Monday, October 29, 2012

Board self-assessment: A few resources

Your board has committed to assessing its performance, but it has no idea what that process should look like. Where do you start?

As I prepare to talk about board self-assessment with Renee McGivern, host of one of my favorite podcasts ("Nonprofit Spark"), later this week, I thought I'd share links to examples of surveys and processes that readers may find useful.

You may find a tool that fits your assessment needs exactly, or you may find one that you are able to customize to address your board's specific goals and challenges. Whichever is the case, I trust that this round-up of assessment resource examples will expand your governance toolbox.

Board member self-assessment template (Next Level Nonprofits). According to the post's author, Marilyn Donnellan, these questions are excerpted from a Next Level Nonprofit guide, The Two-Hour Board Training. This tool takes a simple yes/no approach to asking about a range of board activities; in its original form, it could function as a useful quick-check, individual-level focus on performance.

Board effectiveness quiz (Creating the Future). This tool, also an individual-level evaluation, encourages a slightly deeper look at another broad range of governance role challenges. Part of the questions posed here ask about agreement with a range of statements about your board performance. Your board could enrich the potential of that section by asking for agreement along a continuum (e.g., strongly agree to strongly disagree). The earlier questions naturally invite more nuanced responses, yet they also don't feel particularly overwhelming.

Board member evaluation (Marc Smiley). This is an example of an evaluation based on a board member agreement (an annual commitment excellent boards frequently ask their members to make). It's tailored to a sample agreement posted elsewhere on Marc's site. What I like about this sample is its connection to commitments board members made earlier. Ideally, boards tie at least one part of the ongoing assessment process to their articulated responsibilities (e.g., member agreement, board goals, board job description).

20 questions about your nonprofit board (Meyer Foundation). Another check-off tool that introduces response possibilities beyond a simple yes/no, queries members about topics that are not exclusively role/task oriented.

Nonprofit board committee evaluation (The Moran Company)The title describes what's different about this tool: it looks at a third level of board responsibility, the committee. I probably would add a scale, or similar layer, to flesh out more detail about the strengths and challenges encountered in the groups where much of the detail work takes place. But it's a good reminder of the need to reflect on, and evaluate, all of the board's work to achieve optimal performance.

Key questions for board and senior staff (Anne Ackerson). I love these questions. I love their deceptive simplicity. I also love their focus beyond bottom line board tasks and their invitation to wide-open conversations about high-impact topics. They also have the potential to spark similar questions about governance generally and our board specificially.

Simple technique for board evaluation (Terrie Temkin). A marvelous, simple, personalized approach to individual accountability.

The Board Vector (Alice Korngold). I was a major fan of this rich board self-assessment resource when it first appeared as a downloadable PDF file on Alice's site. Now that it is available online (which adds the confidentiality that fosters honest answers) and provides an analysis of aggregated responses from the board as a whole, its value has expanded. That that report also includes a series of recommended follow-up questions for board reflection adds to its value (a sample report is available on the left side of the page). There is a charge for this online tool, which some boards may find challenging. Those who are able to make the financial commitment will find a rich board development resource.

I have a feeling that I'll have a follow-up after Renee and I chat. We'll see how that conversation ends up expanding my own, growing understanding of board self-assessment. Feel free to contribute resources you use and value via comment. Your fellow readers and I will appreciate it.

Links to related posts:

Building reflective boards: Self-assessment
Self-assessment: The board experience
10 ways to assess board performance
Assessing my own board performance

For a constantly growing list of board self-assessment tools, access my social bookmarks on the topic.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Retiring members: Continuing commitment

They've dedicated years of their lives to your organization and your mission. They've developed deep understanding of your programs, your challenges, and your impact on the community. Suddenly, in a cruel by-laws joke, your collective journey must come to a forced end. Or does it?

Does retirement from your nonprofit board necessarily mean saying good-bye to some of your most dedicated volunteer leaders?

The answer, of course, is no. But in an environment where the bigger (perceived) challenge is retaining and engaging board members, many nonprofits can't bear the prospect of letting go of committed servants with long organizational histories, even when it is in our best interest to do so.

Frankly, too many members stay too long, because we - and they - see nowhere to go once you've hit that board service pinnacle. Rather than do what's right, and creating space for the fresh thinking that comes with bringing new voices to the table, we cling to that valued relationship. It is time to begin a new conversation, about finding fitting new ways to continue our journey of commitment.

As recently as a few years ago, I would have taken a wide-ranging, "infinite-world-of-opportunity" approach to brainstorming literally dozens of ways to move retiring board members into new forms of service. Today, I preface my thoughts with an acknowledgment/caution: changing tasks may be a straightforward process, but the mental transition from the governance role may not be so easy.

For some of your organizations and your veteran board members, moving on can happen seamlessly. They're happy to begin a new chapter, with fewer responsibilities. For others, letting go of the legal and moral power that comes with board service can be tough (and occasionally may fail altogether) and creates problems for everyone. Reading the following ideas, and generating your own, should be considered within that context.

