Monday, January 31, 2011

Provocative boards: Some first steps

After publishing last week’s post on the provocative boardroom, I knew that some readers might be wondering, “so what does that really look like?” This week, I’d like to offer a few, not-too-scary ideas to help your board take a step in a provocative direction.

Take turns assuming the “devil’s advocate”/”and what about…” role. Rotating this responsibility amongst board members encourages each individual to stretch in potentially unfamiliar ways – and reminds them that it’s okay to take a divergent viewpoint. Some boards struggle with that. The “and what about…” title is mine – my lone hesitation in suggesting a “devil’s advocate” is that too many people turn that into a reject-everything-because role. The goal shouldn’t be tearing down ideas for the sake of smashing them to bits; it should be to encourage the group to not accept easy and ‘obvious’ choices and to see how they are doing that in their discussions.

Add “curiosity” to your list of must-have criteria for new board members. This one isn’t new to regular readers, but it is particularly important to moving board activity – and ultimately culture – in the direction of Pamela Meyer’s “Playspace” (and, of course, to healthy, engaged, expansive environments where governance can flourish). We need board members who don’t accept the status quo, who ask questions and don’t wait for someone to spoon-feed them the answers.

Turn board members into reporters – or, better yet, encourage their natural tendency to investigate on your behalf. Encourage (or assign, if they’re initially reluctant) members to explore different aspects of issues before the board, then report back to the group what they have learned. Make governance an active process. If you’ve done a good job with that curiosity criterion, they’ll probably gravitate toward this responsibility naturally.

Introduce a “heard on the street” moment. Board members are boundary spanners – or should be. Encourage them to talk to their peers, ask them how the agency is doing, and listen to their responses. Then encourage them to share what they’ve learned and discuss how that community feedback informs their work.

Keep access to germane – and creatively divergent – information flowing. Make it easy for board members to find and access information on mission-related issues, and on effective governance. Share readings, links, podcasts, and other resources as you find them, explaining how and why they are important to the work that you are doing. Include select readings in meeting packets and make discussing them part of their collective learning. Have them uncover readings and resources, and share how those resources inform or stretch their thinking about your mission. Perhaps most important to building creative capacity: seek out inspiration and information from outside of your usual set of sources. Explore other mission areas, other industries and sectors, for new perspectives related to leadership, management, service provision, and communication.

Build in time to ask the question, “What would happen if...? No fair dwelling on the negatives, either! Help the board break out of the pattern of seeing only what lies immediately in front of them. Find space to regularly focus on questions that place your vision at center stage. Encourage them to not self-edit or critique too freely. We’ll never move forward if we spend too much time constrained by “reality.”

Now, Pamela would encourage us to be far more adventurous in creating a board “Playspace” that transforms our notions of governance. Some boards may already be at a place where those more creative stretches can come naturally. But even small steps, and those that stretch us just a little, can move our boards just a little closer in that playful direction.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Overheard: Jan. 28

Here are a few of the links and sources that stretched or informed my thinking about nonprofit governance, courtesy of peers on Twitter and fellow bloggers:

Are you ready for a nonprofit board: Ten questions to consider (Alice Korngold)

Alice's latest contribution to the field is this excellent list of questions for board prospects. What I love about this list is its coverage of not only the obvious, resume-builder kinds of considerations, but those potential challenges (are you patient?) and rewards (do you want to be a role model?) that come with the position.

Role of the nonprofit board fundraising committee (Carter McNamara)

I imagine that this one stirred up more than a few people, particularly those who staff or lead small nonprofits where boards are expected to take a very hands-on role. Carter gets right to the point of the board's (and the fundraising committee's) ultimate responsibility in fundraising: ensuring that it is done right. His list of potential tasks related to that responsibility is likely to be quite eye-opening to many boards.

The dialogue of the board
(Anne Ackerson)

Anne offers several workable, and potentially powerful, ways to encourage boards to interact in meaningful and mission-focused ways. I particularly appreciate the practicality in what she describes: any board could easily introduce one or more of these processes to meeting agendas and likely see almost immediate impact. The potential to impact the board's culture (toward governance accountability, mission focus and learning) is particularly strong.

