One Assumption Board Presidents Should NEVER Make

One Assumption Board Presidents Should NEVER Make

Whether or not your board acts like a team may actually depend on whether you’ve told them they are.

There’s great research  out now that proves that teams are more productive when they’re told they’re working together.  In the research, small groups of people met, were then separated and each individual was given tasks to complete. Individuals in one group (the “Together” group) were told they were working together, though they remained physically separated. Individuals who met in the other group were given the same tasks, but were not told they were working together. In each case, the participant was given a hint or clue to help them perform the tasks. Those in the “Together” group were told it came from another member of the group. Those in the other group were told it catogetherme from staff.

The individuals from the “Together” group not only did better than the individuals in the other group, but they stayed at the tasks 48% longer, solved more of the tasks, and found the tasks more interesting. In other words, just being told that they were working “together” created an environment in which they were more motivated and more engaged in the task at hand.

In the words of Heidi Grant Halvorson

“The word “together” is a powerful social cue to the brain.  In and of itself, it seems to serve as a kind of relatedness reward, signaling that you belong, that you are connected, and that there are people you can trust working with you toward the same goal.”

As other research has shown, human beings are just naturally social. We have been bred over millennia to be attuned to others. Even when we believe ourselves to be introverts, we want to know that there are others out there to whom we can relate in our own way.

That’s why, when we bring new members onto a board of directors, it is understandable that there is an initial feeling of uncertainty. The other members have a shared history. There are references to previous decisions and previous board members. Shortening the time it takes to overcome these feelings of alienation increases the likelihood that board service will be a positive experience. Introducing new board members by emphasizing that they will be working together with the rest of the team can accelerate building new relationships.

This also holds true for existing board members. Each board discussion and each board decision should explicitly be made “together.” References to working together for the sake of the institution or the mission reinforces the importance of each individual role in building success.

What are your experiences in bringing board members together?  Pass them on!  Post them here or you can reach me at

But it looks so easy!

I had occasion to do my first self-video this week. It was a one-minute spot to introduce a program I’m presenting at an upcoming nonprofit conference.

No problem, right? Go into my Macbook Pro. Fire up the Photo Booth program, and record my introduction.

Then reality set in.

I needed to be sure of what I was going to say, so I didn’t stumble.

My computer is generally below my direct line of sight, but I didn’t want to be looking down at the camera.

How do I look at the camera and still read my notes? How does my hair look? Is my office tidy?

After a little manipulation, I raised my computer so it was directly in front of me. I typed my notes into a document so I could see them on the screen as I looked at the camera. I stacked the books behind me, combed my hair and put on lipstick.

I recorded the spot. Then I recorded it again – apparently I tend to swivel in my desk chair when I talk. Then I recorded it again – I also tend to bite my lip during pauses. Then I recorded it again – I stumbled over a few words.

In all, it took a full hour and 10 takes before I was satisfied. The DonorPerfect  conference organizer laughed and said that was on the low end for all his staff who were recording videos.

Wow. Way to internalize a lesson I’ve been telling nonprofit boards about for the past few years!

When you see organizations with great social media presence, they make it look easy. This very small episode is a reminder that it’s not easy. It takes work to have a great presence. It takes planning and it takes forethought.

The idea for video promos came from a smart, full-time communications professional, who is coordinating the video uploads for all the conference facilitators. It’s part of a comprehensive marketing campaign that integrates with the organization’s educational goals.  It’s not scatter-shot. It’s planned and strategic, with specific objectives and accountability.

When Directors and Trustees suggest you get a college or high school student to “do the social media,” feel free to show them this post. If you want a consistent message, and a fully integrated consistent presence in front of your clients, supporters, members, volunteers and staff, it takes planning and it takes time.

Once upon a time we told people to “learn computer programming.” We don’t anymore.  Computers are now just a tool we all use to get our work done. That time has come for social media. Social media is now just another tool in a well-rounded marketing plan.

Have you had an experience that reinforces a lesson in nonprofit planning and governance? Let me know! Perhaps we can share it so others can learn, too!  You can reach me at:

What if your Board had an Innovation Committee?


What could you do with an Innovation Committee?

In their post “How Boards Can Innovate”, Michael Useem, Dennis Carey, and Ram Charan make the case that in corporations, while product innovation is not the purview of the Board of Directors, strategies and structure clearly are.

