Monday, April 30, 2012

10 ways to launch a board term

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.

Last week, we talked about 10 ways to create and sustain a successful board recruitment process. Your board took that counsel to heart; and the result is a group of committed, enthusiastic new members who bring a diverse range of perspectives and skills that build your collective capacity. Finding and inviting those individuals to join your leadership team is only the first step. How you bring them on board also is critical. When you engage those new members in ways that are meaningful to them and to the organization, you lay the foundation for an effective and fruitful term of service.

Here are 10 ways to facilitate that experience for your newest members:

1) Make sure that each new member can see and articulate connections between your vision and mission and his/her motivations, interests, values. What are the rewards they will experience from this service? How will leading your organization enable them to act on their own values? Where will they find the meaning that keeps them motivated, especially through the difficult challenges that your board will inevitably face? Helping new members identify those intersections, and working to ensure that they have opportunities that meet those meaning-making needs, will increase the value to them and their commitment to you.

2) Provide a supportive induction event. If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know my thoughts about relying on one, limited orientation event as the source of everything new members need to know to serve and lead. They require more from you to succeed, but that orientation event has a place in new member induction. For more detail on how to construct an orientation that introduces new board members to the organization and their duties, click here.

3) Offer ongoing opportunities to learn in meetings and other board work settings. All members build capacity when they have opportunities for experiential learning -- to dive in, explore, and even make mistakes while deepening their understanding of your mission area and their governance duties. Meetings should not only welcome active member participation and information sharing, they should be built to require them. New members should be encouraged to be part of that process from their first meeting with you.

4) Assign a board mentor to each new member. Pair up each new member with a board veteran who can check in periodically, explain issues and processes that may be initially unclear, and provide a friendly source for asking 'naive' questions that they may feel uncomfortable posing in the larger group. This relationship not only benefits the new member; it often functions as a renewing spark for the vet, who may find him/herself rethinking "why we do things this way" and seeing board service through fresh eyes.

5) Provide ready access to necessary board documents, tools and information immediately. Whether provided through a hard copy board handbook or online portal, new members should have access to resources that introduce the organization and the responsibilities they have just assumed soon after accepting a seat on the board. If possible, put those resources into their hands before the orientation event. This allows new members to come to that orientation event with questions about things that are important or troubling to them (which, in turn, paves the way for a different kind of active engagement during that training).

6) Provide regular check-ins with the board president and executive director. Even with the informal support of a mentor, the new member will benefit from having periodic opportunities to interact one-on-one with the board's president and its executive director. These can be critical checkpoints to not only answer lingering questions but to identify challenges that new members are encountering, new opportunities to get involved.

7) Offer a tour or other opportunities to meet staff, programs and facilities. Brochures, reports and the like offer one level of introduction to your work and the people behind it. But something different happens when new members have (appropriate) experiences that connect them more directly. Give them a chance to visit your site, see where and how you work, and get acquainted with employees and others engaged in program delivery.

8) Assign new members to at least one committee that invites them to engage in an area of interest or where they can contribute expertise. Strategic committee involvement can facilitate early, active, meaningful participation that builds ownership and leadership. Don't just plop them into any open space on a committee roster. Find a place where they can stretch and learn while contributing to the board's work.

9) Check in with new members two to three months into their service to ask about specific learning needs, and do your best to address them. Even with a high level of support and opportunities to experience board service, new members still will have areas where additional/deeper information is needed. When they identify those needs, do what you need to do to fill them.

10) Provide a meeting environment where questions are part of the governance process. Everyone benefits when meeting agendas routinely contain open spaces for wide-open, future-oriented questions - when passive listening to reports is kept to a minimum (or eliminated altogether) and active participation by all members is expected. Flipping the agenda is one alternative I've recommended to boards for whom a radical restructuring feels impossible.

