Monday, December 31, 2012

Nonprofit governance: Process and practice

As I reflect back on the issues that energized and perplexed in 2012 - and the questions left to be explored in 2013 - it's obvious that next year's focus for this blog (and my work generally) has a clear theme:

"Process and Practice"

The "practice" side of the equation is a straightforward one: As a pracademic (a practitioner also engaged in teaching and research), everything always comes down to practice. That won't change, though I am privately committing to a series of specific practice themes in what I share here and elsewhere in the coming year.

The "process" spotlight will be the growth area for my public thinking about nonprofit boards. It's not unfamiliar ground: one of my master's theses (in organizational communication) and my doctoral dissertation both explored board "process" issues. But I've been increasingly challenged by the lack of quality discussion about - or even acknowledgement of - the very real interpersonal/group dynamics issues that keep popping up in boardrooms. That concern has come to a head as we turn the calendar page to 2013.

As a sector, we don't really talk about the very real impacts of how we interact, how we collaborate, how we deliberate and ultimately make decisions. We talk a lot about roles and responsibilities. We talk about demographics: who's in the room, or not. But we don't really deal with the human aspects of what happens when we put different personalities, with different understandings and approaches to working with other people, into those boardrooms. Experience tells me that that's where some of the bigger challenges and bigger breakthroughs occur. But we don't want to talk about the messy stuff of human interaction and human nature.

That stands in contrast with one of the bigger surprises I've encountered in my exploration of corporate governance. I've been shocked to find open discussion of the highs and lows of interpersonal communication (and the personalities that help or hinder that interaction) smack dab in the middle of a book or article on corporate boards.

One of my goals for 2013 is to pose some questions that really need to be asked, and to share resources and insights about group process, and spark conversations about what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. I'm not exactly sure how that will unfold, but I'm committed to shining a spotlight on topics we really need to get out into the open as a sector. If one outcome is giving boards some language for identifying the processes that facilitate quality governance (or get in the way of that work), it will be a successful effort. If it helps some boards find the bravery to actually deal with the less-than-productive actions and interactions, that's even better.

I'll continue to write on a wide range of nonprofit governance issues (especially new applications of adult education theory and practice to board learning) throughout the year. But this "practice and process" theme feels like a worthy contribution to governance within our sector. I'll be interested in hearing your insights, and your experiences, as we explore this together.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Yes, a must-read

Too many flags to count and two highlighters used up: yes, your nonprofit's library needs a copy of this book:

To discover the other three books that made my 2012 list of must-read governance titles, read my Dec. 24 post.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Big, burning board questions for 2013

What are the big questions that nonprofit boards will be (or should be) facing in the year ahead?

As I try on my different board hats - member, blogger, educator, facilitator - in the waning days of 2012, these are the questions that feel most compelling. What would you add to the list?

  • What board focus/activities will bring us - and our community - closer to our vision of a better future by the end of the year?
  • How will we stay focused on that visionary work in the next 12 months (and beyond)?
  • What are the unique stories that we can tell as board members, and how can we share them with the stakeholder groups that most need to hear them?
  • How will we demonstrate our stewardship of community resources that have been entrusted to the agency, to internal and external audiences?  
  • What do we need to understand this year to govern more effectively? How will we build learning that creates and deepens that understanding into our work?
  • How can we clear space for open-ended, future-focused discussions in our meetings?

  • What do I want my legacy to be on this board, and what actions/commitments do I need to make in 2012 to ensure that contribution (especially for boards)?
  • What do I most need, from my fellow board members and the agency, to maintain my highest level of motivation?
  • With whom can I share our story, to increase community engagement with our mission and our agency? How will I make those contacts?
  • What can the sector do to increase public respect, visibility and accountability of board service?
  • How do we reframe the practical definition (in terms of where boards actually focus) of nonprofit governance as something more than oversight - as community and organizational leadership?
  • What professional development opportunities and resources do boards need to lead, and how can we make them accessible to all?
  • How can we finally frame and support board diversity in ways that are meaningful and that avoid tokenism?
  • How do we help nonprofit boards own the future they are helping to create?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Board books that impacted in 2012

If I'm not writing about boards, I'm reading about them. In 2012, that reading included four books that helped to expand my thinking about nonprofit governance, each in a unique way.

The Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards (Cathy Trower)

Well, my work here is done. I launched this blog in 2007, in part, as a vehicle for exploring and articulated many of the concepts that drew me to Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership framework. In this new book, Trower offers a phenomenally rich toolbox of resources - examples, questions and checklists - to not only better understand the three modes of governance that make up GAL (fiduciary, strategic and generative) but to implement it. I've been waiting for this book since I cracked open the original for the first time.

Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the Coming Revolution in Corporate Governance (Richard LeBlanc and James Gillies)

This title fulfilled its original purpose, by expanding my understanding of corporate governance. But embedded within was an unexpected gift that will resonate with boards in either sector - a 10-type framework describing functional and dysfunctional board behaviors. The categories shared rang true (I recognized board members past - and, yes, my own actions - on both lists). They also invite the reader to be more mindful of group dynamics, the interpersonal factors that impact board effectiveness as much as - and frequently more than - the tasks and job descriptions that tend to dominate our discussions and prescriptions. How do we interact with each other? How do we facilitate effective governance deliberations? How do we inhibit them?  What kind of leader guides us to effective outcomes? The authors dug into the messiness that so often stands between us and the good work that we intend to do.

