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
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.