Friday, March 25, 2011

Overheard: March 25

In a week filled with governance-focused goodness, four posts stand out as essential board reading.

The nonprofit board's mission mandate (Kevin Monroe)

This may be my all-time favorite post by Kevin. It articulates so brilliantly the critical importance of centering governance in the mission. He takes it a step further, though, in sharing real, meaningful ways to make it part of the board's routine and its very being as a leadership group. These aren't of the "X easy tips to..." variety, but significant ways to center the board in the organization's purpose.

Getting board members to give (June Bradham)

The headline fails to spotlight the ultimate message of this wonderful post. How often do we stop to ask what it is that our board members really want from their generous contributions of leadership, talent and time? June asked the question and emerged with "nine truths about what board members really want from their experience." The simplicity of that list is striking. Every "truth" is absolutely attainable, if we make the investment in our board members that they deserve. We fail them - and our organizations - if we do not make the effort to understand what drives individuals to serve and provide that fuel for effective governance.

Engage your board sooner (Alice Korngold)

One of the most essential roles of governance is accountability for the financial health of the organization. It's also probably the area where boards are most tentative and least likely to embrace their legitimate leadership role. Alice summarizes perfectly survey data that make the case for pushing boards to engage early and deeply in understanding and accepting their fiduciary responsibilities.

The 2 hats board members wear (501 Videos)

Is selling raffle tickets part of the board's job? How about working the registration desk at your annual fundraiser? Volunteering to take a hotline shift? Board members' generosity in donating time to a cause about which they are passionate is not uncommon. But not all of that work qualifies as governance, and the blurring of the lines can be incredibly problematic. This video does a good job of raising the question and offering insight into how to handle the potentially tricky divide.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Board roles: More than the bottom line

If you’ve served on a nonprofit board, you’ve probably seen – or at least heard of – the “10 Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.”  If you’ve read this blog for more than a month or two, you probably also know that I’m not the biggest fan of that list.

It’s not that the tasks it covers aren’t important governance roles. Rather, when I read that list, I see very little that actually excites and motivates board members to serve. I also see some gaps that trouble me. A few years ago, I added four roles that I believe address both issues. I talk about them at the end of this video overview of board member responsibilities, but I realized recently that I have never written about them, here or elsewhere. 

It’s not that the big 10 don’t cover aspects of a couple of my added roles. But they miss articulating the broader responsibilities that exist in governance - the roles that make nonprofit governance a meaningful leadership opportunity.

My expanded roles list includes not only the BoardSource 10 but also these four:
  • Steward
  • Leader
  • Ambassador
  • Visionary
Steward – The steward ensures the appropriate use of all agency resources. He/she understands and embraces the board’s accountability to all stakeholders, not just the bottom-line reporting required of the IRS, funders and others that expect things to be counted. Accountability to me also means holding sacred the need for thoughtfulness in all deliberations – not taking them lightly, researching carefully, and making the best decisions possible with the broadest knowledge base available.

Leader – The board’s leadership role begins, and ultimately ends, with defining and advancing the nonprofit’s vision and mission.  They must be willing to ask the tough questions, inside and outside of the organization, to identify and address the opportunities to move the mission forward and the key challenges to doing so.  In this role, the board moves forward with confidence on the work that they take on in meetings and in the priorities to which they attend. They embrace their ultimate leadership role and all that involves, not serving as a rubber stamp for the executive director but recognizing the board’s partnership with the CEO as the organization’s leadership team.

Ambassador – Board members’ status as community leaders, and their willingness to reach out to peer and stakeholder groups on behalf of the organization, are unique contributions that should not only be valued but expected of board members. (For a fantastic overview of this aspect of board service, read Paul Vandeventer’s Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Increasing Civic Reach.”) Board members have a special responsibility to speak up – and out – on issues impacting the organization and its mission. While others have similar opportunities and should be encouraged to do the same, board members as community leaders have a different kind of credibility with many stakeholder groups. Not encouraging and supporting them in fulfilling this role is a major mistake.

Visionary - This may be the most important – and least enacted – board role: creating, articulating and advancing the organization’s vision of a better community/world. This means regularly spending quality time envisioning what that better community/world looks like, toward what ends, and integrating that into governance work. Boards should be perpetually looking toward – and beyond – the horizon, even as they attend to work firmly grounded in the realities of today. Without this visionary role, the board will be forever stuck in the day-to-day, where nothing changes and never gets better. Tending to this role enables and empowers the board to stay focused on the unique – and usually non-urgent – responsibilities of governance. It’s both too easy and too costly to ignore.

I welcome your reaction to my additions. Do they truly add anything of value to how we define governance?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Overheard: March 18

The week brought several share-worthy posts from a variety of sources. Here are a handful of my favorites.

