Sunday, March 21, 2010

Community focus

As I've continued to ponder the possible with this week's launch of the Albany County Boards Initiative, a wise and wonderful friend from Canada shared a bit of inspiration that has helped to expand and deepen that vision.

The blog post that Gayle shared, written in 2008 by Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute, offered "10 keys to living united in America." They offer a worthy framework for any community-level effort - including our boards initiative.

While one can find merit and links to the initiative in each of the 10 "keys," four are resonating deeply for me right now.

Rooting the work in "public knowledge of our community" (key 2). Whatever might emerge from this broader boards effort must begin and end with a vision of a healthy, vibrant community where citizens are free to live to their fullest potential. Anything that comes from this initiative needs to bring us closer to that community-focused vision.

Building around "galvanizing projects" (key 4). Our board members are action-oriented people. We need to identify projects that will be simultaneously meaningful to our community, our nonprofits, and individual board member participants. Advancing a healthy community vision is the bottom line. But there should be very real value experienced in connecting to create something bigger than ourselves or our individual organizations.

Recognize and draw upon board members' boundary-spanning role (key 3). Reaching out on behalf of our organization is a critically important board responsibility that often gets lost in the shuffle of "urgent" agenda items. However, it may be the most important role for not only organizational leadership but also community leadership. It also is where a community-wide board initiative can have the greatest potential impact: reaching across organizational boundaries to advance the health and welfare of our community. It a place to model, and appreciate, the boundary-spanning role of governance and what it creates for our organizations and our community.

Telling and creating "stories of hope and change" (key 9). Finding the stories is only half of the equation. Learning from them completes the circle. There is community value in sharing our organizational stories, learning from from each other's successes and the ways in which we overcame obstacles. There also is value in finding connections between the stories shared across organizational lines.

But think of the generative power of creating new stories of hope and change while we work together for community good. Think of the stories we could tell as a community - of doors opened, citizens engaged, collaborations created, relationships built, services enhanced - as a community of committed board leaders.

Only time will tell how the Albany County Boards Initiative moves forward and how our community will be better because it did. On Tuesday, that potential becomes more real, and the vision of what can be possible brighter and more vivid. Entering that process with a clearer understanding of where the greatest impact might lie creates a canvas from which great things can happen for Laramie and the organizations that exist to make it a better place to live.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Moving beyond 101

Recently, a friend and I engaged in a brief exchange about the perpetual need for '101'-level, basic information and training experiences in the nonprofit sector.

We agreed on one indisputable fact: that need exists and it is, indeed, perpetual. We will never get to the point where everyone has all of this - governance, fund-raising, volunteer management, etc. - figured out. That day will never come.

My friend and I don't disagree - on this and most things nonprofit. But this brief discussion hit a nerve for me, which is connected to my vision for the sector in our state and our community:
We must move beyond '101.'
In saying this, I am not denying the need to make available basic information about nonprofit management and leadership. Those needs are real and legitimate. However, we need to go a step further. We need to go several steps further.

One of the most obvious reasons that '101' needs continue to exist is the often high turnover in nonprofit organizations and their boards. A significant percentage of that turnover is within our power to impact.

We leave our organizations because we burn out. The work is hard, the hours are long, the toolbox is empty. We don't have the resources we need to succeed. We lack access to processes, examples, and knowledge to take the next step toward our mission.

We don't know what comes after the 101.

We rely on the same old - basic - approaches that are never meant to lead us to mission fulfillment. So guess what: we never get there. Instead, we spin our wheels, dog paddle through the days, and wonder why we never get any closer to the horizon.

There is another turnover factor over which we have control. That perpetual '101' focus is boring. We burn out our boards (and our staff and volunteers) because they can't see the impact of their efforts. We gravitate toward nonprofit work because we want to be part of the drive to the horizon - we want to make a difference, even if we know our specific part of that effort is measured in inches rather than the miles needed to get there.

We leave because the '101' focus asks very little of our minds. Once we figure out the "10 basic board responsibilities" (if we learn about them at all), we're seldom asked to really stretch in service to our mission. We're not asked to become the community leaders that nonprofit boards are intended to be.

Boards recruit smart, creative, inspired, driven people to serve. Then we drown them in trivia and tasks that put them to sleep. Not that some of those tasks aren't part of those basic responsibilities. But when that's all we ask of our board members, we waste vast amounts of talent. And we burn them out.

