Friday, May 31, 2013

Overheard: Letters to boards (and more)

The last couple of weeks, I opened both links post with a favorite "open letter to a board" submission to this month's Nonprofit Board Carnival. This week, I open with the post that shares links to all of the letters selected for the carnival.

May 2013 Nonprofit Blog Carnival (Erik Anderson)

I've not only enjoyed reading several of the posts that made the round-up as they were released individually, I expanded my thinking about boards with each one. The combined list magnifies that reaction exponentially. Each letter offered a different layer of insight about our experiences with boards - experiences that will ring familiar with (sometimes many) different readers. I encourage you to bookmark this post, with the goal of reading each post included. (Note: I'm very pleased to report that my own letter and the marvelous submission by my friend, Nancy Iannone, made the final list.)

My 'thank you' to an exemplar board (Yours truly)

May I share a small personal "hurray?" My letter caught the eye of editors at the London-based charity news site and was reprinted on the governance blog. That doesn't happen every day. 

Role of chair podcast (Steven Bowman)

I yelped with joy when I saw Steven's name pop up in my Twitter feed. To find that he was sharing a new podcast episode, on a topic essential to board success, what an even bigger treat. Note that you have options for listening: streaming, downloading, or linking to the iTunes version.

Keeping high performers happy at your nonprofit (Renee McGivern)

It's a two-podcast kind of week. I always learn something of value in Renee's weekly episodes. This one resonated for a couple of reasons. One, it felt like it connected to the post I was writing at the time. Two, it's a topic that always interests me and needs to also be addressed at the board level. As you listen, try adapting what is being shared to your high-performing board members.

5 priceless gifts a board member can give her nonprofit (Nell Edgington)

Investing in, and committing to, building organizational capacity. What a novel idea! Seriously, though... No one can deny the importance of focusing our attention on impact: how we not only move closer to our mission but change/save lives in the process. But it's also important to acknowledge that that can't happen when staff members are physically, emotionally and intellectually exhausted; or when the resources needed to fulfill those responsibilities are perpetually in short supply. A board that recognizes that, and that commits to ensuring that those who do the core work are supported, will put their organization on a pathway to success.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Nonprofit governance: Boards rising (or stooping) to our expectations

We don't even think about them until a month (or a week) before the annual meeting, where we vote on new board members.

We recruit them for the demographic box(es) we get to check off if they say yes, not the unique mix of knowledge, connections, commitment, and perspectives they offer.

We coerce them into running, often promising, "Don't worry. It doesn't take that much time..."

We're in such a rush to fill our ballot that we forget to tell them what they've signed up to do until after we elect them. If we know...

We orient them to those commitments and our organization in a single, two-hour session held at the end of an already long day.

We have no clue what draws them to our mission, because we've never thought to ask.

We have no idea how they'd like to share their expertise - or what knowledge or skills they'd like to develop during their service - because we've never posed the question.

We send the information critical to informed decision making a couple of days before the meeting, in a detail-laden packet hefty enough to bow any postal carrier's back. Or, worse, we plop it in front of them when they arrive for the meeting.

We fill meeting agendas with endless reports about activities that have already taken place, then squish the interesting topics into the final few minutes left for "new business."

We don't allow open space in meetings. Heaven only knows what they'd do with that unscripted time.

We don't trust them with the really good stuff. You know: the work that's actually stimulating, has an impact, and might give participants a brief moment in the spotlight.

Individual and group goals don't exist, because no one can be bothered to establish them. There literally is no bar set for them.

We offer no feedback until they mess up. We certainly don't let them know they're doing a good job.

When they do screw up, we bring in an expert (and the inevitable, 168-slide PowerPoint presentation) to "fix things for us."

We only rely on experts when training is needed and confine learning to those two- to four-hour blocks of already precious non-work hours.

They have no idea whether their work is meaningful, because we never give them time to stop and assess for themselves (and we certainly never affirm it for/with them).

And yet we're perpetually mystified when our boards "disappoint" us.

