Monday, August 31, 2015

Nonprofit governance practice: Two peer learning roles that board members can play

Note: this is the second of four Monday posts exploring one of the major practices that emerged in case study research uncovering an effective community of practice

While some necessary board learning may require support from trainers and other outside resources, a lot of the expertise and wisdom already is sitting around the table and on the board roster.

One of the reasons the "practice" component of my case study findings was so compelling was the clear and compelling evidence that unfolded in the area of peer learning.

I identified two roles that members play in peer learning. First is the obvious role, as a board expert on a skill area (e.g., financial management, public relations, human resources) or on the organization’s mission area. While I witnessed multiple examples of board members sharing their expertise in routine board work during the study period, two instances stand out for me.

In the first instance, during time set aside to discuss financial reports, a board member with fund-raising expertise expressed concern about the convergence of several factors likely to impact the agency’s capacity to meet community needs. This board member raised issues that others likely already knew – that demand was likely to increase at the same time that access to resources (e.g., grants and individual donations) could decrease. She took the initiative to articulate those strategic challenges, and encouraged fellow board members to consider how to anticipate and adapt to a changing environment.

This board member suggested ways to respond proactively within their fundraising activities, offering examples of steps they could take. Two meetings later, at the board’s request, she led a led an educational discussion focused on the board’s role in cultivation and stewardship of donors. She drew upon her development expertise to introduce several ways in which the board could take a more active role in fund-raising and donor stewardship. She then facilitated a discussion that  ended with a board plan to expand its role in maintaining a strong agency donor base.

Two items of note here:

  • She willingly shared expertise with fellow members, about a topic that generally causes at least discomfort, in an accessible and empowering way.
  • She used her knowledge and her understanding of the world in which the board and agency operated to anticipate a challenge before it became a challenge. In that way, she helped the  board learn and operate from a strategic position, rather than react months down the road when agency client counts bulged and donations became harder to obtain. That is strategic board leadership, my friends.

The board’s treasurer provided the second example I want to highlight here. During a one-on-one interview, the treasurer and I discussed her concern about the challenges that financial reporting and budget issues pose for many board members. Part of the job she says she accepted as treasurer was helping her peers get past any fears so that they can embrace their fiduciary responsibilities.

“I try to put myself in the board’s shoes,” she told me. “What is it that’s really important in an oversight role?” Her monthly reports spotlighted those critical elements, usually anticipating member questions before they had a chance to ask them. She also highlighted any outliers, offering explanations and recommendations when needed. As one of those board members who lives in perpetual fear of missing something important on the budget front, I still appreciate and admire her leadership of group learning.

I mentioned two roles that members play in peer learning. The less obvious role, but also important to effective board deliberations, is that of the non-expert. Members need to be willing to ask questions, challenge “common sense” assumptions often made inside professional areas. They need to be willing to offer other perspectives, from different life experiences and expertise areas, to deliberations. They need to be willing to be naive questioners in service to the organization.

The board I studied provided ample evidence of members’ capacity to play this learning role. While often qualified as a gap in understanding, members who acknowledged asking "naive" questions also demonstrated a willingness to continue posing them, primarily for their own learning and capacity building.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Governance toolbox: August potpourri

We wrap up August - and summer - with a toolbox potpourri.

The three hallmarks of a dysfunctional workplace -- This one is not board-specific, but an excellent opportunity for self-reflection nonetheless. I've been a part of, observed, and participated actively in all three of the hallmarks that Crystal Spraggins describes here. I can almost guarantee that every reader - and every board member - has seen at least one in action and knows how it can completely grind productivity and creativity to a halt. Seeing these behaviors that frequently function as blind spots often is half the battle.

10 ways to become a better listener -- One thing that benefits boards - long meeting or not - is member capacity for active listening. The tips shared in this article are both appropriate "ways" to boost our attention level but reminders to resist the temptation to check out because we're bored, frustrated, or otherwise challenged by what is taking place around us. We have a responsibility to not only participate in boardroom deliberations but to speak up and hold each other accountable for staying focused on the work before us.

Fiduciary duties --  They aren't the sexiest governance roles, but the three fiduciary duties - care, loyalty, and obedience - are essential board responsibilities. We tend to pay a lot of attention to "fiduciary" tasks, but I suspect that more than a few board members truly understand the legal duties underlying them. This one must be shared and discussed with your board. Yes, must.

How should a board oversee ethics? --  I'll close with this excellent post by my friend, Richard LeBlanc. Whether the governance setting is nonprofit or corporate, each of these 10 "ways" virtually guarantees a stronger focus - and accountability - for ethical organizational performance and ethical board leadership. Some may feel more applicable to a corporate setting, but there absolutely is a nonprofit parallel if not direct connection to every one.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Creating, drawing from shared vision

Shared vision not only shapes and transforms nonprofit governance, it also drives truly meaningful board learning to feed that work.

