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.

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