Monday, September 28, 2015

The final puzzle piece: Building, sustaining community in a nonprofit board setting

Consistent, persistent focus on a domain (mission) and practices that translate that commitment into cohesive and effective action are critical to high-functioning nonprofit boards. But without an equally strong community component, the process is incomplete. 

As I bring this series, grounded in my case study research, to a close, I find myself lamenting the lack of appreciation for, and attention to, this final element. To be fair, I didn't enter this exploration looking to find a community of practice; that emerged as a theoretical fit to my findings during the analysis phase. But while I was able to return to both the dissertation and the raw data behind it to discover fresh insights regarding the domain and practice findings, I am not similarly able to do that with the "community" evidence. 

Let me share the highlights and the key evidence points that emerged in the data. Three common "community" themes arose in analysis: 

  • Recruitment of members
  • Leadership
  • Climate

Member recruitment. The practitioner in me couldn’t help being pleased to find frequent references to the importance of deliberate, systematic decisions about who should be at the boardroom table and why. This should not be remarkable, but I’ve seen (and, yes, participated in) enough “any live body will do” dashes weeks before an annual meeting vote to know that many boards can learn from this group’s example.

Before embarking on a quest for a new member, the board is clear about what it seeks in recruits. The group outlines what skills, perspectives, stakeholder group representation it needs before approaching potential new members. Most interesting to me was the fact that each board member could describe clearly why they were recruited (skills and mission connection) and how that knowledge prepared him/her to assume a share of the leadership responsibility.

It wasn’t the flashiest finding of this study, but it may be the most important. Ensuring that the right people are at the table, bringing the necessary resources and clarity about why they are called to serve, makes reaching full governance potential possible.

Also noteworthy were member reports of recognizing the need for a different kind of board, with different capacities and focus, as the organization matured. Rose (pseudonym) described it this way:

We stepped back very methodically. I felt strongly that we had to do that.  We needed a board now that was different than what we started out with. It had to be one that would take the long range. Its role would be in terms of financial, fund-raising, development, policy setting, and strategic planning. We went about then getting people on the board who would help us with that part of it.

Leadership. Members described three primary sources of leadership in interviews and focus groups. Two of those sources, the executive director (who was openly acknowledged as a leadership partner) and a founding board member, were readily identified.

The third source was perhaps less visible to the board but one that “Practitioner Me” would describe as the most critical: the situational leadership role that each member played at different times in board work. This relates directly to my earlier observation about recruitment. Members understood the expertise they were expected to bring to deliberations and to facilitate the board’s understanding of the issues as it made decisions. They also demonstrated this capacity several times during my observations, giving me the chance to see how individual members rose to the occasion when the board needed their guidance.

Climate. Two contributors to climate - structure and collegiality - won’t stop any scholarly presses; but without them, the board’s capacity to engage productively in governance work.

Board members described in detail how meeting structure, with the help of a concise agenda, facilitated effective use of their time and focus on the tasks at hand. While no agenda is perfect, or is perfectly followed, consensus was that the agenda format made the most of limited time given by these volunteers. Rose (pseudonym) said:

I think it’s a tough balance between being too structured and not structured enough.  I think we’ve tended to do pretty well with that. I’ve been on some boards where it’s too unstructured and people wander aimlessly for a long time. Or it’s so rigid that we don’t get good discussion because, if an idea comes up that’s not expected, it gets shot down.

Susan (pseudonym) said:

It isn’t my strength to be patient. I have to keep focused, to keep the meeting moving. It’s too easy to get distracted in meetings, with the sidebars and getting off onto other topics. You’ve got to stay focused, just to get the meeting done. That’s my own sense of urgency. If you keep focused on why you’re there, that makes it easy to be respectful of other people’s time. Time is a very precious thing, and we need to be respectful of that. 

Trust and respect arose often in descriptors of an environment where board members felt comfortable contributing their perspectives, even when they disagreed with those posed by others. Members of this board trust each other to act in the best interest of the organization. They respect each other’s expertise and discernment in deliberations that lead to actions impacting the organization and the people it serves.


