Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The board chair experience: Helpful resources - the rest of the story

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What did the "other" comments say about additional resources that nonprofit board chairs completing the Alliance for Nonprofit Management survey found helpful? Were there resources, not represented in the options the research team provided, that they considered useful?

At least one reader had that question after Monday's post, and I suspect he wasn't alone. Today, instead of the usual "inquiring" post, I'd like to share a few notes about the open ended comments left by respondents to the questions related to helpful information resources and helpful people. It's been awhile since I last really examined the thoughtful comments left in those spaces. Answering that burning question - for myself and others - is timely.

Helpful people

I'll start with responses to the most recent set of data highlighted here, on the people found most helpful, because the summary will be surprisingly short. I initially thought we'd see a long list of other human friends, mentors and others, since the options presented in the question were so few in number. Yesterday, as I was revisiting the "other" responses, I saw virtually none of that.

The few who actually named people almost always reiterated some version of one of the options presented in the question, e.g., a consultant, coach or the CEO. Instead, the majority of the 210 comments centered around one dominant theme: experience somewhere else. (That may ring familiar if you read the previous two posts in this series.) Especially popular was previous experience as a board chair, work-related experience that translated to a board setting, service as a nonprofit CEO, and the occasional experience as a nonprofit consultant.

I have a general observation and a question, since we can't go back and prod respondents' recollections for why they offered the answers that they did. The observation: this one came before the "helpful information sources" question, which may truly be where their most helpful sources in preparing for the board chair role lie. (We also opened the door a bit to other types of responses by closing the choices on the question with an "observing..." option rather naming than another person like the other choices listed.)

The question, which I know we can't answer in hindsight: could these very helpful survey participants be offering up other types of sources (without knowing the next question would probe for many of those responses), because they simply didn't have any other human sources of support? We had to limit our options on the question itself, so I - and probably others on the team - more or less assumed that we'd learn of other helpful helpful folk that we'd either left off or not considered in the "other" category. For the most part, that didn't happen.

Again, there is no way to know at this point. But it is a surprising outcome as I reflect on it today.

Helpful information sources

Respondents offered 102 comments tied to the question related to helpful sources of information. As with the other set of comments, I hadn't reviewed these in awhile. Reading them with fresh eyes both affirmed what I expected, based on data from the survey, and offered a surprise or two.

Experience was again a common theme in these comments - specifically, experience on other boards and as chairs of other boards. They learn by participating in nonprofit governance. If you've followed my work on adult/nonprofit board learning here, that probably isn't shocking: adults do a lot of their learning by doing.

But this also begs the question posed earlier: what if that experience is less than optimal? What if the examples include a good share of dysfunction? What if that experience doesn't include exposure to models and ways of working that may be even more effective and satisfying for board members? If they only have the same experience base from which to draw, they may never have the chance to discover what else exists to enhance their leadership effectiveness.

A less common, but still observable, theme in the comments tied professional expertise and experiences to their work as board chairs. Representative comments from that pool included:

"Luckily, I have an undergrad degree in psychology, an M.A. in Education and come from an orientations, student development career. This helped me to be prepared to run meetings, understand group dynamics and best serve the organization."

"business leadership background"
"my experience in my profession"
"mentored by several professional people"
We also heard from consultants (hopefully, responding as board chairs, since that was the focus of the survey) in the comments for this question.

"I work for a management consulting firm that advises for-profit Chairmen"
"Wisdom gleaned from my years as a consultant to board of faith based nonprofits"
"I am a Licensed Standards for Excellence consultant and have broad access to both literature and examples of what makes for a good (or bad) board chair."

One additional, personally pleasant surprise was the number of comments noting completion of courses offered in academic settings. Since I've been known to offer some of those myself, and I am acquainted with many of the leading governance faculty around the country, those comments were heartening to read.

That is so for two reasons. One, practitioners actually found something of value in those formal academic experiences (bridging the theory-to-practice divide can sometimes challenge.). Two, they counter some refrains I've heard about board members being too busy/lazy/unwilling to take time for development activities. At least some of these respondents were motivated enough, by something, to turn to the most formal of learning experiences. It may or may not have been sparked by their board chair service (we don't have that additional detail), but they were interested enough in nonprofit issues to sign up for college courses on  related topic(s).

This brings me to the focus of the next post in this series, a delightfully rich set of responses from an open-ended question posed in the "preparation" section of the series that hasn't received the visibility it really deserves. Let's just say "board developer/adult educator me" re-discovered her "told you so" dance when I re-read those responses. Expect that post on Monday.

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.

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