Lessons on Policy Governance® from The Little Red Hen

Monday, January 24th, 2011

The Little Red Hen was an industrious little hen. From a few seeds, she had a vision of a beautifully golden, richly fragrant loaf of bread.

Along the way, she tried to enlist others in the barnyard for help to plant the seeds, take the wheat to the mill, and bake the bread. All who were asked said, “Not I!”

When the bread was done, she asked who would help her eat it. Of course, everyone wanted a piece.

The course of Policy Governance can look much the same. In the beginning, planting the seeds and developing the framework for better governing practices is a lot of work. But in the end, the board has a practical and robust system for managing its work. In the end, everyone wants on board!

A client said, “We had trouble filling board seats and getting board members excited and engaged before we started governing by policy. Now that we’ve had a few years of success, everyone wants to be a part of it.”

One person had the vision of how governing by policy could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of board’s work and create a transformed, successful organization. Once the seeds were planted and the bread was baked, the sweet smell of success attracted everyone.

Does Policy Governance take a lot of work? Yes.

Will Policy Governance make a difference in your success? Yes.

Will everyone take part in the creation of a transformed organization? No. (Just ask The Little Red Hen).

Is having a board organization that everyone wants to be part of worth it?

Well, you need to answer that question for yourself.

What do nonprofit governing boards do?

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Defining governance is not easy. If you google “definition on governance,” you will find over 500,000 entries. Governance is a generic term with applications in information technology, Website management, research, corporations. I’ve found that how the term governance is applied in various disciplines is somewhat confusing. That’s why a simple definition for nonprofit board governance may not be enough to gain clarity and understanding.

For nonprofits, relating the process and practice of governing to a familiar or commonly shared experience helps. In my post “On board service“, I use ships. In April, I wrote an article for the Charity Channel Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review. In this one, I use the train analogy. It seems I’m attracted to transportation analogies when describing governance!

From the review in Charity Channel:

Executive Directors who dump a pile of financials in front of board members, expecting them to have the background and expertise necessary to make heads of tails of them, are not meeting their obligations to the board, according to the latest NBGR article by Sherry Jennings. Taking the point of view of a new board member, she writes, “Most of the financial information was incomprehensible to Martin. What was nagging at Martin was that he didn’t feel like he had a complete ‘picture’ of what was going on. The information he had plodded through last night seemed like a box of spare parts.”‘
In If I’m Not Running the Train, How Do I Know We’re On Track? the author uses a down-to-earth story-telling method to drive the point home and offer up the solution.

Caroline Oliver (brilliant author and consultant on governance) likens practicing good governance to riding a bicycle. You need to take the appropriate steps and practice to do it right. She said that the traditional approach to governance is okay but it’s a bit like pushing the bicycle along rather than riding it. Riding a bicycle is difficult at first. One needs to learn a new way of balancing and may fall a few times. But once one is confident and dancing on the pedals, it feels effortless and like flying (another transportation analogy!)

From Caroline’s reflections:
“Most of us want practical solutions and would prefer to skip the theory bit. However, the boards that tend to excel in the way that they practice governance are the boards that have an idea of what they are doing and why – in other words – the ones that have a good theory!”

I would add a good process and good balance.

See Caroline’s article on Creating a Board Dashboard, also at the Charity Channel and her new book Getting Started with Policy Governance

On board service

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Dear Association Executive:

Recently on the American Society of Association Executive’s (ASAE) Executive Section listserv, there have been many questions about how to get the board out of the minutiae in order to find time to work on strategic direction or Ends policy. The board’s focus on the day-to-day is not their fault (entirely.) Board members want to to a good job. But most have learned the traditional approach of board service — showing up at meetings, approving staff work and debating whether or not the office can afford a new copier.

When your board is busy with staff reports, committee reports and working on day-to-day operations, they don’t have the time to focus on strategy or governing. Board members come to your meetings with dozens of other competing priorities and thinking about their own business or family decisions. Once they get to your meeting, the agenda is full of operational (staff) reports or decisions. Is it any wonder board members default into operational mode?

Hildy Gottlieb at Help4Nonprofits.com says it’s like running a ship. You, dear Association Executive, are the captain. You manage the crew, read the charts, navigate and ensure the safety of crew, ship and cargo. You make sure the cargo is delivered. The board’s role is representing the owners of the ship. The board decides what kind of ship, what cargo it will haul, where that cargo will go, to what customers and at what cost. They monitor performance based on how well you deliver. Too often, the board thinks they’re supposed to be captains. When you have nothing but captains on a ship, you have anarchy! (Plus, you sacrifice some much needed crew.)

The board’s job isn’t to run the organization. That’s what they hired you (the captain) to do. The board actually has its own job and it’s not an “extension” of yours. Their job (and their added value) is to represent the owners of the organization (people who expect certain outcomes or results.) This can be the community at large or a specific, defined group of stakeholders such as a neighborhood or micro business owners. In other words, they represent a subset of the community and sit at the board table on behalf of those who are not there. They are representatives.

My point is that, most board members don’t know that their job is representing and governing on behalf of those they represent.

if board members don’t know what their constituents think, how can they represent them? How do stakeholders have a voice in where your organization is headed? How does the board know unless they ask? Their job is to provide that vital link to the owners or stakeholders or their constituency.

Most board members don’t have a clue that that’s what they’re supposed to do. And, that’s what makes your job more difficult.

John Carver (author of Boards that Make a Difference) describes a traditional nonprofit board of directors as a group of competent individuals who get together to do incompetent things. Nonprofit board members tend to think that a nonprofit is a different animal than a for-profit. This perception is to the detriment of the organization. A nonprofit is an artificial entity created for the purpose of some pursuit — a corporation. The law gives corporations a great deal of power. For-profit corporations recognize this.

For some reason, nonprofits seem to think they have little or no power. Nonprofits have as much power as the board believes they have.

A board\'s job is to add value to the organization -- not run it
You can unleash that power by helping your board see a vision of what they can become when they’re not busy swabbing the decks and running the crew. Good board members are hard to find and harder to keep. Let’s not drive them away with mind-numbing operational matters.

Very sincerely,

Sherry