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.

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