Peter Senge's quote, from The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, didn't ping the theoretical radar as I analyzed months of data from my case study exploring learning in a nonprofit board setting

The reason may be obvious to readers following other posts this summer. By the time I sat down to report on those findings, I'd found the clear connection between that work and the community of practice framework. Once that happened, other adult learning theories and sources melted away - at least in my mind and my computer hard drive.

As I revisit Senge's quote above - and the one below - today, I have new appreciation for what he describes. Having a common vision can energize organizational learning and feed the processes that make it generative thinking.


The board I studied embedded the organization's mission, and the work that fed it, in routine discussions and activity. I believe that expanded members' need to expand that understanding, which remained at a level that increased their potential for generative learning. Their nonprofit's mission - their purpose - was a living component of their governance activities.

  • In what ways does your board create a common vision that not only keeps members focused on the task at hand but has the potential to foster excitement and commitment for learning?
  • What steps can your board take to increase that kind of experience?
  • To build greater meaning into their learning and their work?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Nonprofit governance practice: Member clarity about personal, board roles

Note: each of the next four Monday posts will explore one of the major practices that emerged in case study research uncovering an effective community of practice

Board member clarity about why they were being asked to served - before an invitation was made or accepted - provided a crucial foundation for that service.

In individual interviews with members of my case study board, one noteworthy "practice" theme emerged: clarity about the role(s) they would play as individual members. Some of that clarity could be tied to specific expertise (especially professional expertise) that they would bring to the table. For example:

I know how the profession operates and have a pretty good feel as to how other (professionals) in town think and operate from being here for 30 years. I see, from a greater standpoint, what the bigger picture is.

Being a business owner, I understand the whole financial aspect of running a business. When we have the discussions of money in and money out, where to put the money, how to save it, and what to spend – that all makes sense to me… Creatively -- when it comes to promotions, public relations – that’s all stuff that’s up my alley that I’m comfortable with. That’s where my focus lies.

Sometimes I think, or I hope, I can give insight as to what someone’s process might be with regard to their behavior or how we might do better with setting limits or having certain policies to either deal with or avoid certain situations.

Sometimes, that role/contribution could be described as coming from within, a quality that likely was invisible to board members during the recruitment phase but that the individual acknowledged as something of potential value to the governance or group process.

For example, Thomas (pseudonym) described one of his more important roles as bringing a “kind of decisive, critical attitude” to discussions.

Elizabeth (pseudonym) recognized her role in focusing the board on mission during a potentially challenging decision that it faced.

I think critically. I think sometimes ... I hope that I can ferret out what the real issues are and help with the critical thinking process. If we have decisions to make, I hope that I help.

Feedback from other members confirmed that Elizabeth’s efforts in that area were a significant gift to discussions. Her name also arose during at least one individual interview as someone who contributed in this specific way.

From a practice standpoint, we hope that new members launch their service knowing up front what is expected of them. In some ways, being able to articulate a purpose tied to professional roles or expertise (especially in mission areas), should be so mundane and expected that reporting need not have been necessary. 

In practice, that may be an assumption that is not universally accurate. Certainly, most attorneys and finance professionals probably know what kinds of knowledge contributions they will be expected to make, whether or not someone explicitly states it. And if you have fundraising experience, it's not a great leap to assume you will be called upon to at least advise on your organization's programs in that area. Similarly, if you have ties to one or more valued stakeholder groups, you can reasonably expect to help facilitate connections.

But there still are too many "any live body will do" and "friend of a friend/someone I know" approaches to filling too many board seats. From that perspective, the fact that every, single member could articulate some specific reason why he or she was recruited to serve felt noteworthy by itself. It is especially noteworthy when paired with their individual articulations of specific connections between their interests/motivations/values and the nonprofit's mission. (Studying this board's recruitment and orientation processes was one of my fantasy follow-ups.)

More to the point of the larger study of board learning, watching how members stepped up when needed to inform the group's thinking about a topic or responsibility, deepened my appreciation for the processes that produced role clarity. They knew what they could contribute - add value - to the board's larger work, and they demonstrated multiple examples of doing just that in the months that I sent with them.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Governance toolbox: Boardroom behavior

Dan's tweet launches this week's toolbox with a reminder about the importance of values to leadership. Do you know your expressed organizational values? Your board's values? Your personal leadership values? How do your actions and discussions enact those values - and your vision of the future?

How to eliminate passive-aggressive behavior in your office -- Nonprofit board meetings are not exempt from this common organizational-dynamics challenge. Heaven knows I've witnessed it in action in that setting. Hey, I've worked my own passive-aggressive muscles in that setting, too. This Fast Company post offers board leaders, and members, examples of passive-aggressive behavior (because, author Dishman is right: we aren't always aware of the variations that can emerge in groups). Naming it is half the battle. That obvious theme is helpful. But I also appreciated two recommendations shared toward the end of the post: Bandirma's call for after-project reviews (reflection-on-action!) and Nasser's suggestion to collectively identify "high-performance member behaviors." Directing members' attention to the behaviors they want in the boardroom - and those they don't want - increases the likelihood that they will work toward fulfilling the former.

