Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Airport musings: Random thoughts from a reading while waiting for a plane

With wind in the "Windy City" prompting a so far six-hour (and counting - the crew just left) air traffic delay in reaching my ultimate destination today, I've had an equally unexpected opportunity to finish reading Michael Marquardt's excellent  Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask.

While I wait - and hope - for the chance to meet up with fellow nonprofit scholars at this year's ARNOVA conference, I'll take an opportunity to share a couple of highlights from this morning's reading. No big surprise, the topic is "questions."

The "become what you think about" quote has been my personal mantra for at least two decades, so Marquardt's adaptation caught my attention immediately. It's not a new concept to me  - or to regular readers - but I found the way he frames the role of questions to be incredibly powerful.

People who succeed do so "because of how they question what happens to them and the people and environment around them," Marquardt adds.

What if our boards accepted that challenge as I accepted the challenge of the more well-known idea years ago?  What happens for those boards that maintain an inquiry focus, that routinely tend to what's going on in the larger community/environment around them? What are the rest of them missing?

Let's just ponder that for a bit. (though, obviously, examples of boards who are accomplishing this are welcome!)

In talking about the role of questions in shaping organizational values, Marquardt offers this gem:

"Questions are fateful; they create a conversational agenda, which in turn becomes the context for envisioning and enacting the future. The more positive the question, the more positive will be the potential for transformation."

Clearly, boards must live and work in the real world and within the context of real constraints. But if they only focus on the here and now, if they only muddle through and obsess about what they don't have, they'll never have the chance, or the will, to create and enact the vision of something better. Questions matter. Attitude matters. Focus matters. Love this quote. Will be sharing that one in the future.

Some research, by Marquardt and Roland Yeo, that I will want to explore and possibly share here, focuses on characteristics of successful group problem-solving efforts. They emerged with five elements:

  • "Thoughtful questioning"
  • "Self-directedness"
  • "Learning orientation" 
  • "Deep listening"
  • "Confidence and well-being"

I'm not sure any of these completely surprise me. I'm especially pleased to see number three, obviously. Nurturing a culture of learning matters. But I'm probably most intrigued by the last item, particularly as it might relate to boards.

How do we foster and support within our boards authentic confidence in their work and impact? Note that "authentic" qualifier. Many of us can summon examples of boards that are totally confident - and totally off track from where they should be.

The "well-being" idea also intrigues. What does board "well-being" look like? With what results? I'm feeling the need to explore that one a bit. What does it bring to mind for  you?

My laptop battery is low - almost as low as my hope for actually making to to my conference tonight. If I make it to Chicago, my plan is to share insights and ideas from the governance track. One or two may even have a multimedia twist. In the meantime, I'll leave you with these nuggets from a book that I highly recommend.

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.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Governance toolbox: 'Pinterest is your nonprofit board's friend' edition

Photo by Pinterest

 My pool of curated nonprofit board resources keeps growing on Pinterest, but I seldom talk about them here. Today, I'm offering links to a few of my favorite - and most popular - collections related to nonprofit board topics.

Advocating for nonprofits -- This is a brand new one, created in response to my work this week with a local board interested in taking a bigger role in sharing its organization's stories. I'm still pinning some core resources, but there's enough there to give you a decent overview (and more than a few good ideas). Definition of "advocating" will be deliberately broad. There are many ways to engage others for your nonprofit and its mission.

Nonprofit board essentials -- Exactly as the name suggests, this is a collection of articles, tools and other resources that are my go-tos when anyone asks about what it means to govern (or what they're getting into when they say yes to your invitation to serve). This is my happy place, especially since it contains foundational work by some of my favorite governance thinkers and writers.

Save our (nonprofit board) meetings! -- How we structure our board meetings, and how we stimulate board member creative and critical thinking during that time, can make or break a governing body's effectiveness. This board includes resources that offer practical - and occasionally radical - ideas for making the most of your meeting time.

