Monday, November 28, 2016

Priorities: Reflecting on, articulating my personal nonprofit board service bottom line

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

Nonprofit board service is service - a multidimensional contribution to the organization, its stakeholders, and the community. But that doesn't mean that individual members don't have legitimate needs accompanying that service that deserve articulation and consideration.

Circumstances have me thinking a lot about priorities these days: what are my personal musts in life, including those in my work as a nonprofit board member? As I ponder that specific role, a handful of essential elements are emerging at two levels. One is organizational - the climate, structural and cultural factors that make board service meaningful. The other is deeply personal - the experiences and connections that make that service worthwhile. Today's post is my attempt to offer a basic framework for the latter.

I'll preface this with a caveat that should be obvious given the topic: these are factors that are personally important to me. You may agree, in whole or in part, as you consider your own service bottom line. But my list is mine, unique to my board experiences and life goals.  It should not match yours perfectly.

My Board Service Bottom Line: Individual Factors

Number one - I must have a deep connection to/passion for the mission. That mission tops the list probably doesn't surprise regular readers. I routinely preach commitment to mission as the foundation for any board service invitation.  What may be new here is that my personal need right now is a step further than that general counsel about mission interest vs. commitment vs. passion.

My publicly-advocated bottom line remains the same. Passion can grow with experience and exposure to mission impact, but it is not essential to govern effectively if we are committed to advancing that organizational purpose. Occasionally, passion may become a barrier by locking out smart and creative minds who are not deemed "true believers." 

All of that remains true. It was true for me in my very first board assignment, for a local crisis advocacy program serving domestic violence and sexual assault victims (an experience that turned my world completely upside down as my understanding and, yes, passion grew). Thirty-three years and numerous board terms later,  I now know that general interest - for me - is not enough. I've said yes to boards where I've had a general interest in the mission. I've accepted other invitations, blindly, and lucked out in some of those situations. In the end, it was in those settings where I already was passionate about the organization and its work that I was most energized and engaged as a leader. At this point in my life, that is the kind of setting where I am most interested in spending precious board time.  

Number two - I want my time and energy spent on things that matter. I'll address aspects of this in more detail when I describe my organizational bottom line, but there's a personal element as well. My time is precious. The contributions I make with that time are given thoughtfully and deliberately. Neither should be routinely wasted with meeting agendas and committee work overwhelmed by trivia or focused on the here and now at the expense of the future.  It's a delicate balance, to be sure: boards ignore today's challenges at great peril. But if that's all we focus on, if we never tend to tomorrow or confine it to the occasional retreat, you will lose me. My patience for boards that wallow, or that behave as if they don't know their ultimate purpose, is somewhere between slim and none at the moment.

Number three - I want to serve with interesting, smart, equally committed people (who don't all look, act, and think like I do). I've lived and worked in the same small college community for 30-plus years. If our local nonprofit boards aren't committed to casting a wide leadership net, the default roster is filled with white, middle-class, professional women with one or more connections to the local university. I was one of those women, sitting around the boardroom table with others like me, on too many local boards. We got by. But none of those boards reached their full leadership potential, because we mostly all thought alike and drew from similar professional and personal experiences. We were limited as a group; I was limited as an individual member, because I wasn't stretched and challenged to think broadly about the issues we were considering. While the reference for this one is my local community board assignments, it applies equally to my national, state and regional service. Specifics varied, but the needs remained - and will remain - the same. 

"Equally committed" always has been important to me as a board member, but my tolerance for peers who take their commitment lightly is very low right now. There is too much work to do. If one or more of us show up whenever and fail to follow through on commitments made, we will have a problem.

Number four - I need to understand, up front, how what I bring to the table today will move you and the organization closer to where you need to be in the future.  There are two big reasons for this one. First, if I know and accept your expectations for me from the beginning, I am better able to meet them. Second, I'm not interested in helping you maintain the status quo. I am committed to helping you move closer to the mission that drives my passion for serving on your governing body. I also need to be respected for more than my resume skills. I don't object to sharing my professional knowledge or using those skills to help build organizational capacity in those areas. Clearly, those are part of the basket of gifts that I bring to this commitment. But there's a difference between governance and volunteerism. Understanding which role you are asking me to play will be critical for both of us.

Number five - I need opportunities to learn within the context of my board experience. I can safely say this one never would have entered consciousness, let alone made a top-five list of personal priorities, until recently. We may talk generally about the rewards of board service, but what does that mean? What does that look like, especially since most tangible options would be considered inappropriate? Of all of the five items on my list, this one may be the most clearly unique to the individual (note to board and staff leadership: ask members what motivates them). My own answers undoubtedly have evolved over time. What I most value today, personally, from board service is the chance to learn - about the mission that drew me to your work, about that work and its impact on the stakeholders we serve, about working and leading with this group of peers, and about myself in relationship with all of it. Clearly, I can and will reflect regularly on this process on my own. The value expands when you regularly provide opportunities for all of us to reflect on what we are learning and accomplishing together. 

Today's post is the "all about me" list. Next week, I'll offer the organizational factors that have become critically important. In the meantime, I invite you to consider what you consider most essential to a fulfilling and productive board experience. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Creating catalytic boards (and board leaders): Pipe dream or transformative potential?

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What does it really take to spark the kind of leadership we need in our boards? What must happen to to prepare the leaders of those boards to shepherd that success? How do we get from where we are today to where we say we want our governing bodies to be?

I'll admit this: after the long survey process and the extended writing here exploring data regarding how our board chairs are prepared for the job, I'm tired. I'm disheartened and tired. That's one of the reasons I went AWOL here last week: the gap between the experiences described by board leader survey participants and where we need our governing bodies to be feels pretty vast at the moment.

Some specifics in the survey data may have surprised, but the overall message did not: Our board leaders do the best they can with what they have, but for too many, it's not nearly enough. Many know that that is the case. Too many others don't. Either way, I don't blame the chairs. I do think the sector needs a gut-check: how committed are we - really - to supporting the boards we claim we want? Really? 

Over the weekend, I found myself desperate for a good palate cleanse - a reminder of the leadership potential that lies in varying levels of dormancy within most of our boards.  Along the way, I ended up returning to work that both affirms what I've always known was possible and expands my definition of "possible:" the concept of catalytic thinking that drives the work of Creating the Future. 

I'm a CTF fellow (a graduate of its immersion program and part of its consultant community). I draw all the time on the core principles of catalytic thinking, unconsciously as much as on purpose. (I came to the work naturally, attracted as much by what I already knew in my heart as the chance to transform my work with nonprofits.) Though relatively brief - so far - coming back to that work is reminding me that the vision I have and share here, and that I saw here and there in so many survey comments, can be more than a wistful nonprofit dream.

