Weak Ties, Strong Boards, and Finding Resources

Weak Ties, Strong Boards, and Finding Resources

How well did you know the other people on your board before they (or you) joined?

Were you good friends? Did you live near each other? Did you work together? If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll probably expect me to tell you – again – that boards need diversity.  It helps with innovation, it avoids tokenism, it promotes sustainability.

I’m not the only one writing about it. Many studies, like here and here, show that diversity increases the success of a group or an organization. Whether we say we need diverse viewpoints, diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, or diverse voices, it all translates into this: groups perform better in the long run if they are not homogeneous.

Network analysis gives us an insight into why this might be especially true when it comes to finding knowledge and resources.

Mark Granovetter posited that information flows through weak ties more than through strong ties. If you travel in the same circles and have the same friends, you are said to have strong ties with each other. If you happen to know someone whose circle is different, but don’t interact frequently with them, you are said to have weak ties.

These acquaintances are exposed to different ideas and different information than you are. So when you interact with these acquaintances, you are then exposed to new information that your strong ties do not have.  In the words of Skye Bender-deMoll,

although your close friend may work harder to help you get a new job, it is likely to be an acquaintance that actually gets you a useful lead.”

Let’s extrapolate that to your organization. If most of the board travels in the same circles, their knowledge of resources is more likely to be similar than when members of the board come from diverse communities.

But if different members of the board have different networks, they bring those networks with them when they come to the board table. Along with their different experiences, they bring different knowledge and different entrees to resources.

As boards emerge from the founding stage, they tend to seek people with ‘deep pockets,’ implying that money is the only resource that matters. However, dollars are only one kind of resource; they are often a proxy for the resources that are really needed. They seek dollars because dollars can buy the resources that are needed to fulfill the mission: staff, rent, supplies. But resources come in many forms: community good will, contacts with particular skills, potential clients, individuals with elbow grease, advocates in different communities.

In many cases, the tangible resources themselves are available, without having to expend dollars – if you have the contacts that can bring them in.

By diversifying the composition of your board, you increase the number of weak ties for your organization. Weak ties multiply the opportunities for finding and developing resources that make it possible to fulfill your mission.

Why is diversity on your board important? More voices, more viewpoints, AND MORE KNOWLEDGE AND RESOURCES.

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How to Create a Culture of Board Education

How to Create a Culture of Board Education

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.

Credit www.mindtools.com

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.

Need a Reason for Board Committees? Here are Six.

Need a Reason for Board Committees? Here are Six.

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It happens all the time, especially when a board is transitioning from a working board to a governing board. The organization grows. It gets more complicated. Board members used to being involved in everything have trouble releasing the details and focusing on the bigger picture.

If the role of the board is to focus on mission and not minutiae, what will make that possible?

What will make it possible to pay special attention to the financial oversight role? Staying informed is important, but the specifics of watching the checkbook and investments; researching where funds should be invested; and drafting financial policies are not everyone’s forté. The specific, detailed work that goes into reviewing the current financials, the research, and the drafting are more easily done by a smaller group of people with financial literacy.

What will make it possible to completely revamp your community relations? Each board member has a role to play in advocacy and public relations, but developing the plan takes expertise. Identifying opportunities for board participation, PR outlets, messaging, advocacy timeline are more easily accomplished by a smaller group of people with community relations and advocacy experience.

Far from removing responsibility from the board, committees are vehicles for building the board by:

