Wednesday, December 28, 2011

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 supporting information.  If you want to talk about why admissions, ticket sales, or event attendance was up or down, provide some contextual data that can help trustees understand trends and evaluate possible organizational responses.

Example:  instead of focusing solely on money raised or lost, what if the big question was about the demographics of who supported and how the demographic could be expanded or shifted for the future?

If you've got a written, goal-based and mission-driven plan (and hopefully you do), that's your starting point for both assessment of the past year and future work.  Make review of the plan a chunk of the agenda and make sure that all other agenda items connect to the plan.  What a great way to get the new year off and running!

And speaking of mission, doesn't it make sense for the first board meeting of the new year to focus on that?  One board I'm now serving on plans to devote half of its first board meeting of the new year to just that discussion.  We're arming ourselves with some context-setting 'homework' that will not only help frame the conversation, but fuel it.

Bringing new board members on for their first meeting in January?  For my money, there's probably no better opening conversation than a round robin discussion about why each of you cares about the organization and wants to be a part of it. Even the newbies should be able to articulate why they agreed to join the board.  It's not only a good icebreaker, it's also a team-builder.

Perhaps you'll want to mix up the first meeting with a brief tour of a physical space, collection or department in need of attention -- attention that will find its way to future board meeting agendas.  Or perhaps there's a hands-on activity that will help to enlighten board members to the important work done every day.  At the upcoming retreat of a staff and stakeholders of a school archive, we're going to spend some time looking at primary source documents and talking about why they're important.

I hope you'll be encouraged to begin 2014 with a reinvigorated board meeting road map that balances board attention between the present and the future; between the 30,000-foot overview and knotty, on-the-ground issues; between the known and the unknown.  And I hope you'll share what's on your first of 2014 agenda with the readers here at Leading by Design.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

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 shifting for the sake of doing something different just doesn't cut it in a time of depleted resources and donor fatigue.  Part of the answer to these questions rests on how open your organization is currently to engaging in deep conversations of this type.  Part of the answer rests on your organization's commitment to embracing relevant external and internal information along with its vision-mission-goals as the guideposts for decision-making.  

Part of the answer rests with you.  As the board or staff leader, as a staff member or volunteer leading from within, as a donor who goes the extra mile for your organization, how can you illuminate the pathways to strategic development?  What questions will you ask?  

A new year is coming.  Are you ready?

Monday, October 17, 2011

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, most types of organizational planning take time and talent to complete, but it is rarely a draining experience, often it's just the opposite.  Yet, I've seen many organizations approach the idea of planning as a burden, a maze to get through, or as one trustee exclaimed, "So we don't have to do this again for another 50 years!"  Really???  

Is it really mind-numbing or wasteful work to consider an organization's future beyond the regular board meeting?  Is it somehow inappropriate to chart a big or better future for an organization rather than letting circumstance chart it for you?  Is the idea of thinking beyond one's personal interests too big a leap to take?  Too risky?

All I think I can say in response is if an organization is willing to invest its resources to any degree to plan for its future, why ever would it not want to be fully committed to exploring the possibilities, the potential and, yes, the pitfalls that lie ahead?    Why ever would it not want to dig into bridging the gaps of what exists now with what could be?  

I guess the question isn't so much can you plan without passion as it is why would you purposely plan half-heartedly?  Why would any organization waste such an opportunity to lift up the hood and examine the engine?  And why wouldn't that be exciting as well as challenging?

Image:  Neighborhood Plan Update...from litlnemo

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Boardroom Blues


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?

