Friday, August 30, 2013

Essential capacities of a board chair

If we seriously recruited, nurtured and prepared nonprofit board leaders for the significant responsibilities that come with the job, what core capacities would we emphasize?

Earlier this summer, I shared what I consider to be the essential dispositions of nonprofit governance. As I've continued reflecting on the pivotal role that the chairperson has in shaping everything the board does, and begun developing a set of supports for that leadership responsibility, I've come up with a list of "essential capacities" for the position.

Ability and willingness to lead 

A common inside joke in the sector is the board chair who was elected because he/she was absent when voting took place. While there actually may be a few cases where that literally is true, the scenario of a reluctant board member being coerced into serving because no one else wants the job is not such a stretch. How many of us who were coerced into serving grab the gavel and say, "Yes! Let's do this!"

Chairs who are willing and able to lead understand what governance means and focus board attention on those responsibilities. They don't allow the group to be sidetracked by micromanagement and distractions that have little to nothing to do with the board's real work. They embrace the significant leadership role and all that comes with it. They do not delegate board leadership to the executive director - even/especially the hard parts.

They also have the tools needed to facilitate productive work and reduce the risk of conflict. They have the skills required to navigate the inevitable disagreements and to leading the board as a whole to a stronger place in the end.

Ability to communicate a compelling vision of the future

Already passionate about the organization's work and mission, effective board chairs welcome the myriad opportunities to share that vision of the future with a broad range of audiences. Internally, that translates into inspiring the board to reach for its very best in all aspects of governance. Externally, it involves sharing stories about lives changed and the potential of even greater impact with each new audience's support. They reach out, creating new connections for the organization and strengthening existing relationships. They model effective community leadership for their board peers.

Design and direction of effective board agendas

Effective board chairs define the agenda. Literally. They work with the ED to identify the focus and tasks for each meeting agenda (translation: do not delegate this critical task to the ED). They understand that meeting time is best spent asking mission-driven questions, not passively listening to reports of management-level tasks. They engage all members in discussions, creating an expectation of active participation and joint responsibility for meeting outcomes.

Modeling and ensuring accountability

Effective board chairs are prepared to hold their fellow board members - and themselves - accountable for results. They set goals, evaluate, and ensure reporting of results to external stakeholder groups (including, but not limited to, donors, regulating bodies, and the larger community). They set the bar high and don't make excuses when the board occasionally falls short. They encourage everyone on the board to reach for excellence in service and support them in their efforts to do so.

Commitment to board development

Effective board chairs understand that an investment in board development is an investment in the group's capacity to govern.  They understand that the learning process begins with a multi-layered board orientation but continues across a member's service. They know that members have at least two major categories of learning need: about board service and about the organization and its mission area. They commit to scheduling regular formal board development events and embedding informal learning opportunities into meetings and other board activities. They include board development goals into board expectations and ensure that they are not only met but are respected as essential to governance.

Yes, I know that this is a lot to ask of a volunteer. But I also know that boards require a high level of commitment from their leaders, and high expectations to which they can be expected to stretch. They need, not reluctant placeholders, but individuals courageous enough to embrace the breadth of leadership challenge that comes with the job.  The leaders who serve deserve the chance to make an impact - the reason they chose to serve in the first place.

With it, our boards have the potential to meet the full range of governance responsibilities - and impact the organizations' forward mission motion. Without it, they are doomed to wallow and risk being obstacles to that effort.

What kind of leader does your board want? How are you preparing and supporting that individual for the success that you all need?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: Pushing comfort zones for higher-quality board decisions

As I continue this year's immersion in group dynamics literature,  one of the most consistent messages remains the need for inviting and facilitating a certain level of creative tension in board deliberations. If we want the highest-quality decisions that lead to the highest-quality outcomes for our nonprofits, we can't fill the boardroom with people who look and think exactly like us. We also need people who will, as Lencioni says here, stretch us to think beyond the obvious and the comfortable.

At the same time, we require leadership that will help us build our capacity to handle those creative tensions productively - to not let those wide-open discussions deteriorate into heated, fear-inducing, enemy-making shouting matches. I've always understood that as being an essential role of leadership. My appreciation for the challenge, and the impact when one succeeds, has grown exponentially in he last eight months.

