Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Talking shared nonprofit board leadership, strategic decision making with Max Freund


As promised, I'm sharing the video from this morning's Blab session with organizational consultant and governance scholar Max Freund. In the hour-long interview, we talked about the foundations of research he's preparing to conduct on shared leadership and strategic decision making in nonprofit boards. 

Max is a partner and co-founder of LF Leadership, a California-based firm providing coaching, facilitation, planning and other capacity-expanding services to international clients. We share a common interest in boardroom processes. The work he describes, which will inform his doctoral dissertation for Claremont Graduate University, promises to be a major contribution to our collective understanding of what it takes to create inclusive, expansive board leadership.

I've already warned Max to expect a follow-up as his work unfolds. This is important work, worthy of the spotlight it's destined to receive once completed.

Contact Max via the LF Leadership link above, via the agency's Facebook page, or on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nonprofit governance research chat (I hope): Live Blab broadcast with Max Freund

Sharing the wisdom - and work - of fellow governance scholars is an ongoing goal for this blog. Tomorrow (Wednesday, Oct. 28), I take a technology-assisted step toward expanding my capacity to do that with a live Blab-delivered conversation with my friend, Max Freund. We'll be discussing his ongoing research on "Shared Leadership and Strategic Decision Making in Nonprofit Boards of Directors."

If the technology works as it should (likely translation: if I don't fail as moderator), readers should be able to watch the session right here. And, assuming I don't forget to click that all-important "record" button, a recorded version should be available after we're finished, either at this address or in a new post.

At the moment, this component is as much of a technical experiment as it is a delivery option for anyone interested in hearing more about Max's research. One way or another, I'll make sure you have a chance to learn from his important work.

Here (I hope) is the embed for the feed, which will be live beginning at noon Mountain time, 11 a.m. Pacific, 1 p.m. Central, and 2 p.m. Eastern:


If that doesn't work live, you will be able to access via this direct link:

Nonprofit governance research round-up with Max Freund


Fingers crossed, you'll be able to watch right here - and I'll have a new vehicle for sharing a world of nonprofit expertise with you. 


Monday, October 26, 2015

Imagining the relational nonprofit board web

Relational Web

If nonprofit boards accept Pamela Meyer's challenge to become more agile, what qualities must they summon to make that shift happen?

I took a risk last week when I pulled out a key concept from Pamela's marvelous new book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. Because I want to continue to think aloud about ways to apply her wisdom to a nonprofit board setting, I thought I'd explore another of the major elements of Pamela's work that spoke to me. That element: the Relational Web, made up of what Pamela describes as "dynamic qualities and characteristics that come to life through consistent, intentional practice." (p. 25) 

Realizing that I'm taking the same risk this week by honing in on one more important piece of Pamela's puzzle, and that I cannot do it full justice in the small space that this one post occupies, I feel the contribution it might offer to the continuing board performance conversation is worth taking the chance. Stating the obvious, because I must: what follows cracks open the door of the potential organizational transformation that I believe Pamela's work offers our governing bodies and the sector. Its connections to the larger context that she provides must be acknowledged and respected.

That said, there is value in taking the five dynamics of her Relational Web, one by one, and applying them to a nonprofit board setting. The remainder of this post will do just that.

Relevant


Are nonprofit boards relevant? Do they contribute anything of value or are they a necessary inconvenience that must be endured? If you spend any time keeping up with sector reporting or conversations, you know that those questions are being asked, pretty much constantly, by someone. Some are more willing to respond with a resounding "no," just as others of us would reply "yes."

Relevance requires more than mere existence. Pamela provides a framing for this element of organizational agility that I believe will resonate for anyone asking the question. She describes relevant organizations as those that "use their 'why?' to guide their 'how?' (p. 26). The link organizational values to client/customer/stakeholder needs, in ways that are mutually beneficial.

"People are more likely to be engaged when they know that their work is relevant and has purpose, and that they are making a difference," Meyer writes (p. 28). Those of us who know that should be the case in board service get very, very frustrated when our time is continually wasted with inane activities on agendas that prevent us from exercising our brains and our creative leadership thinking. Others don't know any better - they think those agendas are what boards do. The lost relevance potential is huge.

