Monday, March 28, 2016

In defense of nonprofit board term limits

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

"Never can say goodbye. No, no, no, no..."

As a contemporary of the Jackson 5, the words of their song by that name contributed to the soundtrack of my youth and adolescence. Today, those words are less "soundtrack" than reminder of one of my nonprofit board mantras - one I woke up feeling compelled to reiterate here this morning:

Term limits are a very, very good thing. 

Term limits are a healthy thing. 

Nonprofit boards need term limits.

Some boards I know read that and think, "Wouldn't it be nice to have to reinforce term limits." They struggle to keep good members through the end of their appointed board terms. Parting ways at the end of a nice, long board tenure is something they rarely get to experience. Many others know exactly what I mean, because they've found that balance. They work their board members hard, they support them in their service, and everyone willingly moves on when an individual's time is up. Then there are others who look at the prospect of parting ways with longtime, valued members and simply can't - or won't - bear to bring their official relationship to an end.

Reasons for that third scenario can vary. The board may have trouble recruiting new members, so keeping those they have feels critical. If this person leaves, they ask, who will we get to replace him/her? A more likely scenario is one where the board values the veteran member's commitment, knowledge and service so much that it can't possibly bear to let all of that go. So it doesn't. Organization leaders may ignore their term limit policy - if it exists - and allow the vet to continue to serve indefinitely.

What's behind that reluctance to let go? Reasons probably vary as much as the individual situation. But at the core of most I've encountered is fear - fear that

  • You'll never find someone with this person's professional expertise. 
  • You'll lose the institutional history that he/she carries.
  • You'll never find someone as dedicated to your organization and your mission.  
  • You'll never replace that kind of leadership that you so desperately need. 
  • You'll lose stability in a time of transition.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does the prospect scare you? Does it scare you so much you freeze in term-limit fear?

Let me ask another question: what is the worst-case scenario? What if you bring your formal board relationship to a close and that person drops completely off the grid? What is lost, really? List your concerns. Be specific. Then ask yourself a follow-up: is this person the only source of what our board needs to govern? Really?

I'll acknowledge that exceptions may exist. Emergencies may require some of those exceptions. But let's be honest: in the vast majority of cases, the answer to that last question is no. This person is not the sole source of knowledge/expertise/energy/commitment available to your organization. It may be a unique mix, but it is not an irreplaceable mix.

I've served to the very end of maximum allowable board terms. I've served with, and interacted with, others in that situation. Here's a little secret that may ring familiar to your veterans: we get tired. We may march on out of a sense of commitment to you and/or your mission. We may love the work and our role in it. But we become fatigued. Sometimes, we know it. Sometimes, we sense it but ignore the pangs. Sometimes, we're completely blind to it. But once that fatigue sets in, it can hamper our performance and our overall leadership contribution.

Let's ask another question: what do term limits make possible? Here are a few personal observations:

  • It opens board seats and organizational opportunity to people with new perspectives and skill sets who also bring new energy to the boardroom. 
  • It introduces new members who can ask naive questions and force us to reflect on why we do what we do. In some cases, that reflection will affirm that we are on the right track. In others, it may prompt an opportunity to correct assumptions that no longer are completely accurate. Either way, the opportunity exists to articulate, affirm and change course where they make sense. It gives us a chance to challenge board complacency.
  • It creates opportunities to build a next generation of leaders who are committed and passionate about your work and your mission. (Because let's be honest, those "irreplaceable" board members didn't start out that way.)
  • It facilitates new connections to incoming members' personal and professional networks.

What do you really lose? In the end, maybe not as much as you think. As mentioned earlier, unless that retiring board member moves to a remote South Pacific island, his or her knowledge always will be available if you really need it. Maintaining institutional history is a legitimate concern, as boards who lack that context risk reinventing the organizational wheel. (Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt.) However, history is lost to the extent that we still act as if it only exists in board members' heads. If that's literally the case, you have bigger problems than a few board members overstaying their welcome. Having ways to capture and share essential information across board member generations - in the form of well-documented minutes, policies, board portals and other performance support mechanisms - mitigates the need for human sources of information. It's also just smart, sustainable business.

