Sunday, October 31, 2010

Boards 'on fire'

"Board members must be on fire for the organization that they serve..."

That's how one of the students in my "Introduction to the Nonprofit Sector" class summarized last week's too-short unit on boards. Amidst the collective shock of discovering the "10 responsibilities" of nonprofit governance (not unlike many boards I've encountered), this student and several classmates also recognized the importance of board members connecting to more than the bottom line. (For an online version of the video the class was discussing, including my own additions to the Big 10, click here.)

This particular student's "on fire" description summed up beautifully the need for passion for something bigger than oneself: a connection to, and enthusiasm for, the mission and vision of the organization one signs on to govern. Yes, there are other reasons that drive people to board service. Some of us do it to get involved in the community. Some of us say yes because a good friend twisted our arm. A few do it for the line on the resume or the chance to gain some leadership experience. But if we're not excited about the mission we are serving - if we are not 'on fire' for the work of the organization and our role in leading it - it will be a long, tedious, probably ineffective term of service.

How do we stoke the fire of our board? How do we ignite our own passion for governance on the boards where we serve? How do we sustain the flame? I invite you to share your own insights and experiences via comment to this post. In the meantime, I'd like to share a few thoughts of my own.

Lighting and Sustaining the Board Fire
  • Recruit from within. There are many reasons to look to volunteers who serve elsewhere in your organization when the time comes to recruit new board members. The biggest? They're already committed to your mission (hopefully even passionate about it!) and knowledgeable about the ways in which you work to achieve it.
  • Have a compelling mission story - with clarity about the board's leadership role - and tell it often as you are prospecting for new members. Give them a clear, concise, inspiring picture of the difference you are making, and how they will be part of that journey in board service.
  • Infuse your new member orientation process with vivid illustrations of the agency at work, of the board's leadership, of personal accountability for mission success. Tell stories, lots of stories, that bring your mission to life and make it real for new board members. (Note the "process" reference - orientation is more than a one-time event.)
  • Create opportunities to bring members closer to the mission within each board meeting. Keep those stories coming, sharing (anonymous) client success stories, staff accounts of challenges overcome, healthy donor contacts - whatever helps give life to the mission and progress toward fulfilling it.
  • Identify and share multiple venues and resources for learning more about not only the organization but the issues(s) that you address on a daily basis. Encourage board members to develop their own knowledge base, rather than relying on someone spoon feeding them what they 'need to know.' Identify websites, publications, listservs, and other places to deepen their understanding of the challenges, models, etc., that can help them make more informed, mission-focused decisions.
  • Hold board members accountable for their own learning, and for the learning of their peers, by asking them to explore a mission-critical topic and share what they learn via a brief "board learning moment" at a meeting. Our own learning deepens when we share with others.
  • Celebrate the big and small moments of board life, connecting specific ways in which their individual and collective actions moved the organization closer to to the mission. This is particularly important for boards, as the work of governance may feel removed from the 'real work' that staff and other volunteers are accomplishing. Helping them to identify the unique contributions that their leadership makes (which, of course, assumes you're facilitating focus on their ultimate responsibilities) builds satisfaction and commitment.
  • Build in regular time for reflection and assessment: how are we/am I contributing to leading this organization toward our mission? This may feel harder to do for some board members (for example, in a setting where some board members share expertise in the mission area and some don't). Be specific in regularly sharing exactly what their leadership adds to the group's capacity to govern. Some may honestly have trouble seeing it.
  • Encourage board members to attend all of the organization's events. Board members are ambassadors for the organization - whether or not they realize it - and these settings are among the best and most energizing venues for assuming that role. Experiencing and sharing enthusiasm for the cause, whatever it may be, goes a long way toward keeping the fire lit for many of us.
I offer those thoughts in the spirit of sparking a conversation. I'm interested in hearing your reactions and your own recommendations - particularly those that encourage boards toward even deeper levels of commitment and passion for the work. I'll admit that some items on my list feel a little basic. But I also know that 'basic' is a step, or 10, above where many boards dwell when it comes to building and stoking the fire of passionate commitment in their members.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Handbooks and orientation: Providing the foundation

What kinds of information, in what forms, does a new board member require for a fuller sense of her new responsibilities? What additional resources and interactions will help him develop a stronger understanding of the mission and the organization he has committed to advance?