7 ways to make team meetings work today -- Number seven on Dan Rockwell's list generally won't apply to boards (though it's worthy of consideration for board committees: do they all need or deserve to live on indefinitely? Probably not). But the other six offer ideas for strengthening your time together as a team. Dan recommends a self-assessment tool, available for purchase at the link he provides. Whether you use that specific vehicle, or another with a similar purpose, I can see value in engaging your board in this kind of collective/individual exploration (especially since I caught myself thinking, "The 'TJ' in my Myers-Briggs profile was raging in that meeting...").  Pick one of these recommendations, present it to your board, and see how you might use it as inspiration to spice up your your meeting potential.

Summer 2015 issue of Great Boards explores how to implement best practices; Assess/develop effective board culture -- Great Boards has been one of my favorite resources for many years. This issue, on board culture, is an excellent example of why this is the case. The two features within are general enough - and thought-provoking enough - to spark interesting discussions about board culture.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Meaning-making in generative thinking

What is generative thinking? What did I hope I might see, generatively speaking, in my time with the nonprofit board that I studied over the course of several months?

I mentioned at the beginning of the series describing that research that I hoped I might be lucky enough to see hints of generative governance, a concept described by Chait, Ryan and Taylor in their groundbreaking book, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards.

While I can't say I witnessed any full-fledged, extended examples of generative thinking/governance during my research time frame (and that's okay, because my focus really was elsewhere), I did see brief moments and discussions where the board clearly engaged in discussions and question-driven inquiry that were generative in spirit.

In the brief examples I saw during my board observations (one described in an earlier post and at least one more likely to appear later in the series), I saw the spark that has the potential to move nonprofit boards from competent governance to generative and exemplary governance. More to the point, I saw governance as leadership.

Until this very moment, I've never considered looking at my data (informally, of course) through a GAL lens. That's personally surprising, since Chait et al's book launched the questioning that became my research topic - even if it isn't officially represented in focus that I took. And, while Researcher Me has (and respects) clear boundaries that come with my choice to do a case study, Practitioner Me feels inspired to say that the kind of generative capacity observed made this board exemplary.

As I reflect on the second quote shared above, I'm torn between the "not organized" notion than the "not...equipped" idea as the difference between this board's example and those that fall short of their similar potential.

"Not organized" should be clear: too many board agendas - literal and philosophical - are structured for "action," not reflection and meaning-making. ("Action" is in quotes, because too much of it still comes in the form of approving plans developed by others and reporting on events in the past.) If we want generative work, we need generative space for it. That means space for, and value of, the kinds of questions that my study board asked and used so naturally.

"Not...equipped" can take at least a couple of directions. One, in my experience, is rarely really the case: recruitment of people who lack the capacity for generative thinking. Our boards are filled with smart people. So how do some of our governing bodies seem to end up as less than the sum of its member parts? Anyone who tries to make that case to me - and it happens occasionally - might receive one of two responses: "A lack of organizational capacity to engage the brilliance in the room is not the members' fault" or "That's the fault of a failed recruitment process, not the people you brought on board in that process."

"Not...equipped" also might be a matter of not ensuring that board members have the resources - information, stories and otherwise - they need to think and govern generatively.

  • How is  your board providing the kind of environment that is conducive to generative thinking? 
  • How is your board challenging that capacity? 
  • What might building that capacity make possible for your board and, ultimately, your organization?

NOTE: I'm collecting posts in the "Learning Theory to Governance Practice" series in a dedicated Pinterest board. Click here to access that board. 

They also are included in the board capturing posts covering this year's Nonprofit Board Learning Environments theme. Click here to access that board.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

Role clarity, learning, questions, resources: Effective nonprofit board practices

I have a confession: What unfolded under the "practice" umbrella during my case study changed the way I think and talk about nonprofit boards and the way I practice working with and supporting nonprofit boards.

From an adult learning standpoint (the discipline where my doctoral work was situated),  this is where the really meaty stuff fell. It's where theory met, well, practice: what actually happens (or not) in nonprofit boardrooms everywhere. It's where the work of nonprofit governance takes place and where the most tangible evidence was likely to come.

That last part didn't surprise. After all, I went into the months of observation and interviews expecting to find examples of board learning in the wild. What did surprise was how nebulous even these very clear, very visible activities were until I had the community of practice framework to help me organize and "see" them in a broader context. 

It's also where the intersections of evidence with both situated learning specifically and practice theories generally occurred. It's where I found the "good stuff," from a research standpoint, and the concepts that I could immediately hone in on as a board educator.

