Monday, April 22, 2013

Finding governance evidence in an interview

Last night, as millions of Americans do on a Sunday evening, I watched the "60 Minutes" segment titled "The 9/11 Museum: Curating memories of terror and tragedy."

But while I initially tuned in to hear more about what sounds like a marvelous and fitting memorial to an event that changed our country, my attention soon shifted to what was being shared by the facility board members interviewed for the story. 

While this brief segment spotlighted other aspects of the project, there are surprising clues within that offer a glimpse into a few of the significant governance questions and roles that the museum board already has addressed early in this young nonprofit's life. I was fascinated by this too-brief peek into the weighty issues placed on their boardroom table.

I invite you to (re)watch this segment and pick out those moments that show the board in governance mode. What are the issues they describe? What kinds of factors did they appear to consider as they decided how to handle them? What can we take away from this segment that might be useful for other nonprofit boards?

I also came away thinking that this would be a marvelous governance case study. What little was shared here teases and begs for more.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My nonprofit board essentials list - and why they're essential

Where do I go when I need to get down to the basics of nonprofit governance - those resources that cut through to the most essential nature of what it means to serve on a board?

Recently, when I grew tired of slogging through thousands of "nonprofit board" bookmarks, I created a set of "board essentials" links to capture, well, the essential resources that I call upon to share with others. The other day, as I was creating a version of that list on Pinterest, I had a chance to revisit each item and reflect on what it contributes to the bigger picture. Today, I share not only links to the various forms of that essentials list, but a reflection on why some of those resources are truly essential.

Looking at the list again today, I'm noticing a familiar, two-pronged theme: that of "doing" and "being." The "doing" component addresses the work and the tasks of nonprofit governance. The "being" component connects us to the reasons we serve in the first place. As I share the best of the essentials, I'm thinking about where they fit in that dual frame.

The "doing" essentials

Distinguished governance from management.  This article by Barry Bader may be the most "essential" of all. While I tailor my resources to fit the needs of any board I work with, this one usually ends up on the list of resources I ask them to read before we meet. It's that good at framing governance as a unique kind of leadership function, and it does so in ways that resonate with board members. Sometimes, I share it with a board that crosses into management territory in ways that are not helpful to the organization. More recently, it's been an ideal resource for boards of young nonprofits, who have necessarily assumed more of the management responsibilities (because there literally is no one else to handle them) in the past but now find themselves entering a new chapter where they are ready to govern.

10 basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards (video series) BoardSource recently launched a redesigned website (and took out several of my "essentials" links in the process), and I'm having trouble accessing the printed-word version of this list. I did, however, locate a link to BoardSource's YouTube series describing those 10 roles. While there is no uniformly accepted job description of nonprofit boards, this has come as close as anything to providing that standard. I include it on the "doing" list, because it's primarily task-focused.

7 strategies for more productive nonprofit board meetings. Though this is a brand new addition to the list, it's worthy of mention here because any of the seven strategies has the potential to transform the way boards work. Sadly, at least half of the list will be "news" to most nonprofit boards. We've been so hypnotized by report-filled marathons that we have no concept of what we should be doing when we meet. Committing to any one of these recommendations is destined to impact not only the quality of the board's work but members' satisfaction with it.

Nonprofit governance: What are your three duties? Any time I do a "boards 101" workshop, and frequently in assignments with individual boards, I work in a discussion of these three, bottom-line legal responsibilities. Susan Hammond's post offers a great overview of the trio, describing what they are and what they look like to the average board. I always remain hopeful that this will be old news to the audience, but I've learned not to be surprised when that's not the case. This is our job, at its most basic level, and there are real consequences when we fail.

The 2 hats board members wear. What did I do before Movie Mondays published this video? It's become a staple, similar to Bader's article, in terms of resources commonly offered in response to board challenges described. Where Bader takes a board-level look at governance responsibilities, this video spotlights individual activities. When am I acting as a board member, exercising my governance responsibilities, and when am I acting as a volunteer? It can be a fine, confusing line between the two.

The "being" essentials

I'm not going to lie - these are my favorites. Why? They meet us where we committed to serve: the deeper motivations that prompted us to say yes and the evidence that we're making a difference in that service.

The "being" of nonprofit governance. I start with this one, not because it's the most worthy on the list, but because it sets the tone for understanding why the others are so important to those who govern.  I wrote it as a major revelation came to me - that there is a difference between "being" and "doing" in governance - and that the problem with what's available to boards is the fact we focus on the latter while ignoring the former.

Imaginary boards: The secret to a better world. Encountering the original version of Alice Korngold's article, in Leader to Leader magazine, shook up my thinking about boards (and made me a lifetime member of the Alice Korngold fan club). It was the start of the journey to understanding what is missing in typical conceptions of nonprofit governance: that stewardship of mission and vision and the commitment we have to imagining and enacting that better future. It resonated, because it brought to center stage what connects most directly to our motivations for serving and on the area where our greatest impact as a board lies.

Future proofing the boardroom: Grounding and stargazing. Grounding and stargazing. It's hard to imagine a more perfect way of framing what boards do. Lucy Marcus's post was like a gift sent from the heavens. It addresses so perfectly a common concern that boards raise when I suggest that they should look up from the here and now to attend to the future. They're both your responsibility. She does a masterful job of making the case for embracing grounding and stargazing as equally essential to governance. More and more, I find myself sharing both Lucy and Alice's articles as I encourage boards to expand their visions of their responsibilities - and what is possible when they do.