The five disciplines of organizational learning
(Jay Cross)

I wear my adult educator hat when sharing this one. I've followed Peter Senge's work (including Fifth Discipline and related publications) on organizational learning but have not really spent time applying this framework to nonprofit governance. I bookmarked this post for sharing here as a prompt to me to do some thought work on this and to invite comment on whether you see this being potentially useful in conceptualizing a culture of learning within boards.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The provocative boardroom

I’m about to do something risky: take one small piece of a work that has expanded my thinking about creativity and group dynamics in significant ways, Pamela Meyer’s Workplace to Playspace: Innovating, Learning and Changing through Dynamic Engagement, for focus beyond the larger framework where it is found. But I think Pamela will forgive me, and I trust that the portion of that framework that I am spotlighting will offer something of value to our ongoing conversation about nonprofit governance.

I must admit, the notion of “play” scared me when I first saw the title of Pamela’s book. I had visions of the kinds of empty (and often personally embarrassing) icebreaker activities that I always vowed I’d never impose as a facilitator. But that’s not what I found. Instead, I encountered a framework that absolutely made sense and that offered a healthy personal stretch and a fascinating new way of thinking about the environment in which groups work – especially nonprofit boards.

I was in for the duration when Pamela described Playspace as “the space we create as we engage in the risky business of looking further than our predecessors, learn in ways that may shift their perspectives and challenge long-held beliefs, and be open to significant change, both planned and unplanned, that may be as uncomfortable as it is rich with potential.” (p. 16)

Now that’s the kind of environment destined to lead boards to their full governance potential and inspire individual members in the process.

Playspace has four dimensions, and each one contributes something critical to the environment that Pamela describes in the quote above. I may end up writing about the other three (Generative, Safe, and Timeful) down the road. But today, I want to focus one on the dimension that most stimulated me and is most likely to challenge many boards: Provocative.

I can’t do the topic justice in this brief space, but I would like to share a handful of quotes that particularly spoke to me, along with my reactions within the context of nonprofit boards as I envision them.

“In provocative space, people do not stir the pot just because they can, but because they feel passionately about their values and vision for what is possible. They care about their ideas and will heartily engage in spirited debate about them.” (p. 171)

Rocking the boat seldom wins a board member fans. Let’s face it: we tend to like consensus – so much so that we frequently surround ourselves with like-minded board recruits. But that’s not where good decisions that advance our mission are likely to emerge. High-quality discussion, even vigorous debate, that draws in a variety of perspectives and asks a lot of “what ifs” in the spirit of our organizational mission is where governance work belongs. Acknowledging, valuing and creating an environment where that is not only tolerated but expected should be every board’s goal.

Such an environment calls for a healthy dose of imagination.

“Imagination is provocative because it provokes action.” (p. 173)

The word may summon to mind the fuzzy, fluffy stuff that so many board members claim to abhor. But note the critical distinction: it leads to action. We don’t just sit around the circle, holding hands and feeling good about ourselves. We use these creative stretches to impact lives and build our organizations’ capacity to serve.

I like that previous quote because it gets right to the point. But Pamela expands on the importance of imagination on the same page and offers more of a connection to the mission- and vision-driven purpose of governance:

“Imaging is the process of generating images of possibilities yet to be realized. Generating a shared, aspirational vision of the future, an image of unbridled success, provokes positive action in the present.” (p. 173)

You probably know where I’m headed in responding to this idea: Boards spend too little time looking toward the horizon. Obviously, governance must be grounded in the present, on what is real today. But if we look no further than funding the next payroll or paying the next electric bill, we are failing in our ultimate governance duties. Responsibility for articulating and ensuring the vision that defines a nonprofit’s reason for being lies squarely on the leadership team’s (board and executive director) shoulders. And the buck stops with the board. Yes, I know that the horizon is a moot point if we can’t open the doors tomorrow. But ensuring the future covers tomorrow – and much further down the road. That is the domain of governance. That is leadership.

If your board struggles to find the time or the mental space to engage in this work, you need a serious upheaval of your board agenda – and you may need a different kind of board recruit. The more I work with and around boards, the more convinced I am that curiosity should top the list of recruitment requirements once commitment to organizational mission and vision is affirmed. Curious boards don’t accept limits. They question, explore, and look for ways to approach issues from angles that do not automatically represent “the way it’s always been done.”

We need board members that embrace the spirit of the final quote that I’d like to share, who have a “(H)ealthy disrespect for the impossible” that leads to “possibilities that others don’t dare imagine.” (p. 187)

Whew! Imagine what could happen if we rejected the impulse to label something “impossible.” What are the “impossible” conditions that your board faces? What could happen if we didn’t accept that as an option, if we dug and stretched for the possibilities? How much courage would it take to do that? Who do you need to have in the room to summon that courage? Are they already with you?