Responsive


Agile organizations are responsive. They "have the ability to respond quickly and effectively to the unexpected and unplanned, as well as to emerging opportunities." (p. 31) They are "able to recognize and capitalize on emerging opportunities and draw on these resources, including their intuition, while staying in the present moment." (p. 32) 

The smart people you've recruited to your board have the general responsiveness potential. They exercise that skill in other areas of their professional or personal lives. Some are downright expert responders. If they don't act as if that were the case in the boardroom, it's probably because they (1) aren't asked to explore strategic and generative questions about what they/you should be anticipating and (2) don't get to practice using those skills in a governance context. 

Remember insights shared in last week's post about how Pamela says we build capacity? This is it: we need practice, using real-life scenarios with varying levels of complexity. We can't expect our boards to dive into the big questions that come with crisis - or great opportunities - if we don't encourage and support them anticipating and responding to smaller impact inquiries.

 

Resilient


Pamela tells us that "resilient organizations regroup, reorganize, and renew in response to a significant disruption" (p. 36) Resilience is "our ability to adapt to circumstances that are not only unplanned but deeply undesirable" (p. 36).

Stuff happens. It happens all the time in nonprofit organizations. Legislation throws our mission area needs upside down. Longtime funding sources dry up. Grants fall through. Demand for services doubles. A public relations scandal turns friends into skeptics or, worse, opponents. How quickly we can turn the tied and come back from setbacks big and small can sometimes literally mean the difference between organizational life and death. 

Agile nonprofits - and, specifically, agile nonprofit boards - don't sit around waiting for "stuff" to happen.  Even without a metaphorical crystal ball offering a heads-up long before challenges arise, our boards can take time to discuss with senior staff and each other the types of scenarios that have the potential to arise within our mission areas, within the context of the larger community, and as a result of the types of services we provide. They may not be inevitable; but certain risks, and opportunities, accompany the work that we do and the mission areas where we work. Have ongoing conversations about what some of those potential situations might be, how we might respond, and what kinds of resources we need to do so. It's another case of practice not necessarily making perfect, but making for more agile and timely responses.

Resourceful


I'm perpetually telling readers and their boards to keep their eyes on the horizon, to not wallow in the here and now at the expense of tomorrow. That's still sound advice. But I also know there can be a big gap between what we need to propel us toward the future and what we have to deal with today can be a big one. I've served on enough boards to know how that can stop boards dead in their leadership tracks. Many don't know how to get there from here, and the very little fuel we have available today. 

Pamela describes resourceful, agile organizations as being "aware of, use and improvise with all available resources - human, technical, and environmental" (p. 39). They find ways to make it work, with the resources available, to move forward. They don't use "we don't have..." or "if only..." as excuses. They work within their limitations to advance their mission, however they can.

Reflective


"Reflective organizations learn from experience." (p. 45) Pamela gets right to the point in describing the fifth dynamic of the Relational Web. I pretty much clung to every word Pamela wrote on this topic (really, really need to sit down and write that reflective practice series...). But she poses three questions that probably make the concept accessible and actionable for boards:

  1. "What is happening (or has happened?"
  2. "What new information/guidance can we draw from our experience?"
  3. "How can we incorporate this new information/guidance into our attitudes, beliefs, and actions going forward?" (p. 47)

It's that simple. Really. Especially if you make a practice of routinely stopping to ask, what can we learn from this? How can we use this new insight to inform our future discussions and actions?

I'll close with the caveat to remember that what I've shared is only one small piece of the larger agility story that Pamela shares in her book (which I definitely encourage you to purchase and read). Still, even in relative isolation, I'm confident that you and your boards will find something in the overview shared to prompt productive and expansive questions.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Governance toolbox: Creating curious, thoughtful board fundraisers

Why, yes,  I'll find a way to connect the important dots offered by the three resources shared this week!

5 ways board members can raise money -- Gail Perry's shared wisdom in this video, starting with the recognition that there are many ways to participate in the fundraising process, should be a reassuring gift to both board members and the organizations they serve. I've long appreciated how she acknowledges the humans behind our fundraising expectations. Recognizing that, and respectfully helping them to find their best contributions to the process, goes a long way. Start with sharing this video with your board and asking members how they can work with the five tips Gail shares. Oh, and follow Gail's example: thank your board members for their service. That can go a very long way to motivating them to step up when you ask them to do things that fall outside of their comfort zones.

