Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Embedded board learning: Part 2

Today, I share four additional ideas for embedding learning into our board meetings. For more about the thinking behind them, and to read the first four recommendations, click HERE.

Compare notes with peer boards. Local boards too often operate in isolation, not realizing that their peers at other organizations not only wrestle with similar challenges, but come up with sometimes innovative ways to accomplish their goals. What would happen if we created opportunities to compare notes and learn from each other?

Ideally, your board would find time to sit down with another governing body of an organization with similar organizations, like interests or shared constituents. Practically, that may be tricky or even impossible. One manageable alternative would be to invite the officers of that peer organization to visit one of your board meetings, with the expectation that yours would reciprocate.

What might you discuss while you're together? Well, for starters, how about:
  • Your visions, concerns, and focus areas
  • Your points of pride - what you, and your organizations, do well
  • Your wish lists: what you could do, if you had the resources
  • Your common interests and potential collaboration opportunities
Ultimately, we're all in this together, even though we may serve different components of the constituent's layered needs. We also have lessons learned - sometimes the hard way - that could benefit others if shared. Our senior staff are supportive, but there are some aspects of board work that only another board member can really understand.

Compare notes with boards of organizations different from your own. This is the same process as the first, but with a twist: looking for exchange opportunities with boards of organizations from different nonprofit subsectors.  You'll find helpful common threads, but  you'll also likely learn about different perspectives and approaches to governance.

Historically, most of my board assignments have been with human service organizations. The agencies may differ in size and age. They may serve different kinds of missions. But their boards all pretty much behave the same, largely because they face the same basic challenges.

What might one of those boards learn if, for example, they met with the board of an environmental organization? What if the board of an arts organization got together with their peers at an educational institution? Where would the overlaps occur? More important, what might they learn about approaching big-picture governance questions through the lens of a nonprofit that face similar issues (e.g., fundraising, outreach, program evaluation) but with different constraints? You may not be able to apply their approach seamlessly to your challenges. But you may think a little differently about those challenges.

Bring in expert friends and allies. Sometimes, the deep expertise you need lies outside of your board. It's okay (and even wise) to invite those knowledgeable allies in to update or educate your board. Really. Ask the financial expert helping you invest your reserves to check in quarterly, to discuss your strategy and explore other appropriate options. Bring in a program staff member to not just share statistics but to talk about the broader challenges that clients face and how they impact your ability to serve them. Ask experts in your mission area - for example, community college or university faculty, attorneys, medical providers, social workers - to talk about emerging research and the broader field in which you work.  Invite staff from an umbrella organization (e.g., state association or United Way, if they apply to you) to have a conversation about issues that are impacting agencies like yours and the environment in which you work.

Board member book reports. Okay, this one may not appeal to everyone. Or anyone. It probably says more about my "written word" bias than anything, its roots in the perpetual "boards need to know this..." tone of my reading. It reflects my frustration with the fact that resources do exist to help boards think and act differently, but they're largely not offered in accessible formats. Bear with me on this one...

For example (the case where this notion started), the Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Governance is a surprisingly user-friendly resource. It covers a broad range of governance responsibilities well. Its language and examples will make sense to busy community leaders. The Handbook will stretch their thinking in manageable ways, because it actually delves a little deeper than the usual "101" fare. It's also 416 pages long and $90. Placing this book into the hands of every board member, and expecting them to sit down and read it, isn't realistic. But what if the organization owned a copy and asked a board member to read and summarize for his/her peers the chapter on "Building a Board," and requested that another member offer the highlights of the "Strategic Thinking and Strategic Planning" chapter at a future meeting?

It needn't be a book report. Board members could read and report on industry or journal articles and accomplish the same dual goals: expanding the group's knowledge and taking partial ownership for the learning needed to govern effectively.

My list of eight isn't intended to be an all-inclusive catalog of embedded board learning options. Its sole purpose is to spark thinking about ways to more consciously build in activities that deepen the group's understanding of why the board exists and how it can actually govern. The intended takeaway is that boards have many more options to engage their brains and learn - on purpose - than special, hours-long training sessions.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Embedded board learning: Part 1

Your board realizes it needs to commit more fully to its own development. Members accept that learning can take place outside of formal training events. They want to make better use of their time at meetings, not only talking about big issues but learning from and with each other.

