Tuesday night (this post is republished from May 2017), I started the board retreat with a reflective dialogue based on reading the children’s classic Who Took the Farmer’s Hat?
I sent the book around the room, with a different board member reading each page. The reading took about five minutes.
Then I asked this question:
Why would a board consultant ask you to read this book?
After a brief pause and a few blank looks, one board member launched in which started the conversation:
- “One theme is the need to incorporate different perspectives as different people (er, animals) see the same thing in different ways.”
- “Reacting to change you can’t control or anticipate is another theme.”
- ” ‘The farmer ran fast, but the wind went faster’ describes so many of the changes we encounter and the need to be extremely adaptive”
- “Sometimes you just have to let go of those things you’ve always done and the way you’ve done them”
And so it went. We spent about 20 minutes discussing and applying themes to the board’s role, getting deeper into the themes as we went along.
Using reflective dialogue to spark deeper thinking
As often as I can, I try to incorporate reflective dialogue into my work with organizations, especially boards or work groups.
Brain research tells us that we can’t scold, argue or out-fact our way to change in others. But we can open the door to it by helping to spark moments of insight. In my selection of materials, I’m hoping not only to spark discussion but also to open minds to new ideas, to new possibilities.
As the conversation facilitator, my role is to create a safe space for participants to share their ideas, to pursue concepts that might not be fully formed or are even a bit contrarian. I also come equipped with questions to help spark reflection and move conversation forward. A good resource for questions you can use is Making Questions Work by Dorothy Strachan.
Reflective dialogue for team building
I sometimes get push back from groups when I select adding a poem with discussion into their board meeting or retreat. Yet, those same groups are wondering how to develop stronger personal relationships among their board members.
I’m all for physical bonding exercises at the right place and time. But I have a deep love for these reflective discussions that allow board members to enter a topic through a different frame. We tend to compartmentalize our board members based on their professions, failing to create space for them to share their many gifts and knowledge from other aspects of their lives. My clients are always pleasantly surprised that their retired banker taught philosophy in his youth, or that lawyer was a race car driver.
Since a great workshop I attended given by Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities and former director of the Center For Civic Reflection, I’ve added A Bed for The Night, by Bertolt Brecht into my work with so many nonprofits. And I regularly assign Adam’s provocative essay What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about service to my graduate students before we jump into any community projects or service learning.
Sometimes I use a poem, a video or short story like the one above. TED talks can be great reflection starters or a reading from the relevant organization development literature. Other times we might reflect on a research report. Many of my colleagues have used movie clips.
The Center for Civic Reflection has a list of resources on different topics that you might consider as well as questions for you to use. For example, you might want to read Maimonides From Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor to start your next fundraising discussion.
I’d also like to give a shout out to my colleagues at Creating the Future, who have launched a worldwide experiment “to determine how much more humane the world could be if the questions we ask in our day to day lives are bringing out the best in each other.”
What have you found helpful to get meaningful conversation flowing?
“You’re a strategic planning consultant? You must use Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions a lot.”
Sinking feeling. As I stood by the grill with a beer in my hand at a recent summer party, I couldn’t come up with even one of his apparently essential strategic questions
I mentioned some of the business thinkers we often draw on, like Jim Collins and Peter Block. My new friend nodded politely, but I was clearly speaking to a Drucker man. He told me how Drucker’s business frameworks had guided his successful career as a manager. How they were now helping him transform the effectiveness of the nonprofit board he served on.
I was eager to learn more when I got back to the office. Amazon is taking its sweet time delivering Drucker’s book, but in the meantime here are Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask Your Nonprofit Organization:
What is your mission?
Who is your customer?
What does your customer value?
What are your results?
What is your plan?
These are all questions we ask and answer in the course of strategic planning with our clients, although not in Drucker’s specific terms.
For instance, the word “customer” was once a refreshing shock to nonprofit sensibilities, a challenge to those who automatically disdained commerce and marketing. Later on, calling donors and clients “customers” became a cliché. When a useful term becomes a buzzword, it shuts down the good thinking it once may have stimulated.
But it’s been a while since Drucker’s heyday and “customer” seems to have dropped out of frequent use in the nonprofit world. So, maybe it’s time to bring the “customer” back into our strategic discussions.
In any case, I’m glad to be challenged to learn more about the amazing Peter Drucker and I’m looking forward to learning more about his Five Questions.
