Friday, July 31, 2015

Governance toolbox: July potpourri

Last Friday of the month means one thing: it's time for the July potpourri. Following is an interesting mix of resources collected this week and elsewhere this month, ready for sharing.

Not a "resource," but a nice way to end a week (and month) and launch this post, Holtz's quote applies almost anywhere but especially in a nonprofit boardroom. Ask questions. Lots of provocative, mission-focused questions. You'll be a better board for doing so.

Five ways to help your nonprofit learn from feedback (and earn more funding too!) -- In this guest post for Beth Kanter's blog, GlobalGiving's Alison Carlman offers clear guidance for gathering and using stakeholder feedback. The model that she shares, the Cycle of Progress, feels infinitely accessible and useful - a powerful combination for organizations that sometimes struggle to identify and gather stakeholder feedback. Boards take note: Alison's counsel offers a clear, manageable path to rich data to inform the decisions we are called to make. And, of course, you know I loved this quote: "We believe that organizations that are committed to learning are the ones that will be more effective at meeting the needs of the people they intend to help." Listen, act learn. Repeat!
We believe that organizations that are committed to learning are the ones that will be more effective at meeting the needs of the people they intend to help. - See more at:

Stand for Your Mission advocacy resources -- To support organizations (and boards) rising to its call to expand advocacy efforts, BoardSource offers a comprehensive set of resources on the topic. This would be an excellent starting point for anyone (any board) interested in not only understanding advocacy and its role in mission advancement but how to engage board members in the process in effective and user-friendly ways.

4 types of team conflict—And how to deal with each effectively --  We can pretty much expect some conflict to erupt in the nonprofit boardroom. This Blanchard LeaderChat post delivers when the name promises: advice on handling four common types of conflict (which I suspect will ring familiar to many board veterans. I know I've witnessed examples of each.).

Making meetings productive: Overcoming Boomer dysfunctionality? -- I'm not one to gravitate toward generational generalizations (or idealizing social media, as embedded as those tools are in my routine and psyche). But the essential arguments for avoiding meeting dysfunction are worthy of sharing. Boomer-driven or not, saved by social media or not, the call for different ways of using meeting time is a solid one.
Five Ways to Help Your Nonprofit Learn from Feedback (and Earn More Funding Too!) - See more at:
Five Ways to Help Your Nonprofit Learn from Feedback (and Earn More Funding Too!) - See more at:

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Boards as communities (of practice)

Effective nonprofit boards have the essential characteristics of a high-functioning community of practice.

While I can't officially generalize findings from the case study that informed my dissertation - or any qualitative research - that is the message I took away from the experience. What I can ethically do is share the key concepts behind the big news of that work and suggest we explore ways to apply it to nonprofit boards.

Strictly speaking, nonprofit boards don't align perfectly with the community of practice framework. Whereas communities of practice generally emerge in informal gatherings of peers sharing a common knowledge base or purposes, nonprofit boards exist as clear legal and organizational entities with specific roles and responsibilities not directly related to learning. A more traditional example of a COP in a nonprofit setting might be a local group of CEOs getting together discuss common concerns and share resources, development directors from sister organizations networking via email, or an online peer learning and support community for board chairpersons (On my horizon. Contact me if you're interested in exploring how we might make this happen.). Their real ties are informal and focused on learning and mutual support.

Still, the more I explore communities of practice as rich organizational learning environments, the more parallels I see between what they make possible and what nonprofit boards need to govern effectively.

I encountered the community of practice notion early in my preparation for research, originally through Lave and Wenger's writings on situated learning - especially their seminal book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Intrigued by what I found there, I followed the COP trail to other resources, including books that Wenger wrote with others.

I continued to explore situated learning and related practice theories, but I eventually set the COP material aside because the parallels to nonprofit boards were pretty compelling. I didn't want to "see" something that didn't exist because I was primed to do so, since my research was intended to be an exploratory study of how nonprofit boards learn in routine settings. (An aside: I was so successful in avoiding that trap that I wallowed for weeks in data analysis, stuck on how to interpret a big ol' mess o' something, until I returned to my lit review and rediscovered the community of practice. Suddenly, everything sorted out. Beautifully.)

I chose these specific quotes, because they capture the essence of communities of practice well. At the center of both is learning: people in these communities come together to not only share existing information but generate new knowledge. That collaborative element is another hallmark of a COP: there is a synergy and a generative learning potential that emerges in their interactions.

It's not about simply rounding up a random mix of people, though. Community of practice members organize and work around a common purpose or interest. They have, and build, individual knowledge and capacity in the collective effort.

What those quotes don't capture as succinctly as Lave and Wenger is a concise description of the three core components of a community of practice, which I will use to frame the short series that starts on Monday. Those three elements are:

Domain: The common purpose/topic/interest around which the community gathers. Its common focus and foundation for the work that it does.

Community: The environment in which the community works. For success, that environment requires a minimal level of trust, sharing, collaboration, and mutual support. It is the canvas upon which the work can happen.

