Monday, December 30, 2013

Generative leadership: A governance agenda

 (Photo purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What do nonprofit boards require to make an impact in their organizations and their communities? 

What do nonprofit board members need, not only to fulfill the minimum expectations set for them, but to reach their full leadership potential?

What conversations do we need to have to transform nonprofit governance for the kind of leadership that we all need?

While I pretty much live and breathe these questions, 2014 feels like the year when I'm ready to commit to moving the conversation forward - beginning with this blog. Pulling together the questions and the sources where I feel we most likely will find the answers, I can't help bringing it down to two key ideas:

Setting a Nonprofit Governance Agenda
Focused on building Generative Leadership

I'm committing to this theme - "Nonprofit Governance Agenda: Generative Leadership" - in the coming year. Boards deserve environments and opportunities to govern expansively and creatively (generative). They also need opportunities to make the positive impact that their organizations and communities expect (leadership). 

I envision six components to that agenda:

  1. Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership (GAL) framework. I continue to believe in the transformative power of this revolutionary board model, built around three governance modes (fiduciary, strategic and generative).
  2. Board leadership, especially the critical responsibilities assigned to board presidents/chairpersons. If we could only focus on one role to transform what happens in the boardroom, this would be it. Setting a generative agenda, literally and otherwise, begins here.
  3. Advocacy and community leadership as core governance responsibilities. Boards provide our most direct connections to our communities and myriad, credible opportunities to extend our mission message to new audiences. Boards that embrace that role have the power to transform.
  4. Centered in GAL's fiduciary mode, accountability includes - but is far more than - attention to budget and financial statements. It also addresses issues of transparency with, and accountability to, all of a nonprofit's stakeholders.
  5. I'll continue to write about boardroom dynamics/culture, because people will continue to conflict in interactions and otherwise fail to meet expectations. As is my bias, I'll try to discuss these issues from a "what's possible when boards reach their full potential" perspective, rather than "all the ways board members fail us." 
  6. Finally, because I continue to believe in that full potential - and the transformative power of harnessing it - I'll spend a lot of time and space in 2014 promoting generative boards: advocating for creativity, learning and curiosity as essential member qualities.
These six benchmarks will serve as my guides for the year, as I continue to advocate for the great potential that engaged nonprofit governance represents for those we serve. Join me, in 2014, in exploring each one as we create a more generative space for true community leadership.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Blogging year in review: A few of my favorite governance posts of 2013

As I anticipate 2014 - and the agenda that I've set for the blog (more next week) - I can't help reflecting back on the posts that were the most fun, challenging, and/or stimulating to create for readers here.

I couldn't help starting with the commitment I made, around this time last year, to explore  boardroom dynamics this year. Writing about nonprofit practice is my bottom line in everything I do related to boards. The "process" piece was new to me, prompted by an ongoing observation that many of the challenges boards face stem from plain, garden variety "interpersonal communication 101" types of issues. The collection of posts on board dynamics that resulted is a good start to a topic that will continue to enjoy an ongoing spotlight here.

A few favorite "board process" posts

Group process social lit review: Inside the Boardroom. Based on the book that started it all for me - Richard Leblanc and James Gillies' book Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the Coming Revolution in Corporate Governance - this one featured research that connected directly to board interactions and relationships. While describing corporate boards, the board effectiveness model that emerged - and the 10 director types - absolutely apply to the nonprofit setting (and filled in more than a couple of missing puzzle pieces for me).

The right kind of board conflict. Conflict is inevitable in board work. It's the type of conflict - the healthy give and take of cognitive conflict vs. the counterproductive and off-topic affective conflict - that matters. We need productive conflict to stimulate the kinds of discussions that lead to thoughtful, effective decision making. We don't need the interpersonal nitpicking and personality conflicts that derail that process.

Avoiding 9 boardroom pathologies.  This one is a favorite because it hit a little too close to home. It names several of the more common interpersonal and group challenges that are too often enacted in our boards.

No fair! Social loafing in the boardroom. This topic also hit a little too close to home (witnessed and occasionally teetered personally). That, and the fact that the phenomenon appeared in virtually every group process resource I encountered, made this post a must-write. It also helped to reinforce the need for the high performance bar that became its own, informal theme this year.

Favorite board performance/effectiveness posts

Nonprofit governance: Boards rising (or stooping) to our expectations. I'm sick to death of the endless parade of "overcoming the burden of your boards"/"why boards stink" messages that exist in governance literature, conferences, and research questions. (Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?) As a board member, and someone who sees the great potential boards represent as community leaders, I take a different view: set the bar high - and support them - and these community leaders will respond. It needed to be said - and I'll keep saying it until we change the narrative (and support structures) around nonprofit governance.

Essential capacities of a board chair. We often act as though the key to effective nonprofit board performance lies with the executive director, which is terribly misplaced. Whether or not our boards lead or whether they simply fill space around the boardroom table lies in the board chairperson/president's willingness and capacity to fulfill the significant responsibilities that come with the job. This person sets the tone, sets the agenda (literally, in collaboration with the ED and board), and keeps focus. We cannot take this role too seriously. 

10 ways to vitalize board committees. Board performance success also requires an engaged approach to using our committees, as our lead researchers, resident experts, and work groups for advancing our goals. I'm also drawn to this one because, frankly, it's one of the most popular posts of the year - not because of any particular brilliance in what is shared, but because "nonprofit board committees" is a perpetual search topic that draws new readers to the site. There appears to be a strong need for quality resources that addressing board committee effectiveness - a gap that I anticipate addressing here in 2014.

Boards 101: A few essential resources. Another surprisingly popular post - again, speaking more to a hunger for access to quality information - is this post from last month. I've already shared it widely, as an online handout. I anticipate it becoming regular recommended reading for anyone needing an overview of what boards do.

The generative/revolutionary - special - stuff

Governance as Leadership: My latest attempt to articulate a revolutionary board model. Chait, Ryan and Taylor's world-shifting framework continues to inspire and inform my thinking. It's the "revolutionary" current underlying it all. While I'll never win any broadcasting awards for the video at the center of the post, it's my most comprehensive, public effort to date to share what makes this model so important and new (nearly 10 years after its initial release).

Engaging the introverted board member. This hit home in a positive way: drawing from work that has impacted me personally to think differently about board members just like me. I had fun not only sharing Susan Cain's important work on introversion, but applying it in creative ways to thinking about how we engage our quieter board members in ways that are authentic to how they (we) work.

Wisdom Wednesday: Thinking and becoming. Applying my individual mantra to nonprofit governance was personally meaningful. Where we focus boards' attention is where we will go. Will that be the future, or will it be wallowing in the here and now? While we can't ignore the reality of today, we also can't afford to have our boards forget their ultimate responsibility: the future. They are the definers and the guardians of the horizon to which we all are moving.

Open letter to an exemplar board.  I'll close with a link to my favorite post of the year. It holds that place of honor for two reasons. One is the international visibility that it received (not going to lie - that was a bit of a rush).  But more important was the chance for me to publicly thank the board that welcomed me into its meetings and work to study effective governance. It also facilitated the "aha" moment that resulted when I realized that I found the hope that drives everything in the example that they provided.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Your burning board questions for 2014

What questions about nonprofit boards/governance confound, compel and/or inspire you as we approach 2014?

