Friday, March 28, 2014

Agenda item: Build - and use - a board portal

Agenda item 12: Build - and use - a board portal

I've written about the idea of a board portal before, but including this recommendation as a part of this year's "governance agenda item" series makes good sense - especially after I've had time to experience using one in this particular context.

A board portal is a private, online space and on-demand resource center for members. What is possible in a portal depends on the tool selected. In general, though, a board portal can be used to:

  • Store foundational documents (e.g., by-laws, member lists, budget)
  • Gather and share meeting materials (saving time and money)
  • Create committee workspaces and document repositories
  • Schedule meetings
  • Create an ongoing board calendar
  • Set up quick polls to capture board member sentiment or a topic
  • (In some tools) Send text message reminders
  • (In some tools) Convene video or audio conference calls

I'd long used portals and portal-like resources (e.g., wikis) for team projects in other settings. Once I helped the board referenced in my earlier post select a tool (Wiggio), set it up for the group, and experienced its value in this specific context, my assumptions about the value of a portal to support governance work were confirmed.

If the only thing your board accomplishes in setting up a portal or similar space is providing space to store and share important documents, so that they are readily accessible, it is time well spent. I personally have a workable system for storing board files offline, but having the portal ensured that those resources are available all members whenever they need them.

It should be a collaborative space, where everyone can share and contribute (vs. the usual one-way flow of materials from the executive director). I was pleasantly surprised to see other members sharing reports with the larger group within a day or two of the space being set up. Those members had a new vehicle for sharing information with us, in a timely manner. As a recipient, I felt in the loop and better prepared for whatever discussion might evolve. It also meant that we could actually spend that time discussing, rather than listening to a verbal version of the same report. (No, none of this surprises. It just confirms what I've been advocating all along here.)

Something as simple as having a common calendar can be huge for busy adults juggling multiple responsibilities. If we want to confirm the next meeting, or the time of the funder site visit, we can do so instantly.  It's as close as our computer or, depending on the tool, our mobile device.

Different tools offer options that your board may find useful. Bells and whistles for their own sake aren't helpful. But some (e.g., text messaging service) can enhance board members' need to know, their level of engagement, and their access to the resources they need to govern successfully.

Spend some time identifying member needs that a board portal might be able to fulfill. Spend some time exploring tool options. You'll find a growing pool of possibilities, with a range of options, from free to paid services.

Build a portal and build your board's capacity to make informed decisions and work in effective ways.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Board competency 7: Advocating for your nonprofit's mission, programs

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

Core board competency 7: The capacity to advocate for your mission and programs with others, from one-one-one to group settings.

Two of the greatest and most unique gifts that members contribute when they join a nonprofit board are access to their individual networks and their credibility as community leaders. 

How we ask our board members to engage their networks and others - and  how we enable their success in that advocacy - can mean the difference between muddling through and moving more quickly and effectively toward our mission.

The connection to networks advantage is clear: each individual board member brings with her/him a unique set of friendships, peer groups, networks and other relationships. (One of the compelling reasons for boardroom diversity: offering credible access to a wider set of community networks.) Each relationship, each organizational and peer group membership, introduces unique opportunities to engage others and identify links between individual interests and organizational needs. 

Meaningful engagement of a wider pool of potential donors, volunteers, citizen lobbyists, recruiters, and even clients becomes possible when board members accept their advocacy roles. The board's boundary-spanning responsibilities are real, and they are powerful. They may even be transformative.

Credibility cannot be finessed. It cannot be bought. It cannot be delegated to others. It is a priceless, intangible gift that members bring to the boardroom table when they join.  Board members have a different kind of credibility. Unlike staff, their commitment is completely voluntary. They have no personal or financial stake in the organization's success. As trusted peers and community leaders, board members' word comes uncolored by the hint of personal benefit. It inherently has more power with several of the stakeholders our nonprofits need to not just survive but thrive.

Board members must expect that advocating for the organization and mission, in ways that are purposeful and personally comfortable (or a reasonable stretch), are part of the job. What that looks like will vary, from individual to individual and from contact to contact.

It could be speaking before community groups, businesses and other live audiences. It might be one-on-one - or pair-on-one - visits with donors, legislators or other key decision makers. It could be sharing information in other settings where the organization or its mission area comes up in discussion. It might be an informal sharing of detail with a friend or family.

