Dani Robbins

Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

Making the World a Better Place

In Leadership on June 18, 2014 at 11:08 am

My mother died 23 years ago this month, right before I graduated from college. She taught us that we each had an obligation make the world a better place. That has been my inspiration ever since.

My first real job was in a nonprofit. Before applying, I didn’t even know you could get paid to work in a nonprofit. Ever since accepting that job, I’ve been trying to learn all I can about leadership, the issues I care about, and what it takes to move an organization toward excellence.

It’s been a long and circuitous journey through women’s rights, youth development and now to consulting for advocacy, education and social service agencies. Each experience I’ve had has been gratifying, sometimes frustrating, occasionally terrifying and always inspirational.

I have worked with a variety of nonprofit boards and executive leaders to implement stronger and better aligned organizations. I’ve had the privilege to advocate for women’s rights, stand up for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and impact the lives of young people.

I have stood by women as they faced their abusers; held their hands after they were assaulted; and walked a man who had just threatened a child down a long, empty hallway and out of my building. I have faced a room full of angry parents and also rooms full of grateful parents. I have taught kids to believe in themselves and helped communities to believe in their kids. I have turned around agencies that were about to close, helped leaders steer their agencies and helped boards fulfill their roles. I have been threatened and hugged and vilified and honored.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to do this work and I am grateful for the opportunity. It has been an honor and a privilege.

This month’s blog carnival is about innovation and inspiration. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend my friend and colleague Erik Anderson’s post about his journey. It inspired me to finish this piece, which even though I started it a few weeks ago, felt too personal to continue.

Erik’s post also reminded me that when changing the world we each have to work on issues we’re committed to rectifying. These jobs we hold require us to live and breathe our organization’s mission, uphold its values and serve its clients. That means we have to believe in the mission and respect the people that mission impacts. It means we have to want to spend our days, and sometimes our nights, changing our corners of the world. We have to agree with the values of our organization, or find another organization. We have to be clear about our own values, what we care about and how we want to make the world better.

What do you care about?

I care about our field as a whole and believe that when nonprofits are stronger, communities are stronger. I care about leadership and believe that organizations improve or dissolve because of their leaders.

I care about women’s rights; GLBT rights; the disadvantaged and underserved in general and youth, including and in particular those aging out of foster care, urban, rural and GLBT youth.

I want equal rights, equal access, fair laws, good schools, safe communities, the right to control my body and my own medical decisions. I want all kids everywhere, and especially those aging out of foster care, GLBT, urban and rural youth to understand that they have the right and the obligation to become who they are meant to be.

(To any young person who is struggling: Even if your parents or your community doesn’t support you, find someone who will, even if it has to be the person looking back in the mirror. Please….hold on and slog through until you can breathe different air and find a different space to be the amazing, talented and productive person you will become.)

I want excellent nonprofits that impact their clients and move the needle on their issues, with screened, trained and accountable staff, excellent leadership, and boards that understand and fulfill their role, govern their agencies and support their executives.

I want to fulfill my obligation to make the world a better place and I want you to fulfill yours. I also want to make my mother proud.

What do you want? What inspires you? How do you work to make the world a better place? 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.

Board Meetings: Privileged to be in the Room

In Non Profit Boards on June 3, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), which if you are not familiar is generally included among the best publications in our field, recently invited me (and others) to the Better Board Governance webinar with the words: “Many—and some leaders believe most—nonprofit boards are ineffective.”

Many boards are ineffective! It’s true, and when SSIR says it, it gives each of us permission to say it, and hopefully to fix it. It’s one of my personal and professional goals to make this less of the case.

I work with a lot of boards and my goal is always that each and every board member feels privileged to be in the room. Now that’s a pretty high bar, but board members work hard, for several years, for free. It’s our job to make it worthwhile for them.

“We engaged board members initially by talking to them about our organization’s mission, the impact it makes in our communities and our vision for changing our corner of the world. They joined our boards in order to help us do those things – and then we never talked with them ever again about any of it. Ever. Again.

We talk with board members about money, what we spent and why we need more of it; we talk with them about fund raising and why they need to do more of it; we talk with them about the problems we’re having and what we need from them to fix it.

We don’t talk with them nearly enough about what they want, about why they joined our board, and what they hoped to get out of their service.” Not Fund Raising? Not Engaged.

Board members join our boards to help us move forward our missions. We need to spend far more time at board meetings talking about our missions, our clients and how our programs are impacting their lives.

That, of course, means we have to spend less time talking about other things. Or we need to have longer meetings. I’m not opposed to longer meetings. I believe that we each need to put in the time it takes to get the job done. That said, there are a few ways to ways to make sure the things discussed at meetings should be discussed at meetings. Here’s a few ways to make that happen:

The first, easiest and most effective way to have shorter meetings is to have a robust committee structure. Most of the work of the board gets done in committee. Committees make recommendations to the full board, as necessary. Outside of such recommendations, which other than the finance committee should be periodic and not monthly, committees fulfill their chart of work, which is usually outlined in the by-laws and aligned with the appropriate goal in the strategic plan. For more information about committees, please see Board Work via Board Committees.

Board meetings cannot be allowed to become committee meetings. If they are tottering in that direction, the chair needs to send the issue back to committee and invite interested board members to attend the next committee meeting.

Consent agendas are another great way to reduce time spent on some things to allow time for other things, but ONLY – and I really mean only – if your board is reading the things they are voting upon. “When you consider if a consent agenda is right for your board, consider the board members who most often attend. Do they typically read materials in advance or in the room? If they read them in advance, consent agendas can allow more time for robust generative discussions. If they read them in the room, they may not have time to read all the materials and may be voting on things about which they are not entirely clear. If that is the case, consent agendas can create issues of liability for your agency.” Decision are Made by Those who Show Up

The idea is that a consent agenda includes items that the board should see but doesn’t need to discuss; it is expected to be approved in full, but it doesn’t have to be. Any board member can question any item included in the consent agenda, which will then open up the item for discussion. Consent agendas can include the minutes from the past meeting, any committee report that does not need a board vote, and any other materials. Financial reports should not be included in the consent agenda but instead should be presented and voted upon at each meeting.

Hopefully, we have redirected enough time, with one or both of the ideas mentioned, to allow you to introduce mission moments, information about things happening in the world that will impact the clients you serve or your organization and generative and strategic discussions. If not, please do consider making your meetings longer. I think your board members will agree that longer, more effective meetings are preferable to shorter, less effective meetings.

It would be great if you could start meetings by talking about the mission, introduce ideas about strategy in the middle and end with generative conversations. Remember, generative conversation don’t always have answers. “To be or not to be” was probably the first generative question to be posed. Just because there are no answers doesn’t mean it won’t be a fascinating discussion.

Here are some questions to get you started:

Is offering this program the best way to meet our mission?

Should philanthropists only give to the cause they believe in or should they address the largest needs in our community? What, if anything, is their obligation?

What is the government’s role in addressing poverty? What is the community’s role?

Since I started with SSIR, I’ll end with our other venerable institution, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which last week in their generative article “Foundations Must Rethink Their Ideas of Strategic Giving and Accountability” asked the questions:

“What are our responsibilities as institutions with a growing public role?

How can we add clarity and context to transparency?

What is our real responsibility for showing Impact? How much can or should we control?

How can we improve our working relationship with citizens and demonstrate respect?”

What are some generative conversations you’ve had? What’s been your experience in moving toward generative governance? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share 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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