Thursday, December 31, 2015

Nonprofit board learning environments: Some lingering questions and 2016 to dos


I may have committed officially to spending 2015 here exploring nonprofit board learning environments, but the journey began the day this blog was launched and will last as long as this particular space exists. 

The more I wrote this year, and the deeper the reflection process went this week, the more questions and "must writes" emerged. While the intense focus this year expanded my thinking (and, hopefully, your understanding), it inevitably sparked a few lingering questions. I can almost guarantee that those questions to be covered here in 2016 and beyond. Frankly, it is my quest of a lifetime and this is the venue where much of it can unfold.

Some of the lingering questions on my mind today:

How can I continue to develop performance and performance support as useful board concepts? The more I explore the concept of performance, the more convinced I am that it provides a key piece of not only the board learning puzzle but the board effectiveness equation as well. The greater the connection made between learning and performance - in ways that are meaningful to our boards - the greater the potential that they will successfully meet those expectations.

How do we assess learning and performance in a board setting? We need to develop research-driven baselines for understanding how learning takes place and how it feeds governance performance. We also need practice-friendly assessment processes - informed by that research - that acknowledge the role that learning in all forms plays in board and board member effectiveness.

How do we facilitate rich environments where informal and social learning can flourish? Board capacity builders still have work to do to enhance the learning outcomes (and develop more realistic expectations) for formal board development events, but most in the sector have a general idea of what they look like and how they function. What we clearly need is greater appreciation for the informal experiences that both naturally occur in governance and that can be introduced and facilitated more thoughtfully as part of what boards do. We also need to appreciate and facilitate the kinds of peer learning and support that take place - and that we can develop more deliberately.

How do we foster cross-board and sector-level social learning, mentoring and coaching? In addition to expanding the pool of supportive resources available to all, we also need to create opportunities to break the dysfunctional cycle of repeating what our predecessors did before us. We need to create ways to introduce new models, new ways of working, and new examples of what effective nonprofit governance can look like. 

How to we (I?) spark interest in studying learning in a nonprofit board context among adult learning scholars? We need the expertise of researchers and practitioners in that field to inform our understanding and practice about nonprofit board development and performance.

What is my next research step? Not working full time in academia, where research is both expected and supported, adds to my personal challenge of finding time and energy to embark on new intellectual initiatives. That said, I accept my responsibility as an adult educator working with nonprofit boards to find a way to make that happen. The most likely next step - one that will add to sector understanding and inform my consulting and teaching in the future - is a project I've discussed with peers here: a learning needs assessment targeting Wyoming nonprofit board chairs.

How can I continue to share research - governance and adult learning - in practice-friendly ways? Text-based efforts like this summer's theory to governance practice series offer one option. So does continuing to use video tools like Blab to bring researcher friends and their work to readers here. Whatever the form taken, this feels like a strong need to address in 2016.

What learning experiences am I positioned to offer in 2016? How can I adapt my learning facilitation skills to create new experiences for nonprofit board members? How can I get over whatever hurdles are keeping me from offering what I know I am capable of providing? 

How do we cultivate, prepare, and support board leaders? Working on the research team behind the Alliance for Nonprofit Management survey certainly feeds this interest, but I've long understood the need to do a better job of preparing and supporting our board leaders. It's more than knowing how to put together a stimulating agenda. It's about articulating a richer vision of board leadership, one that understands how to bring out the best in our members.

How do we increase awareness, accessibility, and motivation to use the resources that already exist for nonprofit boards? While the need to expand the conversation about what it means to govern and what we need from our boards to achieve the outcomes we desire, the fact is that a wide and rich pool of resources already exist that many board members and board leaders simply aren't accessing. It's one of the findings of the board chair data that troubles me most. Clearly, this one requires more than what I can accomplish here (though I'll continue to share quality resources from others as I find them). But the question remains and is more challenging than it probably should be.

So there it is. The last post of a blogging year focused on a critically important topic. Articulating these questions is the final part of the reflection and closure process for me. It also offers some stepping stones for what comes next. What is that "next?" I'll share my 2016 theme and some of the inevitable agenda items in Monday's post. Thanks for joining me on the adventure of the last year. I hope you'll be part of whatever unfolds in the year to come.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Nonprofit board learning environments: Defining a few personal takeaways

While contributing to the larger conversation about board learning was my major goal here this year, expanding my own understanding was an inevitable and welcome outcome. Today, I offer a few insights on some personal takeaways and how they transformed and informed my thinking and practice.

It's about performance and performance support. This shifted everything for me. I didn't enter 2015 with performance specifically on the agenda, but its importance in providing the context for board learning emerged early and assumed a central place in pretty much everything learning related that was shared here.

In the end, it's all about performance.

  • Do our boards really understand what we expect of them? Of each other? 
  • Do they make the connection between the learning that we ask of them and the performance outcomes that we expect?
  • Can they demonstrate and articulate their impact as a result of their performance?

Performance needs to be the explicit foundation for everything we do and discuss in board development. We need to frame development/learning goals within the context of performance and performance support. We need to shape learning initiatives through a performance lens if we expect boards to respond and perform as we need them them to do.

These conversations need to happen not only at the individual board level but at a broader sector and subsector level. What does nonprofit governance performance look like, with what impacts? No one, universal answer is likely; but greater clarity among everyone involved - including and especially board members themselves - can only facilitate the kinds of actions and impacts needed from these volunteer leaders.

Training in perspective. I already knew that training was only one part of the board learning environment (and a relatively small one at that). Breaking down the persistent stereotype that learning=training was, to be honest, a major goal for the year. But having opportunities to think more expansively, through different adult learning lenses, brought that into clearer view. Having to apply those lenses, and articulate how they've been demonstrated in different settings I've encountered, deepened my understanding of what is possible in board development if we expand our definition and practice beyond the usual formal modes. My affinity for the 70:20:10 framework is a reflection of that - not as a magic formula, but an acknowledgment that learning is an inevitable and rich part of our lives that takes many forms.

More board learning research needed. While the governance research community is a robust one, very little of the work emerging from it focuses specifically on board learning and development. My primary theoretical perspective, and research so far, lies in adult learning. Over the years, I've certainly accumulated a long list of research "to dos" in this area. It's probably inevitable that immersing myself in board learning environment topics here naturally expanded that list.

Because academia is not my full-time home, my individual capacity to address those research needs is limited. I need help. I'm realizing that, as stimulating as it is to interact in my governance scholar community, the real outreach here needs to happen on the adult learning side. More adult education scholars need to see the potential in studying nonprofit boards and their development processes.  How I go about building those connections at this point is a personal challenge that I need to consider in 2016.

Speaking of research...

Power in revisiting and sharing my own work. I'd written about the case study findings that became my doctoral dissertation early in the blog's life. (I launched this site as I was completing data collection and writing the dissertation.) Sharing my findings when they were fresh helped me process and connect them to other settings. But two things were true in 2009. One, I had far fewer readers who could benefit from the information. Two, I still was too close to the experience to fully grasp what those practice connections might really be.

Re-examining that work in a year focused on board learning environments made sense. What I didn't expect was the positive response (both social media interactions and page views) from a broader audience. I also underestimated the personal value of reflection fueled by additional years of experience and study. I took a blank slate approach to writing the posts this year about key findings from that research, analyzing and applying them through wiser and more experienced eyes rather than simply rewriting the original posts.