Practice. The routines, discussions, tools, stories, processes, traditions, etc., that form the work of the community.

As I said, while researcher me can't officially say "I found this to be true of one board. Apply this to all nonprofit boards," I trust that you can already anticipate some parallels from both the examples I will share and your own experiences.

I'll admit here that I was so excited about the evidence provided in the domain area and fascinated by the practices that emerged as critical to my subject board's success that I originally discounted the community component. It was what it was, and what it wasn't was sexy in the larger context. One goal for revisiting the data in this series will be to step back and review that portion of my findings with fresh eyes. Continuing experience certainly has reinforced for me the impact of group culture and dynamics on potential board success.

I don't know exactly how my (re)visit of this research will unfold, except that it will happen over a few Monday posts. I suspect there also may be one or two new related sources shared in this mid-week series to expand understanding of communities of practice. What I do know for sure is that the time is right for me to review, articulate, and apply anew the research that has utterly changed my thinking about nonprofit boards and their work. Until Monday...

Monday, July 27, 2015

Performance-driven follow-up for nonprofit board training: A personal wish list


Formal training events may or may not solve nonprofit board performance problems; but they often provide the entry point for the conversation and, if we're lucky, the opportunity to move toward the improved governance capacity that our organizations desperately need.

I still hold firm to a vision of a learning environment where formal learning events play an appropriately small role in the larger context. But I'm also realistic: many boards and nonprofit executives - and possibly some board consultants - undoubtedly see training sessions as the primary vehicles for educating members and effecting performance change. (Hey, I have a doctorate in adult and postsecondary education and I'm only beginning to scratch the surface of the board performance improvement puzzle.)

Board members also have limited time and energy to devote to a voluntary commitment, important though it may be. A two-, four-, or six-hour session on a Saturday may be all they have available at the moment to dedicate to building their collective capacity as a board. Faced with this reality, and knowing I have only a brief period of time to help prepare a board for the work it wants to do, I try to make the most of the experience. But to be honest, I almost always leave wishing I could extend the process for them, offering at least a hint of the performance support that they need to succeed.

That follow-up often is not possible, largely due to limited time and funding. But I still see the potential to extend the learning experience and the success potential if they - we - could continue the work together.

What follows will not be news to many readers, both board development peers and governing bodies who have access to the kinds of support I describe. But as I close the seventh month of this year-long journey exploring nonprofit board learning environments, I'm feeling the need to stop for a moment and reflect on what might be possible if taking that comparatively small next step, providing a footbridge to performance improve, were possible. Today, I share two things: the questions I might ask to continue the process and some platforms I might use for supporting a board after training.

Performance support question examples

  • How can I help you today? (Oversimplification, but potentially all we really need to get to the performance support point)
  • How is the board progressing toward the next steps we identified the last time we were together?
  • What aspects of the work needed have been easy or straightforward to address? What has made that so? (clues into motivations, existing support, leadership, etc.)
  • What parts of that work have been more challenging? What's making that harder to accomplish?
  • What are the greatest sources of anxiety for board members right now?
  • What are the greatest sources of pride for them?
  • What support - information, technical assistance, partners, etc. - do you most need right now? How can I help you access that support?
  • Are there challenges to keeping all board members motivated and accountable for the work that needs to be done? What kind of support can I provide to ensure that their commitment to this performance improvement remains high?
  • What kind of coaching can I provide for your board leader(s)? Your CEO?
  • What kind of coaching or follow up can I provide for the board as a whole?
  • What additional training would be helpful for the board as it anticipates the next phase of this work?

Performance support platform examples

  • Face to face session(s) with board as a whole or board committee(s)
  • Webinar follow-up with the board (for Q&A/support or additional training)
  • Coaching sessions - face to face, audio or videoconference - with board leader(s) and/or CEO
  • Email access for questions and referrals
  • Board performance support site/portal (for on-demand access to resources on common board questions)

No, I'm not the only board development person who's ever thought of those questions or used those platforms to support governance work. I offer these examples today to help you and your board consider the kinds of support you likely need to ensure that the training you receive actually moves you toward improved performance. As I said above, this is as much a reflection for my own learning and development as it is advice for readers. I welcome any feedback, examples, etc., that might inform my thinking and expand future readers' understanding.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Governance toolbox: July this-n-that

Not to be confused with next week's "potpourri" post, this week's toolbox reflects the delightful mix of ideas, resources, and a little bit of humor that awaited when I pulled up the bookmarks saved for consideration.

Getting to strategic and generative governance: Tapping the connection between scenario thinking & mental models -- Frank Martinelli's LinkedIn post draws on the model that most influences my thinking (and informed my dissertation research), Governance as Leadership. Any post that draws attention to GAL and, most important, to the strategic and generative aspects of governance that it spotlights, is off to a good start for me. It also introduces the concepts of mental models and scenario thinking to readers. I'm sharing this one, both for the example he shares and for the resources he includes at the end of the post. 

