Friday, April 29, 2011

Overheard: April 30

Where to start? What to highlight? There are so many potential governance links to share this week, on a range of topics. Here is a sampling of my many favorites.

Demystifying board service-part 1 (Julia Jackson)

The target audience for this post is younger nonprofit and community leaders, but anyone considering board service - even board vets - would benefit from the counsel Julia offers in this post. It expands our potential capacity to be more deliberate, thoughtful, and prepared as we assume the leadership responsibilities that come with this critical volunteer job.

Acceptance of board position sample (Gayle Gifford)

Gayle continues the early commitment theme with this direct link to a sample board service contract. I appreciate  her sharing both a quality example of a board document (It helps us get past the blank-screen, "where to I start?" paralysis that adds to the challenge of encouraging boards to implement these important practices.) and a reminder that reinforcing the commitment made can only be a good thing. Clarity about all expectations, whatever they may be for your board, would be handled in the recruitment process. Having a brief, formal process for accepting those responsibilities reinforces the commitment being made.

Four things boards should understand about operating reserves (Rick Moyers)

The topic begs for more detail. Boards often struggle with grasping most aspects of their fiduciary responsibilities. But this post provides a service by simply raising four focal points for understanding operating reserves in a nonprofit setting. For those board members who simply don't know what to ask, he has resolved half the battle.

Three instant improvements for board agendas and accountability (Jan Masaoka)

The simplicity of Jan's "instant improvements" screams "no brainers." But in the case of organizing board meetings, small things can create significant focus and transformation of governance work.

3 critical mistakes made by nonprofit executive directors (Sandy Rees)

The topic of Sandy's post may not seem to have direct impact on board work. But the board/ED leadership team is a partnership. Board members who are attuned to the executive's challenges, and some of the common pitfalls of the position, can support the CEO and encourage him/her make good professional choices.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Governance as Leadership: Spotlighting a neglected model

When Chait, Ryan and Taylor's seminal book, Governance as Leadership, came out in late 2004, the three-phase model described so shook my thinking about how we frame the work of boards that it became the starting point for my doctoral dissertation.

Even as I immersed myself in research exploring what I considered the 'big news' of the model - generative governance - I anxiously awaited the inevitable onslaught of scholarly and practitioner articles. Surely, I thought, something this revolutionary would generate wide attention and discussion in the field and amongst governance scholars. For the most part, though, that broader visibility hasn't come. 

It is easier to find a link referencing the Governance as Leadership model than it was two or three years ago, but it's hardly dominated discussions about how boards can function more effectively. That is unfortunate for, while we might debate the nuances of the model, there is little doubt in my mind that the potential contribution to expanded thinking about governance is large. 

I'll admit my own culpability in not advancing the discussion. I can (and should) write a series on Governance as Leadership, beyond the results of my research. That series may come later this year. In the meantime, I'll share two things to give you a taste of the model that inspired and shaped a year of my scholarly life (and forever shifted my thinking about governance):
  • The bookmarks I've collected about the mode
  • An audio podcast that I recorded for another purpose, in which I offer a brief overview of the model and its three phases.


    Friday, April 22, 2011

    Overheard: April 22

    On this Good Friday, I share a few of this week's favorite governance related links with readers of this blog.

    5 ways to make sure board members aren't bored (Amy Eisenstein)

    Bored boards. If you've been around the sector and nonprofit boards long enough, you know exactly what that looks like - and how that impacts members' motivations to serve. The theme of Amy's five recommendations boils down to one word: engagement. How are we engaging board members, individually and as a group, in governance and the mission of our organizations?

    Your board is in the business of change (Robert Ballantyne)

    If you're not familiar with John Carver's policy governance model, some of the specifics of this post may not make sense; but the ultimate message should resonate. Boards are not recruited to protect the status quo. They don't exist to blindly accept every recommendation handed down by the CEO or listen passively to endless reports. They exist to lead, stretch and question. They exist to govern - and to advocate for change that moves the organization closer to its mission and vision of the future.

