Friday, December 30, 2011

Board learning: Definitive posts (so far)

An ongoing conversation about how nonprofit boards, and the adults who serve on them, learn is the unique niche of this blog. It's in the blog's name, in my credentials, and increasingly everywhere in the writing here.

In the past year, I've made a more conscious effort to increase the quality and frequency of posts focused on the learning that occurs in nonprofit governance. The result is a growing list of resources - or at least my interpretation - related to board learning in all of its forms.

In this post, I gather links to some of my key writings on the topic, published in 2011. For the reader interested in a general overview, this offers a quick summary of my experiences and biases on board development. For me, it also represents a chance to pause and reflect on an intellectual journey that really has only begun.

The challenge of organizational board learning (6/18/11)

While others preceded it, this post truly launched my focused effort and my commitment to exploring board learning in greater depth this year.  I began to understand just how important it is to facilitate an extended conversation about the learning needs (and responsibilities) of those who govern. The continuing challenge, as a facilitator of that process, is providing the theoretical context for what is shared while keeping it accessible, to not dummy down the discussion (like so many of the resources offered to boards). My goal is to stretch just enough to inspire, but to not chase away those interested in the topic by adopting an overly theoretical approach. Boards are made up of smart people who want to serve and to lead. They don't want to be bored, and they want the tools to succeed. That's why understanding and sharing the essence of board learning is so important.

The 70:20:10 rule of board learning (10/30/11)

I'm not sure why, but this post continues to draw regular, strong readership. Traffic sources suggest it pops up often in general searches regarding the 70:20:10 experiential learning framework - the luck of the draw (and Google) brings readers to the page. But I also suspect that nonprofit readers found it via the usual social media outlets (e.g., Twitter), saw something that resonated or appealed, and began sharing with others. Or they discovered it and saw that it supports or enhances conversations their boards are already having about their development efforts. Whatever the reason, I hope that it ultimately helps to broaden readers' perspectives on how we learn and how our boards learn collectively.

So, what do boards experience? (11/6/11)

This post introduced readers to the broader concept of experiential learning. I took a favorite taxonomy, from a scholar whose work resonates for me, and offered examples of each type of experience from a nonprofit board setting.

Embedded board learning: Part 1 (11/28/11)
Embedded board learning: Part 2 (11/30/11)

The previous posts sparked deep reflection on the myriad ways in which boards learn, whether or not they realized they were doing so. In these two posts, I shared eight comparatively easy ways to build learning into routine governance work. I'm tired of the old complaint, "But we don't have time...," and the assumption that learning only takes place in a formal (preferably classroom-like) setting. Some of of my recommendations will appeal more than others. That's fine. My ultimate goal was to give you some ideas, that didn't require massive amounts of time or labor, and encourage you to do something to more consciously create opportunities for our boards to learn and serve more effectively.

Board learning styles: Applying Kolb's model (4/10/11)

I'd forgotten about this post in this year of "learning" focus, but it definitely deserves to make this list. Because I came to adult learning from outside of education, I've tended to be open to a range of perspectives, especially those that just make good sense. This is one of those frameworks. I've seen how these general learning types interact in groups, particularly in my interactions in and with nonprofit boards. Boards that include convergers, assimilators, divergers and assimilators have the capacity to look at issues from different angles, explore options, not accept easy answers, and ultimately emerge with the right decisions for their organizations.

What does a board know? (2/21/11)

This post introduces the idea that boards carry - and need - many types of knowledge to govern. I borrowed a framework from another discipline and applied it to board work. It helped launch a recurring theme for these posts: that the learning resources available are far more varied - and far more accessible - than those that typically come to mind when we think about board development. More important, many already lie within the board and its individual members.

Andragogy: How adults learn (1/17/11)

This one wasn't the most profound piece I wrote on the topic of board learning this year, but it was an important contribution. It acknowledged the idea that adults learn differently, and in more varied ways. It also introduced andragogy, a foundational notion in adult learning theory.

