What makes you different from another institution? Why are there 5 different gardens? Why 8 different homeless shelters? Why 6 different animal welfare organizations?
What are YOU?
Can you answer that question without resorting to “we are not them?” A lot of things are not them. What are YOU?
If you can answer that question, then you can lead your institution, making decisions that affirm your identity, while discarding those that are at odds with who you are and aspire to be.
If your staff can answer that question, then your identity becomes implanted in the minds of your clients and stakeholders, because their every act reflects that conviction of who you are.
If your board can answer that question, then they can stand in front of legislators, funders, neighbors, and friends, and affirm your identity in the minds of your community.
This is who you are
It is this identity that you bring to the table when collaborating with your peers. In collaboration, you each bring resources and skills to the table. How do your peers see themselves? What is their identity? What do they bring to the table? How are you complementary?
It is this identity that colors your pitch when you talk to government officials, about how you and your peers can work together, knowing who will bring which skills and expertise, and why each of you are necessary.
You can see this at work in America’s Garden Capital. The Philadelphia area is considered America’s Garden Capital, with more than 30 public gardens, arboreta, and historic landscapes within 30 miles of the city. They’ve joined together to promote the region, while retaining their own unique identities. One promotes native plants; another has manicured French and English style formal gardens; another mixes outdoor sculpture with extensive grounds.
This is how you make decisions
With firm identities, they promote themselves individually and collectively, boosting their attendance. If an opportunity comes along that doesn’t match their identity, it is easier to reject the opportunity, and actively seek more suitable opportunities. If there are five conferences to which they could send their staff, they consider which ones are most congruent with furthering their mission – the decision is easier to make. If funds are limited, they consider which capital improvement supports their identity, and decide accordingly.
Understanding what defines your organization and what you stand for is a critical foundation for decision-making. It is part and parcel of manifesting your values and priorities in the direction and actions you take. It creates a unified understanding of who you are, across board, staff, constituents and community.
Affirming this identity is integral to a solid strategic planning framework.
What’s your identity?
Board retreats, all-staff meetings, strategic planning, community convening – any time people get together to accomplish a goal, it’s important that the work gets done.
But getting the work of the meeting done doesn’t mean that the results of the meeting will get executed once everyone leaves. If the participants didn’t really participate, there’s a good chance they haven’t bought into the result. If the facilitator is busy worrying about running the meeting, she doesn’t have a chance to express her own views. Worse, she deliberately refrains from expressing her own views for fear of influencing the group.
Just as important as getting the work of the retreat done, is that each participant believes in the result and can support it. An external facilitator brings important skills to the process, and makes it possible for every person in the room to participate fully.
An external facilitator can see and hear things that have gradually become part of the organization culture, but have not been acknowledged.
An external facilitator can acknowledge the roles of each participant, without the participants having to stand up for themselves or toot their own horns. While board members and staff may be reluctant to talk about the extra burdens of a decision, a facilitator can ensure that both strengths and challenges are acknowledged.
An external facilitator does not have to worry about the effect of any particular discussion on themselves. By bringing objective decision-making tools to the group, facilitators acknowledge, and then mitigate, emotion-laden arguments.
Attention to Tension
An external facilitator can help the group attend to underlying tensions, because they are not a part of the tensions themselves. Noticing and acknowledging the tension is part of their work, and their neutrality allows them to gain trust from each party.
Each organization is unique; the people involved have individual personalities and experiences. An external facilitator brings to the group their experience in gaining trust and accomplishing goals with many different personalities and situations.
An external facilitator stays current on plans and tools for assuring that meetings and retreats accomplish their goals. From interviewing participants, to crafting agendas, to managing the meeting, and facilitating decisions, the facilitator brings discipline to the process of decision-making and planning.
This is the season when plans are being made for board retreats, summits and community convening. Who’s going to facilitate YOUR meetings?
It’s easy to dive into pressing board business immediately after bringing the meeting to order. Urgent matters float to the top of every agenda.
But there’s a difference between urgent and important. And the important stuff isn’t addressed until it becomes urgent.
Board Education is Important
Each board member has a lot of knowledge, but they don’t all know the same things. When it comes to board responsibilities, there are frequently gaps in their knowledge – and they’re not the same gaps.
It’s like people who are self-taught. They don’t know what they don’t know. They’re very, very good at what they do – until they reach something they didn’t know they needed to know.
A healthy board has a mix of experienced and new directors. If you’ve been on the board for a while, it’s easy to forget that newer members don’t have your institutional knowledge and experience. It’s also easy to forget that as society changes over time, what you know may need updating. new directors may have great ideas and community experience, but little knowledge of board responsibilities.
What happens? Board discussions go around in circles. Individual gaps in knowledge create confusion and misunderstanding. Directors assume they agree on definitions, when each defines the topic differently.
All of a sudden, board education becomes urgent.
How do I get my board to fundraise? How do I get my board members to stop dwelling on the past? How do I get my new directors to listen to the wisdom in the room? How do I get older directors to listen to the new ones? How do I get my board members on the same page?
Why wait until it’s urgent?
Based on a quote from President Eisenhower, Urgent and Important are very different:
- Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.
- Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
Since you know that you have a great variety of talents and experience around the table, why not conduct board education with intentionality. Get in front of the Urgent, by paying attention to the Important.
It is important for board members to all have the same language and understanding when talking about decisions. It saves time, avoids misunderstanding, and improves the relationships. The net result is greater peer to peer responsibility. It avoids ambiguity, and frequently avoids creating urgent situations.
