I recently (re)joined the board of a local nonprofit, meaning I'm in that rookie place right now. In both settings, the question of what that process looks like and how the board welcoming the new member sets the tone and lights the path toward commitment and successful service is at the forefront.

I've written before about the centrality of the board as community of practice that emerged in my dissertation research. A core phenomenon of the COP, that I was unable to study at the same time, is legitimate peripheral participation (LPP), exactly the process I am simultaneously experiencing in one setting and helping to create in the other.

As I enter this new board member assignment, I have decided to treat it as essentially a case study. I want to take a more conscious role in reflecting on, recording, and owning how I go from committed but not particularly knowledgeable about the agency's current programs and needs to not only an active board member but a board leader. I'll be writing about the journey and sharing some insights here, in the spirit of prompting some sharing about how boards can be as effective as possible in facilitating an experience that benefits everyone. I hope you'll be open to sharing what's worked well for you and your boards, as well as those parts of the process that could be more user friendly.

In the other setting, we are making decisions about how we want to be more strategic about determining our governance needs, recruiting prospects who will help us meet those needs, welcoming them to the board, and providing them with the information and the tools to get off to a good start.

The overlap between the two experiences feels like a good one. As my peers and I develop the structure to ensure clarity about our needs and a process to immerse new members in the mission and in the inner workings of our board, I inevitably will be thinking about the information and community building needs that I experience in the other setting. What does it feel like to be that temporarily uninformed new member? What do I need to become part of the board team and to be an effiective, knowledgeable leader? How do I find my niche within the mix of skills and perspectives and leadership roles? As I begin to answer those questions as the newbie, I will be thinking about how we can ease and enrich the process of the recruits we welcome into the other board.

Both processes take a big step forward this week, as I attend a new member orientation for the local board and move the draft recruitment package to the committee for tweaking. I'll be reporting and reflecting on both processes here along the way. I hope readers will respond with their own recommendations and recollections about recruitment and orientation success stories and challenges. Together, I hope that we can develop a joint conversation to expand our collective understanding to make those processes as effective as possible.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Number-free board research

So many important questions need to be asked about nonprofit governance, not only by academic researchers but by nonprofit practitioners and board leaders alike.

As readers of this blog know, I pretty much ponder those questions 24/7. (Stating the obvious: I'm a governance geek.) The questions I ask often fly in the face of contemporary governance scholarship in one critical way: the answers can't be quantified.

Next month, four members of the Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics present a colloquium at the 2010 ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) Conference, titled "New Directions in Nonprofit Governance Research." My part of the presentation is described this way:

This presentation will argue for research that explores the routines and practices that make up the work of nonprofit governance. There is a critical need for understanding the day-to-day challenges to effective governance. There is an equally critical need to understand the processes that build commitment, factors that promote mission focus in board activities and deliberations, and features that create an environment where that work is sustained. Research questions centering on these issues have the potential to both contribute to governance theory and inform board practice. Engaging in this work will require different questions and different ways of exploring the internal work of nonprofit boards. Such research opens the door to collaborative inquiry with nonprofit boards and their leadership, resulting in richer data for analysis. While quantitative methods such as survey research can contribute to this discussion, they do not provide access to examples of effective or problematic practices, nor do they facilitate access to those processes that may be largely tacit. Qualitative approaches such as action research introduce opportunities to discover, explore and analyze those factors that may provide the greatest explanatory power to scholars and practitioners.

I'll be discussing ways in which qualitative approaches - such as case studies and narrative inquiry - can be used to explore those pressing governance questions that get to the essence of what enhances of inhibits effective board experiences and commitment. These are the kinds of questions that drive the emerging Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics agenda.

Of particular personal interest are questions of governance practice, especially those that invite collaborative inquiry - researcher and boards working together to develop and ultimately answer with an eye toward improving practice.

I have my own thoughts about the questions we need to be asking in collaboration with board members; but I'd really like to gather examples from the field that I can share, not only with the colloquium audience but with peers and partners engaged in developing a practice-focused governance research agenda.

My question for readers is this: What are your questions about nonprofit governance that need to be asked but can't be quantified?

A couple of examples from my research agenda may give you an idea of the kinds of questions I hope to gather from nonprofit boards and those who work with them:
How does learning occur within the routine context of nonprofit board meetings ('plain English' version of my research question)?

How do new board recruits move from rookie status to active, engaged veteran members (exploring a phenomenon called legitimate peripheral participation)?
What questions do you have about nonprofit governance - about board members and their work - that require qualitative approaches to exploration? What do we need to be asking, with boards, to enhance effectiveness? Where should governance scholars be focusing more energy in service to impact governance practice?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's your (board) story?