Thomas Cahill’s marvelously humane history How the Irish Saved Civilization tells how a handful of inspired monks isolated at the far edge of a crumbling empire first preserved and then replanted the most precious seeds of ancient civilization – the ideas and knowledge contained in its greatest Hebrew, Greek, Roman and early Christian books.
Cahill’s concluding chapter reminds us that we cannot know the hour of our own civilization’s great catastrophe, but that we are more like the late Romans than we want to consider: technologically advanced, but living on the fruits of accelerating injustice, violence and corruption that leave more and more billions of people envious and destitute. Cahill foresees an inevitable crisis. “But we turn our back on such unpleasantness,” writes Cahill (in 1995), “and contemplate the happier prospects of our technological dreams.”
“What will be lost, and what saved, of our civilization probably lies beyond our powers to decide”, Cahill concludes. “No human group has ever figured out how to design its future. That future may be germinating today not in a boardroom in London or an office in Washington or a bank in Tokyo, but in some antic outpost or other – a kindly British orphanage in the grim foothills of Peru, a house for the dying run by a fiercely single-minded Albanian nun, and easygoing French medical team at the starving edge of the Sahel, a mission to Somalia by Irish social workers who remember their own Great Hunger, a nursery program to assist convict-mothers at a New York prison – in some unheralded corner where a great-hearted human being is committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way.”
“Perhaps history is always divided into Romans and Catholics – or better catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way and must always accrue more because they instinctively believe there will never be enough to go around; the catholics, as their implies, are universalists who instinctively believe that all humanity makes one family, that every human being is an equal child of God and that God will provide… If our civilization is to be saved… if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.”
I know I’m too much a Roman, too little a saint. Still it’s been my privilege to work with a few saints among my colleagues and clients during a career in philanthropy. Cahill reminds us that their dissent from selfishness is not eccentric or futile but essential to our fate. Thank you.
“Just because you work for a small nonprofit doesn’t mean you have to raise small dollars.” So many fundraising books focus on organizations with big budgets, leaving smaller nonprofits to figure out how to make those formulas work for them. In The Essential Fundraising Handbook for Small Nonprofits, you’ll learn from eight skilled fundraisers who have right-sized the best of fundraising for the small shop.
Each of us has many options to serve. For example, we might to choose to serve by: Serving meals each week at the community meal site. Wading in the muck to pull old tires out of the river. Bearing silent witness in a vigil line. Helping a neighbor in need.
Caring for a family member. Stepping into danger to prevent a greater harm. Giving blood.
And even serving on an organizational board.
If ever there was a book that could help improve strategic planning, it’s Decisive, How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.
According to the book, our usual process looks like this:
- We encounter a choice.
- We analyze our options.
- We make a choice.
- Then we live with it.
This sounds logical and familiar. Most of us would pat ourselves on the back for being so rational.
The problem, as the Heath’s point out, is that there is a fatal flaw at each stage:
- Narrow framing makes us miss other options when we encounter a choice.
- Confirmation bias makes us gather self-serving information.
- Short term emotions often tempt us into making the wrong choice.
- We’re overconfident about how the future will unfold and stick to one path once we’ve made our choice.
Luckily, the Heath’s suggest four strategies to counteract your biases. They sum them up in the acronym, WRAP: Read more
Check out Gayle’s contribution to two new books recently published for the “In The Trenches” series of CharityChannel Press.
When You and Your Nonprofit Board, edited by Terrie Temkin, arrived in our mailbox, we had to read it from cover to cover. Gayle’s contribution, “You’re Not the Boss of Me: the Board Chair and CEO Relationship,” is one of 46 thoughtful essays by America’s leading writers on nonprofit governance. One reviewer says, You and Your Nonprofit Board reads like a conversation among friends, if all your friends were “brilliant and brimming with ideas.”
A monthly giving program: Turns one time annual givers into more regular and committed supporters. Makes it easy for your donors to give each month. Enables small donors to make bigger gifts than they would otherwise make.
I urge you to read The Permanent Disruption of Social Media, in the Winter 2013 edition of Stanford Social Innovation Review.
The authors’ premise is that in a world of social media, the old pyramid or ladder metaphor of donor engagement isn’t relevant any more. (If it ever worked at all.) But the old model implied a somewhat orderly process of communications and solicitations tied to giving frequency and levels. The bigger your gift, the more valuable you are, the more worthy of personalized attention.
The authors accuse this approach of being a one way street, from organization to donor, that ignores the new reality of influence.