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.