I think that’s one of my basic foundations of a board that works well together – respect. We have that respect for each other and treat each other respectfully.  

Obviously, I believe that we need disagreement. Disagreement has moved us forward in many, many ways. That helps us grow. Disagreement is how we expanded our dental program at the board level. But it was courteous, respectful disagreement…It has to be safe for people to bring those things up, or we’ll never get anywhere. We won’t grow.


I think everyone has enough respect for the people and confidence in their judgment and I think that’s something that helps us as a board.

I think people are willing to consider other points of view, even if they don’t agree.  I know I’ve bumped heads a time or two. But still people will say, ‘you know, that’s a good point’ or ‘maybe we should think about it.’ Whether they agree or not, people are willing to consider what other people bring to the table.   

I see that most of my community data are board member descriptions rather than researcher observations. On one important level, that makes sense: my primary research attention was on board learning and practices that feed that process. To the extent that I was taking a wide theoretical approach, rather than specifically looking for evidence of the community of practice that I ended up finding, that was okay.

Another factor that makes sense, even if it is not entirely a justification: this was a largely healthy board that exhibited no clear interpersonal difficulty in their work. Healthy communication, healthy relationships like those board members described, can be largely invisible. We notice, and experience, the breakdowns. When things work well, we must work harder to "see" that.

To the extent that that wasn't the specific focus of my research, that's okay. I had enough evidence to describe the role of community in the community of practice that I found. But I've also come to appreciate, in the time since this research ended, that the challenges vexing many nonprofit boards are not ones of structure or role clarity, but plain, old communication/group dynamics issues. After the fact, since I didn't explore what kept most of those at bay in this board, that now feels like a lost opportunity.

I have one more post within me, one wrapping up the series and the lessons learned in this extended reflection. Then it will be time to move on to other board, and board learning, topics.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Governance toolbox: September potpourri

We close September's toolbox posts with a monthly potpourri of random governance linkage.

Are these the worst micromanagers? -- Lucy Marcus never fails to inspire or challenge my thinking in new ways. This post, on a particularly tricky (and often common) board malady, is an excellent example of why that is true. How does you board avoid the micromanagement trap? Lucy offers counsel of value for both nonprofit and corporate governing bodies.

The leadership behavior employees most want -- ...and board members, too. Nothing kills board member motivation quicker than feeling one's contributions are not respected. (I speak from experience.) Dan Rockwell's post identifies 10 actions that foster a feeling of disrespect, as well as seven ways to show respect. It should be required reading for board leaders. Just saying...

From Bored to Blazing: 7 Steps to Get Your Board Reconnected, Re-engaged and Enthusiastic -- Oh, Gail Perry. How I love your understanding of the human beings who serve on nonprofit boards... What I appreciate about her seven steps (and pretty much everything she writes) is the fact that she meets board members where they are and works from that point, rather than from expectations that are often unclear and occasionally daunting.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Inviting 'noisy' generative thinking

(Axelrod, N. (2006). Curious boards. Board Member, 15(3), 8-11.)

Boards cannot fear the noise of generative thinking and inquiry. They must embrace it - and understand it as a core capacity in their governance responsibilities.

In light of the aha moment that I had in Monday's post, I felt compelled to share this quote by Nancy Axelrod. Actually, it covers most of the major insights from my research that I've shared so far this summer.  But it's germane today because it describes the phenomenon that occurred in each of the moments where questions posed by board members prompted their peers to stop, consider, explore, and ultimately come up with decisions - and questions - that may not have been their first impulse.

That's one of the most transformative contributions of generative thinking in the nonprofit boardroom: creating the environment where new possibilities can emerge and the capacity to envision more - and new - options that may end up being better and more effective than those that may seem obvious on the surface.

