Remember that infamous writing assignment on the first days of school, the one that nudged you to recount summer activities and what you learned? That simple phrase – what I learned this summer – has come to mind for me on numerous occasions as I apply my BoardSource training experience from July. Three lessons in particular stand out.
One lesson popped up recently as I read about controversial gifts from a controversial pair of donors, the Koch brothers. I’m not about to comment on the brothers, but it’s the questions about their gifts that made me pause. I immediately had an answer to the quandary some recipient nonprofits were experiencing: process, policy, procedure. Boards must have the “p’s” in place.
The article confirmed that, indeed, many organizations lack a process for determining gift acceptance and, more aptly, when to refuse. Clearly this is a highly sensitive issue that’s best discussed when all heads are cool, not in the heat of a large donation under fire. But it’s only one example. Too often nonprofits don’t anticipate situations where they need a board policy and procedure in place. My new mantra to clients: process, process, process. For each key area of board member responsibility, think through guidelines that support a board in making the best decisions and keep angst and division at bay.
Lesson two evolved in recognizing anew that nonprofit governance as a concept is not easy to grasp. My BoardSource “class” included consultants from around the country and with significant years of experience. Many had long résumés as nonprofit executives and knew board service from multiple perspectives. Yet in our discussions about governance, there was no automatic consensus on how to explain it. Collectively, we had to work to arrive at a definition that was comfortable for all.
I’ve been channeling those conversations as I meet with client organizations on board development. Small wonder the term governance and what it entails can mean different things to different board members. So my second mantra: build consensus. Make sure there is mutual understanding on board duties and responsibilities. One more reason why board education is important as a forum for achieving consensus.
Lesson three has come in weighing what I gained from days of intense training. Apologies for using an overused adage, but it is the doing, the journey, whatever metaphor you choose for the experience along the way, which matters as much as the end point. The association with an impressive group of fellow professionals and a brilliant expert from BoardSource, the insights and strategies on what makes for successful board service and a well-run organization, were invaluable.
I think for every board that serves, this too is an essential truth. Each meeting, each decision, each interaction impacts how a board works together and how well it steers a nonprofit. It’s not just about a smashing annual gala or big coup donation. It’s the steps you take to get there.
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