I also began getting reacquainted with CTF's Continuum of Potential - the process of meeting people/organizations where they are and moving forward - because, frankly, you can't get to the "there" that catalytic thinking promises from the "here" found in our survey in a single leap. I can predict some of the "are you kidding?!" responses that many would have - because I've felt that myself, both as a board member and board capacity builder. Some days, the gap feels Grand Canyon wide. After spending so much time in the survey data over the last month-plus, this is one of those "days."

Renewing my acquaintance with these core ideas from CTF is a start, but only a first step. I need to spend a bit more time with my favorite governance models, reminding myself of the kind of leadership they require. I want to dip back into my own research on boards as communities of practice, return to the COP literature, and envision the leadership that those bodies need to succeed. And, of course, I need to drink from the resource waters of a favorite topic here (and a common element with CTF's work): the power of inquiry, driven by great and expansive questions.

I wish I could say that a good weekend of reflection has me feeling better about life - or at least the fate of our nonprofit boards. But that's not the case. It's a process unfolding as I type, which means I have no idea what comes next or how much of it will end up articulated in this space. I had planned one path as a follow-up to the series. Pieces of that path may still end up in the new puzzle. But I'm feeling a strong need to pull the lens back a bit.

Clearly, we need resources and processes and performance aids and networks to support our board leaders. But it's more than that. We also, desperately need a broader, sector- and organization-level culture shift if we're serious about holding the governance bar high. "Tools" that don't move us closer to our full potential are worthless.

I'd intended to write a far different post for today. It will come, maybe next week. But I'm already seeing how it - and other "what next" ideas floating in my brain - need refinement. I hope you'll come along for the ride, and that you will offer whatever wisdom it inspires you to share.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The board chair experience: Collected preparation series posts

improving nonprofit board chair performance
(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

This post captures all components of my recently-completed series on nonprofit board chair preparation data from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management national survey.

As noted in the disclaimers at the end of each post, the analysis and commentary are mine and do not necessarily represent the interpretations of my fellow survey team members or the Alliance. These posts also can be found on my "Chairing Nonprofit Boards" Pinterest resource.

Just released: Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey
How helpful were common information sources?
Helpful people
Helpful resources - the rest of the story
"I wish I'd had..."
Most helpful related leadership roles, functions
How did you get to this governance leadership role?
Applying the 70:20:10 framework to preparation data
Lingering questions, research regarding preparation

Monday, October 17, 2016

The board chair experience: Lingering questions, research regarding preparation

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

What did we really learn about the way nonprofit board chairs prepare for their significant leadership responsibilities? What are the big, yet-to-be-answered questions that need to be researched next? How might this data inform board leadership practice? By whom?

As I wrap up this series on board chair preparation data from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management survey, I find that I have a longer list of questions than answers. That's not surprising. Surveys capture some types of information well but not every aspect of the topic at hand. Even the most comprehensive, realistic survey could tell us only so much about the nonprofit board chair experience generally and the preparation undertaken specifically. 

I'm feeling the need for a bit of personal closure on this process. As I reflect on the big takeaways - and the big questions that remain (possibly for my own research agenda) - I hope that you also will share whatever feedback or questions that the series raised for you.

My major ahas and takeaways about board chair preparation

Overall, writing the series and revisiting the data both affirmed many of my working assumptions and expanded my understanding of what is - or is not - happening in the field. Some clear themes emerged, none of them terribly surprising. Among those themes:

Board chairs mostly learn from experience. That experience comes from their own previous board service, from experiencing predecessors leadership styles, and from applying workplace experience and expertise to the board setting.

From an adult learning perspective, that can be encouraging. Survey respondents recognized the capacity building potential of their experiences in learning/preparing for this new role, even when the questions did not specifically address them. Practically speaking, that bodes well for any effort to apply adult learning principles (e.g., the  70:20:10 framework) to expand thinking about board development. As we do in other settings, adults learn in many ways. Whether or not these board chairs connect those dots naturally, it should not be a revelation as we facilitate new kinds of development experiences for chairs and their fellow board members.

If you read other parts of this series, you know the big "HOWEVER..." that bears repeating here: not all experience is equally applicable or valuable.  To the extent that board leaders lack that awareness, and assume that what works in one setting will fit naturally in this one, they not only miss opportunities to explore more effective work modes but risk replicating the next generation of marginally effective to downright dysfunctional governance.

Most of their learning sources are internal. For the most part, their human sources of information and role models are internal: their predecessors, their CEOs, their friends, etc. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it relies on the assumption that those sources have a deep, holistic understanding of nonprofit governance and what boards do.

That is a risky, limiting assumption. I've served on enough boards, provided enough training sesions and facilitated enough retreats and planning events to affirm that many are functioning on incomplete to fairly inaccurate definitions of what it means to govern a nonprofit. That's not a criticism of those specific boards. It simply affirms that we do a terrible job of making accessible resources that inform the work of our boards and an even worse job of facilitating broad discussions and opportunities to share between boards and across organizations. Boards and board leaders do the best they can with what they have available, but what they have frequently falls short of what they need to govern to their fullest potential.

Our boards and their leaders may go on indefinitely without encountering different perspectives and accessing tools to enhance their performance. They may never feel the need to seek out those resources because they don't know any better. In most cases, it's not that our boards are actively doing damage to their organizations or their communities. They simply aren't reaching their full leadership potential and not tending to the larger challenges of mission and vision that are the primary domains of governance. To the extent that their board chairs also operate on the assumption that what their predecessors did will be fine for them, they limit their own leadership.

As a fellow member of BoardSource's Nonprofit Governance LinkedIn group pointed out in response to one of the posts in this series, many board leaders (and, I would add, most boards) don't know what they don't know.

Preparation is not seen as a necessary step for many board chairs. Ruth's observation in that LinkedIn discussion hit on the head another takeaway that has been troubling me for as long as I've been reviewing our raw data. That about half (51 percent) of board chairs responding our survey reported taking no specific action to prepare for their responsibilities, and that the "not applicable" column percentages were so high when asked about information sources accessed, affirm her point. Again, this is not an indictment of the individual respondents so much as it is about the sector's failure to tend to the care, support and development of our boards and the community leaders who serve on them.

What Ruth described in our discussion is called "unconscious incompetence" in a popular "stages" model of how we learn. We function under a pretty major blind spot. If we don't know that we don't know, we don't feel the need to seek out additional information, perspectives, role models for our board leadership. I found it simultaneously fascinating and heartening that some hint of the next phase in that model - conscious incompetence (we KNOW what we don't know) - in the open-ended "wish I'd had..." question. Unfortunately for many, those revelations came too late in their current leadership term to be of value.

My lingering (research) questions about board chair preparation

This particular research experience is now over; but the opportunity exists to engage in next-step exploration of some of the questions that still weigh on my mind as a scholar, adult educator, and consultant/trainer.

