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?

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