Monday, April 25, 2016

A higher governance calling: nurturing, reaching for an unknown future

I'm not sure I could come up with a more perfect definition of nonprofit governance if I tried. I've definitely never seen a more perfect, succinct description from any other source in the last 33 years.

I've saved this Episcopal Charities tweet since it appeared live in my feed nearly five years ago. Seeing it again this weekend was a special treat, not only because it meant I'd successfully sorted through 354 backlogged Twitter favorites, but because it's as fantastic and inspiring today as it was in 2011. I believe the quote actually came from one of my favorite nonprofit authors, Katherine Tyler Scott, maybe from a talk she gave at one of their events. I may have shared it here five years ago, but it bears repeating and deserves a fresh reflection.

Some may read it and think, "Hmph. Too fuzzy. Ignores the meat of board work." Or "But it doesn't tell me what to do..." I read it and see all of that covered, and more. I see the essence of nonprofit governance.

Yes, we must tend to the here and now. We fail our organizations, our stakeholders, and our communities if we ignore today's realities. But our ultimate purpose as governing bodies - our "higher calling" - is to envision a future worthy of all of them and to create an environment where that future becomes possible.

If that vision is appropriately broad and transformative in its potential, it is one that will outlive generations of board members. But that's exactly the point: they are defining and moving toward something bigger than themselves, "for a time they'll never see" and "for people they'll never meet." That requires visionary leadership, governance that tends to today but never lets it obscure their view and their commitment to the future.

Is it really "too fuzzy?" Let me challenge that one. If we are nurturing our organization for those future scenarios and beneficiaries, we must today be:

  • Identifying the questions that help bring that vision to life.
  • Defining the outcomes required to make that future possible.
  • Engaging in strategic thinking and planning to ensure that we will fulfill those outcomes.
  • Hiring and supporting staff leaders with the capacity to advance those plans on the ground.
  • Holding those leaders accountable for that forward progress.
  • Identifying the resources required to move forward and ensuring that the organization obtains those resources, through fundraising, grants, fees for services, contracts, etc.
  • Ensuring that those resources are used wisely and appropriately and communicating that transparently with donors, grantors and other stakeholders. 
  • Reaching out into our communities to tell our nonprofit stories - especially stories demonstrating impact - and inviting them to support us in ways that meet our needs and their interests.
  • Advocating for policies and legislation that supports the environments we need to make our vision possible and against those that threaten to harm our communities and those we serve.
  • Leading in ways that inspire board members to contribute their very best, every day and ever meeting, to our success.

Fuzzy? Nah. Not so much, if you think about it.

This could have been this week's 'inquiring nonprofit boards' series post. Indeed, I hope you will be inspired to share this quote with your board and ask the most obvious question: "How are we nurturing the future for our organization and our community?" But in the end, it was so perfect it deserved the week's spotlight. 

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