Dani Robbins

Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

Board Leadership: The Time it Really Takes

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on May 14, 2014 at 9:52 am

I have just finished playing only the most recent version of the game “Dani, I don’t have time for this.” For those of you to whom this game may be new, please read the post I’m a Volunteer.

Over my career, I have played this game with a never ending cast of characters, some of them my own board members, some my clients, some my friends, some my fellow board members. Serving on a board takes time, possibly more time than you may have to give. That’s the job.

The job of a board member is a serious job. It may have the added benefit of looking cool on your resume and impressing your colleagues or your boss. It may feel good to be in a leadership position in an organization that is moving forward an issue about which you’re passionate. Still, and please make no mistake about this: it’s a job. Like all jobs, especially ones that are important, it takes time; sometimes significant time.

Board members are collectively responsible for governing an organization.

That includes hiring, supporting and evaluating an executive director who has probably (hopefully) spent years preparing for the position. That means that you – whatever your background – is a part of the group that is collectively managing a position you’ve likely never held, or even seen up close. She will need help and if you are on the board, that means you will need to figure out her job, your job and where the lines go between the two. Hopefully, you will be oriented and annually trained in your role, but it’s possible you won’t. You will need to meet with her periodically, help her grow professionally, introduce her into your circle of influence and work with whatever group that will be leading her evaluation and setting her goals. It takes time to support and evaluate sometime and once you add in hiring, especially if you hire right – it’s time. Lots of time.

Governance also includes setting the strategic vision for your organization. That means you, as a member of the board, are sitting in a room somewhere thinking about the values of your organization and how those values will be infused throughout your policies, systems and programs. It means you are reviewing/revising your mission statement and setting a vision for the future. Once you have set the vision, you will then need to set goals and strategies to meet that vision. Please include measurements, timelines and assignments. Otherwise, you’ve just spent a lot of time creating a wish list.

Strategic planning should happen again whenever you meet the goals you set the last time, usually every three to five years. If your board has three years terms renewable once, you will probably participate in at least one strategic planning session, which will take…..yup, you guessed it ….time.

Boards are also responsible for acting as the fiduciary responsible agent, which includes being good stewards of the community’s resources as well as insuring programs align with the mission and are impactful. That means you have understand the financials and the budget as well as the programs, the number of people served within those programs and how your programs make their lives better.

In addition, boards are responsible for setting policy, including those that govern the finances, staff, and board.  Finally, they are responsible for securing the agency’s resources, which often includes personally giving a financial gift as well as occasionally setting up and attending friend and fund raising meetings with individuals, corporations or foundations.

The time commitment doesn’t end with governance, there should also be expectations for board members of the agency you serve. I recommend agencies expect board members to attend 75% of board meetings, serve on at least one committee, attend agency events, especially special events, represent the agency in the community, uphold its policies, give a gift and solicit others for gifts.

When you recruit new board members, or others recruit you to serve on a board, it is important to discuss the time commitment. I implore you to not present it as an hour a month. It is never an hour a month. It doesn’t even average to an hour a month. It is three to five hours a month: 1.5 hours at the board meeting, 1.5 hours at a committee meeting, 2 hours working with the committee or the CEO to accomplish the work of the committee and that could go up significantly should there be something of consequence to discuss or address.

People will meet the expectation we set. If we set an expectation of an hour a month, we will be frustrated that our boards are ineffective and our board members will be frustrated that they cannot move our organizations forward. More importantly, we will fail.

Board leadership, as outlined in The Role of the Board, is governance. And as we all know from my favorite board book, Governance as Leadership, governance necessitates leadership.

Changing the world takes time, emotional fortitude and a commitment to be better than we are. Strong boards beget strong organizations. Because of that, and because of the enormous needs in our communities, I want boards to be better. I want the agencies they govern to be stronger and the execs they hire to be qualified to lead the staff and the community to implement the change we need.

If you don’t have the time to do the job right, I implore you to find another way to serve the mission of your organization. We have a world to change and our work is too important.

What’s been your experience with the time it takes to serve on a board? Were you told an hour a month when you were invited to serve? Are you playing the “I don’t have time” game? 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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Hearing what your Board Members are Saying

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on May 7, 2014 at 10:59 am

The sun has finally come out in my corner of the world; I’ve been out and about more and meeting new people. Since all conversations with new people eventually come around to what people do for a living, invariably the topic rolls around to nonprofit boards.