That division of labor is not so different from nonprofit organizations, where rendering services is the job of the staff, and the structure and strategies remain the job of the board. So how does a for-profit board incorporate innovation?

A very quick look at major corporations show that corporate boards frequently have innovation committees. From Procter & Gamble to Acxiom, corporations have instituted innovation committees that are generally charged with oversight of innovations and new product development. They act as advisors to staff in reviewing innovations, and act as advisors to the rest of the board, helping them to understand the new innovations being proposed.

Wellpoint Corporation has an interesting variation. Wellpoint renamed the planning committee of the board. It’s now the Strategic Innovation Committee,

“to assist the Board in discharging its responsibilities relating to various strategic issues identified by the Board from time to time, including the Company’s long-term plans and its ongoing investment in technology and targeted areas strategic to the Company’s interests.”

Fascinating! The formerly titled planning committee is charged with innovation.

What might this mean for a nonprofit board? innovation and planning scrabble pieces

According to Merriam-Webster:

Innovation is: 1) the introduction of something new; 2) a new idea, method, or device

Planning is: the act or process of making or carrying out plans; specifically: the establishment of goals, policies, and procedures for a social or economic entity.

In other words, we might conceive of planning as figuring out how to execute an idea or a concept, whereas innovation is seeking out new ideas or strategies, and bringing something new to the table. Of course, an innovation committee will also plan, but a planning committee doesn’t automatically imply innovation. The word innovation itself implies searching out new, possibly disruptive ideas, and considering whether they may be applicable to the organization.

If, as Hildy Gottleib maintains, language matters, then the name of a committee can influence how the members view themselves. Just as potently, it can influence how the rest of the organization views the work of that committee.

It is exciting. It is forward-looking. It is ‘out-of-the-box.’

We’ve already changed the name of the Fundraising Committee to Development Committee, because raising resources is a process of developing relationships.

How about changing planning to innovation?

What might that make possible for your organization?

Have some thoughts to share on this subject?  Get in touch with me at

How is Improv Comedy Like Appreciative Inquiry?

For years, the words Appreciative Inquiry seeped into my consciousness.

It began at a two-day national development seminar, and most recently at a five-day conference for lay leaders, nonprofit professionals and clergy. By this time, it appeared everywhere, either explicitly or implicitly; there seemed to be a whole track of sessions that demonstrated appreciative inquiry in different settings.

On a very simple level, Appreciative Inquiry begins with:

  1. appreciating and valuing what is;
  2. envisioning what might be;
  3. engaging in dialogue about what should be; and
  4. innovating to create what will be.

So what does Improv Comedy have to do with Appreciative Inquiry? Good question. Two main rules of Improv Comedy are “Yes, and…” and “your main focus is on your partner.

First, whatever is thrown at you, you have to accept it and build on it. Man talking into a bananaFor example, if someone picks up a banana and uses it to call you on the phone, you can’t say, “you idiot, that’s a banana!” You have to go with the flow, answer the phone, and say, “Hey! I was just about to call you – your Mom’s here and wants to know what you did with her gold-plated antique chamber pot she inherited from your Dad’s Aunt Phoebe in Alaska!” The point is, you have to accept what has been handed to you, and figure out what to do with it.

Second, with every sentence being a potential surprise, you have to focus closely on your partner, listen to whatever is being said and try to understand where she’s going with it.

In a nonprofit setting, if a board member says, “our students aren’t showing up for tutoring,” the response is “yes, and let’s figure out the ideal situation.” If you can envision an ideal situation, then you can work towards that ideal. If you say, “yes, but they’re dealing with issues at home, the buses aren’t running at the right time, their parents don’t push them….” you’re not adding to the conversation. You’re focusing on problems and seeming defensive, instead of hearing that the board member cares about the situation and inviting him to a shared vision of a better future.

“Yes, and…”

acknowledges that the comment was made,

appreciates that it is a concern,

inquires into what would be better.

And starts a dialogue about creating a better future.

Do, Delegate, Discard: Make Time for New Resolutions

“I resolve to do more (fill in the blank)…… in the coming year.”

Congratulations! But what are going to do less of?

