Monday, March 17, 2014

Disrupting nonprofit governance: Embedding fulfillment and fun in board service

In 2014, what would truly disrupt the way nonprofits are governed? What if board service was considered fun and fulfilling by the majority who serve? What if one answer solved the other?

I began making the connections following two events last week. First, while following the 2014 American Bar Association Bar Leadership Institute backchannel on Twitter, two tweets caught my eye:

I've presided over boards and worked with countless board presidents. "Fun" would be a big stretch for many of us. Board leadership as meaningful experience might be  more familiar, but the bigger picture may not be so easy to see in the day-to-day headaches.

The second event was a reminder of the March nonprofit blog carnival, spotlighting this question: "How can we disrupt the nonprofit sector?" Disrupting governance was where my mind naturally wandered. Of course.

Are we having fun? That's a fair - and fairly disruptive - question, not only for nonprofit board presidents but for boards as a whole.  In my experience, and gleaning from what others share, the idea of "fun" in board work definitely would qualify as "disruptive" to the typical member.

Are we fulfilled? Fulfillment in governance may be less foreign to many boards, but it also remains a work in progress (and a consistent theme for this blog).

It shouldn't be the case; but for many who serve, "fun" and "fulfillment" in board work truly would be a pleasant disruption. In the spirit of this month's blog carnival question, I asked myself:

"What would it take to shake up nonprofit governance and turn 'fun and fulfilling' into the norm?"

In that reflection, I came up with six core concepts (which will be familiar to regular readers) that help answer that question.

One: Compelling motivation for the work - the vision and mission

Fulfilling: There is clarity about, and confidence in, the vision and mission that the board is called to advance. Every action, every discussion, every goal set and plan made - all begin and end in advancement of these two driving forces. Boards are engaged in work that matters.

Fun: In this environment, board members have vivid images, preferably moving images, of their desired future (vision)  and their specific purpose (mission) in reaching that future. They can see it, they're passionate about it, and they are driven to be a part of it. Members not only can see the future to which they are moving, but they have regular opportunities to experience firsthand the impacts of successful forward motion. They derive energy from those experiences.

Two: Clarity about one's individual role 

Fulfilling: Members have a clear sense of why they were asked to serve and exactly what leadership, wisdom, connections, energy, etc., they are expected to bring to the table. They accept those responsibilities willingly and recognize how their individual contributions expand the board's - and the organization's - collective leadership capacity.

Fun: Individual board members find creative ways to share what they know and they see evidence of how they contribute to the group's understanding and leadership potential. They enjoy finding connections between what they know and the board's work, and they willingly expand that knowledge for the greater good. Members take equal pleasure in learning from their peers and applying that shared wisdom to think about their work in new ways.

Three: Vision- and mission-centered work

Fulfilling: Everything the board does is centered in the organization's vision of the future and grounded in the mission's purpose. Board and organizational goals move toward the vision and mission in impactful and meaningful ways. The board's definition of governance itself is focused on the horizon and emphasizes all three modes of governance described in the Governance as Leadership model. Generative thinking and governance are embedded in board meeting agendas and committee responsibilities, and are valued as much as fiduciary and strategic functions. 

Fun: Board members are expected to "bring it" to meetings: fresh ideas, critical thinking skills, expertise that informs, and lively discussions and deliberations that focus on the future. Members anticipate board work with enthusiasm. They find stimulation in exploring big, important questions in innovative and multilayered ways. Members engage their hearts and brains.

Four: A collegial, collaborative, diverse team of leaders

Fulfilling: The board is made up of colleagues who are committed to their common reasons for being (vision and mission) and hold that above all else. Board members use that common focus to collaborate purposefully, engage in wide-ranging explorations of critical issues, and understand the importance of pushing and stretching in service to mission. They respect and welcome creative conflict that expands thinking and enhances decision-making quality.

Fun: There is an overwhelming sense of community, commitment and leadership within the board. Members are actively engaged in the work, they have fun interacting with their peers, and they take pride in the energy generated from working together. They value social time that builds ties and paves the way for productive interactions.

Five: A culture of learning and improvement

Fulfilling: Learning is embedded in board work and a constant process of building the group's collective capacity to govern. Learning addresses at least two areas of need: content related to the organization's mission area(s), and content related to governance and related capacity issues. Members contribute to that learning process, welcoming opportunities to share their expertise and experiences in ways that expand the group's understanding of both the issues under consideration and its effective functioning as a team.

Fun: Members enjoy a steady stream of experiential learning opportunities that bring them closer to the work of the organization (and, by extension, its mission), as co-creators. They readily share insights and learning that apply to the issues at hand. They seek out experiences within and outside of the organization that expand their understanding of its clients, issues, programs, etc. They place themselves in situations where incidental learning is constant and fruitful.

Six: Reflection and assessment are valued and practiced

Fulfilling: The board builds in regular opportunities for reflecting on (after the fact) and in (in the moment) their actions. Members understand that time to step back, breathe, and think is not a distraction from the "real work" of boards. It is an essential part of that work. Together, they take time to check assumptions, evaluate data, discuss experiences, and learn from what they discover. The board recognizes the value of individual and collective self-assessment as part of the learning process.

Fun: Members recognize reflection and assessment as not only opportunities to identify "room for improvement" but to highlight actions and attitudes that move the organization closer to its mission. Members see them as space to acknowledge the full range of gifts that each individual brings and the growth potential that they represent. Members are stimulated by the feedback and use it as a springboard for identifying new, creative ways to come closer to their ideal vision and mission.

What does "fun and fulfilling" nonprofit governance look like? It's visible in the synergy that happens when dedicated community leaders come together to do creative work - for compelling reasons - to learn and use what they learn to make the world a better place. 

What do we need to move such an environment from "disruption from the governance norm" to "the way we work" in 2015 and beyond?

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