How to develop feelings of curiosity -- We can always count on Dan to offer a great leadership how to, on a pretty much weekly basis. This week, his topic is sparking curiosity. Curiosity, inquiry, questioning - whatever we call it - we generally get more, better contributions from people if we find ways to build their interest and investment in what we are asking them to create. We need appropriately curious boards, who question and explore and reflect. We need to reap the benefits of curiosity that he raises in the post. We need leaders wiling and able to generate that in others.

3 problems with a bias for action -- Okay, so the context of this one has nothing to do with nonprofits or their boards. But the challenge it addresses - a(n inappropriate/premature) bias for action - is one that will ring familiar for many boards. We're community leaders. We want to make a difference. We proudly proclaim that we are "a working board." We act. Even when "acting" consists of passive activities like approving treasurer's reports and affirming committee recommendations. Yes, obviously, we need our boards to step up and fulfill their responsibilities. But we also need thoughtful, curious boards that don't leap too soon on the first problem discussed here (acting too quickly on what feels like the "right" thing to do), if we don't consider the second problem (not considering the range of potential consequences) and especially number three (stopping dead in our tracks because we can't see past today's limitations).  We must have this conversation with our boards.




Monday, October 19, 2015

The three Cs of agile nonprofit boards: Creating competent, confident, high-capacity governing bodies


In a world where so many like to place nonprofit boards in predictable boxes - or predictable job descriptions leading to a clearly-defined future - a little agility is not only a good thing, it's a vital one.

I mentioned in last week's review of Pamela Meyer's new book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations, that encountering her description of three factors behind the shift sparked not only the first but possibly the biggest "aha" moment of my reading.

My gut reaction as I read the opening section laying out those agility factors - competence, capacity and confidence - was "YES!!" Framing these three components as essential for an agile organization also was a transformative moment for me. It's not that the idea of groups like boards needing to be able to respond and adapt to ever-changing circumstances is a shocking idea. Rather, it's the way Pamela has shaped an environment, and the necessary conditions, for not only surviving in that kind of an environment but leading there that is powerful. It not only made sense to me, it fit (and expanded) my evolving understanding of agile board learning. 

I know that I risk grossly misrepresenting Pamela's vision in pulling this out for some reflection here today. But I also trust that she'll recognize it as part of my own learning experience, as I try to interpret and apply to a governance setting. So here goes...

Competence


Pamela describes this element as "skills, knowledge, and abilities necessary to respond to the unexpected and unplanned, as well as to find opportunities in new developments and emerging trends" (p. 8).  We're already starting from a somewhat novel place with her conceptualization: not only does it address typical definitions of board competence - skills, knowledge, etc. - but it does so recognizing that we often use those tools in the often uncertain environment where boards actually work.

An ability to anticipate, respond to, and work from always-moving circumstances is a necessary part of that competence  Board member competence, both what we bring to the table and what we develop in our service, is necessary but insufficient for the leadership we are expected to provide. That is why we can gather smart, expert people in one room and have them fall short of ambitious but achievable expectations. We can't (solely) train or recruit our way to optimal board performance.

 

Capacity


Pamela defines capacity this way: "the degree of uncertainty and volatility in which a person can be effective" (p. 8). Again, she encourages me to stretch just a bit beyond my normal mode of thinking about and discussing capacity within a board setting.

As I've moved beyond talking about competence-related capacity, my focus has turned toward topics related to boardroom behavior and organizational dynamics. That's certainly a big part of building a board's collective capacity, but Pamela's definition requires something more. Building capacity also requires expanding our ability to anticipate and prepare for a range of outcomes and circumstances beyond the neat, linear progression suggested in our planning. It requires developing and practicing a range of discussion and deliberation modes. And it requires inviting and engaging diverse modes of thinking and experiencing in anticipation of the full range of potential outcomes.

