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.

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