Saturday, March 31, 2012

Overheard: A March cornucopia

When it rains, it pours... The RSS and Twitter feeds have been flooded with endless possibilities of resources of value to nonprofit boards, from some of my favorite sources, since my last update. Believe me, that's a pleasant problem to have.

The single best way to develop leadership skills (Alice Korngold)

Alice's latest for Fast Company not only offers advice to those who may have never considered board service before, it also reminds the nonprofits they may someday serve that our volunteer leaders are generous people who have motivations and needs behind their service. Recognizing that, and providing the kinds of experiences where their contributions are meaningful and valuable, goes a long way to building leadership capacity and commitment.

10 tips for keeping your board fired up and in action for the cause (GuideStar)

Speaking of experiences... I don't know that any of the 10 ideas on this list will shock anyone; but they're a nice, collective overview of the kinds of conditions necessary for effective board service.

Save the ship by rocking the board (Mario Morino)

Questions, questions, tough questions. This list of six outcomes-focused questions are, indeed, tough - and conducive to the kind of hard discussions and open thinking required to anticipate and lead through change.

Helping board members remember your key messages (Movie Mondays)

How can we expect our board members to be effective ambassadors for our nonprofit if they're perpetually struggling to remember the key messages we want them to share widely? The answer? FWWA. Watch the video to find out what it is, and how it facilitates effective presentations.

Some of my favorite measures (Simone Joyaux)

"But you can't measure our real impact..." "Numbers alone don't tell our story..." How do we really capture the breadth and complexity of the work of our nonprofit? We may reach for the easy and familiar as we attempt to capture and communicate the way we make a difference in our community. But there are multiple ways to tell at least part of the story. This list reminds us of that fact.

The powerful force of a big idea (Anne Ackerson)

Our nonprofits began with a dream - a big dream - and the task of fulfilling that requires equally expansive visioning and thinking. ("Big ideas." Perhaps the best encapsulation of the work of nonprofit governance I've heard in a long time.) Anne not only reminds us of that, she offers several ideas for generating new possibilities for advancing your mission.

Nonprofit board service gets physical (Kevin Monroe)

Board service as contact sport - what a great way to frame the active engagement necessary for successful governance. Connecting to member emotions as well as their intellect builds commitment and facilitates leadership that benefits everyone.

Nonprofits need time to think (Todd Cohen)

It's hard to state the premise of this one more perfectly than the title already does. We need space to breathe and think, to explore and envision the future. (A recurring theme familiar to regular readers.) Cohen reinforces the essential contribution of that space. He also discusses many of the challenges, from a variety of sources.

6 habits of true strategic thinkers (Paul Schoemaker)

Great list (especially with "learn" as one of the habits), great reminder of the ultimate contributions leaders contribute. It's not hard to connect each of the habits to the work of an effective nonprofit board. What if our boards were committed to building their leadership capacity by making these  habits a collective commitment?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Leading your nonprofit board: New resource

What does it take to lead a nonprofit board? What are the essential roles of a board president? How do you make the most of your board?

Those are the questions I tried to help answer for presidents attending the American Bar Association Bar Leadership Institute last week. No matter how long a presentation is scheduled, there is never enough time to fully explore the breadth and depth of what is an awesome leadership responsibility. But I did my best to convey what I see as the essence of the president's role.

In the spirit of expanding the conversation, I'd like to offer the slides from that presentation.

I'd also like to provide a link to the online handout I created for institute participants (because I know myself well enough to know I'd be tempted to err on the side of over-sharing without the ability to refer them to a supportive resource offering the detail they wanted).  It's intended to be a dynamic site, growing and evolving as other resources emerge - and my own conception of the board presidency expands.

Click here to access the online handout. I'll be expanding the site soon, inserting resources related to audience questions that were not covered directly in the workshop. I hope you'll bookmark it, refer to it often, and pass along to your successor.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Overheard: March 16 edition

I'm on the road (or, rather, in the air), after presenting two rounds of a new workshop for board presidents (the likely topic of my next post) for the American Bar Association's Bar Leadership Institute, but I managed to capture a few memorable posts to share as this week's favorite links.

At last! 100% board giving! (Pamela Grow)

One of the more fascinating - and disturbing - revelations in Pam's post is the finding from her 2012 Small Shop Fundraising Survey, that 55 percent of respondents cannot report 100-percent financial support from their boards. With more funders paying attention to tangible evidence of board commitment, this represents a serious problem. Pam offers us an additional gift at the end of the post: two sample appeal letters targeting our board members.

