Friday, May 27, 2016

Governance toolbox: A few great nonprofit (hospital) boards resources

My appreciation for the resources provided by the American Hospital Association Center for Healthcare Governance dates to the glorious day when I discovered a newsletter that it now manages, Great Boards. Today, I highlight a few of those resources and encourage you to find (and share) your own favorites.

Distinguishing governance from management --  I'll open with this article by Barry Bader, because it's the one that started it all for me. Bader edited Great Boards before it moved under the AHA umbrella. While my email subscription brought a steady stream of board learning (and still does today), I keep coming back to this one in my teaching, training and consulting. It offers an excellent overview of what it means to govern, and the contrast vs. management functions usually is a revelation for audiences asked to read it.

Competency-based governance: A foundation for board and organizational effectiveness -- I've had this one downloaded to my desktop for awhile now, but I finally cleared time to sit down and read it. Wow. The complete document may be more than I would normally assign for board workshops or retreats (though it may appear on a course reading list someday soon). I'll encourage you to download a copy, read it, and decide for yourself whether it is something your board will find helpful. In the meantime, I'll highlight elements that I found especially intriguing:

  • Collective board-level competence elements (p. 15).  Boards that tend to these six elements are pretty much guaranteed to be on a path to governance success.
  • Board member core competencies (pp. 18-20). Yes! Whether or not all feel germane to every nonprofit setting, they represent the types of qualities that boards should define as essential criteria for every board member to have. 
  • Board member personal development plan (pp. 45-46). As with the competencies, the specifics for your board may vary, but the general premise of this plan - and the format - is worthy of review. 
  • A tool for personal competency-based board member selection (pp. 47-56). This  process may feel like overkill for a smaller organization, but let me point out the parts that I find intriguing. How you implement them may vary, but the pieces of the puzzle are important. One, selection is tied to the personal competencies in the second bullet point: the board using this process is recruiting for the criteria it says is required of all members. Two, it includes check-off items illustrating what those qualities might look like in ways that are applicable to organizational needs. Three, it includes interview questions for each competency. This is no "any live body will do" process. It is thoughtful and tied to stated board competencies.

Committees: The key to generative governance -- The entire Great Boards article by Pamela Knecht is a worthwhile read, but the "foundational committee practices" described on page 1 are especially noteworthy. Committees structured and driven by these practices are committees that inform and support effective governance.

Board chairperson position description -- This sample job description offers a good, basic, fairly comprehensive foundation for describing the responsibility areas and core competencies/expectations for a board leader.  I'm spotlighting it because (a) I know some organizations have no job description for this critical role and (b) despite its very basic format, this one really does capture all of the essentials (even those we may not know are essentials, like numbers nine and 11).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

One board thing: Flip the meeting agenda

If your board is like some I've encountered, the prospect of transforming your meetings via ways proposed in the last "one thing" post may sound good - great, even - but be utterly terrifying.

I understand that. I still hope you'll continue to consider what I proposed in that post. But I appreciate that the major shift represented in those recommendations can feel daunting. In anticipation of that hesitation you may be feeling, I have one more board thing to suggest (and maybe ease the way for reconsideration later).

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

Flip the meeting agenda

If adopting a consent agenda to create space for open discussion and inquiry is too scary at the moment, try this plan B: flip the meeting agenda so that topics that require the freshest thinking and full board attention get prime focus.

If your board agendas are somewhat typical, they probably look something like this:

  1. Call to order
  2. Approval of minutes
  3. Treasurer's report
  4. CEO's report
  5. Committee reports
  6. Old business
  7. New business
  8. Adjourn

Your board may claim it reeeeaaaaaaaalllly can't move items 2-5 to a consent agenda. Members feel they need to hear those reports delivered verbally. They want to deliver those reports. They have questions about the financials - or feel like they should ask questions about the financials.

That may feel true to them. But here's something that's also probably true: by the time they work through those items, the clock has been ticking. Eyes are glazing over. Chairs are starting to feel mighty hard. Fatigue is setting in. Thoughts are wandering to whatever comes next in their schedules.

You are losing their attention and, worse, their best thinking.

Instead of accepting that decline as inevitable, flip the agenda. Start with the new business. Continue with the ongoing work contained in old business. Give whatever you have in that space your board members' prime time. Then tend to your reports. They don't require the same level of attention that other, more important agenda items need. Placing them at the end, when everyone is anticipating that eight bullet point above, also encourages conciseness.