What about allowing retiring board members to take a year off before reappointing them for a fresh round? I get that question a lot, and my general response has been "That's an option..." But the more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to add a qualifier. Instead of a one-year break, make it two. Give yourself and your board member vet time to miss each other. Recruit well in the meantime. Recruit to not only fill the gap left by the retiring member but for your future governance needs. If at the end of two years time, you find that you simply can't live without each other, then consider a new round.  (But really. Think about it. Again. Really.)

Stated publicly or not, the notion that ending one's board service means ending one's commitment to your organization and your mission is a silly one. In fact, offering a metaphorical gold watch and sending them on their way is as big a mistake as not letting them slip from your grasp. Retired board members are perfect candidates for leadership roles in those initiatives you never seem to have time to flesh out. They can offer pro bono consulting in their area of expertise, without some of the ethical issues that can arise in board service. Retired board members can assist with reaching out to donors and public policymakers. They can be granted emeritus status or serve on an advisory board (though remember: advisory boards require their own kind of support).

There are other, legitimate ways to transition to a next chapter of contribution and commitment from our valued senior board members. Boards need to act as if that's the case - and it will be.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Governance toolbox: The tools-y-ness of it all

"Tools" may be the best way to describe the unofficial theme of this week's toolbox selection. Each has a very strong series of very practical steps or ideas to inform board work and thinking.

Issues for attorneys serving on nonprofit boards -- Admit it. While we value all mission-relevant expertise shared willingly by our board members, having board-level access to some professional knowledge bases can prompt at least an internal "yippee." Recruiting an attorney to our board frequently falls into that category. The attorney members themselves undoubtedly already are aware of the inherent professional challenges that come with board service. But Gene Takagi's post offers a chance to educate the rest of us - board and staff alike - about potential ethical and liability issues that accompany their service. He also provides "Tips for Attorneys/Directors" that likely will be common knowledge to those members but guidance for the rest of us about what is realistic and appropriate to expect of our lawyer peers. He also provides links to additional resources on the topic that you may find valuable.

21 ideas to refresh your donor stewardship --  I came across this post while preparing for a facilitation assignment for a board wanting to explore this core fundraising and outreach function. None of the 21 "ideas" are particularly earth shaking, but that's the point and the ultimate value of the list. Do as the board I'm working with will do: have a conversation about what's working and not working within your stewardship program. As you consider the next steps toward enhancing those efforts, explore this list. Not all have direct roles for the board to play, but members may have insights from their outreach work to inform what and how to implement.

Correcting poor performance -- This probably deserves its own post, but I'll include it here with the caveat that I may still do that. One of the major outcomes - and biggest personal surprises - of last year's focus on nonprofit board learning environments was recognizing more clearly the importance of focus on performance and performance support in board development. It's easy to blame boards for performance failures that either are partly or mostly outside of their control or are primarily invisible to them (making them tough to impossible to address). This list offers guidance for identifying performance issues in three areas (objectives, person and environment). It also reminds us that several of those issues are not clear instances of individual disinterest, moral failures, laziness, or whatever else we tell ourselves as we complain about boards that fall short of our expectations. Pose these questions. Listen for the answers. Respond accordingly.

8 ways to improve a question -- You know I love a good question. Any opportunity to make a good question a great question is worth considering and sharing. Warren Berger's post reminds us that we can the latter always is within reach.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Question Week: Our leadership needs

"Do we have the leadership we need?"

When the time came to select the final entry of this Question Week series, I turned to Gayle Gifford for the perfect candidate. It comes from her excellent post, "15 questions nonprofit boards need to answer." While any of the other 14 possibilities posed there could have easily qualified for highlighting during the week, I chose this one as a perfect - if potentially challenging - big-picture close to this series.

It is notable that Gayle chose to categorize "Do we have the leadership we need?" under the "wise stewardship questions" category. To me, it's a reminder of the essential nature of that important role that risks getting lost in the board day-to-day shuffle.

As the capstone to this series, it offers a chance to step back and reflect on the capacities we have as a group - to affirm our existing leadership strengths - and to acknowledge where we have room for growth. No board is perfect. I can guarantee that.

