In recent years, a lot of nonprofit board education has focused on sustainability. Discussions frequently focus on finances: How are we going to maintain our programs? What happens if we hit another recession, or if our major funder disappears?
More sophisticated discussions include sustainability of the physical and governing infrastructure: What can we put in place so we have the board members we need to keep us going? How do we manage succession planning? How do we ensure our roof won’t leak in 5 years?
However, there is an inherent conflict between sustainability and some of the fiduciary responsibilities of the board. The triumvirate of fiduciary responsibility are Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience. Grantspace gives these succinct definitions:
Duty of care: Board members are expected to actively participate in organizational planning and decision-making and to make sound and informed judgments.
Duty of loyalty: When acting on behalf of the organization, board members must put the interests of the nonprofit before any personal or professional concerns and avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Duty of obedience: Board members must ensure that the organization complies with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and that it remains committed to its established mission.
These duties are almost always refer to the organization. In most materials about fiduciary responsibility the word sustainability doesn’t appear. Not in Grantspace, nor in this Guidestar blog post on fiduciary responsibility, nor in this Bridgespan article. The National Council of Nonprofits references sustainability, but doesn’t define its relationship to the organization.
And that leaves us with a question of potential conflict of duties. The Duty of Loyalty says to put the interests of the nonprofit ahead of personal or professional concerns, and Duty of Care says to make sound and informed judgments. Both of these imply that sustainability revolves around the institution – finances, infrastructure, community goodwill.
At the same time, the Duty of Obedience says you must remain committed to the mission. Therein lies the potential conflict. What if keeping the lights on means accepting a grant that takes you away from your mission? What if another institution is better at ensuring all the children in the neighborhood have winter coats? Do you compete against that other institution for a grant that will provide the coats?
If you do, are you fulfilling your Duty of Obedience to the mission?
What happens when the best decision that could be made for advancing the mission is one that means the organization forgoes a grant needed to keep the doors open?
This is an extreme question, but as the call of sustainability becomes louder, the conflict becomes more evident. Indeed, there is no doubt that every organization will encounter some form of the conflict between sustainability of the nonprofit and obedience to the mission. We all know of institutions guilty of mission drift, as they ‘chase the money’ by creating programs solely for the purpose of getting grants.
What then? What can a board do when confronted with this conflict?
Perhaps a redefinition is in order. Conflict implies they cannot coexist. Perhaps a better word than conflict would be tension.
Tension is not a bad thing. It implies an awareness of differences or awareness of an imbalance. Tension can be addressed in a way that affirms the Duty of Obedience while maintaining the Duties of Loyalty and Care.
This tension can only be addressed if it’s acknowledged. When boards isolate discussion of the budget from evaluation of program impact, they are siloing the Duty of Care from the Duty of Obedience. Similarly, discussion of the impact – or cost – of one particular program without the context of the entire organization risks dropping a highly efficacious program due to cost, or keeping a minimally efficacious program solely because it is inexpensive or brings in dollars.
Awareness of the tension opens the path to collaboration among organizations that have the same mission and vision, rather than reinforcing competition or becoming territorial.
Zimmerman and Bell provide one way to address this tension, but the first step is to acknowledge that it exists. It is then up to the board and administration to research and agree on how to address it.
Ultimately, the goal has the same name: sustainability. But it encompasses so much more.
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?
Things fall through the cracks. They just do. Not often. But they do.
Sometimes it’s because we have too much on our plates. Sometimes, an emergency or a rush job came up, and our mind is focused on that. But sometimes, everything is going along smoothly, and things still fall through the cracks, because everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
As a recovering control freak, I used to be the one who made sure that everything got done. To me, the path of least resistance was for me to do it.
But as a consultant, that’s the very worst thing I could do. My job is to let YOU do it; it’s YOUR job to take responsibility and figure out how to do it yourself, so eventually, you don’t need me.
So what do I do? I make sure you end your meetings affirming who is doing what, by when.
Whether it’s a nine month long strategic planning project, a one day planning retreat, or any meeting in which a decision is made, they all end the same way:
Who is doing what? By when? How will you know it’s done?