Monday, April 23, 2012

10 ways to successful board recruitment

This post is the first in a recurring "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do. None of the challenges I'll spotlight are easily addressed in "10 ways." Rather, I'll share a snapshot of the kinds of counsel I might offer if we were to meet on a street corner and talk about common board concerns. Where possible, I'll link to posts that offer more detail on the concepts shared.

It's an all-too-familiar board routine: the annual meeting is next month, we need to replace retiring board members, and we have no idea how to fill those vacancies. We're scrambling this year - again - but we'd really like to break out of this endless (and endlessly frustrating) cycle. What are 10 ways to think and act differently to lay the foundation for a better board recruitment process?

1. First, recognize that it is a year-round process - and act as if that were the case. Even if you are engaged in focused activity at various points in the year (e.g., extending invitations to new members who take office at an annual meeting), the process of identifying and cultivating prospective members should be a recurring one. Members should always be aware of recruiting needs as they interact in the community and their workplaces. Who do we know - who do our networks know - who might be a good fit for our leadership team?

2. Clarify your board's ultimate recruitment needs. Think broadly about those needs: what values, expertise areas, commitments, work styles, connections to stakeholders, etc., do you need to govern effectively? The marvelous Hildy Gottlieb introduced me to a framework that has reshaped my approach to board recruitment: identifying a board's "must haves," "would be nices," and "never in a million years" needs. (Order Hildy's book, Board Recruitment & Orientation: A Step-by-Step, Common Sense Guide, for a full description and related resources.) The "must haves" are those qualities, commitments and values that each member must possess. They are the bottom line and the foundation from which all recruitment must be built. These are the non-negotiables. The "wouldn't it be nices" are those skills, perspectives, etc., that the board requires, but not necessarily within each individual member. What skills, experiences, connections to key stakeholder groups, work styles, etc., are needed at the boardroom table? The "never in a million years" criteria are exactly what the label suggests: those dispositions and challenges that we never want to invade our boardroom.

3. Identify, and appreciate, what your current board members already bring to the table. Use your "musts" and "nice" lists to guide a self-assessment of the qualities, skills and connections that you already have in the boardroom. This accomplishes three goals: recognizes and articulates the contributions that members already are making, gives them - and you - an opportunity to discover talents that exist but are not being utilized fully, and spotlights recruitment needs.

4. Consider needs that build future capacity. It's not enough to simply replace the outgoing attorney with another lawyer (or otherwise fill a gap that exists because of a retirement). Consider what capacities you need to move you closer to your vision and mission in the future: what new connections you need to build, what kinds of thinkers will help you avoid falling into the same routines and decision-making processes, what new expertise will you require to expand your reach in significant new ways? You may end up recruiting a very different kind of prospective member with the future in mind.

5. Recognize and value diversity in all of its forms. How does your board define diversity in ways that are meaningful to your organization and your leadership responsibilities? Include, but don't limit yourself to, the demographic variables. After serving too many years on local boards filled with white, college-educated, middle-class women (usually with some tie to our local university), I would never minimize the critical importance of having people in the room who don't look like me or who aren't inclined to think like me (because of similar life experiences). That said, I also am wary of the potential for unintentional tokenism. No one should be recruited solely because of gender, ethnicity, age, etc. This adds to the beauty of Hildy's approach: if you're inviting an individual to join your board, you're affirming that he/she already meets the musts - commitment to your vision and mission, shared values, etc. That that person also is a member of an underrepresented demographic group, perhaps with connections to a new stakeholder community, adds to the value of the specific contributions he/she can make, but it's not the only expectation.

6. Identify your current recruitment goals based on input from ways 2-5.  Now that you have clarity about what your bottom line is for board membership, the resources that already exist within your board, and your capacity needs to move you into the future, you are in a good position to define your recruitment needs.

