Monday, June 29, 2015

A "Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights"

In honor of the U.S. holiday taking place at the end of this week - and the unique leadership and service roles of nonprofit governance - I offer up anew my "Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights."

Since this site's readership has expanded significantly in the last year, and since the principles that follow remain - in my view - universal, they are appropriate for sharing again this year. The post originally was offered as a counterpoint to an earlier entry outlining a few (sometimes unpleasant) realities about nonprofit governance.  The individual "rights" will be familiar to regular readers, because they're part of the larger message of my advocacy for nonprofit boards.

The Nonprofit Board Member's Bill of Rights

We the community leaders who serve on nonprofit boards, in order to govern toward a more perfect vision of the future and a fulfilling mission that advances that vision, require an environment conducive to fulfilling the responsibilities entrusted to us. To that end, we have the inalienable right to the following:

1) A clear understanding of our responsibilities, outlined before we join the board, and clarity about why we are being asked to serve. We have the right to participation in a thoughtful recruitment process, where a governance-focused job description is presented so we can make an informed decision about accepting the invitation to serve. We also have the right to know the specific skills, knowledge, connections, etc., that make us the right fit - at this time - for the board.

2) A rich, multi-stage, user-friendly orientation process that prepares us for active participation and, ultimately, leadership on the board. The information presented in the recruitment process is only the beginning. We deserve both a thorough initial orientation (including supporting materials) after we join the board and ongoing support in the initial months of our service.

3) Ongoing access to information, stories, etc., that provide the context and data to make the best decisions possible for the agency and the community. We deserve timely, ready access to that information, in formats that are accessible to us and conducive to effective decision making.

4) Work that draws upon our strengths as community leaders. Our governance work is future-focused and impact-driven, grounded in questions of consequence. The work that we do does not waste our time. We come together to govern and lead, not wallow in management minutiae. We expect that that work will draw upon our individual strengths, expertise and skill sets. We expect to use our individual connections to broaden the base of supporters for our mission in engaging and appropriate ways.

5) Meetings that are intellectually and creatively challenging.  We have the right to agendas built around questions about the future, that demand our active participation, and that give us space to reflect and create. We deserve work environments that expect us to contribute regularly, as equal members of the governance team.

6) Experiences that bring us closer to the mission we are charged with advancing. The more vividly we understand the agency's work and the lives touched, the better we are able to communicate that impact to others and the stronger our own commitment becomes. We have the right to build our knowledge, not only in formal training events but in authentic experiential learning opportunities throughout our board service.

7) Expectations that are appropriately high. We have the right to set our own high bar, drawing from our significant collective expertise. We have the right to all of the forms of support required to fulfill those expectations.

8) A strong, effective partnership with our CEO. We recognize the complementary leadership responsibilities that each brings to the table, and we collaborate to ensure that both parties receive what we need to fulfill them. We neither receive our marching orders from our chief executive nor dictate from above.

9) Recognition that is personally meaningful. We deserve regular acknowledgment that what we bring to the board is valued. We deserve acknowledgment that different people prefer that recognition in different formats, and that our individual preferences should be appropriately accommodated.

10) Respect for our contributions as community leaders. We have the right to be supported and valued, not treated as inconveniences. Your power and potential rests, in large part, on our power and potential. Respect us, support us, and we will lead in ways that bring you closer to your mission than you could ever achieve on your own.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Governance toolbox: June potpourri edition

Today, I close out the "toolbox" month with the June link potpourri, a flavorful mix of nonprofit-related goodness from others.

The Talent Development Platform -- Fresh from my LinkedIn news feed comes word (and the initial post) of a series by my friend, Heather Carpenter. The series will explore the talent development framework that she and co-author Tera Qualls developed and described in their marvelous resource, The Talent Development Platform: Putting People First in Social Change Organizations. If you're on LinkedIn, I'd encourage you to follow Heather so that you won't miss a word of what I predict will be a valuable and thought-provoking series. The platform addresses the broader talent development needs of organizations (which boards definitely should understand and tend to as part of their governance responsibilities). But aspects of it also will apply directly to board learning and development needs. Oh, and if you haven't already grabbed a copy of their book, for you and/or your nonprofit's management library, do so today.

Five key conversations about accountability every board should have -- Policy governance consultant Susan Mogensen offers an excellent resource that makes these essential conversations easy to launch. At the other side of a simple and non-intrusive request process, you gain access to pdf and PowerPoint files containing the "conversations" (multiple questions around a specific topic) that boards simply must have. There are many reasons why many boards fear accountability - and why they often fail in meeting these expectations. One that I have found is that they just don't know what questions they should be asking. Susan's resource removes that challenge. Excellent, excellent tool.