Certain aspects of expanding capacity may have a competence component. But for the most part, building this broader definition of capacity requires practice. We build board capacity by governing.


Confidence


Pamela describes confidence as "the human need to trust in one's own and others' competence and capacity to be effective in changing contexts" (p. 9).

Clearly, the idea that board members perform better when they are confident in their abilities was not new to me. But it's so intuitive it was functionally invisible - until Pamela it placed into this context. Authentic confidence is the goal: we should want board members to recognize and appreciate what they do well.  They may accomplish some responsibilities in spite of themselves. But it is pretty much impossible to imagine a board fulfilling its full potential without legitimate confidence in their capacity and competence to lead.

We want them to use that confidence as a springboard for future action. We want to provide them with ample opportunities to practice  the actions, modes of working, and ways of being that create that confidence. Like exercise, and the capacity described above, authentic confidence most likely comes from using and strengthening governance "muscles" needed to fulfill our leadership responsibilities.

Outside of exhorting us to stop griping and moaning about your boards have let you down, I've not spent a lot of time considering what confidence looks like in a governance setting or how its presence (or lack thereof) impacts board and board member performance. As I write this, I realize that any notion I have about what confidence might look like will be hopelessly narrow and inadequate in light of what Pamela is describing. Instead, I'll pose some questions that might help expand thinking (mine and yours) about where those sources of confidence might lie. Expect a post on this later as I begin to generate some potential answer for consideration.

Here are the questions. Let's consider them in the context that Pamela has provided above - confidence in our individual and collective confidence and capacity in the face of change:

  • Are our board members confident?
  • How do we know?
  • If not, why not?
  • If overconfident, why?
  • If appropriately confident, what are the factors that contribute to that? What performance indicators, what emotional factors, what evidence makes a difference to them?
  • How can we offer authentic feedback and support to build confidence, in ways that impact performance?

I may revisit not only the notion of confidence but all three "Cs" of agile organizations down the road, especially as I continue to formulate my ideas about creating a nonprofit board learning environment. Life usually isn't completely linear. The circumstances in which our nonprofits operate isn't perfectly predictable. We need boards and board members who are agile enough to anticipate and prepare and adapt as those circumstances shift. That's how we foster the kind of leadership that matters - and the kind our boards need to be prepared to provide.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Governance toolbox: Finding inspiration


I'm drawing inspiration from my "learning pro" side (and network) to open this week's toolbox post.  Shannon Tipton's quote, crediting noted speaker and author Simon Sinek, is a perfect reminder and conversation starter for boards. Even when our mission primarily comes cloaked in negative terms - for example, ending domestic violence or fighting homelessness - we gain power by finding ways to translate that purpose into something to which we (and others) are drawn. Words matter, especially words that are intended to inspire people to action. Try it with your board. See what you discover.


And while we're drawing inspiration from Twitter... My friend, Gayle, shared this quote in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management 2015 conference backchannel last week. Whoa. I normally wouldn't include two inspirational quotes in a "toolbox" post, but they offer complementary perspectives on two of the board's ultimate roles. In this case, what Gayle (and numerous others in the room) captured from Jeanne's talk is a perfect reminder of the delicate balance between attention to the big picture and the specifics of the here and now. As a spark for that ongoing conversation with our boards, I find great potential value.

10 steps to lead a small but effective team -- This Fast Company post isn't a perfect fit to a nonprofit board setting, but the direct and indirect connections are strong enough to offer some potential value to board leaders seeking to build their members' collective potential. That there are connections between items on that list and the lessons we can draw from the two quotes above is a welcome bonus.

The anatomy of inspiration -- One of those backlogged resources that had been gathering dust in my Twitter favorites, this September post by Dan Rockwell offers more of a tangential tie-in to what I've shared above. But the connection is there. It's all about what inspires - and not - from leaders. The latter list is more specific (and, clearly, focusing on the negative). But insights on both fronts remind board leaders (and others) that their actions do impact others. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

(Book review) The Agility Shift: Creating effective teams, organizations (and boards)

Agility Shift book cover Pamela Meyer
"The Agility Shift is the intentional development of the competence, capacity, and confidence to learn, adapt, and innovate in changing contexts for sustainable success."
Some books beg for a hard copy: one I can highlight, annotate, flag and otherwise turn into a paper road map to transforming how we think and how we do things. Pamela Meyer's new book -- The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations -- is one of those resources.