    Advisory board vs. board of directors: A distinction with a difference (Emily Chan)

    Advisory boards are not commonplace in the sector. Where they do exist, there are several key distinctions that must be clear to members of that group, the governing body, and the staff. Emily's post provides an excellent overview of the major differences between the two groups.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    Rethinking board roles: Audio version

    The topic of this post isn't new - I wrote about it in this March 21 post. But I rediscovered this audio description of my four board roles (recorded for another purpose), that I thought I'd share as an alternative to the text version. If it works well here, I'll post two other audio files on topics that should be of interest to readers.

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    In defense of paper trails

    I’m about to take a traditionally unpopular stand. I believe in paper trails – at least paper trails that make essential documents readily available and provide a sense of context for nonprofit boards.

    Whether or not these trails literally are made of paper is not important. What is critical is having access to documents, reports and other information that boards need to make informed decisions. What boards need is institutional history and context for governance - to have a chance to learn from their predecessors, to build upon their work and avoid making the same mistakes.

    Board members are human. Even as we embrace the awesome responsibilities that come with governance, we still struggle with stretched schedules and overtaxed memories. Expecting us to retain everything presented to us, everything we “should” know to lead effectively, without a little help simply is unrealistic.

    Board members also are a transient lot. Members come and go, taking with them their knowledge and  institutional history. Even when they serve long and well, through as many years as term limits will allow, when members leave, they take with them information and context for the decisions they made and their interpretations of mission that led to them. Without that perspective – and garden variety detail – board members who follow them risk reinventing the proverbial wheel and making the same unfortunate mistakes. 

    We can't expect to capture everything known and experienced by the board (nor would we want to do so). But we can find ways to make what is essential for governance accessible to our successors, and to preserve highlights of members' experiences that provide context for why our boards made the decisions that they did.

    Among the types of resources that should be readily available to board members:

    • By-laws
    • Board and organizational policy documents
    • Board and committee meeting minutes
    • Written (or perhaps audio?) committee reports
    • Executive director reports
    • Budgets and financial reports
    • Copies of organizational newsletters

    Those are somewhat obvious examples of resources that board members would find valuable in their governance work. But, especially with increasingly easy availability of electronic tools, and space to store them, we need not limit our board’s leadership resource to text-based documents.

    For example, how would board members’ capacity to tell a compelling story on our behalf grow or shift after they’ve had a chance to listen to, or watch, a testimonial from a former client or a clip from a news story that the local station ran about one of your programs last year? Or a YouTube video that you’ve posted, promoting your services? What if we provided publicly accessible links to those resources within the board resource to make it easier for members to share with others in their boundary-spanning role?

    Actually, the ability to archive and share links to information sources – our own and others – makes creating an online board resource increasingly attractive. Several great, private, secure options exist. A few I’ve used and can recommend as possibilities for boards:

    All offer secure, free versions that would be suitable for creating a board resource/database/social network space.  I’d recommend visiting each site and reviewing the available tools for fit to your board’s needs before selecting one option. Some offer additional services for a usually affordable monthly fee.

    Before jumping into any document storage and sharing system, I’d make the case for creating a resource to the board and query members about preferred formats. I would not allow them to reject any system. I also wouldn’t rule out an online option solely based on their predictions that they “wouldn’t use it.” I predict that, probably more than keeping track of literal paper (and storing it in any accessible way), an online resource’s value will be proven the first couple of times that members are able to quickly put their hands on the report from six months ago, the bylaws or the link to the right YouTube video testimonial. 

    (Personal example/confession: I'm not afraid of paper or technology. I like paper. But ask me to put my hands quickly on the budgets of the boards on which I serve. I probably could do so for one - not because I know where the paper version is, but because I know where to find the Excel file on my thumb drive. The other board? No chance. If I need a duplicate, I'll be wasting my time, and the staff's, groveling for another copy.)

    I’d be interested in hearing your experiences with, and recommendations for, creating and sharing resources to enhance your board’s understanding and effectiveness. I’d especially be interested in lessons learned if you’ve created an online resource.

    Friday, April 15, 2011

    Overheard: April 15

    Sharing a few of my favorite governance links from the week...

    I've been waiting all week to share this "Movie Monday" video. It's hard not to catch Gail Perry's enthusiasm as she outlines ways to ignite our boards' passion for our organizations and their leadership. At the root of her seven recommendations are two things: bringing board members closer to the mission and helping them articulate their personal connections to that purpose.

