Friday, June 27, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Stop knowing/doing, start asking

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a summer series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.

This quote, from a book that I believe everyone should read (especially nonprofit sector leaders), packs at least three critical ideas into one brief passage.

First, no surprise, is the call to value questioning - especially the "why" questions that invite nuanced, informed and visionary answers. That, I hope, is obvious.

But there are couple of other key messages for nonprofit boards. Berger not only challenges us to ask more questions but to set aside two of the more attractive functions that board members enjoy and/or are called upon regularly to do.

How many of our boards pride themselves on being "a working board?" Yes, that's often offered as a counterpoint to the suggestion that they might sit around doing nothing but rubber-stamping anything the CEO puts in front of them (though I've seen my share of "working boards" do an awful lot of that). But we boards also get stuck in a cycle of doing that can be counterproductive in a couple of ways.

One, "doing" often equals "getting overly involved in management/administrative issues for no reason other than we want to be involved." We gravitate toward familiar areas (e.g., the management functions many of us engage in at work) because we want to contribute and they're in our comfort zones. Two, "doing" all too often translates into listening to report after report, voting on routine matters, and spending not a lot of time actually leading. Or governing .

Two, "knowing" is a common core function for nonprofit board members, and understandably so. Most of us are recruited, at least in part, for some mission- or organization-applicable knowledge that we have. Sharing that expertise is an important function, certainly. We expand the board's knowledge (and the nonprofit's capacity) when we do that. It is an obvious and appropriate contribution that we can make as individual members.

However, there also is an occasional risk that is related to the larger "question" theme. We may sometimes find ourselves feeling mighty uncomfortable having to acknowledge that we don't know the answers to something (especially something related to our expertise area) in an environment where we are expected to be leaders. Leaders have the answers, right? Well, maybe. But behaving as if we do when that is not the case can put our organizations in some tricky territory via ill-informed board decisions made because someone was afraid to admit he/she didn't have those answers.

I seriously doubt that Berger would advise nonprofit boards to permanently set aside all "doing" and "knowing." I'm certainly not suggesting that. But I am joining him in what I believe is a call for balance and perspective - and the rightful recognition that an essential function of leadership is asking questions.

It's asking those "why" questions that Berger calls for specifically, and for a range of questions that inspire and inform nonprofit boards to think and govern generatively.

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