The book's title delivers on the promise contained in that opening quote: our greatest potential for organizational success and sustainability today lies not in carefully orchestrated structures, detailed planning processes, and flawlessly delivered training programs. Rather, our greatest potential comes when we create the environments where people have the knowledge, tools, and confidence they need to create the outcomes they seek. It acknowledges that our illusions of a knowable and controllable future are just that -- illusions.

Pamela's most likely audience - at least early - will be corporate sector managers and senior leadership. Her primary organizational examples come from from that sector. But, just as I found clear connections to nonprofits and their boards, the concepts carry lessons applicable to any organization.

Those connections started with the lead idea found within the quote that opens this post and the book itself. It all begins with shifting focus to three core functions:
  • Competence
  • Capacity
  • Confidence
Yes! I could stop reading right there  and take away something not only actionable but transformative. That it also dovetails perfectly with my emerging focus on performance support and expanding vision of a board learning environment helps with that conviction.

Think about each of those words and what they represent. Then think about the typical board development processes. Exactly. Expect a post on this soon.

The other big idea shared in part one of the book was the Relational Web, built from five key qualities:
  • Relevant
  • Responsive
  • Resilient
  • Resourceful and
  • Reflective
Pamela lays out each of these five dynamics and, in the process, provides the foundation for the rest of the book. Her choice of a web - highlighting their inter-relatedness - adds explanatory power.  Take a moment to consider how each contributes to an environment that is agile enough to anticipate and adapt to whatever unfolds in a dynamic and changing time. Oh, yes. Expect a post on this, too. 

Chapters in part two of the book apply agility shift concepts to specific roles and functions: leadership, teams, the organization, the ecosystem, and learning and development (Oh, yes. There may be a post on that last one...).

But what takes this book to the next, must-read level is a common component of each of those chapters: "Make Shift Happen" sections that offer specific ways to apply what is presented. While the individual chapters will inevitably summon to mind our own ideas for applying what Pamela describes (my board-focused list is a long one), she provides a handful of recommendations that can be applied directly or adapted to nearly every organizational or leadership setting.

Readers should appreciate that attention to their real-life practice needs. They will find rich inspiration for rethinking what they do, but they don't have to sit and hope for something to come to them. Pamela provides starting points to help launch that process.

As I mentioned early in the post, this is not a book destined for a dusty bookshelf somewhere. It is one that you will find yourself turning to over time, as a reference, a how-to, and a timely opportunity to shake off your own creative cobwebs. It has the potential to transform the way you work and organize.

One of the reasons I'm committing to sharing at least a couple of the more important concepts is as much personal as it is a service to you, the reader. It's an opportunity for me to reflect on, and apply, some of the highlights of my reading specifically to a nonprofit board environment.

Look for that first attempt next week.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Governance toolbox: Random, bookmarked, nonprofit board-connected goodness

Finally sitting down to address my out-of-control lists of favorited tweets, saved-to-Pocket URLs and Diigo-collected bookmarks yielded an eclectic array of possibilities for this week's toolbox - and probably next week as well. Here is a small sampling of what I've been saving for sharing with you over the last few weeks.

Philanthropy Advocacy Playbook -- With increased calls for board members to assume a larger role in advocating for their missions and their organizations, I found this resource by the Alliance for Justice to be potentially valuable for any of our governing bodies (or staffs). It targets foundations, but the general principles apply directly (or can be easily adapted) to other parts of the sector. You can download the entire playbook or access specific sections via links on this page.

The eight building blocks of strong nonprofit brands -- Peter Frumkin's latest post for Nonprofit Quarterly represents another "larger than board work" topics that is part of the larger, legitimate strategic responsibilities of governance. Some of the blocks could invite micromanagement - if the board is not clear on its larger governance roles. But others, like "clear impact claim," are the legitimate domain - and responsibility - of boards.

