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What's on Your Board's First Meeting Agenda for 2014?

JANUARY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (yikes!) and many if not most nonprofits will be holding their first board meeting of the new year sometime in the next four weeks.  While we might be inclined to fall back on comfortable agenda formats and conversations for this meeting, if you're embracing 2014 as a year of intentional organizational development (see my post about that here), then I know you're giving serious thought to rethinking what and how business will be discussed.
For those of you from organizations that tend to tick methodically through task lists at board meetings before calling it a day, structuring the first board meeting of the new year around an evaluation of past successes and failures coupled with discussion about future directions is in order as one way to move from microscopic dissection to big picture strategy.  For this type of conversation to be successful, it needs to be structured.  One way to do that is with a handful of big questions and some support…

Make 2012 Your Organization's Year of Intention

NOW THAT THE END OF 2011 IS PLAINLY IN sight, many of us are taking some time to evaluate our progress these last twelve months and plan for the next twelve.  What's on your agenda -- personally or organizationally -- for tweaking or downright change?  Have you already identified a few strategic shifts for 2012?
From an organizational point of view, any amount of course shifting can be difficult.  The tiniest changes can be disruptive and angst-producing....and may not produce hoped for results.  But, small changes, when introduced intentionally, thoughtfully, and tied to larger goals, can have great effect over time.  Tackling challenges from the margins is often a really useful strategy.
How does an organization determine when a challenge can be resolved or reframed from the edges and when it needs to be addressed head-on?  Isn't this just one of those perfect strategic questions for board and staff to work on together?
The key word is, of course, "strategic".  Course…

Can You Plan Without Passion?

WELL, I GUESS THE SHORT ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION IS 'YES'.  Plans are concocted everyday for all sorts of things from grocery lists to multi-year programmatic initiatives and I can see where many of them can be accomplished with little reflection and less excitement for the results.  There are proponents who assure us that even the most complex plans can be achieved with short, highly focused bursts of effort.  And, indeed, that's possible.  But it seems to me that any plan will lack dimension and luster if it's written as an internal 'beat the clock' exercise or a requirement to satisfy someone else's desire.
The best planning is borne of possibility and one's own desire to marry the here-and-now with the what-if's and can-do's.  Its underlying thesis has everything to do with making aspirations reality, even if the aspiration is as universal or as necessary as getting out of debt or revisioning the work of a downsized staff.  
When done right, mo…

The Boardroom Blues

DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o3sNbI4Us4
So, what should be on the agenda instead?
How about trying a little strategy ....  using the organization's plan and key success indicators to evaluate how well program is meeting mission?

Maybe ditching most of those reports of past activities to free up time to discuss future steps?

How about breaking into smaller discussion groups for a deeper dive into issues?

Would a staff or volunteer presentation, a brief tour of a project, or a hands-on activity help board members to better understand your challenges and opportunities?

We talk a lot about how to engage audiences.  Shouldn't engagement of the board be a top priority?

Leading With Your Servant's Heart

THERE'S NO DOUBT ABOUT IT:  WORKING IN THE NONPROFIT SECTOR is an act of commitment -- often an act of faith -- and always an act of service.  Doesn't matter if you're the head of a major performing arts center or a volunteer manning the reception desk, most of us are drawn to the sector because its meaning is bigger than us.
I became more conscious of this reality this summer as I listened to the staff leaders of a nonprofit repeatedly introduce themselves by using the words "I serve".  I wrote about that experience here and since then I've had a lively exchange with one of my former clients about this wonderful notion of nonprofit service and the importance of the words we choose to describe our relationships to the organizations we care about.
Imagine my delight when I discovered Ken Blanchard's post, Keep Focused on Your 'Servant Heart': Try to keep focused on leading with a servant’s heart.  It can be part of your daily habits, such as how you …

The Intentionality of Building Relationships

WHEN I RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING RESPONSE TO my summer vacation posts (here and here), I just had to share it.  It shows how an organization can take a really good idea and adapt it, and it further proves the point that really good ideas are scalable if people have the imagination to run with it. 