Becoming a more diverse nonprofit: Make your values tangible -- "(D)efining diversity as an organizational value." Yes! If we really want to see diversity in our organizations (and on our boards), we must move it from a check-off box on a matrix of a buzzword used in recruitment materials.  This brief, excellent post offers guidance on how we go about moving beyond the superficial to the lived value of diversity. Read it, share it with your board, have the conversation.

Get the right board team by perfecting your person specifications -- I have my favorite board needs assessment/recruitment process. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate another that takes a similarly broad approach to identifying the qualities that drive leadership and effective governance and moves away from a demographics/skills-based check-off. This one, shared by the folks at Leading Governance, is one of those tools. It focuses on competencies such as "directing strategy," "teamworking," and "leading and motivating" and outlines evidence types illustrating how each is enacted by individuals. Not only have I bookmarked this tool, I'll be sharing it with others wanting to expand their thinking about who they bring on board and why.

10 reasons you should invest in board development -- I'll close this month's mix with another Leading Governance offering on my favorite topic. Some of the reasons speak to traditional motivations for board development. Think roles, responsibilities and making sure you all don't screw up. But others address capacity building and motivation needs that are equally important, if seemingly less urgent in the context of limited board member time. They acknowledge human capacity needs as well as leadership needs. If we don't recognize and support all of them, we fail our boards. If all we tend to are the bottom-line basics, that's all we'll ever get. Oh, and by the way, number nine may be my personal favorite.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nonprofit governance: Changing the question

(NOTE: If this post looks familiar, that's because it is. I fixed a typo last night and the post re-published as new, rather than saved at its original release date.)

"We can more easily do this if we shift our thinking from 'What is governing?' to 'Toward what ends are we governing?'"

I already was drawing inspiration from Cathy Trower as I prepared for a recent board training session when I encountered again this quote from her marvelous The Practitioner's Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards. I knew instantly that this was the perfect starting point for the work that the local board and I would be doing. But as I continued to reflect on that quote, and how it set the tone for making the case for Governance as Leadership as the frame upon which they could define their work, I also realized how perfectly it describes the larger case I've been making here and elsewhere in my teaching and writing.

In a world where so much collective attention is focused on the right set of board roles and responsibilities (and, by extension, how completely most of us are failing to fulfill them), and what optimal mix of skills and demographics will lead us to perfection, Dr. Trower calls on us to take a step back and ask a more fundamental question.

While pretty much everything I write here offers some kind of response (usually with a GAL twist), as I reflect on it today, I realize that it comes down to questions centered around three core areas.


  • Why are we here? What is our vision of the future? Our mission in moving toward that better future? What is the purpose of our organization and the work that we do?
  • What is our board's purpose? How does our work advance our vision and mission? 
  • What does board leadership look like for us?
  • What are our unique contributions, as a governing body?



  • What capacities does our organization need to successfully advance its mission? What do we require, to not just get through the day but sustain our work and expand our ability to serve?
  • What specific governance capacity does the organization require from the board? From individual members?
  • How do we not only maintain board effort and motivation but expand its collective capacity to lead?
  • What competencies do we require of all board members to function effectively? What capacities do we need within the board, but not necessarily from every member?
  • In what areas must the board lead in capacity building?


  • How will we know we have succeeded as an organization? How will we visualize, and articulate, advancement (and fulfillment) of our vision and mission?
  • How will we visualize, and articulate, the board's ultimate contributions to that impact?
  • What goals will the board set for itself for that advancement? 
  • How will we know we have succeeded? What kinds of accountability measures and processes will help the board maintain focus on the leadership work needed for us to make an impact?
  • How will we acknowledge individual and collective contributions in ways that are authentic and meaningful to those who serve?
  • How will we communicate that impact to the community in ways that invite others to join us?

Boards have legitimate roles and responsibilities in answering these questions in their governance work. Obviously. They require a diverse range of skills and perspectives to accomplish that work. Obviously. But if we let tasks and recruitment matrices drive governance, rather than feed the the more critical question that Cathy poses, we will continue to fall short and we will continue to set up our boards for failure.

Your approach to answering "Toward what ends are we governing?" may not look exactly like mine, and that's fine. But our boards must be able to differentiate between this larger question of purpose and the tasks that too many are undertaking without understanding why.

