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.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Governance toolbox: August 2016 potpourri

I haven't done an end-of-the-month potpourri for awhile, but this week's offerings provide a perfect excuse for reinstating the tradition.

Three times considered -- My motivation for sharing this Craig Freshley tip will, I hope, be obvious to regular readers. If we ask our boards to consider big, substantive questions of mission - if we ask them to engage in strategic and generative inquiry around that mission - we cannot realistically expect them to reach a thoughtful conclusion in one brief discussion. Clearly, every board decision does not require a three-pass process. But for the major governance topics and decisions impacting future direction, this is a process to consider. The temptation to expedite decision making can be a big one for action-oriented community leaders. However, if we help them acknowledge the wisdom of slowing the process in the spirit of incubation, exploration and deliberation, we help to ensure the quality of the decisions made.

5 ways to find vitality in disagreement -- One of the ways that boards can end up in trouble emerges when they play nice for the sake of avoiding conflict - even legitimate conflict that should be part of thoughtful, critical deliberation and decision making. We don't like the unpleasantness that comes in contentious interactions, especially in volunteer work. Dan Rockwell's post reminds us that not only should we not run from disagreement, we should embrace it and recognize its value in generating better outcomes in the process. That creative tension can be a healthy and stimulating thing.

Balancing the mission checkbook: A graphic re-visioning of nonprofit overhead -- Is overhead a tricky topic for your organization? Does your board have difficulty conceptualizing and describing the concept for others? This post by CPA Curtis Klotz offers a fresh perspective and an opportunity to explore from your organizational and community context.

Cause & Effect toolbox -- We'll end on a tools-y note, courtesy of my friend, Gayle Gifford. I've been revisiting (and discovering anew) some of the powerful resources that generous experts like Gayle make available to the nonprofit sector. This particular set of resources isn't new to me, but I had a chance to step back and appreciate everything made available here while beginning a new personal knowledge journey this summer. As with other favorite writers and thinkers, Gayle has a gift for not only minimizing any fear factor behind a topic (fundraising, anyone?) but making the work described seem inviting. Resources offered cover a range of topics germane to nonprofit governance. Click,  explore, bookmark it. You'll want to keep this set of tools handy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Who needs to know about our mission, work?

Who needs to know about our mission? How can the board facilitate those connections?

The board's outreach impact is one of the more important - and unique - contributions it can make. As community leaders and peers, they bring a kind of credibility that paid staff cannot have. High-impact board outreach also is a role that requires a bit more support and deliberate focus, because it isn't necessarily a high-practice, high-confidence area for many members.

Most board members already know that community outreach is a core responsibility. But they likely also bring with them a mix of hesitations that may feel paralyzing. Some of the more common, in my experience:

  • Low confidence in their ability to deliver your story in polished, accurate, compelling ways.
  • Fear that someone will have questions that they are unable to answer.
  • Anxiety about being expected to "make the ask" - financial or otherwise.
  • Being met with apathy or worse, antipathy.

Been there. Felt that. All of that. For most of us, if we are supported and involved in authentic ways (not all of us are, or should be, public speakers) those fears will be largely unfounded.

Because they are out and interacting in the community personally and professionally, board members  have more connections and storytelling opportunities than they realize. I've witnessed the power that comes when a board responds to some version of the first question, "Who needs to know about our mission?" Beginning with that broad question asks board members to reflect on the full range of stakeholders with some existing or potential vested interest in your mission and its outcomes.  That discussion clearly is a foundational one.

I've similarly found surprising outcomes when we take that question a step deeper: asking who they know - as individuals - who needs to be connected to our mission.  To bring this conversation to its full potential clearly requires thoughtful planning and member support. But I've also seen how simply asking the question and recording what pours forth sparks something important for this work: a sense that they can make meaningful connections for you and your mission.