While undoubtedly too long for a blog post, this summary barely touches the surface of what Pamela has laid out for us. I offer a few links to help provide more detail and context – and, of course, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book.

Living the Questions blog

Home page for the book

Playspace’s YouTube channel

Pamela Meyer’s TEDxPeachtree talk (on YouTube)

Playspace on Vimeo

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Seth Godin on the tribes we lead | Video on

As is the case in most of my brain time these days, I couldn't help pondering the ideas presented in this TedTalk as they might apply to nonprofit governance. This one may feel like an initial stretch, but the connection to the board's boundary spanning role is not an impossible leap.

What if our boards behaved - and were treated - as if they were leaders of the social movements so many of our missions aspire to create? Food for thought on this Sunday morning...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Overheard: Governance links (Jan. 21)

This week's links, courtesy of smart people on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere:

Non-executive directors bear heavier workload (People Management)

Corporate boards are the focus, but it prompted me to wonder: what would we find if we asked nonprofit boards the same questions? How are they handling the responsibilities of governance? Where are they spending their time? Are those responsibilities assuming more time and energy than in the past, and is that a good thing? What are the impacts on governance capacity?

Accelerating the future of board leadership: Strategies for engaging NextGen leaders now (BoardSource)

I liked the specifics provided by this particular BoardSource post. Boards could use the recommendations forwarded from the organization's annual conference to prompt discussion about how to go about cultivating and engaging younger leaders in their governance work.

Five reasons board leaders should have term limits (Rick Moyers)

If you read this blog, you already know I'm a fan of term limits for board members. I haven't given much thought to the need for term limits for board leaders, mostly because I've not yet encountered a board that has articulated that. The reverse situation - begging and pleading the reluctant - usually is the norm for boards I've known. But the leader who has overstayed his/her welcome, and the stagnation that overcomes the board, is not completely unfamiliar. The only critique of this post that I saw this week questioned whether the reasons given were too easy and superficial.

Designer boards: For a better world (Alice Korngold)

This one make the list because, well, it's Alice Korngold. But the foundational advice she offers to set a board up for success remains sorely needed by many boards, especially the governing bodies of thousands of small nonprofits. I could see including this as pre-session reading for many of the board events that I facilitate. (And, for an Alice Korngold bonus that would dovetail nicely with this one, check out her Jan. 13 post, 2011: The year to shape up nonprofit boards. You may recognize one or more of the red flags she lists.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Andragogy: How adults learn

NOTE: After the recent holiday break brought an opportunity to reflect on my “Nonprofit Learning Manifesto," I realized that I have not really begun to share here the learning theories that shape my thinking as an adult educator. This post begins an occasional series applying some of those theories and voices to nonprofit board development. There is much to learn, much to stretch our definition and practice of preparing boards for their governance responsibilities.
It is no coincidence that I gravitated toward andragogy early in my doctoral studies. I came to the adult and postsecondary education program from other academic disciplines, so everything I encountered was new. Andragogy offered a lifeline in an unfamiliar land: a common-sense connection to my own experiences as an adult learner. I got it, because I was living it.

Though others coined the word and the concept, Malcolm Knowles brought the framework to a broader audience and to the field of adult education. Over time, Knowles identified six “assumptions” of andragogy. As I review those assumptions again today, their application to nonprofit board development is clear.

“Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.” Most boards face packed agendas, too much to absorb and discuss, and limited time in which to handle it all. Members make a major contribution in giving their time to board service. Board development that is connected clearly to their responsibilities has greater opportunity to impact board members' work. If they can’t make that connection, it’s likely to be a lost opportunity (and lost board time).

“Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own lives.” We assume our board members are not only capable of running their own lives, but that they will take significant responsibility for advancing our organization's mission. Board members are community leaders. Taking on those governance roles drive most of them to board service, and adds personal value to individual members' participation. When we respect and empower them in their service – and support them in meaningful ways – they benefit. Most important, our organizations benefit.

“Adults come into an educational activity with both a greater volume and a different quality of experience from youths.” We recruit board members for the breadth and depth of experiences that they bring to governance deliberations. Respect that knowledge, and draw upon it as you create formal and informal learning experiences for the board. If you have recruited well, you already have most of the expertise you need to govern well. Don't start with the assumption that you need to turn to an outsider for the answers you seek. They may very well already exist in your boardroom.

“Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know.” There is something to be said for just-in-time learning. There also is something to be said for identifying the types of information and resources your board need to govern and making them accessible to members. How to do that? Ask your board what would work for members. I’ve mentioned elsewhere a nonprofit board that used a secured-access wiki for storing documents, sharing reports, and otherwise communicating between members. Such a site could also easily include links to online resources related to your mission and governance. Whatever the format used, make it easy for board members to locate what they need, when they need it, to increase the potential for effective deliberations and decisions.

“Adults are life centered (or task centered or problem centered) in their orientation to learning.” When most board orientation and continuing education efforts stumble, it’s probably related to this assumption about board members as adult learners. It’s also perhaps the biggest challenge in adopting some of the alternative approaches that many of my peers and I are advocating. We start with the belief that board members are not well served by waiting until a problem arises. Governance should be proactive – anticipating, asking “what if” and engaging in generative thinking. But that runs counter to our nature as adult learners. How to handle this is a perpetual question. One first step seems to be acknowledging this contradiction with our boards and making a convincing case to adopt a different mode of thinking and learning in a governance setting. I write that, not as a horribly incomplete answer to a major learning challenge, but as an invitation to engage readers and board development colleagues in conversation.

 “While adults are responsive to some extrinsic motivators…the more potent motivators are intrinsic motivators.” We cannot ignore the extrinsic motivations for board service (e.g., a line on a resume, developing or contributing a valued skill, meeting and working with others of like mind). But intrinsic motivations keep us coming back when the meetings are long, the work is challenging and tedious. Intrinsic motivators draw upon – and expand – a member’s desire and capacity to serve. We serve them, and our organizations, by feeding a board member’s heart as well as his or her head.
If this post has inspired you to learn more about andragogy, I offer two more links that may be of interest. One is an online version of a chapter that I have always found useful, by adult education author Sharan Merriam (Note: you’ll find a link to a PDF version at the top of that page.)

With the exception of a bothersome misspelling of one of my adult education heroes (it’s Eduard Lindeman, not LinDERman), this YouTube video by Janet Finlay offers a credible overview.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Overheard: Governance leadership (Jan. 14)

The first of this week's list of featured governance links focuses on a topic I've recommended before, mission moments. When the link to Lori Jacobwith's post popped up on Twitter, it took off almost immediately, with retweets spreading widely. Apparently, it resonated!

Mission Moments: Creating an Army of Ambassadors
(Lori Jacobwith)

While maintaining focus on mission in every governance function should be a given, it's easy to lose in the typical board meeting agenda. One fantastic, and simple, way to help ensure that our reason for being receives at least some spotlight time is to incorporate a mission moment into each session. It's also a perfect way to build an informal learning opportunity into routine board work.

10 Truths about Leadership
(via Marcia Conner)

The list that Marcia shares (from Kouzes and Posner) is not nonprofit (or governance) specific, but it offers a strong frame for pondering the essential leadership responsibilities of governance. Share it with your board. Encourage them to ponder where they are excelling and where they find challenges, individually and as a group. A simple list, it has the potential for deep and meaningful reflection that leads to transformation in their approach to fulfilling their responsibilities. Strong leadership is leadership, in any setting.

Forget the Strategic Plan (and Build Strategic Awareness Instead)
(Steven Bowman)

Steven doesn't appear in my Twitter feed often; but when he does, it's always to share something that expands my thinking about governance. This one is no exception. As the title suggests, this article offers an alternative - and ultimately more productive - way to approach the board's strategic responsibilities.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"Boards are dead..."

"Boards are dead. Long live governance."

That catch phrase/theme emerged in the first governance track session at the 2010 ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) conference in November, growing with each new set of papers and discussions. I've been thinking about that, off and on, since returning to Laramie, wondering what that phrase might mean to board members and practitioners in the field. (Scholars are full of ideas, not all of them translating well to the "real world" in which boards and executives work.)

I can't vouch for what every participant in those discussions had in mind as the phrase was batted about, but I do have a few thoughts about what it means to me and how it might relate to governance practice.

"Boards are dead..."

  • as most agendas currently define them
  • as homogeneous (in demographics and thought) entities
  • as lines on resumes
  • as "any live body will do" recruitment
  • as oriented - or not oriented

"Long live governance..."