I admit, creating this post was as much a chance for me to reflect on this topic - and the informal goal that I set for myself as a blogger - as it is to draw these resources into one location for anyone interested in learning more about how boards learn. The journey will continue in 2012, in ways that even I can't predict.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Seven Faces: My notes & observations

Because I knew that the overview of the Seven Faces of Philanthropy that I wanted to share with you would stretch the bounds of appropriate length for a blog post, I decided to offer my summary in Monday's post and share my personal reactions separately.

I chose an audio update, mostly because it felt like a natural way to talk about these personal reactions and ideas. It also felt like a low-key way to mix things up a little and add a bit of a multimedia twist to the way I present content here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Faces: Seven giving personalities

What drives someone to give? There are many ways to answer that question, many frameworks to help us understand donor motivations. While can find value in any of those perspectives, one - The Seven Faces of Philanthropy - has always resonated deeply for me.

A good friend and mentor introduced me to Faces during my tenure as a University of Wyoming development officer. It clicked for two reasons: one, its seven giving personalities offer more nuanced layers to donor motivations; and two, I easily recognized myself, and other donors I'd encountered, in those personalities.  

Like too many of the resources I want to share with readers, Faces has not historically drawn the interest and visibility needed to make it easily accessible to practitioner audiences. It's gotten better (as I was updating my links this morning, I found and bookmarked several new descriptions, generally posted on blogs). But putting it into the hands of nonprofit staff and volunteers, who would actually use it, doesn't seem to have been a high priority. That's one major motivator for me in writing this post.

Before I introduce the Faces, let me offer a bit of detail about the research underlying the framework:
  • It is based on a study by Russ Prince, a consultant, and Karen File, a University of Connecticut faculty member.
  • Study included quantitative (survey) and qualitative (focus groups and interviews) elements.
  • Target for this study was the "affluent individual donor," defined as someone with $1 million or more in a "discretionary investment advisory account," who contributed at least $50,00 to a single nonprofit in the two years preceding the study.
I'll discuss my thoughts about legitimate and not-so-legitimate (at least from a research standpoint) applications of the framework in a bonus post on Wednesday. In the spirit of not making this post any longer than necessary, I'll dive right in and introduce you to each Face.

The Communitarian ("Doing good makes sense"). This person generally is a local business owner, often a member of your board (or a peer of your business community board members). The Communitarian views philanthropy as an important part of supporting and enhancing the entire community. In Prince and File's research, this Face represented the largest group, 26.3 percent of the participant pool.

Some additional detail on Communitarians: they want to give something back to the community, they are active in local affairs, and they understand that nonprofits have a place in meeting community needs, filling in the gaps that government cannot (and should not) address. They are members of local service organizations, like Rotary and Soroptimsts. There is some sense that giving is in their own self interest. Therefore, they research prospective nonprofits carefully.

 The Devout ("Doing good is God's will"). As the name and Prince and File's subtitle suggest, this donor sees giving as part of his/her duty to God and a commandment to help others. They are almost always members of religious communities, and nearly all of their contributions go to their churches or other religious institutions. The Devout represented 20.9 percent of the study pool.

More about the Devout: they have deeply religious reasons for giving - it's sharing what God has provided to them. Their gifts pay that forward. Giving is based on their belief system, a "sign of spiritual development and maturity." Because of that foundation in personal and spiritual beliefs, the Devout tend to focus giving on a relatively narrow set of organizations with values that match their own. Because giving should be a "pure" act, the Devout frowns upon donors who act with other motivations in mind. They also see nonprofits as better equipped than government to make the right decisions and serve more effectively.

The Investor ("Doing good is good business,"). Prince and File describe this donor as giving "with one eye on the nonprofit cause and one eye on personal tax and estate consequence." A primary factor for this donor comes in the form of tax and estate benefits. They are particularly attracted to umbrella organizations that provide an additional layer of accountability (e.g., community foundations or United Way). This donor represented 15.3 percent of the study pool.

