Sunday, May 19, 2013

Open letter to an exemplar board

The following letter is written in response to a challenge posed by the host of this month's Nonprofit Blog Carnival. The task: Write an anonymous "Dear volunteer board volunteers..." letter. I'm choosing to adapt the charge somewhat: the letter I'm writing is one of appreciation to members of a board that allowed me to study their work, their learning processes and their motivations to serve (and serve well) for my doctoral dissertation research.

Dear board members,

Though this letter is written years after our research relationship ended, the appreciation I have for the tremendous gift you provided me - and nonprofit governance - is no less deep than the day you first allowed me and my recorder into your boardroom.

You were my "Plan A" governing body as I outlined my case study of how nonprofit board members learn. My bottom line was a board that already understood its governance responsibilities. Spending months with a board in the midst of an identity crisis might have been interesting, but it would offer little potential to yield insights into what I wanted to study. I wanted to observe a board that "got it."

My hoped-for outcome would be that you might offer an example or two of the ideal that inspired my study: generative governance. No guarantees, of course. Even without that particular evidence, I knew I'd come away with rich data on organizational learning in a nonprofit boardroom. But I was optimistic, thanks to our previous interactions over the years.

It's probably safe to admit this now, but I practically skipped out of the building when you provided not one but two examples of generative thinking in my very first meeting observed. I saw you look beyond superficial reactions to think about what was placed before you in an innovative way. It foreshadowed what was to come: months of sometimes astonishing insights into how community leaders create collective understanding that enables them to reach beyond the obvious and easy answers to challenging questions.

In the months that followed, my journey with you was a cornucopia of insights and outright surprises regarding how you each willingly shared your expertise and your wisdom,
 in ways that expanded the group's capacity. I saw you take what appeared to be a simple question, turn it around, and come away with a completely different decision because you started the discussion by asking "How does this impact the mission?" I witnessed your members' deftness with asking the right questions at the right times. And I marveled at how each member could identify his or her purpose by connecting it to individual motivations for serving.

In my dissertation defense, a couple of committee members queried me about how we could apply your model to other nonprofit boards. After tap-dancing around what I thought was a trick question (anyone who's passed a basic research methods class knows that one can't generalize from qualitative work), we agreed to the following:

You were/are an exemplar board.

That worked for me, and that's how I've described you every time I've shared what I learned in our time together.

You are an exemplar board.

Obviously, I am grateful for the access that led to my dissertation and ultimately my doctoral degree. I am grateful, too, for the chance to travel to conferences around North America (including Montreal and Hawaii) to share my findings with nonprofit and education researcher audiences. I've shared snippets with boards with whom I've worked - anonymous examples that shed light on something causing them trouble. I also plan to enjoy reading my chapter in a new book on innovative governance practices when it's published this summer. Yes, our research relationship was very good for me.

But as I started thinking about writing this letter, I realized that I have another reason for gratitude: You gave me hope in nonprofit boards and nonprofit governance.

I'd been reading, serving and consulting long enough to have a couple of sips from the "boards are worthless" well. I had read about how it should be, lamented how my own board experiences and those shared by consulting clients fell far short, and gave in to the "reality" that boards are destined to fail (or worse, become barriers to organizational success).

Then I spent a few glorious months with you and discovered that that was a lie. I saw, under fairly normal board circumstances, a group of committed community leaders giving willingly and acting with purpose. I saw, in fairly routine board interactions, how one group of people could not only not be a burden to some poor, overwrought executive director but a leadership partner with that CEO. I saw how simple, powerful questions - and the space in which to pose and explore them - yielded generative explorations and mission-driven decisions that impact our community.

I saw what really happens when a well-recruited board is respected and supported in governing as only a board can and should do. And that gives me hope for the rest of us.

Thank you for that.

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