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.

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