From Better Boards

Feeling blue? Chin up, get to work, there’s lots of thinking and planning to

Yes, the election left me gobsmacked.

But this is no time to act like a deer in the headlights. Hundreds in my community and across the US are already thinking and planning to prepare to act strategically.

You don’t have to be for or against the incoming administration to recognize that a lot is going to change.

As a board and strategy consultant, I’m troubled that very few of the boards with whom I’m working are talking about planning for scenarios that might be heading their way. While front line advocacy organizations are already moving forward, I’m not seeing discussions happening in very many other sectors.

I understand that there is considerable uncertainty. I recognize that it might feel like a waste of time to talk about the unknown.

But isn’t that your job as a governing board? Shouldn’t you be considering best case, worst case and starting to prepare a plan of action? Haven’t you enough evidence of the policy changes that are likely to be made to start planning for those changes?

Your board has a lot of thinking and planning to do.

Need an example? We’ve already in a profoundly new world order. Jobs are vanishing fast, not necessarily because of global trade, but because what can be automated will. And there are very few jobs that can’t be automated.

What does this mean for your clients? What about your donors? Your community? Your employees?

Here’s another: How is the shifting landscape of philanthropic giving affecting your organization, where the rich are giving more and the rest of everyone less?

And the big one: What policies have the new administration and the majority party been championing over the last eight years or eight months? How will that affect us?

If there was every a time for both strategic and generative thinking, it’s now.

When the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, it may be too late to mobilize a satisfactory response.

  • I’ve felt that way at least three times before in my voting life. But yes, this one seems completely different. Having been a member of Amnesty International for more than four decades, I’ve read the stories on how democracy can be lost seemingly overnight. 


Principles of nonprofit governance?

fullscreen-capture-11202016-15934-pmWhat are the basic principles of nonprofit governance?

Friday I attended an ARNOVA colloquium called A Pluralistic Perspective on Nonprofit Governance: How should context be taken into account?

Four non-US academics cautioned us to think about the many factors that influence how governance is practiced in civil society organizations. They hailed from the UK, Southeast Asia, Reunion and Sweden.

Ola Segnestam Larsson of Ersta Sköndal University College asked the provocative question I repeated at the opening of this post.

A question yes, but really it was a challenge.

  • What are the principles that guide governance in our organizations?
  • Does our approach to governance flow intentionally as an expression of those principles?

For example, we’ve all learned that boards act as fiduciaries. Fiduciary embodies the principle of stewardship, or having in your care something you don’t own. This fiduciary role requires the duties of loyalty and care in making decisions. Behind the duty of care are the principles of reasonableness and prudence.

Yet, the principle of stewardship is likely not enough to sufficiently guide your governance practices.

Some nonprofits place high value in being democratic. If so, it’s very likely that your organization would spread the ability to influence decisions beyond the board.  At Amnesty International USA members have the opportunity to propose and debate policy at regional meetings, at their annual general meeting and in the international body.

In the colloquium, Ola Larsson suggested other principles at play, such as independence and transparency, He did not suggest that there was one prescription for what those principles should be.

If you were to describe the principles of nonprofit governance guiding your board’s practice, what would they be? Would all directors agree?

I’m hearing you say: but we have articulated our values as part of our strategic planning.

Yes, that may be a starting place. But do those values translate to the way you approach governance?

I know I’m going to start this conversations with the boards with whom I work and serve.

Other reads:

Wayfinding, the ongoing work of your nonprofit board 

A shining example of a nonprofit values statement


Think your board chair succession is secure? Think again.

New icon roundMy colleagues and I are still digesting the lessons to be learned from the Voices of Board Chairs research. (I served on the research team, a subgroup of the Governance Affinity Group of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.)

One area our research team wanted to learn more about was board chair succession.

Very interestingly, what we heard from these chairs was:

  • Fewer than half of our chairs had previously held the role of vice chair, a position commonly accepted in our sector as the primary precursor to the board chair.

“The board chair and vice chairs just quit one day and I was left.”

“.. I was a member of the Executive Committee when the Vice Chair, who was to take over as Chair in three months, had to resign from the board for a significant family health situation.”

  • 16% of our chairs had been on the board of their nonprofit for less than a year, and just over half for three years or less.  

“I had been on the board for 9 months. Because of my profession, and also my dedication to the group, I was a natural choice to become chair… but it was really early…”

“…all the members of the Board of Trustees, with one exception, indicated they were resigning. I was not on the board, I was a volunteer.”

” the board chair … needed to vacate the position for family reasons, and since I was vice-president of another nonprofit, I was asked to step in.”

My take-a-away from this:

Even well-crafted chair succession plans hit unexpected bumps in the road, such as health issues, new family or work responsibilities, or job relocations.

That left me thinking a lot about building a deep bench of potential leaders.

  • What would your board do differently if right from the start it considered every director a potential leader?
  • What would you do differently to nurture a big bench of future leaders rather than just one or two?
  • What do you do now? How is it working for you?

For more insights, I hope you’ll visit the Laramie Board Learning Project. Research colleague Debra Beck has been sharing her insights on the research through the lens of how board members learn.

New Study on Board Chairs Preparation and Roles

I’m excited to announce that the Alliance for Nonprofit Management study on board chairs is now published. You can find the study here.

Other research tells us that boards have come to count on their chairs for ensuring their good functioning. We wanted to follow that up by asking chairs how they prepared for their position and how they understood their roles.

The 635 chairs in the study told us:

  • 51% did nothing specific to prepare for this particular chair role
  • Many haven’t been on their boards very long
  • In hindsight, they say they would have benefited from mentoring, etc
  • Yet most report they are focusing on the top priority areas for their boards and have a good relationship with their CEOs.

I’ll have more to share on the results later this week.