Before You Join a Board: 21 Essential Questions (John Balkcom)

I love a good question, especially when it sparks thoughtful reflection about board service. As the title indicates, John offers a series of questions designed to evaluate whether the fit between individual and board is a good one for both parties. The author organized the book and the questions around three categories: "make or break" (negative responses disqualify service), matters of board hygiene (practices that facilitate board health), and questions distinguishing good practice from great governance. While some questions are corporate specific, most are sector-neutral.  All encourage recruits, those currently serving, and the board as a whole to assess what they do, how they do it, and why. Perhaps it's because I've had self-assessment on the brain of late, but I consider this book to be as valuable as part of a board's evaluation toolbox as it is to its original purpose of finding the right fit before one accepts an invitation to serve.

Fired-Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action (Gail Perry)

I purchased this title because I needed to better understand how to help reluctant board members (myself included) to find their purpose and their specific roles in a local nonprofit's fundraising program.  Gail didn't disappoint on that front. Fired-Up Fundraising makes a case for multi-layered board involvement offers accessible strategies for engaging even the most hesitant member in ways that advance the agency's fundraising efforts. But I was caught off guard by her early focus on connecting board members to their deeper motivations, and to linking the outreach we're asking them to make with donors to the compelling vision that drives them all to serve. The foundation she lays is more than "find a way to join board member A's interests with fundraising goal B." It starts with appreciating the significant gifts that members bring to their service, finding ways to respect and fuel their passion to stretch in ways that may initially feel uncomfortable. I know that shouldn't be newsworthy in writing about boards. But when it comes to talking about their roles in fundraising, too often the tone is a negative one, laying out the myriad ways in which we board members fail to live up to expectations. Instead, Gail starts from a different place, one that is respectful of board members' leadership and that is far more likely to foster success in the long run. She also reminds us that fundraising involves far more than making the ask; there are many ways to participate in the process.

While I chose to highlight these four titles as noteworthy for the reasons outlined here, others have been influential in shaping my thinking about nonprofit governance. For a complete list of those I consider to be essential, please visit my "Must-Read Nonprofit Board Resources" Pinterest board. Many are available in eBook form (in fact, all four of the highlighted books can be downloaded), which means you have instant access to quality governance sources over your holiday break.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Governance: Unlearning to learn

What do boards need to unlearn before they can learn to govern more effectively?

The early pages of Dennis Pointer's Board Work: Governing Health Care Organizations left me pondering that question. As an adult educator, I have a few thoughts of my own. But I'm more interested in hearing your ideas about what blocks boards' ability to move toward a different approach to governing.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts via this brief, one-question survey. I'll collect responses, synthesize, and share in a future post. I'm interested in a broad pool of responses; any help sharing with your boards and with others in the sector would be most appreciated.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Overheard: December 21

Well, the one good thing about living through a tough fall may be the fact that I have plenty of time to accumulate a wealth of fantastic resources between posts.

Leading - now and always (Erika Andersen)

I ask. Cousin Erika delivers. In my "leadership edition" favorite links post, I introduced you to the leadership model that Erika has developed and wished for a public version of the qualities that form the foundation. Today, I share a post that describes those essential qualities of a leader that others will follow - and make an impact in our communities and the nonprofit sector.

What makes nonprofits special? (Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies)

Whether it's in the context of our community outreach, our public policy work, or simply in routine boardroom deliberation, understanding the ultimate value that our sector brings to our society is important. This recent work, by the JHCCSS team, does a fantastic job of articulating common sector values and beginning the case for strengthening its collective voice.

Between minds - an ongoing taxonomy of team dynamics (

The more I observe and learn about boards, the more convinced I am that we need to be spending far more time attending to the interpersonal 'stuff' that can make or break quality interaction and teamwork. When this infographic appeared in my RSS feed, I immediately thought of how it might spark a conversation about the human tendencies each of us have and how those tendencies display themselves in the boardroom. Do we make the most of those "thought leader" qualities? Do we channel the "do leader" energy in ways that are productive and pointed in the direction the board wants to head?

Meetings: What's your biggest problem with meetings? (Simply Business)

Click image to open interactive version (via Simply Business).

Speaking of interpersonal "stuff" getting in the way... I simply had to share this interactive tool for thinking about some of the bigger challenges to productive meetings. I've seen and experienced them all. You have, too. Click on the image to access a great, interactive resource for addressing those issues.

5 nonprofit trends to watch in 2013 (Nell Edgington)

Whether or not Nell is exactly on the mark on all five of these predictions, for me the point is to remind boards that the future should be their primary focus. In that spirit, take Nell's list. Discuss it. Explore what each of her trends might mean for your organization. Talk about issues already represented in your work and interactions. Anticipate what could arise and how you might be proactive in meeting those opportunities where they can best serve your mission and your stakeholders.