Learning theory to governance practice: Learning to be vs. learning about

Oh, how I love this quote - and all that it represents for nonprofit board development.

Found in John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information, it offers a particularly compelling way of thinking not only about adult learning generally but about nonprofit board learning specifically.

While I saw evidence of this in action in my case study, it was not the biggest data news of the research. Still, the application to nonprofit governance is so crystal clear - and was so central to my understanding of the learning needs of board members generally - that encountering it was a transformative moment in my early adult learning journey.

I've long held that board members have two essential sets of learning needs:

  • About the mission/organization itself 
  • About what it means to govern

I've recently added a third - how to work effectively as a group - but its connection to this topic is tangential.

As I revisit this quote today, in the context of the two core board learning needs, I'm seeing a slight shift from my original thinking: the presence of a "learning to be" ("acquiring identities") and a "learning about" ("knowledge acquisition") component to both learning needs.  (I originally saw the former topic as primarily "learning about" and the latter as mostly "learning to be.") It's not a drastic shift from my original understanding, but rather an expansion.

Nonprofit board members have clear "acquisition" learning needs, about both the mission/organization and about their governance roles. For example:

  • We need to grasp the issues driving our mission. 
  • We need to know how our specific programs and services address those issues. 
  • We need to understand the political climate in which we operate and the community realities that challenge. 
  • We need clarity about the essential responsibilities that we assume when we accept a board position. 
  • We need to understand the capacities that we need to have and build to succeed in that role and how those capacities are enacted and evaluated as part of our work.

These are some of the straightforward "whats" and "hows" that facilitate boards' ability to make sound, thoughtful, appropriate decisions about resources, responsibilities, direction, etc. These needs are real and essential to effective governance.

But boards also have "learning to be"/identity needs in both areas.

  • What does it really mean to embody the mission and vision they are charged with advancing? 
  • How do they share their commitment to/passion for the mission with others in authentic ways? 
  • How do they understand - and embrace - their nonprofit governance responsibilities as true community leadership, versus just another volunteer job?
  • How do they not just offer individual expertise (e.g., legal, marketing, financial) to board service but understand and apply them through the unique nonprofit context?

Just as I tried to make a distinction between "good" and "great" boards in Monday's post, I see a similar opportunity to make the connection here.

"Good" board development tends to the "whats:" the knowledge acquisition needs of our governing bodies. "Great" boards also tend to the identity needs. The mission focus of nonprofit work makes the "learning to be" component  simultaneously easier/compelling and more critical than in many other settings.  It is the sociocultural core that distinguishes between "good" governance and "great" governance. "Great" boards accept and embrace the "being" work that is so critical to their leadership in making an impact.

  • How are you tending to both your board's "learning about" and "learning to be" needs? 
  • What needs remain unmet, and how are you doing to rectify that?
  • What's possible - for your board, your organization, and your community - if they are governing at full capacity?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Skating to where the (nonprofit) puck will be

I've been hitting readers fast and hard with heady concepts lately, so I thought I'd open the week with a simple idea that has a profound connection to our boards' ultimate purpose.

The Gretzky quote is a familiar one - to me and undoubtedly to you.  I'm far from a hockey fan, but I'm married to one. That means I've "watched" enough of the game to both understand the quote's literal meaning and the larger message. What may be new is the link we can make to nonprofit governance.

Good boards tend to the here and now: what lies before them and requires their immediate attention. They monitor. They respond. They advise. The address today's realities. The keep the governance "puck" in motion.

Great boards "skate" to where the activity - the needs, the opportunities, the impact opportunities - will be. They not only tend to the future, they make it the primary focus of their work. They own their nonprofit's impact on their community.

Just like all competent hockey teams, good boards tend to the governance "puck" when it is in play. But great boards know where the mission/vision net is and where the puck needs to end up to score - or, rather, fulfill their long-term purposes.

My challenge to you today is simple: share Gretzky's quote with your board and ask members this question: How are we skating to where our mission puck is going to be?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Governance toolbox: Nonprofit board boundary-spanning edition

Building board members' confidence and capacity in their outreach responsibilities is one of those evergreen topics that always has a place on this blog - and in the weekly governance toolbox. But I noticed a minor, informal boundary-spanning theme in the most recent resources bookmarked, making it an appropriate focus this week.

