Monday, April 28, 2014

How board competencies complete the nonprofit governance puzzle

I tend to learn by writing things out and seeing what flows from the pen, so please forgive if this is more detail than you'd like. I'm feeling the need to do some public reflecting here, as I continue to process how my 10 nonprofit board competencies fit my growing sense of what we really need to govern successfully.

Yesterday, I had a bit of an "aha" moment - or at least a flash of how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together. I also realized that what I attempted to capture in that list really seems to complement two other hallmarks of governance:

  • The criteria we use to recruit members and 
  • The roles and responsibilities we assign to boards. 

As I've talked about those elements over the years (and tried to offer my own perspectives on what they should look like), I've become increasingly aware that over-reliance on either is a risky venture.

If only we recruit the right mix of people, we'll be better able to... 
If they had a better job description that really spells out what they're supposed to do...

It's silly to discount the importance of having a diverse range of skills and perspectives at the boardroom table. It's foolish to pretend that clarity about board responsibilities isn't needed.

But as critical as these two elements are, they are not enough. I speak from hard personal experience and years of working with nonprofit boards filled with members who want desperately to make a difference but frequently fall short. The willingness is there. The talent exists. The right steps may be in place. They may even appear perfect on paper (great job description, perfect demographics and skills mix around the boardroom table). But they still fail to function effectively as a leadership team. That's where I believe the competencies list comes in.

You may notice that, in the very elementary (and very much "first draft") conceptual framework I drew in the photo above, I have two ideas attached to the competencies: leadership and group dynamics. In my mind - and my experience - they are intertwined. Great leadership facilitates the kind of group dynamics that make the nonprofit boardroom a safe, productive and creative space in which to work. The right dynamics foster an environment where peer leaders are born and empowered.

Without that environment and the catalyst for impact, the nonprofit board is just another group of people gathered because someone said so. They may be the right mix of people and skills. They may have a perfectly impressive job description. But they will fall short of their collective potential.

The competencies remain a work in progress (and the foundation for an e-book that I hope to complete this summer). But as I develop a stronger vision of their true purpose, I am even more committed to completing the nonprofit governance puzzle and to testing it in real-world settings.

Feedback is a critical part of that journey. I welcome your comments, questions, etc., especially in the spirit of fleshing all of this out in ways that will be useful to nonprofit boards and their leaders.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Nonprofit governance competencies: reflecting on a personally pivotal series

It started with a challenge from a friend: identify the competencies that I consider to be essential to effective nonprofit governance.

I've been living and breathing nonprofit boards for most of my adult life; so my brain is awash in personal experiences, frameworks defined by others, and original research. Over the years, I've attempted to articulate different aspects of nonprofit governance, especially as I've tried to move the conversation beyond the sterile "roles and responsibilities" lists and address the "being" needs that connect members to their deeper motivations to serve.

I'm always thinking about different ways to conceptualize nonprofit governance, so Heather's request was one I accepted gladly. Because I find "roles and responsibilities" to be a limiting - and terribly incomplete - way of addressing what we need, I took a different approach. The result was a list of 10 core competencies that our boards desperately need to govern effectively.

As I clicked "publish" on that post, I realized that the list demanded expansion. The result was a 10-part series that I wrapped up last week. Following is a linked list of the posts in that series:

Competency 1: Understanding the management vs. governance difference
Competency 2: Think strategically
Competency 3: Think critically
Competency 4: Engage respectfully with divergent personalities, perspectives
Competency 5: Great questions that lead to thoughtful, creative decisions
Competency 6: Accept fiduciary, accountability responsibilities
Competency 7: Advocating for your nonprofit's mission, programs
Competency 8: Share your expertise
Competency 9: Accept, share leadership responsibility
Competency 10: Leave personal agendas out of nonprofit boardroom

There is a larger personal purpose for capturing the series components here beyond having a handy way to revisit them as a group. It gives me a chance to step back and reflect on what I have learned in writing the posts. It's also offering an opportunity to assess what, if anything, this framework might be able to contribute to the larger conversation about nonprofit governance and the boards responsible for it.

This reflection is an evolving process, but a couple of thoughts emerge today as I revisit the series and the larger idea I was trying to convey with the original list.

