Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Informal board learning: Some sources

We know that nonprofit boards need a wider range of information than is typically available in the average meeting packet, and we know that most of what adults learn comes informally rather than in trainings and orientations.

Where are the logical access points for seeking that knowledge when needed? Different boards, with different missions, will have varying needs and opportunities. But there are some likely starting points for many of us. What follows are some options I’ve used and heard of other boards accessing. I trust that readers will have additional resources from which board members can draw.

Boards have two general categories of learning needs: their nonprofit’s mission area (e.g., children and youth, homelessness, senior citizen services) and their governance responsibilities. My recommendations cover one or both of those categories.

Your organization’s national/international headquarters. If your nonprofit is an affiliate of a larger organization (e.g., United Way, American Red Cross), your headquarters may offer a wide array of resources to inform and guide. One of the few things I appreciated about the larger Komen organization was the wealth of resources – about the mission area (breast cancer) and affiliate operations – made available to board members and staff. The weekly electronic newsletter for affiliate leaders was an additional support. If you are part of a larger entity, you probably have a range of informational supports from which you can draw.

Other organizations that address the same issues. I served on two boards for organizations that provided crisis intervention services for sexual assault and domestic violence victims (and community education programs addressing those issues). Today, those boards have ready access to information from national organizations like the National Coalition against Domestic Violence and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Some of those resources also may be local or regional in focus, or similar organizations that operate in nearby cities or nonprofits that address other aspects of a larger issue that you address (for example, a local free clinic and a nonprofit providing reproductive health services will have many parallel concerns).

Blogs in your mission area or that address nonprofit/governance topics.
In addition to providing access to the latest information and thinking about their chosen topics, most blogs make keeping up with those new developments easy, via email subscriptions and RSS feeds that bring new posts to you. Some of your sister or national organizations also may have blogs that will be of value to you.

Your friendly neighborhood search engine. This one may be too obvious to include, but it’s worth a reminder. There’s a wealth of resources to access on any topic you may want to explore. Not all of those sources are of equal quality or value to what you need at the moment; but it’s worth a look, especially when you’re not sure where to start or not finding what you’re seeking in the logical places.

Google alerts. Related to the search option is the availability of alerts: specifying a word or phrase for which Google will be in perpetual search mode. Not all of the websites will appeal; but you’re undoubtedly encounter an occasional gem, delivered directly to your email inbox. I have three ongoing alerts operating through Google, including one for “nonprofit governance.” Inevitably, those alerts draw attention to resources from sites otherwise not on my radar.

Local nonprofit networking communities/events.
If your community has opportunities to interact with representatives from other organizations, or that provides face to face learning events (much like our Laramie Governance Roundtable, a peer network for local boards), take advantage of that option. It can be a great way to learn more about challenges other boards are facing, approaches to addressing those problems, common ground and collaboration opportunities, and otherwise gaining a broader view of governance and of community issues. If such a peer network doesn’t exist in your community, consider starting one. One's peers often are the most powerful learning resources for any adult.

Your state nonprofit association or the National Council of Nonprofits. Not all states have a nonprofit association (at the moment, Wyoming is without an organization of this type); but those that do offer a range of resources, from downloadable how to documents to links to other helpers, to technical assistance to training sessions. The National Council of Nonprofits (where you can search easily for your state organization) provides similar information and services on a larger scale. Both can be incredibly valuable sources of support and information for your nonprofit and its board.

Local/state/regional/national nonprofit conferences.  Events like our Snowy Range Nonprofit Institute, a professional development conference for sector staff and volunteers, offer rich opportunities to learn, formally and informally, via the spontaneous networking and note-sharing that takes place. As volunteers, board members don't always feel like they have the time to participate in events that require stepping away from work for a day or two. But when they do, they will find great spaces for discovering new ways of thinking about their work. Feedback from board members who have attended SRNI tells me that the informal conversations between sessions are at least as valuable - in many ways more so - than what they pick up in the formal workshops.