Ten things boards to right (without even realizing it) -- Every once in a while, my RSS feed hiccups and offers up older links from a blog that I follow. That happened this week with the Blue Avocado feed, bringing this post and another that I'll share below. It's worthy of inclusion because it reminds us that board service is more multi-layered than the tasks that make up the typical board agenda - and so, too, are the contributions made. In an environment focused on the myriad "failures" of nonprofit boards, the message was a welcome change of pace. How are these represented in your board? What would you add to the list if given the chance?

DIY: Make a bylaws cheat sheet -- Another older Blue Avocado post that appeared in my feed this week, this one is exactly what the title suggests: a tool that any board will find handy in the moment. We all have those pesky question that we should know (e.g., how what constitutes a quorum?) that always send us scrambling for the bylaws copy that isn't always handy. The cheat sheet described takes those common questions and answers them, in a quick-access form. Take the list provided here. Adapt to cover the more common questions arising for your board. Create your own list. This is a great, small example of "performance support" that many boards will find useful.

Banish Boring Board Meetings with a Strategic Thinking Calendar -- I almost skipped including John Fulwider's latest post, because it contains a link to one of the entries here. But in the end, John's recommendations here, and his encouragement to create space for strategic thinking in board work, won out. That it ended with three reflection questions intended to launch the process was a lovely bonus.

How can nonprofits become agile learners? -- I'll close this week's toolbox with Beth Kanter's new post, on a topic near and dear. The entire post is noteworthy, but I'll point out the resources and references to reflective practice. I'll also point you to Beth's reference to agile learning being embedded in organizational culture. Hmmm. Sound familiar? I enjoy, and learn from, pretty much everything Beth writes; but this one hits particularly close to home.

How Can Nonprofits Become Agile Learners?
Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It) - See more at:
Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It) - See more at:
Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It) - See more at:
Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It) - See more at:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Social competency meets experience

Wenger, E. (2000). Learning as social participation. Knowledge Management Review, 1(6), 30-33.

Bringing the smartest, most experienced people onto our boards is only the first step toward accessing the knowledge that we need to lead our organizations. We also need to help them govern in socially competent ways.

Etienne Wenger-Trayner (recently married) ended up providing the key to understanding the story that unfolded in my case study on board learning. This quote provides context for the broader social learning phenomenon that I witnessed and all that I have come to know since that research concluded.

Like most of your boards, the governing body I studied was filled with deep expertise in both the mission area and several management functions (e.g., fundraising, financial services, legal). What made this board exemplary was the way members created collective intelligence and applied that to their governance responsibilities.

Our experts on the board - everyone, really - need at least the following things:

  • Context for understanding the unique nature of nonprofits generally and our mission environment specifically. Transferring their specific knowledge and experience to a nonprofit setting is not always an automatic process. They may need assistance/information to better understand how to translate their general expertise to a nonprofit setting.
  • Respect for their knowledge and willingness to share it in a governance setting. These are significant gifts that cannot be wasted or discounted.
  • Opportunities, formal and informal, for sharing that knowledge with peers and organizational staff. I'll describe these in more detail when I write about my research highlights, but I can say that I saw excellent examples of both board experts anticipating board questions and translating information to address them and providing peer education in a responsibility area.
  • Respect for both the expert knower and the "naive" questioner. This was one of the bigger "aha" moments in my data. Boards need both the expert who understands and can advise and other members who are willing to say "I'm not clear about... Can you explain/clarify that for me?"
  • Clarity about why they are being asked to serve, before they commit. This may seem obvious, but it may not always be so clear. This also ended up being a second-tier takeaway from my research: because board members knew what they specifically were expected to contribute during the member recruitment process, they entered service fully prepared to step up.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The big, unasked board development question: Is this really a training problem?

Is your burning board issue a training need or a performance support challenge?

When I saw the topic of last week's #chat2lrn Twitter chat  "Is this a training problem?" - I knew I had to make space to participate. I was glad I did: what unfolded was a discussion that sparked new thinking (and new questions) about how we distinguish between board training and performance needs and how we better address the latter.

I've written about this topic before here. Rather than open with a rehash of that earlier post, I'll instead spotlight some of the tweets from that chat that caught my attention and insert a comment or two on how they affirm or expand my thinking about the training vs. performance question. I also invite you to share your reactions to what is represented in what I am about to share.

I'll start with this one, because it offers an excellent framing for the entire question for me. One, the bottom line is performance improvement: we want our boards to be as effective as possible in fulfilling their governance responsibilities. Two, training by itself  is not automatically "learning," or "performance improvement," even though we often assume that it is. Three, nonprofit board learning is an ongoing process that includes, but is not limited to, formal events. The tech reference could be a throwaway line in the larger point I'm making - except that technology can help us offer some of the performance support that boards really need.

How many times have you - or someone representing your board - uttered something along the lines of "We have a problem. Let's schedule a training." How many times have you gone to someone like me and said, "My board needs help with XYZ. Will you do a training for us?" How many times has that person automatically said, "Sure. When and where?" without probing to see if training really was the right path to addressing your need? (Raises hand. Many, many times.) In some cases, especially when the topic is new to the learners, training may very well be a component of improving board performance. But in many more, it may have no effect on your real issue. We must be open to the very likely possibility that training is not at all the answer to your performance problem.