I've probably told this story here before, but it's germane today and worth a repeat. A few years ago, I facilitated a "who we know" discussion for a board considering a capital campaign. The goal was simply to pick members' brains while also creating visual evidence that they weren't starting from a deficit position. One member was particularly certain that she didn't know "anyone," had nothing to offer, and could never contribute anything meaningful to the anticipated campaign.  She was certain to the point of outright, dig-in-her-heels resistance to the exercise.

We took a step back and reviewed the group's collected list of mission contributions. Then I asked her, "Who in your life cares about this?" "What about this one?" "Who has a vested interest in seeing this happen?" Slowly but surely, this board member (who, on paper at least, really shouldn't have "known" anyone) named a mile-long list of personal relationships with people who could not only write a check but support the agency and its mission in other ways that matter. Think public policymakers, judges, foundation executives, educators and more. Most of us only dream of having the kinds of legitimate connections that this woman had within her immediate circle of friends, family and acquaintances.

We just need to spark their brains and encourage them to think creatively about making those authentic connections between individual stakeholder interests and our mission needs.

The second question also must be addressed if we want our board members to succeed in their boundary-spanning work. As is the case with the fundraising function, there are different ways to share your mission story. Sure, it's great to have board members willing to stand at the front of a room full of people and make your case for support. It's wonderful (and powerful) to have board members willing and able to reach out to legislators and other policymakers on our behalf.

But board members can contribute to this work in a variety of ways. Helping each one identify what roles come naturally - and what realistic stretches they would be willing to try - helps you know how and when to support them along the way. Those bullet points above are experienced can be real, even if they mostly exist in our heads.

Work with members to identify the additional knowledge, tools, practice, etc., they need to feel fully confident and ready to step up on your behalf. Provide opportunities for role playing and other practice to build confidence and comfort with what you ask them to do. Commit to supporting them, and to them supporting each other, and build their capacity to support you in new ways.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Just released: Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey

At long last...

I am pleased to finally be able to share a link to Voices of Board Chairs: A National Study on the Perspectives of Nonprofit Board Chairs, a report summarizing highlights of a survey conducted on behalf of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. 

The Alliance just released the PDF report. I am passing along that link today. Click HERE to access and download that file.

As promised, now that the the report has been released publicly, I will be sharing the data that I found most intriguing and potentially useful. At the moment, I anticipate a brief, weekly series of three to six posts - probably on Mondays.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Just launched: New video course, related resource supporting nonprofit board chairs

Please pardon the departure from my usual "governance toolbox" format, but this is far from a "usual" week for me. This week, I launched an initiative that I hope many here will find of value: an online course on the platform that introduces new nonprofit board chairs to the responsibilities they have accepted. 

"Engaging Board Leadership: A New Chair's Guide to Facilitating Effective Nonprofit Governance" is a video-driven, self-directed learning experience designed to provide two things:

  • A broad overview of what it means to lead a nonprofit board and 
  • A chance to reflect, via guided questions, on what that leadership will look like to the student and his/her board.

There is a bonus for those who complete the course: access to a site containing resources referenced in the class as well as others related to the topics covered. The site also includes a discussion forum area - the chance to interact with, and learn from, others experiencing the same highs and lows of service.

The 104-minute course, broken into several brief lessons, covers the following topics:

  • Understanding a broader conception of nonprofit governance
  • Defining your desired leadership impact
  • Designing and facilitating effective board meetings
  • Building board and board member accountability
  • Valuing and supporting governance-focused committees
  • Establishing an effective partnership with your CEO and
  • Promoting board learning and reflection

Multiple motivations led to this particular course and this specific setting. I'll mention two here. One, I saw ample anecdotal evidence in the national board chairs survey (that, hallelujah, may actually go public on Monday) of learning needs that were not being met and respondents' expressed willingness to take steps to meet those needs if they had opportunities. Reason two is accessibility. The platform makes access easy (one can participate from literally everywhere) and affordable. It is a viable first step for all of those survey respondents who indicated they wanted information but didn't seem to know where to find it.