Here are some of the resource/support access questions most weighing on my mind today:

  • What prompts someone to seek information or other support when preparing for this leadership role?
  • Where do they naturally turn when they have a learning need related to nonprofit board leadership?
  • What paths do they take to find those resources? 
  • What organizations, sites, etc., do they find most credible and accessible when searching for either information or support? How do they connect those resource dots?
  • What barriers do they face when they do search for information or support? Why are they experienced as barriers?

Here are some of the questions about the path(s) to the board chair role that intrigue me:

  • Are there actual, well-defined paths to this role? If so, how is preparation included in that process?
  • Knowing some of the common roles served prior to the board chair (e.g., committee chair), whether deliberate or not, how can we enrich those as leadership experiences so that they not only build capacity for those specific responsibilities but also inform the individual's work as board chair if that is a next step? 
  • What other kinds of leadership experiences can we foster in a board setting, formal or not, to fuel individuals' capacity to succeed in the ultimate board role?
  • How do we, as a sector and capacity builders, increase the quality and quantity of board chair resources and increase the accessibility and visibility of their existence?
  • How do we help new board chairs find the resources that they say they want and that already exist?

From those and similar questions taking shape in my mind are these next-step research questions:

  • What prompts a new board chair to seek information or support for the role? To what sources do they most frequently go in that search? Why? 
  • What sparks the perceived need to search for help or guidance? 
  • What qualifies as valuable, helpful resource(s) in that search?
  • How do they learn and support their performance in other areas of their lives (e.g., what tools, information sources, human resources do they use for other learning needs)? How closely do those sources of support fit those they turn to for support in this role? 
  • Do they perceive preparation for the board chair role to be worth the investment (time and money)? If not, what factors would make such a commitment worthwhile to them?

  • How do new board chairs apply previous experiences from other settings to this role? How do they define application potential to the nonprofit board setting? What do they do when they find the fit to that new setting isn't perfect - or even problematic?
  • How do their board role models and resources inform their thinking and practice as chair? Do they mostly rely on those individuals as positive sources? How do they respond to examples that are less than positive?

Clearly, these three rough research themes represent a lifetime of work if I were to let them become that.  Clearly, some of these questions cannot be adequately addressed using quantitative methods. I/we need to sit down with board chairs and talk about their support needs, their experiences, and their role models' influence. Clearly, as I - anyone else - move forward to address these general topics, the questions themselves will face refinement. But they beg to be asked, and asking is essential if we really want to ensure that our board leaders are prepared for successful service. It is worth the investment of time and energy.

This concludes the series spotlighting board chair preparation data. I have at least two or three topics from the second half of our survey that I would like to discuss in coming weeks. In the meantime, I will publish a post this week containing links to the various components of the preparation series to make accessing them easier for readers, students, and others interested in exploring the topic in greater depth. They also are available on my board chairs Pinterest board.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The board chair experience: Applying the 70:20:10 framework to preparation data

Can we find evidence of the 70:20:10 adult learning framework in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey preparation data? As I begin to wrap up this series highlighting that portion of our research, I can't help but notice some pretty clear connections between participants' responses and that model of describing how adults learn.

I'll acknowledge up front that this is a big stretch, one out of the bounds of my role as a member of the survey research team. But the adult educator in me can't help exploring how the findings - including comments - end up aligning with this framework. I began noticing the intersections as I revisited the data during the series. As I started capturing some of those observations, the connections were clear. I won't overstate or pretend that this was something we sought as we designed the survey. It just is. And, for me, what it "is" is somewhat interesting.

A quick recap of the 70:20:10 framework:

  • 70 percent of learning comes via experience - doing, engaging in stretch assignments, making and learning from mistakes, etc.
  • 20 percent comes from working with and under others - collaborative assignments, mentoring relationships, engaging in personal learning networks, etc.
  • 10 percent happens in formal learning experiences - primarily training.

The model also is expressed this way: experience, exposure, education.

Following are some of the noteworthy elements that I identified while writing the series. These are my observations and mine alone. They are merely observations.


Experiential learning (Experience)

One thing should have been clear from my series: evidence of "experience" - reported where we asked about it and even where we didn't - was everywhere. In some cases, we asked directly. But even when we didn't, many respondents volunteered experiences to describe what they found helpful in the context of the question posed. Experience was a common theme in "other" comments for questions about helpful information sources and helpful people - a strong theme, in both cases, even when experience wasn't necessarily the point.

The dominance of experience references was fascinating. One of the reasons for that fascination is precisely what I cannot tell from that dominance. Why was that experience shared germane to their work or preparation as board chair? How did that experience inform their thinking and practice in that role? Was this a quality experience, especially as it relates to nonprofit board service?

Looking back at the "experience" data now, I can say that I'm not surprised that it was so common - especially as I bring 70:20:10 into the picture. In the larger context, though, particularly when offered as "other" resources in lieu of things like reading books or exploring Internet resources about boards and board leadership or participating in webinars or conferences designed to prepare them for the role, researcher me finds it, well, interesting.

Practitioner me finds it a bit troubling, to be honest.  Not all experience is created equal, and not all experience fits perfectly to the unique setting of nonprofit governance. And experience replicated over and over again within a board, or between boards, without pausing to reflect on why we do it that way or introducing different perspectives on how to govern, simply reproduces more of the same - whether or not it's functional or effective. When experience is the only pool in which we dip our toes, we miss significant opportunities to learn and grow as leaders. That is what I am seeing in the data.

Social learning (Exposure)

How this unfolded in survey data surprised me the most. It blew me away, frankly. Yes, there were the expected places where social preparation support emerged, both in the design of the question and the responses offered within it. That was especially true of our "most helpful people" question, where identifying social learning sources was the point of the query.

The epicenter of my "ahas" regarding social learning interests and needs, though, was the open-ended, "in hindsight, I wish I'd had..." question. As I prepared for my post analyzing that question, I must admit that I was shocked by the fact that two of the four dominant themes that emerged were social learning-related. In hindsight, many respondents wanted access to two common social learning resources: mentors and peer networks.  The "wow" moment for me remains that they offered those needs independently, in a setting that offered no suggestion or prompt, and that the threads leading to the themes were pretty strong.

When offered the opportunity to share what they really wanted and needed to enhance their board chair experience after the fact, many described social learning resources.

Formal learning (Education)

I'm not sure what I expected to find here, to be honest. We included formal learning options in the "helpful information resources" question, but responses show that chairs simply did not access them in their preparation for the role.  Now, especially when viewed within the 70:20:10 lens, that makes sense. Formal learning experiences account for a comparatively small source of how adults actually learn. However, in an environment where training frequently is the default learning mode or the perceived solution to all of our board problems, I maybe expected to see more evidence that they turned to formal learning sources to prepare for this new leadership responsibility (at least among those who said they prepared).

But formal learning experiences popped up in comments in two surprising places. One was in the "hindsight" question, where desires for different kinds of training experiences formed one of the four big themes I found. Where that became surprising for me was in the context of the reported lack of access taken in the "information" question. So many of the types of formal learning experiences many sought in hindsight were the very resources that they said they did not access in preparation for the role.

