“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.
For more information, contact me at www.mhsonline.org.