Friday, January 29, 2016

Governance toolbox: First potpourri of 2016

It's the first "final" Friday of the month of the year, which means it's time for the first "potpourri" toolbox of 2016. I'm opening it with a good one for discussion!

From risk aversion to risk wisdom -- My friend, Jane Garthson, challenges us to turn our thinking about risk on its metaphorical  head. The "tool" of this one is a framework for facilitating the kind of discussion that makes that shift possible. This is a conversation that all of our boards need to have, and to use as a foundation for taking a more productive approach to risk.

Different asking styles -- The most recent "Movie Monday" offers a nice extension of the conversation Emily Davis and I had earlier this week. Brian Saber of Asking Matters both discusses the general notion that there is no one, universal way to approach the ask in fundraising and shares insights about a process he helped develop to assess one's individual best-fit style for that work. In addition to the video, this post offers a link to the assessment tool on the organization's website. Consider having your board members take the assessment and compare notes. Who's a rainmaker? A go-getter? A mission controller? A kindred spirit? How can you use that information as a launchpad for helping each member find an authentic role in your fundraising process? (A note to readers finding this post in the distant future: Movie Monday resources tend to move or disappear over time. If the link no longer works, please leave a comment at the end of the post so that I can attempt to locate it in its new location or delete if it no longer exists online.)

Nonprofit bylaws: What to include and what to leave out --  This 2010 post by Ellis Carter isn't new, but it's a new addition to my bookmarks and an evergreen topic that should be of interest to any board. With the inevitable caveat that things change, I share Ellis's advice that boards may find useful.

Principles for good governance and ethical practice -- There are so few attempts to offer sector-level guidance on what it means to govern that this update of a Independent Sector document feels noteworthy. The 33 principles cover the fiduciary side of governance in vivid detail. My caveat: as comprehensive as the list is, it's still only one part of the job. We also need to tend to the strategic and generative modes of nonprofit governance - and not as frills that we fit around this work. That said, our fiduciary responsibilities cannot be ignored. Just know that they are not the only tasks to which you must attend.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A comfortable fit for the ambassador hat: encouraging board member outreach

How do we move nonprofit board members from focus on memorizing a generic 'elevator speech' to sharing their personal, authentic stories? How do we prepare and support them as they help to connect potential supporters to our nonprofits and our missions?

My friend, Emily Davis, and I covered those questions and much more today during an hour-long interview on Blab. The chance to pick Emily's brain on the value of fostering our board members' ambassadorial responsibilities - and to share the experience with you - was too good to pass up. She didn't disappoint!

The previous post here features an archived version of the Blab stream. However, as with the other interviews conducted on that platform, I'm also sharing an embedded YouTube version. That way, if Blab goes away or changes how it functions in the future, we'll still have an accessible version of our conversation.

By the way, I realized today that I haven't yet shared a link to what sparked all of this: Emily's excellent post, titled "Moving from the Elevator Pitch to Ambassadorship." I know you'll enjoy not only listening to the wisdom shared in our discussion but also the counsel offered in her original article.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Live stream: Facilitating, motivating nonprofit board member ambassadorship

How do we make the case for board member ambassadorship - reaching out on our behalf with stories of mission impact to their personal and professional networks? How do we support board members in that work and facilitate their success?

Tomorrow (1/27), I sit down with my friend, Emily Davis, to discuss these questions and more in a live-broadcast interview on Blab. Emily is president of Emily Davis Consulting, a full-service, Colorado-based practice that provides a range of training, facilitation and consulting services. Emily is a BoardSource-certified trainer and true expert on all things governance. She also is the author of a book that should be on every nonprofit's shelf, Fundraising and the Next Generation.

Our interview begins at 11 a.m. Mountain (10 Pacific, noon Central, and 1 p.m. Eastern). I shared the direct link to the session in last week's governance toolbox post; but I also want to provide a live-stream option here, as I did with my previous interviews. You should be able to watch live in either location. Tech gods willing, an archived recording also should appear here after the event.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Governance toolbox: A wintry mix of nonprofit board goodness

Take off the winter chill with an eclectic mix of governance-related goodness this week.

