Posts Tagged ‘nonprofit boards’

When board members are lousy: Simone Joyaux has answers

FiringBookCoverAuthor Simone Joyaux asks these questions: “How many times have you sat in a boardroom and wished you were someplace else? How many times did your wish relate to others in the room? Maybe some particular person?”

Joyaux acknowledges we’ve all been there. Perhaps the feeling occurs only in passing but what do we do when our feeling about a board member arises more frequently in response to a pattern of legitimately bad behavior?

Unfortunately, the author explains that too often we do nothing about it for a variety of reasons:

1) We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

2) We’re afraid of conflict or confrontation.

3) Volunteer work is supposed to be fun.

4) We’re all just volunteers so let’s avoid the challenging issues.

No matter the reason, Joyaux asserts we cannot compromise the organization’s quality due to a little discomfort or the loss of a bad board member’s donation. In short, it’s unacceptable.

Why? Because of the great costs to your cause in the areas of organizational integrity, delivery on mission impact and ability to retain good board members, to name only a few.

There are no quick fixes or silver bullets for turning around bad board member performance. The good news is there are answers.

Board versus board members

One of the strategies that I particularly liked in Joyaux’s Firing Lousy Board Members and Helping Others Succeed was her focus on the distinction between the individual and the group.

Joyaux emphasizes the critical importance of every board distinguishing between a collective board and its individual members. Each has a distinct role. The collective board makes the decisions, not necessarily unanimously, and presents a united front in supporting those decisions. It treats all board members equally, including the board chair, as no one board member is more important than another.

Joyaux provides a list of board responsibilities. A sampling of the list follows:

·      Establish charitable contributions goals.

·      Define board member performance expectations regarding fund development.

·      Define values, mission, vision and strategic direction.

·      Ensure financial sustainability by adopting a budget and fund development plan and monitoring performance.

·      Hire, appraise and fire the chief executive.

In contrast, the individual board members have different responsibilities. Some of their main responsibilities include:

·      Attend board meetings.

·      Engage in board conversation. (Silence is consent and is not acceptable.)

·      Give a financial contribution.

·      Help nurture relationships with donors and people interested in the cause.

·      Help carry out fundraising activities.

·      Ask strategic questions.

Keep evaluation of the board and individual separateadaptivepath-com

By separating the individual trustee from the collective effort, it’s not only easier to establish accountability and volunteer job descriptions, the chair and executive director can fall back on each line that describes the discretionary effort of each person rather than dillute someone’s lack of effort in the overall board’s outcomes.

In Firing Lousy Board Members, Joyaux explains how it’s imperative that you move quickly with underperforming board members because your cause deserves better. While she acknowledges this task is not always easy, this guide will provide what Joyaux calls helpful “recipes.” What’s more, Joyaux has done everything she’s suggested in this book—not only as a staff member but also as a board member and chair.

See a book summary of this title and other relevant titles:

Firing Lousy Board Members…and Helping Others Succeed

Super Boards

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership

Image credits: Charity Channel Press

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Do your board recruitment goals reflect your evolving nonprofit?

Your organization’s board recruitment goals will change depending on where your nonprofit is in its life cycle. There’s just one problem. Perhaps there was a time when people could describe a fairly predictable, steady trajectory for the life of a nonprofit board. Not so in today’s economy.

Today, an organization that is thriving one day can lose a major anchor funder the very next day. For example, a key funder could be a company that shuts down or is acquired, or an individual whose finances are wrapped up with the wrong investor, or a city government that has lost its commercial base. On the other hand, I am seeing nonprofits receive significant infusions of cash that are game-changers. For example, there are nonprofits receiving substantial new federal grants or contributions from individual donors or private foundations that are shifting their focus to fewer causes and organizations.

Organizational life cycles are also radically affected as nonprofits enter a multitude of strategic alliances – a more and more common phenomenon. Even more game-changing are nonprofit mergers.

When organizations go through such dramatic revenue changes, as well as strategic alliances, the pressure on boards to adapt can be fairly fierce. New pressures are driving some boards to be clearer about board member expectations, board assessment, plans for leadership succession and board composition.

Assessing where your organization stands

1) Before deciding whom you need to recruit for your board, think about the following:

2) What was the driving purpose to establish your organization in the first place, even if that was long ago? It’s valuable to put today in a historical context.

3) What’s your mission today? Is it still relevant and compelling?

4) What’s your vision for the organization’s greater potential over the coming years?

5) What’s your revenue model – your key sources of revenue (government, fees for services, philanthropy; corporate, individual, foundation)?

6) What are key challenges and opportunities going forward?

Assessing where your board stands

Based on numbers two through five above (the mission, the vision, the revenue model, and key challenges and opportunities), consider the extent to which your board has the diversity of expertise, experience, perspectives, networks and relationships to:

Ensure there is a strategy for financial and programmatic success, and plans to update the strategy in an iterative way (board in collaboration with the CEO).

Ensure there are metrics for the board and funders to monitor financial and programmatic progress (board in collaboration with the CEO).