New member orientation - bringing that new board member closer to active engagement - is as critical as bringing the right new recruit into the fold. But there are many ways to approach this essential process:
  • What should that orientation include?
  • What are the board handbook essentials? Is a physical handbook even necessary?
  • Should there be a face-to-face orientation event? Who should lead that event?
  • How do we acknowledge the different learning styles that exist for all of our members, especially as they join the board?
  • How do we support the new member, one month, six months, one year into the first term?
As I noted in my last post, I'm thinking deeply about these questions, both as a veteran board member helping to design an orientation process and as a new board recruit needing to come up to speed quickly on the work of a local nonprofit.

One point that should be obvious, but sometimes isn't: Orientation is not a one-time event. New board members deserve - and need - an overview of the organization and the board, and reinforcement of their new governance responsibilities. But one sit-down session, whether in person or via phone or other remote vehicle, is only the start of what a new board member needs.

Some kind of induction process is important. But the format can take different shapes, depending on your organizational circumstances and board member needs. In the case of the board I'm joining, that orientation involved a lunchtime session with the organization's executive director and a fellow new member. In the case of the process I'm helping to develop for the other board (of an organization that covers the entire state of Wyoming), that event will take place via teleconference. The point is, new board members in both cases have a chance to not just receive the whats, whys and wherefores. They also get to ask some initial questions and get a better sense of what they should be focusing on early in their service.

A pleasant discovery in my early days of service on the local board is the fact that all members have access to an online orientation focusing on a federal funding source. (In my first round of service on this board, I was constantly perplexed by the layers of complexity that comes with those grant dollars.) I'm not far into that online training process, but it's exciting to think about the model that it offers for other governance settings. In those cases where an online training component make sense, what would it look like? What would it cover? How might it be used to build upon those traditional orientation vehicles?

A board handbook - or, rather, easy access to details about the organization, the board, and other information essential to full and effective governance - also is critical to share with new board members. I added that qualifier, since I recently witnessed how one nonprofit board used a password-protected website (a wiki) for sharing and storing the types of documents that would typically be placed in a board handbook. I rather liked it, and it seemed to work well for members of the board. Setting up an environment of this type does require some planning, to make finding what members need quickly easy. But it's an option that more boards may want to consider, especially as the range of wikis and other free, collaboration-friendly sites continues to grow.

Whether it exists as a resource someone physically passes on to a new member or an online space where everyone has 24/7 access to board and organization documents, each new recruit needs to have a way to learn more about what is expected.

What do you consider to be the essential components of a board handbook, whatever the format? What do board members need to have at their fingertips to lead effectively? I'm interested in reader feedback on this.

One component that we added to the orientation proposal for the statewide board, that I hope receives the board's approval this week is a mentor plan. Each new member would be assigned a veteran board mentor who would serve as a peer guide and resource through the first six months of the new recruit's service. We all have those questions we don't quite feel comfortable asking - or re-asking. We often feel the need to have someone explain some of the minor to major mysteries of how the board really functions - the ways people interact, the different communication patterns and interpersonal dynamics that exist in any group. A board mentor will be a go-to person for those kinds of questions that always seem to arise, and an additional resource for the new member.

A likely secondary benefit of a mentor program: the veteran may find thinking about the topics that rise to the top of a new member's mind, pondering why we do handle things the way we do, and focusing on the mission through fresh eyes to be energizing.

I'm interested in engaging readers in a conversation about what you believe to be essential to effective orientation. I'm particularly interested in your experiences as a new board member, which may be very different from what we intend as executives and boards creating what we hope will be an ideal process. What helps to pave the way to effective board membership? What is essential to not just meeting the basic responsibilities but moving to true leadership?

How can we, as a board, make that process more fulfilling and fruitful for the peers who will soon be joining us?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

From newbie to board vet: Paving the way

How are new members welcomed to our nonprofit board? How do I go from being a rookie board member, with a general idea of what the mission means and how the agency's programs work toward it, to an active, engaged leader embracing my responsibility to advance it?

Those questions are on my mind these days, for two reasons. One, I'm on a brand new board development committee, collaborating with three peers to design a board recruitment and orientation process for our nonprofit. Two, I recently (re)joined the board of a local nonprofit, meaning I'm in that rookie place right now. In both settings, the question of what that process looks like and how the board welcoming the new member sets the tone and lights the path toward commitment and successful service is at the forefront.

