Friday, February 25, 2011

Overheard: Feb. 25

Whew! My list of potential sources to share with you this week is a mile long. It was a rich week in Twitterville and the blogosphere! Here is a small sampling of the riches shared by others this week.

A new leadership mindset for scaling social change (Leadership for a New Era)

Boards don't talk enough about leadership. While this post isn't board-specific, it offers a great perspective on the kind of transformative leadership that is required to fulfill so many of our social change-driven missions. It's a thought provoking piece, worthy of sharing and discussion. (I'd definitely recommend downloading the accompanying article, too. They ask for minimal information, and you aren't obligated to accept their e-mail newsletter.)

Member engagement - sharing stories (Wild Apricot)

Maybe it's because I've had "stories on the brain" for awhile, but it seems like more writers are addressing their importance to nonprofits' efforts to communicate and advance their missions. This post provides a reader-friendly overview of why storytelling is important to our overall success.

How to use stories in nonprofit marketing (Maureen Carruthers)

Speaking of stories... Maureen's post views stories through a marketing lens, but the specific ideas she has for how to use stories in a nonprofit setting have broader appeal. It can see every scenario on her list applying to a setting where a board member is likely to find him/herself, and where a well-told story can have powerful impact. It's a fine companion piece to the Wild Apricot post, too.

Three things your vice president could do (Gayle Gifford)

So what does your VP do, anyway? If you dust off this person only to fill in when the president can't make a meeting, you're missing a significant opportunity to draw upon (and develop) this board officer's leadership. Gayle offers exactly what the title suggests: three meaningful roles, guiding three large and important tasks, that are of value to the board.

Stars, hearts, your brain and strategic planning (Tara Kirkland)

My ultimate recommendation on this one would be to purchase the book referenced in this post, so that you will have the full benefit of what is being shared. (It's one of the very best texts I've ever read on the topic of mission-driven nonprofit sustainability.) But what the writer shares here will be a nice start, outlining a taxonomy of nonprofit core activities that you may find useful. Really, though, get the book. It should be required reading for all nonprofit boards.

Episcopal Charities annual leadership conference Storify (@Eccsonline)

If you're not familiar with Twitter, the format of this series of tweets may be confusing. But I had to include it, simply because it contains so many gems that inspired me as I read them in real time. I don't even know who's behind the ECCSonline profile, but I gain something out of nearly everything he/she tweets during the day. In this case, the tweeter was providing backchannel coverage of the group's leadership event this week - in particular, a talk by Katherine Tyler Scott, an author I've long appreciated. (Her book, Creating Caring and Capable Boards, helped to shape my early understanding of what governance really involves.) It's hard to pick a handful of my personal favorites, but I'll try (Note: the shorthand nature is normal in Twitter - think 140 characters):
"Start your nonprofit board mtg w/story from org's history to help place current work in context of today's society."
"History is about meaning. Share yours regularly w/your board, staff, donors, volunteers. Yes, it's THAT important."
"Key point > Is your nonprofit board politically competent, knowing how to negotiate with key constituents, managing conflict?"

Oh, there are just too many possibilities there. I'd love to hear what your favorites are as you read the thread.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What does a nonprofit board know?

What types of knowledge does a board member need to govern effectively? What types of knowledge do individual members bring to the boardroom? What kind of knowledge does a smart, focused group of people generate when it gets together?

Some types of knowledge may come easily to mind as you consider those questions. For example, we all generally have some kind of expert knowledge that made us attractive to the board when it recruited us to serve. If we don’t have some kind of understanding of what boards do when we join, we certainly will develop a working concept of the task at hand. We may read up on board responsibilities or attend a training event that provides that necessary overview.

But the scope of knowledge needed and used in governance work – and in our daily lives – is far broader than those that are immediately visible. This weekend, as I was reading on another topic, I ran across a familiar taxonomy of knowledge. As usual, even in a different context, I couldn’t help reflecting on how it applies to nonprofit governance. What follows are brief descriptions of each knowledge type and some basic thoughts about what they might look like in your boardoom.

The source for this version was Changing Practices of Doctoral Education (Boud & Lee, Eds.), but similar frameworks exist elsewhere.

Types of Knowledge

Abstract propositional or declarative knowledge – facts, theories, concepts, etc. We need knowledge related to our organization’s mission area, both within the agency itself and within the larger environment in which it works (For example, a homeless shelter needs to understand both homelessness in its service area and the broader issues of homelessness nationally). We must understand the environment in which the organization operates, generated from a variety of sources. Under this category I also would place our theories about nonprofit governance, including the scope of board member responsibilities and the ultimate leadership contributions to be made through the work. Often, what we "know" about boards comes from experiences serving on other boards: Boards "govern," some boards are "working boards," boards are "community leaders," boards are "fundraisers," etc.

