Friday, March 27, 2009

Serving on Multiple Boards

I'm sure we all know people who serve on more than one board at the same time. You may be one of them. Makes sense. Most of us have multiple interests and, if we're committed to involvement in our communities, some of us will volunteer in ways that wed our interests to our desires to make better the places where we live and play. And, it stands to reason that, over time, we could be recognized by more than one organization for our strengths, our talents, or our connections.

Don't you marvel, though, at the number of talented people you know who would never consider serving on a board? Or they don't quite seem to make it on any organization's radar screen to be asked? When you think about it, it's no wonder so many organizations seem to be begging for board members. Well, there are two (at least) sides to that issue and today I want to explore the side that deals with the person who does make it onto the radar screens and into multiple board rooms.

Here's the set-up: individuals who have a high board service profile tend to get recruited more frequently for board service than those who have a low profile or no profile at all. You know the old saying, "Ask a busy person...." The plus is the possibility of cross-pollination. Here's the pitfall: when does multiple board service become a liability?

It's tricky being on more than one board at once. First of all, you've got all those meetings. Board meetings, committee meetings, donor visits, fundraising events. They can really fill up a calendar! Then, there's all the background you need to know about the organization and its mission. And don't forget all the material you need to read, digest, and come prepared to discuss. Did I mention all the people you'll be meeting and the checks you'll be expected to be writing?

And what about the sensitive or proprietary information you'll become privy to? You'll be seeing the underbelly of balance sheets, you'll be hearing about stakeholder giving capacity, you'll learn about internal struggles and triumphs. Who says the nonprofit world isn't competitive?

Just how easy is it to compartmentalize the work of one board from that of another? It's hard for some to leave the details behind in one board room, much less several. And if the organizations are even remotely similar it takes the strength of Atlas not to let one board's work seep into another's.

So, here's my short list of advice for folks who are contemplating serving on multiple boards:
  • Choose organizations whose missions are distinctly different. A hospital board and an art center board pose many less conflicts of interest than two (or more boards) of the same kind of organization. A professional association board is much different than the philharmonic board. Different missions, different issues -- that's the key.
  • Know your time limits. Board service can demand a lot of time. If you find that you're missing more meetings than making them or that you're not able to keep your promised deadlines, then cut the cord and pull back. You'll be thanked for it.
  • Zip your lip. Don't share proprietary information or juicy gossip among organizations. Sensitive information needs to be treated, well...sensitively. That's not to say that if one of your organizations meets with an issue you know your other organization will meet with you sit tight. Share helpful information, but be mindful.
  • Recuse yourself. Two beautiful words. When you've got a conflict of interest between your organizations, take yourself out of the discussion and decision-making. Be the first to be helpful, but be the first to take yourself out.
That's my short list. What would you add to it?

Multiple personnalities by

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Board Recruitment: Attributes and Skill Sets

A colleague of mine was asked to participate in a discussion this week about her experiences as a board member.  Knowing that I've worked for and with a good number of boards, she wanted to get my take on some of the questions the discussion was going to be structured around.

Her first question to me was, "What do you think are the characteristics of a great board member?"  Funny she should have asked me that as I've been thinking about that recently myself.  I ticked off a few characteristics -- passionate about the organization's mission, forward-thinking, optimistic, etc.  "What about skills -- like financial acuity or a legal background?" she countered.  

Skills are good, too, I agreed, but I was thinking about a retired history teacher who was on the board of a local history museum.  Sure, the guy knew A LOT about history, but he monopolized conversations and dampened the group's ability to generate ideas.  You wanted to say to this fellow, "Hey, you're not standing at the front of a classroom anymore!"  

I brought myself up short then.  "You can have a person with some terrific skill set, but if he or she doesn't fit the board's culture or the organization's culture, then it's likely not to be a productive fit for either."  Hmmm.....chosen for fitting in with the existing culture or enhancing it or....changing it.  These reasons alone are enough to make board recruitment a much more intentional activity.

My colleague felt that she and her organization did that -- more or less -- through the committee system.  Almost everyone on the board had served first in a committee capacity. Performance there would indicate how well or poorly an individual would perform at the board level.  "And in a small town, you pretty much know who's going to be good and who isn't," she concluded.

