Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Holding nonprofit boards accountable: Why do we value fundraising over stargazing?

Why is it that, when we lament the failings of our nonprofit boards, we frequently focus on their lack of skills and attention to fundraising? To their inability to fully comprehend our profit and loss statements? To them struggling to predict our financial needs in the next year as illustrated in our proposed budgets?

Why do we not hold them equally accountable for neglecting their duty of imagination? For focusing so much on the grounding aspects of governance that they ignore their equally necessary stargazing responsibilities?

Why do we insist on filling our boards' agendas with the tough and the tedious - and the day to day - and allow them to ignore (or actively lead them away from) their essential roles of defining and advancing the better future that we are called to create?

This week, I am introducing a new group of friends to the revolutionary Governance as Leadership model (and, for some, to nonprofit boards more generally). It's a big stretch, but one I hope grounds our future conversations in a more expansive and appropriate foundation of what boards, and board members, are called to do.

Not unexpectedly, we're getting hung up a bit on a familiar refrain: what about boards who don't live up to their fundraising expectations? Where does fundraising fit into the mix? How do we squeeze all of this "new work" - specifically, the strategic and generative governance modes - around the "real work" of nonprofit boards?

I'm doing my best to respond - and to throw a well-placed monkey wrench into the discussion to stretch our thinking (selling raffle tickets and staffing fundraising events may be tasks boards undertake, but they are not governance tasks. That usually blows everyone's mind.). But it's not an easy case to make at the moment, for at least one reason that will ring true for anyone here who follows sector conversations and prescriptions for nonprofit boards:

We value one set of board responsibilities at the expense of others.

When we insist on filling board agendas with fiduciary mode tasks, we are failing our boards and the communities that we serve. To the extent that our boards know better (and I'm not sure most do), they also fail their communities.

There is nothing magical about any one board model, including Governance as Leadership. The biggest reason I choose GAL for our group's discussion - and why I use it as the foundation for my own thinking, writing, and teaching - is the balanced approach it takes to defining and focusing all of the core responsibilities of nonprofit governance.

The fiduciary mode is as important as the strategic and generative work of governance - but it is not more important. Yet too many of our board job descriptions, our "Five easy steps to..." and our "Ways our boards fail us..." all cling to that narrow definition of what boards do.

The strategic and generative responsibilities of governance don't go away just because we choose to ignore them. They are real. They are unique to the board. They are essential to the success of our nonprofits and the health and well being of the communities we serve.

How do we raise the profile and the value of these modes of governing - and the work that comes with them - to a level equal to the fiduciary function? How do we finally give them equal time within our board meetings, rather than confine them to retreats and other special events?

How does the sector do a better job of not only creating a more expansive vision of nonprofit governance, but also making that vision actionable and accessible to the local boards who need it most? I can tell you, from interacting with community groups and from reviewing data from last year's national board chairs survey, that we're failing completely when it comes to reaching those who most desperately need - and want - a new way of thinking about nonprofit governance.

Yes, want. Because let's be frank: we may know that the fiduciary roles come with the job. We may accept that we have some role in fundraising processes. But virtually none of us sign up for nonprofit boards to spend two or more years in "monitor" or "money" mode.

We say yes to board service for the chance to have some role - even a small one - in making the world a better place to live. That doesn't happen in fiduciary mode. It may help support an environment for change, but it does not create that change. Impact happens when we are generating new questions about what the future looks like and in thinking and planning strategically to make the answers to those questions possible.

We want and need to be stargazers. We want and need to fully live up to our duty of imagination. And guess what: when we do, when we are energized by the work and excited about the difference we're making as a result, our willingness and capacity to reach out to donors and others on your behalf will skyrocket.


Nancy Iannone said...

That's a great question for boards to discuss! I have found fundraising to be prioritized highly and stargazing may merit on eye roll. As a sector, we need to keep answering your question and examining the assumptions behind it.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Sad but true, Nancy. Whether we acknowledge them or not, they are our responsibility. They're also less tangible, which may a challenge for some.

Lynne Thieme said...

Great post Debra! I'm glad to be one of your new friends & students and if every discussion is this thought-provoking, I know that I'll gain incredible insight from your class!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I'm looking forward to continuing our adventure together, Lynne - and to being inspired by our interactions!

Anita Springer said...

I'm afraid I have to disagree. I have been on or worked with too many Boards in which the Board members love and support the mission with their hearts but the organization is struggling financially because neither the Board or Staff know how to or want to do fundraising. You need both. A good Board will put whatever fundraising systems and people are necessary into place and support fundraising actively and wholeheartedly, while also paying attention to the strategic future direction of the organization and its mission.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Thanks for your feedback, Anita. Believe it or not, I agree with you. The fiduciary side is as important as the other work; a board that neglects is stewardship and accountability responsibilities is just as negligent as those who ignore the generative and strategic work.

A bottom-line fiduciary responsibility is ensuring that the organization has the resources it needs to function. And, definitely, boards will have different levels of responsibility in ensuring that the necessary fundraising component is healthy (though I would say that more appropriate *governance* roles for the board lie in identification, cultivation, and stewardship of donors - making connections as part of their boundary-spanning work - vs. staffing events).

The board errs whenever it neglects any of its critical governance modes. In my experience, boards are more likely to tend to the fiduciary side - with varying levels of success, of course - and treat the strategic and generative work as extras.