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.

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