Strengthening boards is an ongoing task. Acknowledging what needs to be done is only the first step.
As Martin Levine asks in NP Quarterly, Diversifying Boards Means Ceding Control – Are White Nonprofit Leaders Ready? It’s an important question, because all the best intentions can be stymied by unconscious fear and discomfort.
Boards react to the realization — or accusations — of a lack of diversity by adding new and ‘different’ board members. Then they wonder why these individuals leave.
Creating a board that reflects the community can’t be the first step. Planning is crucial.
Anticipate that board dynamics may need to change. If you generally govern by consensus, how will you foster the diversity of opinions and ideas that a more diverse board will bring? How will you give the new voices as much weight as the voices of returning board members? How will you include the newer board members in substantive committees, and educate the chairs on dealing with those they might perceive as ‘disrupters’?
Create the conditions for success.
Acknowledge that board dynamics – and control – may need to change, and consider these questions before bringing on new and ‘different’ board members.
Want to talk about having these conversations? Get in touch and we can see what it means for YOUR organization.
And if you see an article that you think it’s important, send it on so we can all benefit from your thoughts. More eyes, more sharing, more knowledge all around!
The title Black Women are Coming for Equity in Non-Profit Quarterly drew me in. As I read it, I kept hearing in my head, “This is important. This is important for traditional nonprofit boards to read.” Articulating why it’s important is a little harder than recognizing the importance.
I suspect that many older board members – like me – will have experienced in one way or another the civil rights movement, or the times when gay rights was front page fodder, or perhaps the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Are these memories of the past coloring how we understand and react to the current movements that honor the lived experience of those who differ from us?
Cyndi Suarez’ example of Senator Bernie Sanders’ speech and his interaction with the participants at the She the People presidential forum can be a learning tool. How are our experiences of the past coloring our understanding of the present? Are we leaning too heavily on our memories and assuming we know the present? Do we understand the difference between equal rights and equity?
If this article has started some conversations, or even caused some deep thinking about how we govern our nonprofits and prepare for the future, please let me know.
And watch for more curated articles. If you see an article you think everyone should read, please send it on. Or if you want to talk about facilitation, governance or planning for your organization, I’d love to have that conversation.
More eyes – more articles – more wisdom!
I’m not writing any more blog posts! At least not for a while. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hear from me.
Building and nurturing relationships is at the heart of how I work with nonprofit boards and executives. A blog post cannot recreate the one-on-one conversations that develop into trusted working relationships.
But in my work I read many great articles that convey important food for thought for nonprofit organizations. Some are written directly for board chairs. Others focus on the for-profit world and carry lessons for nonprofit executives.
So instead of writing my own posts, I will curate the articles I read and give you my take on why they are intriguing, or important, or how to use them.
I hope you enjoy this new format. Here’s the first one.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Lessons Learned as Board Chair
Rick Moyers recently stepped down as chair of the board of BoardSource, As you can imagine, he had a lot riding on his time there. In this article, he offers three important lessons he learned during his time as chair. While only one explicitly talks about building one-on-one relationships, the other two have at their heart the need to recognize that you are always dealing with people. Always. And understanding that everything you do affects people is a great life lesson – whether as a formal leader or someone in the middle of the pack making routine decisions.
I hope you appreciate Moyers’ words as much as I do: Lessons Learned as Board Chair
Watch for more curated articles from me. If you find one you think everyone should read, please send it on. Or if you want to talk about facilitation or planning for your organization, I’d love to have that conversation.
More eyes – more articles – more wisdom!
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.
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 simmering issues on your team prevent smooth group efforts?
Maybe there’s past ‘bad blood,’ or one party imputes negative motives to the other. Perhaps a dominant personality habitually runs roughshod over the ideas of the other, or two team members have become avatars for two different factions.
For example, in one organization, disagreement in philosophy between two board factions was harming working relationships in the entire organization. The tensions affected the staff mentally and emotionally, and the board members had no clue. As I facilitated their retreat, I had the opportunity to show them the effect of this tension and help them craft a way to deal with the disagreements.
This is a common situation. As a group, you have to work together, but you know there are issues that could derail the process. What can you do?
You need a neutral navigator
A trusted, neutral person – an internal or external facilitator – can address the underlying tension. They help the parties recognize that the tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but has to be attended to or it will affect the entire organization.
Several key steps make this trust possible.
- The facilitator must be viewed as neutral. Whether internal or external, the facilitator has to be seen as not favoring one party or the other.
- The facilitator must have a personal, confidential conversation with each party to the decisionmaking process. Whether in-person or by phone, by interviewing each party no one person feels like they have been singled out. Through these confidential conversations the facilitator begins to lay the foundation of trust, and hears how the parties talk about the simmering issues.
- In the meeting, the facilitator identifies the task at hand and gets agreement that this is its purpose. This establishes that there is a higher goal they are all aspiring to.
- The facilitator builds on the individual trust relationship by creating a safe space within the group. This means starting with noncontroversial topics and using techniques so each participant has an opportunity to talk about something personally meaningful. Often, the facilitator can bring the group to agreement about the ultimate value of the organization purpose; this lays the groundwork for a discussion of how the tension is harming their work towards this goal.
Address the tension
- The facilitator brings up the simmering disagreement themself. This is very important. After reiterating and getting acknowledgement that this is a safe space, the facilitator states they’d like to bring up something they heard from several people in the confidential conversations. Then, without naming names, they relate what they heard and the effect it has on the entire organization.
- The facilitator states that tension, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Tension can make for a more robust examination of issues. It is how it is dealt with that’s important. Reiterating the tension, the facilitator asks for situations in which this tension has affected the organization’s operations, and how it is currently dealt with.
- The facilitator’s questions avoid laying blame AND avoid placing responsibility for the solution. Once the group acknowledges the tension, the next question is “what can be put in place that will make it easier to deal with the tension?” This phrasing reinforces the neutrality and extends the trust relationship. No one person is singled out. It conditions participants to think of solutions without implicating a particular person. It is not, “what can Joe do….,” but indicates that they can all implement a system that relieves the situation.
- The facilitator continues this discussion, documents the solutions, and uses techniques for coming to consensus on the process they will follow in the future when the tension arises. At the conclusion, the process is documented and distributed.
Relax and work toward a solution
The key is having a neutral, trusted individual facilitate the discussion. Whether using an internal or external facilitator, each participant knows that they will be treated fairly and not singled out. Members of the group can then relax and work together toward a solution.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a multi-day retreat or a half-day planning session. Without attending to underlying tensions, they can derail getting consensus on decisions.
What’s going on in YOUR teams? Can attention to tensions make your work smoother?
Get in touch for a conversation about how facilitation can make your work easier. Or sign-up here for more ideas about managing boards and planning.