Twitter. If you're not already on Twitter, this suggestion may feel a tad out of the blue. But bear with me. When speaking about this particular tool, I've often said that, if you only create a profile and follow smart people and organizations talking about topics that interest you, it's worth the effort. Readers who love Twitter know that's a terribly narrow view of a powerful networking tool. But you also know what I mean. Follow the profiles that are focused on your topics of interest, and you'll inevitably encounter a cornucopia of links to resources you might never have found in other settings. You'll encounter ideas that will stretch your imagination. And you'll meet incredibly knowledgeable people who become part of your personal learning network. Search Twitter for topics of interest and find not only references to information and resources but people and organizations to follow. Join a Twitter chat targeting your mission area and participate in a real-time learning experience.

Though long, this list represents just a subset of places and spaces where nonprofit boards can go to educate themselves about the important issues of their mission area. They represent a few paths to follow to learn about how to govern more effectively and enhance your group skills.

What would you add to this list, either specific sites or types of resources?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Accountability without (paralyzing) fear

How do we bring home the awesomeness of the nonprofit board's accountability charge without panicking members into paralysis?

If there is one takeaway that I hope that students in my "Nonprofit Management and Leadership" class will remember from last week's too-short unit on accountability, it would be understanding the breadth and depth of that function, and reinforcing the importance of creating a board culture where transparency and the highest of ethical standards embed everything it does.

Experience tells me that the typical board knows it has essential responsibilities when it comes to ensuring that the organization is financially sound. Members at least know a balanced budget is the optimal goal. They probably know that they need to be careful to use restricted funds as the donor has designated. They'd better know that the IRS has some pretty specific requirements that they must fulfill, via the organization's 990.

But beyond that, I suspect that the accountability challenge is largely a mystery. So, how to introduce a board to that larger role? That was the question I posed to my students.

I had to chuckle at the theme of some of the early responses: Scare them. Tell them stories about other boards who were asleep at the wheel and got caught. That'll bring it home to them. I must admit (and I did) that there is merit in illustrating the consequences of failure in this area. I also know that stories carry great power in learning. But because part of my job is to stretch our collective thinking in different ways, and because I have experienced the kind of paralysis that can set in with too many of those stories (thanks to a fellow board member, years ago, who had a "how we can be sued..." tale for every action we took), I suggested a different approach. What if, instead of relying primarily on fear, we framed accountability as the noble legal and moral responsibility that it is and we linked that to the higher aspirations that drew them to service?

Obviously, this isn't an either/or proposition. Board members benefit from a solid understanding of both the higher leadership roles and the cautionary tales. The role of the latter should be fairly straightforward. What would happen if we spent at least as much energy educating and challenging our boards to rise to the highest level of, well, accountability for owning this governance function? I have more questions than evidence on this one. But I think there is value in posing those questions, especially since I hope you will help me think them through:

  • What if we held boards accountable for living up to their higher-level stewardship roles, helping them to see the moral and legal obligations they assumed when they  joined?
  • What if we helped them focus appropriately on governance-level accountability - avoiding micromanagment while remaining diligent in their oversight, focusing on governance-level questions with an eye toward the vision and mission horizon?
  • What if we conveyed the seriousness of this work without paralyzing them with fear?
  • What if we educate boards, and support them, in all aspects of this work - including the parts that scare them? (Stating the obvious: we fear what we don't understand - especially those financial statements.). What kind of learning needs to take place for this to happen? 

There's the bottom line in accountability - the necessary reporting to people and organizations that expect it - and there is an environment, consciously created, where all deliberations, decisions and actions are guided by organizational values of almost sacred accountability to stakeholders.

How would you convey the scope and the seriousness of a board's accountability responsibilities without paralyzing them? How would/do you create a culture of accountability in your boards? What counsel would you offer my students on this critical topic?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Overheard: Feb. 17

There's a bit of an incidental "money" theme to the list of potential links to share this week, and I think I'll run with that. Board members can't escape their accountability for the financial health of their nonprofits, and these sources contribute to our understanding of that responsibility.

