What a question! The mere fact that you’re asking says that you’ve had bad experience with consultants coming in and telling everyone what they ‘should’ be doing.
That is such a wrong approach, it’s no wonder board training has such a bad rap. Even the word ‘training’ is demeaning. It sounds like you’re training animals in a zoo or a circus.
The secret to getting board members to know and be responsible for their duties is to
get them to figure it out for themselves.
As with anything else, start with the end in mind. Then you can reverse engineer to find the steps that will lead you there.
You say you need board education. Why? What’s the end result of board education? It’s not having board members know their roles. That’s only a stepping stone.
Board members knowing their role is a means to having a thriving organization.
If you want board members to know and be invested in their role, engage them in a robust conversation around what you need to have a THRIVING ORGANIZATION. not a thriving board.
The conversation will be generative, and include many things. But ultimately, while every organization may be unique, they each need these 3 things**:
- An eye on the future and a plan for embracing that future
- Resources to conduct business right now and resources to support that plan for embracing the future
- A way to ensure the resources are being used wisely
**Note: One of the first things to come up will be ‘money.’ Money is a red herring. Money, just like an effective board, is a means to an end. Counter that with ‘What does money make possible?’ or, if necessary, ‘Besides money…’
The board has a role to play in each of them.
The first is the future orientation – the long view. Board members have a responsibility to watch the world and consider how it will impact the organization.
The second is finding the resources – fundraising, relationships, hiring the executive, ensuring the talent is there. Board members have a responsibility to make sure the organization has what it needs to fulfill the mission, whether it’s treasure or talent.
The third is oversight and evaluation – are we being careful with the resources, are we following the law, are our programs the best way of fulfilling our mission. Board members have the responsibility to ensure that the organization is putting its resources where they’ll do the most good, and not jeopardizing the mission with poor or illegal practices.
Once you have these established, the next step is for the group to generate the HOW.
How will you make sure you have a future orientation? What will it take to generate the different kinds of resources? What will make it possible to ensure that resources are wisely used, and we’re following the law? In the conversation, you may suggest some recommended practices.
It’s at this point you can tell the board members that they, themselves, have come up with what their roles and responsibilities are. You can present the usual checklist of responsibilities and show them that they’ve generated most of them themselves.
Board education doesn’t have to be deadly – or demeaning. A retreat to engage your board members in the whys and wherefores of a board makes the role of board member meaningful, and uses their passion to generate their own individual roles.
An external facilitator can often make this retreat flow more easily. Let me know if you want to explore that possibility. To learn more about nonprofit boards and facilitation, you can follow me at The Detwiler Group.
Professional Development is for Staff, Not Boards.
Imagine you have an ailment that takes you to the doctor. On the wall is her diploma from 20 years ago. “Ah!” you think. “She has a lot of experience. Hmm, I wonder if she’s kept up with the latest thinking in caring for my ailment.” In 20 years, there have been ag lot of medical advances.
Keeping up in your field is important.
Companies invest in training and development for their managers and staff. Bar associations require Continuing Legal Education credits; American Medical Association requires Continuing Medical Education; school systems require Continuing Education credits for teachers.
With so many examples of professions requiring continuing education, why do board members say they don’t need to keep up with trends in board service?
I already know what I’m doing!
They give a lot of reasons:
- Hubris – “I don’t need any training. I’ve been on boards for 20 years, and I already know what I need to know.”
- Cost – “Why are we spending money on our board when our programs need the money?”
- Disdain – “I’ve been through board training so many times, and it’s never been useful.”
- Time – “We have to spend our time taking care of business; we don’t have time to waste on training.”
- Assumption – “I’d like to get some training, but I don’t think anyone else on the board would.”
Underlying all of these is a basic misunderstanding. They believe board service is simple, static, and hasn’t changed in 20 years; there’s nothing new to learn. Even if there is something new, it’s not going to make a difference.
Actually, the field of board service is changing.
The fields of sociology, organizational dynamics and neuroscience have upended some longstanding ‘best practices’ and received wisdom. Organizations that put the new ideas into practice are more successful than those that do not.