The true shock? Response to a summertime, mid-week "learning theory to governance practice" series. I'd long wished that I could translate some of the key theoretical perspectives that formed my literature review into governance practice ideas. But I hesitated, fearing that diving too deeply into the theoretical pond might alienate readers - not that it would be over your heads, but that you'd find no practical value in the exercise.

Because offering a theoretical foundation felt like an essential part of the year's focus, I took the plunge. To say that I was shocked by interest in those posts would be an understatement. Not only did readers not avoid those entries, you apparently brought friends. Page views skyrocketed with each successive series post. What I took away from that observation was affirmation of my default assumptions about my readers, and nonprofit board members generally. You're smart, dedicated community leaders who want to be stretched in ways that enhance your effectiveness and impact. We should never, ever talk down to you. You want to understand the context and information that increases your leadership effectiveness.

And finally, a logical next step...

There is a need for, and openness to, practice-focused translation and application of governance research. I've known that for as long as I've been studying nonprofit boards. But the reception that posts related to my research, and to adult learning perspectives shared across the year, affirmed that.

While I'll never turn this site into a theoretical swampland, I now have a vision of how social platforms like this blog can help bridge the governance theory/practice divide. Early efforts to use Blab to introduce readers to expert researcher friends and their work is one novel (for me, at least) way to facilitate that bridge. A renewed commitment to exploring practice-friendly ways to share both governance and adult learning research is a welcome outcome for me. I started this blog on that premise. After this year, I'm seeing an expanded potential for that work.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Creating a nonprofit board learning environment: Inspiration revisited

Purchased from Bigstock Photo

What does a board learning environment really look like? What's possible if we adopt a learning environment approach to developing boards and expanding their collective governance capacity?

As the closure process for my 2015 theme here continues, I can't help returning to the framework that influenced my interest in exploring board learning from an "environment" perspective, created by Catherine Lombardozzi. Catherine shared her framework sometime in the fall of 2014 (my bookmarks are dated October 2014), in advance of her excellent book that expands upon it, Learning Environments by Design.

The holistic approach appealed to me, both from a conceptual standpoint and from an "I've seen that in real life" mode. My mind is a tad foggy this morning, on how her work informed my decision about the theme chosen for the year now closing. While I've gone on to flesh out what I consider to be essential components of a learning environment for a nonprofit governance context, and I'm still pulling things together in a way that makes sense, I can't help returning to Catherine's framework and acknowledge that it's more or less perfect as she has laid it out.

Downloadable visuals of Lombardozzi's learning environments model can be found here, under the "graphics" heading (along with a plethora of resources you may find as useful as I did). For the sake of this reflection, I'll reiterate the core components and a few of the examples she offers alongside some board-related thoughts.

Resources


  • Performance support
  • Job aids
  • Content sharing tools 
  • Books, articles, databases, manuals, etc.

If we simply focused on performance support (my biggest "aha" of the year) and expanding the pool of resources available to our boards - or, for that matter, awareness of what's already out there - we'd likely see significant enhancement of governance capacity across the sector and in individual boardrooms. Our board members are smart people who often don't know what they don't know about the volunteer leadership job they take on when they say yes. They often have no idea that resource centers, books, webinars, courses, conferences, blogs like this one, and other sources of support and information exist. They certainly aren't reading journal articles describing governance research or even group behavior.  Or they may know that some of these resources exists, but they are hard-pressed to find the additional time and/or money to take advantage of them.

We need to change that. I'm still working on the "how," but we need to do a better job of both expanding what is widely (and preferably freely) available and increasing awareness of what is available to boards and board leaders everywhere.

People


  • Peer support
  • Social media networks and forums
  • Coaches and mentors
  • Conferences

My interest in informal and social learning, and the 70:20:10 framework, should be clear by now. Access to the resources above is an excellent starting point. But learning takes hold when we have knowledgeable peers and expert resources to bring it to life. As with the resources list above, a significant first step toward unlocking the full potential of this component is simple awareness of what already exists to support our boards and their leaders and encouragement to use them.

But as I noted in my last post, we also have work to do when it comes to creating and facilitating quality support in this area. It's not enough to just follow the example of the person before you, reproducing the same routines and challenges from board generation to generation. We also need to create and model new examples of high-impact leadership and governance. They want to be better. They want to succeed. They need help understanding what that looks like in this context. And they need supportive networks like the one I described earlier this fall for connecting with, and learning from, those who are leading the way.


Training and education


  • Courses and seminars
  • Post-event support
  • On-the-job training
  • Certifications
  • Academic programs and courses

Yes, yes, yes. We need to provide these experiences for our boards and board leaders. Not all are germane to, or even logical for, every board member. But some can be provided or adapted to fit the needs of those who want to learn more or who aspire to new leadership roles.

Two on Catherine's list - post-event support and on-the-job training - should be natural parts of every board development process. As I described earlier this year, we must do a better job of supporting boards as they attempt to apply what they learn from formal training experiences. We also can be attentive to the opportunities for "on-the-job training" that arise in the course of normal board work. It may not resemble what we normally think of when we hear that term, but it exists and should be part of the natural flow of experiential learning.

There is interest in certificate and academic course experiences. I provide them and regularly find a rich mix of not only nonprofit staff wanting to work more effectively with their boards but board members who desire to understand their responsibilities and rise to their full potential as nonprofit leaders. Demand in the larger board member population may not be massive, but it exists and we need to ensure that they have access to those opportunities. We also can do a better job of creating short-term learning events, e.g., webinars, that address board member interests and needs. (Yep, on my 2016 agenda.)


Development practices 


  • Action learning
  • Stretch assignments
  • Experiential learning
  • Post-action review
  • Cross-training

I've touched on this area superficially this year and across the blog's life. But revisiting this today, I pretty much see the next "learning" phase of my writing here. What sticks out most to me right now is the power represented in the first bullet point. What could happen if boards took charge of their own learning and performance improvement by engaging in action research? What would happen for the sector as a whole if they partnered with a researcher well-versed in qualitative methods to make the most of that experience and shared their findings with others?

What if we created stretch assignments specifically as learning and leadership development experiences and supported them as such?

What if we included learning in our board self-assessments and reflections?

Experiential learning


  • Learning by doing
  • Critical reflection
  • Collaboration
  • Experimentation
  • Creating notes and job aids

Our boards already are engaged in the "learning by doing" element - even if they aren't aware of the "learning" piece of the equation. Many may be engaged in collaborative efforts that can be rich fields for experiential learning - if we are attuned to that potential. Some may experimenting with new ways of working, with new ways of leading, or with new ways of decision making. There's always room for more critical reflection, even among boards that excel at inquiry.

I included the last bullet point for a reason that may not be obvious to many board members, but perhaps should be. One of the ways we learn in other areas of our lives is by creating notes and job aids. We jot down steps to accomplish a task (like the folder I keep showing exactly how to set up a new web page at work). We whip out our phone to take a quick snapshot of how a hobby project is coming together (and maybe share when it isn't, so we can receive advice). We might even record a quick video demonstrating how we want something to be done. Nonprofit boards are eternal entities (or as "eternal" as our organizations), but board members are transient. They come and they go; and when they do the latter, they take their knowledge and organizational history with them. Creating ways for them to capture all - the big and small - that helps them govern more efficiently and effectively in the moment. Creating ways for them to share those aids with each other and with their successors eases the process for the future. I need to sit with this one for a bit to get a better sense of what those aids might look like, but the potential to reduce some of the "reinventing the wheel" that takes place in many boards feels big.


