Ground-breaking research by governance scholar Will Brown has uncovered four elements, part of a larger model of member participation, that lay the foundation for effective participation in board discussion and decision making. Dr. Brown discussed those essential factors during an Alliance for Nonprofit Management Governance Affinity Group "research to practice" webinar last week.
While Will covered his larger engagement model during the session, the four antecedents took the spotlight. It's where I'm choosing to focus this post, not only because they're the foundation for everything else, but also because this is what I believe to be the biggest "aha" of this work.
"The whole self being ready to participate..."
That simple descriptor took my breath away. In a research environment where structures, responsibilities, and demographics dominate, Will's in-a-nutshell description of the antecedents' role in board member engagement stands out. It reminds us that board members are human beings, first and foremost. We can't just plop them into a board seat and expect them to perform. They have needs and motivations - antecedents to engagement - that we must address to support effective governance.
So what are those factors that contribute to the "whole self" readiness to govern that emerged in Will's research?
- Perceived ability
- Task ownership
- Values congruence
- Trust and safety
Perceived ability. How confident is each member in his/her ability to live up to the board's responsibilities? Why would he/she bother if the likelihood of failure is high? Members don't want to feel that their time will be wasted, or that they will be set up for failure. They need to feel confident that they can live up to expectations and make a difference in their service.
Brown offered at least three ways to build board member confidence: breaking big responsibilities into smaller, manageable steps; recruiting members with expertise, skills, and perspectives that are essential to the board's work; and providing members with the right set of tools and support to govern.
Task ownership. Board members must understand what is expected of them before they accept the job and throughout their term of service. But as important as it is to clarify expectations up front, Brown says, it is not enough. Board members must understand their purpose and see how that connects to their individual motivations to serve. They need to recognize discussion and deliberation as a core responsibility of governance. They need to own that responsibility and commit to it.
Values congruence. Members need to tie board tasks to their personal priorities, according to Brown. If we've recruited individuals whose personal values fit organizational values, making those connections "brings energy to the roles and functions" of board work. Are they committed to your mission? Do their values match yours? When the fit is right, and when we can help board members articulate that fit, commitment to the work grows.
Trust and safety. Board members need a sense of interpersonal trust, confidence that the boardroom is a safe space to interact without negative consequences. They need to know that this is a safe place for taking a moderate level of risk. This is not a process that can be hurried, Brown says. It takes time - and authentic interaction - for this antecedent to emerge.
It would be easy to point to these antecedents as a lovely ideal to which all boards should begin working - and that would be a mistake. They really are the bottom line - borne out in Will's research - for engaging the community leaders we recruit in the work to which they are called. It we want them to succeed, if we expect them to succeed, we owe them this much.
What I appreciated about the insights shared in the webinar - and about Will Brown's work generally - is the attention given to the human side of nonprofit governance. Too often, governance research discounts (or ignores altogether) the fact that what drives the work is not the perfect job description or check marks ticking off demographic variables on a recruitment matrix. It's the people who serve.
Will discusses his larger model in the new book that he co-edited with Chris Cornforth, Nonprofit governance: Innovative perspectives and approaches. I encourage readers to pick up a copy and read Dr. Brown's chapter (and the rest of the book) to better understand the human element of board work.