The other surprise, which I acknowledged in the post reflecting on "other" responses to the "people" and "information" questions," was a small but notable minority of respondents who described participating in not only formal learning experiences but courses offered in academic settings. Whether a part of a formal degree program or a certification, they took part in, and drew value from, courses on nonprofit board/leadership-related topics. I teach in both settings. A small part of me took great pleasure  in those references.

Thinking about how the data fit 70:20:10 may be a creative stretch, one too far from a formal research analysis standpoint. But I'm finding that this process is helping me to expand my understanding of the preparation numbers from a practical standpoint. It's also an attempt to apply one adult/workplace learning framework to data that we have so far viewed only through governance lenses. There is more to learn about board chairs' preparation when adult learning theories and models are applied. That is part of my process as a researcher tied to this work.

I have at least one, maybe two, more posts on the preparation side of our survey data. I'm debating whether I want to proceed with analysis of the other section of the survey. In the meantime, I'm interested in your thoughts, suggestions, etc., on what I have laid out here.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Governance toolbox: September potpourri

Please pardon the recent absence of the toolbox feature - it's definitely been a "life happens" month here. As September comes to a close, I do want to offer a few of the noteworthy resources that I've been bookmarking along the way.

I want to open with a tweet that is not a tool but a challenge to a notion that I regularly encounter in discussions about board development and learning: "Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep the board member investment as minimal as possible." To the extent that we need to respect their significant time contributions, and to the extent that we must focus our learning and performance support efforts on topics that build governance capacity, yes.  But when the short-and-sweet becomes a bare-bones checklist, when it offers no context for thoughtful discussion and application of nonprofit governance as a leadership function, when it boils it all down to monitoring functions, and when it fails to inspire members to rise to a high performance bar, we should be pushing back. Look at Julian's graphic. Consider what would be possible if all of our boards' learning and development experiences (not just training) could be described by even a few of the descriptors he offers. Anticipating another familiar refrain ("but we don't have time"), I'll offer a simple caveat: it's not a matter of creating new "amazing" opportunities. It's about doing better with the existing learning and capacity building experiences that we already have.

Think your board chair succession is secure? Think again -- In this post, Gayle Gifford analyzes data from our board chair survey through the lens of leadership succession planning. What are we doing to prepare our next generations of board leaders? Her insights on the topic are compelling. The questions she offers at the end provide an excellent starting point for having those discussions with your board.

7 cage-rattling questions every board should answer -- Not getting the best out of your board? Check your questions. Tricia's seven questions are fantastic examples of what we should be asking our boards. Capture them, share them with your board, schedule ample time to address those that are most compelling at future meetings. But almost as great as the questions she offered is this description of why we should care: "When people get invested by contributing their ideas, talent, and creativity, they will move mountains. It’s human. Then, giving money becomes a no-brainer." Are you helping the bright, wise leaders you've recruited to invest in their governance work? If not, that is your issue - one you must address, starting with Tricia's questions.

Visionary, strong, engaged boards: The key to nonprofit success -- Alison Rapping offers her own wise perspective on board member commitment and engagement in this recent LinkedIn post. She makes a strong case for valuing and prioritizing expansive, engaging board discussions (and offers her own great set of questions for sparking some of those conversations). She also reminds us of the very real perils of valuing expediency over thoughtful board deliberation.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The board chair experience: How did you get to this governance leadership role?

How did you come to be board chair? Please check the answer closest to the truth for you. 

Over the years, I've heard plenty of board jokes about missing a meeting and finding out you were elected president as punishment for your absence. I've heard about, and occasionally witnessed, a clearly hesitant board veteran being cajoled into taking his/her turn because there wasn't exactly a line forming to take the lead position when the time came to elect officers.

This question from our board chairs survey offers an interesting snapshot of how that process actually takes place for many serving in that role, describing a more complex picture.

Many respondents described somewhat purposeful steps into the role. There were structural mechanisms for some that put them on the path, e.g., nomination through a defined process, serving as vice chair, being "groomed" for the position. If we were to group them together, collectively, they would represent the more common phenomenon.

Other sets of responses offer hints of that reluctant service in responses to the choices offered - being volunteered by another member (though we have no way to know if that was a positive or negative event) and stepping up because no one else would. But note that percentages choosing one of those options are individually or collectively fairly low. 

More common than that group were two sets of responses that indicate something beyond stepping into some process that propelled them toward the chair role and being dragged kicking and screaming: the "natural progression" (the second most commonly-selected response) and "I actively sought" responses. 

My first response revisiting this question is "what does 'natural progression' mean and why did we word it that way?" My second response is to add this to my list of future research agenda items. Understanding motivations for leadership, understanding what supports and inspirations and experiences fostered that motivation, all could go a long way to creating more attractive, rich, and affirmative board leadership for everyone.

"Other" responses accounted for 8.4 percent of the total on the question, with 62 submitting comments. As with the other "other" comments shared so far, some are more revealing and potentially useful to the question than others. 

Some of the "other" responses describe unusual situations or crises within the organization:

"The board chair and vice chairs just quit one day and I was left. The ED begged me to take it because she needed a Board Chair for grant applications."

"There was a vacuum of leadership after the CEO left for medical reasons and then the board president resigned. This also occurred during a financial crisis. I was already a board member for many years and "stepped up" without assuming a title. After a few months, the board elected me president as much for what I was already doing as for the fact that no one else wanted the position."

"Eight years ago, all the members of the Board of Trustees, with one exception, indicated that they were resigning. I was not on the Board of Trustees: I was a volunteer."

"Took over in a time of crisis that threatened the organization when no one else was either stepping up or had the skill sets or will to save the organization."

I can say that that also was a theme in comments offered elsewhere in the survey. Even when we have plans as a board, life happens and people must step in to fill the leadership gap - willingly or not.

I initially wrote above that I saw no clear themes in the comments. I backed off of that statement when I reviewed again, looking for the above quotes, and saw how many respondents indicated that the CEO/executive director either asked directly or played a role in the request to serve. One of the quotes above includes that reference. But there were many others, along the lines of these:

"The ED and the outgoing board chair asked me to consider serving in the position."

"I was asked to return to the Board Char position by the Executive Director. I had held the position during a critical phase of the organization."

"Asked by the executive directors"

"The outgoing Executive Director also asked me to serve."

"There was no clear board member interested or best suited to take on the role. I was asked specifically by the new ED and Development Director to consider the position."

"I was solicited by the ED to apply for the role."

"I replaced a person who had served 8 years and was looking to step down. The CEO 'volunteered' me and I was quite willing to serve."

That is a far more familiar scenario in some of my interactions with boards (and in my own board and staff experience). I have my biases and my consultant counsel on that that are not particularly germane to this research-focused post. Instead, I'll just say that it affirmed for me that my research teammates and I probably missed another option for this question, covering CEO and other staff encouragement or involvement. 

