Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding the right board: A prospect’s view

The quest to bring the right people to the nonprofit boardroom table usually takes the organization’s perspective: identifying what our nonprofit needs and strategizing ways to mine the community to find just the right person to meet them.

Whether by design or happy coincidence, yesterday’s Twitter feed brought a stream of links that take the other side of the equation: exploring and evaluating the right fit for an individual seeking an opportunity to serve.

It started with this Board CafĂ© post, “Finding the Right Next Board to Join,” by Jan Masaoka. Of course, I loved that the first question she posed focused directly on mission: “Is this the right cause for me?” If you can’t answer with a resounding “yes,” please move on.

The next link took me to the second half of a two-post series on “What You Should Know About Joining a Nonprofit Board” by James D’Ambrosio. I’d read part one, but discovering the latter post completed the circle. The questions in this series focus a bit more on structural aspects of a prospective board and may resonate with different people in slightly different ways.

While clicking various links related to those posts, I ended up at the Bridgestar site, and an even more comprehensive list of questions in a post titled, “What Should I Know Before Joining a Nonprofit Board?” You’ll see some overlap with the other lists and some thought-provoking additions as well. You’ll also find a downloadable version of the list at the bottom of the post.

Finally, as I read that post I noticed another link, to a post, titled “Nonprofit Boards: How to Find a Rewarding Board Position.” That particular article highlights considerations that I believe have great potential for an ultimate right fit, digging into some of the deeper motivations that draw and inspire not only board service but governance leadership. Note that, like the other Bridgestar post, a downloadable version is available.

You know how much I’m drawn to great questions. The plethora of great questions to ask – of ourselves and the boards we are considering – forming these posts felt like a gift, to me and to anyone wanting to take a thoughtful approach to making the right commitment to the right organization.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Engaging boards in social reflection

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you're used to me hammering away on the importance of reflection in nonprofit governance.

I try to include some insights into what that might look like amidst the preaching for thinking time. The adult educator in me also is always looking out for resources to help illustrate and expand upon the ideas I'm sharing.

Today's Twitter feed brought just such a gift. Blogger Donald Clark (@iOPT) connected two of my favorite topics in a useful way in a post titled The Social Learning and Reflection Continuum. "Continuum" is the operative word: from an activity conducted primarily with others on one end to one conducted primarily within our own heads on the other. At the midpoint, Donald introduces "social reflection," an idea that has potential for nonprofit boards (and all adults who work and learn in group settings).

If you scroll down the post, you'll find a graphic that illustrates nicely how learning (informal to formal) interacts with the social learning/reflection continuum. You'll also find a few examples of the kinds of activities that might lie within each quadrant.

As you read that graphic, within the context of board learning and deliberation, what comes to mind? What are you already implementing within your board (Or, if you're a consultant, what have you recommended and/or seen work effectively within boards you've encountered?)?

What intrigues you? What could you see exploring within a board context? What other examples could we add to that quadrant?

I'm attracted to a couple of the examples that he provides: action research and interviews. Yes, I know that boards are challenged to simply meet their baseline responsibilities. Adding an action research project to the mix likely would be both realistic and counterproductive. But I have to wonder how identifying and exploring burning questions - owning their learning in service to mission - might engage board members in ways that not only increase effectiveness but bring them closer to the purpose they protect. Maybe it's not becoming action researchers but adopting the inquisitive mind that comes with the process that would benefit boards.

I'm also still pondering the "social reflection" idea, and how it might be used to spark new thinking about governance. I welcome your thoughts about that as well.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A few of my favorite: governance books

Today, I share a few of my favorite nonprofit books. Not every title directly addresses board roles, but they do inform some aspect of governance and would be an asset to any nonprofit organizational or board member library.

The Handbook of Nonprofit Governance


I was pleasantly surprised by this new (2010) title by BoardSource. It does a good job of providing the reader something more than a passing-glance view of a wide range of board member responsibilities. Readers won’t have everything they need to understand those roles, but new board members will have a good starting point for grasping what they have signed on to provide. My dilemma in recommending (and using) it is a practical one. It’s a large book, too large to be a realistic part of an orientation process. It’s also expensive; putting one into the hands of every board member is not an option for most nonprofits. One potential solution: housing one in your organization’s library and using it as a foundational reference for peer-driven learning experiences (asking individual members to explore and lead brief board development discussions).

Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses

(Alice Korngold)

Among many things I like about this book is its attention to the value of engaging the private sector to build support for mission. One of the book's highlights, for me, was Alice's in-depth discussion of the board’s boundary spanning opportunities/responsibilities as part of that process. It’s one of the better overviews of governance that I’ve encountered in a long time, unanticipated and welcome as I read the book.

The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing “Nonprofit Organizations” to Create the Future of Our World

(Hildy Gottlieb)

I was drawn to Hildy’s work long before I obtained a copy of Pollyanna, so the underlying philosophy didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was, even though her framework for describing and conceptualizing the work of the “community benefit sector” is pretty unique, my entire reading experience was a series of nonstop “Yes!” “I knew that!” and “Of course!” responses. There’s a strong common-sense element behind what is recognized as a novel perspective to social change and community benefit work.

FriendRaising: Community Engagement Strategies for Boads who Hate Fundraising but Love Making Friends

(Hildy Gottlieb)

One thing Hildy always does well: she grounds her writing in reality, connecting the reader to the points she is making to scenarios and illustrations that feel accessible. FriendRaising is one of those extended examples. It’s full of ideas to involve board members in the process of engaging existing and potential supporters. Every board member will recognize one (or more) action that he/she will feel comfortable adopting as a boundary-spanner on your behalf.

The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change

(Beth Kanter and Allison Fine)

This book caused a tremor in the sector earlier this year, and with good reason. The authors do more than offer tips for using social media to tell our organization’s story. They challenge us to think differently about how we engage others on behalf of the social change to which we aspire. Board members will identify with – and be challenged by – the conception of a networked nonprofit and the new demands (and opportunities) to reach out in unexpected ways.

How are We Doing? A 1-Hour Guide to Evaluating Your performance as a Nonprofit Board

(Gayle Gifford)

It’s a quick read (I covered it in less than an afternoon), with a lot of potential to introduce the process of self-assessment to a board. Gayle poses 34 questions designed to encourage group reflection and evaluation. Pose one question. Pose four. Use the topics presented in a range of ways to spark conversations with the potential to prompt deeper thinking and commitment to more effective governance service.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards

(Richard Chait, Bill Ryan and Barbara Taylor)

How important is this book to understanding and re-conceptualizing the way we think about nonprofit governance? I wrote a doctoral dissertation exploring one of the more novel aspects of the GAL model. The framework is built around three governance modes. Two, fiduciary and strategic, will undoubtedly ring familiar to most boards. The third, generative, is the creative twist – and the place where the work that inspires and moves boards closer to mission fulfillment usually will lie.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A few of my favorite: governance blogs

Today’s gift to readers is a list of some of my favorite bloggers who cover a range of nonprofit governance topics.

I learn constantly from the individual and collective wisdom of these individuals. If you don’t already subscribe to their blogs, now is the time to do so. You won’t want to miss the learning that will take place in 2011.

(Note: there’s no implied ranking in how they’re listed. Everyone’s remarkable. I pulled them, randomly, from my “governance gurus” Twitter list. Click on the blog title to access the link.)

Cause and Effect

(Gayle Gifford) With provocative questions like “Abolish the nonprofit board?” and “If fundraising is a profession, why are we so angry with our amateur board members?,” Gayle’s writing is virtually guaranteed to stretch your mind (and your assumptions about nonprofit governance).

Leading by Design

(Anne Ackerson) Anne and I have had more “great minds…” moments in 2010 than I can count, when we’ve discovered that we’re pondering the same big questions about ways to enhance the governance experience and the capacity to lead boards to greater effectiveness in fulfilling their responsibilities. She’s also a master of strategy – planning and beyond.

Alice Korngold’s Fast Company Expert Blog

(Alice Korngold) Alice gained a fan for life when I read her 2006 Leader to Leader article on the need for a fourth board duty – a duty of imagination. That led me to her Fast Company blog and a wealth of insights that have informed and expanded my understanding of governance.

