Saturday, January 25, 2014

Agenda item: Grooming future board leaders

Agenda item 4: Begin grooming and exposing members to leadership opportunities early. 


How often do our boards lament a lack of members ready and willing to step up when the time comes to serve in a formal leadership position? How often have our boards suffered when those drafted (and sometimes coerced) to serve are unprepared to lead?

If we want board leaders who can move us closer to our mission, we need to prepare them for those roles from the moment they join. We need to find ways to offer board- and organization-specific opportunities to develop their leadership muscle.

How do we do that? Here are few quick ideas:

  • Offer rotating opportunities to chair board committees and task forces. Give these groups a chance to benefit from a fresh leadership perspective, and give other members new opportunities to learn from the leadership responsibility that accompanies the role.
  • Within those committees, ask different members to take a lead role in researching and directing specific projects.
  • Recruit willing public speakers from the board to prepare for specific public outreach roles (e.g., participating in community events and other opportunities to talk about your nonprofit and its mission).
  • Ask each member to identify an area of expertise that is germane to the board's work and offer to be a lead resource and peer educator in that area. Build in regular opportunities for individual members to share that expertise with the board.
  • Ask individual members to serve as liaisons to their professional and other community networks.
  • Where board representation is needed on projects elsewhere in the organization (e.g., special events planning), encourage members with applicable skills or experiences to take on the responsibility (and share updates regularly with their peers).
  • Ask individual members to help lead discussions around specific topics in board meetings, especially those that draw from their experiences or expertise .

Monday, January 20, 2014

Abilities of critical nonprofit board thinkers

"If only we had board members who were better critical thinkers..."

When decisions get tough, some of us dream wistfully of a boardroom full of wise, deep-thinking leaders who can analyze an array of options placed before us. Unfortunately, if our dreams meet reality, it's more often the luck of the draw rather than a result of a thoughtful, broad recruitment process that recognizes criteria that are not often easy to identify.

Like critical thinking.

Recently, while reading Sharan Merriam and Laura Bierma's Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice, I ran across a list (p. 223) of "abilities of critical thinkers" (citing work* by R.H. Ennis) that make the qualities we need more visible and accessible.

  • "Assume a position or change it based on the evidence."
  • "Remain relevant to the point."
  • "See information and precision in the information sought."
  • "Exhibit open-mindedness."
  • "Consider the big picture."
  • "Focus on the original problem."
  • "Search for reason."
  • "Orderly consider complex components of problems."
  • "Seek a clear statement of the problem."
  • "Seek options."
  • "Show sensitivity to others' feelings and knowledge."
  • "Use credible sources."

Undoubtedly, some of us have more experience, and perhaps more inherent capacity, for critical thinking. But this list also reminds me that there also are ways to increase our awareness and consciously incorporate into our board discussions.

As you read Ennis's list of critical thinking skills, what does it seem to offer boardroom interactions and decision making?

If we were to find a way to identify one's capacity for critical thinking, what would that look like and how might we appropriately value it in board member recruitment?


* Ennis, R.H. (1989). Critical thinking and subject specificity: Clarification and needed research. Educational Researcher, 18(3),  4-10.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Agenda item: Reconnect to the future

NOTE: In the spirit of making this blog's 2014 nonprofit governance agenda as practical as possible, I'm adding a new feature: the "governance agenda item." These brief posts will pose a priority, action item, critical question that moves the conversation forward.

Agenda Item 3: Periodically reconnect to your vision of the future.

How often do you stop and reflect, collectively, on your ultimate impact as a board and as an organization?

Earlier this week, I opened a local board's retreat with a version of the following question:

"When all is said and done - when you've successfully fulfilled your mission and reached your vision of the future - what will be the impact of the ABC Organization?"

The breadth and depth of their responses didn't surprise me (I've long admired this board's capacity to balance today's concerns with tomorrow's purpose.). But they reminded me of the value of taking time, on a regular basis, to reconnect to why you exist in the first place.

Without breaking confidentiality, I can summarize the types of responses that that one question produced.

Board members described a future that reflected care for the ongoing needs of clients - that they would be either no longer needs or they would be provided by resources that offer better, more comprehensive services. They talked about clients who are in a better place personally because the organization was there when needed. Individual lives were impacted positively. 

In that future, board members also recognized cultural and public policy changes that both drove and resulted from their work. The organization no longer was needed, in part, because it was part of a larger social shift.

To my complete and utter delight, members also listed organizational impacts - a future where they provided a role model for effective governance, stewardship and collaboration.

It might have been the nature of the work that followed (Future-focused questions drove the retreat agenda.). But it was interesting to see how they drew on this opening discussion as inspiration in those succeeding conversations. 

Surely, that must have taken a ridiculously major amount of time, right? 

It took less than 10 minutes.

What would be possible if you kept your board connected to its reason for being? How would an expanded focus on the future shape its ability to think about today's responsibilities? How might board member attention and commitment shift with ongoing links to bigger community impact?

What question could you pose to your board tomorrow to begin that process?