Now, I do have a caveat - one tied to the last "board thing." This only becomes a productive Plan B if the work in new and old business is substantive and tied to governance functions. If it's a continuation of meandering around inconsequential topics (or wandering in the micro-management weeds), what you tend to when doesn't matter. But if your board schedules time for tending to their larger fiduciary, strategic and generative governance roles in that space, making sure that that work takes place when minds are fresh and ready lays the foundation for work that matters.

This isn't the first time I've proposed a flipped agenda (click through to that earlier post for a sample agenda). But it felt worthy of revisiting today as a logical continuation of what I proposed in the previous two "one board thing" entries.

Is flipping your agenda one thing that your board could commit to doing?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Backchannel/board spotlight: Start with "Why"

I'm feeling a little grumpy this morning, following the Association for Talent Development 2016 conference backchannel when I'd rather be in Denver participating in person (hard on this sole proprietor's travel budget, even when it's held in my back yard). The conference's opening keynote speaker, Simon Sinek, has just stepped onto the stage.

I may have shared his fantastic TEDTalk here the first time I encountered it, but it bears re-sharing with my expanded audience. The topic always will be timely, especially to nonprofit boards. I'll leave you to listen, reflect, and find a way to center a future board discussion around what he shares here.

Me? I'm off to absorb what others are sharing from that backchannel. :)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Governance toolbox: Fiduciary, fundraising, future focus for nonprofit boards

Nonprofit knowledge matters: Candid conversations -- This excellent resource from the National Council of Nonprofits arrived in my Twitter feed right after I published last week's toolbox. I toyed with adding it to that post but ultimately decided it deserved its own spotlight. Within the post you will find a link to the NCN's "tip sheet to spark candid board conversations."At the other end of that link is a pdf file that raises six governance challenges, each with an accompanying practice tip. Our friends at the NCN help your board get a jump start on each conversation by offering hot-linked resources.

Fiduciary responsibilities of board members -- No, the fiduciary role isn't the only mode in which board members should operate. But it is an essential place for governance work. This Bridgespan post offers an excellent overview - complete with basic questions for working in that mode. While the web version is handy, the option to download for sharing with your board is an additional way to ensure that it will be accessible for ready reference.

The four key fundraising roles of your board of directors -- There are endless ways to conceptualize whether and how boards should be involved in nonprofit fundraising. The simplicity of this one caught my eye this week. You may not find the practical "how" that you ultimately need if this is a concern for your organization. But you will find a reminder that board member participation in the fundraising process does not inevitably end in asking someone for money.

An imperative for nonprofit boards: The time is now to step up your game -- This one has been buried in my "bookmark later" app for awhile. It caught my eye today, and I'm glad it did. The three practice suggestions posed in the middle of the post are excellent recommendations for deepening board understanding and leadership potential. They are examples of governance work.

SAFE Project - No more -- Finally, here is a local example of a video message created to support a nonprofit's mission. While this one is professionally produced, I hope that you can see it as an example of content that would not be a complete technological stretch. I share it, both because it's a nice little example of multimedia support in mission advancement (that can be added to your board members' outreach toolbox) and because it's an example of how board members themselves might be involved in getting the message out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: What are our non-negotiable organizational values?

"What values are we unwilling to compromise?" 


Articulating and reinforcing organizational values is a core function of governance. This question, posed by Gayle Gifford in her excellent post, "15 questions nonprofit boards need to answer," asks members to spend time doing just that. 


What are our values, anyway? How do we express our values as an organization? How do we express them as a board? If someone asked us for evidence that we are living and leading by our values, what could we show them?


Gayle's question naturally invites the board to affirm boundaries. What are the lines we will not cross? What do those lines look like in our organization? How will we handle situations that stretch those boundaries?


Clearly, this is an ongoing conversation. Obviously, there is a positive side of the values coin (e.g., how do we express our values to our community? In our interactions with our clients?). Gayle's question offers a solid and provocative foundation for that broader discussion. 

How could you introduce a conversation about your values-define non-negotiables with your board?

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.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Governance toolbox: Overhead, board chair practices, strategic plans and values

I am overhead -- I'll open this week's toolbox with a Nonprofit Council video that is short, sweet, and an excellent illustration of why "overhead" needs reframing within the sector. Use it to facilitate a discussion within your board about how you address the question of "overhead" and how those expenses make mission work possible. Use it to foster conversations with funders and others about the role of those mission-critical expenses in program success. Even if you end up on the exact opposite side of the argument made in the video, it's a conversation your board needs to have.