I've been immersed in that question personally for a few weeks now, and I'm interested in comparing notes with readers and members of my personal learning network.

I'll be posing the question in different venues in the next week: here, on Twitter, via email, on the blog Facebook page, etc. I'll compile responses, sharing some of them in a future post and using all of them to inform my writing agenda for the next year.

To make it as easy as possible to contribute your questions - anonymously, if you prefer - I've set up a one-question survey:

If you prefer, you also may post your contribution via a comment to this post or via email (address can be found on the "about" page). I'm deeply interested in your thoughts about the conversations about our boards and the work that they do as we approach a new year. I'm especially interested in questions from board members, as this blog ultimately is for you.

Monday, December 16, 2013

5 levers of nonprofit board creativity

What does it take to foster creative thinking and governing in the nonprofit boardroom?

I'm always seeking resources and perspectives that help me answer that question. A recent post on creativity by blogger Valeria Maltoni led to an earlier entry, Understanding the 5 Levers of Creativity, that offered a provocative piece of the puzzle for me.

I couldn't help thinking about how each of the levers might be enacted in a typical nonprofit board setting. Individually, they rang familiar. Collectively, they offer a potentially useful frame for shaping an environment where creativity becomes more of the norm in governance discussions. Following are my initial reactions to each of the levers.

1. "The amount of challenge they give." Bored boards will not engage in meaningful exchanges that lead to innovative and expansive approaches to today's challenges and tomorrow's vision of a better future. Boards need challenging questions and space to pursue them. They need agendas that value and facilitate creative challenges. (P.S. If "copier" [as in 'machine'] is anywhere near the top of the agenda - or on the agenda at all - you will lose me. Seriously.)

2. "The degree of freedom around process." Nonprofit boardrooms can be places stifled by sacred cows. To foster an environment where creative processes can flourish, "the way we've always done it" must die. It starts with giving up our notions of report-dominated board meeting agendas. To create space for creative governing, we need to start by creating new, more functional ways of working and organizing. We can start by flipping or, better yet, rewriting meeting agendas (eliminating reports altogether or at least placing them at the end of the meeting, where energy and attention is lowest). We can adopt electronic board portals for storing documents, scheduling meetings and otherwise organizing work. And we can look for new ways to continue meaningful conversations.

3. "The way they design work groups." We need to create and empower our committees and other work groups. They should build on our boards' strengths and focus their attention on governance responsibilities, not management functions. They should be charged with exploring and guiding the board toward answering significant, future-focused questions, not routine management needs.

4. "The level of encouragement provided." Boards need facilitative support, from each other and from staff. Maltoni calls for more than positive reinforcement, and I agree. Don't just pat me on the head or stroke my ego. Offer me constructive feedback so that I can be as effective as possible in serving the organization.

5. "The nature of organizational support." Boards flourish in a culture that fosters, values and supports creativity. In the process, they expand their capacity to lead you into a sustainable and effective future.

The closing paragraph of the post sums up the "who cares" magnificently:

"This type of culture attracts 'can do' creates the ideal context for individuals to pursue their intrinsic motivation, develop expertise, and use imagination to constantly adapt and adjust to new circumstances."

That's exactly what we need to govern for the future - leaders with the capacity, agility and motivation to not just react to whatever life throws at our nonprofit, but to create and advance a compelling vision that impacts our community in positive and transformative ways.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Boards 101: A few essential resources

"I'm new to nonprofit boards. Where do I go to start understanding what they do and why?"

I'm leading a webinar later this week where that question is likely to arise. Since I won't have my usual opportunity to offer a dedicated "where to go for more" handout, I decided to share that information with a broader audience here.

Let's start with my master "board essentials" list - a catch-all category that captures resources I consider to be particularly valuable in describing the foundational ideas and responsibilities of nonprofit governance. Click here to access the complete list.

While everything tagged contributes something important, I admit that exploring the complete list may still foster a "drinking from a fire hose" experience. Not helpful. So I'll point out a few of the core items as a starting point.

Governance as Leadership: My latest attempt to articulate a revolutionary board model

I'm placing this one as the most essential of all, because it centers nonprofit board work in a model that I believe to be the best fit - so far - to the full scope of responsibilities and purpose: Governance as Leadership. Others might start with the BoardSource "10 essential board responsibilities." I see them as a set of activities that certainly fit within the three governance modes of GAL, but they are not inclusive nor do they adequately connect to the motivations that drive most of us to serve (and to our reasons for being as an organization).

Great boards: Distinguishing governance from management

Developing clarity about what's the board's work versus management's is one of the most traditionally vexing challenges for many nonprofits and their leaders. This fantastic article, published in the Great Boards newsletter, does the best job I seen of making that critical distinction. I regularly assign this as a reading for board development events and retreats, and I've seen the light-bulb moments as members finally identify and (usually) embrace the distinctions. The lack of understanding that there is a distinction going in no longer surprises me; as a sector, we remain quite confused about what constitutes governance (and, as a result, boards often wander off into familiar but inappropriate places). (UPDATE: Alas, the direct link to the PDF doesn't seem to work anymore. Go to, check the "top resources" section in the middle, and scroll down to the link to the article by this name. It also comes up doing an internet search of the title. Sorry about that: it seems to be a recurring challenge with that site. Worth the extra effort, though!)

3 statements that can change the world: Mission/vision/values

As regular readers know, and as webinar participants will soon hear, mission and vision are not frills that boards might squeeze into a retreat once in a while. They are the board's ultimate responsibility and its (and the organization's) whole reason for being. Our values frame how we work and how we make decisions that advance our vision and mission. Hildy Gottlieb's article offers a fantastic, plain-English description of what each statement is and does.

The nonprofit board's mission mandate

Kevin Monroe's excellent article has a way of making that mission connection with most audiences with whom I share it. It centers the board's work exactly where it should be - in the mission. It also introduces the BoardSource 10 responsibilities (and ties them to the board's mission work).

Future proofing the boardroom: Grounding and stargazing

 Lucy Marcus reminds us that the board's work lies in more than the here and now, monitoring role. It also requires stargazing: keeping our eyes just beyond the horizon, envisioning and moving toward a future of resilience and impact. Boards must adopt a future orientation, for the future is where their ultimate responsibilities lie. Lucy's articulation of that responsibility here is superb.

Movie Mondays: The 2 hats board members wear

This brief video addresses an all too common challenge, especially for boards of small nonprofits - and all too often challenges board members who encounter it. The fact is, we board members often find ourselves fulfilling two very different kinds of responsibilities: that of a member of the governing body and that of a volunteer. The two are very different and distinct. They also can create difficulties when board members and staff blur the boundaries. Which "hat" are you wearing as you embark on this task, governor or volunteer? Is it clear with everyone involved?

10 ways to transform board meetings

 This one is not (currently) on my essentials list, but I anticipate that webinar participants will want more detail on how board meetings can be structured differently for governance. We waste far too much member time, energy and enthusiasm in meetings that drain all three and drive board focus from its real work.

