Finding our Way to Wisdom

I have been thinking a lot about the fundamental role of nonprofit governing boards. We teachers or consultants on governance, opine about the board’s stewardship and fiduciary responsibilities. We offer advice on how to engage in more strategic work. We provide tips on how to engage more “generatively” in the boardroom. All this stuff is important.

But the deeper vocation of trustees is to seek wisdom. It is a wisdom that listens to internal and external stakeholders. It is a wisdom that reflects deeply on mission and core values. It is wisdom that puts aside opinion and focuses on the greater good. It is a wisdom that is courageous enough to insist that the driven CEO pauses and is audacious enough to stir the more reticent executive to take reasoned risk. It is a wisdom that is ready to engage new possibilities as well as make very difficult decisions.

Finding such wisdom will require boards that are rich in perspective – that is diverse in many ways. It will also require a readiness to experiment and use time/engage agendas in new ways. How are you working on creating breadth of perspective in the boardroom? What experiments have you tried in engaging agendas in different ways?

Expect more in the next few posts on perspectives and process in the boardroom.



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“Generative” board work is a term introduced in the book, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (2005). It’s a great contribution to the literature and thinking about nonprofit board work. Chait, Ryan, and Taylor (the authors) observed that far too many boards spend far too much time doing fiduciary work—I call it rear-view mirror work—listening to reports and reviewing past performance. They assert that boards need to do more “strategic” work—front windshield work—and more “generative” work. So far so good, but that word “generative” has tripped up a lot of well-intentioned folks.

I often think about generative work as learning work or sense-making work. It’s not work that focuses on past performance or decision-making about future goals, but it is conversation that explores issues, deepens knowledge before decisions are needed, and imagines new possibilities that extend mission in ways that are consistent with corporate values.

Our national board is at the front-end of a season of learning and fresh thinking about future possibilities. I suggested to our board chair that perhaps we should envision our August and November 2016 board meetings as occasions to create some curiosity in the board room. At our recent August meeting we created a 50-year time line using blue painter’s tape stretched over three 6-foot tables with table tent cards to mark the decades. The board and staff gathered around the tables. We began to plot the major environmental/contextual dynamics that were in play over those decades and how we as an organization (an association of religiously-affiliated nonprofits) responded in this context of changing needs and regulatory developments. We then began to talk together about what we could learn from this 50 year look back and what it might begin to mean for our mission, services, and forms over the next decade. We will continue this exploration in our November meeting.

When we are curious, we ask questions. We wonder about things. We look for connections and causation. We wonder why or why not? We suspend for a moment assumptions and easy answers and explore possible meanings. I am not sure where this will take us. But I am a little curious!

There are many ways to do more generative work in our boardrooms. I recommend to you Cathy Trower’s book, The Practioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards (2013), which offers many.

How are you doing generative work in your boardroom?

I would be glad to interact further with anyone about really building board capacity.

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Audacity or Atrophy

A friend and peer executive recently spoke on her experience as a CEO with several organizations. She observed that effectively adapting to our environment requires audacity. Her observation was that if boards and CEOs can’t or don’t act boldly, they run the risk of atrophy. Atrophy is slow-death. What does such audacity look like?

For each organization it will look a little different. I’ve seen it. Sometimes it’s when a board and CEO finally talk, really talk, about a real challenge or dilemma an organization is facing. Often it’s one the CEO is even a little reluctant to address. But it sits like the unnamed elephant in the room. Audacity engages the conversation. Sometimes, audacity moves an organization to expand its mission and begin to serve those never served before. Sometimes, audacity is expressed in the difficult decision to completely eliminate a service line and discontinue serving folks formerly served. Audacity may mean putting at risk some human and or financial capital for which there is no guaranteed return.

If you’re not facing into some challenge that is stretching you toward audacity…be attentive. You may be in the early stages of atrophy. What challenges are you facing into?

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To Retreat or Not

Many boards have a long tradition of doing a board retreat. Some do it as occasion for planning. Others leverage it for some group building/relationship building. Many are using the time for deeper learning. You might ask what makes it a “retreat” or as some name it an “advance”.

A few simple thoughts…

  1. It’s non-routine (a few more hours, a different setting, and a different agenda)
  2. It’s designed to afford more time to engage important learning/discerning work
  3. It provides structure to allow for some relationship building

I am finding as I travel that many board members are reluctant to commit to extra hours or time beyond the routine of regular meetings.

