Monday, January 21, 2013

Nonprofit boards: The substitute’s dilemma

Do we treat our board members like substitute teachers?

Do we ask them to come in on a periodic basis, tend to the bottom line, not cause too much damage themselves, and then get out of the way until the next time we need them?

Every time I re-read Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s superb Governance as Leadership, I find something new or see something familiar in a new way. Recently, as I was perusing the pages searching for another reference, I ran across a description of what the authors call a “substitute’s dilemma” (p. 39).

They frame this in the context of the board’s traditional (and traditionally dominant) monitoring role. It fits our bottom-line responsibilities. It’s regular work - something we can put on the agenda every meeting - unlike many of the meatier questions and projects that find their way to boards. It’s an essential but limited and conception of governance, according to the authors. 

“It means focusing on norms of minimally acceptable behavior. In effect, trustees are tasked to prevent trouble rather than promote success.” (p. 38)

Oh, and this just in: it’s far from engaging work.

The monitoring role is an essential task of governance. Boards act as lead stewards for resources provided to the organization. The accountability buck stops on the boardroom table. But if that’s all that boards do - if preventing trouble is the only task on our agenda – we’re just like those substitute teachers. We trot in once a month (or so), keep the wheels from falling off the wagon, and move on until it’s time to repeat the cycle.

Expecting anything of impact, anything resembling leadership, to emerge from that setting is as likely as finally me grasping a tough geometry concept from a sub whose bottom line for the day was to keep a bunch of rowdy eighth graders from burning down the classroom (not impossible, but definitely challenging). Keep everyone alive, don’t make any messes, and you’ve earned your paycheck for the day.

I’ve spent far too many cumulative years, on too many boards, obsessing over financial statements. (Without guarantees: One of the more obsessive boards spent so much time on tiny little details that we missed the ED embezzling from the agency.)  What I miss more than anything is the impact those boards could have had, if we had kept our fiduciary responsibilities in context of the broader scope of governance.

I’m not sure I have the ultimate response to this phenomenon, at least nothing beyond advice found across this blog. But Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s “substitute teacher” analogy framed the dilemma in a way that made sense to me and, perhaps, to you and your boards.  If it resonates, ask yourself questions like these:

What are the expectations we have for substitute teachers? How does that represent, or contradict, the expectations we have for our board and individual members?

  • How much ownership does the substitute have for the ultimate outcomes that emerge from the classroom? 
  • How does that compare to the responsibility a teacher has for those outcomes and the processes that lead to them? 
  • How does that relate to the ownership our boards feel for the work presented to them?

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?

Monday, January 7, 2013

10 ways to energize your board in 2013

In the first of this year’s contributions to my10 waysseries, I offer 10 ways to deepen your board’s engagement and members’ motivation to lead.

(1) Board gifts –
Take stock of the gifts your members already bring to the boardroom table. Make an effort to mine those previously unknown talents that could be called to service for the board and your agency. Take the time to appreciate those gifts, to show that they are valued and that they make a difference, on a regular basis. Use them as the foundation for building board capacity.

(2) Board learning – Commit to identifying learning needs and embedding opportunities to address them into your work. Remember that you have three types of board development needs: about your mission area (e.g., homelessness), about your organization (e.g., services, stakeholders), and about governance in general (e.g., improving your capacity to engage in generative discussions).  Identify at least one topic in each area for special focus this year, and build a board development plan around those needs. Acknowledge that deep and open discussions facilitate learning. Accept that setting aside time for shared expertise by peers isn’t a meeting distraction, it’s part of governing and capacity building. Explore and circulate free- and low-cost, distance-delivered learning resources (like Carlo Cuesta’s excellent webinars) to board members.  Share online and other resources that expand board members’ knowledge base. Make it easy for them to access and discover the information they need.

(3) Board mission –
Take some time to articulate a common understanding of your unique leadership purpose. What unique contributions do you bring to your organization? How does your collective leadership impact not only your nonprofit but your community? What values drive actions? Don’t fall into the familiar mission statement trap and get tangled in the specific words. The most important outcome of this process is the conversation: the consensus and clarity that (hopefully) emerge. But see if you can take that extra step and put your purpose into words – then use it as an extra reminder to stay focused on the governance work that only you can do. (I feel a post - or two - coming on this one.)

(4) Board outreach – Make this the year that board members embrace their role as community ambassadors. Help them identify stakeholders with whom they have connections, with whom they would be willing to engage on your behalf. Identify goals for that engagement –don’t let them proceed without clarity about why they are reaching out, and access to the resources (knowledge, materials, etc.) they need to succeed. Remind them that engagement is a two-way process: it’s as important to listen (and share what they learn) as it is to speak. Raise the profile of boundary spanning a valued role that they assume when they join your board.

(5) Board storytelling –
Whether it’s sharing as part of their ambassador role, deepening their learning, or something else entirely, expand your board’s toolbox (and understanding) via storytelling. Offer ample examples that illustrate your impact on the community that board members can in turn share with others. Give them the chance to describe their experiences as volunteers and leaders – articulate their own stories – and to practice conveying them to others. Create board experiences that lead to new individual and collective stories. Record testimonials that everyone can pass on to others. Make your mission about more than numbers.

(6) Board reflective practice – It begins with self-assessment. Accept it as a rich opportunity to learn about both your strengths and your growth areas as individual members and as a collective. Build formal assessment into your board calendar, commit to undertaking that work, and to learning from what emerges. More generally, though, understand the value of being more generally reflective as a group – asking why, to what ends, how to be more effective next time. (Note: expect to see much more about this in 2013.)

(7) Board committee empowerment – I don’t mean “empowerment” as in “assuming power that rightfully belong to the larger group.” I do mean giving our committees big, governance-focused goals that keep the board focused on its larger leadership responsibilities. Empower them to do the deeper research and become our peer experts on their assigned area. Charge them with educating the board as a whole and facilitating discussion in advance of decisions made. Increase their work’s value to the board’s governance responsibilities.

(8) Board generative thinking – Begin with big, generative questions. Work as if those big questions were your purpose as a board – because they are. Identify the questions that will drive your organization’s mission and the board’s work, early enough to engage in creative thinking that shapes the discussions and the options available while they still matter. Welcome critical thinking, from multiple perspectives, as those decisions are under consideration. Explore the Governance as Leadership model, especially the generative mode. Schedule board retreats focused on big questions (and make emerging with more questions an acceptable – even desirable – outcome).

(9) Board/CEO relationship – Have that discussion you’ve probably been avoiding. Talk to your CEO about your joint leadership responsibilities. Have open conversations about what you need from each other to succeed, about what’s working and what’s problematic, and about what’s needed to lead your nonprofit into the future it is intended to fulfill.

(10) Board meeting agendas – Finally, if you skip the previous nine priorities and commit to only one action to enhance your board’s effectiveness, this should be the one. Clear your agendas of long, mind-numbing reports. Move routine activities to a consent agenda, where they can be handled via a single vote. Put the time that all of that opens up to good use: learning, discussing, exploring and governing.