Friday, July 29, 2011

Overheard: July 29

I'm opening this week's list of favorite links with a post just discovered in my morning Twitter feed. The timing is perfect for such an inspirational post, since I'm feeling pretty depleted by logistics work for my Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute, which begins Sunday night.

Real Sacrificial Board Giving (Episcopal Charities & Community Services)

I don't know the person behind the @ECCSOnline tweets and blog posts; but in the weird and wonderful world of social media, a girl can develop enriching kinds of relationships with people who end up feeling like kindred spirits. In an environment where too many organizations obsess over tactics and the "X easy steps" of governance, I gravitate toward voices that understand and advocate for the meaningful work that should drive all of it. Earlier this month, the person behind the tweets shared the quote by Kathryn Tyler Scott that provides the foundation for this post (“…to preserve your organization for a time you will not see, and for people you never will meet"); and it took my breath away. How can we sum up nonprofit governance more perfectly? How would governance change if that idea shaped our work? This post addresses that so well, and so powerfully. Yes, I've added it to my "board essentials" bookmark list - it's "must" reading for any nonprofit governing body.

Should staff contact with the board be restricted? (Jan Masaoka)

This one drew a lot of interest on Twitter when it started circulating, which didn't surprise me. In my work with boards, I've noticed that the question of staff/board interaction tends to raise the eyebrows - if not hackles - of many an executive director. It's a sticky subject, for good reason. The tradition of a CEO buffer between the two groups is a long one, one with legitimate reasons behind it. But is isolating the groups practical, or ultimately desirable? Some peers reading this post will disagree with me on this, but I'm of the mind that creating appropriate opportunities for the two groups to interact can be a good thing. I say that as both a board member and a former staffer who worked with a board. I offer two recommendations. First, encourage/expect board presence at events in the life of the organization (volunteer recognition events, holiday parties, etc.). Second, create legitimate opportunities for the two groups to work together to advance your mission (in particular, staff participation in committees where they have expertise, knowledge, and a stake in the results). This doesn't mean that you abandon structures and policies that respect the ED's leadership of day-to-day organizational life. There simply are other good reasons to bring the board closer to that work - specifically, how it brings you closer to your mission - and to help the staff understand who the board is, what it does, and why its work matters. Actually, I have an entire master's thesis worth of research on this topic, which begs to be shared in this space.

Executive committee? No thank you (Hildy Gottlieb)

Hildy shared this reflection on discussions emerging early in the formation of Creating the Future that likely will resonate for organizations of various ages. Do you have an executive committee? What role does it play? Is it a help or hindrance? If you don't have an executive committee, how has your board addressed the "stuff" that comes up? I'd appreciate any thoughts you might have on this, as I'm not firmly on either side of the discussion. I must admit, though, I do like the "Stuff Happens Committee" idea that Hildy proposes, and her rationale for framing it that way. The terminology gives off a very different vibe than an "executive" committee. As someone who believes strongly that words matter, I'm intrigued by the implications.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chairing the board: Am I the one?

If you read my recent post on the importance of nonprofit board chairpersons, you already know the high value I place on a leadership role that doesn't always get the respect or consideration that it deserves.

"Any live body" is never a good criterion for recruiting board members. It is the worst possible target when we're selecting our next leader. Just as the board needs to select and support its leadership deliberately, the prospective president needs to be thoughtful in assessing whether he/she really is the right person for the job.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of an invitation to chair your board, resist the urge to respond immediately. Instead, ask for time to reflect on what is being asked of you, what you have to contribute as a leader, and whether it's ultimately a good fit for all.

What kinds of questions might foster a rich self-assessment? If I were reflecting on an invitation to serve in this capacity, here is a sampling of the types of questions I might ask myself.
  • Why am I considering this nomination? What is most appealing about the prospect of serving in this new way?
  • There is a high level of visionary leadership required of the board chairperson. How would I advance the vision and mission of the organization?
  • How will I keep the board focused on its governance responsibilities? Will I be willing to be assertive in holding the group to that focus?
  •  How will I assume responsibility for the learning needs of the board?
  • Am I willing - and able - to be a strong and positive spokesperson for our mission?
  • Am I willing - and able - to support my fellow board members' community outreach work? Will I hold them accountable for doing it?
  • Do I have the time and energy needed to commit to this critical work?
  • Will I be able to work effectively with committee chairpersons and other board leaders? Do I have the interpersonal skills needed to create a strong leadership team?
  • Can I create a strong partnership with the CEO?
  • How can I use my specific experiences, expertise, knowledge, etc., to shape my leadership contributions while in this role?
  • What scares me most about serving? 
  • What do I need to succeed?
  • How will the organization be better at the end of my term? How will I be better?