The mixed-bag nature of responses to this question overall was interesting, particularly in the context of the mixed-bag preparation (or not) described in other questions covered in this series. Still processing this. For the moment, I'll say that maybe their lack of preparation that has been bothering me as a board educator makes a tiny bit more sense, at least for some. 

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The board chair experience: Most helpful related leadership roles, functions

Please rate how helpful you found the following experiences in preparing for and/or serving as board chair.

I have a minor confession to make. Responses to this question in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management's national board chairs survey prompted an almost immediate honing in on a topic that previously had received only minor coverage on this blog. A couple of years ago, nonprofit board committees started gaining more visibility here. This chart is the reason why.

If we combine the "helpful" and "very helpful" responses to the items on this question, the board committee chair role - by far - leads the pack as most common experience prior to chairing a board.

Combining those two columns looks like this:

  • Chair or chaired another nonprofit board - 51.55
  • Chair or chaired public sector or government board or council - 23.64
  • Chair or chaired a for-profit board - 13.9
  • Chair or chaired a committee - 81.74
  • Am or have been a nonprofit CEO - 27.43
  • Other - 30.19

No other experience comes close to leading a committee (81.74 percent). Number two, chairing another nonprofit board, was "helpful" or "very helpful" to 51.55 percent of respondents.

Now, we can't say chairing a committee is a deliberate or a direct path to that highest board leadership role based on responses to this survey question. We only can say that it was a common experience for board chairs participating in the survey, and that it was a helpful to very helpful one.  That is useful information.

I mentioned in the "helpful people" post in this series that I always had a small voice in the back of my mind as my researcher side analyzed the survey data. In this instance, that voice screamed so loudly that I responded here - even as I kept my motivation for the new committee posts to myself.

As with the other highlights posts in this series, researcher me offers the responses for your consideration, inviting you to do your own critical thinking about what they mean and how they might be of value to you and your board.

Consultant/educator/blogger me experienced a major "aha" moment and ran with it.  I already knew that our committees offer rich opportunities for members to develop deeper knowledge on some aspect of the board's work. I knew that growing expertise also represented a chance to demonstrate peer leadership that both shares the responsibility and fosters broader, meaningful engagement in board work.

Results of this question added a new layer of understanding about how those committee leadership puzzle pieces fell into place. I can't say it shifted my thinking drastically, since we can't make a causal connection between committee leadership and procession to the board chair role from this question alone. But it did expand my appreciation for the experiential value of our committees as learning and leadership incubators. Consultant/educator/blogger me began to think more expansively about different ways to envision our committees and support them with this new insight in mind.

Revisiting the "other" comments today, I see three themes, none of which probably will surprise any of us. "Other" related experiences informing board chair experiences came from:

  • Other nonprofit roles
  • Private sector roles (most dominant of the three)
  • Consultant status

A few representative responses illustrate what was shared:

I'm a faculty member and chaired my department and university committees.

I have been responsible for reporting to boards in my day job - this helped me understand the role of a Board and therefore understand the role of the Chair a bit more. 

I run my own business with numerous employees

I was a Nurse Administrator at the area Hospital.
I've been a senior development officer at a nonprofit for 10+ years and have worked closely with boards.
40 years in public accounting and 35 years as a CPA.

I am a National Consultant on development.

I am a strategy/business consultant to nonprofit organizations and routinely work closely with boards and CEOs.

Former City Council member and Mayor were also beneficial in understanding stakeholder needs and concerns.

I still may have committees on the brain that blind me to additional insights to expand our understanding of board chair preparation. If that is the case, and you see something that deserves consideration, please share in a comment.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The board chair experience: I wish I'd had...

"In hindsight, what one resource, person or experience would you have like to have had to prepare for your role as board chair?"

This open-ended question from our Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey ranks high among my personal-favorite questions, both for the general richness of the data it produced and for the learning/performance-related themes that emerged.

We began coding responses early in our data analysis. I continued that coding this weekend, in preparation for this post. As I remembered, four themes emerged in the 472 comments provided by survey respondents. Those themes:

  • Training
  • Mentors
  • Peer networking and support
  • Performance support

Since I cover all of these here,  and two have become semi-regular topics, I need to acknowledge that my biases run the risk of seeing things that may not actually exist. In that spirit, I intend to mostly turn over this post to the voices represented in the comments themselves, adding a sentence or two of response for each. Selecting the most representative comments promises to be a challenge. I predict this will be a long one, but that the length added via the comments will be interesting and valuable to you and other readers.


Here are some of the training-coded comments that caught my eye and that fairly represent themes among that pool of responses:
"I wish I had been able to attend one of our national conferences."

"I wish I had thought to research a workshop or webinar for non-profit board members."

"Leadership and public relations workshops."

"A conference of Board Chairs to attend. Best timing would be either just before assuming the chair, or just after chairing the first meeting as chair."

"Evaluation training to help board assess organization's impact."

"A course on being a non-profit Board Chair before becoming chair then workshops during term as chair."

"Focused training in managing peer group decision making."
"classes designed for how a nonprofit board functions and responsibility of each member."

A couple of observations about the larger "training" comments pool. The biggest surprise for me, frankly, was the number of comments indicating interest in access to resources specifically described as "training" or experiences that clearly was formal learning experience. They ranged from general course/workshop on being a board chair to training on specific topics, including group dynamics, conflict resolution, meeting management, etc.

The second observation is in relationship to the data offered in an earlier question about steps they took to prepare (and the more basic question - DID you prepare - in which 51 percent answered "no"). Adult educator me would like to have the chance to do follow-up interviews and see how they might connect those dots.


Almost as strong as a theme was a desire for access to mentors or mentor-like relationships. Some representative comments from that pool include:

"A mentor would have been nice - but that would have been my initiative to seek one."

"Mentor Board Chair from a high functioning/role model organization"

"A coach or consultant to help me create a strategy or focus for my tenure as chair, to keep me from feeling overwhelmed or pulled in too any directions."

"A President from another Chapter to give me a different perspective." 

"An experienced former Board Chair that can advise me."

"Advice from chair or CEO of a similar but different organization."

"Talking to an ED that has a successful board chair/CEO partnership to get their advice."

"I would have liked to have had a Chairman of the Board's 'Coach.' Access to someone who had a wealth of experience dealing with and guiding leaders of a wide variety of non-profit organizations having boards of differing backgrounds, resources and numbers."

"I would have liked more information/interaction and mentoring from the outgoing chair, and earlier conferences/dialogue with the CEO."

As with the training responses, there was no beating about the bush. Many respondents wanted access to someone who could be a sounding board/guide/resource to help them navigate the occasional tricky board leadership waters. Now, yes, as one of the respondents above said, he/she could go out and find that supportive person if that was needed. But there's also potential value in creating sector- or sub-sector or community-level access to mentoring and coaching support.