Abstract procedural knowledge - conceptual and cognitive skills that facilitate actions like analysis and problem solving. It helps us explain things, too. We have, or develop through experience, some pretty specific (and occasionally dysfunctional) ideas about how boards work and how they make decisions. We set up procedures and processes that we believe will facilitate that work. I also would place here our individual approaches to problem solving and decision making. How do I analyze the issues we’re discussing, and how does my method complement or conflict with yours? How do our combined frameworks impact the way in which the group evaluates the evidence and ultimately makes the right decisions for the organization? How do they challenge that?

Action knowledge – interpersonal communication, performance and psychomotor skills. The ways in which we interact with each other immediately comes to mind. Is the boardroom a respectful and collegial one? Do we have the capacity to not only “handle” conflict but to engage it in ways that ultimately draw us to unexpected and more effective governance?

Tacit or habitual knowledge - “expert practice and professional judgment.” Each of us brings our specific expertise to the boardroom table and, hopefully, will share openly whether or not someone has asked us to do so. Some of that knowledge is easy to identify and articulate. But even more of it comes from within and may not be consciously accessible to us. It’s still there, and it will emerge if the environment allows us to be ourselves and encourages us to contribute openly.

Cultural understandings of others’ perspectives and experiences - our ability to empathize and work with others that allows us to develop shared understandings. This is where the value of recruiting a diverse board comes into play. Bringing different voices to board discussions creates the potential to develop shared understandings and a richer base from which to make decisions. But that’s only a start. We also must individually carry the capacity to not just “tolerate” frames of thinking that are different than ours but to open our minds to what is shared so that we can hear and even embrace worldviews that may challenge our ideas about how things are done. We not only make higher-quality decisions in governance, we may end up being individually transformed in the process.

Embedded knowledge - routines and procedures, driven by tools and technologies. I see these as the structures and supports that we take for granted, the ways in which boards “do” things and communicate with each other. They are found in the formal processes and in the informal culture. As such, they can sometimes be incredibly challenging to identify and to change if it is deemed necessary. Among the processes that are visible and may be open to alteration would be organizational by-laws, policies and codes of conduct that describe and prescribe governance practices.

While this is not the only typology of knowledge, it is one that makes sense to me as an adult educator. It offers enough breadth to stretch our thinking about what and how a nonprofit knows, and that is healthy. Raising our boards' awareness of the riches available to them, and increasing clarity about the sources of what they know, can only enhance their capacity to think as a group and make the right decisions for their organizations and their communities.


How might you use such a framework for talking about the knowledge available to your board? What stereotype(s) might you help bust in the process?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Connecting to mission

Sometimes, a girl just needs an extra close connection to mission. This weekend is providing that for me, as I re-read grant applications in preparation for our organization's annual review panel meeting.

I enjoy the breadth of responsibilities that comes with board service; but this particular role, for this particular nonprofit, is perhaps the most meaningful of all for me. I knew nothing about granting, or chairing a grants committee, when I was recruited to this board (it was part of the package - nothing like leaping in!). I knew it would bring me up close and personal with the work of an organization I already knew well, from other volunteer service roles.

Reading the latest round of proposals brings a dual response: pride in purpose and sadness. Each application offers the promise of lives impacted, lives served because these agencies exist in their communities and the chance for our organization to support their efforts.

Some of the proposals come from ongoing grantees; we know the good work that they do, the numbers of clients served with our funding, and the lives saved because we both were there. Others are new applicants, reaching new areas of a vast state and major gaps in accessibility. So much potential there to make a big difference is represented in each one.

The sadness comes as I remember that funds available will not allow us to fund every worthy project. Even as we feel good about what we will be able to accomplish in the next year, we will know that other needs will either not be met or will require further searching for support from other entities.

Whenever I feel a little crabby about the tedious aspects of governance work, I draw energy from this process and the progress reports that successful grantees will be submitting. It reminds me why we do what we do, and why we need to continue working to expand the our public awareness/education efforts and the initiatives that feed the grant program. An old friend once told me, "Fundraising exists to to accomplish one of two things: to change lives or to save lives." I receive ample proof of both on a fairly regular basis, and that's incredibly special.

How do you stay connected to your mission? Where do you find your evidence? Where do you draw inspiration? What do you need to build that connection? How can your board leadership and your staff help provide that? How will you ask for what you need?