Those conversations, for the most part, have not been positive. In fact, I keep coming up against instances where it seems like nobody is hearing, understanding or responding to what is being said. I’ve wondered repeatedly if we’re all communicating over or around each other.

When seeking to understand, I believe, we each have to think about not only what is being said but also what is behind what is being said. I’m starting to think I’m alone in that philosophy.

My first thought along these lines was a conversation I had with a board member who told me her board had voted to approve a recommendation without anyone in the room questioning the premise of the recommendation. Someone made a motion. It was seconded and unanimously approved. There was no conversation about community impact, resistance or obstacles to be overcome. No one introduced any opposition, or even any questions – fiduciary, strategic or generative. They all agreed that the decision was great, and no one paused to question if it was, in fact, great, or even viable. That, for me, is the definition of group think and why you should not drink the Kool-Aid at board meetings. For more information on both, please see the post Kool-Aid, Group Think and Generative Governance

I’ve also heard of two board members, on the same board, separately informing agency leadership they would not be serving another term. They both said some version of “this is not a good use of my time.” I wondered did the leadership understand that what those board members are saying is “This is a Yes board. We don’t have any strategic or generative conversations. All we do is approve things you either want to do or have already done.”

Then I wondered what did the leadership do with the information they received? Did they think about why it might feel like every meeting is the same? Or did they assume it was the problem of the board members who were leaving? I’m guessing it was the latter. It is much easier to ignore an issue staring you in the face if you can blame the other person, or in this case, persons. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Anytime you have two or more board members who do not renew their terms, it should give you pause.

Finally, I’ve heard of a board member considering not meeting his minimum giving requirement, because no one has asked him for his gift. He had been advocating for annual individual specific asks of each board member since joining the board. To add fuel to the fire, not only was there was no ask made, but there was a chastising at the board meeting of the board members who hadn’t yet given.

I’m not a fan of minimum gift requirements anyway, but for the agencies that have that requirement, it’s still appropriate to formally ask for the donation, especially to the people who have requested to be asked. You can’t always guess what people want, but you can certainly respond to (reasonable) donor requests. Board members who financially support your agency are donors too, and need to be cultivated and stewarded accordingly.

It happens all the time that board members quit – and also that donors stop giving – because the issue they have brought forth or the request they have made goes unaddressed, or worse, un-discussed. It’s one thing if you bring something up, it’s discussed and decided upon, and if you’re not in the room, someone gets back to you to explain why it can’t move forward. It’s a whole other thing if no one gets back to you at all.

I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’ve served and served on several boards, ranging in size from 12-24. There have been instances that board members suggested things I didn’t do, either because it didn’t make sense (to me), wasn’t realistic or wasn’t feasible. I had to learn to ask for more information or a better idea of how the idea might get implemented.

I, like every exec I know, was trying to keep multiple plates in the air and in an effort to not let any one of them fall, I may have neglected to consider, respond or follow up. Did I always communicate well? I’d like to think I did but it’s probably safe to say I didn’t always. Did I lose a board member because of it? I hope not.

I had to learn to ask for more information and to remember that the issue or idea people present is not always the issue at all. The issue is sometimes behind whatever it is that’s being said. It’s up to each of us to figure out what the topic really is and if it’s possible – or reasonable- to address it. Even in the cases where it’s not possible or reasonable, we have to get back to the person who suggested it.

I said we and not you intentionally. Sometimes board members come up with ideas that are not feasible and sometimes not ethical, or even legal. A response by another board member may be received better, which may have the added benefit of being safer for the exec.

I’m going to say (write?) that again: the exec does not always have to be the one to shoot down an idea. The important thing is that someone responds, not necessarily that you respond. While it’s true that any day can be the day you quit or get fired; today does not have to be that day.

Disengagement is one of our field’s largest issues and lack of responsiveness is one of our biggest hurdles. If we want people to take our field more seriously, we have to start hearing and responding to what they’re saying, and what ever’s behind what they’re saying. We have to understand their expectations, and exceed them!

Is anyone else having these conversations? Have you shared concerns or frustration with your leadership only to have them ignored? 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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