 Learner motivation and self-direction


  • Desire to learn
  • Understanding of how learning fuels performance
  • Confidence in one's ability to learn
  • Self-directedness

Looking back on the learning-related posts written this year - and, frankly, across the life of this "board learning" blog - I must acknowledge that this is mostly uncharted territory here. Most of my focus has been on the board level, and rightly so. That said, we also must acknowledge the obvious: if board members are not motivated to learn about their work and your organization, if they cannot see the connections between that learning and their increased effectiveness, if they don't feel they have the time or ability to commit to what you need them to do, if they are not self-directed enough to do even the basics - like read materials you provide or check out the resources you share - all of this is for nothing.

My default mode is assuming board members are capable and motivated community leaders who rise to our expectations for them. While we must be aware of all four of the factors Catherine lays out, I'm convinced that the biggest challenge for us is the second, understanding how the learning we ask them to do connects to their performance as a governing body and individual members.  The better we facilitate those connections, the more motivated and inspired they will be.
 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Building nonprofit board talent: Some thoughts about a sector-level response

talent development
(Purchased from BigStock Photo)

What would happen if we shifted sector-level focus from board training and development to board talent development? How would that change the board training industry? How might it transform individual boards?

I've been thinking about this since the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) became the Association for Talent Development (ATD).  As my primary adult learning professional affiliation, ATD's evolution of thinking and programming has inevitably stretched my own framework and context for building board performance capacity.

Most of my focus in the last year - and across the blog's life - has been board-level learning. What can we do to support and improve our individual governing bodies' effectiveness? As I continue to count down the days to the official end of this year's board learning environments theme, I need to spend a bit more time offering some ideas - and posing a few questions - about what needs to happen beyond the individual boardroom. ATD's Competency Model offers an intriguing and useful foundation for that reflection.

I'm not at liberty to post a visual of the model here; but I can encourage you to visit the link shared above, encourage you check out the interactive version that ATD provides (click on each item for a description), and offer a few thoughts about how different components might be applied or adapted to a nonprofit governance setting.

Training delivery


Even as I've attempted to stretch our thinking about board development beyond the traditional focus on formal events this year, I've repeatedly acknowledged that those events have a legitimate role to play in a board setting. That said, those of us who provide those services need to continue to expand our teaching/facilitation frameworks and programs offered. We need to work toward increasingly context-driven, interactive agendas that lay the learning foundation that the boards that hire us really need. And speaking of "needs:" We need to push back, gently of course, when boards attempt to order the same old, classroom-y, cram it all in (quickly) formats that they think they want. We need to encourage them to trust us to facilitate the kinds of experiences that actually lay the foundation for the change they seek.

Coaching


Our board members, board leaders, and the CEOs who partner with them need access to experienced, more expert coaches to guide them to effectiveness and fulfillment. I've known this for years, but the point was brought home even more vividly as my Alliance for Nonprofit Management research team peers and I analyzed data from our national board chairs survey. Two resonant points emerging from that data that apply to this component:

  • One, there was stated interest in access to coaching and mentoring resources among many survey respondents. If we build it as a sector - and make it convenient to access - there is a strong likelihood that many will come. "Convenient" appears to be key here. We can't establish a coaching program then kick back and wait for them to discover and come to us. We must do outreach that reaches those most in need and invite them to participate. Oh, and we need to participation as easy to accomplish as possible.
  • Two, there is a lot of learning by example taking place in our boards. But the big question for me continues to be about the quality of those examples. Without access to other ways of governing, ways of leading, ways of thinking about boards and how they interact, is there any real potential for breaking out of our dysfunctional patterns? Clearly, we need local mentors who govern alongside us and who understand our organizations and their missions. But we also need coaches who will stretch us and expose us to different modes and leadership examples. That's a sector-level responsibility and opportunity if we actually want to see change in our boardrooms.

Evaluating learning impact


I've followed board self-assessment research by governance scholar peers for a few years now. I've gathered, shared, used, and adapted various board evaluation tools made available on the practitioner side as well. My adult learning background always prompts me to beg for expansion on the learning side of the board performance equation. (Hmmm. Perhaps my next big research focus?)  I see this component of the ATD model as a joint responsibility. We need researchers - including adult education researchers - to develop the processes for describing how adult board members actually learn and evaluating the effectiveness of our intentional board development efforts. We need sector-wide conversations about what constitutes effective board performance. We also need participation from individual boards, both for allowing us in to observe and analyze learning as it happens and for providing context about what impact means to them and their communities. My own dissertation case study was one interesting step in that direction; but so much more is needed, both theory and practice.


Performance improvement


By now, I hope that this one will be old news to regular readers. Shifting our attention from board training and development to performance support might be the single most transformative move we can make as a sector. We don't want our boards to simply know more - we want them to perform more effectively and with greater impact. (Click here for a more detailed description of my board performance vision.) We need to shift from a focus on means (training and development) to a greater emphasis on the ends we seek from our boards (performance). To the extent that we can develop greater clarity with them, and identify together what that impact actually looks like, we improve their performance potential. It's important work that ultimately comes down to the individual board level, but it's not work they can do on their own. They need our help.

Integrated talent management


I debated whether to include this one in my analysis today, simply because of the jargon-y tone of "talent management." But in the end, I found value in aspects of how ATD describes this component - specifically, the way it connects to broader objectives that facilitate the performance connections that we need. Here are some of the bullet points that ATD uses to describe this element:

  • "Apply talent management to organizational objectives"
  • "Use talent management systems"
  • "Equip managers to develop their people"
  • "Promote high-performance workplaces"

Okay, so "management"  and "workforce" aren't perfect language fits to the nonprofit board setting. But the ideas behind them should be obviously and easily applied here. To the extent that we connect board learning and performance objectives to their governance responsibilities, and to the extent that we build environments and systems that support their continued capacity building, we set them up for success. To the extent that we prepare board leaders and CEOs to not just keep governing bodies on task but support and develop their full potential, and to the extent that we create and facilitate environments that foster high performance, we actually have the potential to actually see that performance realized.

Obviously, this post has more relevance to my fellow capacity builders than to boards and individual members - and probably only of immediate interest to me as part of the journey I've been on for the past year. But in the end, if we really want to see the change we all claim to want in our boards - if we want them to reach their full performance potential - we must step up as a sector to support and expand their talent.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Off to a good start: A learning-centered, performance-driven board orientation

orientation

What does new member orientation look like in a nonprofit board learning environment? If we acknowledge that formal training is only one comparatively small part of the way adults really learn, how do we structure it while facilitating the more comprehensive experience?

If we want our new board members to launch their leadership journey with us from a place of confidence and increasing effectiveness, how do we support their early performance?

I can't let this year's official focus on board learning environments come to a close without a specific reflection on the processes needed to bring not only welcome new members but provide the kinds of quality experiences and other resources required to become the leaders we need.