Patti's right. If it's a matter of skills or basic education, yes, then talk to us about training. But if it's a broader performance or motivation problem, be open to exploring other paths to reaching your desired changes.

Many of the issues underlying the needs expressed in training requests start with a disconnect between expectations and board awareness of those expectations. There still may be training needs. A facilitated formal event may provide an environment where communication that closes the expectations gap can take place (a very common scenario, in my experience). But the bottom-line performance issue may be one of communication that is not solved by training in and of itself.

This may be less of a specific issue for nonprofit boards than the learning audiences that my fellow chatters support, but the potential always exists. If you are not having a somewhat probing conversation about the performance problems you want to change, if the board development professional is quick to offer a pre-fab workshop on "topic ABC,"  your potential for actually effecting that change decreases significantly.

Because many boards are looking for quick - if not easy - answers to their perceived challenges, and because time and funding for board development can be limited, there is the temptation to have someone like me parachute in for a couple of hours with a straightforward solution. What Chad calls for here - support that sets learners up for success once the event is over - should be a core element of what we board trainers and consultants offer. Realistically speaking, this may not be coaching or other "live" post-event support - at least not without an appropriate fee attached. But we should be at least offering resources and helping boards to identify manageable next steps to move them forward in confidence. We shouldn't bomb them with PowerPoint slides and handouts and call it good. (I'm assuming that the vast majority of my fellow board developers don't actually do that, but clarifying for boards who may not know to expect this.)

I'll close with Shannon's parting advice as we ended the chat.  If you find yourself seeking a board training solution, step back. Ask these two simple questions, within your board and with any consultant you may approach for help. Develop some clarity about what you really want to change and whether a formal training event has the potential to help move you toward that change.

As with other posts in this year's nonprofit board learning environments series, I'll close with questions for your board's reflection - questions that I'll "steal" from Shannon's tweet above:

  • Why this?
  • Why now?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Governance toolbox: Policy, process, power

This week's toolbox features my impromptu three Ps - policy, process, and power. Several share-worthy links appeared this week, covering topics related to board roles, policies and leadership.

Here are a few of the more noteworthy resources that I saved for you:

Changing the rules, changing the board: Bar association governance for changing times -- The American Bar Association gives us much to ponder - and aspire to - in this Bar Leader article. I've admired the ABA's approach to governance since I had a chance to access their resources during a Bar Leadership Institute I attended as a workshop presenter. This feature describes a balanced, leadership-focused governance environment that any board should find inspiring. I especially appreciated the call for "real conversation." The book referenced in that section is next up on my reading list. 

Five must-haves for strategic planning to matter -- "Strategic planning" should be one of the most important areas of focus for a board. It can turn into a giant, time-sucking rabbit hole that drags down boards and staff alike - if the board doesn't accept a disengaged rubber-stamping role.  Too many of those plans fail to become the change agent documents that should be their purpose. My friend, Gayle Gifford, offers a fantastic guide for ensuring that the planning process and its results live up to their greatest potential. Her "must haves:" a "must-read."

7 reality checkpoints for your nonprofit board -- Many, maybe most, of the seven scenarios may ring familiar to you. I have participated in each one of those discussions (some many times) in my 30-plus years of board service. I see this post as an excellent conversation starter for you and your board. Share the entire piece, discuss it generally, then use it as a jumping-off point for digging into one of the trickier issues that you face as a governing body.

Directors and officers liability insurance: Why it’s worth the cost -- The topic isn't sexy, but it's one that's kept many a board member up at night (or should, for the oblivious). This new Nonprofit Quarterly post offers an excellent overview of the risks that boards may encounter and the roles that D&O insurance has in covering their potential liability. Your state may have specific parameters defining how much liability you take on in board service. Check with your nonprofit association or  your secretary of state's office for more local details. But this NPQ article is a good, plain English starting point.

Why board engagement in advocacy is essential -- I'll close with another NPQ article, on a topic that will resonate with many boards (and possibly scare a few). If you follow any nonprofit media, you probably saw news this week that BoardSource has updated its "Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards." The big update: adding advocacy as one of those essential roles.  This post, by BoardSource CEO Anne Wallestad, makes their case for the change.  What it doesn't do is articulate the revised Big 10. So far, I can only find reference to the new list in the new addition of a book that we are all welcome to buy. I will keep looking for a free version of that updated list and will share if if/when I find it. In the meantime, this post will give you a sense of the importance that BoardSource places on advocacy. Again, this can be a useful spark for a conversation your board needs to have.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Knowing in nonprofit board practice

Gherardi, S. (2006). Organizational knowledge: The texture of workplace learning. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Silvia Gherardi is another scholar whose impact on my thinking about nonprofit board learning is broader than her presence in my dissertation literature review suggests. She introduced me to the broader concept of practice and expanded my thinking about organizational learning more generally.

