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?

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