Sunday, October 7, 2012

10 ways to understand your mission better

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.


How do we stay connected to our nonprofit's mission? How do we educate ourselves about the mission? About the organization's approach to fulfilling it? How can we take a more active role in fulfilling our own learning needs?

There undoubtedly are as many ways to approach this as there are nonprofits - and I'm anxious to hear how readers deepen their understanding of mission area issues. In the meantime, here are 10 relatively straightforward activities that should be accessible - and applicable - for most boards.

1. Make mission moments a regular part of your meeting agenda. This one will be familiar to longtime readers (I'm a big fan of mission moments). Set aside 5-10 minutes every meeting to share a story, a key statistic, a resource, etc., that reminds board members why they serve. Compelling evidence of need(s) being met/challenges faced/small signs of progress shared in mission moments not only make the work real, it also adds to their personal toolbox when interacting with peers, donors, friends, policy makers, and other potential stakeholders.

2. Assign mission-related readings, video or audio in advance of the meeting. These resources needn't be lengthy. They simply need to increase understanding and, hopefully, provoke thought. Spend time in your meeting discussing how it applies to your services. Talk about how it fits your context and how it differs. Explore how this new knowledge impacts your vision of your mission and your future. This isn't fluff or a luxury. It's the discussion of governance.

3. Participate in volunteer training. My first two board assignments were with agencies providing crisis intervention and counseling to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Both required board members to participate in victim advocate training. While some of my fellow board members found this to be overkill (and they probably were right), that immersion in the issues bound me to our mission in deep and meaningful ways. It also increased my understanding of the challenges that front-line volunteers face, which helped me to ask better questions and make more informed decisions related to programming and volunteer support. Would your board members gain different/deeper knowledge by participating in your volunteer training?

4. Spend time serving in other volunteer capacities. I'll acknowledge up front that this one may introduce conflicts of interest for some boards in some organizations. For others, volunteering to help organizer or staff special events, hosting guests (especially donors) at those events, or other opportunities to get up close and personal with the work and the people behind your agency in new ways. Just be aware of the potentially blurring of lines between governance and volunteerism. A quick reminder of which "hat" - board or volunteer - is being worn never is a bad idea.

5. Recruit a retired volunteer to serve on the board. For many boards, recruiting a former volunteer to the table accomplishes two important goals. One, it is a chance to invite an already loyal member of your organization to serve in a new leadership capacity. Two, it brings that individual's experience and informed commitment to boardroom deliberations. Volunteers bring a different perspective than staff or board - a perspective that many boards find valuable.

6.  Schedule Q&A time with staff members, especially senior staff. If board members aren't already spending quality time with the development director and the business manager, if they don't have regular opportunities to visit with program managers, they're missing out on opportunities to learn about the challenges, strengths and needs that shape how they approach their responsibilities.

7. Tour the facility. I once served on a board that required all members to participate in the annual tour set up for new recruits. Every year, as I entered the clinic, I wondered, "Why the heck am I here?" Every year, I left with new information about the services or the physical plant. I also renewed my appreciation for all that our staff and volunteers accomplished in less than ideal circumstances. Whether an annual event or a one-time visit, touring the space where mission work takes place can be an eye-opening and educational experience.

8. Include an "about our mission" section in your print or online board handbook. Give all members ready access to core information about mission-related issues, services and data, in the place they turn to whenever they have questions or opportunities to share with others. One of the beauties of taking your board handbook online: members won't have to wonder if the version they have is up to date.

9. Invite board members to participate in mission-related conferences, webinars and other training sessions. Not too many years ago, this one often would have involved expensive travel to a face to face event. Today, many of our nonprofits have access to distance-delivered professional development events and industry updates available online. Parent organizations, national associations, governmental agencies (especially for health and human services), and foundations addressing your mission area all may offer web- or video-based opportunities to expand your board's knowledge. If they are not free, charges often are low enough to fit in your board development budget.

10. Subscribe to mission-related newsletters, blogs, etc. Everything we could possibly need or want to know about most of our mission areas is readily accessible and totally free, thanks to social media and web-based resources. My vast personal learning network includes subscriptions to blogs, follows of Twitter profiles and likes of Facebook pages fed by organizations that share mission concerns with nonprofits I serve as a board member. They provide a ready stream of information and perspectives that expand my understanding of the broader issues we address. They also are available when I am ready to access them. If you're scared of Twitter and overwhelmed by Facebook, search for blogs and electronic newsletters focusing on your topics. Ask your ED, fellow board members and agency staff for recommendations of resources they value. Explore those sources and subscribe to whichever provides the kind of information you value in ways that meet your learning needs.

This is only a starting point. I invite you to share the ways in which you and your board bring yourselves closer to your organization's purpose.

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