How to attract individuals to give (Tony Martignetti)

In the latest edition of his Chronicle of Philanthropy "Fundraising Fundamentals" podcast (also available for download in iTunes), Tony interviews development professionals Pamela Grow (my favorite fundraising goddess) and Tyler Wilson on the essential elements of successful donor engagement, from the ask through the thank you. It's short, sweet, and easy to share with your favorite board. I'd say it's most useful for board members and staff who are fairly new to philanthropy - a good conversation starter, particularly at a group level.

Why board members miss red flags (Kate Barr)

As a board member who lives in perpetual fear of missing obvious warning signs that our nonprofit might be in trouble, the title of this one captured my attention immediately. I was particularly taken by her bottom line message: those trouble spots often don't exist in the places where we are most likely to be looking. I appreciated the author's alerting us to the need to pay closer attention to the balance sheet, as much as I appreciated the links shared at the bottom of the post - which brings me to...

The Nonprofits Assistance Fund YouTube Channel (Nonprofits Assistance Fund)

Here you will find a series of tutorials related to various aspects of nonprofit accountability. For example, here is a primer on "Balance Sheet Basics." They offer brief overviews of a handful of topics that bring shivers to many a nonprofit board member's spine. The video format is helpful, too - a different way of presenting the information that accommodates learner needs beyond the usual text format.

Finding "money people" for your nonprofit board (Richard Male)

How often have you heard this: "We need someone who can help us with the money piece - anyone know an accountant?" or "We need someone to help us with fundraising. Who do we know who's rich?" I found myself thinking, "I never thought about.." more than once as I read Rich's post. He helped stretch my personal boundaries about both the types of backgrounds where financial intelligence is regularly incorporated, and the types of professions where that might lie.

Organizing the board to support the revenue strategy (Jan Masaoka)

 When we think of board members' role in building the financial health of the organization, many of us hone in on the fundraising component. Jan encourages us to think more broadly about the board's role in building and implementing our organization's business strategy. I immediately could see two potential outcomes of this framework shift: moving away from the perpetual focus on fundraising events and donor calls that can be challenging for many boards, and engaging individual members in work that many already have some confidence and expertise. The potential to focus board energy on revenue strategy also is appealing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Nonprofit boards 101 (and beyond)

What am I really signing on to do when I join a nonprofit board?

I had an opportunity to update my "Boards 101" video podcast for another audience this weekend, and I thought I would share it with readers here. My intent was to create a brief(ish) overview of governance that still gives a somewhat comprehensive picture of the commitment one makes when one serves on a nonprofit board.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Overheard: Catch-up edition

Life's included several late-week detours lately, so it's been awhile since the last time I shared a few of my favorite nonprofit board links. Of course, that ultimately means that I'm drawing from a larger - hopefully more powerful - pool of possibilities in this catch-up edition.

You've got to know when to go (Lucy Marcus)

And what a place to start! Lucy prompts us to confront what many may find hard to do: admit that it may be time to step down. I know, I know. It's hard enough to recruit and retain good board members. It's downright painful to let go when you do find that right fit. But there are many healthy reasons to separate, reasons that are as important for the board as it is for the individual member. Lucy makes a critical case for asking the tough questions and having the courage to admit when the time for a change is needed.

The six most powerful questions to enhance your board's strategic awareness (Steven Bowman)

I really need to share this one with my class later today... Thinking strategically, asking the big (and occasionally challenging) questions, digging deeper, anticipating all potential tangents - those are the activities that engage board members where their unique contributions can best be made. Steven's six questions are destined to spark the kinds of meaningful discussions that boards are supposed to have, on a regular basis.

The identity trifecta: Mission, vision and what? (Kevin Monroe)

After the last couple of posts, my attraction to this post by Kevin should be pretty clear: our organization's vision, mission and values are necessarily intertwined; and the board has a unique responsibility for guarding the "trifecta." The board also needs to live all three in its work and its leadership.