I've written about board orientation here before, but I think I'd rather start with a blank slate and draw from my own expanded understanding of board learning that evolved across 2015. The 70:20:10 framework offers one rich context for this reflection.

Formal learning


I'll start here, because it's where most of us begin (and sometimes end) our thinking about new member orientation. There is a legitimate role for a formal training event for preparing new members. Whether or not they have served your organization in other roles, whether or not they have years of experience serving on other boards, new members have a legitimate need to understand three topics more deeply: your mission, your organization, and your expectations of them as board members. To the extent that there is new information to share and discuss in these three areas, training has a role.

That said, we must recognize that (a) new members' learning needs exceed what is possible in a formal setting and (b) the gap between what we want them to take away and what they actually retain can be pretty big (58 percent lost within an hour, according to the Association for Talent Development). We also can structure orientation sessions differently. For example, we can:

  • Balance presentation of information with open space for questions and interactions, giving new members opportunities to ask what is important to them and to clarify points that feel uncertain. (We also do them a service by not overloading them with 'stuff' that they will struggle to remember.)
  • Incorporate other active learning strategies to minimize that passive sitting and
  • Provide and demonstrate resources that put what they need to know at their fingertips when they need to know it. Whether it's a hard-copy board handbook, an online board portal, or something else, make sure that new members have ready access to tools that support their performance.

Social learning


New members benefit from welcoming access to human resources, especially board leaders, senior staff (especially the CEO) and fellow members. In a healthy board culture, these relationships naturally develop and expand members' learning potential across their service. In the beginning, though, we expand our support of new members by creating specific opportunities for interaction and support.

I've long recommended a board mentorship program as an essential part of a multifaceted orientation program. Pairing each new member with a more experienced peer offers the former a partner to whom those "naive" questions about board processes and other mysteries. It also can have the secondary benefit of sparking opportunities for reflection (why do we do it that way?) for the mentor.

It's also important that the board chair and CEO not only make themselves available to new members but actively reach out early in their service. Demonstrated openness to supporting new members' learning and other needs lays the groundwork for open and mutually beneficial relationships in the future.

Informal learning


The previous learning resources are important in bringing new board members up to speed. They may even be institutionalized, valued parts of your orientation process. But they still likely play a comparatively limited role in how our board members really learn to be board members (the "70" in the 70:20:10 framework).

In a nutshell, new board members learn by doing. They also learn by observing and analyzing what their peers do and say and respond/reciprocate in ways they perceive as appropriate to the context. They occasionally learn - as we all do - by making mistakes and reflecting on them. I discussed general ways to think about, and approach, facilitating these experiential learning opportunities earlier this year. But today I'd like to offer a few specific ideas for fostering the richest experiences possible for new members.

  • Lay the groundwork for productive participation early, by describing why they are being asked to serve before they say yes. I remain convinced that one of the most powerful factors for my case study board's effectiveness was the role clarity that each member described having before joining the board. They knew what specific perspectives, skills, etc., they were expected to contribute up front, which provided the foundation for stepping up and fulfilling those needs.
  • With each new member, identify specific ways to begin involvement that (a) invites active and productive engagement and (b) fits the member's skills and learning interests. Select committee assignments thoughtfully - offer immediate ways to contribute to meaningful work while also providing opportunities to learn more about the organization and the board. Identify any other board activities, beyond standing committees, where new members can contribute and learn.
  • Provide tours or visits that give new members extended opportunities to learn about your programs and staff. Encourage appropriate, ongoing interactions that provide context for the work that you do and an understanding of the environment in which those services are provided. (Note: "appropriate" will vary from organization to organization. Have that talk with your new members - it's part of the "context" they must learn and respect.)
  • Offer appropriate volunteerism opportunities that bring them closer to your programs and your mission. Yes, we must acknowledge the potential challenges that accompany board members stepping into volunteer roles. Some volunteer roles may clearly overstep. But most of our organizations have episodic volunteer experiences that can bring board members into our work and bring an added layer of life to our missions. The more we can create those firsthand experiences, the deeper the connections and motivations become.
  • Encourage authentic new member participation in board discussions. Ask for their opinions and questions. Encourage them to contribute knowledge they hold that can inform the conversation at hand. Listening and observing is one part of the new member learning process, but don't allow them to linger forever in silence. The earlier they are involved in the work of the board, the greater the access to experiences that naturally expand their understanding of the work they are expected to do.
  • Find opportunities to share organizational stories that illustrate your organization's work and impact. Stories bring your mission to life. Stories from firsthand sources - including other board members - bring it even closer. Encourage new members to share their own stories and make them part of the board narrative.
  • Support their performance by expanding their on-demand access to resources and tools that inform their thinking and participation. Share external resources (articles, websites, etc.) that expand their understanding of your mission and/or their governance responsibilities. Use some of those resources as jumping off points for board-level discussions and reflections.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list - as lengthy as it ended up being. Clearly, the 70:20:10 framework is only one lens through which we can view board orientation. Clearly, one can't completely "program" informal learning - nor should you even try. But I hope that it might spark conversation about how your board brings new members into productive places.

What one step could your board take to enrich those early experiences for your new members?



Friday, December 18, 2015

Governance toolbox: A generative video gift

Sometimes, a girl just has to stop, step back, and bow to the masters. I found myself doing that twice this week - first in Tuesday's interview with John Fulwider and yesterday when I encountered the singular focus of this week's toolbox.

Cathy Trower is not only a leading voice sharing the foundations of Governance as Leadership and its most revolutionary element, generative governance, she is quite frankly the practice master. Yesterday, she released a LinkedIn post featuring a series of short videos exploring aspects of that framing that foster great governance. Santa arrived early for me. He'll make it to you and your board members the moment you review and share the links below with them. Because there is so much governance goodness within - on topics that never get the kind of visibility they truly deserve - they receive all of the spotlight in this week's toolbox.

A series of podcasts about great governance -- This is the entire package, contained within the LinkedIn post. Each video is brief and can (and should) be watched and enjoyed separately. But there also is value in doing as I did yesterday, in taking 30 or so minutes to simply sit down and click through to the end. The connections and the larger story of what it takes to govern effectively and generatively are clear.  After you've watched, please share the link with your board. Include a promise to spend time discussing them together.

That said, I want to pull out a couple of videos that I found particularly powerful and worthy of focus with your board, alone or in tandem with another.



This may be one of the best, most concise descriptions of generative thinking ever made publicly available. Whenever I talk about either GAL or generative governance, I can pretty much guarantee questions and skepticism about an idea that can feel pretty fuzzy. It's simply not something that we've naturally embraced as an essential part of governing. Rather than something we maybe squish into a retreat somewhere, Trower describes it as the "headwaters," the starting point where we develop a "shared strategy of understanding in the boardroom before we get to a shared understanding of strategy" (nod to GAL co-author Richard Chait).




Because you knew I'd gravitate toward the "questions" topic, I must highlight this one. In this video, Trower contrasts the power of generative questions with the typical ways in which we engage boards in discussion.  I'll just leave this here and let you take away your own messages about why those questions are not frills that distract from your board's "real" work...

How do we use these videos as tools? Easy. First, share the original link with your board and include an expectation to watch and reflect. If you have a board portal or other systematic way of making resources available, add that link. Consider sharing and using all or part of it as part of your new member orientation process (yes, process...).

