Monday, December 31, 2012

Nonprofit governance: Process and practice

As I reflect back on the issues that energized and perplexed in 2012 - and the questions left to be explored in 2013 - it's obvious that next year's focus for this blog (and my work generally) has a clear theme:

"Process and Practice"

The "practice" side of the equation is a straightforward one: As a pracademic (a practitioner also engaged in teaching and research), everything always comes down to practice. That won't change, though I am privately committing to a series of specific practice themes in what I share here and elsewhere in the coming year.

The "process" spotlight will be the growth area for my public thinking about nonprofit boards. It's not unfamiliar ground: one of my master's theses (in organizational communication) and my doctoral dissertation both explored board "process" issues. But I've been increasingly challenged by the lack of quality discussion about - or even acknowledgement of - the very real interpersonal/group dynamics issues that keep popping up in boardrooms. That concern has come to a head as we turn the calendar page to 2013.

As a sector, we don't really talk about the very real impacts of how we interact, how we collaborate, how we deliberate and ultimately make decisions. We talk a lot about roles and responsibilities. We talk about demographics: who's in the room, or not. But we don't really deal with the human aspects of what happens when we put different personalities, with different understandings and approaches to working with other people, into those boardrooms. Experience tells me that that's where some of the bigger challenges and bigger breakthroughs occur. But we don't want to talk about the messy stuff of human interaction and human nature.

That stands in contrast with one of the bigger surprises I've encountered in my exploration of corporate governance. I've been shocked to find open discussion of the highs and lows of interpersonal communication (and the personalities that help or hinder that interaction) smack dab in the middle of a book or article on corporate boards.

One of my goals for 2013 is to pose some questions that really need to be asked, and to share resources and insights about group process, and spark conversations about what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. I'm not exactly sure how that will unfold, but I'm committed to shining a spotlight on topics we really need to get out into the open as a sector. If one outcome is giving boards some language for identifying the processes that facilitate quality governance (or get in the way of that work), it will be a successful effort. If it helps some boards find the bravery to actually deal with the less-than-productive actions and interactions, that's even better.

I'll continue to write on a wide range of nonprofit governance issues (especially new applications of adult education theory and practice to board learning) throughout the year. But this "practice and process" theme feels like a worthy contribution to governance within our sector. I'll be interested in hearing your insights, and your experiences, as we explore this together.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Yes, a must-read

Too many flags to count and two highlighters used up: yes, your nonprofit's library needs a copy of this book:

To discover the other three books that made my 2012 list of must-read governance titles, read my Dec. 24 post.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Big, burning board questions for 2013

What are the big questions that nonprofit boards will be (or should be) facing in the year ahead?

As I try on my different board hats - member, blogger, educator, facilitator - in the waning days of 2012, these are the questions that feel most compelling. What would you add to the list?

  • What board focus/activities will bring us - and our community - closer to our vision of a better future by the end of the year?
  • How will we stay focused on that visionary work in the next 12 months (and beyond)?
  • What are the unique stories that we can tell as board members, and how can we share them with the stakeholder groups that most need to hear them?
  • How will we demonstrate our stewardship of community resources that have been entrusted to the agency, to internal and external audiences?  
  • What do we need to understand this year to govern more effectively? How will we build learning that creates and deepens that understanding into our work?
  • How can we clear space for open-ended, future-focused discussions in our meetings?

  • What do I want my legacy to be on this board, and what actions/commitments do I need to make in 2012 to ensure that contribution (especially for boards)?
  • What do I most need, from my fellow board members and the agency, to maintain my highest level of motivation?
  • With whom can I share our story, to increase community engagement with our mission and our agency? How will I make those contacts?
  • What can the sector do to increase public respect, visibility and accountability of board service?
  • How do we reframe the practical definition (in terms of where boards actually focus) of nonprofit governance as something more than oversight - as community and organizational leadership?
  • What professional development opportunities and resources do boards need to lead, and how can we make them accessible to all?
  • How can we finally frame and support board diversity in ways that are meaningful and that avoid tokenism?
  • How do we help nonprofit boards own the future they are helping to create?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Board books that impacted in 2012

If I'm not writing about boards, I'm reading about them. In 2012, that reading included four books that helped to expand my thinking about nonprofit governance, each in a unique way.

The Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards (Cathy Trower)

Well, my work here is done. I launched this blog in 2007, in part, as a vehicle for exploring and articulated many of the concepts that drew me to Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership framework. In this new book, Trower offers a phenomenally rich toolbox of resources - examples, questions and checklists - to not only better understand the three modes of governance that make up GAL (fiduciary, strategic and generative) but to implement it. I've been waiting for this book since I cracked open the original for the first time.

Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the Coming Revolution in Corporate Governance (Richard LeBlanc and James Gillies)

This title fulfilled its original purpose, by expanding my understanding of corporate governance. But embedded within was an unexpected gift that will resonate with boards in either sector - a 10-type framework describing functional and dysfunctional board behaviors. The categories shared rang true (I recognized board members past - and, yes, my own actions - on both lists). They also invite the reader to be more mindful of group dynamics, the interpersonal factors that impact board effectiveness as much as - and frequently more than - the tasks and job descriptions that tend to dominate our discussions and prescriptions. How do we interact with each other? How do we facilitate effective governance deliberations? How do we inhibit them?  What kind of leader guides us to effective outcomes? The authors dug into the messiness that so often stands between us and the good work that we intend to do.

Before You Join a Board: 21 Essential Questions (John Balkcom)

I love a good question, especially when it sparks thoughtful reflection about board service. As the title indicates, John offers a series of questions designed to evaluate whether the fit between individual and board is a good one for both parties. The author organized the book and the questions around three categories: "make or break" (negative responses disqualify service), matters of board hygiene (practices that facilitate board health), and questions distinguishing good practice from great governance. While some questions are corporate specific, most are sector-neutral.  All encourage recruits, those currently serving, and the board as a whole to assess what they do, how they do it, and why. Perhaps it's because I've had self-assessment on the brain of late, but I consider this book to be as valuable as part of a board's evaluation toolbox as it is to its original purpose of finding the right fit before one accepts an invitation to serve.

Fired-Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action (Gail Perry)

I purchased this title because I needed to better understand how to help reluctant board members (myself included) to find their purpose and their specific roles in a local nonprofit's fundraising program.  Gail didn't disappoint on that front. Fired-Up Fundraising makes a case for multi-layered board involvement offers accessible strategies for engaging even the most hesitant member in ways that advance the agency's fundraising efforts. But I was caught off guard by her early focus on connecting board members to their deeper motivations, and to linking the outreach we're asking them to make with donors to the compelling vision that drives them all to serve. The foundation she lays is more than "find a way to join board member A's interests with fundraising goal B." It starts with appreciating the significant gifts that members bring to their service, finding ways to respect and fuel their passion to stretch in ways that may initially feel uncomfortable. I know that shouldn't be newsworthy in writing about boards. But when it comes to talking about their roles in fundraising, too often the tone is a negative one, laying out the myriad ways in which we board members fail to live up to expectations. Instead, Gail starts from a different place, one that is respectful of board members' leadership and that is far more likely to foster success in the long run. She also reminds us that fundraising involves far more than making the ask; there are many ways to participate in the process.

While I chose to highlight these four titles as noteworthy for the reasons outlined here, others have been influential in shaping my thinking about nonprofit governance. For a complete list of those I consider to be essential, please visit my "Must-Read Nonprofit Board Resources" Pinterest board. Many are available in eBook form (in fact, all four of the highlighted books can be downloaded), which means you have instant access to quality governance sources over your holiday break.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Governance: Unlearning to learn

What do boards need to unlearn before they can learn to govern more effectively?