Performance support

While training is a universally-understood concept, that is not generally the case for performance support, which I consider to be at least as important as formal learning for effective nonprofit governance (and board leadership). Respondents expressing performance support needs didn't identify them as such, but they exemplify the types of resources that board chairs should have available to them. Some representative comments:

"I'd have liked some national materials prepared for non-profit board chairs, and some aimed at the particular sector (youth arts program) in which I volunteer."

"books or articles on chair leadership"

"Website or specific internet resource specifically for nonprofit board chairs"

"Board chair for Dummies or an internet equivalent"

"Specific examples of board committees, and how they contribute to the organization."

"I wished there would have been more information online, free resources that did have quality information included"

"A specific non profit Board chair handbook of best practices."
"A resource on compensation and managing that and the relationship with the ED, because it winds up being such an emotionally fraught process if not handled properly."
"Possibly a job description. I feel I probably perform some tasks that are not typical for a board chair."

"I think a self-assessment tool to help me evaluate my strengths and opportunities for learning as a board chair would have been very useful."

"I would like a local resource for board governance/serving as a chair."

This is another area where I would have liked a chance to interview respondents for more detail and behind their answers - again, within the context of the previous question about helpful resources (and action not taken). Some version of pretty much all of these needs exist somewhere, usually many forms. The question for me continues to be this: did they access those resources and not find them helpful (and, if that's the case, what was missing?) or did they not look for them in the first place? No judgment implied here. Just wondering - especially if what they found was not what they needed, since I'm one who provides different pieces of that performance support puzzle.

Peer networking

The fourth theme was not as strong as the others, and I won't have many different examples. But the need was evident in the number of comments offered. Here are a few, to give you a general idea of how they expressed it:

"I chair a local food pantry board. It would be helpful to learn from other food pantry board presidents."

"I would have liked to have the wisdom and experience of other board chairs/non-profit organization heads. from my organization and definitely from others. Those different perspectives would have been welcome."

"A consultation with experienced board chairs in a webinar or workshop setting."

"Would love to have met with board chairs from neighboring organizations."

Since an original purpose of this site - and the reason behind the now unfortunate name - was networking and support of our local nonprofit boards, I like to think I can envision what these commenters were needing. I like to think there already examples in the wild, maybe some open or potentially open to board chairs, wherever they may be in the sector. I've even built some networking (and performance support) opportunities into my new board chairs course on

But I also know that these types of support networks require some support of their own. I also know that many believe that quality interaction can only take place when all parties are in the same room. Sector capacity builders need to come to grips with the former and commit to that support. Future board chairs need to stretch their imaginations a bit and be open to seeing what can happen when technology connects them to an even broader network of peers with different perspectives, challenges and solutions.

Questions still remain for me regarding the apparent disconnect between the very real needs expressed in 15 pages of comments here and the responses provided in the two questions mentioned earlier (both the 51 percent who say they took no specific action to prepare for the role and all those "N/As" on the options presented in the "helpful resources" question). The opportunity for gathering insights from this particular group has long passed.

If I were to pick a follow-up focus, it would be expansion of this larger preparation question. I'm not unfamiliar with that line of work. In fact, reporting on a local board learning needs survey was the first content focal point of this blog. What this national study reinforced for me was that a survey provides one useful set of data. But we also need deeper insights that enhance our ability to understand what they really need, the barriers they experience, and the potential vehicles for bridging the gap between the two. That requires a qualitative research element.

I have at least one more post in this series, ready for publication next week. In the meantime, as always, I appreciate any insights you might have to help expand thinking (and generate some conversation) about what is shared here today.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Governance toolbox: Fundraising, faces, energy and organizational impact

Four quick, interesting links for this week's toolbox.

5 ways board members can boost year-end fundraising over goal -- Gail Perry is my favorite fundraising pro for one important reason: she recognizes the humanity, and natural hesitations, of board members. Her latest post is a good example. The "five ways" described here offer low-bar, high-impact potential contributions to one of your nonprofit's important fundraising needs.

The Seven Faces of Philanthropy -- What a great new "faces" resource! I've written about my affinity for Prince and File's Seven Faces of Philanthropy here before. I've collected several bookmarks on the framework over the years and shared them in different settings, including here. This new-to-me video overview is such a great new resource that I had to share with you. If you haven't read the book and discovered this fundraising framework, please change that today. (NOTE: I normally try to stay vendor-neutral with my book recommendations; but after finding yet another broken publisher link, I'm going for an always-reliable Amazon URL. Stating the obvious: your favorite bookseller, brick and mortar or online, will be glad to order a copy for you if it is not in stock.)
How to energize low-energy employees -- Board members aren't "employees;" but some of us do have low-energy periods, and some of us lower-energy personalities. Dan Rockwell offers a natural connection to governance work with his "how to find fire" recommendation: "If you want to ignite fire, help people find purpose." One would hope board members have no trouble "finding" purpose, but we may occasionally need help connecting the work of the day to it. (Speaking from very personal experience, my "low energy" board member challenges more or less always have been grounded in feelings of "what does this have to do with our reason for being here?")

Associations can make the world a better place -- I spend most of my energy working around and with social service agencies. This post, by Amanda Kaiser,  offered a quick perspective on impact from another part of the sector, associations. A nice break and reminder.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The board chair experience: Helpful resources - the rest of the story

Bigstock Photo

What did the "other" comments say about additional resources that nonprofit board chairs completing the Alliance for Nonprofit Management survey found helpful? Were there resources, not represented in the options the research team provided, that they considered useful?

At least one reader had that question after Monday's post, and I suspect he wasn't alone. Today, instead of the usual "inquiring" post, I'd like to share a few notes about the open ended comments left by respondents to the questions related to helpful information resources and helpful people. It's been awhile since I last really examined the thoughtful comments left in those spaces. Answering that burning question - for myself and others - is timely.

Helpful people

I'll start with responses to the most recent set of data highlighted here, on the people found most helpful, because the summary will be surprisingly short. I initially thought we'd see a long list of other human friends, mentors and others, since the options presented in the question were so few in number. Yesterday, as I was revisiting the "other" responses, I saw virtually none of that.

The few who actually named people almost always reiterated some version of one of the options presented in the question, e.g., a consultant, coach or the CEO. Instead, the majority of the 210 comments centered around one dominant theme: experience somewhere else. (That may ring familiar if you read the previous two posts in this series.) Especially popular was previous experience as a board chair, work-related experience that translated to a board setting, service as a nonprofit CEO, and the occasional experience as a nonprofit consultant.

I have a general observation and a question, since we can't go back and prod respondents' recollections for why they offered the answers that they did. The observation: this one came before the "helpful information sources" question, which may truly be where their most helpful sources in preparing for the board chair role lie. (We also opened the door a bit to other types of responses by closing the choices on the question with an "observing..." option rather naming than another person like the other choices listed.)