Demonstrating board leadership with Facebook (Marion Conway)

The headline alone should make you want to check out Marion's recent post. We already know (or should know) that the board's ambassador role is a high-impact one. Board members have a different kind of credibility and an extended reach to other community leaders that staff alone could never create. Stretching their thinking, to include appropriate sharing of messages in their social media circles, is important. As their voices and credibility grow in new venues, so too does their opportunity to engage others in different ways. It's a great way to shake things up a bit for the board members, and a way to expand your pool of potential supporters exponentially. Facebook was a primary focus of this post. I'd expand it to include the broader range of social media outlets where your board members are already present and where that new supporter base may already exist.

Must-read nonprofit board resources (Debra Beck)

I've been mesmerized by the exploding popularity of Pinterest, a new social networking tool that is capturing the attention - and time - of a growing mix of individuals and organizations (including many nonprofits). This board is one of my first attempts to try Pinterest in a way that makes sense to me and the audiences to which I try to appeal. Here I capture some of my favorite resources targeting the needs of nonprofit boards. At the moment, books and blogs dominate. It will expand as I become more comfortable with the site and (re)discover favorites that I'd like to share with you in one setting. Click on an individual "pin" to go to a link with more information.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Values and courage (and transparency)

"Values and courage. Values and courage."

Those were the only words I could utter (in a Facebook status update) when hearing that Susan G. Komen for the Cure had reversed its decision to stop funding existing grants providing screening services to Planned Parenthood agency applicants. The statement came after what can be politely described as a firestorm of criticism.

My inability to articulate beyond those six words was, in part, reflecting the continued personal pain of my difficult decision to resign from our affiliate board. But the sparse nature of those words also reflected my skepticism with both the timing and the wording of the statement. I was (and remain) speechless and deeply suspicious.

My real questions that I had then - and still have today - related to values and courage: Are Komen's organizational values really that transient? Where is the courage of the leadership charged with upholding those values and making the tough decisions? And, more to the point of this blog: What is the board's role in all of this?

We can only guess about what the board was - and is - thinking.  I've seen one story so far, quoting a board member who did Komen no favors. But that's it. I doubt we'll be hearing any in-depth, insider analysis of the inner governance processes that led to the events of last week. Still, the lessons for other boards are abundant. Nearly a week later, these are the takeaways that are resonating for me, messages that should be important for any nonprofit board to take to heart.

First is a message I hope was clear in last week's post: Be absolutely certain that your personal values and those of the organization align as perfectly as possible. No individual member can function effectively, or lead fully, if he/she is constantly battling the inner voice that says "This really isn't right..." or asks "Should we be doing this?" Never agree to serve on the board of an organization that cannot state clearly and concisely what its values are and how they advance the mission. Never agree to serve on the board of an agency with values you cannot fully and comfortably support.

Second, ensure that those organizational values are embedded in your board's (and management's) decision making processes. Are your actions defensible when measured against your values? Are they more than words on a dusty values statement tucked away somewhere in your board handbook? Do you live your values as the organization's leadership?

Third, be aware that there are expressed values - the values we say we hold and that we promote in the community - and there are enacted values that we demonstrate via our actions. They'd better match, perfectly, or we're in trouble as an organization. This is where Komen lost me, as a donor and as an affiliate leader. Its actions spoke so loudly I couldn't hear what it was saying. Regularly ask yourself: do we walk our talk when it comes to the values we espouse publicly? If not, fix that. Now. You cannot survive as an organization if you cannot be trusted to act with integrity.

Fourth, own your values, damn it. Embrace your decisions with courage. Have confidence in the actions you've taken. You'll be able to do that if you've approached them thoughtfully and in the context of your guiding values.

Occasionally, we'll make mistakes - sometimes big mistakes. Have the courage to admit when that happens, and show how your values are guiding the necessary corrections to make things right again. But don't use the "Oops, we didn't really mean it..." strategy to backtrack on an unpopular decision.