Marion Conway – Consultant to Nonprofits

(Marion Conway) The breadth of topics, and the resources to fill our governance toolboxes, are two of the biggest reasons I read Marion’s blog religiously.

Creating the Future

(Hildy Gottlieb) Reading Hildy’s writing inspires a combination of “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking” and “Wow, I never thought of that...” responses for me. She covers more than governance issues, but it’s all tied to the larger responsibilities of nonprofit boards.

Lucy Marcus Notebook

Lucy writes on a range of governance topics, always bringing something new to the table for me. As my learning journey moves into 2011, I trust that Lucy and a new group of Twitter peers (to whom she introduced me last week) will expand my corporate governance immensely.

Nonprofit Law Blog

(Gene Takagi and Emily Chan) Gene and Emily not only alert us to legal issues that should be on the radar of every nonprofit board, but they do so in ways that are accessible

Board’s Eye View

(Alexandra Peters) Alexandra can be counted on to pose questions boards likely wouldn’t know to ask – and creative ways to spark their exploration of those questions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A few of my favorite: governance videos

As I reflect back on the many gifts that I have received this year from the global governance and nonprofit communities, I'm inspired to share a few of those gifts with readers of this blog.

Today, I offer links to some of my favorite governance-focused videos. The "gift" comes not only via the content but also the voices offering it - thinkers and educators who have helped to expand my conception of nonprofit governance in healthy and creative ways in 2010. Click on each title to access the corresponding video.

Boards: Seeing the forest AND the trees

Regular readers would be shocked if my list of favorites didn’t include at least one video featuring my friend, Hildy Gottlieb. Selecting only one favorite is a challenge – so you’ll get two (an equally big challenge!). I chose this one to share, because it highlights the critical importance of not limiting board focus to financial, legal and ‘mechanics’ concerns. Boards need to be looking to the future, and reaching out into their communities to engage support to accomplish their vision.

BOARDS & VISION: Turning passion into action

Okay, so maybe I do have a Hildy favorite – and this would be it. It’s my favorite, because it gets right to the heart of what matters most to me as a board member and educator (and, I suspect, to most who choose to lead via board service).

Successful nonprofit boards

The oh-so-wise Alice Korngold shares insights into the essential elements of successful governance in this clip from the 2009 Carnegie Council New Leaders event. It should be obvious by the frequent references to her work on this blog that I am drawn to Alice’s thinking on governance. This video offers a great overview of a topic that should be of intense interest to all of our boards.

The changing role of the non-executive board director in today’s world

This is a new favorite, featuring a new governance friend, Lucy Marcus. This video introduced me to Lucy and to her work. Her focus here is not exclusive to nonprofit boards, so a few of the concepts may not feel like a direct fit. But it all expands our notions of governance. I was particularly drawn to her commentary on board member engagement, which should be of interest in any governance setting. The material to which I was particularly drawn begins around 5:53.

Strategic thinking – benefits

"(S)trategic planning, not as a static document, but something that happens every single day...a constant, ongoing process." This is why boards need to listen to Terrie Temkin. This video talks about the importance of thinking strategically in governance (and not exiling it to a rare - and usually hurried - planning event).

Why board composition matters

This “Movie Monday” video makes a case for persistence in addressing a perennial challenge for boards: bringing a diverse range of voices and perspectives to table. It’s hard. It matters. We need to keep working toward this important goal. Expanding our governance capacity is the reward.

BoardSource 10 basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards

Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to see this one on my list of favorites. I’m not a particular fan of the “big 10.” My objection isn’t to the list itself. My objection is to its portrayal as the be-all, end-all representation of the rich and complex (and motivating) responsibilities of nonprofit governance. It leaves out a lot (a lot of what inspires most of us to serve). But it’s a list we cannot ignore, and these brief videos do a good job of introducing them in an accessible way.