Dan Pink on persuading with the right questions -- Valeria Maltoni's post, which contains Pink's YouTube video on the title topic, initially may seem like a bit of a stretch to connect to nonprofit boards' ambassador role. But the ultimate message - persuasion by connecting to the other's personal interests - is an important one. Valeria closes the post with this quote: "Your job as motivator and persuader is to reset the context and surface people's own reasons for doing something." Board members (and anyone else, for that matter) expand their potential success in bringing others to the important work of their nonprofits' missions when they can help prospects find the link between what matters most to them and what matters most to the organizations seeking their support.

Training board members as brand champions on social and beyond --  Rachel Calderon's excellent, actionable new post continues the theme begun by Maltoni. In Rachel's case, she encourages us to help board members make the connections - to their personal passions, to the passions of others, to the work and communication goals of the nonprofit they govern. Beyond the inevitable good feelings and increased commitment that the process described must have generated, the board emerged with something even more important: stronger sense of how to communicate the foundation's story to others.

Seven ways board members can raise awareness and money for your organization --  Talk about "tools!" My friend, Alison Rapping, offers exactly what the headline promises: seven specific ways that board members can contribute to expanded community outreach. They range from the simple and potentially obvious - like writing thank you notes - to the fairly novel - like "mission moment tours" (click on the link to discover what that involves). Every board member will find at least one action that they will feel comfortable taking on right now. They also will see one or more recommendations that may be a reasonable stretch they would be willing to take for you.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: People (on boards) learning in community

How do nonprofit boards actually learn? What factors facilitate conditions to generative thinking and governance? Those were the bottom-line questions driving my doctoral dissertation.

I deliberately took a broad approach to reading the adult learning literature and preparing for the research, because I wanted to remain open to whatever the case study would reveal. I didn't want to miss something important because I was too busy looking for something else. Still, even as I studied a wide range of topics, including transformative learning, organizational learning, and reflective practice, there was something about the social theories - especially situated and sociocultural learning - that resonated deeply.

I wouldn't know how or why until months later, when I sat down to analyze the data; but the work of Etienne Wenger, on situated learning theory and communities of practice, ultimately would provide the key to unlocking the mysteries within (and the foundation for pretty much everything I know and practice regarding nonprofit board learning).

This quote, in Wenger and William Snyder's 2000 article, "Learning in Communities," sums up the premise perfectly. The message is embedded in pretty much everything Wenger-Trayner (he has since married and continued his work with wife Beverly) has written on the topic of situated learning (including the book he and Snyder wrote with Richard McDermott, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge). You'll see more on this topic, from more traditional sources, later in this series.

I chose this specific quote for second in the series, because it offers the theoretical foundation for everything else that follows. It's a step before the cornerstone of my research - communities of practice - situating the larger context as embedded in the everyday work that adults do with others.

Service on nonprofit boards is one of those work environments where adults gather and learn. This quote, the article containing it, and other readings on situated learning theory, helped to affirm that I would find value in studying one board closely, over time, to gain some insight into how learning takes place in that routine setting. The community of practice component filled in the gaps. But this larger framework spoke to what was in my gut going into the research: that board development is more than formal training events. We just don't (generally) know or recognize it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Great governance: My wacky, crazy, ideal vision of nonprofit board development (and performance support)

Great Nonprofit Governance

We're halfway through a blogging year spotlighting "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership." By now, my perspective should be clear: that we are failing our governing bodies miserably as a sector when it comes to board development and performance support - and usually blaming them for the inevitable outcomes. 

If traditional notions of board development fall short, what is the alternative? What is my better way of preparing and supporting our boards and their work? Today, I offer the wacky, crazy, ideal vision of nonprofit board development (and performance support) that has been percolating in the back of my mind for months.

I'll first share the "environment" foundation that I consider to be essential to this vision. Then I'll offer some examples of components that promise to bring this vision to life.

Collective commitment and purpose

Let me open this section with a statement of the obvious. There already are segments of the sector - umbrella organizations, communities, individual nonprofits, etc. - that successfully provide parts of what I am about to describe. Their boards are flourishing and their communities are benefiting. We have much to learn from those efforts, and I hope those involved will be willing to share their wisdom and examples widely (if they are not already doing so).

However, most of our boards operate in relative ignorance. They have some idea of what the job entails. They have bylaws, agenda templates and years of tradition. But they work from a very limited notion of nonprofit governance. They don't know what they don't know and don't know where to go when they do have a question. We need to fix that.