    Whew! I was fatigued just reading Gayle's list of the kinds of expectations we frequently place on board members. Nothing on that list surprised - and I'm sure each reader could identify responsibilities that she's left off. My own takeaway from this was twofold: we need to be clear in articulating our full range of expectations long before a prospect becomes a board member; and we need to have serious, ongoing conversations about whether we are ultimately using board member time/expertise as productively as possible.  I'd also attempt to include those invisible expectations that we know exist in that conversation. Yes, the fact they are "invisible" make them more challenging to articulate. But the group reflection and honest discussion that that requires will be healthy, regardless of what emerges. You may also be surprised about what board members reveal as expectations - perceived or real - that add to their challenge.

    This one isn't governance-specific, but the information shared will be valuable background for the board's boundary-spanning responsibilities. I bookmarked this one to share the link toward the top of the page (to a PDF download describing the roles that nonprofits play in community life), but all three reports linked there will be valuable for the same reason. The sector as a whole, and nonprofit leaders, need to do a much better job of describing exactly how we individually and collectively contribute to a stronger, more vital society. A large part of their failure to do so is likely that they simply have no idea. Independent Sector continues to be a great resource for understanding the big picture and the integral ways in which nonprofits make this world a better place in which to live.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011

    Board learning styles: Applying Kolb's model

    Diversity that expands a board’s capacity to make effective, mission-centered decisions extends beyond the traditional demographic markers. Diversity in the way board members learn also contributes to a rich and thoughtful boardroom environment.

    Adult learning theories offer multiple tools of value for identifying the way individual board members learn. I’ve already applied one such framework, multiple intelligences, to illustrate how moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach enhances members’ capacity to learn and govern. In this post, I share another model that boards, and nonprofit educators, might find useful.

    David Kolb has identified four learning styles, derived from his experiential learning model. What follows is a rough outline of how I am applying Kolb’s framework to the work of boards. It’s definitely a work in progress, one in which I welcome assistance in connecting the dots.

    Several great, “plain English” overviews of Kolb’s model exist. I’ve bookmarked  a sampling of resources that have readers may find useful. Following is my attempt to describe Kolb’s four learning styles and offer basic examples of how each contributes something of potential value to board work.

    Convergers. They prefer practical application and problem focus. They aren’t particularly enamored of the interpersonal ‘stuff’ of group work, preferring to get right to the task at hand. They ask the “how” questions. In the boardroom: Convergers will help you work through the tough “how to we make this work” questions. This is especially important in governance, where so many of the challenges being addressed are complex and defy straightforward, easy fixes. Convergers will dig in and look for ways to translate those abstract, tough ideas into something that can be reasonably resolved, or at least moved forward in some meaningful way. In an environment where mission progress is often measured in inches – if not centimeters – this is critical.

    Divergers. They love generating ideas, brainstorming, and group work. Divergers are good at taking in different perspectives and seeing systems. They ask “why.” In the boardoom: Divergers will seek out – and create – a range of possibilities for the board to consider, not accepting the easy or the obvious or “the way we’ve always done it.” Divergers will be the board members who find commonalities between seemingly disparate interests and emerge with a better solution.

    Assimilators. They like logical, practical approaches to decisions. Assimilators “prefer lectures, reading and time to think.” Expert knowledge carries greater weight with them, as they ask “What is there to know?” In the boardroom: Assimilators won’t let boards make snap decisions. They will push boards to seek out all of the information needed to make a quality decision, think through the consequences, and dig deeper.

    Accommodators.  They are the doers and the risk takers. Accommodators are action-oriented. They like new challenges and set ambitious goals. They ask “What would happen if I did this?” In the boardroom: Accommodators ensure that boards don’t succumb to the “paralysis by analysis” that plagues so many governing bodies. They will hold the board and executive director accountable for carrying through on decisions made. Accommodators are more inclined than others to encourage us to learn from what worked and what doesn’t, and to not shy away from trying again because of the latter.

    Can you see how having all four types of learners in the boardroom might lead to higher-quality governance, when everyone is allowed to bring what comes naturally to the table? Kolb’s model offers some potential for thinking more expansively about those we recruit to the board (diversity of learning style is a legitimate criterion to consider). It also creates value in helping us to engage individual members by drawing out their preferred ways of thinking and expanding the group’s decision-making capacity.