My dedication to that last one should be obvious to anyone who's read at least a week of posts here. In fact, I've been doing that since sending my dissertation off for binding. It's the juicy stuff, the big news, both from an adult learning foundation and a sector practice perspective. It's directly connected to the work of nonprofit boards - because it's actually work, with the power to drive boards to greater effectiveness.

But one thing that definitely has changed since the last time I took a serious look at my dissertation and the data behind it: the understanding that practice alone will not lead to effective nonprofit governance. What made my case study board effective - even exemplary - was the impact of these practices, grounded in the mission (domain) and carried out in the collegial peer community that they created.

That may be the ultimate contribution that this research ends up making to the governance conversation. Too many at the moment hone in on their own sets of practices as the magic, metaphorical "pills" to cure what ails nonprofit governance. If we just get our boards to adhere to these X responsibilities... If we just convince them to focus on these Y tasks... If we just restructure our meetings to do Z... If we focus solely on board practice, all of our board problems will dissolve and we'll reach governance perfection....

Um, no. Probably not. I more or less knew that to be true when I originally closed this research. But today, I have a better understanding - and greater conviction - that that is the case. Practice is one important part of the nonprofit board package; but it is only a part,  not a savior.

There is no way I can do justice to the larger package or the individual, major findings under each of these four factors today. I went into this post thinking I might cover this in two entries, two factors per entry. Instead, I think I'll close this context-setting post and plan to discuss each practice in a separate entry over the next four weeks.

As I prepare to do so, I'll offer one new caveat about what will follow (and this larger "practice" message from my research). These four practices emerged in this particular setting,  viewed through an adult learning lens. Just as I would never ethically encourage anyone to generalize my qualitative research, I also would never claim that these four practices alone will lead to board perfection. I believe my evidence to show their power. But I will never say that only these four practices matter. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Governance toolbox: Reaching out - board participation in fundraising and advocacy

Why not open this week's toolbox with this tweet? The sentiment fits nonprofit leadership (including board leadership) perfectly. And, as someone with an out-of-control office supply fetish, the graphic caught my eye immediately. The Maxwell quote feels like an especially germane follow-up to the storytelling theme in Wednesday's post. It also addresses a critical element of effective nonprofit advocacy and fundraising. We reach others - and motivate others - through powerful stories and connection of our mission to their interests.

Get the most from your board! A checklist for greater member engagement -- Who says there's not a way for board members to participate in the fundraising process? It's tempting to equate that engagement with asking people for money. But the truth is, there are other ways for even the shyest member to participate. This quick checklist reminds us of that. I can easily see using this post as a starting point for a discussion about both how we can expand our collective definition of what it means to "participate in fundraising" and how each member can find steps along the way to be part of that process.

Advocacy: An essential board responsibility -- If you've done any reading in the nonprofit literature lately, you already know about the increased call to push boards to accept - and lead from - their advocacy responsibilities. Gene Takagi offers an excellent overview (with links) of a lead driver of that push, BoardSource's Stand for Your Mission campaign. 

I'm a 20-year-old student and this is why I'm not coming to your fundraiser -- Whether by necessity or by the interest of those who serve, many nonprofit boards find themselves planning or participating in organizational fundraisers. Whether or not you're actively courting 20-year-old students, the advice offered here can serve as a much-needed reality check about what motivates many of your potential supporters to participate. (I haven't seen "20-year-old college student" in the rear view mirror in decades, and I found myself saying "amen..." to every single item on the list.) 

7 threats to nonprofit fundraising sustainability -- We can have spirited conversations about whether fundraising is a governance responsibility (versus something that many boards do). But one thing around which I hope we can find easy consensus is the board's foundational role in ensuring the organization's financial stability. The "threats" described in this Third Sector Today post by Dan Quirk affect not only fundraising specifically but our broader financial health generally. Board members should be thinking and governing strategically, anticipating and addressing the threats (and others) that impact their stability. They also need to be tending to the fiduciary challenges that arise when these threats become real.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Talking in, about nonprofit board work

This quote, from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, reminds me why their collective thinking - and Wenger's other works - ultimately ended up providing the foundation for understanding the data from my case study of exemplary nonprofit board learning.

Situated learning doesn't just happen to/around us as we go about our business. It's an integrated driver - and outcome - of the practices (including governance practices) in which we engage. This particular statement describes that beautifully. (Note to self: Why wasn't it included in the finished dissertation?!) 

The "both forms of talk" in this quote refer to two types of reflective discussion: talking about practice (exchanging information needed to act) and talking within practice (the stories and community lore shared).

Most reasonably effective boards manage the talking about components of their shared practice easily. They do so in any number of traditional modes of information sharing and exchange, especially reports (given and heard), peer- and expert-delivered education sessions, and discussions about issues placed before them that often precede decisions that they end up making. We're primed to be action-oriented - hence, the ongoing appeal of the self-proclaimed "working board"descriptor. We're there, in large part, to act. But that's not all. That's where the "generative social practices in the lived-in world" come into play.

