Dani Robbins

Board Work that Moves the Needle

In Non Profit Boards on August 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to how the work of the Board gets done.  Mostly it’s by decisions made in meetings and in between meetings. Board members go to a lot of meetings- committee meetings, board meetings, meetings with the Exec – and sure they have work assigned that they complete between meetings, but it all leaves me wondering:  Where’s the strategy?  Where’s the generative thinking?  Where’s the advocacy?  Where’s the impact? How do we know?

Boards approve things, they review things; they talk about things: Are they the right things?

Boards have to have a quorum and must approve financials and meeting minutes and a whole host of other things. Hopefully, Board members also represent the agency in the community, understand and talk about programs, support and evaluate the Executive Director, raise money and give money. These are their fiduciary responsibilities. But surely that shouldn’t be all we have our Board members doing. They are the pillars of our community. They are smart, professional and talented people. Are we correctly utilizing their collective brain power?

Have they decided upon a strategic direction?  Have they discussed the underlying causes that created the issue the organization was created to address?  I am hearing a resounding chorus of NO!

All too often, there is no plan, strategic or even tactical. There are no metrics. There is no discussion of root causes, alternative options or new ideas. There are talented people sitting in a room because they care about the mission of the agency – and in certain but by no means all cases- we are wasting their time. And as such we are wasting our resources.

Strategic planning has fallen out of favor. It kills me to say it but it’s true. Most Board members have sat through at least one planning session, often more, that were long and boring; yet there they sat in an effort to decide the mission and direction of an agency.  And as a prize for their dedication, they got to spend two hours debating if they were going to use the word “a” or “the” in the mission statement.  Then, when they were – thankfully – finished after days or months and considerable expense, the plan sat on a shelf, collecting dust, never to be seen again.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

In the article, Governance as Leadership; An Interview with Richard Chait, (click here to download) Chait discusses his book “Governance as Leadership” (Boardsource) which “recommends reframing board work around “three modes” of governing. The first is the fiduciary mode, in which the board exercises its legal responsibilities of oversight and stewardship. The second is the strategic mode, in which the board makes major decisions about resources, programs and services. The third is the “generative” mode, in which the board engages in deeper inquiry, exploring root causes, values, optional courses and new ideas.”

You may be wondering how to add generative and strategic to your meetings. Strategy is all about connecting the resources to the goals, which, of course, requires having strategic goals. If you don’t, I encourage you to read my previous blog about wheel spinning and begin to discuss planning.  Generative is a much deeper conversation about the underlying issues and how to impact them. Chait presents generative discussions as ones that “select and frame the problem.”   In other words, we’re no longer talking about impact or program outcomes or even the agency itself; we’re talking about how we  – our city, community, country or even world – got here and what it takes to get out of here. “Committees need to think not about decisions or reports as their work product, but to think of understanding, insight and illumination as their work products.”

In order to use the collective brain power of our Boards to move our agencies forward we have to move into strategic and generative governance, while still meeting our fiduciary obligations. The Board Chair and the Executive Director can, should, and I would submit, have the obligation to use the collective brain power of their board to move the needle.  It’s why we’re here.  In the absence of that, we approve things, we attend meetings and we go through the motions, but nothing happens.

I want something to happen; I want the world to change.

What’s been your experience?  How have you utilized the talent on your Board to move the needle? I welcome your comments.

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