Provide financial and fiduciary oversight.

Select board members with leadership potential for leadership succession planning.

Determining whom you need on your board to advance the mission

Based on “where your board stands” (above), consider the qualifications you seek as you identify and recruit new board members. Think about recruiting new board members with:

Leadership potential.

Diversity of perspectives.

Experience and expertise in particular areas such as: finance, accounting, public relations, law, strategic planning and the mission area on which the nonprofit focuses.

Ability to directly provide support or make valuable introductions in key revenue areas that are relevant to your nonprofit – for example, government relations, corporate funding, private donors, foundations, or pricing for fees for services.

A firm commitment to meet the board’s expectations to be engaged productively in the ways you discuss and define together with the candidate.

Less predictability requires greater dynamism

The era of lengthy terms of board service and board leadership are over. Historically, board chairs served for many years, and board composition remained stagnant sometimes for decades. In today’s challenging and enterprising environment, boards and their CEOs need to be engaged in iterative organizational planning, a highly dynamic process of assessing the board and identification and recruitment of board members who can and will commit to advance the organization in serving the community.

See also:

Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits By Leveraging Businesses

Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization

The Invisible Yellow Line: Clarifying Nonprofit Board and Staff Roles

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards


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Nonprofit board members: What to do when they just don’t get it

Every now and then there’s a board of directors that — how can this be written diplomatically — doesn’t seem to get it. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s never a pretty sight. Usually the not-getting-it board seems to be paying attention, and its members really do want the best for their organization, but somehow or another “the best” never seems to happen. In fact, to most outsiders, the organization might seem immobilized and floundering. There are many reasons why nonprofits seem headed for doom, dysfunction, or both, and most of the time it isn’t directly attributable to board members. But when it is a board problem, here are some frequent scenarios and potential fixes.

The past and the short term future

This common problem was covered in “What Time Are You?” in the May 2013 issue of The NonProfit Times. Ideally, a board of directors is focused mostly on the future, less so on the details of the present. This is because boards of directors should be leaders, not outsiders immersed in management detail. Perhaps not surprisingly, board members’ preferred orientation to time is often connected with their personalities and what they do for work. Board members who work in technical roles of any kind often prefer to operate in the here and now. This means they could be uncomfortable with the kind of thinking that leaders must do to position a nonprofit for the next three or four years.

The solution to this kind of board dysfunction is straightforward yet admittedly difficult. The simplest approach is to construct each board agenda so that the bulk of time will be spent on future opportunities and challenges instead of focusing on subjects from the past or votes requiring immediate attention. Constructing the agenda so that the majority of items relate to future decisions is actually simpler than it seems. It does require that the CEO and board chair work closely together, but that is largely a matter of sharing the same future orientation to time. Part of leadership is shared discipline among the leadership team, and this is a relatively easy place to start.

Visioning as trustees

The term “trustee” is sometimes used to refer to a conventional nonprofit board member, but that is usually either a loose statement of philosophy or an inaccuracy. In legal terms, a trustee holds property on behalf of an outside beneficiary. That is in no way similar to nonprofit board member responsibilities, which are more related to leadership than conversation of assets, but the mythology persists.

Implicit in a trustee self-image is the idea that the trustee must protect the asset as their primary duty. But nonprofit board members are intended to lead the organization, along with the CEO, and preserving assets for beneficiaries is never in the equation. Board members who see their role as “protecting” the organization will always be conservative in the literal definition of the term. While this role might work well for financial assets not owned by the trustee, it can lead to an exaggerated sense of outside threats and a paralyzed nonprofit board if it becomes the dominant image of the board’s role.

A good board member selection process and continual self-education will fix this problem over time. One board, for example, recruited new members by inferring from their strategy the type of characteristics that would be most beneficial. This requires discipline because the tendency is always to search for “star” board members and then try to adapt them to the organization. A self-education process can reinforce those board member skills.

Different “business models”

Any large industry develops its own jargon and shorthand references, and the nonprofit sector is no exception. But nonprofits funded in large part by federal and state governments are inevitably immersed in payment systems, quality assurance mechanisms, and political developments so detailed that even a nonprofit CEO may not be fully abreast of all the nuances.

Board members from outside the sector often speak of their meeting agendas as a thicket of obscure regulations, political connections and mystifying lingo. While these are all necessary elements to manage, board members quickly give up hope of being conversant in them and as a result their ability to make contributions is reduced. This is a situation where Not Getting It says more about the industry than it does the board members. The solution is to reduce the language and complexities to an understandable level. Votes and discussions should take place to allow both board members and senior staff to have solid discussions, with insider references kept to a minimum. And the policies and decisions arising from the discussions need to be expressed in lowest-common- denominator language.

Denial of service

Fundraising imperatives help shape a preference for wealthy board members in a nonprofit with an established fundraising capacity. Equity investors, bankers, and high net-worth individuals can be prized board members because of their personal ability to make contributions and for their networks of similar professionals. The conflict these kinds of board members face is that they are so thoroughly steeped in equity investing and money management that they cannot operate in the non-equity world of nonprofits. Often their personal approach to governance becomes a largely passive and reflexive acceptance of majority decision-making.