Last year, I gave a series of seminars around board relations and governance. As I set the curriculum for this year’s cohort of attendees, I’ve been spending almost as much time updating the materials as I did creating it in the first place. Articles from Nonprofit Quarterly; BoardSource; Standards for Excellence; Harvard Business Review and more have supplied fodder for high level discussion around governance and building a board into a team. In many cases, the new research have been a complete surprise; in others, they’ve demonstrated nuance where absolutes have reigned.
The bottom line is that these discoveries have made board service richer, more robust, more enjoyable, and, perhaps most importantly, more effective.
Boards with contemporary training spend less time on the past and more time focused on the future. Boards built into teams spend less time infighting, and more time figuring out how to better deliver their mission. Boards with good relationships amongst members have rich discussions around substantive issues. Boards that have developed an inclusive mentality have the advantage of diverse viewpoints and experiences around the table, with all the creativity that inspires.
All of these have been the result of continuous professional board education.
And their organizations are stronger for it.
Get in touch for a conversation about board education and how facilitating professional board development can make your work easier. Or sign-up here for more ideas about managing boards and planning.
Everyone talks about collaboration, but when collaboration fails, do we really analyze what happened? Or do we pretend we’re analyzing what happened, but are actually assigning blame?
I love this article. In this 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Nick Tasler, he points out two simple explanations for how things go wrong. Simple, of course, once you hear them.
First – do you all agree on what you’re trying to do?
You may think you all know what you’re collaborating for, but have you really stated it explicitly? I’ll take it further. Have you defined what success looks like? You may be saying, “we need to fix the student problem,” and everyone will nod and get to work. But what does a ‘fixed student problem’ look like? Unless you all agree on what it looks like, then you won’t be able to make decisions between multiple alternatives.
Second – how are you going to make a final decision?
Tasler’s article puts it in terms of who will make the decision, but the more universal way of looking at is how will you make a decision. With multiple collaborators, you need to decide that up front, before you get into the weeds.
To answer these two basic questions, your group may need an external person to guide the conversation – someone from another department, another organization, or a professional facilitator. You want to make sure everyone is heard and there’s a final agreement.
Nick Tasler wrote from the perspective of multiple teams in the same corporation. But what he says is valid within nonprofits, as well. And all the more so when you’re talking about collaborating with other organizations.
- Be explicit about what you’re collaborating about.
- Agree on how final decisions will be made.
Until you have both of those, expect a lot of time spent spinning wheels.
Interested in hearing how a facilitator can help smooth the way? Send me a note and we can have a conversation.
Do you have a board profile matrix? Good! Now throw it out.
Harsh? Maybe. Necessary? You decide.
Where did you get that matrix? Was it found somewhere in a template? Maybe it came from someone else’s board; it looked good, so you adopted it. Maybe it’s a legacy matrix that has been handed down for the last 10 years by the Governance Committee (or Executive Committee, or Nominating Committee).
The problem is,
If you didn’t develop that matrix AFTER you decided what you want to be doing in the next 5 years, there’s a chance your board won’t match your ambitions.
First, decide what you’re doing. Then figure out what passions, skills, attributes, connections, experiences need to be present on your board to make it possible to do it. THEN evaluate your current board against those attributes.
Otherwise, you may be using five year old hardware to run state-of-the-art software. And we know how well that works.
Planning your future includes planning what you need to create that future. Let me know if you want to talk about planning. Happy to have that conversation, or facilitate your group discussing its future.
You need more than empathy to make your case.
Many people tell you that successful persuasion is built on understanding the other person’s values and frame of reference. What they don’t tell you is that you also have to know what they know.
We usually know enough not to use jargon – the shortcut language that lives in a specific field. “targeted immunotherapy” “donor-centric fundraising” “UHMW polyethylene” “flux capacitor”[just kidding]
When we’re talking to people outside the field, we’re pretty good at spelling it out.
But even spelling it out assumes that our audience can connect the dots; it assumes they can understand why it’s important. We might say “boosting a patient’s own immune system,” but we forget to draw the line from that definition to its implications. We might ay, “the donor needs to feel important,” but we don’t draw the line to why that makes a difference to the organization. WHY is it important?
Dangerous Assumptions: Round One
Two recent conversations really showed me the hazards in making assumptions about someone’s knowledge base.