First, I hope that it offers a different - or maybe a more nuanced - way of thinking about board recruitment. So often, we feel victorious if we get to the point of developing a matrix of random skills and demographics and can actually check off a few boxes. Those elements are important, but they are not enough in identifying what we need to govern.

In this list, I'm also trying to do a better job of capturing the capacities that foster a culture of creative collegiality. That is rooted in my ongoing explorations of the group dynamics concepts that define whether or not boards focus on working together effectively and creatively to achieve a common purpose.

I'm mindful of not claiming anything more here than an honest attempt to enrich our understanding of what effective nonprofit governance requires. But I hope that that effort is informative and useful to you and your boards. If it fulfills a larger function somewhere in the governance conversation, that is a bonus.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Agenda item: Address nonprofit board members' real, perceived conflicts of interest


Agenda item 15: Identify and address members' real and perceived conflicts of interest

What potential conflicts of interest lurk in your nonprofit boardroom? Are your board members aware that they exist, and do they recognize the importance of addressing them?

If we've recruited successfully, the potential for an occasional overlap of loyalties for well-connected members will exist. We must be prepared, up front, to recognize and address those conflicts. We also need to recognize the importance of being proactive in this area as an extension of our accountability to the organization and our community. That means we must be attuned not only to actual conflicts that arise, but to the perceptions of conflict that might exist.

What is a conflict of interest? The Wikipedia definition offers a good, general overview of the concept, and it boils down to one word: impropriety. It's "a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest."

If I use my position on the board for personal benefit, I am displaying a conflict of interest. If I use my divided loyalties to influence others, or allow those divided loyalties to determine how I vote or act, I am engaging in a conflict of interest.

As I write this, I'm realizing that the topic is begging for more than the "quick tip" that this series provides. I'll commit to writing that expanded post in the future. In the meantime, my "nonprofit agenda item" quick tip is this:

Engage your nonprofit board in a frank discussion about the potential conflicts - real or perceived - that exist within your current membership list. (If those conversations already are part of your board practice, use this as an opportunity for a check-in.) Where are the overlaps in commitment - professionally or personally - that might create a conflict with their responsibilities as board members?

Use this as an opportunity to prompt members about the importance of being mindful about where their own divided loyalties lie and reinforce what the National Council of Nonprofits calls a "culture of candor" that is so critical to nonprofit governance.

Explore not only the real conflicts that you expect to come up but the "what ifs" - the potential scenarios that exist within your organization specifically and your mission area generally. Examples of questions you might pose to the group might be:

  • What types of conflicts have nonprofits similar to yours encountered? 
  • What are the issues that are particularly touchy in our community? How are we connected to those sensitive topics as an organization and as individual board members? 
  • How has the community responded when challenges are raised with other nonprofit organizations?
  • Were those conflicts fairly unique (to the member, the situation, etc.), or are they recurring types of situations?
  • How did we handle those conflicts, and what might we do differently in the future?

Examine your meeting agendas ahead of time for any topics where conflicts might be problematic. Be ready to declare any potential conflicts that you have personally, and respond with the action that is appropriate to the situation and your board's policy. If necessary, be prepared to point out potential conflicts that others may not recognize and/or acknowledge.

A conflict of interest also may be a matter of perception. How we handle an issue or transaction as a board may follow the letter of the law and/or policy and still be perceived as ethically squishy inside and outside of the organization. It is important to not only tend to the clear conflicts that may arise, but to be attuned to actions that may be interpreted by others as ethically questionable.

Your board's reputation is everything. If you lose credibility with stakeholders, especially external stakeholders, your power tumbles and your capacity to govern shrinks. Conflict of interest is a topic that nonprofit boards cannot afford to ignore or discount.

I realize that this brief post may prompt more questions than provide answers. For more information, and several sample policies, please visit my "conflict of interest" bookmarks. The list will continue to grow as I discover new resources that would be valuable to readers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Board competency 10: Leave personal agendas out of nonprofit boardroom

This is the 10th and final installment in a 10-part weekly series expanding upon the core nonprofit board competencies that I laid out in a recent post.