I didn't pay especially close attention to the idea of talking within practice as I prepared for my case study. I certainly didn't hone in on it as I analyzed and summarized the findings from that research. But with a bit of time, and a lot more experience working with nonprofit boards, I'm appreciating the power of respecting and generating that kind of interaction in a governance setting.

Some of it happens naturally. We're meaning-making beings, driven to serve for a range of personal reasons. If we're lucky, we have powerful experiences within our board work (or related volunteer service) that expand the board's collective knowledge as well as our own. Having the opportunity to share those stories, within the broader context of the board's work, is not a waste of time. It is a legitimate part of the informal learning processes that occur in group settings. They shouldn't overtake the board's agenda. Wallowing in the good old days is no more of a good idea than sticking strictly to checking off action items. But they inform and enrich board members' understanding and, ultimately, their governance power.

An hour ago, I was lamenting the decision to focus on yet another situated learning quote this week. Shouldn't I be moving on, especially toward more specific community of practice references, since I'm in the middle of a brief series focusing on that major finding in this study? Yet, just now, I realized that the second quote above offers the natural next step that I needed but ignored because my last post was just "too long." (Summarizing months of work, binders of transcripts, and hundreds of pages of dissertation into blog-friendly overviews is even harder than I anticipated.)

Two mission examples that didn't make Monday's post are perfect illustrations of talking within practice.

One will ring familiar to many readers: the institutional memory that longtime board members provide. In the case of the board I studied, that memory came in the form of an agency founder. Normally, red flags would be a 'waving. Founders can be both a blessing and a curse, the latter when they don't recognize when to let go.

In this case, I was pleasantly surprised to find a founder well aware of that potential trap. We talked specifically about those risks in our one-on-one interview. I witnessed how she managed the role in the boardroom. This individual - and, actually, other longtime members - regularly provided important context and background that informed board thinking. Some of her peers volunteered insights into how and why they valued the founding member's contributions. They appreciated the institutional history that she offered easily.

Now, do not mistake this shared example as a call to cling tightly to those "irreplaceable" members that some boards fear losing. Fresh blood is a good thing for the board and organization. The chance to step away before burnout overwhelms is a good thing for the veteran member. But this member's example illustrated for me the role that organizational stories play in informing the meaning-driven work that boards do. Her stories were rich, they informed board discussions, and other members said they valued them.

  • Do you make time for stories and examples that add life to your board's work?
  • How do you capture and/or perpetuate those stories to benefit those who will serve down the road?
  • How do you make the mission as rich and meaningful as possible for your leadership?

The other example was one I didn't feel I could officially spotlight in the finished report, but it fascinated me nonetheless. My study began several months, maybe a year or more, after a mission event that clearly made an impact on individual members who participated in it. Yes, Researcher Me still laments my bad timing.

The question: should we expand our mission and programs to include "ABC" services? (Note: Local readers will recognize the agency immediately if I offer specifics. I cannot ethically do that and honor my promise of confidentiality to research participants.) Unlike many "stretch" opportunities that I have seen/considered in similar settings, this clearly was a legitimate extension of the organization's mission. But it represented a major commitment of resources - human and financial - that had the potential to either threaten overall capacity to meet core services or put the organization in a position of offering a popular new program only to drop it when tenuous funding ended.

Ultimately, the board decided to commit to the new program. But it was not a decision made lightly or unanimously. How do I know that? Virtually everyone who was on the board at that time offered it up as an example, usually of mission focus, during the study. I never asked specifically. Since it had already passed, it was not officially germane to my research. But it was noteworthy that the experience had such an impact that they had, and offered, stories about the event.

I was fascinated by that, especially because (a) they found it important enough to mention on their own and (b) they freely offered their individual - differing - perspectives on the mission question.

Paraphrasing some of the better examples (again, because direct quotes would give away the organization):
We can't say we're helping people when this problem exists for them.
We went back and forth on this topic. But in the end, we concluded that it's a part of our mission because, if we don't address this factor, it impacts other areas of our clients' lives.
Yes, I know it's a need, but what if we don't have the money? What are we going to do? How are we going to balance that?

These three examples illustrate the breadth of concerns and considerations that board members reported retrospectively about that discussion and resulting decision. Revisiting the transcripts just now, I am reminded that these revelations not only were offered as examples of mission focus but also as examples of how the board could work together, even on points of difference, to make the right decisions for the organization and its clients.

What kinds of stories do your board members have to tell about their experiences - especially mission-related experiences? What do those stories say, not only about your organization, but their perceptions of the board's power and purpose?

What steps can you take today to increase the organic potential for talking within practice for your boards? How can you use those experiences to enrich and inform their governance practice?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mission focus and motivation: The domain's central role in exemplary governance

Nonprofit Mission-Community of Practice Domain

We all know that a nonprofit's mission is its reason for being and the purpose around which its governing body rallies. In the months that I followed my case study board, I witnessed the power and potential of clarity and leadership around a nonprofit's mission - or, in the vernacular of the community of practice example I found, the domain around which its work is built.

