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.

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