  • as community leadership
  • as mission advocacy
  • as generative work
  • as a meaning-making/fulfilling experience
  • as boundary spanning
  • as mission-driven work
  • as direction-defined/defining responsibility
  • as inspirational and inspiring service
  • as setting the tone of leadership for the organization*

I trust that colleagues and other readers will have their own interpretations of the phrase and how it might translate into governance practice - both as it exists now and as it could be conceived to greater effectiveness. I'm interested in reactions from the field, both from board members and those who support them. Is there any merit in the way that statement frames the discussion about the challenges that nonprofit boards face? Or does it only muddy the waters?

* A marvelous addition recommended by the wise Bonnie Koenig. Thanks, Bonnie!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Overheard: Governance link highlights (Jan. 7)

Today, I’m launching what I hope will be a weekly event, an “Overheard” post highlighting governance-related links and resources that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

Thought provoking and informative, they come from my RSS feed, my Twitter stream and my Facebook wall. Usually, I will share links discovered earlier in the week. This time, I’m reaching back to the holiday break.

I offer them in the spirit of passing on a tiny fraction of the wisdom that generous and smart folks share willingly and widely. Feel free to forward anything that intrigues you to your favorite nonprofit board.

New Year’s Resolutions for Board Members (Gail Perry)

In the spirit of the new year and the fresh start it implies, Gail offers her basic list of potential high-impact actions and focus areas for nonprofit boards. Rich and important governance discussion is inevitable.

Focusing Your Board on Sustainability (Kevin Monroe)

Kevin built his post around three end-of-the-year questions for boards to ponder. One of the things I appreciate most about his contribution is its focus of boards on a critical responsibility of governance: organizational sustainability. Too often, boards focus on the here and now, and on tasks that are not governance focus areas.

The Role of Non-Executive Board Directors Today (Lucy Marcus)

If you read this blog regularly, you’re already familiar with Lucy’s work (and my admiration for her). As with most of her writing, this is blog post does not address nonprofit governance specifically; but her key points apply directly to governance within the sector. Pay particularly close attention to points two (boundary spanning/community engagement) and three (asking hard questions).

Nine Keys for Reinvigorating Board Leadership (IdeaEncore)

IdeaEncore provides access to one of my favorite tools for sharing with boards. This TCC Group thought piece, available for online reading or download (with free registration), has sparked many productive conversations with boards, usually in a retreat setting.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Vision: Asking the right (board learning) questions

“Vision” opened 2010 for me. “Vision” is closing it in generative new ways.

It began with an epiphany in January, while attending the Community-Driven Institute (now Creating the Future) intensive consulting course. In this January 20 post, "It's All about Vision," I admitted something uncomfortable for someone who’s been advising nonprofit boards for several years: I finally understood the ultimate value of vision in shaping the future we want to achieve.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting deeply on articulating a vision that describes and drives my work supporting nonprofit board learning. The draft (it’s a process) vision that emerged from that reflection is this:

“Board members govern generatively, effectively and passionately in service to their communities.”

Exact wording may shift as I have more time to reflect, but the essence is there: whatever I do in this journey, it must support an environment where boards are not only well-informed about their roles but stimulated to act upon the responsibilities of governance in generative and transformative ways - for them as well as the organizations they serve.

With the help of wisdom shared in reading I’ve done this holiday break, I realize that many of the questions I’ve asked are not conducive to the kind of innovative thinking that will move closer to that vision. They tend to be of the “how” variety. “How” questions usually lead to mechanical answers and incremental change. That’s not enough.

Instead, questions asked need to focus more on “why” and “what if.” In that spirit, I’ve begun to outline some of the types of questions I need to be asking, some I’ve been asking all along and some that have been “out there” but not yet uttered. Here are some of those questions.


  • Are more boards not engaged in the work of governance?
  • Do board members answer the call to serve?
  • Are some boards effective in governing, and what separates them from the others?
  • Does board training fall flat so frequently?

What if…

  • Board members were excited about governance?
  • Board members understood their responsibilities – not just the Big10, but all of them?
  • Nonprofits valued their boards – and acted like it?
  • Nonprofits supported their boards in ways that reflect how they value them?
  • Board development was accessible and engaging?
  • Board development was a transformative experience?
  • Board development was acknowledged as integrated in governance work (not a special event)?
  • Board members knew how they make a difference and were inspired by that knowledge?

Like my vision, these questions are in ‘draft’ form. But they offer at least a general path – on solid footing – in the direction of that better governance future. I’d appreciate your thoughts about the vision, the questions, and the full potential of nonprofit governance and the boards that provide it.