If you're setting or reinforcing boundaries, if you've found lines you will not cross, if you're committing to one specific direction or declining another, say so. As a donor and/or volunteer, I may agree with you or not. I may increase my support as a result of your actions. I may decrease it, at least temporarily, or choose not to support that particular initiative. But I'll probably retain some level of loyalty if I can see how it fits the bigger picture.

If, on the other hand, I feel that you are lying to me or that you're telling me what you think I want to hear so that I'll get off your back, you will lose me forever.

Which brings me to transparency. Boards need to be accountable to their stakeholders.  You don't need to spill every minute detail, every secret. But you should be transparent in sharing what guides your decision making and how those decisions are moving you ever closer to your mission. Stakeholders need to be able to understand how you got to this point. They will be better able to trust your leadership, even if they don't necessarily like the outcomes of that leadership, if they can see how you got there.

You board and your staff leadership are free to pursue the mission and values that are right for your organization and its stakeholders. You aren't expected to please everyone. They aren't obligated to support you, in part or in whole. You will inspire confidence and build loyalty if you have clearly articulated values that drive all of your decisions and actions, if your expressed and your enacted values match. You will inspire confidence and build loyalty if you have the courage to stand behind those decisions, if you are transparent in demonstrating how you reach them and if you are accountable for them once they are made.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

When organizational, personal values collide

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. I'm not sure whether I'll ever click 'publish.' But I'm feeling a need to process in this setting the heartache of a very personal decision I made this week.

I resigned from a board yesterday, an affiliate board of an international organization whose name you may recognize (especially if you were anywhere near a news outlet or social media vehicle in the last 48 hours). I've been squeamish about activities emanating from headquarters throughout my years as a volunteer and board member (dating back to 1996).  This time was different for me, as an individual event and as the latest example of things that bother me deeply about the larger entity.

I've held my nose - a lot recently - and kept my focus on the good work we've been able to accomplish in Wyoming. I've chaired the affiliate's grants committee since joining the board in 2007. I've seen the numbers and can state unequivocally: we saved lives. We educated. We raised awareness. We provided services to populations that would otherwise not had access. We also saved lives. That's always been the bottom line for me, and my motivation for local service with this group. It's kept me going when the stench rising from the south was particularly bad.

However, the latest action by headquarters left me feeling that I had no choice. There are other reasons, other factors leading up to this point, that are neither germane nor appropriate to discuss here. But the final straw feels like a lesson fitting a larger theme of this blog: my personal values no longer fit those of the larger organization.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know my mantra: If you can't fully support the mission, vision and values of the organization, you have no business serving on its board. Usually, I'm sharing that in the context of new member recruitment. Yesterday, I was facing that dilemma five years into my own six-year commitment to this organization and its work.

Yes, I could have bitten my lip, sucked it up, and plodded through for one last year.  (Though some of those other factors not discussed here were making that an increasingly impossible option.) In the end, it came down to walking the talk. How could I face you, how could I preach personal/organizational alignment in my work with boards, if I'm living in conflict with what I believe is the essence of nonprofit governance? Our local affiliate has some degree of independence. But in the end, our organizational mission and values are those defined and exercised by the international entity. They cannot be completely separated. Their enacted values ultimately are ours. But they aren't mine.

If you're reading this, I've obviously decided to go ahead and publish. I don't make that decision lightly. I am aware of the potential perception that I'm only seeking some kind of personal validation, or joining the growing national bandwagon protesting the organization's actions. Neither is true. Mostly, I'm just sad and angry.

Nonprofit governance ultimately is as much a process of the heart as it is the head. Our heads may be able to walk us through the motions of meetings and committee work. But if our hearts aren't in it, we are probably not providing the kind of leadership that our organizations require.

I'm not saying quit when it gets tough. I am saying don't ignore your gut. Listen when your heart is telling you that something is not right. Act with all your might to change that. Stand up for your collectively held values and the ways in which they are demonstrated in your organization's work. But in the end, if that gap still exists, do what is right for you and the organization - even when doing what's right means going your separate ways.