Monday, July 18, 2011

The (unexpected) perils of ambassadorship

Can there really be easy pitfalls that come with a board member's increased engagement with the community?

Usually, when I share my four additions to nonprofit board responsibilities, I gravitate toward the positive motivations and outcomes of members reaching out and sharing our mission with others.  Last week, though, members of a local board reminded me that there can be a bump or two along the way to this positive community outreach. In my zeal to emphasize the meaning-driven work and value of nonprofit governance, I tend to gloss over the natural cautions that board members also should know.

If you've recruited strategically, you've undoubtedly brought on board leaders who also are community leaders (with or without titles). They are connected. They have demonstrated a capacity to serve and accomplish what they commit to doing. People know them and listen to them.

The obvious good news: they are never without opportunities to tell your story, educate about your work, and advocate for your cause. If board leaders and senior staff are fulfilling our responsibility, we're encouraging individual members to get out there and share and holding them accountable for that community outreach work.

The (maybe) not so obvious caution: when their visibility as organizational leaders rises, so too does the expectation that their voice represents your voice. If we've recruited and educated well, our board members are passionate about the issues that we address as an organization. This means that they have knowledge and opinions - often strong opinions - about those issues. When the community connects individual board members and your organization, assuming that their voice is your voice is a logical next step.

Board members need to be mindful of this potential when they speak about the broader issues surrounding your work. In many personal and professional circles, when they speak, listeners may be hearing more than their individual message. They may also be hearing your organization's message. In most cases, that isn't a massive problem: the board member's personal view and your organizational message are one and the same (though greater consciousness of how they are speaking, when, and with whom will never be inappropriate).

The time will inevitably come when members' views don't dovetail perfectly with organizational messages or board decisions. That's where the challenge arises. Board members have a right to express their personal opinions; that comes with citizenship. What they must take care to do, though, is make it clear in speaking that the opinion expressed is theirs and not necessarily those of the organization.

Board members must represent the organization well and heed the call for one voice once a decision has been made. In an ideal world (from the nonprofit's perspective), board member views and organization messages would be one and the only messages an individual would feel compelled to share with the community. Board members need to remember that, for some people, they never take off the "nonprofit leader" hat. They are always representing the organization.

Board members, if you find yourself in this situation, stop, acknowledge where where you are and with whom you are speaking, and decide whether what you are about to say will help or hurt your organization's mission. If simply not speaking isn't an acceptable Plan B (and, please, think long and hard before rejecting that option. Really.), you have an obligation to clarify that the opinions shared are yours and yours alone. You are not speaking as a representative of your nonprofit.

If you're like me, you want to believe that this scenario is so rare that your board will never encounter it. But, as the board last week reminded me, it's not impossible. It need not even involve a particularly radical or controversial kind of situation to create the potential for trouble. (The example they shared would absolutely be a somewhat common occurrence for many community boards.)

My counsel is this: Have this discussion - regularly - with your board. Talk about the importance of respecting the group's decisions. Debate that stretches thinking and leads to thoughtful and considered decisions is healthy. But once a decision is made, it's made. The group speaks with one voice. Second message I would discuss with the group would be the importance of remembering and respecting their ongoing role as organizational spokespersons. Attention to the continuous nature of that ambassadorial role will help encourage them to be mindful of what they are communicating, where and with whom.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Overheard: July 15

A 'destined to be a classic' post from a familiar name opens this week's list of favorite governance links.

Board members: Rocket fuel or Rocks? (Lucy Marcus)

Let's be honest: she had me at the great headline. I opened the link while waiting to facilitate a governance session with a local board, and I must admit that it lingered in the back of my mind throughout that event. I couldn't wait to get to a computer to read this post more closely. There are many reasons to add this one to my "board essentials" reading list (which I did). One of the more compelling was the focus on what the individual board member needs to know to "mak(e) the boardroom a dynamic, productive place." She shifted the focus of board responsibility to knowing/engaging vs. doing, which is a healthy place to spend a bit of time and energy. Lucy challenges board members to not just sit back and whine about boring and unproductive meetings, but to immerse themselves in learning that makes governance more personally fulfilling and more effective. We hope that board members would read this and think Lucy is stating the painfully obvious. We don't always see evidence that that would be the case.

Methods for collecting and using your nonprofit's stories (Movie Mondays)

Maybe it's because I'm putting the finishing touches on a workshop on boundary-spanning boards, but this one leaped out immediately as a must-share here. While not targeting boards directly, the content of the video - articulating and sharing the stories that make your mission come to life - absolutely fits board responsibilities.