The Investor finds tax deductions to be very attractive. Like the previous two Faces, the Investor sees the nonprofit sector as more trustworthy than government; but both sectors are worthy of skepticism from this donor. Because of that skepticism, they evaluate carefully potential beneficiaries. Those that are professionally administered, with the right leaders and structures in place, will be most likely to receive an Investor gift. Investors focus on the act of giving, but they aren't concerned about the motivation behind the act. One of the quickest ways to turn off the Investor is to state or imply a duty to give.

The Socialite ("Doing good is fun"). This person is well connected, through local social networks. Their giving is driven by those connections and the opportunity to interact - with their networks and with a select set of nonprofits that they support (often a mix of arts, education and religious organizations). They won't volunteer for the day-to-day work, but they'll help organize your fundraiser and invite their friends. The Socialite accounted for 10.8 percent of Prince and File's major donor pool.

Socialites cherish their informal networks, usually filled with people (and givers) much like themselves. A strong endorsement from a well-connected Socialite means a lot. Philanthropy is an extension of their personality; giving is an expression of personal identity. They want to know that you're doing good work with the fruits of their labors (and will turn on you if you prove yourself unworthy. You don't want that negative word-of-mouth.). They don't particularly care what others think of their motivations, and they respect others' rights to not give. Socialites work hard for you, and they expect you to recognize that effort.

 The Altruist ("Doing good feels right"). If a "selfless" donor is possible, this would be the giving personality behind it. Altruists give from a generous and empathetic place. They see giving as a moral act, part of their personal development. They act on their gut in giving, not relying on others to direct them to the "right" organization. More than others, the Altruist is attracted to social causes and the nonprofits that advance them. Nine percent of the original pool could be classified as Altruist.

The Altruist's motivations lie pretty much in direct opposition to the Socialite's.  They are more likely to request anonymity, or to take offense at excessive formal recognition of their contributions. They are more likely to see giving to be a moral (though not religious) obligation, one that falls more heavily on the shoulders of the wealthy. They are deeply offended by motivations that are not "selfless." That applies to individual donors and to government - nonprofits are better able to address social needs. They judge the people of an organization more than the structure.

The Repayer ("Doing good in return"). Our relationship with the Repayer is an ongoing one, and it didn't start in the development office. This person was a constituent first - a patient, a student, a program participant. His/her status as a donor is the next phase of that relationship. The Repayer gives out of appreciation/loyalty or obligation. It should not surprise you to find out that the primary beneficiaries of the Repayer's giving in Prince and File's study were either medical organizations or educational institutions. The represented 10.2 percent of major donors in the study.

In some respects, engaging the Repayer should be a fairly straightforward process. They know you, they know your work, and they are grateful (in varying degrees) for your previous support.  That doesn't mean that you skip relationship building, though. Some relationships begin relatively early in the donor's life (e.g., immediately after graduation - or sooner). Others come later (e.g., following a medical crisis). In each case, the relationship you build is grounded in the quality of service that your organization provided in the past. Repayers don't need outside advisers to help them evaluate your worthiness. They want you to value their contributions, but they don't want you to take your eyes off current service recipients while you're recognizing them.

The Dynast ("Doing good is a family tradition"). In Prince and File's study, this donor was most likely to have inherited two things: wealth and a culture where giving is part of the family's identity. Both are passed down from one generation to another. What might differ, though, was the focus of that giving. A younger generation could set itself apart from its parents and grandparents, and make its own mark, by identifying and supporting different causes and organizations than those who came before them. Dynasts represented 8.3 percent of the study pool.

You may be surprised to learn that one finding from Prince and File's research is the Dynast's openness to supporting a range of nonprofits, including some that considered outside of the mainstream (I'm having a major "aha" moment as I rediscover this one - and thinking about my favorite Dynast donor role model.). Motivations come from within and are more important to the Dynast than the act itself. Charity is an internalized value. They have little need for validation from others. Because they are the frequent targets of fundraisers and organizations, they necessarily take care in ensuring that those who receive their support are worthy of it. They want to know that you make a difference.

