Friday, May 25, 2012

Overheard: May 25 edition

As we head into a long weekend, I'd like to offer a few web-based resources for your holiday reading. Some are directly related to boards and governance issues, while others are more of a stretch but offer though-provoking ideas.

7 ways to create a fiercely loyal community (Sarah Robinson)

This first link fits the latter category, but it fits well with this week's featured post in offering ideas for building community amongst a nonprofit's organizational stakeholders. I appreciate all seven recommendations, but I'm probably most partial to two: number 3, "stand for something bold," and number 4, "create multiple connection points." The former encourages us to be brave in advocating for the vision of the future to which we aspire. The latter reminds us that communication in these relationships is two-way. Really, this entire post offers a terrific platform for guiding a fruitful discussion about how and why we build and engage our communities.

Board members as bar ambassadors (American Bar Association Division for Bar Services)

This little gift, from the division's latest email newsletter, does a great job of describing and detailing specific tactics for engaging members of associations' key constituent groups. All are easily transferable to any board setting or adapted to fit the connections you have with your own high-priority audiences.

Don't rush to fill the silence (Erik Lanke)

Don't fear the silence, embrace it! The concept is so simple - and so counter to our normal meeting mode - that it is genius. Instead of rushing to fill the dead air with extraneous information or calls to hasty action, respect it. Recognize it as a sign that there may be questions to be asked, time needed to think, and space required for further group reflection.

Questions board members should ask (Sarah Mackey)

Because there's always room for great questions in the boardroom... Sarah's offerings shared in this post, covering four areas, expands our governance toolbox and offers new vehicles for helping to put board discussions on productive and appropriate paths.

Five signs you're disengaging from the board (Susan Hammond)

I'd define the potential of this list as broader than Susan's original intent (as signs a member should resign.) It may also indicate board-level issues that impact multiple members, challenges that the group must address. But in terms of offering warning that something's not right, and providing the chance to reflect, diagnose and respond accordingly, this is a valuable resource. It can help us identify commitment challenges early, so that we can take the correct action (even, yes, stepping down if our heart and energy aren't into the significant responsibility that is nonprofit governance).

10 ways to motivate anyone (Geil Browning)

I offer this more for the reminder that people have different ways of interacting with each other and with information than for the advertised motivation solutions. Each of these personalities offer different qualities and ways of thinking that would be useful in the boardroom. And, of course, knowing how to draw out those qualities in productive way is important. How do we motivate others to give their best? How might we openly welcome - and recruit for - these ways of viewing and interacting in the world so that we have multiple perspectives in discussions and decision making? How do we harness all this creative energy when we accomplish that?

Monday, May 21, 2012

10 ways to support board ambassadors

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.

One of the most important roles of a nonprofit board member is community ambassador - reaching out to his/her networks and other constituencies to advocate and educate on your behalf. It's one of the most unique contributions board members can make: as volunteers and community leaders, they have a special kind of credibility that agency staff cannot have. When they speak, peers listen.

Unfortunately, board members often are ill-prepared for this vital community relations role. Worse, they frequently have no clue it's part of the job description.

How do we change that? How do we equip our board members and hold them accountable for community outreach work? What follows are my top 10 ideas for creating an environment to effective board ambassadorship.

1. Recruit people willing and able to reach out to others on your behalf. Board members interact daily with current or potential supporters in their personal and professional lives. They need to be able - and willing - to share your story with others in appropriate and compelling ways. How they accomplish this responsibility may vary; but they need to be okay with speaking up, and out, on your behalf in different settings. Recruitment criteria should include experience and/or willingness to engage in this work, in ways that are comfortable for them and valuable to you.

2. Immerse them in the vision and mission early and often. Among myriad other reasons for ongoing board focus on organizational vision and mission is the chance to develop deep knowledge and motivation to share your story with others. When your reason to exist and your vision of the future are clear and compelling to board members, they will be more excited about sharing them with others.

3. Articulate the different ways in which board members can act as boundary spanners. Lead the group in identifying specific ways to engage others on your behalf. Create a pool of possible activities, ranging from high-stakes and highly-visible activities, e.g., contacting legislators and speaking to civic groups, to more low-key actions, e.g., attending meetings and writing messages on your behalf. Ask them to commit to specific activities on that list, individually and as a group. Ownership of the goals increases commitment to seeing successful outcomes.