Whatever the setting and context, board members should be knowledgeable and confident about sharing information and stories that illuminate the nonprofit's work and mission impact. They need information and stories to share, to appeal to the varied needs and interests of those with whom they will be interacting. (They also need to be able to identify what they need, and in what formats, to feel prepared.) They need opportunities to observe and/or practice in safe settings, so that they can feel poised and ready.

They need clear expectations that provide context for their advocacy and boundary-spanning work, as well as feedback and recognition for their efforts.

For more information/resources related to boards' boundary-spanning role, please visit my curated bookmarks on the topic. For bookmarks related to boards' advocacy roles, click here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Agenda item: Purposeful board packets

Agenda item 11: Be purposeful in selecting materials that go into board meeting packets.

Are you helping or annoying your board members with the materials you include your meeting packets?

Meeting packets serve multiple purposes, the most obvious of which is providing members with baseline data and background information before deliberations begin. Well-informed board members are better prepared to govern effectively and thoughtfully. They need support - in a variety of forms - from the organization to meet those expectations. Meeting packets offer one ongoing, focused form of governance fuel.

In his phenomenal book, Boards at Work: How Corporate Boards Create Competitive Advantage, Ram Charan describes two types of information that board members need in advance of meetings:
  • Background information about substantive issues they will be discussing at the meeting
  • Procedural information needed for legal and administrative reasons
Much of the latter may qualify for inclusion on the consent agenda, freeing up time for the discussions that the former reference, if we give members the detail and context needed to understand without having to ask in a meeting.

Most of the "substantive issues" that boards deliberate require information from multiple perspectives and context for that information. Members need more than their gut instincts or random anecdotes offered on the fly before a vote is called. They need a solid, reliable information that helps them understand what is at stake, for whom, and why. Board packets can - and should - offer a layer of detail in that process.

Just as it is important to keep members informed, it is equally critical to not overload them with extraneous detail. Work to find the balance between "not enough information" and "too darn much." Look for summaries (or create them) that offer concise overviews of the key issues, concerns and options. Provide information in formats that are useful and user-friendly. If you're not sure what the optimal format looks like for your members, ask. Different boards, and board members, have different preferences for both form and content. Check periodically to see if what they are providing meets their needs.

Offer paths to additional information for those who want or need it; but provide everyone with balanced, accessible foundation that builds their knowledge about the topic at hand.  (One of the many reasons board portals are a good idea: the opportunity they provide to capture a wide range of information and make those sources accessible on demand.)

One last caveat about purposeful board packets: Deliver them in a timely manner. If we expect board members to come to meetings prepared to discuss critical issues thoughtfully, if we expect wise decisions that transform our communities and our vision of the future, we cannot dump a boatload of "stuff" on them at the last minute (a major pet peeve of mine). Whether mailed, emailed, or uploaded to a board portal, make sure that the information they need to govern gets into their hands at least a week in advance.

Yes, there inevitably will be the board member who's opening his/her packet at the meeting (though we can do our best to create a culture where coming to the meeting prepared is expected). But no one should be blind-sided or left scrambling to read a pile of papers in the moment because we couldn't be bothered to pull together materials until the day of the meeting. We set board members up for failure when we fail to provide them what they need to govern without time to read, reflect, and research before they initiate the discussions that lead to decisions.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Board competency 6: Accept fiduciary, accountability responsibilities

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

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

Core board competency 6: The capacity to understand and accept the fiduciary/accountability responsibilities of nonprofit governance.

On first glance, this one may seem very familiar. After all, several of the core "basic board responsibilities" focus on oversight and (too much of) the typical board agenda is spent scrutinizing budgets and profit and loss statements.

But the board's fiduciary/accountability responsibilities cover far more than financials. One of the greatest gifts of Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership model is the articulation of the board's fiduciary mode as a broad-based function. (Also important: its equal value in the context of two other modes, strategic and fiduciary.)

When I present the GAL framework to nonprofit boards, I highlight the following fiduciary roles (drawing from Cathy Trower's excellent book, The Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership):

Trower's "stewardship" descriptor of the fiduciary mode is critical to understanding our responsibilities in this area. Boards are charged with not only doing the math, but with active stewardship of the resources provided to the organization. Are they being used wisely? Are they being used to advance the mission? Are we focusing our energy on using all that we have on moving our mission forward?