How will you use that knowledge to govern more effectively and make a bigger difference?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Overheard: Feb. 18

Following are a few of my favorite governance-related resources, shared this week by others via Twitter and the blogosphere:

Board members gone wild (Laura Otten)

Okay, so Laura had me at the title. (Admit it: when you read it, your brain flooded with examples of renegade board members from your past, too.) Personally, I'm not averse to a little rogue "vibe" in the boardroom. But when misdirected, and not in service to the mission, it's just disruptive. Laura's post offers several great ideas for ensuring a good and productive fit for everyone. I'm particularly fond of the fifth bullet point: consider committee service as a prerequisite to a board seat. I've advocated for a visitation process before an invitation since serving on a local board that incorporated that into its recruitment structure (Prospects visited three board meetings before any discussions about joining the group. That process failed us only once in the six years I served.). I rather like Laura's suggestion of engagement in some aspect of the work of the agency, too. Not only do you have the same opportunity to test fit to organizational culture, you're getting a head start on building commitment to your mission, should you and the prospect decide that a seat on the board is appropriate.

Cough Up! Should there be a required contribution for boards? (Alexandra Peters)

Ah, that age-old question... Alexandra offers wise counsel for boards struggling with this issue, and the result is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation. I'd encourage you to read it, and to share it with your boards with the goal of fostering meaningful discussion and clarification about how you handle the issue and why.

Developing effective leadership (Michael Goldsworthy)

How often do boards take some time to reflect on their leadership roles, as a group and as individual members? I don't know what your experience is, but I've seen it addressed only superficially if at all. This post would be a great foundation for fostering group reflection on the leadership responsibilities of governance, and for thinking about how to build capacity in this critical area.

The rise of informal learning: Is your organization capitalizing on this?
(Jeff Hurt)

No, this one doesn't have a direct connection to governance. But it is intimately tied to the primary focus of this blog: board learning. I offer it up as a timely reminder that learning is ever-present in our lives and in our boardrooms. I'd encourage you to review the diagram that Jeff shares and reflect on where you are represented as an individual learner. Also look for the vehicles that currently facilitate governance- and mission-focused learning for boards. Then look for ways to be more strategic in drawing upon the knowledge available to you and your fellow directors to enhance your effectiveness in governing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Overheard: Feb. 11

This week's favorite governance-related resources, courtesy of particularly rich feeds from Twitter and the blogosphere:

Future Proofing the Boardroom - Part One: Grounding and Stargazing (Lucy Marcus)

This one stopped me in my tracks yesterday when I first read it. Lucy's vivid articulation of the need for boards to recognize and value (and act upon) the dual threads of governance is powerful. The choice of "stargazing" to describe the visionary responsibilities was genius. Target audience is corporate, but the larger message (and the specifics, actually) fit a nonprofit environment well.

Future Proofing the Boardroom - Part Two: Today's Agendas
(Lucy Marcus)

Lucy's follow-up appeared in my Twitter feed this morning, so I'm still absorbing its content. But it feels like an essential next chapter to her "stargazing" post. Agendas play such a critical role in how we enact (and conceptualize) governance. The need for mindfulness about how they move boards toward their ultimate responsibilities cannot be overvalued. Pay particularly close attention to the section entitled "Balancing Continuity and Change." It not only connects to Part One perfectly, but it also addresses the inevitable concerns that arise when faced with the need for change.

The Road to Financial Strength Starts with One Board Member (Nell Edgington)

Fiduciary responsibilities of governance often frighten otherwise smart and self-assured board members. (Yes, I am one of them.) Nell's post offers a call to individual members for bravery and action. She urges us to suck it up, and to recognize that it takes only one member to embrace the strategic imperative that accompanies that for which we are accountable. She offers examples of fairly basic steps that an individual member could take to move in this direction.

Community Engagement: FriendRaising (Hildy Gottlieb)



The other governance role that most strikes fear in the heart of board members is fundraising. Hildy's book, FriendRaising: Engagement Strategies for Boards who Hate Fundraising but Love Making Friends, has been a guide and inspiration for many in the sector (yours truly included). In this newly released video, she talks about this valuable contribution that all board members can make toward ensuring economic sustainability through the relationships that an organization builds.

Recruiting Board Members? Ask for Help
(Gayle Gifford)

Gayle continues her excellent counsel on board member recruitment in this new post. She offers a from-the-field example of a successful recruitment process designed to widen the pool of potential new members by engaging others in identifying prospects that met the organization's leadership needs. It's a process that any nonprofit can easily adopt, with the same potential for results.