Inspiring and empowering your nonprofit board ambassadors with Emily Davis -- I'm thrilled about my next live Blab interview for two reasons. One, my guest is one of my favorite governance thinkers (and friends), Emily Davis of Emily Davis Consulting. Two, we're talking about one of her areas of expertise and and a spotlight topic for the blog this year: engaging nonprofit board members as ambassadors for your organization and your mission. We'll be live-streaming our conversation on Blab at the link above on Wednesday, Jan. 27, at 11 a.m. Mountain, 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific. As with my previous two interviews, I'll also embed the live stream in a post on this site, allowing you to watch on the blog itself. An archived version of the discussion will be made available as a more permanent record of our talk. Emily is one of the most creative minds I know.  You'll want to benefit from her deep expertise on this important topic.

Great Boards Newsletter (Winter 2015-2016) -- This link takes you to a PDF download of the latest issue of the American Hospital Association's excellent publication. While readers connected to hospitals or other nonprofits in related fields may find value in the entire issue, I'm sharing for the lead article written by Pamela Knecht, "Committees: The Key to Generative Governance." Finding quality sources on generative governance always is a thrill, because they're few and far between. This is a good one, especially for centering that critical creative work in a place where impact can be huge: our committees.

Got a fundraising-resistant board? Ask these 11 questions -- If we're honest with ourselves, most of our board members do not yelp "Wahooo!" at the prospect of participating in the fundraising process (Those of you for whom that is the case have our collective awe - and a mild case of envy.). For those of us in this more common situation, Amy Eisenstein provides a solid list of discussion questions designed to generate board conversation about the need for external financial support and, hopefully, some additional context for why their participation in that process is important.

How to generate word of mouth marketing for your nonprofit -- Who are your superfans? How do we create board member superfans? This Movie Mondays video isn't board-specific, but it's germane to the year's theme and to my coming talk with Emily. I offer it as much for context as it is for a specific action resource. I also offer it with encouragement to share with your board, using it as a starting point for a discussion about the myriad ways they - and other superfans - can spread your mission and impact stories.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Unearthing board blind spots: A few potentially illuminating questions

If we acknowledge that our nonprofit boards undoubtedly have blind spots that limit their thinking, are they doomed to govern in semi-ignorance?

In last week's post, I talked about the inevitability of being bounded by our personal experiences, biases and worldviews in our boardroom deliberations. While we may not be able to access whatever lies deep within our individual psyches, and we may not be able to dive into fellow board members hearts and minds, we can frame our discussions in ways that encourage them to stretch our collective thinking. (Note: This doesn't excuse board from their legitimate responsibility to set and fulfill recruitment goals that bring a broader range of perspectives and experiences into the room in the first place.)

As I wrote last Monday's post, a flurry of questions that might help facilitate discussions that stretch our blind spots emerged. They felt like too much for the post that was unfolding. Instead, I offer up a few of them today, with the caveat that they represent only a sampling of the kinds of questions that could stimulate more expansive boardroom inquiry. I also ask that readers share their own recommendations of questions that might help alleviate board blindness.

Here are a few examples of simple conversation starters:

What do we know for sure about this situation?
  • How do we know that?
  • What evidence do we have?
  • From what source(s)?
  • How credible are those sources?
  • What are the impacts we want to see?

What don't we know?
  • What would having access to that (information) inform our thinking about this issue/opportunity?
  • How do we go about accessing this information?
  • What's keeping us from doing that?

What if we're wrong?
  • What would be different?
  • For whom?
  • How would we operate differently?
  • How would our decisions change?
  • What evidence would we use to demonstrate impact?

Who would have a different perspective than ours?
  • What are their interests in this issue?
  • Where do their interests intersect with ours?
  • Where do their interests conflict with ours?
  • What do we need to learn about, from them, before we act?

What are our lingering questions about this?
  • What do we need to do to fill in these knowledge gaps?

What makes us uncomfortable, as a board and as individual members?
  •  What is the source of that discomfort?

That list is long if you're a board wanting to expand your knowledge horizons. No, I'm not suggesting you sit down and churn out answers to every one offered. But it's still also only a small sampling of the kinds of inquiry that boards should be committing to making part of their ongoing deliberation processes.

The questions also aren't the most complex, and that is by design. Testing our assumptions can be a challenging process all by itself. Reviewing the list again, the most adventurous conversation thread (and potentially the most fun) is the "what if we're wrong" set. An alternative way of framing that I considered posing was this: "What if the world turned upside down and we faced the exact opposite circumstances of what we do now?" (Actually, in a confident group open to surprises, that can be a powerful retreat discussion.)

