Monday, June 27, 2011

The "chief" roles of a board chair

Who's accountable when nonprofit boards fail to live up to their governance responsibilities?

That question has been on my mind a lot as I write about, or read about, yet another governance failure. Obviously, there is no one, easy answer or one target for placing blame. There is one position within the board that I've not addressed in depth here, where significant responsibility must lie: the board chairperson.

A running joke in the nonprofit boardroom goes something like this: the only thing worse than missing a meeting and being given a committee chairmanship is missing that meeting and being elected board president. It's not a position to which everyone aspires, or for which everyone is qualified. Often, the person who assumes this role is not the member best prepared or most enthusiastic about leading his/her peers in governing. It's who's been around the longest or who's least likely to object - or who missed the meeting when the slate was selected. None of these scenarios sets up a board for the right leadership needed at the right time.

Chairing a nonprofit board requires a higher level of commitment (and more work, which is what sends many of us running for the hills - or curling up into little balls under the boardroom table - when nomination time rolls around). Without a strong president, though, without someone willing to champion the organization and push the group to focus on its governance work, the board is almost destined to flounder.

As I think about the board chairmanship, I envision five "chief" responsibilities:
  • Chief role model
  • Chief visionary
  • Chief agenda guardian
  • Chief accountability hawk
  • Chief partner
Chief role model. The president must demonstrate a commitment to the board's work and community leadership. He/she must model responsibility for all aspects of the job, particularly those emphasizing stewardship of the vision and mission. The board chairperson must always come prepared for the work of governance. He/she must also facilitate and expect board learning. This leader must create space in meetings reflection, information sharing, and discussion that expands the group's world view and understanding of the issues facing the organization.

Chief visionary. The chairperson sets the tone for the rest of the board. A board chairperson should be regularly asking members, individually and collectively, for examples of how they are advancing the mission. This person should be acknowledging successes and pushing to do more/better when they fall short. "How does this impact our mission?" and "How can we reach even further toward our vision?" should be the types of questions that the chief visionary poses constantly in the board's work.

Chief agenda guardian. The board president sets the agenda for the board, literally and figuratively. That means constructing meetings where the bulk of the time is spent discussing topics that advance the organization's mission. If you're delegating that task to the executive director, you are failing your peers (and the organization). Practically speaking, it may be a collaboration between president and ED; but defining the agenda and the direction it will take ultimately is a leadership decision - the president's leadership decision. Guarding the agenda also involves keeping conversations on track - bringing people back to the question at hand, reining in discussions that wander into management territory, stretching participants to think more expansively (and always focused on the vision and mission). Oh, and perhaps stating the obvious: the board president actually leads the meeting. It is a task not deferred to the ED or anyone else.

Chief accountability hawk. The chairperson should be absolutely clear about the board's accountability responsibilities and take every step possible to ensure that they are being addressed. This includes ensuring that the board is monitoring and communicating and otherwise focused on its legitimate accountability work. It also includes clarity about what is not covered under the board accountability umbrella. Fear of the unknown can derail an otherwise intelligent and capable board. A strong understanding of what board accountability looks like, reinforced by a confident president, can relieve unnecessary stress and facilitate focus where their attention should lie.

Chief partner. A strong working relationship between the board president and the executive director must be a leadership goal. Different personalities interact differently. Sometimes, the fit is less than great. But these two individuals together must work to create and protect an environment where the board is free to govern and to build its capacity to lead.

The rest of us serving on boards need to hold our presidents accountable for the kind of leadership that will inspire and push us to do our best and reach our full potential for our community. We need to recruit individuals with the capacity to move into this leadership position. We need to not settle for the person least likely to object, or select someone simply because she's been on the board the longest or "it's his turn." We need to rise to the level of accountability that our board chairperson expects of us. We need to expect the quality of leadership that we, and our organization, deserves.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Overheard: June 24

I'll start this week's favorite links with a video from Team Strive, titled "Board meetings can be frustrating." It's simultaneously funny and depressing, because it's true.