The early pages of Dennis Pointer's Board Work: Governing Health Care Organizations left me pondering that question. As an adult educator, I have a few thoughts of my own. But I'm more interested in hearing your ideas about what blocks boards' ability to move toward a different approach to governing.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts via this brief, one-question survey. I'll collect responses, synthesize, and share in a future post. I'm interested in a broad pool of responses; any help sharing with your boards and with others in the sector would be most appreciated.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Overheard: December 21

Well, the one good thing about living through a tough fall may be the fact that I have plenty of time to accumulate a wealth of fantastic resources between posts.

Leading - now and always (Erika Andersen)

I ask. Cousin Erika delivers. In my "leadership edition" favorite links post, I introduced you to the leadership model that Erika has developed and wished for a public version of the qualities that form the foundation. Today, I share a post that describes those essential qualities of a leader that others will follow - and make an impact in our communities and the nonprofit sector.

What makes nonprofits special? (Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies)

Whether it's in the context of our community outreach, our public policy work, or simply in routine boardroom deliberation, understanding the ultimate value that our sector brings to our society is important. This recent work, by the JHCCSS team, does a fantastic job of articulating common sector values and beginning the case for strengthening its collective voice.

Between minds - an ongoing taxonomy of team dynamics (

The more I observe and learn about boards, the more convinced I am that we need to be spending far more time attending to the interpersonal 'stuff' that can make or break quality interaction and teamwork. When this infographic appeared in my RSS feed, I immediately thought of how it might spark a conversation about the human tendencies each of us have and how those tendencies display themselves in the boardroom. Do we make the most of those "thought leader" qualities? Do we channel the "do leader" energy in ways that are productive and pointed in the direction the board wants to head?

Meetings: What's your biggest problem with meetings? (Simply Business)

Click image to open interactive version (via Simply Business).

Speaking of interpersonal "stuff" getting in the way... I simply had to share this interactive tool for thinking about some of the bigger challenges to productive meetings. I've seen and experienced them all. You have, too. Click on the image to access a great, interactive resource for addressing those issues.

5 nonprofit trends to watch in 2013 (Nell Edgington)

Whether or not Nell is exactly on the mark on all five of these predictions, for me the point is to remind boards that the future should be their primary focus. In that spirit, take Nell's list. Discuss it. Explore what each of her trends might mean for your organization. Talk about issues already represented in your work and interactions. Anticipate what could arise and how you might be proactive in meeting those opportunities where they can best serve your mission and your stakeholders.

Brainstorming vs. braincalming (Mitch Ditkoff)

Regular readers know my bias toward reflective practice in board work. That's immediately where my brain went when I read this post. In our efforts to make the most of limited board volunteer time, we often err on the side of cramming as much into those minutes as possible - and as much information into their brains as possible. The specific call here is to rethink the all-too-popular brainstorming practice (and I absolutely plan to add this to my facilitation toolbox), but I think it also offers us an alternative way of thinking about how we structure board discussions. Do we give members the information needed for quality deliberations enough in advance to facilitate thoughtful consideration and research before the meeting? In the meetings themselves, do we leave enough open space for listening? Do we give each important decision enough time to incubate before a vote is cast? Do we give board members the breathing room to listen not only to each other but to their own hearts and heads?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Overheard: Dec. 8

It must be the season: Several sources offered gifts that must be shared with nonprofit boards this week.

Board development - Excerpt from helping your board tell your story (Carlo Cuesta)

Carlo must have been reading my mind during this webinar. As he began describing four things that nonprofit boards need (experiences, safe environments to share, opportunities to create, and laughter and joy), I found myself thinking, "I really need a way to share this...". A day or so later, this clip appeared on Carlo's blog. He is absolutely right about all four of those needs - especially the need for different kinds of experiences and opportunities to create. What experiences do we offer our boards, besides passive seat time listening to reports? What do we ask them to create on our behalf? So much to ponder (and act upon) in this post. By the way, if you have the chance to sign up for the next version of this free webinar, you simply must do so.

Wanted: Strong capable nonprofit boards (Lucy Marcus)

In this post, Lucy captures the essence of what boards require to succeed and lead as eloquently as I've ever seen. What a marvelous overview - and spark for meaningful discussion. Where are our strengths? What are our challenges? Where do we invest in our board's development to build its governance capacity?

Governance as Leadership: New approaches to governing nonprofits

Governance as Leadership from Hauser Center at Harvard on Vimeo.

You may not be giddy about seeing Governance as Leadership co-author William Ryan speak about the model that has so deeply influenced my thinking about the way boards lead. But seeing this "live" discussion about GAL - and especially the revolutionary generative component - made my week. It's also inspired me to act on my promise to myself to write more about this topic. In the meantime, enjoy this discussion about what's possible when boards are given the time and space to govern creatively.

Break downs on nonprofit boards (Kevin Monroe)

Kevin offers hope - and a starting point - for boards who feel stuck in a non-productive place. Sometimes, we need a little boost (and a few good questions) to move us from that broken-down place.

Thinking strategically? (Gayle Gifford)

Anything that reminds boards of the value of thinking strategically is a gift. Gayle offers "five ways to tell if you're thinking strategically" in this update. Be sure to click on the link to Gayle's "Five elements of thinking strategically" post, found at the end of this article, for an expansion.

Basic competencies of the nonprofit leader (Natasha Golinsky)

Governance may offer a specific context but, in the end, leadership is leadership. Natasha's five competencies apply as much to board members as they do do CEOs, senior staff and other volunteer leaders. Use this post as a framework for affirming your board's commitments to leading your organization to the best of their ability.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Overheard: Continuing the catch-up

Today, I continue to share some of the board-friendly resources that I've been bookmarking for you this fall.

Building a strategic board: webinar excerpt (Carlo Cuesta)

This brief video presents an overview of a framework that has intrigued since Carlo shared a sneak peek awhile back. Its focus on appropriate ways to engage the board's strategic purpose reminds me of what attracted me to his approach in the first place.

Using technology to be better trustees (Louise Brown)

In addition to (re)introducing us to several free Google tools that can streamline board communication and improve access to information when needed, she reminds us that "technology" can be harnessed to enhance boards' productivity. Statewide board meetings  that require long car rides for meetings (so common in my home state) and mailed board packets simply miss the point. Find ways to harness the free and low-cost tools to make board service easier and allow members to concentrate on what's important.

Bringing a network mindset to board development (Beth Kanter)

Beth had me at "board development." She expanded its value by introducing readers to network mapping and encouraging boards to articulate and link connections that can be summoned in service to the organization.

Step up: Be an ambassador (Sarah Mackey)

Quick, practical ways for board members to promote your work and involve others in your mission - that's what Sarah offers in this post. Outreach needn't be a vague, abstract notion. It's also one of the more important responsibilities of boards. The specifics Sarah offers make that role more accessible and attractive to individual members.

5 things trusting teams do (Matt Monge)

So many of the challenges boards face come down to the interpersonal stuff.  Reaching their greatest potential requires boards to function effectively as teams. This post offers a primer on building team trust - nothing revolutionary, but a healthy reminder (and perhaps an opening to discuss areas where our boards struggle).

10 tips for better nonprofit board decisions (Kevin Monroe)

Love this list. Love it. It's good, common sense; but Kevin packages and frames it in the context of board decision making. Boards can use it in many ways to evaluate and commit to better, more thoughtful processes. As with the trust post, it's often a reminder of the basics that sparks the greatest move toward improved board effectiveness.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Overheard: Leadership edition

An unfortunate collision of circumstances has left me drained and my presence here nowhere near where it should have been. To help myself break out of this late fall slump - and to share some of the resources I've been collecting for you - I'm creating a brief (two- to three-post) "overheard" favorite links series. Today, I'll share several recent leadership-focused resources that caught my eye.