I've written before about the centrality of the board as community of practice that emerged in my dissertation research. A core phenomenon of the COP, that I was unable to study at the same time, is legitimate peripheral participation (LPP), exactly the process I am simultaneously experiencing in one setting and helping to create in the other.

As I enter this new board member assignment, I have decided to treat it as essentially a case study. I want to take a more conscious role in reflecting on, recording, and owning how I go from committed but not particularly knowledgeable about the agency's current programs and needs to not only an active board member but a board leader. I'll be writing about the journey and sharing some insights here, in the spirit of prompting some sharing about how boards can be as effective as possible in facilitating an experience that benefits everyone. I hope you'll be open to sharing what's worked well for you and your boards, as well as those parts of the process that could be more user friendly.

In the other setting, we are making decisions about how we want to be more strategic about determining our governance needs, recruiting prospects who will help us meet those needs, welcoming them to the board, and providing them with the information and the tools to get off to a good start.

The overlap between the two experiences feels like a good one. As my peers and I develop the structure to ensure clarity about our needs and a process to immerse new members in the mission and in the inner workings of our board, I inevitably will be thinking about the information and community building needs that I experience in the other setting. What does it feel like to be that temporarily uninformed new member? What do I need to become part of the board team and to be an effiective, knowledgeable leader? How do I find my niche within the mix of skills and perspectives and leadership roles? As I begin to answer those questions as the newbie, I will be thinking about how we can ease and enrich the process of the recruits we welcome into the other board.

Both processes take a big step forward this week, as I attend a new member orientation for the local board and move the draft recruitment package to the committee for tweaking. I'll be reporting and reflecting on both processes here along the way. I hope readers will respond with their own recommendations and recollections about recruitment and orientation success stories and challenges. Together, I hope that we can develop a joint conversation to expand our collective understanding to make those processes as effective as possible.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Number-free board research

So many important questions need to be asked about nonprofit governance, not only by academic researchers but by nonprofit practitioners and board leaders alike.

As readers of this blog know, I pretty much ponder those questions 24/7. (Stating the obvious: I'm a governance geek.) The questions I ask often fly in the face of contemporary governance scholarship in one critical way: the answers can't be quantified.

Next month, four members of the Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics present a colloquium at the 2010 ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) Conference, titled "New Directions in Nonprofit Governance Research." My part of the presentation is described this way:

This presentation will argue for research that explores the routines and practices that make up the work of nonprofit governance. There is a critical need for understanding the day-to-day challenges to effective governance. There is an equally critical need to understand the processes that build commitment, factors that promote mission focus in board activities and deliberations, and features that create an environment where that work is sustained. Research questions centering on these issues have the potential to both contribute to governance theory and inform board practice. Engaging in this work will require different questions and different ways of exploring the internal work of nonprofit boards. Such research opens the door to collaborative inquiry with nonprofit boards and their leadership, resulting in richer data for analysis. While quantitative methods such as survey research can contribute to this discussion, they do not provide access to examples of effective or problematic practices, nor do they facilitate access to those processes that may be largely tacit. Qualitative approaches such as action research introduce opportunities to discover, explore and analyze those factors that may provide the greatest explanatory power to scholars and practitioners.

I'll be discussing ways in which qualitative approaches - such as case studies and narrative inquiry - can be used to explore those pressing governance questions that get to the essence of what enhances of inhibits effective board experiences and commitment. These are the kinds of questions that drive the emerging Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics agenda.

Of particular personal interest are questions of governance practice, especially those that invite collaborative inquiry - researcher and boards working together to develop and ultimately answer with an eye toward improving practice.

I have my own thoughts about the questions we need to be asking in collaboration with board members; but I'd really like to gather examples from the field that I can share, not only with the colloquium audience but with peers and partners engaged in developing a practice-focused governance research agenda.

My question for readers is this: What are your questions about nonprofit governance that need to be asked but can't be quantified?

A couple of examples from my research agenda may give you an idea of the kinds of questions I hope to gather from nonprofit boards and those who work with them:
How does learning occur within the routine context of nonprofit board meetings ('plain English' version of my research question)?

How do new board recruits move from rookie status to active, engaged veteran members (exploring a phenomenon called legitimate peripheral participation)?
What questions do you have about nonprofit governance - about board members and their work - that require qualitative approaches to exploration? What do we need to be asking, with boards, to enhance effectiveness? Where should governance scholars be focusing more energy in service to impact governance practice?