The new generation of nonprofit leaders (Chronicle of Philanthropy)

This post also features a video: young nonprofit leaders sharing their thoughts, hopes and frustrations related to working in the sector. While not specifically board related, their message is one that boards need to hear. In sharing this, I'm not inviting you to micromanage staffing decisions. Rather, I encourage you to be mindful of the interests and concerns of your current and future organizational leaders, both staff and board. The reality is, "the way we've always done it" - particularly in terms of what we expect of our staff - is no longer a sustainable system (Not that it ever was. Ask the many Baby Boomers who burned out taking a 24/7 approach to their work.).

This one may feel entirely out of place in a listing of board resources, but there is a good reason I'm including it. I'm asking you to not critique this specific case, but to use this example as an opportunity to launch a discussion with our own board about the limits you (should) have regarding donations, partnerships, etc. What are the boundaries? How do your values help to define those boundaries?


Since I began this week's list on a potentially depressing note, I'll end with a resource that I hope will inspire and lead to greater capacity to serve. It's a follow-up to a link I shared in an earlier "overheard" post. In this offering, The Bridgespan Group continues the conversation about the need to devote attention to nurturing an environment of where learning is encouraged and where accountability is expected. As with so many of the resources I share, the author provides a service to readers by offering recommendations that break something as large and abstract as cultural change into something we can visualize as possible.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The problem of board "do-ers"

Does your nonprofit board have too many "do-ers?"

The "do-ers" are totally dedicated to your vision of the future and your mission for accomplishing it. They're enthusiastic. They may have helped you found your organization, which means their devotion to the work feels endless. When there is something to be done, you can always count on them. They're "do-ers," after all. You may have recruited these individuals because they have a track record as star volunteers - for you or another organization - or because they are active community leaders with a reputation for "getting things done."

In many respects, these individuals are dream board members. Whatever they commit to do will be done - and probably done well. But "doing" is not necessarily "governing." When our board worker bees  fail to understand that there is a critical difference, the organization suffers.

In some respects, a board "do-er" is a pleasant problem to have when compared with the alternatives  (e.g., a member for whom board service is a line on a resume or one who crams your meetings in to an already tight schedule and can barely remember what you're discussing). But that active tendency, and the need to feel like they're accomplishing something, can lead to obsessing over details, filling meetings with reports and "action items," and lamenting the lack of time available to focus on the fluffy stuff of mission and strategy.

I debated rewriting or deleting that last sentence, but the truth behind it will ring familiar with many readers and their boards. The more I work and serve with these dedicated volunteers, the more I realize that the real issue is a lack of clarity about the dual roles they are serving, and about which role must take precedence in the boardroom.

Earlier this year, in a "Movie Monday" video interview, Jane Kuechle articulated the problem as confusion about the fact that many board members are trying to wear two "hats" simultaneously: a "governance" hat and a "volunteer" hat.  Just as a bike helmet and a bridal veil require two very different kinds of wardrobes, the roles of governor and volunteer require very different points of focus and activity.

The challenge for small nonprofits is that board members in these settings also often are lead volunteers. Their volunteer leadership is as valued and essential as their board service. But no board can afford to lose the equally important governance responsibilities, even with the annual fundraising dinner (and all of its urgent tasks) just around the corner. We've all heard of the tyranny of the urgent - focusing with such laser-like precision on the tasks right in front of us that we lack the energy to concentrate on the far more important questions and work. That phenomenon is all too real in too many boardrooms, where the "important" is the work.

Encouraging our ultra-active board members to stop and clarify which organizational "hat" they are wearing is at least half of the challenge. Actually, for many, simple awareness that they are letting their volunteerism drive their board meeting focus may be all that is necessary. Beyond that, structuring board meetings for governance work will go a long way toward focusing their attention where it needs to be. I've offered several ways to restructure meetings for governance focus in an earlier post. Click here to read that entry.

The challenge in this situation is acknowledging the do-ers' dedication to the organization and its mission, in all of its expressed forms, while encouraging - expecting - focus on the different level of leadership that governance requires. That may require explicitly setting boundaries and redirecting conversation when the talk drifts.