Brainstorming vs. braincalming (Mitch Ditkoff)

Regular readers know my bias toward reflective practice in board work. That's immediately where my brain went when I read this post. In our efforts to make the most of limited board volunteer time, we often err on the side of cramming as much into those minutes as possible - and as much information into their brains as possible. The specific call here is to rethink the all-too-popular brainstorming practice (and I absolutely plan to add this to my facilitation toolbox), but I think it also offers us an alternative way of thinking about how we structure board discussions. Do we give members the information needed for quality deliberations enough in advance to facilitate thoughtful consideration and research before the meeting? In the meetings themselves, do we leave enough open space for listening? Do we give each important decision enough time to incubate before a vote is cast? Do we give board members the breathing room to listen not only to each other but to their own hearts and heads?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Overheard: Dec. 8

It must be the season: Several sources offered gifts that must be shared with nonprofit boards this week.

Board development - Excerpt from helping your board tell your story (Carlo Cuesta)

Carlo must have been reading my mind during this webinar. As he began describing four things that nonprofit boards need (experiences, safe environments to share, opportunities to create, and laughter and joy), I found myself thinking, "I really need a way to share this...". A day or so later, this clip appeared on Carlo's blog. He is absolutely right about all four of those needs - especially the need for different kinds of experiences and opportunities to create. What experiences do we offer our boards, besides passive seat time listening to reports? What do we ask them to create on our behalf? So much to ponder (and act upon) in this post. By the way, if you have the chance to sign up for the next version of this free webinar, you simply must do so.

Wanted: Strong capable nonprofit boards (Lucy Marcus)

In this post, Lucy captures the essence of what boards require to succeed and lead as eloquently as I've ever seen. What a marvelous overview - and spark for meaningful discussion. Where are our strengths? What are our challenges? Where do we invest in our board's development to build its governance capacity?

Governance as Leadership: New approaches to governing nonprofits

Governance as Leadership from Hauser Center at Harvard on Vimeo.

You may not be giddy about seeing Governance as Leadership co-author William Ryan speak about the model that has so deeply influenced my thinking about the way boards lead. But seeing this "live" discussion about GAL - and especially the revolutionary generative component - made my week. It's also inspired me to act on my promise to myself to write more about this topic. In the meantime, enjoy this discussion about what's possible when boards are given the time and space to govern creatively.

Break downs on nonprofit boards (Kevin Monroe)

Kevin offers hope - and a starting point - for boards who feel stuck in a non-productive place. Sometimes, we need a little boost (and a few good questions) to move us from that broken-down place.

Thinking strategically? (Gayle Gifford)

Anything that reminds boards of the value of thinking strategically is a gift. Gayle offers "five ways to tell if you're thinking strategically" in this update. Be sure to click on the link to Gayle's "Five elements of thinking strategically" post, found at the end of this article, for an expansion.

Basic competencies of the nonprofit leader (Natasha Golinsky)

Governance may offer a specific context but, in the end, leadership is leadership. Natasha's five competencies apply as much to board members as they do do CEOs, senior staff and other volunteer leaders. Use this post as a framework for affirming your board's commitments to leading your organization to the best of their ability.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Overheard: Continuing the catch-up

Today, I continue to share some of the board-friendly resources that I've been bookmarking for you this fall.

Building a strategic board: webinar excerpt (Carlo Cuesta)

This brief video presents an overview of a framework that has intrigued since Carlo shared a sneak peek awhile back. Its focus on appropriate ways to engage the board's strategic purpose reminds me of what attracted me to his approach in the first place.

Using technology to be better trustees (Louise Brown)

In addition to (re)introducing us to several free Google tools that can streamline board communication and improve access to information when needed, she reminds us that "technology" can be harnessed to enhance boards' productivity. Statewide board meetings  that require long car rides for meetings (so common in my home state) and mailed board packets simply miss the point. Find ways to harness the free and low-cost tools to make board service easier and allow members to concentrate on what's important.

Bringing a network mindset to board development (Beth Kanter)

Beth had me at "board development." She expanded its value by introducing readers to network mapping and encouraging boards to articulate and link connections that can be summoned in service to the organization.

Step up: Be an ambassador (Sarah Mackey)

Quick, practical ways for board members to promote your work and involve others in your mission - that's what Sarah offers in this post. Outreach needn't be a vague, abstract notion. It's also one of the more important responsibilities of boards. The specifics Sarah offers make that role more accessible and attractive to individual members.

5 things trusting teams do (Matt Monge)

So many of the challenges boards face come down to the interpersonal stuff.  Reaching their greatest potential requires boards to function effectively as teams. This post offers a primer on building team trust - nothing revolutionary, but a healthy reminder (and perhaps an opening to discuss areas where our boards struggle).

10 tips for better nonprofit board decisions (Kevin Monroe)

Love this list. Love it. It's good, common sense; but Kevin packages and frames it in the context of board decision making. Boards can use it in many ways to evaluate and commit to better, more thoughtful processes. As with the trust post, it's often a reminder of the basics that sparks the greatest move toward improved board effectiveness.