4. Help board members identify their connections. Sometimes, members may need a little help connecting the dots between their friends, colleagues, networks and agency needs. Raise individual and group awareness of the scope of their influence so that they can begin to identify whom to engage and how. During a board retreat I facilitated last year, we charged members with naming acquaintances with potential interest in the agency's mission. Two noteworthy outcomes emerged from that session. One, the board collectively generated a long and diverse list of personal and professional networks - and great potential to expand community support. Two, one of the quieter members, a former client, offered a disclaimer - "Well, I don't really know anyone..." - before marking off an impressive list of peers, community and state leaders, policy makers, experts in needed skills areas, and potential donors who would qualify as major by any definition. I'm not sure who was more surprised: the rest of the board or the young woman. Sometimes, we need a little help seeing the obvious.

5. Provide members with resources to share your story accurately and confidently. Board ambassadors need user-friendly tools to boost their interactions with others. Have readily available a range of tools to support board members engaged in community outreach, e.g., a set of talking points, business cards (personalized or agency contact information), brochures, and other collateral materials. This helps to ensure that what they share on your behalf is accurate and that they have something to leave with interested parties. Resources also may include training on how to communicate effectively with key constituencies (e.g., donor cultivation or public speaking). Ask them to identify what they need to feel confident and capable.

6. Offer anecdotes and stories that they can share on your behalf. Aside from their obvious role in board learning, stories provide evidence of your impact in ways more powerful than numbers alone. Share examples, stories of successful client experiences (respecting confidentiality, of course), and other qualitative evidence of your work with the board. When possible, have the original sources share the stories themselves (e.g., ask a former client who is willing to speak publicly to tell his/her story at a board meeting). Give members easy-to-remember stories to put a "face" to the work that you do.

7. Create regular opportunities to share their own stories and outreach experiences. Board members should be having the kinds of experiences worthy of sharing with each other. They need opportunities to articulate them in meaningful ways and to practice sharing them with a friendly audience. They may need help seeing that they have stories to share, which may come from hearing their board peers sharing their own examples. Ideally, your board meeting would be a place where that occurs naturally - they will be excited about telling each other about conversations and other community interactions. Realistically, it may be worthwhile to include member sharing in a regularly scheduled community outreach discussion.

8. Hold members accountable for this work.  Once you've included community outreach work in the board member job description, make sure it is part of the group's evaluation process. Whether that assessment takes place annually, quarterly or monthly, make sure that you're asking members to reflect on their outreach efforts - what worked, what didn't quite unfold as expected, what goals are appropriate, etc. Set community outreach goals in the board planning process. More informally, when you know a member represented you at an event, made a call on your behalf, etc., ask that person to share what he/she did, with what outcomes, at the next meeting.

9. Look for venues to engage individual members in outreach. When opportunities arise to talk about your organization and its mission, resist the temptation to simply delegate that task to your executive. Instead, ask a board member to take that assignment, or to pair with the CEO as an outreach team. Ask a board member to attend United Way meetings or similar collaborative settings, alone or with your ED. Send a team of board members represent you at a city council meeting or legislative session. Assign board members to act as hosts at fundraising and other public events, circulating amongst the crowd, making personal connections with participants, volunteers, and donors. Spread the responsibility - and the potential for successful engagement - across the board. For most of us, practice makes community engagement easier.

10. Remind them that outreach/boundary-spanning is not a one-way process. Focus on telling our story, making our case, is the natural focus in this board function; but it's only half of the process. It's also important to listen and observe. Board members are our eyes and ears in the community. They have access to a broader swath of the community, and that access is at the peer level. They inevitably will hear and see reactions, concerns, ideas, support - the kinds of information and feedback that allow our organizations to respond effectively and, better yet, to anticipate problems and occasions for growth in a timely manner.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

10 ways board presidents really lead

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.

Some of us embrace it. Many of us live in fear that "our time" will come. Others of us serve, somewhat reluctantly, because no one else will step up. What too few of us fully appreciate is the full scope of responsibility that a board president accepts when he/she agrees to serve.

Certainly, nonprofit governance is a collective leadership commitment - all members play a part in governing effectively. But the president carries a different, multi-layered commitment that many do not fully grasp.