Engaging nonprofit boards -- This one complements the meetings board nicely, looking at individual (and sometimes collective) motivations and challenges to full participation. It's also one good starting point for board chairs and other leaders.

Leading nonprofit boards -- Did someone mention board leaders? Resources here offer different variations on a theme: how to inspire, direct, and challenge our boards to provide their very best in their service.

Nonprofit board dynamics and boardroom behavior -- There's what we know we should do, what we are required to do, what we plan to do. And then there's what happens when we bring interested but time-pressed, occasionally fallible individuals into a room to talk about tough subjects. It often doesn't go where we expect or need it to go. Sometimes, it gets a little ugly. This board offers resources for recognizing the interpersonal dynamics at play when people get together and being smarter about how to create a culture where cooperation and creativity are the default.

Must-read nonprofit board resources -- Bookworm me loves this one. Most are nonprofit board-specific titles. Most are books. All offer something expand and deepen thinking about nonprofit governance.

Monday, November 9, 2015

What we need is... Envisioning the essentials of a nonprofit board learning environment

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

"What we really need is..."

I've launched many a board-related discussion, reflection, and blog post planning session with that phrase. In the last year, most of them have centered around the topic of building a nonprofit board learning environment.

As I write the 100th post of 2015 - and the 600th post of the blog itself - and as I plan the final entries covering this year's theme, I'm feeling the need to try to pull together a more comprehensive picture of what a nonprofit board learning environment must include and do. That thinking is taking the form of a list that completes the phrase, "What we really need is..."

There may be a sense of "deja vu" for some of this. What's different this time around is a more deliberate attempt to address learning content needs as well as the mechanics of how to make it happen. I've focused a lot on the latter this year, as I brought various adult learning theories and practices to the table. That's important, and largely uncharted territory as applied to nonprofit board development. But it's the means and not the ends of what those efforts need to achieve. This post attempts to include both.

"What we really need is..."

A comprehensive, multifaceted board development process. That process begins with new member orientation and continues across the life of the board. Board members already have a range of learning opportunities, some formal but many more embedded in the work itself. Those embedded experiences should be recognized, cultivated and respected as learning opportunities. We also need to facilitate experiential learning in a board setting, as well as social learning, including mentorships within and across boards.

A comprehensive, multifaceted conceptualization of governance itself. Yes, there are certain roles that board members must play and tasks for which board members must be held accountable. But nonprofit governance is so much more than that - even if many boards don't realize it. I hold up Governance as Leadership as an ideal here. But it is just that: AN ideal, only one leadership-focused framing of the work we need from our boards. Whether GAL or another (or likely multiple "others"), creating and supporting a fuller vision of nonprofit board work not only sets boards up to provide the leadership and service you "really need," it creates an environment where they are motivated and sustained in doing so.

Ongoing formal and experiential board leadership development opportunities. I already knew this before seeing the results of the national board chairs survey that I helped to conduct (Believe me, I'm desperate to have the approval to actually talk about those findings. Soon, I hope. Soon.). We need wide access to information, support and - yes - training opportunities that better prepare our board chairs and other leaders for the responsibilities they assume. Results of our survey (conducted on behalf of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management) can provide some benchmarks for launching that process. What we need from our board leaders is too important to leave to chance - or the example of the person before them.

Inquiry-focused meeting agendas and meeting cultures. This is part of the content needs of the previous item. Board chairs must be equipped to make the most of their members' time and talents. Because, frankly, if that doesn't happen, the rest doesn't matter.  If they're not doing the work that needs to be done, if their eyes are not trained on the horizon and what it takes to move closer to it, they will fail. Avoiding that failure requires rethinking and enacting very different ways of meeting and working together.  It also requires building an environment grounded in great generative and strategic questions, as well as fiduciary inquiry, which is more than monitoring financial statements. Most of our board leaders, and their boards, need specific examples, resources and support to make that happen. We can provide that. We must provide that.