Why mission matters - the bullseye principle. It should be so obvious that the board's most basic and most important role is advancing and protecting the mission that a post like Kevin Monroe's marvelous entry would be unnecessary. But, since losing track of that bigger purpose can happen when we we're mired in the daily challenges, we need this marvelous reminder of why we're here. "Mission is the heartbeat of your organization" - if we remember that, and place that at the center of our work, we will lead and succeed.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Overheard: 'Stating the obvious' edition

This week's favorites list opens with a post that is a "must read" for all nonprofit boards. That a friend (and a name familiar to regular readers) wrote it only adds to my enjoyment in sharing it.

Want better outcomes? Ask bigger, better, bolder questions (Kevin Monroe)

"Yes, yes, 1000 times yes!" That was my comment as I shared this in another setting earlier this week. Kevin gets at the essence of why so many organizations and their boards fall short of expectations here: They're asking the wrong darn questions - about mundane, unimportant topics that guarantee we'll wallow forever in the here and now instead of what is possible and what will move us closer to the future we're supposedly advancing. We need to make asking "bigger, better, bolder questions" the norm by which we govern.

5 types of directors who don't deliver (Jack and Suzy Welch)

The Welches undoubtedly had corporate boards in mind when they wrote this post, but the five characters they described here will resonate for any of us who spend time in their nonprofit equivalents. I've served with every dysfunctional character on his list (and, yes, been one of them a time or two), and I can attest to the destruction they can bring. I thought about incorporating this post into the "group process lit review" series, until I realized my contribution would be three words long: "what they said." Naming and meeting these destructive characters head on should be something all boards are brave enough to address. Better yet, creating a culture where these kinds of behaviors are unthinkable might avoid the problem altogether.

7 strategies for more productive nonprofit board meetings (Joe Garecht)

Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if a list this basic would be so "101" that it would be unthinkable and unnecessary to spell out? Unfortunately, we live and govern in a world where some of the seven - and even the whole list - will be earth-shaking news to some boards. I added this to my "board essentials" bookmark list, because it does a credible job of laying out the parameters for a productive meeting. Sadly, it will be a worthy resource for too many boards who are stuck and ineffective.

9 signs you're a leader (Joseph Lalonde)

Adding this one to the week's list prompted a change in title for the post. It may be stating the obvious to point out that nonprofit board members are leaders (and that governance is leadership), but I'll do so anyway. I read and bookmarked this with board chairpersons in mind; but as I read it again today, I see that it also describes well the work and the environment of effective governance.  I especially am drawn to numbers three, five, six and seven (now you must click). We don't talk about the first three, and it's easy to act as if we have collective amnesia about the last. (Hmmm. I'm seeing a future post in number three...)

When a board falls short of expectations (Tom Okarma)

Maybe not "obvious," but worthy of sharing - and personally timely.  Let's face it: the potential for boards to at least occasionally stumble is high. When that happens, these recommendations may provide some guidance for moving out of the muck in a productive and non-threatening way. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Overheard: April 5 edition

A few links of interest for you this week:
A simple solution to nonprofit board inertia (Joan Garry)

It's not the first storytelling resource I've shared here; but this post offers some details that I find valuable, most notably, a list of factors that make a story compelling, advice for packaging and - most important - thoughts about potential outcomes/uses for successful nonprofit stories. Joan provides an additional layer of information to spark productive conversation (and story development) for a nonprofit and its board.

No more boring meetings, please! (Jesse Lynn Stoner)

Yes, please! There's always room for another quality resource for rethinking how we spend our times in meetings. One welcome twist to what Jesse Lynn has shared here: she encourages us to define desired outcomes for each meeting. What should we have accomplished by the time we adjourn? It's so easy to fall into the same agenda-template rut that we don't notice that we haven't done anything that moves us forward. Sometimes we need to ask, and hold ourselves accountable for ensuring that our time is productive.

12 ways to liven up your board meetings - and your board (Gail Perry)

Nothing on Gail's list should be new to regular readers. I've written, and shared resources, about each of the 12 as some point here. But Gail has created a valuable package that could spark discussion about how an individual board could adapt the way it works to create space for more creative and motivating work. Adopting even one of Gail's recommendations offers great transformative potential for most boards.

Do nonprofit leaders have time to be bold? (Nell Edgington)

It's time to move past our perpetual mode of scarcity thinking and move boldy to the future we want. That's Nell's message. Believe me, I understand the nervous obsession with all that we don't have. I've served on human services boards for 30 years. We can't ignore that reality. But I also know the mindset Nell cautions against and how easy it is to get so caught in the muck that we're trapped. Fact is, the future is the board's ultimate domain: defining it, supporting it, advancing it. We need to summon the boldness that Nell calls for in this post and govern from there.

Loyal opposition (Patricia Bradshaw and Peter Jackson)

"Parsley on the fish." I'd probably include this one for the chance to share this vivid new metaphor for boards that aren't doing their job. But beyond that, the larger message of this post is an important one. We need board members, and a board culture, where asking the hard questions is expected and valued. We need the kind of relationships with our chief executives where they can expect that we'll be there when they need a sounding board and that we won't blindly accept every recommendation. We'll ask the "what if" and explore alternatives, because that's our job. Oh, and the paragraph above the "where loyal opposition fits" chart is priceless. It opens with this statement: "Governance should be a 'radical' function that seeks to challenge the root assumptions of leadership..." Read the rest and share your reactions in a comment. Fantastic.

Expecting the best - and getting it (Annie Murphy Paul)

I'll close with a post that has nothing to do with nonprofit governance and everything to do with creating the boards we want and need. I've written before here about the need to hold boards to the higher expectations that governance demands and, most important, to support them as they work to reach that full potential. This post discusses the general concept (linking to the Pygmalion Effect) and describes how it works. Replace "learners" in her descriptions of the "hows" with board members and see how that impacts your thinking about what boards need to reach further and higher.