I highlighted most of this book as I read it during my research preparation phase. It's that good and that full of insights into workplace learning and practice. This particular quote actually made it into my dissertation, because it represents how Gherardi's work informed my understanding of what I saw as I observed and interviewed my case study board. 

I had encountered - and gravitated toward - Wenger and Lave's community of practice concept (I'll be covering this in greater detail as early as next week.). But Gherardi's conceptualization of "practice," and specifically knowing in practice, added a layer of explanation and affirmation that I was on the right track. By exploring routine nonprofit board practice, I had a good chance of discovering rich examples of knowing in practice. 

Of particular interest was how boards moved from individual knowledge - held within the heads and experiences of individual community experts and leaders - to collective knowing and action. What are the critical motivations and actions that facilitate that joint knowledge sharing/development and informed activity in a board setting? I'll begin sharing highlights of my findings in my Monday posts, after I share one or two more foundational "lit review" sources.

Beyond significantly expanding my understanding of how "knowing" takes place in everyday interactions, Gherardi also helped me place other theoretical perspectives - in particular, situated learning/communities of practice and sociocultural learning - under the broader "practice" umbrella. That not only helped to clarify for me how different pieces of the puzzle I was constructing fit together, it also ended up informing how I interpreted the key findings from my study and my growing sense of value in exploring board learning from a social, "practice" perspective.

Before I bring this post to a close, I'd like to share a table that I reproduced from Gherardi's book that readers may find useful, particularly as a comparison between the typical roles and goals of trainings and other approaches (cognitive) that focus primarily on the individual learner and those that center themselves in the social interactions that take place in places like nonprofit boardrooms. Both have value in our quest to understand adult learning generally and board learning specifically. The former (cognitive) may be more common in traditional attempts to describe and provide board development. The power of those learning efforts expands exponentially when we also tend to the latter (social).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Effective nonprofit board training: Creating high-quality, realistic formal learning

As much as I try to make a case for expanded thinking of board development as more than formal learning experiences, the fact is that training events have a legitimate role in that process.

I've been offering board training for longer than I can remember. (Literally. I cannot remember when I began creating and leading board workshops, or on what topics.) Whenever that work began, I'm sure I succumbed to every stereotypical idea about how one "trains," right down to the wordy PowerPoint slides and long lectures from them.

Obviously, I now know better. I'm perpetually working to transform the ways in which I provide the learning experiences that my clients want and need, to increase their impact and effectiveness. But I occasionally encounter skepticism, because what I describe as my proposed approach to getting boards to where they say they need to be often appears different than what they are used to seeing in a "training" environment.

Part of that is my "learned the hard way" acknowledgment that expectations for a two-, four- or eight-hour session are not always realistic or appropriate. (More in a moment.) Also at play is my own lingering temptation to share "everything they need to know" about the topic at hand. But I've also come to understand and incorporate the factors that facilitate deeper, more meaningful adult learning.

Other adult educators and consultants will undoubtedly have their own approaches to providing board training and similar learning experiences. But today, I'd like to share a peek inside my evolving approach to these assignments. In doing so, I hope that I might help readers launch conversations that ultimately lead the improved board performance.

Realistic agenda expectations.  This lays the foundation for the session's success potential. There can be multiple layers to this one, two of them most common in my conversations with prospective training clients.

The first is not starting from the premise that "My board is broken. Fix it." Your board is not broken. Members may have gaps in their understanding of expectations (and maybe between their expectations and yours). They may find consistent, positive motivation hard to sustain. But they are not broken. My job is to help you find the spark that moves them closer to the high performance you expect and that they want to provide.

The second is a reality check - for both of us - about what we can reasonably and effectively accomplish in the time frame you are setting aside. Take your list of what you want us to cover in this session and take out one big topic. Maybe two. What's left usually is a more realistic agenda for most of the sessions I'm asked to lead. This one's a lingering challenge for me, because I want to accommodate all of your perceived board challenges. But I also know that filling their brains with a lot of information, on several topics, in a short time frame will yield little meaningful understanding or behavior change. Let's focus on a more narrow set of questions - or one question - and dig deeply. That's how capacity building and leadership development happen.

Inquiry basis. Speaking of questions... Yes, while a limited lecture/presentation component may fulfill some of your board's learning needs, our time will be better spent if we build our work around questions of impact and performance. The agenda I create for you will include more questions than predetermined answers. We may emerge with a collective definition of some of the solutions you seek. We may emerge with new sets of questions for you to ask as a group. More to the point, your board will leave with a greater understanding of the context in which they are leading and working, and a fuller toolbox of skills and resources from which to respond.

Come prepared: some pre-training homework. Going into our time together, the agenda that your board receives from me will include the broader questions we will explore together. I do that to prime the learning pump. I expect members to reflect on those questions in advance and come prepared for multi-layered conversation and exploration about topics that matter to their board.