Here’s what happened with the board of directors of a large national organization.

Arguably the most powerful person in the room was a former corporate titan with an international reputation who sat silently during a lengthy presentation and discussion of nonprofit mergers. His knowledge of the subject would have been welcomed by all, but for whatever reason he remained silent. Whether motivated by a sincere desire not to complicate the discussion, or for personal reasons, this kind of “denial of service” will make the board less effective by not offering personal expertise. Unlike the other scenarios this one is likely to be tied to individual board members, and often they are the board members with much to offer. Board presidents can be useful in reversing the situation simply by making a personal appeal, and the CEO has the ability to coax more input should they wish to do so. Nonprofit board governance is an imprecise process at best.

Although in theory the role of the board of directors is clear enough, the actual practices of boards vary greatly. A nonprofit board’s apparent passivity or disinterest may be a reflection of the difficulty of nonprofit governance, but on occasion it is the result of a breakdown in the governance process itself. Left unchecked this can lead to confusion and decline. But with the right kind of self-reflection and support, most boards will get it — and get it done.

See also:

A Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Board Members

Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization

The Invisible Yellow Line: Clarifying Nonprofit Board and Staff Roles

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Special thanks to author Thomas McLaughlin for allowing us to cross-post this article, which originally appeared in The Nonprofit Times.

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CEO Survival: Thou shalt not get (too far) ahead of thy board

It’s the first commandment of nonprofit CEO survival: thou shalt not get ahead of thy board. At least, not too far . . . But you do need to be a little ahead of them . . . Just not so much that they notice and get offended.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Most veteran nonprofit CEOs have a sack full of stories about interactions with their board. One of the mistakes that is most frustrating — and potentially damaging — is getting too far ahead of a board of directors. The result is the collapse of a seemingly promising idea or policy change, and possibly a severe dent in the CEO’s credibility.

What follows are some thinking points to help negotiate this always treacherous interpersonal whitewater. The central premise of each approach is simple: Ideas and concepts are easily discussed and changed, and this is the proper role of leadership, including the board. Plans are also easily changed, but the effort that goes into them increases the commitment to their plans. Stick with ideas in the boardroom, plans outside of it.

Too far out on growth (Egos and economics)

Two of the most powerful motivators swirl around the intersection of the CEO and the board: ego and economics. By tax law, neither board members nor executives can have a private ownership stake in a nonprofit. But the executive (and other staff) have a potential economic interest, in the form of salary and benefits, financial stability, and improved systems. They also have an ego investment in the form of pride of performance. Together, these constitute a compelling package. This is one of the many reasons why executives will be more likely to propose growth strategies than will board members.

Board members can only invest their egos, so when presented with plans for growth their biggest ego investment can often be summed up in the question: “What if it fails?” This is one of the reasons why board members will be more likely to oppose growth than will executives.

To avoid getting too far out on growth, the CEO can frame the proposed expansion in terms of organizational ego. This approach might use arguments such as “this is an extension of what we already do well” and “if we don’t do this, [another organization] will, but we’re much better at it.”

Too creative (Divergent and convergent thinkers)

During the 1960s, a researcher named Joy Paul Guilford suggested that people think in two different ways — divergent or convergent. Divergent thinking is creative in nature, while convergent thinking seeks the “right answer.” Most individuals are instinctively comfortable with only one of these approaches.

Nonprofit CEOs, because of the nature of their pro- scribed roles, are more likely to engage in creative thinking. Boards are more likely to prefer discovering the “right answer.” This also tends to be true because the CEO is usually more knowledgeable about the field than the board as a whole, since board members are typically volunteers without extensive opportunities to learn about the sector. This tendency of boards to seek the “right answer” also explains why so many motions are passed unanimously.

The creative (divergent) CEO will sometimes have a difficult time with the board because of this difference in thinking styles. When the CEO is too creative for the board’s taste, outsiders such as authorities, respected peers, and consultants can often be a buffer. Note that the board doesn’t necessarily want to diminish the CEO’s creativity – which they probably respect. They want to find independent reassurance that they’re on the right path. Convergent thinking is often done in stages. We drill down to the first correct answer, then the next one, then the next. Bringing the board along might also need to happen in stages.

Acting before deliberation (Getting it done versus deliberating over it)

CEOs are in charge of getting stuff done. Boards are in charge of deliberating about stuff. The tension is obvious. Putting these two approaches carelessly together can result in wasted time, hurt feelings, and worse.

While taking action and deliberating policies are about as different a pair of activities as it is possible to have, a little role clarity will help things go more smoothly. Translation: with a little mutual candor, the CEO won’t always be trying to jump ahead while the board won’t always be trying to slow things down.