Now, how do they actually do it?

When I've written about board learning this year, it's been primarily within the context of the natural processes that are already taking place - learning whether or not we realize we are learning. We already know about the role, or at least the potential, of formal board development events. But there's a middle ground: brief opportunities to embed learning within meetings, that not only expand member knowledge for making good decisions, but engage them as active participants in the process.

I know what you're thinking: "But we don't have time for anything else. Our meetings are too crowded as it is..." My counterpoint would be twofold:
  • If your agenda is like too many others, you have plenty of time. It's just taken up by long, verbal staff and committee reports; approvals of items that should be handled via consent agenda; and drawn-out conversations about details that are management's responsibility.
  • Assuming they address the right topics, these brief (10-30 minutes) events will accomplish two things: focus the board on where it should be - governance - and increase its capacity to do so effectively.
I've come up with eight examples of embedded board learning activities that I will describe in two posts. Part two will appear here on Wednesday.

Charge each member with sharing some aspect of his/her expertise (program, professional, etc.) with the board at least once a year.  Ideally, individuals know exactly why they were recruited and what knowledge or perspective they are are asked to contribute, and they are doing so regularly. But I'm thinking of something slightly more formal: asking each member to lead brief information sharing events. For example, I served on a board of an organization that provides reproductive health services, where members provided these peer learning opportunities. More than a decade later, I still remember a 15-minute overview of emerging contraceptive technologies that the physician member of the board developed and shared with us. Yes, a staff person probably could have created a similar overview. But it was different, for our physician peer and for us, because we engaged him and he engaged us. He also expanded our collective understanding of a program-related topic, in a small sliver of meeting time.

Events of this type need not be dog-and-pony-show presentations. A member could lead a discussion about a topic related to the agency's mission area or their governance responsibilities, that builds their understanding and encourages them to think more broadly about their work as a board. For example, a retired development officer, who served on the board I studied for my dissertation, facilitated a discussion in that group about the board's fundraising roles. A board member also could share informed thoughts about how to strengthen the agency or board and facilitate a group conversation that encourages deeper discussion (and learning) about their work and their responsibilities.

Ask each board committee to take turns leading focused discussions related to board and agency capacity. This one is similar to the first, but led by your committees. Ask them to not just report on existing activities, but to facilitate a discussion looking toward the future. It could be focused on organizational goals in their area (e.g., how to build more effective relationships with donors that lead to meeting fundraising targets), or on how to build the board's capacity to succeed.

These also could be broader discussions about the environment in which the agency works. What are the emerging challenges? The potential opportunities to collaborate with others? The expansion areas to consider? What are the new developments we should be discovering? What are the best practices that we should be evaluating? These discussions should increase member awareness and engage them in focused, deep learning and visioning.

Share a reading or a link to a video in advance of the meeting and spend 10 minutes discussing it.  It should to meet one of the board's two learning needs: about your mission area or about nonprofit governance. Set aside some time - early in the meeting - for sharing their reactions to the selection, and for connecting the key insights with their work as a governing body.

You know your board best. They may be readers. Or they may prefer to watch and respond to a short, high-quality video, like 501Video's marvelous "Movie Monday" selections (example here).  Whatever is shared, it should cover something beyond the everyday and challenge them to think expansively about your work and their role in your success. You also should expect them to come prepared to respond. The notion that board members are "too busy" to read an article or watch a five-minute video, to expand their knowledge and serve you better, is absurd.

Hold a board debate. Select a topic that needs divergent thinking and thorough deliberation before a major decision is required. Set up a 30-minute debate covering the various sides of the issue. Assign sides to a subset of your board, charging each with investigating, presenting and "defending" one option. Chances are good that you have at least one former debate team member on board who can help you develop some basic rules for engagement. Because I have a devilish streak, I might be tempted to assign members with particularly entrenched views on the topic to defend the opposite position.

The value of this exercise includes: reducing the risk of easy consensus, because different options are being brought into the discussion; making it not only okay to hold a contrary view, but a requirement that someone offer that alternative viewpoint; and making board members active participants in at least one well-researched, deep discussion (among many, we hope) about major topics impacting your vision and mission.