Nonprofit boards: On saying no to problem board members (Alice Korngold)

 We've all been there. We've all been distracted and frustrated by the drama that this person brings to an already challenging job. And probably most of us have kept quiet, suffering silently because we simply didn't have the options - or courage - to deal with the issue head on. Alice reminds us that we do have the capacity, and the responsibility, to deal with disruptive board members. She rightly reminds us that is the board's job, not something we push off onto the ED.

Build a board that advances fund development (Sarah Fischler)

I appreciate Sarah's focus on board culture as much as the context of board roles in fundraising. Too often, experts who write for nonprofit boards take the overly simplistic approach of boiling responses to complex governance challenges into "X easy steps to..." Engaging board members appropriately in fundraising is important. Creating a culture where they see why and understand how they can contribute to the organization's success in capacity building via this work is even more critical (and has the potential to create a  more thoughtful, rich environment for engaging in the entire governance process).

Alternatives to strategic planning (Jan Masaoka)

One of myriad reasons so many of us hate "strategic planning" is the tendency to translate that into tedious, goal-by-goal "write a plan..." processes. If you're expecting that of your board, you're wasting both members' time and their ultimate value to your nonprofit. Jan offers several great alternative approaches to visualizing and discussing issues that matter and that have the potential to actually move the agency closer toward fulfilling its mission (and make participation more meaningful for all). You'll be totally unsurprised to hear that the "strategic learning agenda" resonated for me.

The truth about boards: Slides and handouts (Jamie Notter)

Jamie gets right to the point in a post that give us access to resources created for his Great Ideas Conference 2011 presentation. It's based on his recent article written for the ASAE's Associations Now magazine.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Overheard: March 11

It's time to share this week's favorite links to ideas with the potential to inform or expand our thinking about nonprofit governance.

Increasing civic reach (Stanford Social Innovation Review)

If I could require a reading for all nonprofit boards this week, this would be it. Paul Vandeventer not only provides a name for the boundary-spanning leadership role (civic reach), but he also offers markers that help to put that concept into terms and actions that board members will grasp and, hopefully, embrace. This represents one of the unique responsibilities of governance that too often gets lost in the monitoring work. Both are critical roles; this one is likely to be one of the more motivating.

Why mission matters - The Bullseye Principle (Kevin Monroe)

Okay, I'm assigning two readings for the week. I can't resist a powerful post on the value of mission, and Kevin has provided exactly that in this latest post. It all begins with mission. It ends with mission. The bullseye is our mission. In this post lies a significant opportunity to reflect on how we maintain that focus.

Our boards must understand how they operate (Core Strategies)

I recognized more than a few boards - and myself as a board member at times - in this post. Clueless boards, and clueless board members, are more common than they should be. Are you asking the questions you need to ask to govern effectively? Do you know what the board needs to know?

How to tell if you have a bad board (Eric Lanke)

Some of us may see ourselves or our boards in the list of potential signs of a bad board. We may have our own warning signs to add to Eric's list. The value of this post is that list: while every one should be obvious to us, the press of daily board tasks (and the inevitable big and little crises that arise) can sway our attention from the important markers that alert us to potential trouble.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Creating generative retreat space

When many of us hear the phrase "we need to schedule board a retreat," our immediate response ranges from "bleah" to "Nooooo..." Retreats' bad reputation is sometimes deserved, sometimes the result of misunderstandings about what is possible and productive. 

Too often, we set aside retreat time to do the impossible, e.g, "write a strategic plan." As a young consultant, I fielded too many of those requests and attempted too many times to cram too much activity into too few hours. Inevitably, unmet (unrealistic) expectations led to lingering frustration, the feeling that time had been wasted - and yet another example that retreats are never with the trouble.

There are valid reasons for boards to retreat, for example, to:
  • engage in team building and group development
  • facilitate deep discussion and exploration that feed processes like strategic planning
  • create opportunities to learn and reflect together
  • provide fuel and knowledge for action and governance
Recently, I had the chance to facilitate the annual retreat of a board that understands how to schedule time away from routine governance work. It's my favorite consulting assignment of the year, because it always ends up being a productive and energizing event for the board. (I leave a little revved up, too.)

The task to be accomplished in this event varies from year to year. For example, one session I led for them was a visioning process that helped board members decide to proceed with a significant financial and mission commitment. This year’s retreat, like others, focused on deeper learning to increase their capacity to govern the agency as effectively and wisely as possible. Board members immersed themselves in information about specific agency programs and the environmental impacts, local and national, on those programs.

Initially, the goals for this session felt ambitious, even for this board. But its track record of diving in and staying focused and engaged in these retreats suggested that this group would make very good use of our time. 

The rest of this post will discuss some of the factors that made this retreat a generative experience.