4 leadership roles to consider when recruiting your board (Gayle Gifford)

When Gayle published this post earlier this week, it clicked for a couple of reasons. One, I appreciate any quality framework for understanding leadership as a multifaceted phenomenon. Two, as Gayle describes so well here, it offers another potential layer for moving our recruitment thinking and processes beyond the usual demographic elements (as always, acknowledging demographics as necessary but insufficient criteria for the capacity needs of a governing board). How might you incorporate these leadership styles in your recruitment plan?

Great leaders don't do it alone...they get help (Erika Andersen)

Aside from a bit of pride in saying, "hey, that's my brilliant cousin...," I share this post as a reminder that the kinds of boardroom debate leading to the best decisions possible require active participation by everyone, willing to play different roles in service to our common mission. I'm still hoping to find a publicly available description of Erika's "six attributes of followable leaders" (though I certainly would recommend the original source, her book, for the best overview). In the meantime, I'm pleased to share this description of three types of supporters that she describes as critical to success. While she didn't write this with a nonprofit board in mind (and it certainly isn't limited to internal audiences), I see value in considering the ways in which board members might enact one or more of those roles as part of their deliberations. Are they welcome in our boardrooms? Do they help to expand our thinking, facilitate more multi-faceted discussions? Anything that expands our understanding of the group processes - and our capacity to diversify and enhance them - has potential value for our boards.

Weak board governance - A failure of leadership (Peter Rinn)

I tend to steer away from negative framings of governance in this space, since there's an endless supply elsewhere and I don't find it especially helpful as a motivation for busy community leaders trying to do their best for our organizations. But I do appreciate the author's willingness to call out boards and executives on some of the counterproductive actions - and non-actions - that add to the challenge. Most important, in my mind, was his articulation of two of the more counterproductive myths that many of us hold about boards: that we can't ask too much because they're "just volunteers" and that high expectations will scare people away. Not only does it sell our board leaders short, it also perpetuates the vicious cycle which we inevitably - and incorrectly - blame on them.

Do board members sit or serve? (Kevin Monroe)

Speaking of expectations - and giving board members the respect they deserve - my friend, Kevin, reminds us that words matter. How do we discuss governance with our boards? How do they define and enact their responsibilities? How do we frame their work? How do we value that work? The next time you describe working with your board as a burden, think about that.

The power of a single board member (Nell Edgington)

The idea that one person can make a difference isn't a foreign concept in the nonprofit sector. This post reminds us, boards and individual members alike, that we have the responsibility and the power to make a difference in fulfilling our leadership commitments. We could expand upon the examples provided here, but it's a good starting point for a conversation about the importance of what board members are asked to contribute.

For business executives, serving on nonprofit boards is good for democracy (Alice Korngold)

 I'll close with Alice's powerful reminder that nonprofit service - nonprofit leadership - is a contribution to more than one organization's bottom line. It expands our understanding of critical community issues, and it builds skills and connections that transfer to other leadership settings.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving thanks for nonprofit boards

I tend to bristle at the all too common tendency to focus on the myriad ways in which nonprofit boards fail to live up to the expectations placed on them. As this day of thanks comes to a close, I'd rather focus on the many contributions that our volunteer leaders make to the health of our organizations and our communities.

I share this brief list of gratitude, acknowledging that board members are imperfect human beings. They do fall short on occasion. They do lose steam at inconvenient times. But when they are recruited strategically, motivated consistently and supported fully, our boards will fulfill their full leadership potential - and our communities will be better for it. As you read my list of thanks, ask yourself this question: how do I/we ensure that each statement will be true?

Giving thanks for our boards

Our boards bring commitment to, and passion for, their organizations' vision and mission. They come because they want to make a difference - to move us closer to our vision of a better future.

They bring experiences and the power to move you closer to that future. Recruited well, individual members expand the group's collective capacity to govern, by sharing their expertise, their life experiences and their informed perspectives to the boardroom.

They bring the dual gift of time and energy. In return, they ask that those resources be used wisely, focused on meaningful work rather than minutiae. They want to govern.

They bring varied connections to key stakeholder groups, extending your reach and your voice in the community (however your organization defines community). They expand and engage our networks in service to our mission.

They bring a unique kind of credibility with those audiences as committed community volunteers. When they speak and act, people listen and respond in ways that are different than when paid staff initiate contact.

They bring wisdom and the desire to grapple with the big questions that our vision and mission demand. They not only are ready to really govern, they are destined to govern (when we respect and support their right to do so).

What other contributions to our boards make? What can you - and I - do to ensure their success?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Board self-assessment: A few resources

Your board has committed to assessing its performance, but it has no idea what that process should look like. Where do you start?

As I prepare to talk about board self-assessment with Renee McGivern, host of one of my favorite podcasts ("Nonprofit Spark"), later this week, I thought I'd share links to examples of surveys and processes that readers may find useful.

You may find a tool that fits your assessment needs exactly, or you may find one that you are able to customize to address your board's specific goals and challenges. Whichever is the case, I trust that this round-up of assessment resource examples will expand your governance toolbox.

Board member self-assessment template (Next Level Nonprofits). According to the post's author, Marilyn Donnellan, these questions are excerpted from a Next Level Nonprofit guide, The Two-Hour Board Training. This tool takes a simple yes/no approach to asking about a range of board activities; in its original form, it could function as a useful quick-check, individual-level focus on performance.

Board effectiveness quiz (Creating the Future). This tool, also an individual-level evaluation, encourages a slightly deeper look at another broad range of governance role challenges. Part of the questions posed here ask about agreement with a range of statements about your board performance. Your board could enrich the potential of that section by asking for agreement along a continuum (e.g., strongly agree to strongly disagree). The earlier questions naturally invite more nuanced responses, yet they also don't feel particularly overwhelming.

Board member evaluation (Marc Smiley). This is an example of an evaluation based on a board member agreement (an annual commitment excellent boards frequently ask their members to make). It's tailored to a sample agreement posted elsewhere on Marc's site. What I like about this sample is its connection to commitments board members made earlier. Ideally, boards tie at least one part of the ongoing assessment process to their articulated responsibilities (e.g., member agreement, board goals, board job description).

20 questions about your nonprofit board (Meyer Foundation). Another check-off tool that introduces response possibilities beyond a simple yes/no, queries members about topics that are not exclusively role/task oriented.

Nonprofit board committee evaluation (The Moran Company)The title describes what's different about this tool: it looks at a third level of board responsibility, the committee. I probably would add a scale, or similar layer, to flesh out more detail about the strengths and challenges encountered in the groups where much of the detail work takes place. But it's a good reminder of the need to reflect on, and evaluate, all of the board's work to achieve optimal performance.

Key questions for board and senior staff (Anne Ackerson). I love these questions. I love their deceptive simplicity. I also love their focus beyond bottom line board tasks and their invitation to wide-open conversations about high-impact topics. They also have the potential to spark similar questions about governance generally and our board specificially.

Simple technique for board evaluation (Terrie Temkin). A marvelous, simple, personalized approach to individual accountability.

The Board Vector (Alice Korngold). I was a major fan of this rich board self-assessment resource when it first appeared as a downloadable PDF file on Alice's site. Now that it is available online (which adds the confidentiality that fosters honest answers) and provides an analysis of aggregated responses from the board as a whole, its value has expanded. That that report also includes a series of recommended follow-up questions for board reflection adds to its value (a sample report is available on the left side of the page). There is a charge for this online tool, which some boards may find challenging. Those who are able to make the financial commitment will find a rich board development resource.

