Monday, January 6, 2014

A few acts of nonprofit board courage

 (Photo purchased from Bigstock Photo)

One thing is clear as I anticipate moving my nonprofit governance agenda forward in 2014: we need courageous sector leaders - especially in our boardrooms - to succeed.

What does "courage" look like in a nonprofit board setting? As I began to answer that question for myself, I realized that the answers coming to mind really shouldn't be considered out of the ordinary. They should be considered normal modes of working and interacting. Yet, as I outlined them, I couldn't help thinking that they may be a bit of a stretch for many boards today - not that our dedicated community servants don't want to lead at the  highest level possible, but that they often lack the support needed to do so.

Someday, maybe these criteria will be absolutely routine sector-wide. For now, here are my "acts of board courage."

Board leaders (especially presidents and committee chairs)


Engage the board/committee in regular discussions and processes that link board priorities to organizational mission, vision and goals. Use those processes to identify focus areas of the board's work.

Connect every agenda item to one or more board/organizational priorities. If it can't be done, that agenda item is gone.

Have frank, ongoing conversations about what governance is and is not, particularly the differences between governance and management. Continue to work on making the former the board's priority. When members must tread into the latter territory, be clear about why they are doing so. Avoid managing )or micromanaging) for its own sake - because it's comfortable, because you don't know what governance really entails, etc.

Be clear about expectations, especially individual member duties (job description!) and how we work as a group (what's productive, what's not). Be honest. Allow new members to come into the work with eyes open and clarity about what is expected of them. They will be better prepared to contribute from day one.

Commit to keeping the board's work productive, safe, and engaging for members. It's your responsibility as a board leader (especially if you're president/chairperson), not the executive director's. Own that.

Work on developing a strong, collegial board partnership with the ED. Neither can succeed without strong support from the other.

Make regular board and individual member self-assessment an essential part of the process. Don't just go through the motions so you can check it off your yearly to do list. Use the data from the assessment process(es) to inform and transform your board's governance practice.

Make learning that builds board, member, and organizational capacity a regular part of the board's work. Value it. Schedule it. Embed it in meetings and other board work.  Your board - and your nonprofit - will be stronger for it.

Make outreach to key stakeholder groups a board priority. The board has a unique credibility with several external audiences. Embrace your responsibility as ambassadors and advocates for your mission and organization.

Get a grip around the board's fundraising role, however your members choose to enact it.

Individual board members


Be clear about the commitments you are making before you accept a board seat. If those who are recruiting you don't tell you what's expected, ask (and think long and hard about saying yes if they can't or if they discount the significant responsibilities of governance).

Once you say yes, commit to fulfilling what is expected of you to the best of your abilities. Be prepared to step down if you realize you cannot do so.

If something is not working, for you or the board, speak up. Don't let issues fester. Don't wait for a complete board breakdown. If leaders aren't acknowledging and addressing problems, take the initiative to make that happen.

Do your homework. I don't mean only reading meeting materials ahead of time (but du-uh...). Engage in the active, independent exploration/research/inquiry required to govern well. Learn everything you can about your mission area(s), your organization's work, your roles as a board member. Share your growing knowledge - and helpful resources that you discover - with fellow members. Curious board members help boards, and their organizations, grow.

Find and commit to your own leadership contribution(s), formal or not. Nonprofit boards can't afford passive or lazy members. Governance IS leadership. You most likely were recruited for your leadership experience or potential. You should expect to use it to advance your nonprofit's vision and mission.

Advocate personally for your mission, your organization, and those it serves. Find your specific niche - your individual voice - and use it to move the work forward every chance that you get. It's your job.

2 comments:

Nancy Iannone said...

As I always have more questions than answers, I'm wondering what kind of environment would naturally promote "courageous" behavior in board leadership and individual members. If current structures and systems aren't creating that environment, what would?

Debra Beck, EdD said...

You know, as I think about your response this morning, the word "leadership" keeps popping up in my mind. If we successfully reframed governance as leadership (heh), rather than acting as hall monitors or budget policy (over-reliance on the fiduciary roles), seeing courage as an engrained part of the responsibility might be more obvious. Maybe not easier for some, but more obvious.