Monday, June 11, 2012

10 ways to 'see' board culture

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 possible.


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.

4. 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.

5.  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 alignment?)?"


6. The 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.

7. 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.

8. 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 levels.

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.


10. 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.

While this 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."

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