A simple and powerful tool for any manager, Do, Delegate, Discard is especially helpful to Executive Directors who are the lynchpin between the Board of Directors and the staff. It makes you focus on making the most of your time, and helps you make best use of the talent around you.

First, write down everything you are responsible for. Everything. That includes bringing in office snacks, managing the $5000 library fund donor and organizing the annual gala. Making thank you calls to major donors, reviewing the copier contract, meeting board members for coffee and writing the copy for the eight page monthly newsletter. Writing the development and communications plan, keeping the FAQs up-to-date, hiring, evaluating and firing staff and developing the employee handbook. Whatever it is, write it down.

Now, make three columns next to the list: Do, Delegate, Discard.

For each item on the list, decide if it’s something ONLY YOU CAN DO, something you can DELEGATE TO SOMEONE ELSE, or something that doesn’t have to be done, i.e., DISCARD.

Caution! Even if you think that only you can do it right, that doesn’t mean that only you can do it. This is where perfectionists stumble. Consider – an Executive Director earning $80,000 a year (plus benefits), and ostensibly working 40 hours per week (ha), is earning $48/hour. Does it really make sense for you to be the author of every article for the newsletter or to maintain the FAQs? Or should you be focusing on staff development, major donors and board interactions? If you honestly believe that only you can do the job, then mark the DO column. These items should be where your organization will derive the greatest benefit from your time.

Control freaks stumble when they contemplate handing off to a subordinate.  Delegating is scary, but successful delegation ultimately pays off. Staff get the chance to shine and the satisfaction of being responsible for jobs well done. So into the DELEGATE column put reviewing the copier contract, keeping FAQs up-to-date, managing and writing the newsletter, reviewing lower level staff, drafting new handbook pages. It may mean time to train your staff, but developing your staff is ultimately what will make you – and your organization – even more productive.

Superwomen and Supermen stumble on DISCARD. There is a subconscious fear that you will be thought less of if you don’t do every. single. thing. But DISCARD may be the most powerful action you can take. It forces you to stop and think about why a job is done at all.  Maybe the 8 page monthly newsletter should drop to 4 pages, or bimonthly, or not even exist. What purpose does it serve; would something else serve that purpose even better? Should stewarding the library fund donor be woven into the general donor stewardship program? Are all the board reports needed? Can you move to consent agendas? Should you drop the gala that nets $20,000 but has hidden labor costs of $50,000?

Deceptively simple, Do, Delegate, Discard is a powerful tool for managing your time, and empowering your staff. It’s a great way to begin the new year, and make room for all those NEW resolutions.

Living in a Bubble

I’ve been living in a bubble.  I attended a seminar by an attorney who works with nonprofits, talking to other attorneys about the world of nonprofits.

Her talk was a shocking reminder of just how widespread misconceptions about board service are.  I’m becoming used to standing on a soap box and expounding with great assurance about the relationships between boards and executives. But every time I hear a professional presenting outdated ideas about board service, I am still shocked.

boy in a bubbleWhat she did was no different from so many other professionals, who know their fields very well, but are less informed about trends in governance. In this case, she launched immediately into the legal duties of care, loyalty and obedience, without setting the stage of what the whole point of a board is. She declared that board retreats could be done maybe every two years, or three if that’s when the full board has turned over, and used the word boring to describe board meetings. She referenced the never-changing agenda of “minutes, financial report, directors report, old business, new business,” and said that sometimes there just isn’t anything going on that’s important for the board to talk about.

There is so much I’ve learned from these professionals. An attorney describing the validity of term limits in ways that other attorneys can understand them; the legal ins-and-outs of confidentiality. But I cringe at the depiction of board service that they’ve conveyed. No one in their right mind would want to be on a board, if they thought that board service was as they describe.

So I have a new challenge. Apparently, I’ve been living in a bubble, where I communicate regularly with like-minded individuals. We see board service as a noble investment in our communities while being fully engaged with others who also see value in the mission, ensuring that nonprofit organizations have the resources with which to continue their work.

The challenge is, how do I—how do WE—get the word out to other professionals, so instead of undermining our work, they are also missionaries for the role of boards and board service?

And, since I’m living in a bubble, what misconceptions do I have, that I need to be disabused of, so I can reciprocate in my work, and provide an accurate picture of their field?

Any ideas?