Sally Roesch Wagner is the executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, NY.  Gage was a formidable force for equal rights and Wagner is the visionary scholar who has brought Gage's work to life and life to the public.  Here's Sally's approach to making stakeholder communication intentional:
I like the idea [of trustees porch conversations] so much that I'm going to propose we think about it as a strategy rather than an event -- that we (board, staff, volunteers, docents) all engage visitors at all of our events in a conversation about what they'd like to see us do, transparent talk about our finances, what we need, see what questions they have, etc…

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation, Part II: "I Serve"

THESE TWO WORDS GAINED EXPANDED meaning for me this summer.  While spending a week at Chautauqua Institution, my vacation companion and I attended a dizzying array of performances, lectures and conversations with authors and staff.  Each was introduced by the Institution's president or senior staffer, who began by introducing themselves to the audience.  In every case -- and I mean every case -- the staff welcomed the audience, said their names and added their titles by saying "I serve Chautauqua Institution as [insert job title here]."  It was my companion who pointed this turn of phrase out to me.  "Do you hear how they're introducing themselves?" she asked.  She'd picked up on right away.  The more I heard it, the more I was amazed by it -- not just the uniformity in which it was delivered, but by the powerful servant-driven idea behind it.  Obviously, the Institution's leadership made a conscious decision about emphasizing the service aspect of …

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation About Stakeholder Communication

There's a special place in western New York where life-long learning, spiritual and artistic exploration, and recreation meet.  This place is Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit community now in its 138th year.  When I'm lucky, get to spend a snippet of the nine-week season there.  Each season is programmed with roughly 2,000 events ranging from lectures and classes to performances of all types, art shows, book readings, community events and everything in between.

Chautauqua Institution -- the nonprofit corporation -- is a $24+ million annual operation governed by a board of 24 trustees, employing more than 1,200 full-time and seasonal employees, with a physical plant numbering more than 80 buildings and a ton of recreational areas, and a balance sheet that totes up more than $60 million in assets.  Visitors to the grounds number in the tens of thousands over the course of the nine-week season (late June to late August).  Some of these folks own property on the grounds and the…

Board Time Investment = Executive Director Satisfaction

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU HEARD THAT BOARD RELATIONSHIPS MATTER?  If you're an executive director reading this post, think about how much time you spend each month interacting with your board.  If you happen to serve an organization whose board meets monthly, that's probably at least a couple of hours right there, plus another couple of hours prep for it that could include agenda review with your chairman and check-ins with various committee chairs.  Maybe you attend one or two committee meetings or conference calls every month.  So, what are you up to -- 6-10 hours per month?  Sounds like a lot. According to the CompassPoint and Meyer Foundation Daring to Lead 2011report, which surveyed 3,000 executive directors, you'd be in the majority of respondents -- 55% report spending 10 or less hours per month focusing on their boards.  (That's just 6% of a full-time executive director's time -- even less if you routinely work more than 40 hours per week.)  Now, maybe it does…

Making a Personal Plan: UPDATE

MY LAST POST DESCRIBED HOW I WAS PREPARING FOR A GET-TOGETHER WITH CONSULTING COLLEAGUES to examine the next steps of our careers.  If you visit Linda Norris' blog, The Uncataloged Museum, you'll read a really good recap of how five of us came together last week to work through a discussion that none of us had had in quite this way with others before.  Linda describes the flow of our activities and some key ideas and elements that made our time together not only worthwhile, but truly energizing. 

What we did is not a new concept -- people get together all the time to share information, network, and help sort out career questions.  Our families and friends often are our sounding boards, mostly because they're convenient, they care about us and are, therefore, likely (or required) to listen.  But they may not be as helpful as colleagues or mentors who bring the world view of our respective professions, as well as some critical distance, to our seeking. 