It happens. I've certainly been on the other side. During my first two board assignments, I also volunteered as a victim advocate for the organizations. My commitment to the work and the front-line perspective I provided were helpful. The occasional detours as I rambled on about volunteer challenges were not. I can recall six consecutive years on another board where logistics for the annual crab dinner took over the agenda for months at a time. I also scooped cole slaw, flung crab legs, poured coffee and washed dishes at that event. I get it. But I also see the impact of distracted boards who lack attention to the governance responsibilities that must take precedence.

How does your board balance the the desire to "do" with the essential but not urgent governance that is its ultimate reason for being? How do you accomplish that without squashing the enthusiasm of board members who serve your organization in other ways?

Monday, June 20, 2011

The "being" of nonprofit governance

Sometimes, it takes a wise friend to gently point out the obvious. Last week, that friend was Nancy Iannone, who, in a comment shared on an earlier post, connected my academic writing and my practice-focused work.

Nancy gave me the simple vocabulary (that I actually use in other settings) for describing what I feel is missing in so many efforts to "educate" nonprofit boards. The funny thing is, I'm working on a chapter, for a new book on governance practice, about this very topic. Nancy's favor to me was helping me step away from the proverbial tree I've been pruning so I could see the governance forest where I live, teach and write.

A bit of context for this personal "aha" moment:

Since completing my dissertation, my academic focus has turned more toward sociocultural learning in the nonprofit board setting. Because the organizations they govern are meaning-driven - via their intense focus on mission, vision and values - a cultural-interpretive approach to understanding nonprofit governance practice makes particularly good sense.

The short title of my book chapter, and the Academy of Management presentation from which it evolved, sums up the gap perfectly. Board development involves not only learning about, it's also learning to be. Too much of what we throw at boards focuses exclusively on the former, but it's in the latter that members find inspiration and deepen commitment.

What Nancy helped me to see was that, in my attempt to expand the list of "10 basic board responsibilities," I was unconsciously addressing a serious lack of "being" in the roles we assign to our governing bodies. I read the list of 10 and think, "Blech! Why would anyone knowingly sign on for this?" Defining the mission and vision provides some link to the reason most of us serve. But the rest of the list? What doesn't scare the stuffing out of board members threatens to bore us silly.

In practice, the typical board agenda alternates between the frightening and the sleep-inducing. In training, boards are steered toward the same. Those few, precious opportunities to formally expand our understanding of governance are spent learning about the latest accountability requirements handed down by the IRS (talk about inspiring fear!), the need to write a plan in four hours or less (with little attention to the motivation behind it - just write the darn thing SMART-ly), and the latest techniques to transform reluctant volunteers into all-star fundraisers. Obviously, that work is part of the job (well, some version of what I've just described is part of the job). But it's not the part that sustains board members and inspires them to lead.

What Nancy's comment pointed out so nicely was that my four little additions to the job description (visionary, ambassador, steward and leader) aren't a revolutionary reconceptualization of governance. They're an articulation of the "being" part of board service and learning. She also helped me to see what I've been too busy writing to grasp: that the purpose of this blog, while grounded in real issues boards face, is fundamentally about the being-ness of boards.

I don't intend to turn this post into an academic paper, but a couple of quotes may help readers see how I'm connecting the dots. The first is a quote from Etienne Wenger, who has profoundly influenced my understanding of social learning (from a book that shaped my understanding - and my dissertation - Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity):
"Because learning transforms who we are and what we can do, it is an experience of identity. It is not just an accumulation of skills and information, not in the abstract as ends themselves, but in service of an identity. It is in that formation of an identity that learning can become a source of meaningfulness and of personal and social energy."
Learning to govern is about more than mechanics. It's even about more than inventorying and monitoring the programs delivered and clients served. Learning to govern also involves learning to lead, and to becoming social change agents in our community.

The second quote comes from John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid and extends Wenger's point perfectly:
"Learning, in all, involves acquiring identities that reflect both how a learner sees the world and how the world sees the learner."
If board members embrace their roles as visionaries for your organization, if they truly become ambassadors for your mission, they will be transformed. As human beings and as community leaders, there is no turning back. They will be changed in the process.