What I envision in offering this closing question is an extended conversation, grounded in questions similar to those posed in the last week, with this one offering a collective gut-check. Do we really have what we need to lead this organization toward this vision and mission?

If the answer is largely "yes," I'd follow up with, "How do we know?" (Thursday's question can lay the groundwork for that part of the discussion.) If evidence is abundant, hurray. Use it to identify existing resources to guide you in the future and from which you can build for the next challenging chapter.

Perhaps the answer is "no" or "not to reach our full potential," that's even more important. If that is the case, your first step as a board is to acknowledge it, identify the gaps that exist between where you are now as a leadership body and where you need or want to be, and take the first step(s) toward changing your situation.

There are too many variables to guess where your room for growth may be. I'll instead leave you with Gayle's simple but profound question as the foundation for reaching your full leadership potential as a board.

Other links in this series: 

Sunday - Question Week: 100-percent vision success
Monday - Question Week: Without resource constraints
Tuesday - Question Week: Accountable to whom?
Wednesday - Question Week: No good answers
Thursday - Question Week: Our leadership exemplified
Friday - Question Week: Governance headline

Friday, March 18, 2016

Question Week: Governance headline

"What headline would be most/least like to see about this organization?"

This creative-stretch question comes from Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. It's one of Chait, Ryan and Taylor's catalytic questions, designed to invite generative and strategic thinking.

It also can provide a different kind of framing for a vision discussion ("What would we like a headline about our work to be?") as well as a thread for conversation about strategy, specifically, about the risks that come along with a broad reach for community impact.

There is some overlap between this question and perhaps one or three of the others in this series. Some boards will take this creative approach to thinking about success and risks and run with it. Others may appreciate thinking about common topics in a different way. Whatever the situation, this question is one I keep nearby as I work with boards. You may want to do the same.

Other links in this series: 

Sunday - Question Week: 100-percent vision success
Monday - Question Week: Without resource constraints
Tuesday - Question Week: Accountable to whom?
Wednesday - Question Week: No good answers
Thursday - Question Week: Our leadership exemplified

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Question Week: Our leadership exemplified

"What is the one thing we made possible, as a governing body, that best exemplifies our leadership?"

What is your nonprofit board's leadership impact? Can your board name it? Describe it? Take pride in it? Hopefully, this will be a straightforward process: members already are clear about their unique leadership contributions to your mission advancement. If that is the case, this question can function as an affirmation that they are contributing something of value and having an impact as leaders.

For some, this question may spark an initially uncomfortable conversation about goals not yet set, impact not yet identified, leadership not yet fully realized. That can be a tough discussion if this is true.  If the answer is, "nothing," or "what leadership?," the board has an opportunity to rethink, redefine and act on a different leadership destiny for itself.

Which conversation would your board have if you pose this question? If it is the latter, do members have the willingness to admit falling short of their full leadership potential and the drive to change that?

Other links in this series: 

Sunday - Question Week: 100-percent vision success
Monday - Question Week: Without resource constraints
Tuesday - Question Week: Accountable to whom?
Wednesday - Question Week: No good answers

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Question Week: No good answers


"What if we find we have no good answers to the important questions we raise?"

This question, offered by A More Beautiful Question author Warren Berger, isn't governance-specific but it may represent one many of us fear the most: What if we simply don't have what it takes to provide the leadership and resources our nonprofits expect of us?

Most of our missions target big, challenging problems or wide, sweeping opportunities. Great missions are larger than ourselves. But because that is true, we board members can find ourselves in situations where the answers feel out of reach. Let's be honest: the big questions boards need to be asking don't come with easy-peasy answers.

Still, the gap between our aspirations for our community/organization and today's reality can feel pretty wide. It's a frustrating place to be, especially for action-oriented community leaders. It can weigh on board members minds, even if we don't talk about it.

Berger's question brings that unspoken weight off members' individual shoulders and onto the boardroom table. We need to bring it out into the open, acknowledge what many may be thinking but not saying, embrace the inherent challenge of our leadership responsibilities, and find ways to affirm and advance forward motion to which we have committed and will commit.