Best, Gayle

P.S. Did I mention that I was part of the research team?

Board chair announcement

Effective teams – from Google to your board

After two years of study of over 100 teams, Google discovered the secret sauce of its most highly effective teams.
White water raftingFirst they looked to see if it mattered who was on the team. But “no matter how researchers arranged the data,  it was almost impossible to find … any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference.”*

What did matter: Group Norms. But what norms, what behaviors in the group?

The NUMBER ONE factor: a culture of “psychological safety… characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” (NYT)
Psychological safety included empathy for their teammates and “conversational turn-taking”, where team members spoke up in roughly the same proportion.

The other items on the list:

  • Dependable members
  • Clear roles, plans, goals
  • Knowing that the work was meaningful
  • Doing work that had an impact
Does that also sound like the perfect board to you? It sure does to us, as building that team is the foundation of our work with boards.
You can read the full story at:
The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team
What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Governance is Governance

Ken DaytonI was cleaning old files a few days ago when I stumbled across the beloved “Governance is Governance” by Kenneth N. Dayton.

If you are too young to know this monograph, it’s the text of a keynote address to a professional forum hosted by Independent Sector’s Effective Leadership and Management Program given in May 1985 and published in 1987.

I was delighted to find it and read it again. As someone who works with many nonprofit boards and executive directors, the simplicity and clarity of the advice continues to ring true.

Here’s Dayton’s Function of the Board of Directors:
“As representatives of the public, be the primary force pressing the institution to the realization of its opportunities for service and the fulfillment of its obligations to all its constituents.”

And his Function of the President and CEO (that is, chief staff officer/executive director)

“1. Serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the institution, reporting to the board of directors, accepting responsibility for the success or failure of the enterprise. (emphasis added)

“2. With the Chair of the Board, enable the Board of Trustees to fulfill its governance function, and facilitate the optimum interaction between management and the Board.

“3. Give direction to the formulation [of] and leadership to the achievement of the institution’s philosophy, mission, and strategy, and to its annual objectives and goals.”


You can find the full monograph online at the url below.

Reading and discussing this would make for the great start of a board retreat.



Your nonprofit has problems? Watch Mozart in the Jungle

Jon and I just finished binge watching the first two seasons of Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon. violin-1085606_640

The cast includes Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell and Gael Garcia Bernal who just won a Golden Globe for best TV actor in a comedy or musical.

It’s rare that any TV show brings us into the wacky and soul-fulfilling world in which we spend our days and many nights. This charming romantic comedy touches so many themes many of us have confronted.

Spoiler Alert — sharing some content

What’s not to love:

  • Crazy charismatic but unpredictable new artistic director
  • New artistic director succeeds long time and beloved director
  • Board infighting
  • An Interim Managing Director who is also the Board Chair
  • Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising challenges
  • Nurturing wealthy donors
  • Traditional classical arts program grappling with cultural changes
  • Staff-management relations (and relationships! not advised)
  • Vision/mission/ values conflicts
  • And many more

You’ve heard me preach that you need to create transforming emotional experiences for your donors and your board members. Without getting into the details, the fundraising scene in Episode 4, Season 1 is priceless.

It’s worth dissecting that one scene with your fundraising staff and board volunteers. For what works, and what doesn’t.

While I’m not recommending that your nonprofit conduct itself as the NY Symphony does in this show, I think you’ll find yourself relating to some of the challenges they face.

Are you already a fan? Why?

If not, let me know what you think.

P.S. My musical friends tell me not to get all crazy about whether the musicians are playing their instruments correctly. And for those who abstain from watching  shows with some nudity and drug use, not for you.

Wear your allegiance on your name tag

I’m on the board of WaterFire Providence.

At our meeting last week, I got a good chuckle out of the name tag fellow board member Peter Van Erp was wearing.

An architect, it wasn’t surprising that Peter designed his own custom tag.

Knowing him as I do, I guessed immediately Peter’s board commitments — WaterFire Providence and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Providence are on the ends. Can you guess the organization in the middle?

I can’t begin to count how many name tags I end up disposing of and feeling terribly guilty about. I try to give them back when the organization wants them. I even own one of those long permanent pin-on name tags from a peace trip I went on to the Soviet Union back in 1981 — I think I know where it is but I always forget to bring it with me.

I thought Peter’s name tag was a commendable example of efficient reuse.

He said I could share it with you.

Do you think maybe I’ve been in this business too long… getting excited or irritable about name tags? This is my second post. My first Preparing name tags – a facilitator’s lament was about how crazy I get when the name on the name tag is so tiny it’s basically invisible.

Reminds me of the long conversation on a facilitator’s list serve a few years ago about what flip chart markers people used. It was one of the most engaged discussions I remember on that list.

Answer me – dammit!

How to infuriate your Executive Director

Point of collectionDon’t answer me!

Ignore my emails.

Don’t return my phone calls.

It seems there is a rash of this going on these days. In the last few weeks, this has been at the top of the frustration list among executive directors I’ve been working with.

What work gets stymied?

  • Can’t get a meeting date arranged.
  • Can’t get some input on an important decision.
  • Won’t confirm their pledge or the date they are sending it.

I hear the lament… ” I simply can’t get them to call me back.”

Doesn’t make you feel very important, does it.

How many phone calls and emails are enough to make you respond?

Having just spent hours trying to arrange three committee meetings myself, I so totally understand this frustration. And that was using a Doodle meeting set up helper. I even ended up texting.

I don’t have a strategy for this.  I do have an answer… stop dodging the question.

Of course, I understand that in some cases the Executive Director is hounding board members and they might be trying to avoid him or her.

But really, a better strategy would be to tell your executive director why you feel like he/she is hounding you. Then arrange a better way to communicate.

What do you think?