A board culture that values generative thinking and centers itself in inquiry is noisy. It's also scary at times, as the discussion takes us into sometimes uncharted territory. It can feel simultaneously fast, even as it requires that we take time to really think and consider all options available to us. But it's an environment that nonprofit boards must commit to creating if they are to govern fully - to govern from a place of leadership.

This feels like a potentially natural close to the Wednesday "literature review" series I've been running this summer. It may be, or I may still offer quotes from a couple of other adult learning theories that beg to be shared. For the moment, I'll simply close with the encouragement to explore with your board ways to make fostering a culture of inquiry, where generative thinking and governance comes as naturally as the fiduciary oversight tasks that dominate so many of their agendas.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Nonprofit governance practice: Learning driven by board member questions

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

Questions, questions, questions... At the time I was analyzing my case study data, this was where the big news appeared for me - so much so that it sparked a years-long obsession with inquiry in a governance setting.

I've shared the most memorable example of a question driving generative board deliberation in an earlier post in this series. But there were many others. Reflecting back on them today, a few in particular stand out as also worthy of sharing.

Questions posed by Natalie (pseudonym) tended to follow two themes. She regularly requested expanded detail on topics placed before the board, on operational issues and policy concerns. Natalie also posed questions that prompted the board to consider the importance of including other voices in deliberations, whether or not their contributions seemed to directly benefit the agency.

One case illustrating the latter arose during the research period, centering on the role of two ex-officio positions. One position was tied to a cooperating organization. The other was a client representative. Both were mandated by the organization's bylaws. The relationship with the other agency had changed and maintaining consistent client representation had proven problematic, leading some board members to question whether they should consider changing the bylaws.

Natalie perceived that there might be other factors influencing the recommendation to eliminate the ex-officio positions. Joan (pseudonym) picked up on the direction Natalie was headed and raised the benefit of providing opportunities for another organization to get to know the organization better. If the agency dropped the partner organization representation, she said, the agency would lose that opportunity. Natalie’s question, and Joan’s reinforcement, led to a board discussion that ultimately led to a decision to extend an invitation, with a commitment to re-evaluate the bylaws provision in one year.

In our private interview, Natalie described her questioning role as a deliberate one: stretch fellow members' thinking. In this case, her questions helped the board avoid taking the expedient approach to resolving minor logistical issues while keeping the bigger stakeholder opportunities. They may have decided to change the bylaws after the observation period, but they gave themselves the chance to consider the broader range of implications in doing so before taking that step.

Natalie had a knack for nudging fellow members beyond their comfort zones and sparking different kinds of responses than their natural instincts might lead initially. I have another great example, that confidentiality commitments don't allow me to share in detail (local readers would immediately identify the organization and possibly Natalie herself). But I will say that she repeatedly pushed the board to take a step back from a decision that seemed absolutely, obviously right - with stakeholder relations in mind - and ultimately led them to an even better decision that flew in the face of what most of us would assume to be true.

Another example comes from Thomas (pseudonym), who was concerned about how the agency used volunteer time. He posed it in a very specific way (paraphrased here, again, to preserve confidentiality): "Are we doing too much of....?" The explanation shared by staff and the board discussion that it sparked ended up being both a mission/learning moment and an opportunity to think about agency processes and volunteer engagement, rather than the isolated procedures implied in the question.

As I revisit these question examples today, one thing becomes clear: It's not necessarily the question itself that matters (though, obviously, we need board members to see and take opportunities to ask questions challenging "common sense" and stretching our comfort zones). It's the board's capacity to take those questions and translate them into expansive conversations that take them in sometimes surprising directions.

It's the presence of members who can think differently, who are willing to challenge their assumptions and the "obvious" answers, and be open to coming up with different kinds of decisions than they might originally expect - and be okay with that. It's the presence of a mix of different ways of thinking and pools of experience that make that kind of potentially transformative discussion possible.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Governance toolbox: Regaining my post-break, post-illness blogging mojo edition

My apology for the unanticipated break here: I picked up something treacherous on the return trip from a Labor Day family wedding in Chicago, and the recovery has been a slow one. Today's re-entry post shares a few of the intriguing resources that accumulated as I continued my quest to rejoin the living.