I have a feeling that I'll have a follow-up after Renee and I chat. We'll see how that conversation ends up expanding my own, growing understanding of board self-assessment. Feel free to contribute resources you use and value via comment. Your fellow readers and I will appreciate it.

Links to related posts:

Building reflective boards: Self-assessment
Self-assessment: The board experience
10 ways to assess board performance
Assessing my own board performance

For a constantly growing list of board self-assessment tools, access my social bookmarks on the topic.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Retiring members: Continuing commitment

They've dedicated years of their lives to your organization and your mission. They've developed deep understanding of your programs, your challenges, and your impact on the community. Suddenly, in a cruel by-laws joke, your collective journey must come to a forced end. Or does it?

Does retirement from your nonprofit board necessarily mean saying good-bye to some of your most dedicated volunteer leaders?

The answer, of course, is no. But in an environment where the bigger (perceived) challenge is retaining and engaging board members, many nonprofits can't bear the prospect of letting go of committed servants with long organizational histories, even when it is in our best interest to do so.

Frankly, too many members stay too long, because we - and they - see nowhere to go once you've hit that board service pinnacle. Rather than do what's right, and creating space for the fresh thinking that comes with bringing new voices to the table, we cling to that valued relationship. It is time to begin a new conversation, about finding fitting new ways to continue our journey of commitment.

As recently as a few years ago, I would have taken a wide-ranging, "infinite-world-of-opportunity" approach to brainstorming literally dozens of ways to move retiring board members into new forms of service. Today, I preface my thoughts with an acknowledgment/caution: changing tasks may be a straightforward process, but the mental transition from the governance role may not be so easy.

For some of your organizations and your veteran board members, moving on can happen seamlessly. They're happy to begin a new chapter, with fewer responsibilities. For others, letting go of the legal and moral power that comes with board service can be tough (and occasionally may fail altogether) and creates problems for everyone. Reading the following ideas, and generating your own, should be considered within that context.

Ask them to share their expertise in new ways. The member's expertise - in your mission field or an area considered valuable to the governance process - is one reason you recruited him/her to serve in the first place. Once on board, the member likely didn't have the time to share that deep expertise (or doing so would have stretched the bounds of appropriate board member involvement). Having their board responsibilities behind them opens up time to share those skills more directly. Do they have the expertise to help you fine-tune your marketing plan? Advise you on investment policies? How can they (appropriately) deepen your pool of resources/skills, now that they have shed the board member role and constraints?

Invite them to lead or participate in a special project. They've had a chance to develop strong interest in aspects of your work but never had the time to fully commit. Now they have time to focus on those projects, or assume volunteer leadership of other special program needs. Some examples might include:
  • Chairing a capital campaign or your annual fund drive
  • Coordinating a special event (public awareness or fundraising)
  • Gathering and organizing stories, data, etc., to expand (or create) your organizational history
  • Researching and writing draft grant proposals
  • Helping staff to develop a social media strategy
  • Researching public policy issues related to your mission area, summarizing in formats that can be shared with staff, board and others

Involve them more deeply in your community outreach efforts. Invite your retiree to join your agency speakers bureau. Ask him/her to accompany the CEO or board members to public events. Find ways to record and share the member's testimony about why the organization's mission is important, why he/she agreed to serve, thoughts about greatest accomplishments, etc. (Note: this may be one of the more challenging transitions to make, because of real or perceived blurring of boundaries. The retiree's voice no longer carries the weight of a governing board member; but the former board member, and some in the audience, may have trouble remembering that in the moment.)

Ask them to help you make new connections. Involve them more deeply in the donor identification and process. Ask them to query their networks (and their networks), interview key stakeholders, and identify new potential supporters. If they are willing, ask them to help you meet some of those prospects. Ask recent retirees to conduct similar research for board recruitment needs. Yes, the responsibility and choice ultimately belong to the board. But what board wouldn't benefit from thoughtful research that yields a broader, more diverse starting point for its recruitment process? The additional benefit: the retiree-prospector already understands the board's needs and unique dynamics.

Recruit them to front-line volunteer roles. If they didn't already rise through the organization from other volunteer positions to the board, having a chance to experience the work from a different perspective could be an exciting and appropriate next chapter in their service to you. They heard about your programs over time. Experiencing that work firsthand can be the next logical step to learn more, and a fresh opportunity to serve you.

Beware of emeritus status and advisory boards. Let's end with a big don't. Resist the urge to create special status and/or structures to maintain ties to retired board members. Emeritus or other honorary status invites confusion for everyone, and often the expectation of having an official voice that simply doesn't exist once one has stepped off the board. Similarly, advisory boards introduce nightmares of their own, including a new structure that must be staffed and the risk of overstepped boundaries (since governing boards are the only model most of us have). Unless you have clear, compelling reasons for implementing one of these options - and the structures and resources for them to succeed - look elsewhere.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

10 ways to understand your mission better

This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.

How do we stay connected to our nonprofit's mission? How do we educate ourselves about the mission? About the organization's approach to fulfilling it? How can we take a more active role in fulfilling our own learning needs?

There undoubtedly are as many ways to approach this as there are nonprofits - and I'm anxious to hear how readers deepen their understanding of mission area issues. In the meantime, here are 10 relatively straightforward activities that should be accessible - and applicable - for most boards.

1. Make mission moments a regular part of your meeting agenda. This one will be familiar to longtime readers (I'm a big fan of mission moments). Set aside 5-10 minutes every meeting to share a story, a key statistic, a resource, etc., that reminds board members why they serve. Compelling evidence of need(s) being met/challenges faced/small signs of progress shared in mission moments not only make the work real, it also adds to their personal toolbox when interacting with peers, donors, friends, policy makers, and other potential stakeholders.

2. Assign mission-related readings, video or audio in advance of the meeting. These resources needn't be lengthy. They simply need to increase understanding and, hopefully, provoke thought. Spend time in your meeting discussing how it applies to your services. Talk about how it fits your context and how it differs. Explore how this new knowledge impacts your vision of your mission and your future. This isn't fluff or a luxury. It's the discussion of governance.

3. Participate in volunteer training. My first two board assignments were with agencies providing crisis intervention and counseling to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Both required board members to participate in victim advocate training. While some of my fellow board members found this to be overkill (and they probably were right), that immersion in the issues bound me to our mission in deep and meaningful ways. It also increased my understanding of the challenges that front-line volunteers face, which helped me to ask better questions and make more informed decisions related to programming and volunteer support. Would your board members gain different/deeper knowledge by participating in your volunteer training?

4. Spend time serving in other volunteer capacities. I'll acknowledge up front that this one may introduce conflicts of interest for some boards in some organizations. For others, volunteering to help organizer or staff special events, hosting guests (especially donors) at those events, or other opportunities to get up close and personal with the work and the people behind your agency in new ways. Just be aware of the potentially blurring of lines between governance and volunteerism. A quick reminder of which "hat" - board or volunteer - is being worn never is a bad idea.

5. Recruit a retired volunteer to serve on the board. For many boards, recruiting a former volunteer to the table accomplishes two important goals. One, it is a chance to invite an already loyal member of your organization to serve in a new leadership capacity. Two, it brings that individual's experience and informed commitment to boardroom deliberations. Volunteers bring a different perspective than staff or board - a perspective that many boards find valuable.