This doesn't mean that we ignore those legitimate needs for '101' learning opportunities and resources. It also doesn't mean that we stretch people to the point of breaking - beyond their capabilities, knowledge and interest.

What does mean is nudging, encouraging, inspiring them to find the power to move closer to the vision of a better future that we share and the mission that draws each of us to the work.

It means expecting more than '101'-level work: encouraging and supporting as we embrace growth, develop new capacities, and fill our toolboxes. It means supporting our boards (and our staff and volunteers) when they succeed in that growth. It means supporting them when they stumble in the learning process. It means focusing the lens on that better future and the mission-defined path that we have laid out.

People want to be engaged. They want to be part of something better. They want to learn. They want to not be bored. They want to be partners in success.

They - we - need more than 101.

As the Albany County Boards Initiative moves forward, we undoubtedly will find strong expressed needs for basic board development opportunities. We will work to address those needs in accessible (and, hopefully, more creative) ways. But you can expect me to be up front, asking us as a community to stretch in healthy ways - in ways that move us closer to the strongest, healthiest, most vibrant Laramie that we can create. Making sure we build beyond the 101 - and providing our boards with the experiences and resources to do that - is my special part of this process.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Albany County Boards Initiative: My vision

Today, I am pleased to announce a major step toward the community boards initiative that I have long had and began to articulate here in November.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you may recall an entry I posted from the Cleveland airport in November, describing my desire to explore ways to support Laramie's nonprofits and their boards.

This was not a new dream for me. What was new was the support expressed in response to my post. By the time my plane landed in Laramie, the Facebook version of that post had attracted responses from friends who saw value in my proposal and offered to help move that vision forward. Within a couple of weeks, the seeds of Albany County Boards Initiative were planted.

The first step toward building local board capacity and community begins on March 23, at a networking event. "Greater than the Sum of Our Parts: Strengthening Nonprofits in Albany County" is a chance for our local boards to meet, share stories, identify common strengths and concerns, and begin to create a vision of what is possible when our nonprofits and the leaders that govern them have the support that they need and the opportunities to collaborate. The details:

March 23, 6:30-8 p.m.
Horse Barn Theatre, Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site
Free and open to all Albany County board members
RSVP appreciated, not required, to albanycobds @

Ultimately, whatever emerges must be the vision that participants create for themselves. But I'd like to share the starting point that I developed as I began envisioning what was possible. This is how I articulated that foundation (with significant support and inspiration from my classmates at the January Community-Driven Institute intensive consulting course):

Vision: Our vision is a community where residents are able to reach their full potential.

Mission: Our vision is a community where residents are able to reach their full potential. To bring that vision into reality, we create opportunities for building nonprofit leadership through active, vibrant, engaged boards.

Values: To guide our programming and decision making the Laramie Boards Initiative holds the following values:

  • We will be accessible to all who share an interest in the health of our nonprofits.
  • We will reflect the learning and community building needs of participants.
  • We will respect the diversity of our nonprofits and the boards that govern them.
  • We will be participant driven.
  • We will draw upon the talents, passions and experiences of participants.
  • We will enhance the quality of life in Laramie, through a strengthened nonprofit sector.

What might that look like, practically? Again, any activity that develops should come from expressed board member needs. But I do have ideas. Some possibilities that I might offer up as the group begins to envision what is possible in our community:
  • Regular face-to-face events focusing on networking and learning.
  • Formal learning opportunities, such as workshops on common governance concerns (e.g., accountability, board member responsibilities, community outreach, boards as community leaders).
  • An online resource where Laramie boards can go to share resources, ask for advice, discuss concerns, network, and engage in social learning.
  • A governance book club and other opportunities to form study groups that foster informal learning and exchange of ideas.
  • Ongoing conversations (face to face and online) that inspire a common vision of a strong, vibrant, caring community with leadership from our local nonprofit sector.
  • Promote board service as community leadership - engage new pools of potential board members, educate them about the rewards and responsibilities, and help to link them to the right service opportunities.
  • Create a mentoring program, matching new board members and veterans (perhaps across boards, to encourage connections) to help the former launch successful governance experiences.

That's my vision going into our March 23 conversation. What is your vision of what is possible in Albany County when our boards are supported and recognized as community leaders? Share your thoughts here. Better yet, join us on March 23 and help launch an amazing collaboration to make that vision happen.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Mission-focused culture

On Feb. 8, I shared my draft nonprofit learning manifesto, eight premises about how adults learn and, specifically, how adults working and volunteering in the sector learn. Today, I wrap up the series with the eighth point: creating a culture where mission-driving learning can occur.