Do oppo…

Making a Personal Plan

DESPITE THE FACT THAT I DO A LOT OF ORGANIZATIONAL PLANNING in my consulting work, it's been far too long since I've sat myself down and drafted a personal plan for my career and life.  I think the last time I did any real serious work on a personal plan was more than ten years ago.  'Yikes!' was my reaction when fellow consultant Linda Norris asked if I had one.  Turns out neither did she.  Nor several other colleagues she asked.  Hmmm..... It wasn't long after that conversation when Linda called again with an invitation to attend a personal planning retreat at her house.  Starting tomorrow, five consultant colleagues are converging for 1.5 days of conversation, soul-searching, group problem-solving, and individual plan creation, and I, for one, am getting really excited about what I might contribute as well as bring home. I think I've done a fair amount of preparation -- we kick the party off with a discussion about our past and current work and whether or not …

Make a Clean Exit

WHEN AN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR DECIDES TO LEAVE she walks a particularly tricky tightrope from the time she announces her intentions until she flicks off the lights in her office for the last time.  The length of the tightrope is one issue:  some believe that once you announce you need to be on your way as quickly as you can engineer it; others feel it must take several months in order to tie up loose ends or participate in an overlapping transition period.  Then there are a handful of others who announce a year or so ahead of their intended departure for reasons that may have everything to do with finishing milestone capital projects or completing major gift solicitations (and these folks more often than not it seems are announcing their retirements, not moves to new organizations).  So far this year,  colleagues of mine have used (are using) all three scenarios.    Regardless of the length of the tightrope, the tricky part involves the emotions that come with a pending departure and how …

Can I Work with this Board?

MOST EVERY NONPROFIT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR HAS A BONE TO PICK with his or her board at one time or another.  If you talk to enough directors you soon have a lengthy list of complaints mostly clustered around the biggies:  the board doesn't do enough fundraising (that's probably #1), the board is unfocused, the board doesn't respect the work I do, the board doesn't seem to know or care about the work the organization does.  Perhaps you have a favorite I've missed that you'd like to share. If you read those surveys where boards and staff independently rate the work of the board, the board always thinks they're doing a bang-up job, while executive directors almost uniformly think boards under-perform.  Definitely staff leaders have pretty high (and in some cases unrealistic) expectations for their boards no matter the size, mission or sophistication of their organizations.  What I suspect staff leaders don't always take into account is the fact that no board w…

Recruiting Entrepreneurial Leadership

AS MUCH AS NONPROFITS NEED FORWARD-THINKING, entrepreneurial staff leadership, they need it just as much in the board room.  Recruiting for it is not unlike recruiting for entrepreneurship in the CEO -- it requires definition and identification of some key attributes around which conversation and questions can be had. My not-so-official definition of nonprofit entrepreneurship -- be it social or cultural -- is an organization's willingness to shift its perspectives to find opportunities and partnerships in unexpected places, reset old boundaries to expand audiences and, in doing so, use the strengths of its mission to diversify and/or grow income streams.  And woe be the entrepreneurial CEO who doesn't have a like-thinking board to support and advance her efforts. Cultural and social entrepreneurs share some or all of the following attributes:   They see and understand the relevancy of the work and the cultural/social value it providesThey can make value connections forward and b…

When a Frame Becomes A Box

I'VE ALWAYS VIEWED CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ORGANIZATIONAL VISION as exciting opportunities to put a whole host of ideas and convictions from the sublime to the ridiculous out on the table for everyone to think about.  You never know where a spark might come from that will light the path for an organization's direction and enlighten thinking.  I've always been puzzled by folks who think visioning is nothing more than silly, unattainable chatter.  I suspect that these naysayers have participated in enough visioning discussions where nothing was done to pin down key concepts so that all of it floated away like a clutch of helium balloons.  I hear that. The absolute requirement for me is to never leave a visioning discussion without pinning down key concepts or common threads of ideas.  These, then, become the contextual frame which holds all the nuts and bolts discussions of strategies and tactics.  As I've written here, I am believer that the nuts and bolts ought to be driven …