This post is already far too long, because I wanted to give you a more detailed picture of each Face than most available online resources provide. I'll discuss the framework, and my experiences with it, in Wednesday's bonus.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Overheard: Last links for the board year

I have other plans for next Friday's favorite links post, so this is the last of the year based on my weekly reading and exploration. There's an informal "diversity" theme this time around, mostly thanks to the luck of following links. As is often the case, that wandering yielded thought-provoking and useful resources.

Why you need a diverse nonprofit board, not a diverse board member (Nonprofit Hub)

I always approach the topic of diversity cautiously, aware enough that my own demographic status carries limits to completely understanding the issues and experiences. I also think twice when talking about alternatives to setting recruitment goals that do not list characteristics as gender, ethnicity, educational background,  etc. After serving on too many boards filled with white, college-educated professional women with ties to the local university, I understand all too well the importance of serving with people who don't look or think exactly like me. That said, I also know that our usually futile "We need a man..." or - as is common to nonprofits in our community - "We need a member of the Hispanic community..." goals will not automatically lead us to diversity success. Simply deciding to "add an X and stir" isn't the answer, especially when it turns "board member X" into a token and a spokesperson for his/her entire demographic group. That's counterproductive to the board team and disrespectful of the varied contributions that member can make. This post invites us to think about diversity at the organizational level, and takes us to an article that boards everywhere should read and discuss.

Diversity and the false choice (Minnesota Council on Foundations)

This post continues the diversity theme (and offers another link to the article offered above). It also refers readers to additional resources, including Rosetta Thurman's marvelous blog. I've long appreciated Rosetta's approach to discussing diversity, encouraging readers to dig beyond the superficial.

Who's on your board? (Kaye O'Leary)

The connection to diversity is indirect in this one; but it does end up supporting the need, as part of a larger commitment to valuing authenticity and innovation in governance. Actually, the link within this post, to an older post on innovation in the boardroom, adds further fuel to the fire. It's viewed through a corporate governance lens, but the impacts on group capacity to innovate and lead into the future apply equally well to the nonprofit setting.

2 techniques to increase board resiliency (Kevin Monroe)

It's a VUCA (read the post) world, and Kevin is doing his best to help your boards get through it. Not only do our nonprofits need to be resilient in a challenging, turbulent environment, so do the boards that lead them. Kevin's latest post inspires us to find the strength - and the tools - to step up and govern. As with any Kevin  Monroe post, he offers both inspiration and practical ideas for acting on it.

A holiday gift for your board: A refreshed dashboard (Matthew Forti)

This post, offered on the Stanford Social Innovation Review site, offers some terrific tips for creating dashboards that are user-friendly and aimed at enhancing board oversight and decision making. Dashboards aren't my forte, but I see the value and am always interested in resources that help me understand how to make the most out of this tool.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Flipping the nonprofit board agenda

When people ask me to recommend one step they could take to improve the effectiveness of their board meetings, my instant response is "flip the agenda."

The usual complaints about board meetings cluster around two common themes: no time for the "fluffy" stuff and fatigued members by the time they get to the places where that fluff might actually arise (old and new business, generally found at the end of the agenda). Regular readers know that I've often advocated for a different frame of mind about that fluff. What's often treated as "nice IF we ever find the time" is governance. I try my persuasive best, but I'm finding that that shift of thinking is much harder for boards than it should be.

But the second complaint, board members too exhausted to speak, let alone think, when the substantive questions arise, requires only one simple action: flipping the agenda.

If your agenda is like most, it's front-loaded with reports, something along the lines of this:
  • Minutes to be approved
  • Treasurer's report
  • Executive director's report
  • Committee reports
Your individual board may handle these tasks in different ways. You may have other, similar meeting elements that fit the general theme. But the overall effect on the board is fairly universal: members are checked out and exhausted by passively sitting around listening to others ramble on about things that happened in the past (because that's the focus of most reports: events that took place between meetings).  If your board has two to four committees, and they all have something to report, that little checklist could take at least an hour of your members' precious time and energy.