Mission was embedded everywhere in the work that I observed and in the larger data set that emerged in the various components of the case study. It shouldn't have been noteworthy but, to be honest, it was. Mission wasn't a wordy statement in their board handbooks. Mission wasn't the thing they dusted off to address in their annual retreat (though I happen to know those events over the years have been grounded in mission questions). It was pretty much everywhere, and used by the board in remarkable ways.

I may end up fine-tuning this as I continue to revisit the data, but the two major mission-related themes that I identified at the time still ring true as I write this post today. One was the embedded nature of mission in board work. The second is the clarity of connections individual members made between personal motivations and the organization's mission.

Mission-embedded work

I mentioned in the opening post of this series that I chose this board for my case study because I knew members wouldn't struggle with the basics: they understood their responsibility for advancing the organization's mission. Seeing them tend to mission-related responsibilities - frequently - did not surprise. What did catch me a bit off guard were the ways in which they used the mission foundation to launch what I would consider to be generative discussions and, ultimately, different kinds of outcomes and decisions.

Many examples emerged in my time with the board, but the most remarkable may have been one that occurred in my first meeting observation. It was so simple it was perfect. It was so simple, it was powerful. It all started with a question: "How does this impact our mission?" (We'll explore the role of questions in more detail later in this series.)

A board member posed the question early in a discussion that could have been a straightforward, possibly brief one leading to a simple decision. On the table: a request by a local professional to rent space within the nonprofit's facilities, idle during the time their peer would be using it. Many boards would have rightfully seen it as a chance to help a colleague provide complementary services, recognized a chance to increase income via a monthly rent check, and called it good. That generally could have been one appropriate response: yes.

My subject board might have taken that route were it not for the well-timed mission question. Once posed, members used that mission focus to ask themselves:

  • If we do this, what might other professionals (many of whom volunteer for us) think? 
  • How might individual donors interpret this new income source, and would any of them adjust their gifts in response? 
  • Would current and future grantors take exception to this arrangement? 
  • What impact might this person's clients arriving at other times during the week have on our staff? 
  • What about their calls during our operating hours?

How does this impact our mission? Because they had a chance to explore this question from different angles and through the eyes of various stakeholder groups, board members made a very different decision. They also offered what I believe to be a brief, impromptu example of generative thinking in action, in my first meeting observed.

I was a mid-career professional and a mid-life adult, launching an extended research relationship with this group. It was all I could do to keep from skipping out of the meeting. The beautiful thing was that it was only the first example of mission-focused thinking and discussion that I observed in my time with this board. The mission lived in their governance work.

Related to this mission focus was the central place that it took in how board members individually and collectively defined success. Different members mentioned different factors in response to an interview question about this topic, but all came back to some aspect of mission advancement. For one member, it was having a reliable pool of volunteers to provide services on an ongoing basis and being able to meet the often growing community demand. For another, success was embodied in being financially healthy, able to meet obligations in an ethical and responsible manner. Another member described mission success in terms of community visibility and support for the agency and its services. Whatever the specific interest or focus, success always came back to some aspect of mission advancement.

Mission motivation

One of the things this board did best was recruit people who have an interest in advancing the organization’s mission. Yes, this is another bottom line requirement for service on any nonprofit board – and, yes, experience tells me that this is not the given that it should be in many boards. Members were clear about why the organization exists and were committed, and even passionate, about the agency’s mission before they agreed to serve. That set the tone for service and gave the critical foundation for how they would fulfill their responsibilities.

As important as understanding and committing to support the organization’s mission within the board member role was the second key theme under the domain, connecting that mission to personal motivations. Three themes arose when exploring how individuals connect service on this board to values, interests and other personal life factors.

•    Civic
•    Moral/spiritual
•    Social/political

Civic motivations drew upon an individual board member’s sense of responsibility to help support an organization that addresses a community need. “We have a responsibility to give back to the community,” one member said simply.

Moral/spiritual motivations connected board member interests to a sense of calling and commitment, frequently linked to religious beliefs and traditions. “You find some way to make some contribution,” one person said. “I think it’s an incomplete life if you don’t do something for somebody, somehow.” One of her peers stated it this way: “I feel a responsibility…I believe that some good things that happen to us are through our own doing. Most is not.”

Social/political motivations related to the belief that nonprofits like their organization play an essential role in meeting the needs of underserved populations – needs that they often felt should be the responsibility of other parties but that had to be addressed whether or not those parties were prepared and willing to step up.