Second, do as I did and pull out one of the videos for featured discussion and reflection in a future meeting. Better yet, ask a board member to lead that process and facilitate a meaningful peer learning experience. Focus not only on the general concepts discussed but on application: what that work looks like in your board - or should look like if your board has work to do. Conclude with identification of specific steps and commitments to building your board's capacity in that area.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Research roundup: Building a healthy nonprofit board chair/CEO relationship


As promised earlier this week, I'm sharing a YouTube version of yesterday's interview with Dr. John Fulwider. We discussed highlights of his case study research on the factors that facilitate - and inhibit - a healthy and productive board chair/CEO partnership.

You'll want to purchase the electronic or hard copy version of his excellent book, Better Together: How Top Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs Get Happy, Fall in Love, and Change Their World. In the meantime, enjoy listening to our discussion about the key ideas emerging from his work.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Tuesday live feed: John Fulwider board chair/CEO relationship interview

To ensure that you have the easiest path possible to tomorrow's (Dec. 15) live Blab interview with John Fulwider, I'm setting up this post with an embedded link to the feed.

John and I will be discussing his research on the nonprofit board chair/CEO relationship, which he describes in detail in his must-read book, Better Together: How Top Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs Get Happy, Fall in Love, and Change Their World.

Blab willing, you should be able to simply return to this post at 11 a.m. Mountain time (10 Pacific, noon Central, 1 Eastern) to watch the interview as it happens (Sorry for the giant face in the countdown version.).

In case technology fails, I'll also give you a direct link to the Blab session. You'll find that link HERE.

I'll also post a recorded YouTube version of our conversation after the fact. An archived copy should also appear here as well, but social media platforms can be transient things. The back-up will ensure that we'll have a version regardless of Blab's future status.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Governance toolbox: Leading and stargazing

I feel a leadership theme coming on this morning...

The 5 ultimate responsibilities of leadership -- As my research teammates and I finalize the official Alliance for Nonprofit Management report on our national survey of board chairs, the essential contributions of leadership are ever-present in my mind and thinking. Dan Rockwell's recent post caught my eye while in that mode. Some of his five recommendations may feel more directly related to a nonprofit governance setting, but there is something to learn and apply from each. I will say this: if you begin and end at number one, if you truly commit to number one, your board's potential for impact expands exponentially.

11 simple concepts to become a better leader -- Keeping on the leadership theme, this LinkedIn post by Dave Kerpen offers what feels like an excellent list of qualities for those who lead our governing bodies - and, undoubtedly, for all board members. One that struck me as particularly important for the nonprofit setting was number two, storytelling. A nonprofit's ultimate value lies in its mission and vision - its ultimate impacts on its community (however it defines "community"). Numbers may provide statistical evidence, but stories give our impact life. Stories also inspire, not only external audiences (e.g., donors) but also board members. If you are a board leader, how are you exemplifying the concepts that Kerpen describes? Is there room to develop your leadership capacity and your impact?

Lucy Marcus - Business Model Podcast -- One of my favorite governance thinkers, talking (audio!) about, among other things, one of my very favorite governance topics! If you're a regular reader here, or you have participated in one of my classes or workshops, you've undoubtedly encountered Lucy Marcus and her work on grounding and stargazing. In this podcast (streaming here, hopefully appearing in iTunes soon), she addresses those equally important governance responsibilities - and much, much more. The context of her comments is corporate governance but, as always, there are lessons to carry away to the nonprofit setting as well (though she addresses nonprofit boards specifically toward the end of the conversation). It's a pleasure to read her work and to learn from her thinking. It's an even greater pleasure, for me at least, to hear her do the same.  Listen. Share with your board. Have a conversation about the key ideas that resonate for you.

Blab session - John Fulwider - Effective board chair/CEO partnerships -- Finally, an alert to my next governance interview via Blab, which fits the theme of this week's toolbox perfectly. I have the privilege of interviewing my friend John Fulwider, about the research behind his excellent book, Better Together: How Top Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs Get Happy, Fall in Love, and Change Their World. You may recall that I reviewed (and raved about) his work earlier this year.  Next Tuesday (Dec. 15), at 11 a.m. Mountain time, John and I will discuss highlights of that work live, on Blab. Click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph to watch live. I'll also set up a live-streaming post here, as I did when I interviewed my friend Max Freund. And, as I did last time, I'll also post a YouTube version of the interview after the fact here. That way, if Blab goes away or the technology fails in real time, I'll still have a permanent copy of the conversation to share with you.

Monday, December 7, 2015

10 ways to build member ownership of nonprofit board learning and performance

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

How do we create, expand, and sustain board member ownership of the learning that needs to take place for them to govern effectively?

As I begin to bring official closure to this year's theme here, part of the process for me is synthesizing and summarizing some of the key messages in actionable forms. Today's post, a throwback to my periodic "10 ways" series, attempts to launch that process.

One of the most basic steps we can take to building a learning environment - and one of the most powerful - is to help members not only recognize the importance of ongoing board development in all of its forms but to spark a sense of ownership. When learning is not something done unto them, when it becomes a valued part of capacity building that members direct for themselves, its power and potential skyrocket. The great news is this: building member ownership of their learning is not that hard. Really.

In the spirit of proving that point, I offer 10 ways to build member ownership of nonprofit board learning. There is nothing magical about these specific items, nor are all 10 necessary to see a shift. Taking even one of these steps can make a meaningful difference.

1. Have board members create and conduct a learning needs assessment. What do they identify as learning needs in two categories: (1) ongoing/universal to the job and the organization and (2) specific to current concerns, opportunities and focus areas? What do they really need to know to govern well? What do they see as important to their understanding for making the best possible choices for your organization?

2. At the same time, ask them to articulate why those needs are important. It's not enough to simply generate a laundry list of training topics. If we want members to commit to their learning and development, we need to help them connect those needs to performance expectations.

3. Ask board members to collectively identify the expertise, knowledge, connections that they bring into the room.  We may think we know what each other brings to the table, in terms of professional expertise and skills. But unless we take the time to regularly take stock of the skills, knowledge bases, hidden talents  and community connections, we will never know - or be able to access - all of the contributions they can make. A lot will be familiar (though periodic reminders of the wisdom already available to them can only help). But they undoubtedly will surprise each other - and probably themselves - once they start acknowledging the wider range of gifts they carry with them.

4. Expect them to share that wisdom - and support them in doing so. One simple but powerful finding of my dissertation case study was the importance of peer learning and members' willingness to step up and lead when they have the knowledge or experience to inform and direct board discussions and decisions. If you've recruited and oriented well, members already understand that role. It's not only a way to expand the board's collective learning, it's a way to build and value situational leadership that every governing body needs.

5. Make space in every -- every  -- meeting agenda for learning. That may come in the form of peer- or staff-led presentations about a mission- or program-related topic. (Note: "training" need not be multi-hour, multimedia extravaganzas. Even a few minutes to share what we know matter.) It may also come from discussions led around an article they are asked to read or a web resource to explore ahead of the meeting. It could also be a big, juicy, catalytic question that demands they research, reflect, and come prepared to really dig into in a generative discussion. Make identification of topics and facilitators for those learning sessions their responsibility.