Laramie Board Learning Project: Boards 101 video

This video offers my interpretation of the Big 10, with a twist: four additional governance responsibilities that I believe should be included in any accounting of board member roles.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Squandered board seats

“(E)very person at the table is so important. Not one seat can be squandered with someone who is not really present and engaged, either bringing expertise or perspective.”

My Twitter friend, Alice Korngold, was discussing the nonprofit board’s role in ensuring financial sustainability when she made that statement (in this 2009 Carnegie Council podcast). But I trust that, like me, she would apply the idea to governance in general.

I’ve served on my share of boards where inactive members were accepted because of the prestige or access they (supposedly) provided to the organization. I’ve been frustrated serving alongside other board members who, for different reasons, treated board service as an apparently casual commitment. And, yes, I once struggled to stay engaged myself, in a setting where agendas perpetually strayed from mission-focused tasks.

Believe me, I know the importance of not wasting board seats on people who are not present and actively engaged in the critical work of governance.

A range of factors can inhibit board member engagement in governance. Some are found within the individual and generally outside of our control. But a vast number of possibilities exist within the organization itself. Those we can address.

As I listened again to the podcast this week, several of those potentially avoidable scenarios immediately came to mind. My list is far from comprehensive (and will sound familiar in several places to regular readers), but I’d like to share some of the factors I consider to be most critical. I hope that you will share your own insights with me and with fellow readers.

Fostering Engaged Board Members

Place mission first in recruitment. Recruitment of potential board members begins with commitment to the nonprofit’s mission. If the prospect is not committed to – preferably passionate about – your mission, the process ends there.

Place mission first in governance work. Board members engage when they can see that the work they are doing is moving you closer to mission fulfillment. Two different needs exist here: to help them make those connections, particularly with the more routine responsibilities, and most important, building board meeting agendas around mission-critical work. (My personal engagement struggle was completely tied to failed attempts to push us toward the latter.)

Create absolute clarity about commitments made. Communicate clearly, in the recruitment process, exactly what you expect of board members. Confirm in the invitation and orientation processes that the prospect is prepared to live up to those responsibilities (and never, ever try to squeeze a yes out of someone by promising, “It really doesn’t take THAT much time…”).

Engage members’ expertise. If you have successfully vetted prospective members and recruited for board needs, you already know what each individual is prepared to bring to the table in service to your organization. Confirm his/her willingness to contribute specific gifts of expertise, then regularly engage that wisdom in board discussions, deliberations and responsibilities. Engage them as peer learning leaders, expanding the group’s collective knowledge and capacity to govern.

Ask the big questions, regularly. If you fill your board agenda with reports and trivia, you are wasting their time. Regularly pose mission-critical questions to board members, especially those connecting their governance and community outreach responsibilities.

Encourage storytelling. Particularly powerful are those illustrating community impact. Stories that connect individual or collective board action to that impact carry additional power to engage.

Encourage boundary spanning – and hold them accountable for it. One of the truly unique contributions that board members can make is building support for your organization within their peer groups and circles of influence. Give members the tools – and the responsibility – for reaching out on your behalf and bringing others to you in authentic ways. Expect them to share how they accomplished that, so that they can learn from each other’s example.

Commit to regular board development. Board members need and benefit from regular opportunities to learn about your organization and about their governance responsibilities. Think beyond full-blown “training” events. Look for ways to integrate learning into their meetings and work. Also look for ways to involve them in that learning. If the knowledge doesn’t already exist in the boardroom, encourage one or more members to explore the issue and share what they learn with their peers.

Expect, and learn from, self-assessment. Board members benefit from the opportunity to assess their effectiveness as individuals and as a group. They benefit more when they have the chance to discuss their strengths and their challenges with each other, and when they are able to take steps to increase collective capacity by addressing the latter. Part of that process should include asking, “What matters to you, and how are we helping you to fulfill that?”

I could go on forever, and write a post (or five) on each one. Instead, I’ll click “publish” and look forward to reading your feedback and experiences. How do we reduce the risk of “squandered” board seats by engaging members in ways that move us closer to mission?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hildy: Giving boards time to think

The great Hildy Gottlieb discusses a topic familiar to regular readers of this blog: giving boards the time and space to reflect and think. So critical governance - and so elusive.