    Friday, April 8, 2011

    Overheard: April 8

    Sometimes, as I pull together this weekly round-up of board resources, there is a definite theme. This week, that's not the case. There is a distinct "potpourri" kind of feel to the candidates. That's okay - it suggests that there may be something for everyone,  no matter what I choose to highlight.

    10 reasons to retreat (Ron Milam)

    When most retreats fail, it is because the chosen focus is too ambitious, tedious, or simply wrong for the time frame or the current organizational environment (for example, the popular "let's take this half/full day and write a strategic plan" is simultaneously ambitious, tedious and wrong!). There are many great reasons to take that time away from the routine. Ron Milam offers up 10 such appropriate purposes in this post. You may have others, that I hope you'll share via comment.

    Blue ribbon nominating committee for your board (Jan Masaoka)

    Jan offers a fascinating model for thinking differently about new member recruitment and, in the process, a way to engage supporters and potential supporters in service to your organization. One of the perennial recruitment challenges for boards is the tendency to confine their list of prospects to current members' relatively narrow pool of acquaintances. Not only does that automatically shut out a lot of quality candidates, it also sets us up for more of the same narrow thinking and governance (since we naturally tend to associate with like-minded individuals or people who come from similar backgrounds). The blue ribbon nominating committee described here has tremendous potential to remedy that.

    Board orientation dos and don'ts (Hildy Gottlieb)

    One thing we can always count on Hildy to provide: accessible ways to think and act differently about governance. The essence of this post is far deeper than a "Five easy steps..." countdown, but the way in which she articulates that approach is absolutely attainable for most governing bodies.

    Guilty as charged: Prove your board supports your organization (Karen Eber Davis)

    The 10 "evidence" points laid out in this post could be treated as a simplistic, grade-the-board check-off list. Indeed, it might be used that way - and there might be some value as a quick snapshot of board success. But I also see some potential for using it as a jumping off point for deeper discussions about any (or all) of the markers. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I am more drawn to "evidence" points six through nine, as they relate to more substantive governance functions. And,  yes, I am particularly fond of number nine!

    Putting on your own oxygen mask first (Estrella Rosenberg)

    The board connection in this one may not be immediately obvious; but as I re-read it this morning, I'm struck by its potential to describe the fundamental value of governance. The board holds ultimate accountability for the health and life of the organization, even as it delegates the day-to-day responsibilities to others. Part of that stewardship involves addressing the capacity needs of the organization and its people. Nonprofit staff and volunteers burn out when they don't take time to breathe, recharge, tend to their learning needs - everything that expands their ability to continue serving others. Just as it must monitor the financial and capital capacity needs of the organization beyond what is required today, the board should be encouraging the executive director to "put on your own oxygen mask first" and to ensure that similar support is provided to everyone involved in doing mission-critical work. If there is resistance - as some will see such personally sustaining activities as "selfish" - then the board must push to make sure it happens.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    Finding time for board learning

    “But where will we find the time for board development?”

    It’s a common question that many boards ask when encouraged to invest in their own learning. Board development is a legitimate, even critical, need. Boards build their capacity to serve and to fulfill their responsibilities effectively when they commit to expanding their understanding of the organization, its mission area, and nonprofit governance.

    When most boards hear “board development,” full-day retreats and multi-hour training sessions often come to mind. For busy people volunteering precious time, adding to the burden – however important to effective service – can feel impossible. It’s not impossible at all. In fact, the average board agenda is filled with (potential) space for learning.

    As I discovered in my dissertation research, learning exists everywhere in routine board work. We just don’t recognize it as learning. Capacity for this sustaining work increases even more when we take a critical look at our board agendas and make some healthy changes. Following are several recommendations for clearing that space – and for making board meetings more inspiring, productive and enjoyable in the process.

    Flip the agenda. I recently was part of a discussion where a local board raised a common concern: being so fatigued by the routine stuff that dominates most meeting agendas that there is little time or energy to deal with the more important conversations that tend to clump at the end. Placing the routine up front is common practice, but we can do things differently (especially when “tradition” is counterproductive). Open with the critical topics.