I'm not delusional enough to suggest that individuals never shirk responsibilities and groups always function perfectly and productively. However, I do know (because I've seen firsthand) that boards can do great things - and want to make a significant difference in the world - if they have the support they need for the leadership that is expected of them. They will rise to our expectations, as high - or as low - as we define them.

The next time we're tempted to point an accusing finger at a board failure, we need to first ask ourselves two questions:

  • Have we both set and communicated the appropriately high expectations we have of them?
  • Have we done all that we can do to support them in rising to those expectations?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Exceptional board culture: Blue ribbon health care recommendations

What are the characteristics of an effective board culture? How do we recognize those signs of a board culture that is ineffective or, worse, downright dysfunctional?
I've been batting variations of those two questions around a lot here lately, sharing various perspectives that help to shed some light on the complex web of relationships in our boards and the ways in which they enhance or challenge the work undertaken there. I'm always on the hunt, looking for great resources to share with you and to inform the next phase of my research on boards.

Recently, I encountered a new-to-me report that offers a particularly concise set of factors on both ends of the board effectiveness continuum: The Center for Healthcare Governance's 2007 Blue Ribbon Panel report, "Building an Exceptional Board: Effective Practice for Healthcare Governance.

Within a section titled "Building and Sustaining a Proactive and Interactive Board Culture" (pp. 12-16) are the lists of characteristics of effective and ineffective board cultures.

Characteristics of an effective board culture

  • "Commitment to mission"
  • "Well-defined governance processes"
  • "Broad skills and diverse backgrounds"
  • "Organizational performance focus"
  • "Strategic focus"
  • "Engagement"
  • "Ongoing education"
  • "Explicit, high-performance expectations"
  • "Constructive dialogue and debate are welcome" (p. 14)

It's not hard to imagine how each of these characteristics contribute to a healthy, engaging, productive board culture. The list as a whole also offers a standard to which all boards should work (which, of course, is why I'm sharing it here). But, of course, a few stand out to me as especially noteworthy.

When "well-defined governance processes" are accepted and adopted, there is a productive and reliable routine to the work. Boards focus where they need to focus (hint: on policy and big questions, not the day-to-day muck), their meeting agendas are set up to accomplish that, and they understand their respective individual and collective roles.

"Engagement" refers both to the privilege and the responsibility of all board members to play an active role in governance. It's not only showing up and voting, it's also contributing one's unique expertise, connections and outlooks on life.

No surprise: "ongoing education" caught my eye. Note the "ongoing" part of that descriptor. It's more than an obligatory orientation session, a training session "because we must," and calling in someone when we've really mucked up things. It's an ongoing commitment to our own development and out capacity to serve, formally and informally.

The element that most resonates for me this morning is "explicit, high-performance expectations." We and those who serve beside us are committed community leaders. We rise to the expectations set for us. When you (and we) set the bar high, and provide the support needed to succeed, we will succeed. Frankly, I believe this is one of the biggest barriers to optimal board performance. It also may be the one least tied to reality.  We expect little of those who serve today, perhaps based on what may (or may not) have been true of boards. We get little from our current members, because we aren't giving them the respect and the support they need and deserve based on those outdated assumptions. It's a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that we can break if we really want our boards to govern.

Characteristics of an ineffective board culture


  • "Ineffective meetings"
  • "Unengaged and disconnected"
  • "Passive and reactive"
  • "Unclear priorities"
  • "Decision-making is pro forma" (unanimity is the norm, "go along to get along")
  • "Lack of commitment to mission"
  • "Personal agendas are played out"
  • "Lack of appreciation by management"
  • "Board has difficulty acting as one body"
  • "Board is top heavy with committees, stultifying board structures"
  • "Board members are elected based on social status rather than proven skills essential to the organization"
  • "Lack of creativity" (p. 14)

Many characteristics on this list is basic "groups 101" - and exactly where at least some of our board dysfunctions begin. I've been writing about these and related group dynamics challenges, so I'll leave you with this list and look forward to any insights and experiences that you might want to share via comment.