This core set of resources offer a more expansive, purpose-driven vision of nonprofit governance. They offer a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding the full potential - and ultimate responsibility - of nonprofit boards.  Because I can't help myself, I'll also share a series of curated resources for those who want to step a bit deeper into the pool. Here are some collections that may be of interest:

My "board+meetings" bookmarks
My Governance as Leadership bookmarks
My  "boards+roles" bookmarks
My "boards+recruitment" bookmarks

Curated resource collections on Pinterest:

Must-read nonprofit board resources
Board-related videos
Nonprofit board essentials (major overlap w/"essentials" bookmarks list above)
Engaging nonprofit boards
Save our (nonprofit board) meetings!
Generative nonprofit governance (pinnable resources from the bookmarks list above)
Inquiring nonprofit boards
Leading nonprofit boards

A resource for nonprofit board presidents:

Making the most of your board

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lessons in vision and mission

What is the best way to launch a new leadership role? Is there a “right way” to align your vision of the future with the organization's? In the nonprofit setting, is it really your vision?

I recently witnessed an unfortunate failure to align a new leader’s vision of the future with that of internal stakeholders who were already on board and actively working toward what they saw as the organization’s purpose in the community.

While the related events offered rich – if extremely difficult – lessons about leadership succession and group dynamics, I couldn’t help honing in on the vision- and mission-related aspects of what unfolded. The intersections and “lessons learned” from that case have clear applicability to the nonprofit setting.

Let me start by stating the obvious: there is no one, universal, perfect way to launch a new leadership role and the relationships that will facilitate or challenge its success. There is no one scenario facing all new executives; the challenges and opportunities are as varied as the number of organizations themselves. That said, I believe that some of the lessons I took away from this event may be of value (and, hopefully, obvious) to anyone beginning a new nonprofit leadership commitment.

One, listen.  Your time to communicate, align, and advance your vision of the future will come. But don't start with a megaphone. Start with your ears. In the early days, people want reassurance that they share a common direction with their new leader and that their strengths and motivations will be valued as they move forward.

Ask stakeholders about their experiences, their motivations, their understandings of the organization's purpose. Then listen. Hear what they are saying. Seek understanding of the foundation upon which they are working, so you'll have a sense of where you're already aligned and where differences exist. Don't react immediately to those (perceived) differences. Rash decisions hurt, in sometimes devastating ways.

Two, understand that, in the end, your vision is not the vision - especially in a nonprofit setting. No, the vision of a better future ultimately belongs to the community (however your define "community"). Mobilizing all of the organization's resources in service to a better future for your community is your reason for being.

If you were hired, well, someone sees a good, basic fit - or a solid reason why a reboot is necessary. In an executive's ideal world, alignment is perfect and easy to accomplish. That's seldom how "real life" works. It's your job to work toward that perfect fit. But in the end, it's not "your" vision and mission. They belong to the organization and the community it serves.

Three, even if it's clear that a complete reboot is necessary, don't come charging in, demanding "my way or the highway." You will fail with such a scorched-earth approach to change. You can't do it alone. Your organization cannot do it alone. You cannot leave a trail of metaphorical bodies on entry without heavy and potentially lasting damage.

Always begin from a place of respect: Respect people's integrity, commitment, skills and knowledge. Communicate that respect, even/especially as you communicate the need to channel those gifts and commitments in new directions. If you convey, directly or indirectly, a lack of respect for their basic humanity and their contributions, you will lose them, their connections, expertise - and likely far more.

Four, recognize the critical importance of stakeholder ownership. If employees and other stakeholders can see common ground, if they can see a clear path for them to contribute to the future (even if there is a shift in direction), if you engage them in developing and owning that vision, they will help you succeed.

Most of us will not follow just 'cause. We need to see how the vision being promoted fits our own understanding of the organization's purpose. We need to see that we have a role in that vision. Resistance to change seldom is the problem itself. It's resistance to change for change's sake.

How does it fit?
How will it make things better, especially for those we serve?
How can I contribute effectively to this forward motion?
How will we know we're there - or moving there?
What does "success" look like?

How can we contribute to shaping this vision of the future? How can we own that vision? It's "Human Nature 101," folks.

Finally, keep it in perspective. Unless you're the founder, you're not the first to have a vision of the future for the organization. You probably won't be the last. You will succeed, and the organization will succeed, when you can create a common vision that benefits your community in the end when you spend your early days (and most of your time there) building that vision together.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

No fair! Social loafing in the boardroom

Photo purchased from Bigstock Photo

Have you ever served on a board with that one person who never seems to follow through on anything? Who can't be counted on to assume any real responsibility? Whose only purpose seems to be keeping a seat warm - literally?

Is social loafing an unspoken, accepted practice in your nonprofit boardroom?

Social loafing occurs when a member steps back and gives less than his or her best effort in a group. One common assumption driving this phenomenon: someone in the group will make sure it gets done, even if I don't. The group is responsible, after all. The group will take care of it. My own pressure to perform is reduced - or at least I think and act as if that were true.

In some highly dysfunctional boards, there may be a sense of impotence or lack of commitment the work to be done. Frankly, who cares? If it won't make a difference amidst the chaos, why should I make this a personal priority? Maybe we watch our fellow members shirk their own responsibilities and feel less motivated ourselves. So we loaf.

One of the better descriptions of social loafing, one that should make sense for those of us serving on nonprofit boards, is a synopsis of a Human Relations article, "A Model of Social Loafing in Real Work Groups." See of some if these additional potential factors ring a bell:

  • Perceived lack of influence over task outcomes - doesn't matter what I do (or don't do). My individual effort doesn't matter in the end.
  • Unmotivating task - I don't care if I complete this task; it bores me and doesn't connect to anything that matters to me.
  • Perceived relative task ability - I'm pretty sure I'll fail. I'm in way over my head on this one. What's worse, I'm pretty sure my fellow group members would do a better job.
  • Perceived lack of potential for evaluation of one's contribution - I won't be held accountable, so it doesn't matter.

That last bullet point is particularly important. Social loafing frequently comes down to a lack of accountability - official accountability via regular individual and group-level assessment, and informal accountability, via a culture that upholds commitment and engagement as foundational group values. If we know our effort (or lack thereof) will be noticed, if we feel responsible for our role in the collective success of the board, the vast majority of us will step up and follow through on our responsibilities.  In a volunteer leadership role, like board service, we want our effort to make a difference.

Because social loafing may emerge from different scenarios, offering one magic solution is risky to impossible. But in general, I do have a handful of recommendations for reducing the risk that our board members will fall into this trap.