On-demand access to resources, examples, and answers to basic questions that arise in nonprofit board work. We often don't know what we don't know until we find ourselves in a need to know it. Right now. That's generally true for adult learners. It's especially true in specialized settings like nonprofit governance. We can't realistically expect that our volunteer board members learn, retain, and expertly apply everything they need to know to govern. We can,  however, create performance support resources to make finding and using the answers they need in a timely manner. At the board level, that access may be via a board portal or, at a more basic level, a board manual. At a sector level, that requires something broader and universally accessible - something that doesn't currently exist (at least not for everyone).

Opportunities to talk about, educate for and promote nonprofit governance to a broader audience. If we want to expand our recruitment pools beyond the usual suspects, if we want to raise the bar and the visibility of nonprofit governance as community leadership, if we really want more diverse, creative and effective governing, we must do a better job of describing and promoting what it means to serve on a board. That means, among other things, reaching out to where those previously untapped leadership sources live, work, play and interact. That means not expecting them to find us, buy our books, navigate pay walls and other obstacles to our reports, or translate our research articles hidden in academic journals.

Mutually-beneficial, impact-focused partnerships with governance researchers and capacity builders. Some of the support boards need currently lies mostly in the hands of others. This one is on my mind as this year's ARNOVA conference approaches.  We need research-informed conversations and resources about what it takes to govern effectively. We need research that answers questions that actually matter in board practice.  We need capacity-building support from donors and organizations invested in supporting that application. Our boards need to be included as partners and stakeholders in those processes.

Self-assessment and feedback processes for boards as a whole and for individual members. We have the potential to grow in effectiveness when we have an the chance to assess our individual and collective performance. We also benefit from having space for formal and informal reflection on that performance. That doesn't happen in agendas stuffed with reports and action items.

Spaces and places to go to access parts of everything else on the list. I've been mulling this over in my mind for years now, even raising it a time or two here. Rich resources for our boards already exist, but too many board members and board leaders don't know where or how to find them. We need to (a) help create a widely accessible path and (b) make sure that that access is free and welcoming to all.

Speaking of welcoming...

I welcome a conversation on what I've laid out, via comments here or in the usual social media venues where we interact. I also look forward to continuing the nonprofit board learning environment thought process, using this reflection as the next launching pad.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Governance toolbox: Inventories, culture, decision-making and more

My posts about Pamela Meyer's new book, The Agility Shift, have concluded; but I have one more gift from her to start this week's toolbox.

The Agility Shift Inventory -- Shortly after I wrapped up Monday's post, an alert for an even more direct helper popped up in my Facebook feed and email inbox: a link to a free inventory designed to assess our individual capacity for the kind of agility called for in Pamela's book. Her framing of the value of encouraging our teams to take the inventory and share findings brought a special smile to my face (emphasis mine): "The Agility Shift Inventory (ASI) offers individual leaders, teams and entire organizations an opportunity to become more aware of the state of agility in their current context. This awareness is the first step in beginning a generative conversation and receiving guidance about where your energy and resources will be most effectively spent to improve business performance." Any process that facilitates generative discussions in nonprofit boards is a good thing.

16 (yes, 16!) easy ways to lead your organization’s culture shift -- This post by fundraising consultant and blogger Pamela Grow offers 16(!) actionable ideas for increasing board members' engagement. Her focus is fundraising, but most of the items apply more generally (or can be adapted) to governance work. Pick one that appeals to your board and see what happens. 

Interview with Debra Beck, EdD on shared leadership and strategic decision making in nonprofit boards -- Leadership expert Max Freund extends our conversation by sharing additional detail about his impending governance research in this post. If you found what he described in our conversation interesting, you'll appreciate this extended background.

The 9 characteristics of a good decision -- We call on nonprofit boards to make a lot of decisions in a year. How often do we stop and analyze those decisions, as decisions, and connect them to our larger purposes? Even something as simple as doing a quick check against this list can spark reflection and opportunities to rethink our processes and their outcomes.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Embracing, creating, meaningful nonprofit board knowledge and performance

Most of us have a pretty good idea of the "what" of nonprofit board development, at least generally speaking.