I know I just said I didn't expect our boards to tackle the list as a whole. But some clearly are essential to any thoughtful, governance deliberation.  I also said that it is far from a comprehensive list - and that I'm interested in your additions. How would (how do) you encourage your boards to test their assumptions about what is true and how you respond to that truth? For my consultant and board educator friends, what tips might you share to encourage boards to challenge their thinking about important issues?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Governance toolbox: Tips for launching a healthier boardroom in 2016

It seems like forever since the last governance toolbox post - probably because it was (almost) forever (Dec. 18). I've been saving like a fiend since the last tools post, and the resulting list of shareable resources is pretty overwhelming.

A strong theme - as always - in what I've collected is building healthy group relationships. That feels like an excellent way to launch this feature, and help you shape what lies ahead in your individual boardrooms, this year. Here are a few of my favorites gathered.

7 ways to keep your board focused -- "My board doesn’t focus on important things; we spend half our meetings rehashing old votes or talking about the cost of office supplies, and then the last 10 minutes on something that affects the entire organization." Ever find your board caught in this mode? (Raises hand high...) Most of Susan's "ways" are simple, common sense recommendations. But sometimes, we need reminders of the things we "know" to bring us back on track for tending to our unique governance responsibilities. (Reminder: if you're spending a lot of time on paper clips or copy machines, you aren't governing.)

Build Trust: 12 Board of Director Tips for 2016 -- This is another list that may feel totally obvious to most of us, at least on the surface. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we all probably can find one or more of the tips that are at least occasional challenges in our boardrooms. What are those challenges? How can we address them with our boards, early, so that we can reduce the risk of recurrence in 2016? What are those that are never issues for our boards? How can we use those as points of strength to build even greater trust and commitment within the group?

Creating a team of leaders -- Apparently, LinkedIn in our friend today. The general theme of this one fits the "effective groups" theme well. But more than that, I chose it for its recognition of the value of bringing different "talents" into the room with those groups. The six specific examples actually are germane to nonprofit governance (yes, even the "research guru"). But more important, they serve as reminders that we really need access to different ways of thinking and working and viewing life, along with the skills, demographics and other more traditional criteria used in recruiting board new members. Doing so improves our potential to think broadly and deeply about the critical issues that arise and to respond with the most thoughtful, creative and wise ways to those challenges.

Tips and Tools for Board and Committee Engagement -- Keeping to the "tools" promise of this feature... Tools! Tips galore! I appreciated the practical nature of Justin's recommendations. Some will be totally obvious to most of us. If they simply serve as reminders, fine. But I also suspect that everyone will find one that sparks an idea, or hits a nerve, and that is worth sharing in the spirit of improving our board practice.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Dealing with nonprofit board blind spots

What are our sector's governance blind spots? What are our individual boards' governance blind spots? How do we recognize them?

I was in the midst of a learning professionals Twitter chat last week when the moderator posed the two-part question above.  As the flow of responses followed a predictable, learning-focused path, my own mind naturally drifted toward the nonprofit boardroom. That wandering ended up sparking more questions than answers, but it felt worthy of raising here - not only for the chance for a bit of extended personal reflection but for the opportunity to ask for your feedback and examples.

Others in the chat pointed out the obvious: that blind spots are, well, blind - pretty much impossible to see in the moment. We can guess. We can point out others' blind spots. But the reality is that we likely have no idea how to respond to the questions I posed at the beginning of this post. 

We can, however, acknowledge their existence, create reflective environments that help stretch our thinking, and ensure that we have a diverse range of voices and experiences in the room to help facilitate that process.

Chad's tweet resonated, both from a more general adult learning (and personal) experience and from a board perspective. We know what we know. We have our professional and personal strengths and comfort zones. We have our areas of earned confidence. To the extent that they obscure our ability to see other options and red flags, they blind us. It's the governance equivalent of "if all you have is a hammer..." 

This is one of the compelling reasons diversity - of experiences, expertise, connections - must remain a top board priority. If everyone in the room has the same worldview, the same or similar skill sets (even if they're all mission-related), our blind spots magnify.

As I think about Chad's observation today, a vivid personal example comes to mind. It's not a particular moment of pride, but an instructive and probably familiar one. I served on a board facing a budget that was tight. Scarily tight. As our financial predicament grew increasingly problematic, our focus turned to obsession over the same set of factors that, frankly, offered no meaningful resolution even if they magically cured themselves. 