Extreme makeover: Boards edition (GuideStar)

If you engage on Twitter or Facebook, this one may be familiar. It circulated widely in social media communities as it was released. This post resonated for me for a couple of reasons. First, it opened with a series of questions designed to engage board members in deep, governance-appropriate reflection. Second, it offered tips (and a call for patience for inevitably hard work) for engaging in whatever change is identified as needed.  I wouldn't say they've shared anything terribly detailed or revolutionary. But they offer a fresh, friendly way of thinking about assessment and action.

How to unleash your board members energy for fundraising (Gail Perry)

Gail shares both a link to a radio interview she conducted with "Giving Show" host Michael Chatman and a post outlining the highlights of that talk. Is it possible to have too many words of counsel on this vexing topic? Many would say no. As is typical of her writing, Gail packages her expert advice in ways that will make sense (and feel less scary) for executives and board leaders wrestling with this challenge.

Results of new Daring to Lead study on nonprofit leadership - What a board should know
(Marion Conway)

While boards ultimately should read and consider every word of the Daring to Lead 2011 report, blogger Marion Conway does them a favor by pulling out and discussing several key findings that relate specifically to board responsibilities. Be sure to visit her blog, where she goes into greater depth on the report. Read her blog, anyway, because she's a fantastic writer and thinker.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sources of board stories

Where do board members find those great stories that energize people and prompt them to act?

I'm reflecting a lot on that question lately, as I continue to tweak my Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute workshop on boundary-spanning boards.

Our nonprofit stories are everywhere. Recognizing them, sharing them with board members (and other advocates) in appropriate ways, and helping them see how they communicate something compelling about your mission are the challenges.

As frequently happens in my life, a chance intersection with this topic popped up in an adult education text I was reading last week. In a chapter on narrative learning (in The Third Update on Adult Learning Theory), authors M. Carolyn Clark and Marsha Rossiter describe the power of stories this way:

"Stories...engage our spirit, our imagination, our heart..."

We can cite all the statistics we can generate. We can outline our services and describe in copious detail how they work. But we reach other people in ways that call them to act with our stories.

So where are the sources of these stories? Here are a few observations that I hope will be obvious to others:

The executive director. This person has the most expansive view of the organization - its impacts, challenges, successes. The CEO shares the ambassador role with the board and, as such, should have a good sense of what resonates with different stakeholder audiences. He/she is out in the community, talking about the work and tailoring messages to the unique interests of each group. The ED also has the closest working relationship with the board and is the person with the best opportunities to fill interactions with stories to inspire and illustrate.

The staff. Other staff members offer "front line" perspectives on the work and the clients served. They understand the needs, the points of pride, the connection of their work to the mission in ways that are different from the board and, to a large extent, from the CEO. With sensitivity to preserving confidentiality (for example, using client pseudonyms and composites), they can help illustrate organizational impacts in vivid ways.

Other volunteers. Like paid staff, volunteers offer a unique perspective of the work, from wherever they contribute to the organization. Some will be front-line volunteers, providing direct services, getting up close and personal with the mission. Others may serve in supportive role that give them a different sense of what it takes to move your nonprofit closer to its mission. Each offers a different layer of understanding of how the mission and vision are advanced and different lenses for seeing community impact.

Donors.  When board members participate in the development process, when they have opportunities to engage donors and listen to them, they have a clearer understanding of the kinds of stories that will matter to supporters. They also have a chance to engage those storytelling donors at a deeper level.

Clients and former clients. Introducing board members to current or former service recipients isn't always possible, given the need to respect client confidentiality. But when you do have someone, likely a former client, who is willing to offer his/her testimonial about the the role your organization played on his/her life and to share it specifically with the board, you need to make that happen. The closer your board gets to the impact you have on the community, the better members will be able to communicate convincingly with others.

Other board members. Board members have their own kinds of experiences and connections that draw them to your mission. Where do they find meaning in the work that they do? How have they found opportunities to expand their service and share their leadership in ways that move you closer to mission fulfillment? Members will find both common ground and expanded understanding amongst each other's stories. Finding time for stories - and any open space where such insights can emerge - will never be wasted board meeting time.

Direct experience. This last source isn't a "who" but a "how." When members step outside of the boardroom, when they have appropriate opportunities to encounter the work and the people of your organization, they not only have a chance to hear others' stories, they create stories of their own. I'm not inviting boards to peer over staff members' shoulders or nose around in client files. I'm not even encouraging board members to do front line volunteer work. I am suggesting that board members should be encouraged to participate - appropriately - in the life of the organization. There is no experience greater than firsthand experience when sharing with others.