Core board competency 10: The willingness to set aside personal agendas for the greater good of the nonprofit and the community that it serves.

The key word in this final competency is "personal."

Nonprofit board members have the collective responsibility to define, protect, and advance their mission. It's the ultimate board agenda: everything they do must feed that larger purpose. By extension, anything that stands between members and their ability to focus exclusively on that mission must be set aside. That includes any personal goals - "agendas" - that may divert attention and loyalty from the good of the greater cause that board members are called to serve.

I've often said - here and elsewhere - that commitment to mission must be the bottom line in board recruitment. If a prospective board member is not personally committed to the mission of the organization, the individual and nonprofit need to agree to move on.

Pure altruism is almost impossible to achieve and live, though. We all have personal interests, experiences and worldviews that inevitably color what we bring into the boardroom. Those unique perspectives can be an asset, and they may be the reason we were asked to serve in the first place. It's okay to bring them to discussions and to help inform the board's collective thinking about the issue at hand.

What is not okay is purposefully using our status and our votes as board members to advance projects and priorities that may be personally beneficial but not in the best interest of the organization.

All boards have a legal bottom line that sets parameters for ensuring that this does not happen: the duties of care, loyalty and obedience. We are individually accountable for personally living up to these standards, and for ensuring that the board as a whole upholds them.

The duty of care calls us to perform our governance duties in good faith, with the same care that an "ordinary person" would take in the same circumstances. You're approaching board service seriously, devoting the time and resources needed to oversee organizational affairs thoughtfully. It's a significant commitment that we make as individuals.

The duty of loyalty most directly addresses the "agenda" question. It calls on us to act in the agency's best interests at all times - setting aside personal interests, including loyalties to other groups or organizations; and avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest. When you enter the nonprofit boardroom, you shed everything else and focus solely on what is good and right for that organization. Period.

The duty of obedience requires that we follow all local, state, and federal laws. It requires us to follow organizational bylaws and policies. It also compels us to put our mission above everything else.

What are the potential conflicts of interest in your boardroom? What are the perceived conflicts of interest? Has the board identified them as a group? Does the board have a conflict of interest policy that defines how it will raise and deal with them if/when they arise? These questions go beyond following the letter of the law and avoiding PR nightmares. They also call on us to create a culture of transparency that drives members to be their ethical best and the mission stewards that our organizations and our communities deserve.

Expanding our personal networks in collaborations is one legitimate motivation for board service. Getting to meet, and work with, new groups of community leaders who share our interests is a natural outcome and one okay reason to accept an invitation. We give so much, so freely. It is unreasonable to expect that board members experience no personal benefit in their service.  Those benefits cannot distract us from our real work, though.

We may have personal interest - even deep interest - in a specific way of fulfilling our organization's mission. But if we are unwilling to see, or work toward, anything but that specific version of the future, we have a problem.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Agenda item: Board member business cards

Agenda item 14: Provide board members with business cards.

This week's practical tip is an easy one: make connecting to you and your services easy by providing business cards to board members and asking them to share widely.

Whether the information is customized or generic, business cards offer board members a quick and convenient way to share your essential contact information with potential supporters. Our well-connected community leaders regularly encounter potential donors and volunteers. They interact with business owners, local city council members, state legislators and other key audiences. They may know someone who would benefit from your services.

They need an easy-to-carry (so they will) tool to make sharing you with others easier. A board or organizational business card is just that, because it fits into a wallet or other small space. This means that, for most of us, any time we leave the house (and take our ID with us), we could be taking you with us.

As a board member, that appeals to me. I don't have to remember to slip a brochure into my files when I'm meeting a peer on another topic. I don't have to scribble your website URL or phone number on whatever scrap of paper the county commissioner I run into on the street has on hand. I can reach into my purse, pull out a professionally printed business card and hand it to him/her.

Yes, I know board members can be a transient bunch. Having a customized card with my name on it is lovely, but not essential. Give me one with the nonprofit's key contact information: phone, street address, website, social media links, etc. If you want to get fancy, include a QR code and increase the chance the recipient will store your details in whatever contact system he/she uses.