What's your story?

The stories we tell in our personal and professional lives carry great power. How we came to be who we are today, how we overcame the large and small obstacles we face, how we reached our goals and made a difference in our lives and in the lives of others - every one conveys something about us and the paths we have taken.

The stories we tell about our governance lives - about the work that we do and the impact our leadership has on mission fulfillment - carry the same potential power.

What stories do you tell about your board experience? About your board? About your organization? About the difference your board is making for your nonprofit? To whom are you telling those stories? To whom could you tell those stories, in service to your mission?

Storytelling has been a recurring theme in my reading and research for the last several months. Yesterday, as I was reading a new book on using social media for social change, The Dragonfly Effect, I again was reminded of the critical role stories have in not only sharing snippets from our lives but moving others to action. It is no coincidence that, in this particular work, the topic appears in a section called "Engage." Stories aren't just colorful entertainment. They have the potential to, well, engage others in the nonprofit missions we as board members are charged with advancing.

Our nonprofits have stories - stories that, we hope, they are sharing daily with donors, policymakers, volunteers, news outlets and others. They convey the importance of the mission we have identified. They illustrate the impact we have made so far, the lives we have transformed. They reinforce to others that our work is not done, and that they have an opportunity to join our effort.

Do you, as a board member, know those stories? Do you share them with others?

Do you have your own stories, from the board member's perspective, about the impact of your leadership (individually or the board as a whole) on your mission area? What are those stories? With whom have you shared them? Who needs to hear them? What difference would they make?

What if there are no stories to tell?

I couldn't help thinking about my own board stories as I read the Dragonfly passage yesterday. I realized that the tales I share most often focus on board processes than on the missions of the groups from which they emerged.

For example, I often tell - with a chuckle - a 'how not to recruit new members' by sharing how I joined my first nonprofit board. The group voted me in, elected me secretary - and then told me (A co-worker, the board president, thought I needed to get involved in the community.). There's always a happy ending: that service changed my life and sparked my passion for nonprofit governance. But it tells the listener nothing about the mission and the work that turned my entire world upside down.

Another one you've probably heard if you spend enough time around me focuses on an experience that reinforced for me the importance of clarity about what a mission does not include as much as what it does cover. (I helped to lead a strategic planning process where the board and staff made a tough call and rejected adding a program - and funding - that served a legitimate community need but stretched our mission too far.)

I'd like to think the types of stories that I'm telling these days simply reflect spending more time lately wearing my consultant and nonprofit educator hats . But, honestly, I'm not so sure I ever had any compelling stories of how board leadership advanced the mission we were charged with advancing. Is it because we really didn't make a difference? Is it because we never stopped to reflect, as a group, on the impact of our leadership?

I'm accepting the uncertainty as a challenge as I continue service on one board and (re)join another governing body this week. I will be looking for ways to create leadership stories via my service on these governing bodies. I will be pondering ways to encourage the boards to create those stories for us, providing the time and focus to reflect on how we are leading change and advancing the missions of our nonprofits. Obviously, the value of those processes extends far beyond coming up with great stories. But if the resulting stories can be shared to build support and spark action by others, it will be time well spent.

My question to you today is this: what are your governance stories? What stories have you told about your mission and your board's leadership role in advancing it?

That probably leads to a second question: What stories remain untold about your organization, and your leadership, that need to be shared?

One of the reasons I chose this particular topic today is my continuing interest in articulating and promoting the contributions of nonprofit governance. We need to do a better job describing the difference that board leadership makes.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts and examples. Then please take an additional moment - several of them, actually - encouraging your board to reflect on the difference you are making. You'll not only be taking a step toward deeper, more meaningful, more effective governance, you'll be creating more stories to share and inspire others.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The art, science of great board meetings

What makes a nonprofit board meeting the ideal environment for not only effective governance but creative approaches governance? What does a board meeting that feeds a director's motivations to serve look and feel like?

Twitter friend and governance blogger Alice Korngold offers one of the most thought-provoking framings that I've ever read in her recent book, Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses. My bookmarks are filled with Alice's work - she challenges and informs me with virtually everything she writes about governance and board leadership. Her book is no exception, but this passage in particular resonated:
Board meetings provide the occasion to focus the board's attention on the matters of utmost concern and to call the board to action accordingly...Board members should leave each meeting with a renewed appreciation of the mission, an increased understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the organization, a chance to have contributed to a discussion of importance, and the inspiration and direction to help the organization. There is an art and a science to creating relevant and useful board meetings.
My first reaction to that description, even as I read it again tonight, is "Yes!" That is exactly the foundation for creating meaningful, focused, leader-ful settings for the kinds of engaged governance that nonprofit organizations need. My second reaction is "Darn." How rare and wonderful is the existence of such an environment for most boards?