 7. Cast a wide net in making your recruitment needs known. Each board member brings different network connections that, we hope, are already hearing about the work that we do and the needs that we have (including, but not limited to, board membership). That they are already reaching out to those groups in appropriate ways should be a given. But there undoubtedly are other groups where community leaders dwell and where buy-in to your mission might be somewhat straightforward.  Which groups make the most sense depends somewhat on your mission area and your community, but here is a sampling of possibilities: civic groups (e.g., Rotary, Kiwanis, Soroptimist, Toastmasters), communities of faith (churches, synagogues, mosques), schools and higher education institutions (specific departments, employee groups, etc.), other nonprofits (perhaps retiring board members looking for new ways to serve?), leadership development groups (e.g., Leadership Laramie and Leadership Wyoming), chambers of commerce and other merchant associations. I realize this list may end up yielding a lot of crossover, and I'd welcome some assistance helping me expand it even wider. What are those less-obvious sources of volunteer energy and leadership in our communities?

8. But don't ignore the home team. If your organization has a strong volunteer program, consider looking within for prospective board members. Can you find some of the expertise you need, some of the community connections you seek, amongst individuals who already have demonstrated interest and commitment to your mission? I'd never suggest looking to the volunteer pool as your sole source of board leadership; but it shouldn't be overlooked, either. You already know their level of commitment to the organization and your mission. You have an idea of how they work with others. You know, at least on a general level, what they bring to the table. This also is an argument for expanding board committees to include non-members; you benefit from the knowledge community volunteers bring to discussions and you have a chance to build the board recruitment pipeline.

9. Cultivate your prospects. Don't make a cold call right before that annual meeting vote, asking someone out of the blue to accept a nomination he/she hasn't had time to consider. Cultivate prospective members. Sit down with them, well before an invitation is extended, to introduce them to your organization and/or your board. Share a recruitment packet (yes, an actual packet) containing a board member job description, information about the board structures, detail about the nonprofit and those served - anything that can help them make an informed decision about whether they would be interested in service. Consider a pre-invitation visitation policy. One of the most successful recruitment processes I've ever witnessed (and experienced) involved a board that required three meeting visits before an invitation was extended. Three meetings may teeter on the edge of overkill; but in six years on that board, we had only one mismatch. Whether it's three, 23 or one visit, consider giving prospective board members a chance to see how you work before you invite them to join.

10. Have a plan for supporting them once they've said yes. A one-shot, fill-their-heads orientation isn't enough to launch a successful leadership journey. Develop an orientation process that provides ready access to resources to deepen their knowledge, friendly faces who can share how things really work, regular opportunities to ask questions, and meaningful responsibilities that immerse them in board work.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

10 board ways...

I cover a wide range of topics related to boards and their learning needs in this blog. I try to offer enough depth to provide readers with a sense of context for what I share, without paralyzing you or boring you to tears.

But I'm often asked, in other settings, "So, what do I really need to know about (insert board role or issue here)?" What the person making the request wants at that moment isn't a deep understanding of the historic challenges, theoretical perspectives, or even my ultimate reasons for the counsel they seek. They just want a few tips to help them resolve the problem at hand or a different way of thinking about how to approach it.

I could point them to this site (and often do, for more detail). But the advice they seek may be spread across many posts, embedded and connected to thoughts on a topic that is only tangentially related - or completely unrelated - to their particular issue. How do I capture that snapshot view that the friend needs, in a way that spotlights the essentials and is accessible at the moment?

That is the purpose of a new series that I plan to launch here tomorrow, "10 Ways..." It may be a sequential series, extending over time until I run out of topics or you all tell me to stop. It may be an occasional offering, with a new edition posted whenever the subject seems to fit. Whatever the frequency, my goal is to provide 10 quick, thought-provoking ideas (with links to more detail, where available) that give some insight into my approach to addressing common governance questions.

This may seem to fly in the face of one of my criticisms of how the sector tends to frame and resolve these challenges: "X easy ways to..." The context already is available here; these posts are my attempt to summarize, in ways that I hope will be useful to you and anyone else who reads them. They're my way of participating in the conversation in a new way - and perhaps helping me to better articulate my responses to those on-the-street, in-the-conference-lobby questions.