It was time for me to throw in one more thought:  if recruitment is truly based on attributes and skills, the process may well lead to people you do not know or know well.  Boards tend to look a lot like the people who assemble them.  And because board members typically serve for years (or decades or lifetimes) at a time, perspectives and approaches to the work can become routine, even stale.  By their nature boards are about stability; the downside is they can run out of oxygen.  It's the recruitment process that ensures there's always enough oxygen in the fish tank.

Photo: African Cichlid Tank by calwhiz

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Practicing Donor-Worthiness

There's no time like a recession to rethink your donor relationships.  Even if your institution has its financial back to the wall and all you can see is mounting debt, taking a few steps to deepen the conversation with donors about why what you do is important is never a wasted effort.  Your members, program sponsors, volunteers and funders help you when times are good and most appreciate hearing about your institution's challenges when times are tough.

This is not say that it's time to write that desperation letter.  In fact, professional fundraisers will tell you never to fundraise with a message of desperation.  Donors want to help organizations with a future, not organizations with chronic financial problems or organizations with leadership that is continually in a "sky is falling" mentality.  So, if you've got one of these types of letters written to your donors, just tear it up.

To me, rethinking the donor relationship in a time of economic crisis means putting together a simple communications plan that focuses on the relationship more than the fundraising, and that includes: 
  • determining the number of contacts over the coming 12 months that the organization will make with its donors  (this does not include newsletters, event publicity, or other "mass communications")
  • establishing what the message of each contact will say  -- think of a story line that you could build over a series of contacts
  • selecting the medium for the message, i.e., an email blast, a letter, a phone call, a face-to-face meeting  (the latter two media might be reserved for major donors, but it might be fun to conduct a phone-a-thon to all your members to just say hello and let them know what you're up to)
Your institution's mission, supported by a focused program, are your two most valuable tools for donor-worthiness.  But without the message that communicates their public benefit -- over and over again -- they may as well be hidden like lights under a barrel.  Your donors need and want to know you.  So, talk to them.  

And make them your best friends.  

You could be rewarded for it.

Photo: Two People Talking by artworkbyheather

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Deliberate Practice as an Institutional Imperative

Geoff Colvin's recent book, Talent is Overrated, explores the whys and hows that separate "world-class performers from everybody else".  Most of us might believe that top achievers are destined for stardom, but tons of research indicates that isn't the case.  Top achievers hone their talents during many long hours of deliberate practice that are designed to nurture understanding and stretch ability.  

Deliberate practice can be defined as a sustained -- usually lengthy -- period of calculated effort designed to improve performance.  Whether it's music, a sport, or improving memory, the outstanding performers got that way through sheer, hard work.  This work is typically shaped by teachers, enriched by mentors, and encouraged by parents, teammates, or friends.  While some of the practice may happen in groups, much of it happens on one's own.

Most of the studies supporting the deliberate practice model have been done with musicians, athletes and chess players, because it's relatively easy to document the practice-performance ratio as well as to factor in physical attributes that may help an individual excel.  However, studies of Nobel Prize-winning scientists show that, just as with musicians or athletes, years of study and work were required to first master their fields and specialties before they were then able to add significant new information to it.

Colvin asks, if deliberate practice is the key to individual and team performance, what might any of this have to do with organizational performance?   It would seem a great deal, since organizations are ultimately only as good as the people who lead, manage and nurture them. Yet, there's a definite lack of deliberate practice happening in many institutions. 

The notions of nurturing talent by allowing for the acquisition and practice of knowledge and skills are still considered luxuries, especially by organizations that are struggling to get started or stay afloat.  Yet, Colvin argues, "...the principles of great performance can help improve such organizations to the point where they might actually dare to think about greatness.  That is, the principles can do this if they're applied....Applying the principles is becoming an imperative for all organizations that want to survive."

So, here's an abbreviated list of deliberate practice principles great organizations apply to individuals and teams -- these go for staff, board and volunteers (you'll have to read the book to find out how great organizations apply them!):

1.  Understand that each person in the organization is not just doing a job, but is also being stretched and grown.
2.  Find ways to develop leaders within their jobs.
3.  Identify promising performers early.
4.  Understand that people development works best through inspiration not authority.
5.  Invest significant time, money, and energy in developing people. (Time and energy go a long way when money is at a premium.)
6.  Make leadership development part of the culture.
7.  Develop teams, not just individuals:  be conscious of picking wrong team members, of competing agendas and conflicts of interest, unresolved conflicts and unwillingness to face the real issues.

Photo:  Reach for the Stars by MaryWit