10 great board chair practices -- I know the notion of "best practices" has fallen out of favor in some circles (usually because they they don't come with research-affirmed evidence that they are "best" practices). But darn it, I like this list. The elements make a lot of intuitive sense to me. Whether they are the top 10 practices, well, that's where the evidence might come in handy. In the meantime, we can do worse things than recognize the chair's role as learning leader for the board (my personal favorite) or look for ways to engage board members between meetings.

Keep your strategic plan off the shelf -- Craig Freshley uses video and narrative to offer a case study for ensuring that strategic planning processes and outcomes actually are used to move an organization forward. I've followed Craig on Twitter for awhile but never really explored his excellent blog. Expect to see more resources from that site in the future.

Why organizational values are so awesome and sexy -- I'll close the week's toolbox with this "awesome" post about the role of values in organizational management and leadership (and governance). In my board travels, I've found that values can be even more rare than vision. This post makes a grand case for thoughtful definition (dig deep when selecting them!) and application of organizational values. Like the vision, mission and strategic plan, effective values are those that stay off the metaphorical shelf and drive focus and decision making.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

One board thing: Inquiry-focused agenda

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

Build an inquiry-focused agenda

If we aren't listening to committee reports and monitoring management functions, how do we spend our time as a board? This week's "one board thing" follows up on the previous post in this series, calling for adoption of a consent agenda. Assuming your board likes, and adopts, that meeting tool, it may ask the natural next question: How do we reallocate our newfound "free" time? 

The answer probably is obvious to anyone who read the consent agenda post (or spends any time here). But it bears spotlighting, both as a reminder and as an opportunity to explore how open discussions centered in great questions facilitates work that fulfill the governance function and the priorities that your board sets for itself.

Think of what your board could accomplish if it had time set aside to explore questions like this:

  • How do we demonstrate accountability to each of our stakeholder groups?
  • How do we build and recognize relationships with our loyal donors? Do those stewardship modes address those donors' interests in our mission and our work?
  • How do we anticipate potential impacts of shifting community populations on demand for our services (a big one  for many nonprofits in energy-dominant economies right now)?
  • What are our current governance capacity needs and which do we prioritize as we plan our next new member recruitment process?
  • What do we need to know/do/experience to govern at our peek potential? What kinds of training and/or performance support do we require to meet those needs?
  • To whom do we need to reach out in the next six months, and how can the board play a role? 

Each board has its own set of questions that it needs to be asking, but you get the idea. One thing you may observe, at least in the brief list offered above: big questions usually aren't the kind a board can easily wrap up in one conversation. And that's okay. It may be frustrating at times for action-oriented folks, but it's okay. Really. If your agenda items are routinely resolved by the end of the meeting, you're not reaching high enough.

What does a board need to make this "one thing" as productive as possible? Here are a few basic recommendations:

  • A thought-provoking question (the actual "one board thing") grounded in one of three core governance functions (fiduciary, strategic, generative).
  • Ample time for members to think about, research, and reflect on the question before the meeting (prepared board members have stronger, richer, more informed discussions). 
  • Resources (websites, blog posts, articles, etc.) to support their exploration process before the meeting (shared in a timely manner, of course)
  • Expectations that they will come prepared to share their informed insights and their related experiences.
  • Topic/situational leadership from committees and individuals with related expertise (e.g., community outreach committee members should share research and lead discussions on related questions [and possibly define the questions to be asked], while members with fundraising expertise can be called on to help inform and facilitate discussions about stewardship).
  • Clarity about what comes next (e.g., follow-up discussion topic, additional resources needed, action to be taken, who will take it).

This may sound like a natural process for a board retreat or similar extended experience. It is. Dedicated, extended opportunities to explore significant questions are essential. But this also is the essence of nonprofit governance. It's what boards should be doing an are responsible for doing: defining and moving toward the future and ensuring accountability for stewardship of resources provided to make that future possible.

What one question should your board be asking? When will you make that discussion a priority?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Worlds collide - back next week

The headline says it all: several sections of my personal and professional lives are colliding this week, and my posting routine here is paying the price. Nothing dire, just overwhelming as a collection of assignments.

I'll take a brief break, take a breath, and be back next week.