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.


Jane Garthson said...

Love your question style! And I am very pleased that the top categories relate to the future and to engagement.

Action on this priorities also provides the context and criteria for the missing activities that, as you note, are always on the To Do list. They aren't unimportant; they just aren't nearly as important.

I am sorry to see succession planning and board assessment missing from both lists, but again those need the context of vision, values and mission before they can be meaningful.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

You know, Jane, I always seem to leave off something important on these little polls. :) Definitely, I will take note and consider how they might be incorporated into a future round.

Fortunately, I have a board self-assessment post outlined and ready for release. (Great minds, right?) The topic has been on my mind for several months now; recent experiences with process have sparked a fresh (for me, at least) perspective on the topic. Stay tuned!

Grateful for the feedback!