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.