Sit down with the governance committee and consider what each board member needs to know and to have in order to be a strong contributor to the work of the board. It may be specific skills – like reading the financials. It may be in-depth understanding of the strategic plan and their role in it. There are a lot things that go into being an effective board member.
How to Introduce Board Education
At the start of each year, consider the knowledge, experience and skill sets of your board members. What gaps are there? What knowledge do some have, but not others? Where do there seem to be problems with communication? What knowledge do new members bring to the table that returning members could benefit from? What knowledge do returning members have that would help acclimatize new members?
You’ll likely find that there are a lot of gaps. The exercise provides a foundation for introducing the idea to your board, giving directors a solid rationale for regular board education.
Then schedule regular board education, instead of waiting until it’s urgent.
Build a culture of continuous improvement. You do it for your programs – now introduce it to your board.
Do your board members feel responsible to one another?
Responsible to the organization should be a given. But do the board members feel responsible to each other?
On two recent occasions, I asked board members of very different organizations
“What does it look like when you feel engaged?” “What actions do engaged board members take?”
Both groups generated long lists of excellent responses. Perhaps you see yourself in these:
- They are reflective / evaluative
- Work where help is needed
- Contribute their resources / time / $$ / social capital
- Contribute to discussions
- Accept responsibility and following through
- Evangelize for the organization / actively open doors
- Communicate respectfully, candidly
- Have the confidence to speak up
- Are visionary / forward looking
But when asked
“Why are you engaged with THIS organization?”
the importance of relationships came through in answers that included:
- It offers committed intimate relationships
- “I don’t want to let down my peers”
I don’t want to let down my peers.
When the board member said this, the others around the table started nodding. They said things like, “I know they’re counting on me.”
In the rich discussions that followed, many commented on the relationships they each have with others around the board table. They know they can count on each other. They know who the others are – personally, not just by title.
Getting to know each other as individuals leads to a greater investment in the success of the others around the table. Looking for the success of the organization should be a given. But seeking success for your peers implies relationships that are built upon trust and personal knowledge of each other. Seeking success for your peers leads to a greater ability to work together in both good times and bad.
When Google analyzed their teams to find out why some teams worked better together than others, they discovered that it wasn’t the composition of the teams that made the difference, it was whether they created a shared purpose and shared culture. The team leaders took the time to allow team members to know each other as people, not merely functions.
“Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”
When someone joins a board, there is the expectation of spending several hours a month working with others. Making those hours worthwhile from a personal as well as professional standpoint increases the satisfaction they get from the work, and enhances their enthusiasm for doing it.
In a board or staff setting, making time for conversation and getting to know each other creates relationships that work like a web among the participants. Individuals feel responsible to each other, and “don’t want to let down my peers.”
Boards are not monolithic. Acknowledge that each member is an individual, and create time for sharing life.
What would it make possible if you started the meeting with, what good things happened in your life since we were last together?
Change the question; change perspective.
With a pile of work in front of you, or any job that needs doing, do you automatically ask, “How am I going to get all that done?”
In years of working with very different nonprofit leaders, I’ve noticed that’s a common response. It’s especially true among people who are givers at heart – you know, the ones who are quick to volunteer and give their time, or those who went into community benefit work because they’re innately programmed to help others.
Consider these three recent situations:
- The executive director of a start-up nonprofit looked at everything that needed to be done, and said, “How can I do all this?”
- The board chair of a mid-sized nonprofit, seeking new board members, asked, “How can I get people to serve on the board?”
- The facilitator of an online community asked herself, “How can I get more people engaged?”
In each of these [real] scenarios, there is a common thread. In each case, the protagonist used the pronoun, “I.”
We all do this. From the person putting on the gala, to the volunteers in our house of worship, to the grantwriter, to the team leader, to the CEO and board chair. When we’re asked what we’re working on, we talk about a project and then say, “I have to…..,” and list all the things we have to do
Faced with everything we have to do we get a knot in our stomachs. Sometimes, it’s downright terrifying. The burden is on our shoulders, and if we don’t get it done, we’re letting down our clients, our coworkers, our fellow volunteers, ourselves.
Is that really true? Is it really all on our shoulders? What if we reframe the scenarios and ask a different question?
In the case of the start-up nonprofit, consider what changes if we ask,
“What would it take to get all this done?”
When the ED heard that reframe, it opened up a host of new opportunities. Instead of feeling alone with the job, he listed what would need to be in place for the job to get done, then objectively considered different ways to get them done – by anyone, not just himself. Instead of diving in, he started thinking of others who could make it happen.
For the board chair, we reframed the question from “how do I get people to be on the board?” to “what would it take for people to be able to join the board?” Instead of presenting the yes-no question to a prospect, the board chair started asking them, “what would it take for you to be able to say yes?” Potential board members started considering the possibilities, instead of the constrictions.
The facilitator of the online community completely reframed the engagement question. Instead, she invited all the participants of the community to online meetings in which she asked, “what would you like to be engaged in?” “What would you like to see and be part of?” “What would make it possible for people to be engaged?” With the different iterations of the reframing, the discussion became more dynamic, as participants saw themselves stepping into roles they may never have considered before.
What would it take to……?
This simple reframing moves the thought process away from burden and toward possibilities. It works for individuals, and for entire organizations.
The next time an opportunity arises, try moving from ‘we can’t do….’ to ‘what would it take for us to be able to do…..?’
Let me know what happens!
Or if you’d like to know more about facilitating these kinds of discussions.