It's a regular part of their governance calendar. Board members expect to participate in this annual deep-learning retreat, and they commit to participation. Attendance has been at or near 100 percent at each of the annual retreats I've facilitated for them. That's particularly remarkable, since it takes place on a weekday morning.

The goals set were a realistic stretch for the time scheduled. Primary focus was on knowledge sharing and discussion. There were no "write a..." goals, and their focus was where boards should be focusing.

They focused on the big picture. The topics and resulting discussions centered on the organization's mission and their governance responsibilities. Board members didn't drown themselves in details and day-to-day tasks. They didn't try to turn it into one long board meeting. 

They had readings ahead of time - and actually read them. Board members were prepared when they arrived, ready to engage with fellow retreat participants. Some of what we asked them to read were written program updates from staff. That freed the time they would share with staff to discuss, not sit back passively listening to long presentations. The detail also was available for later reading and reference.

The agenda included appropriate staff involvement. Agency staff members aren't strangers. The board hears from staff regularly during the year; they are trusted resources when the board needs to understand agency programs and the challenges faced. Staff members were available at the retreat to spotlight the key points of what was shared in written form and to respond to board member questions.

Questions made the difference. One of the factors that sets this board apart - and ultimately led to a productive retreat - is its ability to ask well-timed, focused, appropriate questions. Members didn't allow long presentations to happen; they regularly inserted questions along the way. They asked multiple clarifying questions of staff and of each other. Board members asked questions that requested additional detail about the topics under discussion. Members also asked what-if types of questions, extending what they were learning to different scenarios that could occur within the organization.

Usually, I would have designed a more "active" agenda that asked them to step away from an exclusively discussion mode. We did have one such break, but this board's capacity to question virtually ensured that their time together would be active and headed toward fulfilling their stated goals for the session. We kept it simple, and they emerged with that they needed to accomplish. We created a generative, reflective board learning experience.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Overheard: March 4

Following are this week's favorite governance-related links, shared by great minds via Twitter and the blogosphere. It was particularly hard to select those I would feature this week, both because of the sheer number of entries I tagged as potentially worthy of focus and the impact of the messages so many of them carried. It was a heady week of insights that get right to the core purposes of governance.

Boards as conservators. Good or Bad? (Gayle Gifford)

Gayle shared this 2010 post this week, shortly after my online class closed a unit on nonprofit governance. My students absorbed the weight of the board's responsibilities, a message I consciously reinforced (20 more individuals who grasp the serious nature of governance cannot be a bad thing). As I reflected on student reactions, I also thought about Gayle's point in this post: that as we (legitimately) communicate the responsibility of the work undertaken when one accepts a board seat, we may also be inadvertently nurturing a conservative, risk-averse culture. In doing so, we may functionally shut down the environment necessary for the board's ultimate purpose: looking beyond the horizon to the vision that drives the organization's purpose. I will continue to talk about the duties of loyalty, obedience and care - and all of the serious work of nonprofit governance. But, thanks to Gayle, I will be a bit more mindful of providing context for that essential accountability.

Inception under threat (Lucy Marcus)

Speaking of context... This marvelous post by Lucy continues the conversation perfectly. One of the potential outcomes of the kind of culture Gayle discusses is exactly what Lucy describes here. When times are tough, human nature tells us to hunker down, batten the hatches, and defend what limited turf we may think we have. Risk becomes the kind of four letter word we avoid at all costs; and in the process, we forget why we exist in the first place. This sentence may be the most powerful I've read in a long time: "It takes strong principled leaders with integrity and vision, skills and determination, in the public and private sectors, to stand up and fight for the worth of investing in the future..." That, my friends, is the ultimate function of governance.

The Caretaker Board: Anchoring stability or rusty anchor? (Anne Ackerson)

Anne opens this post with a question whose answer should be obvious: "Is it enough for a nonprofit board's primary role to be protection of the status quo?" It should be obvious. It probably would be, if we posed it verbally to most of our boards. But the actions of too many of those bodies suggest otherwise. Anne does us an immense favor, first, by posing the question, then by articulating what should be the "no brainer" argument for thinking more broadly about the board's purpose. I absolutely will share this with boards I know. For what I hope will be the vast majority, it will be a positive reminder that their job is broader than simply protecting existing assets. For the few where this may be news, well, it's time that we expand their understanding.

From a foundation perspective - what makes an effective nonprofit? (Marion Conway)

"Effectiveness" is one of those concepts that should be easy to define but, in practice, is anything but easy. How your nonprofit defines "effectiveness" may not match how my organization defines it. That is something for our respective leadership teams - board and staff - to determine. Whether or not foundation perspectives are germane to that process, Marion's latest column offers great, specific ideas that would be valuable contributions to any conversation around the topic.