Here are 10 ways that board presidents really lead:

1. They set the agenda. Literally. Effective presidents work with the executive director, in the context of the group's goals and governance responsibilities, to determine where the board's focus and energy will be spent during its limited time together. Will they govern, or will they wade through the quick sand of management issues? Will they explore big questions of vision and accountability, or will they passively listen to reports of events past? The president leads that call.

2. They use that agenda to lead productive meetings. Whether they keep their collective eye on the horizon, or drown in management minutia, depends largely on the president's ability to keep members focused.

3. They look for ways to engage all members. The president ensures that everyone plays an active role in discussions, contributing openly to the debate and creative exploration of issues. They create an environment where it is not only safe to do so, it's expected.

4. They model commitment and leadership.  A board president serves as a mirror to other members. When the president models leadership that is grounded in the vision and mission of the organization, fellow board members notice and respond. They rise to the president's level.

5. They hold members - and themselves - accountable. Commitment without follow-through is meaningless. Ensuring that those commitments are respected, and that the board lives up to its responsibilities, is the president's job. Not the ED's. The president's. (5A: The president, working with the executive and others as needed, provides members with the resources and support to succeed.)

6.  They handle the tough discussions. When members fall short of expectations - when their absences become problematic or they fail to follow through with assigned responsibilities - the president addresses the issue. The task is not delegated to the executive. Peers enforce peer accountability.

7.  They make learning a priority. Effective board presidents know that building board capacity - for governance, for understanding the mission area and the agency's programs and services - requires ongoing formal and informal learning opportunities. They query board members about specific learning needs and work to address them in accessible ways.

8. They facilitate ways for many members to lead. Effective presidents engage every board member in leading the work of the board, drawing on individual strengths and skills. They link members to leadership roles via committees, task forces, special assignments - meaningful work that shares responsibility for the board's work (and create a natural pipeline for identifying potential successors).

9. They model an effective partnership between the board and the executive.  Stating the obvious: the CEO is more than an obedient foot soldier, there to do the bidding of the governing body that sits at the top of a nonprofit organizational chart. (Nor is that person the board's boss, dictating where its attention should be - but that's another post.) The relationship that a president develops with the ED not only helps make the former's term productive, it also models the kind of collaborative partnership that the board as a whole should seek with its chief executive.

10. They engage in board self-assessment. Effective presidents value regular individual and board-level self-assessment and create time in the group's work to engage in it. They understand assessment as a source of information and inspiration for performance enhancement. They recognize it as a chance to identify and address challenges before they become problems and barriers.

NOTE: For a more detailed exploration of this critical governance role, please visit my online board president resource.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Overheard: May 9 edition

This week's favorite governance links are a mix of new offerings, creative stretches and old resources that must be shared.

Why boards don't govern (Jan Masaoka & Mike Allison)

I generally try to lean toward the positive and aspirational in what I share here, and the title of this article (direct link to PDF file provided) suggests a departure. But this Grassroots Fundraising article simply must be shared, because it tackles some of governance's most massive challenges head-on. It's a convicting piece. I recognized too many of the issues in my own experiences as a board member and in the stories boards have shared with me. I can pretty much guarantee you'll recognize one - or 12 - of these as you read the article. Understanding where the obstacles lie is an essential step to doing things differently.

Different asking styles (Movie Mondays video)

One of the biggest hurdles for board members taking an active role in your fundraising process inevitably is that big, scary, dreaded step: actually asking someone for a contribution. This video helps board members, and staff, understand that there are different ways to participate in that process (and different ways to ask). Watching it may not create an instantly enthusiastic band of salespersons, but it might provide a launching point for discussing how each can play a role that is both comfortable for the individual member and supportive of your overall development effort.

Hall pass - Permission slip to dream big dreams (Kevin Monroe)

In this latest post, Kevin offers yet another frame for encouraging our nonprofit leaders to stretch their thinking and focus toward what is possible. Boards shouldn't need permission - or reminders that their attention ultimately belongs on the future. But this post does a nice job of reinforcing (or introducing) that message.

