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.
As I was writing last week's post, on "seeing" board culture,
even as I took care to be as concrete and grounded in governance
practices as possible, I knew that it was impossible to fully convey the experience
and value of "culture" in one (more or less) brief post. Inevitably, it
begged for follow-up.
This post, the latest addition to the "10 ways" series,
attempts to provide that additional layer of concrete detail. One
stating-the-obvious note before I get to the good stuff: as hard as I
might try, significant elements of "culture" remain largely invisible.
But the following "10 ways" will bring us just a little closer to
understanding how we can shape that culture to govern as effectively as
1. A board
culture that values generativity, accountability and leadership
ultimately begins with the member job description. From the moment they
are recruited, members know what is expected; and they come prepared to
step up and fulfill the range of governance responsibilities they have
accepted. Job descriptions that prepare members for that walk must be
clear, comprehensive and shared widely.
2. In meetings
(that are open and focused primarily on the board's governance roles),
active member engagement is considered essential. Everyone has a role
in, and a responsibility for, successful fulfillment of the board's
collective responsibilities. No one sits in the background and watches
others govern in his/her silence.
3. Committees, task
forces and other work groups are created around governance roles (not
management or staff functions). Their goals advance the board's
collective accountability for one aspect of that work. As they develop a
greater depth of knowledge, these groups become the board's primary
resources and leaders on their assigned topic areas.
The board's structure facilitates its work without impeding its
progress. It ensures that the resources to govern effectively are
readily available when needed (e.g., an online board portal or regularly
updated handbook). They have the tools they need, when they need them,
to make the best possible decisions.
Self-assessment - group and individual - is a regular and valued part of
board life. The board stops periodically and asks such questions as,
"How successfully are we fulfilling our responsibilities?" "What are our
challenges?" "Do we need to shift focus and, if so, to what areas?" and
"How are my motivations to serve being met in the work I'm doing on
this board (and if not, what needs to happen to bring them into closer
vision and mission are front and center - literally and philosophically -
in all of their deliberations and decisions. The board makes a point to
regularly stop and ask, "How does this fit our mission?" They use that
question as the ultimate test of whether a decision is the right one.
The board values, and seeks, learning that expands members' collective
capacity in two areas: the essential elements of effective governance
and the issues, potential and ongoing needs in the agency's mission
area. Members understand that the learning required both takes place
naturally - thanks to the curiosity and expertise in the room - and as
part of their ongoing work. When they are scheduled, retreats and other special events are used to explore big questions even more deeply.
The board seeks, receives and considers regular community input at the
boardroom table. Members understand the needs, impacts, and aspirations
of the agency's stakeholders. They seek a broad range of perspectives in
their governance work. The boardroom is an inclusive one, at all
9. Stories that illustrate the impact of our
work - the nonprofit's, the board's, our individual efforts - are
embedded in all of the group's interactions. They arrive in the reports
and resources shared in advance of the meeting. They are interwoven in
the community feedback that we bring to the boardroom, in the stories we
tell about our interactions on the agency's behalf, and in the board
development activities that are a regular part of our processes.
Individual members make the time to reflect on why they serve this
agency and its work. They value opportunities to recall, and draw from,
their motivations to serve. They draw energy from articulating that
connection, and in sharing it with others.
section is only one "way" long, the essential elements of thought - the
largely invisible aspects of culture - undergird everything that
preceded it. Our "thoughts," our essential beliefs about the world and
the role our work plays in making it better, should drive everything
that makes up our "walk" and our "talk."