The question, which I know we can't answer in hindsight: could these very helpful survey participants be offering up other types of sources (without knowing the next question would probe for many of those responses), because they simply didn't have any other human sources of support? We had to limit our options on the question itself, so I - and probably others on the team - more or less assumed that we'd learn of other helpful helpful folk that we'd either left off or not considered in the "other" category. For the most part, that didn't happen.

Again, there is no way to know at this point. But it is a surprising outcome as I reflect on it today.

Helpful information sources

Respondents offered 102 comments tied to the question related to helpful sources of information. As with the other set of comments, I hadn't reviewed these in awhile. Reading them with fresh eyes both affirmed what I expected, based on data from the survey, and offered a surprise or two.

Experience was again a common theme in these comments - specifically, experience on other boards and as chairs of other boards. They learn by participating in nonprofit governance. If you've followed my work on adult/nonprofit board learning here, that probably isn't shocking: adults do a lot of their learning by doing.

But this also begs the question posed earlier: what if that experience is less than optimal? What if the examples include a good share of dysfunction? What if that experience doesn't include exposure to models and ways of working that may be even more effective and satisfying for board members? If they only have the same experience base from which to draw, they may never have the chance to discover what else exists to enhance their leadership effectiveness.

A less common, but still observable, theme in the comments tied professional expertise and experiences to their work as board chairs. Representative comments from that pool included:

"Luckily, I have an undergrad degree in psychology, an M.A. in Education and come from an orientations, student development career. This helped me to be prepared to run meetings, understand group dynamics and best serve the organization."

"business leadership background"
"my experience in my profession"
"mentored by several professional people"
We also heard from consultants (hopefully, responding as board chairs, since that was the focus of the survey) in the comments for this question.

"I work for a management consulting firm that advises for-profit Chairmen"
"Wisdom gleaned from my years as a consultant to board of faith based nonprofits"
"I am a Licensed Standards for Excellence consultant and have broad access to both literature and examples of what makes for a good (or bad) board chair."

One additional, personally pleasant surprise was the number of comments noting completion of courses offered in academic settings. Since I've been known to offer some of those myself, and I am acquainted with many of the leading governance faculty around the country, those comments were heartening to read.

That is so for two reasons. One, practitioners actually found something of value in those formal academic experiences (bridging the theory-to-practice divide can sometimes challenge.). Two, they counter some refrains I've heard about board members being too busy/lazy/unwilling to take time for development activities. At least some of these respondents were motivated enough, by something, to turn to the most formal of learning experiences. It may or may not have been sparked by their board chair service (we don't have that additional detail), but they were interested enough in nonprofit issues to sign up for college courses on  related topic(s).

This brings me to the focus of the next post in this series, a delightfully rich set of responses from an open-ended question posed in the "preparation" section of the series that hasn't received the visibility it really deserves. Let's just say "board developer/adult educator me" re-discovered her "told you so" dance when I re-read those responses. Expect that post on Monday.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The board chair experience: Helpful people


In preparing for your role as board chair, how helpful was advice from the following people?

As an adult educator and member of the research team, certain questions from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management's survey of nonprofit board chairs interested me more than others. This is one of those questions.

If we combine responses from the  "helpful and "very helpful" columns, they line up this way:

  • Observing previous chair(s) - 70.22 percent 
  • The CEO - 57.87 percent
  • Other - 57.7 percent
  • Outgoing board chair - 49.67 percent
  • Friends with board chair experience - 41.79 percent
  • Coach or consultant - 16.76 percent

Makes sense, right? To a large extent, we model ourselves - or at least how we behave as leaders of our board - on the example set by those who came before us. Unless that person was a total nightmare, we probably don't have a lot of motivation to step too far away from what worked for our predecessor. We also probably consult with the person before us, seeking advice about what he or she found most helpful and what he or she might have done differently.

We trust the CEO to guide us in the best interests of the organization, drawing from his or her experiences working with different chairs over the years. We may ask friends serving on other boards how they handle the responsibilities and ask for advice about what makes an effective chair.

Coaches and consultants can be great resources for new board leaders. But experience as a consultant tells me that (a) many don't know that coaching for that board role is an option and (b) many who are aware do not have the funds, or do not see the value in expending the funds, for those services. That this item fell at the bottom of the list (69.54 percent chose "not applicable") should surprise no one.

As a member of the research team, I found myself balancing two types of responses throughout the data analysis process - well, mostly squashing one because it was out of place in our team discussions.

There was the researcher role, able to share the survey data and offer some informed analysis based on what those data showed us. In this case, researcher me says that, based on the responses, access to the previous chair(s) - observation and interaction - and counsel from the CEO were most helpful of the options presented to survey respondents. That is what we can glean from this particular question, and that's useful information.

There also was the other voice whispering in my ear - the consultant-with-board-experience - that now gets a bit of a say (part of my motivation for this series: get that voice out of my head after three years and into this space). That voice has a practice observation to share, based on the data.

While I know it's also a function of the question as written, I'm seeing that the most relied-upon sources are internal. We go to those closest - our previous chair, our CEO, our experienced friends - for advice about how to lead our board. To the extent that our processes and leadership traditions are functional and effective, that's a good thing. If it works, it works.

But what if that example is a dysfunctional or ineffective one? What if we don't know that "the way we do things" falls short of what the board should be doing or is counterproductive to its ultimate (even unacknowledged) responsibilities? What if the CEO has a vested interest in the board focusing attention and energy one one set of problems and questions and away from others? What if that CEO's understanding of what the board should be doing is incomplete?

When juxtaposed with the information-accessed data shared last week, I'm not seeing many opportunities to explore other ways to lead effectively - which fits results of a third survey question shared in our report: 51 percent of respondents said they did nothing specific to prepare for their new role as board chair.

To the extent that our boards do a credible job of providing the current leadership and oversight, and to the extent that some of our boards are governing in exemplary and transformative ways, that's an okay thing. Keep doing what we're doing, and we'll all be just fine.

But are all of our boards governing to their full potential? Do they understand the full scope of not just their bottom line oversight responsibilities but their strategic and generative/visionary purposes? Do they know there are different perspectives on what it means to govern? Different models?

Are our board leaders really prepared to stretch members in productive ways as they fulfill their responsibilities? To create generative thinking and deliberation in meetings that bring out the best in participants? That hold members accountable and supports their learning and capacity building needs so that they can be successful?

That's where our leaders benefit from exposure to ideas and resources from somewhere other than their own boardrooms. That's where coaches and peers with different kinds of governance experiences offer other perspectives and approaches to leadership. That's where reading that book from the local library, or attending a webinar, or exploring blogs and other internet information sources become informative.

Researcher me can say to you, this is what we know about helpful resources, based on the data. Practitioner me now gets to say, so what are we going to do about that?

I had intended to offer some observations about the open-ended responses in this post. (That 57.7 percent describing "other" as helpful or very helpful begs for discussion, and there are some intriguing insights in the comments.) But given the length of this post so far, I think I'll save that for a separate entry.