There was a general sense that this organization served a critical need in the community and that support of that effort was a driving force for serving on its board. The more I learned about the members’ strong commitment to the mission, the less surprising it was to identify and understand the ways in which the board raised the question of mission in meetings and used it as a guide in decision making.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Governance toolbox: Leadership lessons

So many choices awaited as I pondered what to highlight from the possibilities saved for sharing; but a broad leadership theme most appealed this morning, so that's where I'll shine the spotlight today.
I'll open with a bit of inspiration from Chris Edmonds, author of a favorite book on organizational life, The Culture Engine. Board leadership requires the ability, and willingness, to rally talented individuals to create something even greater than the sum of their respective parts. The quote in this recent tweet resonated for me, just as I hope it will remind others of this responsibility.

The real work of leaders -- Our friend, Dan Rockwell, roped me in with the opening sentence: "Leading begins when the performance of others becomes top priority." Do our board leaders act as if that were true? How do they demonstrate that commitment to performance? How do they facilitate that work? Eliminate obstacles? The rest of Dan's post offers solid advice for finding answers to those questions. Whether his list is an opportunity for affirming already effective leadership or a call to action, nonprofit board leaders will find it valuable.

The foresight of leadership without vision -- Bet you never thought you'd see me recommending anything with this title, did you? Me, either. I'm still processing some of what Brett Steenbarger offers up in this Forbes post. But it intrigues me (and it dovetails nicely with Dan's post above). We're always - appropriately - pushing our boards to be excellent stewards of vision and mission. I'm always yammering on about tending to, and moving toward, the horizon as the board's ultimate responsibility. That's still true. But it's challenging to impossible if "vision" and "mission" are fuzzy concepts that will never be met because they're too abstract and divorced from the work of the board. Steenbarger's call for leadership as excellence, versus leadership as vision, is worth our review. The differences between a nonprofit environment and the one he draws from to make his point are large and cannot be dismissed in considering the points he is making. But I find this to be a potentially useful addition to resources I might assign before facilitating a board discussion about visionary, performance-focused leadership. It might be an interesting private-sector contrast to the usual nonprofit frameworks that we use to ground those conversations.

The Source: Free preview -- I mentioned this resource in Wednesday's post, but it fits the toolbox theme well (and really, really needs visibility in the sector, especially among nonprofit boards). It's worth the minor hassle of having to go through the BoardSource store to download it. The 12 principles offer a truly innovative frame for conceptualizing nonprofit leadership. Details are available in other publications that must be purchased, but this free handout can provide a good conversation starter (and inspiration for board leaders who want to have an impact).

I ignored the "knowing" element within Chris Edmonds' quote as I highlighted the dominant leadership point that appealed. But I'm inspired to acknowledge it now to bookend one of the key points of this Rockwell quote. Both caution us against leading from an all-knowing position. Instead, it's about igniting leadership and expanding it through inquiry.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Maintaining mission, learning focus

Exceptional nonprofit boards keep their eyes on what matters: the horizon, the vision of a better future that lies just beyond it, and the mission that drives them closer to it.

I take a brief, strategic step away from adult learning theory this week in anticipation of next Monday's post discussing how mission focus was exemplified in my case study.  This quote, from BoardSource's The Source: Twelve Principles of Governance that Drive Exceptional Boards, offers the perfect context for what I will describe. (Note: there also is a free overview of the principles here that is worth the minor hassle of having to go through the store to access. The Source is one of the most revolutionary, governance-focused ideas out there. It should be more accessible, and more visible, than it has been.) 

This quote, describing the "Mission Driven" principle, is one of three from this publication that made it into my literature review. Frankly, at the time (and, to my knowledge, still today), it was one of very few nonprofit board resources that even pretended to address governing bodies' learning and inquiry needs. This particular principle - and the quote describing it - address the primary focus point of a lot of those needs: the organization's purpose as expressed in its vision and mission.

How do we keep the vision and mission alive for the board? How do we define and assess board accountability for advancing the vision and mission? How do we create not just ownership but motivation to make that ownership meaningful and inspiring?

I originally thought I'd slip this second "Source" quote into this post as a bonus, so that I wouldn't have to return to this resource again in this series. It's still a bonus, in terms of the original topic. However, as I review it again today, I realize just how central it might be to the original research questions and the evidence that I found in my time with the case study board.

Today, as I re-read this passage, I recall vivid examples - shared in future posts in the Monday series - of board members educating themselves and each other about the mission area and the organization-specific challenges. I also recall a fantastic example of how reflection on a previous milestone experience in the board's life continued to inform board thinking about mission and shape individual members' approaches to fulfilling it (details also coming in a future post). I also can recall how they kept the recipients of the services provided, as well as agency donors and other supporters, at the forefront of many/most of the discussions I observed.

Whew. Whether or not you're getting much out of my trip down research memory lane, this little "aha" moment just made the entire process personally worthwhile! It even changed the headline. This didn't raise so much as a blip on the theoretical radar as I was writing my dissertation, in the posts I wrote immediately after completing it, or in any other writing or speaking on the topic. Yet, today, it pretty much summarizes everything I found to be true of board learning for the group I studied.

