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.

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