I could generate several posts from this single, fantastic document. It's chock-full of thought-provoking recommendations that are either directly applicable to boards generally or easy to adapt from the medical context.   Instead, I'll encourage you to download the report, read the "Building and Sustaining a Proactive and Interactive Board Culture" section, and also point out these additional highlights:

  • Recommended board characteristics, skills and experience (p. 15) - a fresh way of thinking about the qualities needed in the boardroom.
  • Stretch practices for exceptional boards (p. 25). Be sure to consider the "deep dive" discussion that they describe here. 
  • Board-stakeholder checklist (p. 30)
  • Developing and using a balanced scorecard for governing (p. 31)
  • Core Competencies Wheel (p. 36). The most comprehensive perspective I've found for thinking about all of the competencies we need in a nonprofit boardroom, provided by Texas Health Resources. If I could, I'd create wall-sized versions of this chart for every board for use in its next recruitment process.
  • Sample position profile: vice president for governance (p.42). Perhaps overkill, at least at the vice president level, for most small to medium nonprofit boards. But A valuable way of thinking about how to institutionalize responsibility for governance processes (and, perhaps, a perfect responsibility for any vice president).
  • Sample board chair position charter (p. 51). Great description of the kinds of qualities and responsibilities that should be embodied in our board chairs.
This post is part of a new occasional series spotlighting the key books and other resources that are influencing my thinking on the group dynamics that impact what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. It is part of my commitment to exploring group process and practice in 2013.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Overheard: May 24

A compelling post by a good friend opens this week's list of favorite links.

All I Ask (Nancy Iannone)

How many great members, how many sources of wisdom and exactly the expertise you've needed, has your board overlooked over the years? Have you ever been that quiet member who never found his/her niche and the opportunity to lead? Nancy's letter resonated, first, because I've been that under-valued member. But it also resonated because I've undoubtedly been guilty of being on the other side: of failing to recognize an introverted member's commitment and gifts.  Nancy reminds us that we're all responsible for engaging and building our collective leadership capacity - brought individually by all of our members.

The role of the board and executive staff: A discussion worksheet (PDF) (David Renz)

Sometimes, we all could use a little help framing potentially tough conversations. Dave offers just that in this downloadable document designed to help us discuss a perennially tricky topic: who's responsible for what on the nonprofit leadership team.  This worksheet offers a starting point for clarifying responsibilities - and for reinforcing what's appropriate board involvement and what is not.

The leader as facilitator: Some tips for great meetings (Marilyn Cavicchia)

The ability to not just follow the agenda but facilitate productive interactions and manage conflict separates okay board chairs from great board chairs. Do you - and your board leader - understand what makes that difference? Cavicchia shares a useful set of tips, some that may seem more obvious than others.

The best and worst of board chairs (Yvonne Harrison and Vic Murray)

Speaking of board chairs... This classic (2007) Nonprofit Quarterly article describes Harrison and Murray's seminal research on factors that distinguish exceptional board leaders from less capable chairs. It's not often that research conducted by the academic community reaches those who might actually use it. This particular research is not only fascinating, it has the potential to transform what takes place in our nonprofit boardrooms.

Why teams fight and what to do about it (Dan Rockwell)

I'll close this week with a "group process" title. What qualifies as "nice" fighting? What marks "naughty" fighting? Rockwell's post helps to sort common sources of both types. My personal favorite: "Naughty fighting focuses on people. Nice fighting focuses on issues." Being able to make that distinction - and avoid wasting time on the former - is the difference between wallowing and fulfilling our mission.

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.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Overheard: May 17 edition

This week, I'd like to open with a couple of submissions to the latest blog carnival, which challenged participants to write a letter to one of their boards. The two I'm sharing today resonated while sharing very different - and familiar - sentiments.

A love letter to my first board of directors (Joanne Fritz)

I'm particularly fond of Joanne's letter for two reasons. One, the general theme reflects my own lucky first-board experience. We weren't perfect; but we were committed, collegial and accountable. Two, while it wasn't "my" board, I was grateful for the chance to observe exactly the kind of governing body that Joanne describes during my dissertation research. My gratitude for being allowed to witness that exemplary process firsthand remains strong. (Hmmmm. Maybe my own contribution to the carnival just identified itself.)