I am grateful that (and my new friend, Greg, who guided me through the course development process) provides this space and support for self-paced, self-directed adult learning. I appreciate the international audience that - an initiative of The Economist Group - provides. I am glad to have a chance to bring to life this one important component of the development and peer support needs of our boards' current and future leaders. For me, it is an important first step toward providing a full basket of learning and support services for those who serve in this critical position.

I hope that you, and your board chairs, will find value in what this course offers. If you do find that value, you also will be willing to share your thoughts in a review.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

One board thing: Educate staff about board's governance responsibilities, impact

(purchased from Bigstock Photo)

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

Educate our staff about the board's ultimate roles and impact

When we think of organizational learning needs related to the board and its governance responsibilities, we generally focus that energy on the board itself. But there is a related need, one that, when met, expands the potential for the board's success and, ultimately, their impact on and for the organization.

This "one thing" may feel like a bigger stretch than some of the others. It's also unusual, since its focus is on staff rather than board. But stick with me as I make a case for this learning need.

Educating board members about staff and the programs that they support is standard orientation fare for our volunteer leaders. One bottom-line result, if we are successful in explaining that work, is awareness of who is responsible and how that contributes to meeting program needs (and, by extension, a step toward mission fulfillment). Ongoing exposure to, and information about, that work deepens the board's understanding and fuels its own thinking and actions.

Depending on who is being asked, we can find different perspectives regarding how close the board  should get to staff members and their work. (I'm in the "as long as they're not circumventing the CEO's authority, exposure is a good thing" camp.) Wherever your organization falls on the board/staff interaction continuum, spending time acquainting staff with the board's purpose and governance contributions should be time well spent.

Why? Well, for starters, the outcomes of board actions directly impact the staff and the work that they are able to do. Whether it is approving budget allocations for those services (and their salaries), identifying community needs that become program priorities,  or committing to fundraising goals that provide the facilities in which they work, the board touches pretty much everything that staff members do.

If staff understand what the board is doing and why, they are in a better place to inform and support that work. If staff members are respected parts of the process, they are in a place to own its outcomes - even when those outcomes don't always match their individual ideas of how things should be done.

I've worked with staff. I've consulted with staff. I've been staff. I can say, from all three perspectives, that the better staff understand the board's purpose and and closer they are to informing that purpose, the better prepared they will be to ensure its success. In all of those experiences, I've found awareness of nonprofit governance generally, and their nonprofit board's role specifically, to be at best incomplete and sometimes almost non-existent. That's not good.

How do we build staff understanding of the board's work and support for that work? Here are a few ideas for facilitating that:

  • Make introduction of the board's governance responsibilities part of new staff orientation. Consider making face-to-face introduction, to the board chair or the board as a whole, part of that process.
  • Make by-laws, minutes and other board materials accessible to staff. The more transparent the board's governance work, the lower the level of mystery and the potential for misunderstanding.
  • When job duties fit charges or specific initiatives, assign staff members to work with board committees. This builds ownership of those groups' outcomes and informs the work itself by providing a staff voice and sharing applicable knowledge to deliberations.
  • Invite senior staff to participate in board deliberations about issues and programs where they have direct knowledge or experience to inform those discussions.
  • Invite the board chair (and/or other board leaders) to open meetings with staff, offering opportunities to share information and respond to questions.
  • Consider assigning a staff liaison to the board, perhaps a rotating responsibility, to report back highlights of meetings to their peers. (Provides additional exposure to the work and the people. Rotating process reduces the burden of after-hours commitment.)
  • At minimum, ask the CEO to provide that report at a staff meeting.
  • Where appropriate, encourage board members to provide volunteer support at public events (as volunteers) to offer additional opportunities to work with and around staff members.