Another author/researcher that has influenced me, John Dirks, has called learning in meaning-making work "our soul work." Governance is, in very real ways, soul work.

As I bring this particular "well, du-uh..." moment to a close, I need to recommit to bringing those theoretical insights that shape my thinking so profoundly into my understanding of the practice of governance. I also need to be better about embedding those connections into posts I'm already writing, acknowledging those influences (and recognizing them in the first place), and applying them to real governance life.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The challenge of board organizational learning

Well, I warned you that I'd be writing about Katie Smith Milway and Amy Saxton's great article about nonprofit organizational learning...

As an adult educator specializing in nonprofit learning generally, and board learning specifically, seeing their article on organizational learning in the sector was a welcome contribution to the conversation. The authors do a great job of exploring learning at the organizational level. I'd like to apply their framework to the board. I'd encourage you to read Milway and Saxton's article for context and for more detail on the model itself.

This particular model of organizational learning spotlights four elements: supportive leaders, a culture of continuous improvements, defining learning structure and intuitive knowledge processes. I'll address each piece from a board perspective. Some of the ideas will be familiar to regular readers. It's healthy to explore board learning through different lenses.

Supportive leaders.  Milway and Saxton's descriptors include "clear vision and goals for organizational learning" and "champions and role models." A nonprofit board needs both. It needs to set learning goals for itself. It needs someone to realize the value of board learning, who will push the board to expand - and use - its collective knowledge. The executive director has a role in supporting this process; but it is not his/her job alone, nor is it that person's leadership responsibility. A board member (or, better yet, members) needs to take up the learning banner and carry it forward to help them serve the mission and vision better.

Culture of continuous improvements. We can't overestimate the power of board organizational culture. Nor can we minimize its impact in nonprofit life generally, especially given the meaning-driven nature of its mission-based work. Milway and Saxton describe this element as a culture that "values organizational learning" via "aligned beliefs and values," "reinforcing incentives," and "commitment to measurement of results." In the boardroom, I see this culture represented when members regularly discuss the importance of continuous board learning in all forms. I see it in the incentives provided, for example, funding for board members to participate in formal learning events (with the expectation that they will share what they learn with their fellow members).

In a culture of continuous board learning, members share their individual expertise to help the group govern better, and value that shared wisdom even more than retreats and "training" events. In a culture of continuous board improvement, members and staff would "catch" each other learning - identifying, acknowledging, and rewarding those situations when an individual member expands the group's capacity in some way. In this culture, the board recognizes that learning takes place all the time and calls it learning.

Defining learning structure. Yes, structure is important. The authors describe learning structure as "aligned to support organizational learning" through "defined roles and responsibilities for capturing, distilling, applying and sharing knowledge" and "networks and coordination." As I think about learning structure in a board setting, a few thoughts come to mind.

First, create awareness for what knowledge is shared, how it is shared, who is sharing it, with what impact. Second, have someone (or a group of someones - at minimum, the committee chairpersons) responsible for identifying the board's ongoing learning needs. What do we need to know? Where will we find it? How will we use it? Hold that person(s) accountable for ensuring that the board can access needed information, use it effectively, and evaluate the process. Because learning is so often invisible, and because boards are a transient lot, err on the side of explicitness. Third, seek opportunities to build networks that help you advance your organization's work; value and nurture the networks that are already serving you well. Bring that collective wisdom into the governance process, when appropriate, to enhance your understanding and help you make the most effective and creative decisions possible.

Intuitive knowledge processes. I got a little excited about this one, because this is where the action lies. Milway and Saxton describe this as "organizational learning processes...embedded into daily workflows," that include "defined processes" and "technology platforms." Boards can't leave their learning to chance. They also can't confine it to annual retreats or infrequent board development events. Learning goals should be part of the board's annual planning process. Beyond topics outlined there, boards should be always alert to other learning needs that emerge in the routine work and in the inevitable challenges that arise.

Boards should create regular opportunities to draw upon their own expertise in governance work (the 7x7 board member briefing that Jan Masaoka described in this post is one good, workable way to institutionalize that). They should build learning into board and committee meetings, not confine it to a formal training event.  If possible, find ways to capture what is shared - via audio or video or, at minimum, via notes - and saved in ways that are available to current and future members (organizational history can be a fragile thing in a transient group like a nonprofit board).