A few suggestions:

  1. Cancel the regular meeting(s) for a month or two and trade the time for a retreat
  2. Do a learning/planning retreat once every two years/not annually if not possible on an annual basis
  3. Consider a “retreat” like experience that begins mid-afternoon and continues through the evening, with a meal as an alternative model
  4. Use a venue that is itself interesting….art museum, music venue, lodge…the setting itself can precipitate unanticipated insights

Time is the commodity. It’s the resource. As boards, use your limited volunteer time to get the right stuff done. This may mean more “retreating” (advancing if you prefer) than doing your regular or routine work.

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Board Member Exit Interviews

Sounds unique…but perhaps helpful? BoardSource recently offered a set of ideas about the principles that might be applied in practicing exit interviews. The question is: “Are you as a board gleaning any helpful insight from board members who are completing their service on the board?” They could offer important perspectives into how the board is actually functioning “from the inside out.”

Sometimes an individual’s service on the board ends badly. Perhaps they have been disciplined. Perhaps they have gotten crosswise with some or all of the board. The point is they may not want to share helpful feedback with board leadership.

But if this is not the case, it might be fruitful for the board chair and vice chair (or board chair and chair of the governance committee) to have a conversation with the outgoing board member to understand their experience. A few simple questions can work:

  • What was most satisfying/meaningful to you during your service on the board?
  • In what ways could your talents/perspectives been used more effectively?
  • Do you have suggestions to make on how to improve the work of the board?
  • Are there ways you would like to continue to be involved with our organization?

These simple questions could offer windows into growth opportunities for the board. Our board has begun to do this. What about your board?

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To bid or not to bid…out projects

A CEO recently asked me, what kinds of guidelines should we be using for when to and when not to bid out projects? It got me to thinking that many nonprofit boards and executives may not have given enough thought to that matter. The following are a few thoughts on how to approach the issue.

  1. The board and CEO need to agree on what magnitude of commitment or contract needs board attention:
    1. Some contract should be fully within the authority of the executive.
    2. Some should be reported to the board.
    3. Some should be acted upon by the board.

The threshold for each needs to be established and represented in written policy.

  1. The board and CEO should agree on what magnitude of contract (usually a threshold) requires multiple bids.
    1. This threshold varies across nonprofits—sometimes as low as $5,000 or as high as $25,000
    2. Sometimes (emergencies) do not afford the luxury of time for securing multiple bids.
    3. The number of required competitive bids (usually stated as not less than 2)
  2. The board and CEO should be on the same page concerning how multiple bids will be ranked or rated. Some criteria might include:
    1. Mission/value fit
    2. Nonprofit/for profit preference
    3. Price—all in cost
    4. Guarantees/reputation for follow-up
    5. Preferences for affinity group source or not
  3. Solid conflict of interest policies and practices must be honored.
  4. All understandings should be documented as board set policies.

Remember…sometimes the easiest or even cheapest deal may not be the wisest!

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Moral Courage

I have often been intrigued with how difficult it seems for a board and CEO to make the “tough decision.” I don’t think I am particularly good at it. It’s even tougher when the decision represents a crunch in core values.

I heard a presentation recently on “moral courage.” The presenter observed that moral courage in decision-making requires awareness of our deepest held convictions, a readiness to embrace real risk, and a willingness to endure some set-backs. The presentation focused on moral courage applied to personal ethics and individual decision-making. But what does this look like for executives and boards?

Well, it’s hard. Nonprofit boards are first and foremost fiduciaries. By definition, nonprofit boards preserve mission, core values, and institutional viability. Boards instinctively and often wisely are conservative. This is fundamentally good. But there are there those times when a board compelled by its mission, driven by its values, addressing real operational challenges must be morally courageous. A few illustrations:

  1. A nonprofit had over years developed mission and capacity to serve a broad band of human need/services across the entire age span. But they realized that in order to sustain anything, they had to stop doing something. They ceased services with an entire segment of the population they had been serving. This was a hard decision.
  2. Another nonprofit decided to significantly increase their debt, thus putting at risk some of their current service commitments, in order to fund research/development of some new services. This too was hard…they could have failed.
  3. Finally, an organization considering alternatives for affiliation and partnerships in the marketplace, has to wrestle with deep questions of identity, power and authority.

Any of these decisions are fraught with complexities and often competing value propositions. To engage these decisions wisely requires moral courage. Have you faced board decisions that you would say tested your moral courage?

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