What We're Thinking

Reflections from BoardSource Leadership Forum, October 2014

Last week I continued my walkabout in the wide world of non-profit organizational development by attending the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Washington DC.

Relatively few Organizational Effectiveness grants are for board development, at least explicitly. It is the rare non-profit board that collectively wakes up one morning and says “Hey, we think that investing in ourselves as a board is a great idea. Let’s call the Packard Foundation for a board development grant.” It is apparently much easier (safer?) to request funds for strategic planning or fund development or communications planning. Could it be that people think “if we ask for help with our board, we are admitting weakness at our very core”? But that’s the issue – the quality and functioning of an organization’s board IS core to success. For the Foundation, it is therefore core to our program investments. And even a strong board benefits from self-reflection and can improve.

Here are some conference takeaways:

  • Don’t settle for the wrong folks. Having the right people on the board is critical. Too often non-profit board recruitment is done ad-hoc. Does anyone know anyone who can bring us big checks? Or, we need a warm body, so…does anyone know anyone who would be willing to sit through our meetings? We provide snacks! Board recruitment done right is a deliberate, long-term, ongoing process. Boards and senior staff need to consider the qualities that are needed to get the tasks done that are before them. Is it influence in a particular community, or the ability to ask probing questions? (As an example, the YMCA has a nicely developed process for this.) And as a corollary…
  • The organization needs to date potential board members for a while first – and it is good for the potential board members to date the organization too. Just because someone is available and looks good doesn’t mean they are a good match. See if they can serve another volunteer function, perhaps on a task force or committee, before the organization (and the board member) sign up for the long haul.
  • Strong boards are inclusive. Diversity is good, yes, but can end up as tokenism. Every person on the board needs to be included and have a real role. Boards that embrace inclusion embrace new ideas and divergent thinking – what does this person bring BECAUSE they come from a different place? How can their perspective strengthen our work?
  • Boards need the opportunity to be generative. There are three aspects of governance: fiduciary, strategic, and generative. The generative piece is often the trickiest one. As it is said in the highly recommended book Governance as Leadership, “generative governance leads the board to ask the questions that come before the fiduciary and strategic questions, such as: Have we framed this issue correctly? How else might we look at this? What else should we consider? Generative thinking can lead to a reconsideration of how the current state may best be understood.” And as part of that generative thinking…
  • Boards need to challenge their conclusions. Groupthink is powerful. Like Lisa Solomon suggests in Moments of Impact, one tool is to assign a person to argue against a position – even better, assign the person who is arguing most passionately FOR a conclusion to take a step back and argue just as passionately AGAINST it. (I think I’m going to try this at home.)
  • Boards People need the space to be reflective. Our world, our calendars, our lives are often mostly interruptions. Individual reflection is necessary to get things done. Take a page out of Thomas Edison’s book and reflect even if it means pretending that you are fishing. Or something. Ensure that board members (and staff too, for that matter) have uninterrupted time to be productive and think.
  • Boards benefit from assessing themselves. Assessments can provide neutral information to a board about their strengths and opportunities, and can motivate a board to work to improve its performance. Pairing a board coach (to ask probing questions) with an assessment can be a tool for allowing boards to self-identify their own goals and future direction. There are several board assessment tools out there. The one most often mentioned at this conference (not surprisingly) is the BoardSource assessment, which is less than $1000 for an organization and includes an online survey and a summary of the results.

After two days of the conference, I’m convinced that board development – assessment, coaching, training – is powerful. Boards who work on themselves are strong boards, impressive boards, and better boards.

Now my question is this: How can we get more of our grantees interested in board development? If you have ideas, please get in touch!

P.S. Why is it the “board” of directors? What is the relationship between an organizational board and a long piece of lumber? How about getting on board a train? Room and board? Stay tuned for another blog post musing on the etymology of the word. (Or Not.)

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