It's not the most earth-shaking among the practical tips I'm sharing in this year of generative board leadership, but it's one that can make expanding your network of supporters just a little bit easier for members.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Board competency 9: Accept, share leadership responsibility

This is the ninth in a 10-part weekly series expanding upon the core nonprofit board competencies that I laid out in a recent post.

Core board competency 9: The willingness to engage as part of the leadership team.


On the surface, this competency seems pretty obvious. We need committed members who do not need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to fulfill "their time" serving as a board officer. 

Indeed, it should be a privilege and an opportunity to extend our contribution to be asked to serve as a board officer (especially that of board president). As part of assuming those significant responsibilities, board officers deserve an environment where they are supported and acknowledged. They should feel that they have what they need to succeed, starting with active and engaged peers who share their commitment to effective governance. 

Board leaders (especially board presidents) shouldn't feel alone in their service. They also should feel that their extra level of commitment - and the less-than-glamorous tasks that come with their respective jobs - is valued and acknowledged.

But "leadership" is broader than officer titles and job descriptions. 

Board leadership includes chairing committees and task forces, where the focused work of mission advancement often takes place. Board leadership might also emerge as taking on responsibility for special projects, working solo or with others, and using our specific skills or knowledge to advance board or organizational priorities. 

Even more generally, we should recognize that nonprofit governance is leadership. Everything we do, every contribution we make, is (or should be) an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and move closer to our mission.

Does our board performance look like leadership? 

Are we making regular, valued contributions to the collective good and the mission we are called to advance?

Do we use our inherent credibility, as community leaders volunteering our time to a cause, to its full effect?

Do we step up when we see a need and we have the personal capacity to address it?

Do our actions and attitudes represent our full potential as leaders serving in a governing role?

We succeed as a group just as we fail as a group. Nonprofit governance is a collaborative process and responsibility. How are you leading? How are we leading?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Soul-sucking nonprofit boards

 Purchased from Bigstock Photo

Is yours a soul-sucking board? Does nonprofit board service drain the life - and the enjoyment - right out of you?

I've been able to respond affirmatively to both questions too often (and too recently), which is why Harold Jarche's latest blog post, "From SSM to SLE," resonated so deeply and personally when I read it. While the post itself really addresses larger organizations, his premise - that some organizations are "soul-sucking machines" and others are "soul-liberating enterprises" - prompted quick and strong reaction.

The fact is that too many of our boards suck the soul right out of their citizen leaders. To the extent that board members don't know a different way to govern, we are not to blame. And we deserve better.  So do the organizations that we lead.

A lot of the suckage is by tradition and by design. Re-reading a book that changed my perspective on nonprofit governance this weekend reminded me of how deeply the energy-draining elements are embedded in the ways we expect our boards to function. (Expect a series on just this issue later this spring.) Still, we have the power to choose a different way of working, and small or straightforward alterations can reverse the draining impact on members.

I normally try to keep things positive here. I choose to focus on appreciating the myriad contributions that community leaders bring to the boardroom table. I try to offer counsel, resources, and actionable ideas to support their success. In this case, I prefer to lay the ugly out on the table. Too many of the "sucking" factors that follow will be all too recognizable. Once we see them, we have the power to change them.

Your board likely is a soul-sucking enterprise if one or more of these statements are true:

  • Your agendas don't ask me to think, discuss, debate, imagine.
  • They are filled with the same, tedious topics (dredging up the same tedious arguments) that never go anywhere.
  • There is an obsession with the day-to-day to the exclusion of the future, where the board's real work is found.
  • The same negative members gripe about the same things without offering potential solutions, alternatives, etc.
  • Board leaders allow those members to dominate discussion.
  • Board leaders sweep legitimate conflict and garden-variety interpersonal "stuff" under the rug because they are afraid of rocking the boat or chasing away volunteers.
  • I have no opportunity to learn.
  • I have no opportunity to reflect and use that contextual wisdom to inform discussions and decisions.
  • There is too much (or exclusive) focus and energy spent on financial oversight tasks.
  • There is no individual or board accountability for the work we do.
  • I lack a sense of why I asked to serve, beyond having a pulse, or how my presence makes a difference.
  • My legitimate needs for acknowledgment or appreciation are neither identified nor addressed. And, no, I don't mean a certificate or a mug presented at the end of my service.
  • Resources needed to make thoughtful and informed decisions are not provided in a timely manner - or worse, plopped in front of me at the meeting.
  • My fellow members and I are treated as "necessary headaches" to be managed, rather than the respected sources of wisdom, expertise, creativity and leadership that we are. We know when we are being "managed," and we resent it.