6.  Schedule Q&A time with staff members, especially senior staff. If board members aren't already spending quality time with the development director and the business manager, if they don't have regular opportunities to visit with program managers, they're missing out on opportunities to learn about the challenges, strengths and needs that shape how they approach their responsibilities.

7. Tour the facility. I once served on a board that required all members to participate in the annual tour set up for new recruits. Every year, as I entered the clinic, I wondered, "Why the heck am I here?" Every year, I left with new information about the services or the physical plant. I also renewed my appreciation for all that our staff and volunteers accomplished in less than ideal circumstances. Whether an annual event or a one-time visit, touring the space where mission work takes place can be an eye-opening and educational experience.

8. Include an "about our mission" section in your print or online board handbook. Give all members ready access to core information about mission-related issues, services and data, in the place they turn to whenever they have questions or opportunities to share with others. One of the beauties of taking your board handbook online: members won't have to wonder if the version they have is up to date.

9. Invite board members to participate in mission-related conferences, webinars and other training sessions. Not too many years ago, this one often would have involved expensive travel to a face to face event. Today, many of our nonprofits have access to distance-delivered professional development events and industry updates available online. Parent organizations, national associations, governmental agencies (especially for health and human services), and foundations addressing your mission area all may offer web- or video-based opportunities to expand your board's knowledge. If they are not free, charges often are low enough to fit in your board development budget.

10. Subscribe to mission-related newsletters, blogs, etc. Everything we could possibly need or want to know about most of our mission areas is readily accessible and totally free, thanks to social media and web-based resources. My vast personal learning network includes subscriptions to blogs, follows of Twitter profiles and likes of Facebook pages fed by organizations that share mission concerns with nonprofits I serve as a board member. They provide a ready stream of information and perspectives that expand my understanding of the broader issues we address. They also are available when I am ready to access them. If you're scared of Twitter and overwhelmed by Facebook, search for blogs and electronic newsletters focusing on your topics. Ask your ED, fellow board members and agency staff for recommendations of resources they value. Explore those sources and subscribe to whichever provides the kind of information you value in ways that meet your learning needs.

This is only a starting point. I invite you to share the ways in which you and your board bring yourselves closer to your organization's purpose.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A high-impact governance vision

 NOTE: For longtime readers, this post likely will appear to be a major rehash of virtually everything posted here in the last five years. For me, it is an attempt to synthesize all that I believe - and know - to be true about effective nonprofit governance. Whether it ultimately launches my own model of nonprofit governance or simply helps to articulate my bottom line for boards, I hope that others will find it useful.

After nearly 30 years working on and with boards, and five years of blogging about nonprofit governance, I’ve definitely developed my own sense of what is takes to truly lead in the boardroom.

I’m constantly reflecting and writing about the details of that topic. But if someone asked me to sum up everything I believe about boards, could I do that? The answer would be yes, and it would take only four words. The effective, productive nonprofit board is:

• Inclusive
• Engaging
• Accountable
• Generative

The high-impact nonprofit board is Inclusive. Members bring a range of perspectives to the table: personal and professional connections, life experiences, knowledge and expertise, and ways of seeing the world. The board recruits with diversity in mind – including, but not limited to, demographic diversity – and creates an environment where exploring issues and opportunities through different lenses is not only welcome, it’s expected.

The high-impact nonprofit board is Engaging. Meetings are places where governance takes place – where open discussions about the future are not reserved for special events but the core work of the board. Members want to participate and be part of the process, because they know that the work they do is meaningful and ultimately advances the purpose of the organization. Deliberations matter, because they focus on understanding, debating, articulating and ultimately making the best decision possible for the organization and the community. They also are the centerpiece of meetings, not endless oral reports about events past.

The high-impact nonprofit board is Accountable. The board understands that accountability requires more than monitoring the financial statement. It is an attitude of stewardship and responsibility to all stakeholders – those served, staff and volunteers, donors, policymakers, and the community as a whole. Members take their stewardship role seriously. They work to ensure that all resources are used wisely and appropriately. The board values evaluation – including self-assessment – that is grounded in the ultimate question, “How did we advance the mission and vision?”

The high-impact nonprofit board is Generative. Members understand the value of big, sweeping questions –grounded in organizational mission – that move the community closer to its vision of an ideal future. They embrace uncertainty, knowing that is where the greatest potential lies, in that undefined space of unlimited opportunity for both the organization and its community. It embraces the critical board role of boundary-spanning – where members reach out, and draw in, from their personal and professional networks. They not only speak up on behalf of the organization, they also listen, query others, and bring back what they learn to the board. High-impact, generative boards also recognize that learning takes place informally – in the everyday actions and interactions - as well as formally. They seek out, and grow from, the chance to learn from resources inside and outside of the organization. They also take time to stop and reflect.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Assessing my own board performance

How do I know if I've been an effective board member?

So far in our brief self-assessment journey, we've focused primarily on board-level evaluation. While there is much to accomplish from a collective review of our governance performance, it's equally important to take some time to reflect on how we're doing as individual members of that leadership group.

Ideally, we're evaluating and adapting our actions daily. But it also is important to take time, in a more formal setting, to assess our individual contributions to the greater good. Formally asking our board to stop, reflect, and recommit - as individual members - is an essential part of the process.

What types of questions foster the kind of productive self-assessment that leads to enhanced board member effectiveness? How can we help guide reflection that deepens commitment to organizational leadership? I've thought about that and offer several questions to consider posing to your board members. Obviously, asking every question here would be overkill. But they may give you a starting point for either constructing a self-assessment from this basket of possibilities or adapting and expanding to fit your board's specific needs.

Here is an initial list of potential self-assessment questions:
  • What skills, perspectives, connections, etc., do I bring to the table?
  • What are my unique contributions to this board's work?
  • How would I rate my individual performance on the following:
    • Attendance at meetings
    • Participation in discussions
    • Willingness to pose questions that need to be asked
    • Willingness to offer counterpoints/different perspectives to board deliberations
    • Participation on committees and other focused work groups
    • Fulfilling commitments I make
  • What is my biggest point of pride so far?
  • How have I exercised leadership within the board?
  • Do I support the agency financially, at a level that is personally meaningful?
  • Where have I fallen short in my board responsibilities? What can I do to change that?
  • How have I shared our story with the community? With what outcome(s)?
  • What do I need to know/understand better to serve more effectively?
  • How do I prefer to gain that knowledge (e.g., face to face training, print or web resources)?
  • What am I yearning to do/accomplish before my term ends?
  • Would I serve again if asked? Why or why not?
What questions would you add to the pool?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Self-assessment: The board experience

We may know - because books, consultants and bloggers tell us - that self-assessment is an essential part of board development and accountability. But what do real boards do, or not do, and why?

I posed five questions to readers in my last post, to gain a better sense of the challenges and motivations that impact whether or not nonprofit boards take the time to evaluate their performance. Today, I share highlights from that quick poll, in the spirit of sparking a discussion about what others have shared, what you have experienced, and how we might encourage our boards to make the time to reflect and assess as an ongoing governance priority.

I'll open with the usual disclaimer about what we can and can't do with the data I'm about to share. This is a non-random sample of readers of this blog. We can't generalize results as representative of the larger pool of nonprofit boards. What we can do, as we have done with results of other polls conducted here, is use these results as a starting point for a conversation.

The first question was, "Does your board regularly engage in self-assessment?" I wasn't surprised to find that 65 percent of respondents said no.

I asked the 35 percent who said their boards do include self-assessment in their routine about the primary benefits of that effort. The following chart shows their responses. (Note: Poll takers could choose multiple options.)