"Culture" is an inherently fuzzy word: hard to describe, virtually impossible to measure, challenging as a rallying point for engaging board members. But creating and nurturing strong environments where mission-driven learning and communities of practice can flourish - the eighth and final point of my manifesto - may be the most important of all.

Grounding everything must be the mission. The focus of all board inquiry must be its reason for being. Exploration must be based in the ultimate question: How does this move us closer to the mission? Mission is the guiding force and the ultimate test of success. It is unites us in our governance.

With that as the foundation, we can begin to contemplate the factors that contribute to the culture of safety, respect and responsibility that governance requires.

There are the bottom-line safety concerns that such an environment requires. Board members need space to explore without worrying about looking ill-informed or ignorant. Board members need to feel respected and valued for what they bring to the table, even - especially - when what they bring may be considered outside of what everyone else seems to offer.

They deserve to feel like they are part of something greater than themselves and that they are making a difference. They have a responsibility to share their perspectives and their knowledge, in service to that something greater, and know that they will be heard.

New members deserve the chance to become fully immersed in the work of the board from their first days of service and have ready access to the information and experiences that help them become active members and potential leaders. They need to be able - expected - to ask questions that facilitate those processes.

There are the factors that invite creativity and enhance the potential for quality. Board members need opportunities to ask questions and consider issues from multiple sides (including those that may not be so popular on the surface), and tell stories that add context and allow members to learn from organizational history.

They need to be stretched, to be asked to imagine what is the very best we can create together - and use that as the starting point, not the endless list of "resources we don't have..." or "reasons why we can't..."

Boards need to set goals and standards high. They need to communicate those goals and standards to every member, and to the larger community, in ways that inspire others to reach for them.

I'm struggling to come up with a list of bullet points, a clear recipe to follow, as I bring this post and this series to a close. Instead, I will ask a question: what would you add to the starting point I have offered? In your experience, what factors contribute to a governance environment of not just safety, but creativity and richness? How can we foster that kind of environment in the work of the nonprofit boards we serve?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Respect expertise

On Feb. 8, I shared my draft nonprofit learning manifesto, eight premises about how adults learn and, specifically, how adults working and volunteering in the sector learn. Today, I discuss point 7 of that manifesto, acknowledging and valuing the expertise in the room.

Whether strategically designed or by accident, your board members already bring to the table a range of skills and experiences that can be drawn upon to enhance their governance capacity.

"Skills" can be profession-defined, e.g., legal, public relations, financial management. They also can be mission-defined. For example, a nonprofit free clinic would benefit from having physicians, nurses, pharmacists, therapists and other medical professionals with deep knowledge that is directly connected to their mission area.

They also may be experiential. For example, you may have a board member who has led fund-raising efforts in other nonprofit settings and understands the importance of the board's role in donor cultivation and stewardship. You may have a retired volunteer, who brings both knowledge of the front-line challenges and the deepened passion for mission that comes from service.

Do you know what expertise exists in your boardroom? Are you drawing upon that expertise in ways that inform decision making and encourage broad thinking before a vote? Are you engaging individual members in ways that communicate their contributions are valued?

One of the more noteworthy discoveries in my dissertation case study was the board's approach to ensuring that the needed expertise was only in the room, and that it was used when and where it was needed to make the best decisions possible.

This board had clarity about what types of expertise and perspectives were needed to make the kinds of decisions that would advance the agency's mission and ensure effective use of its resources. They knew up front what needs existed, before they generated names of prospects, and they used those criteria to begin identifying appropriate nominees. It wasn't the only criterion, but it was a foundational one.

Equally important, and striking to me, was the clarity with which members could describe what they were expected to bring to discussions. That was communicated in the recruitment process, meaning they knew what their individual leadership expectations were when they accepted the invitation to serve.

Their example shouldn't be noteworthy. It should be an obvious case of "the way everyone does it." But we all know better. If we've been in this work long enough, we've seen too many "any live body will do" scrambles to simply fill a vacancy at the last minute.

It's not enough to simply have the knowledge in the room. It's also absolutely critical to name that expertise, to regularly and authentically acknowledge individual members' contributions to the process, to group learning, and to effective governance. It is important to value those contributions, and to recognize them as leadership that advances the mission.