Wacky idea 1: Broad, sector-level conversation - leading to ongoing, evolving clarity about what it means to govern. One, single definition and a common job description are unlikely (and not necessarily desirable) for the entire sector. Boards in different stages of maturity and individual subsectors will have different, context-driven needs and expectations.

Still, there is great transformative potential in finding ways to engage boards, organizations, CEOs, consultants, educators, state associations, and other stakeholders in meaningful discussions about what means to govern our nonprofits. These discussions need to actively reach out, to find and encourage board members to participate. It's not enough to simply send a few tweets, post something - somewhere - on Facebook, and hope they'll show up. The sector must take leadership - and ownership - in creating an inviting and inclusive process that brings boards to the table.

While we should not seek a one-size-fits-all answer, it would not be not unreasonable for a few universals to emerge from the process. Greater sector-wide clarity, reaching down to the board level, about those essential elements (purposes, capacities, etc.) can only strengthen our boards.

Wacky idea 2: One or more online homes for board member engagement and reference. This is an area where I know great examples already exist. Unfortunately, many are hidden behind pay walls and member log-in pages. We need to replicate, and expand upon, their models for boards everywhere. Oh, and make them free. These core resources must be free and accessible to all, if we want to foster sector-level governance transformation. Not only can these portals provide space for many of the resources and services described below, they also can offer a home for some of the conversation called for in the previous "wacky idea." One giant home base for all things nonprofit governance-related may be unrealistic. But a few comprehensive sites, sharing common core elements, perhaps serving different segments of the sector, is entirely possible.

The components

Here's the fun part of the vision: a few examples of the kinds of resources that all nonprofit boards need to have available (and need to know about to use). Many fine examples of what I list below already exist. What I propose here is widespread availability of high-quality resources to all nonprofit boards and board members. Most could be housed within the environments described in idea two above, but I want to describe exactly what I envision as possible here.

Wacky idea 3: Online and mobile board libraries and resource portals. Boards need ready access to great examples of governance essentials like sample policies, alternative meeting agenda formats. They need access to blogs, open-source books and other writings that inspire and push them to reach for their greatest governance potential. They need quick access to frequently-asked-questions, as well legal and financial resource clearinghouses, where they can get a specific response or general direction on demand. They need reliable information and resources, in the moment when they need them.

Wacky idea 4: Online communities of practice and peer discussion groups. We benefit from broad access to multiple perspectives and examples shared by wise peers and supportive parties. While many of those resources exist locally (see the next idea), boards' understanding and appreciation for the value of their work expands with broader opportunities to learn from and with board members with different kinds of governing experiences. They also benefit from interaction with expert facilitators and mentors willing to engage with board members in these spaces, offering informal counsel and connecting to reliable sources of information and support in the moment.

Wacky idea 5: Face-to-face networking and learning events targeting board members and their needs. Electronic portals and forums are great - and critical to effective performance support. But board members also have legitimate need for face-to-face networking and learning opportunities. Challenges exist but are not insurmountable: board members are volunteers with limited time and funds for travel. They also have specific needs that do not always match existing nonprofit event programs perfectly. To the extent that we can reduce or eliminate those obstacles, and provide board-focused social learning experiences, we expand their governance capacity and commitment.

Wacky idea 6: Broad (and expanded) access to online video, e-newsletters, blogs, podcasts, and other on-demand learning tools. Yes, yes, yes. I've discovered YouTube. My RSS feed is filled with blogs with something of value to offer boards. Quality resources in all of these categories already are widely available. What I've found, though, is that many board members are largely unaware of that fact and are not necessarily actively seeking them. Why, I'm not sure. But connecting those who serve to high-quality resources - and expanding the basket of tools overall - is a must. On the "connection" front, wacky ideas two and three offer perfect vehicles for curating and sharing tools with great learning potential. We can help board members discover and use high-quality governance resources. On the "expanded" front, there always is room for more: more resources, more formats, more practitioner-focused perspectives.

Wacky idea 7: Webinars and online courses for those wanting more immersive learning experiences. I live in a state where residents think nothing of hopping in a car and driving two or more hours to get to a meeting. (Or seven. In a snow storm.) I understand that "online" anything still brings chills to some. But a wealth of excellent examples offer ample evidence that distance-delivered, formal learning events have a place in nonprofit board development and performance support. The same delicate time/money balance exists with this one: participation potential increases when opportunities are free or low-cost and when time required is not considered excessive. What would be possible, though, if we had widely-accessible (and highly visible) events spotlighting the learning needs of board chairs? Board treasurers? Committee chairs? People - on boards or not - who want to explore what it really means to govern? (Disclosure: I'm actively working on my own new contributions in this area. Stay tuned.)