Why 10? I can easily pour out three to six responses for any of the topics I plan to discuss. Committing to 10 bullet points will encourage me to stretch just a tad beyond the obvious, and to be a bit more creative in thinking about what I share with you.

Tomorrow's topic, strategies for successful board recruitment, is helping me prepare for a discussion I'll facilitate for Friday's meeting of the Laramie Governance Roundtable (If you're a member of a Laramie board and would like to participate, email me for more details.).

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Quick poll results: Biggest board challenges

The results to the quick poll I posted earlier this week are in (or, more accurately, I reached my response limit in the tool.). 

I'm not completely sure I'm surprised that nothing emerged as vastly more compelling in this decidedly unscientific poll. But it's thought-provoking nonetheless to see which areas received slightly more attention than the others.

What is of interest at this point is your response to what you see here.
  • Are there any surprises, in terms of proportion of votes received (either more or less than expected)?
  • Where would you have placed your vote (and why)?
  • As broad as I tried to be in setting up the original options, I inevitably missed issues that likely should have been included. If I were to run this poll again, what should I add, and why?

Quick poll results: Biggest board challenges

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poll: Biggest nonprofit board challenges

What are the biggest challenges to effective nonprofit boards?

I'm in assumption-checking mode this evening: What do readers of this blog - and my social media connections - think are the biggest issues impacting nonprofit governance? I've set up a quick poll to gauge your gut instincts, capture a snapshot of what those in the field believe to be most pressing. I'd love your feedback on this.

Click on whatever options feel the most pressing to you. Then, if you're in the mood, please forward a link to this post to your fellow board members.

Monday, April 2, 2012

In search of (practical) Utopia

All this talk of vision and mission is nice, but it's too out there. It's not practical. It's a Utopia we'll never achieve...

It's a refrain many of us have heard at various times in our nonprofit boardrooms. We are told defining and advancing a more ideal future is our ultimate governance job, while we grapple with the here-and-now issues of program funding shortfalls, employee turnover and facilities that seem to be kept together with noting more than scotch tape and a prayer. Embracing a vision of a world that feels vastly out of reach in the midst of the "real-world" challenges of nonprofit leadership can be a pretty tough sell.

My "Nonprofit Management and Leadership" class has been immersed in essentially the same conversation this week, as we deepened our collective understanding of the roles of vision and mission. Early conversation leaned toward that all-too-common theme: all this talk about vision and mission is lovely, but it's just not practical.

Needless to say, I felt the need to share a different perspective. Here's how I responded:
The very essence of the nonprofit sector is the chance to make the world a better place. We may have different ways of defining"better." We may have different approaches to getting there and different parts of the journey for which we will take the lead. We may want to change or end things. We may want to make the world richer or more beautiful.
Yup, it's probably as utopian as it sounds. Most of us probably will never live to see the day when that ideal is reached (or reached as we want it to be). But we are drawn to the work, we are inspired to contribute, we live to lead, because we have that capacity to envision something better. That's the ultimate purpose of the strong visions and accompanying missions that we're talking about in this unit. That's why most of us are here. That's why most of us keep working. That's why lives are being changed, enhanced or saved.
It's important to not get too bogged down in the practical, or focused on the massive challenges that lie ahead, to the point of losing the bigger point: it's all about the vision and mission. Without them,we have nothing.
It's a challenge nonprofit leaders have faced for decades before my students and I engaged in this latest discussion. Unfortunately, it's a conversation nonprofit leaders probably will continue to have for decades to come.

In some respects, that's a good thing: it focuses our attention on why we're here and why we do the work. In others, it reminds us of a larger problem and a perpetual governance issue. For a variety of reasons - especially current organizational circumstances and our skewed collective understanding of the ultimate purposes of nonprofit governance - seeing stewardship of vision and mission as an extra and not the essence of why we lead.

How do you keep the board's collective eye on the horizon? What does it take to not only hold boards accountable for that stewardship responsibility but inspired and enthusiastic about doing so?