Ask them to share their expertise in new ways. The member's expertise - in your mission field or an area considered valuable to the governance process - is one reason you recruited him/her to serve in the first place. Once on board, the member likely didn't have the time to share that deep expertise (or doing so would have stretched the bounds of appropriate board member involvement). Having their board responsibilities behind them opens up time to share those skills more directly. Do they have the expertise to help you fine-tune your marketing plan? Advise you on investment policies? How can they (appropriately) deepen your pool of resources/skills, now that they have shed the board member role and constraints?

Invite them to lead or participate in a special project. They've had a chance to develop strong interest in aspects of your work but never had the time to fully commit. Now they have time to focus on those projects, or assume volunteer leadership of other special program needs. Some examples might include:
  • Chairing a capital campaign or your annual fund drive
  • Coordinating a special event (public awareness or fundraising)
  • Gathering and organizing stories, data, etc., to expand (or create) your organizational history
  • Researching and writing draft grant proposals
  • Helping staff to develop a social media strategy
  • Researching public policy issues related to your mission area, summarizing in formats that can be shared with staff, board and others

Involve them more deeply in your community outreach efforts. Invite your retiree to join your agency speakers bureau. Ask him/her to accompany the CEO or board members to public events. Find ways to record and share the member's testimony about why the organization's mission is important, why he/she agreed to serve, thoughts about greatest accomplishments, etc. (Note: this may be one of the more challenging transitions to make, because of real or perceived blurring of boundaries. The retiree's voice no longer carries the weight of a governing board member; but the former board member, and some in the audience, may have trouble remembering that in the moment.)

Ask them to help you make new connections. Involve them more deeply in the donor identification and process. Ask them to query their networks (and their networks), interview key stakeholders, and identify new potential supporters. If they are willing, ask them to help you meet some of those prospects. Ask recent retirees to conduct similar research for board recruitment needs. Yes, the responsibility and choice ultimately belong to the board. But what board wouldn't benefit from thoughtful research that yields a broader, more diverse starting point for its recruitment process? The additional benefit: the retiree-prospector already understands the board's needs and unique dynamics.

Recruit them to front-line volunteer roles. If they didn't already rise through the organization from other volunteer positions to the board, having a chance to experience the work from a different perspective could be an exciting and appropriate next chapter in their service to you. They heard about your programs over time. Experiencing that work firsthand can be the next logical step to learn more, and a fresh opportunity to serve you.

Beware of emeritus status and advisory boards. Let's end with a big don't. Resist the urge to create special status and/or structures to maintain ties to retired board members. Emeritus or other honorary status invites confusion for everyone, and often the expectation of having an official voice that simply doesn't exist once one has stepped off the board. Similarly, advisory boards introduce nightmares of their own, including a new structure that must be staffed and the risk of overstepped boundaries (since governing boards are the only model most of us have). Unless you have clear, compelling reasons for implementing one of these options - and the structures and resources for them to succeed - look elsewhere.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

10 ways to understand your mission better

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.

How do we stay connected to our nonprofit's mission? How do we educate ourselves about the mission? About the organization's approach to fulfilling it? How can we take a more active role in fulfilling our own learning needs?

There undoubtedly are as many ways to approach this as there are nonprofits - and I'm anxious to hear how readers deepen their understanding of mission area issues. In the meantime, here are 10 relatively straightforward activities that should be accessible - and applicable - for most boards.

1. Make mission moments a regular part of your meeting agenda. This one will be familiar to longtime readers (I'm a big fan of mission moments). Set aside 5-10 minutes every meeting to share a story, a key statistic, a resource, etc., that reminds board members why they serve. Compelling evidence of need(s) being met/challenges faced/small signs of progress shared in mission moments not only make the work real, it also adds to their personal toolbox when interacting with peers, donors, friends, policy makers, and other potential stakeholders.

2. Assign mission-related readings, video or audio in advance of the meeting. These resources needn't be lengthy. They simply need to increase understanding and, hopefully, provoke thought. Spend time in your meeting discussing how it applies to your services. Talk about how it fits your context and how it differs. Explore how this new knowledge impacts your vision of your mission and your future. This isn't fluff or a luxury. It's the discussion of governance.

3. Participate in volunteer training. My first two board assignments were with agencies providing crisis intervention and counseling to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Both required board members to participate in victim advocate training. While some of my fellow board members found this to be overkill (and they probably were right), that immersion in the issues bound me to our mission in deep and meaningful ways. It also increased my understanding of the challenges that front-line volunteers face, which helped me to ask better questions and make more informed decisions related to programming and volunteer support. Would your board members gain different/deeper knowledge by participating in your volunteer training?

4. Spend time serving in other volunteer capacities. I'll acknowledge up front that this one may introduce conflicts of interest for some boards in some organizations. For others, volunteering to help organizer or staff special events, hosting guests (especially donors) at those events, or other opportunities to get up close and personal with the work and the people behind your agency in new ways. Just be aware of the potentially blurring of lines between governance and volunteerism. A quick reminder of which "hat" - board or volunteer - is being worn never is a bad idea.