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.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: Exceptional nonprofit boards energize, revitalize, recruit

This week's featured quote reinforces a message that I hope would be obvious by now: ensuring that our boards have access to the broadest range of perspectives necessary for high-quality decision-making is not only a nice goal to have, it's an essential governance commitment. Investing in wide-reaching, mission-focused recruitment processes that draw diverse voices to the boardroom table is no luxury.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: The difference between responsible & exceptional board performance

When I re-read this quote this morning, two "board member me" reactions popped into my head. The gut-instinct response was, "Darn. We'll never live to see that day..." The more productive was, "Wow. That needs to go on the quote wall - and serve as our rallying point for the next five years."

For many boards, the gap between this ideal and reality might paralyze - at least temporarily. May I suggest  working on one area in the next year as a starting point? For example, commit to creating and adopting an effective board self-assessment process and watch how it transforms other areas of your board's performance.

What meaningful step can your board take to move it closer to exceptional governance?

(From a board library "must" title: The Handbook of Nonprofit Governance [2010].)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book review: Nonprofit Governance: Innovative Perspectives & Approaches

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this summer launched two noteworthy books on nonprofit governance. Today, I introduce you to the second book, Nonprofit Governance: Innovative Perspectives and Approaches

First, a bit of disclosure: I have a chapter in this book and I had a role in helping to convene the discussions that led to this ambitious project (though, if anyone benefits financially from sales, it certainly isn't me). That said, I can take great pleasure in recommending this significant new addition to the governance reading list. Let me tell you why.

Nonprofit Governance differs in tone to You and Your Nonprofit Board. To some extent, that is inevitable. Practitioners wrote the latter; nonprofit scholars wrote the the former. As expected, their approaches are different. Surprisingly similar, though, is their interest in a common concern: the impact of what happens in the nonprofit boardroom.

I'll be honest. I've read and studied and contributed to the literature of nonprofit governance since 1997. I've frequently been frustrated by research questions that failed to answer one essential question: Who cares? How does this new knowledge expand our understanding of what it takes to govern effectively?

This book is different. The title describes one critical difference - its focus on innovative approaches to studying nonprofit governance.  It represents, within the governance research community, a call for new ways of asking and exploring questions about how nonprofit boards work and what effective governance practice looks like. The research questions asked have great potential value for those of us who serve on and advise nonprofit boards. They actually have a chance to impact nonprofit practice.

A sampling of the chapter titles that may be of interest:
  • "The role and impact of chairs of nonprofit boards" (Yvonne Harrison, Vic Murray and Chris Cornforth)
  • "Antecedents to board member engagement in deliberation and decision-making" (Will Brown)
  • "Beneath the surface and around the table: Exploring group dynamics in boards" (Wendy Reid)
  • "Board monitoring and judgment as processes of sensemaking" (Alan Hough, Myles McGregor-Loundes and Christine Ryan)
  • "Community-Engagement Governance (TM): Engaging stakeholders for community impact" (Judy Freiwirth)
Rather than offer more detailed summaries of favorite chapters here, as I did in the other book review, I'd rather write one or two follow-up posts with that goal in mind. One of my informal commitments, to myself and to readers of this blog, has been to help translate key governance research efforts into potentially actionable ideas with value to those of us working in the field. This offers an excellent next step (beyond sharing takeaways from my own work) in that process.

For now, I will offer encouragement to purchase and share this new title with your boards. I also will suggest that, read together, Nonprofit Governance and You and Your Nonprofit Board represent the significant infusion of fresh perspectives that the field requires at this point.

The nonprofit governance toolbox has expanded exponentially this summer. Will we accept the gift - and the challenge - of new ways of thinking and working as the sector's citizen leaders?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Wednesday Wisdom: Nonprofit boards WANT meaningful, challenging work

I could fill two lifetimes of Wednesdays with thought-provoking quotes from the new Terrie Temkin-edited book, You and Your Nonprofit Board. This one resonated this morning, because it's been an all too consistent, all too frequent theme in my work with boards (and my own experiences, frankly).

It goes much like the scenario Lysakowski describes in the quote. We're lucky we conned them into serving in the first place (recruiting is haaaaaarrrrrrd...). We probably lured them with a promise along the lines of "Don't worry. It's not a lot of work." We're lucky they said yes. We can't possibly stretch them. We can't possibly ask them to do the hard work of governance. They might refuse! They might leave!

Guess what.  If you've recruited the right people - leaders who will govern - we're more likely to respond exactly as Lysakowski describes here. We want the challenges. We signed on for the challenges. We're qualified to handle the challenges. We want to make a difference. When you treat us with kid gloves, tippy-toeing around the real work - the meaningful work we signed on to do - you lose us.