Monday, October 10, 2011

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 enter your day by reminding yourself of the difference you can make in the world. It’s a matter of making a habit of practicing a helpful attitude when you are interacting with people. The question you want to keep top of mind is, “How can I help?”
How we describe our relationship to our work must, of course, flow from a deep-seated attitude of service.  When was the last time you reflected on why you chose the path of nonprofit work?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

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.  Then we have a process sheet for after, notes about what was learned.  And then we expand it to outside our events, and develop it as a lifestyle. 
Folks involved in the Foundation are already doing great outreach, talking to people all the time about the Foundation. What the "trustees porch conversations" idea does for me is to open the thought of doing this systematically as intentional conversations rather than ones that just develop. And we can build the intentionality based on the typical conversations folks have; what people want to know about us, etc.  And then we can keep track of the conversations, which will help us with personal recruitment of volunteers, board and committee members. 
AND as we develop dialogue as the language of the institution (as we're doing with a grant from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, setting up a train-the-trainers program so everyone involved gets trained in the process of dialogue eventually), we can in stages turn these casual conversations into meaningful dialogues which will involve the community in our work on a continual basis.  Sort of a walking "write on our walls."  And I think we can also literally adopt the trustee porch conversations at our Wonderful Weekends - our yearly gatherings.
Also I'm going to send out an email to the volunteers today encouraging a conversation about the language "I serve".  I really like that language, too.  Want to see what it feels like to them and if they buy into it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

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 the work and for some of us in the audience, at any rate, it carried deep resonance.
We agreed that it's a perspective that we  just don't hear much in the nonprofit sector when our colleagues introduce themselves or talk about their work.  Yet nonprofit work is service work no matter if it's health care or arts education, and those of us working and volunteering in nonprofits do so in service to an institutional mission and, thus, the audience.
As nonprofits of all stripes struggle to gain ground against seemingly unrelenting economic forces, it seems that now is the perfect time for all of us in the sector to examine why we serve and how we each uphold our institution's mission.

Click here for Part I of What I Learned on My Summer Vacation About Stakeholder Communication

Image:  The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion, kept the conversation to interfaith dialogue within the strategic plan at a Trustee Porch Discussion. The Chautauqua Daily, August 6, 2011.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

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 they make Chautauqua their summer home.  Others, like me, manage a visit for a few days or a week.  Many others come for the day or for a specific performance or activity.
OK, so much for the set-up.  What I've come to learn over my time at Chautauqua is that pretty much all of the full-time professional staff are constantly in and on view, because they introduce programs, facilitate discussions, squire speakers/performers around, and press the flesh with long-time supporters and newbies alike.  Think of the demands on you at your biggest annual event or program series and multiply that by nine back-to-back, non-stop weeks.  You're surrounded most every day by your trustees, your most faithful donors, and curious first-time visitors.  Everyone wants to say hello to you, make a suggestion, offer a criticism, get directions to the restrooms, engage you in some deep topic that might make your head explode right at that moment or just trip you up.  They're your closest supporters, your allies, your peeps.

How would you take the opportunity of being surrounded by your audience and use it to communicate your organization's mission, intentions, future plans, and tough choices?  Draw them closer? Perhaps get their buy-in?

This summer I noticed for the first time that the Institution's trustees and senior staff held weekly, one-hour conversations on some aspect of the organization's operations with anyone who wanted to show up.  Called "Trustees Porch Discussions", the conversations took place on a long, broad porch of a building near the largest venue, the amphitheater, so there were lots of people strolling by, many of whom stopped to listen.  Each discussion had a focusing topic -- family and educational programming, finances, religious diversity, how speakers are chosen for the lecture platform, or how the institution is marketed (these were the topics this summer).  While staff lead the discussion, the trustees were on hand to add insights and help answer questions.  The audiences ranged in size from 20 or so people to more than 60.

"Trustees Porch Discussions" were augmented by two Board of Trustees "Open Forums" -- one in July and one in August.  These were held in a large public venue right after the trustee's regular board meetings.  Here, larger audiences asked questions ranging from expanding the interfaith community to future restoration/renovation plans for performances spaces, to enforcement of registration for dogs and safety issues of motorized scooters.

I really like the accessibility to staff and board members that these two activities provide and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think about how similar face-to-face discussions could take place with members, donors and visitors in smaller institutions.  Many organizations use their annual member's meeting or annual report to communicate with stakeholders on the business end of the issues.  Some nonprofits hold board meetings as part of program meetings.  Social media can facilitate the flow of communication, also.  But unless these typical channels are purposely programmed to be conversations about the health and forward momentum of the organization, then they're usually nothing more than glossy one-way reporting.