7 signs your culture is sick -- Heh. That feels like a particularly appropriate opener, given my past week-plus. As I read Dan Rockwell's "sick" list, I could either recall an actual nonprofit board scenario that matched or envision tricky situations that could exist in that setting. Be sure to pay attention to his seven signs of a healthy culture. Culture is one of those things that remain largely invisible until it breaks down. The reminder of the types of actions and environmental factors that contribute to organizational health is a good one.

"The vision thing" - And why it matters to you - "You," as in you as an individual board member and "you" as a board. Erika Andersen's Forbes post resonates this week as I prepare to lead a vision session for a local start-up organization. It also resonates because of this brilliant quote:

We may need our boards to  play a lead role in strategy development and planning. We may require our boards to tend to the fiduciary tasks and responsibilities. But make no mistake: if we've recruited well, with commitment to our vision and mission as the starting point, this is what drives our board members to serve. This is what keeps them motivated to provide the leadership we need from them. If we allow them to lose sight of the vision to which we all aspire, we lose them. Period.

Nonprofit employment trends --  What's really going on in the nonprofit sector? I don't know how often your board thinks about the sector beyond your own doors. But understanding the larger environment - locally if not nationally - is one way to keep governing bodies attuned to the forces that impact both your work today and your potential success in advancing that vision that Erika addresses above. This quick-read piece by the National Council of Nonprofits (an excellent resource for educating ourselves about the sector as a whole, by the way) gives us a taste of some of the employment-related issues to which boards and senior staff leaders should be aware. It's also an example of the kinds of easy-access resources available to boards to help them do a better job of educating themselves about the nonprofits that they lead.

Avoid these 9 leadership traps -- I'll close with this one, as a reminder that leadership requires a bit of bravery that we sometimes lose in the nonprofit boardroom. As I re-read this list just now, it sparked thinking about how we sometimes hunker down and accept whatever offers the least risk. Good, responsible stewardship of organizational resources is one thing (and a critical bottom line for boards). But it shouldn't be used as an excuse to settle for "good enough."


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Access to embedded local board knowledge

This, my friends, is one of the major reasons we need to tend to diversity - especially diversity of networks and community connections - in our boardrooms.

Obviously, professional expertise plays an important role in equipping nonprofit boards for the kinds of questions and responsibilities. We need access expertise in our mission areas, legal perspectives, people comfortable with financials, experienced public relations folk, etc. Often, that expertise sits on the board with us. It may even help drive board composition and the recruitment processes that feed it.

But Yanow describes another type of expertise that complements that (and, in my view, is as important): local knowledge. We need to understand the needs of our communities, however we define them. We need to hear about experiences, impacts, and ideas about our mission areas. We need access to stakeholder group voices, and opportunities to engage them in the processes that lead to programs and services that meet their needs and fulfill our missions.

We need community-specific context to inform our thinking, our visioning, and our decision making. We need people in the room with different experiences, networks, and lived perspectives than our own.

  • How do we identify and attract connections to local knowledge needed by our board?
  • How do we specifically recruit for those connections and expertise?
  • How do we engage that knowledge (and those communities) in meaningful and authentic ways?
  • How do we use that knowledge to build board understanding and capacity - and to make the best decisions possible?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Nonprofit governance practice: Member access to learning resources


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

Nonprofit board members need access to information and other resources that support informal learning.

The third major "practice" element that emerged as important to the board that I studied was the availability of what I called "learning resources," a mix of print and human information sources that members described as important or useful to their work.

Since completing my research - and expanding my understanding of adult learning generally - I have come to appreciate the importance of the kinds of resources I am about to describe. They are part of the performance support that I now see as essential to building an effective board learning environment.

