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 But every time I hear a professional presenting outdated ideas about board service, I am still shocked.
What 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?
In 1988, Bobby McFerrin released a song that drove me absolutely nuts. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Just ask my husband. I cringed whenever I heard it. The whole idea that you should never worry, and that just being told to be happy would work was just crazy to me.
Frankly, I still feel that way. No, I don’t cringe when I hear the song, but the philosophy that we should never worry just doesn’t work for me.
Stress isn’t your enemy! Stress can be good! It’s how we grow!
Stressing about stress is your enemy. Stressing without release is your enemy. But stress isn’t bad in and of itself. In fact, in orthopedics, there’s something called Wolf’s Law – bone that is subjected to some stress, grows stronger in the area of stress. The same thing with muscles. That’s why we’re told to do cardiovascular exercise – so our heart muscle grows stronger.
It follows through into our work lives. If we’re constantly working in our comfort zones, then we don’t grow. But working outside of our comfort zones is stressful.
You didn’t learn to ride a bike by not taking terrifying first peddles and falling down a few times.
When it comes to our nonprofit work, we have to face the fact that working outside our comfort zone is the only way we’ll grow beyond what we’re already doing. It may be stressful, but as long as we periodically take some time off to relax and look at what we’ve done, then the stress is good.
If you want to work explore how a coach or mentor can help you or your staff embrace the stress – and work with it instead of against it – let me know! I’m happy to talk about it and see if there are ways that you can put stress to work for you.
“Do you really need a Board or does having one just lead to more chaos…?”
A few months back, this loaded question was asked of the Nonprofit Professionals Group on LinkedIn, and a robust discussion followed.
My favorite answer, though, came from colleague John McClusky.
“…we, the public, “entrust” the “trustees,” the predominantly volunteer body named “the “board,” to serve as our agent to ensure that the NPO actually pursues the socially beneficial purpose (mission) it claims to fulfill and acts in a fundamentally responsible way with the charitable donations and tax exemptions we grant it…”
In other words, the Board of Directors is entrusted with the responsibility to make sure that the mission is fulfilled.
For years, I have been telling boards that their job is to ensure that the mission of the organization can be fulfilled now, and in the future. It lays the groundwork for the board’s role in ensuring that the resources necessary for this fulfillment – financial, intellectual, capital, social, vision — are available to the organization.
But I’d never really looked at the other side of the role. When we serve on boards, we are not only serving our own nonprofit organization, we are also serving society. We, the Directors and Trustees, are the eyes and ears of society, are responsible for making sure that the dollars which society entrusts to us are used wisely and to fulfill the intent which we proclaim. Our donors give us their wealth; our government is giving up tax dollars to us.
As directors and trustees, we serve our nonprofit. But we are also trustees of society, and as such, responsible for upholding our end of the bargain.
Being on a board is an awesome responsibility. Let me know if you’d like to talk about instilling this vision of a board’s role throughout your work.
Niccolo Machiavelli was right, when he said. There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
Wow. He sure nailed it on the head. If you’ve ever come into an organization and tried to change its course, you know just how right he was. Change is hard, change is risky, and change is resisted.
And even when people claim to be willing to change, almost to a person, they will tell you that their peers will resist it.
In February, Julia Kirby wrote an analysis of the downfall of a change agent. As I read her blog on Harvard Business Review, most of her analysis boils down to arrogance. Coming in as a white knight that will rescue a situation, creating an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality, presuming that everyone agrees that change is necessary – any one of these will create resentment in an organization. Doing all of them is sure to make change even harder.
An organization is made of people who have invested time and their lives in building something good. To be told that it has to change implies that they have wasted their time, or that what they have built is not good.
Instead, engaging every level in the organization in making the already good even better creates a team more willing to work on change. And change is important, to keep up with society, and to ensure that you’re delivering your mission in the best way possible.
It’s not a panacea – change IS hard – but a willing attitude goes a long way toward making those difficult transitions easier to take. Instead of imposing change, inspire the team to aspire to greatness. Change will follow.
When good intentions get derailed.
I’m on the board of a nonprofit contemplating a new initiative, and it’s been taking us a long time to come to a conclusion. When the chair said, “Thanks, Gina, for nudging us back on track,” I remembered something that nonprofit administrators sometimes forget.
Boards of Directors have other lives.
Executive Directors eat, sleep, breathe, LIVE the mission. Most boards don’t.
That’s not to say they don’t care. Not at all. They care very deeply! That’s why they are filled with regret when they realize that they’re not living up to their own expectations of what they hope to accomplish during their terms. The Executive Director may be frustrated with them for not following through, but you can bet that most of them are also frustrated with their own lack of progress.
I once worked with a Board President who was dynamite at raising money – when he made his calls. He was completely committed to making those calls When he was at the board meeting, he had no other mission except to make those calls. But he didn’t make the calls.
Something else came up to distract him, and as committed as he was to the mission, the immediate task took precedence, pushing those fundraising calls down the list.
So what’s the solution?
Well, in the case of the board president, we set appointments for him and the Executive to meet in the same room and make the calls. Once it was on his calendar, it became concrete, not just an item on a to-do list.
We figured out what the problem was, what was keeping him from fulfilling his own self-identified commitments, and figured out how to overcome those obstacles. With this as an example, the Executive Director learned to view each board member as an individual. Each had his or her own external pressures and obstacles, and each had ways in which they worked well. The Executive Director had to spend some time considering how to help each stay on track.
Time consuming? A bit. But so much more productive than fuming, “can’t they see that this is important?!”
And in the case of the nonprofit that opened this post? We set concrete dates and commitments for our next meeting.
What keeps your board members from accomplishing their work? What else is on their minds? How can these obstacles be overcome? If you’d like to hash this out, let me know!
If it ain’t broke, find a better way.
Usually, I hear if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At nonprofits, it’s usually used to defend the status quo – we’ve never had term limits, our mission is still as important as ever, the materials in our literacy classes have always worked, we always read our committee reports out loud, Jimmy’s always handled our books, the 5K is our biggest fundraiser!
The problem is, if we only fixed what’s broken, we’d never have the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the iPod, the space shuttle. Heck, if we only fixed what’s broken, we might never have invented the sewing machine! Each of these improvements weren’t fixing something that was broken, they happened because someone said there had to be a better way.
It’s the same thing with delivering our missions. Our programs have been working just fine, thank you very much. Why should we change? The answer isn’t change for the sake of change. The answer is change to do it better. To have a greater impact. To use our resources more wisely.
That’s why strong, effective nonprofits regularly evaluate their programs and measure their effectiveness. It’s not to fulfill funder requirements, although that is a nice benefit. It’s to see if we can learn from them, and find ways of having a greater impact. Many nonprofits operate in the same mission space, because there is such a great need. It’s not competition if you can learn from each other, and discover the best practices for making a difference.
We evaluate our personnel all the time (or at least we know we should). Shouldn’t we be evaluating our programs?
Instead of saying, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, shouldn’t we be asking, it ain’t broke, but can we do it better?
One of the 55 standards of The Standards for Excellence: A Code of Ethics and Accountability for nonprofits calls for regular evaluation of programs. If you would like more information about the Standards, or ways to evaluate your programs, let me know. Let’s talk.