I'll post the second half of this list on Wednesday. Not all of these ideas will appeal to every board. They aren't intended to do so. But if one or two spark your board's interest and can be incorporated in some workable way, the potential to transform your meetings (and your members) and expand the board's capacity to govern more effectively is large.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book review: Building Nonprofit Capacity

Since "slim pickins" again describes this week's list of potential shareworthy links, I'll switch things up and offer a book review instead.

I spent Thanksgiving day reading John Brothers and Anne Sherman's Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change through Organizational Lifecycles, thinking about how it should be "must" reading for our boards.  The topic - the shifting capacity concerns that arise across an organization's life - isn't board-focused. But it absolutely is an essential leadership responsibility that boards need to understand.

The subtitle describes the book's unique focus: exploring capacity needs within a lifecycle framework. Readers may have encountered the idea of nonprofits moving through a cycle from, roughly, growth through decline. I can almost guarantee that most of your board members have not encountered the idea - or that they've considered seriously where your organization might be in the cycle. That's a shame, because greater awareness of pretty predictable challenges - when you know to look for them - may lead you and your board to different decisions that change your trajectory.

The model used as the frame for this book include these phases:

Core: Defining the core vision, mission and values; launching the initial programs; and bringing on board those who share your passion for the future you're shaping. Organizations at the start-up phase begin here, but established organizations may find themselves back at this phase during periods of re-examination.

Infrastructure/Adolescence: As attempts to grow succeed, the need to expand the infrastructure to fulfill that capacity begins to become an issue. You may find yourselves in need of increased program staff, development resources to expand fundraising capacity, larger facilities, etc. You also may require a different kind of board, moving away from the hands-on activity of a start-up - and away from the founder's cheering section that he/she recruited in the first place. It's an exciting and scary time. It's also necessary to reach maturity.

Maturity/Impact Expansion:
Organizations and their boards may be tempted to relax a bit, as this is the phase where they experience stability. They've found their groove, they are providing credible services, and they have a respectable pool of resources. Boards in particular may be tempted to exhale, as they feel comfortable trusting professional staff to handle the day-to-day responsibilities and represent the nonprofit well. But complacency here is risky. It also misses the larger potential for this phase: the chance to focus on impact.

In some respects, decline is inevitable. Expecting to stay on the top of our game forever isn't realistic. The message that impacted me most as I read this chapter was that organizational leaders usually are shocked when evidence that their nonprofit is in this phase. I've been there as a board member. What isn't inevitable: a decline that ends in death. It's not easy, but boards and staff who are able to recenter, regroup, and take a different path.

Turnaround and Closing:
That action leading turnaround - or accepting the need to close - is the fifth phase of Brothers and Sherman's model. For most who end up here, turnaround likely is the focus. In some cases, though, closure is the only real option, either because the organization faces too many obstacles or closure (or merger with another nonprofit) ultimately is the only logical choice.

I must admit, my head filled with examples from boards on which I was a member and boards with which I've consulted at every step Brothers and Sherman describe. Been there. Done - and sometimes barely survived - that. The surprising personal challenge to reading this accessible text: replaying sometimes painful scenarios from my board member past and seeing (or confirming) things we missed or could have done differently.

What I particularly appreciate about this book is its practical focus. For example, in the chapter on decline, each characteristic contributing to the situation is accompanied by an example of a solution. Senior staff and board members will not only find an accessible description of the lifecycle and potential markers of each phase, but also tools and questions to help them respond proactively.

The authors also do a good job of discussing the board's roles across the lifecycle, reminding the reader that our volunteer leaders face a bottom line responsibility for the health of the organization and for its future focus.

Simply raising awareness in the sector of the notion and nature of organizational lifecycles can only help nonprofit leaders think more expansively and strategically about building capacity is a service and a compelling reason to read and share this text.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nonprofit boards: Permission to incubate

Has the answer to a troublesome problem come in the midst of a shower? Has the novel approach to a new opportunity you've been pondering popped into your head while walking the dog?

Has the clarity you needed about the direction your nonprofit should take on its journey toward fulfilling your mission come to you in one of the open moments of a meeting, weeks or months after the topic first arises, in a seemingly unrelated context?