Is it too much to ask that we figure out ways to reveal more of the challenges of our work, to ask our member and donor partners the same questions we ask at our staff meetings; to debate the pros and cons; to lay the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly on the table? 

Our stakeholders need to know when things aren't working well just as much as when things are.  Most of the time they just need to be afforded an opportunity to know.  After all, they are our partners in the enterprise of our nonprofits.

Images from the Chautauqua Institution Flickr stream 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

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 doesn't sound like so much, right?
The report further reveals that there is a direct correlation between the satisfaction executive directors have with their board's performance and the amount of time they choose to invest in their boards.  Makes sense.  But, this finding ultimately underscored a couple of paradoxical things for me:  1) as executive directors, we have the very real potential to get as much as we give when it comes to building our board relationships, and 2)  the quality of time you give is more critical than the quantity.   
Let's face it:  if the main focus of your interaction is board and committee meetings, which for many organizations are too often focused on the relatively limited outcomes of reporting and short-term operational decision-making,  no amount of your additional time is going to significantly move your satisfaction meter higher.  I mean, there's more to your board relationship than crafting meeting agendas and reports, right? 
In her 2008 report of healthy board chair-executive director relationships for the Journal of Nonprofit Management  (2008, Vol. 12, No.1), Mary Hiland shows us there's much more.  She discussed the levels of working together that build trust and ultimately add value to an organization.  The more trust the ED and board chair built together, the potential for moving as a pair from managing to planning to leading increased.  "The leading pairs worked together, with engaged boards, on issues of organizational vision, mission, and strategic focus.  They described energy and synergies in their relationship, and with the board and the staff, that catalyzed organizational productivity and engagement with the community."
Investing the 'right type' of time as well as the 'right amount' of time with your board needs to be part of every executive director's strategy for not only achieving professional/personal satisfaction, but for creating organizational capital.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

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 opportunities like this seem to happen more in the for-profit world, where resources are presumably more abundant for professional development?  Given the responses to Linda's and my posts and tweets, I think it might not happen as frequently in the nonprofit sector -- at least, the cultural part of the sector where I spend most of my time.  But given the fact that most of us are facing economic constraints of one sort or another, stagnate or declining employment, arts/cultural organization mergers or dissolutions, or the squeeze of elder care, child care or both, it makes obvious sense for nonprofits to focus more attention than normal on structured professional growth.  You might check out Michele Martin's Bamboo Project blog for a great post on positive professional development.

What I learned last week is what many of you may already know or have experienced:  it's really helpful when you can receive insights from some respected colleagues about your skills and attributes, your strengths and weaknesses, and which ones can carry you forward to something you hadn't thought of (or dared to think of) before.  When we decided to spend the morning performing a SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) analysis on each other, we uncovered a wealth of information that crystallized into a number of fairly specific potential opportunities.  It set the stage for a day's worth of creative problem-solving that only a group of engaged people could do.

Where we take our individual plans is now up to each one of us.  But we'll have the group to return to for advice and ideas.  We've made a commitment to stick together to help each other as well as ourselves.

Image:   Idea from faithseekings

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

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 we see ourselves at a crossroad -- so I've spent some time thinking and writing about all of those things.  Since I'll be summarizing these issues for the rest of the group, I've created a big mind-map that I'll tape up on a wall that will help explain where I think my consulting has been and is now.  
The mind-map is a graphic representation of a short outline-cum-narrative I wrote first.  (I'll share the narrative, too.)  It's been a lot of fun (and work, too) developing the map, but it's really helped me to clarify my consulting past and present.  And most importantly it's helping me to think about the future.
Once each of us has presented our past/present/crossroad overview, the power of group work will take over.  Our plan is to use the group brain trust to help each one of us [re]focus and clarify our career aspirations for the 'next stage' of our lives (however each of us defines that stage).
I'm so glad to have the chance to put into practice what I advise my organizational clients to do all the time.  Our retreat starts tomorrow --- I'll let you know how I do.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