We come to the table to serve and to have an impact in our communities. We also deserve to have a personal sense of joy or fulfillment in that work. Our nonprofits deserve to have board members who are energized, inspired, and mentally prepared to give their best. We all deserve environments that make that possible. We need environments that do not suck our souls out of the room and leave us feeling drained and defeated.

What are we going to do to make that happen?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Agenda item: Keep your eye - and your boardroom work - on your mission

Purchased from Bigstock Photo


Agenda item 13: At the end of every meeting, ask yourselves, "How did we advance the mission today/tonight?"

How do we know that the time we spend in the nonprofit boardroom actually moves us closer to fulfilling the mission we are called to advance?

One way to answer that important question, and help keep us focused on what matters, is easy. At the end of every meeting, ask yourselves

How did we advance our mission today/tonight?

Before you dismiss this as hokey, let me explain the logic. First, there is value in being able to articulate specific connections between the work and our reason for being. If we cannot come up with several good examples (or worse, any examples), we need to revisit our meeting agendas.

Second, it's a reflective practice that is healthy for the board. It asks us to take a step back, breathe, and bring some additional context to what has just unfolded. It's also one small step toward making self-assessment a part of board life.

Finally, it has the potential to shape both our agendas and our focus. We know the question is coming. Our awareness of the the impact our work has (or should have) on mission advancement is raised. We become more attuned to identifying - and creating - more meaningful connections to how we spend our time as a board and our ultimate purpose.

If you do think the question is hokey, that's fine. Ask a question that you find more meaningful. If you find the whole idea silly, no problem. Find another way to link your work and your mission. The point is, find the links. If they don't exist now, create them.

(Note: this post is part of a 2014 series making my Generative Nonprofit Governance Agenda practical and actionable.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Board competency 8: Share your expertise

This is the eighth in a 10-part weekly series expanding upon the core nonprofit board competencies that I laid out in a recent post.

Core board competency 8: The willingness to share your knowledge/expertise/experience to expand the board's collective capacity to govern.

Sharing what we know, and helping others build their own skills and understanding so they can make the best decisions possible, is one of our most critical responsibilities assumed when we join a nonprofit board.

Most of us are recruited to serve - at least in part - because of our professional experience, knowledge, etc. Besides our passion for the mission, they ask us because we are respected accountants, marketing consultants, health care professionals, social workers, etc. Our expertise, when shared, builds the board's collective capacity to govern wisely and effectively.

Some vehicles for sharing are obvious:

  • Chairing committees and task forces in our professional knowledge area
  • Serving in another leadership position that uses our expertise (If you're an accountant, banker, etc., you can pretty much expect at least one request to serve as treasurer)
  • Leading training workshops on topics in your expertise area 

Others may be less obvious but are equally - or even more - powerful opportunities to grow the board's knowledge. Most are embedded into the board's routine interactions.

  • Bringing applicable experience and knowledge to discussions, to inform collective thinking and decision making.
  • Being willing to raise forward-thinking questions and topics, drawing form your professional networks and experiences, that encourage timely anticipation of issues and opportunities.
  • Sharing personal stories and anecdotes that illustrate points in ways that will resonate and add meaning to concepts being discussed.
  • Sharing articles, websites, and other resources to which board members would not normally have access
  • Inviting colleagues from other professional settings to serve on committees where their knowledge would be of value to the organization (Look for ways to extend not only the agency's network but also its pool of expert resources)
  • Inviting board members and senior staff to public events in your field, to extend their learning opportunities

The what/why/how of sharing will vary with the individual and the organization. The larger point should be clear: we contribute more than seat time when we serve on nonprofit boards. We bring wisdom, skills and experiences - whatever they may be - that help to create a synergistic leadership not possible if we weren't there.