Creative Chemistry: Board Strategies

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of listening to presentations by David Renz and Ruth McCambridge at “Creative Chemistry: Strategies for Growing Your Board & Its Impact.”

The workshop description read, in part: “From strategy to structure to succession to sustainability, nonprofit board leaders and executives across American (and even across the world) are exploring new ways to sustain and enhance their boards’ performance and impact.”

Renz, Director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, opened with an emphasis on the value of culture. He talked about the notion that culture matters more than structure and the importance of organizational design aligning with mission. He asked us to consider what drives your board’s culture and what culture are you cultivating on your board?

McCambridge, Editor-in-Chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly, described her collaborative work with Renz and pointed out that they had never had a meeting on the topic of their collaboration. Instead, she described its natural occurrence as having qualities of being simple, aligned interest and shared goals – not something formally planned. Aren’t those the best collaborations? It’s a wonderful thing when people or projects come together that way.

She continued with several lively, smart, provocative points. Among other things, she talked about how critical it is to have embodied knowledge on the board. I have to admit that I struggle with that notion, although I know I am flying in the face of current cutting-edge thinking that it’s important to have nonprofit constituents/program recipients on Boards of Directors. As with so many things, I think that “it depends.”

I would, however, absolutely agree that it’s critical that every organization proactively and intentionally include the perspectives and opinions of the people the organization serves. Board service is one great way. But it depends. For example, at Meals on Wheels of Takoma Park, where I serve as ED, I intentionally treat ALL our clients as an advisory committee. I’m committed to regular surveys (following up with phone calls to get a response, when necessary) to solicit their ideas and information about their experiences and recommendations. And I’m committed to bringing their voices into all my decisions and into board meetings. Personally, I find that gives our recipients more power in the organization than having one or two at a time on the board.

I did, however, appreciate her wisdom in recommending that before anyone be invited onto a board that they be first invited to join committees or time-limited projects to learn more about who they are and how aligned they are with the organization’s goals. From this, she talked about debunking the notion of individual leader as Hero (yes, her comments were wide-ranging!)

McCambridge also said that instead of asking for more structures, which can become our binkies to pacify ourselves, boards should also be asking, “what’s our purpose, goals, and intentions?” In this context, she talked about not keeping board and staff separate to the degree that is usually enforced; in response to a follow up question about this, she emphasized that “you must have ground rules and principles in a loose system.”

Another good quote: “Stop thinking about risk management; start thinking about risk leadership.”

And, in my words: “To create change, create the space for the different experience you want to have.” Which reminded me of my own thinking on the importance of creating open spaces for curiosity. Related, one of the participants later suggested the idea of asking board members to have conversations with other leaders in the community. I think this is a terrific idea – on so many levels.

McCambridge also added two more S’s to Renz’s four. Her contributions were: Sensing and Sense-making.

Renz’s four S’s were described in the workshop description:

  • Strategy: How are boards most effectively and efficiently engaging in strategy that enhances organizational impact and value?
  • Structure: How are boards that are most effective and efficient refining their structure and approach to doing work to make the most of members’ precious time and energy?
  • Succession: How are boards preparing for the inevitable changes in leadership – for both board and executive roles – and ensuring that they are able to tap the talent and energy of multiple generations of new nonprofit leaders?
  • Sustainability: How are boards becoming more disciplined and thoughtful about enhancing their organizations’ sustainability? As the environment continues to change, what are thoughtful organizations doing to innovate and make the most of what they can offer their clients and constituents?

To my delight, Renz highlighted two specific areas as being of particular importance—and they happen to be particular areas of expertise for me! The first is board self assessment and the other is leadership succession.

He also quoted someone who he claims (presumably arguably) is the greatest hockey player ever…Gretzy? Grenzy? Anyhow, this gentleman was reportedly asked what made him such a great player. (Yes, I googled it, and apparently Steve Jobs quoted it often, too. But I’ll refrain from updating my lack of knowledge lest I appear to be someone who can speak to sports references.) Anyhow, he reportedly replied, “I always skate to where the puck is going.” Renz added his own twist for nonprofit boards – “…and if it’s going the wrong way, you’d better darn well redirect it.”

He also referenced Jeanne Bell’s work and suggested that boards have a critical mind shift, from oversight to sustainability. He talked about the critical role of sustainability as a maxim for board work, which I appreciated, but I wondered: if a board is not doing proper oversight, oughtn’t it start there? To my mind, oversight to sustainability is a good step…but they are two steps what may be a longer sequence. In other words, oversight is not a bad thing; it’s the stuckness, the thinking “Oh, I’ve done all I need to do”-ness that is a problem. In which case, sustainability as a concept also has its limits.

Last, but not least, he referred to research on volunteers (in the context that board members are volunteers) showing that retention relies upon, in order:

  • Being of service to others
  • Doing valuable or interesting work
  • Having interesting co-workers
  • Being asked to volunteer
  • Having nothing better to do
  • And, least important of all: having a personal connection to the organization

This list will be even more interesting when I look at it to compare it to the survey I conducted recently of Meals on Wheels volunteers!

All in all, it was an enjoyable and mentally-stimulating afternoon, listening to the two of them. I look forward to the conference in full swing tomorrow!