There are many sources of stories with the power to inspire board members and those they will engage on your behalf. What kinds of stories does your board hear? How? In what context? What kinds of stories do they need to hear to help them relate more directly to stakeholder interests?

How can our board members hear and grasp stories that engage their "spirit..., imagination..., and heart...?" How can those same stories inspire board members themselves? I would be interested in your perspectives and experiences with this.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The transformative power of lists

Yes, I appreciate the irony of the title I've assigned to this post. Perhaps a more accurate revision would be this: "the transformative power of list making."

Last week, as I created notes from the flip chart sheets of a session that I facilitated for a local board, I recalled the vivid conversation about mission that those sheets represented. What I remember most was a member's statement about being able to look back on the product of our work - particularly the list of tangible ways the organization delivers value to our community - and realizing that it was a long one.

This individual saw a visual representation of the work that this small board has accomplished and that it continues to provide in the community. It was an affirmation that, even as the organization emerged from recent challenges, it managed to provide something real and valuable. It also advanced its mission. Sometimes, that is very hard to see from the middle.

Flip chart lists are a staple in my work with boards because, more often than not, important insights arise in group reflection. At the end of discussions like the one our local board had last week, the chance to step back, take a breath and absorb visually what that reflection produced facilitates a transformative moment for many members.

I wrote earlier this summer about a similar kind of experience, when I asked another local board to list community partners and other sources of organizational support. They already were in list-making mode (this took place somewhere in the middle of our retreat), but what emerged in this particular assignment was remarkable. The energy shifted, the list grew to cover multiple sheets, the names flew faster than I could write, and board members (and their executive director) were able to see that they were entering a fundraising challenge with an already strong foundation.

Neither the notes created nor the flip chart sheets themselves come anywhere near capturing adequately the individual and group insights that emerged last week. Neither board members nor I can predict exactly how that expanded, collective understanding will impact future decisions and focus. But in the simple process of listing, especially listing their assets and accomplishments, their perspective shifted.

Too often, board agendas focus on "issues" and "challenges." What would happen if we took some time out regularly to list their strengths and accomplishments or, better yet, to discuss ways to build from them? What list would spark generative thinking and shift their frame of reference from needs to assets?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Laramie Board Learning Project: Definitive posts

In the four-plus years since launching this blog, I've had a chance to not only find my blogging voice but also opportunities to articulate the particular vision and knowledge that inform that voice.

In this holiday edition, I share a few early posts that provide a sense of perspective for readers who are new to this blog. I hope they will provide context for who I am and why I approach nonprofit governance the way I do.

Creating a board LeaderCulture (July 23, 2007)

Long before there was a blog, there was an original model of nonprofit leadership. LeaderCulture flowed from my brain in 1998, while sitting on the tarmac in Greesnboro, N.C., following a visit to the Center for Creative Leadership. That trip, to accept the CCL's Kenneth E. Clark Student Research Award, set me on my path of a lifetime. LeaderCulture merited an article in CASE Currents Magazine. It felt brilliant at the time - and I do think there is value in what I created (See separate entries on each of the four elements: participation, communication, direction and recognition.).  I haven't shared that model for awhile, but it definitely carries ideas that seeded everything that follows.

Boards 101 video (October 27, 2008)

I'm not exactly proud of the audio performance here; but the attempt to describe my understanding of the big 10 roles - and expand upon them with what I feel they lack - offers an initial view of my vision of nonprofit governance. As with the LeaderCulture model, there are links to what comes later in my evolution as a governance writer and facilitator.

Finding community in board practice (August 22, 2009)

There's a bit of a rough feel to this one, too; but in this case, that represents my evolving understanding of the key findings and messages of my doctoral dissertation research. This work has become the foundation of my thinking and work on nonprofit governance where, to my utter surprise, so many of the puzzle pieces naturally fell into place - in a high-functioning governance setting. It has given me my research agenda and my focus for working with nonprofit boards. I definitely need to record a more polished version of this work. But I appreciate the raw nature of this version, because it shows exactly where I was in my thinking five short months after successfully defending this work.

Series: Boards as communities of practice (December 28, 2009)

Yes, the evolutionary process to find the meaning of my dissertation research was a long one. (I've learned that that is a common phenomenon of the doctoral experience.) In December 2009, I launched a series of posts exploring in greater depth the key findings and what they mean for nonprofit boards. This entry provides a set of links to each post in the series.