5. Recruit a retired volunteer to serve on the board. For many boards, recruiting a former volunteer to the table accomplishes two important goals. One, it is a chance to invite an already loyal member of your organization to serve in a new leadership capacity. Two, it brings that individual's experience and informed commitment to boardroom deliberations. Volunteers bring a different perspective than staff or board - a perspective that many boards find valuable.

6.  Schedule Q&A time with staff members, especially senior staff. If board members aren't already spending quality time with the development director and the business manager, if they don't have regular opportunities to visit with program managers, they're missing out on opportunities to learn about the challenges, strengths and needs that shape how they approach their responsibilities.

7. Tour the facility. I once served on a board that required all members to participate in the annual tour set up for new recruits. Every year, as I entered the clinic, I wondered, "Why the heck am I here?" Every year, I left with new information about the services or the physical plant. I also renewed my appreciation for all that our staff and volunteers accomplished in less than ideal circumstances. Whether an annual event or a one-time visit, touring the space where mission work takes place can be an eye-opening and educational experience.

8. Include an "about our mission" section in your print or online board handbook. Give all members ready access to core information about mission-related issues, services and data, in the place they turn to whenever they have questions or opportunities to share with others. One of the beauties of taking your board handbook online: members won't have to wonder if the version they have is up to date.

9. Invite board members to participate in mission-related conferences, webinars and other training sessions. Not too many years ago, this one often would have involved expensive travel to a face to face event. Today, many of our nonprofits have access to distance-delivered professional development events and industry updates available online. Parent organizations, national associations, governmental agencies (especially for health and human services), and foundations addressing your mission area all may offer web- or video-based opportunities to expand your board's knowledge. If they are not free, charges often are low enough to fit in your board development budget.

10. Subscribe to mission-related newsletters, blogs, etc. Everything we could possibly need or want to know about most of our mission areas is readily accessible and totally free, thanks to social media and web-based resources. My vast personal learning network includes subscriptions to blogs, follows of Twitter profiles and likes of Facebook pages fed by organizations that share mission concerns with nonprofits I serve as a board member. They provide a ready stream of information and perspectives that expand my understanding of the broader issues we address. They also are available when I am ready to access them. If you're scared of Twitter and overwhelmed by Facebook, search for blogs and electronic newsletters focusing on your topics. Ask your ED, fellow board members and agency staff for recommendations of resources they value. Explore those sources and subscribe to whichever provides the kind of information you value in ways that meet your learning needs.

This is only a starting point. I invite you to share the ways in which you and your board bring yourselves closer to your organization's purpose.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A high-impact governance vision

 NOTE: For longtime readers, this post likely will appear to be a major rehash of virtually everything posted here in the last five years. For me, it is an attempt to synthesize all that I believe - and know - to be true about effective nonprofit governance. Whether it ultimately launches my own model of nonprofit governance or simply helps to articulate my bottom line for boards, I hope that others will find it useful.

After nearly 30 years working on and with boards, and five years of blogging about nonprofit governance, I’ve definitely developed my own sense of what is takes to truly lead in the boardroom.

I’m constantly reflecting and writing about the details of that topic. But if someone asked me to sum up everything I believe about boards, could I do that? The answer would be yes, and it would take only four words. The effective, productive nonprofit board is:

• Inclusive
• Engaging
• Accountable
• Generative

The high-impact nonprofit board is Inclusive. Members bring a range of perspectives to the table: personal and professional connections, life experiences, knowledge and expertise, and ways of seeing the world. The board recruits with diversity in mind – including, but not limited to, demographic diversity – and creates an environment where exploring issues and opportunities through different lenses is not only welcome, it’s expected.

The high-impact nonprofit board is Engaging. Meetings are places where governance takes place – where open discussions about the future are not reserved for special events but the core work of the board. Members want to participate and be part of the process, because they know that the work they do is meaningful and ultimately advances the purpose of the organization. Deliberations matter, because they focus on understanding, debating, articulating and ultimately making the best decision possible for the organization and the community. They also are the centerpiece of meetings, not endless oral reports about events past.

The high-impact nonprofit board is Accountable. The board understands that accountability requires more than monitoring the financial statement. It is an attitude of stewardship and responsibility to all stakeholders – those served, staff and volunteers, donors, policymakers, and the community as a whole. Members take their stewardship role seriously. They work to ensure that all resources are used wisely and appropriately. The board values evaluation – including self-assessment – that is grounded in the ultimate question, “How did we advance the mission and vision?”

The high-impact nonprofit board is Generative. Members understand the value of big, sweeping questions –grounded in organizational mission – that move the community closer to its vision of an ideal future. They embrace uncertainty, knowing that is where the greatest potential lies, in that undefined space of unlimited opportunity for both the organization and its community. It embraces the critical board role of boundary-spanning – where members reach out, and draw in, from their personal and professional networks. They not only speak up on behalf of the organization, they also listen, query others, and bring back what they learn to the board. High-impact, generative boards also recognize that learning takes place informally – in the everyday actions and interactions - as well as formally. They seek out, and grow from, the chance to learn from resources inside and outside of the organization. They also take time to stop and reflect.