Friday, February 27, 2015

Governance toolbox: February potpourri

As I reviewed my latest bookmarks tagged for the toolbox, I couldn't help closing out the month with a potpourri of governance goodness. I trust that there will be something for everyone in what follows.

Reviewing the IRS Form 990: Five Tips and Best Practices -- Our friends at BDO offer a concise and valuable resource for board members and agency management. Attention to your organization's 990 submission is a critical bottom line component of fulfilling your fiduciary duties. It also opens the door to having at least annual conversations about larger accountability and policy responsibilities (Obviously, we should be tending to them year-round, but this is a minimum annual prompt.).

The Performance Imperative: A Framework for Social Sector Excellence - See more at:
The Performance Imperative: A Framework for Social Sector Excellence - See more at:
The Performance Imperative: A Framework for Social Sector Excellence - See more at:
The performance imperative: A framework for social sector excellence -- This little treasure from Beth Kanter appeared in my Facebook feed yesterday. The framework itself is a multilayered gift: it's a compelling reminder - and call to action - to remember what draws us to this work in the first place: impact.  I'm still exploring the resources linked within and from Beth's post, but I'll highlight the excellent video created to describe the initiative. If that doesn't capture your board's attention, you have a problem. I may return to this one later. Thanks, Beth, for sharing this important work with your readers and the sector as a whole. 

Why is succession planning taboo? -- The National Council of Nonprofits addresses a challenging topic that many boards ignore until they're caught in the crisis that can come with a CEO resignation or retirement. Author Jennifer Chandler not only offers us a focal point for beginning the conversation but also shares links and resources to support that effort.

Keep board members 100 percent accountable with an expectation form -- Different people respond to different motivators for board performance. A tool that regularly reminds them of what is expected, like the one Amy describes (click here to download her sample),  offers tremendous potential value for communicating accountability and reinforcing valued board member performance.

Five ways to embrace healthy tension -- Yes, tension can be healthy. Robbin Phillips' post remind the humans serving on our boards (and the leaders who guide them) to keep things in perspective and to remember the purpose they share. Simple, but sometimes sorely needed in our boardrooms.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The transformative power of experiential learning in board service: One example

How do we bring experiential learning to our board members in ways that give life to the mission and the organization?

I offered a few illustrations in a recent post. But given my belief that experience can be the greatest teachers in all types of settings (including/especially the nonprofit board), I thought I'd continue the conversation with a couple of personal examples. Today, I'll share my most powerful and transformative learning experience - one connected to my earliest board assignments. Next week, I'll offer a personal example that represents a more realistic kind of experiential learning opportunity for board members.

(A note before I start: Yes, I know there are slightly problematic components to this example. I offer it as my own story and a prompt for reflection on similar kinds of immersion opportunities that you have experienced or offered to your board members.)

My unorthodox entry into nonprofit governance included an equally unorthodox training requirement: participation in the organization's 16-hour victim advocate training.  Across a weekend, my fellow trainees and I explored the center's primary mission areas - domestic violence and sexual assault - in ways unparalleled in any other board induction experience. We also learned from experienced victim advocates and practiced role playing in a series of common crisis line scenarios that we might encounter.

I emerged on Sunday night exhausted, overwhelmed, deeply informed, and utterly transformed. The experience fulfilled my board training requirement and prepared me for my new volunteer work as a victim advocate (I couldn't not step up).

It also turned my entire world view upside down. I was forever changed.

Obviously, I learned nothing about nonprofit governance during this "board training." I did, however, come away far more aware of our mission areas, issues about which I'd had only passing acquaintance as a reporter for the local newspaper. Taking my initial crisis line shifts deepened my understanding of the very real challenges that victims face, victims who were largely invisible in our small community. I also learned firsthand the importance of having someone available to them 24/7, and the need for those picking up the phone when it rang to have a range of support mechanisms to ensure that they were prepared to respond appropriately. I knew what it was like to be the voice on that end of the phone, and the person meeting the caller in person.