"Homework" also may include accessing a small list of carefully selected resources - usually print articles and/or brief videos - that will inform our thinking about the subject(s) of our time together. That frees me up to facilitate those meaningful discussions and respond to specific examples and concerns rather than lecture. We can put our time to better use, actively applying ideas from those resources to your real-life board learning needs.

Active individual and group work. I'm an introvert who hates hokey icebreakers almost as much as I hate team-building exercises. But I also value the multiplying power generated in groups of similarly committed community servants who share a common vision of the future and their role(s) in making it happen. That comes, in part, from getting to know each other, understanding what individual members bring to the table, finding places to value those gifts and put them to work, and actively creating a common path to moving forward together.

The fact is, we can accomplish more together than we can separately. We magnify that potential when we create - and own - the processes that we undertake together. A legitimate purpose of any training session is helping boards find that common vision and a space where they can contribute in appropriate and powerful ways.

Closure: reflection and next steps. We will close the session with a process that brings appropriate closure to our time together. I believe in the power of reflection in the learning process. I also believe in identifying next steps and assigning accountability for moving those next steps forward. We will work to find a balance between the significant paths that emerge and the smaller, board-owned steps that have the power to actually begin moving forward along them.

Resources for follow-up. Because I can't help myself, I always have endless resources that cover everything I wanted to tell you but couldn't squeeze into our time together. My gift to you, and my way of controlling that "drinking from a fire hose" temptation, usually will include an online handout or Pinterest board covering our topic in greater detail.

I decided to share this peek into my approach, not to pose it as the be all, end all, magic training formula.  Rather, I wanted to offer an informed perspective on the kinds of processes that actually facilitate learning for the adults who serve on our boards.

What is the right mix for many of the boards I work with may not be exactly right for your specific needs. I certainly adapt to the unique needs of each board with whom I work. Instead, I offer this as a resource and potentially useful reference for when you're preparing to identify a training need and when you're working with someone like me to address that need.

  • How does the person you're about to hire construct training events? 
  • What is his/her philosophy of adult learning? Is there space for reflection and inquiry? 
  • How will he/she guide you from where you are now as a board to a position poised toward where you want to be? 
  • Does the approach proposed feel like an appropriate stretch for your board? 
  • Does he/she challenge you to focus your time on a realistic set of topics (or one topic) with time for depth of exploration, or does that person promise to squeeze in everything you think you want to cover whether or not it fits?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Governance toolbox: Mid-summer miscellany

I'm in the mood for a bonus mish-mash of board-related links today after taking such a focused approach to tool sharing last week. With two weeks worth of possibilities saved up, why not? No particular theme follows, just thought-provoking, random goodness.

Is "knowing" obsolete? And other powerful questions -- Okay, I'll admit it. Valerie had me when she opened her post with a reference to Warren Berger's wonderful A More Beautiful Question. But there is, well, beauty in what follows: a great case for the power of questions in learning and life.

Meet your 5 most dysfunctional coworkers -- Or, in our case, board members... Yep. I've served with at least one good example of all five personality types in a nonprofit board setting. I've undoubtedly displayed one or two of them myself in that environment over the years. Whether or not our personal experiences reach the extremes described here, it's important that we not let more subtle demonstrations of these behaviors disrupt our flow and capacity as a group. If you're a nonprofit board leader, be on the lookout for these types of dysfunctional modes and personalities and be prepared to address them before they poison your good work. Leader or not, work to ensure that your board culture remains collegial and productive - and an environment where these behaviors and attitudes are extinguished quickly.

The power of belief - mindset and success -- This TEDxManhattan Beach talk by Eduardo Briceno dovetails nicely with this week's "Leading with Belief" post.

Do we govern from a growth mindset? Do we govern as if we believe that we have the capacity to learn and grow and change? Or do we operate from a fixed mindset, where life and circumstances are already laid out before us and impossible to change? How do our board practices confirm or deny that?

Leadership begins at the end of your comfort zone -- This new-to-me 2014 post by Lolly Daskal offers a logical jumping-off point from the previous link, and a positive close to this week's toolbox. Whether as individual members or the board as a whole, the governance experience - and its outcomes - benefits from our willingness to "be fearless and challenge the vision" and to "be smart and challenge yourself." Take this post, share it with your board, and talk about how you might act as if one or more of these comfort zone stretchers were true.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Centering power in informal board activities

Michael Eraut's work on informal and workplace learning ended up taking a back seat to sources describing the major findings in my research as I wrote the literature review for my dissertation. But in the months leading up to the study, his voice was one that kept resonating. It still speaks to me as I continue my professional adult educator journey.

I read broadly from a range of theoretical adult learning perspectives as I prepared for my research. Quite frankly, I wasn't sure what I would find as I studied learning in the context of routine board work. Not having a strong sense of direction in this exploratory study led me into a familiar scholarly trap - finding interesting possibilities everywhere I looked - but it also opened my eyes to a wider potential pool of potential evidence and explanations.

I found Eraut's work on informal learning and, specifically, informal workplace learning, to be a logical fit to what happens in nonprofit boardrooms. While pretty much every note captured in my reading and reflection on this article resonated, there were at least three major ideas that caused a pause.

