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