Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Creating a boardroom culture of inquiry

This week, I launch a summertime series, "Quotable Nonprofit Governance," 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.

Why start this series with this particular quote? Because I believe that the greatest potential - and potential limitations - come down to the culture we create in the nonprofit boardroom. 

We can have the most detailed job description possible. We can have the "perfect" mix of backgrounds, demographics and skills. But unless we create and nurture an environment where board members are encouraged (even expected) to stretch, question and imagine, we'll inevitably end up with the same stale, half-baked attempts at oversight that we tend to have now. We'll also continue to have checked-out board members who  perform to our oh-so-low expectations.

The last sentence of this Nancy Axelrod quote provides the ultimate rationale for working toward a culture of inquiry in the nonprofit boardroom: We make better decisions when they're informed by "robust discussions in which multiple ideas are vetted." We've had a chance to examine the question from different perspectives, we've probed the options, we've engaged in occasionally raucous debate in search of the right path for our organization - and we've emerged with the best possible decision we can make in that context.

The next-to-last sentence also is critical: A culture of inquiry is a far more interesting, inspiring and enriching space for smart people to work. You'll get our best when we're inspired to bring and use it.

A couple of questions for reflection:

  • Do we see evidence of a culture of inquiry in our nonprofit boardroom?
  • What might such a culture make possible for our board deliberations - and the board experience?

Find this quote - and more information - in the original resource: Culture of Inquiry: Healthy Debate in the Boardroom by Nancy Axelrod.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Making emotional connections to enhance, extend nonprofit board learning

What needs to happen to trigger actual, meaningful change from board learning events and experiences?

I'm perpetually seeking different perspectives on that question, particularly as I continue my own development as an adult educator. Recently, as I was reading Dan Spalding's book, How to Teach Adults, I encountered a quote that I believe sums up a core challenge that we face in this setting:

"I believe the primary challenge to transfer is emotional. Unless you teach in prison, whatever your students are doing in life is working for them. They're functional and comfortable - and that means they're comfortable with their own limits."

Now, that's not personally newsworthy. It fits what I know in my gut to be true (and fits years of understanding from doctoral-level adult education study). But the way Spalding framed it resonated in a way that made the potential connection to the average nonprofit boardroom - and board training event - especially vivid.

Too often, we schedule a board training because that's what we do this time of year. Or "we" bring in an expert to "fix" some board problem that "we" see - whether or not the board also recognizes it. Sometimes board members acknowledge an issue, at least intellectually. But there's one key obstacle between what happens in the training and applying what is shared there: the sense of urgency - the emotional need - to change.

The fact is, even if we're not exactly operating at peak levels - and we know it - we board members can be quite comfortable with the status quo. The cost of committing to learning and to implementing a different way of working may be just a step too far for busy volunteers. Especially if we're getting along - somehow - with the way we've always done it.

How do we get around that? Well, one path is the painful one: we're in crisis because "the way we've always done it" broke down and got us into trouble. Then we have to find a different way.

But is that an optimal environment for identifying and committing to positive, future-oriented changes? Not usually.

I keep coming back to two things, familiar to regular readers:

One, we need to recognize that learning is embedded in everything we do, move beyond the "board development=formal training" mindset, and structure our meetings and other governance work to make the most of those opportunities.

Two, we need to move away from a skills gap/deficit focus in board development to motivating, engaging, and building the collective leadership capacities of the community volunteers who serve. We must heed Spalding's call to make the emotional connections with board member learners. We need to inspire them to explore and stretch and reach for their fullest leadership potential.

We must spark each member's imagination and their passion for meaningful work and provide the support to apply that expanded understanding to their leadership responsibilities. We must appeal to their highest personal aspirations and desires to make an impact and connect them to our nonprofits' needs for visionary community leadership.

Until we can embrace that, as a sector and as individual organizations, our potential will be limited by our leaders' comfort zones.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Agenda item: Generate great governance questions in, for the nonprofit boardroom

Agenda item 18: Generate great questions to drive nonprofit board discussions and focus.


Nonprofit boards are supposed to have all the answers, right? They're local experts and community leaders we turn to when we need definitive answers to pressing problems. Their agendas are filled with items requiring decisions, large and small. 

We need answers from our boards. But we also need something just as valuable from them: great, future-oriented questions. It's the essence of generative governance.

Where does our future lie?
What opportunities will we find there?
What do we need to make the journey successfully?
What potential barriers could we encounter?

These offer starting points for the kinds of explorations that nonprofit boards can and should be having on a regular basis. Boards should be creating space in their agendas for not only answering meaningful questions about the future but generating them. Boards should be asking themselves, "What are the questions we should be asking to guide us on the path to fulfilling our mission and vision?" That should be part of their regular governance routine.

It also can and should be a focus of retreats and other special sessions. I've facilitated many board retreats over the years, with different kinds of outcomes sought. But one of the most powerful and effective had a very different kind of goal: generating the questions that the board needed to be asking in the coming year as it anticipated great changes impacting its core client base. 