Five moments of learning need (Cammy Bean)

(I love when adult educator me and nonprofit board developer me collide...) Though not addressing nonprofit learning specifically, I tagged this post as one to share with you. Why? It reinforces the idea that adult learners (e.g., nonprofit board members) have pretty specific kinds of learning needs and openings for when that learning takes place. Practically speaking, Cammy says, those opportunities arise in five scenarios. What do each of those learning points look like for your board? Is one scenario more common or pressing for you? How can you better prepare to adapt and respond to those needs, when the learning will be most meaningful?

Things we've learned: Vision matters (Gayle Gifford)

Because it's really not possible to overemphasize vision, I'll close this week's offerings with an inspirational post from Gayle, reminding us about why we serve. No, we can't ignore the pressing concerns of the day. No, we can't set aside our accountability responsibilities in the name of wild dreams of the future. But none of it matters if we're not attentive to the ultimate purpose - the meaningful difference made in the community because our organization exists. In the process, we connect individual members to why they said yes in the first place.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

10 ways to transform board meetings

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.

Ah, yes. The nonprofit board meeting. Where great ideas - and member enthusiasm - go to die.

Boiling down one of the foundational themes of this blog into 10 key ideas feels like the biggest challenge so far. It's also a healthy one for yours truly. If I were to force myself to make those choices, these ideas would top the list:

1.  Start with an agenda focused on governing for vision and mission. Can you connect every activity, every discussion, to your governance responsibilities to advance the vision and mission of your organization? Skip anything that doesn't keep you focused on your organizational purpose and your specific leadership roles as its governing body. Boards shouldn't wallow in minutiae, nor should they micromanage. They govern.

2.  Dump the endless oral reports. If I could name just one simple step to improve board meetings, this might be the one. Replace those verbal reports with written updates that contribute to the board's knowledge and history and open up meetings for more meaningful work. It instantly creates time to discuss, learn, evaluate and govern

3. Value (and facilitate) open space and big questions. Where is board time best spent if we aren't listening to reports and we're focused on governance? By regularly setting aside time in meetings to ask big, open, future-oriented questions. What does our community's future look like in our  mission area? What trends are emerging that might affect demand for our programs and our capacity to provide those services? Where are the great ideas, from our field and elsewhere, that can help us think creatively and expansively about what lies ahead? What do we need, as a board, to lead into that future? Here's the hard part for action-oriented community leaders: Recognize that it's okay to give yourselves time to think and reflect over time, to not rush to a vote, on decisions shaping the organization's future.

4. Flip the agenda. For some boards, abandoning reports and throwing open the creative doors to the future simply asks too much. In those cases, I offer a worthy Plan B: flip the agenda. This addresses the common complaint that members are so wiped out listening to reports and dealing with the usual suspects that dominate most early agendas that they are exhausted (and time-pressed) by the time they get to the more substantive topics that typically fall under old and new business. Listening to reports takes little brain power. If you absolutely must include oral reports (No, really. Rethink that. Please), place them at the end and reserve prime time for what matters.

5. Create the expectation (and opportunities) that every member will contribute (and maybe even lead). No one should leave a board meeting without having contributed actively to the conversation. Yes, some of us process information in quieter ways. But everyone should be able to contribute to board discussions and deliberations. Make sure everyone has a chance to address topics before the board, and to share fully. Expect that they do so.

6. Encourage storytelling. Sharing stories facilitates learning in ways that simply citing information and statistics cannot accomplish. They connect us more closely and personally to the mission. They offer us examples of how board, staff, and volunteers engaged to make a difference. They give us a chance to make sense of our own experiences and learn to share appropriately with donors and other stakeholders.  Stories can create powerful opportunities to explore and understand our organizational role and impact in our community.

7. Make time for learning. Learning takes place in various forms during board meetings. It builds group capacity to serve. Why not commit to building in opportunities to learn and explore as part of regular board work? Ask individual members to share expertise that expands the group's knowledge or skills needed to govern effectively. Share an article, video or other resource ahead of the meeting and carve out 10-15 minutes to discuss how it applies to your mission area or an issue you're facing as a board. Ask a member committee to research a governance topic and share what is learned with the larger group. Take advantage of the fact most of what we learn as adults does not take place in a formal setting.