How does your board's learning inform and inspire your members? How do they participate in their own learning processes? What role does reflection play in expanding their thinking and governing capacity? Those are the questions that this quote inspires in me this morning.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The community of practice as effective governance site: A (revisited) case study

The essential elements of a healthy community of practice also provide an environment for healthy generative governance and board learning.

While last week's official caveat against generalizing qualitative data to all nonprofit boards still applies, the evidence that the exemplary nonprofit board at the center of my dissertation case study offers provides familiar illustrations for discussion about whether and how we create environments and processes that embed learning and feed generative thinking and governance.

Today, in this first post of a series revisiting the takeaways from this case study, I offer some context for the research and the biggest news of all: evidence of a thriving community of practice.

The research questions

How do nonprofit board members really learn? What kinds of learning takes place in the routine activities of governance? What types of learning and processes create an environment where generative thinking and governance can take place? As I hope the summer "literature review" posts are showing, I read broadly from adult learning theories and kept an open mind as I entered the multi-month research experience. I had my own experiences and stories shared by others but, frankly, I had no idea what I would find. Not entering with preconceived notions was critical to uncovering authentic answers.

While "how boards learn" was the foundational question driving the research, another part of me hoped to encounter evidence of generative governance in the wild. I had just discovered Chait, Ryan and Taylor's revolutionary Governance as Leadership model and had begun to struggle with two questions: how do we make the generative mode accessible to boards in the field; and what does generative governance/thinking actually look like, whether or not boards are aware they are doing it? I hoped to see an example during my months of boardroom observation but would not be crushed if that didn't happen.

The board

I chose my Plan A board carefully. If had any chance of seeing quality examples of board learning, I knew I couldn't spend months observing a board that struggled with the basics of governance. I needed a board where members understood their essential responsibilities and made good-faith efforts to truly lead their organization into a future where community needs are met because they existed.

Luckily, my Plan A board said yes. The significant insights that unfolded, and laid the foundation for how I reconceptualized nonprofit governance, emerged from the rich evidence members provided along the way. In some key ways, they were an exemplary board - a term my dissertation committee and I agreed I could use in this qualitative setting. It may not represent all boards, but it can offer a high-quality example for others.

In some ways this board was extraordinary. In many more, it was utterly ordinary, functioning as any other competent group of community leaders would in a nonprofit governance setting. They weren't perfect, but they managed to carry out the essential leadership work of a board in effective and productive ways. In doing so, they showed me - and I hope you - what is possible when board members have a chance to work, think, and govern in an environment that supports learning and leading.

The research mode

My research questions drove the decision to do a case study. I needed to be able to see examples of learning in the field, examples that might be mostly unconscious to someone in the middle of them (or who would not automatically identify them as "learning"). I also needed to probe members for interpretation of what I saw and for their insights into their board experiences and responsibilities. All of that required a qualitative methodology. Choosing a case study was pretty obvious.

The research process involved multiple parts:

  • Observation of meetings over several months
  • Individual interviews with board members and the CEO
  • Focus groups that both provided context for the observations and group discussion that added layers to the interpretation (for them and for a few of the participants)
  • Content analysis of board meeting documents (e.g., minutes, CEO reports, other supportive materials)

The case study offered a richness that would not have been possible without a qualitative approach. It was impossible to survey board learning and come anywhere close to the evidence and insights gained from spending quality time with a board that understood and accepted the full range of governance responsibilities.

The big news

I mentioned in last week's "lit review" post that I found Lave and Wenger's community of practice pretty compelling, so much so that I set it aside as I continued to explore a wide range of adult learning theories. I didn't want to risk seeing something that didn't really exist, because I had primed myself to do so.

As I also reported last week, I successfully avoided that research trap. I sat with my data -- electronic recordings and hundreds of pages of transcripts from them - for a few weeks, wallowing and wondering (my favorite part of qualitative research, if I'm honest). One major theme arose, strong and clear, from the beginning: a central focus on the nonprofit's mission that was enacted in multiple ways. Then there was this big ball of "stuff" that fed that mission focus but was proving hard to organize into ways that made sense.

Frustrated, I returned to the literature that prepared me for the study and, ultimately, the community of practice.

While I found elements of value in other adult learning theories in that review, the community of practice provided the framework that allowed me to make sense of the evidence and the themes represented within. That major mission theme that was so clear became the domain of the board community, the central purpose around which the board organized. That big old basket of "stuff" that challenged suddenly sorted clearly into functions of community and of practice.

The next series of Monday posts will explore the evidence that unfolded in studying this board, for each of the three community of practice elements. While I offered an initial summary shortly after completing the research and resulting dissertation, I anticipate finding personal value in exploring these ideas and the evidence behind them with fresh eyes and additional informed experience.

Next week, I share the domain/mission evidence that emerged early and in pretty compelling ways.