Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Changing our nonprofit boards? Turn the process over to those who govern

"It is often said that people do not like change, but in reality what they don't like is change imposed upon them."
-- Paul Matthews

Our nonprofit boards consistently fall short of our expectations for them. They must change. How do we get them to change? Why won't they change?

Those are familiar refrains in many corners of the sector: whatever our boards are doing, it isn't enough, and it isn't what we need them to do for us. We may differ in our sense of urgency. We may differ in our conviction about what needs to change. But the sense that boards need to change - now - is a strong one.

Here's a (multi-part) question, inspired by the Paul Matthews quote above: Have "we" actually asked our boards what they want to change? What they want to do better? What they need to feel fulfilled and satisfied with their leadership?

Or do we sit around, gripe about their failures, and call in a trainer to magically fix what we have determined to be their biggest challenges?

I'm betting the latter is far more common than the former.

As an adult educator, Matthews' quote didn't surprise me. It's good, basic adult learning theory. We need context, about problems that are real to us,  when the knowledge is germane to our interests and problems.  Knowing that, and knowing that mandated training has limited impact anyway, what if we take a different approach to board development?  While I've been thinking about this for what seems like forever, what follows is a very much evolving vision of board development as a board-driven, board-accountable process.

First, engage members in a conversation identifying the big, burning, board questions that they need to be asking in the next year. Where will their time, talent, and passion be best spent to not only keep the doors open but more you close to fulfilling your mission? Where will they lead?

Second, ask board members about their learning and performance needs to answer those questions. What do they need to know, and do, to govern better and more effectively? Certainly, our governing bodies may have some blind spots and could use some help identifying areas for growth. But we're not dummies. We're also human. Board ownership of our own learning and performance needs increases accountability and commitment to seeing them through.

Institutionalize this process by establishing annual board learning and performance goals.  Give them the same respect, accountability, and agenda time as the other goals they set for themselves. Recognize them as priorities that fuel the rest of the board's work.

Embedding board development in governance work, and valuing it as a critical part of governance, takes a big step toward creating a culture of learning that holds optimal performance as a  highest priority. Sustaining that culture requires, at minimum:

  • Curiosity
  • Clarity of purpose
  • Collective, peer accountability for performance
  • Pride in accomplishment of our governance/leadership responsibilities

It becomes a natural part of the way we work, rather than a tedious task someone imposes upon us.

Board-driven learning and performance not only require board-identified goals but also peer-driven mechanisms for advancing and supporting them. At the center of that is a governance committee that assumes responsibility for the health and success of the board and its individual members. This committee should be charged with leading efforts to build performance capacity (more than simply "learning") and offering activities, resources, and agenda space for this work. This committee should take responsibility for developing, and using, peer expertise to meet the governance needs of the organization.

Accountability mechanisms need to be created to ensure that this work is taking place and that it receives the attention it deserves. Let's face it, it would be easy to set aside board development initiatives for more "urgent" matters before the board. When the board sets learning and performance goals, it also needs to set measures for evaluation. I wouldn't wait until the end of the year to look back and see the board has succeeded or failed. Set quarterly goals and check-ins to ensure that this work doesn't get lost in the shuffle.

Another important part of the process is creating space within the routine work of the board for learning and development (and recognizing the learning that already is taking place). Connect it to capacity building and to other board responsibilities. Don't confine it to special events on a Saturday. Recognize that this, too, is real work that is worthy of time and effort.

Look for ways for individual members to:

  • Identify the expertise, skills, etc., that they can contribute toward overall board learning and performance and
  • Have opportunities to share those gifts with their fellow members, in or outside of regular meetings.

If we really want our boards to change, they need to (a) own the process and (b) have the supportive culture and infrastructure to succeed in making it. I've outlined what I consider to be the essential elements of facilitating that process - not all-inclusive, but the basics for making that possible.

I welcome your thoughts, your additions, and your questions, as they help not only me but all of us extend our thinking about how we really build the power and effectiveness of our volunteer nonprofit leaders.

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.

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