6. Provide quick access to the tools and foundational resources they use on a regular basis. Board members shouldn't have to hunt for answers to ongoing questions. Whether it is a hard-copy board handbook, a board portal, a hybrid or something else altogether, make sure that their energy is available for learning that really matters, not digging up for the 100th time answers to burning questions like "how many make up a quorum?!" Those resources can and should also include trusted web resources that address mission concerns or governance/leadership responsibilities.

7. Help them see, understand, and appreciate that most of their learning is experiential and/or social, not formal. Awareness of this concept (see the 70:20:10 framework of adult learning) opens the door to opportunities to both value learning that is already taking place in their work and to design those experiences to be richer and more focused on governance needs. No, you can't really structure and fully control the "70" of board experiences. But you can create an environment where those experiences are spent immersed in high-quality governance discussions and roles that naturally expand their resulting learning potential.

8. Transform board committees into learning and leadership labs. For many/most of our boards, the real leg work takes place in committees. That is true for many reasons, some of which have direct connection to board learning potential. If we focus our committees on governance responsibilities (hint: NOT mirroring management functions), we have the perfect starting point for not only breaking work up into manageable chunks, but fostering and distributing deeper expertise for those functions across the board. Committee members have the opportunity (and responsibility) to research and apply what they learn to actionable knowledge for the board as a whole.  Taking the additional step of translating that knowledge to inform group thinking and decisions both extends the peer learning process and expands situational leadership potential for everyone.

9. Schedule and design formal learning events that matter. No, formal training events are not the be-all, end-all board development experiences. But they have a legitimate role in board learning. If we design them with their limitations in mind and a sense of context regarding where and how they fit the board's larger performance needs and expectations, their potential value increases. Also critical: ensuring that (a) members come primed for the experience (homework!) and (b) there is a plan for following up so that that application will be supported in in sustainable ways.

10. Include board development in self-assessment processes. Close the commitment loop - and further embed learning into board culture - by including the board development goals identified earlier in individual and group-level assessment processes. Did we take the steps required to address our learning and performance needs? Did we play an active role, as board members, in planning and delivering those learning experiences? Did we use that knowledge to inform our discussions and decisions? Are we committed to our own expanded performance capacity? What are the natural next steps for future learning and development?

Clearly, this list is far from comprehensive. But each of the recommendations here has the potential to help your board members expand, deepen and own their learning and performance development. Committing to all 10 definitely paves the way for high-capacity, high-impact performance. But, as I said at the beginning, taking even one step toward embedding learning into board work can make a difference.

What would you be willing to do to create members' ownership of their governance capacity and performance?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Governance toolbox: Limping into December

"Limping," indeed. Besides the post disruption that came while I attended the 2015 ARNOVA Conference - and the multi-day trip home (thanks, O'Hare...) - I picked up something unhelpful during the extra airport time. The good news: I've been gathering a lot of great resources even while I haven't been writing. Here are a few of those most worthy of sharing:


I'll open with not a tool but inspiration, courtesy of a fantastic TedxEvansville Talk by my dear friend, Lynn Miller Pease. Whenever you're tempted to think that the change you want and need to see in your community is impossible, call up this talk and remind yourself of how Evansville, Ind., empowered and engaged its citizens and transformed the community. It's hard work, to be sure. But it's within our power to lead and achieve.

The one question challenge -- What would a toolbox post be without a contribution from Dan Rockwell's excellent leadership blog? This one merges two of my favorite topics, curiosity and questions, into a post that should spark, well, curiosity about what's possible when we foster that quality in our boards. It opens with 13 powers unleashed by curiosity. (Whew. Talk about governance power if those are unleashed!) It then offers two question-directed challenges, encouraging us to look for opportunities to open our part of a conversation with questions rather than statements. But questions come with their own challenges, and Rockwell offers several warnings to help us avoid falling into some of the more predictable traps.

Renaming board committees -- My good friend, Gayle Gifford, reminds us that words matter. How we frame our work matters. The concept here is simple: giving new names to old standing committees. But what she describes is transformative potential as board members expand their vision of what they are doing to broader values and purposes that really encompass nonprofit governance responsibilities. Check it out. Have the conversation with your board. Is there any potential in reframing - and expanding - how you define your committees' work?

16 (yes, 16!) easy ways to lead your organization's culture shift -- Hmmm. Maybe the subtitle to this one should have been "Debra's friends edition"... This friend, Pamela Grow, reminds us that culture shifts occur one (sometimes easy) step at a time. Some of these 16 recommendations are more board-applicable than others. But several are, and they offer effective ways to involve and inform board members about the work that you do. Those that aren't can be encouraged and supported by the board.

7 facts about the nonprofit sector you may not have known --  The primary focus for our boards is their own organizations and communities, and rightfully so. But there is value in also having a broader context, a sector-level (national and state) view of what our nonprofits contribute to society. My personal reading this week (a book I'll end up recommending here) reminded me of that. This Bloomerang post offers a small taste of the size and impacts that the sector has on society.

5 questions every nonprofit leader should ask -- I'll close this week's toolbox with one that made me a little giddy when I first read it. (Hint: check the title.) Clear whatever you had on the agenda for your final board meeting of 2015. Replace it with one or more of the five questions Tom poses here. Give board members the question(s) in advance, so that they come prepared to really discuss and analyze and transform their thinking and understanding. Use these questions, not only for specific conversations now, but for inspiration for the kinds of leadership discussions they should be having on a regular basis.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Airport musings: Random thoughts from a reading while waiting for a plane

With wind in the "Windy City" prompting a so far six-hour (and counting - the crew just left) air traffic delay in reaching my ultimate destination today, I've had an equally unexpected opportunity to finish reading Michael Marquardt's excellent  Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask.

While I wait - and hope - for the chance to meet up with fellow nonprofit scholars at this year's ARNOVA conference, I'll take an opportunity to share a couple of highlights from this morning's reading. No big surprise, the topic is "questions."


The "become what you think about" quote has been my personal mantra for at least two decades, so Marquardt's adaptation caught my attention immediately. It's not a new concept to me  - or to regular readers - but I found the way he frames the role of questions to be incredibly powerful.

People who succeed do so "because of how they question what happens to them and the people and environment around them," Marquardt adds.

What if our boards accepted that challenge as I accepted the challenge of the more well-known idea years ago?  What happens for those boards that maintain an inquiry focus, that routinely tend to what's going on in the larger community/environment around them? What are the rest of them missing?

Let's just ponder that for a bit. (though, obviously, examples of boards who are accomplishing this are welcome!)

In talking about the role of questions in shaping organizational values, Marquardt offers this gem:

"Questions are fateful; they create a conversational agenda, which in turn becomes the context for envisioning and enacting the future. The more positive the question, the more positive will be the potential for transformation."

Clearly, boards must live and work in the real world and within the context of real constraints. But if they only focus on the here and now, if they only muddle through and obsess about what they don't have, they'll never have the chance, or the will, to create and enact the vision of something better. Questions matter. Attitude matters. Focus matters. Love this quote. Will be sharing that one in the future.