Wacky idea 8: High-quality quantitative AND qualitative research targeting the board member experience - from the board perspective. Academic- and sector-conducted governance research certainly exists (though we have a long way to go, when it comes to translating the "who cares?" into impact in the boardroom). But the opportunity to dig deeply into the lived experiences of board members is wide open. (More board-centered research, like the Alliance for Nonprofit Management's chairs survey, is not only possible but sorely needed.) We must use the findings of this research to inform board learning and performance support efforts.

We also need different kinds of board-focused research. Surveys are great, but they still provide a superficial and incomplete view of the questions needing answers. We also need research informed by qualitative methods - interviews, focus groups, observations, action research, etc. - to really understand many of the questions we need to ask about board performance. Whatever the format, we need to ask board members themselves. A novel idea, I know.

I'll again acknowledge that myriad examples of pieces of this vision already exist and are meeting participant board needs effectively. I celebrate that, as I call for the opportunity to create and facilitate exactly those kinds of experiences for every board and every board member who serves.

If you've made it to the end of this post, I trust that you are interested in at least the general concept of what I'm describing here. For that, I am grateful. I'm also interested in exploring how we might go about moving forward. Where do we start? With what? With whom?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Governance toolbox: Cleaning out the boards-related Twitter favorites list

Maybe we can think of this week's toolbox post as a bonus "potpourri" offering. I took a look at the 600-plus favorites saved on Twitter this week, realized many of the sources worthy of a closer look had a governance focus, and began bookmarking those that offered the greatest promise of value for you and your boards. 

Dan Rockwell quote -- The quote above isn't officially a "tool;" but it is a great, simple framework for evaluating the bumps in the road that every board eventually encounters. Keep these questions close to your gavel. They will come in handy some day.

Board members thinking as leaders - fiduciary -- Tim Herron's post offers a concise, helpful overview of the fiduciary function of nonprofit governance.  The focus on transparency, sustainability, and stewardship of mission is both appropriate and welcome.

Approving versus monitoring: What is the difference? -- This post, offered through a policy governance lens, compares the two processes in its title in ways that I find helpful. Whether or not your board embraces policy governance specifically, awareness of the distinctions made here can help boards be more aware of the legitimate monitoring functions that come with the job. This is an excellent post to share with your board, to foster a(n ongoing) conversation about this aspect of their fiduciary and strategic responsibilities.

Why nonprofits need to measure & monitor program impact and outcomes -- Continuing the monitoring theme is this post by our friends at BDO. As a board member perpetually lower on the confidence scale in my understanding of these functions, I appreciated the authors' description of four reasons boards need to step up their attention to them.

10 tips to boost your facilitation skills -- Most of this list is plain, common sense; but it's a good checklist/reminder for board presidents and committee chairs who regularly lead meetings. 

Open debate, not politeness, is what drives nonprofit innovation --  Speaking of common sense reminders: in this Chronicle of Philanthropy post, Cynthia Gibson reminds us that true innovation doesn't emerge from happy, hand-holding, easy consensus. It evolves from "a culture that encourages healthy skepticism." To put it bluntly, when many of us enter the boardroom, we let our politeness get the best of us - even when we know better. 

Vision and Values – the key foundations of leading governance

- See more at:
Vision and values: the key foundations of leading governance -- Finally, the latest post on the Leading Governance blog brings us back to the foundation: our nonprofit's vision of the future and the values that drive the processes that move us closer to its fulfillment. The author reiterates the importance of maintaining focus, via conversations, board development and other efforts. Also included is advice for building a culture where vision-centered, values-driven work takes center stage.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Launching a summer post series

For as long as I've been formally researching and writing about nonprofit board learning, I've pondered ways to both share the theoretical perspectives that inform my thinking and translate them into practitioner context.

For at least two summers, I've envisioned a mid-week series spotlighting select quotes from my doctoral dissertation, showing how I connect the dots between the ideas grounded in adult learning theory and nonprofit governance practice. This is the summer when I want to try to make that happen, beginning today.

As I revisited the dissertation's literature review, I'm finding that some of the ideas that I most want to share don't lend themselves well to the snappy-billboard kind of format that I envisioned for the series. But I'll try to make this work; because I believe that what I learned from, and saw in, those adult learning sources have much to offer nonprofit board development. It also informs my 2015 theme here. I'll share a quote/idea a week until the summer is over (or one or both of us tires of the process).