Other links in this series: 

Sunday - Question Week: 100-percent vision success
Monday - Question Week: Without resource constraints
Tuesday - Question Week: Accountable to whom?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Question Week: Accountable to whom?

"To whom are we accountable as a board?" How do we demonstrate that accountability?"


To whom is your board accountable? Do members recognize that accountability? How do they act on it? As moral and legal stewards of their organization's mission and resources, our governing bodies accept a heavy and essential accountability burden on our behalf.

I pose these questions today, hoping that the process will be old hat to many of your boards but knowing that too many others rarely - if ever - have this important conversation.

To whom are you accountable? Start by identifying all of the stakeholders who rely on you to be good, ethical leaders who ensure that all resources are used appropriately to advance your mission. Who expects transparency from you? Who needs to know that you're acting in ways that address their best interests?

Think beyond the usual suspects. Certainly, the Internal Revenue Service, grantors, foundations, and regulatory agencies monitoring your services require your attention and good-faith reporting from your agency. But what about other stakeholders? Depending on your mission area and services, others may include:

  • Clients/recipients of direct services
  • Association members
  • Volunteers
  • Staff members
  • Program alumni 
  • Community organizations supporting your mission
  • Other nonprofit collaborators
  • Individual donors
  • Public policy makers and others who help define the parameters for your work
  • Potential clients
  • Prospective volunteers
  • Future donors

What groups am I missing?

The point is, our boards need to be aware of all of those who have a vested interest in our success, especially those who have provided resources (time, money, etc.) to help advance that work. Our boards must be tuned into stakeholders' need for ethical action and transparency (fiduciary role)  from agency leaders. They need to involve stakeholders and their interests in strategic thinking and decision making. They need to be aware and inclusive of stakeholder interests as they engage in generative thinking and governance.

The other half of this coin is attention to how we demonstrate accountability to these stakeholder groups. What types of information do they need and expect from you? What measures of impact are meaningful to each group? How are you act acting on, and communicating, its accountability responsibilities to these groups?

In what areas can the board improve its performance in this area? How can staff support the board's accountability and related impact demonstration activities?

Other links in this series: 

Sunday - Question Week: 100-percent vision success
Monday - Question Week: Without resource constraints

Monday, March 14, 2016

Question Week: Without resource constraints


"What would it make possible if an in-depth discussion about the future was held with resources completely off the table?"

Jane Garthson's question, offered in her excellent post "From Risk Aversion to Risk Wisdom," is the perfect follow-up to yesterday's opening offering. It asks us to remove one of the biggest obstacles to expansive vision development: missing the resources to implement it.

Now, no one's insane enough to believe resources don't matter. But if we constantly counter every big idea about the future with a "yeah, but...," we never move forward from where we are now. Jane says it best in her post. I'll encourage you to go straight to the source for her full explanation. But in a nutshell,  we don't generate excitement and commitment with tiny, incremental, "as we can afford it," baby-step thinking. We engage others, and attract resources, by offering a compelling vision of something we all want and need. We want to become part of something bigger than ourselves, and many of us will give - time, money, etc. - to do that.

How do today's resource limitations hamper your board's ability to create and advance the vision your community deserves? How can you use Jane's question to help your leaders break free of those limitations so that they can actually create that future?

Other links in this series: 

Sunday - Question Week: 100-percent vision success

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Question Week: 100-percent vision success

"If we were 100 percent successful, what would our community look like?

What would be different? For whom?"

This three-part question from my friend, Hildy Gottlieb, may be the ultimate focal point for a nonprofit and, specifically, a nonprofit board. That makes it a perfect opening for this 2016 Question Week series. Our nonprofit vision should be a better future for our community (however we define "community"), with our mission defining our specific role in fulfilling that vision. That is our biggest, most important responsibility as nonprofit leaders.

I've known Hildy and her work for long enough to no longer remember whether I heard her pose this set of questions in person or whether I read it in one of her books or blog posts. It's been posted on my office wall for years, though the physical reminder is no longer needed. It's engraved on my brain.