I still remember my first experience with the latter: a late-night call about a disturbance at the local Perkins restaurant. When the agency director and I arrived (because no new advocate worked without staff support), we met a domestic violence victim who had dumped over a massive gumball machine so that the Perkins staff would call police. She didn't know she could simply call and ask for help.

When I moved to Laramie, I carried my commitment to victim advocacy with me. I also joined the agency's board and encountered the same training requirement (Board participation must have been a state mandate, though I'm foggy on that detail. It was not optional, though.). I found myself in a second extended learning experience, this time 40 hours long. While a lot was review, many new opportunities to practice skills and prepare for whatever the phone line might bring expanded my learning and my appreciation for the critical work of the agency's staff and volunteers.

I served as a victim advocate here as well, anticipating each pager beep with dread but ultimately knowing whoever was on the other end needed something in the moment that I could provide. I frequently felt regret that I seldom resolved their usually complicated situations, but I remembered early counsel by a staff member: I was "there" for them by simply answering the phone and listening.

I was there for one caller, "Susan." We talked about her latest beating at the hands of her husband. We talked about options. She told me she was ready to at least have one night of peace. We met at the safe house and made that happen. A few months later, what every victim advocate fears happened: "Susan" had been murdered by her husband.

I was forever changed by that experience, too.

What does any of this have to do with experiential board learning? Well, for starters, I was a board member of one of the organizations the entire time I served as a victim advocate. I brought what I learned and experienced, through that volunteer work, into every board meeting. I had an up-close-and-personal understanding of our impact (and the issues each mission addressed), thanks to those interactions with recipients of our services. They informed my thinking and my decision making, because they made the mission utterly real to me.

Let's acknowledge at least a couple of problematic aspects of the scenario just described. One, that particular kind of volunteerism is not realistic, or even desirable, for all board members. Two, I clearly wore two hats in that my work with each organization, roles that could at times conflict. I honestly can't recall situations where my volunteer mindset interfered with my governance responsibilities, but the potential certainly existed. There also was the tricky accountability mix between me as both volunteer and board member and the executive director. Again, while no conflicts arose in the moment, the possibility that a line was crossed at some point definitely existed.

I offer this as a vivid example of the kinds of experiences that we can both offer to our board members and the kinds of experienced volunteers already in your organizational family who may be great candidates for your next opening on your governing body.

If it is appropriate and individual board members are interested in other types of volunteerism within your organization, support that as a legitimate experiential learning opportunity. Have the "hats" conversation - when are you serving as a board member vs. when are you functioning as any other volunteer - to reduce the risk of overlap or mixed signals about accountability. Encourage sharing of those experiences with other board members, with the necessary caveats about anything that cannot be brought to the boardroom table (an obvious example from the case above: I could discuss my general advocacy experience but not individual clients).

Anything that puts board members into settings where they get to experience your work and your mission firsthand has the potential to enhance their value as informed and engaged board members. To the extent that you can offer - and even create - rich opportunities for immersion in what you do, you expand your board members' knowledge and commitment.

This also should open the door to considering the wealth of experiences available within individuals already committed to your organization during your board recruitment process. A room full of victim advocates would not have been useful to either organization mentioned above. But a retired advocate may be the perfect candidate for your next board opening. Your current volunteers may carry the mix of skills, connections and perspectives that you're seeking in your board recruitment process. Board service may be the right next step in their commitment to you.

Even though it is not a perfect example, and perhaps an extreme one, I offer this personal vignette as an invitation to reflect on these two questions:

  • What kinds of experiences you already offer your board members?
  • What other kinds of opportunities can you offer to expand their firsthand knowledge of your mission and your work?

I would dearly love to hear about your examples. So would future readers. Please consider sharing an illustration of how your organization provides quality experiential learning opportunities to your board members. I'd also appreciate hearing about any ideas that your reflection is generating for future board development.

Next week, I'll offer a second personal example of experiential board learning - one that may ring more familiar and be more realistic for your board members.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Governance toolbox: Building effective nonprofit board leadership

This week's topic is one that we'll undoubtedly revisit again, given its evergreen nature. But the first link that I'll be sharing hit a familiar nerve, and it couldn't resist.