Most of us can relate to at least one of those scenarios, because we've all experienced the value of incubation: resisting the urge to resolve life's burning questions - right now - and setting them aside and allowing ourselves the mental space that inevitably leads to the quality answers that will serve us best.

Since my personal life is full of examples of incubation's value, I already appreciate the importance of not rushing the creative process (or panicking when the "right" alternative doesn't come to mind immediately). But seeing it addressed in Pamela Meyer and Brandy Agerbeck's new book, Permission: A Guide to Generating More Ideas, Being More of Yourself and Having More Fun at Work, left me thinking about the importance of giving our boards the incubation time they need to make the best possible decisions about the future.

I started thinking about an unexpected but critical role of strategy discussions and planning sessions: the opportunity put good ideas 'out there' with some kind of long term (i.e., not tomorrow) timeline. I'm recalling the priority setting session that I facilitated for a local board earlier this month and the calendar that members were creating from that process. In addition to defining priorities and creating commitment to act on them, members also were allowing those opportunities to enter their brains and their thinking about the future of the organization without the need to make hurried decisions.

That board has the creativity and the resolve to act on any of the identified priorities, today if necessary. But with the luxury of time and space to let those great ideas gel, members have a better chance of knowing how to approach each one creatively and wisely, when the time is right for the organization and the community. That may not be the reason for the retreat, or the ultimate goal, but it is a benefit that will impact their success in the long run.

Incubation time needn't be months long, or reserved for the big, visionary responsibilities of our governing bodies. It can be as simple - and crucial - as timely sharing of information board members need to make effective decisions. Do they receive the reports and background data at least a week before the meeting, or are you shoving paper at them while they're discussing the issue? Are you helping them come prepared for thoughtful discussion and decision making?

Some issues arise quickly, and some decisions truly can't wait. However, most topics worthy of board focus - the true roles of governance - are on our radar long before action is required. How often do we put off putting those future-oriented governance discussions because their agendas already are filled with "urgent" action items (and the usual parade of staff and committee reports)?

How might the quality of their conversations - and their resulting decisions - change if we anticipated them long before a vote is needed? What if we posed the questions, gave them time to begin a discussion, then committed to continuing it at future meeting(s)? What if, in the delay, they had time to reflect on the options and potential consequences, to ask constituents for their input and advice?

How would their decisions, and the deliberations leading up to them, be different? How might that impact satisfaction with their participation and their motivation to lead on your behalf?

Here's a radical idea: make a point to schedule time for open discussion during meetings, with no particular goal or vote in mind. Regularly give the board open space to collectively explore the future, ask questions, talk about the community in which your nonprofit is doing its work, share feedback gathered in the informal exchanges they have with stakeholders and potential supporters. Sit back, and let them look for connections and opportunities. Let them create a new set of questions. Make it okay to not answer them immediately, but let them percolate for awhile.

In giving us "permission to incubate," Pamela and Brandy offer this observation:
All living things and generative processes have their own internal timeline. Perhaps we don't give it time so much as we give ourselves time to be present and appropriately participatory during the incubation. Some processes need quiet monitoring under the proverbial grow light, while others benefit from lively engagement in several rounds of imaginative conversations. All require patience and time. (p. 26)
 Our boards deserve the chance to discover what unfolds when their good ideas are allowed to incubate. Just as they need that "lively engagement," they also benefit experiencing that "quiet monitoring under the proverbial grow light." That time is not a luxury. It's part of the essential, rich environment of nonprofit governance.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Permission to make a (board) mess

Does your board allow itself to make a mess? When it makes one, what is the natural instinct - clean it up as quickly as possible, or revel in it a bit and see what happens?

My mind was spinning with "What would this look like for a board..." thoughts as I read Pamela Meyer and Brandy Agerbeck's new book, Permission: A Guide to Generating More Ideas, Being More of Yourself and Having More Fun at Work. But "permission to make a mess" might be my favorite - not only because my internal kid found it to be a grand idea, but because it's the kind of "wild" notion that promises to shake up the boardroom in healthy and creative ways.

"Learn the lessons of the mess," Meyer and Agerbeck advise us (p. 90). That's where we'll discover something new, where we will create the space for something different and unexpected to emerge.