What does the fiduciary mode look like in everyday governance practice? The following slide offers examples of several activities that offer a more expansive and realistic snapshot:

Note the strong accountability theme in the responsibilities represented. Also take note of that last bullet point. Problem identification is perhaps the most unique - and most ignored - fiduciary roles of the board. It's tied directly to our boundary-spanning responsibilities, and to our need to always be researching and learning on the job. Being in front of problems, rather than reacting to them, is a key difference between governance as leadership and simply taking up space around the boardroom table.

The capacity to ask the right kinds of questions is critical to fulfilling our fiduciary responsibilities. I'll close this post with a comparison Chait, Ryan and Taylor offered in the book that introduced the model to the world (Governance as Leadership, p. 38). The first list contains fiduciary oversight questions, the kinds that drive traditional board discussions. The second offers fiduciary inquiry questions, which take those discussions to a very different level. Do a direct "1 vs. 1," "2 vs. 2," etc., comparison of the two lists to bring the difference into focus.

Fiduciary Oversight Questions

  1. Can we afford it?
  2. Did we get a clean audit?
  3. Is the budget balanced?
  4. Should we increase departmental budgets by 2%-or 3%?
  5. Will the proposed program attract enough clients?
  6. Does a merge make financial sense?
  7. Is it legal?
  8. How much money do we need to raise?
  9. Can we secure the gift?
  10. Is staff turnover reasonable?

Fiduciary Inquiry Questions
  1. What is the opportunity cost?
  2. What can we learn from the audit?
  3. Does the budget reflect our priorities?
  4. Should we move resources from one program to another?
  5. How will the program advance our mission?
  6. Does a merger make mission sense?
  7. Is it ethical?
  8. What's the case for raising the money?
  9. How will the gift advance our mission? Does the donor expect too much control?
  10. Are we treating staff fairly and respectfully?

What can your board to do build its fiduciary muscles? What kinds of questions can you ask to drive different, higher-level conversations? How can your board move from straight fiduciary monitoring to fiduciary leadership?

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?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Nonprofit boardroom: What transpires within

Life and deadlines battled blogging this week, and life is winning. Rather than completely drop off the face of the earth here, I'd like to offer a small teaser from a book that is stimulating my thinking about governance effectiveness and boardroom dynamics. Expect more, soon!

A board can help a good CEO perform better - but only if it can gel as a group and exercise its collective judgment. The biggest problem for corporate* boards is not who is on the board but what transpires there."

 -- Ram Charan

*While corporate boards are the focus of the quote and book, the essence of this quote, and what I will be sharing later,apply to the nonprofit governance setting.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Agenda item: Create a speakers bureau

Agenda item 10: Create a board/organizational speakers bureau.

As we push our boards to increase their advocacy for the missions and nonprofits they serve in the generative leadership agenda that I am outlining this year, we must deal with one important reality: not everyone will feel comfortable taking on more public forms of ambassadorship.

Today's agenda item is an attempt to increase both the board's role in outreach and your success in sharing your story with others: create, train and support an agency speakers bureau featuring board members, staff and volunteers.

A speakers bureau is a team of individuals who make themselves available to deliver presentations to groups interested in hearing more about your mission and your organization. They are specifically identified and prepared for the task at hand. They are your "A-Team" when it comes to public outreach. They also require a different level of training and support to ensure their success in making your case.

To set up a speakers bureau - and identify board members who are willing to play a role - you need to do the following:

  • Identify its purpose - what specific role the bureau will play in your public outreach plan
  • Identify the types of presentations they may be called upon to make - will there be general purpose "this who we are/what we do" talks? More detail about programs and (general) clients served? This will shape both the content that needs to be prepared and the approach to selecting presenters (for example, could a solo board member present some types of presentations alone, while presenting as a team with a staff member for others?).
  • Identify the content that can be prepared and shared (and, by extension, researched and learned more deeply by bureau members) to provide the foundation for the core presentation types they will be making.
  • Create the essential resources needed to build polished presentations and help speakers feel confident and prepared (e.g., presentation templates, brochures and other collateral materials to leave behind, speaker handbooks that provide details at their fingertips).
  • Offer ample training and practice opportunities to bureau volunteers. They need clear expectations, a wide range of information to build their knowledge base (even deeper than they may get in their respective roles in the organization, especially board members), understanding of how to use the tools you are providing them, and practice to build their skills and confidence.