At the risk of oversimplification, boards make choices and executives make decisions. Individuals tend to be good at sizing up a situation, making a decision, and carrying it out. Groups, on the other hand, are simply better at refining and improving ideas, plans, and strategies. The CEO will not get dangerously in front of their board if they build in the opportunity for its members to sincerely try to improve the quality of the CEO’s decisions.

This is not second-guessing. It has been proven that groups  that  emphasize  collegial  conversation  and  can evaluate  themselves  honestly  make  better  decisions than  do  individuals.  The inevitable problem is process and time required to get there. Researchers have also shown that people tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own individual capabilities, which is why the CEO/board split can be particularly intense.

The ideal situation exists when an executive’s approach to an issue is vetted by the board in a supportive way. This fits the expected roles — the CEO by definition has to be the public face of the organization, while the board should concentrate on the quality of the outcome (the choices above).

Too risky (Lead with ideas, not plans)

It will come as no surprise to veterans of nonprofit board rooms that CEOs can get too far out in front of their boards on all matters involving risk. This is a structural inevitability — the CEO (as well as other executives) is almost required by the uniqueness of their position to be the designated risk-taker.

The real challenge from a risk management perspective is how quickly the CEO can bring the board around to their position. Considering the baked-in conservative nature of most nonprofit boards as described earlier, this could take some time.

One good way to gain board support for a strategic risk is, again, to lead with ideas, not plans. This is one of the reasons why good strategies, as opposed to strategic “plans,” are not filled with details such as assignments, dates, and activities. Most boards go through three stages of reaction when confronting new ideas for the first time: learning, analysis, and acceptance. Committing to details too soon disrupts this flow and can waste time.

Leading with ideas also makes it possible to work through various scenarios without committing resources. If the dialog is genuinely open it enables the board to safely explore the risks abstractly before encountering them in real time. Note that all parties must be sincere about this process. It can lead to long board meetings, but the offset is that board members will be more committed and will usually report greater satisfaction in their roles.

Another way to avoid getting too far out front is for the CEO to anticipate and cope with real risk as a regular practice. Dealing with a board’s fear of risk is a different problem. This should happen anyway, but doing it routinely helps the CEO establish their conservative bona fides.

The first commandment of CEO survival is to never to get too far out in front of the board of directors because they too have a responsibility to shape the future. But the CEO doesn’t want to be behind the board, because their job is to lead. It’s a structural dilemma, but most of the pathways to success are based on the second commandment of CEO survival: Lead with ideas, then talk about plans.

See also:

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization

Reprinted with permission by The Nonprofit Times and Thomas McLaughlin.

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Does your organization have a high impact board? Seven questions to ask

Great boards have a significant impact by adding value not available to their organization’s current resources and means. High impact boards are the key difference between achieving good results and great results. They don’t spend their time micromanaging, listening to reports, approving predetermined decisions and second guessing their staff’s decisions. Instead, they act as a high performance team using their member’s skills, talents, knowledge and expertise to make key decisions and build organizational capacity for producing results.

How can you ensure your organization benefits from a high impact board? Here are seven questions to ask:

1.      Do you have the “right people (board members) on the bus”?

Jim Collins in Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001) stresses the importance of having the “right people on the bus” for building a great organization. High impact board members have a passion for the mission, vision and the organization. They act as team players using their individual knowledge and expertise to engage in collective decision making. These board members put their egos aside and have the ability to engage in strategic thinking that builds on one another’s ideas, thoughts and opinions. Each board member adds specific value to the board that would greatly impact the organization if he/she were to leave.

2.      Does your board partner with the chief executive officer (CEO)/executive director (ED) to operate as a championship team?

High impact boards have a culture similar to a championship sports team. Their focus is on becoming or remaining number one, so their culture is built upon using the individual skills and abilities of each team member collectively to achieve their goal. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002) lists these characteristics of high functioning teams:

·        High level of trust between their members

·        Willingness to engage in conflict

·        High level of commitment to each other and their organization

·        Collective accountability for following through on board agreements

·        Attention to producing results

3.      Does your board chair and CEO/ED act as one leadership team?

There is a high level of trust between the board chair and the CEO/ED of a high impact board. They act as one leadership team communicating the same message about the organization. They are clear about the differences in their individual roles and build on each member’s skills, strengths and expertise to complement each other. They feel comfortable disagreeing with each other respectfully at board meetings and putting their unfinished thinking on the table for others to build upon.

4.      Does your CEO/ED take personal accountability for building the board’s capacity and leadership to govern with excellence?

CEOs/EDs of high impact boards understand their critical role in building their board’s capacity to lead. Most board members have little, if any, training in how to effectively govern a nonprofit organization. They often think that their governing role is to manage the day-to- day operations of the organization. CEOs/EDs need to constantly educate their board members about effective governing practices and provide them with the skills, information and support to successfully carry out their roles. The CEOs/EDs must also learn about what motivates each of their board members and about important aspects of their life (i.e. family, passions, etc.).