  • Build the foundation for board service on active participation and leadership. Set the bar high and articulate clearly what is expected from the recruitment process forward.
  • Define clear markers for member success and take steps to verify that members understand and accept the responsibility given to them.  Be explicit in securing agreement, verifying that members understand what is being asked of them.
  • Offer regular check-ins and opportunities to not only remind members of their responsibilities but catch and address issues before they become full-fledged obstacles.
  • Take steps to ensure that members have a reasonable chance of success. Stretches are great, even essential when reaching for grand visions of the future. But they must be realistic stretches. Otherwise, you - and they - know that you are setting them up to fail.
  • As much as possible, fit tasks to member expertise and interests. Start them from a foundation of strength and motivation.
  • Provide whatever additional support is needed for members to succeed at the tasks they're assigned. They need the tools, information and resources to have a reasonable chance of accomplishing what they are expected to do.
  • Share the work and the leadership responsibility broadly. Reinforce the message that the board's ultimate success relies on all members willingly assuming their share of the work. (Note: This does require that some of us give up our martyr status, where we take on more than our share of the work because "it'll never get done if I don't do it." It will, because our fellow board members understand and accept their equal leadership responsibility. We have to give them a chance, though.)
  • Institutionalize goal-driven assessment processes for individual members and the board as a whole. Use those processes as formal opportunities to stop, evaluate, and make any necessary adjustments in a timely manner. Use them, too, to set and reinforce the high leadership bar that board members really want (vs. solely as a stick with which to punish "loafers").

The bottom line:
Build, reinforce and celebrate a culture where board members are not only expected to contribute and lead, but where they receive the support and acknowledgment they deserve when they actually do.

Build a culture where loafing is not only unacceptable but unthinkable.

    Sunday, November 3, 2013

    The right kind of board conflict

    Conflict in the nonprofit boardroom is never okay. Or is it?

    Board members volunteer their time, expertise and wisdom. The best come willingly, in the spirit of contributing something important and making a difference. In return, we - board leaders and senior staff - attempt to create a stimulating and collegial experience for everyone involved. The last thing anyone involved in this important work wants is a toxic, contentious environment.

    Often, that translates into avoidance of conflict at all costs. We tap dance around the tough questions, resist recruiting anyone too different from us, and isolate the 'troublemakers.'

    But is that necessarily wise?

    Recently, I read a Harvard Business Review blog post that reminded me that conflict itself is neither good nor bad. The type of conflict - and how we handle it - is the critical difference. In that post, "Good Conflict Makes a Good Board," author Solange Charas describes two types of conflict: 

    Cognitive conflict "is task-oriented, with a focus on how to get things done to achieve optimal results."

    On the flip side is affective conflict, which "is emotionally oriented and focused on personal differences or shortcomings between people."

    Facilitated well, the former invites divergent thinking and critical analysis. Cognitive conflict requires different perspectives and experiences, broadening our thinking and anticipating more contingencies that could affect how the resulting decisions unfold once they are made. We want this kind of conflict in our boardrooms. In fact, we should be building in processes and expectations that make these kinds of robust exchanges part of the deliberation process. We also should be recruiting members who bring different experiences and frames of thinking that fuel cognitive conflict.

    What's not productive in the boardroom is the latter type, affective conflict. Allowing interpersonal 'stuff' to derail discussions, bringing conflict unrelated to this board or the nonprofit organization it's governing into the deliberations - affective conflict, at best, contributes nothing to the process and, at worst (and most frequently), erects obstacles to the work board members are called to do.

    Affective conflict can be tricky to handle for many reasons. I believe it's even more problematic in a nonprofit boardroom or other settings involving volunteers. Why? Because it involves people who are there voluntarily - giving that precious time and talent - and doing so in the hope that it will somehow make a difference to others. We want to feel good about that work. We want it to be fulfilling, to have impact, and to maybe even be fun. We do not want to spend those precious hours fighting or feeling like they have been wasted by meaningless battles that have nothing to do with the job at hand.

    So how do we minimize - or even eliminate - affective conflict in our boardrooms? I have no magic solution, but I do have at least a couple of suggestions.

    One, we need to create and nurture a culture of collegiality and mission focus. "Culture" itself can be hard to see, but we can take steps toward building that environment. For example, consider setting ground rules about how board members will interact and how the group will address problems that arise. Use this process, not as a way to end up with a bunch of rules to then set aside when done, but to foster frank conversations about expectations and mission-focused goals for the board's work.
    Regularly revisit those rules, as reminders about how we commit to engaging as organizational leaders. Focus not only on the "thou shalt nots," but on the kinds of interactions that encourage the productive, mission-focused deliberations that facilitate governance.

    Two, we need leadership (board leadership, not ED. It's not his/her job...) willing to rein in unproductive interactions of all kinds, including affective conflict. It's not easy. It's not fun. But it's part of the job of leading our governing bodies. In the (hopefully) rare event that this type of interpersonal conflict interferes with board business and collegiality. If you're a board leader, are you prepared - and willing - to intervene in a timely manner?

    What kinds of conflict do you allow in your boardroom interactions? What do you do to foster the creative stimulation that comes with cognitive conflict? How do you reduce the risk of affective conflict seeping into the boardroom?

    Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    10 ways to assess board performance

    Note: The original version of this post, published in September 2012, seems to have found its own special spam following. While the comments are gone by the time I receive an alert, they are annoying nonetheless. I'm reposting today, in an effort to break that chain.  Hopefully, the advice offered will be valuable to readers who may have missed the original.

    Now that we understand the value (and challenges) of board self-assessment and we're ready commit, where do we start? Just as there is no one, universal approach to evaluating all governing bodies' performances, there are many ways to introduce assessment into our board processes.

    In that spirit, I'd like to offer 10 ways to introduce formal and informal assessment into our board practice. Any one would be a productive step toward embracing the opportunity to reflect on our work, to appreciate our individual and collective strengths and identify growth needs.

    (1) Make assessment part of your regular board routine. Schedule formal opportunities to stop, assess and reflect during the year - and do it. Plan to conduct, at minimum, a comprehensive annual assessment of both the board as a whole and individual members. Consider incorporating more frequent checks, perhaps semiannual or quarterly, to give yourselves opportunities to identify areas that require adjustment.

    (2) Use the outcomes of your annual assessment to identify future board goals.  If  assessment reveals that board member confidence in their ability to fulfill community outreach responsibilities is low, set a goal to develop those skills for the next year (or whatever time frame you're using). Similarly, if board members express an interest in strengthening their donor stewardship skills, incorporate that need into the group's learning goals.

    (3) Make assessment a board responsibility. The board should own this process: the decisions about what to assess, in what format, when, by whom, etc. This isn't a "The ED will nag us until we do it" process. This is a potentially rich and valuable process to build board capacity. If the board takes responsibility for evaluating its own performance, it will have a different - and deeper - meaning for members. Make assessment part of the ongoing responsibilities of the governance committee or other standing board work group. Hold that group accountable for seeing the process through.

    (4) Ask the board to recommend issues/questions to be included in its assessment process(es). While there are standard topics and governance responsibilities for which all everyone should be accountable, each board also will have unique goals, concerns, and aspirations. Including them in the benchmarks by which success is measured raises those questions to a higher level. They also will add to the meaningfulness of the data shared, since they represent issues of concern to board members themselves.

    (5) Pose a "How are we doing/How do we know?" question ahead of a board meeting. Ask members to bring evidence, pro or con, to support their point. Spend quality time during the meeting sharing and discussing - and committing to build from that foundation.

