Monday, December 30, 2013

Generative leadership: A governance agenda

 (Photo purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What do nonprofit boards require to make an impact in their organizations and their communities? 

What do nonprofit board members need, not only to fulfill the minimum expectations set for them, but to reach their full leadership potential?

What conversations do we need to have to transform nonprofit governance for the kind of leadership that we all need?

While I pretty much live and breathe these questions, 2014 feels like the year when I'm ready to commit to moving the conversation forward - beginning with this blog. Pulling together the questions and the sources where I feel we most likely will find the answers, I can't help bringing it down to two key ideas:

Setting a Nonprofit Governance Agenda
Focused on building Generative Leadership

I'm committing to this theme - "Nonprofit Governance Agenda: Generative Leadership" - in the coming year. Boards deserve environments and opportunities to govern expansively and creatively (generative). They also need opportunities to make the positive impact that their organizations and communities expect (leadership). 

I envision six components to that agenda:

  1. Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership (GAL) framework. I continue to believe in the transformative power of this revolutionary board model, built around three governance modes (fiduciary, strategic and generative).
  2. Board leadership, especially the critical responsibilities assigned to board presidents/chairpersons. If we could only focus on one role to transform what happens in the boardroom, this would be it. Setting a generative agenda, literally and otherwise, begins here.
  3. Advocacy and community leadership as core governance responsibilities. Boards provide our most direct connections to our communities and myriad, credible opportunities to extend our mission message to new audiences. Boards that embrace that role have the power to transform.
  4. Centered in GAL's fiduciary mode, accountability includes - but is far more than - attention to budget and financial statements. It also addresses issues of transparency with, and accountability to, all of a nonprofit's stakeholders.
  5. I'll continue to write about boardroom dynamics/culture, because people will continue to conflict in interactions and otherwise fail to meet expectations. As is my bias, I'll try to discuss these issues from a "what's possible when boards reach their full potential" perspective, rather than "all the ways board members fail us." 
  6. Finally, because I continue to believe in that full potential - and the transformative power of harnessing it - I'll spend a lot of time and space in 2014 promoting generative boards: advocating for creativity, learning and curiosity as essential member qualities.
These six benchmarks will serve as my guides for the year, as I continue to advocate for the great potential that engaged nonprofit governance represents for those we serve. Join me, in 2014, in exploring each one as we create a more generative space for true community leadership.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Blogging year in review: A few of my favorite governance posts of 2013

As I anticipate 2014 - and the agenda that I've set for the blog (more next week) - I can't help reflecting back on the posts that were the most fun, challenging, and/or stimulating to create for readers here.

I couldn't help starting with the commitment I made, around this time last year, to explore  boardroom dynamics this year. Writing about nonprofit practice is my bottom line in everything I do related to boards. The "process" piece was new to me, prompted by an ongoing observation that many of the challenges boards face stem from plain, garden variety "interpersonal communication 101" types of issues. The collection of posts on board dynamics that resulted is a good start to a topic that will continue to enjoy an ongoing spotlight here.

A few favorite "board process" posts

Group process social lit review: Inside the Boardroom. Based on the book that started it all for me - Richard Leblanc and James Gillies' book Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the Coming Revolution in Corporate Governance - this one featured research that connected directly to board interactions and relationships. While describing corporate boards, the board effectiveness model that emerged - and the 10 director types - absolutely apply to the nonprofit setting (and filled in more than a couple of missing puzzle pieces for me).

The right kind of board conflict. Conflict is inevitable in board work. It's the type of conflict - the healthy give and take of cognitive conflict vs. the counterproductive and off-topic affective conflict - that matters. We need productive conflict to stimulate the kinds of discussions that lead to thoughtful, effective decision making. We don't need the interpersonal nitpicking and personality conflicts that derail that process.

Avoiding 9 boardroom pathologies.  This one is a favorite because it hit a little too close to home. It names several of the more common interpersonal and group challenges that are too often enacted in our boards.

No fair! Social loafing in the boardroom. This topic also hit a little too close to home (witnessed and occasionally teetered personally). That, and the fact that the phenomenon appeared in virtually every group process resource I encountered, made this post a must-write. It also helped to reinforce the need for the high performance bar that became its own, informal theme this year.

Favorite board performance/effectiveness posts

Nonprofit governance: Boards rising (or stooping) to our expectations. I'm sick to death of the endless parade of "overcoming the burden of your boards"/"why boards stink" messages that exist in governance literature, conferences, and research questions. (Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?) As a board member, and someone who sees the great potential boards represent as community leaders, I take a different view: set the bar high - and support them - and these community leaders will respond. It needed to be said - and I'll keep saying it until we change the narrative (and support structures) around nonprofit governance.

Essential capacities of a board chair. We often act as though the key to effective nonprofit board performance lies with the executive director, which is terribly misplaced. Whether or not our boards lead or whether they simply fill space around the boardroom table lies in the board chairperson/president's willingness and capacity to fulfill the significant responsibilities that come with the job. This person sets the tone, sets the agenda (literally, in collaboration with the ED and board), and keeps focus. We cannot take this role too seriously. 