But the authors acknowledge the inherent challenges for most of us. We've grown up believing that we need to clean up our messes quickly or, better yet, not make them in the first place.

That can be a particular challenge for the community leaders who serve on our boards. We usually recruit them precisely because of their reputations for having their acts together, for demonstrating that they can step up and take charge. Then we pass on to the hefty burden that comes from the accountability responsibilities of governance. They must act decisively, efficiently and effectively. They must lead, darn it.

No surprise: boards generally resist messes. That's mostly a good thing, especially when they're acting as stewards of organizational resources provided by others.

But it's a challenge when they're acting in their visionary role. That's when we need our boards to embrace uncertainty, try on different scenarios and anticipate what might happen in each setting. They need to ask "what if...," to imagine different outcomes and weigh the potential costs and benefits. They need to sculpt a new path for the organization and community, knowing that myriad factors - mostly outside of their direct control - can shift the environment in an instant. That's the very definition of messy work.

It's also where the greatest rewards will be found. "A little soap and water will wash the mess away, but not the lived experience, you and discoveries you made in it," Meyer and Agerbeck tell us (p. 91). 

Boards need to get messy - break away from their routine, play, be creative and curious. While they can't be reckless, they also can't be satisfied with the "safe." They need to break a few things (metaphorically speaking). They need to be okay with getting dirty once in awhile and step away from what is safe and known, into the uncertain where they will be most likely to realize the kind of impact that they - and their organizations - are meant to make.

How does your board "get dirty?" Do members allow themselves to wallow amongst the uncertain, the unexpected? How can we encourage our boards to embrace their inner mess-makers? What kinds of outcomes are possible in appropriate messiness?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Overheard: Nov. 18

Engaging our board leaders, especially as they face monumental challenges, is the common theme amongst this week's favorite governance links.

Playing board games to win (Lucy Marcus)

In her first post for Reuters, Lucy describes the overwhelming need for leaders who can face the increased scrutiny placed on our organizations and boards. To prepare them for that challenge, and for embracing the future with confidence and vision, she calls both for diverse, engaged and independent-minded directors and a working environment that focuses their energies on the issues to their organization's survival. Its power lies in the case made for acknowledging and supporting the board's ultimate leadership roles.

Today's "board orientation" just isn't what it used to be! (Wild Apricot)

Scroll to the bottom of this post to get to the gem: a link to a PDF file from the Melos Institute. At the other end of the click is a great little article offering a richer way of thinking about the way we orient out boards, including a shift toward a "board development" environment across their governance work.

3 tips for increasing nonprofit board engagement (Kevin Monroe)

Regular readers know how I love a fresh call for activating board members' passion for the mission that drew them to serve in the first place. Of particular note in this great article by Kevin Monroe is a list of recommendations for increasing participation at board meetings. It is highly practical in tone, and some should be obvious (but might not be for those immersed in the dysfunctional meeting moment); but the potential impact of fairly small actions is high. The path to greater board effectiveness seldom requires Grand Canyon-sized leaps. This post is a good reminder of that.

7 easy ways to engage your board in fundraising (Kevin Monroe)

This one is another example of why I appreciate Kevin Monroe's thinking: he always manages to offer logical, accessible recommendations for shifting the board's approach to their unique governance roles. While "easy," these particular recommendations aren't dumbed down; they invite the board to think and act differently when approaching one of the tasks that scares them most.

The seven deadly sins that prevent creativity (Michael Michalko)

Okay, this one isn't a "governance" link; but it definitely can be applied to board discussions and deliberations. Boards don't think creatively - and generate more creative approaches to fulfilling our missions - in large part because of one or more of these "sins." They don't generate ideas, often because they don't think they are personally creative (or see that governance is creative work). They don't always seek out different ways of thinking about solutions to problems - partly because they aren't a diverse bunch and partly because they're too focused on finding the one "right" answer. I suspect that, as you read about each "sin," you'll recognize your board in more than one area.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nonprofit governance: Staying on track

Coming up with great ideas that are destined to transform our organizations is one thing in nonprofit governance. Staying on track - committing and acting to see them through - is entirely something else.

This weekend, I facilitated a retreat for a local board. I like this board, a lot. We spent many invigorating weeks together (a rare and wonderful thing in itself - they committed to sustained board development), helping them better understand their governance responsibilities.