We looked at what they knew and what they didn't know. We explored different likely scenarios and potential twists. By the time the board left the room, it had a set of fantastic questions about the future and a strong and powerful direction/agenda for the year to come.

What are the kinds of questions that your board needs to be asking about the future? About its role in leading the organization toward it? About the capacities and partnerships you will need to to create to advance it? What kinds of motivating "what ifs" should you be posing to stimulate thinking?

Set aside some time - soon - to begin generating the questions your board needs to be asking to govern for greatest impact.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Moving past traditional training mindsets: nonprofit board talent development

 Purchased from Bigstock Photo

Last week, my lead adult learning professional organization, the American Society for Training and Development, announced a name change at its annual conference. ASTD is now ATD, the Association for Talent Development.

As I thought about what the name change is intended to communicate to members - and perhaps the larger industry - my mind naturally came to rest on what such a shift in focus might mean in the context of nonprofit board development. I asked myself

What if we shifted our focus from "nonprofit board training" to "nonprofit board talent development?"

Words matter. They define parameters. The provide context. They shape the future.

I train my dogs.

I train boards in isolated learning events. I train, in part, because that is what boards ask me to do. I train, because the boards that hire me recognize they have some need - and a desire - to be better. I really train, because these events offer not only an opportunity to address the identified challenge but to open the door to seeing different ways of seeing and doing nonprofit governance.

Training has a role. But training is not enough, not if we want nonprofit boards to reach their full potential. One limitation is both real and a matter of perception. Training implies a deficit somewhere: missing skills - missing something - that the trainer is expected to fill once and be done. Sometimes, that's actually the case. We're missing a key skill or knowledge set that, once identified, can be learned and put to rest. But, in my experience, that's not the real learning need that nonprofit boards have.

Training is fine for my dogs. It is not fine - as a solitary development source - for talented community leaders.

That is my largest source of frustration with "board development" as it is commonly conceptualized, written about and practiced in the sector. When we talk about "board development," we think only in terms of isolated events, led by an expert, addressing discrete skills grounded in the notion that the smart people in the room are failing hopelessly.

I've always resented that as a board member. I am distinctly uneasy about that as a board educator and facilitator.

What if, instead of automatically seeing a need to fix their deficits (and view them as burdens), we took the ASTD/ATD cure and treated developing our nonprofit boards as the investment in valuable resources that it is?

Questions this is raising for me (many of which will ring familiar to regular readers):

  • How do we acknowledge and identify board members' individual and collective talents?
  • How do we harness the existing talents in the room to joint benefit?
  • How do we strengthen and expand those existing talents via experiential learning in service to our mission?
  • How do we identify growth areas that are appropriate to the agency's needs?
  • How do we provide formal learning opportunities that support the experiential learning and strengthen and expand the growth areas?
  • How do we find connections between individual member talents and agency and program needs? 
  • How do we help them discover and nurture new talents through their work with us?
  • How do we invest in that development?
  • How is that investment different than training them?
  • What does that convey to board members, about our understanding of/appreciation for/relationship with them?

Obviously, this is part of a personal evolution in thinking and an ongoing conversation that I want to have in the sector. As I continue to learn more about the ASTD/ATD shift as a member of that organization, I naturally will be doing so through the nonprofit board (talent!) development context. We can pretty much expect that parts of that journey will play out here.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Agenda item: Share mission moments

Agenda item 17: Regularly identify and share mission moments with the board.

Note: I've referred to mission moments many times here over the years, but I've never actually spotlighted them. Sharing a fantastic local example last week prompted me to do so today.

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

We all know that a nonprofit’s mission is its reason for being. We also know that protecting and advancing the mission is a board’s ultimate responsibility.

But how do we keep it front and center in the push to pore over financial statements, committee reports and other routine tasks that fill the average board meeting agenda?

How do we keep the mission from becoming a special event topic that we dust off for a retreat every couple of years?

How do we ensure that our board fulfills its ultimate governance responsibility?

The answer: Mission moments.

A mission moment is exactly what it sounds like: a brief opportunity stop, learn, and reflect on our organization’s purpose. I really do mean brief – think five to 15 minutes, tops. That’s all you really need to share anecdotes, examples and other evidence that connects board members to the work that you do and the impact that you’re making on others’ lives.  For example:

  • Have a staff member share an anecdote – anonymously, of course – about a client whose life was changed because of services provided.
  • Ask a fellow board member to share how he or she successfully engaged a donor or other supporter and how they together found a connection between that donor’s interests and the agency’s needs.
  • Invite a former client to visit a board meeting to share his or her story personally.
  • Ask a frontline volunteer to talk about why he or she serves – what motivates that person to contribute time to your cause and your organization.
  • Share an infographic, dashboard or other summary that highlights the organization’s impact – emphasis on “share.”

Whatever you choose to highlight in a mission moment, make sure that it is memorable and easy to share.

How can you use mission moments to make your impact real, compelling and worthy of sharing to your board members?