I included an option for "other" responses, knowing the six categories I posed couldn't cover the full range of possible benefits. One reader offered an additional reason for engaging in self-assessment, one that may resonate with others: "Help us shift from focus on management details to broad policy questions and discussions."

I wanted to better understand the factors that boards experience as obstacles to engaging in self-assessment. The following chart shows reader responses. Again, multiple answers were possible.

I offered the same option to list additional factors beyond those I posed. One response in particular caught my eye, particularly in light of the findings of research I shared earlier this summer. That response: "E.D. doesn't encourage/value the process." (The gatekeeper role of the board's leadership partner can be a powerful - and a negative - one.)

What continues to be clear, at least according to these responses, is that the real work is two-fold (and completely manageable): ongoing education about the value of self-assessment and expanding the pool of adoptable or adaptable tools to make it easier to do once they make the commitment.

In one of two open-ended questions, I asked respondents to envision what might be uncovered in a board self-assessment. Eighty-five percent offered real or potential outcomes of such a process. This sampling of their responses gives you a sense of the themes that emerged:

  • "Disconnects between how we spend time/resources and what our mission actually is"
  • "Where we need to strengthen and better ways to communicate with individual board members based on their feedback"
  • "Differing interpretations of our mission, expectations of board members/clarifying the board role"
  • "Differences/similarities in vision for the organization"
  • "Need for more board involvement in board leadership and fundraising"
  • "The gap between what the board is doing and what it ought to be doing"
  • "1) Need for greater clarity re the role of this particular board in taking the organization forward (as opposed to generic role of the board), 2) Better understand who we need to recruit to strengthen the board"
  • "In our experience, self-assessment uncovers new ideas that support the mission...and sometimes helps board members see some opportunities for themselves to participate in a more effective manner"

Note the positive and productive tone of the last bullet point - and wording that suggests it is an actual outcome for a board that has taken this evaluation step. It's a good reminder, from someone with experience, that self-assessment can uncover more than our deep failures.

In the second open-ended question, I asked what self-assessment might accomplish for participants' boards. Following is a sampling of responses:

  • "Better key us into our proper roles as policy makers rather than detail managers"
  • "Recommitment"
  • "An assessment like this helps to uncover what board members truly want to work on and why"
  • "Stronger relationships and therefore stronger board, unify behind a SHARED mission, weed out board members that realize they aren't on the same boat as everyone else"
  • "Set the direction for how to become more efficient"
  • "Better long-range planning to meet identified goals"
  • "Encourage some board members to become more engaged, thereby strengthening the board as a whole"
  • "Getting everyone on the same page!!"
  • "We hope that an annual reflection on accomplishment (both team and for individual board members) will not only help define the next steps forward in the board mission, but also encourage and re-invigorate board members for higher levels of achievement."
  • "Re-energize, refocus, board service more rewarding, better use of time, more effective meetings, improved relationships with staff and stakeholders, renewed vision"
  • "1) Clarify the role and work of this board in taking this organization forward, 2) help us understand what to expect of ourselves as board members, 3) help us understand whom we need to recruit - with regard to experience, expertise, diversity, networks, etc."

What strikes me about the list - especially within the context of what we learned in the very first question (that two-thirds of respondents' boards do not evaluate their work) - is that it is overwhelmingly positive. The fact it's positive isn't necessarily newsworthy; the question certainly invited such a response. Rather, 80 percent of participants - those who do and do not already conduct board evaluation - envisioned these and similarly productive outcomes of board self-assessment. At least amongst this tiny sliver of the board member population, the potential value of engaging in this work exists.

What are our takeaways from these results? What might we do to increase the percentage of boards that take that first step and try some form of self-assessment? My next post will offer some ideas, but I'd enjoy hearing from readers on this.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Board self-assessment: Factors that impact

As I've continued my own reflection on the value of self-assessment for nonprofit boards, I've wondered: What are the real contributions for those who incorporate it into their governance process, and what are the obstacles for those who have not done so?

To get a better sense of how boards actually use - or don't use - self-assessment in the field, I thought I'd turn to readers for feedback and examples. I'm hoping you'll take a moment to share your experiences via the quick poll below. I'm interested in hearing about what motivates your boards to engage in self-assessment, if they do. I'm interested in learning more about the factors that inhibit board participation in this reflective process.

I'm also interested in hearing more about reader perspectives on how self-assessment might contribute to board performance and effectiveness, whether it's as an integral part of their work or an aspiration. You'll find a couple of open questions at the end, asking for your thoughts about the potential that board self-assessment offers? What might be our collective vision of what is possible?

Please take a moment to respond to all, or part, of the five questions in this brief survey. Please also share the link with fellow board members and others who have board experience and encourage them to respond. While we'll never be able to generalize from this non-scientific poll, the greater the participation, the richer and more illuminating the results will be. I'll report back in a future post.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Building reflective boards: Self-assessment

It is critically important for nonprofit boards to stop, reflect, evaluate and appreciate their performance. It's also extremely rare that the typical board takes that time - or uses what members learn when they do.

Board self-assessment has been on my mind in the last month, thanks in part to the launch of an online version of Alice Korngold's powerful Board Vector tool. I saw great potential in the original, paper-based version of her assessment process. Taking it online will only enhance its capacity to provide meaningful, data-driven opportunities to evaluate our performance as boards. I also had a chance to facilitate a local board's self-assessment process, appreciating its commitment to taking this step and helping them to explore what members could learn from the results.

Both events reminded me of the ultimate value of committing to regular, focused reflection on our efforts to govern and our attempts to reach our full leadership potential. They also have sparked thinking about the elements that I consider to be essential to high-quality, high-impact board self-assessment. What follows is a summary of those emerging thoughts. I'd appreciate feedback, especially from members of boards that regularly commit to evaluation, on what is realistic, what's missing and - most important - what actually works.

First, commit to individual and board-level self-assessment. Recognize the value in affirming what you are doing well, and to identifying those processes and actions that require change. Approach these evaluative activities as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve.

Second, recognize that there are different layers of assessment: board vs. individual, formal vs. informal, quick check vs. more extensive reflection. Each has something to contribute to your understanding, each has potential to deepen your focus and effectiveness.

Third, make assessment an ongoing part of your routine and board culture. Look for opportunities to stop, reflect, appreciate and adjust in the moment. Make asking "how does this impact our mission?" an integral part of every major deliberation. End each meeting with one question: How did we advance the mission today? Schedule regular time for more formal individual and group self-assessments.

Fourth, understand that the ultimate value lies in the discussion and exploration that assessment sparks. Look at the results, not as a "grade," but as an opportunity to ask
  • What does this really mean? 
  • Where are the differences of opinion? 
  •  What is behind those differences? 
  • How can we use this as a springboard for the future?

    Fifth, don't rely on "numbers" alone. Ask members open-ended questions about their experiences, their aspirations, their frustrations. Listen. Appreciate. Link their responses to what others have shared, to the assessment outcomes, and to the board's goals for the future. Look for gaps between numerical scores and the comments shared. Are they consistent, or do they contradict each other in any way?

    Sixth, look for safe ways to participate and neutral opportunities to facilitate the resulting discussion. One of the beauties of having anonymous ways to contribute, like the online version of Alice's Board Vector, is the safety that they provide and the increased potential they offer for honest responses. If I feel our board has some issues that need to be addressed, will I hesitate to express those concerns on a paper form that I'm turning in to our ED or president? If that process is online, or if a neutral facilitator is involved, concerns about confidentiality dissipate and the board receives more honest answers. (Note: Yes, I realize outside facilitators may introduce a cost that your board is unable or unwilling to bear. If that is the case, consider establishing a trade-off with another nonprofit: ask someone from a partner organization to collect and summarize data for you, and volunteer someone from your agency to do something for them in return. It's not the same as having a qualified consultant who knows how to recognize and explore the nuances in what is shared, but it at least addresses confidentiality concerns.)