I encourage you to do two things. One is to order and read Alice's fabulous book. It's one of the better overviews of a board members' governance responsibilities that I've read in a long time. Second, take this paragraph to your board and ask members questions such as these:
  • How do our meetings reflect the kind of focus described here?
  • Where is there room for sharpening our focus?
  • What keeps us from "attention on the matters of utmost concern?"
  • What do our members need from the board experience to leave each meeting feeling motivated, informed, and feeling certain that they have "contributed to a discussion of importance?"
If you are a board chairperson, how will you ensure that the agendas you set and the meetings you lead will focus on what is of utmost importance for your agency? How will you generate an environment that feeds individual members' understanding of their responsibilities and the sense that they are moving you ever closer to mission fulfillment?

If you serve on a board, how will you challenge your leaders to create opportunities within each meeting to govern with your organization's vision and mission at the center? How will you step up, and speak out, when things wander? How will you keep the mission and vision at the forefront of your own contributions to "discussions of importance?"

Whether or not a board thrives in the kind of rich environment that Alice describes here, or wallows in minutiae, falls squarely on the shoulders of the board itself. How can we work to ensure that every board meeting comes as close as possible? What ultimately contributes to board members leaving meetings fulfilled and energized instead of depleted?

Please share your experiences and insights about how boards go about making Alice's vision their meeting norm.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Getting back into blogging mode

My apologies for the month-long posting hiatus. I've been immersed in governance since my incredibly fruitful trip to Montreal. It has been a stimulating, exciting - and completely overwhelming - intellectual process that likely will continue for a lifetime.

You may remember that I traveled there at the beginning of August to participate in the inaugural meeting of the international Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics. I spent two days immersed in exploration of the state of research on nonprofit governance with scholars from the U.S., Canada, Norway, Italy and Great Britain. It stretched my mind, it intimidated me (being in the same room - and peer group - as the senior governance scholars I read and admire), and it sparked a fresh round of excitement about all the important questions that need to be asked about increasing the effectiveness of our boards.

The second part of that trip was participation in the 2010 Academy of Management conference - just me, and about 10,000 new friends. My official reason for being there was as part of a panel titled "What do boards do: Interpersonal and group processes in nonprofit governance." The heady experience of sharing insights with governance scholar peers on the panel, and interested experts in the audience, moved me deeper into a learning and reflection process about my ongoing governance questions.

The paper for that panel took a fresh view of my data, through the lens of sociocultural learning theory. What emerged was not a vast departure from the community of practice theme of my dissertation, but a shift in priority findings. The big news, for my fellow panelists and the audience, were the insights I gained about the importance of questions and stories in board deliberations. To be honest, the latter was almost an afterthought, thrown in to beef up a point I wanted to make in support of the theory. But in the time following the presentation, and in the month-long reflective process, I've realized that I need to understand more fully - and talk about more widely - the importance of the stories we tell and how they shape the "learning to be, learning about" of nonprofit governance. That's a significant part of the thought work that prompted my blogging break.

My brain is filled with ideas that I want to share and explore on this site (including, actually, what I've been learning about the brain and how we learn). I have two posts begging to be written in the next week, based on two incredible books I've been reading (by Twitter friends Alice Korngold and Pamela Meyer) and the conversations they've sparked. (Yes, you can learn and grow - and develop valued connections - 140 characters at a time!)

This isn't the post I intended to write when I came here, but it's the post I needed to write to move forward from this incubation period. I look forward to share the best of what I am learning and how it is impacting my understanding of nonprofit governance. I especially look forward to exploring, poking, stretching and adapting them with you - and seeing what emerges in the process.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Your nonprofit governance research questions

What are your burning questions about nonprofit boards and how they govern? What do you wish you had research to inform or support your governance efforts? How about your learning needs?

I'm in transit to Montreal this morning, headed to two events: the 2010 Academy of Management conference and the inaugural meeting of the international Study Group on Nonprofit Dynamics and Relationships. The latter brings together several of the great minds of governance scholarship and several junior scholars (yours truly included) to discuss our current work, future research agendas and potential collaborative efforts.