Monday, January 13, 2014

The board as nonprofit leadership constant

We all know that individual members come and go - sometimes too frequently. But I've recently been thinking about the board in a different way.  What if, instead of viewing nonprofit boards as ephemeral bodies filled with transient members, we saw the board itself as a community-focused leadership constant?

Regardless of who's actually sitting around the table at any time, the board has the ultimate legal and moral/ethical role: defining, protecting and advancing the vision and mission of the nonprofit. They aren't alone in advancing it, of course. But the buck stops with the board. It holds ultimate accountability to the community and other stakeholders for the use of resources, financial and otherwise. The board, and its individual members, are (or should be) the common denominator and constant leadership presence in the community over time.

I'm still working with this idea, but it's raising some questions with broader implications for how we enact governance.

"The board is the nonprofit's leadership constant." If we acted as if this were true:

  • How would our public definitions and conceptions of nonprofit governance and boards change?
  • How would we talk about boards and their ultimate responsibilities as a result?
  • How do we talk about, and work with, the board within our organizations (Hint: no more whining about the burdens they place on us.)?
  • How would we approach future board recruitment?
  • How would the board talk about itself and its work?
  • How would the board approach its accountability responsibilities?
  • How would it shape board development and how our boards envision the role of learning to support its work?
  • How would our communities talk about boards and board service?
  • How would that impact/influence perceptions of board service as community leadership?
  • How would our communities be better because of our boards' constant source of leadership?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have questions - and no clear answers - when it comes to this topic. But it feels like an important part of the evolving conversation about the full potential of nonprofit governance and the impact that our boards can have as leaders in our communities.

I'm interested in your feedback on what I've posed here. Is there anything of value?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Agenda item: Identify community connections

NOTE: In the spirit of making this blog's 2014 nonprofit governance agenda as practical as possible, I'm adding a new feature: the "governance agenda item." These brief posts will pose a priority, action item, critical question that moves the conversation forward.

Agenda Item 2:  Have open conversations about members' community connections


The board's boundary-spanning role - its outreach and advocacy work in the community - may be the most unique responsibility of nonprofit governance. It's also one that often is ignored, misunderstood or discounted.

We expect the staff of a nonprofit to speak positively about its work and its impact. Their livelihood depends, in part, on our believing their presentations. But the community leaders we elect to our boards have a different kind of credibility within their personal and professional peer groups.

It's different when our neighbor, the person who works in the office next door, the friend who sits in the pew across from us on Sunday, or a fellow member of our local civic group tells us about how that nonprofit is changing or saving lives. Because board members serve voluntarily, they experience no direct personal benefit from the nonprofit's increased support. Since we know them, we have a good sense of their trustworthiness and can evaluate their claims accordingly. We're more likely to believe what they say and offer support because of it.

That's why boards need to be sharing our story. Today's agenda item is a critical first step in making that happen: identifying the connections that board members bring to the table.

We don't often sit down and map out our web of relationships, so board members may initially think they have no personal or professional links to potential supporters of our mission. That's the purpose of this process: identifying peers and organizations within our networks with potential interest in our nonprofit's work.

The articulation process can be powerful. When I recently led a local nonprofit board through this exercise, members' initial instinct was to claim that their ties weren't particularly impressive or useful. They're humble community members, not particularly powerful or influential - certainly not connected to anyone who might be described as such. One board member, the youngest, was adamant that she didn't know anyone who might be supportive of the center and its work. 

I challenged that assumption. We started listing names. And names. And more names.

Their collective list of community leaders, donors and other potential supporters was long, diverse and impressive. It surprised those who created it. It was obvious that some were not only relieved, they were a little excited about the potential it represented.  We built on that enthusiasm and identified some initial steps they could take, collectively and individually, to begin some discussions. The board also committed to continuing the conversation and to exploring ways to engage high-priority prospects from the list.

Oh, and our young friend who was convinced she didn't know anyone? Her list of potential supporters was as long as her peers and included both a state legislator and a millionaire family friend with a strong  interest the agency's mission area.

What does your board's web of relationships look like? Start listing today and find out.

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.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Agenda item: Defining 'governance'

NOTE: In the spirit of making this blog's 2014 nonprofit governance agenda as practical as possible, I'm adding a new feature: the "governance agenda item." These brief posts will pose a priority, action item, critical question - something that moves the conversation forward.


Agenda Item 1: Articulate a common definition of "governance" for the board.


Clarity of purpose - and individual expectations - is the most essential of essential steps toward ensuring successful board performance and leadership that has an impact. My bias toward the Governance as Leadership framework should be obvious - it's the centerpiece of the blog's agenda. But whatever your board uses as the foundation, members need a common understanding of what is expected. They also need an inspiring picture of how their collective leadership will make a difference.

Boards need to spend time up front developing that group clarity. Then they need regular opportunities (e.g., conversations, self-assessment processes) to reflect on their progress and identify issues.

A board member job description is one critical part of that process. (Does your board have one?) But it's more than that. You also need that common sense of why you're here - how you lead as a group and how you're collectively advancing the vision and mission of your organization - and processes that help members stay focused.

What does your board need to create, or enhance, your collective sense of commitment and purpose?