Dear board members...I'm sorry about so very much! (Erik Anderson)

Let's just say several points in this submission were convicting. I'm like most board members: I've experienced, and been an active participant in, my share of deeply flawed boards. I choose to believe that we generally fall short because we don't know any better. If we understand what effective governance looks like, and if we have the support we need to engage in those activities successfully, I'm convinced that that is what 99.99999999 percent of us would choose. But we don't, so we continue to replicate the varied dysfunctional relationships and processes that we experienced in the last boards where we served. It's time to change that. One baby step is acknowledging what's broken and making good-faith efforts to change them.

Boards must engage in learning as a core competency (Marty Martin)

I know you're shocked - SHOCKED! - that a post promoting board development might appeal to the author of a blog with "board learning" in the title. Okay, so you're not shocked. One aspect of this post that I appreciated, aside from the major message conveyed, is the set of three learning needs areas that Martin outlines: leadership and management, stewardship of resources, and public responsibilities. The categories are perfect, comprehensive, and focused on the unique leadership and accountability ares of nonprofit governance.

What makes great boards great (Jeffrey Sonnenfeld)

I rediscovered this foundational work this week, while catching up on the stack of journal articles that begged to be read. One of those articles referenced Sonnenfeld's Harvard Business Review work, which helped to shape my thinking on governance. I was surprised - and pleased - to find this publicly accessible version, made available by the Council on Foundations. While corporate governance is the specific context, what Sonnenfeld shares also fits the nonprofit setting. Pay particularly close attention to the five best practices of effective boards that he discusses. "It's not rules and regulations. It's the way people work together." Bingo.

Audit Guide for Charitable Nonprofits (National Council of Nonprofits)

Finally, because it's impossible to be too clear on the tricky subject of nonprofit audits, I share this new resource from the National Council of Nonprofits). It's credible, it appears to be user-friendly, and it should be bookmarked by board members and senior executives alike.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Board portals: Two do-it-yourself wiki options

Your board finally sees the value of having an online portal for sharing, storing and discussing information. You're enthusiastic about the idea - or at least willing to give it a try. There's just one problem: your budget can't handle the additional cost of one of the online portal services. You're out of luck, right?

 Well, maybe not.

I serve on a local board that finds itself in exactly this situation. We want an online space for storing critical organizational documents (e.g., bylaws and personnel policies), distributing meeting materials, and occasionally collaborating on new documents. Given these fairly simple needs - and our perpetually tight budget - a wiki is one low-, or no-cost option (depending on the service) that I'm proposing to them.

Wikis are online, collaborative environments - essentially blank spaces that can be created and adapted to fit whatever storage or interaction need a group might have.   For nonprofit boards, a wiki can either replace or supplement the hefty, three-ring board book that never seems to be handy when they need it. If there's Internet access, there's a way to connect to those critical resources.

It also functions as an electronic "paper trail," making historic records (e.g., several years of minutes, annual reports and budgets) available to future members to provide context and evidence of what was and wasn't done before they joined.

Committees can set up their own spaces within the board wiki,  for not only the same storage needs but for collectively writing and editing documents connected to their work. Since it's housed under the larger board portal umbrella, it's then easy to share those products with the rest of the board when the time comes to propose and discuss.

Most wiki platforms also will have some way to facilitate discussion. Of the two that I will show you in a moment, one has a threaded discussion tool that can be set up as site-wide or page-specific. The other provides for commenting on each page. Other wiki platforms may have one or both of these options - or something completely different.

Because I wasn't sure I could successfully describe what a wiki-based board portal might look like to my peers, I created examples in two of the sources I've used in other settings. I'm sharing these illustrations with readers here, to offer you a similar opportunity to envision what might be possible for your board in this environment.

The first example uses PBWorks, a popular wiki platform that I've used for group assignments in my online classes. Its basic option provides free space for up to 20 collaborators for specific types of organizations (including nonprofits). That version should more than cover the needs of most boards.

Click HERE to access my sample PBWorks portal.