  1. Engaging board members more closely in important work that intimately and explicitly uses their expertise. Why did Carlos come on the board in the first place? What’s his passion and talent? Let him loose!
  2. Creating opportunities for recruiting strong board members, who have an interest in the organization and now have experience with the organization. Not sure if Jenna is a good fit? Invite her to help on a committee! After working together, she can decide whether she wants to be more involved, and you can see if she’d do well on the board.
  3. Strengthening the board knowledge base by bringing in individuals who don’t want board service but who want to offer their expertise. Is Shenay an HR lawyer with a heavy travel schedule? A board position may not fit her life right now, but she may be happy to provide guidance on a committee.
  4. Bolstering long-term engagement and retaining institutional memory and by including board members rotating off the board. Did Max roll off the board after two full terms? It’s a shame to lose his passion and his relationships. Is he a good fit for the community relations committee?
  5. Enhancing staff – board interactions. Board members typically have little direct experience with staff. But Board member Howard and program director Lisette together research what it will take to develop the metrics they need.
  6. Streamlining board meetings so the full board can focus on strategy and direction instead of minutiae. With functioning committees, Maureen can chair the board meetings knowing that the background research on the strategic issues has been done. There are people at the table who can answer relevant questions, and the full board can spend time on discussing the implications.

Engage board members, staff and passionate newcomers on committees that use their talents and interests. It’s a pathway to a more engaged and strategic board.

Now…and in the future.

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

The authoritarian approach to management – top down, we know best, we’ll make the decisions, you just do it – is usually pretty good at demanding accountability.  It is the Board that answers the questions:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

But nonprofit management is shifting from authoritarian to stewardship* – where the board and Executive Director/CEO are partners.

Further on the spectrum, many organizations are shifting to the stakeholder style, in which different groups are represented on the board.

Even further, and many organizations have democratic decision making. Community members, staff, board, administration are all involved in steering the organization.

Most organizations are a blend of two or more of these management approaches, but as authoritarian approaches diminish, what does that mean for accountability?

If there is no single entity at the top that tells you what to do, and punishes you if you don’t do it, how do you make sure it’s going to get done?

Accountability is not just top-down. According Merriam-Webster, accountability means “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”

An obligation or a willingness to accept responsibility.

Accountability can be self-imposed; as management styles evolve to become more participatory, self-imposed accountability emerges.

As responsibility for the organization and outcomes shifts from the top downward, individuals at all levels participate in crafting the desired outcome. Participants become invested in its success. They decide that it’s an important goal; a goal that they want to be part of, take ownership of, and work to accomplish.

This is where accountability is triggered. As an individual takes ownership of some aspect of the project, they answer the first of the three questions:

  • Who will take on this task?

But the next two questions must also be answered:

  • When will this task be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

As soon as someone takes the lead on a task, it should become automatic that the next two questions are asked and answered.

A strategic plan crafted by multiple constituents will be enthusiastically embraced. It will have major goals and strategies. But even as responsibility broadens, the questions remain. With every decision, in every meeting:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

Accountability requires answers to all three. Make asking them a habit.

*See Governance and Accountability: A Different Choice for Nonprofits, by Tracey Coule in Nonprofit Quarterly.

For more about engaging your board and community, follow me at The Detwiler Group, or contact me directly at sdetwiler@detwiler.com.

 

 

 

I’m a new board president! Now what?

I’m a new board president! Now what?

Congratulations! Being elected Board President is a vote of confidence.  Your friends may commiserate, but they don’t realize that you have superpowers.

With you at the helm, you make it possible to build the future your board and staff have envisioned.

It will take time, of course.

  • You will partner with your CEO in executing that vision.
  • You will mentor board members as they develop their roles and accomplish them.
  • You will be cheerleading.
  • You will be checking in with the ‘wisdom in the room.

You will make it possible for each member of your board to be part of that future.

In short, this organization is now one of the top four priorities in your life, along with your family, your job and possibly your house of worship.

Before your first board meeting as President, take some time to prepare.

What do you know about the people around the table? What do they know about each other? What do they know about you?

What do you want your working relationship to be, with the CEO? With the board?

How do you want to work together?

Google recently discovered that when individuals in groups get to know each other as people, those groups are more productive.  So consider, what does it make possible when each board member feels a real part of the group? What can you do to create that camaraderie?

The mechanics of being board president may be clear: preside at meetings; sign contracts; represent the organization in community meetings.

But developing a board that builds a future together – that’s your superpower.