    Finally, don't assume that high marks accurately reflect high performance - or consensus about performance. You and I may be absolutely certain that we know what our mission really means and that we're absolutely contributing to its fulfillment. We may even give the board the same, perfect score on that criterion. But unless we sit down and ask ourselves, "what does that look like?" and "how, exactly, are we accomplishing that," we may never realize that we're operating from very different perspectives. These are the kinds of conversations that boards need to have - but seldom do. Committing to self-assessment helps to ensure that they happen regularly and that they lead to productive and necessary adjustments.

    As I said at the beginning of this post, this is the first time I've attempted to synthesize my thoughts about board self-assessment (even as I'm perpetually harping on the need for reflective board practice). I welcome your examples, challenges, insights, etc., and the chance to understand self-assessment's true value more fully.

    Hmmm. I feel a series brewing...

    Sunday, August 19, 2012

    Strength building on board strength

      "Strength builds upon our strengths, not upon our weaknesses." Pollyanna Principle #5.

        Do our boards act as if they believe this? Can they identify their - and your - strengths? Or do they choose to focus instead on all of the challenges standing in their way? Do they use those challenges as excuses to sit back, complain, and justify their lack of action?

       This weekend, I rediscovered this gem from my friend, Hildy Gottlieb. It's part of a series introducing her Pollyanna Principles, a transformative paradigm for viewing, and acting in, the world.

       While the principles carry great collective power, this one always resonates deeply for me - and reminds me of too many conversations I have in the sector. Frequently, it's an executive director of other senior staff member. Too often, it's a board member. Sometimes my own board peers. Sometimes me.

    It's certainly easy to fall into the "but it's so haaaaaard..." frame of mind that Hildy describes - because it is hard. Leadership, especially leadership that transforms communities, is hard. It's also what makes board service worthwhile and what ultimately leads to successful fulfillment of our vision and mission. 

    A strengths-based way of acting and being in the world must start with our boards. They define and hold ultimate accountability for our mission and all of the resources gathered to advance it. How do we harness their individual and collective strengths in service to our mission? As board members, how do we hold ourselves accountable and focused on the future? What would happen if that focus began with what we do have (even if it's not a lot), rather than what we desperately need and will "never" get?

    When we're in the midst of the troubles of today, it can be hard to "see" the assets that may be right in front of us.  What exactly are our assets? Hildy offers four types to help us begin the conversation:
    • Mission assets: "What you do"
    • Human assets: "Who you know"
    • Physical assets: "What you have"
    • Community assets: "The mission assets, human assets and physical assets of everyone else"
    I've used this framework in retreats and seen the lights come on as board members recognize they have assets from which to build. I've seen boards begin the process thinking "but we don't have anything/know anyone...," then marvel as the "nothing" becomes long lists of resources already in hand or within reach.

    It's a fantastic and energizing way to spend part of a retreat. But if we reserve our asset-based discussions and work for special events, we're missing the point. We're also doomed to fall short of our potential as a governing body and as community leaders.

    I'm interested in sparking a conversation about how our boards resist the urge to wallow in what we don't have. How do we keep a strengths-based, asset-based focus in the boardroom? How do we govern from a position of power and pride, confident in our assets and our ability to build upon them? How can we lead from that strength and draw other community assets to our vision?

    How will our communities be better because we've succeeded at doing so?

    Sunday, August 12, 2012

    Letter to a young(ish) board member

    Earlier this month, I met a young woman who was about to launch what promises to be an exciting nonprofit career. While the community development job she would begin the next week was her first full-time, paid, post-graduation position, her history of activism and community service already was a long one.

    Her passion was contagious and energizing. It also reminded me of my early board assignments, which were fresh on my mind after wrapping up the recent series on research conducted early in my governance life.

    I offered my new friend some unsolicited advice for her impending adventure. Then I wondered: what advice would the more experienced me of today offer to the me of 29 years ago as she began her board journey? How would I counsel an acquaintance about to head down that same path, someone who is new to nonprofit governance (and, yes, maybe even young)?

    As I pondered those questions, I realized that some of what I shared at that wedding reception with my new acquaintance also would apply to someone beginning their nonprofit service on a board. It resonates even more personally, as I step toward a new board adventure, launching a brand new nonprofit.

    Dear new member,

    You've just committed to what may be one of the greatest and most fulfilling (if occasionally frustrating) leadership adventures of your life! Your service to your community is significant, as are the responsibilities to which you've just committed. I've learned a few lessons along my own governance journey, and I offer them in the spirit of helping you find your own path to success.

    First, reaffirm - for yourself and others - your commitment to the mission and vision of the organization you're about to serve. You may already be a supporter or contributor, and you're already passionate. Or you may support the mission and organization generally but not have direct experience with the actual work. Yet. Whichever it may be, ground yourself in why you're embarking on this journey. Hold it close. It will be what drives you - especially in the hard times.

    Second, be prepared to articulate and advocate for that commitment to others. Board service is leadership, and it's intended to be shared - outside of the organization as well as inside. Your voice is a credible one. It also is a link to new networks of supporters and potential supporters. Be ready to use it.

    Third, ask yourself - and your fellow board members - where you can best contribute. Attending meetings is an essential, but insufficient, part of service. You will be expected to share leadership, whether formally or informally, before your term is over. Identify early the places where you can step in and become an active participant - then to it. Be prepared to step up when your leadership is needed, even before you are asked.

    Fourth, commit to your own learning, to help you become the best board member possible. Take advantage of any formal orientation offered, but don't stop there. Ask for more, especially as you're engaging and interacting (and voting) in the board's work. If your board doesn't have a formal mentoring program, ask a veteran member to act in that capacity for you. Read, explore, seek out resources - in and outside of the organization - to help you grasp the mission area better. Broaden your search to access the range of fantastic information readily available on virtually any mission area. Look around you. Understand the local context (however your organization defines "local") beyond your organizational walls. No nonprofit works in isolation. Explore the impacts, opportunities to collaborate, etc., that affect you organization's capacity to serve effectively.

    Fifth, extend your learning to nonprofit governance. If you're truly new to nonprofit board service, look inside and outside the organization to gain a perspective on the roles and responsibilities that you are assuming. Don't limit yourself to anything resembling "X basic responsibilities...," whether from your board job description or a list from other source. Those are the tasks of governance, but they're not usually your sources of inspiration or information for leadership. Even/especially if you are a board veteran, ask: What does governance mean and look like in this boardroom? In this nonprofit? Don't assume that your previous experiences will apply here.

    Sixth, take care of yourself. This was good advice for my young acquaintance, who was diving into challenging work in an equally challenging community. But it's also important for board members. It can be easy to become so focused on the work - especially when fitting it into already over-packed schedules - that you lost both energy and perspective. Find ways to recharge your board batteries. Attend training events or conferences related to your work. Insist that the board step away periodically and use that space for team building, group reflections, and other work that feeds your commitment and your ability to lead. Request that regular meeting agendas include time for that same kind of capacity building activity. That's your real work.

    Seventh, find ways to see and appreciate the impact of what you do to the bigger picture. Listen for, and capture, stories and examples that remind you that you're making a difference. They provide powerful evidence that you can share with others. They also can remind you that your work truly is meaningful. You'll be able to draw energy from those reminders, especially when you're feeling frustrated and stuck because progress doesn't come as easy or as quickly as you'd like.

