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.

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