Some of us are strong public speakers who will excel when presenting our organizations' stories in a group setting. Some of us can make a compelling case but need just a bit more support - and confidence in our ability to do so - to accept our ambassador role fully. Some are great at speaking one on one with policymakers, friends and donors and want to expand their contributions to outreach efforts; but they need help - and perhaps a partner - to step out in a more public setting.

A speakers bureau can be one way to support each of these board members as they build their advocacy muscles and expand your visibility in your community.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Board competency 5: Great questions that lead to thoughtful, creative decisions

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

Core board competency 5: The capacity and willingness to seek out information, ask provocative questions, and use the result of that learning to drive thoughtful decision making (intellectual curiosity).

My passion for a great question is well documented here, and its inclusion on the list of core board competencies should be obvious.

Great questions lay the foundation for provocative, wide-ranging and creative discussions that feed generative governance. Board members who take doing their homework seriously, and who ask  questions that inspire broad and critical thinking, are essential to the process. This core competency ensures that governance is more than monitoring of management functions and passive listening to reports of events past.

  • Great questions ask, "What do we need to know to make the best choice possible? From whom/where?"
  • Great questions uncover the hidden opportunities and obstacles - the paths and limitations - before decisions are made.
  • Great questions stretch thinking, leading to creative connections between seemingly disparate options.
  • Great questions engage board members' brains and hearts. They inspire them to lead.
  • Great questions focus boards' attention on what's possible.
  • Great questions lead to the kind of thoughtful, future-oriented thinking that makes "what's possible" real.
  • Great questions transform and shape the future.

Click here to access my always expanding list of "boards+questions" bookmarks.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What it takes to be a great (nonprofit) leader: Three powerful questions from a TED Talk

What does it take to be a powerful 21st century leader? What three questions drive those leaders?

I couldn't help framing the questions at the center of this Roselinde Torres TED Talk in the context of nonprofit leadership and, more specifically, nonprofit leadership as enacted by our boards. What unfolded in that reframing both reinforced messages I've been conveying here all along and added a layer of context that is helpful.

In this talk, Torres calls on us to abandon traditional definitions of leadership (and the development programs that perpetuate them) in favor of new capacities that accommodate the different kinds of demands and aspirations needed today and in the future.

Torres offers three transformative questions that emerged in her research of effective 21st century leaders.


Question one: "Where are you looking to anticipate change?"

The answer, according to Torres, can be found in our everyday interactions: "Who are you spending time with? On what topics?...What are you reading? How are you distilling this into understanding discontinuity?," she asks. "Great leaders are not bent down. They see around corners, shaping the future, not reacting to it."

"See around corners." What might that look like in boardroom discussions and on board agendas? Where are we focusing our time? Where are our priorities? How do we bring them into alignment, so that our attention is on "see(ing) around corners" and "shaping the future, not reacting to it?"


Question two: What is the diversity measure of your network?"

What do our personal and professional stakeholder networks look like, individually and collectively as a board? This Torres quote prompted a "Bingo!" reaction from me:

"Great leaders understand that having a more diverse network is a source of pattern identification at greater levels and also of solutions, because you have people thinking differently than you are."

That single sentence articulated the critical importance of diversity in the boardroom. That is why diversity - in all of its forms - matters.

Question three: "Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?"

We can't afford to protect the status quo in the nonprofit sector, even if it's served us well in the past. "Great leaders dare to be different," Torres says. "They don't just talk about risk taking, they actually do it." Nonprofits need courageous leaders who are willing to shake things up in service to the future.

Greatness comes, Torres says, when we build up our stamina to stand up to those who would question our wisdom - even call us foolish - for trying something different (especially if it's risky). She adds that oftentimes, our peers are more likely to call us into question. For support in our change efforts, Torres tells us, we may have better success looking outside our usual circle of friends and acquaintances to individuals who normally think differently than we do (hint: another reason that diversity matters). To succeed in the future, we must expand our networks of allies and resources.

I'm still processing the finer points of this marvelous talk, but I'm fascinated by what this suggests for 21st century nonprofit governance as leadership. I'm also interested in your reactions: What are your takeaways, especially within the context of nonprofit boards?