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.

Susan:

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.  
and

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.

Elizabeth:

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.
 and

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.

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