    (6) Add an external twist to number 5. Ask them specifically to gather feedback from external sources - policy makers, donors, clients and former clients, other nonprofits, neighbors, etc. - about the agency's performance. Ask them to share what they learn in a board discussion. Use that feedback, not as a cheap opportunity to criticize the ED or staff, but to reflect on how the board can take a more active role in communicating and sharing the organization's mission and work with an expanding audience.

    (7) Build your retreats around big questions. Don't cram those great spaces with giant to do items (no more "write a strategic plan" retreat agendas!). Instead, pose broad questions that build board capacity. Spend quality time focusing beyond the horizon, toward the better future that you describe in your vision. Acknowledge that's it's okay to emerge from the experience with more questions (focused on the big-picture issues of governance).

    (8) Take your formal assessments online. Whether you choose a ready-made assessment tool, like Alice Korngold's fantastic Board Vector tool, or choose to create/adopt/adapt your own assessment survey, consider adopting an online format (e.g., SurveyMonkey). There are at least two benefits of doing so. First, the anonymity of an online survey encourages frank and honest answers. No one is handling my responses (noting who was writing in what ink color for comparison after we leave). Second, collection and tabulation are instantaneous. No one needs to calculate percentages. No one needs to keystroke responses to open-ended questions. No one needs to remember how to create charts. The right tool will take care of that for you, in a format that is easy to share electronically.

    (9) If you board is big enough (to ensure a basic level of anonymity) - and text-savvy enough - pose a quick-poll question during a meeting. Use an instant polling tool, like PollEverywhere, to engage their brains in a different way and gather quick feedback on an issue before the board. If a computer and projector are handy, create the quick-response poll, instruct the board on how to participate (e.g., text message or web link) and project their responses live. Use those responses to spark a conversation about the results. Perhaps stating the obvious: if your board is small or you have members who are are tech averse or lack access to text technology, this won't be a great option. If our board has five members and only two or three have cell phones (or know how to text), this will be a less-than-ideal option. 

    (10) End every meeting with one simple question: How did we advance the mission today/tonight? It's a simple but powerful reminder of the board's purpose. They may be small steps, but board members should be able to identify multiple actions taken to move the organization ever closer to its purpose. If they cannot do so, your board likely is focused on the wrong things when it meets. There is an added benefit to instituting this step into your board routine: members come to expect it and begin to look for that evidence as they interact (and, ideally, turn a more critical eye toward meeting agendas and the ways in which they spend their time).

    Sunday, October 6, 2013

    After the antecedents: More of Will Brown's nonprofit board engagement model

    Once we've successfully addressed the antecedents to board member engagement, then what?

    I hadn't anticipated writing a follow-up to last week's post on Will Brown's research on board member participation in discussion and decision making. But in my own reflection, and after interacting here and elsewhere with readers interested in learning more about his work, the need for "the rest of the story" became clear.

    The strong foundation laid by the antecedents that Brown's research identified - perceived ability, task ownership, values congruence, and trust and safety - is a critical first step. But it's just that: a first step. What unfolds once members are appropriately connected to the work shapes the quality of participation and, in the end, the quality of decisions made.

    (Will outlined the rest of the model in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management webinar highlighting his work, and in a chapter of the book that he co-edited with Chris Cornforth, Nonprofit governance: Innovative perspectives and approaches. The description that follows draws from both sources.)

    In addition to the antecedents, Brown research identified two mediators that impact boardroom discussion and decision making processes: situational constraints and group dynamics. The former includes elements that will be more familiar to students of nonprofit governance and, undoubtedly, anyone who's explored recent practitioner-focused literature. The latter addresses factors that are less frequently studied (or acknowledged) but that have at least equal power in determining the direction of what happens on the way to a decision.

    Situational constraints

    Will shared five "situational constraints" that emerged in his research:

    • Group size
    • Meeting management
    • Information flow
    • Framing the conversation and 
    • Conflict management

    How boards structure the work in the first place - how we set up situations for engagement - matters greatly. If board members don't have what they need to engage, he told webinar participants, they simply won't. Having the right number (neither too small not too large) of board members and having access to the right set of information in a timely manner are critical to quality deliberation and decision making.

    The way in which board leaders frame the conversation up front sets the stage for discussions that invite full board member participation. Skillful facilitation is equally essential. Brown puts it this way in his chapter: "Careful facilitation is critical to move the conversation forward, while allowing for appropriate conflict."

    Note that he doesn't call for no conflict. Rather, what his research uncovered was the need for leadership with the capacity and willingness to balance member participation, managing those who would dominate while encouraging quieter members to step up, speak out, and take equal ownership in what emerges from the interaction.

    Board leaders' lack of success in managing these situational constraints "results in disengagement and frustration." That is why we must attend to the structural components of governance.

    Group dynamics

    "Does the board actually function as a group?" Will posed that bottom-line question to webinar participants. We can bring them to the table, he said, but if we don't deal with the interpersonal stuff that comes with groups of people, we'll fail.

    Brown highlighted five group dynamics elements identified in his research:

    • Dominant norms
    • Patterns of behavior
    • Social and emotional context
    • Group cohesion
    • Fault lines and sub-groups

    Group norms can be functional or not. "Group norms that support critical decision-making, build appropriate cohesion, and minimize sub-groups are likely to encourage engagement and participation," he told the webinar audience.

    Cohesion is a good thing - unless it becomes the end in itself, leading to group think and valuing getting along over asking necessary tough questions. Will found that "norms regarding critical thought improved decision quality when compared to norms of consensus." On the flip side of that is a damaged environment where factions emerge between board members and conflicting interests threaten to shut down the process completely.

    What are the norms that drive your board's behavior? Do they encourage/expect members to speak up, especially when doing so runs counter to the prevailing sentiment? Do they encourage collegiality while welcoming dissent or the occasionally uncomfortable stretch? Do they demand thoughtful, critical decision making?

    No, we cannot ignore the interpersonal factors that inevitably feed or challenge the board's capacity to work and to focus on its ultimate purpose.

    Will's research: My takeaways

    Moderating Will's webinar wasn't my first encounter with his research. While I still seem to catch something new with each encounter, I can offer a decent summary of what I consider to be the most salient aspects of the work for me today.

    The big picture is, well, the big picture. This work offers a broader perspective of what happens in the nonprofit boardroom and the factors that shape discussion and decision making processes. That, my friends, is noteworthy. There is obvious value in focusing attention on specific components of governance and deepening our collective understanding of specific aspects of board work. But equally important is the step back that this research takes, offering a more holistic view of boardroom deliberation processes and all that feeds or constrains it.

    I chose to focus on the antecedents last time, because I truly believe that it's the most "newsworthy" isolated component of the larger research. So often our focus is on roles and responsibilities and activities once they're already in the boardroom. We needed this chance to look at what must happen before they get there. We must understand what they need, from whom, to have a reasonable chance for success. The four antecedents to engagement that emerged from this research provide that necessary foundation.