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 they're handled.  Once a person decides to leave, his head is in a different place -- he's made a critical mental transition. (Note to Boards: not a good idea to try to talk a person out of leaving who's already made up his mind to do so.  If you're successful, won't there be just the tiniest bit of 'what if?' hanging over everything?)  Once you've announced, it can be really tough to remain engaged with the people and the work -- the folks and projects you never really liked you might be inclined to ignore because they'll soon be someone else's problems.  The projects you began you will now leave unfinished so you may be inclined to move them into the filing cabinet or, perhaps, the wastebasket.
Or, you might worry that all your lynchpin initiatives -- your vision -- will get dumped by your successor.  You might spend your final weeks and days figuring out how to prevent that. (Note to You: if you haven't been able to institutionalize a guiding vision and values in your organization, you won't likely do it on your way out.)
As much as your departure is an opportunity for you, it is also an opportunity for the organization you are leaving.  It's an organization's opportunity to reassess and recalibrate without the pressures of personality (yours) or of loyalty (to you).  It can be freeing and unnerving at the same time (remember, that's how you felt when you made your decision to leave?).
My advice about departing is make it a clean break.  
  1. Put as much of the big, hairy stuff to bed so that the new E.D. isn't surprised (there'll be enough surprises without finding out that your grant funding is in jeopardy because you failed to sign off on the final report before you left).
  2. Don't allow yourself to be a sounding board for unhappy staffers or board members once the new boss is hired.  What good does that do except fuel division?  Or are you the type that enjoys a little organizational arson?
  3. Stay out of the picture in deference to your successor's need to establish herself.  That means:  don't become a volunteer, take on special projects or a consulting role, or offer to serve on any committees unless expressly invited by your successor.
  4. Do not serve on the governing board of your former institution.  It's weird -- and it can send really bad vibes to your successor because it elevates you to a commanding position over him.
  5. Refrain from maintaining an office at your former institution (see #3).  It's also confusing to many -- some will figure that since you still have an office, you must still be in charge.
  6. Don't drop in for a visit with your former staff unless expressly invited and you've gotten an OK from your successor (this opens the door to being a sounding board - #2).
Once you decide to leave, it's not about you anymore. 

Image:  Untitled from jagosaurus

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

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 will perform to expectations if the basic ingredients of forward-looking, strategic-thinking skills, attributes and the supporting infrastructure aren't already in place.
I know for many staff leaders such a litany of complaints leads to the ultimate question: can I work with this -- my -- board?  After all, how does it happen that we work for the same organization, yet we're not on the same page?
Last fall consultant and blogger Gayle Gifford took a long look at the pros and cons of the nonprofit board.  The subsequent discussion she started at the BoardSource group on LinkedIn continues to elicit responses seven months later!  The issues Gayle so clearly and thoughtfully laid out will resonate with anyone working with or for a board.
It started me thinking about how an executive director candidate or new board prospect might ferret out just how complementary a specific board might be to work for or with.  I've concluded that the obvious place to start is with oneself.  A thoughtful, if perhaps not the most critical, examination of your approach to work and to play, to interacting with others, to opportunities and to challenges, to risk and to failure will help you to look for similarities and disconnects with an organization's governing culture.
Just as search committees and governance committees might ask questions to surface attributes, approaches and skills, so, too, should director candidates and board prospects ask similar questions of organizations before signing on the dotted line.  Not easy to do, I admit, when you're in the hot seat hoping to be chosen!  
Boards are dynamic -- they can and do change over time and they do so because of the board and staff talent that gets added to the mix (remember what I said about basic ingredients?).  If not now, do you see enough potential in a board to make your participation with it a satisfying experience?  Will your talents help a board to make positive internal change?  Or do you need to walk away?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

