Recently I became a board chair of a small not-for-profit organization and I am trying to do my homework. One of my main concerns is how to create a positive experience for all board members while we use our time together in an efficient way to increase the impact and the financial sustainability of our organization.
I’d like to share (especially with my fellow board members) a few things I learned from some of the materials I have been studying. The first two are directly related to Boards and the two last ones speak to a more general view of the collaborative group processes. They are:
- An episode from the Small Nonprofit Podcast called Board Effectiveness made easy with Matt Fullbrook.
- How to be a good board chair published on the Harvard Business Review earlier this year by Stanislav Shekshnia.
- Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner.
- The Thinking Environment by Nancy Kline. A framework based on the two premises that the quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first and the quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking.
PART I – MATT FULLBROOK
This section applies to all board members. Matt’s four buckets are a very good general view of the key aspects that a Board needs to be aware of:
- External challenges
Here are some the messages that resonated with me and how they apply to our specific context.
Nurture your relationship beyond board chair meetings
That way we create a better opportunity to see ourselves as whole human beings instead of just board members.
Our monthly meetings happen in the evening after a long work day for many of us. They are short and we always have many items on the agenda to discuss. Even though we have a very friendly group of people, our time together might end up being a little too restricted and even dry.
If we manage to make some time to get know a little bit more about each other outside the meetings, it will be easier to focus on the business items during the meetings and we will be able to foster more authentic relationships where we can support each other.
Board members matter
Board Members are, in some aspects, more important than staff, since they are steering the organization. They are responsible for the “big decisions”.
The really important stuff
Even though technical and hard skills are listed and used to evaluate board member candidates, research has shown that soft skills are way more important. Things like: how to listen, collaborate with others, receive criticism, be proactive.
Be prepared and prepare everyone else
There are a lot of projects and events going on all the time. We should strive to make information available as much as possible, in order to reduce the time spent at the meeting just presenting information.
A good rule of thumb is to give one week notice before the meetings and send the agenda with all the relevant information by then.
Mind the information gap
Being a small nonprofit and having board members directly involved in the projects really narrows the information gap between the Executive Director and the Board. But we need to be extremely careful to make sure we keep all board members in the loop.
This goes beyond the board meetings and there is not a single answer. Maybe we need to devise individual communication strategies for each board member. A good starting point is simply to ask each one of us what would be a good way to provide information.
Remember to ask the right questions
This is about the board meetings per se, but it is also something that we can keep in mind all the time. Every presentation, report and project should consider two questions
- Why are we showing this information?
- What do we need to know/decide in order to move forward?
If we want to use the information being presented to plan the next steps we need to focus on the future. And the questions we raise should reflect that.
You only care about what you measure
We will have around 20 hours of regular board meetings per year.
It’s important to measure how we spend our time. There are roughly four ways to use our time during board meetings
- Share information
- Create proposals
- Plan and refine ideas
- Make decisions
Ideally, we want to use our time together to do what we can’t do when we are separate. That means we want to focus on making collective decisions and exploring creative ideas as a group. And we should try to share information and create proposals outside the meetings.
Speaking of decisions, we can use a widely adopted model that categorizes decisions into three levels:
- Strategic: high-level decisions about the organization’s mission, vision and longterm goals. One of our main responsibilities as a board.
- Tactical: decisions around projects, programs and other related activities trying to keep them as aligned as possible with the strategic plan.
- Operational: they are smaller steps that implement the “bigger plan”. Many of those decisions can be made by the E.D. and simply reported to the board.
This is an ongoing process that needs to be monitored and documented. Categories can be added or removed according to what we agree that is relevant to measure. The moment you stop tracking is the moment you fall back into old habits.
Besides the amount of time we spent on each topic there a few other things we should track in our meetings and also about our role as board members
- Information: are we getting/providing enough information?
- Opportunity to express opinions: Does everybody get a chance to speak?
- Skills: Are we matching what board members know/want to do with the organization’s needs?
- Decision process: Is it clear? Is it fair?
- Recognition: Is everyone feeling seen and heard?
- Overall impression: How do people feel about the meetings?
Again, an ongoing process that can be adapted overtime.
Organizations don’t have control over external challenges, but they need to be aware of them. What are ours?
- Lack of adequate cycling infrastructure
- Local, Provincial, Federal Policies
- What else…?