Optimistic discontent -- Another useful contribution by Dan Rockwell, this post offers both "expressions" optimistic discontent (what to look for, how to recognize it) and "ways to ignite (it) in others." What I continue to appreciate about Rockwell's work is his attempt to help bring such important group dynamics/organizational communication concepts to some level of visibility as well as the fact he usually takes that next step of offering advice about how to do something about it as a leader.

How to kill the idea of nonprofit overhead --  Has your board had the overhead conversation? Is it a recurring issue or challenge in your fundraising efforts? Amy Eisenstein calls this a "hot button issue," because it is for many in the sector. In this brief video, Amy discusses the rationale for moving donors and others beyond the mindset that all overhead is created equal (and bad) in ways that should resonate with your board members. She also offers counterpoints to that argument.

4 essentials to effective board succession planning -- Thanks to a bit of old fashioned serendipity, I find myself on the outskirts of the credit union community. That connection brought me this CUBroadcast video (with audio download if you prefer to listen offline) of a discussion covering the title topic. Some of the specifics are credit union specific, but others are universal to boards and all are easily adapted to other parts of the sector. How is your board planning for its next generation of members?



Monday, October 5, 2015

The board as community of practice: Reflecting on research lessons learned


What value can we derive from conceptualizing nonprofit boards as communities of practice? How can understanding the interplay of domain, practice and community shape and strengthen the work of our governing bodies?

I knew that revisiting my dissertation research would be an essential part of choosing nonprofit board learning environments as a 2015 theme for this blog. I carry what I learned in that qualitative research daily. Its evidence is everywhere in my writing - here and elsewhere - and in my consulting and teaching.

Would the process of revisiting the data yield anything new for me? To be honest, I wasn't sure that it would end up being anything but a nice memory lane moment and a chance to share what I learned in that process with an expanded readership. But I was pleasantly surprised by the number of insights and personal aha moments that occurred along the way.

Some of those new dot-connecting moments took place in the mid-week "Learning Theory to Governance Practice" series, where I shared some the the key scholarly and practitioner resources that informed my thinking (and discovering the big news that emerged in data analysis: evidence of a strong community of practice in the board studied).

That series also gave me a chance to return to my adult education theoretical roots, which I don't do as often as I should (my natural tendency is to hone in on the content where I practice as an adult educator, nonprofit governance). That was a healthy thing for me personally and professionally. It also is critically important as I continue to develop a model nonprofit board learning environment.

As I review the series again today, and bring personal closure to the process, a few core ideas still ring true.

The research. While one can never officially generalize to broader populations from qualitative research, I affirmed that my decision to choose a case study to explore my research questions regarding routine nonprofit board learning was a solid one. What I witnessed within the routine activity of this high-functioning board could not have been surveyed or predicted. It had to be discovered, observed, queried and compared over time.

The Community of Practice components


I mentioned in the series, multiple times, that the community of practice framework found me in data analysis. I didn't enter the study looking for evidence of this framework. But using it to sort and explain key findings in analysis made everything fit and offered tremendous explanatory power.

Domain. For someone who harps on the critical necessity to ground everything a board does to their organization's mission, finding endless evidence of domain (mission) focus was both heartening and inspiring. It proved - in clear and compelling ways - that consistent, authentic mission focus in board work is not only possible but productive and stimulating. Seeing that mission focus not only inform but transform board decisions was shocking. That individual members also could describe in vivid ways how that mission fit their personal interests and values was an incredible bonus.

Practice. From an adult learning - and a practitioner/consultant - perspective, this was the community of practice component that most excited me. Discovering the practices that helped this board govern effectively was a revelation. Literally. I didn't know what I would find in this area when I embarked on this research. I would never claim that these specific practices will single-handedly equip all nonprofit boards for success. But they are powerful. As a researcher, I can't officially say "do these things and you'll govern well." But as a practitioner, I offer evidence from this board of what is possible when members are clear about their roles, learn from and with each other, have access to learning resources that inform their discussions and decisions, and ask pointed and powerful questions.

At the time, I was wowed by the way this board posed and used questions in meetings. I'm almost ashamed to admit that one of the biggest revelations of this revisiting process was realizing (in one of the last posts of the series) that the questions themselves weren't what made what unfolded from them exceptional. It was the capacity and the willingness of members to use them as springboards for creative, multidimensional, transformative discussions and decisions. I was generally aware, but providing and reflecting on specific examples this summer really brought this message home to me. I come away from this work with a renewed commitment to promoting and creating capacity for rich board inquiry.

