Dani Robbins

Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

Lens, Conclusions and Generative Governance

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on February 27, 2014 at 9:38 am

There was a piece on NPR just before the Olympics began about the economic benefits to cities hosting the Olympic Games. In case you missed the piece, it illustrated that it wasn’t a good investment for cities economically, and also that economics should not be our only lens.

Hosting wasn’t economically viable for reasons other than you might imagine. The reason it wasn’t viable is because to win the prize the cities had to keep out topping each other and what they had to promise was so expensive that they lost even when they won. It is a great illustration of lens and also of leadership choices.

The Olympics, in case you didn’t know, is a nonprofit organization, as is NPR. As such, that makes the story well within our bounds for blog posts, even one that looks at decision making through an economic development lens.

If your job is to lead your city, your organization, or your community than getting into a bidding war for the privilege of spending billions of dollars to host an event at some point becomes a zero-sum game.

It is a perfect opportunity to ask some strategic and generative questions:

  • Does hosting the Olympics have to be economically beneficial for it to be beneficial in other ways?
  • If it does, why would the community leaders follow that path?
  • Why is that our lens?
  • What do we gain and also lose?
  • ‘What produced this race to host?
  • Where does it stop?’
  • “Do we want to pass or play?
  • If we play, what are our principles?”Governance as Leadership: An Interview with Richard P. Chait

In case you’re wondering, the answer was no. Hosting the Olympics is not economically beneficial and cities shouldn’t present it as such; there are other benefits to be achieved and other goals that are met.

So what does all this have to do with nonprofits?

Nonprofits aren’t economically viable; that’s why they’re nonprofits. If they were for profits they’d fail, and that’s not our goal anyway. Our goal is to change the world.

That means that the boards of our agencies need to set metrics that are aligned with the goals of our agencies, and goals that are aligned with our vision. As you know, I am a huge proponent of strategic plans being used to align the work of an organization.  I am also a huge proponent of generative governance.

Generative questions will help you frame the issue, which will help you set the lens, which will help you make better decisions.  If where you sit determines where you stand, then it’s also true that the lens you set will impact the conclusions you reach.

If you are looking at the success of your agency through the lens of income, then you will be judged based on revenue success, regardless of impact.

If your lens is membership, then you will be judged based on numbers regardless of quality of service to those members.

If your lens is impact, then you care less about the numbers and more about the quality of your programming and its impact on the clients you serve.

A Boys & Girls Clubs Exec I knew when I first joined the movement used to say “we can throw a basketball out in the gym and serve a lot of kids, but we’re not impacting those kids.”

You have to consider the lens to gauge the success.

What’s your lens?  Is it the right lens?

What’s been your experience in framing the question to generate the information and the answers you seek? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Who’s Appointing your Board?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on February 19, 2014 at 4:27 pm

My most recent article on answers.com generated more attention than any of the 60+ articles I’ve written thus far. It was titled Board Seats are Not for Sale and they shouldn’t be. Yet, there are a variety of ways to join a board, and more than a few organizations who routinely allow corporations to appoint senior staff to the agency’s board of directors.

I thought today’s blog might be a great way to talk about how to deal with this practice, avoid it when possible, live with it when necessary and advocate against it when required. The executive’s job, among other things, is to engage and build the board. It’s easier when board members come believing in your mission, but it’s possible even when they don’t.

If a corporation in your community feels that they should have a board seat because they support your organization, it is imperative upon you as a leader to figure out how you can meet their needs while honoring your agency’s autonomy.

Perhaps instead of allowing them to appoint someone, you can ask them to give you the three names of the people who are interested in your agency.  Your committee can interview those prospects and recommend the one that you think is best aligned with the work of your organization. Perhaps you can negotiate and have their people serve on a committee prior to appointing them to a board seat.

Let’s be honest, corporations has some skin in the game too. They want to protect their investment, and we want them to, but we don’t want to abdicate our responsibilities. In the best case scenario, it may be that the corporation is aligned with and dedicated to the work of your organization. Even in that case, they do not have the moral or actual authority to make board appointments.

Most board members’ companies support the organization, yet that’s not why they’re on the board. It is also true that a lot of organizations do not consider board prospects that have not supported the organization, either personally, through their company or with their time. Supporting an organization is not a guarantee of a board seat.  Not supporting an organization may ensure you are not invited to serve.

I, myself, have had that very conversation with a community development person of a local company who wanted to serve on our board but didn’t support our organization. He said the company only supported organizations on whose board their staff served; after mentioning this to the Chair of the Board Development Committee, I said we only put on board members who support, financially or otherwise, our organization. It was a stalemate.

Was I suggesting our board seats were for sale? Not at all! We had plenty of corporate donors whose staff did not serve on our board. Even if the company had supported our organization, the board development committee might still have not recommended him to serve on our board. Why would they? He wasn’t a volunteer; he wasn’t a committee member; he wasn’t a donor; he wasn’t even an advocate for us in the community. He had no role in our organization. There was no reason for us to consider him to serve on our board.

Now that was a fairly low stakes stalemate. It would have been a much harder conversation had his company supported our organization and had he been a volunteer or an advocate for us. It would have been an incredibly hard conversation has his company been our largest donor.

I spent a good part of my time in that role raising money and an enormous amount of energy trying to diversify our funding base.  As such, we didn’t have one huge donor, but if we had – it wouldn’t have just been a different conversation; it would have been a dance.

The company might have given us a name, and we might have agreed or we might have countered with a different name. We might have had full board at the time and invited their person to serve on a committee. Or we might have stalled. We might have pushed back or we might have acquiesced.

At the end of the day, Executive Directors are tasked with ensuring their organizations are still standing tomorrow. Allowing a practice that is likely to generate a board that cannot perform its role is not fulfilling the Exec’s leadership responsibilities or the board’s governance responsibilities.