Now, I have another recommendation for dealing with all those reports: adopt a consent agenda. Boards should be focused on the future, not endlessly reviewing events from the past. But if that step is too rich for your members' collective blood, you can position these items in a different place on the agenda: at the end, where passive attention is less damaging.

Flipping the agenda - placing the reports and other passive tasks at the end and opening meetings with the larger issues that require fresh thinking and full attention - involves board members in the substantive work up front. Two things are likely to occur. First, they have the energy needed to discuss these agenda items freely and creatively. Second, they also have the potential to generate energy, as they are engaged in work that challenges them and connects them to aspects of the meaningful work that drew them to serve in the first place.

So what might a "flipped agenda" look like? Here's an example of how I envision a revamp:

XYZ Nonprofit Board Meeting
Call to order

Burning board question (10 minutes): How are we, as a board, "feeling" our mission? (Discussion based on Carlo Cuesta's post, "Overcoming a Disconnect with the Mission")

Old business (in the spirit of simply flipping things around)

  • Update, discussion on agency's efforts to diversify funding base (facilitated by Resource Development Committee)

New business

  • Discuss proposed collaboration with ABC Nonprofit to create a community resource clearinghouse (facilitated by Community Engagement Committee)

Reports (only if you really, really cannot adopt a consent agenda)
  • Approval of previous meeting minutes
  • Treasurer's report
  • Executive director's report

I toyed with adding other agenda items to this example, in the spirit of a more detailed illustration of what I am advocating. Ultimately, I deleted them in recognition of another agenda pitfall: cramming too much activity into a finite time frame. Even the two old and new business examples offered have the potential for overload when presented in one meeting. You could easily select only one for focus this time around and end up with a stimulating, engaging, and potentially overwhelming (in a good way) meeting.

One thing in my sample meeting that I refused to remove from the table was the "burning board question," a brief opportunity to engage members in governance related learning that connects them to the meaning of their work. That small investment of time sets the stage and puts them into the right frame of mind for the work that lies ahead.

Another minor shift that I want to be sure to point out in this example: the role of committees in leading the "old" and "new" business items. Rather than itemizing tasks already behind them, they are engaged in leading their peers in substantive, future-oriented discussions clearly tied to governance responsibilities. Don't underestimate the transformative potential of changing the way you involve your committees while you're flipping the agenda.

A given for the success of this agenda adjustment - or any board agenda - is that members receive it in a timely manner. The greatest agenda in the world, filled with the most profound questions of the day, is of no value if members see it only a day or two before the meeting (or worse, at the meeting). Substantive discussions require time to think, gather feedback, and read supportive materials. They require time.

Have you experienced a similar kind of approach to board meetings? Would your board be open to flipping things around? What other changes to meeting structure might a board consider to transform the way it works?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Overheard: Dec. 16 edition

Sharing my favorite board-related links from the last week...

Is 5:30 the best time for a board meeting? Really? (Carlo Cuesta)

Carlo poses an important but seldom discussed question: Are we really meeting at a time that fosters active engagement and full member attention? I was fascinated by the question, and hopeful that it would generate some wide feedback - mostly because I believe that member fatigue or distraction is an unspoken challenge to effective meetings. There will be no one, perfect answer: unless "are you a morning person?" is part of your recruitment criteria, you'll likely have a mix of members who are most alert at very different times of the day. It's still appropriate to ask - and to adapt when necessary to ensure that you are engaging the largest number of members at a time when they are at their best for governance. By the way, I'd encourage you to comment on this entry and help to expand the discussion. I've not seen this conversation anywhere else, and it deserves some visibility.