My goal for them in that process: to not only know what governance entails, but to embrace it. After all, there is literally no one else to step up and assume this unique leadership responsibility for the organization that they love so deeply.

As the agenda for this new session took shape, it was clear that, like so many others, this board faced several obstacles to moving forward in productive ways. Some could have been predicted; some could have been prevented. Mostly, though, they're just typical.

The observations that follow reflect on my broader experiences as a board member and consultant, stories shared by colleagues, and the literature of nonprofit governance. They challenge nearly every governing body that has ever attempted to increase its effectiveness as a collection of leaders.

The biggest obstacle to organizational change usually lies in the group's culture. Unless the motivations and routines shift, boards and other groups will be challenged to follow up on commitments made and sustain the necessary changes. This is where the limits of relying on an outside facilitator or trainer come into play: that person can help you identify what change is needed to achieve your goals, even share tools and resources to pave the way. But when the session ends and the expert leaves the room, the real work begins and belongs to the board.

While we can't always see culture, there are ways to consciously impact it to facilitate change. Over the years, I've identified a set of factors that increase the potential for staying on track following a retreat or other focused learning/planning session.

Before the event

The group must collectively agree that there is an issue, problem or opportunity to be addressed. A frustrated executive director or board president may provide the spark for the discussion, but the group needs to buy into the need for the process. Without that, at best, the board will lack the motivation to move forward. At worst, members may actively resist change efforts.

The board also needs to agree with the desired outcome of the work they are about to do. What do they want to have at the end of the process? If your immediate response to that question is "a written strategic plan," I would encourage you to rethink that. Retreats most often go awry when they are overloaded with tedious and unrealistic "activity" (like plunking out a plan) rather than using them for space to breathe, think and vision.

Following the event

Before closing the event, the group needs to identify what follow-up commitments are being made and who will assume responsibility for moving each one forward. Who will own the change process and outcomes? Assign leadership responsibility and at least a preliminary timeline for completion. Deadlines can be changed if circumstances make them unrealistic, but they can add a layer of accountability to increase the likelihood for forward motion.

Part of that follow-up process must include a plan for embedding the follow-up in the regular work of the board. How will you keep your commitments on the agenda (literally and figuratively)? Include regular updates, and group discussion, in every board meeting.

The board's leadership must hold the group accountable for commitments made, and space and resources to do the work. News flash: this isn't the executive director's job, even if that person may play a supportive role. Responsibility for the board's focus - and success - falls on the shoulders of the president and the rest of the leadership team.

The board needs to schedule big and small check-ins throughout the year, to gauge how it is doing, identify where it is stumbling or stuck, and make timely adjustments. Don't wait until the next retreat is called. Do as the local board did this weekend: commit to a more in-depth reflection on a regular basis (they committed to a quarterly process). Not only will this help you stay attuned to commitments made, but I predict it will naturally guide the board to the governance roles that should dominate its work.

If you feel your board may waver, or you simply want extra support to ensure you stay on track, scheduling a check-in with the facilitator/trainer a few months down the road can be helpful. You'll have enough time to identify what isn't quite working as anticipated, what is challenging the group, what new opportunities are arising, etc. Use that expert resource, who shared the early part of the journey with you, for a motivation or logistics boost.

Ultimately, your board owns the success or failure of your change initiatives. It takes work; but when members own the process and the outcomes, when they actively assume responsibility for their own success, the potential that they actually will succeed rises.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Overheard: Nov. 11

I'm not particularly inspired by the governance resources I gathered for you this week, so I think I'll dig back a little further and share more of those that caught my eye when I was on sick leave.

In troubled times, boards must step up (Lucy Marcus)

All boards, corporate and nonprofit, will be tested at some point. In addition to connecting us again to my favorite Marcus work (on grounding and stargazing), Lucy shares five areas that all boards must consider while governing. Some will be more pertinent to your nonprofit than others, but they all represent high-impact opportunities (and threats) for leadership.

