Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Agreement Over Assumption – Helping to Engage the Right People

You have heard us talk many times about a central theme of the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model – the right people. This topic has many layers to it. It’s about recruiting and engaging the right board members at the right time and equally about the critical partnership between the board and the CEO. Getting either of these wrong can create huge distractions for the organization as it struggles internally with trust and communication instead of focusing its work on the leadership required to deliver mission. These experiences are far too common and, while we offer many tools to help boards and staff get recruitment on the right track, many organizations bypass this help and hope for the best. This is a whole topic worthy of many newsletter articles, but today I want to focus on organizations that are doing all they can to get the right people in the room both on the board and as part of the staff.

These are organizations that have outlined a process for board recruitment that is beyond picking the next warm body. And they have a strategic and thoughtful process for recruiting their CEOs. They have the systems in place to get the right people into the organization. Still, it isn’t working as anticipated.

Are you one of these groups? You might be if a common refrain in your organization is “we have a great CEO and board, I just wish we could move (fill in the issue) forward.” Or “I thought this was the right mix, but…” Or “we can’t seem to hit our stride as a team.” Or maybe your organization fits into one of these common scenarios:

  1. The board and CEO like each other enough and find their meetings collegial, but none of the hard issues are discussed. We have a colleague, Tom Harris, who refers to this type of board as one with a “culture of goods news.” Boards only want to come together to feel good and celebrate what is working, but either consciously or unconsciously ignore the challenges and realities in front of them.
  2. The group has a strong connection to mission, purpose and organizational values, but they have few ways of expressing this connection. Meetings are mostly committee and CEO reports, budgets, and internal policy. Little or no time is given to understanding the full wisdom in the room and the connections that board (and staff) bring to the mission. This often results in board members feeling undervalued or isolated at best. At its worst it can create a split in the team with some feeling like they are the only ones who care about mission. We see this split most often between the board and CEO and less often within the board itself.
  3. The group lacks clear definitions of success. Goals are vague, understated, or nonexistent. This is perhaps the primary issue I see now as nonprofits, because of our challenging economy, are being asked to get clear on what matters the most. In the big picture, the work of the group sounds fine, but when we talk with board members and CEOs about accomplishing these goals or communicating them to potential funders or making internal plans for next steps, it becomes clear that there is no agreement on success. The obvious result is that success is not achieved. But the more subtle result is a lack of trust with funders or potential partners.
  4. The group is filled with great individual leaders who don’t know how to be part of a team or don’t know why the team is important. Many of you are likely familiar with the notion of team dynamics of forming, storming, norming, performing, which was identified by Bruce Tuckman back in 1965. This paradigm is helpful in understanding team dynamics and reminds us that teamwork doesn’t just happen because we want it to, it happens because we make time to connect our team members to each other and to the larger values that hold us together. It’s easy to want a high performing team, but the team has to be willing to work at it. This means more than simply showing up for a meeting once a month and checking the box of board service or board/CEO communication. This means being fully present to each engagement. It also means that we hold each other and the board/CEO partnership to a high level of accountability and responsibility.

These scenarios have many things in common. One of those commonalities is the challenge of too many assumptions and not enough communication to get to agreement. Rather than make assumptions myself, I will share what we have actually heard and seen from groups like those described above, and ask you to consider if you have also made these common assumptions.

  • Scenario 1 focuses on the assumption that mission work should be positive and without mistakes. This is coupled with the assumption that since board members are volunteers they should not be burdened with the whole truth. We also see in the first scenario that staff leadership feels certain the board can’t help with the problems, so they are never asked or engaged.
  • Scenario 2 delves into the assumptions rooted in the definition of board service. Since boards are ultimately legally and fiscally responsible for the organization, the conversations stick close to that literal agenda. Other assumptions can be based on the fear that the board may become too involved in managing operations.
  • Scenario 3 reveals the assumption that it takes too much time to plan, that the organization is “working fine, thank you,” and that funders and partners should simply understand the good work being done and want to be a part of it.
  • Scenario 4 reminds us that assumptions about people’s motives and intentions for joining a board are just that, assumptions. Add to that the assumption that great people magically make great teams without doing the work. I have lost track of how many times a problem is blamed on the volunteer nature of board service. All of our boards are volunteers and with that commitment comes a high degree of accountability and responsibility to doing the work. Volunteerism is no excuse for not doing the agreed upon work.