10 ways to vitalize board committees. Board performance success also requires an engaged approach to using our committees, as our lead researchers, resident experts, and work groups for advancing our goals. I'm also drawn to this one because, frankly, it's one of the most popular posts of the year - not because of any particular brilliance in what is shared, but because "nonprofit board committees" is a perpetual search topic that draws new readers to the site. There appears to be a strong need for quality resources that addressing board committee effectiveness - a gap that I anticipate addressing here in 2014.

Boards 101: A few essential resources. Another surprisingly popular post - again, speaking more to a hunger for access to quality information - is this post from last month. I've already shared it widely, as an online handout. I anticipate it becoming regular recommended reading for anyone needing an overview of what boards do.

The generative/revolutionary - special - stuff

Governance as Leadership: My latest attempt to articulate a revolutionary board model. Chait, Ryan and Taylor's world-shifting framework continues to inspire and inform my thinking. It's the "revolutionary" current underlying it all. While I'll never win any broadcasting awards for the video at the center of the post, it's my most comprehensive, public effort to date to share what makes this model so important and new (nearly 10 years after its initial release).

Engaging the introverted board member. This hit home in a positive way: drawing from work that has impacted me personally to think differently about board members just like me. I had fun not only sharing Susan Cain's important work on introversion, but applying it in creative ways to thinking about how we engage our quieter board members in ways that are authentic to how they (we) work.

Wisdom Wednesday: Thinking and becoming. Applying my individual mantra to nonprofit governance was personally meaningful. Where we focus boards' attention is where we will go. Will that be the future, or will it be wallowing in the here and now? While we can't ignore the reality of today, we also can't afford to have our boards forget their ultimate responsibility: the future. They are the definers and the guardians of the horizon to which we all are moving.

Open letter to an exemplar board.  I'll close with a link to my favorite post of the year. It holds that place of honor for two reasons. One is the international visibility that it received (not going to lie - that was a bit of a rush).  But more important was the chance for me to publicly thank the board that welcomed me into its meetings and work to study effective governance. It also facilitated the "aha" moment that resulted when I realized that I found the hope that drives everything in the example that they provided.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Your burning board questions for 2014

What questions about nonprofit boards/governance confound, compel and/or inspire you as we approach 2014?

I've been immersed in that question personally for a few weeks now, and I'm interested in comparing notes with readers and members of my personal learning network.

I'll be posing the question in different venues in the next week: here, on Twitter, via email, on the blog Facebook page, etc. I'll compile responses, sharing some of them in a future post and using all of them to inform my writing agenda for the next year.

To make it as easy as possible to contribute your questions - anonymously, if you prefer - I've set up a one-question survey:

If you prefer, you also may post your contribution via a comment to this post or via email (address can be found on the "about" page). I'm deeply interested in your thoughts about the conversations about our boards and the work that they do as we approach a new year. I'm especially interested in questions from board members, as this blog ultimately is for you.

Monday, December 16, 2013

5 levers of nonprofit board creativity

What does it take to foster creative thinking and governing in the nonprofit boardroom?

I'm always seeking resources and perspectives that help me answer that question. A recent post on creativity by blogger Valeria Maltoni led to an earlier entry, Understanding the 5 Levers of Creativity, that offered a provocative piece of the puzzle for me.

I couldn't help thinking about how each of the levers might be enacted in a typical nonprofit board setting. Individually, they rang familiar. Collectively, they offer a potentially useful frame for shaping an environment where creativity becomes more of the norm in governance discussions. Following are my initial reactions to each of the levers.

1. "The amount of challenge they give." Bored boards will not engage in meaningful exchanges that lead to innovative and expansive approaches to today's challenges and tomorrow's vision of a better future. Boards need challenging questions and space to pursue them. They need agendas that value and facilitate creative challenges. (P.S. If "copier" [as in 'machine'] is anywhere near the top of the agenda - or on the agenda at all - you will lose me. Seriously.)

2. "The degree of freedom around process." Nonprofit boardrooms can be places stifled by sacred cows. To foster an environment where creative processes can flourish, "the way we've always done it" must die. It starts with giving up our notions of report-dominated board meeting agendas. To create space for creative governing, we need to start by creating new, more functional ways of working and organizing. We can start by flipping or, better yet, rewriting meeting agendas (eliminating reports altogether or at least placing them at the end of the meeting, where energy and attention is lowest). We can adopt electronic board portals for storing documents, scheduling meetings and otherwise organizing work. And we can look for new ways to continue meaningful conversations.

3. "The way they design work groups." We need to create and empower our committees and other work groups. They should build on our boards' strengths and focus their attention on governance responsibilities, not management functions. They should be charged with exploring and guiding the board toward answering significant, future-focused questions, not routine management needs.

4. "The level of encouragement provided." Boards need facilitative support, from each other and from staff. Maltoni calls for more than positive reinforcement, and I agree. Don't just pat me on the head or stroke my ego. Offer me constructive feedback so that I can be as effective as possible in serving the organization.