    Finally, request opportunities to evaluate your individual and collective efforts. More than a periodic "grade," board self-assessment is a chance to reflect. It's an opportunity to appreciate the strengths and significant contributions emerging from your leadership. It's a way to identify and explore the struggles, and a way to work past them. Regular assessment allows you to recognize and commit to moving forward from where you are today, with the organization's vision as the horizon toward which you are moving.

    Enjoy every minute. Take your leadership responsibility seriously, but never so seriously that you lose the joy that drew you to it in the first place.

    In gratitude for your service yet to come,


    What advice would you share with someone new to board service?

    Tuesday, August 7, 2012

    High-impact board priorities: A snapshot

    If we could direct where our nonprofit boards focus their attention, with an eye toward having the greatest impact, their eyes would be just beyond the horizon.

    That's one strong message emerging from the latest (highly unscientific) quick poll posted here. Survey respondents cited developing a plan for the future (26.7 percent) and developing a strategic vision of the future (26.7 percent) as their highest priority governance functions. 

    Drawing lower levels of support were two "engagement" options: engaging the community on your behalf (13.3 percent) and engaging policymakers (13.3 percent).

    When I look at some of the options receiving the weakest support, I see a noteworthy theme: versions of that work tend to be board agenda staples. Monitoring/evaluating programs (0 percent), managing financial and other resources (6.7 percent) and setting/revising board/organizational policy (6.7 percent) often appear in both standing tasks and "special" agenda topics (e.g., periodic reviews of board policy, discussing and setting a budget). What's most often missing - certainly in routine board discussions - is the future.

    I also asked a couple of open questions, to gain a bit of context to accompany the findings just shared. One was "What would be possible if your board succeeded?" Here is a sampling of what respondents shared:
    "A change in the field of how the work should be done ."
    "Raise the quality of board member we recruit."
    "Public awareness of our clients that will lead to community active in public policy and funding."
    "An org(anization)...that is responsive to stakeholders and able to forecast future needs and gap and is able to respond accordingly."
    "moving the needle toward our mission."
    "The community would be passionately invested in educating and empowering our youth."
    "Better use of resources, support of workers, and more effective programs."
    I also asked about the biggest barriers to high-impact governance. Here are a representative sample of responses provided:
    "The investment of time and resources to create the desired changes."
    "Board members unclear on their roles and expectations as board members."

    "Time and talent of the board."
    "Shallow understanding of governance and interference in operations."
    "Inability to be forward thinking."
    "Understanding shared vision/mission and then actually executing."
    "Micro management."

    "Time, lack of knowledge about governance."
    What strikes me about both lists is that what is shared, positive and negative, is entirely within our ability to act. Well, many of our visions and missions may outlive us (or at least our board terms). But forward motion definitely is possible - and even outright attainment of other "possible" accomplishments - if we choose as boards to increase time spent focusing on high-impact activities.

    If I were to use the results of this poll as a conversation starter with my board (which is legitimately all we can do with this completely non-random sample), I would ask the same basic questions. Where should we be spending our time to have the greatest impact? To what ends?

    What do we need to do, starting today, to reach that fullest potential?

    I'm interested in your reactions, observations, questions, etc., to not only the poll results shared here but the larger general question of facilitating high-impact governance.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2012

    Quick poll: High-impact board priorities

    Where is the greatest potential for high-impact nonprofit governance? Which board priority areas have the greatest potential for true leadership? I'm launching a new reader poll to get your feedback on these questions.

    Please click on the link below to respond to four very brief questions about high-impact board priorities. I'll report on the results in a new post next week.

    Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

    Monday, July 23, 2012

    Weaving the leadership web: Takeaways

    This post concludes a brief series sharing highlights from my earlier master's-level research on the board/executive director relationship. My first post outlines the premise of the research. The second post describes theoretical perspectives underpinning this work. The third post shared the key findings. Today, I offer my takeaways.

    It had been a long time since I last recalled the "big news" of the research described in this series: those ideas that informed my thinking as a researcher and budding nonprofit scholar and challenged some of the assumptions about "how things work" as a novice board member.

    Today, with the benefit of several years of life and board experience, I'm reading those "big" findings in more nuanced ways. As I close out this series, I'd like to reflect on what I'm seeing today.

    The director-centered organization. Researcher Me received evidence of the executive director's central role as an example of the models I discovered while preparing for the field work. I mentioned in the last post that, while I was surprised to find such clear evidence in an organization officially represented by a traditional hierarchy, it made sense. My understanding at the time was simplistic, much like my simplistic view of my role as a novice board member. But the pivotal location of the ED within the organization ultimately resonated.

    At the time, I remember marveling at the power - largely unrecognized - that accompanies the ED's information gatekeeper role. In many organizations, what the board knows comes primarily (if not exclusively) through an ED filter. The potential for abuse was not lost on me. Today, I am just as aware of that power, even as I understand how that filter facilitates the board's ability to make informed decisions and avoid detail overload.

    Rather than encourage suspicion, I would today counsel boards to do two things: First, acknowledge the equal, but different, leadership responsibilities that they share with the chief executive. Embrace them, discuss them openly, and find the appropriate way to make the collective effort work for the organization. Second, take responsibility for educating yourselves about the agency and the mission area. Don't place the sole burden for your capacity to make the best decisions possible on the shoulders of your ED. Be clear about identifying what you need from your executive, in what formats. Don't expect him/her to guess.

    Unrealistic board expectations. I've been unconsciously attempting to address this issue - here and elsewhere - since this research closed. At the time, I read "unrealistic expectations" as rejecting the notion of the all-knowing, all-wise, over-involved board sitting atop the organizational chart. Today that clarity is about making the most of that precious leadership time. How do we engage board members, where do we focus their attention and energy? Do our board job descriptions place members in the middle of management functions (inviting micromanagement) or at the leading edge of the mission - exploring, deliberating, connecting toward the organization's vision of the future? Are our meetings structured for that future-focused governance work? Do our members have the capacity, support, information, etc., to make the most of the limited time they have to serve?

    Dual organizational charts/separate subscultures. Today, I see how these two originally separate findings are intertwined. I'll discuss them here as one. While I don't encourage keeping two organizational charts, as the case study agency had done, I do recommend spending time collectively understanding and describing the ways in which work is done and how people interact. That may or may not resemble the formal organizational structure. It may or may not require adjusting the latter to better fit reality.

    How is the mission communicated and enacted across the organization? How are responsibilities distributed, and how do all of those efforts contribute to organizational success and well being? Board, staff and volunteers should understand and appreciate what the others bring to the table and how each of those individual sets of responsibilities create the whole.

    That lack of understanding contributed to the existence of separate subcultures that I witnessed during my field research. The silo around the board was particularly thick: board members had no idea what staff and volunteers really did; volunteers and staff knew nothing about the significant governance responsibilities that the board assumed on the agency's behalf. The potential for misunderstandings that lead to conflict are vast in this kind of environment. The likelihood that full mission success will elude the agency, because the various subcultures are operating in isolation - or worse, opposition - is equally large. The "who are these people to tell us..." resentment threatens morale.

    Confidentiality commitment does not allow me to share details of the rest of the story. There is a "rest of the story," it's ugly, and it is related to this final takeaway. A very public breakdown occurred months after my research was complete. It was not hard to see that, behind the public event was a more fundamental and pervasive issue that I saw in my interviews and observations: different groups within the organization operating under very different assumptions about how to advance the mission on which they all agreed.

    Was this multi-part reflection worth the time and space I gave it? For many readers, the answer may be "no." For me, though, it was a much-needed opportunity to revisit, rethink and ultimately remember early context for what has unfolded in the years since I completed this study.