Some research, by Marquardt and Roland Yeo, that I will want to explore and possibly share here, focuses on characteristics of successful group problem-solving efforts. They emerged with five elements:

  • "Thoughtful questioning"
  • "Self-directedness"
  • "Learning orientation" 
  • "Deep listening"
  • "Confidence and well-being"

I'm not sure any of these completely surprise me. I'm especially pleased to see number three, obviously. Nurturing a culture of learning matters. But I'm probably most intrigued by the last item, particularly as it might relate to boards.

How do we foster and support within our boards authentic confidence in their work and impact? Note that "authentic" qualifier. Many of us can summon examples of boards that are totally confident - and totally off track from where they should be.

The "well-being" idea also intrigues. What does board "well-being" look like? With what results? I'm feeling the need to explore that one a bit. What does it bring to mind for  you?

My laptop battery is low - almost as low as my hope for actually making to to my conference tonight. If I make it to Chicago, my plan is to share insights and ideas from the governance track. One or two may even have a multimedia twist. In the meantime, I'll leave you with these nuggets from a book that I highly recommend.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Envisioning a Nonprofit Board Network


What if nonprofit boards everywhere had a place to gather, templates and examples shared by others, links to authoritative governance and leadership resources, and places where peers could ask questions and receive quick answers?

What if board treasurers, new board presidents, and nonprofit CEOs looking for guidance on how to work more effectively with their governing bodies had somewhere to connect with peers or find online resources specifically targeting their concerns? 

What if boards from environmental organizations, arts programs, and human service agencies had one place where they knew the could find, and interact with, governing bodies working on similar missions and facing similar challenges?

What if our boards had instant, on-demand access to the support they needed?

Different umbrella groups and segments of the nonprofit sector may offer their own versions of board community and support. But the larger population does not have access to this type of resource. 

Last week, as I wrapped up the post describing my vision of essential nonprofit board learning environment components, my fingers wandered - as they often do - to a favorite online hangout for fountain pen enthusiasts, The Fountain Pen Network. Clicking through to my favorite topics to see what was new, it hit me: this really is what I meant when I described the last "essential" on my list. Nonprofit boards need a place like the FPN to go to connect and build a supportive peer community.

This really is a missing piece of the larger learning environment puzzle: a space that every nonprofit board member can not only access (and, obviously, knows exists) but does access because it offers something of value. 

Now, I'm not necessarily saying a discussion forum like FPN is the optimal vehicle. Set aside for the moment the question of "how" to see the "what" represented in its example.

  • One must create an account to participate as a member (e.g., post a question or response in a thread), but the information is visible to anyone who has the URL. I'm a member. I can - and do - post. You probably are not a member, but you can see everything made publicly available on the site. Viewing an answer or a resource link already shared requires no commitment. If you have an internet connection, you have access to what's available on FPN.
  • There are dedicated spaces for specific types of discussions, e.g., about fountain pens in general, about inks, about resolving problems related to nibs. There are different spaces for specific interests, e.g., for enthusiasts of specific brands and for people who want to feedback on their handwriting and calligraphy skills. This directs a visitor to the space where he or she will be most likely to find an existing answer or pose a question requesting one.
  • It includes dedicated space for introducing yourself, where (speaking from experience) you will be warmly welcomed.
  • Visitors can find information about events of interest to members. There also are classifieds, a marketplace, and a space for sharing/loaning/trading.
  • The potential for developing online community exists in interactions with other members who participate and demonstrate a willingness to be helpful.
  • The community is global, as demonstrated by the country listings connected to each profile, visible on each post.
  • While some vendors and pen/ink pros are FPN members, this is a peer network. Some clearly are more expert than others. Some are brand new to the hobby. A few are thinking about a purchase and come for advice. Most of us are somewhere in between (like the typical board member). As with any gathering of people, some are more friendly than others. But for the most part, it is a collegial, supportive place to go to learn more about a common interest.

Imagine what would be possible if our board members had a place like that.

Imagine what would happen if new members - or people considering board service - could go somewhere to learn more about what it means to govern.

Imagine what might happen if our board chairs had a place to go for advice and resources to help them lead more effectively.

Imagine the time savings (and increased effectiveness) if boards had a place to go for quick questions about common bottom-line concerns (e.g., what are our essential legal responsibilities, when should we schedule an audit) or for examples and templates (e.g., whistleblower policies or sample board member job descriptions)  they could copy or adapt.

Imagine the opportunities to learn and connect with other boards engaged in similar mission work - not just other chapters or partners under a national organization umbrella, but every nonprofit with a similar focus.

Imagine the community and capacity building that might develop if boards in specific geographic areas (e.g., Rocky Mountain, Great Plains, Deep South) could talk about common, region-specific concerns.

Imagine having a directory of both board-focused organizations and specific board-focused resources at your fingertips.

Imagine what is possible if we ensure that our boards have the tools and support they need to succeed, in their moment of need. And they actually know those resources exist.

Examples of what I've just described undoubtedly already exist in some form. However, what I'm envisioning is something far broader and more accessible to everyone. It may not be (nor should it necessarily be) the sole resource of its type. It may or not take the form of a discussion forum. But we need it. Our boards need it.

We also need to find ways to make sure that it - or anything we create - makes it into the hands of boards everywhere. I was reminded of the rash assumptions those of us who hang out in governance circles often make during a workshop with a community nonprofit board. I mentioned one of the governance organizations that "everybody" knows, and it was clear that its existence was news to pretty much everyone in the room. That's not a statement about that board. It is a reflection of assumptions we make about sector awareness of, and access to, what we make available. We need to do a better job of reaching out and sharing both our own and others' governance offerings to make sure they have a chance to be used.

Is something like this feasible? If so, how do we go about creating it? How do we  ensure that everyone who serves on a board knows about it and has a chance to use it? I'm interested in your ideas and insights.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Governance toolbox: 'Pinterest is your nonprofit board's friend' edition


Photo by Pinterest

 My pool of curated nonprofit board resources keeps growing on Pinterest, but I seldom talk about them here. Today, I'm offering links to a few of my favorite - and most popular - collections related to nonprofit board topics.

Advocating for nonprofits -- This is a brand new one, created in response to my work this week with a local board interested in taking a bigger role in sharing its organization's stories. I'm still pinning some core resources, but there's enough there to give you a decent overview (and more than a few good ideas). Definition of "advocating" will be deliberately broad. There are many ways to engage others for your nonprofit and its mission.

Nonprofit board essentials -- Exactly as the name suggests, this is a collection of articles, tools and other resources that are my go-tos when anyone asks about what it means to govern (or what they're getting into when they say yes to your invitation to serve). This is my happy place, especially since it contains foundational work by some of my favorite governance thinkers and writers.

Save our (nonprofit board) meetings! -- How we structure our board meetings, and how we stimulate board member creative and critical thinking during that time, can make or break a governing body's effectiveness. This board includes resources that offer practical - and occasionally radical - ideas for making the most of your meeting time.

Engaging nonprofit boards -- This one complements the meetings board nicely, looking at individual (and sometimes collective) motivations and challenges to full participation. It's also one good starting point for board chairs and other leaders.

Leading nonprofit boards -- Did someone mention board leaders? Resources here offer different variations on a theme: how to inspire, direct, and challenge our boards to provide their very best in their service.