This brings me to my final point about this learning element: the need for a platform, online or not, to capture board knowledge that can be retained and shared. I've written about this before; Milway and Saxton's model provides space for it, and confirmation that such a need exists. Much of what boards know remain stored in individual people's heads, which is a problem in a fluid membership environment. As members come and go, boards need a way for capturing organizational and decision-making history, so that new editions of the group are not perpetually plowing the same ground. In some important ways, they can - and should - have available to them resources that provide context and history, allowing them to move forward in ways that make sense for the organization.

I'd encourage you to share Milway and Saxton's article with your board. Use it to spark a discussion about how members learn as a group and how they can be more conscious of defining and facilitating learning that helps them move you closer to your vision and mission.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Overheard: June 17

This week's Twitter and RSS feeds brought some gems. That would be an understatement.

Flip your mission: Framing a compelling message (Carlo Cuesta)

Oh, I am so playing this during my "Boundary-spanning boards" workshop. Carlo packs a lot into 60 short seconds, offering a fascinating approach to sharing our organization's message with greater power. I anticipate that it will resonate with many board members, and that some may need a little assistance articulating the impact of their organizations. Do you talk regularly about your nonprofit's community impact in board meetings? Do board members have the tools, vocabulary and stories to
communicate that impact effectively?

The 7x7 board member briefing (Jan Masaoka)

I'm not sure how I missed this great post when Jan published it late last month, but I'm glad it made its way back to my screen. Readers of this blog have encountered my familiar call to draw upon board member expertise to address many of the group's learning needs. What Jan describes here is one absolutely workable way to embed that into board meetings, in a compact and engaging manner.

Nonprofit boards need to step up (Todd Cohen)

This post stopped me in my tracks for two reasons. One, Todd rightfully calls boards on the carpet for common failures of leadership. More boards than not will be - should be - convicted by the evidence he lays out in making his case. Two, in the process, he manages to outline well the larger responsibilities of governance.

Are you pressuring your board? (Alexandra Peters)

Does pressuring your board to do more fundraising really work for you? No? You're not alone. Alexandra's marvelous post calls upon us to adjust our attitude, and approach, to engaging this group of leaders in more productive ways. She's frank but encouraging in the process.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Boundary-spanning boards: Connecting to roles

As I prepare for my workshop at this year's Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute (titled "Boundary-Spanning Boards: Connecting Community and Organization"), I've been pondering different approaches to conveying what I want to share, in ways that will inspire boards to commit to this critical work.

This weekend, it occurred to me that community engagement really is represented in the four board roles that I've informally added to the usual list of 10 responsibilities. The ideas generated as I pondered the connections feel a little rough, but worthy of batting around with readers of this blog. May I share those ideas with you and request your feedback?

Visionary: As definers of the organization's vision and mission, the board absolutely has a responsibility for sharing that brighter future with your stakeholders. Board members are in a perfect position to articulate that vision of the future and how their organization, specifically, is working toward reaching it.

Two things need to happen, though. First, board members must have a clear understanding of your vision and mission - and be able to share them effectively with others. That may take practice. Second, they need to own the vision and mission. Members need to understand that advancing them, and stewarding resources wisely, is their ultimate responsibility as a board. Ownership also involves feeling like it belongs to them. Has the board had regular opportunities to discuss and shape that future? Your purpose? Are they absolutely committed to, preferably passionate about, them? If you and answer yes to all of these, half of the boundary-spanning battle may be over.

Ambassador: Whether or not they recognize or embrace the role, board members are your lead community links to their peer groups and other parts of the community. Members come to the boardroom table with their existing spheres of influence - their friendships, their work relationships, their memberships in communities of faith and other organizations, etc. They extend the organization's reach to new parts of the community, where perhaps none otherwise exist, and add credibility to existing connections, because of who they are as individuals and the voluntary nature of their service.

Board members have a different kind of credibility than the executive director and other staff, with different groups of people. In some cases, that credibility is greater. At minimum, it is different.

