Do we really need boards? (Part 3)

I have been reminded again and again why even boards, human though they may be, are so important.

A third simple story

I am familiar with a board that is cross-wise with its CEO. All are competent. All are good people. All intend well. But trust is low and expectations are not aligned. They are in a hard place. If it weren’t for the board, it’s likely that the executive would continue to drive forward, wearing out the staff. They would keep doing “their thing” with little sense of accountability to the board. In time, organizational results would suffer. Hard conversations are ahead. But I am confident the board will soon embrace its responsibility.

Yes, the nonprofit sector needs both committed and competent boards.

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Do we really need boards? (Part 2)

I have been reminded again and again why even boards, human though they may be, are so important.

A second simple story

(I will share the third one in the next blog post)

I spent time with a board that, for all intents and purposes, is lost in terms of any coherent sense of how they want to or should govern. Their practice shaped by years of habit. Their most recent experience as a board was full of conflict with their former executive. Their new executive is getting traction fast—very fast. The new executive might do just fine for a couple of years if the board stayed at home. The executive “might.” In spite of its sense of disarray, the board has wisely recognized two really important things. First, they know they are the caretakers of the mission and core values of the organization (in this case, the faith identity of the organization). They are bringing fresh energy to focusing on mission and core organizational identity as the new CEO advances critical operational matters. Second, the board knows that they don’t know how to govern effectively and add value. They are embarking on some aggressive learning. They will become a great board.

Yes, the nonprofit sector needs both committed and competent boards.

Visit our website: www.MHSonline.org.

 

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Do we really need boards? (Part 1)

I interact with nonprofit boards all over the country. Every once in a while I reflect: how is it we get anything done in the nonprofit sector? The sector depends on competent boards and CEOs. Yet so many times I am impressed with how human (frankly inept) is some of our governance work. I wonder, wouldn’t it be easier if boards just stayed at home and executives and senior leaders would carry on? Sometimes that’s probably true. There are plenty of stories around of boards that fell asleep or failed to engage when they should have. But over the last few months, I have been reminded again and again why even boards, human though they may be, are so important.

One of three simple stories

(I will share the other two in the next blog posts)

I am familiar with the board and CEO of a large and complex organization. The executive has been serving effectively for many years. But the pace of market change and increasing complexity seems to be outpacing the executive’s leadership ability. The board is straining to move forward. The CEO wants to do the same but isn’t quite sure how. What’s needed is not what the executive has learned to do over many years. If the board wasn’t reading context and becoming more forceful in their communication and expectation, it’s likely the organization would stall and start a period of decline. I don’t know if the executive can adapt. But the organization is being served by a vigilant board.

Yes, the nonprofit sector needs both committed and competent boards.

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Board Chairs: Qualification and Orientation

The 2016 study of board chairs, “Voices of Board Chairs” by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, observed that most individuals become board chairs after a period of service on a board sub-committee. Often that, coupled with a willingness to chair the board, are the only prerequisites for service as a chair. The study and my experience would suggest a couple of additional considerations.

  1. Not all board members are chair material – “not anyone can do it well!”
  2. Keen self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and a readiness to be a group facilitator are among the most important prerequisites.
  3. The Board should develop generally understood succession planning processes for chairs.
  4. The Board and CEO can develop good protocols for orientation.
  5. CEOs can and should have a significant role in these processes, but they should not be driven only by the CEO.

What observations would you make about board chair succession practices?

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Board Chairs: What the Really Good Ones Do

I have interacted with numerous boards and board chairs across the country. They are any under-studied species. What do they think and do? A recent study, “Voices of Board Chairs” by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, is one of the few studies that sheds some light. There is much in their report that merits attention. But I took from it a couple of things I will highlight in this post and my following post. For this post, let’s focus on the role of the chair in relationship to the board itself.

The study indicates that most chairs view their most important contribution to the board in two areas: 1) keeping the board focused on strategic direction and 2) facilitating the board’s meaningful engagement in the agenda before it. These are such seminal responsibilities. Without chairs doing this, we have boards dependent on the CEO for strategic focus and for keeping board members meaningfully engaged in the agenda before them. Both are extremely dangerous.

I have witnessed the powerful contribution that a good board chair makes as she/he leans into…

  1. Owning the agenda for the board’s work with the CEO
  2. Ensuring that the board is devoting adequate time to about the right matters
  3. Planning with the CEO various methods of presentation and interaction in the boardroom to ensure that all board members are invited into the process
  4. Watching to make sure that all board members believe their personal contribution is heard and valued
  5. Modeling for the board good self-awareness and attention to ongoing improvement of performance

What does good board chair engagement in the boardroom look like to you?

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Still Bogged Down

In my last post, I wrote about what seems to be the political “bog” we are in as a nation. It appears polarization continues unabated. We seem indeed bogged down. It’s nowhere more obvious in the war of hyperbole about healthcare reform. The new congress and administration feel compelled to sound as if all dimensions of the Affordable Care Act are catastrophic – though clearly that’s not the case. They want to return to many of the pre-Obama care realities. From all major studies done over the last 20 years, it has been clear that the U.S. health system was broken before the Affordable Care Act. It has been well established that among developed countries we have some of the highest healthcare costs but not the best healthcare outcomes. On the other hand, the Democrats insist that all of the ideas being advanced by the Republicans will result in a catastrophe and make America sick again. Clearly both perspectives are exaggerated for political purposes. Nonprofit boards in the social services and healthcare sector are trying to navigate in the context of this bog. This era requires that boards and executives together breathe deeply, suspend assumptions, pause before reacting, and reflect on deeper convictions. We need more sense-making in our nonprofit board rooms. This is particularly important as we consider strategies that often represent some tension or even conflict between values or principles deeply held.

How are you as a board taking time to pause, reflect and make sense of the challenging opportunities you face and often the implicit tension between values represented in the options you face?

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Bog or blog post: What’s really important?

When I began this post, I mistyped the first word as “bog” not “blog.” It’s not the first time. I blogged previously that when a board gets into mucky ground, it often leads to fertile generative discussions.

I was planning this time to offer a reflection on our nonprofit sector, post the 2016 Presidential election here in the United States. I began again then stopped and let the word “bog” stand. Why “bog”? Are we not at a place where and when we need to rethink and recalibrate what we need to be about in our faith-affiliated nonprofit arena? If we don’t do some soul-searching, I am afraid we will become even more bogged down!

In the early 19th century, Alexis DeToqueville observed that much important work was being advanced in the United States by the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector, most notably the church, was doing many good things—serving many in need. What we have witnessed over the last 50 years is a dramatic shift, with the state and federal government assuming more responsibility to do the “good” and the church refocusing or even decreasing its engagement. Further, in the last 20 years, we have seen the rise of the private business sector contracting with the government or just directly operating at a profit work previously carried on by the faith community.

I lean toward compassion and love in my theology and hopefully practice. I wonder as we move into this era with new President Trump, if we don’t need to think deeply again about the core convictions that inspired communities of faith to reach out to serve those in need. That impulse was not one of hunkering down to protect and defend power and privilege but to serve others in need. The communities of faith and our many health and human service ministries need to unapologetically continue to serve with vigor.

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