There are tradeoffs to both of the tools I'm sharing here. One of the benefits of PBWorks is its folders option. While embedding links to the documents being stored works perfectly fine (and can be done in PBWorks), there's also something to be said for having folders dedicated to rounding up various sets of files. For example, I set up an "organizational documents" folder in this demonstration, intended to house bylaws, budgets, member contact lists, etc. PBWorks doesn't have a "discussion" tool, but each page includes a commenting option as the default.

The second example uses Wikspaces, which I've frequently used to create online handouts and resources to be shared with international audiences. It's an elegant design that I find appealing. For groups larger than five, Wikispaces charges a nominal fee ($5/month or $50/year). Nonprofits fit under that pricing umbrella. It's not free, but certainly affordable for most of our organizations.

Click HERE to access my Wikispaces example.

Like PBWorks, Wikispaces has its limitations and strengths. On the "strengths" side, Wikispaces has a built-in discussion forum tool. It functions as any threaded discussion would in any other setting. If your board tends to communicate electronically between meetings, especially if your members are geographically dispersed, this may be a selling point for choosing this tool.

Wikispaces doesn't have the same kind of folder storage that PBWorks has (though it's easy enough to find and sort documents via the pages and files menu, which allows for tagging). But, like PBWorks, it's easy to upload files in some member-friendly way. For example, in this example, I set up a page for "key documents" (e.g., the documents I uploaded to the "organizational documents" folder in PBWorks).

 I also set up a "2013 Meetings" page, to show how one could upload and store the materials traditionally mailed out in the meeting packet. They're not only instantly available here (without the printing and mailing costs) for next week's meeting, they're also permanently accessible for later reference.

Wikis are not the only alternatives available for do-it-yourself board portals. (In fact, I'm piloting another tool for my board for consideration before we make a decision. If I can figure out how to create a public demonstration of that environment, I will do so and share in a future post.)

Stating the obvious: the many fine, dedicated board portal services should be explored as Plan A for any group wanting to take this step. They offer a richer menu of tools for scheduling, meeting and communicating than a wiki could ever provide.  If your board needs a broader range of resources, I would encourage you to begin with that goal in mind.

But if you're looking for a simple, low-cost way of organizing your board's work and tools, a wiki may be a workable option for you.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Four ways adult board members learn

Did I mention that I can't help applying anything related to adult learning to the boardroom?

The "four ways adults learn" that Charles Jennings shares in this video particularly resonates as appropriate to what happens - or should happen - in the governance process. Watch, then reflect with me on what they mean for boardroom work.

Exposure to rich and challenging experiences

Governance is inherently rich and challenging. It's leadership, after all. Give board members mission-driven, meaningful challenges. Invite them to experience your work firsthand (in appropriate ways). Give them a context for understanding what you do and what stands between you and success. Expect them to lead, situationally (e.g., drawing upon their specific expertise when it's needed) and within their official roles within the board.

The opportunity to practice

Make sure that everyone has meaningful responsibilities that (a) draw upon their existing talents and (b) help them develop new capacities that, in turn, help them govern more effectively. Governance is an active process; they should be learning and sharing and contributing - not sitting back, passively listening to what others spoon-feed them. Give them chances to share what they know, and to expand that knowledge as they engage in meaningful board work. Make sure that everyone has a chance - and the responsibility - to participate in board leadership, whether or not it comes with a title.

Participation in rich conversations and networks

Board members naturally learn in engaging meetings that expect them to participate. They should come to the boardroom table ready to discuss, share, and question. Speaking of questions... Big questions should be the focal point of what happens in those meetings. Members also learn when they have a chance to extend beyond their individual boardroom, to their community and with their peers who share similar roles in other nonprofits. Do your local boards have opportunities to compare notes? To learn from each other? To explore collaboration opportunities?

Spaces for reflection

Regular readers are deeply familiar with my thinking on this one. Boards learn (and govern more effectively) when  they have a chance to step back, take stock of what they know (and identify what they don't know), and think before they make big decisions. They also benefit from having time to read, listen, and reflect on the materials we provide for them ahead of the meeting. If they're opening board packets the night before the meeting - or, heaven forbid, at the meeting - we won't get their best.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Overheard: May leadership edition

I either had leadership on the brain when I tagged this latest round of resources to share - there's a definite theme to this week's offerings. Since governance is leadership, that's appropriate.