Now that I've offered that learning-focused context, I'll launch the series with a quote from probably the only attempt I've seen to (more or less) explicitly address nonprofit board learning, by an author writing from within the sector. (Nancy Axelrod, Culture of Inquiry: Healthy Debate in the Boardroom, 2007).

Opening with this quote is not only okay, it's probably appropriate. It sets the context for the adult learning concepts that I will be sharing in the rest of this series: the kind of environment where a board's ultimate goals and responsibilities can be fulfilled.

Inquiry is a popular theme here, as regular readers know. Boards that understand the power of great questions and explorations have the greatest potential for high-impact performance - success in fulfilling all of their governance responsibilities - and for feeding and sustaining member motivation.

Building a culture that is inviting and stimulating, the culture of inquiry that Axelrod describes here, should be one fundamental goal for board development efforts. Effective governance performance - however we define it - should be the ultimate outcome driving board learning goals and processes. But the kind of culture Axelrod lays forth, in this quote and the book from which it came, provides the foundation to make that happen.

A couple of questions for reflection:

  • What do you see becoming possible for you board, in the kind of culture that Axelrod describes? Be specific. 
  • What are the major challenges to your board creating and embracing a culture of inquiry? What are the fears, knowledge gaps, etc., driving those challenges? What can you and your board do to minimize or eliminate those obstacles?

Monday, June 8, 2015

My (revised, still very much draft) nonprofit board learning (and performance) manifesto

What really needs to happen to ensure that nonprofit board development is effective? Is learning the ultimate goal in those efforts, or instead the vehicle by which something else happens? How do we motivate board members to rise to the highest levels of leadership that we need from them?

Both the title of this blog and the theme chosen for this year reveal my larger commitments to nonprofit board development. My beliefs and biases are interwoven into pretty much everything I write here.

As I near the halfway mark of 2015,  I find myself wanting to revisit the "nonprofit board learning manifesto" that was my first attempt to articulate those core values and beliefs. Comparing what I'm about to share to what I outlined in 2010 is part of my growth as an adult educator. It also reflects a broader understanding of the unique nonprofit board context. The critical expansion from draft one to draft two: acknowledging the essential role of improved performance as the reason for board learning. I've embedded a few links to related posts for some basic context and information.

So here it is:

My (revised, still very much draft) 

nonprofit board learning (and performance) manifesto

  1. Nonprofit board members are never not learning, in their service with your organization and elsewhere in their lives. That learning shapes and informs their approach to governance - whether or not they realize it.
  2. Most of their learning about board service is situated in the work and context of governance. It is embedded the processes and experiences of being a board member.
  3. Individual members bring knowledge, skills and other sources of learning that offer the potential to expand the board's collective capacity.
  4. Performance is the bottom line, not learning for its own sake. Board development efforts should be identified, implemented and evaluated within that larger context: how does this learning impact our performance as a governing body?
  5. Meaning - through a nonprofit's mission and values - infuses everything and shapes the learning potential for a board.
  6. Board members' minds and hearts are best engaged with powerful questions - questions that require deep and meaningful inquiry that inform and fuel governance performance. Goals, agendas and other core components of board work must be based in governance inquiry
  7. Formal learning events have a legitimate role in board development, but they are neither the only mode of learning that can/should take place nor necessarily the most effective.
  8. Experiential learning (learning by doing) and social learning (learning from/with others), generally are both more common and more effective than formal learning. If we (a) we are aware of their power and (b) willing to invest energy into enhancing these processes that naturally feed board performance, their potential value increases.
  9. Adults have a range of preferences for accessing and working with information, including the information needed to govern effectively. To the extend that a nonprofit board and staff can accommodate these preferences - in creating tools/resources and sharing in member-friendly formats and platforms - board member learning and performance will grow.
  10. Time to reflect, individually and collectively, is an essential part of board learning and performance. Board members need regular opportunities to step back, reflect on their work, and appreciate (and assess) their work. They learn from that experience.

As with other posts in the "board learning environments" series, I'll close this one with a couple of questions for reflection:

  • Which item on this list strikes you as most germane to where your board is as a learning community? How does it either affirm what you already are doing to support board learning and performance or confirm the need for adjustment to those processes?
  • Where are the biggest performance gaps for your board and how can informing our understanding of how board members learn help us help them close those gaps? Where do we start that process?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Governance toolbox: Making a difference

I found a loose "making a difference" theme in this week's selected toolbox resources. Some require more of a stretch than others to connect to boards and their work, but the connection exists. Take a look.

