Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sources of nonprofit board chair preparation: Sneak peek from ANM research

Hey, I know that research!

Shhhh. The research team behind the Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey still is in "analysis" mode. (Believe me, I'm chomping at the bit for the first moment I can officially share the headlines here.). Working through the questions, identifying the findings that are most illuminating and critically important to practice, and developing clarity about what can and can't be said extrapolated from the data has been a long and careful process. There is much to learn and share, in appropriate and accurate ways.

I'll admit to having itchy keyboard fingers as I've reviewed and reflected on our findings. They're still itching. But since two of my ANM research partners, Mary Hiland and Mike Burns, presented highlights at last week's University of Missouri-Kansas City governance conference - and since my Twitter friend, Sarah Mackey, shared the slide above with the world - I'm succumbing to temptation, sharing both the tweet and my thoughts about it.

The photo may be hard to read for some, so let me reiterate the text here:

Board Chair Preparations

Do board chairs prepare for their role? If so, how?
  • Formally - not very much - 50% took no action
  • Informally - found helpful:
  • observing prior board chair (70%)
  • CEO (58%)
  • chairing a board committee (82%)
  • chairing another nonprofit (51%)

"Scholar Me" must be careful not to make any inferences beyond what the data offer. When I am in that mode, I will be careful to report as far as the survey allows and not a step more. "Practitioner Me," however, has an observation or two that I will frame here as "things to consider/potential red flags" from the major data gifts that this survey offers the sector. As I review this information again this morning, here are the "things to consider" that beg to be shared.

Half of the board chairs completing the survey report taking no formal action to prepare. Zero. Zip. Nada. We don't know why (part of the "scholarly" stretches I can't make.). Did they not have access to formal leadership development resources? Not know where to look? Not believe they needed it? Not sure. But the fact is, they had no formal preparation for this significant responsibility.

"Helpful" informal preparation fell into two themes: a person and an experience. Highest of all was chairing a board committee (82 percent). Now you know one of the reasons why I've stepped up writing about board committees. (The other: the never-ending stream of committee-focused queries in searches leading to this site.) Next is observing a/the prior board chair (70 percent). Bring up the top-four rear are the CEO (58 percent) and chairing another nonprofit (51 percent).

Well, howdy. You know I recognize the role and value of experiential learning in nonprofit board development. You know that board committees really can serve as rich learning laboratories - and, apparently, leadership development mechanisms. You know that I push to recognize the value of supportive relationships, including the critical leadership collaboration with the CEO.

But here's the elephant herd in the room:

  • What if those committee experiences are less than optimal?
  • What if that board chair you're observing stumbles or simply fails to lead?
  • What if he/she has no firm grasp on what it means to govern and, most important, how to lead a board in those essential responsibilities?
  • What if the CEO doesn't understand what governance looks like, either - or worse, finds that set of responsibilities inconvenient?
  • What if that previous board chair experience was in a less-than-high-performing governance setting?

We don't know. If we could have asked all the questions necessary to provide a more definitive picture, those survey takers would still be at their computers. But those of us in the field - and serving on nonprofit boards in our communities - can use the information they shared in their survey responses to ask pointed questions. We can draw from the data to ask ourselves: how would we respond to these questions? What are our areas of strength in preparing and supporting our board chairs? Where are the potential trouble spots, with what impact on our boards' overall effectiveness?  What can we do to ensure that our board chairs have the greatest support possible, leading into the job and continuing through their service?

I'll also continue to ask myself, and you, a related set of questions - about how we continue to raise the bar and the level of support for nonprofit boards, how we raise the visibility and the collective understanding of what governance really means. I'll continue to push my own thinking about ways to not only enhance existing board development efforts but create entirely new (and more effective) paths to facilitate board learning.

Oh, and stay tuned for further insights from our important national survey. I'm already mentally writing the posts in my head. The moment I can officially share the results of our efforts with the world, you will be the first to know.

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