Lessons for your board from Linchpin's Lizard Brain (Mazarine Treyz)

While my general preference is to focus more on sharing positive offerings, sometimes the humorously negative gets the point across in effective ways. This post feels like that kind of offering. You'll chuckle - or flinch - because you'll probably recognize most to all of the dysfunctional behaviors from your boardroom experiences. Few of them may actually be "new" or shocking to you, but a little strategic awareness may help us think twice the next time we see our boards (or ourselves) heading down one a less than productive path.

Nonprofit board term limits - pros and cons (Gayle Gifford)

Ah, the perennial board mechanics question: should we set term limits for members? My bias is toward the "yes" side of the discussion, for many of the reasons cited in this post. But I also understand the factors that lead others to say term limits aren't always a great idea, especially when it comes to loss of institutional history. Gayle does a great job of outlining the primary arguments on both sides, increasing the potential for your board to make the right, informed decision. A bonus for me was her late-post caution about how we handle a common compromise: re-electing vets after they have taken time off. I recognized what she describes instantly, though I can't say the prospect has been foremost in my thinking about the topic.

Focused on meaning (Judy Levine)

I was thrilled to see someone address the meaning-making component of governance, since it is such a rare and wonderful thing. Helping boards to see the meaning behind the data, to understand why what you are sharing and what they are discussing matter, is "the board at its highest and best use." Really, that needs no additional commentary.

How can we fix our broken approach to boards? (Rick Moyers)

This one speaks more to my "inner board geek" than my "share something useful" instincts, but I want to offer it anyway. Many thoughtful people, in many organizations with a vested interest in strong nonprofit governance, brainstorm, analyze and debate the merits of different board models. Is there one 'best' one? Moyers shares a couple of approaches that have been touted as being, if not perfect, certainly closer to that ideal than anything else (including the configurations typical of most boards). Ultimately, though, he ends up setting them aside and pointing out a central challenge to those who seek a better way to govern: there's no consensus about what's wrong with the way most of us are doing it. I offer this link as an invitation to your board to introduce the question, "What would our ideal mode of governing look like," and to keep it ever-present in your ongoing efforts to build your collective leadership capacity. You may not find that ideal that so many seek, but you likely will be more attuned to your strengths, limitations and opportunities to improve your practice.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The sticky question of board giving

What do you mean we have to give money????

It doesn't matter whether I'm training an individual board, facilitating a workshop at a conference, or leading the governance unit in one of my online classes. When I'm talking about the roles of nonprofit boards, no concept is more troubling than the notion of including a financial contribution requirement in the member job description. The inevitable responses range from confusion to queasiness to outrage. How can we possibly ask board members to pull out the checkbook or credit card once a year, appalled audience members ask? Isn't their gift of time enough?

For many foundations and individual major donors, the answer to that is "No." Moreover, how they respond to your request for funds often depends upon how you respond to a question they pose to you: What percentage of your board made a financial contribution to your organization in the last year? The rationale is simple: If your own leaders aren't committed enough to make a financial investment in your mission, why should we?

Obviously, your board is free to enact any policy that it wants to adopt. That includes the right to have no policy mandating financial contributions. But with that freedom should come the knowledge that such a choice may have consequences. Real, financial consequences.

If your nonprofit doesn't apply for grant funding (especially from private foundations) or engage in major gift fundraising, this may be a non-issue. However, if those are part of your fundraising mix, I can pretty much guarantee that you will eventually encounter this phenomenon. If your response to the percentage question isn't "100 percent," don't be surprised when your request is moved down the priority list or denied completely.

My counsel to boards is to adopt (and enforce) a board giving policy that calls for annual contributions by each member at a level that is personally meaningful. "Meaningful" to you may be $1,000. "Meaningful" to me may be $10. "Meaningful" to our fellow board member may be $100.  I've never heard of a gift request or grant proposal being disqualified because of the amounts individual members gave. What donors and foundations want to know is that every member gave. It's a matter of commitment.

A "personally meaningful" giving policy accommodates concerns I hear vocalized by smaller nonprofits, especially by human services boards that recruit current or former clients or that place a premium on broad community representation (including low-income members). "Personally meaningful" is a pretty broad definition. (Even a penny qualifies, strictly speaking.) There is no reason to embarrass anyone. Only the CEO, the bookkeeper and I need to know how much I gave this year. My board peers only require confirmation that I have fulfilled my annual contribution commitment.

What is behind this reluctance to expect this of our board members? I've come to the conclusion that it's connected to the "any live body will do" trap that too often drives board recruitment and retention efforts. We feel so lucky that we were able to sweet-talk them into serving (probably with promises that "It won't take that much time...") that we don't want to overdo it. Asking them to give money may just push them over the edge, we fear. 