This question set invites you to dream, to explore the breadth and depth of your community's transformative potential. What might happen if you were to pose this to your board? What if you really sat down and stretched your thinking about the ideal future you want to see?

This is no time to be timid. Think big. You'll have time for focus when you hone in on your mission, your specific piece of the vision. But for this discussion, you need to dream - dream about the very best for your community.  If Hildy were in the room with you, I can pretty much hear her prodding you with a "then what?" after each attempt to describe that vision, as she did during an immersive learning experience she facilitated in 2010 that brought the value of this process home for me.

How does your organization define its vision of the ideal future? How do you connect your mission to that future? How can you engage your board in shaping a vision that compels their work and yours and propels everyone forward?

I'll post a new question daily for the rest of the week. Because I believe in the power of inquiry and great questions that drive it, this may become at least an occasional series once this specific exercise ends. Until tomorrow's question...

Friday, March 11, 2016

Governance toolbox: Stats, exits, tears

This week's selection includes a mix of data, data presentation, work culture and fundraising humor.

Models and components of a great nonprofit dashboard -- Does your board use a dashboard to keep tabs on key performance indicators? Are you unfamiliar with dashboards and how they can inform board deliberations and accountability? Do you want to explore ways to make your dashboard as effective as possible? This recorded webinar offers answers to these and other questions about a tool that offers great potential for understanding and enhancing your impact.

15 reasons why nonprofit employees quit -- Is your nonprofit a healthy and productive place to work? Are you attuned to the cultural and structural factors that impact your employees' sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? This graphic can provide an opportunity to explore those and related questions, with attention directed to policy-level strategies and interventions.

Nonprofits in America: New research data on employment, wages, and establishments -- What impact does the nonprofit sector have on our local economies? There are myriad answers to that question, especially at the "local" level. This week, we gained access to a 35,000-ft. level description of sector economic impact. You'll undoubtedly want more detail at the state or even community level. In the meantime, you also may find value in this reporting of data gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's a little dated; that's a common challenge with major surveys of this type. But it will give you a bit of additional, broad context for your own discussions.

"Hello from United Way" -- I laughed. I cried. I sang along in knowing recognition. As a former local campaign co-chair, let's just say this video adaptation of Adele's "Hello" by United Way of Bradley County rang familiar. It's a "tool" in the sense of offering a bit of release for anyone who's participated in a United Way campaign - and probably many who have played a role in any other major fundraising effort.

A word about what comes next:

In the spirit of Question Week, I'm planning a seven-day series featuring a provocative governance question beginning Sunday. Some will be questions I've asked. A few will be great questions posed by others. All will invite your board into a rich conversation about the leadership responsibilities that accompany nonprofit governance.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Nonprofit boardroom impact: Why use Governance as Leadership as a foundation?

Why choose to ground much of future (and previous) "board impact" discussions here in Chait, Ryan and Taylor's Governance as Leadership framework?

Before I begin an extended exploration doing just that, I thought I'd make a brief case for using this particular foundation. Governance as Leadership is not the only model worthy of the task at hand. It is however, one worthy of the significant challenge. In the remainder of this post, I'll describe why GAL resonates for me and why it works as a place for grounding thinking about nonprofit board impact.

The video featured in last week's post makes a more extensive case for why this frame is worthy of the governance impact challenge. But in a nutshell, I believe it offers:

  • An overall call to focus governance work on higher-level thinking and action, where community leaders should be spending most of their time and energy. That doesn't mean they take a totally hands-off approach. But it asks boards to define their ultimate responsibilities at the 35,000-foot, big-picture level.
  • It takes a balanced approach to defining major governance modes. The GAL triangle is an equilateral one, with fiduciary, strategic and generative responsibilities holding equal status. To the extent that boards can remember and act on that, they have the best potential for impact.
  • This bears repeating, so I will. The work that takes place in the strategic and generative modes are as important as the fiduciary. Too many boards act as if that is not the case, confining work in those two modes to the odd corner of the agenda (if there's time) and the occasional special-event retreat. These are not "frills." They are essential leadership responsibilities. Without them, real board impact is absent or, at best, incomplete.
  • Fiduciary work is more than obsessing over financial statements. It's a larger commitment to accountability, transparency, and inquiry that fosters future-focused stewardship of resources. Too many boards don't get that. 
  • It's work that's interesting and challenging to the leaders we recruit to serve. You want to know why some of your board members are disengaged? It's because you're drowning us in boring, inane work that has no real impact. Chait, Ryan and Taylor address this issue up front, in the book's opening chapter on the board "purpose problem." A free adaptation (maybe direct reprint) can be found in this 2013 Nonprofit Quarterly article