PART II – STANISLAV SHEKSHNIA
This section is specifically targeted to the Board Chair. Even though the HBR article includes organizations with 7+ figure budgets, some of the principles are also applicable to our reality. Here is a point form summary of the relevant information presented in the article.
- Focus on the process, not on the content.
- Keep your own airtime to a minimum. “Lookers-on see most of the game.”
- Reach out to board members before and after the meetings
- Be mindful that using meeting time to create team agreements and build trust might be unrealistic due to the short amount of time available (Teaming instead of Teambuilding)
- Favour discussions towards consensus instead of voting to resolve disputes.
- Prepare the agenda carefully and send all the relevant information before the meeting
- Plan your Committees, they are a very useful tool. A smaller group can do the analytical work and prepare resolutions for the board
- Measure inputs, not outputs. Board decisions have a longterm impact which makes it hard to evaluate how effective a board was based on its outcomes. But if the inputs are good, the desired outputs will—in general—follow. Inputs are much easier to measure: board agendas, board materials, board processes, and board minutes
- Board Chair is not the boss of the Executive Director, but he is an important liaison between the E.D. and the rest of the board.
- Listen to the members/volunteers of your organization.
PART III – SAM KANER
In a participatory process everyone is an owner of the outcome. We are not only responsible for the content but also for discussing and co-creating the procedures that guide our work together.
- The first ideas we express are the ones we are familiar with, but to solve complex problems we need to go beyond that.
- Misunderstandings and miscommunications are inevitable.
- Not only people have different ideas, they have different ways of thinking about how to deal with all this diversity (e.g. some are more practical and want to reach a resolution as quickly as possible and others might prefer longer discussions).
- We need to make time for divergent thinking where we avoid judgment and allow people to express their own points of view, generate new alternatives, and have open discussion
- We need to make time for convergent thinking where we can exercise judgment to summarize key points, categorize ideas, and evaluate the existing alternatives in order to narrow our differences
- The four components of a participatory culture are
- Full participation
- Mutual understanding
- Inclusive solutions
- Shared responsibility
PART IV – NANCY KLINE
Thinking environment (T.E.) and its ten components. It would require some time to discuss, understand and implement all of the T.E. components. But even a quick read below can help us integrate some of those principles into our meetings.
The quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking. Listening to each other if you want to think for yourselves, requires discipline and the most profound attention for each other. First, listen. And listen. Then – listen. The fact that people have stopped speaking does not mean that they have stopped thinking.
Unlike a statement that requires you to obey, a question requires you to think. Try to identify your limiting assumptions, replace it with a freeing one and link it to your goal.
Everyone is valued as a thinker. There is no room for self-sacrifice or greed. To know you will get your turn to speak makes listening easier. It also makes your speaking more succinct.
The human mind seems to work best in the presence of reality. In most of the cases, there is far more good than bad. Society teaches us that to be positive is to be naive and vulnerable, whereas to be critical is to be informed and sophisticated. But injecting the positive into our picture of reality is an act of completing it, not implanting something foreign into it. A five-to-one ratio of appreciation to criticism helps people think for themselves.
We are led to believe that faster is better, and when we need to hurry in order to get better results. There is a lot to do and we can’t waste time idling. But urgency destroys a thinking environment.
Ease is a deceptively gentle catalyst. It’s a presence defined by an absence. The absence of tension or rush allows the human mind to broaden and reach. To pay attention with a heart and mind at ease is what produces results and time.
Competition between people ensures only one thing: if you win, you will have done a better job than whatever the other person did. It doesn’t mean that you will have done a good job. It limits thinking by keeping the focus on each other, not on your ideas.
Both listener and thinker need to feel encouraged to set up a wholehearted unthreatened search for good ideas. It allows you to ask the questions nobody wants asked.
Crying can make you smarter. Thinking stops when we are upset. If we express feelings just enough, thinking can re-start. But we believe that when feeling starts, thinking stops. When we do this, we interfere with exactly the thing that helps a person to think clearly again.
Next time someone cries in your presence, act as if it is perfectly natural and mature, which it is. Sit with them, listen to them, pay attention without panicking or smothering them with your concern.
Even when you realize there is misinformation allow the thinker to finish.
Appearance is not the key. They simply say back to the people “you matter”.
The world is diverse. Our differences are real and good and to think well about almost any topic, we need to be in as real, and therefore as diverse, a setting as possible.
Those notes are not supposed to be a comprehensive guide, they are just a gateway to explore and learn more about board governance and participatory processes.