Monday, May 5, 2014

The nonprofit board chairperson experience: National survey seeks your feedback

What is it like to serve as a nonprofit board chairperson/president? What are the challenges? Where are the key forms of support? How are these board leaders prepared to serve?

Those are the kinds of questions that my Alliance for Nonprofit Management research teammates and I are hoping to answer - with your help - via a major national survey now underway.  

Sponsored by ANM's Governance Affinity Group, the study seeks to hear directly from board chairs about the experience. While we are still immersed in literature review, I can tell you that going straight to the source - those who lead our boards - seems to be a fairly big piece of the research puzzle being filled.

While helping you is the normal mode for this space, today I'm asking for reader support. To increase its informative value, we need to put this survey into the in-boxes of as many nonprofit board chairs as possible. That person could be you. It could be the chair of your own board. It could be a friend of colleague who serves on another local board. It may be several board leaders in a nonprofit network of which you are a member.

Would you help us get the word out? Would you encourage the board chairs in our circle of influence to participate?

I'm particularly interested in generating a strong showing from the Rocky Mountain region and other rural communities. Early responses have come largely from the two coasts. While it's a great thing to have their feedback, I also know that some of the challenges we face in very small nonprofits, in often isolated communities, can be pretty unique.  We need to hear about them. 

The survey should take around 20 minutes to complete (we cover a lot of bases). It is a chance to share your/their story, a chance to help expand understanding of the board leadership experience, and a chance to help shape a better future for those who will serve in years to come.

Please share this link with your board chair/president friends and acquaintances:


Please take the survey, if you are a nonprofit board chair, and help us spread the word.

As a personal thanks, I can pretty much guarantee that you will not only see multiple posts here, discussing the findings, but that I will share links to any publicly available resources that emerge from it.

Finally, a public nod to the team that has worked many months to bring this project to reality. It's been a pleasure to work with this group of governance pros and to be a part of this process so far with them (and anticipating data analysis with glee!). In reverse alphabetical order:

Mary Hiland, Ph.D.
Gayle Gifford, M.S.
Judy Freiwirth, Psy.D.
Mike Burns, M.A.
Debra Beck, Ed.D


Friday, May 2, 2014

Meet Kajsa: the girl behind the BDAR miracle

This, dear readers, may be an ultimate example of a nonprofit mission moment. Meet Kajsa, the former rescue dog that sparked the mission behind Cheyenne, Wyoming's Black Dog Animal Rescue.

I've watched and appreciated BDAR's lifesaving work for a few years now (and seen several photos of Kajsa in founder Britney Wallesch's Facebook feed). I've visited with Britney about her work and the organization. I've watched success story after success story, even as volunteers work to save even more lives the moment foster space frees up (and, yes, I've written checks in response.).

This little girl, now senior citizen, is the model for BDAR's logo and the inspiration for the miracles that have happened through the generosity and compassion of those volunteers.

Even through the inevitable tears, I recognize a powerful mission moment when I see one. Kajsa's story is a particularly compelling example for this pet parent. I'll be giving my own black dog a jumbo-sized hug and kiss in Kajsa's honor tonight.

What stories can you share with board members (and others, through them), in and out of meetings? What inspiration can they draw from hearing about the lives you change or save? What are your "Kajsa" stories that they need to hear and share?

(P.S. If the spirit moves - to write your own check, adopt a black dog [or dog of any color] - after watching, please act on it. )

Agenda item: Support board development

Agenda item 16: Encourage, support formal and informal board development.

To govern effectively and with impact, nonprofit boards and their members need a broad range of resources and capacities in our toolbox.

Board learning needs are high and ongoing. Board development opportunities are essential to building the knowledge and skills we need to govern effectively. Helping board members connect to those resources is essential.

Board members have at least two areas of learning need: about the organization and its mission area and about governing effectively. Each mission area will have a different mix of sources, but a wide range of sources now exists on- and off-line for everyone. Board members need know about, and have access to, as many of those resources as possible.

Does your agency have an umbrella organization or peer network that shares resources? Link board members into that information pool and/or share information made available there.

Are there government (federal, state, etc.) agencies that inform your work? Make sure board members have access to those resources.

Do any of these networks have e-newsletters offering information that board members may find useful? Share your copy or encourage them to sign up for their own.

Are there conferences or other professional development events that have the potential to build board member understanding and leadership capacity? Recognize the investment in your future and provide funding for one or two members to attend (and request that they share handouts and highlights to extend the learning to all when they return).

Are there webinars, free of paid (again, it's an investment), covering topics of importance to your work? Make sure board members know about them and encourage them to participate.

We can't afford to have passive board members who resist the learning necessary to govern effectively. But, if that is true, we also can't afford to leave them on their own to figure out where to find what they need. Besides creating the expectation for board development, we must do what we can to support them.

What resources will help your board members lead and succeed? How will you connect them to those resources? How will they be expected to share that learning and expand their individual and collective capacity to govern?

For more information on nonprofit board learning in all of its forms, visit the "Board Learning" tab at the top of the page.