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 provides
  • They can make value connections forward and backward -- in other words, they can apply previous lessons to the work of today and tomorrow (but they're more forward-thinkers than backward-lookers)
  • They are comfortable with change
  • They are mostly optimistic; open to new ideas and diverse perspectives and they're willing to figure out ways to apply them (in fact, they enjoy it)
  • They are comfortable with exploiting opportunities by taking calculated risks to increase cultural/social value
  • They have a heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created
  • They are careful listeners and work well in groups
How do you recruit board members for these attributes?  First, recognize that it may require several conversations to discover an individual's world view.  Here are three conversation starters:
  • Give them a problem:  how will they connect the dots between the organization and the world around it?  Do they balance forward-thinking with backward-looking?  Will they develop more than one approach?
  • Ask them about a problem they solved:  how many internal and external dots did they connect?  How far did it advance the program or the entire organization?  Was failure a part of the process?  Were new voices a part of the process?
  • Ask them if they consider themselves to be entrepreneurial!  Listen for key descriptors of attributes.
If your organization is serious about recruiting for attributes, it must be serious about taking the time to listen to prospective board candidates.  Consider all board recruitment as a journey of discovery, even if you believe you know your prospects well.  Just because an individual runs a great fundraiser or is recommended by a trusted source, doesn't mean they have the entrepreneurial attributes your organization is searching for now.
Image:  Entrepreneurship from Michael Lewkowitz via Flickr

Thursday, May 19, 2011

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 by vision -- otherwise, you'll never achieve it.
Frames can be complicated, but they can be simple, too.  For most organizations, simpler is probably better -- after all, the bottom line for using contextual frames has got to be because they cut through the clutter to provide clarity of direction and impact.  For the more literal among us, I'm going to suggest a literal frame:  four sides with each side representing a piece of the vision.  If you chose just four key concepts that would define your organization's impact, what would they be?  Civic engagement?  Sustained economic development?  Excellence in education?  Furthering the creative process?
I think there's a lot of merit in being fairly restrictive when converging ideas -- it's much easier to add later than to decide on too many right off the bat only to have to cut back when it's clear you can't move that much forward.
The fine line we all must walk is knowing when a contextual frame becomes more of a restrictive box.  What would the warning signs be?

Photo:  frames from Robert in Toronto, flickr

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

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 do with managing a bunch of artists working in donated spaces, morphed a few years back into a formal nonprofit.  Small and creative, what was once very intuitive is now more structured and layered with concerns about staffing, funding, and board development.  They've decided it's time for their first-ever written strategic plan.
The day we spent together recently focused on their vision for the organization's foreseeable future, not laboring over crafting a mission least, not until the very end of our time together.  I wasn't too worried, though.  They'd spent their best time thinking about external realities and what they wanted to do with their programming in light of those realities.  Their founder was also in their midst acting as an important and reassuring touchstone for the group.  (Would that every founder be so open-handed!)
While one or two board members expressed concern that we hadn't started with a discussion about mission or impact, by day's end, it seemed clear to me that their revisioned mission statement would flow seamlessly from what and where they wanted the organization to be -- particularly true for an organization that was in many ways reaffirming its founder's guiding idea.  Actually, this example may be more about "back to the future" than "backing into a mission."
In fact, I wasn't planning on asking the group to work think about the mission statement at all, but I reconsidered thinking it wouldn't hurt to capture some key words and phrases for some future mission-writers to draw upon.  Much to my surprise, the words and ideas spilled over several flipchart sheets.  At the end of the day, the group had strung together enough desired vocabulary for a couple of wordsmiths to further polish.  As I reflect back on the course of the day, I don't think it was a mistake to leave mission writing until last.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

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...or something more?
I've come to view members as something way more.  I'm thinking about them as organizational partners.  Sure, they're often the primary beneficiaries of our programs and services, but they also help to pay our bills.  Their ranks provide the people power for our events, our committees and our boards.  They're more than just an organizational ATM -- they have ideas and opinions...and most of them care a lot about what we do.
So, why do so many organizations fear exposing the mess behind the curtain to the very folks who invest the most in their success?  (If it's truly a mess, we're embarrassed to show how out of control we are.  Just remember, that kind of a mess will come to light sooner or later.)  Or are we afraid that if the curtain is pulled back, our partners will find nothing there?
But what about those times when we're just simply struggling to get a compass reading for organizational direction-setting?  When we need some different perspectives, some fresh organizational oxygen?  Don't members -- organizational partners -- deserve an invitation to those conversations?  Isn't that a big chunk of being transparent and, dare I say it, entrepreneurial?