5.      Does your board have a “Culture of Inquiry?”

Most boards see themselves as policemen or compliance regulators. High impact boards add significant value by engaging together with their CEOs/EDs to determine future directions, impacts and strategies. They have what Nancy R. Axelrod calls a “Culture of Inquiry,” in which they are constantly learning and sharing knowledge and information about how they can have greater impact. They are not afraid to question complex, controversial or ambiguous matters or to look at issues from all sides. They are clear about their decision making authority, as well as about those they have delegated to CEO/ED, which allows them and their staff to feel comfortable discussing any key issues impacting their organizations. They have active feedback mechanisms, employing board and board member assessment processes, that help them engage in continuous improvement.

6.     Do your board and CEO/ED constantly recruit and groom future board leadership?

Most organizations wait until the board chair announces that he/she plans to retire to begin succession planning. They often end up “twisting the arm” of some unwilling board member who is often not the most qualified person, but who is willing to serve as the next board chair. A high impact board, usually through its governance committee, and the CEO/ED, think about who will be their next board leaders when they recruit and select new board members. At least a year ahead of the retirement of their current board chair and other board leaders, high impact boards have identified their next board leaders and have begun grooming them for their jobs.

7.      Do board members feel a significant return on their invested time?

Board members who feel that they are in an exciting learning environment, meeting interesting new contacts and friends, having fun and feeling that they are part of a winning team, are more willing to give of their time, expertise and resources to the organization. If their board service significantly enhances their life experiences, they will make it a high priority in their day-to-day activities.

A high impact board adds significant value to an organization that can be measured in terms of organizational resources, organizational performance and organizational influence. The board plays a leading, proactive role partnering with the CEO/ED, rather than merely serving as an audience for staff or as a regulator providing oversight. If the high impact board vanished, the organization would suffer.

See also:

Super Boards

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

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Five lessons board members can learn about leadership

As my friend Rich Male likes to say, “Leadership is one of the most talked about and least understood ideas in the nonprofit world.” There are volumes of books on leadership, seminars to take and discussions to have. But real leadership development requires action and practice, and you can’t get that from a book.

For a few years now as part of my volunteer work, I’ve been training prospective board members, mostly on the basic legal requirements and top ten responsibilities. We go through the lists, share examples and discuss what meetings can be like. After we’ve covered all the conventional information, I share the biggest thing I’ve learned about being on a board: it’s the best leadership development program available, particularly right now. The tough decisions and thoughtfulness required of boards are ramped up due to the financial crisis in which we find ourselves.

Here are a five valuable things board members can learn about leadership:

1. You cannot do it alone

Boards are set up to have multiple members for a reason. Better decision-making requires more than one mind. In order for ideas and decisions to move forward, a group consensus needs to emerge among board members. You learn to gather the right information, communicate well with others and advocate. Part of being a good leader is sharing a way to move forward and mobilizing those around you to join in. You will also learn to listen and gain a respect for the opinions and thoughts of others.

2. There is no passing the buck

Boards are the final decision-makers for organizations, which is a huge responsibility. On high- functioning boards, the trustees don’t shy away from tough decisions. They gather data, consider the options and then make the best decision given the information. This is not always a fun or pretty process.
Laying off staff is heartbreaking, but sometimes necessary. Declining one opportunity to develop another can be difficult. However, all leaders are required to make tough choices, and learning to do this is both an art and a science. Boards offer opportunities to make these decisions and learn from their effects.

3. You get to witness the good and the bad, and learn from both

During my time of service to organizations, I have had the privilege to watch some outstanding board members and chairs and learned a lot. From the way they conducted meetings, communicated with other members and prioritized issues for the board, these great leaders showed grace, humility and compassion. I also remember the ineffective board members and how they acted or didn’t act. Both types of experiences are important as you think about your own actions and how you want to lead.

4. Develop your own style

Boards offer opportunities to step up the leadership ladder. By taking on the role of committee chair, you can develop your talents while contributing to the larger work of the organization, and learn to drive agendas and important projects for the organization. Reflecting on your success and failures during this process provides strong feedback you can use as you work your way forward in other leadership positions, either on a board or in other arenas.

5. Develop leaders who will come after you

Succession is tantamount to board effectiveness, just as it is in leadership. You will not be the leader forever if the program or project you lead is to continue. Taking time to develop the next leader provides a chance to encourage the best in others and transfer skills that help you refine your own attributes. It will also ensure the future success of the organization, which is a positive outcome for all leaders.

In order for the board experience to be truly worthwhile, you need to select an area about which you are passionate and to which you are committed. Simply joining a board to gain experience would be a somewhat shallow experience. However, as with most volunteer experiences, you will get just as much out of it as you offer to the organization.

This treasure trove of leadership experience on a board is available to you for the small price of financial support for the board’s organization and some good intentions toward your work. It sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

See also:

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

The Board Game

Super Boards

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership

Image credits:,,


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Most board members fail without this quality: Find it in four steps.

“A positive attitude is essential. If you don’t think so wait until you encounter someone with a really bad one and then try to work together to achieve certain goals,” says Super Boards author, William R. Mott.