If that one step is too much, we have a problem - probably with our entire conception of the board's purpose.  We set boards up for failure, and ourselves up for frustration, when we minimize the significant commitments that come with governance. For many boards, part of that commitment is a financial one. We need to own and enforce that.

NOTE: This post emerged from a conversation with friend and fellow nonprofit junkie Pamela Grow. Pam addressed the topic in this important post: At Last! 100% Board Giving!  The statistic she cites, that 55 percent of respondents to her 2012 Small Shop Fundraising Survey lack full participation by their board members, sparked this collective reflection.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Overheard: March 9 edition

Here are my weekly list of favorite links related to nonprofit governance.

Passion vs. competency (David  Styers)

Obviously, this isn't an either/or prospect for boards. That said, this post offered this reader a gentle reminder that both are critical. Not that I didn't already know that - and reinforce that regularly, here and elsewhere. But since I tend to err on the side of over-emphasizing the passion component lately (because I most often see it being ignored or minimized), this was a timely reality check.

The 7 habits of highly ineffective foundation boards (Phil Buchanan)

The focus, and the supporting specifics, may target foundation boards; but the general principles can be adapted or expanded to any nonprofit governing body. Regular readers won't be surprised that I gravitated toward number seven (over-managing and over-scripting meetings). Number three (living in the "foundation bubble") intersects in part with the board's boundary-spanning roles that I've addressed elsewhere.

Do you have what it takes to admit failure? (Celeste Dennis)

That this post made the favorites list might surprise. It has no direct connection to governance and it doesn't come with ready-made lessons to adapt to your board setting. But the questions posed, and the general concept, indeed carry wisdom for our nonprofit leaders. We don't like to admit failure. We like to discuss it even less. Boards and those who serve on them could find value in reflection on this topic. (Hint: You may see a post to that effect in the not too distant future.)

Nonprofit strategic planning: Useless or priceless? (Kevin Monroe)

In this post, which I understand is the first of a series, Kevin encourages us to be mindful of the motivations behind strategic planning efforts - and to see the distinct limitations of some of the most common. I had a few flashes of recognition from my strategic planning past; I suspect you will, too.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Elements of a successful board training

What does it take to create a successful nonprofit board training event? How can we structure these events to be more friendly and useful to the adult learners who will attend them? What can we do to increase the likelihood that what they learn will "stick" - that board members will retain and apply the key takeaways that we hope they will take with them?

I'll admit to loving the lecture a little too much in my trainer past - partly because I didn't know better and mostly because I had too much great detail to share (there's always more to say about boards than time). I still teeter, thanks to the latter. As an adult educator, I now know better; and I understand the needs of learners in different ways. I'd like to share a few of those insights and see how closely they reflect your ideal training event.

As much as possible, focus on board members' concerns.  Sometimes, we don't know what we don't know - especially when we're new to a board or an organization. Usually, though, veteran members have a reasonable sense of where their knowledge gaps lie. Ask them: Where are you feeling less confident? What do you need to understand better to govern more effectively? How can we expand your knowledge about our mission area? These are the kinds of questions that should drive your board development agenda. On of the hallmarks of andragogy (a theory of how adults learn) is that we adults are motivated to learn when we need to learn it. The closer we come to anticipating members' burning questions, and addressing them as they arise, the greater the potential that what they learn in our training events will impact board practice.

Theory has its place, but not without context and purpose. Another andragogy hallmark is the premise that we adults need to understand why we need to know something before committing to learn it. Show us why it is important, how it will help us do a better job, how it will help us avoid making costly mistakes. Now, I have a caveat for this one: governance learning should not be theory-free. My recurring frustration with many approaches to describing the work of boards is the "X easy, effort-free ways to..." tone that asks as little as possible of members and explains even less. Governance is a significant leadership commitment and a responsibility with very real consequences. We need to understand the context in which we are working. But drowning board members in disembodied theory only confuses and frustrates most of us.

Give them homework.  One of the simplest additions to the training sessions I facilitate also is one of the most powerful. I give them homework. I share articles related to the topic we'll be discussing. I offer a handful of links - to blog posts, videos and podcasts - that do the same. I assign just enough to spark thinking and alert them to the direction our comparatively brief time together will take. Then, rather than lecture them on the same content, I build the session around discussion about how that reading/viewing applies to their board's specific situation. They are engaged, and they are better prepared to learn during our time together.

Icebreakers aren't torture - if they ease the learning experience. If there's one thing I hate as an adult learner, it's an icebreaker that makes me crawl across the floor to avoid imaginary alligators or do something similarly silly. It's good to have fun, to shake off the cobwebs and prepare us for the work ahead. Find ways to introduce participants in a way that is different but also easing them into the learning process. Relate what you ask - or what you ask them to do - to the work that lies ahead.

