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?


Erica Holthausen said...

I am currently being recruited to serve on the board of directors of a local organization. I asked them how they hoped I could help the organization. The answer I received, initially, was a copy of the 10 responsibilities of nonprofit boards of directors (from BoardSource). It's a great resource, but I wanted to know more specifically how they wanted me, as an individual member, to help. So, my question would be how can we make the best use of the resources on the board -- so that individual members are able to be engaged, understand what is expected of them, and feel heard and valuable right from the start.

Another question I would ask is how do we change a situation where board meetings are largely run by one or two individuals, with everyone else remaining quite, to those that truly create a space for all members to ask questions, share ideas and engage in dialogue.

Finally, how do we create a culture of inclusion, especially if a board has existed for many years with the same few people serving on the board and a long-standing pecking-order that is not always friendly or welcoming to newcomers. Along those same lines, how do we branch out from simply inviting friends of the well-established board members to bringing on new board members with passion and skills to contribute without alienating established board members who have concerns about sharing "their" organization? Essentially, this is a question about dealing with founders' syndrome.

I'm not sure if these are really helpful, but they are a couple of the questions rattling around in my brain at the moment!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

(Ah, the list of 10. Some aspects of that list *are* quantifiable, others *feel* quantifiable - and barely scratch the surface of the richness of effective nonprofit governance.)


I really, really appreciate the questions you've shared, Erica. They represent exactly the kind of practice-focused concerns that boards don't often discuss (or even recognize).

They speak to cultural and communication concerns that absolutely impact individual and group effectiveness. They also require, from a research standpoint, a qualitative approach - case study, interviews, etc - to begin to uncover and discover the layers that help to illuminate the issues at hand. Much of culture is invisible, but much more is exemplified overtly and subtly (and often invisible to participants). Sustained, high-quality, qualitative research has a role to play here.

This is a contribution, indeed!


Alexandra Peters (Board's Eye View) said...

1) It's a great practice for board presenters/committee chairs/members to always explain what their role is whenever they introduce a new topic. (i.e. Treasurer: "Here's our finance committee report. What the Finance Committee does is... and what we're focusing on now is...") This ensures that people have to keep redefining what they're doing, but also informs everyone else.
2) Keep introducing selves in different ways. Obvious ways are asking everyone at the beginning of every board meeting to answer in 2 sentences: why did you join this board? or how do you think this org really makes a difference? etc. Or asking them something personal: do you sit on other boards? What is the thing you are most committed to? what is our greatest strength? etc. Boards are teams and teams need to know each other.
3) Routinely do self evaluations. Ask board members to look at their own performance and ask them what they are planning to do to further the mission of the org. This need not be handed in - depends on how on-top of things the chair feels.
4) Openly discuss inclusion. Ask the board themselves how to remedy old stale habits. This is daring but always productive.

That's a start, anyway.

Nancy said...

I heartily agree with the questions already posted and would add another.

The boards members I interact with regularly struggle with the question, "how do I walk the line between engagement and being overly committed" The word tired comes up a lot on the boards of small organizations.

Debra said...

Alexandra and Nancy, I'm so grateful for your contributions to this discussion. What I appreciate about what each of you bring to the table, like Erica, is the practical perspective - what's really on the minds of board members, what's impacting their capacity to commit and to be as effective as possible in fulfilling their leadership responsibilities.

We all operate on the assumption that boards *want* to do a good job. They don't always know how, though, particularly within the kinds of concerns that Nancy describes. Bucking up against that desire to make a difference are the very real constraints that part-time volunteers face.

Thank you for helping to make a compelling case for deeper, practice-based research questions. It is a true gift.