Our relatively homogeneous set of knowledge and experiences limited our capacity to think beyond what we viewed as obvious: the need to cut expenses. It took a new member joining the group, with both a fresh eye and a missing set of knowledge and experiences, to make a crucial challenge visible: issues with our billing process. She helped us to "see" what had been invisible to us in our single-minded focus on what we "knew" we had to fix. Once that happened, our options expanded and our ability to strengthen our financial foundation grew. That may be an oddly specific - and negative - example, but it brings home for me the need for help seeing past what we allow to become "obvious."
Interrogating our thinking! I love that. Have conversations with your brain - or, in the case of a board, our collection of brains. This is the value of all those questions I've been begging you to use as focal points in your meeting agendas. This feels like a topic worthy of its own post - which I will provide this time next week. In the meantime, I'll let Jeannette's excellent tweet sit with you and encourage the reflection she's describing.
As I mentioned in a recent post, access to a mentor or coach (for both new members and board leaders) carries tremendous value for the recipient of that support. Providing a neutral perspective - or at least another way of understanding our board experiences - is one of those value-added elements of a mentor or coaching relationship. These more expert friends and partners assist us by sharing their similar experiences or asking questions to help us remove our own blinders.

I'm still working with this topic, intrigued by its potential to explain some of the more challenging boardroom interactions and processes that we all experience. It may come up again here as that reflection continues. In the meantime, I'll look forward to expanding on Jeannette's comment and to hearing any recommendations, examples, etc., that arise as you think about board blindspots.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2016 theme: Leading and learning for greatest governance impact

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

Where does the next chapter take this blog? What is the next logical path beyond last year's focus on nonprofit board learning environments? What topic - or mix of topics - represents where I want to go as a writer, researcher, consultant and educator?

I've batted those questions around for a few weeks now, exploring different subject matter possibilities and asking different "what if" questions. In the end, the prospect of continuing the focus on learning for performance that leads to results that matter, and deepened interest in supporting the leaders who make that performance possible, led me to a theme that I believe will lead to the richest exploration of the topics that most beg to be addressed - at least by me in this space:

"Leading and learning for greatest governance impact"

Where the 2015 theme led to an almost singular spotlight on learning (a scary thought at this time last year, to be honest), what I envision for the next 12 months under this new thematic umbrella offers logical extensions beyond the learning foundation already laid.

To what ends? As a board educator and capacity builder, that must be my driving question. Why are we learning? What will be different as a result? For whom? What is the impact of not only our learning, but our work as a governing body? These are the kinds of questions that begged for follow up as I closed out 2015 last week.

What does "performance" look like from our board leaders? What kinds of performance support can we provide to enhance their governance impact? The drive to explore what is possible if our leaders are prepared for greatest impact comes not only as a natural branch of the learning environment path but from my experience as part of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey team. I emerged from data gathering and analysis with several burning questions, many of them learning and performance related.

Yes, when I think about it, the theme just articulated is perfect.

How it actually unfolds is part of the adventure ahead. But as I reflect on the "must" topics for the theme chosen, these feel obvious:


  • Continued conversation about what it meant to govern - what is the impact we really want and need from our governing bodies and the leaders who serve on them? What models already exist that offer richer contexts for the work that boards do? What remains to be articulated and discovered?
  • Grounding impact in individual and board-level reflection and self-assessment processes.
  • Identifying authentic ways to make all types of impact real, to board members as well as the stakeholders to whom they are accountable.
  • Renewed exploration of mission advocacy and community outreach (predicting my 30-year PR career may come in handy here).


  • Questions about how we prepare and support board leaders, not only chairs/presidents, but committee leaders and others who assume other leadership roles.
  • Even more questions about how we encourage and support situational leadership and other paths to cultivating the next generation in thoughtful and deliberate ways.
  • Consideration of the kinds of experiences, job aids, peer communities and other supports for effective leadership performance. 



  • Continued exploration of performance and performance support, especially as they relate to the impacts we expect from individual boards and nonprofit governance as a leadership function.
  • Applying adult learning concepts to develop one or more frames for assessing board member learning needs.  
  • Continued application of adult learning concepts and theoretical perspectives to board development.
  • Continued conversations about how we foster learning within the routine activities of board service, as well as formal training events.
  • Continued conversations about how we bring prospective members and new members into full participation in ways that are effective and meaningful.
  • Continued exploration of the community of practice, both as a context for nonprofit governance and as a vehicle for addressing broader (e.g., community, sector, subsector) performance and learning support (a deeply personal one).

Clearly, even scratching the surface of most of those topics is a full-time task and not particularly realistic. But I hope that they give a sense of the direction I hope to take this site in the next year. As always, I welcome your insights, questions, and advice as I lay out the initial steps to move in this direction.