One was Eraut's four types of work activity that facilitate learning:

  • “participation in group activities
  • “working alongside others
  • “tackling challenging tasks
  • “working with clients” (p. 266-267)

Boards may not generally work with "clients," but they do engage community stakeholders, policymakers, donors and potential donors, and myriad others who might join them in support of advancing their mission. All of these activities are essential aspects of board service.

Also important to the nonprofit board setting was the three types of knowledge that he outlined:

  • Codified: primarily textual (e.g., correspondence, plans, manuals, etc.)
  • Cultural (non-codified): most work-based practices and activities – acquired through participation in a social setting
  • Personal: what we bring to the situation that facilitates thinking,  interaction and performance (p. 263)
Whether we acknowledge them or not, whether we see them or not, board members - individually and collectively - work with all three types of knowing in their governance work.

Finally, I found his four types of professional activity to be germane to the work that boards do:

  1. “assessing clients and situations…and continuing to monitor their condition;
  2. “deciding what, if any, action to take, both immediately and over a longer period (either one’s own or as a leader or member of a team);
  3. “pursuing an agreed course of action, modifying, consulting and reassessing as and when necessary;
  4. “managing oneself, one’s job and one’s continuing learning in a context of constrained time and resources, conflicting priorities and complex inter- and intra-professional relationships.” (p. 259)

Nonprofit board members both bring their versions of these workplace learning and interactions to the table and create governance-specific iterations in the course of their work as a leadership body. To the extent that they are willing and able to recognize, articulate, and consciously adapt those routines to maximize their learning potential, our boards can enhance the richness and value of their collective efforts.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Leading with belief: A few questions to help nonprofit boards define "making a difference"

Do we really - really - believe that we can make a difference? Are we governing like we believe that is the case?

I'd already saved this tweet as the focal point for today's topic when I stopped by a Facebook group discussing a Chronicle of Philanthropy article covering a series of listening/brainstorming sessions "to consider how their organizations should adjust to upheavals in their working environment." At the center of the conversations were "Nine Key Trends Affecting the Charitable Sector," a report released by Independent Sector. At the center of my Facebook friends' discussion was this quote:

"Despite all the good work we’ve done and all the resources we’ve expended, we have yet to solve the big problems of the day," she tells them. "I’m concerned that the world around us is changing at such speeds that it will pass us by in a single generation unless we take action."

Now,  my friends and I share a common rallying point: we don't get to fulfillment of our ambitious visions and missions while stuck in day-by-day, incremental mode. Still, I've worked with nonprofits and their boards long enough to recognize the frame of thinking and the concerns that are all too real to those working and governing in the field and in the moment. 

It's foolish to pretend that the very real challenges that our nonprofits face don't exist. We can't govern in oblivion. But it's equally wrong to simply shrug our shoulders and give in to the obstacles that can seem insurmountable.

So how do we get past that sinking feeling that we'll be forever treading metaphorical water? I can't promise any magic answers, but I would like to offer examples of questions that might help keep our boards focused on their larger purposes. None of these are necessarily earth-shaking - and that's the point. Simple questions, and a commitment to future-focused inquiry, are powerful things. 

Take one or two of these questions and build your next agenda around them. Use this list as a launch point for more appropriate questions of your own. Whatever the format, find ways to keep your board, and board discussions, focused on purpose and impact.

A few future-, impact-oriented governance questions

  • What does our vision of the future we are working toward look like? How will we know we've succeeded? What will be different?
  • What is our specific piece of that vision? How does our mission define and advance our specific contributions as an organization? (For example, providing temporary shelter is only one challenge in ending homelessness but it is an appropriate mission.)
  • What are the board's specific roles in creating that future? What can only we do/what are we best positioned to do to advance that work?
  • Who else is doing work related to our mission and vision? Do we see those entities as competition and, if so, in what ways? Is there potential in collaboration with them? What are our mutual interests? How can we work together to expand and advance those mutual interests?
  • What do we expect individual board members to contribute to the governance effort, with what impact? How will we know, as individual members, that we have contributed something of value to the leadership expected of the board?
  • Where will our time and leadership be best spent this year as a board? What special initiatives, questions, projects, etc., can we own to move us closer to our vision and mission in the next year? What outcomes will we use to determine whether or not we have succeeded? Who will lead what aspects of that work to ensure that it happens? What kind of support will they need to succeed, and how can we ensure that they get it?
  • Does the way we work as a board facilitate success and impact? In what ways? If not, what is keeping us from effective governance? How can we change that?
  • If the board as a leadership entity disappeared or disbanded tomorrow, who would miss us? Why?
  • What is the one thing we made possible, as a governing body, that best exemplifies our leadership? 
  • At the end of your service, what will it take for you, as an individual board member, to feel that your time on the board was well spent? That you made a difference?
  • How did we advance our mission in this meeting?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Governance toolbox: A few nonprofit boards-focused Pinterest treasures

Normally, I reserve this weekly "toolbox" space for found resources created by others that offer something to make nonprofit governance easier/richer/more effective. It's a rare thing for me to include a source that I developed.