10 negative results of believing people are incapable -- Dan Rockwell's latest post has nothing to do with nonprofits or nonprofit boards specifically, but it describes a phenomenon I see too often (from board leaders, CEOs, consultants, researchers, and even board members themselves). When we expect the worst out of others (e.g., when we view boards as obstacles to be overcome and board members as slackers to be managed), that's pretty much what we get. How we convey that, and how we interact with them in that mode, may contribute to them living out our perceived nightmare.  Dan's post offers characteristics the negative thinking that comes with this assumption. That's helpful, to the extent that it may prompt someone to recognize him/herself on the list and act to make necessary changes. However, even more valuable is the second half: 10 questions modeling the kind of attitude (and action, when you ask them) that leads from a different place and, most likely, yields very different responses from those led.

What a music conductor knows about leadership: Hugh Ballou -- How would nonprofit boards govern differently if they were led by someone who viewed his/her leadership responsibility as leading a symphony? Okay, that may feel like a stretch too far. But the parallels are quite clear. Board members enter as independent, skilled, passionate contributors to what we hope will be a larger and beautiful whole. Alone, their contributions are limited. Together, they can make magic - IF they have the right leadership to bring out the best in each of them, at the right time. The conductor, Ballou, offers a wonderful list of lessons we can learn from conductors. My personal favorite is "the leader defines how the result is expressed." What would change if your board leaders (or you) operated from that place? His lessons for meeting leadership also are noteworthy.

What good board members do to help organizations succeed -- Remember my friend, Richard Leblanc? This link takes you to a video of him discussing the title topic. His focus is on corporate governance, but the basic principles also apply or adapt easily to a nonprofit setting. For example, his commentary on how corporate boards are called to move away from "a compliance mentality," expanding focus to include attention to growth and innovation. All boards have fiduciary responsibilities to which they must attend. Too often, nonprofit boards hone in on those tasks because (a) they know someone is watching and (b) because, lacking a more holistic definition of governance, they believe that's what the job entails. Richard describes corporate governance efforts to move toward a competency matrix: the skills, behavior, etc., most needed in the boardroom. Note that he specifically points out the "softer skills" that we rarely see on board member job descriptions or recruitment checklists.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Better Together: New book explores healthy nonprofit board/CEO partnerships

When it's good, it's good. When it's great, it's great. When the dysfunction is flowing freely, watch out. 

Success in the nonprofit sector is built on relationships - human relationships - none of them more critical to effective governance (and mission impact) than the one between an organization's board chairperson and its CEO. When it's healthy and grounded in trust, transparency and humility, author John Fulwider says in his new eBook, the result is potentially transformational.

In Better Together: How Top Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs Get Happy, Fall in Love and Change the World, Fulwider does a fantastic job of describing what it takes to build a healthy nonprofit leadership partnership. He manages to create a vivid vision of that while acknowledging the very real challenges inherent in any human relationship.

There is so much that I appreciate about this new resource. Here are a few of the reasons why I'm recommending it as must-reading for every nonprofit CEO, board chair, and board chair in training.

The topic itself. In a very real sense, the health of the chair/CEO relationship shapes the destiny of the board as a whole. They play a key role in setting the agenda (literally and figuratively). They also ensure that the board has the tools and support needed to engage in the right work, at the right time, with the right results. Other resources explore the CEO experience. A few tippy toe into what it's like to serve as board chair. But the focus on the chair/CEO partnership is fairly unique.

So, too, is the emphasis on what ultimately boils down to basic human interaction, interpreted through the specific context of nonprofit leadership. It's so simple that it's often ignored by governance researchers. But it's also utterly foundational to the board's success and, in the end, the organization's community impact.

The research behind the book. In an environment that too often relies on quantitative approaches to describing and analyzing a very human experience, any qualitative approach offers a potentially fresh perspective. John's foundation is a series of interviews with CEO/board chair pairs, which offers an opportunity explore important questions about their common work in deeper ways. You simply can't survey this topic and do it justice. This method allows us to hear directly from those involved in the work, via the comments and feedback that illustrate the concepts Fulwider presents in the book's four chapters. The inclusion of case studies - seven sets of pair interviews - adds that extra layer of understanding without the researcher filter. We hear about the needs, motivations, victories and challenges directly from those who experience them.