I was working with one multi-faceted organization whose executive director had announced he was retiring in two years. Despite general dismay, after four months the board had not yet formulated a plan for finding his successor. I was asked to get them started.
At a full day retreat, we spent the morning envisioning the future of the organization and the CEO qualities that would help that future become reality. Then, over lunch, I let it ‘slip’ about being a recovering control freak. Through general laughter, I told them that the way I managed it was by making sure THEY knew what they were going to do, and how they were going to do it.
That afternoon, we mapped out how they would go about finding a successor: what research they would need, what data they would want, what the board, staff, and other constituents would need. Then, about an hour before adjourning, I reminded them of my ‘recovering control freak’ statement, and asked:
“Now that you’ve decided what you’re going to do, who is going to be responsible for making sure it gets done?
“You don’t have to be the one that does it, but you’re the one who stays on top of it, and makes sure it’s accomplished.
“Who’s job is it?”
Then, when that person self-identified, the next question was,
“Great! By when? When will this goal be completed?”
“When will you have that first committee meeting? When will you have the first progress report to the board?”
Those milestones were entered into the plan, and the Board Chair keeps track of who is doing what. The milestones give the entire board an opportunity to reflect on whether the progress needs to be speeded up or the goals amended.
By coaching the Board and Staff on building their own accountability into their plans, I satisfy my control freak tendencies, and enable the excellent members of the leadership team to step up.
A win-win result all around.
It’s common parlance to refer to ‘the same old tape we play over in our heads.’ The phrase comes from the time (remember it?) when we used cassettes and 8-tracks to replay the same songs over and over again. It is a fitting metaphor for the implication, since the phrase actually references an old technology.
The same way those old tapes we play in our heads recall old situations and old behaviors.
Every time we encounter a person we’ve known for a long time, old tapes start playing. We know what the person believes and thinks, and how they will behave. There isn’t any need to ask questions, since we assume we already know the answers they’ll give. Our response to their behaviors falls into patterns, as do their responses to ours. It’s a great shortcut.
But what if that old tape is no longer current? Stretching the metaphor further, what if there’s a great new cover for the song? The theme song for the original show One Day at a Time, “This is It,” was performed by Polly Cutter in a bouncy, upbeat genre, very fitting to the 1970’s – 1980’s period. The new version of the same theme song, now sung by Gloria Estefan, is updated to fit the times. The Latin beat is different, while the underlying bones of the song are the same.
When we encounter someone we’ve known for a long time, the old tapes may no longer reflect who that person is now. They are still the same person, but they’ve learned and experienced new things. They’ve developed new ways of thinking. Their responses to situations are different.
If we don’t take the time to get to know who they are now, we continue playing the old tapes, and they respond with their own old tapes.
This has strategic implications for boards and group dynamics.
When board members or participants in a group think they know each other very well, what’s really happening is that they know what the old tapes sound like. They make assumptions about what the others around the room believe, think, feel and know, based on those old tapes. As a result, some topics of conversation are avoided or ignored, or they are cyclical rehashes of old arguments, originally recorded years ago.
These tapes tether the group to the past, and hinder building a new future together. Interrupting those narratives takes conscious effort, but it’s worth making that effort. Genuinely knowing the others around the table helps create trust, crucial in building consensus around decisions. The new knowledge about each other opens up participants to new ideas.
Questions interrupt the narratives we tell ourselves.
Questions are key to learning new things about others.
Asking questions elicits new knowledge that may contradict or augment those old tapes. In groups that meet regularly, such as boards, it helps to begin each meeting with a question that gives each participant the time to share something new. In groups that meet infrequently, or in retreats, more time is needed. Old tapes have had plenty of time to become habit so set aside time specifically for getting to know each other.
What can you learn about each other that may surprise you? What can you learn that will change your assumptions about each other?
Questions interrupt the narratives we tell ourselves.
Questions alter the tapes we play.
Questions open us up to new possibilities.
Facilitated meetings make it easier to ask these questions. For more tips about changing group culture, building an engaged board, and strategic planning, follow me at www.detwiler.com, or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.