Image:  ending a hand from sam b-r

Sunday, February 27, 2011

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 created.  As a result,  it exercises an auto-pilot oversight (even that word is too active), and as long as the organization isn't showing any signs of outward disintegration or internal dissatisfaction, the caretaker board can deliver on its well-worn mission.  That is until something comes along to rock the boat that is beyond the caretaker board's ability to pay for it or ignore it.
To be fair, I don't believe any board starts its life aiming to be simply "the caretaker".  However, I do believe a board can unwittingly take on that mantle if it's not sufficiently challenged by its leadership or engaged by staff or program.  There was a time when only the most well-heeled and, perhaps, the very smallest or most marginal of nonprofits could support  the sleepy-eyed caretaker board.  Where a caretaker board might once have provided an anchoring stability, it has become more often than not a rusty anchor that prevents today's nonprofit from moving forward.

Image:  Anchored in time from Oh Lenna (Photolena)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

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 contexts surrounding those facts.  In order to do that, there must be space for dialogue.
It is very easy to talk through and around a meeting agenda that's filled with reports.  Talking through and around the many issues that make up at a typical business meeting doesn't necessarily constitute dialogue. To extract meaning from  information and  ideas, and to reflect on the implications of an organization's work requires a deeper level of conversation and a bit of time to reflect and connect the dots.  Very hard to do in a business meeting, I grant you.
However, it is only through dialogue that the community of the board can consider its organization's relevance, can encourage innovation and can expose ideas to competition.  It is with dialogue that individual board members can ponder their personal obligation to their organizations.  It is through dialogue that strong boards are built and sustained. 
How do you introduce dialogue into your board's work?  Here are some ideas:
  • for 20 minutes at every other board meeting, split up into smaller conversation groups -- everyone discuss the same topic or question, then regroup for a 10-minute dialogue as a community
  • ask a committee to prepare a 10-minute presentation about why their work matters to the larger work of the board, then spend 10 minutes asking the rest of the board to expand on that meaning (connect the dots, as it were)
  • ask a staff member or volunteer to talk with the board about why their work advances the organization's mission -- see how many dots you connect in another 10-15 minutes of dialogue
  • ask an audience member, a client, or representative from another community organization to dialogue with your board about why what you do is important to them -- dialogue around that for 15 minutes
  • set aside longer blocks of time for in-depth discussion -- perhaps as a special board meeting or a retreat
Please share your ideas -- we'd love to hear your thoughts. 

Photo:  Share 5 from Idea Maps

Monday, January 3, 2011

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 to become the board's leader, then you've got to put your heads together and develop it from within or recruit for it.  If you've one or two folks, what can you do right now to develop them further?  Should they be part of the executive committee (if they're not already)?  Should they be included in conversations with the current board president?  After you've made your list and answered these questions, call or email your nominating/board development committee chairperson and suggest a meeting.  Do this before the end of January.
Another great suggestion from Bader's list is to rethink what you give your board members as prep material before a board meeting.  Are they really getting material that will help them be better critical thinkers and decision-makers about the organization?  It seems like it's feast for famine for most boards -- either they're inundated with reports or they don't get anything (even an agenda).  If you're responsible for helping your board understand the organization's issues and their responsibilities, take a couple of hours this week to find out what your board members need and want for prep material (call a few of them for a quick convo).  Then make a plan to deliver on that before the next board meeting.
Over at Gail Perry's blog, Fired-Up Fundraising, you'll find her resolutions for board members.  As far as I'm concerned, her set of ten resolutions amounts to the basic job description for all modern board members.  Two of her ten are "get more engaged" with the work of the organization (actually easier done than thought) and "have a bias toward action".  Add a discussion around Perry's list to your next board meeting agenda.
Barry Hessenius gives us a baker's dozen of resolutions at Barry's Blog.  Among them are these:  the two watchwords for 2011 (and beyond) are Austerity and Authenticity; and put someone on your board who's under the age of 30 -- as Barry says, "Just do it already."  You might review your strategic plan with austerity and authenticity as the filters.  Would you make any changes to your plan because of them?  As for the under 30 board member, we'll you've already got your call into your nominating/board development chairperson.