The spotlight on nonprofit boards (Gene Takagi)

As often as boards obsess about the terrible things that could go wrong, I've found that most are generally unaware of their true legal/accountability expectations. They may encounter aspects of those responsibilities, but the larger picture remains a mysterious unknown. One of my favorite nonprofit legal minds, Gene Takagi, shares a great overview that should generate healthy discussion and spark further research. The blog where this is posted, where Gene and partner Emily Chan regularly write on these topics, is an excellent starting point. If you're not subscribed to their blog, and following them on Twitter (Gene, Emily), you need to do so, today. They constantly expand my understanding of nonprofit legal issues.

Getting people to change (Hildy Gottlieb)

Hildy always stretches me to think more expansively about what motivates people to act. The entire post offers great specifics about the challenges and facilitators to change. But she could have limited the post to this sentence and accomplished everything she intended: "...people will move mountains if they are inspired to do so." We can apply that to the larger community in which we operate. We also can apply that to the board itself. The next time we feel compelled to whine about the latest way that the board has let us down, ask this instead: How have we inspired them to move that mountain?

"Goodbye butts in chairs" (Rae Tanner)

Finally, a little training humor - not board-specific, but definitely reminiscent of why many board training events tend to fall short of their full potential. If you're a regular reader, you know I agree wholeheartedly.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Building diverse board capital

"We really need a more diverse board." When most of us think about diversity, we start with demographic kinds of definitions: ethnicity, gender, age, education, neighborhood, etc. - characteristics and qualities that, for the most part, we can see.

Those aspects of diversity absolutely are important and must be incorporated into the board's recruitment goals. But there are other ways of infusing diversity into your board that carry the potential to transform the governance outcomes and experiences - not to replace the demographic factors, but as an enhancement.

One of my favorite additions to the diversity mix introduces social capital that we bring to the boardroom. In this recent post, Harold Jarche introduces three types of capital that we all carry within us, but express in different ways and levels. Fans of Malcolm Gladwell's seminal book, The Tipping Point, will recognize them immediately. I'm one of those fans. And, as always happens, when I read Harold's post, I instantly connected it to nonprofit boards.

Jarche describes the three capital types this way:

  • Intellectual capital (ability to collect, retain and share information)
  • Social capital (ability of people to work together)
  • Creative capital (ability to combine diverse ideas)

We all have the capacity for each inside of us. We use all three at some point in our daily lives. But usually, one or two will feel more natural as ways of working and interacting. (For example, when I read Gladwell years ago, I recognized myself immediately in his version of intellectual capital, the Maven. My primary role is to share, create, and curate information that others may find useful. If you interact with me on Twitter and other social media sites, one of life's great mysteries has just been solved.)

I'd like to propose that boards that have a better mix of these types of human capital will have a greater potential - and capacity for what governance requires. Let's explore what each type might bring to the nonprofit boardroom.


These are the people who have specific knowledge to share (mission area or governance role specific), and a knack for translating it into something useful for board work. We all bring intellectual capital to the boardroom. But, if we've recruited wisely, some of us have a particular way of sharing and expanding our understanding in the process.

  • They bring deep knowledge and experience, and they share willingly with the board, to expand member understanding of the issues and work that bring them together.
  • They bring articles and other resources that inform the board's work, recognizing that it's not the CEO's job alone to educate members.
  • They ask the questions that encourage us to not accept quick solutions, bringing information and perspectives to flesh out the discussion.


We all have the responsibility and (hopefully) are talking about our mission regularly. But these individuals are especially comfortable, connected and willing to lead the outreach on your behalf.

  • They are constantly thinking about whom to approach and how - and pushing the rest of us to do the same.
  • They are not afraid to call on people, both those they already know and those they've yet to meet.
  • They naturally find those embedded opportunities to tell our story and act on them.
  • They serve as role models for fellow board members.
  • They willingly act as mentors who can accompany board members (and the CEO), to encourage effective outreach.
  • They are persuasive people, effective in making the case for support and inspiring others to act.


These are the people who find connections in unexpected (and occasionally weird) places. They'll bring seemingly unrelated, or tangential, ideas to the table and somehow translate them in ways that not only make sense but change the way we look a the question at hand.