Steward: Board members accept an awesome responsibility as stewards of organizational resources. When members embrace that, and when they communicate how they are taking good care of those resources on behalf of the community, they carry great power. This is particularly true when board members represent the organization before public officials and funding sources (e.g., grantors). That board member presence at a city council meeting, or at a United Way site visit, carries great power.

Leader: When I came to this fourth responsibility, the points I had felt a bit redundant within the context of what I have shared about the three previous roles. But maybe there is a difference. Here's what I am thinking at the moment about the boundary-spanning leadership role of the board.

Board members are leaders of your organization, with complementary responsibility for the overall health and future shared with an executive director (unless yours is an all-volunteer organization, in which case the board holds complete leadership responsibility). If you have recruited well, individual members are community leaders, with or without an official title, who bring with them the power and connections that they already have within their existing networks. Whether or not they are acting on your behalf in those settings, when people know that they serve on your board, their leadership impact carries with it. When they speak on your behalf in those settings, their leadership potential magnifies. Let's be honest: it's one (perfectly appropriate) reason you recruited them to your board in the first place.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is very much a "thinking out loud" moment for me. (You're seeing a bit of how my mind works when it's in creative mode!) I'm offering up this "draft" with the invitation to help me flesh my thoughts out further.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Focusing on informal, social board learning

I've had this Slideshare presentation (posted by an admired learning leader, Charles Jennings) bookmarked for awhile now, pondering how what he shared might connect to my ongoing focus (or is that evangelism?) on our need to expand our definition of board learning.
8 Reasons to Focus on Informal & Social Learning 


Rather than try to summon a fully-formed, coherent thesis within the confines of one lowly blog post, I think I'll highlight some of the points that attract me most. 
  • Slide 7: Charles offers a series of descriptors for how one learns best. Where your responses split between the two columns can offer a quick (and very basic) snapshot of your individual learning preferences. If your board were to take this simple test, where would their individual responses fall? Does the structure of your board meetings and other learning events reflect their collective needs? Slide 8 offers an equally simplistic overview of markers to help with the evaluation.
  • Slide 15: The centerpiece of this slide is this quote: "In an information-rich world we all need to be continual learners." The subtitle affirms what we already know - we can't wring our hands and wait breathlessly for the next training event to help us out of a bind or provide us with the information and context needed to be the leaders we need to be. What does an "information-rich" world look like for your nonprofit board? How are you working to facilitate it?
  • Slide 26: The 70:20:10 model - 70 percent of what we learn is through experience, 20 percent is learned through others, and 10 percent is learned through structured courses and programs. Would this surprise your board? What would change if we acted as if we understood this? I'm not interested in using this as evidence we should abandon formal board development completely. It has a role - just not the dominant role that we assign to it.
  • Slide 28: The quote by social learning icon Jerome Bruner - "What is the difference between learning physics and being a physicist?" - compels. What is that critical point when one learns to be a board member? To embrace the leadership roles and enact them? To do more than show up at board meetings, opening the packet as you sit down at the table? The more I immerse myself in governance - practice and study - the more convinced I am that the real issue is a sociocultural one (Oh, my. That's a post that definitely needs to be written.).
  • Slide 45: Charles offers three points for "embedding" informal learning: (1) "Changing mindsets about how learning occurs," (2) "Engaging senior leaders to support change," and (3) "Realigning L&D (learning and development) to better support informal learning." Numbers two and three are process/structure factors that, while not necessarily easy for everyone, are at least straightforward. Number one - changing mindsets - will be the big challenge, including the board setting. We tend to come from backgrounds and experiences where "learning" automatically translates into "school," "training," or some other formal process. Even when we can account for all the ways those experiences might have fallen short for us as learners, it's natural to still cling to the notion that learning involves some version of teaching and taught, student and instructor. Learning that occurs in other ways is harder to see and, hence, harder to value.
As I said when I started this post, if I did have the capacity to fully flesh out a deep response to what Charles has shared, it would require far more than a lowly blog post. Instead, I'll share these brief reactions and welcome reader feedback on them, or any other part of the presentation that resonates for you.
View more Slideshare presentations from Charles Jennings

Friday, June 10, 2011

Overheard (and overdue): June 10

It seems I've done a lot of apologizing lately for failing to keep my weekly commitment to share favorite governance resources. I'll try to make amends with a long, rich list of enticing and informative gems.