The practitioner focus. Ultimately, this is a book designed to impact practice. The research method and the topic lend themselves well to visibility in scholarly journals. John may very well be working on that step. But this text is written for those in the roles now, and those who will some day find themselves leading from them. The factors that create healthy and transformative partnerships, and those that challenge that potential,  are real. Readers will see themselves in the descriptions and cases that John offers. They also will gain insights into how not only how to reduce the risks of dysfunction but to actively cultivate a mutually rewarding and productive leadership partnership. The author offers clear benchmarks for building the kind of relationship that serves everyone best.

The format. The eBook by itself gives the reader tools to launch and sustain a respectful and mutually productive partnership. But John takes the "make it actionable" step even further, by offering two additional resources. One is an audiobook (11 mp3 files) for those who prefer to listen and learn. The other tool is one about which I am most excited: a 94-page pdf workbook that outlines multiple exercises and reflection questions designed to start from wherever the partnership may be and move it to a healthier place. You don't have to wonder how to begin building the relationship you want, or how to make your relationship better, because Fulwider offers tailored paths to get you started. He even offers training outlines for consultants and facilitators interested in developing programs designed to foster healthier chair/CEO relationships.

John has generously offered discounts to readers of this blog for each of the three packages available. Use the links below to activate the discounts when you order.

Package 1 (eBook, available in a variety of reader formats):

Package 2 (eBook and audio book [mp3 files]):

Package 3 (eBook, audio book and companion workbook):

Monday, February 16, 2015

Change the Questions, Change the World: Reflecting on Creating the Future's Theory of Everything and nonprofit governance


If we ask the same old questions, we get the same old answers. 

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been pushing nonprofit boards to ask, and lead from, new questions for a long time now. We inch our way toward our missions,  a process that's often one step forward, two steps back. We drown in the here and now. We wallow in the past. 

And, for the most part, we get absolutely nowhere. We end our board terms feeling drained by the hard work and long hours that came with our commitment and service. Some of us leave feeling totally defeated, with little tangible evidence that we've made a shred of difference to our organizations and our communities. 

If we ask the same old questions, we get the same old answers.

I've long recognized that the same old ways of governing would inevitably lead to the same old dysfunctional results. The seed was already planted before I attended the Creating the Future (then Community-Driven Institute) consultants immersion course in January 2010. I'd already expanded my own governance repertoire, based on field experience, my second master's thesis, and doctoral dissertation research that completely changed my perspective of what high-impact governance looks like. But it wasn't until I traveled to Tucson five years ago that I fully grasped the awesome power of simply changing the questions we ask, especially in our boardrooms. That week shifted many things for me.

Recently, Creating the Future released a draft of its "Theory of Everything." This document not only outlines the philosophical underpinnings of everything that organization does but offers an earth-shaking alternative for seeing, living in, and impacting the world.

It is, without a doubt, the kind of cultural shift that the nonprofit sector, and nonprofit leaders, need. It challenges us in ways that some will find tough, because pushes us to commit to more than incremental steps toward progress. It demands big, bold commitments to big, bold visions of better futures for our communities.

It also demands very different questions and mindsets. It asks us to be open to changing our assumptions and beliefs about how the world works because, as author Hildy Gottlieb notes, they "create the results we achieve." (p. 4)

"Assumptions are the stories we tell ourselves that we believe simply to be 'the truth' - the questions that we are answering that we don't even realize have been asked." (p. 5)

Simply put, the biggest assumptions that hold nonprofit boards (and everyone else) back are those that limit what is possible and define for "eternity" what is impossible. Believing that we will never have enough resources to do what needs to be done, that we'll never see meaningful change before our board terms end, that we'll never have the staff we need to meet demand or the facilities we need - well, you get the idea. They are based in some version of today's reality, but they are not an unchangeable "truth" that forever determines our success or failure.

