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Is Your Board Bored?
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Is Your Board Bored?

Fresh ways to engage and retain the 21st-century board member.

The nonprofit sector is so pervasive in Minnesota’s civic life that it seems that just about everybody is serving, has served or plans to serve on a nonprofit board. Yet the expectations of board service are changing, as are the reasons people are willing to serve.

Here are six specific suggestions for boards and executive leaders
to get started, as recommended
by Barbara Taylor

1 - Get in the habit of calling out the times the board naturally moves into a generative conversation, and name it. This helps develop the language and habits of new ways of working together.
2 - Develop a list of items that need approval but not discussion, so that the board can focus its time on larger questions.
3 - Regularly hold open-ended executive sessions that allow free-form discussions about the organization’s current and future state.
4 - Be willing to ask, “What is really going on here?” Be willing to reframe questions in order to probe possible answers.
5 - Bring experiences from your own business to the board table, especially observations about changes in the external environment.
6 - Get out of the boardroom to see, talk to and experience other places and organizations whose work may provide insight into your nonprofit’s world.

In some respects, the pool of potential board members is narrowing. Volunteers have more demanding schedules, many have less money to contribute as wages stagnate, and increased regulatory requirements put a spotlight on a board’s fiduciary responsibilities, scaring off some candidates. More than ever, nonprofits have to compete against many other demands to make board service “worth it”—interesting, satisfying and for many volunteers, efficient.

But something else is going on, too. Board members want a creative role and a louder voice in the organization’s development and trajectory. They’re willing to contribute time and money, but not without contributing expertise and imagination. Conversely, they’re less likely to be satisfied with providing oversight and occasional input, writing a check and heading home. They’re asking, “Why am I here? What uses of my particular knowledge and experience are being tapped?”

It’s a question of engagement for the individual board member, and a question of purpose for the board as a whole. Where engagement and purpose are not activated, volunteers will quickly lose interest. And in today’s climate, unengaged board members are less willing to stick around, even if it means losing the resume-building star that board service can provide.

The role of nonprofit boards to be “generative” was identified more than a decade ago in the terrific book Governance as Leadership: Re-framing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard Chiat, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor, a sort of bible for “the new nonprofit board.” The authors frame three main modes in which nonprofit boards can operate—fiduciary, strategic and generative—and describe ways all three modes are helpful and necessary. But it’s the generative mode that’s the least well-developed and practiced.

To oversimplify, when boards are working in a generative mode, they are engaged in co-creating the organization with management. Leadership is shared. The CEO or executive director brings the organization’s most vexing opportunities and problems to the board, without specific recommendations for responses and solutions. She invites the board to help frame the questions and contribute ideas for reactions and solutions drawn from members’ varied knowledge and experience. When the generative mode works, CEOs have active partners in understanding the present and charting the future. CEOs still need vision and energy, but the co-leadership role requires new habits and skills of them.

Here’s what Taylor said about the topic as published by nonprofit consulting organization the Bridgespan Group:

“By definition, generative issues tend to be looming, nagging or intriguing. They don’t pop up as clearly framed questions. They also tend to be issues that aren’t technical, don’t have one right answer. They involve lots of judgment and usually touch on an organization’s values. And they’re very often embedded in issues that might be deliberated strategically or in a fiduciary mode. What’s really crucial is that as the executive director digs into a generative issue, the board should be involved, and the board and [executive director] should work together toward a strategy.”

This thesis is validated by Judy Alnes, the 18-year executive director of MAP for Nonprofits, who reflects, “Many board members feel stymied when organizations are focused only on the present, on current concerns. They want to see organizations making bigger inroads on the big issues of our day. The press of the present keeps us from thinking creatively about the future.” MAP reaches more than 1,500 board volunteers each year in its governance training programs, serving more than 100 nonprofits. Her advice? “Make room for people to bring their most powerful thinking forward. Think of ways to invite creative and imaginative ideas that can be pulled into the deliberations of the organization.”

The benefits of generative governance are myriad, but two seem most important: First, it gives board members more to do. Their engagement is deeper. Second, nonprofits—and those they serve—will have more opportunity to benefit from their board and volunteers. “When board members use their cranium,” says Alnes, “they can help organizations make a bigger difference. We’ll see more and faster advancement on important social problems of the day.”

Is your board practicing generative governance? I’d be interested in hearing from you at sarah@lutmanassociates.com.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.

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