Those are just a few examples of ways to bridge the gap and, in the process, increase staff understanding and appreciation for the board's leadership contributions. I've been around enough nonprofits to know that some will be more palatable than others. I also know readers undoubtedly have additional - probably better - recommendations for accomplishing this "one thing."

Whatever feels right for you and your staff, the bottom line remains the same: staff members who understand what governance is and how their own boards fulfill it are less likely to resent that function and are better prepared to support it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Governance toolbox: Questions, vision and mission (three board success essentials)

Why, yes. I love everything about the quoted in this ABABarLeader tweet. Why, yes. It is a perfect bit of inspiration to open this week's toolbox (or any time nonprofit boards is the discussion topic). Thanks, ABA friends, for sharing this wisdom this week.

How to create a compelling vision for your nonprofit -- Speaking of inspiration - Marc Pitman's concise description of what a nonprofit vision is (and is not) is perfect. His suggestion that we think of ways to convey that vision, beyond traditional "vision statement" mode, is perfect as well. Does your board, and your organization, have a compelling vision of the future that it shares with others? If not, use Marc's advice here to begin that articulation process. If you do, consider how it stacks up to what Marc describes here. And, yes, be prepared to make some significant changes if the focus is on what your organization does. That's (potential) mission material, not vision.

Questions for the organization's skeptic -- Earlier this month, I put out a plea for favorite strategy-related resources to several expert friends. I could legitimately fill two or three toolboxes with what they shared so generously. In the meantime, I'm feeling compelled to offer this great resource (PDF file) from Dr. Terrie Temkin and her associates at CoreStrategies for Nonprofits. You know how I love a good question. This document, found under the "Resources" tab, offers a whole list with an eye toward inspiring broad, critical thinking in boardroom discussions. What a marvelous idea, don't you think? Thanks, Terrie, for providing this tool.

Spreading your mission, one moment at a time -- Depending on the room and the day, the idea of a "mission moment" is either old hat or big news when I bring it up. Because mission moments can be powerful sources of learning and inspiration, I'll err on the side of confirmation today and share this brief post by Lori Jacobwith. Her explanation of what and why is on the mark. Her how-to process is brief and manageable for any nonprofit board. If you don't already include mission moments in your board meetings, this may be the inspiration to change that.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: How'd we do?

"How did we do as a board in our meeting today?"

How did we do as a board in today's meeting? What are the markers of those contributions? What difference did they allow us to make, if only for today?

I re-read this quote in Gail Perry's excellent book, Fired-Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action, yesterday after recommending it to a consultant friend. I remember thinking, "Hey, this really needs to be part of the inquiry series." Low and behold, I had already captured it for exactly that purpose.

This is a deceptively simple question: "How did we do..." But it has powerful potential, beginning with the call to collective reflection. In asking this question, you call on the board to think jointly about the work done during the meeting and to articulate the impact that that work offers. That introduces a reflective practice element to nonprofit governance that we don't often see - at least not embedded in the routine work. Even that simple awareness has transformative potential, simply because it makes us more aware of the actions, discussions, processes that increase the value of what we create as a group. That is a significant first step.

It naturally invites these kinds of follow-up questions:

Did we focus on topics that matter? How do they matter? What will be different because we tended to them?

Did we work well together as a group? Did our processes function as intended and did we reduce nonproductive use of our time?

Were all voices heard and respected? Were we aware of those not represented and did we find ways to bring them to the conversation next time?

Were members actively engaged, contributing something of value to the board and the organization - and, ultimately the community?

Were our committees leading and educating in their respective focus areas?

Now, if Gail's question closes a board meeting, you undoubtedly won't be literally asking all of these questions (at least not every time). But what it does set into motion is a consciousness - for the board chair, for the CEO, for individual members and for the group as a whole - of how you actually use your time together. More importantly, it introduces the chance to collectively identify the many ways your board impacts your organization and its stakeholders. In some cases, it may force you to recognize that, at least as we're functioning now, we don't make a difference. In many more, it helps boards see and appreciate the small and large contributions that their commitments create.

