Wednesday, May 11, 2016

One board thing: Inquiry-focused agenda

If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd

Build an inquiry-focused agenda

If we aren't listening to committee reports and monitoring management functions, how do we spend our time as a board? This week's "one board thing" follows up on the previous post in this series, calling for adoption of a consent agenda. Assuming your board likes, and adopts, that meeting tool, it may ask the natural next question: How do we reallocate our newfound "free" time? 

The answer probably is obvious to anyone who read the consent agenda post (or spends any time here). But it bears spotlighting, both as a reminder and as an opportunity to explore how open discussions centered in great questions facilitates work that fulfill the governance function and the priorities that your board sets for itself.

Think of what your board could accomplish if it had time set aside to explore questions like this:

  • How do we demonstrate accountability to each of our stakeholder groups?
  • How do we build and recognize relationships with our loyal donors? Do those stewardship modes address those donors' interests in our mission and our work?
  • How do we anticipate potential impacts of shifting community populations on demand for our services (a big one  for many nonprofits in energy-dominant economies right now)?
  • What are our current governance capacity needs and which do we prioritize as we plan our next new member recruitment process?
  • What do we need to know/do/experience to govern at our peek potential? What kinds of training and/or performance support do we require to meet those needs?
  • To whom do we need to reach out in the next six months, and how can the board play a role? 

Each board has its own set of questions that it needs to be asking, but you get the idea. One thing you may observe, at least in the brief list offered above: big questions usually aren't the kind a board can easily wrap up in one conversation. And that's okay. It may be frustrating at times for action-oriented folks, but it's okay. Really. If your agenda items are routinely resolved by the end of the meeting, you're not reaching high enough.

What does a board need to make this "one thing" as productive as possible? Here are a few basic recommendations:

  • A thought-provoking question (the actual "one board thing") grounded in one of three core governance functions (fiduciary, strategic, generative).
  • Ample time for members to think about, research, and reflect on the question before the meeting (prepared board members have stronger, richer, more informed discussions). 
  • Resources (websites, blog posts, articles, etc.) to support their exploration process before the meeting (shared in a timely manner, of course)
  • Expectations that they will come prepared to share their informed insights and their related experiences.
  • Topic/situational leadership from committees and individuals with related expertise (e.g., community outreach committee members should share research and lead discussions on related questions [and possibly define the questions to be asked], while members with fundraising expertise can be called on to help inform and facilitate discussions about stewardship).
  • Clarity about what comes next (e.g., follow-up discussion topic, additional resources needed, action to be taken, who will take it).

This may sound like a natural process for a board retreat or similar extended experience. It is. Dedicated, extended opportunities to explore significant questions are essential. But this also is the essence of nonprofit governance. It's what boards should be doing an are responsible for doing: defining and moving toward the future and ensuring accountability for stewardship of resources provided to make that future possible.

What one question should your board be asking? When will you make that discussion a priority?

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