If you need strong new nonprofit board members, address internal housekeeping first (Alice Korngold)

I was heavily medicated when I bookmarked this gem from Alice, so finding it again today feels like opening a special gift for the first time. The headline reminds us that inviting someone to come in and help us fix our big mess is hardly an enticing way to engage the caliber of community leader that all nonprofits need to succeed. More than that, Alice lays out a vision for ultimate governance success - one that truly engages our community's best in service to our mission. Powerful.

The new look of board meetings (for creating high performing boards) Movie Mondays

So simple are the recommendations shared in this Movie Monday video. It's all about how we focus board members' time when they are gathered together: how the meeting is structured, what questions are asked, how they are prepared (and expected to prepare) for the discussion, etc. It's a quick, share-worthy reminder that the road to effective governance is a very simple one.

Top 6 reasons for having a board retreat this year (Amy Eisenstein)

This one probably leaped out at me, since I'm facilitating a board retreat tomorrow morning. While number four ("plan for the year") has the potential to send everyone into comas - or the kind of non-productive tailspin that gives retreats a bad name - if not approached appropriately, this list reminds us that there are many vital ways to use the breathing and thinking space that these special events offer. I'm particularly partial to numbers one, two and six (now you'll have to read it...). While I'm constantly preaching about the critical importance of making this work the focus of board time, I appreciate the value of setting aside larger blocks of time, away from the routine aspects of governance, to vision and build the team.

What are 10 ways to make a board more effective? (

I'm a little put off by the tone of the headline (the whole 'boards are a horrible burden' thing again), and none of the "10 ways" will shock regular readers of this blog; but I can see value in this list as a quick, in-a-nutshell reminder of the type of focus and support that boards need to succeed. Any extra nudge to help keep our boards on track is a good thing.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

So, what do boards experience?

Really, what kinds of learning occurs in the routine experiences of the typical nonprofit board?

The 'big news' of last week's post applying the 70:20:10 model to board learning was that most of what we adults learn comes from experience, not formal training events. I offered up some general thoughts about what experiential learning in a nonprofit boardroom might look like in that post, but the adult educator in me is feeling the need to dig a little deeper on the question you may be asking:

What IS experiential learning?

To give myself a frame for responding, I turned to one of my favorite thinkers on the topic, Tara Fenwick, who offers six types of experience where learning occurs.*

Direct embodied experience - The right now, right before us experiences that make up our daily lives. Fenwick reminds us that those experiences can impact us physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, etc. As I reflected on this one, I couldn't help thinking that so much of board work - and our approach to it - is treated as an intellectual endeavor. The fact is, as human beings, our experiences involve more than our heads - even/especially in the meaning-driven nature of the visionary work of governance. Those of us who come to boards because we care deeply about the issues do not treat future-focused discussions as essentially academic exercises. We engage our hearts, spirits and minds.

Vicarious experience - What happens when we hear others describe their experiences; the ways in which their stories impact us, inform us, and resonate with us personally. I often struggle with how to provide board members with real connections to the mission of the organization when direct experience might result in one of two very inappropriate responses: wandering into micromanagement territory or breaking client confidentiality. Providing them with ample opportunity for vicarious experience brings them to that mission while respecting boundaries. Board members need to hear stories from front-line staff and volunteers. They need to hear client stories - delivered in appropriate and sensitive ways. They need to listen to what the senior executive shares as a co-leader and as the day-to-day manager. Boards can learn, and derive their own meaning, from the stories that others tell about your mission.

Simulated experience - Set up to resemble real-life scenarios, but provided in an artificial and controlled environment. I'll admit, I'm stretching for a good example of what this might look like in a board setting (I'm hoping one or more readers might be able to share one with us.). It does summon to mind my first board assignments, for agencies providing crisis intervention services to victims of family violence and sexual assault. I often was appalled by my peers' lack of understanding of victims' experiences and fears, and the challenges crisis line volunteers and staff face in addressing their urgent needs. In that setting, role playing - taking a hypothetical (but typical) crisis call or simulating a shelter intake process - might have gone a long way to clarifying those issues for my board friends.

Relived experience - Recalling previous experiences, with the benefit of having time and perspective to assist with assessing and learning from them. There is value in organizational history. Not only does it help boards avoid reinventing the wheel, but it also fosters reflection that creates the chance to learn something new/different from our experiences. Boards benefit when they revisit their successes and their failures - especially the former. Why were we successful? What were the conditions that facilitated that success? What conditions are in place today, and how can we leverage those conditions in this situation?