I'll admit that I never found this one to be the sexiest finding of the four major "practice" elements that emerged. I'll also admit that that may have led me to discount the role of these resources (or at least focus my attention elsewhere). Today, especially as my perspective on board performance and learning has evolved, I'm appreciating each of the resources that members described as valuable in new ways.

With that context, I introduce the key learning resources that supported the case study board's learning and governance.

The executive director. I've witnessed (and participated in) board/CEO partnerships that ran the gamut, from true equals to dysfunctional messes. At the time of my research, I could (and still can) say that this was one of the most productive and collegial nonprofit leadership teams that I had encountered. Thinking about it today, I can see at least a couple of reasons.

One, ED Caroline (pseudonym) recognized the joint leadership responsibilities that she shared with the board and her specific role in their collective success. She didn't treat the board as something to be managed or an obstacle to getting the "real" work done. Certainly, she recognized the more mundane aspects of her responsibilities to the board

It is my responsibility to keep the board updated on all of the workings of the clinic, to be sure that they have all of the information that they need to make sound decisions. I also help keep the calendar. I have typed up what the board’s responsibilities are each month of the year, so that I can be sure that those things are on the agenda and that the committee chairs have been informed that they have this responsibility coming up and that I know what they need from me to be able to make sure that that happens. 

Let's face it: part-time volunteer leaders need a certain level of management support from their executive director to help them stay focused. But this executive director was neither glorified clerical support nor supreme ruler.

If I overstep too much, then I take away some of the ownership that the board members are going to have for the overall working of the clinic. I need them to have that. I need that buy-in. I need their work. I need their minds and their talent that they bring to the board. I don’t want anyone to feel like, “Well, I don’t even know what I’m doing here, because Caroline just comes in and tells us what we’re going to do, anyway.” I’m at that spot right now where it would be almost easy to fall into a little bit more of that. It would be easy to slip over that line. I’m conscious of it, anyway. 

That awareness, I believe, was the pivotal piece of the exemplary partnership that I witnessed. She recognized the sometimes delicate balance required of a healthy board/CEO leadership relationship. The board acknowledged that, too.

I think we’re very lucky to have a director who is so involved and so capable. It scares me to think if she ever quit. To have somebody with her background and vision and contacts is very rare. In fact, I was so amazed that we had somebody like that. It would make a lot more work for the board if we did not have someone of that caliber.

I guess I’d have to credit Caroline for a lot of it. She keeps the board focused on things. I think the agenda of the board meetings is built in a way that it refers to what’s going on at the (nonprofit). We don’t get way off on other things. 

I think Caroline’s a good, superb, director. One of her strengths, probably, is trying to get the board involved a lot and have the board knowledgeable about a lot of areas.

Written executive director's reports. I knew instinctively that this was a good thing - that the executive director put so much thought into what she prepared for the board and that members valued it - at the time I was conducting the research. What I have come to appreciate over time is how this resource probably freed up the board to focus on higher priorities, like the strategic and generative discussions that dominated the meetings that I observed.  I'll let Caroline describe her thinking:

I think it’s important for them to know, and to see what we are doing…I guess that, if it seemed like a big deal to me, it would be a big deal for them. If it’s something that’s impacting the clinic in one way or another, or whether it was just a little nice thing, I’ll tell them. 

Her reports were quite detailed, and that is a good thing. One, it offered the basic information and context about the last month in a format that board members could read at their leisure (because packets were sent to them in a timely manner). They could reflect, research, and be prepared to ask questions if needed; but otherwise, they had that background without taking up precious board time. Two, she was creating one form of institutional history, which would be valuable for her eventual successors and future board members.

Board members unanimously described the value of Caroline's reports. For example, board member Sarah said the report functioned as a time saver “because we know what we’re going to be talking about. We know what Caroline’s been doing, and we can have questions prepared.”

Meeting minutes.  Ah, the minutes. I described my glee at encountering a great, mission-driven discussion in my first meeting observation. The other reason I nearly tap-danced out of that session: an interaction regarding meeting minutes formats. That sounds insane, but there's a reason this was such a momentous experience (at least from the standpoint of my research).