I may engage in scholarly research and writing, but my heart and life lie in the nonprofit field. My special concern will be twofold: the potential for whatever is studied to inform governance as it is practiced in our local boardrooms and the accessibility that places the findings into the hands of those who will most benefit from it.

So I'm wondering:

What are your nonprofit governance research questions? If you were to help us set our research agendas - individual and group - for the next two years, what questions would you have us explore?

I posed this question to Twitter and immediately received these two responses:
  • "Waiting for the research that links BoD performance to NPO outcomes"
  • "Generational succession planning"
The first contribution prompted another Twitter friend to forward a link to a journal article by one of my study group peers, Will Brown, which was heartening - and a little surprising. Academic journals are not known for being accessible or practitioner friendly. (This exchange also exemplifies why you need to be on Twitter if you're not already there: the learning never stops.)

I also posed the question to the blog Facebook page. Shortly after it appeared, a fan offered this recommendation:
  • "What works in attracting 'outsiders' or marginalized folks to board service?"
What are your burning governance questions? If you were to help us build a research agenda, what would you include on it? Share your thoughts here; I'll take them to the workshop with me.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Boards: Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

No one says it better than my friend, Hildy Gottlieb. Enjoy this new video gift, regarding the importance of board focus the forest and the trees (leadership as well as board mechanics).

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Governance: The elusive board definition

"Job definitions? Qualifications? Hah."

I've spent the last month or so in a not-at-all-scientific quest to identify the practitioner's definition of nonprofit governance. How do board members define their job? What do the executive directors who work with boards expect them to bring to the table? What are the experiences of consultants who support and train boards encounter in the field?

The opening quote pretty much sums up what many generous people shared with me in that process. There are pockets of excellence in board development. There are organizations, or groups of organizations, that have defined what their boards are expected to do and have shared and reinforced those definitions in orientation and training. But for the most part, board members are not receiving that information. They are good-intentioned, wise people who want to serve - but are forced to guess what that service involves.

I sought this grounding as I prepared to share the "from the field" perspective at an international governance workshop this week. I went to various sources - Twitter, Facebook, this blog, and two listservs - to check my own assumptions and experiences, gather feedback beyond Wyoming's borders, and gain from shared wisdom from colleagues who have spent decades advancing nonprofit leadership.

Perhaps because of the way I framed the original questions, the first set of responses came primarily from consultants who work with boards. Their collective observations carried themes that did not surprise:
  • Legal and fiscal accountability dominate board members' focus, for probably obvious reasons (most notably, recent revisions to IRS form 990 and reporting requirements that individual funders institute).
  • If/when boards have a clearly-defined set of governance criteria, it's usually BoardSource's "10 Basic Responsibilities" or something similar. But access to that list - or any other - is hardly universal to the sector.
The practical impacts on everyday governance?
  • Defining it from an accountability standpoint - dominating focus on fiduciary and legal concerns (one described governance as beginning and ending with legal culpability. Sound familiar? Me, too.)
  • Increasing emphasis on board fund-raising
  • Reducing emphasis on vision/mission stewardship
The consultants shared what they saw as authoritative sources shaping nonprofit governance practice today. Among those sources were:
They also shared their thoughts about who was doing interesting work with the potential to impact how we define governance. I was familiar with all but one of those sources, but only two are likely to make it to nonprofit boardrooms:
I agree that these, and the other sources that they mentioned, offer exciting, rich ways of thinking about governance. But I also know that we have a long way to go before those ideas - and the tools to support their adoption - are widely accessible to the folks serving in our boardrooms.

The consultants provided much to ponder and great wisdom that I am glad to share. But the absence of the board member's voice cried out. I sent out the second query. This time, board members and EDs responded en masse.

A few were able to describe successful orientation experiences, where they were able to learn about what was expected up front. A couple described independent searches for information and support to better understand the commitment they were making. But most of the respondents were not so lucky. If they received any frame for what they were assigned to do, it inevitably focused on the fiduciary. Few reported receiving any orientation; when it was provided, it frequently fell short of their needs.

Training once they were on the board? It was rare, and it was uniformly reviled as useless.

Where do board members learn to govern? They learn from their fellow members and from participating in boardroom activities over time. They watch, observe, and ask questions. If they're lucky, they may have a mentor who can help guide the way.

Now, I wrote an entire dissertation describing this exact phenomenon (boards as communities of practice). I know that the learning that takes place through interaction with our peers, within the context of governance issues and challenges faced by an individual board, is extremely powerful. It's where true learning takes place. But when no one in the room fully understands the responsibilities to which they have jointly committed? Boards wander. They focus on only parts of the job and neglect others. They fail to truly govern.