It may help to ask one of those follow-ups after posing the original question, or in future board discussions. The better you are able to collectively identify and articulate the board's impact, the better your potential to actually see it at some point. But I also can predict that planting that seed - particularly if it becomes part of your meeting routine - brings a level of awareness within everyone. They begin to anticipate it. They begin to internalize it. They have opportunities to conduct business - and themselves - in ways that offer legitimately rich and positive responses.

There's a secondary benefit of asking this question that can be particularly meaningful in organizations that have broad missions not easily met. It invites members to identify how even small steps have the potential to move ever closer to their mission fulfillment purpose. It may be a microscopic step forward, but it is forward motion. In challenging times, when the need can seem endless, that can be motivating.

How did your board do at your last meeting? What evidence do you have? If the answer is "not so great," what can you begin doing differently?

What value might your board draw by incorporating Gail's question into your meeting routine?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

One board thing: Identify your member musts

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

Identify our member musts

What are the "musts" for your nonprofit board? What are the essential qualities that you expect of every member - the performance and values bottom line?

Does your board have a list of member musts? Is is part of your recruitment plan? If the answer is no to either or both of those questions, let me explain why now is a good time to change that.

I first encountered the notion of identifying board member "musts" from my friend, Hildy Gottlieb. Hildy has a fantastic, three-part process for identifying board recruitment needs that is the richest and most productive of any I've seen. Outlining the entire process lies outside of the scope of this post. (Besides,  you really need to add a copy of her book, Board Recruitment and Orientation: A Step-by-Step, Common Sense Guide, which outlines it in detail, to your agency library.) What I will share today is the first and most important step of the process, because the larger purposes are so powerful.

That step: articulating those qualities, capacities, skills, etc., that every board member must have.

Why is this so important? There are many reasons. I'll offer two that I consider to be most salient.

One, it identifies those essential expectations of every member, a process that not only helps in evaluating and narrowing the list of potential new members but also sets the foundation for performance that can both be articulated and evaluated. It becomes the touchstone by which the board, and individual members, define how they will work together, treat each other, and assess when reflecting on their performance.

Two, it reduces the potential for tokenism when identifying and meeting other recruitment needs. A person becomes more than his/her demographic profile if that individual first meets the essential criteria set forth for every member who serves. It is a leveling agent that counters some of the issues that recruitment matrices can bring (or frantic, "we need..." sessions a month before voting on new members). You're extending an offer to me, first, because I represent the core qualities that every member around the table brings.

Identifying your musts is a critically important process that should be done thoughtfully and inclusively. They become your commitment - to  your fellow board members, to your nonprofit, and to your stakeholders.

Affirming those musts becomes part of every recruitment process, every assessment process, every review of your member job description. It also offers rich conversation and reflection potential, within meetings and in special board development events. It provides an opportunity to remind members of the core commitments they made to you and why.

What are your member musts? Well, that's up to your board. I'll offer one personal caveat to get you started: if commitment to mission isn't number one on your list, start again. Board members cannot serve effectively if they do not understand and commit to serving and advancing your mission. (Passion is great. It may already exist for some members, or develop through service. But commitment is the bottom line.)

As you flesh out the rest of the list, consider factors like personal qualities that represent the kind of leadership you need. What defines the leadership approach of the board as a whole? What do  you need from every member to create that collective leadership?

Think, too, about the qualities and behaviors required to function as a team - to get the work done in a productive manner, that increases the group's impact potential. How do members need to function, together, effectively, to make the most of their time and energy?

What qualities and values must every member in the room have to ensure your board's success?

NOTE: The "one board thing" series is designed to remind boards that enhancing governance effectiveness and satisfaction often can be sparked by fairly simple adjustments to the ways in which they work. For quick access to series posts, visit my "One Board Thing" Pinterest board.