    Adopt a consent agenda. Clear board meetings of  those time-consuming routine tasks - e.g., approval of minutes and committee reports - by placing them in a consent agenda that can be approved with one vote. Boards can quickly handle tasks that often overwhelm meetings, leaving time for higher priority discussions. This does require that committees create written summaries for inclusion in board packets. They should be doing so, anyway. We need that institutional history, especially with transient boards and staff.

    Include a written executive director's report in the consent agenda. Much of what is shared in the ED’s report is routine detail that does not require discussion. Those substantive topics that require board feedback should be placed in appropriate sections elsewhere in the agenda.

    Clear the agenda of the inevitable non-governance tasks. Erring on the side of oversharing is understandable. Board members don’t want to be left in the dark. But the board’s time is wasted when we bury members in management details. They’ll be less likely to micromanage when we don’t invite them to do so, too.

    Include a mission moment in every meeting. The mission moment is a brief  (5-10 minutes) opportunity to hear about some aspect of the mission and, hopefully, how the organization is advancing it. Candidates for a mission moment could include a program update, a challenge overcome, or a story about a client served (or a composite, where confidentiality is a potential concern). It also could cover one of the broader issues to which the agency is tied (e.g., homelessness, environmental degradation, child abuse).

    Assign a reading related to mission and/or programs. Include time to discuss it within the meeting. Give board members the opportunity to share what they learned, asked questions, and otherwise expand the group's knowledge.

    Pose a Big Question, related to governance responsibilities, in every meeting. Include that question on the agenda, asking them to come prepared to discuss.

    Assemble board packets strategically. Don't overwhelm them with a mountain of paper and reports. Make sure everything included enhances members' understanding and capacity to govern effectively, including educational materials and background readings that help them understand the issues more fully and make more effective decisions.

    Share resources throughout the month. If you find an interesting article that would be informative, share the link electronically. Doing so not only evens the reading/learning burden over time, it provides consistent opportunity to think about your organization and its mission.

    Create a private, online resource, e.g., a wiki, for storing information (e.g., key documents like by-laws, minutes, treasurer’s reports) that board members need. This environment also can be used to share links to resources that expand their understanding of their responsibilities and your mission. Having those resources available on demand increases the board's knowledge base (and their potential to make wise, appropriate decisions). I saw the potential for such a portal when a friend invited me into a space she created for her board.

    Obviously, the goal isn't to incorporate all of these ideas into every board meeting. Rather, I wanted to offer some tips for both creating space within your board's existing time frame and for using that found space to govern more creatively and effectively.

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    Overheard: April 1

     Developing leadership on boards of directors (Barbara Miller and Jeanne Bergman)

    This week, I found an old friend - well, an old board article that has since been lost in its original form and location. Thankfully, the good folks at the Peel Leadership Centre have preserved a version of this foundational Journal for Nonprofit Management article. Leadership-centered board culture is the focus and the primary contribution that Miller and Bergman make to the governance conversation. They both encourage boards to think more deeply about their leadership potential and offer specific ideas to move toward actualizing a frequently hazy, abstract concept.

    Five things board directors should be thinking about (Corsi et al)

    While corporate boards are the target audience for this article, the "five things" have nonprofit parallels - and the potential to encourage boards in either setting to focus on their big-picture responsibilities. You know I love a good question. This article offers a long list to guide the governing body in reflection on the future. Note the link to the downloadable version.

    Nonprofits: How to avoid problem board members in the first place (Alice Korngold)

    In an earlier post, Alice encouraged us to deal head-on with problematic members who threaten the effectiveness and cohesiveness of our boards. Obviously, the best way to avoid those sticky situations is to ensure that the fit is right - and the expectations clear - in the first place. Alice's most recent post offers common-sense guidelines for setting everyone up for a successful board experience.

    Passive audience vs. active participants (Erica Mills)

    In this "Tune-Up Tuesday" video, Erica makes the case for reframing how we think about - and engage - our key stakeholders. There's a "well, du-uh..." feeling to her ultimate message. But, like Erica, many of us have absorbed the "target audience" mentality and language, to the point where it may be unconscious. If this brief reminder snaps us out of that practice and mindset, it's served its purpose.