Board members' #1 job: How to be a personal advocate for your cause (Gail Perry)

I have many Gail Perry titles amongst my favorite resources, and this ranks among her best. She makes a compelling case for recognizing and respecting a unique leadership responsibility of boards: advocacy for our organizations and their missions. She boosts the value of this post by offering specific ways to prepare board members for this outreach role. Fantastic. A must-read for every board.

How women (and the men who think like them) will lead the future (Puja Ghelani)

I debated for a moment whether to include this one, given the potential to turn it into a "boys vs. girls" argument. But in the end, readers - and the nonprofit community as a whole - will get the ultimate message and see how the "feminine" qualities serve the sector well. I also know that many of you already demonstrate and/or support those leadership attributes, whether or not they are categorized by gender. The fact is, most of us have a greater chance for successful fulfillment of our missions if we lead collaboratively, are flexible, govern for the long term, and do so with patience and reason. That is how most of us will finally reach the better futures to which we stretch.

Four leader behaviors that build - or bust - trust (David Witt)

Like the link before it, this one borders on the obvious. But, since trust is everything for a nonprofit (if we lose credibility, we're dead), this post felt worthy of inclusion. How does your board exemplify each of these behaviors in its work? How do individual members reinforce them in their interactions with the community?

What is leadership? (Simone Joyaux)

Aside from being a solid post on nonprofit leadership, I share this one because it discusses leadership functions (as opposed to the qualities focus that the previous two share). What do those actions look like in a board setting? Which functions seem to be especially appropriate to the board's governance responsibilities? Which might have greater credibility when accomplished by board members?

Introverts in the workplace: Why they may be your organization's game changer (Kate Smallwood)

As a card-carrying introvert, I couldn't resist the temptation to include this one. But the "three skills that introverts bring to the workplace" described here resonate deeply for the kind of leadership that board members are asked to carry out. We need members who are able to anticipate potential obstacles before they become issues (open eyes). We all need to excel at listening - especially when interacting with others outside of the nonprofit (open ears). We need to reach out and invite others to join us in our life-changing work (open arms).

9 signs you're a leader (Joseph Lalonde)

Though I bookmarked this one the moment a friend shared it with me, I didn't originally tag it as a resource to include here. Then I saw how it resonated with my friend's third-sector colleagues in the UK, and I knew that it must be shared with their US peers. How does this post expand your thinking about the leadership that the nonprofit sector needs? About the leadership that it requires from our boards?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Characteristics of workplace learning preferences: Taking it to the boardroom

How do we accommodate board members' preferences as adult learners to their governance responsibilities? How do we shape their work, and the knowledge they need to accomplish it, with those preferences in mind? How might we rethink board development knowing  those preferences?

Jane Hart's recent post, 5 characteristics of how knowledge workers like to learn at work, begs for a nonprofit board twist.

Hart's characteristics don't surprise: they represent what decades of research and endless anecdotal evidence tell us about how adults really learn in their daily lives. While they're individually embedded in much of what I've shared here (It's a blog on board learning, after all), the publication of this particular post - and the international attention it received - provides a fresh opportunity to revisit them within a nonprofit board context.

In the flow of work

There are multiple reasons why this is good to acknowledge about - and incorporate into - board learning. Leading those reasons is the fact that it fits what we know about how adults really learn. It's in the day-to-day experiences that we all have: our actions, our interactions and our experiences. Also a practical factor for nonprofit boards: members are part-time volunteers. The work of governance itself demands much of our lead volunteers. Relying on formal training experiences that occur outside of the already significant time commitments that we ask our boards to make is unrealistic.


Besides the obvious - that we're already learning in virtually everything we do - recognizing that board work is filled with the same continuous stream of learning opportunities makes us accountable for ensuring that those experiences are high quality and directed toward enhancing their effectiveness. How do we structure our meetings to enhance learning? What resources do we share? What do we ask them to do to contribute to the group's collective capacity to govern?