The challenge of organizational learning (Katie Smith Milway and Amy Saxton)

You know you'll see a full post on this one. (I can't help myself.) In the meantime, I'll whet your appetite with this article. Any high-visibility discussion of nonprofit learning is a good thing. The model Milway and Saxton share is layperson-friendly: you don't need an education degree to understand what they are describing. Focus is, obviously, the organization. I'll be writing a post targeting board learning specifically. Soon.

Diversity in governance: A toolkit for nonprofit boards (Maytree)

Boards may understand generally the need for attention to diversity in member recruitment. Knowing how to initiate the conversation and develop a process that addresses that need and leads them to meaningful engagement of new members is not so easy for most. This toolkit provides boards with a starting point that they should find valuable.

Building a better board (Tanya Howe Johnson)

My favorite part of this post is Tanya's bullet-pointed description of "an efficient and energized board" toward the end. What she describes should be considered new member orientation material. I can predict, though, that elements of her list - and maybe the entire list - will surprise any board member. Bullet point one, "spends the bulk of discussion on critical issues and planning for the future," is the essence of governance. Bullet point two, not letting committee work overtake board work, can be tough - especially for a board of "doers." The rest of her list helps boards to structure their work for success.

Governing boards - Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp 2011 (Emily Chan)

While we anxiously await audio versions of this year's Boot Camp presentations, Emily offers a terrific summary of one that will readers of this blog will wish they had attended. Read closely her summary of the presenters' "tips for strategic recruitment."

Has your nonprofit board been neutered? (Carlo Cuesta)

My admiration for Carlo begins with his ability to write a great headline. Once this one draws you in, Carlo poses questions destined to take boards deeper into their role as stewards of the vision and mission. While the entire post is powerful, I love his opening question: "Does the quality of this discussion match the quality of people?"

Building successful nonprofit boards (Elmire Bayrasli)

The interviewee, Lucy Marcus, drew me to this Forbes post. Lucy is one of those governance voices to whom I always listen. Boards grow when they pay heed to her counsel. This article spotlights Lucy's wisdom and governance expertise. (Note: you may see an ad when you first click on the article link. It's worth the second click.)

Recruiting entrepreneurial leadership (Anne Ackerson)

Anne not only makes a case for recruiting entrepreneurial minds to your nonprofit board, she provides a frame to mine for those qualities. I appreciate that. One of the most vexing, and basic, challenges of recruiting beyond demographics is not knowing how to legitimately query recruits for qualities and perspectives that are not visible. Anne offers a useful example and a basic process for recruiting for this specific criterion.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Where were the boards?

If you follow the nonprofit press on even a cursory basis, you probably heard yesterday that 275,000 organizations lost their tax-exempt status.

The spark that put them on the list? They hadn't filed legally-required documentation for three consecutive years. All had warning that this was the path on which they were headed if they did not respond in a timely manner.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, most of the organizations on the list are believed to be defunct. That may be true. I hope it's true, actually. But it does leave one to wonder: for those organizations still in existence, where were the boards?

Assuming even a small fraction of those lost tax-exempt statuses belong to currently living, functioning organizations, this still points to governing bodies that failed to live up to the most basic board responsibilities.

As I reviewed the 666 names on Wyoming's list, I made a rash - though probably not wildly off-track - generalization that most were all-volunteer organizations. Whether or not that is the case, or whether some actually employed full- or part-time staff, they all had boards. Those boards held ultimate responsibility for ensuring that their organization met all fiscal and legal obligations of nonprofit status. Whether they delegated details to a staff person, or whether they took on that role a group, in the end, the responsibility was theirs. There is no one else to blame.

I harp all the time about the critical legal, fiduciary and moral obligations of governance. It's a very, very real responsibility that these leaders take on when they agree to serve on a board. I too often hear the refrain, "They're only volunteers...," usually in the context of explaining why we can't burden boards with the responsibilities of governance.