During the first meeting observation, a question about whether the clinic should explore alternative ways to record minutes led to a discussion about the purpose that they serve and a decision to test two different formats to determine which ultimately is the most functional and appropriate. An ongoing challenge had been the time and effort required from the board secretary to produce the detailed set of minutes that had become the default for the board.

When the subject arose again during this meeting, board president Susan (pseudoym) suggested that the group consider adopting action-only minutes, a format that involves recording only the actions taken, as a way of streamlining the process while capturing the required information. Board member Thomas (pseudonym) volunteered to create a set of action-only minutes for the meeting, to compare to the set that the secretary would be writing. The board could then decide whether either document fulfilled its informational needs. Members agreed to the trial and two sets of meetings were created for the next meeting.

It didn’t take long to reach consensus. At the next meeting, with two sets of minutes to compare, the need for the detail provided by the traditional approach was affirmed. Board member Natalie (pseudonym) said, “I really appreciate having complete minutes. I think it would also be very valuable for people who cannot attend a particular meeting. There’s just a lot of business taken of."

Board member Sarah (pseudonym) explained the limitations of the action-only version this way:

I like concise [minutes], but if I were to have missed last time’s meeting, I would have a hard time knowing, probably, what happened with just action item minutes. It would be hard for me to pick up and understand.

Executive director Caroline addressed the documentary purpose of minutes: “It is our history. If, looking back on making decisions, people want to see a part of the decision making process, then it’s important to have them be a little more detailed.”

That exchange still makes me tingly. They understood the importance of not having to wrack their own brains, trying to remember what happened and why. Caroline also saw the minutes' role in preserving institutional history. Well-written minutes are powerful things, worthy of the effort it takes to write them.

Access to founding members. Speaking of institutional history... Another critical resource for this board was the presence of two founding board members. I'll again issue the caveat that founders who linger can create, at best, problematic situations. I share this one, recognizing that risk, but acknowledging the contributions that these two members made in sharing background about how the organization and board got to that point.

I credit the success of that history sharing completely to the founder's sensitivity to the potential to overstep or allow others to treat her as anything more than a contemporary. Still, others specifically mentioned that person's presence and contributions.

Whew. To think I expected this would be a short entry.  As I close this post today, I have a renewed appreciation for the quiet, critical roles that each of these resources played in supporting the exemplary board performance that I witnessed and had the pleasure of describing. I'll close this post with encouragement to readers to think about how their boards use their own version of these resources or consider more generally all forms of performance support that they offer members.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Learning in everyday (board) activity

"Daily" (routine) interactions between offer powerful, practice-based learning experiences for adults in any setting - including nonprofit boards.

Sociocultural perspectives certainly informed my thinking about embedded learning in a nonprofit board setting (and offered a frame for the book chapter that emerged from this work). One of the reasons I was drawn to them was the practice focus: their attention is, as the quote above says, on the routine activities where work is done and learning ultimately takes place. (That's very much reminiscent of the "70" of the 70:20:10 framework of adult learning.)

The other major reason that a sociocultural approach appealed to me is the value offered when considering a mission-rich environment inherent in a nonprofit setting. That would include a nonprofit boardroom (and, indeed, was clearly evident in my case study data).

I can make obvious ties to the data in my study on this one: most notably, the way in which questioning was welcomed in board meetings and the central role that mission played in discussions surrounding those questions. They were part of the routine of this board (the "ordinary" part).

More broadly, as I read this quote again, I feel a renewed need to call for more open environments - open spaces - for conducting board work. That kind of atmosphere that I witnessed in my research created different, richer opportunities to learn in governance activity than more highly-structured agendas. Board members need time to think, ask questions, consider different answers to those questions, and infuse mission into their eventual collective responses.

They need authentic, meaningful, mission-focused work from which to govern