Backing Into a Mission

LOTS OF PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU (myself included) that an overarching organizational mission is the logical starting point for developing a course of action.  The deep understanding of the need an organization can fill, along with the resulting impact from filling that need, typically form the bedrock for the planning, programming and evaluation that is to come.  But I'm willing to bet that there are loads of nonprofits who find themselves meeting a need and making an impact without ever fully articulating a mission statement (or a vision statement, for that matter). An arts organization I'm working with may be a case in point.  The founder, who is no longer on the board, but occupies a revered place in the organization's universe, has an extremely articulate and sophisticated idea about the importance of integrating the daily artistic process with the public.  The result of her desire became a successful grassroots artist project that eventually, for reasons having mostly to …

What Do We Owe Our Members?

THIS POST IS FOR ALL THOSE ORGANIZATIONS out there who rely to any extent on membership dollars to fund their work.  This maybe even applies to organizations who don't have memberships, but rely on ticket subscribers, major donors and underwriters.  The question that's on my mind has to do with how much information we give (or withhold) from folks who support us.  How much of the organizational curtain do we pull back for these faithful and generous souls?  After all, it can get pretty messy behind the curtain. I guess it depends a lot on how you/your organization view members.  We expect, perhaps without much thought, that members will automatically renew their support year after year.  We throw some benefits their way, give them a wine and cheese reception every once in a while, and cash their checks.  Are they just dollar signs for the balance sheet, hungry mouths to constantly feed with programming, precious commodities or fickle friends?  All of that or something else...o…

The Caretaker Board: Anchoring Stability or Rusty Anchor?

IS IT ENOUGH FOR A NONPROFIT BOARD'S primary focus to be protection of the status quo?   It's expected that every board will take care of the organization entrusted it.  There's a definition for what care means in this instance -- it's commonly expressed as the duty of "care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances."  Many will argue that in times of economic or societal stress, the best defense of a nonprofit is to hunker down and shepherd the resources -- to, in fact, take extra care.  By this definition, taking care is an active and positive (indeed, critical) quality of a vigilant board. The benefit of a board's prudence gets lost when that board slips into passive management of an organization's affairs.  This board -- the caretaker board -- has become comfortable with the safe harbor of complacency.  It's best at protecting its past achievements and preserving the reality it has crea…

The Dialogue of the Board

I ALWAYS GET A LITTLE SHIVER UP MY SPINE when a I see a board meeting agenda that is nothing more than a pro forma list of reports.  I bet you know what I mean -- after the call to order and the approval of the previous month's minutes we're off and running with a litany of updates from the president, the director, and any number of committees.  You can kind of put yourself on auto-pilot for most of these meetings.  In fact, one (at least) organization I know hands out the same agenda for every meeting.  It doesn't even take into account that a committee or two haven't met -- your committee is on there even if all you have to say is "we haven't met."  (And, yes, that shows up in the minutes!)  Please tell me what would excite you about attending that meeting if the agenda was all you had to go on? The fact is a board is a community -- a community of doers and seekers.  In order for this community to do it must seek meaning not only from facts, but from the…

Time to Get to Work

NEVER MIND THAT IT'S THE FIRST MONDAY OF THE NEW YEAR and you're still struggling with those resolutions.  When you get to your desk this morning, will you really make any changes to how you approach your work?  The fact is that you don't have to make any big changes.  After all, big change is most often made up of the accumulation of lots of small changes, sideways glances and out-of-the blue inspirations. Thanks to the good thinking of others, today I've got a manageable handful of small, sideways and out-of-the blue for you: The "Ten New Year's Resolutions for Boards" from Barry Bader's Great Boards Blog offers advice that you can put into action almost immediately.  How's this:  make a list of the board members who are your board's future chairpersons and figure out ways to get them lined up for leadership (OK, that last part is my advice).  Barry's advice is if you can't identify anyone on your current board who's willing/able t…