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.
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?