It has been suggested to me that executive directors who advocate against allowing corporate donors appointing board members may be at risk of losing their jobs. I hope that is not true but if it is let me say to the boards out there: this, alone, is not an appropriate reason to fire your executive. His or her job is to protect your agency and support you in fulfilling your governance responsibilities.

Donors, even corporate donors, do not have the authority and should not have the authority to appoint board members. I know this is easier said than done but it is better to walk away from a gift that is not aligned with your values and your responsibilities than to allow somebody to dictate something that is distasteful to you.

To the corporations out there: Please do not set the authority to appoint board members as an expectation of your financial support. It is against the best interest of your company, the organization and your community. It also may be a liability for your company. If your control the board; you may be held responsible for its decisions. Never underestimate the damage that can be assessed by the court of public opinion.

If you want an organization to be viable, sustainable and to uphold their governance responsibility, you have to allow that organization to do just that.  By appointing their board members you are encouraging them to abdicate their responsibility, which will then prevent you in the future from holding that organization accountable.

There have certainly been cases where great board members have been appointed by corporations. It is more often the case when disengaged and disinterested members have been appointed.

Donors have the right to have their gift spent in the way that they intended it to be spent. They have the right to expect transparency and fiduciary responsibility and for organizations to meet its mission and be good stewards of the community’s resources. Donors do not have the right to a board seat.

If this has routinely been the practice of your organization, I recommend that you create a board development plan including a training process so that board members really understand their governance responsibilities.  Once you have, begin to lobby a few powerful board members individually to advocate changing that practice.

Board development is crucial to board leadership and board leadership is critical to strong agencies.  Board seats are like gold; there are precious. You only have so many and the people in the seats have big jobs. The only people making the decision about who should fill those seats in the future are the people in those seats today.

What’s been your experience in corporations appointing board members? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Aligning Values and Decisions

In Leadership, Organizational Development on February 6, 2014 at 3:16 pm

For a long time now, whenever I say “No, I can’t do that” I’ve taken to following it up with “and I don’t want to.” It’s the distinction between what’s not possible and what’s not acceptable to me. Both are usually true yet the second piece is more important for me to illustrate. We each communicate our values every day, some of us more intentionally than others.

The most obvious sign of a leader is their ability to engage and inspire. The second most obvious sign is their ability to say no. (Leaders also need the ability to say yes, which is a post for another day.)

When I was younger, I sometimes said yes when I wanted to say no, or meant to say no, or even sometimes when I thought I had said no but not in a way or a manner than people heard as no. Resentment is the emotion that I now know is about my having allowed something that was unacceptable to me. I used to think of it as my being taken advantage of … until I realized it was me. It happened whenever I said yes, but meant no. It happened until I learn to be more intentional about a lot of things, my values included.

I had to learn to be more clear in my mind about what my values were and how those values got infused in my work. I had to be more deliberate about communicating those values to my team. I also had to make sure I worked at an organization whose values were aligned with my own. Once I got all that, I became a lot less resentful. Life is about making new mistakes.

I learned that lesson the hard way, a long time ago when discussing a pregnant teen and if she should continue to be allowed to come to the program (and the father too if he came, which we didn’t know at the time). If she was allowed, what message might the other kids receive? If she wasn’t allowed, what message would we be sending to her? What were our organizational values? Were they aligned with our personal values?

We went round and round with the staff, with the program committee and with ourselves. The committee came down to the idea that no, she couldn’t come to our program because it’s not who we were as an agency and that I needed to stand up in the community and say that. At that minute, I realized that “No, that wasn’t who I was and that I couldn’t and wasn’t willing to defend that position.”

Somehow, that was enough. The teen continued to come to the program and we worked with her and created systems to ensure we didn’t glorify her pregnancy but instead demonstrated how difficult it was going to be, and also how we could help.

Leaders say no. No, you can’t serve on our board because your heart isn’t in it. (This is said by board leadership, not the executive.) No, you can’t continue to serve on my team, because you’re not moving our goals forward. No, we can’t continue to partner with your agency because our values aren’t aligned. No, that donation will not be in my agency’s best interest. No, we cannot go down that path; it’s not who we are.

That means you have to know who you are, who you want to be and what values are important to you, your organization and its future. You have to have look through that lens every day in myriad situations. What you allow sends a message as to what you value.

My school district allows kids to play sports with a D average. Studies have repeatedly shown that kids who play sports or are engaged in quality after school or extracurricular activities are less likely to do illegal or unsafe things. While that’s true, would it be so much to ask for a C average? And what’s the message that this policy (from a district that is consistently among highest rated in the state) sends to the athletes?

We, as leaders, need to consider every decision we make against the lens of our values, who we want to be and in consideration of the message that decision will send. Allowing kids to play sports with a D average sends the message that mediocrity is fine, and that sports are more important than grades.

Do I honestly think that was their intended message? No, I don’t. I think they didn’t think about the message.

Not calling your kids out (students, client kids or actual kids) when they do something that is unacceptable to you, your values or the rules of your program or house, reinforces that it’s ok, which then teaches that rule following is optional – and also that your authority is questionable.

There will always be rules we want to break but we need to be clear about why we are breaking them and teach our kids how to discern those rules from other rules.

It’s not any different with staff. For all the new managers out there: address something that’s unacceptable to you when you see it, and every time you see it. If you don’t, what is unacceptable to you will become the status quo.

Every decision leaders make sends a message about what they value and what they believe to be true, whether they intend it or not. How much more could we accomplish if we were intentional about our values and our goals, how they are implemented, and what is and is not acceptable to us?

What’s been your experience in aligning values and decisions? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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