8. Include updates on organizational and board plans. Strategic processes most often fail when they are confined to periodic exercises that result in a document that ends up gathering dust until an update is needed. Help to ensure that strategic efforts (e.g., planning and goal-setting) have a chance to be useful: include time across the board year for updates. What's working well? What might have been more of a stretch than anticipated? What obstacles have arisen that were not anticipated? Regular check-ins allow nonprofit leaders to adjust and adapt appropriately to an ever-changing environment.

9. Acknowledge the big and little successes. The routine processes of governance are far from glamorous; the work can be tedious and occasionally hard. Keeping the eye on a vision and mission that likely won't be reached in our lifetimes - certainly not during our board terms - can test even the most passionate member's motivation. Take a moment to stop, as a group, and recognize member contributions to forward mission motion. Acknowledge a job well done, creativity displayed, outreach that engaged new stakeholders. Help the board and its members to appreciate those actions and efforts that make a difference, and reconnect them to their reason for serving.

10. Close every meeting with this important question: How did we advance our vision and mission today? Bring closure to your productive time together, and remind members why they are gathered, by articulating how the work you did in this setting moved you - and your organization - just a little bit closer to what draws you together. Even if the steps are microscopic, you should be identify ways in which your time moved you forward.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Overheard: May 4 edition

It seems that I'm in perpetual catch-up mode with my favorite governance links posts. Lack of  material worthy of sharing certainly isn't the challenge of late. I'll do my best to present the cream of the online crop, from those gathered since my last "overheard" post.

That I would choose this video to lead off this week's offerings might surprise you, but it might make a bit of sense to regular readers who recognize my love of open governance spaces. If we avoid over-programming every board meeting, if we accept John Seely Brown's challenge to "attract people in unexpected ways to help ask, frame and answer...questions," we create the kinds of serendipitous environments where boards have the capacity to respond creatively and appropriately to the ever-changing needs of our communities.

Fixing your nonprofit board: When incremental steps aren't enough (Alice Korngold)

Sometimes, it just needs to be said - and Alice does so in a straightforward and convicting way here. Many board issues simply can't be tweaked out of existence; the problems lie far deeper than a superficial fix. Alice describes the process she uses to guide boards through what ultimately becomes a transformative process. Governance requires bravery and leadership, especially now. This post not only reminds us of that, it offers focal points for thinking more deeply about the ways in which we should be working to meet the challenges we face as nonprofit leaders.

Great organizational answers come from community questions (Nancy Iannone)

I'm doubly pleased to share this important post - first, because it brings us straight to the essence of nonprofit work, the community; and second, because it's written by the wise and wonderful Nancy Iannone. I don't know about you, but I've wallowed in the "if we just had..." quagmire that she describes in the opening sentence (even though I know better). Nancy's post does a beautiful job of encouraging us to bring our focus to where it should be - our ultimate community impact and the engagement needed to ensure effectiveness. Marvelous, Nancy - and congratulations on your first post on the Creating the Future blog!

A unique way to achieve entire board giving (Susan Hammond)

You may recall that I wrote about the sticky question of a board giving policy earlier this spring. I offer this post, not as the perfect, easy way to get out of the kind of board financial commitment that many funders seek, but as a reminder that accomplishing full participation need not be the harrowing and traumatic experience that too many of us anticipate.

What to do with board members who don't do anything (Jan Masaoka)

(I'm remembering that I haven't yet fulfilled a promise to several American Bar Association leaders to add a "dealing with difficult members" section to my online board presidents resource...) We've all served with board members who failed to live up to their potential - or their bottom line responsibilities. We've probably picked up some of the slack created in their absence. This great list by Jan Masaoka reminds us that there can be a range of obstacles for lack of participation, more than a few originating at the board level, and that they needn't necessarily lead to termination. Ask. Listen. Act when appropriate. Fix what is broken, for them and others now and in the future. But also hold them accountable.

Active and passive learning in organizations (Stephen Gill)

I'll end on a positive and learning-themed note. In this post, Stephen reinforces the idea that learning takes many forms, most of them informal and embedded in the routine work that we do. I am especially drawn to his 10 additional "ways of learning." Number 4 is particularly germane to nonprofit boards and their reason for being (Now you must click through...!). What "ways" on either the original list or Gill's additions already are part of your board's processes? What could be added to enhance your learning and build your capacity?