I read the sneak-peek draft wearing two hats: as a Creating the Future fellow and as someone who  works with boards who frequently feel trapped by their circumstances.  The latter brought out my inner skeptic. I know the challenge of seeing bleak financials every month, of keeping busy board members motivated and committed, of facing fundraising goals that terrify most in the room, of looking for (and mostly not finding) any little bit of proof that the mission needle has moved as a result of our efforts.

It's tough. Frankly, many boards are not yet at a place where they can embrace the transformation of thinking and practice called for in this document. But it is transformative. I am living proof of that, along with countless other individuals and organizations willing to change the thinking - and the questions  - that drive action.

"Fellow/consultant" me ended the reading with a sense of renewal and energy. It validated the work that I do here and the decision to focus on possibilities and positive stretches. My choice to push you all in ways that expand definitions of what is possible is one small contribution toward preparing you and your boards for the kind of cultural shift - and governance practice - is deeply rooted in the thinking reflected in this world-changing document.

I'll leave you with the encouragement to read, share, and respond to what Creating the Future lays out. I'll also close with an invitation to reflect on the three core assumptions behind their "Theory of Everything" and the power to change your community's destiny if you and your board have the courage to embrace them.

  1. "What do we want life to be like, and what will it take to create that?"
  2. "Who else cares about this? What could we accomplish together? And what will it take for that to happen?"
  3. "What resources do we have together that we don't have on our own? What do we have that we are willing to share? And what will it take for that to happen?"

"What do we want life to be like? And what will it take to create that?"

Friday, February 13, 2015

Governance toolbox: Supporting board chairs

In honor of John Fulwilder's impending book launch on the topic - and the review I'm preparing on that excellent new resource - this week's nonprofit governance toolbox selections focus on the critical leadership responsibilities of board chairpersons.

How to get support and strategic input from your board chair -- I'll open with this post by John. One of the reasons, obviously, is that the insights he provides will be of value to nonprofit CEOs who want to make the most of their relationship with their board chairs. It also offers a nice sneak peek into what readers of his new book will discover as they move from page to page. Oh, and I can't resist a few great questions - like the sets that he shares at the end of the post.

The five star board chair checklist -- Speaking of great questions... Joan Garry's checklist comes in the form of questions that every prospective board leader should ask before saying yes. The complete set of questions definitely prompt careful reflection. But I'm especially glad to see questions that invite assessment of one's capacity to deal with the tricky human challenges that come with the job. Leading a board requires far more than sticking to a meeting agenda. Joan's questions remind us of that.

How to build a better nonprofit board: It's about the board chair -- Alice Korngold does a marvelous job of capturing six key board chair responsibilities that impact board effectiveness. While she's right on the mark with all six, I'm particularly smitten with number three (click on the link to find out what number three covers!). I don't know about your experience, but too many boards with which I've been affiliated still treat that function as an afterthought.

Top ten qualities of exceptional leaders -- Obviously, this one's not nonprofit board-specific. It's also definitely not a "roles and responsibilities" kind of list. But Dan Rockwell's "qualities" strike me as an excellent opportunity for nonprofit board leaders - or any leader - to stop and reflect on their internal capacities needed to truly bring out the best in themselves and others. That reflection has the potential to not only shape their potential impact in this volunteer role but in every other area of a board leader's life.

Monday, February 9, 2015

70:20:10 in nonprofit board development: Expanding ideas, focus, capacities

If we accept the general premise of the 70:20:10 framework that I described in my last "board learning environments" post - that members learn to govern and lead in ways far broader than formal orientations and training sessions - what might that look like?

How are our board members already learning (whether or not they realize it)? What if increased awareness of those natural experiences led to new ways to support them?  Rather than posing "70:20:10" as a magic formula that nonprofits must adopt in these two posts, I offer it as encouragement to expand our definition of board learning and open awareness to facilitate higher-quality versions of the experiences board members already are having.

What might informal, social and informal learning look like in a nonprofit board environment? This post offers a few examples - and an invitation to add your own. What am I missing? What does or doesn't resonate for you on my list? Why? Please share your feedback and help us expand our conceptualization of nonprofit board learning in all of its forms.

