Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Finding the nobility in governance

My apologies for the major gap between posts. After fairly major surgery in August, the journey to a fully functioning brain (and productive keyboard) has been surprisingly tough. I'm back, not quite at 100 percent, but anxious to re-engage with lovers of nonprofit boards - especially readers of this blog. 

I may not have been prepared to write about boards, but I've certainly been thinking about them. The one thing I could do during my sick leave was read, and I saw connections to nonprofit governance in every book and article I picked up. (Some call it a sickness...)

One common (and distressing) theme that ran through much of my nonprofit reading was an old one: surviving the million-plus ways that our boards fail us. Woven throughout the blog posts, industry reports and articles was the familiar refrain:
Our boards are a liability. They shirk their responsibilities (IF they know what those responsibilities are). They fail to follow through on anything. They hate planning and resist learning about our work. They suck all of the executive’s valuable time away from higher priorities. We must hold them accountable. They have to be managed. WHY do we have them????
Sound familiar? Okay, I’ll admit I’ve seen and heard my share of evidence confirming  most of those complaints. I’ve undoubtedly contributed to that evidence as a board member. But I'm not about to lay all of the blame on boards and the good-hearted, committed leaders who serve on them.

As I read each of these treatises on overcoming bad boards, I couldn’t help asking myself a few questions:
  • What are we doing to ensure that our boards will have the greatest potential for success in fulfilling their responsibilities?
  • What messages are we inadvertently conveying to boards about our (low) expectations for them?
  • How are we setting them up for failure?
  • Who in their right mind would sign up for such a thankless, mind-numbing job (especially when everyone expects them to fail)?

My friend, Hildy Gottlieb, would encourage me to ask a different kind of question:
What would happen if we expected something better from our boards - and we helped them reach for that potential?
In the spirit of answering Hildy’s persistent whisper ringing in my ears – and to provide a counterpoint to the other conversation – I’d like to offer a different set of questions:

  • What if we treated boards, and the community leaders who serve on them, with the respect they deserve?
  • What if we created an environment where we assumed they would lead – and we helped them reach that leadership potential?
  • What if we held up nonprofit governance as visionary leadership?
  • What if we helped focus their work on the big questions of governance?

Obviously, these questions beg for different outcomes by boards. But they also require a shift in thinking – and action – by those who support them. To me, some of the most obvious changes required would be:

  • Access to information about what governance actually involves. Too many boards don’t have a clue what they should be doing. That's a sector problem, as much as it is an organizational issue.
  • Clarity about what they are signing up for before new board members commit to serve. That means providing them with realistic, concise, information about expectations up front and asking for informed commitment to the role they are assuming. (And never, ever, uttering the words, "It won't take that much time...")
  • Agendas dominated by open time to ask the big questions, focusing on governance work. We are not making the best use of our boards' time when we drown them in endless reports and minutiae.
  • Treating individual and collective reflection as an asset, not a waste of time.
  • Building the CEO/board partnership and seeing it as a worthwhile investment, not a burden.
  • Embedded celebration of what they contribute – their leadership – to the organization and the community.
  • Respect for their time, connections and expertise. Nonprofit governance is a noble calling, one that depends upon committed community servants to embrace the future and move us closer to it. The contributions of a high-functioning board are unique and irreplaceable.

There are myriad ways to improve nonprofit governance. There is vast room for growth between most boards’ current performance and their full potential. We have a lot of work to do. But we must be careful to acknowledge our joint accountability for supporting our boards in their effort to govern more effectively. We're all responsible for our boards' success. They can't do it alone.

We also need to take great care to avoid disparaging the significant gifts that board members contribute, and the commitment they bring in support of our missions. We must recognize, and support, the nobility of their service and the community transformation that is possible when they succeed.


Carlo Cuesta said...

Great post. I would add... How can our boards be a wellspring of creativity and drivers of true innovation.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Oh, yes, Carlo. An excellent addition. We don't value, and draw upon, the creative energy of the smart people in the boardroom as often as we should - and that's a mistake. Thanks so much!