Let board members tell your story in THEIR words: The un-elevator speech -- How do we help our board members become more comfortable sharing our story with others? How do we deepen their connection to their own - and each other's - motivations for service? Amy Eisenstein's excellent video offers a fresh take on an "old" idea. Share with your board. Then do as she says.

Board members: Making a difference without making an ask -- This infographic reminds us - at a glance - that board members have different ways to contribute to the fundraising process. Yes, someone eventually needs to make the ask. Yes, sometimes, that somebody sits on our board. But it shouldn't be an all-or-nothing option for every member. Fundraising is a process, beginning with telling our stories and making connections between prospect and organizational interests. If fundraising is part of your board's collective responsibility, help individual members identify those roles where they are most comfortable, and where they are willing to make a realistic stretch.

Introverts on boards: Why quiet is magic in the boardroom -- As an avowed introvert, this one inevitably caught my eye. I've written about this topic here before, but Tamara Paton's latest post offers a nice twist: recognizing the value of acknowledging the potential fit between common introvert strengths and the needs and functions of board committees.

15 surprising ways to expand leadership -- There was a pleasant, learning-related surprise on the other end of the link to Dan Rockwell's latest post. The bonus: audio clips, addressing learning topics, featuring leadership icon Ken Blanchard. Take the time to not only read and reflect on what Dan has to offer but to listen to Blanchard's insights on the value of lifelong learning. The brief, bullet-pointed format of the post itself is deceptive. There is much reflect on - and learn from - that offers value for you and your board.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Nonprofit boardroom inquiry: A few examples

What does humble inquiry look like in the nonprofit boardroom? What's a good example of diagnostic inquiry? How do I recognize - and use -  the four types of questioning engagement described in last week's post?

I closed that entry, introducing Edgar Schein's four types of inquiry, knowing that I at best whetted some readers' appetites but not sure it merited a follow up with so many other governance topics to cover here. But when a member of the BoardSource LinkedIn group requested a few examples, I took it as a welcome challenge to expand upon them and offer my interpretation of what each might look like in a typical board setting.

Bearing in mind that Dr. Schein may read these and say to himself, "Boy, this person has really missed my point," I offer a few sample questions of my own and, in some cases, from others - including the seminal Governance as Leadership (GAL). I'll offer a very brief reminder of the definition for each for context.

Humble Inquiry -- Asks inviting and non-threatening questions without already knowing the answers. Attempts to discover what's really on the other person's mind.

  • (Probably the ultimate humble inquiry question all nonprofit boards need to ask, via my friend, Hildy Gottlieb) "If we were 100 percent successful, what would our community look like? What would be different? For whom?" 
  • "What does success look like for you as a board member? For yourself? For the board?
  • "How do we demonstrate accountability as a board? To whom are we accountable, and what is important to them? How will we communicate our progress?"
  • "What headline would we most/least like to see about this organization?" (GAL)

Diagnostic Inquiry -- Not telling but steering the conversation, usually in the direction of something about which the questioner is curious (but not actively shaping or promoting a specific viewpoint). Can involve feelings and emotions, causes and motives, action-oriented questions, and/or systemic questions.

  • "How did we get to this point? What factors (positive, negative, something else) led us here?"
  • "What do you  feel you need to know/learn how to do to be most effective as a board member?"
  • "What have we tried so far in this area, and what worked? What didn't quite meet our expectations? Why?"
  • "Have we clarified (or muddled) organizational values and beliefs?" (GAL)
  • "What did we once know to not be true about the organization that now is?" (GAL)

Confrontational Inquiry -- Inserting your own ideas. Questions really are telling, but in different form.

  • "Were the others in the room surprised?" (Schein)
  • "Can we flourish in a neighborhood in decline?" (GAL)
  • "Where are we failing to meet our community outreach responsibilities?"
  • "Where did we miss the landmarks of generative issues and why?"(GAL)
  • "Why are we struggling with our fundraising role?"

Process-Oriented Inquiry -- Focus on the relationship itself, the "here and now" interaction.

  • "What about this is making people uncomfortable right now? Why?"
  • "How could we have handled that differently?"
  • "Where are we losing you in our meetings?"
  • "What do you need from me, as board chair, to help you succeed as a board member?"
  • "Is this too personal?" (Schein)
  • "Why did you choose to tell your feelings in that particular way?" (Schein)
  • "What should I be asking you now?" (Schein)