It's all about vision (January 20, 2010)

With the exception of the notable flashes of knowledge described above, I spent the first three years stumbling and bumbling through blogging. I wasn't sure that I had anything important to say, and I lacked a sense that blogging was a valid venue for me. This post represents a multi-layered shift - for the legitimate 'aha' moment described, for the sense of place in the nonprofit world that I found in that experience, and for the new understanding of the voice I needed to develop and why. I don't pretend that every post written since this one has been brilliant and scintillating reading; but the clarity that began with this one launched a creative and intellectual shift. 'It's all about vision' takes on multiple meanings for its author.

My (draft) nonprofit learning manifesto (February 8, 2010)

In this one - and in the series that followed - I articulated the intersections between my understandings of nonprofit governance and adult learning that makes this particular blog unique. The 'draft' in the title is deliberate and important. My thinking about ways in which adult learning principles can be addressed in nonprofit board development is a lifelong process. My understanding of each point is just a little bit different today than it was in 2010.

Moving beyond 101 (March 14, 2010) 

I was a little crabby when I wrote this one. Despite the counsel of wise friends to 'meet people where they are,' I still sometimes lose patience with resistance to going any further than the basics with our boards. We can't overtax them, I'm told, they're volunteers. We can't trust them, I'm told, they always fail to do what we need. We can't motivate them, I'm told, because they simply don't understand or appreciate the work that we do. I continue to know this: Boards give too little because we expect too little and support even less. While I always write with a goal of accessibility for my target audience (the nonprofit board member), I refuse to dummy content down. I respect what boards bring to the table, challenge them to offer their best to lead their organizations, and offer them tools for stretching to make that best possible.

CWAM 2010: Exploring board practices (May 14, 2010)

This one is important, because it represents the blog unveiling of my model, Board Practice Communities. It was a big moment for me, and a first step toward public discussion about this framework for building board capacity.

Boards 'on fire' (October 31, 2010)

One of the strengths of this blog is my ability to draw upon a diverse range of sources to expand understanding of nonprofit governance, or to explore it in novel ways. This one was inspired by one of my students who, despite having little knowledge about nonprofits and no experience with nonprofit boards, managed to capture the essence of what all governing bodies need to succeed. As I re-read my response to his challenge, I see a good, in-a-nutshell summary of what I consistently share in this space.

When I started writing this entry, I envisioned an easy way to bring newer readers up to speed on a holiday, when few will be sitting at their computers reading blogs. For the reader, that may be exactly what this post does. For me, there was an unexpected outcome: a stronger sense of context for my journey so far and a better understanding of how I found my blogging voice. Not many of these posts would qualify if I were creating a "best of" list. But all are important for the conceptual road map they create.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Overheard: July 2

It's another "cornucopia"-themed week of resources, a mix of the thought-provoking and the practical. Let's start with a couple of the latter.

Board FriendRaising Action Toolkit (Hildy Gottlieb)

I've downloaded and used this free toolkit from my friend, Hildy, and I recommend it. Ultimately, I'd want to sweet-talk you into ordering her book, Friendraising, which is chock-full of ideas for, and examples of, ways for board members to engage others for your mission. But this toolkit offers a good overview that you can easily share and discuss with your board.

12 ways to liven up your board meetings - and your board (Gail Perry)

No item on this list would qualify as particularly earth-shaking. But often the most basic changes carry potential to shift the tone and outcomes for a board. Adopting even one of Gail's suggestions may lead to meaningful change in the way your board works.

9 big board questions (Nick Fellers)

I'll take any chance to share questions that help nonprofit boards focus on their governance responsibilities. This list of nine by Nick Fellers offers exactly that. Boards that are "too busy" for governance could set aside time in a meeting to pose one of these questions. (Or, even better yet, they could adjust their view of why they exist.) Boards also could draw upon these questions as Fellers suggests: to create a different - and ultimately more fruitful - kind of retreat experience, focused where boards should be focused.

Daring to Lead 2011 (CompassPoint)

This national study focused on sector executive leadership should be required reading for all nonprofit boards. The picture painted isn't pretty, but it points out challenges that require board attention. Be sure to click the "boards" tab on the page for specific (and convicting) data related specifically to the issues that nonprofit executives report having with the other half of their leadership team.

Ten myths about nonprofit boards (Jan Masaoka)

Have you heard any of these myths? What are the impacts of buying into any of them? What happens when a board accepts any of them as true? Jan, as always, expands our thinking about nonprofits and, specifically, about nonprofit boards.