As convinced as I am that this is a powerful path to governance impact, I also reiterate that I know not everyone agrees. I also know that it doesn't offer the specific, "do this" set of implementation steps that some need or want. Whether or not we accept the GAL packaging as presented, we can learn from understanding how and why they define each governance mode as its creators do. For example, we certainly can benefit from considering - and adopting - the broader, inquiry-based fiduciary lens presented in GAL. So, in that spirit, as I write whatever follows, I hope that you will consider it as a chance to

  • Rethinking what we ask of our boards
  • Rethink how we organizes the work of our boards
  • See strategy as more than periodic planning events
  • Introduce and value inquiry as an embedded, essential function of governance (especially generative thinking and questioning)

Chait, Ryan and Taylor may prefer that we adopt their framework as a whole - and I definitely would offer that encouragement along the way. But in the end, we have much to learn from simply stopping and considering how we might take a more balanced, leadership-focused approach to defining board work and board impact.

I have several posts already lined up to connect this work to board impact, though it will be embedded in pretty much every future 2016 post (and most of what I've written here so far). I'll take a brief break next week, for a special "Question Week" series beginning Sunday. In the meantime, I'll offer a couple of online resources for anyone interested in exploring GAL a bit further.

My "Generative Governance" Pinterest board
My "GAL" bookmarks

Note: resources on this topic tend to disappear. I realize, as I post those sets of resources, that I haven't checked them recently. Do not be surprised if you find a broken link - or six. I'll revisit later today and clean out what might be broken now. That's one of the more frustrating phenomena that I cannot explain (and a minor motivation for creating new resources of my own).

Friday, March 4, 2016

Governance toolbox: Faces and burdens

I have several options to share with you this week, but I think I'll keep it short and focused on a couple of important offerings

The Seven Faces of Philanthropy -- The research (and resulting book) behind this new BoardSource has long influenced my understanding of not only major gift fundraising but giving at all levels and of time as well. I've been known to stretch beyond the original study pool (major gift donors), especially as I taught from Prince and File's book in my online nonprofit management courses, because the fit to giving in many forms simply was too good. I've written at least a couple of posts here on the topic. But it's not exactly been a framework that has received the visibility from the sector that it deserved. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find a link to this new document in my email in-box. Clearly, it's only one model of understanding and engaging differing donor motivations. But it is a rich one, and one I believe you and your board (and your development staff, if they aren't already familiar with it) will find valuable. Oh, and here's a suggestion: have your board members read it and respond to the donor personality that most resonates for them. Use that as a springboard for reflections on what motivates them to give of their time to you and about how you can use that information to better address their legitimate needs. I suspect they - and you - will find it as fascinating and revealing as my students did.

Trustee: One tough job -- This one just popped onto my radar as I was checking a bookmarked option on LinkedIn. It's Cathy Trower's latest post there, one I hadn't yet seen or read. She offers recommendations at the end of the post, which you may find interesting. But more than that, I decided to share because it offers a simple - and powerfully accurate - acknowledgment that governance is a tough job. We ask a lot, possibly far more than is realistic, of our volunteer leaders (at least if we actually expect perfection). They take a lot of hits and receive a lot of criticism for their many (perceived) failures. Some is merited. A lot, in my view, is grounded in great expectations and marginal support. I found value in stopping for a moment and acknowledging with Cathy that our boards carry a lot on their shoulders and most are doing the very best they can under challenging circumstances. They are "damned if you do, damned if you don't." Whether or not we're in a place to change that today, we can at least step back and admit that. And thank them.