As I write that last paragraph, I realize that it sounds like I'm blaming boards. To the extent that we need to be crystal clear about the awesome responsibilities we are accepting before we accept an invitation to serve and fail to do so, maybe I am. But I also know that identifying what questions to ask, challenging what you've always understood (or were told) about governance as incomplete or inaccurate, or knowing where to go for a different perspective is easier said than done when you lack a starting point.

I wish I had the solution(s) for closing the gap between boards and the resources that support them. I don't. I do see the need for the sector to acknowledge that information gap and find ways to provide space(s) for sharing information and inviting discussion about common concerns can be facilitated. We need space for sharing success stories - boards that get it and that manage to stay focused amidst the inevitable challenges - and learn from them. Most of all, we need to make these spaces accessible to boards and actively promote them. We can't simply create resources and hope that boards will stumble upon them somehow. We need to reach out. We need to meet board members where they already interact (hence, my decision to create a Facebook presence for the blog). Those of us who exist to support boards in their desire to govern effectively need to step up.

What are your thoughts about this? What are your ideas for increasing access to the knowledge and tools that will help boards succeed? Please share.

Friday, July 30, 2010

LBLP now on Facebook

Two posts beg to be written, and they will - soon. Preparations for the Montreal workshop and the 2010 Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute, which begins Sunday night, have dominated my time and focus this week. At least one will be posted this weekend, I promise!

In the meantime, I want to share a bit of news: the Laramie Board Learning Project now has a Facebook presence. In addition to extending the blog's visibility, I created this space to provide room for sharing resources, talking about boards, and otherwise building a bit of a governance community in a setting where board members are already interacting.

If you're on Facebook, please "like" the page and join what I hope will become a wide-ranging, international resource for building board capacity.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Request for feedback: How boards learn to govern

Today, I come to readers of this blog with a personal request. Next week, I head to Montreal for two events. One is the inaugural meeting of the international Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics. This workshop will bring together scholars who study nonprofit boards to talk about the issues of governance and explore ways to collaborate on research and writing that benefit practitioners and volunteers who serve on our governing bodies.

I am co-facilitating a part of that conversation, on how we define governance. My special focus is what all of this means in the field, to people who actually are serving on nonprofit boards. As someone whose feet dangle in both worlds, I pretty much know that a "real world" perspective on what boards are doing and facing would be an immensely valuable thing and an important contribution to the conversation.

I have a lot of good feedback from several wonderful consultant friends who responded to earlier queries. But I really need more data from board members (current or former) and executive directors who work with and support boards. Here's the two-part question:
  • How do/did you learn to be a board member (what kinds information about the job were shared, how were you oriented, who provided the information/experience, etc.) and
  • How was the job defined for you (what were the essential tasks described, what were the qualifications, etc.)?
Would you be willing to share your thoughts and experiences with this group? Obviously, this isn't 'scientific' inquiry (though it would be a wonderful research question for the group to study). But I'd like to gather more data and anecdotes from individuals who have served. Your experiences as a board member - current or former - is extremely helpful. The ED's experience, as someone who helps orient members and supports board development, also is a valuable contribution to the discussion.

Please share your thoughts in a comment to this post. I'll take them to Canada with me, to help provide a "real world" understanding of how we learn to govern.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Board criteria: Must haves, would be nice(s?)

I'll write about these lists (and the event in which they were generated) later; but I'm anxious to share them, both with participants in yesterday's board recruitment roundtable and readers of this blog.

(Note: Click on pics to see enlarged view)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Webinar: Building your board

Fellow board blogger Anne Ackerson shares her wisdom with the world via an archived version of a webinar she recently conducted for the New York State Council of the Arts, titled "Fulfilling a Role of Just Filling a Seat: Developing Your Board's Capital in Challenging Times."

The treat for me: getting to hear Anne's voice and witnessing her board development skills in action. The treat for you if you choose to watch or listen to the webinar: access to a wealth of knowledge and field-based experience on maintaining board capacity and commitment amidst the daily challenges you face.

It's a recording of a live event, with a bit of introductory talk up front. Listening past that, to get to Anne's workshop, is worth the wait.

Anne's session also demonstrates that distance delivery methods can be used effectively to access board development and other learning opportunities targeting nonprofit audiences. In a geographically vast state like Wyoming, we need to be creating more of these paths to professional development.