Sunday, January 13, 2013

Learning to unlearn: Your responses

During the holiday break, I posed a question to blog readers: What do boards need to UN-learn before they can learn how to truly govern effectively?

Generous readers provided thoughtful and enlightening responses, via the survey, email and comment on the original post. Today, I share highlights from those responses and attempt to organize them according to two common threads.

Board meetings and routines


  • That board meetings are organized around PPT or Prezi slide shows. The best boards require that all presentation materials be distributed in advance so that board meeting time can be devoted not to talking heads in front of a screen but to substantive discussion of the materials distributed earlier.
  • The value of getting unstuck in doing things in the same way meeting after meeting, report after report, year after year. Stepping back and considering what governance changes can best serve the nonprofit mission.
  • They need to un-learn the culture of whatever previous boards they serve on.
  • Nonprofit boards are as different as the people who comprise them; I can't imagine there's a single, accurate answer to this question.
  • That meeting start times are +/- 10 minutes. When a meeting is scheduled to begin at 8:00 AM, that is not the time to arrive, shed one’s coat, and pick up a cup of coffee while chatting with fellow board members. The only way to honor fully the time of your fellow board members (and your own) is to live by the rule of one of the leading medical centers in the world: "If you're on time, you're late."


How we define governance


  • Among the boards I have worked with, many, perhaps most board members have begun their involvement with nonprofit organizations through clubs and other all-volunteer organizations. Their previous responsibilities on the board have been primarily or exclusively operational. Whatever "governance" takes place happens without identifying it as anything different from the individual's operational responsibilities. It is no wonder, then, that they bring this understanding with them when they join the board of a nonprofit organization that has a paid, professional CEO. They have never had to engage in oversight of management, policy development, or strategic leadership. So, in order to be an effective member of a governing board, they need to unlearn nearly everything they have learned from their previous experience.
  • They are not Operations.
  • Nonprofit boards need to unlearn that lots of activity (doing) equals good governance, and learn the power of their combined knowledge, ideas and wisdom for the good of the organization and community.
  • Micromanagement...or rather, looking at things through too narrow of a lens...and too short term.
  • That enterprise risk management is big in for-profit boards but not so big in nonprofits. As a board audit committee chair, I once met with our audit partner and asked, “What are the best boards and audit committees of nonprofits doing right now?” She replied without hesitation, “Enterprise risk management.” I learned from her that ERM means whatever issues may threaten to the long-term viability of the organization, whether protection of critical assets, assurance of leadership succession, oversight of cyber-security, or building both the quality and the size of the pipeline of future board membership. I also learned that no two organizations share the same ERM profile.
What resonates for you amongst the responses shared? What is missing from the list? What themes do you see in represented here? What do we "know" about nonprofit boards that is standing in the way of effective governance and community leadership?

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