Monday, March 7, 2016

Nonprofit boardroom impact: Why use Governance as Leadership as a foundation?

Why choose to ground much of future (and previous) "board impact" discussions here in Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership framework?

Before I begin an extended exploration doing just that, I thought I'd make a brief case for using this particular foundation. Governance as Leadership is not the only model worthy of the task at hand. It is however, one worthy of the significant challenge. In the remainder of this post, I'll describe why GAL resonates for me and why it works as a place for grounding thinking about nonprofit board impact.

The video featured in last week's post makes a more extensive case for why this frame is worthy of the governance impact challenge. But in a nutshell, I believe it offers:

  • An overall call to focus governance work on higher-level thinking and action, where community leaders should be spending most of their time and energy. That doesn't mean they take a totally hands-off approach. But it asks boards to define their ultimate responsibilities at the 35,000-foot, big-picture level.
  • It takes a balanced approach to defining major governance modes. The GAL triangle is an equilateral one, with fiduciary, strategic and generative responsibilities holding equal status. To the extent that boards can remember and act on that, they have the best potential for impact.
  • This bears repeating, so I will. The work that takes place in the strategic and generative modes are as important as the fiduciary. Too many boards act as if that is not the case, confining work in those two modes to the odd corner of the agenda (if there's time) and the occasional special-event retreat. These are not "frills." They are essential leadership responsibilities. Without them, real board impact is absent or, at best, incomplete.
  • Fiduciary work is more than obsessing over financial statements. It's a larger commitment to accountability, transparency, and inquiry that fosters future-focused stewardship of resources. Too many boards don't get that. 
  • It's work that's interesting and challenging to the leaders we recruit to serve. You want to know why some of your board members are disengaged? It's because you're drowning us in boring, inane work that has no real impact. Chait, Ryan and Taylor address this issue up front, in the book's opening chapter on the board "purpose problem." A free adaptation (maybe direct reprint) can be found in this 2013 Nonprofit Quarterly article

As convinced as I am that this is a powerful path to governance impact, I also reiterate that I know not everyone agrees. I also know that it doesn't offer the specific, "do this" set of implementation steps that some need or want. Whether or not we accept the GAL packaging as presented, we can learn from understanding how and why they define each governance mode as its creators do. For example, we certainly can benefit from considering - and adopting - the broader, inquiry-based fiduciary lens presented in GAL. So, in that spirit, as I write whatever follows, I hope that you will consider it as a chance to

  • Rethinking what we ask of our boards
  • Rethink how we organizes the work of our boards
  • See strategy as more than periodic planning events
  • Introduce and value inquiry as an embedded, essential function of governance (especially generative thinking and questioning)

Chait, Ryan and Taylor may prefer that we adopt their framework as a whole - and I definitely would offer that encouragement along the way. But in the end, we have much to learn from simply stopping and considering how we might take a more balanced, leadership-focused approach to defining board work and board impact.

I have several posts already lined up to connect this work to board impact, though it will be embedded in pretty much every future 2016 post (and most of what I've written here so far). I'll take a brief break next week, for a special "Question Week" series beginning Sunday. In the meantime, I'll offer a couple of online resources for anyone interested in exploring GAL a bit further.

My "Generative Governance" Pinterest board
My "GAL" bookmarks

Note: resources on this topic tend to disappear. I realize, as I post those sets of resources, that I haven't checked them recently. Do not be surprised if you find a broken link - or six. I'll revisit later today and clean out what might be broken now. That's one of the more frustrating phenomena that I cannot explain (and a minor motivation for creating new resources of my own).

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