Successful Nonprofit Boards (Alice Korngold)



This video isn't new, but but new to me. I discovered it while capturing another section of this talk for a presentation I'm delivering today. Alice shares some thoughts about the elements that foster the greatest potential for successful nonprofit governance.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Curious nonprofit boards: The first recruitment step

What does a “curious” board member look like? How do we know a “curious” board prospect when we encounter one? How can we be sure – or at least pointed in the right direction – that we are considering a “curious” person for our board?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while – or even last week – those questions probably have crossed your mind. They’ve been bouncing around in my brain for a few months now, as my conviction that curiosity needs to be a part of the board member job description has strengthened.

How do we recruit for curiosity? It would never be as simple as having a checklist to mark off in the selection process. But it’s worthwhile to generate some fairly tangible ideas, in the spirit of raising our awareness and our capacity to recognize glimpses of the curious individual when we encounter him/her. Just as I am wary of "five easy steps to..." solutions to complex nonprofit governance problems, I also know that grand theories that cannot be translated to the boardroom are equally useless.

What follow are some of my initial thoughts about questions that might contribute to this process. I offer them, not as one big expansion of your recruitment process (you’d never sit down with this entire list, for example, and grill a prospect by lobbing every question at him/her), nor as that ideal “curiosity finder” checklist. But they’re shared in the hope that they might spark some conversation about introducing curiosity to our recruitment frameworks.

If I were interviewing for curiosity, some of the kinds of questions I might ask prospects would include:

  • When you want or need to learn something new, where or how do you get started? (Or, more directly related to board service, “When you accept a new leadership assignment – like a joining a board – how do you go about getting acquainted with the work and your responsibilities?”)
  • Describe a recent challenge that you overcame and tell us how you approached it.
  • What excites you, and why?
  • What secret skill or knowledge to you have that you’d be willing to share with our organization?
  • How would you describe your approach to meeting participation?
  • What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve done? (Or, simply, “Are you adventurous?”)
  • If you wanted to know how the community felt about our organization, how would you go about finding out?
  • What questions do you have about the work that we do?

I’m not at all comfortable with these “interview questions,” and this post feels like a very rough first draft of what I might really want to share publicly. But they’re a starting point to my personal exploration of curiosity in board recruitment – and, I hope, some conversation with readers. I also acknowledge that recruitment of curious members is only a first step toward what boards ultimately need to succeed. But it’s a step in that right direction.

I believe there is value in understanding what “curiosity” looks like in nonprofit boards and how it might increase their capacity for governance. Curious boards are engaged boards, and engaged boards are more likely to ask the kinds of questions that lead to more thoughtful and creative decisions.

This post is a personal baby-step in an exploration of a topic that has great potential to fill in a missing piece of the nonprofit governance puzzle for me. I can guarantee that I’ll be reflecting and writing more on curious boards down the road. I look forward to exploring it with you along the way.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Overheard: Feb. 4

A few share-worthy posts from the blogosphere and Twitter this week:

Recruiting Board Members? Make a List (Gayle Gifford)

Any resource that helps boards get past the "mad week before the annual meeting" dash to fill vacancies is a good thing. This one, by Gayle Gifford, qualifies as a great thing: It offers practical, actionable advice for systematic gathering of information on intriguing board prospects year-round. While it feels like a pretty basic idea, it's also not likely part of the practice of most of our boards. I'm also wild about the "Call for Board Members" example that she shares via a link within the post. Do take a look at that document, and share it (and the entire idea behind the post) with your boards.

Meaningful Budget Work by the Board
(Jan Masaoka)

It's impossible to share too much information about this important topic. Jan's post is one that I'll be promoting widely to boards I encounter. Focus on the big picture responsibilities will be valuable (and probably newsworthy) to most board member readers. Sharing an alternative process also feels helpful.

What is a Community of Practice
(Project Management Institute)



This video, featuring the "father" of communities of practice, Etienne Wenger, offers a good overview of the premise behind my dissertation and what I believe to be a significant potential contribution to the discussion about boards. Click here to access links to a series of posts related to my research, on nonprofit boards as communities of practice. Click here to view a video overview of that research.

Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (Dan Pink & RSA Animate)



Like the previous video, this one doesn't directly address boards or governance; but the topic is absolutely germane to that work. RSA Animate illustrates an audio talk by author Dan Pink, who discusses three key factors to motivation. Sharing this with your board - and facilitating a discussion about how our organization feeds those motivators for staff, volunteers and board members - would be educational and time well spent.