Nonprofit board dynamics and boardroom behavior -- There's what we know we should do, what we are required to do, what we plan to do. And then there's what happens when we bring interested but time-pressed, occasionally fallible individuals into a room to talk about tough subjects. It often doesn't go where we expect or need it to go. Sometimes, it gets a little ugly. This board offers resources for recognizing the interpersonal dynamics at play when people get together and being smarter about how to create a culture where cooperation and creativity are the default.

Must-read nonprofit board resources -- Bookworm me loves this one. Most are nonprofit board-specific titles. Most are books. All offer something expand and deepen thinking about nonprofit governance.

Monday, November 9, 2015

What we need is... Envisioning the essentials of a nonprofit board learning environment


(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

"What we really need is..."


I've launched many a board-related discussion, reflection, and blog post planning session with that phrase. In the last year, most of them have centered around the topic of building a nonprofit board learning environment.

As I write the 100th post of 2015 - and the 600th post of the blog itself - and as I plan the final entries covering this year's theme, I'm feeling the need to try to pull together a more comprehensive picture of what a nonprofit board learning environment must include and do. That thinking is taking the form of a list that completes the phrase, "What we really need is..."

There may be a sense of "deja vu" for some of this. What's different this time around is a more deliberate attempt to address learning content needs as well as the mechanics of how to make it happen. I've focused a lot on the latter this year, as I brought various adult learning theories and practices to the table. That's important, and largely uncharted territory as applied to nonprofit board development. But it's the means and not the ends of what those efforts need to achieve. This post attempts to include both.

"What we really need is..."


A comprehensive, multifaceted board development process. That process begins with new member orientation and continues across the life of the board. Board members already have a range of learning opportunities, some formal but many more embedded in the work itself. Those embedded experiences should be recognized, cultivated and respected as learning opportunities. We also need to facilitate experiential learning in a board setting, as well as social learning, including mentorships within and across boards.

A comprehensive, multifaceted conceptualization of governance itself. Yes, there are certain roles that board members must play and tasks for which board members must be held accountable. But nonprofit governance is so much more than that - even if many boards don't realize it. I hold up Governance as Leadership as an ideal here. But it is just that: AN ideal, only one leadership-focused framing of the work we need from our boards. Whether GAL or another (or likely multiple "others"), creating and supporting a fuller vision of nonprofit board work not only sets boards up to provide the leadership and service you "really need," it creates an environment where they are motivated and sustained in doing so.

Ongoing formal and experiential board leadership development opportunities. I already knew this before seeing the results of the national board chairs survey that I helped to conduct (Believe me, I'm desperate to have the approval to actually talk about those findings. Soon, I hope. Soon.). We need wide access to information, support and - yes - training opportunities that better prepare our board chairs and other leaders for the responsibilities they assume. Results of our survey (conducted on behalf of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management) can provide some benchmarks for launching that process. What we need from our board leaders is too important to leave to chance - or the example of the person before them.

Inquiry-focused meeting agendas and meeting cultures. This is part of the content needs of the previous item. Board chairs must be equipped to make the most of their members' time and talents. Because, frankly, if that doesn't happen, the rest doesn't matter.  If they're not doing the work that needs to be done, if their eyes are not trained on the horizon and what it takes to move closer to it, they will fail. Avoiding that failure requires rethinking and enacting very different ways of meeting and working together.  It also requires building an environment grounded in great generative and strategic questions, as well as fiduciary inquiry, which is more than monitoring financial statements. Most of our board leaders, and their boards, need specific examples, resources and support to make that happen. We can provide that. We must provide that.

On-demand access to resources, examples, and answers to basic questions that arise in nonprofit board work. We often don't know what we don't know until we find ourselves in a need to know it. Right now. That's generally true for adult learners. It's especially true in specialized settings like nonprofit governance. We can't realistically expect that our volunteer board members learn, retain, and expertly apply everything they need to know to govern. We can,  however, create performance support resources to make finding and using the answers they need in a timely manner. At the board level, that access may be via a board portal or, at a more basic level, a board manual. At a sector level, that requires something broader and universally accessible - something that doesn't currently exist (at least not for everyone).

Opportunities to talk about, educate for and promote nonprofit governance to a broader audience. If we want to expand our recruitment pools beyond the usual suspects, if we want to raise the bar and the visibility of nonprofit governance as community leadership, if we really want more diverse, creative and effective governing, we must do a better job of describing and promoting what it means to serve on a board. That means, among other things, reaching out to where those previously untapped leadership sources live, work, play and interact. That means not expecting them to find us, buy our books, navigate pay walls and other obstacles to our reports, or translate our research articles hidden in academic journals.

Mutually-beneficial, impact-focused partnerships with governance researchers and capacity builders. Some of the support boards need currently lies mostly in the hands of others. This one is on my mind as this year's ARNOVA conference approaches.  We need research-informed conversations and resources about what it takes to govern effectively. We need research that answers questions that actually matter in board practice.  We need capacity-building support from donors and organizations invested in supporting that application. Our boards need to be included as partners and stakeholders in those processes.

Self-assessment and feedback processes for boards as a whole and for individual members. We have the potential to grow in effectiveness when we have an the chance to assess our individual and collective performance. We also benefit from having space for formal and informal reflection on that performance. That doesn't happen in agendas stuffed with reports and action items.

Spaces and places to go to access parts of everything else on the list. I've been mulling this over in my mind for years now, even raising it a time or two here. Rich resources for our boards already exist, but too many board members and board leaders don't know where or how to find them. We need to (a) help create a widely accessible path and (b) make sure that that access is free and welcoming to all.

Speaking of welcoming...

I welcome a conversation on what I've laid out, via comments here or in the usual social media venues where we interact. I also look forward to continuing the nonprofit board learning environment thought process, using this reflection as the next launching pad.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Governance toolbox: Inventories, culture, decision-making and more

My posts about Pamela Meyer's new book, The Agility Shift, have concluded; but I have one more gift from her to start this week's toolbox.

The Agility Shift Inventory -- Shortly after I wrapped up Monday's post, an alert for an even more direct helper popped up in my Facebook feed and email inbox: a link to a free inventory designed to assess our individual capacity for the kind of agility called for in Pamela's book. Her framing of the value of encouraging our teams to take the inventory and share findings brought a special smile to my face (emphasis mine): "The Agility Shift Inventory (ASI) offers individual leaders, teams and entire organizations an opportunity to become more aware of the state of agility in their current context. This awareness is the first step in beginning a generative conversation and receiving guidance about where your energy and resources will be most effectively spent to improve business performance." Any process that facilitates generative discussions in nonprofit boards is a good thing.

16 (yes, 16!) easy ways to lead your organization’s culture shift -- This post by fundraising consultant and blogger Pamela Grow offers 16(!) actionable ideas for increasing board members' engagement. Her focus is fundraising, but most of the items apply more generally (or can be adapted) to governance work. Pick one that appeals to your board and see what happens. 

Interview with Debra Beck, EdD on shared leadership and strategic decision making in nonprofit boards -- Leadership expert Max Freund extends our conversation by sharing additional detail about his impending governance research in this post. If you found what he described in our conversation interesting, you'll appreciate this extended background.

The 9 characteristics of a good decision -- We call on nonprofit boards to make a lot of decisions in a year. How often do we stop and analyze those decisions, as decisions, and connect them to our larger purposes? Even something as simple as doing a quick check against this list can spark reflection and opportunities to rethink our processes and their outcomes.