This is the piece that I'm continually thinking about as I explore alternative approaches to board development. Board members need information and support when they need it - in the moment - not days, weeks or months later, when they can get to a training session. Board members need ready access to access information and resources, so that they can act appropriately and effectively. The most obvious example: a board portal where all relevant sources of information (e.g., bylaws, minutes, committee reports) are available to members 24/7. But there also is a need for access to more universal information and inspiration about governance. I'm perpetually working on ways to accomplish this (and am open to your thoughts or examples for making that happen).


We also learn from and with others. Some of us prefer to learn collaboratively and via interaction with peers and experts. We can accomplish that inside our boardrooms by ensuring that we give members ample opportunity - and responsibility - for sharing their experience and expertise in ways that are germane to the work that we share. We also learn from others outside of our boards, and we bring that to the boardroom with us. But there's another social learning opportunity, that some have already successfully addressed: connecting local boards to create peer networks and peer learning communities. The challenge is to make those community efforts convenient, stimulating and a source of energy, not another obligation to add to the calendar. Another option: creating that community online - if local board members are open to interacting in that environment. (Lesson learned the hard way: That's not an assumption we can readily make.)


Recognizing that adult learners are capable of learning independently (and often prefer it) means that we work to ensure that our board members know where to go to find the information they need, whether from us or external resources. It also can involve introducing expectations that board members exercise their intellectual curiosity, and that they see that as part of their responsibility to the group.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Problem-finding: What boards need

This post is part of a new occasional series spotlighting the key books and other resources that are influencing my thinking on the group dynamics that impact what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. It is part of my commitment to exploring group process and practice in 2013.

If we want our boards to be expert problem-finders, what capacities do we need to build? What qualities do we need to add to our recruitment needs?

In my last post, I shared four common barriers to problem-solving that author Michael Roberto shared in his important book, Know What You Don't Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen. Today, I share the natural follow-up, also based on Roberto's work: his "Three Dimensions of a New Mindset."

"Becoming an effective problem-finder requires a different mindset," Roberto wrote (p. 189), "not simply a set of new behaviors and competencies."

That quote resonates for me, especially as I continue to make the case for addressing the deeper, cultural issues and motivations, alongside the usual focus on board tasks. His three recommendations add to that conversation in important ways.

Intellectual Curiosity

I'll let Roberto himself lay out this one:

Problem-finding requires a certain amount of intellectual curiosity. You must have a restless mind, one that is never satisfied with its understanding of a topic - no matter how much expertise and experience you have accumulated on the subject. You must have the instinct to explore puzzling questions that may challenge the conventional wisdom. You have to resist deferring to the experts who may feel that a particular matter is closed, that the knowledge base on that subject is complete and certain. Perhaps most importantly, you must be willing to question your own prior judgments and conclusions." (p. 189)

Frankly, I couldn't describe intellectual curiosity more perfectly. But I will say that this is perhaps the most valuable personal (and collective) quality that should top the recruitment criteria list of every nonprofit board. More than specific skillsets or demographic variables, our boards suffer from a chronic lack of intellectual curiosity (or, perhaps, an environment where intellectual curiosity is valued and nurtured).

Systemic Thinking

This capacity helps us to understand that small problems seldom occur in isolation. Instead, they exist within the context of a larger set of challenges. Groups that draw upon systemic thinking look beyond the little issues, seeking instead to identify how they represent larger, organizational issues. When we recognize that, and when we seek and address the underlying challenges, we area able to transform our work and expand the effectiveness of our organization.

Healthy Paranoia

I can't come closer than Roberto's own words for framing this one:
"Effective problem-finders acknowledge that every organization, no matter how successful, has plenty of problems. They often lie beneath the surface, hidden from view. Effective problem-finders acknowledge their personal fallibility, rather than cultivating an aura of invincibility. They exhibit a  healthy dose of paranoia..." (p. 193)
Boards need to always be thinking and anticipating, looking just beyond the horizon not only for the great opportunities to move closer to the ideal future that drives them but for the speed bumps and outright threats to that vision.

"Most importantly of all," Roberto says, "successful leaders do not see problems as threats. They see every problem as an opportunity to learn and improve." (p. 193)

That last statement is the bottom line - and the reason why our boards need to be devoting more of their time and energies to envisioning and driving the future. It's their - our - job and our ultimate contribution.