...But don't be afraid to have fun.  Learners should have opportunities to get up and move, interact with others, and actively participate in the group's learning experience. Challenge them to try new things; introduce new vehicles for capturing what they are learning and encourage them to share what they are learning with others. Ask them to illustrate what they are learning on flip charts. Role play. Give them a video camera and ask them to record their observations or interview others about the training topic.  Stretch them, but not to the point of breaking, and engage their full range of senses.

Mix presentation of content with ample discussion (and plenty of questions). There's a reason they've asked you to lead this training event. Usually, that something is expertise or content knowledge that they need. (I know: du-uh...) Integrate content delivery with opportunities to ask questions and apply what they are learning to their experiences. Give them the chance to create meaningful linkages to abstract ideas. Offer scenarios and cases to resolve. Ask questions. Respond to their questions. Break into small groups and discuss. Find authentic, active ways to make the learning their own.

Provide access to resources for follow-up. One of the ways I manage that temptation to share everything I know about the topic at hand is creating a handout - hard copy or electronic - that supports the training event. Having ready access to resources that expand their knowledge, or remind them of the details that may not click during the event itself, extends the learning process and increases the potential for retention.

Identify follow-up goals. Before the group disperses, have members identify next steps. Encourage them to outline ways to apply what they have learned to the board's work. Encourage them to be as specific as possible: what, who, how, why, where, when?  Offer to hold them accountable by checking in at a point down the road to see how they are doing, ask whether they have accomplished what they intended, and help them address any unexpected challenges that they are encountering.

Finally (for the board), just act.  If your board members are committing to spend their precious time in a training event, make it worth the effort. Take that list of follow-up tasks and act on them. Incorporate what you have learned into meetings. Identify aspects of the topic where you need additional information or deeper understanding; and assign board members who can act as peer teachers, exploring and sharing what they have learned. Find meaningful ways to improve your governance practice using what you have learned as the foundation.

What makes a quality training experience for you? What factors enhance your capacity to learn in that setting? What facilitates applying what you have learned in your life? What was the best board training you've attended, and what made it memorable?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Overheard: March 2

The pleasure (and pain) of taking a week off from favorite links: so much share-worthy goodness from which to pick.

Nonprofit boards: Boot camp for corporate executives (Alice Korngold)

Choosing which should lead this week's offering was not a difficult choice, though. The headline suggests a corporate audience focus; but the insights that Alice shares about the work, the leadership opportunities and the learning potential surrounding nonprofit boards will appeal and inform every reader of this terrific post. I'm doubly glad to find discussion about board learning and the need to seek the best fit between prospect and organization in what is destined to be another Korngold classic.

Steps toward board leadership (Sarah Mackey)

Aside from the fact it represents a nice overview of the board's leadership role, this post by Sarah provides another important service: reminding us that our next great recruits may be closer to us than we realize. New connections, and the ideas they bring, are good in nonprofit governance. But so is recognizing those who are already bonded to your mission and already familiar with your work. Looking inward, and providing opportunities to deepen commitment to you via board service, can be a good thing for everyone. We benefit from having new blood and strong commitment at the boardroom table.

Simple questions (Laura Otten)

Simple. But oh, so profound. Laura offers a few questions to guide board, staff and even donor reflection on critical topics related to culture, values and accountability. They're the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves regularly but are often "too busy" to ponder.

Is your nonprofit board socializing enough? (Marc Pitman)

How well do you know your fellow board members? We don't need to be besties to govern. I'm not sure we technically even need to like each other. But finding common ground, seeing each other as three-dimensional human beings can help pave the way for more collegial collaboration and leadership. Marc both encourages us to find the time to build those ties and offers non-cheesy suggestions to make the process easier.

Innovation-driven leadership (Audrey Smith and Ellie Hall)

 I'm drawing from my trainer roots and resources for this one. It comes from this month's T+D (Training and Development) magazine. The application to nonprofit boards should be obvious, even though it's not the article's specific context. (Yes, nonprofit boards need to be innovative. Not innovation for innovation's sake, but in the spirit of openness in understanding, shaping and advancing our mission and vision.) Which of the most common obstacles described by the authors sound the most familiar to you? How can you help your board to overcome - or, better yet, avoid - making these mistakes?

Awake the sleeping dog (board) (Kevin Monroe)

It's hard to believe boards don't already know their job isn't to tippy-toe through service to avoid rocking the boat. But I've seen (and served on) the kinds of boards that Kevin warns against in this post. Our job is to step up, speak out, anticipate, and act. Doing so will help prevent the kind of perilous apathy described here (and reduce the chance of being caught off guard by a devastating crisis we were too lazy to see), but will lead us toward our fuller potential as boards.