What are your reactions to the data above? 
How do they match or depart from your experiences?
What questions do they bring up for you?

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Governance toolbox: Inspiration, evaluation and risk for nonprofit boards

Here are the links and tools that most inspired me this week:

Because of IU -- I've been talking a lot off and on here about the value of board member storytelling, especially when the stories being told are connected to their mission motivations. This set of board member videos feature Indiana University Foundation board members exemplifies one version of that perfectly.  One thing I will say before you click: don't be intimidated by the professionalism of the finished product. Listen to their brief messages. That's what's important, not how you capture them. With a video-capable phone or camera and a mic, you have the essential elements for capturing your board members' stories. Upload them to YouTube, as the IU Foundation did, and they always are for sharing with your stakeholders.

Self-assessments for nonprofit boards -- I'm having a little bit of a deja vu moment. But if I've already shared this National Council of Nonprofits resource, it's worthy of another round. The value of self-assessment for the board as a whole and individual members is immense when done right. The NCN provides links to tools for launching that process.

Nine characteristics of a good board self-evaluation program -- While we're on the topic... This post by Leigh Wintz, published on the Canadian Society of Association Executives blog, complements the previous link. It's more of a narrative providing context for self-evaluation, which you may find useful as you make the case to your board.

The five major risks all charity board members need to think about -- This one is more discussion focal point than tool, but it's a discussions that boards should be having on a regular basis. The premise - and ultimate value - is made clear in the headline: five common areas of risk that nonprofit organizations face. What they look like, and which are more likely to become problematic for your organization, will vary for a variety of factors (including, but not limited to, mission area, community context and political environment). What are the major risks facing your nonprofit? How do/will you  attempt to reduce their potential impact and, when unavoidable, deal with the consequences?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Does our budget reflect our organizational priorities?

"Does the budget reflect our priorities?"

I return to Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership for this week's "inquiring boards" question. It is an excellent example of fiduciary inquiry - not just tending to spreadsheets from a "do the numbers add up" perspective but really asking if we are good stewards of our funds and our mission.

Some boards spend a lot of time tending to the financials and to oversight functions. That is an important element of governance, clearly. But if all we only ask "Is the budget balanced?" and ignore this question about how that budget feeds our stated priorities, we fall short of our fiduciary responsibilities. I've seen too many boards - including boards where I served - miss that critical piece.

  • Are we funding our core services at a level that sets them up for success?
  • Do we have the staff we need to provide those services? Are they qualified for the responsibilities we assign them, and are we compensating them fairly?
  • Are we meeting community needs, and how is that demonstrated in how we allocate our resources?
  • Are our funding sources diverse enough to ensure that we are still viable if one takes a hit or disappears?
  • Do our grant sources fund stated, mission-advancing priorities; or are we simply following cash where we find it?
  • Are our fundraising expenses (including events) in line with the funds gained and the staff and volunteer resources required to generate them?
  • Are our financial processes sound? Does our billing system work as it should?
  • Does our board receive the information it needs, in a form members find useful, so that the budget can be used as a resource in decision making?

Those are examples of questions that come to mind when I think of the original question posed by Chait and friends. Like that original, they represent a move from oversight to inquiry, which Chait, Ryan and Taylor say "extracts leadership value from a board's engagement in fiduciary work" (p. 37). It's more than monitoring. It's using information strategically, and with accountability, to make the best possible decisions for your organization and those it serves.

How can you use this question to spark a discussion about how you are supporting your priorities? What additional questions do you need to ask to take that conversation deeper and in a meaningful direction?

NOTE: This post is part of a series highlighting questions designed to promote inquiry in the boardroom. For others in the series, and a more general pool of resources on the topic visit my "Inquiring Nonprofit Boards" collection on Pinterest.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The board chair experience: How helpful were common information sources?

Information sources

How helpful were the following sources of information in preparing for your role as board chair?

This question, part of the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management's national survey of board leaders, was one of the most intriguing for me as an adult educator. What commonly available sources of information do our board chairs find most helpful? The resulting data were eye-opening, but not necessarily for the reasons I expected.

The research team debated this one for awhile; I'm not sure we reached official consensus on how to interpret. While I'm not alone in this interpretation, what follows represents my understanding of responses to this survey item - and the question that remains for me today.

If we combine the "very helpful" and "helpful" columns, four sources rise to the top (although none of them reaches more than 50 percent):

  • The Internet (41.84 percent)
  • Local workshops (36.9 percent)
  • Books I purchased (33.28 percent) 
  • Magazines/journals (26.45 percent)

If we add "somewhat helpful" responses,  the top four remain the same, although "books" and "local workshops" flip positions.

That those particular sources were popular were not surprising, generally speaking - though I'm interested in more detail about the magazines and journals they found helpful, since practitioner-focused nonprofit/governance resources are not plentiful. Are they reading scholarly journals and, if so, how are they accessing them since they generally are subscription-based (and not inexpensive)?

Now, most of us have a path to those journals through our local or academic libraries (even if we don't realize it, e.g., through interlibrary loan). That brings me to one of the more puzzling items in this table. However we combine the responses, libraries - free and widely available sources of information - pretty much fall on the bottom of the list. For example, "very helpful" and "somewhat helpful"  responses combined amounted to only 5.88 percent. If we added the "somewhat" category, that rises to a whopping 11.09 percent.

If we spend a minute pondering why that might be, we could end up discovering what I consider to be one of the more intriguing stories emerging from this question (and one the research team spent a lot of time discussing). The "aha" for me came when I looked at the far-right column, "not applicable." My reading on the "not applicable" responses is not that those sources were tried and not helpful, but that they were not accessed in the first place. With that reading, the bigger story for libraries - and most others - was that survey respondents didn't use them in their search for information about board leadership.

I see 72.44 percent of respondents who did not go to their local library in their search for resources. Not that they went and didn't find anything of value (in my reading, that's the 16.47 percent responding "not at all helpful"). They did not go. Now, we didn't probe for detail behind that or any other "not applicable" response. There are no judgments to be made when we scan that column and see numbers that are for the most part larger than most or all of the others combined for each item. It simply is. From a board development/capacity building stance, it does raise questions about how we both expand leadership development offerings and reach those who would most benefit from them. If we build it, there's a good chance that they won't come (at least on their own).

I continue to ponder this survey item, the practice implications it introduces, and the questions it raises. We clearly have some work to do as a sector, in terms of creating and facilitating access to  high-quality sources of information and support for our board leaders. We also should stop and consider whether what we are offering is not only easy to find but ultimately useful to our intended audiences. (As someone who writes for this audience, the fact that the Internet was deemed "very helpful" to "helpful" by only 42 percent should be a humbling prompt for reflection.)

But I also am heartened by evidence, in the comments accompanying this question and others, that new board chairs want and are willing to commit to a range of learning experiences in the process. Generally speaking, if we build those resources - and tell them about them - will they access them?

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.