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.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The art, science of great board meetings

What makes a nonprofit board meeting the ideal environment for not only effective governance but creative approaches governance? What does a board meeting that feeds a director's motivations to serve look and feel like?

Twitter friend and governance blogger Alice Korngold offers one of the most thought-provoking framings that I've ever read in her recent book, Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses. My bookmarks are filled with Alice's work - she challenges and informs me with virtually everything she writes about governance and board leadership. Her book is no exception, but this passage in particular resonated:
Board meetings provide the occasion to focus the board's attention on the matters of utmost concern and to call the board to action accordingly...Board members should leave each meeting with a renewed appreciation of the mission, an increased understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the organization, a chance to have contributed to a discussion of importance, and the inspiration and direction to help the organization. There is an art and a science to creating relevant and useful board meetings.
My first reaction to that description, even as I read it again tonight, is "Yes!" That is exactly the foundation for creating meaningful, focused, leader-ful settings for the kinds of engaged governance that nonprofit organizations need. My second reaction is "Darn." How rare and wonderful is the existence of such an environment for most boards?

I encourage you to do two things. One is to order and read Alice's fabulous book. It's one of the better overviews of a board members' governance responsibilities that I've read in a long time. Second, take this paragraph to your board and ask members questions such as these:
  • How do our meetings reflect the kind of focus described here?
  • Where is there room for sharpening our focus?
  • What keeps us from "attention on the matters of utmost concern?"
  • What do our members need from the board experience to leave each meeting feeling motivated, informed, and feeling certain that they have "contributed to a discussion of importance?"
If you are a board chairperson, how will you ensure that the agendas you set and the meetings you lead will focus on what is of utmost importance for your agency? How will you generate an environment that feeds individual members' understanding of their responsibilities and the sense that they are moving you ever closer to mission fulfillment?

If you serve on a board, how will you challenge your leaders to create opportunities within each meeting to govern with your organization's vision and mission at the center? How will you step up, and speak out, when things wander? How will you keep the mission and vision at the forefront of your own contributions to "discussions of importance?"

Whether or not a board thrives in the kind of rich environment that Alice describes here, or wallows in minutiae, falls squarely on the shoulders of the board itself. How can we work to ensure that every board meeting comes as close as possible? What ultimately contributes to board members leaving meetings fulfilled and energized instead of depleted?

Please share your experiences and insights about how boards go about making Alice's vision their meeting norm.