I suppose it's not a great surprise that the adult educator in me let out a brief "amen!" when Roberto posed this work as "an opportunity to learn and improve." That should be the focus: how can we not only build our capacity to anticipate challenges that have the potential to disrupt our forward progress, but learn how to be stronger and better able to lead our organizations and our communities.

I've been working with the notion of intellectual curiosity in boards since encountering it in Governance as Leadership. I'm also now considering more explicitly how we might build board capacity for the systemic thinking and healthy paranoia that Michael Roberto calls for in his remarkable book.

What do you think? Have you seen boards embrace and use any of these mindsets to govern effectively? What do we need to do differently to encourage making these mindsets part of our board processes and culture? I'd be interested in your thoughts and examples.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Problem-finding: Common barriers

This post is part of a new occasional series spotlighting the key books and other resources that are influencing my thinking on the group dynamics that impact what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. It is part of my commitment to exploring group process and practice in 2013.

How much time does your board spend reacting to problems that already exist? How does that compare to the time you spend anticipating challenges before they become problems?

I already had been asking myself these questions when I encountered Michael Roberto's book Know What You Don't Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen. I'd had moments of obsessing about those questions, thanks to years of my own boardroom experiences and a lengthy list of sources lamenting the reactive nature of our governing bodies. Is all of that circumstantial evidence accurate and, if so, what does that mean for those of us calling for focus on the visionary work that boards should be doing?

What ultimately is behind our attention to solving problems, to the exclusion of finding them? Roberto provides a perspective for understanding what is at play in groups when this is the case. He identifies four reasons why problems hide (pp. 9-17), reasons that I suspect will sound familiar to many nonprofit board members.

(1) We fear marginalization or punishment if we speak up. In a nonprofit board setting, marginalization is the more likely challenge. We're volunteers. We're there to work together, toward a common mission, in a spirit of camaraderie. Disagreeing with others, being labeled a troublemaker, challenging happy consensus - even if our counterpoints expand the board's thinking and improves its decisions - are not particularly welcome experiences for most of us. Sometimes, even the heartiest board member is tempted to stifle a contrary opinion in the name of group solidarity.

(2) Organizational structure/complexity makes it tough for the truth - and true challenges - to emerge. We get caught up in hierarchy and other system barriers. In larger nonprofits, this can be literally true. In smaller nonprofits, it may be the intentional and incidental barriers that isolate the board from the organization's work. Avoiding inappropriate relationships with staff and volunteers is important, but reducing that risk also isolates us from the humanity and the challenges of the work. The part-time nature of board work exacerbates the problem.

(3) Powerful gatekeepers can separate us from bad news and filter what we hear. That filtering is necessary, to keep board members from being overwhelmed and focused. But there can be a hair-thin line between helping the board stay focused and keeping members in the dark. Whether it's to avoid sharing bad news or having to to address the problems while also managing board member intervention, it's understandable that some information gatekeepers (especially EDs) think twice about what they let the board know. And let's face it: some see it as in their best interest to keep the governing body inactive and tuned out.

(4) We don't train our employees (or volunteers. or boards.) how to identify problems.  As a result, we don't often recognize them early enough to make a difference. I also believe that there is a related factor in a nonprofit setting: the necessary focus on our mission and the natural (and generally appropriate) tendency to work toward facilitating the brighter future that it promises. Not to say that that's not what we should be doing. Of course it is. It's our job. But we also need to be able to anticipate the potential obstacles while we're looking toward that horizon and prepare to meet them head-on before they become impossible. That is a missing piece of the vision/mission-focus discussion that boards need to be having (and facilitators like yours truly need to be shepherding with these community leaders).  How do we build our board's capacity to not only enact the better future we're charged with creating but also to identify and address the inevitable challenges so that we can succeed?

I'm realizing, as I wrap up this post, that a "part 2" begs to be written. Roberto doesn't leave us  hanging now that we are aware of these barriers; he also offers counsel on how to hone our problem-finding skills. In my next post, I'll share a bit of what he offers on that topic and apply it to a nonprofit board setting.