Many of us spend countless hours working with the boards that oversee our nonprofits. These trustees hold our nonprofit futures in their hands. Then why don’t we spend more time focusing on who are the best people  to sit at the board table? Bill Mott answers this question and many others with a fresh perspective on what makes a board exceptional in his latest book.

Great board recruitment is much like interviewing for paid leadership positions

One of the Super Boards chapters I appreciated in particular was Mott’s recommended interactions for recruitment—steps that many nonprofits seem to bypass in lieu of a single meeting with one board member. Recruiting a board member is much like interviewing someone for a paid leadership position in your organization. If selected, this board prospect will have a say in fulfilling your mission and influencing your strategic initiatives. It makes sense to give board recruitment the same attention paid positions receive. A thorough board interview process should entail getting to know the candidate in different contexts and through the eyes of key people on your staff.


Mott suggests these ways to “determine the compatibility of a prospect with the organization and staff”:

1) Invite the person to attend an event.

2) Seek the candidate’s assistance or input on a committee.

3) Invite the candidate to meet other board members, the CEO, and the development and marketing staff.

4) Offer a tour of the facilities.

All these efforts sound simple but ask yourself how many of your new board recruits have completed these four interactions before sidling up to your board table. When completed, these steps should avoid bringing in a board member that has no connection to the organization or one the organization does not know at all, both dangerous options.


While compatibility is essential to enlist successful board members, Mott addresses the importance of one quality that trumps the others: attitude. There is a quotation that says, “Attitude is like a price tag: it shows how valuable you are.” What price are we paying for bad attitudes on our boards? Conversely, how much (immeasurable) value do we gain by possessing great attitudes on our boards? In our CausePlanet interview, I asked Bill to elaborate on attitude and recruitment:

CausePlanet: You mention, “The key in having board members who exhibit a positive attitude is to recruit them.” What suggestions do you have for the board members who are the recruiters?

Mott: Perhaps the most important committee of any nonprofit board is the committee on trustees. This group is charged with recruiting, training, educating and evaluating the board. My experience is that a positive attitude trumps so many other traits. Someone who has a positive outlook is usually someone who will enjoy whatever he or she does–including serving on a governing board. When the committee on trustees is recruiting new board members, one of the character traits it should encourage is a positive attitude. Not someone who is necessarily just agreeable, but someone who recognizes the importance of being supportive and encouraging. This is the kind of leadership that inspires others to do their best by being their best.

Eighty-nine percent fail because of bad attitudes

If we return to the analogy that compares recruiting board members to hiring paid leadership positions, it’s not hard to find endorsements of Bill Mott’s emphasis on attitude. In fact, Mark Murphy, the author of Hiring for Attitude, is the founder and CEO of Leadership IQ, a top-rated provider of cutting-edge research and leadership training that has consulted more than 100,000 leaders from virtually every industry and half the Fortune 500.

According to a Forbes article, 89 percent of the time new hires fail because of attitudinal reasons and only 11 percent of the time due to skill. The Forbes article reports, “The attitudinal deficits that doomed these failed hires included a lack of coachability, low levels of emotional intelligence, motivation and temperament.” Using our analogy, we can logically apply these statistics to board “hires” and how attitude affects performance.

Where do we find great attitudes?

Additionally, when Murphy was asked by Forbes where companies are finding new hires with the right attitudes, he said, “Companies are not getting high performers from the usual sources. They’re hiring in, what we call, the ‘Underground Job Market.’ According to our latest research (outlined in Hiring for Attitude), companies are finding their best people through employee referrals and networking. They have started to realize that the high performers they already have fit the attitude they want and that these are the people they should be asking to help find more people just like them.”

Murphy’s description of the “underground job market” is a welcome signal to ask your current board members who already exhibit great compatibility and attitude who they might recommend as a winning board candidate. When you land these referrals from your pool of top-shelf board members, remember to apply Mott’s four recommended interactions so you can put the “organizational fit” to the test.

Watch for future installments about Super Boards by Bill Mott when we’ll discuss how to overcome some of the most damaging behaviors exhibited by board members.

See also:

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

A Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Board Members

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High-impact boards: Trower answers your questions

Last week, we hosted a lively interview with Cathy Trower about The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership. Her essential how-to edition for boards and nonprofit CEOs generated so many questions from our webinar attendees that Trower answered what we couldn’t get to during the hour here in this article.

As many of you know, Trower’s book expands upon Governance as Leadership’s influential work with a wealth of examples from high-performing nonprofit boards as well as insightful guidance on how to successfully operate in three celebrated modes: fiduciary, strategic and generative.

Trower kindly addressed these nine additional questions below from our webinar attendees:

1. Could you explain “flow” and how you can reach “flow” on your board?

In Csikszentmihalyi’s terms, the idea is to get the board into “flow”–the mental state in which each person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing with a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and success in the process of the activity. This means utilizing the skills of board members on challenging tasks. It is where high skills and high challenge meet, so you have to appoint board members with the right skill set AND give them substantive (challenging) issues to tackle.