    The two mediators are keys to understanding the process as a whole. Structural elements - and those factors that constrain them - matter. Obviously. But they are not enough by themselves. As this larger research effort made crystal clear, participation is a distinctly human process. We need to provide structures that not only aren't barriers to engagement but that facilitate engagement.

    And the group dynamics element, whew. That has always felt like a big piece of the puzzle, but I have a new-found respect for its ultimate importance after this year's immersion in group process literature. Board members aren't "seats." They are human beings, bring human motivations, needs and issue with them into the room. How those human factors play out absolutely impacts not only the quality of our interactions, but the quality of our discussions and the decisions that emerge from them. Brown's research offers insight into the "how" as well as confirmation that that is true.

    The practical question is this: What do we do with the gift that is Will Brown's research? How will we use what it offers us to change our board decision making practices?

    Sunday, September 29, 2013

    Antecedents to board member participation: Insights from governance research

    What factors best facilitate active board member engagement in the core function of governance?

    Ground-breaking research by governance scholar Will Brown has uncovered four elements, part of a larger model of member participation, that lay the foundation for effective participation in board discussion and decision making. Dr. Brown discussed those essential factors during an Alliance for Nonprofit Management Governance Affinity Group "research to practice" webinar last week.

    While Will covered his larger engagement model during the session, the four antecedents took the spotlight. It's where I'm choosing to focus this post, not only because they're the foundation for everything else, but also because this is what I believe to be the biggest "aha" of this work.

    "The whole self being ready to participate..." 

    That simple descriptor took my breath away. In a research environment where structures, responsibilities, and demographics dominate, Will's in-a-nutshell description of the antecedents' role in board member engagement stands out. It reminds us that board members are human beings, first and foremost. We can't just plop them into a board seat and expect them to perform. They have needs and motivations - antecedents to engagement - that we must address to support effective governance.

    So what are those factors that contribute to the "whole self" readiness to govern that emerged in Will's research?

    • Perceived ability
    • Task ownership
    • Values congruence
    • Trust and safety

    Perceived ability.  How confident is each member in his/her ability to live up to the board's responsibilities? Why would he/she bother if the likelihood of failure is high? Members don't want to feel that their time will be wasted, or that they will be set up for failure. They need to feel confident that they can live up to expectations and make a difference in their service.

    Brown offered at least three ways to build board member confidence: breaking big responsibilities into smaller, manageable steps; recruiting members with expertise, skills, and perspectives that are essential to the board's work; and providing members with the right set of tools and support to govern.

    Task ownership. Board members must understand what is expected of them before they accept the job and throughout their term of service. But as important as it is to clarify expectations up front, Brown says, it is not enough. Board members must understand their purpose and see how that connects to their individual motivations to serve. They need to recognize discussion and deliberation as a core responsibility of governance. They need to own that responsibility and commit to it.

    Values congruence. Members need to tie board tasks to their personal priorities, according to Brown. If we've recruited individuals whose personal values fit organizational values, making those connections "brings energy to the roles and functions" of board work. Are they committed to your mission? Do their values match yours? When the fit is right, and when we can help board members articulate that fit, commitment to the work grows.

    Trust and safety. Board members need a sense of interpersonal trust, confidence that the boardroom is a safe space to interact without negative consequences. They need to know that this is a safe place for taking a moderate level of risk. This is not a process that can be hurried, Brown says. It takes time - and authentic interaction - for this antecedent to emerge.

    It would be easy to point to these antecedents as a lovely ideal to which all boards should begin working - and that would be a mistake. They really are the bottom line - borne out in Will's research - for engaging the community leaders we recruit in the work to which they are called. It we want them to succeed, if we expect them to succeed, we owe them this much.

    What I appreciated about the insights shared in the webinar - and about Will Brown's work generally - is the attention given to the human side of nonprofit governance. Too often, governance research discounts (or ignores altogether) the fact that what drives the work is not the perfect job description or check marks ticking off demographic variables on a recruitment matrix. It's the people who serve.

    Will discusses his larger model in the new book that he co-edited with Chris Cornforth, Nonprofit governance: Innovative perspectives and approaches I encourage readers to pick up a copy and read Dr. Brown's chapter (and the rest of the book) to better understand the human element of board work.

    Friday, September 27, 2013

    Governance as Leadership: My latest attempt to articulate a revolutionary board model


    As Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership model continues to form the foundation for all of my work and thought on nonprofit boards, I'm finding new ways to articulate the essential messages of that model as I interpret them.

    I created this video for another purpose, but I also anticipate that readers here may find parts (or, hopefully, all) of it of value. I'd love to have your feedback on the content, as having opportunities to talk through these elements with others expands my own understanding and my capacity to share effectively with others.

    A qualifier before you watch: I'm not the family broadcaster. I tend to do best with screencasts like this if I allow myself to simply talk through what I'm thinking, versus as if I were giving a formal presentation. The result tends to be slightly less polished, but more authentic representation of my understanding of the content being shared. In this more personal setting, I trust that that will be okay.

    Wednesday, September 25, 2013

    Wisdom Wednesday: Thinking & becoming

    Years ago, at a time when I felt desperately stuck in what seemed like an impossible situation, I popped a tape from an Earl Nightingale audio book into the cassette player on my desk. As was my routine, I listened with one ear while I worked, letting the vast majority of his wisdom pass me by.

    Except for this sentence: "We become what we think about."

    I have no idea what prompted me to catch this particular statement, amidst all that I had ignored to that point. I have no idea why such a simple idea resonated as deeply as it did that day, and in the decades since. But it connected to what I desperately needed at that point in my life. It reminded me that we have the power to shape our own journey and, to a large extent, our ultimate impact on the world.  It, frankly, changed my life. It continues to shape virtually everything I do.

    Recently, as I found myself needing a brief "Nightingale" reminder, I couldn't help thinking that this wisdom applies as well to our boards and where they spend their time and energy. I was developing a new talk on Governance as Leadership,  preparing to make my best case for devoting more space for generative thinking, and for embedding that work in our governance routines.

    I asked myself: How are we helping our boards become generative governing bodies?

    Where are we directing our boards' focus? Are we asking them to devote, not just equal time, but the best of their time on future-focused, high-impact questions and deliberations?

    Are they reading and reflecting on the best possible pool of resources that inform their thinking about their work and our mission areas? Are their meetings centered on those generative and strategic questions that move us forward, into a future that we are designing, rather than letting it happen to us?

    Are we supporting them in their leadership development? Are we respecting their wisdom and their capacity to build a powerful vision of the future around which we all can rally?

    Perhaps most important to this topic: Do we encourage them to set a high bar for themselves and support their individual and collaborative efforts to reach it?

    Are our boards thinking about the future and things that matter? If not, what are we going to do - today - to change that?

    Wednesday, September 11, 2013

    Wisdom Wednesday: Leaders as learners

    Given the name of this blog, and my adult education background, it shouldn't be a surprise that this quote caught my eye. It's as true in nonprofit governance as anywhere: If we want to make an impact, we cannot rely on the same old (and often dysfunctional) ways of thinking and acting. We need leaders who are not only open to new ideas and information but who are willing to actively seek them out.