5. "The nature of organizational support." Boards flourish in a culture that fosters, values and supports creativity. In the process, they expand their capacity to lead you into a sustainable and effective future.

The closing paragraph of the post sums up the "who cares" magnificently:

"This type of culture attracts 'can do' creates the ideal context for individuals to pursue their intrinsic motivation, develop expertise, and use imagination to constantly adapt and adjust to new circumstances."

That's exactly what we need to govern for the future - leaders with the capacity, agility and motivation to not just react to whatever life throws at our nonprofit, but to create and advance a compelling vision that impacts our community in positive and transformative ways.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Boards 101: A few essential resources

"I'm new to nonprofit boards. Where do I go to start understanding what they do and why?"

I'm leading a webinar later this week where that question is likely to arise. Since I won't have my usual opportunity to offer a dedicated "where to go for more" handout, I decided to share that information with a broader audience here.

Let's start with my master "board essentials" list - a catch-all category that captures resources I consider to be particularly valuable in describing the foundational ideas and responsibilities of nonprofit governance. Click here to access the complete list.

While everything tagged contributes something important, I admit that exploring the complete list may still foster a "drinking from a fire hose" experience. Not helpful. So I'll point out a few of the core items as a starting point.

Governance as Leadership: My latest attempt to articulate a revolutionary board model

I'm placing this one as the most essential of all, because it centers nonprofit board work in a model that I believe to be the best fit - so far - to the full scope of responsibilities and purpose: Governance as Leadership. Others might start with the BoardSource "10 essential board responsibilities." I see them as a set of activities that certainly fit within the three governance modes of GAL, but they are not inclusive nor do they adequately connect to the motivations that drive most of us to serve (and to our reasons for being as an organization).

Great boards: Distinguishing governance from management

Developing clarity about what's the board's work versus management's is one of the most traditionally vexing challenges for many nonprofits and their leaders. This fantastic article, published in the Great Boards newsletter, does the best job I seen of making that critical distinction. I regularly assign this as a reading for board development events and retreats, and I've seen the light-bulb moments as members finally identify and (usually) embrace the distinctions. The lack of understanding that there is a distinction going in no longer surprises me; as a sector, we remain quite confused about what constitutes governance (and, as a result, boards often wander off into familiar but inappropriate places). (UPDATE: Alas, the direct link to the PDF doesn't seem to work anymore. Go to, check the "top resources" section in the middle, and scroll down to the link to the article by this name. It also comes up doing an internet search of the title. Sorry about that: it seems to be a recurring challenge with that site. Worth the extra effort, though!)

3 statements that can change the world: Mission/vision/values

As regular readers know, and as webinar participants will soon hear, mission and vision are not frills that boards might squeeze into a retreat once in a while. They are the board's ultimate responsibility and its (and the organization's) whole reason for being. Our values frame how we work and how we make decisions that advance our vision and mission. Hildy Gottlieb's article offers a fantastic, plain-English description of what each statement is and does.

The nonprofit board's mission mandate

Kevin Monroe's excellent article has a way of making that mission connection with most audiences with whom I share it. It centers the board's work exactly where it should be - in the mission. It also introduces the BoardSource 10 responsibilities (and ties them to the board's mission work).

Future proofing the boardroom: Grounding and stargazing

 Lucy Marcus reminds us that the board's work lies in more than the here and now, monitoring role. It also requires stargazing: keeping our eyes just beyond the horizon, envisioning and moving toward a future of resilience and impact. Boards must adopt a future orientation, for the future is where their ultimate responsibilities lie. Lucy's articulation of that responsibility here is superb.

Movie Mondays: The 2 hats board members wear

This brief video addresses an all too common challenge, especially for boards of small nonprofits - and all too often challenges board members who encounter it. The fact is, we board members often find ourselves fulfilling two very different kinds of responsibilities: that of a member of the governing body and that of a volunteer. The two are very different and distinct. They also can create difficulties when board members and staff blur the boundaries. Which "hat" are you wearing as you embark on this task, governor or volunteer? Is it clear with everyone involved?

10 ways to transform board meetings

 This one is not (currently) on my essentials list, but I anticipate that webinar participants will want more detail on how board meetings can be structured differently for governance. We waste far too much member time, energy and enthusiasm in meetings that drain all three and drive board focus from its real work.

This core set of resources offer a more expansive, purpose-driven vision of nonprofit governance. They offer a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding the full potential - and ultimate responsibility - of nonprofit boards.  Because I can't help myself, I'll also share a series of curated resources for those who want to step a bit deeper into the pool. Here are some collections that may be of interest:

My "board+meetings" bookmarks
My Governance as Leadership bookmarks
My  "boards+roles" bookmarks
My "boards+recruitment" bookmarks

Curated resource collections on Pinterest:

Must-read nonprofit board resources
Board-related videos
Nonprofit board essentials (major overlap w/"essentials" bookmarks list above)
Engaging nonprofit boards
Save our (nonprofit board) meetings!
Generative nonprofit governance (pinnable resources from the bookmarks list above)
Inquiring nonprofit boards
Leading nonprofit boards

A resource for nonprofit board presidents:

Making the most of your board