2. How do you suggest fostering teamwork on a board?

  • Have the board name great teams they know (e.g., sports, emergency room, flight deck, SWAT/military). Ask what they all have in common. They will say common purpose, trust, goals, role clarity, etc.
  • Discuss purpose–Why are we here (as a board)?
  • Set clear, compelling and consequential goals for the board and committees.
  • Help members see how they add value.
  • Discuss team performance and what that would look like in the boardroom.
  • Don’t allow individuals to subvert the collective performance.

3. I’m a new CEO of a small nonprofit. I want the board to be challenged and give more wisdom than it has previously. The members are so used to budgets and reports, though, that every time I bring up a larger issue, they clam up. What can I do?

Talk to them about why they “clam up” because you have to get to the root cause. Is it because they lack knowledge and don’t want to appear stupid? Is it because they lack passion for organizational issues? Are they not really experts on the issues you face? Is it because it feels strange and they’re just not used to it? Have they had bad experiences in the past where people stepped up and got smacked down (before you got there)? Unless you can get to they “why” you won’t be able to change the behavior.

4. How do board members feel about Governance as Leadership? Do they embrace the challenge or feel threatened?

As with anything new, responses are mixed. One thing is for sure: If the leaders (e.g., CEO, chair) are ambivalent/skeptical, the board senses it and gets skittish. But every board member wants to be engaged; they want to know it matters that they show up at meetings. Everyone’s time is precious! They want their intellectual capital tapped. I always ask when getting started and after they have read chapter one of the book about the GaL model, “What resonates with you?” “What doesn’t?” “What has you concerned or perplexed?” And after they’ve done some tri-modal thinking/practice, ask them: “How did that go?” “What were the benefits of thinking in three modes?” “What were the challenges?” “Why?”

5. I’ve served on many boards and have stopped serving because I feel like they are a waste of my time. The staff could figure out the budgets and operations better than I could, and all the board meetings were just opportunities for the CEO to report progress. I have some experience, though, and wonder how I could better vet a board where I could actually contribute. What do you suggest?

Prior to agreeing to serve, ask the leadership some questions: “What are the 2-3 most important issues/decisions the board worked on/made during the past year?” “What are the 2-3 most important issues that will come before the board in the year ahead?” “What are the biggest challenges the organization faces?” How do you plan to utilize the board?” “What do you see as the skills I bring to these issues/to the board table?”

6. What should a leader focus on when trying to change a culture to one that supports the Governance as Leadership principles?

This is really complicated so there is no simple answer, but I will say this: First, a leader must understand the culture that exists. Importantly, a culture is comprised of artifacts (the things you can see and the policies in place), espoused values (what everyone says they value) and underlying assumptions (the stuff people are sometimes not really aware of but that actually drives behavior). The key is to get to the underlying assumptions–-how people really think.

7. A board I’m working on cannot come to consensus on anything. We have such divergent viewpoints that we can’t get anything done. How could Governance as Leadership help us?

GaL is very much about deciding what to focus on and how various stakeholders see the issues and then deciding what makes sense for the organization. Divergent views are actually healthy. But you may be bringing issues to the board that are already too far downstream in the thinking process and people are disagreeing about tactics. Try to get issues to the board early (upstream in the thinking and framing stages) and then discuss them together. Discuss who thinks what and why and then figure out how to get on one page.

8. What kind of leader do you need to implement Governance as Leadership?

One who is comfortable with ambiguity. One who is confident without being egotistical-–who actually wants a board that pushes his/her thinking. One who is not afraid to say, “What did I miss? How else might I look at this? What do you think?”

9. We have instituted a mandatory dollar amount that board members must “give or get” and it has driven away some longstanding board members. Is this good so that new members can come in and reach these goals or bad since we are losing some continuity?

It’s neither good nor bad on its face; there’s much more to it I would imagine. But if longstanding board members aren’t giving or getting, perhaps it is time for them to go. All board members should be told before joining a board what the giving expectations are. In your case, since this is a new policy, I think it’s fair to tell longstanding members they need to also step up and if they can’t or won’t, they will have to step down. That seems reasonable to me. In your situation, I guess I’d worry less about continuity than reaching what sounds like necessary fundraising goals. All board members should bring time, treasure, and talent or work, wealth, and wisdom–-not too much to ask or expect.

Trower’s explanation of how to practice working in three modes we mentioned above was particularly helpful and I encourage you to listen to the archive once we have it posted on the Interview page. You can also read more interview answers about The Practitioner’s Guide in our Page to Practice™ summary or purchase Trower’s book at

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Guide

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Controversial fundraiser: A lesson in board recruitment?

A Texas-based hunting group called the Dallas Safari Club is announcing a fundraiser to “save the black rhino” by auctioning a hunting permit to kill a black rhino, according to yesterday’s article in the International Business Times. Ben Carter, the Club’s director, insists the permit will raise $500,000 in support of conservation of this endangered species in Namibia.