Collaborative experience - Working together, experiencing something together. Collective experience includes both discussion and action. Governance is the ultimate collective experience. Conversation makes up a significant percentage of that experience, but boards can/should/do learn when they act together. In fact, getting out of their seats (and their heads) more often would be a healthy thing for our boards.

Introspective experience - Engaging the quiet voice within. Boards need to reflect. They need space to sit back, collectively and individually, and listen to what their hearts tell them, just as they listen to their heads. Resisting the urge to act quickly and decisively is a practice that would benefit more boards. If they need time to reflect on an important decision, they need to take it.

How is your board already learning through experience? Which of these experience sources surprised you? Which has the potential to expand your board's capacity if it acknowledged and focused on its value in its practice? What kinds of examples could you share with fellow readers, to help them expand their understanding of how boards learn?

* from Fenwick's 2003 book, Learning through Experience: Troubling Orthodoxies and Interesting Questions, p. 13.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Video: The Role of Nonprofit Boards

The Harvard Business School's Executive Education Program recently posted this video about the role of nonprofit boards. I wouldn't call the ideas covered in this brief (2:08) overview revolutionary, but they remind us of the critical importance of the leadership responsibilities of governance.

Particularly noteworthy was an early comment about veteran board members coming into a new assignment assuming they already know what their responsibilities are, and how things work. In my experience, that can be one of the more counterproductive scenarios: A room full of people with sometimes wildly different ideas about governance, approaching the work in conflicting ways. That is a recipe for governance disaster.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Overheard: Nov. 4 catch-up

I've saved so many great governance-related resources since my last "overheard" post in July that I'll never be able to catch up. I undoubtedly will leave out links that will have the ultimate answer to your burning board question. For that, I am sorry. 

In the spirit of re-launching this regular feature and getting back on track, though, I'll pick a handful of highlights from the last month. I may post a bonus "overheard" at some point, digging a little further back from the summer.

Treating board members as major gift donors (Movie Mondays)

One of the reasons this video resonated is the underlying message that we absolutely must hear: the need to respect board members for all of their contributions. That theme will ring familiar if you've read my more recent posts. In an environment where the more dominant focus is on the ways in which boards fail, any reminder of the significant gifts that individual members (and the group as a whole) share with our nonprofits.

The governance/support model for nonprofit boards (Jan Masaoka)

In this one important post, Jan solves one of the bigger puzzles of board life: when are members governing and when are they supporting the agency? Committed individuals who serve on your board will engage in both at some point, but boundaries can be blurred in tricky ways simply because of their status as organizational leaders. In this marvelous entry, Jan offers an at-a-glance tool for recognizing where a specific activity might lie. More important, she opens the door for a critical conversation that every board must have.

Is your board suffering from burnout? (Chronicle of Philanthropy)

If your board is burned out, this survey probably is a moot point. You know it. You see it. You feel it. But this quick set of questions can provide a basic framework for discussing the challenges that contribute to this state.

Who's really in charge of board performance? (Rick Moyers)

This Chronicle post would spark another important discussion: who's really responsible for ensuring that the board stays on track? There's the textbook answer to that question, then there's reality. Moyers' post acknowledges the reality: that the executive ultimately carries a significant burden for keeping his/her lead volunteers focused.

Board recruitment - don't expect the "fully loaded baked potato" at first (Marion Conway)

New members need time to ease into board service: to understand their duties, the structures and programs of the organization, and the way the group interacts. It's not an overnight process, as much as we'd like to think it is - or that we would like to have happen. Marion describes several factors for success in recruitment and orientation, to help ensure a successful start to service.

A tale of two boards: Stewards of IMPACT (Kevin Monroe)

How do we know we're having a positive impact on our community? In many respects, that's the ultimate question (and driving force) of nonprofit governance. In this post, Kevin shares tips and a series of questions designed to foster discussion and identify evidence that the nonprofit's programs actually make a difference.

Got the Boardroom Blues? (Brown Dog Consulting)

And, finally, for a little Friday levity, here's a video that will resonate with most everyone who's ever served on a board. It's both funny and depressing, because it's true.