Experiential/informal board member learning

  • Discussions and deliberations, especially those that encourage exploration of multiple perspectives and knowledge sources.
  • Site visits and other opportunities to observe and understand your work.
  • Hands-on experience, outside of board duties, that puts them closer to the daily work of the organization (Note: this is not encouraging board member micromanagement or blurring of governance/volunteerism boundaries.). This may also be previous volunteer experience that they bring onto the board (e.g., former volunteers in other areas who are recruited to the board). Direct experience can inform their understanding of your mission and your organization.
  • Committee work, which offers a range of learning experiences, including: immersion in a smaller scope of the board's work, developing peer expertise in that niche (and sharing that growing knowledge with fellow board members), working closely with staff members and others with similar interest (and different skill or knowledge sets) on the topic of focus.
  • Opportunities to hear client testimonies, preferably in person (easier to provide in some contexts than others). 
  • Stretch assignments that require learning something new (about the mission, organization, governance, etc.) and applying it to board responsibilities.
  • Informal research, including web searches, to inform thinking and discussions about topics before the board.
  • Access to board portals and online knowledge banks.
  • Making mistakes, reflecting on them and learning from them.

Social learning in board work

  • Assigning peer mentors to support new member introduction into the board and its work
  • Supportive interactions with the board chairperson and other board leaders.
  • Working with the CEO.
  • The peer interactions that take place in committee work.
  • Self-assessment, board evaluations and other feedback processes that provide information and opportunities for reflection.
  • Participation in networks and professional associations related to the organization, mission area or governance responsibilities.
  • Team-based assignments.
  • Action learning projects.

Formal board learning

  • New member orientation events.
  • Board training sessions.
  • Retreats that include educational components.
  • Participation in conferences related to the organization, mission area or governance responsibilities (e.g., Colorado/Wyoming Association of Museums conference, BoardSource Leadership Forum).
  • Online courses.
  • Webinars and other synchronous, virtual learning events.

What am I missing on these lists?

One of the reasons I included the video above is Jennings' reference (around 3:00) to providing just-in-time performance support. As suggested in previous posts in this series, I see this as a major growth area (and compelling need) in nonprofit board development. I have some emerging ideas about how we do this, but I also trust that there are organizations and support systems that already are doing this and offering models from which we all can learn. I'm especially interested in hearing about those examples: what is being provided, in what venues, supporting boards in what ways.

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'm creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Governance Toolbox: Understanding, transforming nonprofit boardroom dynamics

If you've been reading for a while, you probably remember that I devoted a lot of last year to exploring the interpersonal/group dynamics challenges that too often invade nonprofit boardrooms.

While "life" forced a break from sharing favorite resources here, I've not stopped gathering and tagging shareable links.  Today, I offer a few of the links I've been saving up for you that address boardroom/group dynamics challenges.

Board dynamics and behaviours that can make or break your board -- Actually, I could almost fill this week's post with resources created or shared recently by Richard Leblanc. Richard's primary focus is corporate governance. His research on boardroom dynamics has influenced my own thinking on the topic and continues to be work that nonprofit boards need to be discovering and taking to heart. This link is to a slide deck from a recent presentation on the topic.

The director behavioural types -- Speaking of gifts from Richard... He recently shared a fresh link to one of the most important chapters (to me, at least) from his must-read book, Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the Coming Revolution in Corporate Governance. Based on his ground-breaking research in the corporate sector, nonprofit board members will undoubtedly recognize the behaviors and biases that each type described brings into the room. (Pick up his book for more detail on how they impact governance. It's a really terrific read for board leaders in either sector.)

10 more common faults in human thought -- This list (with a link to the previous 10 "faults") may include a habit - or two - that you know detracts from your board's ability to govern fully and productively. If anything rings familiar, consider how you might use this post to spark a conversation that begins to change that.

Why we shouldn't always get along --  I'll top off this week's tool box with a timely reminder from Lucy Marcus. Constant, unchecked harmony on everything should not be our ideal. In fact, we benefit from divergent, creative discussions that challenge assumptions and lead to better decisions. Lucy offers two common sense, and oh-so-critical components for productive boardroom work. You'll have to click and read to discover them. I'll just say "Amen, Lucy. Amen!"