Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Boundary-spanning boards: Connecting to roles

As I prepare for my workshop at this year's Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute (titled "Boundary-Spanning Boards: Connecting Community and Organization"), I've been pondering different approaches to conveying what I want to share, in ways that will inspire boards to commit to this critical work.

This weekend, it occurred to me that community engagement really is represented in the four board roles that I've informally added to the usual list of 10 responsibilities. The ideas generated as I pondered the connections feel a little rough, but worthy of batting around with readers of this blog. May I share those ideas with you and request your feedback?

Visionary: As definers of the organization's vision and mission, the board absolutely has a responsibility for sharing that brighter future with your stakeholders. Board members are in a perfect position to articulate that vision of the future and how their organization, specifically, is working toward reaching it.

Two things need to happen, though. First, board members must have a clear understanding of your vision and mission - and be able to share them effectively with others. That may take practice. Second, they need to own the vision and mission. Members need to understand that advancing them, and stewarding resources wisely, is their ultimate responsibility as a board. Ownership also involves feeling like it belongs to them. Has the board had regular opportunities to discuss and shape that future? Your purpose? Are they absolutely committed to, preferably passionate about, them? If you and answer yes to all of these, half of the boundary-spanning battle may be over.

Ambassador: Whether or not they recognize or embrace the role, board members are your lead community links to their peer groups and other parts of the community. Members come to the boardroom table with their existing spheres of influence - their friendships, their work relationships, their memberships in communities of faith and other organizations, etc. They extend the organization's reach to new parts of the community, where perhaps none otherwise exist, and add credibility to existing connections, because of who they are as individuals and the voluntary nature of their service.

Board members have a different kind of credibility than the executive director and other staff, with different groups of people. In some cases, that credibility is greater. At minimum, it is different.

Steward: Board members accept an awesome responsibility as stewards of organizational resources. When members embrace that, and when they communicate how they are taking good care of those resources on behalf of the community, they carry great power. This is particularly true when board members represent the organization before public officials and funding sources (e.g., grantors). That board member presence at a city council meeting, or at a United Way site visit, carries great power.

Leader: When I came to this fourth responsibility, the points I had felt a bit redundant within the context of what I have shared about the three previous roles. But maybe there is a difference. Here's what I am thinking at the moment about the boundary-spanning leadership role of the board.

Board members are leaders of your organization, with complementary responsibility for the overall health and future shared with an executive director (unless yours is an all-volunteer organization, in which case the board holds complete leadership responsibility). If you have recruited well, individual members are community leaders, with or without an official title, who bring with them the power and connections that they already have within their existing networks. Whether or not they are acting on your behalf in those settings, when people know that they serve on your board, their leadership impact carries with it. When they speak on your behalf in those settings, their leadership potential magnifies. Let's be honest: it's one (perfectly appropriate) reason you recruited them to your board in the first place.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is very much a "thinking out loud" moment for me. (You're seeing a bit of how my mind works when it's in creative mode!) I'm offering up this "draft" with the invitation to help me flesh my thoughts out further.


Denise Sheppard said...

I like your thoughts about this. You are articulate and intentional w/o "threatening" board members. I am looking for strategies to present this info to a Board and this has a great feel to it. Thanks.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I appreciate the feedback, Denise. Thanks!

The spark that led to my desire to add these four roles to the usual list of 10 was the desire to link the board job description, explicitly, to the places where boards can make the biggest difference - and to what motivated them to serve in the first place.

So much time and energy is spent in board meetings "holding them accountable," drawing their focus to all the things that can go wrong (a legitimate role, true, but not exactly motivating). If you are able to connect this critical outreach work to what called them to serve in the first place, no threats will be necessary. :)

Carlo Cuesta said...

First off, I love the phrase boundary-spanning. Under visionary, I would add the need for the board to understand and feel connected to the organization's business model. When board and staff are even a little out of synch about what this is, it can sidetrack the organization without anyone even knowing it.

This may be implied under Ambassador, but I think boards have a role as storytellers/advocates. Storytelling solidifies their engagement when they go public with their involvement with the organization.

All of your roles are great additions to the typical 10.

Nancy Iannone said...

I really like how addition of the roles clarifies what "being" a board member is, not just which tasks and responsibilities belong to the position.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Carlo, I appreciate that you've highlighted the storyteller/advocate roles. They're implied; but in this situation, articulating as explicitly as possible, in as many identifiable (and inspiring) ways as possible, feels like a good thing.

Also appreciate your feedback re understanding and connecting to the business model. Great point!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I'm grateful you recognized and raised the theme of "being," Nancy. As you know, I'm working on a chapter for a new book on governance practices. My focus for that chapter is sociocultural learning in boards - learning to be, in addition to learning about.

The more I think about it, the more strongly I see that as being a missing link for many boards. The idea is all over this blog, but communicating that more directly is something that would be helpful for boards (and for me, as a writer and consultant).

Alexandra Lally Peters said...

I love this! It's respectful of the board's role, and open to interpretation and use by different types of boards, small and large, young and old.

The one thing I would emphasize is that boards don't just "own" the vision and mission - they must be constantly revisiting it. Not necessarily to change their stance, but to refresh and clarify their own understanding. And there are so many ways to look at mission in particular, and to question how it is working and how it is being affected by change sin the world, that a discussion about it should never be stale for the board.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I so agree with your point about providing regular opportunities to talk about and reaffirm the board's commitment to the vision and mission, Alexandra. Frankly, I think it should drive every conversation they have. But you and I agree that helping the board truly embrace and claim the vision and mission as theirs helps them govern more effectively (and makes the job more fulfilling).