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.


Anonymous said...

My first board experience was with the Tucson Indian Center (1975) and I sat and listened, watched and learned -saying very little unless asked - and as I did, my participation grew incrementally. By the time I had 'board training' (a good 10 yrs later and with another organization) I was 'trained' and was always surprised to discover how often boards did not know basics: like they have fiduciary responsibilities and liabilities. Most board training I have attended are painful exercises in the obvious, of marginal real value and....I'll stop there.

GayleGifford said...

I learned about boards in a somewhat unusual fashion. I was in my 20s and asked to serve on the "area committee" (aka board) of the RI chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. We made decisions through Quaker consensus process. Technically, we were an advisory board. All of us were very invested volunteer activists. Within a few short years, I became Clerk of the Area Committee (the equivalent of board chair) and was able to practice facilitative leadership. Through that position I was also asked to serve as a member of the Peace and Justice Committee for AFSC's northeast regional office.
At the same time, I was also helping to create a local chapter of the Mobilization for Survival and within a short time co-founding Women for a NonNuclear Future. Both organizations were very grassroots with working boards.
While this was happening, I took a job at the national office of an international child sponsorship organization. There I was able to work with a number of board committees and witness a large national organization in action. It was also a part of an international federation where I was also exposed to an international board which was influenced by board culture of seven countries in NorthAmerica, Europe and Japan. Quite an experience.

Elizabeth Jennings said...

Great question, Debbie! I would say 1) peer learning, 2) mentorship, 3) formal-ish learning, and 4) uncomfortable too-early responsibilities.

1) In my personal experience, I was groomed in my mid-20s as a volunteer through committee work in an international human rights org, eventually chairing a number of workgroups and a regional board (advisory, not legal owner). Locally, that work led to my involvement with a board of a domestic violence/sexual assault agency. In each case I learned a little from the systems set up (job descriptions, history, formal orientation to the board), but mostly through the example of fellow board members.

2) Directors and other board members groomed me intentionally, providing coaching, resources, and increasing responsibilities, including #4.

3) As I got bitten by the nonprofit bug, I sought out other nonprofit geeks, books, BoardSource, and started attending regional and national conferences and trainings. (Thanks, Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute!) This overlaps with my formal-ish learning as a nonprofit staffer, so hard to say how much was my learning for only board service.

4) I've been a part of many groups where a lack of leadership or an abundance of opportunity has led to me taking on more than I thought I could handle. (Anyone taken a bathroom break and come back to find yourself nominated to be chair? Right after the org came out of both a harassment suit and an embezzlement?) Those unexpected experiences, for better and for worse, have been some of my greatest learning experiences. They forced me to seek out 1, 2 and 3, above.

Elizabeth Jennings said...

Oh, and, to be complete, I should have added #5: Debra Baker Beck. No kidding!

Nancy said...

Wrote this once before but it didn't go through.

My initial experience with boards was in a church during my 20's. After that I became an ED for a nonprofit and then served, and continue to serve, on a number of nonprofit boards. Initially I don't remember most of them giving me much orientation. Sometimes I got a packet of information including bylaws and committee structure. Mostly I learned by watching, listening and asking questions. As an ED I went to Charity Channel, Board source and experience board members to learn more about creating an effective orientation process. Once I went through my Master's program in nonprofit management we further refined that process. Other than the boards I worked for, most of the ones I sat on did not do continuing education to learn more about board function.

As far as qualifications, I don't remember being given any other than a willingness to work hard and attend meetings. Boards tend to like to recruit doers with a track record of taking on projects - at least in my community. When I served on a state level association board, qualifications had to do with being management level in an affiliated organization - they primarily wanted decision makers who could influence policy.

As far as responsibilities - raising funds, overseeing policy and watching the money are usually mentioned.

Anonymous said...

When I first began to work on non-profit boards in the late 1970s in Wyoming, I recall a non-profit board training that was offered (I think) through the State of Wyoming/Department of Education. Those who were trained were registered and received certificates. We learned about legal and fiscal responsibilities and liabilities and the differences between purely supervisory boards and "working" boards.
Linda Janssen Gjere

Alexandra Peters said...

True confession: I had chaired three different boards before I really came to understand what boards do. Not that I didn’t try to find out, mind you:
1) I read everything I could get my hands on, but from where? In 1979, when I joined my first board, information about governance was hard to find, it was dry, dry, dry and it was mostly about the mechanics of board meetings and legal rules. Pre Internet, good luck finding much. I used to go to the library and do catalog searches, but there was not much there either. Nobody blogged back then. I had lots and lots of small books, almost pamphlets, on various structures of governance.
2) I watched the people who seemed to be getting stuff done. I’d ask questions, take notes, and just plain copy them. Most people were flattered and happy to help if I asked them. But no official board-implemented mentoring system ever did much for me – after the first phone call or so, the mentors just fizzled out.
3) I helped found a 501c3. You learn a lot in a hurry when you do that, but it’s really about the framework,

So, it was not until I said yes to the fourth board that my learning curve went straight upward. I was the Chair of my children’s independent school, and subsequently became Chair of the Independent School Chairman’s Assoc., a national organization. That opened my eyes dramatically. I had served on a lot of boards already, but inevitably, they were all about things and people that interested me. Suddenly, I learned all about how different boards can be and how different were their basic understandings and approaches. I saw things from a new perspective, and I talked to other board Chairs all the time, from around the country. I learned that for many, ”governance” was synonymous with “fiefdom”. For some, it was an all male club in which I was politely tolerated, and for some it was either a corporate club or a country club. But mostly it was extremely hard working and committed people doing what they could to keep their schools going. I learned more from talking to them, and hearing their stories, than anything I had ever come across. Other board Chairs and board members have been consistently the greatest source of information and inspiration for me.

The other thing that had a big effect on my understanding of boards came when a friend who was running a national organization that worked with nonprofits asked me if I would come onto her listserv and be available to add anything about board life. This was maybe the early 90’s? An Internet chat line was a whole new concept and I was riveted. I learned all about how nonprofits work, from the staff side. I couldn’t wait to check it every day. The listserv grew. Anti board sentiment also grew. Staff began to talk very freely about what they thought of their boards. Finally someone said, “Why is there a board Chair on here?” and my friend politely asked me to step off, and closed my account down. Okay, I get it that “transparency” was not in coinage at that time, and that people really do need a place to talk freely, but I was really sad not to be on that listserv. It taught me so much about the complexities of nonprofit life and made me a much better board member. And I also understood, very very clearly, just how much staff does not understand about governance, too.

I would say that occasionally I have been truly enlightened by hearing someone speak on governance, but for the most part “trainings” have been deadly and focused on administrative rules. I have attended a lot of conferences, both as an attendee and as a speaker, and always go to anything about board life. I’ve heard some great people in those settings, too. But most board members aren’t doing that.

The Internet, blogs, and Twitter have also ensured that my governance learning curve keeps curving. These are fantastic resources and they keep getting better.

Forgive the length of this. It's a great question!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Whew! I'm reading and reflecting on everything shared here so far. I'm still absorbing your wisdom and experiences. I'll respond soon, either in comment(s) here or a new post. There's so much to take in, thanks to your generosity in sharing.