Monday, November 28, 2016

Priorities: Reflecting on, articulating my personal nonprofit board service bottom line

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

Nonprofit board service is service - a multidimensional contribution to the organization, its stakeholders, and the community. But that doesn't mean that individual members don't have legitimate needs accompanying that service that deserve articulation and consideration.

Circumstances have me thinking a lot about priorities these days: what are my personal musts in life, including those in my work as a nonprofit board member? As I ponder that specific role, a handful of essential elements are emerging at two levels. One is organizational - the climate, structural and cultural factors that make board service meaningful. The other is deeply personal - the experiences and connections that make that service worthwhile. Today's post is my attempt to offer a basic framework for the latter.

I'll preface this with a caveat that should be obvious given the topic: these are factors that are personally important to me. You may agree, in whole or in part, as you consider your own service bottom line. But my list is mine, unique to my board experiences and life goals.  It should not match yours perfectly.

My Board Service Bottom Line: Individual Factors

Number one - I must have a deep connection to/passion for the mission. That mission tops the list probably doesn't surprise regular readers. I routinely preach commitment to mission as the foundation for any board service invitation.  What may be new here is that my personal need right now is a step further than that general counsel about mission interest vs. commitment vs. passion.

My publicly-advocated bottom line remains the same. Passion can grow with experience and exposure to mission impact, but it is not essential to govern effectively if we are committed to advancing that organizational purpose. Occasionally, passion may become a barrier by locking out smart and creative minds who are not deemed "true believers." 

All of that remains true. It was true for me in my very first board assignment, for a local crisis advocacy program serving domestic violence and sexual assault victims (an experience that turned my world completely upside down as my understanding and, yes, passion grew). Thirty-three years and numerous board terms later,  I now know that general interest - for me - is not enough. I've said yes to boards where I've had a general interest in the mission. I've accepted other invitations, blindly, and lucked out in some of those situations. In the end, it was in those settings where I already was passionate about the organization and its work that I was most energized and engaged as a leader. At this point in my life, that is the kind of setting where I am most interested in spending precious board time.  

Number two - I want my time and energy spent on things that matter. I'll address aspects of this in more detail when I describe my organizational bottom line, but there's a personal element as well. My time is precious. The contributions I make with that time are given thoughtfully and deliberately. Neither should be routinely wasted with meeting agendas and committee work overwhelmed by trivia or focused on the here and now at the expense of the future.  It's a delicate balance, to be sure: boards ignore today's challenges at great peril. But if that's all we focus on, if we never tend to tomorrow or confine it to the occasional retreat, you will lose me. My patience for boards that wallow, or that behave as if they don't know their ultimate purpose, is somewhere between slim and none at the moment.

Number three - I want to serve with interesting, smart, equally committed people (who don't all look, act, and think like I do). I've lived and worked in the same small college community for 30-plus years. If our local nonprofit boards aren't committed to casting a wide leadership net, the default roster is filled with white, middle-class, professional women with one or more connections to the local university. I was one of those women, sitting around the boardroom table with others like me, on too many local boards. We got by. But none of those boards reached their full leadership potential, because we mostly all thought alike and drew from similar professional and personal experiences. We were limited as a group; I was limited as an individual member, because I wasn't stretched and challenged to think broadly about the issues we were considering. While the reference for this one is my local community board assignments, it applies equally to my national, state and regional service. Specifics varied, but the needs remained - and will remain - the same. 

"Equally committed" always has been important to me as a board member, but my tolerance for peers who take their commitment lightly is very low right now. There is too much work to do. If one or more of us show up whenever and fail to follow through on commitments made, we will have a problem.

Number four - I need to understand, up front, how what I bring to the table today will move you and the organization closer to where you need to be in the future.  There are two big reasons for this one. First, if I know and accept your expectations for me from the beginning, I am better able to meet them. Second, I'm not interested in helping you maintain the status quo. I am committed to helping you move closer to the mission that drives my passion for serving on your governing body. I also need to be respected for more than my resume skills. I don't object to sharing my professional knowledge or using those skills to help build organizational capacity in those areas. Clearly, those are part of the basket of gifts that I bring to this commitment. But there's a difference between governance and volunteerism. Understanding which role you are asking me to play will be critical for both of us.

Number five - I need opportunities to learn within the context of my board experience. I can safely say this one never would have entered consciousness, let alone made a top-five list of personal priorities, until recently. We may talk generally about the rewards of board service, but what does that mean? What does that look like, especially since most tangible options would be considered inappropriate? Of all of the five items on my list, this one may be the most clearly unique to the individual (note to board and staff leadership: ask members what motivates them). My own answers undoubtedly have evolved over time. What I most value today, personally, from board service is the chance to learn - about the mission that drew me to your work, about that work and its impact on the stakeholders we serve, about working and leading with this group of peers, and about myself in relationship with all of it. Clearly, I can and will reflect regularly on this process on my own. The value expands when you regularly provide opportunities for all of us to reflect on what we are learning and accomplishing together. 

Today's post is the "all about me" list. Next week, I'll offer the organizational factors that have become critically important. In the meantime, I invite you to consider what you consider most essential to a fulfilling and productive board experience.