Monday, November 16, 2015

Envisioning a Nonprofit Board Network

What if nonprofit boards everywhere had a place to gather, templates and examples shared by others, links to authoritative governance and leadership resources, and places where peers could ask questions and receive quick answers?

What if board treasurers, new board presidents, and nonprofit CEOs looking for guidance on how to work more effectively with their governing bodies had somewhere to connect with peers or find online resources specifically targeting their concerns? 

What if boards from environmental organizations, arts programs, and human service agencies had one place where they knew the could find, and interact with, governing bodies working on similar missions and facing similar challenges?

What if our boards had instant, on-demand access to the support they needed?

Different umbrella groups and segments of the nonprofit sector may offer their own versions of board community and support. But the larger population does not have access to this type of resource. 

Last week, as I wrapped up the post describing my vision of essential nonprofit board learning environment components, my fingers wandered - as they often do - to a favorite online hangout for fountain pen enthusiasts, The Fountain Pen Network. Clicking through to my favorite topics to see what was new, it hit me: this really is what I meant when I described the last "essential" on my list. Nonprofit boards need a place like the FPN to go to connect and build a supportive peer community.

This really is a missing piece of the larger learning environment puzzle: a space that every nonprofit board member can not only access (and, obviously, knows exists) but does access because it offers something of value. 

Now, I'm not necessarily saying a discussion forum like FPN is the optimal vehicle. Set aside for the moment the question of "how" to see the "what" represented in its example.

  • One must create an account to participate as a member (e.g., post a question or response in a thread), but the information is visible to anyone who has the URL. I'm a member. I can - and do - post. You probably are not a member, but you can see everything made publicly available on the site. Viewing an answer or a resource link already shared requires no commitment. If you have an internet connection, you have access to what's available on FPN.
  • There are dedicated spaces for specific types of discussions, e.g., about fountain pens in general, about inks, about resolving problems related to nibs. There are different spaces for specific interests, e.g., for enthusiasts of specific brands and for people who want to feedback on their handwriting and calligraphy skills. This directs a visitor to the space where he or she will be most likely to find an existing answer or pose a question requesting one.
  • It includes dedicated space for introducing yourself, where (speaking from experience) you will be warmly welcomed.
  • Visitors can find information about events of interest to members. There also are classifieds, a marketplace, and a space for sharing/loaning/trading.
  • The potential for developing online community exists in interactions with other members who participate and demonstrate a willingness to be helpful.
  • The community is global, as demonstrated by the country listings connected to each profile, visible on each post.
  • While some vendors and pen/ink pros are FPN members, this is a peer network. Some clearly are more expert than others. Some are brand new to the hobby. A few are thinking about a purchase and come for advice. Most of us are somewhere in between (like the typical board member). As with any gathering of people, some are more friendly than others. But for the most part, it is a collegial, supportive place to go to learn more about a common interest.

Imagine what would be possible if our board members had a place like that.

Imagine what would happen if new members - or people considering board service - could go somewhere to learn more about what it means to govern.

Imagine what might happen if our board chairs had a place to go for advice and resources to help them lead more effectively.

Imagine the time savings (and increased effectiveness) if boards had a place to go for quick questions about common bottom-line concerns (e.g., what are our essential legal responsibilities, when should we schedule an audit) or for examples and templates (e.g., whistleblower policies or sample board member job descriptions)  they could copy or adapt.

Imagine the opportunities to learn and connect with other boards engaged in similar mission work - not just other chapters or partners under a national organization umbrella, but every nonprofit with a similar focus.

Imagine the community and capacity building that might develop if boards in specific geographic areas (e.g., Rocky Mountain, Great Plains, Deep South) could talk about common, region-specific concerns.

Imagine having a directory of both board-focused organizations and specific board-focused resources at your fingertips.

Imagine what is possible if we ensure that our boards have the tools and support they need to succeed, in their moment of need. And they actually know those resources exist.

Examples of what I've just described undoubtedly already exist in some form. However, what I'm envisioning is something far broader and more accessible to everyone. It may not be (nor should it necessarily be) the sole resource of its type. It may or not take the form of a discussion forum. But we need it. Our boards need it.

We also need to find ways to make sure that it - or anything we create - makes it into the hands of boards everywhere. I was reminded of the rash assumptions those of us who hang out in governance circles often make during a workshop with a community nonprofit board. I mentioned one of the governance organizations that "everybody" knows, and it was clear that its existence was news to pretty much everyone in the room. That's not a statement about that board. It is a reflection of assumptions we make about sector awareness of, and access to, what we make available. We need to do a better job of reaching out and sharing both our own and others' governance offerings to make sure they have a chance to be used.

Is something like this feasible? If so, how do we go about creating it? How do we  ensure that everyone who serves on a board knows about it and has a chance to use it? I'm interested in your ideas and insights.


Marion Conway said...

What if Boardsource added a forums section and had a free membership option to participate in forums. The problem with forums today is that they really do need moderation and that has to be funded in some way.

Norm King said...

Two comments:
1. Perhaps rather than having to start from scratch, an organization such as BoardSource, would see the incremental benefit of what you are proposing and expand/adapt their online services to accommodate? (This presumes free access to the community)
2. The 'hurdle' point for me is the board volunteer reading up on the theory of 'why, when and how' and translating into the practical application to their local board...the doing. Precursors such as culture of inquiry, learning and accountability often need to be in place before success on other fronts are achievable.

Nancy Iannone said...

I know you've thinking about this kind of resource for and connection among boards for some time. Imagining what would be different for boards and the communities they serve is exciting stuff. What would boards need to understand, know, value and believe to make this kind of collaboration possible?