Sunday, June 3, 2012

Seeing nonprofit board culture

Culture. We know we're part of it. We know it helps when it's healthy. We know it hinders - or poisons - when it's not. We can sense culture, but we're usually hard-pressed to describe it. Much of what encompasses culture is largely invisible, even/especially from the inside.

Still, it is important to understand organizational culture, even amidst the visibility challenges. Culture is where true change must take place and where commitment is built. We can't afford to ignore the role that it plays in building our capacity to advance our vision and mission, and in creating a work environment where that is possible.

A longtime interest in exploring organizational - and specifically board - culture has challenged me over the years to identify frameworks that would be both meaningful and accessible to practitioner audiences. How can we make "culture" real enough to spark member understanding and motivation to attend to it productively? How can "culture" become more than a fuzzy villain to blame when things fall apart?

Recently, I discovered a description that probably comes the closest to that actionable ideal, in Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant's new book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.  In that text, the authors describe a three-pronged approach to culture that makes great sense to a nonprofit audience:
  • Walk
  • Talk
  • Thought
It's a simple framework. Some might argue that it's too simple for capturing the nuances that make up organizational culture. But this frame is descriptive and accessible enough to make it potentially useful in a board setting.  I read the book for broader purposes, but I couldn't help thinking about this definition and how it might be adapted to the boardroom.  I also overlaid it with my own conceptualization of the optimal governance environment, which features four factors:
  • Inclusive
  • Engaging
  • Accountable
  • Generative
Here is how I envision the potential of Notter and Grant's framework (with a Beck governance twist).

Walk. Notter and Grant describe this as actions, structures, processes and tangibles. A healthy board walk would includes activities that engage all board members - that expect and respect their work and their leadership contributions. Those processes, and the meetings where many of them are enacted, balance accountability and generativity. The board is attuned to both and attentive to work that fulfill both roles. Structures would facilitate, not impede, governance work. They would provide necessary support and accountability.

The "tangibles" are the materials that support members and their work. They are the resources, information, tools, connections, etc., that facilitate governance and promote successful fulfillment of their responsibilities. In a healthy board culture, members would have ready access to the tools and information they need to govern credibly, thoughtfully, and generatively.

Talk. At the center of our board "talk" is how we describe our vision and mission, how we articulate our values, and how we frame and share the work that our organization does. How do we communicate our purpose and the forces driving our commitment to it, to internal and external audiences? How does that talk motivate us as individuals? How does it connect us to each other?

In the boardroom, it includes how define governance (and the roles that comprise it) and how we frame the issues that we address. Do we view our responsibilities, and our service, as focused on the here and now, or on the stewardship and moral ownership that comes with governance? Is our vision of what is possible in our community, a better future for that community? Does our definition of the issues we address represent an appropriate stretch: tangible enough to see and act, but not so small that they're easy to resolve and ultimately meaningless?

Does our "talk" encourage authentic inclusion and meaningful engagement by all members? Does it maintain that accountability/generativity balance, acknowledging the significant stewardship function while recognizing that the board's ultimate focus should fall beyond the horizon?

Thought.  "Thought" is manifest in the previous two functions, but it's more foundational than the observable activities they represent (and undoubtedly hardest to "see" or describe). It's what we hold in our minds and our hearts, as individual members and as a group. It's what motivates us to serve - what provides the connective tissue between personal passions and organizational vision and mission.

Thought is how we embody our organizational values (and how we identify the fit to those we hold personally). It is how we reflect on the vision and mission and how we stay focused, even through the difficult and tedious times. It's what keeps us committed through the awesome and daunting responsibilities of governance.

How do we inspire and motivate board members? How do we build commitment - in their hearts as well as their minds? How do we help them build and sustain passion for the long haul?

I'm still pondering how this conceptualization of culture might be used to begin helping boards to understand (and manage) the factors that create the environment in which they exist. Such a basic frame undoubtedly may oversimplify the range of factors that impact how groups develop the space for productive, respectful, engaging work. On the other hand, it offers a way of thinking about that environment, not only for identifying challenges but also actively shaping it.

How would you rate its potential for facilitating understanding how we work? How would you rate its potential value for facilitating ownership of those processes and the outcomes?

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