Today, I'm breaking my own informal rule and sharing links to several of my governance-focused Pinterest boards. Well, I'm somewhat breaking the rules. While some boards clearly feature my own work and most have at least a couple blog posts from here, the majority of the resources shared on these boards represent some of the best thinking and tools created by others.

I launched these boards partly for my own reference but mostly as online handouts for workshops that I do and ready resources for sharing when I receive requests for information.

A quick how-to, if you're not familiar with Pinterest: Click on a "pin" that you want to view, then double-click on the larger version that will pop up. That will take you to the original source/website.  Also, a disclaimer: while I try to keep these boards up to date, there inevitably will be a broken link somewhere (especially if you're reading and clicking weeks or more after this post is published). It's the web. It happens. If you're willing, please leave a comment on the pin that led to the broken link so that I can see and replace or delete it.

Nonprofit board essentials -- When someone seeks a general view of what it means to serve on a nonprofit board, I send him/her to this board. It's undoubtedly more than the person really wanted to know, but it represents the best thinking and the richest perspectives on what nonprofit governance really entails. Be on the lookout for the sources by Alice Korngold,  Lucy, Marcus, Cathy Trower, Gayle Gifford and Kevin Monroe. They're some of my all-time favorites. It also includes some of the foundational "boards 101" posts that I've published here.

Generative nonprofit boards -- This is my go-to source for questions about the Governance as Leadership model and generative governance specifically.  Note: this one definitely is a moving target. For some reason, resources on GAL come and go quickly. While I'm always checking and updating sources on this board, I can almost guarantee a broken link, whenever you're accessing.

Nonprofit board dynamics and boardroom behavior --  So many challenges to effective nonprofit governance boil down to garden-variety human interaction foibles. This board looks at ways to not only overcome interpersonal dust-ups but build team effectiveness and cohesiveness. It's one of my personal-favorite boards.

Engaging nonprofit boards -- This board emphasizes tips and techniques for bringing out the best thinking and work from individual members and the board as a whole.

Save our (nonprofit board) meetings! -- As the name suggests, this board's primary focus is on building meeting agendas and environments that bring out the best in board members and the best decisions for our organizations.

Building board community -- Grounded in the central idea of a book I'm writing, I connect the resources here to one or more of the three components of Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave's community of practice framework.

Must-read nonprofit board resources -- A listing of my favorite governance-related books and sites. I try to remain retailer-neutral in my links, choosing to pin from the publisher's site or Goodreads. Every one of these titles deserves to be, if not in your personal library, your local nonprofit organization's library. Better yet, share this list with your community library so that some may be purchased and made available for everyone who serves on a board.

Leading nonprofit boards -- This board features blog posts and other online sources that discuss various aspects of leadership that board and committee chairs (and others) may find valuable as they consider their approach to the significant responsibilities they assumed.

Inquiring nonprofit boards -- You know I love a good question and value the central role that inquiry should play in nonprofit governance. This set of resources explores those two ideas in greater detail and offers ideas for how to enhance their role in the boardroom.

Several other boards on my Pinterest profile address nonprofit governance topics. Click here to access all of my public boards, including those additional resources.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Power in everyday nonprofit board life

Learning is embedded in group social life. It's inevitable. It's powerful. It happens - whether or not we realize or acknowledge it.

Yes, I really did read and draw from traditional scholarly sources in preparation for my research. But I return to Etienne Wenger and William Snyder's online article, "Learning in Communities," this week because it provides the perfect next step from last week's post as I recreated the path that I followed in that research process.

It also describes perfectly the motivation for choosing a case study, conducted over months, instead of more expedient research methods (e.g., a survey). To truly reveal, and understand, the full range of adult learning as it takes place in governance work, I had to observe and inquire about the processes that drive it. Most of those processes evolve not in formal training but in everyday board social life. Many of those processes are invisible to the participants creating and perpetuating them. That certainly was what I found in my time with the exemplar nonprofit board I studied.

I didn't know for certain, or how it might be enacted in that real life setting. But even as I came into the boardroom from a traditional training background, I sensed that I would discover something useful in the mundane work that high-functioning boards do. That was the case. Actually, what I found was somewhat miraculous to this board veteran. It changed my perspective completely as a board educator and consultant. It transformed my entire thinking of, and understanding about, how boards build their knowledge and capacity to govern.

Oh, and by the way, I also saw how that work created a natural environment for generative thinking and governing that I'm always calling for here. It required nothing heroic or extraordinary. Just an openness to learn and engage and explore.

I'm revisiting that research this summer, as part of my 2015 blog theme, "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership." (This "lit review" series is another part of that reflection process.) In the meantime, if you're interested in an overview written shortly after I completed the initial research and writing process, I invite you to download my white paper overview. While the larger messages and foundational components will remain the same, I anticipate that time and additional research and experience working with boards will add new layers of insight to the case.