Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Getting back into blogging mode

My apologies for the month-long posting hiatus. I've been immersed in governance since my incredibly fruitful trip to Montreal. It has been a stimulating, exciting - and completely overwhelming - intellectual process that likely will continue for a lifetime.

You may remember that I traveled there at the beginning of August to participate in the inaugural meeting of the international Study Group on Governance Relationships and Dynamics. I spent two days immersed in exploration of the state of research on nonprofit governance with scholars from the U.S., Canada, Norway, Italy and Great Britain. It stretched my mind, it intimidated me (being in the same room - and peer group - as the senior governance scholars I read and admire), and it sparked a fresh round of excitement about all the important questions that need to be asked about increasing the effectiveness of our boards.

The second part of that trip was participation in the 2010 Academy of Management conference - just me, and about 10,000 new friends. My official reason for being there was as part of a panel titled "What do boards do: Interpersonal and group processes in nonprofit governance." The heady experience of sharing insights with governance scholar peers on the panel, and interested experts in the audience, moved me deeper into a learning and reflection process about my ongoing governance questions.

The paper for that panel took a fresh view of my data, through the lens of sociocultural learning theory. What emerged was not a vast departure from the community of practice theme of my dissertation, but a shift in priority findings. The big news, for my fellow panelists and the audience, were the insights I gained about the importance of questions and stories in board deliberations. To be honest, the latter was almost an afterthought, thrown in to beef up a point I wanted to make in support of the theory. But in the time following the presentation, and in the month-long reflective process, I've realized that I need to understand more fully - and talk about more widely - the importance of the stories we tell and how they shape the "learning to be, learning about" of nonprofit governance. That's a significant part of the thought work that prompted my blogging break.

My brain is filled with ideas that I want to share and explore on this site (including, actually, what I've been learning about the brain and how we learn). I have two posts begging to be written in the next week, based on two incredible books I've been reading (by Twitter friends Alice Korngold and Pamela Meyer) and the conversations they've sparked. (Yes, you can learn and grow - and develop valued connections - 140 characters at a time!)

This isn't the post I intended to write when I came here, but it's the post I needed to write to move forward from this incubation period. I look forward to share the best of what I am learning and how it is impacting my understanding of nonprofit governance. I especially look forward to exploring, poking, stretching and adapting them with you - and seeing what emerges in the process.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Your nonprofit governance research questions

What are your burning questions about nonprofit boards and how they govern? What do you wish you had research to inform or support your governance efforts? How about your learning needs?

I'm in transit to Montreal this morning, headed to two events: the 2010 Academy of Management conference and the inaugural meeting of the international Study Group on Nonprofit Dynamics and Relationships. The latter brings together several of the great minds of governance scholarship and several junior scholars (yours truly included) to discuss our current work, future research agendas and potential collaborative efforts.

I may engage in scholarly research and writing, but my heart and life lie in the nonprofit field. My special concern will be twofold: the potential for whatever is studied to inform governance as it is practiced in our local boardrooms and the accessibility that places the findings into the hands of those who will most benefit from it.

So I'm wondering:

What are your nonprofit governance research questions? If you were to help us set our research agendas - individual and group - for the next two years, what questions would you have us explore?

I posed this question to Twitter and immediately received these two responses:
  • "Waiting for the research that links BoD performance to NPO outcomes"
  • "Generational succession planning"
The first contribution prompted another Twitter friend to forward a link to a journal article by one of my study group peers, Will Brown, which was heartening - and a little surprising. Academic journals are not known for being accessible or practitioner friendly. (This exchange also exemplifies why you need to be on Twitter if you're not already there: the learning never stops.)

I also posed the question to the blog Facebook page. Shortly after it appeared, a fan offered this recommendation:
  • "What works in attracting 'outsiders' or marginalized folks to board service?"
What are your burning governance questions? If you were to help us build a research agenda, what would you include on it? Share your thoughts here; I'll take them to the workshop with me.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Boards: Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

No one says it better than my friend, Hildy Gottlieb. Enjoy this new video gift, regarding the importance of board focus the forest and the trees (leadership as well as board mechanics).

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Governance: The elusive board definition

"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.
The practical impacts on everyday governance?
  • 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
The consultants shared what they saw as authoritative sources shaping nonprofit governance practice today. Among those sources were:
They also shared their thoughts about who was doing interesting work with the potential to impact how we define governance. I was familiar with all but one of those sources, but only two are likely to make it to nonprofit boardrooms:
I agree that these, and the other sources that they mentioned, offer exciting, rich ways of thinking about governance. But I also know that we have a long way to go before those ideas - and the tools to support their adoption - are widely accessible to the folks serving in our boardrooms.

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.