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.


Buckin' for the Cure 2010 said...

This is a great collection of resources, Debbie. And an interesting discussion about board members’ conception of governance.

Having served on many non-profit boards and having a keen interest in non-profit governance, I have these observations to share:

Few people are interested in thinking about issues beyond the immediate problems at hand. Yes, I am blaming board members for this. Beyond standing behind/in front of the mission of a particular organization, board members need to have a vision how - jointly with others - they can improve the organization they serve. You know, the “where-do-you-see-the-organization-in-5-years” kind of question. They need to have the energy and perseverance to act on that vision. And that is where thinking and knowing about governance becomes so important. Typically, whenever I have shared resources (the ones you mention) with fellow board members I have been told that I send too many emails and require too much reading. The resources you talk about ARE widely available. Most people do not want to or have too little time to find them. How do board members learn to govern, you ask? Mostly, when they are open to seeking out the tools they need to implement their vision. In other words, a large part of the blame lies with individual incentive. If you serve on a non-profit board you have got to be open to learning new things. Disillusioned? Probably.
Delete this if you think it is too negative.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Not at all, Christiane. There are undoubtedly many factors at play. Blame, too. What didn't surprise me, unfortunately, was the pervasiveness of responses indicating they received no direction - no outline of what was expected of them - from the organizations asking them to serve. I'd like to say that shocked me. But it didn't. Should a prospective board member take the initiative and ask the organization to spell that out if it isn't provided? Perhaps. But that shouldn't be the prospect's responsibility. That's an organizational failure, and that was a common theme amongst the board member responses.

The resources shared by the consultants interested me. I knew all but one. But then, I'm a governance geek who formalized that interest in doctoral study. I live and breathe this stuff. The average board member? I'm always surprised by the number of people who don't know about the BoardSource list of 10 (which has its own shortcomings), which should be one of the easiest-to-find sources for every board out there. But that's not the case. Groups of people are hearing more about Hildy Gottlieb's work and the Community-Driven Institute/Creating the Future (readers of this blog receive heaping helpings). CDI-graduate consultants are out there, impacting their communities as opportunities arise. But it's hardly at a point of saturation (or even open awareness).

I guess my point re: resources would be that we need to do a better job of getting them to boards, in ways that will be accessible and easy for them to adopt.

Getting boards to act? Well, that's a different question and where I agree wholeheartedly that accountability needs to be placed at the feet of board members and their leaders. Part of it track back to that lack of detail regarding what they've signed on to do.

On the other hand, governance is leadership; leadership requires vision and requires commitment to advancing that vision and the mission of the organization. If an individual member can't make that commitment, and doesn't have the capacity to question and challenge and advance a vision, that person probably shouldn't be serving.

As I said in the post, I don't have any neat and tidy answers. But clarifying and communicating governance responsibilities, and making supportive resources more accessible than they are right now, would be a big step in the right direction.

Alice Korngold said...

Debra, First of all, I am a big fan of yours. In answer to your question, I am a big believer in people being matched to boards in a thoughtful and purposeful manner; this has been a big part of my work for 20 years. I also think that people can be trained for board service, and coached once they serve on boards, and that boards can be helped to become more effective. One area where we can help boards is with what I call the fourth duty: the "duty of imagination." Have a great week! I can't wait to hear about it! Alice

Debra said...

Alice, your fourth duty is one of the most powerful additions to the conversation (and board responsibilities) that I've encountered in a long time. Your post on the topic is one I draw upon regularly from my bookmarks and share broadly. It addresses what I believe to be the most essential (and most often missed, IF boards receive direction on what their governance duties entail) responsibilities that they have. That's where the power comes, that's where the vision lies. That's where the *leadership* is enacted.