The consequences of boards not understanding and living up to those responsibilities are all too real. This, unfortunately, is a particularly vivid reminder of what happens when boards don't get that.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Great video (& exercise): Defining your value


I just discovered this video (by Carlo Cuesta, @cmcuestra on Twitter), posted May 17 to his blog, Advisor to Superheroes. In the video (and a more detailed post, "Owning Your Place in the Community"), Cuesta offers nonprofits a fascinating (and absolutely accessible) process to guide board and staff through value articulation and visioning.

If you don't subscribe to Carlo's terrific blog, or follow him on Twitter, you're missing several thought-provoking jewels like this one.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Engaging community for our mission

Yesterday, I facilitated a retreat focused on work that I've not been called upon to help a board address before: community engagement and resource development.

As a student of nonprofit governance - and someone who believes boards should devote far more energy to engaging the community in support of their missions - I was struck by what unfolded in that five-hour period. With sensitivity to protecting confidentiality, this post is a personal reflection on how that board successfully laid the foundation for critical boundary-spanning work.

Our goal for this retreat was not to come up with an ultimate list and detailed plan of who'll-contact-whom-for-what. That type of outcome in a relatively brief time frame is neither realistic nor desirable. Instead, we created a space to identify the agency's existing and needed resources (while not creating one long "to do" list for the executive director). We also devoted time to beginning to reflect on individuals and groups within the board's existing sphere of influence and to identifying key community supporters to whom they do not currently have natural access. This was only the first step in a long-term community engagement process led by the board.

We started our work spotlighting resource development. By the time we moved to community engagement, members had basic consensus around organizational need areas and opportunities to connect with others with both interest in the mission and capacity (of all types) to offer support.

Not directing everyone to a particular resource need in the initial community engagement activity was important and instructive. As expected, each person chose a different area - a great thing. While the board is jointly accountable for the big picture, individual members will be able to lead specific facets of governance, especially those that fit their talents and passions. This micro-sized activity reinforced that message for us.

In terms of the pool of potential supporters raised in our initial discussion? The broad spectrum of supporters and their interests identified by the board bodes well for their ability to engage widely and deeply in the future.

Because the group drifted a bit in the direction of an anticipated fundraising initiative in this first discussion, in the next step, we asked them to identify distinctive ways to invite their peer groups to engage without asking them for money. I hope that this reminded members that successful development processes are built on strong relationships. I also hope that it reinforced that there are many ways to build support and involve the community beyond asking for a financial contribution.

Since this was the first time I had facilitated this type of retreat experience, my attention to details not likely on participants' radar was high. One observation that stood out for me was the importance of acknowledging the value of every potential engagement opportunity. For example, one member prefaced sharing her list of people she knew with a disclaimer, "I don't really know anyone...." She then listed an amazing array of personal and professional connections any board member should be proud to bring to the organization. If we've successfully recruited a board diverse in background, expertise and experience, members will carry ties to an even more diverse quilt of the community, with varying interests in seeing us advance our mission. Appreciating that breadth, and individuals' contributions to that process, is essential.

Our work on Saturday was only a brief jump-start to a larger community engagement effort. The board got that. They identified next steps that flowed naturally from the day's work and realistic commitments to move forward as a board to expand the agency's foundation of community support.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Generations explained: Board dynamics?


Generational explanations always fascinate me. Whether or not a specific framework appeals as the "ultimate" way of grouping and describing us (as if that were possible...), there's always an element of truth that causes me to stop and think about my own interactions - and of course, how it might inform thinking about the nonprofit sector.

Discovering this video this morning, by Dave Sohigian, prompted a fresh round of reflection on how our boards engage and value members cutting across potentially four generations. This isn't a new idea. Many with greater expertise than I write, research, and consult around this issue daily. But the video sparked my thinking about the topic, and I thought I'd engage you in the discussion.

What are your experiences? What are the challenges to engaging all members - of every generation - productively and respectfully? What are the success stories you've encountered? What research in this area particularly speaks to you?