"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.
- 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
- State nonprofit associations
- Watchdog groups (e.g., Charity Navigator), which do not deal directly with governance but which impact the sector as a whole (and, as a result, boards' focus)
- The Alliance for Nonprofit Management governance affinity group
- The Nonprofit Good Practice Guide
- Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership
- The Community-Driven Institute (now Creating the Future)
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.