Archive for the ‘Important’ Category

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 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,


Is It Time to Assess Your Environment?

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Assessing Organizational Ends Starts with Questions – Not Answers

In his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins offers this wisdom for CEO’s:

“Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.”

This wisdom applies equally to a Board of Directors.

Boards need to be a disciplined as they expect their staff to be in gathering information. Good information gathering starts by crafting the right questions prior to conducting an environmental scan to assess whether your organization is meeting the needs of the community.

An environmental scan should insure that a board’s Ends consider the needs, concerns and demands within the community it serves. An organization should exist to create change. It should be the change itself that drive the Ends.

External Environmental Scans

The “value add” of a board as trustees of the owners is to be the link with the external environment and bring that information to the organization. This linkage needs to be regular and periodic. The information gathered will help a board assess whether or not its Ends are relevant and current.

Just as a for-profit corporation conducts an environmental scan to assist with the strategic planning process, a governing board should periodically conduct an environmental scan and ask questions for which it doesn’t already have the answers.

Open meetings, focus groups, surveys, and presentations from third party experts are all dynamic ways to gather information. In addition, a board could consider:

• Board-to-board meetings

• Researching community needs assessments and demographic data

• Breakfast or lunch meetings with groups in the community (one of my clients found this to be so successful that it launched a new entity of like-minded organizations who have similar funding needs)

• Open forums

• Town hall meetings

• One-on-one meetings with community leaders

• Board committees to gather intelligence

7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

7 Measures of Success

Many of us in the nonprofit sector eagerly awaited the publication of this book by The Center for Association Leadership. The book is a research project spanning four years and mentored by Jim Collins. With the assistance of the best-selling author of Good to Great and Built to Last, The Center conducted four years of intensive original research and analysis of 15 years of data. The purpose was to tease out the characteristics that distinguish associations that achieve remarkable results year after year.While some conventional wisdoms were dispelled by the research (e.g., it’s better to hire a CEO from the outside), many common axioms were upheld. Collins wrote in the book’s introduction that “every association can deliver better results for its members.” This is a nice corollary to “good enough is never good enough.”It’s interesting to note the choice of words Collins used in his observation regarding the nature of what separates a great institution from the average. He says great organizations are comprised of:

“Disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action”

Collins repeated this mantra a few times during a presentation to the American Society of Association Executives. Why not say “focused” or “purposeful” or “mission-driven?” If you’ve heard Collins speak, you know he’s a bit like that Monk character on television who is obsessed with order and detail. He doesn’t choose his words at random.In his speech to ASAE, Collins said it was more than mission or focus. Discipline requires the organization to stop doing the wrong things in order to have the time to do the right things well and achieve remarkable results. Collins’ observation is a meaningful one for governing boards. Is your board remarkable?

Consider these questions:

  • Is it difficult to get all of your board members to attend meetings?
  • Is your board having difficulty recruiting the members it really wants because those people “just don’t have time?”
  • Does your board spend most of its meeting time listening to staff and committee reports and little time on compelling dialog and debate about the future?
  • Does your board tend to rely on their own perceptions of the members rather than conducting diligent discussions with members about what they need?
  • Does the board struggle with how to evaluate your performance or conduct your annual review?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may indicate that your board views its role as managing instead of governing. If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may suggest that your board isn’t spending enough time on the “right things.”That’s where disciplined thought and action come in. Discipline helps the board get done what it needs to do efficiently and expediently. Discipline frees up time to make a difference for the people they serve (why most people join boards.) It creates meetings that are exciting and engaging (and worth attending.) It will help your board recruit and retain quality board members because everyone wants to be part of a remarkable board.Where do you start to create an environment that fosters disciplined thought and action? You can begin with the principles found in Policy Governance