Community. My one big regret - even more so today - is lack of attention to capturing detailed evidence of community building within the board that I studied. At the time, the great value of applying the community of practice framework to my data was the opportunity it provided to sort the big ol' mess o' something that taunted me into neat "practice" and "community" categories. But my research attention was elsewhere. Community components seemed obvious and necessary, but they were not particularly sexy or as germane to my adult learning focus as the other two elements.

It's also, I believe, a matter of "community" being largely invisible in healthy organizations (unless you're specifically studying it - which would have been the case if I'd entered this using a community of practice lens up front). Frankly, they gave me nothing juicy to discuss in this area. I know in my gut, if not my researcher's notebooks, that the board's attention to creating a collegial and productive environment for working contributed to their success. I've come to appreciate the importance of tending to factors that create working space that is not only safe but intellectually stimulating.

Finding solid and compelling evidence of a community of practice was the "big news" of my research and all that followed from it. That's still the theoretical focal point and the foundation for my connecting to the adult learning scholarly community.

From a practitioner standpoint, this process has reminded me that effective governance, where generative thinking and leadership is embedded in the work and outcomes, requires more than a magic mix of the right structures, job descriptions and many of the other elements so often held up as the keys to board effectiveness.

The fact is, we need all three of the community of practice elements - domain, practice and community - for that nonprofit governance to reach its full potential. Specifics may end up looking different in your board than what I saw in my case study. But the essential factors represented in the three COP components are, well, essential.

  • Without individual and collective commitment on the domain/mission, our work will wander and fail to fulfill what our organizations and communities require of our governing bodies.
  • Without practices that facilitate that mission focus and work, we fall short of our full leadership potential and likely waste time and energy in ways that challenge board member engagement.
  • Without a community that is not only safe and respectful but also stimulating and generative, we will fail to take full advantage of members' wisdom and talents.

When one of these is missing or weak, our boards - and their full governance potential - are impacted. When they are present, our boards have what they need to succeed and lead.

I look forward to embarking on the next chapter of this blog and the next phase of the board learning theme. I do so with renewed clarity about, and appreciation for, the research that launched my ongoing commitment to rethinking and reshaping the way we prepare our boards for their significant responsibilities and expand their capacity for leadership.










Friday, October 2, 2015

Governance toolbox: Brain-tickling, board-succeeding community advocacy


I've been monitoring the DevLearn Conference & Expo backchannel this week, mostly because I can't help myself. I also recently wrapped up reading of a new learning-themed book (that will make one or more posts, soon), so thoughts automatically turned to board development as I read highlights in my Twitter stream.

In the case of the tweet above, it sparked a caution that boards - and board trainers - need to heed. Just as we can't keep beating up ourselves for perceived failures to fulfill sometimes overwhelming responsibilities for this part-time volunteer position, we also can't allow ourselves to get to the point where we think we have it all figured out. This tweet prompted three questions for me that I offer as possible discussion starters with your board:

  • On what topic(s) do we feel high confidence that we fully understand what is expected of us?
  • What is the source of that confidence? 
  • What is at stake, for whom, if there are gaps in our understanding?


Another conversation-starter from the #DevLearn backchannel - what kinds of questions tickle our collective board brain? (I loved this one.) Ask your board members: What kinds of questions tickle our brains? What questions - about our mission, our organization, our impact, etc. - excite us and stimulate our commitment to our work?

4 essentials to effective board succession planning -- I found this video interview, from a credit union board perspective, to be thought-provoking and interesting. How is your board handling succession planning? What can you take away from this video to inspire your governing body to support or expand your thinking about that process?

Community nonprofits, communicate like the experts you are! -- Speaking of thought-provoking... This isn't board-specific, but it addresses something we need from our boards: a voice in speaking up for the work that we do and advocacy of our missions. From a "tools" perspective, consider sharing this with your board and challenging them to identify how they can use their local authority to extend your story's reach in your community.