If this controversial story gave you pause like it did for me, we can only imagine what board questions might have surrounded this fundraising discussion. Does the end justify the means? What message are we sending our members? Can we afford harmful press if we’re raising hard-to-raise funds for an obscure species? Even these plausible questions sound ridiculous when looking from the outside in.

What kind of decision-makers do you have?

Reflections on this (perhaps fictional) board meeting reminded me of an interview question I asked of our recently featured governance expert and author, Cathy Trower. I prompted Trower about board composition, which elicited a very helpful answer about the importance of considering the group dynamics you have when recruiting board members as well as factoring in upcoming projects where you may need devil’s advocates, consensus-builders, divergent thinkers and more.

How might the board’s decision-making process for the Dallas Safari Club have changed if the nominating committee recruited members based on Trower’s recommendations below? How would a devil’s advocate have changed the course of this fundraising idea? How would discussing the club’s goals and future work affect the decision? How might some of the most important decisions made about your organization’s future improve if your board adopted Trower’s criteria?

CausePlanet: Cathy, will you explain why effective board composition involves more than professional expertise?

Trower: First, if we only consider professional expertise when selecting board members, we could overlook the quality of thinking that someone might add, regardless of his/her profession. And, we may inadvertently signal that the expertise a person brings (e.g., financial, legal, real estate) is what is wanted from him/her for his/her board service–almost inviting the person into that operational domain.

By saying this, however, I don’t want to imply that nonprofit board members do not and should not bring that expertise to bear pro bono, just not be limited in that direction or see it as their personal charge (which can add angst to the professional staff’s jobs working as liaisons to various committees or feeling second-guessed). Board members have to keep in mind that when it comes to the nonprofit they serve, they are the part-time amateurs overseeing the work of the full-time professionals.

Consider your group dynamic. What kind of team players do you need?

Second, nonprofits should consider the group dynamic when selecting new board members, as I discuss in chapter four. Will this person add to the team we have assembled in a positive way? Is the person a team player? What is the mix, for example, of consensus-builders and devil’s advocates, divergent and convergent thinkers, idealists and pragmatists on the board?

What kind of board work is on deck?

Third, it is wise to also think about the work ahead of the board in the next several years when we consider potential board members. For example, are we entering into an era of increased regulation? Is new product and program development going to be critical? Are technology and delivery systems changing for us? The better we understand what lies ahead, the better we will do selecting people with experiences most appropriate for our boards.

Author interview with governance expert Cathy Trower:

Give your board new direction and results by learning more about Trower’s Practitioner’s Guide on three proven spheres of leadership – register for our live interview with Cathy Trower on December 12.

See also:

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Guide

The Nonprofit Leadership Team

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Reward wisdom and work, not just wealth

“Why do nonprofit organizations go to such great lengths to recruit the best and brightest as trustees, but then permit them to languish collectively in an environment more intellectually inert than alive, with board members more disengaged than engrossed?”

Chait, Ryan and Taylor’s question raises the important conundrum nonprofit leaders must reconcile if their organizations are to flourish. The coauthors’ question also prompted them to write Governance as Leadership, which introduced a groundbreaking trimodal approach to board governance in fiduciary, strategic and generative spheres.

The subject of our currently featured book, The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership, is Cathy Trower’s how-to edition, which expands upon Governance as Leadership’s influential work with a wealth of examples of high-performing nonprofit boards as well as insightful tools and guidance on how to successfully operate equally in these three celebrated modes. I asked Cathy Trower to discuss the three modes of governance in our author interview:

CausePlanet: In the book, you discuss the importance of boards utilizing three modes of governance. Will you briefly explain why this model is so effective?

Trower: It is effective because it taps the full brainpower and talent of everyone assembled in the boardroom, rather than just that of the usual, most outspoken members. It’s no secret that thinking, and ultimately decision making, are improved through the airing and understanding of divergent thinking, multiple views and diverse perspectives; respectful challenges to the status quo; and devil’s advocacy and dissent. The model, if well-practiced, allows for all of that. It drives the board up the knowledge management hierarchy from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. It gets the board away from technical problems (which can and should be addressed by management) to adaptive challenges, which are messier because they get to core issues of values and missions. It helps the board remember it is responsible with management for the long-term sustainability of the nonprofit it holds in the public trust while also being responsible for the oversight of the more mundane, though nonetheless essential aspects of the organization (e.g., legal, financial, ethical–duty of care responsibilities). It levels the boardroom playing field that in some nonprofits has been tilted toward the wealthy and powerful having the most say and sway to ensuring the best thinking emerges no matter whose. In the nonprofit board vernacular, the model rewards wisdom and work, not just wealth.

The coauthors’ three Governance as Leadership modes, which Trower discusses in her Practitioner’s Guide, have been repeatedly applied and widely accepted by nonprofits throughout the sector. Nonprofit leaders who recognize they stand or fall based on their enlightened board leadership should leverage Trower’s book as an instructive resource that illustrates an innovative approach with specificity and experience.

See also:

The Board Game

Exposing the Elephants

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book


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