  • They'll ask the "what if..." and "how about..." questions that stretch us and lead us to the visionary work of governance.
  • They'll encourage us to feel and see the issues that we're deliberating - taking us out of our heads (since boards like to intellectualize things). Doing so potentially helps us connect more easily to the meaning-driven and meaning-making work of governance, and the purpose that drew most of us to accept a board seat in the first place.
  • They'll be most likely to introduce the kind of creative play that Pamela Meyer encourages to transform the way we work - IF we empower them to do so. They won't allow us to sit passively listening to reports and rubber-stamping proposals from staff. 
  • They will occasionally drive us nuts,  in good ways.

I realize that that last description of creative capital sounds pretty idealistic. If I'm romanticizing that particular capital, it's because I see it as the place where boards are most likely lacking. We recruit members for what they know: they have some expertise that we need, either as a leadership group or for our mission area. We recruit members for their connections to donors, stakeholder groups and others. What we don't often actively seek - in part, because we don't know we should - is creativity and the people who will stretch us in creative ways.

I originally intended to include a few social capital-focused recruitment tips to close this post. But as I review those tips today, they either seem repetitive of advice offered in previous entries or too facile to be truly effective. I'll continue to work on them and instead ask for conversation and feedback on how you either already approach recruitment in ways that naturally bring all three types of capital or how you might adapt your process to incorporate this different type of diversity.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Overheard: Dec. 9 edition

Posts from three of my governance blogging heroes top this week's slate of favorite board links.

Overcoming a disconnect with the mission (Carlo Cuesta)

"Carlo wrote a new post! Carlo wrote a new post!" was my immediate response when this edition popped up in my Twitter feed. It also exemplifies why I'm such a fan. Mission is a common theme in his writings, and this newest post extends the conversation in powerful ways. It addresses a common issue for so many of our nonprofits: the challenge of maintaining focus on our reason for being while dog-paddling through the urgent tasks and problems slamming into into us on a daily basis, we risk floundering. When we relegate that mission to words in a statement, rather than the living purpose that drives us to the work. This passage is particularly powerful: "Above all, mission is a feeling. An organization’s leadership may capture it in a carefully worded statement, but before that happens a sense of being emerges from a milieu of diverse passions. Mission is about a group of people imagining the change they can create and exploring these possibilities together. Through their collective action, they discover something in common within one another, a shared sense of purpose." He then shares four domains of leadership to help guide our focus and work.

The nonpartisan agenda of corporate social responsibility (Alice Korngold)

In her first contribution to the Huffington Post, Alice reminds us of the larger purposes of corporate social responsibility generally and board service specifically. She draws from deep experience linking business employees and nonprofits needing their expertise to remind the reader of the mutual benefit of making those connections, whether we're talking about the types of larger corporations that Alice works with, or main street businesses found in our smaller communities. We always should be exploring and talking about the common ground and the vision of a better community when we work together to advance it.

3 keys to thriving through adversity (Kevin Monroe)

Most of our boards are quite familiar with handling adversity. We have plenty of practice walking a rocky pathway to our missions. If we're still standing, we also know something about resilience. In this post, Kevin offers three areas where that resilience is essential to sustainability. All three absolutely are the domain of governance, but I'd bet that one (funding sources) would tend to dominate their attention when times are tough. The fact that he provides the reader with examples for each area reminds me why I'm a Kevin Monroe fan.

Montana Nonprofit Association resource library

My neighbors to the north have created a wonderful online information toolbox that any nonprofit board will find useful. It covers a range of topics with governance ties, e.g., accountability and transparency, advocacy and public policy, and strategic alliances. My recommendation: bookmark it, explore it and share it with your board. It's a user-friendly resource that any nonprofit will find valuable.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Overcoming small nonprofit vulnerabilities

While all nonprofits experience a range of minor to significant challenges, small organizations - and the boards that govern them - are particularly vulnerable and face a common core of issues.

