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.


Nancy Iannone said...

Great topic for a Monday morning. I've been part of so many board retreats that ended with enthusiasm and commitment only to stall in the follow up.

The discussion about "What are we holding ourselves accountable for?" needs to be hold throughout the process. That way the board leaves with momentum and a plan.

After a retreat I recently facilitated, a 3 month timeline was created based on the short term goals. It is briefly reviewed at each board meeting. The plan is to devote additional planning time in board meetings about every 3 months to stay on track for the longer term planning. So far so good.

What have others found helpful?

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I like the idea of a three-month timeline, to give them some early momentum, Nancy. That overwhelming sense of "where do we start?" can paralyze a board.

Another important piece of the puzzle related to your "What are we holding ourselves accountable for?" discussion. I see particular need for "action"-oriented boards, who risk losing sight of their larger governance responsibilities in the name of "doing" something.

I, too, hope we'll hear from others on this topic!

Alexandra Peters said...

I agree with Nancy's suggestion of a timeline - and I'd take it one step further. I'd actually create a visual timeline (just draw one on a big sheet of paper. The less fancy the better) and put it right up on the wall. There's something very compelling about seeing "time" drawn. It beats reading lots of material. And you can just keep adding new sheets of "time" to it to stretch it out, and roll it up at the end of every board meeting. I've created some where eventually they stretched all the way around the room, and you could see just what was planned, whether it happened, and how long it took.

Pick a section of time (like 6 months) for each sheet. That really helps remind boards that their job is to think in big time chunks.

What's cool is that you can "see" the future too.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Whatever format the group needs to make it real - like your fantastic visual timeline idea, Alexandra - is critical to the follow-up process, in my view. The group I worked with this weekend is developing a calendar with the same goal in mind: to be able to "see" what lies ahead, make good use of the entire calendar, and to make sure that they are giving quality time to the non-urgent (but essential) responsibilities of governance.

Whether or not the timing works exactly as laid out ahead of time, it's the visual reminder of what lies ahead that facilitates progress. If the visualization aspect doesn't fit board members' preferences (not all of us are "visual" learners or thinkers), other approaches can be used to accomplish a similar outcome.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

By the way, Alexandra, I love your timeline idea. I especially like its potential to do exactly as you describe: to remind governing bodies about their need to think more expansively (and realistically - e.g., in six-month blocks) about their work. Too often, it's a day-to-day kind of existence - which is exactly where boards should NOT be focused.