    It is not "too much to ask of volunteers." As I wrote elsewhere, intellectual curiosity should be a bottom-line criterion of all board members - especially our leaders. They can't be content with the status quo. Ideally, they are modeling lifelong learning that fuels generative governance.

    (Quote comes from Kouzes and Posner's e-book, "Great Leadership Creates Great Workplaces.")

    Wednesday, September 4, 2013

    Wisdom Wednesday: Farsighted leaders

    Farsightedness is one of the six characteristics of acknowledged leaders that author Erika Andersen spotlights in her remarkable book, Leading So People Will Follow. For nonprofit boards, the need for future-oriented leaders is as high as the special challenges they routinely face.

    It's easy to treat "the future" as an abstract dream to set aside until tomorrow when the harsh realities of today keep pounding on the board's door. Obviously, we can't afford to ignore the here and now - especially when doing so means there's no "tomorrow" to address.

    But the future is the realm of our governing bodies. We define it. We advance it. We protect it with everything we do. Our board leaders must hold that as their highest responsibility. They must find a balance, that gives today's challenges their appropriate focus but not at the expense of the future they are charged with enacting.

    Board leaders must focus the group's ultimate attention on envisioning and shaping the future. They must find compelling ways to communicate that future, that resonate with individual members' interests. They must find inviting ways to share that vision with those who have not yet joined the journey.

    Board leader, how are you guiding the group's work to fulfill your collective responsibility for the future of your nonprofit? Board member, how are you holding your leadership accountable for future-oriented work? How are you, as a community leader, demonstrating farsightedness in service to your mission?

    Friday, August 30, 2013

    Essential capacities of a board chair

    If we seriously recruited, nurtured and prepared nonprofit board leaders for the significant responsibilities that come with the job, what core capacities would we emphasize?

    Earlier this summer, I shared what I consider to be the essential dispositions of nonprofit governance. As I've continued reflecting on the pivotal role that the chairperson has in shaping everything the board does, and begun developing a set of supports for that leadership responsibility, I've come up with a list of "essential capacities" for the position.

    Ability and willingness to lead 

    A common inside joke in the sector is the board chair who was elected because he/she was absent when voting took place. While there actually may be a few cases where that literally is true, the scenario of a reluctant board member being coerced into serving because no one else wants the job is not such a stretch. How many of us who were coerced into serving grab the gavel and say, "Yes! Let's do this!"

    Chairs who are willing and able to lead understand what governance means and focus board attention on those responsibilities. They don't allow the group to be sidetracked by micromanagement and distractions that have little to nothing to do with the board's real work. They embrace the significant leadership role and all that comes with it. They do not delegate board leadership to the executive director - even/especially the hard parts.

    They also have the tools needed to facilitate productive work and reduce the risk of conflict. They have the skills required to navigate the inevitable disagreements and to leading the board as a whole to a stronger place in the end.

    Ability to communicate a compelling vision of the future

    Already passionate about the organization's work and mission, effective board chairs welcome the myriad opportunities to share that vision of the future with a broad range of audiences. Internally, that translates into inspiring the board to reach for its very best in all aspects of governance. Externally, it involves sharing stories about lives changed and the potential of even greater impact with each new audience's support. They reach out, creating new connections for the organization and strengthening existing relationships. They model effective community leadership for their board peers.

    Design and direction of effective board agendas

    Effective board chairs define the agenda. Literally. They work with the ED to identify the focus and tasks for each meeting agenda (translation: do not delegate this critical task to the ED). They understand that meeting time is best spent asking mission-driven questions, not passively listening to reports of management-level tasks. They engage all members in discussions, creating an expectation of active participation and joint responsibility for meeting outcomes.

    Modeling and ensuring accountability

    Effective board chairs are prepared to hold their fellow board members - and themselves - accountable for results. They set goals, evaluate, and ensure reporting of results to external stakeholder groups (including, but not limited to, donors, regulating bodies, and the larger community). They set the bar high and don't make excuses when the board occasionally falls short. They encourage everyone on the board to reach for excellence in service and support them in their efforts to do so.

    Commitment to board development

    Effective board chairs understand that an investment in board development is an investment in the group's capacity to govern.  They understand that the learning process begins with a multi-layered board orientation but continues across a member's service. They know that members have at least two major categories of learning need: about board service and about the organization and its mission area. They commit to scheduling regular formal board development events and embedding informal learning opportunities into meetings and other board activities. They include board development goals into board expectations and ensure that they are not only met but are respected as essential to governance.

    Yes, I know that this is a lot to ask of a volunteer. But I also know that boards require a high level of commitment from their leaders, and high expectations to which they can be expected to stretch. They need, not reluctant placeholders, but individuals courageous enough to embrace the breadth of leadership challenge that comes with the job.  The leaders who serve deserve the chance to make an impact - the reason they chose to serve in the first place.

    With it, our boards have the potential to meet the full range of governance responsibilities - and impact the organizations' forward mission motion. Without it, they are doomed to wallow and risk being obstacles to that effort.

    What kind of leader does your board want? How are you preparing and supporting that individual for the success that you all need?

    Wednesday, August 28, 2013

    Wednesday Wisdom: Pushing comfort zones for higher-quality board decisions

    As I continue this year's immersion in group dynamics literature,  one of the most consistent messages remains the need for inviting and facilitating a certain level of creative tension in board deliberations. If we want the highest-quality decisions that lead to the highest-quality outcomes for our nonprofits, we can't fill the boardroom with people who look and think exactly like us. We also need people who will, as Lencioni says here, stretch us to think beyond the obvious and the comfortable.

    At the same time, we require leadership that will help us build our capacity to handle those creative tensions productively - to not let those wide-open discussions deteriorate into heated, fear-inducing, enemy-making shouting matches. I've always understood that as being an essential role of leadership. My appreciation for the challenge, and the impact when one succeeds, has grown exponentially in he last eight months.

    Monday, August 26, 2013

    Book review: Invisible Yellow Line

    So where do board roles end and staff venues start? It's one of the most common questions boards and their CEO partners have as they navigate daily life and decision making in their local nonprofit organization.

    Circumstances vary from organization, making definitive lists of who does what trickier than one might think. But a brand new Charity Channel book, The Invisible Yellow Line: Clarifying Nonprofit Board and Staff Roles by Jean Block, offers not only a good, general overview of the bottom line in several areas, but also helpful discussion about where the potential for disagreement is most likely to arise. 

    The "invisible yellow line" is a call-out to the computer-generated yellow line that appears to show viewers of televised football games where the next the next down lies. Those on the field can't see it, even if we in our living rooms can.  The other defining element of that line: it's perpetually moving as the action moves down the field.

    In applying the "line" metaphor to a nonprofit setting, Block attempts to delineate between board and staff responsibilities while acknowledging that's often not so easy. 

    "It is worth noting that every organization is different," Block writes. "In some cases, the Yellow Line can be seen pretty clearly. At other times and in certain instances, the line is invisible and will continue to move as the organization deals with different issues at different times."

    Block identifies the bottom line as she defines it: 
    "Board = strategic direction, policy and fiscal oversight"
    "Staff = management and administration"
    In delineating those distinct roles, she also acknowledges that roles for each complement the other as part of "an effective partnership."