As I was reading Colin Rochester's chapter on boards of small voluntary organizations (in The Governance of Public and Non-Profit Organizations) this weekend, I recognized immediately the three "consequences of small nonprofit vulnerability" that he listed. I've seen forms of them in virtually every organization I've encountered as a consultant, trainer, institute coordinator, and board member. They don't affect every organization equally, but they're pervasive amongst most of our smaller organizations. Let's see if you recognize them.

(1) They find it heard to look past the day-to-day challenges to do the necessary long term, strategic work. This one certainly is understandable: If you don't know for sure whether you'll have the funds to keep the doors open six months from now, if you're perpetually wondering where you're going to find the paid or volunteer staff to meet the increasing need for services, if you're constantly recruiting new board members because you've burned them out, it's mighty hard to make plans for two years from now.

This is, by far, the hardest challenge to overcome for most boards and organizations. It's why retreats fail to transform thinking or move our missions forward. It's why we wallow in meeting agendas that zero in on the right-before-us and not the "fluffy stuff" of leadership. But nonprofit staff and boards need to get over this one, as hard as it may be to do. They must vision, plan and move forward or that day-to-day existence risks becoming a permanent state. They must make the space for this work.

(2) They have limited access to expertise and skills needed to take them to the next level. Some aspects of this may be more obvious than others. For example, small nonprofits may either literally lack the funds to attend professional development events, conferences, and other opportunities to learn and network; or they may perceive that they lack the funds to devote to anything that isn't directly tied to programming. They may lack the connections to individuals with the expertise they need, on or off the board, or the funds to engage them as consultants.

What may not be so obvious when immersed in the moment is that there's a bit of a cyclical nature to this. Sometimes, you need to invest a little in your future (time as well as money), to discover ways to grow your capacity (and connect with peers and expert resources who may be able become allies down the road).

(3) They are isolated. They don't have the time - or don't feel like they have the time - to look up from what is in front of them, step away from the boardroom table, and find ways to engage others.

Smaller organizations need to be even more creative about seeking vehicles for reaching out to others, telling their story and building visibility (and a case that will attract the expert resources you seek). They need to meet others in unexpected places. They don't have the luxury of allowing some board members to sit back and let someone else do the organization's outreach.

Rochester doesn't just point out the challenges impacting smaller nonprofits. He also offers five factors that he has found to manage the "liability of smallness."

(1) Nurturing, collaborative leadership. Small organizations need something quite different from what larger, multi-level hierarchical organizations require from leaders. They need people who want to reach out, who look for ways to collaborate with others, and who will reserve the energy to attend to the human needs of people working hard to achieve big goals.

(2) The ability to be formal when needed, and otherwise flexible. Small nonprofit leaders need to be able to develop processes for making clear, wise, appropriate decisions. But they also need to be flexible: for example, fostering meeting environments that are open and where creative thinking can flow.

(3) The ability to balance the day to day with the long-range visioning work.  Key to making this one work is recruiting board and staff leaders who have the capacity and the willingness to stretch the group's thinking and hold their peers accountable for making space for the long-term work. Boards and senior staff need detail people and big-picture people. Both serve the small organization well when they are empowered to ensure that today and the future receive appropriate, regular attention.

(4) An environment where the work - and the power - are spread across the board. No nonprofit really can afford a disparity between board members' participation, where some members are allowed to take a passive role. This is especially true in small nonprofits. When every member is expected to participate, and find a way to lead, capacity naturally increases.

(5) Access to external sources of information and support. I would add "...that they use" to this one. A growing network of expertise and peer communities exists (without cost), thanks to social media that deliver those resources to their desktop, phone, laptop and tablet. Face to face opportunities to network may exist in some communities (We're still trying to build that here in Laramie.).  They only help if board members and senior staff take advantage of them, though.

Small nonprofits that manage to make the most of these five factors have a better chance of finding the time, energy and resources they ultimately need to move to the next level of organizational growth.

What are the challenges that most impact your small nonprofits? Did Colin Rochester miss anything? How does your board avoid drowning in the day-to-day?