We (well, most of us) have a grasp of roles and responsibilities that come with the job, the basic content of the typical board development efforts. We feel like we know what boards should be learning: the tasks that our organizations (and their CEOs) expect us to undertake on their behalf. We also probably have a good idea of how to present that content: a formal, face to face learning event (AKA "training"). If we're successful, our board members do what we ask them to do, exactly as we ask them to do it, at exactly the time we need it. We have trained them well if all of that happens.

That may very well be true, but it's only part of the board development - and performance - story. I risk "broken record" territory in offering this final reflection on Pamela Meyer's new book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. But it's a risk I'm willing to take to share one more round of insights from this remarkable leadership resource.

Chapter eight, "Shifting to Agile Learning and Development," was a combination revelation and refresher for me. The general concepts my fellow adult educator shared were familiar. At the same time, when discussed in the context of her Relational Web, I came away with new layers of understanding about why it is so crucial to recognize and tend to the full range of learning needs that our boards have. Her call for organizational agility is a timely one for our governing bodies, so her framing of learning and development generally is a perfect fit.

"The purpose of learning in agile organizations is not just basic skill and knowledge development, it is also to improve and expand the Relational Web and to enhance individual and team effectiveness in changing conditions. This type of learning includes the ability to make optimal use of available resources, effectively frame problems and opportunities, make expedient decisions for action, and expand the agility capacity of your leaders, teams, and entire organizations." (p. 129)

May I get an "amen" here? This is what we really want when we schedule orientations, trainings, retreats and other learning-related events for our boards. Where we fall short is exactly where Pamela calls it: in centering too many of those efforts on skills and basic content knowledge development while we ignore the larger sets of competencies and capacities required to govern. Our boards have learning needs that may be less obvious, even invisible, but can mean the difference between failure, muddling through, and effective performance.

Pamela describes four types of knowledge that should be fairly easy to identify in a board setting (if we take the time to reflect and consider them):

Relational. The contextual knowledge that develops in relationship with others. Because it is contextual and situational, it is hard to impossible to try to transfer to other settings and other relationships.

Embodied. Intuitive, tacit awareness that we carry within our bodies,  "both the site of learning and the source of knowledge." Because it is tacit, much of this knowledge is totally invisible to us (so, again, not transferable or able to be captured or codified).

Reflective. Pamela uses a definition that may be different than the one many of us use to describe reflective practice: "It is gained through direct experience, as individuals and groups interact with one another, learning and cocreating cultural and ethical norms."

Contextual. This one is "understanding and appreciation of the conditions and dynamics of a specific situation, challenge, or opportunity." Think cultural norms, power and authority, relationships with donors and other stakeholders, and the internal and external social dynamics that impact how we work. (p. 130)

We develop relational knowledge in our interactions with fellow board members, the CEO and other senior staff. We develop embodied knowledge as we internalize the work of governance that is meaningful to us. We develop reflective knowledge in experiences that not only keep the board machine moving but that bring us closer to the mission and the work that moves our organization closer to fulfilling it. We develop contextual knowledge in embracing that mission and creating a leadership environment that respects those we serve, the commitments of our staff and volunteers, and the values of our community.

Each of those knowledge sources feed and enrich the learning that both naturally happens and needs to happen in a board setting. (Pamela also connects them to each of the five Relational Web components in ways that will make sense. Buy the book to access that additional layer of detail.)

In the end, it's not learning for learning's sake but improved performance that we seek in our board development efforts. It's also not enough - or fair - to simply con them into meeting our performance goals we set for them. We also must attend to the larger purposes that inspire many of our members to contribute their time and their wisdom in the first place:

"Performance indicators are directly linked to the real reason to care about the agility shift: the meaning, purpose, and happiness people experience when they are making a difference doing something important. This is also what will ultimately sustain your commitment to agility practices over the long haul." (p. 133)

If we fail to make those connections between learning content, performance indicators and personal meaning, we fail to support our boards' full leadership potential.