Have you made other assumptions based on these scenarios? Great, because now we are all thinking about the unconscious and conscious decisions we make that all amount to one result – disengagement.

Let’s face it. You did the front-end work. You did your best to recruit the right people. But what is missing is engagement. And why? Because our assumptions and the assumptions of the team got in the way of establishing clear agreements. We assumed instead of communicated. We made up a great story instead of testing it for truth. We moved too fast. We did it the way we always did it before. And, what I know works, not just in theory but also in practice, is that when we create a clear communication space for agreement we get different results.

So what are some tools to move from assumption to agreement? Try one or more of these for a few months and track the difference.

  1. Create a living board job description. The key word is “living.” Many of you have board job descriptions but they are filed away in a binder or worse. A living document means that it matches reality and it is used. Job descriptions live outside your bylaws for a reason. They are easier to adapt to changing needs and are far more descriptive. The job description for an organization in startup mode is likely different from the way the board lives their responsibilities in other stages of organizational lifespan. Make sure your board job description articulates the fundamental roles and responsibilities that are expected of everyone. Provide an expected time commitment. Provide a reminder of key policies and activities where you expect adherence and participation. Once you get the overall job description for board members, then look at officer and committee job descriptions. Again, these are separate from the bylaws because they are more in-depth and more adaptable to the current reality of your team. For more information or examples check out the resources page on our website.
  2. Create time for mission moments at the beginning of each meeting. Foraker didn’t invent the mission moment, but we are big fans when the tool is employed well. For those new to the idea, this is a purposeful time at the beginning of each board meeting (and could also be used at all staff meetings) to help the team connect directly to mission through a story. This story helps the team get grounded to the work outlined in the agenda and beyond. Be intentional about who tells the story and which story you pick. The story and storyteller should bring a new voice or a new perspective on an existing topic. Topics that work well are mission-in-action stories, core values exploration, and connection of mission to a larger cause. The topic should tie back to a theme or issue on the agenda. Be brief and allow time for full board engagement in the story through comments and questions. Put it on the agenda. Make time for it. These mission moments create spaces to move from assuming we know how mission and values live in our work to clear communication of reality. We can do a lot of myth busting and affirmation in the first 10 minutes of a meeting.
  3. Make the most of face-to-face meetings. This is certainly a challenge in Alaska. No doubt it is expensive and unrealistic to expect everyone to be in the same room for every staff and board meeting. But could you do it once a year? Or can you use technology to at least see faces, not just disembodied voices? Can you structure your meeting to get maximum participation? Can you create more opportunities to build trust through direct communication? How would that look different for you?
  4. Create space for at least one extended meeting or retreat. The most often refrain I hear from board members is that there is just not enough time to get to the strategic topics in a regular board or staff session. Creating space to dive deeper into a topic has the power to overcome assumptions just by creating time for people to talk about the issues that matter the most. Would you be willing to turn one meeting a year into an extended meeting? What could you move off of your regular agenda to create space for at least a 20-minute discussion on a significant issue that would propel your organization forward?
  5. Ask more open-ended questions and listen more. Again, not a new idea but one that is often ignored. If we want to move away from assumptions and test ideas, then creating more paths to engagement is critical. Frame the issue, post it on the agenda, and create space to hear from everyone in the room, not just the usual voices. Listen. Repeat.

These are just a few ideas. We are happy to talk more about any of these with you – and we want to hear how it’s working for you to move away from assumption and get to agreement.