Friday, March 4, 2011

Overheard: March 4

Following are this week's favorite governance-related links, shared by great minds via Twitter and the blogosphere. It was particularly hard to select those I would feature this week, both because of the sheer number of entries I tagged as potentially worthy of focus and the impact of the messages so many of them carried. It was a heady week of insights that get right to the core purposes of governance.

Boards as conservators. Good or Bad? (Gayle Gifford)

Gayle shared this 2010 post this week, shortly after my online class closed a unit on nonprofit governance. My students absorbed the weight of the board's responsibilities, a message I consciously reinforced (20 more individuals who grasp the serious nature of governance cannot be a bad thing). As I reflected on student reactions, I also thought about Gayle's point in this post: that as we (legitimately) communicate the responsibility of the work undertaken when one accepts a board seat, we may also be inadvertently nurturing a conservative, risk-averse culture. In doing so, we may functionally shut down the environment necessary for the board's ultimate purpose: looking beyond the horizon to the vision that drives the organization's purpose. I will continue to talk about the duties of loyalty, obedience and care - and all of the serious work of nonprofit governance. But, thanks to Gayle, I will be a bit more mindful of providing context for that essential accountability.

Inception under threat (Lucy Marcus)

Speaking of context... This marvelous post by Lucy continues the conversation perfectly. One of the potential outcomes of the kind of culture Gayle discusses is exactly what Lucy describes here. When times are tough, human nature tells us to hunker down, batten the hatches, and defend what limited turf we may think we have. Risk becomes the kind of four letter word we avoid at all costs; and in the process, we forget why we exist in the first place. This sentence may be the most powerful I've read in a long time: "It takes strong principled leaders with integrity and vision, skills and determination, in the public and private sectors, to stand up and fight for the worth of investing in the future..." That, my friends, is the ultimate function of governance.

The Caretaker Board: Anchoring stability or rusty anchor? (Anne Ackerson)

Anne opens this post with a question whose answer should be obvious: "Is it enough for a nonprofit board's primary role to be protection of the status quo?" It should be obvious. It probably would be, if we posed it verbally to most of our boards. But the actions of too many of those bodies suggest otherwise. Anne does us an immense favor, first, by posing the question, then by articulating what should be the "no brainer" argument for thinking more broadly about the board's purpose. I absolutely will share this with boards I know. For what I hope will be the vast majority, it will be a positive reminder that their job is broader than simply protecting existing assets. For the few where this may be news, well, it's time that we expand their understanding.

From a foundation perspective - what makes an effective nonprofit? (Marion Conway)

"Effectiveness" is one of those concepts that should be easy to define but, in practice, is anything but easy. How your nonprofit defines "effectiveness" may not match how my organization defines it. That is something for our respective leadership teams - board and staff - to determine. Whether or not foundation perspectives are germane to that process, Marion's latest column offers great, specific ideas that would be valuable contributions to any conversation around the topic.

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