    As with the other title in Charity Channel's "In the Trenches" series that I recently reviewed, this is an immensely practical, practitioner-based book. Chapters two through eight focus on distinguishing roles and responsibilities in a specific area of nonprofit organizational life:

    Chapter Two: The Invisible Yellow Line in Governance
    Chapter Three: The Invisible Yellow Line in Management
    Chapter Four: The Invisible Yellow Line in Finance
    Chapter Five: The Invisible Yellow Line in Planning
    Chapter Six: The Invisible Yellow Line in Human Resources
    Chapter Seven: The Invisible Yellow Line in Resource Development
    Chapter Eight: The Invisible Yellow Line in Board Recruitment

    In each chapter, Block discusses where there usually is consensus regarding responsibilities, as well as the "invisible yellow line" areas that may prove challenging. She also provides a series of pullouts, designed to alert the reader to danger areas, reinforce key messages, define tricky terms, and offer "food for thought" reflection opportunities.

    Block also provides worksheets, forms that provide structure for conversations within an organization, about how responsibilities currently are outlined - and about whether that distribution ultimately serves the agency best.

    That forum for fostering conversations that many leadership teams may never otherwise have - and the articulation of "invisible" challenges that would otherwise remain unconscious to boards and staff in the midst of the work - ultimately are the greatest contributions of this useful new book. I would encourage nonprofits to purchase a copy for their organizational library, and to establish regular opportunities for your board and staff leadership teams to sit down for some frank conversation.

    Wednesday, August 21, 2013

    Wednesday Wisdom: Exceptional nonprofit boards energize, revitalize, recruit

    This week's featured quote reinforces a message that I hope would be obvious by now: ensuring that our boards have access to the broadest range of perspectives necessary for high-quality decision-making is not only a nice goal to have, it's an essential governance commitment. Investing in wide-reaching, mission-focused recruitment processes that draw diverse voices to the boardroom table is no luxury.

    Wednesday, August 14, 2013

    Wednesday Wisdom: The difference between responsible & exceptional board performance

    When I re-read this quote this morning, two "board member me" reactions popped into my head. The gut-instinct response was, "Darn. We'll never live to see that day..." The more productive was, "Wow. That needs to go on the quote wall - and serve as our rallying point for the next five years."

    For many boards, the gap between this ideal and reality might paralyze - at least temporarily. May I suggest  working on one area in the next year as a starting point? For example, commit to creating and adopting an effective board self-assessment process and watch how it transforms other areas of your board's performance.

    What meaningful step can your board take to move it closer to exceptional governance?

    (From a board library "must" title: The Handbook of Nonprofit Governance [2010].)

    Saturday, August 10, 2013

    Book review: Nonprofit Governance: Innovative Perspectives & Approaches

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, this summer launched two noteworthy books on nonprofit governance. Today, I introduce you to the second book, Nonprofit Governance: Innovative Perspectives and Approaches

    First, a bit of disclosure: I have a chapter in this book and I had a role in helping to convene the discussions that led to this ambitious project (though, if anyone benefits financially from sales, it certainly isn't me). That said, I can take great pleasure in recommending this significant new addition to the governance reading list. Let me tell you why.

    Nonprofit Governance differs in tone to You and Your Nonprofit Board. To some extent, that is inevitable. Practitioners wrote the latter; nonprofit scholars wrote the the former. As expected, their approaches are different. Surprisingly similar, though, is their interest in a common concern: the impact of what happens in the nonprofit boardroom.

    I'll be honest. I've read and studied and contributed to the literature of nonprofit governance since 1997. I've frequently been frustrated by research questions that failed to answer one essential question: Who cares? How does this new knowledge expand our understanding of what it takes to govern effectively?

    This book is different. The title describes one critical difference - its focus on innovative approaches to studying nonprofit governance.  It represents, within the governance research community, a call for new ways of asking and exploring questions about how nonprofit boards work and what effective governance practice looks like. The research questions asked have great potential value for those of us who serve on and advise nonprofit boards. They actually have a chance to impact nonprofit practice.

    A sampling of the chapter titles that may be of interest:
    • "The role and impact of chairs of nonprofit boards" (Yvonne Harrison, Vic Murray and Chris Cornforth)
    • "Antecedents to board member engagement in deliberation and decision-making" (Will Brown)
    • "Beneath the surface and around the table: Exploring group dynamics in boards" (Wendy Reid)
    • "Board monitoring and judgment as processes of sensemaking" (Alan Hough, Myles McGregor-Loundes and Christine Ryan)
    • "Community-Engagement Governance (TM): Engaging stakeholders for community impact" (Judy Freiwirth)
    Rather than offer more detailed summaries of favorite chapters here, as I did in the other book review, I'd rather write one or two follow-up posts with that goal in mind. One of my informal commitments, to myself and to readers of this blog, has been to help translate key governance research efforts into potentially actionable ideas with value to those of us working in the field. This offers an excellent next step (beyond sharing takeaways from my own work) in that process.

    For now, I will offer encouragement to purchase and share this new title with your boards. I also will suggest that, read together, Nonprofit Governance and You and Your Nonprofit Board represent the significant infusion of fresh perspectives that the field requires at this point.

    The nonprofit governance toolbox has expanded exponentially this summer. Will we accept the gift - and the challenge - of new ways of thinking and working as the sector's citizen leaders?

    Wednesday, August 7, 2013

    Wednesday Wisdom: Nonprofit boards WANT meaningful, challenging work

    I could fill two lifetimes of Wednesdays with thought-provoking quotes from the new Terrie Temkin-edited book, You and Your Nonprofit Board. This one resonated this morning, because it's been an all too consistent, all too frequent theme in my work with boards (and my own experiences, frankly).

    It goes much like the scenario Lysakowski describes in the quote. We're lucky we conned them into serving in the first place (recruiting is haaaaaarrrrrrd...). We probably lured them with a promise along the lines of "Don't worry. It's not a lot of work." We're lucky they said yes. We can't possibly stretch them. We can't possibly ask them to do the hard work of governance. They might refuse! They might leave!

    Guess what.  If you've recruited the right people - leaders who will govern - we're more likely to respond exactly as Lysakowski describes here. We want the challenges. We signed on for the challenges. We're qualified to handle the challenges. We want to make a difference. When you treat us with kid gloves, tippy-toeing around the real work - the meaningful work we signed on to do - you lose us.

    Wednesday, July 31, 2013

    Wednesday Wisdom: Dual focus

    I've had this one posted on my office wall so long that I no longer remember when or where Menachem made this comment. While the details have escaped me, the power of the lesson contained within has not.

    We can apply his counsel to a variety of settings, including the nonprofit boardroom. Just as we need a diverse range of voices and perspectives in the room, we also need people who can keep us focused on the macro-level, broader issues and on the micro-level, application challenges. Maintaining that balance helps boards avoid getting stuck in one of two unproductive traps - paralyzed by the vastness of the vision we're called to advance or so mired in the details that we forget the leadership responsibilities we've accepted.