Actually, the first was pretty amusing. It was a late night conversation with my nephews. These are smart, intelligent men. One is a veteran and a lead machinist in the Army Corps of Engineers, returning to school for Engineering. The other just completed a law degree.
Late at night, we’re sitting on a couch in a rented flat. Somehow, as we caught up on each others’ lives, the conversation turned to nonprofits and fundraising and conflict of interest and controlling who raises funds in the name of an organization. I’m still not sure how we got there. It was a strictly hypothetical conversation (my nephews are nerdy cool like that) but I realized that these smart men, with considerable experience dealing with people and the world, had no clue about how nonprofit organizations work.
The idea that a nonprofit can end the year with a surplus to start the next year with, because nonprofit is a tax identity, not a business model. That you can’t let just anyone use your name in order to raise funds because one of the nonprofit’s greatest assets is its reputation – good will and donations are built on that reputation. That there’s a difference between numbers being served and the impact on those being served. That overhead is a slippery term and just like commercial enterprises, you have to invest in infrastructure to have a greater impact.
The hour got later and later as I found I had to keep backing up to explain the background of different concepts. It was like a midnight course in nonprofit governance, hitting all the highlights. Not having another frame of reference, their knowledge of how nonprofits run was based on limited personal experience and what they read in the media. A lot of fun, intellectually stimulating, and exhausting!
Dangerous Assumptions: Round Two
The second instance wasn’t hypothetical. It was working with a client whose frame of reference came from being part of the bureaucracy of a larger entity. He knows his specialization inside and out, and he’s a really great asset to my own understanding of the organization. But when it comes to community relations and nonprofit governance, he has no context. Fortunately, he has the confidence to stop me in mid-conversation and ask me to connect the dots – why is it important to hold off on accepting help from a potential donor right now; what’s the best way to maintain contact with them; what’s the role of a board in helping to break a legislative logjam to release additional funds and accelerate a process?
The naiveté of my nephews and my client’s willingness to ask for that tutorial made me wonder: How many times do we not even realize that our audience isn’t following us? How many people we talk to think they know what you’re talking about? Do your new board members – heck, do your returning board members — really understand what you’re saying? They’ve heard the terms before and have built an image in their heads of what the words mean. But how much context are they missing?
It’s not enough to avoid jargon. To really connect, you have to start by knowing what they already know.
You can reach me here for a conversation about where to start with your audience; or to ask about facilitating meetings and decisions. Let’s see how I can help.
credit: John Quidor
In Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, old Rip goes off hunting to the mountains, encounters supernatural beings, drinks of their keg of brew, and falls asleep. Upon awakening, he returns home, only to find that 20 years have passed and the country is no longer beholden to King George III but is instead a republic with George Washington at the helm.
Imagine yourself, 20 years from now, returning to the nonprofit of which you are a part. Would you recognize it? Is the mission the same? Are its values the same? Would you still want to support it?
Organizations review their missions regularly; that’s a good thing. Nonprofits must evolve over time or risk irrelevance. But there is a difference between evolving to better serve the greater vision and doing a complete about-face on what that greater vision is.
This is the imperative of board recruitment:
Do your new directors aspire to the original vision of the institution?
If not, the organization may, in the words of Nonprofit Quarterly, be hijacked.
Consider the American Bible Society, which moved from a nonsectarian mission to distribute bibles to one that overtly espouses an evangelical point of view. As Ruth McCambridge relates, the move has been gradual, but appears caused by having individuals with a particular point of view on the board. These individuals in turn recruited like-minded other directors, until board level decisions began reflecting their particular view, affecting all their programs and policies.
This very clear example is a cautionary tale.
Whom your board recruits today affects what your organization looks like 20 years from now.
Each successive board moves the institution forward, and the tiny shifts build up over time.
Diversity of viewpoints keep the organization from shifting too far in one direction or another. The vibrant discussions that diversity leads to is one factor in ensuring that each decision is thoroughly examined.
Diversity of experience, viewpoints, skills and aptitudes keeps organizations relevant. It’s also a way to keep the vision front and center.
Recruitment is a fiduciary responsibility and a crucial investment in your future.
Sign up here for other hints about building a great board, or balancing growth and caution. Or if you want a no-obligation conversation about board relations, let me know.